Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight

Those seeking to privatize our schools know framing the conversation is key. That’s why institutions like the MacArthur Foundation have put serious time and money into social science research. Focus group results have been refined into sophisticated campaigns designed to convince us that digital education for children is superior to face-to-face instruction with a certified teacher. The goal? Put technology front and center in 21st century school redesign, and push human beings to the sidelines. Please disregard the fact that many giants in the tech world choose to send their children to Waldorf schools where natural materials and learning in relationship are the norm. I’m hoping this cicada killer post will be a bit of a shock to the system, one that can help reframe the current conversation about digital education and spur us to action. I know you’re curious, but bear with me, the insect portion of the story comes near the end.

We’re actually making it easy for the digital education lobby. Most of us ARE enamored of technology. It’s tempting to be lulled by arguments that adaptive online learning will somehow optimize our children’s brains for the new economy. If it’s innovative, it must be good. Personalization? Bring it on! And for students in underfunded schools with leaky roofs and tainted water, the arrival of technology brings a glimmer of hope that someone actually cares. But are we bridging a digital divide? Or are we setting our schools up for digital dehumanization down the road?

Over the past decade education activists have been conditioned to see the struggle between neighborhood schools and charter schools as our primary fight. Pitched battles have been waged for years, up to and including the successful opposition to Ballot Question 2 which would have lifted Massachusetts’ cap on charter schools. While we’ve exhausted ourselves fighting bricks and mortar charter expansion a new threat has slipped in with little fanfare, and that threat is hybrid or blended learning. It could actually end up being MORE devastating than its charter predecessor.

Barely a month after Question 2 was voted down, the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Ed Tech Consortium was launched to leverage technology in K12 education across the Commonwealth. MAPLE was funded in part by the Nellie Mae Foundation, the force behind the roll out of  Competency Based Education  in New England. The Center for Collaborative Education has also had a hand expanding personalized learning in the region through their involvement with the Next Generation Learning Challenges program (use the link to check out the partners, really!). According to minutes from a June 2016 briefing of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on the Digital Learning Program, the idea for MAPLE was drawn from a 2014 report, The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years,  prepared by Sir Michael Barber, of Brightlines who is also Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, and the Massachusetts Business Education Alliance with funding from the Barr, Nellie Mae, and Gates Foundations.

Nellie Mae Foundation Grant for Maple issued February 18, 2016 for $81,750

LearnLaunch Institute  was selected to manage the consortium, which will connect entrepreneurs, inventors, and industry affiliates with school districts interested in adopting what is essentially a value-oriented digital approach to instruction.

The MAPLE personalized learning webpage hits all the CBE touchstones:

  • Competency-Based Progression-check
  • Personalized Pathways-Go as fast or as slow as you want, but stay in your lane.
  • Learner Profiles-Just sit back as we mine your data, academic and behavioral.
  • Flexible Learning Environments-You don’t even have to come to school!
  • Technology-It makes all of the above affordable, at scale!

The quality of cyber education has been roundly criticized. Which leads me to question why so many give it a pass when it’s brought into neighborhood schools dressed up as hybrid-blended learning? We owe it to our children to examine digital education critically. In an era of ongoing austerity, we must set priorities. What is actually BEST for children, human connection OR devices? Make that determination and then fight for what is right and just. Do not settle for cheap and expedient.

Reed Hastings founder of Netflix, investor in the NewSchools Venture Fund, and supporter of KIPP and Rocketship Academy Charter Schools is opposed to locally controlled school boards. He sees wide adoption of technology as a strategy Charter Management Organizations can use to cut costs (human staff) and expand their brand. As charter brands expand, local control shrinks. Now, we are entering a NEW phase of privatization where ESSA policies favor “innovative, personalized” learning and assessments. Those policies support the rapid deployment of technology that will give Hastings and other ed-tech entrepreneurs a platform to launch an assault on neighborhood schools from WITHIN.

In 2010, Reed Hastings through the Charter School Growth Fund bought Dreambox Learning for $15 million with an additional $10 million to develop new content areas and aggressively promote the company’s e-learning footprint in schools across the nation. While Dreambox was purchased with an equity investment from the Charter School Growth Fund, this learning management system is widely used in neighborhood schools across the country. This includes affluent suburban districts that imagine themselves to be tech-forward having jumped on the personalized learning bandwagon. While “Product Partners” for MAPLE have yet to be identified, it seems likely Dreambox will be in the mix as their Vice President of Learning is among the speakers at LearnLaunch’s annual “Across Boundaries” Conference scheduled for February 2-3, 2017 in Boston.

Realize this: neighborhood schools are allowing themselves to be colonized by low-quality online education, the very same programs used by charter companies to cut costs and reduce teaching staff. And the software fees school districts are paying  directly benefit privatization interests. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now for the insect part of the post: in the dog days of summer here in Pennsylvania you will sometimes see lawns full of large wasps that circle intently a few feet above the ground. Reaching up to two inches in length, cicada killers patiently hunt their prey, capturing it on the wing. After paralyzing an unfortunate victim, the wasp drags the cicada into an underground burrow where an egg is laid on the immobilized host. As the larva grows it consumes the cicada, still alive, from within.

It is a graphic image, but in many respects apt to our present situation. Hybrid learning is the cicada killer larva poised to consume our schools from within. Weakened by prolonged budget cuts, teacher shortages, and facilities beyond repair, our schools are highly vulnerable to such predation. What many are welcoming as innovative and cost-effective, will ultimately lead to the demise of neighborhood schools as learning communities of people who collaborate, discuss, and grow together in relationship beyond the watchful eyes of devices and data extraction.

So one year 10% of the instructional day is given over to canned online curriculum, 25% the next, then what? 40%? Eventually you reach a point where your neighborhood schools are no longer YOUR schools anymore. No one should be diverting public funds into the coffers of those who seek to dismantle public education altogether.

Now is the time we all must take a stand for the things we believe in. The next fight, the REAL fight for the future of public education will be digital versus human. Are we willing to put ourselves on the line for the rights of children to have an education grounded in face-to-face interaction and freedom from profiling? Will we fight to preserve neighborhood schools as physical spaces within our communities? Or will we cede that ground to devices and drop in centers? Massachusetts you are on the front lines now. We are looking to you. Will you quietly accept a statewide ed-tech “personalized” learning program? Or will you question MAPLE? Will we all take a loud, public stand for humane education? Can we live with the consequences of silence if that is the choice we make?





How exactly did the Department of Defense end up in my child’s classroom?

You cannot fully understand what is happening with Future Ready school redesign, 1:1 device programs, embedded assessments, gamification, classroom management apps, and the push for students in neighborhood schools to supplement instruction with online courses until you grasp the role the federal government and the Department of Defense more specifically have played in bringing us to where we are today.

In 1999, just as cloud-based computing was coming onto the scene, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 and created the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative or ADL.

Section 5 of that order set up “The Advisory Committee on Expanding Training Opportunities” to advise the president on what should be done to make technology-based education a reality for the ENTIRE country. The intent was not only to prioritize technology for “lifelong learning,” but also shift the focus to developing human capital and in doing so bind education to the needs of industry and the economy.

Representatives of Cisco Systems and Jobs for the Future co-chaired the committee. Others around the table included the e-learning industry, student loan financiers, educational testing companies, human resource managers, labor market analysts, universities, community colleges, chambers of commerce, city government, and a futurist. George Bush incorporated Clinton’s work into Executive Order 13218, the 21st Century Work Force Initiative, the following year giving the effort a bipartisan stamp of approval. The Obama administration continued this push for online learning in the National Broadband Plan, which contained an entire chapter on digital education, as well as through a variety of 21st century school redesign efforts like ConnectEd, Future Ready Schools, and Digital Promise.

ADL began as an electronic classroom for the National Guard and later expanded to serve the entire Defense Department. In 1998 the government decided to use it for ALL federal employee training. And by leveraging its influence over federal contracting the government successfully pushed for standards that enabled wide adoption of cloud-based instructional technology.

As the Department of Defense worked on e learning for the military in the mid 1990s, the Department of Education put together the nation’s first educational technology plan, which was completed in 1996. A tremendous infusion of federal funds was released into schools to support technology purchases and expand Internet access. The FCC’s E-Rate program was established that year.

At the same time IMS Global began to advance implementation of e-learning systems. This non-profit began as a higher education trade group and now has over 150 contributing members, including IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Pearson, and hundreds upon hundreds of affiliated companies and institutions that use its open source specifications. The Gates Foundation is a platinum level sponsor of four major IMS Global initiatives.

Over twenty years IMS Global members shared research and resources, and built up an industry now valued at $255 billion annually. So if you still wonder why they won’t give education back to human teachers, you simply need to take a close look at the many politically connected interests that are counting on digital education becoming the new paradigm.

IMS Global and ADL teamed up to establish common standards for meta data and content packaging of so-called learning objects. In the world of 21st century education reformers anticipate school will become largely about children interacting with these online learning objects-a playlist education if you will where based on your past performance algorithms will serve up what they think you need to know next. For folks like Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg, such an education where students consume pre-determined content seems the ultimate in efficiency. Gamified experiences and online simulations being developed through ADL and DARPA in partnership with many universities and non-profits, will also provides a structure for to capture students’ soft skills and shape their behavior.

The first product ADL and IMS Global came up with was called SCORM or Shared Content Object Reference Model. SCORM provided pathways for the bits and pieces of e-learning content to get to a particular learning management system, like Dreambox, accessed by a particular student. It tracked elements like course completion, pages viewed, and test scores.

By 2008, there was a desire to track a student’s interaction with devices OUTSIDE of fixed learning management systems. New devices and games often did not work within the SCORM framework. Ed-tech proponents wanted students to be able to interact with online content in new ways, so they could record interactions taking place on mobile platforms, directly through browser searches, or via Internet of Things sensors.

ADL commissioned a new specification that could track activity streams as students interacted with online media. The result was xAPI or Tin Can API, which debuted in 2011. Now all sorts of data can be monitored, tracked, and put into data lockers or learning record stores. LRS’s can store information about what videos you watched, what online quizzes you took and the results, what websites you visited, what books you purchased, what games you played, what articles you read or annotated. It can also capture data gathered via sensors, RFID chips, and biometric monitors. LRSs collect data about all sorts of so-called “informal” learning experiences. The MacArthur Foundation has been funding considerable research in digital media learning (or DML) in informal settings for youth.

With the development of xAPI, the Ed Reform 2.0 vision of “anytime, any place” learning, learning where human teachers and school buildings are no longer required, could proceed more quickly. IMS Global is now supporting Mozilla’s open badge initiative. xAPI meta data could eventually be combined with badge programs and Blockchain/Bitcoin technology to create e-portfolios (online credential systems). And if automatic credential verification and micro-payment systems come to fruition, a virtual wallet voucher system could devastate already precarious public education funding.

The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative is a major player in the development of mobile, game-based, and virtual learning environments. They also conduct extensive research and development on online “personal learning assistants” and with the aim of creating digital personal tutors for all of us. Their research is carried out at four Cooperative Laboratories or co-labs, which are located in Madison, WisconsinAlexandria, Virginia; Memphis Tennessee; and Orlando, Florida. Each lab supports partnerships with private sector interests and institutions of higher education.

The Wisconsin co-lab works specifically on academic projects, many involving the Florida Virtual School with whom they have a long-standing relationship. The co-lab’s focus is on competency-based education. They’ve partnered with the Educational Psychology department at the University of Wisconsin Madison to create educational gaming platforms and maintain over 60 other partnerships to research and refine game-based online instruction. Another focus has been on developing MASLO or “Mobile Access to Supplemental Learning Objects,” which is enabled by xAPI technology. The Tennessee co lab has been doing research on an intelligent tutoring system that even recognizes human emotion in the person using a given device and tries to counteract negative emotion.

DARPA-the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also in the business of developing gaming simulations and intelligent tutoring systems. They work closely with the office of the Navy. Their “Engage” program was set up in 2012 and through partnerships with Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, UCLA, and the University of Denver, created numerous games for K12 students based on Alternate Reality Teaching “Our Space” in virtual environments. Instruction in Social Emotional learning was built into the games. Their Full Spectrum Learning project aims to create an online platform that can monitor students and identify their strengths and weaknesses and revise the experience adaptively based on the data generated.

The arrival of ADL, changed public education in a very fundamental way. It is no coincidence that the destructive No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in the year after it was created. Over the next fifteen years, with bipartisan support, education incrementally gave way to training, creativity to compliance, serendipity to standards, and human connection to digital isolation. As the curriculum became narrower and narrower, emphasizing standardized test scores and demonstrations of skill, education became a hollowed out exercise, something could be digitized and outsourced to corporations.

Data-driven, standards-based tactics have been intentionally employed to regiment the very human process of teaching and learning. During ADL’s first decade, the imperative was to get technology and Internet into schools. Once that infrastructure was in place, they could concentrate on restructuring the curriculum making screen-based education central and pushing the teacher into a secondary role on the sidelines.

Common Core State Standards were a big part of that process. The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created the standards in 2009. Not as many people know about the Common Education Data Standards that were established at the same time. CEDS enabled the collection and sharing of vast amounts of data across sectors from Pre-K through Community College.

The Learning Registry is another important piece of the puzzle. It was created in 2011 as a partnership between the US Department of Education and once again the Department of Defense. It is an open source distribution network of learning resources that holds meta data and para data. It is important to understand that learning objects can be tagged in many ways, including adding tags for a variety of standards. For that reason even if we get rid of Common Core State Standards, it wouldn’t necessarily make a dent in slowing down the rollout of adaptive, digital curriculum.

In addition to meta data, which is data that describes individual education resources, the Learning Registry also collects para data through the use of emitters that can be mounted on smart boards in classrooms.

Para data describes how online learning resources are used:

  • Who’s doing the searches?
  • What students are in the room with the person doing the searches?
  • A history of searches conducted
  • What is being viewed, downloaded and shared?
  • What is favorited or embedded?
  • To which standards is the selected content aligned?
  • What tags have been added to content?
  • How is it being incorporated into the curriculum?
  • What grade is it being used in?
  • Where is it being used?
  • What is the audience is for the item?
  • What the instructional setting is.
  • What is the experience level of the class and the teacher?

The devices in our children’s classrooms are largely there because a specific set of government policies have prioritized technology over human educators for the past fifteen years. These devices are watching us as much as we are watching them. And we should be aware that many of the programs in use are direct outgrowths of work done by the Department of Defense in partnership with private sector interests and institutions of higher education. Technology can be used for good, but not if it is given an unconditional pass in our classrooms. Shine a light on educational surveillance. Ask questions. Talk to others and organize!


Understanding the End Game

I gave this talk yesterday to a couple of groups of Philadelphia teachers and activists who wanted to better understand the ways education reform will be changing post-ESSA.

The push for conditioning and compliance will continue as we finalize the transition to an education system where surveillance is branded as data-driven “personalization” and devices monitor our children’s classrooms continuously. It’s difficult to organize and fight such a nebulous foe.  In this hour-long talk I hope to convey the reality of the reformers’ true end game- a future of automated teaching, virtual schooling, and community-based badging programs where workforce skills trump knowledge and critical thinking in the human capital game.  A future where parents and students must cobble together dozens of credentialed online and offline educational opportunities for their e-portfolios, feebly attempting to pay for them from meager virtual wallets/Educational Savings accounts. Watch it with the accompanying slide-share open. Many slides have links to resources you can investigate. Please share this post after watching, so we start to understand exactly what we’re up against and begin to organize effective resistance at a national level.