Category Archives: Online Learning

Books, Not the Internet

David Brooks of The NY Times reported how disadvantaged middle school students were given up to 12 books to take home and keep over the summer. And then a surprise met those involved in the study:

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

Books have power! They make a difference! And these results were duplicated in Europe.

In a related educational study, researchers discovered another finding:

Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.

This study, following up on others, finds that broadband access is not necessarily good for kids and may be harmful to their academic performance. And this study used data from 2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.

Any language arts teacher could have told you this, but no one believes the footsoldier in the trenches of a battle. A commission or a study of “outside experts” has to be employed to tell the powers-that-be what we English teachers could have told them: books, not the internet, are better for students and their intellectual and academic development.

Now, admittedly, the “books are better than technology” argument is a bit simplistic (though still very important and true); however, the key may not be what’s in the books, but how the books make people perceive themselves.

But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

I often harp about the idea that relationships are critical in the classroom, and one of the by-products of these relationships is how students begin to see themselves as valuable and people of import. This allows them to risk and to explore. Instead of being intimidated by the tome in front of them, the students begin to develop a confidence and pride in reading–and debating and evaluating and synthesizing–great ideas from great minds. The students begin to wrestle with grand ideas and to incorporate them into their world view.

In fact, when researchers study the effects of the internet on academics, they consistently find that internet access may be a detriment to learning:

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, noted they “found a negative effect on academic achievement…I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

What we knew to be true only came to be accepted through another study.

Still, immersing our students in literature, giving them books, and providing them with a new self-image–all the while limiting their web surfing–can lead to a smaller achievement gap and a larger academic record of success for our students.

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Do you use Twitter? Princeton professors do, and they frequently chat with students using it. And they’re encouraged to do so without restraint.

What is their policy, you say? Read for yourself here:

“Professors should be constrained as little as possible,” Center for Information Technology Policy associate director David Robinson ’04 said.

“Obviously, if professors want to use Twitter or blogging or Morse code, the university should be totally fine with that,” he said. “Even the staff who speak for the university as a whole should have room to experiment.”

“Eventually, norms will emerge, but for now, it has evolved naturally, and we don’t need a policy.”

Some use Twitter to share links for learning or just to keep people informed about their lives. Its uses are growing and becoming more popular everywhere. I even saw politicians using this medium to comment on speeches…as they were given.

Social networking is gaining ground!

Sports or Books?

In this era of cost-saving measures, what should we cut or reduce? Some say high school sports should be cut while others say college campus staff members should be given the axe. There are a range of ideas, but what is the right area to cut back?

Stream of consciousness alert!

I tend to advocate for program cuts first. What are the “nice to haves” versus the “must haves”? And there are no easy answers.

If a program requires extra people primarily for bureaucratic reasons, I say cut it. We have programs like the Medicaid Match program where teachers record how much class time and duty time is devoted to helping students with health or counseling issues, and then these recording sheets are given to a clerk who specifically has to document, verify, and refer the records to another level of scrutiny. Relatively little money is generated per school for this program, maybe $1.25 per student (which my school uses to run detention halls, which are not very effective but is a whole other post).

We also have programs which duplicate the services of other programs. The same pool of students is double or triple served. This type of cost can be eliminated quickly or altered to help more students. Since most students cannot be in more than one program at a time, we have numerous programs with multiple open slots and no one to fill them.

We might converse about the feasibility of a student-driven schedule. Should we allow students to choose their classes, or should we ask for preferences and fill the classes we decide to offer using the preference lists as a guide only? Do we keep programs that serve a sliver of the population while other programs are overcrowded? Do we offer sparsely filled classes just to say we have a wide variety of offerings?

My school also has clubs with paid advisors who only have 4-5 club members, yet these clubs have the same stipend as clubs with up to 50 members. Is this a good use of student body funds? Should popularity play any role in the cost or allotment of an activity?

Should students who fail a core course automatically be enrolled in a cheaper online version rather than be in a regular classroom setting? Would it be cheaper only in the short-term? Should summer school be mandatory? I know my district pays relatively little to summer school instructors even though the workload is similar to that of the normal school year.

I’m just rambling some ideas off the top of my head, but I’m wondering what will drive the decision-making processes used to determine what stay and what goes. It could be scary.

Gift Wrapped Credits & Diplomas

A while back I had a student, Davy, reach the final week of his final semester in high school, and he had a 40% in my senior Mythology course while maintaining an attendance rate of 60% (and I think a blood-alcohol level of 2.0 most of the semester). I wouldn’t budge on giving “extra credit” to Davy as requested by the parents and the principal.

Instead of asking “what can Davy do to pass the course?” I was asked “what extra credit will you give Davy so he can pass?” I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t feel supported, and I definitely didn’t feel that the integrity of the course was being upheld. The principal placed the responsibility of Davy’s success on my shoulders instead of Davy’s. Still, I did offer one option: Davy passes the final with a C or better–showing that he learned the material–and I would pass him with a D-. Davy and his parents declined. Continue reading

Online Alternatives

In this Oregonian article the successes of an online school are touted as a potential solution for students looking for a new mean of success.

And it works for some.

Over 1800 students are enrolled in this online school with high levels of success in reading, scores comparable to public schools in math and reading, and special needs students with passing rates near their fully-abled peers. Sounds wonderful.

Except there’s a catch: “Connections Academy is off-limits for any student who can’t arrange for a learning coach to be home with them for five or six hours, five days a week.”

I would contend that any student who is getting assistance online and who has a full-time tutor is going to perform quite well. This signals to me children of middle to upper-middle class parents who normally outperform their peers in public schools anyway.

While I like the opportunities afforded (pun intended–sorry) these students, I do believe the comparisons are a bit disingenuous.

My high school uses online learning to allow credit retrieval, but we encounter a few major difficulties with normal hours online credit retrieval:
1. The curriculum is not aligned with ours.
2. The rigor falls far short.
3. The course requirements (of the course being made up) are not required of the online students.
4. The students regularly finish the retrieved credit in less than six weeks (with no real plan for the other 12 weeks).
5. The students have a high failure rate in the next teacher-led course in the sequence.

However, we are seeing some successes with Moodle. This Blackboard styled online system allows teachers to require the same knowledge as our normal classroom setting courses, but also allows the work to be submitted and worked on online. It’s not a cure-all, but it does greatly improve the online systems and programs we have used in the past, especially the current credit retrieval programs.

I would love to see online learning take hold in my community, but I also believe the rigor and content requirements must be included. In addition, I think teachers from our school (preferred) or teachers with the skills and and background in the content area (who understand our aligned curricula and become part of our departments) must instruct the online courses.

This requires support from the district in dollars, time, resources, and people, so we’ll see how serious it is to provide online classes with the rigor and high standards of the regular classroom.