Alexandria Online

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is 1:1 right for The Episcopal Academy?

Here's a quote from the introduction of "One to One Computing: A Summary of the Quantitative Results from the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative:"

1:1 computing has captured the imagination of many educational and political leaders looking to reform educational practices and improve underperforming schools.

The report mentions how more time was spent in homework, less time watching TV, fewer discplinary problems, etc.

Any independent school like Episcopal, and for that matter, affluent, suburban public schools, are going to have relatively few of the problems and at only a fraction of the severity that underperforming schools have. The improvements seen in underperforming schools will not be seen in such a different environment. The statistical evidence must be approached with caution. Average findings are probably irrelevant to a large proportion of any sample.

The question is, Can you see it at your school?

Monday, February 22, 2010

The New Textbook: DynamicBooks from MacMillan

It's a textbook! It's a wiki! It's course management software! It's MacMillan's DynamicBook. (See NYT, "Macmillan’s DynamicBooks Lets Professors Rewrite E-Textbooks") This is what we've been waiting for but we're going to have to wait longer. It's just for college. At Episcopal, I know of several books that we have written internally: 3 Latin grammar textbooks, 1 anthology of science writing used in 9th grade biology, and one Middle School English text. We have the expertise to do a lot internally. Which makes you think how much more we could do with access to a wiki-like online resource. Let's say we had access to a large online resource of material to teach world history in high school. We could adapt that to create our own course/text. So we do an end-run around the huge beaurocracies of the Texas and California school boards that wield so much power over the content of our current texts. Resources like this will cost less, weigh less, be impossible to lose or destroy, will never be outdated, and will unleash the creativity of teachers and local communities instead of constricting it. Remember when your teacher would say, "skip chapter 5, it's totally irrelevant to what we're doing?" There won't be a chapter 5 any more. Chapter 6 will now be chapter 5. And remember that packet that your teacher would hand out and you were supposed to keep safe in your 3 ring binder but which got chewed up and dog-eared and lost its pages before the test? That's now part of your online resource for world history, part of your dynamicbook. Our language teacher, Lauren, is using a version of this from Pearson Learning Systems, but that system lacks the wiki quality: you can use it but you can't add or subtract from it. We think we need iPads, 1:1 laptop programs, smartboards, iPhones, but we don't. The dynamic book is what we need to really move forward. It will have authority, but it will maintain some open-sourcieness; it will be cloud-sourced, but it will also be edited and supervised.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Pennsylvania: Schools Accused of Spying" -- NYT

Yes, my very own Lower Merion School District was accused today of spying on students using the webcams built into the laptops that they distributed to every student. (See "Pennsylvania: Schools Accused of Spying" in the New York Times.)  It's going to be important to watch this. People see a laptop as a personal device, not as company-issued equipment. This case overturns that perception. That laptop has an operating system and other software on it that is licensed to and configured by Lower Merion. My tax dollars paid for those licenses. To some extent, Lower Merion answers to me and the other parents who send their kids to school here. If that machine is used for nefarious or unseemly purposes, that's a problem for Lower Merion. The district must filter web use on that machine, protect it from viruses, and attempt to make sure that the contents of the hard drive are legal and appropriate. They must also attempt to protect the privacy of the child who is using that laptop. One-to-one laptop programs, such as the one that this case involves, must not be seen as give-aways, but rather as contracts between schools and families. A laptop has much more potential for good and for harm than state-issued textbooks.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't Shoot the Piano Player!

Larry Cuban wrote in Education Week in 2006 that you could put a piano in every classroom and still not create a music culture: "the music is in the teacher, not the piano." His article, a commentary entitled, "The Laptop Revolution Has No Clothes," (October 17, 2006) is a wonderfully cranky and knowledgable screed against one-to-one laptop programs.

Larry Cuban has been around the block a few times and seen a lot happen in education. And now he is seeing the same old pattern he has seen before: a lot of enthusiasm over something very shiny, expensive and promising, without a lot of thought given to methods and purposes. Is he really seeing the same old pattern again, or is he conditioned by his depth of experience to see only the same patterns even when something new is emerging?

There is a lot of research now on the 1:1 experience and it has been done in all sorts of different schools. From what I can discern, this is not a transformative technological change; it may just be the next thing we all do because it makes sense, given the weight of backpacks, the price of e-books, the changes in publishing, the ubiquity of wireless, etc. Evolution, not revolution.

In the Fall of 1983, my first year teaching, the faculty room at my school had a "spirit duplicator", or "ditto machine". In the middle of the school year it was replaced by a Xerox photocopier, and boy did things change. It wasn't visionary or transformative, but it was the next step.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Peer Review and Intelligent Participation

"Open-source is nothing more than peer-reviewed science." --Marc Andreessen, inventor of the first Web browser, quoted in conversation by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat. The question, then, is who are the peers? Friedman was writing about the development of the Apache web server, an extremely successful open-source application. The edits and additions to the code are reviewed by a board of programmers. And programmers at major institutions, and at IBM in particular, oversee the quality of the work to insure its continued viability. The CK-12 Foundation also has a review board, a "membrane" in Jaron Lanier's terms, so that you know that the textbook you are downloading has good information in it.

Open-source material depends on one critical element: intelligent participation. This applies to teaching too. We can use open-source materials like wikipedia in teaching if we have intelligent participation by intelligent teachers. Teachers have to know enough to spot a fake, sense an author's hidden agenda, cut through the spin or point out a glaring ommission. Teachers have to be authorities in their own right and to be able to discern authority in new media sources.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Authority Switch

If you go to you will see the site of the Ck-12 foundation, which publishes free "flexbooks:" online textbooks that are gradually modified in the same way that open-source software is developed. The state of California will be using some of CK-12's  free textbooks next year, saving millions of dollars. (See Lewin, Tamar "In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History", NYT, August 9, 2009) An important part of the process is review. At the top of each textbook they offer is a standard progress bar that reads, "This content is / for review >> under review >> has been reviewed" with a link to an explanation of the review process. But who does the reviews?

In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier talks about the importance of "membranes" in the digital world. These membranes separate one entity from another. There is a membrane around CK12: it is an identifiable group of people with a specific mission and a transparent funding source. You know who they are and what their agenda is. You know their motives and their level of expertise. They are authorities. They review the work, approve it, and take responsibility for it. An Oxford Classical Text has a very thick membrane about it; Wikipedia has an impossibly thin one.

The K-12 Technology Scale

Almost all college freshmen have laptops; almost no kindergartners have laptops. Somewhere between entering school and entering college, a kid gets a laptop. Where should that point be?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What about Kindergarten?

As Anne points out in her comment, I am arguing back and forth with myself, saying one moment that education cannot be flattened and at the next describing how it could be flattened. Now I'll argue again that it cannot be flattened: kindergarten. Who takes care of kindergarten? What part of that task can be sent over fiber optic cables to some other continent where costs are lower?

Oddly, however, kindergarten and first grade classes sometimes look a lot like a technologically enriched environment. Lecturing and prolonged presentation are unwelcome, while project-based education prevails. Students are often posted around the room at stations, working individually or in pairs. The stations sometimes include computer equipment, but more often they comprise different kinds of tools.

Fewer Teachers; More Learning

Imagine a school where students worked alone or in teams with computing devices connected to automated web-based tutoring systems designed by master teachers. If a student got stuck on a problem, or didn't understand an essay question, she or he could open a chat window with a "cloud-sourced" education-worker in Bangalore, India, or one of several similar centers in India, China, or wherever there are clusters of highly-educated, low-wage workers and abundant fiber-optic bandwidth. A person would be present and circulate through the room or rooms to parent, encourage, discipline and instruct students as needed. All testing would take place online and all grading would be outsourced. The teacher-to-student ratio would be halved and the levels of reading, writing, math and problem-solving skills would increased by half.

I had this vision reading an academic article in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education entitled, "A Comparison of Traditional Homework to Computer-Supported Homework." The author points out that the "Maine Learning Technology Initiative was able to supply laptops to all of their seventh and eighth grade students for $300 per student per year, which is about one third of the cost of reducing class size." (434).

Maybe education can be "flattened." The best, most creative teachers will become content creators and designers of the system, or they will lead, parent and oversee the instruction of very large numbers of children. And their salaries will be comparable to the salaries of doctors. While the help-desk aspects of teaching will be outsourced to the cloud. Teachers who are living in high cost-of-living areas but lack the high-level skills required to design and maintain such a system would have to adapt or lose their jobs like many other victims of the new global economy.


Yes, I paid $212.00 to get content online. That's the cost of a one year subscription to ISTE, the International Society for Technology and Education. It gives me access to a number of publications and interest-group newsletters, as well as a discount at the annual convention. But I don't even get a mug or umbrella! What I do get is content from practitioners in the field as well as academics doing statistical research on the use of technology in the classroom. I consider ISTE an authority in my field, so I'm actually happy to spend the money.

Reading some of the material there, I still feel the difficulty of finding good information on my topics: 1-to-1 laptop programs and online educational content. There is a lot of information, but not a lot that enlightens the situation for me at my institution at this time. I also face this odd phenomenon: articles published just a few years ago seem outdated. No kindle, no iPad, no fight with MacMillan.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Serving Versus Selling

I read a fine phrase used by Tim Fish in his article in the Winter 2009 edition of Independent School Magazine: "servant leader." It captures nicely the dichotomy of teaching, and, to a large extent, the role that different technologies play in teaching and learning. Tim, a former director of technology and writer and speaker on the subject of technology in education, stressed in his article the importance of community, relationships and a sense of place in schools. Teachers serve the community and lead the community.

Digital technology comes from a very different world: the marketplace. From the moment it became possible to type one's credit card number safely into a website, selling, marketing, promoting, has been grafted onto what was once arcane science. Digital culture intrudes, with its brassy self-confidence; it calls us all old-fashioned, hopelessly inadequate, unprepared for the future. Selling is in its nature. Upgrading is mandatory. And this approach is anathematic to serving and leading. Your doctor should not promote or sell you an antibiotic; she should heal you with it if that is the appropriate measure.

We should offer digital technology in clever ways that respond to genuine needs, not sell it or market it to create a need.

Rock, Paper, Kindle -- and Kindle on your laptop or iPhone

In the children's game, scissors cuts paper, rock breaks scissors, paper wraps rock. The rules are defined. In the game of devices, not so. I tried reading my kindle book on my laptop this morning but my eyes got tired very quickly. I went back to reading it on the kindle and my eyes were fine but I couldn't navigate around as easily. A friend subscribes to all his newspapers, about 4 of them, on his iPhone because there are no ads and he finds the large format of standard monitor distracting and paper too messy as well as distracting. At first I wasn't sure where "rock" would come into this analogy, but I just realized, of course, that chalk and slate are rock, which some people still enjoy using.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The World is Flat; Children Are Not

Reading Friedman's The World is Flat.

Education is not an activity that, at its core, can be "flattened" in his sense. It cannot be distributed geographically or disaggregated, sourced out to a network of workers, and then reassembled, although certain parts of it can be. For example, our Blackboard site is hosted far away from our actual campus. I'm not even sure it is hosted in this country. And when we call Hewlett-Packard for support on our own data center, we get a technician in India, who diagnoses the problem and then dispatches a local technician to come to our facility and replace any hardware that has gone bad. If the problem is not hardware related, then it may be fixed from Bangalore. Kindergarteners, by law, must be supervised by two adults at all times; seniors, by contrast, may leave campus in their cars if they are free. But even seniors depend, I think, on the physical presence of their teachers and parents to guide them and motivate them. At the core of our kind of education, there is an allegiance between individuals that depends on physical togetherness.

What's in your bookbag?

Silly though it seems, the weight of a student's bookbag is a great indicator of the success of the efficiency of our learning tools. If a Kindle, iPad, laptop or tablet adds to the weight of the bag without subtracting weight, something is probably wrong. E-books and online resources have to be a new way, not an add-on.

Episcopal is in a good place from which to watch the next big shift. Having moved two campuses into a third and sold the original two, EA is not easily daunted by change. The faculty is brave, clever and tough.They also have a lot of experience and can spot chicanery when they see it. Chalk is not beneath them and e-books do not intimidate them.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Got Issues with "Authority?"

I am getting interesting reactions to the term, "authority." Because I am a classicist, "authoritative" means "correct," not necessarily because someone insists. Classics has a side to it that most people are unaware of. The field developed as a science before there were "soft" and "hard" sciences. Just science. In German, it is altertumswissenshaft -- the science of antiquity. This idea of authority for me is perfectly represented by a page from an Oxford Classical Text. Generations of scholars have come to consensus about what the "correct" letters should be, and at the bottom of the page there is the apparatus criticus where variant readings are noted along with the sources in which they are attested or the scholars who suggested them. It is a science and a humanity.

My working definition of authority, then, for this particular project, is this: the consensus of a group of committed researchers putting forth their best conclusions using the best information at hand at the time. This definition is subject to change, of course, as this committed researcher gathers more information over time and continues to refine his conclusions.

More Money for Content

When the buzz over Apple's pretty piece of hardware dies down, it will be the business model that Steve Jobs revealed that will ultimately change history. Today another publisher, Hachette, has broken with Amazon over it's rock-bottom $9.99 e-book price. Content providers want more money for their work. Amazon is no longer the single source for paper-free content.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

2 1-1? or not 2 1-1?

One-to-One laptop programs. Very expensive and sometimes unsuccessful. My colleague, Cathy Hall, and I want to form an opinion very deliberately concerning how we feel about instituting a one-to-one laptop program at Episcopal. We are going to buy a large, expensive textbook that is obviously written for education schools, The Digital Pencil: One-to-One Computing for Children. Due diligence. A bit of a slog, probably. But a start. I intend to visit schools where all children have laptops and see in person what is happening. With a program that expensive, one is often given the official "Mission Accomplished" propaganda whether the program is successful or not. There is research to be read too. The question is, how will it transform teaching at our school, with our kids and our teachers? We have enough laptop carts now that we are at a ration of about one-to-two. Maybe that's fine for us. Maybe we just need to move to two-to-three. Maybe that's our number.

Google Too

Google is working on its own tablet device, "chromium", and its own bookstore. Will competition be better for content creators? What about content consumers? Will the competition devolve into a babel of incompatible, proprietary devices and file formats, or will you be able to buy books from one source and read them on a device sold to you by another source?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Who Knows Where We're Going

I wrote to the Wall Street Journal to see if they could give me more to read about concerning their story about e-texbooks, and they wrote back to say that, basically, what was in the article was all that anyone knew.

The Race is on for E-texbooks

The Wall Street Journal today: "Textbook Firms Ink E-Deals For iPad". Publishers are gearing up for the change. But not a Berkeley student's comment on the article: "I want to write all over my textbook." The Ipad has no stylus, whereas standard tablets offered by HP, Toshiba etc. do. Very exciting to watch MacMillan and Amazon break ties one day, and make an agreement the next. ("Amazon Pulls Macmillan Books Over E-Book Price Disagreement" NYT Friday and "Publisher Wins Fight With Amazon Over E-Books" NYT on Sunday!) By the end of this sabbatical, the market will be completely different. We may see the first big deployments in the Fall.