Tag Archives: Digital Learning

San Diego Schools Embrace Untested “Depersonalized” Learning

21 Jun

San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is spending lavishly on technology despite their budgets being decimated by California’s unaccountable charter school industry. During the 2016-17 school year, SDUSD bought digital badging and 16,000 new Chromebooks.

“The district is struggling with a projected $124 million shortfall to its $1.4 billion budget, and have issued in the neighborhood of 1,500 layoff notices to full and part-time employees” reports the San Diego Union.

This kind of insanity seems to be a national movement. There is almost no evidence supporting these new theories of technology driven education. Yet, the leaders of financially strapped SDUSD are spending to have their students become experimental subjects for learning products produced by technology companies.

A recent article in the NY Times by Natasha Singer describes how DreamBox (a widely distributed math learning program) is popular with children but not for doing the math but for doing things like spending points to customize their avatar. Singer writes,

“So far there is little proof that such technologies significantly improve achievement. Adaptive learning courseware, for instance, generally did not improve college students’ grades or their likelihood of completing a course, according to a 2016 report on some of these programs by the S.R.I. Education research group.”

“Badges, We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges”

My friend, Tim, graduated for University City High School this year and invited me to attend his ceremony. I went to the school’s website for parking instructions, where I saw this:

Digital Badge

The badge image contained a hotlink to the SDUSD website which notifies the reader:

“Starting winter 2016, San Diego Unified will begin awarding achievement by issuing digital badges. Digital badges are virtual tokens issued as recognition of a skill, or behavior demonstrated, or an achievement a student has earned.”

Much of this informational page is little more than a corporate advertisement with a video claiming how wonderful and popular digital badging is. The instructions for getting started say SDUSD offers ninety-five high school badges and 20 elementary and middle school badges. Students and parents are informed:

“Students will be notified of badges through their Gmail email account accessible through their Google apps for education.”

Elementary and Middle School Badges

SDUSD also informs us that they won’t just be Cub Scout style merit badges. Soon, students will receive “micro-credentials” that will be recorded in their records kept by University of California San Diego extension.

This all looks harmless enough but it is not! Behind the digital badging scheme is a toxic combination of corporate greed and hubris. As digital badging grows, classical teacher led education will be undermined in all but exclusive high end private schools. It is yet another path to education on-the-cheap driven by profit motives instead of pedagogic expertise.

Additionally, badging is a data mining corporations dream come true. Students will lose all semblance of privacy.

Behavior badging in China is explained in this video about gamifying good citizenship. It gives me the creeps; however, behavior modification is already part of digital badging.

Emily Talmage teaches public school in Maine, where badging started a couple years ago. She describes what she’s learned:

‘“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,’ explains the infamous testing-behemoth, Pearson Education.

Knowledgeworks recently described the new learning system as an ‘ecosystem,’ in which the role of the traditional teacher will soon be obsolete.

“With major investments from Wall Street, leaders in the online learning, ed-tech, and student loan industries, and even celebrity billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix, the transformation has recently been picking up speed. Meanwhile, political groups on both the left and right are moving the system forward by lobbying for ‘personalized,’ competency-based policies and ‘innovative’ assessment systems.” [Note: Reed Hastings of Netflix is also owner of DreamBox Learning, Founder of Rocketship charter schools and a board member of California Charter Schools Association.]

“Personalized learning” is the Orwellian name given to computer delivered education. It is isolating and devoid of human interaction. There is nothing personal about it. It truthfully should be labeled de-personalized learning.

Adults Engaged with Students are Key to Intellectual Growth

America’s public education system was wildly successful right up to the advent of modern education reform. There were problems but the creativity of America’s students led to cultural, scientific and economic leadership in the world. No other country comes close to matching the US in either Nobel Prizes awarded or new industries created. The non-coercive (no high stakes testing) learning environment of our public schools allowed students to create wonderful respectful relationships with many adults and develop according to their own personality.

Daisaku Ikeda, the founder of the Soka Schools, discusses the importance of teachers in his book Soka Education, “Recognizing each student as a unique personality and transmitting something through contacts between that personality and the personality of the instructor is more than a way of implanting knowledge: it is the essence of education.” Ikeda also mentions that Socrates likened this to being “kindled by a leaping spark” between teacher and student.

This May, Fredrik DeBoer posted results from a January study by Jens Dietrichson, Martin Bøg and Trine Filges. In his post, DeBoer explains the science behind the study and praises its methodology. He also shares some of the results that are behind a pay wall. The abstract for the report called “Academic Interventions for Elementary and Middle School Students With Low Socioeconomic Status.” states,

“This systematic review and meta-analysis seeks to identify effective academic interventions for elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic status. Included studies have used a treatment-control group design, were performed in OECD and EU countries, and measured achievement by standardized tests in mathematics or reading. The analysis included 101 studies performed during 2000 to 2014, 76% of which were randomized controlled trials.

Weighted Average Effect Size

This graphic from DeBoer’s post is a comparative graph of the weighted average effect size. The impact of each intervention component is shown in terms of standard deviations on the horizontal axis. The five most effective interventions all require human interaction. If we are led by evidence, then we must admit that the human component in education is crucial.

There are Reasons Education Technology is More Popular than Effective

In 2013, SDUSD created the i21now committee and gave it ninety days to prepare a report on education technology going forward. The committee made up of 104 individuals included Cindy Martin SDUSD Superintendent, several other district executives, seven classroom teachers and thirty-five representatives of corporations and foundations promoting digital learning.

Corporations/Foundations Count
Apex Learning 2
Apple 3
At&t 4
Cisco 2
Cox 3
Dell 1
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1
iEngage Mobility 1
Intel Foundation 1
Lenovo 2
Microsoft 3
Partnership for Children 1
Project Tomorrow 1
Promethean 1
Qualcomm 3
Reality Changers 1
SENTRE Partners 1
Time=Warner 2
ViaSat 1
XO 1
Total 35

In general, the teachers and IT professionals who volunteer to be on a technology committees are themselves technophiles likely to be biased. Of course, the representatives of the network, software and hardware corporations who comprise an outsized share of the committee membership are there to promote their products.

Project Tomorrow has a representative on the i21now committee. I have written previously about the influence Project Tomorrow had on the school district where I worked (Sweetwater Union High School District). One of the teacher members of our technology committee sent us all data and brochures from Speak Up praising computer based education and de-personalized learning. Project Tomorrow and Speak Up are both part of tomorrow.org.

More than 90 corporations and non-profits are referenced as financial supporters of tomorrow.org. Included amongst the contributors are both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

It is not surprising that the i21now committee mapped a technology path forward that is nearly identical to the positions promoted by large technology corporations and tomorrow.org. The executive summary of their report has 21 bullet point. Here are a few that caught my eye.

“Pursue new funding sources and repurposing current funding by moving expenditures away from textbooks and structured classrooms toward virtual learning, digital content and personalized learning.”

“Provide students with mobile access to broadband connectivity anytime/anyplace, while leveraging resources and partnerships to drive down costs.”

“Ensure sustainable funding to provide access at home and beyond for all students.”

“Support upgraded wireless, wired, and 1:1 environments, plus building systems and VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), while ensuring accessibility with digital dashboards and portals.”

“Incorporate reputable online resources and real-time data to differentiate instruction and engage students with real-world content.”

“Implement competency-based learning and problem-solving-based assessment, aligned with Common Core standards.”

The last bullet point calls for competency-based learning. This is not a new idea and it has failed miserably in both the 1970’s and the 1990’s. The theory is that education can be chunked down into discrete learning standards or competencies.

In the 1970’s this theory was called mastery learning. Soon educators were derisively calling it “sheets and seats.” It failed so miserably as a pedagogical practice that it was renamed. In the 1990’s it was called outcome based education. The new name did not help because the theory was still bogus.

Badging and competency-based learning are yet another incarnation of this behaviorist theory of education. Just because it is being done on a computer does not mitigate the fact that it is based on a bad theory of human behavior.

I do not say that education technology and learning programs have no value, but I have never seen an exemplary learning program. At their core, they all eventually become computer based drill and skill. Teachers have known for a long time that this is a bad pedagogical method widely denigrated as “drill and kill.”

The implementation of technology in the classroom will never reach its potential until that implementation and design is led by educators. Some of my friends believe that the badging and competency-based education are an existential threat to public education. I don’t. It is a bad product and parents do not want their children sitting at computer terminals. They expect them to be in authentic learning environments with competent experienced teachers.

Rich people will never accept this enervated method of education for their children.

One to One Initiative Threatens Public Education

27 Mar

One to one classroom agendas have a dark side that includes the destruction of public schools as we know them; where teachers and students interact. It’s a dystopian ideology that posits students earning education badges while working in isolation at a digital screen.

This month, the entire staff at my high school received an email from a colleague who recently volunteered to be on our district’s technology committee. The message said in Part:

“In doing research for next year’s Technology Plan I came across some interesting data collected by the Speak Up 2015 Research Project.

“Although this particular data is from 2015 it still makes a lot of great points! Click on the links below, I promise it is a quick read.  Enjoy!”

The email message included three links to infographics provided by tomorrow.org.

What do Parents Really Think about Digital Learning

Looking Inside Today’s Digital Classroom

10 Things Everyone Should Know About K12 Students’ Digital Learning

These infographics claim that to be the result of authentic unfiltered data from respectively; 38,613 K-12 parents nationwide, 38,157 K-12 educators nationwide and 505,676 K-12 students, parents and educators nationwide. Ever since my Viet Nam war experience, I have been less trusting. I seek verification for all claims. I want to know the research methodology and who is paying.

Project tomorrow’s research is based on volunteers who engage with their web site answering survey questions. The web site is mostly an advertisement for implementing digital learning and a guide for how to lobby local schools to implement it. It has an agenda and a profound bias.

There are more than 90 corporations and non-profits listed as supporters of tomorrow.org, which is the cyber-space marketing location for this group. There are many such groups like this which are lavishly financed by corporations to promote competency based education CBE. Another one is Future Ready. In addition to the eighteen largest contributors pictured below, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are contributors to tomorrow.org.

Corporations Sponsoring Project Tommorrow

This time, the Sweetwater Union High School District’s technology committee is being influenced by the corporate sponsors of tomorrow.org. Last time the district technology plan was updated, in 2014, the technology committee was influenced by Project Red. Project Red is supported by many of the same corporations as Project Tomorrow and Future Ready. All three organizations promote one-to-one education at a computer screen. I agree with a fellow teacher who said, “The last thing 21st century students need is to be put in front of another screen.”

Last year when writing about this same issue, I wrote:

“When congress passed the new education law (ESSA), the United States Department of Education (USED) became the nation’s leading education technology sales force. Secretary of Education John King has effectively become a shill for a group of corporations and their ‘non-profit’ foundations working to sell ‘blended learning’; ‘competency based education’; ‘personalized learning’; ‘linked learning’; etc. These initiatives have at least four things in common; they all profit technology companies; they all are unproven; they all promote unhealthy education practices; and they overturn a student’s right to privacy.”

Competency Based Education (CBE) Updates a Failed Strategy from the 1990’s

Obama’s Education Department was an unabashed supporter of CBE and the new federal education law ESSA provides money to encourage CBE. On the Department of Education web-site, it defines CBE:

“Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others.”

“By enabling students to master skills at their own pace, competency-based learning systems help to save both time and money. Depending on the strategy pursued, competency-based systems also create multiple pathways to graduation, make better use of technology, support new staffing patterns that utilize teacher skills and interests differently, take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school hours and walls, and help identify opportunities to target interventions to meet the specific learning needs of students.”

CBE is basically outcome based education moved to digital space. Outcome based education was the new 1990’s name given to a previously failed strategy known as mastery education (AKA “seats and sheets”). Outcome based education failed miserably around the world. The big advantage for CBE is that giant profits are possible for corporate providers, especially technology companies.

I never expected to quote Phyllis Schlafly but she wrote a prescient report in 1993, “What’s Wrong With Outcome-Based Education?” She said:

“Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian author and former political prisoner in Soviet Gulags, said in a speech in the mid-1970s:

‘Coexistence on this tightly knit earth should be viewed as an existence not only without wars . . . but also without [government] telling us how to live, what to say, what to think, what to know, and what not to know.’

“Unfortunately, that’s what Outcome-Based Education is — a process for government telling our children how to live, what to say, what to think, what to know, and what not to know. What the children say, think and know must conform to the liberal Politically Correct ideology, attitudes and behaviour. What they do not know will be everything else. And because they won’t know the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, they won’t be able to find out. OBE is converting the three R’s to the three D’s: Deliberately Dumbed Down.”

Maybe you dismiss Phyllis Schlafly as a paranoid right wing cook, but this video about how the Chinese are gamifying good citizenship should give you the creeps.

Emily Talmage teaches public school in Maine, where CBE is being piloted. She describes what she’s learned:

‘“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,’ explains the infamous testing-behemoth, Pearson Education.

“Knowledgeworks recently described the new learning system as an ‘ecosystem,’ in which the role of the traditional teacher will soon be obsolete.

“With major investments from Wall Street, leaders in the online learning, ed-tech, and student loan industries, and even celebrity billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix, the transformation has recently been picking up speed. Meanwhile, political groups on both the left and right are moving the system forward by lobbying for ‘personalized,’ competency-based policies and ‘innovative’ assessment systems.” [Note: Reed Hastings of Netflix is also owner of Dreambox Learning, Founder of Rocketship charter schools and a board member of California Charter Schools Association.]

The educator known by his wonderful blog, Curmudgucation, Peter Greene, recently wrote:

“Personalized learning, whether we’re talking about a tailored-for-you learning program on your computer screen or a choose the school you’d like to go to with your voucher, is not about actual personalization. It’s about another path for marketing, a way of personalizing the marketing of the product, the edu-commodity that someone is already trying to make money from.”

There is presently a Tennessee court case asking the provocative question, “does a student have a right to a teacher or is a computer enough?”

What is the Proper Place for Digital Education?

The one-to-one initiative being marketed as personalized learning makes little sense. Having tax payers provide a tablet or laptop computer to every student is crazy. It is obviously not personalized learning any more than correspondence school was personalized learning in the middle 20th century. Some student with unique situations may succeed with cheap on-line learning but as a strategy for most students, there is no reason to think it will work.

Our spending for public education needs to be submitted to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. As much fun as it may be to give every child a digital learning device, the quality of learning would likely be more improved if the school district used that money to reduce class sizes by one or two students. The one to one digital initiative is an unproven theory for improved education but class size reduction is a proven theory.

However, having sufficient computer resources available for students to use makes sense. It might be a good idea to make classes like keyboarding (typing) available and highly encouraged. My students are amazed when they see me typing without looking at the keyboard. That is a skill that has served me well and I think our students should have that opportunity.

Even cyber-course work could be valuable, if it is not mainly about maximizing profits. In his book, Teaching Minds, the cognitive scientist and pioneer in online learning, Roger Schank, makes the point that good online education costs as much as good classroom education. Class size still matters and the learning project designs must be well thought-out and relative to the particular class of students. However, today’s K-12 cyber-schools are really cyber-frauds.

The bottom line with technology spending and use in the classroom is that very aggressive well financed corporate sales teams see schools as a huge market. In addition, federal dollars are getting earmarked by corporate friendly politicians for technology spending. Therefore, it is prudent to look at how valuable this technology really is and not be swayed by the hype.

It is unlikely that good use of technology in education is going to come from the Bill Gates funded Kahn Academy or Tom Vander Ark. It is much more likely that most of the excellent thinking on use of technology in education will come from America’s classroom teachers. Let’s not be bamboozled or intimidated. It is classroom teachers that know what is valuable for learning.