The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.

A Textbook Description

I want to free my students from textbooks. They shouldn’t have to carry half their weight around in their backpacks all the time. When they get to middle school, it starts to get out of hand. Each student has 4-6 books. They’re big. They’re heavy. And they have to go back and forth between school and home all the time. Once they move on to high school, the textbook problem is ridiculous. The books are twice as thick, and twice as heavy. I want to change that.

TextbooksSo I switched to the electronic version of the textbook. The e-book can be accessed on a tablet or computer or Chromebook. There’s nothing else to carry. All of the content is right there on the device.

That’s called substitution. I have substituted one technology (an electronic book) for another one (a physical book). There are some advantages (it’s easier to carry) and some disadvantages (the device has to be charged to work). Overall, though, not much has changed.

But now that the textbook is electronic, we can start to do more with it. Maybe the map in a world history book is interactive. Maybe there’s a video in the literature textbook showing a scene from Hamlet. Maybe there’s an animation showing how the water cycle works in the science text.

At this point, there are some clear advantages gained from the electronic version of the text. Mostly, it’s the same content we’ve always had. But now it is expanded and supplemented with additional resources. This is called augmentation. We’re using the technology in the same way, but we’ve added something to it.

But these devices that the students are using to access their books are also connected. So in addition to the content in the book, there are links to other resources. Maybe there are forums where students can debate the causes of the civil war, or collaborative spaces where they can explore the effects of DNA folding. Maybe students can react to the textbook by adding their own notes, and then sharing those notes with others and annotating one another’s comments. This is modification. The technology is starting to change how learning takes place.

But what if the book could do more than that? What if it could adapt to the needs of the learner using it? At the end of each section, there are discussion questions and progress checks. What if the book could adjust to how the students perform on those progress checks? Maybe there’s more supplemental content that can help develop understanding. Maybe it can figure out that the student is missing some key prerequisites and adapt the content to fill those gaps. Maybe it can adjust its own reading level to fit the needs of the learner. At this point, the methodology of teaching and learning starts to change. The text is more than just a static resource. This is called modification.

By now, it’s not really a textbook at all. It’s a resource entirely different, with interactivity, adaptability, and collaborative features built in. We think of it as an online resource, or a collection of online resources. The textbook may live on as a metaphor, but the resource only vaguely resembles the printed volume we started with.

This process is called the SAMR model. Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, this is a framework for evaluating the level at which technology integration is happening in classrooms. It’s not meant to be judgemental: modification is not always better than substitution. Instead, it helps guide conversations about how technology is used in education, the effectiveness of those efforts, and the capabilities that will come in the future.

This video from Common Sense Media explains the idea very well.

Photo credit: Timuiuc on Flickr.


Failing to Innovate

In 1993, I bought a graphing calculator. As freshly-minted math teacher, I was building my cache of instructional resources. And with my concentration on educational technology, I knew that graphing calculators would play an increasing role in how we teach math at the high school level.

3301122802_4e5129e931_zIt was expensive. I don’t remember exactly what it cost, but the MSRP was $130. It’s safe to say that I probably picked it up for around $100. It was a TI-85. It had a Zilog Z80 processor that ran at 6 mhz. It had 28K of RAM and a 0.008 megapixel display. I could say that I was blown away by the immense speed and power, and how it changed my perspective on how we do math. But that’s not true. I used it a couple times and put it away. I never did end up teaching math. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere, but I can’t find it.

At the time, just for perspective, my computer was a 386sx that ran at 16mhz and had 4 mb of RAM and an 80 mg hard drive. I paid around $1800 for it. If I used the standard depreciation model we use at work, that computer would now be worth about two cents. The few desktop computers we buy at school now are thousands of times more powerful and about a fourth of the price.

My children are at the age where they need graphing calculators for their high school (and college!) math classes. Their teachers recommend either the TI-83 or the TI-84. Having ignored graphing calculators for the better part of 20 years, I was interested to see how far they had come. Surely there was a reason that students aren’t just using their phones now, right?

I expected to pay about $25 for a device that had 1000 times the capability. Surely they would all have resolutions that could be measured in megapixels. They would certainly have wifi, and be able to share and access resources online. We don’t measure memory in K anymore, anywhere. You can get 2gb flash drives for nothing if you can find someone still making them. That’s 2 million K. It never occurred to me that the new calculators wouldn’t be rechargeable and have color displays and be smaller and lighter than their predecessors.

The TI-83 plus, which is one of the recommended models for my daughter’s stats class, runs a Zilog Z80 processor at 6mhz. It has 32K of ram (24k of which is accessible to the user). It has a 0.06 megapixel display and it’s 20% larger than my 20 year old TI-85. You can buy one on Amazon right now for about $100.

I was sure I read that wrong. A generation later, graphing calculators have moderately less capability, and cost essentially the same. That’s crazy. It’s unheard-of in the technology world. It’s running the same processor at the same speed. How can they even get the chips to build these things? They should be putting them in museums, but instead they’re selling them new, and at the same price.

How does this happen?

Texas Instruments is both strategic and lucky. When they were designing the TI-81, they courted the teachers. They went to NCTM conferences and universities and asked teachers to participate in the design of the device. They got buy-in early on. Not only were they ahead of the innovation curve, they also had the support of math teachers. That gave them a significant competitive advantage. Once they convinced the schools that students all needed to have the same kind of calculator, it was obvious what that calculator would be. The monopoly was born. Today, TI has 93% of the graphing calculator market. Most of the rest is absorbed by Casio, but those are calculators sold to people who have a choice of device. Students are almost always forced to buy TI.

And here’s the genius part: the people deciding what will be purchased don’t have to pay for it, so the cost doesn’t matter. The teacher likes the TI. The textbook is written specifically for the TI. The ACT and SAT allow students to use the TI. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. If the student has to have it, the parents will pay it. They don’t have a choice.

The mobile phone should have taken the graphing calculator’s lunch money. There’s no reason why a smart phone can’t do everything a graphing calculator can do while streaming Spotify, tracking the user’s location, and texting with friends. Certainly the tablets and netbooks and Chromebooks we’ve been all abuzz over for the last five years can easily handle the minimal work that a calculator does.

But remember, we’ve “standardized” on a proprietary, patented interface. The only way to have an app that looks like a TI-83 is for TI to license it. And they don’t want to do that. Apps that cost more than $1.99 don’t get much traction. With margins on the 20 year old hardware hovering near 100 percent, why would they undermine their cash cow? TI reluctantly released an emulator for iOS, but it’s $30, and it can’t be used on standardized tests. As far as I can see, there’s no Android version. Teachers are still encouraging students to buy the hardware.

As long as this doesn’t change, they can keep charging $100, and they don’t have to innovate at all. The golden goose will just keep laying those golden eggs.

In my case, I went to eBay. I realized that there must be a lot of people who buy the calculator because it’s required, and then realize that it’s generally useless once they’re done with math. So there are lots of used ones available. I finally picked one up for about $35.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Apple. I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of the company. But without iOS, Android would suck. The competition forces both companies to innovate. Similarly, the Office 365 platform keeps Google Apps honest. The same is true with Playstation and Xbox. Or Canon and Nikon. Or Coke and Pepsi. Monopolies stifle innovation. And the customer always loses.

I was going to stop there. But I haven’t alienated enough people yet. So let’s take this to education. If schools don’t have to compete, we don’t have to innovate. We can just keep giving the same lectures and worksheets and multiple choice tests. We can stick to our 40 minute classes and our punitive grading practices, and our pretending that there’s some correlation between what we’re doing in school and what students are going to need when we finally let them out.

That world is ending. Our families have choices now. We may not like charters and vouchers and open enrollment, but they’re here. We can complain about it all we want. We can argue that we need a level playing field, and that all schools receiving public funding should be measured by the same standards and have the same requirements. That’s all true. But it’s missing the point. Our kids don’t have to come to us anymore. They have lots of choices. We can ignore that at our peril, and they’ll go elsewhere. Or, we can redesign public education to meet their needs and keep them.

Eventually, the TI graphing calculator gravy train will end. Schools and teachers and families will eventually realize it’s stupid to keep spending this money for the ridiculously obsolete devices. Hopefully, we will adapt before they reach the same conclusion about our schools.

Photo credit: Brandon Downey on Flickr