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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Dear McGraw-Hill Education: Don't Pee on My Shoes and Tell Me It's Raining.
April 24, 2013 - 11:03am

I had an experience yesterday that reinforced my core message to my composition students: different audiences have different needs, attitudes, and degrees of knowledge, and therefore require different approaches to communication.

McGraw-Hill Higher Ed (@mhhighered) contacted me on Twitter to invite me to a “live chat” about adaptive learning technology. They reached out to me because I have this forum, and also because I’d written about my personal skepticism regarding the adoption of adaptive learning software.

@mhhighered’s message to me was “Adaptive learning is not meant to replace teachers, but help them.”

The PR person manning the McGraw-Hill Twitter feed is well-trained. The message addressed the concerns I expressed in my writing. It invited me into a conversation.

It also pushed me to do some poking around. I checked out LearnSmart, McGraw-Hill’s interactive software division. I read their case studies of classroom success.

But I also made my way to some other links like an article in CNN Money, discussing the future of educational technology. There is the obligatory quote from someone from the Gates Foundation, in this case a program officer, Scott Benson, “The main shift is away from what I'll call a teacher-in-classroom-centric model.”

This is perhaps worrisome, but it’s pretty much boilerplate for the Gates crowd.

Further down, though, McGraw-Hill Education CEO, Lloyd (Buzz) Waterhouse, weighs in: “With this new method and capability, all of a sudden you could see a teacher handling many more students. All of a sudden, the productivity could double or triple."

I realized then that McGraw-Hill Education’s outreach to me was like John Henry being invited to take a look at this cool new steam drill.

The irony is that, as related in the article, adaptive learning software is modeled on the research of the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, who showed that students do better when they have one-on-one instruction in the form of a tutor. Adaptive learning technology is striving to “simulate” that experience.

So, the technology the Gates Foundation and McGraw-Hill Education are seeking already exists in the form of human beings, but we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to “simulate” it in order to increase “productivity?”

The very success of McGraw-Hill Education’s adaptive learning software, their very business strategy, as articulated by its CEO, involves transferring money from instructors to software. Rather than investing in the close-contact model proven to work, we should invest in technology. Money will be transferred from human capital to private corporations.

How well has this process worked with No Child Left Behind, as literally billions of dollars in public money have been funneled to corporations like Pearson, which even sees additional revenue on contracts to police the inevitable cheating?

But you can’t stop progress, right? If the software does the job, them’s the breaks. Just ask old, dead John Henry, or anyone who worked in the pre-robotics auto industry. If we’re going to subject students to industrialized education, we may as well look at them as products.

The case studies on McGraw-Hill Education’s site are intriguing. There are numerous testimonies of improved student retention and higher scores on quizzes and tests. The professors themselves offer their personal endorsements.

If the software helps instructors do their jobs better, how could I be against it? It’s not for me, but it may be for thee. Content plays a very small part of the subjects I teach (composition and creative writing). (My personal textbook for my freshman composition would be more like a pamphlet.) In content-heavy courses, software that’s more engaging than a traditional textbook could be a real boon.

Still, I have to question a curriculum where the software can substitute for a teacher, if maybe this is a suggestion that we, as teachers, need to do better in order to prove that there’s a difference between the simulation and the real thing.

I’m remembering my struggles with high school geometry. It’s fair to say I didn’t get it. I tried to muscle through, memorizing the proofs and theorems -- side, angle side; side, side, side -- all to no avail. I went for extra help with my teacher; you could call it tutoring. She gave me some practice problems and watched me struggle for awhile and then said something like, “You’re not thinking.”

I was pretty sure I was thinking, it just wasn’t amounting to anything, but she indicated otherwise. My teacher pointed out that until I started seeing the world as a geometrician, geometry wasn’t going to make any sense to me. She reminded me that geometry has a purpose and a function beyond torturing high schoolers. She urged me to view the big picture, rather than the discrete problem in front of me.

It worked, and it stuck with me. It’s a principle I carry into my courses, to encourage my students to not just “know” some things about writing, but to see the world as writers do.

I have to believe that the same can be true of other disciplines, that the best and deepest learning of say, anatomy, isn’t just about memorizing the parts of the body, but acquiring the gaze that allows us to “see” how those parts interrelate.

Is that something we can even assess on a quiz? Can software engender that kind of learning?

Are we programming software, or is it programming us?

Even if adaptive learning software is (or can become) all that and a bag of chips, why are we choosing software over people? Why are we channeling limited resources to corporations when we already have a model that works?

“Efficiency” and “productivity” are not educational values. Companies like McGraw-Hill Education are trying to solve the business problem of a collapsing printed textbook market by siphoning public money towards technology. The claims that they are trying to help teachers, not replace them, are belied by their own CEO’s statements, and the ineluctable forces of market-based “solutions.”

While the PR professional on the Twitter feed is adhering to solid communication principles, there is a deeper lesson here, which is that to ultimately be convincing to your audiences, the ultimate message can’t change 180 degrees depending on who you’re talking to and expect the speaker to maintain any credibility. Or in the words of my and many other grandfathers, “don’t piss on my shoes and tell me it's raining.”

I, and those who agree with me on these issues, are ultimately going to lose this battle. The forces on the other side are simply too well-funded, too connected.

If this is the case, I don’t mind being John Henry. He did win that race with the steam drill. Yeah, he died in the end, but so do we all, and at least we’ll always remember the steel drivin’ man.

--

I'm a Tweet-Tweeting man.

 

 

 

 

 

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