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Category — Distance Learning

Creating Classroom Visuals – Four Great Sites for Teachers

Without a doubt, visuals are critical for kids when it comes to the learning process.

Thanks to some great “Techy Tips for not so Techy Teachers” we were recently reminded of four tech tools (web sites) that can help teachers create some very interesting visuals for their classroom, with the key being that one need not be a techy to put these sites into action.

Subject Specific Word Clouds

The use of tags and word clouds is becoming a web staple and a great way to introduce the concept to students is a web site that will generate “word clouds” from any text supplied by a teacher. With Wordle, teachers have access to a free web site to generate relevant word clouds for any learning task they are about to undertake.

Because word clouds give greater prominence to the words that appear most often in the supplied text, these clouds create a great learning visual for students by prominently displaying the most used terms. These clouds can be made into posters at the younger levels or used as a cover sheet to a course syllabus for older students.

With Wordle, the user can also modify aspects of the cloud through the use of different fonts, layouts, and color schemes for the letters and the background. Because the site is web-based, a user can save their creation to the Wordle gallery and access it from another internet connection.

And of course, with a little pre-teaching, students can have at it, creating their own word clouds for assignments and projects.

Turning Your Creation into a Poster

Once you have created a document or photo for classroom display, you may want to blow it up so as to make a large size poster for the room. Such a task is extremely easy as there are a couple of different web sites where you can easily rasterbate any creation to make a powerful, large image.

Rasterbating is the phrase used to describe the computer program printing feature called tiled printing. It is a process that enables the user to print extremely large images, those larger than a standard size sheet of paper. The computer program creates tiles, each equal to a standard size sheet of paper, and prints a section of the image on each sheet according to predetermined specifications. The individual pages can then be taped together or stapled to a bulletin board to create a large and powerful image.

BlockPosters.comAt either BlockPosters or Rasterbators, teachers can create such tiled wall posters of any size. Totally free, each site allows you to upload an image where the user can then crop the image and choose how many sheets of traditional-size paper to use in creating the poster.

While the word cloud would make a great option, an even better one, especially at the elementary level, would be the periodic action classroom shot of the students involved in a learning activity. The sheer joy students experience upon seeing themselves in photos could only be enhanced by a large classroom poster of them in action within the classroom.

With older students, the visuals they can create could also greatly enhance an individual project or presentation. Blockposters offers some excellent samples of prior work including student project creations.

If you decide to turn some of this over to students, you may want to use another term other than rasterbate. We are not sure how either age group would do with such a risky-sounding term.

Glogging in the Classroom

Instead of just using the written word to create a blog, teachers can have students create some pretty amazing visual mash ups at (be sure with the younger kids you hit the edu site!).

Glogster again allows for the creation of posters, but in this case, creativity remains supreme. With Glogster you can mix all forms of expression: graphics, photos, videos, music and traditional text.

Not only a fun way to enhance learning and foster creativity, glogging is a perfect tool for visual learners who may struggle with traditional text-oriented classroom setting. Glogging also gets students using the power of technology and collaborating with one another on potential creations.

You will need a few more in the way of tech skills for Glogster than for our other suggestions (especially, if you want to download movies and images) manageable with even a modest effort. But as with our sites featured, Glogster is also a free resource, so you can familiarize yourself with the concept on your own terms.

Photos taken from, and

March 25, 2009   No Comments

Online Education – Introducing the Microlecture Format

Most college students would likely concur – fifty minute lectures can be a bit much. With current research indicating that attention spans (measured in minutes) roughly mirror a students age (measured in years), it begs the question as to the rationale behind lectures of such length.

teddY-riseDGiven that it is tough to justify the traditional lecture timeframes, it is no surprise to see online educational programs seeking to offer presentations that feature shorter podcasts. But in an astonishing switch, David Shieh of the Chronicle of Higher Education recently took a look at a community college program that features a microlecture format, presentations varying from one to three minutes in length.

The Micro-Lecture
While one minute lectures may be beyond the scope of imagination for any veteran teacher, Shieh reports on the piloting of the concept at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. The concept was introduced as part of a new online degree program in occupational safety last fall. According to Shieh, school administrators were so pleased with the results that they are expanding the micro-lecture concept to courses in reading and veterinary studies.

The designer of the format, David Penrose, insists that in online education “tiny bursts can teach just as well as traditional lectures when paired with assignments and discussions.” The microlecture format begins with a podcast that introduces a few key terms or a critical concept, then immediately turns the learning environment over to the students.

Penrose, a course designer for SunGard Higher Education, offers the following explanation of the process:

Stephanie Booth“It’s a framework for knowledge excavation,” Penrose tells Shieh. “We’re going to show you where to dig, we’re going to tell you what you need to be looking for, and we’re going to oversee that process.”

More in Line with Current Theory

With educators seeking more active learning environments, the microlecture format seemingly offers great potential. Not only will the process allow students greater ownership of their learning, the more open-ended nature of the follow-up materials should provide greater time variation opportunities for students who may need such time.

But as with all educational developments, the process clearly is not one that can be used for all classes. It clearly will not work for a course that is designed to feature sustained classroom discussions. And while the concept will work well when an instructor wants to introduce smaller chunks of information, it will likely not work very well when the information is more complex.

But just as most writers are taught to say what they need to say but do it in as few words as is necessary to accomplish their goal, the microlecture format similarly requires teachers to get the key elements across in a very short amount of time. Most importantly, it forces educators to think in a new way.

catspyjamasnzInstead of the framework being defined by seat time, the microlecture format ditches the traditional notion that all students must spend the same amount of time in class to receive credit. The concept focuses on what is to be learned and it allows, in the online environment, students of various skills and abilities as much time as they need to digest the learning objectives related to the microlecture.

Given such positives, one would think the format would soon become a critical component of every online course.

For those interested, here are Penrose’s steps to creating a one minute lecture:

1. List the key concepts you are trying to convey in the 60-minute lecture. That series of phrases will form the core of your microlecture.

2. Write a 15 to 30-second introduction and conclusion. They will provide context for your key concepts.

3. Record these three elements using a microphone and Web camera. (The college information-technology department can provide advice and facilities.) If you want to produce an audio-only lecture, no Webcam is necessary. The finished product should be 60 seconds to three minutes long.

4. Design an assignment to follow the lecture that will direct students to readings or activities that allow them to explore the key concepts. Combined with a written assignment, that should allow students to learn the material.

5. Upload the video and assignment to your course-management software.

Flickr photos courtesy of teddY-riseD, Stephanie Booth, and catspyjamasnz.

March 8, 2009   Comments Off on Online Education – Introducing the Microlecture Format

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy, Ineptness, Ignorance, and More

It has been a while since we did a simple web walk and pointed readers to some interesting material and helpful resources. Today we offer readers four interesting link options, everything from Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy to a look at why ignorance does appear, in fact, to be bliss.

Digital Bloom’s Taxonomy

Almost a year ago we featured some of the work of Andrew Churches. The teacher and self-professed ICT enthusiast has taken the time to do a modern day mash up of one of education’s long-standing models for analyzing learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, developed in the 1950’s, clearly holds a place of reverence within the educational community. Using a hierarchical framework to express thinking and learning, Bloom’s offers a set of concepts that begins with what we call lower order thinking skills (LOTS) and then progressively builds to higher order thinking skills (HOTS).

edorigamiIn education, the best teachers have made it a point to bring their students to the HOTS level of the taxonomy whenever possible. The belief has always been that acquiring knowledge and comprehending information (LOTS) pales in comparison to being able to analyze, evaluate, and apply that knowledge.

Where Churches comes in is that he began examining the traditional theory against a backdrop of the new digital age and the use of technology in the classroom. From his efforts, educators began being able to associate specific digital techniques with the traditional categories set forth in the taxonomy.

While there is clearly still much to be done to clarify these associations and properly place digital technology tasks in each category, teachers at least now have a framework from which to start and dialogue from. In keeping with the open source movement that is defining the future of education, Churches has now published his work in e-book format over at Scribd.

Those wanting to see both the rationale and the depth of assessment Churches has employed will find a free resource, Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy (v212), at the site. The 44-page document is filled with information and is available for download, free, in multiple formats.

We highly recommend all teachers take the time to read this important document.

Among the Inept – Ignorance Is Bliss

An article that is now more than nine years old recently started getting tagged on As one great example of the challenge of filtering the wealth of material on the Internet, we missed the original article that takes a look at the behaviors demonstrated by people we might call incompetent.

In her article, Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss, Erica Goode cites the research of Dr. David A. Dunning. In true tongue-in-cheek mode, Goode sets the tone for the article with the following intro:

debaird“There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear he might be one of them. Dr. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

“On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dr. Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.”

It seems “that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured” because ultimately “the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.”

Given that education is a people-profession, the article is a must read for everyone working in the field, especially those working in administration. With a strong push to ensure that every classroom is staffed with a competent teacher, the research of Dunning offers great insight.

Especially in the case where feedback is absent or ambiguous – in such instances incompetents generally do not realize their level of ineptness.

Open Courseware Toolset

A summary resource that offers a list of links to open courseware materials is available at the web site Best College Rankings. The Ultimate Open Courseware Toolset: 60+ Directories, Search Engines, and Web Tools offers readers an extensive set of links to a wealth of materials now available on the web.

What makes the list so worthy is that it contains some individual tools but many of the links offered are actually to other sites or web pages that then feature more links to more resources. The site lists links in alphabetical order (not weighing in on good, better or best) and breaks the material into three distinct categories.

They begin with a list of directories of various open courseware projects. The list features 22 links (some offering lists of 100s of sites) to “books, video lectures, teaching tools and more, all labeled with the open courseware tag.”

The second category features 16 links to a number of search engines and archives while the third and final category focuses on 23 web tools “that can help teachers, parents and students.”

The sheer volume of material, however, reminds us of how important our own ability to filter Internet materials has become.

A Parental ADD Resource

Finally, in recent days we stumbled across the web site of Brenda Nicholson, ADD Student. The mother of 3 children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Nicholson is a trained ADD Coach who began learning about the disorder over 20 years ago.

Booksamillion.comSurprised that many educational professionals knew little about ADD, Nicholson found she needed to educate herself. Because of her experiences, she has set up the ADD student resource portal for parents and professionals alike.

One simple aspect that spoke volumes to us was her advice regarding students on medication. Instead of pluses and minuses regarding meds, she notes that the taking of medications at school has become a major issue for everyone involved: students, parents, and educators.

Another is her focus on diet as a method for minimizing issues with ADD children and managing their symptoms. While some of the information is on a cost basis (a 12 week email coaching program for parents), there is also a wealth of general info free for site visitors including subcategory links to specific areas such as ADD and Life Skills, Organization, School and Time Management.

Flickr photo courtesy of debaird.

February 26, 2009   1 Comment

Taped Lectures – Better than the Real Thing, Part 2

Our credibility being of utmost importance to us, today we return to a prior post: “Taped Lectures – Better than the Real Thing?

We were taken to task to by one of the researchers, Dani McKinney, who had the following to say:

Tama Leaver“It is difficult for an author to know how to comment when the author of the blog did not actually read the paper that he is discussing. In fact, the effect of having the podcast only appears when the students in that condition worked considerably harder than those in the live-lecture condition. The effect completely disappears when the podcasts are merely listened to. To see the advantage, the students had to take notes of the podcast AND listen to it more than once. So, far from being able to replace professors, the podcasts might give students the benefit of being able to listen to the lecture more than once, and the ability to get the notes more accurately.

Please don’t comment on specific conclusions the paper makes by reading the abstract alone. That’s similar to attending the first week of class and the last week of class and expecting to get an A….”

Our Integrity

First and foremost, in writing about the results of a new study from Dani McKinney, Jennifer L. Dycka and Elise S. Lubera, iTunes University and the Classroom: Can Podcasts Replace Professors?, we acknowledged writing about the findings based upon the summary abstract. We chose to write about the topic based upon the fact that taped lectures were very timely given some of our prior posts. We also wrote using only the abstract because access to the full article was on a fee basis and not published using the creative commons approach that we have espoused (perhaps we have simply become spoiled).

To ensure we were not making assumptions, we did not speculate as to how it was possible for students listening to a podcast of a lecture to exceed the performance of those who attended the lecture in person. Whatever those reasons might have been, we did point out that if students listening to a podcast could even match the performances of those who attended in person, then greater consideration should be given to the less expensive, podcast option.

Replicating lectures at 100s of colleges then bringing students from far and wide to individual locations represents one of the biggest reasons for the current cost of higher education. Many online education advocates have begun speculating that a lecture repository could in fact replace the current delivery model and therefore reduce the costs of higher education significantly.

The Research

We noted that the basic experiment was quite simple. We wrote:

Tama LeaverThe researchers wanted to test the effectiveness of taped lectures and contrast that with the performance of those students who attended class and heard the same lecture in person.

To determine the effectiveness, the researchers created two distinct groups. One group of undergraduate general psychology students listened to a 25-min lecture given in person by a professor using PowerPoint slides. Students were provided handouts in the form of copies of the slides to enhance note-taking. A second group of undergraduate psychology students listened to the same lecture in a podcast. T hey too were provided the same PowerPoint handouts.

One week after the different group sessions, students took an exam on lecture content. In what most would deem a startling development, “students in the podcast condition who took notes while listening to the podcast scored significantly higher than the lecture condition.”

Accordingly, based on the comments of the researcher, we need to add, “To see the advantage, the students had to take notes of the podcast AND listen to it more than once.”

In contrast to our support of others who had already postulated that professors could in fact be replaced, Ms. McKinney notes: “So, far from being able to replace professors, the podcasts might give students the benefit of being able to listen to the lecture more than once, and the ability to get the notes more accurately.”

More Appropriate Assertion

WikipediaGiven the feedback, a more appropriate assertion might be that it is time for all colleges to provide students access to podcasts of each professor’s lecture. That way, highly-motivated individuals would seemingly have access to the best of both worlds, the chance to hear an in-person lecture and later gain greater clarity by virtue of the opportunity to listen to the presentation a second or third time.

In fact, given the current costs of higher education, it would seem that students ought to demand such of their institutions. But at the same time, the added words of the researcher will do nothing to dissuade the current critics who insist that a podcast could in fact replace a professor provided a student has sufficient work habits.

In closing, we return to the words of Ms. McKinney:

“So, far from being able to replace professors, the podcasts might give students the benefit of being able to listen to the lecture more than once, and the ability to get the notes more accurately.”

That said, our guess is that being present to hear a lecture would still be considered exceedingly overrated by those prior critics. Because, unless a professor were in fact willing to repeat the lecture upon request by students, the opportunity to listen more than once and thus gain more accurate notes simply is not possible under the current delivery model.

Which brings us full circle, back to the original title of our article, “Taped Lectures – Better than the Real Thing?”

Flickr photos courtesy of Tama Leaver and Leaver again.

February 22, 2009   1 Comment

Taped Lectures – Better than the Real Thing?

OK, this online learning concept may now have another feather in its cap. We recently discussed the notion of video lecture series being available online, a step that could ultimately render the traditional face-to-face lecture option obsolete.

tama leaverIn a rather interesting development, Dani McKinney, Jennifer L. Dycka and Elise S. Lubera have released the results of a new study. In iTunes University and the Classroom: Can Podcasts Replace Professors?, the researchers take a look at student test results depending on whether the student attended a specific classroom lecture or listened to the lecture as a podcast.

The Research

The experiment was quite simple. The researchers wanted to test the effectiveness of taped lectures and contrast that with the performance of those students who attended class and heard the same lecture in person.

To determine the effectiveness, the researchers created two distinct groups. One group of undergraduate general psychology students listened to a 25-min lecture given in person by a professor using PowerPoint slides. Students were provided handouts in the form of copies of the slides to enhance note-taking. A second group of undergraduate psychology students listened to the same lecture in a podcast. They too were provided the same PowerPoint handouts.

One week after the different group sessions, students took an exam on lecture content. In what most would deem a startling development, “students in the podcast condition who took notes while listening to the podcast scored significantly higher than the lecture condition.”

Another Blow to High Cost Education?

We noted previously the potential outcome of high-caliber lecture repositories becoming available online. We quoted John Robb, who offered this simple caveat in regards to online lectures, especially if the taped version were delivered by the best in the field.

“There is no need to recreate the lecture with tens of thousands of less qualified/exceptional teachers” if there is at least one exceptional version available online.

Critics have long held onto the fact that being there and hearing the lecture in person, face-to-face, trumps any taped offering. The work of McKinney, et al, certainly undercuts that assertion.

Eli HodappUnfortunately, in an ironic twist for us, the folks at ScienceDirect have not caught on to the opensource education movement. To be able to read the full article regarding the study one must shell out $31.50.

So we have not been able to discern what McKinney postulates as rationale for the students listening to a podcast to perform better than those students hearing the lecture in person.

But the abstract alone confirms that as education gives careful consideration as to how best to implement technology, things change when the focus is on steps to make education more affordable. Because, if lectures and the accompanying power point slides available on iTunes produce even similar academic outcomes as traditional face-to-face lecture formats, then the enormous potential cost savings from taped online versions would in fact render the current educational model obsolete.

Flickr photos courtesy of Tama Leaver and Eli Hodapp.

February 1, 2009   9 Comments

John Robb on “The Education Bubble” and the Opportunities Provided

John Robb, the author of Brave New War, recently speculated on the future of American education at Global Guerillas.

His first noteworthy point centers upon his assessment of the current educational process. Referring to our current form as an admixture of industrial and artisan processes, Robb correctly notes that “the quantities of product (graduates) produced and the facilities resemble industrial processes” even as the “actual production is most closely akin to artisanship (with guilds, no less!).”

Amazon.comSuch a reference mirrors one of the age-old questions for educators. Is teaching a science or an art? It also raises one of the ongoing and legitimate criticisms of the current educational structure, one that actually follows the factory assembly line model.

Higher Education

Robb spends little time on that notion, instead shifting immediately to the costs of education and the failure of schools, at all levels, to significantly increase student performances despite enormous funding increases. Here again, Robb is dead on, and his description of the process as “an albatross of cost and stagnating quality” is certainly consistent with those who are concerned with the failure of public schools to significantly improve student performance.  

But Robb saves his strongest criticisms for higher education. Beginning with the costs for collegiate education, expenses that have increased 4.39 times faster than inflation over the last three decades, Robb indicates that higher education is no longer affordable for most households, especially as median family incomes stagnate.

Robb offers the following interesting assertion:

“Worse, there is reason to believe that costs of higher education (direct costs and lost income) are now nearly equal (in net present value) to the additional lifetime income derived from having a degree.  Since nearly all of the value of an education has been extracted by the producer, to the detriment of the customer, this situation has all the earmarks of a bubble.”

Unlike the Housing Bubble
While the current situation involving higher education has all the makings of matching the recent housing bubble, instead of the downturn facing the housing sector Robb sees the higher education bubble as offering immense opportunity to introduce educational improvements.  

At the heart of those improvements is the greater use of technology and the “ability of collaborative online education to replace much, if not most of in person teaching.” As many others have noted, there are some specific improvements afforded by greater use of technology in education:

  • Lectures – Robb notes that video lecture series, along with associated learning materials, for many courses at some of the best universities in the world are now available online. He rightly notes that such an option allows students to get the very best lecture available (“There is no need to recreate the lecture with tens of thousands of less qualified/exceptional teachers”). mrploughWhy attend another university when the very best lectures are available free.
  • Application – Robb adds the push towards just-in-time information processes. Operating online with a JIT focus, we “can train kids to adults in complicated and complex tasks in a fraction of the time other methods require.” Such an approach is the complete antithesis of our current approach, one that features a broad array of subjects and concepts with the idea that students learn certain materials just-in-case there may be a need to know sometime in the future.  
  • Collaboration – Robb notes the shifting of the business world from in-person work to a greater emphasis in online collaboration. Instead, at the university level, we continue the age old push to have face-to-face contact, with all students and the professor being present at the same time and in the same place. The idea of moving aspects online still is not “central to the educational world.”

We have discussed many of these notions in our prior work, including a lecture repository, just-in-time learning, and the need for education to begin to embrace the concept of social networking. We have also shared with readers David Wiley’s assessment that higher education as it currently is structured is “Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant.”

Education’s Shift to a Fully Online Environment
While some may see his suggestions as radical, Robb is unequivocal as to the future of education.

“The shift towards online education as the norm and in-person as the exception will arrive,” he writes, “however, the path is unclear.  It is currently blocked by guilds/unions, inertia, credentialism, and romantic notions.” 

As noted, if we are indeed in a higher education bubble, the current economic downturn could well become one of the key catalysts for a radical shift in educational delivery. Robb suggests that the need for local governments to balance their budgets in the face of dwindling revenues will demand extensive cost-cutting measures. Those cost-cutting steps will have to include reduced monies for education, often the single biggest local expense, forcing higher education to pursue more cost-effective delivery methods (online courses).

If we are in the midst of a real higher education bubble, schools will likely see a dwindling student population. Here, Robb speculates on a amazing option. What if MIT or Harvard decided to “offer full credentials to online students at a tiny fraction of the cost of being in attendance.”  He postulates that the result just might be “ten million students enroll in the first year to attend Harvard’s virtual world.”

metaweb20Of course, yet another option involves an entirely different take, one that features the opensource movement. If in-person education continues to be too expensive but no institution is able to step forward to create a major online brand, the entire world of education shifts. “A massive open source effort develops,” writes Robb, leading to the creation of “virtual worlds and other online courseware that rivals the best universities.”

In the third scenario there would be a need for a new credentialing agency. Of course one quick answer could be a continued move towards standardized testing and students demonstrating, by their performance on such tests, that their education in fact does match what one might have received in the more traditional college setting.  

The Future of Education
At the heart of Robb’s notions is the need for a “productive educational system that produces high quality graduates” but does so “at a small fraction (an order of magnitude less) of the current costs.” In addition, moving to online, just-in-time formats, would perhaps offer the kind of flexibility that is needed if workers, and our educational systems, are “to meet the challenges of a rapidly mutating global economy.”  

Robb even goes so far as to toss around a potential cost of $20.00 a month. While that seems a bit beyond the realm of possibility, the rest offers strong food for thought.

In fact, he might have hit one more proverbial nail on the head. While his ideas as to where education could head have been speculated by others before, his idea that the current higher ed financial crisis could be a catalyst for major change seems dead on.

In fact, in our history, once it has become clear that we can do something as well if not better at far less cost, the entrepreneurial spirit has taken off. Tougher financial times always place a demand on innovation, making us wonder:

Will education continue to be immune?

Or will technology finally intercede and lead one of the last bastions of our society to finally consider new, more cost-effective models?

Flickr photos courtesy of mrplough and metaweb.

January 29, 2009   1 Comment

Will OpenSource Concepts Define Education in 21st Century?

Eliminating Control – Mark Pesce on the potential of a shared and connected, opensource educational environment.

In the process of web surfing, there are times you stumble on some gems – some material so transcendent you find yourself spellbound.

Such is the case with the work of Mark Pesce at The Human Network. David Parry, assistant professor of Emergent Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, offers his assessment of Pesce’s work on his AcademHack blog:

“I find Pesce to be one of the more provocative thinkers on the internet and matters of cultural transformation. I am not sure I always agree with what he suggests, but this is also one of the reasons I find him worth reading.”

ottonassarParry also notes the recent Pesce posts, all of which are connected, are the rarest of internet materials.

“In this series I read each piece at least twice,” states Parry, “some three times. They are that good.”

Fluid Learning
To fully grasp how education can be transformed by technology, we begin by taking a peek at Pesce’s Fluid Learning. But before we do so we turn back to our trilogy from last February, our review of the digital commons.

We noted the Committee on Economic Development’s report, Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation: Harnessing the Benefits of Openness, that touts the success of the “Digital Commons” approach. The report notes the “benefits of openness” and insists that continued openness is critical for further growth.

Most importantly, the report challenges the thinking of those who view the digital world in the same manner as that of the physical world. And if one can begin to think about how we might replace the current physical construct for education amongst this new digital age, we perhaps finally see where a new learning model emerges.

Pesce writes:

“It’s all about control.

“What’s most interesting about the computer is how it puts paid to all of our cherished fantasies of control. The computer – or, most specifically, the global Internet connected to it – is ultimately disruptive, not just to the classroom learning experience, but to the entire rationale of the classroom, the school, the institution of learning. And if you believe this to be hyperbolic, this story will help to convince you.

“Flexibility and fluidity are the hallmark qualities of the 21st century educational institution. An analysis of the atomic features of the educational process shows that the course is a series of readings, assignments and lectures that happen in a given room on a given schedule over a specific duration. In our drive to flexibility how can we reduce the class into essential, indivisible elements? How can we capture those elements? Once captured, how can we get these elements to the students? And how can the students share elements which they’ve found in their own studies?”

Pesce offers four recommendations:

Capture Everything
WikipediaWhen it comes to traditional college settings, Pesce notes succinctly: “Lecturers are expensive.” But the process of “recording is cheap.”

Of course, recording everything creates enormous new challenges. It “means you end up with a wealth of media that must be tracked, stored, archived, referenced and so forth.”

In Pesce’s eyes capturing everything means no front-end decisions as to the worthiness of any material. Just capture and let the natural course of events determine its value.

Share Everything
In a move analogous to the recent open courseware available from Stanford and MIT, Pesce also notes, “While education definitely has value – teachers are paid for the work – that does not mean that resources, once captured, should be tightly restricted to authorized users only. In fact, the opposite is the case: the resources you capture should be shared as broadly as can possibly be managed.”

In making this mindset shift, Pesce explains:

“The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.”

Open Everything
Next instead of commercializing, Pesce suggests a look at the open-source solutions.

“Rather than buying a solution,” states Pesce, “use Moodle, the open-source, Australian answer to digital courseware. Going open means that as your needs change, the software can change to meet those needs. Given the extraordinary pressures education will be under over the next few years, openness is a necessary component of flexibility.

“Openness is also about achieving a certain level of device-independence. Education happens everywhere, not just with your nose down in a book, or stuck into a computer screen.”

And Pesce means open, fully open – thus filtering must be eliminated.

“The classroom does not exist in isolation, nor can it continue to exist in opposition to the Internet. Filtering, while providing a stopgap, only leaves students painfully aware of how disconnected the classroom is from the real world. Filtering makes the classroom less flexible and less responsive. Filtering is lazy.”

Only Connect
nathanaelbAs for the most transformative element, Pesce indicates it might well be the connective elements we now have available. His words mirror those of the recent Digital Youth Project survey, one that insists that social networking is fundamental to students using the computer and the internet as educational tools.

“Mind the maxim of the 21st century: connection is king. Students must be free to connect with instructors, almost at whim. This becomes difficult for instructors to manage, but it is vital. Mentorship has exploded out of the classroom and, through connectivity, entered everyday life.

“Finally, students must be free to (and encouraged to) connect with their peers,” adds Pesce. “Part of the reason we worry about lecturers being overburdened by all this connectivity is because we have yet to realize that this is a multi-lateral, multi-way affair.

“Students can instruct one another, can mentor one another, can teach one another. All of this happens already in every classroom; it’s long past time to provide the tools to accelerate this natural and effective form of education.

The Universal Solvent
As for how it all might work, take a trip down the “what if” of universal connectivity and sharing, of opening and capturing everything.

As one school places materials online, Pesce believes that a natural altruistic nature will prevail causing others to begin to follow.

“It’s outstanding when even one school provides a wealth of material, but as other schools provide their own material, then we get to see some of the virtues of crowdsourcing. First, you have a virtuous cycle: as more material is shared, more material will be made available to share. After the virtuous cycle gets going, it’s all about a flight to quality.”

DrupalThen comes a new frontier:

“When you have half a dozen or have a hundred lectures on calculus, which one do you choose? The one featuring the best lecturer with the best presentation skills, the best examples, and the best math jokes – of course.”

Of course, there would be a need to obtain student input to reach that level of information. We also would need a cataloging type site.

“Why not create, a website designed to sit right alongside iTunes University?” asks Pesce. “If Apple can’t or won’t rate their offerings, someone has to create the one-stop-shop for ratings. ”

And the real possibility for transcending education as we currently know it?

“When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students,” writes Pesce. “The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication.”

But schools as we know them – are they necessary?

“The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?”

Currently, students do not have “the same facilities or coordination tools.” Our structures mean that at this moment “the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student.”

tujiguomanIn fact, that is what our current institutions offer for a strength, they exist “to coordinate the various functions of education.” But in the future, when we truly have an open school concept, we could well see a heretofore unheard of paradigm shift.

“In this near future world, students are the administrators,” writes Pesce. “All of the administrative functions have been ‘pushed down’ into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors ‘bid’ to work with students.

All About Control
When it comes to knowledge, the opensource, opencourseware movement is gaining ground. For Pesce, the rationale is clear and the benefits without limit.

Of technology and the internet, “The challenge of connectivity is nowhere near as daunting as the capabilities it delivers,” states Pesce. “Yet we know already that everyone will be looking to maintain control and stability, even as everything everywhere becomes progressively reshaped by all this connectivity.

“We need to let go, we need to trust ourselves enough to recognize that what we have now, though it worked for a while, is no longer fit for the times. If we can do that, we can make this transition seamless and pleasant.

“So we must embrace sharing and openness and connectivity; in these there’s the fluidity we need for the future.”

Some Thought-Provoking Work

We noted earlier that the recent Pesce posts, all of which are connected, represent the rarest of internet materials.

Like David Parry, we have read each piece at least twice. As a suggested order, we turn back to David for his suggestion for those interested in reading further:

“Start with Fluid Learning the first in the series, then check out The Alexandrine Dilemma and Crowdsource Yourself, ending with Inflection Points.”

Flickr photos courtesy of ottonassar, nathanaelb, tujiguoman, and KK+.

December 21, 2008   No Comments

Ira David Socol on Teach for America, KIPP Schools, and Reforming Education

Today we present readers an in-depth interview with Ira David Socol, author of “The Drool Room” and the web site “SpeEdChange.” Our interest in talking with Ira centered upon three critical factors.

First, there is little doubt that Ira is passionate about education and the process of learning. More importantly, that passion is relentlessly focused on creating a learning process that is responsive to the needs of learners.

Second, to be frank, Ira shares some of our views on how best to reform education. He notes that there are a multitude of ways to create positive learning opportunities for students but our current school structures prevent the flexibility necessary to provide alternate paths. Like, he is also a strong proponent of the use of technology yet does not buy into the “digital natives” nonsense.

Third and perhaps most importantly, Ira is extremely courageous. He is unwavering in his support for students and is willing to step out on a limb if it means questioning the system. He is one of the rare individuals we have seen who has been willing to speak out about what he sees as fundamental flaws in programs like Teach for America and the KIPP school concept (Knowledge is Power Program).

Ultimately, we believe it is important that everyone involved in education is familiar with his work.

Can you give our readers a brief introduction to the key elements of your personal bio?

I come to the field of education from an interesting direction. I know that most in the field, be they teachers, administrators, teacher education faculty, are there because they liked school, and so they wanted to stay. School worked for them – at least on some significant level – and school made sense to them.

The key part of my bio for this interview is that none of that was true for me. From the beginning I hated school, and struggled with it. I have never seen school as a place for education, but rather as a place of compliance with nonsensical rules which have stopped me from learning.

But luckily I was shown alternatives. Early in my school life I discovered what were then “books on LP” – audio books – and I always preferred listening to reading. I had the good fortune to attend a Neil Postman designed alternative high school led by the best educator I know in America, a teacher named Alan Shapiro, and in that “school without walls” (or grades, time schedules, or requirements) I found the freedom to actually learn. I also saw, at Pratt Institute, that every subject (even concrete engineering) could benefit from flexibility, and project-based learning.

Mostly, I’ve had the chance to do many things. I’ve designed houses and been a police officer. I’ve worked on newspapers and pulled thousands of miles of network cables. I’ve programmed computers and worked for a homeless support agency. I’ve coached soccer and taught art classes. I’ve seen this very wide variety of humans learn and communicate in a very wide variety of ways. And in seeing this world, I have learned that the rules, the strategies, the technologies, and the methods typically taught in school do not match what actual humans need.

So, to educators, I’m a bundle of contradictions: the book author who seems to argue against books, for example. But outside of school, as we drive down the road listening to our audiobooks, or download our reading to our phones, people do understand what I’m talking about.

Can you talk a little bit about your book, The Drool Room? The visual with the reversed Rs in the title certainly creates a lasting impression. I am also not clear as to what is meant by a “novel in stories?”

I really worried about the reversed Rs. I fought the design at first. “Generic dyslexic humor,” as The Simpsons put it. But it does generate impact, and it tells a story in a very effective shorthand. As someone who does reverse and otherwise twist letters at times, I know the image well. “I have a kid brother, he’s six, he writes just like you.”

The Drool Room is fiction, but, yes, many parts are “autobiographically informed.” I’m not going to say which. It is not a memoir. It has experiences of mine and experiences of others assembled, tracking a – shall we say – “challenging student” through school and through life. There’s a thread – “seeing differently” is a lifespan kind of thing.

It is told as a series of short stories and microfictions which alternate through a non-linear story line. That’s a literary style: Joyce, Dos Passos, Seamus Deane, that I think really works. The straight-line novel, you know, see climax on page 312, doesn’t hold a great deal of interest for me.

Your blog SpeEdChange offers the sub-header, “The future of education for all the different students in democratic societies.” Can you provide greater insight as to what you mean by that sub-heading as well as what tends to be your focus on the site?

Let me take you back to the origins. When I began my graduate degree program many advised me to join a list-serve called “SpEdPro,” for special education academics, and I did. A month later I posted a response to some question, and in my response I suppose I betrayed my postmodern thought patterns. That is, I doubted the idea that quantitative research of groups could “prove” the best solutions for individual students. And I was immediately hammered – just flat out attacked – as if I was threatening the entire structure of society. The battle ranged across almost 100 posts, but I had, essentially, no defenders.

So, I quit that, and created SpeEdChange, a place where I might doubt, and find others who doubt. And where we might “Speed Change in Education,” especially for those labeled as “different” in our societies. It remains significantly a “special needs education” site in some ways – now, I don’t actually believe in special education, because I firmly believe that every student, every human, has “special needs” in some ways and is “gifted” in some ways – but I do believe in protecting our most vulnerable first.

The spirit of the blog lies in a couple of ideas. “Democracy” – not “majority rule” faux democracy, but actual “protection from majority tyranny” democracy, is essential for society and education. If we do not have that, we will never grant our students the right to control their own learning, and thus, we will never allow them to become effective lifespan learners. “Universal Design,” the idea that solutions in the classroom (or workplace) not be “prescribed” as if as cures for pathologies, but be offered freely to all, so that we learn to make effective choices. And “Liberation Technology,” the idea that using tools effectively is how humans free themselves from their individual and group limitations.

From your writings readers can clearly discern your strong opposition to the tenets of the Teach for America program. Can you highlight for our readers your thoughts on TFA?

Teach for America is a “colonial project.” It is a “missionary project.” It begins with the basic premise that the solution for the underclass in America is to make them ‘as much like’ rich white folks as possible. When you listen to the TFA leadership, they don’t really talk about “education,” probably because they don’t really believe in education. They talk about “leadership” instead. If they believed in education they would see education as important on the path to effective teaching, an idea they specifically reject, replacing it with the thought that since TFA corps members represent the elites (or, religiously, the “elect”), all they have to do is “lead” the downtrodden out of poverty.

This is essentially the British Colonial conversion concept. “We’ll fix Nigeria/Ireland/South Africa/India. We’ll just teach them to speak the Queen’s English, give them a Parliament, and make them wear powdered wigs in court. Then they’ll be civilized. And like the British Empire, this strategy is adopted because TFA’s board and supporters have no desire to ever relinquish power to a rising colonial population. If it’s all about “follow the leader,” the leader never changes.

Beyond that, TFA is a “cover up.” Rather than enlist our elite universities in the fight to reallocate resources, or improve democracy, or build equality of opportunity, or even simply to improve teacher pay, support, and status, we use them to offer the fig leaf of charity to deflect any actual movement within society.

And beyond that, TFA is a “good enough for those kids” effort. I say, over and over, that if TFA wants to prove itself, replace the faculties of the schools in Scarsdale, NY or Greenwich, CT, or at Groton and St. Bernard’s, with TFA corps members. And let those teachers – holding their current salaries – go to the TFA placements. If TFA improves the education in those wealthy places, it will have proved itself. If the teachers from those top schools have better impacts than TFA teachers do in the impoverished districts, we’ll know that better teacher training, better teacher pay, and redistributing resources is the way to go.

By most accounts, the TFA program seems to be immensely popular. According to what we have read, the program is turning away large numbers of applicants. In your estimation, why is the TFA program so popular?

Of course it is popular. It is marketed as a great way to build your resume while assuaging liberal guilt at the same time. It offers the perfect entitlement, a job without the need for real commitment or the effort which goes into real training. As banking jobs shrink, this seems the perfect two or three year placeholder.

You also have frequently shared your opposition to the Knowledge is Power Program (the network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools, called KIPP). Can you share with readers your position and why you have taken such a stance regarding this program?

Let me put it this way. Let’s go to those “best schools in America” in the wealthiest suburbs of New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles. Why aren’t they run like KIPP Academies? Always ask this when rich people offer “solutions” for poor people which those rich people would never accept for themselves.

Oh yeah, the rich parents want creativity and flexibility and diverse curricula. They want individualized discipline (if they want discipline at all). They’d have very little patience for chanting in classes and being told what to do with their children at home. But, you know, “those people,” they’re not “like us.”

Again, we’re back at the brutally low expectations, and the inherent racism and classism of colonialism. So, sure, convert Scarsdale High into a KIPP Academy, show me how it works there, and then offer it to those “less fortunate.”

Today, everyone is interested in improving education, there just seems to be real disagreement as how to best do so in our country. If you were to advise the incoming Secretary of Education on a couple of must areas to consider, what would be the two aspects of education you would most want to see reformed moving forward?

I’ll start with two words: Technology and Flexibility. We need to rethink the technology of our schools, from the shape of our classrooms to the schedules of our days, weeks, and year, to our text systems. Right now we are stuck in buildings quite literally designed in the 1840s (when chalkboards, desks, chairs, and books printed on rotary presses were all “scientifically” introduced). We are stuck with quasi industrial timing, and the industrial processing notions of “grades” (not marks, but the years in school). Only when we break those bonds, and use the technologies of our time to break through our geographical and knowledge boundaries, can we begin to find the flexibility we need to create education which finally works for more than one third of the population.

That flexibility means not assessing for “expected” (based on group averages) progress. It means teachers having “instructional tolerance” for differences in student learning styles and behaviors. It means project-based, interest-based learning which responds to learner needs. It means Universal Design in both technology and practice so that students learn to access and work with information in the ways most effective for them. It means accepting – finally – that “what you learn” is far more important than doing it in any exactly prescribed way.

That is “the change we need.” If we do not begin there, it is all tinkering around the edges, and honestly, that is worthless.

In your two posts last April on teachers and technology, you clearly took a strong position on the issue of technology in education. Could you highlight for our readers your general view of where technology fits in the 21st century classroom?

I believe that, in many ways, we define our human cultures by our technologies. This is because we are, above all else, tool users. Without tools, humans as we know them could simply not exist. So we say, “The Bronze Age,” “The Iron Age,” “The Stone Age,” now, “The Information Age,” because that is who we are.

Right now our classrooms are based in “Age of Steam” technologies. From the desk, to the time schedule, to the mass-printed ink-on-paper book, to the machine made pens and pencils. It is as if we are running “heritage academies,” producing people ready for the jobs, and the higher learning, of 1890.

That is disastrous on so many levels, not just as job prep. In my PhD program the ink-on-paper book is stunningly rare. Research is on line, communication is on line. I need to know how to Skype or Google Chat with distant colleagues, to glean data from blogs and list-serves around the world. I read many newspapers, but none are on paper. I convert reading which is difficult for me from text-to-speech, and my phone converts voice mails from voice-to-text. In every place I go, if I look around, the communication devices and “learning containers” are different from those we focus on in schools.

More important, technology liberates, it breaks boundaries. You have a non-reader? They can still grab the world of literature, and do it independently. Someone who can’t hold a pen? They can still express themselves to the world, without waiting for a scribe to help. Have a child in a distant rural area? They can access every one of the world’s greatest libraries. Have two communities separated by issues of the past? Join them digitally first, and let them build connections.

More practically, students need to know how to use email, Google, mobile phones, texting, blogs, online newspapers, and how to use them appropriately and effectively simply in order to survive. Don’t buy the “digital natives” nonsense. These are skills like any other skills, and they have to be learned. We are either teaching them, or we are not giving our kids the tools they need.

Schools which fail to embrace these technologies leave their students behind. No, their rich, majority group students will be fine, those technologies (and, say, Blackberry strategies) will be there at home. But the vulnerable students will be left in the dark.

So, any insight as to what is next for education?

Education ‘as we know it’ is about social reproduction. We are trying to produce students who are “just like the teachers.” And there is a sad feedback loop in this, educators see, in the students who succeed in these reproductive schools, people just like themselves.

But we need to be better than that – not because our standardized tests “prove” that only about one third of our students “achieve proficiency” (or ever have, you can look back at the stats at least to 1867) – but because our society needs to change, because it is changing, and schools need to support that.

But it is very hard for teachers to support learning which does not look like their own learning. Very hard. It requires levels of tolerance, of empathy, which are rare. It requires flexibility and a dramatic change in the role of the teacher. And it requires information and communication technologies which can offer pathways that the teacher can not.

It also requires more respect for teachers, more freedom for teachers, and much more support, in terms of ongoing educational opportunities and much better initial teacher training.

It isn’t easy, but I think it is essential.

Flickr photo courtesy of LGagnon.

December 11, 2008   17 Comments

Latest Brain Research – Low-Income Children Function Differently

Lest we sound terribly repetitious, we note that only a little more than a month has gone by since the last compelling new brain research study was released. In addition to looking at the differences in brain response for 8- and 9-year-olds, we have previously noted the importance of executive function in similar-age children, the mounting evidence regarding brain fitness for seniors, and the distinctions related to the brains of boys and girls.

The latest developments, however, are definitely the most shocking. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have reportedly now “shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.”

Monumental ImplicationsScience Daily
In simplest terms, the study determined that “normal 9- and 10-year-olds” who differed only in socioeconomic status “have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.”

Unfortunately, those detectable differences reveal what many had feared. Robert Knight, director of the Cal Berkeley Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and a professor of psychology states:

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult. We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

According to the researchers, what makes the study so unique is that it was the first to directly measure brain activity without examining differentiation for task complexity. The researchers found that children who grow up in resource-poor environments “have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating.”

Intellectual Poverty

The children studied did not suffer from any neural damage. Researchers pronounced these youngsters free of prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, and without neurological damage.

Yet the researchers found that children who grow up in poverty are not only more likely to have health problems, there is clearly an issue with brain development as well. While that lack of development could be due to poor nutrition or the inability to gain access to proper health care, the researchers suggested it more likely stems “from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Ultimately, whatever the case, the prefrontal cortex area of the brain for low-socioeconomic children simply was not functioning as efficiently as one would expect it to be.

Solutions Exist
While a startling development overall, perhaps the most important aspect is that the researchers insist “the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training.” Working with fellow Cal Berkeley neuroscientists, the professors are examining how to possibly “use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.”

peta-de-aztlanKnight adds:

“It’s not a life sentence. We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Still, as one professor offers, “The study is … a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development.”

The Key Debate
One of the key discussion points regarding students who struggle versus those who excel in the school setting is based upon the fundamental question of “nature versus nurture.” The study appears to reveal an extra level of importance on the nurturing element.

At the same time, there appears to be some noteworthy interventions that could offset that lack of nurturing, provided students are exposed to those interventions as early in the schooling process as is reasonably possible.

Flickr photo courtesy of peta-de-aztlan.

December 7, 2008   No Comments

Charter Schools – Raleigh Charter a Role Model for the Movement

In June we took a brief look at Newsweek’s annual list of the 100 top performing high schools in the nation. One of the more interesting aspects of the list was the number of charter schools named by the magazine. The select group of schools included 10 charter schools, a number deemed statistically relevant. Whereas 10% of the Newsweek top performers were charter schools, only 3% of all public schools nationwide fall within that category. In essence, the ratio of charter high performers was triple that of traditional public high schools.

At the time we cautioned readers not to get too carried away, particularly since the Newsweek list of high schools was (and is) constructed utilizing a single calculation (the ratio of the number of college-level exams taken by students divided by the number of graduating seniors). The Newsweek top performers all had an index of at least 1.000.

In addition, our look at the first three charter schools on the list, BASIS Charter in Tucson (the number one high school in America by Newsweek), Preuss Charter in San Diego (4th overall), and MATCH Charter in Boston (25th overall), all gave us pause before jumping on the charter bandwagon.

But earlier this summer, we had a chance to visit Raleigh Charter School in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 27th school on the Newsweek list. We met with Principal Tom Humble and completed a site visit.

We came away extremely impressed with Mr. Humble who undertook the creation of a school from scratch as well as the institution itself. The school appears to be everything a community could hope for, small, intimate, innovative, and most importantly, high-performing.

Raleigh Charter
Raleigh CharterRaleigh Charter High School was created by an eclectic mix of individuals that included business professionals, experienced educators, and college professors. A critical component for the school’s creation centered upon the desire of 8th grade parents with children at The Magellan Charter School to continue the “secure, nurturing, academically enriched education” they felt their children were receiving at Magellan.

Principal Humble credited both Pamela Blizzard, a parent and business person, and Mike Jordan, the principal at Magellan at the time, for bringing about the concept. “Pamela wrote a model application,” stated Humble. “She dreamed up the idea and put it out there.

“And Mike was truly instrumental – he has been with us, on the board, since the school’s inception,” added Humble. “He was invaluable in many ways: he had the experience to be a mentor to me and he had the charter-school experience to offer wise and calming advice during this ‘exciting’ period.”

At the same time, the founders sought to expand the educational opportunity to include more Raleigh-area students than just those coming from Magellan. The key founding principles for the new high school included:

  • creating a small community of learners to allow teachers to focus on teaching,
  • active, involved parents that supported the teaching staff and communicated to their children the importance of education,
  • and hands-on, experiential learning.

As for a mission, Raleigh Charter was designed to challenge “college-bound students in a creative and supportive atmosphere to become knowledgeable, thoughtful, contributing citizens.” In addition, the school would seek to “graduate citizens of the world by creating an interconnected learning environment that combines a demanding college-preparatory education with a curriculum that teaches and models citizenship skills.”

Pilot MillThe school is located in Historic Pilot Mill, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located adjacent to Peace College, two of the mill buildings were renovated for the school: the 1910 building that houses the school’s administrative offices and classrooms for subjects including biology, math, English, social studies, languages, art, music and drama, and the adjacent 1894 Weaving building that features the chemistry, computer, foreign language and physics labs.

Getting the Job Done
Students at Raleigh Charter have certainly distinguished themselves academically. Numerous forms of recognition have been bestowed upon the school and the student body.

Superb student performances on the North Carolina-mandated End-of-Course tests have earned the RCHS Honor School of Excellence status in 2005. 2006 and 2007. Prior to those distinguished honors, RCHS was named a School of Distinction in 2000 and a School of Excellence for 2001 through 2004.

Students at WorkIn addition to being selected 27th in the most recent Newsweek top 100 list, the school was ranked ninth in the 2005 by Newsweek and 18th in 2007. In 2006, the school’s Quiz Bowl team won the PACE National Championship, and in both 2005 and 2006 the school ranked number one in the world on the AP Environmental Science examinations.

However, the many student successes were not at all part of the conversation with Principal Humble. “I do not brag about our school’s successes in national and state testing.

“When students have identified themselves as college preparatory, they ought to do well on these tests and examinations,” he states. “We are not competing with other high schools; we are competing with our school.”

Beyond the student performances, RCHS is setting a very high standard for other schools, charter and traditional public alike. Among the many unique, innovative educational aspects include Flex Day scheduling and Citizenship Days. These concepts reflect the belief that students “learn more when they are active, social, and creative learners.” In addition the school offers some truly unique curricula featuring courses in Constitutional Law, Modern African Seminar, Modern Latin American Seminar, and Systems Theory.

Humble puts the innovation in simple terms.

“We are an education lab. We are willing to try new things and make good ideas grow. And we want our teachers to develop programs that will help them grow. We do not want a mundane setting.”

Because of its high success rate and innovative practices, Raleigh Charter’ was selected by DPI consultants to participate in a program focusing on high-school reinvention. RCHS was one of ten high schools in North Carolina and just seventy-five schools to be selected.

Admission Process

As is mandated by charter school legislation, RCHS is a public high school serving students from North Carolina. The sole program being offered at the school is the college and university preparatory track so students must meet a basic academic standard in mathematics (a student must be prepared for Algebra I or higher level math course as they enter ninth grade).

Public LotteryThere is also an application process but there are no other thresholds mandated and students actually are admitted through a public lottery. That said, the academic rigor is strong and many courses at RCHS are offered only at the honors (advanced) level.

Though the lottery process provides the bulk of the student body, the school does give preference to qualified siblings of current students and qualified children of the principal, teachers, and teacher assistants for admission. Though acceptances occur by chance, a goal of “graduating citizens of the world” has the school committed to increasing the diversity of both the student body and faculty. With a lottery process, that diversity can come only by creating a diverse applicant pool, something the school works very hard to create. Of course, once a minority student is selected during the lottery, his or her siblings then have priority options, helping to create greater diversity.

What the Theorists Had in Mind

Without a doubt, Raleigh Charter is precisely the type of school entity charter school proponents have in mind when they tout the concept. With just over 500 students and a committed, innovative teaching staff, RCHS offers children an exceptional educational opportunity and does so with taxpayer dollars. The quality setting and curricula are reminiscent of an elite private school yet the student body consists of randomly selected applicants and includes students who are in need of special education services.

Most importantly, RCHS students excel academically even as their unique programming focuses on citizenship and community involvement. While the top three charter schools on this year’s Newsweek list gave us pause for one reason or another, Raleigh Charter demonstrates why the charter school movement has such strong backing.

It is a concept that can and should be replicated in all 50 states.

Editor’s Note: For more on Raleigh Charter, see our interview with principal Tom Humble.

October 24, 2008   1 Comment