If you are of a Certain Age, you have fond memories of America OnLine. You grabbed one of those magical discs that arrived in the mail like Harry Potter's unthwartable Hogwarts invitations. You stuck it in your computer, listened to the modem beep and boop and finally hissssss like R2D2 had just fatally assaulted a snake. Then a portal opened up, promising a variety of channels with a dizzying assortment of websites and digital content.
It was a simpler time. The internet (which your grandmother thought was actually on the aol disc) was a big scary place, but AOL promised to hold your hand and bring it all to you in safely curated pieces. You chatted with your friends on AOL Instant Messenger. You marked your favorite channels. AOL ate CompuServe and Netscape; it had so many subscribers that at one point, its servers faltered. AOL smelled like the future of media, big enough to merge with Time Warner.
If AOL can take me to the Ugly Kitty website, can't I just use one of those browser thingies and go straight to Ugly Kitty myself?
The tools were there. Search engines. More sophisticated browsers. Broadband connections. Users now savvy enough to pick up tricks of navigating the web; your grandmother no longer thougbt the internet came on a disc.
AOL still exists (or, rather, Aol still exists)-- but most of you were surprised to learn that. In 2015 it was acquired by Verizon; its top guy promised it would be the largest media technology company in the world. Nope.
I thought of all this history this week as I read a newspaper account of a recent school board meeting in my old district (sadly, behind a paywall).
The upshot is that the sixth grade classrooms in one of our elementary schools have gone one-to-one with chromebooks and an entirely digitized classroom.
Now, I don't want to get into the question of whether or not that' a great idea. What I want to notice is that it wasn't done with Summit Learning or Rocketship software or AltSchool-designed programs. They're just using Google classroom, like many teachers across the country. Google provides a framework that the teachers use to do whatever it is they design. es, Google is a notorious data-gathering hog. But the difference here is that all the assignments and assessments are teacher-designed, meaning that the data is not created in any way that makes it easy for crunching together with that from thousands of other students.
Before you burn up the comments with reminders about the evils of Google's evil data-mining empire, let me go on to make my actual point.
We didn't need AOL. We didn't need a large complex structure pre-filled with content for us. All we needed as a simple tool-- a browser-- that let us manage whatever content we saw fit to manage.
The modern digital iteration of personalized [sic] learning doesn't need a Summit or some other giant super-structure already stuffed with content and assessments and pedagogical soup (particularly when all those things are being created by computer programmers and not teachers). All it needs is a platform- one loose enough to allow teachers to fill it with whatever goodies they think would best serve their purposes. Something like Moodle would be plenty good enough.
I am not a fan of digitized personalized [sic] learning built on a foundation of mass customization and algorithmic direction, and the incorporation of competency-based education is a fatal flaw. But I am not tech-averse, either. I taught in a one-to-one room for a decade and found ways that computers could extend my reach as a teacher. A computer is a tool, a digitized high tech hammer, and the best way to make sure it's used for good is to keep your own hand wrapped around it. The biggest problem with modern personalized [sic] learning is that it puts the hammer in the hands of the wrong people, who intend to use it for the wrong purposes.
There are things that the software or a computer platform can't do. It can't assess writing. It can't analyze exactly what a student does or doesn't need to master, nor can it absolutely tell us whether a student has mastered something or not. It can't teach, or usefully engage a student for But it can manage paperwork, handle grading, give us a way to let students self-pace and enrich the content of the class. It can allow students methods of expression and discussion beyond what we used to be able to offer. It's not The Tool, but it is a tool.
It will become a more effective, less dangerous tool the moment teachers take it into their own hands. AOL pretended to open up a world of possibilities and choices, but in fact unseen people on the other end were making all the choices for us, limiting what would and wouldn't be seen or done.
I don't want to have the technology argument now-- my point is just this. The future of tech-assisted computer-delivered education isn't Summit or Altschool or any digital curriculum on a hard drive-- it's a Moodle or Google classroom type framework with the guts built by some classroom teachers. AOL looked like it would dominate the market, but it was a domination based on relatively helpless users. The current wave of tech-based education has the same base.