Education disrupted?

Students Fiona (left) and Lina do a lesson on their iPad Minis at the first AltSchool in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Short, San Francisco Chronicle

AltSchool is opening very tiny, very expensive private schools in the San Francisco area and New York City to “disrupt education,” writes Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker. 

The venture-capital-funded K-8 microschools, founded by a former Google exec, use technology to personalize learning.

A girl in the class was completing an offline task—reading a book about polar bears. A boy lay on his stomach on the carpeted floor, headphones on, using a Web site called BrainPOP to learn how to calculate the perimeters of basic shapes. “Two out of five!” he shouted . . .

Two girls sat together, laptops before them, using Google Images to scroll through pictures of seals for a social-studies assignment; occasionally, they paused to compare notes. Every so often, a student spoke with the teacher, a young woman in jeans and a loose top, her iPhone tucked under her thigh as she sat on the carpet. One girl had been using her laptop to research castles—an area of sustained interest. She and the teacher discussed princesses and castles, and whether they always went together. “That’s a good question,” the teacher said, and then asked, “Does America have princesses?”

Teachers use an app to communicate with parents. “A network of audio and video recorders captures “every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis,” writes Mead.

Parents pay $30,000 a year. If their kids do well, is it the school?

The Silicon Valley-based Summit charter network personalizes learning for a wide range of students — many from low-income and working-class families. The schools are free to parents and operate on a modest budget. That’s a lot more disruptive.

Facebook engineers have helped the school develop its Personalized Learning Plan platform, which is being made “available, for free, to schools nationwide,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Summit is helping 19 district-run and charters schools access “teacher training, mentoring guidance and the software.”

Hablas Java? Parlez-vous Python?

Credit: Jillian Lees, Daily Titan

Credit: Jillian Lees, Daily Titan

Computer coding could substitute for a foreign language for Florida high school students applying to state universities under a bill moving through the Legislature, reports the Sun Sentinel.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive, thinks students should study a foreign language in the early grades, then learn coding in high school. People without technology skills “will be left behind,” he believes.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is campaigning against the bill. It would make as much sense to call music a language, Carvalho said.

Is social media fueling teen suicide?

Credit: Victor Kerlow

Parents blame stress for the suicides of two 17-year-old girls in Plano, Texas. Two boys at New York City’s Fordham Prep jumped in front of trains a few weeks apart. The youth suicide rate has been rising since 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Social media may be fueling teen suicide by encouraging young people to become “disconnected from the reality of their own existences,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and the like have made them think of themselves as mini-reality-TV versions of themselves. Too many of them see their lives as a series of flickering photos or quick videos. They need constant doses of admiration and constant confirmation of their tenuous existence, which come in the form of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets.”

Heroin use is spreading, writes Ablow. “Heroin is just the powdered equivalent of text messaging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the technology drugs Americans— especially American teen— are mainlining every single day.”

Young people are “increasingly fascinated with dramas about vampires and zombies,” he adds. “They know something about the walking dead.”

Teachers want tech, but need training

“It seems a waste,” writes Hechinger’s Meghan Murphy. Despite “millions of educational apps, millions of lesson plans available online, millions of laptops in the hands of students,” few teachers “find ways to infuse technology into their lessons.”

Teachers say they need more and better training, she writes. In a 2015 survey, 90 percent of teachers said technology was important for classroom success; almost two-thirds wanted to integrate it into their lessons, but said they needed more training.

Paul Andersen, a Bozeman High School science teacher and Montana Teacher of the Year, showed other teachers how to create YouTube tutorials to "flip" the classroom.

Paul Andersen, a Bozeman High science teacher, showed how to create YouTube tutorials to “flip” the classroom.

A nonprofit and several teacher-founded companies are developing interactive training methods to help teachers use digital tools effectively.

Jessica Anderson has “blended” her ninth-grade earth science class in Deer Lodge, Montana. She’s is the state’s Teacher of the Year for 2016.

On a day in December, a girl worked on her laptop to illustrate the cycle of water through the atmosphere, while a boy used Google 3-D glasses to take “a virtual field trip, researching various ways that communities across the globe use minerals.” Each student was on a self-directed path, writes Murphy.

BetterLesson, founded by former teachers from Atlanta and Boston,  provides “master teachers” who help someone like Anderson “create a strategic plan for doing blended learning” and a way to measure effectiveness, writes Murphy. “The team then meets along the way for coaching, feedback and accountability.”

When Jessica Lura taught a lesson on mood in writing, she used a PBS Kids video as a hook for her eighth-graders at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, California, writes Murphy.

By the end of the lesson, they’ll have written sentences in various moods, written and recorded a monologue, and made that monologue come to life with an animation app.

Lura’s teaching is captured in the “Lesson Flow in Action” video on Graphite, which is Common Sense Media’s portal for teacher resources. Common Sense featured Lura because she’s one of their certified educators who integrates technology comfortably into her classroom. Her lesson plans are hosted with about 2,200 other lessons on the site, which also has almost 12,000 app reviews accessible to its more than 310,000 teacher members.

Another sites, Teachers Pay Teachers, provides free and paid resources. Teachers have earned $175 million for their lessons.

Le robot educateur est arrivant

European scientists are developing language-teaching machines to help five-year-olds learn a second language, reports Jacek Krywko in The Atlantic.

L2TOR (“El Tutor”) robots will use “microphones to listen, cameras to watch, and artificial neural networks that will analyze all the information that’s collected.” The project is funded by the European Union.

Designers believe the machines will be able to pick up nonverbal cues to monitor students’ boredom, confusion, happiness and sadness.

“The problem with previous generations of teaching machines was their complete lack of social intelligence,” says Stefan Kopp, a German L2TOR researcher. “Our robots will notice tears, smiles, frowns, yawns … and dynamically adjust to how a child feels.”

Designers will observe kindergarten teachers “and then program our robots to act like them,” Kopp says.

It sounds crazy to me. But a robot teacher that looks like a poodle and speaks French — well, who knows?

“New” and techy isn’t necessarily better, advises Andy Smarick on Star Wars and Education Reform. “Like the Empire and manymanymany other reform movements, today’s education reform also seems to place an outsized faith in technology.”

College kids spend 1/5 of class time on devices

College students spend one-fifth of class time on “digital distractions,” according to a national survey published in the Journal of Media Education. All but 3 percent of those surveyed admitted to texting, emailing, looking at social media, surfing the web and playing games in class.

The average student uses devices in class for “non-class purposes” 11.43 times a day, say University of Nebraska researchers. That’s up from 10.93 in their first survey in 2013.

“About 63 percent of surveyed students said they do so to stay connected, but an equally large share of students said they are attempting to fight boredom,” notes Inside Higher Ed.  “Even though students agreed that checking their devices could harm their academic performance, a majority of students (about 58 percent) described it as only a ‘little’ distraction.”

Ninety percent of students say devices shouldn’t be banned.

Computer Problems

Over at my own blog I posted about a teacher who, after several years of having computers in her classroom, may now run afoul of the rules by having computers in her classroom:

Back in the late 90s, a time when computers in schools weren’t everywhere, I was in my teacher credentialing program.  One of my friends in the program was able to get a donation of about 2 dozen computers for her elementary school classroom; she loaded them up with Oregon Trail, some other educational games, and other goodies.  These were stand-alone computers, not connected to each other or to the internet.  I’m not even sure if they had internet capability or not.

One day she called me in a panic–do I need any computers?  If not, could I at least take some?  See, her principal didn’t think it was fair that her class had computers and no other classes did, so the principal ordered the computers removed.  That afternoon.

Fast forward to today.  I have a dozen and a half netbook computers for use in my stats classes.  They were purchased by the school and our district tech services folks worked their magic on them.  We have wireless nodes all over our school, and these computers are, of course, internet-capable.  They’re dang difficult to use, though, because, in an effort to make sure a student somewhere doesn’t access pictures of boobies or something, our tech services has made the process of logging in and using the computers a herculean task.  If we do it exactly by the book, network speeds slow to a crawl.  Even when we don’t do it exactly by the book, I still encounter problems that I have to work around.  (Note:  kids may know how to use phone apps, but logging into our school computer network and accessing a web site when given a URL that omits www for convenience sake?  No way.  Most of them aren’t as savvy as adults think they are.  The hurdles our tech services people put in our path are to try to stop the very few who are tech savvy.  But I digress.)

It would be great if things could work smoothly–you know, like my wireless network at home does, no matter what kind of equipment I connect to it with.  It would be great if school administrators weren’t such ninnies about computers:

All teacher Kim Kutzner wanted to do was help her students dig into their school work.

In her zeal to reach her students and make their writing assignments easier, the Chowchilla [California] Union High School English teacher pooled her resources and used her husband’s savvy to get her students the equipment she believed would help them excel.

Kutzner says her students’ test scores are up after she and her husband bought the equivalent of nearly $80,000 worth of laptop computers for her students to use…

Kutzner told The Modesto Bee that at first the English Department Chair was given major ‘atta girls’ five years ago for buying the computers at auctions, having her husband fix them up and network them into a classroom computer lab.

Now, however, the district is, as the principal of her school told Independent Journal, “investigating” and “assessing” the use of the computers. In fact, the school may ban their use.

It’s unclear why the computers are now becoming an issue.

The laptops aren’t connected to the internet and students are currently being allowed to use them.

The Chowchilla Union School District Superintendent says he’s now concerned with the privacy of students.

Can Pedagogy Be Patented?

What are the limits of what Khan Academy is trying to do?

A recent patent application by Khan Academy is raising questions about whether teaching methods can be patented, but patent law experts see the move as an influential player fortifying its position in the market. Ultimately, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will have the last say.

The online education platform, which primarily focuses on K-12 education and test preparation, in March applied for a patent for “systems and methods for split testing educational videos” — in other words, the method of showing students two different clips and determining which one is more effective at teaching a certain topic.

News of the patent application, first reported by Slashdot, was met with confusion from ed-tech analysts over the holidays. Why, they asked, would Khan Academy, a nonprofit whose mission is to “provide a free, world?class education for anyone, anywhere” patent what effectively amounts to A/B testing in education? How would it affect other online education providers? Most importantly, could it even be patented?

Intellectual property and patent law experts, pointing to supporting documents filed with the patent application, said the patent suggests Khan Academy is aware of the growing interest in online and adaptive education. Applying for a patent now, the experts said, could prevent legal issues in the future.

Coding for Christmas

Third-grader Jaysean Erby solves a coding problem at an Apple Store in New York as Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on.

Coding toys for kids are aimed at children as young as six years old, reports AP.

Wonder Workshop sells Dash and Dot, programmable blue-and-orange robots. Children can start by drawing a path for Dash on a tablet screen. “They can then drag and drop actions onto its path that, for instance, might cause Dash to beep or flash its lights in different colors.”

More advanced players can “use Google’s kid-oriented Blockly language, or Wonder, the company’s own programming language, to create and play games with both robots.”

Some worry about kids spending too much time with their tablets.

Nader Hamda, founder of a handful of tech and toy startups, created Ozobot, a tiny programmable robot that kids can play with together.

Kids can program Ozobot, which is smaller than a golf ball, simply by drawing different colored lines and shapes with markers. Older kids can also program in Blockly and can even see what their finished code would look like in Javascript, a language widely used to program websites. Hamda says roughly 400 schools currently use Ozobot as a hands-on teaching tool.

Sphero’s SPRK, a clear plastic robot ball, is used in some elementary and middle schools to illustrate concepts.

“It introduces the methodical process, how to go back and fix things,” Sphero CEO Paul Berberian says. “There’s no computer programmer in the world that gets it right the first time.”

The company also makes BB-8, the robot in the new Star Wars movie. “This is the droid you’re looking for,” the slogan reads.

Why do dogs chase cats?

At a Harlem elementary school, children are asked to come up with a question and use the Internet to find the answer, reports NPR.  Sugata Mitra, a British education technology professor known for giving street kids access to a “hole-in-the-wall” computer in India, developed SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environments).

MITRA: You’re going to work with these six computers; the question is, why do dogs chase cats? And, of course, you can talk as much as you like, you can walk around, you can move, you can look at other people’s work. You can do whatever you like.

Working in groups, students have 20 minutes to research the question. Then they report their findings.

STUDENT: A dog can grab and easily wound or kill the cat by crushing her in his jaws.

STUDENT: He might injure a cat by biting too hard even in play.

STUDENT: Like many things dogs do, chasing cats is instinctual.

MITRA: They are the first group who are trying to explain why.

STUDENT: Some want to play with the cat. Others perceive cats as prey and will harm a cat if they catch her.

The education industry is “under threat” from technology, Mitra tells NPR. It must change in order to survive.

SOLE looks like an interesting exercise, but not a revolution in learning.