Technology as Cure-All for Standards, and Even Snow Days


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Technology is viewed by some as the elixir or cure-all for education, and school districts, with lots of money available through grants such as Race to the Top, technology investments from organization such the Gates Foundation, and law edicts,  have embraced technology as a magic bullet.  Virtual classrooms, digital textbooks, flipped classrooms (use of video), lecture-based content websites are examples of the types of technologies that have emerged.  Could it be that these are Trojan Horses being used to drive the Common Standards?

Ed Johnson an Atlanta systems educator and advocate for quality education wrote to me today and reinforced the last two blog posts connecting the Gates Foundation, Common Standards and technology.  He pointed out that the Atlanta Public Schools are using technology by setting up an “Inclement Weather Makeup Materials” website.

In “Why Bill Gates Defends the Common Core,” I argued that,

There is a growing body of evidence that the Common Standards are not the solution to make America more competitive, to make kids smarter in math, reading and science, and any of the other ills that have been cast upon the education system. I’ve reported on this blog that independent research questions the efficacy of a standard-based approach to education as it is now conceived. The standards-based system is a top-down authoritarian system that disregards the professional decision-making ability of classroom teachers. I’ve reported research by Wallace that shows that this authoritarian accountability system is a barrier to teaching and learning.

And in “Is Technology the Trojan Horse of the Common Standard’s Movement?,” it was added,

It is quite clear that Gates is investing (his term) in technology in schools. It’s no surprise. But we must keep in mind the word technology is a seductive term, especially when used in the context of schools. But the history of top-down technology projects has not served classroom teachers very well. Too often, the technology is used to replace what was already going on in classrooms, or to use a tablet as a textbook.

Ed Johnson, then asked us to consider this:

Atlanta Public Schools has developed a comprehensive plan to increase time and opportunity for students to receive the critical instruction lost this school year during the district’s six inclement weather days.”  APS Launches Virtual Classroom for All Students, Reported by East Atlanta Patch

Is Inclement weather being used as a Trojan Horse to carry out Bill Gates’ technology-dependent common standards?

To explore this a bit more, I went to the Inclement Weather Makeup Materials website, which is shown in Figure 1.   There are links, such as, for 3rd thru 5th and 6th thru 12th make up materials.  When we dig deep into the site, we finally come to content links for language arts, math, science, and social studies.   It’s not a very imaginative way to engage students in make up activity.  I have to wonder why this is being done in the first place.

Figure 1. Inclement Weather Makeup Materials Site. Source: APS
Figure 1. Inclement Weather Makeup Materials Site. Source: APS

For example,  the 3rd grade science link brings you to a three column page.  The first two columns are 3rd Grade science performance standards written in technical language of the Common Standards.   The last column lists Online Learning Support and Activities for the standards.  Some links take you to sites where students have to watch commercials, while others take you to “activities” that lack any sense of wonder, imagination, or inquiry.

Figure 2. Example of an Inclement Weather Make-up Site. Source: APS.

Figure 2. Example of an Inclement Weather Make-up Site. Source: APS.

It seems to me that it might be better to ask students to read an interesting book, and not spent time doing these types of activities. What do you think?

Do MOOCS Serve Schools or Corporations?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be following the historical trend of our infatuation with how technology can solve many of our problems in teaching and learning.  Since 2008, MOOCs have emerged not only as individual and free online courses (such as those offered at universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard, but have been packaged together as degree programs at Udacity, and at for-profit universities such as Ashford University, Capella University, Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.

There are a number of research issues including effectiveness, cost, and the nature of corporate/education partnerships.

These online courses and degree program didn’t drop out of the sky.  There is a long history here.

A Bit of History

Although the example in this article explores online courses and degrees at the college level, the content is relevant to K-12 burgeoning use of online courses, especially for middle and high schools.


In 1980, I purchased my first computer and modem, and later that day connected to a very primitive Internet (CompuServe, and BRS After Dark).  E-mail followed by using Bitnet, a university computer network founded in 1981.  By the late 1980s, I began using SOOHCs (Small Open Online Hybrid Courses) at Georgia State University utilizing e-mail and electronic bulletin boards for students to post and respond to comments and ideas of other students in the same course.  Many colleges and universities ventured into the application of these new technologies for teaching and learning.   Although the first virtual courses (online courses for middle and high schools) were developed at this time by the Concord Consortium, it was the creation of hybrid courses that blossomed during this early period in the 1990s.  These courses developed at the middle and high school levels, as well as at universities.

Teachers use several methods in creating a hybrid course.  Some include building WebPages and placing the course syllabus and its various elements on the web, or making use of a course management systems.  Course management systems have built-in tools that create an interactive online component such Blackboard, Nicenet or WebCT.

By building a Website or using a course management system, teachers used the resources of the web as an assistant in their approach to teaching.  This enabled them to carry out web-based teaching strategies in a seamless way.  The course website becomes a learning hub that organizes the work for teachers and students.  The course website included links to the course syllabus, an online bulletin board, and links to an assignment page, activities, and collaborative projects.

For teachers, however, the hybrid approach (SOOHCs) is a very practical alternative in which the teacher combines online and face-to-­face activities. Thousands of teachers are using this approach by creating their own interactive website which has aspects of the course syllabus, activities, projects and evaluation. Interactive websites can be easily created using free software to create your website. Blog software, such as WordPress, or Blogger, or wiki software such as Wikispaces are easy to use, and have features that enable you to create not only interactive, but powerful websites for your courses.  You can also use Google Docs or Soho Docs to manage your own files, and also make these available to your students and colleagues.

But probably more significant here is the fact that your students can be great agents and co-­collaborators in the development of websites, digital video of class projects, creators of Wikispaces, participants in Google Docs, generate Google Readers and Delicious links, perhaps for the benefit of younger students that they might indeed teach.  Follow this link for details about these Web 2.0 tools.

Network Science

One of the areas of Internet research and development that emerged during period this was “network science,” or, pooled data analysis.  Network science brought meaning to the concept of  “community of learners,” and because of the Internet, these communities were global in scope.  It was this construct that created such high interest among teachers and students.  The idea of communicating with students thousands of miles away motivated students and created intense interest with the school.

Network science projects involves students in real problems, including the study of soil erosion, chemical and biological pollution of streams, acid rain, and ground-level ozone.  Often, these problems have societal implications, and students take action based on their research.  Network science follows a cycle of learning and classroom activities that make it a compelling approach to science teaching. Table 1 outlines the cycle of learning that was worked out to design network projects (Hassard, J. 2009, Science as Inquiry, Goodyear).

Table 1. Network Science/Pooled Data Analysis

Data Collection at Local Site Teachers introduce the network project; schedule of local observations is established
Data Sharing Observational data is submitted via web forms.
Data Analysis Teachers work with students to analyze local data, aswell as data available on the network science website. In most cases, the data on the project’s website can be downloaded and into Excel or similar programs to create graphs and charts to help students with their analyses.
Taking Action The last step is for students to take action on their analyses.  At one level, students can publish/share their findings and conclusions by posting them on a website that they design. At another level, students can take action locally by sharing their findings and conclusions with the community with a conference, a presentation, or a fair.

Web-Based Projects

From the mid-1980s, nearly a dozen web-based projects were developed and field-tested within traditional courses, grades 5 – 12 in many countries.  For examples, through the Global Thinking Project (GTP), teachers from the U.S. and Russia designed a series of projects that were carried out using the pedagogy of network science.  Some examples can be found here.  At TERC and the Concord Consortium, which established the field of network science, many projects were developed, but more importantly, as with the Global Thinking Project, the projects were investigated through a variety of research programs.


MOOCs are the rage, especially when you consider that these courses can reach thousands, if not millions of students.  For example, to give you an idea of the range of MOOCs that are available, here is a link to a list of Top Ten Sites for Free with Elite Universities, courses offered at Blackboard and Udacity.

For years, universities have outsourced many of their technology courses and programs.  But in recent years, universities, realizing the potential and reach of the Internet, began offering many of their courses online–free.

But universities and K-12 schools have delved head first into developing courses and programs online as a replacement for face-to-face courses.  At the college level, for-profit schools have not only developed courses, but now make available degree programs online.

According to the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), an advocacy group that raises questions about affordable higher education, and what voices should be included in changes being made to the design and structure of courses and programs at the university level.   As is the case in K-12 education, a corporate type of reform is taking place in higher education resulting in reduced funding, high costs for students, and a call for accountability and efficiency, which some claim reduces the quality of student learning experiences.  And, as many of you will agree, many of “technology reforms” are going forward with little or no research about the quality and effectiveness of online learning.

In a paper by the CFHE, entitled The Promises of Online Higher Education, the authors ferret out conclusions indicating that online courses will not cut costs for higher education, and in fact will probably be more expensive in the long run.  Although MOOCs are typically free, investors, according to the CFHE paper realize that a healthy profit could be realized if only a few of the thousands that take these course pay for them.  The authors of the report question the motivation for these “massive” courses.  They write:

According to venture capitalist John Doerr (one of the main backers of the MOOC provider, Coursera) if a sufficient number of people out of “millions of learners” pay for premium services MOOC providers could easily make a healthy profit.[10]  As this observation suggests, the corporate provider and investor  enthusiasm for the “massiveness” of MOOCs may not be so much about spreading knowledge as it is about getting a big enough set of potential consumers to generate profits.  Campaign for the Future of Education. (October 16, 2013). CFHE Working Papers. In The “Promises” of Online Higher Education: Reducing Costs. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from

There is another line of questioning that resonates with K-12 education reform, and that is to whom are these reforms (such as MOOCs and Charter Schools) directed.  According to the CFHE report, MOOCs are focused primarily on middle and lower-income students, and non-elite institutions.  And there is some evidence that a traditional higher education (face-to-face courses) is the “real deal,” and employers favor this.  Who has the advantage here?  The advantage is for those who attend traditional universities, and the “more privileged students who attend them.”

Online courses are also promoted as saving money.  This is a stance taken at not only university level education, but also at the k-12 level.  At the K-12 level, we need to be cautious about online course management companies that wedge themselves into states and school districts on the basis of political and financial premises, and not on a basis grounded in research.  Who is served by online learning courses?  When coupled with research, we can begin to answer such questions.

The money-saving argument according to some in higher education is “one of the worst reasons” to embrace online learning.  Designing, organizing, managing, and revising online courses and programs is an expensive venture.  If the courses are to be valuable learning experiences for students, then innovative online pedagogy must be developed and used in these courses.

As I mentioned earlier, the outsourcing of programs, courses, and other services has taken place for a long time.  But recently, partnerships have developed between universities and corporate entities such as Udacity and Coursera.  In the CFHE report, a partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology, AT&T and Udacity resulted in a contract to offer a Master’s degree program in Computer Science.  This program will be piloted during the Spring Semester, 2014, applicants have until October 27 to apply.  At this time 8 courses are in production.  The cost of the degree is $6,600.  For more details on this new program, follow this link.

According to the CFHE report, Udacity, AT&T and Georgia Tech will spend about $3.1 million for a projected 200 students during the first term at a cost of about $15,700 per student. (Note: This is a discrepancy based on the Udacity webiste that says the program will cost $6,600.  The Georgia Tech arrangement with Udacity, according to the CFHE report, is not outside the norm for MOOCs.  But it seems to me that this arrangement is not in the interests of faculty who develop the online courses in that they cannot make the courses available elsewhere, and they are the ones who are responsible for updating and revising the courses.

The partnership among GaTech, AT&T and Udacity hope to service 10,000 or more students, with 8 professors (new hires), and assistants that will work for Udacity to provide feedback to students.  How many assistants will it take to service 10,000 students?  Will the quality of this Masters Degree rival the face-to-face degree on the Georgia Tech campus?

At the K-12 level, especially for high schools where more online course development and curriculum development takes place, concern should be raised about the push for more online learning, especially when we hear politicians like Jeb Bush, who claim that parents should have the choice for their students, and that online education will be cheaper for school districts.  If you go to the Bush website, Foundation for Excellence, you will find that his organization uses the same language that appears in all of the Race to the Top (RT3) work plans that I’ve read, e.g. career readiness, digital learning, effective teachers and leaders, outcome based funding, school choice, and standards and accountability.

Online learning is relatively new to middle and high schools, and colleges and universities.  MOOCs are the latest form of online courses, and need to be studied to find out who takes these courses, how many students complete MOOCs, and how effective are MOOCs as teaching and learning platforms.  An article on Inside Higher Ed reviewed research the high MOOC dropout rate.  According to some reports, the dropout rate is as high as 90%, but that might be due to that anyone can register for free, look around, and for one reason or another not even pursue the course, let along complete it.

For example, I’ve registered for a MOOC at Udacity, Introduction to Computer Science.  There are 11 lessons in the course.  I am still on lesson 1.  Will I complete the course?  Maybe.  But the point is, I could be easily identified as a dropout.  Or perhaps, as reported in the Inside Higher Ed article, I could be either a lurker, drop-in, passive participant, or an active participant.

That said, online behavior is very different from in-class behavior, including attendance and course completion.  When we started working with online courses and projects, rates of participation varied.  For hybrid courses, the participation in online discussions was higher than in The Global Thinking Project.  Expecting schools from around the world to keep up with emails, electronic bulletin boards discussions, data uploading and analysis was more difficult.  Much of this had to do with access to technology that was seamless, and this didn’t happen until schools upgraded telecommunications, and provided enough computers for more student and teacher involvement.

Since the early 90s, when we began this work, the Internet has been transformed, but the Internet has also transformed the behavior of humans.  MOOCs are here, and many of them are high quality courses.  In addition to studying the quality of online courses, we need to find out what creates good experiences for students.

Do MOOCs and K-12 online learning courses serve students or corporations?  What do you think?

Online Communities of Practice: Lessons from Yahoo

No doubt you’ve read the news reports telling us that Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, informed all Yahoo employees that they could no longer work at home. There were many people who felt that Mayer did not understand the value of having employees work at home. Some employees were outraged that they could no longer work at home. Yahoo is a very large Internet-based company, why in the world would the CEO order everyone back to work?

Tracy Grant, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote a piece about why working from home doesn’t always work. Her column focused on Marissa Mayer and telecommuting, and according to Grant, Marissa Mayer got it right. Grant has had a long experience at the Washington Post. In 1999, she was the newsroom’s first editor in charge of getting breaking news from reporters on “the new-fangled” thing called the world-wide web.

Communities of Practice

When companies like Yahoo enabled employees to work from home, they were extending to the Internet the community of practice that existed in Yahoo’s corporate headquarters. Working from home, employees could use tools such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing, social networking, and blogging to communicate with colleagues over the “net.” Grant points out the she worked from home as an editor at the Washington Post for years, but found that the quality of her work suffered.

The reason she gave for her work suffering was she was not in the office! She was not collaborating! She didn’t have the opportunity to run into colleagues in the hallways, or at break time. Another important point that Grant made was that serendipity was missing when you stayed at home to work. She realized that the whole (of a team) was greater than the sum of the parts.

Face-to-face communities of practice seem to have the advantage of serendipity. Some researchers have found that the lack of interaction in the workplace actually reduces the quality of one’s work by at least 5%. Researcher John Sullivan, a professor at San Francisco State University, suggests that more “innovation occurs when people meet and interact, stop and talk with each other, especially people who don’t normally work together.” Sullivan joins Tracy Grant in thinking that the move by CEO Mayer is smart one.

According to Sullivan, telecommuting stifles innovation.

The decision by CEO Mayer ought to stimulate discussion about online learning in higher education and secondary education. For the past 20 years, the idea of offering courses online whereby students can earn degrees at home has mushroomed. Remember the Stanford professors that enrolled more than 150,00 students in online noncredit and open enrollment courses on artificial intelligence. Online courses are available free from major universities. And online courses for middle and high school students have been available for more than a decade.

Should colleges and universities call in the troops that are taking their courses exclusively online? Should secondary schools re-evaluate the use of online coursework.

Face-to-Face, Hybrid and Online Courses

Higher Education

According to recent study (The Babson Survey Group), there are more than 6 million students enrolled in online courses. The study also reported that more than one-third of all higher education students take at least one online course and this figure is growing. However, as the researchers point out, there is still a debate about the effectiveness of online vs face-to-face instruction. As an alternative, courses that use a blended format of face-to-face and online learning are described as “hybrid”   Babson researchers define hybrid courses as those that use between 24% to 75% of the course to deliver content online and the other as face-to-face. They note also that hybrids can be courses that use one of the several online Learning Management Systems such as WebCt or Blackboard. WebCt, which I used for many years at Georgia State University in science education courses, is a course management system that enables instructors to use tools such as discussion boards, mail systems, live chat, document and web pages.

I talked with a friend of mine this weekend about online and face-to-face learning. He is enrolled in a university degree program that is 100% online, but he indicated that he is considering transferring to a university degree program in which nearly all of the courses are taught face-to-face. He’s been enrolled in the online program for about a year and a half, and has discovered that he is isolated from other learners, even though the courses use Chalkboard which enables students to do online collaboration. Indeed some of his courses require team learning projects, but he has not found these to be fulfilling. He’s doing we’ll in the courses, but feels he’s missing out on some of the attributes of getting a degree at a traditional brick and mortor university.

I asked him if he had choice would he take an online course or one that was offered in a face-to-face environment. “Face-to-face,” he said.

In a recent New York Times article entitled The Trouble with Online College, research is reported from work done by Columbia University’s Community Research College about online learning. Follow this link to access their online and technology research reports. For example, students who traditionally did not do well in face-to-face courses, did not do well in online courses. Males, younger students, Black students, and student with lower grade point averages struggled in courses such as English and social science. In another study which compared performances in online courses vs face-to-face courses, the results do not bode well for online instruction. The researchers found that completion rates were lower for students in online courses. Students’ grades also suffered, and the progress of the students moving along in a program of studies was undercut.

In an other study comparing online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses over a five-year period, researchers found that students with stronger academic backgrounds enrolled in online courses. However, students who took online courses were more likely to fail or withdraw and also less likely to return to school. Students enrolled in hybrid courses appeared to perform as well as students enrolled in face-to-face courses.

High School

At the high school level, millions of students are enrolled in online courses. In another Babson Survey Group study, researchers completed a two-year study of online learning by surveying a sample of school principals in the state of Illinois. In a comparison of results in Illinois with a national sample, areas of similarity included the following:

  • Online credit recovery courses are proliferating across the country as well as in Illinois.
  • Concerns about costs and course quality continue to dominate the opinions of the principals in both Illinois and across the country.
  • Quality concerns are not preventing the expansion of online learning.
  • High schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop courses in house.

Researchers also reported that credit recovery courses (making up coursework because of illness, being homebound, scheduling conflicts, academic failure) are becoming the major type of online course. And most of the providers of these courses are online private companies. Principals were somewhat concerned about the quality of online instruction, yet, the data show that online learning is popular, especially for lower-performing students. Maybe there is no other choice for these students besides dropping out.

The principals reported that the pedagogy is evolving differently than in college courses. Many students are getting assistance from teachers and and tutors while they enroll in online courses. And in some high schools, students “take” the online course in a lab or library, which enables students to communicate with adults, as well as peers.  Communication with others face-to-face appears to be an important finding in the Illinois study.

Online, Face-to-Face or Hybrid: Which Would You Choose

The Yahoo model of learning, at least based on the decision to bring employers back to the work place, appears to resonate with some of the findings in the Babson study. Collaborating with others face-to-face underscores the human need for team learning, and working with and assisting each other to pursue shared goals.

The effectiveness of fully online degree programs is not as solid as some educators would have us believe.  In a response to a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis report on the effectiveness of fully online courses, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Thomas Bailey of Columbia University have found that the claim that online courses are superior to face-to-face does not hold.  It does not hold for students enrolled in fully online courses of semester length, and there is no evidence that we can generalize to the traditionally underserved population of students.  The researchers write in their report that:

the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.

What are your experiences with using online learning with your students?  Do you think fully online courses are more effective than hybrid or face-to-face from your experience?