XML.com Managing Editor Kurt Cagle sees the future, one that I’ve experienced a decade ago

I subscribe to a number of really great technology newsletters because they interest me. One of these is the XML.com weekly newsletter. XML is a technology that has exploded in the last several years, and its specifically an area that I, as a front-end and semantic web specialist, find exceptionally intriguing. Most intriguing today, however, was Managing Editor of XML.com Kurt Cagle’s article titled Is Telecommuting the Next Wave for Education? in the XML.com newsletter.

Not only was it a great article that highlights a particular XML schema for education-related material produced by the Schools Interoperability Framework Association, it paints the picture of a future I’ve already lived ten years ago. I am heartened to see that, at long last, other people are beginning to see the benefits of technology used for “distance learning.” Frankly, I can’t imagine learning any other way.

I tried to find this article online so I could link to it, but I could not. Instead, I’m reposting the article in full here. If this is available somewhere on the ‘net that I just haven’t found yet, please let me know.

Is Telecommuting the Next Wave for Education? by Kurt Cagle, Managing Editor,xml.com.

In the great analysis game, I have two particularly adept spies – my daughters. Over the years I’ve noticed that both of my daughters tend to be remarkably good barometers about the way that the wind is blowing with regard to youth trends, which in turn tend to be significant because teenagers in particular often tend to be the earliest adopters of new technologies. If something doesn’t resonate with them, no matter how big a marketing budget, it usually doesn’t fly.

One of the things I’ve noticed with my eldest daughter in particular is how many of her friends either are or have been recently “home-schooled”. Now, for many, home-schooling has long been associated with religious organizations, particularly evangelical Christians, who feel that the school system is too secular for raising their kids. However, given that the kids I know (and their parents) are generally not in that community, I was a little puzzled with what was going on.

Instead, what seems to be happening is a phenomenon that I think will have major ramifications for society, and certainly for the tech community. As the Internet was taking off around 2000, a lot of school districts began implementing a program to help those people who were often at significant distances from a school by offering certain classes online – with exercises online, video conferencing and periodic tests. At first, these classes were ones that you would expect to make the migration – science and math courses – but over time, they have extended to cover everything except those classes that require group participation – band, or choir, for example – or need physical facilities, such as wood-working. Physical education requirements could generally be met by agreeing to some form of monitored activity – swimming classes at a recreational center, for instance.

Yet a funny thing happened while setting up these distance learning programs. While remote users became enthusiastic participants in this new wave, the largest group of users have been urban or suburban kids who, for one reason or another, didn’t fit well within the school paradigm. In some cases, the people who took advantage of these courses were students who were involved in focused activities that involved travel – talented musicians who were often on the road, dancers, athletes who were often involved in activities at different schools or other events, or those whose family travelled frequently, who took to the distance courses because they were able to learn better around their other activities. In some cases, the students were people who were going through emotional issues at home – a death or divorce, for instance, though increasingly that has made its way up into those students who just couldn’t face the high-pressure world of middle-school or high-school dynamics.

In other words, the kids and teenagers who were taking advantage of these courses just recognized that it gave them an opportunity to learn in the same way that they are increasingly interacting with the rest of the world – through the computer. Teenagers are hard wired to be more alert in the evening, and typically to be sluggish in the morning, yet school as it is set up right now forces them to be capable of handling complex math and science first thing in the day, when they are generally least reponsive to learning much of anything. Then they are forced to take home dozens of pages of homework that will force them to stay up until late in the evening anyway, meaning that by the time they reach the end of the week, they are physically and mentally exhausted.

Distance Learning lets them combine the homework with the schoolwork, so they can practice new concepts when they’re presented, not after the concepts have become hazy after a full day. It moves them away from the tyranny of the timetable so that if they are having trouble learning a concept, they can spend the time they need to master it, rather than stopping abruptly halfway through because they have to move onto their next class. It also means that if they have mastered a concept, they do not have to sit around bored while others are still trying to figure out something.

It also lets them have access to the rest of the Internet to use as a research tool. While traditional academics may shudder at this notion, as a recent controversy at one university showcased when a student was expelled for setting up a study group on Facebook, the reality is that we’re moving past the point at which we need to keep a vast storehouse of information locked up in within our brains. In an era of information ubiquity, many of the skills that are taught in schools are beginning to seem increasingly quaint, and the teachers that are effective are typically the ones that have managed to incorporate this info-sphere in their own teachings. One social studies teacher of my acquaintance in particular has become quite effective at teaching using PowerPoint, Wikipedia, and other multimedia resources, and he goes out of his way to teach children not the history itself (which they can generally look up) but how to research and analyze that history and take from it any lessons that a given period may have to offer.

Distance Learning programs are also becoming more popular for the same reason that telecommuting is becoming popular – school districts are facing increasing prices for gas and food as a typical family is, but multiplied by several thousand. Many school districts are responding to this by cutting down on the routes that their school buses follow (or in some cases eliminating bus systems entirely) forcing parents to take their kids themselves, often, ironically, increasing the total gas use dramatically and certainly causing headaches for parents who have to integrate their kids into their own commuting schedules. Similarly, school cafeteria programs are being scaled back or eliminated entirely because the cost of the food is becoming painfully high. Add into that aging infrastructures for schools, in a time when the population itself is aging (and hence less likely to fund school initiatives if it affects property taxes), and what you have is a recipe for disintegrating school systems.

Given that, the idea of distance learning as an alternative is one that may be popular at the school board level, as in general, you can generally buy a whole lot of educational training and assistance for what it normally costs to move and feed kids. While it does require some retraining on the part of the teachers, they’re also attracted to it because their job frequently involves trying to keep order over thirty to as many as forty kids, many of whom simply do not want to be there – and the same time-shifting that occurs for the students typically occurs for them as well. Indeed, in many cases what ends up happening is that the teachers pre-record certain segments of their lectures (and are increasingly posting them up on YouTube), then set up one-on-one or group chat sessions with the students.

As for the parents in this equation, I’ve often suspected that one of the reasons for the decline in the quality of contemporary education has been the fact that school has become the place where parents warehouse their kids for the day. Home-schooling does require more parental involvement, but in general it is also far easier for those parents to keep a fairly close eye on what their kids are up to in this day and age when the parents are not at home, at least for kids of a certain age. What’s more, schools are in many ways like hospitals – while their ostensible purpose is education, the chance of their kids learning bad habits is far higher in school settings than they generally are at home – and the kids that are trying to be good aren’t distracted by the ones determined to make trouble.

That’s not to say that there aren’t distractions. My eldest daughter has been known to keep a chat window up talking to friends when she should be concentrating on homework, though in fairness to her, what she’s chatting about often involves that same homework, albeit in a rather disconnected fashion:

Kat: I'm :-( ):-\. Zuko shippeded Kataara. Urgh .. 
Neechan: Urrgghhhhh. 
Hey, what's I if volts is 10 and ohms = 3 % (can't write the squiggle for
Kat: Um V =IR so, uhm, I is RV ... 
Neechan: No, R over V. 
Kat: Oh. Right. :-) .... so 3 divided by 10 - .3. Bad Zuko! ...

Is this bad? No – it’s only different from the way that those of us who grew up pre-Internet see the world. Distance Learning does not change the amount of homework (though I suspect that it cuts down pretty dramatically on the makework that tends to deaden interest in a subject rather than reinforcing the concepts), nor does it change the need for accountability. The kids still need to test, and still need to show that they have learned, but I suspect that their retention rates will likely be considerably higher if they can learn in a way that works well for them.

Long term, I think that this will likely end up deconstructing the traditional school system, though this is a process that will take decades to happen completely. It means, for the aggressive learners, that they could in fact complete a formal curriculum in a fraction of the time necessary, though a good teacher can work with those particular students to provide additional areas of study for them to engage with. It means that slower students can learn at their own pace, and can generally be flagged for additional help if they fall sufficiently behind. Money that school districts save in terms of providing physical infrastructure in transportation can be spent on those activities that do promote socialization – music, art, theatre, sports, civic days, and so forth – and monthly activities that bring students together can keep the bond in place of school as community.

Distributed education is part of the larger process of social redistribution that is occurring because of the Internet. Modern education emerged about the same time that the modern corporation emerged – in the 1930s – during an era when the dominant forces at play involved hierarchies, centralization, consolidation and economies of scale. In this decade, the dominant forces are network related – decentralization, the economies of global localities, the disintermediation of authority and the a shift away from the geographical. Just as these forces are resisted at the corporate level despite the obvious benefits (and just as workers in places that can telecommute are increasingly doing so) , these same forces are resisted at the educational level with much the same results – students (and their parents) are taking advantage of any loophole they can to make it available to their kids because it results in a better education for them).

So far, most educational software is boutiqueware, typically Flash-like applications. This won’t necessarily change moving forward (it is hard in general to make educational software that doesn’t have a strong “games-like” component, and for the most part that game approach makes the educational software far more engaging than it would be otherwise), but one thing that will need to happen as the distributed systems move forward is for the emergence of some kind of general framework for the exchange of educational related information. One particularly promising start in this direction is the development of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) (http://www.sifinfo.org/sif-specification.asp), which is an XML standard most recently updated in March 2008. Its mandate is fairly broad – providing XML schemas for describing grade-books, library services, student information, instructional services and so forth – (see Figure 1. SIF Zone Services).Figure 1. SIF Zone Services.

One of the jobs that the XML community needs to do is to reach out to the developers of educational software and insure that they are aware of the SIF standards, in order to provide better interoperability between their core applications and the growing educational educational noosphere, and to reach out to educators and education IT departments (which are all too typically the math teacher in his spare time) to make them cognizant of these same standards and to help implement solutions around these standards. As more students opt to go “virtual” the ability to maintain consistent, and more important interoperable, records becomes ever more paramount.

Long term, the move towards distributed education will shape society in some very profound ways. The kids going to school in such an environment today are more adept at the art of self-education, are usually more capable at analysis and research, and because they managed to avoid the often harsh emotional trauma of dealing with several hundred other kids of the same age daily, usually have more self-confidence than their school-based peers. They’ll likely have little patience for the Tayloresque approach to college education and will continue their lives in a similar manner by educating themselves within the college’s online environment (and will tend to shun those colleges that don’t offer such services) and when they start coming into the workforce in sufficient numbers, they will reshape the way that organizations are set up. On the flip side, I think this is likely to cause a huge amount of cultural friction between this generation and those educated more traditionally in previous generations, because their respective realities will be very different.

So far, the movement is still just a trickle, but watch this space closely – it will become a flood soon enough – and the bricks in the wall will come tumbling down (to paraphrase Pink Floyd).