I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past 40 years reading and highlighting documents. The methods have changed. Early on, I would highlight articles in journals or books I owned and create index cards referencing these articles with summary information and a citation. As technology came on the scene, I switched my card file over to various database applications. Most recently, I have stored pdfs of articles (highlighted and annotated using various tools) and referenced these articles using various bibliographic systems (I pay for Endnote, but also use other systems – ReadCube, Mendeley).

I have encountered a new “system” I find very impressive. It is not free, but $3 a month is far less expensive than what I pay for Endnote).

PaperPile is a cloud-based system that works through a chrome browser (including a Chromebook). As I said, it will cost academics $3 a month, but you can give it a try at no cost. Paperpile saves bibliographic information in its own servers and sends pdfs uploaded in association with bibliographic entries to a folder it establishes in Google drive. Converting an existing system is fairly easy (I pretty much just pointed PaperPile at my Mendeley site and everything happened automatically).


PaperPile recommends metapdf  (same company) for highlighting and annotation of the pdfs stored in Google drive.



It is too early for me to decide if these tools will be my focus. Working with tools in implementing long-term writing projects is really the only way to make such a choice, but the service looks very promising.

My first impression is that this service or something similar will be a significant challenge to expensive products such as EndNote. I see this as similar to the Google challenge to Microsoft Office. The issue has nothing to do with the quality of MS Office or EndNote. The issue is really the cost for quality products with many capabilities that are not necessary for most users.

Pavlovian response to mention of Skinner

Diane Ravitch appears to be on a campaign to devalue “competency based education”. Evidently, competency based education represents a flawed “reform” model. I think this translates as “may replace teachers”, but you will have to read the Ravitch blog to reach your own conclusion. The Ravitch link I provide here summarizes a post from Emily Talmage connecting recent “competency based” effortswith BF Skinner. I am guessing this association (note my title) is intended to elicit a feeling of revulsion among teachers.

Quick – provide a definition for competency-based education. Does the phrase have a negative or positive valence? What is your answer if the name Skinner is included in the same sentence.

When I began working at the institution from which I retired, the Education College was dominated by humanists. The dean at the time was a prominent humanist and attempted to build a college with this orientation (actually there was the college of education and the “new school” which eventually merged). I was not a member of either program. However, because my focus in psychology was on educational practice, I was interested in who they hired. After a while, I began to understand how things worked and I would wince should a candidate in his or her job talk make a positive reference to objectives or any term that might be associated with behaviorism. Such candidates had little chance of being employed. To me, a teacher education program with a narrow orientation was not the way to prepare future professionals. A good debate is a great learning experience and a debate among people is prefered to a debate between a person and a concept (i.e., straw man).

I think I rejected academic tribalism early on because of what I taught and the way I thought about things. I assumed the explanations for human behavior were rooted in biology, but the state of the biology of thought and learning was incapable of offering much in the way of useful guidance to educators. Still is. I tend to think of schools of thought as models rather than reality and the most useful model depends on how the model fits the data and offer applications that generate data. Using “data” is the theme here.

I tried to teach “learning theories” when I taught Introduction to Psychology by offering examples of phenomena suited to being understodd from a given perspective. I emphasized cognitive explanations of learning in my own work, but cognitive models seemed suited to studying reading comprehension, study behavior, and self-regulation in learning – the topics I prioritized.

I am not certain how critics are using the phrase “competency-based education”. If I understand the concerns about recent “reforms” correctly, I would prefer the descriptor – mastery learning. I have been following research on mastery learning since the late ‘60s. It is true that mastery learning, at least the form promoted by Fred Keller, came from a behavioral tradition. Many early publications appeared in JABA – Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. However, I would identify the other major figure in promoting mastery learning as Benjamin Bloom. I do not label Bloom as a behaviorist, but others might.

There seems to be a little more in the present criticism – some connection of competency based education (or mastery learning) with computers (teaching machines). I am guessing the underlying motive is the assumed intent to replace teachers with machines. I agree that present technology may allow an implementation of mastery ideas. Sometimes the big new idea is not about the idea, it is about a way to make the idea practical.  Technology provides a way to make the individualization proposed in certain variants of mastery learning (Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction) practical.

I think I can take the campaign against whatever “competency based education” is about one step further. It does seem that there is greater use of such innovations in charter schools. Skinner, behaviorism, competency-based education, technology, charter schools = bad!

Rather than replacing teachers, I think that blended model is a more accurate representation of what is being explored in some charter schools (see Blended – Horn & Staker). I prefer to understand such situations using what Bloom described as the two sigma problem. Bloom proposed that the best learning environment would be a student working with a human tutor and other approaches to teaching could be judged by how close these methods could come to the producting of a student and tutor. I see technology within the competency based approach as a weak version of tutoring. The core question is how much time can a good classroom teacher offer each student that would qualify as tutoring. If the answer is “not much”, then some use of technology offers an option worth evaluating.

If the concern is that charter schools are using technology as a substitute for teachers, say so. Salivating over the mention of Skinner is too obtuse for me.

Open is OK if available

My reaction to #GoOpen was one of my more popular posts of the modern era (I have been a blogger for many years). I am not backing away from the sentiments I expressed, but I think I should clarify. My position is that depending on free is a bad long-term strategy. I ask only that readers examine their own behavior and evaluate their personal willingness to generate resources requiring considerable effort at no cost to the consumer. I am not claiming individuals with such altruistic tendencies do not exist (I offer my own effort as an example), I am claiming the assumption that this component of formal instruction should not be assumed to be free. Note that open resources could be paid for by a third party (states could sponsor textbooks). Much like endowed chairs as a way to bolster the human resources of state universities, I question whether such resources will be common.

I am not questioning whether quality open resources exist. For this interested in this topic, I refer readers to this research study ironically made available at no cost to the consumer by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Adrift (or not) …

In addition to the journal articles and textbook I assign in my graduate educational psychology course, I ask that students read one book from a list I provide. The book I included for the higher ed types was Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. (My public Kindle notes).

The book was based on some research that seemed to suggest college students make little or no advances in critical thinking and writing skills as a consequence of college attendance. At a time when “higher order thinking skills” is the buzzword of the decade, this conclusion received a lot of attention.

A recent meta-analysis soon to be published in the Review of Educational Research disputes the dismal conclusions of the Academically Adrift authors. The review did not reach the same pessimistic conclusion:

Our study suggests that students make substantial gains in critical thinking during college. We estimate the overall effect of college on critical thinking skill at 0.59 SDs.

The review offers some other interesting points:

  • It appears that over time, the gains in critical thinking skills have declined in recent years (this would be a tamer version of the Academically Adrift conclusion). The authors of the meta-analysis speculate that either a) students are entering college having acquired a reasonable level of proficiency and hence have less room for improvement or b) more students are entering college unable to benefit from the instruction provided and hence the average improvement is lower. The data did not allow these hypotheses to be tested.
  • Research does not seem to suggest that direct efforts to teach critical thinking have been no more successful than courses focused on traditional content and methods. This is not inconsequential. The authors go further to speculate that efforts to directly teach critical thinking may reduce what is learned in other areas.

Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2015). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved from

#GoOpen – I’m not impressed

The Department of Education has just announced a new initiative – #GoOpen . The initiative is intended to encourage school districts and educators to make greater use of open resources.

To encourage the development and dissemination of resources, two specific “opportunities” were identified.

  • First, resources generated as a consequence of federal grant funding should be made available as open resources.
  • Second, multiple commercial entities (Amazon, Microsoft, Edmodo, ASCD) will put their resources behind curating, serving and training initiatives associated with open resources.

Grant byproducts

The one thing here that I see as a mild opportunity is the requirement related to grant projects. However, unless new grant initiatives are offered specifically to create content in a form appropriate to distribution what is generated already is either not ready for prime time OR is already available. I make these statements based on personal experience.

Some examples follow:

I worked with my wife’s million dollar Teaching American History grant. The whole purpose of this grant was to organize lessons allowing K-12 students to use primary sources in learning about history. Part of the grant funded a server that made these resources available. This server was maintained for multiple years after the end of the funding cycle and eventually shut down. Potentially, this content could have been transitioned to servers provided by the GoOpen partners, but there would have been costs in doing so. During the years the resources were freely available, any cost in placing the resources on additional servers would have been redundant. In addition, the professional development associated with the transition from textbook-based history instruction to the use of primary source resources was likely the main contribution for those classrooms using the resounces.

My work in developing and evaluating tools to improve introductory college student study of textbook intensive content was partially grant based. Some my earliest software developed for this program was specific to a particular operating system. My later efforts were Internet-based and cross platform. All efforts were customized for individual textbooks. This software would have very limited value for others because a) considerable effort would be required to prepare the backend database for a particular textbook and b) the software was not designed for instructors with limited technology skills. Without a knowledge of PHP, MySQL, etc., a novice user would require either considerable support or an additional development effort to make the software more user friendly. The software may have been of some value to a book compnay looking to improve the supplemental resources accompanying a textbook and willing to invest in futher development.

My point – much grant-supported activity does not involve the allocation of time and resources to make what has been accomplished transportable. I know that “continuation” is an issue to be addressed in many grants, but this often seems to be interpreted as “how will the grantee” continue the work once funding ends.

What about the promises from the commercial providers?

I am trying to find a way both to think through and explain what I think of various companies (e.g., Edmodo, Amazon, Google) making commitments to the #OpenEd initiative.

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which Hardees somehow convinces McDonalds to give away McDonalds french fries at all Hardees locations. Which business would you interpret as being most altruistic? Which business would you interpret as being most foolish? Would it matter whether the french fries were provided in Hardees or McDonalds’ packaging?

I have little appreciation for what  companies offering to host and serve the resources provided by others are providing. Even if no ads or other sources of revenue are involved, getting customers “in the door” when other services that do generate revenue exist is alway part of the business plan. I guess this is where my Hardees and McDonalds scenario breaks down. Hardees is likely to sell a burger and a soda to supplement the free french fries so I guess they might actually promote McDonald fries.

Educators are always looking for “free stuff”. I get that. Educators often have inadequate budgets to provide learning experiences to their students and either do without or subsidize their instruction out of pocket. I am just not a fan of free. I understand the process of creating educational resources and offering them for a price. I know for certain what labor was required to generate that content. To me, content generation is just another way to teach and like any teacher I assume the work invested should be appreciated and compensated.

There are important questions here. What about education is over-priced and who gets to decide? Are educational materials too expensive? Are teachers, administrators and other school personnel paid too much? How can those “in the middle” (administrators, school board members) make ethical decisions when compensating “in the flesh” people you see and invisible workers you do not face?

I am guessing the #GoOpen will surface some resources.  I just do not see the resources to be made available as solving a meaningful or expensive problem.

If the Department of Education wants to offer lower cost resources, then it would seem most productive to offer grants for the development of what commercial entities already provide. This approach would likely encounter considerable opposition from those who believe that the private sector can do everything more efficiently than the government, but it might encourage a little more innovation (if that is what was emphasized in the grant process) and it change how the generation of educational resources are funded. The location of the competition would be shifted from what now occurs between different companies to the grant award process.

Online charter schools concluded to be inferior

Wait for the numbers has long been my recommendation. Those promoting online K-12 education have made statements about the need for innovation and have suggested that online environments are more responsive to individual needs. I am a fan of the individualization argument specifically when explained as a form of mastery learning (not so much learning styles). You seldom see what I would describe as a mastery system in a traditional school setting.

Studies comparing educational treatments are very difficult. It is nearly impossible to create the right circumstances for a treatment/control study. Without random assignment to conditions, the actual causes of any differences between groups are difficult to identify with precision. You might find quality methodology in small sample studies, but not with large numbers of participants from multiple settings.

Researchers from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education have done their best to apply methodological alternatives to a randomized assignment methodology to investigate academic performance of students enrolled in traditional and online charter schools. The results clearly support the traditional approach. While some data suggest specific limitation of online education (e.g., poor supervision) that might be a target for improvement, supporters of online education are going to have to rethink present offerings before contending they provide a superior educational experience.


Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2015). Online charter school study 2015. Available online –

Teaching as triage

I recommend you read a wide-ranging article from Salon (Will Oremus) on the changing focus of the textbook industry.

The article is about a shift from traditional textbooks to individualized content for student learning, but push on one part of the educational environment and all parts move. The article admits that proposed content delivery systems take on some of the traditional roles of the instructor. Hence the title of this post – a phrase from the article – teaching as triage. The article suggests teachers will review the data provided by the instructional system and make decisions – tutoring, small group instruction, etc.

The article uses ALEKS as the primary example of such a system and examines how this system originally developed as a grant project and then commercialized (now McGraw-Hill) works. Including in the analysis is how the publishing, now technology, company attempts to differentiate their commercial product from other services such as the Kahn Academy.

I wonder what most practicing teachers know about such systems. Most of us have little personal experience. I have used heavily and completed some required professional development instructionals required by my university, but this is different from being a participant or instructor for a full-length course. I wonder if this is not part of the challenge. How do you provide the personal experiences necessary to secure buy-in when the model obviously requires different behaviors than one has experienced.

The recommendation I make is that educators take the time to work their way through a Kahn Academy experience that requires they function as a learner. For many, this might be a topic such as programming. I also believe large school districts need to be open to public charter or magnet schools based on what is probably best described as a “hybrid” model. You will not see this experimentation in smaller district, but fully functioning examples open to visitation will likely be necessary to encourage broad change.