Breaking News: Teachers are Using Google!

Free for all forever
In the world of click-bait, Business Insider is a master.1 Consider their widely twittered about story with the excessively long title “Teachers love Google’s education products but are suspicious. Why is a megacorporation giving them a perfect tool for free?”.

I’m pretty sure Google’s products are not “perfect”. I don’t know many teachers who express much suspicion about them. And “free” depends on how the bill is being paid.

But at least this site usually provides a nice bulleted “executive” summary summarizing the main points at the top of their posts.

Like this:

Google for Education tools have taken off “like grass on fire,” industry analysts say.

I suspect the writer is reading “industry analysts” from 2015 since the current name is G Suite for Education and has been very popular in American K12 schools for at least three years, maybe more.

The writer also wants us the know about the “Google-powered devices [that] made up almost 60% of computing devices purchased for US classrooms in 2017”.

As for the laptops, they’re deeply discounted. Institutional pricing for an iPad, once the standby education hardware nationwide, is $299 while Microsoft devices start at $189. Google said a single Chromebook starts at $149 per unit for classrooms.

First, a Chromebook is not the same as a laptop. It’s a device using a browser window into the web, mostly Google’s web. Google also collects a royalty for each one sold as well as a fee from schools for each one being managed through their administrative panel. I think “deeply discounted” is also a euphemism for “cheap” but that’s a discussion for another post.

Throughout the article, the writer emphasizes that the G Suite products are free. However, he ignores or glosses over the fact that there is a cost being paid, even if teachers don’t pay it directly.

As I’ve ranted about in previous posts, Google and other companies giving away their products, still extract their payment through other means. All that data being collected may not be used for advertising, as it is in their regular products, but it’s still valuable to Google’s research departments. Very likely they find ways to track students into the real world, based on the data they contribute during the school day.

Then there remains the persistent issue of depending on free. While Google is not likely to disappear in the near term (like those in Audrey Watters’ EdTech Startup Deadpool), it doesn’t mean their current offerings won’t change or that a service valuable to you won’t be summarily killed off with little notice.2

Anyway, I’m not trying to tell anyone not to use Google, or any other software, app, or service. This is just one of my regular nags about being careful out there on the internets. Be doubly careful when guiding your students (or your own kids) through the same maze.


Image: Free for all forever by Howard Lake. Published to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Yes, I’m very aware that linking to the article is contributing to the success of their click-baiting efforts. Moving on…

2. Looking at you Google Reader. Yep, still bitter. :-)

The AP Love Affair

Exam

You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Advanced Placement than Jay Mathews. Except possibly for the people at The College Board who run the extremely profitable program.1

For anyone who has not read the Post regularly over the past couple of decades, Mathews is well-known around here for writing full-throated, uncritical columns championing the AP program. Last month alone, three of his five columns centered on that topic.

The fall Education Edition of the Post Sunday Magazine published in October also featured an eight-page spread by Mathews that was ostensibly a profile of the director of the AP program. It was a sloppy wet kiss that a casual reader might have mistaken as nothing more than an “advertorial” paid for by the College Board, mixed in with the other ads for private schools, tutoring services, and military boarding academies.

And, of course, Mathews also is responsible for the farce known as the Challenge Index, an annual ranking that is embraced by schools and news media as a benchmark of high school quality. A measure that is based solely on the number of AP tests taken.2

In all of this promotional work (including at least three related books), Mathews rarely does much to address critics of the AP program. Mostly it consists of setting up very flimsy straw men and quickly knocking them down with a very dismissive attitude. Anyone who doesn’t agree that AP should be the foundation of a high school academic program is misguided at best.

Toward the end of the Sunday Magazine article, he mentions in one paragraph two rather prominent critics of the AP program, and then allows the subject of his piece to dismiss them with a couple of quotes containing no real rebuttal.

One of those critics is the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere”. In the film, produces look at how students are under increasing pressure to “succeed” in school, including by being pushed into taking more AP classes.

The other is a 2012 article from The Atlantic with the provocative title “AP Classes Are a Scam”.

Although I wouldn’t go so far to call the program a scam, the author, a former government professor at Boston College, makes some excellent points that deserve to be part of the debate. His last bullet point is one of my favorites.

To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Which relates directly to some of my primary criticisms of the AP program, and especially the huge emphasis the classes receive in most high schools in this area.

For one, the whole AP program drives an assumption that the goal of every student should be attending a four-year college. Indeed, the entire curriculum is dictated by university officials who benefit from the stream of new customers. Too often, kids are given the impression that anything other than a brand name college represents failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, the AP structure reinforces the idea that a pure academic approach is the only way to understand any subject. That subjects can only be studied within their silo, a segmented approach to learning that was already an entrenched attitude in most of the high schools I’ve worked with over the years and now extending down into the lower grades.

That intellectual curiosity the professor spoke of is difficult, if not impossible, in a rigidly designed curriculum that leaves little room for exploration outside of the silo.

Anyway, after all that ranting, I wouldn’t advocate for high schools to drop AP classes entirely (as some schools are doing). I’ve both taken and taught AP courses, as well as spending a few summers scoring them and there is some value in the concept (if not the current execution).

Schools should be providing students with the option to participate. With the emphasis on option.

We need to help students understand and explore ALL their options during their time in K12 classrooms. Structuring high school entirely around a college-level program, which Jay Mathews appears to be pushing with his AP love affair, slams the door shut to those choices.


Image: Exam by Alberto G. Posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. They also own the equally profitable, and questionable, SAT and other related testing programs. You can find more data on the finances of the College Board and other “non-profit” testing groups at Americans for Educational Testing Reform.

2. If you want to torture yourself with it, I’ve written far too much about that crap in this space.

Mid-Year Course Correction

New Year Sunrise

Happy New Year. If you live in a part of the world that follows the traditional Gregorian calendar.

January 1 has always seemed like an odd place to put this particular dividing line. The Romans and other ancient cultures positioned the start of their calendars in the spring when nature seemed to be waking up from the winter. March 1 would be more hopeful date following a hard winter.

Of course all of that is based on the Northern Hemisphere, Eurocentric view of the world. Just imagine how celebrating the start of a new year would be different if we were using a calendar created in another part of the world.

I’ve lived and worked most of my life in an academic calendar, so somewhere around September 1 was more the start of a new year than today. This point has always been a welcome break before continuing with the second half (more like two-thirds) of the year.

But, if you think about it, midnight last night was just an artificial dividing line anyway. Today is really not different from yesterday (unless you’re a tax accountant). We divide life into chunks – months, quarters, semesters, years – for convenience and consistency. Life itself flows rather than restarting at particular intervals.

Many people use the start of the new calendar as motivation to make major alterations in their lives: eat better, exercise more, develop better habits. Not me. Certainly not because I have nothing that needs improving. The list seems to grow as I get older and more critical of myself.

However, I’ve lived long enough to know that big changes, executed on a fixed schedule rarely work. For most of us, New Year resolutions are largely abandoned before Groundhog Day.

Better to set goals for ourselves whenever we realize they’re needed, and then make smaller course corrections as required. Like on New Year’s Day.

Anyway, thank you for reading to the end of this random ramble. Let’s all make the next collection of 365 days better than the previous one.


The photo is of the sun rising on the Potomac River, as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, January 1, 2012.

The Strange Holiday Mix – 2018

Bend in the River

Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri has posted her insightful and very funny list/ranking of 100 Christmas songs. With two exceptions (71 and 2), none of her choices are in my collection, to which these fine musical works are being added this year.

All of them should available in your favorite digital store or streaming service. So listen and enjoy.

  1. Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) – Ramones
  2. The Big Opening (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) – Danny Elfman
  3. Monster’s Holiday – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers
  4. I’m Not Ready for Christmas – Alicia Witt
  5. Deck the Halls – Walk Off the Earth
  6. Come On Santa – The Raveonettes
  7. Fall in Love This Christmas – Dia Frampton
  8. Mele Kalikimaka – The Monkees
  9. A Marshmallow World – Walk Off the Earth
  10. Holiday – Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, James Corden, Ron Funches, Caroline Hjelt, Aino Jawo, Kunal Nayyar, Christopher Mintz-Plasse & The Bergens
  11. Christmas Is You – Swear And Shake
  12. Santa’s Messin’ with the Kid – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  13. The Nice List – Dia Frampton
  14. Christmas Tree – Zac Brown Band (feat. Sara Bareilles)
  15. 2000 Miles – The Pretenders
  16. Making Christmas – The Citizens of Halloween & Danny Elfman
  17. Auld Lang Syne – The Cast

Photo is of Georgetown as seen from Kennedy Center on the foggy Christmas eve of 2014, and posted to my Flickr account. I have great hopes for Flickr under it’s new, non-corporate owners in the new year.

One Small Step

Women's March on Washington

It’s been almost three weeks since the midterm elections.

Although the pundits on the talking heads channels are probably completely convinced they understand the historical significance of the results, the rest of us are still pretty confused. Big events, and even some relatively minor ones, require more time and context to fit them into history.

Regardless, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the vote at least pushed things in the right direction.1

But it was just one small step. The real work is still ahead.

For one thing, we need to get all those new people who showed up at the polls to come back next year. The elections coming next year will be much lower in profile but potentially very important.

In this area we will be choosing representatives for the state legislature, new county supervisors, and a school board. Decisions made by those officials often have more impact on day-to-day life than those at a national level. Similar votes will be going on all over the country.

Then those new voters, and many more, also need to participate in 2020 and beyond. We still have too many indifferent citizens that must be convinced that their participation matters. Plus the millions who were excluded from voting by corrupt and greedy politicians who can’t hold onto power in any other way.

All of that will require the new House of Representatives, and newly elected state and local officials, to decide that establishing a fair and transparent voting process for every citizen in every state is a top priority. No significant progress in any other area will be possible until that happens.

Beyond that, the list of problems that have piled up during the Twitter/Facebook wars is staggering. 

Many people are calling for investigations of many people and events, egged on by a news media that thrives on political fights. Certainly that’s necessary, especially since Constitutionally mandated congressional oversight has been sorely lacking for the past two years.

But just digging into the past won’t move the country forward. Unless those hearings and reports result in concrete plans to change the system, it’s all just noise.

In the long run, making actual progress to improve life in this country for all will require leaders willing to articulate a clear vision for the future. Innovators at all levels, state and local as well as national, with the courage to explain and defend their ideas. With the skills to organize people to make them happen.

And those of us not in leadership positions still have a role to play. We must pay close attention to what our representatives are doing in our name. When they are working for progress, we must let them know. When they are wrong, we must speak up and do what we can to push them in the right direction.

All of that starts today, not at some vague point in the future.


The image is of the Woman’s March on Washington, January 2017. Posted to Flickr by Mobilus In Mobili and used under a Creative Commons license. I expect more protest like this will also be necessary to move things forward.

1. Everything in this post is based, of course, on my personal view of where this country is and where it needs to be. You have every right to disagree. Politely.