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.

Is That “Teaching”?

A writer for The Guardian warns that artificial intelligence will be taking over many jobs that we previously assumed were safe from automation. Like teaching. 

Teachers: software such as McGraw-Hill Connect and Aplia allow college professors to manage the coursework for hundreds of students at a time. Massive open online courses (Moocs) extend their reach to thousands more. And actual physical robots are being used to teach English to students in Japan and Korea.

Which is all very nice if you start, as does this writer and many others, with the assumption that teaching is nothing more than the transmission of information. His sole example of MOOCs, in which college professors (more likely adjunct staff are doing the actual work) assemble a collection of readings and videos for students to consume in a specific order, is certainly all about presenting data for the invisible student on the other side to absorb.

But is that “teaching”?

Robot Driver1

Look through the listings at EdSurge and other sites documenting edtech and you find many startups working hard to incorporate artificial intelligence into their “personalized learning” software. Their systems, they say, will adapt to the student and allow them to “work at their own pace” on the computer, independent of a human instructor.

But is that “teaching”?

I suppose one response could be, does it matter, as long as the kids are learning? Maybe then we need to decide what we mean by “learning”.

Anyway, the writer also provides examples from other fields that, in the past, we’ve assumed required human interaction.

Journalists: AI bots created by companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already cranking out business and sports stories for clients like Forbes and the Associated Press. In a June 2015 interview with the Guardian, Narrative Science co-founder Kris Hammond predicted 90% of journalism will be computerized by 2030, and that some hardworking j-bot will nab a Pulitzer sooner than that.

Therapists: human-like “social robots” are already being used to help teach children on the autism spectrum appropriate social behavior. Therapeutic robot pets provide companionship for seniors with dementia. The US military is using a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen soldiers in Afghanistan for PTSD.

Actors: Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, thanks to some digital wizardry by Industrial Light & Magic. But he’s hardly the first human actor to have returned from the grave. Paul Walker, Audrey Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bruce Lee and Marlon Brando have all been digitally resurrected for use in films and commercials.

Are his anecdotes examples of journalism, therapy, and acting? Or, like teaching, is this how many people view those professions? As a mechanical process that can be replaced with a sufficiently clever algorithm?

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist,2 but I’d like to think that all of those professions, especially the art of teaching, will always require a human touch to do well. But if that aspect can be programmed into a robot or an AI system, it’s likely something that will come far in the future. Or a good science fiction story.

3-2-1 For 10-16-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, tracks that covers seven time zones and 5,772 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok, is the stuff of travel legend. This package from the UK Telegraph includes a short history of how it was built and a first-person narrative from a reporter and his family making the passage, including some great photos. (about 16 minutes)

As teachers we’re told that we must provide students with specific, clearly defined expectations for all of their work. But what if doing that inhibits creative thinking? That’s an interesting, counter-intuitive idea explored in a new book about creating a culture of thinking in schools. Read this excerpt and see if you think the author makes his case. (about 8 minutes)

Earlier this week, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature and it was, to say the least, a controversial selection. But it’s hard to argue with the selection committee who say that Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This New Yorker piece is one of the better celebration of their choice. (about 3 minutes)

Two videos to watch when you have a few minutes.

This is an interesting confessional from someone turned off to math by his middle school teacher, someone who is now an English teacher himself. How many current educators, math or otherwise, have a classroom management style to the teacher who convinced him to quit math? (4:19)


In this TED Talk, UK comedian James Veitch relates a story about his exchange with a faceless email server after receiving the kind of unsolicited messages we all get and can’t seem to unsubscribe from. I love his observation, “The internet gave us access to everything. But it also gave everything access to us.” (7:40)


One audio track for your commute.

You probably read about the investigation into Wells Fargo where the bank paid a relatively small fine, the penalty for employees who opened tens of thousands of accounts without customer permission, just to meet sales quotas. Planet Money put a human face on the story and spoke to two of those employees, one of whom called the company ethics line multiple times to report the violations. Listen and wonder who was on the other end of that ethics line. (18:32)

21st Century Kindergarten

I’ve never taught elementary school but this NPR report about changes in the learning expectations for young children is damn depressing.

Researchers analyzed the federal Department of Education’s 2010 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which surveyed roughly 2500 kindergarten and first grade teachers, and then compared their responses to a similar group from 1998.

Why 1998? “Because the federal No Child Left Behind law hadn’t yet changed the school landscape with its annual tests and emphasis on the achievement gap.”

Some of the changes they found in just twelve years: more standardized tests, less music and art, fewer engaging activities, and don’t bother asking the kids about their interests.

More testing. In 2010, 73 percent of kindergartners took some kind of standardized test. One-third took tests at least once a month. In 1998, they didn’t even ask kindergarten teachers that question. But even the first-grade teachers in 1998 reported giving far fewer tests than the kindergarten teachers did in 2010.

Less music and art. The percentage of teachers who reported offering music every day in kindergarten dropped by half, from 34 percent to 16 percent. Daily art dropped from 27 to 11 percent.

Bye, bye, brontosaurus. “We saw notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Bassok, the study’s lead author.

Less choice. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

As I said, damn depressing.

Stop Replicating Google

Seth Godin:

The job is no longer to recite facts, to read the bio out loud, to explain something better found or watched online.

No, the job is to personally and passionately make us care enough to look up the facts for ourselves.

As always, Godin is talking about the process of marketing.

For me, however, that’s a near-perfect description of what school and teaching should be in this time when much of what we still do in the classroom is replicate Google.

Just a thought to start the week.