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).

No surprise to us: Eminence Independent Schools’ FIRE is spreading

The Eminence Independent School District is one of our four “Diamond in the Rough” school districts in our recent report “Bang for the Buck 2012” because it gets remarkably good academic performance despite relatively low funding and above state average student poverty.

Now, the word about Eminence’s progress and its dynamic superintendent, Buddy Berry, is finally getting around to education schools in the state.

Read about some of the exciting things happening for students in Eminence and why a lot more Kentucky educators need to catch Mr. Berry’s F.I.R.E., which is his “Framework of Innovation for Reinventing Education,” in this Murray Ledger post.

Beshear presses again to raise dropout age to 18

I don’t understand what part of “it isn’t working in other states” the governor does not understand, but it’s reported that Kentucky’s governor, Steve Beshear, is again going to propose legislation to raise the minimum high school dropout age in the state to 18.

I researched the performance of Age 18 legislation in 14 states and Washington, DC that have had such a rule for a significant number of years.

This graph shows what I found.

In general, in most of these states with significant Age 18 experience, the trend in high school graduation rates has been worse than the overall national average trend.

I repeated this research again when the 2009 graduation rate data came out, and nothing really changed for these 15 education jurisdictions.

In other words, just raising the minimum age to drop out to 18 does not improve graduation rates. It just means kids drop out at an older age.

But, if we keep them in school longer, we will have to find classroom space for these kids, and there are a ton of them, a lot more than the state has ever wanted to officially admit. So, enacting Age 18 legislation could require new school construction at a time when the state budget is in crisis and many aging school buildings are on hold for repair or replacement.

We will also need more teachers, as well. They don’t come cheap, either.

The governor should know all of that, of course.

Now, if we really want to solve the dropout problem, we must find ways to reignite interest in kids who have become disheartened and turned off by our existing schools. Forcing them to stay inside the school walls is no way to do that.

Creating innovative charter schools could help, as it has done in places like Chicago, Boston and New York City.

Getting really creative with digital learning programs can help, too.

But, turning schools into Age 18 stalags is unlikely to do anything more than create problems like more super frustrated and angry teens. And, after what recently happened in Connecticut, creating frustrated and angry teens is the last thing Kentucky needs.

News Release: BIPPS joins new coalition to advance wireless access for all Kentuckians

FRANKFORT, Ky. – The Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free market think tank, has joined forces with Citizens for a Digital Future, a coalition of several prominent national and Kentucky organizations, to rid the commonwealth of obstacles that stand in the way of increasing availability of — and access to — broadband and digital technologies.

“The potential for wireless and broadband is unlimited in our state, but the Legislature must get out the bush hog and begin to clear out the underbrush of antiquated, outdated regulations that keep telecom companies from increasing their investment in the infrastructure needed to increase wireless coverage in Kentucky,” said Jim Waters, interim president of the Bluegrass Institute.

Waters spoke at a recent teleconference launching the Kentucky chapter of Citizens for a Digital Future.

Joining Waters was Bryan Sunderland, vice president of public affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, who emphasized that increasing access to broadband will help pave the commonwealth’s road to prosperity.

“With seven states along our border and technology making it increasingly easy for businesses to locate anywhere, it is essential that Kentucky maintain a competitive edge in the race for jobs and economic growth,” Sunderland said. “Availability of broadband plays an important role in supporting and fostering job growth.”

Others who participated in the tele-conference launch included CDF chairman John Watson, Gary Gerdemann, executive director of CDF-Kentucky, and Hance Haney, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a national public policy think tank.

Expanding — and improving — Kentucky’s tele-communications infrastructure will also play a critical role in our future education policy, Waters said.

“Technology — especially that which utilizes broadband tools like tablets and iPads — already plays a primary role in preparing our students for the challenges of the 21st century workplace,” Waters said.

A recent report by the institute, “Digital Learning Now: Obstacles to Implementation in Kentucky,” calls upon legislators and education leaders to increase students’ access to more virtual and blended-learning class tracks.

For more information, please contact Jim Waters at 270-782-2140