Blended Learning

I’ve been talking about online learning for over twenty years, ever since I realized the power of online discussion forums in which anyone could participate from anywhere in the world. I did research studies in the 1990s on the effect of anonymity in the quality of online discussions among middle school students. I have been a curator of online professional learning networks longer than we’ve known what those networks are. But the online learning that the politicians and  school leaders are talking about now is very different. Whether it’s blended learning or online learning or flipped classrooms, the idea is generally the same: use technology to disseminate academic content to students.

That’s an efficient way to use technology to make sure students are mastering the content standards. It makes teaching a science. Start with the list of things we want our students to know. Assess the students to see what they already know. Focus instruction on the gap between what they know and what we want them to know. Re-assess and repeat. Most of this can be automated. It can serve each student at his or her own individual level. It can customize instruction like never before. And it can do it very inexpensively, when compared to labor-intensive interventions.

Khan Academy does this well. So does Knewton and Brainscape and Cerego and countless other adaptive applications. And so do the so-called xMOOCs like Coursera and Udacity, which seem to be getting an enormous amount of press lately, despite their complete redefinition of what a MOOC actually is. All of these programs / companies / approaches make it easier to deliver content to students, and to ensure that the students have adequately mastered that content.

Indeed, this approach has made the online charter schools possible. My daughter is finishing her second year in an online charter. It’s almost entirely automated, with students completing reading and LMS assignments, taking assessments, and then continuing on with more content. By the end of the year, a student who has completed the prescribed coursework is sufficiently prepared to pass the achievement tests, and we can successfully conclude that sufficient learning has taken place.

Unfortunately, that’s not all we need to be doing in our schools. Our students already have all of the answers to all of the questions on the test. It’s in that little black slab of plastic and glass they carry around with them. In an era of information abundance, the simple recall of information does not make one educated. It’s much more imporant that our students can take that information, combine it with other resources, improve on it, and use it to solve real problems. It’s critical that our students are able to work together with people from different cultures, collaborating both in online and face-to-face environments. The only hope for the long-term success for our country is for our students to innovation and creatively apply the knowledge they have to develop new technologies and new solutions to problems we haven’t yet identified.

Technology can certainly help with that. We use collaborative tools and communication tools to connect with and work together with people from all over the world. We all have the means to distribute our work globally in a variety of media. We have access to enormous volumes of data that can be analyzed in new ways. We can embrace the true vision of MOOCs, now referred to as cMOOCs, which emphasize participation in a community of learners rather than interaction with content.

Maybe there’s room for both approaches. If we automate the distribution of knowledge, we can increase the efficiency with which we prepare students to take the tests. Then, we’ll have more time to focus on the more important — but harder to measure — needs of next generation learners.

Photo credit: Queensu on Flickr.

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21st Century Workers

I learned early to play the “school game.” Do what is expected of you. Please the teacher. Don’t make trouble. Don’t ask questions. They will give you information. Then, they’ll ask you to give it back. If you follow the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good grade. Good grades will get you into a good college, which will get you a good job. It’s all good. We have it all figured out. Just do what you’re told.

But we don’t really have it figured out anymore. While a college education makes you twice as employable as not having one, some are suggesting that the cost of higher education does not make it a worthwhile investment. And with the unemployment rate among recent college grads at its highest level on record, a whole lot of grads are going to have trouble paying off those student loans.

At the same time, it’s becoming clear that the job market is demanding skills that schools are not providing. NPR’s Planet Money team took a look at a factory in South Carolina this week. The series examines the changing workforce, and the changing demands placed on current and prospective workers. Reporter Adam Davidson asked if he could get a job there:

“No,” he said. “The risk of having you being able to come up to speed with training would be a risk I wouldn’t be willing to take.”

To become [a good worker], I’d have to learn the machine’s computer language. I’d have to learn the strengths of various metals and their resistance to various blades. And then there’s something I don’t believe I’d ever be able to achieve: the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in my head. Half the people… trained over the years just never were able to get that skill.

The company can teach the knowledge needed to do the job. That’s not a problem. What they can’t teach is the ability to visualize what’s going on. They can’t teach the innovative thinking and problem solving skills. Their workers have to come in with those skills.

Where are they going to get those skills? In the K-12 world, we’re still focused on imparting knowledge. Our teachers are content specialists. They’re experts at teaching information. And while there’s been a push toward higher level thinking skills in education for longer than I’ve been part of the field, there’s still not a lot of it going on in our schools.

In a different NPR piece this week, Emily Hanford examined flipped physics classrooms at the college level. Harvard has determined that lecturing is not an effective  teaching technique. And with information easily and freely available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, some would argue that spending class time to  impart information is now irresponsible. In physics, they found that students could memorize the formulas and plug them in to get the correct answers to problems, but that doesn’t mean they had an understanding of the underlying concepts. Harvard professor Eric Mazur has changed his approach to teaching physics. Students are expected to do background reading to get the “information” before class. Then, in class, they focus on making sense of that information. Class time is devoted to application of the concepts, not memorization of the facts.

We’re starting to see this in K-12 as well. More and more teachers are changing their approaches to embrace next generation skills. There are plenty of reliable sources for explaining the information. We don’t need teachers to do that anymore. We need teachers to help students make sense of the information, to draw connections between the things they’ve learned, to apply their understanding of concepts in order to solve challenging problems.

So our students will leave with knowledge. Sure. Yes. Of course. But they’ll also know how to learn. They’ll know how to connect ideas. They’ll know how to apply their understanding of one concept to different situations. They’ll be ready to face the challenges of their generation.

Photo credit: Avram Cheaney on Flick.

Analysis Paralysis

I started last week’s presentation on Google Docs with this xkcd cartoon.


I’ve commented many times that my smartphone replaced more than half a dozen devices that I used to carry around with me. I no longer need a digital camera, digital video camera, mp3 player, navigation system, PDA, or wristwatch. I have access to the Internet all the time. But even if I didn’t, I could text Google and they would try to answer my questions.

I can also send a message to anyone in my personal learning network, regardless of where they are, and typically get a very quick reply. The network is always there. It’s always on.

That’s what Erik Duval means by abundance. His  session for this week’s #change11 course,  Learning in a Time of Abundance, resonated with me more than any of the others we’ve had so far. As a computer science professor, Erik has the opportunity to model the change he thinks we need in academia. Why do teachers stand in front of a group of students for 40 minutes (or 80 minutes) and present information? The students already have the information. Facts are easy to find. Explanations of nearly all of the concepts we teach in school are readily available online. And they’re going to be online forever. What does that mean?

Before written language, we had to remember everything. The entire sum of all human knowledge had to be passed down from generation to generation orally. If it wasn’t, it was lost. Eventually, we developed ways to store things outside our brains. We started writing things down. And it’s a good thing we did: I can’t remember even a tiny fraction of all of the things I’ve learned, let alone all the stuff everyone has learned.

But now we’re in a new age. The sheer volume of stuff we’re writing down is growing faster than we can count it. The current state of the art changes faster than we can identify it, let alone teach it. Duval is a professor and researcher working on human-computer interaction. He knows a lot about the subject, and stays on the cutting edge of that technological frontier. But if he focuses just on information — just on passing on the current state of knowledge in his field — his students will be behind by the time they leave university.

Instead, his classes take a different approach. He starts by giving his students access to the information. All of the information. All of the time. They have cell phones and laptops and tablets and all kinds of Internet-enabled devices. They use them in his class. All of the time.  They don’t have to unplug. And this era of information abundance is a two-way street. In addition to having access to everything, his students also share their work. Everyone has access to the work they’re doing. They’re blogging and tweeting and publicly sharing their work. The students set goals that are measurable and trackable. They build tools (it is a computer science class, after all) to track their goals and visually monitor their progress. The students develop and use a variety of quantitative measures for formative assessment. The summative piece looks more like a job performance review than a course exam. Look at the goals. How have you progressed? It’s a conversation between professor and student. The result is a narrative, which is then boiled down to a numeric score.

Things are a little more difficult in K-12 education. We have a lot of cultural baggage that is hard to change. Classes have to be 50 minutes long, and students have to take 5-7 of them per day. Each teacher has his own teaching style, his own grading methods, his own philosophy of how this education thing should work. Parents, for all they say about preparing their children for the future, really just want school to be like it was when they were students.

Duval suggests that teachers work to change the things in their control — the things that happen in their classrooms. Don’t try to reform the entire educational system. Give students access to the information. Stop lecturing so much. Adapt grading styles to be more authentic. Push students to move from remembering to applying and creating. Get over the fact that you can’t be in control of everything. Seek forgiveness rather than permission.

We spend a lot of time talking about these things. There really is nothing new here. From Bloom’s revised taxonomy to the framework of professional learning communities, to the 21st Century Skills movement, everyone is talking about the same things. But we suffer from analysis paralysis. We spend too much time talking about what schools should be and not enough time making them that.

Be the change.

Image credit: Randall Munroe, xkcd.