Election 2016

The 2016 election provides a great opportunity to study the political process in an authentic way. Students are likely already inundated in information and misinformation about the candidates. If educators are willing (some wonder if they are), the resources and interest are there to make this about as authentic an educational experience as is possible.

Resources to support educators are abundant. Here are several useful links:

Social is becoming a mess

I understand that I use some sarcasm and humor to address topics of interest to me. I guess that those who take different positions may find some of my comments to be inappropriate. I don’t consider taking a position that opposes yours as being inappropriate unless I do so in a way that most would consider offensive. As a retired academic, I am used to sparring with others over ideas and causes. I do have other outlets for my opinions that rely more heavily on logic, sources, and data (e.g., this one). I know which of my outlets attract the most attention. I see the numbers. Humor and sarcasm must have some appeal.

I realize my blogs mix comments on education and politics. Educators often shy away from such an approach. I cannot be that schizophrenic and I would argue that educators must be willing to express themselves on political matters because public education is controlled by politicians. Educators – separate your outlets if you must, but be willing to offer your opinions on the topics you know best.

Today, Time dedicated much of an issue to the hate present in social media. Here is an online sample. If you are an advocate for the participatory web and are an educator willing to involve your students online, this is an issue you must address. Even if this description does not suit your instructional interests, be aware of what your students are exposed to online.

I have no solutions to offer. I understand that women and minorities willing to participate online are likely to experience greater hatred than I will. Most of my personal insights into this issue come from what I see on Facebook. I do have a Facebook account with a mix of “friends” going back to my high school days. I mostly avoid the service because of what I see. I have already confessed that I can be sarcastic, but at least I generate my own content and do not need to relay the offensive imagery and content generated by others with an ax to grind. At least be willing to make the effort to say what you have to say yourself.

The basic rules of argumentation make a great starting point. Take a position. Offer a reason. Back up your reason with evidence.

Accepting change

We made the decision some 5-6 years ago to abandon the traditional textbook model. We felt most textbooks were too quickly dated and this was certainly the case for those of us who write about the educational uses of technology. It was more than this. We proposed that authors combine a core textbook (we called it a Primer) with online resources. This now happens on a primitive basis with many textbooks, but the commitment to this hybrid approach is what the textbook  companies do not fully understand. Yes, some content is best presented online and flexibility and multimedia are available when a company commits to combining a book and online content. What textbook companies do not want to do is support authors who write continuously. Because of the editing and production process, books are dated by the time they are actually printed. In order to combat this reality, we argued that proven authors should be paid to write continuously. Meeting a delivery date and then waiting to be given the approval to develop new content until a new edition is approved three years later is not good enough. Even after multiple successful editions, it was this factor that led us to break away from Cengage some years ago.

The other side of this is that as an author you have to be willing to back up your commitment. I understand this issue as a faculty member and as an author. I use our Kindle book and other resources in the graduate course I teach. While the course that will begin in a week or so draws students from various backgrounds, the course is focused on the use of technology in K-12. The university supplies me with great tools for teaching online (e.g., Blackboard, Adobe Connect with a phone bridge), but I try to make reasonable use of online tools that some might regard as less sophisticated. How educators learn with technology influences how they will teach with technology. Most K-12 districts will not be in a position to make Adobe Connect or a phone bridge available to their students.

One of the tools I have used in past courses has been Google Hangouts on Air. In smaller summer courses, I could use this tool for the synchronous portion of the course. I could send the recording of the classes to YouTube for those students who could not participate in the live class because of geography or an occasional conflict. Hangouts on Air was available to anyone and the educators in my class could use the same tool to link their classroom with others. [Maybe I should explain a phone bridge. As the phrase implies, a phone bridge uses phone audio rather than VOIP. You just cannot count on all students having sufficient bandwidth for quality audio and the audio stream ends up being most easily degraded in a way that influences the quality of interaction. A phone bridge creates what is essentially a giant conference call synched to the other resources and perhaps the audio fed from a traditional classroom.]

So, I am a week away from starting the Fall semester. The syllabus is ready to go and students have had the opportunity to take a look at what will be expected. I learn that in September Google will eliminate Google Hangouts on Air as it presently exists and wants users to move to Youtube Live Stream. The timing and the brief lead time here are problematic. I must say that Google has eliminated several tools that I thought were great. Google Reader comes to mind. I need to heed my own advice and not complain about free.

This has happened so quickly that I have not really had the time to fully research the new option. I thought Hangouts on Air was great because it was simple to use, easily saved content to YouTube, and made use of Google Circles which I thought was a great way to provide a reasonable level of access and security. The content available explaining the new opportunity seems very sketchy at present. There are more settings to consider and it seems this is more focused on a concept emphasizing broadcast rather than group interaction. I will wait a bit before developing new tutorials, but it seems it is down to delete the present content on Hangouts.

Tool to tactic ratio

A recent addition to the capabilities of Instagram prompted this post. Instagram has long been what I would describe as a photo blog. You post pictures from your phone and can add text. A couple of my kids are good photographers and we enjoy exchanging photos. Over the years, I have added a few other friends.

The addition to Instagram is an opportunity to create what are called “stories”. You can markup you photos and string a few photos together. What is weird about this new capability is that it disappears after a day (if I remember correctly). I don’t get the disappearing message SnapChat thing.

I can understand how tech types are fascinated with new services. We enjoy exploring all things tech. However, when tech types begin to promote one of these new services for education I become more cautious. I have already observed the promotion of Instagram Stories. Could I possibly imagine an application or two? Probably. That is not exactly my point.

I propose that promoters (and teachers) consider a sort of tool to tactic ratio. When it comes to promotional posts, this would represent the frequency of services to the number of posts regarding classroom applications and learning topics. You can observe a similar issue as most edtech conferences. What is the ratio of “new services and new gadgets” to interesting applications of existing services and gadgets. For teachers, this would represent the number of services taught to the number of projects or activities involving these services.

There is an issue of efficiency I think should be considered. This would be represented in the tool to tactic ratio. There is a learning curve for any new gadget or service. Try figuring out how to use Instagram Stories to see what I mean. You will have to locate an explanation and read carefully before you get the thing about swiping down after selecting the + icon to understand the difference between a regular post and a story. Tech types do not mind the spending more time learning than they do applying. Perhaps no one else does either, but a poor ratio takes away from the time available to teachers, students, and perhaps parents who might be expected or encouraged to view what their kids have created.

We are getting to the point where only an occasional new tool or service is really different. As an edtech educator and author, I have taken to developing categorization systems with lists of examples to try to improve efficiency. I tend to emphasize a few tools that are flexible and can be used in a variety of projects.

Instagram stories might make an example. I don’t like the disappearing thing, but even if I thought this was not an issue, I would likely promote “Explain Everything” or “Book Creator” as a more versatile tool that would overlap with the functionality of Instagram Stories.


Both Sides Now

[Note – the Joni Mitchell song makes a good background for this post]

Edtech writers tend to get on themes that dominate what they write about for a period of time. I think it helps if the theme is a bit unique so readers learn about things they may not have encountered elsewhere. My recent interest has been argumentation. The skills of argumentation (think debate) are key to critical thinking. Critical thinking is key to understanding effective scientific research and essential in being truly informed in an era of information noise.

There are plenty of good resources for educators wanting to develop argumentation skills in their students (see the link to some of my previous comments). However, experiencing a quality argument may be more convincing. I recommend taking a look at Intelligence Squared. This site features debates on a wide variety of topics. Edtech types may enjoy the debate considering whether or not the Internet makes us dumb. So, what you get is an intelligent discussion – think TED talk from both sides of an issue.

The site also does a great job of providing background content on the issues related to individual debates. Check the Education heading and you can see what resources are offered to educators.

Piece of the pie

Interest in K12 coding has experienced a resurgence. Some of you young folks may think you discovered coding as the way to the future, but those of us with more experience know this same trend swept through education 15-20 years ago. I know this happened and wish I better understood why that initial interest failed. This would be useful to understand.

Without disputing that there are some good jobs as programmers and most of us use technology that does rely on code, I keep asking about the priorities we have built into the curriculum. So, if you have your personal vision of the priorities of education, I keep suggesting change is not based only on  what you think is important to add. I think it responsible to also suggest what it is that you would delete or downgrade.

In my opinion, one of the more significant barriers to K12 coding has been the inability in most states to determine how coding would count toward graduation requirements. I see a chain of causation here. If you can’t count coding in a significant way toward graduation, how can you justify hiring teachers with appropriate credentials to teach programming? If coding counts in a lesser way, how can smaller districts make a commitment? If there is not a course on the secondary level, how do the limited commitments on the elementary and middle school levels make sense?

The recommendations that would establish programming have typically suggested that a programming course count as a math or science graduation requirement. I have written before about such classifications. It is often called “computer science”, but I do not really see introductory coding in this way. It does seem closer to math to me. My personal preference for changing the math requirement would substitute a course in statistics and research methods as an alternative to the final course in the existing math sequence. The scientific method as taught in most sciences does not explain the use of data as it applies to human behavior. An exploration of the strengths and weakness of other approaches to research and the interpretation through statistics of these data make more sense for the general benefit of future citizens. This is the type of critical thinking we apply daily in interpreting the various claims we encounter.

My personal perspective aside, the ACTM (the math special interest group) has just come out against counting programming to meet existing math requirements. The math folks say programming is good, but beyond prioritizing existing math courses make no suggestions for what area should receive less attention.

So, to those educators and politicians who have discovered programming and want it added, I am kind of with you. However, you seem to be pushing harder for this change than I am. I just want you to get past the easy part of suggesting something should be added. The tough part is to make the decision as to what should be deleted. Of all the possible things schools could do, where does computer science fall within the priority list. Is it before of after languages? Is it before or after physical education and arts? Is it before or after a fourth year of English? Is it before or after advanced placement or dual-enrollment courses?  If you are unwilling to offer guidance on such matters, who do you suggest should make these decisions? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Please add a comment and either post your position or link to your own analyses of school priorities. Someone among those promoting change needs to step up and fill in the details. It could be you.


Cost of college

The election season has encouraged the candidates from both parties to make comments about the debt associated with college costs and to offer vague comments to address the issue. The promises in some cases have gone so far as to eliminate the cost of tuition.

The following comments are my thoughts about college costs. I will limit these comments to the college environment I know – state institutions, with a teaching, research, and service missions, including graduate work as well as a medical school. My comments focus on undergraduates attending such an institution within their own state.

I think the general public fails to recognize the sources for the cost of college and too often attributes their negative reactions to institutions providing the education. Tuition costs while the cost politicians can most easily influence make up a relatively small part of the total cost of an education. This may not be the case if you are attending a private college, a college in a different state, or a graduate program. Universities likely encourage increasing tuition costs because this is such a key part of their revenue and end up at odds with politicians as a consequence. To make up for the lack of tuition, institutions may attempt to attract more students. Of course, this puts any given institution in competition with other institutions. As is the case in most competitive markets, you spend money in an attempt to make money. Great dining hall food (in contrast to what I remember from my college days), fancy health clubs, competitive athletic programs (with free or very low ticket prices for students), etc. contribute to these costs. It is difficult not to take on some of these expenses as it seems they are so popular with students and they will consider access to such opportunities in making their choice of where to become e.

So, where does all of that money students spend go?

  • Tuition (see previous comments)
  • Books (not under the control of the institution)
  • Equipment – computers for most, specialized equipment in other situations (institutions provide some as part of tuition costs, but often this does not meet student needs or desire for convenience)
  • Food and lodging (real costs and must be competitive if run by the university)
  • Entertainment (part of tuition in a few cases, but seldom limited to this in the behavior of most students)
  • Transportation
  • Interest fees associated with loans

I wish anyone interest in college costs would consider this or a similar list and recognize who gets the money. If you want to blame someone, at least recognize who gets the money associated with your resentment.

Is education expensive? I guess this depends on what it takes to provide the experience, what proportion of the expenses are truly necessary, and what is the benefit from the experiences. Will politicians reduce the cost of education? I do not see how they will make significant differences. They may be able to influence tuition costs and perhaps the interest on student debt, but these costs are first only part of the cost of an education and second someone must cover these costs. Political relief would essentially spread these costs across the general population, but this will take a tax increase. We seem to not agree on even more basic human needs such as universal health care so I am not certain I see the public agreeing to free tuition for all.

A reminder – The return on the education investment tends to be quite significant on average so the cost incurred must be considered against this typical long-term outcome.