Aug 212011

I forgot that there are two kinds of online courses.

I’ve always been interested in the potential of online environments to mediate discussions that are deeper and wider than those possible in a classroom. When you can put more than 30 people in a discussion, extend it beyond 45 minutes, and give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute, there’s a tremendous potential for valuable interaction.

That’s what attracted me to the Internet all those… weeks… ago. In the days before the web, the Internet was about online discussions through tools like Usenet and IRC and text-based virtual worlds. When I started my teaching career, I had students playing around with bulletin boards and Freenet before our school had Internet access. When completing my master’s degree, I conducted research into the use of online discussions with middle school students, and investigated the role of anonymity in such projects. In the years since, I have taken a few online courses. They’ve all involved some reading, some reflecting, and interaction in an online discussion forum with the other participants in the class.

This summer, I signed up for two online workshops. One was on school leadership, and the other was on what works in schools, following the research of Marzano. I’ve been a little too deep into technology the last few years, and I thought it would be helpful to bolster my understanding of some of the current trends in education and educational leadership.

Each course was two weeks long. Fine. Each expected about 20 contact hours. Fine. That’s a little high for a one hour course, but I generally put in more time than required anyway. Each was offered through a local university, with content coming from a national “educational leadership organization dedicated to advancing best practices and policies for the success of each learner.” Fine. I was looking forward to the experience.

The content of the courses consisted of slides with bullet points. Each lesson had a video that was 1-2 minutes long. Following the video, I was asked to reflect on some of the actions and opinions of people in the videos. My reflections were submitted online, and I never saw them again. I seriously doubt that anyone ever read them. My assumptions were not challenged. I was not asked to weigh in on others’ differing perspectives. I didn’t get to hear any of the great ideas from other people who were taking the same class. I don’t even know if other people were taking the same class.

On the third day of the first ten-day class, I finally received a syllabus. Apparently, I was to work through all of the lessons and complete two written assignments. Each assignment had to be 1-2 pages, double-spaced. It took me a long time to figure out how to double-space. I hadn’t done it in about 15 years.

I worked through both courses alone. I was never asked to connect this new content to things I already knew. I was never asked to consider alternative sources, or to look online at research, best practices, or anything that anyone besides the course designers had to say. I wasn’t even really supposed to make connections between the two courses I was taking, which contradicted one another on several important points.

Now, a full two weeks after the courses have ended, I still haven’t received a single word of feedback on anything I did. Silence. I kind of feel like Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, right before he gives the Everlasting Gobstopper back. Whole day wasted.

Here’s the thing: learning is about making connections. They might be connections between ideas. They might be connections between content areas. They might be connections between something I already know and something new I’m hearing for the first time. They may be connections between people. They’re usually connections between people. Interaction is necessary.

We can use technology to put everyone in a box. We can use it to isolate our students, put blinders on them, and ensure that they only see the content we want them to remember. But if we want to teach them, we have to let them make connections. Technology has a tremendous potential to help with that. But we have to stop doing it wrong.

Photo credit: Valleygirl_tka on Flickr.

Jul 272011

Google Plus is here!

This is the tool that’s going to revolutionize education. It’s a collaborative platform with none of the social baggage of that evil Facebook. It allows people to easily organize their friends into circles, so you can keep your professional, personal, and academic lives separate from one another. The image sharing features are very nice, especially when coupled with the mobile phone app. And the hangouts… have you tried the hangouts? Click a button, and you can have up to 10 people in a simultaneous video chat. Try doing that with Facebook. Heck, try doing that with Skype.

As a teacher, it’s safe to friend students now. I can just put them in their own circle. I just have to make sure that the things I post to that circle are school-appropriate. I can still have fun with my friends and be embarrassed by my family, and the students will never see any of that stuff. And that knife cuts both ways. Students can shelter their teachers and parents from some of the content that they probably don’t want to see.

Then, again, maybe this is just another fad. It’s the new shiny. Remember the old shiny? Everyone was talking about tablet computers, and how they were going to be transformational in education. That was soooo 2010. And before that, netbooks were going to change the world. And Kindles, before we figured out how badly they suck at doing anything but displaying text.

For a while, wireless networks were going to change everything. Some people even talked about not bothering to wire new schools with network cabling, because we weren’t going to need it. Once every kid has a laptop, everything will be wireless. That’s really going to transform education.

Student response systems used to be all the rage. In some places, they still are. I can put a question up on the SMART Board and students can enter their answers on their individual remote controls. I can then see the results right there in my software. That’s a great short-cycle assessment. It’s so much better than having the students raise their hands in answer to a question.

Speaking of SMART Boards, they’ve really changed education. We have them in just about every classroom now. The teacher can use four colors of digital ink to write on the board, and the whole thing can be saved and posted online. There are also lots of interactive activities in the accompanying software that let 25 kids watch one kid interact with the board while the teacher stands comfortably at the front of the room.

Transformational change doesn’t come from gadgets. I’m beginning to think that transformational change is actually impossible in the public schools because of the societal and cultural traditions surrounding how schools are “supposed” to work. Parents tend to get upset if their kids aren’t taught the same way they were taught. Just ask a math teacher who has lived through a transition to Everyday Math or Investigations. Change doesn’t come easily.

Real progress comes in smaller steps. As we’ve added technology over the last generation or so, we’ve also changed the pedagogy quite a bit. We’re using more cooperative and participatory strategies to keep our students engaged. We’re addressing multiple intelligences. We’re using authentic assessments. We’re starting to use frameworks like UBD to ensure that our instruction is actually tied to the objectives we’re trying to meet. None of these things require technology. They do require teachers with open minds, principals who aren’t afraid of change, and schools who are willing to let go of some of the traditions in order to improve our students’ future.

Google Plus might help us do that. But it probably won’t. Next month, there will be another new shiny.


 Photo credit: Shiny! by SFDenverLV on Flickr.

Jun 102011

I’m a product of public schools. From the time I started Kindergarten to the time I finished graduate school, I only attended public schools. We live in a democratic society founded on the ideal of self-governance. In order for that to work, we have to have an educated, informed citizenry. The only way to do that is by educating the population. All of the population. Call it socialism if you must. But it’s impossible for a true democratic society to survive without good public education.

I’ve spent all of my professional life working in public schools. I never considered working for a private school, or working in a non-education career. I’ve always felt that I’ve had a contribution to make, and that public education is a worthwhile cause for my efforts.

That’s why it’s surprising, especially to me, that my children will not be attending school next fall in the public school district that I live in. It’s very likely that our careful selection of a home — less than 500 feet from the local high school’s property, will have been in vain. They probably won’t go to school there.

You can’t have my kids.

No Child Left Behind and similar educational reform efforts have been a race to mediocrity. Schools are measured by the percent of kids who pass the tests. If a student who gets 70% is considered proficient in a subject, no one cares whether the student gets a 71% or a 99%. They’re both passing. They both count for the same amount.

Understandably, public schools focus on that which is measured. “Better” schools have a higher percentage of students passing the tests. Let’s say, for example, that I have three kids: one is at 60%, one is at 75%, and one is at 90%. Currently, 2/3 of my students are labeled as “proficient.” That’s not very good.

Let’s also say that my school has the resources to move each kid up 10%. If I distribute those resources equitably, my students would be at 66%, 82.5%, and 99%.  That’s still 2/3 proficient, though. My school is not improving, and bad things happen.

But let’s say instead that I don’t allocate the resources equally. Maybe I raise the lowest kid by 20%, the middle one by 10%, and the highest one by 0%. Then, I end up with 72%, 82.5%, and 90%. Everyone passes the test. The school is excellent. We get awards and recognition for the superb turnaround. Everyone is happy.

Except my kid. My kid is the one who had a 90% to begin with. My kid is the one who spent a year treading water.

In reality, it’s not this simple, of course. Despite our best (worst) efforts, learning is not that easy to quantify. And learning gains are not so easily tied to resources. But the general idea holds true. Schools focus on under-performing students at the expense of those who are already proficient. While that disparity has always been there, it’s worse now than ever before. And it’s my kids with the short end of the stick.

It gets worse. My kids are artists. They like to draw and paint and sing and dance and act. None of those things are measured on the tests. So they’re all being reduced. As the budgets get tighter, the schools are focusing more and more on the things that are measured. And the one thing that gets measured above all else is our students’ ability to take multiple choice tests. We’re preparing our posterity for prosperous careers in bubble-sheet completion.

Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing a bit about these things people keep calling 21st century skills. In truth, they’re nothing new. We need to focus on critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. We’ve been talking about that for the better part of 20 years now. But that stuff is hard to measure. So you can guess where that is on the schools’ priority list. We’re doing a better job than we were a decade ago. But we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, my kids are growing up. One is a third done with school. The other is half done. I don’t want them to be professional test-takers. So we started looking for alternatives.

The younger daughter, who will be in fifth grade in the fall, applied to a performing arts magnet school. Its a public school, located in downtown Akron. She’ll learn all the stuff that the state (and soon the feds) say she has to “know.” But a significant amount of time will be spent every day on drama. Plus, she’ll have classes in visual arts, vocal music, dance, and instrumental music. For her, this is a much better fit. It’s not perfect — I still have strong concerns about  a lot of things they’re doing. But it’s going to be better than the status quo.

I never thought I’d pull my daughter out of a suburban school to send her to an inner-city middle school, but that’s exactly what we’ve done. It’s non-traditional, to say the least. But we’re excited about it, and grateful for the opportunity.

The older daughter’s situation is harder. She loves visual arts, but wasn’t accepted to the magnet school. Another arts-based magnet only goes through sixth grade, and she’ll be in seventh next year. For her, we’ve looked at online charters. This is still a public school, but it’s a charter school. That gives them a little flexibility that the traditional school doesn’t have. She’ll be doing a lot of her coursework online, but at her own pace. Because she’s smart, that’s going to  free up some time to allow her to do more with art and music outside of school. Again, it’s not a perfect fit. But we’re going to try it.

I hate charter schools. I’m frustrated by school choice. The whole movement takes resources from the public schools and channels it to private organizations. It undermines the whole idea of universal free and appropriate public education. It’s the first step toward a privatization effort that will send the privileged to good schools on the taxpayer’s dime while leaving the less fortunate to wither in the shell of what was once public education.

But this is the best option for my kids. I only have two. I only get one shot. And the local public school isn’t good enough.

You can’t have my kids.

Photo credit: Austin Barrow on Flickr.