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?

2013 iPad Air

While it’s impossible to top John Gruber’s written review, or Walt Mossberg’s video review, or Farhad Manjoo’s written/video review, I’m adding my initial impressions into the all-star tech punditry mix.

If my Father-in-law, who I had great respect for, had read one or more of those reviews he wouldn’t have ruined his life with his Google/Nexus tablet purchase. He was always so rational and all for a few “C-notes”. Father-in-law’s grade, F.

My 32GB wireless/cellular Air was pricey, especially since the GalPal wanted my old one. I already had an inquiry from a Craigslist reader for it when I said to LALOA, the Latest Adapting Luddite Of All, “You don’t want my old iPad do you?” When she said “yes,” I thought I was hearing things. Add in the smart cover for $39 and the WaterField iPad Smart Case for $69 and I may be going back to full time work next academic year.

The best word for it is sleek. So damn light and thin. A sensuous wafer of electronic goodness. The rock skipper in me wants to just grab it by the corner with my thumb and index finger and fling it across Ward Lake, just to see how many times I could get it to skip. But then I remember what I paid for it. Note to Jonathan Ive, make the next gen waterproof.

I have mixed feelings about the Apple smart cover. When using it as a stand, the pad is a wee bit vertical for my taste. Also light and sleek, it’s definitely in keeping with my minimalist design preferences, but my old wooden stand (carved by a Canadian entrepreneur) had two settings both which provided more tilt. Also, it could be user error, but when folded for typing purposes, meaning nearly flat, I have to reverse the Pad altogether and toggle it to get the top and bottom oriented correctly. On the plus side, I discovered the flannel-like back of the smart cover adheres to my blue jeans. So when I’m sitting on the floor against our couch with my knees up, I can set it on my rippling quads and it stays there, in perfect reading position. Apple smart cover grade, B+.

Granted, maybe the Waterfield Smart Case is overkill, but given the investment, it will earn its keep when I take it on the road. Note that I didn’t coordinate the colors. Another reason why, if you’re of the male persuasion, it’s dangerous to cybershop alone. Waterfield smart cover grade, A. My personal color faux pas adjusted final grade, B.

The retina screen resolution is stupendous as is the speed, the camera, the video camera, and the battery life. My life is way better now. And remember, just because I’m an AAPL shareholder, it doesn’t mean I’m biased. Go buy one. Or two. iPad Air grade, A.

I went white because one of my nicknames is Wonderbread

I went white because one of my nicknames is Wonderbread

Color coordination fail

Color coordination fail

I keep a dust cloth handy for when my editor gets a little overzealous and licks my screen

I keep a dust cloth handy for when my editor gets a little overzealous and licks my screen

A few more angles of tilt por favor

A few more angles of tilt por favor

Too cool for school

Too cool for school

My editor watching intently

My editor

Life and Death as a Minimalist

Mark Albert was one of my best friends when we taught together at the International Community School (I.C.S.) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia twenty-two years ago. A University of Pennsylvania grad, Mark was super smart, quirky/funny, outgoing, sports crazed, and overflowing with energy for middle schoolers and math. After watching most of his classmates go to Wall Street, he decided to teach math in West Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer. After three years in Gabon, he started his international teaching career at I.C.S. He arrived with a treasure chest filled with all of his worldly possessions which consisted mostly of math textbooks, some beautiful West African shirts, and an acoustic guitar. A model of minimalism. Maybe one can’t help but be a minimalist when living on a Peace Corp stipend.

Today, like me, Mark is 50 and a part of the Sandwich Generation (SG). The SG consists of people mostly in their 40s and 50s who are “sandwiched” between aging parents who need care and their own children. According to the Pew Research Center, just over 1 of every 8 Americans aged 40 to 60 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between 7 to 10 million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million. SGers face many challenges including saving for their own retirement while trying to save for their children’s education.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about common challenges SGers face after elderly parents die:

As older parents approach death, they often leave lengthy to-do lists for their children. The tasks can be both physical and financial. Some children must deal with a tangle of arrangements—everything from heating-oil contracts to trusts—along with jumbled stock certificates, car titles or life-insurance policies for which there may be no backup copies. Others must sift through boxes or rooms full of belongings. Sometimes siblings get involved, complicating matters further. When the chores become overwhelming, it can be difficult for family members to recover sentimental treasures or tie up financial loose ends. At the extreme, the sheer volume of stuff can clutter a house and weigh down its value—a problem if the home must be sold quickly.

Often the heir(s) get so overwhelmed they procrastinate indefinitely. I didn’t realize how many estate sale and related companies exist to help heir(s) tie up every imaginable loose end. Probably a growth industry given the aging population.

While reading the article I reflected on how extremely lucky I am that my mom and in-laws have wills; have made arrangements for and already paid to be cremated; and have provided detailed, organized info on their finances. Their end-of-life planning is a natural extension of their lifelong love.

Another blessing, they’ve begun giving away things, but all that means is they have a tad bit less than a lot. Which got me thinking about my own death and how radically simplifying my life could be a powerful final act of loving kindness for my wife and/or daughters.

The mindless cliche, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is exactly backwards because the larger your material footprint upon death, the more onerous the task for your heirs to divide up, toss, sell, and just plain deal with everything.

What if, as I age, I gradually shift from run-of-the-mill decluttering to radical minimalism. And how cool if I could time my death to give away everything except a token or two for memory sake—say my iPad 56 with pictures and video of our life together. So after the funeral, my heirs return to a near empty house, relax in a peaceful unhurried manner, open a bottle of wine, and say nice things about the guy who left so few loose ends.

Considering an iPad?

1) Read this to decide whether you want to wait for the second generation.

2) If you just can’t wait to be like all the cool kids, buy it here. Free shipping and I think no sales tax.

3) Get this stand. It’s la ultima. I lay in bed, put the groovy stand on groovy torso, and walah, primo pad reading/viewing.

4) And here’s my case if you want to be like the grooviest kid.

iPad Review

In the Steve Ballmer-desk-top computers will continue to thrive v. Steve Jobs-desk-tops will become like a truck that you use sporadically for a few specific tasks, I’m putting ALL my money on Jobs.

And I will be in the vanguard. I have been blown away by my Pad and am frustrated I haven’t had more time to set it up and learn the ins and outs. Two things are conspiring against Pad-time, a heavy June teaching schedule and a light fourteen year old.

Just how great a handheld computer is it? Eventually women will find an alternative word for their feminine product. At the store, “Do you have any pads?” “Wi-fi or 3G?” The first night I went to bed at 10 p.m. and by 6 a.m. the next morning five new apps appeared out of thin air including the bible and an especially riveting one where you poke plastic bubble wrap. The highlight so far has been showing fourteen how to lock it in either horizontal or vertical mode.

Let’s get my least favorite feature out of the way so I can return to positive product pimping. The homepage photograph is a beautiful coastline at dusk with white wisps across the sky, remnants of shooting stars maybe? The problem is they look exactly like ruinous scratches. They still give me heart palpitations six days later. Don’t know that I’ll ever get used to them.

As every other reviewer has explained, typing on the screen keyboard is okay for a few sentences at a time. I bought a separate keyboard and mouse so that I can go long on it. Lack of printing is an issue, but no doubt a temporary one.

Here’s one way it’s changed my life already. Yes, that was tongue in check. My wife is of the anti-television persuasion. I wear the pants in the family nearly all the time (I should confirm that with her), but I have not mustered the courage to defy her “no television in the bedroom” edict. With this bad boy, I mean pad boy, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Case in point, the other night I surreptitiously watched an episode of Scrubs on ABC’s app. I know what you’re thinking. Let’s just say it will be ON if she even suggests a “no Pad in the bedroom” policy.

Admittedly, this may be the most incomplete, least technical, least insightful, least helpful iPad review written to this point. But how many of those other fanboys can do this?

Palming the Pad

Geography Help Sought

The iPad I ordered on 5/8 has finally shipped. Today it’s gone from Columbus, OH to Indianapolis, IN to Hodgkins, IL. Positive Momentum is huge in the Midwest. Can a Midwestern reader tell me if it’s moving west? And if in fact it is, can you calculate it’s Olympia, WA estimated time of arrival based on it’s current pace?