It Could Be Beautiful: VSTE12 Presentation

This was an Ignite style session where I expressed my own personal frustration with educational technology at scale and attempted to then offer some redeeming alternatives actively being pursued by others. Below are a few of the slides and roughly what I tried to get across.


On the left is good education/learning etc. The middle is roughly what we have now, suffering from extensive damage and quite vulnerable to being completely destroyed. The far right is what a lot of technology integration does. It is covering up gaping holes and damage but at the same time utterly destroying what it purports to be protecting and conserving.


Not only do we do that but we hold up that distorted monstrosity as best practice. We put it on t-shirts and brag about what we’ve done.

We continue to create structures that pretend that a certain level of learning/teaching lives inside a technology without any regard to the instructional context. It depresses me this has been around since at least 2009 and is now migrating to peacocks and umbrellas.


Our society is so desperate for educational alternatives that we lionize a man who put video tutorials on the Internet as the second coming of Gutenberg. This Forbes story was shared 15,000 times when I last checked. Not that this is without value but we seem incapable of seeing it in a rational historical context or as one of many, many shades of gray.


cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching
Unfortunately, the opposite of the Khan position seems to be equally distorted and ill-conceived. Technology is, apparently, either our lord and savior or a pre-packaged drek that helps fill a stomach cheaply. For the record, the only lower food form lower than Hamburger Helper is Spam.

We seemed doomed to confuse cheap gimmicks and flash with real potential to help people learn and furthermore we document our complete inability to determine what might interest a student.

The sheer desperation for something positive seems to be driving more and more teachers to corporate driven star teacher awards. I talked about this at length in the past. By all means get anything you can for free. Use companies to help you build relationships with good people. Whatever. Just don’t forget that the company has profit driven reasons for whatever it invests in you. Don’t censor yourself because that company “certified” you.

I can no longer count the number of apps (paid and free) that are simply web pages with shiny new wrappers. Almost all of those websites are both free and hold little interest to teachers/students now. You’d also assume that astronomy plays a majority role in the content and curriculum of all grades by the prevalence of star gazing apps in any educational app discussion. For the record, unless your calculator/dictionary/thesaurus/note app is also grants eternal life it does not deserve to be in any “top edu app” list.


Fluidity is something else entirely. It does something hard- makes equation writing easy on tablets and IWBs and does so in a way that actually matters. This video doesn’t even come close to showing you how intuitive the product is nor some of the more impressive elements (like being able to assign acceleration equations to drawings and then animate them on the fly). This is an app that takes advantage of the technology and helps make math something you can explore and interact with. The linking of changes between the graphs and the equation are also really interesting. I wish they were better at marketing.

These two apps are more typical of what you find. I was searching the iTunes store for ways to help one my children with automaticity and these were two of the better options. Both are really just multiple choice flash cards with a narrative, graphic wrapper, and a few primitive game elements. They aren’t helping him understand anything and in both cases the math is integrated in extremely weak ways that really don’t make sense. In Operation Math you simply answer the math problem to get through progressively more gates to allow access to different uniforms. Math Blaster Hyperblast 2 HD sounds like a joke name but is essentially a game where you fly down a tunnel shooting and dodging things until you reach a “boss” where you have to answer math problems to defeat them.

If you compare the apps above to the work Greg Tang is doing I think there is a considerable difference. These games are engaging (granted more puzzle than video game) but are doing fundamentally different work with math and helping to build understanding and automaticity as opposed to merely sugar coating flash cards. The potential to do things like this is there. We need to expect it.

I see similar ideas around engaging kids in ways that more than frosting and cartoons in the work done by Dan Meyer and others in graphing stories, 101qs.com, the 3 act stories, and most recently the dead simple but amazingly versatile red dot.

There are people like Shawn Cornally who are doing work that is just fundamentally impressive. What he’s doing impresses me so much I get clinically depressed with what I do with my time and energy.

So I ended on a somewhat sunny note. Education could be beautiful and is in some places. We need to raise the bar in terms of what we expect and not always in relation to what is good relative to the low bar set in education generally. We need to think about grading in different ways and in totally restructuring the way school works to get at things that actually matter.

Comments on this post

  1. Ben said on December 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Congratulations, you win the internet today, Tom! I’m getting ready to submit a proposal for our state’s ed tech conference “lightning sessions” (we didn’t have to have to follow all of the Ignite rules apparently), and I wasn’t sure if I had the courage to submit something along these lines. That is, addressing a concern head-on, rather than just share fluff. You may just have given me the encouragement I need.

    • Tom Woodward said on December 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm

      No question you should do it. Start a fist fight. It’s better than the empty calorie back patting or app listing that’s going on.

      • Ben said on December 7, 2012 at 10:03 am

        Even though I don’t engage in it very much, I certainly see a place for the back patting…provided it’s of the cheerleading type and not the patting of ones’ own back.

        • Tom Woodward said on December 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

          Don’t let me overstate things. People need to, and should, feel good about doing good things- even if the only one congratulating you is you.

          The “empty calorie” part was my focus. I’ve never gotten much out of “you’re super!” I don’t get any better and I rather have real and useful feedback. I’d rather have hard questions I need to answer and choices I need to defend. Our goal as professionals ought to be to help one another get better and to do that we need far more than what tends to go on at conferences.

          • Ben said on December 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm

            DIscussion threads like this really make me question why I stopped reading my RSS feeds regularly! I really need to get that habit back. I’m totally down with you on not getting much from the whole “you’re super!” comments. I thrive on failure, criticism, and “let’s rethink this”, but I’m not sure that everyone sees that the same way, nor should they necessarily if they’re happy and confident with what they’re doing.

          • Tom Woodward said on December 7, 2012 at 12:21 pm

            They should. If you are happy and content you are doing it wrong.

  2. Giulia Forsythe said on December 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    What a great link to Shawn Cornally; I just loved everything he said. Sharing stuff like this should be an antidote to clinical depression because you are spreading some really inspiring and good stuff around. Chin up, Tom, excellent stuff!

  3. Joshua Koen said on December 7, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Excellent post! We keep buying the latest gimmick thinking that it will improve teaching and learning while not addressing the fundamentals of years of research into what is actuall good and sound pedagogy and how we learn.

  4. Ben said on December 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    HAHA!, Nice comeback, Tom! I’m talking about happy and content that what they’re doing is working, provided that it actually is, not the “happy and content” about bananas 🙂

  5. Nicky Hockly said on December 10, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Great post, Tom. I’d like to follow your blog via RSS (as opposed to email), but can’t seem to find an RSS feed. Apologies if I’m being thick (entirely possible), but could you point me in the right direction?
    Thanks,
    Nicky

    • Tom Woodward said on December 10, 2012 at 11:24 am

      Appreciate it Nicky. There may not be a direct RSS link in this theme. I’ll have to throw it in the sidebar at some point. FWIW, here’s the direct link to the feed. Nice thing about WP is that all the feeds have standard structures like that (?feed=rss2)- although I’m not oblivious to the fact that it’s a strange pattern to keep in one’s head. Other people likely have birth dates, names, phone numbers etc. where I put stuff like that.

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