Level Up or Out

An interesting series of articles appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this past week covering technology in education. Interesting to me because of the variety of approaches discussed, from drill-based learning to home schooling. One of the pieces discussed the use of video games as learning aids, and covered a new middle school here in New York that has a curriculum largely based around video games. It was a little hard to discern what level of integration gaming has with learning there, but there was a brief mention of what one might term normal learning activities (like reading) place. I'm a bit torn on the efficacy of this approach, and perhaps because this piece is a little lighter in facts and heavier on first-person interpretation. I am a little leery of breathless descriptions of people who only two years ago were running street art and puppet shows now commanding an entire middle school. There is some mention made of dopamine studies, but it all sounds extremely thin and premature.

My children are already well aware of what level they are on in most of their subjects where such measurements are taken (Reading, Math). They are fairly competitive, and I don't know how much more pressure they need in that area. What does appeal to me are the constructivist principles that seem to be at work in some of the learning. Kids building their own games is a very old approach, so its good to see it updated here. There was mention of game design and design thinking playing a role in the development of the curriculum, which is encouraging, because if it is done right it can bring the invaluable knowledge the educational system has acquired with newer understandings of motivation and reward.

I wonder if these principles can be used to instill a joy of long-form reading, and the kind of discussion that can accompany the development of close reading skills. Perhaps an "Om Reader", like the OmmWriter, but with more incentives and networking can be a part of children's learning experience. I don't particularly like it, but the "Popular Highlights" feature in the Kindle seems a step in this direction. IDEO released a concept video of three approaches to reading tools, and while the last one named "Alice" seemed the most interesting, I found the other two to be fluffed out features, not standalone products.

It points to the desperation our society feels about the state of education in our country, and how little we seem to know about how children learn. My guess is that we know quite a bit, in a general sense, but we keep trying to scale this knowledge up and apply to all children, which is where it falls apart. Perhaps that's the problem, and programs like this might help us make the brave decision to allow for much greater latitude in how our children are educated.

Social Networking for Fundraising

Sylvia and I worked on a fundraising site for our daughter's school, PS29 in Brooklyn called 5days4arts.org. It was conceived of and launched in an incredibly short period of time, but it managed to meet the fundraising goal of $40,000 in just about two weeks. It was a great lesson in using social media for good, but also showed the power of open-source software (built on Wordpress), cheap technology (used handheld digital cameras) and software (well, ok, we did use Final Cut). We also made the local paper, the New York Daily News. (nydailynews_112409)

Educational Technology Finally Finding its Place

I've been out of the educational space for a while, but I'm still fascinated by the possibilities for using technology to help advance student achievement. Most of the effort that I've seen has been well-intentioned but ultimately doomed to fail due to a few simple issues. Early efforts focused on hardware - wiring schools and putting in computers with the hope that people would figure out what to do with them. Regrettably, most teachers (like anyone else) don't know how to code or design software. Once an effort to put appropriate software in place was started, it followed what the corporate world did - "digitizing"offline processes. This works for some linear transactions, but ultimately is a poor match for how children learn and the demands of a networked society. Finally, it seems people are opening up to the notion of group learning underpinned by social software, and software that includes the entire learning community. I tried to convince my former employer of the importance of this but it was both a hard sell internally (the company was probably innovative at the start, but over time adopted the top-down enterprise model of its customers, the school districts) and to school districts afraid of spam, porn, predators and any of that making headlines. From the NYTimes:

The project-based approach, some educators say, encourages active learning and produces better performance in class and on standardized tests.

The educational bottom line, it seems, is that while computer technology has matured and become more affordable, the most significant development has been a deeper understanding of how to use the technology.

“Unless you change how you teach and how kids work, new technology is not really going to make a difference,” said Bob Pearlman, a former teacher who is the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The foundation, based in Napa, Calif., has developed a model for project-based teaching and is at the forefront of the drive for technology-enabled reform of education. Forty-two schools in nine states are trying the foundation’s model, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Also, a good article in the NYTimes (same day) about hands-on learning for software designers - totally applicable to the above scenario.