Phi Slamma Jamma

We have a winner for the worst op-ed piece of 2011. No one will top this.  Every line is factually or logically incorrect. It appears in the venerable Daily Cougar, the student newspaper of the University of Houston.  Marc Anderson must have had a bad experience or ulterior motive to write this piece of garbage.  In a very short piece, he argues that there should be no online learning in K-12 and he uses more than two dozen ridiculous claims to support his argument including:

  1. “Inferior curriculum.”  I spent the day in a small urban school district that develops its on project based instructional units.  Delivery of this curriculum varies tremendously from class to class.  Online providers like Florida Virtual and K-12 have invested hundreds of millions in a high quality curriculum consistently delivered.
  2. “Graduates not ready for college.”  Marc is defending a system where two thirds of the students fail to graduate college ready. Online learning is helping hundreds of thousands of student graduate—students that traditional schools have rejected—with at least the same level of preparation or better.
  3. Online learning dispenses with teachers all together.  Most online courses are taught by certified teachers with class loads similar to traditional schools and those teachers. Even student centered models where students move at their own pace using asynchronous content have master teachers that support the process with traditional staffing ratios.
  4. ‘Typical course costs $100-275.”  The average reimbursement rate for online schools in the U.S. is $6500 (or about $1000 per course).  Where per course enrollment is available reimbursement rates are typically at least $800.  Not sure what Marc is smoking.
  5. “There will be a big accrued expense of student requiring remediation.”  Wow, where to start?  How could online learning be worse at preparing students for college than American high schools already are?  Providers are approved by states, offer a proven curriculum, hire effective teachers and fire the ineffective ones.  The evidence looks like online and blended learning improves academic results.
  6. “Online learning is far more likely to be deficient from the outset.”  Really, what does that even mean?
  7. “A good teacher can personalize.“ The best teacher can only do a moderately good job of personalizing learning for 30 students (or 150 high school students)—ask the kids if they’re getting personalized attention.  The worse online course at least allows students to vary rate, time, and location.
  8. “Teachers engage students by forcing them to articulate their ideas and fostering effective communication…and that cannot be taught an impersonal computer interface.”  Marc should interview kids that attend Connections Academy, North Carolina Virtual (or any other reputable provider), he’d find out that student read and write more than students in a traditional classroom.  He’d also find out that most online environments are very social.
  9. “Online courses are uniform in design.” All the big guys are shifting to learning objects and adding short tutorials to customize the experience for every student.  New providers are incorporating games, simulations, and adaptive learning sequences.   Come on Marc, do some research before the next puke.

10. “Structured in a way to address only the needs of average students.” That wasn’t true when I started the first online K-12 school in 1995, it’s certainly not true today.  From credit recovery to college credit, there’s a place online for every student.
11. “High performers are unchallenged.” A school can easily offer every AP course instead of one or two—that should be enough challenge.
12. “Low performers face continuing difficulties.”  I’m on the board of AdvancePath and watch dropouts and over-aged/under-credited students—kids the traditional system gave up on—graduate every day.
13. “Online learning cheapens the value of the high school degree.”  Online learning is creating access to courses offered by multiple state-approved providers—a higher degree of quality assurance than exists for traditional courses.
14. “Allows unqualified student to game the education system.” Every big high school in America has the ‘whatever it takes to graduate’ track where this might be the rule, but that’s not true for virtual charters or statewide online learning providers.
15. “College end up bearing the cost of re-educating these students.” see #2
16. “Even non-remedial classes emphasize rote memorization over deep understanding”  Every AP course in America could be subjected to this claim.  I don’t think there’s any evidence of this claim and I’m enthusiastic about the potential of simulations, virtual environments, and learning games to promote deeper learning.
17. Trip Gabriel is quoted as a source that students don’t read book.  Trip’s hatchet piece in the NYTimes last week made this ridiculous claim (see NYT gets it wrong again).  Ask a K-12 parent about this after they get the 100 pound shipment of books at the beginning of the semester.
18. “Fractured approach.” American high schools specialize in ‘fractured approach.’  Online learning providers provide a curriculum with consistent quality and every course has a common look, feel, organization, navigation, and assessment—far from fractured.
19. “Fleeting attentiveness.” If you want to see ‘fleeting attentiveness’ visit an Algebra 1 classroom. One of the primary problems we’re dealing with is boredom.  Every month online learning becomes more motivational and engaging—boosting persistence and time on task with the potential to double productive learning time per year for students that need it most.
20. “Does little to promote focus and intensive thought.” Again, interview three students that have taken an online course and ask them to compare the degree of difficulty, level of engagement, and amount of critical thinking with a traditional course.
21. “More cost effective to focus on providing better primary school teachers.” Incorporating online learning actually can help schools, like Rocketship, hire more effective teachers and pay them more.
22. “Online courses may have a place in universities, but only if the income students have the ability to think independently.” Incorporating online learning into a physical school setting has the potential to blend the best of both world—a customized learning experience in a motivating and supportive location.
23. “Far to difficult to learn these skills from a computer screen.” Personal digital learning is making the acquisition of critical knowledge and skills more productive, it’s allowing teachers to focus on the real value activities that promote integration, application, and critical thinking.
24. “Can’t justify the use of online course in elementary and high schools.”  I hope I’ve made the case that you can’t justify not blending online learning into the secondary school experience of every student.
You may remember Phi Slamma Jamma, the 1984 University of Houston team featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.  That may have been the best thing to come from UH, this op-ed may be the worst.
We need to improve education and we need to ensure the quality of online learning.  As Mr. Anderson points out, cost pressures are encouraging some folks to do some dumb things.  I’ve written about 10 strategies to improve the quality of online learning.  But this kind of blanket dismissal of the future of learning is just dumb or disingenuous—and that’s a slam dunk.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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