"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blended Learning: Corporate Profits and the New Teaching Machines

Before there was the Race to the Trough Top front man, Arne Duncan, to hand out billions in tax dollars to bribe states and municipalities to go along with the ed reform plans handed down by the blighted knights of the Business Roundtable (Gates, Broad, Walton, Dell, Fisher, et al), there was Tom Vander Ark,  who was hired by Gates to pilot  the RTTT model of generous extortion for the Gates Foundation.  Vander Ark handed out hundreds of millions in Gates checks for the small schools project and a number of other half-baked losing causes that totaled up to more than a billion dollars.

Now Vander Ark is leveraging his connections from 7 years as check delivery boy for the Gates Foundation to shape the education agenda in ways that will pay a handsome return on Bill and Melinda's beneficence over the years.  It's called blended learning, and it represents a poisonous mixture of bad pedagogy and big business; it is gaining footholds in the poorest schools (or in KIPP schools that pretend to be poor) where resistance is the weakest and resources are in shortest supply.  And yes, it does involve computers and computer software and computerized assessments, with the added value of cutting the teaching staff by as much as half while potentially doubling class size.  More tech aides and fewer teachers.

The way it works is to have children taught in shifts, and while one shift has the attention of a flesh and blood teacher, the other shift of children is de-minded by an endless stream of digital worksheets handed out by an indefatigable bank of endlessly-cheerful computers.  In the example of the KIPP kindergarten (a scary prospect, indeed), children are plugged in for half their time in school.  Note, too, that the KIPP "school leader" claims a lack of funds as his rationale, even though KIPP, Inc. has a stash of corporate cash in the hundreds of millions an unlimited stream just for the asking.  The fact is that these most vulnerable children are guinea pigs in an unproven experiment intended to benefit corporate bottom lines, not children.  Note, too, that these children are particularly sensitive to the learned helplessness treatments that are applied during Kipp-notizing summer sessions to maintain total compliance, with or without supervision.
Many school districts are reluctantly cutting staff and dropping courses in a desperate effort to respond to tighter budgets. But some educators are looking at ways to save money and improve instruction at the same time.

The answer for some schools: blended learning, which is part computer lesson, part classroom instruction.

KIPP Empower Academy in South Los Angeles has had to make virtue out of dire necessity. Just as this nationwide network of charter schools was opening up a new kindergarten here, the amount of state money began to dry up.

Principal Mike Kerr says he saw only one way out: raising class size.

"We had to cut out one whole classroom. So went from five classes of 20 to four classes of 28," Kerr says.

To prevent an erosion of quality instruction in the face of bigger classes, Kerr says he turned to computers.

In a kindergarten class, for example, some students work on a small-group vocabulary lesson while other students work on a lesson on computers in another corner of the room. After some time, the two groups swap places. The idea is to keep the feel of a small class without the cost of additional staff.

When the kids are on the computers, they get help from Elizabeth Flottman, the school technology consultant. She says the kids stay on task, even when she has to leave the room.

"I can walk out of this classroom and work with the children in the other classroom for five or 10 minutes, and I feel like most of the time I can come back into the classroom and they are all engaged," Flottman says. (There are always two adults in the room with the kids.)

It is not easy for very young kids to learn how to work independently like this. Teacher M.J. Mathis says KIPP students practice these things in the program's special summer school.

"The biggest challenge for us is teaching them how to sit at the computer, how to use the mouse, how to enter their password," Mathis says. KIPP spends a lot of time rehearsing these skills early in the year.

. . . .

One of the upsides of having all your students online is that teachers get tons of data in the form of reports on their students' computer work. Teachers get regular printouts showing them how long kids have spent working on an exercise and where they are having problems.

There's a weak spot in this endeavor. Even enthusiasts admit that software offerings for young students are still lacking. Leaders of the blended learning movement say it's hard work finding programs they are happy with and that they can correlate to California's learning standards. They are hoping that as their efforts spread, that will spark software developers to meet the demand.
So keep spreading those efforts, Tom.  Your patron has his people ready to move forward with another Microsoft solution.

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