Engineering the failure of public schools, Part 3: Distance Learning and Technology Implementation

By: Dave Palmer

The next piece of the puzzle that shows public schools are being set up for failure comes in the form of technology implementation and distance learning (sometimes referred to as “virtual academies”). While it is important to familiarize today’s students with basic technology that is used in virtually every career a student can prepare for, in many cases schools have fallen woefully behind the modern technology curve. Coupled with this is the implementation of internet-based learning that focuses on educating as many students as possible with as few teachers as possible. Many “virtual academy” teachers are required to implement curriculum from all four core subject areas (math, science, social studies, language arts) while being certified in only one or two of those content areas. In other words, your child’s English teacher may also be called upon to answer questions about pre-calculus.

However, online learning vendors don’t take that fact into account when they make their silver-tongued sales pitches to school districts. Consider the following paragraphs from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

“Students deserve learning experiences tailored to their needs and that make the most of teachers’ time with students. Ninety-five percent of 12- to 17-year-olds already go online on a regular basis. They use social networks, and create and contribute to websites. Our work is focused on taking full advantage of the kinds of tools and technologies that have transformed every other aspect of life to power up and accelerate students’ learning. We need to do things differently, not just better.”

“We’re investing in a new generation of courseware that adapts in sophisticated ways to students’ learning needs. We’re also supporting game-based learning that generates rich data about students’ progress and challenges them with exactly what they need to learn next.”

“Blending face-to-face instruction with digital tools allows students to learn independently and at their own pace, freeing up time for teachers to give students more individualized attention and to focus on more complex tasks. Allowing students to progress to new levels of learning as soon as they demonstrate mastery of a topic rather than moving forward based on the number of hours spent in a classroom provides students with customized pathways to achievement, enabling them to be successful every step of the way.”

Never mind the fact that most school districts tend to buy Microsoft products due to low price points on economy machines. Never mind that these economy machines quickly become outdated and require frequent upgrades and/or replacements (again willingly supplied by Microsoft for a fee) every few years. Never mind that poor school districts can’t afford said upgrades and/or replacements and still end up with a large achievement gap.

Then, there is the problem of getting updates installed in general. Most schools employ an IT person who is charged with making all the computers and their respective networks function. The IT person usually sets up the computers to prevent students from making unauthorized downloads by requiring an administrator password. This works perfectly for preventing said downloads, but also prevents the teacher from updating plug-ins on the spot as necessary when something malfunctions on the program due to lack of current updates.

Naturally, the teacher has to inform the IT person that the computer needs updates, which stalls the student in the progression of their course and makes that particular computer unavailable to other students who may come in to use it during other class periods. Sometimes, the updates are delayed by as much as several days, which further hinders the learning process. Most of my time as a distance learning teacher was spent troubleshooting, diagnosing problems, and informing the IT person that computers needed updates as opposed to functionally helping students with course work.

Another facet of virtual education that Gates, et al are blissfully unaware of is the auditor who wants to see students working an equal amount of time in the classes they are scheduled for during the time that they are scheduled for them. This of course runs completely counter to the idea that students deserve “learning experiences tailored to their needs and that make the most of teachers’ time with students.” The fact that distance learning is sold to schools with a pitch that sounds eerily like the latter sentence is of no consequence to high-level administrators and school auditors, most of which have little to no educational experience at all and at best have degrees in curriculum development and have never set foot in an actual classroom. They expect that all students will simply comply with their request to use distance learning in a way opposite of how it was sold to the students.

It is therefore quite clear that the current implementation of distance learning is not designed to help schools achieve better results or to allow students to move at their own pace in a curriculum that is tailored to their individual needs. Distance learning uses carbon-copy lessons and rubber-stamp approvals regulated by auditors who believe that student progress should always fall within the bounds of a statistical model and school administrators who think that a student who is given infinite choices on an internet with very few filters will always choose to do school work according to their schedule. In that respect, distance learning actually serves to create more failing school districts by requiring them to sink more and more money into technology and IT support, which necessarily leaves less and less money for extracurriculars, art, music, and teacher salaries. In the end, schools will wind up with students who have a virtual education, students will wind up unprepared for the real world, and the argument to completely privatize schools into the for-profit model will look all the more enticing, bringing the quest to engineer the failure of public school districts one step closer to a successful conclusion.