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Posted by on in Education Policy

money and computer

We have seen the future, and we can't afford to live in it.

Altschool has just let out word that the tech-powered boutique of personalized education will become one more purveyor of off-the-rack computer-centered education-flavored product. There are many lessons underlined here-- I want to focus on the reminder of why, exactly, we can't have nice things.

Altschool's original vision was ambitious. Hire really good teachers. Keep class sizes small. Back up that teacher with a high-powered array of tech resources, allowing the teacher to perfectly track each student's progress in nearly-real time, then give that teacher unparalleled power to select a perfectly personalized set of materials for every single student. Keep a full IT department right on the site.

What do we dream of when we dream of True Personalized Education? Teacher-directed, with support from a powerful array of resources and facilities.

The problem is, this would be really, really expensive. Really expensive. You have to pay top dollar to lure those super-star teachers, then design your perfect educational ecosystem, then get top-of-the-line tech and hire IT people to keep it running, then buy up the resources needed to meet every possible individual student need or interest that might arrive. Ultimately you have several staff people hired for every single child. Expensive. Altschool was dropping something like $40 million a year.

You can't afford it. Hell, even the rich folks in Silicon Valley couldn't afford it.

So what happens? And how does the Personalized Education dream turn into the "personalized" education nightmare?

There are only a couple of ways to deal with the huge expense of a personalized boutique school.

One is to cut corners

To be prepared for any individual interest or need, really prepared, you'd need a library of tens of thousands of units, covering tens of thousands of content areas at dozens of different ability levels cross-filed by particular skill or knowledge sets involved. The library would be huge, and would need to be reviewed and updated every year. That would be expensive, and the software needed to search it for the material with just the right qualities for Pat or Chris would have to be pretty heavy duty as well.

So let's, you know, cut that library down to a couple hundred items. Let's just focus on the most common stuff, and if we find some students who aren't a perfect fit, well, if we've got materials that are Close Enough, that should do. And we can reduce some of this coursework to simple sequencing. Take the pre-test, and if you miss numbers 1 and 2, you get Drill Sheet A, and if you miss numbers 3 and 4, you get Drill Sheet B. Simple, easy to manage, fewer materials to store. Cheaper.

And getting the very best teachers to run the classroom-- well, that would be pricey, too. Let's just round up some teachers who are Good Enough. In fact, since really good teachers might start to question all the corners we've cut, let's just grab some warm bodies, train them in how to operate our system, and let it go at that. If we let the classroom be driven by the software system and not the teacher, then it's easier and cheaper to just fill in the meat widget job with a handy warm body.

But if I started this "personalized" program because I thought I could really make school awesome, why would I cut so many corners that I hurt the quality of the school.

Because I need investors

The other way to take care of the enormous amount of money I need is to get somebody to give me that money. And investors look at my classroom a little differently.

First of all, the corner cutting appeals to them hugely. To them, every dollar I spend on that classroom is one of their dollars. Do we really need three tech guys? Couldn't one handle everything by himself? Couldn't we scale back on the library of units that we're buying every quarter?

And having a highly-qualified and experienced super-teacher in each classroom-- that's great and all, but we can't really monetize that, can we? We can't sell it as a special secret. That proprietary software, on the other hand-- we could sell that to other schools and sell them the computers to run it on. And if we could streamline that whole software program and lesson library a little more, it would be easy to package as one-size-fits-all "personalization" for any classroom in the country. Because the more All our One Size fits, the bigger the potential market for this.

By all means, keep the Original Boutique School going-- when we bring people to see this or we show them videos or we send the master teachers out to talk about it, people will pee themselves with joy and fight to buy our off-the-rack version. We will make a mint.

But investors are not showing up to pump money into a Personalized School just so every schlubb's kid can actually attend there.

And asking those investors to work around a mountain of delicious, valuable student data and leave it alone is like asking someone to come to work every day and work at a desk that sits on a mountain of $100 bills without ever touching one. Theoretically possible, but sooner or later some investor is going to say, "You know, as long as the software is already working with all this student data anyway..." In fact, that's why some of the investors are going to show up in the first place.

This is how it works

This is how "personalized learning" ends up meaning two things-- actual personalized learning in which teachers lead a classroom armed with mighty tools and resources, and faux personalized learning where the classroom is software-directed, education is algorithmically-centered, and data is mined daily and promiscuously.

We cannot afford real Personalized Learning. Okay, if we can afford trillion dollar wars without end, we could afford real Personalized Learning. But as a country, we want education cheap (particular education for children who are not our own). So real Personalized Learning remains one of those things we know how to do, but we won't do it because we don't want to. So we'll cut corners and hustle for some ROI and just generally try to look like we're doing Personalized Learning when we're really doing something else entirely.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

steam engine

Personalized Learning is getting the hard sell these days. It's marketable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that nobody really knows what Personalized Learning is.

What it suggests is something appealing, like Individualized Education Programs for everyone. Personalized Learning fans like to trot out exemplars like Chugach, Alaska, a remote, tiny town where a school system created a system in which each student had her own personal path to graduation, with projects, content, and assessment.

While there are plenty of problems with the Chugach thing, it's a good example of what most of us think Personalized Learning would mean. An educational program custom designed for each individual learner. Custom designed like a meal at a restaurant where you can choose the protein and spices and sauces and dishes and means of cooking and order exactly what you are hungry for.

But as Personalized Learning rolls out, that's not what it's like at all.

From the College Board's personalized SAT prep courtesy of Khan Academy, through bold plans like this IBM personalized education pitch is something else entirely. This is just path-switching.

The Brand X that we're supposed to be escaping, the view of education that Personalized Learning is supposed to alter, the toxin for which Personalized Learning is the alleged antidote is an education model in which all students get on the same car of the same train and ride the same tracks to the same destination at the same time. That's not what's actually going on in public schools these days, but let's set that aside for the moment.

Real personalized learning would tear up the tracks, park the train, offer every student a good pair of hiking shoes or maybe a four-wheeler, maybe even a hoverboard, plus a map of the territory (probably in the form of an actual teacher), then let the student pick a destination and a path and manner of traveling.

But techno-personalized learning keeps the track and the train. In the most basic version, we keep one train and one track and the "personalization" is that students get on at different station. Maybe they occasionally get to catch a helicopter that zips them ahead a couple of stops. (Think the old SRA reading program.)

Pat completes the first computer exercise in the module. An algorithm (cheerfully mis-identified as "artificial intelligence" because that sounds so super-cool) checks Pat's answers and the particular configuration of incorrect answers, by which the algorithm assigns the next exercise to Pat. Rinse and repeat. Pat is still on the train, but now there's a small web of tracks that he must travel. But Pat is still a passenger on this train, choosing no part of the journey, the destination, nor the means of travel.

That is in fact one of the key ways to identify whether you've got actual personalized learning or not -- how prominent is the voice of the student. If the pitch is "Our super-duper AI will analyze student performance and assign an appropriately awesome module to enhance learning swellness," this is not actual personalized learning, but Algorthmically Mediated Lessons (h/t Bill Fitzgerald) which is not personalized learning at all.

That's the bait and switch to watch out for. The promise is a hugely flexible and open-ended, even project-based, learning that is adapted to every individual learner. The delivery more often is the chance to pay big bucks for what is essentially a proprietary library of exercises managed by a proprietary software algorithm for doling the assignments out based on a battery of pre-made standardized tests and quizzes. That is not personalized learning. You cannot have personalized learning without persons. That includes persons making the decisions about hat the students do. That includes using knowledge of the person who is the student, and not handing out materials created by someone who has never met the students (and created the exercises before the student ever stepped into the classroom).

That impersonal education is not automatically terrible, and often has a place in education-- but it's not personalized learning.

And it's worth noting that the one train, one track model was abandoned by public education ages ago. Differentiated instruction, IEP's, authentic assessment, project-based learning, and a thousand other methods have been tried and adopted by classroom teachers who routinely work to meet students where they are and craft instruction to suit their personal needs. That's one of the great ironies of the bait and switch, the algorithmically mediated lessons - in the majority of US classrooms, when it comes to personalization, Faux Personalized Learning is actually a step backwards. The personalized bait-and-switch is about getting teachers to trade in their shiny hoverboards or rusty steam engines.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

kids and computers

I've been concerned that teachers are not paying enough attention to the health risks they are imposing on our children now that schools require students to use digital devices every day, and at ever younger ages. Ironically, teachers themselves seem to be avoiding this critical education.

What happens to children who use digital devices every day? Researchers and doctors agree that the risks for permanent retinal damage, physical pain, myopia, headaches, anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, addiction, and suicide all increase. Add in homework on a device, and you can add sleeplessness, and the well known host of ills that accompany it: more weight gain, more depression, inability to focus, irritability, hyperactivity and poor school performance.

Since publishing "First, Do No Harm," my first article on EdWords, I have not had much feedback from teachers. The health issues posed by digital devices were recently discussed on BAM! Radio Network, in a Rae Pica interview. I hope you'll listen to it. You can determine how free of known hazards your own classroom is, and what steps you can take to help protect your students.

It's important to note that these health issues expand into our children's overall well being, and how our kids are going to grow up. Here is an article from Psychology Today you might find illuminating. I wrote it for Dr. Victoria Dunckley's blog. Dr. Dunckley is leading the national conversation about the impact of digital devices on children's mental health and brain development.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

soap box derby car

We have tied to explain the problems of equality and equity and opportunity dozens of ways. Here's one you've probably seen many many times:











 
 
I'm going to offer another metaphor today-- the soap box derby.

Let's imagine two racers approaching the starting line. Our two young divers are seated in similarly-built cars, made well enough for the race. The race down the hill begins at the starting line, but before they arrive at that line, anything goes.

Chris's car is carried to the starting line, and there Chris sits, waiting for the flag to be waved, at which point Chris will take off the break and let gravity move the car down the hill.

Meanwhile, Pat is lined up further in back of the starting line. Pat has family there, too, and when the flag waves, Pat's family will push Pat just as hard as they can.

A few seconds later, we see the two cars on the hill. The race has begun. Pat is out in front, going far faster than Chris. But when someone among the spectators complains that the race is not fair, the reply they hear is this:

"It's perfectly fair. Look-- they're in equal cars, on the same hill, each one steering and driving their car depending on nothing but their own skills, reflexes, talents and abilities. If Pat wins, that must be because Pat is a better driver, and Chris would be better off building a skill set and becoming a better driver than worrying about. Because right now, on that hill, they are perfectly equal."

We could make the metaphor more complicated, give Pat and Chris different vehicles to represent various obstacles Chris brings into the race. But here's the thing-- even if Chris has just as good a car, is just as strong and sharp, works just as hard at driving, history is still on Pat's side. Everything that happened before the starting line was crossed makes a huge difference.

Research tells us over and over again that families of origin make a huge difference, that history stacks the deck before a child even crosses the starting line. We also know that how our society functions makes a difference as well (I might expand the metaphor by adding that Chris is stopped by police every ten feet down the hill).

I'm not arguing for inescapable destiny. I'm not saying that children who are born poor or raised poor are doomed, their fate set in stone, nothing we can do about it. There's plenty we can do about it. There are soooo many things that we can do in school to help boost up those racers who didn't get the extra push to start, and we should be doing every single one we can think of, because success is attainable for every child who walks through the school door.

But we can't do anything if we don't understand the situation. And if we are looking at the two racers on the hill, saying, "Well, they're totally equal with the same resources and situation, so I guess Chris just isn't trying hard enough," then we don't understand the situation, and we won't find the solutions we need.

 

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Posted by on in Education Policy

Let me admit...

Before I start I want to readily admit that there are far more than three things wrong with our current educational system. The three reasons I'm about to discuss are the ones I think are most detrimental to the success of our schools in this country.

Things that matter but won't be discussed

I can tell you right now that none of these things have anything to do with funding, politics, or the zip code that you live in.  All of these are things that have effects on education and its success, but I would like to focus on systemic, instructional, and conceptual issues that exist at the school, district, and national level. These are key thing that are, in my mind, possible to change with the right commitment.

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