Waiting Wolves with “Innovative” Answers

Reading a couple of white papers recently about blended learning for a course I am taking has driven me to the conclusion that the term “blended learning” is virtually useless. If it can mean so many things to so many people, it really doesn’t mean much at all. Both pieces spend the majority of the effort simply outlining the parameters of their broad definitions of the term. Neither of them is particularly insightful, nor do they offer much more than brief examples they applaud with a profound paucity of details. One of them, however, got me more fired up than usual.

The publication from the Innosight Institute, a think tank spun out of Harvard Business School and the work of Clayton Christensen in Disrupting Class, is entitled The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning. However, a better title might be The Dubious Rise and Increasing Influence of Corporations and Charter Schools in America, so appallingly biased and flawed are its suppositions. Artificially pumped up by its own politically charged rhetoric and veiled contempt for education as a field, this document is little more than propaganda for their funders, the Charter School Growth Fund, as well as the commercial, for-profit content production complex of the “existing education system,” a term that contributors Hernandez, Hassel, and Ableidinger imply in the pejorative.

The “existing education system” is presented as a zero-sum operation in a “factory-like, monolithic structure” that is ripe for their prescriptive, innovative disruption. Interestingly, policy makers, superintendents, and school principals are called to act with urgency in embracing their patent brand of disruption, preventing “the cramming of online learning into the traditional system,” which leaves me utterly bemused. While I have long had my suspicions, I was unaware that policy makers, superintendents, and school principals were actually outside the “existing education system.” If this is, in fact, true, it explains so much. Wait, maybe they are onto something, after all.

While I will admit that I have not read Disrupting Class, although I have read a lot about it. Yet, after reading this white paper, I am a whole lot less likely to bother. Their brand of disruptive innovation seems exceptionally long on disruption and desperately short of innovation. In framing blended learning as the potential inoculation for revolutionizing education, they slog a lot of business-speak, the kind that seems to continually seep into every conversation about education reform. So they hard sell potential in the form of pace, productivity, and efficiency increases, which all sound remarkablly “factory-like” to me.

Even better, they highlight some solutions demanded by educators, which specifically include integrated systems and hundreds of hours of dynamic content.  Of course, this means the best possible hope for all education will undoubtedly need to come from the giant, “factory-like, monolithic structure” of the education publishing industry, read K12 Incorporated, Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill, and others scrambling to get in on the game.

Perhaps most distressing of all is that almost every alternative option proffered is still based essentially on consumption-driven models, the very kind of thing being contested with the bullseye placed on lecture-based instruction. Instead of listening to a teacher, teachers are exceptionally conspicuous in the document by the way, students can watch digital videos and follow pre-fabricated lesson plans aligned to new educational standards. In fact, in many exemplars there is even less need for teachers at all. Paraprofessionals can administer and support the turnkey solutions that will fulfill the promise of this innovative education model. After all, paraprofessionals are significantly cheaper, which undoubtedly will assist overall efficiency. Couple that with the magic solution of harnessing the power of 3x teachers, the greatest, incentivized teaching money can buy, and  all pre-selected, charter school students win, then the rest of the “existing education system.” Right.

Essentially, there is very little true innovation offered at all. Instead it is a little more than shill job for a wing of education reformers that are currently successfully framing the debate and dubiously gaining power and momentum nationally. What bothers me most is how many people are continually taken in by the slick, easy solutions, failing to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing salivating on the sidelines waiting to sink their teeth into even more of the public money funding the “existing education system.”

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