Friday, August 19, 2011

Education in the Digital Age

By Jo Joyce

Restore Oklahoma Public Education

After spending nearly five hours listening to propaganda promoting policy changes and proponents of post-modern professional pedagogy, I’m pooped. An older woman summed it up best when she asked the panel at the end: If digital education is so great, why did all of you (presenters) have to come here in person rather than have a Skype conference? Amen, Sister.

Friday, July 29th, 2011, I attended the conference, “Education in the Digital Age (McGuigan) sponsored by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). The following is a short synopsis of this venerable event which served to only create more questions for me than it proposed.

General Lee Baxter (Ret.) opened the conference with the goal of “broadening public thinking.”

Michael Horn of Innosight Institute (InnoSight Institute), who wrote the book, Disrupting Class; How Disruptive Innovation Will Change The Way the World Learns (Johnson) spoke on “disrupting innovation,” a theory that whatever is currently provided (service/product) will eventually be replaced by innovation/discovery. He gave several examples in the shopping industry, car industry, and military industry. Education is lagging behind, although higher education has been “disrupted” by community colleges and on-line colleges like Phoenix.

Horn cites several examples of current uses of digital: to assist a “graduate” with that last class, to offer AP to areas that do not provide it, and when it is “a necessity” i.e. homeschool and homebound. He foresees a greater need in our current budget crisis.

He insists innovation will happen, but he does ask the question, “Is it a good thing?” He sees the positive as a cheaper version of customized education plan (CEP), with something much more exciting than Phoenix’s original “power points,” including video games. He knows teachers will resist for fear of being replaced, but said instead they will have to change from “sage on the stage” to a monitor—which he feels is liberating. He is also aware many schools will not be ready for this, especially the funding.

Andrew Coulson (Andrew Coulson) of CATO Institute quoted statistics on the use of Khan Academy (Khan Academy) which in his opinion confirms the need for digital learning. He questions why education is not “market progressive” when it employs six million people and has a budget of $600 billion a year. He sees engineers as innovators who implement policies from their successes, even though he admits unions do not like competition. He cited other countries that allow competition in education, especially Japan, Sweden, and Britain. He is sure if education were treated as a free enterprise we will see plummeting prices, although we will also face legal and regulatory threats, as well as a demand for universality.

Coulson quoted Thomas Jefferson, “It is tyranny to compel people to disseminate what is objectionable,” knowing we cannot have state funding (or subsidizing) for morally objectionable ideas. Tax credits would avoid this (as opposed to scholarships).

He had a very interesting slide presentation that showed that the more regulations a state had for education, the more “blue” or Democrat the politics of that state were. It also showed that more vouchers/school choice legislation had passed in red states.

J. Rufus Fears (J. Rufus Fears) is a professor at OU. He said that to reform education is the most difficult challenge in the world and is abhorrent to many. He believes when technology takes the lead, then learning can transform, but, he asked, in what direction? He also asked if technology is the greatest tool for freedom, or its cheap cousin.

He thinks languages can be taught more efficiently and better with Rosetta Stone, especially if the teacher has a poor accent. He also states that education, especially higher ed, is an economic enterprise. Dr. Fears pointed out that the regional and state universities provide financial support for small towns, and if they closed the campus, it would result in massive unemployment. He also sees Digital Learning bringing about a loss of the Socratic method of learning, where there are questions asked and ideas freely exchanged.

Dan Lips wrote the paper “Education in the Digital Age: Policy Reforms to Improve Learning Options in Oklahoma(Lips) (Some of the below questions refer to this document.) He admitted to being a pessimist and sees Digital Education as the glass waiting to spill. He sees strong opposition from the unions and special interests. He also sees in ten years there will be incredible change and progress. Current trends show a decline in support of unions and blue state politics, and a legislature willing to stand up to unions. It has become obvious to the public and politicians that the kids are not the focus - the money is.

A new trend of the left supports school choice. Mr. Lips hopes it continues and creates the possibility of Oklahoma being the next state to lead the country in quality education. The many examples of digital education in states like Florida and Utah making progress encourages Mr. Lips. The obvious advantages of free online learning for universities would help all learners.

After taking copious notes from the often long-winded, technologically excited “salesmen and women,” I’m not sold. In fact, after reading Mr. Lip’s paper, I have many more questions than answers about the trend toward digital education.

Questions About Money

  1. Is the sole purpose of pushing digital education to the masses for the benefit of profits to the computer industry? (There are special circumstances where digital can and is being used.)
  2. Are there “power” proponents that are pushing for this “progress” and if so, who and why?
  3. Will competitive bids for contracts be used for all the services/purchases? This will be an on-going job requiring many more employees, not less.
  4. Will teachers be involved in choosing the hardware/software, or will they get it assigned to them by “buyers” in the education department? Will this take a lot of teacher time away from “teaching?”
  5. Coulson said free enterprise brings about innovation and will do so in the education industry as well. This can be good, but when the various book publishers buy out the smaller “competition” they form monopolies eventually, and then there is no competition. Big states, with their own political agendas, have undue influence on textbooks. Like any other industry, the market becomes full of lobbyists and then the only talk about “success” is the profits the companies make—not the number of graduates or what they learned (improved scores?) or successful careers.
  6. Page 12 of Lips’ “Digital Age” – “State-funded ESAs (education savings account) would offer some significant improvements over traditional student-centered education initiatives like pubic school choice and scholarships or education tax credits…spurring innovation among education service providers, including virtual and online learning programs.” But what regulations would they create that would place limits and restrictions on our education?
    1. I bet the internet providers are drooling.
    2. I bet the software salesmen are drooling.
    3. I bet the hardware salesmen are drooling.
    4. I bet the electricity companies are drooling (with rates that will “necessarily skyrocket”).
  7. Currently many states play the blame game with unionized teachers; will this reduce the number of teachers and will this be a problem with the unions? Or will there be more unionized technical employees to replace them? Is digital really cheaper or more effective than “live” teachers?

Questions About Education Theory

  1. Will it not be easier to “indoctrinate” children with a facts-only instruction method, rather than a presenter/discussion method?
  2. In a classroom setting children can immediately raise their hand when questions arise. In a digital setting they may not have a chance to ask questions, or at least they will be delayed until the session is over. Again, a chance for indoctrination, and also confusion and frustration.
  3. The presenters promised a “customized” learning where each family can choose which school, which program works best for his child. This would entail a lot of time with parents investigating the options and meeting the facilitators and sampling programs before making a decision. I can see this being difficult for the average family, and for some it would be an extreme hardship (single parents, for example).
  4. Supposedly working at his own pace, a student could graduate early. Is this always an advantage? Is the child obtaining knowledge and learning how to think for himself; or is he accumulating facts and learning how to follow instructions?
  5. Presenters said digital learning initiatives should be funded only if successful. Would this not lead to shoving off students who have difficulties to other schools or systems to avoid “failures?” Similar to the desperate cheating in Atlanta most likely due, in part, to NCLB’s model of perfection. If we base funding on success, then who wants to accept potential failures?
  6. Teacher’s colleges will have to drastically change their training methods to make teachers more “facilitators” of data, managers of systems, experts at computer repairs (because realistically who can wait on a tech to show up when there will never be enough to go around, and time will be even more valuable.)
  7. Andrew Coulson talked about Khan Academy and (Kumon) after-school tutoring program, and how they are a necessary outcome of a real need. Yes they are a necessity because parents don’t take the time to help their children, many families have two career parents, and since teachers know Kumon and Khan are out there to help, they don’t have to do anything but refer the parents to the “necessary” step.
  8. One suggestion (p. 10 “Digital Learning”) was to “flip” traditional lecture with the digital lesson, so that the lesson is watched at home, and the teacher has “help” time in class. If the kid doesn’t get it at all at home, won’t he return frustrated and the teacher would have to “instruct” any way? I do not see this as an advantage.
  9. Who buys another computer when the kids drop it, lose it, barf on it, step on it, or someone steals it? And who pays for the “Carbonite” back-up system so when they “lose” their homework, it can be recovered from the system?
  10. In the spirit of “green” and saving trees, will we stop at one laptop, or should we have one for the classroom, one on the bus, and one at home. Maybe the students also should have a Kindle, an I-pod, a cell phone—all with internet access and unlimited texting in case they have to text their teacher, if they have a teacher.
  11. Will the free computers, software, internet, repair service, and tech support be paid for by the school system, welfare, homeland security, or a school car wash?
  12. Page 12 (“Digital Learning”) – “Oklahoma policymakers should consider new strategies to provide families with the flexibility to give their children quality in changing the landscape of K-12 education.” Shouldn’t we already be doing everything we can to provide the best education possible for our children, at home, at school, and at policy level?
  13. Coulson offered examples of “choices” in education in Chile, Sweden, England and Japan. Aren’t all of those countries further down the road to serfdom than we are? What they offer is not nearly as important as the overall outcome or lifestyle improvements these “choices” offer.
  14. Coulson really pushed for vouchers or scholarships; however, he did not mention what was in their “Digital…” report concerning the “Blaine Amendment.” This is a law Oklahoma (and 36 other states) passed in the latter half of the 19th century to prevent any state funds going to any religious institution. According to some law groups and think tanks, this would specifically apply to school vouchers if they were to use them at private religious schools.
  15. Bottom of page 4 (“Digital Learning”), stating benefits for teachers as “a more flexible and potentially rewarding career.” Most teachers are in the business because they love children and I fail to see how seeing less of them, but having to work with computer technology, can fulfill teachers’ needs.
  16. Top of page 5 states (“Digital Learning”) “…reduce the number of teachers who are needed, and pay remaining teachers, presumably the most effective ones, significantly more than they otherwise could…” as well as purports to attract highly talented ones because of the flexibility or higher pay. If this is to save money overall, I think that is completely false given the extra tech people required. I also fail to see how teachers will be happier or more satisfied when their creativity will not be needed unless opening packages of software and installing it is satisfying.
  17. Bottom of page 5 (“Digital Learning”) pushes Florida’s Virtual School (FLVS) as a model for Oklahoma to follow. Their motto is “any time, any place, any path, any pace.” Perhaps they mean this as something good, but I think “any pace” could mean as slow as Christmas (Oops, I mean as slow as Winter Break…). If everyone is working at a different pace, how could they possibly do group projects, which the presenters said would still be a part of the socializing in a brick and mortar school.
  18. Bottom of page 10 (“Digital Learning”) suggests that opening Oklahoma’s higher education to “free” on-line learning would “enable motivated students to pursue self-instruction opportunities…like AP…and CLEP.” Don’t the students who are motivated already pursue opportunities?
  19. Would digital learning eventually discontinue the degree programs, fire the faculty, enroll few students, buy no paper books, close facilities, and consolidate disciplines into compact units of learning? All colleges would look like University of Phoenix, a for-profit entity? A McEducation? At least Phoenix requires their students to provide their own computers and modem.

Questions About Education Technology

  1. Technology always has glitches—there will be frustration when technology fails, especially during tests or at times when there is no one around to fix it.
  2. It is supposed to make it easier to move from school to school, but what if different states have different requirements, different programs, or do not allow it at all? Consistency would be paramount for the advantage to exist. Kids have moved from state to state and it does not harm them academically—it exposes them to variety. It could work either way—if they hate their classes in one location, they could improve in the next. If they love their classes, they might be disappointed in the new location. That’s life.
  3. Why are current on-line academies (Oklahoma Virtual School) (Oklahoma Virtual Academy) only accepting students if they sign on for the entire program rather than accept students for only a few classes (stated by the presenters as “a la carte” or blended learning)?
  4. If we can’t fix or manage consistent education with the current constraints and federal/state/local requirements and regulations, why would we think this could improve things? It will make education much more complicated to “manage.”

Questions About the Children

  1. Will this method of teaching actually teach children to THINK, or just how to operate their equipment, and perhaps memorize some of the lessons if they are interesting enough?
  2. Teachers currently are specially trained to be around children. Will it potentially endanger the health and welfare for children to be around so many technical people who are not trained to be around children?
  3. I bet the kids will smile when the system fails, just like they do when a fire drill occurs during an exam. What then? Dust off real books?

Final Question – The Bottom Line:

Is the bottom line improved education (haven’t seen that in 50 years) or is the bottom line how much the local/state/federal governments can save, another way government can distribute the spoils to their cronies, or how much the private businesses that implement the digital plan can profit?

OCPA’s conclusion: …initial empirical evidence suggests that learning online is an effective medium for instruction that, importantly, can be delivered at a lower cost than traditional schooling.”

I do not buy into this at all. I have four children, all in a home school setting, and we seem to have at least one computer or printer that is giving us trouble at any given time, or we need to update something, or the internet is down or frozen. I can only imagine the nightmares involved with maintaining and updating hundreds or thousands of computers, much less the inventory control system.

My conclusion: all the newfangled ideas can bring education to different people in different ways, but it cannot transmit love, or touch, or that special twinkle of the eye, or hugs or gift of freshly picked flowers or all the other intimate moments a teacher-student relation brings. Facebook allows us to see a person’s thoughts instantly from what they miss to what they are tasting, seeing and feeling—more intimate than many people are willing to share, but they cannot send that feeling of touch, and the sympathy tears bring, or the ability to wrap one’s arms around a friend or loved one, and no amount of technology will ever be able to replicate that.

As Dr. Fears mentioned, Socrates established his tradition of inquiry by asking questions and discussing ideas. Today’s teachers still do this because it works, it is enjoyable, and it teaches children to think and formulate ideas by sharing ideas, while being respectful even when they disagree.

Despite all the fabulous new ‘reforms’ imbued into the public education system since 1965 with their excessive rules and regulations, overly ergonomic environment, expensive equipment, flashy textbooks, “green” buildings and buses, healthy school meals – none of it has resulted in actually improving educational outcomes. Teachers who see children day to day know when something is bothering a child and are able to cut them a little slack. When they look upset or angry a teacher can take the time to see if they need a little extra help. Human capacity for caring will benefit children far more than the gadgets that line the pocket protector of someone who doesn’t care about much more than the joys of technology.

Electronic devices may speed up learning for some kids, but the cutting edge of every society’s technological advancements will have little effect on furthering society if children aren’t also ‘learning’ to become stable, mature, reasoned transmitters of knowledge to future generations.

While electronic devices can add to, or even supplement, the human mind, they cannot replace the humanity of the educational process. I don’t think Socrates would approve of a totally Digital Education, and neither do I.


***For a file that includes Bibliography and further resources for study, click here.