Category Archives: technology

Teacher Platforms (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His research traces the connections between educational policy, digital technologies, and practices in schools and universities. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017) and over 30 research articles and chapters.

Amazon has launched a new service allowing teachers to sell and buy education resources through its platform.

The massive multinational platform company Amazon has announced a new service allowing teachers to sell lesson plans and classroom resources to other teachers. The service, Amazon Ignite, is moving into a space where Teachers Pay Teachers and TES Teaching Resources have already established markets for the selling and buying of teaching materials. These services have reimagined the teacher as an online content producer, and Amazon has previously dabbled in this area with its Amazon Inspire ‘open educational resources’ service for free resource-sharing. But Amazon Ignite much more fully captures the teaching profession as a commercial opportunity.

The operating model of Amazon Ignite is very simple. Teachers can produce content, such as lesson plans, worksheets, study guides, games, and classroom resources, and upload them as Word, Powerpoint or PDF files using the dedicated Amazon Ignite platform. Amazon then checks the resources to ensure they don’t infringe any copyrights before they appear in the marketplace. In these ways, Amazon is now in the business of ‘shipping’ educational content across the education sector in ways that mirror its wider online commerce model.

Amazon claims the Ignite platform offers a way for teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ by paying users 70% royalties on the resources they sell. The company itself will take 30% of the sales, plus a transaction fee of 30 cents for items under $2.99, though it also has discretion to change the price of resources including by discounting the cost to customers. This makes Amazon Ignite potentially lucrative for Amazon as well as for successful vendors on the platform.

Although Ignite is available only in the US in the first instance, the platform exemplifies the current expansion of major multinational tech companies and their platforms into the education sector. The extension of the commercial technology industry into education at all levels and across the globe is set to influence the role of the teacher and the practices of the classroom considerably over coming years.

Teacher brand ambassadors
The edtech industry, and the wider technology sector, are strongly involved in defining the characteristics and qualities of a ‘good teacher’ for the 2020s. While commercial businesses have long sought access to schools, the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) in the US recently launched a report on teachers as ‘brand ambassadors’:

Corporate firms, particularly those with education technology products, have contracted with teachers to become so-called brand ambassadors. A brand ambassador is an individual who receives some form of compensation or perk in exchange for the endorsement of a product. Unlike celebrity endorsers, teachers can be thought of as ‘micro-influencers’ who give firms access to their network of social influence.

Teacher brand ambassadors, as well as ‘product mentors’, ‘champions’ and ‘evangelists’, have become significant edtech marketing figures. They often use social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to promote and model the use of specific educational technologies. They might even be involved in the development and testing of new software features and upgrades, as well expenses-paid trips to conferences, summits and trade events where they are expected to attend as representatives of the brand.

The NEPC reported that teacher brand ambassador programs raise significant ethical issues and conflicts of interest, while delivering return on investment to producers when their product is introduced into classrooms and students are exposed to their brand.

As the big tech firms have closed in on education, they have begun to merge the marketing role of the brand ambassador into a professional development role–such as Google’s Certified Educator program. Amazon’s AWS Educate program enables whole institutions to become AWS Educate members, in effect bringing whole institutions into its branded environment. The ‘perks’ include providing educators access to AWS technology, open source content for their courses, training resources, and a community of cloud evangelists, while also providing students credits for hands-on experience with AWS technology, training, and content.

Platform gig teachers
Amazon Ignite, however, represents the next-stage instantiation of the brand ambassador and the teacher as micro-influencer. On Amazon Ignite, teachers are not contracted as platform ambassadors, but invited to become self-branded sellers in a competitive marketplace, setting up shop as micro-edubusinesses within Amazon’s global platform business. Without becoming official brand ambassadors, teachers become gig workers engaging in market exchanges mediated by Amazon’s platform. This in turn requires them to become micro-influencers of their own brands.

So who are the teachers who participate in the Amazon Ignite educational gig economy? Amazon Ignite is ‘invitation-only’ and as such makes highly consequential decisions over the kinds of content and resources that can be purchased and used. This might be understood as high-tech ‘hidden curriculum’ work, with Amazon employees working behind the scenes to make selections about what counts as worthwhile resources and knowledge to make available to the market.

It is not really clear that Amazon Ignite will even empower existing classroom teachers to become content producers and sellers. A brief review of the current ‘featured educators’ on Amazon’s Digital Education Resources page gives an indication of the kind of invited participants who might thrive on Ignite. Most of these appear as established micro-edubusinesses with well-developed brands and product ranges to sell. Amazon offers extensive advice to potential vendors about how to package and present their resources to customers.

[The list of ‘featured educators’ on Amazon Digital Education Resources is at:  https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=dervurl?node=17987895011]

The featured educator Blue Brain Teacher, for example, is the branded identity of a former private education curriculum adviser and Montessori-certified educator, who focuses strongly on ‘brain-based’ approaches including ‘Right-Brain training’. An established vendor on Teachers Pay Teachers, the Blue Brain Teacher also has a presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, is a Google Certified Educator, and officially certified to offer training on Adobe products.

Another featured educator, Brainwaves Instruction, also has a glossy website and existing web store of printable resources, a blog featuring thoughts and lesson ideas on mindfulness, growth mindset, and the adolescent brain, and all the social media accounts to amplify the brand.

These and many of the other featured educators on the Amazon Digital Education Resources store give some indication of how the Amazon Ignite market will appear. Many are existing TpT users, active and prolific on social media, have their own well-designed and maintained websites, write blogs, and are highly attentive to their brand identity. Some, such as Education with an Apron, are not limited to the selling of educational resources, but have their own teacher-themed fashion lines such as T-shirts and tote bags (‘I’m the Beyonce of the classroom’). These are teacher gig workers in an increasingly platformized education sector.

Amazon Ignite, at least at this early stage, also seems to be overwhelmingly feminized. Most of its featured educators present themselves through the aesthetics of lifestyle media and family values, as examples such as The Classroom Nook indicate. It suggests the reproduction of a specifically gendered construction of the teacher.

This is balanced, in many cases, with sophisticated social media-style iconography, and significant investment in various technology industry programs. Erintegration, for example, shares resources, lesson plans, reviews, and tips for using iPads, Google Apps, and other devices ‘to engage digital learners in all curriculum areas’, and is already involved in other Amazon programs:

Erintegration is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Erintegration is sometimes provided free services, goods, affiliate links and/or compensations in exchange for an honest review.  All thoughts and options are my own and are not influenced by the company or its affiliates.

Not all the featured educators are single individuals either. Clark Creative Education is a team of educators, authors, designers and editors, whose founder is a ‘top-milestone author on Teachers Pay Teachers’. Amazon Ignite is, then, not simply empowering practising teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ but is actively incentivizing the expansion of a market of educational startup content producers.

Children can even be content providers. According to the Terms and Conditions, ‘A parent or guardian of a minor can open a Program account and submit the minor’s Resource-Related Content as the Content Provider’. Given the role of young celebrity micro-influencers on social media, it is possible to speculate here that school children could also establish positions as ‘edu-preneurial’ content producers.

Platform classrooms
All in all, Amazon Ignite is encouraging teachers to see themselves as empowered and branded-up personal edubusinesses operating inside Amazon’s commerce platform. It is easy to see the attraction in the context of underfunded schools and low teacher pay. But it also brings teachers into the precarious conditions of the gig economy. These educators are gig workers and small-scale edu-startup businesses who will need to compete to turn a profit. Rather than making select teachers into brand ambassadors for its platform, Amazon is bringing teacher-producers and education startups on to its platform as content producers doing the labour of making, uploading and marketing resources for royalty payments. It expands platform capitalism to the production, circulation and provision of classroom resources, and positions Amazon as an intermediary between the producers and consumers in a new educational market.

By making selections about which educators or businesses can contribute to Ignite, Amazon is also making highly significant and opaque decisions about the kind of educational content made available to the teacher market. The criteria for inclusion on Amazon Ignite are unclear. What kind of educational standards, values, or assumptions underpin these choices? Curriculum scholars have long talked about the ways aspects of culture and knowledge are selected for inclusion in school syllabi, textbooks and resources. Amazon is now performing this function at a distance through its selection of educational content creators and market vendors.

Over time, Amazon Ignite is likely to produce hierarchies of vendors, since Amazon claims the Ignite resources will show up in search results. This raises the prospect of algorithmic recommendations based on a combination of vendor popularity and users’ existing purchases—a ‘recommended for you’ list tailored to teachers’ search and purchase histories. The Terms and Conditions specify that Amazon ‘will have sole discretion in determining all marketing and promotions related to the sale of your Resources through the Program and may, without limitation, market and promote your Resources by permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of your Resources in response to search queries’.

Moreover, Amazon claims ‘sole ownership and control of all data obtained from customers and prospective customers in connection with the Program’, thereby gaining the advantage of using buyer and seller data to potentially further maximize its platform profitability.

Amazon Ignite anticipates an increasingly close alignment of classrooms and platforms in coming years. ‘As with social media platforms in the 2000s, educational platform providers will be working to expand the scope of their “walled gardens” to encompass as many user practices as possible’, argue the authors of a recent article outlining likely trends in education technology in the 2020s. Along with Amazon’s ongoing attempts to embed its Alexa voice assistant in schools and universities, Amazon Ignite has now further expanded the walls of Amazon’s huge commerce platform to enclose the education sector. Amazon is inciting educators to become platform teachers whose labour in platform classrooms is a source of profit under platform capitalism.

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Filed under school leaders, technology, technology use

Design Tech High School (Part 1)

It is 8:30 AM. I am standing with 30 faculty and staff meeting in a circle in a large room called the Design Realization Garage (more about this space below). This is a daily faculty meeting. Everyone is standing and as Melissa Mizel, Director of the school, holding an open laptop in one hand, makes announcements, describes activities that will be occur during the day, and then asks assembled group if individuals have anything to add. A few teachers speak up: one needs a projector in 205, another announces a special activity in a class, and the counselor tells the group which colleges will be on campus today. Just a few minutes shy of 8:45, Melissa asks for any more announcements. There are none and she says “we are adjourned.” every person in the circle turns to the next person and gives a high five. The stand-up faculty meeting is over.

Design Tech High School, hereafter d.tech, is a charter high school in the San Mateo Union High School District. Students are admitted by lottery. Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they moved into a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to lease the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While d.tech has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.*

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Students participated in the design of the building. You enter the school into a well-lit, expansive atrium that is the centerpiece and assembly hall for student gatherings, lecturers, and classes.

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Hallways are broad, lit by both natural and artificial light, and places where students work in small groups and independently. Tables, desks, cushions are arrayed in these spaces which also have alcoves.

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Then there is the Design Realization Garage, a two-story, 6,000square feet of workshop space devoted to teachers and students designing projects, building prototypes, and making things.

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The D.tech building houses about 550 students. Admittance to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a long waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, d.tech students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math d.tech students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems. D.tech’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at d.tech, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”

So the three stand-up faculty meetings that I attended with announcements of special events and details about the daily program ending with the high-five hand slaps at first seemed far removed from the mission of the school. As Montgomery told me, these meetings reflect a “bias toward action” which is part of the design thinking philosophy driving the school and linked to the school’s goals. Because there are (and have been) many changes in program, staff requested that there be daily meetings to “get an update on anything new for the day.”

Connecting this mission and goals to program features such as offering an Innovation Diploma along with the traditional high school one, scheduled Lab Days every week, two week Intersessions, and a competency-based grading system became clearer to me as I spent time in classrooms, hallways, and advisories.. Subsequent posts take up classroom lessons and each of these program pieces.

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*While there have been private schools established by Henry Ford, Elon Musk,  and others to train and educate children and youth as Natasha Singer reports, an independently operated public high school on a corporate site is unique…thus far.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies, technology

Hooked on Social Media, the Brain, and School Lessons

…the typical social media user spends 10 to 20 minutes on an app after opening it. With 56% of respondents claiming they log onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other networks more than 10 times per day, that means half of America could be spending more than three hours of their day on the networks.

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And not only teens or millenials. Also the much older Baby Boomer generation. Sounds addictive yet researchers have not helped us answer the question: why?800-2.png

On the one hand, neuroscientists and journalists have argued that unrestrained access to information and communication have rewired the brain. The brain is plastic altering itself  in response to the environment and creating new neural pathways that ancestors lacked. So multi-tasking has become the norm and, better yet, we are more productive and connected to people as never before.

On the other hand, there are those neuroscientists who concur that the brain is plastic but it has hardly been rewired. Instead, complete access to information and people–friends, like-minded enthusiasts, and strangers–unleashes brain chemicals that give us pleasure. Or as one psychologist put it:

What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that … can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but [they are] like drugs of abuse….

To these researchers and journalist, the Internet and social media are addictive.

So these are competing views emerging from current brain research. Most studies producing these results, however, come from experiments on selected humans and animals. They are hardly definitive and offer parents and educators little about the impact on children and youth from watching multiple screens hours on end.

And nothing is mentioned about the  issue that both neuroscientists and philosophers persistently stumble over. Is the brain the same as the mind? Is consciousness–our sense of self–the product of neural impulses or is it a combination of memories, perceptions, and beliefs apart from brain activity picked up in MRIs? On one side are those who equate the brain with the mind (David Dennett) and on the other side are those who call such equivalency, “neurotrash.”

Yet even with the unknowns about the brain, its plasticity, and the mind, much less about what effects the Internet has upon young children, youth, and adults–“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asked one writer–many school reformers have run with brain research with nary a look backward.

Consider those school reformers including technology enthusiasts who hate current school structures with such as passion that they call for bricks-and-mortar schools to go the way of  gas-lit street lights and be replaced by online instruction or other forms of schooling that embrace high-tech fully. Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor, to cite one example, makes such a case.

[T]he roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?

Others call for blended learning, a combination of face-to-face (F2F in the lingo) and online lessons.

There’s this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face … interaction. However this isn’t so — or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn’t be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.

The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program…. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:

Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment

Then there are those who embrace brain research with lusty (and uncritical) abandon.

Students’ digitally conditioned brains are 21st century brains, and teachers must encourage these brains to operate fully in our classrooms…. If we can help students balance the gifts technology brings with these human gifts, they will have everything they need.

So where are we? In an earlier post I quoted  cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a frequent blogger and associate editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. He offered three bullet-point facts for those educators caught up in brain-based research*:

#The brain is always changing

#The connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious.

#Deriving useful information for teachers from neuroscience is slow, painstaking work.

Willingham ended his post by asking a key question:

“How can you tell the difference between bonafide research and schlock? That’s an ongoing problem and for the moment, the best advice may be that suggested by David Daniel, a researcher at James Madison University: ‘If you see the words ‘brain-based,’ run.’ “

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*The link to the Washington Post op-ed no longer works; the article has been deleted. I apologize to readers for not being able to supply link. However, Willingham has an article where he cites the myths about connections between neuroscience and schooling (see here).

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology, technology use

Techno-Optimists Meet School: School Wins (Part 2)

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Protests then and now—even fictitious student Bart Simpson–have not stopped technological innovations. That is the power of techno-optimism. Change is good. Change means progress. Changes makes life better. Sure, even if new technologies disrupt industries, people lose jobs, and corporate mergers drive out small businesses, life will be better than what existed before. Techno-optimism reigns in America.

The belief that new technologies can improve individual and collective life–personal health, workplace productivity, home conveniences, school productivity, community engagement– has existed in Europe and the U.S. for centuries (see here and here). It is (and has been) pervasive irrespective of race, ethnicity, social class, and religious belief.

The dream that the Internet would advance democracy, for example, fueled the first generation of global users. Yet after a few years, it became obvious that the Internet, like most technologies, can be used for good or ill; it can expand popular participation in democracies or tighten the grip of dictatorships to control their citizens. Or the Internet turns commercial and invasive in vacuuming up personal data and sold to the highest bidder. Add in social media platforms that  surely connect people to one another while simultaneously becoming a vehicle for bullying, hate-mongering, and interfering with national elections in other countries.

Soiled dreams aside, techno-optimism remains the default belief for most Americans.

And optimism (stripped of its adjective) characterizes educators as well. After all, the men and women who become teachers, principals, and superintendents believe in their heart of hearts that children can change for the better, learning is good, and that all children and youth can profit from “good” schools. Few pessimists about the human condition enter the profession and if they do, they seldom last more than a year or two.

Techno-optimism among practitioners, however, becomes tempered over time. Reforms come and go. Hype is easily recognized and dismissed. Some changes do occur but often fall well below reformers’ expectations. Most important, however, in creating this tempered optimism is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” in which teachers work daily.  Within that organization, school working conditions (e.g., heavy teaching loads, class sizes, limited planning time, insufficient supplies, multiple preparations), the broad range of student abilities and performance stemming from district re-segregation and erratic–if not inadequate support from administrators produce further disappointments stripping away unvarnished optimism particularly when it comes to new technologies.

Younger teachers too often burnout and exit the job. For those teachers who have mastered the craft and retain beliefs in the importance of the work they do, these veterans have learned to parse the hype and select particular new technologies to fit the contours of their classrooms. These teachers retain their optimism about the importance of helping children grow and learn while sharing their expertise with students. They adjust their repertoire of approaches to use devices and software in lessons bending them to the demands inherent to the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

All of the talk of “disrupting” schooling and higher education through MOOCs, online lessons, super-software, “personalized learning” and cyber schools, in the end, has been talk. “Personalized learning,” on line lessons, and MOOCs exist but they remain on the periphery of tax-supported and private schooling in the U.S.

Why is that? And how does it occur?

Organizations have plans for their inhabitants. The ubiquitous and enduring age-graded school  for children and youth, who are compelled to attend between early childhood to 17 or 18, shapes what happens daily in classrooms, corridors, lunchrooms, and nearby playgrounds. Teacher duties, student responsibilities, and administrative actions flow from the organizational structures (e.g., daily schedule of classes, separate classrooms, sliced up curriculum by subject and grade, periodic tests, report cards). This “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school influences what students do, what teachers teach, and what occurs between 8AM-3PM in U.S. schools. Apart from military and crime-fighting agencies, most Americans underestimate the power of community-based organizations such as schools to shape (but not determine) individual adult and child behavior. And that is a mistake. School organizations do steer (but not control) behavior of those within its confines.

Part of that steering, that guiding of behavior, becomes evident when it comes to new technologies clothed in promises of transforming teaching and learning from people who have spent nary a day in a classroom.

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Most experienced teachers have become allergic to such promises. After all, teachers have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece-by-piece.

Consider the desktop computer. In the early 1980s, the innovative technology began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk. In a few years, school located desktop computers in libraries then set up separate computer labs. As years passed, prices dropped, schools bought lightweight laptops for each student. Now in 2019, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. Surely the language has changed when schools announce that they have “personalized learning” by providing access to devices and teachers agree as lessons unfold with familiar activities.

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You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them gradually to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling. Teachers and administrators domesticate  school reforms including new technologies.

None of this is meant as a criticism of teachers or principals. It is simply evidence of how and why organizations have major influence on its inhabitants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Techno-Optimism Meets Schools: Schools Win (Part 1)

From Thomas Edison’s words on film revolutionizing teaching and learning in the early 1900s to the acclaim accompanying desktop computers overhauling K-12 schools in the early 1980s to MOOCs in the 2010s transforming higher education to BrainCo–software that tracks and uses students’ brainwaves in 2019–enthusiasm for the latest technological innovation is boundless.  Every ill has a cure, every problem has a solution, and every school needs the latest software to boost students’ math test scores (Dreambox) or make English-speaking students fluent in French (Duolingo).

Anyone over the age of 40 recognizes this repetitive hype and dashed expectations when it comes to the promise of new technologies in schools. What is often missed in this familiarity with exaggerated claims for new technologies (i.e., access and use of new hardware, software, and now social media) is that schools do, indeed, end up extensively using the new stuff. They domesticate the technology to fit what already exists.

In other words, techno-optimists win in getting much of their hardware and software into schools and classrooms but lose badly in seeing that what occurs as a result falls far short of their dreams of faster, more, better, and personalized teaching and learning. And schools win by having access to new technologies while tailoring their use to fit the “grammar of schooling.”

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a few pieces on this techno-optimism (see here and here) when it comes to public schools and posed three scenarios then. In the intervening decades, each of these scenarios have real-life evidence that they occurred. Yet one in particular–here’s the spoiler–exists now.

Here are the three scenarios I sketched out in 1992.

The techno-optimist’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive through project-based learning or competency-based instruction than it now is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting both with teachers and machines.

The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. Examples of such schools range from cyber-schools to regular elementary and secondary schools fully stocked with devices, software, experienced teachers, and highly-motivated students.

The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement towards fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling towards its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.

The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.

In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers from different departments or grades move towards changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, proliferate.

The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, grouping for instruction, and curriculum. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering towards improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done; providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.

There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy or students, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.

In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.

Writing in 1992, I asked: Which of these scenarios is likely to occur?

The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to most other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960’s and 1970’s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built new schools, purchased and installed the hardware and software for those technologies, administrators found in less than a decade that the machinery was either unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.

The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling: Teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect those centuries-old beliefs. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apple [products] … show up in school.

Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for over a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit the contours of prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.

Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimists’ version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools–not enough money to buy machines, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support–will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.

In Part 2 takes up techno-optimists’ promises and how school do tame new technologies–in other words, reform the reform–as the latter two scenarios suggest.

 

 

 

 

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Making Schools Business-Like: The Longest School Reform in U.S. History? (Part 1)

If A Nation at Risk is one book-end of the longest school reform. the other book end has yet to be put in place. Business-influenced school reform continues into the second decade of the 21st century stretching nearly four decades. Rivaling this long run of school reform is the Progressive era beginning in the early 1900s and lasting until the mid-1950s.

For the past four decades a cascade of school reforms borrowing heavily from the corporate sector have spilled over public schools in an effort to turnaround a “failing” system unable to keep pace with European and Asian schools as measured by international tests and strengthen a slacking economy.

Restructuring schools to become more efficient, introducing competition through giving parents more choices for their sons and daughters to attend school, raising graduation standards, installing rigorous curriculum, establishing high stakes tests and holding students, teachers, and schools responsible for higher academic performance cover just a handful of the state and federal reforms launched by both Democrat and Republican regimes eager to copy the policies followed by successful businesses since the mid-1980s.

I wrote about this business-inspired reform movement in a book called The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses (2004). At the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Toronto (Canada), there was a symposium on business influence since B & BL was published. New York University Professor Gary Anderson organized the symposium and asked me to comment on four papers written by young and mid-career scholars (Janelle Scott and Tina Trujillo from the University of California, Berkeley; Patricia Burch, University of Southern California; and Michael Cohen, University of Northern Colorado).

Of course, I was flattered to have four researchers look at the influence of business in the last decade and a half and judge whether what I saw in the early aughts of this century persisted, changed, or disappeared. I read all of the papers and made comments on them at the symposium.

What follows here is what I learned from these four papers.

1. Business influence has continued in proposing, adopting, and implementing reform policies since the early 2000s.

2. State and federal school officials continue to use business-inflected vocabulary and policies. They have integrated a mind-set that sees schools as economic engines for society and individual escalators for students to succeed in life.

3. Technology companies have come to exert great influence on schools and classrooms.

And it is this third point that I want to expand in this post.

That the business sector has influenced schools and classrooms, of course, is hardly news. Beginning in the 1890s and stretching through the 1930s, corporate leaders joined civic officials and educational policymakers to introduce vocational education to insure that high school graduates would be prepared to enter an industrial economy (see here and here). Moreover, the penetration of commercial curriculum materials and free items sent by business representatives to schools and in recent years, advertising in and around schools has been an ongoing issue contested by parents, school board officials, and independent critics (see here and here).

When I was writing B & BL Google was a fledgling company founded in 1998 and spending more money than the revenue it received. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were mere ideas incubating in the minds of their founders. In nearly two decades, these companies and thousands of others have entered the marketplace peddling their wares to individual customers, businesses, and, yes, schools.

The growth of ties between technology companies, schools and classroom teachers in the past two decades, however, has been swift and by 2019 noteworthy. Much of this high-tech influence grew as hardware and software became increasingly accessible to teachers and students through 1:1 programs and mobile carts in nearly all public schools.

With the spread of the “personalization” movement fueled by the ubiquity of devices and software, technology companies have profited greatly. Tech-driven businesses promise that students will have a rigorous curriculum tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses meeting state standards and enhancing academic achievement (see here and here).

Oracle, the for-profit purveyor of business software, has built the $43 million Design Tech High School, a public charter school, on its campus.  High-tech companies invite teachers to become Ambassadors for their products to use in lessons, mention on social media, and speak about at conferences.

So since I wrote B & BL, the high-tech sector has had enormous influence over schools and classrooms. That is what I learned from the symposium I participated in early April 2019.

In Part 2, I will examine how Google has taken over the classroom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Virtue of Slow Software: Fewer Fads in Schools?

Online commerce has made it easier than ever to shop, right? Maybe too easy. A recent study by comparison-shopping site Finder revealed that more than 88 percent of Americans admitted to spontaneous impulse buying online, blowing an average of $81.75 each time we lose control. Clothes, videogames, concert tickets. One in five of us succumb weekly. Millennials do it the most.

With the above paragraph, journalist Clive Thompson opens his article on “Slow Software” in Wired magazine. His argument is straight-forward: devices speed up our lives, encourage impulsivity, and buyer’s remorse. For the above example of excessive buying–which, of course, is crucial to the economy which depends upon Americans shopping–Thompson describes a piece of software that slows the shopper down.

[A team of software designers] created Icebox, a Chrome plug-­in that replaces the Buy button on 20 well-known e-commerce sites with a blue button labeled “Put it on ice.” Hit it and your item goes into a queue, and a week or so later Icebox asks if you still want to buy it. In essence, it forces you to stop and ponder, “Do I really need this widget?” Odds are you don’t.

The pace of life has surely accelerated with Facebook Newsfeed, incessant tweets, over the top Instagram pics, and pop-up ads everywhere you click on the web. Misinformation on Facebook spreading swiftly and harassment campaigns on Twitter ever-present, slowing down software seems to be a way of thinking twice before deciding on something important to us. But it is not easy as Thompson concludes:

It’s a Sisyphean battle, I admit. Offered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience…. Icebox is brilliant but hasn’t yet taken off. Socratic deliberation improves our lives—but, man, what a pain!

Slow software reminded me of what Steve Arnett reported in an earlier post. Ninety-eight percent of the software that school administrators purchased for classroom use was not used intensively (at least 10 hours between assessments)–yes, 98 percent.

The apps with the most licenses purchased are ConnectEd, WeVideo, Blender Learn Discovery and Education Streaming Plus. The apps with the highest intensive users are Google Drive, Canvas, Dreambox Learning, Lexia Reading Core5 and IXL. (Some apps, such as Google Drive, have more users than licenses purchased because they offer their services for free.)

All of this got me thinking anew about who makes district decisions about buying software for classrooms and the muting of teacher voices when it comes to these district office decisions–which, of course, have to ultimately be approved by boards of education.

School leaders need slow software before going on buying sprees of teaching and learning software peddled by companies. Impulsive shopping–see opening paragraph above–hits school leaders as it does the typical consumer surfing Amazon or similar sites. This impulse buying is the way that fads get started (hype transforms fads into “innovations”).

Of course, district officials who spend the money do not need software to slow their decisions down for a week that Icebox proposes. Instead of slow software, they can use some old-fashioned, analog ways of decision-making that bring teachers into the decision cycle at the very beginning with teachers volunteering to try out the new software (and devices) in lessons, administrators collecting data, and analysis of data by mix of a teachers and administrators. And I do not mean token representation on committees already geared to decide on software and devices. With actual groups of teachers using software (and devices) with students, then a more deliberate, considered, and informed decision can be made on which software (or devices) should get licensed for district. Of course, this suggestion means that those who make decisions have to take time to collaborate with those who are the objects of those decisions before any district money can be spent. And time is a scarce resource especially for teachers. Not to be squandered, but there are tech-savvy teachers who would relish such an opportunity.

My hunch is that there are cadres of teachers who do want to be involved in classroom use of software before they are bought and would appreciate the chance to chime in with their experiences using the software in lessons. Teacher validation of an innovation aimed at teaching and learning can not be sold or bought without teachers using the software in lessons.

As Thompson points out it is a struggle to restrain impulsivity when buying stuff because “[o]ffered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience.” That applies to district leaders buying software for teachers to use in their lessons. And faddishness is the last thing that schools need when budgets are tight and entrenchment is in the air.

A Fad Dissolver period declared at the onset of a classroom trial that runs three-to-six months to determine how valid and useful the software is could halt the impulse buying that so characterizes districts wanting to show how tech savvy they are and avoid the common practice of storing in drawers and closets unused software and devices.

 

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