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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.

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


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 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?

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 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.

May 14 2010

Using technology to support global education

In the summer of 2006, I was very fortunate to travel to Europe with colleagues in the Apple Distinguished Educator program and it proved to be an inspiring, life-changing event for me. Tasked with writing a global awareness curriculum infused with digital content, we spent 10 days in Berlin and Prague, constantly photographing, filming, and discussing our experiences. As a group, we had been moved to action after reading such books as A World is Flat and A Whole New Mind, and I think our travel experiences reinforced our beliefs that kids (and adults) need to connect to other cultures in order to fully understand and participate in the world. We clearly understood that there never has been an easier time to make these connections via technology and that these technological possibilities will only improve with time.

Around the same time, edublogger Steve Hargadon started Classroom 2.0, an online community built on the Ning platform. Classroom 2.0 is designed to help educators investigate new and emerging technololgies, and it's proven to be a great community with a membership of over 40,000 educators. Inspired by Classroom 2.0 and pleased with Ning's ease of use, I also started a community focused on bringing educators and other interested parties together around the topic of global education. Primarily, this has been a networking space where teachers and students can find partners for global collaborative projects.

Steve has since become a consultant at Elluminate, an e-learning company, and he uses their web conferencing platform to host a myriad of free events including Classroom 2.0 Live and the Future of Education. He asked me a few months ago what we could do to significantly impact education using Elluminate, and I suggested an online virtual conference, similar to what other educational technology colleagues have created in the K12 Online Conference.

Either we are completely out of our minds or very brave (take your pick), but we are now attempting to make this a reality. After a couple of months of brainstorming and discussion with groups such as the Asia Society, IEARN, and ePals, we announced this week a preliminary call for participation in the proposed 2010 Global Education Conference. This event is a collaborative effort to significantly increase opportunities for global collaboration in education.

Our idea is to host free conference sessions related to Teachers, Students, Pedagogy, Leadership and Policy, and Change over the course of 4 days in November of this year. Sessions will be scheduled around the clock, as well as archived, in order to accommodate time zone differences. We still have a great deal of work to do around logistics, so this preliminary call is really focused on getting people involved to help and soliciting ideas for reaching educators around the world. In the first 24 hours of publicizing this event, over 1000 inquiries have been received and we're absolutely thrilled with the response.

You can help by signing up to participate in some way, or by simply passing on this information. Stay tuned for updates as we begin our efforts to connect educators and students around the world!

April 26 2010

Looking beyond the digital divide

At a previous point in my career, I benefited from professional development, autonomy in my classroom, and a superb technology infrastructure to become a connected, inspired and effective educator. Now, with the current climate in the field of education in the U.S., I fear that other teachers will lose, or never even experience, similar opportunities. As an education technology advocate interacting with teachers in a variety of settings, I see that our students are receiving vastly different types of education. This divide trickles specifically down to the educational technology experiences our students are receiving in schools, too.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010For approximately the past 20 years, I’ve mainly worked in urban educational settings ranging from a Catholic elementary school to inner city neighborhood schools to a highly successful independent school. Not only have I seen the predictable imbalance of resources in these schools, but I have also seen distinctly different sets of educational values. Experiential education is an important part of independent school culture, but in some of the other schools I’ve come across, the focus is entirely on test scores.

In the independent school where I once worked, third grade students receive hands-on, inquiry-based science instruction two times a week from a dedicated science teacher; the students also attend a computer science class once a week. In contrast, I know of an urban public school that stopped all science teaching in third grade so that students could participate a computer-based arithmetic drill program. Data had informed the administration that these third graders were behind in their ability to compute.

I suspect this isn’t the first or last situation in which a school seeks the silver bullet solution to low test scores, but this example alarms me for two reasons. First, the students are deprived of science education, which is already traditionally low on the priority list in many schools. Secondly, I question the value of using computers for test taking and rote drills. It seems such a waste of powerful technology that could be utilized in classrooms in much more engaging ways.

Clearly, each school mentioned above had different priorities, probably based on perceived needs of its students, and the underlying issues at hand are complex. Yet, I continue to wonder why our society continues to ignore the education apartheid that is going on in this country. I want to see us focus on student engagement and empowerment while not losing sight of continued improvement and accountability. I believe that it’s possible to achieve balance, and technology can play a vital role in this.

In my contributions to this blog, I hope to expand on these thoughts and concerns in relation to educational technology. If we are going to seriously look at how educators and students are leveraging the tools at hand, we must look at the bigger picture, too.

To get started, I’d like to recommend an article that I recently found via Stephen Downes on Twitter. In this piece, Henry Giroux expounds on the importance of public school teachers and I agree with him in that, “Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content, at best; and, at worst, put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test taking.”

I’m pondering Giroux’s observations in relation to educational technology. How are we going to expect teachers to leverage the potential of technology in their classrooms if this is the culture most are experiencing right now?

April 20 2010

A Hunger for Good Learning

Take a few minutes to watch Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) talk about a makeover of the math curriculum in this TedxNYED session. Dan does a brilliant job of explaining why textbooks fail, why they don't help kids learn, why they should do less.

I particularly like Dan's deconstruction of textbooks and teaching: be less helpful. His key insight is not to give kids the problem but invite them to consider the problem. Discovery is what engages them in learning. Creating a physical demonstration of filling a container with water trumps words on paper supported by line art.

Dan's Math Curriculum Makerover made me think of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. (You can watch the Food Revolution program on ABC or view Oliver's TED Talk. He writes: "I believe that every child in America has the right to fresh, nutritious school meals, and that every family deserves real, honest, wholesome food."

Here's how he's framed the issue of childhood obesity:

  • Kids are not eating good food.
  • They don't know what good food is because they don't get good food. They get processed food.
  • They are addicted to processed food.
  • They are served processed food in the school lunchroom and at home.
  • Teach kids to cook.
  • Get school lunchrooms to serve good food.
  • Involve parents so that they know what good food is, why it matters and how they can make it at home.
  • If a community understands that they can choose good food, will they choose to break the addiction to processed food?

Jamie and Dan both have me thinking about a campaign for a child's right to good learning, which is "real, honest and wholesome." Textbooks are the equivalent of processed food -- they are processed learning. The learning's all been done for you. As Dan Meyer says, you just have to know how to decode the text and you get the answers easily. If you don't mind this tedious task, you'll do well. But it's not real learning. It's not what we experience when we learn in real life.

I imagine a Jamie Oliver crusader walking into a classroom and telling kids to pitch the textbooks in a dumpster. He gets them out from behind the desks, gets them off their butts and gets them doing stuff. "We're natural-born learners," he might say. "Learning is something that all of us do so well -- we are doing it all the time. All of us are hungry to learn."

What Dan is talking about is giving kids the opportunity to learn: they explore and discover; they see problems and want to solve them; they want to develop and use tools to learn. This is how they become engaged. They naturally want to do these things for themselves because it is part of them making sense of the world and who they are. That's what Dan says math can do for you and that's what good learning is all about.

That's also why I get excited about organizing Maker Faire, now in its fifth year. It's an especially intensive learning opportunity created by a community of people who are sharing what they are doing. Maker Faire offers a feast for people of all ages who love good learning: it's authentic, inspiring and satisfying. One day, perhaps, we'll see a Maker Revolution that changes what we're trying to do in our schools and our communities, replacing education with good learning.

Tags: edu20 edu2tech

April 19 2010

Drop testing edutech

A researcher I know has devoted three years to following a group of low-income students in the Baltimore area who have been learning geometry with the help of an innovative online program. Her paper (which isn't published yet) is a marvel of careful observations and statistical analysis. Its conclusion, however, is poignant: not only did the students who used the computer program not learn more geometry than the ones taught the old-fashioned way--they might have learned less.

The program was thoughtfully designed and took advantage of the latest and greatest learning algorithms. If any program should be able to help students learn geometry, one might be tempted to conclude, it should be this one. That kind of logic could give ammunition to those who declare that computer-assisted learning is bunk.

But there's more behind the story.

The researcher told me (and is writing in the paper) that she observed even the most well-intentioned teachers really struggled to figure out how to use the technology. The program wasn't well integrated into the regular classwork. The "protocols" for use, carefully constructed by the developers, weren't followed because, as every teacher knows, stuff just happens. Students moved out of town; new students showed up. Teachers came; teachers went. The list goes on.

It was, in short, a pretty good reflection of how technology gets implemented in most classes -- hardly in the precise and careful way designed by those who have sweated over the program.

The trial was a flop -- not because the technology failed but because there was a mismatch between how the designers believed it should be used and how the teachers wound up using it. Was that the teachers' fault? Nope. Every day, in every class in the world, teachers come up with workarounds to cope with the unexpected. Most technology, however, isn't yet as resilient.

We drop test hardware before we send it into the field. Seems like it's time to start drop testing software programs before sending them into the classroom.

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