Category: Education

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The school of the future: request for input

This post is a nerd crowdsourcing request. As a guest blogger I don’t know my audience as well as I might, but I am heartened by the presence of “science fiction” among the options my hosts give me for categorizing my posts; and my teenager assures me that “nerd” is a compliment.

As several of my earlier posts suggest, I am interested in the impact of virtual technology upon K-12 schooling; and one thing I have been doing in my spare time is looking at literary accounts, highbrow and low, of what schooling in the future might look like. A colleague gave me Ernest Kline’s recent Ready Player One, which imagines school in a fully virtualized world that looks a lot like the school I went to, complete with hallways, bullies, and truant teachers – but the software allows the students to mute their fellows and censors student obscenity before it reaches the teachers’ interfaces. Another colleague reminded me of Asimov’s 1951 The Fun They Had, where the teacher is mechanical but the students still wiggly and apathetic. On the back of a public swapshelf, I found the Julian May 1987 Galactic Milieu series, which imagines brilliant children, all alone on  faraway planets, logging on with singleminded seriousness to do their schoolwork all by their lonesomes. And my daughter gave me Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, where the bullying is more educative than the mathematics, and scripted by the adults much more carefully.

That seems like an extensive list but really it’s not, and I was never a serious sci-fi person. If anyone is willing to post in the comments any striking literary accounts of schooling in the future, I’d be grateful.

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Free speech rights and free speech pedagogy

I am working on a paper about student speech rights in public school that has me vacillating about whether the classic Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a brilliant exercise in linedrawing or an utter failure. Many readers will remember that Tinker held that students could wear black armbands to school in silent protest of American involvement in hostilities in Vietnam; school officials may interfere with or punish speech only if  they reasonably forecast that it will “materially or substantially interfer[e] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school or collide with the rights of others.”  The Tinker rule has the nice feature of explaining why a student cannot answer a teacher’s question “What were the results of Irish potato famine?” with “US Out of Vietnam!” while she can say the same thing in the hallway. More broadly, Tinker establishes a certain kind of pedagogical regime for the hours that students spend in-school-but-not-in-class, one where students can learn how to exercise constitutional rights by practicing them, up to the point of disruption.

Tinker’s flaws were made vivid once again this week by yet another case, this one from the Fourth Circuit, involving students being prohibited from and punished for wearing to school clothing that bears the likeness of Confederate flags. Such behavior seems initially very similar to wearing a black armband to protest Vietnam; but the courts of appeals have fairly consistently held that such speech can be barred under Tinker because histories of racial tension make it reasonable for school authorities to expect disruption to result from such displays. The new case, Hardwick v. Heyward, is quite emphatic on this score, emphasizing that the mere fact that the shirts did not lead to disruption is immaterial, because it was reasonable for school officials to predict disruption; moreover past racial disputes in the school were material, because they made the prediction more reasonable. The Hardwick rationale pretty clearly means that, had there once been fistfights in the Des Moines schools about the Vietnam War, or perhaps even World War II, then the armbands could have been banned in the present. Thus Tinker is deployed to create a particularly strong kind of hecklers’ veto.

My gut reaction to this case is — who is fooling whom? Read More

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The child, not the school

The Indiana vouchers program I posted about earlier, significant on its own, also partakes of a trend. The New York Times gets it:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

In particular, the Times is right that what is sought here is redefinition. Once states established and supported institutions – public schools – that parents could take or leave, so long as they educated their children somehow. The new paradigm has states instead provide a quantum of funding earmarked for each child, that parents can deploy at any educational institution of their choosing. The fact that the aid attaches to the child and follows her to her family’s chosen school is much more important than the various labels ascribed to the funding and/or the institutional provider – public, private, charter, voucher.

As people learn to function within, and get used to, this new paradigm, they will stop thinking of educational politics as the way to create good public schools, and start thinking of it in terms of how big the aid pie is and how it gets divided up. Whether a school is public or private, online or bricks-and-mortar, religious or not – these stop being political questions and start being questions that markets will resolve through supply and demand. Read More

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Vouchers ascendant?

The heartening (and unanimous) decision by the Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday to uphold that state’s school-voucher program further undermines a dominant but false narrative in the academy, to the effect that school vouchers are a distraction with little serious political support. The opinion is notable for several reasons, and I expect to post again about some of them. Here I note only two. First, the Indiana program makes enormous numbers of children voucher-eligible. Second, the Indiana court’s analysis makes some interesting and important moves with respect to both its constitution’s religion and education clauses.

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The Coursera Model of Central Planning for Education

An interesting conflict is developing in California over the spread of “MOOCs.” First, a bit on the business model of a leading MOOC firm, Coursera:

When and if money does come in, the universities will get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course (and thus how long Coursera has to profit from it). The institutions will also get 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid. That means the company gets the vast majority of the cash flow.

It now looks as if Coursera’s model of siphoning education dollars may be challenged in California. In its race to put more courses online, the UC administration has apparently asked for the following in a provision of a proposed faculty contract with Coursera:

“I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.”

I wonder—could Coursera repurpose a course for use in, say, Singapore, by promising to cut out any critical commentary on the Singaporean government? Read More

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Gulliver, CEOs, and University Presidents

University presidents are starting to feel some of the constituency pressure visited since the 1980s on their CEO counterparts in corporate America. Until then, CEOs reigned supreme over their corporate bastions, many ruling with an iron fist. Directors were supportive and shareholders deferential.  There would be occasional upheaval but this was rare.  CEO tenures were long.  Those days have been long gone for some time.

Until the past few years, university presidents ruled their roosts as well, with helpful trustees and deferential faculty.  Not anymore.

As John Sexton of NYU found out in a “no-confidence” vote of his largest faculty group last week, the constituencies are restless.  NYU’s trustees pledge their continued support, but other NYU faculties and some of the school’s unionized employees promise further pressure. Last summer, Teresa Sullivan, president of U. Va., felt such pressure from the university’s trustees, who ousted her temporarily until the faculty came to her rescue. Similar upheaval occurred at Harvard a few years ago and more recently at Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin (and at several other places if academic leaders below the rank of president are counted).

Interestingly, presidents in quite a few of these episodes have been charged with the complaint of operating the university too much like a corporation.  That’s one of the central assertions of the NYU faculty voters, who say Sexton is too focused on growth. They cite his “Global Network University” with lucrative campus footprints worldwide and his tendency to pay high salaries to selected scholars rather than offer across-the-board increases.  Many are upset at plans to expand the Greenwich Village campus in a radical way. They despise his top-down management style. 

So presidents who run their universities like corporations now face the fate of corporate chiefs for doing so. The power of shareholders and directors increased exponentially in the past 20 years, making the all-powerful CEO a relic.  With the rising power of faculties and trustees in the university, academic presidents may soon turn into short-term caretakers as well.  

There is a good case that the pendulum swung too far in corporate America in favor of shareholder democracy and outside power. It will be a shame if a similar thing happens to America’s universities.  Maybe that’s the NYU faculty’s point. Sexton should probably not run NYU as if it were a modern corporation, given its educational mission and unique fiduciary duties to attend to student needs rather than to maximize profits for shareholders.  Running NYU that way not only subverts those goals, but will ultimately and ironically weaken the president’s position.

Photo: Gulliver’s Travels, an apt analogy for what happened to corporate CEOs from 1980 to 2000 and what may be happening to university presidents.

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MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

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Cyber-charter schools and religious education

I wrote a few days ago about the rise of the cyber-charter school, and its potential to unsettle constitutional and statutory regimes that govern K-12 education. Right now I am finishing off an article that discusses this with respect to religion. A private religious school is not allowed to operate unless it meets state requirements for all private schools, which include minimum standards for the teaching of secular subjects like math and history. But religious schools must bear the cost of that secular instruction, even though their students would receive similar instruction for free were they to enroll in public school. (States may elect to provide various kinds of aid to religious private schools at the margins, but not to the extent of absorbing the costs of secular instruction.) This minimizes interpenetration between the state-funded public school sector and the religious, private-school sector. It also makes religious schooling more expensive than it otherwise would be.

But consider a religious private school that, rather than offering secular education itself, facilitates the enrollment of its students in a state-funded cyber-charter. The instructional program of the cyberschool is completely secular. But many cyber-charters are asynchronous as well as untethered to place; students may log into school when and from where they please. So why not from inside a religious establishment? Under this model, religious school students pursue their secular studies under the physical supervision of religious teachers but the intellectual supervision of the secular charter school operators. The religious school pays for the supervision but the secular one for the teaching. So (and here I am paraphrasing an earlier piece of mine), a religious teacher might work with half the class on some religious topic while the other half, on its own for the moment, engages in secular cyber-study under the same teacher’s passive supervision. Or a cleric might begin a 45-minute English lesson with a prayer—right before secular studies begin—or interrupt a cyber-biology lesson to admonish students that the material that they are covering is a tissue of lies.

The religious school not only saves a fair bit of money by this approach, savings it can pass on to its customers, but it engineers the kind of merger between publicly funded secular education and privately funded religious schooling that our system, until now, has gone to some lengths to prohibit. But I can identify no legal problem with a religious school adopting this strategy. Unlike state aid for secular instruction in religious schools, which raises real risks either of religious schools repurposing secular funds to religious ends or heavy-handed state involvement in quotidian regulation of religious schools’ operations, cyberteaching is 100% secular and under secular state control. Conceptually its use by the religious school is very similar to such a school’s use of a public library, or of state-provided maps or films. Indeed, I think it would be unconstitutional to allow students to log on to cyberschool anywhere and anytime except while under the physical supervision of a religious teacher. It would surely be unconstitutional to prohibit religious teachers from putting their own gloss, on their own time, upon what the students are learning in their secular classes.

But logistically the model is something very new. It creates a religious school whose secular program is state-funded and largely state-directed, but whose scheduling and context is in religious hands.

Short of abolishing cybercharters (which some states have done) can such initiatives be blocked? If not, is that a reason to abolish them? Or might it be acceptable, or even welcome, that the internet can create a new kind of religious pluralism in American education, where secular schooling remains under secular direction but which lacks the firm wall between its pursuit and the acquisition of religious education?

The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. Read More

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Virtual Schooling in the K-12 sector

Lots of people are talking about the accelerating penetration of virtual platforms in the higher education sector. It’s of course unknown whether the massive open online course (MOOC) will be the vector that transforms traditional higher ed the way that so many other industries are being transformed by interconnectivity.  But it seems clear that there will be some vector.  (I got my first ad for a law school MOOC this week.)

Virtuality poses two basic challenges to higher education. The first is about pedagogy: What might be gained, and what lost, from shifting from a bricks-and-mortar learning environment to a virtual one?  The second is about money and institutions:  What happens to the business model of colleges and universities as virtual platforms become cheaper, easier to access, and increasingly popular?

Less discussed but potentially just as important is the penetration of virtuality into K-12 ed.  Cyber-charter schools are becoming ubiquitous, enrolling  tens of thousands of children. Several states have created virtual school districts.  In Florida, I’m told, you cannot graduate from high school without taking at least one virtual course.

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