Prensky’s Solutions for Public Schools Are Woefully Simplistic

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment (9.7.10) on Marc Prensky‘s “Simple Changes in Current Practices May Save Our Schools” (7.12.10). It also refers to Steve Eskow‘s comment (9.6.10) on the article. -js]

Sorry, but I do not share others’ enthusiasm for Prensky’s approach. The idea to distribute 55 million tarballs is extremely expensive and highly impractical as Steve Eskow’s post illustrates. In fact, such an effort would be seen as a “Trojan horse” attempt to impose federal control over education, and face broad resistance as a result.

His other specific ideas are nice but hardly original — in fact, no doubt they are being done by hundreds, in some cases thousands, of teachers and thousands, perhaps millions, of students.

The real issue for me is: why do 55 million schoolchildren have to be involved in this? Yes, the BP spill affects everyone; so do thousands of other issues. Wouldn’t sending out 55 million tarballs deprive teachers of the opportunity to experiment and innovate, which Prensky purports to advocate? Please note carefully: Prensky did NOT say, “develop a program to send out tarballs to every teacher who requests one.” No, instead he proposed a blanket “solution” for everybody. The distinction is crucial, and not merely rhetorical, as it reflects an ultimately authoritarian approach to moving forward. Continue reading

Collaborative Leadership Is Essential for Change

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: This article is a response to Steve Eskow’s 22 Oct. 2009 comment on John’s “Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes.” Steve Eskow: “When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.” -js]

Steve, what you say is, in my experience, pretty universally true, and it is the ultimate dilemma in staff development. In my reply, I am going to include something from Bonnie’s last post as well.

I was involved with staff development for a number of years. It was my job to do exactly what you said you would not stand for—telling teachers how to do their work differently.

At first I labored under the direction of leaders who used perhaps the most misguided staff development policy of all time. Under the theory of models like the Annenberg Institute’s, the appointed educational leaders of the schools (principals and superintendents) tried to slip into the background and let teachers lead the change process. The idea was that if it appeared to come from within, change would be accepted by others. The opposite turned out to be true, and Annenberg’s own research showed that. Teachers who tried to act as change leaders were universally rejected by their peers, and they either folded their tents and retreated to the periphery of the school, transferred to another school, or dropped out of teaching altogether. I remember all too well the pain inflicted on me by those who openly bristled at my suggestions.

This was made even worse by a process we were required to follow in these attempts, a process that seemed absurd to me and which I fought unsuccessfully. We were supposed to smooth ruffled feathers from the start by telling them they were already doing a great job, but these new techniques, which would require them to change their ways so very much, would make them even better. I thought this would guarantee that they would not listen to us—if I am already doing a great job, why should I change? The National Staff Development Council later showed that I was absolutely right. Effective staff development will only work, it learned, if the people receiving the training could experience the cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing that what they are doing now is not working well.

Robert J. MarzanoAnnenberg’s study showed that those bristling teachers were the primary reason (along with a complementary factor to be discussed later) for the failure of school reforms. In fact, one or two of those bristlers on a staff was enough to derail a reform embraced by nearly the entire rest of the staff. Bob Marzano, then of the Mid Continent Regional Educational Laboratory (MCREL) said in a conference I attended that he could not think of a worse way to implement reform, or a better way to destroy a dedicated teacher.

The Effective Schools research of people like Lazotte pointed toward a solution, one that is mentioned by Bonnie in her last post. The principal (or equivalent) must lead the reform effort. This principal must not impose a vision of reform on the population, but must instead use effective leadership skills (such as those described by DuFour, Fullan, and others) to bring the faculty to a shared vision in which all believe. The bristling resisters had to be dealt with effectively and eliminated from the staff, either by artful persuasion or by removal. I myself participated in a study of schools that were more effective than would be predicted by their the inherent characteristics of the student populations and saw that this was true in every school we analyzed. Believe it or not, every faculty member we interviewed knew by heart and believed in passionately the school’s mission statement, and it was a real mission statement, not the kind of meaningless cant we normally see.

Annenberg’s research showed the same thing. In 100% of the successful schools they surveyed, teachers reported that the primary (by far) reason for success was the way the educational leader was able to deal with teacher dissent and bring the faculty together. In 100% of the failed reform efforts, teachers reported that the primary reason (by far) for the failure was the way the educational leader was unable to deal with dissent and bring the faculty together.

So, a reformer such as myself has little chance of bringing reform to schools that lack such leadership, which is the vast majority.

Given that background, Steve, how do you suggest that change come to teachers who cling to outmoded ideas and bristle when told to do differently?

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 23 Oct. 2009, 7:05 am:
A powerful and moving post, John.

All I have to contribute now are some early and unformed thoughts as answers to the question with which you ended your message.

First: I think I would try to rid myself of the vocabulary of teacher resistance, e.g. “teachers who cling to outmoded ideas.” All of us–including people like you and me who cling to constructivism and who would insist it’s not outmoded–are bristlers and resisters when our favorite recipes are challenged, as you document so well.

Based on your account, perhaps we as consultants need to differentiate between “external change agents”–you and me–and “internal change agents”–principals, superintendents, university deans and presidents. Perhaps one commandment for us might be “Thou shalt not undertake to change teachers unless and until there is an internal change agent as advocate.”

And another truism: we may need to do a better job of analyzing the pieces and interconnections of the educational system we’re trying to change to locate the various sources of the resistance to change. Obvious examples: the academic setting: if the building has lecture halls, do they ask to be used, and are we about saying letting them stand empty? If there is a hierarchy of instructional roles, e.g., lecturers and section leaders, which elements of the hierarchy resist the change? Accrediting bodies? National disciplinary bodies which define “standards”? Budget? The teachers to whom we attribute the resistance are one element in an elaborate ecology of forces that create and maintain the status quo, and attributing all the resistance to the teachers alone is patently unfair.

Or maybe not, John.

A beginning, John.

bbracey40Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:
What reformers do is to infuse ideas and lend support for the teacher change agents and involve the administration of the schools in meaningful ways. My help was at the highest level. At George Mason, Chris Dede was teaching and he brought a whole class to watch me work, but also invited me to the class to share ideas, frustrations, concerns and anything I wanted to share.

Frank Withrow and other leaders also were there.

Eventually we became a group for change with some funding. You are needed. One teacher can be moved, disposed of in a New York Minute.

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 9:05 AM:

Steve, I am not sure all of us are bristlers when it comes to change. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but the reason I ended up being a staff developer was my penchant for experimentation with change. When I encountered a new idea, I tried it out. If it worked, I went with it. The instructional processes I taught (with enthusiasm) when I was a staff developer were ones I had never used 5 years before.

A number of books have been published in the last decade that report on research on the effects of different strategies on student achievement. Bob Marzano, for one, has published several. I have read them and taken what I could from them. One of those strategies is the use of graphic organizers for instructional activities, which are apparently quite effective. I have personally always hated them. Hated them. When I read the results of the research, though, I shrugged my shoulders and made sure that strategy was a part of our required instructional design.

What makes teaching so different from other professions? Did doctors continue to use the iron lung after other strategies were shown to be more effective? Did attorneys continue to cite Plessy v. Ferguson after Brown v. Board of Education overturned it?

One of the things I used to hear frequently in protest of change was “What I am doing now is working.” Really? Are all your students learning at a high level? Is there no room for improvement?

A colleague of mine was a major advocate of the traditional lecture as the primary (perhaps only) instructional practice in his classroom. He was, in fact, a very vocal critic of the changes I advocated. One day one of his students openly said that the class was boring. He said, “It is my job to be boring, and it is your job to be bored. That’s how education works.” The fact that his students had the worst record in the history of AP exams (you can’t do any worse than having not a single student take the test during the years you teach the course because of the fear that they will fail) did not deter him from his unshakable belief in the quality of his practices.

I guess I don’t understand that attitude.

24 Oct. 2009, 5:08 AM: [Reply to Bonnie:] That is how it starts. The students taking a class from the likes of Chris Dede are a far different group from teachers at a mandatory inservice workshop.

As I said before, the key element in your experience is the administration, which must understand the reform and know how to lead that change effectively.

thompson40John Thompson, 24 Oct. 2009, 5:29 am:
“What I am doing now is working.” Yes, I hear that all the time. “Why change if I’m already successful?” is the refrain. As a response, I like to highlight Tiger Woods. After he won The Masters golf tournament by a record margin, everyone was singing his praises and how accomplished he was. However, he wasn’t satisfied so he retooled his swing, which was dangerous because sometimes golfers who do that never get back to their previous level let alone to a higher level. But Woods took the risk and was successful after nearly two years of work. His game went to another higher level. After a few years, he did the same. And he did it yet again when he was hurt and came back after a long layoff to recuperate. Here’s the acknowledged greatest golfer in the world and he’s not satisfied with his performance. So how is it that some teachers can smugly assert they are doing everything they can do in their teaching? Plateauing is not an option for Tiger Woods. It shouldn’t be for our teachers either.

Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:09 am:
Hi John,

First a general comment, then some interlinear commenting.

The general comment is really a question: Is there a bit of bristling in your last message to me?

Steve, I am not sure all of us are bristlers when it comes to change. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but the reason I ended up being a staff developer was my penchant for experimentation with change.

My speculation was this, John, and I am increasingly convinced there is something to it: many teachers do not bristle at change: like you, they have a “penchant for experimentation with change.”

They bristle at change agents.

A number of books have been published in the last decade that report on research on the effects of different strategies on student achievement. Bob Marzano, for one, has published several. I have read them taken what I could from them. One of those strategies is the use of graphic organizers for instructional activities, which are apparently quite effective. I have personally always hated them. Hated them. When I read the results of the research, though, I shrugged my shoulders and made sure that strategy was a part of our required instructional design.

Might it be that in a hypervisual culure one of the overall tasks of the educational system ought to be to balance visuality by emphasizing the language skills–language sans graphics–that make discussion, dialog, and debate possible? Students may have to learn to be comfortable in discussions without Power Point. Like this one.

(You of course are noticing that I am starting to resist–perhaps even bristle a bit.)

What makes teaching so different from other professions? Did doctors continue to use the iron lung after other strategies were shown to be more effective? Did attorneys continue to cite Plessy v. Ferguson after Brown v. Board of Education overturned it?

Here, John, we reach a critical point in our discussion and in our relationship, and I don’t know how to handle it well–so I’ll probably botch it and evoke resistance rather than understanding and agreement.

I’ll deal now only with the matter of education and medicine, and leave the matter of education and the law for another time.

Proposition: education and medicine are profoundly different, and it is a grave error to confound and confuse them.

Education is, at best, a “human science,” not a “natural science,” or a “physical science.”

Dilthey and others distinguished between “understanding”–what is attempted in the “human sciences”–and “explanation”–what is attempted in the natural sciences.

The belief that “educational research” provides us with hard incontestable evidence, e.g., that the research on graphic illustration is as conclusive as the iron lung–is a fallacy.

If it was, John, there would be no more Sages on Stages, all teachers would be Guides by the Side, and Harvard would require Michael Sandel to stop lecturing to a thousand students and become a quiet Guide by the Side.

It probably won’t happen, John.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:09 am:

Well I have been lucky. In my lifetime I met an older woman who pushed me kicking and screaming into study of the out of doors, not just in the book. But she was the supervisor so who was I to say no. She was the change agent. At first I resented the birding, wildflower, and so on courses, but then as I got good, I really enjoyed them and became the summer camp director. No one would have predicted that. I arrived on the first visit in my Chanel suit and Gucchi sandals, and she handed me boots, a big coat, and a bucket. We hiked and she would share what various things were, and we did this over a set of seasons, with proper credit and with some great comforting things at the outdoor lodge.

Then there was the Nanosecond lady. Grace Hopper. I kept thinking she is so old and the men are being deferential to her. She must be really smart. I taught in the shadow of the NSF. How the administrators in the school system razzed us when we did the NSF project, SeeYou SeeMe. There was the most terrible write up and criticism, and so also with the NASA projects. You had to pull teeth to get the supplies and resources or buy them, so I learned to write grants. I forgot who taught me this. Some man, a physics teacher at the museum in Richmond, Virginia. He was a mentor, too, with an unconventional way of teaching physics, and I loved it.

My funniest story is about the professor who got upset about people using wireless in his classroom. It was in the newspaper. He ranted and raved and pulled out the wireless, to no avail. Those students were bored and were surfing the net duing class. If you work with the Supercomputing people and can see them on the grid, you know you have their attention when they stop looking at the computer for a while, but it doesn’t bother you because they can multitask.

There were also supervisors who wanted all of the science materials back in the closet by 4 PM, There were the people who took what I got with the grants and claimed it, so I learned to make my name the total grant recipient. I learned to do this after I won a Mac and the principal declared she was going to put it in the library (they sent it to my home, fortunately).

My latest mentor is Bob Panoff. See — Interactivate. Well, I have a lot of learning to do. I have taken wonderfulworkshops in the computational sciences, and, you know, it’s the way in which people teach that gets your interest and attention. Programming? He says, “What is the story you want to tell?”

Anyway Chris Dede was wonderful. I fought with Seymour Papert who did not understand the restrictions in various schools, but it was a good fight. Got me to go to MIT to share the concerns.

[Steve Eskow:] Based on your account, perhaps we as consultants need to differentiate between “external change agents”–you and me–and “internal change agents”–principals, superintendents, university deans and presidents. Perhaps one commandment for us might be “Thou shalt not undertake to change teachers unless and until there is an internal change agent as advocate.”

And another truism: we may need to do a better job of analyzing the pieces and interconnections of the educational system we’re trying to change to locate the various sources of the resistance to change.

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:26 am:

I am not bristling at you. I have heard similar comments so often I rarely associate them with an individual any more. Along those lines though, in my old age my memory for such details is failing me and I must ask a question. Did we have similar exchanges a decade or so ago on WWWEDU?

Faulty research has plagued education for years. I think the greatest harm of all came from the faulty research processes in the Coleman study, which has led several generations of teachers to assume falsely that it does not matter how you teach, for educational achievement is determined by what the student brings to the classroom, not what the individual teacher brings to the student. Subsequent research has shown that the opposite is true, but I doubt if more than a small percentage of teachers is aware of this.

When I speak of the comparison of teaching to medicine, I am speaking primarily of the attitude of the practitioner. Physicians generally assume that no matter how well the procedures or medicines they now use are working, something will eventually come along to improve things. They are thus always on the lookout for such improvements. Teachers use rationales such as the one you provide to deflect all suggestions for change and stay with what they have always done. John Goodlad showed years ago that teachers generally teach the way they themselves were primarily taught, regardless of the educational program they are supposed to be implementing.

Back in the 1970s I was introduced to the idea of group or collaborative learning. I tried it and pronounced it a total failure. Years later I attended a workshop that included that concept once more, but this time they showed how to do it, and they said that if you don’t do it right, it will be a total failure. I realized I had not indeed done it right, for the reasons they showed me. When I used the methods these change agents showed me, it worked wonderfully, and it became a mainstay of my educational technique from then on. The district even had a film crew come in to one of my classes so they could show how effective the process can be.

In the early 1980s, I had to teach writing to a remedial class. I used the best grammar based approach I knew how, and failed utterly to teach them how to write in complete sentences. I concluded they were not capable of writing in complete sentences. Years later a change agent suggested that the grammar-based approach I used was not the best, and when I taught a remedial writing class again, using a totally different approach, I achieved 100% success in getting students to write in complete sentences.

I used to think my instructional approach to teaching Oedipus Rex was my best lesson, once that I would be selected to be evaluated on if given the choice. I would teach it with total pride in a Harvard lecture hall if given the chance. But, just before I was about to teach it one year, change agents suggested a different approach to education, and I immediately thought of a way to do it with Oedipus Rex. The results were so dramatically better than anything I had ever done before that I was stunned. It was, in fact, that experience that propelled me to becoming a change agent.

So, if you embrace change but despise change agents, how is change to occur without them?

keller40Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 7:51 am:

You [John Thompson] said, “It shouldn’t be for our teachers either.” Indeed, it shouldn’t be for anyone seeking to remain competitive in their activities. I (with some great help) created an excellent online science lab system. However, not a day goes by that I don’t think about how to improve it. My severe resource constraints require me to be more creative and selective about the changes I make, and I continue to make them.

I think that I have the best solution, and I know that without constant improvement, it won’t remain there. If my biased opinion is incorrect, I have even more reason to make it better.

Despite the above, I think that we all should consider the reasons behind teachers not choosing change. Sure, some teachers may just plateau just as those in any activity may do so. However, the entire system thwarts change. Teachers arrive at their first classrooms with visions of all of the good work they’ll be doing. They’d like to try this idea and that idea. Soon, they discover that they aren’t rewarded for good effort or even good results. They may even be punished for innovation. For some the work is its own reward. Some become discouraged and leave teaching. Some others hang on hoping for a better future. Too many get worn out trying to build great education on a foundation of sand and mark time until they retire with a nice pension.

Let’s not be too quick to blame those in the trenches for a system that only partially works. To extend the metaphor, consider the captains and generals, the politicians and citizens, and the environment in which the “battle” is waged. Our education system should be synergistic. Too often, it’s dysfunctional.

Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 10:35 am:

Ah, John, how could I hate change agents? That would be selb has, self hate: I’ve been one of those things for a long time.And now I’m working in Africa, where very few teachers care about Marzano.

You may be willing to consider that your personal testimonials (or mine) of transformation are no more convincing to a skeptic than those of car salesman testifying to the quality of the machine he is selling. You’re selling change, and you tell stories of miraculous improvements. I’m sure they’re true, but given your motivation they will be discounted.

Or: you’re explaining why teachers who themselves are actively, even eagerly changing, balk when an outsider tries to sell them on the need for change, and sell them his particular nostrum.

The Coleman Report, with all that star power and all those data collections faulty? Of course it was faulty.It was also a powerful stimulus for an important rethinking of education in the United States.

Incidentally, is the Marzano research faulty? Might it be found faulty tomorrow? If so, what happens to all those teachers and all those courses that are going graphic?

John, it might be useful to consider that just as you’ve heard all the voices of resistance to change, many of the resisting teachers have heard an army of change agents, all with similar messages about sages on stage and guides by the side and constructivism and active learning and digital natives who are pictorial rather than print oriented.

Maybe we change agents have to stop the old sermons and find some new ways to get educators to think about where they are and where they aren’t and how they might get there.

And that new way might not be active learning or constructivism. Are you, am I, able to face the possibility that we may have to abandon our faith in constructivism? Change ourselves and our story?

John Adsit, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:44 PM:

The flaw in the Coleman methodology unfortunately meant that the stimulus it provided for rethinking education may have pushed it in a bad direction.. To summarize very quickly, the study looked at whole school performance and compared school to school, finding that the factors that determined student achievement lay with the student.

The Coleman study did not adequately compare teacher to teacher within a school. More recent studies, especially the Sanders study in Tennessee, have shown a tremendous difference in student achievement from one teacher to another within a school, and they have shown it is not just a good or bad year. Some teachers will have consistently poor or consistently excellent results year after year after year. More important is the overall impact on students. A series of poor or excellent teachers in elementary school can mean the difference between dropping out and going to college.

Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.

Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 1:00 pm:

It’s great that someone actually bothered to study what most people instinctively know. The teacher is the primary determinant of student achievement, all student differences being factored out.

[John Adsit:] Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.

Steve Eskow, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:00 pm:

Harry, John, all:

Might it be all of the above: the school and its setting and climate; the students and their backgrounds and their culture; the teachers and their methods?

In the great US universities,e.g. Harvard, the lecture is a common instructional mode, perhaps the most common instructional mode.

And Harvard spends much time selecting its students for success.

Do we really believe it’s the great teaching methods at Harvard that make for its excellence? That Harvard is great because its faculty practices Marzano’s 9 secrets of great teaching?

Don’t we “instinctively” know that at least some of Harvard’s success is due to the quality of its students rather than the quality of its faculty?

[Harry Keller:] It’s great that someone actually bothered to study what most people instinctively know. The teacher is the primary determinant of student achievement, all student differences being factored out.

[John Adsit:] Today we realize that the most important factor in student success lies in the instructional decisions made by the teacher in the classroom. That is a pretty big shift in thinking, one that is still not embraced by the majority of teachers.

Harry Keller, 24 Oct. 2009, 6:36 pm:
Precisely, Steve.

That’s why Harvard (and Princeton and MIT and Caltech) spends so much effort on student selection.

After all, the courses at these institutions aren’t exactly paragons of excellent teaching. I know. I went to Caltech. The only “good” part of the courses was that they were very challenging. They forced you to think and think hard. The homework was grueling. The tests were unforgiving.

The faculty of these institutions are great but not for their teaching prowess. Many even dislike teaching.

However, primary and secondary education are different animals than post-secondary teaching.

The teacher is the person in the trenches, where the rubber meets the road (to mix metaphors). If all other factors (environment, student capability, family support, etc.) are eliminated, then the teacher is the one who makes the difference. In other words, if you look at the same school with students randomly distributed among teachers in the same subject, you should expect large and significant differences between teachers because there’s no uniformity. Each teacher is allowed to have an individual approach to the same curriculum.

Also, there’s very little control. Without feedback, any system can meander anywhere.

I think I see most of the issues clearly. I don’t have any real solution for the big picture. I continue to work on a small part of the solution for science education and hope that I can make a difference. Science students should have ample opportunities frequently to do science as scientists do no matter what their school or income level or background. That’s my goal.

John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 6:53 am:
Back when America first realized there was a section 504 of IDEA, and teachers were required to accommodate certain student needs in the classroom, I was asked to write an article describing some of the instructional strategies needed to work with students with specified learning needs. I was given a stack of research and recommendations from which to work. To my amazement, I saw that a handful of the same instructional strategies were suggested for the vast majority of these learning needs.

When I asked special education experts to explain this, they told me that all students learn better when those methods are used. The difference is that the “good” students have the self-motivation and personal skills to overcome weak teaching, but the rest of the student must have excellent instructional strategies to succeed.

One study in which I participated as a researcher yields more evidence of this. I was part of a team that looked at student performance within a school (compare student performance entering the school with student performance leaving the school) to see if we could identify the characteristics of schools in which students improved the most during their stay. We were to identify 10 such schools in a very large school district and compare their characteristics. We found a concentration of such schools in one attendance area. (By attendance area, I am referring to a group of elementary schools feeding into a smaller number of middle schools feeding into one high school.) Most of the elementary schools and both of the middle schools in this one area were really doing an excellent job with their students.

As you might guess, the high school, by the most common measures, was doing very well. It sent a very high percentage of its students to elite colleges, like Harvard. The teachers at that high school were very self-confident and proud of what they were accomplishing. But our study showed the opposite. The achievement of their seniors was lower than would be expected in comparison to the achievement of their freshmen. This school’s students were actually losing ground while in those classrooms. They had students of gold walking in their doors, and they had students of silver walking out.

Every one of the high achieving elementary and middle schools in that attendance area used what would be called innovative instructional methods. The high school was quite traditional (lecture) in its instructional approach.

Harvard admits only students who will thrive under any educational experience. The fact that it admits such students does not imply that its teaching is excellent. You also have no comparison. You do not know how these excellent students would perform if Harvard abandoned its lectures and went to different instructional methods. They may do even better with a different approach.

By the way, Harvard medical school dropped its traditional lecture format years ago in favor of a more experiential approach to education. They found that after three years of lecture, their medical students didn’t seem to know anything when they started internships. They switched to a program where students start interning immediately, with great results. I had to study this program’s philosophy as a part of my training.

Harry Keller, 25 Oct. 2009, 7:08 am:

[John Adsit:] Harvard admits only students who will thrive under any educational experience. The fact that it admits such students does not imply that its teaching is excellent. You also have no comparison. You do not know how these excellent students would perform if Harvard abandoned its lectures and went to different instructional methods. They may do even better with a different approach.

John has it exactly right. We don’t know. However, from a strictly statistical estimate, we can expect that some other instructional strategies will work better. The same is true for MIT, which nearly kills their students with huge workloads and class averages that frequently are in the 30s.

I’m not sure where such approaches originate. Is it Darwinian? Is it “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”

I have met MIT grads who have had their self-esteem destroyed. They’re smart but unsure of themselves. That’s a horrible outcome. Other MIT grads are cocky and self-assured beyond reason. That outcome isn’t as bad as the first, in my opinion, but it’s still not rational.

I’m not sure which strategy is best, but I know that MIT could improve theirs.

I’m making the point, in addition to John’s, that even if students survive because they were chosen to be able to survive virtually any educational environment, they may not actually thrive.

John Thompson, 25 Oct. 2009, 8:48 am:
On the other hand…

You can kill with kindness and/or lowered expectations and/or accepting what you see as the inevitable.

Case in point…A number of years ago I taught a one-credit “intro to college” course for freshmen university students at highly respected and tough admissions public higher ed institution. In our conversations during the semester the students related how easy their last half of their senior year in high school was. Apparently their teachers had concluded that there was nothing more to be gained from their insisting that the students continue grinding right through the end of the year. So instead, the teachers had accepted the premise and implications of the supposed “senioritis” syndrome so these otherwise hard driving students had effectively been given much of their last year off. At least this is what the students (pretty much all the students in the class) had admitted. The striking thing was that they expressed resentment and regret for that happening. They would have preferred to continue running right through the finish line instead of ending the race prematurely. But without their teachers mandating such hard work, the students had slacked off and developed bad habits that there dogging them in college.

So to reference another “syndrome,” this seems like what I refer to as the Goldilocks Syndrome. I.e., too hard-too easy-just right, too much-not enough-just right, etc. Where to draw the line? Who gets to draw it?

John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 10:08 am:

Killing with kindness and lowered expectations are not the alternative I am suggesting for poor instructional technique. There are other things you can do.

The extreme Harry describes comes when a teacher sets high standards, leaves the students alone, and then measures the results.

The alternative John describes is to lower the standards, leave the students alone, and measure the results.

I am suggesting something very different:

1. Set high Standards

2. Use strong teaching methods to ensure that students meet those standards

3. Measure the results.

Someday I will write a book about the conspiracy of students, parents, teachers, and administrators in high school, who all work together to make sure that standards stay low, but that is another story—and an extremely long one.

I was once asked to consult with a technical college of nearly the same stature as MIT. There writing program was nearly nonexistent. I wanted to use the instructional methods that I had instituted in a high school that in two years had gone from 20th place in the district writing assessments to 1st place, which was the primary reason I ended up in that role. When they heard what I wanted to do, they were horrified. It would mean too many students would succeed and earn high grades, even though we were maintaining high standards. They needed to make sure that enough students got Ds and Fs to make it appear that they weren’t involved in grade inflation. I pointed out that the grades would not be inflated—the students would have achieved and learned at levels of worthy of As and Bs, but they would have none of it. They needed to make sure that a decent percentage of their students failed so that they could maintain their reputation for toughness.

Setting high standards and then failing those who are not able to get there on your own does not make you a great teacher. Setting high standards and then using your skills to help students reach them makes you a great teacher.

Steve Eskow, 25 Oct. 2009, 12:24 pm:

John, I’m increasingly unsure of your point as you tell these interesting stories.I am tempted to tell personal stories that point in different directions, but I don’t think my stories would help us to agreement.

Do we agree that no single factor can account for educational success? That educational results are influenced by a) the background, motivation, and development of the student; b) the culture of the school: a culture supportive of learning rather than a culture hostile to learning; and c) the skill of the teacher in recognizing a) and b) and adopting a teaching approach responsive to them?

Or are you saying that a) and b) don’t matter, don’t influence outcomes, and that only the skill of the teacher makes the difference?

John Adsit, 25 Oct. 2009, 12:46 pm:
Of course all things count.

What I am saying is that recent research says that the instructional strategies employed by the teacher are the primary factor in education. The others all all factors, too, and sometimes the best teachers with the best strategies cannot overcome all the other factors.

In the past, the belief was that the personal factors associated with the student were so important that the instructional strategies employed by the teacher were insignificant. That belief is still prevalent among educators.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 25 Oct. 2009, 6:37 pm:

I always get really upset when the issue of Harvard is raised. How many people get to go to Harvard? Their influence is everywhere, but what are the rest of us supposed to be , chopped liver? My mentor is at Harvard, Chris Dede, but he does not rest on his Harvard reputation, he is out there at FETC, ISTE and other places.

We common people who went to the places that Arnie Duncan talked about are people too,Some of us collect learning experiences that are just as valuable as Harvard’s methodology.I would like to hear from others what they think was valuable as a learning experience.

I would like to know if we only use a few universities too expensive for most of us, and theoretically the best, but an isolated experience as a learning initiative from what is teaching and leanring , and then I question.

If Harvard is all of that, why are we still having minority based institutions ? Minority serving institutions need help but as Arnie Duncan says they need more than that. If Harvard is so great isn’t part of their mission to improve education for the masses? What is their outreach to other groups.

Or do we have an elite organization that pats itself on the back creates initiatives and thumbs away the rest of the teaching instititions?

Regarding students, it is easy to talk and blame the teacher for the lack of student achievement when there are other variables. The perception from the top of what is right. We teach mind numbing math that gets terrible results.

We have this ongoing fight in reading about phonics and other types of reading such as reading as an experiential type of learning. A little girl asked me once why do we have so many ways of teaching phonics from book to book.

For about eight years , science has been neglected in favor of what was tested, in 8 of the states in which I work 20 minutes a week ( probably more time given to announcements and bathroom.. and we want to be first in the world?

I have taught urban, rich, DODDS, ghetto, inner city not ghetto, rural and distant and each population has its needs. Working in inner city DC, I worried more about children’s food, health and living conditions, often finding them sleeping beneath my car , or at my doorstop. There was little in the way of resources in the ghetto schools. More in DODD schools just a really interesting ELL problem, which was over come.

I think the theorists need to put their teaching ideas in practice to show us what works everywhere. There is no universal way to teach that fits all situations. You have to look at the variables of the situation..

John Adsit, 26 Oct. 2009, 5:46 am:

I agree with the first part of the message, and I feel it is too bad that you have experienced the last part:

And the notion promoted by some change agents that certain instructional techniques are always and uniformly beneficial are the problem, e.g. the belief that multimediated instruction is always preferable to monomediated instruction, or the insistence that group collaborative instruction is always superior to individualized instruction.

No one I know teaches that. We instead teach that the skilled teacher has a large repertoire of instructional strategies ready to be used. That teacher uses whatever is appropriate to the content, the situation, and the student.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 26 Oct. 2009, 5:45 am:
See Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis

Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 26 Oct. 2009, 6:00 am:
I hear so much talk about the poor teacher. What are the earmarks for such. Teaching is like slavery, by permission, they had permission to service the crops, they did not design the land, create the soil, the weather/climate and or manage the variables of insects, disease or the illnesses that rankled the enslaved and majority population , still they were supposed to pick their bale of cotton. Regardess… Teachers have very limited permission and the more control a school system has the less innovation and creativity there is.

John Adsit, 26 Oct. 200i, 6:07 am:
[Re Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, by Jane Margolis] This is a good example of the conspiracy to lower standards I suggested earlier.

There is an assumption that some students are not capable of swimming in the deep end, so they are steered toward lover level classes. The students and parents are generally happy with that, because they have come to believe the same thing and try to avoid the extra work that they believe will not lead to anything positive anyway.

Administrators are happy, too, for they are pressured to improve the percentage of students who graduate. Graduation requires the completion of a certain number of courses, not a certain standard of quality. The schools are thus well served by an academic program that provides enough units to get students graduated. Learning would be a nice actual side benefit, but it is not the goal.

Everyone is working together to make sure students don’t learn.

That is only one segment of the greater conspiracy.

Harry Keller, 26 Oct. 2009, 6:31 am:
As a scientist and not an education researcher, I have to wonder what all of the talk about recent research in education means in light of this comment. It would seem that educators attempt to follow research in choosing what to do in the classroom. The Department of Education, in its new “Investing in Innovation Fund,” has emphasized techniques that have the support of studies.

If each situation requires different approaches, then the research either cannot be universally applied or else must be imperfect in the first place. I know that difficulties should not prevent us from trying. Still, it would seem to be a cautionary note with regard to applying research results blindly.

[John Adsit:] No one I know teaches that. We instead teach that the skilled teacher has a large repertoire of instructional strategies ready to be used. That teacher uses whatever is appropriate to the content, the situation, and the student.

John Adsit, 26 Oct. 2009, 7:45 am:
Different instructional approaches are needed for a variety of reasons. Here are a couple:

  1. Different subjects have different content goals. Some are heavily weighted toward skill and performance, and others have a greater emphasis on content knowledge.
  2. Different students learn in different ways. What works for student A is less effective for student B.
  3. Varying approaches keeps students interested and engaged.
  4. Even within a content area, learning goals are complex and variation in approaches leads to more complete learning.
  5. Different approaches take differing amounts of time, and teachers have to work with an eye to the calendar. A true constructive project takes a lot of time, and the instructor frequently cannot do all learning that way and get the job done. In planning a unit, the instructor will decide that some degree of lecture is needed for some aspects of the learning, some level of practice is needed, and a project might complete the learning process.

Encounters: ‘College for $99 a Month’

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. In an email message on Sep. 2, he referred me to Kevin Carey’s College for $99 a Month: The Next Generation of Online Education Could Be Great for Students—and Catastrophic for Universities” (Washington Monthly, Sep./Oct. 2009). Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js


keller40Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 3 Sep. 2009, 4:00AM: This article engendered so many thoughts that I cannot begin to write them all. Note the unfair evaluation criteria; compare with online vs. traditonal A.P. science courses. The disruptive innovation thread is large. What if many StraighterLine clones sprung up if regulatory walls were lowered, and many had lower standards — just like today’s colleges. The social benefits to students of college have been ignored in the article. How much of the tutoring and even teaching will be outsourced offshore? Will the $99 per month be sustainable as a business model? StraighterLine only offers 11 courses now, all oriented to business students; when will they be able to offer degrees? Who will support research in renaissance french pottery <big grin> if universities have to downsize? Will future college professors be able to retire on the job until they really retire as some do today? The protesting professors clearly know on which side their bread is buttered and are reacting to a threat rather than proposing rational solutions to impending change. What will happen to low-enrollment courses; will they be aggregated across states or even nations to keep them viable? Who will teach a course that only provides a small slice of $99 per student? How large will the student load per instructor be? Is the ivory-tower model dying? How will drama and science be taught? For online courses, the major costs are the design of the course (amortizable) and the ongoing cost of the instructor. Interestingly, each corporate online provider must design courses anew. Smaller providers, such as small states, purchase the curricula and resell them packaged with one of their instructors.

And so it goes. This concept goes far beyond the use of “clickers” and “smart” boards in bringing technology to education.

The topic may be too large for us to cover, but if we don’t try, we won’t know for sure.


steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 3 Sep. 2009, 7:14AM: Harry refers to the often-cited “social benefits” of the walled university. Apparently something of educational importance happens when the the 300 students and the lecturer and the images on the screen are together in the lecture hall in real time. Or when the 30 students and the graduate student “discuss” the lecture in real time in a 600-square feet classroom.

Jerry FarberI wish someone in our group with institutional library privileges could get us two articles by Jerry Farber: “The Third Circle; On Education and Distance Learning” and “Teaching and Presence.”

Farber’s first circle is “measurable competence.” That’s what we get in all those studies that come out, it almost seems, every other day. Those “NSD” studies.

The second circle contains those competences that aren’t readily measurable.

And the third circle contains those “benefits” that Harry mentions: the profound educational benefits that Farber and so many other attribute to the face-to-face situation.

The philosophic position behind this “third circle” is often called “the metaphysics of presence,” and this matter of the reality or the mythology of “presence” has, I think, been underreported in the literature of online and mediated and distance learning. ETC could do something about that.

Jacques Derrida wrote much–and densely–about “the metaphysics of presence.” About “logocentrism,” and the power of the Word when present, and , importantly for proponents of mediated instruction, on “phonocentrism,” the assumed differences in impact and meaning of the spoken and the written word.

Perhaps Farber’s articles could help us get a modest shared background on this matter of “presence,” and we might get help from folks in philosophy on Heidegger and Derrida and the implications of “the metaphysics of presence” for the future of online learning.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 7:22AM): The social benefits happen outside of the classroom. People make lifelong friends and set up future business relationships. They join clubs that foster success after graduation. I would never suggest (at least from my personal experience) any social benefits from sitting in a classroom.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 7:32AM): Harry is not talking, then, about “learning” as the curriculum defines it, but about “social capital.” About the so-called “extra-curriculum.”

(When he was President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson wrote extensively about what he called student excitement and involvement in the “sideshows” and their lack of of interest in “the main tent”: the classroom and the curriculum.

Others here and everywhere attribute important learning enhancement and benefits from “presence”: from the living word, from the face-to-faceness of the classroom as opposed to what they see as the “distance” imposed by distance learning: the lack of this almost mystical “presence.”

Farber is one strong voice speaking for this “presence.” Hubert Dreyfus is another.

I don’t think the issue has found its way into distance learning circles, and it’s at the very center of our work, and yet largely unrecognized and unremarked.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 8:26AM): Regarding “presence”:

1. I don’t see it. Except for the very unusual show types, having a prof in the room with you gains little or nothing.

2. It’s more useful for the instructor who can gauge the impact of what’s going on by the faces (rapt or blank stares or whatever). Tools available today to online instructors can do even better than face-reading, however.

3. I often had the person who wrote the book (and in one case was writing it daily) giving the lectures. The only advantage to the class was being able to ask questions, but with 180 students, the opportunities to do so were small. Online is better in that respect.

4. Seeing professors out of their element gives little idea of what they really do. However, every first-year student cannot visit the professors as they’re working.

5. Many online students have remarked that they’re cowed in traditional classes but can open up and become involved in online classes.

Persons are important; presence is not. It will be a long time before a real, live instructor can be replaced by a machine. However, some of the work traditionally done by instructors can now be done by machines so that teaching becomes more of a mentoring or facilitating job. It becomes elevated to a real person skill.


Steve Eskow, (9.3.09, 8:49AM): Harry, it seems increasingly clear to me that many of us heavily involved in mediated instruction are unfamiliar with the large and important literature on this matter of “presence” and “the metaphysics of presence,” and unaware of the role it plays in philosophy and practice–and, importantly for our work, in the serious resistance to distance learning.

An interesting and intricate example of the power of presence thesis is MIT: hardly an enemy of technology and technology-enhanced learning. MIT is increasingly technologizing its instruction–but on campus. As far as I know, complee resistance to distance learning for its students. All MIT credit instruction, as far as I know, requires that you be “present.” On the other hand, distance learning students around the world can make arrangements to access the4 MIT “i-labs” program: lab instruction online.

Hubert Dreyfus is a philosopher who has written such important books as WHAT COMPUTERS CAN’T DO. His book ON THE INTERNET is a serious critique of mediated instruction built around the “presence” thesis.

If we want to engage the important critics of distance learning we need to know more about their position and deep concerns. That means, I think, taking their arguments seriously and engaging with them.

Farber’s articles, and Dreyfus’ ON THE INTERNET would give us a start in developing a common background on the “presence” thesis.

Or: we should know more about it before we attack. It’s serious, substantial stuff–not just anti-technology claptrap.


Harry Keller (9.3.09, 10:08AM): I’d like to see the gloves come off in the discussion on this topic. Although our view of the future is hazy and dark, we can consider the effects of various futures.

Replacing the sage on the stage with the net mentor has to be a positive step. Loss of a place (secondary school or college) where people gather together ostensibly to learn but really have learning as the secondary purpose, will have repercussions. What are they? Where do those sports teams go? Will the academic part of a college evaporate leaving behind a sports program as its residue? I’m guessing that some alums wouldn’t mind, but the national fraternities and sororities will. Can they have virtual counterparts?

If students can get high school diplomas and college degrees online, they’ll be at home much more putting more of a burden on the parents. Actually going to college exposes many students to other regions and other cultures. When I went to graduate school in New York City, I had never been East of the Mississippi or ridden on a subway or been to a coffee house. I saw a woman’s purse snatched right across the street from me. I saw Jackie Kennedy going to my own drugstore. I saw Robert Preston walking to a rehearsal on a nearly empty Broadway early in the morning. I met Tom Clancy (of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy …) in a bar once. I saw Gene Kruppa practicing his drums in a nightclub in the middle of the day. All of this stuff has nothing to do with classes. It’s the other part of your education.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The implications of StraighterLine are very very far-reaching as are those of the entire online movement.

Encounters: USDE 2009 Report on Effectiveness of Online Learning

encounters9Introduction: This encounter begins with a bump from Judith McDaniel (ETC editor, web-based course design), who posted a comment to Steve Eskow re Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Judith_McDaniel2_80Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (Washington, D.C., 2009), conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

After reviewing the excerpts or the complete report, please post your extended comments re the findings. Some or all of the comments will be appended to this article as they are submitted.

Here are some of the key findings:

• Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.

• The observed advantage for online learning in general, and blended learning conditions in particular, is not necessarily rooted in the media used per se and may reflect differences in content, pedagogy and learning time.

• Most of the variations in the way in which different studies implemented online learning did not affect student learning outcomes significantly.

• The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.

• Studies in which analysts judged the curriculum and instruction to be identical or almost identical in online and face-to-face conditions had smaller effects than those studies where the two conditions varied in terms of multiple aspects of instruction.

• When a study contrasts blended and purely online conditions, student learning is usually comparable across the two conditions.

• Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes.

• Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.

• Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners.

encounters: ideas that go bump

thompson80John Thompson, editor, green computing, on 17 August 2009, at 5:43 am, said:

This discussion on F2F, blended, and online learning reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s quote:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
With nowhere yet to rest my head
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

F2F proponents (right up there with the Luddites supporting print publications against digital encroachment) refuse to acknowledge a broken system. F2F served educational purposes well in another age (in a galaxy far, far away). And while there are still excellent F2F synchronous instructors (e.g., Randy Pausch), by and large the student audience has moved on. This government study merely confirms the obvious — almost anything is as good or even better than F2F instruction, at least as too many F2F instructors practice it. For all intents and purposes, F2F instruction is dead. Yet, online still remains in the wings, albeit with one foot on stage.

encounters: ideas that go bump

keller80Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 17 August 2009, at 7:53 am, said:

I also noted the small coverage of K-12 learning.

I did not see any discussion of the self-selection effect. Students in online or blended learning may have chosen to do so. Such students may be more motivated to do well, on average.

I believe that the instructor remains the key to success. Really good teachers manage to get good results regardless of the surroundings. By providing excellent tools to instructors, we can make the good ones very good. Perhaps, these same tools can help us identify and weed out the poor ones — emphasis on perhaps.

Even if online learning does not, by itself, make learning better, it has and will continue to provide incentives for new ideas in education from which these important new tools will arise.

Of course, as a creator of such a new tool, I have a bias.

encounters: ideas that go bump

jims80Jim Shimabukuro, editor, on 17 August 2009, at 11:15 am, said:

We tend to forget that communication is at the heart of learning, and that schools and classrooms are basically a medium or form of communcation. The problem is that we’ve become so accustomed to the classroom that we no longer view it as a medium of communication but equate it with learning. The danger of this equation is the tendency to dismiss other critical media such as the web.

Another way of viewing this dichotomy is the notion of formal and informal learning. For many educators, the distinction is clear: formal happens in the classroom, and informal, outside. Since the web appears to be clearly “outside” the classroom, it’s informal and irrelevant.

Fortunately, students don’t buy into the belief that learning is limited to what happens in the classroom. They understand, intuitively, that the web is a natural medium for communication and learning, and that the distinctions between formal and informal learning are all too often arbitrary and meaningless.

John Thompson, in his comment above, says, “By and large the student audience has moved on” to online modes of communication. I agree. For them, traditional F2F classrooms are becoming, like telephone landlines, anachronisms, sharing the same fate as typewriters, newspapers, and horse-drawn carriages. The web’s instant, anywhere, anytime communication with anyone or with any information source in the world is a given in their daily lives.

Increasingly, for students today, the question isn’t “Online or F2F?” but “Why limit learning to classrooms?” And increasingly, they’ll want to know, “Why do we have to gather in a classroom for instruction that could be delivered much more effectively and efficiently via the web?”

In their lives outside the classroom, students have become expert at informal learning or learning that’s not guided by an instructor. They use their mobile electronic communication devices to get information instantly on the latest news, entertainment, products and sales. If they need information, they automatically turn to the web simply because it’s there and they have access to it from anywhere at anytime. And more importantly, it’s a way to keep in touch with friends, allowing for the creation of social networking that’s unprecedented. Through the web, they can stay in touch with all their friends 24-7. They’re never more than a few seconds apart, regardless of the physical distances between them.

Replacing some of their F2F class meetings with online activities is a way for educators to acknowledge the undeniable impact of web technology in the lives of their students. This adjustment is considered “blending,” and the result is blended instruction. It seems to be working very well, and many if not most claim that it’s superior to both completely F2F and completely online methods. The USDE report seems to support this contention, but the gap between online and blended is apparently closing.

My concern with the term “blended” is its inclusiveness. It includes such a wide range of practices that it has little or no power to define an actual pedagogy.

Like a storm building at sea, online learning is gradually making its way to landfall, and all indications are that it’s strengthening rather than weakening, and when it hits shore, the impact will change the educational landscape.

The significance of the USDE report is not so much in telling us where we are but in showing us where we’re headed. There’s a trend, and its direction is unmistakable and unavoidable. In the meantime, as Harry Keller says above, “Even if online learning does not, by itself, make learning better, it has and will continue to provide incentives for new ideas in education from which these important new tools will arise.”

The coming years will be exciting, but we can’t really see the dramatic changes that are coming. However, we can read the signs and imagine.

encounters: ideas that go bump

john_sener2_80John Sener, ETC writer, on 17 August 2009, at 10:41 am, said:

There is an inherent danger and limitations to these studies, even meta-analyses such as this one. In particular, the danger is in absorbing the report’s summary findings (e.g., “the use of video and online quizzes…does not appear to enhance learning”) and applying it in a blanket fashion, when in reality the report itself describes findings which indicate that a more nuanced interpretation/response is needed. (Why reports like this one are so schizoid about this is one of the things that bugs me about them.)

For example, the actual language of the report states that the existing research on online quizzes “does not provide evidence that the practice is effective,” which means that:

1) The research does not indicate that the practice of using online quizzes is ineffective either.
2) As the report indicates, each study looked at slightly different things. The above comment was based on very few studies.
3) There are several important but unstated qualifiers. For example, one study found that discussions worked just as well as quizzes; that doesn’t mean that the quizzes weren’t effective.
4) Effectiveness depends on other variables. (Duh!) Interestingly, one study found that one LMS platform was better than another (WebCT vs. IDLE), suggesting that “details of their user interfaces” may have been the key variable in that case. As this example shows, there are LOTS of elements that can explain differences — elements that IMO are impossible to control using (quasi-) experimental designs.

Likewise, the Media Elements section of the report provides clues about possible practices related to using video effectively. For example, the Zhang study “found that the effect of video on learning hinged on the learner’s ability to control the video.” Now, read that sentence juxtaposed with the report’s summary paragraph for this section:

‘In summary, many researchers have hypothesized that the addition of images, graphics, audio, video or some combination would enhance student learning and positively affect achievement. However, the majority of studies to date have found that these media features do not affect learning outcomes significantly.’

Do you see the same disconnect that I do? On one level, this is simply an echo of Clark’s findings from 25+ years ago, as the report itself notes:

“Clark (1983) has cautioned against interpreting studies of instruction in different media as demonstrating an effect for a given medium inasmuch as conditions may vary with respect to a whole set of instructor and content variables.”

On another level, the report’s summary findings do NOT point out significant findings such as the Zhang study because, as one of my colleagues has put it, they are asking the wrong questions. But if you take the summary findings at face value, it’s easy to lose the more important and useful findings such as Zhang’s.

Also IMO, here is the report’s real message:

“That caution applies well to the findings of this meta-analysis, which should not be construed as demonstrating that online learning is superior as a medium. Rather, it is the combination of elements in the treatment conditions, which are likely to include additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration, that has proven effective. The meta-analysis findings do not support simply putting an existing course online, but they do support redesigning instruction to incorporate additional learning opportunities online.”

To me, that means that you’re much better off in looking at the “combination of elements in the treatment conditions” than in taking the report’s summary findings as stated and running with them.

One other important point about this report: it apparently fails to take differences in learning outcomes assessment methods into account. in some cases, they simply report that learning outcomes were the same (or not) without telling us what methods were used. This is a clear yellow flag IMO.

Encounters: Blended Learning Is Largely an Illusion

Encounters: ideas that go bumpIntroduction: This encounter begins with an idea, a “bump,” from Steve Eskow. It was originally posted as a reply to Lynn Zimmerman’s “Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring.” Please participate in this encounter by posting a comment. I’ll append most or all of the comments to this page as they’re published. -js

steve_eskow80Steve Eskow, editor, hybrid vs. virtual issues, on 24 July 2009, said:

What Lynn is confirming, I think, is that blended learning is largely an illusion.

The “campus” is a collection of spaces designed to feature a standing and speaking “instructor” and a sitting and silent “student.”

The “lecture hall” is designed for lecturing, not for computers.

Again, the “classroom” is designed for a standing instructor speaking to sitting students.

Despite all attempts to to mute or end the lecture, it continues to be–overwhelmingly–the favored mode of instruction in our elite colleges. And it should be: Why pay distinguished scholars to teach and not listen to them?

Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that the classroom and the computer are oil and water.

encounters: ideas that go bump

claude80Claude Almansi, editor, accessibility issues & site accessibility facilitator, on 25 July 2009, at 11:09 am, said:

“Blended learning” always reminds me of the mush I prepared in a blender, scrupulously following sadistic pediatricians’ instructions to wean my daughter. She contemptuously spat it out. Then our landlady asked me: “Have you tried that revolting stuff yourself?” and had hysterics when I did. Then she suggested tiny pasta with peeled and seeded raw tomato and some parmesan cheese and real olive oil. It worked.

By the same token, maybe computers still do have their place in the classroom, but a separate, not blended one. I once organized an intensive French workshop for which I’d made a wiki, with the precise purpose that students would not be distracted by note-taking during discussions and other active things. There were the active moments, then there were other moments when they wrote about these activities in the wiki, or did other writing assignments, like captioning videos. It worked too.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:19 pm, said:

Claude, suppose we added the video captured lecture to the blog and the wiki, and occasional web cam interactgions between teacher and student.s Is there something important lacking in this pedagogy that requires us to bring teachers and students to specially constructed buildings for face-to-face interaction?

(I like very much your gastronomic illustration of “blending,” and will steal it shamelessly. I may change it to what happens when you “blend” two splendid fluids, wine and water.)

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Replying to: Steve Eskow’s July 25th, 2009 at 2:34 pm comment:

Steve, for foreign language learning, I still believe that F2F can produce better results, as discussing in real time is part of using a language. But I left the wiki online ( so that the students who took part in the workshop could refer to it during their MA course. And others too: they can use the references to the materials we used and the activities we did with them, and even a link to some abominable snapshots I took with a webcam of what we wrote on flip charts. No videos: I don’t know how to. Had I lectured, I might have made an audio recording (did some of their discussions).

encounters: ideas that go bump

keller80Harry Keller, editor, science education, on 25 July 2009, at 11:11 am, said:

How many lectures have you attended that inspired you? What is the percentage? Most lectures I’ve attended would be just as good as pages in books.

Exceptions may abound. I was always engaged by Richard Feynman’s lectures. Perhaps, it was his engaging grin along with an infectious love of discovery and of explaining things so that his audience could comprehend. Still, the exceptions are rare.

Large lecture halls have been around for centuries. Maybe it’s time for them to give way to smaller venues and to social networking tools. My junior English literature classes typically had 3-5 students attending. Imagine having the professor (not a teaching assistant) almost to yourself.

I have sat in lectures by enough distinguished scholars. I’m talking about CalTech and Columbia. With few exceptions (e.g. Feynman), I could just as well as had a teaching assistant. Having distinction in scholarly affairs does not indicate lecturing talent. Great scholars are not always great teachers. Besides, they get paid for bringing in grant money and making the institution more famous. Undistinguished scholars (read assistant professors) are the ones who really get paid to teach.

So, yes, computers in the classroom take away from the interactive flavor that can be established by good teachers. Classrooms full of computers *look* boring. Computers at home or in the dorm room are another matter.

What will the future of instruction be? We’re in a state of extreme flux. The situation is too fluid to know for sure. It will include computers and the Internet. It will, for a long time anyway, include instructors. I predict that it will not include large lectures except as entertainment, which can be educating at times.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Steve Eskow, on 25 July 2009, at 2:34 pm, said:

Harry, if you were in charge of staffing for a new university, would you hire folks such as Richard Feynman and ask them to teach?
Richard Feynman
(I’m assuming that to take get faculty such as Feynman you’d have to offer them teaching loads no larger than five or six hours a week, right?)

Or would you not hire distingusiehd scholasr and researchers as teachers?

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:54 pm, said:

[@ Steve] Not ever having been a university administrator, I’m not certain what I’d do given the chance. I feel that the traditional role of institutions of higher education is being challenged. For many decades, students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al. have discovered that their famous faculty is rarely seen by them.

These institutions perform two services. One is research and publication. The other is teaching. As much as I decry the University of Phoenix’s excessive concern with their bottom line, they have set out a model of the university solely as a teaching institution.

Universities have plenty of non-teaching researcher/publisher personnel who are called postdoctoral fellows. I was once a member of that tribe. Many professors view teaching undergraduates as a necessary evil they perform in order to hold a job at their chosen school.

The whole concept that undergraduate students will benefit from the crumbs that get scattered from on high makes little sense. What do they get for their high tuition? Mostly, they seem to get associations with their fellow students that will stand them in good stead in the future. The courses can be as good or better in other schools.

To answer your question, I would not be in charge of any part of a new university. If forced into it, I would have to understand fully the goals of that school before I could make such a decision.

It’s just as I harp on regarding science labs in secondary school. You shouldn’t do them until you know why you’re doing them. Teacher impose labs on students just because. Without clear reasons for having them, they’re a waste of time and money.

There are just too few Richard Feynman and Harry Gray types in the world to staff all of the universities that could use their services.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Claude Almansi, on 25 July 2009, at 8:10 pm, said:

Harry Keller’s July 25th, 2009 at 11:11 am comment. Re “I could just as well as had a teaching assistant” – when I had to take the history of the French language course in the 70’s, the professor was on sabbatical and his lectures were being read by his teaching assistant, who’d say things like “here the professor inserts a little joke:…” It was all the more zany as most other professors had agreed to have their lectures they repeated from year to year a) published as “polycopiés”; b) recorded on audio-cassettes, for students who could not attend lectures.

But like you, I also remember great lectures, like you: Jean Starobinski’s, George Steiner’s for instance. But thei impact was also due to the fact that they were combined with seminars where we could discuss with them.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie HeeterCarrie Heeter, editor, games development, on 25 July 2009, at 4:22 pm, said:

Blended learning is the best!

I feel that my fully online courses finally became as good as or better than in person classes when I added one hour of synchronous time per week. My students report valuing the mix, claiming to enjoy it much more than fully online classes.

I never lecture during our precious hour. The online aspects of my blended courses include lots of mini-lectures (10 to 20 minutes of audio, often plus power point or video) and guest interviews (10 to 15 minute edited audio interviews with industry professionals), plus online readings. Individual and group project work also occurs outside of the hour “together.”

I use the hour to answer and ask questions. We often use polleverywhere,com to have small breakout discussions and come back and vote on an intriguing question. We negotiate changes in class assignments, and coordinate forming groups for group projects.

It would impair the quality of the student experience if I were not allowed to blend a dash of synchronicity.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 25 July 2009, at 5:58 pm, said:

[@ Carrie] You are reaching the perfect blend of blended instruction. You have figured out what instructors really can do best. You plan the course and then you execute it while making yourself the moderator of the discussions that you engender. The last part is critical for science and, I assume, for many other subjects as well.

Students should be full of questions raised by the curriculum you created. By having them discuss these questions among themselves with an expert helping to guide them, they’ll learn more than from a hundred hours of lectures.

encounters: ideas that go bump

jims80Jim Shimabukuro, editor, on 25 July 2009, at 8:00 pm, said:

Carrie, I think your definition of “blended” is unique. I believe most people would define “blended” as combinations of F2F physical meetings in a classroom and online activities such as participating in forums and logging in to webpages for readings. I also believe that many define “blended” as a smart classroom where instructor and students meet, F2F, and use the equipment to extend the learning environment to incorporate the web as well as social networks that allow all participants to communicate virtually. In some cases, the blended class replaces F2F meetings with online synchronous or asynchronous activities.

Then there are online classes that require a very small number of F2F physical meetings, sometimes as few as 1 or 2. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize these, but I think most would say these are online classes with minimal F2F requirements. Purists, though, might argue that even a single F2F requirement makes this a blended class. The point is that that requirement automatically excludes large numbers of students who cannot meet the F2F requirements. I tend to be a purist, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a viable justification for my position.

IMHO, Carrie, your classes aren’t blended. They’re completely online but with synchronous requirements. Students and instructors can participate from anywhere without ever having to physically attend a required F2F session. I believe most online instructors require or at least encourage synchronous activities. For my completely online classes, I know that I always enjoy impromptu live interactions in the chat room that’s built into our university’s Sakai course management system. I drop in at times when I know many are online, working on assignments.

But I also know that, at least for my students, a synchronous requirement would be a huge stumbling block, negating the primary attraction that online has for them, which is the freedom to log in when it’s most convenient for them. My guess is that your population of students differs from mine, and this is why synchronous works for you and wouldn’t work for me.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Carrie Heeter, on 26 July 2009, at 6:31 am, said:


Actually, my students are F2F together (in Michigan) for the in person part, although I am online, for our synchronous hour. Since my department currently does not offer an online curriculum, the students are physically on campus. I Skype and Breeze in to the group. For my Serious Game Design class, they meet in a lab. For the Design Research class, they meet in a classroom.

However, I do entertain a mixed blended mode for those who live relatively far from campus. Students have the option of coming in person, or coming electronically.

It depends on the class composition each semester, but typically either all or most are F2F in the traditional sense, except that the instructor telecommutes.


encounters: ideas that go bump

Jim Shimabukuro, on 26 July 2009, at 8:05 am, said:

Thanks for the clarification, Carrie. I should’ve remembered this from your earlier articles Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote and Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest. Your courses are, indeed, unique. Still, the fact that you’re in San Francisco and the students are in Michigan tells me that the course is theoretically fully online — and the only major physical difference with other online classes is that the students happen to regularly gather in the same place at the same time, F2F, for sessions. They could just as easily be scattered throughout the world for instruction to occur, with their peer-to-peer interactions occurring virtually instead of F2F. However, I do realize that the students’ in-person interactions on site are qualitatively different from virtual interactions.

encounters: ideas that go bump

Harry Keller, on 26 July 2009, at 1:16 pm, said:

Carrie, I still think you’ve got the right idea. The tools may be incomplete, but the direction is good. The real advantage for young people to go to universities lies in getting away from their home towns, meeting diverse people, making friendships that will be useful in the future, and stuff like that. As our network tools mature, those goals also may be achievable in online settings.

The courses are just an excuse these days because you can learn course content without “being there.” You may even learn it better.

I went to an atypical school and have to carefully avoid using my own experience as a guide most of the time. I did not obtain the advantages I listed above because: I lived at home; everyone was a nerd and most were white males, and I maintained contact with none of my schoolmates. I am ready to be corrected if I have misread the more usual university environment.

It Depends ­– On the Economics of Education

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

Lynn (“Hybrid, Online, or F2F – It Depends“), as you and Carrie (“Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote“) and all of us agree: it depends. And perhaps it depends on some matters you haven’t mentioned.

For example, it depends on whether your students can get to campus, have the auto or the bus fare, have the baby sitter or husband who will babysit. Those who can’t may take their graduate study in an all online program.

You’re a researcher, Lynn, so I can ask this: Is it possible that the agreement you report – your students and you having similar opinions in favor of hybridity – is a result of their clear awareness of what you’d like them to think? Would they give me the same opinions you get if you weren’t in the room? If I were your student and clearly aware of your views, I don’t think I’d want to risk offending you by suggesting that I’d just as soon have all the sessions online.

eskow_feb09I’m a bit troubled by your frequent references to students who are better at expressing themselves orally than in writing. I’m not sure the best pedagogic response to that common feeling among students is to go with it. Perhaps those students weak in writing are those most in need of more practice.

Increasingly we hear of students resisting buying the required textbooks and, crucially, resisting reading them. And I hear of teachers in this age of student evaluations who react to this resistance by respecting it: less reading and writing, in an age where the new technologies put a premium on the reader (of blogs, if nothing else) and the writer (of blogs, if of nothing else). Might we as a profession need to take a stand on more writing in academic instruction?

As I’ve indicated, my own work is in the poor countries and is influenced by the economics of building-based education as well such other social impacts as the disruption of communities. I’d be willing to bet with you, Lynn, that as the economic situation in the US worsens we’ll experience lots less resistance to technology-mediated education by taxpayers, teachers, and students. Those buildings your students come to are a technology that costs millions to construct and maintain.

It does indeed depend.

Hybrid, Online, or F2F – It Depends

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

In her articles, “Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest” and “Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote,” Carrie Heeter addressed the issues that face teachers and students in a hybrid classroom, including technical, personal, and pedagogical. How the classroom environment is shaped by these issues is summed up in Carrie’s response to a comment by Steve Eskow, which appeared in “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” Carrie said, “It depends.”

Her account of the issues and reader responses to her articles highlights the complexity of online versus face-to-face teaching and combinations thereof. In any classroom environment the technical, personal, and pedagogical issues are interconnected, making “it depends” a legitimate answer. For example, questions of whether live instruction is less demanding than online depend on the goals and objectives of the course; what kind of technology the teacher and students have access to; and the personal circumstances, personalities, attitudes, and motivations of the students and the teacher.

lynn2009febA graduate course that I teach, Multicultural Education, provides an illustration of this interconnectedness. The students are full-time teachers, and the course is offered in the evening at a regional campus. The course has evolved from a face-to-face class using one online discussion a semester to a hybrid using asynchronous discussion boards for student interaction online as well as face-to-face meetings. The students and I both agree that the hybrid class allows for options and opportunities to engage and interact in different ways.

The online part of the course, as others have mentioned, gives my very busy students an opportunity to engage actively in class without having to drive anywhere. Because it is asynchronous, they can also do it at their convenience, within parameters that they as a group agree upon. Because the forums are written and not oral, it gives those students who are comfortable with and good at writing a chance to engage the material in a different way and at a different level than face-to-face offers. Some of these students even try to engage their classmates more actively in the discussion. However, some of the students write enough to fulfill the assignment requirements and do not go beyond that.

The face-to-face format offers advantages as well. First of all, there are some students who are better at expressing themselves orally than in writing. Face-to-face discussions give them the chance to engage effectively with the materials and with each other. Face-to-face also seems more open to spontaneity. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a fairly good discussion facilitator. I watch faces and listen to tone of voice. I listen to what is being said and what is not being said, and I guide the discussion accordingly, creating more flow than I often find in my students’ written online discussions. As with the online assignments, some students participate more fully than others, despite my attempts at engaging all the students.

(I can hear someone out there saying, “You take care of the issue of oral discussions by giving your students the opportunity to have them online. Let’s save that discussion for later.”)

educating_net_genIn their essay “Preparing the Academy of Today for the Learner of Tomorrow” in Educating the Net Generation (an e-book), Hartman, Moskal, and Dziuban (2005) conclude that what constitutes good teaching practice is universal. “Students believe that excellent instructors:

  • Facilitate student learning
  • Communicate ideas and information effectively
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in student learning
  • Organize their courses effectively
  • Show respect and concern for their students
  • Assess student progress fairly and effectively” (section 7).

I think that hybrid classes serve as one example of good teaching practice because, in order to meet the needs of all of our students, we need to offer them as broad a learning environment as possible.


Hartman, J., Moskal, P., and Dziuban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. Educating the Net Generation. Retrieved February 3, 2009 from