Category Archives: technology use

A British High School and Its Integration of Technology (Jose Picardo)

Jose’ Picardo, describes himself in his blogI am a Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School, where I teach Modern Foreign Languages and I am in charge of developing the school’s digital strategy, which can be summarised as follows: ensuring the integration of technologies that enable and facilitate teaching and learning into the life of the school and its wider community….”

Jose’  Picardo commented on a two-part post on my technology integration project. He gave me permission to use his comment. In Picardo’s comment he included a three-minute video about different classrooms in Surbiton High School, outside of London. The video shows the range of usage in both high- and low-tech tools across academic and non-academic subjects.

 

Hi Larry,

I’ve recently led the adoption of tablets across our school in a suburb of London, UK. Depending on who you ask, we’re either incredibly innovative or completely foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’ve always been very sceptical of claims of transformation when it comes to the adoption of technology in schools. Throughout the deployment of our 1:1 tablet programme one thing above all was always present on our minds: There is no app for great teaching.

From the start, some of the myths that we found ourselves dispelling most often were that technology would substitute teachers; that tablets would stop children from writing; and that we were somehow giving up on rigour and in to edutainment. As if mobile technology and high academic standards were somehow mutually exclusive.

Anticipating my seminar at BETT yesterday, I had asked a colleague, who is a dab hand at filming and editing, to go round the school and film instances of tablets being used in lessons (if they were being used), so we can paint an accurate picture of how they are used, as opposed to how some folk assume they are being used.(see video at:  https://vimeo.com/152408282 )

It is actual lesson footage. Nothing was ‘put on’ for the camera. If you have time to watch this 3 min video, you will notice how students weave seamlessly between tablet and paper. Tablets are not substituting paper or preventing children from learning how to handwrite.

The teacher is still the ‘sage on the stage’ most of the time. Students are still students. They are still mostly sitting in rows. Some would argue that if tablets have not transformed the classroom beyond this traditional paradigm, then what is the point? But when you tailor into the equation the multiple ways in which mobile devices support teaching and learning (in the classroom and beyond), then their value begins to become more apparent.

Our school is a great school by all measures. Our results and inspection reports confirm this. Tablets have not yet been shown to have had a great impact on exam results (to early to tell) but, to be honest with you, we will not be surprised if exam results are not dramatically improved by the adoption of these devices. Having said that, our current data leads us to expect a modest improvement.

At the end of the day, the decision to use tablet to support teaching and learning when appropriate was a value call. Good luck measuring that!

 

While I have no idea how representative Jose Picardo’s video and his comment are of other UK schools that have integrated new technologies into their daily classroom routines, both the comment and video  illustrate two points that I have observed in U.S. classrooms over the past few decades. First, no “transformation” in teaching has occurred (see third paragraph from end of Picardo’s comment). Second, the perpetual hope that use of new technologies will improve “exam” results  (see next-to-last paragraph of  comment).

Both of these points capture the current climate for adopting and integrating tablets and hand-held devices into U.S. classroom instruction. In the technology project I am just beginning, I stay away from linking usage of hardware/software to student achievement for the simple reason that if instruction stays pretty much the same after high-tech devices and applications are regularly used, then chances of gains (or losses) in how much students learn, as measured by existing tests, are slim to non-existent. If teaching is, indeed, linked to student learning then noticeable changes in teaching have to occur for that learning to improve. And that is why in my current project, I focus on how teachers teach in classrooms, schools, and districts  where technology integration has been identified by multiple individuals and agencies rather than how students perform on tests.

 

15 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools

Kludge

  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.

rubegoldberg_photo_gal_4154_photo_1058455977_lr

 

10 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

New Project in Technology Integration in Schools and Classrooms (Part 2)

In Part 1, I laid out my reasons for shifting my focus from disappointments and failures in uses of new technologies to best cases of such use in districts, schools, and classrooms. I also laid out two puzzles that have bugged me for a long time that may find solutions in describing and analyzing exemplars of technology fusion into schools and classrooms. In Part 2, I want to share my current thinking about how I plan to do the project in the next year or so and the obstacles that I see in front of me.

How do I plan to do the study?

The design of the project is a series of case studies drawn from districts and schools. The methodology I will use is interviews with district administrators, school principals, and classroom teachers. Also I will directly observe lessons, sit in on meetings on technology integration, and related professional development. Analysis of district, school, and classroom documents will provide the context of goals, strategies, assessments, and outcomes at different levels of schooling. Finally, describing the history of the district and schools insofar as access and use of new technologies over past quarter-century. All of these data make up each case study.

Where will I do the study?

I have chosen Northern California because it is the epicenter of techno-optimism about new technologies transforming the direction and nature of  both K-12 and university education. Major high-tech firms located there such as Google, Apple, Oracle, Intel, and others have launched major initiatives in both software and hardware that focus on improving the practice of schooling. Some of these firms have designed specific educational software, trained teachers, and offered products directly to schools (see here, here, here, and here). Specifically, I will focus on the Bay area which includes “Silicon Valley”–an area that covers San Jose through San Francisco. Early adopters and unvarnished fans of technology are in ample supply. A pervasive ideology across the region is anchored in taken-for-granted beliefs that new technology improves every aspect of daily life. Cultural norms among established firms, start-ups and wannabe entrepreneurs prize innovation, accept failure as part of life, and turn out beta versions of the “next new thing”daily. That ideology and culture is in the water Northern Californians drink and in the air they breathe. So exemplars of technology infusion in K-12 schools, powered by  hallowed beliefs in the power of new technologies to alter habits and institutions, would surely exist here.

Thus far, one high school district and one charter management organization in Northern California have invited me to do this research this Spring. Where I go after February and March, I am uncertain. So far, so good.

What obstacles do I anticipate?

The first barrier I have to get around is defining exactly what is meant by “technology integration” or “technology infusion.” Not an easy task. Multiple definitions abound (see here and here). Moreover, standards used to inspire action and then judge to what degree “technology integration” occurs in a district, school, or classroom vary widely (see here, here, and here). Rather than pick one among many definitions, I plan to find out how teachers, principals, and district administrators I interview and observe in action define technology integration and determine to what degree it is occurring in their locations.  Moreover, I will have an array of standards for technology infusion from which to choose such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), National Education Association (NEA), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and similar organizations.

Another barrier is determining whether the example I describe and analyze in a district, school, or classroom is “good” technology integration. Why an obstacle? Because conceptions of “good” teaching and learning vary among educators and non-educators. Furthermore, because I am not looking at students’ test scores and other common measures of success to determine “goodness,” I cannot say that what I find out about “technology integration” can be attributed to student outcomes, be they high, plateauing, or low.

Then there is the problem of the design and generalizing from what I find. Doing case studies and figuring out to what degree I can generalize about “technology integration” becomes an issue to think through because the sample (districts, schools, and classrooms) is both small and unrepresentative–they are, after all, exemplars of integration. One way around the issue of generalizing is, of course, comparing what I find with other district and school case studies elsewhere in the U.S. The issue is a perennial one when doing case studies.

Add even another obstacle to the list. “Technology integration”–a desired change–is a reform. District policymakers want teachers to alter how and what they teach in order for students to learn more and better than using conventional classroom approaches. In most districts, such a “reform” is often part of a larger package of desired changes that district policymakers seek (e.g., Common Core standards, school-site decision-making, revised budget formulas). Thus, sorting out the effects of “technology integration” on teachers and students becomes very tricky because it is one of many initiatives undertaken in a district or a school. The temptation to attribute any degree of success–however defined–to, say, schools and teachers integrating technology into their daily routines is a common error (see here, here, and here ). I want to avoid making that mistake.

The list of obstacles is incomplete and this post is running too long. If viewers have any suggestions for me as I begin this work—particularly around obstacles that I anticipate–I welcome your advice and counsel.

19 Comments

Filed under technology use

Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1)

For decades, as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I have been a consumer and a skeptic of new technologies in both K-12 schools and higher education. My books, articles, talks, and this blog have documented the hype, adoption, and partial implementation of new devices from the 16mm film in the early 20th century, radio in classrooms in the 1930s, instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s, and the desktop computer since the early 1980s. And within the past decade, I have researched and written about the exponential growth in laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with a cornucopia of apps and software that have swept through U.S. schools and colleges.

Student and teacher access to these shiny, new devices–ones that often become obsolete in the blink of an eye–and increased use in districts, schools, and classrooms for data gathering and instructional materials have been stunning to early adopters in and out of schools. Results of these major investments especially in the last decade, however, have been less stunning, even disappointing because the initial reasons for distributing the digital wealth have fallen short time and again. Gains in academic achievement, major shifts in teacher methods, and entry into decent-paying jobs–original goals for buying new technologies–have been missing-in-action when it comes to evaluating the return on investment in digital classroom tools. Thus, I have remained a skeptic and will continue to question the claims of high-tech entrepreneurs and avid champions when it comes to “transforming” the organization and practice of schooling.

Being skeptical, however, does not mean I have a closed mind. I have diligently looked for instances where districts, schools, and classroom teachers have mindfully infused software into their lessons to reach the learning outcomes they seek for their students. On my blog, I have featured such examples (see here, here, and here). For my next project I want to be more systematic in seeking out exemplars of technology integration in districts, schools, and classrooms. Why select exemplars?

First, the often-told story that highly promoted devices and software fall short of the promised outcomes is accurate. The literature on technology use in schools and universities is strewn with examples of broken dreams. I have no enthusiasm to contribute further to that literature since I know that others will document the holes in the Swiss cheese of high-tech hype. Furthermore, stories of failure have hardly blunted the continuing promotion of districts, schools, and classrooms that have come to rely on the latest app, software, and device. The volleying back-and-forth between uncritical advocates and skeptical users will continue into the next decade whatever I think and do. So I want to take a break from that badminton game.

Second, seeking out exemplars of technology integration leap-frogs over the current debates by examining (yes, critically) those instances where experts and local users believe that they are infusing software seamlessly into actual instruction. For them, the technology “works” (what I and others mean by “works” will be addressed later). By describing and analyzing “best cases” of technology integration I can delve deeper into puzzles that have rattled around in my mind as I researched access and use of new hardware and software over the past three decades.

And exactly what are those puzzles?

One that has bothered me for a long time is why “technology” in education is considered separate, an add-on, when that is not the case when observers look at technological tools applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other domains high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well. Doctors, for example, diagnose illnesses. New technologies—hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help doctors in figuring out what’s wrong with a patient. In medicine, technology helps in making diagnoses. That’s it. Not in schools and higher education. There, use of such tools is the subject and predicate. The problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has the use of educational technology been front-and-center in discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market? In looking at exemplars of educators infusing technology into their daily activities, perhaps a few clues will emerge to unravel this puzzle.

The other puzzle that has bothered me over the years is that teachers, like clinical physicians, nurses, and therapists engage in the “helping professions” where the use of their expertise is wholly dependent upon the responses of their students, patients, and clients. These helping professionals depend a great deal on frequent interactions to achieve any degree of success in improving learning and maintaining health. The introduction of online lessons, 1:1 tablets, Google glasses for doctors, robots in hospitals, and the like raise significant questions about the nature of the work these professionals do and how success is defined. Keeping this view of teaching as a “helping profession” and the crucial importance of teacher-student interactions lays out questions for me to answer in examining exemplars in districts, schools, and classrooms. In what ways do the best cases of technology infusion improve or hinder (or both) relationships between teachers and students?

Part 2 describes my thinking about how I will go about this project in the next year.

 

10 Comments

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

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides (Mary Jo Madda)

Mary Jo Madda writes for EdSurge. This post appeared January 19, 2015.

Don’t fret, we’ve all been there: You’re up late the night before Thursday and you have to teach a lesson at 8 AM the next day. So, what do you do? Throw some text on a PowerPoint and get ready to talk through your points. Couldn’t hurt, right? You might not always read straight off of the slides—they’ll just help keep your lecture on track, and if you lose your place, the text is right there for you.

Unfortunately, whether you’re discussing Columbus with 4th graders or quantum physics with college freshmen, you may be hurting your students’ learning more than helping them.

Let’s explore why instructional design doesn’t typically work with students, or anyone’s learning for that matter, when you teach with PowerPoint—as well as how you can avoid it. It all begins with a little concept called “cognitive load.”

Too Much for the Student to Process

Imagine your student’s brain as a container. When you start tossing rocks into the container, it gets heavier and heavier—and more difficult for the student to carry or sort through. Essentially, that’s cognitive load. Cognitive load describes the capacity of our brain’s working memory (or WM) to hold and process new pieces of information. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory, so when we have to handle information in more than one way, our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

In a classroom, a student’s cognitive load is greatly affected by the “extraneous” nature of information—in other words, the manner by which information is presented to them (Sweller, 2010). Every teacher instinctively knows there are better—and worse—ways to present information. The reason for these, research shows, is that when you lighten the load, it’s easier for students’ brains to take information in and transform it into memory.

Teaching with text-based PowerPoint slides while also reading them aloud, unfortunately, amounts to throwing too many rocks into the student container—and potentially causing students to regress.

The Redundancy Effect

Simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text, often done through PowerPoint presentations, is an all-too-common occurrence in classrooms nowadays. Think about it: How many times have you walked into a classroom or lecture hall and heard a teacher reading out the text on slides displayed on the front board?

A study in Australia in the late 1990s (the 1999 Kalyuga study) compared the learning achievement of a group of college students who watched an educator’s presentation involving a visual text element and an audio text element (meaning there were words on a screen while the teacher also talked) with those who only listened to a lecture, minus the pesky PowerPoint slides. The researchers concluded that utilizing visual stimuli involving words while a separate auditory presentation is delivered increases the cognitive load, rather than lessening it.

It’s called the the redundancy effect. Verbal redundancy “arises from the concurrent presentation of text and verbatim speech,” increasing the risk of overloading working memory capacity—and so may have a negative effect on learning.

Consider, for instance, a science lesson on food chains. A teacher may start by lecturing on the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Up comes a slide with definitions of each term. The teacher starts reading directly from the slide. The duplicated pieces of information—spoken and written—don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

Researchers including John Sweller and Kimberly Leslie contend that it would be easier for students to learn the differences between herbivores and carnivores by closing their eyes and only listening to the teacher. But students who close their eyes during a lecture are likely to to called out for “failing to paying attention.”

How to Lighten the Load

So, then, what do you do? How do you ensure that your kids learn from your lectures rather than wind up with brains that feel like oversoaked sponges? (And keep in mind, entrepreneurs—this could apply to your product pitches as well.)

Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, offers the following prescription: Eliminate textual elements from presentations and instead talk through points, sharing images or graphs with students. This video illustrates exactly what he means (see video here).

This approach, he suggests, is particularly appropriate for those subjects where geometric graphs and visual imagery are crucial for understanding key concepts, like food chains, the water cycle or calculating surface area.

Other studies, such as a separate Australian investigation by Leslie et al. (2012), suggest that mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective. In the Leslie study, a group of 4th grade students who knew nothing about magnetism and light learned significantly more when presented with both images and a teacher’s explanation than a separate group which received only auditory explanation.

Are you a science teacher? Throw up a picture of a lion’s tooth and a zebra’s tooth onto the screen while explaining the differences between carnivores and herbivores. Teach social studies? Surround the number “1776” with painted images of the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, rather than including straight facts on your presentation.

And if you find it difficult to eliminate words entirely from your PowerPoint presentations, especially when you want students to get those key vocabulary words down, here are some additional hints:

  • Limit yourself to one word per slide. If you’re defining words, try putting up the vocabulary word and an associated set of images—then challenge students to deduce the definition.
  • Honor the “personalization principle,” which essentially says that engaging learners by delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning. For example, Richard Mayer suggests using lots of “I’s” and “you’s” in your text, as students typically relate better to more informal language.

22 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Predictions, Dumb and Otherwise, about Technology in Schools in 2025

One easily trips over a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them.  Other lists of high-tech predictions for 2020 were equally entertaining about the future of schools. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such dream lists for years about high-tech devices (with brand-new names) promising a glorious (or nefarious) future just around the corner, including the disappearance of the teacher (see here).

And I have contributed to such lists with my own predictions over the past six years (see (see December 26, 2009, December 30, 2010, December 29, 2011, December 27, 2012, and December 10, 2013.). I have predicted that textbooks will be digitized, online learning will spread, and the onset of computer testing will create more access to devices across schools and accelerate classroom usage. These developments will occur incrementally over the next decade and will be obvious to observers but hardly dominate K-12 age-graded schools.

While higher education textbooks  have shifted markedly to e-books and less expensive ways of getting content into students’ devices, the K-12 market remains a proprietary domain of a handful of publishers (e.g. Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill Education) in part due to the mechanics of  certain states (e.g.Florida, California, and Texas) dominating which texts get chosen. But changes continue (see here, here, and here) Changes in K-12 texts will occur in bits and pieces as publishers adapt to the impact of the web.

K-12 online learning will also spread slowly, very slowly, as blended instruction, personalized learning, and “flipped” classrooms gain traction. For public schools in 2016, the recent debacle in Los Angeles Unified School District largest (and most expensive) adoption of  iPads in the  U.S. continues to shadow rollouts of  tablets across the nation. Nonetheless, more and more tablets are in teacher and student hands. Many teacher and principal bloggers tout how they have integrated the use of new devices into daily lessons meeting Common Core standards.

I see no let-up in the spread of these devices as online tests to measure achievement of Common Core standards, already mandatory, extend to district tests. Policymakers and IT specialists continue to give one another high-five hand slaps in getting interactive whiteboards, laptops, and tablets to more and more teachers and students.

With all of the above occurring, one would think that by 2025, age-graded schools and the familiar teaching and learning that occurs today in K-12 and universities  would have exited the rear door. Not so. Blended instruction, personalized learning, and flipped classrooms will reinforce the age-graded school, the 19th century organizational innovation that is rock-solid in 2015. That is what I predict for 2025.

For nearly three decades, I have written about teacher and student access to, and instructional use of, computers in schools. In those articles and books, I have been skeptical of vendors’ and promoters’ claims about how these ever-changing electronic devices will transform age-graded schools and conventional teaching and learning. Even in the face of accumulated evidence that hardware and software, in of themselves, have not increased academic achievement, even in the face of self-evident truism that it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip, enthusiasts and vendors continue to click their castanets for tablets, laptops, and other devices as ways of getting test scores to go higher and “transforming” teaching and the age-graded school (see The_Impact_of_Digital_Technologies_on_Learning_FULL_REPORT_(2012).

Amid that skepticism, however, I have often noted that many teachers adopted devices and software not only for home use but also for planning lessons, grading students, communicating with parents and other educators, and dozens of other classroom and non-classroom tasks. Nor have my criticisms of policymakers’ decisions to purchase extensive hardware and software (far too often without consulting teachers) prevented me from identifying (and celebrating) teachers who have imaginatively and creatively integrated new devices and social media seamlessly into their daily lessons to advance student learning.

My allergy, however, to rose-colored scenarios of a future rich with technology remains intact.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2025, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? What are other ways of organizing schools to help students learn and grow into independent, clear-thinking, and whole people? These questions, in turn, depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their role in schools and classrooms.

17 Comments

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

In a Self-Serve World, Start-Ups Find Value in Human Helpers (Farhad Manjoo)

Farhad Manjoo  writes for the New   York Times. This appeared on December 16, 2015

I have a question for viewers to consider and, if moved to do so, answer. How much, if anything, of this trend that Manjoo identifies applies to the increased access and use of technology in public schools?

It’s unfashionable to admit this in the age of Expedia, Priceline and other do-it-yourself online tools, but here it is: I miss travel agents.

The Internet took off as a way to book travel because the human intermediaries were always a bit suspect — their expertise questionable, their methods opaque and their allegiances unclear. And at first, the machines seemed to improve everything. For uncomplicated trips, booking online is now much easier than in the past. Because we’ve replaced agents with computers whose sole purpose is to ferret out the best deal, and for lots of other reasons, airfares have plummeted over the last three decades.

Yet as you suffer through another holiday travel season, you might pause to consider how much we’ve really gained — and lost — in ditching human agents for machines. And you might welcome an emerging trend on the Internet: start-ups that are trying to put human agents, whether in travel, home services or shopping, back at the center of how we make decisions.

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection….”

Mr. English isn’t allergic to tech. He co-founded and served as the chief technology officer of Kayak, the booking site acquired by Priceline in 2012 for nearly $2 billion. But Mr. English often manned the customer service phone line at Kayak, and would get calls from people who had grown frustrated with online booking.

“I tried to create the best travel website on the market,” he said. “But as good as we thought our tech was, there were many times where I thought I did a better job for people on the phone than our site could do.”

You’ve most likely experienced the headaches Mr. English is talking about. Think back to the last time you booked anything beyond a routine trip online. There’s a good chance you spent a lot more time and energy than you would have with a human. Sure, the Internet has obligingly stepped in to help; there are review sites, travel blogs, discussion forums and the hordes on social media to answer every possible travel question. But these resources only exacerbate the problem. They often turn what should be a fun activity into an hours long research project….

It’s not just in travel that we’re all being asked to shoulder more work. The Internet’s great magic is what a business school professor would call “disintermediation.” By surfacing all of the world’s information and letting each of us act on it, computers help us bypass the expensive human brokers and service people who once sat in between consumers and suppliers.

Now, rather than consult an insurance agent, you simply search online. You never go into a bank —you just use the tireless A.T.M. — and at the supermarket, there are those self-checkout machines. You can buy stocks without a broker, you can publish a book without a publisher, you can sell a house without an agent and you can buy a car without a dealer. Slowly but surely, the robots seem to be replacing all the middlemen and turning the world into a self-serve society.

An economist would praise the great disintermediation for its efficiency. As a customer, you may have a different reaction: Look at all the work you’re now being asked to do. Was it really wise to get rid of all those human helpers?

In many cases, yes, but there remain vast realms of commerce in which guidance from a human expert works much better than a machine. Other than travel, consider the process of finding a handyman or plumber. The Internet has given us a wealth of data about these services. You could spend all day on Craigslist, Yelp or Angie’s List finding the best person for your job, which is precisely the problem.

“It’s going to be a long time until a computer can replace the estimating power of an experienced handyman,” said Doug Ludlow, the founder of the Happy Home Company, a one-year-old start-up that uses human experts to find the right person for your job. The company, which operates in the San Francisco Bay Area but plans to expand nationally, has contracts with a network of trusted service professionals in your area. To get some work done, you simply text your Happy Home manager with a description of the problem and maybe a few pictures.

“A quick glance from our handyman gives us an idea of who to send to your job, and what it will cost,” Mr. Ludlow said. The company handles payment processing, scheduling and any complaints if something goes wrong….

It isn’t feasible to get humans involved in all of our purchases. Humans are costly and they’re limited in capacity. The great advantage of computers is that they “scale” — software can serve evermore customers for ever-lower prices.

But one of the ironies of the digital revolution is that it has also helped human expertise scale. Thanks to texting, human customer service agents can now serve multiple customers at a time. They can also access reams of data about your preferences, allowing them to quickly find answers for your questions.

As a result, for certain purchases, the cost of adding human expertise can be a trivial part of the overall transaction. Happy Home takes a cut of each service it sets up, but because it can squeeze out certain efficiencies from operating a network of service professionals, its prices match what you’d find looking for a handyman on your own. That’s true of human travel agencies, too — the commissions on travel are so good that Lola can afford to throw in human expertise almost as a kind of bonus.

The rise of computers is often portrayed as a great threat to all of our jobs. But these services sketch out a more optimistic scenario: That humans and machines will work together, and we, as customers, will be allowed, once more, to lazily beg for help.

 

9 Comments

Filed under technology use