Its not often that I find the commentary of Stanley Fish striking a chord with me, but his point that some of the best instruction occurs outside of regular courses seems dead on. And while he is particularly concerned here with adult education via TV and radio talk shows, I believe the lesson applies as well or all the more so to youngsters, who get much of their education through play and their interactions with peers outside the classroom. So it is worth a moment or two of pause to scratch one’s head and ask whether we really help students out by piling on the homework or forcing them into “educational” extra curricular activities when that isn’t of their own selection. I make the point up front because I’m going to argue that in many cases we should be doing that and certainly when the home or neighborhood is not itself nurturing, then there is an added obvious reason to encourage the school to make up for that.
Let me make a big aside first. I’m confronted with the my kids school in two ways. First, since I drive them in, I’m occasionally involved with getting the backpacks ready and loaded into the car. These backpacks are behemoths. Both kids have two loose leaf binders (I have no clue why), a textbook or two, some folder for transmitting papers to be turned in that don’t have key holes punched and miscellaneous other materials. Then during the evening when I arrive home, much of the backpack contents are littered on our counter where we have our informal meals. (The younger kid likes to do his work on that counter.) The unmistakable message that I take from these observations is that the kids middle school is a world of paper – the computer and the Internet intrude at the outer reaches of this world but have made nary a dent in terms of the core processes involving student homework.
One other point, this one may be specific to my kid, but I believe it is more pervasive than that, is that the amount of homework seems minimal, at least for the sixth grader. The eighth grader does seem to have a fair amount of work, but the younger one often reports – I did it already at school, or – I don’t have homework tonight. My younger kid tends to zip through things, often without sufficient care, especially when he doesn’t see the derivative benefit from the activity, so the “did it all at school” line might reflect that rather than that adequate homework has been assigned, but my sense is that this is not the full explanation and that another part of this explanation is in this paper world in which this school exists homework provides a big burden on the teacher, not just in the reading and evaluating of the student work, but in the record keeping as well. This acts as a deterrent to assigning more homework.
So perhaps it makes sense for the schools to utilize learning management systems and have online homework, which in addition to addressing some of the issues I mention in the previous paragraph have the benefit that the homework can begin to become a teaching device in addition to an assessment mechanism where students can have multiple tries at a problem and get feedback on earlier attempts that help them understand the source of the mistake they are making.
There is only one sensible reason that I can see for not doing this, which is that there is not a good way to provide universal access to the technology and absent that, differences in class, income, and race that already tend to cleave the schools will be accentuated via digital divide issues. This is, of course, a serious concern and the public schools certainly have to embrace universal access. But I believe the trend is toward universal access at home (I’ve read some stuff on that front recently bud didn’t bookmark it and can’t find the reference now) and when some threshold that I’m not sure how to specify is crossed, I believe that with providing access at schools after hours and at libraries and other public places that we’ll get close enough to the universal ideal that we can assume using a learning management system for homework (or other online tools) will take a serious hold.
As that threshold is neared we can then start to think through the question I asked in my post on Second Careers and K-12. How does one bring bright and talented people who otherwise wouldn’t become teachers into instruction? An alternative to the answer I gave there (and I still favor that solution as a primary focus but do recognize that many approaches need to be tried) is to imitate the University of Phoenix and hire adjunct instructors who interact with the students online. These adjunct instructors would need to have other jobs, hence the expression “dual careering” in the title of my post, and that is what would make them affordable as employees in the K-12 environment. Unlike how the University of Phoenix works, however, these adjuncts need not be the sole teacher of a course teaching a prescribed curriculum, but rather might be partners for the on ground teachers who need assistance and they might bring in their real world experiences from their other jobs as they interact with the students.
I certainly don’t have a fully worked through model of this, but it seems clear to me that one could encourage more writing by the students in discussion boards, blogs, surveys, or what have you and get interesting critique of the work if there were additional adults to the in class teacher looking at this work. On the flip side, these adjunct instructors might enjoy very much interacting with the students online and expressing something of themselves in these interactions so that it would get away from the dreary type of grading and be more compelling as a form of human interaction from the point of view of these online instructors.
In other words, once the school has gone the route of online homework, this then becomes a potential mechanism for bringing in other instructional staff with minimal other logistics to manage. In contrast, to bring in dual career instructors without the technology the only way I can see that working is to start having classes at night so that either the students would have to return to school a few days a week for an evening session or the students would stay in school continuously from the daytime through the evening, so these adjunct instructors could teach them face to face. This might work at the senior high school level in some cases, but the transportation, safety, and other logistics issues make that seem a less likely solution, absent the idea that students will spend more hours in school overall across the school year, with some of those hours in the evening. While I would embrace that idea myself, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. The online approach, in contrast, could happen much more readily --- if an online homework system were already in place.
Dual careerists can’t pay as much attention to the second career and if they do that work primarily for love and not for money they will periodically be conflicted because the primary work will make demands on them that they can’t ignore. So there are limits to what can be expected from this sort of innovation. Nevertheless, it seems to me worth a try in those school districts that have already committed to online and solved the access issues.