MOOC mania may be slowing

MOOC mania may be slowing. Even boosters of massive open online courses wonder if they’re just a fad. So far, few MOOC students are applying for college credit, in part because many already have earned degrees.

How will technology change higher education? Instead of listening to lectures, students could learn in personalized online environments.

Teachers vs. bad research, evidence-free fads

Tom Bennett’s new book, Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims, and What You Can Do about It, is the work of “one pissed off teacher,” writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

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Bennett, who’s taught in Britain for 10 years, feels cheated of the time he’s spent in training sessions urged to adopt some “evidence-free theory” and cheated of respect as “researchers with no classroom experience presume to tell him his job, and blame him (or his students) if their magic beans don’t grow a beanstalk.” Researchers are actively getting in his way, to the extent “their cockamamie ideas infect districts and schools,” Bennett believes.

Social sciences aspire to the precision of the “hard” sciences but are just “walking around in mother’s heels and pearls,” he charges.

His advice: “Researchers need to take a good long look in the mirror; media outlets need to be less gullible and  teachers should appear to comply with the district’s latest lunacy, but once the door closes stick to the basics.”

Willingham writes:

This section offers a merciless, overdue, and often funny skewering of speculative ideas in education: multiple intelligences, Brain Gym, group work, emotional intelligence, 21st century skills, technology in education, learning styles, learning through games. Bennett has a unerring eye for the two key problems in these fads: in some cases, the proposed “solutions” are pure theory, sprouting from bad (or absent) science (eg., learning styles, Brain Gym); others are perfectly sensible ideas transmogrified into terrible practice when people become too dogmatic about their application  (group learning, technology).

In addition, schools of education should raise their standards for education research, writes Willingham.

Another new book, The Anti-education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning by Arizona State Professor James Paul Gee is disappointing, writes Willingham. “There is very little solid advice here about how to change education.”

New technology, same old teaching

Schools aren’t getting much bang for millions of technology bucks, concludes the Center for American Progress. Education leaders buy the latest technology — whiteboards, laptops, e-readers — without thinking through how digital devices will help meet learning goals.

Across the nation, we found that many schools were using technology in the same way that they have always used technology; students are using drill and practice programs to hone basic skills. Students are passively watching videos and DVDs. Too many students do not have access to hands-on science projects.

. . . schools are not using technology to do things differently.

Technology may be widening the digital divide, the report warns. In many schools, “students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being given the least engaging, least promising technology-facilitated learning opportunities.”

School leaders lack “the tools and incentives needed to connect spending to outcomes and reorganize programs in ways that take full advantage of school technology,” the report finds. No state is looking at technology return on investment.

 As policymakers and other stakeholders invest billions of dollars in school technology each year, we should be asking ourselves: Are these investments the best use of our limited dollars? Is technology allowing us to do things that we do not—or cannot—already do? How are we ensuring that students have the skills that they need to succeed?

In some cases, technology is improving learning and widening access to courses, CAP concludes. Technology has the potential to “kickstart the process of leveraging new reforms and learning strategies.” But, so far, it’s usually an add-on to the same old, same old.

President Obama’s ConnectED proposal would revamp the federal E-rate program to fund high-speed Internet access at 99 percent of schools within five years.

The Leading Education by Advancing Digital, or LEAD, commission has released a plan to expand digital learning, reports Education Week. Updating school wiring to support high-speed Internet is #1. In addition, LEAD recommends putting digital devices in the hands of all students by 2020, accelerating the adoption of digital curricula, investing in technology-rich schools of innovation and giving teachers training and support to use technology effectively.

Technology aids disabled students

Technology is helping high school students with learning disabilities take “middle college” courses.

The promise of iPads for special ed

Technology can free special education students from worksheets, writes Anya Kamenetz in The promise of iPads for special ed on the Hechinger Report.

When Neil Virani walked into his middle school special education classroom at Mulholland Middle School, part of the LA Unified School district, three years ago, he encountered a roomful of students with a range of cognitive, emotional and physical challenges. But the most toxic problem they had to combat was the low expectations from the school system they’d been in since kindergarten. “All they had was coloring books and watercolors. They were not working on any academic aspects of the curriculum,” he says. “When I saw a [previous] teacher had written of  a student, “they don’t require ELA writing instruction because they’re never going to manipulate a writing device,’ I said, before I met him, this kid is going to write.”

Today, not only are most of his students reading and discussing stories, producing sophisticated written essays, and scoring proficient in math, they are drawing mind maps to organize their thoughts, building catapults in class to demonstrate physics principles learned from the game Angry Birds, and shooting and editing video documentaries of their experiences, which they storyboard in advance with cartoons.

The iPad and its wide range of apps has enabled students to meet the “highest possible realistic expectations,”  the teacher says.

A student who has control over only one finger was unable to write with a $15,000 assistive technology chair. One involuntary movement would erase what he’d typed. After an hour with a $500 iPad, he wrote his name for the first time.

The iPad has changed his students’ thinking, says Virani. “They believe in themselves; they can do what anyone else can do.”

Tech-distracted students study — for 2 minutes

Asked to “study something important,” students stayed on task for two minutes before they “began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feed,” reports a study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. The middle, high school and college students spent only 65 percent of the 15-minute observation period doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Media multitasking while learning means less learning, writes Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

. . .  evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a 2010 survey, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium.

College students are used to texting, emailing and surfing the web in class. Eighty percent of college students admit to texting in class.

Young people think they can do two challenging tasks at once, but they’re “deluded,” says David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor. “Listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

He adds,“There’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

New frontiers for charters in 2013

Innovation is the theme of the 2013 Hopes, Fears & Reality report by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. Are charter leads fully using their autonomy to experiment with new ways to teach? asks Robin Lake.

It includes:

Charters Branch Out: Do Moves Into Affluent Areas Signal an Important Trend? Jeffrey Henig of Columbia University explores the issues around the growth of charter schools in suburban and affluent neighborhoods.

Incubate For America? Ethan Gray of the CEE-Trust examines a new breed of organizations—charter school incubators—emerging in cities across the U.S., bringing some private-sector strategies to the charter school start-up scene.

Tech-Based Learning: The New Frontier for Charters? Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute writes about charter schools in California that have innovated through technology and asks what it will take for more to follow nationwide.

To Survive, Charters Cannot Ignore the Bottom Line.Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University urges the charter sector to get innovative about designing a more sustainable cost structure.

Teaching grit

Educators are focusing more on perspiration than inspiration these days, looking for ways to teach determination, resilience and grit.

Can technology teach grit? asks Anya Kamenetz. A new U.S.Department of Education report touts the potential of new technologies to provide optimal challenge (not too easy or hard), “promote academic mindsets, teach learning strategies, promote the development of effortful control, and provide motivating environments.”

Some of these tech tools and applications attempt to teach strategies like mindfulness (including meditation), metacognition (knowing about knowing), and growth mindset (the belief that one can change one’s own abilities by working harder.)

Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth believes grit is “more essential to academic achievement” than intelligence, writes Kamenetz.

. . . while teaching 7th-grade math . . . she noticed that some of her strongest performers weren’t necessarily the smartest kids, and some of the smartest kids weren’t necessarily doing that well.

“I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn, if they worked hard and long enough,” she said. “ I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational and psychological perspective.”

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher told my parents I wasn’t quick in learning math, but I sunk my teeth in like a “bulldog” and held on till I got it. I scored a gritty 4.5 on Duckworth’s eight-question grit quiz.

Superfun sameness

In a New York Times op-ed, editor Pamela Paul points out a “farcical reversal” of our concepts of work and play: “schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach.” Video games in particular have reversed (or mixed up) these roles; schools are making increasing use of video game technology in the classroom, while many recreational video games come packaged with a purported educational purpose. This ends up compromising both study and play:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

I agree with Paul but would call this “superfun sameness” instead. Study and play have become more and more alike–especially when “driven” by computer games. What’s more: they are alike in a disturbing way: hyped up, cloyingly interactive, and oh, so much fun. The result: students lose tolerance for things that seem slightly boring at first.

This happens on many fronts (not only with video games). Students get the message that their studies are supposed to be immediately gratifying and tailored to them. I often hear students (not at my school specifically, but in many places) complain that this or that book isn’t “relevant” to their lives and that they don’t enjoy it. What they’re really saying is that they haven’t learned to exercise patience and stretch the imagination.

I haven’t tried this experiment, nor do I plan to do so, but I’m willing to bet on the outcome: Give a high school class a unit on Hamlet. One group gets just the book (and a few video clips of performances); the other gets an interactive Hamlet video game, where they get to take photos of their friends and dress them up as the characters, follow the ghost around the castle, reenact the final swordfight, etc. Each group is aware of the other. One week into the project, students are given a survey on their interest levels and their desire to remain in their current group. The survey is repeated at the completion of the unit and then a year later. I imagine the first survey would show many students wishing to switch from the book group to the video group (but not vice versa); the second survey would have a less pronounced result, and the final survey would show a preference for the book group.

In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.

In contrast with Paul (or seeming contrast), I see many instances where play could be educational (for instance, working with an electronics kit) and study could be fun (for instance, learning songs in Russian). The problem lies not in the overlap but in the homogeneity, the cutesiness, and the appeal to a lazy part of the mind and character.

Personalized learning with 48 students

In The Right Mix, Education Sector’s Susan Headden profiles a charter high school in Los Angeles that’s using blended learning to personalize instruction — despite having 48 students in a class. The Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology High School “combines online and traditional instruction and allows students to learn in three different ways,” she writes.

On this particular fall day, 16 students are getting traditional in-person instruction in Algebra I from teacher Wendy Chaves; roughly the same number are doing math problems online; and still others are gathered in clusters of four tutoring each other. No matter where they are in the rotation, they see the student-to-teacher ratio as what it effectively is—an ideal 16-to-1.

Students work at their own pace, Headden writes. “With the software taking up chores like grading math quizzes and flagging bad grammar, teachers are freed to do what they do best—guide, engage, and inspire.”

Tennenbaum’s BLAST model breaks the day into two-hour blocks with students spending 40 minutes at each station.

Students report to stations based on what regular pre-tests have shown they can do. The low performers go right to direct instruction with the teacher, the high performers start with the collaborative session, and those in the middle start with online work.

Let’s say the English lesson is about effective use of literary devices. Students might start with a teacher-led lesson on metaphor, personification and the like, followed by an online tutorial on the MY Access! writing program. They write a short essay, which the computer immediately scores for mechanics and grammar. If the student has too many mistakes, he takes another tutorial and writes the essay again. He sets himself a deadline (say, all clean by the third draft), and when he has met it, submits the piece to the teacher for feedback on meatier qualities like content and orga­nization. Finally, in the collaborative session, students critique each other’s work, making suggestions for improvement based on what they have learned from the teacher and online.

Students don’t move ahead until they show mastery. Online programs let students review a lesson until they understand it. The software analyzes keystrokes to collect data on each student’s learning.

Tennenbaum has excellent teachers, but mediocre software, says Principal Michelle Tubbs.  “There is no A-plus software out there,” Tubbs says. “Most of it is C-plus or below.”

Technology lets the school hire fewer teachers, but the savings are wiped out by technology costs. However, once the school reaches full enrollment, the technology is expected to pay for itself.

“When computer-assisted learning fails, it is usually because technology has been deployed as an add-on,” writes Headden. “BLAST shows that for technology to make a difference in student learning, it must be integral to instruction, and it must come with humans attached.”

Public Impact’s new Opportunity Culture Charter School Network hopes to use technology to enable excellent teachers to reach more students. Four new schools plan different approaches to creating an “opportunity culture” for teachers: Foundations College Prep (Chicago), Ingenuity Prep (Washington, D.C.), Touchstone Education (Newark) and Venture Academy (Minneapolis).