The Disappearance of Location-Based Learning

Speaking of coding (as I was in the previous entry), Wired recently posted an interesting opinion piece speculating about how Software is Reorganizing the World.

The whole article is worth a read for the author’s observation of how people today are “migrating” their lives into cloud communities, not unlike their ancestors who moved physically between continents.

However, what caught my attention is his central thesis, one that could very well apply to our education system.

Technology is thus enabling arbitrary numbers of people from around the world to assemble in remote locations, without interrupting their ability to work or communicate with existing networks. In this sense, the future of technology is not really location-based apps; it is about making location completely unimportant. [emphasis mine]

Take that idea and substitute learning for apps: “the future of school is not really location-based learning; it is about making location completely unimportant”.

“Location-based learning” is pretty much the definition of school. What happens to our traditional concept of “school” when technology advances to the point that location becomes completely unimportant to learning?

Something to think about.

Learning the Academic Game

For as long as I’ve been associated with high schools, which would be both attending and teaching at that level for many years, the primary focus has always been on academics, with the ultimate goal of our kids piling up enough of the right kind of credits to get them into a “good” college. Preferably one that when mentioned, everyone in the room solemnly nods with an understanding of what a great academic institution it is.

Very few of us, however, ever question if that path was the best one for every student, at least not with the force and eloquence of this post at the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

No sugar coating there. And that’s just the opening paragraphs. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing for more of Shelley’s thoughts on why our education system is very wrong to focus on creating “academic” kids who are good at playing the school game.

John Cleese on Learning

One more item related to John Cleese’s talk on creativity from a few posts back, this time his opening remarks on his personal learning goals.

Each day I want to learn something new. Because I’m very, very old and will be dead soon, so I want to be as well informed as I can possibly be when I die.

I may adopt the same ambitions.

The Shelf Life of Learning

This past summer, our IT department sent a notice to schools that they would be archiving the electronic grade books for the previous school year in order to prepare the system for the fall opening.

But they also said that by law, grade books could only be retained by the district for five years after students graduate and that files for the “for school year 2007 – 2008 and prior years will be destroyed” at the same time.

In other words, records representing twelve years worth of a student’s work, about half of the time they’ve been alive, only has a shelf life of five years.

I wonder, what is the shelf life of the learning reflected in those files?

It should be far longer than five years but I’m betting much of it was forgotten not long after the grades were posted.

Digital Learning Without the Digital

As mentioned in a previous rant, we’re trying to define “digital learning” here in the overly-large school district. Assuming the term has any meaning at all. The jury is still out on that part.

Anyway, at one of our community meetings this week, a parent told me an interesting story about digital learning, or the lack thereof.

His son is taking the beginning computer science class at one of our secondary schools (middle and high in one building), a course in which students traditionally learn the basics of programming hands-on, by actually writing, testing and debugging applications.

At the beginning of the year, they were told that all of their projects had to be completed by the first of May, which is about seven weeks prior to the end of our school year.

Why so early?

For the month of May into early June in this school, and pretty much every other one in the system, every student computer is conscripted for online standardized testing.

Thus, for roughly six weeks out of a 36 week school year learning for these students will come to a halt.

But then the same would be true for just about anything you might include in that definition of “digital learning”.

Learning From Everyone

Mimi Ito’s specialty is “researching how young people are learning differently because of the abundance of knowledge and social connections in today’s networked world”.

She has heard the calls, from the president and others, for colleges to put more of their courses online and says that’s far from all we should be doing.

While I would be the last one to argue against getting more good educational material online and accessible, I do question whether our focus should be exclusively on classroom instruction.

Young people are desperate for learning that is relevant and part of the fabric of their social lives, where they are making choices about how, when, and what to learn, without it all being mapped for them in advance. Learning on the Internet is about posting a burning question on a forum like Quora or Stack Exchange, searching for a how to video on YouTube or Vimeo, or browsing a site like Instructables, Skillshare, and Mentormob for a new project to pick up. It’s not just professors who have something to share, but everyone who has knowledge and skills.

So, what are the implications for what we do in K12, especially high school? Should our focus continue to be exclusively on classroom instruction? Or the online clones of a traditional classroom found in most “virtual” schools?

Really Bad Vision

This is probably one of the most depressing ideas I've seen in a while. The Gates Foundation wants to spend up to $6 million to develop “literacy courseware”.

More specifically, it plans to use that small piece of Bill's pocket change “to entice publishers, developers, and entrepreneurs to propose the most innovative digital solutions for engaging, personalized software that helps students with reading and writing”.

Notice what's missing from that enticement list? No mention of educators.

The request for proposal says this is part of the Foundation's “vision” for education, something they call “personalized learning”.

My vision of their vision looks more like this:

Depressing.

Coding for Lifelong Learning

At a recent TEDx event, Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, presents the case that learning to code is an essential skill all children need to learn.

In the first part of his talk, Resnick argues against the tired old belief (excuse?), held by so many teachers, that kids are far more tech savvy than they will ever be.

All of us have heard young people referred to as “digital natives”. But actually, I’m sorta skeptical of this term. I’m not so sure we should be thinking of young people as digital natives.

There’s no doubt that young people are very comfortable and familiar with browsing and chatting and texting and gaming. But that doesn’t make you fluent.

Young people today have lots of experience and lots of familiarity with interacting with new technologies but a lot less so with creating with new technologies, and expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies.

He goes on to discuss how we expect kids to become fluent at reading and writing the written word and we should also be helping students learn how to effectively create with new technologies, not to improve their consuming skills.

However, just as we don’t teach reading and writing so kids will be come professional writers – very few will follow that path – we should also have other, higher goals in mind when teaching the process of coding.

Again the same thing with coding. Most people won’t grow up to be professional computer scientists or programmers. But those skills of thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, working collaboratively, skills you develop when you code in Scratch [the programming interface for young people developed by his group] are things people can use no matter what they’re doing in their work lives.

 Watch the whole thing for more of his ideas and a look at some new Scratch features coming soon.

Final Exams: What I Learned This Year

The school year comes to a close this week here in our overly-large school district and, like the kids taking their final exams1, it’s time to reflect on the past ten months and figure out if I’ve learned anything over that time.

Since I don’t like multiple choice tests, this will be an essay.

One thing that’s been very clear in working with our schools this year is that they just love their data. Data, data, and more data.

An increasing amount of the precious little time available outside of actual teaching seems to be taken up with organizing and analyzing data on the kids. And to facilitate all that organizing and analyzing, our schools have adopted (or in a few cases, have been forced to adopt) the concept of “professional learning communities” (PLC)2.

It sounds nice, but I really wonder what’s happening in those structures. When talking to teachers and others in the schools, more often than not they refer to those gatherings as “meetings”, as in “I have a PLC meeting this afternoon”, often applying all the distain that many of us outside the classroom reserve for that term.

Much of the focus of their meeting seems to be not on learning (professional or otherwise), or collaborating, or on forming communities, but on building “common assessments”, a phrase that boils down to everyone teaching a particular grade level or course giving the same tests to their kids at the same time.

The better to gather more data with – a vicious and never-ending circle.

When you toss in bracelets that are supposed to measure student engagement and a growing collection of other “assessment tools” that keep arriving in vendor spam, the obsession over data continues to grow.

So, at what point does the data become more important than the source of that data, which of course, are kids? Or when will more time and effort be devoted to the data?

I suspect the farther you take the numbers from the classroom, the more likely it’s already happened. Just look at our national education policy.

End of section 1. Wait for the proctor to instruct you to continue.


1 Which they discover quickly during their school experience are never the “final” exams. :-)

2 Many schools have altered the name to CLT (collaborative learning teams), or just CT, or some other variation on the same theme.

The Revolution Will Be Crowded

According to Thomas Friedman, there’s a revolution coming in post K12 education and he uses this “rather charming” explanation from Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and cofounder of the online course delivery company Coursera, to illustrate his point.

“I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Friedman raves about this approach, saying that it would give more students access to “quality higher education” at a cost that’s much lower than the fast-rising price of attending in person.

He also marvels that this would “enable budget-strained community colleges in America to “flip” their classrooms” by having students watch recordings of “the world’s best lecturers on any subject”.

However, is that what people want from a college education? Can you call what Ng does “teaching”, or is it more about managing a large group of self-directed learners? For someone who isn’t self-directed, is the only alternative then accumulating a pile of student loans?

As someone who wasn’t thrilled by most of my undergraduate classes in college and actually likes self-directed learning, this is not judgement, just questions.

I also wonder, just as college-level classes were pushed down into high school in the form of the AP program, when will this type of massive approach to instruction arrive for us here in K12?

A district accountant somewhere is probably already thinking that one teacher working with only 150 kids per year sounds awfully expensive.

Learning to Work Online

Last week our governor signed a bill requiring high school students in the state to take at least one online course to graduate, beginning with the class of 2017.

I’m still not sure why.

A spokesperson for the governor says new requirement will “better prepare students for the job market of the 21st century”*.

I don’t understand how.

I’ve been facilitating online course for adults off and on for more than ten years. I took my first virtual class back in the days of the dial-up modem when the content was little different from correspondence courses that were snail mailed to your home.

That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on the matter, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about online learning is that it’s not the right solution for everyone. Some people don’t work well detached from the human contact that comes with a face-to-face situation.

Supporters of this idea argue that kids need to learn to work online because jobs increasingly demand those skills (now that we’re more than 10% of the way into the 21st century).

I agree. But is a formal course, especially one that is likely to be a virtual replica of a face-to-face class, necessarily the best solution?

More important than learning to take an online course – a somewhat narrow skill set that really only benefits the growing post-secondary education business – we should be helping students understand how to present themselves online. Allowing them to practice crafting messages for different audiences using a variety of delivery tools as part of their “standard” curriculum.

If you look carefully at that “job market” of the 21st century (which is now), workers increasingly need to know how to market themselves and learn new skills (often on the fly) to adapt for an ever changing employment landscape.

Is taking a canned online course going to help with any of that? I doubt it.


*Has anyone else noticed that we are already more than 10% into the 21st century and still our “leaders” discuss it as if it’s still in the distant future?

What’s the Value of Free?

As with most big newspaper in the world, the Washington Post is constantly looking for new revenue streams that will help make the analog delivery system side of their business profitable again. Currently the company is in the black, largely due to their Kaplan Education unit.

One of their latest attempts is a program called Post Master Class, described as “unique learning experiences” created by ”Washington Post experts renowned in their fields”.

So what is all that uniqueness and expertise worth?

According to the catalog, each of the seven asynchronous courses currently in the catalog costs $400, for what seems to be a collection of enhanced slide shows and videos. Hard to tell from the brief “look inside” provided.

However, since I’m still in the shrinking audience that pays for a Post “home delivery subscription”*, I get a deal. My special price for a course is only $40.

But, in the words of the late, great Billy Mays, wait there’s more!

The Post wants to wish me a happy new year and this week offers me a “special gift as a thank you” for being such a loyal subscriber. I can have any one of the courses for $0.

And we arrive back at the earlier question: what is real value of this “unique learning experience”?

The list price is $400, which they’re willing to discount to $40, so obviously the people at the Post think the real sales price is somewhere between those amounts (I wonder how many full-price registrations they’ve received).

Anyway, when you drop the bill to free, it becomes worth spending a little of my time (of some undetermined value) to try one of the classes.

I’ll let you know if I get more than my money’s worth in knowledge.


*Truth be known, I’d stop the paper tomorrow if I could get my wife to agree. :-)

How to Be a Better Learner

The business magazine Forbes recently posted a rather odd piece called How to Be More Interesting. Created by Jessica Hagy, the illustrator and writer behind the always inventive blog Indexed, the mix of humor and far-from-traditional advice just seems very out of place from such a conventional source.

However, I was also struck by how much of Jessica’s advice could be applied to being a better learner, and teacher.

1. Go exploring. Explore ideas, places, and opinions. The inside of the echo chamber is where are all the boring people hang out.

2. Share what you discover. And be generous when you do. Not everybody went exploring with you. Let them live vicariously through your adventures.

3. Do something. Anything. Dance. Talk. Build. Network. Play. Help. Create. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re doing it. Sitting around and complaining is not an acceptable form of ‘something,’ in case you were wondering.

7. Give it a shot. Try it out. Play around with a new idea. Do something strange. If you never leave your comfort zone, you won’t grow.

So, does being a better learner make a person more interesting? I suppose it’s possible.

Anyway, go enjoy the whole thing, especially Jessica’s Indexed cards that accompany each item.