“The Hidden Dangers of Blended and Online Learning aka Competency Based Education/Personalized Learning”
Homo sapiens is a story-telling species. From time immemorial humans have been composing, elaborating on, and transmitting stories that provide meaning about their place in society and within the universe. Indigenous groups around the world still do this, to the extent that their languages have not become extinct. For centuries societies that have developed a writing system have had the luxury of recording stories for their own and future generations, and even for those living complexly different lives in other parts of the world.
What is happening today threatens this crucially vital, human activity. What we have today is a sinister global invasion by the mind-set of corporate/technocratic elites. Whether driven by a profit motive or delusions of grandeur, their hubris is rushing the rest of us to a dystopian near-future of a callous, mindless, soulless algorithm-directed society. The most despicable application of this heartless agenda is found in the corporate movement to re-imagine public schools, recklessly foisting unproven and obscenely expensive 1:1 digital learning on all children, from the youngest through college and beyond. And the standards to which this digital learning is aligned are the rightfully maligned Common Core State [sic] Standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics.
The chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, who is now the head of the College Board, infamously said, “as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” How dare he poison the entire public education system with a mind-set that devalues human expression of thinking and feeling, i.e. devalues human story-telling through literature, drama, art, music, dance, philosophy, and spirituality. The math standards are equally warped and ironically, not rigorous enough for students to accomplish the math understanding necessary to go into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in college, the trumpeted goal of the standards in the first place.
There are many reasons to resist this juggernaut of digital education. For one thing, one of the hidden agendas is to marginalize and do away with fully trained and experienced human teachers, teachers who relate individually to each student in their charge. Robotized teaching via software programs and algorithms cannot be assumed to meet the needs of living, breathing children. In schools that have had their arms twisted to engage in digital teaching/learning, teachers are out of the loop in terms of actually interacting with students on the content of the software programs their students are locked into. While the student’s every keystroke, every hesitancy, every incorrect answer is being monitored and vacuumed up as potentially marketable data, the teacher’s role has been morphed into merely a data technician.
For more information on algorithms and on data mining, See
“Algorithms: While the student is learning online, the computer is also learning about the student.
“The ed-tech industry is calling this form of student data tracking ‘personalized learning ‘ or adaptive, customized, education because of the algorithms that will be used to discover how a student thinks and feels and learns while online. Personalized learning can collect literally millions of data points per day, per child.”
See here for the Knewton-Education Datapalooza
Unfortunately for us in RI, we have a Strategic Plan for Public Education 2015-2020 that emphasizes “innovative” teaching/learning via digital programming. In addition, our Commissioner of Education, Ken Wagner, is enthusiastically committed to the full monty of digitized learning, going so far as to praise the use of automated scoring for essay responses on the state assessment, the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Commissioner Wagner’s remarks on this topic can be found on the video of the April 5, 2016 meeting of the RI Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. (The link to the video can be found here.)
When Wagner was making his glowing comments about how great automated scoring is, and how fortunate we are in RI to be able to participate in this for scoring the PARCC, he declared that scoring by algorithm is more efficient and just as good as if not better than scoring by teachers. Hasn’t Wagner read the accounts of college graduates without teaching degrees or experience being recruited on Craigslist by Pear$on to score the tests? The quantity of tests they are expected to score and the rigid criteria they are expected to use cannot possibly result in valid scores for students. So maybe, yes, it doesn’t matter if you switch to computer scoring and don’t have to bother with providing low wages and no benefits to temporary workers who have no idea what they’re doing. Please see this post by Leonie Haimson for further insight on automated scoring.
In terms of the actual validity and reliability of the PARCC testing itself—where is the peer-reviewed research that supports this claim? On the contrary, leading literacy experts have shown that the reading passages on the ELA test are typically 2 grade levels above the grade of the students tested. It should be obvious to anyone who knows about child development and literacy development that in order to deeply analyze text, which is what the PARCC purports to do, the reading material has to be within the student’s comfort zone, not at a frustration level where comprehension is sabotaged. For authentic views on the flawed nature of the PARCC ELA tests, See Russ Walsh and Celia Oyler’s blog post.
There was another comment by the Commissioner that was jaw-dropping. When the high school student on the Council described a loss of instructional time due to insufficient technology in some schools during test administration, so that schedules are interrupted for weeks, Wagner insisted that it’s necessary to get all schools to use the online version, rather than the paper and pencil version of the PARCC, as soon as possible. He insisted that this is important not only for the testing, but for an underlying instructional purpose. He stated:
“We can’t think about student engagement unless we have a serious strategy around digital learning.” (emphasis added) I can’t think of a more misguided understanding of student engagement, can you?
And so the state will magnanimously try its best to ensure that all districts have wireless technology. Apparently neither the Commissioner nor anyone on the Council has become aware of the plethora of scientific studies warning of the harmful biological/neurological/social effects of inordinate amounts of 1:1 digital use/wifi radiation on children. Where is the due diligence to investigate the ramifications of this rush to all digital all the time? It is nowhere among those urgently promoting this technocratic , corporate-led agenda.
So, not only do we need to be concerned about the quality of the digitized materials that students are being fed, and the data that is being siphoned off without the knowledge or consent of the parents, but we also have to be concerned about the potential for serious, negative health effects from the increasing amount of wifi radiation that children are being exposed to in schools. Voluminous scientific research has provided enough evidence to urge caution before installing routers in schools so that every child can be using a digital hand-held device in every classroom every day. Who is paying attention? The World Health Organization has noted this potential threat, and many countries around the world have taken steps to remove wifi from their classrooms, particularly for the youngest children. For information on this potential health catastrophe, a good introduction can be found here.
Where was the public discussion of the necessity and urgency of the Knowledge Economy and a technocratic, digitalized global workforce? The general public has essentially been kept in the dark, though the information is available for those with the stamina to pursue it. One immensely capable blogger who has been informing those willing to listen about the dangers of Competency Based Education et al is Maine teacher Emily Kennedy Talmage in her blog Save Maine Schools.
This agenda of privatizing, profiteering, and artificializing education has been in the works for years with organizations such as the International Association for k-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), global corporations such as Microsoft and Pearson, philanthrocapitalists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton family, and Eli and Edyth Broad, as well as political/lobbying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). It is a joint neoliberal/neoconservative attack on rational regulation, preservation of public institutions for the public good, and maintenance of the social safety net. If left unchecked, it will destroy not only our democracy, but the fundamental basis for a humane and vibrant civil society. We do give a s**t about what people think and what they feel. We will not allow the technocrats to marginalize and suppress the people’s voice and the people’s stories. The general public needs to wake up to this impending catastrophe before it is too late to derail it.
Sheila Resseger, M.A.
Retired teacher, RI School for the Deaf
May 18, 2016