The Amplification of Learning

Sunday’s New York Times magazine (the education issue) features a long article about tablets in schools, beginning in a North Carolina district that is in the process of deploying their devices to every student and teacher in their 24 middle schools. 

Actually, that’s not accurate. This story really is not about “tablets” or how new technologies impact learning, or even about education. It’s a long, high profile ad for Amplify, a division of Rupert Murdock’s global media conglomerate News Corp, and their all-in-one “solution” for fixing American education.

The entire article has so many flaws, misconceptions and errors that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the philosophy of the company as laid out by the CEO Joel Kline, former chancellor of the New York City schools, who, of course, believes that “K-12 isn’t working”. Kline also says that education is “ripe for disruption”, a phrase used by many other business people looking for a way to profit from public schools.

However, the model his company is pushing is anything but disruptive. Beyond tablets, Amplify is selling a fixed curriculum (aligned to Common Core, of course), delivered at a predetermined pace, adjusted slightly based on how well students do on their highly structured feedback system, also being sold.

Rather than stimulating major changes, Amplify’s approach to learning sets in concrete the traditional school model of the past hundred years. Except that now their tablet is the all-knowing dispenser of information. The teacher in this model becomes a combination data manager and tutor.

The writer does pose one non-softball question to Kline about “what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology”, one that we should be asking more often. Unfortunately, his unchallenged response doesn’t even rise to the level of lame.

… he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.

Yes, we could improve learning by better incorporating student interests and their styles but that’s not what the Amplify system is doing. And teachers are overwhelmed by lack of “tools” but instead by the ever-increasing demand to generate “data”, not to mention the constant chant by Kline and his reformer pals about how teachers are the root of all that’s wrong with schools. The part about “enthusiasm for gadgetry” is too stupid to waste time responding.

That part about tailoring K12 education to the student brings up another critical piece missing in the development of this tablet and the material being sold for it: the students themselves. Certainly Amplify is doing focus group testing (complete with the requisite junk food) on how their software works, but that’s not the same as actually working with kids to incorporate topics they want to explore and how they best learn. Of course, our standard school curriculum and process is almost entirely adult driven anyway, so this is another example of how Kline’s “disruption” really isn’t.

Scattered throughout the Times piece, the writer brings up her very valid concerns, and those of others, about students spending too much time in front of screens and not enough interacting with others or the world at large. What she doesn’t address is the quality and purpose of that time.

Amplify’s tablets and software are heavily focused on the one-way transmission of information, with student input coming at specified points in the process. That’s far different from students using devices as a tool for a project or activity. Creating a video, recording audio of their thoughts, assembling a storybook, all very different from rote responses to a pre-programmed lesson delivered on a tablet.

Finally, after thousands of words, and far more crap than anyone should have to suffer through, the writer finally arrives at an important point she should have made far earlier in the story: teaching is all about people and relationships.

Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.

Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling? Klein said that we have 3.5 million elementary- and middle-school teachers. “We have to put the work of the most brilliant people in their hands,” he said. “If we don’t empower them, it won’t work.” Behind the talking points and buzz words, what I heard him saying was Yes.

Bottom line, if we’re not going to invest in people – teachers, kids and families – no amount of technology is going to disrupt, or improve, American education.

Comments

  1. says

    Good critique of the key issues. I also fail to see how dumping content is either innovative or disruptive to education. It might be disruptive to publishers, but not the education system in general. Let’s not forget that this is all a commercial interest of News Corp – it’s primary aim is to make profits.

  2. Dave says

    First, let me say I agree entirely.

    It seems like there are three groupings of possibilities:
    1) roll out technology in loosely defined ways, leaving the door open for adaptation and continuous adjustment by teachers
    2) roll out technology alongside a system like Khan or the one in the article
    3) don’t roll out technology just yet

    I think we want plan 1, but I’m ready to admit that it isn’t going to happen. My hope, then, is to go with plan 2. The teachers and students on the front lines are smart. If we hand them a digital curriculum that’s tired and a device that’s powerful, I trust that the eventual outcome will be ditching the broken parts and using the devices in ways that make sense. I think we can still have plan 1) in the end.

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