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?
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.
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!
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.