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Journal of No. 118


February 16th, 2012

Electronic Hornbook @ 11:33 am


Jim van Pelt linked to a NYT story about a North Carolina school district that has had great academic success after adopting a laptops-for-every-student plan.

I've long been skeptical of the technology-in-the-classroom bandwagon, primarily because once the administrators order it, and the district pays for it, and widgets show up in the classrooms, everyone seems to think they've done their job, everyone congratulates themselves on having put technology in the classroom, and knowledge will now somehow magically appear in children's heads through some sort of osmosis, by being in proximity to technology.

But in this case, it looks like they've done something pretty ambitious:
“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”


Chatroom discussions, individualized learning modules for math, abandoning lecturing the room for a more individualized curriculum... they seem to be setting up a new paradigm for teaching. And graduation rates and test scores are up.

And yet, I still have my suspicions. One cynical thought is that the district laid off 10% of their teachers to pay for all this. How much does a school improve if you can get rid of your crappiest 10% of teachers (and don't even replace them)? And the focus on the state proficiency tests is worrisome. I can easily imagine developing training programs that are really really good at teaching to the test, but don't address all the other parts of education that we hope we're teaching. Of course, that's not a problem that's specific to technology... all schools are anxious about those test results now that it may affect funding.

Nevertheless, it'll be an interesting experiment to keep following and emulating in other schools, and I think it's at least aimed in the right direction of how to truly incorporate technology in education, and development along this path is what will lead us ultimately to a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion from The Diamond Age.
 
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:February 17th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
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I've long thought that the problem with "technology in the classroom" was that we were simply throwing a bunch of computers in with teachers from a prior generation, who don't understand what they're good for and certainly aren't up to incorporating them into lesson plans. I think that over the next decade or so, as teachers who grew up using the Internet become a majority instead of a minority, and as things like simple tablet computers become ever cheaper, things are poised to take off.

It's already happening a bit - over the last year, I've seen some of the stuff that elementary-school children do nowadays and it boggles me a little. They do spelling quizzes on-line! Their grades (and not just report cards, but from every assignment) are available to their parents on the school Web site!

But I have to say, if I was a teacher, I'd be scared for my job. You know what technology does really well? Take the place of people who do repetitive tasks. And we have an army of people teaching arithmetic in this country who could easily be replaced by a relatively inexpensive project to build a soup-to-nuts math instruction course that would run on a tablet computer. Videos to take the place of the teacher explaining things on the blackboard, exercises to gauge the student's progress, and if the kid isn't keeping up it alerts a teacher who can sit down and work with him.

I think all this can apply to several other subjects, too, but math is the simplest since it requires basically no interpretation of test answers. I can't write software that can decide if Johnny's essay demonstrates an understanding of [i]Macbeth[/i], but I can certainly write software to see if he understands how to multiply 12 by 14. Moreover, I suspect that a set of videos carefully designed by education specialists would probably be more effective at imparting fundamentals than your average bored, underpaid teacher. You keep the teacher in reserve to step in if a particular kid is hitting the wall (or just not focusing.) (Hopefully they keep the same number of teachers employed and just use them more effectively, but realistically, governments will probably reduce headcount.)

I recently read (although I can't remember where - sorry, no link) about some classrooms where they're using sources like the Khan Academy to invert the usual homework/school structure; instead of having things explained in class and practicing (i.e., doing homework) at home, they watch lecture videos for "homework" and do assignments in class, where they have a teacher available to provide on-the-spot help. I'm no expert on education, but I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes more prevalent.
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From:freudinshade
Date:February 17th, 2012 01:56 am (UTC)
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Some of the Khan Academy videos are pretty good, and they're not particularly interactive. As the technology improves, there will be something similar but more adaptable to student's styles, strengths and weaknesses (which is what good teachers are).

I suspect that teachers will always be part of the equation, but you may find that the system selects for more mentoring style than lecture style and the teachers who can adapt to that will be more successful. I think that in many cases, you'll need teachers to keep kids on track and making progress (not all kids, but those less intrinsically motivated which, at times, is probably the majority). There are tools to monitor and reward progress, but if no one's paying attention, then they only do so much good.

One thing you ARE starting to see, though, from the ready availability of good materials (In addition to Khan Academy and software packages, there's lots of open courseware from top universities online now) is more homeschooling across a wider spectrum of families. It's no longer just those for whom school is logistically or morally undesirable and there's a trend towards urban professionals homeschooling. Might just be a fad, but it's certainly enabled by this kind of technology.
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From:crboltz
Date:February 17th, 2012 05:32 am (UTC)
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I had an interesting discussion with several of my colleagues about smart phones in the class room. I force my students to keep their phones off, but a fellow instructor tosses out vocab words, asks for names and dates etc., and forces the students to use their google skills on the phone to continue class discussions. I have tried to use discussion boards for some of my classes, but with limited success. i'm starting to think I need rethink my approach to technology in the classroom.
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From:dustchick
Date:February 17th, 2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
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I also wonder what happens in three years when the laptops are out of date, need repairs, etc... what happens then? Suddenly your new curriculum is useless.

I've had both good and bad experiences with technology in the classroom. My students are still too widely varying in economic background for me to assume that everybody has a smart phone to use in the classroom. Others have tech that make ME jealous. I've had the wifi die in the middle of an experiment and students who are completely web-illiterate (and it ain't always the older ones). I've had students point out mistakes in wikipedia articles (yay!). I've had students who can't make a graph without Excel.

My best success in moving away from lecture-only has been non-tech-based. I still do a lot more lecturing than I should, but students seem to think it's a standup routine and pay attention. I've also had those learners who do best in a lecture format, those who never take a single note but just listen and perform at an A level.

The "lecture-video as homework" is being used by some folks at my college, where they have recorded their lectures from previous terms and have posted them online. I look forward to hearing the outcome of this approach. One of the difficulties is making the online lectures completely ADA-compliant, as you don't have the inclass support of an ASL translator, etc... Our district has invested in captioning software, which is mostly useful.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:February 17th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
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I also wonder what happens in three years when the laptops are out of date, need repairs, etc... what happens then?

In the particular case of this school, the laptops are all rented from Apple, so presumably the leasing terms will allow them to stay current.
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From:dustchick
Date:February 17th, 2012 07:05 pm (UTC)
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In K-12 that is more common than in higher ed. We just listen to the more machines as they grind to their deaths! I wonder if leasing also allows for software upgrades, too?
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:February 17th, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
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I also wonder what happens in three years when the laptops are out of date, need repairs, etc... what happens then? Suddenly your new curriculum is useless.

Well, you budget for that, obviously.

And if you're thinking "where are they going to find the money?", see my earlier note about redundancy. Let's say you release one third-grade teacher who was making $40,000 a year. With benefits and overhead, that's somewhere around $60,000 in costs to the district. If the computers cost $500 each and need to replaced every three years, the $180,000 they save every three years pays for three hundred and sixty tablets. I suspect that if a school had three hundred and sixty tablets and a well-designed curriculum for them, they could spare one teacher.

As for the ADA-compliance, etc., I'll note that I think this idea will come to college courses last, if at all. I would apply it first and foremost where it's going to be the most useful, which is to say attacking the areas of greatest redundancy.

Right now we have (by my math) about 4.2 million eight-year-olds in this country. They're all learning the same math skills. We should launch a project to develop a comprehensive mathematics curriculum for tablet computers. It would be designed to teach an entire elementary-school curriculum from the ground up - textbook, video lectures, worksheets, and tests, all in one. It would track the kid's progress and review material the kid hasn't quite grasped and only move on to new material when the kid has mastered it. Moving every child along at the same pace is surely one of the most significant failings of the overfull classrooms in our current system. (It could also move the kids who learn quickly along faster, helping to alleviate boredom.)

You could have supplementary videos for kids who are having problems - if a particular kid is not understanding fractions, for example, then instead of reviewing the same video lecture you could show him a completely different one that takes a different approach. (I'm assuming that we invest enough in this project to bring in a bunch of education experts who can work out different ways to explain the same material.) And finally, you can track the kid's progress in excruciating detail. If he really just can't grasp a particular concept (or, more probably, is slacking) it alerts a teacher to go over and give him one-on-one time.

There are other benefits - typos and poorly worded questions in an electronic curriculum can be corrected as soon as they're noticed; new videos could be added at any time; a kid who's out sick could get caught up more easily (or simply do his lesson at home.) All in all, I think a properly developed electronic curriculum could give the kids far better instruction than an overworked teacher in a 30-kid classroom can.

As I said before, this applies to some subjects more than others. It's far better for math than for teaching high school English, for example. But we're currently investing a lot of resources in having people do the same repetitive tasks in hundreds of thousands of classrooms all across the country. Shouldn't we automate the most laborious parts of that and free up resources for the parts that genuinely require human intelligence?
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:February 17th, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
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Whoops, I never finished my thought about the ADA compliance. Point is, getting a translator to supplement every one of your college course lectures becomes relatively expensive on a per student basis, whereas if you're developing a math curriculum for literally millions of kids, paying for ASL translation is a drop in the bucket.
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From:dustchick
Date:February 18th, 2012 12:14 am (UTC)
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Funny how you mention math as an example. Not that your logic is incorrect, but I find that I expend most of my, um, human capital in the classroom on cajoling, encouraging, praising, coaching, and boosting students who are uncomfortable with math. Of all of the courses at my college, the math department is the most advanced in terms of offering online courses. But the success rate in the NEXT math course in the sequence or in physics is better for those who take the math class in meat space.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:February 19th, 2012 05:18 am (UTC)
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I believe you. But I doubt that the math department at your college has invested the kind of time and money that I'm talking about. What I'm suggesting would involve a large investment - time, money, technological and pedagogical expertise - that makes sense if you're developing a curriculum for all third-graders in the country and can amortize the costs by using that curriculum for years; the math department at one college can't possibly afford a project this ambitious. (This is why I find it frustrating that colleges are the ones innovating in this realm - it's great that somebody's taking the lead, but it's really the least suitable end of the education spectrum for such projects.)

(And is it possible that your math department's experience is at least partially due to selection bias - i.e., that choosing to take the online course might correlate with a lower degree of seriousness about the material?)

As for spending your human capital dealing with students who are uncomfortable with math: do you think that some of their discomfort with math might come from having spent years in classrooms that proceed at a unified pace, rather than providing a tailored one-on-one curriculum that can slow down when the student isn't getting something, rather than barreling onward and hoping the kid catches up? (I'm speculating here - so I'd really like to hear your opinion on this, as a professional educator, which I certainly am not.)
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From:dustchick
Date:February 20th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
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I meant to reply to you, but hit the wrong button. See comment below. Didn't want you to think I was ignoring ya!
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From:dustchick
Date:February 19th, 2012 11:25 pm (UTC)
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You make some interesting points, especially the one about taking an online class correlating to lower degree of seriousness. I'd love to see a large study about attitudes in online courses, as some students truly do take them because of being full-time workers in the CC atmosphere so this is their serious educational pursuit.

The math dept at my college has received many grants towards advancing their online curriculum, a lot geared toward at-your-own-pace remediation courses. There is a shocking statistic that over 50% of CA college students (incoming freshman) need basic skills remediation. That means that they are not considered to be proficient in reading, writing, math at the high school senior level. Yet somehow they graduated!

There is no national curriculum currently. This is particularly problematic for children of military parents and any children who end up moving around a lot. One place's third grade curric might be second grade elsewhere, etc. So the first part of your proposal would need to be a movement towards nationalizing K-12 curriculum. You'd have a LOT of educators on your side, but the people who actually show up to school board meetings and vote for those tend to be local control advocates.

Through anecdotes from students, their math problems seem to have a unifying theme: did well in math until high school, when they ran into a bad experience with an instructor. Now that "instructor" experience is more likely to be difficulty with the material. In the cases of a lot of female students and some of the male students (including Greg), their counselors allowed them to stop math classes at that point because they obviously weren't going into STEM careers. So what I get are a lot of students who say "I'm not a math person" who are perfectly capable with some additional one-on-one instruction, which is usually heavy on encouragement. (There's also a lingering effect of students being told what type of learner they were. If I hear one more student say "I'm a visual learner" but are incapable of describing what they see in an image...) I do agree that the "barreling onward" approach is detrimental, but I think a big step in the correct direction on that subject would be to allow teachers to give representative grades without a push from parents or admins to pass Timmy.

The biggest and most frequent compliment I receive from my students is that my enthusiasm for the subjects I teach is infectious. And that's one thing that will not translate as well into pixels as it does in the classroom.

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From:ian_tiberius
Date:February 20th, 2012 05:02 pm (UTC)
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(I saw your post yesterday - just didn't have time to respond. Yes, I was too busy working on Sunday, but I have a few minutes to reply on Monday morning. Such is the life of the freelancer.)

Anyway, thanks - this is really interesting and I appreciate the on-the-ground perspective. I think you're right that this may *not* work, but the funding required to try it is so small (compared to the cost of educating millions of kids) I think it's worth a shot. Besides, even if it only works for 10% of kids, that's still taking some of the strain off of teachers.

I don't think you have to nationalize the curriculum to implement this idea, any more than you need to nationalize the curriculum to write a textbook. Build a curriculum for elementary-school math, put plenty of milestones in it, and let individual school districts decide 1) whether to adopt it and 2) how far in the curriculum a student of each grade needs to get.

Journal of No. 118