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

Failing to Decide

It’s hard to keep up with educational technology. Every week, it seems like there’s some new product that promises to revolutionize the way we teach kids, and save our civilization from the perils of a failed education system.

While much of this is snake oil purveyed by charlatans preying on the fears of a public nostalgic for “good old days” that never really existed, there actually are some technologies that can improve both the process and the results of public education.

We separate the wheat from the chaff though a constant cycle of evaluation. When a new technology emerges that shows promise, we begin with exploration. This usually involves trying the technology in a variety of configurations and contexts to see if it solves a problem we’re struggling with. If the technology shows promise, we move on to a pilot phase, where different options are tried and compared before standardizing on a solution to be widely implemented.

Here’s an example: about ten years ago, interactive whiteboards were all the rage. Teachers were excited about them. Vendors were calling. Grants were starting to be written. It became clear that we were moving toward a wide adoption. For the first couple years, we bought all kinds of different solutions. We tried the Promethian, Smart, Mimeo, and Interwrite solutions. We tried boards that require a stylus and those that don’t. We tried the slate approach, where the teacher controls the projected image from a tablet. We bought and installed several different solutions. After a year or so, we came together to reach consensus. The SMART Board was selected as the product of choice, and then a phased implementation began. Once the decision was made, it only took about three years to get them in most of our classrooms. We now have a consistent solution that meets the needs of our teachers while still being standardized enough to make support and maintenance practical.

The iPad is another example. It generated a lot of interest in schools when it was first introduced, and we bought lots of them to see how they could best be used. We also bought some Android tablets, Kindles, and Nooks, and even looked at the Windows tablets that were available at the time. Within a year, we had standardized on the iPad, developed a procedure for configuring and managing them, and figured out that they’re best used with developing readers and in targeted interventions. While the management process is not exactly smooth, we do at least have some consistency that makes things a lot easier for everyone.

When it comes to Learning Management Systems (LMS), though, we missed the boat. An LMS is a digital representation of the classroom.  When students enter a traditional classroom, they walk into a familiar environment centered on routine and consistency. They know where to sit. They know where to turn in their homework. They know where upcoming assignments and homework are listed. They can see the schedule of upcoming topics and learning objectives. There’s a place to celebrate excellent student work. In an online space, students can easily get lost. They may have to go to an online textbook hosted on one site, complete assignments someplace else, and take tests and assessments in a third tool. To complicate things, different teachers might use completely different systems, resulting in a lot of frustration for students and parents.

We could have fixed this, but we didn’t. I didn’t. We started off fine. We were in the exploration phase. We used Manhattan Virtual Classroom for a year or two before trying out Moodle in 2002.  We did some training on Moodle, and some teachers really jumped on board. But we never went further than that. Some people moved to WordPress. Others made web sites and used other resources that filled some of the needs of an LMS. Teachers chose the solution that worked best for them, or they chose none at all.

Eventually, we wound up with so many different approaches that it was impossible to keep track of them, let alone try to provide support. We still have some teachers using Moodle. Others are using Schoology or Canvas or Google Classroom. Some have web sites, created in WordPress or Blogger or Google Sites or Microsoft Publisher. Some teachers use email to keep their students informed. Others use Twitter or Facebook.  I commented at the beginning of 2014 that failing to standardize on an LMS was one of the biggest things holding us back.

So a year ago, we set out to change that. But the regular evaluation process didn’t work. The list of essential characteristics for an LMS was so comprehensive and contradictory that nothing fit the bill. To make things worse, most of the teachers involved in the process had already spent an extraordinary amount of time in the tool they’ve been using. So almost everyone was biased in favor of keeping his or her own solution and getting everyone else to standardize on it.

The solution came from an unlikely source. Earlier this year, I attended a software demo for a different product which included an overview of the Virtual Classroom LMS. This is a new product the fully integrates with our gradebook and student records systems (Progress Book). Made by the same company, it’s really the only LMS that can automatically create assignments in both the gradebook and the LMS at the same time, and transfer grades between the two systems automatically.

On the instruction side, it hits the highlights. Teachers can collect and organize resources, and can collaborate in that process. Teachers can also co-teach sections of courses, and those resources can be assigned to whole classes or groups of students. Some assessments can be automatically graded. Navigation is intuitive for students. And since it’s an extension of the gradebook software teachers have been using for years, the learning curve shouldn’t be very steep.

It’s still a very new product. That means that all of the features we’d like to see aren’t there yet. But it also means that the company is open to suggestions and we should have a significant voice in product development as one of the early adopters.

There’s still a long road ahead. Some of the teachers are resentful that they’re going to have to switch products. Full implementation will probably take a few years. And change is difficult everywhere. But at least we finally have a decision and we can move forward.

And I’ve learned not to wait too long between exploration and adoption.

Photo credit: Nicholas Mutton on Wikimedia Commons.