George Lucas Educational Foundation
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(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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Jay Matheson's picture

I can't believe that there are no comments on what I think may be the best review of the corrupted process that has stolen Online Learning, commodified it and turned it into a high tech version of the Trojan Horse. Once this virus enters the mainstream and becomes wide spread in our schools- the total collapse of public schools can not be far behind. As a technology person committed to real school reform I urge you read this and react by LEADING.

RobDarrow's picture
Retired Online School Principal

It really is all about learning. I am surprised because, as you have taught us over the years, learning can take place in many places - on blogs, on wikis, on social media, etc. It can take place in classrooms and online. So, why not online learning and why not through companies that provide some of the online learning? In the companies talked about in the article, there are teachers at the end of every course. Talk to the teachers teaching in these schools - they'll tell you how hard they work and how they seek to increase student achievement in the same way as brick and mortar teachers. Let's remember that it is the parents and students that are choosing this. No one is forcing anyone into this. And, let's also remember that traditional education is not graduating between 30 and 50% of students every year. What is wrong with new models to provide students with a different education to earn a high school diploma? More on my blog at:

oakrus's picture

I'm in. Let's see it, the "places of wonder and exploration and inquiry and creation." The environments creating a place to unlock the passion and mysteries of learning that will help our kids face a different future. That's the choice that parents and students are making. . . or trying to make when educators offer them touted innovations packaged as the classrooms of tomorrow which stack up as little more than self-guided, touch and go instruction.

Even now, as research has shown student performance linked to lower student to teacher ratio numbers (i.e. more time with teacher instruction), what sense does it make to create more class rooms with even less teacher time? Really? How does that affect the learning thing? We can do better. Is this really the best way to teach anything? Follow the reading and course outline; write an essay, I'll check in periodically face-to-face and then again online from time-to-time to offer comments on revision. Perhaps relate to a few others online from time to time (isn't that what twitter is all about? As a parent, I've not chosen one online course for my HS student. Not one. I love technology, but I also, love, love, love teaching.

The lead learner. I like it.

ClassroomAid's picture

Online education is really another alternative, it can eliminate the limitation of distance and time. If it delivers the quality students need, more learners can benefit from a good system, why not ? The judgement should be about the quality of the education and the best model to utilize the available options which have been broaden by technologies, no matter it's online or not.

MediaChoices's picture

Whenever we're talking about the increase of technology in education, it's important to be clear what age level we're talking about and make sure to take the time to tailor our information and consideration to the different developmental stages. While there are concerns about the love affair we're having with technology in the classroom at any age, replacing human interaction with screens in early childhood, no matter how limited, compounds the dominance of screens in those children's lives and has serious implications for physical and emotional health.

sean's picture

Wake-up and smell the coffee!
The total collapse (how negative is that use of language?) of public schools is well underway, via its own self-perpetuated, 'you can't talk to us professionals, we know best.' self-protective attitude. An attitude which demands, of all its members, that they ignore the inevitable changes going on in every person, family, community, age group, social, economic, political and industrial structure on the planet!
All we get is the knee-jerk, and unenlightened reaction that precludes any 'radical' change, 'cos that must be about losing jobs!
When it comes right down to it, none of us are really concerned about the long-term, just our nearby cozy lives and attractive pensions.
The traditional system of education, was constructed to churn out factory workers for the entrepreneurs of the industrial age! Scrap it and start again, for pity's sake.
Change is well overdue and has only stayed away so long because our governments and local agencies are supporting the unions to perpetuate this money, time and energy wasting, status quo.
It's interesting that metaphors are flying around so loosely, all we have to do is swap them from the negative and perhaps we can talk about what really needs to be done - a positive and selfless re-think, planning ahead and finally rebuilding! This thinking must be forward looking, NOT backward, based on the future needs of our children, their shared societies and the global village, not current jobs.

jpatten's picture
Director of Technology, Sylvan Union School District

Whether "school" happens in a physical classroom, or whether it happens online, the most important aspect must be about student learning and the role of the teacher. If we continue to address how we teach students in the classroom as we always have, then the vast majority of online learning can handle that particular pedagogy just fine. Whether it is delivered by a an actual persons in the classroom, or online as a video of the teacher providing the instruction, it makes no difference. The majority of what I have seen in terms of online learning has addressed credit recovery, providing instruction in content areas not available to physical schools, such as foreign languages, and some cases for those students that are on an accelerated track. In almost all the cases I have seen the online learning pedagogy is duplicating the traditional classroom pedagogy just delivering the instruction in a digital format and not restricted by time or location. These are features not possible in a traditional classroom setting, so there are some advantages for those students where geography, time, and pacing may be an issue. Also, it should be noted that from my experience the large deployments of online learning environments seem to happen more frequently with students grade 6-12. Unfortunately, in my opinion, we have not been addressing the needs of our students in terms of their learning to prepare them with the skill set they will need for the world that they are inheriting. In both our traditional classrooms and our online schools, again in my opinion, we seem to be preparing them for a world that we've been living in, and not the ones that they will inherit.

In terms of the kinds of skills our students need, it would almost seem that groups of students in a class, whether it be online or in a physical classroom, in a perfect environment, should not be able to tell who the teacher is. It should appear to the students that they as a group, and as individuals are directing the learning, are crafting the assessments, and developing and sharing products that they themselves have decided are important. At least it should appear that way to the students. The "teacher" in this type of environment is charged with guiding the discussions, the actions, planting artifiacts, and resources that guide the students own learning. Pie in the sky? Maybe. However, it would seem to be much more doable in an online environment where the physical structure of a school and the built in hierchy would seem to detract from this type of learning experience. It could be done in a physical classroom, but we'd have to gut the building and practically start from scratch. We may not have such a difficult time if the classroom was essentially virtual to begin with.

Larry B's picture

Technology in the past has 'extended' what we currently do in the classroom & has not really changed the 'sage on the stage' model. One example is w/ e-Textbooks - do they really change the paradigm? I do not think so - although possibly more engaging, it is just a different version of what we have right now. Blended learning can fall into the same trap of just extending what we do now. However, I do think there are some great paradigm shifting possibilities w/ the advent of blended learning - for example, the concept of flipping the classroom.

Mrs. H's picture
Mrs. H
7/8 band teacher, Minnesota

My husband (also a teacher) is a bit of a dooms day thinker, like the author, when it comes to technology and schools. He thinks we will all be replaced, bit by bit.

To me though, it doesn't make sense. Who is going to stay at home with the kids while they learn from home? Where are they going to learn how interact socially? It is so easy to find your niche online - talk about the polarization of our future to the utmost extreme! I hope that as a community of teachers, we make sure that the public thinks about what the unintended consequences of this would be.

That being said, I think a blending of technology is perfectly fine - especially in the high school years.

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