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.

Smile For The Data Collector

If you’ve ever used Google’s mapping products, at some point you’ve probably dropped into Street View. This year marks ten years since those 360° street level images were first released, and since then, the company has “snapped more than 80 billion photos in thousands of cities and 85 countries”.

Wired reports that Google has now begun deploying their next generation Street View rigs, featuring cameras with much higher resolution. But their ultimate goal is not just offering a better look at your next vacation destination.

[The cameras are] there to feed clearer, closer shots of buildings and street signs into Google’s image recognition algorithms.

Those algorithms can pore over millions of signs and storefronts without getting tired. By hoovering up vast amounts of information visible on the world’s streets—signs, business names, perhaps even opening hours posted in the window of your corner deli—Google hopes to improve its already formidable digital mapping database. The company, built on the back of algorithms that indexed the web, is using the same strategy on the real world.

The detailed analysis of signs in store windows, however, is just the beginning of what Google and others will be able to do with this visual data.

How much more could Google extract from Street View using image processing algorithms? A lot.

Earlier this year Stanford researchers, including professor Fei-Fei Li, now chief scientist at Google’s cloud division, showed they could predict income, race, and voting patterns for US cities with software that logs the make, model, and year of cars in Street View photos.

Ok, that’s a little creepy.

Anyway, on this tenth anniversary of Street View, there’s really not much that can be done about taking pictures in public. Everyone has a camera and cameras are everywhere, not just in cars from huge data collection companies. And, as a photographer (strictly amateur), I believe in minimal restrictions when it comes to photography.

When those millions (billions?) of discrete pictures are turned into massive data sets and processed by complex, invisible algorithms, it’s another story. A story that is very much still been written.

Ignoring the Rules

The New York Times recently published a long front-page story about how Google “took over” the classroom. The writer’s primary focus is on concerns about the amount of student data the company is collecting in exchange for their free tools, and what they plan to do with it, although she doesn’t get many answers from them.

However, the part I found most interesting was about how those Google’s tools arrived in many classrooms in the first place. IT directors from Chicago, Oregon, and Fairfax County (aka our overly-large school district) complain that representatives of the company went straight to teachers with products like Google Classroom instead going through channels.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

And why do so many teachers ignore IT’s rules and go through the formal process of getting those services approved?

Lots of reasons, but in our district it’s mostly because they know that the wheels of our bureaucracy grind very slowly. The formal evaluation system for new tech products can take years, especially for anything that hasn’t been blessed by Microsoft.

IT grudgingly went along with the use of Google Drive in the classroom after hundreds of teachers started using it on their own. Some of our innovative people very quickly recognized the value in online collaborative tools and jumped at the opportunity soon after it was released (only five years ago). One school even had the audacity to register their own domain to make things easier for their staff and students.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s no such thing as “free”, especially when it comes to Google. Even if the latest tool looks like a gift from the gods, teachers still have a responsibility to be cautious about allowing their students to pour data into these systems (see also the recent news about Edmodo).

On the other side of things, district administrators also need to understand that some of the best resources for evaluating new technologies are the connected, innovative educators working in their schools. Ignoring their expertise and judgement is going to result in them ignoring you.

[Apologies in advance to Doug for this post. :-)]

World (Information) Domination

Many writers marvel at this age of information. A large and growing collection of the world’s knowledge is now available to anyone with an internet connection. Think of the learning, the transparency, the wisdom.

The reality, of course, is that information is largely filtered through web search engines – mostly Google. And many governments around the world are working to control that filter.

Specifically, they are trying to force Google and other search companies to hide results that they or their citizens find objectionable for one reason or another. Not just in their countries, but world-wide. The so-called “right to be forgotten”.

The executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, parent of Wikipedia, is worried that this “creates ugly precedents that could jeopardize the future of our open and free Internet”.

If any country can demand the worldwide removal of search results, vast sections of history, science and culture could disappear from the global Internet. This could infringe on our ability to learn about the history of Tiananmen Square, the potential medical properties of cannabis, the discoveries of Darwin, or unsavoury allegations against the U.S. president-elect.

If every country had the chance to punch memory holes in the Internet, we would swiftly find ourselves with history scrubbed of essential records. Politicians could challenge ugly but accurate charges. Corporations could erase histories of fraud and double-dealing. The implications are unprecedented.

She uses the example of a case before the Canadian Supreme Court in which one company is trying to force Google to hide information about a competitor. But that’s certainly not the only one.

France’s data protection authority is also demanding Google “apply the French balance between privacy and free expression in every country by delisting French right to be forgotten removals for users everywhere”. Other governments in Europe and elsewhere are watching closely.

Here in the US, there are debates over whether we should have a “right to be forgotten” online, similar to the concept established by the European Courts for their citizens in 2014. However, be careful what you wish for.

The unintended consequences of “forgetting” history are just now starting to emerge. Like handing a private company the power to censor information. Or allowing government agencies and politicians control over information sources available to not just their citizens, but the rest of the world.