Thank You #T509Massive!

I just wanted to take a quick moment to thank the teaching team and students in T509 this past semester.  I just submitted my reflection on my online participation this semester and feeling a little nostalgic about how much I learned from documenting my learning on this blog.  This was my first attempt at blogging, and it has been such a wonderful experience.  Looking at my WordPress statistics, my posts have gotten over 200 views since I started writing back in September which is way more than I ever expected.  I definitely felt very intimidated putting myself out there on this blog, but the support I have gotten via comments and in-person conversations have definitely pushed me to keep going.

It has been so great to be a part of a community so willing to take the risk and support each other in making our learning public and visible.  I’m looking forward to keeping up with my blogging as we head into the spring semester and I hope that you all do too so we can all continue to learn from each other!

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Reflections on Unbundled K-12 Education

After hearing from Anant Agarwal discuss his article on “unbundling” higher education during T509 last week, I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the implications of an unbundled K-12 education system.  Based on our class discussion, the Education Reform for the Digital Era report, and Justin Reich’s blog post, I have been feeling a little torn about this potential school system of the future.  The ideal implementation would truly open kids up to many new education opportunities and allow for personalized learning, but when has any implementation in education been ideal?  What types of benefits could we expect from an unbundled school system and what should we be skeptical about?

For maybe the first time on this blog, I am going to start by talking about the potential positives I see in an unbundled school system.  When first discussing the idea of unbundled schools, I had a really hard time thinking about what the actual benefits are in this system.  Today, however, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit NuVu Studio in Cambridge.  Started by architect Saeed Arida, NuVu Studio is a program that takes students out of their traditional school settings for 12 week periods during the school year to experience education in a new way.  Students at NuVu are organized into design teams to undergo rigorous problem-based learning focused on solving real-world problems in their community through an iterative design process.  In their 12 weeks, students take on several projects in 2-week chunks to learn how to navigate the design process in an attempt to solve large open-ended problems. The results are absolutely amazing and you should all definitely check out their website to learn more.

What was extremely interesting to me was the logistics behind NuVu.  When NuVu accepts a student, they partner with that student’s school to determine what needs to be done for that student to take-on this 12 week removal from traditional school.  Many of their students simply need to take a 1-2 online courses to augment their learning during those 12 weeks simply to meet legal requirements, but Saeed explained to me that teachers and school administrators have frequently been blown away by the amount of progress their students make while taking on projects at NuVu.

To me, this whole idea is the closest thing I have seen to unbundled education.  NuVu is a private, for profit company that has developed an extremely impressive education model that adds enormously to students’ educational experiences.  When thinking about why an unbundled school system could be desirable, this type of model definitely makes me second guess a lot of doubt.  It would be amazing to see the NuVu model scaled and made accessible to all students using their “backpacks” of education funding.  After my visit, I am now finding myself daydreaming about what other models could appear in an unbundled system.

Always the skeptic, however, I can definitely see the potential for unbundled school systems to do more harm than good.  Specifically, I believe the proposed models I have read through would definitely serve only to widen the opportunity gap we currently see between students in low and high-income communities.  The model presented in Education Reform for the Digital Age proposes that such gaps could be alleviated by giving students in low-income situations access to more funds in their  “funding backpack.”  They are making a key assumption here that I believe is fundamentally flawed:  the only thing preventing low and high-income students from performing at the same level is money.

From my experiences, money is only a very small part of the very large problem concerning education inequity.  My students who struggled with school encountered many problems including home environments not conducive for studying and doing homework, major family obligations such as babysitting or working part time to help pay bills, various traumatic experiences leading to emotional instability, and a lack of positive role models in their community to message the importance of education.  Simply unbundling a school system and allowing more choice in educational experiences will not take away the vast majority of these outside issues hindering quality education.  In the current system, schools already do not get enough funding to provide services for students with such profound needs.  I find it hard to believe that a new system would be able to increase funding per student substantially enough to make that difference.

I can also picture a world in which low-income communities would rapidly become educational deserts.  In providing funds for students to seek education elsewhere, many low-income students may take that opportunity to travel away from the historically failing schools in their communities to higher performing schools in neighboring locations.  When those schools inevitably reach capacity, what options will still exist for students?  As local failing schools inevitably fail due to lack of funding, how will students navigate new problems caused by a lack school options in their direct neighborhoods?  What new educational opportunities will form and how many of them will take the risk to enter low-income communities based on modern mindsets?  At what point will online learning or low quality education programs become the only option for some students in a system that was supposed to open-up opportunities?

As stated before, I definitely see how a world of unbundled K-12 education could have massive positive impacts on our current system.  I also wonder how such an innovative system would actually allow for removing substantial barriers to equity and access in today’s society.  How do we ensure that an unbundled education creates high quality education experiences for all learners and does not simply widen the gaps that already permeate the education landscape?

What’s Worth Scaling?

I kicked off this week’s T509 prep with Anant Agarwal’s TED Talk on MOOCS and blended learning.  Towards the end of the clip, he calls the audience to take a moment to dream about education in the future.  He mentions that he can imagine a world where a college campus has only one lecture hall simply standing as a reminder to our grandchildren that we used to learn by sitting in a room and listening to a single lecturer without the convenience of a rewind button.  This all comes after a discussion on how content created through MOOC production is revolutionizing the way we can think about blended learning.  He points out key features such as videos capturing great teachers explaining complex topics and interactive assessments providing instant feedback and personalized learning.  While listening to him discuss a future of blended learning, I had to stop for a second and think about my own vision for my grandchildren’s education.  What would I want education of the future to look like and how do MOOCs influence that future?

In my T600 Class: Thinking and Learning Today and Tomorrow, we have been working on applying research ideas from Project Zero to thinking about what good education looks like.  I do not think that at any time one of my classmates has brought up that what educators need are really good lectures or self-graded assessments.  We have spent a lot of time, however, discussing how to create student-centered performances of understanding that guide learning and make it visible to students and teachers.

When I was teaching, I established a practice of having my students write letters to my future students as soon as they finished their final exam.  The assignment was for them to give that student advice and let them know what to expect in my class.  I always loved diving into reading these letters so that I could reflect on my practice from that year and get a glimpse of what my students thought about my class.  Not once did a student ever write anything like “His lectures are amazing” or “His quizzes really make me think.”  Instead I would read things like “He helped me understand that math is everywhere” or “I now know that math is used all the time in the real world.”  These types of responses did not emerge because I was really good at talking and writing good tests, but because I was focused on creating projects for my students that helped them learn math through application and reflection.

In thinking about the content of MOOCs (specifically xMOOCs), I can only think of two key elements: short video lectures and some form of automatically graded assessment for instant feedback.  All of these features tools for scaling pretty standard education practices in education today:  lectures and assessments.  By scaling these practices, are we really transforming education?  In my experiences, absolutely not.  I believe that teaching and learning worth scaling are practices that encourage students to experience authentic projects and engage with material in individual ways.  MOOCs in their current form are simply translating old practices to a new medium, not changing the same education practices that have led to major calls for reform.

In this week’s readings, I was inspired by a few key efforts to scale education that align with my vision of experiential learning.  I was impressed with the New York Times article on how Harvard Business School is approaching online learning.  Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of posting video lectures, Business School leaders went about thinking how they could recreate their case study based teaching and class cold calling into online learning.  On page 15 of the Institute –wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education: Final Report, recommendations are given to MITx to think about ways to bring problem-based learning strategies to scale.  One incredible idea given as an example involved creating a series of MITx courses around air pollution to bring MOOC learners together around developing solutions in their communities.  These two examples captured for me what I think excellent learning at scale should look like.

When it comes to transforming education, I think many MOOCs are currently only thinking about a small part of the problem.  They are providing education and creating content at a large scale, but is it the type of education and content we should be scaling?  In future blended learning classrooms, it would break my heart to see students simply sitting around watching videos and taking assessments to show mastery.  I would want to see my grandchildren in an education system where they are engaged in meaningful projects and showing mastery through performance, not regurgitation.  When it comes to making that system a reality, I think MOOC advocates should be thinking less about how to better scale presenting and assessing content.  Instead, we should be thinking about how to scale practices that foster authenticity and engagement in learning.

Thoughtless vs. Thoughtful Blended Learning

This week’s T509 reading theme on Blended Learning really got me thinking about how different strategies mentioned play out in real schools with real kids.  I enjoyed exploring the case studies featured during the Khan Academy Blended Learning module and seeing good practices play out in some fairly innovative schools.  However, I couldn’t help but notice that the featured schools were all charter schools.  This means that a degree of their success with blended learning definitely needs to be partially attributed to the fact that public charter schools benefit from their ability to function mostly outside the current system of education in the US.  Their school leaders have much more freedom than the typical public school when it comes to making decisions about how to allocate their funding and design their school day and calendar.  As seen from the case study videos, these freedoms allow them to make thoughtful decisions about how to effectively implement blended learning practices to enhance education for students.

So what does this mean for public schools trying to implement blended learning systems?  Let me give you a case study from my own teaching experience.

As mentioned in the Clayton Christensen Institute White Paper, one current use for blended learning is for credit recovery for high school students.  The school I was teaching at was using a popular credit recovery system for a night school program.  The purpose of night school was to allow students who could not attend regular day school for various reasons an opportunity to earn their class credits and graduate through this alternative program.  Essentially, the students were given a list of courses they needed to complete and could work through an online module for each of those courses with the assistance of teachers hired to proctor during night school hours.  Even though this model caught on quickly, there were a lot of problems with it.

First of all, night school became a dumping ground and a replacement for true interventions.  If a kid keeps getting in trouble in normal classes, send him/her to night school.  If a kid is failing all of his/her classes, send him/her to night school.  If a kid is over age and under-creditted, send him/her to night school.  The goal of night school moved away from being accommodating to students with exceptional life circumstances and became a place to send all of the “undesirable” students rather than actually attempt any personalized interventions.

Second, night school instruction was questionable.  To be clear, I never taught a night school class and only heard from other teachers what the actual learning climate was like.  That being said, I heard over and over again about students who never watched or read through any of the instruction material.  They simply clicked through screens until they got to assessments and googled to find answers.  Even in rooms where teachers did not allow that practice, instruction from the computer relied on basic “read this” followed by “now answer these questions” approach no different than many textbook-style education methods.  Students never had the chance to engage in any activities, projects, or even class discussions to augment their learning.  It was all basic regurgitation aided by a teacher who frequently did not even share a background with the content that a student was “learning.”

Third, many students in the night school program did not have the basic skills they needed to access the material.  As mentioned before, the selection process for students was focused on getting “bad kids” out of the normal school day rather than the right kids into a blended learning environment.  Many of the “bad kids” are the ones with the biggest learning challenges and are the most behind.  One of my former students, let’s call him John, fit this situation.  John was a giant pain in my butt in my 9th grade Algebra class and was constantly getting in trouble everywhere he went.  It did not take long for all of his teachers to realize that 15-year-old John was completely illiterate.  He couldn’t read or write anything at all.  His attitude and behavior problems were clearly steaming from his inability to function academically.  We communicated our finding to all of the appropriate levels, but then John turned 16 and he was eligible for night school.  Rather then take any steps to help join and intervene, the school simply sent him on to this blended learning environment that mostly required him to read to learn content independently.  He stopped attending night school in less than a month and dropped out of high school by the start of the next school year.

Finally, even the kids who excelled in night school and earned their diploma encountered a rude wake-up call upon graduation.  The vast majority of public universities would not accept the credits they earned from the online learning platform.  Instead of broadening horizons for these students, the night school program in fact significantly limited students’ choices when it came to furthering their education.  Their only options now were to attend community college or try to find a private school that would accept their credits but was financially beyond their means.  The worst part of this was that NOBODY told the students in night school that this would happen until it was too late.

My point here is not that blended learning is awful and leads to kids dropping out and not getting into college, but that implementation models matter.  When talking about blended learning models, it’s easy to tell the success stories when things work well.  What we tend to forget is to tell the stories of when things go wrong and what that means for kids and their potential futures.  I can only speak for my experience in my public school system, but I am sure there are similar stories out there of thoughtless implementation of blended learning to try and solve a problem.

If we are to accept that blended learning models are “disruptive” and will ultimately take over traditional education models, then we need to start thinking about how we can build capacity in public school systems to thoughtfully implement these models to benefit kids and improve outcomes.  Part of that thoughtfulness needs to be focused what blended learning needs to look like in public schools to account for the many limitations in our current system.  Rather than working quickly to try and keep up with the hype, schools and teachers need to take their time and be thoughtful about their adaptation of blended learning.  In some cases, this solution may not even be an appropriate match for their problems.