Article: Are Teachers Becoming Obsolete?

Are Teachers
Becoming Obsolete?

Paul Barnwell/15 Feb 2017

A veteran educator reflects on the personalized-learning trend that’s left him wondering if a computer is more capable of doing his job than he is.

Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Leaving my school building the other day, I had an unexpected realization: Perhaps a computer was a more effective teacher than I currently was. The thought unnerved me, and still does as I’m writing this. I’m a nearly 13-year veteran educator dedicated to reflecting upon and refining my teaching craft. But I’m now considering the real possibility that, for at least part of a class period or school day, a computer could—and maybe should—replace me.

For the past several weeks, I’ve begun class with a simple routine: Students enter the room, grab a new Chromebook, log on to the Reading Plus program, and spend roughly 20 minutes working at their own pace. I stroll around the room and help with technology troubleshooting or conference with students, quietly chatting about academic progress or missing work. I’ve also found myself pausing, marveling at what this program promises to accomplish: meeting students where they are academically and, at least in theory, helping a wildly diverse group of students improve their literacy skills.

Developments in education technology promise to assist teachers and school systems in supporting struggling students by providing individualized instruction. But at what cost? As a teacher, it’s difficult to adapt to and embrace a machine that—at least for part of the time—takes over for me. The processes of teaching and learning are complex and innately human; I value the time I take to develop relationships with my students. But it’s hard not to wonder if that time could better be spent with adaptive learning technology.

My third-period sophomore English class at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, contains a wonderful mix of students hailing from the neighborhood and around the globe—my students represent Jordan, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Russia, and Mexico. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know how students arrived in our classroom in addition to hearing about their hopes, fears, and dreams. With this diversity also comes a huge range of student ability. Computerized reading assessments and other benchmarked tests reveal that roughly 90 percent of my class is behind grade level in reading.

How could I possibly create 27 customized lessons?

About half of those students are at least four grade levels behind. My own anecdotal observations support this challenging reality as well. And across the country, only 34 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in reading in 2015 according to the Nation’s Report Card. School districts’ attempts to improve literacy achievement are pervasive, and our school administration’s mandate to employ Reading Plus in most of our freshman and sophomore English classes reflects this.

I’d love to be able to provide individual instruction to my third-period class. One problem—and it’s a big one—is that I don’t know how to teach reading to students who are either new to the language or far behind grade level. And I know I’m hardly alone as a high-school English teacher in this tenuous position. I’ve earned an undergraduate degree in American literature, a master’s in teaching, and master’s in English literature. Yet these credentials haven’t equipped me with the necessary background or skills to significantly improve my students’ reading ability. I’m not trained as a reading specialist. Even if I were, how could I possibly create 27 customized lessons? Maybe Reading Plus can do some of what I can’t.

During the independent, silent work periods at the start of my class, the program adapts to students’ reading speed and comprehension ability, creating a customized scrolling illumination—imagine a rectangular flashlight beam only highlighting the text your eyes scan. Many students seem to embrace this moving target; at the least, they are more physically engaged with reading than ever before, and the program seems to be motivating a clear majority of students.

Reading Plus is emblematic of a growing trend toward personalized learning in public education; it’s the idea that schools can better serve students by providing more customized instruction. The term personalized learning refers to a vast array of approaches to education; examples include a high school in Deer Isle, Maine, and its radical curriculum overhaul to meet needs of individual learners in more creative ways, as well as San Diego’s High Tech High, where student-designed, long-term passion projects are paramount to the learning process.

Personalized learning, however, often manifests itself in school districts in less dynamic ways than in Maine and at High Tech High. The initiatives often become software or technology-based, with digital “instruction” adjusting based on competency levels or skills of its student users. It’s not about student passion or authentic projects—it’s all about remediating and measuring specific academic skills.

And as I’ve experienced first-hand, the role of teachers shifts dramatically with the adoption of these adaptive programs. Instead of a teacher striving to know a student on multiple levels—from understanding the nuances of his or her academic skills, to building positive relationships and crafting learning experiences based on more than numerical reading scores—educators are on the sidelines while a machine takes over. Personalized learning often becomes inherently impersonal; it’s a sterile approach to messy, complex classroom processes. And there’s also big money at stake for education-technology companies and curriculum publishers who are taking advantage of pressure to increase academic achievement.

While we are still a community of learners, it feels less dynamic, even if students are making incremental reading gains.

According to this 2014 Education Week report, the Federal Department of Education Race to the Top competition awarded 16 school districts $350 million dollars to support efforts to personalize learning, often including adaptive software and digital tools as part of their plans.

For example, Miami-Dade Public Schools’ plan included buying access to Carnegie Learning’s Mathia, a program that “tutors” middle-school students in math. Carson City, Nevada’s, school system included a plan to incorporate MasteryConnect, which, according to report, is updated in real time as students take assessments, looking at mastery of learning targets (or specific academic skills). I wonder if educators in these locales are feeling as conflicted as I am.

Critics of the software-driven personalized-learning trend, including the author Alfie Kohn and FairTest, an organization dedicated to curtailing misuses and flaws of standardized testing, contend that there are significant problems with this approach. Kohn laments school districts’ focus on improving test scores as a catalyst in software adoption. One of the issues addressed in this FairTest post is that “frequent online student assessments require teachers to review copious amounts of data instead of teaching, observing and relating to students.” I agree with both of these criticisms, particularly the idea of losing more opportunities for human interaction in favor of customized screen time.

In 2014, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation,” arguing that students’ reliance on screen time is detracting from their ability to communicate verbally. And now school systems are adopting programs designed to keep students glued to yet another screen for reading practice, which, by design, is a closed system. With Reading Plus, students do not have the shared experience and discussions after reading the same text, like when we analyze Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” or The Color Purple together. It’s all individualized, silent work. While we are still a community of learners, it feels less dynamic, even if students are making incremental reading gains according to the program.

For struggling readers and writers, it’s understandable that teachers, schools, and systems are striving to do whatever it takes to improve literacy levels. But whether struggling students are better off graduating from high school having been remediated by personalized-learning software versus more dynamic learning experiences, even if their reading skills marginally improve, remains an open question. I’m hopeful that this blended approach to teaching and learning—the combination of using technology-assisted activity and more traditional face-to-face methods—will be useful for my students. And I wasn’t always open to this possibility.

When I first read Michael Godsey’s essay for The Atlantic, “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher,” a few years ago, I scoffed at the idea of teachers being replaced by classroom technology facilitators. Godsey writes, “The ‘virtual class’ will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a ‘super-teacher’), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.”

In Godsey’s vision, those who currently serve as classroom teachers—like myself—would be replaced or forced to make radical changes in becoming a facilitator instead. Yet in the world of software-driven personalized learning, Godsey’s “super-teacher” isn’t even needed—only folks who can keep students behaved and on-task. I’ve reread the piece and agree with some of it’s conclusions: There’s no doubt the role of teachers is changing rapidly in many school districts towards more facilitation. Like Godsey, I’d struggle to tell a young teacher in training what to expect in the coming years—but there’s no doubt that blended learning will only increase in popularity. For now, I’m okay with my changing role, and it’s too early to tell if Reading Plus is worth the time and students’ effort.

As I write my lesson plans for next week, I chunk out the daily time needed for students to engage with their personalized learning. I tell myself I’m still needed for the 45 minutes they aren’t tracking the illuminated scrolling target. I can still do my best to impart a love of writing, attempt to spark passions, encourage curiosity, foster discussions, smile, laugh, and interact with the students in ways a screen can’t, even if Reading Plus “knows” more technical information about their reading levels than I ever could.

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February 15, 2017 at 10:21PM

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Article: How To Get $20,000 Off The Price Of A Master’s Degree

How To Get $20,000 Off The Price Of A
Master’s Degree

Kirk Carapezza/15 Feb 2017

There’s an experiment underway at a few top universities around the world to make some master’s degrees out there more affordable.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, says the class of 2018 can get a master’s degree in supply chain management for more than $20,000 off from the university’s normal price, which runs upwards of $67,000 for the current year academic year.

But it’s not as simple as sending in a coupon with your tuition bill.

It’s called a “MicroMasters.” MIT, Columbia University, the University of Michigan and the Rochester Institute of Technology are among a dozen or so universities globally that are giving this online program a shot.

It’s not a full degree, but a sort of certificate, and can be a step toward a degree.

There are things in it for students, and for the school.

What’s in it for students: cost

Let’s take Danaka Porter as an example. She’s a 31-year-old business consultant from Vancouver, British Columbia, and says a master’s degree was exactly what she needed to boost her career.

“I found that people were a little bit more respected, I guess, once they had their master’s because it was like they had taken that next step to go a little bit further,” she says.

But she couldn’t afford to stop working and become a full-time student again. She owns a house, she says, and “I have bills, and all of that stuff that doesn’t stop because I wanted to go to school.”

When a friend told that MIT was piloting its first partially online master’s degree in supply chain management, she signed up.

The tuition for a year in the master’s of supply chain management costs $67,938. Her MicroMasters certification, though, is just $1,350.

It’s called a MicroMasters because it isn’t a full degree, just a step toward one, though Porter says the coursework is just as rigorous as if she were on MIT’s campus in Cambridge.

“It requires a lot of effort and if you don’t have a background in math, engineering or supply chain it’s not a breeze. Like, we do have people that fail,” she says.

Even if she passes the certification, Porter will still need to complete a semester “in residence” at full cost if she wants to finish her graduate degree. It’s part of what MIT calls the “blended” program — online and on-campus.

Getting accepted is no easy task. MIT says it expects to admit 40 students a year into the blended program.

Some top schools from around the world are on board with MIT.

There’s user experience research and design from the University of Michigan; entrepreneurship from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore; and artificial intelligence from Columbia University, among others.

Even if students don’t go for a full master’s, the online course work can make them more appealing to employers.

Industry leaders who say they can’t find enough qualified candidates are looking for very specific skills like the ones being taught. GE, Walmart, IBM and Volvo have recognized MicroMasters and are encouraging their employees and job applicants to take these courses.

Some students who are enrolled in MIT’s on-campus program wish these online courses had been available to them before spending big on their degrees.

“If this was an option, I think I would have considered it,” says Veronica Stolear, a graduate student at MIT from Caracas, Venezuela. She quit her job in the oil industry to earn her master’s in supply chain management. Ultimately, though, she thinks her on-campus experience will pay off.

“The in-campus program is more expensive, but you’re getting also the experience of living in Boston, interacting with people from MIT that might not be in supply chain but might be in like the business school and like other types of departments,” she says.

What’s in it for schools: getting the best applicants

You might be wondering what MIT gets out this arrangement.

Admissions officers here say they’ll weigh applicants’ performance in these online courses.

Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and CEO of the online-learning platform edX that makes these online courses possible, sees it all as a way to filter the applicant pool.

“When you get applications from people all over the world, it’s often a crap-shoot,” he says. “You don’t know the veracity of the recommendation letters or the grades. And so you’re taking a bet very often.”

And Agarwal says that should give MIT and other institutions a better sense of how students will perform — if they’re lucky enough to get in.

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February 15, 2017 at 10:04PM
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EDC Week 4 Summary

Palapye, Botswana

Its been a another eventual few days of travelling for me this week, this time to a small town, just barely!, called Palapye which is situated an hours flight away from my home base of Johannesburg to Gaborone, capital of Botswana, and then a three hour drive north on the A1 highway, Botswana’s busiest transit route, to the north eastern interior. Apart from a small university (BIUST) there is a coal mine and an exceptionally large power station as well as single hotel (but with very poor wifi) so what little viewing, tweeting and commenting I could do was inevitably slow or did not in effect work at all, even after several attempts to reconnect.

I was however able to access the very detailed readings on the next phase of our programme. Kozinets (2010) and Fourniers (2014) insights have provided some excellent background on the ethnographic task ahead and the detail they have provided as a background to the process will make for a far easier study on the chosen OER.

I’ve decided to review a MOOC that involves Learning Analytics, partly due to my ongoing interest in the topic, but, also for the fact that I have some familiarity of the subject matter which will give me, in my opinion, the opportunity to study the communicative, collaborative and knowledge development and provision aspects more closely, separated from the subject matter itself. After a comment to this effect on Twitter one of my fellow students proffered if this was the right approach and if this could potentially skew my judgement? Hard to say really, time will tell but I don’t believe this will be the case. Ready to dive in~!

Article: A School Librarian Caught In The Middle of Student Privacy Extremes


February 8, 2017 | By Gennie Gebhart

A School Librarian Caught In The Middle of Student Privacy Extremes

As a school librarian at a small K-12 district in Illinois, Angela K. is at the center of a battle of extremes in educational technology and student privacy.

On one side, her district is careful and privacy-conscious when it comes to technology, with key administrators who take extreme caution with ID numbers, logins, and any other potentially identifying information required to use online services. On the other side, the district has enough technology “cheerleaders” driving adoption forward that now students as young as second grade are using Google’s G Suite for Education.

In search of a middle ground that serves students, Angela is asking hard, fundamental questions. “We can use technology to do this, but should we? Is it giving us the same results as something non-technological?” Angela asked. “We need to see the big picture. How do we take advantage of these tools while keeping information private and being aware of what we might be giving away?”

School librarians are uniquely positioned to navigate this middle ground and advocate for privacy, both within the school library itself and in larger school- or district-wide conversations about technology. Often, school librarians are the only staff members trained as educators, privacy specialists, and technologists, bringing not only the skills but a professional mandate to lead their communities in digital privacy and intellectual freedom. On top of that, librarians have trusted relationships across the student privacy stakeholder chain, from working directly with students to training teachers to negotiating with technology vendors.

Following the money

Part of any school librarian’s job is making purchasing decisions with digital vendors for library catalogs, electronic databases, e-books, and more. That means that school librarians like Angela are trained to work with ed tech providers and think critically about their services.

“I am always asking, ‘Where is this company making their money?’” Angela said. “That’s often the key to what’s going on with the student information they collect.”

School librarians know the questions to ask a vendor. Angela listed some of the questions she tends to ask: What student data is the vendor collecting? How and when is it anonymized, if at all? What does the vendor do with student data? How long is it retained? Is authentication required to use a certain software or service, and, if so, how are students’ usernames and passwords generated?

In reality, though, librarians are not always involved in contract negotiations. “More and more tech tools are being adopted either top-down through admin, who don’t always think about privacy in a nuanced way, or directly through teachers, who approach it on a more pedagogical level,” Angela said. “We need people at the table who are trained to ask questions about student privacy. Right now, these questions often don’t get asked until a product is implemented—and at that point, it’s too late.”

Teaching privacy

Angela wants to see more direct education around privacy concepts and expectations, and not just for students. Teachers and other staff in her district would benefit from more thorough training, as well.

“As a librarian, I believe in the great things technology can offer,” she said, “but I think we need to do a better job educating students, teachers, and administrators on reasons for privacy.”

For students, Angela’s district provides the digital literacy education mandated by Illinois’s Internet Safety Act. However, compartmentalized curricula are not enough to transform the way students interact with technology; it has to be reinforced across subjects throughout the school year.

“We used to be able to reinforce it every time library staff worked with students throughout the year,” Angela said, “but now staff is too thin.”

Teachers also need training to understand the risks of the technology they are offering to students.

“For younger teachers, it’s hard to be simultaneously skeptical and enthusiastic about new educational technologies,” Angela said. “They are really alert to public records considerations and FERPA laws, but they also come out of education programs so heavily trained in using data to improve educational experiences.”

In the absence of more thorough professional training, Angela sees teachers and administrators overwhelmed with the task of considering privacy in their teaching. “Sometime educators default to not using any technology at all because they don’t have the time or resources to teach their kids about appropriate use. Or, teachers will use it all and not think about privacy,” she said. “When people don’t know about their options, there can be this desperate feeling that there’s nothing we can do to protect our privacy.”

Angela fears that, without better privacy education and awareness, students’ intellectual freedom will suffer. “If students don’t expect privacy, if they accept that a company or a teacher or ‘big brother’ is always watching, then they won’t be creative anymore.”

A need for caution moving forward

Coming from librarianship’s tradition of facilitating the spread of information while also safeguarding users’ privacy and intellectual freedom, Angela is committed to adopting and applying ed tech while also preserving student privacy.

“I am cautious in a realistic way. After all, I’m a tools user. I know I need a library catalog, for example. I know I need electronic databases. Technologies are a necessary utility, not something we can walk away from.”

As ed tech use increases, school librarians like Angela have an opportunity to show that there is no need to compromise privacy for newer or more high-tech educational resources.

“Too many people in education have no expectation of privacy, or think it’s worth it to hand over our students’ personal information for ed tech services that are free. But we don’t have to give up privacy to get the resources we need to do good education.”

Tags: #mscedc
February 08, 2017 at 10:39PM

EDC Week 3 Summary

Much of the beginning part of this week was spent wracking my brains and annoying my partner trying to come up with a suitably creative and exemplary way of summarizing all the aspects of our first three weeks of Education digital Cultures. The creative process can be hard to start and I think I speak for some of my fellow students in acknowledging that the task set for us required a fair amount of thinking. As stimulating and visually exciting our first topic has been its been a challenge to tie all the concepts presented in posthumanism, transhumanism and the lingua franca of technology enabled learning that is distorting the most beneficial aspects of our charge towards a new world of learning.

However the results have been outstanding and Im overawed by the talent that surrounds me. It really feels like we are developing in a true community of learning as we collectively become more adept and communicating and functioning in this ‘new’ medium. Its something I sure will grow as we become ever more mature online students and mirror the best traits of Salmons Five stages. In my experience this level of community of learning is rarely achieved, even where it is planned for. The ingenious design of the programmes designers must be lauded  – thank you!

But this leads me to a question: How much of an influence does the culture of the participants on a programme such as ours play a part in creating successful collaborative learning experiences? To add further, to what degree do individual personalities have an effect on the success of digital learning? These and other questions will be good to explore in our next block as it provide a new angle from which to analyse a large scale learning exercise. I may go back and re-read some of IDELs week 6 prescribed readings on open education for this one…


Article: Boston Dynamics adds wheels to its already chilling robots

Boston Dynamics adds wheels to its already
chilling robots

John Mannes/01 Feb 2017

Alphabet subsidiary Boston Dynamics doesn’t have much to prove when it comes to producing the robots of your nightmares. Previous iterations of the company’s prototypes have been kicked over by humans only to stand right back up, for example. But at an event this week, founder Marc Raibert managed to unveil something simultaneously more unsettling and technologically impressive.

Going by the name of Handle, the new bot features both legs and wheels. The creation, captured on video by DFJ’s Steve Jurvetson, is said to be more efficient than a purely legged robot. Even with a small footprint, large loads don’t seem to be a problem for the robot. Its ability to “handle” objects is where the inspiration for its name originated.

A combination of hardware and software enable the robot to balance itself and throw its weight around, even when rotating rapidly on wheels. It can even jump over objects. In the video above, at about 4:15, you can see Handle extend its arms during an extended spin for balance.

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February 01, 2017 at 10:39PM
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