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Tag Archive for: education

July 28, 2020
28 Jul 2020

Is On-line Learning Effective?

The COVID-19 Pandemic has affected many aspects of life, not least of which is education. In April, 2020, The World Economic Forum estimated that school closures had affected 1.2 Billion children. While, worldwide, not all children have begun to participate in on-line learning, many have, and much of traditional classroom-based education has been compelled to move to on-line, computer-mediated education.

How effective is on-line learning? The results are mixed. On-line learning depends of course, on accessibility. For those that have access, research indicates that on-line learning can be as effective, and in some cases, a more efficient, mode of instruction than tradition classroom learning, including enhanced retention, speed of learning, and advantages of self-paced vs. other-paced instruction. “For those who do have access to the right technology…Some research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose. (See “5 Reasons Why Online Learning is More Effective”)

Effectiveness however, may vary by the age of students. Younger students often thrive in a more immersive, face-to-face environment, and benefit from learning a range of social and emotional skills that are often more difficult to convey in a “narrow-cast” learning venue. Classroom structure can itself be an important social-educational factor. The effectiveness of on-line learning also may vary depending on whether instruction is exclusively on-line, or if it is “blended” (i.e., includes both on-line and face-to-face instruction). Some research has shown that blended instruction results in better student outcomes than solely on-line learning. (See “The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons,” Tuan Nguyen, Leadership, Policy, and Organization Peabody College, Vanderbilt University)

While there appear to be benefits to on-line learning for some students, Susanna Loeb, writing in a recent issue of Education Week reminds us “Just like in brick-and-mortar classrooms, online courses need a strong curriculum and strong pedagogical practices. Teachers need to understand what students know and what they don’t know, as well as how to help them learn new material. What is different in the online setting is that students may have more distractions and less oversight, which can reduce their motivation. The teacher will need to set norms for engagement—such as requiring students to regularly ask questions and respond to their peers—that are different than the norms in the in-person setting.” She further observes that some instruction (i.e. on-line) is better than no instruction, and that “especially (for) students with fewer resources at home, (these students) learn less when they are not in school. Right now, virtual courses are allowing students to access lessons and exercises and interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had closed schools even a decade or two earlier. So, we may be skeptical of online learning, but it is also time to embrace and improve it.”


“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. This is how” World Economici Forum, April 2020

“5 Reasons Why Online Learning is More Effective”

“The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons,” Tuan Nguyen, Leadership, Policy, and Organization Peabody College, Vanderbilt Universy

“How Effective Is Online Learning? What the Research Does and Doesn’t Tell Us” By Susanna Loeb, Education Week, March 20, 2020

“Research on the Effectiveness of Online LearningA Compilation of Research on Online Learning”

March 17, 2020
17 Mar 2020

What is the purpose of Education?

In our previous article, “Schooling vs. Education – What is Education For?” we discussed the difference between schooling and education, examined the emergence of public education in the U.S, and briefly reviewed an article that said that the lingering 19th and early 20th “factory model” of education is out of date and needs to be replaced. Here, we’d like to briefly explore the underlying question: “What is education’s purpose?”

In classical Greece, Plato believed that a fundamental task of education is to help students to value reason and to become reasonable people (i.e., people guided by reason.) He envisioned a segregated education in which different groups of students would receive different sorts of education, depending on their abilities, interests, and social stations. Plato’s student Aristotle thought that the highest aim of education is to foster good judgment or wisdom. Aristotle was more optimistic than Plato about the ability of the typical student to achieve judgement and wisdom. Centuries later, writing in the period leading up to the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) said that formal education, like society itself, is inevitably corrupting, and argued that a genuine education should enable the “natural” and “free” development of children – a view that eventually led to the modern movement known as “open education.” Rousseau’s views of education, although based in an idea of the romanticized innocence of youth, informed John Dewey’s later progressive movement in education during the early 20th century. Dewey believed that education should be based largely on experience (later formulated as “experiential education”) and that it should lead to students’ “growth” (a somewhat ill-defined and indeterminate concept.) Dewey further believed in the central importance of education for the health of democratic social and political institutions. Over the centuries, philosophers have held a variety of views about the purposes of education. Harvey Siegel catalogues the following list:

  • the cultivation of curiosity and the disposition to inquire;
  • the fostering of creativity;
  • the production of knowledge and of knowledgeable students;
  • the enhancement of understanding;
  • the promotion of moral thinking, feeling, and action;
  • the enlargement of the imagination;
  • the fostering of growth, development, and self-realization;
  • the fulfillment of potential;
  • the cultivation of “liberally educated” persons;
  • the overcoming of provincialism and close-mindedness;
  • the development of sound judgment;
  • the cultivation of docility and obedience to authority;
  • the fostering of autonomy;
  • the maximization of freedom, happiness, or self-esteem;
  • the development of care, concern, and related attitudes and dispositions;
  • the fostering of feelings of community, social solidarity, citizenship, and civic-mindedness;
  • the production of good citizens;
  • the “civilizing” of students;
  • the protection of students from the deleterious effects of civilization;
  • the development of piety, religious faith, and spiritual fulfillment;
  • the fostering of ideological purity;
  • the cultivation of political awareness and action;
  • the integration or balancing of the needs and interests of the individual student and the larger society; and
  • the fostering of skills and dispositions constitutive of rationality or critical thinking.

Needless to say, the extent and diversity of this list suggests that the purposes of education are manifold, and that in different historical periods, and under various historical circumstances, people have looked to education to accomplish a wide variety of ends – from the instillment of reason, to the tasks of self-development and vocational/career preparation. The sometimes incompatible goals of education may inform some of the challenges – both philosophical and practical – that U.S. schools have experienced during the last few centuries, and that persist today. (See “Confusion Over Purpose of U.S. Education System” Lauren Camera, August 29, 2016, U.S. News and World Report.)



Harvey Siegel, “Philosophy of education,” Encyclopedia Britannica

“What is Education for?” Video. School of Life

“Education in Society” Video. Crash Course

“What Is the Purpose of Education?” Alan Singer, Huffpost, February 8, 2016

“Purpose of School” Steven Stemler, Wesleyan University

A List of Quotes about the Purposes of Education

“Confusion Over Purpose of U.S. Education System” Lauren Camera, August 29, 2016 U.S. News and World Report

“What Is Education For?” Danielle Allen, Boston Review, May 9, 2016

March 3, 2020
03 Mar 2020

Schooling vs. Education – What is Education For?

When Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education” he was distinguishing between the effects of the conventional, institutional practices associated with schools, and the individual human endeavor—a life-long exercise—to become an educated person. But what does education consist of?

Schooling vs. Education

At its core, “education” is the accumulation of knowledge and skills, and of course, moral/ethical values. (See Education) In complex societies—those in which person-to-person informal, intergenerational transmission of skills and knowledge is insufficient to ensure that successive generations acquire such assets—formal, structured schooling has been the form that education has taken. Throughout the history of Western society, much education has been conducted in private settings (e.g., tutors, private schools, monasteries, etc.) In ancient Greece, for example, private schools and academies were tasked with educating the young free-born Athenian. During the Middle Ages, most schools were founded upon religious principles with the primary purpose of training clergy. Following the Reformation in northern Europe, clerical education was largely superseded by forms of elementary schooling for larger portions of the population. The Reformation was associated with the broadening of literacy, primarily aimed at equipping people to read the Bible and experience its teachings directly. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the idea of educating the mass of a nation’s population via universal, non-sectarian public education emerged in Europe and the U.S.

In 1821, Boston started the first public high school in the United States. By 1870 all of the US states had some form of publicly subsidized formal education. By the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. Access to schooling has been a perennial challenge, with women slowly gaining access throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and African Americans largely excluded from schooling or relegated to sub-standard schooling. By 1900, 34 states had compulsory schooling laws and thirty states with compulsory schooling laws required attendance until age 14 (or higher). By 1910, 72 percent of American children attended school, and half the nation’s children attended one-room schools. It was not until 1918, a little over a century ago, that every state required students to complete even elementary school.

Throughout its history, schooling has served many purposes. From the beginning of American public schooling, its purposes and goals have been fiercely contested. Some viewed schools as civic and moral preparatory institutions, while others saw schools as essential to forging and consolidating a distinct US national identity. Many saw schools as critical socializing processes which were designed less for the intellectual development of individuals, and more for equipping an increasingly industrializing workforce with the habits of, and tolerance for, factory work.

Factory Schools

In a recent article “The Modern Education System Was Made to Foster “Punctual, Docile, and Sober” Factory Workers Perhaps it’s time for a change.” Allison Schrager argues that 19th century American education was designed to produce disciplined, dependable, and compliant workers for an expanding industrial economy. Industrialists (often in alliance with other social sectors, like the Protestant clergy and later social reformers) believed that young people (many of them traditionally involved in agriculture, many the offspring of immigrants to the US) needed to be readied for factory life—which demanded punctuality, regular attendance, narrow task orientation, self-control, and respect for authority. These characteristics, although instrumental for an industrializing economy, were hardly geared toward the development of autonomous, self-directed individuals, and active democratic citizens. The “factory model” of schooling was functional, but by many accounts, stunting. This factory model, Schrager argues, remains widely prevalent in contemporary US schools. (For a critique of the reign of factory model of schooling see, Valerie Strauss, “American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong.” Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2015 ) Schrager argues that the factory model is anachronistic and increasingly dysfunctional.

As mentioned, education is always a “contested terrain.” Various social, economic, political, and religious forces are interested in ensuring that schools teach what representatives of these forces value. Consequently, the content, and in some cases, the form, that schooling takes is the product of the struggle among these forces. (See for example our earlier article, “The Implications of Public School Privatization” Part 1 and Part 2 )

Underlying all forms of schooling, public and private, are the implicit questions, “What is education?” and “What is education’s purpose?” In a forthcoming article, we’ll explore these central questions.



History of Education

Classical education

History of Education in the U.S.

Valerie Strauss, “American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong.” Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2015

Allison Schrager, “The Modern Education System Was Made to Foster “Punctual, Docile, and Sober” Factory Workers Perhaps it’s time for a change.”

February 18, 2020
18 Feb 2020

Digital Technology vs. Students’ Education

Over the last two decades, American education has sought to introduce and improve student access to digital technology. Since the first introduction of personal computers in classrooms, to the more recent efflorescence of iPads and the use of on-line educational content, educators have expressed enthusiasm for digital technology. As Natalie Wexler writes in The MIT Review, December 19, 2019, “Gallup …found near-universal enthusiasm for technology on the part of educators. Among administrators and principals, 96% fully or somewhat support “the increased use of digital learning tools in their school,” with almost as much support (85%) coming from teachers.” Despite this enthusiasm, there isn’t a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of digitally based educational tools. Wexler cites a study of millions of high school students in the 36 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which found that those who used computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

Although popular, and thought by educators useful, digital tools in classrooms not only appear to make little difference in educational outcomes, but in some cases may actually negatively affect student learning. “According to other studies, college students in the US who used laptops or digital devices in their classes did worse on exams. Eighth graders who took Algebra I online did much worse than those who took the course in person. And fourth graders who used tablets in all or almost all their classes had, on average, reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them—a differential equivalent to an entire grade level. In some states, the gap was significantly larger.”

While it has been largely believed that digital technologies can “level the playing” field for economically disadvantaged students, the OECD study found that “technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”

Why do digital technologies fail students? As Wexler ably details:

  • When students read text from a screen, it’s been shown, they absorb less information than when they read it on paper
  • Digital vs. human instruction eliminates the personal, face-to-face relationships that customarily support students’ motivation to learn
  • Technology can drain a classroom of the communal aspect of learning, over individualize instruction, and thus diminish the important role of social interaction in learning
  • Technology is primarily used as a delivery system, but if the material it’s delivering is flawed or inadequate, or presented in an illogical order, it won’t provide much benefit
  • Learning, especially reading comprehension, isn’t just a matter of skill acquisition, of showing up and absorbing facts, but is largely dependent upon students’ background knowledge and familiarity with context. In his article “Technology in the Classroom in 2019: 6 Pros & Cons” Vawn Himmelsbach, makes many of the same arguments and adds a few liabilities to Wexler’s list.
  • Technology in the classroom can be a distraction
  • Technology can disconnect students from social interactions
  • Technology can foster cheating in class and on assignments
  • Students don’t have equal access to technological resources
  • The quality of research and sources they find may not be top-notch
  • Lesson planning might become more labor-intensive with technology

Access and availability to digital technology varies, of course, among schools and school districts. As the authors of Concordia University’s blog, Rm. 241 point out, “Technology spending varies greatly across the nation. Some schools have the means to address the digital divide so that all of their students have access to technology and can improve their technological skills. Meanwhile, other schools still struggle with their computer-to-student ratio and/or lack the means to provide economically disadvantaged students with loaner iPads and other devices so that they can have access to the same tools and resources that their classmates have at school and at home.”

While students certainly need technological skills to navigate the modern world and equality of access to such technology remains a challenge, digital technology alone cannot hope to solve the problems of either education or “the digital divide.” The more we rely on the use of digital tools in the classroom, the less we may be helping some students, especially disadvantaged students, to learn.


May 20, 2013
20 May 2013

The Secret to Innovation, Creativity, and Change?

The other day, I conducted a focus group with disadvantaged youth. On behalf of a local workforce investment board, I interviewed a group of 16-24 year-olds about their use of cell phone and other hand-held technologies, in order to learn whether it would be possible to reach youth with career development programming via cell phone and electronic modalities. (In my 20+ years as a professional evaluator, I’ve conducted between 50 and 60 focus groups, with participants who range across the socioeconomic spectrum—from homeless women to college presidents.) As this focus group proceeded, I became aware of a two things. Many of the youth saw me, understandably, as an authority figure to whom they had to give guarded responses—at least initially— and whose trust I needed to earn. Additionally, I, too, felt vulnerable before the group of young people, who I feared might think I was uninformed about cyber culture and the prevailing circumstances of their age group. Each of us, in our own ways, felt “vulnerable.”

It occurred to me that focus group members’ sense of vulnerability would yield only if I myself became more open and vulnerable. Consequently, I abandoned my interview protocol, and began improvising candid and spontaneous questions. I also confessed my lack of knowledge about the technologies that young people often use so comfortably, as if it is an extension of themselves. I also redoubled my efforts to enlist the opinions of each member—especially those who seemed, at first, reticent to share their experience. As the focus group continued, I noticed that some of the initial reticence and reserve of my interlocutors began to dissolve, and even those who had not initially offered their opinions and experience, began to fully participate in the group. I also noticed that as I further expressed my genuine interest in learning about their experience, the sense of who possessed the authority shifted from me—the question-asker— to the youth in the group, who became experts on the subject I was interviewing them about.

The Necessity of Vulnerability in Education

Although all of us necessarily spend a lot of our lives shielding ourselves from various forms of vulnerability (economic, social, emotional, etc.), research is beginning to show that psychological vulnerability and the willingness to risk social shame and embarrassment, is essential for genuine learning, creativity and path-breaking innovation. In a recent TED presentation by Brene Brown a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, who has spent the last decade studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame (Click here to listen).  Ms. Brown discusses the importance of making mistakes and enduring potential embarrassment, in order to learn new things and make new connections. Brown highlights the significance of making ourselves vulnerable (i.e. taking risks, enduring uncertainty, handling emotional exposure) so that we can genuinely connect with others, and learn from them. Fear of failure and fear of vulnerability (especially fear of social shame) she says, too often get in the way of our learning from others. Moreover, we are often deathly afraid of making mistakes (See our recent post “Fail Forward: What We Can Learn from Program ”Failure”. You can also listen to the entire NPR TED Hour on the importance of mistakes to the process of learning, here. Ultimately, we must embrace, rather than deny vulnerability, if we are to connect, and thereby learn.

I’ve conducted research for most of my professional life. As I reflected on my professional experience, I realize that I’ve learned the most from people and situations when I’ve been willing to make myself vulnerable, to be fully present, and to authentically engage others. As in the above-mentioned focus group, and in many proceeding that, I recognize that when I’ve allowed myself to be open and available—to be unconcerned with knowing all the right answers, in advance— indeed, when I’ve made myself vulnerable and present—is precisely when I’ve learned the most important lessons and gained the most insight into a given phenomenon.

Successful program evaluations require effective, constant, and adaptive learning—often in fluid, uncertain, and continually evolving contexts. Genuine learning occurs when we make ourselves vulnerable enough to sincerely engage others, to connect with them, and to acknowledge that what we don’t know is the first step toward gaining knowledge, toward genuine knowledge. To learn more about our adaptive approach to evaluation visit our Feedback & Continuous improvement page.

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