Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.
At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.
Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.
Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.
The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.
Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.
In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.
Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.
Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.
Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.
There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.
To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.
These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.
Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.
Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.
1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.
When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.
2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.
Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.
Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.
Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.
Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”
3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.
For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.
Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.
Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.
Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”
In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.
4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.
Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.
Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.
It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.
By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.
After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.
Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”
Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”
School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?
Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.
Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.
Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.