April 22, 2019 · theory edtech blended learning

The NY Times Overstates a Rebellion to Edtech

Promotional image for Summit Learning, a free web-based curriculum for schools created by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. summitlearning.org

The framing of the New York Times' treatment of the controversy in Kansas over Summit Learning underscores misconceptions about educational technology as well as some of its under-theorized realities. The Times did not dig deeply enough or ask the questions that would have brought balance to this story.

The story as reported is: Summit Learning provided some rural Kansas schools with online learning tools for their students. Some of the students and parents have pushed back, staging protests and withdrawing from public schools.

The headline – Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion – suggests a David-and-Goliath story. We know that Silicon Valley is Goliath because in this case the term refers to Summit Learning, an educational technology tool funded by Mark Zuckerberg and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and built by Facebook engineers. The children "subjected" to this kind of educational technology have rightly, therefore, "rebelled" in a sort of militant, grassroots, freedom-fighter way. (They are walking out of classes. They are meeting in back rooms.) This is the story of a divided America, kept apart by class, wealth, and opportunity, with echoes of geographic inequalities and misinformed arguments that Facebook itself is often accused of exacerbating and amplifying.

Summit Learning bills itself as a "personalized, research-backed approach" to teaching and learning. The curriculum (you can explore it here) appears to be thoughtful and engaging, and a solid model for what blended learning would look like if it were well-designed, overall. The research is solid. The curriculum targets blended learning concepts like varying the modalities of both learning and assessment, scaffolding, alternating project-based learning with concept and cognitive skills, and so on. The curriculum model itself is not the issue.

There appear to be three main objections raised by the Summit Learning rebels from Kansas, as reported by the Times.

  1. The online content of the curriculum is sometimes objectionable (how many instances of this occurring is not reported.)
  2. Screen time has detrimental cognitive, physical and social effects on students.
  3. Facebook and Silicon Valley are (probably) invading student privacy in a way that is not being disclosed.

These three objections are common reactions to educational technology in general, and are all valid. To what extent do these objections merit a David-and-Goliath narrative? And further, can we imagine a blended learning scenario that does not fall prey to the Kansas Rebellion objections?

The imperfect online content — some students were directed by Summit's curriculum to questionable web sources during the course of their research projects — is unfortunate and largely avoidable. The article mentions only a pair of such issues. Objectionable content alone should simply be set aside. Teachers vet and then decide which resources to offer children. Problem solved.

Screen time and its alleged effects take up a much larger portion of the ink in this article, and this is where things get murky, if they were not already. Despite the fact that "the vast majority of [Wellington High School's] parents are happy with the program," one parent reported that "we're allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies," says a father "who visited his son's fourth-grade class." It is not reported how long he visited — did he peek his head in during a work session?

The article never digs deeper than this. Parents object on non-educational grounds, demonizing the technology with rhetorical flourishes like the invocation of zombies. After transferring their student to a private Catholic school, one mother insisted that "we're not Catholic, but we just felt like it would be a lot easier to have a discussion over dinner about something that they might have heard in a religion class than Summit." It is not clear why this is included in the article, except to show that some arguments contain emotional force without rational content.

The children's own objections are more valid. They range from heightened stress and anxiety to physical cramps and aches, not to mention the epileptic student who suffered an increase in seizure activity due to increased screen time. The reactions of students to their learning should be taken into account, and we should help students adapt to new tools and techniques. Learning is difficult. We just have to make sure the difficulties are desirable.

On the other hand, were the students learning? None of the Kansas Rebellion objections target this simple question, and there is ample research to suggest that blended learning is a viable and in some cases even superior method of instruction. [See for example Michelle Miller's Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.] The David-and-Goliath narrative detracts from this important question. This narrative framework does a disservice to the possibilities of blended learning.

That said, anything made by Facebook really ought to be scrutinized, in particular for its data collection practices.