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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    (Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed)

    The online education platform Coursera announced today that 12 more universities had signed on as partners, joining the 4 that were part of the startup’s launch in April. Joining the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Michigan and Stanford are Georgia Tech, Duke University, University of Washington, Caltech, Rice University, University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto, EPFL - Lausanne (Switzerland), Johns Hopkins University (School of Public Health), UCSF, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Virginia.

    That last university is a particularly interesting one, considering the role that MOOCs played in the ouster of UVA president Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. The decision-making at UVA is the focus of much of Inside Higher Ed’s Steve Kolowich’s article on today’s news. Kolowich chronicles the negotiations among UVA deans, faculty members and Coursera, noting the irony that these discussions were ongoing as the BOV fired Sullivan for failing to have an adequate response to their questions about the university’s plans to respond to the Stanford-model MOOCs. The plans are clear now: join the Coursera platform.

    The rapid expansion of Coursera’s partners, along with the equity investment made by two of them, certainly suggests that many institutions are preparing to face what the New York Times’ David Brooks called the “campus tsunami.” Initially, Coursera had to woo schools and professors; now schools and professors are approaching Coursera, which offers universities its technology and expertise in teaching and grading “at scale.” And while this might demonstrate what Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng told me – that “MOOCs are not a passing fad” – it’s not clear yet how MOOCs will evolve as they expand to new disciplines and new universities and/or how these MOOCs will change higher education in turn.

    It’s the latter that seems to elicit the most excitement and concern. Georgia Tech computer science professor Mark Guzdial has shared the email that faculty received there announcing its partnership with Coursera. In it, Provost Rafael Bras offers reassurance that “we are not abandoning our central mission of residential undergraduate instruction. In fact, we view this as an opportunity to remain true to our pledge to define the technological research university of the 21st century by exploring new modes of instruction and operation. What we learn from the Coursera and other similar experiments will above all benefit our own students and strengthen our existing programs.”

    That echoes how Ng and his co-founder Daphne Koller describe Coursera as creating a “better education for everyone.” When I spoke to the duo when Coursera launched, Koller said that the creation of these online courses will make for robust and active learning experiences on campus. There is a “growing amount of content out there on the Web,” she said, and “the value proposition for the university isn’t getting the content out there but rather the personal interaction between faculty and students and students and students.”

    That is part of the value proposition of the residential campus experience, I’d argue. When I asked Ng about the impetus behind these universities’ signing up for Coursera, he said that both faculty and administration were pushing for it. But students at these universities, not so much. That’s not to say that students in general aren’t interested in the free online classes – Coursera boasts 1.5 million course enrollments by over 680,000 students. But these students aren’t necessarily that same population served by a residential campus. (According to demographics from Ng’s Machine Learning class offered last fall, only about 11% were in undergraduate degree programs.) In The New York Times today, University of Michigan (and Coursera) professor Scott Page says, “There’s talk about how online education’s going to wipe out universities, but a lot of what we do on campus is help people transition from 18 to 22, and that is a complicated thing,.” He adds that MOOCs would be most helpful to “people 22 to 102, international students and smart retired people.”

    Who’s being “helped” here is a crucial consideration – for institutions, for faculty (both research and instructional faculty), for enrolled students and for learners everywhere.

    A few lingering questions:

    • How will the University of Washington’s plans to offer credit for its Coursera classes work? (And related: how will concerns about online cheating be addressed? Udacity partnered with Pearson for this.) 
    • How will a partnership with Coursera change universities’ other online course offerings? (These universities and other universities, pre-existing and planned programs, and particularly for-credit ones) 
    • How will the peer grading work? (History professor Jonathan Rees raises questions about how well students will be able to evaluate one another’s assignments.) 
    • With all these online lecture-based course options, whither the offline lecture-based course offerings? And how will funding models have to change for universities if students opt to learn “elsewhere” for these credits?

    A partial listing of new Coursera courses (which despite Coursera's pride in having humanities-MOOCs is a pretty tech- and biz-focused course catalog):

    Drugs and the Brain
    Principles of Economics for Scientists 
    Galaxies and Cosmology

    Bioelectricity, a quantitative approach
    innovation and entrepreneurship
    Introductory Human Physiology
    Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
    Introduction to Astronomy
    Think Again: How to Reason and Argue
    Medical Neuroscience
    A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior

    AI Planning
    Introduction to Philosophy
    Equine Nutrition
    Critical Thinking in Global Challenges
    E-learning and Digital Cultures

    Energy 101
    Computational Photography
    Control of Mobile Robots
    Computational Investing Digitize

    Clinical Problem Solving
    Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
    Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences

    Programming Principles: Functions and Objects
    Digital Signal Processing
    Introducion a la programming?

    Learn to Program: The Fundamentals
    Learn to Program: Crafting Quality Code
    Neural Networks for Machine Learning
    The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness
    Aboriginal World Views in Education

    Data Analysis
    Principles of Obesity Economics
    Computing for Data Analysis
    Mathematical Biostatistics Bootcamp
    Health for All through Primary Health Care
    Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health
    Community Change in Public Health
    Vaccine Trials: Methods and Best Practices

    Interactive Python
    Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering
    Analytical Chemistry
    Chemistry: Concept Development and Application

    Project Performance
    Scientific Computing
    Technical Leadership
    The Hardware-Software Interface
    Building an Information Risk Management Toolkit
    Computational Methods
    Computational Neuroscience
    Decision Analysis in Engineering
    Designing and Executing Information Security Strategies
    Financial Data Modeling and Analysis
    High-Performance Scientific Computing
    Information Security and Risk Management in Context
    Intro to Computer Programming using Python
    Introduction to Computer Communication Networks
    Introduction to Data Science
    Investment Science
    Navigating the Business Environment Portfolio
    Construction and Risk Management
    Programming Languages

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  • 07/18/12--20:36: OSCON 2012 and EDU (Day 1)
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    The social network for schools Edmodo announced today that it’s raised $25 million in its Series C round of funding (that is, its third round of venture capital investment). This round was lead by a new investor New Enterprise Associates (NEA) with participation from existing investors Greylock Partners, Benchmark Capital, Union Square Ventures, and Learn Capital.

    The company raised its Series B just 7 months ago, at that time raising $15 million from Greylock and Benchmark. Greylock Managing Partner and LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman joined Edmodo’s Board of Directors. Edmodo’s Series A was in December 2010 with an investment from Union Square Ventures (who are also investors in Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Zynga). Seed funding came from Learn Capital, an investment firm whose largest limited partner is Pearson.

    To date, Edmodo has raised $47.5 million.

    Edmodo is a free tool – free for teachers and for schools – and it’s promised to keep it that way. Until earlier this year, when Edmodo launched a platform that allowed third-party developers to sell their applications to Edmodo users (giving Edmodo a cut of sales), the startup did not have a clear revenue model. To date, Edmodo hasn’t opened this app store to all users, so the sales (and the cash from them) are limited. And even with 8 million registered users, it seems a stretch that this alone can be the path to Edmodo’s profitability.

    Having raised $47.5 million in funding, it could be that Edmodo has a longer runway to figure that out – more time to improve its software (expanding its engineering team, for example) and more time to generate revenue. But the question remains:

    How will all these venture capitalists get a return on their investment? The likely answer: acquisition. And I do have to wonder if NEA’s participation in a big round of funding so soon on the heels of Edmodo’s December investment doesn’t signal that that’s coming soon.

    Who could buy Edmodo? A few thoughts:

    Pearson: Pearson (via Learn Capital) was an early investor in Edmodo, and Edmodo could provide a social network for the education publishing giant (and a giant that’s really scrambling to move towards a digital future). Pearson products and services could be easily sold to schools, teachers and students this way. Analytics could be gleaned about curriculum usage, student-teacher engagement, and so on. A sale to Pearson would likely be about acquiring a large user-base for additional curriculum and textbook sales. And, of course, it would be about student and teacher data – what people are studying, buying, reading, writing.

    LinkedIn: LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman sits on the board of Edmodo as an investor, and I do think this would be an interesting (but perhaps surprising) acquisition. Although LinkedIn describes itself as a professional social network – something that makes it a parallel perhaps to Edmodo’s educational social network – I see LinkedIn as a big data company. Who’s hired. Who’s looking for work. Who updates their profile. Who you’re connected to. Where you went to school. What your skills are. All this incredible data about our professional skills and experiences can offer huge insights for other companies. And all that data – all our data – is what makes LinkedIn such a valuable company. It is possible that LinkedIn could make a move into the education space – particularly as we start to rethink certification and degrees – and Edmodo certainly has a lot of data which, in aggregate, could certainly provide interesting signals about careers, curriculum, certification, connections, and so on.

    In both of these scenarios, it’s clear that the real value of Edmodo lies in user data. And here I’ll repeat the oft-quoted “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” An acquisition of Edmodo wouldn’t be about the software (which frankly isn’t particularly spectacular and whose functionality has been replicated by others); it wouldn’t necessarily be about the team – not in terms of engineering talent, at least. It would be about an 8 million userbase. And it would be about their data.

    Today’s $25 million investment is a significant and sizable one, and the participation by all the startup’s previous investors in this round certainly seems like a vote of investor confidence in Edmodo. And as they should – the company has certainly benefited from schools’ fears of open social networks and embrace of closed ones. And it certainly goes without saying, the number of schools that have signed up for Edmodo is a vote of confidence there from the education community.

    But after raising $47.5 million for a free tool, I think it’s worth asking: now what?

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  • 07/19/12--20:14: OSCON 2012 and EDU (Day 2)
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  • 07/19/12--21:59: More MOOCs, Storified
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    School social network Edmodo announced this week that it has raised $25 million in its Series C, bringing the total raised for the startup to $47.5 million. My thoughts here.

    littleBits, an open source hardware startup with electronics modules that snap together with magnets (and one of the startups I chose as my favorites of 2011) has raised $3.65 million in its Series A.

    Top Hat Monocle, which lets students use their cellphones in lieu of clickers in class, has raised $8 million in Series A funding.

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez covers Coursemodo, a new “student engagement”/learning management platform that’s raising $500,000 to $1 million in seed funding.

    The investment bank Berkery Noyes has released its report on mergers and acquisitions in the education industry from the first half of the year.

    Classes and Competitions

    MITx has released some of what it’s calling “lessons learned” from its first course, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics. Among the interesting results, a student-generated 6.003z, an online course for what is typically the follow-up course 6.003 Signals and Systems. 6.003z uses MIT OpenCourseWare materials that are already available online.

    Big news from online learning startup Coursera which announced 12 new partner universities that will offer courses on its “MOOC” platform. And the world goes a little crazy

    So far the MTT2K “Khan-test” has 14 entries. Education Week’s Justin Reich has more on the contest.

    The Department of Education and Creative Commons have announced the names of the winners of their “Why Open Education Matters” video contest.


    President Obama announced a $1 billion effort to create a “master corps of teachers” in math and science. The Educated Reporter notes that the federal government already has some 80 teacher quality programs. But none have a name like “master corps of teachers,” do they.

    6 more states have been granted NCLB waivers: Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia.

    The Department of Education is revamping its rules for disabled student loan borrowers, following an investigation by ProPublica last year that found that the system was failing to recognize and discharge loans for those who legitimately claimed disabilities prevented them from working and repaying.


    The ACLU has filed what it calls a “groundbreaking” lawsuit against the state of Michigan on behalf of some 1000 Highland Park, Michigan elementary school students, charging that the state is denying children their the constitutionally guaranteed “right to read.”

    Civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Education, alleging that it has not done enough to address special education in the Jackson Public Schools (specifically noting that the MDE has not done anything to fix problems from a 2010 complaint).


    Adam Bellow’s latest project eduClipper (which I covered here last week) has opened the doors of its beta.

    Updates and Upgrades

    Microsoft held a press conference this week to unveil its new version of Office (Office 2013). (Here’s The Verge’s write-up on its new and updated features.) Bad timing for Microsoft, however, as just after its press conference wrapped up, news broke that Marissa Mayer, Google employee #20 and the company’s first female hire, would be the new CEO of Yahoo. In more bad news for Microsoft, the company also posted its first ever quarterly loss this week. Some weeks just suck, Microsoft. Bummer huh.

    Lore, the startup formerly known as CourseKit, has updated the look, feel and functionality of its site. The emphasis is on the news feed and on the calendaring system for this free alternative to the more bloated LMS. Lore aims for professor adoption rather than trying to sell to entire schools.

    Skout, a mobile/social app, has re-opened its doors to teens following its decision last month to close down its teen community following news that predators had been using it to sexually assault minors. The company says it will do a better job of tracking users’ ages.

    YouTube has added a new feature that allows for the blurring and obscuring of faces. Although ostensibly for human rights concerns (so as to protect the identities of protestors, for example), I wonder if we’ll see teachers use this to share videos of their classrooms without revealing their students’ identities.

    Research and Data

    The results of a study by the National Education Policy Center are prompting it to urge states not to expand the growth of full-time virtual schools, particularly after finding particularly poor performances by students in the company K12’s online schools. Less than 28% of its schools meet the Adequate Yearly Progress during the 2010–2011 school year (as opposed to 52% of brick-and-mortar schools).

    A new study by Professors Adam Maltese of Indiana University and Craig Hochbein of the University of Louisville finds that rising scores on state exams do not correlate with better performance on the ACT. In some cases, students at schools whose state test scores were rising actually did worse on the ACT. A little test prep goes a long way – except when it doesn’t.

    According to student loan provider Sallie Mae, students are paying more for of their own education than they have for the past 4 years. That’s because parents’ share of the bill is on the decline, in part because they simply can’t afford as much.


    Donald Sobol, the author of the wonderful Encyclopedia Brown series, passed away last week. GeekDad has a terrific tribute to an author I adored as a young reader. Sobol’s last book is due out this fall.

    Image credits: ginza_line

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    I’m starting to get more than a little grumpy about MOOCs, what with all the hype about the revolutionary disruptions and game-changing tsunamis. I’m tired of the mainstream media punditry and their predictions that Stanford University’s experiments with online education (and by extension now Coursera and Udacity) will change everything; I’m tired of Silicon Valley’s exuberance that this could mark the end-of-the-(academic)-world-as-we-know-it – a future that its press, its investors, and its entrepreneurs are all invested (sometimes literally) in being both high tech and highly lucrative.

    It’s not a great frame of mind for me to start off two new Coursera classes today, both from the University of Michigan: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World and Internet History, Technology and Security. I’ve sat down to watch the first week’s lecture videos this evening, but it’s hard to do so without stewing about all the ink that’s been spilled over in the last week or so – most of it focused on the institutional impact and little of it focused on the learner.

    Oh sure, there’s the promise that these free online courses will somehow liberate students from the shackles of tuition and student loan debt. But to quote President George W. Bush, “rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”

    A recent article in The Atlantic posits that when we raise our eyebrows at the high drop-out rates in these online classes, we may be missing the point. The low completion rates are “just as it should be” and “what they do tell us is that lots of people are aspirational learners – a fact we should celebrate in its own right.”

    While aspiring to learn is, indeed, worth celebrating, I can’t imagine anyone seriously argue that aspiring to learn is sufficient. Yet The Atlantic suggests the low success rates are “a sign of the system’s efficiency.”

    And perhaps as these MOOCs are all just experiments – hyped experiments, but experiments nonetheless – we can shrug and say it’s great folks want to learn and, alas, it’s a pity when they don’t. Perhaps. But when we praise the failure to complete a class (a failure to learn) as “efficiency” and simply stop there, then I’m not sure what we’re building with MOOCs even rises to the level of what Dean Dad calls a “useful extra.” I’m not sure we can even know that it’s useful at all.

    How do we know if students are learning – even those who complete the courses? After all, students who sign up for these classes come from a variety of disciplinary and professional backgrounds, with different educational experiences and degrees. Case in point: me, with a Master’s Degree in Folkore, having taught both folklore and science fiction classes at the college level enrolled in this Fantasy and Science Fiction class. If I drop out of this class, is it really an indication that it is “all praise the MOOC dropout, our best indication yet of system just beginning to find its footing”? Is it a failure on my part? On the part of the course? On the part of the instructor? The content? The platform?

    No one will know. And more troubling, no one seems to be really asking.

    (PS.  I'm not dropping out of your class, Dr. Chuck.)

    Photo credits: Timm Suess

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    News Corp and Education: Some Background

    Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp made two important acquisitions in November 2010: paying $360 million for a 90% stake in the educational content/assessment company Wireless Generation and hiring New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. These were the first signs that News Corp was making a foray – clearly a political and a technological one – into the education sector. But there were plenty of questions about what exactly the publishing/news company had in mind .

    Since then, News Corp has made a few more moves, including hiring Diana Rhoten, the co-founder of education startup accelerator Startl, teaming up with the College Board to make education an important issue in the 2012 Presidential campaign, and sending Murdoch and Klein to speak at various events about the “failures” of the current education system and the promises of technology to fix things.

    Whatever the company’s plans might have been, they were sidetracked in 2011 by the phone hacking scandal at its News of the World tabloid – revelations that the paper had hacked into phones of politicians, celebrities, and British citizens.

    Joel Klein set aside his leadership over the company’s new education division to lead the internal investigation. (British prosecutors filed charges against 8 of the organization’s editors yesterday.) The New York state comptroller yanked a no-bid contract that had been granted to Wireless Generation, citing its association with News Corp following the phone hacking scandal. (The state did not, however, sever ties for the contract given to the Shared Learning Collaborative, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative for a nation-wide educational data infrastructure with software built by Wireless Generation. New York City is one of the pilot districts for that project.)

    Despite what looks to be an ongoing criminal proceeding against News Corp, the company hopes that its announcement late last month to split the company in two will help assuage fears about its ethics and its future. One company would focus on the newspaper and publishing business (including The Wall Street Journal and HarperCollins); the other on entertainment (including Fox News). And yesterday News Corp unveiled the new brand for its newly formed education division: Amplify.

    Klein will be CEO. Rhoten, CSO. The rest of Wireless Generation’s management is listed on the new company website as “the team.”

    News Corp and Education: Some Analysis

    Amplify will offer digital learning tools for the K through 12 market and will focus on three areas: assessments and learning analytics, digital curriculum (Common Core-aligned content for math, language arts and science), and content delivery.

    There isn’t a product – hardware or software – to hold and evaluate yet, but according to yesterday’s press release, Amplify is building a “breakthrough, 4G mobile tablet-based platform” in collaboration with AT&T. A pilot program will run in “schools across the country” during the 2012–2013 school year. (4G lets students use tablets at home even if they don't have WiFi there; it also allows schools to filter and monitor their Internet access, per CIPA.)

    According to the demo videos on the Amplify website, the tablets in question look a lot like the Galaxy Tab, the Samsung Android tablet that’s currently facing a ban in the US due to a patent lawsuit from Apple. Because of this, it’s hard to say what the actual hardware will look like when the pilot programs launch this fall. Could be a Windows device.  Could be Android.  Could be iPads... All devices make brief appearances in the promotional videos (something that leads me to think what we really have here is vaporware.)

    Well, actually the tablets are unlikely to be iPads as the operating system that Amplify touts seems to be specifically designed to comprehensively track student data, interactions, purchases, assignments and so on – something that the consumer-oriented iPad just doesn’t do (or rather, it doesn’t do for schools). Furthermore, Apple has its own content ecosystem, one to which many textbook publishers and app makers have already flocked.

    That’s just one of the areas in which Amplify will have to battle – it’s Amplify versus Apple the hardware maker, and Amplify versus the Apple app ecosystem. It’s also Amplify versus other content providers – Pearson, McGraw Hill and so on – many of whom also have their own systems that connect digital content to learning analytics. And it’s Amplify, Wireless Generation and what it describes as its “proprietary technology” versus an increasing demand for open educational content and (I wish) open source and interoperable hardware and software.

    But the most challenging uphill battle that Amplify may face is separating itself from the stigma of News Corp – Ruper Murdoch, the political bent of Fox News, and of course, the phone hacking scandal. How will schools, teachers, parents and students feel about News Corp’s entrance into analytics, assessment, and curriculum? Will the re-branding be enough to make people forget those connections?

    “At Wireless Generation, we believe that it’s not that educators need to learn more about technology,” says one of the new Amplify videos. “It’s that technology needs to learn more about educators.” Coming from a parent company charged with breaking the law to learn more about British royalty, politicians, celebrities, and average citizens, that might sound more than a little ominous.

    Image credits: The Inquisitor and Engadget

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    On Tuesday Apple issued its quarterly report, one that analysts are describing as “lackluster, ”disappointing,“ and a ”reality check“ – all despite $35 billion in revenue and $8.8 billion in profit. The company ”only" grew by 23%, its slowest since Q3 of 2009. The reason, in part: consumers may be holding off on purchasing new iPhones (sales fell 26% from the previous quarter). Also down: revenue from the iTunes App Store (off $100 million from Q2).

    iPad sales, however, remain strong, and Apple was able to tout the number of iPads sold to schools – some 1 million iPads last quarter alone. As it noted with its second quarter results, Apple is now selling 2 iPads for every one Mac to US K–12 customers. According to CEO Tim Cook, the rapid adoption of the devices is “unlike anything I’ve seen in technology.”

    The sales of Macs to schools also hit at an all time high last quarter, which despite all the hype about iPads and iPad sales is fairly noteworthy. After all, iPads are frequently bought for one-to-one programs, while that isn’t necessarily the case with Macs. (Apple pointed to a purchase of 11,000 iPads by the Mansfield School District in Texas, for example, which plans to give every high school student and teacher a device.) And iPads are cheaper too – the iPad 2 is sold at a discounted $399 to schools, as opposed to the lowest price MacBook – the Air – which starts at $999. (RIP white MacBook.) The boost in Mac sales points to the ripple effect from the iPad’s popularity: schools are investing in Apple hardware; schools are investing in the Apple ecosystem.

    A nod to that was the release today of an update to its iTunes U app (iTunes link). The app, which was initially launched at Apple’s big education event earlier this year, now allows any teacher to create their own private courses, pulling together links, audio, video, text, and app materials (again most of that from within the Apple ecosystem) through a browser-base course manager and inviting select students to participate. (Teachers do still need to go through Apple’s verification process to make these courses public.)

    Apple also added an improved note-taking features to iTunes U making it easier to sync notes with specific, timestamped places in video and audio content.

    I’ve long called iTunes U one of the great undiscovered gems of the iTunes store as it hardly receives as much hype and attention as the slew of third party educational apps therein. “The world’s largest catalog of free educational content,” iTunes U boasts over 500,000 lectures, videos, and resources. But even with the update to the app, there’s still a lot of room for improvement here, particularly when it comes to what many people see as Apple’s Achilles Heel: “social.” There still isn’t a way for teachers to interact with their students via iTunes U nor for students to interact with each other.

    It’s content delivery – “course distribution” according to the website – plain and simple. It’s not very social; not very hackable; not very remixable – much like the Apple products themselves.

    Nevertheless, it’s all incredibly appealing to schools it seems, who last quarter bought one out of every 17 iPads sold and who are certainly helping Apple retain its status as not just a leading consumer electronics company, but as one of the leaders in education technology.

    Chart credits: Dan Frommer

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    RIP Sally Ride, educator, physicist, and the first American woman in outer space. Ride died of pancreatic cancer on July 23.

    Politics and Legalities

    The NCAA announced on Monday its fines against Penn State relating to the university’s role in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. The school will pay $60 million fines – less than the university’s profits from a year’s worth of football. The university will also no longer get a cut of Bowl Game profits and will lose football scholarships. Current athletes will be able to transfer to other schools without any penalities. And the university pulled down the symbolic Joe Paterno statue as well. Paterno’s record as the winningest coach is also gone as his 111 football victories have been expunged.

    Teachers in Chicago have reached an agreement with the school district to extend the length of the school day, something that had been a major sticking point in contract negotiations: Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted the longer day; teachers wanted more pay for such. The compromise: staffing the longer day with some 500 teachers who’d been laid off over the past 3 years.

    A California court has ruled that once parents have signed a “parent trigger” petition, they cannot change their minds or rescind their signatures. “ The ruling cast the future of the targeted school, Desert Trails in Adelanto, in Southern California’s high desert, into confusion. Charter operators will now be invited to bid for the school, even though Desert Trails parents on both sides of the controversy say they don’t want the school to become a charter — disempowering them even further,” writes Caroline Grannan.

    The U.S. Attorney’s office announced this week that a federal grand jury has returned a 62-count indictment against Dororthy June Brown and four fellow charter school executives, charging them defrauding three Philadelphia-area charter schools of more than $6.5 million in taxpayer funds. The charges come amidst the city’s plans to overhaul the Philadelphia School District and turn many schools over to charters.

    The Department of Education unveiled its “Shopping Sheet” this week – a model financial aid award letter that aims to clarify how much one year of college will actually cost.


    Amazon launched a new education initiative this week, the Amazon Career Choice Program, which will pay for 95% of the tuition for Amazon employees to take courses in fields that are in high-demand, regardless of whether the classes pertain to the jobs they currently have at Amazon.

    As part of News Corp’s split into two companies – one publishing and one entertainment – we got word this week of the new branding for the education division: Amplify. My thoughts are here.

    Meograph, which describes itself as a “four dimensional storytelling” application, had its official launch this week. The startup allows users to build digital storytelling projects (See Richard Byrne’s coverage, which he describes the startup as “very similar to a watching a narrated Google Earth tour.”)

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez covers the launch of Wonderville, an educational video library built by the “eToys vets from the dotcom era.”

    Updates and Upgrades

    Creative Commons have added a new license selection wizard to help you choose which license is best for your content. But as Brian Lamb and David Wiley note, one of the new features of the wizard is a “not-so-subtle value judgment that is applied when people select an NC license” – “This is not a free culture license,” you’re told.

    Wired Magazine explores Singularity University’s plans to move from a not-for-profit to a for-profit institution (specifically a benefit corporation).

    The New York Times profiles the assistive technology app Proloquo2Go which converts text to speech. Used by those who cannot speak, the article notes that the company has just added two new voices – specifically children’s voices. The app costs $190 and is available via iTunes.

    Downgrades and Closures

    Scholastic is shuttering the 110-year-old Weekly Reader, a publication that it bought six months ago. According to the New York Post, “Sources speculated Scholastic may have bought Weekly Reader to get its hands on the subscriber list. Regardless, the death of the Weekly Reader is bad news for all classroom periodicals, including Scholastic News and Time For Kids.”

    After his company posted a record £148 million loss, the CEO of interactive whiteboard maker Promethean has stepped down. Promethean’s revenues have dropped 22% during the first six months of the year. So much for that ed-tech revolution, eh?


    The University of California, Berkeley announced that it is joining edX, the online education platform created by Harvard and MITx. The university will offer two classes on the platform this fall and will contribute some open source technology to the edX project.

    EDUKWEST and IndieGogo are partnering so that the former can help highlight educational projects that appear on the latter’s crowdfunding site.

    Research and Data

    Sue Waters has published “The State of Educational Blogging in 2012” based on her recent survey of edubloggers (and bloggers using Edublogs). Among the interesting tidbits: 59% of respondents said their students had individual blogs. (Not surprising, I suppose, that blogging teachers encourage student blogging). The reasons teachers blog: “authentic audience” and reflection.

    Growth in education spending slowed to a stop in the 2009–2010 fiscal year, according to a report issued by the Education Intelligence Agency. Per-pupil spending grew by 1.1%, less than the inflation rate.


    The online language learning platform OpenEnglish has raised $43 million, reports Techcrunch, in order to help the company expand its efforts in South America and Brazil in particular.

    The Digital Public Library of America has won a $1 million award from the NEH. (For more information on the DPLA, see this recent story in The Atlantic.)

    Classes and Competitions

    BYU professor and open education guru David Wiley is teaching an open course this fall called Ed Startup 101. An OG MOOC, the focus here will be on community and conversation, not on videos and multiple choice quizzes. Class starts August 27.

    Google announced the winners of its 2012 Google Science Fair this week. Congratulations to Jonah Kohn, Iván Hervías Rodríguez, Marcos Ochoa, Sergio Pascua, and grand prize winner Brittany Wenger.

    Photo credits: Clinton and Charles Robertson

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  • 07/29/12--11:27: Programming Notes
  • Thrown Away Television.

    I try to write here on Hack Education daily, and I'm pretty good about doing so. But the past few weeks have been a little crazy, and the next few days look to be more of the same. So don't look for much from me until Wednesday or Thursday. In the meantime, here's some news about what I'll be up to for the next few days and some hints at what I'm working on next...

    Podcast:  Steve Hargadon and my podcast has been on hold lately, what with our travel schedules. We gave the plenary address on Thursday at the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference. I'll post the audio as soon as it's available, in lieu of Friday's podcast.

    Newsletter:  I am writing a weekly email newsletter. (You can sign up here.) The newsletter highlights some of the most important stories in education/technology and includes a short essay from me on a major trend that emerged during the week.

    Research:  I'll be kicking off a new research project mid-August about open educational resources and remixing.  More details coming soon.

    Books:  Jon Becker and I are going through the submissions for Hack(ing) School(ing).  Thanks to everyone who submitted something. I'm also working on a guide for developers that helps address some of the questions in "The Audrey Test."

    Travel: I'm headed to San Francisco on Wednesday, then to DC on the following Wednesday, then to LA the next week. My schedule fills up quickly, but shoot me an email if you'd like to chat while I'm in town.

    Speaking: I'm starting to pull together my fall travel and speaking schedule. Again, email me with inquiries.

    MOOCs: I'm currently taking 2 Coursera classes -- Internet History and Science Fiction and Fantasy. I'm not sure how well I'm going to keep up, all things considered. But I'm very interested in these because they're utilizing peer grading as opposed to robo-graders.

    Image credits: Jason

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    It's that time of year again, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.  (My coverage from 2010 and from 2011.)

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    In May, I decided to re-institute a new monthly feature here, something that I used to write for MindShift: a post highlighting some of the new and updated educational apps that have been released over the past 30 days or so. Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the new educational apps – just 3 that I think are pretty interesting. (Just 3. July’s a quiet month, I guess.)

    Amazing Alex

    Amazing Alex is the latest game from Rovio, maker of the phenomenally popular Angry Birds game (and heck, franchise). While Wired’s Rhett Allain and others have written about the physics of Angry Birds, I’ve always felt like my success at the game was mostly luck and little to do with my ability to calculate velocity and angles. There’s some of this same physics in Amazing Alex, true – a game that features a young boy and his Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. Instead of aiming birds at pigs, here you must solve puzzles, helping Alex build these devices.

    iOS and Android, $.99-$2.99 (iTunes link)


    There’s no screenshots here of fun and engaging gameplay. There’s no screenshot at all. That’s because what Clever is building is incredibly important but all under the hood. The company offers an API to help open up student information system data programmatically – to other apps and to other app developers. Clever wants to help schools address problems with data integration and data silos.

    Free for schools (link)

    The Sonnets by William Shakespeare

    Touch Press has created some of the best known interactive books for the iPad, including The Elements and The Waste Land. Here, the company has created an app with all 154 of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, performed by a star-studded cast that includes Stephen Fry and Patrick Stewart. And come on, those two are just meant to read these poems aloud, right? The app has lots of other features – commentary, analysis, definitions, and a way to jot down your own notes.

    iOS, $13.99 (iTunes link)

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    Earlier this year, I penned a post titled “The Audrey Test” in which I laid out a number of topics with which I argued education technologists (particularly ed-tech entrepreneurs) needed to be familiar if I was to take them at all seriously. The response – both in the comments section and elsewhere – were fairly revealing, I thought, particularly as some folks sneered at the notion that learning theories, histories, or sciences were at all relevant to building ed-tech products, services or businesses. “Too academic” was one response. “Anti-engineer” was another. Also: “I don’t have time to learn this. I’m too busy building my company.”

    There are lots of other places where you can see this conflict play out – those who know little about education history, theory, practice but claim this makes them “disruptive innovators” versus those who are entrenched in educational institution – both in higher ed and K–12, as teachers and researchers – who worry that their experience and expertise are being dismissed. (A recent example: the back-and-forth about Khan Academy pedagogy in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and in various blogs.)

    Although “The Audrey Test” doesn’t have a set of definitive answers (and although I am often tempted to add more questions), I am currently working with Software Carpentry’s Greg Wilson to pull together a guide based on it and related issues. We’ve solicited input from a number of people who’ve been working in this field since long before this latest flurry and excitement over the impending “ed-tech revolution” – folks who can give some historical perspective, some research-based insight, and some clear definitions on key terms and topics in education, technology, teaching, and learning. Our goal is to have this finished by September, which means I’ll be spending the next few weeks working on many of the entries.

    Below is a look at 5 of the most important education theorists of the 20th century. And yes, I realize there are others who’ve contributed to the field. I’d love to hear suggestions from readers about “who’s missing.” Even better? Offers to write those sections of the guide. You’ll find this and other articles in our work-in-progress-wiki.

    Why Should Techies Care About (20th Century) Education Theory?

    Debates about education are by no means new: What’s the best way to teach? What’s the best way to learn? What should the curriculum be? Who should have access to specialized knowledge and specialized training? How does technology impact all of these questions? (See Plato’s The Republic, for example, on what the education of “philosopher kings” should entail or Plato’s Phaedrus on the dangers to learning of technology (well, of writing).)

    Rather than outline the history of education or the history of education theory from Plato the philosopher to PLATO the online learning system, here is a brief overview of 5 of the 20th century’s most important educational theorists. Their influence can still be felt today, both in how we view the educational system and the educational process. As is the case with most theories, these individuals’ work has been adopted, refuted, tweaked, and ignored to varying degrees.

    Implied here, of course, is that knowing both the history of education and theories of education are important. The case for the former is made best, arguably, by George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The case for the latter: we all have theories about how and what people should teach and learn – whether we are conscious of this or not, whether we have studied the subject formally or not. In part, it’s because we all have experiences as learners and as students. Recognizing this and in turn looking to the work of those who’ve thought deeply and researched extensively on the subject can help us think critically about how we approach education – again, as a system and a process.

    John Dewey (1859–1952)

    The American philosopher John Dewey was one of the leading proponents of pragmatism, a school of thought that argues that theory and practice, ideas and reality are not divorced. His publications on theories of knowledge included How We Think (1910) and Experience and Nature (1925). Dewey may be best known for his writings on education, including The School and Society (1900) and Democracy and Education (1916) – but “best known” does not mean that his views have ever been widely adopted by the mainstream U.S. school system.

    Dewey believed that schools were places in which children learned the habits of democracy – that is, how to participate fully in civic life. As such, schools are important institutions that reflect, but more importantly can reform society. It’s a mistake to see schools as separate from society, he argued, where students are trained to be good workers or good citizens. Rather, schools are an extension of civic society and students must have a stake in both the community (inside and outside of the school walls) and in the learning.

    As such, schools not be a place where children merely memorize facts and ideas about civics or other aspects of the curriculum, according to Dewey. Instead, students should actively participate in building their own knowledge, relating it to their own experiences. Teachers’ roles are not to force students to learn material, but rather “the teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” (1897)

    Dewey argued that learning comes from doing, but the importance is less about gaining certain knowledge than experiencing the process of inquiry and problem-solving. As such, Dewey is often credited with developing the idea of project-based learning.

    Who in tech has Dewey influenced?  the Maker Movement

    Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

    Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori first developed her ideas about learning while studying medicine, specifically pediatrics and psychiatry. Much of her early career was spent working with mentally disabled children and devising ways to instruct them. She started her first school in a working class neighborhood in Rome in 1911. The school was based on and the basis for Montessori’s “scientific pedagogy” and enrolled children between the ages of 2 and 7. While the school was originally equipped with many of the things we might recognize in contemporary classrooms – a blackboard, a teacher’s desk, tables for the children to sit at – Montessori redesigned the room in ways that the children could manipulate the furniture and all the other items in it.

    That emphasis on student choice and on the learning environment remain two of the central pieces of the Montessori method of education. The Montessori classroom is designed so that children have freedom within certain limits and so that they can work uninterrupted at “purposeful activities” that develop sensory, practical, and intellectual skills. While most Montessori schools still focus on young children (in a multi-age classroom), programs do exist up to and through high school.

    Who in tech has Montessori influenced?  Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin

    Jean Piaget (1896–1980)

    Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget founded the discipline known as “genetic epistemology” – that is the origins or development of knowledge. Initially interested in zoology (he published several academic papers on mollusks by the time he turned 15), Piaget’s interest eventually turned to children’s intelligence after he started teaching at a boys’ school and found while grading exams that young students made different types of mistakes than older ones and adults did. This helped spur his interest in cognitive development and his argument that children’s minds develop in stages, giving them the cognitive abilities to learn certain things only after passing through these stages, regardless of their intellectual capabilities.

    These stages are: 1) sensori-motor (from birth to age 2) where the child learns to distinguish objects from the self; 2) pre-operational (age 2–7) where the child learns to use language and represent objects with words and the egocentrism associated with that first stage starts to disappear; 3) concrete operational (age 7–11) where the child can think logically about objects and events; and 4) formal operational (age 11 and older) where the child can think abstractly and systematically.

    Piaget argued that children use the processes of assimilation and accomodation to create mental frameworks to understand the world around them. In other words, when faced with new information or scenarios, children draw on previous knowledge and experiences to make sense of things (that’s assimilation) or they adjust their previous schemas in order to make sense of the new information (accomodation).

    Piaget’s work has been particularly influential in early childhood education and in thinking about how we scaffold learning so that it builds on previous knowledge as well as on students’ cognitive abilities.

    Who in tech has Piaget influenced?  Seymour Papert

    B.F. Skinner (1904–1990)

    American psychologist and philosopher B. F. Skinner was a behaviorist – a “radical behaviorist” in his terms. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that sees all actions by an organism as behaviors that can be modified or shaped by reinforcement or by changing the environment. Among his best known inventions is the “operant conditioning chamber” (better known as Skinner’s Box) – where animals were observed changing their behaviors under certain conditions. Rats, for example, learned that if they pulled a lever, they got food; and so they pulled the lever quite frequently.

    Skinner’s research was very influential in education, but as the inventor of the Skinner’s Box, he was sometimes criticized about treating humans the same way he treated lab animals. Skinner invented a crib, for example, that was meant to help keep a baby warm, clean, and safe, but when the Ladies’ Home Journal wrote an article about it titled “Baby in a Box,” the response was far from positive, and sales of the crib never took off.

    Skinner also invented a “teaching machine” – a mechanical device that presented students with educational materials and study questions; students had to get the answers right to move on. Skinner argued that this machine provided positive reinforcement and individualized pacing, something that made the teaching machine superior to a traditional classroom setting. (Skinner believed that most correction in the classroom was negative, not positive behavior reinforcement.)

    Skinner wrote in 1954 in The Science of Learning and Art of Teaching:

    “If the teacher is to take advantage of recent advances in the study of learning, she must have the help of mechanical devices. The technical problem of providing the necessary instrumental aid is not particularly difficult. There are many ways in which the necessary contingencies may be arranged, either mechanically or electrically…The important features on the device are these: Reinforcement for the right answer is immediate. The mere manipulation of the device will probably be reinforcing enough to keep the average student at work for a suitable period each day, provided traces of earlier aversive control can be wiped out. A teacher may supervise an entire class at work on such devices at the same time, yet each child may progress at his own rate, completing as many problems as possible within the class period. If forced to be away from school, he may return where he left off. The gifted child will advance rapidly, but can be kept from getting too far ahead either by being excused from arithmetic for a time or by being given special sets of problems which take him into some of the interesting by-paths of mathematics. The device makes it possible to present carefully designed material in which one problem can depend upon the answer to the preceding and where, therefore the most progress to an eventually complex repertoire can be made.”

    Who in tech has Skinner influenced?  Zynga, clearly. Also any company touting "adaptive learning" software

    Paolo Freire (1921–1997)

    Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire is probably best known for his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. That date of publication is important, as Freire’s work is intertwined with the liberation theology movement in Latin America as well as with larger anti-colonial movements, revolutions, and coups (in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Brazil, and so on) of the time. Freire worked with poor communities in Brazil, teaching them literacy, before being imprisoned and later exiled.

    Freire’s book (and his life work) draws heavily on Marxist theory in which he makes the distinction between colonizers and the colonized in society and the role that education plays in furthering injustice. For Freire then, education is necessarily a political act, whether it’s one of oppression or (hopefully) liberation.

    Among Freire’s important contributions to thinking about the politics of pedagogy is his opposition to what he calls the “banking model of education.” This idea that students are empty jars to be filled by teachers “transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” Like Dewey (and other theorists too, including Rousseau), Freire argued that students have to seize control of their own learning and by extension their own selves – “conscientização” or conscientization.

    Freire’s work is the foundation of critical pedagogy, and according to bell hooks (in Teaching to Transgress), “teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”

    Who in tech has Freire influenced? Me.

    Image credits: Wikimedia

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    You’re Fired!

    Adios to UC Davis’s Lieutenant John Pike of pepper-spraying infamy. Pike has been on paid administrative leave since last November when he attacked non-violent protestors on campus. (His 2010 salary was $110,243.12.) The school announced this week that Pike is no longer an employee, although it declined to comment on whether Pike had been fired or had left on his own accord.

    Politics and Policies

    On Monday, Senator Tom Harkin released a report some two years in the making, investigating for-profit colleges. And it’s pretty damning. Among its findings: in 2010, the for-profits it studied had a total of 32,496 recruiters, but only 3,512 career-services staff members. 22.4% of these companies’ revenue went to marketing and recruiting, 19.4% to profits and just 17.7% to instruction. Their CEOs were paid an average of $7.3 million. The vast majority of these companies’ revenue came from taxpayers in the form of federal financial aid, and because of the way in which the GI Bill works (mo’ money for colleges), these for-profits aggressively marketed their schools to vets. The Apollo Group, which operates the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit college, got $1.2 billion in Pell grants and $210 million more in benefits under the Post–9–11 GI Bill. Two-thirds of Apollo’s associate-degree students leave before earning their degree.

    Thank goodness that the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 has died in the Senate. Because among its provisions would be making it a federal offense to violate a company’s Terms of Service. So yeah, all those kids who’ve lied about their age in order to access Facebook…

    Mexico’s President-Elect Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to create a National Digital University, reports Tony Bates, as part of his goal to raise the country’s university participation to 50%.


    George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media has released another tool (in its long line of awesome tools, I should note here): Scripto. The open source Scripto makes it easier for archives and collections to solicit community help in transcribing materials.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that when World Education University opens this fall it will offer free content via an ad-supported model. “Any Silicon Valley start-up will tell you that if you can drive enough eyeballs to your Web site, you can find ways to leverage that and monetize it,” said Scott Hines, the university’s CEO. Right. Let’s look at the stock market and see how well that’s going: Facebook shares, down. AOL, down. Yahoo, down. But hey, good luck with that business model, World Education University! (And good luck getting accreditation too.)

    Updates and Upgrades

    The interactive e-book company Inkling has released version 3.0 of its app, bringing its catalog of textbooks to the iPhone and iPod Touch. (The company also has an HTML5 version too.) The iPhone app, which syncs reading across all your devices, only downloads one chapter at a time so that the files don’t take up all your free disk space., the makerspace network and showcase for kids, has added a new feature so that kids can highlight their skills. (I love the Fort Builder skill, personally.)

    Downgrades and Closures

    SnappSchool, one of the many startups founded last year to focus on text-messaging between school and home, is shutting down its SMS functionality to focus on its homework help service for parents (which I covered here).

    Last week, I noted that Singularity University is looking to move from non-profit to for-profit status. And now, the plot thickens. Wired notes that the university is also seeking more control over its students’ IP. Bad news for students. Bad news for openness and innovation.


    FounderDating, a matchmaking service for entrepreneurs looking for co-founders, is teaming up with Teach for America to help pair up those interested in education entrepreneurship. There’s an application and screening fee for FounderDating, which promises its network has folks with industry and technical expertise.


    The online study group website OpenStudy has just launched Catapult, a cash-based reward system that PandoDaily calls a “Kickstarter for education goals.” Citing Roland Fryer’s study on paying students to perform well in school… well… it just made me sad as I’ve been a fan of this startup for a long time.

    Research and Data

    The New Teacher Project (founded by former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee) released a report this week called The Irreplaceables, finding that some of the best teachers leave the profession every year. As The Shanker Blog notes, it’s a good thing that this report highlights the problem of teacher retention. But as it also notes, much of this study is only based on one year of data, so it is awfully hard to make sweeping pronouncements about who’s “good” and who’s “bad” and who’s “effective.”

    Those pesky education researchers! Look what UT Austin professor Walter Stroup thinks he’s found: that there are serious flaws in the ways in which we use standardized tests to measure student achievement and predict student performance. Oops!

    According to a new survey by the National Consumer Law Center finds that of the students that default on student loans, 80% are unemployed, 65% attended for-profit universities, and less than 47% actually completed their degrees. (via Inside Higher Ed)

    And in another student debt study, has found that only about .2% of students graduate with more than $100,000 in debt. Interestingly, almost a third of these students came from families earning more than $100,000 a year.

    The Pew Research Center has released the results of a survey it conducted with some 1000 “experts and stakeholders” on their thoughts about the future of higher education. What will higher ed look like in 2020? 39% said it won’t be much different than it is today. 60% said it would be “quite different.” It doesn’t look like anyone in the survey mentions jet packs, proof that professors really just aren’t forward-thinking at all.

    According to data from the Department of Education, of 3.5 million kindergarteners enrolled in school during the 2010–11 school year, 25% came from families living below the poverty level.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Educational game-maker MindSnacks has raised $6.5 million and boasts that its games have been downloaded over 4 million times. MindSnacks now has 14 titles for language-learning and test-prep all aimed, as the name of the company suggests, on “bite-sized” study portions.

    McGraw-Hill has acquired Key Curriculum Press, the makers of Geometer’s Sketchpad. A very interesting move on both parts. Key Curriculum Press has been an indie publishers for 40 years. Why this? Why now?

    Classes and Conferences

    MIT OpenCourseWare continues to expand its OCW Scholar courses with the announcement this week that Introduction to Psychology is now available in this format. (For more on OCW Scholar, see this story from January.)

    The “Panel Picker” is now open for the 2013 SXSWedu. You have a little over a month to submit your session. (Me, I’m considering pulling together a panel on “open-washing” in education – in open-source, in open content, in MOOCs, and in other areas that have the adjective “open” but aren’t. Interested? Lemme know.)

    Photo credits:

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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.

    This episode was recorded live as part of the plenary session we gave at the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning symposium in Las Vegas. I really enjoyed having a live audience (and not just because it's useful to hear the laughter or dead silence when I make a joke), and as such, Steve and I are weighing how we can include that element in our weekly podcasts.  Perhaps we'll try Google Hangouts.  We'll see...

    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.

    July 26, 2012

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  • 08/03/12--21:42: LDT Expo 2012, Storified
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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.

    We recorded this week's episode via Blackboard Collaborate (a move away from Skype which has become increasingly unreliable). Perhaps it will allow us to incorporate video, chat and so on.

    In this week's podcast, Steve and I discuss Apple's quarterly earnings report and the popularity of Apple products in schools; Rovio's latest app Amazing Alex; and the importance of education theory and research.

    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.

    August 4, 2012

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    Many thanks, I should start here, to Edshelf’s Mike Lee and Teacher Square’s Jessie Arora for organizing RemixEd K12 this past weekend in Mountain View. The weekend long hackathon aimed to bring together educators, students, entrepreneurs, and developers to work on tech projects, tech problems, tech ideas, and “hacks.”  

    I realize, of course, that “hack” and “hackathon” remain fairly loaded words in education, as in the culture at large. “Hacker” still has a fairly negative connotation; those are the rogue individuals who release computer viruses and who steal your personal data – or so say the headlines. That’s not what I think “hacker” means; when I think of “hacking,” I think less about breaking than I do building. And while some folks want to shy away from using “hack” and “hackathon,” when they hold events around building and making and coding, I’d argue that it’s actually worth hanging on to the term. I’ve got a horse in the race, no doubt, with a blog called Hack Education. But as I have written in my description of this site and of the recent Hacking Schooling project, I like the term “hack” a lot, in no small part because of the variety of meanings it implies:

    To break in and break down. To cut to the core. To chop roughly. To subvert.

    A hack is a quick and dirty fix. It might not be beautiful. But it works. And it’s something that you can do, even if you’re not an engineer by trade. You can engineer, you can control the technology in your world – or you should be able to.

    But some of the concerns and caution surrounding hackathons’ role in education aren’t simply issues surrounding how we describe or brand these events. There are lots of questions about how these (generally) engineering-heavy and (sometimes) entrepreneur-oriented work – or not – with educators and work – or not – for education.

    Some of the problems as I see them:

    What’s the goal of a hackathon? Building? Learning? Launching startups? I think organizers need to think carefully about this. Not every problem in education requires a business solution; not every problem requires a tech solution. What are we fixing, and what are we hacking? And why? And how? And who are the hackers?

    How do we bridge the gulf between educators and engineers and entrepreneurs? Is the hackathon environment the right one to do this? Does building something in a team-oriented environment help bridge the divide? Does it get to the heart of some of the communication and cultural differences?

    How do we welcome non-hackers to hackathons? I have been to plenty of these sorts of events where you can count the number of women on one hand, where you can count the number of people over 40 on one hand. Is everyone welcome at a hackathon? If not, why not? What’s welcoming and unwelcoming factors are explicit? What are implicit?

    Is everyone’s voice and skills honored at hackathons? Do some people just come hoping that “code monkeys” will build their dream tool? Do problem owners have a voice throughout the development process? Do coders listen to designers? Do designers listen to teachers? Is anyone listening to students? Are we worrying too much about what the business folks have to say? Or are we worrying too little?

    How are we building on the knowledge (and specifically on the code) that’s built at hackathons? Do we expect participants to “start from scratch” each time, or can we give them a better starting point? That point could include code; it could include expertise; it could include background reading (particularly when the hackathon is focused on a particular sector like education); it could include a list of APIs to use (RemixEd did this well); it could include an understanding of what products and projects and hacks already exist. It definitely includes tips and tricks on getting broader community involvement.

    How does the hackathon model – often running from Friday evening through Sunday evening, so in other words, a whole weekend – work for educators? And if it works during the summer months (maybe it works then), what do we do during the 9 months (or so) of the academic year? Hold no education hackathons? Hold them at schools? Invite the community? Shorten the hours?

    Is a competition the right model? (Often there’s some judging round at the end of these events.) Do prizes for products reward a “thing” other than the learning that happens at these events?

    How do we empower teachers and students to be hackers? I’m not necessarily talking here about the “everyone needs to learn to program” mantra. I’m talking about hacking together your own solutions that needn’t be written in beautiful code but that work for you.

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  • 08/08/12--17:26: The Banality of Textbooks
  • Cross-posted on Inside Higher Ed

    There have been at least three textbook-related announcements this week – and hey, it’s only Wednesday. The news: Amazon now offers textbook rentals. Digital textbook app-maker Kno enters the K–12 market, offering digital Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt textbooks for parents (note: not schools) to rent. And the free digital textbook startup Boundless opens its doors to the public.

    Of course, we’re well into back-to-school season, so the timing of these (and all sorts of) edu-announcements isn’t all that surprising. Nor, I suppose, is the news itself:

    With its new service, Amazon, the company arguably most associated with buying books online, takes on Chegg, arguably the company most associated with college textbook rentals. Both companies have the massive warehouse infrastructure necessary to store and ship textbooks to students. That Amazon has added the rental option here is, in its words, “yet another great option for saving money.” While it’s debatable that renting is actually much of a money-saver, being the “one-stop shop” that students turn to is something that both these companies want – for all shopping needs in the case of Amazon, and with Chegg’s recent acquisitions, for all students’ tutoring, note-buying, and course-calendaring needs.

    That tension between appealing specifically to the edu market versus a more general consumer market seems to be at the heart of the Kno news too. Expanding its offerings to include the K–12 market might make sense for Kno as its app needs to compete with the iTextbook app unveiled by Apple earlier this year. I’m not sure how many parents will opt to rent textbooks this way, but the new logo unveiled by Kno certainly suggests the company is appealing to the “backpacks are so heavy” argument that’s pro-digital and anti-print. $9.99 to rent from Kno for a year, or a max of $15 to buy a one-year license for a digital textbook via iTunes…

    Or there’s the option for free textbooks. That’s (part of) the promise of OER, and “free and open” is how Boundless is branding itself. The startup came onto the scene earlier this year with news that it was being sued for copyright infringement by 3 of the major players in the publishing industry. Boundless has filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, and by launching to the public today, the startup maintains it is ready to fight rather than wilt under the legal pressures it contends are aimed at “stifling innovation from edtech startups like ours.”

    But what exactly are these innovations? Is the innovation simply a matter of cost? That’s the thrust of all three of these textbook announcements this week – Amazon, Kno, and Boundless all say they’re tackling the high cost of textbooks and by extension the traditional textbook market.

    Or is the innovation here a matter of enabling digital enhancements? That’s certainly what Kno offers with supplemental note-taking and quizzing features that it claims improve the reading, studying, and learning experience beyond what the printed version can offer.

    Or is it providing an alternative to textbooks altogether, demonstrating that you can pull together resources from a variety of openly licensed websites and repackage them into something that looks textbook-ish but that is unencumbered by the processes of academic peer-review, political machinations, and the publishing industry’s financial interests? Clearly some of those processes have led to a world where, among other things, textbooks are exhorbitantly priced. But I do worry that in a quest to “disrupt the textbook industry,” that we’ll chase cost-savings at all costs – particularly the expense of quality content. Because while I do applaud Boundless’s efforts to save students some money, it’s hardly impressive to see that the OER that they’re “curating” is mostly just a bunch of Wikipedia entries. (Something that begs the question: What is the purpose of textbooks?)

    As such this week’s textbook-related news seems pretty ordinary (um, to say the least). Are we (or am I) just weary of all the promises of industry disruption? Or are there other forces at play here?

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