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Those Opposing Personalization Based on Data Collection Fail to See Technology’s Insidious Trade-off

November 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week I read a post by Diane Ravitch about a group of Brooklyn HS students who are protesting “Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” used to personalize education in their school. Their protest was based on the following: some students played games on their computers; cheating was easy; teachers’ over-used computers; there were all kinds of technical difficulties, and the platform “… is collecting a huge amount of personal data from thousands of students without their knowledge or consent or that of their parents.”

Here’s a few reality check based on my experience in high school in the early 1960s:

  • My friends and I used graph paper we secured from the math classroom to play five-in-a-row tic-tac-toe throughout classes, engaging in tournaments we developed in homeroom
  • Some of my friends (not me, I swear!), devised ways to cheat on quizzes and tests… but almost everyone I knew (including me) used “flexible grading” for the “individualized” SRA reading programs that one progressed through by passing self-graded tests that were periodically audited by teachers.
  • Some teachers, especially social studies teachers, overused films to “teach” us about the wars that constituted their course of study

The equipment glitches that plague “Zuckerberg’s Summit platform” didn’t exist, but there were some days where we had more than one substitute teacher which meant we could play tic-tac-toe openly.

What we DIDN’T have was the privacy issue… but then we didn’t have the conveniences that come with the technology that students, parents, and teachers rely on today. And here’s the irony about those who complain about invasions of privacy: while they complain about “Zuckerberg’s Summit Platform” they are probably walking around with their cell phones inter pockets, purses or backpacks and, in doing so, providing all kinds of data. And if they are making any on-line purchases with any company, or streaming any videos or music of any kind, or using any social media of any kind, students and parents are providing a treasure trove of information to potential sellers.

This just in privacy advocates: We have evidently unwittingly made a trade-off: we get all the goodies technology offers us in exchange for information that can be used to market stuff to us.

My thought: We need to develop a new curriculum that teaches children how to ignore the propaganda that is the basis for advertising and the noxious politics in our country…. Maybe the tech billionaires can develop it, we personalize it, and develop a standardized test to see how well the children are learning it. Or maybe teachers can do that without the standardized testing part.

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Maybe Dewey Will Prevail Over Thorndike After All!

November 10, 2018 Leave a comment

The Flaw of Averages“, a compelling essay by John McDermott that I read in Medium earlier this week, describes the research of Harvard Professor Todd Rose that is serving as the basis for the personalization movement in Silicon Valley. Dr. Rose, the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contends that our current education system is wrongheadedly based on the average student:

His research is in the field known as “the science of the individual”. He argues that the myth of an “average” person, around which today’s educational systems are built, stunts people’s intellectual growth and damages their lives. A class of pupils has an average height and an average score in a test but when you look closer at individuals, the elements are “all over the place”. Very few pupils are average across most dimensions: they learn in different ways, at different speeds and along different paths.He expounded his ideas in “The End of Average” in 2016.

As Mr. McDermott notes in his essay, this obvious observation often results in a “so what” response. But Dr. Rose sees the reliance on averages to measure progress as problematic:

“Average-arian” thinking gives rise to another problem, says Rose. Edward Thorndike, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, thought that, “the quick learners…are the good retainers.” To this day exams are time-limited; pupils are placed in age-specific grades; timetables feature specific times for each subject. All of which reflect the belief that there is a straightforward relationship between learning ability and learning speed. But it turns out that whether you can master a subject is not related to how long it takes to do so, says Rose.

To repeat an aphorism I often cite: in schools time is a constant and performance is the variable… and clearly it should be the other way around. But the age-specific batching of students IS efficient, especially if the purpose of schooling is to sort and select s opposed to achieving the optimal achievement by all students. And Mr. McDermott describes how technology could make it possible for schools to embrace a new model, one based on John Dewey’s ideas about education:

Though newly fashionable, these ideas have a long history… In 1916, John Dewey, a philosopher and psychologist, published “Democracy and Education”, arguing that the pupil, not a government-mandated curriculum, should be at the centre of a school.In ordinary schools, he said, the child is not allowed to “follow the law of his nature”, and is therefore “thrown into a passive, receptive or absorbing attitude”.

Technology has given these ideas a new momentum. Providing children with bespoke attention typically means hiring a tutor or raising the teacher-pupil ratio — too expensive for most parents or schools. But while a blackboard can show only one set of sums, new software claims to display whatever sums are appropriate to a child’s level and should free up teachers’ time to spend less time marking and preparing lessons, and more with individual pupils. In theory, then, such technology should put personalised education within the reach of every school.

Mr. McDermott describes Summit, a school in the Bay Area that is implementing these ideas, but he counterbalances this success story with some caveats:

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia worry that autonomy can be taken too far. If children can opt out of learning important facts, he says, they will find it harder to understand more complex ideas at a later stage.

Groups representing minorities have also expressed scepticism. They point out that it took African-Americans until 1954 to earn the legal right to be taught in the same school as white people, and almost another half-century before a president vowed to ensure that “no child [be] left behind”. The average-arian school may not be perfect — but at least it has minimum standards, for which they have fought long and hard…

Worries about such heavy reliance on technology do not relate only to its impact on the nature of education. Platforms like Summit’s generate vast quantities of data about the intellectual and social skills of the children using them. Pupils may benefit from this — but they may not be the only beneficiaries. Data are a resource, so these deep, detailed profiles could become exceedingly valuable to the companies that are supplying the technology. That’s why some critics suspect that the tech barons who are promoting personalised education may not be doing so purely out of altruism.

Dr. Rose acknowledges that this is all true, and also admits that these changes will not turn out well. But…. he also notes that continuing what we are doing now is unlikely to yield different or more improved results:

America is in the very early stages of a big pedagogical experiment based on old ideas given new life by digital technology and the techies’ money. There isn’t enough evidence yet to conclude that this blend of technology and personalised learning serves pupils better than the status quo, but the revolution is gathering pace.

It could, Rose acknowledges, “go horribly, horribly wrong”. If it does, a lot of children’s lives will have been damaged; but then it is hardly as though the existing system is releasing the full potential of America’s young people.For Rose, giving children more control over what they learn and how they learn it is central to achieving that. Ultimately, he says, “you should have a right to know who you are.”

Is the opportunity for every child to learn at their own pace worth the risk of some students taking longer to complete school? The risk of more data being shared and sold to advertisers? Mr. Rose thinks so… and if it is done slowly and deliberately by elected school boards I agree.

 

Philanthrocapitalist Reed Hastings’ View of Public Schooling Will Widen Divides

November 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Reed Hastings, libertarian founder of Netflix and leading funder of the charter school movement in California, has a warped view of public education, one that if brought to scale would undercut public education’s role as a force for equity.

“Reed Hastings: Netflix CEO Goes Nuclear on Public Schools” a lengthy profile of Mr. Hastings by Joel Warner that appeared earlier this month in Capital & Main, describes Mr. Hastings desire to completely destroy the existing governance structure of public schools by replacing elected boards of education with corporate boards who oversee schools that consist largely of internet streaming sites that operate something like Netflix, the corporate he knows best and sees as the best way forward in all operations. In the article Mr. Warner describes how Reed Hastings earned his first millions and decided to use his new found wealth to invest in charter schools:

After the success of his first start-up, the debugging program maker Pure Software, made him a multimillionaire in 1995, Hastings decided to use some of his wealth to tackle the problems he saw in the nation’s schools. “I started… trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas—health care, biotech, information technology, moviemaking,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Why not education?”

Mr. Warner describes how his decision to tackle education combined with his libertarian beliefs led to his determination to overthrow the governance model for public schools. That, in turn, led him to donate huge sums to the charter school movement and, as a by product, to political campaigns of like-minded politicians in California. ultimately, Governor Grey Davis, who benefitted from Mr. Hasting’s contributions and agreed with the need to privatize public education, appointed Mr. Hastings to the Chairmanship of the State Board of Education in 2000, where Mr. Hastings had a short-lived opportunity to put some of his ideas about public education into policy… and some politicians found his ideas abhorrent:

While president of the board, he aggressively pushed for English-language instruction for immigrant students, adopting a policy that limited federal funding for elementary schools that weren’t teaching at least two-and-a-half hours in English every day. That rule, later overturned, was part of what education observers say was a lengthy dismantling of California’s bilingual education programs. Hasting’s stance on the matter caused Democratic legislators to block his reappointment in 2004, despite the fact that he was a key Democratic donor. “Just because [Hastings] and right-wing Republicans thought it was a good idea to force immigrant children to speak only English in school, he gets to derail bilingual education for a decade?” says Karen Wolfe, a California parent and founder of PSconnect, a community group that advocates for traditional public schools. “That’s not disruption. That’s destruction.”

Mr. Warner describes how Mr. Hastings vision for dismantling the existing governance structure of public education will have an adverse impact on economically disadvantaged families. Quoting Derecka Mehrens, co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign to raise pay and create affordable housing for low-wage workers in the tech industry, he writes:

“We see profound consequences, both political and economic, when technology industry leaders take action from a position of privilege and isolation from the very communities they desire to help,” she says. “When tech industry leaders like Reed Hastings call for an elimination of school boards or for more privatization of public schools, they block low-income people from using the one instrument that the powerful can’t ignore – their vote.”

After recounting several examples of charter school failures and several studies that underscore the limitations of technology when it comes to solving the kinds of problems students bring with them to school, Mr. Warner concludes with this:

Undeterred (by these evident shortcomings), Hastings and other school reform-minded tech billionaires want to inject the start-up mentality into the country’s schools, using high-tech solutions to replace human labor and disrupting longtime management and oversight approaches in the name of efficiency.But to Brett Bymaster in San Jose, that’s not the right approach. After all, roughly half of all start-ups fail. What happens to the children who get caught in those failures, like the students left without a school when California Charter Academy folded?

“I have been through several successful Silicon Valley start-ups. I am as techy as they come,” says Bymaster. “But ultimately the problems in our schools are people problems. Technology doesn’t solve people problems. People solve people problems.”

And that phrase… people solve people problems… captures the limitations of technology when it comes to addressing the inequities in our society and restoring public schools to their rightful place as a means of overcoming adversity. Increasing the screen times of children raised in poverty to match that of children raised in affluence will NOT address inequity. Public schools will improve only when they are given the means of addressing “people problems”.

A New Digital Divide Emerges as Affluent Families Scale Back on Screen Time

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Over the past six years I have written countless posts on the adverse impact of the digital divide on children raised in poverty and/or children raised in parts of the country where high speed internet is not readily available. But now, with the widespread use of cell phones and an increase in the use of computers in classrooms of all socio-economic levels, a new digital divide is emerging: children raised by affluent parents are spending less time in front of screens that children raised in poverty. Why? According to a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles it’s because affluent parents, particularly those in Silicon Valley, realize the addictive nature of screen time, especially the algorithms of products like YouTube that keep feeding viewers more and more links that are likely to pique their interest. This paragraph captures the essence of the new digital divide:

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.

It is increasingly evident that the internet tool is used in different ways by different families, and affluent families tend to limit use of screens while less affluent families plop their children in front of the screens as a means of giving themselves the time they need to unwind. And the technology whizzes who know how the technology works are the most wary of its overuse:

“There’s a message out there that your child is going to be crippled and in a different dimension if they’re not on the screen,” said Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel executive now on the board of trustees at Silicon Valley’s Waldorf School. “That message doesn’t play as well in this part of the world.”

People in this region of the world understand that the real thing is everything that’s happening around big data, AI, and that is not something that you’re going to be particularly good at because you have a cellphone in fourth grade,” Mr. Laurent said.

Understanding how to use a phone is not the same as understanding how the phone affects your thinking and your well-being… and those who understand the impact of the phones and screens on children are the most reluctant to encourage their use.

 

Birds of a Feather: The Sacklers and Silicon Valley CEOs

October 31, 2018 Comments off

Several months ago the New Yorker published an article on how the Sackler family made billions of dollars through the sale of oxycontin, a drug their researchers knew was addictive but their marketing department insisted was not so. The article was one of the first ones I read that underscored what I call the philanthropy paradox. The Sacklers have used their massive fortune earned by selling an addictive drug to open museums and support cultural endeavors that are a clear benefit to the public. Should they be praised for the investments in the arts or condemned for the way they earned their fortune? This seems like an easy call: the Sackler’s names should be taken off every arts project they underwrote, their stocks and inheritances liquidated and given to public addiction clinics, and charges should be brought against them for knowingly harming the citizens of our country.

This past weekend a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles titled “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley” raises a similar question about the technology billionaires. What is the “dark consensus”?

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high.

Ms. Bowles then offers several chilling quotes from Silicon Valley executives who have personally witnessed the damage electronics are doing to their own children and concluding that they have opened Pandora’s Box by unleashing phone technology on the world. Here’s a sample:

Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”…

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company and founder of GeekDad.com said of screens:

“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine”… “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks.Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.

John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.

“I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

How are these executives any different from the Sackler family? How can we possibly lionize them as entrepreneurs and philanthropists when they are knowingly promoting a product that damages the thinking of citizens?

I’m not sure how to get the genie back in the bottle on technology… but it is evident that one of the motivating factors in providing children with phones is the pervasive fear that harm might come to them. One of the defenses offered by parents who provide phones to their children was this: they want to be able to keep track of where their children are at all times. As one who experienced what is now called a “free range childhood” and laments that such a childhood now seems abhorrent, the notion that my parents would need to keep track of my every move seems overbearing. But while getting the genie back in the bottle would be problematic, it seems to me that the people who invented and profited from the advent of these addictive gadgets bear some responsibility for developing a counter measure… even if the counter measure does not make their shareholders happy.

Clay Christensen and Michael Horn Nudge Public Schools to Re-Think Their Delivery

October 9, 2018 Comments off

I am a begrudging fan of Michael Horn and Clay Christensen who, unlike the privatizers, are advocates of disruption of delivery of public education, NOT the displacement of public schools by technology centered on-line learning.

A recent post by Michael Horn in the Clayton Christensen Institute’s weekly on-line newsletter led me to this conclusion. The post begins with a description of how WeWork is moving in the same direction as some former on-line businesses in developing a different model for public education. Noting that on-line retailers like Amazon, Warby Parker, and Bonobos are opening brick and mortar stores that have virtually no inventory but lots of computer terminals, WeWork’s development team has surmised that a similar model might work for education… and they are field testing with their latest partnership with, 2U, which Mr. Horn immodestly describes as “…the standout online program management company.”  And what is WeWork-2U up to?

the partnership allows 2U students to use WeWork’s office space as study halls, and the two companies will build a learning center together in 2019.

The place-based aspect of the partnership is what is so interesting, as it points to what will happen next with the disruptive innovation of online learning, namely how it will improve.

The future of online learning in higher education is in bricks, not just clicks. But these bricks won’t look like the gorgeous and overgrown college campuses we have today….

After a lengthy description of how on-line learning, like Amazon, is finding the middle ground in disruption, he concludes his article with this description of the WeWork-U2 partnership model:

WeWork offers 2U students a place to learn and a community with whom to learn and interact more broadly. Although many of 2U’s students were independently finding and connecting offline with others in their area before, 2U has now embedded that option as a feature, not an inconvenient arrangement that students had to construct on their own.

Importantly, WeWork and 2U are not recreating the sprawling campus environment of college with its traditional classrooms, dorms, grassy green quads, and recreational facilities. But they are offering an in-person environment in an experiment that could dramatically bolster engagement—and herald the future of online learning as it continues its disruptive march.

It isn’t difficult to foresee how arrangements like 2U could migrate into public education. Our local museum’s, galleries, and music studios are already doing something like 2U by bringing homeschooling students together to learn about science, the arts and humanities, to work on art projects and music performances together. When those kinds of options become more clearly known to parents it is not hard to foresee how more parents might opt out of their local public schools, especially if those schools are focussed exclusively on increasing test scores.

From my reading of Mr. Christensen’s book and his newsletter, it is not evident that he wants to undercut public schools. Indeed, when their book Disrupting Class was published when I was still working as a Superintendent, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn gave a presentation at our annual conference and Mr. Horn followed up with several visits to the state. Their ideas, unfortunately, did not gain traction in large measure because the risk of changing was too great: if a district went all in on disruption and the test scores did not go up the Superintendent and school board that advocated the change might not be around for long. But a careful reading of Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen’s concepts leads me to the conclusion that they are inherently opposed to the factory model that standardized testing reinforces. Instead of believing that all children learn at the same rate, Mr. Horn and Mr. Christensen believe that all children learn when they are engaged in studying information they are interested in with groups of similarly engaged and interested cohorts. ASSUMING that is the case, it might be helpful for Mr. Christensen and Mr. Horn to advocate a total and complete disruption of schooling by advocating the elimination of age-based cohorts and replacing it with interest-based cohorts.

Exercise + Sleep – Screen Time = Increased Brain Power…. the OPPOSITE of What Schools (AND Parents) Are Doing

September 29, 2018 Comments off

The NYTimes featured a short article by Nicholas Baker describing a recent study reported in Lancet that determined that:

At least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, nine to 11 hours of sleep a night, and no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time were tied to higher mental test scores.

In the meantime, to boost test scores schools are eliminating recess, lengthening the school day, introducing more screen-based technology into the school day, and increasing homework. Taken together, these have the opposite impact on children. Moreover, when this is combined with the desire of middle class parents to engage children in structured activities and tutoring AFTER school to improve their academic performance, with the fear factor that compels some parents to prevent their children from engaging in free play outdoors, and the desire of some parents to fully book their children’s weekends with structured athletic competitions instead of pick-up sports, you have a toxic mix that works against the findings described above. For children in poverty, the situation is no better because poor communities lack sufficient playgrounds, green spaces, and other venues where children are encouraged to engage in physical activities.

In short, our test-centric schools, helicopter parenting, and frayed infrastructure make it impossible for children to get the exercise and sleep they need and increase the escape into screens. Maybe we need to give children the time to be children.