Digital education and the lessons of history: a conference summary
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Published: 01-Aug-2011

A provocative and wide-ranging conference on “Education in the Digital Age” unfolded at the Oklahoma History Center last Friday (July 29). A sub-title of “Practices and Policies for Personalized Education” affirmed the historic setting of the event, sponsored by the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. 

Major General Lee Baxter, who holds the distinction of serving on the boards of both the state CareerTech and state Education Department, kicked off the day’s reflections with a brief address in which he referenced the “elite” education he garnered as a youth. 

When Baxter referred, in younger days, to his “UND” training, colleagues in the military assumed he meant “University of Notre Dame” – until he explained it was the University of North Dakota.

Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute  examined ways public policy can protect and enhance development of a digital education marketplace. As did several speakers, Coulson pointed to the excellence of the Khan Academy’s online curriculum. 

He observed, “Public Schools are a $600 billion a year business, with 6 million people employed.” For this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that “change is threatening.” The bottom line, in Coulson’s view, is that educators must “find out what works, and then do the same.”

As part of a recipe for the future, Coulson argues education should become “a free enterprise,” full of dynamic models. He noted the move toward school choice, and robust examples of digital schooling, is a world-wide phenomenon, with examples abounding in Asia. In Chile, robust models of school choice have emerged since 1978. In Sweden, both public and private school choice has met the needs of one the world’s best educated citizenry. 

Coulson delivered a free market review of impediments and opportunities found in educational price, regulation, legal and regulatory threats, vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, tax cuts and policy solutions. 

In the ever-present tension between compulsion and conflict, on the one hand, and reasoned regulation, on the other, Coulson delivered a strong endorsement of the latter. 

In introducing the seminar’s luncheon keynote speaker, Dr. J. Rufus Fears of the University of Oklahoma, the sponsoring group’s policy vice president, Brandon Dutcher, quipped, “We are foolish if we think our microchips and bandwidth make us immune to the lessons of history, as I’m sure Dr. Fears will remind us. And unlike previous speakers, he won’t be using a PowerPoint. Dr. Fears is a historian of freedom and, like Lord Acton, he understands that power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

Dr. Fears proceeded to deliver a powerful distillation of thousands of years of human history – without either notes or power points. His theme was “The New Technology: Lessons from History.”

Fears praised the late Milton Friedman, author of the seminal best seller, “Free to Choose.” The OU classics instructor’s address was sponsored by the Foundation for Educational Choice, a group established by Dr. Friedman and his wife, Rose.

Fears said he is not worried by the advent of technology, per se, but by the potential misuse of high technology to undermine economic liberty. He worries, he said, “not that children don’t learn about the Constitution, but how they learn about the Constitution.” 

He asserted, “Reforming education is the most difficult task in the world.” He reflected, “When technology takes the lead, knowledge can be transformed.”

In his view, there have been three key moments in human history where the advance of human knowledge was impacted by technology.

The first, he believes, was “the invention of writing in Mesopotamia” thousands of years ago. In that era, for the ancient city of Ur and in the delta of Egypt, the invention of writing emerged essentially as a means to record, and help collect, taxes. 

This yielded “entire armies of bureaucrats to record those taxes.” Still, human commerce grew, along with cultural touchstones like the Epic of Gilgamesh, a sort of precursor to the stories the Greek poet Homer told that were also later recorded for posterity. 

“Unfortunately, writing then essentially became a means of making despotism stronger. That is always the great danger of technology,” Fears said. 

The second great era of technology transformation impacting human knowledge came, he said, with “the invention of printing, and the printed page, in Europe.”

This second wave led inevitably to conflict between religion as it then was understood and the ability of people directly to examine Sacred Scriptures for themselves. Seeds for transformation of higher learning lay in the works of Martin Luther, whose study of the Bible in printed Greek texts led him to challenge doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. 

The clash over the meaning of Scripture, grace, faith and works led Luther to post his 95 Theses on All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween – October 31, 1517. From Luther’s work came wider translations of the Bible into common languages, and the emergence of conscience and belief as the basis for political structures. 

From all that, Fears argued, came the press for religious liberty, economic freedom and other fundamentals that led to the American founding.

Fears then turned to the third great wave of technological developments touching human knowledge, the wave of transformational changes and “technological developments … since far back in the last century to television, computers, TV, information processing and distribution.” 

Dr. Fears believes the open question is whether this last surge of knowledge driven by technology is “going to be tool of freedom, just a means of cheap communication that brings down the soul. It is up to us to decide if freedom will increase, or if this is a mechanism, a tool for despotism.” 

Daniel Lips of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute addressed, “K-12 Online Learning: Policy Reforms to Improve Learning Options in Oklahoma.”

Lips contended, “We have lived through a decade of transformational change in American education.” He noted that “even President Barack Obama has been an advocate of meaningful changes and of choice. There are left-leaning reformers with dramatic ideas, and supporting choice, in several states.”

Driving the dynamic in recent years, he believes, have been “conservative reformers” who are “getting their acts together.” In the past year, significant educational policy changes have been enacted in Oklahoma, Florida and Indiana. 

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has described digital learning as “the tip of the spear” for educational transformation. Making that point, as an example of quality educational material available inexpensively, Lips pointed to lecture materials available from the Khan Academy. 

Experience is showing that “every kid can benefit from digital learning.” 

The best examples of effective schools using online curricula include Carpe Diem Charter School in Yuma, Arizona, the Florida Virtual School, and KIPP schools around the nation, Lips said. 

For Oklahoma, Lips advocated further “supply side reforms” including a better charter school law. He said there is “no reason not to give kids this opportunity.” Besides Khan Academy materials, he said educators should “take advantage of resources the universities have put online. This is a tremendous publicly-funded resource.”

He also believes policy makers must “find ways to include digital learning and training into the teacher preparation pipeline process.” 

Lips believes the future will bring more dramatic “student-centered policies.” Students then “will then drive the demand.” Concerning debates between advocates of tax credit scholarship programs and full-fledged vouchers, Lips would not choose a faction, but said merely, “Yes, please.” 

The conference wound up with two inter-active panels. Leading one was Rose Hernandez of Wisconsin, a leader in the National Coalition for Public School Options. 

Joining Hernandez were two National Board Certified Teachers who are now with the Oklahoma Virtual Academy: Cheryl Tatum and Audra Carr. Two students from the academy participated – Dylan Marshall (age 12) and David Marshall (age 10), along with their mother, Lauren Marshall.

The two board certified teachers reported that the academy worked with 1,100 students last year, and expects double that number this academic cycle. They demonstrated the interactivity of the curriculum they work with for elementary and second students. 

Mrs. Marshall described the transformation of her two sons’ learning. The older of the two boys said everything his mother said was true.

Tatum and Carr said they worked in “brick and mortar” school settings for 10 years, and that they “like this better.” Both were frustrated in regular school settings, and felt as if they could not tailor their work to individual children. They said digital learning allows them to engage in methodical and specific pacing aimed at individual students.

The virtual academy works in cooperation with the White Oak and Wynona public schools in Oklahoma. Tatum told CapitolBeatOK they are preparing to start a virtual charter school, working with the Choctaw public school system. 

A closing panel included all conference speakers except Fears. The group was joined by Tammy Shepherd of Tulsa’s Oklahoma Connections Academy, a virtual school which is working with sponsorship of the Sperry Public School District.

Also speaking at the conference was Michael B. Horn of the Innosight Institute, whose speech “Disrupting Class” focused on the transformative (and disruptive) impact of technology in the educational system. 

The closing panel fielded a wide range of questions from a diverse group of attendees, including public school teachers who earned five hours of continuing education credit for retention of teacher certification. 

Several speakers applauded the work of state Sen. Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa, who has become a champion of digital education reforms. 

Note: Patrick B. McGuigan, editor of CapitolBeatOK, is a certified teacher and a co-founder of the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, precursor Oklahoma City’s MAPS for Kids projects. For two years, McGuigan supervised curriculum, including online education, at an alternative public charter school in the inner city.

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