Gambling for grades

I attended PAX, and had the great pleasure of attending a lecture by Tyler Black, a Child and Adolescent psychiatrist who has a special interest in gaming. Usually his panels focus on dispelling the myths about videogames and aggression while pointing out some of the serious concerns about the plethora of games that encourage addictive behavior by variable ratio/unscheduled reinforcement, in particular many of the MMOs and more recently some of the free to play games that feature in game purchases that can encourage a number of problematic behaviors.

After the lecture, I asked him what his thoughts were on the Khan Academy issuing badges that, in at least one case, have caused a fifth grader to become downright addicted to doing math. (Couldn’t find the article, curse my metal body, but the gist of it is there’s (at least one) 5th grader who, using khan academy, is on the same math level as high school seniors.) Tyler Black considered the question, but ultimately came to the conclusion that, within a learning environment, gamification of learning using badges and similar tools is a positive thing, even if it emulates the same principals used to keep people slaving away at World of Warcraft and slot machines.

At this point, I’m not fully sold. I think that while gamification in learning, when done correctly (and I think Khan Academy DOES do it correctly) is a fairly good thing, I have some concerns about what that means for a deeper math curriculum. It turns math equations into something as simple as pulling a slot machine handle so to say, while a really strong math curriculum brings in a lot more value. That being said, there’s plenty of proponents and classrooms where the sort of insert problem produce answer model of direct instruction is seen as a perfectly valid model of teaching mathematics, so I doubt anyone is going to have too many problems with it. Aside from me.

So, I suppose my thoughts on gamification of learning is that while the gamification thing can make the actual processes of learning fun, there needs to be more than that. The learning must be applicable, relevant to the real world (not badges, although then again, what’s employee of the month, or a diploma?), and to some degree interdisciplinary, I think the Khan Academy does a very good job of ‘decent’ math education. It will help students pass math tests, which in turn, open doors.

I remember an interview with Bill Gates concerning the Khan Academy (curse my metal body, I can’t find that either- I’ve tried for months) where he talks about a single mom who couldn’t get her nursing degree because she couldn’t pass an entrance math exam. The Khan Academy offered a solution, and with that, she was able to pass the math exam and start the program, ensuring that she would have a decent career to support her and her family. I think for situations like that, the Khan Academy is perfect. But if you want to create engineers*, which I believe Bill Gates does want to do, I think you need a bit more.

*And just a point on that concept of creating engineers and this idea of a tech shortage, there is no such thing. There’s enough data out there to show that there is a plethora of underpaid engineers and techies who can’t make it into positions because employers (read: HR departments) want Unicorns with 10 years of experience and pay far less than what that should constitute, and unfortunately, hiring agencies that bring people from India cost far less than the American ones. So, that’s just a huge problem there, but this idea that there’s a tech shortage in America is just daft. Unfortunately, the testing paradigm introduced by NCLB is driven by such misconceptions.



Today I had the awesome opportunity to chat with some folks at Microsoft Research about some really incredible elearning stuff. One of the things we discussed was ChronoZoom, a project he’s been working on. It’s at it’s core, a scaled map of history that is open source, and can be fit into any teacher’s curriculum to show the scale of history. However, I think once this gets out and folks start playing with it, there’s some really amazing possibilities.

pime taradox!

One thing I’d like to see is it combining with Google Maps or some similar online mapping software, in a way where you could click on a spot in Chronozoom (say, 1750) and it would pop up events occurring in random places geographically. So, for example, you move the slider in Chronozoom to 1750*, and click on the Earth logo. There, in a simplified Earth view, you can zoom to various locations and see what’s going on, possibly collecting some data from Wikipedia (a cool history teacher could give his students credit for placing the event pins in their correct geographic location).

So, imagine a tool that you could use to travel through time, then view what’s going on in Earth at that time. Various tools could highlight warring regions, catastrophes, or migrations. You could zoom into a region, and see where significant figures are being born, dying, or events are occurring.

Imagine being a student and having this resource.

Hell, imagine being bored and having this on a rainy weekend. I wouldn’t go to bed till 4am.

I’ll probably have more information on Chronozoom soon. This is a really, really exciting educational technology. TELL YOUR FRIENDS. TELL YOUR TEACHERS. IF YOU HAVE TEACHERS WHO ARE ALSO FRIENDS, TELL THEM TO TALK TO ME. (ABOUT CHRONOZOOM AND MAYBE ELEARNING AND PROBABLY COOL BUGS.)

*Speaking of 1750, check out Hannah Snell.


Without effective e-learning practices, the future of education is screwed.

So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the cliff- a lot of teachers are on the verge of retirement, paving the way for an influx of new teachers. The STEM field is really dying for highly qualified teachers, and I’ve heard that if you want to get a teaching job, you can’t go wrong with math, or to a slightly lesser degree, science. I saw this with my Master’s, when I found that a quarter of my tuition was being mysteriously paid for by the federal government. We need more science and math teachers and we needed them yesterday.

But the other thing I saw with my master’s program was where a lot of the graduates were a year afterwards. A number were not actually working in America, having decided to take up teaching jobs in other countries. Quite a few looked at how much they would make as teachers, vs. the freedom and financial incentives of remaining in the private sector, and decided to stay there, having realized that to make as much money as the older teachers they were replacing, they’d have to be there for a very, very long time, which was becoming less and less attractive given the five figure debt attached to their name to get this low paying job. A few of us dropped out, or didn’t pursue our teacher’s cert. I actually failed at student teaching, although I feel it wasn’t a good fit, and a series of deaths in the family didn’t help.

So, out of a class of 20 or so future science teachers, I’d estimate that maybe 10 actually obtained teaching jobs. Furthermore, I don’t know what sort of retention will be seen in 5 years, when these individuals realize that, hey, I can make twice as much, work from home, relax, and not be held to insane standards and administrative bullshit (or as much of it.)

So, with people pursuing education, but being burned out by it, or realizing that a career in education is not as lucrative or illustrious as they had once imagined and hoped, the cliff of teacher retirement, those baby boomer teachers who are retiring in droves, leaves a huge gap in education, especially in the science and math areas, as well as SPED.

So, one thing I began to consider is educational automation through e-learning, and how imperative it is that we as a nation get it right. Thus far, from what I have seen, we are not. The public education’s offering for online schools has been meager at best, often times throwing RIF’d teachers into an online teaching environment when they have a hard time figuring out how to attach a file to an email, much less manage a LMS. While there are some exciting new technologies coming out, including some of the Google Education stuff, I feel that this technology has a long way to go.

In my research, one of the biggest predictors for effective online learning usage that I found was youth. Young (typical male) teachers tended to be the best tech users. (Females tended to use it fairly well, but guys tended to have a sort of geeky ‘this is a neat toy’ attitude that wasn’t seen as much with girls, although I think this will change significantly soon, if it isn’t already.) They had the highest levels of technology integration and blended learning, and tended to embrace new educational technologies. As the cliff approaches, and more young teachers filling the ranks, I believe we will see an increase in elearning. However, there are so many things currently mucking up the works. Administrators may or may not see the elearning as conducive, (or may not have the resources to support it effectively). Standards can be challenged. There is little coherency between teacher’s implementations of technology.

That being said, I believe things are going in the right direction, but I think they have a long way to go as well. One event I see on the horizon is a major incorporation of cloud based education, where as teachers and students begin to embrace social media for educational purposes, (I could go on about social media and why being friends with your students on facebook is weird.) teachers begin to gain the ability to network and teach larger populations across fields, and trade expertise and help each other.

This brings up one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with science education- an absolute lack of proficiency in the actual sciences. For example, I passed my science teaching exams easily, scoring nearly perfect scores in all but physics, which is one of my weaker areas. I have no background as a scientist, and save for immersing myself in science since a very young age and having it as a hobby, there are huge gaps in my knowledge (mostly because I was a hobby scientist, the parts that bored me got ignored. I run into difficulty with physics concepts, but let me tell you about social insects!) This level of patchy science knowledge was paramount, and there were times when our head science professor would show some scientific model related to astrophysics, and no one in the class (except myself and one other who also watched a lot of sci fi) would understand what it was. It struck me as mad, that there are such gaps, but then it makes sense when one thinks about it. Most of the students came from very specific backgrounds, and for them to be able to encompass the vast fields that are expected by state standards is unreasonable at best.

Thus, I feel that by decentralizing science education to some degree and helping teachers network with each other using both social networks and elearning, we will have a better shot at fixing this educational mess we are speeding towards as the cliff draws closer. Furthermore, I feel by enabling this sort of elearning automation, we can actually free up teachers to focus on other issues, rather than constantly having to review new material for themselves, which honestly, can be a very bad thing. (I have witnessed teachers flat out getting things wrong in their description of things like cell anatomy. However, this was also related to them wanting to teach to a test, which didn’t require complex narratives about protein synthesis, so they dumbed it down to the point where it was a nice analogy, but fundamentally wrong on every level.) By giving teachers greater resources to experts within their own network, they can have greater levels of collaboration and success.

The big question is, then, what will this social network look like, and how will it work? Will it actually be feasible? I really don’t know, but I think this is the direction science and math education (as well as many other fields) will be going, if they aren’t already. Will it be through any official channels or LMSes, or just a grassroots thing? I really don’t know. But I am excited about it.


Time to think about the future of student debt.

Writing this, I’m roughly 250 away from completing paying off my student debt. This liberation from the responsibility of repaying the large sum I accumulated in obtaining a graduate degree has placed me in a very different mental space. Suddenly, I have realized that I have spent a year of my life working in the tech industry just for the purpose of paying off this debt. Not that I mind working in IT, but it’s not what I went to school for. While on some level it does help me gain the technical prowess I would like to have to accentuate my elearning expert resume, it just seems strange that right out of college, I jumped directly into the tech field, almost panicked by the huge sum of debt I had attached to my name. Rather than taking some time off so I could relax and enjoy a bit of peace after completing my thesis, I ran straight into the workforce, and a year later, I am beginning to feel the exhaustion. I haven’t had a real break from anything, weekends are painfully short, and the only time I ever take days off is on Fridays for the odd convention, which usually exhausts me even more.

But now that I am almost free of this burden, I have realized that my life is now in a holding pattern, I am making money, but I am not doing what I was trained to do. I am also very wary of the next steps, and the cost of that- and that scares me.

My goal is to get more experience, specifically in educational technology and effective application and implementation within schoolwide and college settings. I want to be well rounded enough to be able to set up a learning management system and maintain it, from the top level of setting up the LMS and setting up courses, to the bottom level- keeping the servers running. While I feel that such positions are ideally done by multiple people, there is no harm in being involved and functionally aware of the entire system, so it can be managed and optimized. However, I have much larger goal- to research the impact of instructional technology implementations on education, and what works, what doesn’t, and how to utilize it in a way that is accessible for the modern student’s brain. This is a huge field, and is something I would like to spend 5 years of my life studying.

However, I spent a year artificially aging myself, feeling my body get more and more out of shape and unhealthy as sleep deprivation and stress took their toll, just to pay off two years. Two years tuition, with a quarter of it paid by government grants and scholarships.  And now, I’m looking at five years.

It has been sobering, facing this imminent debt, for a path that I am not required to take, save for this abstract feeling of destiny and family legacy. It is so sobering that I have considered leaving this path, for simple fear of the cost. And this unpleasant reality is likely experienced by many individuals who would like to go into higher education. It is absurd, that as a country, to train people to become productive and skilled, so that they may become financially stable, we consistently throw them into a well of debt so that they are completely unable to take part in the larger economy. Whoever thought that was a good idea is an idiot, or more realistically, very, very greedy, and probably sociopathic. Furthermore, it scares possible talent away from pursing any fields that may not be lucrative, over fear that they will be in debt until they are 70.

I do not know if there is data on how many people are pursuing PhDs and other higher degrees. Last I heard, more and more individuals were to stay abreast of the difficult job market, but in doing so, ensuring (hopefully) employment (although not necessarily), while damning themselves into crippling debt. I then find myself speculating, what is the damn point? Go get your master’s degree. 30k later, you get a job making 40k a year, and are stuck paying off debt for years, while your standard of living has changed very little. This has been similar to my experience, and I find myself wondering, why am I living in a shoddy apartment? Didn’t I go get my higher degree? Don’t I get a house, a golden retriever, and a SUV now? (I actually just want a camera, a server, and a HEV suit.)

I suppose that’s where I am now. I am nearly free of my debt, and then the next question becomes, what do I do now? I could climb the corporate ladder and make more money and save up for a PhD that I may or may not ever get, depending on what happens from there. Or, I could take a pay cut and get into educational technology, but never have enough to even think about financing a PhD without casting myself into unimaginable debt.

It is a tough conundrum. I don’t have a good answer at this time. But it does frustrate me, as I would like to have a better life, possibly even consider having kids, but with the way educational costs are going, I don’t think starting a family and getting a PhD can coexist peacefully. I lived off cheap food and garage sale clothes for two years while my mother got her master’s, and while I didn’t mind, I don’t want to think of what five years of poverty, distance, and emotional alienation would do to my child’s mind.

Oh well, this is a total first world problem, but I do think it is one that is solvable, and must be solved if we as a nation want to have competitive job market.


Linuxfest: Final panel notes.

So, the final panel I went to at linuxfest outlined some practices for teaching linux administration as a distance course. What I appreciated about this panel leader is that, instead of saying this course was going to be about distance education, he stated that it would be specifically oriented towards his experience teaching linux administration via a distance course. Ironically, this panel ended up being more about the methodology of distance education in general, and less about teaching a specific course.

What I gleaned from this presenter was that when teaching a distance course, it helps if A: students are highly motivated, B: you create your OWN teaching setup and style (He bought a lot of his own equipment, including a generic tablet, webcams, various open source software tools, and even called his students via phone and mailed them packages), and C: You are personable and do your best to connect with the students at a human level. The biggest problem he ran into was students failing to show up to his weekly ‘class sessions’ which consisted of google hangouts.

The presenter from the first panel, the guy who had worked as a network admin and now taught Cisco certs, told him he had a good way to work around it: Make the class sessions worth credit, with the earlier class sessions worth extra credit, so early adopters would be rewarded, and that extra credit tapering off at the end. Apparently his class sessions were usually pretty busy.

This panel was great as it ended up being a more open discussion of best practices for distance learning, with the presenter often saying, “That’s a really good idea. I should do that.” It was dynamic, and the tension between techie and teacher was completely erased. Good way to end the convention.

The biggest lesson I learned from attending the education panels at Linuxfest is that there is a right and wrong way to go about addressing educational technology. I went to two panels where the people leading it were not educators, and two where they were IT people turned teachers. In the former, the complete lack of relevance to education was painfully apparent and alienated the teachers in the audience, but in the latter, the mastery of both fields created an authentic dialogue about what works and what doesn’t with educational technology.

What this ultimately tells me is that there is a big void for people who speak education and IT. Hopefully more districts will see this and look into hiring these translators soon, especially when looking at distance and hybrid programs, as going into it without someone who can effectively combine pedagogical practices with IT is likely to end badly.


Linuxfest coverage

I’ve finally got a chance to sit down and connect!

So, I’ve attended three panels thus far, and one bitchin’ after party. I’ve got another panel on distance ed in a bit, but until then, here’s some brief coverage of the panels. When I get home and get a chance to decompress, I’ll post my notes on each panel and more in depth coverage.

Supporting Classrooms 101: This was taught by a Network Admin turned Cisco certification instructor. He was very knowledgable in supporting a great variety of college and k12 environments using LMSes and other tools. His bottom line was that the main focus of any academic tech support should be the people. One of the really interesting points he made was that it’s all about the best functionality. He’s fine with schools using Microsoft in Washington, because they give schools a great deal on Microsoft software. At the same time, he uses the open source LMS Moodle for his own courses, because it’s functional and generally awesome, although it doesn’t scale well due to the support needs.

Open Source in Schools: The group following this was a group of freegeek people who wanted to find ways to increase open source usage in schools. They weren’t teachers, and seemed a little confused on where to start. The leader of the previous discussion helped them out a bit, and the decision came to be that a good place to start with open source software in schools is homeschool, STEM teachers, and resource centers. It all comes down to useful functionality- most teachers and students don’t care about the open source model, they just want something that works well. 

One of the most telling parts of this panel was when a teacher who had sat in on both panels spoke up and said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Customizing Linux for the Classroom: This panel really highlighted the disconnect that seems to occur between the open source community and educators that I witnessed multiple times at this con- Open source geeks that think teachers are going to be impressed by a stream of technobabble, and teachers wondering how this has anything to do with their classroom. This presenter was a SUSE developer who outlined some of his projects that did seem useful for some classes, possibly, but the way he presented them spoke to a system administrator’s interest set, which seemed to frustrate the 50% of the class who were teachers. What really made me want to walk out was when one of the teachers asked, “Does this offer support for smart boards?” “Smart boards? What’s that?” as he proceeded to google smart boards. Also, he only mentioned Moodle once. As probably the best open source LMS out there, that probably belongs at the core of a class on customizing linux in classrooms.

At this point it became so completely clear that he was very disconnected to the reality of classrooms, and was teaching a class called Customizing Linux for the Classroom, made me feel like I had wasted a great amount of time, but it had reinforced a good message: There needs to be greater communication between people who understand the realities of the classroom and IT support people. That was embodied by the Supporting Classrooms 101 presenter, as he knew his stuff. However, people like that seem few and far between, which bodes very poorly for effective tech implementations.

I guess the bottom line is, if you want to offer any sort of tech solution for educators, (or anyone, for that matter), it’s best to speak to their interests, not the specific details of the technology. Most people just want a product that works well for a good price. When open source offers that, it gets adopted.

Oh, and the after party was incredible. There was a Tesla Coil show, and free beer provided by Wiseass brewing. Delicious stuff.

Now I’m off to the panel on Distance Education, then a long drive back home.


And off to linuxfest.

As mentioned earlier, I’ll be doing some coverage of the educational panels at linuxfest. A few more interesting ones have been posted, so here are the ones I will be covering- I’ll likely be attending quite a few more, and if they’re interesting, I’ll post about them as well,.

Customizing linux for the classroom- Looking at various linux tools in the classroom.

Teaching Linux System Administration as a Distance Class - This one goes into the best practices for distance education, so that should be fairly illuminating.

Supporting Classrooms 101 - This one goes into providing tech support for educational settings. From what I’ve heard, most school districts are woefully understaffed when it comes to their IT departments, so this should be interesting.

There are some other ones that should be pretty interesting as well. 

Off to the fest!


Cyberpunk manifesto time!

Except not.

So, I just finished work on the final section of my thesis, which has proven to be probably the most difficult, as it involves synthesizing what the research actually means. The problem is, unlike most literature review type theses, the research on online and hybrid education is all over the place. So, I had to synthesize a lot of data, extrapolate environmental variables based on reported demographics, and read between a lot of lines. The biggest problem is that a lot of this research is quantitative, focusing on an esoteric value determined from some psychological battery, while ignoring the holistic view. What’s going on in the classroom? Are people bored? Does the instructor know how to use the LMS? Are the students tech savvy?

I read two articles, one that studied veterinary students, the other studying computer science students. The veterinary students did poorly with the online materials, whereas the CS undergrads ate it up. Big surprise, no? Well, the research didn’t really look at simple factors such as major. And while that makes a lot of sense, as it is difficult to generalize between a graduate course in veterinary science and CS 236, but it’s definitely an area of interest.

There’s so much learning to be done on how to do blended instruction right. It’s a really exciting field, but at the same time I think that by trying to find out how to do it right I’m looking for the philosopher’s stone. It’s all contextual.

But then again, there’s no way to do friendship right, but look at how well facebook is doing. It’s not getting it right exactly, but it’s expanding the borders in interesting ways. I think we’re going to be seeing a similar event occurring in education, soon.

In the mean time, I’ve had more caffeine today than I should. My thought patterns are disassociating, which means it’s time to log off now.