29 January 2008

Interactive Digital Reading... from the start

Bad news and good news.

"This week, LeapFrog pulls the wraps off the LeapPad’s successor, the Tag," says a New York Times article, "a thick, white and green plastic stylus that turns paper books into interactive playthings. LeapFrog is betting that the $50 Tag, which will be available this summer along with an 18-volume library that includes children’s classics like “The Little Engine That Could” and “Olivia,” will be the hit it badly needs. It calls the Tag its “biggest launch ever.”

"The Tag, officially called the Tag Reading System, works a lot like the LeapPad. Children can tap a word with it and the stylus reads the word, or its definition, aloud. They can tap on an image to hear a character’s voice come alive. Interactive games test their reading comprehension. At its simplest, the Tag can also act as an audio book and simply read a story from beginning to end.

"But while the LeapPad system required spiral-bound books to be placed on a clunky, laptop-sized plastic console with a pointing device attached to it, LeapFrog has put all of the Tag’s smarts into the inch-and-a-half-thick stylus. It works on books whose pages are imprinted with invisible dots that allow a small infrared camera at the tip of the Tag to recognize words or images on the page. That makes it far more portable and easier to use than the LeapPad, says Jeffrey G. Katz, the chief executive of LeapFrog."

What's good?
If "Tag" catches on it will prove what many of us have been saying all along - that digital reading software belongs everywhere in education, including at the beginnings of literacy.

What's bad?
Parents will pay for this stuff. Schools will pay for this stuff, rather than utilizing the technology that would already surround them if they simply opened their eyes (and took their ridiculous internet filters off). Instead of training students for life, parents and schools will (once again) waste a fortune on one-shot toys.

"Jane O’Connor, author of the best-selling Fancy Nancy series (Two of her titles are being adapted for the Tag), who described herself as “not a very pro-technology person,” was a skeptic at first, but has since come around.

'“Sometimes it might be easier for a child who is struggling not to have a parent breathing down their neck,” she said. “You get stuck, you tap a word. The only expectation is coming from you, the kid.”'Yes, of course. As anyone who has joined the Firefox Browser with Click, Speak and right-click definitions (and translations) already knows (all completely free and cross-platform). Or as anyone who has used Microsoft Reader already knows (completely free, Windows only), or even as those who have used Natural Reader (completely free, Windows only) already understand.

We also understand that, for less than the cost of a "Tag" you can add a Canon LiDE scanner to your computer (which comes with a "lite" version of OmniPage) and convert any of your child's (or students') books into digital form.

What these systems do - and the "Tag" does less well, at high expense, is allow all readers to get the support they need. Whenever an "issue" arises in the text, be it new vocabulary, a confusing word, an un-understood word - for whatever reasons, inexperience, dyslexia, second-language acquisition, cognitive problems, or simply "reading above your knowledge level" - students can turn to digital supports. Right-click and hear the word. Or right-click and have the word defined. Or right-click and have the word translated. It allows literacy to expand while independence expands.

What these systems do - and the "Tag" cannot do at all - is grow with your child. Leapfrog thinks new vocabulary acquisition matters while reading The Little Engine that Could. But I suspect it will matter just as much when we try to read Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Joyce, or perhaps your physics textbook.

If "Tag" succeeds, it will prove that what digital reading does is essential to young readers. But it will also prove that Americans, and their schools, are always happy to spend more and get less when it comes to educational technology.

- Ira Socol

Blog Alert!
- Over at jamessocol.com a series has begun exploring true web accessibility. If you have any educational website this is vital information that you must read...

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

25 January 2008

Social Networking and Education-as-we-know-it

"A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as values, visions, idea, financial exchange, friends, kinship, dislike, conflict, trade, web links, sexual relations, disease transmission (epidemiology), or airline routes. The resulting structures are often very complex."

The Economist debate on Social Networking Systems has concluded, though final thoughts can still be posted. And I wanted to suggest a few things I have learned so far.

First, here is the complete proposition:
"Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom: Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have now become a ubiquitous part of many students’ lives. The value of social networking has been defined, in one sense, as the collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed – e.g. the best thinking comes from many not one. Others argue that significant time spent on social networking platforms actually distracts students from their studies. So a question emerges, could the introduction of social networking tools be useful in a formal classroom setting? Additionally, is the concept of social networking a progressive, but legitimate, form of student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration?"

In the debate many themes appeared. It began with Ewan McIntosh providing significant evidence of the transformative power of these tools in and out of classrooms in Scotland.

"I've been fortunate to work with thousands of school children and hundreds of teachers, creating mini social networks based around a rather traditional 'social object': the classroom. Students have been empowered to publish not just their best work, but the many drafts it takes to get there. They've received feedback from 'real' people outside school and, surprisingly often, the occasional expert has paid a visit (my personal favourite: the professional diver that corrected one student ended up being invited to visit the school to demonstrate the various bits of kit that go into a marine biology dive).

"And even if it's not happening in schools, learning is about far more than what happens behind the school gate. Lifelong learning is the policy du jour, and rightly so. We are all learners, all the time. Ubiquitous social technologies help us connect to those who can help us learn when we're outside the domain of formal education. One of the biggest iTunes success stories this past year has been Coffee Break Spanish, run by a teacher from his home in a seaside town on the West of Scotland. "You've got Spanish native speakers learning French with Coffee Break French, helping out those from around the world learning Spanish on the Coffee Break Spanish blog," says Mark Pentleton, the 'teacher' whose 21st century remit is closer to that of a living breathing social network for a band of young and old learners of foreign languages."

Dr. Michael Bugeja, expressing the "Con" side, was deeply concerned about power, authority, motives, and "time-honored standards."

"Interfaces that access social networks present a host of problems, depending on the device. Motives also vary by brand. The interface of an Apple iPhone differs from that of a Dell laptop. If we use handhelds to access social networks, odds are we will purchase digital music, videos or ringtones; or else, those devices query us daily on whether we might sample such merchandise. If we use laptops, we cope with software downloads or peripherals that also solicit online orders. We deal with these factors so often that we accept them without complaint.

"Technology has made us compliant.

"We must analyze use of social networks in education with a high degree of skepticism to ensure time-honored standards. Otherwise we may realize belatedly that those standards had value—social rather than financial—and that we inadvertently shortchanged our students who above all need to think critically and interact interpersonally to succeed in a diverse, multicultural world.

"Social networks advertise access to this diverse world while simultaneously confining users to affinity groups so as to sell, sell, sell.

"I, for one, am not buying."

Though the arguments wandered over many areas as this "Oxford-Style" debate went on, these essential themes never changed. On one side there are those (including myself) who see expanding communication technologies as new opportunities to connect, relate, study, and learn, and who are willing to take risks to explore how best to guide our students through this gathering world. On the other side are those more concerned about the risks than the benefits. As commenter Neil Shrubak said at the end of the conversation, "The Proposition argues that social networking signals a dawn of a new age of learning that will allow us to discard the baggage of old, stifling educational systems. Out with the old, in with the new. Hmm… This is the oldest rhetoric in the world. In the last 5,000 years it has not created much, but bloodshed. The more utopian the vision, the more blood spilled because of it. Don’t call this a conservative or a retrograde approach. My position is, indeed, as liberal as they get. Evolution over revolution. Cheers to Bacon, Newton, Darwin. Down with Mao, Stalin and both Kims."

The rebuttal to those fears goes like this - as I noted in my ("PostColonialTech") last comment, "SNS alters students' expectations of learning and truth, making it more collaborative, less hierarchical, perhaps less bound to certain "centres of learning." Yet that does not mean that it makes knowledge acquisition easier - it may, indeed, make it much more complex, much more difficult. But - here's the thing - I am not sure that in learning "easier" (as in "simpler") is the better thing. It is simpler to hear either Dr. Bugeja or Mr. McIntosh lecture and accept (whomever) point of view. It is more complex, yet to me richer and more rewarding, to participate in this SNS conversation - even if you cannot see whatever credentials I might have hanging on my wall. And even if you - or I - lack the credentials which might, under older systems of technology ("the lecture hall") allow us major roles in the debate. " and Jon Pincus adds (from his blog), "...social networks can also make a huge positive impact on some underlying issues in the education field. Start with the exclusion and marginalization of a lot of voices and from debates held in the halls of power. Again use this debate as an example: no current or recent students in The Economist’s roster; the speakers, Moderator, and guest participants all currently occupy positions of (relative) privilege; and the tone is often condescending towards practitioners (as opposed to “experts”). Social networking technologies make it easier to broaden the conversation, with people bringing their friends and acquaintances in environments that are more inclusive – and creating opportunities to network together, creating connections among existing networks that didn’t exist before."

So, while there are many issues, including questions regarding the understanding of history (Dr. Bugeja at one point takes time to blast Gutenberg, who, "printed a few Bibles but was better known in his time for disseminating the junk mail of the 15th century—indulgences."), and questions regarding an understanding of technology (Dr. Bugeja makes an explicit distinction between "tools" - such as a chalkboard - and "technology," - "why technology is not a tool like a ruler or chalk board but an autonomous system that changes radically anything it touches without itself being changed much at all" - while I think of chalkboards, books, even lecture halls and classrooms as obvious forms of technology), and a brief, if esoteric, argument about what is and what isn't a "Social Networking System," I still find myself believing that where you stand on this issue relates principally to questions of power, and thus fear.

If you believe that education, as we have known it over the past two centuries - that is, formalized, structured, hierarchical, and occurring in a specific setting, has generally worked well - for yourself, your family, and/or the world, then you will likely find the idea of social networking as an educational strategy disturbing, because, by its definition, it slices through hierarchy and alters authority. But if you see the world as needing a dramatically more flexible, more collaborative, more open form of education as we attempt to reach across the huge chasms of difference in human experience, you will likely find the idea of social networking as an educational strategy so powerful as to be worth the investments in time, money, training, as well as in terms of the risks which come with any change.

One of the critical things about Social Networking Systems is that authority is a flexible idea. Braha and Bar-Yam (2006) found that "authority" (the "highly connected nodes") in a social network changed day-by-day, even when participants were much the same. [1] Contrast that with a lecture hall (one highly connected node that is constant through the semester) or the traditional classroom (with one primary highly connected mode - the teacher - and a few lesser-connected nodes - the "top" students, again as constants). The structure of the technology of the lecture hall or classroom literally works against the acceptance of distributed expertise. It is hard, very hard, to stand up from the back row and declare that the central authority might be mistaken. It is very hard for a fourteen-year-old to demonstrate knowledge on a topic superior to that of the teacher. And it is almost impossible for either of those "interrupters" to pull in the expertise (via human interaction or data) that would prove their point. Also impossible to instantly reach outside that room to ask questions from a larger library of data.

SNS reverses these issues. On a social networking site it is difficult to maintain authority. I can challenge Dr. Bugeja in ways I would never think of doing in a classroom. Everything he says can be loudly doubted, assaulted, even insulted. He can no longer control the discussion. But, I can easily bring my expertise in. I can (often) easily track the experiences of those making agreeing or disagreeing statements. I can look up data and put it where everyone can see it. I do not need credentials to enter, but, in ways unique to the structure, I must quickly establish my credentials. It is indeed messier, more complex, in many ways more difficult. But I would argue that it can also be richer, more inquisitive, and in many ways, far more human.

At the end, debate moderator Robert Cottrell brings up one commenter:
"As we move towards the close, I am going to pull out a line from JOHNNAUGHTON that I think merits reflection.

"Social networking, he says, is "intrinsically non-hierarchical and largely uncontrollable. It's therefore a poor fit with our hierarchical and tightly-controlled educational institutions—at every level from kindergarten to university. Social networking could conceivably have beneficial effects in education—but only if the social structures implicit in our educational system adapt to accept it."

"It seems to me that if Mr Naughton's first sentence is correct, then it is revolution, more than an adaptation, which is required, for social networking to make its way in education. And I am not sure that the proponents of the motion have made that clear."

I hope I have made this clear. I believe that I and others, like Ewan McIntosh, come to be proponents of SNS systems in education because we believe that a revolution is necessary. I know that I look at schools every day and wonder at the cruelty and meanness of the environment, of the way learning and creativity are limited and stifled, of the high percentage of students for whom our "time-honored" systems do not work. That is not to say that SNS systems should be our only form of learning environment, but it does suggest that there is a reason that you often have to drag children to school, while having to drag them away from their computers and mobiles.

To the question: "could the introduction of social networking tools be useful in a formal classroom setting? Additionally, is the concept of social networking a progressive, but legitimate, form of student-to-student and student-to-teacher collaboration?"Part A: Yes, useful and transformational. Even the temporary alteration of the power structure in the classroom engages different students in different ways - opens possibilities - alters both self-perceptions and world understandings. Part B: Yes, progressive AND legitimate, and again, transformational. Used properly, "teaching will never be quite the same," Nor, I might add, should it be.

- Ira Socol

[1] D. Braha and Y. Bar-Yam. From Centrality to Temporary Fame: Dynamic Centrality in Complex Networks. Complexity 12: 59-36, 2006.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

20 January 2008

The Fear

"Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance." so says, Henry Drummond - the Clarence Darrow character in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind. He continues, speaking directly to the jury and, of course, the audience

"Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.
Mr., you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline." Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis."

Despite the fears of some religious extremists, today it is not "the pleasant poetry of Genesis" which is threatened, but certain "norms" of information transmission. Yet the fear described by that play, and by the Scopes Monkey Trial itself, is a real thing.

In a changing world, it is not surprising that people are afraid. It is, of course, least surprising that the people for whom the 'old world" has worked really well, will be most afraid. No one wants to be relegated to the old "dustbin of history," surely not those for whom status (as opposed to say, great wealth or great power) is the key to their identity. The current debate at The Economist's web site reminded me of this.

"Many would argue that online education is currently exacting such a price. Critics are already lamenting what is lost, particularly from interpersonal relations in the classroom, but the real test of online education will be what is on balance gained," says Douglas F. Johnson of the University of Florida in his chapter "Toward a Philosophy of Online Education" (in Developing Faculty to Use Technology, Programs and Strategies to Enhance Teaching, edited by David G. Brown). Posted on Stanford University's "Tomorrow's Professor" Blog.

He continues, "Creating a flexible leaning process and an environment that incorporates online technologies can attract more students and improve their access to learning opportunities while enhancing their understanding and retention of new information about both the process and the content of education. Such a learning environment can best target specific and rapidly changing educational needs.

"These changes do not mitigate the rationale for the traditional liberal arts curriculum, as many fear. In fact, they reinforce it, for what can be of greater value in a just-in-time, needs-driven world than a broad base of understanding, a demonstrated ability to learn a wide variety of subjects, and a proven track record of learning how to learn? Online education presents important opportunities o reach a mobile population, but it must be structured on clearly conceived concepts so that the cherished and time-tested educational purposes of the past may continue to add value to the learning needs of the present."

If you read the "con" comments in the debate (in which I appear by the nom de keyboard PostColonialTech) you will see the fear. There is a sense of lost control - Social Networking, it is charged, will somehow replace the art of teaching, it will destroy literature and received knowledge, it will turn content over to capitalists in pursuit of nothing but profit, it will replace face-to-face interaction.

All of these complaints assume two things - first, that everyone benefits from the "pre-technology" system - in this case the delivery of content in "teacher-controlled contexts" through books, lectures, and controlled dialogues. Second, that internet-based social networking cannot co-exist with other forms of human communication.

Both assumptions are wrong. Education must change, becoming far more flexible and far more learner-controlled, because it has not worked for most of the world. Not only do most students do "poorly" in school - that is, they get less than they need from the process - but much of the world suffers because so much of our "received wisdom" comes unexamined and untested against realities outside of the narrow experiences of academics. This does not place us on that "slippery slope" to where "nothing is true." Instead it means that we need to integrate, and challenge, a far more diverse group of voices than schools traditionally have done, and we must deliver content in many more ways than schools have done. And the technology of our age allows us to do both things - we can connect students in Kentucky to students in South Africa, and we can offer content via a wide choice of delivery systems - authentic voices, authentic experiences, real challenges - joined to content provided in a way which allows the highest degree of personal comprehension.

But yes, technology systems for education must exist within an educational context. So we must teach and model on-line behavior. Obviously we must teach on-line searching, and navigation, and discernment. We must encourage critical thinking in social network interaction, and we must demonstrate interactive expansion - from network form to Skype video conference in (how many?) deliberate steps... These are not "natural skills" - but they are skills our students must know if they are to succeed, to flourish, in the future.

So, it is ok to be afraid. Teaching will need to change. Teachers will need to learn new things. And the world will change. Nothing will ever quite "be the same." But fear is not a reason to stop progress. Fear is something humans overcome in order to progress. Social Networking, like mobile phones and web-based news delivery, will change education - and if we use these technologies well, if we teach them well, they will change education for the better.

Anyway, come read, and come join the conversation at The Economist.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

16 January 2008

Stop Abusing Children!

If you listen to the educational researchers who currently hold sway in the United States - including those advising every current presidential candidate - Republican and Democratic - no one in the Scandinavian nations or in Germany learns to read - "it is impossible," they imply, to learn reading without explicit instruction at the youngest ages. Of course years of moving this instruction down have done nothing to improve reading among adolescents - in fact, evidence is that these tactics help few and damage many - a tough set of facts hidden within the statistical fictions of large studies conducted by people with curriculum systems to sell.

Now the "No Child Left Behind" disease has jumped the Atlantic, and now infects the British Labour Party. And now 3 and 4 year olds are threatened with the nightmare of age inappropriate reading lessons which will likely exacerbate dyslexic conditions and teach young children to hate books and reading. It is a disaster in the making which may only be stopped by concerted political action. If you are a British citizen, please read the petition below, and sign it if you agree.

- Ira Socol

Dear All:

Please, please, please . . . if you have a problem with 3 and 4-year-olds having to learn to read and write (outrageously, this becomes law in the UK in 9 months time for all nurseries – not just state-funded nurseries), then please sign the following Downing Street petition: just click on this link and follow the instructions

They (the gov't) just haven't got it. They think the sooner a child starts something, the better it will be; the notion of age appropriateness doesn't seemed to have crossed their mind. There is masses of evidence (e.g. formal schooling in Germany starting age 6/7, etc) demonstrating that delaying formal learning and letting children learn through just playing is no hindrance to later literacy. In fact it helps.

If you want to sign the petition, please do it today, as to get over 1,000 signatures in a couple of days apparently gets 'registered'. Current total 469 !

Full text of this Downing Street Petition:

We, the undersigned, petition the Prime Minister to commission an urgent independent review of the compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) policy framework, and to reduce the status of its learning and development requirements to `professional guidelines'.

We recognise the government's good intentions in its early-years policy-making, but are concerned about the EYFS legislation, which comes into force in England next September.

Our concerns focus on the learning and development requirements, as follows:

1. They may harm children's development

2. They will restrict parents' freedom of choice in childcare and education

3. Their assessment profile requirements may place an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on those who care for young children

4. Recent evidence suggests that government interventions in education generally may not be driving standards up and may be putting too much pressure on children

5. There is significant evidence to suggest that introducing formal education too early is damaging to some children in both the short and the long term, especially to boys. Consequences may include the development of unpredictable emotional and behavioural problems, unwarranted levels of stress, damage to children's self-esteem and erosion of their enthusiasm for learning. Research has shown that 5 year olds drilled in reading and writing were outstripped four years later by children whose first year at school was more socially interactive and stimulating. Such evidence suggests that in practice (notwithstanding the reassurances offered in the legislation) the approaches to teaching that will be encouraged by broad-brush EYFS targets - such as that by the age of 5 children should "begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation" - are likely to be those which may be harmful to young children.

6. The EYFS will be mandatory across all settings – childminders, nurseries, playgroups, schools (including independent schools). We appreciate that the Government's intention is to ensure the same high standards everywhere, but we believe that this could be better achieved by investing the necessary resources in comprehensive staff training across the field. We do not accept that the EYFS encapsulation of child development reflects the views of professionals worldwide, nor do we accept that it is acceptable to mix developmental milestones with aspirational outcomes.

We note that the law allows for the Government to make regulations regarding exemptions to EYFS. However such exceptions are to be made only at the request of individual parents, and it will therefore be impossible for parents to find a childcare or educational setting which takes a different approach to the EYFS and therefore does not teach to its learning and development requirements. This is an unprecedented restriction of parents' freedom to choose how their children are cared for and educated. It may actually increase the use of informal care, with accompanying lower standards in some cases.

7. The EYFS profile demands that carers assess children against 117 different assessment points. With less than a year to go until implementation, arrangements for carers to receive training and ongoing support are seriously inadequate. Without such training and support there is unlikely to be any consistency of assessments and random "box-ticking" is a real probability. Even once trained to do it, assessment and recording will add significantly to the workload of those who care for and work with young children. It may skew the way staff observe and interact with those children, and the paperwork required will certainly take up valuable time that could otherwise be spent with them.

8. Recent evidence – including the reports of the Cambridge Primary Review, and the latest OECD PISA report (the "international league tables") - suggests that government-driven changes in education have been largely ineffective in driving up standards and may at worst be adversely affecting both educational standards and the quality of children's educational experiences. We see no reason to believe that the EYFS learning and development requirements would break this pattern.

In conclusion we believe that this unprecedented legislation could lead to harmful long-term consequences and therefore contradicts the responsible "precautionary principle" which should surely be exercised in all early-year state policy-making.


11 January 2008

The Mobile Scanner

I've set up many university students with what I call "the backpackable scanner" - the LiDE series of flatbed scanners from Canon which sell cheaply (typically US $35-$75), weigh under two pounds, need no electrical power (just a laptop's USB connection), and come with a great "lite" version of OmniPage. With that scanner carried along they can create instant conversions of any printed text to a digital form usable by text-reading software almost anywhere they find themselves (classroom quizzes, in the library stacks). It's a great solution, but still, we're at "almost anywhere."

Now, "almost anywhere" becomes "anywhere," with a digital camera and an online service called ScanR.

ScanR allows you to turn your mobile phone [with 2-megapixel or better camera] or digital camera into a full-service scanner. Take a picture of a document or even a whiteboard, send it to ScanR directly from your mobile or your computer, and they will convert it into a PDF file (like Adobe Acrobat) or a text-file and deliver it back to you. ScanR is free for very limited use (5 conversions per month) or fee based (US $2.99/month) for unlimited use.

Now, there's one more essential reason to have mobile phones in the classroom - ScanR just made the phone the best notetaking support possible. But think of all the other uses - a dyslexic student or worker could quickly convert print into text for a screen-reader wherever they might be. Attention-challenged students could grab the whiteboard information even if they had needed to escape the room for a few minutes. Literacy-impaired students can make substantially better use of print libraries. I can also see great uses of this for senior citizens who might need to alter text into more readable forms - and, of course, it already seems well on its way to being an essential business tool.

- Ira Socol