Which school do you want to support?
It seemed that schools were impervious to change.
Until recently, classrooms looked just as they had 50 years ago, with the possible change from a blackboard to a whiteboard. But that’s the way change happens. All of a sudden, the future arrives.
All of a sudden, the future arrives.
Advances in technology are rapidly changing the way that students learn, both in school and beyond it. The oracles of this revolution, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, predicted the path that these changes would take in the 2008 book Disrupting Class. They argued that educational software and online teaching would fundamentally disrupt the way that schools work and the ways that children learn. It would start out awful, they predicted, but it would improve steadily.
Today, when students want to know or learn something, they go online. In an internet minute, teachers became the second-best alternative, replaced by the oracles of YouTube. The global digital capital of time-wasting cat clips is also the most attractive way for students to learn things they want to know, from the science of slime to the history of the world, hilariously delivered it in under 20 minutes.
Some of California’s highest-performing charter schools pioneered the jump to using technology for daily instruction. In education lingo, the combination of learning from both teachers and technology is sometimes called blended learning. The implications can be significant, if schools really lean into it. For example, a charter school network called Rocketship combines traditional instruction, technology, and tutoring to allow every student to learn at their own pace, whether they are catching up or racing ahead. They call it "flipping the classroom" because it can reverse the use of classroom time. In most classrooms, teachers explain new concepts to students in a big group, and then students are supposed to practice the skills on their own at home. In a "flipped" model, students practice in the classroom and new concepts can be introduced through videos individually assigned as homework.
Tech is changing
see tech as a lever
Technology doesn't always need to be fancy to be effective. One of the most celebrated self-paced websites for education is the Khan Academy, which began modestly as a giant set of short YouTube videos. One person, Salman Khan, posted simple lessons on subjects from algebra to venture capital. Thousands around the globe have benefitted from his patient, clear tutorials. Today, the site is no longer just for the individual learner; it includes tools to help teachers, parents, and other "coaches" support students as they learn. Technology has a charming tendency to become better and cheaper over time.
Some schools are proving faster than others in taking advantage of the possibilities of tech in learning. Consistent with Christensen’s theory, in America many of the first students to take advantage of online learning were "homeschool" students, whose parents chose not to enroll them in regular schools for religious or other reasons. Online learning also offers enormous promise for economic development in high poverty settings; education researcher Sugata Mitra has documented examples of students self-organizing to learn from online resources without even the benefit of a teacher to guide them.
Computing power and connectivity have shifted homeschooling to a new and fast-growing format: "virtual schools." In its most pure manifestation, a virtual school is organized as a charter school. Students enroll, receive a computer if they don’t have one, and sign up for online courses. But virtual schools are evolving fast and can take many forms. Students may work with teachers and other students online and by phone. They may meet in person. They may be oriented toward self-paced learning, or may have a fixed schedule. Some virtual schools focus on credit recovery, enabling "at risk" students to earn a diploma while making a break from their school environment. Many highlight their schedule flexibility, enabling students to nurse a newborn, or work a day job to earn money for their family. Some focus on offering an accelerated path to college.
And some are awful. In 2016 the California Department of Justice reached a multimillion dollar settlement agreement with a for-profit online charter school operator over alleged violations of California laws against false claims, false advertising and unfair business practices. Several bills have been introduced to prohibit for-profit virtual charter schools. In 2016 the State Controller's Office announced an audit of California Virtual Academies because of serious questions about their practices. Charter school advocates have proposed their own solutions in A Call to Action: To Improve the Quality of Full Time Virtual Charter Public Schools.
Virtual schools are new, varied, and evolving, so it is probably unwise to characterize them in broad terms. If history is any guide, their results will be mixed: some will be outstanding, some will be terrible, and most will be ordinary.
Despite the problems, the digital revolution has come to schools and it looks like it is here to stay, with one big obstacle: infrastructure costs money.
Each student needs digital access at school and at home to learn and do homework. This is a universal infrastructure requirement, like clean water and electricity.
There is nothing inevitable about this revolution in learning. Khan Academy and YouTube are free, but computers, tablets, networks and tech staff aren't. Schools face real costs to cobble together the computers, tablets, routers and switches that make connectivity possible. Even if a school’s digital infrastructure is up-to-date (occasionally true), teachers and school staff do not automatically know how to use it, and maintaining a network is a job that requires staff. Technology-savvy individuals have many employment options, and schools struggle to attract and retain staff with technical skills. If your school doesn't have the networks and computers that students and teachers need, contact your school board. School districts in California have wide discretion in how they use funds. Ask whether there is a plan to fund technology infrastructure in an upcoming bond measure.
There is a real risk that education technology can contribute to achievement gaps. In schools in well-off neighborhoods, internet access reaches every corner of every classroom. But this kind of access is far from universal.
As they become connected, schools are becoming more similar to "grown up" workplaces, where technology is vital and complex. In businesses, technical leaders make good money and serve an influential role. Schools making a digital transition need expert leadership, too. Windows, Mac or Linux? Microsoft Office or Google Docs? Chromebooks or iPads? What's allowed? What's not? What happens when things break? Because school budgets are ultimately reflections of value, school boards face tough decisions: Should money go toward teachers or tablets or technical support staff?
As technology-based tools for learning continue to improve, the meaning of "homework" is changing. "Papers" don't involve paper -- they are submitted as Google Docs. Teachers can assign video lessons. Students can collaborate on digital projects. Of course, all this technical innovation is no help at all for students without computers and effective internet access. The Pew Research Center dubbed this the "Broadband homework gap". Based on analysis of U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2013 data, "some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. Low-income households – and especially black and Hispanic ones – make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million."
Consistent network access is essential for today's students, as important as binder paper and #2 pencils. Adequate "signal" is essential not just for the office of the school principal, but for each classroom and meeting space and, more difficult still, for each home where children live, study and learn. Past generations have built America's universal access to clean water, modern roads, and reliable electricity. To avoid leaving children behind, this generation must find ways to equip schools, homes, and shelters with effective universal network access.
Some argue that unless schools embrace digital tools for students and teachers they risk becoming irrelevant. The general theme of "relevance" is taken up in the next lesson.
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