Saturday, April 6, 2013

Technology and K-12: Sanity and Opportunity

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– translation, “technology for K-12.”  

The above is presently the natural language of computers, binary arithmetic, that quickly gave way to assembly/optimization routines and creative “languages” that allowed computer instructions to be more easily created and applied.  But the evolution of over 50 computer languages over six decades has enlarged the gap of understanding between computer professionals and civilians, lasting into the present.

Digital thinking for education is robust and evolving, with the capacity to radically change learning protocols, and is not “magical thinking” as attributed by some retro educators.  The question is:  Are there presently in our public education systems, in the schools that prepare teachers and administrators, in the US Department of Education, and in state education bureaucracies, the wits, objectivity, and creativity to use these evolving tools?

Technology Issues

If there weren’t use challenges, NCLB, RttT, and a toxic brew of standardized testing and state school grading tactics would likely not exist, slowly dissolving rational learning in our public schools.   Central are:  How digital technologies are translated into practical teaching/learning protocols; the chasm between the technology microcosm that created our computers and applications versus users; the low overall level of education’s human resources awareness of digital technologies; and the convergence of pressure on public K-12 to adopt technology (too frequently hardware for “show”) versus the paucity of decision tools to guide those investments.  The result, predictably, has been investments typically in hardware divorced from the knowledge and experience to productively use its products.

The digital revolution actually spans over 65 years, with institutionally available large scale computing since the early 1960s.  Next generation and mini systems populated the 1970s and ‘80s.  IBM launched then prematurely abandoned the personal computer, leaving in that wake the origins of Microsoft’s monopoly that actually drove and impeded US digital development (while creating Gates’ fortune).  Jobs' commitment to humanizing computer operations launched the next growth phase.  Lastly, originally via ARPA, the invention of data “packet” logic enabled the Internet. 

The combination of Moore’s Law, the manufacturing experience curve, new materials, and the genius of Apple enabled present mobile devices with the computing power of earlier decades.  But that miniaturization and mobility also moved the center of digital gravity, from places created for processing to anyone’s hand and any time; “Google Glass” even promises to take the need for a hand out of the formula.

America has developed, only really noted in this century, a developer class; this is a cadre (in still short supply) of human resources with technical savvy coupled to creativity, creating source code that powers the entire digital industry.  This factor has an upside and a downside:  The upside is that America is still leading the world in creating digital languages and applications; the downside is rooted in a vision of the ‘90s, that a new breed of object-oriented programming – going beyond specialized coding to manipulating next generation function blocks described in recognizable linguistic terms – would emerge that would make virtually any professional capable of creating digital applications.  It failed to materialize.

The result was that places where digital applications could be most contributory – K-12 education, higher education, professional development, job training, and learning communities – are still dependent on that professional arc of developers.  If you can’t immediately discriminate a bit, byte, word, flops, and processor architectures, some of the 50 computer languages that have been created, and a slug of other digital basics, you bypass digital literacy.  Simultaneously, that level of machine familiarity isn't a governing condition of recognizing and applying applications that can only exist because of the processing speeds now achieved.

To add even more distress to adapting contemporary digital technology to education, our public schools have been laggards in employing even last century’s statistical and research tools, much less the now tens of thousands (not overstated) of “apps” for laptops and pads in education.  Apple alone has 20,000 apps available. In the present mix of chores facing both K-12 teachers and administrators, there has been little effort to create curricula using those tools.

The unfortunate results are that to catch up schools are adopting heat-and-serve, profit-driven, and pro-forma packages.   An example is PLTW (Project Lead the Way) for project-based constructivism, with less than noble origins and characterized by mediocrity and misdirection, versus creating targeted courses that fit local needs. Ironically most digital technology was in reach of public education for at least two to three decades had there been self-assessment and technology learning entrepreneurship.


The litany of digital technology developments underway is finally via open source values, and via Google and other search assets, available to any who choose to do the work.  At the front of the advancing edge are:  Practical payoffs for over five decades of work on artificial intelligence; even more mobility and flex in hand-held and hands–free processing and communication; falling costs of these devices a logical consequence of their manufacturing experience curves and market expansion; and the emergence within the various spheres of application of some of the technology translation human resources needed by those specialties.  The latter are still in short supply in public education.

On the horizon, but now visible are mind-boggling extensions of present computing:  The continuing evolution of digital tools and learning applications that are moving the center of gravity off the school and classroom stage and into student and parental control; the potential of new materials and manufacturing refinement that would allow Moore’s Law to continue its prescience; and even quantum computing that could obsolete the opening zeros and ones as the currency of processing while creating levels of magnitude greater processing power.

Here and Now

Futures are exciting, but the here and now of US public education are destructive reform constructs. They are finally being recognized in the public square, with cohesive and broad-based protest developing.  Perhaps the tipping point will be the belated recognition that the first products of NCLB’s misdirection and all that followed will soon be issuing as products of our high schools.  If the public education establishment has the wits to create legitimate longitudinal research, a question can be answered:  Has the entire reform agenda improved, or potentially worsened the genuine learning of K-12 products unleashed on higher education and the nation’s needs for creativity and problem solving?

But in that same here and now, what technology contributions to public schools could pay off without the future invention?  Not amazing at all, there are practical applications of educational technology that could be adopted.  Below are a few that depend less on arcane technological prowess than technology reaching the education street and touching real learning needs.

What Can Technology Do for K-12 Today?

AI (Artificial Intelligence)

AI has now launched in a large venue with panache, refuting the observations that its potential for wide application, or even demonstration of functionality has been overrated.  Hitting the press April 4, 2013, was the announcement that Harvard and MIT (two reasonably respectable institutions of higher education) have introduced an AI system that can be used to grade essay questions and short written answers, dubbed EdX.

Educational Luddites will quickly go into low earth orbit with criticism.  In fact, with an aside that this application is early times and subject to the ever-present experience curve, AI is widely misunderstood, being misperceived primarily as a computer technology. Computer processing power enables the field, but AI is powered conceptually by logic, linguistics, human heuristics, relevant specific knowledge, probability, knowledge engineering, natural language processing, speech recognition, vision processing, and other knowledge sets.  Key is that this application signals a breakthrough.

At the practical level, this writer recalls grading thousands of blue books, engaging days and even weeks.  Typically, only a handful of key points were conceived in the testing, but even with that compromise it was virtually assured that over many hours of grading those value judgments drifted and were likely biased.  The strategic implication is that the AI application illustrated, engaging likely the same heuristics as the human grading, could increase reliability of assessments, while more time could be employed to upgrade curricula and teaching prowess.

This specific AI application could also be a measured opening and catalyst for public K-12 education to recapture the testing initiative, to both create and implement more complex and meaningful assessments for learning.  The model could wrest testing away from present corporate scams and put it properly back into the purview of public education’s teachers – if there is the wisdom, creativity and courage to grab the opportunity?


Massive online open courses have become the favorite whipping boy of every critic of opening up educational process.  Yes, they are a threat to dug-in educators who cannot perceive learning outside the artificial boundaries of school or classroom in spite of contemporary wisdom to the contrary.  It is apparent that for some stratum or progression of learning based on highly effective transmission, a MOOC can select and offer the very best delivery of materials.   The argument for rejecting the opportunity to raise the level of that presentation suggests defensive or self-serving motivations and disinterest in real learning goals.

But there is an opportunity to apply MOOC logic so obvious that it is almost embarrassing to relate, falling into that hopper metaphorically labeled a no-brainer.  Arguably the most critical and current need for public K-12 learning that could be conveyed by MOOC work, and with an almost perfect fit to its clients, is:  The augmented educational development of our over three million public school teachers.  While spending millions of dollars on a precious minority of TFA teachers, the venture itself seemingly turned into profit-seeking, the educational development of our already experienced public school teachers has been virtually ignored.  (Correction:  Well, not exactly ignored; they are being beaten with personal assessments based on VAM, flawed testing, and administrative ignorance.)

Infrastructure is frequently already in place; the model minimizes the overhead of development; development can be scheduled around personal timetables; the audience is already learning-aware, ideally positioned to internalize new learning; present teaching responsibilities need not be jeopardized; and there should already be in place professional third parties who could provide oversight and verification of assessments of MOOC performance by a teacher.

Pragmatically, the teacher MOOC effort might need to be preceded by similar plenary development of public school administrators, who in many cases, and egregiously, perceive teacher development as updates on bureaucratic reporting.

Buying Hardware

One of the more discouraging performances in public K-12 has been the willingness of local boards and system administration to spend millions of dollars on laptops and pads, while avoiding the due diligence and lacking awareness of how that physical technology will be employed to increase learning, or improve its productivity, or reduce other costs.  The issue goes beyond just the software enabled, and gets into core understanding of how the functions – communication, processing, self-study – offered by the technology actually enhance short and longer term knowledge?   

A logic and method that has served in other venues for decades in evaluating capital investments, and that might be adapted to K-12 technology is termed the "defender-challenger" concept.  Essentially any investment, for example in one-to-one pads, is based on the assessment of whether that challenger is more cost effective than what it replaces, the defender. Not particularly novel in manufacturing and manufacturing engineering where it has been applied for decades, the calculations would presently lack metrics for learning effects from alternate modalities. However, that measurement development is now needed across all of K-12 inputs to address issues raised by the reform movement.  

But How Would I Use Digital Technology?

The NEA estimates there are currently over 100,000 apps for mobile computer devices, in addition to entire education venues such as the Kahn Academy, MIT’s curricular export efforts for high schools, et al.  The issue is not whether there is an adequate inventory of teaching materials for development, but whether there is presently in public education the intellect and will to “create” better curricula.

A case can be made that the present CCSSI (common core) standards for reading and math – not created by America’s educational best and brightest, and laced with ideology – should not be the nation’s learning standards.  More egregious, the current proposed common core STEM standards – that were created by AAAS and America’s real scientists – are being overridden by the same mentalities that produced the former alleged common core. 

The case can also be made that America’s public schools and teachers should be granted the responsibility to develop the curricula they must teach, and equally develop its assessments, informed by nationally recognized knowledge content as developed and protected by those who oversee the various disciplines.  The true knowledge sources in the US, its social, biological and physical scientists, have been shunted aside by traditional “education” practicing the same disaggregation of knowledge that created our K-12 failings.  (For Ohio's latest contribution to education insanity, click here.) Self-evidently, an argument can be made that the first player in public education to be held accountable for doing it better should be the majority of America’s intellectually bankrupt schools of education.


The continuing expansion of connectivity fueled by penetration of smartphones, pads, enhanced bandwidth, and VC opens the gate to socially-based learning, to learning communities, and to learning that can be tapped virtually at any time and from any locale.  Is it time the traditional view of a “school” as the place of learning be replaced by the view that learning is ongoing, can be spontaneous, and needs to be conceived as accessible whether in a dedicated building or wherever the learner is sensitized to the process?

The major opportunity to link teachers in diverse learning communities by using the Internet and VC has been largely ignored or underutilized.  There may be greater effect in achieving curricular common cores of knowledge by putting together in supported social networks, teachers from geographically and culturally diverse places, utilizing the capacity to have genuine exchange of knowledge and experiences.

Blended Learning

Even where students are ensconced in, and now even (in paranoia) locked down in schools, there is using the same communications and social tools as above the opportunity to pursue blended learning opportunities.  That means linking especially 9-12 curricula with real world practice, using communications capabilities to leverage the experiences.

Related, the same technologies support the “flipped classroom,” now proving an alternative to the traditional view of classroom versus extra-school learning.  If this is not recognized, it entails using distance, video, and self-directed learning to create exposure to material, using in-school time to create interactive learning and development of HOTS.

Technology Enabled Tactics for Learning

Psychology demonstrated long ago that, for example, reading instruction that utilized multiple senses – visual decoding, concurrent aural exposure, and even visual object associations – produced greater short- and long-term memory acquisition and recall.  The tools to make that primary in the classroom are all present, but still not fully exploited.

Related, gaming and simulation now virtually blanket the adolescent world, with software and even hard processing capacities that beggar allegedly serious computer enterprise.  It is not uncommon in better schools to see elementary simulation modeling being taught, even AI in higher technology high schools.  Where is public education in general capitalizing on this student digital literacy, using variants of that modeling to create more student interest and focus?  This is not a technological failure, but rather a crisis of objectivity and creativity in our public schools’ leaderships.

Differentiated Instruction

In sharp contradiction of the present testing mentality, one-size-fits-all, digital technology is the opening and enabler to creating differentiated learning (and differential assessment) that reflects the real world heterogeneity children bring to artificial grade bands.

This application takes a more expansive mindset, using the potential of the sensing, sorting, scheduling, assessment, and data mining tools now actionable to create individual instructional plans and assessments for every student. 

Better to Give Than Receive

In virtually every critique of US public education the point is made that our students’ capacities for expression, critical assessment, and both critical and creative writing come up short. Incredibly, the technological revolution and the Internet have spawned arenas where writing can be stimulated while engaging both high student interest and creativity.  

The wiki, the web page, the blog, all open a door to engaging students in writing and publication experiences.  Motivation to create is enhanced and nurtured when students are given vehicles for presenting rather than just tuning in.  The massive popularity of Facebook and YouTube are testimony to generations that expect greater connectivity, and can be motivated by that potential.  All of the tools are readily available, most free, to fully engage students across the grade spectrum.  The gut question may selectively be, why does your classroom not have any or all of the above?

Rationalizations and Other Buts

In a universe of 99,000 public schools there are obviously administrators and teachers who have already exceeded the above near term opportunities to use digital technologies.  One issue is, that with the advanced capabilities of industry to use data mining, our public education venues, including its misdirected US Department of Education, flunk the information course.  The public education bureaucracy appears clueless about the precise realities of technology adoption and use in that universe of public schools.  We know more about the incidence of toilets in America’s residences than we know about how technology is being employed to support public K-12 learning.  That is criminal.

Lastly, a common refrain from the FCC concerns the nation’s “digital divide,” the chasm between the segments of our society that have high bandwidth Internet and those not served.  But that divide has another connotation.  A proposition is, that too many public schools, not on the deficit side of the Internet divide, are still deficient in utilizing the connectivity they are frequently gifted.

As in any societal milieu where complexity reigns, and specifically in our present public educational infrastructure where unanimity is a rare commodity, one can expect there will be protests about any action that is change.  But given the present dynamics of digital technology development, with US public schools under concerted attack, there is an imperative to discover and employ every tool they can master to reform themselves.  The technology is already there; the courage and creativity to use it are an open question.

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