“We’re an educational organization. Learning is the heart of everything we do.” I was talking to my staff, explaining the purpose behind the TPS reports they’re required to complete each week. “We need to take a few minutes at the end of the week to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, what has challenged us, and what we have learned. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing.” They all agreed.
I think we often lose our sense of purpose as we’re pulled from one crisis to another. It’s easy to get lost in the quagmires of school funding and teacher evaluations and test scores and busing and cafeteria duty. We’re constantly being told how to do our jobs better while constantly being berated for over-spending and under-performing. It doesn’t matter that the critics don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, or that the countries we’re desperately trying to emulate are desperately trying to emulate us. We’re teachers. That’s what we do. We educate kids. And by educate, I mean more than just imparting information. We teach them to think, to communicate, to work together, and to take care of their society and their world.
But we get lost. Sometimes, it’s important to reflect on the things that aren’t important. I don’t care about food service, for example. It’s a necessary part of what we do, sure. We need to feed people. And it’s my opinion that our current food service staff is the best I’ve ever worked with. They provide an outstanding, nutritious product and are completely self-funded. But that’s not what our core mission is. The same is true for transportation. We need our kids to be in school so we can teach them. One good way to do that is to go to their houses and get them. We have a great transportation department that efficiently and safely transports thousands of kids to and from school every day. But we’re not here to move kids around. We’re here to teach them.
I could go right down the line. Transparency and fiscal accountability. Maintenance of buildings and grounds. Hiring and evaluating staff. They’re all important, sure. But they’re not the core of what we do.
And then there’s technology. There’s technology to operate the school district. There’s technology to prepare and deliver instruction. There’s technology in the hands of the student used as a learning tool. Some of this is essential. Some of it isn’t. Web site? Probably not important. Running a mail server? Doesn’t really affect student learning. Wireless network? Maybe essential to support learning, but ancillary to what we really do.
Am I arguing myself out of a job? Maybe. But interestingly, most of the things we tend to outsource ARE the core things we’re supposed to be doing. Let’s find an online academy for credit recovery. Let’s look for an automated intervention problem. We don’t have enough students for Calculus BC, so why don’t we see if there’s an online option for those students?
In general, I’m very skeptical of services that take care of the core of our business. Maybe I’ve learned from IBM. When they introduced the PC in 1981, they outsourced the hardware to Intel, and the software to Microsoft. IBM itself became irrelevant. A generation later, Intel and Microsoft are still going strong, but IBM has been out of the personal computer business for more than a decade. If we outsource the teaching of kids, we’re gambling with our own relevance. If we send the students to Khan Academy to learn math, and Florida Virtual to learn English, and an MIT or Stanford online course for physics, then it won’t be long before people start wondering why we’re here. They’ll just go to those places themselves and cut out the middle man.
That’s the lens through which I took my first view of iLearn Ohio. It was hatched a couple years ago by the Office of 21st Century Education, an entity separate from the Ohio Department of Education, created to show Ohio schools how they can save truckloads of money by outsourcing teaching to private companies. The first version of iLearn Ohio was a clearinghouse for online courses. Providers — including most of the online charters in Ohio — could offer online courses through the site. Public schools could then go there and find appropriate coursework to fit any student’s needs, sign the kids up, and license the course. The courses were certainly cheaper than what it would cost to hire a teacher, find a classroom, purchase materials, and offer the class locally. And, of course, I was completely against it.
That’s why I didn’t pay much attention when the state re-launched iLearn Ohio last winter. Great. It’s just another way to privatize public education in a bold attempt to divert public education money to private companies. I was surprised to see a demo of it at a meeting last month. The clearinghouse is still there. But now, it’s a learning management system. In the full-featured LMS, teachers can create and deliver courses. It integrates with our student records system and with our Google Apps domain, so accounts can be automatically created, and students can automatically be assigned to courses. Teachers can bring open resources into their classes, develop their own content, or integrate resources from partner organizations (for a fee). Students can take assessments and turn in work online. There’s the capacity for an internal messaging system and online discussions. And, the tool is free for Ohio public schools.
This is different. This is no longer outsourcing the core mission. This is a tool that could potentially replace our Moodle server, which has been a source of frustration for teachers, students, and (especially) me for the last few years. If I don’t have to support a local server running an LMS, I can focus on other, more important things.
I asked a few teachers, including our integration specialist and our STEM coach, to take a look. We attended another demo, and they had lots of questions. It seems like there are many things the tool doesn’t do yet, but the developers are open to suggestions for improvements. They were also very up-front about what can and cannot be done right now.
So we’re going to try it. We’ll meet with them again, and try to set up a pilot. We’ll get a few teachers to try it out, including teachers who are currently using Moodle and some who have never waded into the blended learning pool. And we’ll see how it goes.
If this tool can help us avoid some of the distractions, while making it easier to focus on our core mission, it’s well worth the effort.
Photo credit: JISC_Infonet on Flickr.