The Economy’s Impact on Education

In a recent conversation with a group of colleagues about the impact that our failing economy will have on class sizes in education, my good friend Marsha Ratzel—-who writes over at Reflections of a Techie—asked:

So what we will do with our most gifted students who have small class sizes and our most in need students who need that one-on-one?

Now, maybe I’m crazy, but Marsha’s ideas—combined with the ideas about innovation shared by Clayton Christensen and company in Disrupting Class—have got me thinking that the current economic crisis might just spell the end of traditional K12 education—-ushering out classrooms jammed with 30 kids all studying the same thing at the same time from the same teacher, and ushering in an era of student-centered, individualized digital learning experiences.

Here’s why:

In the past ten years, there has been a lot of talk about using technology to create more student centered, individualized learning experiences, hasn’t there?  It is an obvious change—given the accessibility of free digital tools that can facilitate learning—that has made almost no progress depite a cheeseload of cash and a whole bunch of philosophical windblowing.

But the desire and interest is there….

Christensen and the boys argue that self-directed digital learning experiences haven’t caught on in traditional school settings because they are competing against well-established heirarchies that would suffer if the current models for learning changed.  Think about it:  Everything about schools has been in place for decades—and everything that supports schools, from financing to teacher preparation and development, to school leadership, has been in place for just as long.

Heirarchies are rarely interested in changes that challenge the status quo.  Changes require action—and action is the enemy of the comfortable.

Innovation, Christensen argues, comes in areas where there is no competition.  In schools, this could play out with the top level classes that Marsha is talking about being cut due to budget constraints—and then being replaced by digital alternatives.  Will districts really be able to afford the superfly math class that serves 12 students or the innovative elective class that serves 5?  Can a superintendent really justify a position for a teacher who isn’t working with a full load of kids?

While the original digital courses designed to fill in the gaps where traditional teachers once stood won’t compare equally with a teacher-directed classroom, they’ll be embraced by policymakers because they’re affordable—and when the option is a slightly flawed digital course or nothing, parents and principals won’t complain either.

What’s really interesting to me is that over time, digital courses offered as replacements for classes that are cut because of the economy will see dramatic improvements in quality.  Tools will become more interactive, tailored, responsive and intuitive—and digital teachers will become more effective in their practice.  With each improvement, digital courses will gain in respectability and be valued more and more by communities looking to save cash AND provide individualized instruction for students.

By then, us traditional teachers will be out of a job!

It’s time for us to adapt or die, I think—-and honestly, I’m excited about the potential change.  I’m tired of pretending like I can do a good job meeting the individual needs of the 85 kids I”m responsible for teaching each year, and I know that self-directed learning that I pursue online is far more rewarding than the structured PD that I’m force fed each year.

Why shouldn’t these changes come for my students too?

13 thoughts on “The Economy’s Impact on Education

  1. Summer

    I think that using more technology for learning would be a great and new way for use students to learn.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Adam wrote:
    The current distance learning or online learning courses tend to be very teacher directed and we need a shift in course design and approach to learning if we will ever take full advantage of these new learning environments.
    Good to hear from you, Adam! Hope you’ve been well. We need to catch up sometime soon.
    And this is a fascinating comment to me that I hadn’t considered: How interesting is it that most distance learning courses follow a teacher directed model of instruction.
    So even if we can differentiate and provide individualized instruction to students using technology, we don’t!
    Completely bizarre.
    Bill

  3. Adam

    Bill,
    I enjoyed your post. I notice how you noted that the use of digital tools will change learning for students, but we still need to examine the tasks being developed for students in this new learning environment and the process for learning. The current distance learning or online learning courses tend to be very teacher directed and we need a shift in course design and approach to learning if we will ever take full advantage of these new learning environments.

  4. Frank Avery

    Question; How do you begin to deal with a school districts protocols on blocking internet access? The use of this tecnology is great,but how is it going to get into the school to begine with? what are some of the ways that your districts handle this? Can you work around it?

  5. Bob Heiny

    Good post, again, Mr. Bill. I waited for someone else to say the following.
    Your tone and speculation appears consistent with an unmeasured rapid increase in use of online courses as well as on-demand and one-to-one learning offered by public and private schools worldwide. Some call this a wave of availability of ubiquitous learning as with mobile PC, iPhones, etc. They compete directly with public school curricula and instruction. I think private reports of their effectiveness and greater learning efficiency than public schools will leak out slowly in the next year or so. Many public reports of their utility for learners already exist, mostly online. Hopefully, educators will use these reports to increase public school student learning rates promptly. Should we hold our breaths as we wait?
    Yes, likely public school budget managers will find ways to adjust existing budget lines in order to favor increased student learning rates, including by redefining “teaching” roles. But that’s another post for you, yes?

  6. Mike

    Hmm. The possibility of “digital” learning is potentially non-controversial, but as with so much in teaching, the devil is in the details. If what we’re talking about is classes provided for schools that are so small that they can’t provide valuable classes for their students, or even classes that are so esoteric that there would be insufficient enrollment for many schools, yet there is value for some students in those classes. why not? If what we’re talking about is essentially telepresence classes, where a distant instructor can interact with students around the nation, even the world, why not? True, I’ve dealt with this in the past, and there are always scheduling issues, reception issues, etc., but there is nothing inherently objectionable here, unless…
    There is a strong movement out there that would like nothing more than to all but do away with teachers in classrooms in favor of “The Curriculum,” the curriculum that is so wonderful, so perfect, that mere exposure to it will raise test scores far beyond what is currently possible. Delivered through computer screens, or perhaps with non-professional “facilitators,” who merely ensure that students are on the proper page, paragraph, line and word at a given minute as The Curriculum requires, education will be transformed! And these worthies will be more than happy to sell you The Curriculum and The Test(s) that go along with it that will prove the inestimable value of The Curriculum! Such “instruction” goes by a variety of names, but it’s proponents seldom state their true objectives openly and frankly. It’s rather hard to institute your own brand of social engineering–whatever it may be–if you let the cat out of the bag too early.
    Do things that are of genuine value for students beyond what I’m capable of providing now? Sure. But in the real world, such things aren’t always possible or easy, nor is the kind of transformation some eagerly envision. I work in a very good high school with good principals and good colleagues. But we are woefully under equipped in terms of technology. I have a digital projector only because I bought it myself. I wouldn’t have a decent TV in my room unless I bought it, to say nothing about other electronic/digital devices. Each year, we take a variety of surveys about our tech use, most of which are gobbledegook, and do not in any way apply to us, but we end up looking pretty tech savvy in the application and use of tech few of us will ever see.
    I suppose that what I’m saying is that I’m all for progress, if we can afford it and if it will actually do something better. But until then, I’m still trying to work out ways to get better results with research papers and a variety of other daily, non-techy, non-sexy issues. With so much of what we do, there is no magic, digital or otherwise. Education is work, always hard work, but it can and should be fun. I will, for the most part, put my time into those two concepts.

  7. Michael B. Horn

    Bill — Great post. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and very well articulated and thought out. Better than we have done so in many instances!
    I hope more people like you can lead this charge to bring this about. In terms of questions about equality and so forth raised by some of the posters — in fact, moving to this paradigm should make equal educational opportunities more accessible for everyone. Right now teacher shortages and so forth hurt those in low-income areas disproportionately. Moving to online courses will obliterate these geographic limitations. And since it’s less expensive, the price barrier will fall away a little more. Plus, technology is inherently equal no matter who it touches (yes, as long as it touches them, but that’s the price point from above) — exclusively relying on human capital is inherently unequal.
    Second, in terms of the other jobs that schools do that others have talked about here that are not “academic learning” in nature — totally agree. But that’s why if schools can seize on this and still have students coming to “school buildings” where they can do the other jobs we ask them to do, we’ll be in a much better place. There will still by “teachers” in the classroom for the human touch — but their roles will just look very different.

  8. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    Sorry to post so much, but this is such a huge topic.
    You said: “What’s really interesting to me is that over time, digital courses offered as replacements for classes that are cut because of the economy will see dramatic improvements in quality. Tools will become more interactive, tailored, responsive and intuitive—and digital teachers will become more effective in their practice. With each improvement, digital courses will gain in respectability and be valued more and more by communities looking to save cash AND provide individualized instruction for students.”
    Look at programs like:
    http://www.k12.com or
    http://www.calvertschool.org
    I asked myself the question “Why shouldn’t these changes come for my student(s) too?”
    I found, upon looking, many, many options outside the public k-12 system. These two examples are only two of many variations. The more I research and learn, the more windows I see.

  9. K. Borden

    See a recent blog post by the NEA:
    The Real Halloween Horror: John McCain’s “Free” Market School System
    Posted by NEA on October 29, 2008, 10:57 AM
    and…
    Ten Things You Should Know About Barack Obama
    Posted by NEA on September 22, 2008 10:31 AM
    Mr. Ferriter:
    You asked: “It’s time for us to adapt or die, I think—-and honestly, I’m excited about the potential change. I’m tired of pretending like I can do a good job meeting the individual needs of the 85 kids I”m responsible for teaching each year, and I know that self-directed learning that I pursue online is far more rewarding than the structured PD that I’m force fed each year.
    Why shouldn’t these changes come for my students too?”
    We have to decide what we want from schools before we can decide how to do it.
    Or watch NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and the you tube video on the website.
    As the teacher in that video says “Public schools care about the whole child”. Her talk illustrates the goals of the schools extend far beyond self directed learning.
    Schools are about a lot of things today, as reflected in our election.

  10. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    So many topics raised in this blog posting….what will the future of k-12 education be, what could it be, what should it be?….but you began by offering the current economic challenges as a condition to stimulate change.
    While increased difficulty floating bonds and securing debt financing for local governments coupled with lower tax revenues result in challenges to the current K-12 structure, other factors exist because of the crisis which may bolster support for “as-is”.
    *Hardtimes mean more families consider both spouses working or the need to work more hours to produce income. Thus greater need for childcare, a function the public schools currently provide.
    *You said, “when the option is a slightly flawed digital course or nothing, parents and principals won’t complain either.” Mr. Ferriter you have noted in other posts what students enjoy about school…other students. Consider how many times the opponents to homeschool cite lost opportunity to interact with same age peers as a criticism. The role of public schools as gathering places is strong in our culture. Parents see value in that function and may not easily discard the framework that provides it.
    *A great deal of support for the K-12 public system derives from social issues. Consider the diversity assignment system in our county. One oft cited argument against vouchers or choice is the suggested threat to issues of social justice and public schools as a means to achieve it.
    *Policy makers (especially those who need votes) will tread lightly when confronted by millions of currently employed public school teachers and staff. It is hard to imagine digital learning taking root if politicians face choosing between voters with jobs and digital tools, especially in a tough economy.
    It all comes back to asking what the goals of a public K-12 educational system should be. Should it be focused on providing the best possible preparation for students to engage the global economny in a technologically driven world? Should public education be a mechanism for social opportunity and justice? The list of the goals of schools could go on and on. When taking limited financial resources and determining how to allocate them, priorities/goals become reflected in line items on budgets.
    Our public schools faces many priorities and goals, and sometimes they have needs which conflict. You asked “Why shouldn’t these changes come for my students too?” The changes might threaten other goals of the public K-12 system, as Renee Moore noted.

  11. Renee Moore

    Bill,
    I agree that policymakers will probably embrace digital course alternatives for their affordability; and I also see digital teachers and courses getting better over time. I’m not so worried about some teachers’ reluctance to board the technological train (many educators opposed ink pens and overhead projectors originally, too).
    My ongoing concern, however, is the widening gulf of inequity between those who can access and fully utilize digital learning, and those who cannot. As more of education moves into cyberspace, it will be even easier to ignore and marginalize those who can’t get in and don’t have powerful spokespersons.

  12. Joe

    I love this line:
    “I’m tired of pretending like I can do a good job meeting the individual needs of the 85 kids I”m responsible for teaching each year, and I know that self-directed learning that I pursue online is far more rewarding than the structured PD that I’m force fed each year.”
    I disagree with your other thesis though: that classroom teachers will be out of a job. There is no digital replacement for the visceral reality of interacting with another human being. It seems to me that we should be doing our best work to bring that teaching and technological innovation closer together…grounded in actual learning theory and not subject to the demands of a crystalline education system or technologies that only serve to maintain power.

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