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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Define "Technology" at the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley

In the Sunday NYTimes today there is an article about a Waldorf School in Silicon Valley that has no computers in the lower grades.

The cover picture -- front page of the times and pretty big too -- is of a school girl lying on her back, legs dangling over the table, reading a book.

What she holds in her hands is a technology. It is a codex. If she were reading a scroll she would not be able to lie on her back like that; she would have to sit at the table and unroll the scroll on the table to read it. She would not be able to go back and forth to reread sections very easily.

In addition, it is a printed codex and not a manuscript. We all know about that revolution.

Once upon a time, the printing press and the codex were brand new technologies. They were resisted by traditionalists and extolled by enthusiasts. Now these technologies are invisible.

Printed codexes never fail. Only once or twice in my life have I encountered a defective book -- one where the pages were somehow messed up or bound in the wrong order. Paper and pencils never seem to fail either. Nor do knitting needles and wool, as mentioned in the article.

It may be that the element of failure itself defines what is technology and what is not.

On my kitchen counter sits a black, bakelite, 1950's era, piece of technology that was once the property of Bell Telephone and leased to my grandmother until the '80's, when Ma Bell was broken into parts. Stamped in the thick metal base plate are the words, "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY NOT FOR SALE." It was just another piece of equipment in Bell's network and it didn't belong to you any more than the telephone pole on the street belonged to you. Bell owned the whole network and made damned sure that it all worked the way it was supposed to.

Compare that to my iPhone 4s. SIRI, the voice recognition geni, is a remarkable achievement. David Pogue, technology editor  of the NYTimes, calls it "magic". And he is not easily pleased. And yet SIRI fails constantly. And that's not the only problem. I get dropped calls. The system hangs sometimes. The battery dies after a day's use. Facetime only works on wifi.

The rotary phone does not seem like a technology to us and yet the iPhone does.

Given the right economic conditions and technological advances, people will begin to see some of things they call technology today as simply the things they are. Online or digital educational resources will become invisible as technologies and the hard work of learning will be what it always has been, from learning the order of operations in arithmetic to writing long, complex arguments of literary analysis.

What used to belong to the world of technology will belong to you. It may say "Property of Bell" or "Apple" or "Intel inside", but it will be the property of the people.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

E-Textbooks: "They Always Take Longer Than You Think" -- Pooh

That's a quote from Winnie the Pooh as he plays "pooh sticks" with his friends, a game in which you throw sticks off a bridge into a stream on one side and run to the other side to watch them come out.

Today, in the New York Times, I read about a school district that uses digital resources to the exclusion of paper ones:

If you look back through this blog, you can see that it began pretty much at the same time as the original iPad came out in February of 2010. The Kindle had already been out for a year.

Two years later, I'm still seeing a lot of paper. At Episcopal, the usual pattern is that we still get the bound paper book but we also get access to online resources. The resources are not downloads; they are not like kindle books. So you must be connected to the internet all the time to access them. The teacher gets a master account and sets up accounts for all the kids to access the materials. Kids leave their paper books at home, study with them, mark them up, and use the online resources both at home and everywhere else.

I think it is just too scary for the multi-billion dollar educational textbook publishing complex to give up on a tangible product that they can charge serious money for in exchange for a flimsy contract over digital intellectual property that can easily be ripped off.

And yet, in Munster, Indiana, they are going all digital, with lots of problems, complaints and resistance.

As we continue looking at a one-to-one laptop program at Episcopal, having digital resources available in class and at home is a significant benefit, one that weighs heavily in our deliberations. Unlike the first wave of e-books, this generation is not going away any time soon. It's just taking longer than you'd think it would.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halfway to E-books

Many classes at Episcopal use E-books. Sometimes. Everybody gets a bound paper book, but they also get access to the online version with supplementary materials. So lots of kids just leave their paper books home and access the online version when they need to at school.

We have a committee to study implementing a one-to-one laptop program at Episcopal right now. One of the things we are considering is the price of paper books versus the price of e-books. And the associated weight reduction.

There are definitely some savings to be had solely on the basis of switching to e-books.

If we do implement a one-to-one program, and if we do it right, we will be delivering an experience that is more like a lab and less like a lecture. And in this lab-like setting students may be more apt to reference the textbook from time to time, which will be right there on their screens. The bound paper book will be back home.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Personal Versus Corporate Technology

We distribute iPhones, iPads or laptops to various employees at Episcopal and now we are considering giving laptops to students as well and asking them to use them in class. All of these technologies have an oddly personal touch to them. And the smaller they are, the more personal, culminating in the iPhones that ride around in pockets and contain family pictures and personal contact information in addition to lots of corporate data.

We want our employees and students to be comfortable with the technology we give them, and yet we need to maintain it to our standards.

One way to approach a laptop program is to allow students to bring in whatever they have at home and just cross their fingers that the battery will last through they day.

Another way of doing it is to give them a choice, perhaps in 5th grade before any purchasing decisions have been made, between three models of computers that we recommend.

And the most corporate way of doing this is to crank out a hundred or so identically imaged machines that we lease for exactly four years and then make disappear, following by another wave or "refresh" of standardized platforms.

What is the right balance for us between the corporate and the personal?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Serious Fun: 5th Grader Teaches the Teachers

When I signed up myself and my son to present a session at the 2011 conference of the International Society for Technology in Education in Philadelphia this June, I had no idea that 105 people would sign up to listen to a 5th grader teach them how to write a computer program. (Click here for a webcast.)

Needless to say, neither one of us slept much the night before. But we were immaculately prepared when the big day came and remarkably calm. My son did a great job and wowed the crowd.

What was interesting to me was that so many people signed up. They wanted to listen to a kid talk about how kids learn to program. He was the authority in the room.

And why not? When he did his demo, a simple version of the classic computer game, "pong," he got a big round of applause. He delivered the goods, as promised. He was smooth and clear in his delivery and never faltered. Bottom line: the game worked.

No Ph.D. from Harvard in education. One person asked me if I was from M.I.T. I said, no, I was a school teacher. The participant smiled and asked, "how about him." We'll see.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Do We Listen to Lectures? Authors and the Web of Authority

The Shipley School, Penn Charter and The Episcopal Academy, three k-12 co-ed independent schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, held a joint professional day last week. By pooling our funds, we were able to hire an eminent and expensive scholar in the field of educational innovation and reform, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap.

Tony have a well-polished presentation to about 400 teachers and administrators, including a half-hour documentary that he had produced. My colleagues and I had differences with various points, but there was general agreement on the high caliber of the presentation. We accepted him as an authority on his topic.

His first slide, appearing in giant dimensions on a theater screen, prominently displayed just his name, department and academic institution. The picture (this is a link to says it all:

Harvard: if you graduated from there, and someone asks you what college you attended, you know that you have to react to or somehow deflect the response you are going to get. Shy people just say "Boston" and change the subject; even the arrogant twitch a little when they answer. Harvard has almost become a parody of Harvard in the current college admissions environment; likewise, it's authority has almost become a parody of academic authority.

When we three schools got Tony Wagner on board we got a lot of message power regardless of the actual message: a living, breathing authority in front of us, an excellent presentation, his authoritative book, his authoritative documentary, the Harvard effect, and 400 other people all listening at the same time. We saw his body language, listened to the timbre of his voice, asked questions, watched him move. Harvard approved him, three schools approved him, and all the people in the audience approve of his importance if not his message.

You can read Tony's blog,, and you can read his most recent book, but nothing pushes ideas around as much as getting 400 people in a room and making them listen to him in person. It's like spinning a web: every time related ideas emerge from other sources, they get tied into the experience of hearing it from the author himself.

Almost being there is almost as good as being there for tying an idea into the minds of the listeners. At The Episcopal Academy, one of our graduates, Bernard Yaros, spoke at an assembly from Yemen via google video chat about the political upheaval there. I was skeptical of the impact this would have and worried about getting it to work, which was my responsibility, but my doubts were assuaged by the quality of the experience.

First, and most importantly, Bernard's presentation was excellent: perfect length, perfect message, great transitions, articulate speaker, a  seamlessly coordinated PowerPoint, and beautiful photos that he himself had taken. The quality of his presentation was equivalent to Tony Wagner's, which made us all proud.

While we could hear Bernard perfectly, the video was of pretty low quality. The entire presentation could have been digitized and played back with higher fidelity and much less hand wringing about whether or not it would work, whether Bernard's electricity would cut out, whether Yemen would shut down the Internet as Egypt had just a few weeks before.

Not only did Bernard present; he also answered questions from the students. This feature made the the experience much more authentic. Then there was the danger factor. Bernard had been at the university a few days earlier and had been walking home when he heard the shots that produced a massacre there. We were witnessing Bernard in real-time, just as he had experienced the danger at the university in real-time. Not the same as watching something prerecorded. I think our students feel they got the real story from a highly authoritative source.

Authority is a web: we know Bernard, we know where he went to college (Williams -- as good as Harvard for all intents and purposes) and we know what a young man like him would be doing in Yemen and consider his motives legitimate. He does not have a book or a tenured position, but he is one of us. We hear his voice and see his face. The school has authorized him to speak to 400 students and teachers who listen intently to him. We recognize the quality and character of his presentation as something we associate with authority.

This sort of venue -- a speaker presenting to an audience in person or virtually in person -- will become more important as people use online resources more. We can only trust what we read online if we have a trustworthy web of authority to bind it to. The strands of that web build gradually over a lifetime of experience.

Authority originates from individuals. By sitting in the audience at these two presentations my web expanded a little. I got to know Bernard Yaros, and through him, the political situation in Yemen, and Tony Wagner, and through him the global changes in education.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Making Toast with a Toaster: The Problem of Convergence

My smartphone, a Blackberry Bold 9700, belongs to The Episcopal Academy and is controlled by our Blackberry Enterprise Server. It is my administrative leash. Every employee's email address, work phone, and home address is in there. The emergency phone numbers of all the parents and guardians of our 1,250 kids are listed there as well as my own personal contacts. It keeps my professional and personal schedule.

Now it has also become my GPS, my point-and-shoot camera and my password keeper. The greater part of my life-time music collection is stored on a 16 GB micro SD card the size of my pinky nail that I slid into my phone like a little plastic splinter. Pictures, songs and passwords all sync to my desktop.

I was inspired to try this experiment in convergence by this article in the "Personal Tech" section of The New York Times by Sam Grobart:

Grobart lists devices and services which most of us deal with in our lives and which we might do well to do without. He puts great hope in convergence to smart phones: GPS, music player, and camera should all be ditched, he suggests, and we should put our phones in their places. Surprisingly, he recommends keeping paper books.

Achieving convergence, howerver, is not easy. I got myself all tangled up. I complicated the transition by attempting to synchronize everything using bluetooth. Don't try it. It doesn't work. I ended up getting my paws into our blackberry enterprise server, changing all sorts of settings on both my blackberry, my desktop and the blackberry desktop software, only to end up with my phone calls coming out throught the speakers of my computer. No bluetooth please.

I had my Blackberry hooked up to the car audio system and was smugly listening to my music when, of course, my phone rang. Now what? Naturally, the music stops and I grab the device that has so abruptly metamorphosed back into a phone, just as Cinderella's chariot reduced itself to a pumpkin. So that was odd.

For the average user who isn't looking for a fight that he can blog about it, having a separate camera, gps and music player makes a lot of sense. They are all pretty cheap. You can keep the gps in the car; you can lend the camera to a friend without handing over your life; you don't have to spend hours making transitions and learning new ways of doing what you were already doing just fine. Divergence works too sometimes.

In the old days, technology came with instructions which people actually read. If you wanted to make toast, you bought a toaster and used it exactly how the instructions described its operation. But how can we write instructions for a device like a smart phone that can do so much? The poor instruction manual writers have no idea what you intend to do with it aside from talk on the phone. And even that is pretty hard to describe.

This is why students still carry textbooks and why Amazon still sells plenty of bound paper books. CDs have yielded almost completely to music downloads, but the bound paper book won't go away yet. It is the toaster of the information world: you take it off the shelf, open the cover and immediately start reading; whereas, just opening the cover of the new iPad 2 is an extravaganza. The bound paper book does not need AT&T or Verizon; no wireless configuration, no charger, no apps, no usernames and passwords, no upgrades, no obsolescence.

Convergence crops up in funny places. At home we most often watch movies streamed from Netflix through our Wii. The speakers on my TV (which is "3D" only in the sense that it is an old, bulky, not at all flat, CRT, or "Cathode Ray Tube" for you youngsters) lie dormant and all my sound passes through my music amplifier to my 30-year-old floor speakers. Lots of appliances, new and old, playing happily together.

My home music configuration began with a turntable. Then a tape player was added. The tape player went away and was replaced by a CD player. Then both the turntable and the CD player were replaced by a digital music streamer (Logitech Squeezebox.)  Some folks just use their DVD player, Wii or TIVO box to stream their music, but I decided to diverge instead of converge.

Convergence and divergence maintain a delicate balance. As technologies evolve, devices begin to compete across categories. Then new devices appear. But perhaps the most powerful driver behind these changes is desire. People keep changing what they want as they see what new technology can do.

Some people just want a nice, warm, buttery piece of toast in the morning with a cup of coffee. They don't need a microwave/toaster-oven that can defrost, brown, bake, roast, broil and toast. They want to put a slice of bread into the slot, press down the little black lever, and wait for the toast to pop up.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Innovative Technology Versus Innovative Teaching

We put aside some money in our budget to fund innovation grants that teachers could apply for. Walking around money. Seed money. It was a nice sum and we should be able to make most of the people who applied pretty happy. There were two things in the nature of the applications that surprised us.

First, we came to the realization that using technology in the classroom seems a lot less innovative than it used to. Just as we have become accustomed to the relentless acceleration described in Moore's Law, we have also become accustomed to changing out the hardware and software we use at a predictable pace. Change is the new Same.

Smartboards, clickers, projectors, and tablets have been around for a while now. One-to-one laptop programs have come and gone with some successes and some expensive failures. And don't forget the prehistoric days of PalmPilots.

Second, there was not a single request for iPads or Kindles even though we maintain a stable of Kindles in the library, have piloted the use of Kindles in 11th grade English class, and have seeded the faculty with a dozen or so iPads.

So what did they request? Big bright visuals: wireless projectors and smartboards along with their accessories for the most part. Our teachers wanted large, reliable display devices connected to input devices that they could hand over to students. Not the worst impulse to have when you want to be innovative in the classroom.

Is there a general principal at work here? Perhaps this: avoid the bleeding edge of technology. Reliability and flexibility are prized by innovative teachers. They want something familiar, something already accepted into the educational community, something that will not distract them from creative teaching. New but not too new in a world where change is the new same.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who are you?

I posted a comment on a youtube video. The posting process required that I identify myself through a short menu of sites that establish online identities --- Facebook, Yahoo, etc.

We are heading away from anonymity on the internet. To be authoritative and have a voice, you have to be a someone, not a no one.

In special cases the anonymous voice can also have authority. Take my field: information technology. Many technology vendors now offere tech support in the form of a social networking site. Problems get posted by users and solutions are offered either by other users or by posters who are tagged as official experts by the vendor.

In this field, solutions can be tested easily . They either work or they don't. Anonymous posts provide hints or notions of how to solve problems.

Anonymous information, if tested, can be useful.

In his review of James Gleick's new book, "The Information," Geoffrey Nunberg emphasizes the importance of distinguishing the content of the signal from the signal: the number of bits transmitted and received continues to explode, but that does not mean that knowledge is increasing.

As Nunberg points out, "Even Wikipedia’s guidelines insist that articles be based on “reliable, published sources,” a category that excludes most blogs, not to mention Wikipedia itself."

The only reason to read a blog is because you know the author, either in person or from his writing. And the only reason to use Wikipedia for serious research is because most articles have a great bibliography of unique, authoritative voices.

The unique voice has value and authority.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Excellence of Sledding

We allow our kids to sled during recess. (I hope our lawyer is not reading this blog.) The Episcopal Academy, in a moment of undiluted genius, bought about 50 cheap, plastic sleds. Pretty much all day I have watched these disciplined, private school kids march up the steps without pushing, stand in line at the top of the hill, and careen down the hill screaming. This is educational technology at work.

Before you put thirty thousand dollars into a laptop cart full of macs, consider buying a set of cheap plastic sleds.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Technology Integration: An Old Story

My son is going to his honors calculus exam today armed with the TI-89 graphing calculator. He spent last night programming in all of the functions that he will need. He will be examined not only on his math skill but also on his grasp of the TI-89.

The graphing calculator is not an option in calculus at Episcopal. As a student in our upper school, you might be able to pass your math courses but you will not thrive if you do not own one. On its website, the College Board states, "Some questions on the Mathematics Level 1 and Level 2 Subject Tests cannot be solved without a scientific or graphing calculator. We recommend the use of a graphing calculator rather than a scientific calculator." Mastery of the technology is now an essential part of a modern education in mathematics.

It took a long time to get to this point. When I took calculus in 1979 I had to have a scientific calculator to do my work, but it was not allowed in exams. A few years earlier, my older brothers were required to use slide rules to do their math homework. And of course, there was a small culture war over the use of calculators when they were first introduced.

There was really no way to stop this kind of evolution; nor would it have been wise to try to accelerate it. In a similar way, the word processor has become, simply, the way one writes a paper, from the brainstorming stage all the way through to the finished product. Very few people still start with a yellow legal pad and a pencil, as many did just a decade or two ago.

Although new technologies can be disruptive and revolutionary, in education they tend to be evolutionary. I predict that the use of e-readers and digital reading will follow a similar pattern. In twenty years we will be reading differently -- just as we are writing differently and calculating differently than we did twenty years ago. But it will be habitual and natural for us.