Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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Miami Beach who walk into their first day of precalculus class in their senior year to find that their teachers had been replaced by… computers.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.

What does the start of a revolution look like from the inside?

Revolutions don’t have a precise starting point. It is easy to say that the American Revolution officially began on July 4, 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But was that really the start of the revolution, or merely the official notification of a movement that had been brewing for years?  We know now that the Boston Tea Party was a clear step on the road to revolution, perhaps even one of the opening shots, but at the time, for the participants, as there was not yet a revolution to lead up to, it was “merely” a principled protest in defense of their rights (or, I guess, just a rowdy Thursday night in Boston.)

But I think we can agree on a few of the basic characteristics of the period leading up to a revolution:

  1. The pervasive, powerful and dominating institution about to be revolted against has become unresponsive to the needs of the people whom it supposedly exists to serve.
  2. Forces within the institution who recognize its failure and wish to change find themselves in conflict with forces against that change.
  3. Voices, both inside and outside of the institution, begin to address shortcomings and suggest solutions to the institution itself and to the public at large.
  4. The people most at the mercy of the institution begin to cry out for their needs to be addressed by the institution.
  5. The institutional bureaucrats and apologists fight back against their accusers, both internal and external, and frequently crack down on dissent, especially by their constituents.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. If we’re talking about governments or religions, then historically, what happens next is invariably violent, bloody, and disruptive (with one or two notable exceptions that prove the rule, such as Gandhi’s India).

But if we’re talking about economics, what happens next may be disruptive, but it’s not necessarily bloody or violent. Certainly, people will be displaced, livelihoods will be lost and fortunes will vanish. There may be riots. But any bloodshed connected to the Industrial Revolution pales in comparison to the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, etc. etc. etc.

We live in an era of change and disruption across multiple industries: publishing, journalism, marketing and advertising, media and entertainment, manufacturing, health, finance… well, you get the point, right? Any of these sectors may be on the verge of revolution (and nearly all are impacted by even bigger global revolution of virtually simultaneous, planet-wide shared awareness, perception and discussion about which I blogged in October.)

But if we want to find a flawed, failing institution that meets the five aforementioned characteristics, there’s one that really stands out:  education.

Here’s a nice juicy statistic to get us started:

45% of the 2300 undergraduates at 24 institutions analyzed for “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses,” (University of Chicago Press) demonstrated “no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.” Even worse, 36% didn’t “demonstrate any significant improvement in learning”  over four years of college!

According to the publisher, “As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise—instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list…Higher education faces crises on a number of fronts, but Arum and Roksa’s report that colleges are failing at their most basic mission will demand the attention of us all.”

Reporting yesterday on the book for Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik wrote, “the book acknowledges that many college educators and students don’t yet see a crisis… The culture of college needs to evolve, particularly with regard to “perverse institutional incentives” that reward colleges for enrolling and retaining students rather than for educating them. “It’s a problem when higher education is driven by a student client model and institutions are chasing after bodies,” he (Arun) said.”

Now in case you haven’t noticed, dear reader, my posts tend to run long to begin with, and even I can see that this isn’t a bone I can finish gnawing in a single meal. I’m going to continue to address this issue in upcoming posts.

So for now, I’m going to leave you with a simple question, to which I humbly ask for your answers and opinions: can someone please explain to me how we can, in good conscience, counsel our children to mortgage their futures under a mountain of student loan debt when 45% of them won’t get much out of their first two years, and 36% won’t get much out of their entire four years of college?

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 post is not one of those efforts. The post is mine and I am in no way being compensated for writing it.