AI and Technology in Schools

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

This morning I read two articles on the effects of technology that lead me to believe that education writers and NYTimes essayists live in parallel universes and that neither seems to see the transformative potential of technology in schooling or the relationship between technology and schooling.

in his column today titled “Our Machine Masters” David Brooks describes the eerie accuracy the artificial intelligence that creates the ability for Pandora’s ability to divine his taste in music. He then describes and laments the relationship between advances in artificial intelligence’s and large networks:

Advances in artificial intelligence will accelerate this centralizing trend. That’s because A.I. companies will be able to reap the rewards of network effects. The bigger their network and the more data they collect, the more effective and attractive they become.

As (Wired technology writer Kevin) Kelly puts it, “Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast, that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our A.I. future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”

To put it more menacingly, engineers at a few gigantic companies will have vast-though-hidden power to shape how data are collected and framed, to harvest huge amounts of information, to build the frameworks through which the rest of us make decisions and to steer our choices. If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.

David Brooks sees that data collection and algorithms are beneficial to the end user who is looking for entertainment and information that matches their interests. He also sees its poet to transform the way we get and process information (e.g. learn). And…. he also see that if this transformative power is not harnessed properly, can lead to malevolent consequences. 

Larry Cuban, an education historian/blogger, wrote a post yesterday describing technology and school reform as “Kissing Cousins”. Cuban contends that today’s notion of using technology to improve education is no different than the earlier ideas to improve schooling:

(Reformers) saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

Cuban sees this as a conceptual error.

Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms.

I am one of those who Cuban refers to as a utopian dreamer who believes that “…new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) (could) alter how teachers teach and students learn.” But unlike earlier utopian technology dreamers (or perhaps some of today’s utopian technology dreamers) I do not believe that the machines (e.g. film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) are a means of reforming schools. The use of machines is based on and reinforces the paradigm of the factory school, as are technology-related concepts like “blended learning, online learning or the issuance of tablets.

I believe reform, or more accurately transformation of schooling, could occur because of the software and algorithms Brooks describes in his column. The software and algorithms available on today’s machines, if harnessed properly, introduce the possibility of moving away from the factory model of schooling by offering each student a Pandora-like learning experience. For example, an on-line learning sequence could be tailored to match the student’s cognitive readiness to learn and could offer the instruction in a way the student “likes”. This might have seemed far fetched even a decade ago. But given the explosion of YouTube lessons and what Kevin Kelly describes as “cheap parallel computation technologies, big data collection and better algorithms” it is possible today… and if schools could replace age-based cohorts with this kind of tailored learning, the mission and purpose of schooling would change. Returning to Brooks’ essay, I could foresee that software and algorithms, if harnessed properly, could enable each student to gain a self-awareness of their thinking and behavior that would result in the positive results David Brooks foresees in his “deeply humanistic” and optimistic future.

In the deeply humanistic (vision), machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much.

In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.

If Brooks’ utopian vision of the future of technology is realized, schooling would focus more on personal and moral development and less on content that is available on Google or YouTube— or via stand-and-deliver instruction. And  if  his dystopian vision occurs?

In the cold, utilitarian future, on the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.

Some closing questions:

  • Which future is standardized testing leading us toward?
  • What kind of consumers do our corporations want, “humanistic” or “utilitarian”?
  • Which direction are we headed if we think of technology as machines?

And last but not least: Who will determine how these algorithms and software products will be managed?

And the Digital Divide Isn’t Going Away

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

I read with dismay an article by Claire Cain Miller in today’s NYTimes Upshot titled “Why the US Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability”. The article opens by describing the places in the world that have far superior internet services to the United States:

Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

Her answer to the question of why our country has fallen behind echoed that of Columbia law professor Tim Wu: we lack competition.

The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.”

There’s one problem with that response. What do Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris have in common? They are located in countries where the internet was provided by the government as a utility. Competition had nothing to do with the provision of their services. Their governments saw an emerging trend and made a substantial infrastructure investment. So students in Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Hungary and France will have access to high speed internet learning opportunities at home and in school while 25% of our nation has none at all… and we want to expand the use of technology so that we can become competitive with other nations?

Sorry, folks, we might need to raise our taxes and invest in infrastructure to fix this problem that “competition” created because the “winners” in the competition so far are not going to forgo their advantage and the politicians who provide them with money are not going to go without a fight.

Digital Divide is Real

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Financial Times featured a blog post that included maps illustrating the impact of the digital divide in the US and… surprise… the most affluent communities have the best connectivity while the communities while low income communities and neighborhoods are left behind. The solution is obvious in a nation where 6% of the workforce has given up on looking for a job: allocate federal dollars to build out the infrastructure needed to provide every household with access to broadband. Here’s one of the maps: The brown sections have less access than the blue sections.

38bb81f0-5ddd-11e4-897f-00144feabdc0.img

 

For more appalling data on this, see the article.

Stars Aligning?

October 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Sometimes I read a string of articles and I believe the stars MAY be aligning to end the standardized testing regimen that has defined schooling for a generation of students. Two articles describe such a potential alignment. The first, a the USA Today report describing a new coalition that wants to see an end to the test-and-punish paradigm in place since NCLB:

The nation’s two largest teachers unions – along with school administration organizations, business advocacy groups and school equity leaders – on Tuesday announced a new framework for accountability that focuses more on a holistic “support-and-improve” model than the longstanding “test-and-punish” mindset that’s commonplace in schools nationwide.

The list of organizations in the partnership is diverse, including business alliances, the AASA, and NSBA. And their mission is not the complete abandonment of standardized testing, but instead a more appropriate use of those tests, especially in light of the real needs of the workforce:

Rather than advocating for an outright repeal of standardized testing, the partnering organizations say they want fewer, better tests that more accurately measure what schools and business leaders say is the most important objective for students who’ll soon have to compete in the high-tech, global economy:  whether they can problem solve, work collaboratively and apply academic concepts in  different situations.

The second article, from the Washington Post earlier this week reports that civil rights groups are ALSO calling for a change to the existing accountability system:

Eleven national civil rights groups sent a letter Tuesday to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and congressional leaders saying that the current standardized test-based “accountability system” for K-12 education ignores “critical supports and services” children need to succeed and discourages “schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students focused on the 21st century skills they need to acquire.”  The groups make recommendations on how to revamp the system in a way that would improve educational opportunity and equity for students of color.

The notion that the test-and-punish method would address disparities was never evident and after over 12 years of the regimen, it is heartening to see civil rights groups calling the political leaders on this issue. Are the stars TRULY aligned? We’ll know a little bit more after looking at the election results on Tuesday.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , ,

Investing in Education Elections

October 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Minnpost blog post describes a “Tsunami” of cash flowing into the school board election in Minneapolis MN (hat tip to Diane Ravitch). It seems that there hare hundreds of thousands being spent on the election for two at-large seats in Minneapolis, and based on some on line research it is unclear to even political insiders why there is so much money flowing into this election… But given the sources of funding flowing into the newly created “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund (Bloomberg’s giving $100,000 and TFA’s giving $90,000) and the fact that one of the candidates endorsed by the group has stated his desire to eliminate tenure, it is possible that those investing in the election hope to invest in for-profit charter schools. ele

The fact that the school board candidates have platitudinous campaigns makes it easy for them to sidestep questions like “Why are you allowing outside money to help fund your election?” or, perhaps more pointedly, “What do you think the outside investors will ask you to do on their behalf once you are elected and how comfortable are you with they likely requests?” or, to allow as little wiggle room as possible:”When he was mayor on NYC, Bloomberg replaced “failing public schools” with for-profit schools staffed by inexperienced teachers from TFA. What is your position on that strategy?” In elections where hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing in, these questions need to be posed to those running for office and the candidates responses need to be shared widely. But as MN blogger Eric Ferguson noted in one of his posts, many voters are completely unaware of local elections…. but that may change this time since the new money flowing in is resulting in negative campaign flyers being sent to homes and negative robocalls being placed to voters. As the school board election in Minneapolis demonstrates, money makes a difference in campaigns— and not in a good way!

Dog Bites Man: Cuomo Attacks Public Schools

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

In a development that surprises no one who WATCHES Cuomo’s behavior as opposed to LISTENING to his words, he made it abundantly clear in a meeting with the editorial board of the Daily News that he wants to dismantle the public school “monopoly”. His solution: competition featuring for-profit charters vs. “government run” schools. Ay yi yi!!!

If any teacher’s union President thinks that either Hilary Clinton or Andrew Cuomo are allies, they need a reality check. If NYSUT had any heart or courage they would advise their members to support the Green Party candidate…. and here’s what’s really sad after reading Thomas Edsall’s column earlier today: a Teachout candidacy on the Working Families ticket might have prevailed.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Duncan’s Memo Redux

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I posted on an article the NYTimes wrote touting a 37 page letter from Arne Duncan urging “…state officials, superintendents and principals to monitor policies and facilities and to make sure they are equitably distributed among students of all races.” As I noted in my earlier post, the letter is full of data that readers of this blog and other progressive blogs are well aware of: black students have fewer opportunities to take AP courses, advanced math courses, to be taught be certified teachers, and to attend school facilities that are equal to those available to affluent students. This letter is no different from ones I recall receiving from secretaries of education from the Reagan administration through this one… and they have probably been coming out since Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Today the Times editors wrote a piece touting this memo again… but instead of focussing on the need for equitable allocation of school funds at the State level, they focused on teacher quality. at the district level. Here’s the closing paragraph:

The new guidance rightly focuses on teacher quality and says the department’s investigations will seek to expose school districts that unjustifiably provide minority children with ineffective, poorly trained teachers. Policies don’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to be illegal; race-neutral but ill-considered strategies can also have a terrible effect on minority students.

Residential housing patterns and historic town boundaries create the inequities that exist among school districts NOT district practices. Demonstrably unfair funding formulas create resource disparities NOT district practices. Duncan and Obama and the NYTimes are all blaming school districts from inequities that are not of their own making. Given this reality, I wrote the following letter to the editors of the Times: 

Secretary Duncan and President Obama need to stop exhorting DISTRICTS to equalize resources and take action where STATES have failed to do so. Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal funds have been allocated to every district in the country, even the most affluent. Mr. Duncan wanted to ensure that resources applied more equitably he could take action in states where legislatures have not responded to court decisions calling for changes to the funding systems by directing all federal funds to those districts that state courts identified as being short-changed. If State legislatures fail to provide every child with an equal opportunity, the federal government has a responsibility to do so…. and writing persuasive memos will not change anyone’s behavior in the next two years any more than it has for the past 60.

 

You cannot expect the Philadelphia school district to adhere to a guideline that resources be equitably allocated when their budget provides roughly $7,000/student less than Lower Merion School District. It is not Philadelphia’s fault that they are under-resourced and allocating scarce funds among decrepit undermanned schools is no remedy. Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the Times should put the spotlight where it belongs: on State legislatures who have not addressed lawsuits that call for changes in the funding formulas.