Monday, November 30, 2015

CBE & The Data Bottleneck

Can you tell I've been doing a lot of reading about Competency Based Education lately?

While some proponents like to point to more human-friendly versions of CBE such as a personalized district in rural Alaska, the more common picture of CBE is of a huge data-mining monstrosity. And while CBE has been rolling steadily at us under various aliases for a few decades now, it is computer technology that has made it look like both achievable and profitable.

In fact, CBE on the ground really does look like one more variation of the old and failed teaching machines, an intent to convert the entire ed system to the failed model of Rocketship Academy or the very failed model of on-line schooling.

You don't have to dig very far for hints about where CBE is headed. One of the flagship groups leading the charge is iNACOL -- which stands for "International Association for K-12 Online Learning." You can find their logo on works like the report presented by CompetencyWorks (what the hell is it with these guys and smooshedtogether group names?) entitled Re-Engineering Information Technology, a report all about how to redesign your IT systems to accommodate CBE.

Like many CBE fans, these guys are wrestling with the challenge of collecting tons of data, crunching it, making it transparent to students and teachers, and using it to make quick decisions about what should happen next in the student's education.

I'm hearing and reading the stories from teachers on the ground, in classrooms that are in part or in full running CBE, and they all seem to be about getting data through the bottleneck. Teachers who spend hours plugging test/quiz/worksheet scores into their platform. Teachers who maintain data walls on steroids so that students can walk into the room and first thing in the morning see where they are on the standards matrix and task completion matrix. Teachers who are directed to keep the students on those iPads for a significant portion of the day.

Computers become attractive in a CBE approach not because they do a better job of teaching (they don't) or because they are more engaging for students (they aren't) but because nothing else can compare for the speed and efficiency of gathering up the data. To wait for a human to process, score, record, and do data entry on class sets of papers-- that's just too long, too inefficient (plus, if those teachers haven't been properly freed from the tyranny of a union, they might balk at being required to put in fourteen hour days just so they can handle their hours of data entry).

So once again, the technology isn't there to serve education or the students, but to serve the people who think their program is magical. Only computers can clear the data bottleneck and get that sweet, sweet data flowing, and if that means we have to design all tests and worksheets and lessons and objectives so that they are the kind of thing that a computer can easily handle as opposed to, say, the kind of things that actually educate students-- well, the needs of the system outweigh the needs of the humans involved in it.

That's why CBE is destined to be nothing but OBE dressed up as the biggest cyber-school ever. It may not be great education, but at least the data trains run on time.


  1. I was thinking this morning that we should stop calling it CBE (which is meaningless anyhow) and just call it cyber-charterization.

  2. @Tom Hoffman: Yes. If it walks, squawks, and fawks like a duck... :7)!

    Dear Mr. Greene:

    I am very glad you are giving complete coverage to Competency Based Education. I see that it would be a terrible thing if the only learning in schools was that which could be measured and recorded by a computer. I am concerned as I honestly do not know if it is as obvious to everyone as it is to me and the other readers of your post that the best part of education is about ideas, not facts, and real learning cannot be recorded in the manner of facts. Where will this discussion take place? Who will be invited? Will a democratic discussion take place at all, outside of these teacher blogs?

    When I was in high school, a “culmination course” was "Government" taught by Mrs. Murphy. In description, it was a final review and exploration of our system of government. In reality, the school provided the students with the latest copy of Time magazine each week and, on Fridays, students would turn in a paper on one of the articles. In our class, Mrs. Murphy encouraged two of the students who were inclined to debate the Vietnam War to do so every week. It was the the son of a prominent preacher vs the son of a prominent lawyer. It was “love thy neighbor” butting heads with “the domino theory” and it was thrilling. We were all encouraged to add to the debate. And then the rest of us gave short reports on new medical inventions, or the latest space programs. But it was 1966-7, and those Vietnam War debates were the big draw. It was the defining issue of our era and we learned how to engage in civil discussion of it. Nobody in Mrs. Murphy's class would have traded her class for a class where you answered multiple choice questions on a computer program about what you knew about the role of the Vice President in the Senate or what a filibuster is. Would students today placidly accept the trade? Will they have a say at all?

    In the 70s and 80s, I had a subscription to Whole Earth Review, the magazine form of the Whole Earth Catalog. Founder Steward Brandt and the staff wholeheartedly embraced the new computer age, but cautioned parents against buying any computer programs for their children where the computer was the “teacher” of the child. Computers were tools, they argued, and children were to understand that they were in charge.

    So, again, I don't know where to even begin thinking on this. Is it too late already?


  3. In the second largest county in Georgia, they are rolling out CBE and "personalized learning" with heavy threats to administrators to make it happen. Of course, Georgia's governor would love to turn the state over to the charters anyway. The future does not seem bright.