With all of the talk about online and blended learning and the U.S. Education Department’s focus on “individualized” (or “personalized”) learning in the Race to the Top-District competition, which is really a stalking horse for pushing more technology into our schools, you’re likely to see me writing more and more about this broad subject in the days to come.
How best to regulate digital learning is a question worthy of Newton.
Photo by mollyali.
But the truth is I’ve been a backbencher in the edtech-promotion business over the last several years for at least three reasons. The first is that I think systems (the combination of policy frameworks, collections of practices and habits, rules on governance, beliefs and biases manifested as day-to-day behaviors, etc.) are far more important than the stuff that gets put into systems, including technology and (dare I say it ?!) human capital. For example, I’ve written a book (a labor of love to be released October 16!) about creating a new urban system of schools, and it is virtually devoid of tech talk.
Second, I’ve been working in government for the last two plus years, and I find that in these policymaking roles, with fires constantly raging and a surfeit
Online learning has plenty of boosters, from statehouses to edtech startups, but those advocates may find the public far from enthusiastic about the expansion of virtual education. Fordham’s latest report, How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education, details the findings of a nationally representative survey of the public, including that Americans remain deeply divided on the merits of online learning (something that previous research has also shown).
Blended learning, which combines online instruction with face-to-face instruction, split respondents: Forty-two percent favored the expansion of the model while 46 percent said that schools should stay away from blended classes. The public was also skeptical of virtual schools, where students take some or all of their classes online and have an online teacher. Only 21 percent described such schools as a “good idea,” while 32 percent labeled them a “bad idea.” Forty percent of those surveyed thought virtual schools were a “good option, but only for students who have difficulty in traditional schools.” Perhaps surprisingly, parents who had experience with virtual schools were not more supportive of them than the general public: Only about a fifth of both groups supported the model.
Whether Americans’ mistrust of the model will fade as online learning becomes more commonplace is uncertain. For now, though, public opinion may be a significant obstacle to a “digital revolution” in K-12 education.
Famed business-school thinker Clayton Christensen was splendidly profiled in The New Yorker a few weeks back, which set me to reflecting on his influential meditation on K-12 education, Disrupting Class, the 2008 book (co-authored with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson) that startled the edu-cracy with its bold prediction that half of all high school courses will be delivered online by 2019 and its explanation that technology will produce the “disruptive innovation” in education that previous reform efforts have failed to bring about. As I read the profile, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the more disruptive force in education is lower-tech and already more widespread than Christensen himself realized.
Disruptive innovation drove out of business organizations in the steel industry that didn't adapt.
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“Disruptive innovation” is his seminal insight, perhaps better summarized in Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile than in the education book itself. “How was it,” he started wondering, “that big, rich companies, admired and emulated by everyone, could one year be at the peak of their power and, just a few years later, be struggling in the middle of the pack or just plain gone?”
He figured it out by closely observing the steel industry. The huge American steel firms (U.S. Steel, Bethlehem, etc.) were challenged
Not so long ago, I doubted that computers, cell phones, and the internet would make any more difference in American education than television had. Ringing in my ears was a comment by the late Ralph Tyler that the sole technological advance in a century that had really affected classrooms was the overhead projector because, he wisecracked, it was “the only one that the teacher could use while still keeping an eye on her students.”
Education technology is finally moving past the overhead projector.
Photo by Marc Wathieu.
Computers, I figured, would continue to be useful to scientists and engineers and others with complex calculations to make. Cell phones would function like traditional telephones, only portable. The internet (whether or not Al Gore had anything to do with it) was for emailing and such. And “information technology” was sort of like engineering, a field for wonky college students wanting to write computer code. K-12 education might benefit marginally from bits of all this but mainly would sail on like a clipper ship of yore, powered by the same winds that had always propelled it.
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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