Digital Learning: Care needed

My own experience indicates that, properly conducted, digital learning can be beneficial. Essentially similar machine-based instruction certainly proved to be an improvement nearly half a century ago when I was an Air Force Instructor Pilot programming the first generation of automated teaching technology to go operational in that service’s pilot training program. Student pilots picked up a number of skills more quickly and instructors could move immediately to more advanced discussions in their pre- and post-flight briefings because the students were getting basic introduction to new material in the learning center setting.

When I retired and went to work for a major US airline, that company’s annual recurrent and initial pilot training programs came to increasingly rely on significant amounts of digital learning approaches, as well. Again, this suited me and a lot of other pilots well.

But, technology isn’t always a magic silver bullet. If the instructional materials are not high quality and are not employed with skill, the old computer term “Garbage in, garbage out” can take hold quickly.

Obviously, if kids are playing video games instead of looking at the day’s instructional modules or listening to the classroom lecture, learning isn’t happening.

Thus, it wasn’t a real surprise when I heard about a new study about digital learning from the West Point Military Academy. Researchers split over 700 cadets into three separate sample groups to explore how varying amounts of technology impacted performance in a lecture-based sophomore level economics course.

As Rick Hess summarizes:

“On the three-and-a-half-hour final exam—which included multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay questions—students in the technology-free group fared best.”

On the other hand, students who were allowed to use technology in or out of the classroom as they desired scored lower by “a statically significant and pretty meaningful difference” according to Hess.

There are some important limitations to the West Point study. It appears that no lessons were designed to be taught on the computer, so the technology was only being used as an aid in traditionally taught classes.

Thus, the jury is still out on the real impacts of using digital devices in the instructional setting. However, the West Point study shows that caution is advised when digital learning is involved and more research is badly needed.

Along those lines, I have been looking at the first year’s test results for a very extensive digital learning effort that started in several Boone County schools in the 2016-17 school term. This one encompassed massive use of digitally based instruction as well as the use of digital devices as support elements. I’ll have more to say about that Boone County effort soon, so stay tuned.

Fighting ‘Fake News’ in the Classroom

I don’t follow the Atlantic, but one of their writers, Alia Wong, has a very interesting article up in the Education Writers Association site about the problems of teaching school kids about fake news.

Unfortunately, Wong’s article makes a lot of sense.

Wong begins by posing a very interesting question:

“During and after the 2016 presidential campaign, questions arose about whether shortcomings in civics instruction had exacerbated polarization in the electorate and influenced the election’s outcome. The questions on civics education were soon accompanied by a related one: What if schools are contributing to a breakdown in democracy by failing to ensure kids are media literate?”

The article then answers that question, expressing concern that a recent study by the Stanford History Education Group found that students identified a web site “as a credible source of information — even though the website is maintained by a lobbying firm for the food and beverage industry.”

The article additionally laments that students decided one news article was more credible that another solely because the first article had an “attractive infographic.”

The Atlantic’s writer also points out that “media illiteracy is in large part symptomatic of a systemic flaw: schools’ failure to instill these skills amid an increasingly convoluted world of information.”

This reminded me of another kids-believe-all-sorts-of-stuff-on-the-web study that I learned about years ago regarding the fictitious “tree octopus.” Kids were directed to a bogus web site that had been created to fool them and then wouldn’t believe this fabrication didn’t exist even after researchers explained the web site was a plant created to test student credibility about anything found online.

Back in the present, the worry may be about fake news and our kids’ ability to detect it, but Wong’s take on the issue sounds all too much like solid – and scary – news to me.

Will digital learning replace teachers with others?

Some sharp-eyed parents just caught my attention with their Facebook post about a very interesting section of the Boone County School District’s application to be one of Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation.

Check out this waiver request (in red type) to the existing statute (in black type) to use teaching assistants (aides) in place of certified teachers to monitor and even instruct students doing digital learning.

Boone Co DOI Application Regarding Subing Aides for Teachers

This will further reduce student interaction with certified teachers.

It will also save the school district a ton of money, of course. If aides are assisting with virtual/digital content, certified teachers are not needed.

Despite the claims in the Boone County waiver, I need to point out that aides may not be very useful in the education system, especially in upper level grades.

In 2014 the firm of Picus, Odden & Associates created a report for the Kentucky Council for Better Education that has this interesting comment on Page 84:

“Instructional aides, as they are typically used in schools, do not positively impact student academic achievement (Gerber, Finn, Achilles & Boyd-Zaharias, 2001).”

Other comments on Page 62 in the Picus report discus other research from Tennessee that also indicates aides were not useful in even elementary school classrooms.

In fact, Picus and his group were so unimpressed with the value of aides that they called for no instructional aides and only a very few supervisory aides at any school level (elementary, middle or high school) in a school model they proposed for Kentucky on Page 51 of their report.

So, a very serious question needs to be addressed:

Has digital learning for public school students advanced to the point that most students no longer will require teachers to learn? If so, members of the teaching profession might need to start thinking about other employment options.

At the very least, the District of Innovation experiments in Boone County just got a lot more interesting.

Digital learning: Not always pleasing parents

Before getting into this, I want to stress that I believe digital learning has strong potential to improve K to 12 education. I base that opinion on my own experience when I was an Air Force instructor pilot and an instructional technology program developer for the first generation of automated teaching machines to go operational in the Air Force pilot training program. Good equipment, properly used by well-trained staff, and – perhaps most importantly – loaded with good instructional programs, can enhance learning.

With that said, I also believe that just loading up a school with lots of digital equipment and then rapidly grabbing ahold of a digital learning program can prove problematic.

A case in point seems to be surfacing now in the Boone County Public School District in Kentucky.

In “Facebook program at school causes controversy,” the Kentucky Enquirer points to a growing controversy in the Boone County system over a digital learning program called Summit Learning, which was originally developed in California. Summit is being supported online by Facebook.

For sure, Summit, at least in its Boone County incarnation, is controversial. The Enquirer says the squabble is “so fierce that at least two families have yanked their children from Boone County Schools and other parents are accusing the district of treating students like guinea pigs.”

The Enquirer continues, “There are questions about how classrooms should be structured, how students should be graded and how much homework they should get. And there are questions about privacy – who collects what data and how it is used.”

There have also been questions about implementation. For example, Summit is supposed to be a “Blended Learning” approach where students spend part of the day on computers but are also supposed to still get classical teacher led instruction, as well. However, determining exactly what the computer-to-classical-approach mix should be is a challenge even in well-ordered systems.

In my Air Force days there was still a large amount of instructor-to-student interaction after our instructional technology came along. Having observed some Summit classroom activity, my initial impression is that the Boone County model is more heavily weighted towards computer time. I don’t know if the Boone mix is right or not; I am not sure at this point that anyone else really knows, either.

Without question, parents have been speaking out about their concerns with Summit. Long before the new Enquirer article came out, it was public knowledge that parents were upset.

For example, parents took considerable time to criticize the Summit program – on the record – at the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Boone County Board of Education. Parent Jeremy Storm said his child was supposed to have teacher interaction, but it seemed like the child was only working with teachers about 10 minutes a week, at best. Myrna Eads echoed this 10-minute teacher contact comment concerning her child. She also said that, as of this November school board meeting, some students had already finished the entire year’s program with Summit and were now just playing video games.

Jeremy Storm also said teachers were not really aware of what was in the Summit program because the adoption wasn’t taken slowly. Stacie Storm, his wife, added to the concerns saying her school’s School Based Decision Making Council didn’t handle the Summit adoption correctly and said Summit is not fully aligned to the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Other parents were upset that no alternative to Summit was offered in some Boone County middle schools. That could be problematic for students who need more direct teacher contact.

Permission Slip Controversy

The Enquire article echoes comments I’ve heard about controversy over a permission slip parents are required to sign before their students can participate in the Summit Learning program. The Enquirer talked to parents and writes, “They said the permission slip for Summit was buried in a mountain of back-to-school paperwork, which was sent home with a threat: sign and return these, or your kid gets detention.” There was no opt-out option available on this permission form.

Parent coercion is just not acceptable.

Furthermore, there are concerns about sharing of private student data with Facebook/Summit, which may or may not prove to be a major problem.

I think more answers on Summit are coming. I am advised that complaints have been raised with the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which is the responsible agency to investigate claims regarding SBDM activities and some of the other issues parents have raised. The OEA is usually detailed and thorough in its investigations, so I don’t know how soon their findings will be made public.

However, multiple sources confirm that several parents were so upset that they have pulled their children completely out of the Boone County system. That, by itself, is a major attention grabber.

Terrible, low bang-for-the-buck education idea in Louisville

Do you think building and operating a really expensive mockup of a NASA space center and mission launch control in one of our schools is a great educational idea? Well, as the Courier-Journal reports today in “Challenger Learning Center ‘on hold’ by JCPS,” the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) did exactly that. Inevitably, this costly idea has now failed to successfully launch in what is a spectacular example of lousy bang-for-the-buck planning.

[Read more…]

Celebrating National School Choice Week: Digital Learning

NSCW Stacked Logo UnitThe Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank, joins with hundreds of groups nationwide to celebrate the fifth annual National School Choice Week (Jan. 25-31). Since its beginning more than 11 years ago, the Bluegrass Institute has been the leading voice to give Kentucky parents effective alternatives to ensure that each child receives a quality education. As part of National School Choice Week, the Bluegrass Institute will publish a series of blogs offering information on different types of school choice. This series will be one of 6,000 events nationwide taking place as part of this year’s National School Choice Week. 

Today, we offer this snapshot of digital learning, which offers great potential for:  

o   lowering education costs

o   tailoring instruction to specific students’ needs

o   closing achievement gaps

o   lifting high school graduation rates

o   lowering dropout rates

 

The Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning (BAVEL):

o   focuses on the students to provide a meaningful and challenging learning environment for all BAVEL students outside the walls of a traditional public school.

o   serves grades 6-12 from public, private and home schools

o   contains all levels of students – from gifted and talented children to at-risk kids

o   accredited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association

o   offers Dual Credit partnerships with Kentucky colleges and universities

o   accepts students from anywhere in the state

o   allows students to either take classes their traditional public school doesn’t offer, including Advanced Placement courses

o   allows students to achieve their degree entirely online

o   is flexible, allowing students to customize their schedules by registering for one or more courses from a menu of core content, AP, college dual credit or foreign languages courses

o   allows students to accelerate their learning

o   meet the diverse needs of the students and families it serves, regardless of where they live or their schedules

o   no buses to catch, no bells to follow, no after-school meetings for parents and no fundraisers to sell

o   no bullying, uniforms or lunchroom fees, only teachers and students.

o   certified master teachers who care about the students they serve.

o   many of BAVEL’s students were previously at risk of dropping out, but now attend and graduate from college

o   graduated 95 percent of its eligible students in one recent school year

o   its 11th-graders scored 19.0 on the ACT during a recent year – much higher than the state’s average among at-risk students.

 

More about BAVEL here and here.

Online learning could address main discrepancies in American education – the disparate access to high-quality teachers and instruction caused by socioeconomic and geographic differences. A child’s chances of attending a school with high-quality teachers largely depend on where she lives, which is shaped by her parents’ financial means. Online learning could give all students, regardless of where they live, access to the best instructors.” –Dan Lips, The Heritage Foundation

Digital learning overcomes medical limitation

A great example of how digital learning is opening new worlds for people with medical challenges showed up today in the Kentucky Forward news clips service.

NKU professor Rebecca Bailey found herself at a crossroads several years ago. Her medical challenges took her out of her classroom at the university, and she wasn’t sure if she would even be able to teach again. Enter NKU’s Center for Innovation and Technology In Education, and Professor Bailey was up and running, teaching classes from home while she was on the recovery trail.

It’s a great example of how digital learning can open up new opportunities.

I was struck, however, by a comment from Professor Bailey that mirrors my own observations from more than 40 years ago. That is when I was writing instructional program units for the first generation of automated teaching machines ever used in the Unites States Air Force’s pilot training program. As Professor Bailey puts it:

“I learned you just can’t use face-to-face teaching and put it online. It’s similar, but they’re not the same. You have to rethink it and retool it.”

That is exactly right. And, this is why every great classroom teacher might not make a good developer for digital learning programs. Extra skills are required, including special understanding of the restrictions an educator faces when instant student feedback is not available. A digitally-based instructor has to know common student misconceptions and work hard to insure the digital learning program is unlikely to create or continue those errors of understanding.

Not everyone can do digital instruction well, but when you put the right tools and people together, digital learning can really improve opportunities for learning, and that can be true for the teacher as well as the student.

Report: Kentucky education technology system has technical problems

A news report from the Times-Tribune in Corbin, “W’burg school board approves new tax rate” discusses more than local tax data.

According to a presentation at recent Williamsburg Independent Schools Board of Education meeting, the Kentucky Department of Education is experiencing significant problems with its “Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System,” or CIITS. Statewide problems center on data loss somewhere up in the Internet “Cloud.” Local school staff members spend time inputting unidentified data and it then disappears.

As a consequence, CIITS, which is supposed to help all Kentucky teachers improve instruction with easy access to education standards and videos showing ways to effectively teach them, has uneven teacher participation. Statewide, only 25,000 of the 45,000 teachers in Kentucky are using CIITS, and in the Williamsburg system only 8 of the 28 teachers are using this program.

I don’t know what data is getting lost (could this be about individual students or sensitive data on individual teachers?), but the relatively low participation rate and apparent growing dissatisfaction indicates something needs to change with what needs to be a solid and reliable instructional support program that does not leak data.

New Haven School facilitates parent involvement in a most unusual and noteworthy way

We hear a lot of back and forth complaints about parents not getting involved in their children’s schools and about schools not helping parents to stay involved. Well, that doesn’t seem to apply to New Haven School, an elementary in Nelson County.

Thanks to some clever use of digital communications, the father of one Kindergartener in Nelson is keeping right up to speed with what his daughter is doing, even getting “refrigerator art” as soon as it’s created.

The really unusual thing about this school-parent cooperation is the parent, Carl Turner, cannot be physically present at the school. The Kentucky Standard reports Turner is overseas in Kuwait helping provide security for US Department of Defense efforts there.

But, that isn’t stopping Turner from keeping in close contact with his daughter and also providing a unique enrichment opportunity for all the kids in her class as he explains about this very foreign, far off place where he works.

This is a great example of how schools are using digital technology to help keep in touch and improve the lives of students. Hats off to teacher Casey Mattingly for seizing an opportunity where others would have just declared a road block.

Taylor County Schools in the news again for keeping kids in school

Legalize School Choice We’ve talked before here and here about the remarkable programs in the Taylor County public schools that meet all their students’ needs, along the way producing perfect high school graduation rates.

Just like charter schools, Taylor County provides students with options to meet different needs and ambitions. In fact, Taylor County’s superintendent, Roger Cook, proudly announced to everyone’s surprise during a recent meeting of the Interim Joint Education Committee that he is operating an “illegal charter school” in his district as one of his various approaches to different student needs.

Now, it’s nice to see the major media starting to catch up to us with good news about Taylor County. Check out CN|2’s comments and videos about how Taylor County gets the job done for its students in many innovative and unique ways.

By the way, one of the two CN|2 videos explains using “flipped classrooms” as one of the effective ways Taylor County makes things more effective for students.

I am a huge fan of the digital learning based flipped learning approach. I was involved with the same approach more than four decades ago as the first program developer for the first generation of automated teaching machines ever used in the United States Air Force’s pilot training program. Flipped learning worked great for our nation’s future aviators, and now in places like Taylor County it is starting to work for our K to 12 students, too (BTW, I have been looking for anyone in Kentucky with a longer experience with flipped learning than I have. So far, no takers).