Explaining the Why of Your Ed-tech Choices

What does personalized learning mean at your school?

But what exactly does “personalized learning” mean across these varied products and contexts? And more broadly speaking, which labels and claims employed by companies can be trusted? How do the products schools are being offered differ from what teachers are already doing in their classrooms? Is personalized learning being oversold?

They’re all questions that get more complicated by the year for district officials trying to settle on personalized learning strategies and figure out which products will help them meet their goals.

“It’s become such a generic term. It’s aspirin,” said Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer of Florida’s Broward County Schools, the sixth-largest district in the country. “Slapping on the label ‘personalized’ does not mean that [a product] helps me systematically move student achievement.”

Source: Are Companies Overselling Personalized Learning? — Education Week

I don’t really know what my school district means by personalized learning. It’s nebulous and never really explained. I don’t know the why.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

One of these “Why Sheets,” for example, might explain a teacher’s decision to create a curriculum based on kids’ questions. Or for setting aside time each day for a class meeting. It might defend helping students to understand mathematical principles rather than just memorizing facts and algorithms. Or it might lay out the case for avoiding worksheets, or tests, or homework, or traditional bribe-and-threat classroom management strategies.

Eventually I started thinking about creating additional Why Sheets to help administrators defend enlightened schoolwide policies: why we don’t track students; why we push back against standardized testing and never brag about high scores; why we have multiage classrooms; why we’ve replaced report cards with student-led parent conferences; why we use a problem-solving approach to discipline in place of suspensions and detentions; why our commitment to building community has led us to avoid awards assemblies, spelling bees, and other rituals that pit kids against one another.

In short, any practice that’s constructive yet still controversial would be fair game for one of these punchy handouts. The idea was to help educators explain why they do what they do – and, equally important, why they deliberately avoid doing some things. The sheets would be made available free of charge, uncopyrighted, and accompanied by an invitation to distribute them promiscuously.

The Why Axis – Alfie Kohn

Kohn presents these why sheets as a way to provide support for progressive teachers trying new things, something I’ve suggested at school a time or two.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

I don’t consider the mainstream ed-tech notions of personalized learning progressive, but I still want to know the why. I want to know the why of choosing behaviorism and data collection. I want to know the why of choosing, for example, platooning vs. looping. I want to know the why of many things I see in ed.

My professional culture is heavy on writing.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapieremployees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency.

Source: Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics | TechCrunch

Communication is oxygen. At my company, we build our communication culture on blogging. We create FAQs and Field Guides and Master Posts for everything. Writing and transparency are important parts of managing change and creating alignment.

Administrators are educators. Educate by writing in the open. Educate by publishing why sheets. Borrow from what works in distributed work: a culture of writing and transparency. Do some of the heavy lifting for teachers who have to defend district decisions to parents. Write. Write on the open web so that teachers can reference why sheets when communicating with parents. Default to open.

Default to Open: Open Education, Open Government, Open Data, Open Web, and Open Source

My posts on boren.blog connect humane tech, tech ethics, tech regrets, indie ed-tech, open source, open web, open data, distributed work, backchannels, indieweb, neurodiversity, #ActuallyAutistic, the social model of disability, design for real life, behaviorism, structural ideology, mindset marketing, psychological safety, and public education. That jumble of tags is full of connections and overlap. It’s full of lessons on building for humans and the commons. I try to bring these communities together with my writing and sharing, because in connection there is serendipity, and we urgently need a lot of that going on between tech, education, and social model communities. I feel good and reenergized when educators, tech workers, and autistic and disabled people interact in threads I start. These moments are necessary and make a difference. Cheers for being in the space. Cheers for helping make the commons.

Open education, open government, open data, open web, and open source. These are the foundations of the commons. They should be public, taxpayer supported, and open by default. They should be informed by neurodiversity and the social model of disability because systems are better in every way when designed for real life, pluralism, and bodily autonomy.

Software and the internet are at their best when making human systems more inclusive, accessible, and transparent. In my estimation, the web and the open source stack that powers it were built so that public infrastructure, particularly education, could default to open.

We are responsible for humanizing flow in the systems we inhabit. We do that best when we default to open. This is our calling. Let’s build a tech and ed-tech that confront injustice instead of amplifying it. do_action.

For education to fulfill the promise of “free, life-changing, and available to everyone”, we need indie ed-tech and the social model. “We need to design learning where there is no option for oppression.”

One of the legacies of the counterculture, particularly on the left, is the idea that expression is action. This idea has haunted those of us on the left for a long time.

But one of the reasons that the Tea Party came to power was that they organized—they built institutions. So the challenge for those of us who want a different world is not to simply trust that the expressive variety that the internet permits is the key to freedom. Rather, we need to seek a kind of freedom that involves people not like us, that builds institutions that support people not like us—not just ones that help gratify our desires to find new partners or build better micro-worlds.

Source: Don’t Be Evil

It’s no secret people are more likely to trust the government and value what the government provides if their local government shares information and involves them in the decisions that affect their lives. And when government organizations do share data, best practices, and code, the government as a whole does better by its citizens. Everyone wins.

Source: Default to open · Code for America

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

Source: A Journey to discover what is Indie Ed-tech | Heart | Soul | Machine

For his part, in that Stanford talk, Jim Groom pointed to 80s indie punk as a source of inspiration for indie ed-tech. “Why 1980s indie punk?” Groom explains,

First and foremost because I dig it. But secondly it provides an interesting parallel for what we might consider Indie Edtech. Indie punk represents a staunchly independent, iconoclastic, and DIY approach to music which encompasses many of the principles we aspired to when creating open, accessible networks for teaching and learning at [the University of Mary Washington]. Make it open source, cheap, and true alternatives [sic] to the pre-packaged learning management systems that had hijacked innovation.

The LMS is our major record label. Prepackaged software. A prepackaged sound.

Pre-packaged sound. Pre-packaged courses. Pre-packaged students.

If we don’t like ‘the system’ of ed-tech, we should create one of our own.

“Indie ed-tech” – what we’re gathered here to talk about over the next few days – is inherently ideological as it seeks to challenge much of how we’ve come to see (and perhaps even acquiesce to) a certain vision for the future of education technology. An industry vision. An institutionalized vision. Indie ed-tech invokes some of the potential that was seen in the earliest Web technologies, before things were carved up into corporate properties and well-known Internet brands: that is, the ability to share information globally, not just among researchers, scientists, and scholars within academic institutions or its disciplines, but among all of us – those working inside and outside of powerful institutions, working across disciplines, working from the margins, recognizing the contributions of those who have not necessarily been certified – by school, by society – as experts. Distributed knowledge networks, rather than centralized information repositories. “Small pieces, loosely joined.”

“Indie ed-tech” offers a model whereby students, faculty, staff, and independent scholars alike can use the “real-world” tools of the Web – not simply those built for and sanctioned by and then siloed off by schools or departments – through initiatives like Davidson Domains, enabling them to be part of online communities of scholars, artists, scientists, citizens.

Source: ‘I Love My Label’: Resisting the Pre-Packaged Sound in Ed-Tech

Note: LMS = Learning Management System

We roil at the limitations and oppressive qualities of the LMS. But the problem here is not the LMS-it is that, despite our best efforts at creating other platforms, we still think through our own internal LMS. The problem is that whether we are using Blackboard or teaching in Canvas or building a Domains project, we are most likely not doing thinking that is liberative enough.

The point is not just about platform. The point is about praxis.

the LMS is an outlook, a standpoint, a conviction. Like it or not, it is in our blood as a product of our privilege and our educations. It is not a cage we put students in as much as it is an artificial playground over which we can be masters. It is, in fact, a learning space, but not for the content we put there; rather it is a space of enculturation into an oppressive educative model which each of us has born the weight of, and into which we each believe, to varying degrees, students should be baptized. The same is true of the classroom, the academy, the professional conference. These are spaces we understand, where we are not marginal, but where we can invite the marginal to participate, to become not-marginal. And this invitation to the middle is an act we say is elevating, is doing good.

There are multitudes of voices that we won’t hear because we do not feel safe in their spaces, on the margins. And safe, for educators, usually means expert, superior, capable, competent. When we enter the margins from our roosts in academe, we suffer the surrender of our confidence. In the face of what might be being created in the spaces we don’t occupy, our knees wobble.

By offering a room, we make ourselves the lessors. By making space, we claim space. “These are your walls,” we say. “These are your walls that I’ve given you. These are your walls to hang upon them what you would like. I have made them of plaster and drywall. I have painted them. I have put in the studs and I have raised high the roofbeams. But truly, this is yours. I have made you a space where you can be who you want to be.”

We need to design learning where there is no option for oppression.

Source: If bell hooks Made an LMS: a Praxis of Liberation and Domain of One’s Own

There are other considerations as well. How does this tool represent a politics of oppression-the surrender of privacy, data, authorship, authority, agency, as well as issues of representation, equity, access? Who owns the tool and what are their goals? How is the production of this tool funded? What influence does the maker of this tool have on culture more broadly writ? What labor is rewarded and what labor is erased? What is the relationship between this tool and the administration of the institution? Who must use this tool and who is trained to use this tool, and is that labor compensated? These are all important questions to ask, and the answers may play a role in the adoption of any given tool in a classroom or learning environment.

But in many cases, and especially with the LMS, adoption comes regardless of consent. In only a minority of situations are faculty and students part of the discussion around the purchase of an LMS for an institution. In those situations, we must abide by the use of the LMS; however, that doesn’t mean we must acquiesce to its politics or its pedagogy. In order to intervene, then, we must step back and rather than learn the tool, analyze the tool.

When we do that with the LMS, we find that its primary operation is the acquisition of data, and the conflation of that data with student performance, engagement, and teaching success.

Source: Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy, Part One – OFFICE OF DIGITAL LEARNING

Previously,

School Board Election Transparency and Flow

My family didn’t realize an election for Dripping Springs ISD was happening until my mom received an early voting ballot in the mail. After too much digging, we found this page on the pretty awful district website.

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The bios there are a handful of paragraphs that do not communicate vision or provide much of a writing sample. I need writing samples to elect someone to a school board. School systems demand much of our kids, and school representatives should put at least as much effort into their campaign writing as a student does on a writing prompt on a standardized test.

Finding the election information page took some doing. The district website is a tough one to navigate and follow. The main sections of the site are District News and Calendar. I can find no mention of the election in either section. To find the election page, you must search for “election”.

How easy is the election to find from social media?  A search for “election” on the district’s Facebook page has no results since 2013.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2.21.11 PM

Twitter fares no better. A search for “election” there likewise doesn’t turn up anything since 2013.

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How about on independent websites? Searching the local watering hole blog turns up nothing about the election. How about the city’s website? Neither “election” or “trustees” turns up election information.

How about the candidates, how visible are they? I found Facebook groups for the two incumbents. One is closed to comments without joining the group and the other is closed completely without joining the group and has only 12 members.

This is not transparent.

What to do about it? Well, I recently met Austin Kids First at a do_action event. They are working on transparency and candidate cultivation in Austin ISD. Sounds like AISD was in a similar situation a few years ago. I get the feeling this is typical of most districts. Now, thankfully, these questionnaires offer a sense of the vision, policy and writing of AISD board candidates.

I’d like DSISD candidates to answer the questions in those questionnaires as well as these:

  • Are you on board with Most Likely to Succeed and project-based learning?
  • Where can I go online to find out about you and your vision for Dripping Springs education?
  • What is the board’s role in modernizing the tools and workflow of DSISD to accommodate project-based learning and transparency?
  • What is the board’s role in ensuring that the digital, physical, and cultural infrastructure of DSISD accommodates all people, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, neurodivergence, personal appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, age, religion, or nationality.
  • Should creationism be taught in school?

I think those give a feel for a candidate’s grasp of modernity. The first question is particularly important given that DSISD is becoming a district of innovation so it can embrace the Most Likely to Succeed narrative and project-based learning. This is a big deal, yet I know nothing about the candidates’ positions on MLTS and project-based learning. The district’s social media and website have said nothing about it since announcing some screenings of the film back in January.

We need an Austin Kids First style effort for DSISD, and the district needs some publishing and social media flow. I happen to know some people who can help with publishing, for free, including freedom zero. Involve students in the project of bringing modern, open source publishing flow to the district with the help of volunteers from the communities and companies that will be in some of their futures. Start project-based learning by involving them in publishing and technology. Allow them advocacy and agency by letting them participate in building the digital infrastructure of a modern, project-based, transparent district in touch with the creative commons and the future of work.