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Silicon Valley’s Therapy Apps a Review of Counseling’s Future?

October 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Those of us of a certain age (and those who are Stanley Kubrick aficionados) recall the character HAL 9000 in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 was the sentient computer who provided support for the crew members on the space mission until it learned that the human passengers intended to disable him. It was chilling when Dave asked HAL to “Open the pod bay doors” only to hear the reply: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. The 1968 vintage movie envisioned a future when a computer might control the destiny of a human, a notion that seemed far fetched in an era when powerful computers took up a city block and we had not landed on the moon.

Fast forward to today where nearly everyone in the world is transfixed by the information streaming from their cell phones and billionaires are contemplating offering private trips to the moon within a few years. Fast forward to today where, according to a recent NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are developing apps that provide therapy. Fast forward to today where cash-strapped schools are seeking counseling help while spending millions on technology and it is not hard to envision a marriage of convenience between the tech entrepreneurs and public education, one where students will be able to get advice from an app whose algorithm is designed to provide the kind of support that world class therapists offer.. and get that help at an affordable rate!

How would this work you ask. Ms. Bowles uses Kip, a new therapy app, as an example. Kip uses information gleaned from “world class providers” to develop “smart software tools” designed to offer “a seamless experience for both clients and providers.”  The Times article offers this description of the program:

Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.

Kip offers an app that encourages clients to record their moods in real time, prompted by questions that a therapist can choose to have pop up throughout the day. “That way they’re not subject to recency bias,” said Ti Zhao, the company’s founder.

Kip effectively uses the same kind of algorithms as dating services to pair a client with a therapist and provides the therapist with a trove of data that enables them to quickly determine the best course of treatment for their client.

While Ms. Bowles believes that “the new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own”, she also offers several cautionary notes, not the least of which is the possibility that the data gathered by Kip might be sold to others.

The overall tone of the article is somewhat sardonic, with Ms. Bowles calling out the technology industry for its belief that any problem can be solved by gathering enough data and developing a good algorithm. But it overlooks the possibility that there is a large market to be tapped: public schools who have an increasing demand for mental health services and a limited budget. It is not hard to envision an app students could use to match themselves with school counselors or psychologists… and app that would cull out garden variety teen angst from mental distress that requires professional intervention. And as that culling occurs, many stressed students could avoid seeing a counselor altogether, settling instead for something like the Clam Down app described by Ms. Bowles where:

“…a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.”

Eventually, many counselors who work with college bound students could be replaced by an algorithm that would provide students with feedback on their proposed choices. It’s not too difficult to foresee an app that would gently tell a student who aspires to get assistant applying to an ivy league college to hear a disembodied voice say: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Head of Local Private School Touts Role of Schools in Future While Ignoring Public School’s Realities

June 15, 2019 Comments off

Brad Choyt, the Head of Crossroads Academy, a nearby K-8 private school wrote a thoughtful and insightful op ed article for our local newspaper describing the need for schools in the future to change their emphasis given the advent of AI-based instructional tools. In the article, after describing the advances in AI, he writes:

Within forward-thinking schools, educators are creating environments that prize the very skills that the most advanced computers programmed with the latest algorithms can’t match. This includes a renewed emphasis on creative problem-solving, cultivating high levels of empathy that foster clear communication skills, a fluency when collaborating with diverse groups of people and an ability to analyze data with a critical eye to determine the sets of information that are relevant and also what needs to be disregarded.

The best schools are also maximizing student engagement in their classrooms and ensuring their coursework meaningfully connects to real-world issues. In these classrooms, students are given ample opportunity to grapple with knowledge and problems that are complicated and sometimes messy to learn, but that often lead toward deeper understanding and insights on complex and nuanced topics.

Also, high-functioning schools are continually enabling their students to develop into self-directed, lifelong learners. Skilled teachers do this by allowing students to explore their specific interests while empowering them to self-evaluate their academic progress. In these classroom environments, students are given ample opportunity to learn from and to teach their peers while fostering greater accountability for their own academic success. All of these qualities allow students to gain uniquely human skills and insight as they strive to internalize a deeper understanding of their communities and the world around us.

One day, a more advanced generation of algorithms might be able to do many of the things the best teachers can do. And these computers will hopefully also create a world with fewer diseases and greener sources of energy. But I also believe there will continue to be a need for places where students and teachers can come together both to learn and to prepare for a brighter future, one where we can continuously perfect our own human neural networks in the company of others who can become both role models and mentors.

Ultimately, my visits to different schools have reaffirmed this essential point: It is the potential and the power of human relationships that inspire students to learn life’s most important lessons, and no computer, no matter how advanced its algorithm, can be a substitute.

These ideas resonate with me. I wholeheartedly agree that schools should focus on interpersonal relations, self-directed learning, and higher order thinking skills. And the ideas Mr. Choyt presents are congruent with the mission of the school he leads, which describes itself as an “Independent, coeducational day school based upon the Core Knowledge Sequence, authored by E.D. Hirsch, and the character education program, Core Virtues, created by founder Dr. Mary Beth Klee.” The webpage for the school also notes that the Crossroads Program “includes a strong focus on the performance arts”. It’s motto is “Strong Minds. Kind Hearts”.  

There is one reality that Mr. Choyt overlooks: as a private school Crossroads does not use annual state test scores as the basis for determining it’s quality. And by the way, neither does it’s nearby public school district— the one I led for 7 years when NCLB was emerging as the coin of the realm for accountability. Why? Because our public school was a de facto selective school in the same way as Crossroads since the real estate within the communities that comprised the school district were among the wealthiest in their respective states.
If we want the kinds of schools Mr. Choyt describes we need to provide those schools with the kinds of resources Crossroads has, the kinds of resources that affluent public schools have, and— most importantly— stop using standardized tests as the primary metric for “quality”. If we want to value creative thinking, self-directed learning, and interpersonal skills we need to find a way to measure them acknowledging that any measure will be imprecise… an acknowledgement that should be made and emphasized even now!

We’re Not in Palo Alto Any More

April 21, 2019 Comments off

An article by Nellie Bowles in today’s NYTimes describes the reaction of parents in Kansas when their school district decided to adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Learning program that relies more on Chromebooks than teachers…. and the reaction was NOT good!

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

In a school district survey of McPherson middle school parents released this month, 77 percent of respondents said they preferred their child not be in a classroom that uses Summit. More than 80 percent said their children had expressed concerns about the platform.

Oops! Well… maybe the problem was limited to a small rural district in Kansas!

The resistance in Kansas is part of mounting nationwide opposition to Summit, which began trials of its system in public schools four years ago and is now in around 380 schools and used by 74,000 students. In Brooklyn, high school students walked out in November after their school started using Summit’s platform. In Indiana, Pa., after a survey by Indiana University of Pennsylvania found 70 percent of students wanted Summit dropped or made optional, the school board scaled it back and then voted this month to terminate it. And in Cheshire, Conn., the program was cut after protests in 2017.

“When there are frustrating situations, generally kids get over them, parents get over them, and they all move on,” said Mary Burnham, who has two grandchildren in Cheshire’s school district and started a petition to end Summit’s use. “Nobody got over this.”

Oops again and again!
But here’s an imponderable. How would parents have reacted to the imposition of the factory school model when it was “invented” in the early 1920s? Would they have preferred the one-room school house model to the egg crate school? Would they have preferred a different form of grouping than the age-based cohorts imposed by efficiency minded administrators? And a final question: are the Silicon Valley CEOs imposing their way of thinking on future generations the same way that business-minded efficiency experts imposed their way of thinking on generations that followed?

The Hazards of Unfettered Data Sharing and Poorly Crafted Red Flag Legislation

March 4, 2019 Comments off

Over fifteen years ago I wrote an article for Education titled “A Homeland Security Bill for Public Education“, an article that advocated the sharing of pertinent information among social service case managers, medical professionals, school districts, and police. I reasoned that the various staff member’s confidentiality pledges precluded them from sharing important information with the other agencies in a timely fashion, citing several cases from my work experience where such sharing would have benefitted the clients they were striving to help.

Of late, similar recommendations have come forth in the form of “red flag” legislation that would allow police or family members to take weapons away from individuals with documented mental health problems, individuals who might pose a harm to themselves or others. These “red flag” laws seem to be eminently reasonable. Indeed, some NRA officials and politicians who reflexively oppose any effort to limit anyone’s access to any weapons whatsoever are seemingly open to considering “gun violence restraining orders“.

After reading a recent Motherboard article about the use of data collected by social service agencies, schools, and police in Canada and in several US cities, though, I am having second thoughts about my recommendations and about the efficacy of “red flag” legislation. The Motherboard article underscores the importance of carefully crafting any legislation and/or regulations that deal with data access, for once an individual receives a “red flag” it is difficult to reverse that designation. The article opens with these paragraphs:

Police, social services, and health workers in Canada are using shared databases to track the behaviour of vulnerable people—including minors and people experiencing homelessness—with little oversight and often without consent.

Documents obtained by Motherboard from Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) through an access to information request show that at least two provinces—Ontario and Saskatchewan—maintain a “Risk-driven Tracking Database” that is used to amass highly sensitive information about people’s lives. Information in the database includes whether a person uses drugs, has been the victim of an assault, or lives in a “negative neighborhood.”

The Risk-driven Tracking Database (RTD) is part of a collaborative approach to policing called the Hub model that partners cops, school staff, social workers, health care workers, and the provincial government.

As you can see, the description of the “Hub model” is eerily similar to what I recommended in my 2003 Education Week article. But when I wrote that article, I did not foresee the advent of facial recognition technology… or the widespread use of data warehousing by schools, the medical profession, social service agencies, and law enforcement… or the  avalanche of data that would be collected by social media sites. With all of these technology tools in play, it would appear that some kind of failsafe algorithm might come into play, a means of identifying an at risk individual with laser like accuracy. Such pin-pointing would presumably target those individuals likely to engage in mass shootings or crimes. But it begs the problem of how and when to engage law enforcement officials and how and when to compel an individual to seek treatment for mental illness. As Valerie Steeves, a University of Ottawa criminologist, noted in a VICE article on the use of the Hub model: “As soon as you’re identified [as at-risk], it changes how people interact with you. At that point, you become the problem: ‘we need to watch you, all the time, so we can fix you.’” As one who worked for six years as a high school disciplinarian, I can recall how difficult it was for a youngster who misbehaved as a freshman to shed his or her image as a “troublemaker”… and, as we’ve seen in recent years, Google never forgets. Ill advised posts on social media can limit one’s opportunities as much as poor report cards or low SAT scores.

If we hope to use the massive amounts of data we are collecting on individuals to screen them for “risky behavior” or “mental fitness” we need to enact legislation that sets clear guidelines for the collection and use of that data. We now have surveillance cameras gathering data in schools, shopping areas, at intersections, and, in some cases, on our phones and on our home computers. Who owns that data? Who decides how it can be used? Social media records our “likes” and “loves”, the things that make us laugh, the things that make us cry, and the things that make us angry. Who can buy that data? Who has access to it? Virtually all of our purchases and media consumption results in the collection of data, making it possible for some agency to determine the books we read, the movies we watch, the foods we purchase, the places we are planning to take our vacations, and the major purchases like houses and cars we are examining on-line. Who has access to this data? How is it being used.

15 years ago, I thought that the notion of data sharing was straightforward. The school district’s guidance counselor assigned to a student, the social worker assigned to that student, the probation officer working with that student, and the mental health counselor working with that student, and the physician(s) working with the should all feel free to share information with each other. Each clearly had the student’s well-being at heart and they would each benefit from sharing whatever they knew without completing reams of paperwork or getting clearance through their chains-of-command. Now, I’m not so sure, particularly when the data platforms like those used in the “Hub model” are privately operated and owned and there are no clear parameters on how and when the data are purged.

These questions are complicated and thorny. Presumably we would want to know that someone who is planning a mass shooting has acquired a stockpile of weapons. We would also want to be able to confiscate weapons from someone who is a potential terrorist and know who is communicating with on-line ISIS recruiters. But is everyone who is stockpiling weapons a threat to us? Is everyone who is researching Arabic and Muslim websites a potential terrorist? Is a website purporting to be an ISIS recruitment site a bona fide site?

It would be helpful to have these issues brought to the forefront now, before the data being collected are made available to whomever is willing to pay for it for whatever purposes they wish. I just googled myself. I have 36,000+ that came forth in .42 seconds. The 8th item on the list from MyLife.com indicates that I once lived in Portland, OR. That is demonstrably false…. but there it is for all to see and draw their own conclusions. I’m leaving it there because their is no way I can keep track of all the misinformation that is accumulating. But if I were identified as someone “we need to watch…, all the time, so we can fix you” I might not sleep too soundly as the misinformation accumulates.

 

 

Goodwill MOOCs Surpass All Others for Enrollment. Why? They Provide What THEIR Customers Need: Job Training

March 2, 2019 Comments off

Many education writers and bloggers, including yours truly, have predicted that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) would someday replace the traditional post-secondary offerings, But like many others, I was completely surprised to read that Goodwill— yes, THAT Goodwill that sells used clothing— has the second most robust MOOC program in the world! Why? Because while start-ups like Udacity, edX and Coursera all fought over the traditional post secondary market, Goodwill seized the larger and more urgent market: those seeking fundamental job skills. As Brandon Busteed of Forbes writes:

…there’s good reason to believe it could quickly surpass all MOOCs in total users.  Why?  It’s simple.  Goodwill got the premise right.  And that premise is all about jobs.  It’s providing the education and skills that help move people from unemployed to employed, from a low-paying job to a higher-paying one, from a bad or average job to a good job.

And in our country, unemployed and under-employed workers all agree that getting a job that pays well and offers benefits is the way to get off the treadmill of pointless and low-paying work… and that getting job skills is essential to securing a better job! And the good news from my perspective as one who sees the world through the lens of social justice, Goodwill, unlike its competitors, is not interested in profit:

Goodwill’s entire focus, though, is a market of people who arguably have both the highest degree of motivation and the least means of accomplishing their goals.  Their model may be the ultimate application of the MOOC educational model – free courses for those who desperately want jobs and can’t afford to pay for education or training.  If Goodwill and its donors and partners can find ways to sustain offering their courses for free to those who need them most around the world, they will most certainly become the world’s biggest MOOC.

I wish them well, and hope that the Federal government, who seems to feel free to bail out and /or support profiteering private post-secondary schools, might find a way to support Goodwill’s MOOCs.

Christiansen’s Clarification: Technology Will Not Disrupt Public SCHOOLS… it WILL Disrupt School SYSTEMS

February 3, 2019 Comments off

In a recent Christensen Institute blog post, Thomas Arnett asserts that the Clay Christensen and Michael Horn’s book, Disrupting Class, never claimed that public education would be disrupted in the sense that that term is applied in business. Here’s his reasoning (with the bold emphases applied by Mr. Arnett and the red italics applied by me):

First, charter schools are not disruptive innovations relative to traditional schools.Disruptive innovations always start out serving people who lack access to mainstream options. But in the United States today, all students have access to some form of public education. This means that charter schools cannot be disruptive because they compete head-to-head with district schools for enrollment.

Second, full-time virtual schools and other purely online options are not disrupting traditional public schools either. Disruptive innovations need a technology that can improve over time until customers see it as comparable to traditional options. But when it comes to schooling, technology cannot substitute for everything parents value in a traditional school. In addition to academic learning, most families value the caretaking role that schools offer for working parents. This important benefit of brick-and-mortar schools has no technological substitute, which means only a small segment of the population will ever be interested in full-time virtual schooling.

Charter schools and virtual schools certainly compete with district schools, but their differences relative to district schools do not make them disruptive.

Mr. Arnett DOES contend that disruption has a place in public education, and that place is at the SYSTEMS level… and because it is taking place at that level it is requiring much more time!

As Disrupting Class points out, online learning enables disruptive innovation in K–12 education. But online learning is not disrupting the K–12 education system. Rather, it fuels disruption within the markets that provide resources to K–12 schools….

Disruptive entrants in the K–12 marketplace offer schools fresh opportunities to better support their students. But using technology to make learning more student-centered will be neither automatic or intuitive. In an EdSurge article, my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher explains that many of the most innovative online-learning technologies have slow adoption curves because they are not plug-compatible with traditional schools. Similarly, some of my recent research points out that schools trying to personalize learning might want to rethink traditional school staffing models; but redefining educator roles and responsibilities is no easy task. Even with all the new opportunities that online learning has to offer, transforming schools still comes down to the hard work of change management.

Disruptive innovation is happening in K–12 education. But it isn’t going to replace traditional schools. Rather, it will change the menu of instructional resources that schools can use to serve their students. To take advantage of these resources, school leaders first need to carefully consider how new tools impact educators capacity. Then they need to implement new tools, programs, and approaches in ways that actually motivate teachers to change how they teach.

As one who attended two presentations to Superintendents where Clay Christensen’s co-author, Michael Horn, talked about the concepts in his the book Disrupting Class, I don’t recall this emphasis on this need for systems changeRather, Mr. Horn was promoting the idea among our group that online learning was going to transform public education the same way the transistor radio changed music and cell phones were transforming communication and media transmission, which meant that delivery of education in brick and mortar schools would go the way of plug-in radios and landlines. Systems change is far more marketable to parents than change that completely uproots the care taking role parents expect from schools and the human interaction that only a teacher can provide.

I think public education needs to change the same way that book stores and public libraries are changing. The old model for book stores and libraries, where there were large endless shelves of books, is being replaced by smaller gathering places where customers can linger on their devices, sip coffee, and seek the advice of the bookseller or librarian on books that are on the market that might be of interest to them. They might even have meeting rooms where like-minded individuals can gather to share insights on a book or do an activity together. Instead of being a single minded store or institution that deals only with printed text, book stores and libraries are becoming gathering places where there is a menu of options for their clientele.

But unlike book stores and libraries, public schools play an important care-giving role. They need to embrace the idea that “…most families value the caretaking role that schools offer for working parents.” and that “this important benefit of brick-and-mortar schools has no technological substitute”.  To that end, when public schools develop their menu of options for parents they might also include space for after school activities like music instruction, medical services, unstructured play with their classmates, and a safe space to hang out. 

This expansion of the school’s menu from offering only academics to providing care-giving would clearly cost more… but I believe a case can be made that it would also save more in the long run. Working parents would not have to fret about whether their children arrive home safely and what activities they are engaged in, the endless shuttling to-and-from after-school activities would cease, and children would have more opportunities to play with each other with light adult supervision. If that is “disruption”, I say bring it on!

The Conversation We SHOULD Have About Schools vs. the Conversation We ARE Having

December 28, 2018 Comments off

Medium contributor Arthur Chiaravalli’s recent article, “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation about the Future of Schools” crosswalks many of the points made by Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All into public education. Like Giridharadas, Mr. Chiaravalli notes the subtle ways the tech plutocrats and testing industry have changed the conversations we are having about public policy in a way that undercuts the structural problems of our economy that are the result of the status quo.

And like Mr. Giridharadas, Mr. Chiaravalli sees the so-called “agents of change” as champions of the status quo, a status quo that rewards “entrepreneurs” and marginalizes or penalizes those who raise questions about the status quo.

After laying out his case that we are having the wrong conversation about public education, Mr. Chiaravalli concludes his post with this:

…reformers peddle the so-called empty doctrines of individualism, personalization, objectivity, entrepreneurialism, and meritocracy—all while exacerbating inequities and deprofessionalizing teachers.

….The primary effect is always to atomize: content into itemized bits, classrooms into individualized projects and timelines, and each of us into solitary individuals pursuing personalized pathways.

Among the many omissions implicit in (the reformer’s) vision is the notion that each student has equal access to a pathway of choice. Once that false premise is established, you are truly on your own.Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, find your own personal road less traveled, dive headfirst into the entrepreneurial shark tank. Unfortunately, far too many smaller-scale reform movements espouse a similar ethos, often flooding Twitter with a toxic positivity that ignores intransigent inequities and injustices.

The reformers who want to isolate us from each other, who promote the idea that since one individual overcomes poverty thanks to grit means that every individual born into poverty can do so, who see the purpose of education as improving the economic growth of our country are leading us down the wrong path and causing us to engage in the wrong conversation about the future. In fact, they are envisioning a future that is based on the premise that what worked for them in the past is what should work for everyone else going forward. That is not reform… it is reinforcement.