Category Archives: Education

Technology in the classroom?

I would have told them years ago that given a choice, I would choose a school with ZERO technology over one with the best technology.

WSJ 9/4/2019

Districts spent millions on laptops, apps and devices; parents worry it’s not helping.

When Baltimore County, Md., public schools began going digital five years ago, textbooks disappeared from classrooms and paper and pencils were no longer encouraged. All students from kindergarten to 12th grade would eventually get a laptop, helping the district reach the “one-to-one” ratio of one for each child that has become coveted around the country. Teaching apps and digital courses took the place of flashcards and notebooks.

Despite the investment, academic results have mostly slipped in the district of about 115,000 students.

Over the last decade, American schools embraced technology, spending millions of dollars on devices and apps, believing its disruptive power would help many children learn faster, stay in school and be more prepared for a competitive economy. Now many parents and teachers are starting to wonder if all the disruption was a good idea.

Technology has made it easier for students and teachers to communicate and collaborate. It engages many students and allows them to learn at their own pace. But early indications are that tech isn’t a panacea for education.

Researchers at Rand Corp. and elsewhere say there is no clear evidence showing which new tech-related education offerings or approaches work in schools.

The uncertainty is feeding alarm among some parents already worried about the amount of time their children spend attached to digital devices. Some believe technology is not doing much to help their kids learn, setting up a clash with tech advocates who say technology is the future of education.

Across the country—in Boston, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Austin, Texas—parents are demanding proof technology works as an educational tool, and insisting on limits. They’re pushing schools to offer low-or screen-free classrooms, picketing board meetings to protest all the online classes and demanding more information about what data is collected on students.

In April, a report from the National Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found the rapid adoption of the mostly proprietary technology in education to be rife with “questionable educational assumptions… self-interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy and a lack of research support.”

‘Digital citizens’

Proponents say schools must have technology. “We are moving into a time of exponential change,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of Consortium for School Networking, an association for school tech officers that also includes tech companies. “Schools are not at the leading edge of technology but technology is reaching a tipping point in the way learning happens.” He says, “Schools need to determine how to equip [students] to be smart digital citizens.”

Earlier this year, Cynthia Boyd, watched as her daughter, Jane, then a Baltimore County first-grader, poked at a keyboard on a family laptop in response to math problems on the screen, part of her public school’s math class. An interactive program delivered an image of a token on the screen when she completed an assignment. She could then trade in those tokens to play games.

To Dr. Boyd, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, it looks more like a videogame than a math class. She isn’t sure if the lessons are sticking with Jane and worries about the hyper-stimulating screen time. “I feel like my kids have been part of a huge massive experiment I have no control over,” says Dr. Boyd, who also has two sons aged 13 and 15. Liam, the younger son, began learning on screens three years ago and Graham, the older son, began learning on them four years ago.

There is a role for technology in school, she says, but it is a matter of how much and at what age. She has seen the benefits: Her younger son learned the basics of computer programming and the logic in- volved. Tech allowed her oldest son to build a website for a history project and to use online original documents from the Library of Congress.

Baltimore County’s latest results on state standardized tests, released last week, were so disappointing they prompted a letter to parents from the district’s new school superintendent, Darryl Williams. In English language arts and math, “far too few of our students are meeting or exceeding expectations…We can and must do better,” he wrote.

About 37% of the county’s students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English language arts, compared with about 44% statewide. In math, about 27% of the students were proficient, compared with 33% statewide. Dr. Williams wasn’t available for comment. A school district spokesman said Dr. Williams and his team will be closely evaluating what role, if any, the laptop program has played in the district’s performance.

Baltimore County said earlier this year it would scale back the ratio of laptops in first and second grades to one for every five students. A few miles away, in Montgomery County, a new curriculum this fall will return textbooks, paper and pencils to the classroom to supplement laptops.

In both cases, school officials say they were responding, in part, to parents and teachers. Baltimore County’s early-learning teachers said they didn’t need so many laptops. Parents wanted their children to “have a mixed media experience touching paper and reading books and down on the carpet without a device in their hands,” said Ryan Imbriale, who heads the school district’s department of innovative learning.

In Montgomery County, which was due for a curriculum change, “we heard loud and clear from parents,” said Dr. Maria Navarro, chief academic officer. Among other things, “they are very concerned about the amount of screen time” in school.

Technology is especially effective, she says, when it allows aspiring engineers and architects to build simulations in a high-school drafting class, for instance, or non-native English speakers to get an instant translation by touching a word in their reading assignment. “The question is what’s the best use of this tool,” she says, “and what’s the right quality and quantity.”

Montgomery County schools improved in nearly all categories in the results released last week, with average gains better than those seen statewide for students in grades 3 through 8.

Technology certainly helps solve some big problems. At a time when all 50 states report teacher shortages, instructors are being live-streamed into classrooms to remotely fill vacancies in about 180 school districts. In places such as Hot Springs, Va., Alphabet Inc.’s Google has wired school buses, turning them into rolling study halls for students with long commutes and patchy or nonexistent Wi-Fi at home.

The widespread prevalence of technology in American schools, often known for changing at a glacial pace, has been jarring for large numbers of parents, teachers and administrators— many of whom were big proponents just a few years ago. The school devices are undermining parents’ struggle to limit screen time. They say their children find ways at school to bypass their schools’ internet filters and can find their way onto YouTube exposing them to X-rated and violent content. They can kill time in class by shopping online or playing games.

It was just eight years ago that President Obama signaled in his State of the Union Address that he envisioned U.S. students reading digital textbooks; soon after, his administration set a five-year goal. The call was hardly controversial; it was premised on the widespread belief that digital innovations would boost graduation rates, help close the persistent socio-economic achievement gap and keep American students from falling behind their peers in other countries.

The Trump administration’s Education Secretary Betsy De-Vos is a proponent, saying in a statement “When applied appropriately, technology in the classroom opens up a world of possibilities for students.”

Device usage in schools is rising. A 2018 report by the Consortium for School Networking found 59% of high schools reported that all of their students had access to non-shared devices, compared with 53% the year prior. Middle schools reported 63% of all students had access from 56%. Elementary use was at 29% from 25%. In some cases, schools provide the devices and in others, students bring their own.

Google has 60% of the school device market; Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. split the rest about equally, according to Futuresource Consulting, a market research firm.

The digital push coincided with the rise in enthusiasm for personalized learning. Championed by advocates including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the tailored-to-the-child approach is designed to allow students to learn according to their needs and interests— at their own pace. The flexibility is made possible by individually assigned laptops and tens of thousands of new digital learning programs.

“Technology is one tool—an extremely promising one if we use it well. But we have to be clear-eyed,” says Robert L. Hughes, who directs U.S. K-12 Education for the Gates foundation. He says there is still “wide variation” in performance— between classrooms, schools and districts using technology to personalize learning. “It is the very early days.”

Mr. Gates has indicated problems are to be expected in the early stages of educational software development. “The stand-alone textbook is becoming a thing of the past,” he wrote in the foundation’s annual letter in February.

What happens next? “The same basic cycle you go through for all software: get lots of feedback on the existing products, collect data on what works and make them better,” he wrote. A foundation spokesman said Mr. Gates wasn’t available to comment.

The individualized learning approach assumes that if given choices and goals, children will stay motivated to do their best. Some parents say that is asking a lot of many kids. “Put screens in front of children and they aren’t thinking ‘I can’t wait to do research,’ they’re thinking, ‘Let’s play Candy Crush,’ ” says Melanie Hempe, a Charlotte, N.C., mother and author of a book for parents who want to limit computer use called “Screen Strong.”

Maryland is one of the states grappling most aggressively with how to calibrate the role of technology in schools, this summer requiring officials to create a set of best practices for devices in the classroom. About half the guidelines address health issues like proper ergonomics and eye safety. Others remind teachers to promote student collaboration and reward good behavior with social and physical activity—not more screen time.

Many teachers support using technology broadly, but are concerned over whether it is being used too much or in the right way. Diane Birdwell, a world history teacher in Dallas, said when she allowed students to use devices, they were not only distracted by pop-up alerts but didn’t retain information or comprehend as well when reading it on paper. “It has hampered their ability to think on their own,” said Ms. Birdwell, a 58-year-old teacher of 20 years.

Florence Kao, a Montgomery County, Md., lawyer, says that since third grade, her two sons have been using Google Slides, part of Google’s office suite, for their projects. They are now PowerPoint design experts, she says, picking colors, fonts, background images and deciding whether to put each slide in a bubble or a frame. “The ratio of time they spend writing on each slide compared to embellishing it is probably 10% to 90%,” she says. She wonders how well they’re learning to write.

Vetting Apps

Montgomery County schools have roughly 1,000 apps, digital curriculum offerings and other online tools that teachers have chosen to use. Some Montgomery County parents formed a Safe Tech Committee that now meets with the district’s chief tech officer, Pete Cevenini to report problem apps and share other concerns. He has set up a protocol for teachers and administrators to vet apps. As the start of the school year approaches, 22% have been vetted.

A report from Rand Corp. in October cited a lack of rigorous evidence showing which new education practices and tools are effective, saying the offerings are “relatively immature, fragmented and of uneven quality.” In a peer-reviewed article, the research firm described strategies to guide teachers and administrators “in the absence of proven-effective models.” Dr. Boyd, the Johns Hopkins professor, says all her children have been frustrated by digital courses. Her sons have since switched to private schools where the curriculum is less technology intensive. She is glad Jane’s school district is reevaluating and making changes.

‘I feel like my kids have been part of a huge massive experiment.’

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How to Make a Living

One of the best articles on the value of being able to write clearly and concisely that I have read in a long time.
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WSJ 8/30/2018
As a 20-year-old graduate student in creative writing, I asked a professor how to submit work for publication. “If you’re already worried about publishing,” he said, “you’re not a serious writer.”

I was serious—and desperate to learn how to make a living with the literary craft I’d been studying. But nobody in my program would discuss it. After two degrees in six years of higher education, I didn’t even know how to write a cover letter to submit the pages I’d spent years perfecting. It took decades of missteps and failures for me finally to figure out how to pay my bills as an author, freelancer and adjunct professor.

Later, teaching journalism myself, I wanted to help my students get on a faster track for success. I was disappointed by the administration’s dismissive attitude about helping students get bylines, jobs, literary agents or teaching gigs. My department heads pushed me to assign my classes 8,000word, third-person term papers instead of the shorter pieces editors wanted. “We don’t care about publication or payments,” one said. “We’re not a trade school.” Many in liberal-arts education cling to this lofty, elitist opinion that it’s sinful to discuss any remuneration. Top journalism schools and master’s programs in the fine arts charge as much as $60,000 a year for tuition—similar to that of business, medical and law schools. But unlike those other fields, they rarely teach their students how to gets jobs and income.

I remember how confused and frustrated I was by the discrepancy between what top schools offer and what’s needed to launch a profitable career. It’s a glaring gap, as if the faculty believe wanting to support yourself with the subject you study is greedy and shameful.

That’s why I began sharing practical information in my journalism, nonfiction and creative- writing classes. I found that helping a diverse group of students land articles, internships, jobs, agents, editors and teaching positions was empowering and transformative.

An African-American Navy vet landed a full-time job in a hospital after writing a poignant op-ed describing how he’d become temporarily homeless when he returned home with service-related injuries. A 21-year-old protégée of mine wrote an essay explaining why she dropped out of college after a sexual assault, and was able to help other young women with a book and paid lectures for the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network. A Latino mother’s articles about her prepartum depression landed her a literary agent and a teaching job. A Bosnian Muslim survivor of ethnic cleansing became a spokesman against genocide after his published articles struck a chord, earning as much as $7,000 for speeches around the country.

Learning to write succinct three-page essays, strong opinionated arguments and concise emails can be useful in any field. In all of my classes and seminars, I assign short cover letters, too. Every year it astounds me that top colleges neglect this simple art. An expensive university education should at least arm students with the skills they’ll need to pay for it.

Ms. Shapiro, a New School professor, is a co-author of “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks.”

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Are We Really Listening?

Oh, how I wish someone would have introduced me to “Economics” at an earlier age…

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WSJ 4/23/2018
By Quinn Connelly

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” has become a cultural phenomenon. But one aspect of his work is underappreciated— economics.

Most of us hate making difficult decisions, but as Mr. Peterson sternly reminds us, life is full of tough trade-offs. Everyone has options, and making the most of those options is the essence of economics. Mr. Peterson shows how the right set of rules can guide our thinking, clarify our values and encourage us to take prudent action. Here are five of his economics lessons:

• Signaling. Mr. Peterson’s Rule No. 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” That illustrates the economic concept of “signaling,” which stresses the importance of credibly conveying information—in this case, confidence and competence— to others.

• Moral hazard. Rule No. 2 is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Moral hazard occurs when people behave irresponsibly because they don’t bear the consequences of their actions. Mr. Peterson notes we often take better care of others than of ourselves because we feel responsible for them.

• Asymmetric information. Rule No. 9 is “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” Asymmetric information refers to a knowledge

imbalance between two parties. Almost all economic transactions involve asymmetric information, because buyers and sellers often differ dramatically in terms of expertise. This principle applies to all kinds of professionals as well, including lawyers, physicians and engineers, who know much more than their clients, patients and customers.

• Short-termism . John Maynard Keynes was correct when he observed that “in the long run we are all dead.” But as Mr. Peterson notes, this sort of shortsighted thinking can be used to justify absolutely anything and therefore “breeds nothing good.”

• Future Value. Mr. Peterson instructs readers in Rule No. 7: “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.” He defines expedience as “the following of blind impulse.” Pursuing what is “meaningful” in this sense requires time and patience. While he doesn’t mention it explicitly, Mr. Peterson hints at a powerful economic concept: compound interest. You can let go of something valuable in the present for a greater reward in the future.

As Mr. Peterson puts it: “It’s the discovery of the future itself. It’s the most profound discovery of humankind.”

Mr. Connelly is a 2018 M.B.A. candidate at Vanderbilt University.

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When Listening is Not Listening

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WSJ 11/16/2017
By Zachary Wood – Williamstown, Mass.

‘You’re a racist white supremacist!” a Williams College student shouted at Christina Hoff Sommers, after she finished a recent campus talk on feminism.

To their credit, a handful of students responded to Ms. Sommers’s talk with challenging questions and cogent criticisms. But insults, rants and meltdowns consumed the majority of the question-and-answer session. As president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that invites controversial speakers to campus, I did my best to moderate.

After one student activist shouted “f— you!” at the speaker, an administrator seemed to affirm the heckler’s veto, signaling to me with a timeout gesture that it was time to end the event. In an effort to give as many students as possible a chance to engage the speaker, I approached the administrator and negotiated another 15 minutes for questions. But the remainder of the Q& A consisted mostly of bellicose rhetoric and long-winded stories of personal trauma, many of which had little to do with the topic at hand. Ms. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and critic of third-wave feminism, endured such “questioning” for more than an hour.

As a college senior eager to engage in lively debate, I’m disappointed in students who used this event as an opportunity to taunt and disparage a speaker who made every effort to engage in good faith. Although many student activists at Williams seem hostile to conservative ideas, I believe all of my peers are capable of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

But college administrators aren’t much help. Since Ms. Sommers’s talk at Williams, my college’s president, Adam Falk, has characterized the event as a success. He wrote in the Washington

Post this week that “our students listened closely, then responded with challenging questions and in some cases blunt critiques.”

That grossly misrepresents what happened. During Ms. Sommers’s talk, many students did not “listen closely.” Instead, they acted disruptively by mocking her and snickering derisively throughout her entire speech.

For each “challenging question,” there were at least five personal attacks, directed either at her or at me for inviting her. One student started yelling aggressively, blaming me for his parents’ qualms about his sexual orientation. His rant lasted for at least five minutes. Other students stood up and exclaimed that they were better than the speaker because she was “stupid, harmful, and white supremacist.”

Shortly after the event, I heard from several friends that many members of the Black Student Union want nothing to do with me or other black students associated with Uncomfortable Learning. I expect this kind of recrimination. But I can’t speak for other students who’ve told me they worry about how their interest in my group may affect their relationship with their black classmates.

Ignoring the attacks directed at controversial speakers and the students who invite them propagates the misconception that Williams, and other American colleges, welcomes intellectual diversity. Things won’t get any better until college administrators like Mr. Falk honestly confront the threats to open debate at the institutions they lead.

Mr. Wood is a senior at Williams College.

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