No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

Home computers don’t help kids in school

Giving kids a home computer doesn’t improve their “grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance” or behavior,  according to a new study in the American Economic Journal.

Researchers Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson found California students in grades 6 to 10 who didn’t have a computer at home. Half were given one at the start of the school year; the other half got one at the end of the year. The study found “no effects on any educational outcomes.”

. . . Students without a computer at home (the “control group”) reported using a computer (at school, the library, or a friend’s house) about 4.2 hours per week, while students who now had a computer at home (the “treatment group”) used a computer 6.7 hours per week. Of that extra computer time, “Children spend an additional 0.8 hours on schoolwork, 0.8 hours per week on games, and 0.6 hours on social networking.”

It’s possible there’s some long-term effect that the study missed, writes Tim Taylor, who blogs as the Conversable Economist. “Perhaps in the future, computer-linked pedagogy will improve in a way where having a computer at home makes a demonstrable difference to education outcomes.” But, so far, nada.

NAEP: 27% of students write proficiently

Students in eighth and 12th grade write just as poorly on laptops as they do with paper and pencil, concludes the new National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam. In both grades, 27 percent of students were rated proficient or better.

Students were given “two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences,” reports Education Week.

At the 8th grade level, for example, one exercise called “Lost Island” asked students to imagine they had arrived on a remote island and listen to an audio file that included nature sounds and lines of a journal read aloud. Students then were required to write personal stories that chronicled an experience they would have had on the island, had they been there.

To reach “advanced” on the exam, students told well-organized stories with strong details, precise word choices, and varied sentences, according to the NAEP report. Students at the “basic” level would use some detail in their stories, but organization was “loose,” sentence structure unvaried, and word choice limited.

Students who were required by teachers to use computers more often to write and edit assignments performed better on the test, NAEP reported. Most students used spell check, but only 20 percent used the cut and paste functions on the laptops.

Girls did much better than boys. The racial breakdown was . . . The usual. I’ll just note that Asian-American students, many of whom speak English as a second language, outscored whites.

 

Chalkboards, pencils, e-readers

We’ve come a long way since the chalkboard replaced the laptop slate board in 1801..

Barbie gets her 'geek chic' on

Thanks to a campaign by female computer professionals, Barbie will be a computer engineer, reports the Wall Street Journal. “Please help us in getting Barbie to get her Geek on!” came the appeal from the blog GeekGirlCamp.

Mattel gave visitors to Barbie’s site a choice of careers for the job-hopping doll:  architect, anchorwoman, computer engineer, environmentalist or surgeon. More than 600,000 votes were cast during a four-week period this past winter.  Girls overwhelmingly wanted to see Barbie as an anchorwoman. But then female computer engineers “launched a viral campaign on the Internet to get out the vote and ensure Barbie would join their ranks,” the Journal reports.

The former fashion model, stewardess, dentist, astronaut, rock star and presidential candidate is going high-tech.

The result is a ponytailed doll in black leggings and a top decorated in binary code that spells Barbie, and lots of pink accessories—geek-chic glasses, Bluetooth headset and shoes.

Fewer women are majoring in computer science: In 2008, women received 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985.  So women in the field are eager to encourage girls to consider computer careers.

After learning about the election from the National Academy of Engineers, Erin Fitzgerald, a science and technology fellow in the U.S. Department of Defense, helped get out the vote. “There is a perception that an interest in math, science and computers means being socially awkward and boring and sacrificing the opportunity to be creative and fun,” she says.

When Mattel asked women computer scientists how to design the new Barbie, they replied: ” ‘Make us look cool and hip.’ ‘Don’t put us in lab coats.’ ‘Don’t make us look like nerds.’ ”

The prototype was displayed at the International Toy Fair in New York Feb. 11.

Veronica Belmont, a San Francisco resident who has an online-technology video show and who says she snubbed Barbie as a girl in favor of toys she could take apart and reassemble, thought Barbie’s sparkly leggings and pink accessories “were over the top.”

“I found the pink condescending,” Ms. Belmont says, “but if it will get little girls’ attention and get them to play with computers, it’s a good start.”

Mattel says Computer Engineer Barbie — and News Anchor Barbie — will be in stores in the fall.

Episcopal Priest Barbie (via Instapundit) is not a Mattel-designed doll.

An iPad for preschoolers

Fisher-Price will sell an iPad for the Preschool Set, reports New York Times’ Bit Blog.

The iXL is a tablet-style electronic device that opens like a book. It is Mac and PC compatible.

It has fat, colorful icons on the right side and buttons and a speaker on the other side. As you might expect, there are apps for the new product: Story Book, Game Player, Note Book, Art Studio, Music Player and Photo Album software.

And, my goodness, this puppy even has a touch-screen.

The iXL will sell for $79.99. I wonder how it stands up to spilled grape juice, Play-Doh crumbs and drool.