Category Archives: technology use

How To Build Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust (Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis)

For those K-12 educators and higher education professors who bite their nails over whether automation will replace teachers with robots who make out seating charts, answer student questions, explain the causes of the Civil War, do shortcuts on solving quadratic equations, wipe kindergartners’ noses, and hug crying 3rd graders bullied during recess—stop biting your nails. AI will not replace you.

This op-ed appeared in the New York Times September 7, 2019.

“Gary Marcus, the founder and chief executive of Robust AI, and Ernest Davis, a professor of computer science at New York University, are the authors of the forthcoming book “Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust,” from which this essay is adapted.”

Artificial intelligence has a trust problem. We are relying on A.I. more and more, but it hasn’t yet earned our confidence.

Tesla cars driving in Autopilot mode, for example, have a troubling history of crashing into stopped vehicles. Amazon’s facial recognition system works great much of the time, but when asked to compare the faces of all 535 members of Congress with 25,000 public arrest photos, it found 28 matches, when in reality there were none. A computer program designed to vet job applicants for Amazon was discovered to systematically discriminate against women. Every month new weaknesses in A.I. are uncovered.

The problem is not that today’s A.I. needs to get better at what it does. The problem is that today’s A.I. needs to try to do something completely different.

In particular, we need to stop building computer systems that merely get better and better at detecting statistical patterns in data sets — often using an approach known as deep learning — and start building computer systems that from the moment of their assembly innately grasp three basic concepts: time, space and causality.

Today’s A.I. systems know surprisingly little about any of these concepts. Take the idea of time. We recently searched on Google for “Did George Washington own a computer?” — a query whose answer requires relating two basic facts (when Washington lived, when the computer was invented) in a single temporal framework. None of Google’s first 10 search results gave the correct answer. The results didn’t even really address the question. The highest-ranked link was to a news story in The Guardian about a computerized portrait of Martha Washington as she might have looked as a young woman.

Google’s Talk to Books, an A.I. venture that aims to answer your questions by providing relevant passages from a huge database of texts, did no better. It served up 20 passages with a wide array of facts, some about George Washington, others about the invention of computers, but with no meaningful connection between the two.

The situation is even worse when it comes to A.I. and the concepts of space and causality. Even a young child, encountering a cheese grater for the first time, can figure out why it has holes with sharp edges, which parts allow cheese to drop through, which parts you grasp with your fingers and so on. But no existing A.I. can properly understand how the shape of an object is related to its function. Machines can identify what things are, but not how something’s physical features correspond to its potential causal effects.

For certain A.I. tasks, the dominant data-correlation approach works fine. You can easily train a deep-learning machine to, say, identify pictures of Siamese cats and pictures of Derek Jeter, and to discriminate between the two. This is why such programs are good for automatic photo tagging. But they don’t have the conceptual depth to realize, for instance, that there are lots of different Siamese cats but only one Derek Jeter and that therefore a picture that shows two Siamese cats is unremarkable, whereas a picture that shows two Derek Jeters has been doctored.

In no small part, this failure of comprehension is why general-purpose robots like the housekeeper Rosie in “The Jetsons” remain a fantasy. If Rosie can’t understand the basics of how the world works, we can’t trust her in our home.

 

Without the concepts of time, space and causality, much of common sense is impossible. We all know, for example, that any given animal’s life begins with its birth and ends with its death; that at every moment during its life it occupies some particular region in space; that two animals can’t ordinarily be in the same space at the same time; that two animals can be in the same space at different times; and so on.

We don’t have to be taught this kind of knowledge explicitly. It is the set of background assumptions, the conceptual framework, that makes possible all our other thinking about the world.

Yet few people working in A.I. are even trying to build such background assumptions into their machines. We’re not saying that doing so is easy — on the contrary, it’s a significant theoretical and practical challenge — but we’re not going to get sophisticated computer intelligence without it.

f we build machines equipped with rich conceptual understanding, some other worries will go away. The philosopher Nick Bostrom, for example, has imagined a scenario in which a powerful A.I. machine instructed to make paper clips doesn’t know when to stop and eventually turns the whole world — people included — into paper clips.

In our view, this kind of dystopian speculation arises in large part from thinking about today’s mindless A.I. systems and extrapolating from them. If all you can calculate is statistical correlation, you can’t conceptualize harm. But A.I. systems that know about time, space and causality are the kinds of things that can be programmed to follow more general instructions, such as “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” (the first of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics).

We face a choice. We can stick with today’s approach to A.I. and greatly restrict what the machines are allowed to do (lest we end up with autonomous-vehicle crashes and machines that perpetuate bias rather than reduce it). Or we can shift our approach to A.I. in the hope of developing machines that have a rich enough conceptual understanding of the world that we need not fear their operation. Anything else would be too risky.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Why Is Incremental Change in Schooling Typical?

The short answer is that conservatism is built into the purpose of schools and both teachers and students share that innate conservatism–at first.

Tax-supported public schools have two purposes. The first is to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:

Shopisky-Poster-Classroom-Rules-SDL161142958-1-f9da6.jpg

Teachers are agents of that conservatism insofar as they have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece=by-piece. Incrementally. You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.

And then there are the students and what they expect of their teachers.

Beginning in kindergarten (or preschool), over the years students develop views of what a “good” teacher (and teaching) are. By the time, students are in high school, they have implicit models in their heads of who “good” teachers are and what they do in organizing and teaching a class.

By “good” high school teacher, for example, most students mean one who mostly leads a teacher-centered, subject-driven academic class. The opposite of “good” is “bad.” For students meeting teachers for the first time, “bad” means the teacher tries to be friends with students, uses techniques (e.g., abandoning the textbook, peer grading of quizzes) that are seldom used by other “good” teachers. They tolerate student misbehavior and students ignoring what they say. In short, “bad” teachers cannot maintain minimum order in the classroom.

None of this is to mean that students’ pictures of “good” teachers are correct. Only that students already have images of what they believe is institutionally “good” for them.

So if a novice teacher (or veteran who transfer to a different school) believes that students have blank slates when they meet each other for the first time, they are whistling the wrong tune. Let me give examples of student expectations of teachers that I have encountered over the years.

*”Good” teachers know more facts and concepts than students do about the subject.

*”Good” teachers answer student questions clearly and correctly.

*”Good” teachers take time to explain complicated content.

*”Good” teachers do not publicly humiliate students.

*”Good” teachers assign homework from the text.

*”Good” teachers clamp down on late-comers to class

*”Good” teachers break up fights between students and protect weak students from being bullied.

*”Good” teachers do not permit students to copy from one another when expecting each student to do his or her work.

*”Good” teachers do not let students sleep in class.

For novices and veterans new to a school to ignore what students have learned about teachers for many years sitting in classrooms is ultimately condescending since teachers are dismissing important student beliefs and knowledge. It also makes much harder the long-term task of developing strong relationships with the class as a whole and individual students–both essential for learning to occur.

There is a catch, however, when new and veteran teachers meet student expectations.

To do only what students expect is to be trapped by their traditional expectations of what a “good” teacher is. The tightrope act teachers have to negotiate is to initially meet what students expect–“good” teaching–then move beyond those beliefs to begin reshaping their expectations of “good” teaching to appreciate and learn from a far larger repertoire of classroom approaches and develop the personal relationships essential for learning to occur.

So here it is. One of the school’s purposes is to conserve what’s deemed best in a community. Teachers (and principals), socialized as students for nearly two decades and now working in schools adopts a conservative stance toward top-down policies aimed at altering what they do daily in classrooms. They have learned to adapt such policies to fit their beliefs and students they have. And students? Like their teachers, they have learned to expect certain things in what they perceive as “good” teachers. The astute and mindful teacher will know what those expectations are and, in time, transcend them slowly in small bite-sized chunks, i.e., incrementalism..

Knowing the inherent conservatism of schools, its teachers and students helps to explain how new technologies over time get harnessed to familiar practices in schools. How new curricula promoted to alter how teachers teach end up getting assigned as homework, appear on multiple-choice tests, and get discussed in whole-group discussions.

None of this is a criticism of schools. It is one of several observations based on decades of experience in schools and much research in classrooms. Yet this observation means that schools do, indeed, change. I have seen that over years, in a few schools and districts, incremental changes pile up and, on occasion, result in an entirely different school and district if reform-minded principals and staffs have been there for a decade or more. Absent that sense of direction, disappointment and dissatisfaction reign among well-intentioned policymakers, donors, excited reformers, and parents who point fingers at the narrow scope, slow pace, and infrequency of school changes. For me, these observations explain why incremental change is typical and often criticized as being too little and insufficient.*

___________________________________

*Of course, incrementalism is just as typical in other institutions. For example, arguments over small or large changes in funding health care insurance dominate Presidential debates and media now. Medicare for all without private insurance is what a few Democrat candidates for President seek. Other candidates want smaller changes such as including a public option and not the abandonment of private health insurance.

9 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

World Studies: Technology Integration at Mountain View High School

Three years ago on the recommendation of district coordinators of technology, I observed classrooms of teachers in Silicon Valley districts. I described what I saw without making any evaluative comments on the teachers or lessons they taught. Here is one example of a social studies teacher who had integrated the classroom use of technology so that it was in the background, not the foreground.

Carson Rietveld has been teaching for four years at Mountain View High School.*  The class is furnished with four rows of desks facing the front whiteboard; the teacher’s desk is in the far corner. Music is playing as students enter the room.  Student work, historical posters, and sayings dot the walls above the white boards (e.g., “I want to live in a society where people are judged by what they do for others).

carson-room.jpg

carsons-classroom.jpg

Rietveld, wearing a long flowered dress that reaches her ankles, welcomes the 14- and 15 year old students by name as they come in. Students put their backpacks on the floor near a side whiteboard and bring their tablet or laptop to their desk. The high school policy is Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD).**  I ask a student why do all backpacks go on the floor and he tells me that students rooting through their backpacks during a lesson distracts both the student and teacher from what is being taught. Thus, the rule.

The 27 students sit at their desks, take out their devices, surf the Internet, and talk to one another. Bell rings to begin class. Music stops. School announcements come on the public address box in the room. Many students listen and some whisper to one another or continue looking at their device. After announcements end, Rietveld directs students’ attention to front whiteboard with a slide showing the agenda for “Happy Friday Fresh Friends.”

*Mindfulness exercise
*Partner presentation practice
*Roman Republic presentation
*Whole class discussion
EQ: what makes a good presentation?
EQ: how much influence did the average citizen

(EQ refers to Essential Question. See here)

Teacher goes over the agenda and asks students to close lids of  their computers.  They do. The first agenda item is a mindfulness exercise. A video comes on with a soft, soothing voice asking everyone to “ground themselves in the now.”  The voice asks viewers to close their eyes—I look around the room and all students’ eyes are closed—and the soothing voice asks viewers to concentrate on relaxing their toes, ankles, legs then “shifting awareness” up through the entire torso to their head. Teacher participates with students.  Rietveld tells me that she now has her students doing up to three minutes of the daily exercise.

Rietveld segues to next activity, listed as “Partner Presentation Practice” which will give students a chance to practice getting at the substance of the lesson, the relationship between the Roman Republic and democracy. Students will be making presentations and the teacher wants students to practice getting at the essential point they wish to make in their presentation and the argument (including evidence) that will support that essential point.

To get students to practice this task, Rietveld asks them to take two minutes to find a photo of the cutest cat or dog they can find on the Internet. Then write a paragraph why their photo is the cutest and afterwards turn to their partner and explain why—what features of the pet make it the cutest, etc.

After a few moments, she says ,“20 seconds left to finish.” Teacher has a stopwatch in her hand and uses it to announce time. Then she says press “submit” wherever you are in the paragraph so I can see what you have written (Rietveld uses Pear Deck and has access to each student’s work).

“Now present the animal to your partner, “ Rietveld says. “Wha t kind of animal did you pick? Why did you pick this animal? Explain why you think it is the cutest.”

After two minutes, teacher asks the listening partner to present their “cutest” pet photo.

I look across the classroom and all pairs and trios appear involved in task.

After time is up, teacher asks each partner to write down “ a thoughtful idea they did well.”

“OK,” Rietveld says, “let’s go over your awesome thoughts—I see partners making eye contact and directing the other person back to photo. Give multiple reasons and focus on different features. Talk slowly.”
She then asks students to open up their computers and write down they could have done better. What mistake did partner make. I see nearly all students clicking away on their devices. But some are talking and seemingly off-task. Teacher says: “OK, guys, self-regulate, self-regulate. Don’t have photo of pet on screen; it will be distracting. Get rid of it,” she says.

After waiting a few minutes, Rietveld segues to next activity of small group work to give practice to students in presenting their answers to the “essential question”: Based on what you have read, “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

Students have been thinking about this question and have made posters with illustrations and text to state their answer to the question when they present to the entire class.

Rietveld directs students to get into small groups after designating the different roles that students will perform in the group they are in. Teacher points to one side of room and says that these students are “time-keepers”; another side are “facilitators”, in the middle are “resource managers”, and in the rear are “harmonizers”—specific roles that apparently students are familiar with. Then she directs that each member of a group will present their answer to the “essential question: “How democratic do you think was the Roman Republic.”

After presenting in their small group, each student will resume their role as the next student presents answer to question. Students rearrange themselves, move desks and chairs as they settle into their groups to present to one another their answer to the question:

Using the stopwatch, Rietveld announces how much time is left.  After ending  the task, she then asks students to critique presenter, that is, what one thing the presenter did well; what one thing that can be improved. Then she announces that the next student is to present. Students circulate their posters and present for another two minutes.

Looking around the class, I see all small groups engaged in listening to presenter and showing their posters. Teacher walks around listening to each group. One group looked off-task to her so Rietveld goes over and asks presenter—“What is one piece of evidence in your poster about Roman Republic being democratic?”

For the next six minutes presenters in the small groups shift from one student to another with the teacher announcing when the two minutes are up. In each instance, Rietveld asks group to go around their circle and tell the presenter one thing they did well and one thing they can improve upon.

After stop-watch alarm rings, the teacher brings the activity to a close. She asks students to close their computers and segues to the final task of the period, The Four Corners Discussion of a slide flashed onto the whiteboard: “The Roman Republic a True Democracy.”

She tells class that each student should consider whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree or somewhat disagree with the statement and then “vote with your feet.” After waiting a few moments, Rietveld directs students to go to a corner of the room for strongly agree, another corner for those who strongly disagree, etc.

Teacher looks where students are. Most are either in one of two corners expressing  disagreement or agreement with statement. Rietveld asks entire class, “why there is disagreement among you about statement. Some students in one corner call out and say that not everyone could vote—women and slaves; teacher pushes back and asks for evidence; student give example and teacher probes again. Then another student in an opposite corner gives evidence of democratic practices. Students around her nod their heads.

“Why don’t we totally agree,” teacher asks? A few students say there is evidence on both sides. Another student says that there is a lot of “subjectivity on what is a true democracy,” a peer adds that the conflict is over differing values that students have about democracy and which ones are most important.

Then the bell rings ending the period. Rietveld asks students to return desks to their original position.  They do. She wishes them “a safe weekend.” Students go to pick up their backpacks lying on the floor near the wall and leave the room. World Studies is over for this class.

___________________________

* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has  just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21,  African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

**BYOD began two years ago in the District.

 

2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Technology in the Classroom Is Great — When It Works (Benjamin Keep)

 

Keep is a “researcher, learning scientist, and writes about science, learning, and technology at www.benjaminkeep.com”

This appeared July 10, 2019 on T74

 

When it comes to learning technologies, educators and administrators often focus on what technology to use instead of how the technology facilitates learning. This leads to serious costs.

U.S. fourth-graders who report using tablets in all or nearly all of their classes are a full year behind in reading ability compared with peers who report never using tablets in their classes. Internationally, students who report greater use of technology in their classrooms score worse on the PISA exam, the major international student assessment, even when accounting for differences in wealth and prior performance. This is all according to a recent report by the Reboot Foundation.

These findings align with prior research that found essentially the same thing three years ago: High levels of technology use in the classroom tend to correlate with lower student performance.

The question in both of these reports is not whether technology can improve learning outcomes; lots of well-designed experimental research establishes that it can. The question, rather, is whether it is improving learning outcomes. And the answer seems to be: Not really.

Every year, administrators and teachers make major decisions about which new technologies, software platforms and assessment systems should be added to their ed tech arsenal. Companies pitch their products to school representatives at huge conferences. But technology often is misused, underused or even completely unused. One recent study found that over a third of all technology purchases made by middle schools simply weren’t used. And only 5 percent of purchases met their purchaser’s usage goals.

These findings have a common cause. Teachers and administrators don’t use learning technologies (or even think about using learning technologies) in the right way. A lot of conversations focus on what the technology can do or how students could use it, rather than how students typically use the technology or the contexts in which it would be most and least effective. Consider a typical pitch: “With this new virtual reality system, students can inhabit a fully immersive 3D haptic environment.” Nifty. But how does an immersive environment improve learning outcomes?

The answer to this question is telling. If the company’s answer is something like, “Well, students put on the headset like this, and then the teacher pulls up a scenario — we have lots of different ones, then the student has these options…” it’s a bad sign. This kind of answer just describes what the student does with the technology. It doesn’t tell a thing about how a student’s interaction with the technology will improve learning.

So, how should we be evaluating learning technologies? I suggest answering three questions first:

  • Is the technology linked to a specific learning goal?
  • Does the technology follow research-supported understandings of how we learn?
  • When might the technology fail to facilitate learning?

Consider the humble flashcard. Used wisely, decks of flashcards can take advantage of spaced retrieval practice, a remarkably effective way to study. But used poorly — as a way to cram information before a test or to “learn” a set of vocabulary words over the course of a week and never return to them again — flashcards will make students feel as if they’ve learned far more than they have. The result? Little learning and damaged student perceptions about what they know.

Flashcards also have limits: It’s hard to convey complex information with them, for example. In this way, flashcards are like any other technology — there are good ways to use them, bad ways to use them and limits to how they can be used.

Let’s apply these questions to more modern technologies — take, for example, automated essay feedback tools like Revision Assistant. The learning goal seems clear: to help students learn to write better essays. How does it improve learning outcomes? Revision Assistant’s marketing copy says, “Motivate students to improve their writing with instant, differentiated feedback aligned to genre-specific rubrics.” This seems plausible, given the research on skill development: rounds of practice, feedback and self-evaluation are the cornerstone of deliberate practice, a well-established effective way to improve skills. When might it fail? The feedback itself might be bad. Students may over-rely on it. Or teachers might use it as a replacement for, instead of a complement to, their own feedback.

Or take the virtual reality example. Several companies are working on physics simulations in virtual reality. How might this technology help students learn fundamental physics concepts? One reasonable idea would be to let them experience the behavior of objects in different physical environments. Research suggests that contrasting examples can help make later instruction more effective. When might it fail? Lots of scenarios, but here are two: when the VR experience merely replicates an experience the students could have had otherwise, or when the experience comes after a lecture on the material.

Both of these examples reference well-established learning mechanisms and link them to specific learning goals. Of course, it’s still possible that the technology won’t work — bugs in the system, bad user interfaces, lack of integration with existing teaching systems or just plain bad implementation of the underlying idea. But at least there is an underlying idea that makes sense based on what we know about how students learn.

When we prioritize the how over the what, we think about technology more critically. Given that schools under-use their technology purchases and that buying new technology can be costly, why not delay new purchases for a year or two and explore whether existing technology can be put to good use?

Use technology to pursue specific learning goals. Use only technology that is supported by existing learning research. And stop using technology in contexts where it’s not particularly effective. If we do all that, the next report will show high correlations between technology use and student achievement, instead of the opposite.

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Altitude Learning

Begun by wealthy high-tech entrepreneur (and ex-Google executive) Max Ventilla in 2013, AltSchool made a splash with its string of private “micro-schools” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area (tuition was $26,000)–see here, here, and here. Ventilla saw AltSchool as a string of lab schools where progressive ideas could be put into practice and the individualized software that staff designed and used in the “micro-schools” could be bought and used in public schools.

AltSchool “micro-schools’ were ungraded, used project-based learning complete with individually designed “playlists,” small classes, and experienced young teachers. Were John and Evelyn Dewey alive, they would have enrolled their six children in AltSchool.

But, there is always a “but,” running these “micro-schools” was expensive. The business plan (Ventilla raised venture capital of $176 million) was anchored in a dream drawn from the film Field of Dreams: “build it and [they] will come.” The plan depended upon tuition and licensed software bought by public schools. Didn’t work out as Ventilla had dreamed. Spending $40 million a year and taking in $7 million in revenue is a recipe for financial disaster. Ventilla closed some of the “micro-schools in 2017.

And on June 28, 2019, in a press release, came the news:

AltSchool to become Altitude Learning, an educator-run startup powering the growing learner-centered movement

Expanding support for districts nationwide with new approaches to professional development and the products schools need to shift to learner-centered models

  • Altitude Learning to formally launch later this fall
  • As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka
  • Fast growing partner network representing 300K students: 50% of new contracts for 19-20 school year are public districts, from Alaska to Texas
  • Lab schools to continue, operated by Higher Ground Education, using the Altitude Learning platform

In a blog post six months earlier, Ventilla signaled readers that AltSchool would be changing.

In 2017 we were fortunate to attract a number of world-class career educators and administrators to our team, to guide everything we do. Moving forward, I am pleased to announce Ben Kornell will become President of AltSchool. Ben joined our team back in 2017 as VP of Growth. He’s dedicated his life to reducing educational inequity; he started as a Teach for America middle school teacher and later went to Stanford Business School to learn how to cultivate educational change broadly. As COO of Envision, he helped lead a network of charter schools and scaled a performance assessment system to public schools across the country. Since joining AltSchool, Ben’s led our company’s transition to partnering with public and private schools nationwide. As we continue to integrate the platform into existing school systems, it is essential to have education leaders like Ben at the helm.

I interviewed Ventilla and AltSchool classrooms in November 2016. The creation story of AltSchool, according to Ventilla goes like this:

He and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He saw beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wanted to do well by doing good.

In 2019, that dream has foundered. New leadership has been appointed. Another organization takes over the remaining “micro-schools.”

Now this is a familiar story about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Plenty of hype, promises, and dreams at the beginning and then the initial slog to turn a profit. More often than not, the pain of hemorrhaging dollars leads to death. Employees update resumes and seek other jobs. But start-up schools are much harder to create and sustain than start-up companies. And when they go belly-up or shift to other managers, both students and their parents plus teachers bear the consequences.

And what did Ventilla learn as he stepped aside as leader. Here is the lesson he learned after six years running AltSchool:

People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: However difficult you think working in education is…multiply that by 10. Life at a startup is hard, but education is exponentially harder.

No kidding.

10 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use

Tech Innovations and School Reform: Blood Cousins

When asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms, I answer that I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms when I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school systems.

I then say that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I examined how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I investigated policymakers’ constant changes in curriculum since the 1880s. I analyzed the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. And I parsed the Utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. I then conclude my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating a  school such as High Tech High is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using iCell App, Khan Academy videos, Google Classroom, Kahoot, and other software programs are implementing curricular reforms and shaping instruction. Technological innovations, then, are blood cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar genes.

For example, all reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient. Read the stuff.

If patterns emerge from analyzing reform rhetoric so can patterns be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted and funded program. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of federal laws such as No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act and a brand-new whole language software program for district schools).

Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (e.g., e.g., Success for All, Maine’s 1:1 laptop initiative, ClassDojo)

If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on the basis of political, ideological, and evidentiary grounds.
You get the picture. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

4 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Technology Use in Two High Schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (CA) and MetWest in Oakland (CA)

Readers who follow this blog know that I have been working on a book about “success” and “failure” in schools. As part of that book, I visited two California high schools, Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest in Oakland Unifed School District. Both are small high schools. SJHA has just over 500 students and MetWest has 160. Both schools enroll predominately Latino and poor youth, most of whom are the first in their families planning to attend college. Both small high schools are neither charters or magnets. They are regular public high schools in their districts. More detailed descriptions of the unique character of each school can be seen here and here.

I observed classroom lessons, interviewed teachers and administrators and read documents and media accounts for each school. From these on-site visits I described classrooms and use of technology in each school.  These are my reflections on what I observed about access and use of mobile and desktop devices at both schools.

 

Technological devices played a minor role in classroom lessons. Tablets, laptops, and desktop computers were easily accessible throughout each school. Chromebooks sat on carts in most classrooms. Students were used to using devices when teachers directed them to work on assignments or do readings that were already loaded onto the machines.

Except for cell phones. At MetWest, I saw teachers collect all cell phones in a large basket or container at the beginning of every lesson; students retrieved their devices at the end of the period. Outside of class, students used mobile phones when they were in the school’s large atrium, before and after class and during brunch and lunch breaks.

At SJHA, district cell phone policy is explicit in banning these devices but gave individual schools latitude in enforcing the ban. SJHA’s website laid out those restrictions on classroom use and consequences except when teachers ask students to use them for a specific lesson.*

In one English class, according to a newspaper report in 2015, teacher Priscilla Farinas told her 31 students:

“This is the one and only time I will have you take out your cellphones,” she said, instructing the students to share their definitions of “privilege” via text message as part of a lesson on “The Great Gatsby.”

Students immediately grabbed their mobile devices. Their texts populated a screen in the front of the classroom. Every student appeared focused on their schoolwork…. “We’re trying to keep you engaged,” Farinas said. “This is part of a larger lesson: ‘There’s a time and a place to use the cellphone.’ **

That was in 2015. In February 2019, only one SJHA teacher I observed used a cell phone during a class period. She used a phone app to generate student names randomly for questions she would ask about the scene in Hamlet they were studying. Apart from this teacher, no SJHA teacher I observed asked students to use their cell phones during lessons..

As I reflect on teachers’ and students’ use of these devices in both schools they were seldom in the foreground, they were in the background of lessons. Sure they were present but used when they were integral to a lesson much as paper, pencil, and erasers would have (and were) used. Except for cell phones, then, electronic devices were pervasive in both schools but played a minor role in classrooms I observed.

________________________________________________

*District policy for SJHA banned the use of cellphones but gave schools latitude in enforcing ban. AT SJHA the policy was:

We understand that cell phones are important for personal communication and, at times, aid in student organization and learning. However, they can also be a major distraction to your education. Should you choose to bring your devices to school, you are to use them responsibly and appropriately according to the following guidelines.

  • Electronic devices can be used before school, after school & during lunch/passing periods
  • Electronic devices must be silenced and out of sight during class
  • Devices may be used in class for instructional purposes when explicitly permitted by the teacher
  • Students leaving the classroom for any reason, must leave their device with the teacher while they are gone

Students are subject to the following consequences when they violate the Electronics/Cell Phone Policy:

  • 1st Violation: Device taken away for the remainder of the day. Student may pick up in the Main Office after school
  • 2nd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • 3rd Violation: Device taken away for remainder of the day & will receive 3 BEHAVIOR stamps. Parent/guardian notified and required to pick up device between 7:30am-3:00pm
  • Additional Violations: The device will be taken away. Student & parent/guardian must attend meeting with counselor and administrator to receive the device.

 

**Daniela Gerson, “Cellphones Make a Comeback in the Classroom, with Teachers’ Support,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use