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?





One thought on “Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight

  1. Jeanne T. Allen says:

    Alison, I was the person who clapped when you said “David Noble” yesterday at Neighborhood Networks. How
    can I get in touch with you about helping you get your message across in Northwest Philadelphia? I started
    teaching David Noble’s work at the U-W-Madison in the late 70’s; I taught a grad seminar on the industrial-
    nation of Am popular culture for several years. Noble wrote a rec for me for my National Museum of Am History Fellowship 1987. Briefly, I teach and speak from his critique. So I’m thrilled at your analysis but know as a teacher that it has to be “translated” depending on the audience. I thought you were very effective yesterdayand would like to join your team. 332 East Allens Lane Philadelphia 19119 Jeanne Allen

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