The White House fact sheet about the Presidential Plan for Connecting All Schools to the Digital Age is a lovely document. But then, I like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, too, and I will gladly recommend Mervyn Peake's glorious Gormenghast books as well. As with all works of literature, the challenge is in teasing out the connections to reality, and all three of these works present some challenges. But time is short, so let's focus on the ConnectED plan.
First, the challenge:
Driven by new digital technologies, the future of learning is increasingly interactive, individualized, and full of real-world experiences and information. Unfortunately, the average school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users, and fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s internet connection meets their teaching needs. And our teachers do not get enough training and support to integrate technology in their classroom and lessons, despite the fundamental and increasing importance of those skills.
So many questions here, such as what is meant by saying schools have "the same connectivity." Same bandwidth? Same access to the same internet? I'm not sure. But I'm really wondering about that first sentence-- if being "interactive, individualized, and full of real-world experiences and information" are the future of education, what was in the past? And what about any of those qualities leads us directly to a need for internet technology in schools? Are those features beyond our reach without broadband wifi?
And now, the solution:
Today, President Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to take the steps necessary to build high-speed digital connections to America’s schools and libraries, ensuring that 99 percent of American students can benefit from these advances in teaching and learning. He is further directing the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get this technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. And he is calling on businesses, states, districts, schools and communities to support this vision.
The sheet focuses on three areas of super-duperosity. And it is nothing if not bold.
First, we're going to get connectivity to 99% of America's students using next-gen broadband and hot wifi in their schools and libraries. As a teacher in a fairly rural school district, I think this would be an awesome thing indeed, but it clearly involves enough detail-based underbrush to hide a million devils.
I should probably take a moment to note that I am completely un-Ludditish in my technoattitudes, and have been one of the most aggressively pro-computer tech guys in my district for a the last two decades. But I don't think tech is magical. I don't over-estimate its capabilities, and I don't under-estimate its challenges.
If there's one thing I've learned, it's that people who don't get out of the city much really don't get the tech challenges of rural life. This first goal would inspire me a great deal more if I believed that the feds really knew what they were proposing to do. They do name-check "leveling the playing fields for rural students," but blah blah funds and argle bargle transformative.
Second, the initiative proposes to train teachers so that we can "use technology to help improve student outcomes." Because what good is the internet if it doesn't bring test scores up. The Department of Ed will use existing funding and strategically invest and blah blah blah they want this to happen but they aren't really going to fund it. Thanks, guys.
Third, build on private-sector innovation. Ah, here's the pay-off. The feds are going to transform schools into massive markets for hardware and software. They would like us all to use
feature-rich educational devices that are increasingly price-competitive with basic textbooks and high-quality educational software (including applications) providing content aligned with college-and career-ready standards being adopted and implemented by States across America.
We'll be able to get this stuff from "leading companies" because "a robust market in educational software can unlock the full educational potential of these investments and create American jobs and export opportunities in a global educational marketplace of over $1 trillion." So, again, not so much about educational quality as about opening up markets for corporate sales.
The implication here is that "feature-rich" devices can be used to replace textbooks, and that's a pretty thought. And those devices might well be cheaper than textbooks-- if I were assuming that we had to replace textbooks every two-to-four years. For purposes of price comparison, I will also need to assume that I don't have to pay any license fees for the digital content I'm accessing with my feature-rich device. I'm pretty sure that once we factor in replacement costs and frequency for the devices and add on the license costs for the content, this is not going to be an economic win for schools.
And that's before I even begin to look at whether it's actually a good idea or not educationally. You can look at the early research suggesting that e-reading is not so great as book reading, or you can come talk to my students. We've been a one-to-one school (we give every single student a netbook) for about five years, and they still mostly hate having to read anything on their feature-rich device.
But of course we're not really looking at the educational advantages of this system. Like Kodak confronting digital photography, the book publishers response to their digital competition was both slow and dumb (at one point you could only buy a digital textbook if you would also buy the corresponding number of paper ones). Common Core and the digitizing of American education is supposed to save their bacon, and part of that porcine preservation includes opening some huge markets.
Beware! Falling sky!
Finally, no reformy appeal would be complete without the terrifying news that we are in danger of being internationally outstripped.
Many of our leading competitors are moving forward with aggressive investments in digital learning and technology education. In South Korea, all schools are connected to the internet with high-speed connections, all teachers are trained in digital learning, and printed textbooks will be phased out by 2016.
Because if there's any culture and country that embodies everything America wants to be, it's South Korea.
Here's a pro tip for racing-- there's no point in chasing somebody if they aren't running in the right direction. There's no reason to get excited about lagging "behind" South Korea is they are in fact running toward the edge of a cliff.
What's the goal?
I am a huge fan of modern tech. I use it without hesitation every time it offers some advantage in pursuing a worthwhile educational goal. I even tolerate the massive level of unreliability that comes with it (in five years I'm pretty sure I've never had a class in which every single student's tech worked as it was supposed to at once).
But if our goal is to be the next South Korea so that we can better fill corporate coffers and, oh yeah, maybe educate some students along the way, then I'm not excited. I am also not excited if what we're really salivating over here is the opportunity to plug students in so that we can collect an ocean of data from each and every one.
Let's use, for instance, the massive bulk buying power of states to get an enormously cheap rate from all of these folks, and let's not just figure that since it's tax dollars at work, we can pay top dollar for all of this technoeduparaphenalia. If we must have a government initiative in this arena, let's have government approach businesses as a representative of public interests, instead of acting as a corporate representative in the business of milking the public interest for all it can.