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No Such Thing As Free

I heard Gary Stager speak at a technology conference, a few years back. I'd been following him for some time, via his intelligent blog posts and articles--and was very surprised that the room where he was speaking was virtually empty, with maybe a dozen people in attendance. Nearly everyone in the audience came from the previous packed keynote, held in the ballroom next door, called "Free is Good!"

Stager's remarks were provocative and smart. He opened his presentation by noting that, contrary to the fast-talking, extended commercial for Web 2-point-whatever no-cost goodies we'd just experienced, none of those tools was truly "free." Someone's making money, he said. And it's almost a certainty that the someone is not in the classroom, or even an educator. While tech-based tools can absolutely transform learning, most of them are now are serving other goals: administrative tasks, jazzing up traditional direct instruction, impressing parents and soaking up public resources in the name of "innovation." It's not about kids' self-directed learning, at all. Don't be fooled.

I thought about Stager's remarks again--for the hundredth time--today. I got an e-mail asking me to take a five-minute survey for an organization that sends out a free daily ed-news aggregator. After collecting some demographic and job-description data, this question: Are you responsible for purchasing the following for your district? [Radio-button list of materials, services, products that schools typically purchase.] Oh, I thought. Yup. No such thing as free, really.

Teachers are infamous for being scroungers, tinkerers and thieves. We steal ideas from each other--or, more likely, generously offer them to our colleagues, flattered that someone would imitate a lesson plan or fall in love with a tool we designed. We cruise garage sales for used books, and recycle the beanbags from mom's basement as a reading nook.

My friend Dale Rogers has been tinkering with technology in learning for more than a decade, serving his Career and Technical Ed students with continuously updated, custom-designed, web-accessible videos long before flipped instruction and blended learning were hot, marketable concepts. By my reckoning, he should be as notorious as Sal Khan--perhaps more famous, since his production values are better and his content designed by a professional educator.

Dale's actually been doing what Gary Stager described as rare: designing opportunities for students to learn, on their own timetable. If we turn smart teachers loose, they will figure out ingeniously tailored, even elegant ways to enhance learning for their particular students--but none of the experiences and tools they devise are "free." They are generated by investment in instruction and people.

Last week, I drove across northern Michigan to attend a "free" ed-camp-esque gathering of school superintendents and district technology directors. It was billed as a day of honest conversations about breaking out of old, tired education thinking. The big draw and guest of honor (who left after the opening panel) was Peter Ruddell, one of the governor's informal advisors, head of a self-described "aggressive" government-affairs law firm.

Ruddell pitched a few ideas: giving students who leave high school a year early $2500 in free money--call 'em scholarships!-- plus erasing district boundaries, eliminating costly attendance-taking, and diversifying teacher pay. Offering calculus teachers more than physical education teachers was his example. All of these would free up loads of public resources--which could be used to purchase sophisticated data management programs and services, kicking data analysis into overdrive and making it useful in measuring and rewarding performance.

There was no pushback. Other superintendents talked about "tremendous opportunities" afloat now--surviving the financial crunch by creating "niche markets," shaking off the "victim mentality" and launching new, entrepreneurial startups (with public funds). Taking risks. Taking a stance against unions (a word that drew muttering and groans).

There was, however, a free lunch and free coffee. And a free headache for the ride home. We were asked, as the meeting kicked off, to check our preconceptions at the door. And I have to admit I feel a tweak of--what? not guilt, really--perhaps anxiety over being asked to participate and being both unable and unwilling to abandon my distaste over experiencing what felt like a pep rally for chasing PR and education "wins" on the public dime.

There were some good folks there. I met a wonderful superintendent who has established a set of creative programs--a food service training school for disabled adults, a second-chance program for dropouts that brings technology into a bricks-and-mortar setting where kids are not just supervised but known, a career curriculum that includes fire-fighting and law enforcement courses. Using public resources to build new programming designed explicitly for the community, establishing partnerships with local businesses and public services--that's civic engagement. It's a fine line between being creative to meet kids' needs and seeing education as open marketplace, however.

I was sad to see today that the Network of Michigan Educators, a group of recognized teachers and school leaders that I helped to co-found, almost 20 years ago (using a federal grant) is advertising a "free" summer course, offered by Pearson. I was reminded of the dustup over state school chiefs who traveled to London, Singapore and Rio de Janeiro on Pearson's tab. Strictly for the kids, of course--or as Pearson says, "in pursuit of educational excellence."

I tend to see these Pearson-provided "opportunities" as business as usual--exotic junkets, sample materials, freebie courses and trainings, web tools, lunch and doughnuts. Just more Chris Whittle and Channel One. It never ends.

No such thing as free.

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