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Pushing Back Against Foes of Useful Technology

September 26, 2017 Leave a comment

I am dismayed when I read responses to Diane Ravitch’s posts that rail against personalized education, which she has re-branded as “de-personalized education”. While I sense that her opposition is not to the concept of matching instruction to the needs of a student— which is, after all, the essence of good instruction— but rather opposition to the fact that tech billionaires have expropriated the term from educators whose hearts are in the right place in order to sell products that will add to their obscene wealth.

Public schools can’t turn their backs on technology. The algorithms that are widely used to send us sidebar ads of items we just Googled, that Amazon uses to suggest movies we’d like to see or books we’d like to read, or the NYTimes uses to suggest articles that I’d like to read, COULD have applications in school. And the wealth of information we have collected on children and “archived” on paper in filing cabinets COULD be put to use and more readily accessed through data warehousing.

Here’s my thinking on “personalized education”: The tech moguls who have already made more than they can possibly spend in their lifetimes should allow public schools to use products that embed these algorithms for free instead of packaging them into “products” that they turn around to sell to schools at a profit. As it stands now, tech companies gouge taxpayers at both ends of the equation: they seek tax breaks from communities to locate their businesses (i.e. FoxConn and Amazon), they shelter their profits off-shore (i.e. Apple), and then charge taxpayers for products they dream up and promote through foundations that are ostensibly donating millions to “help” public education.

The system as it exists now provides inordinate rewards to those creating “products” like software, social media sites, and virtual shopping malls. Instead of railing against the billionaires who use their “rewards” to keep the vicious cycle outlined above intact, we need to figure out a way to stem the flow of cash upward. Maybe progressive minded billionaires (assuming such a category exists) could underwrite an ALEC-like organization for public education and draft sample bills for progressive-minded legislators?

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Montgomery County (MD) Decision to Return to Traditional Letter Grades is Evidence of Where Change is Most Resistant

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Conservative columnists complain that teachers unions are the biggest block to making changes in public education. Liberal columnists contend change is thwarted by a lack of funding. Progressives look with dismay at the standardized testing that drives decision making and reinforces the status quo and see that as an impediment to change.

But a recent decision by the Montgomery County (MD) School Board illustrates the biggest obstacle to change: parents who want to retain the system as it is. Five years ago, the Montgomery County School Board made a decision to institute a new system of reporting student progress to students. As reported by Washington Post writer Linh Bui at that time, the system would replace the traditional A-F grades on elementary report cards with ones indicating how each student was progressing.

The Montgomery County public school system is joining other districts across the country in abandoning traditional letter grades for some students and instead matching student evaluations with specific curriculum standards.

Instead of seeing A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s on report cards this November, for the first time, parents of Montgomery students in third grade will see ES, P, I or N. Those new letters will also apply to students in first through second grade, who used to get O’s, S’s or N’s.

Teachers also will mark students separately on learning skills such as “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality” with separate codes of DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident).

This kind of grading system is the natural outgrowth of switching to a standards-based curriculum whereby all students are expected to master a series of standards no matter how much time takes for the each student to do so. It is an important and necessary step for any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward a mastery learning model based on the assumption that time is a variable and learning is constant instead of the other way around.

In well funded and equitable Montgomery County the teachers and the teachers union supported the change. From all appearances, a sea change was underway… but from the outset one set of parents never understood what was going on and another set of parents and the conservative media rejected the move to “standards-based” grades because the new grades were based on (gasp) the Common Core. As Ms. Bai reported five years ago, the A-F paradigm seemed to be unshakeable to parents… as did the inherent competitiveness and false sense of exactness and certitude built into the A-F system. Some parents made fallacious crosswalks between the new grading system and the old one, some saw the system as “squishy” since it didn’t have numbers associated with it, and some never saw the link between the curriculum standards and the progress reports.

The terminology itself is crucial: the quarterly issuance of letter grades is called a “Report Card”. The terminology used when districts move toward a standards-based grading is a “Progress Report”. They convey a different intent and a different purpose.

As one who sees technology as potentially assisting in the shift away from the competitive bell curve mentality inherent in standardized test driven grading, I know is now possible to completely eliminate report cards altogether. With parent portals into the student information systems used in virtually every school in the nation it is no longer necessary to issue periodic “Report Cards” or “Progress Reports”. Instead, parents can periodically check on their child’s progress through the outcomes defined for each course and schools can monitor the parent’s assiduousness in doing to to make certain it is appropriate for the age of the child. Technology makes such a change possible… and, as we witnessed in Montgomery County, it is supported by teachers, affordable, and equitably applied. The problem with instituting this necessary change? Parents who want schools to stay just the way they were when they attended.

Chan Zuckerberg, Lorene Jobs, and Joel Barker’s Rule About Paradigms

September 18, 2017 Leave a comment

As readers of this blog realize, I am no fan of billionaire plutocrats who attempt to make a profit from public services… which makes this blog offering a qualified defense of Priscilla Chan and Lorene Jobs something of an outlier. And given that this defense is in the context of an article opposing the two billionaire’s efforts to “reform” Philadelphia public schools, (see several posts lamenting the sorry state of public schools in my former hometown) it’s even more of an outlier!

The post was prompted by an op ed piece by Lisa Haver, a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools lamenting the impact of two billionaires on public education policy in Philadelphia. Ms. Haver provides a brief background on each of the women and a brief description of the ideas they want to “impose” on teachers, with her commentary on their limited qualifications edited out:

Priscilla Chan is a physcian and wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, now the world’s fifth wealthiest person. Laurene Jobs is the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and the world’s fourth wealthiest woman. Neither has a degree in education or any experience teaching in public schools, but both have embarked on massive projects to impose their ideological visions of education on schoolchildren across the country.

The recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is funding the development and distribution of software that would create an online profile of each student’s “strengths, needs, motivations, and progress” and may, according to a June Education Week article, “help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional and physical development.”

…Meanwhile, CZI is investing in lobbying for legislation that would enable the imposition of this unproven program in schools and districts across the country in the same way the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation successfully lobbied for the use of Common Core standards in all 50 states before they had been tested in a pilot program.

Laurene Jobs… and her XQ Institute bought an hour on the four major TV networks to simulcast a star-studded (but not educator-studded) extravanganza  to hawk her plan to “reimagine” the country’s high schools — mostly by using more technology… (and) When you run a technology company, not surprisingly, the answer to everything, including the things you know nothing about, is more technology.

I share Ms. Haver’s concern about CZI’s investments in legislation without any evidence that the programs CZI is advocating work, and I share her dismay that these programs are not emerging from qualified classroom teachers. But I also realize that in many cases the best ideas about how to change the dominant paradigm come from those outside of the system. The notion that paradigms are changed most often by outsiders is one of the cardinal principles of paradigm change that Joel Barker discovered in his groundbreaking work in the 1980s and 1990s.

I am willing to accept the possibility that neither Ms. Chan nor Ms. Jobs are seeking profits with their efforts to improve education and I DO believe that advances in technology, algorithms and brain science that are being exploited by market researchers should be applied to public education. Finally, I would prefer that such exploitation be introduced by non-profit foundations and NOT by private corporations seeking to exploit children in the name of profits. The fact that the source of funding for these foundations is from the spouses of billionaires instead of government funded researchers or publicly funded colleges and universities is unfortunate… but the fact that the funds are being invested in public education and not for-profit charter schools is a step in the right direction.

My bottom line: I hope that those who oppose change driven by those “unqualified to teach” based on certification standards might be open to ideas provided by “outsiders” whose hearts are in the right place no matter their source of revenue. In this era, we need billionaires who support the principles of public education more than ever.

 

Sensitizing and Sanitizing Algorithms Essential for Defending Their Broader Use in Schools

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Cathy O’Neill, who blogs as Mathbabe and is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, wrote a post yesterday on the pushback “algorithmic overlords” are beginning to receive from researchers and politicians. Ms. O’Neill, who has written extensively about the bias of algorithms, offers some examples in her post:

Objective as they may seem, artificial intelligence and big-data algorithms can be as biased as any human. Examples pop up all the time. A Google AI designed to police online comments rated “I am a gay black woman” 87 percent toxic but “I am a man” only 20 percent. A machine-learning algorithm developed by Microsoft came to perceive people in kitchens as women. Left unchecked, the list will only grow.

This kind of inherent bias can be problematic for those of us who see promise in the use of algorithms in personalized learning. For example, if algorithms direct users to ever narrower learning opportunities that are determined based on inherent biases, young women might be directed away from mathematics and science content and toward content in “kitchen-related” fields while long men would be directed in the opposite way…. and as long as these kinds of algorithmic biases exist it will be impossible to overcome resistance to data-driven personalization.

Ms. O’Neill is no Luddite. She sees promise in the use of technology to enhance education. But she is not enthusiastic about the “algorithmic overlords” tendency to keep their methods secret in the name of proprietary information:

Many researchers and practitioners are working on how to assess algorithms and how to define fairness. This is great, but it inevitably runs into a bigger problem: secrecy. Algorithms are considered the legally protected “secret sauce” of the companies that build them, and hence largely immune to scrutiny. We almost never have sufficient information about them. How can we test them if we have no access in the first place?

Legislators need to intercede… and they are beginning to do so, albeit at a snail’s pace. Here’s hoping they succeed, for if they don’t, biases will persist.

One Form of Surveillance I Support… With a Caveat

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Channel 13 in the Norfolk VA area reported on a Newport News School District’s means of catching drivers who break the law passing school buses who are picking up children: the use of video cameras attached to the stop arm of buses. I have written several posts lamenting the increased surveillance of students in schools and on buses on the basis that it effectively trains them to accept 24/7 surveillance, I am not opposed to using video surveillance to ensure safe boarding and disembarking from buses and to catch those who violate the traffic laws governing school buses. This need to catch violators was underscored by the preliminary findings of the district on the number of violations that occur:

Newport News Public Schools conducted three stop-arm cameras pilots using six buses, most recently during a three-month span in 2016. During that time, cameras captured 703 violations at 93 different stops.

Extrapolating from that data, it is evident that there are thousands of instances where children’s lives are put in peril by reckless drivers. Clearly some kind of aggressive enforcement is necessary.

That said, the mechanism for funding this initiative by Newport News seems wrongheaded. As Channel 13 reports: “There is no cost to the school district. The company recoups the money through the fines, and a portion of the money will also go to the school division.” I would prefer to have the funds come from both the police and school departments’ budgets. The schools could phase in the installation as they purchase new vehicles with the police department underwriting half of the cost for the video cameras and half of the budget for maintenance contracts with the video companies. The revenues should go to the police who, presumably, will use those funds as they see fit to provide more patrols to catch violators. Linking the cost for law enforcement tools to revenue generated by tickets seems like a bad direction. Taxpayers should be willing to foot the bill for new technologies without having a de facto bounty set to underwrite their costs.

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Researcher Finds Smartphones Are Isolating… and Depressing a Generation

August 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In the title of her her Atlantic article that will appear in the September issue, Jean Twenge poses this question: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?“. The short answer to her question is “NOT YET”… but an alternative answer might be “IT WILL IF ADULTS DON’T MONITOR THE EFFECTS OF SMARTPHONES QUICKLY AND FORCEFULLY”.

Ms. Twenge’s article is full of data contrasting the current generation, which she dubs the iGen, to previous generations and finds that today’s teens are more isolated, lonely, and depressed despite the fact that they are more “connected” thanks to cell phones. Ms. Twenge describes iGen as follows:

Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

She notes that smartphones have “…radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health…” and given the near universality of cell phone use by teens it has impacted rich, poor, urban and rural teenagers across our entire country. Ms. Twenge elaborates on the changes, some of which result in improvements in the data used to measure well-being but most of which cause a diminishment of well being.

The good news?

More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

The bad news, though, is more subtle and more pernicious. Depression and suicide rates are higher, dating has diminished markedly, part-time work among teenagers has declined, face-to-face group encounters are fewer and farther between, and sound sleep is diminished. Here’s a synopsis of Ms. Twenge’s findings:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011…

…only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.

In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has….

The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently…The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web…

Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.

The reason for these changes, Ms. Twenge surmises, is that teens are spending more and more time in front of smartphone screens, which are available to them 24/7 and whose siren call (or beeps and vibrations) make them irresistible. And she finds that the more time teens spend with their smartphones, the more they are likely to be depressed and unhappy:

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time….

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.

Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.

As a casual user of Facebook and a blogger, I can understand this phenomenon. The number of likes and the number of hits are an easy way to determine if anyone is reading what you post. As a blogger, it is an easy route to depression if you believe that a low-readership day on the blog is an indication that you are “losing readers” or “losing relevance”. But putting myself in the mind of a teenager, I can see where getting fewer “likes” on your Facebook page than a classmate or having fewer “friends” on Facebook than a classmate might be devastating. And if a classmate publicly humiliates you on social media, things can get bad… and as Ms. Twenge reported, that is especially the case for teenage girls:

Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.

The solution to this isolation? Less screen time, especially in the evening, and more opportunities for face-to-face interaction. The technology is here… we need to use to achieve the best ends possible.

 

A Recent Study Shows Our ideas About “Digital Natives” Are Wrong… We Should Heed Their Findings Now

August 8, 2017 1 comment

In 2001, Mark Prensky wrote a paper that contended the world was divided into two groups: “digital natives”, who were born after 1984, and ‘digital immigrants”, those born earlier. Mr. Presnsky contended that the “digital natives” who were far more adept at the use of technology having been raised in a digital world, thought and acted differently from the “digital immigrants”, many of whom were uncomfortable with technology. This idea had intuitive appeal to “digital immigrants” who often relied on their children and grandchildren to explain the newest technologies and lost to them in video games that enthralled them. But, as Paul Ratner reports in a Big Think post early this month, Mark Prensky’s intuitively appealing notion about digital natives was wrong:

Authors Paul A. Kirschner from the Open University of the Netherlands in Heerlen and Belgian Pedro De Bruyckere say no …distinction (between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”) really exists. They cite a growing number of international studies that show how students born after 1984 do not have any deeper knowledge of technology. The knowledge they have is often limited and consists of having basic office suite skills, emailing, text messaging, Facebooking and surfing the Internet. And the tech they use for learning and socialization is also not very expansive. They do not necessarily recognize the advanced functionality of the applications they use and need to be significantly trained to use the technology properly for learning and problem-solving. When using technology for learning, the “natives” mainly resort to passively consuming information.

The paper’s authors also conclude that there is little scientific proof that digital natives can successfully do many things at once in a way that’s different from previous generations. For example, reading text messages during lecture would have the cognitive cost of not being fully focused on the class. Similarly, a 2010 study cited by the researchers found that high-intensity Facebook users were not able to master content well and had significantly lower GPAs.

Prensky’s 2001 study asserted that given the purported differences between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, teachers and schools would need to change their approach. But the authors of the study cited by Ratner draw a completely different conclusion. If we assume “digital natives” possess inherent knowledge about technology “might take away the support they actually need to develop necessary digital skills“. In addition to under-emphasizing digital skills the authors of the study also advocate “teaching the importance of focus and eliminating the negative effects of multitasking.” 

As a “digital immigrant” who is a self-taught technologist with six grandchildren, I think that the findings of Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere ring true. My grandchildren, each of whom is a “digital native”, know a lot about the apps on my new smart phone and seem far more agile in texting than I am, but they do not necessarily use their phones, pads, and laptops to seek out deep understanding of materials. Fortunately, their parents see the value of reading to them, the importance of limiting “screen time”, and the value of serving as “Google” sources when their children need information. Most importantly, they help them understand which internet sources are reliable. Here’s hoping that all parents are as diligent and that teachers also appreciate the limited “technological expertise” the “digital natives” possess.