Digital Learning

Before we know it, the idyllic, tree-lined university campus with its stately brick buildings, grand lecture halls, and manicured lawns may become a relic of the past. What may prompt the demise of the traditional university? Massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Whether (and when) this will actually happen was precisely the question at a recent seminar, hosted by The Ohio State University’s Harvey Goldberg Center. It was evident that MOOCs have some in the ivory towers spooked, for two reasons: One, they’re free—and how does one compete against free? Two, elite universities are kickstarting MOOCs. Coursera, of which OSU is a participant, is affiliated with top-notch universities like Stanford and Duke. MOOCs are also catching on in Europe as well. So, unlike for-profit online providers of education, such as the University of Phoenix, MOOCs are both free and linked to prestigious institutions.

Despite the upside to MOOCs, as they’re currently designed, it’s far from inevitable that they’ll outflank the traditional university any time soon. They don’t yet grant credit or degrees, and they certainly don’t field football teams. But, it’s clear they have the potential to send the traditional model of higher education into the artifact...

The remarkable spread of free online courses through American higher education has prompted major soul-searching and some fast footwork among traditional universities and their national organizations.

    Digital learning
    The next step: K-12 MOOCs provided by topflight schools to students beyond their own campuses.
    Photo by poperotico via photopin cc

You can already find “MOOCs” (massive open online courses) on a host of websites, created and delivered by a wide array of institutions and individuals.

As I write, Coursera offers 207 courses, ranging from astronomy to public health, presented by professors at such upscale schools as CalTech, Duke, and Stanford (where, as best I can tell, all this originated—and just a few years ago). Udacity offers about twenty courses, EdX (founded by Harvard and MIT) around ten.

Providers such as these are proliferating and expanding via a hodgepodge of for- and non-profit organizations with offerings that range from free to pricey. And participation is soaring, too. Coursera claims two million course-takers worldwide—and since the courses are online, one can indeed take them anyplace, anytime.

This remarkably...

Admittedly, Andy Smarick is part Luddite.
From Wikimedia Commons.

I just finished reading the Forbes Magazine profile on Salman Khan. You might want to give it a read.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m somewhere between marginally skeptical and cautiously optimistic when it comes to the proliferation of technology to “individualize” learning.

Admittedly, I’m part Luddite and part contrarian, so I’m predisposed to be chary of this entire field for less than noble reasons. But it seems like the only thing more ubiquitous than new ways to deliver content are the apocryphal claims of their revolutionary nature. (Along these lines, I highly recommend Rich Hess’s thoughts on the Khan article and our history of overhyping and misusing technology.)

But I’m slowly being swayed. On the positive side, a bunch of smart people I know are pretty certain that this really is a disruptive innovation and that things will never be the same once parents realize they can truly direct their children’s education. Also,...

This recent Pew study—the first in a series of three on the role of technology in the classroom—investigates how the Internet has affected middle school and high school students’ research skills and strategies. While this survey of 2,500 AP and National Writing Project teachers (presumably those in the most advanced classrooms) does offer a peek into this complicated issue, the window remains opaque: Teachers report complex and contradictory views on how technology has shaped student research. Seventy-seven percent believe that digital technology has had a “mostly positive effect in the classroom,” while 64 percent opine that “technology does more to distract students than help them.” Specific concerns raised by teachers include students’ dependence on search engines (94 percent report that their pupils use Google to conduct research, while only 17 percent report the use of online databases), inability to judge the quality and veracity of information, and perceived loss of critical-thinking skills. But these deficits, the authors suggest, may reflect educators’ and administrators’ own inability to reshape the learning environment to suit today’s connected world—a point with larger implications for teacher training for the modern classroom.

Kristen Purcell et al., How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (Washington,...

One of the many reasons I’m a fan of TBFI is that it conducts two types of policy research that are in short supply. The first, which I will talk about today, is in-the-weeds analyses of subjects that others have glossed over. (The second, studies on subjects we didn’t even realize were important, will be discussed in a future post.)

TBFI's latest in-the-weeds analysis is on teacher-union strength; it goes deeper and reveals far more than the conventional wisdom.

Lots of people talk about the value of tough standards; heck, the “transformative nature” of Common Core has become something between a ubiquitous talking point and Gospel for the reform community. But many of those proselytizing, unfortunately, can’t tell you a whit about what’s actually in these supposedly sacred texts. 

Well, TBFI gets into the weeds of standards; they’ve been doing this for ages, even before Common Core was conceived and birthed (yes, it’s true, academic-content standards existed before CC!). In recent months, they’ve analyzed the rigormeaning, and cost of CC, shedding much light on an important but under-investigated matter.

They’ve done similar digging in on the use of school funds and tech advancements—issues that, like CC, have been given a cursory and...

Digital learning has the potential to revitalize American public education, providing personalized instruction to millions of students. Which doesn’t mean it will cause them to learn much. This report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) properly observes that today’s assessment systems cannot provide the data necessary to track the efficacy of online-learning programs. This creates two potential scenarios, both problematic: Digital education could either 1) become ubiquitous but not transformative, as effective programs are not scaled up nor shoddy programs shuttered or 2) be weakly adopted as states restrict options for programs that are unproven. To remedy this situation, iNACOL points to five measures that should be used to evaluate online programs: proficiency levels, individual student growth, graduation rates, college and career readiness (though the authors fail to fully define the term), and reduction of the achievement gap. The authors then offer a number of recommendations for how to operationalize these measures. Among them: Online-education programs need common assessments across most course subjects (and end-of-course exams for all); state data systems must be updated to meet the challenge of collecting, reporting, and passing data between schools and the state; and online-school data should be disaggregated from...

After reading her third or fourth chapter in the TBFI volume on digital learning, a reader can be forgiven for feeling exhausted and bewildered.

There’s been so much hype about online learning and so many promises of revolutionary impact that entirely too little attention has been given to the staggering obstacles standing between today’s delivery system and that envisioned by technology’s strongest proponents.

Apple toss

This TBFI volume is educational for sure and endlessly fascinating, but, above all else, it is cold-turkey sobering. I previously posted on the papers associated with accountability and educator effectiveness, which described in great detail how our current systems of assessing schools and preparing and evaluating educators are wholly unsuited to the era we’re supposedly entering. While those authors had some valuable suggested courses of action, they most certainly provided no map to carefully guide us past the Sirens and between the Scylla and Charybdis of this odyssey.

John Chubb’s chapter on governance and public...

Arguably the biggest challenge to moving to digital learning is ensuring that educators are prepared for this massive shift in teaching and learning. Many have argued that our current teacher prep programs don’t do such a great job of getting new teachers ready for today’s schools; given that, it’s hard to believe they are well-positioned to prepare future educators for blended learning, flipped classrooms, personalized instruction, constant data use, and so on.

Seeing districts struggle mightily over Section C of RTT-D, where these issues come to the forefront, has made me realize just how enormous a problem this is; I imagine just about every district in America is going to have to face some variation of this problem over the next five to ten years. (Full disclosure: I’ve been providing advice to a number of districts on their RTT-D applications.)

Apple toss

Well, thank goodness for TBFI’s volume on digital learning!

I consider Bryan Hassel a friend, and I admire...

Current technological deficiencies and restrictions on data sharing limit teachers’ access to student data, leaving them inadequately prepared to build off individual students’ strengths and nurture their weaknesses. So argues this paper—the second in a useful series from Digital Learning Now!—which introduces the notion of “backpack data”: detailed, personalized digital records that follow a child between multiple districts, service providers, and even states. The ace team of John Bailey, Samuel Casey Carter, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark recommend a two-part expansion of student data: The Data Backpack would act as one common official transcript, tracking many more indicators (like prior years’ test scores, attendance, and behavior reports) than current transcripts. The Learning Profile, a customizable data tracker for more qualitative points like students’ goals and teachers’ comments, would supplement. Bold ideas but, as the authors admit, not yet actionable: Technical, legal, and definitional challenges remain (though this paper helps resolve the last issue). Before Data Backpacks and Learning Profiles can be used, policymakers must determine how the data will be stored, who the official steward of the data is, and what the actual collection and system will...

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...