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Here Comes Everybody: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus repost

Ok folks, I’m rarely going to use any reader-capital to repost.  But I really like this speech.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Netbooks Will Have No Clothes, Too: The Lack of Social Computing Tools for the Classroom

Reading about NetBooks in EdWeek, I found it odd that laptop manufacturers are still talking about the quantity of computers and the glory of the 1:1 computer/child ratio.  Studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that there is no positive influence on learning outcomes, a la The Laptop Revolution Has No Clothes.  You can find videos of college students confessing they “facebook through every class.”  In public education, the measure of success is often the purchase of new technology even as schools sink.  Principals show off shiny new computers and computer labs as if this is a proxy for increased performance.

In addition, the education zeitgeist seems to be pushing relevant and targeted “content.”  Instead of looking at a boring old textbook, the student can get their learning materials in the form of cocoa puff commercials.  However, changing the content’s entertainment value does not address the lack of interaction and educational social computing.  People don’t want to just use the internet to look up articles and watch videos, they want to interact and publish.  In this vein, schools are not just behind – they are a non-start, they’re not even in the race.

The discussion needs to move from the quantity of computers, to the quality of programs written specifically for educational interactions.  Social Computing needs to happen to facilitate asynchronous communication and collaboration, as well as real-time classroom tools to address information asymmetries, differentiation, and data insights and reporting.

We’re working on these problems at Inigral, so if you have any ideas let us know!

Courses on Facebook Guide for Instructors

It’s no secret that I stepped out of the classroom momentarily to jump at entrepreneurial pursuits on the internet.  My team and I are working on trying to create products that can manage casual, social yet academic relationships on opening social networks.  Our product, Courses on Facebook, has had over 200 thousand users just in the past 8 months.

By far my most popular post has been about Facebook; it was a guide for instructors thinking about using Facebook.  I figured I’d put up a guide on how to use our product more specifically.  Students have entered over 500 instructors and their email addresses and we’re about to email them.  I want them to have some idea what they are getting into.

So, here it is:

Courses on Facebook: A Guide for Instructors

If your campus has a buzz about Facebook, feel free to email me at mpstaton (that at sign I can’t use here so I don’t get spammed)  I’d be happy to talk shop and arrange a training.  I can even bring Facebook, the actual company, into the mix.

Cities in Crisis Addendum: How our Urban Schools Actually Fail

As a nation, we need to be thinking long and hard about how we’re failing our youth.  The school system, in particular, necessitates new diagnosis, new ideas, and immediate action.  One of my recurring theses – the overemphasis of core, academic subject areas at the expense of all else has the counterintuitive effect of lowering graduation rates and performance in those core subject areas – seems particularly relevant to our failures exposed in Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation.

The report, written by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance and the Gates Foundation, reveals poor graduation rates in the 50 most populous cities US.  The statistics and conclusions were predictably appalling.  Bloggers and those commenting on articles in the press are describing our school system as “failing” and the problem as a “catastrophe.”   Across the country, graduation rates are 15% lower in urban areas compared to suburban schools.  In Baltimore, Maryland and Columbus, Ohio, graduation is lower in urban areas by more than 40%.  Cities in Crisis only brings to light what we all knew, and, as it’s been published by high profile institutions, in stereotypical form it lacks the courage to make any recommendations.  I’ll gladly step in to fill that void in the dialog.

Schools fail at graduating their students for four reasons: 1) A significant minority is alienated by the core, academic subject areas and the concomitant instructional techniques often well before High School, 2) schools fail to offer or support programs that might inspire, train, or at least entertain alienated students, 3) schools fail to identify and provide effective programs for those that need remediation, and 4) surrounding communities are unable to demonstrate real-world examples of education fulfilling its promises through role-models and economic opportunity.

The cycle is simple and can easily be personified: Student A, sometime in early middle school, becomes bored and distracted, falls behind academically, and is often in need of discipline.  He looks around in his family and community and no one seems to be able to help him academically.  Most of them seem to view academics past basic reading, writing, and math as irrelevant.  Most of his heroes are sports stars or entertainers.  He likes his art class and woodshop, but both of those programs are undersupplied and dilapidated.  The principal and all the teachers just keep on emphasizing the importance of the same “irrelevant” stuff.  He gets down on himself in school and starts finding confidence in his blossoming social life outside of school.  No one at this point intervenes.  As he gets out in his neighborhood, most of the adults are not using their education.  The ones who make the most money have a trade or are involved in illegal activities.  The only high school graduates he knows work retail.  At this point, school is all but written off completely.

The school systems reaction to a student with this story is to keep on emphasizing core academics, which he is behind on.  At the high school level, he may be forced to do some remediation, which makes him feel singled out as “dumb.”  More than likely, he probably doesn’t show up after a while.  The school has cut or is starving any program that might get this young person’s attention and allegiance.  The school offers very few technical programs that will help him get a job.  They do not foster relationships with either white collar or blue collar businesses to facilitate internships or apprenticeships which could provide role-models.  The school simply tries to force him down the same path he has decided is not for him.

The value of non-core subject areas and technical programs is not to distract students; it is to keep students engaged and to offer alternative outlets where a student can find confidence in themselves and their work.  If a student remains engaged in a non-core program, they are likely to remain in school.  If a school can then use that time to effectively remediate (tastefully) in the core areas while facilitating real world relationships with community members in both white and blue collar sectors to show demonstrable value of an education, the kid would likely stay on to graduate.

The Hyperinflation of College and its Unintended Outcomes

 Politicians these days like to talk of sending EVERY child to COLLEGE.  While inspiring, it makes me think they are missing the reasons behind failing schools and our education systems’ inability to prepare EVERY child for a hopeful future.  It also leads me to think about the unintended outcomes, which usually come to haunt all well meaning but poorly thought out, simplistic political initiatives.

The net effect of trying to send everyone through a four-year well-rounded degree program will be threefold:

1) the college degree will increasingly lose its value as a method of distinguishing the probable capability level of knowledge workers, thus employers will look to other criteria such as experience, graduate studies, domain expertise, and whether or not the degree is from an institution they perceive as ranked highly and exclusive;

2) the number of colleges will proliferate in the face of inelastic demand, thus driving up costs as they compete with each other by increasing marketing and admissions coddling expenditures (not just brochures but shiny new infrastructure) and building non-core programs to capitalize on the inability of prospective students to distinguish the strength of their intended programs;

3) those unfortunate souls who are not college track or those who did not go to college will likely have a negative self-image that not only will reduce the quality of life but also prevent many of them from self-educating, self-motivating, and seeking opportunities they may desire, thus debasing both the American Dream and a core driver of our economy – determined and motivated go-getters from all walks of life.

I have no data, but I would venture to say that these trends are well into already happening.  For instance:

1) The hiring practices of top firms now centers exclusively on a red carpet from top ten universities while worker training programs have more or less been externalized in much of the knowledge economy – making for “talent wars” over the same set of people rather than expanding the pool of those that have the needed skill set.

2) Look to any lesser-known college or university and they are likely spending frustrating sums on not only recruitment efforts per matriculated student but also on increasing the sets of possible studies and investing in all things shiny, new, and trendy, including rebranding with some sort of “global make a difference” theme.  Charles Miller, who headed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, recently refuted the idea that college provides a return on investment of $1,000,000:
“[P]roperly using the present value of the lifetime earnings, adjusted for the cost of going to college and the difference in the number of working years, and excluding those graduates with advanced degrees, calculated at the three percent discount rate used in the report produces a lifetime earnings differential of only $279,893 for a bachelor’s degree versus a high school degree!”

3) Pockets of sub-cultures in urban and rural areas are dependent on government assistance and conditions there are deteriorating.  While attendance in college is going up, high school graduation rates are falling as those unsuccessful at pre-college track curriculum wave a white flag and drop out.
All of these effects are in no way exclusively caused by the push to send everyone to college, but certainly a relationship can be drawn.  It should be evident that no solution is exclusively rhetorical or involves some sort of “political will” of the people.

And, it should be made clear that addressing even the most politically savvy mom and apple pie issues can have serious unintended consequences.  Perhaps politicians and even the non-profit world should rethink the implications of even trying to send EVERY child to COLLEGE and start thinking about providing a diverse set of opportunities with the goal to prepare them to contribute to our economy, find value in their life through their work, and have a secure livelihood.

Facebook atop Top Tools for Learning?

John Curry, a professor of Instructional Technology at Oklahoma State University, listed his top ten tools for learning.  What I find very hearting about the list is that so few are actually an enterprise tool sold to educational institutions.  The rest are products targeting the general public for nothing specific to learning.  How is it that the tools most helpful to pedagogy do not have a pedagogical theorist’s underpinnings?

* Facebook
* Google
* Google Reader
* Garage Band
* iTunes
* Google Scholar
* Wink
* Blogs (in general)
* Desire2Learn
* Wikispaces
* Voicethread
* MyLabSchool
* Meebo

My theory on why educators and students prefer the consumer internet to enterprise solutions is the way they are created.

Enterprise solutions generally start with a political and bureaucratic process resulting with a requirements document that has too much in it.  The company works to meet those requirements, and by nature its delivered late and does half what was promised and typically doesn’t really function for a good while.  If they deliver the contracted item, they don’t make any more money if people actually like/use/come back to the site.

The consumer internet starts with a couple of dudes who put up something sticky and then use comprehensive user data to build a coherent user experience around a handful of major features.  They have to pay attention to user activation and retention to survive.  In fact, they must build something so compelling that users like it so much they go refer other people to the site.  What this should mean to education and educators is that consumer internet companies are a much more capable model of software development to build something that’s nice to use and is always up.

Incentive pay plans, value-add, and technology.

Having been a recipient of incentive pay, I say with a straight face that we must move forward with incentive pay programs.

One of the huge shortfalls of the education system is the non relationship between aptitude/ performance with advancement in either wage or influence. A small bonus of a few thousand dollars won’t be as determinant as either making teaching more exclusive or empowering teachers to have influence outside the classroom. However, any recognition of hard work is going to make those that work hard more satisfying.  The biggest problem with the Houston program was the secrecy. Knowing what goes into the calculation and acknowledging it measures what its supposed to be measuring could only help to motivate.

The biggest barrier to incentive pay moving forward will be the controversy around a single critque: a summative, end of year, half day, multiple-choice test every few years is simply not going to be an altogether accurate measure of a teacher’s value-add.   At least, not accurate enough to be adding the high stakes of unequal distribution of incentive pay.  The ultimate opportunity for educational technology will be to provide tools that serve as a much better reading of the value added to each individual student by each individual teacher. It will of course never be even close to being close. There are too many other unmeasurable variables. However, it could certainly be dramatically improved by a little ingenuity.   A good article on this is at Education Next.

Bang for the Public Buck

Like all massive disasters, this has to take place in New York City.  ARIS, the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, is New York City’s web-based portal for NYC school teachers and students.  It is a case study that unfortunately typifies the experience of public education in technology.  While I generally encourage educational institutions to move towards technology, I can’t help but abhor the incompetence in how they go about it. 

First, those that sit on the school board have no idea what it costs to build a web application and thus the district is bound to get completely ripped off.  ARIS was built for the NYC public schools for a sum of $80 million dollars.  That’s a lot of money for IT infrastructure, even on a per student basis. 

Second, due to the giant pain of the “sales cycle” in education, all but the most cumbersome businesses wouldn’t even touch the market with a ten foot pole.  The company contracted to build ARIS was none other than IBM, and the result was precisely what one might expect: it’s down a lot, it’s painfully slow, it’s ugly, and few people use it outside of top-down mandates.   

This amidst enormous budget cuts – of course educators and administrators are angry  

Public Education is not taking cues from the rest of the world.  If it was, they would let young (cheap) technologists have at it.  Almost all the good web technology came out a few people sitting in their room tinkering, and within a year or two they created something useful, fast, and sometimes even pretty. 

Innovation almost never comes from the institutional players; it comes from small teams of people that pop up out of nowhere with something groundbreaking.  If education wants any piece of that action, they need to learn to skip the big money and the big companies and make room for all the little players out there trying to make products that make a difference to teachers and students.

Recommendation: Every district should set up a small committee with discretionary funds that can purchase or license technology on a whim with the specific objective of moving fast with smaller amounts of money. 

Apple is the Sleeping Giant

Little did we know, Apple has great resources for teaching that are completely under the radar.  Sure, we all know about I Tunes U.  But did we know about Apple Learning Interchange?  It blows Yahoo! Teachers out of the water in terms of content sharing. 

iTunes U is also very silently moving towards being the most effective content delivery tool on the planet for educators and academics trying to broadcast to either the whole world or just their students.  The best part – its subsidized by the movie industry.  Genius.  More than soon, teachers will be able to whip up a multimedia podcast using Podcast Producer, load it to a server, and share it with students at the click of a few buttons.  If it’s good, other instructors will find it as well. 

Content Knowledge is Dead

I heard Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason,” on the radio the other day using meaningless statistics about teenagers (and adults) ignorant of basic bits of content knowledge. Sure, it’s a little offensive that people can’t point out Iraq on a map when we’ve talked about it for six years. But, I think calling alarm to content ignorance is missing the whole point. In fact, it’s the problem.

The emphasis on content knowledge IS the problem. Students have always thought content knowledge was irrelevant a la Mark Twain. Why? Because we forget. Because there is no point other than that the teacher makes us. Because, especially nowadays, I can just go look it up when I need it.

We don’t need content emphasis revival. For example, I can’t identify the President of Australia. I just made a request for that information and got it in less than 8 seconds (PM John Howard followed by Kevin Rudd), 7.9 of those seconds were filled with me going to my browser and carelessly misspelling the word Australia. In technology, we worry a lot about how fast our servers respond to requests. There is a more than significant portion of the world’s smartest people trying to get bits of information in front of everyone’s face, upon their request, faster than ever before. Let me make a bold statement that the educational community will not internalize for another 50 years: Content Knowledge is Dead.

Yet, states everywhere are mandating a mind numbing sequence of content standards in what some call the accountability movement. Politicians hear alarms going off, like 80% of 16 year olds believe the War of 1812 was in 1898; their reaction is to demand that teachers teach every bit of content that anyone might think is important for any reason. One problem – teaching all of that is impossible. Another problem – even if you succeeded the students would forget most of it.

So, if content knowledge is irrelevant, why does everyone think education is so important? Because the side effect of schooling is that a minority of students along the way manage to develop an internal schema for information discovery, processing, communication, application and evaluation. A minority of those students manage to pick up some processes and methodologies for taking creations and delivering them to entities that might pay for them. And, who knows, they might pick up some useful tips on filing their taxes and voting.

My point is that if content knowledge is dead, the emphasis should be on teaching those side effects that have come to be called Procedural Knowledge. When students can generate questions and identify problems at point A and make end products using standard (or innovative) procedures that contribute value to others at point B, and they know all the steps in between for the core disciplines, students will be little content knowledge processing machines and all the more inspired while they are doing it. Who knows? They might even remember how long the Hundred Years War lasted.

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