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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Students: Be very afraid of online degree programs, especially if Pearson had anything to do with them

The other day I read this article in Politico:

No profit left behind
In the high-stakes world of American education, Pearson makes money even when its results don’t measure up.

Anyone who cares about education knows that Pearson is running our school systems through its tests, grading of tests, and nearly anything else it can think of. What I learned in this article is that they are now a major provider of online courses to universities and virtual high schools as well. So, I thought I would take a look at their courses which would of course, be the usual crap mixture of reading and taking tests interrupted by a  lecture.

But, the University of Florida, one place that buys these courses, doesn’t show them to the casual viewer. Instead it provides a promo video which includes the following keywords:

innovative pedagogy
positive game play
social interaction 
promotes pure learning
encourages collaboration
values individual student identity
builds upon student’s strengths and interests
allows for student choice
provides opportunities for reflection

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were describing the learn by doing, experiential, mentored simulation courses that me and my team have been building for over a decade. We too have created an innovative pedagogy that encourages (in fact, it requires) collaboration. provides choices, and is big on reflection.

(I don’t know what pure learning is and I don’t know what it means to value student identity, nor do I think positive game play means anything, but, I am getting the idea that Pearson (and Florida) are learning innovative educational vocabulary rather then learning how to build good educational experiences.)

I went on in the U of Florida video. I found that:

Students interact with each other

This, I have found, means that there are student discussion boards and students get to talk to other students just as they do in MOOCs without ever actually involving the faculty in any way. There are “team discussions” which would be fine if they ended up in something shared and engaged with by a teacher, but that doesn't happen. What does happen is the use of “playful promo videos for each module topic,” which seems to mean a funny intro of some sort. There are also short “weekly constitutionals covering foundational topics.” I have no idea what that means. Maybe it means the lectures they assure us they don’t use or the readings they don't mention they will make you read.

They do have an instructor however. 

“The instructor interacts with students via twitter, live tweeting during public events, and sharing content related to course activities.”

Wow. The students get to read tweets from  a professor. Now that is an innovative pedagogy! 

We also find that “the course does not rely on assigned readings and multiple-choice assessments (although all those are featured to a limited degree.)”

I have no idea what that sentence means, but my best guess is that course is nearly all assigned readings and multiple choice tests since that is what Pearson does for a living and that is what Pearson is ramming down the throats of every student online and off line whenever it can do it.

We are told that students complete missions. What is a mission you ask?

“Missions are the experiential component of the course:   They have to interview people, they have to talk to people, they have to do research and they have to build something, whether its something as simple as an essay or maybe even an infographic, a digital timeline, or a video.”   

So students are writing essays as usual, but they can also make graphical or video essays. I wonder who looks at them. The twitter bird?

So this is what I learned: Be very afraid of online courses. They are worse than live courses by a lot, and live courses are usually just boring lectures and tests. 

Students: Be very afraid of these online degree programs  because if Pearson continues to be in charge they won’t be worth the price of printing the diploma. You will have learned nothing except how to argue with other students on a discussion board and take lots of test and complete many “missions.”

The U of Florida may use the vocabulary of experiential learning but accomplishing real live tasks, tasks that someone might one day actually employ you to do, requires the learning and practice of real skills.   But, building courses that simulate actual experiences is expensive, and neither Florida nor Pearson is willing to spend much money on building new things. If you want to see what an experiential learning by doing course should look like, take a look here:

They can steal our vocabulary, but they can’t copy what we do, mostly because they really don’t want to. 

Universities are, for the most part, not concerned with teaching. I also watched the video promo of an online U of Florida Psychology course where the speaker was the instructor. She never said what the online course was like but she did say the word “research” about ten times. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Students: Life isn’t actually a multiple choice test. Have some fun.

I want to consider four separate things I happened upon this week that all lead one glaring conclusion.

The first was this article in the NYTimes:

More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed

“High numbers of students are beginning college having felt depressed and overwhelmed during the previous year, according to an annual survey released on Thursday, reinforcing some experts’ concern about the emotional health of college freshmen.”

This would be very interesting if it weren’t so sad. The article reports that students are stressed out about getting into college and academics and so they socialize less and don’t even have time to watch TV.

To put this another way, we have managed to test these kids to death in the last years, so that their life is all about getting into college by getting good grades. How does this make for well adjusted human beings? Do families even gather around the dinner table and talk anymore? Do they play together after dinner? Or are they all cramming for the next test? What kinds of people are we raising? If you are depressed when you arrive at college, how are you going to even get through college much less life? Where  is the fun?

Well, apparently not in childhood. The next article, also from the Times, makes it clears why. 

Is Your First Grader College Ready?

“Matriculation is years away for the Class of 2030, but the first graders in Kelli Rigo’s class at Johnsonville Elementary School in rural Harnett County, N.C., already have campuses picked out. Three have chosen West Point and one Harvard. In a writing assignment, the children will share their choice and what career they would pursue afterward. The future Harvard applicant wants to be a doctor. She can’t wait to get to Cambridge because “my mom never lets me go anywhere.”

They are talking about college in first grade? Why? “If you focus on Harvard you will get in” is apparently the answer.  But Harvard has a 5.9% acceptance rate. It is probably a lot lower in Harnett County, N.C. So is our goal to get kids to focus on what they will never achieve so that they can be depressed once they get into college, or worse fail to get into college? How can college matter in any way to a six year old? Fun matters. Learning what you want to learn matters. We have made school into a contest that no one can win. All are Harvard graduates so happy and successful? I don’t know. I taught at Yale, where there were a lot of miserable kids and where plenty of the graduates never went on to do all that much. It is all so sad. 

And then I got this, forwarded from my son. It is from his four year old’s teacher:

Hello Families,

In honor of Black History Month, throughout the month of February, each classroom at our school will be highlighting important contributions of African Americans to our country and culture. Our classroom will be studying and celebrating the inspiring artwork of Shinique Smith, a Baltimore native who is renowned for her bright, geometric and abstract paintings, collages and sculptures. We are thrilled to introduce Ms. Smith's work to the children as her artistic interests and philosophies are very similar to our students' artistic tendencies in the classroom art studio: 
1 The children an Ms. Smith share a passion for reusing recyclable materials in their artwork, giving "found treasures" and "loose parts" new life through their creations. 
2 The children and Ms. Smith share a fascination with spirals and mandalas, consistently incorporating circular patterns and designs into their work. 
3 The children and Ms. Smith have been inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock and enjoy utilizing flicking, splattering and dripping techniques on their canvases when using tempera paint.

I am sure that a 4 year old “studying and celebrating” an artist will be something to behold. But, we have a hint of what will happen. Apparently the 4 year olds have been inspired by Jackson Pollack to dribble paint on canvases. Really? No one just plays with paint any more. Now they are all Jackson Pollack. And since they like playing with junk, we find this is now a tribute to an artist that no one has ever heard of.

This wouldn't bother me so much except for what followed.

Extending Learning at Home:
Here are some resources to learn more about Shinique Smith at home. Consider taking some time to look through her work with your child (or the whole family). Spark discussion by asking the following: "What does this remind you of?" "What do you see in this piece?" "What do you think  Shinique was thinking about when she painted/sculpted this?" "What shades of color do you see?" "What shapes do you see?" "How does this piece make you feel?”

The parents are being told that despite the fact that they have spent the whole day working and despite the fact that the kids have been in school all day, what they should do at home in their free time is this: They shouldn’t play with their child or talk to him about what he is thinking, Instead, they should talk about the work of an artist they never heard of and don’t care about to a kid who has no interest in the subject. All this because the teacher wants to rest during class while the kids throw paint?

The good news is that I wont be visiting my grandson or I would talk to him about what the teacher was thinking when she sent home this message or how doing this required art work makes him feel. Fun? That’s out. Let’s make them stress about school 24/7.

But it hasn’t been a bad year for kids in school this year. Why? Because there have been lots of snow days. Kids celebrate when school is cancelled. I wonder why. 
But, apparently not in Indiana:

“Even when schools are closed for snow, students in Delphi, Ind., are expected to log on to their classes from home.
The seniors in Brian Tonsoni's economics class at Delphi Community High School are no strangers to technology — everybody has an Internet-connected laptop or smartphone in front of them in class as they work on business plans.”

Can we please stop and think about what we are doing to our children? They are all in a giant competition but I am not sure for what. I didn’t pay any attention to that competition when I was a student. I graduated #322 in a class of 678. Those numbers never left my mind. I had a C average in college. 

Why? Because I believe in playing and having fun and not in stressing out about school. Still I managed to be the youngest full professor at Yale at the time (at 29). 

Let them have fun, please. School just isn’t that important. I never got into Harvard. (Nor did I apply.) Somehow I managed through life without it. College has become a symbol of achievement in this country. It isn’t. There are 4000 colleges. Anyone can get into college. And anyone can graduate by memorizing answers and passing tests. 

Life isn’t actually a multiple choice test.