Jeb Bush, Distance Learning, and the Hype Cycle

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
  • Gamification
  • 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
  • E-Textbook
  • 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.

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  1. 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. []

3 responses to “Jeb Bush, Distance Learning, and the Hype Cycle”

  1. Mary Porter (chemtchr)

    Whatever approach you use, Sherman, get to work and throw some cold truth on this thing before it’s too late. It’s not just e-learning, it’s every kind of drivel-driven control of children’s development.

    You may be comforted by looking at it as just another product-hype cycle, but the “public-private partnership” conspiracy to control the education funding stream is a new kind of beast. They have a totalitarian marketing plan based on state and media control. It is 1984 out here in the real schools, nobody can speak against it; but the products not only don’t “work” to educate children, they steal the window of childhood learning from them.

    It’s most obvious when you see pre-schoolers with headphones on, looking into a screen to become verbally fluent, but a high schoool student using a science simulation of physical phenomena he’s never expreienced is in the same predicament. The unfurling of the actual developmental sequence of a working human mind is interactive with the environment in powerful ways, that trigger new interactions. It is oceans out of the depth any series of benchmarked online or scripted activities.

    The scripted curriculum is a prison for emerging human intellects. The gamed tests show “progress”, but their victims’ actual capability to read for any meaning, or think through a simple action, is crumbling. It’s accelerating out of your sight, under cover of press and policitcal collusion, but I see it when they come into my classroom at 15 and try to break free. Where will we be if they can’t?

  2. Glen S. McGhee

    “It’s not just e-learning, it’s every kind of drivel-driven control of children’s development. … I see it when they come into my classroom at 15 and try to break free. Where will we be if they can’t?”

    I feel for you. In Germany, you can actually start to earn money in an apprenticeship at 15, training for a real career. My brother started carpentry at that age, becoming self-sustaining and independent. This is the age for making the transition to adulthood, but it’s not happening here in the US.

    But are you/we willing to accept the over-determination of occupational destiny that characterizes German vo-tech? This the real question. This is the trade off.

    The only reason “control of children’s development” grates is because it doesn’t, it is actually a form of betrayal. No real career at the end of a long forced march.

    “Where will we be” when this whole thing collapses? As it is in the process of doing right now? Holocaustic images of betrayal and desolation come to mind. I feel for you and your students.

  3. CCPhysicist

    Your snark about podcasts struck a chord with me. I use a survey during the semester to track student access and use of certain kinds of technology, and it shows few if any used podcasts for anything. Talk about podcasts in education was all wishful thinking.

    Further, it shows that they really like doing homework on their phones, and dislike certain commercial products whose cute features keep them from running at all on their Apple products. I see an issue with equal access to resources on student-owned platforms that is as important as equal access for students with a range of disabilities.