Virtual School Meanderings

August 15, 2014

Leadership Day 2014: Educational Leadership and Virtual Schooling

leadershipday2014_01-300x240Well, it is that time of year again, when my CASTLE colleague Scott McLeod posts an entry on his blog Calling all bloggers! – Leadership Day 2014.  I’ve participated in this initiative for the past five years.

For the past year, I have been a faculty member in an educational leadership program at Sacred Heart University.  Prior to joining the faculty here, I tended to describe educational leadership broadly to include educational administration (i.e., the preparation of principals, district officials, and superintendents) and educational policy (also sometimes called educational studies).  Given my own professional and research interests, as well as my political and policy background, I had always identified more with the educational policy/studies aspect of educational leadership.  Over the past year I have come to understand (or learn) that educational leadership isn’t as cut and dry as I had initially envisioned it, but at the same time it is that cut and dry.

The field of educational leadership is about developing leaders.  It is really that simple.  Leaders of departments, leaders of schools, leaders of curriculum, leaders of athletics, leaders of districts, leaders of states, leaders of policy – simply put, leaders.  This is what connects all aspects of educational leadership, a focus on providing potential leaders with the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes they will need to become actual leaders.

What does that mean within the field of K-12 online learning?  Well, I’m reminded of a news item from the Washington Post that came across my electronic desk just yesterday…

Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers
By Valerie Strauss August 14 at 4:00 AM

[Stuff deleted]

1. Don’t tell us that you know more about good instruction than we do.
2. Don’t talk to us about the importance and rigor of the standards.
3. Don’t tell us about testing data.
4. Don’t tell us “The research says…” unless you’re willing to talk about what it really says.
5. Stop with the advice about teaching critical thinking skills.
6. Stop using education reform clichés.
7. Don’t tell us to leave politics out of the classroom.

[Stuff deleted]

I felt that these were particularly important today, given that we are talking about leadership.  How much of this applies to the world of K-12 online learning?  For example, in describing the first item the reporter writes ”

This tells us there is an institutionalized disregard for our professional judgment. Some teachers get scripted curriculum that is often sub-par and that gets in the way of real teaching and learning. Others work under policies that are so broad that they are essentially meaningless.

The purpose of the policies is the same in both cases: to serve a top-down structure that is in place not to help students but to serve a kind of aesthetic of educational toughness, which itself is in place to combat a “crisis” in education that scholars such as David Berliner have thoroughly exposed as a sham.

In the K-12 online learning world, virtual school teachers are often provided an online curriculum that they aren’t allowed to modify, that has built in assessments that the teacher has no control over (and that represents the vast majority of the student’s overall assessments).  In other instances, virtual school teachers are hired to teach an online course and the online content simply doesn’t exist – and the teacher has to build the plane as he/she is flying it.

Or more importantly, in discussing number four, the author writes “Research is also of varying quality. Peer-reviewed journals are to be taken seriously; ideological think tanks not so.”  Wow!  That pretty much slaps down 95% of the “research” neo-liberals use to argue in favour of expanding access to online learning!

My very favourite was what was written about number six.

“After consulting the research and assessment data, and involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process, we have determined that a relentless pursuit of excellence and laser-like focus on the standards, synergistically with our accountability measures, action-oriented and forward-leaning intervention strategies, and enhanced observation guidelines for classroom look-fors, will close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all children.”

Sound like something out of the mouth of many of the proponent of expanding access to K-12 online learning?  Could Jeb Bush or Tom Vander Ark or Susan Patrick have said something like this (or even this exact statement)?

As individuals working with future leaders, it is imperative for us to counter these dominant narratives that are based on ideology!  We can do that be creating the critical thinkers that the educational reformers, and neo-liberal proponents of K-12 online learning, want us to create.  As Strauss writes, “critical thinking means analyzing ideas to understand them completely and find ways to improve them or dismiss them, including ideas about the value and purpose of technical and technological innovation.”  Given the research available right now, anyone who approaches K-12 online learning with an open mind can come to one conclusion – that the policies being pursued by most proponents of K-12 online learning are based on ideology and not what is best for the student.  The critical thinker leaders we are developing need to promote policies and activities that are in the best interests of the students, not of the corporate sponsors of these individuals and their organizations!

To view my past entries, see:

August 15, 2013

Leadership Day 2013 – Pedagogy, Not Economics

leadershipday2013Well, it is that time of year again, when my CASTLE colleague Scott McLeod posts an entry on his blog Calling all bloggers! – Leadership Day 2013.  I’ve participated in this initiative for the past four years, and given that I will be moving into a position in a department of educational leadership, this year it seems even more appropriate that I participate.

K-12 online learning is growing.  There is no denying that corporate and neo-liberal interests continue to open up more and more markets for K-12 online learning providers.  As the political situation in the United States continues to move more to the right, towards the believe that free markets principles are the solution to every problem that ails the education system, this opening of K-12 online learning markets will continue to occur.

What is disappointing is to see those public school officials that have bought into the rhetoric espoused by these corporate and neo-liberal interests, and have come to believe that K-12 online learning can be the solution to the economic problems that they face.  Education is not cheap, nor should it be!  The same is true of K-12 online learning.  I’m not denying that there are circumstances where K-12 online learning will be more cost efficient than traditional face-to-face learning.  However, this should not be the reason to adopt K-12 online learning!

K-12 online learning should be considered for pedagogical reasons, and only pedagogical reasons!  There are students that aren’t being served by the current education system.  Unfortunately, far too often these same students are also not being served by K-12 online learning options.  This is often due to the fact that those providing the K-12 online learning are doing so for economic reasons (e.g., to save money or to make money).

Educational leaders should consider the population they wish to serve using K-12 online learning.  Then create a K-12 online learning program that is tailored to the needs of that population.  This does not mean that a K-12 online learning program that individualizes the content, pulled from a common database, based on what they don’t know.  It means that the K-12 online learning programs should be designed, delivered and supported differently for each group of students it attempts to serve!

To view my past entries, see:

August 15, 2012

Leadership Day 2012: Equipping Administrators To Better Understand K-12 Online Learning

Well, it is that time of year again. The time when my CASTLE colleague Scott McLeod posts an entry on his blog Calling all bloggers! – Leadership Day 2012.  There is no specific theme this year, there isn’t one most years if memory serves me correct.  But as usual, Scott provide a general overview of the purpose of today (i.e., blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership), and then posts a serious of questions to get the juices flowing.

This year, I’ve chosen to focus on the question:

When it comes to P-12 technology leadership, where do we need new knowledge, understanding, training, or research?

And, as per the theme of this blog, I want to look at that question through the lens of K-12 online learning.

The easy answer to the question is simply to say K-12 online learning in general. At present, K-12 online learning is growing by leaps and bounds.  Legislators across the United States are buying into the rhetoric of lobbyist, corporations, and even professional associations pushing a neo-liberal agenda to make K-12 online learning easier and easier to implement and funded at the highest levels without much concern for whether it is effective or can provide a solution to any of the existing problems facing the public education system (or at least what’s left of it after the current neo-liberal assault).

The lobbyist, corporations, and professional associations point to studies that prove K-12 online learning works and use language like “K-12 online learning is better than face-to-face learning, and blended learning is even better!”  They fail to mention that those studies often contain selective samples for the online cohort, and rarely – almost never – include students enrolled in full-time programs (which is where the greatest push to “open up the K-12 online learning market” has occurred).  When challenged with research to the contrary, they claim that it is methodologically flawed and that Annual Yearly Progress or AYP is a flawed metric (never mind the fact that they find it a perfectly good metric to prove how traditional public schools are failing our students), and then point to studies that support their chosen point of view (ignoring the huge methodological flaws in that research).

Once the market has been opened, K-12 administrators are deluged with materials and pressure from the corporations to jump on the bandwagon for the good of their students, and it’ll help the school’s budget as well (not to mention the bottomline of the corporation).  So you get schools buying into products that there is little to no evidence that they actually work, in some cases being bilked in arrangements that turn out to be misleading in terms of the adherence to state guidelines (assuming any exist after the lobbyist, corporations, and professional associations are done with the legislator).

As we have seen time and again over the past two years the Republicans and a growing number of neo-liberal Democrats (and I am beginning to wondering if there is any other kind these days) have no interest in stopping the lobbyist, corporations, and professional associations from setting up regulatory regimes that allow them to rape and pillage the public education system.  They also aren’t interested in challenging the lies told and misleading use of existing literature from these groups.  So then it falls on the shoulders of administrators are the school and school district level.

We need to equip administrators will the knowledge to understand the research that is being presented to them when it comes to K-12 online learning.  To examine under what circumstances the research was conducted, and what are the methodological limitations because of that. For example, the methodological limitations of the student into K12, Inc.’s Arkansas Virtual Academy lead most who understand research to question the validity of any finding from the way in which the data was collected and analyzed.

We also need to provide our administrators with an understanding that K-12 online learning can work with any type of student, under any conditions.  However, not all forms of K-12 online learning work with all students in any condition.  For example, we’ve seen that full-time, district-based K-12 online learning programs seem to be having much more success than the full-time, state-wide K-12 online learning programs (i.e., the kind offered by most cyber charter companies). One of the reasons why is because they target a specific population of students and then design, deliver and support that program based on the needs of that population.  For all of their talk about personalized learning and individual instruction, the full-time, state-wide cyber charter schools offer one model for the way their courses are designed, delivered and supported – the only differentiation is how much material the student has to complete based on standardized exams at the beginning of each unit.

Finally, as a research community we need to do a better job of understanding the conditions under which K-12 online learning can be effective (to use Rick Ferdig’s language) or how we can effectively design, deliver and support K-12 online learning for different populations of students (to use my own language).

In case you are interesting, my previous contributions to Leadership Day include:

As well, two years ago I felt the need to post A Response To iNACOL’s “Leadership Day 2010: Online And Blended Learning”.  In case you’d wondering why I participate each year, I think Rick Schwier sums it up in his entry We’re small; the job is huge.

August 5, 2011

Leadership Day 2011 – The McDonaldization Of Public Education

Today marks the fifth Leadership Day 2011. For those unfamiliar, Leadership Day is a blogging activity that my CASTLE colleague Scott McLeod began.  He describes it as:

Many of our school leaders (principals, superintendents, central office administrators) need help when it comes to digital technologies. A lot of help, to be honest. As I’ve noted again and again on this blog, most school administrators don’t know

  • what it means to prepare students for the digital, global world in which we now live;
  • how to recognize, evaluate, and facilitate effective technology usage by students and teachers;
  • what appropriate technology support structures (e.g., budget, staffing, infrastructure, training) look like or how to implement them;
  • how to utilize modern technologies to facilitate communication with internal and external stakeholders;
  • the ways in which learning technologies can improve student learning outcomes;
  • how to utilize technology systems to make their organizations more efficient and effective;
  • and so on…

Administrators’ lack of knowledge is not entirely their fault. Many of them didn’t grow up with computers. Other than basic management or data analysis technologies, many are not using digital tools or online systems on a regular basis. Few have received training from their employers or their university preparation programs on how to use, think about, or be a leader regarding digital technologies.

I have had the opportunity to participate in the last two (see Leadership Day 2009: Advice To An Administrator and Leadership Day 2010 – Advice On Virtual Schooling), where I wrote a letter to administrators advising them on how to implement online learning in their schools in a smart way and where I wrote to administrators to not believe the hype from corporate-minded, educational reformers when it came to online learning.

This year Scott provided a series of prompts to get us thinking and it is one of these questions that I wish to briefly take up in this space today.

When it comes to K-12 technology leadership, where do we need new knowledge, understanding, training, or research?

You see, it was only in the last week or two that Ray Rose and I were discussing the merits of online teaching endorsements to state-based teacher certification, which lead to a conversation about what we thought teacher education should look like if it were to truly to prepare teachers for the demands of teaching in the twenty-first century.  One of the comments that Ray made during this discussion was that there was a need for a greater level of leadership within our schools on this front, and he challenged those of us in higher education to create a virtual school leadership program.  I invited Scott to join the discussion and while he agreed with the sentiment, he was less enthusiastic about this kind of university-based program for school leaders.  The conversation died down with my comment that I didn’t see why one or more universities couldn’t come together and partner on creating this kind of specialized initiative.

As I read this specific prompt that Scott provided, I was reminded of this conversation because of the reasons I would argue in a proposal for such a program.  Simply put, today’s school leaders do not have enough knowledge and training in being able to evaluate online and blended learning opportunities.

At present, the decision to use online or blended learning is often made because of economics or pressure from the competitive practices of for-profit companies as they begin to dominant the public education sphere.  Rarely are decisions to use online or blended learning made for strictly pedagogical reasons.  Even when those decisions have a hint of pedagogical rationale, the leadership of the school is often not in a position to fully understand the nuances in the design, delivery and support provided by different online and blended learning providers.  In much the same way that teaching students in a classroom using a single pedagogical strategy is likely to leave some students behind, online and blended learning that is designed, delivered and supported in a specific manner is also likely to leave some students behind.  As Rick Ferdig noted in his keynote to the 7th Annual Michigan Virtual University Online Learning Symposium in 2010, there are some courses that are better suited to online delivery than others and there are some topics that are better suited to online delivery than others.  During the keynote, he noted that research has shown that students in the online environment tend to do as well or better than their classroom counterparts in Algebra I, but not so much in Algebra II.  Rick argued that researchers should stop these simple comparisons and begin to ask questions about why this was the case.  Are there more independent resources for Algebra I that the students can find on their own than there are for Algebra II?  Are there significant differences in what is asked of the students in Algebra I than in Algebra II that make one more suited for online delivery?  Is the manner in which we have traditionally offered online learning just better suited to the objectives of Algebra I?  While Rick asked several additional questions, and even speculated on why this trend may have occurred, it underscored the basic point that in the same way there are many differences in classroom instruction, there are also many differences in the variety of online and blended learning opportunities that are available.

As I have stated in many venues, certain types of online learning tend to cater to one type of student, while other types of online learning seem to be better suited for other types of learners. For example, the traditional supplemental model of virtual schooling where students spend a portion of their school day unsupervised in a computer lab, learning resource center or distance education room where they complete one or more online courses and interact with a teacher primarily in an asynchronous fashion has been quite successful with the higher ability, self-directed, self-motivated students (the kinds of students that would generally enroll in the Advanced Placement, higher level mathematics and science, or foreign language courses).  By the same token, many schools have had success with creating a supervised computer lab where students complete credit recovery courses using a database-driven online learning program (i.e., the online Skinner box).  Many of those struggling students that find success with the database courses would not be able to manage their own learning in the traditional supplemental model.  Similarly, many of those higher performing students would be bored and unengaged in the database-driven courses.

But how much of this are school leaders actually aware of?  I know when I work with schools here in Michigan (both online and brick-and-mortar), with the exception of a couple of the online programs that have been doing this for a while, money is often the overriding factor in deciding what online learning program or vendor to use.  I realize that this is the overarching goal of the educational reform movement, to ensure that our public schools become free market entities and economics are the underlying driver for all decisions.  And this is fine, if all we want from our schools is to produce the same quality of students as the quality of food produced by McDonald’s.  Sure it is cheap and you know what you’re going to get because regardless of who is making your Big Mac it will come out roughly the same, but it is hardly considered fine dining.  The same is true of bottomline thinking when it comes to online and blended learning.

Without knowledgeable school leaders to make pedagogical-based decisions about the method and medium that instruction should be designed, delivered and supported, all we will be left with is the continued McDonaldization of public education.

July 30, 2011

Calling All Bloggers! – Leadership Day 2011

Since this is a slow blogging day (yesterday was also a slow blogging day), I figured that I should re-post this for one of my CASTLE blogging colleagues.

Since the past four have been so successful [last year we had 114 posts!], I am putting out a call for people to participate in Leadership Day 2011. To paraphrase what I said four years ago:

Many of our school leaders (principals, superintendents, central office administrators) need help when it comes to digital technologies. A lot of help, to be honest. As I’ve noted again and again on this blog… [continue reading]

I’ll be posting something on 05 August (as I have in 2009 and 2010)

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