- - Tuesday, June 11, 2013

By Ron Packard
Beyond Words Publishing, $24.99, 225 pages

An ancient Greek myth holds that the immortal Prometheus brought fire, a substance exclusive to the gods, to human beings. As punishment, he was forever chained to a rock, where his liver was pecked out by birds. Although Ron Packard did not introduce the computer into the classroom, his company, K12, was founded on the vision of using technology to transform education, and has since grown into the largest provider of online education in the country, delivering services to about 500,000 students. (Disclosure: my boss, Bill Bennett, co-founded the company with Mr. Packard, but is no longer affiliated.)

As a result of unlocking the power of online learning, many gatekeepers of the education establishment have seen fit to become Packard-peckers. They see the rise of the computer in the classroom as part of a profit-driven plot to bring down public education, one that fails teachers, publishers and students in the process. In “Education Transformation,” Mr. Packard counters that this is a serious mischaracterization of the goal of the computer in learning. The real goal, he says, is “not to compete with public education, but to support its promise of an excellent education for every child.”

Mr. Packard leads off by making the point that virtually every area of American industry has been somehow been disrupted by technology over the past century, except education. How are we the better for it? An American classroom today looks nearly identical to that which existed at the turn of the 20th century, but our performance is worse than ever. Math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test have barely budged since 1983, the year of the famous “A Nation At Risk” report. There are twice as many teachers per student since 1960, but the outcomes remain dismal, especially compared to other nations.

Mr. Packard is on a mission to disabuse readers of what remaking American education in an online mold means. Contrary to 1984 visions of rows of students parked in front of a single screen, or hunched silently over computers from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., online education can look very different from student to student, or school to school. The great advantage to computers lies in their role as a mechanism that can be customized to suit each student’s learning ability and location: “the gifted child who is bored, the athlete who has to study at hard times, the child actor, the autistic child, the rural child, the physically handicapped child, the migrant child, the dropout, the military child, the ex-pat.”

But these won’t be the only children using technology as the primary mode of learning. In the future, envisions Mr. Packard, “brick and mortar schools will still exist, and the overwhelming majority of children will attend them, but the schools will be centers of individualized learning, with engaging interactive content rather than a series of chalk-and-textbook, grade-delineated classrooms. At high school and potentially middle school, each child will have a computer to work at his or her own pace in customized programs; technology will deliver it to them in ways best suited to their individual needs and strengths.”

To demonstrate the viability of online instruction, Mr. Packard proudly recounts how K12 entirely revamped a moribund Philadelphia school around technology. This included digital whiteboards, individualized online curricula and teacher training. As a result, “the school’s third-grade proficiency levels in math had jumped from 40 percent to 86 percent, and for fifth-graders, the math leap was from 23 percent proficient to 45 percent.”

There are a few shortcomings in “Education Transformation.” First, Mr. Packard tries, but does not adequately explain how classrooms built around the computer will not produce a shortage of teachers. There is a reason that faculty members at colleges and universities across the country are quaking at the Massive Open Online Courses revolution that is under way: Productivity gains have great potential to cost them their jobs. Likewise, as books such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s “Race Against the Machine” have shown, technological improvements are, in fact, obviating the demand for skills that have traditionally belonged to human beings.

It’s not clear that this transformation won’t happen for K-12 teachers, too. Mr. Packard merely states, “The predicted teacher shortage will not occur — the computer and Internet will deliver the productivity gains to avert this looming crisis” and moves on. Sometimes, more of the same techno-topian conclusions pepper the book, diminishing its value as a considered work on education policy. He also declines to address some of the high attrition rates associated with those same online students who have been marginalized by the education system, and how best to address that problem.

Despite these shortcomings, “Education Transformation” is helpful to the layman looking to be persuaded about the potential of digital learning. Mr. Packard is right that technology can be a promising and disruptive force for change in education. Would that we embrace it.

David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

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