Professional Learning

“My Teacher Is an App”

A vision of what education might become

November 15, 2011

(This is a long one.)

So I hope no one minds if I continue to try to document the ways in which "education" is being reframed in this country at the peril, I think, of losing everything that is best about schools and teachers and classrooms.

If you're not up to speed with these reframing efforts, the above titled article in the Wall Street Journal this morning should do the trick. The canary is singing in full throat. And let's not make any bones about it: the Journal has a vested interest in making the type of online learning it describes successful as it owns a large stake in many of the vendors trying to occupy the space.

The author would like us to believe that education is being "radically rethought" by the online and "blended" options that are available to students. But let's be clear; the only things being rethought here are the delivery models of a traditional education and, most importantly, the financial models to sustain it and make lots of money for outside businesses who see technology and access as a way to not only line their pockets with taxpayer money but also bust the unions that stand in their way.

It's a disheartening and disturbing vision of what an education might become:

Tipping back his chair, he studied a computer screen listing the lessons he was supposed to complete that week for his public high school -- a high school conducted entirely online. Noah clicked on his global-studies course. A lengthy article on resource shortages popped up. He gave it a quick scan and clicked ahead to the quiz, flipping between the article and multiple-choice questions until he got restless and wandered into the kitchen for a snack.

And this vision is exploding:

In just the past few months, Virginia has authorized 13 new online schools. Florida began requiring all public-high-school students to take at least one class online, partly to prepare them for college cybercourses. Idaho soon will require two. In Georgia, a new app lets high-school students take full course loads on their iPhones and BlackBerrys. Thirty states now let students take all of their courses online.

It means the elimination of schools and teachers:

Although some states and local districts run their own online schools, many hire for-profit corporations such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, VA, and Connections Academy in Baltimore, a unit of education services and technology company Pearson PLC. The companies hire teachers, provide curriculum, monitor student performance -- and lobby to expand online public education.

And the selling point is not just cost but personalization, which I've written about here before.

Advocates say that online schooling can save states money, offer curricula customized to each student and give parents more choice in education.

But this isn't different. Notice the ways in which the "success" of online schools is being judged.

In California, Rocketship Education, a chain of charter hybrid schools that serves mostly poor and minority kids, has produced state test scores on par with some of the state's wealthiest schools. Rocketship students spend up to half of each school day in computer labs playing math and literacy games that adjust to their ability level.

At Southwest Learning Centers, a small chain of charter schools in Albuquerque, NM, standardized test scores routinely outpace state and local averages, according to data provided by the schools. Students complete most lessons online but come into class for teacher support and hands-on challenges, such as collaborating to design and build a weight-bearing bridge. The high school recently received a statewide award for its students' strong scores on the ACT college admissions test.

And don't miss the point. It's all about how we define learning. Listen to this one parent quoted in the article.

"I don't think learning has to happen at school, in a classroom with 30 other kids and a teacher ...corralling all children into learning the same thing at the same pace," she says. "We should rethink the environment we set up for education."

It's an easy way for us to minimize the role of the teacher in a child's education:

The amount of teacher interaction varies. At online-only schools, instructors answer questions by email, phone or the occasional video conference; students will often meet classmates and teachers on optional field trips and during state exams. Southwest Learning Centers requires just 14 hours a week of classroom time and lets students set their own schedules, deciding when -- or whether -- to come in on any given day. And in Miami, students at iPrep Academy work in free-flowing "classrooms" with no doors or dividing walls but plenty of beanbag chairs and couches. Teachers give short lectures and offer one-on-one help, but most learning is self-directed and online.

"If it seems strange, that's because it is strange," says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami schools. But he sees no point in forcing the iPod generation to adapt to a classroom model that has changed little in 300 years.

Cut teachers, save money.

The growth of cybereducation is likely to affect school staffing, which accounts for about 80 percent of school budgets. A teacher in a traditional high school might handle 150 students. An online teacher can supervise more than 250, since he or she doesn't have to write lesson plans and most grading is done by computer.

In Idaho, Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, says that he may cut entire departments and outsource their courses to online providers. "It's not ideal," he says. "But Idaho is in a budget crisis, and this is a creative solution."

Other states see potential savings as well. In Georgia, state and local taxpayers spend $7,650 a year to educate the average student in a traditional public school. They spend nearly 60 percent less -- $3,200 a year -- to educate a student in the statewide online Georgia Cyber Academy, saving state and local tax dollars. Florida saves $1,500 a year on every student enrolled online full time.

Make war with the unions.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who co-founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes online schools nationwide, says learning will be "digitized" with or without cooperation from the unions. "I'm happy to go to war over this," he says.

And make, potentially, lots of money.

Last year News Corp. bought a 90 percent stake in Wireless Generation, an education-technology company that sells hand-held computers to teachers to help monitor student performance.

And there, in a nutshell, is the future. (And to be really scared, read the comments on the article.)


Look, not for nothing, but if we don't start writing and advocating for a very different vision of learning in real classrooms, one that is focused not just on doing the things we've been doing better but in ways that are truly reinvented, one that prepares kids to be innovators and designers and entrepreneurs and, most importantly, learners, we will quickly find ourselves competing at scale with cheaper, easier alternatives that won't serve our kids as well.

No doubt this will be hard. And I wonder if we can pull it off. But here's the other thing. It's not so much about tools and technologies as it is about that learning thing. To be honest, I think we've all got to stop cranking out blog posts and Tweets that tout new tools and the "10 Best Ways..." and instead begin to make the case in our blogs and in person that technology or not, this is about what is best for our kids. That in this moment, 20th Century rules will not work for 21st Century schools. That direct instruction and standardization will make us less competitive, not more. That those strategies will make our kids less able to create a living for themselves in the worlds they will live in. That as difficult as it may be for some to come to terms with, this moment requires a whole scale "radical rethink" in much different terms from the one Jeb Bush wants, the same type of rethink that newspapers and media and businesses and others are undergoing.

And it's time to raise our game, write comments and op-ed pieces and journal articles and books, have conversations with parents (or at least give them some reading to do), speak up at conferences and board meetings and elsewhere, not about the wonders of technology but about the changed landscape of literacies and skills and dispositions that the current system, online or off, is not able to provide to our kids in its current iteration. That schools can be places of wonder and exploration and inquiry and creation, not just force fed curriculum, 75 percent of which our kids will forget within months of consuming it. That learning and reform as they are currently being defined are both nothing of the sort.


"My Teacher is an App." Really? If that's fine with you, stay silent. If not, I don't think it's ever been clearer where the lines are being drawn.

You are the lead learner in your community. Not Jeb Bush. Not Rupert Murdoch. Not Pearson. You.


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