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TechEd: A Step Forwards or a Leap Backwards?

Photo Credit: Steve Rosenbaum Date: 4 February 2009, 16:23 Source: Bill Gates at TED 2009 Author: Magnify.net from New York, NY

In the past decade, new technologies have transformed the way that people learn.

The world of education changed in the past decade. New technologies transformed the way that people learn, standards for what is taught in the classroom were modified, sometimes drastically, and new ideas led to radical reform in both public and private schools, sometimes with even more drastic consequences. Technology has a tremendous capability to change human lives. Due to this immense power, use and reliance on new technologies can often have unintended consequences. Here’s how some of the most revolutionary EdTech advances of the past decade shaped education, often in ways nobody could ever have predicted.

Parent Teacher Conferences or “Online Grade Portals?”

Due to the increasing prevalence of online portals that can be used for various purposes, many school districts and institutions in America have created networks that parents can access to view their children’s grades and monitor their progress. Many districts feel that this has been a simple and convenient way to spend less time on parent-teacher conferences and other face to face interactions while also allowing parents to check up on their children at their convenience. Schools districts across the country, including some of the biggest districts in America began relying on these services but some were surprised when their data found that few parents ever took the time to login to the web site.

For many years New York Public Schools used a system called the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System or ARIS. ARIS was designed by IBM and a team of subcontractors and cost the district 95 million dollars over a seven-year period from 2007 until 2014 when it was replaced with a different program called NYC schools that was designed by a team working for the district’s Education Department. During this seven-year period data showed that the system was only used by three percent of parents in the district.

Further audits showed that the system saw wider use by teachers and principals, but a report issued in 2012 showed that in the previous year nearly half of the educators using the network had not logged in even once. Some critics of online grade portals also expressed concerns that these systems were enabling “helicopter parenting” and encouraging parents to obsess over their children’s grades and performances, leading to stress for students both at home and in the classroom.

Education’s Big Brother

One of the biggest concerns about the increasing prevalence of technology and the way it is made available and processed has been the rise of electronic surveillance and its potential consequences. This is obviously a huge concern when viewed in relation to student’s privacy and one of the reasons there has been so much unease regarding online classrooms and other educational data portals. However, students are even more at risk outside of these systems due to the prevailing mentality of corporations like Pearson and other educational giants.

In 2015, Elizabeth C. Jewett, the superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey, was notified by the New Jersey Department of Education that Pearson had contacted the Department and was issuing a Priority 1 Alert for a supposed security breach within the school regarding a PARCC test question. PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and represents a group of states and educational departments that formulated a series of readiness exams based on Common Core standards. Many of the states that were originally a part of this consortium, including New Jersey, have now discontinued the tests, leaving the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Louisiana, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and the Bureau of Indian Education as the only entities still using PARCC exams.

The supposed security breach involved a tweet a student had posted after school regarding one of the questions on New Jersey’s PARCC assessment. However, after further review, there did not appear to be any evidence that the student had revealed a test question or had been attempting to engage in any cheating activity. Nonetheless, this does reveal that Pearson was monitoring students’ social media accounts and online presence at least during the testing period and maybe even before and after. Further, following the incident Pearson attempted to coerce the New Jersey Department of Education and the Watchung Hills Regional School District to discipline the student. A private corporation was not only monitoring public school students, it was trying to force a public-school district to punish these students due to the threat they posed to the corporation’s interests.

Bill Gates, Mind-Reading Bracelets and Clemson, Oh My!

One of the more bizarre stories EdTech stories of the last decade is the grant given to Clemson University by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund experiments by Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) using Galvanic Skin Response Bracelets (GSR Bracelets) to measure student and teacher engagement using physiological metrics. MET is the Gates’ foundations program that seeks to evaluate and critique teachers’ and their varying methodologies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also invested money in several other programs using GSR bracelets, including a grant to the National Center on Time and Learning which funded a study “to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement.”

There have been numerous concerns regarding the accuracy of readings acquired from GSR bracelets, as well as worries that using these readings as metrics to evaluate teacher’s performance could lead to a whole host of problems regarding the way teachers are assessed. Studies have shown that GSR bracelets cannot determine the difference between states of anxiety and excitement or relaxation and boredom, which obviously has huge ramifications if these bracelets were to be regularly employed in the classroom. A stressful teacher might be lauded for exciting her students while a teacher with a relaxed classroom environment might be chastised for boring his students.

The Trouble With STEM

In the past decade, there was a huge tendency to support STEM programs, usually at the expense of liberal arts disciplines. Advocates of this push claimed that there weren’t enough people studying math and science and that there weren’t enough people to fill important tech positions at a variety of companies and businesses. However, for better or for worse, this just isn’t the case. Salaries for jobs in the science and technology sector have not increased, and many people who graduate with degrees in STEM fields have trouble finding work. 

Virtual Charter Schools: Tools of the Future or the Death of Education?

Due to the increasing availability of the internet and web-based learning platforms, the number of online schools and learning institutions skyrocketed in the past decade. As people began to question the traditional public-school system and the school choice movement gained traction, charter schools also became more popular and prevalent. This combination led to the rise of the virtual charter school. Online learning institutions might seem like a great alternative to traditional schooling, but unfortunately it appears that in almost all cases there is no substitute for hands-on instruction in a real classroom. United States Department of Education Statistics from the 2016-2017 school year showed that half of all virtual charter schools in America had graduation rates below 50 percent.

In some states, students enrolled in virtual online charter schools find themselves in even more dire straits. For example, not one online charter school in Indiana has had a graduation rate over 50 percent over the past four years. Many online charter schools have also been found to enroll far less students than they report serving. This is somewhat concerning given that both regular and virtual charter schools typically receive local, state, and federal funding based on the number of students they enroll.

The Evolution of the GED

During World War II, education experts developed the GED (General Education Development or General Education Diploma) test to allow servicemen who had left high school to serve their country the opportunity to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Since then, this test has helped people who were unable to complete their high school career following the normal trajectory educate themselves and prepare themselves for the workforce.

In 2014, a new GED test, designed by the aforementioned Pearson and created in coordination with Common Core standards was instituted. Whereas the old GED exam was focused on “workforce readiness,” the new test instead attempted to evaluate “college readiness.” the method of administering the test and the cost of the exam also changed. Before 2014, taking the GED cost 80 dollars. Now, it costs 120 dollars. Further, in the past the test was proctored in person, using paper and pencil. Now it’s only available online, which many say has disenfranchised individuals who are unable to use the internet or who do not have internet access. Statistics corroborate this evidence. In 2013, 540,535 people passed the GRE. However, in 2014, after the new test was adopted, only 86,500 people passed the test.

Robot Graders Scoring Essays

As states and institutions continue to rely ever heavily on standardized tests to evaluate student and teacher performance, the amount of tests that must be graded continues to increase. In this age of automation, it should come as no surprise that there has been a trend towards using automated robot graders instead of employing human graders.

It’s one thing to have robots grade simple multiple-choice tests, but more and more robot graders are being used to grade essays, which obviously requires more thought and discretion then making sure that the right bubble is filled in on a Scantron sheet. Over 21 states, including Ohio and Utah, have already adopted robot graders as a means of scoring students’ essays on standardized tests.

Like other forms of artificial intelligence, robot graders rely on algorithms to function, and while these algorithms might function fine in terms of looking for basic grammar and spelling mistakes, many doubt their ability to adequately evaluate content and the writers’ voice.

Many teachers, such as Kelly Henderson, who teaches at a high school outside of Boston, think that the idea of “an art form, a form of expression being evaluated by an algorithm is patently ridiculous.” Henderson also expressed concern that robot graders using algorithms and coded software will reward formulaic writing at the expense of rewarding creativity, asking “What is the computer program going to reward? Is it going to reward some vapid drivel that happens to be structurally sound?”

There have also been concerns that these systems, like other Artificial Intelligence programs, display bias towards certain ethnic groups. This obviously has disturbing and far-reaching consequences that could deepen the already existing racial inequalities in the world of education. Further, studies have indicated that the robot graders can be tricked into thinking that meaningless nonsense is a good essay due to the algorithms employed by the robot grader, which not only means that these machines aren’t good graders but also opens the possibility for a new, modern type of cheating on standardized tests to emerge.

“Ideas Worth Spreading”

TEDx Talks became amazingly popular in the past decade, and it wasn’t long before they began showing up in classrooms as educational aids or even the focus of a lesson. In addition, there are more TEDx Talks on education than nearly any other topic and TEDx Talks regarding educational issues have proven to be immensely popular. EdTech heavyweights such as MIT Media Labs founder Nicholas Negroponte, are frequent guests at TEDx Talk affiliated events.

Unfortunately, while many of the things discussed in TEDx Talks might be “ideas worth spreading,” the setup of the presentations leaves a lot to be desired, especially for something being employed as an educational tool in the classroom. Audience members have no chance to ask questions or contest claims made by the presenters. Real education occurs when there’s a multifaceted conversation taking place, not when one idea is being expressed without the opportunity for dialogue.

Many of the technological advances that were heralded as revolutions in education turned out to not change the way people learn very drastically, and often ended up being complete failures that actually prevented learning from taking place. There’s a reason that basic elements of education have stayed the same over centuries and will most likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


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