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?
Each week I get a “Hack Education“, a compendium of news stories entertainingly complied by blogger Audrey Waters. Waters’s stories tend to focus on education technology but they often range into other fields and, like Yves Smith, are presented with witty and occasionally snarky commentary. One commentary in this week’s Hack Education caught my attention:
This is pretty much the worst piece of writing about education technology I’ve ever seen published in a major publication. Didn’t stop Edsurge from covering it and strangely attributing it to the WSJ and not Forbes. But hey.
Needless to say, I HAD to click on the link and read the article by Forbes contributor Phil DeMuth that was bad but maybe NOT the worst piece I’ve read— but I may be less selective in reading about EdTech than Ms. Waters. I must confess that DID find myself nodding in agreement with some of the ideas it presented… lectures ARE boring and an inefficient means of teaching and MOOCs that consist solely of lectures are thus ineffective. And I agree that B. F. Skinner’s concepts are germane to on-line learning and should not be ignored. But I feel that DeMuth was too dismissive of Sal Khan’s work and oversold B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning as an efficient and effective means of replacing the direct instruction method we have in place.
From my perspective,Khan Academy-style teaching and learning holds the greatest promise for providing high quality supplementary instruction to large numbers of students. Sal Khan, unlike B.F. Skinner, acknowledges that he cannot replace the work of a classroom teacher. Rather he believes he can transform the teacher’s role. Instead of delivering chunks of information to groups of students batched by age cohorts and grading those students on their performance on periodic examinations the teacher can allow students to progress through lessons in content areas where information is hierarchically organized. This frees the time of the teacher to serve as a tutor in many content areas, using their accumulated skill and content knowledge to match the presentation of the materials with the child’s intellectual maturity and their accumulated skill and knowledge of child psychology to connect with each child in a fashion that motivates them to want to learn. The shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” could actually occur if the teacher was no longer required to BE on a stage. The Khan Academy approach provides each student with a master teacher who can patiently provide an array of approaches so that each child can learning skills in step-wise progression or hear presentations of factual content in a fashion that will reinforce assigned readings. In effect, the large group instruction and lecture format could be replaced with supported self-directed learning— which is how self-actualized adults continue learning.
DeMuth’s biggest flaw notion that B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning is different from the traditional stand-and-deliver approach to teaching. Like the traditional model, Skinner assumes that knowledge is something that is pre-determined and poured into an individual. The lecturer splatters the content on a hall full of students while Skinner directs the stream more precisely… but in both cases the prescribed content is externally defined and imposed. The promise of education technology is that the teacher can help the student learn how to learn so the student can be the agent for learning and not a passive recipient. The current system of schooling, the factory model, insists that all students learn prescribed information at the same time. A network model would allow students to seek out the knowledge they want to master when they want to and allow the teacher to help the student to understand when mastery is accomplished. We need to use technology to help us move beyond factory schools instead of using it to make the factory school more efficient.
Diane Ravitch posted a press release from K12 announcing the launch of a new online product targeting prekindergarten students. K12 is a largely discredited online learning company that has recently lost contracts to some school boards because alert parents and faculty members have pointed out to board members that the K12 program is demonstrably unsuccessful. Given the parental and teacher pushback against this program and the political pushback by local school boards, K12 is doing direct marketing to parents with this kind of push:
…Educators across the U.S. have identified kindergarten-readiness as an educational priority, and even the President of the United States has made kindergarten-readiness a national issue. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there is a robust body of evidence and research demonstrating that high-quality, early learning programs help children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life.”
Nothing like telling your prekindergarten child that they need to get screen time so they can arrive at school “ready to succeed in life”… but K12, their privatization cronies, and political leaders all know that fear sells because… it’s worked in the past.
I remember as an elementary student being told that the Sputnik launch proved we were falling behind the Russians… and hearing as a Superintendent in Maine in the early 1980s being we were a “Nation at Risk” of falling behind the Japanese… and now hearing over and over again about how we are losing our economic competitiveness because of poor public schools and falling behind China. In college I read a lot of George Orwell’s essays so I know where this is coming from…. and having worked in public schools as an administrator for over 35 years I know the most engaged parents are fearful that their kids won’t get into the best colleges and THAT fear has launched many supplemental after school programs.
K12 and the privatizers know that fear sells, and the preschool parent market is a good place to go because there is no one to counter the worthlessness of their online packages… and so we have a generation of students moving from Baby Mozart to K12 to corporate charter schools… and who knows what kind of products to help them achieve “success” in the future.
As one who believes that technology could be a means of leveling the playing field between affluent schools and schools serving children raised in poverty, I was simultaneously disheartened by, in agreement with, and intrigued by a recent post by Jesse Irwin in Model View Culture titled “Grooming Students for a Lifetime of Surveillance”.
I was disheartened because technology is currently dis-equalizing and technology is currently being misapplied. The dis-equalizing effects of technology on instruction are summarized in this paragraph:
Education technologists also continue to widen the digital divide between affluent and economically oppressed. Despite an industry-wide insistence that technology is not being developed to replace educators in the classroom, many poor school districts faced with massive budget cuts are implementing experimental blended learning programs reliant on “adaptive” and “personalized” software as a way to mitigate the effect of large class sizes on student learning. This means that students who attend costly private schools or live within rich school districts that can afford to employ more educators and maintain smaller class sizes receive much more personalized instruction from their teachers. Instead of receiving much-needed interaction and personalized learning directly from educators, poor students living in disadvantaged communities receive instruction from educational software that collects their data (which is likely to be sold), and have less individual instruction time from teachers than their affluent counterparts.
The dis-equalizing of instruction also extends to internet access. Affluent schools are not bound by the E-rate mandate to filer the internet because they do not qualify for that funding. Thus, a student in an affluent district is more likely to have access to ALL the information available and not the information that a district or federal officer deems “suitable”.
I was in agreement with the overarching theme of the article: our current use of technology overemphasizes regulation and monitoring and, consequently IS conditioning students to accept surveillance and screening as a way of life. Not only are we screening the content available to them by filtering the internet, but we are also increasingly monitoring their behavior out of school and gathering data on them that, arguably, should be shared with law enforcement.
I was intrigued because as I read the post I saw many paradoxes: instances where policy makers need to determine boundaries between the data collected in school and the data shared with other agencies and vendors. Some examples:
- CYBER-BULLYING: If schools are expected to deal with issues of cyber-bullying that most often occurs outside of school, shouldn’t they have the ability to monitor social media that students use? And once teachers and/or administrators start monitoring social media, what is their responsibility if they see a picture of one of their students with a beer can? a bong? naked? Do they call the police? Child services? Parents? As of four years ago when State legislatures were passing laws on cyber-bullying there were no clear answers to these questions.
- ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE DATA: Schools can now determine how much time a student spends on homework that is assigned “on-line” and/or computer-based classwork that is assigned in class. Shouldn’t teachers use that data the same way they currently use graded homework and classwork assignments? Also, programmed instruction modules based on hierarchical content (e.g. Khan Academy curricula) provide a means for teachers to identify where students are “stuck” and where their intervention is needed. Shouldn’t a technologically savvy teacher use that kind of data?
- ACADEMIC INSTRUCTION DELIVERY: The whole notion of “flipped instruction” that provides the lecture as homework and classroom discussion and/or Q and A as means of delivering instruction can only work if students watch the lesson at home. This, in turn, requires the monitoring of off-campus activity by the student.
- GENERIC DATA COLLECTION AND USE: As noted in previous posts on analogous issues, schools already collect massive amounts of data on children, data that could be put to good use if it were more readily available to classroom teachers. A case in point: if IEPs were made available in a secure network to mainstream teachers it would provide an effective means of two-way communication between the school and the teacher.
- PAYING FOR TECHNOLOGY: School districts can’t get good software for a low price unless there is some kind of quid pro quo… and the quid pro quo is often the ability to collect marketing information on the students. FERPA, written in 1974, never envisioned the kind of massive data collection that is possible today and technology advocates haven’t figured out how to purchase the tools that many students have at home. FERPA needs to be reworked, a daunting task given the complex questions involved and the dysfunctional legislature.
Addressing these and other paradoxes will be crucial if we want to use technology to truly individualize instruction and to level the playing field. By dodging these questions we are increasing the digital divide and preparing our students for a world where they will be surveilled 24/7.
Greg Hinz, a political blogger for Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote a post outlining the findings of a study conducted by Myron Orfield of the Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School that concluded:
Chicago’s massive experiment in adding charter schools pretty much is a flop, one in which the charters do little better than conventional schools and in some ways lag behind.
The article describes the findings of the study in detail that show no significant difference in the performance of the charter schools as compared to public school despite the fact that “Pound for pound, charters should do better than typical neighborhood schools because parents, who have to go to special trouble to enroll their children, presumably are more invested in their kids’ performance…”
Hinz noted that because the report was released on Columbus Day he had received no official report from either the pro-charter or anti-charter sides of the debate, though he imagined some would be forthcoming. If he read the comment section that followed his article, he would see that the debate was already underway and each side was taking predictable positions. The “pro-charter” side offered several variations of “I told you so”. The pro-charter folks questioned the format of the research, and disputed the impartiality of the researcher, noting that the “Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School” was once called “The Institute on Rae and Poverty”.
Reading the article and the comments made me wonder if we will ever have a debate about the way our schools are organized like factories? I’m convinced that as long as we remain stuck in the politically framed “right-left” debate we’ll plod along with the same kind of schools we have now. I would suggest a different line of paradigmatic questioning: why do we group students in age-based cohorts? why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”? why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction? As long as we continue these three practices we will continue to “manufacture” students the way we manufacture widgets and turn out large numbers of “defects”.
And here’s my concern: anyone who started teaching a generation ago has only known schools that focus on raising test scores. That wasn’t always the way. There was a time when teachers, Boards and administrators talked about how they could help EVERY student succeed instead of focussing on getting a large group of students to raise their performance on a test to the “satisfactory level”, a test whose definition of “satisfactory” was determined by an arbitrary “cut score” set in a State Department office. All of this is reinforcing the factory paradigm and not providing the chance for teachers to try a different approach, which was the vision many educators had when charter schools were first launched.
Finally, the testing regimen is moving us more and more into a two tier system of schooling. Affluent schools who perform well on tests are immune to the instructional regimen that matches the testing regimen and so their students get a more robust and engaging form of schooling, one that integrates technology, the arts, and personal focus. Schools serving children in poverty are slaves to the tests: if the teachers don’t raise test scores their schools are threatened with closed and their employment is threatened. This fear pervades the classrooms and children suffer as a result.
So to return to the primary theme of this post, why aren’t we asking these three paradigmatic questions:
- Why do we group students in age-based cohorts?
- Why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”?
- Why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction?