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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.

The EdTech Boat Shows

Swap the boats for computers and it begins to look familiar.

Happening this week in London is one of the largest edtech conferences in the world, one that many educators in the US have probably never heard of.

It’s called BETT1 and the organizers say it will attract almost 35,000 attendees. For comparison, recent ISTE2 conferences, largest in the US, have included around 22,000 people.

Also happening this week in Orlando, Florida is another large edtech conference, one that is probably quite familiar to anyone reading this, FETC3. They usually attract around 8,000 people. So, big but not nearly the size of the other two.

All three edtech organizations, of course, want us, the common educator, to believe that the event will provide hundreds of professional development opportunities. Ones that address the “future of education” and “transforming education” (in the case of BETT).

Several days that will be an “intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues” (FETC). That will offer “powerful ideas and inspirational speakers, while connecting with innovative educators who share your passion for transformative learning” (ISTE).

However, a large and growing part of these huge conferences is the vendor floor. I would argue it’s the largest, and likely most important, part to these three organizations. Companies pay big bucks to have a presence at these events, even more for a high profile sponsorship, money necessary to keep their budgets in the black.

BETT at least is up front about primarily being an industry trade show, rather than a professional development conference. According to it’s about page, this is the “first industry show of the year in the education technology landscape”. ISTE and FETC are more circumspect on the issue, but their literature still places a heavy emphasis on the number of companies that will be exhibiting at their events.

Ok, I’ve never attended BETT or FETC, and, based on their online programs, I really have no desire to go. (Although I wouldn’t mind visiting London. Anytime.) On the other hand, I have been to ISTE many times (over almost twenty years) and the attraction for that event has been declining.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt my trips to ISTE were worth while, learning much during the time and always making or renewing some wonderful connections. And almost none of that came from visiting the “massive Expo Hall”. I expect that the same would be true if I was at the big events in London or Ontario right now.

But I find that it takes more and more work to find those professional benefits at these overly-large conferences. Considering the number of people I see spending hours in the vendor hall and flocking to the “Cracker Jack” sessions, along with the volume of social media posts about the “cool new” stuff, I’m not sure that’s happening at all for a large percentage of those tens of thousand attendees.

On top of that, the dominance of the edtech industry has steadily grown at these conferences. Large parts of the formal program at ISTE and FETC are now presentations by corporate representatives and sessions by educators sponsored to some degree by those companies. Extending their marketing reach beyond the one hall.

All of which is making these huge conferences more resemble the classic boat show than an education event.


The title for this post is borrowed, with thanks, from Gary Stager. It’s just such a wonderful name for the massive and increasingly flashy vendor floors of these events so I hope he doesn’t mind me using it.

The picture is from the Detroit Boat Show.

1 From the original name the British Educational Training and Technology Show.

2 Anyone else see something wrong about an organization with “international” in it’s title that’s never holds it’s major event outside the US borders? Sorta like the “World” Series.

3 Which started life as the Florida Educational Technology Conference. It was changed to the Future of Educational Technology Conference when the event was purchased by a media company that operates many other business conferences.

You Can’t Depend on Free

While I was away at ISTE, Evernote, the online note taking service, announced the unthinkable: they reduced the functionality of their free service. Among other alterations to the free tier, users may now access their notes on only two devices, instead of on as many as they could carry previously.1

Horrors!

I learned about the changes to Evernote by overhearing a conversation in the Blogger’s Cafe at the conference. Several members of the group sitting behind me were not at all happy, complaining that Evernote was only trying to force them into one of the paid tiers. They vowed to move to something better (which probably meant something also free).

Ok, this kind of change is not fun. But it’s also a good example of what I’ve said before: you can’t depend on free.

It’s very possible the people on which I was eavesdropping will move to another notetaking application and be disappointed by it at some time in the future. The developers will also change the functionality. Or begin charging for some features, maybe the whole thing. Or the product will disappear entirely when they fail to make money on the venture.

I suppose I’m the one who really has the right to gripe about Evernote’s announcement since they also raised prices for those of us who actually pay for the service. But I’m not going to complain. And I certainly won’t be looking at alternatives. This is a tool I use every day and depend on to keep my information life straight. Why wouldn’t I pay a reasonable amount for that? 2

In the end, a large part of the blame for the grumbling I heard in the Cafe lies with many of the vendors exhibiting at ISTE themselves. Over many years they have addicted educators to free or absurdly cheap, as in the case of most mobile apps, software, without making it plain that free is not a sustainable business model.

On this matter of educators paying for good software, I agree with Gary Stager: pay now or pay later.3

Software does not grow on trees. It is created by artists, programmers, writers, designers, and engineers who need and deserve to feed their families, just like the humble teacher. The continuous devaluing of software, along with other media, profits no one in the short-term and giant corporations in the long-run. This phenomena not only harms the earning potential of creators, but ensures that educators will be deprived of high quality tools and materials. Sorry, but you get what you pay for.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re just poor teachers. Our budgets are slashed to the bone. We fundraise for crayons. Software is ephemeral. We should not have to pay for it like when we happily purchase “real” things; flash cards, interactive white boards, or that hall pass timer that reminds kids to poop faster.

I must have missed that poop faster app. Is it free?

Change That Looks Pretty Much The Same

We now know the next Secretary of Education is going to be Arne Duncan, currently the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

But what does that mean for American education and more specifically for any real reform of the system?

If you listen to Gary Stager (and I generally do), the choice pretty much means no changes from what we’re doing now.

Duncan is a fan of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and never met a standardized test he didn’t love. His education policies and practices are indistinguishable from those of the Bush Administration. In fact, the current unqualified Secretary of Education Spellings virtually endorsed Duncan while she posed for for a photo-op with him four days ago. Today she praised Duncan’s nomination while spinning her own tall tale and invoking romantic visions of student accountability.

According to everything I’ve read about Duncan, his “reform” efforts seem to be centered around charter schools, NCLB-style standardized testing, and merit pay for teachers.

Unfortunately charter schools, while a wonderful concept with lots of potential, have largely turned out to be selective, underfunded clones of the schools around them.

Most use the same traditional structure, curriculum, and teaching methods as the public schools their students formerly attended.

Uniforms, boot camp regimentation, and adding hours to the day or days to the year is not innovative and fundamentally changes nothing.

The American concept of school needs a complete overhaul, not thousands of little experiments that do little more than tinker with the current format developed a century ago.

As for merit pay, any system that targets individuals does little more than reinforce the illusion that teachers are independent contractors, each classroom is an island unto itself, and that nothing outside the door affects the kids.

If you are going to pay bonuses for improving student learning, it must go to teams of teachers, entire schools, or even to communities of people from inside and outside the physical building.

And then there’s NCLB. Forget it!

The law is based on the incredibly stupid philosophy that all kids learn at the same rate, that all schools/students/teachers are exactly alike, and that anything worth learning can be assessed using a standardized test.

NCLB needs to scrapped and instead the next Secretary of Education needs to begin the change process with a serious discussion about the concept of what it means to be “well educated” and about the skills and knowledge kids need to develop to be successful in their lives, not just on the next test.

However, if everything I’ve read about our “pragmatic” (the adjective most used to describe Duncan) new leader of American education policy is true, we will continue to tinker about the edges and call it “reform”.

We Have Our Priorities

Gary says you should read the article in the Times of London explaining Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop.

Who am I to argue with Gary?

The XO is certainly not the perfect educational computer. And the One Laptop Per Child organization has made many errors along the way.

However, if even half the information in this story is true, it’s clear the leaders of these two companies firmly believe that corporate profits come before anything else, especially philanthropy and helping people.

Be we already knew that.

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