Monday, July 18, 2011

One Click Away: A Dystopian View of Ed Tech

Remember this scene from Terminator 2:  Judgment Day?  Young John Connor (Edward Furlong) and The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) explain to Dr. Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, foreground) about the day the computer program Skynet became self-aware.  Scientists and the military tried to shut down Skynet but the program defended itself leading to the eventual creation of Terminators and the battle between humans and technology. 

This past week a convergence of separate events in the world of education made me wonder if we are seeing the beginning of an educational Skynet.  A technological system built with the best of intentions but with the capacity to create catastrophic consequences.

Right now I can earn a Master’s Degree from Lamar University for around $6,000 and they will even throw in the first class for free.  I never have to step foot on their campus and all coursework is done online.  The benefits to students and higher education seem to be mutual as the University of Phoenix has more than 400,000 students and making a profit of over one billion dollars a year.  This model has to make school administrators salivate.

Like many school districts in Texas, Fort Bend ISD found themselves on the wrong side of the balance sheet by $27,000,000.  They addressed the budget short fall by cutting professional positions, reducing transportation costs and several other smaller belt tightening measures.  They also implemented two measures to increase income by selling off district created curriculum to a neighboring district (Lamar Consolidated ISD) and implementing the Bring A Friend initiative.  The initiative allows out of district children to transfer into FBISD.  By boosting enrollment in schools that are operating below capacity, the district maximizes its investment in each of those campuses.

The ability to transfer to an out of district school is an option the parents and students living in North Forest ISD need to consider.  This past week the Texas Education Agency ordered North Forest to close its doors at the end of this coming school year.  The district earned a substandard financial rating for a fourth straight year and rated as academically unacceptable for a sixth straight year.  On July 1, 2012, students and parents will be looking for open campuses in neighboring school districts like Houston ISD.

If these displaced students moved to Florida they could take advantage of House Bill 7197.  HB 7197, known as the Digital Learning Act Now, makes it mandatory for all students, grades 6-12, to take online coursework and all state assessments to be online by the 2014-15 school year.  This is a huge boost for the Florida Virtual School which advertises learning “any time, any place, any path, any pace ™.”  The virtual school seemingly solves the problems of poor performing districts, budget shortfalls and meeting diverse student needs.

So how do a low performing school district, budget cuts, selling district curriculum, out of district transfers and online learning lead to educational Armageddon?  

Being that this is a website dedicated to creativity, and I love to do Socratic Seminars in my classroom, I have to answer a question with a question.  What if our current trends stay constant and weaker districts are gobbled up by larger districts?  What might that look like, education dominated by Super Districts?  Large virtual schools, hooked together digitally, gobbling up students like Wal-Mart gobbles up consumers.

The story begins a year or two from now.  Larger districts, with the human and financial capital, complete the digitization of their curriculum.  Teachers post lessons online and a huge catalog of objectives and matching lessons is created.  Not long after, the weaker lessons are weeded out, and the district mandates that teachers follow a prescribed road map, a day by day scope and sequence, which teachers download from the district servers.  Full lessons and lists of materials are given and principals begin walking the schools, road maps in hand, checking to make sure all teachers are moving through the curriculum at the same pace.

Unfortunately, the larger districts have half-empty buildings coupled with rising energy and transportation costs, they worry about how much money they are losing.  It is expensive to keep open buildings that are operating below capacity.  The large districts need more students to efficiently maximize their budget dollars.    They need to create a student overpopulation.  

Tax payers do not want to pay for more brick and mortar schools but they will pay for computers and the move to online coursework to alleviate the overpopulation in the schools.  The district campaigns hard to get students from lower performing areas to transfer.  There is an increase of out of district transfers.

At first this works, but then superintendents realize they have maximized the number of students they can leech from surrounding districts.  Parents are weary of the cost and time of driving their children to a school that is further away then their home campus.  There is some backlash and transfer numbers begin to drop as students return to their home campus.

Then, in some smaller district, hundreds of miles away, a superintendent struggling to keep his doors open because he does not have the manpower nor funds to keep his district open or performing at a level that is acceptable to the state board comes up with a brilliant idea.  He will sell his district to another district.  He sells the students, or rather educational access to the students, to a larger district and in return he gets their online curriculum and their teachers via distance learning.

The deal is made.  The larger district gets the student numbers, the smaller district closes all their campuses but the high school, sells off all the capital including the land from the closed campuses, and invests in servers and computer terminals for their students to begin taking classes via the internet.  More money is saved by slashing teaching positions and housing all the students on one campus cuts down on food service costs.

With the last wall between districts crushed with a sweeping hammer blow, larger districts around the state enter bidding wars with each other to grab up the smaller districts.  Small district superintendents hold out as their cut of the pie sweetens before finally giving over to the larger districts.

Within another year or two four or five Super Districts remain, each pushing its own curriculum out over the internet.  But only one can survive and as consistent data comes in from the state level assessment, delivered online, one district emerges, gains the support of the state and eventually buys out the remaining districts.  

With advances in connectivity and the dominance of one curriculum, one thought process, public education looks like this by 2022:

clones in training (Star Wars Episode 2:  Attack of the Clones), students plugged into the ultimate one size fits all form of education.

Now I admit this is a very dystopian version of what the events of the past week could lead to, so by definition this is a worst case scenario.  But we do have to be vigilant to what is happening, and if we want to increase creativity in education we have to watch out for the standardization of our students education.  Technology is a great tool, but it is just a tool, to be wielded in whatever way the user sees fit.  We need to make sure the users have the students best interest in mind, not just the bottom line.

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