Friday, December 9, 2011


A Technology Vision

Temporally down the pike a bit, imagine walking into a higher grade K-12 classroom.  Not too different than present, but all of its students are wearing baseball caps.  Hello?

On closer inspection, however, they are caps with a difference.  Because hidden underneath each is a complex of sensors, wirelessly outputting hemodynamic brain changes.  At the front of the classroom, a teacher has a display graphically presenting the results from those sensors, processed by algorithms that indicate whether the learning activities in process in the classroom are impacting student neural processing and perhaps whether learning is actually happening.

Whoa there, edunationredux blog, pretty far out, and to many of our K-12 systems dwelling in the last century, Star Wars at minimum.  Except, the core technology is already available, developed by H. Koizumi in 1995 and commercialized by Hitachi Medical in 2001, termed “Optical Topography;” its equivalent was recently reported employed in research on language recognition with six to twelve month old infants.  What’s missing, other than likely continued evolution of the sensor technology, are the experimentally derived models to relate such neural measurements to real time student input processing.

Still, too far out?  Imagine another scenario repeated a few million times daily, in just about every imaginable environment – our students glued to a smartphone.  But instead of accessing Facebook or Twittering, they are holding animated conversations with their personal trainer/tutor, basically learning complex material on the go.  Also too far out?  Just a few research efforts away from having access to the world’s information and its best and brightest via emerging AI and “Siri-pedia.”

While the initial response is to jump on the technological challenge, the real issues may ultimately reside in two other arenas:  In what is termed MBE, or mind-brain-education, that started to marry three key disciplines in the ‘90s, and unfolds the real opportunities for improving classroom education by linking learning to its enablers; and the ethics and manipulation of human sovereignty that MBE technology can impact.  

Fortunately, or unfortunately, our present education technology is still well short of the above visions.  In fact, many to most of our K-12 public schools and even the USDOE are technologically deficient, lacking even awareness that digital technology has ceased to be an issue of hardware, or prescribed software, and is not even being conceptualized as intrinsic to redesign of learning for the classroom and beyond, rather than trinkets on the basic learning tree.  A subsequent SQUINTS will explore MBE propositions and their links to classroom learning, so the present post will simply try to highlight basic technology opportunities.

Technology’s Role and Roadblocks

There is surrealism in how public education has responded, almost en masse to the evolution of US digital technology.  Flippantly, historically like a deer in the headlights.  More pragmatically, circa the late ‘90s, responses have revolved around either ignoring calls for integration of technology, or faking compliance as in the case of a local K-12 system, or most common, cynically using the calls for upgrading technology to claim the need for more dollars to fund hardware, and not infrequently using that expenditure the same way a community trumpets new school building, for display.

Contrary to the presumptions of many younger educators and civilians, computer and other digital applications in education are not recent developments.  Since the late ‘50s the capacity has been present to integrate digital capabilities into education at the collegiate level, then seeping into K-12 levels.  It is fair to say that resistance to technology, and alleged exceptionalism that public education attributed to itself even into the current century, have been major roadblocks.  Equally or even more debilitating, technology education for K-12 education coming out of our collegiate schools of education has been antediluvian.

All of this is of course history.  Online work is penetrating public K-12.  Perceptive systems have adopted the curricula available to 9-12 online from our very best colleges and universities.  Some systems have gone beyond the simplistic use of whiteboards to replace chalk and blackboard, and clickers to replace a show of hands.  A few systems have recognized the software for research and analysis available for decades that can actually enable K-12 students to do constructivist-learning exercises.   Even a very rare system is using present computer capacities to innovate and move beyond the multi-hundred year old seat-time model of K-12, achieving essentially one-on-one education that mirrors the essential differentiation of every human brain. 

The issue balled up, those uses and users are still a minority of US K-12 systems.  As egregious, the attitude of administrators and teachers is frequently, “I’m closing my eyes, this will all go away if I deny it long enough.”  Meanwhile even 7th and 8th graders – and perhaps even younger – are not just playing complex simulations cast as games, some are learning outside of most schools the tools and higher order languages that enable them to design and build simulations.

But the world is a-changing, or is it?  The hope was that the US Department of Education and Mr. Obama, via the “2010 National Education Technology Plan” (NETP), would invigorate the adoption and application of our most advanced digital technologies in K-12.  That plan’s executive summary consists of ten pages of 10 pt. type that is rhetorical smoke, laced with pitches to automate present standardized testing, and far short of its alleged education mission to propose …“technology.”  Even the group assembled by USDOE and Duncan to draft that plan appears to be with an occasional exception devoid of recognized digital expertise and intellectual leadership.

Summing, embedded in the rest of the challenges penetrating public K-12 because of misguided present reform strategies, proactively integrating digital technology into core learning rubrics is not likely to suddenly blossom and change our schools.  Further complicating upgrades, there is a component in our society, reminiscent of the earlier Luddites, who will simply damn technology because it’s there and they lack the awareness or tolerance to try to understand it.  That is a tragedy; because really enlightened use of present and emerging digitally-based concepts may be one force that could pull present US public education up by its bootstraps.


Prospecting for digitally restructuring of K-12 pedagogy starts with conceptually developing how technology can either be substituted for direct human interaction in a school environment, or employed to extend the capabilities of the classroom teacher or students’ parentally-sourced learning, or become a mechanism for extending learning beyond the traditional agents of a formal school.

For the most part emphasis in present K-12 has been put on the second mechanism, extending in essence the educational reach of the teacher by providing tools, expediting processing of learning-driven information, or using digital communications capacities to reduce the workload or increasing the impact of interacting with the classroom.  Representative of the third category is online learning, slowly gaining some headway, but itself misconstrued by many educators as only a way to bypass the classroom rather than as a managed form of blended learning.  Having co-designed and co-taught an original online collegiate course, the challenges if anything are even greater, and require even greater human interactive skill to achieve.

The substitution issue generates a great deal of angst, but falls into perspective if one posits that there is really no such thing functionally as a teacher. Humans learn by any of a number of neural processes and related practices, and what we term a “teacher” is taxonomy for a highly trained moderator/manager of student group participation and related interactive processes enabling learning. 

Before moving to the first category, where futurism resides, the second category is still underdeveloped in most schools.  Hardware is now simply background enabling; the roles of technology to expedite and improve learning are in the software and modeling that do the real work.  Pragmatically, there has been little research out of the education disciplines, or even the origin disciplines for such models to either design or adapt modeling used professionally to solve real world problems, and scale and tweak them to fit the K-12 education chore.  Our technologists must bear their part of this failure to get proper technology into our schools.

Category one is certainly the most futuristic, misunderstood, and feared of technology innovation.  Fundamentally, it encapsulates models and design that would let computing, for example via artificial intelligence, actually replace some to many of the functions attributed to teaching.  Simultaneously, human resistance to change rather than the rate of innovation in perfecting that modeling will determine whether potential gains are adopted.  The paradox is that long before, for example AI, could threaten teachers’ jobs it could be a major asset to teachers.  The most obvious example is AI serving as the basis for individual drill, tutoring, coaching and practice that are frequently precluded by the overall chores and load of managing a classroom and a portfolio of learning strategies and tactics.

This example may seem a stretch to K-12 educators, but an accomplished psychologist, professor, and researcher at one of Ohio’s major universities is creating just such a model for use in medical training, backed by major grant funds.  This may be on the horizon for K-12, but it need not be delayed were there the objectivity and creativity to get beyond present attitudes and beliefs.

When push comes to shove, getting digital technology into the classroom as naturally as speech and writing, and making it productive of learning leans less on the technology itself, than on educators’ understanding of learning and technology’s roles.  This is a problem.  An advocate of MBE, Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa, a professor of education and neuropsychology, in searching our academic journals for recognition of the marriage of neural science and education, observed a phenomenon of consequence in pertinent journals: 

In a great number of cases these peer-reviewed journals focused on nonhuman brains and the learning of cells and very few related to kids in classrooms. In other cases, as in peer-review psychology journals, the focus was on therapy and behavioral changes, but again, with no classroom application. Curiously enough, there were few journals in education that specifically considered the brain. Though it may seem ironic, brains and classrooms were not often found in the same articles.”

A Technology Prospectus for K-12

   Here and Now

Places to employ technology in K-12 are not rare; start with applications here and now:
  • Generic, because the issue is simply using present computer capabilities, and almost irrespective of how they are available in a school, is taking the drudge work out of students' use of various processing applications.  Stephen Wolfram, creator of the world’s most widely used suite of math routines, “Mathematica," addressed this issue in a TED Conference. Wolfram's observation was that beyond exposing a student to the core principle of a calculation or model, withholding computer-assisted solutions is myopic.  Forcing manual calculations is a student disincentive and automatically limits the capacity to show problem complexity and demonstrate how higher order use of tools can solve complex problems.  The same reasoning applies to getting into US K-12 curricula proper treatment of statistical reasoning, more likely to be applicable to life’s challenges than virtually any quantitative knowledge except basic math unless the student’s destination is rocket science, nuclear design, or investment banking.
  • An example of use of computer modeling bringing computational physics to students of all levels is readily available in the form of a program called "open source physics" (OSP).  A winner of the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, its advocates challenge with: "Why does computer-based modeling remain absent from many educational programs?"  This project is here and now.  The program even assists faculty to form and refine skills needed to create the applications in their classroom, including online video tutorials.
Enumerating other digital applications that are here and now, a sampling of usage might include:
  • Beyond the whiteboard, fully interactive student-teacher pad-to-pad software allowing tweaking of individualized instruction as well as the capacity to pull seamlessly into classroom exchange any needed narrative, graphic and search resources. 
  • Elimination of the learning cost of contingency school days by pre-planned switchover to online learning when encountered. 
  • Use of collaborative software to both allow group learning, but maintain its uniformity within the classroom protocols.
  • Access to high bandwidth and life-size videoconferencing to bring human resource expertise interactively into the classroom as well as expedite collaborative learning exercises.
  • Access the evolved curricula available from both our universities and third-party sources to enrich especially 9-12 curricula; a prominent example is MIT’s curricula available free to high schools, and scaled to 9-12 learning needs.
  • Doable now, but lacking the intellectual development, a national effort to create meaningful achievement testing that can assess critical thought and learning producing problem solving capacities, instead of the present reason-challenged thrust of the Obama administration to just computerize present flawed standardized testing.  The use of computer-based assistance in testing, if it is to reflect more than last century's version of technology, would make sense if the capability was used to design tests that can be administered digitally, but that by virtue of that mode of delivery can really assess in depth whether learning applicable to critical thinking has been achieved, whether what was learned can be applied, and importantly, with the shading of achievement measurement that can point up better approaches to classroom learning.
  • The technology already exists to customize teacher records of the results of formative assessment, merging that at the student-by-student level with learning plans by classroom.  The failure to innovate with these kinds of applications is simply K-12 education ignorance and/or resistance to change. 
  • The list could continue, but for parsimony just one general example:  Use the technology already available to turn schools’ penchants for secrecy into public transparency using state-of-art data collection, reporting, and web sites.  With improved Internet bandwidth being pushed, school web sites could become important vehicles for gathering information from students and parents as well as providing information; and the provision for school information could go well beyond present links to parents for performance reporting, and serve the larger community both as a means of transparency of how a school is executing, as well offering needed US adult education. 
   Blended Futures

Three large patterns emerging drive these opportunities:
  • Online learning is still evolving, as one might have logically expected, rather than being birthed fully perfected.  The sometimes surly, and typically uninformed critiques of online learning are unwarranted because of the potentials it has to augment traditional instruction, and because legitimate MBE is demonstrating that much learning occurs in retrospect and beyond the classroom. 
  • The second mover is the adoption of a collaborative culture unlike any seen historically.  It has been precipitated by Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and texting in general, but the human openness to communication it entails could be channeled into productive learning with creativity.  Public K-12 education is currently close to the back of the pack in the sprint to make effective use of these communication modes, more frequently having spasms of knee-jerk paranoia and banning them rather than capitalizing on the technology.
  • Third, the emergence of the “cloud” has just about erased any cost-based critique of employing digital tools and models, by taking the software itself, processing, and storage out of on-site boxes and offering them in almost unlimited form and quantity.
   Major Learning Remodeling
  • Already being practiced experimentally, move from a seat-time model of K-12 to a personalized system of individual learning.  The needed assets, beyond a sea change in K-12 education thinking, are new training of teachers, advanced protocol and sensor use to record ongoing learning, and a retreat from the devolution of learning thinking advocating more behaviorism/rote learning, and larger groups of kids to improve productivity.
  • Already close enough to excite the creative, AI or artificial intelligence, has finally made the cut from sci-fi to incipient working modeling.  Within the decade there is reason to believe that the first complex tutoring and training AI will appear; and contrary to Luddite scare tactics, the learning mode will dovetail with humanistic management of learning.
  • Finally, in sharp contrast with present attempts to make teachers magicians at the front of an outmoded classroom, they need to be retooled to become MBE pros who are in effect venture managers with the skills and enablement to create the learning needed in their specific environments.
   Support Roles

Lastly, were our K-12 schools’ bureaucracies reigned in, there is already technology in every corner to increase schools’ productivity:
  • Contemporary financial tracking and forecasting tools; incredibly, Ohio’s schools practice some of the most primitive operations and fiscal planning observed on the planet.  The results are usually carefully screened from parents and taxpayers, and are at core the reasons, along with some other values, that the state experiences a never-ending string of levy increases in spite of low inflation and even enrollment declines. 
  • Classroom learning experiments should become regular requirements for experienced teachers, producing required publication and sharing of results effecting their assessment, and using the methods that have been available for decades, including experimental and quasi-experimental designs.  Many K-12 teachers have not been exposed to probability theory or its applications, parametric and non-parametric statistics, how to design defensible experiments when the settings are complex, ANOVA, regression and other multivariate techniques, all central to understanding research on student populations and human learning performance.
  • Again in sharp contrast with the reasoning, or lack thereof, associated with present testing as true measurement of learning outcomes, schools need to develop some longitudinal procedures to track student performance across grades, to characterize prior knowledge, and even track beyond the point of graduation to strategically characterize successful learning outcomes.
  • A final and critical application of the existing suite of communications and computer capacities: Use these technologies to establish a new online learning link between the schools and parents; employ far greater opportunities for parental input, including interactive inputs to converge with teachers’ daily fine tuning of learning operations to enhance outcomes.
  • Potentially swamping all of the above, digital development is now outpacing any prior cascade of technology that has impacted US infrastructure, arguably even eclipsing the move to automated assembly of products that methodically displaced manufacturing employment in the last three decades of last century.  Product churn has created both consumer market opportunities, but also obsolescence of consumers' acquisitions, confusion, and greater variance among households in electronic asset holdings.  But perhaps the largest public sector gap between function and potential function belongs to K-12 education, because devices that permit or enhance socialization and communication are so tightly linked to teaching and learning.  Education infrastructure's capacity to react to technology coming down the pipeline is diffused among education's support systems, that seem incapable of assessing and adopting, then adapting such development quickly enough to serve present schools, public or charter.  A new, different mechanism and/or organizational framework is needed to expedite getting technology into US schools.  The USDOE is not it.  A future SQUINTS will probe the functions that would need to be conceived to allow US K-12 to play technology catch-up.
Parting Words

One can try to be diplomatic and stroke those in our public schools to finesse needed changes in using digital technology that isn’t going to disappear, but the truth of the matter is that our collegiate schools of education, and a large swath of the classroom resources they have turned out for decades are technologically undertrained.  Public K-12 schools overall are close to, if not at the bottom of the America’s professional barrel in employing contemporary digital technologies to improve their mission delivery. 

In parallel, the US NETP is rhetorical smoke.  Most state departments of education are no better informed on education technology than the USDOE.  In this morass it may seem counterintuitive to advocate that “local” could be better, but that is one conclusion.  Digital resources have become ubiquitous so a top down or central source is not needed; thanks to the Apples, Microsofts, Intels, and many innovative tech firms, state-of-art digital communications and processing are at educators' fingertips, if they exercise the initiatives to learn and push their function. 

What would be a travesty in an America that used to pride itself on entrepreneurship and invention is the continuing plurality of complacent public schools that sees technology as some vague threat to either their roles or ego, or unaffordable, or as technology showmanship, rather than the way the US scrambles out of a K-12 educational crater.

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