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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    In this week's episode we discuss:

    0:35:  My new feature on "new and noteworthy educational apps" and why there aren't more (or, um, any) Android apps on this list.

    4:37:  Interactive textbook publisher Inkling's move to HTML5 and the importance of cross-platform support for educational technologies.

    13:27:  Education and entrepreneurship -- Steve and I have a really great discussion about risk, profits, markets, innovation and the need -- perhaps -- for more Elon Musks, even in the public sphere.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    June 1, 2012

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    Facebook to Open Its Doors to Under–13-year-olds?

    The Wall Street Journal reported last night that Facebook is “developing technology that would allow children younger than 13 years old to use the social-networking site under parental supervision, a step that could help the company tap a new pool of users for revenue but also inflame privacy concerns.”

    Of course, millions of children younger than 13 are already on Facebook – some 7.5 million based on 2011 figures from Consumer Reports. And while Facebook does regularly expel underage users from the site, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear for a while now that he’s keen to find ways for them to stay there.

    He’s keen now more than ever, it’s easy to surmise, what with the new, IPO-related pressures for his social network to continue to expand its userbase as well as grow its revenue. There were over 901 million users as of the end of March 2012, so clearly there are plenty of folks out there who don’t have Facebook accounts. But as The Atlantic points out, some of the fastest growth is occurring in developing countries, and these new users aren’t necessarily the most monetizable ones: “To advertisers, American children’s eyes are more valuable than adults from less affluent countries.”

    Facebook and the Failure of COPPA

    (Purportedly) Standing between online advertisers and children is COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which mandates that websites secure “verifiable parental consent” before collecting personal information from those under age 13. Because of the paperwork and the costs associated with this – getting a signature or a credit card number, for example, from every parent – most sites that aren’t aimed at children simply forbid children from joining.

    That’s been Facebook’s policy.

    But clearly children have joined, lying about their age in order to create Facebook accounts. Many have done so with their parents’ permission. Many have done so with their parents’ help. Researchers danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey found that 55% of parents of 12-year-olds said their child had a Facebook account; 76% had assisted them in creating the account. Parents' willingness to violate age restrictions is just one of the unintended consequences of COPPA:

    The online industry’s response to COPPA’s under–13 rule and verifiable parental consent model is largely proving incompatible, and at times, antithetical to many parents’ ideas of how to help their children navigate the online world. Instead of providing more tools to help parents and their children make informed choices, industry responses to COPPA have neglected parental preferences and have altogether restricted what is available for children to access. As a result, many parents now knowingly allow or assist their children in circumventing age restrictions on general–purpose sites through lying. By creating this environment, COPPA inadvertently hampers the very population it seeks to assist and forces parents and children to forgo COPPA’s protection and take greater risks in order to get access to the educational and communication sites they want to be part of their online experiences.

    boyd et al suggest that we should reframe the discussion from whom data is gathered to how data is used.  Moreoever, online privacy measures should offer everyone protection, not just children. There should be greater transparency about how companies use our data, they argue, and we should have more control over what that looks like, no matter our age or background.  

    That's not what Facebook is doing here -- no surprise.

    A Technology Solution?

    Last year at the New Schools Venture Summit, Zuckerberg said that COPPA would “be a fight we take on at some point,” and at the time, I wondered what exactly that fight would look like. Because let’s face it. Facebook has a lousy track record on privacy. It’s unlikely to be the force to usher in a practice of more corporate transparency and user control over personal data.

    So what’s Facebook’s plan to accomodate both COPPA and the under–13 set? The Wall Street Journal story suggests it’s a technology solution: “Mechanisms being tested include connecting children’s accounts to their parents’ and controls that would allow parents to decide whom their kids can ‘friend’ and what applications they can use, people who have spoken with Facebook executives about the technology said. The under–13 features could enable Facebook and its partners to charge parents for games and other entertainment accessed by their children, the people said.” 

    Connecting parent and children accounts sounds a lot like what kid-friendly social networks like Togetherville already do, so this is hardly a unique or untested approach. Togetherville was acquired by Disney last year but shut down earlier this year – kids want to be on Facebook, after all. (Well, maybe. There have been some recent suggestions that the “cool” place to be online is now Tumblr (which does still require you be 13 or older) or Twitter (which has no age restrictions) – not Facebook). Although it's too early to judge exactly what the Facebook "mechanisms" will look like for parental controls, it sounds as though parents may just serve as the bank account for their kids' Facebook Credits with some supervisory access over which people and which apps can connect to a child's account. How transparent will Facebook (and third-party apps and advertisers) be about children's personal information?  Probably about as transparent as it is about any of our data.

    But what expectations do we have for our children's privacy online? Remember, after all, most parents are willing to let their children join Facebook already. Does Facebook's move mark a change to how we'll think about COPPA? Will Facebook's move prompt a scare?  Or a shrug?  Is COPPA a fix?  Or is it a fossil? How will Facebook’s overture to kids influence other sites, like say Google, and will they follow in its lead? (Of course they will.) Could the “verifiable parental consent” rule of COPPA be expanded to include the “verifiable identity” of Facebook or Google accounts?  And what are the implications of that?

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    Cross-posted at e-Literate

    Much of the mainstream media attention paid to MOOCs lately has involved the content, the credentialing, the cost, the class size. But what about the technology?

    It was (not surprisingly) Stephen Downes’ OLDaily that got me thinking about what can we glean about MOOCs based on their infrastructure. Last week, Downes’ OLDaily highlighted a post from Dirk Uys, a member of the P2PU tech team, that describes the code that runs Peer 2 Peer University. For his part, Downes noted the differences between that code, Lernanta (source code), and his own gRSShopper (source code).

    Django-based Lernanta is a fork of the code that ran Mozilla Drumbeat, once Mozilla’s community, communication, and project management software. Lernanta contains the features of many learning management platforms: user profiles, courses, schools, certification (or at least, badges). But as its origins in Drumbeat might suggest, Lernanta facilitates community management –how people participate, what people and projects they follow.

    gRSShopper, on the other hand, is a piece of the ur-MOOC infrastructure (language really fails here) – that is, MOOCs as formulated and offered by Downes, Siemens, Cormier, Couros, et al. And to clarify again, if you’ve subscribed to the newsletters associated with these MOOCS – with LAK12, Change11, OLDaily, and the like – then you’ve received an email “generated by gRSShopper.”

    gRSShopper, as Downes describes it, “is a personal web environment that combines resource aggregation, a personal dataspace, and personal publishing. It allows you to organize your online content any way you want to, to import content - your own or others’ - from remote sites, to remix and repurpose it, and to distribute it as RSS, web pages, JSON data, or RSS feeds.”

    Rather than driving users to a course website or a learning platform for all their interactions, the users on gRSShopper “are assumed to be outside the system for the most part,” writes Downes, “inhabiting their own spaces, and not mine.”

    Slide from George Siemens, “What is the Theory that Underpins Our MOOCs?

    That theory underpins gRSShopper.

    But I don’t want to make too much of the difference between the learner-focused gRSShopper and the community-oriented Lernanta. Sure, there is plenty of difference, but I don't think Lernanta is quite as demonstrative of P2PU theory as gRSShopper is for connectivism. And too, both these are both open source systems serving OER communities.

    There’s another gulf again between these two systems and the new Stanford-model-MOOCs. (Although MITx – and now presumably edX – does say it will open source its MOOC platform (source code link?).) The latter MOOCs have recreated a traditional LMS in many ways for their technology platforms, driving (almost) all course activity onto their own course sites. Udacity does host its videos on YouTube. Otherwise, there’s no RSS. There’s no integration with external student blogs. The social or peer element involves primarily class forums. All work is done on and submitted via the platform.

    That’s not to say, I suppose, that learners couldn’t take discussions elsewhere and adopt other tools – gRSShopper even – to do so. There's been some of this in early community forums (again with the forums!) that grew out of the Stanford AI and Machine Learning classes, and I’m curious to see if learners will bubble out beyond the confines of the tech platform once Coursera offers more humanities and social science classes.  Bookmarking, blogging, social media, RSS - will the new MOOCs open to these technologies?

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  • 06/05/12--11:51: Hack Education Turns 2!
  • Two years ago today, I published my first blog post here on Hack Education.

    At the time, I was a technology blogger for ReadWriteWeb, feeling intensely frustrated that I was admonished for wanting to write about ed-tech. “No one cares,” the editors said. “Not enough pageviews.” So I bought this domain and figured I’d just cover the topic here.

    In the past two years, I’ve written 670-some-odd posts and according to Google Analytics, I’ve had over 750,000 page views. Not too shabby for a brand new blog on a topic that nobody cares about by a writer that nobody knows.

    My top 10 posts

    1. Codecademy and the Future of Not Learning to Code
    2. The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy
    3. Khan Academy Gets $5 Million To Expand Faculty and Build a Physical School
    4. University of Phoenix Enrollment Down 42%
    5. The Failure of One Laptop per Child
    6. The Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2011
    7. Apple and the Textbook Counter-Revolution
    8. Google to Shut Down Android App Inventor
    9. With 4 New Products, Kno Finally Looks Like a Contender
    10. Android App Inventor Open Sourced, Code Released

    Most keyword searches that get visitors to this site involve some variation of Codecademy or Khan Academy. Other than organic search, most folks have found Hack Education through clicking on a link via Twitter, Hacker News or Reddit.  

    Obligatory tag cloud

    Thank you, readers

    I’m thrilled beyond belief that people have found me, whatever they’ve searched for or clicked on to get here. I’m thrilled people actually read this blog, because I love writing it. Despite the traffic (regardless of the traffic), this will remain a place for me to rant and rave; to stew and chew on learning theories, tools, and practices; to be contrarian, loud, and fearless.

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    You can learn a lot about a (education) startup if you listen to a founder tell its origin story – how she came to identify a problem, and how she devised the solution. You can ascertain a lot about mission and trajectory based on how she frames that narrative.

    Khan Academy has a fairly well-known origin story, for example. It’s one that Sal Khan tells a lot: he was tutoring his cousin remotely; he made some math videos, which she said she preferred to him in person; he put them on YouTube; Bill Gates liked the videos too; so Khan made thousands more.

    I couldn’t help think about Khan Academy’s origin story when I talked to LearnZillion’s Alix Guerrier yesterday, and when we spoke about what led him and his co-founder Eric Westendorf, both former educators, to start an online video lesson company. Khan Academy has such monopoly on mindshare of math videos, after all. So what makes LearnZillion different?

    The origin story: Westendorf was the principal of the EL Haynes Public Charter School in Washington DC where he had implemented a program of six-week improvement cycles – students would be assessed regularly, and the teachers would take a day off to pour through the data and adjust lessons accordingly. Some things were easy to address; some teaching plans easy to re-formulate; some concepts easy to re-teach. But what if you’ve taught something the best that you know how, and students still don’t get it?

    That’s where Westendorf turned to video: helping teachers make videos of their best lessons to share with others. That's where the idea for a platform that extended beyond the EL Haynes Public Charter School was born.

    The “others” here that the videos can be shared with, I should note, include both students and teachers. The LearnZillion site itself is really geared for usage by teachers. The videos can be gathered into "playlists" and include quizzes to track student progress.

    The videos also include a “director’s commentary” of sorts, where the author of the lesson explains some of the thought processes behind its design.  That means the LearnZillion videos then aren’t just about content delivery or students’ content knowledge; they’re about teachers’ pedagogical, content, and pedagogical content knowledge.

    The startup is only about a year old, and certainly it's entering a space that's dominated not just by Khan Academy but now too by TED-Ed.  The former has the brand recognition and increasingly it's focusing on its learning analytics platform; the latter has clearly much higher production values and snazzier animation. Will LearnZillion be able to carve out a niche here by balancing animation, analytics, and teacher PD?

    LearnZillion has raised $2.4 million in funding from New Schools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges. It’s used that funding in part to pay a “dream team” of educators to create some 400 short math lessons, which are all Common Core-aligned and freely available on the site (They are also on YouTube). The startup is holding a Teachfest later this month in Atlanta where it’s bringing together 100 educators to film more lessons.

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    I don’t like going to campus much. Even though it’s been years since I left grad school, I still fear I’ll run into a member of my committee if I'm on or near the university.  They’ll ask me how my dissertation’s coming along and when I’ll finish. (I always run into my outside committee member. He doesn’t ask, and I adore him for it.) They'll ask what I do now, and we'll get into a discussion about the job market.  I'll try to explain how happy I am now, and I'll still end up sounding bitter and resentful about academia.  So I don't go to campus much.

    I feel an outsider, an intruder even, when I do. I don’t know any undergrads nowadays. They're my son's age, and that feels weird. I don’t think there are many grad students around from my cohort either. They’re long gone. Or I hope they’re long gone. 

    But I had to go to the library today. I needed to read a book. A real book. A book in print. One that's not available online, unavailable in any digital format. It wasn’t available in print at the local public library either.

    So I had to go to campus.

    I couldn’t quickly find it in the stacks, check it out, and go. My university library privileges have long expired. I could sit and read the book there, but finding a good place to do so can be tricky -- the right spot, a spot where dissertation committee members will never see me.

    thought today I could sit and read and take notes (and tweet).  It'd be a nice change of scenery, I tried to convince myself.  But then, when I got inside the big brick-and-concrete building, , I couldn’t access the Internet -- I couldn’t log-in to the WiFi network, and I couldn’t access 3G on my phone either. Nor could I find a table near an ethernet outlet. I’d forgotten (or rather, I’m oblivious) that it’s the end-of-term. The library was full of students, studying, something that had me strangely taken aback.

    I noticed too that the study rooms on the third floor had been converted into grad students’ office spaces. I wondered which departments had expanded there. I wondered how the space issues reflected disciplinary power, office politics, and enrollment figures. I felt bad for not paying closer attention and relieved that I didn't have to.

    I found the book I wanted in the stacks – top floor – and I sat down to take notes by hand. I could have photocopied or snapped photos, I guess, of the pages I wanted to reference. I could have typed my notes too, I realize. But there’s something about taking notes by hand that seemed both comfortable and right.

    It felt right in part, I think, because this was Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society that I was looking to browse. I wanted to grab a couple of quotations from it for a presentation I’m preparing on education, efficiency, automation, and robots. (I’ve storified some of my notes below.)

    But I didn’t linger long on campus. I just read a couple of chapters, jotted down some notes, and left. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the university library, which was a really strange and awful feeling to have. I longed to run into one of local intellectuals, activists, authors, and fellow PhD dropouts who I remember, years ago at least, would frequent the university library. But (sadly) they seemed long gone too.

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  • 06/07/12--19:05: The Language of MOOCs
  • Meretricious

    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    Lately when I write about MOOCs (and I admit, I do write about MOOCs a lot lately), I feel the need to attach a bunch of adjectives to clarify what I mean by the term: the Stanford-model MOOC. New MOOCs. The OG MOOC. The ur-MOOC. The MOOCs-come-latelyVC MOOCsTech MOOCsMother of all MOOCsChange11DS106MOOCGuffin (I just totally made that up. Sorry.).

    Regardless, it’s clear to me that there’s a failure of acronyms here -- too bad since acronyms are supposed to serve as an obvious shorthand, spelling out the initials of exactly what we mean. As in: MOOC. Massive Online Open Course. It’s clear what we mean by the term. Except it isn’t.

    • “Massive” How do we define “massive”? How big? How many students? How much participation? Do we rate everything in terms of the Stanford AI class now? In other words: less than 100K isn’t “massive,” it’s just “really big.” How does this relate to class size on campus? See: Virginia Tech geography professor John Boyer’s massive (offline) World Regions class.
    • "Online”: This is self-explanatory, right? This is what distinguishes a MOOC from the example above. But even here I wonder if we need a subscript or something to indicate that there are also offline versions – whether they’re the official, for-credit courses on campus (See: DS106) or they’re informal study groups.
    • “Open”: This is the worm-hole of meaning. Open enrollment? Openly licensed content? An open-source tech platform? Open-ended classes? Open transparency on the university (or startup) offering it about their mission and their trajectory?
    • “Course”: C is for cookie. C is for course. C also stands for connection, connectivism, community, credit, and/or certificate. Take your pick. But whichever you choose as the C in MOOC shapes greatly the MOOC itself, I’d argue.

    Doug Holton has suggested other acronyms: MOOLE, for example. A massively open online learning environment. He points to MMORPG too (that is: massively multiplayer online role playing game) as an alternative to how we frame the MOOC.

    All this is helpful for my thinking about MOOCs as a “thing” -- a phenomenon and/or an instructional and/or connectivist model. But it does little to help me as a writer and user of acronyms. I still need to do a better job distinguishing connectivist MOOCs from the Stanford model without each blog post going into details about what I mean by that. I suppose that’s what footnotes and links are for – where references are necessary. But I don’t know. Does that turn every MOOC-related story into a historical treatise?

    As for me, from here on out, maybe I’ll just use the domain to refer to MOOC’s connectivist origins – a top-level-domain homage to the Canadians involved. (Which means, yes, Stephen Downes. You do need to update that site.)

    But there must be other acronyms and better word choices. Chime in, please.

    Photo credits: Quinn Dombrowski

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    SDO's Ultra-high Definition View of 2012 Venus Transit - 304 Angstrom

    RIP Ray Bradbury

    It was sadly and beautifully fitting that Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, the day of the Venus Transit, a celestial event that will not happen again for another 105 years. The short story “All Summer in a Day,” about a class of students on Venus, was the first thing I read by the science fiction author. I was quite young – fourth grade perhaps – and quite distressed by it. But I fell in love with science fiction thanks to Bradbury’s stories. It’s always felt to me the most imaginative and most honest of literary genres.

    From The Paris Review (2010), in which the interviewer asks whether Bradbury enjoyed writing:

    “It’s obvious that I do. It’s the exquisite joy and madness of my life, and I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. If I had to work at it I would give it up. I don’t like working.”

    Politics and Policies

    The state of Louisiana will make what Reuters calls a “bold bid to privatize schools” with a voucher program this fall that will shift public funding to private schools, including many religious and for-profit institutions. “The school willing to accept the most voucher students – 314 – is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.”

    A handful of universities have agreed to the Obama Administration’s efforts to help make college costs more transparent. The U.S. Department of Education has designed a model financial aid award letter that will make it clearer for students (and parents) to see college costs, financial aid (with grants, loans, and scholarships clearly distinguished), and the estimated monthly payments for any loans, and statistics on college completion, retention, and loan repayment rates.

    Updates and Upgrades

    An interesting deal struck by McGraw-Hill and Western Governors University: a pay-for-performance business model with the fees the university pays for the course materials tied to the grades of the students using the materials in class. WGU pays a “deeply discounted” fee for the materials, and then a premium for every student scoring a B or better. “Through this new pay-for-performance model, universities and learning companies share in the accountability for student success and students gain access to premium educational materials while keeping costs low,” reads the press release. Inside Higher Ed has more details.

    McGraw-Hill also announced that it’s partnered with Instructure so that its (fairly) new “McGraw-Hill Campus” product is integrated with Canvas. That means single sign-on access to courses, e-books, tests, PowerPoints, etc (and not just McGraw-Hill titles, says the company) from within the LMS.

    Klint Flinley has a great write-up of the launch of Toronto-based HackerYou, a learn-to-code startup formed from Ladies Learning Code. Instead of day- and weekend-long workshops, the company will now offer longer courses – but it’ll keep the same student-to-instructor ratio (10:1).

    BrainHive hasn’t launched quite yet – it plans to this fall. It’s still in private beta with a few schools and libraries, but it’s an idea worth watching. BrainHive offers a pay-as-you-go model for K–12 schools to check out e-books – $1 per book, from a catalog of 3000ish titles. School Library Journal has more details.

    The new maker showcase site for kids, DIY, has just open-sourced a lot of its code. The rationale: “We want to help encourage kids to take things apart and discover for themselves the way the world around them works. When we release some code or submit a patch to make our HTML more readable for kids, we are doing so as to help ensure that we are building something that kids can learn from even in the most subtle of ways.”

    Microsoft’s search engine Bing has partnered with the Encyclopedia Britannica to include the encyclopedia entries directly in Bing search result pages – a response, perhaps, to the new Google Knowledge Graph.

    Mightybell, the latest startup from former Ning CEO Gina Bianchini which first launched last fall, has redesigned its site. Initially Mightybell was focused on learning-guides, of sorts. The redesign makes this more an online space for resource sharing and communication. As with Grockit’s recently launched Learnist, the comparisons to Pinterest are probably inevitable.

    “The next step in the education revolution could look a lot like … Zynga,” is the opening line of a story in The Atlantic about Pearson’s Alleyoop. But I couldn’t get past that first sentence to read why anyone would think that’s a good or interesting thing or what’s new with Alleyoop. (Here’s my story on its launch back in February.)

    Research and Data

    Inside Higher Ed paints a (partial) picture of the students who are enrolling in the Stanford-model MOOCs. The data comes from a survey sent to those who signed up for last fall’s Machine Learning class (taught by Andrew Ng, who has since founded Coursera). Of the 104,000 enrolled, some 14,000 answered the survey. Half the respondents were “professionals who currently held jobs in the tech industry." 41% were software developers. Nearly 20% were grad students; 11.6% undergrads. Another notable demographic detail: 74% of registrants come from outside the US.

    The CDC says that 1 out of every 3 teens texts while driving. The data comes from a larger survey about “youth risk behaviors,” and this was the first time the CDC asked about texting habits. Car accidents are the cause of 1 out of every 3 teen deaths in the US.

    Some very depressing statistics for the class of 2012 (and for those who’ve graduated high school in recent years): the employment outlook is grim. According to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, only 16% of those who’ve graduated since 2009 have been able to find a full-time job. Some 56% of those surveyed said they expected to have less financial success in their lives than their parents.


    The devastating budget cuts in Philadelphia have prompted Science Leadership Academy to turn to crowdfunding to raise money for the purchase of school laptops (SLA is a 1:1 laptop school). Dear Apple: do the right thing. Pick up the tab. I mean, you could do it for every school, but at the very least the ones that appear in your education commercials.) In the meantime, the rest of us can chip in some money for the cause.

    Smarterer, the test-taking platform where job-seekers can showcase their skills (and test-taking abilities), has raised $1.75 million in funding, reports Techcrunch.

    Congratulations to Mathalicious for reaching its (revised) Kickstarter goal.


    Google has announced the 15 finalists for its Science Fair. Among the finalists, Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela from Swaziland who’ve also won the Science in Action award, sponsored by Scientific American, for their project which explores the use of hydroponics for subsistence farming.

    Udacity has launched its own contest for secondary students. Sign up and complete courses, earn points, win a trip to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.

    Image credits: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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    Warning: I write lousy gadget reviews. It’s difficult for me to not judge devices based on my own needs and usage patterns. As someone who spends her days on the road and on a computer, those needs and usage patterns aren’t normal. That’s compounded too when reviewing educational hardware and/or hardware for use in an educational setting.

    Disclosure: Google has loaned me one of its new Chromebooks to test drive. I own the previous model, which I received last year at Google IO. That Chromebook dutifully serves as our household “backup computer,” a task for which it’s perfectly suited (that’s a back-handed compliment, I realize).

    The New Chromebook: The Latest Chrome OS

    Last week, Google unveiled its latest Chromebook, the notebook that runs its Chrome operating system. It’s both a hardware and a software refresh: a new Samsung chassis (and the introduction of the Chromebox, a desktop computer) and Aura, the latest version of the Chrome OS.

    And for the first time, it really fells like an OS. Before now, using a Chromebook was a stark reminder that you were “stuck” with the browser. Google has taken steps with the latest Chrome OS to make it feel more OS-y. Or at least, it’s more app-y. Web apps are more app-like now, less bookmark-like (although that remains what they are).

    The new Chrome OS lets you access and launch your apps via a more traditional desktop view. You can also escape – or at least resize – that Chrome browser. There’s now a launch bar at the bottom of the screen. You can select how you want these apps to launch too: normally as a new browser tab, or as a separate “window” that is stripped of the tool- and address-bar.

    The Chrome OS still lets you sync all your apps, bookmarks, and now tabs across all your Chrome-browser-using devices. Even with focus on apps, this is still a browser- and Web-oriented operating system. And it still centers on your being a Google Apps user. Many schools are, of course, and that makes Chromebooks pretty appealing.

    But the big problem remains: working offline. A Web-based operating system would demand the Web – a WiFi connection. Thanks to the offline capabilities of HTML5, it is possible to create Web apps that aren’t reliant on an Internet connection, and you can find them in the Chrome Web Store: Angry Birds, for example, as well as Google Books.

    The cornerstone of Google Apps -- and hence of Chrome OS -- is Google Docs, or rather, Google Drive. It’s still not available offline, although Google does say that’s coming in the next six weeks or so. Until then, Chrome OS feels at best incomplete and at worst unreliable.

    The Hardware

    Like I said, I really suck at gadget reviews; I'm just not that much of a gadget freak. And in the case of the Chromebook, it’s the OS that I find most interesting; the hardware, not so much. But a few, obligatory words on it:

    • The new Chromebook looks and feels about the same as last year’s model. It’s roughly the same size and weight. The plastic is silvery now, rather than the black of the original device.
    • I’m a MacBook, iPhone, and iPad user. I’ve become accustomed to the gestures associated with those devices, particularly post-OS X Lion. So while I think the trackpad is better on this new Chromebook – and wow, was it ever bad on the earliest ones – I’m just not sure. I’d forgotten that I had to use two fingers on the pad to right-click. And I still struggled to scroll. But maybe it was me.
    • There’s no backlighting on the keyboard. That feels like nit-picking. Maybe other folks don’t type in the dark like I do.
    • The Chromebook screen has a matte finish, which I do think I prefer to the shiny, reflective screen of my Mac. I imagine the Chromebook would work well outdoors, whereas I’d never dream of sitting and working outside in the sunlight on my Mac. Then again, there’s that whole offline thing, so I don’t know if the screen is too big a selling point for the Chromebooks.
    • The battery life was great.  Google says "lasts the whole school day," but I'd say roughly 7 hours.

    The Performance

    When the first Chromebooks launched last year, they were widely panned by critics who found them underpowered and who argued that most people weren’t ready for a Web-app-only device.

    Power doesn’t feel like a problem with the new Chromebook. It’s by no means souped up (1.3GHz processor and 4GB of RAM), but powerful enough for Chrome OS and probably suitable for most users. The new device felt fast, and I still marvel at the speeds with which it boots or wakes up (as in, seconds). And unlike my Mac which struggles painfully with Chrome, the Chromebook handled lots and lots of tabs without crashing and without spinning the fan into a frenzy. It’s not a surprise, I realize, that the Chromebook handles the Chrome browser better than the Mac; but it was a welcome change nonetheless.

    Despite these improvements, I do think the other part of early Chromebook critiques still stands: it's not the readiness of the Chrome OS or the Chromebook, but the Web-readiness of us. And that’s still the biggest obstacle to Chromebook adoption, I’d argue. If you’re considering one, you must ask: how well can you function inside the browser? How much do you rely on desktop software? Me? I use Skype almost everyday (although I’d love to replace that). I use Byword for composing stories. And I use YoruFukurou, a Twitter client (No, I will not use the Web interface or the Tweetdeck Web app. Yuck.). And I’m reminded even when using Google’s own Web apps – like Chat, for example – that they’re just not all up-to-snuff with the desktop alternatives. There is a Chrome Remote Desktop app now that lets you access another computer, but that’s not really a satisfying answer to the problems of Web-readiness. (The answer is HTML5, I believe.)

    Chromebook Cost

    The question for most folks – schools in particular – will be whether or not all of the perks and drawbacks of Chromebooks are worth it at this price: $449 a pop for the WiFi version, $549 for one with Verizon Wireless 3G access (but just 100MB a month of data). There’s an additional $30 per device charge for schools for management and support.

    All this adds up, of course, but as Google is quick to point out, it’s still cheaper than most laptop alternatives, particularly since you don’t have to worry about OS licensing or IT overhead. Is it a price that schools will go for? I’m not sure. If they’re Google Apps for Education users, if they’re looking for laptops, then it’s definitely something worth exploring. 

    I predicted at the beginning of the year that we’d see Google axe the Chromebooks. And even with this latest hardware and OS refresh, I’m still not sure what the future holds for the project. Google wants to make a convincing case for users to think of all its services – the Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Plus, Gmail, Search, and the Chrome browser – as inextricable from the Web. The problem, I think, is that Chrome OS and the new Chromebook still highlight all the places where we operate pretty darn well without the Web.

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    0:00:  Steve sings "Happy Birthday" to Hack Education, and we discuss two years of blogging here on this site -- what trends can be gleaned from the tag cloud?

    3:55:  How might Facebook's rumored plans to allow those under-13 to join the site prompt us to reconsider what's working and not working with COPPA?  Who (whose data) needs protection online?  How might Facebook (and other companies too, like Google) lobby the government around this issue?

    15:09: MOOCs -- word origins and technology infrastructure.

    38:15:  My test-drive of the new Chromebook.

    40:00:  The weekly news round-up, including vouchers in Lousiana, a pay-per-performance textbook model, and a fundraiser for Science Leadership Academy.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    June 9, 2012

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    “Education is deep in Apple’s DNA” – Philipp Schiller, Apple Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing

    Once there was the MacBook. It was "the notebook for everyone." It was the notebook for many schools – the Apple-oriented ones, at least. But the iconic white, plastic-case devices were pulled from stores in 2011, and sales to educational institutions were discontinued earlier this year.

    The decision to scrap the white MacBook followed on the heels of the redesign of another Apple notebook, the snazzier, sleaker, more metallic MacBook Air. Both the Air and the white MacBook competed for that same entry-level Apple consumer. Both sold commercially for $999. At that base price, you got a lot more bang for your buck from the heavier, clunkier MacBook: a bigger screen, more storage, more processing power, a DVD slot, an Ethernet port.

    Monday at its annual developer conference, Apple unveiled updates to its Mac line. The MacBook Pro line, with retina display (ZOMG!), starts at $1199. The MacBook Air now has a faster processor (1.7 GHz), more storage (4 GB), and a USB 3.0 slot. The 11" version, still $999, is the cheapest notebook that Apple offers.

    Will the MacBook Air be “the notebook for everyone”? Will it be the new mobile computing device of choice for schools?

    Nope. The new inexpensive computer for schools to buy isn't the Air.  It's the iPad.

    I’m not making any shocking revelations here, of course, about the lure and the hype and the promise of the iPad. All the recent announcements that Apple has made regarding education insist otherwise. Its January education event, for example, focused on textbooks which remain – as iTextbooks at least – iOS only as the iBooks app is not available on Macs. There are over 20,000 educational apps in the App Store and along with iTunesU, that makes it one of the largest libraries of digital edu content available; and Apple readily touts the power and potential of the iPad as a learning device in its TV commercials.

    Consumers have responded accordingly, buying some 67 million iPads since their initial release in 2010. And schools are responding too. Apple says that in the second quarter of 2012, sales of iPads to schools outnumbered sales of Macs by 2 to 1, something it credits to the discounts offered educational customers (that is, $399 for an iPad 2. real world math: $399 < $999).

    There was just one mention of schools in Monday's WWDC keynote. (There were a handful of mentions of “learning,” I should note, but those all involved the improved capabilities of AI assistant Siri.) It came in regards to a new feature of iOS 6 called “Guided Access" which will allow someone – presumably a parent or a teacher – to disable some of the iDevice controls, restricting a user to just certain functionalities or to just a single app.

    Initially, the WWDC presentation framed Guided Access as a feature designed for those with special needs. But then Apple Senior VP Scott Forstall added, “There are a lot of schools who’ve been adopting iPads and some are starting to actually administer tests on their iPads. Well single app mode allows the teacher to lock that iPad into the test so the students can't go look up the answers in Safari.” Immediately following the keynote, Pearson announced that it would bring its online testing software TestNav to the iPad. (It's already available for Macs, Windows, and Linux machines.) THE Journal predicts a "boon for high-stakes testing" with the devices.

    Will the ability to take standardized tests on iPads play a big part in that many purchasing decisions? I don't know, although sadly for many schools, testing is one of the main uses of computers -- whether desktops, laptops, or tablets. I imagine that the arguments in favor of iPads will remain the cost and the content.  But Guided Access is a good reminder of another argument -- an argument used both for and against Apple: a penchant for control. Testing joins the other ways in which the Apple brand means "closed" and "controlled."  The app ecosystem remains controlled by Apple.  You can only install apps from the App Store, for example. There's no command line on the iPad. There's no cracking open the device to repair or tinker with it (although it's worth pointing out here that it's damn tough to do that on an Air too).

    And so, I miss the white MacBook already, in all its plastic clunkiness.

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  • 06/14/12--17:01: An Edu-Blogger Survey
  • 365-46

    Alice Bell is working on a research project with the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology “exploring communities of education blogging.” She’s posted a questionaire on her blog, and I’m posting my answers below. (Deadline for responses is June 15).

    Blog URL:

    What do you blog about? Broadly, I blog about education technology. More specifically, I write about developments in the ed-tech industry; startups’ products and services; technology usage in and out of the classroom; how technologies (could) change the way we teach and learn; conferences and events I attend.

    Are you paid to blog? I am not paid to blog on Hack Education. I freelance elsewhere.

    What do you do professionally (other than blog)? I blog professionally. I’ve started doing some public speaking recently too.

    How long have you been blogging at this site? Two years. I have been blogging elsewhere since 2005.

    Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?) My work has appeared in ReadWriteWeb, the Huffington Post, O’Reilly Radar, School Library Journal, Edutopia, KQED Mindshift – among other blogs. Once upon a time, when I was in grad school, I had several academic articles published in books and journals too. (See my CV for details.) I have an article forthcoming in a real live print magazine this fall.

    Can you remember why you started blogging? When I started in 2005, I was a grad student and at the time, I blogged pseudonymously. I wrote about personal, political and PhD-oriented topics – dissertations, teaching, cancer, death, parenthood and other struggles.

    What keeps you blogging? Writing helps me organize my thoughts. I consider Hack Education my own personal-yet-public notebook of ideas and analysis. I choose topics to write about because they’re timely, important, interesting – but mostly it’s because I want to spend some time thinking through them. What I love about blogging – other than just the good habits that it cultivates in prompting me to write regularly and write often – is that there’s an audience that gives me immediate feedback. In other words, blogging is a first stab at working through ideas, and when I hit publish, I can bounce those ideas off of others. Plus I’m getting old too – if I don’t write things down, I forget them. Also, if I bottled up all these rants, my blood pressure would go through the roof.

    Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How? I have Google Analytics installed on this blog, but I don’t really pay much attention to pageviews. I really don’t like the way in which a lot of online publications chase pageviews. But based on Google Analytics numbers, my blog gets about 50,000–60,000 pageviews a month. I also have about 11k Twitter followers (on @audreywatters, but less than 2000 on @hackeducation) which I see as part of my blog/writing audience. Who exactly this audience is – I’m not sure. Educators mostly. Entrepreneurs, I think. The Department of Education, perhaps. (Ha.) My mom.

    What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog? I think I spend more time engaging with my audience via Twitter than via blog comments. It’s not that I don’t value commenters; it’s not that I don’t squeal out loud when folks like Nicholas Negroponte comment. It’s just that some of my most popular stories tend to bring out the trolls. After a while, I don’t even read the comments on those posts. I just can’t bear to.

    Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre of blogging? (e.g. schools, science, education, museums, technology) Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the education, ed-tech, and/or tech communities. Sometimes I feel like I stand on the outskirts of all of them. The question of genre is an interesting one. I don’t know how my writing fits in generically. I don’t write that many short, newsy posts. I avoid list posts. I write a few product reviews, I guess. But I tend to ground my stories in personal experience and opinion. That’s one aspect of the blog genre, and one of its earliest expressions. But as blogging has become more accepted, I’m not sure if that personal style of writing is as common.

    If so, what does that community give you? I learn a lot from what others say, do, and write online. I appreciate it when folks say they like what I’m doing as a writer. I think about the education community in particular as both the audience and the reason that I do this.

    What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations? The advantages: Blogging has given me a voice and a platform that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I write. People listen. People pay me (elsewhere) to write. I love the immediacy of of blogging – writing and publishing and sharing my thoughts, then hearing responses and seeing the retweets immediately from my readers. It’s also incredibly important to me that what I write on my blog is freely available and openly licensed, indexed by search engines, and much more discoverable than what I’ve published in print. The disadvantages: I haven’t found the time yet to develop my ideas into a book-length format, probably because I’m so busy writing short pieces on my blog. Also, I’m not sure people take me seriously as a writer, a journalist, a social commentator or an analyst. I’m “just a blogger.” Also: Screw you Ivan Tribble. I’ll never stop writing publicly about academia.

    Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss) I describe myself as a writer. I’m not sure I use the term “blogger.” Sometimes I say “journalist.”

    Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked? Well, I have questions that I’d like to know about other education bloggers: where do you syndicate your work (me, I post to Twitter, to Facebook – a fan page for Hack Education and to my own profile, to Google+). Do you offer RSS and/or email subscriptions? (I offer both). Do you have an email newsletter? (I just started offering one). And mostly, I’m hoping the results of this research are made available as I’m really curious about others’ answers to these questions.

    Photo credits: Nils Geylen

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    Cross-posted on Inside Higher Ed

    The learning management system startup Instructure unveiled a learning analytics feature for its Canvas platform this week at InstructureCon, its (now) annual user conference.

    Instructure’s hardly the first or only learning management system to offer learning analytics. Blackboard unveiled its data analytics platform early last year. And it’s not surprising to see Instructure follow suit as learning analytics are becoming an increasingly important – and lucrative – feature for LMSes to offer.

    Learning analytics – so the marketing goes, at least – can aid institutional efficiency; they can help instructors identify struggling students; they can boost course and, hopefully, college completion. A lot of information can be gleaned via the learning management system – how often do students log in? How often do they post in discussion boards? How often do they interact with their classmates? With the instructor? How frequently does the instructor respond? Are students completing assignments? How are their grades?

    Of course, most schools probably aren’t taking full advantage of all the data they already gather on campus, but between the big data buzz and the pressures of budget cuts, that’s likely to change.

    And Instructure hopes to make that process easier, in part by making the feature free. That’s a different approach than that taken by some of its competitors who charge for each additional component, upgrade, or new service. It also means that there’s no need to have to “sell” data analytics to skeptical administrators, instructors, staff, or students; the learning analytics dashboard is just there, available for everyone.

    And it’s available with the ease-of-use that Instructure users rave about. (George Siemens has just posted a review of Instructure in which he says “There may not be much new under the sun in the LMS space, but Instructure is a big leap forward in positive end user experience.”) The learning analytics feature doesn’t require building or pulling reports. There’s a dashboard – separate views for students, instructors, and administrators – that don’t require training to be able to understand. Students can see assignments, grades, and other performances stats, and they can ssee how they’re doing compared to others. Instructors can see overviews of courses, compare courses, and (ideally at least) identify and help struggling students. Administrators can export the data via the Canvas API to manipulate in their own spreadsheets.

    Instructure touts in its press release that it built this new feature in consultation with educators and students. I had a peek a couple of months ago at the tool as they were building it, and I’d echo what Siemens says about the startup’s willingness to listen to what learning analytics should or could look like. Siemens writes that Instructure “is an organization that knows its strengths and is willing to engage with others to address areas where it needs (wants) to learn.”

    But he notes too that Instructure has a “touch of bravado/boldness/audacity” that means it sometimes plows forward confident that it already knows best.

    That attitude seems to have served the startup well as it’s won a number of contracts recently, including the the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges which moved away from ANGEL. Last week, the startup also announcement a partnership with McGraw-Hill which will integrate its “Campus” product with Canvas (single sign-on access to e-books, test materials and the like from within the LMS).

    I’m eager to hear what more Canvas users – administrators, instructors and students – think about the new analytics. Giving students more insights seems particularly important.

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    Politics and Policies

    Unable to get his DREAM Act through Congress, President Obama has issued an executive plan that would would involve granting many of those same provisions to young illegal immigrants. The administration will stop deporting those under 30 who came to this country illegally as children and will offer them work permits. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas wrote about his status as an illegal last year and in a recent TIME article as well. This policy change will effect some 800,000 young immigrants who live in fear of deportation. (But not Vargas, who just turned 31.)

    Scotland’s Argyll and Bute Council has reversed its decision to censor the photos of school lunches taken by 9-year-old Martha Payne and posted to her blog. The school council originally banned her from doing so, upset at the criticism that her blog generated about school lunches. But after a storm of protests from The Internet, it appears as though they’ve changed their minds. Keep journalist-ing, Martha!

    News broke earlier this week that the State Department is signing a $16.5 million no-bid contract with Amazon to provide Kindles and content to overseas language-learning programs. Initial reports pegged the cost at between $2000 and $5000 per device. Although the State Department was quick to say “nothing’s in writing yet!” there are still lots of questions about how the program could cost so much. PaidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen has the details.


    The University of Puerto Rico’s Joseph Henry Vogel has secured a patent for a method to stop students from sharing textbooks. Dumbest patent ever.

    Launches, Updates, and Upgrades

    Apple held its annual developers conference this week and unveiled updates to its MacBook lines and its Mac and mobile operating systems. I wrote about the end of the white MacBook here, and Wired’s Kyle Wiens calls the new MacBook “the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart.”

    A new open-access, peer reviewed journal launched this week: PeerJ. Rather than expensive subscription fees and rather than charging researchers to publish their works, PeerJ will charge a lifetime fee of $99 for authors. The Scholarly Kitchen takes a look at the business model, asking questions about how the requirement that all authors pay that fee might be a disincentive for “honorary authorship,” the ways in which researchers recognize the important contributions (such as in citizen scientists’ discovery of the Green Pea Galaxies or gamers’ enzyme discoveries with

    Education app-maker Motion Math has launched its latest iOS game and its first one aimed at preschoolers: Hungry Guppy. The startup also announced that it’s crossed the 1 million downloads threshhold.

    Duolingo, one of the startups I chose as my favorites of 2011, has just released its French-language version. Duolingo was created by the inventor of CAPTCHA and uses a similar sort of crowdsourcing effort to translate the Web. In the meantime, users learn a language. The startup is still in closed beta.

    Instructure unveiled its learning analytics platform at its annual user conference this week. (See my story here). The learning management system startup also announced that it’s won the contract for Cisco Networking Academy, a program that serves about a million students worldwide.

    Educational wiki provider Wikispaces announced the integration of Google Apps for Education into its wikis. Presentations and documents can now function as wiki pages (rather than just be included as embedded docs).

    Khan Academy now sells schwag.

    The Bodleian Library is considering lending books, which seems to have some Oxford scholars in a tizzy. The library opened in 1602 and has been an exclusive club, errr, reference library.


    The New York Times is closing its online learning venture Knowledge Network at the end of the July, reports Inside Higher Ed. The NYT launched the Knowledge Network just five years ago.

    The popular Speak For Yourself app, which allows young autistic children to communicate, has been pulled from the Apple app store due to patent litigation. The holders of the patent don’t actually plan to make an app; they’re just suing. Did I mention yet in this post how dumb patents can be?


    In news that’s baffled many students and faculty, the University of Virginia’s president Teresa Sullivan has stepped down, after just 2 years on the job. She was ousted by the university’s executive board which called an emergency meeting last weekend and announced the news Sunday afternoon. According to the statement released by the board, the “environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.” UVA’s faculty have issued a letter in strong support of Sullivan, saying that they’d been optimistic about the changes she was making.


    Paypal co-founder, billionaire, libertarian and anti-college-but-has-several-degrees-and-teaches-at-Stanford hypocrite Peter Thiel announced the second round of students who’ll receive $100,000 from him to drop out of college. VentureBeat has the full list of students. Echoing last year’s selections, the Thiel Fellows are overwhelmingly male: just 2 out of the 20 are women.

    Although the actual funding was announced last fall, there was a bit of a dust-up this week over the Gates Foundation’s backing of “galvanic response skin bracelets.” As part of its Measuring Effective Teachers projects, the foundation has handed out over $1 million in grants to research how we can monitor students’ responsiveness and engagement. Diane Ravitch, the Washington Post, and Reuters were all wrote about the story with sufficient alarm and Orwellian references.

    CodeNow, a DC-based non-profit that helps teach kids to code, is turning to IndieGoGo to crowdsource its latest funding efforts. It’s hoping to raise $15,000 to pay for its summer training session.

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez reports that Mom Trusted, an online marketplace that helps parents to find quality preschools and childcare centers, has raised $1 million in funding.


    Earlier this month, I mentioned the growing market for “gadget storage trucks” that park outside schools and charge students to store their cellphones (which are banned at school). In New York City this week, one of these trucks was robbed at gunpoint, with over 200 student cellphones stolen.


    It’s not official data, but Georgia Tech CS professor Mark Guzdial reports that there’s been a significant increase in the number of students who took the CS AP exam this year – up about 20% from last year.

    Photo credits: Martha Payne, NeverSeconds

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest education/technology news. I always enjoy our conversations, and this week was no exception. We were aided, of course, by the news we had to discuss:  untinkerable MacBooks, standardized tests on iPads, Chuck E. Cheese, and "galvanic skin response" bracelets.

    1:15:  Apple's WWDC announcements highlighted how much the company believes in control.  What are the implications for education if this is the hardware and operating system (and app ecosystem) we adopt?

    18:55:  "No holds barred," says Steve.  "What was Nolan Bushnell talking about" at the recent LAUNCH event?

    29:00:  Instructure has a big week, holding its user conference, unveiling a learning analytics feature, and announcing a contract with Cisco Networking Academy (that's 1+ million students).

    38:00:  The weekly news, including a shout-out to 9 year-old food-blogger Martha Payne and a raised eyebrow at "galvanic skin response" bracelets.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    June 15, 2012

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    Apologies for the light posting this week. I’m currently working on a book chapter, an article for EDUCAUSE, a script for a documentary, and a keynote for the CALI Conference – all with deadlines this week. I’m also hitting the road today for a little jaunt down the left-hand coast, eventually ending up in San Diego.

    San Diego is, of course, the location of this year’s ISTE conference. It’ll be the eighth one I’ve attended. In fact, the last time I was in San Diego was to attend NECC 1998 (NECC, the National Educational Computing Conference was rebranded to become the ISTE Conference in 2010). Lots has changed in my world in the intervening 14 years. So what’s changed in at the world’s largest education technology conference?

    The major themes from NECC ’98 were:

    • Networking: within a class, school, across a district, statewide, Internet
    • Using WWW resources in classroom, school: safe access
    • Creating hypermedia Web pages 
    • Web servers 
    • Converging technologies: WWW, Web TV, cable TV 
    • Multimedia: creating CD-ROMs 
    • Virtual classrooms, schools, communities, universities 
    • Online curriculum, support, training, services 
    • Integration of multiple technologies, esp. Internet, across the curriculum 
    • Connecting schools, libraries to the WWW 
    • Distance education 
    • Future looks: transforming, empowering, dealing with rapid change

    No doubt, many of those themes remain awfully relevant today: tech integration, tech infrastructure, digital learning, Internet access. Gone are the CD-ROMs, sure, and we don’t talk much about “hypermedia” these days; there are new tools and technologies that you’ll see demoed in sessions and on the exhibit floor. And yet many of the brand names in that exhibit hall are fairly familiar too. The big publishing companies are there year after year, as are many of the big technology companies.

    The exhibit hall at the conference is a strangely awful thing. It’s grown considerably over the last decade-and-a-half. NECC ’98 had 284 exhibitors. Last year in Philadelphia, there were over 500. It’s easy to criticize this aspect of the conference and argue that it’s a sign that ISTE is beholden to corporate interests. But I think too the exhibits reflect the (unfortunate) realities of the education market – the wooing and wowing of those who make purchasing decisions for schools and districts.

    In the past, there have been few startups in the exhibit hall at ISTE. A booth is an expensive proposition, after all. Maybe it’ll be different this year, with so many educationn startups flush with investment cash. I hope not though. I think the promise of ed-tech startups lies in part in disrupting the old enterprise sales cycle and a lot of the incumbant players.

    The exhibit floor at ISTE isn’t the place that I look for innovation. But it is a good place to look at how those incumbant players are responding to innovation elsewhere. Some of what I’m looking for from exhibitors:

    • Whither the whiteboard? (What’s the argument these manufacturers make now that mobile learning via personal devices has become so popular?) 
    • What’s the feature most frequently touted? (“We have an iPad app” Or “We are Common Core-aligned”?) 
    • How much OER and open source is showcased? 
    • Who has an API? Who offers data portability? If not, why not? 
    • How much tech encourages hands-on exploration? How much of the tech encourages tinkering? How much is about control?

    Despite the work I do writing about technology companies, the exhibits really aren’t the draw for me. I’ve ignored almost all of the requests I’ve received for meetings. The keynotes at ISTE can be hit or miss (I am quite looking forward to Yong Zhao’s Tuesday morning keynote this year, however). And I rarely make it to many sessions.

    Honestly, attending ISTE feels likes a social gathering as much as a professional one. It’s my annual opportunity to spend time offline with the folks I interact with online, with the folks that I envision as the audience for this blog, and with folks I’ve known a long, long time thanks in part to NECC and ISTE. It’s a little depressing then to look at the list of themes from NECC ’98 and consider what’s changed and what hasn’t since the last time I was in San Diego. So many of us have been at this so long. It’s exhausting.

    But I’m feeling a little sad about the stability of the ISTE conference for other reasons: because it will be Anita McAnear’s last. She’s retiring from ISTE in July after being with the organization since its founding in 1979. She has been at the heart of the organization, the conference, its publications, its NETS standards. The heart and, as a recent L&L article called her, the human social network. She has so much history and knowledge about technologies and teachers stored in her head. (Confession: I feel a little sick to my stomach as I type that. OMG, I hope she’s written some of it down…) She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever worked with, and when people tell me that I’m well-connected or well-versed in ed-tech, I always want to say, “Yeah, but I’m no Anita McAnear.” (And I’m nowhere near as nice.)

    Despite all the marketing spin on how the latest educational software or hardware will revolutionize teaching and learning, things don’t change all that much in ed-tech. If nothing else, ISTE is an annual reminder of that. But I think Anita McAnear’s retirement will mark a big change for the organization. I’ll guess we’ll have to tune in next year to see how it all plays out.

    Meanwhile, you’ll probably be able to find me this year at the Bloggers’ Cafe. Hope to see you there.

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    I woke up yesterday to the news that Codecademy had raised $10 million. I decided to skip writing another screed, even though I think many of my original complaints about the site are still valid. Considering how I came a little unhinged at the $2.5 million that the startup raised last fall, I’m sure you’re all deeply disappointed that I didn’t hammer out four times as much of a rage-fest with four times as much as an investment injection. This is, after all a startup that’s still being praised and funded as the future of learning.

    (It’s not.)

    Instead I want to tell a different story about a different organization that’s got a better story and a better approach with better results. There are no famed Silicon Valley venture capitalists on board with this one, and no knights. The White House is a fan though, so there’s that…

    That organization is CodeNow, a DC-based non-profit that teaches high-school age kids how to program. (I have covered the organization several times in the past: once as an introduction to the non-profit and once to interview founder Ryan Seashore for the research I undertook for Mozilla on how to support Web literacies.)

    There are so many things about CodeNow that I really like: its DC location means it’s working with youth of color, and about 40% of the students who’ve participated in its programs have been girls – both of these are absolutely crucial since the tech industry and CS field remains largely white and male. And rather than building a teach-yourself-through-a-Web-based tool and arguing that that’s sufficient or “easy” or “the best way,” CodeNow takes a multi-pronged approach: There are free training sessions and bootcamps where students are introduced to programming through things like Lego Mindstorms and Hackety Hack. (The current developer on the HacketyHack project, Steve Klabnik, is one of the CodeNow instructors.) There’s ongoing access to Treehouse where students can hone their Web development and design skills. There are connection to mentors and internship opportunities via meet-ups. Attendees all receive netbooks – for many participants this is their first computer. And finally, CodeNow is project-based: students learn how to build a website or a game or a robot – a programming project that matters to them.

    Seashore emailed me the other day to boast about the project of one of his students: Wilfried Hounyo, who’ll be going into 11th grade in the fall. Wilfried had no real programming experience before attending a CodeNow bootcamp this winter, but took to it “like a fish to water.” By the end of the session he had created business cards for himself that read “future engineer.”

    Since then he, along with two friends from high school – Golden Rockefeller and Endre Osbourne – designed and built “Electrobob,” a game that teaches some of the fundamentals of electrons. Wilfried did all the coding The team entered the Entertainment Software Association’s STEM Video Game challenge. And they achieved co-winner honors in the Playable Game – Team category. That is awesome.

    Wilfried is “the reason why we do this,” says Seashore, who admits that not every student walks away from a CodeNow bootcamp wanting to become a software engineer. But that’s not the point. They do walk away having had an introduction to code and to the opportunities that knowing code can bring.  And they walk away with a netbook.  CodeNow's given out 41 so far.

    Last night, Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost tweeted, “Reminder: when startups raise money to ‘democratize’ something, they’re really ‘commercializing’ it.” I’m not sure if he was thinking about “democratizing learning to code” and Codecademy, but after talking to Seashore earlier in the day and thinking about the comparisons between CodeNow and Codecademy, that’s certainly where my mind went.

    Silicon Valley pays a lot of lipservice to this – the notion that “everyone should learn to code.” But I don’t think they really mean “everyone.” Or at least, they’re not interested in lowering the barriers to entry for “everyone.” $10 million for Codecademy. Meanwhile CodeNow is largely bootstrapped.

    CodeNow is currently raising money via an IndieGoGo campaign. Seashore says that the non-profit needs more money in order to afford some of the expenses for its summer bootcamp. The crowdfunding campaign means that the bootcamp can go forward, even if grant-making institutions don’t come through with the money in time.

    Photo credits: Duy Tran

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    Monday was Graduation Day at the University of Oregon. As my boyfriend and I wandered nearby campus and saw all the twenty-somethings in caps and gowns and party gear, he turned to me and asked, “Where are all the older students?” “Not at the UofO,” I replied.

    Indeed, although enrollment in college has increased for those over age 25, enrollment among that demographic is actually on the decline at many public institutions. Instead, many of these adults are opting to attend for-profits, and adult learners make up the majority of for-profits’ student population: 65% of those enrolled at for-profits are 25 or older, while just 31% of students at four-year public colleges are. There are a lot of reasons for this: helped by the fact that many for-profits offer online and asynchronous classes, something well-suited to adult learners’ work schedules.

    Despite meeting these students’ demands and needs, for-profits have been blasted for exploitative practices – enrolling those who are unlikely to graduate, failing to provide the education or skills necessary for students to find work. Of course, with student loan debt reaching an all-time high and with widespread unemployment, we’re now seeing some of those charges levied at not-for-profit schools as well. And yet students continue to enroll, because society values a college degree, because students (and parents and employers) feel as though “they must.”

    “The mythology of higher education has to change,” UniversityNow founder Gene Wade told me when we talked earlier this week. In other words, what is the purpose of higher education: Is college about a residential experience for those age 18–22? Is it about career readiness and professional training? Is it about a liberal arts education? Is it about advanced learning? Is it a series of steps (credits) one takes in order to get a diploma?

    Wade believes his startup UniversityNow provides both a challenge to some of those myths and an alternative for students who might not otherwise be able to afford college. UniversityNow runs New Charter University, which opened earlier this year, and the for-profit announced today that it’s raised $17.3 million in Series B funding, bringing the total raised to $21.5 million. It has also received a $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research its model.

    That model involves a blend of online, freemium, and competency-based education. Students pay $199 per month to take as many courses as they want. These courses are self-paced, and credits are awarded when students pass the courses’ assessments not based on “seat-time.” New Charter University uses what Wade describes as a “disaggregated coaching model” – students receive an advisor; each course has its own instructor; and assessments are conducted by anonymous evalutators. The school if officially accredited but is not a Title IV school, meaning that it does not participate in the Federal Financial Aid program (in other words, no Pell Grants, no Perkins Loans, no Federal Work Study).

    The myth that UniversityNow challenges here is, in part, that students need to go into debt to achieve their degrees.

    But what about other aspects of the mythology of higher education, particularly the myth that a diploma from a new and relatively unknown university is, even at $199 a month, a good investment?

    “I’ll see Mr. Wade’s mythology of college comment with a mythology of my own: it’s the myth of meritocracy,” says Tressie (McMillan) Cottom, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University and organizer of an upcoming conference on for-profit universities. “You’ve heard this one before, I’m sure. We all have. It’s right up there with American exceptionalism. It says that he or she with the right skills will be rewarded in a labor market that values ability above all else. That is to say companies only hire the best man or woman for the job.”

    “The only problem with that is that we have reams of data to the contrary,” she continues. “I suspect that most of us know this intuitively which would explain why so many have a visceral distrust of for-profit college models. If you’ve ever trained your new boss or watched as your manager hired yet another inexperienced fraternity buddy over the better hire that lacked the right relationships, you understand that something more than skill and experience matter. We call this social capital. And one of the many things higher education has provided students is access to the kind of capital that makes their college degree valuable. UniversityNow’s model targets many of those who need most that kind of social capital.”

    Cottom argues that the types of students that are more likely to attend for-profits -- working adults, low-income adults, minorities -- are the ones that need this social capital the most. And she questions whether being able to check the box that students are now college graduates thanks to a New Charter University degree will really provide them with the mobility they’re looking for.

    That mobility is a key piece of the myth of higher education, and I think all providers – for-profit and not-for-profit – still sell us on that. Go to college, so the story goes, and you’ll go places.

    I could sense the hopefulness for mobility in the young adults who flooded the streets of Eugene, Oregon, celebrating their newly minted status as college grads (happily ignoring their six-month reprieve before student loan payments come due). I'm not sure that college affordability is the only problem we're facing. I'm not sure that new business models will address the dangers in our current myths.

    There have been plenty of calls lately for more innovation in higher education, and the for-profits certainly tout their ability to move more quickly than the public institutions. But what will be the results of these experiments? And what myths do we want challenged? Who benefits when we do so?

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    Here are my slides from the keynote I gave today at the CALI Conference for Law School Computing. I spoke about education technology, efficiency, automation, artificial intelligence, and yes, robots deboning chickens.  "WTF," you say.  My point exactly.

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