Quit Requiring Foreign Language Courses

If that was my view I’d have to find another place to sleep tonight. That’s the recommendation of a Washington State legislator. And not just any legislator, a progressive Democrat. The short version:

A representative in Olympia says prospective college students should have the option to skip Spanish or Chinese and take two years of computer science instead.

Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater, says while he appreciates and respects the time students put into studying foreign languages, the money the state spends could be put to better use.

“My God, we are spending 100 million [dollars] of taxpayer money every year in our high school system to teach world languages where more than half our folks a few years later will never use it again,” Reykdal said.

More here. Imagine how short the school day would be if our criteria for what to teach was whether students use the course content a few years later. How would algebra hold up under a cost-benefit analysis? The arts? Social studies? It’s a sign of an educational apocalypse when a progressive Democrat is thinking so narrowly.

Foreign language teachers better take this as a clarion call for explaining to the legislature and the public the many reasons, both obvious and more subtle, why their courses are especially meaningful.

Heaven help us.

Most Educational Technology Does Nothing to Improve Teaching and Learning

Two friends of mine develop apps for children with autism spectrum issues. Their work is just one of many examples of how educational technology is an unmitigated positive for students with special needs.

You would never know it given the tendency of the Information Technology Zealots (ITZs) to exaggerate the impact of their toys, but ed tech is not an unmitigated positive for elementary, secondary, and university students more generally.

In fact, 80-90% of educational technology does nothing to improve the quality of K-12 and higher education teaching and learning. The problem is, the ITZs nonstop, unfounded assertions about the benefits of ed tech has rendered our critical thinking abilities completely ineffectual. The Ed Tech Emperor often has no clothes on, but odds are you’re skeptical of that because ed tech groupthink is at epidemic proportions.

The problem is there’s no consensus about how to evaluate whether educational technologies improve teaching and learning; as a result, our default is a vacuous falsehood. More is better.

My starting point is Decker Walker’s assertion that “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” What is it, ideally, that students should do? Students should read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another, respect classmates who think differently than them, learn to be empathetic, and write and speak clearly and persuasively. That’s my liberal arts oriented litmus test for whether educational technologies are additive or not.

What happens if we apply my test to a case study that my esteemed university recently added to its website? I’m calling it Professor Technology.

Here are the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective:

Intro. Professor Technology is a self-proclaimed computer geek. Employment in the financial sector and government opened his eyes to the importance of technology in the workplace. His first experience with technology-based education occurred when the IRS asked him to develop national training courses to be delivered both live and virtually. He realized the challenges involved in developing engaging content and obtaining learning feedback. This opened the door to his exploration of many types of learning tools, including online polling.

What is one instructional technique or project that is particularly effective, innovative, or engaging? “I encourage my students to bring their laptops, tablets, cell phones or anything else. I keep them technologically engaged in a way that they will not have the time or desire to do anything else on their machines during class.[i] Students have cell phones and they will bring them to class. That is the reality of 2014. Why not put them to use? The students are intrigued by the idea of ‘texting for learning.’ [ii] Technology allows us to collect information about behavior. Information is just as precious to a company wishing to market a product as it is to an educator wishing to improve specific areas of performance at the class level or at the individual student level.”

What related tool or strategy do you use that other PLU faculty might like to try in their courses? “Although I have many untested ideas, this semester I relied heavily on a neat PowerPoint plugin called Poll Everywhere. PollEv allows me to embed polls in my PowerPoint presentations. I can create multiple choice questions, T/F questions, or open ended questions and embed them by surprise in my presentation. The students can answer polls though their phones, computers, or tablets. For open ended questions, they can type in their answers. The system tells me how many students are attending the poll and how many have cast their vote. The poll results are updated instantly on the class screen.”[iii]

What are the benefits, for you and your students, of utilizing this tool or strategy? “My experience has been that quality decisions are made through quality information. Plenty of quality information is available to most of us if we only know how to reach it and use it. Businesses are well aware of this competitive advantage and employ technology to the fullest extent they can to maximize profits. . . . PollEv allows me to obtain immediate feedback about my class without having to put the spotlight on one specific student. I noticed that students sometimes feel pressure to participate or not participate or to give a right or wrong answer. PollEv allows everyone to participate without fear and gives me the opportunity to reiterate a certain topic while the content is still fresh. I generally embed 1 poll every 5-6 slides.”[iv]

What advice would you have for someone interested in trying this tool or strategy? “PollEv is very easy to use. You may simply visit their website, form an account, and give it a try immediately. While I enjoy embedding my polls into PowerPoint, that is not necessary. You could simply use their online portal to cast your poll.”[v]

The remarkable thing about this case study is just how unremarkable it is. Stories like this—about the benefit of things like wireless laptops, tablets, smart pens, or smart boards—are so commonplace, we passively accept them.

When will we muster the courage to question the ITZs hyperbolic claims? Instead of being bedazzled, even hypnotized by ed tech bells and whistles, we need to challenge Professor Technology to show us how PowerPoint and PollEv are helping students read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another. Or how they’re helping them respect classmates who think differently than them, be more empathetic, and write and speak more clearly and persuasively.

These aren’t the only questions, or even the best ones, but I probably deserve some sort of medal for asking them. I won’t hold my breath. I’ll consider myself lucky if I avoid a public tarring and feathering by the ITZ hordes.

[i] How can I put this nicely? Professor Technology is hopelessly naïve. No one is that engaging. Mercy, this is an accounting class. Students are likely texting; emailing; and alternating between Twitter, Tinder, PressingPause, Facebook, Instagram, PressingPause, and ESPN.

[ii] The central assertion that I do not accept.

[iii] A giant leap forward from asking students to raise their hands and/or speak to accomplish the same things?

[iv] If ed tech is a work-around for students too afraid to raise their hands or state an opinion in front of their peers, we have more pressing problems than how to better engage students.

[v] I will respectfully pass on not just PollEv, but PowerPoint. Why did Steve Jobs, every time someone used PowerPoint to pitch him a product idea, stop them before the second or third slide?

Dispassionate Madness

Give the debacle that was the UCLA bball season this winter, I nearly gave up March Madness for Lent. But alas, the allure of winning big bucks in the office pool (so far ten people have put in five dollars each) inspired me to fill out and submit a bracket. Despite my late-adapting techno idiosyncracies, as an experiment, I decided to go with the Wall Street Journal’s computer generated bracket from beginning to end. Regrettably, we have Puke beating Kansas in the championship game.

One thing is nagging me, how does a computer factor in game location, crowd intensity, and 20 year olds’ emotions? It’s not like swimming where the predicted finish of the finalists in any given heat is quite predictable. The tourney’s popularity is largely a result of unforeseen upsets.

If the computer could speak for itself, it would probably say that by factoring in every result from the season its accounted for home/away, crowd intensity, and emotional variables. As a result, we have BYU in the Final Four. The experiment is whether a computer can predict upsets. Hope so.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from Tuesday’s journal:

To better understand upsets, and to find the best way to predict them, The Wall Street Journal looked at the 40 biggest NCAA tournament upsets since 2004—the games where the surprise winner was seeded at least five spots below the favorite. For each upset, we compared the teams involved by their performance in two dozen categories. The majority of these comparisons were based on how the teams matched up—for instance, how well one team shot three-pointers during the season and how well their opponents defended against them. The same head-to-head comparisons were made for factors like rebounding and steals. In the end, we found a few strong similarities between all of these matchups. But there was only one unequivocal theme: the importance of turnovers. In 30 of the 40 games, the underdog “David” team had been better all season at protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers than the “Goliath” team had been at forcing them. Getting steals also is critical.

How should I spend my winnings?

Digital Nation

The title of a provocative PBS frontline documentary that I recommend. Young people spend 50 hours a week plugged in. The film-makers seem in favor of teachers integrating as much personal tech as possible. At the same time, they highlight researchers who are discovering that young adults aren’t nearly as good at multitasking as they think. For example, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to have an accident.

A few tech skeptics in the film argue that tech-happy schools inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns with respect to students’ shrinking attention spans, disinterest in reading books, deteriorating writing skills, and inability to think deeply about anything for a sustained period of time. How can teachers integrate technology—whether cell phones, wireless internet netbooks or laptops, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and related social network sites—without the negative consequences?

Most of the tech zealots in the film would argue the consequences aren’t necessarily negative because the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Times have changed, no big deal if people don’t read books or don’t write as well as they once did because they’re better prepared for the world of work and they’ve gained new, gratifying, virtual friendships. As one zealot says, “Okay, so people won’t write in as flowery a way.”

The loss of “flowery” writing isn’t my concern, it’s the loss of illuminating, insightful writing. When I read, I want to be enlightened. Help me think about something more deeply or in an entirely new way. Take me somewhere I’ve never been Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe. Introduce me to new people, move me, change me.

Another question raised by the film is how is personal technology impacting young people’s writing? M.I.T. students in the film are quick to admit that the sum of their papers’ paragraphs don’t add up to more than the total. Each paragraph is okay, but they don’t build one upon another because they’re writing while instant messaging, checking email, watching YouTube videos, commenting on them, reading blogs, watching t.v., and listening to music. They have “paragraph-long” not “essay-long” attention spans. In ironic parallel structure, the filmmakers suffer from the same malady since the last-third of the film explores drone technology in what feels like a tangent definitely deserving of its own 86 minutes.

How is technology impacting my writing? Like everyone I’m suspect, I struggle with internet-based distractions including a steady stream of email, other people’s blogs, favorite websites, news headlines, sports scores, stock market swings, and on and on.

A month ago I had to cough up my university laptop for a day to get the OS updated. To quote Paul Krugman (Wednesday in response to Obama’s backpedaling on bankers’ pay), “Oh. My. God!” I culled reading material, student papers, class handouts, and other forms of clutter that had been collecting for months. Next, I read some of the reading material that survived the recycling bin. Then with notepad and pen, I made writing-related notes. At the end of the day, I felt like I accomplished more than normal and wondered why don’t I unplug regularly.

Digital fasting.

Maybe the gap between how I felt after a normal “plugged-in” day of near constant interruptions (email, websites, blogs, the phone, colleagues, students, etc.) and how I felt after my forced “unplugged day” explains why I haven’t purchased a cellphone yet. As someone once said about globalization, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” I’m not ready yet to spread more toothpaste, in the form of incessant interruptions, onto my brush.

I don’t have a good answer for why I don’t unplug on a regular basis.

Truth be told, this blog may be a form of distraction. Instead of telling a sweeping, substantive story of some sort, one that rests upon numerous ideas carefully woven together, I spend thirty to forty-five minutes a few times a week writing 400 word mini-essays that rest on one or two partially developed ideas.

Telling a sweeping, substantive story would require me to focus for several weeks, months, or years. So far at least, I haven’t been up to that.