29 February 2008


Spellcheckers have this inherent limitation. You usually have to be very, very close in order to get corrected spelling.

Now, I say this knowing absolutely that the spellchecker is perhaps the number one bit of "assistive technology" used in the world today - by "disabled" and "non-disabled" alike - unless we count things like automobiles and elevators, eyeglasses and stepstools, you understand, the things which can be used by students and workers without special permissions and special labels. Used the way teachers, for example, are allowed to use spellcheckers but students typically are not.

But those limitations - unfortunately standard spellchecking technology still requires a high degree of ability in what is called "phonics" - that bizarre science of trying to match up completely inconsistent spellings with the completely inconsistent sounds (in languages like English and Irish) they represent ("come home"). If you can't manipulate these code systems well enough to trigger the right guesses from the spellcheck algorithms, all you end up with is frustration.

Now along comes Ghotit.com - the creation of an Israeli dyslexia activist (and now "inventor") named Ofer Chermesh. Ghotit - a play on the classic phonetic spelling of "fish" ("ghoti") [1] - is a web-based, context-centered, definitions included, spellcheck system aimed at dyslexics and English-language-learners.

Ghotit's "Alpha" trial - now online - suggests that you enter text with the most outrageous spelling mistakes. I'm not sure I tried the most outrageous. Instead I selected a sentence made up of a few student-mispelled words from this past year. I typed the following "sentence" into Ghotit, three different Google applications, and Microsoft Word.

awnly onse I sod axin him fer kawfee

in Ghotit I was offered the correct words for
awnly - only
onse - once
axin - asking
fer - for
kawfee - coffee
it did not offer me what I needed for "sod" - a "north Dublin" or "upper New England" version of "said" - but this was much better than the alternatives

in Google (G-mail and Blogspot) no correct corrections were offered - though in Google Docs I did get "only" and "once."

In Microsoft Word I only was offered correct choices for "onse" and "fer."

Yes, the difference with Ghotit is dramatic. The correct spellings are there. Even better, they are there and supported by definitions so it is easier to pick between "once" and "nose" when you click on "onse."

But yes, you'll still have to teach. You'll still have to help dyslexic students find the right spellings, and probably help them read the definitions (how great would this be if a text-to-speech engine could read the definitions?). And yet, this is potentially a huge independence tool and a huge frustration-reducer.

The folks at Ghotit would really like you to test the system out - and to test it out with real students - and to send them feedback. It's a great start, and it will get better the more you help. So bring your students to Ghotit today - and pronounce it "fished" [2] if you want.

-Ira Socol

In Ghotit's own words -

English spelling is not easy and is full of many spelling irregularities. The word GHOTI is a constructed example word used to illustrate these irregularities, since the official pronunciation of the word is counter-intuitive and is pronounced like the word “fish”.

Ghotit was founded by people that suffer from dyslexia. Ghotit’s mission is to improve the overall quality of life of a dyslectic. Ghotit is not a treatment for dyslexia. It's a set of services that assists dyslectics to overcome their writing and reading difficulties by helping the dyslectic to convert his poorly spelled written limitations to mainstream English.

Dyslexics are heavy users of spell checkers. However, standard spell and grammar checkers address the needs of the general population, who demonstrates average spelling and whose spelling mistakes are typing errors resulting in a spelling that shows high resemblance to the requested word. These spell checkers produce low results for users who demonstrate poor English spelling such as dyslectics, due to:
  • The written word spelling is ‘too far’ from the correct spelling
  • No support for misused/out-of-context words- the written word is a real-word that is spelled correctly but is used in the wrong context; for example: let’s meat later
  • No assistance provided to the user in selecting the correct candidate word

Focusing on the problems listed above, the Ghotit team has developed unique spellchecking and spellcorrecting algorithms which are at the core of the services Ghotit is developing for the dyslexic community.

[1] Ghoti is a constructed example used to illustrate irregularities in English spelling. It is a respelling of the word fish, and like it is pronounced /ˈfɪʃ/. It has,

  • gh, pronounced /f/ as in laugh /læf/;
  • o, pronounced /ɪ/ as in women /ˈwɪmɪn/; and
  • ti, pronounced /ʃ/ as in nation /ˈneɪʃən/. - from Wikipedia
[2] With the last t in "ghotit" pronounced the "North American Way" - that is, as an "almost" d - "ghotit" is pronounced "fished"

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

27 February 2008

Reading (or Schools) vs. Learning

Samara Yudof is part of the problem. OK, not really. Samara Yudof is just a flack for the Bush regime's education department. But her quote in Wednesday's New York Times illustrates the basic disconnect between educational policy makers - including all of those who supported the No Child Left Behind legislation in the US (Senator Clinton, this includes you and Senator McCain) - and the reality of how humans learn.

Here's the quote, Yudof's boilerplate response to a report bemoaning the narrowing of the US curriculum under Bush, “You can be supportive of N.C.L.B. and also support strengthening the teaching of history and literature,” a spokeswoman for the Education Department, Samara Yudof, said. “It’s good to talk about expanding the curriculum, but if you can’t read, you can’t read anything at all.”

Wrong. 180 degrees wrong. Just completely wrong.

The right thing to say is this, "Without expanding the curriculum to bring in things of real value to students (and their society) there is no reason to learn to read or to practise maths. Reading can take many forms - only one of which involves the decoding and phonological strategies which fill the American school day, but the reason to read, and the reason to want to read, can take only one form - proving to students that accessing stories and information will be valuable to them. Likewise there are many ways to perform mathematics, but students will only learn those if they have proof that these skills will improve their lives in some way."

American schools have been degraded since 2001, turned into meaningless skill factories with no pay off for students or societies. They were bad enough at the end of the last century, but now, it is probably absolutely true - the less time your child spends in school, the better he or she will be. School has managed to completely disconnect the 'science' of reading (that decoding phenomenon) from the 'arts' of content acquisition, inquiry, and entertainment. And, in this century, the only essential things are those arts. Any number of free, downloadable, software packages will solve the decoding for you. In other words, it is as if we were teaching 'hammering' while forgetting to point out that the idea is to connect two things with a nail.

But those in Washington, from George W. Bush to Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton to the National Endowment for the Arts (with their nonsensical definitions of "reading") to profit-chasing academics like Johns Hopkins' Robert Slavin persist in ignoring why a child, any child, any human, would learn to read.

Yo people! Humans learn to read because they want to get to the content of things written down. If they do not want to do that, if you give them no reason to do that, they - almost invariably - will not learn to read.

But go into an American classroom today - especially in one of the absurd places directed by that "Education Mayor" Michael Bloomberg of New York - and you will find reading taught as if it were of no more interest than learning an industrial skill. No wonder they need to offer kids money in exchange for doing it. You wouldn't have learned to operate an industrial loom in 1850s England without a pay envelope either.

It is time to put things back into context. It is time to make school a place of childhood, of inquiry, of intellectual curiosity, of exposure to the world and it's possibilities. It is time to stop testing and start exploring. It is time to let children come to reading rather than forcing children to read. It is time to expect our schools to allow students to find reasons and motivations to learn rather than the continual pouring of trivia and drivel over their heads.

Our world will be a poorer place in the future because of what we have done to children these past six years. We owe the next group of students something much greater.

The article:
February 27, 2008

Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.

The organization describes itself as a new research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in public schools.

The group says President Bush’s education law, No Child Left Behind, has impoverished public school curriculums by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and mathematics, but in no other subjects.

Politically, the group’s leaders are strange bedfellows. Its founding board includes Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that is a powerful force in the Democratic Party, and Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University who was assistant education secretary under the first President George Bush.

Its executive director is Lynne Munson, former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former special assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne.

“We’re a truly diverse group,” Mrs. Munson said. “We almost certainly vote differently, and we have varying opinions about different aspects of educational reform. But when it comes to concern that all of America’s children receive a comprehensive liberal arts and science education, we all agree.”

In the survey, 1,200 17-year-olds were called in January and asked to answer 33 multiple-choice questions about history and literature that were read aloud to them. The questions were drawn from a test that the federal government administered in 1986.

About a quarter of the teenagers were unable to correctly identify Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in World War II, instead identifying him as a munitions maker, an Austrian premier and the German kaiser.

On literature, the teenagers fared even worse. Four in 10 could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s novel about a young man’s growing up in the South and moving to Harlem, “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles. About half knew that in the Bible Job is known for his patience in suffering. About as many said he was known for his skill as a builder, his prowess in battle or his prophetic abilities.

The history question that proved easiest asked the respondents to identify the man who declared, “I have a dream.” Ninety-seven percent correctly picked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

About 8 in 10, a higher percentage than on any other literature question, knew that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about two children affected by the conflict in their community when their father defends a black man in court.

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal results but said it had led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

“You can be supportive of N.C.L.B. and also support strengthening the teaching of history and literature,” a spokeswoman for the Education Department, Samara Yudof, said. “It’s good to talk about expanding the curriculum, but if you can’t read, you can’t read anything at all.”

A string of studies have documented the curriculum’s narrowing since Mr. Bush signed the law in January 2002.

Last week, the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington that has studied the law, estimated that based on its own survey that 62 percent of school systems had added an average of three hours of math or reading instruction a week at the expense of time for social studies, art and other subjects.

The Bush administration and some business and civil rights groups warn against weakening the law, saying students need reading and math skills to succeed in other subjects.

- 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 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

19 February 2008

The Instant Anachronism

I can always get myself into trouble - given half a chance. And so last week I picked up a free copy of the Lansing State Journal while eating lunch in the International Centre at MSU and came across a column complaining about the high cost to students of having to buy multiple "clickers" (Student Response System remotes) for MSU courses. I read it (I've included the full column below), finished my "Panda Bowl" (contains no actual panda), went back to my office and quickly - always too quickly - emailed a response to the column's author. Which - in turn - created a Saturday column by the same author quoting me and demanding answers to my concerns from university administrators.

Here's my email:

"Your column today on classroom clickers at MSU was depressing. Once again we find a Michigan educational institution wasting vast sums of money (the taxpayers' money and the students' money) by embracing already antiquated technology in pursuit of antiquated teaching practices.

Everything that a "clicker" can do, can, of course, simply be done by embracing the mobile phone and text message capabilities almost all students carry with them. This kind of sophisticated classroom interaction via the mobile phone is in use in many nations, either by using basic text-message capabilities or through small bluetooth receivers attached to instructor computers. These systems can, however, do so much more - allowing things other than guessed multiple choice answers to be transmitted. Short answers, even mini-essays, math solutions, all easily flow through text messaging.

"But what is worse than the waste of money is the way that the clicker reinforces all the worst instructional and evaluation practices, emphasizing the mini-quiz rather than the search for authentic evaluation of student learning and the kind of differentiated instruction which is the key to expanding access to higher education.

"So, the multiple clickers aren't just silly and wasteful. They are destructive to the goals the State of
Michigan should have for Michigan State University."

individualized education at work (photo from Ohio University's Center for Academic Technology)

As a friend noted in an email in response, "We had a demo of our clicker system at the [institution where he works], and it was magical how people felt empowered by having any input in a classroom at all. It was demoed with a class full of teachers, and they were so energized it was sad to see, because it shows how used they are to being passive vessels in learning. It is clearly a transitional technology, and a more politic guy would have found a way to say that, rather than jumping in their face. But that's why America needs you."

Yes, of course, but my anger with the growing "clicker culture" at places like Michigan State University is that if universities with "top ten" schools of education are not leading the way in educational practice, who is? And the problem with transitional technologies in education is that they all too often become permanent - technology adoption in schools being as painfully slow as it is.

But this really isn't just a tech question - it is an education question. "Clickers" feign interactivity - sort of the way the Iraqi Government of today feigns sovereignty. These remotes offer a single-direction communication system - based in purely faculty (or more often, textbook publisher) created content and context. The clickers do not ask questions, they can only respond within faculty or textbook publisher created restraints.

My friend, however, seems right. Preszler, Dawe, Shuster and Shuster (2007) found that first and second year university students preferred lecture courses with clickers to lecture courses without clickers, and that, when "clicking counted" (that is, "clicks" became part of the grade), attendance increased, and, standardised test responses may have increased as well. In other words, something is better than nothing. Just - to extend the metaphor - as Iraqis prefer the fig leaf of their current "protectorate" status to direct imperial rule.

Which brings us back to the question, doesn't it? Or even further back. Is the lecture (as a course model, not an occasional dip into a great illuminating academic performance) still a legitimate learning model? If it is - if we are to continue to dehumanise (de-individualise) education this way - shouldn't we be jumping ahead to the best possible systems? And whatever that decision, shouldn't we be (if only on cost or environmental bases) using ubiquitous technology to do this? Shouldn't we be using (at least) individualisable technology to do this? (if only on equity grounds for students with differing capabilities)

The clicker is, of course, an instant anachronism. It is one more try by the educational powers-that-be to limit the capabilities of technology, and to enforce control. Texting on your mobile is seen as "dangerous" because students might "be distracted" or "do other things" or - is it - because they might engage in "back-channel" learning - choosing to learn other things or the same things in other ways. And texting is more difficult for lecturers because they might have to deal with the range of difficulties or concerns students were having instead of simply taking a quick poll.

With mobiles (as the alternative) the instructor effort required is significantly greater, but the changes wrought in the classroom might be significantly greater as well, "The line between specific educational applications and general uses of the mobile abilities for educational purposes is not always all that clear. This is due to the fact that the mobile phone is a multi application system, and as such, enables educational application to use other utilities of the cellular phone (for example: communication utilities). Thus, the cellular utilities can be seen as building blocks of the global educational application. An example is the Mobile Author application (Virvou, 2004), which helps teachers create and author their computerbased courses. It allows teachers to insert domain data into the application (lessons, assessment tests etc). The data documents are html documents. Both students and the teacher have access to the databases of the application, and they communicate with each other via SMS, email or the databases. All can be done via the mobile phone. Students can read their assignments, do their tests and send them to the teacher for him or her to check them. Throughout teachers stay informed of the progress of their students wherever they may be and whenever they want. Results show that the majority of teachers found the mobile facilities both useful and user friendly (especially those teachers without previous experience with computers)." (Yerushalmy and Ben-Zaken, 2004)

So my problem remains - "clickers" are not just wasteful, they encourage preservation of a system which really does not work, by making it, oh just so slightly less awful. But that gets us back to that eternal question... are you so satisfied with education-as-it-is that you simply want to tinker, or are you so angry that you want to revolutionise?

but perhaps not as engaged as we hoped... as we look closer

(and P.S. to the Lansing State Journal commenter who assumed I owned "stock in Verizon" - well, no, but not in a textbook publisher either. Just as a price comparison - a Verizon Mobile customer could add 250 texts a month to their plan for $5 - so seven months, almost two semesters, for the price of just one clicker. And that's expensive. My unlimited texting plan costs me $5 monthly.)

- Ira Socol

see previous post on Mobiles in the Classroom.

both columns - in reverse order...

Schneider: Classroom clickers already out of date, MSU scholar says

John Schneider
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING - Regarding those classroom clickers I wrote about Wednesday, at least one fan of technology at Michigan State University isn't buying them at any price.

In response to Wednesday's column, I heard from Ira David Socol, the College of Education's special education technology scholar.

Socol, a graduate student, was unequivocal in his disdain for the gadgets.

"The multiple clickers aren't just silly and wasteful," he wrote. "They are destructive to the goals the state of Michigan should have for MSU."

Clickers are the informal name for Student Response Systems. They're hand-held gadgets that look like TV remote controls. They allow students to give instant feedback to instructors. Think of the audience in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" voting for the correct answer to a question.

In Wednesday's column, the father of a student complained that his son had to buy three clickers (at $35 to $40 each) for three classes. Why, the dad wondered, couldn't the instructors get on the same wavelength?

'Useful tools'

In his response to my inquiry, David Gift, MSU's vice provost for technology, among other things, said MSU is working toward clicker consolidation, but defended clickers as "remarkably useful teaching tools ..."

Remarkably ridiculous, says Socol.

Here's more of what he wrote:

"Your column on classroom clickers was depressing. Once again, we find a Michigan educational institution wasting vast sums of money (the taxpayers' money and the students' money) by embracing already antiquated technology in pursuit of antiquated teaching practices.

"Everything a clicker can do, can, of course, simply be done by embracing the mobile phone and text message capabilities almost all students carry with them. This kind of sophisticated classroom interaction via the mobile phone is in use in many nations. ..."

More options

And, Socol added, the cell phone technology can do so much more, "allowing things other than guessed multiple choice answers to be transmitted. Short answers, even mini-essays, math solutions, all easily flow through text messaging."

Socol went on to say that clickers are worse than anachronistic - they're contrary to the mission of education.

"What is worse than the waste of money is the way the clicker reinforces all the worst instructional and evaluation practices, emphasizing the mini-quiz rather than the search for authentic evaluation of student learning and the kind of differentiated instruction which is the key to expanding access to higher education."

In fact, clickers, Socol says, are practically un-American.

"This is just one more way U.S. education continues to fall behind that of other nations - a failure to embrace transformative technologies," Socol wrote.

Responding to Socol's comments, MSU spokesman Terry Denbow sent me an e-mail that he said reflected the views of various education technology specialists at MSU. It said, in part:

"Technology changes fast, and we don't know where clickers will be tomorrow, but they can be very useful if an instructor incorporates them in smart, meaningful ways.

"Mobile technology is quickly becoming another option for this purpose in classrooms, and, yes, text messages can be used in similar ways. We need to be considering all options, while keeping in mind the potential technical issues."

Schneider: Multiple classroom clickers for MSU students puzzles dad

John Schneider
Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING - If you're like MSU spokesman Terry Denbow and me, the only "clicker" you ever carried to college was a ball-point pen, described by Denbow as "a wonderful 'new' invention that precluded all the quills from dropping all over my mid-terms."

Denbow was responding to an inquiry I forwarded him from Tony Sporer of Portland, who wanted to know why his son, an MSU student, had to buy a separate clicker (at $35-$40 apiece) for each of his three classes.

The electronic gadgets allow students to give instructors instant classroom feedback.

Now, compared to tuition and textbooks, 35-40 bucks per class may sound like small change, but, as the beleaguered Sporer sees it, college is expensive enough without the nickel-and-diming.

Sporer is hardly anti-MSU. He pointed out that he, his wife and his daughter have six MSU degrees among them. But sending kids to MSU these days, Sporer said, gives "Go Green" a whole new meaning.

"This feels," he wrote, "like another example of MSU's seemingly callous attitude regarding the cost of a college education ... How difficult would it be to standardize the university so that only one of these programmable devices is required?"

Remote responses

Before I answer that question, I must address a more urgent one: What the heck is a clicker?

It's a hand-held gizmo about the size of a TV remote control. Typically, it's used in conjunction with a PowerPoint slide show. It allows instantaneous electronic "conversation" between students and instructors.

It could make the raised hand obsolete, if it hasn't already.

Although clickers can be used, for example, to conduct in-class quizzes, most instructors employ them to gauge how well students are grasping the ideas they're teaching.

As for Sporer's implication that MSU could, if it wanted to, create a universal clicker, Denbow handed that one off to David Gift, MSU's vice provost for libraries, computing and technology.

In his e-mail to me, Gift wrote: "We have heard this message from students, and have responded; the current state of play is NOT a result of inattention, callousness or inefficiency."

Multiple forces

It's the result, instead, Gift said, of a variety of factors, including:

• Clicker technology is racing forward so fast that MSU officials have been reluctant to pick a winner.

• Some early clickers required the installation of expensive receiver systems in classrooms that would have become obsolete within three years.

• Clickers, and their software, often get bundled with textbooks. Instructors are inclined to use the clicker that comes with a textbooks they choose.

That's not to say it's a closed issue. Last spring, MSU officials began recommending that faculty members choose from one of two products that, together, pretty much cover all the instructional bases.

"It will take some time," Gift wrote, "for the older clickers to wash out of the system - and the competitive marketplace will always drive more choices - but we seem to be heading quickly toward a situation where the cost to students of clickers will be better controlled, and faculty will still have the ability to select the best tools for their classrooms."

Academic Papers
SMS in the Classroom - "Pls Turn Ur Mobile On" (Ireland
- Open Access)
Mobiles in the Classroom (Israel - Open Access)
SMS in a Literature Course (Germany)

SMS messaging in microeconomics experiments (Australia - Open Access)
Mobile Learning in Distance Education (Norway - Open Access)
Testing using SMS messaging (New Zealand)
Cell Phones in the L2 Classroom (Korea)
Instantaneous Feedback in the Interactive Classroom (Singapore - Open Access)

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

15 February 2008

Too much technology?

"Of course, the big question isn't whether teachers like spending their time learning one new gizmo after another, but whether a parade of new technologies will help kids learn. From what I can see, that's not the case. Says one math teacher: "Math grows out of the end of a pencil. You don't want the quick answer; you want students to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it. The administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but it has to be a painful, step-by-step process."

"A social studies teacher agrees. More than ever, he says, "our students want to push a button or click a mouse for a quick A, B or C answer. Fewer and fewer of them want to think anymore because good thinking takes time."'

A Washington Post column by a Virginia high school teacher named Patrick Welsh included the quote above. I found it when a friend sent me a link to an ed blog discussing the story.

Mr. Welsh complains that his school district built a high school which is focused on technology instead of pedagogy. He says the building suffers from, "Technolust [in] its advanced stages... administrators have made such a fetish of technology that some of my colleagues are referring to us as "Gizmo High." Complaints are listed, with fine anecdotes, about being forced to use Interactive White Boards instead of overhead projectors, about "paperless" classrooms and assignments, and the multiple horrors of distracted students.

Believe me, I can sympathize with these teachers - I really can. They are poorly trained and poorly supported, and they work for a school district which clearly 'bought first and thought later.' As I've said many times, no one on the planet pays more for less effective technologies than the typical American school. But the notions behind Mr. Welsh's column are so completely wrong that I have to say something.

Let's pull apart the quote above - We'll start with the math teacher. "Math," he says, "grows out of the end of a pencil. You don't want the quick answer; you want students to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it. The administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but it has to be a painful, step-by-step process."

Take it one step at a time. "Math," he says, "is dependent on a combination of 19th Century technologies that I have used all of my life." Right, he didn't say those words - but that is what he said. The pencil, machine made wood-pulp paper, the chalkboard - these are all 19th Century technologies. Does the teacher argue that no maths were ever taught before the invention of these tools? Or does he believe that these are natural things - perhaps part of the second seven days of creation? Like most in education he confuses his way of doing things with learning. Could math be done with a finger in the dirt? By counting on one's fingers? Or by writing on an IWB? Or a tablet computer? Or by inputting the right numbers into the calculator on one's mobile phone? It's a legitimate question.

Then he says, "You don't want the quick answer; you want students to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it." All of which I wholeheartedly agree with - and I hope this educator never suggests that, say, a shorter proof is better, or gives timed quizzes, and I sure hope that he battles with all his heart against short answer tests and lesson plans which do not allow each student to move forward at his or her own pace.

And finally he notes, "The administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but it has to be a painful, step-by-step process." This argument is tough to figure out. Does a computer necessarily make 'discovering the why' of math easier? harder? I know that the kind of statistical simulations which I've seen on-line have made certain concepts like curves, coin flips, central tendencies easier for me to grasp. And I know that these have helped especially well when I could sit in a class and play with these simulators on my own laptop until I was satisfied that I understood - and it might have helped the rest of the class that I didn't ask 100 barely relevant questions because I could work on my own. So, my answer is "yes." Computers can help make 'discovering the why' in maths easier. They can also make it easier for myself and others by providing really effective math notation and calculation support through free software like Graph-Calc - software that allows me to put my energy into understanding rather than sweating getting the digits lined up correctly. Thus, my answer is still "yes."

As to whether maths must be "painful," well, I have no idea. I know that I have seen maths explored with great joy and excitement when taught well and taught relevantly. I know that while I failed many maths courses I breezed through the mathematical complexities of architectural engineering courses because I was interested, engaged, and fascinated by the way these otherwise arcane formulas related to things of interest. So maybe maths need not be "painful" after all - that's not a technology question anyway, just a pedagogical one.

And now the social studies teacher, "'Our students want to push a button or click a mouse for a quick A, B or C answer," she says, "Fewer and fewer of them want to think anymore because good thinking takes time."' And I ask - this relates to computers how? I've walked through many book and pencil secondary social studies classrooms, and the people I find most devoted to the short answer are teachers and educational administrators who love multiple choice tests and sneer at what we'd call "authentic assessments." But let's be clear here - no teaching group should be more thrilled to have a computer in every students' hand than one working in social studies. Students can read and compare a world's worth of newspapers or radio stations. They can zoom in on any place on earth through Google Maps or Google Earth. They can dig up any historical document. They can collaborate globally with other students through Google Docs, Skype, Instant Messaging. They can hunt for every statistic, every world fact. It seems to me that there has never been a technology better suited to deeper understandings of the world than the internet.

The article quotes an unfortunate Cisco executive (Peter Cevenini, who heads up the K-12 education division of Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group) as saying, "Teachers shouldn't have to change how they teach to fit some technological device." But - besides being cause to refuse to allow this misguided exec back into Silicon Valley - this is just a stupid remark. As I've just demonstrated above - any good teacher changes how they teach based on the technology available. Would you teach differently if you lacked a classroom roof and it was raining? Most likely. Would you teach differently without a chalkboard (or whiteboard)? Probably. Would you teach differently if students had no books? Evidence suggests that you would. Would you teach social studies differently if you had no maps? I'll bet you would. Would calculus have been taught differently in 1956 without slide rules? Would science be taught differently without lab equipment?

The problem is - again - that these educators have "naturalized" the technology they were born with and have not been educated in a way that prepares them to adapt to new realities. I commented on the Teacher Magazine blog that referred me to the article, "Weren't the old classrooms filled with technologies? From chalkboards to desks and chairs, from lighting to flooring, from room shape to acoustics, from books to paper and pens - hmmm, does [the article author] feel these are "natural" things?"

Of course he does. And though he has learned to teach with lights and pens, books and papers, walls and desks, he just throws up his hands with computers - stops teaching - and blames the technology. "I see the same thing in my classes, especially when it comes to writing essays," Mr. Welsh says, "Many students send their papers in over the Internet, and while the margins are correct and the fonts attractive, the writing is worse than ever. It's as if the rule is: Write one draft, run spell check, hit "send" and pray."

Gee, what could a teacher possibly do to solve this? Possibly, he could focus less on margins and more on writing, less on spelling and more on finding authentic audiences (via blogs? via shared Google Docs?) that would force the students to write with more care.

Listen, the idea of dumping a super-tech school on untrained teachers is unfair - but refusing to teach with the information and communication technology of the age our students will graduate into is simply professionally irresponsible. I'll take Mr. Welsh's criticisms of his school district's tech purchasing and tech support schemes as legitimate, But I'll also suggest that he (and his fellow teachers) stop complaining, stop blaming technologies, and learn to teach in the 21st Century.

- 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

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14 February 2008

Stop focusing on format, Please!

Neil Shrubak, who wrote the best of all comments on the recent Economist debate on privacy v. security, sent me the cartoon above - attached to a previous post on social networking. It is funny, of course. But then, I wondered what it might look like if I altered a few words - even clumsily with a cheap paint program.

What's the point? It's this: Stop focusing on format! Stop!

Imagine that your child sits in his/her room all day reading books and writing letters. Yes, you'd probably say, "go outside and experience the world - go play in the dirt." And you'd be right. Parents have been saying this "forever." But you probably wouldn't blame books and writing for the ills of the world. You probably wouldn't refuse to allow your child to read or write unless you were in the room watching.

Formats change with technology - and they can change rapidly. In this era they are changing in ways which dramatically improve the access to communication for almost everyone in the world. MIT has its courseware on-line for free. Mobile phones allow me to conference with people across time zones as I rush from one part of campus to another. Digital libraries allow me access to books and articles I'd otherwise have no chance to read - and digital technologies can transform those readings into whatever format (text, audio, etc) is easiest for me to use. I - and your child - can now read The Guardian and The New York Times each day instead of just the local newspaper. Email, text-messaging, IM tools, Skype allow us to dramatically expand our range of friends. Social Networking tools allow groups long out of power to communicate and be heard.

But "forms" of communication change more slowly. And if we stopped focusing on format we could help ease these transitions. If we understand that email is the same as that old fashioned letter we might be better able to express to students how we once "tore up six versions of a letter before getting the message right," or how we "dropped that ill-considered letter in the postal box and regretted it later." If we understood that IMing and texting are really no different than that phone conversation we might tell students about a time when we said "the wrong thing" over the phone and it came back to haunt us. If we understood that everything from Facebook to Bebo are simply big bulletin boards, we could express how publicly posted information can get out of control.

But we see none of this. We are blinded by format changes and so we dismiss technologies and so we refuse to teach, to assist, to help.

Being online - I know I'm frightening you by saying this - is reading and writing, socializing and communicating, learning and teaching. So forget formats and think about teaching. Suggest great things that can only be read online. Or ask your favourite text-messager to try text-message fiction. Or insist that your Wikipedia over-user review the "discussion" pages (something they just cannot do with Brittanica).

Stop letting the format define your relationship with the work of your students, and you will find yourself being a better educator - and an educator better at preparing students for their futures.

- 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 on Amazon

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08 February 2008

The Medium is NOT the Message

A million years ago a girlfriend sent me a letter, in beautiful schoolgirl script which I could not possibly read, with lyrics she found special...

"Children behave, That's what they say when we're together, And watch how you play, They don't understand, And so we're, "Running just as fast as we can, Holdin' onto one another's hand, Tryin' to get away into the night, And then you put your arms around me, And we tumble to the ground, And then you say, "I think we're alone now, There doesn't seem to be anyone around. I think we're alone now, The beating of our hearts is the only sound."

In return I gave her a very crudely-made mix-tape that I think included music ranging from the Stones' Sweet Virginia to Al Green romantic classics.

Which of us was violating copyright? Which of us was committing plagiarism?

Stick with me here for just a bit, but think about that question while you do. And add in this... what if instead of a letter she had sent me a You Tube playlist. What if I had shared digital music files with her - perhaps (gasp!) across a computer network at an American university.

Let's put it another way. What if the United States government decided it would open mail being sent to US citizens. No, not all mail. Just all the mail sent to the US from foreign nations. And what if - well, they were just scanning it for keywords and patterns, you know, not really "reading" that letter from your girlfriend vacationing in Algiers - just "scanning" it in order to improve "national security" - no warrants seen as necessary.

Yeah - you'd be outraged. Of course. (The US government has never admitted to doing anything like that, though during World War II they did ask the Brits to do it for them with any mail passing through any British territory.)

But you are less sure - clearly you are less sure - if the same thing is done with emails or mobile phones. You probably (if you read my kind of opinions) think the government is wrong to do that but you're not upset in quite the same way. You are not (perhaps, for example) bashing down Hillary Clinton's Senate office door because she thinks it is ok for the US government to do that.

What does this have to do with education?

Here's a side story. In university classroom after university classroom I see many students carrying print-outs of texts provided to them digitally. Articles, book chapters, powerpoints - all of which have been provided by faculty in digital form or which have been accessed from digital library files - are converted into "ink on paper" because the student "is more comfortable" with that format - they find it easier to (choose one or more) hold, carry, read, highlight, refer to, file. And all of them do that without getting special permission. Not one student who does that needs to bring personal psychological evaluation records to a "disability office" and receive special permission. But - yes, here we go - any student who wants to do the reverse - that is to convert paper text into electronic form and use it in the classroom, needs to give up all of their privacy rights, and often a large chunk of their dignity, in order to be afforded the same "media switching" privilege.

Two things brought this into new focus for me in the past week. First, I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret - the brilliant winner of the Caldecott Medal by Brian Selznick. More on this in a moment.

Second, The Economist began a new debate: "Security in the modern age cannot be established without some erosion of personal privacy." (appearing there again as "PostColonialTech"). Neil Livingstone, in arguing this proposition (and the inherent goodness of it) includes this quote in his mid-debate rebuttal, "This includes the use of surveillance cameras, access to major databases, telephone and email intercepts, and various methodologies for authenticating identity." Notice - he does not suggest the widespread opening of mail, nor the use of general listening devices which might - for example - allow the military to (warrantlessly) survey his living room conversations with his wife, though, in truth, terrorist intentions can - and clearly have - been passed through these "more antique" communications systems.

In other words, Mr. Livingstone is not interested, really, in either privacy or security. What he is worried about is a technological communications grid that he does not (truly) understand.

Because, let's face it. If I post a blog I have no more expectation of privacy than if I write a letter to the editor or publish a newspaper. But if I send an email or call someone from a non-public location, my expectation should be that it is every bit as private as the "snail mail" letter I send. These are the same forms of communication no matter how different the format is. But neither Mr. Livingstone (who NBC declares "an expert"!) nor schools nor employers nor the governments of the US or UK understand this.

Which is why this is an educational issue and a disability rights issue.

Let's go back to the top and Tommy James and the Shondells - a group so fundamentally unhip that Hubert Humphrey wrote the liner notes for one their albums (just had to mention that with real apologies to "Katie"). The letter from the girlfriend was inaccessible text, but was, in the rationalised assumptions of modernist educational and political philosophies, a perfectly legitimate method of quoting (as long as she indicated source and copyright, of course). My mix-tape cassette response was far more accessible (in terms of content delivery if not emotionally), but those same rationalised assumptions struggle with whether I am allowed to do what I did. Shift it to the far more accessible You Tube or to a file sharing system and everyone over 35-years-of-age now calls it "illegal file sharing."

In other words - the media which work for Mr. Livingstone or for your typical teacher or Minister of Education, well, that's protected, sacred, good, safe, etc. The media which work for me, well those are in an opposite category.


Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, named the most distinguished American picture book for children this [2007] year, (yes, back to that) emphasizes this. Mr. Selznick has made a film - about that there is no doubt - but the film is presented as a bound book. Instead of sitting in the theatre, though, or in front of your TV, you turn the pages, rapidly in fact, to take in the tale at the speed of film. Which forces one set of global questions: What does "book" mean? What does "reading" mean? How is "reading" different than "listening," or, specifically, "watching"?

It also raises some personal questions. Since the world of post-graduate education is so caught up in format rather than content, since my university has far more rules about how to bind a thesis than how to make it accessible, could I create a thesis that was a series of drawing as long as I bound it properly for dust-collecting storage in the basement of the library?

I thought of that because in the same week as I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret a professor told me that she considered quotes without cited page numbers to be "plagiarism." When I noted that those of us who utilise alternative formats do not always get accurate page numbering she said, "I never thought of that," but she didn't back down. In education format rules still consistently trump content and communication. And this, as The Economist Debate reveals, is true in government laws too.

But for most of us - we are moving into a "post-medium-specific" world. Brian Selznick puts a film on paper. Amazon puts books on Kindle. Audiobooks make books into podcasts. Television shows appear on your computer. Japanese readers read novels on their mobiles. We have reached a point where we can pick the content and the medium, making it our own in crucial ways.

And that benefits - in massive ways - the huge percentage of the world that has always struggled with "classic" content delivery.

But let me say this - it has both always been this way (at least in one direction). I've seen many teachers of English who ask their students to read Shakespeare (clearly separating content from medium). And Homer, after all, is just a written version of something always intended to be heard. It is like those who print out online PDF documents, or those who read press conference transcripts, we grab for the medium which serves us best.

This does not mean that authorial intent goes out the window. No one is suggesting we eliminate any formats, or that we shouldn't embrace the diverse ways of knowledge available through different formats - a brief digression to "read" from the blog of London design student Gregory Stevenson on Hugo Cabret: "An interesting upside of the imaginative constraints that come with reading a picture book is that it gives the author more control over what the reader sees in their mind’s eye. If a novelist just uses words, the ‘visual story’ created in the reader’s mind will be particular to them – and, for example, a character is likely to appear differently to each of them. Where there is an image of that character, there is no room for interpretation, and no need for conjuring. So, in Hugo Cabret, when we read the text passages what we imagine is likely to have visual continuity from Selznick’s pencil drawings. It’s often said that featuring a protagonist on the cover of a novel is a no-no, because of this very fact – it stops them from imagining their own. But in some instances, maybe this would be useful to an author. An imagined example: some small detail of a character’s appearance is important to the plot. By showing it to us, it becomes fixed in our memory – and in a different way from how we see it in our minds as we race over the text. In Hugo Cabret, another function of the image sequences is in moving the action along at a cracking pace – at least halving the reading time of a book describing the same action using text. This probably explains why I didn’t tend to luxuriate in the pictures, studying the details, as I’d imagined I would. It would have been like freeze-framing a film in the middle of an action scene to admire the colours and composition. It was only when I’d finished that I flicked back to enjoy the pictures as pictures."

Now, think of the ways altering the medium can alter perception and processing. Go back up in this post... if you don't know Tommy James and the Shondells or their song I Think We're Alone Now this medium offers you instant access - right-click on the link and say "open in new tab" and you have it - a "live citation" - the kind that, for my professor friend, makes APA Style and its page numbering requirements not only a quaint anachronism, but a fourth rate method of conveying information.

Or take either the new illustrated version of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf or the 2007 film. Both alter format to deliver content in ways far more accessible than those "old" versions.

The trick is that now, to a significant extent, we can put the power to switch media in the hands of each student, in each human. We can celebrate content and content delivery over the orthodoxy of format. Yes, that is challenging. It pulls the power away from teachers, instructors, and traditional publishers. It requires new thoughts on copyright, on ownership of intellectual property. It surely involves new risks - to everything from "national security" to the transmission of facts. But those are risks we must take.

We must take these risks because the new post-medium-specific world is too important. It is vital to the liberation of so many from the tyranny of the "favoured format." It is essential to expansion of education and human communication. It is necessary, in these days when miscommunication is both so easy and so dangerous, for the likely survival of humanity.

I write mostly about students with "disabilities," but this goes far beyond that. We have too long frustrated human freedom and human learning with arbitrary and nonsensical allegiances to format. Use a number 2 pencil, or this type of pen. Make sure you double-space. Read this edition. Write in this "blue book." Make sure you use "APA" style (or MLA style, or whatever). Sit in that seat. Take this course at this hour. And all these rules have done is limit and exclude and separate and impoverish.

Even if our technology was not what it is we should know better - Brian Selznick needed nothing "21st Century" to put a film on paper - but our current technology wipes out all of our excuses. So let us stop the tyranny, and embrace media choice in a very real way.

- Ira Socol

Essential Blog Alert! - Over at jamessocol.com a three part series on web accessibility. Part one explains the issue, part two helps you analyze, part three helps you design, 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