Friday, May 18, 2012
Digital learning and acceleration
I spent the past week out in California, visiting several schools that are using digital/blended learning strategies. Done right, blended learning means that kids are getting practice on skills using technology that provides instant feedback: you got this math problem wrong, so let's work through to see what you don't understand. Or you got it right, so let's try a harder one. With computers doing the basics and the grading, teacher time can be re-deployed from large group instruction to small group projects or individual tutoring. Class sizes can be larger. Schools can be cheaper and, with teachers analyzing the data to see exactly what kids know and don't, schools can be better. Utopia! But does it work in real life? This is where a lot of educational ideas founder, and certainly, blended learning is going through some growing pains. At one school I visited, I was informed that they're switching software providers because they're getting data...but it's useless. At another, student reading passages were differentiated (the level of difficulty depended on your reading preparation) but if you finished early, you sort of waited for the next assignment from the teacher, instead of moving on. And in another, a big chunk of the computers didn't work because they were old. And the capital budgets for new computers in CA are not so generous at the moment. On the other hand, many of the schools were getting positive results despite some challenges. At KIPP Empower LA, the kids who started kindergarten in 2010 came in with 64% scoring basic or below basic on the STEP literacy test, and 36% scoring proficient or advanced. By spring of 2011, 96% of the kindergartners were proficient or advanced. Blended learning isn't the only good thing going on there, but it's certainly part of it. Good educational technology is the equivalent of "deliberate practice" -- the kind of intense practice that professional musicians engage in, addressing their weak points and repeating skills over and over. The KIPP kids are getting an extra hour a day of pure deliberate practice on reading and math skills. Is it any wonder they improve? Most people are excited about blended learning for the possibility of getting lower-performing kids up to grade level. I'm personally more excited about the potential for acceleration. At one middle school, the principal and teachers had implemented blended/digital learning for math. The teachers did a lot of assessments through the year, using the data, and found that a few sixth graders had mastered pre-algebra concepts by the middle of the year. So...they got to start algebra. Right then! No waiting around for a new school year to start. A child who demonstrated mastery in algebra got to start geometry. People get a little worried about acceleration because it often involves going to "different" classes, and tends to involve whole units of years. But there's no reason it has to. In the past, people have always done independent studies, but I know from personal experience it's easy to fail when you're trying to teach yourself. Educational technology gives more feedback, so failing is more difficult.