A Letter To Senator Regarding Betsy DeVos

Hands typing on laptop computer

Dear Senator Grassley,

I’m a public school teacher in Iowa.  I have even voted for you a couple of times (although in honesty I didn’t vote for you this time around.) There was a time when you were considered a moderate.  There was a time when Iowa was a state that took some pride in being governed by moderates from both parties; the name Robert Ray comes to mind.  Those days seem like a distant memory.

While much has changed in Iowa over the last 36 years, one of the things that I think has remained constant is that Iowans take pride in our public education system.  My parents had the option to move anywhere in the Midwest (in the country really) in 1973.  They did a lot of research and decided that Ames, Iowa was the best place in the country to raise a family, based primarily on the quality of the public schools.  Although my father had numerous opportunities to make more money in other places, he kept our family in Ames through his children’s graduation because he recognized that he had made the right decision in 1973.  Great public school education is what Iowa should offer to young families.

I am writing you to respectfully ask that you do not vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.  Ms. DeVos has no practical experience in education.  She has not attended a public school, she has not studied education, been a public school parent, or ever worked in a school.She has spent the last several years actively opposing public education in her home state of Michigan.  Ms. DeVos has spent the last several years as the architect of a largely unsuccessful private and for-profit charter school system in Detroit that has diverted millions of public dollars from underfunded public schools.

She has spent the last several years actively opposing public education in her home state of Michigan.

Her lack of experience in the field of education should be enough to disqualify her to be Secretary of Education, but her complete disdain for public schools should make the decision to deny her confirmation very easy.  The system she devised for Detroit’s schools operates like the Wild West.  Her solution for a struggling school system was to invite those seeking to make a profit to take over schools with essentially no oversight.  Her solution has failed.  After more than a decade of getting her way on a host of educational policies (by filling the swamp with millions of dollars in contributions), Michigan is one of five states with declining reading scores.

There was a day when you represented Iowa as a moderate voice of reason in the Senate.  It is undeniable that you have become more partisan and less moderate over the years.  Regardless, I assume that you take the job of representing Iowa values seriously.  There is no way to argue that Betsy DeVos represents what is best for the public schools of Iowa.  There are reasonable arguments to be made for creating more school choice, but Ms. DeVos’s track record demonstrates that her agenda is not to create conditions for all schools to have equal opportunities to provide the best education for students.  Her agenda is to take taxpayer dollars and put them into unregulated for-profit businesses whose primary interest is not what is good for kids.

Do what is right; vote against the nomination of Ms. DeVos.  It would remind Iowans that you are not just a puppet of your party or of special interests.  It would demonstrate that you recognize the importance of public schools.  It is the right thing to do.


Patrick J. Kearney

Campus Sail’s Online Orientation platform


A brand new company in the EdTech space just released an online platform for new student orientation. Campus Sail’s Online Orientation platform fully integrates with a school’s existing system in order to automate the onboarding process.

The company was born out of the higher education field. “Working at a college, we sat through countless hours of software demos and saw firsthand the lack of innovation in the field. It was seeing all the outdated software that convinced us to set out to build modern, innovative products. We wanted to build products that could increase a school’s productivity while also providing students with a great experience,” says Seth Miller, co-founder of Campus Sail.

Campus Sail handles nearly all aspects of the implementation and integration of the product.There were two main focuses when building out the orientation product. The first focus was a mobile-first mentality. With smartphones emerging as the main source of information for many students, this became paramount. The second focus was keeping the school’s involvement at a minimum.  Many third-party products on the market require extensive support from IT and dedicated personnel for maintenance. Campus Sail wants to change the current model by shifting the burden onto the provider. Some other features of note include:

Single sign-on (SSO) functionality from a student portal
Full access to all reporting data
Seamless integration with student information systems
About Campus Sail

Campus Sail has set out to build amazing experiences. To do that, they utilize the latest technologies to build software that enhances the lives of students.

A Guide to Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality


Media enthuse about the latest gear or games employing virtual reality or augmented reality; scholarly treatises pontificate about how virtual reality and grounded reality interact. Then there’s something called mixed reality…

It’s easy to get lost among the realities. Here’s a primer to sort out the terms and understand how each might apply to eLearning.

The real, physical world is called “grounded reality.” This article explains the “other” realities in reference and relation to grounded reality.

Immersive experiences and VR

The lure of virtual reality, or VR, is immersing learners in an environment. That environment can be created using 360-degree video, be entirely computer-generated, or combine video with computer-generated elements.

Most learners have probably encountered 360-degree video online; it shows up on real estate listings, virtual college-campus tours, and much more. While it’s possible to view 360-degree video on a computer screen, it is best viewed using a VR headset. Either way, learners can examine a complete scene—up, down, and in front of and behind the learner’s position—and get a far more complete picture than they get from looking at still photos or ordinary video. Journalists who’ve used 360-degree video in their storytelling say that news stories presented in this format have greater emotional impact than text, ordinary video, or even interactive packages because the audience has a greater sense of being on the scene. But the “scene” is still something that exists in grounded reality, and the audience can only look at it, not interact with it.

That’s where VR comes in. The environment is a digital creation, hence “virtual” reality, though it can be a digital re-creation of an actual place. Whether based on a real place or entirely fictional, it feels real to learners who are immersed in the digital world; while there, learners can interact with other avatars in the virtual world. VR immerses participants in a different world—often a world that doesn’t actually exist.According to Tobin Asher, the lab manager at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), people treat avatars—whether other “people” or fictional creatures encountered in a VR environment—as real, even if the graphics quality is not top-notch and the avatars don’t look real. Learners also behave as they would in a real space: They are unwilling to walk through a virtual wall, for example, or approach another avatar too closely.

User-Centered Design and Universal Design-Buzzword Decoder


Both user-centered and universal approaches to eLearning design focus on the end user—the learner—in that they aim to improve the usability of the end product. The approaches differ, though, in that universal design is more conceptual and philosophical, while user-centered design is more process-focused.

User-centered design

User-centered design includes end users in every aspect of the design and development process. At its heart is a focus on understanding who will be using the eLearning and what the needs of those learners are. User-centered design follows a process, listed on the Usability.gov website:

Specify the context of use. Identify the people who will use the product, what they will use it for, and under what conditions they will use it.
Specify requirements. Identify any business requirements or user goals that must be met for the product to be successful.
Create design solutions. This part of the process may be done in stages, building from a rough concept to a complete design.
Evaluate designs. Evaluation—ideally through usability testing with actual users—is as integral as quality testing is to good software development.
User testing is a key element of user-centered design; creation of personas and use cases can also aid tremendously in the design and development processes. User-centered design is compatible with many instructional development (ID) models, including agile, which is popular among eLearning developers.

Universal design

Rather than home in on specific learners or groups of learners, universal design aims to create products, including eLearning, that are “usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design,” according to the Institute for Human Centered Design. Universal design takes more of a big-picture approach based on embracing the variations among individual humans.That means designing eLearning that is easy to use by a broad spectrum of learners, regardless of their age, disability, or technical savvy. The universal design approach follows these seven principles:

Equitable use. The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
Simple, intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Overview of Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality in eLearning


Welcome to the newest monthly column at Learning Solutions Magazine: a column dedicated to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed/modified/merged reality (MR), games, and gamification as they relate to eLearning, corporate training, education, and instructional design. In this first column, I’ll provide an overview of VR and MR within the eLearning industry. Future articles will address AR, gaming, and other related topics.

The future is now

In the popular sci-fi book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the year is 2044, and nearly all education, business, and social interaction takes place in a virtual world, accessible anywhere on earth by anyone with a VR headset and a haptic suit. With amazing new VR products and software now hitting the market seemingly every week, we’ll likely see Cline’s envisioned reality much sooner than 2044. (Editor’s note: It’s already arriving. See Pam Hogle’s November 8 article on Cydalion, and any of the many articles on The Void, which makes full-body use of haptic feedback.)

What are VR and MR?

Definitions of virtual and mixed reality vary depending on whom you ask. Most commonly—and how I’ll use the terms in this column—VR denotes a fully immersive world experienced through headsets and earphones that block out the real external environment (The Lawnmower Man, Avatar, The Matrix). MR, experienced through special glasses, overlays holographic images onto the real world around us (Google Glass, Minority Report, Iron Man). To confuse the matter further, some people use the terms VR, AR, MR, and even XR to refer to all of these related technologies together as a group. MR is sometimes referred to as AR, but AR can also refer to an entirely different subset of devices, software, and apps.Regardless of what comes before the R, each technology offers different benefits to instructional designers, trainers, and educators.

Because of the ability to fully immerse viewers into a new perspective, VR has often been described as an empathy machine. I’ll add that MR is a productivity machine, due to how information, communications, graphics, animations, etc., seemingly exist within, interact with, and provide context for the physical world as we go through our day. Due to this heightened empathy and productivity, VR and MR are powerful learning tools, though we’ve only just begun to see how either technology will be used in instruction and education.

Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners


“Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners” explores the reasons for creating accessible eLearning content. This Spotlight concludes a four-part series on how to remove different types of barriers that learners might face:

“Accessibility from the Ground Up: Build Captions and Usable Design into All eLearning” describes accessibility for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Accessibility from the Ground Up: Without Glasses, You Couldn’t Read This Content” addresses learners with visual disabilities.
“Accessibility from the Ground Up: Remove Barriers to eLearning Content” considers mobility issues that create barriers to online access.
Making content understandable

Ensuring that content is clear and unambiguous is much more than an accessibility issue of concern to people with disabilities, though it has obvious benefits for learners who are deaf or have autism, dyslexia, or cognitive or other disabilities that affect their ability to access or use written language. Writing in plain English and using additional formats—such as visual media to accompany text, or captions with audio—aids all learners, including those who are English learners or have limited literacy skills. It also ensures that eLearning content is accessible to any busy employee who is trying to learn complex material about an unfamiliar topic.

Understandable content is usable content. This is the essence of the “U” of POUR: understandable content.All the captions and alt text descriptions in the world are useless if learners simply don’t understand the material.

Know your audience; if you can be certain that every learner has the same basic knowledge, it’s reasonable to skip basic information. It is generally wise to include the basics while enabling advanced learners to skip introductory sections.But that’s rarely the case.
Build in features for people who have difficulty remembering things to make it easy for learners to search for content or review content they have already covered, and allow unlimited access to exercises that offer spaced repetition and skills practice.
Include supplemental material and additional resources, such as illustrations, infographics, videos, and animations. This serves multiple groups of learners: Learners who want to explore a topic more deeply benefit from the additional materials. The non-text materials are essential for learners with some cognitive disabilities, low-literacy learners, and learners who have dyslexia.


Catchting The Learners’ Attention with Multimodal eLearning


We’re bombarded with headlines and statistics about the growth of online and mobile video viewing; daily viewing of video—social media content, news, and advertising—continues to increase. Yet a recent Pew Research Center study found that younger adults are more likely to read news, albeit online, than to watch it, compared to those over age 50. How can we explain the apparent discrepancy?

Preferences. Some people might still argue that they “learn better” using a specific modality: visual, auditory, kinesthetic—even though research has pretty thoroughly demolished the idea of hard-wired learning “styles.” But the myth persists. Why? Because learners do have different abilities and interests—and they do have preferred modes of learning; it’s simply not a requirement that eLearning be tailored to meet each individual’s preferences.

On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that individual learners are, well, unique individuals. Some began voraciously reading anything and everything while still in preschool; others get through college without cracking a book.Some of us cannot sit through more than five minutes of video without becoming antsy. Others eagerly binge-watch movies, TV series, social media videos, even ads, for hours on end.

Preferences may vary by age, experience, ability, and opportunity. A busy person who finds herself spending a lot of time in the car might discover a “preference” for audio learning, listening to lectures, podcasts, or books while driving. A person whose eyesight is fading due to age or illness might get less enjoyment out of reading and videos than he used to and find himself turning to audio books.A person whose dyslexia has always made reading a struggle might prefer to learn via video.

The smart eLearning designer accommodates any and all of these preferences; offering information in multiple modalities can lead to greater engagement by larger numbers of learners. And, according to research published by Cisco, “Students engaged in learning that incorporates multimodal designs, on average, outperform students who learn using traditional approaches with single modes.”

Many learners who use varied modalities or take advantage of features that are generally regarded as accommodations for people with disabilities, such as captioning, do so not because of a disability but rather for reasons of convenience and personal preference. A study conducted by Oregon State University that surveyed 2,800 students at 15 American universities and colleges found that a third of respondents used captioning of audio learning materials, when available, to help them stay focused and to improve their comprehension and retention of the material. That number represents a significant proportion of students, particularly in light of an additional finding: More than half of the respondents said that they did not know whether captions were available or that captions were not available. In fact, most people who use captioning are not hard of hearing; a 2006 study by the UK’s Office of Communications found that only 20 percent of the people who used captions were hard of hearing.

The students who use captioning are on to something: Consuming information in multiple modalities can help retention. A 2007 study by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, analyzed how people read news—and how much they retained—and found that multiple modalities led to greater retention (see References). Study participants who saw news stories that were a “graphics-laden” mix of charts, Q&A, photos, maps, and other content remembered more information than readers exposed to text-heavy versions.

The Reason Why The Free Market Fai


Donald Trump has proposed that we just get rid of Obamacare and replace it with free market forces. This is as original as any of his policy ideas (i.e. not at all), but it’s still a bad idea because health care is like education in that the free market cannot possibly succeed in accomplishing what we claim to want as a society.

At this point in human history, all markets are controlled and manipulated to some degree by the government.I’ll explain in a moment, but first, let me insert my usual disclaimer that “free market” is a suspect term to begin with. “Free market” is just a name for a particular type of government control. The last time there was a truly free market, a pair of humans were trading a shiny rock for a pointy stick somewhere near a cave.

Putting that aside, Trump’s idea to leave health care “customers” at the mercy of the free market is nuts for the same reason that letting the free market run loose in the education sector is nuts.

Health care operating strictly on free market means that everyone gets the health care they can personally afford, which means the wealthy get great healthcare, middle class citizens (both of them) get mediocre health care, and the poor get no health care at all. People who are already sick, on whom the health care biz can never hope to make money, will also get no healthcare at all.

Because the one area where the free market will always fail is in the area of providing a good or a service to all citizens.

Milton Friedman said, “The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.” And there’s our problem— because there are some citizens in the country who cannot offer sufficient benefit to a company with something to sell.

It is the fundamental nature of the free market to sort customers into two groups— those from which my business can benefit, and those from which it can not. Whether I’m making a fast-food burger, a fancy shmancy motorcar, or a pair of stereo speakers, my business plan involves saying, “We can only serve customers who are willing to pay $X.00. Anyone who isn’t going to pay that will not be a customer.” There is no office in this country where businesspersons are getting together and saying, “Okay, how can we best get this product into the hands of people who cannot meet our minimum price point?” The very closest we get is outfits like the phone companies, where the discussion is along the lines of, “How can we balance losing a little money up front for the promise of bleeding our customers for all the money we can get in the long run.” And that’s not very close.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “Sorry, but if you can’t pay the price of a Lexus, you can’t have a Lexus.” That’s how the system by and large works.

But there is something wrong with a system that says, “Sorry, but you’re poor, so you’ll just have to die” or, “Sorry, but you’re poor, so you’ll just have to go without a real education.”

It is true that there are times— bad times, disgraceful times— when our current health care and education systems say exactly that. But there is at least the hope that we and they can do better. But a free market system must mark some people as too poor for the product. It has to. It is absolutely guaranteed that it will.

For a free market system to work, it must figure out which part of the market it can afford to profitably serve. That means it must absolutely also determine which part of the market it is not going to serve.

Imagine if the feds went to Ford Motor Co. and said, “You must get a car sold to every family in America— and not just a mediocre car, but a good one. Every family.”

Or if the feds went to Apple and said, “You must sell every single person in America a new iPhone. You cannot turn down a single customer. Regardless of their financial resources, you must get your current new phone into their hands, without fail.”

Or if the feds went to Arby’s and said, “You must feed every single American lunch, every single day, no matter what they can afford to pay for, and even if they aren’t very excited about eating the food on your menu.”

That would be nuts. It would be bad business, and no even semi-smart business leader would tolerate it.

And yet, if you want to talk about free market education or free market health care, that is the gig— to provide your service to every single American, regardless of what they can afford to pay (or the government can afford to pay on their behalf). But if so, then we need to have a national conversation, because the very foundation of our nation that there are some things, some inalienable rights, that all humans are entitled to from the moment they’re born.Maybe you want to change the mission, to say, “No, health care and education are only for those who deserve it, and we can measure what they deserve by how much money they have.”

Some endeavors are supposed to serve all citizens. Every lastone. It is the most fundamental part of the mission, and the free market has absolutely no clue about how to do it. On this point, the point of serving every citizen, the free market fails, and for that reason, the free market is uniquely unfit to take on the work of providing health care or education to the entire country.

ELearning and Reimagining the Virtual Classroom


It’s time to snap out of black-and-white thinking when it comes to eLearning and reimagine the virtual classroom.

The concept of synchronous learning, where the instructor and learners are online simultaneously and interaction occurs in real time, is practically baked in to the definition of a virtual classroom. Why would you need a “classroom”—metaphoric or real—for asynchronous learning?

And, although asynchronous eLearning offers learners the greatest amount of control and flexibility—they choose when and where to do it—it unfortunately also offers the option of “never.” On the other hand, synchronous eLearning offers the advantage of greater accountability: The instructor knows who’s there and who’s actively participating.

Why choose?

You can, in fact, have the best of both worlds. A creative blended eLearning solution combines synchronous sessions with asynchronous elements, adopting elements of the “flipped classroom” in the process. The eLearning “conventional wisdom” that instructional designers (IDs) must choose between synchronous and asynchronous learning presents a false dilemma.The results can be a win all around: Learners have a better experience, and the format encourages collaboration and improves outcomes.

While a lecture or webinar can be part of the synchronous eLearning experience, it is—or should be—only a small part of the package.A blended solution forces IDs to let go of two relics: the view that a virtual classroom is simply a traditional classroom that has been moved online and the image of teaching as presenting information to passive learners.

Even at their best, lectures are not the ideal instructional approach. And, lacking the physical connection that an in-person session offers, a lecture delivered online can be tedious, even in a setting that permits discussion. A synchronous eLearning session should always include more than just a talking head presenting information. And even during the presentation, an instructor can integrate interactivity: add polls, brainstorm ideas via chat, share the whiteboard. In other words, let learners join in beyond asking questions.

With The Rise Of Donald Trump,what School Segregation Has To Do


Donald Trump’s personal life ― in all likelihood ― has not been directly impacted by the patterns of public school segregation. Trump attended a private school in Queens as a child, before transferring to a private military boarding school as a teen. His four older kids attended private high schools, and his youngest is also currently enrolled at a private school in Manhattan.

But his rise to power ― as the nation’s newest president-elect ― is likely related to the dismantling of school desegregation policies, according to several researchers and academics who study school diversity.

In recent years, integration of schools has largely been abandoned as a national priority ― an indicator that various racial groups are spending less time interacting. This lack of familiarity makes it easy for students, parents and stakeholders to demonize groups who don’t look like them ― a staple of Trump’s campaign, said Gary Orfield, distinguished professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“The American dream is very, very similar across racial and ethnic lines. People who actually experience interracial contact, especially under appropriate conditions, develop more positive attitudes,” said Orfield, who has been studying this issue for decades. “Racial segregation fosters prejudice. It fosters false understandings.”

Trump’s strategy to embolden racists with hate rhetoric ― speaking of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country ― did not become a winning one in a vacuum. In part, the dismantling of school desegregation efforts ― coupled with demographic changes that have resulted in the country being more diverse ― may have created the landscape that allowed Trump’s racially-charged agenda to thrive.

However, when people from different groups spend time together ― whether it be at a school soccer game or PTA meeting ― prejudices typically fade. Latinos ― who bore the brunt of much of Trump’s rhetoric ― are especially segregated in schools. Because of this isolation and a sustained population surge, it makes sense that Latinos have been targeted by Trump and his supporters, says Orfield. The average Latino student attends a school that is 57 percent Latino, while the average white student attends a school that is 73 percent white ― suggesting that these two populations are not often in situations where they are raising families together.

Its been a change so dramatic and so fast, I think many whites are stunned.

Decades of evidence on racial integration suggest that racially integrated school environments reduce racial prejudice and bias, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research group.

“That’s been a major setback in this country where we’ve seen resegregation by race and class in the public schools,” Kahlenberg said. This can open the door to “scapegoat minorities.”

Research shows that GOP voters who feel most warmly about Trump seem to have the most negative attitudes about immigrants, Islam and living in a majority-minority nation.Trump’s election has emboldened racists so much so that in the days since Nov. 8, a rash of racial and religiously-based hate crimes have broken out around the country.

In schools’ demographics we see how these negative attitudes may have been borne. According to Orfield’s research,between 1968 and 2011, there was a 28 percent decline in white public school enrollment, and a 495 percent increase in levels of Latino students. Nationwide, school populations now have a majority of minority children. Black students in regions like the south and west are now more segregated than they were in the late 80s and 90s, and schools in the northeast are more segregated than they were before 1968.

This is partly because Brown v. Board of Education ― the supreme court case that made state-sanctioned segregation unconstitutional in 1954 ― only dealt with the question of white and black students, making Latinos largely invisible in subsequent school desegregation policies.

“We just assumed we could go through this very dramatic demographic change without really working on it, from either side really,” Orfield said. “Its been a change so dramatic and so fast, I think many whites are stunned. Especially older whites, they think their society is going away. And it is. We’re creating a different society.”

But it’s not just in schools where populations can be exposed to diversity. In previous decades, the military brought together groups from different racial and economic backgrounds, Kahlenberg said. Once the draft ended in 1973, the military no longer served such a function.

Religious institutions, too, could make a difference in promoting racial tolerance, although there is little indication that this is happening, said Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Arizona State University.

“We’re really left with public schools as the place where people of different backgrounds can come together and learn from one another,” Kahlenberg said.

The most recent election cycle has brought explicit hate back into the national discourse, Delmont said. Schools could provide a long-term solution to this by providing “more daily interactions across racial and ethnic lines,” he said. There’s opportunity for more nuanced and informed conversations to take place.

“Watching how the debates unfolded in this last presidential cycle, white Americans and people of color are talking past each other and fundamentally understand issues of race and prejudice in very different terms,” said Delmont, who wrote a book about resistance to school desegregation in the north. He said he couldn’t guarantee that racially integrated schools would change the political outlook, but it does encourage people to talk to each other.

“When you have conditions of segregation as we do in this country,” he said, “It’s easy for people to let their fears dominate how they view the world.”