Teach Me, Seymour

One of the few formal sessions I attended at the ISTE conference was one by Gary Stager. Gary is one of those people with strong opinions, and I don’t always agree with him but he always gets me thinking. Which is a good thing.

His topic this time was a retrospective on the work and ideas of Seymour Papert, who passed away two years ago. If you are an educator and you don’t know about Papert’s work, then there is a big gap in your professional knowledge. Especially if you have anything to do with instructional technology.1

Papert was a pioneering researcher on how kids could use technology to learn. He believed in the idea that children could and should use all kinds of tools create their own learning, leading directly to the current Maker movement. He was also the godfather of today’s “coding for all” efforts, having co-developed the Logo language (Scratch’s grandfather) and advocated in the 80’s for programming as part of the standard curriculum.

During the talk, Gary reminded us of two particular Papert ideas that I believe are very relevant in the techno-rush to “personalize” student learning.

One comes from Papert’s landmark book Mindstorms in which he asks a fundamental question: “Does the computer program the child or does the child program the computer?”

It struck me that the former – the computer programming the child – is exactly the approach taken by many designers of personalized systems. They claim their products are simply offering kids choices, but too often their algorithms are in control of the learning process.

Before buying into the marketing hype of “personalized” learning products, anyone who works with children should be asking the developers Papert’s question. If they can’t offer a satisfactory answer, move on.

Gary also offered another, very simple, observation from Papert that should be quite obvious, but is often ignored: “Learning is not the direct result of being taught.”

Of course, when he uses the term “learning”, Papert was not thinking of standardized test scores. He was concerned with long term understanding and internalizing of knowledge. The kind that only comes from kids constructing their own learning.

It’s an idea that the vendors of “personalized” learning systems seem have missed, since their systems are all about being taught, not learning.

Just a couple of powerful ideas from Seymour Papert that we often forget when surrounded by all the attractive, shiny new toys at ISTE.


The image is a drawing of Seymour being drawn by the LOGO Turtle by Peter H. Reynolds. It is linked from Gary Stager’s Daily Papert website.

1. In addition to Mindstorms, I recommend Papert’s wonderful book from the early 90’s, The Children’s Machine. You can also get much more information about Papert and read many of his papers on Gary’s site, The Daily Papert.

What is “Ed” Tech?

Roomba hack: Spirograph!

For one teacher, edtech included a Roomba.

It turns out the disc-shaped vacuum cleaner, which uses sensors to autonomously zip around homes is also a great tool to teach students about robotics and empathy.

Yung’s students learned all about how the Roomba moves, behaves and how it works. Then they set off to dream up and draw their own robots that could help people in the real world like a robot that gives you a blanket when you sleep.

Ok, I can see building a lesson around understanding how a robotic vacuum works.

But does that make the device educational technology?

Not necessarily.

Let’s face it, “edtech” is a very broad term and a wide variety of hardware, software and services have been tossed into that basket. So maybe we need to be a little more specific.

I don’t expect this to catch on, but I see at least two subcategories: teaching technology and learning technology.

That robot is learning technology only if kids are the ones using it. They should be playing with it, experimenting,  programming it. Maybe even taking the device apart and changing it’s function, like the picture above.

Technology under the control and direction of adults is teaching technology. Stuff like Google Classroom, FlipGrid, interactive whiteboards, most of the hot new stuff in your Twitter feed.

And that’s not a bad thing. Only that we need to make a distinction between technology that is used by teachers as part of their instruction and tech that is used by students as part of their learning.

They are not necessarily the same. Certainly not of equal value.

Just something to think about.


Image: Roomba hack: spirograph! by squidish on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Misdirected Metaphor

Explorer

Lots of tech startups like to explain in their pitch deck how they would be the “Netflix of x”, the “Amazon of y”, or the “Uber of z”.1 Edtech startups are no different.

However, when it comes to edtech, Michael B. Horn, a futurist who a few months ago was declaring that voice-activated devices like Alexa would be “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”, spotlights a company that is using a more unexpected metaphor. 

The founder of Gooru “makes the argument that what education needs is really a Google Maps for education”. Of course, it’s all about “personalized” learning.

What he means by that is services that starts by “locating the learner,” or understanding the position of a learner relative to her learning goal before suggesting the best pathway to help that learner achieve that goal. Such tools must also accommodate a variety of other pathways depending on the actions and needs of the learner—just as Google Maps can accommodate a variety of routes to a destination once it knows where you are and dynamically change the route based on what you actually do.

Which is all very nice. Except that the Maps analogy assumes a fixed destination. One that is most likely established by someone other than the student. Based on a fixed curriculum, much of which they probably find uninteresting and irrelevant.

If you really want to relate learning to maps, maybe a better metaphor would be the classic road trip.

Layout a basic plan on the map but allow for diversions at each stop based on information from the locals, curiosity, and unexpected discoveries. Real learning can occur with a tightly designed plan. But, like a good road trip, it more often comes when you take a path that looks interesting and wasn’t on the original map.

Ok, that’s a pretty half-baked idea that likely will go nowhere. But it certainly makes more sense than the tortured Google Maps metaphor in Horn’s post.


Image: Explorer by Sakeeb Sabakka, posted to Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Well, not so much Uber anymore since they’ve acquired a rather sketchy reputation in a variety of areas.

The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

On The Hazards of Free

free stuff

In the past week or so, we have a few more examples of why it may not be a good idea to depend on free.

The first involves Padlet, a service that began about six years ago under the name Wallwisher. Padlet allows users to create a virtual bulletin board and then include others as collaborators. It was enthusiastically adopted by many teachers for instructional use, as well as by many of us who did professional development activities.

The service was attractive because it was relatively easy to use and, of course, the account was free. At least the basic version was free, which means someone had to be paying the server bills.

Padlet is one of many web-based services struggling to succeed using a “freemium” business model. Under that concept, a company makes money (or tries to) from the relatively small part of the user base who are willing to pay for advanced features. It’s a tricky balancing act trying to attract enough “premium” users while not giving away too much value at the free level.

This week Padlet decided they need to rebalance and announced a change to their pricing structure that removes some of that free-level value. The new model severely limits the number of Padlets that could be created by free users and, as you might expect, many of them were not happy.

Then there was another big piece of edtech news that didn’t get the same degree of Twitter coverage but still illustrates the problem with free.

Edmodo, a popular system for building communities founded in 2008 as a “Facebook for education”, was sold to a Chinese company. Their service was also free, at first, and teachers flocked to it, growing to more than 90 million users around the world.

Although Edmodo was able to raise money from investors, they never found a model that could sustain the company for the long term. The question now is how the new owners will change the service to recover their purchase price and provide an income stream. Whatever they decide will likely not be popular with users who have become accustomed to free.

Finally, there was one more reminder about the problem with free that landed in my email box. The message came from the CEO of Noosfeer, letting me know that the service will be “closing its doors to the general public” at the end of the month.

Yeah, I didn’t recognize the name either. Or remember having an account.

According to the website, Noosfeer is (soon to be was) a “content reader and aggregator”, evidently founded around four years ago. It sounds like something I would have wanted to try. I’ve opened a lot of accounts over the years. And forgotten about most when they didn’t fit my needs.

Anyway, this blip, along with the higher profile changes to Padlet and Edmodo are just the latest reminders that free is not a sustainable business model. Just don’t be surprised when “free” changes in a way you may not like. Or disappears.


The photo, by Frank Hebbert, was posted on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.