Category Archives: technology use

Whatever Happened to Channel One?

 

What is Channel One and when did it begin?

Founded by Knoxville (TN) advertising executives and entrepreneurs Chris Whittle and Ed Winter in 1989, Channel One offered secondary schools free television sets, satellite dishes, and a news program in exchange for a 12-minute news program of which two minutes were commercials (companies that advertised on Channel One, for example,  were Mars–makers of Snickers–Proctor & Gamble–maker of Clearasil). Schools signed agreements with Channel One to show these programs at least 180 days a year.

Within a decade, Channel One grew from 400 public and private schools to 12,000 enrolling, according to one source, about one-quarter of U.S. students. Channel One spent $200 million to equip schools allowing administrators and teachers to use the monitors and satellite dishes for other programs when not viewing the news program.

A New York Times reporter watched a class viewing Channel One in 1999:

At [principal Anthony]Bencivenga’s school in New Jersey, a classroom of sixth graders recently tuned in, as they do at 8:30 every weekday morning. For anyone educated before the Channel One era, it is an arresting sight: 25 children’s heads craned upward to focus on a video screen mounted near the ceiling; the broadcast is the only sound in the room. Their teacher, Kathy Ferdinand, says it is no big deal, though when she received her teaching degree from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., television was not considered part of anyone’s curriculum.

“I think we’ve been very adaptable to it,” she said. “The information base is solid, and they do look at a varied portion of the world’s cultures.” Social issues also come up, like divorce, addiction and depression. “Debriefing them, you sometimes have to be gentle,” she said of her students. “You’re coping with this in the classroom.”

At the same school, when soft drink ads appeared, the reporter noted one middle school boy said:

“My whole class started banging on the desks when the Pepsi commercial came on,” one boy said, humming the “Joy of Cola” theme song that Pepsi introduced this spring.

Youthful looking reporters and anchors appeared on the show (CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling worked at Channel One–see video here)

For an excerpt of Channel One News in 2014, see YouTube video

What problems did Channel One aim to solve?

Many districts could not afford the equipment necessary for transmitting TV programs to schools and in-classrooms monitors. Channel One offered cash-strapped districts free equipment. For those schools and districts that signed up, they got hardware they could not buy out of their regular budget in exchange for a 12-minute news program aimed at youth accompanied by commercials.

Another problem was U.S. students’ lack of knowledge about world, national, and local affairs and lack of civic activity. A key part of the rationale for the news program-cum-commercials (beyond lack of money to purchase equipment) was to give children and youth up-to-date world and local news–current events–that would inform them  and lead eventually to civic engagement during school years and later as members of communities.

Did Channel One work?

No evidence I have seen has shown that watching Channel One’s current events led to increased civic engagement of youth. There is limited evidence, however, that youth  favored those products advertised during the two minutes over similar non-advertised products (see here).

What happened to Channel One?

Whittle sold Channel One for $250 million to Primedia in 1994 and the program was bought and sold numerous times until it landed in the portfolio of publishing giant, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.

During its journey, Channel One was continually criticized for those two minutes of ads seen by a captive audience of children and youth. Most educational associations opposed Channel One because of the commercials. From the National School Boards Association to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, to  elementary and secondary principals’ groups, educators came out against Channel One. Moreover, researchers criticized the current events shown (e.g. sports, weather, natural disasters) rather than social and political events. Channel One did conduct mock presidential elections beginning in 1992 running through 2016 mobilizing young viewers to make decisions on candidates.

The ads, however, generated the most attacks upon Channel One causing reduced viewership and increased antagonism from both parents and educators (see here, here, and here).

Channel One died at the end of the 2018 school year. After 29 years as a “free” televised news program that included commercials, it closed its doors.

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Too Personalized (Peter Greene)

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. This post appeared July 12, 2018

Personalized learning is the hot new idea in education reform, but some versions could get a little too personal.

While personalized learning is a broad and ill-defined field these days, many folks want to harness computer power to match students up with perfectly suited educational materials. This involves some sort of algorithm that collects and crunches data, then spits out a result, not unlike the way Facebook or Netflix collect data with users in order to match them up with the right products, or at least the best marketing for those products. As we’ve seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are some real privacy issues with data mining on this scale, but that has not stopped developers from digging deeper and deeper.

Personalized learning can be as simple as an exercise management system. Pat completes Widget Studies Worksheet 457A/rq, and because Pat missed questions 6, 9, and 11, the algorithm says Pat should next complete Worksheet 457B/sg, and so on until Pat completes Unit Test 1123-VZ and is declared a master of widgetry. This may sound like a boring mass work worksheet, but instead of paper worksheets, the modern system puts all the worksheets on a computer and students complete them on a computer screen, so it’s like super-exciting.

Data mining academics is central to many personalized systems. AltSchool, the Silicon Valley Wunderschool (now a business marketing wunderschool-in-a-box) touted its massive data mining, with teachers recording every significant learning moment and turning it over to a data team in order to create a program of perfectly personalized instruction for each student.

But many personalized learning developers are certain that data mining the academics is not enough. Social and emotional learning is another growth sector in education programming, and also, many folks have suggested that the young people are not automatically entranced by dull work just because it’s on a computer screen.

So we’re seeing attempts to mine other sorts of data. NWEA, the company that brought us the MAP test, now offers a feature that tells you whether or not the student taking the computer test is engaged or not. They believe that by analyzing the speed with which a student is answering questions, they can determine whether or not said student is trying. During test time, the teacher dashboard will toss up a little warning icon beside the name of any not-trying-hard-enough student so that the teacher can “redirect” the student.

That is more redundant than creepy; many teachers perform a similar analysis and intervention with a technique called “looking with their eyes.” But the personalization can get creepier.

There are several companies like LCA and its Nestor program. The program uses the students’ computer webcam to track and analyze facial expressions in order to determine if the instructional program is working. Monitoring programs like Nestor (there are several out there) claim they can read the student’s face for different emotional reactions the better to personalize the educational program being delivered. The beauty of these systems, of course, is that if we have students taking computerized courses that read their every response, we don’t really need teachers or school. Anywhere there is a computer and a webcam, school is in session and the program is collecting data about the students.

Does that seem excessive? Check out Cognition Builders, a company that offers to help you deal with your problem child by monitoring that child 24/7.

There are huge issues with all of these. From the educational standpoint, we have to question if anyone can really develop an algorithm or a necessarily massive library of materials that will actually work better than a trained human. From a privacy standpoint, the data collection is troubling. It’s concerning enough to create a system that allows employers to “search” for someone who is strong in math and moderately strong in written language based simply on algorithm-driven worksheet programs. It’s even more concerning when the program promises that it can also screen out future workers who are flagged as “Uncooperative” because of behavior patterns marked by a computer program in third grade.

And we still haven’t found the final frontier of creepitude.

Meet the field of educational genomics. The dream here is to use genetic information  to create “precision education,” which much like “precision medicine,” “precision agriculture” and “precision electioneering” would use huge levels of data down to the genetic level to design a perfect program.  The MIT Technology Review this spring profiled $50 DNA tests for IQ.

Imagine a future in which doctors perform a DNA test on an embryo and by the time that child is born, an entire personalized education program is laid out for her. The constant computer monitoring collects her performance and behavior data, so that by the time she’s ten years old, her digital record already makes a complete profile of her available, with an algorithm judging her on academic abilities as well as judging whether she’s a good person.

There are a thousand reasons to question whether or not we could do any of this well or accurately. But before we try to see if we can enter this impersonally personalized brave new world, we really need to talk about whether or not we should.

 

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Personalized Learning and Personalized Medicine (Part 2)

No more bumbling Inspector Clouseau who I introduced in the previous post (for snippets from his films, see here, here, and here). For this post, I turn to another film character for inspiration: scientist Mr. Spock on the starship Enterprise. Logical and imperturbable–see here and here— I (but without the pointed ears) copy him by comparing and contrasting Personalized Learning (PL) and Personalized (or Precision) medicine (PM).

Similarities:

*History of individualizing treatment.

In medicine, currently, the mantra repeated in medical journals, conferences, and in hospital corridors is “patient-centered” care. Within the past half-century, the explosion of technology-driven diagnosis and treatment, rising costs, and growing dismay with patients being sent from one specialist to another has led to calls for clinicians to individualize their diagnosis and therapy to the varied needs of their patients.

…. In the quest to conquer disease, the fact that the patient is a person can often get overlooked. In the predominant U.S. healthcare model, people are often treated as a collection of diseases that episodically rear their ugly head and require drastic, increasingly expensive medical interventions. Practitioners of patient-centered medicine hope to change this, focusing on the overall well-being of the patient from day one with a combination of prevention, early detection and treatment that respects the patient’s goals, values and unique characteristics.

Counter to “doctor-centered,” the individualizing of diagnosis and treatment can be traced back to Hippocrates.  But it is only in the past half-century that calls for “patient-centered” practice have become front-and-center in the debate over how to deal with chronic diseases which afflict nearly half of all adult Americans.

As for schools, historical efforts to “personalize” teaching and learning have periodically occurred ranging from getting rid of the age-graded school to varied groupings of children during a lesson to teaching machines used in the 1920s and 1950s to the technology-driven “personalized learning” in the early 21st century (see here, here, and here)

*Reliance on technology to diagnose and treat differences among patients and students.

Hospital nurses have COWs–Computers on Wheels–that they bring to a patient’s room; doctors have scribes who take down what they say to patients. And teachers carry tablets with them as they traverse a classroom while students click away on their devices.

Technologies for diagnosing and treating patients’ new and chronic ailments and technologies that assess students’ learning strengths and limitations have become ubiquitous in doctors’ suites and classrooms.

*Over-promising and hype.

From miracle drugs to miracle software, both medical and school practitioners have experienced the surge of hope surrounding, say, a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease or a quicker way to learn math.

Doctors will diagnose and treat diseases through mapping a person’s genome or by analyzing one drop of blood from a prick of the finger; childhood cancers will disappear (see here and here).

Claims that children using computers will have higher test scores and get high-paying jobs came with the earliest desktops in the 1980s. Promises that teachers will teach faster and better (see here and here) accompanied those devices then and since.

In a society where both business and government compete to provide private and public goods, where Americans are both consumers and citizens, the tension between making money and providing the best medicare care and education inexorably lead to over-promising and hyperbole.

Differences:

*In PM, analysis of patient’s DNA to find genetic disease markers (found in human genome) and then matching a specific, already tested drug matched to specific gene in patient’s genome that is connected to patient’s disease is common practice now.

In PL, no such intense and specified diagnosis of each student’s strengths and limitations currently exists. Nor are treatments for students–new curricula, new devices– tested clinically prior to use on individuals. Finally, the essential, overall knowledge and skills of a subject such as math, biology, U.S. history, or reading–analogous to the human genome–that can be targeted to the strengths and weaknesses of an individual child or youth is, in a word, absent (see here)

*In PM, individual patients do decide whether a new treatment for diabetes or atrial fibrillation should be administered.

In PL, however, adults decide on overall goals for students to reach. Both content and skills necessary to master come from state and district standards upon which students are tested to see if they have acquired both. In some settings such as problem-based instruction, students may decide what goals they want to achieve on a particular day in a particular lesson but not what they should learn overall–that is what district and state curriculum standards and tests determine.

*While in PM there is some research and clinical trials on specific therapies for particular diseases (e.g., breast and ovarian cancers), very little research (or clinical trials) for brand-name software content and skills exists currently. If anything, use of new math, reading, science, and social studies software in classrooms becomes a de facto clinical trial but without control groups.

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These are similarities and differences between PL and PM that I see. I am certain there are more than what I have listed. Readers can suggest others.

Like Inspector Clouseau I stumbled over the connection between PL and PM and, unlike the French detective, I now, inspired by Mr. Spock, have analyzed both similarities and differences in being applied to both students and patients. Thank you Peter Sellers and Leonard Nimoy!

 

 

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Asking Different Questions about Personalized Learning (Leigh McGuigan)

Leigh McGuigan worked in district leadership roles in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, He is now CEO and co-founder of Vertus High School. Addressed to Rick Hess, head of educational policy at the American Enterprise Institute, this letter appeared May, 30, 2018.

Dear Rick,

I appreciated the recent blog posts from Larry Berger, Joel Rose, and Jonathan Skolnick on getting real about personalized learning. I loved their straight talk about the challenges of “engineering,” the need to rethink classrooms, and how to get students to “eat their vegetables.” But I wanted to raise a different issue based on our experience at Vertus High School, a blended high school for at-risk boys in upstate New York. Our students arrive at our door very far behind. Most do not know basic math, cannot recognize an adverb, and have never met an engineer. But when they graduate, most will go to college, some to the military or technical training, and a few to living-wage jobs.

We have four years to prepare our students for the world they will encounter. For our boys—like for most people—success after high school will mostly require that they do things someone else’s way, on someone else’s schedule. Much of this will be boring, and very little will be “personalized.” In most colleges, they will be expected to learn what their professor teaches, in the way he or she teaches it. In their jobs, their boss will likely dictate what they should do, and how and by when they should do it. Maybe a lucky few will go to colleges that nurture their individual interests and cater to their learning preferences, and to first jobs with lots of agency to pursue interesting questions as they see fit. But not many. We have a moral obligation to prepare them to succeed in the world they’re going to actually encounter.

Of late, it seems that talk of personalization focuses on the question, “What kind of personalization will make school engaging for students?” My experience leads me to think that’s the wrong question. And I worry that much of the thinking that results when it comes to personalization approaches fantasy—or educational malpractice.

I think the more useful question about personalized learning is, “How do we personalize learning for students while preparing them for what life will actually be like after high school—which, in truth, will be largely impersonal?” Some might wave this off as a misguided concern, but I think that’s a profound mistake and a disservice to our charges. As Vertus has grown over our first few years, this tension has been central to our work.

An undue focus on “engagement” personalization risks students not building the broad body of secure, automatic knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college, and that they may not develop the self-control and grit to independently weather challenges, setbacks, and annoyances. Our students need a great deal of practice in that stuff which we might call “the basics.” We’ve found that we can’t let them just rely on their strengths or follow their preferences if we’re going to help them master those.

At Vertus, we do personalize, of course. Our students spend about half their time in learning labs completing online courses. We meet each student at their starting point, and each moves through courses at his own pace. In a self-paced environment, we learned early on that we had to provide strong incentives for making progress, as students who have not had success in school don’t have a compelling vision of the future to motivate them. We have learned the importance of giving our students explicit instruction and patient practice in how to concentrate and motivate themselves.

We also make it a point to incorporate plenty of traditional instruction. Students spend the other half of their time in typical small classrooms. The so-called “tired old model” of teaching a group of students the same thing in the same way is easy to dismiss, but it is still mainly what students will encounter after high school. In classrooms, students can learn to be part of respectful discussions and how to wait patiently while someone else’s needs are attended to. Since many of our students come to us with bad classroom habits, we’ve doubled down on fostering strong classroom cultures and student engagement. Our students use their classroom time to deepen skills in reading, writing, and math and to learn and practice the specific knowledge and skills that the New York State Regents tests require. Learning to succeed in a classroom and learning material that may not feel relevant or seem interesting are core skills in college.

Personalization done right can help cultivate self-control and self-motivation, the characteristics that students will need in the real world. But personalization done wrong risks graduating students who are ill-equipped to succeed in the real world, lack important knowledge and skills—and of doing all this because it’s trying to answer the wrong question. I hope we’re not experimenting on our students to satisfy our theologies, as they won’t get many second chances.

 

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Creating New Schools: Regression To the Mean (Part 2)

In 2003, Microsoft Corporation went into a partnership with the Philadelphia public schools to build and staff a brand-new high school called “The School of the Future” in the middle of a West Philadelphia low-income, African American neighborhood. Microsoft would supply the technological expertise and the district would staff and operate the school. The mission: prepare youth to go to college and enter the high-tech information-saturated workplace prepared to get entry-level jobs and launch careers.

In 2006, this shining new eco-sensitive, high-tech school, adjacent to a large park and the city’s zoo,  costing $62 million opened for 750 students. Students were chosen by lottery. The founders and district leaders were committed to educating students–called “learners”–to use software-laden laptops using a Microsoft developed portal rather than printed textbooks. A shining new media center, science labs galore, and especially equipped classrooms supported interdisciplinary projects and team-driven projects driven by students’ interests. The facility sparkled. As did the hopes and dreams of the teachers, “learners”, and parents.

MicrosoftSchool06.jpg

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In 2012, School of the Future graduated its first class of 117 seniors–three years after it opened and every single one was admitted to college. But it was a rocky ride for these largely poor and African American graduates and subsequent classes.

Frequent changes in principals, unstable funding from district–the state had taken over the Philadelphia schools–mediocre academic achievement, and troubles with technologies–devices became obsolete within a few years–made the initial years most difficult in reaching the goals so admirably laid out in the prospectus for the school.

In 2018, the School of Future remains in operation but even with its surfeit of technology devices and software SOF has slowly become similar to traditional schools elsewhere in its district in its goals, policies, and practices (see here, here, and here).

As Richard Sherin, principal or “Chief Learner” since 2014 said:

At one point this school functioned very much through technology….Where our innovation is now is to get back to the fundamentals of what an educational academic program is supposed to be like, and how you get technology to mirror or augment that.

Part of those “fundamentals” is having a regular school day of seven 56-minute periods like most high schools with an 11-minute hiatus for what used to be called “home room.” Textbooks have returned as have paper and pencil. While project-based learning occurs in different academic subjects, state standards, yearly testing, and accountability have pressed both administration and faculty to focus on getting better-than-average test scores and graduating most of their students–SOF exceeds other district high schools in the percentage they graduate.

This slippage from grand opening of a futuristic school to one resembling a traditional high school is common in public schooling as it is in other institutions.

Why is there this slow movement back from a school built for the future  to the traditional model of schooling as seen in New York’s Downtown School (Part 1) and here in Philadelphia’s School of Future?

I have one but surely not the only answer. Designers of future schools and innovations overestimate the potency of their vision and product and underestimate the power of the age-graded school’s structure and culture (fully supported by societal beliefs) that sustain traditional models of schooling. That see-saw of underestimation vs. overestimation neatly summarizes the frequent cycles of designers’ exhilaration with a reform slowly curdling into disappointment as years pass.

The overestimation of a design to alter the familiar traditional school has occurred time and again when reformers with full wallets, seeing how out of touch educators were as changes in society accelerated, created new schools chock-a-block across the country in the 1960s such as “free schools” and non-graded schools  (see here and here).

Within a decade, founders of these schools of the future had departed, either  burned out or because they had ignored politically the two constituencies of parents and teachers who had to be involved from the start but were not. These well intentioned reformers also ignored how the structures and culture of the age-graded school have been thoroughly accepted by most parents and teachers as “real schools.”

Designers of reform seldom think about the inherent stability of the institution that they want to transform. They seldom think about the strong social beliefs of taxpayers, voters, teachers, and parents who have sat in age-graded schools and who sustain generation after generation the “grammar of schooling.”

From daily schedules of 50-minute periods to the fact that teachers ask questions far more than students during lessons to the use of textbooks, homework, and frequent tests–these features of the “grammar of schooling” or what Seymour Sarason in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change,  called the “regularities” of schooling–persist generation after generation. While they exaggerate the reform they champion, they neglect  the influences of organizational structures and cultures.

Some designers give up. They realize that their grand visions cannot be accommodated by public schools quickly so they create schools of the future in private venues such as “micro-schools” or  the Khan Lab School and the like.

The notion of mindful incremental change over a lengthy period of time in the direction of gradually building a “school of the future” is anathema to fired-up, amply funded designers who see their visions enacted in one fell swoop. Thus, disappointment arises when futuristic schools slip back into routines that designers scorned. Regression to the mean smells like failure to these reformers who underestimated the power of the “grammar of schooling.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons I Have Learned about School Reform and Technology

 

On June 13,  2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having have never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.

LESSON 1

Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect, and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

LESSON 2

Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.

LESSON 3

Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.

LESSON 4

Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.

 

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Skeptic or Cynic? An Interview

Two years ago, I had just begun research on The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?: Using Technology To Transform Teaching and Learning (2018). Mary Jo Madda, then Senior Editor at EdSurge, interviewed me for a podcast and column in EdSurge. I had been observing lessons of exemplary teachers who had integrated technology into their daily lessons seamlessly. The edited interview appeared here in February 2016.

Q: Larry, thanks for sitting down with us. You’ve a lot of references and titles—you’re a researcher, a professor, a former teacher, a blogger. But who do you consider yourself first and foremost?

I would call myself a teacher at different levels. I’ve taught in high schools, I’ve taught at the university, and I teach through my writing. You teach through writing because you’re getting ideas out there, and if it’s a post on a blog, you’re getting comments and you can have a back-and-forth. It’s not the same as a face-to-face interaction, but it’s the next best thing. You’re starting a conversation, and you never know where it’s going to go… I call writing a form of teaching because it’s another way to get ideas out in the arena and have interactions with people.

Speaking of your writing, when I talked to some of my team members, they said they like reading your blog because they sense a note of “fresh cynicism” when it comes technology. So, your honest opinion. The growing interest in edtech—how do you feel about it?

What’s happened is that the interest in classroom technologies has accelerated and expanded, but remember—the desktop computers came out thirty years ago. The first Apple, the Atari, those Macs came out in 1981-84, and it exploded. But the access on the part of teachers and students was very, very limited for the first 15-20 years. In the 1990s with laptops coming out, it really accelerated.

But I think what has given edtech a huge push has been the larger reform ideology, which is informed by business interest and trying to increase public schools efficiency and effectiveness. That was triggered a lot by the Nation at Risk Report (1983), where basically the CEOs of the nation combined with civic leaders said, “American schools are lousy.” They used international test scores as proof. Well, technology was going through the economy and changing the job structure and industries. So, the application of technology to public schools seemed natural.

When the money became more and more available, and as the technology improved student access, you had not an “explosion” but rather an “evolving” interest in technology that fit in with the reform ideology.

So the two—reform ideology and technology—mutually catalyzed each other?

Exactly. It started with the assumption that public schools were failing… and that the application of efficiency devices and attitudes were what schools needed. And we’re still there!

The pattern of hype leading to disappointment, leading to another cycle of overpromising with the next technology, has a long history to it.

In all of this history, do you see more evidence of failure with technology or promise with technology?

Well, I’m not a cynic, as your colleagues say. I’ve never been a cynic. I wouldn’t be in education. To be cynical means that the disappointment is so severe, and you have no energy to do anything about it. I’m skeptical. Being skeptical is very different. Skepticism and curiosity are very close in my mind.

I’ve been skeptical of technology because the early technologies in schools that I studied began with the film. That morphed into radio, instructional television, and then the computer. By looking at all the hype that surrounded each one of these, the access to those early ones was very limited. When I started teaching history in high school, there was one 16mm projector in the department’s store room, back in 1956. The pattern of hype leading to disappointment, leading to another cycle of overpromising with the next technology, has a long history to it. If I cite MOOCs… that’s just the most recent incarnation of hype in technology.

There are a long of things about teaching that can be automated. A lot of teachers’ administrative stuff—like attendance and gradebooks—can be very helpful. But to replace teachers? No.

I get the question constantly of whether technology will ever replace teachers. Can teachers and edtech coexist peacefully?

If you look upon teaching as a helping profession like medicine, social work, psychotherapy… those are completely dependent upon interaction. Now, all of those have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student, then that can’t be replaced.

Now, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. A lot of teachers’ administrative stuff—like attendance and gradebooks—can be very helpful. But to replace teachers? No. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

Look, you’ve got cyber charter schools, and some of them are for-profit. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that they’re trying to eat at the trough of public funding. But the nonprofit virtual schools and a lot of online schooling provide services for different groups of people that are isolated or have full-time jobs. I think that’s terrific! But that will not replace teaching. When I was a superintendent, personnel was 70% of the budget. The dream of cutting back on that, of making education less expensive, now that’s hardly talked about publicly. But that’s part of the rhetoric surrounding online instruction in schools.

Now, let’s talk about where you are right now. Back in January, you laid out your reasons for shifting focus from disappointments and failures in use of new technology to best cases of such use in districts and classrooms. Why the change?

Well, I’ll be a skeptic until I go into the ground. But in reading about teachers who are using technology, another way to find out about the strengths and shortcomings of edtech is to look at best cases. The disappointments and failures won’t go away because technology is so embedded in our culture as a positive good that there will always be overpromising. I’m more interested in the best cases, and I want to see them at the classroom level, at the school level, and at the district level. There are individual teachers who are exemplars that anyone who loves technology would embrace. But whether you can scale it up to a school, that’s harder… and then at a district, that’s even more difficult.

I’ve been in this area for 30 years, and I know a lot of people. Currently I’m in the San Mateo High School District, and I’ve been observing some teachers. And then I’ve contacted Dianne Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, who was a former student of mine. When I had this idea, I contacted her and she welcomed me in. And then another friend of mine runs an upscale, private Catholic school. She was talking about the cultural principles that motivates a Catholic school, and whether technology reinforces that, undercuts it… I think that’s very interesting.

You know, it’s funny. I came here expecting I was going to get a lot of answers, but I’m coming away with more questions!

Well, that’s the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Cynics have the answers; I don’t have answers. I have a lot of hunches.

I don’t believe that there is a technical solution to teaching, to running a school, to governing a district. Education is far too complex.

What’s fascinating is that we just featured Dianne Tavenner on the EdSurge podcast in a debate about personalized learning. That must be coming full-circle for you! And I have to ask—do you believe in personalized learning with technology involved?

Well, I want to see it at work at Summit. I had a nice conversation with Dianne and CAO Adam Carter, and I was really taken with the fact that they came to [technology] very late as a way of dealing with an issue that crept up on them. [Years ago] they graduated all these kids to go to college, and just over half are finishing. What I admire about what Dianne and the staff is doing was that they said, “Let’s take a look at what we’re doing to see how we can strengthen the experiences of kids while they’re here, so that they’ll have the skills and attitudes necessary to finish college.” And that’s where personalized learning comes in.

Before I let you go, my final question has to do with entrepreneurs and investors—the people that are making and funding the tools. You’ve mentioned technology not being the be-all, end-all. But are tools being made without the users in mind?

Well, that’s been a pattern in the industry. There are some startups and firms that are user-friendly. Dianne told me that Facebook sent four software engineers over to Summit, and the engineers started with “We don’t know what you guys know, so we have to learn from you.” That’s very rare in my experience.

Getting back to your question, I see it as a fundamental dilemma. There is a clashing of two highly-prized values. There’s the desire for profit—you’re not going to give a small company $10 million unless you believe there’s a 1 in 10 chance that it’ll pay off. The other is the highly-prized value that technology is indeed the answer to educational problems. People believe that deeply. A lot of venture capitalists believe that. People who do startups in the education realm believe that. I’m not critical of that—that’s a belief system. But when it comes to schools, the complexity of teaching and the complexity of relationships is not often thoroughly understood by those folks.

I don’t believe that there is a technical solution to teaching, to running a school, to governing a district. Education is far too complex.

 

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