Facts and Feelings

We are living in an age when information is no longer scarce. The Internet gave everyone access to the information. It was sold to us as an information superhighway. Think of all of the wonderful resources you have right at your fingertips with this fantastic, revolutionary technology. Then, interactive web tools came along and made it really easy for anyone to post content online. We moved away from broadcast media, where a single entity informs the masses, to a system where everyone has a voice. It’s a democracy of information. Finally, mobile technologies became practical, so those tools are now available to us wherever we are.

Information is free, in both senses of the word. Questions no longer go unanswered, opinions no longer go unshared. It’s truly a wonderful and amazing time to be living.

flat-earth-1054350_960_720But there’s also a problem. We are overwhelmed by content. When I was in school, we used to struggle to find enough information to write cohesive research papers. Now, finding enough information is as easy as a Google search. We have to be able to filter that information to find the most relevant content, evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the content we’re finding from disparate sources, and build on that knowledge to spark new ideas and new solutions to complex problems.

You’re probably still with me at this point. If you’re working in higher education, you have an anecdote to insert here about kids these days thinking that “Google” and “Research” are synonyms. Many in K-12 are thinking I’m rehashing old ideas, because we’ve been doing all of these things for years and talking about 21st Century Skills since the 21st century started. If we’re sitting in a room having this conversation, this is the point at which someone will disparagingly refer to Wikipedia. After all, anyone can change it. How reliable can that be? Once we’ve made that turn, we’re off on a track that leads to me ranting about how Wikipedia is actually a pretty reliable source because of their insistence on citations and their transparency about where the information comes from. My challenge to Wikipedia haters is to change a basic fact on the site to be wrong, and see how long that lasts before someone fixes it.

But that’s not where we’re going today. I want to talk about something more important than whether your ninth grade English teacher will let you cite Wikipedia as a source.

What if you want to mislead people? Everyone on the Internet has a megaphone. Everyone can be a content creator. Everyone can be a publisher. Let’s say I want to convince people of something crazy. Maybe I want people to think that the Earth is flat. How would I do that?

I could start by referencing the ancient Greeks, who believed the Earth to be flat until the Pythagoras came along to cause trouble. I could also refer to ancient Indians (prior to the year 300), American aboriginal traditions, or China up until the 17th century. These were smart people, philosophers and scientists, and they wrote about the world being flat all the time.

I could reference 19th century literature by the likes of Washington Irving, whose romanticized history of Christopher Columbus includes the idea that 15th century Europeans thought he would fall off the edge of the Earth.  Or, I could write about the work of Samuel Rowbotham, whose “scientific” work in Zetetic Astronomy proved the Earth is flat in 1849. Moving to the modern age, I can reference the Flat Earth Society, which has been advocating for a flat Earth model since the days of Sputnik. Finally, I can top it off with 21st century author Thomas Friedman, by taking his best-selling book’s metaphor completely out of context.

Maybe I’ve convinced you. Maybe I haven’t. Now it’s time to fire up the social media machine. I start tweeting about the Earth being flat. I post conspiracy theories on Facebook, and make catchy memes about it. People tell me I’m crazy. They start arguing in the comments. They bait the troll. I shoot back. Now, I start focusing on the buzz. People are talking about whether the Earth is flat. Look at all these conversations on the Internet about the flat Earth. Why is big media assuming that the Earth is round? Where’s our equal time? Where’s our fair and balanced?

At this point, it’s time to discredit our own strategy. Anyone can put anything on the Internet. You can’t trust what you read online. We’ve been burned so many times by misleading and biased content that we’re quick to agree with the cynical view that everyone has an agenda. Everyone is against us. Those fact checkers who say the Earth is round? They have an agenda. They’re out to get us. The impartial media? They’re not so impartial after all. They only tell one side of the story. This so-called science that proves the Earth is round? Well, we all know what they say about statistics. You can make the numbers say anything you want.

Now, this is the part that’s new. It’s time to change the story. Many people believe the world is flat. Lots of people are talking about the flat Earth. The news reports the facts. The politicians cite the facts. The fact-checkers check the facts. But the facts have changed. Did you catch the subtle shift? People are talking. That is a fact. People believe. That is a fact. This politician said. That is a fact. The Earth is flat. It doesn’t matter if that’s a fact. It’s just the object of the talking and believing and feeling. So you can say things like “Lots of people think the world is flat” and “Flat Earth proponents feel like they’re underrepresented in media.” Both of those statements are true. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to fall of the edge of the planet.

Distinguishing between fact and opinion is a lot harder than it used to be. We have to teach our children (and our parents, and our peers) to recognize those triggers of “feel”, “believe”, and “think”. Opinions are valuable. Beliefs matter. They shape our view of the world, and our actions in it. But people can be wrong. If one wrong person convinces 99 others, then we have 100 wrong people. The fact that there are 100 of them doesn’t make them less wrong, even if they feel like they’re not being heard. It’s a lot easier now for a few people to use “feelings” to mislead others. Part of being an informed digital citizen is recognizing when that’s being done to us.


Post script: Did you notice that almost all of those links about the flat Earth go to the SAME Wikipedia article? The links may make the text look more reliable, but cited sources are only as good as the person checking them.

Photo credit: JooJoo41 on Pixabay.


Do We Need Teachers?

A couple months ago, I surveyed the teachers in my district about classroom technology. Over the last few years, we have focused a lot on improving student access to technology. While this has meant unprecedented growth in tech resources available to students, it also means we haven’t devoted much time or resources on the technology that our teachers use.

Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich
Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich

One problem with surveys like this is that you can’t really ask people what they want. The answer to “Would _____ help improve student learning in your classroom?” is “YES!”. It doesn’t really matter what goes in the blank.

The other problem with surveying staff is that they generally want what they already have. Educational technology is always about MORE stuff. We don’t want to talk about taking things away, even if they’re no longer useful.

With this in mind, I asked a lot of questions about teachers’ attitudes toward technology. If I know how they see the role of tech in their classroom, I can better look for solutions that foster that role. So I asked questions like this (all of these are rated on a “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” scale):

Technology helps students become more independent learners.
Technology helps personalize learning for students.

Technology helps students develop a deeper understanding of course content.
Technology helps students demonstrate their learning in innovative ways. Technology improves students’ ability to collaborate.
Technology improves students’ access to course content.
Technology could be used to replace teachers someday.

Many of these are questions I asked sixth grade students and parents earlier in the spring, as they came to the end of the first year of our 1:1 program. The teachers, like the students and the parents, are right where we would hope they would be. For the most part, they genuinely believe that technology fosters independent, personalized learning. It helps engage students and gives them ways to express their creativity and collaborate to deepen their understanding of the topics studied in school, and to demonstrate that learning in unique ways. Yay us! We’re on the right track.

It’s that last item that got me in trouble.

In all fairness, I knew it would. I shared the survey with several people before sending it, and they all pointed it out. Nobody actually contacted me in protest about the question, but I heard through the grapevine that several teachers were insulted and upset that I would even ask such a thing.

replace teachersBut my point is this: we’ve been asking why students still come to school for almost a decade now. When my parents went to school, it was because that’s where the knowledge was. The teachers were the experts on every subject, and the textbooks were the ultimate authority. Any question that the teachers couldn’t answer and that wasn’t in the book wasn’t worth knowing.

That world is gone. Our students have all of the information in their pockets. School has to be more than just delivering content. They need to find, filter, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. They need to combine ideas from different domains and use it in creative ways to solve challenging, real problems. They have to think critically and work collaboratively to face the unprecedented challenges of their generation.

That’s good news. If school WERE just about delivering content, we could easily automate it, and we would all be looking for jobs. We might still need adults to monitor student progress through prescribed online curricula, but they certainly wouldn’t need teaching degrees. Fortunately for all of us, school is more than that.

So in the classroom, the technology has to do more than deliver content. We have to get away from the idea that we’re doing whole group instruction most of the time. We have to eschew the concept of “school” as a model where 20 children sit in rows and face a teacher who stands by the board and talks for an hour at a time. We have to embrace the idea that teachers are regularly using formative assessments to adapt instruction to the needs of each learner. We have to acknowledge that students in a single class may be doing four or five different things. We need to be aware that it’s not enough to just know the facts. There has to be an application or reflection component to learning.

For the most part, our teachers seem to know that. But I needed them to use that lens when thinking about the technology needs for their classrooms. Maybe it’s not all about projectors and interactive whiteboards and using document cameras to share workbook pages. We need to re-tool to design our classrooms for more than simple content delivery. I’m not sure yet exactly what those needs are going to be moving forward. But I’m pretty sure it will be different from what we’ve had the last ten years.

And despite their concerns about being replaced by robots, our teachers know that too.


Photo Credit: :Edsger Dijkstra, from Wikipedia.


No Moore

Moore’s Law is dead.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moores_law_(1970-2011).PNGIntel co-founder Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that the number of components on an integrated circuit was doubling every year. He predicted that this growth would continue for another decade. In 1975, he revised the forecast to every two years.

In simpler terms, it can be said that computing power doubles about every two years, while the cost remains the same. Incredibly, this exponential rate of growth held true for more than 40 years. For the most part, you could expect that the computers available at any given time were about twice as powerful as those two years prior, while the cost was about the same. All told, computing chips available now are more than 2 billion times as powerful as those available in 1965, while the cost is about the same.

Our entire understanding of how technology works is based on this model. If it’s more than a couple years old, it’s probably time to replace it. In schools, we use Moore’s Law as a guideline for everything from planning replacement schedules to estimating depreciation. We replace desktop computers every six years. That’s the point at which they’ve lost about 90% of their value. It was predictable. We could plan for it. We could budget for it.

I got my first smartphone in 2010. I replaced it in 2012. That one would have been replaced in 2014 if I hadn’t dropped it in 2013. I’m making this third one last an extra year to get back on track, but it’s definitely showing its age now.

But Moore’s law is dead. Even the chip manufacturers have acknowledged as much. We’re still going to see growth in computing power, but that growth is going to be slower and less predictable. What’s that going to mean for schools? Lots of things:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicon_photonics#/media/File:Silicon_Photonics_300mm_wafer.JPGWe will keep computers longer.
We have to get over the idea that computers that are a few years old are too out of date to do anything useful. Most of the computers in our classrooms are now eight years old, and it’ll probably be another year before we replace them. It’s not that we’re trying to be cheap or that we don’t want to be cutting edge. The reality is that they still do most of what we need them to do, and we’d rather use technology resources to improve access for students.

We have to worry about durability.
When we bought the Acer netbooks in 2012, we expected to keep them for three years. We knew there would be problems with broken keyboards and cracked screens, but they were half the cost of desktop computers. If we could get three years out of them, we could leverage their mobility and still come out ahead.

But as we head into year five, those weak batteries and poorly designed keyboards are becoming more of a problem. While any life we continue to get out of them is just icing on the cake at this point, it’s a shame to throw them away when they still work fairly well. We’ll take the worst ones out of commission and use them for parts, and we’ll limp along for another year before retiring them. But as we move forward, we need to think about holding on to these things for more years. Build quality and durability will become more important, and we will have less patience for planned obsolescence.

Software will have to be more efficient.
In the early days, computer engineers were all about efficiency. They were working with some pretty tough constraints, and they would spend a lot of time working through performance and resource challenges. That art has largely been lost in the last generation. Applications use more memory / processing power / storage space to do the same things, because those resources have been unlimited for so long. There’s no reason why I should need 8 gb of ram in my computer to run a web browser and a terminal session. But I do because the software is developed without any consideration for hardware limitations.

When Windows Vista came out, there weren’t any computers on the market that could run it. In fact, Microsoft changed the certification from “Vista Ready” to “Vista Capable” so they could actually certify computers to run the new operating system. Within a few months, the hardware caught up, and soon just about everything could run Vista (whether they wanted to or not). The same thing is happening right now with the Oculus Rift. Very few computers meet the system requirements. So the early adopters have to buy new hardware, while everyone else will just have to wait for the industry to catch up.

But in a world where those hardware upgrades are NOT just around the corner, the software developers are going to have to find better ways to improve their products without boosting the system requirements beyond reach.

Costs are going to rise.
I expect costs to go down. That’s how we fuel sustainability. In 2011, we had 3 computing devices for every 7 students. Today, we have 11 computing devices for every 7 students. Over the same period, the school district has received no increase in funding. We’re not bringing in more money, and we’re not spending more money. We have moved things around a little. We’re spending a little less on textbooks, and a little more on computers. But for the most part, the financial side has been pretty flat.

The difference has been the cost of computing devices. When we started buying classroom sets of laptops, we were paying about half as much as we were for desktops. When we started buying Chromebooks, we halved that cost again. We didn’t spend less money, but we bought a lot more devices and improved student access to technology considerably. That, in turn, allowed teachers to better leverage technology to design instruction that meets the individual needs of each learner.

But this year, when I placed my order for Chromebooks for the incoming sixth graders, two things surprised me. First, the specs on the new devices are identical to those from last year. There’s no more memory or storage or processing power. The device is exactly the same as last year. Second, the price hasn’t dropped. Usually, if I buy something for $350 one year, I expect it to be $240 the next. Not this year. The new devices are a few dollars cheaper, but innovation has stalled and pricing is staying the same. That means the whole industry is slowing down. While the longer life cycles are going to help us keep technology longer, the cost stability is going to offset any savings we might have had.

The biggest change is going to be the mindset. The promise that there’s something newer and better right around the corner is a myth. We have to get over our fascination with the new and shiny, and focus a little more on doing great things with the amazing technology we already have.

Photo credits:
Moore’s law chart by shigeru23 from WikiMedia Commons
Silicon Photonics 300mm wafer by Ehsanshahoseini from WikiMedia Commons