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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.

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Formal operations vs. Literacy

I remember being in a learning theory class a few quarters ago where the professor argued that many people only have formal operational skills in specific fields. She quoted some research where they gave Physics majors literature sections and asked them to analyze them, and gave Literature major physics problems and asked them to make sense of them. Of course, both groups had difficulty with the problems, and ended up scoring at a ‘concrete’ stage of understanding.

I took issue with this, and got all huffy about it. (I had a habit of questioning this professor at every turn, as our opinions on certain psychological matters differed greatly.) 

In my opinion, Formal operational thought is based in the ability to abstract, but that is entirely based on the ability to read into what is being presented. This is Literacy- being comfortable enough with the material to engage in a degree of metacognition and deeper thinking. If your brain is confused about the presentation and the unfamiliar layout, it is too busy dealing with that.

This in turn applies heavily to online education, and the need to familiarize students with any online systems they will be using, and purposefully not burdening them with different systems. Once they are comfortable with the general site and its functionality, then they can get to a place where they don’t even see the site, just the learning material available.

One of the issues then becomes site conformity. Say you are running an online school, and you have two professors, one teaching English and the other, Computer Science. They create two very different sites, thinking that they need to optimize their site for their content matter (and not student familiarity.) So, then, a student taking both classes is assaulted with two drastically different learning environments. And while you might expect a real life CS classroom and English Classroom to look quite different, students have been experiencing physical classrooms for much of their lives and can handle that. It’s important to remember that, for many students, this level/type of digital literacy is not native.

So, that’s where the challenge is- creating sites similar enough that it provides students with a familiar and accessible environment, while still giving instructors the ability to effectively customize the environment for learning goals. I believe the solution is providing any students who will be in a blended or online learning program a class on e-learning study skills.

Any thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Also, about 2 months till I graduate. I am not sure if I want to get into Educational IT support or Instructional Design. Both are very fascinating to me, and I’d honestly like a position where I can engage with both. If such positions exist, I’d be excited to hear about where they are and how to get them.

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Research update.

So, after doing some research, my thesis is taking a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing directly on digital literacy, I’m looking at best practices for incorporating digital literacy and educational technology into curricula. This includes using technology to augment a curriculum, or teaching digital literacy alongside other content, emphasizing increasing students capability to use the internet as an effective educational resource.

A few interesting findings I found for optimizing educational technology usage were that the best implimentations came from teachers that A: had high levels of confidence and ownership of technology, and B: were learner centered/not test focused. When a teacher is interested in using technology to boost test scores, it’s using the resource ineffectively. There are a million ways to boost test scores, and most of them are low tech. The real promise of using the internet and technology in schools is through inquiry and learner centered, self directed research, all of which hinges on some degree of digital literacy. Teachers aren’t adequately preparing students for the 21st century by teaching them how to test, they have to teach them how to effectively utilize the best informational resource known to mankind, the internet. 

Unfortunately, the US tends to be so ridiculously test based that teachers, in my experience, see educational technology as a tool to prepare kids for tests. In my student teaching experience I saw this quite a bit, as well as a sense that teachers were rather uncomfortable using a lot of this technology. The ones that were used it for test training. Now, it could be argued that a digital literacy curriculum is too advanced for grade school kids, but I have found literature suggesting otherwise. But until schools stop demanding that teachers teach to the test, things won’t change. 

Still, every now and then I find the odd teacher/librarian who owns the technology and is interested in utilizing it effectively to promote real learning. That’s comforting, as at least some teachers are trying. However, from what I’m seeing, these teachers are either younger teachers who are rather gutsy, or older teachers who are so deeply entrenched in their department that, as one teacher told me, “They can’t get rid of me.” Ironically, this teacher, despite not teaching to the test at all, had some of the best test scores, but at the same time conflicted with the administration about test related things.

Finally, a note on virtual academies. In my small amount of experience interviewing people in a virtual academy, I found that the technology used was rather primitive, and there was a definite push for that. Because this particular VA was being used as a dumping ground for students who had failed at traditional schools, their test scores were crappy at best, and that’s even when the students showed up for test days. (Most, not having a steady schedule for their schooling, simply saw no reason to show up for a test that had no real bearing on anything.) Due to this, their curriculum consisted of flash based tutorials and a test engine. It didn’t really focus on any higher order thinking, digital literacy, or the latest and greatest in educational technology. Instead, they were so focused on increasing student test scores to save their budget that they took what could have been an amazing opportunity to increase digital literacy and create self directed learners, and squandered it.

Now, part of this was due to their student population- most of the students were not highly motivated in any way shape or form, but there were a number of students who were there by choice, and it seems unfortunate that the habit of dumping the ‘last chance’ kids there ruined the curriculum. So, thanks to this, there was no ability for teachers to implement any of the best practices for online schooling, and the virtual academy was considered to be failing.

The bottom line is that, for effective educational technology usage, teachers need to both be confident in the technology, and be interested in student learning, not test scores. Only then can students have the best, most authentic experiences learning with technology, a skill that is essential for life in the 21st century.

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Adderall and Microsoft

I’ve finished my project on the Khan Academy. It took me no less than three days of heavy brain doping, which consists of imbibing an entirely legal cocktail of neurostimulants and herbal supplements to enhance my mental performance which and working for a stretch which, by the end of, I am quite irate and exhausted. Subsequently, I take often to drinking beer to make that hazy, disconnected sensation of mental exhaustion seem like a simple buzz. It masks it sufficiently, and allows me to enjoy the remainder of my evening, although it is probably criminal on my liver.

Assuming my professor approves, and I feel comfortable releasing it, I shall link to it here, or at least copy-paste the interesting things I found. Most remarkably was the impact of cloud computing genius Sean O’Sullivan on the Khan Academy- somewhere in the neighborhood of five million dollars. But instead pouring it into a math engine, which seemed to be the focus after the infusion of cash from Tech giants Google and Bill Gates, the O’Sullivan foundation seemed more interested in ‘crowd-sourcing’ the Khan Academy- that is, getting more lectures on the site.

Now, I am all for more lectures being put on the Khan Academy, but I think that the main draw of the Khan Academy has already been created, and it is now venturing into new, uncharted, and possibly dangerous waters.

What makes the Khan Academy good is its video library- that is, Sal Khan geeking out about stuff. It’s easy to understand, fun to watch, and memorable, unlike many other lectures. He has a perfect system as it is, and his dynamic and magnetic personality is the magic that makes the video library work. What these other funders are doing, by ‘buying out’ the Khan Academy are, in my opinion, stealing his achievement and trying to impose their own ideas of what might work. If the Khan Academy becomes a video-wikipedia, with videos from hundreds of academics on any subject you could dream of, the Khan Academy might pose a serious threat to many institutions. However, on the flip side, you have the fact that youtube is seriously filled with videos on any subject. Anyone with any degree of information literacy (read: patience) can find them. And on the sad side, most of them are quite boring, or overly complicated. (MIT open courseware, for example, while fascinating and educational, quickly outpaced me.) This is the fault of these lectures not being done by Sal Khan, the man who the entire KA population see as the teacher. Other teachers coming into the Khan Academy might be viewed as suspect, like a substitute teacher, or ignored completely.

Perhaps I am putting Sal’s charisma on too much of a pedestal. In fact, I probably am. And at it’s core, I think the idea of crowd-sourcing the Khan Academy is actually a good idea. I just hope the lecturers they find are all very dynamic and fun, as to make the lectures memorable.

I really don’t see why it would take five million to do this, though. Khan Academy has enough star power to attract experts from top colleges and labs to do quick 15 minute lectures. Or, you know, people could just watch TED talks. Even so, it’s exciting to see the Khan Academy gain so much money, but one thing that I have been really trying to determine is, who stands to benefit? To what end does giving the Khan Academy so much money serve?

It is hard to ignore that all the major investors of the KA have been tech giants. Now, it might seem natural that tech giants absolutely love the idea of online education that works. But I think there is a deeper interest here, and that is using the internet to hijack education to a specific end, which is increased math skill.

Now, I know this is going out on a deep end, and maybe I’m insane, but I think that math is one of the great gatekeepers in society, especially as far as the high tech fields go. Increase math skill, and you increase students’ ability to get into computer science. The U.S. is apparently lagging behind in math skill, based on test data (which in my opinion is completely worthless), and I think many see this as a sort of Sputnik moment.* However, due to advocates of various educational paradigms arguing, the tech people are trying to gain an upper hand using online education, which ignores many of the other aspects of education, especially many of the social, developmental, and economic barriers that stand in the way of students getting a worthwhile education.

Which leads me to my next question- Who is the best equipped to take control of their own education, to teach themselves relevant mathematics and computer science? Despite NCLB and an exclusive focus on test scores, students are not going into computer science. Pointless bureaucracy and misguided educational movements from every direction have put schools in a place where decent education is impossible, and teachers hands are tied. There is no coherence in curriculum. So, I think the tech people, or at least me, as a techie, see the internet as a second option, a second chance to get a meaningful education in a world where education has become meaningless, its only purpose being a test. The success of the Khan Academy is testament to individuals wanting to educate themselves in the sciences, and I believe there are a great number of other educational resources self directed individuals are seeking out- those who wish to obtain a political education are reading blogs and doing hacktivism, for example. Occupy Wall Street is living proof of political education online. ** As the internet continues to become more and more intermeshed with our lives, I think the power the economic and political forces place on education will wane, replaced by pageview democracy. People will determine their own education, or at least that is the hope.

Going back to the Khan Academy, the KA is one of the best schools in America, based on pageview democracy. However, as people seek to add things onto it, the usefulness of these additions to the site will only be judged in value by how popular they are. If people actively use them, then they will be a success. But it is very hard to determine what will be popular and what will fail, and I think that is the magic of the net, and will make following the KA over the next few years very, very interesting.

*In the 60s, when the USSR launched Sputnik, the US Government realized that the population’s math and science ability was pathetic, which spurred a massive movement back to the hard sciences to bring the US back to speed. Sure enough, it worked, and we made it to the moon. The quote a professor used to describe this event was, “Oh god! We need rocket scientists, and we needed them yesterday!”

**Many would argue that these young people think they know everything, and that this ‘political education’ that they have received by reading articles, facebook posts, blogs, and wikipedia is a joke, but I disagree. They think they know everything based on having obtained a taste of the knowledge available, but I do not think them arrogant. I think they are in their late teens and early 20s. Of course they know everything. That’s a typical view from anyone in that age group, and at least they have a basis for learning more as they grow and realize how much they don’t know.