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How Will Online Influence Teaching

I always enjoy Fred Wilson's predictions for the new year over on his blog and this year was no exception.

I was inspired to think a bit on his education prediction:

K12 systems around the US (and around the world) faced with teacher shortages and desperate to erase several years of learning shortfalls, will increasingly adopt online learning services in the school building in lieu of and in addition to in-class learning.

Fred's a VERY sharp and perceptive guy and a friend and I think he's correct on the adoption of online learning but I thought a couple of points merited a deeper dive from a guy who's spent a lifetime in the trenches.

The first thing I think worth talking about, and this isn't really about the adoption of online learning are learning shortfalls They don't exist. Learning shortfalls due to Covid, also described as learning loss is a made up concept. Usually pushed by politicians.

The claim is that due to COVID students learned less than what they were supposed to and we have to make that up. Less than what? Less than who? Everyone in the world was hit with this.

This comes back to our countries love affair with high stakes testing - every student MUST finish Algebra by 8th grade, or MUST have a certain reading proficiency by 5th grade (whatever that means).

On the other hand, we're told that students work at their own pace.

Which is it?

The truth is that a large amount of specific topics we cover in K12 could be eliminated and we'd be none the worse for wear. In Algebra 2 / Trig there's around a month of Circle Geometry. It seems randomly placed and really doesn't introduce any new meaningful concepts. I suspect that it originally was placed in the course when Alg2/Trig was the terminal HS math course and people through "well, kids should see this sometime" but now this is no longer the case. We could easily knock it out.

Likewise, look at how Geometry evolved. Even though it's supposed to be a course about proof many schools only pay lip service to teaching it. This is a result of high stakes testing. Teachers know that teaching proof is HARD and learning it likewise. They also know that the students need to pass the regents to graduate and that both student and teacher will be judged on passing the exam. Further, they know that the best route to get the student passing is to barely deal with proof and focus on the rest of the class which is easier to teach and learn and is worth the lions share of the points on the regents.

In English we can read one less Shakespeare and I'm sure we can go down the list we'll find that a lot of these things that kids didn't learn are really just arbitrary.

The other truth is that indeed people learn at different rates and if we really cared about education we'd admit and deal with this rather than keeping our lock step testing based system.

So, learning shortfalls are manufactured and could easily be dismissed.

With that aside, we can look at online learning.

Just to get started - I think that online learning has a place. It can be at times a great supplement to in person learning and at times it can be the superior option. I'll write more about that soon. Probably not for another week or so since Devorah and I are hoping to get away to San Diego for a little vacation later this week. My concern comes from me being much more the pessimist than Fred.

Well, I used to be more of an optimist but working in the system for 30 years has a way of beating you down. Now I'm much more of a "hope for the best, expect the worst" kind of guy.

My first fear is that online learning will be used just as Fred mentioned, due to teacher shortages. I think this is likely to happen and it's not going to be pretty. Better to actually address teacher shortages by, I don't know, paying teachers fairly and having them work in safe environments with reasonable work loads.

Instead, I see a new wave of technology based solutions like online charters which have proven to be ripe for scandal or programs like the technology based "credit recovery" courses that came online under Bloomberg. These were self paced online courses where students clicked through repeatedly. Great for graduation rates. Horrible for actual learning.

We're also going to see technology being used not to make teachers more effective but either to add to their workload and/or class sizes. A small and maybe frivolous example is when politicians were talking about eliminating snow days - they'll just teach online. Now, since you don't know a snow day is coming this leaves a teacher to scramble at the last minute to come up with something and given how much time can go into prep, this is a BIG add to the teachers week. As a teacher, I loved snow days not so much as a "party day" but rather as a day where I got the gift of a day back to catch up on planning, grading, and paperwork. Besides, I think that rare surprise day off is actually healthy for kids.

A bigger example is that I'm thinking that we'll see schools expecting teachers be available to students and parents 24x7. We already see this starting.

A third would be instead of a small class where teachers and students interact using technology to balloon up the class size. So much of teaching, particularly in K12 is about relationships and interactions and you just don't get that when you decide to do a class on computers and drive up the enrollment.

You'll also see technology that seem to help teachers but even those have a downside. Prime example - autograders. They're great for providing students with instant feedback and for grading "short answer" or "right or wrong" questions but when a teacher grades a teacher sees a students work and gains insights into the student. If I'm not grading projects, I'm losing that insight.

Actually, a great example is looking at student projects in the old world and in the new one.

In the old world, a project is assigned in class. Maybe we have a lab day or two, then some work on their own time. More lab days, then finally the project is due and the teacher grades. With all that in class time, the teacher is observing and interacting and getting to know the students and their work. To be honest, by the time I grade a project, I already know most of the story but reading over the code and running the program on my own is the final piece.

The new way? The project is assigned. Work is done outside of hte teacher's view. The teacher only sees the students work if they ask for help outside of class hours (since you can't use that important synchronous class time for that with 100+ students) and then it's autograded.

The old way takes more time and more work but that's teaching and learning. The new way will work great for the autodidacts and a number of kids will flow through the machine but here technology which would seem like a win, really isn't.

This is a lot of "expect the worst" and I do want to be clear - I love tech and think that tech can be a great boon to education if done right. I'm just really wary of past experience being a predictor of how things will go in the future. I think Smart, well meaning people are going to continue to come up with wonderful tools that could do worlds of good for students and teachers but I have little confidence in the decision makers deploying them in ways that will truly benefit students.

I hope I'm wrong and none of this pessimism will stop me from working with technologists, ed tech people, and playing with the new toys as they become available. I just also want to be prepared for the worst while I'm hoping for the best.

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