Education Evolutions #63

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

This week is a mix of big ideas floating around the larger education and technology fields at the minute. They are not entirely connected in any explicit way. Yet, they are definitely connected, when considering how many edreform agendas advance edtech with the convenient bonus of broader and deeper surveillance. The sheep’s clothing fashion of the moment is personalized learning which I will probably devote more time to in future.

The one drag about this selection is that only after writing the comments below and looking at it with a bit more detachment, this group might seem a bit dystopian – again. Apologies for that. Still, I firmly believe that the more we know about the world in which we are living the more we might do about it. This newsletter is my small effort in service that idea.

As for the “If you read only one article…” selection this week, it is kind of a pick ’em. Apart from the first one, the other two are some pretty long reads. Both interesting and worth it but they certainly require some time and focus. Yet, “Palantir Knows Everything About You” might be the most informative about that which lies just out of view. Plus, it is an introduction to Peter Thiel who is someone definitely worth knowing a bit more about. Think what a Koch brother might look like if they were from Silicon Valley. If you are short on time, everyone that works in education should probably know a lot more about A Nation at Risk.

Maybe, just maybe spring has finally sprung. If only we could dry out just a little in New England.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

‘A Nation at Risk’ demanded education reform 35 years ago. Here’s how it’s been bungled ever since – The Washington Post –  James Harvey and David Berliner (8-minute read)

This week marked the inauspicious introduction of A Nation at Risk, possibly the most damaging document ever written about American education. Not only was it politically motivated, it was just plain wrong. This NPR piece is reasonably evenhanded as a refresher on the history of the document (However, Anya Kamentz trots out all the usual suspects in support of this nonsense. Mainstream media typically gives voice to the Fordham Institute or other foundations pretending to be anything other than propagandists of an anti-public education agenda. I mean at least Diane Ravitch actually worked in Education at the highest levels of government.). Nevertheless, the rhetoric and lies populated by A Nation at Risk continue to persist unabated and generally form the foundational warrants for nearly every education reform that we have seen in the intervening years. Facts tend to be inconvenient for making policy at all kinds of levels (Read a decent primer about the Sandia Report.).

While I can appreciate their call for making adjustments to NAEP and how it is reported, even submitting that it is a valid metric contributes to the problem. Apart from cynically wanting to say, “Good luck getting those new benchmark labels adopted,” acknowledging the flawed assessment only serves as an endorsement. It undercuts their far more sensible call for the end of “policy-making grounded in testing and tax cuts.” Still their emphatic support for the idea that the richest nation in the history of the world can and should be able to ensure equity for its infant, adequate health care, living wages, and affordable day-care sound great but lack resonance after the recent passage of Congressional “tax reform.”

Palantir Knows Everything About You – Bloomberg –  Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman, and Jordan Robertson (25-minute read)

I am guessing that most people reading this have never heard of Palantir, the company. Some certainly would have quickly jumped to the Lord of the Rings reference. Some people may have heard of Peter Thiel but I am not even sure about that. Regardless, it will be hard to forget any of these names once you have read this piece. It does about as good a job as any of beginning to hang some labels on the vast digital web that is hoovering up information about everyone and selling it for profit.

The entire time I read this, all I could do is remember watching the television show Person of Interest and thinking if the dramatization between humans, “The Machine,” and “Samaritan” was this well developed I can only wonder how far along it must be in the real world. This piece provides a window into that question. It also means that it is increasingly important to understand how much algorithms are supplanting human judgment in all walks of life. I think I am now wholly committed to reading Weapons of Math Destruction over the summer now. I wanted to read it when it was first published but now… Anyone want to start a book club with me?

The Internet Apologizes … – New York Magazine –  Noah Kulwin (25-minute read)

Admittedly another long read but a fascinating one. As part of the rising tide of Internet and technology scrutiny, this reflective confessional of sorts is both revealing and insightful. With a cavalcade of technology insiders that have had a chance to witness to see what they have wrought this is a whole lot of deep thinking about many of the issues that are currently coming to a head and highlighted by the Facebook fallout.

The rise of Silicon Valley strikes me as very similar to the rise of the auto industry with ridiculous claims like, “What is good for Ford is good for America.” We collectively continue to double-down on technology with dreamy hopes of some kind of strange techtopia when perhaps a more circumspect approach might actually serve us better. Avoiding or dismissing technology entirely does not seem like much of an answer but blind faith, no matter where or how it starts may be worse. At least the individuals quoted here have taken some degree of responsibility and acknowledged the damage that may have helped unleashed. I am not sure what good it will do but I always remain hopeful in that aphorism, “When we know better, we do better.” It is kind of one of my mantras as an educator.

Education Evolutions #62

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

I was not entirely sure I would get this issue out. The last day of a vacation tends to be a bit of a helter-skelter sprint to finish all those things I hoped to do over the break but maybe fell short. That’s probably still the case but I yielded to this particular compulsion.

This week features an almost entirely education-wide focus. Sure there is some tech and teaching mixed in there but, for the most part, these selections are about the big systems that shape education for better or worse. I have often been accused of being negative about these kinds of things. I disagree. Actually, I really am an optimist with the greatest of hopes. I just happen to be frequently disappointed. Even these articles, as much as they might stir me up, still fill me with hope in spite of any disappointment.

As for the “If you read only one article…” selection this week, it has to go to the third selection “How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party.” If you have ever wondered about terms like neoliberalism, wondered how the political party that used to support educators and the working class changed, or why we seem so bereft of alternative ideas about education, that has to be considered a must read. It is part history lesson and primer on how the field of public education finds itself in its present state.

Well, I return to school tomorrow, as many fellow New Englanders do after spring break, and it is only just yesterday started to actually feel like spring.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

25-Year-Old Textbooks and Holes in the Ceiling: Inside America’s Public Schools – The New York Times –  Josephine Sedgwick (8-minute read)

This article got a lot of play on the Internets after it was published. It seemed almost irresponsible not to include it on that chance that some might not have seen it yet. It is pretty sobering. It is not as balanced it probably could have been, although I am not certain how balanced the story can be. It is heavy on states that are in the midst of strikes and walkouts. It may not represent schools everywhere but it certainly represents a whole lot. I wish that they were far more transparent about the difference between true public schools and charters because it is not entirely clear.

It is pretty inarguable that states have been shortchanging education spending now for decades. Considering just how many unfounded demands have been placed on schools in the NCLB era alone, there is almost no possible evidence to contrary, even if the net spend has increased. As increases in demand and desire for more technology grow there is no end in sight to a need for more funding. However, how the money is spent might require a bit more oversight. We educators should never forget that part of the push for more technology buttresses the standardized testing regime and student surveillance. I am not sure how they can be divorced but I wish that more time and energy was spent on that problem.

Pearson Tested ‘Social-Psychological’ Messages in Learning Software, With Mixed Results – Education Week –  Benjamin Herold (8-minute read)

The fact that this report is not presented almost without making the acknowledgment of serious ethical problems the most front and central focus might be the most alarming thing of all. The fact that Pearson conducted this kind of research effort using children without any parental consent is serious enough. Let me be clear, without consent or knowledge, children were subjects. That they were brazen enough to publish their work more so. However, why there has not been a backlash of outrage is shameful. We should be demanding state-level departments of education to take action against the company.

However, an even graver concern should be that this kind of massive, widescale “research” experimentation will be done with impunity by technology companies on children in educational settings under the guise of product development. That is almost without question. What Pearson has done is essentially confirm that fact with the publication of this paper. Moreover, it simply doesn’t matter how well-intentioned or positive the results might be. This is the kind of thing that should be illegal and subject to major financial and legal penalties, especially after the insights gained from the Cambridge Analytica fiasco.

How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party – The Baffler –  Jennifer C. Berkshire (12-minute read)

This is not really a new story as one that just goes underreported. This story reads like a rewrite of how the Democratic party essentially sold out to big money in the 1970s. Here Berkshire details how big money neoliberalism finances advancing charter schools and attacking teacher unions. Even better this article is essentially a history lesson on how America’s attack on teachers began and it is a fascinating one.

Something I observed long ago and stated for years without the forcefulness of Berkshire is how little attention has been paid to how much Clinton-era Democrats essentially won elections by co-opting the Republican platform. I still cannot for the life of me fathom just how many people buy into “logic of the market” nonsense for education, let alone a host of other aspects of society. I just keep hoping that the power teachers unions have been flexing in some of the hardest hit states will spark a broader and more intelligent conversation.

Education Evolutions #61

The future of books flickr photo by Johan Larsson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Select Readings and Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

While often opt not to publish this newsletter during breaks from school and teachers across New England begin spring break this week, I still felt compelled to get this one out. Next week may be a different story. I may still churn an issue out but it should not be a complete surprise if nothing arrives next Sunday either. I’ll see how the week goes, actually.

Plus, this week there just seemed to be too much worth sharing. In a week that saw both Mark Zuckerberg and Congress exposed a bit more than usual, edtech journalist Audrey Watters poignantly remarked that maybe tech journalists should do a better job of explaining how things work. I could not agree more. I would even include those writing about educational technology. Far too many repackage thinly veiled corporate marketing and perpetuate the idea of magic solutions.

Listed below is a rather eclectic mix of pieces this week. I do really try to seek out articles that offer a variety of points of view. They offer me the opportunity to challenge and refine my own thinking. That was key in my including the Sue Thomas piece. I am not sure I agree with her but I actually respect the point of view she is researching and advancing as a serious and reflective endeavor.

As for the “If you read only one article…” selection this week. The third selection “The Noisy Fallacies of Psychographic Targeting” earns that distinction. It highlights just how much dubious claims and mythmaking can sweep through our understanding and consciousness, especially when coupled with some shady sleight-ofhand diversionary tactics employed by profit-seeking enterprises offering the latest edtech solutions.

Even though spring break has started, the season still seems pretty far from arriving. I cannot believe how cold it is in mid-April.

Here are three+ curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

I love my digital life – Sue Thomas’ on Medium –  Sue Thomas (5-minute read)

I came across this post and found it an interesting departure from much of the current conversation, despite the post being five years old. I am not entirely sure that I buy some of it but I still found it interesting to read and think about. I will say that the differences between our digital and physical lives can be hard to distinguish and I am a middle-aged adult. I can only imagine what it must be like for the teenagers in my classroom. If nothing else, this post made me reevaluate why the idea that a kid’s mobile phone might feel more like oxygen to them.

My personal fascinations have led me to a lot of hours in front of a computer and online from the earliest days of computers becoming personal and invading our homes. Plus, the restrictions my parents and teachers placed on my time in front of screens and interfaces likely only made the fascination deeper. Still, as I read this I felt a stronger sense of ambivalence and suspicion. I am not yet sure that it is discomfort from wrestling with the ideas that Thomas puts forth or a too-easy, reactive dismissal of some of the thoughts presented here. I certainly am not sure I agree with everything but I cannot summarily ignore it.

If nothing else, Thomas’ sentiments, in part, explain a whole lot of desktop wallpapers adorning the computers of friends and colleagues (It seems like an emoji would be appropriate here!). Apparently, the idea has gotten some legs since the publication of this post. She finished a book on the subject and is now offering retreats at Othona in West Dorset, UK. Broadchurch fans will recognize the locale.

“Unfreezing” Teachers: Why So Many Technology Initiatives Are Stagnating – Leading Innovation in Schools: From Someday to Monday –  Tom Daccord (5-minute read)

Tom Daccord is a name familiar to many in the edtech space, especially if you live in the Boston area. The former history teacher left the classroom to create a successful educational technology consulting company with partner Justin Reich, even claiming the ubiquitous name EdTechTeacher as a brand. They do some interesting work, to be fair, and I have even attended and presented at their events.

However, this blog post discloses none of the pertinent personal information before essentially blaming teachers for not getting with the edtech, innovation program. Using references to the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, he justifies his conclusions. It is not that this post is devoid of any sound reasoning, it is that it is far too oversimplified and misses some pretty significant factors, like the prevalence of competing demands placed on teachers and administrators, not to mention any recognition that any “galvanizing vision of how learning can be different when technology” includes a whole range of dubious assumptions. Interestingly, I quickly found that Lewin’s ‘changing as three steps’ model has its own unreliable legacy.

Of course learning can be different with technology but that difference is not de facto better. That notion seems completely absent. In fact, I would argue that is the single biggest myth going in education today. Another completely absent notion is how mandatory and standardized testing is antithetical to any concept of the popular edtech buzzwords like innovation or vision, let alone educationally sound concepts of “student-centric” and “creativity-focused.” That fact seems almost lost entirely in writing about educaiton today. Without acknowledging any of this, it is hard to take any of this thinking very seriously as anything other than marketing, which it seems to be if you read a little closer and think a little deeper.

The Noisy Fallacies of Psychographic Targeting – Wired –  Antonio García Martínez (10-minute read)

This might be one of the most interesting pieces to come out in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations. What this article does better than most is provide a proper context in which the wider story can be placed. How effective the Cambridge Analytica data heist even was has been mostly lost in the drama of Facebook being dragged through the mud, deserved though it may be.

Garcia Martinez provides a bit of history as to where psychographics comes from and just how soft it is as a concept. He also goes into a bit more detail as to how easily the data heist was able to be accomplished. Then he explains the two “leaps” made in what Cambridge Analytica was trying to do, “guessing about individual political inclinations based on rather metaphysical properties like ‘conscientiousness;’ and predicting what sort of Facebook user behaviors are also common among people with that same psychological quality.” If it sounds shaky it is because it is.

Another thing this piece does well is highlight where journalism might be falling down on the job and informing the public about the nuance instead of the drama. Thus, more myths and misunderstandings march on. Perhaps the most insightful comment is made at the end, “just because a product doesn’t work doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.” This might just be the motto of a whole lot of edtech enterprises. And don’t forget Facebook has been selling personalized learning in schools for a few years now. Better still and completely underreported, “Facebook employs psychologist whose firm sold data to Cambridge Analytica.” Of course, I don’t think Zuck commented on that mcu during his discussions with Congress.