Integrated Learning Systems, The New Slavery (1992)
Read this incendiary article I wrote for circulation among my friends back in 1992. I didn’t write as well then and lacked a filter for moderation. However, this remains one of my favorite “blogs” – even if it was written in 18 years ago. Regrettably, the issues addressed in this article apply today to nonsense such as interactive white boards, clickers and classroom cartoon watching.
Be sure to dig the email address listed at the end of the piece!
One educator’s opinion…
Integrated Learning Systems – The New Slavery
©1992 Gary S. Stager
These are curious times for public education in the United States. While millions of children suffer in our nation’s schools, hordes of educators and corporate pitchmen are declaring themselves futurists – the person with the perfect solution for all of our educational ills. Too often the message of these emerging leaders is accompanied by a package of services or product to be purchased by schools in search of the miracle cure. For many of these “experts” technology is the key to educational reform. While I agree that new technologies will play a vital role in creating future learning cultures, the uses of technology often prescribed by the pundits are predicated upon misguided notions of behaviorism, drill, and expensive teaching machines. Unfortunately, many of our educational leaders equate educational restructuring with plugging kids into anything that plugs in. The ultimate result being “the injection of more misery into a school day which is already far too miserable for far too many students.”1 There may be no better example of insensitive educational policy, unnecessary spending, or inappropriate use of technology than the proliferation of integrated learning systems.
Broward County should be ashamed of themselves for their obscenely reckless and irresponsible expenditure of $13.5 million on integrated learning systems. In an age of scarce financial resources, troubled students, deteriorating school facilities, and outdated curricula, county bureaucrats decided to invest in Orwellian technology rather than kids. One might ask how school libraries, music, and art programs are faring in Broward County. How many disenfranchised students will stay in school because of the ILSes? How many others will drop out because of the lowered expectations and reduced human contact? In my opinion, the money would have been better spent buying the students lots of crack cocaine and passing out job applications for a lifetime career in local fast food restaurants.
The harsh metaphor between ILS installations and the drug trade is deliberate due to several similarities in the process of selling drugs and selling ILSes. First of all, the claims of educational euphoria made by ELS manufacturers are at best exaggerated. All of society’s ills and educational shortcomings can be erased by hard-wiring students to integrated learning systems. You can buy thousands of prepared lessons, for all grade levels, interests, subject areas, and levels of difficulty in one package. The absurdity of this claim may be revealed by asking a group of teachers, “How long does it take you to perfect a lesson? How long would it take you to perfect thousands of lessons? How long would it take to communicate the subtleties of those thousands of lessons to a team of software designers?” Other claims along these lines suggest that “kids will like it” and test scores (the very same ones that every educator of conscience – even ETS themselves argue against) will rise. Henry Jay Becker’s recent research on the research claims of the major ILSes provides convincing evidence of how shabby the DLS research actually is. Other research demonstrates that any gains in basic skills are short-lived, lacking in context, and are likely to widen the gap between the average and the remedial students because the remedial student spends his/her time drilling disjointed facts while their peers are more likely to be engaged in more creative and intellectually stimulating activities.
Integrated Learning System companies disproportionately choose states with large populations of rural and urban socioeconomically disadvantaged students for their marketing. Many of these states have centralized decision-making where purchasing decisions are made by detached bureaucrat and politicians. It should come as no surprise that states like New Jersey with 600+ independent school districts have a much lower number of ILSes than more centralized states (or counties). Monetarily and/or educationally disadvantaged district administrators are made to feel intimidated and guilty for “denying their students access to cutting-edge technology and thereby reducing their students prospects for a successful life” if they don’t install an ILS. Are academically successful, well-financed, pedagogically secure school districts or poor, disadvantaged, desperate school districts likely to embrace the ILS message?
Integrated Learning Systems often cause an unwelcome cycle of financial dependency. The painful expense of installing an ELS is disguised by the ELS representatives through a myriad of deferred payment strategies designed to give the impression of “something-for-noting.” Sales are closed with small downpayment/high interest lease-purchasing plans, wining and dining of administrators and politicians, “free” trials, and by interfering with the process of local educational decision- making. How many teachers are approached by the ELS proponents for their input? There are legions of horror stories in which the counsel of school principals, teacher unions, and computer coordinators is ignored by politicians or state department officials enticed by the purveyors of ILSes.
While a generation of children log-in at three and out at eighteen, future generations of illiterate Americans will be paying the debt incurred by the purchase of integrated learning systems. Buy the cool multimedia encyclopedia set-up for $1-2,000 and then the truck backs up with an ELS lab to be paid for into perpetuity.
Sure, the claims continue, “our system teaches problem solving.” As if problem solving could or should be taught as a separate body of facts. Ask a scientist or artist about the problem solving process and you will learn that one of the key elements of true problem solving is the ability to decide which problems are relevant and worth solving. A kid using an ILS is never afforded this opportunity. The “problems” offered by an ELS are often the equivalent of “brain teasers” or “bar tricks” – little challenges outside of any meaningful context for learning.
Another disingenuous claim of the ILS proponents is that they aren’t just for remediation or well- funded Chapter I programs. Why you can “do” whole language or the NCTM Standards on your ILS. In fact, we’ll even load LogoWriter onto your system. If schools actually cared about students telecommunicating internationally, solving problems collaboratively, or sharing information, they would urge the hardware manufacturers to produce low-cost durable notebook computers and FM networks so that the computing experience can be truly personal and learning may occur anywhere.
The notion that the spirit or intellectual empowerment inherent in constructivist/learner-centered innovations, such as whole language or the NCTM Standards, can be achieved in a top-down instructionist ILS environment is absurd. The chances that an DLS will help a student fall in love with learning, express themselves creatively, or enjoy the type of educational culture envisioned by Seymour Papert is less than the the likelihood that West Point will graduate a generation of great jazz musicians.
These systems will influence schools to become less democratic, less exploratory, less risky, and less personal. An ILS has its own set of rules for behavior, interpersonal interaction, [and] pedagogy. The content has been predetermined and is “closed” regardless of the number of “If…then” statements built into the management system. The idea that a computer can teach a student is only slightly more absurd than the misguided notion that the computer will identify student interests and aptitudes and steer that leaner towards a world of intellectual stimulation. Dr. Seymour Papert said in an address at NECC ’91 that, “at best these systems possess marginal intelligence and another word for marginal inteUigence is stupidity. We don’t want stupid systems teaching kids.”
This “tabula rasa” view of education stands in stark contrast to the educational directions endorsed by educators and people of conscience, such as the before mentioned NCTM Standards, whole language movement, or even Headstart The idea that learners of all ages construct their own knowledge through experience and being immersed in a culture of powerful ideas has been ignored by the ELS developers. The model of drill and practice and behaviorism on which the ILS industry is based (the industry will deny this claim) will do little to enhance America’s economic viability or leadership in democracy, science, or the arts. The nation of Jefferson, Dewey and Papert must do better for its children.
There is nothing empowering or humanizing in the philosophy behind the ILS. Teachers are especially at-risk in a world of “managed instruction”, “delivery systems”, “CMI”, “CAI”, “intelligent tutors”, “turn-key and teacher-proof systems.” Any teacher who believes that they can be replaced by a machine, probably should be. Teachers must stop referring to themselves as “facilitators” and proclaim their important role as teachers. In the age of the ELS, a facilitator is barely distinguishable from the minimum-wage earning clerk who tears off the student printouts at the end of day. Today’s teachers have an important role to play as social activists and protectors of children.
Robert Pearlman’s question about whether the Mac is up to the task of being part of an ILS borders on the ridiculous.2 Of course it is. Technologically, the Mac hardware and human interface surpasses the hardware requirements of an DLS. After all, the role of the ILS has changed marginally since 1963. That is unless we want the addition of spiffy sound effects and hypnotic QuickTime graphics to manipulate the learner like a consumer watching a Pepsi commercial. These new multimedia technologies are only exciting and empowering if used by students in open-ended environments like LogoWriter and HyperCard as vehicles for self-expression.
The real question regarding the Macintosh and ILSes is why has Apple Computer sold it’s soul to the devil. Two years ago at NECC, I asked Bernie Gifford (Apple’s V.P. for Education), how Apple reconciled its view of individual empowerment with their growing relationship with ILS manufacturers. Dr. Gifford told me that he shared my concerns and that Apple was working with the D-S manufacturers to make their systems “less dogmatic.” This is quite oxymoronic. By their very nature ELSes are dogmatic. Dr. Gifford’s concerns have obviously been neglected. Since my brief conversation with him, Apple has announced the “Apple Event Education Suite,” an innovation that will make ELS systems less cosily to develop and more pervasive. -
I recently saw a poster in an Apple office containing a quote by John Sculley (Apple’s CEO), stating (paraphrase) “at the heart and soul of Apple is the belief that every person should have a personal computer.” If Mr. Sculley actually believes this, why doesn’t Apple produce a low-cost notebook computer for education in the price-range of the Toshiba lOOOSE? Would it not be educationally sound and profitable to sell a school hundreds of personal notebook computers than twenty-five Macs bolted to counters in a computer lab? How can the company so closely associated with tiie work of Seymour Papert and Alan Kay endorse technological uses so abhorrent to the extraordinary vision of these men and their contemporaries?
The new person responsible for education marketing at Apple Computer, Bert Cummings, recently repudiated Apple’s long-standing support of individual empowerment and child-centered learning in an interview with The Computing Teacher. If this article has not yet convinced you of the ELS threat, read the following quote.
…Within the next five years, we’re going to see another generation of Instructional Learning Systems-something that I’ve called Mediated Learning Systems* Mediated Learning Systems will be much smarter and incorporate far more sophisticated management systems than we have currently. They’ II be a lot richer in video content, and easier to customize for individual students, And they’ll be used in mainstream education-not just for remediation. All students need feedback and reinforcement, but the timing has to be right. You* have to seize the teachable moment. Mediated Learning Systems will enable us* to do this on an hour-by-hour, or even minute-by-minute basis fi
2 Electronic Learning Magazine’s Special Edition, ILS Vendors Embrace the Mac. March,1992 4 I’ve underlined the word, You, to emphasize that a human is uniquely capable of seizing the teachable moment. The thought of a computer intervening in a sympathetic and effective manner is foolish. 5 Who is US? Is it corporate America? Is it a politician in the state capital?
Picture this: a student sitting at a work-station tries to solve a quadratic equation gets it wrong. Within seconds, she is shown a three-minute video that takes her though the process of solving that equation-or a similar one. Then she tries again.7 The reason Vm emphasizing instruction is that Apple has traditionally been a vigorous champion of computers as tools-as bicycles for the mind. We’re certainly not backing away from that. The computer-as-a-tool metaphor is with us and I don’t see it changing. However, along with tools, you have to have architectural plans.* And that’s the role I see for Mediated Learning. (The Computing Teacher, April 1992)
Wake up! Your suspicions have been realized. Apple Computer Corporation is a computer company – not a partner in education. This actualization will benefit schools in the long run. Schools should buy the most appropriate technology at the best price and not depend on computer manufacturers for educational solutions. General Electric ovens don’t come with pot roast workshops and curriculum materials. If it seems as if I’m unfairly picking on Apple it is because D3M has always supported the tyranny of a few computers imposing on the will of the many. A wise educator is wary of corporate altruism
Why is it that the parent groups, legislatures, teacher unions, and journalists who found the prospect of Whittle’s Channel One and two Snickers ads a day so offensive are not alarmed by curriculum being determined by the manufacturers of school rings? Several recent developments point to the genesis of an unholy alliance of large corporations, politicians, and defense contractors. The following stories are plucked from recent news stories and personal interviews.
Gifford Leaves Apple Computer. Dr. Bernard Gifford resigned as Apple’s Vice President of Education and will be forming a corporate partnership with Jostens Learning Corp. to develop higher education software. Jostens is the nation’s largest ELS manufacturer. Remember that this is the man who found ILSes to be dogmatic. (Electronic Learning May/June 1992)
Jostens Learning Corp. to Merge with Wicat Jostens recently purchased one of their chief competitors in the ILS market Jostens has spent the past several years buying up educational talent and pieces of software companies, including a large share of Optical Data Corp. (Electronic Learning May/June 1992)
Felix Rothyn Finds Money for New York City Schools This well respected economist and Chair of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, know as Big Mac, has released $40 million dollars for competitive grants. New York City Schools are being forced to compete for these funds which may only be used to purchase integrated learning systems. Why would a school district with a written policy against workbooks want a million dollar workbook? How can a school administrator say no?
Whittle Announces the Edison Project Advertising czar Chris Whittle announced his plans to build 1,000 for-profit schools. These schools promise to be technology-rich and Whittle hopes to see their technological innovations to unsuspecting (and under-funded) public schools. Want to guess the model of technology use likely to be implemented? One guess, a room full of kids with headsets on, in front of colorful screens makes great photo-ops.
George Bush Announces America 2000 President Bush’s cynical plan to fund handsomely one “community-based” model school in each congressional district while the remainder of the nation’s schools rot has major defense contractors salivating over their grant proposals.
There is a misguided notion in the world of the ILS that school must compete with MTV. Every good teacher, and there are tens of thousands of good teachers in America, knows that a student would much rather spend time interacting with a teacher who nurtures and respects the student’s ideas, dreams, and skills than in front of a TV set In fact, most people agree that to alleviate the currently shameful condition of America’s children is rooted in the lack of personal interaction between children and sensitive adults. No computer is going to replace the artistry of the teacher or alleviate the devastating effects of our society’s shameful neglect of children.
So what are teachers-of-conscience to do? We must be vigilant in our desire to affect educational progress and improve the lives of our students while avoiding the temptation to go for the “quick fix.” We must share our successes and reflect on our challenges at every opportunity. Publish and exhibit your students’ work, speak at public hearings, write articles, vote! There are a multitude of examples of educational innovation we can all learn from and replicate – but not if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the seductiveness of inappropriate technology and thoughtless centralized decision-making.
Trust your instincts; unite with colleagues, parents and kids to improve your school. Take responsibility for educational decisions. Integrated Learning Systems are degrading and oppressive to both the student who is victimized by them and the teacher who is trivialized by them. Our children deserve much better, our teachers can be much better if given a stake in the process, and our society demands much better than we can expect from cybernetic teaching systems. Just say no to integrated learning systems.
The author welcomes comments…
Gary S. Stager – Cherry Hill, NJ
2 Electronic Learning Magazine’s Special Edition, ILS Vendors Embrace the Mac. March,1992
3 The euphemism “du jour”
4 I’ve underlined the word, You, to emphasize that a human is uniquely capable of seizing the teachable moment. The thought of a computer intervening in a sympathetic and effective manner is foolish.
5 Who is US? Is it corporate America? Is it a politician in the state capital?
6 You can’t make this stuff up!
7 Note the paradigm of right and wrong answer-based learning being used to support this argument.