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The Schooling Institution and Institutions of Schooling

Posted By: Dick Schutz on February 6, 2008
Natriello very helpfully summarizes the current state-of-the-art re “distance learning” and the speculation as to the future of the endeavor.

My comment consists of two brief points regarding terminology and then a longer exposition pertaining to the title of my comment.

The term “distance learning” reflects a “point of view.”—an aspiration to do from a distance what is being done face-to-face. But as Natriello recognizes, what is being done face to face is not now well articulated. The term could have been “distance teaching.” But that would have required specifying what is being taught. In treating “what is being taught,” EdLanders take refuge in rhetoric or in “content” that masks as “standards.” If we were pressed to the wall we’d have to admit that we don’t know how to reliably teach kids to read, or even to know when we’ve done it. We can’t do it in reading or in anything else of interest to students, parents, and citizenry. This discrepancy between working myth and reality makes “distance learning” a very slippery term.

The term, “technology” is also muddled. Natriello, for the most part, follows EdLand usage of considering the term as a noun—referencing “things” such as the Internet, computers and so on. In sectors other than education, the term is used as a verb==referencing “how to” such as word processing, broadband transmission, and so on. This is a fundamental difference. In standard usage you have to “know what you want to do” before proceeding. In EdLand, we buy a “pig in a poke” and then try to get the pig to do something that we define fuzzily, if at all.

Wobbly terminology predisposes muddling. So ends the terminology comment. On to substantive comment.

Natriello flips back and forth in using the term “institution.” Schooling constitutes an institution in the same sense as the corporation, the government, the church. The structure of primary/elementary, middle, secondary, and higher education is well-established. There are differences among institutions within each of the divisions, but the differences between the divisions are much larger. For example, whether, a high school is public, private, charter, magnet, rural, urban and so on, it’s going to bear the same institutional earmarks as others in that division.

The working myth is that instructional accomplishments are the focus of the institution. As a matter of fact, instruction is currently the weakest societal service the institution provides. At the pre-collegiate level “baby-sitting”/keeping the kids off the street” is the most reliable and economical service being provided. But there are other useful services. Schools feed needy kids. They provide the first line of health screening. Athletics, performing arts, social clubs. And so on. These accomplishments go largely unaccredited, but distance learning “changes the equation.”

The same logic holds for “higher ed.”

El-hi teachers usually take the rap for being “resistant to change.” Actually teachers are prone to buy into every half-baked fad that is perpetrated. It’s the schooling institution that is resistant to change. And for good reason. Natriello and others recognize that higher ed professors are indeed “resistant to change, making the prospect of institutional change in that division even less likely.

It is currently feasible to fix a “fatal flaw in the institution. To wit. The structure of the school institution is age/grade x subject/discipline based. However, the acquisition of expertise in academic tasks does not really hinge upon age, and it is not always confined to a given subject discipline. This “glitch” is currently impinging on “accountability” initiatives in pre-collegiate schooling, and it’s likely to “trickle up” to higher ed in the future.

Marshall McLuhan’s Delphic aphorism, “The medium is the message” has the potential for fixing the glitch. That is, with broadband video transmission and interactive voice recognition now within the state of the art, we’re in technical position to “do anything we want to do” and “roam about instruction.”

What is lacking is the “how to” exploit the current potential. And this will not come about through “research.” This is not the place to expand on the scenario for developing the requisite technology. It’s a tractable but far from a trivial matter. It’s conceptually feasible to “make change happen” in schooling, but political considerations inside and outside the institution make doing so a daunting endeavor.

Natriello’s essay contributes to the endeavor. More undaunted people are needed.

Dick Schutz
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 The Schooling Institution and Institutions of Schooling by Dick Schutz on February 6, 2008
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