Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Something about this makes sense, but it also leaves me a little unsettled.  I could easily see this vision of hybrid learning hurting our students:
the researchers seem more excited by a hybrid application of the open-learning program that, instead of replacing professors, tries to use them more effectively. By combining the open-learning software with two weekly 50-minute class sessions in an intro-level statistics course, they found that they could get students to learn the same amount of material in half the time.
"Hybrid Learning 2.0" - Inside Higher Ed

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Disrupting Class & Oversold and Underused

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom have a lot in common. Christensen and Cuban agree that American schools should be more than just about more than just preparing future workers to be economically competitive. Both feel that the billions of dollars spent on computers have resulted in little change in how students learn. Both call for restructuring schools and how teachers are prepared. And both argue that poverty needs to be addressed in any discussion of school reform.

Christensen’s arguments are based on his experience with business; in this book he turns his attention to education while looking at education reform through the lens of business innovation. I have to admit that I was a little put-off by some of the generalities that open Disrupting Class. For instance, Christensen begins his discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation with a reference to the Japanese economy. His assertion that the post-World War II Japanese economy flourished solely because of intrinsic motivation, and then failed once the country became prosperous (hence, according to his theory, its citizens are no longer motivated intrinsically), seems an overgeneralization.

Additionally, given the fact that Christensen warns against the current view that schools function primarily to prepare a competitive workforce, I was leery of his reliance on so many business examples to illustrate his ideas for what’s needed in education reform. However the book takes off once the author describes the concept of disruptive innovation, “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.” The theory makes sense in the business world – Sony transistor radio, Ford Model T, Southwest Airlines, and the Toyota Prius are all businesses that illustrate his theory.

Despite my reservations, much of his business theory does make sense with regard to school reform, and what I’ve personally experienced as successful pedagogy. For example, I’ve been involved in the development of an educational social network called Youth Voices for a number of years now. Youth Voices fits at least some of the description of disruptive innovation in the sense that it wasn’t developed in my school or within my existing school structure, and that since it’s built on a Drupal CMS it’s pretty simple. (I suppose it would be at the “invention” level of integration using Cuban’s terms). It seems to be an example of a user network that’s student-centered and fosters interdisciplinary connections.

However, Youth Voices isn’t the complete separation that Christensen advocates. The composing that my students do in Youth Voices still originates out of a traditional face to face structure. Christensen instead seems to be arguing for separation, most notably in the form of a charter school. I like Christensen’s point that the charter school can serve as a R&D lab and that the lessons learned can be taken back to mainstream public schools to understand how to best meet the needs of our diverse learner population. I think it’s important to note that he says that the goal of the charter movement is not to create permanent replacements or competitors for public schools. To fit his model, charters have to be temporary from the outset. That flies in the face of the present charter school movement in Utah, where I live. To me it looks like much of the charter movement in my state is about segregating public schools, and entrenching or even further exacerbating the class distinctions.

Cuban also mentions the need to alleviate the effects of poverty as one of his solutions that we need in order to address the ecology of schooling; among other things he writes, “the special needs of urban schools and low-income communities would require sustained attention to the links between economic, social, housing, and political structures of the neighborhood and schooling.”

Both Cuban and Christensen call for a drastic restructuring of schools before any technology can bring about change. Cuban concludes his book with this thought: “Without a critical examination of the assumptions of techno-promoters, a return to the historic civic and social mission of schooling in America, and a rebuilding of social capital in our schools, our passion for school-based technology, driven by dreams of increased economic productivity and the demands of the workplace, will remain an expensive, narrowly conceived innovation.”

While Christensen draws on his business experience, Cuban draws his conclusions from observations of what goes on in Silicon Valley schools. His descriptions of the unintended outcomes of computers in schools corroborates much of Christensen’s conclusions: Cuban finds no evidence of academic achievement as a result of vast expenditures on computers, he sees a sustaining of existing patterns of teaching, and very little evidence of student-centered, project-based, or interdisciplinary learning. Cuban offers a few plausible explanations for these unintended outcomes – the “slow revolution” and “history and context” explanations – but neither can explain the early adopter teachers that he profiles. What he learns from these “mavericks” is that in order to successfully integrate computers and education, teachers need to change their pedagogy.

Both authors realize the numerous obstacles in the way of this kind of reform. One such obstacle is the apparent lack of faith in teachers. Christensen suggests, “Don’t place artificial limits on what students can take online or what teachers can build online either... if they want to create content and lessons, let them do what they need to do, what they want, and what works best for them.” Cuban argues that schools need to rethink how time is allocated for teachers, that software needs to be developed specifically for teachers and students, and that products need to be tested by teachers and students before being sold to districts.

Both authors agree that teacher education needs to change as well.
Christensen says that we should stop training teachers them for a “world of monolithic, teacher-led content delivery, where the key skills are in holding students attention to subjects that are being taught to the dominant learner in each subject, trains teachers for the past.” I too agree that “future teachers will need the skills to work one on one with different types of learners as the study in student-centric ways. The tools that teachers build and distribute in the user networks of the future will play a key role in making learning student-centric. The next generation of teachers needs to learn how to build these tools for different types of learners.” However, to me it’s not an either-or. Future teachers and students need to master both skills – they need to be the guide by the side AND the sage on the stage.

Additionally Christensen’s agenda for graduate school research hit home as well, when he says that we need to “progress beyond doing descriptive research that seeks average tendencies.” His call to study anomalies and outliers and to understand why an action worked in one circumstance but not in another seems like pretty good advice to me. His definition of descriptive research made me realize that I’ve got to carefully consider my own research methodologies.

Ultimately though, Cuban’s conclusion spoke to me most. His discussion of social capital, the building trust and cooperation in society to keeping democracy vital, made a lot of sense to me. In the end he reminds us why we need reform done right. “Without a broader vision of the social and civic role that schools perform in a democratic society, our current excessive focus on technology use in schools runs the danger of trivializing our nation’s core ideals.” That philosophy needs to underpin all our efforts.

Guns, Germs ... and Human Natures

In order to see where we’re going, we need to understand where we’ve been; this is a central message in the two books by Jared Diamond and Paul Ehrlich. Guns, Germs, and Steel examines human history and explains how different societies from around the world progressed in different places at different paces. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect takes a long evolutionary view and seeks to steer us on to a more earth-friendly course to the future.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is framed around the questions of a New Zealander acquaintance of author Jared Diamond. Yali wants to know why Diamond’s culture has so much more cargo: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Diamond’s book is devoted to answering Yali’s question. Early in the book he states: “the strongest argument for writing the book is to combat racism.” Diamond has great respect for the native New Guineans, and even gives reasons why he considers them a more intelligent people than Western culture. By answering Yali’s question he is refuting racist arguments and assumptions that are still common in our society today.

A long time ago environmental factors influenced whether humans would be farmers or herders. It turned out that this distinction accounted for a big difference. Farmers developed agriculture, which supported more people per acre. This in turn led to food surpluses which then allowed for specialization in society – some members of the population could be artisans, others warriors, weapons makers, or scribes. Additionally domestication of animals allowed for eventual immunity to the germs that would wipe out entire nations of indigenous peoples in many areas that we now refer to as Third World countries. All of this explains, for example, how Pizarro’s band of 168 Spaniards conquered a foe 500 times its size. They had the advantage of steel, germs, and writing. Diamond concludes: “The striking differences in the long-term histories of peoples is not due to innate differences in the people themselves but to differences in their environments.”

Two of the most significant reasons explaining the ability of some cultures to conquer other peoples are attributed to the continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available for domestication, and the rates of continental diffusion, which facilitated the dissemination of important innovations like technology and writing. The factors that allowed for successful domestication led to denser populations, which in turn allowed for innovation and diffusion of new technologies and ideas. Throughout history societies that had these advantages have conquered those that didn’t. In the end Diamond shows that there’s not racial superiority in human cultures, just that more fortuitous circumstances for some led to domination over others.

The most personally relevant point in Diamond’s book is his belief that native peoples are actually more intelligent than Westerners. What that means for me as an educator is that the more my students and I connect with people from other cultures via the Internet, the more we have to learn from all peoples, not just those from the West. It’s optimistic but my hope is that the Internet can foster learning exchanges from all peoples of the world, since it’s clear from both books that we as a species have a lot to learn.

While Diamond’s point is an important one, I actually found many more points in Ehrlich’s book that are personally relevant to my role as an educator and as a human. All these connections are ultimately due to one cause – the difficulty of humans as small-group animals to come to grips to the global impact of our actions.

Ehrlich is also interested in the large sweep of the human enterprise, and begins in a similar vein. In fact both writers rail against the evils of racism; Diamond to refute racial superiority theories and Ehrlich to cite racism as one of the hurdles facing our cultural evolution. Ehrlich begins his book by stating that there is no such thing as just one “human nature.” The skills and adaptations needed to navigate the savanna, for instance, differed from those needed to be successful in a deciduous forest. Still Ehrlich notes that despite our many differences in our genetic evolution, all humans share the common similarity of being small-group animals. The author asserts that this background hinders our progress as we increasingly impact the world: “We have barely begun to solve the problem with which cultural evolution has presented us: how to live in large groups, perpetually intensifying our activities, creating technologies few of us can understand and even fewer can control, without sowing the seeds of our own destruction.”

Ehrlich’s warnings are clear about the ways humans are negatively impacting the world: “There’s no controversy about the damage modern states are inflicting on the environment... Multinational corporations seldom have any strong connection to a particular nation ... their interest is above all in global profitability ... the UN and IPCC have not gained significant regulatory control over the way human beings treat one another and their rapidly deteriorating life support systems....” The ever-increasing power of multinational corporations and the inability to regulate them has been made clear in recent movies like Food Inc. and Tapped that detail how corporations are taking control of our food sources and our water with very little governmental oversight.

This scenario could portend a depressing future if Ehrlich had ended there. But he does provide hope. He argues that since we’ve solved imposing social problems in the past, we can do it again. “The potential for conscious evolution exists,” he says, “is patent in the great social movements that societies have already experienced: the abolition of slavery, the trend toward democratic governments and individual expression, innovation over position, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement.”

So how do we get there? How do we as educators facilitate this “conscious evolution”? One key is how we teach our students to use technology wisely and for the common good: “The capacity to develop ethics is a product of biological evolution, the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions, a critical capacity for empathy, a capability to internalize the moral standards of society and make value judgments, and free will. The products of that ethical capacity – the ethics, morals, and norms of a society – are the result of cultural evolution.”

Ultimately it’s about how we help our students foster empathy by cultivating the conscious evolution from a small group animal to one with a global consciousness is through establishing relationships with other cultures via the world wide web. Ehrlich states that “human beings have evolved some limits to the arousal of empathy.... the urge is particularly strong when the victims are depicted as individuals with whom one can identify rather than as anonymous individuals....”

Clearly one way is to help students forge connections with other cultures, so that the youth of these cultures can engage in meaningful and productive ways. Once students aren’t anonymous to each other, empathy soon follows. For example, I’ve personally seen this happen when my students collaborated with Inuit students in the Marshall School on the Yukon river in Alaska (here’s a link to a podcast that documents the teachers’ collaboration and here’s a link to our shared WikiSpaces page). My students learned how climate change is profoundly affecting the lives of their peers in Alaska, and came away with a much more personal view of this global issue. Meaningful connections like these can go a long way toward a conscious evolution.

Yet just making these connections doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior. Ehrlich warns that repeated exposure to global issues, without opportunities to take action, can also lead to habituation. For instance, I’ve been involved in a collaboration with other teachers this fall on the site Voices on the Gulf. In an except from a recent dialogue on the site, Emily, one of my students responds to a post:

However, now that we're after the fact, we can all make conscious decisions to rehabilitate and renew the Gulf. What those actions would be, I don't know--I'm in agreement with the author on this post that BP has failed to offer any real specifics as to what they're doing to fix the situation. But give me something to do in order to help, and I will do it.

Our students know that there are problems of a global scale out there and they have the ability to connect with their peers from around the globe, but they also need to learn how to critically examine information so that they can act on knowledge and facts. This call to action by Ehrlich, coupled with Diamond’s belief in the underappreciated wisdom of native peoples makes a compelling case for fostering inclusive world-wide learning networks to deal with the global problems we’ve created.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Two good documentaries you may not have heard of

I've seen a couple of films through the Salt Lake City Public Library's Film Series that are both worth seeing. Recently I saw Fresh, which critiques our current food distribution network and presents some possibilities for more local food.  Both the movies Fresh and Food Inc., and the book The Omnivore's Dilemma profile Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, someone more people need to listen to.

From Salatin's website: "Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis.  Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission:  to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world."

Tapped, was a movie about the bottled water industry, including the practice of "water farming" which I hadn't heard of before.  The films probably aren't going to come to your neighborhood Cineplex anytime soon, but if you get a chance to see them, check them out.

From the movie's website: "Is access to clean drinking water a basic human right, or a commodity that should be bought and sold like any other article of commerce? Stephanie Soechtig's debut feature is an unflinching examination of the big business of bottled water.

From the producers of Who Killed the Electric Car and I.O.U.S.A., this timely documentary is a behind-the-scenes look into the unregulated and unseen world of an industry that aims to privatize and sell back the one resource that ought never to become a commodity: our water.

From the plastic production to the ocean in which so many of these bottles end up, this inspiring documentary trails the path of the bottled water industry and the communities which were the unwitting chips on the table. A powerful portrait of the lives affected by the bottled water industry, this revelatory film features those caught at the intersection of big business and the public's right to water.