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Edclicking

By Dr. Harry Tennant

Edclicking

by Harry Tennant
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Entries from December 2010
Posts 1 - 4 of 4

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What are schools for?

I just watched an interesting talk by a teacher, Diana Laufenberg, How to learn? From mistakes. She started her talk by pointing out how different the needs of education were for her grandmother, father, herself and now her students. Her grandmother and father had to go to school because that's where the knowledge was. It had to be transferred from the teacher's mind to the student's mind. Her situation was a bit different because with encyclopedias in the household, there was a lot of knowledge available outside the school. Today, students have an abundance of knowledge and information online, so why do they still need to go to school?

She went on to argue that because of today's information abundance, education should shift from providing the right answers (characterized by standardized testing) to an environment where students are challenged, they make mistakes, and they learn far more from their mistakes than they would otherwise learn.

But Ms. Laufenberg is wrong, isn't she? Schools have always provided far more than information. First, schools provide a value judgement on what is important to learn, the curriculum. One can disagree with what it is and perhaps that it is far to uniform across all students, but it is more than just information. Second, schools provide the necessary exercise and practice to make knowledge one's own. Let's face it, most of us tend to enjoy the fiction that if we're exposed to some knowledge, we've mastered it.

Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.
--William Butler Yeats

Education must involve some bucket filling as well as some fire lighting. Ms. Laufenberg's very interestingly described assignments no doubt do a good job of fire lighting. When I look back on my own education, projects and reports stand out as some of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did in school. And I wouldn't call doing practice problems in math class inspiring. But I'm very glad that I did those practice problems, and learned the prepositions and periodic table and the did the physics experiments and practiced writing paragraphs and so on. I'm glad my teachers took the time to fill my bucket so that when intellectual fires did start to burn within me, I had an adequate foundation on which and with which to build.

So, to my teachers for insisting that I do what they knew I needed to do: Thank you!

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do We Trust Ourselves?

Dan's recent post of Sir Ken Robinson's talk about reforming education raises a big question:

What is the purpose of public education?

Two ends of the spectrum are

  • Purpose #1: Informed citizens and skilled workers. We provide public funds for education for the benefit of society. The benefit was originally to ensure that citizens could read so they could be informed members of a democracy. Later, the benefit was to provide a skilled workforce for the growing industrial economy.
  • Purpose #2: Fulfilled people. We provide public funds for education as part of the mission to "promote the general Welfare" as stated in the preamble to the Constitution as well as an important enabler for the "pursuit of happiness" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. In other words, we educate our children so they can lead happier lives.

The problem is that many people see these two purposes as opposites. Many equate happiness with pleasure and entertainment, watching TV, playing games and reading novels. An individual's life of pleasure offers little to the general welfare, only to their own. Why should you pay for me to sit around for my own pleasure?

This is why we have prescribed learning standards and assessments of reading and math skills. As a society we are heavily biased toward Purpose #1 and want to be assured that our public education money is an investment in a skilled workforce.

But "pleasure" is a poor synonym for "happiness." A better synonym is the one that Robinson used, "flourishing." Flourishing evokes the notion of a far better life than a life of pleasure. Yes, we want to experience pleasure as part of flourishing but we also want to enjoy the experience of being deeply engaged in challenging activities. Another part of flourishing is doing the kinds of things that give us a feeling that our efforts are of value beyond ourselves, that we have a higher purpose than personal pleasure.

Wouldn't it be ideal if you and everyone around you felt like you were flourishing in your life? Wouldn't that be a better society than one where so many are thought to live lives of "quiet desparation?" If pursuing Purpose #2 lead to a "rate of flourishing" that was as high as our rate of literacy, wouldn't that be well worth the public investment?

The argument against democracy was that the people cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and do the right things. The people need the benevolent control of wiser elites (in those days, the monarchies).

Do wiser elites need to prescribe the education we each need to contribute to society? Or, if we educate with the goal of flourishing, would we find that as each does what's best for himself we find that the best is also done for society?

It seems that the question comes down to this:

Do we trust ourselves?

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Online Learning and the Growth of Disruptive Innovations

My first digital camera was a fixed focus Sony Mavica in about 1998 that took 0.31 megapixel pictures (640x480 pixels). I paid $750 for it and was thrilled with it!

The pictures were poor compared to a film camera and the camera was ridiculously expensive. But the pictures were plenty good enough to put on web pages.

This is typical of disruptive innovations. They start at relatively low quality, typically high prices and appeal only to niche markets. It was true of transistor radios (originally poor audio quality but portable!), calculators (fewer functions than sliderules, short battery life), mp3 players (awkward interfaces before the iPod), video recorders (expensive, heavy equipment compared to 8mm cameras), etc. The big difference with disruptive innovations is that they are on a steeper learning curve.

The reason that digital cameras replaced film cameras despite the inauspicous start represented by my Sony Mavica is that, being based on digital electronics, they had the opportunity to improve rapidly. Their price could fall and features improve at exponential rates following the technology improvement of microelectronics. In contrast, film photography improved at a much slower rate. Within a few years digital photography nearly completely replaced film photography.

What does this have to do with online learning? Today online learning is primarily applied in specialty situations: remedial tutorials, early learning, otherwise-unavailable courses. But the rate of improvement of online learning may inherit the benefits of other online technologies: cheaper servers, better displays, better PCs, faster connections, better authoring software, ever growing communities of courseware authors, ever growing communities of potential students. Compare this with the expected rate of improvement in traditional classroom education. Who will win that race?

Does the steeper learning curve of online learning compared to classroom instruction suggest that online learning will overtake classroom instruction like digital cameras overtook film cameras?

The answer to that question lies in two sub-questions:

  • Which parameters of online learning need improvement to be preferred to classroom instruction? and
  • Are those parameters likely to benefit from the rapidly-improving underlying technologies (servers, PCs, disk space, displays, author base, student base)?

What do you think?

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Keywords: online learning

 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Individualized online instruction

Clayton M. Christensen has written some very interesting books on how innovation works in business: The Innovators Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.

More recently he applied his theories of how innovation takes hold and takes over (or doesn't) to education in Disrupting Class / How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Once again, a very interesting book. Without recapping the entire argument, let me just give the bottom line: online learning will change everything, but it won't happen by schools applying online learning to their core subjects, math, reading, language arts, science and social studies. It will begin with online remedial learning, online learning purchased by parents of struggling students, online courses on subjects that are not offered locally, online learning for home schoolers and online learning for preschoolers.

What do we know about the value of individualized instruction? Does having a personal tutor result in significantly higher student achievement than learning in a typical classroom? And, if personal tutors do help students to significantly higher achievement, why?

Suggested answers to "why" include

  1. Students can learn at their own rate
  2. Instruction can be tailored to the student's learning style
  3. Instruction content can better match student interests

Is it true that individualized instruction is superior to classroom instruction for the above three reasons? Is small group instruction (3 - 5 collaborating students) even better than individualized instruction?

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Keywords: online learning

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