Tuesday, April 27, 2004


I slept through a couple of huge, boooooring TV lecture classes during college. So whenever the idea of “distance learning” comes up, I get skeptical. Though it makes sense to deliver an unusual class such as Japanese in a cost-effective way to kids in small-town schools, for example, e-learning has many, many down sides. It’s already in Nebraska and more is on the way, I bet.

Here’s the real deal on the subject. It’s from a Texas teacher and school reformer I really admire. She has some very sobering warnings to share about e-learning. School board members, make note of the good questions at the bottom. They may come in handy for you.

Reprinted from the website http://education-consumers.com
“A Terrible Distance Learning Model”
By Donna Garner
(Excerpt from testimony before the Texas Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance)
March 29, 2004

For full testimony, please see: http://www.educationnews.org/joint-select-committee-on-public.htm/.

Distance learning has been touted as a way to bring inexpensive courses to e-students, giving them the opportunity to take such courses as Advanced Placement classes. Some Legislators have even suggested giving e-students a publicly funded voucher.

In a district with which I am familiar, the superintendent approached the school board last summer with an idea. He had a great plan for helping the district and some of its teachers to make money. The plan was for eight e-teachers to be chosen to offer e-students Advanced Placement courses. The e-teachers were to have individual carts in their classrooms from which they would tape their presentations, and then upload their presentations to the e-students.

The e-teachers were to earn $80 per e-student up to $8,000 per year. The school district was to earn $80 per e-student with no limit on income. The district was to buy the carts; but if the district did not earn its cost back in three years, the company stated they would buy back the equipment. (Of course, I wonder if the district would be reimbursed for the original cost of the carts or at a depreciated value. In three years, most technology equipment would be almost worthless because it goes out of date so quickly.)

The name of the company which provided the eight carts is Tegrity (http://www.tegrity.com/. The district purchased eight carts at $30,000 per cart for a total of $240,000. The distance learning carts have an out-of-date camera (not digital) that focuses on the teacher's face; a document camera; a computer and screen; and controls with which to manage the two robotic cameras on either side of the room. The teacher is to handle all of these controls from the cart at the same time he is teaching the students the day's lesson. After seeing the DL cart, one technology expert said he estimated the equipment was probably only worth around $5,000. If this is an accurate estimate, then Tegrity is making around $25,000 per cart.

The e-teachers are constantly having to stop the class to fix all the many gadgets, and the numerous pieces of equipment are continually in a state of disrepair. The technology personnel are so busy keeping the eight DL labs running that they have been forced to neglect their duties with the school's computer labs and the other teachers' needs.

USA Distance Learning Network (www.USADLN.org) is in charge of the distance learning courses. USADLN told the eight e-teachers (pressured by the administrators to participate) that each e-teacher would be paid per course. Six weeks after school started, the e-teachers were told by the company that instead of being paid for each course, they would instead be paid for only one course even if the e-teachers were uploading two different courses.

The e-teachers kept uploading their courses, waiting to be told where their materials were going. Way into the school year, USADLN finally told the administrators and e-teachers that there actually were no e-students yet but to keep uploading their courses as a trial run for next year. Meanwhile the e-teachers had spent huge amounts of time learning how to run the equipment, taping their courses, and reconfiguring all their curriculum materials for the uploading format. In fact, the e-teachers have told me they have neglected their own classroom students because of spending so much time in preparation for their e-students.

Toward the end of the first semester, USADLN held a meeting and told the e-teachers and administrators there would be no money at all coming to them this school year but that they were sure to be paid next school year. "Keep on uploading." When the e-teachers got upset, the superintendent told them, "You knew there was a risk when you decided to participate." However, the e-teachers did not know there was a risk and were pressured by the administration into becoming e-teachers.

What is the classroom like in which the e-teachers are taping their uploads? The students hate the distance learning carts because they take the teacher's attention off the class members. Something is always breaking; new glitches are constantly popping up. Students have to wait on their teachers to exchange equipment with other e-teachers or to rectify problems with the network. Because the e-teachers are taping their Advanced Placement courses, students who are taking numerous AP classes this year may have as many as four teachers e-taping their presentations.

The regular classroom students have to sit to either side of the cart because the e-teacher's body plus the cart cover the chalkboard on which the documents have to be shown. The chalkboards are treated with a special solution; but because the boards were designed for teachers to write on them with chalk, the boards have been mounted at eye level. When the DL cart projects the slides on the chalkboard, most of the students in the classroom cannot see the material. To make it possible for students to see the board, they have to split their rows down the middle of the room which forces students to sit too close to each other, creating possible discipline problems.

The e-teacher cannot move freely around the room because he is constantly manipulating the equipment on the cart. The microphone in the center of the ceiling does not pick up the classroom discussions very well. The robotic cameras placed in two positions in the classroom are ineffective because of their limited trajectory, and the document camera on the cart can only project documents which are flat -- totally ineffective with textbook pages.

What does the e-student experience? He is basically sitting in front of a computer watching a video and has no interaction with the e-teacher whatsoever. Since the microphone which is placed in the e-teacher's classroom is ineffective, the e-student cannot hear classroom discussions. The two robotic cameras are not quick enough to respond and don't pick up the activities going on in various places in the classroom. The camera on the cart which televises the teacher's presentation is so close to the teacher's face that the e-student viewing the tape sees a bigger-than-normal teacher's face on his screen.

Once an e-teacher begins to tape a certain class period, he must continue with that same class all semester; or else the e-student will experience lack of continuity and flow of the curriculum. If there are interruptions during that particular class, the e-student experiences the interruptions, too. If the regular students go to the library to work on research papers for a week, the e-student does not receive the instruction offered by the e-teacher and experiences a week's gap in taping.

E-teachers have been told that they must send all their tests, keys, notes, lesson plans, and quizzes to the receiving e-student; but who is going to monitor the security of those materials? What is to keep those materials from being sent all over the Internet? If a teacher gives a test one day and goes over the answers with the class the next day, the e-student hears the answers. What keeps the e-student from cheating by looking at his notes, textbooks, etc?

USADLN and Tegrity have evidently given customers the impression that their model is an interactive distance learning system. However, there is no communication at all between the e-teacher and the e-student. The e-teacher does not grade the e-student's tests, compositions, or quizzes; someone working with the e-student will have to do that. What about the expertise of the person monitoring the e-student? Does that person have the ability to grade compositions, research papers, and other subjectively assessed products? How will there be any security over final exams? Who makes sure there is daily accountability for the e-student? How will he be held accountable? If the e-student completes the course, he will get the same English credit on his transcript as the English student sitting in the classroom, working hard each day and being held to daily accountability.

The e-teachers were pressured into signing a "secret" contract which the superintendent told them not to make public to anyone. When he was asked about the legalities of teachers making money during the school day by being paid at the same time they are receiving teachers' pay for teaching their own classroom students, they were told everything had been cleared with the attorney. This is similar to a teacher's holding a second job during the same time in which he is being paid a full teacher's salary.

Since the taxpayers have paid the $240,000 for the eight carts and the school technology personnel are using their time to fix the carts when they constantly break down, the e-teachers' contracts should have been public information.

Before spending taxpayers' money on distance learning programs, the Texas Legislature, the Texas State Board of Education, and the Texas Education Agency need to seek answers to the following questions:


How much actual viewing of the computer screen do e-students do per day, and how much interaction with a qualified teacher do they receive?

What is the distance learning program's previous track record which demonstrates the company is capable of raising e-students' academic achievement?

Specifically how do individual e-students interact with the e-teachers?

Are the e-teachers going to be credentialed and experienced teachers in the field in which they are offering instruction?

Are e-students held to any deadlines? If not, how can we expect students to learn the value of meeting deadlines -- an important life skill when they get out into the real world?

Who monitors the e-student's daily progress, and how is that monitoring documented?

Who grades the e-student's subjectively assessed projects such as essays and research papers?

Who gives e-students their final exams, and who insures the security of the tests and keys?

What kind of security is provided to ensure the enrolled e-students take daily quizzes and tests under supervised conditions?

Since e-students will be getting actual course credit for their classes, who will make sure that e-students do the work themselves instead of cheating?

Where is the independent research to show that e-students gain increased academic achievement from taking distance learning courses?

Where do today's students learn the value of handwriting a document instead of always using the computer? What would happen if there were another electrical blackout and people had to write life-or-death messages in longhand (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc.)? Is there not some value in teaching all students, including e-students, to function without the use of a computer or a graphing calculator?

What about the medical concerns which have surfaced in recent years indicating that children who use computers too much have developed carpal tunnel, back, and other physical problems?

Texas homeschoolers elect whether or not they want to take nationally normed tests; most choose to give their children those tests. However, homeschoolers are completely independent of state control and do not receive any taxpayers' funding. That is a different scenario from state-funded distance learning courses which are paid for by the taxpayers and should require some accountability measures. After all, if a student is going to get credit for English I, how is the state going to verify the e-student has completed the same requirements that a traditionally taught student has completed under the direct supervision of a credentialed teacher?

What about the TEKS (note: Texas statewide exams)? Do the distance learning courses follow the TEKS curriculum standards? What kind of Pre-K through Grade 3 reading curriculum is used? Is it scientifically and research-based? Does it meet the state guidelines regarding decodable text? How is the program delivered? Obviously there is no way that a computer can teach through direct, systematic instruction.

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