Online Education and Seeing Her Flaws

When I first fell in love with online education my vision, which, I suppose, is normal at the start of any relationship, became exceptionally myopic. I’d develop some crazy fun and brilliantly educational lesson in Moodle, my students (most of them) would stay engaged, become rock stars, and ace every short cycle or state test placed in front of them. Never mind that when a sub brought them to the computer lab OR when I assigned online work for home the quality and quantity of work would generally be crap…or, more accurately, satisfy the “lowest common denominator” of a passing grade. We were in love. And when you’re first in love you ignore the blemishes and annoying habits.

Technoeducational utopianistas are still in love. These are people I enjoy reading and/or listening to like Clay Shirky, Salman Khan, and those founders of Udacity. And, while I sometimes find myself in their camp (it’s fun to envision educational revolution brought on by Moore’s Law), it doesn’t jive with what I’m seeing in the classroom or in the data. The more I read into their messages (and you can likely lump Arne Duncan, most left/right politicians, our president in this group) that technology will be the saving grace to poor performing students, the more I’m sensing a cop out to the real reasons why students aren’t performing well on those state tests: Poverty.

Freddie deBour has a series of posts on the “need for educational realism”. They’re great posts. Go read them (here and here for starters) for the full arguments and observations – but some gem quotes are as follows:

[blockquote source=”Freddie deBour”]

I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings– marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me. I signed up to be a compositionist knowing that many, both within and outside of the university, see nothing to respect in the discipline. I did because I love teaching people to write and love researching ways to do it better. I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.


The central, simple, most repetitive message of education (starting at much younger grade levels) is to make money is very true. I’m not going to make a value call on that message (perhaps a future post?). But that message has many implications on society and what society we become.

DeBoer continues:

[blockquote source=”deBour”]

So maybe you can see why I am so deeply frustrated with the Clay Shirky vision, which is really just the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy. It’s a common saw: the next stage of American abundance requires all of our workers be educated, it’s too expensive to teach them in the conventional academic setting, and so we need to replace the physical university with online colleges, staffed by adjuncts teaching many sections of huge classes. And not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.


Educating students takes a TON of work, especially when the students you teach are have no educational context from their families, are dealing with extreme poverty at home, and often time facing a bar that, realistically, they’re not all going to be able to jump. That’s not to say they won’t learn or can’t learn (I want to be exceptionally clear about that), but the vision being articulated by many education “leaders” is lacking, as deBour says, educational realism.

[blockquote source=”deBour”]

The people pushing this vision, tellingly, are almost exclusively people who have little to no connection to the day-to-day work of educating undergraduates in basic skills. Either the people arguing for this are journalists and pundits who have never educated, or they are deans and administrators who haven’t taught undergrads in 20 years, or they are celebrity intellectuals who barely teach and when they do, teach at elite institutions where only the most equipped to succeed are present. The greatest division in educational discourse today is not best understood as progressive vs. neoliberal or something similar. The greatest division, at all levels of education, is between those in the world of media and policy who assert that we have the ability to make miracles happen, and the educators who are actually out there, day-to-day, trying to get students to standards those students cannot meet. We can begin to let our policy discussions reflect on what’s actually happening in our actual schools, or we can continue to engage in pleasant fantasy.


Lots of ideas and concepts to mine here. More to come.

Responsive Web Design

The Context & The Problem

We’re a “bring your own device” district. What this means is that we’ve the wild west of screen sizes. Smartphones, at their best, are 800 by 600 pixels (ignore Samsung’s odd experiment). Netbooks (which we have at the middle schools) are 1024 in width with some goofy height. And then there are the many variations of laptop and desktop screen sizes.

At its root, that means websites function differently depending on what is viewing them.

This is a major issue for online learning. A 3 column Moodle theme will look terrible on a cell phone and drive the end user crazy. Your portal site might lack clarity. Parents and students can get lost looking for important information. Design/screen size contrast takes away from the all encompassing technology goal of “it just works.”

Enter: Responsive Web Design

The basic idea of responsive web design is that you develop a website to “respond” to the size of the screen. For example, a four column layout may, on a smartphone, rearrange to a 1 column stacked layout.

Responsive Web Design Example: Mr. Simon Collison


Typically your website (usually in the header) runs a media query to determine what type of screen you’re using. The required CSS is then served up, creating a responsive design.

Down the Road Ideas

My future interest is how to get the web to be the jackknife application. Because students continue to bring in a wide array of devices, we need a platform neutral framework for delivering tools to students. The web (with its promise of HTML 5) is that tool.

Designing pages to respond to the wide variety of screens will increase functionality.

Time to start redeveloping the portal!

Online Learning: Challenges & Issues

This year is the first year we’ve piloted a purely online (developed in-house, sort of) course. The course is health, and currently we have 60+ students in 3 classes.

Because it’s a pilot, it’s obviously a learning experience. This semester I plan to blog about what we learn, what works, what doesn’t work, what challenges arise, what advantages we find.

We want to offer more online classes. So the goal is to always get better. And to get better, I need a place to brainstorm the eLearning process. To see the process, check out the tag online learning.

what should be

My conversations with colleagues and parents sometimes get into what computer skills schools should teach students. The conversations are almost always contain this bit of dialogue.

“We need to have Microsoft Office on student computers?”


“Because they’ll need it when they get into the real world.”

Setting aside the fact that we have no idea what the “real world” will be 10 years from now, I have serious issues with this conversation.

We should not confuse teaching a specific program (operating system, office programs, whatever) with teaching useful computer skills (or to use education lingo, 21st century learning).

Dan Grover’s most excellent post “Towards a Grand Uniform Theory of N00bs” does an excellent job and summing up the problem.

I think I can speak for most of my generation in saying that computer classes in high schools, colleges, and community centers are universally worthless. Courses for young people are usually taught by out-of-touch adults with a much less advanced understanding of the things they’re teaching than their students. The only kind of teacher likely to be more incompetent than a computer teacher is a gym teacher. But that’s not the problem.

The real problem is that these courses often teach a specific operating system or a specific office suite in an extremely facile manner. They’re glorified typing courses. That means when Microsoft changes the locations of buttons in Word, students’ knowledge is obsolete. Even programming courses in high school (and many colleges) are tied to specific programming languages, not general concepts. A good course teaches a mix of theory and application, but most computer courses can’t even handle application right.

His solution?

To create a computer course for laymen that does not do them a disservice, it should be rooted in things that we can reasonably anticipate will not change. I’m not quite sure what those are but the stumbling blocks outlined in the previous section are a good place to start. It should combine practical computer skills and general information literacy. It should be required and it should be rigorous, not a blowoff course.

Imagine how many fewer bank accounts or email accounts would be hacked if a section on the final exam gave students URLs and asked them to identify the domain name, the subdomains, the path, the port, and the protocol. This sounds like esoteric technobabble at first. But if high school students are expected to know how many valence electrons molybdenum has or how to define trigonometric functions in terms of each other, it’s highly practical by comparison.

Teaching students how a hierarchical file system works would make sense. It could even briefly cover the directory structures on each popular OS at the time and where things go. I have my doubts on how long the idea will last, but I’m betting at least another 15 years.

There’s a good bit more (I encourage everyone to read the article), but his post captures a lot of my background thoughts when it comes to computer education and learning.

Because the fact is that there are shared concepts to our digital world. Form and function work in very similar ways across different systems. Identifying what’s shared and consistent (and rooted) will help students prepare for the next big thing that comes their way.