Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why isn't this mandatory reading in teacher ed?

I am just starting to read over the Alliance for Childhood's publication Fool's Gold (see previous post), and am surprised that I only just heard of this publication (or its sister publication Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology) after spending the past almost two years in teacher education classes, which included completing one Masters program and now being almost halfway through a second one. And I only happened across the Alliance's publications because of a reference in another book, Todd Oppenheimer's Flickering Mind.

Mea culpa: I should have been more conscious of this technology in education counter-culture. I worked on Computer Professionals for Social Responsibilities (CPSR)-Berkeley's "A Computer and Information Technologies Platform" in 1992; I have been in CPSR for as many years (okay, membership lapsed for a year+, but I just took care of that), I have read a fair amount about Waldorf methods, I have read a good deal of Steve Talbott's work (which is in a similar vein), and worked with computers long enough to know many of the risks and limitations of their use in learning. I am pretty sure I am in an emailable relationship (i.e., they would open an email from me and maybe respond) with two members of the "Alliance for Childhood Roundtable of Rethinking Technology Literacy", very fond of the writing of another member (David Abram), have read things by another member, and recognize the name of one more member. So I feel like I should have been more on top of this. Why not I ask myself -- perhaps it is because the last two years have been such a blur of switching professions, trying to get up to speed on how to teach, switching roles again, taking grad classes, etc. that I have not really taken the time to seriously reflect on, especially, the proper role of new technologies in education. But that sense of knowing better, of not being more cognizant and critical and self-critical is part of why Oppenheimer's book, and the Alliance's publications, have made such an impression on me.

And this year I am a technology teacher, with the specific charge to help teachers integrate new technologies into the curriculum and instruction. I am in a Masters program cohort with other teachers in a similar position in CPS, and we have yet to seriously discuss what is appropriate technology in the classroom. Serious in the sense of what is a proper framework, why do it, what do others say, what does research have to tell us (accepting that educational research is so mushy and inconclusive), what does our own experience tell us -- personal experience as well as experience teaching and helping others to teach. Let's step off of the train for a few minutes, and consider where it is going.

That set of questions in the previous paragraph -- those are important questions!


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ten Principles for a New Literacy of Technology

This is probably old news to people who have followed educational technology for a while. But I just came across the Alliance for Childhood's two publications on technology in education. Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood came out in 2000, followed by Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology (both publications are available as PDFs from the Alliance website). Hopefully I will be able to review them here, but in the meantime, here are "Ten Principles for a New Literacy of Technology" from Tech Tonic:

1. Slow down: honor the developmental needs of children.

2. With adolescents, teach technology as social ethics in action, with technical skills in a supporting role.

3. Relationships with the real world come first.

4. Technology is not destiny; its design and use flow from human choices.

5. Choice implies limits—and the option to say “no.”

6. Those affected by technological choices deserve a voice in making them.

7. Use tools and technologies with mindfulness.

8. To teach technology literacy, become technologically literate.

9. Honor the precautionary principle: When uncertain, err on the side of caution.
• Ask tough questions about long-term consequences.
• Make time, space, and silence for reflection.
• Responsibility grows from humility.
• Be resourceful with the tools you already have.

10. Respect the sacredness of life in all its diversity.


Monday, May 25, 2009

The limits of technology - thinking about two recent articles

Reviews of two recent articles...

I came across Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction", which appeared in New York Magazine (May 17, 2009) via the main source of my education news, the Diigo in Education group email updates. The article is quite funny. Anderson considers the "attention crisis": "the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural attention." The source of the many distractions are new technologies; and the distractions are leading us into a "dark age": "Adopting the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and commerce." Anderson writes, "has been the intellectual equivalent of adopting corn syrup as the center of our national diet, and we’ve all become mentally obese."

The "doomsayers" are silly, he argues, because (a) every technological advance has had its crop of doomsayers [I'm not sure why that makes it silly, only consistent - jd] and (b) "the virtual horse has already left the digital barn", so the question is not how to stem the tide of inattentive multitasking, but how to deal with it, if at all.

New technologies lead us to "continuous partial attention" (Anderson is quoting "tech theorist" Linda Stone) -- we are never quite focused on anything, flitting from task to task, and we are less capable for it. Two quotes from his article: "People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana," and "If Einstein were alive today, [David Meyer -- a leading cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan] says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."

As something of an aside, Meyer's quote raises an aspect of distraction that Anderson does not address. Distractions are forced onto the modern worker (especially those who process information) as part of the intensification of work. This is classic Marxist economic theory -- the imperative to maximize profit requires either the extension of the work day or the intensification of the work process, to squeeze more value out of the worker in a given slice of time. As in "forced to multitask so relentlessly". As Anderson does note, such task-switching is death to deep creativity, which reinforces the idea that most "information workers" are not there to add value as creative thinkers, but are simply meatbots routing information and making quick decisions too complex (yet) to be done by a machine. So an important source of distraction is not technology per se, but the conditions under which technology is deployed. While public school teachers are putatively in the not-for-profit sector of the economy, they face the same productivity mandate. It bleeds in from the privatized education sector and education directives emanating from the world economy. So teachers are constantly pulled from one thing to another in an attempt to produce more in the same or less amount of time.

Anderson reviews one possible solution to "the attention problem": deliberately focusing attention or meditation. He also explores medical solutions -- neuroenhancers like Adderall, intended as an ADHD treatment, which tends to "focus the mind" ("can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention"); and "lifehacking", an endless quest for organizing one's life (but, "One of the weaknesses of lifehacking as a weapon in the war against distraction, [Merlin Mann, one of the "stars" of the lifehacking movement] admits, is that it tends to become extremely distracting").

Anderson then moves from possible antidotes to distraction to suggest that we should embrace the "poverty of attention". After all, an important part of creativity is allowing the mind to float so that it can "mark the before unapprehended relations of things" (as Shelley described metaphor). He remarks on the perhaps quintessential distraction in literature of Marcel Proust and his madeleine. A super-focused person would not allow him or herself to be transported by a cookie. As Anderson notes, people who take Adderall also have the sensation of losing their creativity (quoting Slate writer Joshua Foer, "I had a nagging suspicion that I was thinking with blinders on"). The ability to be distracted is a gift, part of our human makeup, that helps us in many ways.

So new technologies have created a world of constant interruption, but distraction is good. The constant stream of distractions allowed by email, text messages, phone calls, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. maybe are good things? As Anderson concludes,

There’s been lots of hand-wringing about all the skills they might lack, mainly the ability to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end, but surely they can already do things their elders can’t—like conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media, or pay attention to switching between attentional targets in a way that’s been considered impossible... Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing, mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility, they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction.

There are a lot of "mights" in those final sentences. "Might and maybe", but (maybe) or (probably) teachers have a role to play here in helping make that leap from attention-switching or flitting to connection-making and solution-finding.

As any teacher will tell you, attention, engagement, focus, etc. are major issues in the classroom. Electronic media are a major part of students' lives; Anderson writes that "One recent study found that American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world, which strikes me as a little low." One of the most striking things to me, from this past school year, has been the degree to which otherwise rowdy students will focus on a computer screen, whether it be watching a BrainPOP video or floating around the virtual science investigation of River City or assembling a beat with GarageBand.

One is tempted to declare victory and leave it at that. But what are the kids learning? As I am reminded from different directions, including by our advisors from CUIP (the expanded acronym is too long to write out, check the link for more) or Todd Oppenheimer's book, The Flickering Mind, or any decent pedagogy course, we want the students to become deeper thinkers (or move higher up Bloom's taxonomy). The verbs that go along with Bloom's highest level (I am looking at "Quick Flip Questions for the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy" from Edupress, 2001) include "adapt", "build", "create", "elaborate", "imagine", "predict", and so on. My suspicion, or perhaps, my fear, is that the way we use technology (or to 'fess up, the way I have helped my teachers use technology this year) has not led to these "higher-order thinking skills" ("HOTS" in ed lingo, a field which is as fond of acronyms as the high tech field). To go further, I suspect that these skills are not attainable via technology.

Goethean science provides a useful structure for sorting out and organizing the conflicting actions of focus and "distraction". Goethe was also a scientist, and approached scientific investigation in a distinctive, rather poetic, way. Inasmuch as it can be described as a "method", it is consists of two main phases. The first phase is the focused examination of the object under investigation, including both careful observation as well as learning what past researchers have observed. The second phase is the recreation of the phenomenon in the imagination, reflecting or meditating on the object. These two phases succeed each other iteratively, each feeding the other, towards new questions and further and deeper understanding of the phenomenon. (This method is described and explored in the writings of Craig Holdrege at the Nature Institute). The concentrated focus is essential for apprehending the phenomenon; while the recreation of the object in the imagination opens the mind to a kind of "distraction" or wandering that can yield new insights, connections, and meaning, of developing a deep sensitivity and knowledge of the phenomenon. Both phases are necessary, and reinforce each other.

In this process, technology can take one only so far. The role of the imagination in the process of knowing cannot be done with technology. It is uniquely done in the mind. Technology might help in the focused observation phase (microscopes, data collection and statistical analysis, literature review) and in the reporting of results (which granted is an opportunity for additional reflection), the meaningful higher order thinking skills are cultivated away from computers, during reflection time. It might happen during walks or conversations or staring out the window or sitting with one's eyes closed, thinking about the phenomenon.

Attention-flitting has some benefits somewhere along the timeline of investigation, but for Anderson's mights and maybes to come into being, it needs to be combined with other skills and attitudes like focus and reflection. Reflection allows for a kind of gentle distraction, not the jangle of electronica. Here comes into play the role of a teacher, to cultivate the entire range of mental activities that go into deep understanding.

Another recent article also raised questions for me about the role of technology in education. Sunday's (May 24, 2009) New York Times Magazine includes an article by Matthew Crawford, "The Case for Working With Your Hands", which discusses something I have been thinking about vis-a-vis the kids at my school. I don't think the students at my school get nearly enough experience working with materials, with stuff. Partly this is a function of economics, what they are exposed to at home, opportunities, what their families can afford, etc. Partly this is a function of the economy at large, of globalization, or capitalism in the age of electronics. People are more likely to buy things instead of make them, further constraining the opportunities to work with matter. Neighborhood opportunities may be constrained, because of social marginalization. Partly it is a function of other, related social conditions. I am thinking about Richard Louv's "nature deficit disorder", and the lack of opportunities for kids to interact with nature. The streets can be dangerous, so better to stay inside. Outside of the very important opportunities in once-a-week art class, and maybe occasional hands-on science lessons, students do not have a lot of opportunity to work with stuff, to interact with matter.

Crawford's article reminds us that interacting with matter -- wood, stone, fabric, dirt, flowers, clay, paint, etc. directly is an important, direct source of knowledge. In our mediated world, "confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar." We have become world-stupid. I am reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story related by a former co-worker who had returned from a photo safari in East Africa. On a previous outing, a tourist was mauled by a lion after he insisted on getting out of the Range Rover to photograph the animal close-up. I assume that the tourist had previously encountered lions on television, with no mishaps. Nothing in his experience led him to think there was any danger in getting out of the car.

This indicates another weakness of technology's typical role in the classroom. Technology is often used to give students exposure to the world, by reading articles or watching video. But these are mediated experiences, and have lost most of the richness of direct contact. (Which is not to say mediated experiences are not useful, just that they are not a proper substitute for the real thing.) We learn with our hands as well as our eyes and ears. You can't really understand how the world works without engaging with it directly.

Crawford brings up another dimension of engagement with the world -- how we engage with it. In describing the learning process of working with motorcycle engines, Crawford describes the process as a "conversation": "Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness." This echoes what Craig Holdrege has written about doing Goethean science. He describes scientific investigation as a conversation with phenomena, which also implies an ethical respect for the object of investigation. (See also this piece I wrote: "The Goethean Approach and Human Artifacts")

Again, there is a proper place for technology in the classroom, but the material interaction with keyboard and mouse cannot replace the important interactions with everything else.

I realize I am not saying anything new


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Making media

Here's a link to a nice slideshow/video I had to put together for our 8th graders Ribbon Ceremony, part of their overall 8th grade graduation activities.

A couple of thoughts about the video: I am very happy about the way it turned out. The pictures are a happy accident -- I have no photography skills. Perhaps it was because the principal requested this the day before the event ("I need you to take pictures of all of the 8th graders and ..."), and I rushed the kids through the picture taking process, doing most of them in one take. All told I took the pictures in maybe 15 minutes, including having to show each batch to the students so they could see how they looked. I allowed a few re-takes for the kids who really objected to the first take.

I used a cheapo Canon Powershot digital camera on a tripod, using autofocus, set to indoor lighting, shot against a blue mat in the gymnasium. After uploading the pictures, I saw the background blue varied in each shot, so trying to do some kind of blue-screen thing with them was going to work. At first I thought I could use Adobe Premiere to assemble the pictures, but then I realized that iPhoto's slideshow feature could do it all for me. IPhoto converted them to black and white, added the random transitions, and timed them to fit exactly the Kirk Franklin song "Imagine Me" that the students were going to sing while the pictures were projected. I did some quick re-arranging to come close to boy-girl-boy-girl, but otherwise not too much choice as to order. I exported the slideshow and did some final work in Premiere, adding the title, adjusting slightly when the pictures appeared vis-a-vis the music. And voila.

The video, as I said, is mostly a happy accident, rather beautiful and melancholic, maybe even haunting in a way, for which I can take no credit. Kirk Franklin's beautiful song of course plays a tremendous part towards the overall effect.

I don't think the feeling is just because I have seen and or worked with the students and know a little bit about some of them, or maybe it is. Maybe part of it is the awful statistics that surround them: half of them will likely drop out of high school; according to one estimate, 70 percent of the boys who stay in North Lawndale will get caught up in the legal system; they will graduate from high school to a job market with 27 percent unemployment; and so on. At the same time, most of the portraits reveal an optimism and courage that has seen them through this far. Or maybe it's just me.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Notes on "Are MUDs communities?"

Caveat: The following response is a class assignment. The article being reviewed was published in 1996, when the Internet was still in its infancy, the classic text-based MUDs (usually the acronym refers to Multi-User Dimensions but my iPhone's Computer Desktop Encyclopedia says it can also refer to Dialogs or Dungeons) had probably peaked, Virtual Reality (VR) as The Next Big Thing had come and gone, superceded by the World Wide Web. Sufficient bandwidth and processing power to support Web 2.0, video chats, Activeworlds and Second Life and live poker and Facebook/MySpace and blogging and twittering and all of the other things we think of today as constituting "online communities" did not yet exist. Thirteen years are a few geological ages in digital-time.

Heather Bromberg, "Are MUDS Communities? Identity, Belonging and Consciousness in Virtual Worlds", Chapter 9 in Rob Shields (eds.), Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. Sage Publications. 1996.

I do not understand the title of Bromberg's chapter. The chapter does not discuss community at all; rather, the article addresses the online experience as "altered states of consciousness." From the title, I expected some exploration of what communities are, and how online interactions and networks and so on might resemble or even constitute a "community."

This is not to say that the question of consciousness and being and one's sense of self and the world as experienced via computer technology is not interesting, and there is some overlap between the online experience-as-consciousness and the experience-as-community. Blomberg identifies four social functions of online experience: computer-mediated social connection (addressing isolation); identity play; eroticism; and control over one's environment. One brings these four dimensions into any community. The possibility of assumed anonymity may distort one's online community presence. Translate online communities to the classroom and playing with some of these dimensions becomes generally inappropriate and even dangerous (manifesting as sexual harassment, bullying, etc.)

Bromberg refers to the online experience as "altered consciousness" and the online experience in some cases as "transcendent," reporting that users may feel that they are getting closer to some fundamental truth about the universe through online interactions. And one of the attractions of the online experience, she notes, is that "claims that virtual reality will provide meaning and reveal secrets of ancient wisdoms and truths otherwise unknowable are appealing when faced with the postmodern notion that there are no universal truths." (p. 147)

I don't get this idea that virtual reality or online experience can be a spiritual path. (So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a reality that incorporates universal, knowable truths (and I do).) There is a sterility and barren-ness to the online experience. I would need to look at William Gibson's writing more carefully to cite something specific, but Neuromancer et al. effectively expressed this to me, and my own experience supports this. The transcendence in his books transcends into a spiritually empty place. The online experience takes one away from the real being and meaning and spirit of nature, the world, and the physical, tangible, qualitative experience of it all. Online can only present realities constructed by other human beings, enhanced by one's personal experience of the constructed environments. Bromberg cautions the reader about this:

the commodification of VR could be like the commodification of sugar-coated hyper-real dreams at Disneyland. While VR may allow a stage for acting out personalized dreams, the issue of censorship also arises, as there are those who would like to restrict the nature of the imagining and censor the fantasizing that is permitted within the realm of cyberspace. There are further political implications. While optimists may suggest that networked virtual reality could instigate the first, true, consensual 'global village', one might also suggest that it could be used to manufacture political consent or reinforce various ideologies. (p. 151)

What she doesn't note is that any online community (okay this is a broad assertion, but I think it can be supported) has pre-set rules or protocols that will govern participants interactions. The protocols may be set by (or implicit in) the hardware or software, or usage rules, or the nature of online world (science fiction, fantasy, economic structures, common interests, and so on).

Virtual reality is not, and cannot be -- never ever -- as rich as or as meaningful as the living nature I see right now outside of my window. I would further assert that there is something fundamentally more precious to be gained in experiencing that living nature deeply, that cannot be gained by experiencing machine-mediated online constructed spaces.

Of course there is value in online communication, and the type of community that arises there. But there should also be appropriate boundaries and understandings of the limitations of online communities. In the classroom, teachers, I should think, need to help students understand those boundaries to maximize the benefits of online interactions.


"In the woods, we return to reason and faith." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The economic stimulus package and education

This is a response I added to another blog posting as part of a class at National-Louis University. The original post can be be seen at

Here goes:
I don't understand why you think that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is "trumped" by the Economic Stimulus bill. One website headline captured the essence of the stimulus bill: "A one-time opportunity to make lasting impact and improve outcomes" ( -- this was part of an ad that showed up on a Google search for "economic stimulus education"). That phrase, "one-time opportunity to make lasting impact" is an oxymoron in education. At best, the injection of money will make up for past cuts and chronic underfunding.

Regarding money for technology in education, as a one-time infusion, the economic stimulus will likely feed exactly the wrong kind of technology deployment. As Todd Oppenheimer repeats over and over and over in his book _The Flickering Mind_, the past thirty years of education is littered with the corpses of failed technology initiatives. One important reason they have failed is because technology has been evolving so quickly, that any purchase today will be more or less obsolete in two or three years, or the equipment will be unusable, or in need of routine maintenance that is unaffordable because the stimulus money was, well, one-time. As a case in point, my school is part of a five-year technology initiative, much like what I suspect that the stimulus package might fund. We have lots of great new equipment. But batteries on the laptops are starting to fail, bulbs in the LCD projectors and document cameras will eventually need to be replaced; we need batteries for the cameras, ink cartidges for printers, CD and DVD blanks, back-up storage, software, subscriptions, etc. etc. etc. -- all of the routine extra expenses not covered by the program for which we may or may not have money budgeted -- in any case I don't know where it is coming from. And that is if the school's money is managed well, and not spent on frivolous purchases of questionable educational value. And unless the crazy requirements of NCLB are revised, including the absurd definition of "adequate yearly progress", the technology will be directed to exactly the wrong kind of uses -- drill and kill test prep.

The problems of education in the United States are too deep for a one-time stimulus. If anything, the salivating over the economic stimulus will have the negative effect of taking the focus off of the deep problems that require long-term solutions -- solutions like smaller class size, time for lesson planning and reflection, maybe longer school days, art and music and shop programs, space for innovation in the public school classroom, recess, and so on.