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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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  • 11/08/12--18:56: Word Count
  • Voting today..

    Sorry I haven’t written much here this week. I can offer multiple excuses:

    1) Travel
    2) The Election
    3) My Kid Is Visiting

    Of course, November brings on certain writing pressures (for me, it’s #DigiWriMo: 50,000 words of digital writing this month). So I’ve actually been updating my personal blog while neglecting this one. Ya know.#wordcount.

    And as always, I’m writing on Twitter.

    Photo credits: Audrey Watters

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    Our Dreams

    Election Night Results

    Well thank goodness it’s over. The U.S. 2012 Elections, that is.

    In addition to re-electing President Barack Obama for a second term, voters also tackled the following education-related issues:

    Indiana’s incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett (R) was defeated by Glenda Ritz (D), a former “teacher of the year.” Bennett has been a rising star among ed-reformers, and he’d clashed frequently with teachers unions.

    California voters passed Proposition 30 (phew) — a temporary tax increase in order to stem major mid-year cuts to education.

    Proposition 32 failed in California. This ballot measure would have blocked unions from using funds deducted for payrolls for political purposes.

    In Georgia, Resolution 1162 passed, permitting public charter schools to be created in the state. Ballots are still not fully counted for Washington’s 1240 initiative that would similarly permit charters there. This is the fourth time this issue has been on the state’s ballots, with voters rejecting it in the past. This year, billionaires like Bill Gates, Alice Walton and Jeff Bezos donated over $10 million to the pro-charter campaign. Their wealth seems to have swayed the voters this time — woo hoo democracy! — as the “yes” vote is narrowly ahead.

    Voters in Idaho rejected 3 measures dubbed the "Luna Laws" for their connection to State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. Voters rejected a proposition that would have required students take 2 online classes to graduate and mandated they all lease laptops. They also rejected a law that would have linked teachers’ pay to standardized test scores and one that would have curbed teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

    Maryland passed its version of the federal Dream Act which grants in-state tuition at public universities to undocumented immigrants who have applied for a green card, have no criminal record and whose families have paid state income tax.

    Missouri voters rejected a measure that would have increased the sales tax on cigarettes to fund K–12 and higher education in the state. Missouri will continue to have the lowest cigarette taxes in the country, at only 17 cents per pack.

    Florida voters defeated a proposal that would have allowed the use of state funds to go to religious schools.

    Michigan voters rejected a proposal that would have amended the state’s constitution to enshrine unions’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.

    No official word yet on whether or not Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will stick around for a second term, but some are reading the tea-leaves that since he and Obama are tight — the two played basketball together on Tuesday while waiting for election returns — that Duncan is likely to stay on. Politico is floating Michelle Rhee's name as a possible alternative to Duncan, but that seems unlikely (to me at least), particularly considering the role that unions played in President's re-election bid.

    Laws and Politics Elsewhere

    Bill C–11 took effect in Canada this week, reforming many aspects of the country’s copyright law. Among the provisions, reports Michael Geist, are the addition of education, parody, and satire as covered by “fair dealing” (good news) and the outlawing of stripping DRM from the digital content you’ve purchased (bad news).

    Launches and Updates

    Kudos to Udacity for making their lecture videos downloadable via YouTube under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND).

    Demoed at Maker Faire Africa last week in Lagos, Nigeria was a pee-powered generator, hacked together by four teenage girls, Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola. Their device converts urine into electric power. More details via The Next Web.

    Pearson unveiled Project Blue Sky this week, an OER search engine (that also happens to turn up proprietary Pearson content in its search results). Blue skies indeed. More details via Inside Higher Ed.

    Blackboard released an update to its flagship LMS product Learn this week, with an emphasis on improving the user interface as well as instructor workflow. The company is also testing a new “cloud-based learning object repository” called xpLor aimed at making content-sharing easier across multiple LMSes.

    CourseSmart, which provides digital course materials for college students, launched the beta version of a new analytics tool which will measure “students’ engagement with digital course materials.” The analytics will count students’ usage of the materials (how many pages read, how long spent on each page, and so on), purportedly so that faculty can identify “at risk” students and can assess how and if the materials are tied to students’ performance.

    GoCast, a web-based audio-video conferencing tool, launches into beta this week. It’s been described as a “virtual Harkness Table,” which shifts the online space into one that encourages discussion and not just lecturing.

    Downgrades and Closures

    News broke this week that Flat World Knowledge will end access to free versions of its textbooks beginning January 2013. (My thoughts on this can be found via Inside Higher Ed.)

    Macmillan announced this week that it would stop printing dictionaries. Starting next year, the Macmillan Dictionary will be online-only.

    Research and Data

    The Campus Computing Project released the results of its latest survey of university technology officials at EDUCAUSE this past week. Among the interesting findings: Blackboard has dipped below 50% of the LMS market for the first time (it hold 45% of the market now). And just over 50% of respondents said that they believe MOOCs offer “a viable academic model for the effective delivery of online instruction.” See Inside Higher Ed for more details on the survey results.

    According to research by Pew, record numbers of Americans are graduating high school and college. One-third of those between age 25 and 29 have bachelor’s degrees. And 90% of that age group are high school graduates, a figure up from 78% in 1971.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Jim Groom reports that the University of Mary Washington project Domain of One’s Own has been fully funded — awesome news as giving students their own digital domain and teaching them the skills to manage their own online identities and data is one of the most important projects in education.

    The learn-to-code startup LearnStreet has raised $1 million in seed funding from Khosla Ventures, reports GigaOm.

    LectureTools, a startup spun out of the University of Michigan, has been acquired by the online learning platform Echo360.

    The publisher Macmillan has acquired Sapling Learning, a Texas-based startup that manages (mostly science-related) online homework.

    Photo credits: USB

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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 recording, we discuss the changes to Flat World Knowledge as well as results from Election Night and how these will (or won't) change education policy in the coming years.

    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.

    November 9, 2012

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    Election Night Racism on Twitter

    Like many people, I spent Election Night tuned in to Twitter, watching the results via my social media stream rather than via television. It felt more participatory than passive. It felt more immediate, less contrived.

    As a reflection of society, the responses on Twitter were varied and, not surprisingly, politically divided. And as a reflection of society too, it wasn't surprising (sadly) that there was a significant uptick in hate speech on Twitter as people reacted to President Obama’s re-election.

    Locating the Racists

    The “geography of information” website aggregated some 400 racist tweets from Tuesday night, mapped them, and compared states’ racist tweeting patterns. (Details on the methodology are here.)

    Rather than looking in aggregate at the Twitter patterns, the Gawker Media-owned website Jezebel called out by name and Twitter handle many of the individuals who had tweeted racist reactions to the President’s re-election, first with a gallery highlighting some of the tweets and then with a follow-up story, tracking down some of these users’ identities.

    Specifically, Jezebel re-published the tweets, tracked down teens' locations and their schools, called those schools and then published the schools’ responses (or lack thereof). Jezebel co-founder Tracie Egan Morrisey writes,

    “Many of those tweeters were teenagers whose public Twitter accounts feature their real names and advertise their participation in the sports programs at their respective high schools. Calls were placed to the principals and superintendents of those schools to find out how calling the president—or any person of color, for that matter—a “nigger” and a “monkey” jibes with their student conduct code of ethics.”

    Responding to Jezebel's story, GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram questioned the decision to publish the teens’ names, asking when and if it’s okay to publicize this sort of “bad behavior” from teens:

    “One of the things that troubles me about this incident is that it shows how quick we can be to judge a person — especially someone in high school, who may be acting badly for all kinds of complicated reasons — without any real understanding of what is going on, or what the repercussions may be. Making people face the consequences for saying things online is a noble goal, but is there no room even for children to make mistakes without the full force of the internet being brought to bear? As far as I can tell, Morrisey didn’t even try to contact the high-school students she profiled, or their parents.”

    Internet Vigilantism

    Ingram wonders if the condemnation and ridicule become too much — for teens in particular — when publicized online like this. (Jezebel gets about 3.6 million monthly readers to give you an idea of the reach of this story.) “When does it cross over into outright bullying?” he asks.

    I’m not sure “bullying” is the right word here. To me, bullying involves the repetition of harassment. (That’s not to say that bullying won’t stem from this event, particularly now that names and schools are so public.) Rather, this strikes me as vigilantism, the topic of a recent danah boyd op-ed in Wired in which she observes the ways in which the Internet publicly “outs” people and proceeds to “tar and feather them.”

    boyd argues that new technologies like Twitter magnify infractions and that this will in turn shape how we view and enforce justice (online, certainly, but with offline consequences as well). “In a networked society,” she writes, “who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie?”

    Surveillance, Souveillance, and Monitoring Teens Online

    It’s hard not to view the listing of teens’ names, schools, and sports teams as appealing to the “justice” of the Internet -- indeed, the headline suggests the teens be "forced to answer" for their racist tweets. But by calling the teens’ principals and by invoking their various student handbooks, the Jezebel article also appeals to schools’ rules and Codes of Conduct. Internet justice meets institutional justice -- or something like that.

    But appealing to the schools to intervene here raises lots of questions about social media surveillance of students as well. What role and responsibility — legally, ethically — should schools take in monitoring students’ speech online (specifically online but off campus)? And what are the consequences for students as students when they've committed an infraction online?

    To expand on boyd’s question above, we can ask, “In a networked society, who among us gets to decide if teens have violated moral boundaries?” And what then? This isn’t a question for just parents or peers. Clearly it isn’t one just for schools.

    And what are the consequences for teens — all teens, not just those who tweeted something racist on Tuesday night — learning to negotiate society’s moral boundaries as they grow up into it, all the while learning to negotiate this in public? 

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    In the next week or so, I plan to kick off my annual review of the year’s major ed-tech developments. I’ve identified the 10 trends that I think have been 2012’s most interesting and important. I’ll string out the posts that cover these over the next 6 weeks — and not just because it’s time for the obligatory-end-of-year-wrap-up-crap posts that we bloggers churn out throughout the month of December. I find the reflection is useful (although time-consuming), and it’s a good process for me to go through all the news and all my writing to assess what’s innovative and what’s hype and what's changed and why.

    A Look Back at the Top 10 Trends of 2011

    But before reviewing 2012, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the trends I selected this time last year. After all, educational institutions are famously slow to change, right? And learning is a lifelong process. As such, trends in education aren't likely to come-and-go with the same rapidity as, say, trends in fashion or pop music. We shouldn't be surprised then that there’s a lot of continuity between 2011 and 2012 and a lot of connections between the trends I've identified in both years.

    1. The iPad

    Early last year, I predicted 2011 would be The Year of the Educational Tablet. I was wrong. It was The Year of the iPad. 2012 hasn’t turned out to be too shabby for Apple either. The company became the most valuable in history in August. Its education markets remains particularly strong too, and it touted in April that it was selling two iPads for every one Mac to its US K–12 customers. According to CEO Tim Cook, the rapid adoption of iPads is “unlike anything I’ve seen in technology.”

    Other tech companies have tried this year (as last) to make the push into the education tablet market to compete with Apple and the iPad: Amazon launched new e-readers; Google released the Nexus tablet (as well as lowering the price for its Chromebooks); and Microsoft (finally) unveiled its tablet device. (There’s the Aakash tablet too, priced at $20 for students.) Despite the competition, Apple’s position (brand loyalty and marketing message and market share) in education remained strong in 2012 — and not just with iPads either — as schools also purchased Macs at record levels.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: The iPad]

    2. Social Media

    When I covered this trend in 2011, I identified the tension between the rapid adoption of social networking in education (best exemplified perhaps by Edmodo which continued to grow like gangbusters this year), as well as the crackdown on teachers’ and students’ usage of these tools. 2012 feels like more of the same: proclamations that social networking will facilitate learning and professional development alongside fears that social networking will foster bullying and exploitation.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: Social Media: Adoption and Crackdown]

    3. Text-messaging

    I chose “text-messaging” as a trend last year when I could have just as easily selected “mobile learning” as the thing to focus on. And in hindsight, I do see lots more excitement for the latter than the former. Nevertheless, I still believe we ("we" Silicon Valley-focused tech bloggers in particular) underestimate the importance of SMS, particularly for teens and for the developing world.

    Of course, mobile analyst Chetan Sharma has just released a report that finds the average number of monthly texts sent by cellphone user fell last quarter for the first time in U.S. history — although it’s worth noting that his research doesn’t look at text-messaging patterns by age. So maybe that confirms that SMS is really on its way out. I don't know. It’s probably worth noting too that of the slew of text-messaging startups that launched in 2011, most have shut down or pivoted this year.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: Text Messaging]

    4. Data

    Last December, I wrote, “If data was an important trend for 2011, I predict it will be even more so in 2012. That’s the world we’re living in. That’s the world we’re moving into.” And yup, “Data” will be one of the ed-tech trends I examine in the coming weeks.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: Data (Which Still Means Mostly "Standardized Testing")]

    5. The Digital Library

    “As far as ed-tech trends go, 2011 was not the year of the e-textbook,” I wrote last year. There was enough activity this year -- hype or not -- that I do plan to cover digital textbooks as one of the Top 10 Trends this year.

    Last year, instead of focusing on textbooks specifically, I looked more broadly at e-books, arguing that their adoption (and barriers to their adoption) had a significant impact on libraries. Many of these battles among libraries and publishers (not to mention, Google, the Authors Guild, Amazon and a whole cast of others) continued this year. In September, ALA President Maureen Sullivan blasted the publishing industry — calling out three of the Big Six specifically — for refusing to sell e-books to libraries. But while we inched closer to it (with the dismissal of the HathiTrust lawsuit and a settlement with the AAP), we still didn't see a resolution of the long-running Google Books lawsuit this year. Maybe in 2013...

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: The Digital Library]

    6. Khan Academy

    Khan Academy wasn’t new in 2011, but oh man, was it news. But if you thought the non-profit had reached peak hype last year, you were sorely mistaken. Sal Khan and Khan Academy continued to appear in newspapers, magazines, blog posts, and TV shows, hailed as the “reinventor of education” throughout 2012.

    Khan Academy expanded its focus in several areas this year. It made several key hires, including YouTube stars Vi Hart and Brit Cruise and Google’s first employee Craig Silverman. The non-profit also rolled out its computer science curriculum in August and held its first offline summer camp.

    If Khan Academy isn’t new, nor are the critiques that many educators have long made about the site’s pedagogy and its video content. In June of this year, math professors John Golden and David Coffey created a video in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000, providing a running commentary and critique on one of Khan’s videos. Their Mystery Theater 2000 video spawned a video contest— along with a fair amount of whinging about the merits of parody.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: Khan Academy]

    7. STEM

    In January 2011 in his State of the Union address, President Obama said that the need for better STEM education was “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” I’m not sure it’s a “moment” as much as “metaphor,” and I think it’s a troubling metaphor at that. That being said, I confess I did experience all sorts of patriotic, pro-science feelings watching the Curiosity Rover land on Mars in August. So make of it what you will. (At least, let's fund science education and NASA!)

    Robots and space travel aside, just as in 2011, there was plenty of handwringing about the state of science, math, and technology education in 2012, with varying degrees of politics and pragmatism invoked to address the problem. Are we teaching students the right things? Does everyone need to study algebra? Are we preparing enough "skilled workers"? (And what does that even mean?) Should we charge science majors less tuition? And so on. The explosion of massive open online courses, particularly in STEM fields, along with a large number of startups focusing on programming education certainly reflect these concerns and opportunities. (MOOCs and programming literacy are, not surprisingly, both trends I’ll cover in the coming weeks.)

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: STEM Education's Sputnik Moment]

    8. The Higher Education Bubble

    In 2011, Paypal co-founder-billionaire-libertarian-investor Peter Thiel (and others) proclaimed a “higher education bubble.” That is, the speculative investment we make in college -- and for a lot of folks, via student loans -- just isn't "worth it." There was lots more talk of this bubble throughout 2012, and while the bubble hasn't burst, (to continue the analogy) its surface area is stretched incredibly thin.

    Tuition rates continued to rise in 2012, and the country's combined student-loan debt continued to grow (the average debt rate among borrowers is $26,500, up 5% from the previous year). And while a college education was still deemed by most to be a good investment, even in these tough economic times, there’s certainly a sense -- both on and off campuses, from students and parents and professors and politicians alike -- that there’s (a new analogy) a “tsunami coming.”

    That tsunami looks a lot like a MOOC, apparently. And while some folks are so bold as to call MOOCs the "most important education technology in 200 years," I'm just gonna go with one of the Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 for now. But it's a trend that's inseparable from this narrative established in part by the tech industry last year of the higher education bubble.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: The Higher Education Bubble]

    9. “Open”

    When I chose “open” as one of the most important ed-tech trends of 2011, the air-quotes around the term were intentional. “I have this suspicion that some of the progress we’ve made towards ‘open’ only exists at the surface or very fringes,” I wrote late last year. “I think we’re in store for lots of conflict over what constitutes ‘open’ – how it’s funded, how it’s labeled and licensed, who mandates ‘what counts.’ I don’t mean to complicate a post of 2011 trends with musings about 2012. In fact, I’d see some of these conflicts bubbling beneath the surface all year – it’s in the lawsuits and the funding battles and the business model and marketing plan re-writes.” I could just copy-and-paste that into a post about 2012.

    Interestingly, as I look over the list of trends I plan to write about in the next few weeks, it’s interesting that “open” doesn’t appear on it. Not explicitly. Instead, it’s subsumed — and sometimes even lost — in the other trends: MOOCs, most obviously.

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: "Open"]

    10. The Business of Ed-Tech

    It’s fascinating to re-read the post I wrote this time last year about the business of ed-tech. In it, I noted the founding of ed-tech news site Edsurge, the establishment of ed-tech startup accelerator ImagineK12, the launch of the education vertical in the hackathon franchise Startup Weekend, and the strong sense that something was afoot with all this entrepreneurial activity.

    Even with the excitement that I could feel building about education technology in 2011, I really had no way to predict the explosion in startups and investment that we’ve seen in 2012. I’ve got lots more to say about this as one of the Top 10 Trends of 2012, but I’ll end here with the same questions I asked last year:

    Of course, all of this excitement in building new education technology companies – whether built by teachers or by students or by engineers or entrepreneurs – occurs alongside deep cuts to education budgets. It occurs alongside concerns about the growing corporate influence on education. It occurs alongside changes in what and where and how we learn.

    Will the innovation in education technology prompt us to scrutinize more closely how we spend those billions of education dollars – what’s "efficient," what’s "effective"? Will the business of ed-tech be good business (and if so, for whom?), and will it make for good teaching and learning?

    [Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011:The Business of Ed-Tech]

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  • 11/14/12--17:41: Why Tablets?
  • Why all the excitement over tablets for education?

    This is something I've been stewing about for a long, long time. Note: I didn't ask, "why personal computers?"

    But having written up a Top Trends in Ed-Tech post yesterday, I was struck once again by the abundance of hype over tablets. I confess, I just can't do the work I need to do on an iPad, but I don't want to suggest that that means they're useless for others. It does make me wonder about what I'm missing by being a skeptic, as well as what students are missing when we give them tablets and not (my preference) laptops.

    You can read my post over at Inside Higher Ed.

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    2012 has been another banner year for Internet memes. Call Me Maybe. Hey Girl. Binders Full of Women. Texts from Hillary.

    Recently University of Regina education professor Alec Couros made the case that memes are “an emerging information literacy and their study is important for comprehending the way in which information flows through systems.” He points to schools that have joined in the process of remixing popular memes (in this case, creating their own versions of Psy’s hugely popular Gangnam Style video) and argues that this is a “new culture of learning.”

    But as I’ve thought about the Year in Memes — and more specifically the Election Year in Memes — I am struck by how meme-free the politics of education has been.

    The Year of the GIF?

    The Oxford American Dictionaries just selected“GIF” as its word-of-the-year. It’s a bit of a cringeworthy announcement for those of us that think of GIFs as something from a Web time long ago. (It’s a bit of a cringeworthy announcement for early November too. I mean, what if an awesomely significant word comes along post-Thanksgiving?!)

    But following an animated-GIF-filled Olympics and Presidential Election, as well as the IPO of the GIF-sharing site Facebook, it’s not a huge surprise that the Oxford American Dictionaries looked for a visual and viral word to celebrate 2012. So “GIF” it is.

    There’s been plenty of pushback on the selection, particularly since the Oxford Dictionaries told the British their word-of-the-year was “omnishambles” — no doubt a better word. (I mean, crikey, we can’t even all agree on how to pronounce “GIF” whereas “omnishambles” just begs to be uttered aloud again and again.)

    “Actually, the GIF is dying,” responded The Atlantic’s Zachary Seward, who notes that the percentage of images on the Web that are GIFs has never been lower than it is today. (JPEG is the Web’s most popular format... for now.) “Of course, GIF is the only format that supports animation,” Seward observes. “So as long as there’s demand for high-fiving cats, the GIF will never quite die…”

    Election Year Memes

    And the GIF surely did not die this year, not when the U.S. elections provided so much fodder. Indeed, another recent article in The Atlantic argued that the animated GIF “took over the 2012 Election.” And American Public Media’s Marketplace deemed the Internet meme the “Election 2012 winner.”

    Perhaps it was the combined role that the real-time Web, social media, and our collective Web attention played in this year’s election that made memes so ubiquitous. It was easy to watch some of the live events in particular — the debates, the conventions — and recognize when someone had uttered something eminently meme-worthy. Clint Eastwood and his empty chair. Joe Biden’s laugh. Almost instantly it seemed, the Internet responded, creating fake Twitter accounts and hashtags (@laughingjoebiden, #eastwooding) and, of course, creating images (animated GIFs or otherwise).

    I don’t claim to make an argument here that Internet memes undermined Mitt Romney's campaign or that these will be some sort of necessary and fruitful strategy going forward. If nothing else, as is often the case with any viral hit online, these memes went away as quickly as they surfaced.

    But in some cases, memes did prompt more discussion. And in many cases, they did reflect larger issues and trends. Romney’s remarks about “binders full of women,” for example, would not have touched the same nerve (funny bone, what have you) had there not already been concerns about the Republican Party’s plans to “trap” women.

    Where Were the Education Memes?

    So it’s interesting, I think, that with all the memes that the elections generated, that there was nothing much said about education. Nothing too funny. Nothing too viral.

    There was, of course, Mitt Romney’s statement to PBS’s Jim Lehrer during the first Presidential debate: “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I actually love Big Bird. I like you too, but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.” And from there, Big Bird became a brief, but notable campaign issue and spawned an Internet meme.

    PBS responded to the attack by framing this as an (early) education issue: “For more than 40 years, Big Bird has embodied the public broadcasting mission – harnessing the power of media for the good of every citizen, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay. Our system serves as a universally accessible resource for education, history, science, arts and civil discourse.” But that was PBS's response and that’s as close as we came to an edu-oriented Election 2012 Internet meme.

    Of course, as Steve Hargadon and I have discussed repeatedly on our weekly podcast, there wasn't much in the Presidential campaign that really got to the heart of educational issues. That could be, no doubt, that both political parties have very similar platforms: more standardized testing, more charter schools. As such there wasn't a lot for the two Presidential candidates debate, and in turn, there wasn't much fodder for animated GIF-fing.

    The lack of Internet memes regarding education reflects this. And perhaps the lack of memes reflects too the fact that — despite the best efforts of the Department of Education and Common Core State Standards and PISA scores and what have you — education remains a local, if not personal issue. How does something personal and local translate to the global stage of meme-ishness?

    Or perhaps, to link this back to Alec Couros’s call for more student and school participation in remix culture, those who might have the sharpest insights and critiques of the system, those that can make the most painfully relevant jokes -- the jokes that really can spread beyond the local -- aren’t really playing in the playground of animated GIFs. Perhaps they're barred from doing so. Perhaps we just don't think creatively enough of how this "new culture of learning" can "go viral."

    Image credits: The Internet. See also: Marketplace, Texts from Hillary Clinton

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    Online Classes, Credits, and Tests 

    The American Council on Education announced this week that it will review several Coursera classes to see if they’re eligible for inclusion in the its “College Credit Recommendation Service.” As The Chronicle of Higher Education writes, “That service has been around since the 1970s and focuses on certifying training courses, offered outside of traditional colleges, for which students might want college credit. McDonald’s Hamburger University, for example, is among the hundreds of institutions with courses certified through ACE Credit, as the service is known.” There’s a BigMac MOOC joke in here somewhere, but I’m not feeling clever enough to make it.

    consortium of 10 universities announced this week what I’m labeling the anti-MOOC: small (enrollment capped ~20) online, for-credit courses that any students at their respective schools can enroll in (and pay for). The participating schools in “Semester Online” are Brandeis University, Duke University, Emory University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University, Wake Forest University, and Washington University in St. Louis. The consortium will be run through 2U (formerly 2tor), which if the press conference is any indication, is one part Adobe Connect. Awesome how all this hype about the disruptive potential online learning is just reinscribing the webinar and the LMS, don’t you think?

    The BBC reports that students in Denmark will be able to access the Internet when they sit their final school exams. They’ll be able to access any website they want, but just not communicate with others.

    Launches and Upgrades

    The digital music education platform Chromatik officially launched this week with an iPad and a Web-based application that stores digital sheet music, as well as helps you learn, practice, share, collaborate, and record music — with friends, band-mates and teachers alike. The app has been in private beta up ’til now, but with some fairly high profile early testers, including American Idol.

    At its annual “Mozfest,” Mozilla unveiled two important education projects: Webmaker Badges and Popcorn Maker. The former aim to showcase people’s Web skills; the latter is a tool that makes it easier to remix video on the Web.

    Google announced this week that it’s expanding the number of people who can fit into a Google Hangout (15). It also says that it’s rolling out Google+ access (and by extension Google Hangouts) to all Apps for Education schools. (Up ’til now, Google+ had only been available at universities.)

    The language-learning/Web-translation startup Duolingo (one of my favorite education companies of 2011) has just released its first mobile app.

    In news I missed last week, 4 math-learning games developed in part by Maria Andersen, former math instructor and now the Director of Learning and Research at Instructure, have been released for iOS: Algeburst Lite (iTunes link), Algeburst: Topics in Arithmetic (iTunes link), Algeburst: Topics in Algebra (iTunes link), and Algeboats Lite (iTunes link). I asked Anderson about how casual, mobile gaming works with learning math. Her response: “The casual-style games provide an easy interface to learn and practice, helping students to develop a level of mastery of the basics. When students are able to do this outside of traditional class time, then teachers and students can work together to focus on higher-level thinking in the classroom — more project-based learning and real world explorations.”

    Grockit’s “Pinterest for Education” site Learnist has launched a school-oriented version of the tool. The big change: no need to authenticate via Facebook, something that many other education-oriented tools are realizing just doesn’t work due to firewalls on most campuses.

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez examines the re-launch of children’s iPad magazine app Timbuktu. The app has been redesigned and offers daily content for kids and parents to read together, but as Perez notes the in-app purchase model is not ideal. (Timbuktu says that a subscription service is in the works.)

    Google has opened sourced the designs for its book scanner. Take that, Authors Guild!

    Research and Data

    Everest College and Harris Interactive released their “2012 High School Dropouts in America” survey this week, detailing the reasons why students don’t complete their high school education. According to the survey, 23% cited the lack of parental support as their reason for not finishing high school; 21% said that their becoming a parent prevented them from finishing school. 15% said classes were uninteresting and 15% said they suffered from a mental illness, like depression. As to why they hadn’t opted to complete the GED, respondents listed time (34%) and cost (26%) as prohibitive factors.

    Via the School Library Journal, an interesting report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center about kids’ use of social media. “Kids Online” argues that we are failing to design good social networking sites for kids in part because we have little research about how kids use what’s already out there. That’s particularly true because research tends to focus on teens. That’s a result, in turn, of COPPA, which supposedly keeps those under 13 from participating in many sites, but also leads many kids to lie about their ages.

    Funding, Mergers, and Acquisitions

    The Gates Foundation is giving $1.4 million to the research group Ithaka S+R to study the impact of MOOCs at public universities in Maryland. (The same research group published a study earlier this year about students’ learning statistics from automated software — so I bet this research prove to be a big win for robo-teachers.)

    The National Science Foundation has awarded Georgia Tech and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a five-year $6.24 million grant to help expand computer science education at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels. Georgia Tech professor Mark Guzdial has more details on his blog.

    The education data dashboard startup Always Prepped has raised $650,000 in seed funding

    TinyTap, an iPad app that lets kids build playable books and games, has raised $500,000 in a seed round, reports Techcrunch.

    The web video show Higher Ed Live announced this week that it will merge with the marketing platform EDUniverse. Details on what exactly this merger will look like are still to come.

    Hires and Fires News from the HR Department

    Karen Cator, the director of education technology at the U.S. Department of Education, is stepping down at the end of the year, reports EdSurge. No word yet on Cator’s replacement, nor on what she’ll do next (although there's plenty of speculation).

    One of the academic bloggers that I’ve followed since I began blogging myself (way back in 2004) has finally revealed his identity. Like myself, Dean Dad began blogging under a pseudonym, but with a book about to come out based on his blog’s name, we now know where all these Confessions of a Community College Dean come from: Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College. Congrats to him on the book and the “big reveal.” And congrats to academia for beginning -- some 7 years after Ivan Tribble's infamous screed -- to make it a safer place for us all to blog under our real names.

    Scandals (Overted)

    A young man accused Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash of engaging in a sexual relationship with him while he was underage. Clash, who’s best known as performing Elmo, denied the claims. Sesame Street responded, saying they had investigated the issue and had found the claims untrue. The accuser later retracted. No word yet if the FBI violated Clash's electronic privacy the same way it did CIA Director David Petraeus's.

    Photo credits: Mikel Ortega

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    Learning is not a product. It’s a process.

    Nevertheless, educational policies, practices, and technologies often frame it as object, as content, as “thing” — as a noun, not a verb.

    How we conceptualize education and learning — which part of speech is it? do we focus on the subjects or the objects or the actions? — is an important consideration philosophically, I’d argue. But the construction of statements — subject-verb-object — is important programmatically too. That is, our technologies have followed our philosophies, focusing mostly on the nouns (and mostly as objects, I’d argue, even when the subject of a sentence…). 

    Take this statement, for example:

    Susie read Chapter 2.

    "Susie” — her name, grade level, and enrollment details — fits in the Student Information System. “Chapter 2” — or whatever the “object of study” might be — is delivered by educational content providers — whether they’re textbook publishers, test makers, study guides, or app developers.

    There’s a verb in that sentence, sure, but up ’til now, “actions” haven’t been the focus of LMSes, publishers, and the like. (Although in the case of Learning Objects, we've tried to tie assessment and "outcomes" in to "objects.").

    The Tin Can API— currently being shepherded by ADL the keepers of the SCORM (the Sharable Content Object Reference Model) project — hopes to provide education technologies with more flexibility to account for the actions and processes and experiences, by instrumentalizing that entire statement: subject-verb-object.

    Susie likes algebra.

    I’ve chosen “like” as the verb in that sentence on purpose. Because thanks in part to Facebook, we’re becoming more accustomed to thinking about our interactions with online content. I don’t the verb is terribly nuanced or refined here — what does Facebook liking even mean? (Or rather, what does “like” mean to the subject. It’s pretty clear what it means to Facebook and to advertisers.)

    Last year, the social networking giant started to roll out more verbs — want, watch, read, listen — adding to the ways in which Facebook mediates (monetizes) the relationship between Internet users and content. “We’re going to make it so you can connect to anything in any way you want,” said Mark Zuckerberg at his f8 Developers conference. It is all part of “building this language for how people connect,” he said.

    Tin Can API could provide the (programmatic) language for how people connect to learning.


    An Experience API

    I don’t mean to paint the Tin Can project in an unfavorable light by comparing it to Facebook. Unlike Facebook’s so-called “Open Graph,” the Tin Can API is open source; it is community- not company-owned. (And unlike ADL’s SCORM efforts, it hopes too to be community-driven.)

    But I think the question of language is important here, because even though the inclusion of verbs does crack open the ways in which we can represent educational experiences programmatically, there are still limitations — linguistic and conceptual — with the simple subject-verb-object sentence. As Ben Zimmer argues in his response to the new Facebook verbs,

    “language is being recast in a more profound way, turned into a utilitarian tool for ‘expressing’ relationships to objects in the world in a remarkably unexpressive fashion. Verbs are for doing things, things that are then announced in uncomplicated declarations. Sentences become mere instruments for sharing easy-to-digest morsels of personal information.”

    There are some powerful and some problematic implications of instrumentalizing language and learning this way.

    I’m intrigued by the Tin Can API for a number of reasons: It is open and distributed. It supports interoperability (unlike Facebook, into which all the Web could eventually be subsumed). It's a Web API. (I've written previously about the importance of education APIs, and I think the Tin Can API could be very useful tool here, as I state above, expands our focus beyond content, objects, and nouns.)

    And unlike SCORM, which was an attempt to standardize learning materials across various software and learning management systems, the Tin Can API doesn’t tie learners to a particular device, or to particular content, or even to an LMS at all. Indeed (and this is what excited me the most) it could be an important piece of a creating a personal data locker, where learners can track their own experiences and control their own learning data.

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    Part 1 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    Last year when I wrote about the top 10 trends in ed-tech, I saved “The Business of Ed-Tech” for the penultimate post. I’m starting my series there this time around. There’ll be plenty of opportunity throughout these year-end posts of mine to discuss the ways in which technology has shaped teaching and learning in 2012. But I want to recognize from the outset much of what we’ve seen this year is how technology will shape the business of education.

    The (Story of the) Business of Ed-Tech

    It's been a major story this year: broken educational institutions under seige by Silicon Valley.

    Last year I noted the uptick in journalistic coverage of ed-tech (most notably with the launch of Edsurge), and the topic appeared in the media with increasing regularity in 2012. Much of this focused on the most notable ed-tech trends: iPads, Khan Academy, social media (the good and the bad), online learning, and MOOCs. The “age old” dilemma of whether kids still need to learn cursive. The usual.

    Increasing interest in ed-tech was particularly evident in the trade press. The long-running publication Education Week launched a new blog, Marketplace K–12, for example, to focus on “business trends and emerging models in education.” Investor Tom Vander Ark also began blogging there with a regular column on “Innovation.” For its part, the ed-tech blog upstart Edsurge raised $400,000 in funding from the Washington Post Company and New Schools Venture Fund.

    And even the general tech press chimed in. Here are some of the ed-tech headlines drawn from just the last two months on the tech blog Techcrunch:

    Entrepreneurship and Education Startups

    Clearly education technology entrepreneurship exploded this year.

    It’s not surprising. All the factors were in place for it: lower business startup costs (thanks to open source and cloud computing), the ubiquity of mobile devices among students and teachers, the rising costs of traditional education, the consumerization of technology, the consumerization of education technology, the impending Common Core State Standards and online assessments, an exuberance for early stage investing in technology startups, the super-coolness of geek-ery, the super-important-ness of social good.

    Education entrepreneurs — and there were a lot of them this year — came from universities (Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, for example, who launched Coursera early this year), from corporations (both Sebastian Thrun and Craig Silverstein left Google — the former for his startup Udacity and the latter for Khan Academy), and from K–12 schools (the lesson marketplace says its users earned some $14 million on its platform this year; and many educators opted to launch their own startups — Adam Bellow’s eduClipper and Jeff Scheuer’s NoRedInk to name just two). The ed-tech incubator Imagine K12 graduated two cohorts of education startups this year (one in May and one in October).

    Lots of education entrepreneurs; lots of education startups.

    Education (Technology) Investments

    And lots of venture capital investment.

    In July, investment firm GSV Advisors published the “Fall of the Wall: Capital Flows to Education Innovation” (PDF) where it heralded “great energy and enthusiasm around the PreK–12, Post Secondary and Adult (‘PreK to Gray’) education markets as they relate to innovation and the opportunity to invest in emerging companies at all stages.”

    Looking back on 2011 investment, GSV noted that it had surpassed the “transaction activity at the peak of the internet boom” — 127 companies funded in 2011 as compared to 106 in 1999. Startups were raising less capital however — $9 million per company in 2011 versus $13 million in 1999.

    In November, the investment analysis firm CB Insights reported that education technology companies had raked in some $1.37 billion in venture capital over the past year.

    Since 2010, CB Insights data shows an average of 53 venture capital financings per quarter to education focused startups Deal activity peaked in the first half of 2011, with 80 deals in the first quarter and 85 in the second but with recent notable financings such as Udacity’s $15 million from Andreessen Horowitz, sentiment to the space clearly remains high. Funding per quarter has also been significant with ed tech startups pulling down an average of $294 million per quarter over the Q2’11 to Q2’12 period.

    To repeat: 80 education startups funded in the first quarter of 2012, and another 85 in the second.

    Meanwhile, as education consultant Tony Bates observes, public funding for education shrinks. Due to funding cutes, for example, some 470,000 students were waitlisted from California’s community colleges this year.

    Ed-Tech Business Models and Bubbles

    The narrative of a "higher education bubble" had already taken hold, particularly in Silicon Valley, last year. The high cost of tuition -- in terms of time and debt -- just aren't worth it any more, so the story goes. Perhaps "too big to fail," perhaps not -- higher education institutions and the services they provide may begin to be "unbundled" as their business models can no longer compete with free and cheaper Internet delivery. 

    But for all the finger-pointing about the flaws in the business models of higher education, it's not clear that the business models of many education companies, particularly startups, will fare that much better.

    In its “Fall of the Wall” report, GSV Advisors estimates that more than 75% of the 106 companies that were funded in 1999 failed to achieve “adequate investment returns or failed entirely.” Not shocking, then, that investors have been reluctant to (re) invest in the education industry.

    But investors are back full force, prompting many to ask this year if we’re (already) witnessing a bubble in ed-tech like we saw back in the 1990s. In other words, are education technology startups overhyped and overvalued? At what cost will there come a return on investment? (At what cost do we even focus on such questions?)

    Frank Catalano penned an op-ed in Seattle’s tech blog Geek Wire, worrying that

    “while there is a burning unmet need and opportunity to apply technology intelligently to teaching and learning, too much overhyped edtech developed for reasons having little to do with enhancing education can collapse into a black hole of failure. And that’s a gravity well that could suck across its event horizon not just bad products, greedy investors and clueless entrepreneurs, but also the good of each group — with teachers and students dragged into the maelstrom.”

    The Politics of the Business of Ed-Tech

    But dragged into the maelstrom we all will be. After all, as famed tech investor Marc Andreessen has argued, “software is eating the world.” Software — and the Internet — are eating education. The other ed-tech trends I'll cover in the coming weeks will highlight that.

    The politics of the business of education — ALEC, lobbying, virtual charters, Race to the Top, Election 2012, Common Core State Standards and brand new technologies everyone’s going to have to buy to keep up, to stay "compliant" — I’ll save that too for another post…

    Image credits: GSV Advisors, Tracy O

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    Part 2 of Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series


    I attend a lot of education events — ed-tech conferences, unconferences, camps, workshops, meetups, meetings. But my favorite by a long shot has always been Maker Faire. You can mark your calendars now for the 2013 flagship events (May 18–19 in San Mateo and September 21–22 in New York). And/or look for one of the Mini Maker Faires near you.

    Maker Faire, an event created by MAKE Magazine (Disclosure: I have freelanced for MAKE’s parent company O’Reilly Media), is a little bit science fair, a little bit hobbyist and hacker expo, and a whole lot of celebration of the DIY and “Maker” culture. (There were plenty of other science fairs this year — including ones at the White House and at Google— but Maker Faire is fairly unique, I’d argue, in its culture, creativity, and community.)

    Why Maker Faire? Why make? In his talk at Maker Faire this spring, Mythbusters' Adam Savage explains:

    (Hardware) Hacking

    Now in its seventh year, the Maker Faire is hardly new, but there is an ever-increasing interest (or perhaps more accurately a renewed interest) in the types of making, building, creating, and hacking that Maker Faire — as well as the larger Maker Movement — showcases and supports.

    That interest is spurred in part by a proliteration of open source and entry level hardware projects: 3D printers like Makerbot (which unveiled its Replicator 2 in September), Arduino microcontrollers, the Raspberry Pi (one of my favorite education startups of 2011, which finally shipped its $35 computer board this year), e-textiles, robotics, laser-cutters, as well as a programming tools galore. (More on the importance of coding literacies in 2012 in a subsequent post in this series).

    The Maker Movement also reflects the technological, political, and economic zeitgeist: the need for a technologically skilled work force, hope for a revival of American manufacturing, concern about STEM education all the while cutting many of the programs in schools that foster these skills — arts, wood shop, metal shop, computer science — to make more room for more standardized testing.

    In addition to Maker Faires and science fairs where makers showcased what they’d, um, made, 2012 saw an explosion in the number of hackathons, where makers, hackers, businesses, and community members come together to build projects together, often in day- or weekend-long events. (My boyfriend Kin Lane has been tracking on these types of events and noted in October a huge spike in the number of university-focused hackathons.)

    A Place to Play and Build and Learn

    But events like these come and go. To create a more permanent place for these sorts of learning and building opportunities, many communities (in libraries, on college campuses, and in TechShops, for example), built “makerspaces” where people can access the tools and equipment, as well as the training to use them.

    But “training” doesn’t feel like the right word to describe what happens in a makerspace. It feels too mechanistic, too instrumentalized. So much of the focus of a makerspace is about play and creativity and exploration.

    That type of learning that is all too often missing from classrooms today, something that Gary Stager and Steve Hargadon (in an interview conducted at this spring’s Bay Area Maker Faire) discuss in the video below. We need more learning by making, through projects and inquiry and hands-on experimentation. Not learning by clicking, or learning by worksheet.

    Makerspaces bring people together, out of the garage or the basement, out into the community into the public to share their skills and knowledge. However, much of this continues to happen outside the traditional school setting.

    Makerspaces in Schools

    In early 2012, O’Reilly Media co-founder Dale Dougherty announced that MAKE Magazine and San Francisco’s Otherlab had received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to support its Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program.

    The MENTOR program seeks to design low-cost makerspaces in high schools, and the pilot program was in 10 California high schools this year. The goal: 1000 makerspaces in high schools all around the world in four years. And the empahsis, according to Otherlab’s Saul Griffith:

    1) Self-directed learning (building your own project as a better motivator to engage in engineering).

    2) Lower the cost of building and realizing dream projects through lower cost tools (software and hardware.)

    3) Making making more social and engaging.

    Culture Clashes

    But there was signifant pushback to the countercultural Maker Movement taking money from the Department of Defense and lots of questions about the use of school-based makerspaces as a military recruitment vehicle. In a two part essay, Fiacre O’Duinn (part 1, part 2) raised lots of questions about the relationship between the military and making:

    Why has the field of study in these makerspaces narrowed only to STEM topics? What happened to the transdisiplinary focus of hacker/maker communities that make them so innovative? Where are the arts? Where are wearables, knitivism, DIY molecular gastronomy? Why do the challenges involve working on unmanned air vehicles or robots, projects that are of interest to DARPA for their military applications? Shouldn’t we encourage STEAM rather than STEM? Could it be that regardless of their educational potential, these topics have no possible military application? With such a narrow focus, one could ask which culture will win the day, maker or military?

    There are other cultures that might clash here too, as many “maker” startups were founded this year (including one of my favorite startups of 2012, DIY), with several raising venture capital (including another one of my favorite startups from 2011, littleBits). What will the future hold for sustainable “maker” businesses, particularly those based on open source technologies — a question raised when it seemed unclear if the popular open-source 3D printer MakerBot would remain open source.

    It’s not surprising then that instead of looking for investment and grants from the Department of Defense or from Sand Hill Road, many makers turned to crowdfunding to help support their projects. Roominate, a dollhouse with working circuitry. The invention kit Makey Makey. Digital storytelling community DS106. Just a few of the great maker projects that were successfully funded on Kickstarter this year, a site that has helped spur the growth in the Maker Movement by providing an "alternative" funding source for many creative projects.

    Caine's Arcade

    But perhaps the greatest maker project of all in 2012 wasn’t built from wires or computer chips or 3D printed plastic. It was assembled from cardboard by a 9-year-old boy in his father’s auto-parts store in Los Angeles.

    When the video of Caine’s Arcade was released in April, it quickly went viral. It remains one of the best testaments to the great power of making, building, playing, and creating. There is joy here, joy in sharing, and joy in community. There is joy in learning. We need more of that in ed-tech. More making. More learning. More joy.

    Image credits: Getty

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    Cold turkey

    Law and Politics

    A federal appeals court deemed on Wednesday that Michigan’s ban on affirmative action as part of the college admissions process is unconstitutional. The state says it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last month about affirmative action and Texas universities.

    A high school student in Texas has been suspended for refusing to wear her school-issued RFID tag, reports Wired. The Northside ISD in San Antonio began issuing student body IDs with the RFID chips in them at the beginning of the school year. The chips monitor the students' movements on campus, and according to the district, the IDs are part of its efforts to track attendance (which its budget is tied to).

    Finnish police confiscated the laptop of a nine-year-old girl after she allegedly downloaded a song from the file-sharing site Pirate Bay. The girl’s father had responded to the initial criminal complaint by showing that the family had later bought the record album and attended the artist-in-question’s concert, and as such they refused to pay the 600 Euro fine. So enter the police who carried away the girl’s Winnie the Pooh laptop.

    The American Legislative Exchange Council ALEC— a controversial, anti-democratic organization that joins corporations and conservative politicians to enact its ideas on a state level (See my story here) — voted this week that it will remain neutral on the issue of Common Core State Standards. There had been some discussion that ALEC would oppose the Common Core, particularly after some linked it to the defeat of Republican “education reformer” Tony Bennett, who was voted out of office as the Indiana State Superintendent of Schools earlier this month.

    Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose anti-collective bargaining proposals outraged union workers in the state last year, is at it again — this time with more ideas on how to “fix” education. His suggestion this time around, tie funding of the state’s university system to performance and completion (rather than enrollment). UW-Madison Professor of education Sara Goldrick-Rab has more details on her blog.

    If you believe that New York City sets the fashion for the rest of the world, then you’d do well to read math teacher Jose Vilson’s write-up of the city’s recent Mayoral Candidate Forum on Education. Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg can’t run again in 2013, and at this past week’s forum five of the six candidates for his seats explain their thoughts on education policies, including mayoral control, class size, and tenure.

    Partnerships and Launches

    Another week, another round of MOOC-related news: This week, MassBay and Bunker Hill community colleges became the first community colleges to join edX, the Harvard-MIT-UT-UC Berkeley-MOOC platform. The two colleges will offer “MITx 6.00x Introduction to Computer Science and Programming” in a “blended” format — that is, with both virtual and face-to-face components. Students will pay the same for these classes as they would regular classes — yet another indication that this whole MOOC acronym doesn’t really work any more.

    Wikipediaannounced this week that it is working with JSTOR to give its top 100 volunteer editors free access to the complete JSTOR archives (which includes thousands of academic journal titles).

    The City University of New York launched “Commons in a Box” this week, its open source platform to make it easier for groups to create and maintain online communities. Commons in a Box is built on WordPress and Buddy Press and is designed to be simple to install, as well as to make online communication and collaboration easier.

    Happy 50th birthday to Ranger Rick, the cartoon racoon (and long-running magazine) from the National Wildlife Federation. To celebrate the birthday, the NWF is launching a new magazine for younger kids, as well as an iPad app (iTunes link). (The latter was built by Moonbot Studios, the Academy Award-winning makers of “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”)

    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Knewtonannounced they’ll be offering “personalized learning” to incarcerated youth with a Department of Education-backed initiative to bring the companies’ content and adaptive learning platforms into youth correctional facilities. I find this fairly chilling, quite frankly — the link between education technologies and prison profiteering — and while yes, sure we need to offer educational opportunities to kids in jail, I would like to point out that sitting (in this country at least, primarily) poor kids and youth of color down in front of computers to run through multiple choice instruction and testing does not constitute “personalized learning.”

    Research and Data

    The Pew Research Center has released another study about teens’ online behaviors, this one looking at parents, teens, and questions of online privacy and digital footprints. The study found that 81% of parents say they’re concerned about data that advertisers are collecting about their teens. And 69% of parents say they’re concerned about how their child handles their reputation online. 59% of parents who have teens who use social networking sites say they’ve spoken to their child about something she or he has posted online. (That translates to 46% of parents of all online teens.)

    Funding, Acquisitions, and Mergers

    Lesson plan marketplace BetterLesson has raised $3.5 million from the Gates Foundation, reports Techcrunch. (This is, I believe, the second for-profit education startup into which the Gates Foundation has invested funds — a financial relationship different than its grant-giving efforts. The first: the Facebook college recruitment app Inigral.)

    On the heels of the merger of Penguin and Random House, it looks like there may be more consolidation in the works for the Big 6 5 publishers. News Corp-owned HarperCollins is reportedly in talks to acquire CBS’s Simon & Schuster.

    The networking giant Cisco Systemsannounced that it is acquiring the WiFi and security management company Meraki for $1.2 billion. (I’m guessing that this acquisition will impact schools although truth be told I know little on what that will look like.)

    Hires and Fires

    Microsoft announced this week that it has hired Jeannette Wing the new vice president of Microsoft Research International. Wing, who’s been an advocate for “computational thinking,” will head Microsoft’s research labs in Bangalore, India; Cambridge, UK; and Beijing, China.

    Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash announced his resignation this week, following more allegations that he’s been engaged in underage sexual relationships. Clash is the puppeteer behind Elmo.

    Image credits: Eddy van 3000

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. Well, almost every week. We skipped a week, which means that the podcast we recorded on Saturday runs a little long. In fact, it runs a lot long. We cover two weeks' worth of education technology news, as well as two of my year-end trends posts.

    But if you manage to listen all the way through this episode, I think you'll find that this is a good one. I know I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week. I hope you enjoy it too.

    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.

    November 24, 2012

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    Part 3 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    Code Year

    It was sheer marketing genius: the announcement on January 1 by the learn-to-program startup Codecademy that 2012 should be “Code Year.”

    With an initiative timed with the making of New Year’s resolutions (and timed too to coincide with a narrative about a shortage of programmers), Codecademy encouraged people to make this the year they learned to program. Sign up for an email newsletter, the startup said, and it would send you one a lesson from the Codeacademy site per week for the entire year. And some 400,000 folks took them up on the offer, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

    Code Year earned Codecademy a lot of press. Slate. The New Yorker. CNN. The New York TimesTechcrunch. Mashable. And the startup parlayed the buzz into a $10 million Series B funding round in August, also expanding its lessons into other languages beyond its initial Javascript tutorials.

    Despite the excitement from the tech press and investors, many of my concerns about the effectiveness of Codecademy remain. (My post from its Series A round of funding last year where I detail these concerns remains the most trafficked post on Hack Education.) Has Codecademy successfully taught people to program this year? 400,000 sign-ups in January is one measurement of success, to be sure; but it doesn't seem like the most important one here (hint: it's more to do with learning outcomes come December.)

    And if nothing else, traffic to the Codecademy site suggests that, like most New Year’s resolutions, some of the initial excitement about Code Year quickly died off.

    The Learn-to-Code Industry

    But excitement about learning to program — or at least, about learning-to-program startups — didn’t dissipate this year, and a huge industry has spawned to teach it. There are lots of companies — new and old and funded this year — that are tackling computer science and coding education (offline and online, but mostly the latter), including: 

    Udacity (founded 2011; raised $15+ million in 2012); Coursera (founded 2012; raised $22 million in 2012); Treehouse (founded 2010; raised $4.75 million in 2012); LearnStreet (founded 2012; raised $1 million in 2012); Starter League (formerly known as Code Academy; founded 2011; 37 Signals bought a stake in the company in 2012); Code Hero (founded 2012; raised $170,000 via Kickstarter in 2012); Programr (founded 2012); (founded 2012); CodeHS (founded 2012); Dev Bootcamp (founded 2012); Code Avengers (founded 2011); Code School (founded 2011); Puzzle School (founded 2011); CodeLesson (founded 2010); Stencyl (founded 2008); O’Reilly School of Technology (founded in 2007); W3Schools (founded 1999); and (founded 1995).

    In addition, many other companies and organizations launched learn-to-code projects: Code Monster from Crunchzilla, the “Mechanical MOOC” from P2PU, and Blockly from Google for example. MIT App Inventor (formerly a Google project) had its official launch this year. Khan Academy finally unveiled its computer science curriculum. And Mozilla got into the Web literacy and Webmaking thing in a big way — with tools like Popcorn Maker, X-Ray Goggles, and Thimble.

    What Should Coding Education Look Like?

    Full disclosure: I conducted some research for Mozilla earlier this year about what exactly that Webmaking education should look like — and more specifically, should the organization build a tool to help people learn HTML5. I spoke with a number of teachers and technologists -- Mark Guzdial, Jon Udell, Julie Meloni, Scott Gray, and others -- about the tools and best practices in building for the Web.

    As I wrote back in March,

    Universally, everyone I interviewed agreed that society’s Web literacy isn’t up to snuff. There was consensus too that Mozilla was in a good position to do something about this. But what that something should be wasn’t clear.

    Where do you start? With teaching the fundamentals of Web architecture? With teaching HTML and CSS? With programming? And where do you go – what are the limits to what you can do and teach in the browser?

    No doubt recent events like SOPA seem to have raised the level of urgency around understanding the Web. It’s not simply a matter of not having enough software engineers or Web developers. There are much broader, deeper issues at stake when we think about building and protecting the open Web. Will people have control over their own domains, their own Web presence, their identity and their data?

    So to address all of this, do you build a tool? And/or do you build a curriculum? (How) Do you build a community of learners, mentors, remixers, teachers around it?

    All these (really important) questions from me aside, it was perhaps designer Bret Victor’s presentation at CUSEC (the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference) that made most folks nod and point and say “oh yes, that’s what we should build.”

    But when Khan Academy built something that looked a bit like Victor’s live-coding demo — or at least a dual-pane coding interface, Victor responded with a lengthy essay— one that features my favorite ed-tech quote of the year, I should add: “For fuck’s sake, read "Mindstorms” — clarifying his thoughts on what “learnable programming” should/could look like. In a nutshell: not like Khan Academy’s CS interface or instructions. Nor like many of the projects I’ve listed above either. Victor argues that by (re)inventing the programming environment (in the service, ostensibly, of making it easier to learn to use), we’re focused on the wrong thing.

    Traditional visual environments visualize the code. They visualize static structure. But that’s not what we need to understand. We need to understand what the code is doing.

    Visualize data, not code. Dynamic behavior, not static structure.

    Maybe we don’t need a silver bullet. We just need to take off our blindfolds to see where we’re firing.

    Coding: The Skills Gap and the Opportunity Gap

    Victor's right: there has been a lot of talk of learn-to-code silver-bullets this year. Much of the search for these CS fixes coincided with handwringing about perceived shortages in "skilled workers" (particularly software engineer shortages in Silicon Valley), and more broadly concern about the so-called "skills gap." That is, we simply aren’t training people with the necessary high-tech (read: programming) skills to fill job vacancies — now or in the future. Or so the story goes.

    A lot of the finger-pointing here has been aimed at the education system at both the K–12 and college level. (Blaming a “broken education system” for everything — another key trend in 2012. I’ll get to the politics of that one in this series soon enough.) But true enough: many schools still do not teach computer science or programming (and while some do teach computing application usage, that’s not the same thing). Computer science is not a core subject in the curriculum and not a graduation requirement. (There was, however, a significant uptick in the number of students who took the Computer Science AP exam last year.)

    While many of the statistics on the dearth of women and minorities in technology focus on degree enrollment at the university level and on the workplace, as Georgia Tech CS professor Mark Guzdial (and others) note, the problem starts much earlier than that. In a blog post (that I apologize in advance for quoting at such length) that examines the pass rates for the computer science AP exam, he highlights the gaps based on race and gender:

    The gap from the blue line at top and the red line below is explained by the gender gap. In 2011, the pass rate was 63.7% overall, 57.6% for females. The even larger gap from those two lines down to the rest is the race/ethnicity gap: 31.7% for Blacks, and 37.2% for Hispanics in 2011. I didn’t expect this: Hispanic females do statistically significantly better than Black females at passing the AP CS over this time frame (t-test, one-tailed, p=.01). (I’m using “Black” because that’s the demographic category that the College Board gives us. We are collapsing “Mexican American,” “Other Hispanic,” and “Puerto Rican” into the “Hispanic” category.) There’s still a big gap between the orange Hispanic line (37.2% in 2011) and the light blue Hispanic females line (25% in 2011).

    While Hispanics are doing better than Blacks on AP CS, I was still surprised at this: No Hispanic female has scored a passing grade (3, 4, or 5) on the AP CS test in Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, South Carolina, or Alabama in the last six years. Only one Hispanic female has passed in Massachusetts in the same time frame. Why these states?

    …The Black pass rate is quite a bit smaller than the Hispanic, in part because the participation rate is so low. Michigan has 1.4 million Blacks (out of 9.8 million overall population, so 14% Black), but only 2 Black men have passed the AP CS in the last six years. In 2011, 389 students took the AP CS in Michigan, only 2 of whom were Black. Only one Black female has even taken the AP CS in Michigan in the last six years. (No, she didn’t get a passing grade.)

    This is a problem. A big problem. A problem that an interactive JavaScript lesson with badges won’t solve.

    Two organizations — Black Girls Code and CodeNow— did hold successful Kickstarter campaigns this year to help “change the ratio” and give young kids of color and young girls opportunities to learn programming. And the Irish non-profit CoderDojo also ventured state-side in 2012, helping expand afterschool opportunities for kids interested in hacking. The Maker Movement (another key ed-tech trend this year) is also opening doors for folks to play and experiment with technologies.

    And yet, despite all the hype and hullaballoo from online learning startups and their marketing campaigns that now “everyone can learn to code,” it's clear there are still plenty of problems with the culture and the pedagogy surrounding computer science education.

    Does Everyone Really Need to Learn to Code?

    And even if “everyone can learn to code,” does everyone really need to?

    Should all schools teach computer science? Should all university majors be required to take programming classes? (I'm looking at you, humanities majors!)

    Duke University professor Cathy Davidson argued at the beginning of 2012 hat computational thinking, if not programming specifically, is the fourth “R,” joining “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” as the basic skills that everyone should have in the 21st century. (In her formulation, that fourth “R” actually stands for ‘rithms, as in algorithms.)

    But Stack Overflow co-founder Jeff Atwood responded mid-year to Code Year with a plea instead to “Please Don’t Learn to Code.” Atwood argues that the "everyone needs to learn to code" mantra, "assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it's not. Their job is to solve problems. Don't celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions. We have way too many coders addicted to doing just one more line of code already."

    He also says that the frame and the focus on "learning to code," "puts the method before the problem. Before you go rushing out to learn to code, figure out what your problem actually is.Do you even have a problem? Can you explain it to others in a way they can understand? Have you researched the problem, and its possible solutions, deeply? Does coding solve that problem? Are you sure?"

    Indeed. Coding for the sake of coding doesn't really get you much. Maybe some badges and some buzz. But if we think about the problem of tech- and Web illiteracy, we must ask if the solution to that really is "learning to code." And as Code Year draws to an end, we might want to ask too if the growing learn-to-code industry is adequately addressing that.

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    Part 4 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    “Flipping the classroom” is hardly new. But with all the hype surrounding both Khan Academy and MOOCs, it’s hardly surprising that the practice became incredibly popular this year.

    Indeed, in his 2011 TED Talk (which has been watched over 2 million times on YouTube), Salman Khan talked about the ways in which his videos are used by teachers to “flip the classroom.” That is, in lieu of teachers lecturing in the classroom, the Khan Academy video lectures are assigned as homework; then students work on exercises in class where the teacher can more easily assist and remediate. “Flipping the classroom” has become a crucial part of the story that Khan repeats in his frequent talks and media appearances.

    It’s also become part of the argument that Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller makes about how massive open online classes or MOOCs (which, duh, is another huge ed-tech trend of 2012) will change the offline university experience. When Coursera launched in April, she told me:

    “There’s a growing amount of content out there on the Web,” says Koller, “and so the value proposition for the university is no longer simply getting their content out there. Rather, it’s fostering that personal interaction between faculty and students and students and students.” By being able to take advantage of online educational content – particularly lecture content from some of the best professors at the most pretigious universities in the world – students will benefit too. It’ll mean that the university classroom can be “flipped” – with lectures pre-recorded and assigned as homework. Koller, who’s been flipping her classroom since well before Khan Academy popularized the term, says that universities have been reluctant to add “active learning” opportunities at expense of covering “the curriculum” via lecture. And thanks to the increasing wealth of online classes, there’ll be more opportunities for hands-on on-campus experiences.

    And in turn, by making that content available – freely and openly on the Web – that will mean a “better education for everyone,” say Ng and Keller.

    The Tools of “The Flip”

    Coursera and Khan Academy are certainly not the only ed-tech companies that are providing educational video content or the tools to create that content in the service of flipping the classroom.

    There’s ShowMe, for example, which allows anyone — teachers and students — to create and share lessons via its whiteboard-like iPad app. (The company updated its app this spring, and at the time said that some 1.5 million lessons had been created with the tool.) And there’s Educreations, which offers a similar tool and raised $2.2 million in investment this summer. There’s the Web-based tool Sophia, which was acquired by Capella Education (parent company of the for-profit Capella University) in April. In August, former Flip (the video camera) execs launched Knowmia, a platform for “crowdsourced video lessons.”

    And to bring the buzz about the flipped classroom full circle — back to the medium through which Sal Khan helped popularize it — TED decided that this was an “idea worth spreading” and officially launched its own education initiative in April. TED-Ed, according to its press release, seeks to “inspire curiosity by harnessing the talent of the world’s best teachers and visualizers — and by providing educators with new tools that spark and facilitate learning.” With “lessons worth sharing,” the TED-Ed platform allows teachers to submit their lessons and lectures which are animated by TED and released with additional exercise questions. (The latter are remixable; the lectures and animations are not.)

    The History and the Benefits of “The Flip”

    As I noted above, the idea of the “flipped classroom” wasn’t new to 2012. Nor was it something devised by Khan Academy or TED. Video-taped lectures assigned as homework can be traced back to Colorado math teacher Karl Fisch who had his work popularized in turn by a story in 2010 by Daniel Pink who called the practice “flip thinking” or the “Fisch flip.” But well before that, many other educators were thinking about ways they could “flip” or reverse instruction: chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams recorded their lessons circa 2007. And in the 1990s, let’s not forget, Harvard professor Eric Mazur pioneered the idea of peer instruction in order to alter his own teaching practices away from heavy reliance on lecturing.

    (As a humanities and literature person here, I can’t help but remark that the teaching practices in my field have always involved this sort of “flip” whereby you assign the readings as homework then ask students to come to class prepared to discuss it, not to listen to lecture.)

    One of the great benefits of the growing popularity and adoption of the “flipped classroom” this year — and I will examine some of the criticisms below — is that it asked teachers and students alike to evaluate how we use the time in the classroom. Are we lecturing? Is there discussion (peer-to-peer, not just student-to-teacher)? Is there hands-on learning? How does technology (re)shape the way we teach and learn? What happens online? What happens face-to-face? How much listening — and clicking and pausing and fast-forwarding and rewinding — do we expect our students to do?

    Flipping “The Flip”

    Despite the buzz about the flipped classroom and its promotoin as the “real revolution” in learning, there has been plenty of pushback and lots of questioning this year about what exactly this practice entails. What expectations and assumptions are we making about students’ technology access at home when we assign them online videos to watch? Why are video-taped lectures so “revolutionary” if lectures themselves are so not? (As Karim Ani, founder of Mathalicious pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed this summer, “Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a ‘revolution.’”)

    And how much of the whole “flipped classroom” model is based on the practice of homework that is dubious at best and onerous at worst? As education author Alfie Kohn has long argued, homework represents a “second shift” for students, and there’s little research to suggest they get much out of it — whether they’re watching videos or filling out worksheets after school. Gary Stager too has been highly critical of the practice (you can read his recent Storify of his tweets on the topic): “I believe teachers who lecture should be remediated,” he tweeted. Now that’s a flip.

    And as the year rolls to a close, some teachers who’ve experimented with flipping their classrooms are evaluating the practices and questioning the hype about its transformative potential. Shelley Wright, for example, had written a blog post last year about why she loved “the flip.” But by October of 2012, she’d penned another: “The Flip: The End of a Love Affair.” She noted that she didn’t really disagree with anything she’d said last year, but that flipping the classroom “simply didn’t produce the tranformative learning experience I knew I wanted for my students.”

    “It’s not about fads – it’s about ownership,” she continued.

    I’ve learned that inquiry & PBL learning can be incredibly powerful in the hands of students. I would never teach any other way again. When students own their learning, then deep, authentic, transformative things happen in a classroom. It has nothing to do with videos, or homework, or the latest fad in education. It has everything to do with who owns the learning.

    For me, the question really is: who owns the learning in your classroom?

    And that question is likely to lead to an incredibly powerful “flip” — one that isn’t about video-based lectures assigned after school, but about flipping the classroom away from the focus on teachers’ control of content and towards student inquiry and agency. (Here's hoping that's a trend I get to talk about in 2013.)

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    When you are bored during a standardized test this can happen

    Law and Politics

    In this week’s best “LOL,” New York Times’ Thomas Friedman penned an op-ed “nominating” Arne Duncan as Secretary of State. “Trust me,” he writes, “if you can cut such deals with Randi Weingarten, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers, you can do them with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu.” Duncan responded, saying that The Onion, which joked last week that Duncan was going to have to take up work as a male stripper to put the nation through school, “is probably more accurate than Tom Friedman." Probably?!

    A federal judge in Baton Rouge, Lousiana has granted an injunction blocking the state’s new voucher program, along with new policies for hiring and firing teachers in Tangipahoa Parish, stating that the new laws conflict with the parish’s federal desegregation order. An attorney in the case now says he plans to challenge the laws in other districts too, but the Lousiana Department of Education says it plans to appeal.

    The European Commission released a statement this week about the EU’s strategy for “rethinking education.” Among the measures it suggests, an increase in the use of technology and OER.

    Another round of legal battles between UCLA and the Association for Information Media and Equipment (AIME) this week, with (yet again) the dismissal of the latter’s suit against the university for making licensed DVD materials available to students via a streaming service. More details on the legal blog Techdirt.

    Research and Data

    The Department of Education released data about states’ high school graduation rates. This is the first time that states have all used the same method to measure this, so it will be difficult to compare the figures to previous years as calculations have changed. But you can view the figures, broken down on a state-by-state level here.

    The Brookings Institute has released a report on states’ spending on K–12 assessments, an expenditure that’s been growing since the NCLB era and will expand again with the Common Core State Standards and new requirements for computer-based assessments. The report finds that “the 45 states from which we obtained data spend a combined $669 million per year on their primary assessment contracts, or $27 per pupil in grades 3–9, with six testing vendors accounting for 89 percent of this total.” So if you add in the 5 states that aren’t included in the research, that’s about $1.7 billion per year on testing. KA-CHING.

    In a story about online for-profits, the USA Today’s Greg Toppo reports that “10 of the largest for-profit operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads since 2007. The largest, Virginia-based K12 Inc., has spent about $21.5 million in just the first eight months of 2012.” Your tax dollars at work, folks.

    Interesting research from Rey Junco, who continues to explore the ways in which technologies like social media impact students’ GPA. In a study of some 1800 students, he found that texting and Facebooking during class were negatively related to GPA. But emailing and searching in class didn’t have the same relationship.

    According to the National Science Foundation, university spending on R&D increased during the last fiscal year, reaching $65 billion in 2011. The majority of the R&D is in the life sciences, which grew by 6.6% year-over-year to $37.2 billion.

    The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report (PDF) this week on the successes of charter schools in New Jersey. The report contends that students at charter schools in the state make larger gains in math and reading than their peers at public schools. On the School Finance 101 blog, Bruce Baker has some interesting thoughts about the report — its methodology and findings. “Most cynically, one might argue the main finding of the report is simply that cream-skimming works – generates a solid peer effect that provides important academic advantages to a few….”

    Launches and Upgrades

    Minecraft (the open-ended building game) is coming to Raspberry Pi (the credit-card sized computer). The folks at Minecraft’s parent company Mojang have ported a special version of the game — Minecraft Pi Edition — which is designed, as with the Raspberry Pi, to help folks learn programming. This edition will be free to download.

    Hacker High School, which offers security and privacy lessons for students, has just updated its content.

    Learnsprout, a startup that offers schools an API to help integrate their SISs to other applications (and a startup that I covered here earlier this year), has released two new tools: LearnSprout Dashboard and LearnSprout Messages. The former is a data dashboard that analyzes data stored in a school’s SIS; the latter is a low-cost messaging system that connects the SIS to phone and text messaging to facilitate school-to-home communication.

    Techcrunch covers the launch of Coursetalk, a “Yelp for open online classes.”

    Kickboard, a data dashboard for teachers (which I covered here), announced this week that it’s making free “starter accounts” available to teachers. (The app is typically sold as a school-wide platform).

    Khan Academy released an iPhone app (iTunes link). Of course, you could already watch Khan Academy videos on your iPhone by visiting YouTube, but the free app lets you sign into your Khan Academy account so you can get credit for the videos you watch. Woohoo. Badges.

    Academic journal database JSTOR says that, following a successful 3 year pilot, it will be ready to launch its Alumni Access program in early 2013. The program will allow students from some 3000 partner schools to maintain their access to the JSTOR archives after they graduate.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    McGraw-Hill has sold its education division to a private equity firm, Apollo Global Management (not to be confused with Apollo that owns the University of Phoenix). The purchase price: $2.5 billion.

    CodeHS (one of the startups I covered in my recent “ed-tech trends” post on learning to code) is running a crowdfunding campaign to help teach 1000 high school students how to code. Unlike many other online learn-to-code startups, CodeHS emphasizes the human element and offers “live help” as well as tutors. The crowdfunding campaign will be used to help pay for the latter.

    Microsoftsays it’s giving an additional $250 million in funding to its educator professional development program, the Partners in Learning project.


    Rachel Wolf, the founder of the British New Schools Network (a charity that establishes “Free Schools” in the UK — the equivalent of US charter schools) has joinedAmplify, News Corp’s education division.

    The Shared Learning Collaborative, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative to build a data infrastructure for K–12 schools, announced its new CEO: former Promethean exec Iwan Streichenberger.


    The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two organizations that’s helping to construct the new Common Core State Standards-related assessments, has awarded a contract for building out a reporting system on the data to News Corp-owned Wireless Generation.


    British authorities have granted the for-profit College of Law university status, making it the country’s first for-profit university, reports Inside Higher Ed. Congrats?

    Inside Higher Ed reports that MOOC startup Coursera is exploring using its “power users” as community TAs. “The idea is to give these power users ‘the sense that they’re contributing and helping build this with us,’ says Coursera’s Norian Caporale-Berkowitz. Perhaps they’ll get special certificates too. (But no word on paying them.)


    It’s time again for the Google Code-in, its coding competition for high schoolers. Those age 13 to 17 are eligible to enter the contest, which asks them to complete an open source programming task. Prizes include a trip to the Googleplex.

    Image credits: Benjamin Chun

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    Part 5 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    The Year of the MOOC

    Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs. This was, without a doubt, the most important and talked-about trend in education technology this year.


    The Year of the MOOC

    In retrospect, it’s not surprising that 2012 was dominated by MOOCs as the trend started to really pick up in late 2011 with the huge enrollment in the three computer science courses that Stanford offered for free online during the Fall semester, along with the announcement of MITx in December. Add to that the increasing costs of college tuition and arguments that there’s a “higher education bubble,” and the promise of a free online university education obviously hit a nerve.

    But the obstacles to the adoption of and accreditation for MOOCs by the university establishment were (are) still overwhelming enough that Dave Cormier listed (MIT and) MOOCs as one of his “black swans for education in 2012” when he made his education predictions for the year. (A “black swan” is an unexpected, but game-changing event.)

    Who cares what Cormier thinks and predicts? More on that in a minute. But first, a brief timeline of the what the New York Times has called “The Year of the MOOC”:


    • Googler and Stanford professor (and professor for the university’s massive AI class) Sebastian Thrun announces he’s leaving Stanford to launch Udacity, his own online learning startup.


    • MITx opens for enrollment. Its first class: “6.002x: Circuits and Electronics.”


    • Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller (also involved with Stanford’s fall 2011 MOOCs) officially launch their online learning startup Coursera. They also announce that they’ve raised $16 million in funding.



    • Udacity announces it’s partnering with Pearson, which will offer onsite testing for its classes.
    • Google offers a MOOC on “power searching.”
    • The Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia fire president Teresa Sullivan, in part reveal emails, because they see her as slow to jump on the MOOC bandwagon. Following a huge outcry by faculty, students, and alumni, Sullivan is reinstated; UVA joins Coursera the following month (in a deal that was already in the works before Sullivan’s ouster).


    • 12 more universities join Coursera (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.) This brings the number of universities involved to 16.


    • University of California, Berkeley joins edX.
    • P2PU, OpenStudy, Codecademy, and MIT Opencourseware team up to offer a “mechanical MOOC” to teach introductory Python.
    • MOOC MOOC— a meta-MOOC, if you will — runs for a week.


    • 17 more schools join Coursera: Berklee College of Music, Brown University, Columbia University, Emory University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Ohio State University, University of British Columbia, University of California at Irvine, University of Florida, University of London, University of Maryland, University of Melbourne, University of Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt University, and Wesleyan University. Coursera announces it has also raised an additional $3.7 million in funding.
    • Google open sources Course Builder, a platform it had used to run its own “power search” MOOC earlier in the summer. The Saylor Foundation announces it plans to utilize the technology to offer courses.
    • George Mason University professors Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabarrok launch MRUniversity, an economics MOOC.


    • The University of Texas system joins edX.
    • Coursera strikes a deal with Antioch University. The latter will license courses from Coursera and will offer these for credit to its students.
    • Udacity announces it has raised $15 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz.
    • The LMS Instructure launches the Canvas Network, a catalog of free, open online classes run on the Canvas LMS by Canvas customers.


    • The American Council on Education says it will initiate a credit-equivalency evaluation of several Coursera courses.
    • Several Massachusetts community college partner with edX to offer “blended” versions of MIT courses through an effort funded by the Gates Foundation.


    The Forgotten History of MOOCs

    Back to Cormier, the guy who coined the term “MOOC” back in 2008, long before Stanford’s massively-hyped online artificial intelligence class. That’s an important piece of education technology history that’s been overlooked a lot this year as Sebastian Thrun and his Stanford colleagues have received most of the credit in the mainstream press for “inventing” the MOOC.

    But MOOCs have a longer history, dating back to some of the open online learning experiments conducted by Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, David Wiley and others. Downes and Siemens’ 2008 class "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,”for example, was offered to some 20-odd tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba, along with over 2300 who signed up for a free and open version online.

    In July, Downes made the distinction between “cMOOCs,” the types he has offered, and “xMOOCs,” those offered by Udacity, Coursera, edX and others. The terminology is very useful to help distinguish between the connectivist origins of MOOCs (and the connectivist principles and practices of open learning and online networks) and the MOOCs that have made headlines this year (with their emphasis on lecture videos and multiple choice tests). While cMOOCs are strongly connectivist and Canadian, xMOOCs, as Mike Caulfield contends, exist “at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.”

    The Technology of xMOOCs

    While a lot of the mainstream press’s attention to MOOCs has focused on the content, the class sizes, and the (potential) credentials, the technology that underpins these online courses is incredibly important — and something too that highlights the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

    The cMOOCs rely on tools like Downes’ gRSShopper, which as he 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.” xMOOCs, on the other hand, look an awful lot like an LMS.

    There’s more too under the hood of the xMOOCs when it comes to assessment. With their origins in the Stanford CS department, with an early emphasis on CS classes, and with the scale that many of their enrollments are reaching, it makes sense that many of these course utilize automation to assess students’ quizzes and homework assignments.

    But when Coursera launched, it said that it planned to expand the course catalog beyond engineer. From my post in April:

    “How will you grade this?!” I asked (fearing, I confess, the machine learning professor Ng’s answer would be “machine learning, of course!”). But Koller and Ng said that they remained skeptical about the ability of that technology to offer high quality feedback or assessment for students. So they’ve built something else – not an automated grading system.

    Rather, says Ng, the engineering efforts at the startup have been focused on “building up a peer grading technology” where students are trained to grade each others’ work according to the professor’s specifications. It’s what Ng described as a “calibrated peer-review” – in other words, a little bit peer review and a little bit crowdourcing. The latter works akin to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, whereby microtasks are distributed and labeled and as a result “the best” feedback can be surfaced. “The numerical grade, while useful,” says Ng, “isn’t really the best form of feedback.” Students need feedback, not just grades.

    Will the students in the Coursera classes will be supportive of one another (it’s a question I raise based in part on my experiences in the Udacity forums)? That remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the focus on peer feedback is an interesting one, as talk about “scaling education” tends to focus on boosting the technology capacity and not boosting human connectivity.

    As it turns out, the peer assessment — at least in its earliest applications — didn’t work out so well.

    University of Oklahoma professor Laura Gibbs chronicled many of the problems in the Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction class on her blog: students were unprepared to give feedback to one another; there were language barriers; there was no opportunity to give feedback on the feedback; the anonymity of the feedback process caused lots of problems and often highlighted the lack of community (and responsibility to it) in these massive classes.

    Issues with the peer assessment process prompted some instructors to drop it as part of their course requirements.

    The Pedagogy of MOOCs

    The differences between xMOOCs and xMOOCs are also evident in their respective pedagogies. In June, George Siemens outlined the “theories that underpin our MOOCs,” highlighting some of these differences. He writes,

    The Coursera/EDx MOOCs adopt a traditional view of knowledge and learning. Instead of distributed knowledge networks, their MOOCs are based on a hub and spoke model: the faculty/knowledge at the centre and the learners are replicators or duplicators of knowledge. That statement is a bit unfair (if you took the course with Scott E. Page at Coursera, you’ll recognize that the content is not always about duplication). Nor do our MOOCs rely only on generative knowledge. In all of the MOOCs I’ve run, readings and resources have been used that reflect the current understanding of experts in the field. We ask learners, however, to go beyond the declarations of knowledge and to reflect on how different contexts impact the structure (even relevance) of that knowledge. Broadly, however, generative vs. declarative knowledge captures the epistemological distinctions between our MOOCs and the Coursera/EDx MOOCs. Learners need to create and share stuff – blogs, articles, images, videos, artifacts, etc.

    As I note in an earlier post about the Flipped Classroom, much of what’s being lauded as “revolutionary” and as “disrupting” traditional teaching practices here simply involves videotaping lectures and putting them online. While xMOOCs might be changing education by scaling this online delivery, we need to ask, “Are they really changing how people teach?”

    The Students

    MOOCs are, however, changing how people learn, if for no other reason than they are offering lectures, quizzes, educational resources, and possibly even credentialling to anyone with Internet access.

    So who are these students? Demographics data about MOOC enrollment is hard to find, but in June, Inside Higher Ed published some about Andrew Ng’s Stanford Machine Learning class:

    Among 14,045 students in the Machine Learning course who responded to a demographic survey, half were professionals who currently held jobs in the tech industry. The largest chunk, 41 percent, said they were professionals currently working in the software industry; another 9 percent said they were professionals working in non-software areas of the computing and information technology industries.

    Many were enrolled in some kind of traditional postsecondary education. Nearly 20 percent were graduate students, and another 11.6 percent were undergraduates. The remaining registrants were either unemployed (3.5 percent), employed somewhere other than the tech industry (2.5 percent), enrolled in a K–12 school (1 percent), or “other” (11.5 percent).

    A subset (11,686 registrants) also answered a question about why they chose to take the course. The most common response, given by 39 percent of the respondents, was that they were “just curious about the topic.” Another 30.5 percent said they wanted to “sharpen the skills” they use in their current job. The smallest proportion, 18 percent, said they wanted to “position [themselves] for a better job.”

    And the majority of the students — in that class at least — hail from outside the U.S., with India, Brazil, Russia, and Britain being the most prevalent nationalities.

    It was students — two from India and one from Canada — who created what I think is the among most important MOOC innovations this year — 6.003z. As I wrote in August, “6.003z is the creation of Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old high school student from Jabalpur, India who was disappointed to learn that MITx had no plans to offer the follow-up class to 6.002x. Typically, the next class students take at MIT is 6.003, Signals and Systems. So Bhave took matters into his own hands, creating his own open online course with help from two other members of the 6.002 learning community – a class based on a blend of MIT OpenCourseWare and student-created materials.”

    ”Taking matters into your own hands” (and “taking learning into your own hands”) is one of the most empowering things that the MOOCs can offer. But while they do offer the chance for anyone to sign up and learn, the ease with which you can drop in is echoed in the ease with which you can drop out.

    And there’s a lot of dropping out. Sue Gee highlighted this in her post “MITx — The Fallout Rate” with some statistics about the completion rate of its first offering: over 150,000 sign-ups; 7,157 certificates awarded at the end of the class — a 5% pass rate (that compares to a roughly 14% pass rate for Sebastian Thrun’s Stanford AI MOOC). Of those 150,000 signups, just 69,221 people looked at the first problem set. Of those, just 26,349 earned at least one point on the first problem set. 13,569 people looked at the midterm, 10,547 people got at least one point it, and 9,318 people got a passing score. 10,262 people looked at the final exam,, 8,240 people got at least one point on it, and 5,800 people got a passing score.

    Looking at the numbers for Coursera’s Social Network Analysis class, Alan Levine notes a similar drop-off. 61,285 students registered. 1303 (2%) earned a certificate. 107 earned "the programming (i.e. ‘with distinction’) version of the certificate (0.17%).” He writes,

    So in the end, we have 107 students who got the more personalized attention (doing a project, getting feedback, being part of the Google hangout presentations).

    This class had one professor and 3 TA, about a 1 : 27 teacher/student ratio.

    That is pretty much the size of a normal section of a class, it is the size of one of our ds106 sections at UMW.

    Now there are a whole raft of reasons why people do not get to this end of the pipe, many, like in my case, fall on my own lack of drive to really push this up the hierarchy of where I put my attention.

    But I submit the methodology of this course too has a large influence as well – it did not hold the attention of the bulk of its students, like 98% of them.

    Let me repeat, 98% of the people who signed up for this course did not get the certificate, or 60,059 people. NOW THAT IS MASSIVE (as in hemorrhaging).

    Yet the bulk of the hyper and fervor on MOOCs is the massive numbers of enrollments whichm, frankly, when you look at these numbers, it is the wrong end of donkey (to quote Neil Young), or maybe in this case… MOOcows.

    Someone ought own those numbers coming out the end.

    As for me, I signed up for the following MOOCs this year: Udacity CS 101 (my review here), Coursera CS 101 (my review here), Udacity Introduction to Statistics, Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction, Coursera Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Ed Startup 101 (my posts here, here, here, here, and here), Mechanical MOOC, Google’s Search MOOC, Coursera Social Network Analysis, edX 6.00x, LAK12, CCK12, Instructional Ideas and Technology: Tools for Online Success, MOOC MOOC, and Coursera Internet History.

    I only completed one.

    Unbundling (and Rebundling) the University

    But let’s not make too much over my willingness to sign up for classes and drop out, right? As I note in my Twitter bio, I’m a serial dropout. Lifelong learner, sure. But a serial dropout nonetheless.

    Indeed, much of the hullaballoo about MOOCs this year has very little to do with the individual learner and more to do with the future of the university, which according to the doomsayers“will not survive the next 10 to 15 years unless they radically overhaul their current business models.”

    But what are the business models for MOOCs? (Other than raising venture capital, of course.) That’s still a little unclear. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in July, Jeffrey Young points to a couple of possibilities: selling courses to community colleges, charging tuition, and offering “secure assessments.” Young’s article cites Coursera founder Daphne Koller who says that “Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow.”

    “Basically Daphne Koller has conceded all agency to Venture Capitalists,” Jim Groom responded in a post called “We’ve been MOOCed” (featuring one of the best MOOC-related animated GIFs of the year). “When your business plan sounds like the catch phrase of a bad Kevin Costner movie that should raise some red flags.”

    Red flags have been strewn all over the place this year as universities and professors and administrators and Boards of Trustees and venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have responded to the MOOC hype. Despite all the talk that "this changes everything," there are still so many unanswered questions: What happens when we outsource public education to for-profit companies? What about cheating? What about labor issues? What about intellectual property? What about cultural imperialismWhat about licensing? What about open education and OER? How will universities fund upper division classes if the lower division ones (the ones that typically subsidize an entire department) can be taken online for free? What about credits ? Who counts as a “superstar professor”? What will be the attraction of the on-campus experience in the face of all these MOOCs? What is the future of higher ed?

    The response to that last question by some is to contend that the future involves the “unbundling” of higher education. That is, the various services offered by the university — content delivery, assessment, credentialing, research, mentorship, affiliation and networking, job placement — will no longer all be monopolized by it. Other institutions and businesses will compete with higher education and will also offer these services.

    But as we see some of the unbundling start to occur, it feels as though there is a re-bundling of sorts. That is because, as Foucault would tell you, it is not simply a matter of “revolutionizing” the university and dismantling its “monopoly” on knowledge transfer and credentialing and then BOOM educational access and liberty and justice for all. Power is far more complex than that. As we unbundle assessment from the university, for example, it gets re-bundled with Pearson. As we unbundle the content from the campus classroom, it gets re-bundled with textbook publishers. With MOOCs, power might shift to the learner; it’s just as likely that power shifts to the venture capitalists.

    “Will MOOCs spell the end of higher education?” more than one headline has asked this year (sometimes with great glee, other times with great trepidation). As UVA’s Siva Vaidhyanathan recently noted, “This may or may not be the dawn of a new technological age for higher education. But it is certainly the dawn of a new era of unfounded hyperbole.” The year of the MOOC indeed.

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  • 12/07/12--07:52: Support Hack Education
  • SavingsI am halfway through my year-end series on the Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012. This is a project that takes me a long time to do — to review everything that’s happened in ed-tech this year and to compile these overviews. I love doing so, as I learn a lot and see things that I mightn’t otherwise. And I hope there’s value here for my readers.

    So with that in mind, I’d like to remind readers about the “donate” button on this site.

    I purposefully keep Hack Education advertising-free. And unlike most other technology blogs, Hack Education isn’t owned by a major technology or media company. I have not taken investment money from the same venture capitalists who fund education/technology companies. I am an independent voice in an increasingly compromised industry.

    I believe that a site like this should be crowdfunded, written for the community and in turn supported by the community — perhaps a bit like NPR (but without the government subsidy clearly, or the corporate sponsorship dollars).

    So that’s what I’m doing here. If you are willing and able, I would very much appreciate your support. Thank you!

    Image credits: 401K 

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    I’ve been out of the country all week and so if I’ve missed some of the big educational news, don’t be surprised. My apologies.


    My thoughts are with all the faculty, staff, and students at Casper College (where I completed a lot of my undergraduate degree through what we once called “distance education” and where I have so many friends who work and study). Last week, a young man entered a classroom where his father, Jim Krumm, was teaching computer science. He killed his father in front of the class, then killed himself. Earlier in the day, he’d also killed his father’s girlfriend, Casper College math instructor Heidi Arnold.

    Launches, Updates, and Upgrades

    Coursera announced this week that it will begin selling student data to recruiters and employers, pointing to a revenue stream for the MOOC startup. Coursera Career Services (which is opt-in) will help match students — and the skills they can demonstrate from their Coursera classes — with employers. Jeffrey Young has more details in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Wellesley College is joining edX. In doing so, it joins Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley and the University of Texas system.

    Amazon launched “Kindle FreeTime Unlimited” this week, a service associated with the Amazon Prime membership aimed at kids ages 3–8 (or, well, their parents) that offers books, games, educational apps, movies and TV shows in one service. In other Amazon news, the National Federation for the Blind plans to protest outside of Amazon HQ next week. Amazon has started pushing its services into schools, but as the NFB points out, Kindles are not fully accessible to the blind.

    Award-winning early education app developer Duck Duck Moose has released its latest iOS app, Kindergarten Reading. (iTunes)

    The New York Public Library is partnering with online education company to offer its patrons access to the latter’s trove of instructional videos.

    Downgrades and Cancellations

    One Laptop per Child has cancelled plans to release the XO–3 tablet, reports IDG News Service. OLPC had announced the tablet in 2009 and showed it off at CES earlier this year. The OLPC has designed a tablet-laptop hybrid, the XO–4 Touch, which it says will ship early next year. But at this stage, gee, don’t hold your breath.

    Educational Data

    The Hechinger Report takes closer look at last week’s release of state-by-state high school graduation rates. The new calculations mean that this year’s rates can’t be compared to previous years, but states can be compared to each other. The new rates also highlight some of the huge discrepancies within states between whites, Blacks, Hispanics, low income and disabled students. “The lowest graduation rate was in Washington, D.C., where 59 percent of all students, and only 39 percent of students with disabilities, graduate high school on time. But D.C. does a better job of graduating black students than Minnesota and Oregon, and graduates a larger percentage of low-income students than Nevada and Alaska, all states with higher overall graduation rates.”

    The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (PDF) reports that 5% of public school children — over 2 million students in 41 states and the District of Columbia were enrolled in the 2011–12 school year.


    Udemy, an online platform and course marketplace, has raised $12 million in Series B funding, reports The Next Web.

    The Gates Foundation has awarded some $25 million in grants to charter schools in seven cities “in an effort to encourage collaboration between charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools,” says The New York Times.

    Hires, Fires, and HR

    Textbook provider Flat World Knowledge has a new CEO. Founder Jeff Shelstad has stepped down (although he’ll remain with the company). The new CEO is Christopher Etesse, formerly of Blackboard. (The news follows a shake-up last month, marking the end of the “free and open” adjectives I’d normally have used to describe Flat World Knowledge.)

    A month after being voted out of the office of the Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett is applying for the same position in the state of Florida. Unlike Indiana, the Florida position is a governor appointment. Bennett has been a superstar-education-reformer and is close with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, so he’s in a good position to continue his (“his” being Bennett’s or Bush’s) reforms in the state.

    The Gates Foundation’s “advocacy” lead Stefanie Sanford has left one non-profit to join another, the College Board, where she will be the “head of policy, advocacy, and government relations.”

    Last Friday was the last day at the Department of Education for press secretary Justin Hamilton who’s left the administration but will continue to work “for students,” he says.

    Philip Hanlon becomes the new President of Dartmouth College next summer. (He also sits on the advisory board of Coursera.)

    Classes and Tests

    Five states announced this week that they’re extending the school year by some 300 hours, starting in 2013. Happy happy joy joy for kids in the public schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.

    The American Federation of Teachers has proposed what’s being described as a “bar exam” for the profession. In a new report, Raising the Bar (PDF), the AFT outlines its proposal for raising the entry standards for teacher preparation programs, including an exam that would measure content, pedagogy, and practice.


    Grand Canyon University is joining the Western Athletic Conference, making it the first for-profit university to play Division 1 college sports. How will this change the already problematic recruitment practices of for-profits?

    Photo credits: Audrey Watters

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