From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade

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If we hope to preserve neighborhood schools for future generations we must recognize how reformers are reframing the idea of public education in dangerous new ways. A coordinated campaign of ALEC legislation, philanthropic investments, and slick re-branding is underway with the ultimate goal of replacing school buildings and certified, human teachers with decentralized, unregulated learning eco-systems and non-credentialed mentors and/or AI “tutors.”

It is a challenging concept to grasp. Therefore, I have decided to work on a series of posts. Taken together, I hope they will provide a base of information that people can share with others. This initial post will provide a framework for understanding the concept of a learning eco-system. Subsequent ones will cover: school redesign, digital badging, credit-bearing ELOs, Social Impact Bond financing, and changes to teacher training/hiring.

What is a learning eco-system?

Proponents of a data-driven, technology-mediated approach to public education see 21st-century learning as a “quest” in which participants diligently work to assemble proof that they’ve obtained the assorted skills and bits of knowledge they need to compete for jobs that pay a living wage. Rather than a humanistic approach that values individual creativity and civic discourse, the focus is on gathering data and shaping children to become standardized cogs in service of the global economy. The intent is to maintain the status quo, not to develop thinkers who might tip the apple cart and create a future that better serves the needs of the masses. Screen time trumps face time.

By shifting how we think about education-from a human process that happens within a community of learners to a game in which students demonstrate standards and accumulate badges-reformers aim to move much of the  K12 education process out of physical school buildings where face-to-face interaction is the primary mode of instruction, and into virtual classrooms, game environments, cultural institutions, and work settings. This is how they will attempt to replace neighborhood schools with learning eco-systems.

By learning ecosystem, we mean a network of relationships among learning agents, learners, resources, and assets in a specific social, economic, and geographic context.

As we look ten years out, we see great potential for education stakeholders to create diverse learning ecosystems that are learner centered, equitable, modular and interoperable, and resilient.  But we worry that we might be more likely to create fractured landscapes in which only those learners whose families have the time, money, and commitment to customize or supplement their learning journeys have access to high-quality personalized learning that reflects their interests and meets their needs.” Katherine Prince, Knowledgeworks

Financialization of the education sector requires separating “education” from school buildings that remain under the control of local school boards and unionized teachers and administrators. Free market principles cannot prevail if educational experiences remain subject to local oversight and trained, veteran teachers continue to be part of the conversation.

Reformers propose to replace our “outdated, factory-model” neighborhood schools with learning eco-systems. There is considerable talk about redesigning education for 21st-century learners. The Ed Reform 2.0 landscape for K12/P20 is built upon the premise that “anytime, any where learning” is the best option to train students to navigate the gig economy. Proponents of learning-ecosystems seek disruption and radical reinvention. They picture a future where big-data and algorithms create efficient pools of human capital for use by global markets. For them grade levels, peer groups, report cards, and diplomas are a thing of the past.

The above quote, by Katherine Price, Director of Strategic Foresight at Knowledgeworks, indicates that even the private sector has qualms about how this transformation may play out. The essay “A Learning Day 2037,” by Elizabeth Merritt of the American Alliance of Museums uses Moya’s story to show what happens when the “vibrant learning grid” doesn’t exactly fulfill its promise, especially for children on the margins of society. It is interesting to note that Knowledgeworks, a long-time partner with the Gates Foundation, is a major player in the push for learning eco-systems. Knowledgeworks is also involved with community schools initiatives through their program StriveTogether that promotes data-driven decision-making for children from “cradle to career.”

Widespread adoption of “personalized” digital education platforms underpins the learning eco-system model, as does reliance on big-data (academic and social-emotional) to guide students on their appropriate workforce “pathway” and reinforce desirable behaviors like “deep learning.” They see children as dynamic sets of skills, competencies and personality traits that can be quantified, sorted, and placed in digital portfolios.

The story of your personal evolution as a thinking, questioning, curious member of society? Not important except to the extent that you can put a badge on it, and they can use it to profile you. Learning in community, learning in relationship to others, also not important. If they can’t match it with a data tag, it does not factor into the equation. Those life-changing memories we hold in our hearts from our time in school are not the kinds of things you can easily upload to a “Learning Record Store.”

So, what types of experiences could a learning eco-system contain? Really, almost anything to which you can assign a standard and slap on a badge. Sample personalized playlists might include:

Watching a video

Listening to a podcast

Completing an audiobook

Playing a online-game

Participating in a virtual reality experience

Going to a museum-even a “virtual museum tour”

Participating in an online community forum

Doing a webx chat with an online “tutor”

Completing a virtual “lab” experiment

Working at your after school job

Participating in a after school club

Going to a rock-climbing gym

Providing “volunteer” tech support to your school district

And you can see how this approach to education expands to encompass workforce development in this eye-opening video from the Institute for the Future “Learning is Earning.” Data and proof of achieving mastery or competencies tied to standards will be tracked and documented through software like xAPI. The items in the above list are not “bad.” It is the idea that they could, in the present climate of austerity education budgets, become substitutes for authentic, in-school learning that concerns me. I’m sure in the hands of a thoughtful educator, many of the ideas noted could be used in moderation to enhance a school-based educational experience.

BUT the learning eco-system model is designed to MARGINALIZE the human teacher. Teachers are meant to be “guides-on-the-side,” staying in the background, checking the playlists, pathways, and portfolios, rather than providing direct instruction to students, building relationships with them, or creating classroom community. Most of these activities do NOT depend on children actually being IN a school building. As 1:1 device initiatives become the norm, students can demonstrate their “mastery” from almost any location that has Wi-Fi. And this is how we end up outsourcing oversight of our children’s education to unknown parties. I fear the day we allow education to become an elaborate game of Pokémon Go, where “anyone can grant an edu-block.”

In the personalized learning environment, children, young children who have very limited experience in the world, are expected to find their own direction, their own passion, which is incredibly troubling. Or worse, they may have their direction chosen FOR them based on analysis of unknown data generated from online stealth assessments or third-party survey tools. It is scary to consider a child may have their future life choices constrained by unknowingly expressing an interest in an academic subject in elementary school. Perhaps the high school junior will be denied access to a graphic design class after having expressed an interest in medicine as a ten year old? If children step off the assigned path, will they be castigated for not being gritty or resilient and then remediated until they comply? The government has set up a maze of developmentally inappropriate standards, and now the “personalized” learning model is forcing teachers to take a spot on the sidelines and watch as things unfold.

Is it not the purpose of K12 education to provide a rich set of experiences and material that children can draw upon to craft, adapt, and refine their identities based on their own ways of being in the world? Aren’t connections to their teachers, classmates, and school staff paramount? We know that economic circumstances will require coming generations to be creative problems solvers, so why put our kids in educational and emotional straightjackets under the guise of giving them “personalized” cyber educations? It is about control, limiting access to information and human contact, and monetizing our children’s data.

It would be very naive to think given the limited public funds being invested in children, we would EVER have the resources required to maintain THREE systems of education: neighborhood schools, virtual schools, AND community-based learning eco-systems. If past experience is any measure, bricks-and-mortar neighborhood schools are going to get the short end of the stick. Which may be why districts seem intent on investing in so much technology as their facilities fall into decrepitude.

In the land of learning eco-systems everyone goes it alone. You might mix with others here and there, peers or mentors or pathway guides, but it is a “personalized” journey. They seem to be tapping into some sort of warped American ideal of individualism. I am special. I have an education “playlist” designed just for me. It is exclusive. It is one of a kind. And the reformers are thinking…Don’t ask questions. We will optimize you based on our exhaustive knowledge of who you are. We know all your 1’ and 0’s. We know more about you than YOU know. We will put you in your place, but we will be very careful in making you believe you had a choice in the matter.

Neighborhood schools are among the last public spaces where open, civic discourse can take place. They are supposed to be safe spaces where children are nurtured. They are spaces where people can come together. It is imperative that we fight for their continued existence. Trading them in for learning eco-systems or community drop-in learning centers would be a very bad idea. Next up-Future Ready Schools.

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6 thoughts on “From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade”

  1. AWESOME is all I can say. You said it all and did it extremely well. So few want to believe what is happening but the solution is simple if we can get enough people to see the truth. “It is easier to believe a believable lie than the unbelievable truth” Dr. Sam Blumenfeld. We somehow must get people to see the believable lie and accept the unbelievable truth. This series might play a big role. Thank you!!

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  2. Another smart and insightful post.

    One question that I had was regarding the ending paragraph:

    “Neighborhood schools are among the last public spaces where open, civic discourse can take place. They are supposed to be safe spaces where children are nurtured. They are spaces where people can come together. It is imperative that we fight for their continued existence.”

    I think we should be fighting to protect neighborhood schools, but most don’t function as you suggest they are supposed to, as public space. So how do you propose that we might protect neighborhood schools, while also pushing them to live up to this democratic vision?

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    1. I don’t by any means think any of this will be easy, but here are some thoughts:

      1. Get business out of public education-and that includes non-profits and philanthropies not grounded in or run by the communities supposedly being served.

      2. Push for full PUBLIC funding for ALL schools to offer a rich set of curricular and extra-curricular programs and sufficient educators and support staff to meet the educational and emotional needs of children WITHIN each school.

      3. Safeguard HUMAN relationships in education.

      4. Emphasize the importance of teaching children to be empowered, creative thinkers rather than pushing workforce readiness at very young ages.

      5. Work to create communities of learning that embrace parents and the resources of the larger community, while respecting the autonomy of the school as a unique physical place.

      6. Build incentives into the design and development of schools that encourage families of different backgrounds to participate as full members of school communities and share their culture and outlook with one another. Build a culture of respectful dialogue and acceptance.

      7. Work to break down the idea that children should be defined by their data. Push back on PII data collection.

      Ok, gotta run and do some weekend errands.

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