School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the tag “digital learning”

Worth Checking Out . . .

Here’s what caught my attention this week in education news.

Online Remediation –Tamar Lewin and John Markoff of the New York Times report that in the California State University System “more than 50 percent of entering students cannot meet basic requirements” necessary for college entrance. Ellen N. Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Jose State University described it this way: “They graduate from high school, but they cannot pass our elementary math and English placement tests.”

To help remedy this crisis, Governor Jerry Brown and San Jose State took dramatic action this week, announcing an agreement to provide remedial and introductory courses through Udacity, the popular massive open online course (MOOC) provider.

In the pilot program, 300 students will have the option of taking online courses offered by Udacity in remedial algebra, college-level algebra and introductory statistics at a much lower cost ($150 for the 3-unit course offering). If the pilot is successful, it could be offered eventually to hundreds of thousands of students in the state.

Not everyone is happy with this development. Georgia Tech University professor Ian Bogost, cautions that outsourcing remediation instruction is the beginning of a slippery and ultimately dangerous descent into the privatization of public education.

Words of Wisdom – In A Wealth of Words, Core Knowledge Foundation founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues the best way to close America’s stubborn academic achievement gap is through vocabulary development. From Hirsch:

“[T]here’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Hirsch urges that U.S. schools adopt a domain-based curriculum focusing much more heavily on actual content and less on process and problem-solving. According to Hirsch, countries following this path show much stronger gains in verbal scores across various demographics:

“The domain-based approach to literacy—using a coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language—is the educational policy of the nations that achieve the best verbal results for both advantaged and disadvantaged students and narrow the gaps between them. ”

So Long, AP CreditThis week Dartmouth University announced it would no longer recognize high school Advanced Placement (AP) exams for college credit. NPR reports that starting in 2018, Dartmouth will use AP scores for placement in freshman classes, but not for credit. Critics claim high school AP courses in no way resemble college instruction, while proponents point to the cost savings realized when students can complete some introductory level courses prior to college entrance.

[Note: An incomplete version of this blog post entitled “629” was sent out earlier today. I apologize for this technical error.]

Beth T. Sigall

January 18, 2013


Cups, Computers and Calculus at Virginia Tech

Large plastic drinking cups have always played a pivotal role in college life, but up until now that role mostly involved the consumption of cheap keg beer. But the math department at Virginia Tech has developed an entirely new use for these cups – and for an abandoned department store – all in the name of providing better math instruction to more students at a lower cost.

It’s called the Math Emporium, and according to Daniel de Vise of The Washington Post, it’s a place where “computer is king” and math course pass rates are rising.

Faced with massive overcrowding in required freshman math courses such as pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, Virginia Tech University decided to try something new. They renovated an old department store for $2 million, converting it to 60,000 square feet of teaching space with 537 computers arranged in six-person clusters. According to De Vise, there are no professors in the classroom – just a “sea of computers,” red plastic cups and four roving instructors. Students work at their own pace using a mastery-based program; when they need human help students place a red (beverage-free) cup on top of their computer monitor. That cup signals a math instructor to provide in-person assistance.

De Vise writes that Math Emporium is open 24 hours a day, offering seven courses with 200 to 2,000 students enrolled. Instead of the traditional model of 100 or so instructors teaching hundreds of class sections, a staff of 12 rotates the lab and provides instructional help to any student who needs it. De Vise reports that the lab serves 5,000 students in the fall, and 3,000 in the spring. This frees up precious classroom space for other courses using the more traditional approach of instructor or professor-led instruction and discussion.

The results so far are promising. Virginia Tech is saving money. De Vise reports the model cuts per-student expenses by one-third, and pass rates for those introductory math courses are higher now than 15 years ago.

Since its creation in 1997, the Math Emporium model has popped up at the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, and Louisiana State University.

Peter Haskell, math department chair at Virginia Tech, recognizes the inevitability of this new chapter in higher education given the game-changing nature of computers and technology. Says Haskell:

How could computers not change mathematics? How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.

My Take: Virginia Tech’s approach is in keeping with its stated mission to “Invent the Future.” While many initially were skeptical, De Vise reports that students now seem happy with the quality of their instruction. It appears to be a good match for certain types of courses and subjects where mastery depends mostly on practice. I liked this analysis from the senior instructor who runs the Emporium, Terri Bourdon: “You don’t have to have the big staff we have. You just have to have the philosophy that we have, which is that you learn math by doing math.” While this model won’t work in other types of courses or subject areas, it resolves a pressing need for large universities faced with overcrowded math classes.

Beth T. Sigall

April 25, 2012

What If We Told Students the Truth?

In a previous post we kicked off a conversation about entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin’s new education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). Since that time, Stop Stealing Dreams has been shared, re-shared, spread and “sneezed” across the digital universe, with tens of thousands of viewings each day.

In Manifesto 25 Godin asks yet another uncomfortable question: ‘What if We Told Students the Truth?” Although Godin never quite defines what that “truth” is, he does explain the motivation for hiding it. That explanation mostly relies on Godin’s recurrent theme of public education remaining stuck in an Industrial Age framework, unable to serve the needs of today’s students, and (mostly) unwilling to do much about it. Godin argues that the system’s lack of transparency helps preserve the status quo (to the extent it can be preserved) because if students and parents really knew what was going on, they’d walk away from it, or worse. From Godin (emphasis is mine):

Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?

What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school?

Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system never acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa.

Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.

The very texture of the traditional school matches the organization and culture of the industrial economy. The bottom of the pyramid stores the students, with teachers (middle managers) following instructions from their bosses.

As in the traditional industrial organization, the folks at the bottom of the school are ignored, mistreated, and lied to. They are kept in the dark about anything outside of what they need to know to do their job (being a student), and put to work to satisfy the needs of the people in charge. Us and them.

But according to Godin, the Connection Economy is leading an education revolution, giving students the tools they need to find the answers relevant to their world. With or without the traditional public school system, students will make their mark and schools will be forced to adapt. Godin continues in Manifesto 25:

“The connection economy destroys the illusion of control. Students have the ability to find out which colleges are a good value, which courses make no sense, and how people in the real world are actually making a living. They have the ability to easily do outside research, even in fifth grade, and to discover that the teacher (or her textbook) is just plain wrong.

When students can take entire courses outside of the traditional school, how does the school prevent that? When passionate students can start their own political movements, profitable companies, or worthwhile community projects without the aegis of a school, how are obedience and fealty enforced?

It’s impossible to lie and manipulate when you have no power.”

My take: In my nearly ten years of writing, talking, advocating and thinking about what works in education, I’ve stressed time and again that the change we are all talking about in education will happen. It is inevitable. Why? Because with education reform there is a convergence of three major, disruptive influences: 1. Parents and students demanding excellence (without exception); 2. Parents and students seeking out any possible means to achieve this excellence and 3. An interconnected world that has exponentially enhanced both the number and quality of alternatives to the traditional K-12 education system. The result is a system where parents and students design their own plans based on their student’s unique needs. What Godin describes is an education universe (slowly) turning upside down. Instead of adjusting their world to the K-12 system, parents and students are crafting their own destinies from an entirely new menu of choices. The K-12 system must either adjust to the new paradigm of parents and students as co-equal partners or risk becoming irrelevant.

Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?)

Entrepreneur Seth Godin likes to “poke the box.” As a writer with degrees in computer science and philosophy, he is grounded in both technology and the liberal arts. Within this framework he implores us to reject preconceived notions of how the world works, and question every assumption we’ve ever held.

In his latest effort, Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?), Godin tackles my favorite subject, education. But this 30,000 word manifesto is far more intriguing than typical education policy conversations.

Godin describes it as “a series of provocations, ones that might resonate and that I hope will provoke conversation.” Because according to Godin, “one thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing [in education], we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting. Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.”

The e-book is divided into numbered “manifestos” that read more like individual blog posts. Through these polemics, Godin speaks of the epic failure that is our current education system. According to Godin, this failure by definition can never improve until we disrupt it to the point of radical transformation, because our system was designed for a society that no longer exists, and as such meets educational needs that are no longer relevant.

I’ll spend the next few blog posts sharing some of his more compelling and less-obvious manifestos (which I think makes me a “sneezer” in Godin’s view of the universe). Be warned. He does not tread lightly, and his view of the world can at times be deflating, but to the extent his message makes us ask hard questions it is ultimately serving a useful purpose (even when we disagree with him).

In Manifesto 3 “Back to the (wrong) School” Godin returns to the origins of compulsory public education, and how that system hasn’t really changed much since 1925.

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work—they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel prize–winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (doing things that could be done somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs, and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the U.S. economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some people argue that we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they’re told. Even if we could win that race, we’d lose. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you’re capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?”

My take: This manifesto forces us to ask a question that seems largely missing from today’s debates: what is the purpose of education? Because until we know the answer to that (and there probably isn’t a single answer) we’ll never figure out how to solve the problem. As Godin describes it, historically the aim of education was to train workers for Industrial Age factory jobs awaiting them at the end of high school. Clearly that isn’t the case anymore. In subsequent manifestos, Godin poses several possible “purposes” that our education system could serve, and ones that it absolutely should not serve.

Beth T. Sigall

February 28, 2012

The Udacity of Hope

Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who taught an online class in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that went viral, announced today he is leaving his tenured professorship at the university to start his own online university, Udacity, where courses will be taught for free to anyone in the world.

In kicking off his new virtual college, Thrun wasted no time with small ideas. His first course offering on building a search engine is described this way: “Learn programming in seven weeks. We’ll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo!” Given Thrun’s Google pedigree, this is a promise he should be able to handle.

As previously explored in this space, Thrun and his colleague, Peter Norvig, set out to experiment with online learning by offering their top-rated Stanford course on AI to anyone for free. Their aim was to give the rest of the world access to the same instructional quality and content as those taking the traditional brick-and-mortar Stanford course. To remain in the course, online participants had to successfully complete the rigorous weekly homework assignments.

Felix Salmon wrote about this major announcement in a blog post Udacity and the Future of Online Universities from the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich. At the conference, Thrun revealed some intriguing facts about his game-changing online learning course:

  • there were more students from Lithuania alone in the course than students at the physical Stanford class altogether.
  • the physical class at Stanford started with 200 students but shrunk to 30 students because, according to Salmon, “the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”
  • Of all students who took the course, only 248 scored perfect (meaning never missed a homework or exam question). All of them took the course online.
  • And according to a DLD press release, one student in Afghanistan described “risking his life” just to reach a hotspot so he could finish his assignment.

It’s unclear why Thrun chose to sever his relationship with Stanford. It’s a risk for Thrun – will as many people sign up for an online case without the world-class Stanford name attached? Was the competition between the online and brick-and-mortar Stanford students a necessary ingredient to the success of the initial AI course?

His stated goal is certainly a worthy one.

Maybe we should rethink education. If we can make education free and accessible for the world, we can achieve things we never thought possible.

According to Salmon, Thrun’s transition to online teaching was inspired by the Khan Academy model. The Khan model turns the traditional system on its head through its focus on mastery over grades. Khan Academy students can access lectures and materials as much as they need in order to master content. Thrun admitted that in his years as a traditional professor, the goal in part was to weed out students with hard coursework, mostly designed to make the professor look smart. But, with Udacity, Thrun intends to reach and teach as many students as possible.

Beth T. Sigall

January 23, 2012

Best of EduTech 2011

The end of the year inevitably brings out “best of” lists.  And continuing the trend of “Top 11 in 2011” is Michael Staton’s “11 Tech Factors That Changed Education in 2011.”  Staton’s company Inigral develops social software for student recruitment and higher education retention; it was named one of the top 10 innovative companies in education by Fast Company. Staton’s list picks trendsetters that are “quickly impacting how young people relate to and absorb education.”

I’m most intrigued by number 1 – the “Uncollege Movement.”  The “who really needs college” uprising gained steam this year when PayPal co-founder (and early Facebook investor) Peter Thiel announced the first winners of his “20 under 20” Thiel fellows.  From hundreds of applicants Thiel chose 24 entrepreneurs (he couldn’t narrow the field to 20) under the age of 20 to receive a $100,000 grant and access to a network of high-profile mentors so that, in two years, these budding entrepreneurs could turn their business hopes into reality, reports Jennifer Wang in Entrepreneur Magazine.  The only condition: Thiel Fellows cannot attend college while in the program. Why? Because Thiel believes entrepreneurship can’t be taught in a classroom, and that college with its commensurate mountains of student debt serve to hinder, not advance, young talent today. Hence the “Un-college Movement.”

So, if you aren’t Thiel Fellow, but traditional college doesn’t light your entrepreneurial fire, what do you do?  Writer Anya Kamenetz describes the way forward for “Uncollege” credentialing in her book The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential (is it too late rename my blog “Edupunks”?).  Kamenetz’s book offers a “comprehensive guide to learning online and charting a personalized path to an affordable credential.”  In assessing the impact of the “Uncollege Movement,” Staton wonders how soon (not whether) employers will accept un-collegians as readily as they do traditional graduates.

And my favorite trend is number 11 – “Schools are scaling, and so are professors.”  Staton recognizes how online university learning has the potential to democratize higher education by bringing name brand schools and degrees like the University of Southern California’s Masters in Teaching to a lap top near you (a huge development this year).  Readers of this blog will recognize the other trend – the scaling of instruction from world-renowned professors through popular online courses offered to anyone and everyone.  Stanford’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thru headlined this effort with their wildly popular online course in artificial intelligence.  “Now that the cost of distributing content is zero and the potential to reach anyone is limitless,” writes Staton, “all-star professors should be teaching every class.”

Beth T. Sigall

December 22, 2011

Report card time for states and online learning

The Foundation for Excellence in Education and Digital Learning Now! issued digital report cards this week. These report cards assess the effectiveness of each state’s online learning opportunities for K-12 students. States earned grades of “achieved,” “partial” or “not yet achieved” for each metric measured.

The grades reflected the extent to which states have adopted policies or practices aligned with these ten elements:

  • student access
  • barriers to student access
  • personalized learning
  • competency-based advancement
  • quality content
  • quality instruction
  • quality choices
  • assessment and accountability
  • funding
  • infrastructure

What grade did your state earn? Click here find out. You can also compare your state to the “ideal” digital learning state (as defined by Digital Learning Now!).


My take – The digital report cards provide of wealth of information about the state of play of online learning in each state, including citations to authorizing laws and regulations. Policy makers and others can learn much about the depth of online learning offerings across the U.S. (e.g., access for various grade levels, caps on enrollment, funding, etc.).

One metric used that didn’t quite make sense is this one:

“State law requires students to complete at least one online course to earn a high school diploma.”

Question – How does the requirement that students complete an online course to earn a diploma measure the effectiveness of a state’s online learning programs? Requiring online learning for graduation is a policy decision, not an objective measure of the quality of a state’s digital learning opportunities.

Upshot – The report card is still worth the click for those interested in what’s happening in the world of online learning at the state level.

Beth T. Sigall

December 15, 2011

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