ELOs: How Community-Based Learning Advances the Cyber Education Agenda

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This is the third installment in a series on learning ecosystems. For more information see these related posts: “Future Ready” schools and digital badges.

A key tenet of Ed Reform 2.0 is “anytime any place learning.” Detaching education from the normal school day and physical school buildings will permit the transfer of face-to-face classroom instruction to digital platforms. Once implemented, these systems of “personalized learning” will efficiently extract children’s data so their futures can be channeled through black box algorithms, while significantly reducing staff costs since online instructors can theoretically “teach” thousands of children at a time. If reformers were up front about it, “Future Ready Schools” would be a much harder sell. And since they are nothing if not expert at framing their issues, my belief is that they intend to use Extended/Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) as cover for this planned cyber takeover. Most Americans would never willingly trade neighborhood schools for a chrome book education, but reformers will sell the public on project-based learning in communities while minimizing the central role devices are intended to play. Out-of-School-Time (OST) learning will be presented as a welcome relief, an antidote even, to the harm wrought by No Child Left Behind. It’s all part of the plan, so please don’t be fooled.

ELOs are learning experiences that by definition happen OUTSIDE the classroom. This makes them a perfect foil for digital learning. These learning opportunities, pitched as experiential and hands-on, will readily capture the imaginations of students and parents who have been steamrolled by the test-and-punish system. In selling the 21st Century “redesigned” ecosystem version of education, reformers will play up exciting partnership programs like robotics, filmmaking, and CTE apprenticeships. There will be allusions to educational technology, its importance for 21st century work force skills, but the extent to which this new version of public education relies on adaptive, data-mined modules will be downplayed.

ELOs are vastly different from school-community partnerships of the past. We’re not talking about an organization working closely with a teacher or group of teachers and their classes on a unit of instruction- planning field trips, research opportunities, projects and presentations. This is not about collaboration, organizations coming INTO schools to do their work. No. ELOs are about sending students OUTSIDE schools, individually, to earn credit towards graduation by demonstrating competencies tied to set national standards. While a teacher may work with a student to develop an ELO plan and monitor their progress, they have no instructional role in the process. They are essentially case managers handling the paperwork.

The Afterschool Corporation (TASC) is an ELO proponent. George Soros founded TASC in 1998 with funding from the Open Society Foundations. In 2012 TASC prepared a policy brief entitled “Learn Anytime, Anywhere: Rethinking How Students Earn Credit Beyond School Hours.” The document outlines strategies states can employ to expand opportunities for students to earn credit in alternative settings. Among those recommendations are:

  • Giving districts the ability to award school credit via proficiency based assessments.
  • Providing stimulus money to develop new credit-bearing ELOs.
  • Creating databases that match students to ELO providers.
  • Transferring public school funding to Out-of-School-Time education programs/partners. Tie funding to mastery rather than enrollment.
  • Encouraging the use of ELOs as part of school turnaround strategies.

I encourage you to investigate the amount of foundation support being poured into Out-of-School Time (OST) learning where you live. If it’s a major metropolitan area, my guess is there is quite a bit of money flowing. Does your city have a cool new maker space? Neighborhood robotics program? Culturally responsive creative writing center? 21st Century Community Learning Center? Are unusual things showing up in your library? Things like 3D printers and culinary programs? Maybe your town is a HIVE learning community or a LRNG city?

Once you have a sense of the OST programs and their funding sources, consider the following:

  • Are the foundations funding non-profit community-based learning spaces ALSO advocating for appropriate funding of our public schools, reduced class sizes, access to safe-healthy buildings and adequate instructional materials? And if not, why not?
  • What interest might those funders have in controlling the public education sphere? Do they influence what gets taught and what does not through their grant making?
  • How about those community partners? Does the existence of their organization or educational program depend upon continued denial of resources to the schools they serve?
  • Are the programs being offered by community partners something that would normally have been found IN a school 15 years ago?
  • Are your community’s OST or after school programs experimenting with digital badging?
  • What data are these partners collecting on students, and with whom is it shared?

ELOs further privatization interests, but in this case community-based non-profits and workforce partners are the ones who stand to benefit, not charter schools. This is one way Ed Reform 2.0 differs from Ed Reform 1.0. Years of budget cuts have taken their toll on neighborhood schools, and many districts serving majority low-income populations are no longer able to provide a well-rounded curriculum with arts, music, school libraries, sports, and extracurricular activities. As a result, schools have become reliant on public-private partnerships to fill gaps where they can.

In recent years the Community School movement has risen in prominence, and the ranks of organizations vying to meet the needs of students caught in intentionally defunded school systems has swelled. It should be noted that while ELOs are a significant component of Community School movement nationally, they are rarely part of the public discussion. You can read more about issues with a community school model here. It should be noted that Strive Together is a major player in this movement. Pushing pathways from cradle to career, Strive is a program of Knowledgeworks. Knowledgeworks, based in Cincinnati OH, is funded by the Gates Foundation and one of the most prominent advocates for the learning ecosystem model that relies on badges and ELOs.

Unless we call attention to it, few will question the growing role of Out-of-School Time, project-based learning in public education. Even if it means tacitly accepting that due to ongoing austerity this type of learning has less and less of a place WITHIN schools, people are likely to accept it because something is better than nothing. But by making this concession, rather than fighting for the well-resourced schools our children deserve, we normalize the starvation of neighborhood schools and lay the groundwork for the transition to a decentralized learning ecosystem. Schools are being hollowed out. Many of the activities we, as children, were fond of-clubs, plays, and creative writing-are being turned over to the OST sector. Certified teachers with knowledge of child development and pedagogy are being forsaken, abandoned in their device-filled classrooms and left to enforce the data-extraction process. We shouldn’t allow that to happen. We need to reclaim joy and bring it back INTO our schools. Once we start outsourcing credit, elective or core, to community partners the days of neighborhood schools are truly numbered.

Part two will provide background on the rise of ELOs as a tool of education reform as well as examples of how they are being implemented nationally.