A koan is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment” and after reading “Technology That Prods You to Take Action, Not Just Collect Data” I have a new koan:
Can technology be used to develop mindfulness?
Natasha Singer’s description of the work being done by Natasha Dow Schüll at MIT would suggest that technology could be used to help develop self-awareness or mindfulness in the same way that the Fitbit develops new exercise habits. The article describes several new self-help technology products that are designed to improve posture, eating and exercise habits, and to monitor one’s moods. As one who believes that the purpose of schooling is to develop self-actualized learners, and one who believes that technology can be used to enhance learning opportunities, and one who practices mindfulness meditation, I find Schull’s work thought provoking and intriguing. As one who also believes that human interaction is essential in learning skills, though, I find the notion of technology monitored self-improvement unsettling. Like the paradoxical anecdotes that serve as the teachings in Buddhism, the notion of technology monitored self-improvement demonstrates the inadequacy of logical reasoning. I’ll need to sit with it….
NYTimes columnist Zeynep Tufekci’s essay, “The Machines Are Coming” describes the impact of algorithms on jobs and offers examples of how computers are increasingly taking over more and more assignments that were formerly thought to require human interaction. Some examples are manning call centers, reviewing medical tests, serving as border guards, and “interviewing” applicants for jobs. One of the rationales for this is cost savings.
Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.
Tufekci describes how machines are deemed to be superior to humans because they don’t “…get sick, ask for higher wages, have a bad day, aging parent, sick child or a cold.” After suggesting way technology could replace humans in the workforce, she does point out one way technology could enhance the quality of the workplace and achieve more than better productivity and efficiency:
In the 1980s, the Harvard social scientist Shoshana Zuboff examined how some workplaces used technology to “automate” — take power away from the employee — while others used technology differently, to “informate” —to empower people.
For academics, software developers and corporate and policy leaders who are lucky enough to live in this “informate” model, technology has been good. So far. To those for whom it’s been less of a blessing, we keep doling out the advice to upgrade skills. Unfortunately, for most workers, technology is used to “automate” the job and to take power away.
I believe technology could be a boon to schooling if it was used to “informate” teachers instead of being used to “automate” instruction… and if schooling was based on “informating” instead of “automating” it would be providing children with a completely different set of skills. Pandora does a relatively good job of divining my tastes in music (they introduced me to many new bands and performers)… and the NYTimes and Google do a relatively good job of divining articles that might interest me (the Times sent me this one!)… and Amazon does a decent job of figuring out movies that I might like. But while Pandora plays music I might like, but my music teacher introduces me to music I can master and play for enjoyment… and while Google and the Times send me articles like the ones I’ve read before, I find the articles posted by friends on Facebook whose insights I value give me newer perspectives… and my daughters who go to movies regularly and viewed videos with me for years have a much better sense of the movies I’d enjoy than Amazon’s algorithm. Computer algorithms can give me information that’s helpful but only humans can give me information I trust. Schooling that uses standardized tests to measure performance could replace teachers with robots Schooling that seeks to motivate students to want to learn independently and values character development can only have humans in charge.
To date, teachers are among those workers whose jobs are envisioned as ripe for automation… especially if one holds the belief that schools are factories whose “product” is a batch of students whose “quality” can be measured using a standardized test. As noted frequently in this blog, the factory school paradigm is the basis for the standardized testing paradigm and contrary to the humanistic approach progressive educators value. If one holds fast to the factory school paradigm, automation is the answer to improved productivity and efficiency. If one believes that each human being possesses unique skills “informating” is the only way to go. Here’s hoping the liberal arts majors prevail over those who write code and prevail over the MBAs and engineers who value efficiency and productivity over human interaction.
As middle class, affluent and aspiring parents despair at standardized testing and the lockstep schooling that results from the emphasis placed on them in public schools, I expect to see more and more of them seeking alternatives to the status quo. One alternative emerging from the set of new approaches is the creation of home-school (or un-school) alliances of parents who work collaboratively to provide learning experiences for their children. In the region where I live, two institutions are beginning to serve children who are home schooled in a semi-systematic fashion: the local library and the Montshire Children’s Museum for Science in Norwich, VT. Libraries, which generally have high speed internet and extensive book and media collections are a natural resource for parents of home schoolers and can become an ad hoc meeting place for parents who provide home schooling for their children. The Montshire is a local treasure. As grandparents, my wife and I take our grandchildren there whenever they visit and no matter their age (they currently range from 2 to 11) they find some activity that engages them for hours. On a recent weekday visit to buy gifts for one of our grandchildren I observed that the museum scheduled ad hoc sessions for home schoolers when they realized that there was a critical mass of them needing opportunities to work collaboratively on projects.
This post was inspired by a Facebook post from my daughter that included a link to KQED’s Mindshift blog post titled “How Libraries are Advancing and Inspiring Schools and Communities”. After reading this it became clear to me that if they so desired, public libraries and small local museums like the Montshire could become learning hubs for those parents who are seeking an alternative to the mindless test-preparation going on in schools… or could be agents for change within schools by helping them redefine the role and mission of the library spaces and science classrooms in our digital age. Imaginative, creative, and aspiring parents are looking for a better way to engage their children… this could be pat of the answer.
For the past several days my wife and I were camping in AZ and NM, trading mud season in New England for the bright skies, dry air, and warmth of the Southwest. In our travels we met a fellow New Englander for breakfast with a group of his friends at a small Mexican restaurant outside of Tucson. Among the group was a grandmother and her two grandchildren who she was homeschooling, one of whom, nine year old Joseph (I am not using his real name), sat next to me. Joseph’s parents both have arduous work schedules: his mother works the night shift at UPS and his dad has a job that takes him out of the area for weeks at a time. In this day and age, unfortunately, these kinds of schedules are not atypical: the private sector wants to optimize personnel usage and family and community life takes a back seat as a result.
Joseph’s family decided to take him out of public school because it was overcrowded and underfunded (and, in all probability, “failing” by NCLB standards). They subsequently decided to take him out of the (undoubtedly for-profit) charter school he was accepted into because it required him to do three hours of meaningless homework each night when he was in second grade and provided no time for him to be outdoors. He is now enrolled in the Arizona Virtual Academy, operated by for-profit K-12 but accredited by the State. He’s happy in his new school. He is able to do projects he is interested in (his current “research paper” was on the effects of too much homework) and is able to progress at a faster pace than he experienced in either of his previous schools. While Joseph doesn’t get to interact regularly with students face-to-face or via Skype, he does have periodic on-line chats with a group of learning peers and plays weekly with a group of fellow fiddlers. His grandmother reported he was more motivated than he was in the public school and far less stressed than he was in his charter school and had nothing but praise for the Virtual Academy.
Joseph and his sister seemed happy to be home schooled… but I couldn’t help but note that when they learned that the restaurant owner’s son was off from school they eagerly left our company to play with him in an adjacent empty room.
Based on my reading about the state of public education in AZ, it is evident that the legislature has accomplished their mission: they’ve driven parents out of publicly funded schools into lower cost for-profit institutions that offer either rigid test-driven curricula or completely flexible and arguably less accountable virtual schools. But Joseph may be an example of a new kind of student… and may offer a way for public education to reinvent itself so that it meets the needs of children. How so?
Virtual learning could be a means of breaking the age-grade cohort factory model of schooling and if public education fought to have that outmoded model replaced with individualization of some form it could capture students like Joseph who are frustrated with the lockstep pace of the factory school and the regimentation of charter schools. Virtual learning could be the means of providing the kind of tailored education progressive educators imagined decades ago but eschew today because it is only being provided by for-profit corporations seeking to maximize profits. Here’s hoping that educators get over the current implementation of virtual learning and see the possibilities it offers for students to master material at their own pace.
Earlier this month, Kevin Carey wrote an Upshot article that, if anything, understated the value of “badges” or “verified certificates” as opposed to degrees. As noted in several earlier posts and described in Carey’s article, “badges” are earned by the completion of a series of courses or activities embedded in a course, and when these “badges” are recognized as bona fide credentials the MOOC movement will gain irreversible traction:
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.
The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.
Some of the commenters criticized Carey’s naiveté or his desire to turn higher education into a utilitarian enterprise that turns out “cogs in the machine”. From where I sit, “badges” have tremendous promise for students— especially those students who are NOT engaged in formal education past high school or those directionless students who enroll in college because it is what their parents expect. Moreover, from my perspective as a former employer and a current consumer I can think of several places where “badges” are already in place:
- Technology repairs
- Auto repairs
- Medical providers
- Real Estate
The list could be extended endlessly because we are obsessed with credentials, many of which, as Carey notes, are meaningless at worst and obtuse at best:
… H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.
The standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Conventions. College transcripts are a nightmare of departmental abbreviations, course numbers of indeterminate meaning, and grades whose value has been steadily eroded by their inflation.
Instead of the diploma being the coin of the realm for HR staff, a detailed summary of the skills learned at college would take it’s place… in effect a portfolio of the work completed in college would replace the numeric GPA and single sheet of course listings. Once that takes place, HR staff members will likely place a diploma bearing applicant on equal footing with a non-degrees applicant who has superior job-specific skills as evidenced by a certificate. This happens already in technology-related areas where an applicant with a specific product certification is deemed superior to someone with a generic computer technology degree when they are applying. In our school district which used Apple computers, for example, we sought “Apple Certifications” in all applicants and valued experience in a school environment over a generic technology degree. I imagine auto dealers seek the same kind of product-specific training in their applicants and trust that the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office has certification in that area.
As Carey reports, the details on “badges” are being worked out in an organic fashion… and once they are worked out and in place the MOOC revolution will happen rapidly and education at all levels will need to adapt just as quickly.
My antipathy for video surveillance is evident to most readers of this blog, and even well crafted arguments in its favor, like those found in a recent K-12 TechDecisions post by Brian Armes and Guy Bleisner cannot dissuade me from that perspective. Armes and Bleisner, in an article describing the limitations of surveillance cameras, note that a camera, unlike live human beings, provides cold, objective reportage of incidents that require adult and/or parental intervention and, in doing so, provide caring adults with “teachable moments”. The case study they cite, involving two young men engaged in a shoving match while a nearby teaching assistant tended to a minor medical problem, resonated with me. There were several instances when I worked of six years as a high school disciplinarian that having a video record could have saved hours of sorting out who-did-what-to-whom. But the thought that students are being conditioned to video surveillance during every moment that are in school is chilling… even more so when I read one of the introductory paragraphs:
Unlike commercial and industrial organizations, few K-12 schools can afford full-time monitoring of their video surveillance systems and lack an immediate response capability. Passive monitoring by a secretary with a long list of other duties is about the best schools can hope for. With this kind of limitation, video surveillance in the K-12 environment is relegated to a reactive approach at best. In most cases, it becomes an investigatory and forensic tool after the fact.
Armes and Bleisner begin with the de facto assumption that the absence of video cameras is a “limitation” and that employees in “commercial and industrial organizations” are conditioned to a work environment with total and complete video monitoring.
Socialization is part of the hidden curriculum in school, and as a classroom teacher and school administrator I felt that the discipline in the school was based on an ethos of honesty. If there was a dispute between students about who-did-what-to-whom my preference was to have students work it out face-to-face even though it would have been much easier to review a videotape. Running a school based on robotic video surveillance has a far different feel than a school based on mutual respect and honesty. A video monitoring system feels like a police state while a mutual trust system feels more like a neighborhood watch… and I prefer the moral force of neighbors over the legalistic force of police. My belief: by relying on video surveillance we are increasing our fear of our neighbors and adding to the disconnection that is emerging in our communities. To paraphrase a tired aphorism, it takes a village to raise a child… not a police state.
High Tech, High Stakes Testing Company “Spies” to Protect Itself Against High Tech Opportunities to Cheat
Years ago when I was in college and contemplating joining a fraternity, one of the benefits touted by some of the Greek organizations was their comprehensive files of final examinations. This trove of old examinations served as a study guide and, in some cases would give you the actual examination itself if a teacher gave the same test year-after-year. Oh… and (wink, wink) in some cases one of your resourceful fraternity brothers might even provide you with questions given earlier in the day.
Seven years ago when I was superintendent of schools in NH a group of juniors and seniors entered the school after hours, broke into a teacher’s office, took final examinations on the eve of the examination, and circulated them among their friends. Because the event happened at the close of the school year, and because the event was not brought to the attention of the principal until after the school year concluded, and because we determined that the pilfering of the examinations required breaking into locked workspaces, we involved the police in our investigation. The arrests and trials that occurred the following school year resulted in national coverage (in part because it coincided with a debate in our community as part of the NH primary election), divided the community and school board over the issue of police involvement in the case, and ultimately led the staff, parents, community, and school board to engage in a dialogue on the ethos of the school.
These two personal experiences came to mind when I read Diane Ravtich’s recent posts on the steps Pearson is taking to prevent cheating on it’s high stakes high tech tests through the use of social media…. and the whole issue raises several questions about the consequences of administering high stakes tests of any kind.
As readers of this blog realize, I am an opponent of high stakes standardized testing. But my opposition to such testing includes opposition to heavily weighted final examinations like those that drove college students in the 60s to compile filing cabinets full of tests and high school students in 2008 to break into teachers’ offices on the eve of examinations. Unfortunately our entire educational system is built on the premise that such tests are a valid measure of learning. Why? Because they are basis for measuring student performance in virtually all colleges. To make matters worse, the AP Tests reinforce this mentality as do longstanding state tests like the NY Regents and now the plethora of new exit examinations that are part of the “reform” movement. Because of this reality, high school teachers administer analogous high-stakes tests to “prepare students for college” or to “get them ready for the State tests”. In short, public education is premised on the need to prepare students for summative examinations that ultimately determine whether they pass or fail a course. When viewed through that lens, is it any wonder that students might do whatever it takes to succeed on a such a high stakes summative examination?
The advent of cell phone technology combined with the desire to do whatever it takes to pass an examination inevitably results in memos from test designers like those issued by Pearson. But those protesting Pearson’s directives should ask this question:
- Does your school district administer teacher developed high-stakes final examinations?
- Does your school district allow these tests to be open-book tests?
- Does your school district allow students to bring cell phones (or handheld devices that access social media) into class when a high-stakes examination is being administered?
If the answer to the first two questions is “yes” then having a cell phone could arguably be acceptable since it would provide access to the trove of information available on the internet… But… what if a student, instead of using the phone to access “Google” uses it to seek an answer from a classmate? What steps can a teacher take to prevent that from happening?
The easiest workaround to this dilemma from Pearson’s perspective might be to declare that all students not be allowed to bring cell phones into testing venue. If Pearson issued such a directive the howls would be equally loud and equally justified because a third party vendor would be dictating a school policy that may or may not match the ethos of a school. So instead of mandating the collection of cell phones before entering a test area, Pearson issued an excruciatingly detailed process schools can follow to determine if cheating has taken place ex post facto… and justifiably howls of protest are being evoked. So… what IS the solution?
The optimal workaround to this problem would be to completely abandon the use of high stakes summative examinations. Some progressive colleges have figured out ways of assessing performance that does not require letter grades and, consequently, does not rely on summative test scores. So here’s an idea: Instead of using 21st century high tech “spying” to make sure that 19th century assessments are not being breached why not adopt the assessment methods used in progressive colleges and universities? If high schools adopted the “grading” structures of Bennington, Hampshire, and Evergreen instead of those used in traditional colleges we wouldn’t rely on high stakes tests: we’d rely on professional insights of teachers and each students emerging self-awareness.