Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dream a Little Bigger, Mr. Secretary



I just read secretary Duncan’s article, What Can Technology Do for Tomorrow's Children?, and I have to say that, while I have generally been supportive of his administration's efforts, I cannot bring myself to give this paper an “A”.

I’m in complete agreement with his subtitle that innovation in education goes well beyond gadgets and apps. But then again, that seems to be such an obvious statement it probably goes without saying.

The Secretary begins by noting that the school environment is different than it was a few years ago, because the world is changing. We live in a dynamic landscape and I assure you the classroom environment I inherited as a teacher in 1985 was a world apart in many ways from the classrooms I inhabited as a student in the late 60s and 70s. So, the fact that it’s changing is nothing really new even though the Secretary seems to be presenting it as such. More important is how that change is being addressed-- in particular-- it’s intersection with digital information technology.

I infer from the article that the secretary has recently discovered that we “now live in a global economy” with a “knowledge-based marketplace”. I seem to recall President Reagan, President Bush, President Clinton, and ...President Bush, all mentioning this global economy in speeches so I’m skeptical that it just appeared “now” and, regardless of the tools and methods available, we should be preparing the current generation of schoolkids under his current watch.

I’m not quite certain what the secretary means when he refers to a knowledge-based marketplace. Is there a marketplace that isn't knowledge-based? Where buyers and sellers don’t seek to have as much knowledge as possible to make the best capital transactions possible? I believe I was taught that in Economics 101. I’m going to guess he was referring to a data-driven marketplace where we have, in aggregate, more information available than ever before. A good reason to want to give tomorrow’s kids the cognitive tools to separate wheat from chaff, value from noise.

He posits that the inequitable distribution of the “technology revolution” will exacerbate the class distinctions in our society between the haves and have-nots and therefore continue to further erode the status of the already-disadvantaged.

I don’t doubt that but I think the argument is more of a vague crowd-pleaser for those who share a political perspective than a useful one. In reality, the continuing price reductions of the end-user devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.) has made them more widely available across economic divides than ever before. I’m reminded of a scene in David Simon’s “The Wire” where an aspiring entrepreneur notes that one of his lower-level drug dealers carries two cell phones and decides to liquidate his investment in the sector because if that guy has 2 of them, the market must clearly be saturated.

In America, that portion of the revolution is well-matured. The real fight is over the quality and control of the content being presented over those devices.

Over the past 30 years, one of the great unforeseen problems in classroom technology has come, not from the technology itself, but from the technology decision-making that puts it there and the administration of it once it is in place. These are areas for which the school environment seemed to find itself ill-prepared.

For example, today, we’re seeing a surge in devices like Chromebooks and tablets in the classroom. These are thin-clients which don’t run their own state like a PC. They get everything from up in the cloud where it can’t be lost and can be easily administered. But this is an argument that I and other technological educators were making in the 1980s when then clients became available in the form of lightweight network computers. These seemed much more appropriate to the learning environment at that time. However they were not in the business model interest of companies like, Apple, Dell, and Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft’s motto was a PC on every desk. With a stateless thin-client model you would no longer require 30 licenses for Windows just one on the server. So a great deal was done to combat network computing at the administrative level where relatively little intrinsic knowledge about this existed and as a result, the “revolution” has taken 25 years to achieve what was technologically available 1990.

The Secretary’s article seems to be quite sensitive to political class issues but not much to political marketing issues.

He is right when he says education is meant to be the great equalizer. Technology has the potential to bridge the gaps for those who have the least. But frankly, all technology has the potential to do that. Books can do that. We've all heard stories of people who rose up from poverty and became successes in our society and credited a book they read as a youth with inspiring them. Because the technology of a book allows an author to reach across time and space and his own mortality to touch the reader, influence and inspire. But instead of bowing down and showering praise on the object of the book, we should be praising literacy. Without it the book would have been useless.

Likewise, the secretary is dead right when he says it’s not about phones and apps. We need to promote a literacy of information technology. Not just the end devices we play games and Facebook on, but the technologies that let us look inside the body for medicine, mine through enormous datasets to find an unseen pattern, teach a machine and give us insight into what learning actually is. That’s something (information) technology can do for tomorrow’s kids, Secretary Duncan.

Finally, the secretary gives a few examples which seem to have a “Gee-Wow!” factor at least for older Americans but I don’t think are relevant.

The bottom line is that information technology can help students acquire, evaluate , and verify the information of their world in a manner which was simply unavailable to my generation and that will undoubtedly provide for profound changes in the future.

I’m the architect for a project which acquires astronomical data from many scientific sources across the Internet and uses artificial intelligence to generate astronomy lessons in accordance with state curricula. The lessons are served on-demand over the web. Imagine an astronomy text book which was always current, could be customized by the instructor for the student to add more material on a subject or less without any programming, and was highly immersive (3D audio). How different would that be for a rural student in America’s heartland. Great equalizer.

But our group counts on the administration’s commitment to the buildout of broadband into rural America to make it work. Access is the new metric for equality.

The secretary laid out his vision and I’m not knocking it. I think it lacked nuance and I got the feeling that, if we sat down to chat, this might not be a subject he knows very deeply (If that’s not true, Secretary Duncan, I apologize in advance). But for those on my development team as well as others in educational technology who are attempting to break through to new paradigms and not just the next round of funding for an app, we implore you Mr. Secretary, in your vision, dream a little bit bigger.


--CDC--



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