A Warning to Parents about Online Learning Programs


Contemporary Online Learning Programs Are Behaviorist Programmed Learning Brought Back from the Dead–Put a Stake in Them before They Take Over Your Kid’s School

Sometimes it is overt, and sometimes it is hidden and not so obvious, but most of these new “personalized” learning software programs now being rolled out are implementations of an approach to instruction called “programmed learning” cooked up by Behaviorists back in the 1920s. The basic format goes something like this:

You give a pretest. Based on that, you drop the kid at a particular place in a predetermined sequence of “learning modules.”

Each module, or mod, contains a tiny bit of instruction followed by a check test for mastery (defined as correct or incorrect or as some percentage, such as 85 percent, correct).

Based on the check test, the student either goes back for a remediation module or gets a reward (points or something) and moves forward to the next module.

Often, mods are grouped together into units that are themselves preceded by a pretest. If the student achieves a mastery level of that pretest, he or she tests out of the unit and goes on to the next one.

The programmed learning approach was based on now-discredited Behaviorist learning theory–though often the developers of the new online programs are so unfamiliar with the theory on which their own programs are based, or with anything having to do with the sciences and arts of learning, that they don’t know how to implement even their de facto Behaviorist theory optimally–they don’t know, for example, that intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than continual reinforcement is–though they could easily learn that from video games.

The early instantiations of programmed learning were print based or oral-instruction based (the latter in labs that typically had both print materials and audio materials that students listened to on headphones), but text-based computer instantiations were developed in the 1960s, once text-based computer terminals were available.

Research in the 1960s showed very little positive result from these programmed learning approaches. They sounded good in theory (they allowed for some minor individuation, for immediate feedback, for carefully sequenced instruction that ensured that prerequisite learning was in place, and for continual checking for mastery), but in practice, students rapidly got bored with them and hated being treated like rats in a maze, and extrinsic rewards turn out to be disincentives for cognitive tasks because they don’t build intrinsic interest, and such programs don’t take into account the human need for autonomy and self direction, and completion rates were VERY LOW.

And, of course, that’s what happens with every one of these new online learning programs. There’s a lot of hype. The kids enjoy it for the first couple days because it’s something new. And then, after a week or two, they would rather have all the hairs on their heads plucked out, one by one, with tweezers than have to sit down at that program again.

IT’S REALLY FUNNY TO SEE THESE OLD APPROACHES BEING DUG UP, DUSTED OFF, AND TOUTED AS THE NEXT BIG THING IN EDUCATION. I predicted this rebirth of programmed learning back in the early 1990s–that graphical user interfaces had become sophisticated enough that people would start reviving programmed learning models and instantiating them, this time around, in programs with graphical formats.

Old vinegar. New bottles. Still not wine. Drinking it will make you sick.

It’s also not surprising that the oligarchs (Gates, for example) love this stuff. It’s conditioning for prole children who need, anyway, they believe, to be taught to sit down, have some grit, and persist in whatever personally unrewarding tasks are assigned them by their masters in the New Feudal Order.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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