Different Enough

Would you ride in a driverless car?

Let’s say you’re in Pittsburgh or Phoenix and you call for an Uber. The car rolls up, and there’s no one inside. Do you get in?

04-research-vehicle-f-015-luxury-in-motion-mercedes-benz-680x379-deYour answer might depend on how the car is configured. If there is no driver, there is no need for a driver’s seat. If the car itself has no steering wheel, pedals, or other controls, does that make a difference? Actually, if no one is driving, it’s not even necessary for everyone to face the direction of travel. What if the seats inside were configured like a train or a limo, where they face each other? Does that make you more likely or less likely to get in?

On the other hand, maybe that’s too radical. Would you feel better if there were a robotic driver: a human-like machine that mimics the actions of a human driver? While it wouldn’t actually be necessary to make the car work, it would give the car a sense of familiarity that might make you more comfortable.

We like innovation. We want to use products and adopt ideas that show that we’re making progress. My new phone needs to be better than my old phone. New appliances have fancy features that outpace their predecessors. Cars have their steady march toward increased safety and comfort that make them more attractive than their predecessors. The new products have to be new enough that we get a sense that we’re not just throwing our money away on the same old thing.

But when manufacturers innovate too much, they lose the market. Many people wouldn’t consider the early smartphones that didn’t have physical keyboards. Tankless hot water systems haven’t caught on, despite their energy efficiency and convenient size. There’s little difference in driving performance between my current hybrid car and the gas one that it replaced, but the new one has has 50% better fuel economy. Still, you don’t see many of them on the road. They’re not quite familiar enough to gain traction.

Innovation has a sweet spot. If a new product is not different enough from what we already have, it is rejected for its banality. At the same time, if it’s too different, it’s rejected as too radical.

In social psychology, this idea is called optimal distinctiveness. In social groups, we want to be alike enough to be accepted as part of the group, but we also have a need for differentiation and individuality within the group and between different groups. Jonah Berger discussed this on a recent episode of Hidden Brain. The theory also explains why, for example, teens moved away from Facebook when their parents started signing up.

But looking at this through an institutional lens, it suggests that we can’t just scrap the cultural tradition of public education and start over. Imagine for a moment that we could reach some consensus on what it is that schools should be doing. There’s a magic list of, say, ten outcomes that students should have when they complete their schooling. We have a reasonable way of measuring those outcomes, and we can all more-or-less agree that successful schools are the ones whose students consistently meet those goals. (I know. We’re somewhere over in that ill-defined area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Don’t worry. We’re about to ride the teacups into Wonderland.)

Now further imagine that we know how to accomplish those goals. We have a defined strategy with predictable outcomes. We know how to most efficiently provide instruction to meet the defined goals, and we have proven intervention strategies that determine when students are struggling and provide the support they need to succeed.

The problem has been defined, and its solution has been articulated. But we still can’t do it. Whatever solution we come up with has to be optimally distinct. If we have a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering content to students, and the student answering questions and doing practice problems for homework, and a test every two weeks to determine what they’ve learned, then we aren’t being very groundbreaking. (I would also argue that we’re not getting beyond the recall and skill Depth of Knowledge levels). But if we throw out the idea that we’re working with 25 students in 45 minute blocks of time, then we are accused of adopting untested new education fads and using our children as guinea pigs.

So we’re walking this line of innovation. We’re keeping traditional classes, school calendars, and bell schedules. But teachers are leveraging technology to extend and expand learning beyond what can be accomplished in a 45 minute class period. We could provide wholly online courses, but our staff, students, parents, and school community are more comfortable with classes that meet face to face. We use short formative assessments to gauge student learning and adapt instruction to meet each student’s needs. In some cases, this process could be automated. But that pushes too hard on questioning the role of the teacher, and we have no intention of doing away with teachers.

I once proposed an idea for middle school where each team had a different focus. There would be an arts team and a STEM team. Both take the same core classes. Both have project-based curricula that focus on inquiry. The arts team would incorporate an emphasis on visual and performing arts, and would consider the academic subjects from that perspective. The stem team would focus on process, scientific method, and innovative design. The teams would always have some exposure to the other perspective, but the concentration would follow the passions of the student. Families would be able to pick which team best suits the student entering in sixth grade, and they’d follow that path for three years until going to high school.

The conversations about this idea are always good ones, but it’s really too different from our current approach to be practical. To get there, we need to focus on the smaller pieces first. Let’s spend some time trying to emphasize inquiry in some units in some courses. Let’s do some authentic project-based learning at each grade level, without totally transforming our school into a project-based learning center. We have to embrace the arts, and acknowledge the importance of stem. We have to make things different enough to be making real progress, but not so different that we don’t recognize our schools anymore.

Just different enough.

Photo credit: Mercedes F 015 concept car

College Ready

As the father of a high school senior, I’ve spent some time on college campuses over the last several months. We’ve visited elite private schools, small liberal arts colleges, and large state institutions. We’ve talked to admissions counselors, students, professors, and department heads. We have toured campuses, attended classes, listened to the promotional talks, and asked a lot of questions.

The goal of this, of course, is to find the right fit for my daughter. But along the way, the educational technologist in me has noticed some things.

dok_chartOver the last ten years, we have changed the way teaching and learning happens at the K-12 level. We work hard to get beyond the knowledge level. Education used to be about imparting knowledge. Teachers and textbooks provide content to students. They take tests to show that they have “learned” that content. We called that education. Now, we spend more time on strategic and extended thinking. Having the facts is important, but it’s not enough. We’re asking students to analyze and synthesize the knowledge. We want them to apply their learning to new challenges.

Technology plays an important role in all of this. Of course it’s an information resource. We do spend a lot of time teaching students how to find, filter, assess, and cite online resources. But technology also allows students to collaborate and communicate in unprecedented ways. It allows teachers to differentiate, tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of each student. And technology is also a platform of creation, where students can make something new that demonstrates their learning.

These are the things we’re doing with middle school students. But at the undergrad level, most of what we’re seeing is a reversion to knowledge dissemination. Classes may be lecture halls of 300, but honestly, in most of the schools we’re looking at, those mega-courses are rare. Still, the classes are set up to have an expert standing at the front of the room talking for an hour while everyone else writes down what she says. Students will do some reading, and they’ll write some essays. They’ll sit for a few exams that will act as summative measures of what has been learned. Maybe there will be a project, and in some rare cases that project might have some real world relevance. But the bottom line is that we’re going to spend $100 an hour for my daughter to sit in a room and listen to a professor talk.

28488183456_f55c47232f_zThe role of technology in these schools is tangential at best. Granted, we have not visited a lot of them, and we have not seen every program. But we have been to 8-10 colleges and universities this year. At those schools, students use computers to take notes and write papers. They probably use the Internet to do some research. That’s about it. No one talks about blended learning. While many of these schools have online courses, they treat them like they’re a separate branch campus. They’re not using the online tools to help with the face to face courses. No one considers technology to be an indispensable part of learning. They still have computer labs. While many students have laptops, it’s not a requirement or even an expectation that students will bring their technology. Unless specifically asked about it, no one at any of the schools even mentioned technology or how it’s used for classes.

The question, then, is what do we do about high school? Our teachers make the very valid point that their job is to prepare students for college. In the school where I work, almost all of the students choose to continue their education at the university level, and we should do everything we can to prepare them to be successful in that environment.

28520201495_a99a7d0599_zAs these middle schoolers grow up, are they going to lose the sense of inquiry that we’re trying to foster? Will high school become a time when they unlearn how to ask questions and simply give the teacher what he wants to get the grade and be a “successful” student? Or, if we advocate for increased rigor at the high school level, do we endanger our students’ success at the college level, where they’re expected to be very good at digesting and recalling information?

If we teach the students to adapt, they’ll be fine. If we focus on problem solving and innovation and application, they’re not going to have any trouble with defining and categorizing and recalling. They may be frustrated with college being too easy, but that’s a great problem to have.

On the other hand, if the goal is “college and career ready,” and almost all of our students are going to college, we may be making K-12 education a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

Image sources:
DOK Chart: Jason Singer, Curriculet
Rows sign and Miami Seal: me

Insecurities

Sometimes, the world isn’t a very nice place.

When the Internet was invented, it was a space for collaboration. The technical challenge of connecting disparate computer systems in remote locations was daunting. The goal was to allow researchers at the various locations to work together, sharing data, analyses, and perspectives.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelsarver/62771138The idea that some members of the community would try to exploit the system to gain access to information or resources that don’t belong to them was inconceivable. The researchers and engineers designing the protocols and tools that eventually became the Internet were focused on getting the system to work. They weren’t worried about security.

That oversight is a common thread for innovation. We often underestimate how new technologies will be misused. Einstein famously regretted his work on the atomic bomb. Kalashnikov was horrified that his rifle was used by so many to cause so much terror. Sometimes, we fail to consider the worst consequences of our best ideas. We’re so focused on making the impossible practical that we don’t spend much time considering whether impossible is such a bad thing.

The Internet has struggled with its underlying insecurity for decades. We have replacements for telnet and ftp that encrypt communications to keep anyone from eavesdropping on them. We have https to allow encrypted web traffic. We use WPA to protect wireless traffic. We can even encrypt email if we have to, but almost no one does. Security is still an afterthought. It’s bolted on to a product or protocol after it already works. Because it’s much simpler, the insecure versions are always more reliable and faster and more efficient and more convenient. We often prioritize these things ahead of security, and continue to use technologies that we know will get us into trouble eventually.

The tech industry didn’t learn from the development of the Internet. Operating systems, too, were designed for a single user who has total access to everything, as were phones and tablets. The idea that this computer might be connected to other computers, and that other software and users might exploit their access is often ignored. Even today, we run into a lot of software that won’t work without complete control over the entire computer and everything on it.

On the network side, system requirements for just about every software package we use require us to eliminate all aspects of security. They often require firewall and filtering exceptions that make our systems more vulnerable. When we point this out, we hit a brick wall. If we can’t prove that we’ve followed their requirements to the letter, they won’t help with any problems we may have.


When you’re developing software, if you design it to work first and then try to add in security later, it doesn’t work right. You end up in cycle where you try to make it more secure, but those efforts break some critical functionality. When you fix those bugs, you introduce more security problems. The result is a program that constantly needs updated, but that never really reaches a point where it’s both secure and reliable.

This process used to be hidden from most people through the beta testing process. Back in the ’90s, it was cool to get betas of new software. You could try out new software in exchange for providing feedback to the developers to help them fix bugs and get the product ready for the general public. I remember being excited about new beta versions of web browsers. It was an exciting time when you could get a glimpse of what’s next.

As we’ve moved along, though, it seems like ALL software is beta software now. Each update comes with that wonderful anticipation of the new problems we’re sure to have. The industry constantly tells us we have to keep all of our software updated, but every time we do, something breaks. That’s okay. There’s a new version next week to fix that major problem. And the update next month will fix the security vulnerabilities introduced by this fix.

We’re living in a world where software doesn’t have to work reliably or securely. It just has to be “good enough” for now. Ship new versions quickly and regularly, and don’t worry too much about it. Every time I start up my phone or my computer or my tablet or my Chromebook, I have a nice new collection of crappy software to install.

So what’s the solution? How do we move away from this endless cycle? I think it comes down to the license agreement. You know, those terms you agree to without reading every time software tries to install or update? In Google’s case, the relevant parts are sections 13 and 14 (some of which I’ve left out). They put it in all caps so you know it’s important:

13.3 IN PARTICULAR, GOOGLE, ITS SUBSIDIARIES AND AFFILIATES, AND ITS LICENSORS DO NOT REPRESENT OR WARRANT TO YOU THAT:
(A) YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS,
(B) YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR FREE FROM ERROR,
(D) THAT DEFECTS IN THE OPERATION OR FUNCTIONALITY OF ANY SOFTWARE PROVIDED TO YOU AS PART OF THE SERVICES WILL BE CORRECTED.

13.6 GOOGLE FURTHER EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS OF ANY KIND, WHETHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES AND CONDITIONS OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NON-INFRINGEMENT.

Translation: I don’t know what you think this software is going to do, or if you’ve bought into all of our marketing hype, but no matter how low your expectations are, you should lower them more. 

14. LIMITATION OF LIABILITY

14.1 SUBJECT TO OVERALL PROVISION IN PARAGRAPH 13.1 ABOVE, YOU EXPRESSLY UNDERSTAND AND AGREE THAT GOOGLE, ITS SUBSIDIARIES AND AFFILIATES, AND ITS LICENSORS SHALL NOT BE LIABLE TO YOU FOR:

(A) ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL CONSEQUENTIAL OR EXEMPLARY DAMAGES WHICH MAY BE INCURRED BY YOU, HOWEVER CAUSED AND UNDER ANY THEORY OF LIABILITY.. THIS SHALL INCLUDE, BUT NOT BE LIMITED TO, ANY LOSS OF PROFIT (WHETHER INCURRED DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY), ANY LOSS OF GOODWILL OR BUSINESS REPUTATION, ANY LOSS OF DATA SUFFERED, COST OF PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES, OR OTHER INTANGIBLE LOSS;

(B) ANY LOSS OR DAMAGE WHICH MAY BE INCURRED BY YOU, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO LOSS OR DAMAGE AS A RESULT OF:

(I) ANY RELIANCE PLACED BY YOU ON THE COMPLETENESS, ACCURACY OR EXISTENCE OF ANY ADVERTISING, OR AS A RESULT OF ANY RELATIONSHIP OR TRANSACTION BETWEEN YOU AND ANY ADVERTISER OR SPONSOR WHOSE ADVERTISING APPEARS ON THE SERVICES;

(II) ANY CHANGES WHICH GOOGLE MAY MAKE TO THE SERVICES, OR FOR ANY PERMANENT OR TEMPORARY CESSATION IN THE PROVISION OF THE SERVICES (OR ANY FEATURES WITHIN THE SERVICES);

(III) THE DELETION OF, CORRUPTION OF, OR FAILURE TO STORE, ANY CONTENT AND OTHER COMMUNICATIONS DATA MAINTAINED OR TRANSMITTED BY OR THROUGH YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES;

14.2 THE LIMITATIONS ON GOOGLE’S LIABILITY TO YOU IN PARAGRAPH 14.1 ABOVE SHALL APPLY WHETHER OR NOT GOOGLE HAS BEEN ADVISED OF OR SHOULD HAVE BEEN AWARE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF ANY SUCH LOSSES ARISING.

Translation: whatever happens, it’s not our fault. Even if we do it on purpose.

The software companies have created conditions of use that eliminate any sense of accountability on their part. They won’t guarantee that their product will do anything, and they won’t be responsible for any damage created by it. Even if they willfully cause problems or data loss, lie to you about the product, and interfere with other technologies you’re using, they have no liability.

I keep waiting for the courts to throw these things out. End users are clicking through these agreements without reading them because they have no choice. They’re not making informed decisions to give away their rights. They’re not so excited to try out new software that they’re setting up test environment that have no important data or work to do. They’re just trying to get to the Internet, to check their email, to open a PDF file, and to get some work done. Where’s the stable, reliable software product that helps them do that?

Without any incentive to ship reliable, stable, secure code, we’re going to continue to be inundated with updates. Every time there’s a security breach or an internet outage or a loss of data, we’re going to blame the end user. “We told you not to trust our software.” “Why don’t you have a backup.” “What do you MEAN you’re still using that horrible old software from next month.” “Don’t you dare delay this update.”

So until something changes, we’ll keep installing updates, and then update the updates. And then reboot to find that there’s a bug fix for the update.

Photo credit: Michael Sarver on Flickr