A financial crisis brought about by foreign wars and financial mismanagement and malfeasance. An administration, desperate to meet the demands of the people and stay solvent, forces through legislation that is opposed by many in the government and by the people. The first lady, when told that the people had no bread, replies, “Then let them eat cake.” (Well, technically Brioche, though it turns out the quote itself was probably just made up by a tabloid journalist, in this case, some hack named Rousseau.)

I’ll bet you thought I was talking about the current United States, until the bit about the cake, right?

The point, continuing from my last post, The four R’s: Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic and Revolution!, is that revolutions, be they French, American, or educational, share similar characteristics and causes. And the French Revolution provides the recipe for this week’s post.

How many of you have read the article, “In Florida, Virtual Classrooms With No Teachers” in The New York Times? You’d remember it if you had: it’s the one about the high school students in North Miami Beach who walk into their first day of precalculus class in their senior year to find that their teachers had been replaced by… computers.

No, this is not a scene from my cyberpunk science fiction novel Spirit in Realtime. (Shameless plug — I’m still looking for a publisher! Tweet me: @jlsimons) It’s the sad reality for over 7,000 students in the Miami-Dade County Public School system.

You see, in 2002 Florida passed the Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, which limits the number of high school students  to 25 students per classroom for core classes like math and English. It also limits 4th-8th grade classes to 22 students and pre-K-3rd grade to 18.

In order to meet these legally mandated limits, Florida has instituted what it calls e-learning labs, which are not legally restricted. In these virtual classrooms, students have no teachers, merely a “facilitator” who takes care of any technical issues that may arise. Supposedly, the facilitator is also present to make sure students “progress,” but I’m betting their primary raison d’etre is to keep the kids from going Office Space on the computers… and each other.

Now I’m not against virtual classrooms. Quite the opposite. I think they satisfy a growing need and, when approached properly, can outperform the real ones.

For instance, Mashable cites a US Department of Education report from 2009 based on 50 independent studies: “the agency found that students who studied in online learning environments performed modestly better than peers who were receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The world of online and virtual education is blossoming. I can watch a free lecture on the Special Theory of Relativity by Yale Professor Ramamurti Shankar on Academicearth.org along with dozens of other lectures and full courses in philosophy, biology, chemistry, literature, physics and more filmed right in the classrooms at MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, and other leading colleges and universities.

I can learn anything from basic math to differential calculus, with the French Revolution and “The Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity” thrown in for fun, from Salman Khan of The Khan Academy, a non-profit dedicated to their “mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” They’ve delivered 37,295,405 lessons (according to their website) and count Bill Gates as one of their most vociferous supporters. You can watch Salman and Bill talking about The Khan Academy below, and I promise, I didn’t tell Bill what to say at all. (Thanks for the support, Bill. The check is in the mail.)

The point I’m making here is that I can choose to watch those lectures and lessons, not that I am forced to watch them. (Which is good news, because I can’t tell a phagocyte from a Lymphocyte, and, in all honesty, the entire subject makes my brain hurt.) When students have the liberty to choose online education, and the motivation, there are no limits to what they can learn.

The students in Miami had no choice. Their parents had no choice. Some of them didn’t even know about the virtual classrooms until the day they walked in and saw the computers.

To quote the Times article,

Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not.

“None of them want to be there,” Alix said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.”

At 15, Alix already knows something that school administrators do not. Or worse, they know, but they don’t care. Or even worse, they know, they care, but they have no choice based on the new law.

Bingo! Again, quoting the Times article:

School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High, said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were necessary because “there’s no way to beat the class-size mandate without it.”

So, to sum up, an overwhelmed bureaucracy struggling to do its job comes up with a solution that seems to solve the problem, at the expense of the very people they were supposed to be helping. And the students are forced to eat virtual cake.

And not all of them, just some of them. Where is the equality in that? The fraternity? Will a college looking at these students give special consideration to the differing quality in instruction they received compared to students, some in the same school, who had an actual teacher to explain a difficult concept to them? Will their grades be asterisked? And what will the long term impact be on a student who repeatedly ends up in virtual classes in, lets say, English, starting in 7th Grade in one of the six middle schools using e-learning labs in Miami and continuing through senior year? Will the “facilitator” be able to awaken within that student a love for the rhythm and rhyme of good writing, the heart and soul of a poem, the nuances of meaning in serious prose? Or will we leave it to HAL9000, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

Then again, maybe not.

Can someone please explain to me why an education system that can exile students to virtual classrooms during the time they are most in need of nurturing, guidance and, for want of a better word, teaching, shouldn’t be overthrown?  To the barricades, citizens. (More to come…)

Full Disclosure: My client, StraighterLine, is one of the disruptive and revolutionary forces actively engaged in changing education by offering self-paced, online college courses at ridiculously low costs. My relationship with StraighterLine is the reason I have been following developments in the field of education. While I am otherwise compensated for my marketing efforts on behalf of StraighterLine, this series of posts is not one of those efforts. The post is mine and I am in no way being compensated for writing it.

Comments
  1. A Fan says:

    When I was a senior in H.S. back at the dawn of time, my English teacher read aloud Shakespeare to us and helped us to do the same. She awakened an understanding and a pleasure in his works I’ve never forgotten because hearing his words helped them make sense. I’m not sure a computer would accomplish the same magic. But then, I wasn’t born into the computer age and that may make a difference.

    Just a thought.

    • jlsimons says:

      I think you’re right, A Fan. The computer can be a conduit for content, and even interactive to some extent, but as of now, true empathetic instructional interaction isn’t what’s going on. If the kids in Miami were interfacing with a live person on the other end, it might be different. By the way, just for the heck of it, I went to YouTube and searched Shakespeare. I found 97,500 results. Not all were relevant, but they included entire films, critics discussing the Bard, and even this really cool video of the Beatles hamming up a scene from A MIdsummer Night’s Dream on British television in 1964. You can see it here, and it’s worth a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOpEZM6OEvI

  2. Don Bozeman says:

    I was introduced to your blog by Marrus, my step-daughter. I enjoyed your blog on Jay and went on to read several previous blogs. You are right-on concerning the failure of our educational institutions. Maybe retired folk like myself can facilitate the Khan Academy in our local school systems.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the comment, Don. I was introduced to Jay by your step-daughter. (Also, she introduced me to my wife. So if nothing else she was useful for that! But since I introduced her to uni sushi with a quail’s egg, I guess we’re even.) Re: the Khan Academy, in California, they’ve started using the Khan Academy curriculum in schools. And Khan just got funding to develop offline class materials. And as for retired folk getting involved, why not? Do you know about SCORE? It’s an organization of retired people who use all the experience they’ve gained throughout their lives and careers helping small businesses, start-ups and individuals. Sometimes, especially when it comes to education, some perspective about what’s not working now and what worked better in the past is sorely needed.

  3. source says:

    A lot of of the opinions on this site dont make sense.

    • jlsimons says:

      Moll, I’d love to find out which ones you don’t think make sense, and why. Obviously, I think they do, and I’d love the chance to discuss them with you here.

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