The Cracker Jack of EdTech

Some of us older timers remember Cracker Jack, a snack mixture made of caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts with origins at the end of the 19th century.


Of course, the most distinctive element of the product wasn’t the edible part but the “toy surprise” buried in every box. Although, thinking back, the biggest surprise was probably why any of us cared about those trinkets in the first place.

Anyway, the edtech professional development community has its own variation on Cracker Jack: the event known variously as a “demo slam”, an “app smackdown”, or some similar title.

In these sessions, popular at EdCamps and smaller conferences, participants line up to present a two or three minute demonstration of a favorite piece of software or web service. Sometimes they try to connect the app to teaching and/or learning. But in that brief space of time, the focus is most often on the “wow factor” of the tool.

At larger conferences lacking a formal “smackdown” contest, the program is often littered with sessions completely devoted to this concept. With titles like “60 Apps in 60 Seconds” or “29 New Web Sites You Need to Check Out”, and “Tech Share Live!”.

Like Cracker Jack, these collections are a sweet mixture of cool tech stuff. With virtually no nutrition. And, if you’re lucky, a trivial prize buried inside.

Ok, I know there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a sweet treat every so often. I’ve had my share of Cracker Jack (although I much prefer Screaming Yellow Zonkers in that crap food category) and other items of questionable nutritional value.

And there’s nothing wrong with most of those demo slam, “cool tools” sessions. Occasionally it’s fun to have people rapid fire demonstrate a whole bunch of apps and maybe discover something new. I’ve even been known to participate in a smackdown or two.

However, the problem comes when we overindulge in snack food. Or in a constant search for the new, the next alternative, the techno “cool”. Looking for the toy surprise buried somewhere in the app store.

Resistance is Not Futile. But It’s Also Not Enough.

Many people know the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Some can even recall something about religion and a free press being in there.

But there are two other parts of at the end of the run-on sentence opening the Bill of Rights that are often overlooked1: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Projection 188

It’s a good thing James Madison thought to include them. Assembling and petitioning have gotten a vigorous workout this year.

We certainly need to exercise our rights to push back against the racist, xenophobic, mysoginistic, Islamaphobic, and anti-immigrant policies being forced on us by both the Executive branch as well as the majority party in Congress.

But that need to resist is always there. Anytime governments or organizations, at any level, try to make changes we feel are not in the best interests of society, we should speak up.

We must resist the attempts to privatize our public school system, to degrade health services for women, to remove basic protections for the environment, and to completely unravel the already fragile support system for those on the low end of the economic system.

We need to push back against “leaders” who claim to know it all but don’t want the public to know anything about what they’re doing. Ones who say they have all the answers but won’t reveal even the questions.

However, resistance is not enough.

Pushing back too often results in maintaining the status quo. The same old ideas and leaders who got us to this point in the first place.

Resistance alone does not move society forward.

For that we need leaders who will clearly articulate and advocate for positive policies and laws. The people currently forcing regressive policies on the country need to be replaced with those who are not afraid of change and the future. It’s not enough for candidates to simply be “not them”, or run on trying to make us afraid of what “they” might do.

Unfortunately, that’s very much what is happening in the current off-off-year election for governor and other state-wide offices here in Virginia. The messages from Democratic candidates I’ve seen2, is very much of the “help us resist” variety rather than articulating a vision for the future of the state. And both sides are actively engaged in scaring people rather than giving them something positive to support.

I have no idea what will happen in this election. Despite all the noise, I suspect there are still too many indifferent people who are not paying attention and will not vote, leaving the choice to a minority of activists more concerned with gaining power than with building a better society.

I can only hope I’m wrong.

1. According to polls, only 12% of Americans know about their right to assemble. On the other hand, many also misread the part about Congress not making any laws abridging the right of speech and assume everyone else has a Constitutional obligation to put up with their rants.

2. I admit I haven’t seen all that many political messages since I actively avoid advertising of all kind. But the negative campaign has been very hard to miss.

The image is from an article in the Washington Post about an activist who pulled off an interesting protest at the Old Post Office building in DC, currently occupied by the Trump Organization.

I Could Be Wrong

Randy Newman has release a new collection of his songs, the first in almost a decade, and it is wonderful. The first “album” I’ve bought in many years.

He recently performed four of the tracks for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and it’s a great showcase of Newman’s talent as both a song writer and performer.

Although the song “Putin” is the one that seems to be getting lots of attention, my favorite, both in this performance and the album, is “It’s a Jungle Out There”. Newman has taken his fun, character-appropriate theme from the TV show “Monk” and turned it into an also fun but very satirical reflection on the paranoia (possibly justified) of modern life.

I could be wrong now… but I don’t think so.

Your New Curriculum?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most take the format of an intelligent conversation between two or more people, or someone telling a good story.

icon for tell me something i don't know podcast

Then there’s the program called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which the producers (who also do the more conventional but also excellent Freakonomics) describe as journalism wrapped in a game show package.

On most segments, they have a panel of three very smart people and a general theme. Audience members (often experts in a specific field of study) are then invited on stage to tell the panel about something they may not know related to the theme. The panel gets to ask any questions they might have and, after all the stories have been told, they decide who did the best job.

It’s all simple, very nerdish fun.

However, as I was listening to a recent episode, it struck me that this is very much what school should be.

Stay with me.

Currently, in most classrooms, a teacher stands in front of a group of students dispensing information. Or at least they direct the distribution of that knowledge in some way.

So, what happens if the teacher walks into the classroom and instead challenges the kids to tell me something I don’t know?

There would have to be some structure, of course. I’m pretty sure teenagers could reel off a whole lot of trivia they consider interesting that would baffle most adults. But the show itself provides some of that organization.

The rules of the game are that the IDK (short for the “I don’t know”) presented must be something we truly don’t know, something that is actually worth knowing (which may eliminate everything on the E! channel), and something that is demonstrably true.

Ok, there are probably more than a few details that need to be worked out before anyone puts this idea into practice.

But what better way to get students to look at learning in a different way than to ask them to choose a topic they find interesting, immerse themselves in the details, and then put the material they find into a compelling form for a live audience?

Fear the Camera

Please excuse me while I rant…

I found that sign displayed outside of a waterside tourist space during a recent trip and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this list of rules. It’s the kind of stuff you might expect in any place with drinking crowds. I certainly want the “No weapons” restriction in a bar.

Then we come to the line “No Professional Cameras”.

I’m pretty sure whoever wrote that rule was thinking of a camera like the one used to make this image: a relatively big, black, single-lens reflex with interchangeable lenses. The variety of device you might expect to see in the hands of a paparazzi while stalking a Kardashian.

Except mine is not a “professional” camera.

I’ve never been paid a dime for any image I’ve made with it. I’ve never had a job that required me to use this device. I’m not a professional photographer, so this is not a “professional” camera.

Now, I’m certainly not going to complain directly to the management of this establishment about that one line. Their place, their rules.

I’m just pointing out this single, relatively minor entry in the unfortunately long list of examples of the modern day fear of photography.

Like the Metro cop who told me I couldn’t take pictures on the platform 1 and then walked past a group of kids doing exactly that with their smartphones. Or the security guards in DC who questioned me for pointing my camera at an interesting reflection in the window of a government building from a public street.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find many, many similar stories, some with far worse consequences.

My point to this somewhat lame post is, cameras are everywhere, in the hands of just about everyone. Trying to ban or limit their use, especially by calling one particular style “professional”, is going to be an exercise in frustration. Far better to ask people to be respectful of others when making pictures. Doesn’t always work, but still better.

Ok, I’m done ranting. Thanks for reading this far.

For those interested, the ACLU has a short, simple guide to photographers’ rights. If you use a camera of any kind in public, read it.