Which school do you want to support?
Until recently, it seemed that schools were impervious to change. Classrooms looked just as they had 50 years ago, with the possible change from a blackboard to a whiteboard. But that’s the way that technology 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 in many schools. The oracles of this revolution, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, presented their case in the 2008 book Disrupting Class. In its pages, they argued that educational software and online teaching would become increasingly important. They suggested that the revolution had already quietly begun in places and subjects where there aren’t good alternatives. For example, as China becomes more of an economic peer with Europe and the US there is approximately zero chance that American schools will be able to keep up with demand for Mandarin language teachers.
Some of California’s highest-performing elementary schools were the first to make daily use of technology for instruction. In education lingo, the combination of learning from both teachers and technology has a special buzzword: "blended learning." For example, a charter school network called Rocketship uses a "blended learning" model that combines traditional instruction, technology, and tutoring to allow every student to learn at their own pace. They are continuing to refine their model, which they say works for students whether they are “catching up or racing ahead.” (You will know that using technology in education has become standard practice when the term "blended learning" fades from use.)
Tech is changing
see tech as a lever
Technology for education succeeds in part because it does not need to be fancy to be effective, at least for many students. Technology also has a charming tendency to improve over time. One of the most celebrated websites for education is the Khan Academy. This site began modestly as a giant set of short YouTube videos. One person, Salman Khan, posted hundreds of 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.
Khan Academy is free, but computers, tablets, networks and tech staff aren't. Some schools face major cost challenges just getting computers and creating an infrastructure that makes internet connectivity possible. Even if a school’s digital infrastructure is up-to-date, teachers and school staff do not automatically know how to use it. Technology-savvy individuals have many employment options, and schools struggle to attract and retain staff with technical skills.
There is nothing automatic about this revolution in learning. Some schools will be faster than others to take advantage of the possibilities. 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, virtual schools are organized as charter schools. Students enroll, receive a computer if they don’t have one, and sign up for courses.
Virtual schools can take many forms, and are steadily inventing new ways of working. 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, allowing “at risk” students to earn a diploma while making a break from their school environment. Many highlight their schedule flexibility, enabling students to work a “day job” to earn money for their family while continuing school at night. Some are focused on offering opportunities for advanced academic work and an accelerated path to college.
There is evidence that some of the early online-only schools have been pretty bad. 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. Legislation has been introduced to prohibit for-profit virtual charter schools, and 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.
Because virtual schools are new, varied, and evolving, it is unwise to characterize them in broad terms. If history is any guide, it would be wise to expect their results to 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:
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.
Huge challenges persist, however. Schools need to be equipped with internet access in a way that reaches every corner of every classroom. Neighborhoods need to fill gaps in digital access, and students need to be equipped with devices that work where they live as well as at school. Schools and districts must grapple realistically with the costs of maintaining devices, networks and accounts.
These changes will challenge school and district leaders in new ways. For example, digital systems cost money to implement and sustain. As schools become more similar to "grown up" workplaces, schools will have to shoulder some new costs. In businesses, technical leaders make good money and serve an influential role. Schools making a digital transition will need expert leadership, too. Because school budgets are ultimately reflections of value, there will be tension in this evolution, and school boards will 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. Teachers can assign video lessons. Students can collaborate on digital projects. Papers don't involve paper. 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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