Alexandria Online

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Disrupting Class: Will the Online Revolution Come to Independent Schools?

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn (Disruption Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) argue very convincingly that the small growth in online or computer-based learned that is beginning to accelerate will soon create a revolution in teaching along the lines of the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980's. Disruptive products and services begin as cheap, weak imitations of something that is established: early PC = online course; mainframe = traditional class. But a whole class of "non-consumers" arises: people who would not otherwise have access to any semblance of the established product or service. They take to the new technology or service like crazy, and the new thing gets better and better and finally replaces the established thing.

I don't think this will ever happen to established independent schools. That's my bet. And here's why.

While it seems pretty straightforward to replace a traditional algebra class with an online algebra class, there will never be a computer-based or online way to raise children. And raising children is much of what we do, not only in independent schools, but wherever adults are put in charge of groups of children.

I specify my own sector of the education industry, independent schools, because I think it is a more potent counter-example to the educational disruption that Horn and Christensen are talking about.

When parents send their children to independent schools, they are spending for a service that they could receive for free in their local school district. Some of the school districts that we draw our students from are excellent. But parents, and to some extent the students themselves, perceive a special value in going to The Episcopal Academy, for example, over the great schools in Radnor Township, PA.

For the sake of this argument, let's not even try to explain the factors that go into this decision. Suffice it to say that it is complicated and personal. Something to do with college admission, spirituality, growth of the whole child, values, small class size, community, etc. The list goes one and the items on it create an interdependent web of preference. I think many parents would have a hard time describing why they send their kids to Episcopal, but they are pretty sure that's what they want for them. There is something ineffable and unquanifiable that motivates them that defies a rational model. It is the complexity of communal life.

Kids learn when they are members of a learning community of parents, teachers and other students. They are motivated by their relationships, not by the material. They want to please their teachers, obey their parents, be accepted by their peers. There is no innate imperative to learn algebra; the imperative is learned by exposure to the community. Only when the learner embraces the community, sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes from a lack of any alternative, can ideas begin to take root.

Once such a community exists, then yes: computer-based learning and online learning will quickly be adopted and prove their signature efficiencies. But the community is fundamental and primary; while the technological disruption is and will remain supplemental and secondary.

The question that my argument throws open is whether strong enough learning communities can develop online. There is no dirth of online communities, and some of them are quite strong. But can they ever match the level of bonding and shared beliefs that can develop in an actual community?

Disrupting Class is the most refreshing books about education I have read. Horn and Christensen talk about schools and learning in a way that no one else does.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The End of 20th Century Classroom Teaching

A New Geometry Class
Imagine a high school geometry class where the room is laid out like a lab. Picture four computer workstations on a square lab table. Students work through proofs using an educational cocktail of approaches: they write a line-by-line geometric proof using full sentences in Googledocs. They use the well-known software package, Geometer's Sketchpad, to solve problems visually, moving points around on a grid, measuring angles, construction "what-if?" scenarios.  They view animations and listen to podcasts downloaded from the class site.

The class site is the text for the course, a cloudbook, comprising postulates, corollaries and explanations in written sentences like your grandmother's geometry book, but also drills, animations, and podcasts that are visual-spatial, manipulable, and auditory. The cocktail of approaches accomodates almost all different kinds of learning.

Each student works at his or her own pace, mastering each step along the way using self-assessments. There is an FAQ section on the class site where kids have posted questions and the teacher has posted answers. They can also ask their lab partners to the left and right of them.

The teacher goes from lab bench to lab bench checking on progress and making sure kids are staying focused and not fooling around. He answers questions in person as he goes and sometimes, if the question is a really good one or one that he has been asked frequently, he asks the student to post it to the FAQ.

Clayton Christensen: Disrupting Class or Changing Class?
This is my vision of how a class would be organized under the revolutionary model proposed by Clayton Christensen in his book, Disrupting Class : How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is an economist and brings economic models from the business world to bear on education, and particularly public education.

The model is compelling. Disruptive technologies begin as cheap consumer products and eventually overturn whole industries by attracting "non-consumers" -- people who did without a product before it became cheap and easy to use. So personal computers eventually overwhelmed mainframes. People who had no access to computers bought cheap, low-powered PC's and Macs. The personal computer gradually improved and became more powerful until it overturned the entire industry.

Christensen applies this to the example of Advanced Placement courses or courses in rarely-taught languages that a student may want to take but may not find available at his own school. More and more students are taking these courses online. They are good courses given by good teachers, and the students have access to the teacher just as they would in a regular class.

Is Christensen's Model Predictive for Schools?
The question I have is whether Christensen's model, and his tone of certainty about the future, are right. His model is elegant and supported by abundant data and deep reading; the beginning of the trend is evident; but is it the right model for this industry?

His categorization of "non-consumer" to the population of learners who are not getting what they want is particularly vulnerable. Virtually every child in the country is currently consuming education, even if the quality of that education is sorely lacking. And, for the most part, that education is free. Hard to beat that price.

The PC revolution is a great example. But another example he cites is the Linux operating system, which I see as a counter-example. While Christensen argues that Linux exhibits the adoption by non-consumers, he does not address the fact that Linux is nowhere in terms of replacing Windows, Mac OS, or Unix. It has revolutionized the development of various computing appliance, but it has not replaced a paradigm.

Computer-based courses, like the online courses Christensen cites and like the one I describe, may be excellent educational alternatives. They may change the manner in which we teach and learn in many settings. But the model of disruptive change seems like a stretch when applied to the state of education in this country.

This post was written at the half-way point in the book, so stay tuned for an update once I am finished. One thing I would like to see is a set of examples of non-disruptive change, where an industry gradually adapts a new technology without a revolution. It would also be good to set forth more examples like Linux, where a new technology is adopted and exists parallel to the traditional business models without being either adopted or crushed.

So far, Christensen's approach is to propose one model and try to persuade the reader that he is right. A better approach might be to propose several models and show that the disruptive model is the best.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What's a Library For? Everything and Everybody

Dave Wee and the other Middle School librarians spent a lot of time with me, for which I am very grateful. So, for that matter did most of the folks at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. People want to talk about this issue of moving authoritative educational materials from print to the Cloud -- a lot. Many aspects of teaching stay the same from year to year, so a change like this is exciting.

In libraries everywhere, reference works are being stored online; however, as Craig Mod has shown so well in his blog post, Books in the Age of the iPad, there are some "defined-content" books that cannot be poured into a Kindle or a laptop, might be able to be poured into an iPad, but work great in print, that are going to stay on library shelves. Here is a friend's beautiful Italian cook book:

Notice how some of the images even spill over the border of the page. It just won't fly on a Kindle. Nor will I be purchasing any classical text in digital form for a long time. These books stay on the shelf.

But the question of what happens to the books is less important than the question, What happens to the whole concept of the library? I say, Nothing. Alarmed? Don't be. A school, at bottom, is little more than ideas and people coming together in a place. Libraries will always play an important role in making that happen. There has to be a place to go to get iPods, Kindles, portable computers, and -- yes -- books. It's the school's tool shed. Kids need tools to get at the ideas. And they need help with those tools -- from librarians.

One last, amusing story about Dave Wee and the other kind librarians at Harvard-Westlake. While we were chatting in the large office/work-space in the back, I mentioned the importance of laminators to our own Lower School teachers at Episcopal. Dave's eyes lit up and he declared proudly, "oh yes, our laminator is right there!" The others chimed in their approval. "And beside it is a 'posterizer', which takes any document, eight and a half by eleven, and makes a poster for you." This machine too caused general glee in the room.

The Ellison Cutter
Then I noticed a long wall of old, wooden cubbies with blocks in them. It looked like giant type blocks for a giant typesetting machine: an "Ellison Cutter." Dave became very excited and had to show me how it worked. The thick, rubber block has a sharp, metal fence embedded in it and bent into the shape of a letter, number, or object. You put the block in the press and stamp it onto a flat material -- usually colored construction paper -- and voila! You have your shape. He made an orange construction paper key for me:

There was much animated discussion about what shapes they had recently gotten in, what shapes they already had, which ones were popular for particular projects. It was clear that this wonderful machine, that drew no electricity, never crashed, and would not have to be replaced or upgraded in three years, was well loved and well used.

That's what a library is for at Harvard-Westlake school. It's a place to go to pick up an audiobook, check out a laptop, sit and listen, sit and read, cut a shape, make a poster, or check out an old, oversize edition of images of Ancient Greek pottery for a project on heros. And then there are the people you go to see there, the librarians, who can help you navigate the dizzying array of tools at your disposal so that you can get at the ideas you need.

People and ideas in a place.

Handouts + Podcasts + Animations + Powerpoints = what? Cloudbooks?

I had a whirl-wind tour of the Harvard-Westlake School today in Los Angeles. Everywhere I went I saw the beginnings of Cloudbooks. Yes: I just made up that word. What else do you call it when a bunch of teachers begins to gather all their resources in digital form -- in The Cloud -- so that everyone can store, organize, share, review and edit them?

Deb Dowling, Physics teacher and Director of Studies, created podcasts -- simple recordings of lectures -- and coupled them with animations using CamTasia to produce complete online classes that the kids listen to for homework. The lecture is the homework! And when they come to class they work on problems together. The homework is the class! So the course is taught backwards.

Innovative enough, but in the wake of this innovation Deb and her colleagues have amassed all this digitized educational material that they can use again next year. Is it a cloudbook yet? Will it become one?

There are three Physics teachers and all of them use this method and these materials. This is the beginning -- the strands of protein in the primordial muck that leads to the formation of DNA that spawns life as we know it in schools: a book.

Of course it is very different from a bound, paper book. It does a lot of the same things, but more. It's alive: changing every year, growing. And the school is no longer at the mercy of publishers. Just today, the Texas school board announced that it wanted to inject more religion into some of its social studies texts. Schools in Massachussetts won't be very happy to hear that, since they may well have to use the same textbooks. But if they had their own cloudbooks, Texas would become irrelevant to Massachussetts -- and vice versa.

This is the first year that Deb and her team are using this, so I will be interested to see how much they will be able to reuse next year. The process takes longer than standard lesson preparation, and requires more collaboration. You also have to agree with your colleagues on the curriculum.

Curricular agreement is something that Episcopal shares with Harvard-Westlake. We are both big, busy, metropolitan schools that have an unspoken belief in getting and keeping systems in place. Independent schools are notorious for maverick teachers and idiosyncratic practices that are often seen as advantages over public schools. But there are also many disadvantages to such individualistic approaches to teaching, and one of them is that they will not produce textbooks or cloudbooks. The brilliant maverick seldom passes his methods on to the next generation.

Margot Riemer, Upper School Spanish teacher, was beginning to use the online version of her Spanish textbooks, just as our Spanish teacher was.

Math teacher, Mike Mori, told his kids to keep their books at home -- too heavy to carry around -- and he would project the online version up so they could do the same problems in class. One class did not have an online version, but that was no problem for Mike: he threw the paper book under the document camera and carried on. He teaches with a projector and a tablet and posts his lessons on his moodle class.

Deb Dowling uses a CD-based text from Kinetic Books. You have to install the "book" on a single computer and register that computer to the company. If your computer dies, you cannot simply reinstall: you have to call the company to get the license transferred. That's one way to slow down piracy. The kids had to use paper books to do their problems.

Ian Ulmer, Middle School history teacher, lectures -- yes lectures -- to his class, recording every class and podcasting it. He projects a powerpoint to accompany the lecture which is also posted. This may seem old-fashioned at first -- it's actually ancient. If a student has a hard time reading, he or she could do very well in this class because the story is told to them. In fact, it occurred to me that a blind student could easily thrive in this class, although the value of the powerpoints would be lost. Oral history!

David Wee, Middle School librarian, talked about teaching the kids how to read Wikipedia, acknowledging that everyone uses it and will continue to use it but many will not use it well. He and his colleagues have built out a lot of resources online -- mostly reference works -- in moodle. They expressed no special romance with moodle as a tool, referred to it as slightly clunky, but affirmed the necessity of having something like it where they could pool resources.

Both Upper and Middle School libraries now have a fleet of mp3 players loaded with all the audiobooks a kid could need at Harvard-Westlake. They faced the same problem we faced with our Kindles: how to use a consumer product in an institutional setting. Every book can be loaded onto no more than three mp3 players. Multiple accounts had to be set up and it took a long time to load. But the books are extremely popular and the units are elegantly housed in bright yellow bomb-proof plactic cases along with ear-buds and a title list.

A lot of effort and creativity was going into regenerating the curriculum at Harvard-Westlake, and the electronic tools were enabling people to store, organize, share, review and edit them for their own classes. The question I kept asking my hosts was this: can someone else use the materials you are creating? Will you be able to use them next year? If the answer is yes, and it frequently was at Harvard-Westlake, then you've got a system going and pretty soon you'll have a book in the clouds.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mad at Your Texbook? Dump it. Build a teaching culture.

I met another teacher who got mad at his textbook and stopped using it. There it was, Pre-Algebra, the classic ox-stunner weighing in at about three pounds, worn bald at the corners, marked with sticky notes, useless for him. His name is Doug McKenzie -- looked to have at least ten years under his belt and teaches at a small K-8 independent school in Santa Barbara, California, Crane Country Day.

This visit was a random one: I saw the school from the car, thought it looked nice, called ahead and then dropped in. Since I said I was into technology, I got hooked up with a computer person, Chris Reussner, who kindly gave me a tour and discussed with me what their technology curriculum was.

This is another oddity of being a tech person. When you visit a school, they invariably show you the server room first, then a computer class, and then talk about what is happening in technology education. People naturally and generously want to show you where the technology IS at their school, not where it ISN'T.

I asked Chris about teachers who might be using online resources instead of textbooks and he didn't know of any, but then he suddenly got what I was after: "Doug McKenzie stopped using his textbook: I'll introduce you to him." I give Chris credit for being able to apprehend my negative-space perspective on the whole technology enterprise; I was barely able to articulate it myself.

What does Doug use? A bunch of worksheets he made, problems from online resources, and stuff he just plain made up. He is the classic bag-of-trickster teacher. The kids draw diagrams, stand in a line with hats on, set up dominos. Lots of manipulables.

Doug had never heard of Flexbooks or the CK-12 Foundation, but he quickly understood that he could both contribute and benefit from such a resource. I think he felt that it would be difficult and time-consuming to gather, edit, refine and present the materials he uses. How could that be useful for anyone other than himself and Chris, my guide, who teaches Algebra with Doug?

I think that's a common feeling among teachers: "I've got all this stuff, but it only works for me." Conversely, we've all had the experience of taking over someone else's course and being handed a dense folder of dog-eared materials in no particular order and being told cheerfully how helpful all these pieces of paper should be to us.

So here's the tricky question: how do we take all the great stuff that teachers like Doug are using and make it useful for other teachers? It's a corollary but not as significant question to the one that was asked in the New York Times Magazine yesterday: how to build a better teacher? I don't know all the details, but my strong feeling is that the answers lie in the areas of tradition, apprenticeship, intellectual heritage, collaboration, review, educational husbandry -- building a teaching culture.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Building a Better Teacher / Building a Better Book

The Sunday magazine section of the New York Times features an important and exciting piece on good teaching: "Building a Better Teacher." Classroom practices and mastery of content knowledge as it relates specifically to teaching are the two foci of the piece. For my purposes, it is the content knowledge that need a response, although what is said about classroom practice is significant.

If we are going to move toward Flexbooks more, then mastery of content will become more and more important. It's one thing to download a textbook and start teaching with, another thing altogether to be able to find errors in it, weed out what is irrelevant for your specific class, and add what you think will stimulate your kids. Conversely, if teachers begin working with Flexbooks, and they begin to adapt, improvise, edit and correct, I would argue that they will become better teachers very fast. If they have the horsepower to begin to engage a text at that level, they will grow and exceed their current limitations.

As part of a group that worked over several years to write and publish a series of textbooks, I have personal experience of the way the process stimulates, renews, challenges and improves teachers and teaching.

So, in addition to the actions being taken in graduate schools of education to improve classroom practice and those intended to improve knowledge of content relevant to teaching, let's add another action step: show beginning teachers how to create their own material. Get them to be creative and original about the content they are teaching. Engage them with the curriculum and the tools. Talented teachers will rise to the task; mediocre teachers will play above their level; incompetence will become immediately apparent.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Binding Authority: Your Life or Your Books

Read this: And then think about your own library. Craig is right on target. Which books do you really need to keep? Which ones would you like to store on hard drive that takes up the space of a wallet? I have a library of Oxford Classical Texts that I'd just as soon boil and eat as put in a box and take to the book donation bank. Throwing out my Homer would be like throwing out a picture of my wife's great-great grandmother on cross-country skis at the age of 90 back in the old country. Except the country's even older.

Back when there were real  bookstores, there was a bookstore in Philadelphia called William Allen's. He was one of the top sellers of classical libraries in the country. When a serious scholar of the classics -- usually but not always a professor -- died, he would be summoned to buy the library whole. When you bought a book there, you often knew whose library it had come from, not because there was a name written in it, but because he would tell you whose it was.

Not all scholars or serious readers keep their books for a life-time, but many keep most. And then there is the pulp which comes and goes -- kindling for the kindle.

In many cases, a library follows an individual through the course of an entire life and disintegrates only at the end of life.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kids and Computers: Leave the Meter Running

Why would you want your kid to spend MORE time on the computer? My kids grew up with game boys, game boy advance, game boy DS, Neopets, Runescape, World of Warcraft, Spore, Wii, and somewhere in there they master Microsoft Word too. But one microchip-powered device that they  have used ever since they were little was a small cooking timer. Twenty minutes, half and hour, extra, whatever they got it was all they got and they had to keep track of it. When we heard the beeping it reminded us and them that it was time to get off the darned machine and go play outside or read a book. We have four people and four computers in the house. One computer belongs to my wife, and the other three? They are all mine. Our kids do not own a computer. My 17 year old drives but he does not have his own car. We have one TV -- a 22" CRT (more fat than flat) -- and one ping-pong table that we also share.

Jonathan Zimmerman, resident of the now notorious Lower Merion School District and historian, wrote today in the Philadelphia Inquirer my exact sentiments on the issue of handing out computers to kids. Once a school hands it to a kid, then the school is the boss, not the parent. If the child wants to take it up to her room, she can, unless that's one of the battles you want to pick. You're not the boss of her computer any more. Whereas if it's one of my many computers, then I'm the boss of it. He and I aren't the only ones. Another friend of ours and resident of "LM" said the same: the recent and highly publicized breach of privacy was a very bad incident; however, the 1:1 program itself presents a persistent and growing problem: too much unsupervised privacy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The People's Physics: Interview with FlexBook author, James Dann

The CK-12 organization ( has built a considerable library of free, downloadable, editable FlexBooks, many of which will be used instead of expensive, printed texts from traditional publishers by California's budget-challenged public school systems next year. As book ordering time approaches, I thought it would be timely to interview a FlexBook author, James Dann, physics teacher at Menlo School in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Together with his father, also a physics teacher, they composed The People's Physics and presented it to CK-12 pro bono publico.

James worked for a while at CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, where they have some of the coolest toys know to human kind. It was one of the cradles of the Web, and a community garden of open-source information. His early, favorable experience with open-source made the idea of an open-source textbook seem natural.

James and his father took matters into their own hands when the publisher of the physics text they had worked with for years decided to issue a new, "improved" edition. It was more expensive and worse. So they began their micro-revolution.

They teamed up with CK-12 and soon the book was posted. California has already adopted many of the chapters of the book, but not all. One of the things James discovered was that California's state standards of adoption seemed so stringent that only the big publishers could meet them; big publishers, of course, have a vested interest in making sure that the standards stay so stringent that they alone can meet them. Hard for the little guy to sneak in among the Goliaths.

Interestingly, one of the objections that the state had to The People's Physics was that it had no example problems -- you know, the kind at the beginning of the chapter in a different background color that gives you a problem and then shows you the solution in Italics or some such thing. James and his father left this element out on purpose because they always did their example problems in class as part of the presentation of a chapter. Similarly, it had no answer key or teacher's edition. The People's Physics was not written as a course but as a book.

California did not like that and so CK-12 paid a grad student to add examples to all the chapters. It didn't make James very happy, but I pointed out to him that, since it is a FlexBook, people can just cut the examples out if they want.

Stay tuned for the next episode as California gears up to use open-source FlexBooks next year.