Tag Archives: technology

The Seconds Are Just Packed (Nicholas Carr)

 

This post, shortened here, appeared June 9, 2015. Nicholas Carr writes about technology and culture. He is the author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us that examines the personal and social consequences of dependency on computers. His previous work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, was a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times bestseller.

 

“Everything is going too fast and not fast enough,” laments Warren Oates, playing a decaying gearhead called G.T.O., in Monte Hellman’s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop. I can relate. The faster the clock spins, the more I feel as if I’m stuck in a slo-mo GIF loop.

It’s weird. We humans have been shown to have remarkably accurate internal clocks. Take away our wristwatches and our cell phones, dim the LEDs on all our appliances and gizmos, and we can still make pretty good estimates about the passage of minutes and hours. Our brains have adapted well to mechanical time-keeping devices. But our time-tracking faculty goes out of whack easily. Our perception of time is subjective; it changes, as we all know, with circumstances. When things are happening quickly around us, delays that would otherwise seem brief begin to feel interminable. Seconds stretch out. Minutes go on forever. “Our sense of time,” observed William James in his 1890 Principles of Psychology, “seems subject to the law of contrast….

“A compression of time characterizes the life of the century now closing,” wrote James Gleick in his 1999 book Faster. Such compression characterized, as well, the preceding century. ‘The dreamy quiet old days are over and gone forever,” lamented William Smith in 1886; “for men now live, think and work at express speed.” I suspect it would take no more than a minute of googling to discover a quotation from one of the ancients bemoaning the horrific speed of contemporary life. The past has always had the advantage of seeming, and probably being, less hurried than the present.

Still, something has changed in the last few years. Given what we know about the variability of our time sense, it seems clear that information and communication technologies would have a particularly strong effect on our perception of time. After all, those technologies often determine the pace of the events we experience, the speed with which we’re presented with new information and stimuli, and even the rhythm of our interactions with others. That’s been true for a long time — the newspaper, the telephone, and the television all quickened the speed of life — but the influence must be all the stronger now that we carry powerful and extraordinarily fast computers around with us all day long. Our gadgets train us to expect near-instantaneous responses to our actions, and we quickly get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays.

I know from my own experience with computers that my perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a few seconds longer — waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a web page — seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds.

Research on web users makes it clear that this is a general phenomenon. Back in 2006, a famous study of online retailing found that a large percentage of shoppers would abandon a merchant’s site if its pages took four seconds or longer to load. In the few years since, the so-called Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule. Studies by companies like Google and Microsoft now find that it takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. “Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” a top Microsoft engineer said in 2012.  To put that into perspective, it takes about the same amount of time for you to blink an eye.

A recent study of online video viewing provides more evidence of how advances in media and networking technology reduce the patience of human beings. The researchers, affiliated with the networking firm Akamai Technologies, studied a huge database that documented 23 million video views by nearly seven million people. They found that people start abandoning a video in droves after a two-second delay. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has had to wait for a YouTube clip to begin after clicking the Start button. (The only surprise was that 10 percent of people were willing to wait a full fifty seconds for a video to begin. Almost a whole minute! I’m guessing they spent the time checking their Facebook feed.) More interesting is the study’s finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates. Check it out:

Every time a network gets quicker, we become antsier. “Every millisecond matters,” says a Google engineer.

As we experience faster flows of information online, we become, in other words, less patient people. But impatience is not just a network effect. The phenomenon is amplified by the constant buzz of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, texting, and social networking in general. Society’s “activity rhythm” has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.

All of this has obvious importance to anyone involved in online media or in running data centers. But it also has implications for how all of us think, socialize, and in general live. If we assume that networks will continue to get faster — a pretty safe bet — then we can also conclude that we’ll become more and more impatient, more and more intolerant of even milliseconds of delay between action and response. As a result, we’ll be less likely to experience anything that requires us to wait, that doesn’t provide us with instant gratification. That has cultural as well as personal consequences. The greatest of works — in art, science, politics, whatever — tend to take time and patience both to create and to appreciate. The deepest experiences can’t be measured in fractions of seconds.

It’s not clear whether a technology-induced loss of patience persists even when we’re not using the technology. But I would hypothesize (based on what I see in myself and in others) that our sense of time is indeed changing in a lasting way. Digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more antagonistic toward delays of all sorts — and perhaps more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new messages or other stimuli. Call it the patience deficit. Because our experience of time is so important to our experience of life, it strikes me that these kinds of technology- and media-induced changes in our perceptions can have particularly broad consequences. How long are you willing to wait for a new thing? How many empty seconds can you endure?

 

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Students as Digital Rebels, Wanderers, and Pioneers (Craig Peck, et. al.) Part 2

Craig Peck and his colleagues studied two high schools in Southeastern U.S., one–Downtown–was urban and minority while Newlands was mostly white and suburban. Part 1 described student and teacher use of school and personal devices in Downtown high school. The full text including citations is in DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools.

We discovered that, as the old ways of schooling such as bell schedules, paper tests, and seats in rows intersected with tech-savvy, [personal media device-or] PMD-equipped teenagers, a “digital disconnect” (Selwyn, 2011) surfaced between digital youth and their brick and mortar schools. This situation produced a setting fertile for cultural incubation similar to the creative tensions present in an examination of technology in two American high schools a decade past (Peck, Cuban, & Kirkpatrick, 2002).

In that case, nascent ICT integration in schools helped foster the development of two types of students: “Open Door” students who improved academically and gained social acceptance through technology, and “Tech Gods” who played a crucial role in helping technology coordinators maintain the schools’ technology infrastructures.

Roughly 10 years later, during our study at Newlands and Downtown, we recognized three new types of students emerging in addition to the Open Door students and Tech Gods profiled a decade earlier. Two of these new classifications, Digital Rebels and Cyber Wanderers, included students from across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The other group was more homogeneous: eLearning Pioneers were primarily White, high-achieving students at Newlands High School. …

Digital Rebels

….We encountered students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules. Skilled students sent text messages routinely during lessons. Without the teacher’s (or at times, the observer’s) knowledge, these students used their clothing and objects for cover; some typed responses in their pockets without looking at their device. A few students pushed the bounds further by setting up proxies on school computers to bypass school district filters and access popular social media sites. In addition, students who possessed mobile phone data plans (or shared those of their parents) could use their PMDs to access any online social media they wished, given that the school district’s Internet filters could not block such activity on proprietary wireless networks.

A White male 10th grader at Newlands High School proved particularly adept at evading classroom rules against PMD usage. He explained that he was able to type text messages without looking, so he only had to read incoming messages. He stated, “I’m normally a two-hander with my phone, but if I was just sitting here like this I could send a message just fine [in my pocket].” He later revealed that he did in fact send a text message during his interview, unbeknownst to the researcher. He also explained that he possessed skills that would have enabled him to help fix instructors’ ICT issues, much like the Tech Gods profiled in a study a decade ago (Peck et al., 2002). But he also revealed that he was reluctant to share such knowledge: “I don’t speak up about it. . . . Not big on fixing things like that.” When asked to explain his reluctance to provide technology aid to his teachers, he remarked, “Don’t want to help the teachers—it’s time off class . . . ‘cause they’re going to have to call someone to fix it.”

This Digital Rebel, in essence, seemed to express a willingness to undermine a lesson through silent inaction.

At Downtown High, an 11th-grade African American female student described when and how she text-messaged during a lesson: “Well if I’m in class and I get a text, usually I wait until the class is working on some kind of work, but it’s mostly after the teacher explains it.” She estimated sending about 100 text messages on a typical day, with far fewer during the actual school hours. In fact, she described concerns with having PMDs in schools.

In her own words, “There’s cheating. They give the answers during text messages. Or if someone’s planning to have a fight, they’ll just do it through the phones. They’ll text and meet up there and everyone will know where to go. And that kind of blocks the way of it being broken up [by adult supervisors], which is kind of dangerous.”

In this sense, seemingly innocent acts of rebellion could actually transform into significant acts of danger.

Teachers possessed limited means to fight back against the apparent digital insurrection. As we shadowed students throughout their school days, teachers confiscated student PMDs that had been used in ways that disrupted instruction. Yet, most often the teachers simply returned the devices to the students at the end of the period, seemingly satisfied to have induced a brief respite in their ongoing digital communications. Other teachers ignored student PMD use or adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach of benign neglect. Still other educators did go to great lengths to disrupt student technology use.

In one case at Downtown High School, a coach made all her players turn in their phones to her at the beginning of school as a tactic for preventing PMD-inspired confrontations during the day; a student participant revealed that a friend of hers circumvented this deterrent by carrying multiple mobile phones: one to turn in to the coach, and the others to keep and use. In another case at Downtown High School, two teachers used personal funds to purchase cell phone blockers in the hopes of eliminating student PMD usage during class time. Administrators subsequently sent all teachers a memorandum forbidding this solution. The principal explained that the blockers interfered with the administrators’ cell phones, which constituted a safety issue. The principal added that any teacher using the cell phone blockers would be held personally liable in the event that aid was delayed to a sick or injured school constituent.

An administrator at Newlands discussed how the possible release valve provided by a student-appropriate PMD use policy did not always lead to student acceptance of usage rules. She explained,

“One student told me, ‘You know, this is a new world and this is a new age.’ And I had to [confiscate his cell phone] because he refused to give it up in gym. And he just said, ‘It’s a new world, a new age.’And I explained the policy and I said I realized that. And he said, “You check yours all the time, too.”. . . It is a new world and we have to start to identify and look at all that we are trying to impose on students. Is it old values? It’s not the same.”

Such technology-fueled conundrums carried over to her relations with her own teenage son. She described some of the virtues of PMDs: “I know that any time I want him, I know I can get him.” She still struggled like many parents with what she called the “trust issue,” stating that she needs to know who he is texting, or, as she stated it, “making sure that when you text—who you’re texting, what are you texting, making sure I know all that.”

A White male 11th grader at Downtown High School perhaps best summed up the dilemmas regarding PMD use and access that educators face today. He stated,

“You’re never going to stop it, there’s no way you can. I mean, [there are] people that know computers. They know technology, it’s like they could do it all on the back of their hand, sleeping. I mean, they know their ways around technology. I mean you just give a guy a new technology and let him play with it a couple of days and he’ll figure it out like nothing…..”

Cyber Wanderers

During our research, we also met students for whom, much like the Open Door students profiled in a previous study (Peck et al., 2002), technology proved essential. One such student from Newlands explained,

“Main reason I love this school is because: Wi-Fi throughout the whole school, which is great. You can go on the web like during lunch or whatever. I’ll be in the library during lunch and I’ll open up my laptop and whatever, browse the web and everything. Sometimes, most of the time when I’m in math or English I’ll write my notes and write my essays on my laptop.”

By this student’s own testimony and that of his teachers, technology enabled his academic success and social adjustment. Some students in our study, however, became so immersed in or overwhelmed by new media technology that they meandered between the real and virtual worlds. To such students, whom we dubbed Cyber Wanderers, the lure of technology presented a possible danger: They could succumb to ICT as a powerful distraction rather than seize it as a powerful tool, or use ICT to engage in an environment that offered the potential for anonymous hostility.

At Newlands, for example, we met an African American 10th-grade male student who was an avid online gamer, explaining that sometimes “people will wind up cursing when I do something wrong or mess up.” Conversely, he admitted using the screen name “heartless jerk” in an online gaming forum and “made one member quit” because of his harsh comments.

We also encountered a White male 10th-grade student at Downtown High School who checked his phone during our interview to discover, to his surprise, that he had sent 18,287 text messages the previous month alone. He described his text messaging as almost instinctual:

“Well I start sending text messages usually ‘cause I haven’t talked to somebody in a while and [there are] some certain people you know that I maintain a constant texting conversation with. You know and I’ll just text them sometimes to ask them something in particular and sometimes just to start up a conversation, so it’s just kind of I realize that I’m you know, starting a conversation but I don’t really think about it, if that makes sense . . . I just kind of do it.”

He also seemed cognizant that his text messaging had serious consequences:

“My texting has probably gotten in the way of some learning . . .In Algebra 2 . . . if you don’t get it at the beginning it kind of puts you in a hole. . . . So I’ve kind of had to play catch up here.” Adding to his issues, he explained, “[I] definitely play a lot of video games while texting . . . in a way that kind of runs into a problem sometimes.” Cyber Wanderers such as these could find themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum.

eLearning Pioneers

In the media center of the predominantly White and affluent Newlands High School, a small group of female students spent a fair portion of their days immersed in online learning. Loosely monitored by the school’s media coordinators, youth whom we called eLearning Pioneers sat at computers and studied advanced Chinese or AP computer science while most other students throughout the school attended traditional classes. During one typical period during a school day, each of three students sat individually at one of the 30 desktop computers arranged around the media center; two of the students were engaged in online learning activities. The online courses could be noticeably self-paced. A staff member who participated in our research reported that one of our study’s students took a virtual 8-month-long biology course; the student expended little effort for 6 months before completing all assignments successfully over the final 2 months of the allotted course time.

The eLearning Pioneers at Newlands included another of our study participants, a White 10th-grader who took two AP classes and a math class online in the school media center and attended two regular classes before going home. For her online courses, message boards and email provided the central means for teacher–student and student–student interaction. She noted,

“In online classes . . . generally speaking, you pace yourself. Especially with my English class . . . she gives you the assignments and she gives you a syllabus for where you should be. But you turn them in at your own pace and you take tests when you can . . . you have a tab that you can click on and go to your ‘My Grades.’ It has the assignment, and what grade you got, and out of what and all the assignments you’re going to need to complete for the rest of the year . . . it’s easier to keep up with things. You know, like, I’m supposed to post to the discussion board today. You go and do that.”

 

Our shadowing of our participant during a typical day neatly captured the hybrid nature of her educational experience. In AP environmental science, she sat with 18 classmates and completed a written unit examination; once finished with the test, the class watched a nature DVD played with the teacher’s laptop computer and broadcast by digital projector. Our participant returned to the media center to complete an assignment for her AP computer science course, which was offered through the state’s virtual public school program. She returned to a classroom with 20 students to engage in a lesson for Latin II, during which the teacher led students through a line-by-line translation of a text excerpt. Our research subject then departed from campus, with designs on completing an assignment for her AP English course offered through another state’s virtual education program. Her AP English instructor, whom our student had met only virtually but described as “amazing,” posted pictures of her own children, wanting to connect more personally with her students. Our subject reported,

“I’ll do an assignment and I’ll turn it in, like an essay or something,and then she’ll send me feedback and say, ‘This was good but your introduction’s a little weak.’ Or ‘You need to do this.’”

We wondered whether our participant—an independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer—offered a glimpse into the American high school future (Christensen et al.,)

 

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Digital Youth in Brick and Mortar Schools (Craig Peck, et. al)*

 

University researcher Craig Peck and colleagues including a high school teacher studied two schools in southeastern U.S. to see the interplay between students, teacher use of technologies and students’ personal media devices during the school day. In the two high schools (one urban and the other suburban), these factors interacted in complex ways that go well beyond what advocates for schools becoming more high-tech have either promised or foresaw. As part of the research design and methodology, the researchers shadowed ten students through their school day. To illustrate those interactions and display that complexity, the researchers offer a snippet of one student’s day in the urban, largely minority high school. The full text of the article published in Teachers College Record, May 2015 is in (DigitalYouthinBrickandMortarSchools)

 

One Friday morning in late spring, the instructional day began at Downtown High School, located in a large Southeastern United States school district. African-American 11th-grader Joanna Miller and 19 other students entered room 321 for their Small Business course, a technology-infused elective, and took seats in front of desktop computers. The session began as a guest speaker, a 1961 Downtown High School alumnus who had retired from a career as a lawyer and business person, described his work experiences, discussed resume tips, and offered motivational words.

The course instructor transitioned the students into the day’s assignment: They completed computer-based multiple-choice responses regarding business term definitions and reviewed for a test that coming Monday on creating a personal “business image.” The teacher monitored student progress through a program on his computer that provided a real-time screen shot of each student-assigned computer.

This system allowed him to lock individual computers or the entire group to provide updates or check that everyone was on task. At one point, a student tried to access a popular social media website through a proxy but had the action blocked by the monitoring program. The teacher’s computer-based monitoring of the students actually seemed rather laissez-faire. At one point, several students were engaged in completing the assignment, while a few others were completing work for other courses, surfing the web, or, at intermittent moments, quickly texting on their personal media devices. Joanna, in fact, used her computer to complete the assignment’s multiple-choice responses. She explained to the researcher how she preferred the online format because it allowed her to retake questions she answered incorrectly.

After the bell rang, signaling time to move to the next period, Joanna continued on with her school day. She encountered instructional technology along the way, including when fellow students used a computer-interactive whiteboard for problem demonstrations in mathematics. In other courses like English, decades-old practices predominated as students sitting at desks arranged in traditional rows completed a photocopied crossword puzzle regarding a classic play. In Latin, the instructor engaged students in a discussion regarding Celtic mythology and read a myth from a book. In this sense, her instructional day offered Joanna a mix of technology-rich and technology-free experiences. Despite the varied nature of instruction, one technology pervasive throughout the day was student personal media devices.

Downtown High School rules specifically prohibited students from bringing technology like cellular phones and digital music players to school. In classrooms and in the halls, however, headphones dangled from ears and tiny keyboards met eager text-typing thumbs as students routinely, if often surreptitiously, indulged in their favored virtual electronic communication modes.

In some cases, educational spaces became contested domains. In math, the teacher confiscated Joanna’s cell phone (which a classmate was using) and two others. The teacher returned the devices at the end of class with a stern admonition against further use. In Joanna’s Latin course, meanwhile, instruction in the aged language competed against modern times as one student in particular showed a remarkable affinity for modern multitasking. Shielding her personal media device beneath her desk, the student quickly tapped out text messages. She also used a pen to write notes to secretly pass onto classmates and, for good order, offered periodic comments to the larger discussion pertaining to Celtic mythology.

In part 2, Craig Peck and his colleagues describe the different kinds of students they encountered and their use of technology based on interviews and following students into classes in both the suburban and urban high schools.

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*Craig Peck is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was one of my graduate students who assisted me on a study of teacher and student technology use at two Northern California high schools in 1998-1999

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What Happens When Kids Go Cold Turkey from Their Screens for 5 Days? (Yalda Uhls)

This post appeared August 22, 2014 in the Huffington Post as did the following description of the author. Dr. Yalda T. Uhls received her PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA. She is the Regional Director of Common Sense Media, a national non-profit that focuses on helping children, families and educators navigate the digital world as well as a senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, UCLA campus. Yalda’s research focuses on how older and newer media impacts the social behavior of preadolescents. Her research has been featured in the NY Times, CNN, Time Magazine, KPCC, and many other news outlets

We all stare at screens more than we would like to, and many of us rely on these tools to communicate with others, even during times when we should be spending quality time with our families and friends. So, does all this time staring at screens, which may take time away from looking at faces, change the nature of what we learn about the social world? Our study at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, at UCLA, asked this question. We compared two groups of approximately 50 6th grade children each over a period of five days. One group had no access to screens of any kind, while the other did.

But how does one find young people willing to give up all media for a few hours, let alone five days? We explored the ways we could guarantee that a large enough group of children would stop using media and found a simple solution. An outdoor education camp for public school children, the Pali Institute, came on as our partner. The camp director worked with us to make sure that during the five days of the camp, children had zero access to screens of any kind — no TV, no phones and no computers. This meant that the kids at the camp could only talk to other people using the form of communication our species has used for millions of years — face-to-face interaction.

Social abilities are quite complex, but an essential underlying skill is understanding emotion; children learn about emotion even before they learn language by first paying attention to a caregiver’s face. Watching faces and paying attention to the interaction of people around them provides children with essential facts for survival: who can I trust, who will love me and whom should I be scared of? We chose emotion understanding as our measure because of these early and important social learning skills.

Honestly, we were not sure that after only five days of looking at faces versus screens, anything would change. Anecdotal evidence abounds that children who stop using media become magically kind, respectful and patient, but hard data is limited. But there may be some basis for parent intuition, because we found that children’s skills in reading emotion in both faces and videotaped scenes got dramatically better. The time they spent interacting in groups, with their peers and counselors, with no devices in their hands or in front of their faces, made an important difference. The kids at camp improved their emotion understanding, while the kids who were at school did not.

So, what’s the takeaway? Should kids not look at screens anymore? Unless you want to move to Siberia — and I am only saying that figuratively, because chances are even Siberia has the Internet — I think that ship has sailed. Instead, take heart that it took only five days for kids to improve; in other words, screen time does not create irreversible damage to our children’s social skills. The rules are still the same as they always have been — create balance and device free time in your children’s lives. And when kids are small, make sure to give them many opportunities for rich in-person social interaction.

Our call to action is we must examine this question further. Before screens become the only thing we ever look at (remember the movie Wall-E?) let’s devote some resources to study the costs and benefits. The stakes are high, and our children are worth it.

 

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The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

Teachers, principals, researchers, and parents face dilemmas daily. For readers of this post, the most common they face is the tension between personal and professional values—spend time with family and friends vs. spend time at work. Because time is limited, you cannot do it all–choices have to be made. Compromises and tradeoffs are inevitable. From CEOs to software designers to single Moms to marketing consultants, these dilemmas are ever present.

For entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, policymakers, principals, and teachers who initiate projects there is a another dilemma that won’t go away. The dilemma is choosing among three competing values: do the project fast, do it cheap, and do it “good.” Why do you have to choose? Because resources are limited–time, people, money–you can only do two. You cannot have it all.

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Constraints that won’t go away require choices. You want to have the highest quality project, i.e., “good,” but to get that, it takes time and time often means that costs rise. It won’t be cheap. Film director Jim Jarmusch captures the tensions that exist between speed, quality, and price (not only in dollars but in time and people). These tradeoffs in managing the dilemma derive from not only high-tech start-ups aimed at the school market  but also apply to classroom teachers,  principals, superintendents, and school boards as well.

Consider the Los Angeles fiasco of buying and distributing Apple iPads (see here and here). The Superintendent and school board thought they could get “good” by doing it “fast” and “cheap.” They failed miserably. The superintendent resigned. A year later, the fallout from these decisions still rock the district.

Now consider teachers who want to begin project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms. What comes across in their accounts is that they didn’t implement it all at once but started a piece of project based learning–say getting students to ask questions–and worked on it before expanding it to an entire lesson (see here and here) . They chose “good”  over “fast.” They invested their time incrementally to learn how best to pull off project-based learning. Those investments of teacher time add up and make it expensive in teacher time but workable with students in a lesson.

For a classroom, putting an innovation into practice is one thing, expanding the innovation to an entire school is another. To build project-based learning across an entire high school is also done in increments and takes longer (see here)   The switch from one pedagogy to another or installing a new way of teaching across all subjects courts failure when done in one fell swoop. In those high schools where teachers put into practice PBL, more often than not, it occurred in chunks. Two steps forward, one step backward. Trial and error. And it takes time.  “Good” trumps “fast.” Implementation involving teacher time in picking up expertise at every step of the way, however, is seldom cheap.

The same constraint-ridden dilemma of choosing among “good,”fast”, and “cheap” and then putting the program into practice incrementally applies to a district also. Look at a largely minority district with nearly 25,000 students that has, over thirty five years–yes, for more than three decades–sustained academic improvement, reduced the achievement gap between minorities and whites, and introduced many organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional changes slowly, carefully, and incrementally in those years. The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. For an urban district, that kind of continuity in leadership borders on extraordinary.

Using pilot programs to introduce innovations slowly and evaluating outcomes, the district has approached implementation of new ideas and practices incrementally in order to offer quality programs to students. Fast and cheap rollouts of technology, new curricula, and different organizations seldom occurred.  For  example, in 2006, school officials introduced the a Spanish Immersion program in the elementary schools.Teachers were recruited, selected, trained to offer the instruction. Students spent 90 to 135 minutes weekly in Spanish beginning in kindergarten and then eventually instruction extended into the upper grades. At each step of the way, district officials communicated with parents, listened to their concerns and those of teachers, and made changes as the program was rolled out. Spanish Immersion language programs are currently in 17 out of 22 Arlington County elementary schools. Over a decade, then, a new program was introduced incrementally and is considered by school officials, practitioners, and parents. “Good” trumped “fast.” Costs in administrative and teacher time, professional development,and instructional materials surely added up and the dollar cost would appear large until those costs are amortized over a decade and the number of students served.

Classes using new pedagogies, schools putting instructional innovations into practice, and total district changes have to deal with iron-clad constraints–“fast,” “cheap,” and “good”. Choices have to be made because no one can have it all. With continuity in leadership, a commitment to careful implementation in bite-sized increments, the dilemma can be managed successfully.

 

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District Purchasing of High-Tech Devices: How Teachers Continue to Lose Out

When I buy a new laptop, desktop, or smart phone, I have in mind what I want to use it for and how much I can spend. I then read about the appliance and its software, listen to other users and what they say about it, and then try it out for awhile. I ask myself: does it do what I need it to do? Is the price of the device worth what I want it to do? Then I decide whether or not to invest in it. I am what academics would call a “rational actor.” Yet there is an emotional side to my decision also: how does it look? how does it feel to use? how many other people are using it? Do I really need it or have the ads influenced my decision?

That is me the individual buyer and user. It is not, however, in most instances the classroom teacher who seldom gets the chance to decide what software enter her classroom. The classroom teacher is the end user and yet, in most cases, is seldom consulted about how new instructional software can be best used with students. (I and others have written about this problem of who exactly is the customer for school high-tech and who is the end-user–a split that, in my opinion, impedes integration of high-tech devices into classroom lessons (see here, here, here, and here)

A recent publication from a non-profit organization and for-profit vendors (Digital Promise and The Education Industry Association) makes this point of the divorce between who use the classroom software–the “consumer” (read: district administrators, directors of technology, principals)–and who is the end-user (read: teachers)  indirectly while raising directly tough issues that exist in districts when school boards buy laptops, tablets, hand-held devices and software.

In Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing, the authors, in concert with the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform, surveyed over 300 “education leaders and technology executives” and conducted 50 in-depth interviews with these respondents. They were principals, superintendents, business officers, curriculum directors, technology directors, and vendors. Don’t look for teachers in the crowd. They are absent from this study. These respondents are the “consumers,” i.e., customers; teachers are the end-users and were uninvolved in the study.

In the report, these administrators and vendors see teachers as having “limited involvement in procurement decision-making process.”  Amen, I say.

The lure of money and doing good (e.g., solving problems of equity, academic achievement, classroom management) draw start-up entrepreneurs into the half-trillion dollar education market daily. Yet treating end-users as the customers, knowing their world well before designing and pitching new “solutions” to old problems continues to be the exception, not the rule.  Smart advice to ed tech entrepreneurs and established vendors is already out there. “User-centered design” is promoted by some but continues to be largely ignored by vendors.  Listen to the advice Steve Hodas  gives in the above publication.

Assuming you were not recently a teacher yourself, I suggest that you work hard to get inside the school, inside the classroom, inside the day-to-day lives of the educators you want to help. If you’re resourceful enough to get in, don’t sell. Don’t demo. Don’t text or tweet. Just watch and listen. Help with a task if you can. Earn the space you’re taking up.

Bring pizza to the teachers’ lounge. Sit in on a common planning period. Clean up after lunch. Act as if you know nothing, be humble, and soak up school sounds and rhythms. Go to school board meetings. Join online forums for parents in your town. Learn what parents and teachers really care about. Until you’ve done these things, it’s arrogant to write code, let alone attempt to sell. Unless you’ve done these things, the likelihood that you are aiming at something big is small. Your solution must manifest your deep understanding of educators’ daily struggles and small victories. That understanding is the beginning of empathy, without which you cannot succeed.

This advice from a person who entered public school work from the business world a few years ago is both useful and essential. But is largely ignored. Even with user-centered design, thousands of teacher entrepreneurs, start-ups, and  high-tech cheerleader EdSurge (see here and here)  that urge teacher involvement–usually called “stakeholder”–most established vendors continue their myopic (but profitable) ways that Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing documents.

 

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A Plea to Ed Tech Entrepreneurs (Randy Weiner)

Randy Weiner is a co-founder and CEO at BrainQuake, a co-founder at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA and former Board Chair, a former teacher, father to two elementary school-aged daughters. In this post, he uses the phrase “we” to refer to those who, like himself, are high-tech entrepreneurs, start companies aimed at the school market, produce software and “solutions” to educators’ problems, and, in general, want to improve the quality of schooling in the U.S.

Weiner anticipates that some readers will disagree with his definition of ed tech. In comments, if you do disagree, offer your amended or new definition and indicate reasons for changes you would make.

 

Last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for education technology companies to focus on addressing problems that matter. Implicit in the Secretary’s challenge is the assumption that education technology can, in fact, actually have an impact on important education problems and opportunities.

To date, however, precious little efficacy research exists to support this assumption, and it is easy to find data that raises questions about ed tech’s potential.

For example, we ed tech entrepreneurs are flooding schools with ed tech offerings, arguably in a counterproductive manner. Numerous studies and surveys, including Digital Promise’s late 2014 “Improving Ed Tech Purchasing”, find school leaders and teachers are overwhelmed by the number of ed tech offerings foisted upon them, making the task of simply identifying those products that might solve problems that matter unnecessarily challenging.

Also, according to the Annie. E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, between 2005 and 2013, the number of American children living in poverty increased by 3%, from ~13.4M to 16.1M. During roughly that same time period, nearly $2B flowed into ed tech ventures and 2014 alone saw over $1B in U.S. ed tech investment. $2B hardly registers within the context of the U.S. Department of Education budget, but it is roughly one-third of Los Angeles Unified’s school budget and nearly one-tenth of New York City’s Department of Education budget. If one of education’s goals is to increase economic opportunity and lift children out of poverty, ed tech dollars have yet to demonstrate a meaningful impact on children’s prospects.

To rise to the Secretary’s challenge, we in the ed tech community must take a few steps backward to clearly define what we mean by education technology itself.

Ed tech’s fundamental responsibility is to re-imagine the very interface to education. That is, technology, intelligently applied, should reveal insight to previously inaccessible, actionable teaching and learning opportunities that impact student outcomes, whether they pertain to the student, the teacher, the parent, the administrator and/or the community.

We need an ed tech definition that has a sense of pedagogical and education product development history. We need an ed tech definition that reflects an understanding of how to identify and assess a potential innovation related to an education problem that matters. With such a definition, we will improve the probability of aligning technology to opportunities to impact stagnant education problems.

My proposed definition pertains to both existing low tech solutions (for example, Audrey Watters has rightly observed that windows in a classroom ought to be considered instructional technology) that are generally not considered to be “education technology” and future ed tech product development that emphasizes demonstrably improved student outcomes ahead of a product’s codebase.

Education technology is a previously unavailable, best possible and proven interface that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three education problems or opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at the definition’s key components.

*”Previously unavailable”: If your problem is not already successfully addressed by a person, product or service, then you may have an ed tech opportunity.

We in the ed tech community can help simply by checking ourselves: there is no need to develop redundant offerings when schools are already distracted by an overabundance of products.

*”Best possible”: Ed tech developers must force themselves to articulate why the use of technology in their product is unquestionably the absolute best possible choice for impacting student outcomes. Unfortunately, we ed tech entrepreneurs have yet to evolve the following to the cliché it should be: Focus needs to be on problems first, solutions second.

*”Proven” – This word echoes Secretary Duncan’s call for ed tech companies to conduct comparison or control group research – a relative rarity today — to justify a product’s adoption when America’s teachers have not a minute to waste in preparing children to participate in tomorrow’s economy.

*”Interface”: Refer to my initial comments above regarding what it means to view ed tech as an interface to accessing and experiencing education in new ways.

Taken together, “previously unavailable”, “best possible”, “proven” and “interface” combine to form a concise, outcomes-oriented focus for ed tech product development that any education technologist can apply to his or her work.

The last phrase in my definition, “that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three problems or opportunities” is equally important.

My own biases suggest that the nation’s top three opportunities include:

1. Future-proofing our children by teaching the concrete creative problem-solving skills and mindsets that consistently produce breakthrough organizations, products and services (non-profit or for-profit

2. Developing a national, lifelong learning culture that imbues children with the creative confidence to change the worl

3. Scaling pedagogy and assessment that recognizes that a “one size fits all” approach may not fit anyone

My point, however, is not to establish that my priorities are correct – of course there will be plenty of disagreement. Rather, the larger point is that we in ed tech should unite to prioritize our efforts so as to minimize redundancy and increase investment focus. Intensely disciplined focus on one to three problems at a time will minimize distractions at the school site and incentivize ed tech entrepreneurs to concentrate on deeply understanding critical problems that limit children’s futures and constrain economic growth.

Fortunately, there is a tool that drives such focus: the X Prize’s community platform, HeroX.

HeroX is not the X Prize, though it is related. HeroX crowdfunds prizes for solutions to problems that matter. At the time of this post, searches for “education technology” and “ed tech” do not yield a single relevant result. The ed tech community could lead by example, banding together to establish a disciplined priority list for U.S. students. Each year a new prize (assuming a past year’s prize has been claimed) could arise to drive focus and innovation on problems that truly matter.

A more focused definition of ed tech can provide guidance for entrepreneurs and stakeholders looking to use technology to improve educational outcomes for children. To date, we in ed tech have flooded the market with unproven products that distract schools from otherwise focusing on serving their children. In doing so, we have attracted billions of dollars that have not changed children’s future at scale. We can do better and we should start with an inspiring definition of and laser focus on what it is we are trying to deliver in the first place.

 

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use