Digital learning, Cartesian planes, and falling apples

With all of the talk about online and blended learning and the U.S. Education Department’s focus on “individualized” (or “personalized”) learning in the Race to the Top-District competition, which is really a stalking horse for pushing more technology into our schools, you’re likely to see me writing more and more about this broad subject in the days to come.

Apple toss
How best to regulate digital learning is a question worthy of Newton.
Photo by mollyali.

But the truth is I’ve been a backbencher in the edtech-promotion business over the last several years for at least three reasons. The first is that I think systems (the combination of policy frameworks, collections of practices and habits, rules on governance, beliefs and biases manifested as day-to-day behaviors, etc.) are far more important than the stuff that gets put into systems, including technology and (dare I say it ?!) human capital. For example, I’ve written a book (a labor of love to be released October 16!) about creating a new urban system of schools, and it is virtually devoid of tech talk.

Second, I’ve been working in government for the last two plus years, and I find that in these policymaking roles, with fires constantly raging and a surfeit of problems requiring leaders to triage instead of think strategically, I simply have too little time to read and think. In other words, I spend down whatever intellectual capital I’ve accumulated to that point instead of building new stores of it. My most recent period of public service coincided with the proliferation of new tech thinking and the ongoing blended-learning craze.

Finally, I’m generally a skeptic, and my contrariness comes out in full when everyone is going gaga about something new and shiny. Consequently, as my colleagues have been forecasting an edtech revolution and investing in these ostensible solutions like housing a decade ago, I’ve been metaphorically storing cash under my mattress, waiting for the boom and bust to take its inevitable course.

With all that said, like just about every other subject—education and otherwise—I’ve ever encountered, the more I learn about it, the more important and interesting I find it. I look at this as the intellectual equivalent of Will Roger’s famous line, “I’ve never met a man I didn’t like.”

Well, I’ve been slowly getting to know this subject bit by bit—having it over for brunch, chatting cautiously at the park while our kids play together, etc. And I’m increasingly fascinated and drawn in, if not totally ready to do a joint family vacation.

Apple toss

I’m going to have lots and lots to say about RTT-D in the future, so stay tuned for that. But for the time being let me recommend one chapter from TBFI’s very good volume on digital learning. (Future posts will focus on some of the other papers.)

Rick Hess has penned an excellent piece on “quality control” in the new digital-learning era. This gist is this: Accountability as we currently understand it is becoming obsolete. We currently hold schools accountable for results, but increasingly there are multiple providers within a school, often multiple programs within a subject, and sometimes multiple programs within a single grade’s subject (like fifth-grade math). It’s largely a mystery how to fairly attribute learning gains or losses to devices, programs, teachers, providers, tutors, and other influences (Hess calls this the “suite of services”) in such an environment.

Hess recommends a combination of approaches for building an accountability system of the future: input/process regulations; outcome measures; and market-generated signals.

This chapter is absolutely worth the read if you’re serious about helping get digital learning right. Hess’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, even if you want to quibble with various pieces (as I might), is extraordinarily insightful. There are edifying nuggets throughout.

The paper doesn’t provide a precise answer neatly tied with a bow, but that’s not to Hess’s detriment. Collectively, we’re still quite some distance from developing an accountability system for this new era because it is so different and so many of the poles holding up traditional accountability’s tent break, warp, or disappear with the realities of digital learning.

Hess’s contribution is Descartes’ X-Y plane to Newton’s calculus: a huge step forward given current knowledge and an essential building block for an enlightened future. But it’s not enough to generate the Universal Gravitation of digital learning accountability.

More By Author

Related Articles