Heather Wolpert-Gawron

I’ll Take that Education to Go: Individualization vs. Standardization

By on January 21, 2010

We live in a world of double-decaf-non-fat-lattes-with-room. We live in a world that is slowly beginning to customize everything from our coffee orders to our spa treatments. But it won’t just stop with luxury items.

Some teachers complain about the effort that differentiation entails, that need to offer rigorous curriculum for a wide range of learners. But just you wait: individualization is coming just around the corner, where students will be able to order up their own education, their own schedule of classes to go. And those schedules won’t be limited to what’s only offered on their school site.

One student’s schedule could look like this:

Period 1 – Offline Chemistry

Period 2 – Online French (in computer lab)

Period 3 – Offline PE

Period 4 – Offline – Geometry

Period 5 – Lunch

Period 6 – Online World History (computer lab)

Period 7 – Online World Lit. (computer lab)

Period 8 – Offline Choir

And you could see in a single computer lab, students taking other online classes simultaneously; the school site, therefore, merely providing the equipment and supervision so there’s equity in online class opportunity.

Education is about to take a step through a mirror, and it’s a remarkable world we are entering into. But where do schools fit in to this wonderland?

I was in a meeting the other day regarding setting up a distance learning sub-district within our own. You know, it’s the conversation that’s happening at many tables these days. What does it take to offer the alternative education in a district? Who teaches the classes? How is the program funded? How do we still get ADA? What about those kids without computers or online access at home?

I would like to see my district become a hub, offering distance learning opportunities to students both inside and outside our district. We could earn more ADA and establish ourselves and our staff as 21st Century educators. But the suggestion that someone proposed at the table did not reflect that vision and, frankly, seems far easier to make a quicker reality:

“We can have have our district sign up to join an online district’s network, open up a computer lab for a period a day, and a teacher can just facilitate the lab which can then serve multiple students and their individual online classes.”

So in other words, we would be providing an equitable way for students to have this hyper-individualized education by giving them access to our computer lab during the week. Period 2, let’s say, would be “online learning class,” where 36 kids would sit down during their day and take 36 different classes. Where some other district would receive additional funds from our district to be a part of their network. And where our teacher would be out of the curriculum picture, only used as a study hall supervisor of sorts.

Now, schools have been doing study hall for years in education as an elective alternative. But if this kind of thing becomes more common (and I’m not saying I’m against the opportunity that this allows students to have) where does the offline teacher fit into all this?

It could create a highly specialized minority within our profession of those who deliver material and those who merely supervise its delivery. So now it becomes a real Race to the Top: with those districts vying for the spots as “curriculum online schools” while the rest become dedicated “computer lab” sites. Science-fiction? Maybe. But it’s hard not to go there, and it’s important to try to predict trends in an attempt to jump hurdles before we encounter them.

Because I don’t believe we can stop going down this road. After all, society is traveling it with gusto, and as always, education seems a beat behind. Nevertheless, however, we are going down that road after them. I think I worry more for the teacher who is not reading the writing on the wall, who is not redefining himself or herself in this upcoming online era.

I also worry on a greater scale because it seems we are headed down a two-lane highway that is about to split: one leading to hyper-individualization and the other to standardization. And ne’er again shall the twain meet. For to train kids all differently and then try to assess them the same will create a bottle-neck of sorts. A pile-up on the educational highway.

I think we as a society are far more aware of why we differentiate or even individualize then why we have standardized tests. And to tease apart this bottle neck before it happens, I think we have to get focused about our true reasons for continuing to use these antiquated standardized assessments and tackle what’s really at the heart of their use.

Is it that they reflect the standards, the minimum, that our kids have to know? If so, why do testing companies dump questions that 90% of the students get right? Why are questions embedded with tricky wording or biased regional jargon? And don’t these tests assess the skills we know the students really need: critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, etc…Or is it that we just have yet to devise a cheap test for the masses that can actually be scored in a timely fashion? Sure bubble tests address the need for an ease in scoring, but they don’t differentiate the content of the assessment, reflecting the differentiation that should be going on in the classrooms.

We have to hone in on why we use these standardized bubble tests because we have already stepped through the mirror and student choice, in an uber-way, is upon us. We have to let the dog have its tail back, and design the assessments for the education we want to provide, not the other way around.

And I cannot deny individualization’s pull. After all, I used to be a black coffee gal. Now, if given the choice, I’ll take a grande-non-fat-chai-latte anytime.

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  1. Stacy
    January 23, 2010

    This discussion (and I have been hearing it more and more) makes me completely bipolar. On one hand, I know that we are heading down this path, but on the other hand, I am completely enraged. Online education is not individualized education. True individualized education would involve face time. Even when we go to order our mocha-frappa-latte-chino-frufru, we order it from a person! Online learning often becomes standardized learning. Two examples:

    1. I used to “teach” at a “learning” center called Score! The children would come in, log into a computer, and work through an “individualized” program of math and reading. However, all the child was really doing was clicking on the letters instead of bubbling them in. And the number of correct or wrong led the learner down different paths, but the paths were already written into the computer program. They were not specifically created for that one learner. I was to “help” students figure out how to solve the problems, but I was not teaching.


    2. In my high school, we use Holt, Reinhart, & Winston textbooks. The adoption comes with a subscription to an online essay program. When I first heard of this program, I was absolutely estatic. The thought of not having to read all of those hundreds upon hundreds of essays made me completely euphoric. However, my hopes were dashed when I took my kids to actually use the program. It wasn’t really “reading” the essays. Some of my students who actually wrote decent, creative, and insightful persuasive essays received low scores because they did not included the certain standardized markers that the program was checking for. The only way that the students could get a good grade was if they followed the format provided by the textbook. That typical 5-paragraph essay was all that they wanted.

    This is where we are headed. From the outside, it appears that students are receiving individualized attention and education, but in all reality we are going to force them to conform to whatever the computer program has been formatted to check for. It is standardized testing in sheeps’ clothing. Creativity is discouraged because a computer cannot check for that. And if a real person is going to be doing all of these online classes, and reading/grading all of this work, then what is the point in the first place? Why should a student log onto a computer to work with a teacher on the other side of the country when that student could be going to see a teacher right here in his/her own school? I kind of see the point if there is not a qualified teacher available to teach that specific course. Like if a student lived in a small community where they didn’t offer Japanese (or a unique course, like that), then I could see the purpose of taking Japanese in an online forum, but for common subjects, like history, math, English, etc. what is the benefit of sitting at a computer instead of sitting with a person. If kids could learn everything on their own, we wouldn’t need school in the first place. Instead of individualized education at a computer, they should make smaller class sizes and allow teachers to have enough time to spend 1-on-1 time with the kids!

    When my husband, Angel, studied to become a welder, he started out working under a master welder as an apprentice. At first he watched the master welder. Then they did it together. Then slowly, Angel was given more an more responsiblity and independence, but he still had to check in with the master welder to make sure that he was doing everything correctly. The master welder knew all of these little tricks-of-the-trade that had been learned over time through trial-and-error: those little skills that could not be found in any welding textbook. That’s what we do in education. We are “masters” of our subject (hence the Master’s degree). Our students are our apprentices, and our job is to introduce the content, teach them the tricks of the trade, and then slowly release them to independence. A computer will never be able to gauge what a student truly needs. And a person across the country will not be able to gauge it either.

    I realize that we are probably heading to online education, and while I am intrigued by the thought of students being able to take whatever they want, I fear that it will become more standardized because programs only have so many variations and have a difficult time grading creativity and originality.

    Also, I fear that this is going to create a divide between the advanced/regular student and the at-risk student. Even if we provide computer labs with overpaid supervisors, even if we allow students to choose their schedules (which might increase interest), at-risk kids are not self-starters; they often have a difficult time staying focused; and they need a human there to scaffold the material and encourage/nag them to do it. The computer lab supervisor is not going to be able to help these at-risk kids in every subject. I taught study lab to at-risk kids: I could help them with their English work, but when it came to math or science, my knowledge was limited, and I wasn’t able to help them as much as they needed. I often had to send them to a neighboring teacher to get help in those other areas. So if an at-risk student is suppose to sit at a computer and complete their work all alone, I think they will be left behind, so that we will create a dichotomy of the haves & the have-nots.

    I have so many thoughts and questions on this topic that I could go on and on. But I guess my ultimate concern is that as bright and shiny as it may appear, in the end, learning happens best with others, and a computer shouldn’t count as an “other.”

    Keep me posted on what you hear as your ear is closer to the techonological ground then mine is. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  2. tweenteacher
    January 24, 2010

    Thanks for your incredible comment. You bring so many new thoughts to the table. I too have been frustrated by the standardization of earlier online programs.

    I guess it brings up the point of “where does differentiation start?” Is the distance learning option a form of classroom differentiation? Or, is the fact that once you participate in the online class, and the information is delivered in a standardized fashion, that it is not differentiated?

    You know, the real place for online classes isn’t going to be as standardized delivery or automated scoring. It’s going to be with a teacher acting as moderator for a group of diverse learners who never would have had the opportunity to gather in a room face2face otherwise.

    There is a future of light and a future of gray before us. Which path will we take and still call it innovation?

    Thanks for your comments. Ever think of writing your own blog? I’d be a groupie!

    -Heather WG

  3. Angela
    January 28, 2010

    As someone who has taken and taught in many different modes of online learning, I feel we are on the path, but it is being driven by people who, as Stacy pointed out, are standardizing, not individualizing the curriculum.

    As a student, I understand how rigorous and fulfilling online learning can be. I have had online courses full of rigorous requirements, which led to deeper understanding of the material, but I have also participated in online courses that were merely fill-in-the-blank/bubble, no thinking required, all answers found in the textbook work. The difference in the classes was astounding and led me to choose where to get my Master’s degree very carefully.

    As a teacher, I have used online tutoring programs that are basically standardized testing on the computer. I have also taught courses where I was merely a study hall monitor. I have watched kids, both successful and at-risk kids, flounder with this online curriculum that is touted as being “individualized” but offers no real individualization. All kids are working through all the same material, with the same quizzes/assessments and assignments, but may work through it at a different pace. Allowing to work at your own pace is a grand ideal, but when faced with students who cannot SET their own pace, they tend to flounder and end up not accomplishing anything.

    I have also taught for a completely online school that allows for some individualization–through the use of differentiated assignments for some units, but also requires virtual contact between students and teachers. However, there was no way I could force students to show up to our virtual sessions, so some fell by the wayside or struggled until the end.

    What online learning should be is an option–an option for students who can work through the online curriculum at their own pace and within their abilities. Not necessarily on their own, because as you pointed out, we are teachers because we should have mastered our content. Students can only learn so much by reading about something and then having to self-process it. Even with courses that include online discussion, if you can’t get the students to participate in online discussions, it does no good.

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