Students in 2012 working at Carpe Diem charter school in Yuma, Ariz. (The Hechinger Report)

Some school reformers have long been pushing technology as the way to transform education. There is no denying that education technology can be helpful to students in a number of important ways, but there is also no denying that in a number of important ways, it has not been as transformative as supporters might have hoped.

In many cases, it has been used to park students in front of computers, sometimes sitting in their own cubicles in school or at home, learning, supposedly, at their own speed, without the annoyance of engaging face to face with other people.

One experiment with educational technology has not turned into the success that its promoters had envisioned. This is a story about an Arizona-based Carpe Diem charter school, which put technology at the forefront of its program. It is an important cautionary tale for those who are eager to make technology the be-all and end-all in schools.

This story was produced and was first published on the website of the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. This was written by Nichole Dobo, a staff writer and social media editor at Hechinger.

 

By Nichole Dobo

An Arizona-born charter school known for its call center-like appearance has run into trouble as it has attempted to expand to other states.

Carpe Diem schools, which rely on computer-based lessons and some in-person instruction, began in 2006 and opened five additional schools in Texas, Ohio and Indiana about five years ago. One of the schools in Indiana just closed. The management agency charged with implementing the expansion has been disbanded, leaving the four remaining spinoff schools to rethink their strategy. Some have ditched the cubicles and are giving teachers more autonomy to go off script, as they scramble to boost anemic enrollment.

In 2012, the first school, in Yuma, Arizona, posted what seemed like promising early results. Advocates moved quickly to replicate the school in other states. These Carpe Diem-branded schools were pioneers in the blended learning movement, which uses in-person instruction aided by technology to deliver lessons to students.

“Technology was almost like the centerpiece of Carpe Diem, with the cubicles and computers,” said Robert Sommers, who was in charge of managing the school’s expansion into other states. “It is what drew your attention.”

In hindsight, he said, one of the key weaknesses was how central the technology was at Carpe Diem. Teachers didn’t have enough power over the learning. And too little attention was paid to how students are motivated by the ability to pursue their own interests.

Others possible flaws included a lack of flexibility for teachers (who had a tightly scripted day), too small a budget for in-person instruction, overreliance on computers, a lack of extracurricular activities and a call-center-style layout that left students clicking away at screens alone for much of the day.

Many lessons can be gleaned from the Carpe Diem test balloon, and Sommers remains a supporter of blended learning. He ran public vocational schools — still open and thriving — in southwest Ohio that used computers and in-person instruction to innovate.

The Carpe Diem schools boasted about their commitment to academics, but they had a bare-bones approach that offered few extras — such as a band or athletic teams. Students were often alone with a computer, headphones on, working on programs designed to offer custom-fit lessons that were neither too easy nor too hard. Teachers were there and available on the side for guidance and short, daily check-ins with students to discuss their performance. The student-to-teacher ratio was unusual: 226 students to five teachers and four teacher aides in 2012 at the Yuma school. From the beginning, teachers and students at the Yuma school said that self-motivated students were the ones who would do best.

The Yuma schools initially posted high marks on state academic achievement tests. That early success prompted the expansion into the three other states.

But the concept didn’t seem to appeal to a critical mass of students or parents. The new schools struggled, and even the Yuma school has been scrambling to sign students up. Low enrollment might be seen as a marketing problem if not for the fact that too often those who did sign up decided to leave.

“That is just a fundamental flaw,” Sommers said. “Kids just didn’t want to enroll, and when they did, they didn’t want to stay.”