E-L 3.0 #1 -- Schools Remain in the Dark Ages

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NOTE: This is the preliminary post as part of E-learning 3.0, a MOOC led by Stephen Downes.

It seems odd to be diving into a MOOC about e-learning. Why? Because I am switching gears, am embarking on my third life, as it were, and am focusing on writing, photography and journalism. But I have hung onto a part-time gig working with teachers and schools and kids. And I remain optimistic about the potential for e-learning. Here’s the background:

I need to start with my fascination with the Web which began in 1993. I was a journalist in Akron, Ohio where, to just get to the point, we started the first syndicated column on the Internet and, in 1994, created the 13th news organization Web site. Think about that.

So my interest in the Web, in digital technologies persisted and then, in 2006, I left journalism and founded Young Writers Project, a nonprofit geared to helping young people find voice: We provided them a civil, respectful Web community to share work and give each other support (https://youngwritersproject.org). We provided feedback and guidance and workshops — online and in person. We published their best work in newspapers, on radio and TV and in our own publications. And then we started working with teachers.

Beginning in 2007, at the request of a 5/6th grade teacher, I created a closed Web platform as a tool for him to accomplish his short story block. Here’s what happened: the kids wrote more, and at a higher level than ever before. They enjoyed it. The class seemed to jell better. Two bullies became class leaders. Whoa.

So for the next several years I immersed myself in the world of digital education and honed the platform on an ongoing basis from feedback from students and teachers. We studied it. We found that students using our platform wrote more and of higher quality, they gained confidence and skills and, perhaps most importantly, they developed both an appreciation for writing AND for their classmates. As one student put it, “I had no idea that my classmates were … thinking.” In a word, it worked.

We were trailblazers. Schools had only a glimmer of understanding of the potential of digital tools. And with part of the statewide student assessments focused on writing — and writing scores were continuing to decline — the demand was there. At one point we had teachers in 65 schools using it. And that gave us data to begin looking at how the platform might be impacting assessments. The first results were fascinating: Where the platform was in use, writing proficiency testing improved or stayed the same compared to statewide averages which saw the continuation of writing proficiency declines, particularly among boys. But we were tiny. We expanded to provide training and professional mentors and a Master’s Level course which I taught for 7 years. The teachers liked it even though it opened up more work and new methods (how do you design curriculum around providing and receiving feedback?)

And then a host of other companies whose names I’ve chosen to forget jumped into the market. They were more focused on classroom management (CMS) than on learning and were extremely well-financed. We did not stand a chance. And, at the same time, more and more innovative technology and software and Web-based programs were being introduced, the iPad became the educational rage and school administrators responded as is normal in the chaos of innovation: They sought to control, to simplify. They began the search for ONE software that would take care of a variety of needs.

What they came up with was classroom management systems. Learning had little to with it. Technology administrators that were hired weren’t educators but technologists. They sought to simplify their own lives. They decided — with little input from teachers and none from us — to require that every teacher use the new CMS they had adopted. (And often they tried out a new one each year until they settled in.) They discouraged outside platforms. Teachers didn’t have time for outside platforms.

And then came Common Core for State Standards, the framework for reformed and uniform education and assessment in K-12 in the U.S. While Common Core placed a greater emphasis on writing, it was writing that was reactive and analytical, writing designed to help assess. Poetry was no longer considered a “test type.” Creative writing, even narrative, was of diminished importance. And, most importantly, Common Core came with new testing and, horrors, the elimination of writing as a specific proficiency to be assessed. (I say horrors because, as a writer, I have always believed that this is an essential life skill and should be taught properly and thoroughly through practice.) This had the effect of further reducing the demand that students learn how to write well, further diminished class time devoted to writing (many resorted to using writing as a way to prepare for the testing) and thus further diminished demand for what we developed.

So the platform developed by our tiny, innovative organization — and developed over the years with input from students and teachers — was shunted off to niche-land. Only a handful still use it.

Given that this is a blog — not a formal essay — I have done two things that bring shivers:

  1. My “opinions” are based on my limited experience (one state, relatively small number of teachers — we have worked with an estimated 2,000 teachers in YWP’s existence) and not on thorough journalistic inquiry.

  2. I have not finely edited this piece to ensure that it doesn’t come off as sour grapes. (Wherever did that metaphor ever come?) In fact, my emotions are that I am a bit frustrated and discouraged. I had great hopes that digital technology would spur innovation in education. I fear that it has not; the Carnegie model still pervades.

That said, the question remains, why would I dive into this E-Learning 3.0 course?

Because I am an eternal optimist. Because I still work part-time with YWP in this area. Because I know I did a lot of things wrong and perhaps I can learn how to make improvements to what we offer students and teachers. And because there may be a greater gain by connecting with people around the world who are interested in learning, digital technology and making real, substantive connections.

So I look forward to learning.