Welcome back to this series on visions of the future of education technology.
In my last post, I gave an overview of the “Stay the Course” vision. This vision is shared by those who believe that education technology is basically on the right track and should naturally take a lower priority than the “core” reform topics of teacher and leader recruitment and retention, and standards and accountability.
Now I’d like to look at the polar opposite of the “Stay the Course” vision. It’s called “Wholesale Transformation.”
This vision is radical. It presupposes a fundamental shift in education from a teacher-centric to a student-centric model, with effects on nearly every element of the system. Here’s how the Parthenon Group, in a report for the Stupski and Carnegie Foundations, describes it:
“Personalized learning enables each student to take a customized path toward meeting high level standards. Flexible uses of time and space allow differentiated approaches to content, assessment, pacing, and learning style. This level of personalization, when combined with world-class standards, performance-based assessment, anytime/anywhere learning, deep student engagement and agency, and a comprehensive system of supports, is referred to as next generation learning (NGL).”
Similarly, Fiona O’Carroll (at the Aspen Ideas Festival discussion referenced in earlier posts) explains Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s vision for the future of learning:
“Our model is a learner-centric model, really looking at connecting peers to peers, peers with teachers with mentors, in a social learning collaborative experience, and also facilitating the learner to become the producer as well as the consumer, which we would see as a huge shift. Predicated on that is we certainly have a vision in the future of a one-to-one experience … what we mean by that is students have access to a device all the time, to deliver on that actual vision.”
Not only will NGL make learning more effective, advocates say, but it will also save districts money. As O’Connell put it:
“I think this time there’s a perfect storm. I think that budget pressure, is really good, frankly because it’s going to force innovation. If we look back at history, that’s typically what’s happened.”
Parthenon similarly includes cost savings or cost neutrality as a key element of NGL.
Both Parthenon and Ted Mitchell (O’Carroll’s co-discussant at Aspen) cite School of One in New York City as an example of this vision in action. So here are the five challenges I’d submit to the proponents of NGL and the Wholesale Transformation model:
1. How do teachers preserve a classroom culture of high expectations when students are working at their own pace? In my experience, great teachers have an exceptional ability to set a high standard and create the expectation that each student will meet it. This tends to be reinforced by peer pressure — “If all my other peers really believe that they can master geometric proofs, then why can’t I?”
2. What exactly is the role of teachers in NGL? Most importantly, do they direct and manage personalized curricular programs for all their students? If so, how we prepare teachers to handle this responsibility — which is arguably more, not less, difficult than managing a class of students all working on the same material?
3. What would NGL science or literature education look like? If science is hands-on and inquiry-based, in what kinds of cases would it be feasible or appropriate for technology to personalize instruction? For literature, how can teachers encourage group discussion in a learner-centric environment?
4. How much time is appropriate for students to be spending with their devices at school every day, especially in the earlier grades?
5. How can we be certain that budget-induced innovations that O’Carroll refers to will be good innovations? It is more difficult than she suggests to find historical examples of budget difficulties in education; spending has been on a steady rise across the board over the last century.
This reminds me of an apt quote by Thomas Friedman in his Aspen appearance this year. Discussing the current budget-cutting plans, he said:
“If you cut without a plan, you can hit a big artery. You can blow a huge artery. And that’s the scariest thing going on right now, is that we are having a debate about cutting without any plan of where we’re going.”
The way I see it, there are “easy” strategies use technology to cut costs, which involve creating new systems that reduce time spent on administrative tasks like taking attendance or that reduce the cost of digital textbooks. And then there are “hard” strategies — using it to replace labor and reduce HR expenses. I think that there’s still a good amount of thinking yet to be done about which of the strategies that districts would be wise to employ, and what they would actually look like.