Ask the engineers!

One of the recent educational controversies that has bled over into public awareness seems to center on whether schools would be more successful (whatever that means) if they borrowed more “real world” business practices. Some focus on what they assume is a lack of accountability in the performance of individual teachers or the lack of clear goals for achievement. The other side argues that education is different because the goals are different and the inputs to the process cannot be controlled.

I raise this issue as backgound to the following comments. I have been reading Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book “How Google Works”. I did not purchase the book because I thought it would provide insights into educational practice. I bought the book because I have broad interests and a fascination with successful tech companies. As the title suggests, the book as about the authors’ analysis of how Google works and the lessons learned as they as managers came into and learned about the company. It seems their management practices were more shaped by the culture of Google than they were responsible for shaping the culture. Of course, adaptability and insight are important characteristics of effective managers. There is always the possibility that what you read is intended as much to create a positive image as it is to offer lessons learned, but the story here seems consistent with several other accounts I have read.

With the caveats I have identified in place, I return to the initial focus on learning from “real world” companies. There are all kinds of business models available just as there are all kinds of ways to run educational institutions. There is another book I have read titled “What would Google do?” In this case, how might educational institutions borrow practices from Google? I did begin to think about educational institutions as I read. The authors list occupations to which certain management principles might apply and education was listed, but no effort was made to draw parallels. This is mostly my attempt to draw parallels.

The relevance of certain key ideas should be considered before any effort is made to generalize principles that are identified. The most important idea is probably whether the work of educators should best be performed by “smart creatives”. Are individuals who deserve this title likely to be most successful as educators and are educational institutions willing to hire and offer the incentives such individuals will find appealing? A second key idea is captured in the phrase “ask the engineers”? Google had an early history of being dominated by engineers and only took on employees with other skills after the direction of the company was established. Even when “adults” were brought in those who were successful honored those who actually did the work. My son is a producer and uses the term “the talent” to refer to those individuals in front of the camera. I have always liked this way of thinking. By analogy, the teachers and not their administrators are “the talent”.

So, if teachers need to be “smart creatives” and are understood to be “the talent”, what does administration looks like?

The authors suggest that creating the culture of the institution is paramount. Operationalizing culture is difficult. You can spot when it changes – I have watched school districts deflate like a balloon with a slow leak when the administration changes. Of course at Google and many other tech companies there is the tendency to equate culture with free coffee, free food and video game machines, but of course there is more. A core value in “asking the engineers” involves respecting the competence of those doing the work and helping them identify issues and potential solutions.

Many of the values I describe (I hope accurately) may seem quite attractive. With great freedom comes great responsibility. A problem is everyone’s problem. There is no – that issue is no concern of mine. There is also the assumed responsibility for getting a job done. The mantra “I have a life” is not used as an excuse. One final issue I remember is that individuals are valued for their contributions and not their seniority. I take this to be a rejection of constructs such as tenure, but also a focus on accomplishments and not talk.

Anyway, I understand books I read (hopefully at a deep level whatever that means) as pretty much like a Rorchach test. I project my own ideas on what the authors say. Hence, take this as recommended reading rather than a book report.



Educators and net neutrality

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals just ruled that the FCC’s position on net neutrality sometimes also called the open Internet was not warranted. Net neutrality concerns a service provider’s authority to control the rate at which specific content can be sent through the system they provide users. They can prioritize some content over others. I continue to search for a way to explain what this is like and am always in danger of misrepresenting what is actually the case. As an analogy, I think it is fair to contrast the present situation with a toll road. With an open system, the price charged for a car or truck is set. If the new rules could be applied to the Internet, a toll road going through Detroit might allow American made cars to drive at 70 while limiting foreign cars to 45. Or, perhaps, there would be 10 toll booths for American made cars and 1 for foreign cars. The idea is that the self interests of the provider could come into play in influencing business opportunities that would likely be considered going beyond providing a service and making a profit on that service.

Positions on situations such as this are often spun in different ways. The providers wanting greater control point to what is argued as a misuse of the present system. For example, the proportion of Internet traffic that now is taken up by companies such as NetFlix has been used as an example. The providers argue they do not benefit in trying to keep up with the demand that is generating profits for a small number of content providers. A similar argument is made claiming that a substantial proportion of bandwidth is used by services that provide a conduit to what is often stolen content (music, video).

I am not certain I understand the first argument. I know that to connect a server to even an individual a provider expects a higher monthly fee. The content provider also pays a differential fee depending on the amount of content served. Part of the issue seems to be the concern that the provider could prioritize certain providers over others and who would determine when this was appropriate? For example, Internet services come to use from two likely categories of providers – phone companies (DSL) and cable television companies (cable). These two categories of providers have several income streams – there is the Internet access and there is either typical phone services (telephone calls, perhaps SMS) or content (television programming, pay per view content). There are potential conflicts of interest here – the phone company may see VOIP as a competitor (facetime, Skype) and the cable company may see free or commercial video (e.g., NetFlix) as a competitor.

There are other issues. The “right” of a company to offer services as it sees fit is often justified arguing that customers not finding the service acceptable can simply take their business elsewhere. However, many of us have only one option (and often not a good one) for a connection to the Internet. This has been a long standing issue with phone and cable services and regulatory mechanisms have been put in place over the years to deal with such monopolistic situations. In fact, to return to my original analogy, the government at some point created the interstate highway system because access to ways to move physical goods was considered a right for all citizens.

Anyway, how Internet access is made available is a challenging and politicized issue. The issue was first raised in the 2007 – 2008 time frame and I wrote about it at that time. My concern was not as a user, but as an advocate for students. I assume that government subsidies such as the e-rate will support school use, but the increasing reliance on online resources out of school will contribute to the to existing problem of income-based inequities. I am also concerned as an educational content provider. I personally subsidize the resources I provide, but I am concerned my server costs will increase. Sometimes I am concerned that my perspective is self serving. I am pleased when I see a similar position taken by others.

As the pendulum swings

Sometimes things annoy when perhaps the should not. Right now all of the tech types who have “found coding and making” kind of annoy me. When you do what I do for a long time you develop a sense of history about things and this perspective includes the ideas that have come and gone and the topics various people have promoted. I would avoid  the promoters (those who want to come to your school and help teachers learn to promote coding) and consider those with actual experience – those who teach computer science or are experienced programmers (I like the 10,000 hour rule). It would be great if those experienced teaching such courses also had experiences solving applied problems by programming, but I would imagine this would be a small pool.

What makes sense to me:

  1. An extended experience with programming (a class).
  2. Elective programming experiences – in school or out.
  3. Realistic expectations for what will be accomplished by a reasonable amount of experience programming.

Related issues – I have commented on these issues elsewhere, but allow me to summarize here:

  1. Those who promote a new “class” have to argue for the opportunity. If it is assumed that the class should be taken by many students, it might be useful to understand that the curriculum of schools is somewhat of a closed system. In other words, if you want to add something, what should be deleted. Would the math department allow a programming course rather than one of the more traditional courses? Who would teach the course? This issue is less of a challenge if programming is offered as an elective course.
  2. In general, I think we must be conservative in our expectations for the breadth of transfer from learning experiences. When finished with a programming course, the level of proficiency in writing code is what has been accomplished. There may be some transfer to other programming languages and some insight into the use of programming (computer literacy or some more general term implying insight into uses of technology), but I would hesitate to make addtitional claims. Computer literacy or learning about and not with technology was once being discouraged. I am not certain why, but this is still pretty much what you get. There is nothing wrong with such outcomes as long as this is what we want.

It has become popular to describe the goal of coding as “computational thinking”. Here is an extended discussion of what ISTE thinks this means. A similar perspective was being advanced with LOGO was in vogue and considerable research activity was generated. I followed this research quite closely and included a chapter on programming in our textbook edition of the mid-90s. My review of this research is still what shapes my thinking regarding expectations and transfer (see what makes to me). Connected limited programming experiences to the development of generalizable, higher order thinking skills is a significant stretch. I actually thinking writing to communicate is a better candidate for the development of higher order thinking skills (read my review of the requirements for transfer) – it is versatile and experience can be developed across the curriculum. Hence, I think you learn to program if you want to learn to program. Using programming to develop other skills would likely require more time than the K-12 setting can make available for most students.

I act on my liberal values with my kids, but not yours

The  massive iPad adoption in California caught the attention of most tech enthusiasts and then came the glitch. Students figured out how to hack the iPads and use them in ways that we’re not intended. Schools have reacted by restricting use of the devices.

Some prominent education bloggers responded to this action by pretty much putting down the school and praising the skills and motivation of the students. Reminds of a kind of “anti-establishment” position often adopted in the 60s. Stick it to the man.

I think this position is ill-advised and damaging. Cute, but not smart. It puts the schools in a bad position.

Anyone following my posts knows my general approach to things is quite liberal. However, I think there are limits to how I act on these beliefs. I can certainly advocate for my beliefs. I can act on them when it comes to my own kids. It can become inappropriate when I go too much further. I should not encourage children by ridiculing their parents (I might argue with the parents but not in front of the kids). I kind of feel the same way about schools.

Here are two related thoughts:
1) These are school computers and not the computers of the students. I think schools have a right to control how equipment is used in the school. Schools are judged by those they serve and the general public. If parents want to take responsibility (which I am not certain they can) for what students do with the computers in schools this would be a different thing. If parents want to take responsibility for what students do in the home, this is a different thing. Just as a matter of practicality – how would situational differences in actions be accomplished. You can’t really hack and “unhack” the device depending on the location. I guess filtering kind of does that.

2) I have published several papers (actually as a second author to one of my graduate students) investigating cyberbullying. This was not a primary interest of mine, but kind of a necessary reaction to the restrictions of filtering in schools. I felt the technology applications I propose were very difficult to implement because of filtering and I argued that the data on cyberbullying justified this position. Very few incidents of cyberbullying utilize school equipment (you never say never, but the percentage is estimated at about 4% if I remember correctly). Restricting the use of equipment that was not the source of the problem seemed a political reaction and not an actual fix in my way of thinking.

I cannot justify this argument with phones and tablets. What is actually happening on these devices simply cannot be monitored in the same way school personnel can monitor what appears on computer monitors. I am not necessarily against BYOD models, but the argument I was willing to make in favor of more open access is far weaker in this situation. As the strength of the argument switches drastically I am far less judgmental of school actions that seem more conservative. School personnel cannot really give up their responsibilities to all of the children and to all of the parents. I am not certain what the appropriate course of action is in this situation, but let us at least not be cute by implying that school personnel are uninformed, backward, or stodgy.

Recognizing the divide

Internet content related to topics that interest me seem to surface in cycles. Sometimes I try to figure our why and sometimes I don’t. The digital divide seems to be trending at the moment. I think this is reactionary – other problems dominate the news and then advocates remind us that some of cuts involved programs that helped people needing help. This is only waste in the way some folks think about government spending.

So, here are some of the sources you might explore.
1) Nice overview from Edutopia – I am likely to use this as a source for other sources sometime down the road. My present annoyance is the short sightedness of the BYOD concept.


2) This from the Digital Divide Initiative (new to me). An attempt to explain the long term cost of the digital divide (again the way we address immediate problems keeps setting us back in meeting long term needs). Included are data from some states (Minnesota was the only regional state for me).

3) Finally, there was a recent report from Common Sense media regarding the “screen time” of children before the age of 8. Of course, the topic of screen time goes both ways with both concerns and educational benefits. The report devoted a section to inequities. Check the contrast total media use and technology use by income (you have to explore several sections) – sad – too much passive and not enough active.

OK – there you have it, reading assignments from the “need to share” perspective. Taxes can be good – someone needs to care.



As promised, my NY Times app stopped providing access to articles I might find interesting. I supposedly have access to 20 articles a month, but this does not work through the iPad app which is the way I would prefer to organize my reading. Time to delete the app. I will likely identify some number of articles I want to read through other means and 20 will be plenty, but so much for a general scan of the Times. See this LifeHacker analysis if you want more access. I did receive a “take 25% off” offer today, but this is not what I am looking for.

I have been thinking about “business models”. The situation with the NY Times got me started. Then, it looked like Audible had canceled out 10 unpurchased books because I had not selected books by the end of the year (this turned out not to be the case although my iPad Audible app will not let me purchase books even though I have credits via a browser). The point is not that I am unwilling to spend money on online services (we did our taxes last night, between Lynda, MobileMe, and pro versions of half a dozen services I spend between $500 and $600 dollars a year on online access). The frustration is that the business model is often not suited to my personal interests. I do not want to spend $180 for full access to the Times. I want to spend $50 to read the content that interests me. I do not want to purchase 10 Audible books a year. I probably purchase 30+ books a year, but Audible is not focused on what I would describe as “professional content” and often books they have that interest me I want to read carefully and annotate so I buy for the Kindle App or purchase the paper version from Amazon. So, there is this mismatch between the models that are available which likely are great for some people and the model that would appeal to my specific interests. I want to use multiple services and multiple formats. The providers seem to want you to focus exclusively on what they offer.

Do not get me wrong – free is not the answer. I am in complete disagreement with those who propose that information wants to be free. However, I do think we need more flexible plans for purchasing access to content.

We are North Dakota – We Get our Teachers for Cheap

Cindy and I had a brief argument over coffee this morning. It turns out I had skimmed an editorial in the GF Herald (I mean, really, who reads the Herald carefully). The source was an opinion piece written by Tom Dennis concerning the differences between the way North Dakota and Wisconsin have addressed teacher concerns (my comments on teacher unions can be found elsewhere). Dennis makes the point that ND continues to allow public sector unions to exist. This is what I focused on and probably the point at which I went back to reading on my iPad.

She was right – the Dennis position is a little convoluted, but here is the next section that I did not read carefully enough:

Because North Dakota law keeps public-sector unions comparatively weak. That has kept public-sector wages and benefits, including pensions, below the national average — sometimes far below.

And that, in turn, has kept the heat of resentment against the public-sector workforce and state government turned down very low.


Because North Dakota voters still think they get value for their tax dollar. And it really is as simple as that.

Let me begin with this – imagine yourself trying to process this as a college student with some academic talent. Is this the kind of message that would encourage you to focus on education as a career and on North Dakota as your destination?Imagine trying to process this as a parent of a college student knowing your kid has the aptitude to do well in whatever major he or she decides to pursue.

Imagine this when applied to another profession that draws on students with comparable service-oriented values – “come to North Dakota, we pay our nurses less.”

So, the issue with teacher salaries is not just that the salaries can be poor, it is also about the public attitude toward those who teach. I encountered this post from a well-known education blogger in Texas. This is what I was reading on my iPad.

How about this – tell a teacher you are sorry we take advantage of them. Use “we are cheap” as an excuse if you can think of nothing else.