Friday, June 06, 2008


I had limited my involvement in the "edupunk" discussion to a few pot-shot comments from the outside, both on Stephen's post, and over at Brian's. It was fun, especially when an anonymous commenter tried to make the point that there was nothing in the world more punk than education. Seriously. Stephen and Brian might be the closest to actually being punks in the field (relatively, and in the best way), but I suspect they're both smart enough to see the hilarity of government and corporate employees (teachers, tech coordinators, etc) trying to co-opt the identity and ethos of a musical/political movement that was dedicated to tearing down the establishment.

There were a few posts on the theme that made sense to me, even one from (gasp!) a very smart student. I'm not sure I understood the criticisms I saw or the associated rebuttals, but much of it seemed to miss the point. Today I enjoyed Leigh's reflections and ranted a little in response...most of what appears below is from that comment.

If you’re going to consider punk as a sort of watered-down label for “alternative”, minor boundary-pushing, or low-grade anti-authority views (kept to yourself, mostly), then it can almost be married to the edu- prefix without being automatically oxymoronic, but that really misses the point. In practice, it seems to mean that these are people within the education system who sort of wish they weren’t, but don’t really want it to change much either. No whiff of revolutionary fervor. It also evokes a sort of mid-life crisis about our chosen field, perhaps wistfully remembering our younger days of idealism and techno-dreams...then looking around at what’s been accomplished with our network-friends and asking hopefully (and collectively), “We’re still cool, right?”

Real punk, with a strong affinity for anarchy and disdain for authority of any kind...well, that is the opposite of education (not learning, which is something different altogether). If you bring punk into a conversation about the education system, you basically have to pull an Illich and suggest that the whole thing be dismantled. Or better yet, dismantle it yourself. If being an edupunk is about tearing down a dysfunctional system and replacing it with something that lets everyone learn what interests them most without institutional coercion, sign me up. But finding new ways to get your students to perform better on standardized tests (the aim of most education, sadly)? That's not even a valid evolution for learning, never mind revolution.

That's not to say that there isn't fantastic work being done in the field -- it's just not transformative or revolutionary, and you might even argue that the impact has been negligible in schools so far. Punk never really changed anything either, so maybe this actually supports the edu-punk connection. Anyway, what words could we use to better describe what the best people in are trying to do? They’re DIY, change agents, hackers, mercenaries, members of skunkworks, tinkerers, inventors, synthesizers, mentors and facilitators, moonlighters working underground or on the side from their day jobs. A few might even be pretty rockin'! Some of them (thankfully) are borderline shit disturbers. But they’re not really punks.

I did some thinking about this a few years ago when I started my Lifestylism project. I just liked how the word fit what I was trying to do, and thought I might have even made it up...but then found out that it had a fairly long history in anarchist literature. In this context, lifestylists are people who are aware of the problems (inequality, exploitation, etc) in society and choose to deal with those problems only within their own lives -- making choices informed by that awareness, but not making any effort to change or confront the system itself. Of course true anarchists dismiss these people as cowards, because growing organic vegetables and recycling is nice and all, but the lack of social action will never bring about revolution (the anarchist's goal).

I'm not an anarchist, and I identified strongly with their derided concept for lifestylism, even after I understood it better. I don't want to tear down the system, and I think I can make a difference by aligning my lifestyle choices with my values as a quiet form of activism. I think most of the people who like the idea of being "edupunk" feel the same way about their work. The goal isn't to destroy the system, or even to create a better system to replace it -- the goal is to find ways to make our work (and the impact of our work) reflect our values better.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Drive, Curiosity and Ethics

Christian at think:lab takes a look at what Netscape founder Marc Andreessen seeks in new hires and connects it to what the evolving purpose of education might be. I was struck by Andreessen's top three things he's looking for in potential employees, which seem a lot more important to me than most current measures of educational "success":
DRIVE: "First, drive. I define drive as self-motivation -- people who will walk right through brick walls, on their own power, without having to be asked, to achieve whatever goal is in front of them. People with drive push and push and push and push and push until they succeed."

CURIOSITY: "Second criterion: curiosity. Curiosity is a proxy for, do you love what you do? Anyone who loves what they do is inherently intensely curious about their field, their profession, their craft. They read about it, study it, talk to other people about it... immerse themselves in it, continuously. And work like hell to stay current in it. Not because they have to. But because they love to.

ETHICS: "Third and final criterion: ethics. Ethics are hard to test for. But watch for any whiff of less than stellar ethics in any candidate's background or references. And avoid, avoid, avoid. Unethical people are unethical by nature, and the odds of a metaphorical jailhouse conversion are quite low."
Drive, curiosity, ethics. We do an admirable job of testing for linear capacities and occasionally producing projects that "engage" and "inspire". All well in good for keeping kids motivated in the moment and also getting them into college, for example.
Christian's analysis goes all over the place, and deep too. Some great big-picture thinking worth checking out.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Micro-Assessment vs Project-Based Learning

A while back, Christian from think:lab posted a bit about a new kind of "micro-assessment" that reminded me of a conversation conversation I had with a teacher friend a week or two before. I left a few comments over there, but wanted to include the original story here as well, because it goes to the root of my issues with the type of curriculum that currently drives the education system (and the assessment that goes with the curriculum). Anyway, here's the story:

He was telling me about this new grading system he's implemented -- identical to what is described here. Every test broken down into its component learning outcomes, with remedial steps and re-tests only on the parts the students haven't performed well on. At first I was thinking, "wow, pretty innovative and individualized." Then the reality of it hit me, and I blurted out, "that's pretty much the opposite of my educational philosophy!"

He was stunned, because he's made a bit of a splash in his division with this system(of course the administrators adore it, the teachers...not so much). It helps individualize assessment, yes, but the entire focus to ensure that students perform well on the standardized test, covering all areas of the standardized curriculum. It's a "better" way to do something that I don't think should be done at all.

So my friend was a bit irritated with me, understandably, and he asked what I would propose with my opposite educational philosophy. So I described, off-the-cuff, what I would like.

I want students to arrive in his classroom in September and sit down individually with him to figure out the overlap between his abilities/knowledge as a coach and their interests in the subject. Not doing away with disciplines, necessarily -- he's still a history teacher. But maybe the course is called World War 2 (because that's his area of passionate historical interest), and maybe the students' goal is to study some aspect of it that topic interests them...maybe two projects for the whole year that have to be somewhat different. Go REAL deep on one or two things they care about and really DO history, learning the skills of investigation, research and collaborative work. Let them work together. Let them choose how they want to present their findings. Give them great resources and teach them how to use them.

He looked skeptical as I started talking, but I saw the lights coming on...and then he interrupted me: "I've done exactly that before."

So I questioned him on it, and he used to do a unit on land mines -- basically chucked the curriculum for a month and let students explore the topic of land mines through whatever lens they chose, and had them present to the class. He said he learned more from those presentations than he ever learned in school. One techie-type kid researched the cutting-edge of land-mine detection using different frequencies of radio waves. A kid who was really into animals discovered a reabilitation program for elephants injured by mines in war-torn regions. Another who liked working with his hands learned everything he could about the actual construction and technology used in the mines themselves, building a scale model of his own. Another looked at the medical and economic challenges facing amputees injured by mines.

So instead of crafting individualized strategies for acing the test (covering 487 topics at the shallowest depth possible), he got 30 entirely different projects, each with a focus reflecting the motivation and interests of each student. Taken together, they covered the topic in a way that made the kids care about history and geography, curious about geopolitics, and wanting to know more. Assessment took care of itself because they were truly engaged. No need for micro-re-tests because what they presented reflected something they cared about.

Unfortunately, this teaching approach is nearly illegal, and people could argue that his students suffered (on their standardized tests) as a result...but which system would you rather have your kids learning in?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Met School

Apparently there was some buzz about The Met school a couple of years ago, but I totally missed it. Sounds like a really cool learning model, emphasizing individualized programs for each student:
"No two students have the same curriculum. There are no bells, no 45-minute classes, and no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Rather than the ordinary top-down approach, where students learn everything in the order in which it's laid out in a textbook, we build a personalized learning plan around each student's needs, interests, and passions."
Many of the elements they've selected from the buffet table of methodologies and approaches are ones I've wished someone would assemble to see how it might all work together...and they've been doing it for years already: small schools, portfolio/presentation-based assessment, advisors who stay with the same small group of kids right through high school, community internships working on meaningful projects. The cool thing is that it's actually working, and other places are looking to emulate the best of what they're doing:
"Also in 2003, the Rhode Island Board of Regents issued new high school regulations declaring that by the spring of 2004 every public high school in the state would submit a plan to enact these policies. These new requirements come straight from The Met's design and include an advisory system, internships, individual learning plans, senior exhibitions and portfolios."
So there is hope that these ideas could lead to systemic change. Check out this list of articles about it from the mainstream media.

Update (July 17): Stephen links to Ewan McIntosh's post, which includes a video of a student talking about her experience at the school. The most interesting thing to me about The Met is that it's pretty radically different from traditional, but people respond well to it because it still looks like school -- it doesn't freak people out like the free-for-all approach of the Sudbury Schools. There's still a building kids go to, lots of paid grown-ups to help, and very specific (and stringent) standards to meet. Yet the pedagogical approach is revolutionary. So maybe this is a necessary half-step between old-school models and a new model with even more freedom, support and real learning.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Webjay Closing

Probably of interest to some ed-tech folks, although it's not really news anymore: Webjay is closing the doors. This bums me out -- it was one of those simple, cool earlier web apps that I really embraced because it was useful and fun. Over the years I put a lot of work into my Webjay playlists, collecting songs, podcasts and videos from all kinds of sources. The interface was quirky, but got the job done, and the page-scraping import function was invaluable.

Saving my old playlists will be easy enough (as m3u files, or archived at, but another bummer of losing the service is that all the connections and comments will disappear. In a few years of use, I must have hundreds of comments on my playlists and ones I've left on others. It's not that there's such rich value in them, but those comments formed my networks within the system, and it sucks to have them vaporized as if they never existed.

From my perspective, the beginning of the end happened when the MySpace masses discovered that they could run a flash-based player of their Webjay playlists on their profile pages. A diverse, supportive Webjay community was soon flooded by whining teenagers and derivative Top-40 and emo songs, making it much harder to find the really interesting, unique stuff. The crowds seem to kill the experience, and site performance suffered badly.

I suppose that the increased traffic caught the attention of Yahoo, who snapped it up. I was stoked for Webjay creator Lucas Gonze, a very smart (and nice) guy with a great vision. It sounded like Yahoo intended to keep it around, but I'd say that the quality of the site has been in decline ever since -- occasionally the speed has been ok, but at other times the service has been intermittent and the "popular" lists were often static or broken. The forums seemed to be largely ignored and I think many of the old-schoolers drifted away. Traffic seemed to be on the general decline as well. Farewell, old friend.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Designing Schools for the Present Age: Thoughts on a Recent Editorial by Bill Gates

An older post from the Eide Neurolearning Blog: Designing Schools for the Present Age: Thoughts on a Recent Editorial by Bill Gates. They actually agreed with most of what Gates had proposed, which surprised me at first -- I remember dismissing it at the time because he was basically insisting that every kids should go to university, which I just don't believe. But anyway, the Eides push those ideas further into the realm of individualized learning plans, and I thought they were especially on track with questioning these three assumptions about traditional education:

"· The notion that all students should master a core body of information at the same rates and in the same ways, using identical educational materials and informational pathways. Basic skills can be acquired in many ways, and each child's instruction should be tailored to his or her optimal learning style.

· The notion that students are best educated in age-based cohorts. The rates at which children develop vary as greatly as their learning styles, and clustering by age makes no more sense than clustering by height or weight. The whole notion of grade-levels is equally questionable. There is no reason to assume that each year every child should make identical progress in all subject areas, nor is there any justification to prevent a child from making progress in one subject (e.g., math) because he is having difficulty in another (e.g., reading). Flexible, modular instruction could eliminate this problem.

· The notion that lecture-based classroom instruction should be the primary--even a major--route of learning for all students is unsupported by data on children's learning styles. For enormous numbers of children lecture time is not only a waste but a strong provoker of misbehavior and dissatisfaction of school."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Only Connect

Anyone know what ever happened to Stephen Harlow's Only Connect? I was thinking about some his stuff from a couple of years ago, then went googling and couldn't find anything recent from him -- any clues?

Update: I got a great e-mail from Stephen in NZ and he's doing well. He's got most of Only Connect archived on the site he's set up for his digital storytelling sideline.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Remote Access: Studio Classrooms and Flow

Great post from Remote Access: Studio Classrooms and Flow
"Studio work involves lengthy periods of time where the kids are concentrated on one project or one issue. We may start off together in a group discussing hot issues from the previous day or with me teaching a new skill or concept, but we move as quickly as possible towards the kids being active as creators, designers, and researchers, this being our focus."
Doesn't that sound fantastic? How many students in "normal" classrooms are getting to do these essential things? Clarence floated this idea last year, and it triggered some reflection on my part. At that time, he was partly lamenting the dichotomy between real learning and jumping through curriculum hoops:
"In our splintered systems where kids need to "cover" hundreds of outcomes in a single school year, the studio may provide too much depth and not enough breadth to make legislators happy. Make no mistake about it, kids can focus and be creative for long periods of time if they are working on issues they are concerned with and about."
Now it sounds like he's doing it anyway. I wonder how? Chucked the curriculum? Managed to blend a bunch of subjects together and devoted whole days to projects?

Thanks to George for the pointer...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Tyee Education

Three interesting articles related to online learning and education choice in my home province, all from The Tyee, a pretty solid lefty publication online. I suspect that the same things would apply in most provinces and states where distance learning is rising in popularity (probably all of them). The common thread is an issue of control. Who should control learning?

Why I Left the Classroom is a fairly standard account of teacher burnout. It rings true for me, but I was most interested in this ex-teacher's take on individualization in education:
"Teachers now stand before a group of individuals. Each of their learning styles, their needs, their contexts, abilities and disabilities needs identification, respect, modification and thought. In one split class of 29 students, I was faced with 19 different 'labels,' nine of which required completely individualized education plans. After countless meetings and forms, at June's end that particular year, I waved good-bye to a group who seemed not to be significantly hampered by my inability to meet their needs. I, on the other hand, was mute with both exhaustion and a sense of personal failure."
Now, I think the author was generally viewing this shift toward individualized learning as a bad thing, because it makes the job much harder. But isn't it the best possible thing if we can reframe the entire system to support it? Why should only students with learning disabilities get ILPs or IEPs? Why not reconceptualize the teacher's role as a sort of super-librarian, coach and tutor who is available (online and in person) to help individuals (of any age) with whatever they're working on? You don't need a giant concrete building to achieve learning, and you don't need one teacher teaching one thing to 30 kids who are all the same age.

The Quiet Revolution in BC Schooling was written by a teacher taking an ed-tech program. It's almost like he's just tasted the technology koolaid, and sees the potential, but finds it so at odds with the traditions and long-term interests of his field that he can't really rally behind it. The main criticisms of the province moving toward more distributed learning is that the teachers weren't properly consulted, that the courses vary in quality and that they're harder than kids think? What about the benefits? He eventually gets around to those, but even the idea that kids could take courses on their own schedule (and year-round) gets reframed as a threat to the future viability of public schools (he "could actually hear the sledgehammers thudding on the school's outer walls.") The final section finally dips a toe into the amazing potential in using the web for learning -- it's a shame we don't get to hear more about the positives coming out of these changes:
"That said, well-designed online courses can accomplish wonders for students who have been properly prepared to engage in them. These students develop genuine technology skills which are second to none, because the skills, such as creating documents and presentations, and interacting within a web interface, are not tacked on to their educational experience as enrichment, but make up the educational environment itself, much in the way that French immersion teaches language skills."

Click-and-Drag Education is unfortunately pretty poorly done. Anonymous sources, blatant pro-union bias, techno-fear-mongering...I only include it here as an example of how the mainstreaming of distributed learning will become profoundly political. As students and parents realize that they can create their own learning plans, seeking out only the resources (teachers, materials, information, communities, courses, facilities), enrollments in public schools will drop further and faster, if for no other reason than the keen kids will be graduating sooner as they accumulate credits more quickly. Less enrollment will equal less funding, which will affect teachers' employment -- unfortunately for the teachers, I can't see them winning that inevitable battle.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids

New York Magazine published this excellent article on The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids. Although the focus is on parenting, much of the amazing research cited is taken from studies in schools, and the results are fascinating. It sounds like building self-esteem isn't everything, and praise is only effective when it is very specific and process-oriented -- praising effort instead of saying "you're smart". A quote:
"Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Friday, February 02, 2007

Best Field Trip Ever

Real learning should look more like this -- Project Happiness:
"Project Happiness follows a senior high school class from the Mount Madonna School near Watsonville, California on a journey to discover the true basis of human happiness. Joining them on this quest are the Tibetan and Indian students from the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, India and the Dominion Heritage Academy in Jos, Nigeria.

Using the internet, video cameras, and other new communications technologies, the students will explore and create a new curriculum for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book Ethics for the New Millennium."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

UIE Web App Summit

I'm getting some notes together from the UIE web app summit in Monterey. Overall, I was struck again by how expensive and difficult conferences are compared to learning online (or on your own from other resources). I learned lots of interesting things, but I didn't learn them any better than if I had come across the same presentations online. I'm not a real networking type, and I was there with co-workers, so there wasn't that big social incentive to attend. But if nothing else, going in person ensures that you're not doing anything else, so you pay attention and learn a fair bit by default. I would much prefer the Downes vision of a learning bazaar or fair. Some of the sessions I attended that made some impact:

Product Strategy and Planning Tools by Peter Merholz and Brandon Schauer
We split up the all-day sessions and this is the one I ended up picking. The focus was more on process and methodology, specifically in developing commercial products. The business focus was mostly new to me; I haven't had to think much about what business goals a product might be addressing. The assumption has generally been that if you're addressing user needs and your business model works, the business will be sustainable, but this forced me to look a bit deeper.

One of the thorny issues in working for a company selling educational software is that the products are usually purchased by people other than the ones who will actually be using it. We might build a site for a state-level department of education that gets paid for by a state lending agency, managed by district administrators, facilitated by school-based counsellors and educators, and used by students in high schools and middle schools. Although everyone in the chain would report that the needs of the students are the purpose of the whole thing, people at each level are motivated by different values and goals. These goals are often in conflict.

The presenters pushed a model of integrating well with the web -- open APIs, building only what you can't borrow elsewhere, mashups, sharing content, user-generated content. Obviously that's a successful model, right? Judging by the questions from the participants, who were mostly from commercial software/web companies, it wasn't ringing true. Many of those companies are sustainable because they offer security, proprietary content/services, and business models that depend on closed systems, not open ones. It was fascinating to recognize that dichotomy.

I took piles of notes in this session, mostly related to project management and the process of defining not only what is being built, but why things are being built. When done right, that process can tease out needs and goals you wouldn't have otherwise come across. Sadly, the contrived "group activities" they had us doing were pretty much useless -- I would have much rather heard from participants about their experiences in initiating and managing their own large web-app projects.

Design Patterns and Principles by Bill Scott, Yahoo
I wish I had attended the full-day version of this seminar, digging into some of the most interesting design patterns (widgets, controls, interaction flows) from the Yahoo Design Pattern Library. It's an incredible toolkit of about 100 design patterns that can be combined in different ways to achieve different goals. He also went through examples from other sites doing fancier AJAX interactions, showing the tradeoffs and benefits of different approaches. Several examples illustrated how designers are overusing AJAX methods like drag 'n drop selection screens just because they can, when it is often better to use basic interactions. Excellent presentation -- very practical and geeky fun -- and his presentation notes/slides are loaded with goodness.

Web Application Structure by Hagan Rivers
The format of this short seminar seemed to provide just enough time to identify the main challenges in creating navigation and structure for web apps. I was pretty into it, because in her examples, she was running into many of the same problems I've been seeing in my recent designs. It's difficult to combine several web-app components (usually one place to do a number of data-heavy tasks) with traditional page-based navigation structures. Unfortunately we didn't really get to solve the problems in the seminar -- I wasn't happy with many of the choices she made in the example, which made it feel more like commiserating than learning.

The one thing I did find valuable was the method she uses to map out the different components in a site -- like a site map, but early in the process, the structure is more like little disconnected islands of tasks that you have to connect in a meaningful way.

Page Hierarchy by Luke Wroblewski, Yahoo!
Another fantastic presenter from Yahoo -- well-prepared, well-spoken, and cramming an incredible amount of practical, useful information into an hour. I wish I had also attended his seminar on form design, but the presentation notes (no link yet) stand fairly well on their own. On one hand, this talk on the hierarchy of information on a screen or page was a basic review of good design principles, but the examples were so sharp that they stuck with me -- lots of before-and-after redesigned screenshots that illustrated how big a difference great design can make.

Flickr: How a Bright Star Changed the World of Web Apps by Stewart Butterfield, Flickr/Yahoo!
I was probably most looking forward to hearing Stewart Butterfield talk about how he developed Flickr, but he didn't show up. Jared Spool and Peter Merholz filled in. After having used the site for a couple of years, hearing it described isn't particularly valuable, so this was a waste of time. One funny moment: Spool opened with an intro on Web 2.0 and left out any reference to user-generated content. When Merholz called him on it, he claimed that the important thing about Web 2.0 was the technology: feeds, dynamic interfaces, etc. Granted, defining these things is probably a dumb idea in the first place, but he blew that one.

Building Great UI, The Netflix Way by Sean Kane, Netflix
I've never used Netflix, so this was all new to me. The user experience looked fantastic, especially around recommendations (which I've often thought Amazon did very poorly, despite always being used as an example) and the smart use of rich interaction where it made sense to do so. Most fascinating was the presenter's description of their development process, launching something new every two weeks, and how they test new features on the site. Their user base is so huge and so active, that they can test a new feature on a 100,000 people over a day or two, then compare the results to a similar-sized control group to see the effect of the change, then decide whether to keep, revise, or trash it. I liked seeing some of he failed experiments -- usually you only get to see successful ones.

Design Strategies for Web-based Recommender Systems by Rashmi Sinha, Uzanto
This wasn't a bad presentation, but I was disappointed because this is a real area of interest of mine and my expectations were too high. It started out strong with a review of the earlier recommender systems (circa 2001) and their weaknesses. One good point was that people love to hate these systems -- if the first couple of recommendations are way off, you just mock them and stop paying attention. Then the presenter went into an analysis what she called social recommenders like and del.ici.ous that make connections between people in the system and often use tags to connect content. She seemed pretty sold on this approach, but I couldn't help thinking about how much I dislike many of these systems for one reason alone -- they seem to recommend what's most popular with the majority of users on the site, rather than what really matches my needs. Need to ponder this some more -- are social networks yielding better recommendations?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Career and Technical Education

Christian at think:lab posted some interesting thoughts back in December about The Evolution of Vocational Schools. He brings up the old stigmas about vocational education as a path for the non-college-bound kids who can't make it in the "real" courses, but he then suggests that there may be hope for this model of learning despite the old stereotypes. A quote:
"Well, it has nothing to do with the evolution of vocational training in my mind, but the future demand to offer 'relevant' and 'engaging' learning opportunities for all students, as well as the blurring of the line between 'real world' and 'college' as acceptable options once you graduate."
The article he links to from St.Louis implies that the trend back toward career and technical education may be a reaction to growing awareness that four-year college won't be for everyone, and that a degree doesn't guarantee good-paying work. But I wonder how difficult it will be to swing that pendulum -- Doug wrote recently about how parents think getting more kids into the trades is a great idea until you suggest that maybe their kids should consider it.

In another post that isn't quite as old, Christian reflects on how guidance counsellors will prepare kids for career planning in future schools -- excellent stuff.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Welcome to the War Zone

These articles are nothing new, but since it's the school district my daughter is in now, it feels more personal: B.C. school district locks down desktop access to iTunes, MSN. It's not a bad article, giving us a glimpse inside the IT workings of a school district and outlining the challenges...but this quote just killed me:
"Managing a high-school student is akin to being in a war-zone, said Danny Francisco, IT manager at SD67 in Penticton."
A war-zone? I'm trying to be sympathetic, and acknowledging that on the ground it's not all about dreamy-self-directed-self-actualization-web-as-universal-translator-knowledge-base-etc...but treating students like enemy combatants can't be the way to teach them to use the web. And what's with the military metaphors? Last week it was minefields.

I mean, blocking MSN? This is how young people communicate about their lives, their friends and their homework.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Video games can reshape education"

Forgive me for being skeptical about "U.S. scientists" saying that video games can reshape education. It sounds like there was a study of some kind that showed that kids don't learn much if they watched TV and played video games all evening. Through some convoluted path I can't really follow, the author attempts to connect this to the vast learning potential of video games, as if they just appeared this year.

A couple of years ago, I was interested in this contest to create "stealth learning" games, and three years ago I was thinking similar things about Why Video Games Won't Thrive in Mainstream Education . Although the quality of the games and consoles have improved since then, what's changed about education to make them thriving in schools more likely?

A Scary Minefield of Ideas!

I guess this is supposed to be a good news story, and really it's just a relaunched school district site, but the slant of the article just seemed so wrong somehow that I wanted to post it -- County education Web site unveiled:
"Already in place in some Pajaro Valley schools, in a month, every student and teacher in the county will have free access to subscription encyclopedia sites that are aligned with California state education standards and are designed to keep kids from culling half-baked or just wrong information in a general Internet search.

On Google, for example, typing Martin Luther King Jr. pulls up, a site that acts as platform for white supremacists.

'The great myth is that if it's on the Internet, it must be true,' said Thom Dunks, director of technology for the county office. People think of porn and that which is harmful for kids, but there's also a whole minefield of ideas out there.'"
Yeah, porn is one thing, but imagine kids having access to IDEAS! Lock the doors! Shutter the windows! They just don't get it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Recommender Systems

Stephen Downes linked to this older (1999) page on Recommender Systems in his recent paper on Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. It pre-dates the social-software boom, but still acts as a nice overview and notes the value of recommendations in finding people in addition to movies, books and other items:
"Although currently recommender systems are mostly used for finding things, such as books and CDs, Resnick thinks that one promising application may be recommending people. You could use recommender systems to find the right consultant or colleague - or even a potential mate."
Most people sharing a learning goal in 43 Things aren't necessarily looking for people to collaborate with (although there is functionality to form explicit groups to pursue a goal together). It could be used as a sort of recommender system for finding people ("I'm looking for people sharing my goals"), but it looks to me like it's being used more as a recommender system for things you might like to do or learn. The network that emerges around a goal does loosely connect people to each other, but that may not be as valuable as the connections between the artifacts themselves: the entries outlining what their experiences have been in pursuing the same goal, why they decided to pursue it, what they hope to accomplish, how the learning helped them, pitfalls to avoid, etc.

Perhaps it's more important as a way of finding content (advice, resources, opinions, possible applications) than as a way to find like-minded people. The primary "pivot" is the goal itself, with the people associated with each goal as secondary pivots. It is interesting to find out what other goals someone is pursuing besides the one you share with them -- that function is more exploratory than the process of figuring out if you want to pursue a specific goal.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Elgg for Professional Development

Dave linked to this story a while back, and I finally got around to checking it out: Saugus Union School District creates hot spot for collaboration, distance learning. The cool thing about this approach is that a school managed to get educators excited about social networking for themselves -- as personal professional development and as a communication tool -- before wading into the oh-so-scary world of students using the tools. Now that they're seeing the benefits, they want to get kids using it too. From there, it probably improves the chances of getting kids really learning as part of the wider them learn in a safe place first and then gradually open things up. Elgg makes that progression relatively easy with flexible permissions. While I'd love to see schools diving straight into the deep end, this kind of approach probably makes more sense for most institutions.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

New Systems for Sharing Learning Goals

I think the intersection between learning goals and social software is heating up. The popularity of 43 Things must be contributing to the interest, and maybe some of my babbling here has helped moved things along, but I think there was probably a certain inevitability about it -- in environments where people are deciding what to learn, who to learn with and figuring out how to go about it, these tools could be really valuable.

George Siemens introduced the U of M's Virtual Learning Commons a few weeks ago and linked to a backgrounder on the project. I had it saved in Bloglines for too long, and thankfully Brian nudged me to take another look at it. It's a system for students to post their learning goals as a way of recording them, finding related resources and connecting with others who share the goal. It seems to be pretty slick, and even in the current closed mode (registered students only) with relatively few participants, it looks like there could be the critical mass to make it useful. George's note about it:
"It sets learning in a conversational spaces...knowledge as a pathway through connections with others...learning as a constant in life. I'm confident that this implementation of social learning (integrated with institutionally provided academic support) is a first indicator of more prominent trends. Learning not as an explicit task...but as a constant action."
I also got an e-mail about Learning Flow and Lee Kraus explains what it's for:
"LearningFlow is a web-based application that allows (you) the learner to identify learning goals, then associate resources from across the web to that particular learning goal. The goal can also be shared with others interested in learning that goal."
It's also got a pretty nice, simple interface and some cool features for sharing goals. The kicker with any system like this is that it depends on large numbers of users and goals to start being really valuable. Until you have a few people sharing a (often quite unique) learning goal, it's just a place to store yours. So we'll see if it catches on. Elgg integrated this kind of functionality last year as well, in the context of a much richer feature set -- I should ask Dave if he's received any feedback about it.

Update: Roger Stack is paying attention to these goal-based networks as well. He describes a cool program at his school where mentoring/counselling groups have formed around areas of interest.