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Changing K-12

A look at how technology can improve education

Liberating Learning discusses the overlap between two issues I care about a lot.


Liberating Learning by Terry Moe and John Chubb is an important book that focuses on how technology will change K-12 education in the United States.

It looks at current efforts to use technology for online learning and to measure achievement. Although it acknowledges that there is a need for a lot of improvement, it sees great possibilities.

In particular it talks about how online learning used in a hybrid way with face-to-face teaching can free up teacher time, support better learning diagnostics, allow for a broader set of courses to be offered, and deliver material in a more engaging way.

It says that since the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the landmark report A Nation at Risk in 1983, there have been a lot of efforts to reform education, but steps that would have created major change have been blocked.

Specifically, things like teacher measurement, pay for performance, teacher choice, charter schools, and vouchers have only been tried in very limited ways.

One set of early efforts where technology is having an impact is in making courses available through virtual classes. The state-level groups that offer these are called virtual schools, but that can be a little confusing since students can sign up for a few courses from the virtual school while remaining in a normal school for everything else.

About 30 states have virtual schools. The biggest by far is the Florida virtual school with about 100,000 students. Most virtual schools are quite small.

The initial focus is kids in rural areas who can’t get the breadth of courses they want, but it can also be used by kids who want more flexibility, higher quality, or home schooling.

Another phenomenon is charter schools that offer over half of their courses online: 26 of the 40 states that allow charters have these schools. Four states—Arizona, California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—have over 10,000 students in such schools.

The book talks about two Dayton, Ohio, cyber charters and an early Pennsylvania charter called PACyber. When these schools started in the 1990s, they were true pioneers, and the curriculum and software were not very good. The description of how these schools work today is very compelling.

A key question the book explores is whether the use of technology in education will be blocked in a way that will keep educators from starting up the necessary learning curve.

The authors have seen a lot of attempts at reform blocked or diluted so they don't have any impact. They are articulate about how powerful the status quo is in our political system and how someone pushing for change can be stopped in many ways. They give examples of tactics unions use to block experimentation and hold things back. The book offers charts showing that virtual schools, cyber charters, and rich data systems are less developed in the more unionized states. I agree with the authors about how tough it is to change the status quo, but the challenge is not just the unions.

Parents are also very conservative about new approaches in education, particularly parents whose kids are in an honors enclave inside a public school that is weak overall. The authors are clear that many of the experiments have problems when they start up. There is always a question of where new approaches should be tried initially.

I agree with the authors that technology is special and although it will take time it cannot be blocked. Clayton Christensen in his book Disrupting Class makes the same point even though his analogy to business use of technology is not a good comparison with a political process like schools.

In the case of technology there are special areas where it is clearly needed and these can be used to get it up and going.

Another critical point the authors make is that countries other than the United States care a lot about high-quality, low-cost education, so they will be contributing new ideas and content, too. The authors don’t talk enough about technology in two-year and four-year colleges. It would have been interesting to know what issues have slowed technology there. Tighter budgets could help technology since it is more cost-effective in many cases, but the lack of funding will also slow the transition down.

I am fascinated about what can be done to make content really, really great. I love the idea of having the videos of the very best lectures. I want the K-12 equivalent of MIT’s Don Sadoway teaching physical chemistry; or the Feynman Messenger Lectures (now free on a Microsoft site); or the courses available on Academic Earth or the many amazing Teaching Company courses.

I am also interested in how a known framework for what students can learn can be used to connect lots of interactive software to do skills assessment.

Online learning can work well for homeschoolers where the parents are very involved. But this creates a budgeting challenge for school districts.

There is a lot of controversy about homeschooling in terms of quality and whether educational budgets should help with it. Since this is part of the bootstrap process for online learning these issues will affect how quickly pure online learning achieves a large user base.

Even more interesting to me than pure online learning is the mixed model where some classes are given using technology but the students have a school that they attend for long hours. This is the model used in the two Dayton schools discussed in the book. The question of what age group and what classes can use this mixed model and how it can save teacher time while providing a broader set of courses and more customized learning is important.

Experimentation is needed to try out different approaches for these mixed models and progress needs to be made to get the curriculum to be very broad and very high quality.

Although I agree with the book that unions have been far too tough in blocking experimentation there still is a lot to be proven in both online learning and teacher assessment.

The acid test I have for teacher assessment is when will the average teacher see it as a plus?

If they see it as unpredictable and scary they will want to stick with the current system. If they see it as predictable, as a tool for helping to get rid of some of the worst teachers, and a path to improvement for people who want to get better, they will embrace it. The book makes it sound like teacher assessment is a very straightforward thing but deciding what to use beyond the test scores is difficult. The unions may tilt toward defending less capable teachers, but if the average teacher thinks that a new assessment approach or a new online approach is a good thing, then unions will back off from protecting its least capable members and let the new approach move ahead. So I believe the unions should allow more experimentation. But the experiments need to demonstrate clear benefits to the average teachers so they are enthused about them.

There are a lot of things I want to learn more about including what is going on with the commercial development of online curriculum. A question I have is: How do we get some very bright people who know education and are knowledgeable about technology involved in helping to drive this forward at full speed?