Category Archives: technology use

Corporate Responsibility for Children Addictions?



Like most contentious issues in the U.S. where health and safety are concerned, historically two broad approaches have been used to deal with the effects of products that may be harmful to adults and children.

The dominant approach is to educate the public to the possible dangers (e.g., tainted food, harmful drugs, contaminated water, drunk drivers). In effect, put it on the individual consumer to read and hear about the dangers and then avoid illness and death. When there is a huge outcry over the damage done by, say, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and reckless driving, for example, schools have been dragged into teaching safe and sane use of potentially dangerous products. Recall that drug, sex ,and driver education  were (and are) staples in district curricula across the country in the 20th century. Educate individual adults and children at home and in school (also with public service ads) and they will be alert to what can hurt them.

Image result for public service ads


The second approach, and one that has been used far less than the more popular changing of
individual American’s behavior,  is to convince corporations and their investors who make
money from the product through public persuasion, legislation and fines to create safer products
(e.g., tobacco companies, car makers, major oil firms). Focusing on economic and political
structures–big business and big government–draws attention to altering organizational behavior
rather than individual actions thereby increasing the chances of making significant changes.
From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel about Chicago’s meat packing industry in the early 20th
century leading to the federal Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) to Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed
and carmakers’ adoption of seat belts and better engineering of highways, public outcries
produced political coalitions that led to changes in corporate behavior and governmental
legislation. While such campaigns take decades to gain more safety and less harmful products, that
has not been the case with guns.

The rash of in-school shootings in the past few years have yet to persuade the Congress to ban

purchase of assault weapons and other ways of restricting who buys guns. Gun-makers and the

National Rifle Association (NRA) have made massive political contributions to presidential and

congressional campaigns to block legislation banning certain weapons time and again. In the wake

of the Parkland High School (FLA) killings of students and teachers, Political groups have formed to

get the President and members of Congress to do something about Americans’ addiction to buy and

use handguns and assault weapons.



These examples of mobilizing political coalitions to make changes in improving safety and health concentrate on private and public organizations that influence our daily lives rather than focusing on altering the behavior of each and every individual affected. Of course, both strategies come into play; it is neither one or the other but historical examples show repeatedly that the dominant approach in a society where individualism reigns and choice is sacrosanct is to persuade individual Americans to change their behavior. Not large corporations or state and federal laws.

When it comes to addictions to new technologies and social media, the dominant approach remains–change individual behavior with campaigns to have tech-free weekends, urging parents to restrict children’s use of devices to an hour a day, and similar solutions (see here and here).

But in the past few months, the strategy of getting corporations that produce these devices and software to take responsibility for their actions and change what they do rather than focusing on the individual has emerged. Consider the action of two major investors in technology who own over two billion dollars of shares in Apple (Jana Partners and California State Teachers Retirement System) calling upon the Apple Board of Directors to help parents and children avoid addictive behavior in overusing the iPhone, iPad, and laptops.

we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner. By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.

The investors go on in the letter to the Board of Directors to say the strategy of depending upon individual parents to do the heavy lifting of constraining use of devices is insufficient. Apple has responsibilities to both parents and children to reduce addictive behavior:

Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children.  These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point.  The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones. It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.  It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.  According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.  Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.

The letter ends with what the two investors believe Apple can do:

This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:

  • Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
  • Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
  • New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users.  For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
  • Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
  • Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.

For investors to write such a letter asking one of the wealthiest corporations in the world to take responsibility for its product in influencing children’s behavior is unusual (and in my opinion, about time). But as New York Times reporter Natasha Singer says:

Yes, it would be terrific if Apple introduced new control options for parents. But if shareholders want to fault companies for manipulating or addicting users, they should also be taking a hard look at Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, and many more.


Turning the spotlight on organizational behavior and the behind-the-scenes structures within which all of us live is a welcome turnabout in a society where the dominant strategy is to get individuals to alter their behavior (see here, here, and here). Yet, as some argue the research driving the case for technology addiction in children and youth is closer to the colloquial use of the word than a medical diagnosis (see here). Thus, public persuasion as in pressuring corporations to do something about their products aligned to political action as in making cars safer (rather than the smoking tobacco campaign) may be more effective in achieving corporate accountability.



Filed under technology use

Spilling the Beans on “Personalized Learning”

Years ago, I met Larry Berger at a conference. I had been impressed with the digital tools his company called Wireless Generation had developed to assess student learning and increase teacher efficiency. We talked briefly at the time. My hunch is that he neither remembers the conversation or my name.

Since that time, his career soared and he is now CEO of Amplify, a technology company once owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation but since sold to Amplify executives who now run it. The company creates and develops curricular and assessment software for schools.

Rick Hess, educational policy maven at the American Enterprise Institute had invited Berger to a conference on the meaning of “personalized learning.” Berger could not attend and he asked a colleague who did attend to read a “confession” that he had to make about his abiding interest in “personalized learning.” Hess included Berger letter to the conferees and it appears below.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.

If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.

I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms.

Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.

To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of K-8 mathematics, and much promising work on personalized learning has been done in these areas; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension, or writing, or for the more complex areas of mathematical reasoning, or for any area of science or social studies. We aren’t sure whether you should learn about proteins then genes then traits—or traits, then genes, then proteins.

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

We also don’t have the library of learning objects for the kinds of difficulties that kids often encounter. Most of the available learning objects are in books that only work if you have read the previous page. And they aren’t indexed in ways that algorithms understand.

Finally, as if it were not enough of a problem that this is a system whose parts don’t exist, there’s a more fundamental breakdown: Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Berger’s confession about believing in “engineering” solutions such as “personalized learning” to school and classroom problems, of course, has a long history of policy elites in the 20th and 21st centuries seeing technical solutions to school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction flop. After the post-Sputnik education reforms introduced curricular reforms in math and the natural and social sciences, cheerleaders for that reform confessed that what they had hoped would occur didn’t materialize (see here). After No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, for example, one-time advocates for the law confessed that there was too much testing and too little flexibility in the law for districts and schools (see here).

“Buyer’s remorse” is an abiding tradition.

I have a few observations about contrition and public confessions over errors in thinking about “personalized learning.”.

First, those confessing their errors about solving school problems seldom looked at previous generations of reformers seeking major changes in schools.They were ahistorical. They thought that they knew better than other very smart people who had earlier sought to solve  problems in schooling

Second, the confessions seldom go beyond blaming their own flawed thinking (or others who failed to carry out their instructions) and coming to realize the obvious:  schooling is far more complex a human institution than they had ever considered.

Finally, few of these confessions take a step back to not only consider the complexity of schooling and its many moving parts but also the political, social, and economic structures that keep it in place (see Audrey Watters here). As I and many others have said often, schools are political institutions deeply entangled in American society, culture, and democracy. Keeping the macro and micro-perspectives in sight is a must for those seeking major changes in how teachers teach or how schools educate. Were that to occur the incidence of after-the-reform regret might decrease.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Thoughts about Technology Then and Now

Nearly two decades ago–1998-1999–my research on schools in Silicon Valley was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  Next month, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book about 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who integrated technology into their daily lessons will become available.

What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?

The similarities are easy to list.

*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.

The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops to schools and districts purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is now nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have been retired’ carts holding 25-30 devices are available in classrooms. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

* Goals for using digital tools have changed.

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.

The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying jobs.

But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology is essential since  students with take state tests online. And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.

*Combined similarities and differences across time.


The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.

These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and in using digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.

The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was seamlessly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that the students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research. These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

The Flight of a Butterfly Or the Path of a Bullet

My next book arrives in early March and I want readers and followers of this blog to be aware of it.

Readers will remember parts of this book showing up as first drafts in posts I published last year about exemplary teachers at various schools in Silicon Valley who integrated technologies into their daily lessons. Many readers commented on the descriptions of lessons of elementary and secondary school teachers across all academic subjects that I posted on this blog. In many cases, those comments were helpful in revising the first draft and choosing which of the descriptions should be in the book. I thank those readers who took the time to comment.

Here is the book cover. The full title takes up a lot of space on the cover. So be it.  Yes, that is a laptop upon which the butterfly is either alighting or fleeing.


Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

In this book, Larry Cuban looks at the uses and effects of digital technologies in K–12 classrooms, exploring if and how technology has transformed teaching and learning. In particular, he examines forty-one classrooms across six districts in Silicon Valley that have devoted special attention and resources to integrating digital technologies into their education practices.

Cuban observed all of the classrooms and interviewed each of the teachers in an effort to answer several straightforward, if also elusive, questions: Has technology integration been fully implemented and put into practice in these classrooms, and has this integration and implementation resulted in altered teaching practices? Ultimately, Cuban asks if the use of digital technologies has resulted in transformed teaching and learning in these classrooms.

The answers to these questions reflect Cuban’s assessment not only of digital technologies and their uses, but of the complex interrelations of policy and practice, and of the many—often unintended—consequences of reforms and initiatives in the education world. Similarly, his answers reflect his … understanding of change and continuity in education practice, and of the varying ways in which different actors in the education world—policy makers, school leaders, teachers, and others—understand, and sometimes misinterpret, those changes….

If any readers do get the book (through a library or purchase), read it ,and have some thoughts (critical or positive or a mix of both) about the argument, logic, and evidence I use, please let me know.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)

In a series of articles (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) New York Times reporter Natasha Singer reveals how Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle have provided devices, services, and incentives to the nation’s school districts and in doing so, as one headline put it, “Took Over the Classroom.”

I found her articles richly detailed in their interviews and profiling of teachers and administrators. I learned a great deal about how these companies influenced teachers and school officials to use their products and pressed for district policies that required students to learn coding and take computer science courses and even build a public school on a business site. Using techniques refined by pharmaceutical companies in getting doctors to use their medications, these high-tech firms succeeded in placing digital products into schools and classrooms.

Singer gives plenty of examples of how school officials and teachers tip-toe around conflicts of interest. She recounts instances of entrepreneurial teachers having contracts with software companies for whom they are “ambassadors” treading a line where perceptions of conflict of interest cast long shadow over these teachers.

Journalist Singer makes a credible and persuasive case in exposing how Silicon Valley companies  get their hardware and software into the nation’s schools. My research over the past thirty years supports what she writes. For whatever reasons, the spread of digital devices in schools has nearly ended the perennial problem of students lacking access to new electronic hard- and software.

Recall that in the early 1980s when desktop computers became available–there were 125 students per computer in 1984–teacher and student access to devices were severely limited. School computer labs served an entire school giving students occasional time on machines. Just over three decades later, that ratio of students to devices is about 3:1  and in many instances across the country it is 1:1 now (see here). District officials with the help of donors and corporate giants have moved ever closer to ubiquitous access to digital tools for U.S. students. That is the “yes” part of the post’s title.

But  access is not classroom use. Singer’s well researched and written pieces blurs access and classroom use. She not only implies that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook putting their digital products in classrooms have had a decided effect on how teachers teach their daily lessons but also explicitly says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

I disagree. And that is why I say “no” in the title of this post.

Before classroom use can be discussed, however, it is worthwhile to consider changes over time in the stated goals for students using digital devices.

Goals: Bait-and-Switch

In the early 1980s, promoters of desktop computers including the above companies gave three reasons why students should have  classroom machines. Computer use, they claimed, will:

*improve students’ academic achievement;

*lead to more, faster, and better teaching;

*prepare students for jobs in an information-based society.

Over the ensuing decades, it has become clear that the first two goals for using computer  have not panned out. In Singer’s reports, she does say “there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results.”

No evidence that I have seen establishes that students who use computers once a week or daily have higher test scores (see here, here, and here). Nor have I seen any evidence (lots of inflated claims and self-reports by teachers but not rigorous before-and-after observations of teacher lessons) that teachers teach more, faster, and better as a result of  regular use in lessons (for example of claims, see here).

So that leaves the the goal of preparing students for jobs in an ever-changing labor market.

School boards and the general public take it for granted–it seems so obvious–that using computers often in school will simply lead to higher paying jobs since every business now depends upon technology to conduct their daily work. Yet even learning to code and taking computer science courses in high school hardly guarantees any job in the field–save for examples cited below–unless one majors in the subject in college.

I have yet to see studies that show students who took keyboarding classes, used laptops regularly, and learned to code or took computer science get hiring preference over other applicants once they graduated high school. Sure, there have been high-tech companies who have worked closely with school districts to certify students for entry-level jobs  such as Cisco and Microsoft but these programs are minuscule given the number of students graduating high school. So the evidence of students using regularly such devices in school leading to jobs is painfully lacking.

What I have noticed in the past few years is a shift in goals for computer use. Although students using computers in order to get jobs still remains as a goal, no longer are academic achievement and better teaching cited as reasons for buying devices and software.

Replacing the computer-sparks-achievement goal is that digital tools “engage” students as if iPads and Chromebooks will hook students into learning and then accelerate academic achievement. While student engagement may–that is the operative word–lead to achievement in many instances, it does not. Worries over student technology use in and out of school shortening students’ attention span and encouraging distractions weakens the “engagement” argument.

What has replaced the other goals is the old standby of testing. That is, since all standardized tests will be online shortly, every student has to have access to an Internet connected device (see here and here).

Two previous goals, then, for using digital devices and software in school have disappeared, one has remained and another has been added. The lack of evidence supporting this mix of old and new goals for buying digital tools is stark.

Part 2 takes up my “no” response to reading the New York Times series of articles on Silicon Valley companies taking over U.S. classrooms and altering how teachers teach.






Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Whatever Happened To MOOCs?

The splash began in 2012 when Massive Open Online Courses were touted as the coming revolution in higher education.

Wait, Larry, that was only five years ago, a mere blip in the life-cycle of an educational innovation.  Why are you including MOOCs when you have featured posts asking “whatever happened to” half-century old innovations such as Open Classrooms, Total Quality Management, and Behavioral Objectives?

With advances in digital technology and social media, the life cycle of a “disruptive innovation,” or a “revolutionary” program has so sped up that what used to take decades to stick  or slip away now occurs in the metaphorical blink of the eye. So whatever happened to MOOCs?

Where Did the Idea Originate?

One answer is that MOOCs are the next stage of what began as correspondence courses in the late 19th century for those Americans who wanted to expand their knowledge and found going to college was next to impossible. From home-delivered lessons to professors on television delivering lectures to online courses since the early aughts, MOOCs evolved from the DNA of correspondence courses.

Another answer is that in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened up its list of courses for anyone to take online at no cost. Through Open Courseware, professors’ syllabi, assignments and videotaped lectures were made available to everyone with an Internet connection.

And a third answer is that in 2008, two Canadian professors George Seimens and Stephen Downes who offered a course through the University of Manitoba creating the first officially labeled MOOC called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge” from a regular class they taught for 25 students to over 2200 off-campus adults and students for free who had Internet-connected computers.

All three answers suggest that the lineage of MOOCs has a history located in higher education seeking to educate students who lacked access to college and universities.

What erupted in 2012 was a lava flow of MOOCs from elite U.S. universities accompanied by hyperbolic language and promises for the future of higher education becoming open to anyone with a laptop. Since 2012, that hype cycle has dipped into the Trough of Disillusionment and only now edging upward on the Slope of Enlightment. Verbal restraint and tamed predictions of slow growth, smart adaptations, and commercial specialization have become the order of the day. And, fortunately, a humility about the spread and staying power of innovations initially hyped o steroids. All in five years.

What is a MOOC?

Taught by experts in the field, a Massive Open Online Course in higher education is accessible and free to anyone with an Internet connection. College students, those who work and are not registered in a college or university, and others who simply want information about a topic in which they are interested take courses. See a brief video made at the beginning of the MOOC innovation that explains what they are.

What Problems Did MOOCs Intend to Solve?

Limited accessibility to knowledge and skills offered in higher education. High cost of going to universities. MOOCs offer broader accessibility to students who because of geography, age, cost, and having a family could not take courses. Now anyone with a computer can learn what they wanted to learn. MOOCs are, as one reporter put it:  “Laptop U.”

Do MOOCs Work?

Depends upon what someone means by “work.” Since the usual measures of “success” in taking courses are attendance, grades, test scores, and similar outcomes, only one of these familiar measures has been applied to MOOCs: how many students completed the course?  Attrition has been very high. About ten percent of enrolled students in the early years of MOOCs did all of the assignments, communicated with course assistants, and took the final exam. Sorting out claims of “success” amid sky-high attrition rates has been an issue for both champions and skeptics of the innovation See here, here, here, and here)

What Happened to MOOCs?

They are still around but strikingly downsized and in the middle of being monetized and re-directed. The initial cheerleaders for MOOCs such as Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller, and Andrew Ng formed companies (e.g., Udacity, Coursera) that either stumbled badly, and subsequently altered their business plan. Many of these founders also departed for greener pastures (see here, here, and here).

MOOCs persist but as in the case of so many other hyped innovations using new technologies, a slimmer, more tempered, and corporate version exists in 2017 awarding certificates and micro-credentials (see here and here).



Filed under higher education, technology use

Is Homework Compatible With Personalized Learning? (Autumn Hillis)

Autumn Hillis works with middle schools in the middle Tennessee region as an open educational resource curriculum specialist. She has taught at the middle school and high school level for six years with a focus in life and physical sciences. She is also currently working with Tennessee universities to train Tennessee science educators about personalized and project based learning.”

This post appeared in EdSurge, October 3, 2017

Differentiating content and instruction for each individual learner was once considered the pedagogical holy grail. Yet it could be tiresome. Offering three tiers of worksheets, four centers with varied ways to access content, or five levels of text was what defined a master teacher. But just as continual development of the iPhone eventually renders older prototypes obsolete; so too are new educational technologies pushing us past differentiation towards personalized learning.

Transitioning to a personalized learning environment doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process. There are parts of the shift that feel impossible at first like moving into the passenger’s seat during lessons, managing new technologies and analyzing what seems like an endless amount of data. But in time these impossibilities become like second nature and new challenges arise. We start asking deeper questions and setting loftier goals for ourselves as educators.

In 2013, when I began rethinking some of the practices I once thought of as tried and true, one of the biggest shifts for me was the realization that the topics I found interesting were not necessarily the most engaging for my students. I had to set aside the pride I felt for my personal knowledge—and my love of talking—so that I could start listening to my students and discover what was meaningful for them.

By fall of 2015, I had come leaps and bounds with making my classroom student centered, and personalizing instruction during class time. But this nagging question kept bringing me down: What message does it send our students when we only personalize learning from 8AM-3PM, and then send everyone home with the same worksheet for homework?

Homework has been an area of controversy amongst practitioners for years, with strong evidence of both benefits and drawbacks. While I have never been interested in inundating students with extra practice outside of school hours, I do believe that some concepts and skills require extensive independent practice.

After combing through research presenting data for and against homework, one argument really resonated with me. Too often, parents cannot help students who are struggling through an assignment that they are not prepared for. This can lead to frustrating nights when a family could be enjoying their time together. The one thing I knew for sure was that if I was going to give homework, I needed to develop a solution to give students the independent work time they needed without creating unnecessary stress. I decided to experiment with creating assignments that would mirror the individualized experience students were receiving in my class.

Experimenting with new classroom techniques is daunting. Creating multiple resources for one concept, developing systems for managing the paperwork, and giving feedback in a timely manner are challenging enough for a small class—but with classroom sizes bulging with 33 to 36 students, these tasks are completely overwhelming. In 2015, when I began investigating how to personalize homework, I knew that I’d need to leverage technology if I wanted to make it sustainable. I taught 130 students a day, so efficiency was key.

As a first experiment, I started with an eighth grade science unit on the periodic table of the elements. Typically, I gave homework two or three nights a week, and graded the assignments for accuracy and completion. I checked each answer to make sure students weren’t just blowing off my homework. Homework responsibility accounted for 15% of each student’s grade, so while there was some accountability, we weren’t spending much time reviewing the material covered by the extra practice. I was inadvertently sending the message to my students that these assignments were busy work. So I decided to shake things up a bit.

After presenting some introductory concepts, I gave my students a short formative assessment with six questions that they could grade independently. Unknown to them, I had divided the questions up into two parts. If students missed the first three questions then they were struggling with concept A; if students missed the last three questions, then they were struggling with concept B. I recorded each student’s grade and took note of which questions they had missed. From this data, I offered them several choices of activities they could complete for homework. Some were activities that I created through Google Classroom or Google Forms, and others were from websites such as ReadWorks and BetterLesson.

In addition to the options I provided, I also invited and encouraged my students to find their own resources, with one caveat—they had to submit an “Internet Resource Quality Check” that I gave them. This quality check was designed to measure quality, rigor, and safety of alternative resources. Students were expected to submit proof of their practice for alternative resources as well as the ones I provided.


This sequence continued through the remainder of the unit. My students would take a formative assessment after completing each concept to see if they had mastered it and complete homework to reinforce areas of struggle. Students could also retake their assessments after completing their homework to determine their level of success in mastering challenging concepts.

Perhaps the greatest shift was that homework was no longer graded for accuracy or completion. The accountability for completing homework became the formative assessment score signaling mastery or the need for more practice. My students immediately respected the fact that they were not being asked to complete busy work.

At the conclusion of the unit, students took my summative assessment. I compared this data with scores I had collected in a unit that did not have the personalization of homework or independent practice, and the results were telling.


At the end of the unit, I asked my students if we should use this new homework structure moving forward, and I received an overwhelmingly affirmative response. Apparently, they were motivated by the prospect of not having to do an assignment if they demonstrated mastery on their assessments. They also reported less struggle at home because they weren’t being asked to tackle material that was outside of their current grasp.

This experiment changed my practice substantially. It helped me recognize that tailoring instruction and independent practice inside and outside of the classroom are equally important. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way about developing personalized homework.

Take It Slow

Much like personalizing classroom instruction, creating personalized homework takes time. I didn’t put pressure on myself to create all of my personalized homework assignments in one sitting. I started with two or three choices and added more over time. I collaborated with my local colleagues and those in my virtual PLC (professional learning community) to develop and add to the resource bank I already had.

Shift Your Perspective

Grading 130 homework assignments a day is unsustainable. Shifting my perspective to view homework as independent practice to support classroom instruction, rather than something that needed to be constantly graded for completion helped. Homework became an opportunity for students to practice a skill in order to master content at their personal pace. If homework wasn’t completed, and they couldn’t show mastery on the assessment, then they continued to work on that concept before moving on. Eventually, students learned that giving me their best effort regardless of the grade was beneficial to them as well.

Feedback That Counts

Giving consistent, personalized, specific feedback, especially on homework, is more powerful than giving a grade. I held bi-weekly conferences to celebrate successes and discuss areas for growth, and used the private comment feature available in Google Classroom to give specific feedback on student work. This encouraged my students to go back and review their work rather than simply look for a score, and it allowed them to communicate with me about their progress by responding.

Accept Technological Support

The teacher-to-student ratio makes managing a personalized learning environment tough enough without adding homework into the mix. The right technology can help us become more efficient with delivering choices, developing personalized content, managing work submission, providing feedback and grading student work. The best tools are those that students can use seamlessly from home—that way classroom instruction and independent practice are working in sync.


My district does not support a one-to-one device-to-student ratio so I quickly learned to always have a non-tech assignment option. Some students cannot complete assignments that are only available online due to limited accessibility to devices or internet connectivity. In the best-case scenario, I include multiple non-tech options because the element of choice is key to personalization.

In 2017, I plan to continue investigating the impact of personalized homework on student growth. My new role as an open resource curriculum specialist offers me an opportunity to work with other teachers to continue finding new ways to tailor homework and make it more personal. My hope is that as device and internet access improves—and as technology continues to advance—both independent and collaborative homework will become more meaningful for students, and the ability to scale personalized feedback to students will become more manageable for teachers.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use