Restraining Innovation in Virtual Learning

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is not only failing to lead, but affirmatively restraining progress in online learning. For a perspective on these issues, see this op-ed in the Globe that Education Committee Chair, Rep. Marty Walz, and I authored together.

The department had originally drafted very conservative regulations, that would have basically limited virtual education to students with unique needs, like invalids. An advisory group that I had participated in recommended better regulations. Earlier in the year, I had reported optimistically about this progress in drafting regulations. But the final departmental recommendations scaled back virtual schools to the point that real progress is substantially inhibited. See this link for the department’s explanation of the board action.

We are certainly on the threshold of a vast change in modes of content delivery, student-teacher connection and peer-to-peer learning. We can’t see clearly how it will evolve, but I believe that the future of public education is at stake. If extended hard times limit resources and, at the same time, the state education bureaucracy defeats local innovation, the relative attractiveness of public education will inevitably decline and many parents who care about their kids education will leave the public systems. They will be tempted by new private and home schooling options that offer better quality at a relatively low cost increment.

See this thread for some of my prior writings on this issue. It will remain a central priority for me.

Boston Globe of September 8, 2010


Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

4 replies on “Restraining Innovation in Virtual Learning”

  1. I’ve read the op-ed piece. Excellent perspective, Will! What are they (the state board) thinking?

    Wait! I know. They are thinking that they are still in control of information and learning. The same thinking that was being used over 100 years ago when books were expensive, expertise was rare, and “one size fits all” in education was just coming in.

    Now, they’re just trying to dam up the ocean. They will fail miserably. Of course, they are aiming their own gun at their own heads. This move is only hastening the death of the entire system. Well, so be it. I’ve been waiting for this for over 50 years by now. Yes, people will leave the public school system. It’s about time. It has shown that it is obsolete, hamstrung by politics, bickering, and fear and intimidation. It is over priced and underperforming. Grades are degrading. Grade A is for meat and butter, not children. Artificial ‘motivation’ is worthless. The history they don’t teach in schools is the true history of schools themselves. It would be too embarrassing!

    Clearly, it’s time for completely new visions. Education is truly a life long process, now, already. Restricting any learning resource in any way is completely counter productive. Our task is to somehow pay the people who work to create new resources, and then let everyone have at it. And we are struggling to find ways for personal social connection to go with it, now that pure information is available on any computer screen. Throw open the doors of the school buildings! Invite everyone in who is ready to interact and teach and learn with all age groups. Teachers will be critical of what I say, but it’s time they got with a new program and found new ways to step outside the existing age old calcified structure into the light of a new day, a new culture, a new world of lifelong learning.

    1. Thanks, Glenn.

      I think that all kids need basic literacy and numeracy and that there is a store of accumulated knowledge — scientific and historic — that all kids should have access to. So, I believe in public education. But I agree it has become way too rigid. If it doesn’t become more flexible and open, it will, as you predict, spiral downwards, as the families most committed to education migrate out of it.

      That, in my view, will be a great social loss.

  2. Two issues that need to be further explicated:

    • *Some* topics are better suited to online/nonhuman educational practices than others. Think of the difference between basic mathematics (where there is a “right” answer) and music (where practice is embodied). Or writing (where at least a significant amount of the time spent is solitary) vs. joint problem solving (which may get a boost from proximity and nonverbal communication).

    • Most education is best addressed — at any age — by a combination of work-at-your-own pace activities and interactions with teachers. Teachers guide, clarify, anticipate problems, and recognize and – very often — address issues that go far beyond the constraints of course outlines and test results. I don’t want to see the “virtualization” of education implemented at the cost of local knowledge and “warm body” teaching positions. Virtual and remote learning should be a way to expand and tailor our educational offerings, not just an excuse for cutting the costs of local labor.

    Years ago I was an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto which pioneered two educational concepts you may have run into: “communities of practice” and “legitimate peripheral participation” (in which a novice is given important but less crucial responsibilities while he or she apprentices to someone with more experience and knowledge). I’d love to see more of these kinds of insights make their way into our pedagogy and policy discussions. You’re right: most kids today are working in Taylorist classrooms (why are the chairs in rows, anyway???) and enacting patterns that make little sense in the 21st century.

    Thanks – as always — for helping to make more space for these important conversations.

    Debra Cash, Belmont

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