When the In­ter­net is the teacher

AltS­chool stresses com­puter-as­sisted co-learn­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Michael God­sey Michael God­sey is an English teacher and writer based in San Luis Obispo.

There’s a new net­work of K-8 pri­vate schools called AltS­chool, based in San Fran­cisco and soon ex­pand­ing to Brook­lyn, N.Y., and Palo Alto. From that tiny amount of in­for­ma­tion — the name, the lo­ca­tions — you can prob­a­bly guess that AltS­chool is try­ing to mod­ern­ize ed­u­ca­tion for the dig­i­tal age. At AltS­chool, ac­cord­ing to NPR, ev­ery stu­dent “has a lap­top or a tablet, and they spend about 30% of their day on their de­vices, com­plet­ing what are called playlists.”

AltS­chool, which an­nounced re­cently that it was hir­ing ex­ec­u­tives from Google, Uber and Zynga, is also a soft­ware de­vel­oper. While AltS­chool ex­pands its net­work into what one in­vestor hopes will be­come “the world’s big­gest pri­vate school sys­tem,” it is si­mul­ta­ne­ously plan­ning to li­cense tech­nol­ogy to other aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions. Sil­i­con Val­ley has taken no­tice: In May, AltS­chool an­nounced $100 mil­lion in fund­ing from var­i­ous in­vestors, in­clud­ing Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg. It would seem the com­pany has tapped into the zeit­geist.

As a high school teacher, I’ve fol­lowed th­ese de­vel­op­ments with trep­i­da­tion. Whether or not AltS­chool meets lofty ex­pec­ta­tions, it epit­o­mizes the in­creas­ingly popular be­lief that hu­man in­struc­tors must cede to com­put­ers as the font of knowl­edge. That’s a pro­found shift that ed­u­ca­tors have barely be­gun to con­tem­plate.

AltS­chool’s pitch to par­ents — as op­posed to in­vestors — is familiar. It of­fers small class sizes, highly qual­i­fied teach­ers and in­stant feed­back. Public schools have ex­plic­itly pri­or­i­tized th­ese qual­i­ties for decades. Some­what less familiar is AltS­chool’s de­scrip­tion of what those highly qual­i­fied teach­ers ac­tu­ally do. Ac­cord­ing to AltS­chool’s web­site, “The sheer amount of in­for­ma­tion avail­able to­day calls for us ... to reimag­ine the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence” as one in which teach­ers “cu­rate” the cur­ricu­lum in part­ner­ship with stu­dents and par­ents and “co-learn with the stu­dents.”

Although he comes from a fam­ily of teach­ers, AltS­chool’s founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive, Max Ven­tilla, told me he “def­i­nitely agrees” that whereas teach­ers were once con­sid­ered the ex­perts in the room, the In­ter­net can now ful­fill that role. Teach­ers, ac­cord­ing to Ven­tilla, should be more like “coaches.”

Ven­tilla isn’t alone in this con­vic­tion. Aran Levasseur of MindShift, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that stud­ies the fu­ture of learn­ing, wrote in 2012 that com­put­ing de­vices “are dis­man­tling knowl­edge si­los and are there­fore trans­form­ing the role of a teacher into some­thing that is more of a fa­cil­i­ta­tor and coach.”

At TED 2013, the Bri­tish-In­dian aca­demic Su­gata Mi­tra earned a stand­ing ova­tion, as well as a $1-mil­lion prize, for his talk declar­ing that tra­di­tional schools are ob­so­lete be­cause we no longer need tra­di­tional teach­ers. It’s be­com­ing a cliche that the teacher should move from be­ing a “sage on the stage” to be­ing “a guide on the side.”

Closer to home, a Cal­i­for­nia high school prin­ci­pal — a friend who could speak can­didly — told me re­cently that “we’re at the point where the In­ter­net pretty much sup­plies ev­ery­thing we need. My daugh­ter gets some help from her teach­ers, but basi- cally ev­ery­thing she learns — from math to band — she can get from her com­puter bet­ter than her teach­ers.”

Com­put­ers are cer­tainly bet­ter than hu­mans at stor­ing in­for­ma­tion. But teach­ers have al­ways done more than dis­pense facts; at their best, they cul­ti­vate the abil­ity to use knowl­edge in the ser­vice of re­flec­tion and com­pas­sion. In other words, they cul­ti­vate wis­dom. If teach­ers are ul­ti­mately de­fined by their abil­ity to “co-learn,” will there still be a place for that func­tion, or will tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, through the soft­ware they de­sign, take on the role of me­di­at­ing the in­for­ma­tion trans­mit­ted to stu­dents?

An­other con­cern is that a high-tech ed­u­ca­tion may also be a place­less one. Ven­tilla ad­mires the Khan Academy, a Web­based com­pany whose “mi­cro-lessons” have been viewed on YouTube over 500 mil­lion times world­wide. “We would love to have their reach. That’s a spec­tac­u­lar re­source we use all the time,” he said. A les­son plan de­vel­oped and prod­uct-tested in San Fran­cisco could be used in Palo Alto or Brook­lyn, and per­haps one day by schools in Los An­ge­les, or Canada, or Mex­ico.

A tra­di­tional public-school teacher’s cur­ricu­lum is driven by the lo­cal school board, lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tors and the par­ents. (I of­ten use “The Grapes of Wrath” to help stu­dents un­der­stand the his­tory of Cal­i­for­nia.) By con- trast, a cu­ra­tor of dig­i­tal learn­ing tools is sub­servient to pri­vate na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions — cor­po­rate in­ter­ests — ap­ply­ing re­gional ex­am­ples as a foot­note to the cen­tral­ized syl­labus.

But the most trou­bling as­pect of this trend in ed­u­ca­tion is the lack of ev­i­dence show­ing that re­pur­pos­ing the teacher as a “guide on the side” ac­tu­ally im­proves learn­ing. In fact, the data com­piled by John Hat­tie in his book “Vis­i­ble Learn­ing” sug­gest the op­po­site. Af­ter syn­the­siz­ing more than 800 meta-analy­ses and 50,000 smaller stud­ies, Hat­tie found that “teacher cred­i­bil­ity,” “di­rect in­struc­tion,” and “qual­ity of teach­ing” were all sig­nif­i­cantly more ef­fec­tive than “in­di­vid­u­al­ized in­struc­tion,” “match­ing teach­ing with learn­ing style,” and “com­puter-as­sisted in­struc­tion.”

Larry Cuban, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of ed­u­ca­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, is one of many aca­demics to have noted the ab­sence of solid stud­ies to jus­tify a com­puter-cen­tered ped­a­gogy: “The fact is that no sub­stan­tial ba­sis in re­search find­ings or ex­ist­ing data on the aca­demic ef­fec­tive­ness of class­room tech­nol­ogy war­rant the boom-town spread of class­room de­vices.”

None of this is to sug­gest that AltS­chool will fail its stu­dents; they’ll ben­e­fit from a wealth of re­sources unimag­in­able to their public school peers. But com­puter-as­sisted “co-learn­ing” is, so far, an un­proven ex­per­i­ment, pro­moted by tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies that sell the ac­com­pa­ny­ing dig­i­tal tools. What’s good for in­vestors is not nec­es­sar­ily what’s good for ed­u­ca­tion.

AltS­chool stresses com­puter-as­sisted co-learn­ing.

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