Access, activity, and outcomes in digital learning

As we are nearing completion of writing Keeping Pace 2014, we’ve been thinking quite a bit about the different lenses through which to consider the digital learning landscape.

Among the words that best describes the landscape is uneven. Three of the key elements of digital learning that may be described as uneven are access, activity, and outcomes. And not only are those elements inconsistent across states, but the level of information that we have about those elements is itself uneven.

Student access to digital learning varies based on the state and local school district in which each student resides. Students in Florida have access to a wide range of supplemental online courses and fully online schools. Students who live in other states with well-supported state virtual schools (e.g. North Carolina, Idaho, Alabama), or robust course choice programs, have access to online courses. Students who live in any of the 30 states that allow statewide online schools have access to those schools. Students who don’t live in those states, but are fortunate to live in a school district that offers online courses (as many do) or an online school (fewer), have access to these opportunities as well. For students who are interested in accessing digital content and tools from a physical classroom, whether they can do so depends on their school or whether they have an alternative education program, or another school in their district, or perhaps a charter school that they can move to. Student access to digital learning varies based on their ZIP code and this creates uneven opportunities

If access is the first lens, then activity is a logical next step. Fully online schools and supplemental online course providers often report (or the state reports) the number of students who attend the school at any time in the year, or start the online course. These numbers often give us a sense for the level of activity, but don’t account for the different rates at which students leave online schools or courses without completing them. States that report the number of online course completions (as opposed to the number of student enrollments) provide a better measure of activity, particularly if they relate course completion rates as well. States and schools that report student mobility rates in online schools paint a more accurate picture of how many students attended the online school for the full year and either graduated or progressed to the next grade level. For digital content and tools used in physical classrooms, levels of activity are difficult to obtain and rarely available publicly.

The final area that we are watching in Keeping Pace is student outcomes. Determining outcomes is a major undertaking, whether based on a longitudinal research study into a small number of schools, or data mining across a state. The synopsis of outcomes studies is—as it has been for years—that some implementations of online schools, online courses, and digital content show success, and others don’t. But for the large portion of digital learning, outcomes are unknown or not publicly available.

Access of students to digital learning has been, should be, and will continue to be a major area of research and reporting. Activity and outcomes are the next two areas which deserve to get equal attention.


“Building a Better Teacher,” “Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning—an unplanned Part 3

When I wrote the first two blog posts (part 1 and part 2) on Building a Better Teacher, I hadn’t yet seen Larry Cuban’s take on Elizabeth Green’s views. He makes a point that is valuable enough to add a coda to the earlier posts.

Cuban is generally positive about Green’s views, saying that they are “well written” and that her answers “make a great deal of sense.” But then he discusses in some depth a key issue that he believes she has missed—the importance of “the power of the age-graded school to influence how teachers teach.”

“The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, has become an unquestioned mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers and voters have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma… The age-graded school has processed efficiently millions of students over the past century and a half, sorted out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduates nearly three-quarters of those entering high school…” The age-graded school also “isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy, and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically…[It] is a one-size-fits-all structure”

The implications for math reform—and even more so for transformative digital learning—are clear:

“Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together.”

I completely agree: the entire grade-based approach, and with it the associated expectations of letter grades and standard progression, is a critical barrier because it is entrenched in the minds of so many stakeholders. A system that is truly personalized must be able to answer the question—what happens when a third grade student finishes all third grade courses in February?

The ideal answer is that the question doesn’t make sense, because we don’t think of grade levels. But that’s a change that requires support from parents, post-secondary institutions, employers, and politicians. It is clearly a long way off.

Perhaps the conclusion to the last post—“Sit on a stone for three years to accomplish anything”—was overly optimistic. Better make it a six-year plan. Bring a pillow.

Part 2: “Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning

The last blog post explored the findings in Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, and identified parallels in digital education.

A short excerpt about Common Core captures the issues:

“…teachers are once more being asked to unlearn an old approach and learn an entirely new one, essentially on their own. Training is still weak and infrequent, and principals — who are no more skilled at math than their teachers — remain unprepared to offer support.”

Replace “math” with “digital learning” in the above paragraph and it perfectly describes many digital learning implementations. The point about administrators being no more skilled than teachers is particularly applicable. Teachers are being asked to design, implement, and evaluate the many components of these new programs with little or no experience—and without administrators who are more experienced.

The risks and challenges that Green documents that are related to math instruction apply broadly to blended learning. Perhaps as importantly, they may foreshadow the way that a backlash could be generated against education reform that advocates for the use of digital content and tools. In discussing the counterattack against Common Core, she quotes a prominent and influential conservative:

By God,” wrote Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState, in an anti-Common Core attack, is it such “a horrific idea that we might teach math the way math has always been taught.

I suppose the answer to Erickson’s question depends on whether one is satisfied with an education system in which one in five students don’t graduate from high school on time, in part due to students’ inability to pass algebra, and between 20% and perhaps 35% of those who do graduate require remedial courses in college because they are unprepared to begin entry-level college study.

Whether the focus is on math or all of education, the failure of reforms—Common Core, personalized learning, or any other—gives room for opponents to say we should just do what we’ve always been doing. That sentiment subsequently paves the way for millions of additional students to drop out of high school or college, with all the attendant implications for jobs, income, and family and social stability.

But the long list of issues and concerns documented by Green shouldn’t lead us to throw up our hands and say, “it can’t be done.” Reform can be implemented successfully, and some schools are demonstrating the path forward. Those schools know, and this story reminds us, of several key principles of the change to digitally-enabled personalized learning:

  1. It requires extensive professional development for teachers and administrators. In most cases the time required to master these teaching techniques is far higher than the professional development time that educators receive.
  1. It is going to take years to implement. Advocates for blended learning must expect that for a sizable district, a large-scale change will take perhaps five years in order to introduce, pilot, evaluate, and grow it to the point of reaching most students.
  1. When hearing of a blended learning implementation, every advocate, researcher, and policymaker should ask the question,  “How much time is devoted to teacher and administrator professional development?” The common questions about digital content, technology platforms, devices, and Internet infrastructure, are all important but miss the hardest area to change—behavior in the classroom.
  1. Every person in charge of budgets should expect to see allocations for professional development that are much larger than they have typically been in the past. Every request for computers or digital content should be accompanied by an explanation of the professional development that will be tied to it.

A final quote from Green’s article in the New York Times captures this long-term thinking well, in a discussion of how Japan was able to change its approach to math instruction.

“Of all the lessons Japan has to offer the United States, the most important might be the belief in patience and the possibility of change. Japan, after all, was able to shift a country full of teachers to a new approach. Telling me his story, Kurita quoted what he described as an old Japanese saying about perseverance: “Sit on a stone for three years to accomplish anything.”

I don’t know that sitting on a stone will create change in education, but anticipating the need to be patient for three years seems about right.

“Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning

Elizabeth Green, education reporter and CEO of Chalkbeat, has been getting quite a bit of media exposure regarding her forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher. She has written articles, or been the subject of articles or interviews, in Education Next, USA Today, and Inside Higher Ed, among others.

Her article in the New York Times Magazine, Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, has itself received some attention. It is worth reading for its insights into math instruction, as it explores the many ways in which educators have attempted to change the way that math is taught over several decades. The overarching finding is that researchers and educators have found several ways to improve math instruction, but none has been successfully implemented and scaled.

As I read the article, I was fascinated by the parallels with – and implications for – blended learning. There are enough ideas here that I am including them in this post and a second one that is forthcoming.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

This statement succinctly captures the exact situation we have seen in some of our own work and in research with schools. A key point is that if administrators or teachers don’t have a mechanism to hear students’ views, they likely don’t know that students are confused. Creating surveys, focus groups, or some other method of hearing students’ voices is imperative in blended learning implementations.

Green also speaks of Common Core standards as a way to reform math instruction:

“The reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them. Responding to a recent survey by Education Week, teachers said they had typically spent fewer than four days in Common Core training.”

The implicit conclusion here is that four days is not enough time for teachers to learn a new system. The question that all blended learning advocates should be asking is ‘how much time is given to teachers to learn how to use digital content and tools to successfully personalize learning?’ In our research, the answer is almost invariably—not enough.

Why is professional development so important, and why does it require so much time?

“…the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.”

This situation leads to outcomes like the following:

“A team of researchers…traveled to California to see how the teachers were doing as they began to put the reforms into practice. But after studying three dozen classrooms over four years, they found the new teaching simply wasn’t happening. Some of the failure could be explained by active resistance. One teacher deliberately replaced a new textbook’s problem-solving pages with the old worksheets he was accustomed to using. Much more common, though, were teachers who wanted to change, and were willing to work hard to do it, but didn’t know how.”

The teachers “didn’t know how” because of a lack of professional development. Subsequently, this account gets even more interesting, and even more applicable to digital learning. Some of the stories that claim success in changing how math is taught have done no such thing:

“…one teacher…claimed to have incited a “revolution” in her classroom. But on closer inspection, her classroom had changed but not in the [intended] way…Instead of focusing on mathematical ideas, she inserted new activities into the traditional… framework. The supposedly cooperative learning groups she used to replace her rows of desks, for example, seemed in practice less a tool to encourage discussion than a means to dismiss the class for lunch…And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones. Textbooks, too, barely changed, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary.

The above paragraph could apply to countless tablet implementations in schools that don’t lead to real change in the instructional approach. When one new item is introduced into an existing system, the tendency is to adapt it to the system. Thus, tablets are used, but not in a way that changes the existing teaching model.

These issues are challenging, but solvable. The next blog post will explore implications of these findings for digital learning.

Lessons for education from “Corporate America Hasn’t Been Disrupted”

I recently finished a trip to California that included time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, meeting with a few of the organizations that are leading the way in “disrupting” education.

Sometimes when spending time in the epicenter of disruption I wonder if the technophiles who live and work there realize that lots of people still catch cabs on the streets (instead of using Uber), listen to music on CDs (instead of Pandora), and choose restaurants based on familiarity or convenience (instead of using Yelp). Some of those antiquated people even go to chain restaurants!

I’m sure those Bay Area-based companies know exactly how many people are still using the non-digital or non-Internet versions of these types of services, because their success depends on it. But if you just look at the billboards going by on Highway 101 and overhear the random conversations at the local Peet’s Coffee, you might start to believe that elements of the pre-Internet world no longer exist.

But they do exist, and a recent fivethirtyeight article argues that although sometimes the disrupters win, more often the existing organizations survive and prosper. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they ignore technology, but that they often absorb the new technology or new start-up. Whether the new disruptive approach ever reaches scale with many consumers then depends on what the incumbent decides to do with it.

Corporate America Hasn’t Been Disrupted” makes the following points:

“By a wide range of measures, the advantages of incumbency in corporate America have never been greater…. established businesses have less and less to fear from would-be disruptors…the advantage enjoyed by incumbents, always substantial, has been growing in recent years.”

Certainly some of the points in the article don’t apply to education, because several arguments are specific to a for-profit, competitive environment. In part, for example, the discussion is about the drop-off in the number of start-up companies—an issue that does not appear to be a problem in education given the number of schools, charter management organizations, and education technology companies that appear to be developing.

But it’s a useful reminder that simply describing something as “disruptive” doesn’t mean the new thing—product, service, company, school, or instructional method—is going to be successful. For companies, incumbency entails broad and deep advantages that are a major curb on start-ups and change. In education, incumbency is tied to deep inertia in the form of existing organizational structures, laws, and regulatory frameworks, which slow and sometimes prevent change even when many reformers are working for it.

The use of digital content, technology platforms, and computers in schools is certainly growing. But the goal isn’t just that they are used—it’s that their use improves student opportunities and outcomes. A broad and quantifiable improvement in student outcomes would be a sign that disruption is taking place. That improvement in outcomes is visible in a few pockets—mostly in charter schools—but the disruption, as defined by a broad improvement in student outcomes, isn’t clear yet.

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