Thursday, September 20, 2012

Public school teachers or corporate online learning...

The wholesale elimination of public schools would be a political impossibility. So too would be the wholesale replacement of brick and mortar schools with online learning. As a result, those who seek to make profits from education by replacing teachers with machines typically do so in small steps. Privatizing creeps in slowly, as does the use of computers where a teacher used to work.

The recent announcement of contracts to Dynaread Special Education Corporation is a case in point. Crawford Bay School, in the Kootenay Lake District, has just signed up. (see:

Dynaread offers an online reading program for struggling readers. Like "Rosetta Stone", the program modifies the path a student takes based on answers to questions. The Dynaread web site acknowledges that no studies to date have determined its effectiveness nor compared it with traditional, teacher based reading programs.

It is not surprising a school would turn to such a program. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. Students who are struggling with reading, math or in other areas, typically have just minutes per week with a specialist teacher to address their learning needs. Without any targeted funding for students with disabilities such as dyslexia, the inadequate funding will often end up in the form of a single educational assistant in a classroom who is meant to work with multiple children with highly variable needs, such as autism, behaviour problems, low IQ, and so forth. Teachers consistently have to address individual learning needs of many of their students without adequate time to plan or work with the students one-on-one. In the face of a serious shortage of special education teachers to address student learning needs, online programs are cheap alternative. As the Dynaread Corporation describes it, they are less staff intensive.

Where resources are adequate, struggling readers are assisted in a variety of ways. They can receive one-on-one instruction, using diagnostic tools and specific materials designed to ensure that the program meets the individual learners' needs. Many teachers also use small reading groups to ensure students are working at the appropriate level for their current ability or they have older students act as guides or mentors to younger students. This can be combined with large group instruction and reading activities that provide rich and varied experiences that encompass a wide variety of ways of talking about reading and exploring reading comprehension. All of these methods are social - they involve learning in an environment with other adults and children. They also involve learning beyond the nitty gritty specifics of verbal language skills. Students are learning a wide range of social skills, often discussions will break out, differences of opinion will be encountered and explored. Every learning activity also builds relationships - key to motivation and engagement.

While I have no doubt a computer can probably provide training in the most narrow meaning of reading and reading comprehension, this pales in comparison to the breadth of experiences teachers create in classrooms. This inadequacy is compounded with growing concerns over the amount of screen time children are exposed to. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day, for all screen activities - TV, video games, computers. In many households, this limit is met without any screen time at all in school.

It can be difficult to contest any given introduction of technology in schools. Some do have genuine benefits as tools in a classroom. But the relentless push to use more technology and particularly to replace teaching time with computer time should be a warning. There is a bigger process at work, and decisions are not being made based on what's best for children. Rather, consistent underfunding is driving school boards into the hands of corporations waiting to reap profits from the K-12 sector.

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