Tag Archive for education

Will Online Education Transform Schools?

Online education will not replace place-based schools, but it could free teachers to focus more on students and professional development.

The rise of online schooling has gained much attention of late. 45 states (plus D.C.) have established virtual school programs (1). 495,000 students are enrolled in full or part-time online programs, 0.9% of the total national K-12 enrollment (1). Institutions such as Stanford University, the Oregon Virtual Education Center, and the Online School for Girls have launched successfully and then grown quickly. Some wonder whether online schools will quickly replace place-based schools. I doubt it, based on the history of other technology innovations.

School systems inherently resist sweeping changes. They broadly distribute decision-making authority across the institution, making rapid change nearly impossible. Wide gaps persist among education research, practice, and policy.Teachers still largely control the learning environment once the classroom door closes. Teaching has largely resisted trends toward professionalization such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In this environment, online schools are unlikely to take over as the dominant model for 9-12 education.

Could individual cost vs. value decisions lead to an education revolution? Again, I doubt it. Most efforts to impose economies of scale on teaching have fallen flat. Large, urban school districts were intended to streamline school administration but instead caused bureaucratic bloat and worsened inequities among schools. Technology-based instruction may work well for content delivery and basic assessment, but teaching involves so much more than content delivery and skills practice. Responsiveness to student needs requires individualization only possible with a low student-to-teacher ratio.

It is more likely — and more consistent with other technology innovations — that online education will find its niche within the education landscape. What online courses are most popular? Economics, psychology, world languages, computer science (3): highly applied subjects that do not satisfy college entrance requirements. Place-based schools do not consistently offer courses in these subjects due to low enrollment, but online schools draw from a much larger pool of potential students and are typically not responsible for a student’s entire academic program.

65% of Catlin Gabel high school courses have only one section. This causes significant pressure on teacher planning time and schedule constraints. At the same time, these highly specialized courses are among the most highly prized of the junior and senior course offerings. The school that accepts credit for online courses makes available a much broader selection of highly applied, engaging subjects at low cost to itself. This has the potential to reduce the number of “singleton” courses, easing pressure on teaching planning time and scheduling.

If online courses become popular, won’t some teachers have a reduced course load? Yes, and that would be a wonderful thing. In an age of electronic course materials, the need for teachers to deliver course content is greatly reduced. Teachers can focus on the interactive aspects of teaching: facilitating discussions, assessing student learning, building rich, interdisciplinary and real-world connections, and advising young men and women as they pursue their studies.

Teaching fewer periods would make it easier to meet with students and other teachers. Professional development, so long under-emphasized in schools, could really take off. Place-based schools would specialize in highly personalized, caring environments for learning and personal growth.


(1) “K-12 Online Learning: A Literature Review“, National Association Of Independent Schools, April 2010.

(2) Clark, Tom. “Online Learning: Pure PotentialEducational Leadership Vol 65 No 8, May 2008

(3) Booth, Susan. “In the Virtual Schoolhouse: Highlights of NAIS’s Survey on K-12 Online Learning” Independent School, Winter 2011

Global Education: More Than Just Trips

I recently co-facilitated this concurrent session with three teachers at our school, at the PNAIS Fall Educators Conference. The purpose was to describe how we have worked together to integrate global education throughout the school program. Historically, global education has meant international travel, typically with a focus on language and culture. As cultural competence is increasingly recognized as an essential student skill, we have an opportunity to include global education in regular courses, extracurricular activities, and community events. We find particularly interesting synergies between global experiences and academic subjects, community service, and environmental preservation efforts.

Presentation outline

  • Local-international partnerships
  • Curricular integration
  • Involving community
  • International presence in our community

Detailed presentation notes

We created a page on the Catlin Gabel website to document our ongoing work on this project. Please look there for detailed notes on the presentation. We also plan to include the information we gathered from conference session participants.

What does this have to do with technology?

The best technology integration supports school programs without taking them over. Technology is an essential tool in these integration efforts, even if they are not at first apparent. Our highly interconnected world makes the teaching of global cultural competence so important. At the same time, it’s critical to recognize the uneven distribution of technology throughout the world.

Technology tools make it possible to coordinate activities with distant locations and bring the world into the classroom and other school programs. The detailed presentation notes include uses of Skype, blogging, Internet research, long-distance communication, online forums, intranet planning sites, portable media tools, and other technology applications that make this all work.

Presenting at NCCE in March

This presentation was also accepted at NCCE, which will take place in March 2011 in Portland.

Medina, Zhao, and Banks: the PNAIS Fall Educators Conference

This past Friday, Catlin Gabel hosted the PNAIS Fall Educators Conference, a one-day event featuring three keynote speakers, over 20 school-led breakout sessions, and about 600 attendees. The conference planning committee did a tremendous job in securing three distinguished speakers who addressed the conference theme of multicultural education from very different perspectives.

Molecular biologist Dr. John Medina made two very pointed arguments: brain research does not inform education at all; brain research has some very specific recommendations for education. It was refreshing to hear a keynote speaker not overstate the implications of his own research. Medina emphasized the idea that each learner is unique, and teachers must have the capacity to detect what each learners needs in order to be most effective. He named this skill “theory of mind,” also known as empathy, and asserted both that we can assess and train teachers for this skill.

Dr. Yong Zhao, professor of education, challenged the notion that American education is behind that of other nations such as Singapore, Sweden, China, and India. Although these countries do test better in math and science, they fall short in teaching creativity and entrepreneurship. Each of these countries is attempting to make their education system more like that of the United States by creating more free time for students and increasing elective course choices. Though I appreciated Dr. Zhao’s counterexamples, I found that he glossed over the unacceptable achievement gap in the U.S. and the role of economic and military power in the continued global dominance of the U.S. creative class. In this way, he fell into the same trap as most politicians and major press outlets, focusing on global competitiveness at the expense of other purposes of education, such as democracy and equity of opportunity. Dr. Zhao mentioned that he is moving with his family to Portland, so perhaps we will see more of him in the coming years! (Update: Dr. Zhao is keynoting at NCCE next year.)

Dr. James Banks, professor of diversity studies, presented a powerful retrospective of the history of multicultural education in the United States, explaining how assimilation did not work well for immigrants of color, how the loss of culture leads to a vacuum that many seek to fill, and how reports of the death of the nation state are likely premature. He reinforced the critical importance of teaching alternative perspectives on historical events and supporting students of color as they navigate U.S. culture and its educational system.

The speakers reinforced ideas that I have worked to implement in schools for years. Teachers by and large still struggle to work with the variety of learners present in their classrooms. Only a few truly integrate heterogeneous group teaching strategies as a core feature of their instructional techniques. Too often for their reputations, independent schools offer insufficient expertise in broadly-used teaching techniques, such as optimal group sizes for activity types, multi-modal instruction, previewing, and formative assessment. Heavy reliance on tutors and the departures of some students who don’t perform sufficiently well indicate how some school programs do not meet the needs of all of the leaners that they admit.

Dr. Zhao’s emphasis on creativity, choice, and problem-solving found a friendly audience at the conference. Certainly at Catlin Gabel, one can see principles of progressive education in action, for example in the high frequency of experiential educational activities or the emphasis given by a number of school leaders and teachers on teaching social justice, equity, leadership, and the responsibility of good decision-making inherent in a democratic society.

We have further to go to reach the educational ideals presented by Dr. Banks. The school dynamics that encourage assimilation and/or exclude certain students are by definition always present in independent schools. Independent schools must engage in diversity professional development and student work every year, as an ongoing, everlasting project. Only in this way will students feel able to fully share the richness of their experiences at school, and only in this way will schools fully benefit from the richness of their students.

These three gentlemen filled me with hope, even while they aroused my critical commentary. I return to school Monday ready to continue the hard work of helping an excellent school become even more excellent, and supporting all students to achieve the richest educational experience possible.

Extending the learning community

Publication of student work on the website extends the learning community beyond the classroom to the entire school community. Key to this effort is a school website that includes a community publishing platform. Students and teachers choose whether to make the work viewable to the school community only (students, staff, parents, alumni) or the public, depending on the pedagogical goal of the work. Learning becomes a community endeavor rather than only a classroom pursuit, increasing authenticity and mutual understanding of the work that happens at school.

Click on each title to view the content at Catlin Gabel.

Urban Studies blog

Students tackle topics of sustainable development in Portland, “The City That Works.” During the school year, we offer a semester elective. The summer brings an intensive program with students from different schools.

Science Projects blog

Students report on their independent research plans, progress, and results. The teacher provides feedback in the form of comments. Only one of the students has made her blog public, so you won’t see the work of the others on this page.

The Catlin Coverslip

The science department invites all Catlin Gabel community members to contribute items of interest to this blog.

Nepal 2010 blog

Blogging about global trips increases the sense of community experience. The 15 lucky students who go on the trip become ambassadors for the rest of the school, no longer the sole beneficiaries of the experience.

Spanish V Honors blog

Students get out into the community to research the hispanic presence in Oregon. Through the blog, they report their findings back to the community and help educate us all. This project includes a lot of primary audio and video footage from Portland.

Honors Arts Projects portfolios

Students attach photo galleries to their blog posts to create a portfolio, in this case to support theirĀ  college applications.

Fifth grade Fractured Fairytales

Students create “alternate” versions of classic fairytales, then we publish them so that parents and others students may read them as well.

Sixth grade Language Arts Poetry Box

Students write poetry, but then the teacher publishes both the text and an audio version for parents and the rest of the community to enjoy.

Senior Project blogs

We have now collected two years’ worth of blog posts from seniors reporting and reflecting on their spring projects. Up until now, all of the posts have been for the Catlin Gabel community only. This year, students will make the public/community-only decision for each post. Watch this page in May 2010 to follow their progress.

Annihilating Space?

Friday, a number of us attended a talk by Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz titled “Reflections On Space and Childhood.” Dr. Spitz presented a thorough investigation of how children use and explore space through play. She emphasized the importance of understanding and preserving child-centered spaces, even if they appear messy and disorganized to adults!

Dr. Spitz made only a passing, less than complimentary, reference to technology, but it resonated with me. She said that technology was “annihilating space.” This powerful turn of phrase suggests to me that individuals equipped with technology may overcome obstacles of distance and the limitations of some physical media. It also suggests that sitting at a computer workstation disconnects an individual from one’s immediate surroundings or at least renders them unimportant.

This characterization of technology contributes to a myth that is particularly difficult to dislodge in educational circles. Virtual technology spaces are not the opposite of the material world. This oversimplification is both inaccurate and does a disservice to serious consideration of the useful roles of technology in all disciplines, including art.

Painting and drawing are rarely considered virtual in nature, but the images produced with paint, graphite, and canvas are hardly concrete. They create a representation of an image that transcends the raw materials and taps into people’s imaginations. Though easier to manipulate, the activation of light-producing LCD pixels through computer commands is not the opposite of drawing but rather just another form of the creative process.

Music stands as another powerful example. Musicians have successfully blurred the boundaries between analog and digital instruments. Sounds waves of music create a mental representation much in the way that light waves create an image in the mind.

Dr. Spitz’s most compelling examples concerned the distribution of physical, play materials in a house or the painting of images on a wall. If children act as artists through play, they can certainly find rich playgrounds using technology.

Rather than destroying space, technology creates cyberspaces that children and adults alike may explore. Adopting a multifaceted view of technology is essential to furthering our understanding of the role of technology in the arts.

Web Site Design Portfolio

This portfolio shows major sites I have designed and built for organizations.

Catlin Gabel School (2009-present)
The school’s main, public-facing website provides a complete content management system, multimedia publishing tools, user accounts for students, staff, parents, and alumni, and ties into the school’s student information system. A layer of the site is login-protected, so that community members may publish articles, photos, and videos to the school community.

Catlin Gabel website

Tools: Drupal and Blackbaud, including custom PHP development.


insideCatlin (2006-present)
This intranet web portal provides operational tools for the members of Catlin Gabel School. Teachers provide students with course materials and interactive discussion areas, departments publish commonly-used forms, and individuals schoolwide exchange information such as community service hours and textbook orders. The portal is organized by commonly-desired content and transactions, rather than by tool.


Tools used: Moodle, Drupal, Blackbaud database access, and custom Perl and PHP scripts.


Shasta Mountain Guides (2005 – present)
The guiding company uses this site to publish trip information, collect reservations, solicit customer questions, and sell merchandise. Customers may browse through trip descriptions, photos, and testimonials and then book a reservation online, including payment. The co-owners maintain the Backcountry Blog and photo galleries on the site. A live weather feed and equipment lists help hikers plan their trips.

Shasta Mountain Guides

Tools: Drupal, osCommerce, custom Perl scripts, custom graphic design


San Diego Hat Co (2001 – present)
This web site allows the company to quickly publish an online catalog of hundreds of items to wholesale customers twice each year. Within the login-protected site, customers browse or search for hat styles, zoom in to view close-up detail, and see available colors for each style. The site also includes static pages for company information and an online store for retail customers.

San Diego Hat Co

Tools: Web Site Baker, osCommerce, custom Perl scripts.


Maru-a-Pula School (2006 – present)
The school upgraded its web presence with a content management system and custom graphic design (Elavacion, Inc.). I moved the hosting service to the U.S., to improve upon the reliability of Botswana-based hosting services.

Tools used: Drupal


San Francisco University High School (2002 – 2006)
This site provided for all of the public-facing web site needs of this school community: a description of the school program, faculty and staff contact directory, admission inquiry toolkit, alumni profile and notes tools, and Arts department mini-site.

San Francisco University High School

Tools: Dreamweaver, custom Perl scripts.

insideUHS (2002-2006)
This intranet school portal provided the community with communication and information tools: course web sites, athletics schedules, community service project database, independent study project database, community announcements, schoolwide events calendar, student photo directories, online file access, and student discussion forums.

Tools: Moodle, YaBB, phpBB, FileMan, Blackbaud database access, custom Perl scripts.


site snapshot at The Internet Archive (original site no longer available)

Gateway High School (1999-2002)
The graphic design of this site communicates the school’s unique position as a public charter school in San Francisco. Learning Center and People receive high visibility, and student work is featured on the home page.

Gateway High School

Tools: Dreamweaver

www.gwhs.org at the Internet Archive

Caring and Technology

Tonight, I had the pleasure of seeing Nel Noddings speak at Lewis & Clark College on “The Ethics of Care in a Social Justice Framework.” Noddings presented several ideas, of which the following resonated the most with me.

  • The “golden rule” is essentially self-serving. Instead of doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves, whe should do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. The golden rule may reinforce a paternalistic attitude of imposing one’s own values on others.
  • A critical component of caring is the capacity to detect the feelings of others.
  • Natural care is more meaningful than ethical care. Natural care happens as a result of our (maternal) instinct to respond to others. It is immediate and powerfully motivated. Ethical care happens when we make a conscious decision based on a principle. It takes more effort and can be less effective.
  • The contributions of the care recipient to a caring relationship are not given enough significance by many. The care recipient sustains a caring interaction through their own reaction to the care they receive.

Though the presentation was centered on building an ethic of care in others, with references to standardized curriculum design and the war in Iraq, I found myself thinking about school technology departments. We spend our days responding to requests for help from our fellow employees, students, alumni, and parents. This week, we did a small self-study and estimated that we receive nearly 100 requests for support each day. Most of these involve some problem that the individual is having and cannot solve on his or her own. Our role is to understand and respond to that. We become experts at listening, asking questions to better understand the problem, observing the problem first-hand, sometimes sympathizing with circumstances that cannot be significantly improved, and then devising and implementing a solution to make things better. We do other work as well, but our core work is motivated by directly responding to the needs of people.

Why do individuals go into school technology support? If it were really about the technology, we might be better off in a pure technology company whose objective was simply to make the technology as run as well as possible for its own sake. I know that some tech professionals find their way to school because the environment is kinder to them. Some even find the range of work more varied and interesting than a narrowly-defined job in a large company. Still, anyone who lasts in a school tech department is oriented first to people and second to technology. Schools are human institutions first. I routinely observe my staff go above and beyond the call of duty to help a user get a technology to work for his or her purposes.

Why do people often think that technology staff don’t care? Despite our best efforts, technology staff often gain a reputation of caring more for machines than people. This is more difficult for me to understand. With rare exception, technology professionals I meet are all about people. Perhaps we have a heavy workload and give the impression of disinterest while trying to keep our enterprise moving forward. Perhaps we give off the wrong impression when we immediately start talking about potential solutions when a person articulates their problem. Perhaps we get stereotyped because we work in a realm of knowledge that a lot of people do not comprehend. I don’t have any good answers on this one.

What happens when technology professionals get negative feedback from the person they are trying to help? What if this happens repeatedly? One of Noddings’ points is that the care recipient is an integral part of a care relationship. If one cares and the response is either bland or negative, then the carer needs support to be successful. This may take the form of regular department meetings, good supervision, professional development, and an open door and ear ready to listen to the support stories of the day.

What happens to our efforts to build a culture of care when interactions enter the digital realm? If detecting the feelings and needs of individuals is paramount to caring, does this become less effective in online forums, blogs, and chat rooms? Online conversations are certainly more effective when you have already established a face-to-face relationship with an individual. Should we try to limit email to information exchange? That doesn’t seem practical. How do some people build entire long-distance relationships (presumably very caring ones) with people whom they have never met in person? Can electronic communication vehicles help us build a stronger affinity to people in faraway places that we may never have the opportunity to visit in person?

Many models for caring include the physical world. How can this body of work inform our efforts to help students and teachers care for their computers? It is not an impossible leap to make a link between caring for people and caring for physical objects. We encourage children to care for the physical spaces in which they live, such as their bedroom and classroom. People develop lifelong attachments to small objects of special meaning. Technology professionals are often the best at taking good care of their machines. Certainly, taking a computer apart or — a popular student hobby — putting a new machine together, appears to give many a better appreciation for and more caring orientation toward the computers they use. How do we encourage care for the virtual space out there: keeping our files in order, our virus protection up-to-date, and our system software well-tuned? Why do people devote all of their free time to cleaning Wikipedia of vandalism?

There’s a lot more here — maybe tomorrow. Please leave a comment.