Tech Changes Education

The Schoology logo connects classroom management, online learning and social networking.

Late in October, just before the storms, Forbes ran a useful summary of several trends that promise to reshape classroom education. It was swritten by Jeremy Friedmanthe CEO of Schoology, a company that makes software for the classroom.

No surprise that the key trends emphasize individualized learning based upon technology. Certainly, the ubiquity of cloud computing encourages document sharing, and collaboration regardless of each individual student’s location. “The 2012 Horizon Report, which provides insights into education technology trends, predicts that collaborative environments are about one year away from mainstream adoption.” That seems ambitious to me, but I’m sure that the most advanced, well-funded, tech-enabled schools will begin to make this statement true.

Given the realities of most schools, the idea of cross-platform integration may seem like an impossible dream, but vendors are beginning to work together to unify their approaches to digital learning. Forbes believes more strongly in this future than I do, or, perhaps, than most teachers probably do.

It’s now nearly impossible to imagine a classroom without mobile technology, but again, imagination is ahead of reality. Certainly, “(Mobile apps) are abundant, inexpensive and easily accessible…” but the question is not the apps, it’s the devices. A new movement toward BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device,” of course) is gaining traction. In itself, this is remarkable: just two years ago, many teachers, principals and administrators were doing everything they could to keep Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other “distractions” away from the classroom. Still, the levels of coordination present major challenges: Apple, Android or Windows? Curriculum at the national, state, district, school, classroom, or individual level? For all students, advanced students, average students, challenged students? Apps are easier to develop and produce than traditional software, but it’s not the software engineering that’s the issue, it’s what it does, and how what it does fits into any sort of master plan.

This raises the issue of adaptive learning, a domain that is already being addressed by at least one company: Knewton “responds in real time to the activity of each user on the system and adjusts to provide the most relevant content…” What’s more: “Knewton is able to capture every move a student makes – scores, speed, accuracy, delays, keystrokes, click-streams and drop-offs. The platform collects this data and the software adapts to challenge and persuade the user to learn based on his/her individual style. Pretty amazing stuff!

The buzz idea of the year seems to be gamification–that is, just about everything becomes a kind of game. At first, this seems to be a frivolous undertaking, but you need to think more broadly about games and how they work. A good game is a simulation of life, a design for activity within bounded rules. In this regard, games are a simplification, a reduction of real life situations that allow learners to focus on specific learning objectives. And, these learning objectives are readily scored, and, under the best of circumstances, presented in a way that connects learning and fun.

There’s funding behind this approach: “Game-based learning is even one of the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which earlier this year helped launch the Games, Learning and Assessment (GLASS) Lab. According to the organization, GLASS Lab is “based on the understanding that digital games and simulations can support student learning by providing immediate feedback for students, teachers and parents on students’ progress toward established learning goals”” The article describes even more funding from the game maker Electronic Arts, and the Entertainment Software Association, and, also, from the MacArthur Foundation. The non-profit at the center of all of this: Institute of Play. I looked at their website. I need to visit. Soon.

Cowboys & Indians

Remington’s got the story right. See below.

Mortal enemies, right? The basis for zillions of all-American children’s games. And, more or less, utter nonsense. It’s amazing how thoroughly we buy into the distortions that media provides each and every day.

Nobody knows how many Native Americans lived in North America before the enemy showed up and killed most of them. In what become the United States, there were probably between 5 and 10 million native people. The vast majority of these natives were killed by European settlers, not “out West” (by which we mean, mostly, the Great Plains), for those deaths came in the 1800s, toward the end of the story. Far more were killed first by the European diseases carried by explorers and traders, and then, by a century of U.S. military actions. By 1871, the U.S. government no longer bothered with Indian treaties–they had already won the war and decimated the native population. Our images of cowboys on the open plains are circa 1880, and by that time, the “Indian problem” was mostly resolved by Manifest Destiny. (Prior to the final third of the 19th century, there wasn’t much of a cattle industry, so there weren’t many cowboys).

Remington had the story right: his painting, above, A Dash for the Timber, U.S. militia–not cowboys–shoot at the Apaches (see in the rear).

Sure, cowboys battled Indians (or, if you prefer, Injuns), but much of the action occurred courtesy of wildly imaginative Wild West Shows operated by the likes of Wild Bill Cody Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. As pure show business, these spectacles were extremely popular, and provided a nascent motion picture industry with the necessary creative impetus to produce “Westerns,” most often featuring some version of cowboys and Indians (not so much, “smallpox and Indians,” or “U.S. Army troops and Indians”–cowboys made more sense as entertainment). And with all of that, we’ve bought into this elaborate mythology: our native people were primitive, violent (when provoked with loss of land, family, and health, but that part is forgotten), a class of warriors who deserved no better than their present fate.

It’s a bit of a reach, but not too much of a reach, to wonder about a retelling of the Civil Rights movement through the magic of CGI, or a reconstructed version of Weapons of Mass Destruction emerging from a Jeb Bush White House in 2016 or so. The alternative truth is easily constructed, sold on the big screen and through immersive videogames, and if the stage management is effective, and the bits are in the right places, most people can be made to believe what they know not to be true.

We’re better than this. I sure wish we are smarter today than we were as kids playing cowboys n’ injuns. It’s not about getting the historical facts right–not a bad start, but not the point, either–it’s about teaching our children (and our adults) what really happened, why it happened, and why we might rethink the subject matter that becomes the basis for our entertainment or our children’s games.

Just in case you missed it, here’s a tale about The Battle of Little Big Puck, for thirty years an annual hockey game between Cree Indians and the local cowboy population. The referee is a local Mountie. Here’s the backstory:

“The roots go back to a hot summer day in July where a couple of cowboys and a couple of members of the Nekaneet band met in the old Commercial Hotel over a cold beer,” he said. “And as good friends do, they got to bickering good naturedly as to who could ride the rankest horses, and rope the quickest, and pretty soon it came down to, ‘We can darn sure beat you guys at hockey.’”

BTW: If you can figure out how to write the last sentence of this blog, please post your closing sentence as a comment below. I’m completely at a loss for the best way to close this one out.


%d bloggers like this: