Relevance is such a slippery slope

The concept of relevance as applied in education seems such an important and multi-faceted issue. I hope to generate a couple of posts around the general theme of “who gets to decide what is relevant”.

Who has a role in determining relevance? This is part of the more general question of who has a role in education? This second question is a serious matter and I think is ignored in considering many educational issues. For example, some now seem to believe that grades are unnecessary and may serve to discourage some learners. While there may be truth in the concern for motivation, a grade (or other evaluation record) offers information to others as well as the learner. For example, the grade may be important in competitive hiring or educational admission decisions. Public investment in the educational process might assume the generation of such information.

A similar argument might be made regarding the topics fo be learned – what is considered relevant. Simple examples make this clear. As a driver, I should be able to assume that other drivers recognize a stop sign and know the appropriate reaction to encountering a stop sign. To some extent we are interdependent so collectively we should be able to depend that others have certain knowledge, skills, and perhaps values.

I do think that there is a great deal of inertia behind what is considered relevant and it would be better to carefully consider what should be emphasized, but we are all stake holders in this process. It turns out there seems no end to the suggestions and this is also part of the problem. Learning takes time and we limit the time educators interact with learners. In general, it seems unfair to add items without deleting items. Unless the time available is going to be expanded, it is not really is a topic relevant, but rather how relevant is a topic within the realm of other possibilities. How relevant is art class in comparison to American history or intermediate algebra.

I do not see this as a situation with an easy answer, but it does seem to me that educators and formal education is being placed in a very difficult situation. Is education about vocational preparation? Is education about preparation to live in a society? Is education about preparing to live a fulfilling life?

What Alexa knows



The is the Amazon Echo. It might look like the insulated coffee mug you drink from on the commute to the office, but it is actually a voice controlled Internet device. In other words, it conducts basic Internet searches and performs certain actions based on your voice commands. You activate the device with the word “Alexa” and then inquire about the weather, ask for a mathematical calculation, request a joke, ask a factual question, or my favorite ask for music. Like other voice controlled services (SIRI, Google voice search), the Echo is far from perfect, but impressive if you are willing to consider just what it is capable of doing. This is one of those situations in which an immediate experience might be less than perfect, but within the context of the voice recognition capabilities of the past what happens is impressive. Certain patterns seem more predictable, but the Echo is also surprisingly flexible.

I have  been exploring the capabilities of the Echo for a few days now. I am not certain just how much I will use the device in the long run. I usually sit within arm’s distance of my iPad and using verbal commands still seems strange a bit strange. One function I know it will continue to serve for me is accessing music. We have an Amazon Prime account and this account in combination with the music I have stored on Amazon is really fun to explore using voice commands. “Alexa – Play cool jazz!” “Alexa – Play Muddy Waters!” “Alexa – play Happy by Pherrell!”

I wonder about how this device might be used in a classroom. I am anxious to see how our grandchildren will interact with the device. I reject the notion that we no longer need to things because we an Google anything. However, when we want information that is not available why not have an effective way to get this information. I assume search will only continue to improve. Students in a classroom might be given license to approach Echo and ask their questions. Someone give this a try.

Learning is Fun – Be a good model

What kind of models do teachers provide? My wife used to become quite agitated when colleagues disputed her “out of school” engagement with technology by claiming “they had a life.” Her learning was and still is her recreation and I always thought she was such a great model. She was into a personal learning network before the acronym PLN existed.

Take a look at this post from the NYTimes – Turning to education for fun. Educators should be able to share their passion for learning. What is the last book you read? What is the learning project you are working on?

My newest interest is in solar energy. My goal is to create a system at the lake that will power my technology.

Accidental Historian

I started this blog in 2002 and this is my 1611th post. I am certain there are blogs with a longer history out there, but these would be a very, very small proportion of those that still exist. I started blogging to explore the software itself because blogging offered an alternative to my experience creating web pages. Once the exploration phase was over I guess I continued because I have a compulsive streak and find it difficult to abandon projects. I now have several blogs, but this is the original.

I never kept a diary and my writing has always been mainly a professional activity. I seldom blog about what was my professional life as a university professor, but I have focused mostly on educational technology and issues that impact K-12 education. The accumulated content has now reached the point at which there seems to be some historical value. It is true that this is a history from my perspective, but this is pretty much the way history works. Historians present accounts based on their interpretations of primary source information. I suppose historians attempt to take a neutral stance.

Whatever arguments I have made for the value of blogging, generating primary source historical content is a new insights. My experiences with educational technology go back to the mid 1980s but daily recorded observations are likely less biased than the stories I might tell about the old days. Those of us who have lived the experience of the personal computer and the Internet may have accidentally recorded observations that chronicle the changes that we all experience but most seldom fail to recognize.

If you are curious, use the archive list to read some early posts. Use the search tool to see if I had anything to say about a topic that interests you.

The Innovators

Since I began using technology as a significant tool in my profession in the mid-1980s, I have read several dozen books about the history of the personal computer, the Internet, and the individuals associated with the development of these technologies. Based on this experience I would suggest that educators read Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators” for a solid review of this aspect of history.

I make this recommendation for the following reason. As I have read commentary on the value of teaching all K-12 students to code, one of the more persuasive arguments I have identified for this expectation has been that we all need to have a basic understanding of how computers and the Internet work. Technology plays such an important role in our lives we need to understand how it works so we can make informed decisions. I agree. I would also state for the record that coding is but one piece of the general puzzle and possibly a less important piece for understanding than aspects of technology independent of individual computers. Also important are the political and social issues that influence how these technological resources are used.

I do not intend to put down educator intentions in this area, but the focus on K-12 coding is not sufficient and maybe not even needed. Many educators need a far broader perspective on technology in society. Reading “The Innovators” would provide an efficient way to at least build a general base for understanding “how we got to now.”

More and more I feel that the time-limited environment of K-12 education is being dominated by STEM (and even STEAM). If the goal is to create adults capable of achievement in the sciences, this focus will make a limited contribution. Higher education and advanced training will be necessary. Emphasizing the science itself without a broader understanding of how social issues determine the focus of technology utilization is essential. I would argue that sociology, history, and psychology play a far greater role than the arts in this regard. This lack of balance in education at the lower levels is a concern that is exaggerated by educators concerned that their discipline will be left out or underfunded. Specialization takes far more training and is best delayed until learners have developed a broad base on which to build.


Access to published research for any interested party would seem a good thing. In general, the point of research is to improve understanding. Sometimes this improved understanding could result in what most would regard as practical benefits. Some assert that citizens are being denied access to findings that might be beneficial. This situation occurs when citizens cannot afford the cost of access as expected by publishers. The scholars are caught in the middle of this situations. Faculty publish to get their findings to peers and meet performance standards that are typically part of the tenure process and a necessary step in obtaining external funding. The publishers require payment and claim they must charge substantial sums because few purchase scholarly content.

It is not my intent to evaluate these various claims. I am not in a position to do so. I do know that universities may have to pay thousands to have access to certain journals, but I also know that scholars can access these journals electronically and citizens can often access these journals by going to the library.

Technology is often described as a disruptive force. I think I have encountered an effort to disrupt academic publishing.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an individual through ResearchGate . The email asked that I send a copy of one of publications to this individual. I was traveling at the time and so was unable to respond. A week or so later I received a second email indicating that I had yet to respond to the first request.

Sending “reprints” is not something I have done in a long time. When you published in the old days, the journal would send the author a hundred or so copies of the article. The article in the journal contained your address and individuals who might have to read the article in the library could then send you a card and ask for a copy of the article they could keep. Later with “xerox” machines in libraries and then online access of journals allowing pdf downloads, the reprint was mostly discontinued.

I did eventually download a reprint and intended to send it as an email reply. When I selected the link in the request rather than a simple way to send the file, I was asked to create a profile page. At this point, I became annoyed and ended my involvement. I have since received a request to complete the profile. I did not reach the point at which I could provide the reprint and now I am part of some database of academics.

I became curious about Research Gate because their approach seemed unnecessary. Anyone interested in a publication should be able to download it without my cooperation and Research Gate would not have had to require my personal information if the goal was simply to forward a file. Wikipedia  confirmed some of these impressions. Evidently others also have concern about the organizations “recruitment” techniques.

I am uncertain regarding the appropriateness of the organization’s purpose. Whatever the intent, the methods of building a database of participants lacks transparency.



Price Point

I have wanted to write a post for some time complaining both about user expectations for free or very low priced apps/services and provider pricing models. I see these two issues as inter-related so please bear with my effort to argue for a connection between these issues.

The immediate stimulus for this post was a recent Miguel Guhlin comment lamenting the loss of as a free way to offer a web site based in Evernote. Postachio discontinued the free service and moved to a paid service that would cost Guhlin $90 annually in addition to the cost of a Pro Evernote account.

I have written about a similar problem on several occasions (recently concerning Posts).

The challenge here is to encourage both users and providers to make adjustments

Users expect too much without appreciating the demands of creating quality resources. Users expect free without giving thought to why the app/service provider would have developed the necessary skills and made the considerable effort to make the app/service available. This “reason” might be called the business plan. If no business plan is visible as a user I would hesitate to invest much in the service.

Free does not have to mean that no plan exists, but it is important to consider what the future might hold. Perhaps the developers hope to produce a popular service and be acquired. If successful, there is then the concern that the company acquiring the product may discontinue what the user has come to depend on (.e.g., LaLa). Perhaps the developers benefit from a related income stream and do not need to make money on the free service (e.g., many Google services, ed presenters who support themselves through speaking/consulting fees, but offer online tutorials at no cost). Perhaps the developers intend to charge at a later point (the Guhlin experience). If this happens without an indication free was not the long term intent I would regard this as naive or unethical (I do not have the background to evaluate the Guhlin case). I do think developers can be naive. I even distrust products that would seem to have “backend costs” and are free or are sold at a very low price. Once the market for a free or $1 product is saturated, how will the developers continue to cover their own costs? This final issue is the one that keeps biting me. Even services I have paid for have failed on me.

My second “issue” concerns the pricing model some companies offer. My needs frequently seem to fall between the base price (sometimes free and sometimes a few dollars) and the next step up on the price/services model. As an example, Guhlin suggested that he was going to respond to his plight be using Zapier – a flexible system for integrating applications/services (as a simple example detecting a change in one service and updating data in a second service). This service interested me so I investigated the service. While quite powerful, the service makes a good example of the situation I have just described. There is a free version that allows a limited number of tasks/actions to be taken (probably sufficient for Guhlin’s project and most I would consider). The next step on the pricing structure is $240 per year (and it moves up from here).

My sweet spot as a personal user is likely in the <$25 range for annual services and maybe $10 for an app. In some cases I might expect to pay both (the initial purchase and then an on-going payment to support backend requirements).

From my perspectives, these two issues are inter-related. More users should be involved in paying for services they use and providers should be offer reasonable rates suited to the actual levels of benefits users receive.