Everyone wants better schools.
Advocates of computers in the classroom have long held out the promise of supercharging the learning process. The right computer program, they argue, could provide continual stimulation to the fast learners and help slower student focus on basic skills in math, reading and writing.
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This promise of the digital classroom recently proved disastrous in Wellington High School in Wellington, Kansas. The school adopted with high hopes a computer-based program called “Summit Learning” as related in a recent New York Times article.
Now, students and parents are demanding that the program be dropped. Students have organized sit-ins and walkouts. Parents have gathered in private homes and publicly complained at school board meetings. The controversy has riled the normally peaceful Kansas town.
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Summit is the brainchild of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.
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Summit Learning, the organization behind the program, touts the idea that:
“The Summit Learning instructional approach is based on more than 100 years of leading learning science, psychology, and workforce development research. A personalized approach to teaching and learning, Summit Learning is inspired by our vision to equip every student to live a fulfilled life.”
The cornerstone of the system is the Summit Learning Platform. It brings resources to the classroom through an online portal. Students use the platform to gain access to information and submit their work. Much of that work involves group projects. The portal is also used for testing to see how students progress toward their “set personal goals.”
Like most progressive educational programs, the Summit’s online material is conveniently vague. Its website has “A Guide to the Science of Summit” that talks a lot about mentoring, projects and self-direction.
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Self-direction is the activity that makes the best use of computers. According to the New York Times article, “Under Summit’s program, students spend much of the day on their laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold mentoring sessions and lead special projects.”
Except for the laptops, this could also be a description of a disastrous past educational experiment called the “open school concept.” The failed program is explained in this 1967 statement, “The open school concept used as an alternative to more traditional forms of schooling … includes seven major dimensions: individualized instruction, continuous progress of students, team teaching, multiage and multigrade grouping, differentiated staffing, open space classrooms and learning resource areas, and product and process evaluation.”
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In practice, it was a disaster. The typical open school classroom was a vast space, occupied by many students and a few teachers. With all students setting their own pace and doing different tasks, classes tended to be chaotic. Many students wasted time. Grading was a nightmare because students completed different amounts of work at different times.
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The use of computers might alleviate some of the problems of the open school concept. Other issues still exist. Learning at one’s own pace always makes the “special projects” difficult to coordinate between students – meaning that they are most likely to be done individually. The project simply becomes another assignment, albeit one that is more complicated than usual.
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However, there is evidence that the use of computers by young people may be harmful. A Business Insider article from 2017 referred to the work of MIT Psychologist Sherry Turkle, “But of the growing trend of “personalized education,” in which schools use digital devices to cater lesson plans to individual kids’ needs, she [Dr. Turkle] said the reliance on tech is ‘Too much. Too much. Too much.’”
Wellington parent Tyson Koenig echoes those concerns. “We’re allowing the computers to teach,” he told the New York Times, “and the kids all looked like zombies.” Mr. Koenig pulled his ten-year-old son out of the school because of the program.
Ironically, many high-tech executives send their children to low-tech schools. The New York Times profiled Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School, which teaches many students from such families. According to the article, “the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.”
Big Money Behind Summit Learning
High-tech schools are gaining ground largely because Big Data firms provide the program free of cost. According to the website Chalkbeat, the Zuckerbergs have donated $308 million to educational initiatives, although Summit’s share of that is undisclosed. Another Chalkbeat article reported that Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have donated over $12 million to Summit. The Gates were also prime movers behind the equally disastrous Common Core Initiative.
Why would these three technology superstars invest so much in a computer-driven educational system? Perhaps they realize that technology is habit-forming and the program will help form new generations of tech consumers.
However, as the situation in Wellington High School shows, nothing can replace the personal care and instruction of a good teacher. Teachers need to form the good character of future Americans and not the habits of high-tech zombies.