By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
Big tech and their friends at big banking have turned to public education budgets for a new profit center. In the latest version of the federal education law, compliant legislators provided for both industries. They gave bankers social impact bonds and incentivized education technology.
There are solid reasons to think both decisions harm most Americans while lining the pockets of corporate elites. I discuss some of the technology portions in this column.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a reauthorization and amendment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Big money for technology is specified in Titles I and IV of ESSA. This federal law specifies large grants to promote both “blended learning” and “personalized learning.” It also legally defines “blended learning.”
‘‘(1) BLENDED LEARNING.—The term ‘blended learning’ means a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.” (From the official PDF of the law page 1969)
The term personalized learning is somewhat nebulous so I will define it. “Personalized Learning” is a euphemistic term that indicates lessons delivered on a digital device. These lessons are often organized with a playlist and come with a claim of using artificial intelligence to tailor the lessons to the recipient. The scheme is related to competency base education (CBE) and normally includes conferring micro-credentials or badges for competencies completed.
Title-I of ESSA authorizes the following spending schedule:
- ‘‘(1) $15,012,317,605 for fiscal year 2017;
- ‘‘(2) $15,457,459,042 for fiscal year 2018;
- ‘‘(3) $15,897,371,442 for fiscal year 2019; and
- ‘‘(4) $16,182,344,591 for fiscal year 2020.” (pdf page 1815)
A large percentage of this spending is earmarked for digital education; however, it is difficult to tell what the exact percentage is. However, it is clear that Title-I authorizes spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on education technology.
Title-IV also authorizes spending on technology and this spending is 100% for technology. Title-IV states:
“There are authorized to be appropriated to carry out this subpart $1,650,000,000 for fiscal year 2017 and $1,600,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2018 through 2020.” (pdf page 1982)
Title-IV also specifies what uses can be made of the funds:
‘‘(1) providing educators, school leaders, and administrators with the professional learning tools, devices, content, and resources to—(A) personalize learning to improve student academic achievement; (B) discover, adapt, and share relevant high-quality educational resources; (C) use technology effectively in the classroom, including by administering computer-based assessments and blended learning strategies; and (D) implement and support school- and district-wide approaches for using technology to inform instruction, support teacher collaboration, and personalize learning;
“(2) building technological capacity and infrastructure, which may include—(A) procuring content and ensuring content quality; and (B) purchasing devices, equipment, and software applications in order to address readiness shortfalls;
‘‘(3) developing or using effective or innovative strategies for the delivery of specialized or rigorous academic courses and curricula through the use of technology, including digital learning technologies and assistive technology …” (pdf page 1981)
Reputable Education Research Does Not Support this Spending
The Canadian Publication, The Walrus, distributed a piece called “The Failure of the iPad Classroom.” In the article, author David Sax shared some insights from Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University. Cuban lives and works in Silicon Valley. Like myself, he began as a hopeful evangelist for education technology but slowly turned into one of education technologies most prominent skeptics. Sax wrote:
“Cuban cites three reasons that policymakers typically use to justify the purchase of new technology for schools. First, the technology will improve student achievement and marks. Second, the technology will change traditional teaching to nontraditional teaching. Third, the technology will better prepare students for the modern workplace. At best, Cuban says, there is contradictory evidence for the third reason, little for the second, and none for the first.”
Mr. Sax made many cogent statements about education technology in “The Failure of the iPad Classroom.” This statement is a good example:
“Dollars spent on digital education technology are dollars that cannot be spent on teachers, building maintenance, or textbooks. It is money that has been pulled from programs in art, sports, music, and drama. Even though the research shows one of the greatest factors in reading improvements in students is the presence of school libraries, the number of libraries across school boards in the United States has declined dramatically. The logic behind this is often that libraries are pointless in the age of Google and eBooks, and that money would be better spent buying tablets or drones.”
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes” and that: “In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”
John Vallance, a Cambridge scholar and headmaster of Australia’s top K-through-12 school, Sydney Grammer, has said: “I think when people come to write the history of this period in education…this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.”
There has also been surprising research coming out of Canada: Students don’t prefer e-learning over traditional education. In a 2011 study, researchers found that students preferred “ordinary, real-life lessons” to using technology.
Researcher Dr. Kentaro Toyama, expecting to find a digital educational cure for the perceived ailments in education, came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.”
The Dark Side of Screen Time
Education psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds, Jane Healy, spent years doing research into computer use in schools and, while she expected to find that computers in the classroom would be beneficial, now feels that “time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras (Aug. 31, 2016) wrote “Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax” for Time magazine. When discussing health risks associated with student screen time, he stated, “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”
Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me and iGen recently wrote an article for Atlantic magazine about the damage screen time is doing. She shared about the iGen,
“Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Reasonably Unbiased Research Instigated by an Industry Supporter Not that Good
When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contracted with the Rand Corporation to make a study of digital learning, the results were not very supportive. The best the lead researcher could say to the Hechinger Report was:
“What I hope happens is people see this is a promising approach, but it requires a lot of things to fall into place for it to work right,” Pane said. “People need to have patience; they need to do it a while. Teachers and students need to get used to it.”
In other words, he is saying digital learning is “promising” but not proven. In this country, it seems we have an exaggerated belief in the capabilities of technology to improve anything. I personally had little doubt that education technology would lead to dramatic improvements. It does have positive uses but our refusal to see its limitations is causing damage.
The Rand study collected data on schools that received funding from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). A note from the report describes NGLC:
“The NGLC initiative is managed by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association dedicated to advancing the use of information technology in higher education, in association with other organizational partners, including the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K–12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. NGLC receives primary funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with additional support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The initiative supports school districts, charter management organizations, and partner organizations that embrace PL as a means to dramatically increase college readiness rates, particularly among low-income students and students of color.”
There were 40 participating schools in the study and the data generated was predominately surveys of students, teachers, and administrators. There was a small-scale analysis of standardized testing data based on MAP testing at 32 of the schools. Comparisons were made with a “virtual comparison group.” The study noted several possible biases in the data. The conclusion for one-year achievement comparisons says:
“We estimated positive treatment effects of approximately 0.09 in mathematics and 0.07 in reading, as shown in …. Only the mathematics estimate is statistically significant. These effect sizes translate to gains of about 3 percentile points; specifically, a student who would have performed at the median in the comparison group is estimated to have performed 3 percentile points above the median in an NGLC school in both subjects.” (Rand study page 34)
Let us ignore the fact that standardized testing is useless. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind’s test and punish philosophy of education improvement, every educator knows that teaching to a test will improve test scores. Computer-based education is fundamentally a method for drilling for the test. It is surprising that these estimated effect sizes are so small and even insignificant for reading.
The survey data in the Rand study compares the NGLC schools in the study group with a national sample. I was surprised to learn that NGLC students do not feel as safe.
Bad Education Philosophy is the Source of “Personalized Learning” Failure
The behaviorist ideology of B.F. Skinner informs “competency-based education.” CBE is the computer-based approach that replaces the failed 1990’s behaviorist learning method called Outcome-Based Education. Outcome-Based Education is a renamed attempt to promote the 1970’s “mastery education” theory. Mastery education’s failure was so complete that it had to be renamed. It was quickly derided by educators as “seats and sheets.” These schemes all posit that drilling small skills and mastering them is the best way to teach. It has not worked yet.
Today’s proponents of behaviorist education hope that technology including artificial intelligence backed by micro-credentials and badges will finally make behaviorism a winner. It will not because little humans are not linear learners. Non-alignment with human nature is a fundamental flaw in this approach. In addition, behaviorism is not known as a path to creativity or original thinking. Those paths are created between teachers and students through human contact; paths undermined by “digital education.”
Artificial intelligence is more science fiction than reality. Computer scientist Roger Schank, a pioneering researcher in artificial intelligence notes:
“The AI [artificial intelligence] problem is very very hard. It requires people who work in AI understanding the nature of knowledge; how conversation works; how to have an original thought; how to predict the actions of others; how to understand why people do what they do; and a few thousand things like that. In case no one has noticed, scientists aren’t very good at telling you how all that stuff works in people. And until they can there will be no machines that can do any of it.”
With no unbiased positive proof of concept, hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars which were earmarked for education are being spent on technology. It’s likely that much of this spending will cause harm and that schemes like “personalized learning” will not deliver benefit to anyone who is not in a hi-tech industry.
These dollars could have been spent on better facilities, smaller classes, and better teacher education. Instead, the money is wasted on dubious theories propounded by leaders in hi-tech industries.