Moore’s Law, Culture & School Change


Here, buried in my sixth paragraph, is the most important nugget: we’ve reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.
I came to this conclusion recently while attending Brainstorm 2008, a delightful conference for computer people in K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin. They didn’t hold breakout sessions on technology battles or tactics, but the idea was in the air. These people were under siege.
I started writing educational software in 1978. The role of instructional technology has changed since then from a gimmick to a novelty to an effort to an essential component of any curriculum. Kids can’t go to school today without working on computers. But having said that, in the last five years more and more technical resources have been turned to how to keep technology OUT of our schools. Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults.
But does it?
These are kids who have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. But far more important, there is emerging a class of students whose PARENTS have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. The Big Kahuna in educational discipline isn’t the school, it is the parent. Ward Cleaver rules. But what if Ward puts down his pipe and starts texting? Well he has.
Andy Hertzfeld said Google is the best tool for an aging programmer because it remembers when we cannot. Dave Winer, back in 1996, came to the conclusion that it was better to bookmark information than to cut and paste it. I’m sure today Dave wouldn’t bother with the bookmark and would simply search from scratch to get the most relevant result. Both men point to the idea that we’re moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what’s wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?
This is, of course, a huge threat to the education establishment, which tends to have a very deterministic view of how knowledge and accomplishment are obtained – a view that doesn’t work well in the search economy. At the same time K-12 educators are being pulled back by No Child Left Behind, they are being pulled forward (they probably see it as pulled askew) by kids abetted by their high-tech Generation Y (yes, we’re getting well into Y) parents who are using their Ward Cleaver power not to maintain the status quo but to challenge it.

There’s no question that revolution is in the air. The education process is ripe for change for a number of reasons, including those mentioned by Cringely. We’ve seen substantial education spending increases over the past decade, which are unlikely to continue growing at the same pace, given other spending priorities such as health care and infrastructure. The ongoing flap over the proposed Madison report card changes is another example of change in the air. Links:

Cringely has posted a followup article here.

9 thoughts on “Moore’s Law, Culture & School Change”

  1. I agree with some of the ideas expressed here. Technology can be a great aid in education. I am amazed at how quickly my son picked up keyboarding by playing typing program games like typershark. Similar programs speed aquisition of math facts as compared to the old paper/pencil drills. Software that helps visualization in geometry aids understanding. The list goes on and on. But technology cannot do all that is often claimed. The fallacy that we see promoted, that we only need to learn how to access information, and not to actually know anything, is completely ludicrous. Until such time as we have computers implanted in our brains, we will continue to require a strong framework of factual knowledge, and a good base of skills as well. Imagine trying to tile a bathroom when the walls, ceiling and floor haven’t been framed out. Can’t be done. One needs a good solid framework of knowledge in order to be able to evaluate new information and understand how it fits into the world. Compelling arguments for this are made so well by others, such as E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, that I won’t attempt to remake them here. Unfortunately, our ed establishment has already bought this “we-have-computers-to-store-info-so-needn’t-waste-brain-space-on-that-anymore” snake oil and moved distressingly away from the content-based instruction that is necessary for a firm foundation. Yes, one also needs to know how to learn and have critical thinking skills, etc. It is particularly helpful when schools focus efforts on teaching kids how to discern what in the barrage of info is useful and valid vs. what is garbage. This is a false dichotomy laid between teaching knowledge OR teaching how to access and use knowledge. Both are necessary components of a good education.
    Cringely alludes to the possibility of online home schooling supplanting traditional schools. This can’t happen on a large scale, since young children and teens need to be supervised while parents are working and in many households no adult is present during the day. Even if kids received instruction online, they’d still need somewhere to go all day. And it is a true fact that much value is added to education from the personal interactions with teachers and other students.
    That said, our family is exploring the possibility of online schooling for at least part of high school for a variety of reasons. This, although I believe it is preferable generally for students to learn in stimulating and academically challenging classrooms with a great teacher and like-minded peers.
    One way to handle this is through open enrollment into one of the public virtual schools (which have been recently so much in the news) run by a Wisconsin school district. These are no cost to the parents. For example, Monroe’s Virtual High School has a good program. Link: Courses are provided by several universities: U of Missouri, Stetson, Oregon State, U of Nebraska, Brigham Young. They don’t offer any AP foreign language, and not many AP science classes. But there are a wide variety of challenging, well-designed courses available in all subjects, especially LA & SS. Also, one can ask their review committee to approve courses taken outside MVS (paid for by families) and include these in student’s program/transcript if one wants a course they don’t provide.
    Alternatively, students can enroll directly into a private online high school. For example, U of Missouri offers an online high school degree program, using the same courses that Monroe Virtual High School gets from them. Link: The cost is reasonable, about $280 per high school credit, plus books and any costs incurred for proctoring of exams. The listed book costs are high, but most are available used at a small fraction of list price. Most courses are designed so that about 60% of grade is from proctored exams. Outside of Missouri, need to arrange for proctoring through library/univ. testing center/local high school. If free proctoring can’t be found, need to pay for this.
    A possible advantage to going the private route is that Wisconsin law requires school districts to allow private/home schooled students to enroll in 2 courses at a time, for credit, at their resident high school. So one could go to one’s local high school for band and foreign language, say, and have those credits transferred to the online program. That way can still get benefits of socializing, taking part in performance classes, etc. Actually MMSD is pretty generous, more than law requires. They seem to allow participation in the 2 classes also at lower grade levels and, at least in middle school, in extracurricular clubs. Haven’t yet asked if clubs OK at high school. Also haven’t yet investigated what the possibilities are for open enrollment transfers out to be allowed participation in classes/activities.
    Neither of these schooling options are open to students who play high school sports. WIAA rules require students to be enrolled full time at their team’s school.
    MMSD does now have a decent selection of courses, including lots of AP classes, available through Virtual Campus, so one might suppose it would be possible to take the limit of 2 online classes while enrolling for the rest of schedule in regular classes at West. However, their approval criteria make it sound quite difficult to obtain permission to take them. I have asked for information about this, waiting to hear back, although, pessimist that I am, I am doubtful that we can get permission to take the LA/SS courses through this venue for 9th/10th.

  2. I am also eager, Celeste, to hear more about how this MMSD Virtual Campus stuff is supposed to work. They posted something a couple weeks ago about this being available to counteract all the happy-happy talk about maybe switching out of district to get virtual schooling. But there were no details given. How do you enroll? Is it concomitant with regular area high schools? Can it replace it? Do they have to take the courses at the brick and mortar school? WHo teaches it? Is there one teacher who does all of them at any one local high school? Do the students have to all meet at the same time for it? Is the teacher at the on-site school licensed in all the areas it is possible to take courses in?
    Why does MMSD seem to want to limit knowledge of these options to only those parents who FIGHT for the details and ask over and over to get the options for their own children? Why don’t we share this info more broadly? Why do some of our middle school kids, for example, get a chance to enroll in some trial on-line math classes, but most do not, even if they need advanced content? Is this just another example of limiting access to the students whose parents scream the loudest and advocate the strongest? If so, then is this so that the district can keep complaining about the middle and upper-middle class, elitist whiners being the only ones who think we are doing a crappy job of meeting the needs of our best and brightest students?
    I have a real problem with saying (as one board candidate recently has) that we must be doing fine because our white students compare favorably with the mostly white districts around us on measures like ACTs and SATs. What about our students of color? Are they getting the access they deserve? And how on earth is it supposed to increase their access to higher courses, by requiring everyone to take all the same basic courses through 9th and 10th grades, as has been implemented at West (and can it be far behind for others?). No one is allowed to want more before 11th grade? How does that equalize access for all? Because only the kids whose parents can afford private schools or external enrichment get to care about learning more and being challenged before late high school? Huh?
    Anyway, I want more info on how we ALL access courses through MMSDs alleged on-line programming. I am still waiting, and so are my kids. My MIDDLE SCHOOL kids, no less, not just high schoolers.

  3. I have inquiries out about some of these things and I’ve been reading and talking with some people to find out more.
    The Madison Virtual Campus is pretty new. There is a link to it on MMSD home page, so you can view the course list, policies, student handbook, and so forth. There is a limit of 2 courses a year. Judging from the approval criteria, they don’t really want many students to enroll. You need to demonstrate ‘compelling need’, like being homebound due to illness, or having an IEP that recommends computer delivered instruction. Or if a TAG INSTEP states next level of challenge cannot be met in the classroom. That might be a route to try. Good luck with that. The approval process requires you to have a rationale for wanting to take the course that meets their criteria. There is a nice selection of AP courses. It may be they are willing to let 11/12 West students take these since getting to other high schools for AP is logistically difficult. I am waiting to hear from the online learning coordinator,Kelly Pochop, for more information. But if you are interested, Millie, it might be good to start by visiting the page and read what info is there to get a feeling for what are the right questions to ask staff members. There is a staff member assigned to each high school (West’s is still TBA), although it is not clear if that is the MMSD online teacher their handbook refers to. There is a teacher in MMSD who interacts with the student at least occasionally, as well as a virtual teacher. There is reference made to group activities and extra MMSD assessments that may be added, as though several MMSD students might be taking the class at a time. Also, the student’s ‘team content-area teacher’ is mentioned as having at least peripheral involvement with grading. Maybe some kids do this at a computer in the same classroom as other kids are having regular class??? Oh, I did see a few middle school classes in the course list.
    What I have found from browsing, is that online courses vary widely in format and content. Some are correspondence courses with textbooks, and you download lesson plans. You might do assessments on computer, or have them mailed to a proctor. Some courses are very interactive, with no textbook. Sometimes there is a lot of interaction with a virtual teacher and other students via discussion board. Other times there may be little of this unless you have a problem. Some schools tend toward really computer driven courses, others to more traditional, and some offer several options to select from. There are courses where assessments include projects and written papers and others that are all tests and quizzes. A few schools, like Waukesha’s iqAcademy, even provide a laptop and printer for each student.
    I have thought of another way that might just work to enable taking the lower level LA/SS high school courses online. There is this part-time open enrollment (no cost to families) that Wisconsin law provides for. Jim has a link to the DPI info about this at the top right side of page. It allows one to request to take up to 2 high school courses at a time in another district, while taking the rest of courses in resident school. When I originally heard about this, I wondered who would even be able to take advantage of this, as it involves driving kids around from one district to another every day. Just getting from West to Memorial seems like enough trouble! The most recent data I can see on DPI site is up to ’04-’05. In the entire state 40-50 students a year were using this option at that time. But eventually I realized that one could request part-time open enrollment into one of the public virtual schools and take the classes at home. A couple of the virtual schools have told me that this sort of request is fine, no trouble. Still, one needs to get approval also from MMSD. The law says that resident district can only deny request due to financial burden (they need to pay for it) or interference with a student’s IEP. But they can decide the course doesn’t meet graduation requirements and refuse to grant credit, although this is not a denial. But practically speaking, it would amount to a denial, especially if it is for a core course. The DPI coordinator doesn’t have data about denials, but says her impression is it happens rarely. She recalls a district, not MMSD, that denied credit for an English class. And once you start browsing these online schools, you’ll see that there is such a wide variance in what is taught in 9th grade English, that this could happen. US History seems more standard. In any case, I figured out that Insight Virtual School of Wisconsin gets the same courses from APEX Learning, that Madison does for their Virtual Campus. So since Madison has already approved these courses as core courses for their own internal use, they couldn’t say it doesn’t meet graduation requirements when offered by someone else (I think.) Insight also carries the honors versions of the English core classes, which are similar to standard courses but have more challenging assignments. Anyway, I don’t suppose MMSD would be pleased if families started using this option as a method of getting around MMSD’s insistence on no honors classes for 9/10. I don’t know how many people would even be interested in this. It requires a high level of discipline and self-motivation on the students’ part, as they are mostly learning independently.
    In regards to my earlier post here, I have learned that private/home schooled students are not permitted to join West clubs, which is reasonable. Also I am told that if a private/home schooled student wants to enroll in 1 or 2 classes at West, they do accomodate students, but the request to enroll in courses needs to be made already sometime in the spring.

  4. Just so you are aware of it, when we looked at taking one course at West while my child was full time at Edgewood, we were told/billed the same fees as someone who was full time at West and at that time they were not prorating. This was something new in the district last year. There was no charge for the class, but the family is required to pay for “school fees” which is cheaper than paying for the course on line, so one needs to decide if the course is worth it or not.
    Also, West does feel that they are offering an “honors” level within the regular class – it depends upon the teacher if this means more work or different work. If a child signs up for the “honors” level and completes the work, Honors is noted on his/her transcript next to the course.
    Also, I had checked last year and learned a virtual class (or classes)are only available for full time MMSD students.

  5. Oh, right. I did see that somewhere in the DPI rules, that schools can charge the same fees they charge other students, mentioning things like fees for driving courses. I forgot that there are those not inconsequential annual school fees.
    I’ve also seen this about the ability to sign up for honors options within regular classes in some subjects like biology and English 10. You can see details at West’s website in special links to biology and English 10 and maybe also in program of study.
    I forgot to mention that about Madison Virtual Campus, that it is not a public virtual school which students from other districts can open enroll into. It is something developed for use of MMSD students only. This seems to be a point of pride for Art Rainwater. You can see when he speaks about it. I think there is a disdainful feeling by some people that the school districts which have developed public virtual schools, like Waukesha, Monroe, Appleton, etc. are doing this merely as a cash cow. Those districts receive cash payments from resident districts for the students they draw in. And goodness knows, every Wisconsin school district is desperately hunting for ways to raise cash. Like selling ad space in school websites and school gyms, which is a much more admirable way to raise money, right? But these public virtual schools do fill a real need, so no one should be disparaging them just because they raise money. I know our incoming Supt. Nerad is no proponent of this form of education. But even he admits that when students might be sitting at home getting no organized formal education, online classes are certainly preferable.

  6. …thinking about West’s summary rejection of your request to apply to take a virtual class. I can’t see anything in DPI rules or MMSD BOE policy that on the face of it, would allow them to do this. Rules state that private/home school students MUST be allowed to take ANY course offered to high school students, if there is room. Of course, you’d have to go through the same onerous approval gauntlet as full-time MMSD students, so probably wouldn’t get in anyway, but don’t see how they can refuse your request to apply with the statement that it is only for full-time MMSD students. They may only have budgeted for a certain # of class slots (in ’07-’08 it was 500 for entire district,) but since you need to apply to take class by March 1 of prior year, they couldn’t know already for a fact that they wouldn’t have space. Maybe it’s something obscure, like the way they define ‘course’? Did they give a reason?
    And come to think of it, not sure how they can automatically exclude non-residents from applying for part-time open enrollment into these courses either, since the rules state that ‘Except for space and the preferences indicated in the following two points, the school district must use the same criteria for acceptance or rejection into a course that applies to resident students.’ The two points elaborate rules giving preference first to residents when space is limited.
    Don’t find MMSD defintion of ‘course’ anywhere either, so it’s all a mystery until I ask someone there, unless someone reading this knows the answer and can help.

  7. I wonder how many parents read these discussions and think “I’m curious about these alternative schooling opportunities, but there is no way I would be able to make my way through such a confusing gauntlet of ambiguous rules and procedures.”
    So here is a business idea — free of charge. A team of people with backgrounds in law and education would operate a “registration brokerage”. They become experts on what exactly MMSD has to offer, and they know what a parent can demand of the district by law or precedent. For a fee, a parent would select what course or program they need for their child, and the registration brokerage would make it happen. The district cannot respond inconsistently or abiguously to a single entity like that. This operation would also be a catalyst for MMSD decision making or legal action.
    From a marketing perspective, this service would be positioned toward parents who are curious about private education but can’t quite swing that financially.
    How crazy is this idea? It just occurs to me as I read these types of discussion.

  8. Now I heard from Kelley Pochop, the online learning facilitator. He says that as the virtual campus is so new, procedures and processes are still evolving. Over time, rules may be relaxed and more students may be able to take advantage of this option. This, although my questions were just in the line of ‘can my child take X and Y and how is it done?’- not addressing any rules that might make it difficult.
    So if there is a chance that this may be opened up to more students, then anyone who is interested in these opportunities for their own children, or others’, should mobilize and write to board members, administration, and newspapers. Make a comment at a board meeting to get this on their radar.
    First read all they have available at the web page. Under ‘MVC course info’ read everything under all the subcategories. The rules involve screening students to be sure they are responsible enough and otherwise suited to this type of instruction, which is a good idea. But the criteria for justifiable reasons for wanting to take a course are pretty narrow. Parents can suggest other reasons that could be added to the list, lots, I’ll bet. For instance, a family may feel that a student can’t get the next level of challenge in the regular classroom, whether or not a TAG INSTEP supports this contention. Student and parent desires should be given weight. Some students who prefer working on their own get worn out and disturbed from a whole day of the constant group work that is nowadays de rigueur in school. Being able to do have a breather from that for 1 or 2 classes may just make school tolerable. We need to advocate to make this more widely available.
    I am a bit ambivalent,since it really would be great to have honors/TAG classes and work for that instead. But ideas of reviving/expanding these kinds of classes seem DOA in the political atmosphere that currently prevails. Getting more challenging online instruction may at least be in the realm of the possible, since it offers benefits to more types of learners.
    I wonder how this costs out. Does it save money or add to costs? And how do teachers feel about it? They might be relieved to have a way to handle their outliers, but if it became too common, would they feel threatened and lobby against?

  9. So here’s a partial answer to my last question. I don’t know how the teachers feel, but I know how their union feels. Now I recall having read this before, here, in Feb. 2007. A link to the CapTimes article from 2/07 about MTI’s opposition to MMSD’s attempt to develop virtual courses:
    And more recently, a link to Jan. 7th, 2008 issue of the MTI newsletter ‘Solidarity’, which implies the oppostion is still ongoing:
    From an article in the newsletter about WEAC prevailing in the lawsuit against WIVA-
    “MTI has a similar case in process. The MTI Collective Bargaining Agreement contains a work-assignment clause which guarantees that instruction of MMSD students will only be done by members of MTI’s teacher collective bargaining unit. MTI’s challenge is that the District has been sub-contracting with both other school districts and private parties for the instruction of some District students.”
    It seems MTI’s opposition is not a philosophical opposition to the method of instruction, but just turf protection. School districts are not developing their own courses. They are purchasing them from others. There is an MMSD teacher supervising on this end. But there is also the virtual teacher at the other end, who is not an MTI member. They might also have some other reasons to oppose which aren’t stated, don’t know. It may theoretically be posssible to increase student:teacher ratio with virtual instruction, which would erode teacher’s jobs. But that is just a guess.

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