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Latest Study on Retention – No New Information

New study consistent with prior research on retention.

A new study, from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Early Grade Retention and Student Success: Evidence from Los Angeles, has some public officials wondering if it is time to revisit the practice of retention.

It shouldn’t.

Retention is the name given to the practice of repeating an entire grade level. According to the study, having students repeat a year in the early grades helped numerous failing students reach proficiency in math and English.

The study reports that 41 percent of those retained reached full proficiency in math and 18 percent in English Language Arts (ELA). These percentages represented significant increases over the recorded proficiency levels of these students prior to repeating their year: 6 percent in math, and only 1 percent in ELA. Ultimately, the researchers insist that blanket school district policies prohibiting retention are misguided and that the practice might be more cost-effective in certain instances than ongoing interventions.

While this may seem to be news and ultimately positive support for the practice, the fact is that this latest study is consistent with prior findings. Repeating material has always been a method for helping students increase their proficiency.

The issue is that retention does not fix a fundamental issue – some students are much slower learners than others. Give these slower learners more time and they will demonstrate positive gains over time.

But unfortunately the issue of pacing remains an issue for these learners. Students who attend summer school or repeat a grade will demonstrate greater levels of proficiency entering the new school year. And when asked to perform the tasks that they have been practicing will generally match the performances of their peers.

But the discrepancies soon begin anew when the teacher begins covering new material. Unless the retained students are given additional time, they soon begin to lag behind their peers, once again unable to match the pace of their on-grade classmates. Not too surprisingly, at year’s end the slower learners demonstrate lower levels of proficiency than their peers.

Therefore, the practice of retention has little in the way of lasting educational benefits for the students being held back. One or even a second additional year does not “fix” these students, especially if the teacher continues to utilize similar instructional techniques.

Furthermore, the negative impacts of retention on the social development and self-esteem of youngsters is well-documented. Retained students have higher dropout rates, increased behavior problems and greater absenteeism.

According to educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, the social issues are easily understood. Ultimately, most retained students begin to get discouraged with school and over time, give up on themselves as learners.

Sadly, in the standards era, retention is once again being used by school districts. In some cases liberally. And the latest study that offers some short term gains will likely allow those already implementing the practice to continue to use it.

But of course, retention, in and of itself, is simply not the answer. Instead, schools need to find ongoing answers for dealing with the slow learner.

In all fairness, additional ongoing interventions that seek to help slow learners remain with their grade peers often prove more costly monetarily than simply retaining individual students. But given the overall negative impact of retention long-term, investing in rigorous, ongoing intervention is the right way to ensure children make appropriate progress, socially as well as academically.

March 29, 2011   5 Comments

Increasing College Completion Rates – Wrong Policy Emphasis?

Why Wisconsin Matters to All Americans

Barack Obama has been surprisingly silent regarding the turmoil taking place in Wisconsin. His muted response contrasts noticeably with his constant support for education in general and particularly his belief that America’s economic future is tied to increasing college attainment rates.

The importance of messaging can be seen by the changing view underway in households across the country. A recent MetLife survey (pdf) reveals that 75 percent of middle and high school students currently plan on going to college. That percentage represents a significant increase over similar polls taken in 1988 (57%) and 1997 (67%). Furthermore, 84 percent of students believe that there will be “few or no” career opportunities for those who fail to complete some higher education.

Sadly, these aspirations conflict with two emerging trends. First, only 69% of high school students are enrolling in two- or four-year programs following graduation and just 57% are completing their degree program within six years.

But perhaps more importantly, there is now a growing concern that the “college for everyone” mantra may well be a bad policy initiative.

False Assumption

The notion that education continues to be the critical component for future economic success went unquestioned for quite some time. With some data indicating (pdf) that over an adult’s working life a bachelor’s degree is worth a million dollars in additional earnings, the push for higher education attainment is a central theme of most government officials, not just President Obama.

Yet today there is emerging evidence to the contrary. The idea that all the jobs of the future will require even higher levels of skill is now being questioned by a number of individuals.

Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist, recently asserted that the conventional wisdom is flat out wrong. Citing the work of Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, Krugman discussed the trend towards broad-based increases in employment in high skill and low skill occupations relative to middle skilled occupations, a development called job ‘polarization.’

Since 1990, it seems that the U.S. job market has been characterized by a “hollowing out.” That hole in the middle, as Krugman calls it, has actually been getting wider: high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have since slowed while growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

In simplest terms computers excel at routine tasks but cannot handle tasks unless they can be defined by explicit rules. Therefore many kinds of manual labor (from driving trucks to cleaning buildings) cannot be replaced by technology and thus will always be in demand.

Furthermore, it seems that most of the automation that can be accomplished in terms of manufacturing jobs has been done but “computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis” are only just now emerging to replace workers.

A More Appropriate Policy Initiative

In conclusion, Krugman is anything but unequivocal in his assertions:

“The notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

Rather than push higher education as a policy initiative, Krugman insists our nation ought to venture in a different direction. According to Krugman, a society of broadly shared prosperity has really nothing to do with expanding educational opportunities for all.

Instead, it has everything to do with the ability for all Americans to “bargain for good wages” and to have “access to health care.” Which is why the developments in Wisconsin are so important to each and every American.

March 16, 2011   1 Comment

Taking a Gap or Bridge Year – A Growing Trend

Our sister site,, recently took an in-depth look at the growing trend among American students to take time away from formal schooling to pursue other interests. The idea of a “gap” or “bridge” year may have originated with European or Australian students but the concept is being redefined by American students.

nullInstead of taking the equivalent of an extended vacation, American gap or bridge students are creating a set of organized experiences: doing volunteer work, taking classes, working to earn additional funds for school, traveling or tackling outdoor adventures.

Ultimately, instead of being a year off, the time serves to give students a chance to broaden their horizons, experience potential career options and perhaps even help pinpoint a college major. The Student Guide to the Gap or Bridge Year Experience takes a look at some of the programs available, the rationale for taking the time and reviews the many benefits of a gap or bridge experience. Students interested in possibly taking a year off will find Q & A’s with six students: Conor Farese (a senior at the University of North Carolina), Gaya Morris (a freshman at Princeton), Aaron Flaster (a sophomore at Lewis and Clark), Hilary Brown (a freshman at Occidental College), Chris Scanzoni (a sophomore at UNC), and Stacy Tasman (a recent graduate of the University of Florida).

These “gappers” provide first hand accounts of the wealth of options available, everything from high end paid programming experiences to backpacking through Asia. Their stories will also provide significant comfort to parents who are concerned that the time might be unproductive or could lead students to think about not attending college upon their return.

March 13, 2011   1 Comment

Of Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives Teaching the Net Generation

We have devoted a number of posts over the last few years to the idea that there are two different sets of computer users: digital natives and digital immigrants. In addition, we have discussed the terms multitasking, power browsing and bouncing out and their importance to teachers.

For educators and/or parents seeking additional clarity on these and other terms, Ofer Zur, self-proclaimed digital immigrant, and his digital native daughter Azzia Zur, provide a great summary at the Zur Institute. Their overview is particularly compelling because it focuses on the patterns one sees as opposed to trying to formulate absolutes.

The Zurs note that the term digital immigrant is generally used for those born prior to 1964, a sort of unofficial cutoff for the influx of technology to everyday life. Those born after that date are generally lumped into the digital native category.

However, first and foremost, they point out the obvious, that not all digital immigrants and digital natives are created equal. To get a basic sense of the difference they generalize to three basic categories of technology users for each group.

In the digital immigrant world they use these broad descriptors: the avoiders, the reluctant adopters and the enthusiastic adopters. The Zurs offer, and we concur, that the latter group, irrespective of when they were born, has the full potential to keep up with digital natives. They also suggest that anyone in the first two categories seeking to move to the last would be best served by hiring “a patient, pleasant digital native to help build up the skill set.”

They also divide digital natives into three separate groups: the avoiders, the minimalists and the enthusiastic participants. It is pleasant to see some additional experts note that being born during the digital period does not necessarily mean that one has a knack for or an interest in computers. That said, the Zurs insist that the largest segment of the digital native population resides firmly in the latter category and will turn to technology first when almost any type of need arises.

They acknowledge that these simple distinctions contrast with the work of Feeney (2010) and Toledo (2007) who described a continuum of people’s relationships to the digital world based not on their age but on their attitudes and implementation of digital technologies. The breakdown here is far more detailed: the avoider, the minimalist, the tourist, the enthusiastic adopter, the innovator and the over-user or addict.

Great Chart for Parents and Teachers

Irrespective of the level of detail, the Zurs go on to provide a fantastic chart of the preferred behaviors of digital immigrants versus those preferred by natives. For example while digital immigrants may become technology tourists and even enthusiastic adopters, they still generally prefer to talk in person or on the phone. On the flip side, digital natives generally prefer to text rather than call and to connect via the net.

A critical distinction for educators revolves around the preferences when either group seeks to learn new things. Most often, digital immigrants were raised with the instructional manual approach. They therefore are more reflective learners and prefer clear sequential steps presented linearly and logically.

Digital natives basically abhor such manuals. They are used to trial and error as a learning format and thus prefer direct experimentation and interaction rather than reflection. Based on the multiple inputs technology can provide, they also prefer to receive information quickly and from multiple channels.

There are many other clear distinctions provided in the Zur chart, from the general preferences for each group related to gratification and rewards, the idea of tackling one task at a time versus multi-tasking or task-switching, and the preference for more knowledge, just-in-case learning, versus the rejection of useless info in favor of a just-in-time mentality.

The Zurs also note that immigrants should simply drop the idea that too much time spent online is a time waster if they want to successfully work with kids. The reason? Those youngsters are convinced that many aspects of life are only happening online.

Like it or not, these developments have profound implications for educators. Kids today are used to having “control over the exploration of material.” That is their norm.

Therefore, teachers insisting on providing traditional directions like open a book and go to page 5 are “completely archaic to most digital natives.” Instead, when they are handed the book, they will open it and begin to explore themselves, just as they will when they are given a digital device.

Digital Immigrants and Natives as Educators

Ultimately, the message is a simple one. Educators, whether they were born prior to’64 or after, will find little classroom success if they remain in the avoider, reluctant adopter, minimalist or tourist categories. There is now great clarity that educators must be at a minimum in the enthusiastic adopter category if they are to successfully teach the digital generation.

In fact, we would contend that the best teachers moving forward will need to take their technology to an even higher level. To be successful, they will need, at least at times, to move into the category of user often dubbed innovator.

That does not mean that some traditional elements of education should be tossed by the wayside. Educators will still want to help youngsters increase their ability to defer gratification but it must be understood that this will be an incredibly difficult task. Likewise, the newer learning models will challenge teachers to find ways to help students increase their attention spans even as we learn to deal with students “bouncing out” when they are uninspired.

But the successful teachers of the 21st century will recognize that these will be ongoing challenges. To avoid consistent frustration, they must not be at odds with the youngsters in their classrooms.

Instead, 21st century teachers will accept the embedded preferences of our youngsters and adjust accordingly.

March 1, 2011   2 Comments

The Enormous Technological Challenges Facing Education

Advances in technology continue to change how adults view and interact with the world. Of course, those same advances are available to teachers and the youngsters who populate their classrooms.

These developments are leading to enormous challenges for teachers regarding the role digital devices can and should play in the learning process. For some educators, the view is that technology should only be utilized as a tool to help facilitate student understanding and mastery of the current curriculum. For other educators, technology is as fundamental to learning as reading and writing and therefore must become a separate segment of the school curriculum.

To get a sense of the differences in these viewpoints, we turn to the 2011 Horizon Report (pdf), the eighth in the ongoing annual series of reports from Educause focused on emerging technology in higher education. As in the past, the current Horizon Report seeks to highlight the six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use within three adoption horizons: near-term (those technologies that will see adoption over the next twelve months), mid-term (those that will be adopted over a 12-36 month period), and far-term (those that will be pursued over the 36-60 month time frame).

The 2011 report identified the following specific areas as technologies to watch:

– Near-term: mobile computing and open content.
– Mid-term: electronic books and simple augmented reality.
– Far-term: gesture-based computing and visual data analysis.

Most educators are no doubt very familiar with the first three elements noted in the Horizon report. These topics have garnered a lot of press over the last couple of years and their use is becoming more common in Pre K-12 classrooms.

The last three, on the other hand, are not generally seeing much if any time in the current learning environment. But if tomorrow’s workers are going to be ready to take advantage of the incredible technological progress available to them, teachers will need to become more knowledgeable of these incredible new options.

In that regard, one of the critical findings of the report centers on the issue of digital media literacy and the subsequent challenges that literacy creates for educators. The report reveals the significance of digital media literacy in every discipline and profession but that formal training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rarely found in teacher education programs. Worse yet, the Horizon report reveals that formal training is virtually non-existent in higher education.

While many educators are working on the topic in an informal manner, the fact remains that literacy is deemed to be “less about tools and more about thinking.” Therefore, a systems approach to digital literacy is necessary if we are to ensure that teachers are ready and able to lead students down this ever-evolving path.

Below we examine the six areas briefly and the challenges facing educators in implementing these short-term, mid-term, and far-term technologies. For greater depth, readers may simply turn to the Horizon’s 2011 detailed report (pdf – 40 pages).

1. Mobile Technology

Today, we have a wealth of options for staying connected while on the go. While many equate the idea of mobile technology with the cell phone, the term mobile device is used to categorize everything from smart phones to netbooks.

Today, not only are there many devices (smart phones, netbooks, laptops and the like) to choose from, each of these options is capable of performing multiple functions. Whatever the choice, the ability to access the Internet and personal data from anywhere in the world is becoming ever more important especially as technology becomes cloud-based.

Ultimately, this online data storage is creating a totally new view of IT support. It also creates the requirement that our information be accessible to us no matter what our choice of device or our location.

The result is that more and more people are looking to mobiles as their device of choice. Furthermore, they are generally seen as cheaper and easier to use than desktop or laptop computers.

While many have long espoused the potential of mobile devices to revolutionize learning, educators continue to have concerns with the privacy and classroom management issues that come with student use of such devices. But clearly the digital world is headed firmly in this direction and education must follow suit.

2. Open Content

Open content appears to carry fewer concerns for educators and is generally seen as critical to addressing the ever-rising costs of higher education. Perhaps even more importantly, open content has the ability to provide the level of flexibility today’s students are beginning to demand.

Providing individual choice as to when and how to learn, open content is already becoming a critical format for colleges and universities. As traditional lines of learning get further blurred by the needs of adults to constantly upgrade skills to remain competitive in the workplace, education must follow suit.

The ability to learn informally, without constant direction and supervision, is a skill that we must increasingly begin to utilize in the classrooms of tomorrow. And whereas education used to center on a just-in-case format (becoming knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics to ensure future flexibility) the easy access to information requires a switch to “just-in-time” and “found” learning. Both of these formats will ensure that learning is far more timely and efficient.

This demands a new educational perspective where knowledge is not held by a select few and shared only upon demand but instead is collective in nature and sharable. This will continue to push teachers towards a new model where they focus on guiding and coaching students on methods for accessing and evaluating the volume of information available.

3. Electronic Books

While the Horizon report notes that “electronic books have been available in some form for nearly four decades,” the last twelve months “have seen a dramatic upswing in their acceptance and use.” Add to the mix the various assortment of electronic reading devices now available and it is easy to see why “electronic books are appearing on campuses with increasing frequency.”

For the student with the overweight backpack, the idea of being able to carry an entire library in their book bag is enormously appealing. On the college campus, electronic books are not only proving to be a cost-effective and portable alternative to heavy textbooks, these devices are able to store all syllabi and supplemental reading selections for even the most intense courses.

The latest e-book readers not only rival the experience of reading a paper book, they offer the ability to easily mark up and highlight text when desired, annotations that can be easily exported and shared with fellow students. Perhaps even more importantly, electronic readers offer keyword searching and instant dictionary lookups, two elements that can greatly enhance the learning possibilities for students.

Today we see the list of available titles is growing rapidly and with that development, the new format’s convenience will also yield even greater cost-effectiveness over time. Throw the fact that our wireless devices enable individuals to purchase materials from nearly anywhere on the planet means that entire libraries are now available to both teachers and students without ever leaving their home or the walls of their respective classroom.

4. Simple Augmented Reality

The ability to combine the real world with virtual information is the fundamental tenet of what is referred to as augmented reality. It involves the blending of virtual data, the information available to users via technology, with live action and what we see in the real world.

According to the Horizon report, AR dates back to the late 1960s and 1970 though it was not until the 1990s that major companies put the technology to use for visualization and training purposes. Those applications once required headsets that kept users tethered to their desktop computers but now the camera and screen embedded in smart phones and other mobile devices (our basic GPS system) can serve as the tools to blend the real world with virtual data.

Augmented reality applications exist in two basic formats: marker-based, whereby a “camera must perceive a specific visual cue in order for the software to call up the correct information,’ and markerless, whereby “positional data, such as a mobile’s GPS and compass is compared against a library of images to find a match.”

For education, the major focus could well be on augmented reality gaming. Such games would be based on real world situations that are then augmented with networked data, bringing incredible life to the study of both history and geography.

For the extremely futuristic minded, there is also the development of augmented reality books. Though the books are printed normally, they are made so as to include AR elements. After purchase, special software installed on a webcam allows the camera to interact with the book to create three dimensional visualizations.

5. Gesture Based Computing

Gesture-based computing gives rise to truly transformative technology where devices are created “that react to us instead of requiring us to learn to work with them.” Therefore, instead of teaching children how to use a mouse and keyboard, we would instead teach them to use natural movements to engage their technology.

Most of us are familiar with the iPhone or the Nintendo Wii, gesture-based systems that accept input in the form of taps, swipes, motion, pressure, and the number of fingers touching the devices. Incorporating the potential for more kinesthetic classroom would also take away one of the current fears associated with computers and those popular video games, the sedentary lifestyle that often accompanies those activities.

In addition, yet another one of the most important elements would be the collaborative nature gesture-based computing would offer teachers. By removing the need to share a keyboard and mouse, gestural interfaces would allow multiple users to potentially interact with a single computer simultaneously.

More than simply making technology easier to engage, gesture-based computing has been shown to enhance fine motor skills. One such study revealed that surgeons-in-training who warmed up with the Wii scored an average of 48% higher on tool tests and simulated surgical procedures than those who did not.

6. Visual Data Analysis

Visual data analysis is a new field that blends highly advanced computational methods with sophisticated graphic generating tools. These computer enhancements make it possible for almost anyone to see any existing patterns and/or structure in even the most complex of data settings.

Data collection and compilation has long been seen as a tedious process. While computers removed some of the manual challenges of this process, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying data was largely a field only statisticians and engineers fully grasped.

Most people see these tools as being useful when studying scientific topics such as climate change and global warming trends. But if we can make “it possible for anyone to sift through, display, and understand complex concepts and relationships,” then visual data representation will soon lead to applications in the social sciences and humanities.

As for the implications for educators, the field is deemed to be more consistent with the pattern matching skills that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. But the greatest impact could well be the concept’s ability to enable educational researchers to finally isolate the specific variables that truly impact learning and identify the most effective educational practices to employ in the classroom.

February 22, 2011   3 Comments

Time to Eliminate those Government Handouts!

There are a good many folks who believe (myself included) that our democracy can truly flourish only within a properly educated citizenry. That notion is deemed one of the fundamental reasons for government support for education.

We have railed time and again about the need for an educated public. We have taken the tongue in cheek approach with the likes of How Were the Apollo Astronauts Able to Walk on the Moon? And we have been downright negative about that failure in A Small-Minded, Easily-Swayed American Public.

Today we turn to a table that appeared in Keep Your Government Hands Off My Government Programs! by Catherine Rampell at the New York Times Economix blog. The table should not need any explanation but just in case, Paul Krugman provided this simple sentence in his summation, Medicare Recipients Against Handouts:

44 percent of Social Security recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients, believe that they don’t benefit from any government social program.

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4
Source: Suzanne Mettler, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenge of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics (September 2010): 809.

This likely falls into the category of the “Apollo Astronauts” question and the proverbial you just can’t make this stuff up.

But it does beg a simple question – is this something else we can blame on K-12 public education?

February 14, 2011   No Comments

In Breaking Down Walls, Does Online Education Sacrifice Quality?

There are certainly two camps when it comes to the notion of open courseware and its ability to educate tomorrow’s students. Some, like Mark Pesce, see the concept as breaking down the ivy-covered walls in both the literal and figurative sense. For them, open courseware would eliminate current admission barriers, allowing the common man with access to a computer and an Internet connection a world class education.

Others see the notion quite differently. They note that an exceptionally high college dropout rate is even higher in online programs. They further insist that online education, considered by most to be the tool to a more cost-effective course delivery system, actually is more expensive currently as schools cover the cost of specific software (that does not come cheap) on top of having to pay someone to hover over the students enrolled.

Two Schools of Thought

Steve Kolowic recently took a look at the current state of the open courseware movement at Inside Higher Education. In discussing the likes of the so-called elite institutions (Columbia, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Kolowic indicates that these schools have defined their value “by exclusivity as much as by excellence” and that “the classrooms and curriculums that ostensibly transform talented high-schoolers into cardholding members of the adult elite have been walled off from the general public.”

But elsewhere on the University front, Kolowic writes that online education has been “all but cleansed of its original stigma” and thus become commonplace.

“The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs,” explains Kolowic. “The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.”

In contrast, those considered the elite of higher education have not offered online pathways for a degree. Instead, they are giving away certain courses for free.

“The elites took the road less traveled,” writes Kolowic, and instead published “the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.”

All of these thoughts are presented as a lead in to an interview with Taylor Walsh, the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access. In the interview with Taylor, one clear thought comes through. The elite schools know they need to have a presence on the web in a market that is clearly growing in possibilities. A presence of some sort appears essential to further the global brand of these schools at a time when competition is keen.

The Real Challenge

Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, is a veteran when it comes to teaching courses online. Writing about the release of Walsh’s book and the future of the open courseware movement, Stross yanks more than a few chains with his opening assertion.

“When colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.”

But his chain doesn’t seem to come with a noose. Despite the prediction of the end of the teaching profession as we know it, Stross goes on to calmly insist he is not worried.

“Amid acute budget crises, state universities like mine can’t afford to take that very big step — adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.”

Indeed, Stross does a great job of articulating one critical fundamental. While he is a veteran online educator, he insists the descriptor currently being used is misleading.

Stross teaches what educators now refer to as a hybrid course. It does feature some elements that make use of software. But it also features a full-fledged teacher, a “hovering human” as Stross describes.

To one day replace teachers, an online course would have to remove the need for the hovering human. It would be 100% software based and would handle all tasks that the aforementioned human (including assessing students and providing relevant feedback on their performance) previously handled.

Of the open courseware movement, Stross notes the costs involved.

“Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too.”

Those costs have Stross confident that his job is safe, especially given the current shortfall of funds most institutions currently face.

Above and Beyond the Monetary Factor

I would contend that Stross might be safe for yet another reason if I can at least assume he is typical of the vast majority of teachers and professors. While it is easy to imagine the use of technology and open courseware resources to both supplement and even replace textbooks and the like, it cannot replace the figure orchestrating the learning process provided that person does in fact do more than simply hover.

It is in this realm that we turn to Wendy Brown, the Emanuel Heller Professor Political Science at UC Berkeley. Professor Brown unloaded last October when discussing the approval of the California Regents to test the viability of offering a bachelor’s degree program 100% online.

Speaking at the Graduate Student Association Forum on the Cyber Campus, Brown delivered a scathing rebuke of the suggestion. When she was done, Professor Brown was on another planet from the likes of the forward-thinking Mark Pesce or the pragmatic Stross.

“I have many thoughts about the differences between the virtual and live classroom,” states Brown. “Differences between, on the one hand, classes featuring professors with an avowed point of view, modestly attuned to the abilities of their students, working closely with their GSIs, and, on the other, authorless curriculums with instructors of record and hundreds of low-paid teaching assistants.

“Differences between, on the one hand, students in a hushed auditorium, shorn of electronic connections and other distractions, listening to a line of Shakespeare, a measure of Chopin, a principle of physics–taking them apart together to discover the kernel of their brilliance–and, on the other, a student staring at the line, the measure, the principle on a MacBook, perhaps at a Starbucks with email and Facebook portals open, perhaps at home flanked by children whining, bosses calling, friends texting.”

Brown questions the financial implications before revealing some of the less than flattering data emerging regarding online instruction. “The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs.”

But for Brown, the real key is the inherent human element, the notion that education is fundamentally a people-business. Quality courses feature a skilled and passionate educator inspiring his or her students, poking and prodding so as to unleash the potential of those he or she is tasked with teaching. This human touch simply cannot be produced in a class delivered at a distance entirely over the net.

“What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited? Where there are moments of epiphany during or after a lecture, where one is transformed by thinking with or against one’s teacher or peers about a text, event or problem? Where a single question from a student or response from a professor can clarify the presuppositions of a complex notion or crystallize the dark, shocking or exciting implications of a proposition or value?”

Brown moves beyond the rhetorical to provide two very interesting, concrete examples. She first notes that “while on-line law schools exist, none are accredited by the American Bar Association, and 49 states refuse to permit students graduating from the on-line schools to sit for the bar.”

If that were not a significant red flag as to how online education is viewed, she then furthered her point by explaining a recent development from her own life.

“Last winter, alas, I collected a speeding ticket in the Sierra foothills. Although eligible for traffic school to clear the ticket, I was surprised to discover that Calavaras County did not allow use of the ubiquitous on-line traffic schools. Curious, I phoned the traffic court clerk to ask why: “is it just because I could pay my teenage son to take it for me?” No, she replied, “it’s because studies show that people don’t change their driving after taking the on-line courses but do with the in-person ones.”

To complete her rebuke, Brown summarizes thus:

If, “from traffic schools to law schools,” fully on-line education has been deemed inadequate to the task of educating and changing the student, what does it mean to unleash it in the most transformative period in the life of young adults, the early years of college?

Delivering Open Courseware

Truth be told, the two views are entirely valid. Open courseware has the power to transform the national curriculum, increasing rigor and creating up-to-date, content-rich courses where lectures are delivered by the best the profession has to offer. It should also eliminate the need for those impersonal, 500 seat lecture halls. In this way, the materials offered students could nearly match those currently offered at the so-called elite institutions.

But there will always be a need for that facilitator, the person with the ability to poke and prod, to provide the timely pats on the back and the occasional kick in the seat of the pants. It is for this reason that public school teachers are talking about the transformation from “being sages on the stage” to “guides on the side.”

Open courseware should provide the sage – but the learning process will still need that orchestrator. My guess is that the elite colleges came to this realization a long time ago.

So those course materials are indeed available in an effort to further that brand recognition. But those schools are banking on that critical fundamental tenet, that education is first and foremost a people-business.

February 10, 2011   3 Comments

Free Software for Writing Mathematical Equations in a Word Document

I am not sure what the going price per share is for Google stock but their Google Docs tool features so many neat little tricks for teachers and bloggers that it is easy to see why many people have moved to Gmail for their email service. One aspect of Google Docs I have used a lot is their equation inserting tool to create sophisticated equations like the famous quadratic formula.

If you have not created a Gmail account but are interested in expanding your word processing or HTML creating powers, you need to set one up. The ability to share editable documents with others also offers a nice little feature for math and science teachers who want to produce more professional looking slides or class handouts featuring complex formulas for their own use. While you can share these with others as well, you can also obviously share them by emailing them back to your own account to then use for your own purposes.

However, as often seems to be the case with software these days, the latest version of Google Docs did take a step backward when it comes to formula insertion. I am sure that has led many to purchase MathType which is available at a very reasonable cost if you do a lot of this kind of work. But with very modest effort you can make great use of the equation insert tool with Google Docs without expending any funds.

If you already have an existing Gmail account and some Google Docs created, you are very fortunate. You will still have access to the old editor and some great features. If you do not, there are still some things you can do (see below).

Existing Gmail and Google Docs Users

If you have an existing Gmail account, sign in and then go to Google Docs where you will be taken to a screen listing prior documents that have been created or shared. If this window is blank, then you would need to create a new document that will contain the formula or formulas you want to use. We will discuss two options to consider if you do not have an existing Google Doc in our next subsection but if you do have existing documents you can get started right away.

Those account holders wanting to implement the equation insert tool can head over to Prof Hacker at The Chronicle where Heather M. Whitney, an assistant professor of Physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, walks readers through the process using the older version of Google Docs. Her slides are great and she takes the process step-by-step so we will not waste time by repeating her instructions here.

However, the method she provides will not work with the new editor. You can easily tell if you have a Google Doc document that was constructed with their prior editor. If you begin to work on the document you have called up, when you click on the insert tab followed by the equation option, you will get a double window screen that features the two boxes depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. If you only get a single text box for writing your formula, you are using the latest editor and will not be able to use all of the wonderful features Professor Whitney notes.

Below is a screen shot of someone who had an Gmail account but thought they had never used Google Docs. Note the one option sent to her that was a recipe. Because that recipe was created with the older version of Google Docs, this user can edit that existing document utilizing the formula features as described by Professor Whitney. Again, to tell, simply open the document, try the insert equation option and see if you get the two boxes, one to insert an equation and the second that provides the preview. If you get a single box you are working with the new editor.

Unfortunately, the new editor does not allow direct pasting of LaTeX into the box as the older version did (more on LaTeX follows below). For example, Professor Whitney uses this coded format rather than the pop up menu to create the formula for the quadratic equation but trying the copy and paste function in the new editor yields an error statement.

In addition to not being able to paste this code in the latest editor, the new version requires some playing with the tool to get an order of entry of symbols and variables that produces the desired result. Therefore if you know someone with some older versions of a Google Doc, have them forward a copy of a document for the easier process. To do so, they simply need to call up their document and click the share tab in the upper right. The document can then be shared with the new recipient by installing their email address (again, to use Google Docs be sure to forward to the newly created or existing Gmail account). The default sharing tab allows the recipient to be able to edit the document when they receive it – be sure to leave that setting so the person can use the equation editor.

We can’t say enough about this option – if you can get an old edited Google Doc you will be in much better shape.

Creating a New Google Doc

If you are creating a brand new document, you will get a different window than is depicted in Professor Whitney’s slides. Instead of two boxes, one where you type the formula and a second which previews what you have entered, you will get a single box similar to a text box. In addition, as you insert symbols or LaTeX code, the formula will morph before your eyes. Initially, it is difficult to get a handle on this as it is not a “what you see is what get look” when entering.

When clicked, the equation editor will pop up and five smaller rectangles will appear with a few basic symbols displayed. You can use these symbols by clicking on the appropriate rectangle then scrolling to the appropriate term you want.

A left click of the mouse on the first rectangle will yield a pop up menu featuring all Greek letters. To grab the square root symbol, slide over to the fourth rectangle, click once to reveal all possible items you could select, then scroll and click on the square root symbol to start building your formula. You can continue selecting symbols and insert appropriate letter variables from the keyboard to build your formula.

A second option is to use the code associated with LaTeX notation. The code for this format may not be something you are familiar with but thanks to the web and L. Kocbach, you can find a thorough list of them to directly type them in. In addition, the Google Docs help site reveals how each of their available symbols can be written using the LaTeX code.

To give readers a sense of some of the steps, we will create one of the basic equations from physics relating an object’s distance to its initial velocity if the object undergoes uniform acceleration. To create the formula we begin by inserting the basic variables and symbols without any subscripts, i.e. we type in d=vt+at (see below).

To insert our subscripts and add the exponents we work backwards to add them in (unfortunately, we could not consistently insert them as we worked our way through the formula). The basic step is use the underscore (_) to insert subscripts and the Caret or up-arrow symbol (^) to insert exponents. But to ensure the formula holds format I found the need to insert those elements last.

Once we have entered the basic equation we space back to the point directly following the letter v and hit shift underscore. This command creates a space and allows us to insert the variable i as a subscript to represent the initial velocity. To get the factor of one-half inserted we type \frac before the variables at. We then hit the space bar and the \frac disappears (that morphing we talked about) and the fraction bar is created. We type 1 for the numerator, hit the enter key to get to the denominator and then type 2. Our fraction complete, we move to squaring the variable t. We space with the right arrow key to the end of the formula, hit shift ^ and we see the cursor rise to the superscript position where we can insert the 2.

Simple as that we have the formula complete and can then use it for insertion in a word or Google Document.

Unfortunately, we have found that not all of the LaTeX code works with the new editor. Instead of the \subscript or \superscript code commands for example, you must use the underscore (_) and the Caret (^) to create these formats. In addition, it can be a bit cumbersome to get the feel at first for how to insert the finishing touches.

But with a little experimentation, you can quickly determine which aspects do work and those for which you must rely on the Google pop up menus.

February 1, 2011   11 Comments

Latest Study Validates Testing, Forced Retrieval and SQRRR

Good old-fashioned testing and a comprehensive reading theory developed in 1946 remain great learning tools.

It is a practice born of yesteryear and quite frankly appears to be giving way to concept-mapping and other forms of study habits. But yet another new study has confirmed that the practice known as forced retrieval today continues to be one of the best methods for learning new material.
In the latest report, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping,” researchers Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt actually cast a negative light on one of the most popular current practices. They contend that educators rely “more heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying” and do so at the expense of the traditional and extremely successful practice of “retrieving and reconstructing knowledge.”

And when these researchers say learning, they include three extremely important elements. First, forced retrieval continues to be one of the best methods for helping students retain new material.

But even more importantly than this retention, forced retrieval was deemed to be the best method for helping teach students to draw inferences as well as apply concepts to new settings.

Forced Retrieval

The term forced retrieval is used to describe the practice of formal testing or quizzing. In the case of the most recent study, forced retrieval is used to describe the process by which a student studies a specific passage for a fixed length of time, then sets that material aside to write down everything he or she can remember about the passage.

Of course, educators essentially use that same concept when they cover material for a period of time then give a written assessment. The assessment takes the place of self-quizzing and thus forces students to retrieve the information they have been studying.

Those who worry today that in testing students we are harming their learning will be extremely disappointed with the results of this study. In fact, these researchers reveal that tests, when used appropriately, are much more than a passive learning activity and thus are great tools for helping students learn new material.

In essence, the very method educators use to assess the current level of student understanding requires students to employ the forced-retrieval technique. So this research expresses strong support for testing students at appropriate points in time.

In fact, if you dig deeply into the results, the researchers support the idea that frequent, low-stakes classroom quizzes with multiple options to make up marginal work could well be one of the most viable learning tools educators can use.

The Recent Study

In coming up with their support for forced retrieval, the researchers compared this form of learning with two other learning formats. One involved repeatedly reading the material over and over again while the other involved one of the latest educational techniques, concept mapping (whereby students create detailed diagrams that theoretically help them understand and make connections among the various facts they have read).

For one of the experiments, the researchers divided students into four groups. To get at the heart of the basic idea of studying material, one group spent five minutes reading a text while a second group was provided four consecutive five-minute sessions to read and reread the passage.

The third group utilized the “concept mapping” technique and arranged the information in a diagram while the text was in front of them. The fourth and final group, after being given time to read the passage, was asked to take a simple “retrieval practice” test where they were tasked with writing down what they remembered. However, that fourth and final group was then allowed to reread the passage yet a second time, then asked to repeat the retrieval practice test.

To determine the best learning approach, one week later the researchers gave each group a short-answer test that focused on both the students ability to recall facts as well as draw logical inferences and conclusions. The fourth and final group of students, those who first read the passage and wrote down the material they had read retained about 50 percent more of the information one week later than those students who used the other two methods.

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it, creating our own cues and making critical connections within our own brains. It might just also be that the struggle to recall information is critical to further reinforcement within our brains. Lastly, perhaps by practicing the recall of information, the information then becomes easier for us to recall it at a later time.

For students, the latest study supports that critical ingredient so many professors espouse: to determine what you know, put your book and notes aside and try to recall everything you can. During the recall attempt, it does not seem to matter whether or not students write it down or say it out loud – it is only the idea of self-quizzing or forcing recall that matters.

Past Practice

This latest study also reinforces a practice that many teachers employed before the turn of this century. Veteran teachers reading the study will no doubt recall a recitation-based learning practice dubbed “SQRRR” or “SQ3R.” The concept is indeed one from the past having been popularized in the book, “Effective Study,” written in 1946 by Francis P. Robinson.

SQ3R or SQRRR was generally used as a method to teach reading comprehension to children. The letters represented the five step process: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

Of course, most sophisticated college reading material requires strong reading comprehension skills. As SQ3R reveals, internalizing and retaining what one has read demands much more than simply rereading passages multiple times or reading and providing an accompanying concept map.

As for questioning, it can of course be done by the teacher but the prior learning practice encouraged students themselves to lead the way by self quizzing. In doing so, students themselves can determine the extent to which they need to reread and review.

The latest study in fact reinforces this longstanding practice fully.

Tried and True and Still Valid

There are no doubt still many educators who believe that the forced retrieval method focuses too much on testing and an excessive emphasis on memorization. But it is clear that the demands of college require students with the necessary knowledge base to do higher order thinking and inquiry-based problem-solving.

First, testing can help teachers and students identify gaps in existing knowledge. Such recognition can then lead students to revisit those elements that may not have been clear and subsequently help them gain further insight.

In addition, when information is internalized, it can be more easily recalled when necessary, especially when it comes time to make connections with new ideas. That is where the reciting comes in SQ3R. In writing out or reciting aloud, students can actually discern what elements they can retrieve from memory when asked and which elements remain elusive.

The bottom line of course is that if we could create totally reflective students, teacher assessments could give way to self-quizzing. But given the nature of young people, having a teacher pushing the assessment process may well be necessary to ensure that youngsters take this critical step.

And that is precisely what these researchers determined: the external pressure that leads students to exercise the forced retrieval technique continues to be a viable approach for educators to employ.

January 25, 2011   2 Comments

“I Have a Dream” about Governor Paul LePage

On Monday, the day most of America celebrated Martin Luther King Day, Maine Governor Paul LePage told reporters he did not want to discuss his “kiss my butt” response to concerned leaders of the NAACP. He also insisted that his last minute scheduling change to attend an Martin Luther King event in Waterville had nothing to do with the hullabaloo over his insensitive comments and his prior declination to attend any MLK events even if it was vintage material for the likes of Steven Colbert.

This very troubling trend by Maine’s Governor (on the campaign trail he had told fishermen that President Barack Obama could “go to hell”) continues an ugly pattern of verbal missteps. Unfortunately, barely two weeks on the job, Mr. LePage reinforced many of the concerns that the man’s sharp tongue was exceeded only by his quick temper.

But dare I say it. I have a dream and I am trying to remain hopeful. After all, this Republican Governor has expressed support for an educational idea that is so far removed from the Republican party we might expect members of his own party to utter a similar expletive in the Governor’s direction.

Putting Maine Back on the Educational Map

It seems that Mr. LePage is a strong proponent of the early college concept. For those unfamiliar with the term, early college refers to the transformation of four-year high schools to five-year programs whereby students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

This idea is contrary to current Republican rhetoric for three reasons. First and foremost, creating this initiative will require additional state spending on education. All Republicans, Mr. LePage included, recently ran their 2010 campaigns pledging to cut bloated government spending.

This idea also runs smack dab against the individualism the party promotes. It instead focuses on actions that would have the government investing in individuals so as to collectively benefit society.

And third, it is all about the future, about spending money now in an effort to build a better world for our children. It is the complete antithesis of the recent legislation, supported by both parties, a tax cut mantra that is all about the here and now.

Benefits of Early College Initiatives

Likewise, the concept has three significant benefits for students. First, the process eliminates one critical transition period for students. The success of the K-8 format over any other grade configuration is thought to be due to the reduction in transitions for youngsters.

Second, it focuses on small schools with high expectations and real rigor. The bottom line is that most students will rise to the expectations set forth for them if they are asked to do real, meaningful work that they can see truly relates to their future.

And allowing students the chance to earn an associate’s degree, free of charge, means that those of limited means could still have access to post-secondary education options. In fact, early college appears to be having the greatest impact on the traditionally under-served population, minorities and those without the monetary means to pursue higher education.

Corny, I Know

So yes, I have a dream, that maybe Mr. LePage has some of the vision that made Angus King so popular in our state. Early college could well be the single best way to begin to reduce the disparity in college attendance rates among the various socio-economic classes and minority students.

Yes, I have a dream, that Mr. LePage might be capable of seeing his vision through. This would be great news for the children of Maine, returning the state to a position of leadership nationally.

We understand that Mr. LePage is a man of his word – that may be why so many people were so upset with his comments to the NAACP. If he is in fact a man of his word in regards to early college educational initiative, he could well be known nationally for something other than his sarcastic comments.

Should he pull it off, bringing about the early college concept would bring him national recognition from very important people. I am thinking of those other than Stephen Colbert.

January 18, 2011   No Comments