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.

Average Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Fair

 

In all the yelling back and forth (aka “discussion”) about net neutrality rules last year, much was said and written about the “average” internet user in the US.

The FCC chairman, who led efforts to kill them, and his supporters claimed that competition in the market would take care of any issues related to ISPs who try to slow or block competitors on their networks. According to this theory, customers could just switch to another provider if their current ISP begins to play with the traffic.

Except that “average” doesn’t mean everyone is equal, and is usually a crappy way to understand any issue.

The map above illustrates just how bad the internet market is for most locations in the US. It uses actual data about the availability of high bandwidth access, the kind necessary to fully benefit from modern web services, and clearly demonstrates that it “varies greatly based on where you live”.

Average in this example is weighted very heavily in favor of metropolitan areas where households are likely to have at least two high bandwidth choices when it comes to internet service providers. The darker colors on the map show areas with fewer choices and slower speeds.

But even in those lighter areas, like that splotch of white around Washington DC where I live, choice doesn’t necessarily mean competition. Our two major ISPs offer the same packages at the same price. And once the furor over this issue dies down, both are equally likely to favor their own content over competitors. We do have a few other, smaller, options buzzing around but they are not equivalent, even if the chairman wants us to believe they are.

So, maybe “average” is acceptable to those who dislike all governmental regulation. But it’s not to the millions who are below, and far below, that average.


On another issue, this map was created using data from a variety of public sources and ESRIs wonderful Story Map application. You can zoom in to the county level to get more information, although you should pull the map into it’s own window for best results.

The Weekend Collection

A few good things to read, hear, and watch when time allows this week.

Read: Elizabeth II has been on the British throne for more than 60 years, but she obviously will not be Queen of the realm forever. So, how will the royal family, the government, and the BBC handle a transition to a new monarch? Each organization will play their part and have their own secret plans, and the story about them in The Guardian makes for an interesting read. (about 33 minutes)

Read: For those of us who regularly present to groups big and small (me: just small), any ideas to improve the experience is welcome. This post with ten tips (plus a TED video) is a few years old but it comes from the guy who literally wrote the book, Presentation Zen. (about 7 minutes)

Read: If you look at the most commonly used world maps, Greenland is represented as the same size as Africa, Alaska is larger than Texas, and Europe is right in the middle. Boston Public Schools has decided to replace that view, called the Mercator projection, with one that’s more accurate called Gall-Peters. If nothing else, watch the clip from The West Wing to understand why the change is necessary. (about 4 minutes)

Listen: Most of us here in the US are less than a month away from the date when we are required to file our taxes. But the process is more complicated for most people than it needs to be. Planet Money tells the story of one professor who has been working to make the standard return simpler for more than a decade, and why he has made little progress. (22:54)

Listen: If you’re a trivia nerd and Jeopardy! just doesn’t work for you anymore, give a listen to Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. A good place to start is with the episode titled Under the Hood, in which contestants and panelists Seth Godin, Faith Salie, and Nicholas Negroponte discuss things hidden from everyday view. (58:07)

Watch: You probably know that the internet is a network connecting millions of computers all over the world. But did you ever wonder HOW they are connected? Nat and Lo from Google are here to show you as they follow a project to lay a new cable between the US and South America. This would be a good one to show middle or high school students who think it’s all magic. (7:36)

The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read and watch (didn’t have much time to listen last week) when time allows.

Read: I have a great deal of admiration for David Letterman. He’s an intelligent, very funny guy with a lot of class. All of that shows through in this conversation in which he offers his assessment of the current political landscape from his perch in retirement. The beard is still weird. (about 32 minutes)

Read: You go to a theater and probably don’t think about the device being used to project the movie. Unless something breaks of course. However, one writer at Vox says “the way a movie is projected can have a meaningful impact on your theatrical experience”. And presents the fascinating story of why and how. (about 10 minutes)

Read: Carl Sagan was a man ahead of his time. Although it was written more than 20 years ago, his Baloney Detection Kit, “a set of intellectual tools that scientists use to separate wishful thinking from genuine probability”, somehow seems very current. (about 9 minutes)

Read and Watch: Our short visit to Cuba last November is still swimming around in my head, sticking like few other trips I’ve made in my life. This short article and video is one of the best essays I’ve seen on the state of Cuban travel (positive and not so), and is worth a view even if you don’t plan to go. (4:24)

Watch: You’ve probably never heard of Marie Tharp but, as this wonderful animated film from The Royal Institution, a British charity dedicated to educating the public about science, explains, her work and determination proved the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. Show this one to your middle and high school science students. (4:39)

3-2-1 For 12-11-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

It’s a long read, but this story at Huffington Post offers a great look at how the National Football League works hard to hook kids on their product (“tobacco-style” may be slightly hyperbolic), including the development of a fantasy league for 6 year olds. The League’s TV ratings have taken a big drop this season so the company has a lot riding on growing the audience. (about 32 minutes)

Patton Oswalt is a very talented, funny performer. But a year ago, his wife died suddenly at the age of 46, leaving him to raise their 7-year old daughter. In this honest, touching post he talks about his Year of Magical Parenting. (about 4 minutes)

IBM’s Watson made a big splash a few years ago playing Jeopardy. But if you switch to Monopoly, that big brain wouldn’t even know where to start. We hear a lot about artificial intelligence but an opinion writer at Wired says the current systems are more artificial than intelligent. And it’s likely to stay that way for a while. (about 3 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

Is college worth it? NPR addresses that question by following a group of students from suburban Washington, DC who graduated high school in 2011 or 2012 to discuss their experiences and the choices they made. It’s an interesting program but the pre-roll sponsor is Columbia University, which makes me wonder a little about the objectivity of the reporting.  (49:52)

Most people in the US don’t understand copyright, and especially their rights under the concept of fair use. In the first segment of a new podcast on the topic, Kirby Ferguson, who coined the phrase “everything is a remix”, introduces the idea that even Star Wars is a mixture of story elements going back centuries. A little geeky but still an interesting start. (8:50)

One video to watch when you have time

I am big advocate for using maps to help people visualize a variety of topics, and not just geography. This video from Vox is a great explanation of why all world maps are wrong and where the Mercator Projection, the format used by Google and most other mapping systems, came from. This is a good one to show your middle or high school students. (5:59)