Thursday, April 08, 2010

Traditional schools aren’t working — let’s move learning online

We already work online, play online, and shop online. Why isn't school online?

Deep within America's collective consciousness, there is a little red schoolhouse. Inside, obedient children sit in rows, eagerly absorbing lessons as a kind, wise teacher writes on the blackboard. Shiny apples are offered as tokens of respect and gratitude.

The reality of American education is often quite different. Beige classrooms are filled with note-passers and texters, who casually ignore teachers struggling to make it to the end of the 50-minute period. Smart kids are bored, and slower kids are left behind. Anxiety about standardized tests is high, and scores are consistently low. National surveys find that parents despair over the quality of education in the United States—and they're right to, as test results confirm again and again.

But just as most Americans disapprove of congressional shenanigans while harboring some affection for their own representative, parents tend to say that their child's teacher is pretty good. Most people have mixed feelings about their own school days, but our national romance with teachers is deep and long-standing. Which is why the idea of kids staring at computers instead of teachers makes parents and politicians extremely nervous.

However, it's time to take online education seriously—because we've tried everything else. Education Secretary Arne Duncan debuted his Blueprint for Reform this month to mixed reviews, joining at least 30 years' worth of government officials who have promised that this time, honest, they're going to fix education. Even the reforms promoted by the much-ballyhooed federal Race to the Top funds, which are supposed to encourage innovative educational practices, offer mostly marginal changes to the status quo. In an early March speech on technology in education, Duncan touted $500 million in new federal spending over 10 years to develop post-secondary online courses—an area of online education already thriving without federal assistance—thus arriving at the dance 15 years late and an awful lot more than a dollar short.

Since the Internet hit the big time in the mid-1990s, Amazon and eBay have changed the way we shop, Google has revolutionized the way we find information, Facebook has superseded other ways to keep track of friends and iTunes has altered how we consume music. But kids remain stuck in analog schools. Part of the reason online education hasn't taken off is that powerful forces such as teachers unions—which prefer to keep students in traditional classrooms under the supervision of their members—are aligned against it.

So children continue to learn from blackboards and books—the kind made of dead trees! no hyperlinks!—rather than getting lessons the way they consume virtually all other information: online. Putting reading materials and lecture notes on the Internet, like many teachers do today, is just the first step; it's like when, in the early days of movies, filmmakers pointed a camera at a stage play. Kids are still stuck watching those old-style movies, when they could be enjoying the learning equivalent of "Avatar" in 3-D. Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day, when YouTube is overflowing with accessible, multimedia presentations from experts on Elizabethan theater construction, not to mention a very nice illustrated series on the Kennedy Center's ArtsEdge site.

In the 2010 annual letter from his foundation—the biggest in the United States, with a $33 billion endowment—Bill Gates listed online education as one of his top priorities and rattled his pocket change in the direction of reform. He wrote: "Online learning can be more than lectures. Another element involves presenting information in an interactive form, which can be used to find out what a student knows and doesn't know."

Right now, other than the venerable pop quiz, teachers have very few tools to gauge just how many students are grasping a concept in real time and reshape the curriculum to meet their needs.

How do we know online education will work? Well, for one thing, it already does. Full-time virtual charter schools are operating in dozens of states. The Florida Virtual School, which offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system, has 100,000 students. Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years. The program is one of the largest in the country. Kids who enroll in Advanced Placement courses—39 percent of whom are minority students—score an average of 3.05 out of 5, compared with a state average of 2.49 for public school students.

In his book on online education, "Disrupting Class," Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen estimates that half of all high school courses in the United States will be consumed over the Internet by 2019. But we have a long way to go to reach 50 percent. Seventeen percent of high school students nationwide took an online course for school last year; another 12 percent took a class for self-study. Many of these students, along with younger kids taking online classes, might be considered homeschooled, though that very concept is changing as they sign up with virtual schools connected to state systems.

Few people have a clear picture of what online education really looks like, which is one reason so many people are reluctant to consider what it has to offer. Learning online won't turn America into a nation of home-schooled nerds, sitting in their basements, keyboards clacking. And it doesn't mean handing your kids over to Rosie the Robot from "The Jetsons" for the day.

Moving lesson planning and delivery online can provide students with more supervision, not less, says Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of "Disrupting Class." It would free teachers, Horn says, "to do hand-holding and mentoring, something which is pretty much impossible in the current model." After all, where is it written that the babysitter, disciplinarian, lecturer and evaluator must all be the same person? Or even that they all have to be in the same building?

Some online learning models eliminate human interaction, but the vast majority do not. Instead, they connect students and teachers via polls, video, chat, text and good old-fashioned phone calls. The Virtual Virginia program focuses on offering Advanced Placement classes to every student in the state, bringing college-level courses to rural districts and inner-city Richmond, where high-level instruction is difficult to get. Rocketship Education, in San Jose, Calif., brings at-risk elementary students together in a safe, cheap, modular space along with a small staff and hands their studies over to online curriculum for part of each day.

Online education has already become a boon for kids with special needs, the students least served by the traditional system. Education entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark launched Internet Academy, the first online K-12 establishment, in 1995 in part to serve kids with unorthodox education requirements, from serious athletes to children with health problems or learning disabilities.

One of the most successful areas of online education so far is helping kids who have fallen off the educational grid. Companies such as AdvancePath Academics scoop up students classified as unrecoverable by traditional schools and help them complete their education. Some dropout-recovery programs can be found in shopping malls and gyms.

More here

British teaching unions need to calm down and wise up

High dress standards improve behaviour — as good schools know

It’s that time of year again. Stony-faced belligerence, implausible allegations, wild sabre rattling, howls of pent-up anguish, cries of defiance searching for a target; yes, it’s the teaching unions’ conference season.

I like and admire teachers. I encourage my children to respect them. Granted, they have a tendency to grumble, to talk shop. Some can be prone to unworldliness, lacking insight into the world beyond the classroom.

But none of us is perfect. I think teaching a truly noble calling, among society’s most important. My parents, now retired, were schoolteachers. This is why I lament the public relations disaster inflicted annually on the profession — and state education — by the teaching unions’ conferences.

News bulletins are full of strike threats on any pretext, intemperate attacks on politicians, inspectors, examiners, bullying heads. Teachers come across as government-baiting, parent-hating, child-fearing lunatics spoiling for a fight, gathered only to agree how and when.

I know they come to let off steam, that they get carried away with conference rhetoric. Yet they don’t seem to grasp that the world is watching, and is aghast at what it sees.

This unmitigated folly must stop. Teachers I meet are not remotely like the tub-thumping conference militants. They must rescue the reputation of their profession from this annual charade. Here are five ways to do it.

• Move the conferences: the end of term is ridiculous — teachers are exhausted, snappy and at their worst. They should be in bed, certainly nowhere near a podium. Why not meet at the end of a holiday, when they have rested and calmed down?

• Merge the unions: having three is crazy, producing silly competitive behaviour and weakening teachers’ influence as ministers divide and rule. A single union would dilute the influence of the Trotskyites.

• Debate things of interest to parents: why wall-to-wall motions on workload, discrimination, pay? Why not discuss pedagogy, supported by research, expert speakers and classroom insights?

• Smarten up: jeans and Cuba Solidarity T-shirts won’t do, nor will sweatshirts, fleeces and rumpled woolies. High standards of dress improve behaviour — as we often hear from successful schools.

• Cheer up: teaching is a great job, with 71 per cent satisfied with their work, according to a YouGov survey for the National Union of Teachers, the bolshiest of the lot. So why is its conference a rage-fest? Where’s the joy, the pride, the professionalism?

All this would transform perceptions of teaching and rescue Easter from classroom militancy. Any takers?


British Conservatives kill off compulsory child sex education law

Plans for compulsory sex education in schools have been dropped in the pre-election “wash up” after being blocked by the Tories. The controversial measure would have ensured every 15-year-old had at least one year of sex education lessons. It was part of Ed Balls’ Children, Schools and Families Bill, but was shelved today in the last-minute rush to get legislation through before the election.

Mr Balls, the Schools Secretary, described the move as a “significant setback” which would deny many young people a balanced education.

But the Conservatives claimed it as a victory for the freedom of parents to withdraw their children from such lessons. They also blocked new rules that would have provided greater protection for children educated at home. At the moment Britain has among the most liberal laws in the developed world and does not require parents to register or be inspected.

Khyra Ishaq, the seven-year-old girl who starved to death at the hands of her mother and stepfather in Birmingham, was supposedly being home educated by them.

A report commissioned by the Government, which recommended a compulsory national registration scheme for home educating families, caused uproar among the vocal home-schooling lobby last year as an infringement of their rights. They won Tory support. Michael Gove, Mr Balls’ counterpart, said today the plans were “draconian”, and has ensured they are left out of the Bill.

In a letter to Mr Gove, Mr Balls said the Tories were putting the wellbeing of young people at risk, and voiced “deep regret” that key measures of the Bill were not supported.

“It is our very clear intention to ensure that all the measures you have rejected are included in a new bill in the first session of the new Parliament,” he said. “I am especially disappointed that, despite our conversation, you could not agree to make personal, social and health education statutory in all state-funded schools.

“There is widespread agreement that this is essential to prepare young people for adult life, and our reforms would ensure that all children receive at least one year of compulsory sex and relationship education.”


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