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November 15 2011

Helping educators find the right stuff

Learning RegistryEducation innovation will require scalable, national, open, interoperable systems that support data feedback loops. At the recent State Education Technology Director's Association's (SETDA) Leadership Summit, the United States Department of Education launched the Learning Registry, a powerful step toward creating the ecosystem infrastructure that will enable such systems.

The Learning Registry addresses the problem of discoverability of education resources. There are countless repositories of fantastic educational content, from user-generated and curated sites to Open Education Resources to private sector publisher sites. Yet, with all this high-quality content available to teachers, it is still nearly impossible to find content to use with a particular lesson plan for a particular grade aligned to particular standards. Regrettably, it is often easier for a teacher to develop his own content than to find just the right thing on the Internet.

Schools, states, individuals, and professional communities have historically addressed this challenge by curating lists of content; rating and reviewing sites; and sharing their finds via websites, Twitter and other social media platforms. With aggregated sites to peruse, a teacher might increase his odds of finding that "just right" content, but it is still often a losing proposition. As an alternative, most educators will resort to Google, but as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the SETDA members, "Today's search engines do many things well, but they aren't designed to directly support teaching and learning. The Learning Registry aims to fix this problem." Aneesh Chopra, United States CTO, called the project the flagship open-government initiative for the Department of Education.

The Department of Education and the Department of Defense set out to solve the problem of discoverability, each contributing $1.3 million to the registry project. Steve Midgley, Deputy Director for the Office of Educational Technology pointed out, "We didn't build another portal — that would not be the proper role of the federal government." Instead, the proper role as Midgley envisioned it was to create infrastructure that would enable all stakeholders to share valuable information and resources in a non-centralized, open way.

In short, the Learning Registry has created open application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow publishers and others to quickly publish metadata and paradata about their content. For instance, the Smithsonian could assert digitally that a certain piece of video is intended for ages 5-7 in natural science, aligned with specific state standards. Software developers could include algorithms in lesson-planning software systems that extract, sign, and send information, such as: "A third grade teacher used this video in a lesson plan on the bridges of Portland." Browser developers could write code to include this data in search results and to increase result relevance based on ratings and reputations from trusted sources. In fact, Midgley showed the SETDA audience a prototype browser plug-in that did just that.

The virtue of this system comes from the platform thinking behind its design — an open communication system versus a portal — and from the value it provides to users from the very beginning. In the early days, improved discoverability of relevant content is a boon to both the teacher who discovers it and the content owner who publishes it. The APIs are structured in such a way that well-implemented code will collect valuable information about how the content is used as a side effect of educators, parents, and others simply doing their daily work. Over time, a body of metadata and paradata will emerge that identifies educational content; detailed data about how it has been used and interacted with; as well as rating, reputation and other information that can feed interesting new analytics, visualizations, and meaningful presentation of information to teachers, parents, researchers, administrators and developers.

Midgley called for innovative developers and entrepreneurs to take advantage of this enabling system for data collection in the education market. As the simple uses begin to drive use cases that shed increasingly rich data, there will be new opportunities to build businesses based on analytics and the meaningful presentation of rich new data to teachers, parents, students, and others who have an interest in teaching and learning.

I am delighted and intrigued to see the Department of Education leading with infrastructure over point solutions. As Richard Culatta, Education Fellow in Senator Patty Murray's office, said to the audience, "When common frameworks are put in place, it allows smart people to do really creative things."

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July 25 2011

How data and analytics can improve education

Schools have long amassed data: tracking grades, attendance, textbook purchases, test scores, cafeteria meals, and the like. But little has actually been done with this information — whether due to privacy issues or technical capacities — to enhance students' learning.

With the adoption of technology in more schools and with a push for more open government data, there are clearly a lot of opportunities for better data gathering and analysis in education. But what will that look like? It's a politically charged question, no doubt, as some states are turning to things like standardized test score data in order to gauge teacher effectiveness and, in turn, retention and promotion.

I asked education theorist George Siemens, from the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, about the possibilities and challenges for data, teaching, and learning.

Our interview follows.

What kinds of data have schools traditionally tracked?

George Siemens: Schools and universities have long tracked a broad range of learner data — often drawn from applications (universities) or enrollment forms (schools). This data includes any combination of: location, previous learning activities, health concerns (physical and emotional/mental), attendance, grades, socio-economic data (parental income), parental status, and so on. Most universities will store and aggregate this data under the umbrella of institutional statistics.

Privacy laws differ from country to country, but generally will prohibit academics from accessing data that is not relevant to a particular class, course, or program. Unfortunately, most schools and universities do very little with this wealth of data, other than possibly producing an annual institutional profile report. Even a simple analysis of existing institutional data could raise the profile of potential at-risk students or reveal attendance or assignment submission patterns that indicate the need for additional support.

What new types of educational data can now be captured and mined?

George Siemens: In terms of learning analytics or educational data-mining, the growing externalization of learning activity (i.e. capturing how learners interact with content and the discourse they have around learning materials as well as the social networks they form in the process) is driven by the increased attention to online learning. For example, a learning management system like Moodle or Desire2Learn captures a significant amount of data, including time spent on a resource, frequency of posting, number of logins, etc. This data is fairly similar to what Google Analytics or Piwik collects regarding website traffic. A new generation of tools, such as SNAPP, uses this data to analyze social networks, degrees of connectivity, and peripheral learners. Discourse analysis tools, such as those being developed at the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University, UK, are also effective at evaluating the qualitative attributes of discourse and discussions and rate each learner's contributions by depth and substance in relation to the topic of discussion.

An area of data gathering that universities and schools are largely overlooking relates to the distributed social interactions learners engage in on a daily basis through Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and similar tools. Of course, privacy issues are significant here. However, as we are researching at Athabasca University, social networks can provide valuable insight into how connected learners are to each other and to the university. Potential models are already being developed on the web that would translate well to school settings. For example, Klout measures influence within a network and Radian6 tracks discussions in distributed networks.

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The existing data gathering in schools and universities pales in comparison to the value of data mining and learning analytics opportunities that exist in the distributed social and informational networks that we all participate in on a daily basis. It is here, I think, that most of the novel insights on learning and knowledge growth will occur. When we interact in a learning management system (LMS), we do so purposefully — to learn or to complete an assignment. Our interaction in distributed systems is more "authentic" and can yield novel insights into how we are connected, our sentiments, and our needs in relation to learning success. The challenge, of course, is how to balance concerns of the Hawthorne effect with privacy.

Discussions about data ownership and privacy lag well behind what is happening in learning analytics. Who owns learner-produced data? Who owns the analysis of that data? Who gets to see the results of analysis? How much should learners know about the data being collected and analyzed?

I believe that learners should have access to the same dashboard for analytics that educators and institutions see. Analytics can be a powerful tool in learner motivation — how do I compare to others in this class? How am I doing against the progress goals that I set? If data and analytics are going to be used for decision making in teaching and learning, then we need to have important conversations about who sees what and what are the power structures created by the rules we impose on data and analytics access.

How can analytics change education?

George Siemens: Education is, today at least, a black box. Society invests significantly in primary, secondary, and higher education. Unfortunately, we don't really know how our inputs influence or produce outputs. We don't know, precisely, which academic practices need to be curbed and which need to be encouraged. We are essentially swatting flies with a sledgehammer and doing a fair amount of peripheral damage.

Learning analytics are a foundational tool for informed change in education. Over the past decade, calls for educational reform have increased, but very little is understood about how the system of education will be impacted by the proposed reforms. I sometimes fear that the solution being proposed to what ails education will be worse than the current problem. We need a means, a foundation, on which to base reform activities. In the corporate sector, business intelligence serves this "decision foundation" role. In education, I believe learning analytics will serve this role. Once we better understand the learning process — the inputs, the outputs, the factors that contribute to learner success — then we can start to make informed decisions that are supported by evidence.

However, we have to walk a fine line in the use of learning analytics. On the one hand, analytics can provide valuable insight into the factors that influence learners' success (time on task, attendance, frequency of logins, position within a social network, frequency of contact with faculty members or teachers). Peripheral data analysis could include the use of physical services in a school or university: access to library resources and learning help services. On the other hand, analytics can't capture the softer elements of learning, such as the motivating encouragement from a teacher and the value of informal social interactions. In any assessment system, whether standardized testing or learning analytics, there is a real danger that the target becomes the object of learning, rather than the assessment of learning.

With that as a caveat, I believe learning analytics can provide dramatic, structural change in education. For example, today, our learning content is created in advance of the learners taking a course in the form of curriculum like textbooks. This process is terribly inefficient. Each learner has differing levels of knowledge when they start a course. An intelligent curriculum should adjust and adapt to the needs of each learner. We don't need one course for 30 learners; each learner should have her own course based on her life experiences, learning pace, and familiarity with the topic. The content in the courses that we take should be as adaptive, flexible, and continually updated. The black box of education needs to be opened and adapted to the requirements of each individual learner.

In terms of evaluation of learners, assessment should be in-process, not at the conclusion of a course in the form of an exam or a test. Let's say we develop semantically-defined learning materials and ways to automatically compare learner-produced artifacts (in discussions, texts, papers) to the knowledge structure of a field. Our knowledge profile could then reflect how we compare to the knowledge architecture of a domain — i.e. "you are 64% on your way to being a psychologist" or "you are 38% on your way to being a statistician." Basically, evaluation should be done based on a complete profile of an individual, not only the individual in relation to a narrowly defined subject area.

Programs of study should also include non-school-related learning (prior learning assessment). A student that volunteers with a local charity or a student that plays sports outside of school is acquiring skills and knowledge that is currently ignored by the school system. "Whole-person analytics" is required where we move beyond the micro-focus of exams. For students that return to university mid-career to gain additional qualifications, recognition for non-academic learning is particularly important.

Much of the current focus on analytics relates to reducing attrition or student dropouts. This is the low-hanging fruit of analytics. An analysis of the signals learners generate (or fail to — such as when they don't login to a course) can provide early indications of which students are at risk for dropping out. By recognizing these students and offering early interventions, schools can reduce dropouts dramatically.

All of this is to say that learning analytics serve as a foundation for informed change in education, altering how schools and universities create curriculum, deliver it, assess student learning, provide learning support, and even allocate resources.

What technologies are behind learning analytics?

George Siemens: Some of the developments in learning analytics track the development of the web as a whole — including the use of recommender systems, social network analysis, personalization, and adaptive content. We are at an exciting cross-over point between innovations in the technology space and research in university research labs. Language recognition, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks, and related concepts are being combined with the growth of social network services, collaborative learning, and participatory pedagogy.

The combination of technical and social innovations in learning offers huge potential for a better, more effective learning model. Together with Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier, I've experimented with "massive open online courses" over the past four years. This experimentation has resulted in software that we've developed to encourage distributed learning, while still providing a loose level of aggregation that enables analytics. Tools like Open Study take a similar approach: decentralized learning, centralized analytics. Companies like Grockit and Knewton are creating personalized adaptive learning platforms. Not to be outdone, traditional publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are investing heavily in adaptive learning content and are starting to partner with universities and schools to deliver the content and even evaluate learner performance. Learning management system providers (such as Desire2Learn and Blackboard) are actively building analytics options into their offerings.

Essentially, in order for learning analytics to have a broad impact in education, the focus needs to move well beyond basic analytics techniques such as those found in Google Analytics. An integrated learning and knowledge model is required where the learning content is adaptive, prior learning is included in assessment, and learning resources are provided in various contexts (e.g. "in class today you studied Ancient Roman laws, two blocks from where you are now, a museum is holding a special exhibit on Roman culture"). The profile of the learner, not pre-planned content, needs to drives curriculum and learning opportunities.

What are the major obstacles facing education data and analytics?

George Siemens: In spite of the enormous potential they hold to improve education, learning analytics are not without concerns. Privacy for learners and teachers is a critical issue. While I see analytics as a means to improve learner success, opportunities exist to use analytics to evaluate and critique the performance of teachers. Data access and ownership are equally important issues: who should be able to see the analysis that schools perform on learners? Other concerns relate to error-correction in analytics. If educators rely heavily on analytics, effort should be devoted to evaluating the analytics models and understanding in which contexts those analytics are not valid.

With regard to the adoption of learning analytics, now is an exceptionally practical time to explore analytics. The complex challenges that schools and universities face can, at least partially, be illuminated through analytics applications.


June 29 2011

School district first to permit cell phone use during standardized tests

Source: Green Onion News Network

The Harper Valley School Board recently adopted a new policy that allows students to use their cell phones to search for answers on state-mandated standardized tests. "There's no doubt this new policy will raise student test scores district-wide but it will also improve our rankings statewide," said District Superintendent Carly Moore. Cellphones will be allowed for testing periods during the 2011-2012 school year, although there could be roadblocks ahead from state officials.

Ms. Moore said the "hands-on" cellphone policy was proposed by School Board member and local realtor, Carol McMasters who said the idea came to her while talking with friends who regularly consult their cellphones. "Whenever we forget the name of an actor, or a musician, we pull out our phones and find the answer. Right away, we know without guessing. Why can't students do the same thing?" Her husband, Larry, a self-described hacktavist, convinced her that cell phones would help kids think of standardized tests as a massively multiplayer game, in which they were cracking secret educational codes. Mr. McMaster said that he would prefer to see standardized testing eliminated and he embraced his wife's idea as a means to that end. "If every kid in America could find the right answer to every question, maybe testing will just go away."

The school districts plans to divert money from textbook purchases to lease cell phones for kids who do not have them. Superintendent Moore said that the percentage of students with cell phones is already high and growing. However, she added that kids who lacked so-called "smartphones" were at a disadvantage. "We are going to target kids with Nokia phones and upgrade them. " Some schools may share phones among students. There are plans to add charging stations in classrooms. Before the standardized tests are given, students will participate in "txting and searching" exercises, led by students, and facilitated by teachers who will prepare sample test questions. "These are basic life-skills for students," said Ms. Moore. "Plus students will be more excited to participate, rather than demoralized and apathetic."

Roberta Gonzalez, also a board member, was skeptical of the policy when she first heard about it. "I was concerned that we are taking away the opportunity for our children to recall knowledge they had gained in class." After talking to teachers, she became aware of how much they loathed the now common practice of teaching to the test. A social studies teacher said that he no longer taught a real subject but he found himself teaching students how to be effective test takers. He was telling them not to over think tests, but just how to make the best guess. Ms. Gonzalez came to believe that testing didn't correlate to what students were actually learning. "The emphasis on high-stakes testing was counter-productive and preparing for tests was eating up valuable time in the classroom," she added.

Deborah Chaney said that TV quiz shows like "Cash Cab" and "Millionaire" allow contestants to call friends or family if they don't know the answer. "I think it makes a lot of sense to use your social network to find these kind of answers," she said. "That"s why you have a social network." Chaney added that many test questions were designed to trick students, which she thought was unfair. "I'd like to see them posting these trick questions to Facebook," she added, noting there was no feedback mechanism for students to report problems with tests.

Tech guru Tim O'Reilly said the new policy allows students to tap into collective intelligence. He predicted that the market for paper-based bubble testing was about to burst. "Why are we still using #2 pencils?" he asked. "I don't know why they can't deliver the tests on the phone." O'Reilly remarked that educators should think of re-directing the energy that goes into standardized testing into richer educational programs that allow students to cooperate with each other to solve real-world problems in meaningful ways.

Ned Simon, a district parent, said that the new policy reminded him of a recent dinner table conversation. "My wife and I were arguing about how long we'd been at war in Afghanistan. Dora, my teenage daughter, interrupted us, saying 'Dad, where's your cellphone?" It was her way of telling me to stop arguing and look up the answer." Dora will be one of the students who will benefit from the new cellphone policy at school. She said that using her iPhone during tests could "make testing fun." She mentioned that a number of apps she already uses when doing homework. "I use Google Maps, the Calculator, and mostly iTunes, so I'm not so bored by the assignment."

Asked how the State Superintendent of Education might react to the district's new policy, Ms Moore said she expects to hear from state officials. "I think they have my cellphone number," she added. She hopes they will look at the Harper Valley policy as a pilot that can be expanded statewide. "Educators have to ask why we keep supporting a testing system that produces such failure. If we are unwilling to do change that system, then allowing students to use cellphones during testing will reduce failure immediately. Why shouldn't we do that?"

June 06 2011

Tinkering with technology education

Does "making stuff" influence girls' interest in technology and engineering? From Young makers to e-textile designers to student IT support squads, the stories and research imply that the answer is simply, "yes, of course." Last month I had the very cool opportunity to discuss this topic as part of a panel at the National Coalition for Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit in New York City.

Having flown directly from Maker Faire in the Bay Area where girls and boys were both deeply engaged in all kinds of tinkering — from making spinbots to sewing to crafts to soldering — it was a pretty interesting cultural shift to attend a conference dedicated to overcoming the gender gap in computing and engineering. It seems counterintuitive that a field that has such an egalitarian, merit-based culture and ethic as computer science should be so overwhelmingly composed of men.

For many reasons (arguments range from equality and human rights to economic necessity) industry and the field of education have been working for decades to increase the representation of women in the engineering fields. Industry has looked to issues such as equal pay, women-friendly cultures, and benefits such as improved maternity leave and flexible working hours. Educators have focused on making science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses more attractive to young women, and to actively recruit young women into these fields.

Alongside these top-down efforts to actively increase the number of women in tech careers, the grass-roots, bottom-up maker movement has been quietly attracting tinkerers and DIY-ers of both genders. At Maker Faire, 100,000 folks got together to share projects, skills, and materials for making. The maker culture thrives on open sharing of techniques and knowledge and innovation, often leveraging open source software and open source hardware. In a perfect example of what John Seely Brown refers to as "Pull," thousands of people are enabling themselves and each other to create freely using tools from the medieval to the hyper-modern. The goal is to make things: for their own sake, for utility, for artistic or technical exploration, but the side effect is the creation of a wide variety of the actual makers, themselves.

It turns out that the context in which technology is presented has a large effect on how attractive it is to each gender. At the risk of gender essentialism, it seems that often boys are attracted to robot battles while girls are attracted to robots as a means of helping the disabled, for instance. Boys are attracted to competitive video games while girls are attracted to social software. In making, there are such a variety of materials and ways to participate that the appeal is much broader than traditional technology contexts. I spoke briefly with Dale Dougherty at Maker Faire and noted that both boys and girls would happily solder or sew in this environment. Dale pointed out that with the large number of entry points, a very broad set of people are attracted to making. These people then find it easy and enjoyable to move around within the various approaches and technologies.

Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation Yes, advocates strongly for bringing this approach into formal education. At the NCWIT panel she talked about how her organization trains young people in schools to serve as in-house tech support. From manning genius bars to maintaining the school's hardware and software, these young people have the opportunity to become leaders and explorers in the use of tech within their schools. Around 40% of the students who participate in Generation Yes projects are young women — roughly twice the representation of women in industry. Sylvia also spoke about Seymour Papert's theory of Constructionism, essentially that children learn by doing. In the same way that professionals become expert as a side effect of doing their jobs, and makers become expert as a side effect of creating things, students learn both the complex skills of collaboration and innovation and communication as well as the hard skills of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic through doing meaningful, hands-on work.

Tony DeRose, lead of Pixar's Research Group and founder of the Young Maker's program, talked about how the time outside of school allowed young people the freedom to experiment, get things wrong, go down dead ends, recover, and move forward. As in real life, where there is no single right answer and where trying something new has risk, Young Makers have the chance to experience the gratification of genuine accomplishment through innovation and perseverance.

It seems much of the power of making is in its hobbyist timescale. There is time for the rhythms of hard grinding work and periods of flow, for brainstorming, collaboration, disagreement, and persistence. There is also tremendous learning about technologies, techniques, and materials that are far more authentic than most college courses. It provides lessons that stick because they are learned in a context of doing, rather than just listening.

Tony founded the Young Maker organization more than a year ago, bringing together young makers, mentors, and experts to support young people in truly ambitious projects. In the first year, 20% of the participants were young women, in the second year 40% were. Tony notes that in his experience so far, the young women are motivated by working together and the young men by doing "dangerous things."

The final NCWIT panelist was Leah Buechley, head of the High-Low Tech Program at MIT's Media Lab. Leah and her team have been researching how people combine high-tech and low-tech materials, such as electronic circuits with fabric for e-textiles, or conductive paint with paper. They developed the Lilypad Arduino, a washable, sewable version of the open-hardware Arduino microcontroller, and observed what kinds of communities adopted each of the technologies. Once again, the evidence suggests that the context in which technology is introduced is tremendously influential. Leah's research showed that out of all Arduino projects, only 2% were created by women vs. 86% men and 12% unknown. For the Lilypad Arduino those numbers were 65% women, 25% men, and 10% unknown.

The maker movement is powerful on many levels. As with any important meme, it has powerful side effects, in this case as a welcoming culture and appealing invitation to technology for a broad audience that includes both women and men, seniors and kindergartners, technologists and artists. In the end, perhaps the most meaningful thing created by the maker movement will, indeed, turn out to be the new makers who find the tools, culture, and inspiration to create in new ways within its community.


February 24 2011

Making cell phones useful for school

While students are increasingly using laptops in their classrooms, the smaller handheld computing devices that students already own (cell phones) are banned from campus. What's the difference?

Fundamentally, the use of Internet-enabled technology in classrooms has two challenges. The first is student safety and privacy — preventing information that is obscene or harmful to children from being accessed by the devices. The second is classroom management — focusing student attention on the task at hand rather than the myriad distractions of the web.

With laptops, these challenges are addressed by classroom management software that provides Internet filtering and control of the student computer screens. Teachers have the ability to put all the laptops on the same page, project a single student's screen on the whiteboard to show their work, or to shut down student screens altogether. Internet filters allow schools or districts to create "white lists" of websites that students are allowed to access and to block the rest.

Of course, none of these services are foolproof — the Internet has numerous sites dedicated to helping people hack around these restrictions, primarily in support of human rights in countries where Internet access is censored. Go into any middle school classroom and you will find any number of students who can readily get out onto the Internet beyond the filters. You may even find teachers who rely on these kids to sneak past the filtering walls if they do not have the time to make an IT request to have a site unblocked for the day's lesson.

The philosophy around Internet filtering and classroom management varies from school to school and district to district. In some settings, the Internet is considered too dangerous to leave in the hands of students and the school chooses a limited set of sites that students may access while teachers tightly control the use of computers in the classroom. Other schools feel the same burden of responsibility to help students develop the skills to successfully navigate the Internet that they do to help students develop interpersonal skills in the classroom and on the playground. Their philosophy is to have adults model those skills, teach them explicitly, then to monitor students as they try them out, make mistakes, and learn — ready to step in when they are needed.

Just as students gain more freedom as they become more mature in the physical world — such as choosing coursework, leaving campus for lunch, or taking on internships — they gain more freedom on the Internet as that becomes developmentally appropriate. These students are expected to be as prepared for navigating the virtual world as young adults graduating high school as they are the physical world.

The first approach relies more heavily on controlling the student Internet experience. The second relies more on appropriately monitoring student Internet use. Laptop technology supports both approaches. But cellphone technology often does not. If that one thing were to change, educators would have the tools at hand to use always-on, always-connected devices for anytime / any place learning. If this change doesn't come about, the potential of wireless education technology will sadly remain limited.

I had a really good conversation with Ben Weintraub, COO and co-founder of Kajeet, on this exact topic. Kajeet is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) that focuses on cell phones for children. An MVNO is essentially a reseller of cellular minutes and megabytes that also has the ability to sell added services on top of connectivity.

Not surprisingly, parents have many of the same concerns as schools when it comes to their kids' Internet use. In response to these parent needs, Kajeet provides services that let parents control when their kids can use the cell phone, who they can text or talk to, and what phone features (such as the camera) they are allowed to use. Recently Kajeet has been talking with Netsweeper, a company that provides a cloud-based approach to Internet filtering. With all these pieces in place, there is only one technology obstacle blocking cell phone use in schools: in order for Internet filtering to work both when the phone is using cellular services and when it is using Wi-Fi, the phone needs to be "locked down" to ensure that all Internet access is authorized by the Netsweeper (or similar) service, regardless of the access network.

Unfortunately, MVNOs, carriers, and software providers who are interested in solving this problem don't have access to the layers of the cell phone software stack where this kind of secure lock-down can occur — they lie below the level of the High Level Operating System. It's up to the manufacturers of phones or their chip suppliers to respond to the need for cell phones that are kid-safe and school-ready. As the costs of smartphones are coming down drastically, these devices are finding their way into the hands of younger and younger users. As an industry, we have a responsibility to make it possible for parents and educators to have Internet safety tools on computers and phones alike.

For the wireless edtech ecosystem, this really does appear to be case where "for want of a nail, a kingdom is lost." For want of one enabler, the potential of wireless edtech may either be drastically inhibited or lost altogether.


December 11 2010

Teachers as Makers

Teachers as MakersRecently, I participated in a workshop in Orlando, Fla. organized by the National Writing Project to introduce about 50 teachers to making. It was part of a new initiative in partnership with MAKE Magazine to use making to teach writing, connecting two subjects that mean a lot to me.

Teaching informative writing is a requirement in schools. Unfortunately, the choice of topics is often uninspired. "How to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich" is one example. Can we get kids making something and then writing about the process? We can engage them through a hands-on project and provide a better context for writing.

When I began talking with folks from the National Writing Project last year, we hit on the idea that getting teachers to see themselves as makers was a great way to encourage making in schools. Thus, the goal of this workshop was to provide a gentle introduction to making for about 50 teachers. There were about eight stations with a variety of projects. Without too much in the way of preliminaries, the teachers sat down and started making. They talked to each other while working (or playing, as I might prefer to call it) and they helped each other. The projects were not simple but they were fun. The teachers were making drawbots and brushbots, flickering mood lights, stop-frame animation, bottlecap jewelry, and bracelets that functioned as snap-circuits.

Travis Powell, co-founder of the Child's Way Charter School in Oregon, was one of the makers who hosted an activity for other teachers. He worked with his students to develop the project and build kits that he brought with him. The project was a drawbot built with a plastic cup and some kind of vibrating motor. In the video below, Travis starts off with a variety of student-built drawbots and then he shows some of what the teachers made as well.

In the video, you can see how engaged the teachers are. This is what I saw in the room at each of the tables. The teachers were happy, playing like kids, figuring out how things work and how to put things together. They were also proud to share their work with each other once they were done.

They participated in a writing exercise, documenting the process that they followed to make something. This exercise in technical writing is also a good way to reflect on your own learning process and think about how others might benefit from what you had learned. As I said to them, Tim O'Reilly and I were technical writers and this is what we did that helped us start a publishing company. We wrote about what we learned to do ourselves.


Technical writing -- communicating a process or procedure in detail -- remains a useful skill. It also takes a different approach to writing as it is usually taught. Too often, writing is framed as a creative exercise -- an end in itself. So, too, is reading. Yet, reading can be seen as the means to an end -- to help you learn to do something, for instance, just as writing can be seen as a way to help others learn as well.

A couple of teachers commented how they could use hands-on projects to teach a range of subjects from math to history. One teacher said it made her realize that she was a "hands-on learner" and enjoyed learning this way. Someone made the comment that this workshop was unlike any professional development she had experienced; nobody was talking at them. They were experiencing what it means to be a maker, and I bet that will help them become better teachers.

Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Christina Cantrill of The National Writing Project for organizing the Orlando workshop and seeing the potential of using making to teach writing.

November 15 2010

Education's real superheroes assemble

On Monday, November 15, 2010, Steve Hargadon and I are bringing together real superheroes. We've joined forces via our respective education social networks, Classroom 2.0 and the Global Education Collaborative, to showcase best practices in global education using the videoconferencing platform, Elluminate. With more than 350 general sessions and 60 keynote sessions, our colleagues in our personal learning networks will ponder the future of education globally in this completely free and virtual conference.

We've chosen to organize an event that we believe will re-inspire educators in this age of school reform. Never before has it been easier to connect classrooms around the world using technology, and we believe that the cornerstone of our success as a global community lies in students and teachers learning how to connect, communicate and collaborate. The next generation faces increasingly complex problems with world-wide implications, and in order to tackle these challenges, students today must learn to work effectively in our knowledge-based, global economy. These are not simply concerns for education in the United States, but global issues that require open and collaborative engagement that reaches beyond borders.

But what is global education exactly? The term seems to have varying connotations for people. For some, global education relates to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for the world's children. To others, it might mean educating about global social justice issues such as human trafficking and disease prevention. In schools, global education generally has been addressed by providing multicultural experiences to students so that they develop a better understanding of geography and cultures.

The other day I came across some well articulated thoughts on the subject that broaden traditional interpretations of global education. In 2004, Fairleigh Dickinson University President J. Michael Adams reflected on his attempt to define global education in his inaugural address:

Global education can be summarized by connections and perspectives. It's about understanding the nature of the connections that link people from all corners of the globe, and it's about expanding those connections for the betterment of all. It means considering the world as a whole, with a rich (and sometimes unpleasant) interplay of nations and cultures. And it's about introducing ourselves and our students to multiple viewpoints, so we might develop the ability to understand the world through the eyes of others and to work alongside others from different backgrounds.

During the 2010 Global Education Conference, we'll be encouraging our colleagues to ponder their own definitions of global education and to think about how to practically weave global awareness into their teaching as recommended by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills' Framework for 21st Learning. According to the Partnership, academic content is still important in today's classrooms, but teachers need to artfully integrate content with 21st-century themes of global awareness, civic literacy, environmental literacy, health literacy, and financial literacy.

Thought leaders from innovative education-related organizations such as iEARN, ePals, and the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning will be joining us to generously share their work, in addition to more than 300 classroom practitioners and students. This conference offers something for everyone, and it is our hope that participants will be empowered by discovering and exploring a multitude of resources. Technology makes this global online gathering possible, and it's time to start leveraging its power to improve education.

For more information and the full schedule of sessions and keynotes, visit

October 27 2010

Gaming education

There are at least three different classes of digital games in schools. Which you prefer speaks volumes about the role you believe schools should play.

The first group, the classic edu-tech games, have danced in and out of schools for so long that many kids take them for granted. Most of these programs are cute, but they fall short on pedagogical ambitions and graphic design. That doesn't make them worthless; it just limits their effectiveness. (One person's drill-and-kill can indeed be another's guiding light. When educator and blogger extraordinaire, Scott McLeod, asked, "Do most educational games suck?" he drew fire from just about all sides.)

By contrast, a handful of educators a few years ago sought to put game controls directly into students' hands by teaching them how to build their own games. Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT's Media Lab, is the reigning champion here. (Here's more of my take on Scratch). There are a few others, too, including Microsoft's Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for the Xbox game platform.

Screen from The Fly, a game built with Scratch
Screen from "The Fly," a game built with Scratch.

And now comes what I would dub a third approach, something that has picked up its very own buzzword before it has even reached most school gates: gamification. The term is as elegant as a teenager jawing a mouthful of bubble gum. But it suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to applications -- no matter how stuffy or serious the application has been. Gamification probably has more momentum outside of schools than in. Case in point: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat has written about how DevHub, a place for web developers, added gaming feedback and watched in awe as the percentage of users who finished their sites shot up from 10 percent to 80 percent.

Most games are naturally social, which means gamification depends on that other ubiquitous web trend, social networking. Sure, go ahead and play Solitaire. But most of us take a certain pleasure in besting the competition -- whether it's the Philadelphia Phillies or some ugly troll in World of Warcraft.

Academics are creating a skin of respectability for gamification. Byron Reeves of Stanford University has recently co-authored "Total Engagement" to outline his ideas about how gaming can turn the erstwhile plodding company man into an engaged and motivated worker. (Reeves is also putting his ideas to the test by co-founding a consulting firm, Seriousity, that will coach companies on how to do this.) The first gamification summit is slated to take place in January in San Francisco.

What does each of these approaches say about education?

The first type of games were willing to entertain kids to keep them engaged -- the "just-make-it-fun" school of thought. But any standup comedian will tell you how tough it is to keep people entertained for long. It's even harder with kids who outgrow the "fun" of a game faster than most games can evolve.

The Scratch camp is more about empowerment. Scratch appeals enormously to kids who want to control their environment and be in charge. Those who build Scratch games get feedback from others when they post their games. They say they love the comments and feel great when hundreds of others play their games.

Ultimately Scratch aficionados bring their ambitions to learn with them. I'd wager that if these kids were born a generation or two ago, they'd be building transistor radios. The Scratch kids have to be self-motivated: most use Scratch outside of school. No one makes them do it. All it took to get them going was for someone to introduce them to Scratch in the first place. That's a great argument for exposing more kids to the tools.

Gamification, by contrast, doesn't rely on internal motivation. Instead, it's using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn't especially motivated -- at least at the beginning -- and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.

I'm betting that gamification, in spite of its throat-clearing name, is going to be big in the commercial world -- and in schools. Gamification can help build kids' competitive spirits. As they gain confidence, they may become hungry for tools that put them in control. At the end of the day, those who know how to create the rules of the game, know how to win.


October 20 2010

Tablets, education, and unions

At this year's Bitnorth conference, I gave a presentation on the future of education, tablet computing and teachers' unions. It was a fairly controversial topic, so I decided to put my research together into a series of blogs on Human 2.0 and provide my references. Here's the gist of it: If you want more background or links to the sources cited here, you can check out the full posts. What follows is an overview of the topic.

In much of the Western world, education is in decline. Dropout rates are high, and we're graduating a generation that is, for a large part, functionally illiterate. This generation lacks the numeracy and critical thinking to function in an information world. The U.S., in particular, is doing poorly: Dropout rates are up, and if you're a low-income American, you have a higher chance of going to jail than getting a four-year college degree.

There are many reasons for this collapse: lack of funding, the politicizing of curricula, administrative inefficiency and more. These areas have been well covered. In the last year, three films -- "Two Million Minutes," "Waiting for Superman," and "The Cartel" -- have taken a disturbing look at the state of U.S. education. The Freakonomics folks looked at the lack of personalized learning. Also, Bill Gates looked at the lack of accountability in schools in a TED presentation.

Why tablets can help education

Despite the problems, digital classrooms provide a reason to be hopeful. A digital classroom can tailor learning to each student's own styles and speeds. It can tap into vast online resources, from Wikipedia to the Khan Academy.


The poster child for the digital classroom is tablet computing. Tablets are traditionally seen as replacements for textbooks, but they can go much further than that: They're musical instruments, design tools, personal trainers and art canvases. Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year's textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.

Tablets connect all of the stakeholders in a child's education: parents, teachers, tutors and counsellors. But most importantly, tablets are two-way. When a student uses a tablet, the tablet can collect data: What's read carefully and what's glossed over; how long a student spends on certain topics; what works best and worst; and so on. In other words, when you learn from a tablet, it learns from you.

The union roadblock

This is where my research went off the rails. Because a tablet is the perfect collector, it allows us to analyze learning patterns, identify root causes and compare students. What if the conclusion it reaches is that your teacher is simply awful? That Freakonomics piece pointed out that only 13 percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year. Data acquired through a tablet is likely to point toward a bad conclusion for some number of teachers.

There's a group that protects teachers from that kind of scrutiny and accountability: the teachers' unions. In the U.S., teachers' unions are the single largest political contributors. Teachers have a unionization rate that's much higher than that of other industries. They have consistently opposed using student performance to rank teachers, despite extensive research showing that student performance is the most significant indicator of teacher competence. They've lobbied legislators to refuse donations to charter schools. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a bad teacher. As a result, despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.

After reading a ton on the subject, I came to the conclusion that the unions defend jobs at the expense of a generation's education -- and with it, the future of a nation.

As you might imagine, them's fighting words. Most critics of unions find themselves tarred and feathered by teachers, accused of class warfare or making teachers scapegoats for lazy parenting and lack of budgets. It's true that we don't pay teachers enough. However, teachers' salaries have risen in the last few years (see chart below), despite fairly static test scores. Also, urban public school teachers are more likely to send their own children to private schools.


Tablet computing and the digital classroom it portends will transform the role of educators. They won't teach. They'll manage the learning process of their students. The Freakonomics podcast once referred to this as a student's "playlist": a customized curriculum where the teacher helps with hands-on work and identifies problems or outliers. Already, initiatives like New York's School of One are trying this out (although the project is limited to a three-hour after-school program at the moment).

Screenshot of a spreadsheet dashboard used at School of One to track student performance.
Screenshot of a spreadsheet dashboard used at School of One to track student performance.

So the irresistible force of digitization -- which has already redefined publishing, music, television and dozens of other industries -- is about to meet the immovable mountain of teachers' unions. The unions can step up, helping their members make the transition to tomorrow's learner-centric, tech-heavy classroom. Or, the unions can dig in their heels, resisting change and fighting the inevitable accountability that comes from analytics and digitization.

Tablet computing and the digital classroom give students access to petabytes of knowledge, tailored to their current situations, abilities, and learning preferences. It's how we can overcome many of the problems endemic in today's schools. It'll mean retooling and retraining teachers, equipping them for the student-centric classroom of tomorrow.

As long as the unions don't get in the way.


Reposted bySigalon02 Sigalon02

September 28 2010

Education as a platform

Any and every education reform design is going to fail for two reasons. The first is that the problem is not one that is solvable by “design” in the traditional engineering sense -- the education system, including all its human elements, is too complex for that. The second is that the system as currently built contains feedback loops that damp out change.

At the Gov 2.0 Summit, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy,Thomas Kalil, referred to the challenge of educational software that improves the more students use it.

What would it mean to talk about a whole school system that improves the more students use it? I’ve heard the Department of Education's Steve Midgely refer to school as a service and education as a platform -- why not apply this kind of systems thinking to the Gordian knot of our education system, using the Internet as a lens and a platform model?

Applying the Web 2.0 model to education

The Web 2.0 model can be applied to education on two levels. The first is at the level of software that provides or supports educational experiences. The second is at the level of the human systems and workflows that are entailed by the day-to-day work of educators and students and citizens.

As a veteran software organization leader and management geek, I see deep parallels between the architecture of software platforms and that of human organizations. For example, in both cases, the question of quality has moved from “does it work as designed” (which is now considered table-stakes) to “is it designed to do the right thing?”

A software program that works exactly as intended but isn’t useful to its end users is a waste, as is a team that is executing to the letter of a Statement of Work at the cost of the real needs of its multiple and diverse stakeholders. So is an educational system that mass-produces graduates who are prepared for an agrarian/industrial economy when they will have to live and work in an economy powered by knowledge, collaboration and creativity.

One possible criterion for education as a platform is whether the underlying services can be mashed up to serve different sets of goals. As Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson, and Michael Horn outline in "Disrupting Class," our educational system was originally created to prepare the elite to rule, then to prepare all people (or at least white men) for informed citizenship, then to provide all students with an equal opportunity to prepare for college or careers, and now to prepare every child for higher education. These changing goals have strained the current school architecture to the point where any number of responsibilities that schools have traditionally considered important, such as vocational training and the arts, are now being dropped in favor of “the basics”. There are many who argue credibly that the goals of school ought to go beyond the basics to include modern work-force preparation (learning how to learn, collaborate, invent, communicate, etc.) and global citizenship.

By this criterion, the inability of our education system to accommodate these multiple and shifting goals suggests that it does not have the architecture of a platform (at least not a well-designed one). "Disrupting Class" suggests that, much as the web disrupted many traditional business models, technology in the form of online learning will disrupt school. The argument is that computer-aided education and online learning will be welcomed into schools as a low-cost way to provide services they otherwise couldn’t afford. These new offerings may be paid for by parents or schools and may give students school credit. Although the technologies will initially be very poor substitutes for classroom teaching, they will be much better than nothing and the schools will welcome them as they lose the resources to provide these services for students in traditional ways. Over time the technologies will continue to improve until they revolutionize what teaching and learning look like.

This disruptive mechanism has intriguing implications for education as a platform. First, critically, given the assumption that technologies are going to improve, there is an implicit feedback loop driven by criteria for what “better” looks like and that allows publishers and providers of educational services to continually adapt and improve -- more on that later.

Second, there is an implicit design approach that eschews traditional top-down, requirements-based engineering and assumes that the complex solutions that will someday serve education begin with very simple systems that then evolve in the market, much in the way the Internet evolved from the simple TCP/IP stack rather than the complex, traditionally designed OSI stack.

Third, I infer that innovation demands multiple, varied providers of computer-aided and online learning, which in turn calls for a layer of standardized interfaces, API’s, and delivery mechanisms that make it easy for great education innovations to spread virally in the way popular Internet innovations do.

Defining "better"

teacher's eyeThese implications for the content and software infrastructure of Education 2.0 translate in interesting ways to the parallel pedagogical and human infrastructures. First, and critically, in order to establish positive feedback loops for the work of students and educators there needs to be a set of criteria for what “better” looks like. Metrics in this area are the absolute crux of education reform and poor metrics are a major contributor to how innovations are damped out in the education system -- again, more on that later.

Second, my own experience in leading large software organizations suggests that traditional hierarchical, silo’d human systems are inefficient and resistant to change, but that they improve dramatically when restructured to support self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams are the organizational equivalent of “simple systems” -- they evolve to support complex work with extraordinary capacity and adaptability. One key to self-organizing teams is to set goals (or in the language of emergence, "simple rules") that drive positive feedback loops -- such as “be the school everyone wants to transfer to”. Another is to remove constraints from the systems and allow for greater autonomy and innovation on the part of each member of the team. In industry, a classic example is to reward people on the basis of outcomes rather than seat time (great code doesn’t care if it was written in a suit from 9-5 or in pajamas at midnight.) What if students could advance based on outcomes rather than seat time in the classroom, and teachers were rewarded for many dimensions of student achievement and professional contribution?

Third, I am of the opinion that the distinction between formal learning (school) and informal learning (museums, Internet, community classes, affinity groups, etc.) is one that is both artificial and obsolete. In Education 2.0 there should be multiple providers of educational experiences, and standard discovery mechanisms that allow great experiences to spread virally as well as standard ways to give students credit for what they know and can do rather than for what classes they’ve sat through.

Student achievement beyond a test

There is broad agreement that testing in our educational system is fundamentally broken. Today, our educational feedback loops are driven by “the test” -- state-wide standardized tests in the basics that are used to assess whether every student is able to perform to a certain lowest common denominator. Collectively, the results of these tests are used to grade schools and determine whether they will continue to receive funding. Indirectly, attempts to reward teachers for performance are often based, in part or whole, on student performance on these tests.

The unintended consequence of using student achievement on “the test” to define what “better” looks like is that the feedback loops in the educational system will damp out work and innovations that aren’t measured at the lowest common denominator. In some cases, teachers will spend up to half the school year in “test preparation”, which doesn't leave time for any learning above and beyond the basics. There are horror stories of mathematically rich curricula developed at great expense and with deep thoughtfulness under National Science Foundation funding that aren’t adopted because much of the mathematical depth that students gain from it is not reflected by “the test”. There is a disservice done to teachers who are faced with extraordinary obstacles, such as teaching students who come to school hungry or fearing for their safety, or teachers who create extraordinary learning environments where students learn to create and collaborate in ways that are not reflected by “the test.”

Education as a platform must support vibrant innovation in the area of metrics. States, assessment publishers, web start-ups, researchers, parents and teachers must be able to experiment with different ways to measure student achievement, and, indeed, with what things are important to measure. In a world of assessment innovation, a student portfolio might contain a combination of completed projects in addition to state test results, richer third-party assessment results, and innovative assessments of non-traditional skills such as collaboration and creativity. Colleges and employers might value this multi-dimensional view of a student more than just grades and standardized test results when evaluating applicants. Parents and students might take ownership of enriching their portfolio of assessments according to their own values. Publishers of curriculum and educational experiences might be able to improve their offerings based on a broad set of assessments of student outcomes -- driving innovation in educational content. Administrators and states might be able to reward teachers for many different kinds of critical achievements.

What kinds of services would comprise an education platform that encourages innovation around metrics? Certainly data science is key -- instrumenting how students and teachers interact with technology and digital content and capturing that data according to open standards; storing and cleaning that data with appropriate privacy considerations; performing data mining, analytics, and analysis of the data; and creating meaningful visualizations of the data are all areas that can be both services in support of education as a platform as well as areas for innovation in their own right. The data itself will be a sort of national treasure -- the key to understanding what works and what doesn’t and the fuel for innovative services and applications.

Also key are mechanisms for discovering quality assessments -- Web 2.0 mechanisms of crowd-sourcing, peer review, and rating are commonly invoked for sorting out the best of the best when there is an explosion of innovative products available. But to date, much education-related crowd-sourcing has assumed that teachers will voluntarily rate and recommend educational products. With the burden that teachers are already carrying, that additional volunteerism is not a realistic expectation. Fortunately, there are two communities that might well provide data on products either because they are motivated or as a side effect of using them: education researchers and families. How will education-as-a-platform leverage these communities? Are these the same mechanisms required for discovering exceptional educational experiences?

These kinds of services from the technology infrastructure also serve the human infrastructure. With educators, administrators, and schools using a much richer metric of “better” than state test results, the same feedback loops that currently damp out change can instead drive improvement. Schools (and informal learning channels) can differentiate themselves by offering educational experiences that support the learning goals of each student -- as reflected by the unique portfolio that student is building. Schools themselves can actually “get better the more people use them.”

But how can these hypothetical innovative approaches to metrics (or for that matter curricula, pedagogy, digital textbooks and games or other innovations) spring up in a cumbersome, over-constrained system like our schools? Probably not through top-down design or national mandate. Perhaps, like online learning, an assessment ecosystem will have to evolve outside those constraints -- where there is currently no or little competition. Perhaps parents and students looking to have a more complete picture of a child’s skills and strengths and gaps will be the initial market for innovative assessments. What parent doesn’t want to understand their kids’ achievements in a deeper way than letters on a report card? If a wealth of affordable multi-dimensional assessments were only a click away, how many families would use them and in so doing help make them better? Perhaps, like online learning, innovation in assessments will, in the best way possible, disrupt school and class?

Photo credit: teacher's eye by HoQ-10, on Flickr


September 14 2010

iPod program helps school test scores

Last month, we had an exceptional panel talking about Mobile in Education at our largest Mobile Portland meeting ever. A report on how iPod Touches are making huge differences in third-grade test scores really stuck with me.

Joe Morelock, the director of technology and innovation for the Canby School District in Oregon, shared with us how Canby started a pilot program of iPod Touch devices in a single third-grade classroom. The pilot's success led to the district setting a goal of providing every third-grade student with access to an iPod Touch.

Morelock has documented the program in a presentation you can download from the school district's wiki.

Below, I've pulled out a few slides from Morelock's presentation that illustrate the remarkable improvements. These charts start to explain why the school district got behind the program so quickly.

The charts compare the performance of third graders throughout the Canby school district with those whose classroom used iPod Touches throughout the year. As you can see in the chart below, the number of students that meet or nearly meet the math requirements on a standardized test are much higher for the iPod Touch classroom (left circle).

Pie charts comparing math scores of students with iPod Touches with those throughout the district

The difference in performance is striking when looking at students with disabilities (below, left column):

Migrant and ELL students

The increase in test scores for students with disabilities appears to validate some of the early anecdotal reports that iPhones and iPod Touches were making a difference for children and adults with autism.

The program also had a positive affect on English language learners (below, right column):

Students w/ disabilities, minorities

And it's not just math scores. Here are reading test results from the same classroom:

Reading test scores

Reading test scores continued

Parents whose children have been exposed to iPod Touches in the classroom don't like the idea that their children may not have them when they move on to the next school year, so they're organizing fundraisers to purchase additional devices. Because iPod Touches are relatively inexpensive, five can be purchased for the same price that would have been required to purchase a single laptop.

The Canby School District is extending the iPod program by providing iPod Touches for all third graders district-wide during the 2010-2011 school year. In addition, pilot programs using iPads will run at the elementary-, middle- and high-school levels.

Perhaps most importantly, both students and teachers love using the devices:

You know that little boy who came up to us this morning? He loves the iPod Touches. They have made an incredible difference in his math work. He has Asperger’s, and before the iPods, he could never sit through a math class. The kid absolutely loves math now and gets As. He sits himself up at the front of the room -- he likes to be by himself -- tucks his foot up, leans on the desk and goes to town on math. It's simply amazing. -- Gale Hipp, sixth-grade math teacher. [Note: Link added.]

And simply:

This is the most fun I have had teaching in the last 25 years. -- Deana Calcagno, fifth-grade teacher.

The full panel discussion is available in the following video. Morelock's segment on the Canby School District and their iPod pilot program starts at 19:20.


August 25 2010

The Big Picture: What are we making in school?

Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning organized an educational symposium during Maker Faire Detroit. The symposium brought together educators and practitioners who explored engaging the hands and minds of students, sometimes called thinkering. As a group, they experienced Maker Faire and then met to discuss "how making can be an integral part of how young people figure out who they are in the world." This is a really key idea, I think: what we can learn by making is a process of discovering what we can do, and we begin to participate in making and changing the world around us.

Elliot has shared his thoughts in a Huffington Post article, Making Their Way: Creating a New Generation of Thinkerers. Here is an excerpt:

Making provides opportunities for young people to use their hands and their minds together. Untold numbers of youth are messing around with all manner of tools to create, in tangible form, what's on their minds. Equally important, the maker movement nurtures communities of practice that bring adults and young people together around common interests. Thus, to visit the Maker Faire or a community-based fab lab is to see an aspect of our young people that we seldom witness in schools.

Sadly, however, to observe these young "thinkerers" is to be at least temporarily deluded into believing that this is what many of our young people are all about. Not so. Unfortunately, most young people do not experience making in their schools or in their lives. Literally and figuratively, most of our young people are not at the Faire. Research reveals that the vast majority of them are not into making at all and instead are frittering away their time in a variety of wasteful and unproductive learning activities.

Making is a celebration of an alternative and powerful way of knowing and of thinking things through. Consequently, making is typically antithetical to what traditional schools are all about. That is why the communities of practice that come together at Maker Faires and fabrication labs usually--some would say thankfully--flourish outside of schools.

A few educators, however, are circling these making places to determine where and how they fit in schools, if at all. Educational historian Larry Cremin once wryly noted, that educators respond to a new area of learning by creating a course in it. Recall how schools responded to technology by creating a course "down the hall at fifth period" without ever thinking about changing every course because technology existed. Similarly, educators run the risk of demeaning hand and mind work by creating separate courses for making rather than bringing making into all aspects of the school curriculum and thereby thoroughly reconstituting it.

Recently I learned about a East Bay School for Boys, which is opening this Fall. Incoming sixth graders begin by building their own desk, which according to a consulting teacher David Clifford, gets them involved in creating their own learning environment. In a video on the EBSB site, one of the organizers of the school said that students can learn through "Play, Practice and Production." That's a really nice framing of how we naturally learn to do things, whether we're talking about soccer, music or robotics.

Will schools find ways to integrate making into the educational experience of students or will students continue to have to look for this experience outside of school -- seeking patchwork alternatives in the community or at home?

Tags: Edu 2.0 edu20

August 05 2010

Teachers become senseis while tech handles drills

Can kids really learn from computers and mobile devices? And if so, should they? When we talk about children learning from software instead of teachers it conjures up a sterile picture of kids staring at computer screens with no human contact. It triggers an automatic aversion to losing the human touch and warm insight we associate with great teaching. We suspect the only thing a computer has to offer is rote learning at the lowest possible common denominator. So when representatives from High Tech High, a San Diego school where teaching is centered around collaborative projects and ensuring every student is known, told me about their proposals to use intelligent tutoring systems, I was more than intrigued.

Last year, High Tech High performed an extensive search for a computer-based system for learning math, in particular to drill students in areas where they needed more practice. They found that the ALEKS intelligent assessment and tutoring system was the best fit for their particular needs, but budget cuts kept them from obtaining the software for more than three or four classrooms. Ben Daley, COO and chief academic officer of High Tech High, explained how ALEKS captivates students by giving them simple feedback in the form of pie charts that represent how thoroughly they have mastered a given topic. It's just a report, but there is a serendipitous magic in smart experimentation -- in this case, presenting information in a certain way changed students and inspired teachers.

It turns out that, simple as it is, students get pretty serious about getting their pie charts filled out. The smart design of the ALEKS math programs also does a good job of giving students math drills, feedback, and help that is at the right level for what they know, making them highly independent in making progress. Although they are still in the preliminary stages of analyzing the data, the teachers at High Tech High were surprised by the increase in student achievement when kids were turned loose on the ALEKS system. The administrators were surprised to learn that although only a handful of licenses had been purchased, ALEKS had spread through the school like a virus as teachers talked to each other about what they were seeing in the classroom and found creative ways to finance additional licenses.

This story presents an interesting counterpoint to the recent emphasis on using technology primarily in developing 21st century skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. These "higher order" skills are associated in the education dialogue both with students taking more ownership of their learning through access to rich original source material and collaboration via the Internet, and with students learning through solving authentic problems or working on long-term cross-disciplinary projects that more resemble the work of professionals than traditional lecture/worksheet/multiple-choice-test schooling. The notion of "computer tutors" echoes back to the unrealized ideals of Artificial Intelligence from the 1980s, and the success of intelligent tutoring systems suggests that there is something important in traditional, time-intensive individual practice. Yet, it also evokes a distasteful undertone that the complex role of a teacher can be reduced to a set of algorithms impersonally enacted by a machine -- the absolute antithesis of the teaching environment at High Tech High.

Drills, chunking, and attention to spare

Perhaps there is some reconciliation of these ideas in the nature of expertise-building and the quirks of the human brain. When it comes to logical problem solving the human brain is brutally slow, linear, and limited. Our minds can only reason with the building blocks we are able to hold in working memory, which for most people is about seven items (not coincidentally the number of digits in a phone number.) When we are novices in an area, such as when learning to drive a car, it requires all our attention to take our foot off the gas, push in the clutch, push on the brake, put one hand on the gear shift, move the gear shift up and to the right, and turn the wheel with the other hand. By the time we add in glancing in the rearview mirror and watching out for pedestrians, our working memory may well overflow, causing us to stall the car or get into an accident. With practice, through repetition, all of these separate actions get "chunked" together in long term memory, and making a right turn gets simplified to a single integrated action. Eventually, the complex actions of driving become so automatic that we sometimes bypass working memory altogether and find ourselves waking up at our destination with no real memory of having driven there.

This chunking and automatizing frees up our cognitive resources when performing mundane tasks. We now have attention to spare for other things. An experienced driver might choose to focus this attention on listening to the radio, talking with passengers, or thinking about work. An expert driver, however, uses those resources to become a better driver -- having mastered the art of the right turn he or she begins to master the art of defensive driving or perhaps race-car driving as a true professional, putting all his or her attention on increasingly sophisticated nuances of expert driving. Similarly, as an expert in any field gains experience, elementary ideas get chunked together into a single concept. As the concepts held in working memory become increasingly complex, the expert can address increasingly complex problems. The more information working memory can hold, the more room there is for multiple constraints and real-world variables and the less a problem has to be simplified to be tractable.

Athletes and musicians drill endlessly on simple tasks that are fundamental to their field. Coaches ensure that the drills are performed with proper form since it takes far longer to unlearn a bad habit than to learn a good one. Martial artists practice katas for years that eventually become the subroutines they automatically execute during competition and sparring. Does drill play a similar role in math and other learning? Is it necessary to free up working memory from the mechanics of addition and multiplication in order to solve problems in algebra? Do the patterns of algebraic manipulation need to be chunked into long-term memory to free up attention for a problem in calculus? What is the role of drill in math, and is it one a computer can provide better than a teacher?

If we view a teacher as a coach or a sensei, then software takes on its proper role as one of many tools available to teachers and students. With human guidance to ensure students are gaining understanding and with software tools to drill that understanding into automaticity, it is possible to structure learning so that every student can advance at his or her own pace. Individualized learning is far more efficient than when students are required to learn in lockstep, listening to the same lectures or completing the same assignments regardless of whether they have already mastered the material or are hopelessly behind. Self-paced intelligent tutors can help students learn more independently, more quickly, and more deeply.

How will mobile and 24/7 connectivity change learning?

At High Tech High, the reason for turning to intelligent tutoring systems is simple: if they help teachers enjoy a coaching role that supports kids in learning basics more independently, it gives them far more flexibility in how teachers spend precious classroom minutes. High Tech High has applied for grants to provide students and teachers with mobile devices that are connected to the Internet 24/7 via mobile broadband. In large part, High Tech High is exploring how technology can support anytime, anywhere collaboration within communities of learning, but they will also experiment to see how intelligent tutoring systems have an impact in the snippets of time available to mobile device users -- beyond the results they see with students using the software only in the classroom. They suspect that 24/7 connectivity will support and enhance the human connection in learning. If it also lets kids move through curriculum basics more quickly or more independently outside the classroom, it gives back something the High Tech High community never has enough of: more time for cross-disciplinary, collaborative projects that build higher-order skills and ground the basic curriculum.

The High Tech High programs will also give the education community something it doesn't yet have enough of: concrete data. Does anytime, anywhere learning with technology help teachers and students be more efficient in what they already do? Does it enable new ways of learning? How should those two different goals be balanced to leverage great teachers? What approaches increase community versus fostering isolation? There are countless opinions and plausible theories. Leadership like that at High Tech High will provide the data to ground the debate.


June 28 2010

Fast-Tracking: Alternatives to College

At Foo Camp 2010, Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, gave a talk called "Alternatives to College." I was so excited by what he had to say that I wanted to be able to share it more widely -- after all, only two people came to his talk. So I recorded a video interview (below) with him.

Sridhar's efforts at Zoho and their development center in Madras tell us something about how to develop a 21st century workforce by tapping into those who would not normally go to college. In short, his answer is not to prepare them for college but to prepare them to be productive in the workplace -- and to do that preparation in the workplace.

Sridhar has a Ph.D from Princeton, having gone there after obtaining a degree from an elite engineering school in India. Yet it was watching his youngest brother succeed at programming without a college degree that convinced him that others could follow that example. As he studied the best employees in his own company, he discovered that credentials were not as important as he once thought.

Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades & the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance. That was a genuine surprise, particularly for me, as I grew up thinking grades really mattered. ...

Over time, that led us to be bolder in our search for talent. We started to ask "What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?"*

At Zoho, Sridhar created a program, which he called a "university" but it was nothing like a normal university. He began working with kids who had a high school education and who were unlikely to attend college for economic reasons. He didn't care if they had no previous computer experience. He didn't care that they didn't speak English.

Once in the program, the students were paid a stipend to attend each day. The program lasted 9-12 months and then the students entered a one-year apprenticeship program. After two years, the students were ready to be productive employees in an IT company. About 100 kids so far have been through the program.

The program offered concrete, hands-on instruction designed to follow how someone who was self-taught would learn. (The first teacher was himself a self-taught programmer.) They were expected to spend the bulk of the time learning on their own. The students were taught very little theory, avoiding computer science altogether. Instead students practiced solving problems and doing real work. They learn programming, English (many only know Tamil), and math. None of the students really like math and they learn just enough. Sridhar made a comment that might shock educators and employers: "Math is the new Sanskrit, the new Latin." He believes we overestimate the value of math as a tool to assess a student's ability.

Sridhar believes that finding new sources of talent outside the university was important for his company to remain competitive. Now, they have employees who are passionate about their work. By discovering raw talent and developing it, and by having the same expectations of them as college-trained engineers, Zoho has created a fast-track to new opportunities for young people in India who would otherwise not have that opportunity.

With America's own problems of high unemployment and high dropout rates, not just in high school but also college, we could learn from what Zoho has done. I'd like to hear from you if you're interested in seeing what we can do in America to learn from this model and create fast-tracking opportunities for many more young people.

Here is the interview I recorded at FOO Camp with Sridhar Vembu.

*Link to blog post by Sridhar Vembu: "How We Recruit -- On Formal Credentials versus Experience-based Education."

Tags: edu20

June 14 2010

A constellation you should know

IMG_0133.jpgThis blog post has been sitting on my computer’s desktop for a few weeks now.... I’m finally getting around to telling you about a great week I had at the end of May. It started off with a brief trip to Northern California with stops at Dale’s amazing Maker Faire (equally impressive were his sprinting skills as he leapt into action when a tent nearly blew over), various technology companies and a local high school to visit friends and business colleagues. I even had the opportunity to meet my fellow Edu 2.0 bloggers, Betsy and Marie, for an Afghani dinner and conversation before heading back to Chicago on a red-eye flight. I left Silicon Valley, inspired as always by innovation and ideas, and admittedly, a little envious of general Northern California life.

At the end of that week, though, I had an experience that made me realize that there’s innovation happening in my Chicago backyard, too. Invited by executive director Sandee Kastrul, I participated in a weekly high tea ritual at i.c.stars, a work force readiness program that prepares young people for IT careers in business. My subsequent visit really got me thinking about how we’re supporting adults’ education needs.

I first met Sandee this spring when we both were presenters for a TEDx event at the National School Boards Association Conference in Chicago. As a former science classroom teacher with a background in theatre, Sandee artfully told the compelling story of her journey to create i.c.stars. She basically started her organization after seeing the limited opportunities her high school students upon graduation. Call me jaded, but I’ve grown skeptical of educational programs in general as some seem to pay lip service to notions about affecting change. I was intrigued Sandee’s story, and when she consequently invited me to high tea at i.c.stars, I saw this as an opportunity to see if her work was the real deal.

i.c.stars started about 11 years ago with the primary goal of preparing high school graduates for careers and leadership in business and technology-related professions. The screening process to participate is rigorous according to the i.c.stars web site, "Using multiple interviews and written assessments, candidates are screened for experience overcoming adversity. Our participants have developed a set of resiliency skills that create a profound sense of purpose and ambition for long term community leadership. The same resiliency skills that form the basis of community leadership, also form the basis for business leadership. Our participants stand out from their competitors in the job market as a result of their ability to overcome adversity and thrive in the high pressure, high stress environment of technology and the internet."

During their time in the program, participants learn a variety of skills through team managed projects. After their 16 week cycle is completed, graduates of the program find employment with the help of i.c.stars staff. The organization notes that 100% of its graduates during the last four cycles have found employment with firms such as Allstate, Grainger, Accenture and Microsoft. i.c.stars also serves as a temporary employment agency for corporations and part of the fees charged for these services returns to the organization in order to sustain its programs.

IMG_0131.jpgHigh tea at i.c.stars is a daily ritual where members of a cycle gather to network and learn from a visiting professional. A selected team member greets the invited guest and interviews them briefly before introducing the visitor to the rest of the cycle. Tea and cookies are served and following the lead team member’s introduction of the featured guest, everyone takes a turn introducing the person next to them and pouring them a cup of tea.

Walking into the board room at i.c.stars on my appointed day was slightly like what I imagine it's like to be on the set of the Apprentice. Approximately a dozen friendly business-clad young adults were seated around the table, and I had the guest of honor spot at its head. Introductions began and were fairly lengthy, giving insight into the character of each team member. In nearly every single introduction, examples of perseverance were given, ranging from how one person helped another during “Geek Week” to another expressing appreciation for a colleague who came through on projects when other teammates were notably absent. Pictures of work and relationships developed through this introduction ritual, but more importantly, group members were affirming the personal characters and work ethics of their colleagues. It seemed like such a positive, uplifting, and beneficial practice; not only were team members boosted through thoughtful, positive words, but they were also learning to give effective feedback. There’s an art to this for sure, and explicitly teaching and practicing interpersonal skills is important, particularly for young adults who might not have always heard kind words at home or in school.

After introductions, I explained my education and career path, reflecting on the choices I’ve made along the way. I particularly ranted about the current state of American education and my belief that we’re providing unequal experiences for students, particularly in our urban schools. While I’m probably not the typical high tea guest in that my background is rooted in K12 institutions and not corporations, these participants seemed really interested in public school policy. i.c.stars graduates are charged with becoming community leaders; effective leaders know that education systems affect business, so I think my observations might have given them some perspective.

My visit to i.c.stars was memorable for a variety of reasons. First, it makes me contemplate work force readiness, a topic that has not previously held a great deal of interest for me. After hearing Sandee’s stories and meeting her current set of students, I’m wondering how our society is supporting young adults once they graduate (or don’t graduate) from high school. How are we trying to boost people who might have been disengaged from formal education? There seems to be a real need for more scalable programs like i.c.stars when addressing this overlooked niche within education.

A small portion of my day was spent at i.c.stars, but it yielded a big impact on myself and the i.c.stars students. Not only did I stop to contemplate my own life and career paths, but the students practiced skills necessary for business success and potentially learned from my experiences. Just think how powerful it would be for other busy people to take time just hang out with those who are new to a profession. This makes me think of the concept of reverse mentoring and of Google’s 20% time. How is your place of work giving back to others? Being professionally generous with your time and expertise can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, I was struck by the i.c.stars students’ general smarts and motivation. With a tad more confidence mixed with a bit of fearlessness, I think they will be ready for action once they’ve completed their 16 week cycle. Clearly, Sandee and her team have taken a vision and made it happen teaching people to stand on their own two feet and take on the world; they are well on their way towards their goal of creating 1000 community leaders by 2020. What I’d love to see beyond this, is 1000 more strong programs like i.c.stars in place by 2020. What are you willing to do about workforce readiness? What other stellar programs currently exist? How are we tapping into the potential of young adults?

Makers versus Sponges

The rumbling debate over whether technology helps or hurts us -- and our kids -- is growing louder. The ever articulate writer, Nicholas Carr, stoked debate with his new book, "The Shallows." (Yes, he believes, Google makes you dumb.) Last Monday, the New York Times worried that technology may be reshaping our brains. Also last week, neurobiologist Steven Pinker weighed in on the New York Times op-ed pages today with a piece that waves away those concerns. (Everything rewires our brains, he notes.) If that seems like too many quick links, the New York Times' Bits blog recaps some of the debate here.

On the education side, the Washington Post took theses questions to the classroom in a piece entitled, "Some educators question if whiteboards, other high-tech tools raise achievement."

I keep wondering why we lump all "technology" into the same basket. By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people's ideas, or whether we're making our own.

O'Reilly has long been a champion of the "Maker" movement so perhaps this amounts to singing to the choir. But here's one slice through the technologies organized according to their potential relationship to kids:

IT Tool: Sponge or Maker? Smart boards in classroom SPONGE: Kids absorb lectures with better graphics Electronic games SPONGE: Kids learn to master rules of the games (and sometimes the content, too) Scratch MAKER: Kids create their own games iPod Touches SPONGE: Kids absorb & interact with presented material iPod Touches with "homemade slides" MAKER: Kids create their own "flashcards" to present on gadget Powerpoint / Keynote / Prezi / Glogster, etc, MAKER: Kids have to pull together materials to create presentations

A Powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation is hardly the height of intellectual achievement. But when we think about how kids interact with ideas and media -- what promotes creativity and learning -- it seems to me we need to focus on whether the gadgets are the means for kids expressing themselves or a way of imprinting someone else's ideas onto their brains.

Of course, a kid doesn't need to make a Prezi presentation to deliver a great and inspiring report. But we live in a world that values flashing lights and cool transitions.

That struck home a few weeks ago when I saw a group of fifth grade students show off a semester's worth of work to their parents and guardians. They had done traditional, glue-and-paper reports on different U.S. states, a project that had extended over about a month as the students gathered information, wrote summaries and clipped out pictures. Then, a week or so before "open house" night, the students were asked to deliver a report on one element in the periodic table using a Keynote presentation.

On the evening the parents and guardians showed up, I saw the same act repeated over and over: students grabbed the arm of their guest and dragged them over to watch their Keynote. They stood by, beaming as the slides clicked through. They had also absorbed a surprising amount of information about their elements, where they were found and why they were located on the periodic table. The students were proud of their state reports, too =- and knew they had worked far longer on them. But at least on this evening, the Keynotes stole the show.

Back in the 1970s, kids who sat glued to the television screen didn't have a choice: we were all just sponges for the stuff broadcast over the airwaves. Today's computer technology lets us choose if we want to be a maker or a sponge. Shouldn't that be starting point when we argue about the role of technology in schools?

Postscript -- Could this be the ultimate "Maker" class? Encouraging engineering in kindergarten.

June 08 2010

Don't get stuck in Edu 2010

Business entered the computer age in the 1980s. Every department had at least one computer, often more. Laborious tasks such as collecting, tabulating, and representing data were completed in an instant by modern applications such as Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III. We began to infuse the workplace with more and more computers, dazzled by the productivity gains we were about to realize. But dramatic gains never came from just automating our existing work processes; they materialized when we transformed the way we worked. When real-time information allowed us to virtually eliminate inventory through just-in-time delivery. When we learned to collaborate across time zones and geographies. When we began to become productive in "snippets of time" thanks to e-mail in our pockets. When real-time access to information and communication enabled teams to self-organize and take ownership rather than wait for instructions to flow down the low-bandwidth, noisy and lossy channels of hierarchical communication.

In many ways, education technology is today where business was thirty years ago. Almost no one questions the promise of always-available computing and broadband connections yet we are puzzled when infusing the schoolhouse with more and more computers doesn't always yield dramatic gains. As with business, education will see the radical impact when we move from automating existing processes to transforming the way we teach and learn. When real-time information on student progress will allow just-in-time delivery of the right lesson. When students become productive in "snippets of time" thanks to on-line learning tools in their pockets. When real-time access to information and communication enable students to collaborate, research, peer review, and mentor each other rather than only waiting for information to flow down the low-bandwidth, noisy, and lossy channel of one-size-fits-all lectures.

The National Education Technology Plan (pdf) gets to the heart of this, calling for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering." The plan outlines models and specific recommendations for learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity. It offers the U.S. Department of Education a vivid sketch of education powered by technology and shaped by the learning sciences. A careful read reveals a deeply informed picture of teaching and learning that is both aspirational and achievable and that is grounded in the most current capabilities that technology has to offer.

But technology can offer more.

In the last decade, the technology investments we made in computer literacy were largely variations on shared computer labs with desktop computers hard-wired to the Internet. More recently, some schools that can afford it have started providing a wireless laptop for each student (1:1 laptop programs). This learning experience is different in kind, not just degree, from limited hours spent in a computer lab. But it requires a whole different infrastructure -- more robust WiFi on campus, for example -- and re-architected systems that don't lose student work when the connection goes down. Consequently, much of the innovative work developed for the computer lab model doesn't translate to the 1:1 laptop model and needs to be either drastically modified or recreated at great expense and effort.

Today a few schools are beginning to experiment with technologies alluded to in the National Education Technology Plan: cloud-based services accessed by connected devices such as cell phones and laptops with mobile broadband modems. Once again, the learning experience changes in kind, not just degree, and once again the requirements on the infrastructure change, requiring re-architected systems that support devices that move across networks and are sensitive to bandwidth usage. In the business world we went through a two-stage process: first we reinvented our processes as we moved to a wired computer experience, then we transformed again as we went to using always-on, always-connected mobile devices. In education, we have the opportunity to leapfrog that intermediate step.

The plan envisions:

... a model of an infrastructure for learning [that] is always on, available to students, educators, and administrators regardless of their location or the time of day. It supports not just access to information, but access to people and participation in online learning communities. It offers a platform on which developers can build and tailor applications.

The plan also points out that both the learning sciences and technology will continue to evolve. With investments being made now in education that may not be repeated for decades, the challenge presented to technology is one of developing platforms that will not require massive tech do-overs and reinvestment as new technologies come on line.

What will happen if we merely implement current technology as a one-off investment? Will additional networks (such as peer-to-peer, personal area networks, and body area networks) soon require re-architecting the applications and services about to be developed for traditional cloud and mobile device environments? Will breakthroughs in assessment, analytics, and data visualization require re-writing content and curriculum to capture data? Will newly re-developed back-end data systems need to be thrown out and recreated from scratch to support that data capture? Will trends toward using student-owned devices in school quickly require a complete rethinking of privacy and security?

The National EdTech Plan aspires to bring together the best of what we know of teaching and learning with the very best technology has to offer in 2010, yet we can be certain that technology will offer even more in 2012, 2015, and 2020. A literal interpretation of the plan could end up doing no more than codifying the best practices and technologies of 2010. Is it possible, instead, to codify the spirit of the plan and implement the technology infrastructures that will allow education as a platform to drive innovation for decades to come?

May 26 2010

Venture capitalists do it. Why shouldn't philanthropists do it, too?

Pitch a new idea to venture capitalists and the first question they’ll shoot back is: “Who else is in your space?”

If you can’t answer that question, go straight back to “Go” and don’t even dream of collecting $200.

VCs, of course, needs to weigh competitive as well as potentially complementary efforts. But answering that question should help the entrepreneur, too. Entrepreneurs are most likely to help a field move forward if they build on the knowledge and the mistakes of the past rather than tripping down the well-trodden road.

Really compelling ideas draw multiple entrepreneurs (think of how the idea of social networking brought out Facebook, MySpace and a swarm of other startups). And sometimes ideas have to wait for the technology to catch up (picture phones and electronic books come to mind).

Smart startups, however, look for unique approaches even when tackling a problem that others are--or have--taken on. And the fastest way to assess whether an approach is fresh or a rerun is to know what else is going on.

So what about the educational-technology space? We want to invent new approaches and ideas that will engage students, teachers (and even the occasional parent). But do we have good maps of what’s going on—not just in the for-profit venture sector but in the philanthropic sector, too?

Dale Dougherty, who’s no slouch when it comes to staying on top of the latest technology, summed up the problem well in his recent post:

“I wished the teams themselves were a better judge of their own proposals, and that they understood how their project advanced appropriate uses of technology in education. I wished that each of the applicants had been able to consult an evolving set of best practices for developing educational technology projects. …. They might help others avoid pitfalls and learn from failures.“

Our problems in education are too intense, funding is too thin and time too precious to take on duplicative efforts. We need to apply some of the same discriminating standards in our philanthropic Edu2.0 projects that we use in for-profit ones.

So what would be the relevant features of a topographical map of the educational-technology sector? Here’s one set of categories:

Projects aimed at:

• Improving instruction
• Individualized (adaptive) instruction
• Doing assessment
• Improving teacher practices
• Promoting project-based learning
• Improving transparency
• Bridging the school-home communications gap
• Improving school infrastructure

What would you add? What elements do you think would help people designing education-technology projects get a useful picture of what else is going on?

May 20 2010

Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, is not something that everyone thinks they can do but more people are doing it than you might think.

The DIY movement in science and technology is demonstrating that it can do inexpensively what large companies and even Big Science have spent millions doing. I call them "make-offs," low-budget knock-offs of scientific and industrial technology built with off-the-shelf components. It is a version of what China has been doing to America, benefiting from the R&D that goes into refining the specifications, developing prototypes and building a finished product. Only now, with new digital fabrication techniques and open source hardware and software, individuals and small companies are in a position to compete globally with a distinctly DIY approach to innovation. It's a new independent source of creative work, similar to what indie films are to Hollywood films developed in-house. It's open, collaborative and done on the cheap. And almost anyone can play, as you can see this weekend at the 5th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area.

In Mountain View, Calif. last September, Greg Klein, who was about to go off to college, designed and built a high-altitude space balloon with two other students. Like a lot of Silicon Valley startups, the idea was first sketched out on a napkin. Named Apteryx, the balloon was launched with a 4-lb. payload consisting of sensors, an open-source microcontroller called Arduino and consumer-grade cameras. After about five hours, the balloon had reach 90,000 feet, which is considered near-space. The team used an amateur radio to send telemetry data and later tried using a prepaid cellphone as a tracking device. They were successful in locating the payload when it returned to earth. The bill for the project's materials was about $800, a bit high for college students but a lot less than you might expect for something so amazing.

Here's a picture taken from Apteryx of the Monterey Bay, which shows the curvature of the earth.


The team's website,, shares the results of their mission. The students are not that unusual, although it's not what every student is doing at winter or summer break. Yet, they are showing us what it is possible to do.

This spring, the Spacebridge project, organized at a San Francisco hackerspace called Noisebridge, succeeded in their third attempt to launch a high-altitude balloon. Even before them, NYC Resistor, a hackerspace in Brooklyn, launched a high-altitude balloon as well. (Hackerspaces, which are sprouting up around the country and around the world, are shared workspaces where hackers and makers come together to share tools, knowledge and community.) NASA is beginning to look to DIY communities to participate in the development of "SmallSats," which use available components like smart phones and legos, making it possible to build satellites for close to $1,000.

makerbot.jpgThe NYC Resistor hackerspace gave birth to Makerbot Industries, a company that produces a 3D printer kit called MakerBot that sells for under $1,000. Featured on the cover of Make Magazine (Volume #21), Bre Pettis and his team used open-source software, the Arduino microcontroller and digital fabrication techniques to create a low-cost competitor to high-end 3D printers that sell at $20,000 and above. Makerbot won't necessarily displace its more established competitors; it's not as fast nor the same quality. However, Makerbot will expand the market for 3D printers, making them affordable to small businesses and home hobbyists. As a consequence, Makerbot will help accelerate the growth of a 3D printer community that is open to anyone. The Thingiverse website, also developed by Bre Pettis, is a shared collection of designs that can be used to create objects on any 3D printer. With more people playing with 3D printers, new expertise and new ideas will develop.

Two University of Michigan postdoc students, one with a background in electrical engineering and the other in neurophysiology, formed a company called Backyard Brains to develop the SpikerBox, a kit that "provides a great way to learn about how the brain works by letting you hear and even see the electrical impulses of neurons!" They call it DIY Neuroscience. At a demo of the Spikerbox, Timothy Marzullo, one of the two co-founders, detached a discoid cockroach's leg and placed two electrodes on it. The electrodes picked up the flow of electrical impulses and sent the signal through a speaker, which made a scratching, popcorn sound. He showed me the neural “spikes,” or action potentials, as waves on an iPhone running an oscilloscope app. Marzullo told me that the demonstration I saw was something that he had not seen until he was allowed to use a $20,000 machine in the lab in his first year of graduate school in neurophysiology. The Spikerbox kit, which is open-source and uses four chips from the 70’s, sells for just under $100 from their website, making it affordable for high school labs and amateur scientists. What happens when you can do real science instead of just reading about it in school?

Tito Jankowski is one of the organizers of the DIY Bio community and he's trying to make the field of biotechnology accessible to amateurs as well. He thinks anyone should be able to look at their DNA. You can start by swabbing saliva from inside your mouth and then look at it in a small, home-based lab. His small San Francisco-based company, Pearl Biotech, is starting to develop some of the equipment you'd need. The Pearl Gel Box, a gel electrophoresis system, is based on an open-source hardware design, like many of these projects, which means that the specifications are open and shared publicly. Anyone could use these specifications to build their own version of this equipment and customize it for a specific application. Or you can buy the Pearl Gel box in versions from $189 to $500, depending on how much assembly you're willing to do yourself. Commercial versions cost more than $1,000 but most importantly, their producers don't expect anyone but scientists or technicians to be using them.


Who would have thought that there were people like Eri Gentry anxious to join the DIY Bio community? Admittedly, she has no formal training as a scientist, having studied economics at college. When a friend of hers died of cancer, she became determined to participate in cancer research. She discovered how much she enjoyed doing the work so she built a low-cost biotech lab in her garage. Knowing that there's only so much that she could do herself, she organized meetups and connected with others who were doing similar work around the world. A person she met online came from Ecuador to stay and work several weeks in her lab. She seeks to create a biotech hackerspace in the Bay Area called BioCurious where "professional scientists and the merely curious" can collaborate. Who would have thought it was even possible to do biotech in a garage, let alone that others were interested in doing the same thing?

archer-robot.jpgAndrew Archer, who grew up in Duluth, Minn., was unhappy and unchallenged in high school, but his mother noticed how he would bring things home from yard sales and go into the garage and take them apart. She encouraged him to participate in robotics programs outside of school and he found something he loved -- building robots that could do complex tasks. His experience solving challenges for robotics competitions led him to start a robotics company when he was 17. Today, Andrew is 22 and Robotics-Redefined is building customized robots using off-the-shelf components to transport inventory on factory floors. Last year, he moved to Detroit because he had begun selling his robots to the auto companies. In Detroit, he found hackers who were interested in helping him build robots. He began training hackers himself to do what he needed. At a demonstration, I saw his autonomous orange robot move around a test track and approach a heavy item, pick it up and relocate it. Archer told me his robot was a more sophisticated version of a Lego Mindstorms robot.

One of the upgrades is a vision system using a webcam to detect if people are in the path of the robot. If the robot is bumped or pushed off its path, it can reorient itself and get back on track. It could also communicate with other robots doing the same work. All the while the robot was busy, it played a chiptune from one of Andrew's favorite Nintendo-64 games. This industrial robot was a serious piece of work, built for a harsh environment, but its goofy 8-bit music showed that a really geeky kid was its maker.

As Andrew and other young makers become more familiar with the equipment used in industry and science, they will see new opportunities to build "knock-offs" using cheaper, reusable components that are open and adaptable to customization. We shouldn't consider them "knock-offs" as we talk about what's produced in China. As "make-offs," they stand-out as examples of creative DIY innovation and collaboration. Make-offs are open platforms for doing new things, enabling more people to participate and develop the expertise to solve new and more challenging problems together.

Maker Faire Bay Area opens Saturday and runs through Sunday (May 22-23) at the San Mateo Expo Center. Meet makers young and old, talk with the hackers from Noisebridge and NYC Resistor and see demonstrations from the balloonists at, Bre Pettis at Makerbot Industries, Tito Jankowski of Pearl Biotech and Eri Gentry of You'll find more than a thousand makers who possess the wherewithal for doing amazing things. While it's fun being a part of Maker Faire, you'll find yourself inspired by the creativity, intelligence and conviction of your fellow makers.

Tags: diy edu20 maker

May 18 2010

Educational technology needs to grow like a weed

Why do so many well-conceived education reform designs fail in implementation? For the same reason that old-school top-down software development fails in today's rapidly evolving Internet-based marketplaces.

In both cases there is an implicit false assumption that the designers can accurately predict what users will need in perpetuity and develop a static one-size-fits-all product. In response to that fallacy, both software development and education reform have developed agile models of adapting to unpredictable environments. Independently, these have failed to scale to their potential in the real-world trenches of the U.S. educational system. Interdependently, could they achieve the results that have so far eluded each?

Traditional education reform, like traditional engineering development, invests heavily in up-front design. In engineering, this makes sense when dealing with deliverables that are hard to change, like silicon, or when mistakes are not an option, as with space flight or medical technology. However, when the deliverable is malleable, as with consumer software, once the market starts to change the implementer is trapped between the choice of piling modification upon modification until the initial design is completely obscured, or plowing ahead unswervingly only to deliver a product that is obsolete on delivery. The software developer is destined to be outperformed by more nimble developers who can adapt effectively to changing market needs, new information, and an evolving industry.

Similarly, education reform interventions are rigidly constrained. To prove a treatment's effectiveness, research needs to demonstrate that one particular variable in a messy human dynamic environment is responsible for a change in student outcomes. This means that an educator and his/her students must behave precisely as designed in order for the research to be valid. Tremendous resources are spent in these kinds of trials to ensure "fidelity of implementation." In this situation, the educator is trapped between the choice of corrupting trial data by changing the implementation to meet the changing needs of students and the environment, or plowing ahead only to limit the good he/she can do for students to the lowest, common, measurable denominator.

In the software world, we address this dilemma through an iterative development model. That is, we assume that when we are thinking about what users might need or how they will use our product, we will get some things wrong. So we code up some simple end-to-end functionality, throw it out for people to use, and then improve it iteratively based on feedback from our users. This feedback may be explicit, in the form of questions and requests, or implicit, based on our observations of how the software is used. It may well be automated, in the way Google instruments the applications we use and modifies them based on how we engage.

In the education world, there is also a shift away from rigid implementations to more scalable adaptive approaches. Alan Bain writes in "The Self-Organizing School" about how the metaphor of emergence mediates the tensions between top-down control and bottom-up chaos. Rather than designing and dictating the everyday workflow of educators and students, the self-organizing school identifies a small set of simple rules. These rules, in combination with multiple feedback loops, drive and iterate the work of teachers, students, administrators and others involved in teaching and learning. As with the emergent behaviors of ant hills and flocks of birds, the simple rules drive elegant, complex system-level behaviors that adapt to changing circumstances.

This model of education reform depends on real-time, effective feedback loops of information at a scale that is possible only with the support of technology. But the technology platforms to support a self-organizing school haven't been developed -- as with most educational use of technology they are likely to be pulled together on an ad-hoc basis with minimal support, making them clunky to use and difficult to modify. As a result, rather than enabling and supporting adaptation, they are just as likely to carve existing processes into digital concrete and become a force resisting change.

How do you get to a technology platform that supports scalable education reform? Perhaps the best option is to grow it. Plant it in the fertile soil of existing open source education software and open education resources. Seed it with some simple elements: digital content creation or assessment distribution or maybe collaboration spaces or online courses. Feed it with a few data flows: perhaps computer-graded quiz results to students, teachers and parents; homework assignments and recorded lectures in one direction, completed projects in the other; automated attendance data to teachers and administrators. Immerse it in an environment built on feedback loops that are nourished by the data that is generated on the platform. Adapt and evolve it in response to decisions and needs that are uncovered by those feedback loops.

In symbiosis, the platform and the practices it supports mature and reach a sort of dynamic equilibrium of continual, steady, incremental growth. As it matures iteratively, the technology platform becomes ready for transplantation to other environments.

Traditional education reform fails to scale because top-down designs don't survive the reality of the day-to-day classroom. Emergent designs adapt to real circumstances but depend on extensive data collection driving feedback loops at every level. Not only is this not well supported by existing technology implementations, but the functional requirements of those implementations are not yet well understood. Through a process of co-evolution, those requirements can be surfaced and technology platforms developed that can then enable education reform to scale.

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