Author Archives: edusophia

21st Century Skills: More than Just a Computer

Young student with virtual futuristic interface.There has been much talk lately in educational circles – at least  among the technologically-inclined – about “21st Century Skills.”  Some schools have added courses, tweaked curriculum, and redoubled their technology efforts in an attempt to provide students with the skills necessary for success in the 21st Century.  Sensing a shift in the ingredients for success for the next generation, these bold educators feel strongly that a correction in course for education is necessary as well.  But what, exactly, does a 21st Century school look like?

In envisioning such a school, many educational leaders and visionaries place a strong emphasis on 1:1 computing, one computing device per each child in school.  EduSophia dedicated a entry to this topic shortly after our blog’s inception.  Interest in 1:1 initiatives has not waned since that entry.  In fact, in a recent opinion post published by the New York Times where educational experts were asked to envision the school of the future, you’ll find that many include the concept of a computing device per child.  According to an article published by the Journal, a survey of attendees of a recent Technology + Learning conference indicated that 37% indicated that they had already launched a 1:1 initiative in their district.  (Full results of the survey can be found here.)  While this is certainly a notable adoption rate, it pales in comparison to the adoption rate of parents.  According to a recent post by Nielsen, of those households who have a tablet and children under 12, 70% of those said that their kids use the device.

Much of this emphasis, at least in educational circles, has been connected with a shift to digital textbooks.  In a recent New York Times article titled “Out With Textbooks, in With Laptops for an Indiana School District,” the author details the efforts of the Munster, Indiana school district.  In one fail swoop, the district replaced its entire collection of paper-based textbooks with new digital alternatives, and then the district handed each student in grades 5 to 12 a laptop with which to access the new digital versions. According to proponents of such efforts, the digital versions are far cheaper to maintain and the laptops weigh much less in the students’ backpacks.  While such efforts are intriguing in their potential benefits, South Korea, widely-recognized as a “wired” country, has scaled back plans for digital textbooks according to an article in The Washington Post.  While still bullish on digital textbooks, the country has stepped back from a plan to make all textbooks digital by 2015, seemingly in response to concerns from parents.

More disconcerting should be the belief that laptops plus digital textbooks equals 21st Century skills.  When reflecting upon technology in education, many speak of the difference between “transitional” versus “transformative” uses of technology.  In the former, an instructor recreates his old transparencies in the form of slides to show on a projector.  This use is transitional: the delivery medium has changed, but the concept remains the same.  This is contrasted with a “transformative” use, where student achievement and learning are enhanced by completely changing the entire delivery concept.  While some digital textbooks are certainly transformative with respect to their paper-based counterparts, the laptop-and-digital-textbook combination smacks of being merely transitional.  More creative uses of the technology are possible.  Consider, for example, Chicago Quest, a new charter school to open in Chicago this fall, that will reinvent teaching and learning by turning the concept of school into a large video game, according to an article published in the Chicago Tribune.  (EduSophia has covered the topic of games in education previously in a separate blog entry.)  While this is likely a delivery concept that would make many educators shudder, it is a nevertheless admirable attempt at a wider-scale technology shift that is certainly more transformative than it is transitional.

More importantly, it is part of a larger “reboot” of the concept of a school with an emphasis on preparing students for the world of which they are already a part.  Examine the Framework of 21st Century Learning put forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the lead organization in advocating the shift to 21st Century skills.  Technology is, arguably, at most only a third of those skills.  Schools seem overly focused on preparing the students technologically, but equally important is preparing them with learning and innovation skills.  While technology can enable us in our quest to learn more about the world around us, the world around us is far bigger than just technology.

Screen-to-Screen: Is Online Learning the Future of Education?

clicktolearn In our increasingly connected world, we are often told of the values of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn in providing a human face to the internet, in making the internet more social.  The internet has made it possible for us to keep in touch with far-away friends, collaborate with people from around the world, and locate people from high school with whom we have lost touch.  But is it a replacement for face-to-face (F2F) interaction?  If so, in what situations is it a suitable replacement?  Could the internet be used as a substitute for a traditional classroom?  Is it possible to replace F2F education with a wholly online version?

Irrespective of the quality question – whether the online experience meets or exceeds F2F education – there are a number of reasons for doing so.  First, many public educational institutions are under the pressure of severe budget cuts, making online education tantalizing from a cost-cutting perspective.  According to a recent New York Times article, budget cuts totaling 25% over three years have forced the University of Florida into leveraging online education as a way to control both fixed and operational costs.  Resident students there are earning 12 percent of their credit hours online, a figure that, according to the article, will increase 25% in the next five years.

Second is the question of access, which can be tied closely to finances.  For many public institutions, the quality aspect has to be balanced against the fiscal reality.  Online education is viewed as a way to achieve a sub-optimal but more broadly beneficial outcome not possible within the current financial constraints.  More students can be educated with fewer faculty members, thereby reducing operational costs.  Another New York Times article highlights Sheffield High School in Memphis, where online courses have transformed the school’s reputation as a “dropout factory” to one where 86% of students graduate by allowing students to make up failed courses.  Other school districts are leveraging online courses as a way to supplement on-site offerings.  In the past, small numbers of students in need of a particular course may not have justified the district’s expense for an instructor.  With online learning, however, districts can now provide this access through various online learning arrangements.  Here in New Hampshire, where EduSophia is located, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) fulfills this need.

A third potential benefit is that of time-shifting.  The time constraints of many traditional classes simply shut out many learners.  As an undergraduate, I had a classmate whose financial situation forced him to work a job while attending school full-time, and the job’s working hours forced him to be at work during the same time period as his economics class.  Since the course was large in size, the university recorded it on video, so he simply watched the video later in the library at his leisure.  Online courses provide this same benefit.  In a recent article titled “Point-and-Click Learning” appearing in the Los Angeles Times, the author profiles a single working mother who can literally see Moorpark College across her backyard, but who has been unable to attend because of her schedule.  Now that the college offers online courses, she can.  This convenience factor is one of the top reasons cited by students enrolling in online courses for choosing them over a traditional classroom setting.

Cost and convenience, then, might be the two principal components spurring the development of online courses and programs.  For the institutions offering the programs, the savings are tangible.  Moreover, for the consumer, the student, the convenience makes possible what was heretofore impossible.  What, then, of quality?  For such students, quality may not be a primary determinant: while there is likely a minimal acceptable quality level, the convenience is far more important.  This is a good thing for educational institutions rolling out online programs, as both research and expert opinion are mixed.  While a study in 2009 by the U. S. Department of Education showed small improvements of online learning over a traditional classroom experience, recent research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and featured in a New York Times article highlights the fact that online learning may put Hispanic ethnic groups and males at a particular disadvantage.  Experts on education are likewise divided over whether online learning results in any kind of tangible improvements.

In the end, however, the debate simply may not matter.  According to The Sloan Consortium’s most recent report on online education (titled “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011” and available as a free download here), online education is growing at a rate of 10% versus 2% for the overall higher education population.  With such a rapid growth rate, what’s clearly evident is that online education is here to stay.  Moreover, many students and colleges are deeming the potential benefits as outweighing any negatives.  Quality is an obvious concern for those individuals in the high end of the marketplace, but even those concerns may mitigate as educational institutions begin to differentiate themselves with online programs that better meet the needs of specific populations.

You Are Failing Your Students

Stock Photo Much of the American educational system is about improving outcomes, often by focusing on results from some form of standardized test.  If students are found to be underperforming on some measure, school improvement plans, smaller class sizes, financial funding, and all manner of sundry interventions are thrown at the problem in order to correct it.  But what if you were told that there was a test that the average high school student was regularly failing?  What if this test was absolutely critical to a student’s future success?  What if I told you that the test they were failing was financial literacy?

According to a financial survey conducted by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, one that was recently featured in a USA Today article, high school seniors scored an average of 52.4% questions correctly.  Is there a school in the entire country for which this is not a failing outcome?  This average would not be tolerated if it were in Algebra II, but we somehow tolerate it for financial literacy despite the fact that Jump$tart has repeatedly demonstrated the shortcoming.

Why is such a miserable outcome tolerated?  In short, it’s because us adults aren’t much better.  The FINRA Investor Education Foundation, an educational offshoot of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc., the leading non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States, conducted a National Financial Capability Study in 2009.  One of the most startling findings from the survey were that nearly half of the respondents expressed difficulties in making their monthly expenses or in paying their bills.  Perhaps even more disturbing is that many Americans “engaged in financial behaviors that generated expenses and fees and exhibited a marked inability to do basic interest calculations and other math-oriented tasks.”  It’s no wonder our students can’t make sound decisions if we can’t even do basic math.

Who is to help with such a dire situation?  You needn’t worry: the federal government is here to help.  A financial overhaul bill passed last year created a new Office of Financial Literacy in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  (You can listen to a discussion about this new office on Marketplace Money.)  The irony of a government helping with finances that is currently arguing about raising its own debt ceiling isn’t lost.  Moreover, as staff writer Karen Blumenthal has pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Is There a Cure for Financial Illiteracy?”, such government efforts tend to focus on providing more information, as though the simple act of providing it will cause people to make smarter financial decisions.

Some states have also stepped into the mix as well.  Massachusetts recently signed a bill into law that creates a new trust fund to promote financial literacy to students, schools, and community groups.  Tennessee is working on legislation that will connect certain financial literacy concepts to the standardized testing for social studies, which would obviously represent a significant step in establishing financial literacy as a desired outcome of a high school education.  Ohio has taken a different track by requiring schools to teach financial literacy as part of the Ohio Core, making it a graduation requirement, though the mandate has met with apathy on the part of many Ohio schools.

While such efforts will, no doubt, place increased emphasis on financial literacy, there are two important facts you should know to develop a smarter financial literacy program for your school, both of which are highlighted in an excellent article in The Economist titled “Getting it Right on the Money.”  First, the only demonstrably efficacious financial literacy programs at the high school level are those that leverage a stock market game.  If you read our blog posting earlier this year titled “Escape to . . . Reality?” – about the use of games in education – this should come as no surprise.  A stock market game has its own built-in rewards which “automatically” serve as reinforcement of the concepts being taught.  High schools would therefore be well-advised to develop literacy programs that work in such a way as link rewards with desired behaviors.  At earlier grades, creating the right habits early enough in life causes them to persist.  Jeroo Billimoria, creator of Aflatoun, a financial literacy course, has focused her efforts on six- to fourteen-year-olds, with surprising success.

Moving our students from failure to success won’t be easy, but to fail to equip them with at least a rudimentary level of financial literacy is doing them a huge disservice.  We need educators who are willing to move beyond their own discomfort with money; who will study to learn what they lack in their own financial literacy; and who will be unafraid to discuss this most taboo of topics – money – openly with their students.  The University of Minnesota Extension has put together some great free resources to get you started.  Are you going to make the commitment now to stop failing your students?

Professional Underdevelopment

bored_learners For many schools and school districts, the concept of professional development very much follows the “sage on the stage” model.  An outside professional arrives at the school and dispenses invaluable wisdom, and teachers sit and absorb these immense thoughts.  Teachers are then expected to return to their classroom and transform these grand ideas into classroom reality.  The remarkable thing about this model of professional development is that it follows precisely the same model for instruction that student-centered learned was focused on correcting.  Is this the wrong model for professional development?  Are there better ways to develop teachers?

Unfortunately, answers on professional development models aren’t particularly clear simply because there is limited research in this area.  One of the more recent studies in the area, though, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.  The study, of which you can read a brief synopsis here, focused on studying the benefits of comprehensive teacher induction programs, teacher mentoring programs designed to assist new or underdeveloped teachers by pairing them with a more seasoned mentor.  The surprising finding is that such programs had no effect on factors such as teacher attitude or retention, and only had a small but statistically-significant impact on student achievement in the third year.  For such expensive programs, both in terms of money and time, such marginal results beg the question of whether more effective mechanisms exist.

Some districts, in order to save money, have begun professional development programs that feature teachers teaching teachers.  An excellent summary of such programs is given in an article titled “Teachers Teaching Teachers: Professional Development that Works” published on EducationWorld.  The method for such programs is obvious: teachers become the professional development “expert” and school other teachers on a topic that they know.  Likewise, the economic benefit is also apparent: if one does not have to hire an outside expert to perform training, there are therefore no professional fees for such an expert.  What about missing out on the “expert” knowledge?  The innovation in this approach is using a single teacher as a form of scribe: one or a few teachers are sent away to a conference, and then return to the school to share their knowledge with the others.  This is economically adventitious, as the cost of sending such individuals to a conference are often less expensive than inviting experts to campus.

An even more interesting emerging approach to professional development flips the roles of teacher and student.  A recent New York Times article titled “Teacher Training, Taught by Students” focuses on an innovative program being run by the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.  Under this program, students run the professional development program.  Teachers observe students teaching mock lessons, and in so doing learn the techniques and methods that students feel work for them.  While such an approach is innovative enough, the model could certainly be taken even further: students, as digital natives, are often more familiar and more comfortable with technology than their teachers, who are often digital immigrants at best.  As such, students could be used to teach teachers technical concepts that the teachers could then leverage as part of classroom instruction.

In all of these approaches, however, the focus must be on making our professional development programs as rigorous and well-thought-out as our curriculum and our classroom instruction.  Myriad software exists to determine curricular goals, map those goals onto state objectives, assess students against such goals and objectives, determine interventions when necessary, and much, much more.  Do we use this same rigor when it comes to the development of our teachers?  We need to improve the quality, focus, and direction of our professional development programs such that they form a cohesive strategy to both developing our teachers and improving our students’ achievement.

Online Libraries: Are You Checked Out?

downlaod the e-book In 2009, Cushing Academy created a huge ruckus within the library community by announcing that it was eliminating the vast majority of its print collection and “going digital” with its collection.  Certain individuals and institutions praised the innovation.  Other groups protested Cushing’s folly.  Still others protested that this was the right decision, but too fast and too soon.  The real truth is that Cushing’s actions have cast a bright light on a deep divide within libraries: the divide between “books” librarians and “media specialists” librarians.

In past years, and even still very much today, your worth as a librarian was in some way measured by how many volumes were in your collection.  Even today, one of the biggest and most progressive libraries in the world, the United States Library of Congress, boasts openly in its “Fascinating Facts” about the millions of books it has on 838 miles of bookshelves.  The more books you had in your collection, the bigger your library and, therefore, your worth as a librarian.  Want to become a better librarian?  Build your collection.

However, particularly in recent years, this definition of a librarian has been challenged by digital natives, those individuals born in the later 1970’s when the “Digital Age” is defined as having begun.  The problem with digital natives is that they don’t think in terms of books: they think in terms of information and access to that information.  In considering the move to a digital library, Cushing Dean of Academics Suzie Carlisle has openly stated in an NPR article that their students simply weren’t turning to print resources first.  Instead, they were turning to online ones.  A digital library, then, is a natural course of action in a library seeking to best suit the needs of a majority of its patrons.

The decision, though, prompted a swift and virulent reaction by library associations, including a letter addressed to Cushing headmaster Dr. James Tracy.  (You can read a reprint of that letter in School Library Journal.)  The principal thrust of the letter was that library collections are built carefully by their librarians over a long period of time with the needs of the library’s principal users in mind.  Given Cushing’s own research into how its patrons conducted research, one could certainly conclude that the librarians at Cushing actually did have its patrons in mind by moving to a digital collection.

With respect to the stronger, former half of this argument, though, the associations certainly have a potentially strong argument.  Depending on the individual librarian and rates of turnover, the library may have a finely-honed, precisely crafted collection tailored to the specific users.  This precision typically isn’t available in a electronic format, where collections are often purchased in “electronic bulk.”  Think in terms of a wholesale club: instead of getting the precise mix you want, you must purchase a “bulk pack” that may or may not have all of the things that you need or want.  More important, as School Library Journal Editor-in-Chief Brian Kenney wrote in a scathing letter/article titled “The Biggest Losers,” some resources just aren’t available in digital format.

While these criticisms might be true, they may be mere indicators to a shift in libraries rather than a rationale for not moving forward digitally.  CNN has highlighted the shifts in libraries in recent years, but is quick to point out that the underlying principal behind libraries – that as a community center for learning – has not changed.  The way in which that knowledge is consumed, however, is rapidly changing.  Librarians must realize that their fundamental roles as “shepherds” leading us to the right information has not changed: they must help us to find the needle in the voluminous haystack that is the online database.  Cushing librarian Tom Corbett highlighted this role in an article for School Library Monthly titled “The Changing Role of the School Library’s Physical Space.”  As a recent survey conducted by Cengage Learning showed, the results of which were published in, many students are turning to such databases first in conducting their research.

The library is rapidly changing from a collection of books to a collection of electronic resources.  However, this doesn’t mean that the role of the library – or of the librarian in particular – is in any way diminished.  More than ever, patrons will need help in locating the resources and information most germane to their inquiry in the ever-rapidly-expanding sea of information that is the Information Age.  Evolved correctly, the modern library will continue to serve this role, and to maintain its position as the community center for learning.