Alan Ferdman | Business Parallel to Online Education

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It all started about 30 years ago, when the CEO of the company I was working at decided to outsource circuit card design and manufacturing. While many of the company’s “Grey Beards” tried to convince Mr. Big not to eliminate some of our company’s core competencies, he knew better, and was negotiating with a commercial company that produced circuit cards at a much lower cost than we did. 

Of course, the comparison was apples and oranges, since the commercial manufacturer produced thousands of identical products for sale to the public, while we produced maybe a dozen cards to support the technical development of the company’s new products. Typically, our circuit designs were barely recognizable by the time a new product was ready for production.

But what made the situation even worse was Mr. Big decided to task our circuit designers with writing specifications describing the card’s behaviors, instead of creating a design. The commercial company was tasked with turning the specification into an actual design, building a few products, then shipping them to us for incorporation in our systems. As you might imagine, being a circuit designer requires a different skill set, in contrast to an engineer writing a specification, which is intended to end up as a finished product. 

Contrast my story with what is happening in schools today. Combating COVID-19 has put a halt to face-to-face classroom instruction, and subjects are being taught online. So, what makes the “giants of our educational community” think teachers who excel in a face-to-face environment will also have the skill set to do the same as distance learning becomes the norm, and how is their success to be determined? 

Plus, once a highly effective online teaching curriculum is apparent for an individual subject, why should every teacher continue to be tasked with developing their own curriculum? Would it not make more sense, from both a teaching and efficiency standpoint to use a standard set, or sets, of curriculum and teaching materials in multiple ongoing classes?

What makes me ponder those questions even further revolves around the time I when back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree. Being 42 years old, I wanted to obtain graduation credits as rapidly as I could, so I took advantage of concurrent enrollment. By doing so, I took three elective classes at Valley College using their instructional television offerings, and one class using Ross Perot’s computer-based learning software. In both cases, I found the instructional techniques much different than what I experienced attending face-to-face instruction. Instructional television classes had materials that were very well-structured and thought out. A student was required to first read a section of the text, and then watch a televised program that reiterated what was presented. 

Then the student would use the material’s self-assessment section, and if the student did not comprehend any of the material, they could again review the text and televised sections, or call the instructor for clarification. If all went well, the student only visited the college campus a maximum of three times: at the onset of the class, for the mid-term and the final. Carefully thought-out final exams displayed evidence of learning accomplished using the ITV material. 

Today, with availability of the internet, it would appear interaction with the instructor would be far easier and more beneficial.

Think about it. If a series of standardized subject materials were generated, implemented, and were determined to be effective in presenting subject material to the students, why not carry the concept even farther, and use them in place of individually initiated teaching methods? Then, harnessing the increased productivity, could the projected number of school buildings and teachers be reduced, signaling the end of multi-million-dollar school bonds? Plus, if it were decided the students could use this new learning material in a classroom environment, class size might likely be increased without causing a detriment to the students’ learning ability. 

Therefore, if I were a public education professional, I would think very carefully about what internet technology, online learning and the future may bring. There may come a time, when the skill set of a public school teacher will change substantially from what it is today. It seems to be a reasonable expectation, as all our major industries embrace continuous improvement, life-long learning, improved productivity, and process measurement, as a primary philosophy for them to succeed in a competitive environment.

So as the country continues the battle against COVID-19 and students use computers and the internet in place of classrooms and books, education professionals should be very careful what you wish for, because when the pandemic is no longer a front-burner topic, the classroom you return to may be very different from the one you left many months ago. I hope you are ready to embrace the change.

Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.

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