The Return of the One-Room Schoolhouse

Traditional one-room schoolhouse Peoria, Kansas.

It's not exactly a "one-room schoolhouse" in the sense of the 19th-century place that had that label, but a new trend to "microschools" has some of that in its lineage.

The trend grew out of pandemic remote learning and school closures but also is an offshoot of K-12 homeschooling. This form of education is micro in that it serves a small student population of generally 15 students or less. There isn't a definition of a microschool that fits all the ones that might fall into the classification but they probably are all offering personalized, student-centered learning and multiple age groups in the same classroom.

There were pandemic "learning pods" created by families so that kids could learn in small groups and those might have included a trained teacher. A microschool is more official and probably registered as a school and perhaps even as a for-profit business.

So, is this just a "private school"? At 15 or less students, this is not really a business model. Then again, there are a few networks of microschoolsthat have emerged. Acton Academy has more than 250 affiliate schools in 31 states and 25 countries, with an average annual tuition of about $10,000.

There are microschools for every grade level from kindergarten through high school and even a few microcolleges. But this is a new thing, so there is still a lot to be worked out. For example, there is no one national accreditation body, so rules and regulations vary widely. A few states (West Virginia and Wisconsin) are trying to define microschools via new legislation. There are legal, financial, and pedagogical things to consider.

This isn't the same thing as starting a home school. An actual microschool will need to be registered as a business and most often as a private school. Check into your state regulations, and you'll see the complexities of licensing, attendance and things such as insurance requirements.

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Educating in the Metaverse

Excerpt from

Although the metaverse seems like a new concept, it actually has been around for nearly three decades. In 1992, Neal Stephenson, an American science fiction author introduced the concept of the metaverse in his novel, Snow Crash.

In October, Mark Zuckerberg announced the change from Facebook to Meta and released a short video about how the metaverse would work and what his plans were for it. I showed this to my students, which sparked great conversations and many questions.

As educators, how can we keep up with so much information? Where can we learn about the technologies involved in the metaverse? I recommend setting a Google alert through your Gmail. Set the topic to be “metaverse” or other topics of interest, and each day you will receive an email with articles, videos and breaking news stories gathered from all over the Internet...


webinarInterested in having a conversation about the metaverse? Register for the upcoming Getting Smart Town Hall on May 12, 2022 What on Earth is a Metaverse?: The Next Frontier of Engaging and Learning.
We’ll explore some of the following questions:
- Is the metaverse technically on “earth”?
- How far away is this from being a reality?
- What does this mean for teaching and learning?
- What about equity and accessibility?
- What about the power of place?

Federated Learning

When I first think of federated learning, what comes to mind is something like a college federated department. For example, the history faculty at NJIT and Rutgers University-Newark are joined in a single federated department offering an integrated curriculum and joint undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Having worked at NJIT, it made sense to combine the two departments and collaborate. Each had its own specialties but they were stronger together.

In technology, a federation is a group of computing or network providers agreeing upon standards of operation in a collective fashion, such as two distinct, formally disconnected, telecommunications networks that may have different internal structures.

There is also federated learning which sounds like something those two history departments are doing, but it is not. This federated learning is the decentralized form of machine learning (ML).

In machine learning, data that is aggregated from several edge devices (like mobile phones, laptops, etc.) is brought together to a centralized server.  The main objective is to provide privacy-by-design because, in federated learning, a central server just coordinates with local clients to aggregate the model's updates without requiring the actual data (i.e., zero-touch).

I'm not going to go very deep here about things like the three categories (Horizontal federated learning, vertical federated learning, and federated transfer learning). As an example, consider federated learning at Google where it is used to improve models on devices without sending users' raw data to Google servers.

An online comic from Google AI

For people using something like Google Assistant, privacy is a concern. Using federated learning to improve “Hey Google,” your voice and audio data stay private while Google Assistant uses it.

Federated learning trains an algorithm across the multiple decentralized edge devices (such as your phone) or servers that have local data samples, without exchanging them. Compare this to traditional centralized machine learning techniques where all the local datasets are uploaded to one server.

So, though federated learning is about training ML to be efficient, it is also about data privacy, data security, data access rights and access to heterogeneous data.


Pandemic Learning Gains

loss gainThere has been lots of talk about the losses in learning during the pandemic. Much of that talk has been around the shift to online learning and what was perceived as lost by not being in physical classrooms.

coverMy wife, Lynnette Condro Ronkowitz, and I wrote two articles published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (Volume 80, Issue 1) in January 2021 about the pandemic and higher education. (both articles are available via

The first article is "Online Education in a Pandemic: Stress Test or Fortuitous Disruption?" We considered the ways in which the shutdown caused by the  COVID-  19  pandemic have accelerated the evolution of online education. This movement from face-to-face (F2F) education to a virtual environment was forced and unplanned. It can be viewed as a stress test for digital teaching and learning in the higher education system. The study addresses course conversions and the progress of online education in response to the current crisis.

The second article, "Choosing Transformation Over Tradition: The Changing Perception of Online Education" was part of the first article's draft but the editors thought it would be expanded into a second article. In this article, we consider that despite advancements in online education, misperceptions persist that create obstacles to the integration of online classes in higher education. We refute misconceptions about online education and highlights key components of a strong online course. For example, as a result of the pandemic, it became apparent that there is a conflation between “school” and “education” that has prompted contradistinction, and so we tried to provide some insight into some of the social and economic implications of the culture of our education system.

We felt that though learning losses occurred during these pandemic years, there were also gains. A post on the Innovative Educator blog also addresses gains in learning that came out of the pandemic. Though we focused on higher education, the blog post looks more at K-12. For example, because of the pivot to online "students and staff were catapulted into the future in many school districts. As a result, our students will now be more prepared than they ever would have been, had education not been disrupted.

Some pandemic learning gains that were cited in the post:

Access to Devices - not that a "digital divide" does not still exist, but it is not as wide

Access to the Internet - the inability of students and some faculty to access broadband connections or possibly any Internet access at home became apparent. Stories of learners working from parking lots outside free wireless sites were shocking to some people.

Access to Content and to New Platforms - K-12 school districts began adopting learning management systems and platforms (Google Classroom was one ) and learning materials became more accessible to students and families.

Access to Each Other & The World - Higher education already had far greater access to learning platforms and tools such as video conferencing pre-pandemic, but it was not being used by a majority of faculty and in courses that were not already online. "Zooming" became a new verb for video conferencing for many people in and out of education - and it continues today. Virtual conferencing may come with some losses from in-person but it also came with gains. Video plus chat and captioning (though imperfect in most cases) helped students with and without disabilities or who spoke other languages access what was being said more easily. Courses could include authors, guests, and experts brought into virtual classrooms.  

I am not a fan of the term "the new normal" but such a thing would include gains that have remained in place and progress that was made. Hopefully, another major pandemic is far in the future but mini-crises from virus variants to natural disasters have occurred and will occur with greater frequency. And hopefully, we are better prepared for them.

The Science of Learning

Professor Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921

Albert Einstein was definitely a subject matter expert, but he is not regarded as a good professor. Einstein first taught at the University of Bern but did not attract students, and when he pursued a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the president raised concerns about his lackluster teaching skills. Biographer Walter Isaacson summarized, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.” It's a bit unfair to say that "Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics" - though by today's standards he would not be considered qualified. It probably is fair to say that "Although it’s often said that those who can’t do teach, the reality is that the best doers are often the worst teachers."

Beth McMurtrie wrote a piece in The Chronicle called "What Would Bring the Science of Learning Into the Classroom?" and her overall question was: Why doesn't the scholarship on teaching have as much impact as it could have in higher education classroom practices?

It is not the first article to show and question why higher education appears not to value teaching as much as it could or should. Is it that quality instruction isn't valued as much in higher education as it is in the lower grades? Other articles show that colleges and most faculty believe the quality of instruction is a reason why students select a school.

Having moved from several decades in K-12 teaching to higher education, I noticed a number of things related to this topic. First of all, K-12 teachers were likely to have had at least a minor as undergraduates in education and would have taken courses in pedagogy. For licensing in all states, there are requirements to do "practice" or "student teaching" with monitoring and guidance from education professors and cooperating teachers in the schools.

When I moved from K-12 to higher education at NJIT in 2001, I was told that one reason I was hired to head the instructional technology department was that I had a background in pedagogy and had been running professional development workshops for teachers. It was seen as a gap in the university's offerings. The Chronicle article also points to "professional development focused on becoming a better teacher, from graduate school onward, is rarely built into the job."

As I developed a series of workshops for faculty on using technology, I also developed workshops on better teaching methods. I remember being surprised (but shouldn't have been) that professors had never heard of things like Bloom's taxonomy, alternative assessment, and most of the learning science that had been common for the past 30 years.

K-12 teachers generally have required professional development. In higher education, professional development is generally voluntary. I quickly discovered that enticements were necessary to bring in many faculty. We offered free software, hardware, prize drawings and, of course, breakfasts, lunches and lots of coffee. Professional development in higher ed is not likely to count for much when it comes to promotion and tenure track. Research and grants far outweigh teaching, particularly at a science university like NJIT.

But we did eventually fill our workshops. We had a lot of repeat customers. There was no way we could handle the approximately 600 full-time faculty and the almost 300 adjunct instructors, so we tried to bring in "champions" from different colleges and departments who might later get colleagues to attend.

I recall more than one professor who told me that they basically "try to do the thing my best professors did and avoid doing what the bad ones did." It was rare to meet faculty outside of an education department who did any research on teaching. We did find some. We brought in faculty from other schools who were researching things like methods in engineering education. I spent a lot of time creating online courses and improving online instruction since NJIT was an early leader in that area and had been doing "distance education" pre-Internet.

Discipline-based pedagogy was definitely an issue we explored, even offering specialized workshops for departments and programs. Teaching the humanities and teaching the humanities in a STEM-focused university is different. Teaching chemistry online is not the same as teaching a management course online.

Some of the best parts of the workshops were the conversations amongst the heterogeneous faculty groups. We created less formal sessions with names that gathered professors around a topic like grading, plagiarism and academic integrity, applying for grants, writing in the disciplines, and even topics like admissions and recruiting. These were sessions where I and my department often stepped back and instead offered resources to go further after the session ended.

It is not that K-12 educators have mastered teaching, but they are better prepared for the classroom from the perspective of discipline, psychology, pedagogy, and the numbers of students and hours they spend in face-to-face teaching. College faculty are reasonably expected to be subject matter experts and at a higher level of expertise than K-12 teachers who are expected to be excellent teachers. This doesn't mean that K-12 teachers aren't subject matter experts or that professors can't be excellent teachers. But the preparations for teaching in higher and the recognition for teaching excellence aren't balanced in the two worlds.

Memory Sculpting

photo wall
Photo by Rachel Claire from Pexels

I was having a Facebook conversation with a friend about how photos and videos change our memories. Kids who grew up in the past 30 years - and more so in the age of smartphones and social media - have definitely had their memories sculpted by images of their past. My sons have said to me several times when I ask them "Do you remember us being there?" that "I remember the photos of it." Do the photos trigger a memory to return or is the photo the memory itself?

I am fascinated by how memory works. Research shows that when we describe our memories differently to different audiences it isn't only the message that changes, but sometimes it's also the memory itself. Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. The next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. This leads some to say that memory is like the "telephone game."

This sent me back to an article I read in 2017. I did a search and found it again since my memory of this article on memory may not be remembered correctly. It is titled "Facebook is Re-Sculpting Our Memory" by Olivia Goldhill. Facebook is not the only social network or the only place that we share photos and videos, but it is a major place for this sharing.

I have a new granddaughter and her parents have set up a shared photo album online for relatives. They don't want people (mostly me - the oversharer) to post photos of her on Facebook, Instagram et al. I understand that privacy caution. My granddaughter will have many thousands of photos and videos to look at one day. I have about two dozen black and white photos of my first two years of life. It is probably two 12 photo rolls of film from that time (the 1950s) which seemed like enough to my parents to chronicle my early life.

Those photos of baby me don't trigger any memories but they are my "memory" of that time along with my mother's narration. "That was your stuffed lamb that was your favorite toy."

I have also kept journals since my teen years. The way to chronicle life once was to write it down. Rereading those journals now is a mixed experience. For some things, the journal is now my memory. Without the entry, I couldn't recall names, places or details from 40 years ago. But for some entries, I know that the version I wrote at age 15 is a kind of augmented reality. I made some things sound better or worse than the actual event. I sculpted the memory. Maybe as my memory degrades, those entries - accurate or not - will become the only memory I have.

Those sculpted memories are not unlike the image of ourselves we put online. Not all, but many people, post almost exclusively the best parts of their lives. Alfred Hitchcock said "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," and that's true of many virtual lives as portrayed online.

That article references Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University, whose 1990s research first established the effects of photographs on memories. Frighteningly, he showed that it was possible to implant false memories by showing subjects photos of an event that they might have experienced but that they didn’t experience.

Another of his experiments found that while looking at photos triggered and enhanced the memory of that particular event, it also impaired memories of events that happened at the same time and were not featured in the photographs.

This sounds terrible, but one positive effect he has found that comes from weaknesses in our memory helps allow us to think meaningfully about the future.

In our recent discussions about fake news and images and videos that are not accurate, we realize that these weaknesses in memory and the ability to implant memories can be very powerful and also very harmful. "Source information” is a weakness of memory that can be tapped for devious purposes. How often have you heard someone explain that they heard it or read it or saw it "somewhere?"  We commonly have trouble remembering just where we obtained a particular piece of information. Though true off-line, for online information we may recall a "fact" but not the source - and that source may Online, this means we could easily misremember a news story from a dubious source as being from a more credible publication.

One phenomenon of memory is now called “retrieval-induced forgetting” I spent four years living at my college but I have a limited number of photographs from the time. Those photos and ones in yearbooks and some saved campus newspapers, plus my journal entries are primarily what I recall about college life. Related things that I can't review are much harder, if not impossible, to remember.

Social media is certainly sculpting (or perhaps resculpting) our memories. Is this making our ability to remember worse? That's not fully determined as of now. Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that looked at some neurological science in an attempt to see the impact of computers and the Net and that is certainly related to but not exactly the same as memory and images. The controversial part of Carr's book is the idea that the Internet literally and physically rewires our brain making it more computer-like and better at consuming data. But a surprisingly large section of the book is devoted to the history of the written word and all that it has done to “mold the human mind.”

Facebook, Instagram, TimeHop and other tools are reminding me daily of memories from years past. At times, I think "Oh yes, we were in Prague on this day two years ago." Other times, I say to myself, "I don't remember writing this 4 years ago." I react the same way to my old journals and black and white photos in an album taken a half-century ago.