Author Archives: edusophia

The Inerrant Word of . . . Wikipedia?

Library full of aged books and ladder An interesting blog post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University, compared the authorship of the Bible to Wikipedia, a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia.  Both works are the result of a myriad of authors, though, depending on your specific religious disposition, you might believe God to be the ultimate author of the former, and therefore inerrant.  The same regard is not held for Wikipedia: teachers often rant about its inaccuracies, and frequently forbid students from using it as a source for research.  But, is Wikipedia really inaccurate?  Is Wikipedia rotting the minds of our nation’s youth?

A number of studies have actually been undertaken on this topic, so much so that Wikipedia itself has an article dedicated to the topic.  One of the first to attempt to study this was The Guardian, a British daily.  In their study, experts were asked to review articles related to their fields, with most articles receiving favorable marks.  In a now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) study on the topic, the British weekly journal Nature pitted Wikipedia against popular Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its findings (payment or subscription required) were that serious errors occurred about equally between the two encyclopedias, and that Wikipedia was only marginally less reliable with respect to minor errors.  (A free review of the research can be found in “Wikipedia survives research test” by BBC News.)  Other studies have found similar results, some with Wikipedia actually slightly outpacing its commercial competitors.  Wikipedia is anywhere from slightly more authoritative to slightly less authoritative than a traditional commercial encyclopedia, depending on the particular study and methodology.

Of course, study methodologies are closely scrutinized, and the Nature study was, not surprisingly, openly criticized by Encyclopedia Britannica.  Nature responded to the open criticism with a point-by-point rebuttal.  One of the more interesting outcomes of all this scuttlebutt is a Wikipedia article that lists errors present in Encyclopedia Britannica that are corrected in Wikipedia.  According to the article, it was started to serve as a reminder that no encyclopedia is perfect, and “as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time.”

However, it is Wikipedia’s editorial process that is at the heart of the debate.  Heretofore, we have relied on academic “experts” writing on the subjects of their expertise.  In the Wikipedia editorial process, originally even anonymous authors were allowed to contribute.  Is a collaboratively authored encyclopedia, written by the “general public,” as “authoritative” as an encyclopedia authored by experts?  (See the aforementioned blog post by Mr. Bivens-Tatum for a great discussion on authority in sources.)  At initial blush, it would seem that the answer is yes.  On the other hand, Wikipedia may no longer fit this definition.  Precisely because of vandalism of pages on prominent people such as Edward Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, Wikipedia has decided to limit changes to articles on people, a change detailed in a The New York Times article.  Such changes serve as barriers to entry, which may have stagnated Wikipedia’s growth.  According to the article, Ed Chi of Palo Alto Research Center has found that the site’s growth hit a plateau in 2007-2008.

The Economist has elucidated such limitations and its impact on the future of Wikipedia in an amusing article titled “Wiki birthday to you,” written in Wikipedia-style.  The Economist points out that the editorial review process has gotten increasingly more complicated over the years as Wikipedia has “grown up,” and that regular contributors have dropped by as much as a third.  In the aforementioned The New York Times article, Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board, the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia, openly discusses the fact that Wikipedia has moved beyond its initial frontier heyday, and that more discipline is now required.

The real irony in Wikipedia is that, as it institutes increased rigor and discipline, it becomes more like the commercial entities that it has dethroned in page viewership.  As it becomes more like them, its ability to draw interest from the public at large.  And, as contributions decrease, there could be a real spike in errant entries.  In so doing, could the inerrant (or at least less errant) Word of Wikipedia become what teachers have always feared it was?

Digital Textbooks: Is Steve Jobs the Next Gutenberg?

WoodenTypeBlocks When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid 1400’s, he fundamentally changed the way that information was accessed.  Prior to his invention, the creation of books was largely the work of monks, who painstakingly copied them by hand.  With the printing press, however, it was now possible to mass-produce books, and at a unprecedented speed.  Gutenberg had unwittingly launched the Printing Revolution, a truly seminal event in modern history.  The result, some 500+ years later, is a world in which books are easily and readily available to everyone through an infrastructure of writers, publishers, bookstores, and public library systems.  Gutenberg democratized knowledge by making books easily and readily available to virtually everyone who could read.

But are we on the precipice of another revolution?  In late 2010, leading online retailer Amazon announced its “Best of 2010” lists in a December 30, 2010 press release, detailing that its Amazon Kindle, an e-book reader,  was the single bestselling item it sold for the year.  Not to be outdone, Barnes & Noble, a leading online and brick-and-mortar bookseller, announced that its e-book reader, the nookcolor™, was the top holiday gift, and that its entire nook™ product line is its biggest bestseller in the company’s history.  Are these devices furthering the democratization started by Gutenberg?  Or does the way in which they make information available create a revolution of its own?  And what does all of this mean for education?

While the end result of the eBook Revolution – and what it means for education – is not yet clear, a few schools have already begun deploying digital readers and digital textbooks.  In Burlington, MA, the Burlington High School has decided that it will launch a 1:1 initiative based upon Apple’s iPad.  Details of the plan were outlined in a Boston Fox affiliate WFXT news story.  More dramatic, state education officials in Florida have rolled out a five-year initiative to make all school textbooks completely digital by 2015.  In short, there is already significant and substantial momentum to eliminate the traditional textbook and replace it with some form of a digital equivalent.

The reasons for the replacement are clear: students will now need to carry only a single device to school rather than many pounds of textbooks, and the information in the digital textbooks can be more “interactive.”  Additional reasons have been outlined in a 2010 white paper by The Florida State University PALM Center.  However, before one leaps too eagerly to the promise, one should be aware that digital textbooks do not deliver on all of its promises: a recent study by The Student PIRGs found that digital textbooks cost about the same as similarly-priced hard textbooks.  Moreover, because there is no such thing as a “used” digital textbook, digital textbooks were significantly more expensive than used hard textbooks.  This problem, though, may be only temporary.  As the move to digital textbooks is transformative, it makes possible for new entrants to the market who are not bound by the “conventional” rules.  These innovators will, no doubt, force downward price pressure.

Perhaps the bigger shift, though, will be in the way that we think about textbooks.  When iTunes reached critical mass, it forced a very important change, highlighted by The Christian Science Monitor in its article “Three ways iTunes, and its 10 billion in sales, changed music industry”, in the music industry: it pushed the end of the album and the rise of the single.  Likewise, the shift to digital textbooks will likely force the disaggregation of the traditional textbook.  For years, it has been possible to purchase portions of various textbooks and present them as a coherent “coursepack.”  The advent of digital textbooks will no doubt accelerate this disaggregation as instructors pick and choose the pieces that they wish to present to students.

So where does a school begin in a disaggregating textbook market?  Unfortunately, the answer is not clear, as multiple digital reader platforms exist.  In a recent The New York Times article titled “Among E-Readers, Competition Heats Up,” staff writer Joanna Stern does a round-up of the digital readers on the market, outlining the pros and cons of each.  If consumers need guidance on which reader to buy, it’s clear that convergence in the market has not yet occurred for normal books let alone digital textbooks.  The situation is very reminiscent of one seen played over and over in technology, years ago with the VHS versus Betamax, and more recently with Blu-ray versus HD DVD.  However, format wars needn’t preclude a school from exploring digital textbooks.  Thanks to devices such as the Apple iPad and sundry Google Android-based tablets – as well as apps in both iPad and Android varieties from the major players in the digital reader market – it’s possible to hedge one’s bets or even use digital texts from multiple sources.

It’s also possible that such devices could potentially preclude the need for format convergence.  VCR tapes and DVD discs has to converge because consumers simply wouldn’t purchase two devices that perform the same function.  In the world of digital readers, apps make it possible to have a single device that can perform multiple functions.  What is clear, though, is that digital textbooks are increasingly being adopted, and that the many possibilities of them – and the devices on which they are read – make them a compelling choice over the traditional textbooks.

By the way, though, it is Michael Hart who is oft-credited with inventing the eBook, not Steve Jobs.  Which is more important to the eBook Revolution, the inventor of the book itself or the companies that have popularized it?  I’ll leave you to decide.

Social Media: The Big Bad Wolf

eyes of wolf Opinions on whether social media sites should be allowed in primary and secondary schools are often divided between those who believe in an educational value to the sites and those who believe that only evil can come of them.  Depending on the person, social media can be either deity or devil.  The latter perspective is bolstered by visceral news stories such as that of Phoebe Prince, a teenager from South Hadley, MA, who committed suicide over bullying via text messages and Facebook.  Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, committed suicide after his roommate and another student had webcams trained on him while he engaged in sexual activity with another man.  Although social media wasn’t directly involved in this incident, it was on Facebook where Clementi posted his final words.

Given these traumatic outcomes, it certainly gives one reason to pause and consider whether social media ought to be allowed in the educational context at all.  Indeed, content filtering companies such as Websense speak ominously about the social media while featuring their logos prominently:

Facebook. YouTube. Search, search, search. You’re on the Web so much that it feels like home. But just around the corner, one or two clicks away, real danger lies in wait.

With danger lying just around the corner, it’s really a wonder that schools allow any access to the internet at all.

However, a recent study by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) paints a different picture.  According to the study, only 0.08% of the students in the study said that they had met someone in person from an online encounter without the parents’ permission.  Moreover, only about 7% of students self-identified themselves as having been cyber-bullied.  According to bullying statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U. S. Department of Education, about 32% of students reported having been bullied during the 2007 school year, approximately the same time as the NSBA study.  Assuming that both studies are accurate, incidents of cyber-bullying make up a tiny fraction of overall bullying incidents.  While the mainstream media would have us believe that Facebook and other social media sites are the root cause of all evil, these statistics clearly point to traditional bullying as the larger issue that needs to be addressed.

That said, just because something is not a problem – or not a problem at the level we think it is – does not in and of itself make that thing worthwhile in the educational context.  According to the same NSBA study, the three top social media activities were posting messages, downloading music, and downloading video . . . likely not educational activities unless the videos were, say, on how the ventricles pump blood.  On the other hand, though, the study does give us some promise: 10% of those surveyed said that they had participated in collaborative projects, and 9% said that they had submitted articles to websites.  If the curriculum were designed properly, such social media sites could both reach students where they are and leverage educational benefit.  Arguing against the blocking of social media sites, Slate writer Nicholas Bramble offers some insightful suggestions in his article “Fifth Period is Facebook.”

Mr. Bramble is right: blocking students from Facebook and other social media sites is not the right approach.  With over 500 million users – half of whom log onto the site on a daily basis – and 70% of whom are outside the United States, Facebook is clearly a part of the global community.  Social media has increasingly become the way that people network, find jobs, research products, and collaborate.  To remove it from the school setting is to deprive students of the opportunity to learn more about how to fully leverage these tools for education, professional development, and advancement.  According to a recent article in Education Week titled “Social Networking Goes to School,” many schools have begun to realize the potential educational benefits of social media, and have begun incorporating it both in the classroom and for the professional development of the teachers.

Perhaps we’ve gotten the story wrong.  Maybe social media isn’t the big bad wolf but is, instead, little red riding hood.  She’s got a basket of tools that could be used to benefit students.  Will you use them?

Escape to . . . Reality?

Teenagers playing video games A former colleague and friend, Mark Burkholz, had his son’s picture land in The Boston Globe in a feature article titled “Parents seek balance as screens’ allure grows,” an article about the seemingly ever-increasing amount of time that children and teenagers are spending on gaming.  In the article, Mark is quoted as stating that these skills (those learned in gaming) are crucial ones for living in an adult society.  He and I have discussed this in depth: Mark contends that team-building, teamwork, and strategy development are all important to advancement within the current workforce.  Yet, society and the media both appear to badger us with the message that increased time spent gaming is related to decreased performance on some far more desirable criteria, such as grades.  Even the author of the article on Mark’s son Noah seems to leave us with the impression that gaming is a bad thing.  Who is right?

According to an article published by John Tierney in The New York Times, Mark is.  Tierney cites researcher Edward Castronova, professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, as stating that the problems faced in games aren’t all that different from work activities in his article “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming.”  Jane McGonigal, a researcher at Institute for the Future, took this a step further in an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal titled “Be A Gamer, Save the World.”  In the article, Dr. McGonigal suggests that the power of games could be used to solve real-world problems.  Tierney’s article resonates with this idea: it mentions the First Aid Corps, an organization who has produced an app for iPhone and Google Android cell phones that allows individuals to make a game of sorts by cataloging nearby defibrillators to provide a valuable service to those in need of them.

Could traditional education also be leveraging games to help solve instructional challenges?  As Tierney points out, leveraging games as an instructional tool dates back at least as far as Charlemagne.  Yet, game usage as a part of classroom instruction tapers off dramatically as students advance through grades.  According to both Tierney and McGonigal, gamers are happy, and recent research has suggested that happiness and academic achievement are at least interrelated.  Schools could potentially increase the happiness of students and thereby improve academic achievement merely by incorporating game-playing into the curriculum.

However, the real benefit to education lies in the gaming ecosystem.  As British Journalist and TED speaker Tom Chatfield and others have pointed out, it’s amazing how resilient humans are when playing video games.  According to McGonigal, gamers spend up to 80% of their time in games losing.  Two factors are obviously at play here.  First is the classic Gambler’s fallacy.  Just like a gambler, we believe that the previous losses will eventually regress to the mean and we will then be “rewarded” with a win.  We know intuitively that a toss of a coin will – over time – turn up an equal number of “heads” and “tails.”  Therefore, after a few losses, I am “destined” to win.  While this does not work for the gambler in a pure game of chance, it certainly plays out well for the gamer, where repetitive play yields improved skill.  Second is the low cost of failure.  With gaming as a virtual reality with little to no impact on the “real world,” losses are less averse than they ordinary would be.  The gaming system creates an artificial construction where people need not be stigmatized by losses.

Think of the huge potential benefit to education: a “lossless” world where students are empowered to fail and thereby to learn something as a result.  Moreover, the variable reinforcement schedule of most video games – the little trinkets and rewards distributed throughout the game – make the patterns much less prone to extinction.  The resulting overall environment would be one in which students were not afraid to fail and received the patterned and important feedback that would drive them to further play and, as a result, further learning.  The potential educational benefits for students is tremendous: they can test out ideas and immediately see the simulated result, with no real world consequences.  A biology student can literally make decisions about how to control infectious diseases and see a simulated result of those decisions.

The possibilities of real-world problems that are escapable are endless, but why are you sitting here wasting your time reading this?  I think we both best be getting to our video games.

Laptops: Yesterday’s Treasure; Today’s Trash

Laptop_in_Wastebasket Much of the recent emphasis in secondary and primary education, particularly beginning in the early 2000’s, has been on 1:1 laptop initiatives.  Such initiatives seek to provide a single laptop to every student enrolled in some subdivision of a school: a grade, an entire school, or even a school district.  The working premise of such programs is that the initiatives will deliver some form of improved outcome for students such as higher test scores, lower absenteeism, or reduced dropout rates.

Such initiatives began to take on a grander scale.  One of the first major laptop initiatives to be deployed was through the State of Maine’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative.  This initiative selected Apple Computer, Inc. for the hardware and soon began rolling out laptops to middle schools and high schools across the state.  According to the initiative, 100% of middle schools and 55% of high schools in the state now have a 1:1 ratio.  Other states quickly followed suit, such as neighboring New Hampshire and Connecticut and 1:1 laptop initiatives quickly became the “in” thing to do.

However, the promise soured almost as soon as the laptops were removed from the box.  In a poignant article in the Wall Street Journal, laptop programs were coming under fire for the expense of the program as well as the inappropriate use of laptops by students.  According to the article, the then-current four-year contract between the Maine Department of Education and Apple was a staggering $41 million.  Many other programs were being cut entirely or even scaled back because of the cost.  There was also parental backlash as well: parents felt that the easy access to laptop computers merely enabled participation on social networking sites such as Facebook, leading to decreased time spent on actual study.

But were the concerns of parents justified?  In a New York Times article titled “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” staff writer Winnie Hu profiled the Liverpool Central School District, who had made the intriguing decision to scrap their 1:1 computing initiative altogether.  Citing the use of the computers as means to exchange test answers, download pornography, and hack into local businesses, the article highlights the district’s decision to completely abandon their initiative.  With no data that the program was improving student outcomes, the school could not remain committed to the program in the face of the expensive price tag.

Is this really true?  Have laptops – which were yesterday’s educational treasure – become today’s trash in such short order?  With budgets being slashed, schools are beginning to reexamine their commitments to such initiatives.  Unfortunately, the data for improving student performance isn’t particularly compelling.  In a special edition titled “Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings,” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment concluded in a meta-analysis of recent articles that while such programs provided significant advancement on technology use and literacy, only modest gains were to be found in terms of student achievement.  Project RED, an advocacy group, is more bullish, releasing the results of a survey at ISTE 2010 that claims that students at 1:1 schools outperform those at non-1:1 schools on several measures.  Unfortunately, lead contributors to Project RED include Intel and Apple, both of which obviously benefit from increased 1:1 computing.

So what is the real truth?  The difficulty with parsing this lies in the fact that many varied factors impact individual student performance.  It’s often difficult to ascertain, particularly when there is likely a Hawthorne Effect at play.  However, the real issue is that technology is simply a tool: it is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself.  In the aforementioned The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, one big theme emerged: the success of 1:1 computing initiatives hinged largely on the individual classroom teacher.  Proper training and professional development of those teachers was crucial to any program’s success.  We can’t simply place laptops into the hands of students and expect that singular action to improve anything but potentially technology literacy.  Rather, teachers must be taught how to leverage these tools in the classroom.

Much of the talk surrounding technology in education has been on transferrable versus transformative use.  In a transferrable use, teachers simply continue to do what they have always done, except with new digital means.  A teacher who is typing his overhead slides into a PowerPoint is engaging is this transferrable use.  The question is how to get the use to be transformative: to use the technology to teach students in new and interesting ways.  If a 1:1 program is to be successful in improving student achievement, it must be used in that transformative way.  As long as the purchase of laptops for students predates or occurs simultaneously with the purchase for teachers, we are likely to continue to see transference instead of transformation.  And, for as long as that continues, today’s laptop treasures will continue to be tomorrow’s trash.