Monday, September 18, 2006

More on the Post-literate World

This just in: Apparently, I'm not the only one noticing this trend. This column expands on a recent survey that shows only 30% of adults can read complex texts accurately. I take that as an indication that the post-literate environment is developing faster than I thought
. The author of this article, however, reports this fact in the context of what seems to be almost glee over the idea that Johnny can't read (you can almost hear him as a five-year old throwing a tantrum and saying, "I don't wanna read!"), that I retract my previous observation about post-literate society being barbarous.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Student to Student Online Instruction

A lot of people are searching for the right model of a Web 2.0 play in online instruction. As usual, they're looking in the wrong place, at school, publisher, or university sites.

The right place to look is where the students are. Quizilla, for example, has a devoted fan base of over two million unique users a month, 55% of whom are between 12-24. It is a pure play Web 2.0 site, meaning that it deploys AJAX content modules created by its user base, with little to no editorial selection.

Quizilla isn't a learning enviornment, but that doesn't mean that students aren't teaching each other on the site. Most teachers would be excited to see students writing stories that other students read, which is one of the things that takes place on Quizilla. Or contributing to an online wikipedia style encyclopedia ("Welcome to the Zillapedia: the encyclopedia for you, by you. Join other Quizilla! members to define words and topics the way you want.") Students are reading and writing and sharing on this site. Consider for example, today's featured story from the website:

Sir Arthur Slays Count Dracula

Sometimes love is worth fight for, especially true for the brave knight, Sir Arthur, a man faced with an uncertain future. Sir Arthur is from Medieval Times and is trained in all types of sword and weapon combat. Living during the hostile and horrific Middle Ages, these skills are extremely valued. There are times when bravery is constantly tested, as bodies from the black plague would overwhelm the local graveyards spawning dark souls to come to life. Suffering from the constant dealings of death, Sir Arthur became accustomed to frequent visits to the local graveyard.

It was one Autumn night in the graveyard where Sir Arthur encountered the wrath of Dracula and the kidnapping of his true love, Princess Isabella. Sir Arthur is already accustomed to destroying red demons, zombies, flying bats, and live skeletons, but to see Dracula in full fury is a serious force to be reckoned with.

As Sir Arthur was romantically discussing Medieval politics with Princess Isabella, before his eyes a tombstone cracked in half, completely mislabeling the epitaph to read “Count Dracula”. At this spontaneous moment, Sir Arthur knew what lethal, dark force was in the grave yard. Then, before his eyes, Princess Isabella is lifted to the sky, while Dracula and the stolen Princess eclipse the full moon of the autumn night. Sir Arthur knew he had to act quick. With the bl-ink of an eye, Sir Arthur launched 6 daggers hitting Dracula’s eyes, heart, lungs, and mouth. Theses critical organs represented the epitome of Medieval mythology and almost instantly, Dracula disintegrated into a cloud of black smoke. While Dracula is disappearing, Princess Isabella was easily hundreds of feet in the air with Dracula, which could only mean a huge drop. Sir Arthur run as quick as lightning to catch the Princess from the deadly fall. With a gigantic leap, he perfectly swoops and catches the Princess from hitting hard cemetery ground.

As if it were the couple’s first kiss, Sir Arthur gently calms the shaken Princess and they two return to the towering Castle they call home. Finally, the two can sleep in peace knowing that Dracula is defeated... at least for the night.

The problem, of course, is that absent a teacher or editor, the stories on Quizilla come packed with poor grammar, mixed metaphor, and haphazard structure. And that, in fine, is the problem with Web 2.0 approaches to online instruction: students cannot teach each other what they do not know themselves. Worse, what they are teaching is that nonstandard expression IS standard. The passage above no doubt resonates more with students than a textbook exemplar. It is a recognizable situation (from video games--especially with the video game illustrations featured in the story), featuring archetypes and an authoritative-sounding author ("Theses critical organs represented the epitome of Medieval mythology"). Adults might struggle to get what the author is saying, but the kids know what it is--it is a STYLE of writing that seems entertaining and sounds smart. Which is good enough for them.

Quizilla in fact is a pretty good place to gain some insight into student interests as well as their general attitude toward education. It is sure to give teachers pause. Not only do the majority of students on Quizilla seem to loathe school, they are unable to express their loathing in any form even approaching reasoned argument ("...let's face it school sucks ok? I wanna meet new friends, yeah, but half the stuff we laern in school these days is pretty dang useless"). Both the style and substance of the content on the site expresses a profound dissatisfaction with, and irrelevance of, education. On the other hand Quizilla is a genuine Web 2.0 community of youth. Defined, deployed and policed by its members, who collectively represent the new paradigm of online learning. Their self-expression on the site is an stunning bricolage of their attitudes and preoccupations and therefore an invaluable sociology of an evolving community.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan speculated that television was a "mosaic" form of expression that plugged directly into the unconscious, and undermined the linear rationality embedded in literacy. Had he lived to see the internet, he would no doubt judge it the nuclear equivalent of the conventional bomb of television. Both explode traditional western society and raze it to a post-literate position, where human affiliation is defined by "tribal" affect as opposed to educated reason.

What is happening on Quizilla is the devastation of the definition of education as I understood it growing up. Education is instead being replaced by a form of tribal expression where the tropes and stylistic flouishes of educated argument are deployed without any underlying grasp of cause and effect or traditional canons of reason. Which should be cause for alarm except I've yet to be convinced that a post-literate society is necessarily a barbarous society. Instead I think we're witnessing something akin to a resurgence of the social order that preceded the modern age, one where, for example, the conventions of English were unsettled, and regional and local variations were so distinct as to be nearly incomprehensible to each other. In that period there was always a educated mandarinate who managed to maintain social and economic cohesion.

That mandarianate is still with us. They just need to figure out the internet. Especially when it comes to education.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Who Will Break Console Games?

I once taught computer-based math and reading to elementary school children at a community center in the Brownsville projects, Brooklyn. I had twelve students in a small room with a glass wall; on the other side of that wall, other children at the community center played Super Mario Brothers on a large screen television.

I could barely keep my kids on task. Every other question was, "When do we get to play that?" My students squirmed and jumped; they kept watching the glass, hoping to play Super Mario Brothers. I was using FastTMath from Scholastic and Orchard Gold Star, both good programs, but at the end of the day, they couldn't compete for sheer excitement with console games. Super Mario Brothers is a game at least 15 years old, but easily outshone Scholastic's brand new math program, at least in terms of engagement.

Here's an article that quotes my old boss, Craig Bartholomew, on the challenges educational software publishers face in today's market. What's great about the article is that it is the first time in print that I have seen some educational software publishers finally cop to the fact that they make lousy product. But they haven't quite yet got the point; they aren't yet willing to study console and computer games to figure out what makes them such an exciting experience. The Jump Start folks, who've built a relatively good product, discuss their new, "3-D" game experience, where kids have to do algebra to get through a door, or gobble rhyming ants to move through a maze.

They're imitating the wrong things. Console and computer games aren't exciting because of their graphics, or the sense of motion you get playing them. They're exciting because they give someone an opportunity to prove mastery of a skill or task, and they are scaffolded and architected in such a way that mastery is a challenging, but not impossible, game. It's the structure and form of the games that needs to be imitated, not the content or the art. The medium is still the message.

The problem with making algebra or poetry a problem to get over in a cool game is that it obscures the way that algebra or poetry are themselves cool games. This approach makes the subject matter that you want children to master a mere (uncool) incident in a cool game. They won't learn what you want them to learn this way. A better approach is to open up the inherent coolness in algebra and poetry and build a game around that. Then you'd be able to compete with Super Mario Brothers.

There's a serious financial opportunity here. This article starts by observing the frustration of a father who can't find good educational software to run on his XBox. The average gamer is 29 years old. In the next five years many of them will get married and have children. The publisher who addresses that market first is likely to make a fortune. But they won't make a fortune if they publish a first-person shooter where you shoot phonemes or fractions instead of bullets.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A little Educational Propaganda...

Here's an opt-ed from the LA Times by Diane Ravitch that is amazingly dishonest. Ostensibily the article argues that Bill Gates now wields more influence over American schools than does the Secretary of Education. True enough, and for those of us who worked for Bill, a good thing, since Bill will likely apply some of the straight-forward economic thinking he advanced at Microsoft in the education space.

Ravitch is aware of this, and biases her op-ed accordingly. She warns Bill of the mistake of following his own intuition as a guide to reforming schools. She uses the example of the Gates Foundation's support of small schools as an example, and cites the failure of small school efforts at Manual High School in Denver.

Manual High School, however, is not an example of failure of the small school movement. If anything, the closure of Manual is an example of the danger of student vouchers and school choice, since it was declining enrollments due to students choosing other schools that led to the closure of Manual.

Why would Ravitch deliberately distort the story? So she can get to her object lesson, and guide the deployment of Gates' wealth in a way she feels is appropriate:

In light of its experiences, the Gates Foundation seems chastened and apparently has recognized that curriculum (what students are taught) and instruction (the quality of teachers) may be no less important than school size. (emphasis added)

This is exactly wrong. What I have seen in schools at the ground level is that the greatest single failure in American education in the last twenty years has been to focus on curriculum and instruction as the primary focus for reform. This has led to interminable wrangling over educational effectiveness, assessment and instruction, and has built a formidable and entirely irrelevant educational establishment in America's teacher training programs. There are more universities cranking out EDs and PhDs in education than there are good teachers in schools. It amounts to a jobs program for "researchers" who want to argue over whether fractions should precede decimals in a middle school math program as opposed to a training ground for teachers who actually teach middle school math.

The danger to the professorate of which Ravitch is a part is that Bill will cut past all the nonsense being pushed out of schools of education on focus on results in American schools. And he should. Because the prescription for reform is actually pretty simple, and Bill will get it quickly, because he usually cuts to the chase.

Look, education, like economics and most anything else, is all about time on task. The more time students spend working on any discipline--regardless of the curricular structure--the more they will learn. Not all curricula will work all the time for all students, but the differences between curricula pale before the simple need of getting kids to work more often on the things they need to work on. Accordingly:

1. The school day should be longer. Students barely spend four hours a day on task, when you factor in all the class changes and non-academic programs they have in schools. The day should simply be longer--a proposition almost all working parents would support.

2. The school year needs to be longer. There should be no summer breaks. Instead of a 180 day year, students should be enrolled in school at least 220-230 days/year, which would put them on par with students in other industrialized economies.

3. Classes should be smaller. Ideally classes should be no more than six students to a teacher, especially in elementary school.

4. Classes should be uninterrupted and focused. Time on task should be on task. But students also need to have uninterrupted opportunities to explore, conceptualize and discover things in their classes--as well as time to bear down and concentrate. No more announcements from the office in the middle of class.

5. Classes need to be relevant. Bill is right--the American high school is obsolete. By high school students should begin to work in areas that are geninuely interesting to them, and track in directions that are relevant and appropriate to their lives. Students drop out of high school because they do not find it relevant, and they are making an obvious and correct assessment of the situation.

The prescriptions above are simple, direct, and will work. They are also expensive, which is why they are rarely deployed. They would require more teachers and more schools. The wealth of the Gates foundation could at least fund experiments along these lines. It's worth trying. But first and foremost Bill needs to follow his own no-nonesense thinking about educational reform, and ignore the advice of "experts" who are willing to distort facts to protect their comfortable positions.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Computing by Cell Phone

Here's an announcement from Microsoft about a prototype computer that sits in your cell phone. The device can connect to a TV and keyboard to provide a full-function PC-like experience for less than $100.

This is the sort of computing wave that will change the course of development in emerging markets.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Negroponte Smacked by Reality

Wow. Barely out the gate, Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child program is smacked by reality, in the form of the Indian government's rejection of OLPC. There's lots here to consider--the government thought the $100MM pricetag a bit steep for a completely unproven technology--but what leaves you breathless is the flat rejection of what the Indians saw as unvarnished western paternalism:

(The Indian Education Ministry) also finds it intriguing as to "why no developed country has been chosen" for MIT's OLPC experiment "given the fact that most of the developed world is far from universalising the possession and use of laptops among children of 6-12 age group".

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pearson's Financial Difficulties

Barely one week after I predicted that Pearson would restructure their business, rumors of restructuring hit the press. In truth, I'm not that prescient--the rumors are that they will sell their financial publications to concentrate on their education business, which is the opposite of what I predicted. I'll therefore weigh in with another prediction: selling FT buys the education business time, but if they don't hire some technology management expertise, look for Pearson education to find itself in serious trouble a year from now.

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