Friday, December 16, 2011


Technology Candor

Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, in a New York Times special on technology, and a take-no-prisoners opinion piece, cuts through the smoke and public education rationalizations for the US public K-12 standing:

“Our education system is in a state of crisis. Among developed countries, the United States is 55th in quality rankings of elementary math and science education, 20th in high school completion rate and 27th in the fraction of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.
As a society, we can and should invest more money in education. But that is only part of the solution. The high costs of high-quality education put it off limits to large parts of the population, both in the United States and abroad, and threaten the school’s place in society as a whole. We need to significantly reduce those costs while at the same time improving quality.
If these goals seem contradictory, let’s consider an example from history. In the 19th century, 60 percent of the American work force was in agriculture, and there were frequent food shortages. Today, agriculture accounts for less than 2 percent of the work force, and there are food surpluses.
The key to this transition was the use of technology — from crop rotation strategies to GPS-guided farm machinery — which greatly increased productivity. By contrast, our approach to education has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance: From middle school through college, most teaching is done by an instructor lecturing to a room full of students, only some of them paying attention.”

She also points out that in 1984 Benjamin Bloom (educational psychologist and creator of Bloom's taxonomy of learning, visited earlier in SQUINTS) demonstrated that tutoring was vastly better than lecture, the average tutored student doing 98 percent better than a standard class.  A 2010 meta-analysis of 45 studies by the USDOE demonstrated online learning was equal to face-to-face learning, and that a blend of both was more effective than either.

Finally the argument is that you can't teach critical thinking and problem solving without the classroom interaction.  Aside from the inference that many K-12 teachers haven’t been prepared to teach either of these with quality even in the classroom, Stanford has used technology to support interactive formats that create the right environment for practice of both.

Basically the assertion is that K-12 education has been ducking adoption of contemporary technologies – as well as more valid subject matter education of teachers – applicable to learning for over half a century, and still shows little awareness of the need to change.  But change it likely will be, because our digital capabilities aren't going away, the pace of development is accelerating, and when some sanity returns to the alleged reform movement the realization may be either a tsunami technologically crashing on present K-12 tech infrastructure, or shaking it out with a 7.9 quake.

Where’s the Start Button?

The December 12 SQUINTS, pretty much non-judgmentally, surveyed the places where existing and near term digital technology can augment present K-12 pedagogy.  A byproduct of the research for that SQUINTS was finding that there is already an abundance of technologies scaled to K-12 use, but roadblocks in the critical path to getting them into the hands of teachers and successfully applied.

Enumerating those barriers places SQUINTS in a deeply critical mode that really isn’t preferred, but there’s need for forthrightness on the issue.   The roadblocks start with the USDOE for reasons of both present obsessive strategies for reform and naïve views of needed technology, jump to our state departments of education that are even less on top of the need, then finally hit local systems that recoil as from a rattlesnake at anything that challenges their comfort zones.

No credit to our private sector, it has been consumed in these markets with making the highest possible dollar off of every text, workbook, standardized test, commercialized curriculum, and online application it can peddle.  If that doesn’t sour the cream, states like Ohio have a deeply dug-in system of education service centers that could be candidates for RICO prosecution, lacking the expertise to actually serve schools, but extracting “the vig” from virtually every school acquisition of needed materials.
But some defense of US enterprise, the larger markets for everything from online utilities through digital hardware and software are being literally inhaled by consumer demand even in the current economy, versus K-12 education that ducks promotion attempts.

Lastly, on balance most US public K-12 administrators and teachers are still clueless about digital advances and their potential classroom applications, as are most local school boards.  Indeed, most K-12 educators are virtually clueless about the research tools that were created, refined and in use in the 20th century that could have been inserted into contents and pedagogy then.  The product:  “What you sees is what you gets.”

Rough, but there is also a weak defense for public education.  That is, that there is simply no adequate infrastructure to effectively deliver needed technology to local classrooms and teachers without the intervening bureaucracies that presently constrain getting any intellectual change into those systems.  A question, is it possible to envision an organizational model that could make that dissemination work broadly applied to digital K-12 technologies?

A Very Basic Idea

Everything starts with assumptions.  That roster for this idea includes:
  • The political climate and diversity of contents and sources of digital technology applicable to K-12 are roadblocks to the USDOE being the focal point for discovering, screening, integrating and disseminating needed technology to US schools. 
  • A classic market could be a viable mechanism if the buying end of the equation operated with the same organizational, incentive, and choice principles as the selling side when there is competition; it doesn't distorting a free market solution. 
  • Market solutions follow the general marketing model of diffusion of innovation; the case can be made that present public K-12 education has waffled for so long that any innovation must be artificially accelerated to get the US back into world education contention.
  • The core function is essentially logistical – supply chain – based on the assertion that there are in existence ample and diverse sources of digital technologies that can expand K-12 learning outcomes and productivity; classic wholesaling, combining utilities from many sources, redistributing in appropriate combinations and lots to the next layer of market delivery, with the addition of the academic function of matching learning needs and means.
  • For reasons that shouldn't need amplification, funding such an effort will fall off a cliff for the foreseeable future if positioned as a social or wholly public sector program.
  • Lastly, it will arguably take a different version of creativity and entrepreneurship than anything presently associated with the public education bureaucracies, Federal, state or local; plus human resources operating beyond the traditions of those venues.
  • This list, if anywhere close to target, puts some tough criteria in place for organizational options. In truly contemporary organization theory, the game is defined by functions, not by diagrams or extant arrangements in place.
Here is one vision at an admittedly embryonic stage; titling is generic intended to simply define the domain – NEDTEC, or the National Education Technology Consortium.

Mission:  NEDTEC

To identify, sort, recruit, assemble, appraise, refine, and distribute to US K-12 schools a comprehensive menu of third-party technology-based learning modalities, using a public license format, and using virtual methods to deliver working digital pedagogical capabilities to K-12 schools along with educator development supporting effective classroom use; all at the lowest possible cost to public K-12 schools.


The organizational model foresees a public-private corporation, independent of USDOE and state education departments, but incorporating those agencies as supply-chain affiliates.

One division is formed for each US economic/education region, for argument set arbitrarily at ten, with an average of five states constituting a region.  A region’s colleges and universities are recruited to be affiliates with each divisional organization.

A board for each region/division, representing the four stakeholder types, provides operating level oversight:  Stakeholders -- a region’s public schools, its state departments of education, participating colleges and universities, and related private sector organizations.

The model envisions peak coordination across regions to include:  Sourcing and qualifying technologies; coordinating offerings with other organizations with national advocacy roles for K-12, e.g., the National Academies, teachers' unions, applicable foundations; and potentially brokering basic learning research to balance the menu offered.  Focus at the region/division level would be on:  Assessments of region school needs; marketing to states and schools; operating management of online supply logistics for delivering technology units; and billing and customer service.

The organization is to be virtual, emulating the collaborative open source model that produced the Linux operating system; accordingly the overhead cost of the system is minimized, organization is flat, and the format communicates the modernity of the technology managed.


Methods, models, software, knowledge blocks, tools, etc., assembled become available to public K-12 schools in a region/division via licensing similar to the GNU model of public software license.

The “cloud” is employed to provide low cost online access to all material and models for learning, including actual operations intra-classroom, or inter-classroom or inter-source for collaborative learning.  School usage of all brokered technology can be automatically monitored to both enable billing and assess acceptance of the learning tools.

Strategic oversight is by a composite NEDTEC national board or academy, composed of representatives from each region/division oversight board plus USDOE representation.


Rationally, the model envisions a need for foundation or other seed funding to initially collect and sort offerings, and envisions staged development from a proof of concept test to regional rollouts of service.

NEDTEC operating funding is envisioned based on school system license/lease of all operating products, in effect the facility to lease any service/module/model from the full NEDTEC menu of technologies, with cost of applications based on actual usage.  A full operating model and plan are obviously T.B.D.

The model would allow very low cost provision of a comprehensive menu of learning technologies, with negotiated companion corporate contributions of limited specialized license of all proprietary technologies that might fit the K-12 model and menu.  Preliminary survey of technologies suggests that a major component of applicable pedagogical tools is already in the public domain, but simply widely dispersed, with varying awareness by potential users, and because of individual selectivity attracting limited resources to gain wide recognition and deployment.

Collaborative Potential

The national level of NEDTEC offers an opportunity for another level of technology dissemination, brokering collaborative relationships among public K-12 schools and third party sources of learning technologies, and among schools that would never ordinarily connect or exchange perspectives.  Conceive of this as a social model of school exchange, and collaborative and organizational learning.  For example, the sister-city inter-nation model promoted for some time could be used as a model for “sister-school” programs; simply exchanging perspectives and experiences has the potential to broaden schools’ awareness of alternative ways to enhance learning outcomes, or to enable matching multi-point classroom research on what works with greater representativeness hence inference potential.

A Unique Universe

In most venues of either public process or the private sector what’s proposed would face major constraints, many of those a function of how professional activity is motivated and incented, or bureaucratized.  What could allow something akin to this model to function is its expression of the values that enabled Linux, or that drives programs like TED.  That enables values and deeply held beliefs in the importance and social imperative of public elementary and secondary education to foster a committed component of intellectual assets willing to work toward that goal as open source providers or organizational members with nominal compensation.  The commitment is already demonstrated in the levels of competent educator performances trying to make sense of the current twisted school reform movement.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the model veers away from making that perceived criterion for success the one and only measure of achievement; think of it by analogy as the difference between judging genuine learning and achieved knowledge among America’s youth from the sterile and pernicious present imposition of standardized tests, versus learning models that are keyed to critical and constructive use of that learning, and produce a positive longitudinal outcome stream.

This idea is admittedly still skeletal, although based on several years of churning up unexpected but exciting learning technologies applicable to K-12, typically widely dispersed in sourcing, and in many cases by accidentally happening on a web site or following an online trail.  Many are world-based rather than just US domestic designs.  Paradoxically, many of the technologies found were available at no or minimal cost to an educational user. 

Acceptance, critique, changes, embellishment, augmentation, or even just outright dismissal of this concept and NEDTEC would be welcomed to sort out its potential:

Lastly, please share today's SQUINTS with any acquaintance or colleague who believes that one of the keys to perfecting our K-12 classrooms, and enhancing learning outcomes, is integrating digital technology into their pedagogy.  That attempt seems preferable to either arguing that exploding digital technologies have marginal utility for K-12 learning, or jumping on a digital bandwagon with the same disregard for testing and verification as present K-12 standardized testing, or generating another area that polarizes America's institutions.

Next SQUINTS – timing still a bit uncertain because of the season -- will try to do a meta-analysis of the actually extensive attempts to study current K-12 reform action, including the homegrown effort to assess Ohio’s school rating scheme.  Though commentators on 2010-11’s K-12 research assert that anything definitive is far from accomplished, a more optimistic view is that 2010-11 experienced more empirical research on K-12 performance than in any prior comparable period; that by itself could be viewed as a positive factor for assessing and enhancing US public education.

Best wishes for the Holidays.

No comments:

Post a Comment