Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ed Department Produces Advertisement For Computer-Based Education

Even as Betsy DeVos has been demanding that public schools get their doors opened and their teachers back in the bricks and mortar classrooms, the department has announced its release of a slick "guide" to computer-based edu-flavored products. It's a nice package of marketing materials for the folks working the digitized street corner of the education privatization neighborhood.

From the Office of Educational Technology, we get the Parent and Family Digital Learning Guide. The 23-page promo opens with an introduction that suggests that this is to help those families that find themselves thrust into the world of digital learning (that's the department's preferred phrase, though I keep thinking of doing math by counting on your fingers). The intro also includes the usual disclaimer that "of course" technology is only a tool. This guide "focuses on empowering you with information and resources." 

So let's leap in. It's only 23 pages, but I've read it so that you don't have to.

Part One: Benefits of Digital Learning

Yes, we drop the pretense of "empowerment" pretty quickly, and move directly on to the sales pitch. Let's look at all the ways that digital learning is better.

See, "most American classrooms have taken a 'one size fits al' approach to instruction, a claim that will come as news to all the teachers who bust their humps designing differentiated instruction. But learning, the writers say, should be flexible and adapt, and just in case you might forget that this is Betsy DeVos's department, a reminder that "you know your child best." 

So computer-centered ed is better because you can do Personalized [sic] Learning! There are factors that influence your child's learning, like relevance, interest, culture, language, background knowledge, and "differences in how they process information." The writers are trying like crazy to hint that Personalized [sic] Learning will build itself around these factors, but they are careful enough not to actual say so, because that would be bunk. Computer-based algorithm-driven education is only as flexible as the software allows it to be, and what we've seen so far says that "not very Flexible" is the norm. 

The writers will list how digital tools can help "accommodate" you child's needs and preferences. "Here are four ways that technology can be used to customize learning."

1) Choose your environment. You can be synchronous or asynchronous. Small groups, or large, or individual.

2) Uncover new learning opportunities. You can find stuff on line, like museums with virtual tools. Or software. Digital books. Games. Interactive content! 

3) Support creative expression. Oh, we are reaching so hard. Tools can be used for organizing, researching, writing and publishing. Multi-media! Digital tools can help your child think creatively! Your student can blog! Do I have to point out the vast sea of material online that demonstrates conclusively that one can use digital tools to be super-not-creative.

4) Provide fast feedback. Tech can do real time assessment, provided of course that your child is answering multiple choice questions or questions that have a one-size-fits-all answer. 

5) Provide multiple means of interacting with content.

Yes, that's five, not four. On the one hand, I can't quibble because I am the king of the typo. On the other hand, my budget here at the institute is a whopping $0.00.

More to the point, this description of Personalized [sic] Learning doesn't offer anything not found in an actual meatworld classroom. There's a bank of questions to ask yourself, your child, the teacher, the school leaders; they are ostensibly about personalized learning, but they're mostly just about education, period. And then there's a list of some handy websites. 

But wait--there's more. Digital learning is also better because Competency-Based Learning!

The writer notes that CBL travels under numerous other pseudonyms, and reduces the approach to basically personalized pacing, with the student not proceeding until "mastery" of a particular goal is demonstrated. Some of the info is on point, and some is baloney  ("assessment is a positive experience for your child," well, unless they get stuck on one mastery goal and feel as if they're beating their head against a brick wall), but the most important point for our purposes is that absolutely none of this requires digital learning tools. 

The final benefit is supposed to be that digital tools provide "new opportunities for your family to develop a strong partnership with your school or education  provider." That phrase "education provider" is just one more annoying sign of the mindset that education is a commodity that can be provided, like tofu or pork bellies. But otherwise the pitch here is that you can have video conferences or "virtual playdates" or video chats with family members or (and I'm not making this up) "practice writing by sending letters and e-mails to friends and relatives." 

Aside from the general tone of someone's grandmother discovering the interwebs because she hears all the young people are using the tweeters these days, this "guide" is notable for avoiding any discussion of any of the complicated and tricky issues surrounding all of these "benefits." I give them points for doing a fun reverse move here-- usually reformers pitch the CBL or the Personalized [sic] Learning up front and sneak the computerization in the back door. But people have unspooled miles of sentences explaining all the potential problems and issues of both computer-operated education and the "benefits" offered here. A real guide for parents would address the problems parents might confront rather than simply pitching this stuff as a shiny set of solutions.

Part Two: Enabling Digital Learning

This portion is addressing sort of the hardware side of the biz, kind of. It is hard to pinpoint the audience here; the section seems aimed at people who have absolutely no idea about how to connect their child to the interwebs, but it also fails to give them any specific information that would help them address the issues.

This section, considerably briefer than the first, hits three basic points.

First, your child will need a "personal learning device." You may have "multiple options" to "access a personal learning device." And then we get to the specifics:

There are multiple makes, models, and configurations of laptops, tablets, cameras, and software that can support digital learning.

'Kay. It's mostly in that vein. Your school may have certain technical requirements. The school might provide the device, or you might get it elsewhere, somehow. Find out what your school is doing. Also, you'll need some technical support. Also, there might be learning opportunities for students without a personal learning device. There are no more details than that. I'm truly stumped on which audience would find any of this helpful.

Second, your child will need internet access. Again, the details here are that doing stuff online requires a good online connection. See if you have one. See if somebody in the community has one you can use. Again, not even the basic help of saying what sort of specs you'd be looking for to sort this out or different types of hookups you might encounter. Just, "connections-- you'll need 'em."

Third, ensuring your child's safety, privacy and responsible technology use. This one is marginally better because it at least comes with a link to a more detailed article. And some actual advice, like keep track of passwords. But then, it also devotes a three-sentence paragraph to "digital citizenship." Also, FERPA exists, but we're not going to talk about the gaping holes in it.

And there's a page on how to report a discrimination complaint to the department. So there's that.

And an endnotes page for the 12 notes within the work, citing folks like the Aurora Institute, which is the new name of iNacol, the on-line learning advocacy group, and like the Be A Learning Hero website, another reformy collaborative. is cited twice; they specialize in ed ideas for students who perceive differently, and they partnmer with folks like Relay/GSE, TNTP, and New Visions for Public Schools.

So who created this thing?

The team thanks a Technical Working Group that includes representative from CAST, GreatSchools, TNTP, Understood, Chiefs for Change, MIT, the International Society for Technology in Education, and Pine Springs Preparatory Academy (a charter school). They acknowledge contributions from Digital Promise and Learning Heroes. They acknowledge USED staffers that provided leadership and guidance, including Jim Blew

The report appears to be the product of the Office Of Educational Technology, but there are no names of actual human beings attached to the report as authors. The website lists seven staff in the office. Director Adam Safir and Senior Policy Advisor Bernadette Adams are named in the "under the leadership and guidance" portion of the acknowledgements. Thanks also go to Jake Steel, who was a deputy director in the department up until August of this year (he's a Teach for America product who's working on his PhD at Harvard's GSE now).

There's Sharon Leu, the senior policy advisor for higher education innovation, which seems like the wrong fit. Kevin Johnston, education program specialist, focuses on national education technology policy; he graduated from Brigham Young in 2015 with a philosophy degree and then put in his two years with Teach For America, then went back to BYU for a masters in educational/instructional technology, worked at BYU for a bit, then joined USED in October of 2019. Sara Trettin is a senior policy advisor for broadband and open education, plus libraries and librarians. She started in the department as a fellow in 2014. She has an actual education degree (Clemson), worked a couple of years at a charter school, and put in a year as Teacher in Residence in the Library of Congress, which has to be the coolest residency ever. The current department fellow is Jessica Tellez, where she "assists",,,somebody?... in developing "effective blockchain technology" for education.

That leaves Elizabeth Schultz, Deputy Director who's listed as an "education and public policy expert", which seems generous given her career contracts management (the site says 25 years, but if so, she's left a bunch off her LinkedIn profile). What she does have is a stint as an outspoken conservative voice on the Fairfax County School Board, a role she has not abandoned even after being voted off the board last year. As near as I can tell, she is a really, really recent addition to the office.

So of the possible writers of this report, there really isn't anyone in the department with the chops to do an insightful, balanced, well-researched job. That includes making sure you don't just take at face value the marketing blurbs you're handed by "advisors" with a vested interest. 

And I'll take just a moment to marvel once again how, when you drill all the way down to these sorts of things, there is not a single actual public school teacher in sight. 

So these are more tax dollars at work. A "guide" that is really a marketing brochure without enough depth or breadth to help much of anyone except the folks who are still hoping to cash in on computer-centered algorithm-driven software-based education-flavored products. Not the kind of leadership we need.

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