For both classroom and computer learning, content matters

The
charter-school movement lost much of its first decade to faulty educational
designs. Will digital learning follow that precedent?

The
charter-school movement lost much of its first decade to faulty educational
designs. Will digital learning follow that precedent?

With
the passage of the first charter laws in the early nineties, hundreds of school
entrepreneurs rushed to open schools fashioned on the usual progressive
pedagogies. Many focused on creativity and collaboration, often to the
detriment of core subject knowledge. These new schools, their founders effused,
would be child-centric and engage the whole community. Students would learn
“authentically” and would “discover” the knowledge that “they need.” Teachers
would act as “facilitators.” Never mind that there was scant evidence that this
sort of thing worked, especially for
children in poverty
.

After
the doors of these new charters opened came a long and painful reckoning.
Mismanagement and poor execution were widespread, and the pedagogical choices,
so compelling on paper, often proved heartbreaking in practice. In too many
schools, classrooms were unruly, learning activities chaotic, and test scores
an embarrassment. At many, parents pulled their children; founders were pushed
out. To stay in business, boards of trustees drove a wrenching process of
remaking the schools around proven practices.

A
decade into the charter movement, as states and the federal government ramped
up their results-based accountability policies across public education, charter
advocates strained to find evidence of the outsized educational effects they
had so confidently promised. Yet the damage was done. Policymakers began to
lose faith in the promise of charters as a tool of school reform. The fault, however, lay not with charter policy itself. After all, charter laws were a vehicle for creating strong schools, not
a guarantee. In large part, the problem was one of educational design.
(Only years later did “no
excuses” charter schools
marry the opportunities that this school model
provides with sound instructional designs.)

Today’s
reformers widely herald digital learning as the “disruptive innovation” that
will transform schooling. And well it might. But digital-learning entrepreneurs
risk squandering critical years on faulty designs, too. Their products have
rarely been rooted in education science or rigorously evaluated, and the
technologists and educators who design them seem especially susceptible to
education-school fads and prevailing
ideologies (as are the industry’s target consumers). Many vendors, for
instance, cater to students’ supposed “diverse learning styles,” although recent
research finds no empirical evidence
that students learn more when
curricula are customized accordingly. Among digital-learning providers,
progressive designs, where concepts are “discovered” through interactions with
artifacts or other students, rather than presented explicitly, are a must.
Didactic instruction is seen as hopelessly retrograde.

What
actually works? The U. S. Department of Education commissioned a systematic
review of the empirical research on online learning. This
2010 report
, which examined more than a thousand studies, categorized the
“learning approaches” of digital learning programs into three types: expository
learning (the didactic approach); independent or “active” learning (the student
“builds knowledge through inquiry-based manipulation of digital artifacts, via
online drills, simulations, games or microworlds”); and interactive learning
(the student “builds knowledge through inquiry-based collaborative interaction
with other learners; teachers become co-learners and act as facilitators”).
Buried in the report was the finding that the greatest achievement effects were
not from active learning (it fared worst) or interactivity but from the
unfashionable expository approaches.

But
science has never counted for much in education technology. The
evidence apparently didn’t give pause to the industry’s leading membership
organization, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).
Products only meet its latest
standards
when they “provide students
with multiple learning paths to master; the content is based on student needs.”
(Take that, E.D. Hirsch!) Digital
instruction must include activities that—sure enough—“engage students in
active learning.” To meet that standard, courses must include “meaningful and
authentic learning experiences” such as “collaborative learning, groups,
student-led review sessions, games, [and] analysis or reactions to videos….”
When it comes to testing students’ knowledge, developers must ensure that
“student-selected assessment options, enabling learners to demonstrate mastery
in different ways, are available.” To gauge student progress, “alternative
evaluation methods”—never defined—must be used to gauge student progress, and
only “authentic”—also undefined—assessments are used to demonstrate mastery.

By promoting standards that reflect such progressive
biases, iNACOL, an association working to advance the digital learning
movement, in fact imperils it. Digital-learning
entrepreneurs should resist such seductive pedagogical fads, and focus on what
is known to work: lucid, explicit, and engaging instruction in the liberal
curriculum.

But
would students tune out? On the contrary. The largest online learning site,
Khan Academy, offers 2,700 video lessons, structured and issued in an
expository manner, that students around the world have viewed more than 100
million times. Salman Khan, who recorded most of the lessons himself, presents
topics from addition to differential equations explicitly and with
extraordinary clarity. With simple tools—an electronic white board, his
recorded voice, and engaging assessments of student mastery—he helps educate
millions of students around the world.

Without
gimmicks, one could add.

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