Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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. 

“Assembly Line Justice”: an Apt Metaphor for a Department of Education Driven by Efficiency

June 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Late yesterday I read an article by Erica Green of the NYTimes titled “Education Department Says It Will Scale Back Civil Rights Legislation”. The overarching purpose of  the “scaling back” is to reduce the backlog of cases in the department that are primarily the result of former President Obama’s directive to perform thorough and comprehensive investigations where they were warranted.

The office’s processing times have “skyrocketed,” the Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said, adding that its backlog of cases has “exploded.” The new guidelines were to ensure that “every individual complainant gets the care and attention they deserve,” she said.

In the memo, which was first published by ProPublica, (the acting head of the department’s office for civil rights, Candace) Jackson emphasized that the new protocols were aimed at resolving cases quickly.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long,” Ms. Hill said in a statement.

But to civil rights activists, the real problem isn’t that justice will be denied to complainants. It’s that justice will not be rendered at all.

But civil rights leaders believe that the new directives will have the opposite effect. They say that Education Department staff members would be discouraged from opening cases and that investigations could be weakened because efficiency would take priority over thoroughness.

If we want to have assembly-line justice, and I say ‘justice’ in quotes, then that’s the direction that we should go,” said Catherine Lhamon, who was the assistant secretary of the Education Department’s civil rights office under Mr. Obama, and who now heads the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Ms. Green’s article explores the difference between the approaches Ms. Lhamon took in her civil rights investigations and those advocated by the incoming staff, describing how one particular case in a public school district required the district to dig into it’s disciplinary records for past years, an exercise that resulted in the district gaining a better understanding of its practices that resulted in a disproportionate number of harsh actions taken against minority students. This kind of in depth analysis requires staff time at the USDOE level as well, and as cases like these accumulated the backlog accumulated as well. In the name of efficiency, though, these kinds of thorough investigations will be a thing of the past.

In the concluding paragraph of the article, Ms. Green describes the budgetary gambit Betsy DeVos is using to facilitate the “judicious approach” the department will implement.

In the administration’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins in October, the Education Department has proposed cutting more than 40 staff positions from the office for civil rights, which would require the office to “make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,” the department wrote.

In effect, Ms. DeVos is submitting a budget that will ensure the necessity for limiting the thorough investigations… a budget that will require “assembly-line justice”. For a department that is enamored of algorithmic on-line learning it seems fitting that they would adopt algorithmic justice. Students, after all, are widgets that require periodic quality control via standardized tests and periodic attention from teachers who make sure the robots are providing sufficient knowledge. Who needs a thorough education when an efficient one is sufficient?

China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

May 28, 2017 Leave a comment

“Is China Outsmarting the US in AI?”, a question posed in an article by Paul Mozur and John Markoff in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes, left me with a chill. Mozur and Markoff describe the divergent paths the governments of China and the US are taking relative to AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence), with China’s government investing billions in research while the US is spending less. The article makes it appear that there might not be that much difference in which country advances the most in AI, but the notion that China’s amoral and authoritarian command capitalism might dominate the field concerns me. Mozur and Markoff describe China’s rationale for developing AI in this paragraph:

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

These intended outcomes should drive our country to get the upper hand on AI assuming our country values an equal opportunity for all citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. But instead of using our values as a positive lever to promote more government spending on AI, we are relying on fear. While the President’s budget cuts funding for AI, there is one department who is concerned:

The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

While our best hope for investment is driven by the Department of Defense who wants to use AI for weapons, China purports a desire to use AI for peaceful purposes. Mozur and Markoff offer this contrast in investment strategies:

On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife. A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software can be simplified so that it can be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.

China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort but declined to be identified, because the effort has not yet been made public. While the size wasn’t clear, they said, it would most likely result in billions of dollars in spending.

President Trump’s proposed budget, meanwhile, would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on so-called intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about $175 million. Research and development in other areas would also be cut, though the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing. The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private American companies like Google and Facebook.

The balance of the article describes why China’s top-down authoritarian government arguably hobbles research efforts, using the example of medical research on SARs as an example. The piece concludes with this observation by Clay Shirkey, an NYU futurist:

For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Mr. Shirky said. Artificial intelligence may help China better censor the internet, a task that often blocks Chinese researchers from finding vital information. At the same time, better A.I. could make it easier for Chinese readers to translate articles and other information.

The fact is,” Mr. Shirky said, “unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic.”

But if China’s purpose in the development of AI is to control workers by predicting labor strikes and control the populous through the widespread use of simplified facial recognition software one thing IS easy to predict: the world of Winston Smith (Orwell’s protagonist in 1984) is far more likely to occur than the “do no evil” world of Google.

And one last note: it’s unclear to me that unpredictability is Washington DC’s favorite characteristic… and even more unclear that voters are seeking a less predictable world. If anything, we are seeking an orderly world where things are as they used to be in a past that never was….

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Google Making Inroads in Inequity, Innovation, and Instruction… AND Making Profits…

May 14, 2017 Leave a comment

I remember the first time I came in contact with Google. I was working as Superintendent in the late 1990s in an Upstate NY district and had recently hired a Director of Technology to a position I created in order to coordinate our efforts to move ahead in that area. The newly minted administrator came into my office and asked me to enter one word next to the cursor that was blinking on the screen of my terminal… a word he spelled out for me: “G-O-O-G-L-E”. A message box appeared on my screen. He then asked me to type in a question or a phrase. Because we were both Red Sox fans in Yankee territory I typed in the words “Boston Red Sox”… and a series of links to articles about the Boston Red Sox appeared on the screen. We both spent the next half-hour using Google to help us find all kinds of arcane information from journals and periodicals on the web… and since both of us had earned doctoral degrees in the mid 1970s we could immediately see that the world of research was going to change and began forecasting how this kind of rapid access to information could transform schooling.

It’s taken nearly two decades to have some the ideas we came up with come into being… but based on Natasha Singer’s article in today’s NYTimes it appears that Google IS transforming public education and teachers and administrators are making that transformation happen… and the transformation is making it conceivable that despite the lack of an equitable technology infrastructure (roughly 20% of students do not have access to high speed internet in their homes) and despite concerns about data privacy and despite budget challenges, Google is finding a way to meaningfully integrate technology into the classroom.

The article describes how Google circumvented administrative and political roadblocks by working directly with tech savvy teachers and technology directors, providing them with free apps and tools for their schools and classrooms. Those teachers, in turn, recruited colleagues and administrators to use Google applications instead of those clunkier and costlier ones made by Microsoft.

The real breakthrough for Google occurred only five years ago: the Chromebook.

By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.

Although Google had a business audience in mind for Chromebooks, reviewers complained that the devices were of limited use without internet access.

But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet (Google’s “evangelist”) Jamie Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.

Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.

Some critics, me included, would caution against technology as a means of providing the equalizing effect because of disparities in internet access… but Google was aware of that reality and had an answer:

Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.

Indeed, based on Ms. Singer’s account, one of Google’s greatest attributes was its willingness to listen to concerns of educators and adapt accordingly. Based on her account, Google’s “build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later culture” has adapted to the “bureaucratic school districts with student-protection rules to uphold” and has now understood that before launching a major change it needs to be mindful of the way democratic organizations like school districts function.

The marked increase in the use of technology is remarkable… Now comes the tough change: can the gurus who developed the software making it possible to individualize instruction unlock the age-based grade levels that prevent educators from meeting the unique needs of each child because they must ensure that age cohorts progress in lockstep? Stated differently, can they break the stranglehold of standardized testing that grips the mindsets of politicians from school board members to the USDOE? Here’s hoping they can help launch a grassroots effort among parents in the same way they did among teachers.

E-School’s “App of the Week” Replaces REAL Field Trips with Virtual Field Trips

May 6, 2017 Leave a comment

I returned a couple of weeks ago from a two week trip to Southern Utah. Before making the trip I looked at pictures on line, watched videos, and read many articles. But being in the region, with it’s big sky, deep canyons, otherworldly rock formations, wind, and aromas was a wholly different experience.

The same holds true for any “virtual” experience: listening to a concert on earphones, watching a 3-D movie, or simulating an environment using virtual reality. But all of the virtual opportunities cost less than traveling to the site and take a lot less time… which is why E-School’s App of the Week is likely to appeal to schools who are strapped with funds and limited for time. According to the blurb on the VR Field Trip app site, students will be thrilled: “With stunning scenes and a flexible delivery method, your students will thank you for journeying together through space and time.”

Sorry… but virtual experiences are no substitute for field trips that take students out of their environment to other locales. The small town kids from rural Maine who travelled to Boston got a much different experience  being in the city… the city kids from Philadelphia who were fortunate enough to get into camps in rural Pennsylvania got a chance to hear cicadas and experience starlit skies… the middle class suburban kids who traveled to communities where children lived in poverty got insights on that kind of life that would otherwise elude them. Money spent getting children out of their comfort zones and into the world of others helps develop empathy and expands horizons. Money spent on apps keeps them isolated in darkened rooms.

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Un-Grading Schools to Make Performance Constant, Time Variable

May 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I read Diane Ravitch’s column today and was dismayed because in her opposition to standardized testing she is posing the wrong question, which is: “Why do we need standardized testing in every grade for every child.” The better question is this: “Why do we test students based on age cohorts at all?” The answer to this question is that it is “more efficient” (i.e. easier to administer and “interpret”) and implicitly promotes competition between students and among schools (i.e. it yields “precise” comparative data). The “standards” that the tests yield are statistical constructs: a particular cut score becomes the “standard” for proficiency even though the cut score is unrelated to the mastery of any particular information. The cut score only tells a teacher whether their students exceeded or fell short of a cut score that is defined as a “standard”.  But the standardized test scores DO yield a seemingly precise aggregate score that politicians and journalists can use to “measure quality” and statisticians can use to draw conclusions about “teacher performance”.

If we replaced standardized summative tests with individualized formative tests and batched students based on performance cohorts instead of age we could move out of the factory model of schooling that, in the name of efficiency, batches students by age cohorts and require them to advance through predetermined curricula at the same rate as their age peers in all content areas. Instead of a factory model, we could have a system that groups children based on their skill proficiency as measured by formative assessments designed for that purpose. Mastery tests require a different kind of question than standardized tests. We use mastery tests in other arenas. Drivers license tests, citizenship tests, bar exams, and medical school exams are not graded on a curve. They ascertain the baseline skills needed in each domain they measure and design assessments that  assure a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in a particular field. Moreover, many credentials, like drivers licenses and medical degrees, require performance assessments. We don’t want drivers who cannot operate a vehicle or surgeons who’ve only passed content examinations.

Our insistence on using standardized tests as the primary metric for “schooling” assumes that time is constant and learning is variable. Any standard that begins with the phrase “by the end of grade X…” assumes that students will be batched in age-based cohorts and tested at a set time. The common core was based on this assumption, which meant that the debate over it was not about whether the sequence of math skills was accurate but rather about timing of the tests to assess mastery of the skills: whether the tests on the sequence of skills matched the age cohort to be tested.

And when the stakes on the passage of standardized tests linked to age-based cohorts increased, the focus on “schooling” narrowed and the urgency to cram more content into groups of children who were not developmentally prepared to absorb the information led to the expansion of the school day, a reduction in arts, music, and hands on learning, and a diminishment of joy for teachers and students alike.

We need to test students in some fashion to ensure that they have mastered the skills we teach them and we should accept the fact that students will learn at different rates and in different ways. Anyone who is the parent of more than one child knows this is true. If we used our collective time and energy to design and use the results of formative assessments to help students progress through skill sequences at their own rate and in a fashion that matches their learning modality we could re-form education…. and with the technology available today we could readily accomplish this. But as long as we insist that all children move at the same speed through our curricula, as long as we insist on having time be constant, we can be certain that performance will vary and some children will be “left behind” for no good reason.