“Zombie Ideas” and Online Instruction

November 19, 2012

“Zombie ideas” are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die,” according to Paul Krugman. The astonishment that Krugman expresses about the return of erroneous ideas again and again that simply won’t die regardless of how much  evidence there is to destroy them springs from Krugman’s belief in policymakers being rational beings. Policymakers consider research studies and rational argument, logic, and evidence to inform, make, and determine policy. As anyone in political life knows, however, such analyses do not destroy zombie brains with laser-like rationality. Erroneous ideas trump rationality and account for the zombie phenomenon again and again.

The repeated return of mistaken ideas captures well my experiences with technologies in schools and what I have researched over decades. The zombie idea that is rapidly being converted into policies that in the past have been “refuted with evidence but refuse to die” is: new technologies can cure K-12 and higher education problems of teaching and learning. The most recent incarnation of this revolving-door idea is widespread access to online instruction in K-12 education cyber-charter schools, blended schools where online instruction occurs for a few hours a day, and mandated courses that children and youth have to take.

Here is a brief list of those K-12 problems that promoters say will get solved through virtual instruction.

Traditional whole-class instruction. Teaching lessons to the whole group of 25-30 students at one time generation after generation has resulted in tedium and boredom for students who already know the content or are too far behind to grasp the lesson. It has been difficult for teachers with these size classes and district and state requirements to cover to hit the sweet spot of learning that brings all students along at the same time.

With online instruction, lessons finally become individualized. Online instruction and blended learning provide “differentiated instruction” that can take each student from where he or she is and go to where each one can be–the Holy Grail pedagogical reformers have sought for generations. Moreover, these technological innovations permit some regular classroom teachers to “flip” their lessons, that is, students see teacher lectures or lessons at home and then come to class where teachers help individuals and small groups work through difficulties in understanding the lesson and strengthen skills of critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving.

*Disengaged and underachieving students. Online courses and blended learning will motivate individual students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and embrace learning. Engaged students will achieve higher grades and graduate high school. Online instruction will bring such student up to speed in knowledge and skills necessary to finish academic courses and enter college or careers in a highly competitive global economy.

*Disconnect from world of work. Current content and skills taught in academic subjects seldom have real-world connections. Moreover, while high-tech devices continue to spread in schools, student use is often restricted to low-level tasks hardly tapping the enormous information and communication power of these devices. Students graduate unprepared for an information-driven labor market. Yet digital competence is expected of anyone working in an information-based economy.  Taking online instruction then becomes a normal part of daily learning. We need to close the gap between schools, what students do in daily lessons, and what youth will face when they graduate, advocates say.

Rising cost of schooling children and youth;  The single largest item in K-12 budgets are salaries for classroom teachers.  Acknowledging the variety of online course in virtual schools, cyber-charters, and in regular bricks-and-mortar schools, average expenses for online schooling still comes in lower than costs for teachers in regular age-graded schools. The national average expenditure for instruction in regular schools runs around $10,000. Costs for virtual schools range between $5100 to $7700 and for blended schools $7600 to $10,200. While there are dueling studies over costs among policy advocates and opponents, few would question that online instruction is cheaper than providing a teacher for every class in an age-graded school (The-costs-of-online-learning-1).

Campaigners for online instruction, then, pitch this instructional approach as solving heretofore intractable problems. It is an idea, they say, whose time has come.

But, of course, these ideas appeared before. Consider the 1950s with the promise of instructional television solving problems of  teacher shortages and over-crowded schools. Or the promise of providing access to children and youth through distance education in the 1960s with airplanes flying over the Midwest beaming lessons in schools. Or shall we forget the frenzy over desktop computers put into schools in the 1980s and laptops in the 1990s.

Again and again, new technologies in schools are promoted as solutions to grave educational problems. The evidence of past failures of technology transforming teaching and learning in schools didn’t happen then and, yes, here we are again welcoming the return of a zombie idea.

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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...