Stephanie Mencimer’s article in the November/December Mother Jones, Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Public Schools, strikes me as accepting far too much of Bush’s argument about the technical viability of online education. All of this deserves much more of the Gartner Hype Cycle approach, and while I think consultants with reports to sell should be taken with a grain of salt, here’s the classification of various education items in two categories, from this year’s hype cycle for education report:
At the Peak (of inflated expectations)
- Digital Preservation of Research Data
- Social Software Standards
- User-Centric IAM (identity and access management)
- Mobile-Learning Low-Range/Midrange Handsets
- Social-Learning Platform for Education
- Media Tablet
- Open-Source Middleware Suites
- Web-Based Office Productivity Suites
- Cloud HPC/CaaS (computing as a service)
Sliding Into the Trough (of disillusionment)
- EA (enterprise architecture) Frameworks
- Open-Source Financials
- Mobile-Learning Smartphone
- Lecture Capture and Retrieval Tools
- Unified Communications and Collaboration
- Hosted Virtual Desktops
- Open-Source Learning Repositories
- Virtual Environments/Virtual Worlds
- Global Library Digitization Projects
- Emergency/Mass Notification Services
- SaaS Administration Applications
Some things such as podcasting have graduated to the “off the hype cycle” category. Nowhere in the hype cycle report is Bush’s assertion (following Paul Peterson) of tech-based individualization, partly because it is a utopian ideal rather than a specific tool or tool concept. The concept of individualization in education is an old one and the history is partly utopian vision, part snake oil. “Individual differences” has historically been the term in education for labeling children based on IQ tests and giving high proportions of students a watered-down curriculum. Scientific Research Associates’ version of individualization (the SRA Reading Laboratory Kit) had short predigested reading passages color-coded by more swatches than you’ll find in your local Home Depot, and the burnt-orange reading card was the same in every school using the kit. Special education is supposed to be individualized, but there are plenty of schools that have happened to approve “individualized” education programs that look remarkably similar to each other.
The reason for the implementation of “individualization” that was far from individualized is that systematization is the behavior of large schools or anything school-like, including School of One and any organization that claims to be individualized by technology. What School of One offers is algorithmic programming, not individualized education. If the algorithm works, what you get is a sufficient match between what a student needs and what the lesson of the day is. That’s the key question: do you have a sufficient match? Whether that match is unique for a student is irrelevant to its effectiveness.
As the recent series of stories in the New York Times suggests, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of outsized claims about the promise of technology in education, including distance learning. That does not mean that there isn’t useful educational technology in classes or used in online environments, but the work to make each tool valuable is a hard slog, not the type of stuff you’ll hear from either Jeb Bush or Bob Wise, the co-chairs of Digital Learning Now. Whether you think the “hype cycle” approach is useful, I think we’re years away from algorithmic programming for anything other than a standard math (and possibly science) sequence and basic reading.
Mencimer also exaggerates Bush’s influence on the graft potential of mandating online classes. Sure, there’s plenty of opportunity for a quick buck, but you don’t need Jeb Bush to tell state legislators that if they create a revolving set of mandates for distance learning in K-12, their friends might be able to get a few contracts with small, disorganized school districts.1 The mendacity of K-12 distance-learning political boosterism is mundane, not conspiratorial.
- A case in point is the way the Florida legislature undercut the Florida Virtual School several years ago by mandating that each school district in the state create its own independent distance-learning program. [↩]