Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Virtually Teaching

"Teacher Shortage Crisis Forces Districts To Innovate"

I get emails, often from folks who are thrusting their PR releases blindly into the blogosphere. Somebody or something told them I'm an education blogger, and so they add me to a mailing list, and mostly I don't pay attention. But the subject line that appears above caught my attention, and so I read my email from Shelly Smith, PR Manager for Proximity Learning, Inc., and consequently got to learn about one more way people are trying to make a buck or ten in the edu-biz.

By virtually teaching.

Proximity Learning might be one of the more ironic names out there, because what they actually deal in is what we used to call distance learning. I'll tell you more about how they work in a moment, but first, let me introduce you to the guys who came up with this outfit.

Andrew Polito is co-founder, COO and Vice President of the company. He has an edu-pedigree as the son of famed Tuscon edu-gadfly Sam Polito. He has a background running IT for a district, teaching ESL oversees, and generally getting involved in China Stuff. His undergrad work was in liberal arts and East Asian Studies.

Polito's co-founder is PLI CEO is Evan Erdberg. Erdberg is listed as a co-founder, but his LinkedIn account shows him as CEO since 2014, though the company says it was founded in 2008. Anyway, before PLI, , Erdberg worked in sales for Teachscape, a company specializing in "human resource management" that I once described as a place where the manufactured crisis in education meets the opportunity to make money from it. He also spent six years with Knowledge Delivery Systems, where one of his accomplishments was developing "a strategy to enter three new market verticals with our existing products that increased revenue by 25% and expenses by only 5%." Prior to that-- marketing, marketing and more marketing. His education-- a BA in Marketing and Management (Franklin and Marshall) and an MBA in Organizational Leadership (University of Edinburgh).

In the whole management team, there are two managers (Human Resources and Teacher Effectiveness) with actual teaching in their background. The three lead teachers include one elementary teacher and two whose background is in teaching Chinese.

That fits the PLI origin story, which says that PLI was founded (as TCG Global) in 2008 to meet the new crisis in world language instruction. Since then, they have expanded their offerings. But their basic format remains the same-- using the internet for virtual teaching.

See, everyone used to be short Chinese teachers and American Sign Language teachers, but nowadays, everyone is short all kinds of teachers, and the folks at PLI smell opportunity. Via e-mail, here's how Erdberg explained it to me:

Each student has access to a computing device such as a Chromebook, Laptop, Ipad, Tablet, etc. When they come into class they log in to our online software and they actually see our teacher.  Our teacher will then also see them through the webcams on there computing device.  Our teacher will then lead class in the same way a teacher physically there would.  In every classroom there in a sub/facilitator/parent etc. that assists with classroom management.  Our teacher also adopts the schools curriculum, using there books and lesson plans, there grading policy, and we set up the classes to the bell schedule of each school we work in.  Students can raise there hand during class to ask questions, be called up to the "whiteboard" by the teacher to show work, etc.  All assignments are done online in our Learning Management system along with grading etc.  We are effectively able to find and hire fantastic teachers and deliver them to students that would otherwise have a substitute or an unqualified teacher. 

And here's what that looks like in action...

Erdberg was happy to answer other questions as well. School districts hire PLI on a per-class basis, with an allowance of up to thirty seats per class. And when I asked him about costs to the district, he told me

The cost to hire one of our teachers is about 25% lower than hiring a full time teacher since they are not paying healthcare, pension costs, taxes, union negotiated wages, 401k, etc. They only pay a set fee to us.

I wondered exactly who PLI would hire to teach-- after all, working teachers are, well, working when these courses need to be presented. Erdberg says they hire a large number of teachers on maternity leave as well as recent retirees-- folks who want to stay in the game, but prefer working part-time and/or from home.

I imagine the technical issues are legion. I wonder how extensive a lab there would be in the PLI teacher's kitchen, and the production values and camera work have to be an issue as well. In the example video above I was dying to have control over camera position, because the chosen angle made it challenging to see what the teacher was trying to show. And PLI teachers are supposed to adopt the hiring school's curriculum, but if the school doesn't have someone teaching that course (hence the need to hire PLI) I have to wonder just how useful the curriculum is.

I can see the value of PLI's original mission, perhaps because I work in precisely the kind of school district that could never offer something like courses in Chinese unless it was through this kind of distance learning arrangement.

But I am reminded of the mission creep of Teach for America, an enterprise that started out with the noble mission of filling empty teaching positions but eventually, flush with Big Money and Important Friends, became a way to replace and supplant actual existing teachers.

PLI is currently in California, Virginia, Kentucky, New Jersey and Texas (they are based in Austin); here's the list that Smith sent me of participating districts (here's a newspaper story about the Greenville, MS district)

  • Richmond City Public Schools, (Capital of VA)
  • Kansas City Public Schools (Largest City in MO)
  • Columbus City Public Schools (Largest City in OH)
  • Cincinnati Public Schools (3rd Largest City in OH)
  • San Antonio ISD ( 2nd largest city in TX) 
  • Garland ISD (12th Largest City in TX)
  • Stockton USD (13th Largest city in CA)
  • Greenville Public Schools (Located in the deep south of MS)
  • Bibb County School District (The 4th Largest district in GA) 
  • Clovis Municipal Schools (10th Largest district in NM)
  • Quakertown Community School District, PA
  •  Ecorse Public Schools, MI
  • St. Helena Parish Schools, LA
  • Mainland Regional School District, NJ

Are these districts that have all been forced to "innovate" in the face of a teacher shortage, or are we working on innovative ways to avoid actually hiring full-time, benefit-receiving, pension-funding teachers? Does this help solve the "teacher shortage," or does it make it less necessary to even think about it? The usual reformy players are not in evidence with PLI (it may involve too many actual trained teachers for their tastes), but I'm always a little leery of any chance for folks to say, "Hey, look! We don't actually have to hire real teachers any more!" Of course, distance learning has been around for a while, offering some real benefits but failing to gain traction. And I have my doubts about the technology's ability to interest or engage digital natives. But this is a thing that is now out there in the world. Watch for a virtual teacher coming to the classroom next door. A little less human, but at least more cheap.


  1. This is GREAT!!!

    Image the possibilities!

    A monotone chemistry teacher instructions his/her students to go to the nearest ACE Hardware to buy some muriatic acid & some Drano! Along with some red cabbage & litmus paper!

    "Now I'm going to demo acid-base neutralization"!!!

    Yes, we are free of gov't regulation!

    Let the students learn from there mistakes! Experience IS the best teacher!

    That acid burn on your finger won't last long. your finger print will come back in a few weeks after you handled the Drano with wet fingers.

    OH! Don't worry about your left eye! You still have your right eye!!! See you learned to wear googles through experience!!!! Or you learned not to rub your eye after it itched with concentrated base or acid on your hands!!!!

  2. Erdberg uses the wrong form of "their" in his email :"there books and lesson plans" and "there" grading policy. Perhaps he learned grammar in a remote classroom....

  3. " Our teacher also adopts the schools curriculum, using 'there' books and lesson plans, there grading policy, and we set up the classes to the bell schedule of each school we work in. Students can raise 'there' hand during class to ask questions, be called up to the "whiteboard" by the teacher to show work, etc.

    Did you cut and paste the above? Do they really not know the proper use of there vs their?

  4. Dystopian novels are written about stuff like this.

    People sure put a lot of confidence in the power grid. I like to think that we are still fully functional without it as educators. Think about it: Beethoven composed in what we would consider camping conditions: no electricity, no plumbing.

    I say this as I type on a screen on a hand held device.

  5. Our students use a computer based reading program, Lexia. I see huge improvements in the reading both in decoding and up in comprehension.

    On the other hand, back in the sixties my elementary school had some of our classes including handwriting as distance learning through black and white tv's . My handwriting is horrible.

  6. I worked with Evan at PLI for some time, and I can tell you he is nothing but a salesman in a fancy chair. The entire PLI team is incredible and the teachers are actually really qualified and love what they do, so I can confidently vouch for the educators and the implementation team. However, Evan is, nicely put, one of the most incompetent people I have ever met. It is very sad that a grown man doesn't know the difference between "there" and "their" and even more sad that he is too proud to listen to his employees when they complain about his practices or ignores offers to proof read his emails before he sends them. PLI would be an amazing company if he was gone, classes are well developed, teachers are out of this world, implementation team is dedicated and kind... unfortunately we are all lead by a buffoon with a passion for cold calling and skeezy sales methods. A shame really...