Category Archives: technology

Parent as Teacher during the Pandemic

Renee Enyart, 28, was across the room from her sixth-grader when it happened. She glanced over and saw her daughter Emi, who was virtually attending science class at their home in Winter Haven, Fla., reaching for her laptop’s power cable. Suddenly, a sharp voice rang out from the speakers. “It was just an instant scolding: ‘I told you to look at the screen. You know what you’re supposed to be doing. I shouldn’t have to tell you guys,’ ” Enyart recalled.

Tears sprang into Emi’s eyes. “I didn’t know she was unmuted, and I just told her, ‘Go ahead and let it die.’ Because it just annoyed me — she was still paying attention. She was grabbing our charger, trying to be present in the class,” Enyart said. “I was actually kind of glad that the teacher did hear it, because for a second it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ She instantly apologized.”

From a survey of parents six months after schools closed:

*In the early days of the pandemic, the majority of parents (78%) were educating their child at home.

Only about half (55%) of parents felt prepared to educate their child at home and 50% of parents felt overwhelmed by responsibilities to educate their child at home.

Two out of every five parents met the criteria for major depression (40%) and criteria for moderate or severe anxiety (40%).

Nearly 1 in 4 parents (24%) indicated that their child was fearful or anxious.

Over half of parents (58%) who utilized free/reduced-cost breakfast or lunch programs reported that they were no longer able to receive them during the pandemic.

090220 Riverdale, Ga. – Asia Mitchell (center), mother of seven, hairstylist, and soon-to-be tech support agent for Sprint, plays a game with her eldest daughter, London (upper left), 10, while on lunch break from virtual school at their Riverdale, Ga. home Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Siblings Paris (lower left), 7, and Sydney (right), 4, look on. PHOTO BY BITA HONARVAR

The worn but useful cliche that the parent is the first teacher who a child encounters remains true for those months that U.S. public schools have been closed. The research showing the strong influence of parental engagement with their children over schooling pays off in higher academic achievement than those parents who are less engaged (see here and here).

And then suddenly in March 2020, parents, uncles, aunts, adult cousins were drafted into an army of unpaid teachers to carry on remotely on screens what paid teachers were earnestly trying to deliver over laptops in kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms.

So what have we learned about parents as teachers in the past year?

*For the most part, they are stressed over the additional responsibility of not only parenting but also making sure that their sons and daughters are learning the required content and skills that teachers would ordinarily deliver in classrooms.

*Parents have learned teaching even one, two, or three children ain’t easy. They have increased respect for the act of teaching and expertise that teachers have in teaching individuals, small groups, and the entire class of 25-35 students.

*Teaching and parenting are emotional labor. Parental authority and children compliance with teacher-directed work delivered via screen has the potential to stretch and fray the emotionally charged parent/child bond, one that is the very basis for trust which is basic to all human relationships.

Thus, when Mom asks Tiffany to complete the worksheet that the teacher has on the screen and instead Tiffany gets on the couch and picks up the iPhone to check messages, friction erupts. And then adding pandemic math problems or reading assignments requiring students to do further research on the Internet further stretches the emotional bonds between child and Mom. No surprise that stress over home schooling has increased during the pandemic.

And many teachers have realized the new roles that parents have to play when instruction is remote.

Listen to Natasha, a 36-year-old high school science teacher in Nashville. She told a Washington Post reporter that she used to have a say in whether a student slept through class or not. Now, she said, she doesn’t.

“Since the kids aren’t in the classroom, [we’ve had] to rely on the parents,” said Natasha, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her career. She said it can be difficult for teachers to know whether kids are working. “If a student doesn’t have their camera on, I don’t know if they’re taking notes, if they’re laying across the bed asleep.”

Natasha knows that it is am adult’s job to enforce rules. Because students are now learning in their homes, parents have to enforce rules. And not every parent is either prepared or around to do it.

“As parents, when we send our kids to school, we feel assured that, you know, [teachers are] professionals, and they’re going to get the job done,” Natasha said. “But now, a lot of things that typically parents don’t have to be concerned about in the education process, they now do have to deal with.”

Natasha summed up well the shift in the parent/teacher role that occurred during Covid-19 closures of schools.

Pandemic or not, teachers need parents.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, raising children, technology

A Few Thoughts about Classroom Technology Then and Now

Two decades ago, research I had done on schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley during the 1990s was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  In 2018, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book researching 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who had integrated technology appeared. Since then, I have visited many classrooms where teachers used electronic devices seamlessly in lessons until the pandemic hit. Then remote instruction became the primary medium of teaching and learning.

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

The similarities are easy to list.

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

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

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

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

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have disappeared in leiu of classroom carts holding 25-30 laptops or tablets. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

* Goals for using digital tools have changed.

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

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

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

*Combined similarities and differences across time.

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

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

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

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research.

These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.

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Filed under technology, technology use

The History of the Future of Education (Audrey Watters)

From Audrey Watters’s self-description:

I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.

“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.

I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.

I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.

My essays have appeared in multiple places, but mostly I write on my blog Hack Education. I’ve published four collections of my public talks, The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4, as well as a book arguing that students should control their digital identities and digital work, Claim Your Domain. I’m in the middle of writing my next book, Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press.

I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015

It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”

This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.

Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.

I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?

This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.

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This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.

The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.

I’m fond of the flying firefighters.

In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.

It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?

Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.

It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.

This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.

Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.

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“The Push-Button School of Tomorrow”(from 1958):

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From Popular Science in 1961, a prediction that by 1965, half of all students will use teaching machines.

The Autotutor or “Automated Schoolmarm” (from the 1964 World’s Fair):

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Also from 1964, the Answer Machine:

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From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):

“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”

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1981. 2015. A very similar fantasy of the future.

I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.

Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.

Image credits

This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.

When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.

All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.

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Filed under Reforming schools, research, school reform policies, technology, technology use

Does Classroom Use of Computers Cause Gains in Students’ Academic Achievement?

A decade ago when a surge of interest in placing computers in classrooms was joined to available public and private money, U.S. schools went on a rampage of buying and distributing devices to students and teachers. At that time I wrote a post about a puzzling fact that was overlooked  or simply ignored:  With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

That was then and this is now. Amid a pandemic-induced shift of face-to-face lessons to online instruction, the question is irrelevant. The need is that every single public school child must have a device to use for remote instruction.

While there was certainly a digital divide a decade ago even amidst the splurge spending for devices, school closings due to the pandemic have pushed districts to triple-time distribution of devices and Internet connections to families lacking either or both.  Yet, the lack of solid evidence that student computer use–especially now when lessons are online–is strongly associated with increased test scores and other academic outcomes remains puzzling. So I updated that post and publish it now.

After decades of school and classroom use of new technologies, some facts have emerged that puzzle me.

Here’s one.

Since the early 1980s, the federal government, states, and districts—not to mention philanthropists—have invested billions of dollars in wiring schools, buying and deploying machines, and preparing teachers and students to use high tech devices. Nearly all teachers now have access to one or more computers at school. As for students, the number of students per computer across the U.S. has gone from 125 per computer in 1983 to 4 per computer in 2006. Teacher and student access to computers has increased even more in the past decade with thousands of schools issuing computers to each and every student and teacher.

With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

Why?

One answer is simply that access to machines does not necessarily lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices in daily lessons. Consider that after nearly 30 years of access to computers in the U.S., based on national surveys and research studies of schools, over 60 percent of teachers are regular users, that is, using computers for instruction one or more times a week (see here). These teachers use interactive white boards, laptops, and hand-held devices to have students do Internet searches, turn in typed rather than hand-written homework, take notes on lectures, watch videos, and other familiar classroom activities. A small sub-set of these teachers, however, do use electronic devices weekly, even daily in far more creative and imaginative ways inside and outside classrooms with their students.

But the majority of teachers, most of whom–paradoxically–use their home computers a few hours each night, are either occasional or non-users in integrating available machines into their daily lessons.

So one explanation for the first puzzling fact is the flawed assumption that deploying computers to teachers and students will lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices for instruction. Note that without regular use by teachers, establishing either a correlational or causal link between computers and, say, student test scores, is impossible.

Another explanation for the puzzle of so little linkage between computers and student achievement examines how researchers go about studying the connections between technology and student outcomes.

Many researchers fail to consider that the common designs and methodologies they use to determine linkages between classroom technology use and student achievement cannot capture the inherent complexity and unpredictability of teaching and learning. So researchers use shortcuts to get around that complexity and unpredictability.

I need to unpack the previous sentence. Consider that teaching students involves many factors relating to who the teacher is, what content and skills are taught, and what activities and tasks occur while teaching. Also consider student factors: who they are, what experiences, motivations and interests they bring to the classroom, and what they do during lessons. Then consider the school itself, its organization, culture, and its neighborhood. Finally consider the district, its resources, leadership, and culture of learning or non-learning that it cultivates. All of these interacting factors, sometimes unpredictably, affect classroom teaching and learning.

Yet look at the majority of research designs and methods used to determine the effects of teachers using computers with student. Most common are surveys of teachers and students who report their perceptions of classroom use supplemented by researchers’ descriptions of practices, and interviews with teachers and students. Some researchers set up comparison groups of classes that use computers to study a topic with classes not using computers studying the same topic. Then the classes using and not using computers are pre- and post-tested.

Both research designs have serious defects. Short of establishing an experimental and control design with students and teachers randomly assigned to each group, it is nearly impossible to establish a causal linkage between the use of high-tech devices and student achievement. Such experimental or quasi-experimental designs are uncommon and usually too expensive to mount.

Because surveys, class-comparisons, or studies of small groups of students using computers are less expensive in dollars and labor, thousands of studies have been done since the introduction of desktop computers into schools in the early 1980s. Many show minute gains or “no significant difference” in test scores from student use of computers. The results, however, are correlations—associations between presence of computers and gains in test scores, not evidence that student use of the machines caused a rise in test scores (see here).

Here, then, are two ways to make sense of the puzzling fact over the paltry results in student outcomes of so much investment in high-tech devices and so little return on those dollars.

When one shifts to the evidence of online instruction being associated with academic achievement gains, a similar story unfolds.

A brief look at the many K-12 and higher education studies that have sought an answer to the question of the effectiveness of online instruction in producing student gains in achievement may help readers.

Scores of studies of outcomes for online instruction have been contested because most have had serious design and methodological flaws. Moreover, many of these studies lumped together full-time virtual schools, hybrids, and online courses, And the results have been underwhelming.  That is where heartburn enters the picture (see here).

Even when researchers over the past few decades have performed meta-analyses of a smaller number of studies that have met higher standards of quality they found that virtual instruction in its various modes, at best, is equivalent to regular face-to-face classroom instruction. At worst, some studies showed less achievement gains than traditional teaching. And keep in mind that these meta-analyses were of studies where online instruction occurred in mostly math, reading, and science courses—not other academic subjects. Nor in areas of great concern such as kindergarten and primary grades, the arts, and social and emotional learning. The overall picture is considerably dimmer than promoters of full- and part-time virtual schooling have promised or leaders had expected. *

So with such little evidentiary support for huge expenditures of school budget funds for hardware, software, maintenance, and professional development, why keep buying the stuff?

There was one explanation I omitted when I wrote this post in 2010 because it did not register with me then but over the following years has emerged as a powerful reason for more classroom use.

The rationale for giving devices to every student and teacher has shifted from linkage to student outcomes to the simple fact that all standardized testing will be online.  With the Covid-19 pandemic, insuring that every student had access to a device and the Internet took precedence over teacher’s decisions to use or not use devices for their lessons. Until in-person schooling resumes for most U.S. students, all lessons will continue to be online–for better or worse.

____________________

*Cathy Cavanaugh, et. al. “The Effects of Distance Education on K–12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.” 2004 Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates ; Rosina Smith, et. al.  “A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning”. 2005, Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates; Barbara Means, et. al., “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010).

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Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 1)

I recently received a note from a colleague asking about what happens after the pandemic virus’s effects ebb, Americans return to work (if their workplace has not closed), schools re-open, and “social distancing” becomes an unwelcome memory. My colleague asked if at such a time would school reform sweep across the nation as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In that city all public schools were closed, teachers were fired, and within a few years, state-driven reforms created a new district that contained mostly charter schools enrolling 93 percent of students, the highest number among the nation’s districts.

I told my colleague that such an outcome–spread of charters–for the U.S. after the coronavirus ebbs was highly unlikely.

My knowledge of school reform movements in the past century tilted me more toward what happened to schools after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses were closed, crowd gatherings were banned, and other similar responses to the coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually re-opened after the influenza pandemic (Olympia, Washington closed its schools October 11, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 14).

During these years, the educational Progressives had installed a series of governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional reforms in various urban, suburban, and rural districts across the country. These reforms (e.g., governing efficiently through bureaucratic hierarchies, new curricula focused on children and youth working on projects, schools as medical, social service, and community centers) had become incorporated into thousands of districts’ policies and practices. After the pandemic, these reforms largely continued (see here). No shift in direction or substantive changes occurred as a result of the pandemic.

So when public schools re-open their doors to children, unlike post-Katrina New Orleans, I do not expect substantive changes in school reforms for the near future that have been in place nearly forty years.

These reforms initiated since the mid-1980s to closely link tax-supported public schools to the workplace will persist. Those reforms such as raising graduation requirements, encouraging all high school students to attend college, continuing tests and accountability structures along with increased parental choice of schools, particularly with charters–I expect all of those to chug along pretty much as they have prior to the coronavirus’s appearance.

But I do expect some short-term effects on using new technologies and changes in the annual calendar of schools.

Online teaching and learning

Beginning in March 2020, both higher education and K-12 schools have closed across the country. These institutions responded to the threat of Covid-19 with an onslaught of remote learning (see here, here, and here). What became obvious within a few weeks was the digital inequality for those from affluent and middle-class families with access to Internet and multiple devices and working class and poor families that had fewer or no computers at home and spotty access to the web. Of course, digital inequality is just a symptom of the economic gaps that have grown between the rich, middle class, and poor.

The rush to provide schooling online so that students can continue learning uninterrupted now offers incentives to promote even more online learning once schools re-open. Remote teaching and learning–distance education as it once was called–over time tends toward lower costs in educating the young compared to staffing classrooms with teachers and professors. Moreover, even with the federal stimulus just passed by Congress containing billions for K-12 schools to expand e-learning and purchase compatible technologies, these incentives may not lead to clear growth in e-learning. The best that I can offer is a bland–Perhaps.

Why the uncertainty of a “perhaps?”

As I read newspaper, magazine, and television news and commentary from pundits and parents (including my immediate family, friends, and former students) what became obvious to me–in this instance I can only offer anecdotal evidence since I have no opinion polls or systematically collected data–was increased appreciation among single mothers, two working parents, and extended families for the custodial function of schools.

All American children ages 5 to16 have to go to school (ages vary by state). Compulsory enrollment legally requires schools to take care of students. These minors in the eyes of the law have to learn content and skills, interact with peers and adults, and receive community services including meals while within those brick-and-mortar buildings. These basic functions of tax-supported public schools are crucial to society and the economy; yet they have been taken for granted for a century. Only now after schools have closed and children and youth are at home does the full force of this requirement hit families square between the eyes.

Will parents across the country come to appreciate more than they do now the custodial, cognitive, and social functions tax-supported public schools perform daily? I want to say yes. But time will tell.

The pandemic has made clear how important current schools are as they are presently organized and operated. I do not foresee any popular support for initiatives to substantially alter current policies or the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling.

Will there be, however, accelerated support for online learning in K-12 schools and higher education? I do expect that many underfunded public schools–most states have cut back on funding schools in the past three decades (see here and here)–will increase remote learning as a cost-saving move. The economic tremors following the pandemic will reduce even more school funding as has happened after the Great Recession of 2008. Laying off 300,000 teachers, no salary increases, and larger class size (see here)

The Obama administration did pour additional funds into schools then (see here). The U.S. Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation that exceeded the 2009 infusion of money in the economy and schools. How much the Trump administration will allocate to schools beyond what I have read about e-learning, I do not yet know.

So I do expect an immediate uptick in online learning during and after the school day. Overall, however, such increases will remain peripheral to the core work of teachers meeting their students daily and teaching content and skills (both hard and soft) to children and youth.

In the immediate future, there will be changes in the annual school calendar and summers off for students. My next post will elaborate how I expect the issue of time in public schools to change.

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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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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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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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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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