Monday, November 19, 2012

A massive lobbyist-driven smartboard purchase gets erased

In a surprise victory for the technoskeptics of the world, the Québec government announced today that it is scrapping the previous government's plans to buy 40,000 smartboards for Québec public schools. Speaking to La Presse, Education Minister Marie Malavoy commented, "It was a comprehensive program that, after examining the evidence, didn't seem to be the best option." Malavoy further noted that school boards didn't actually want the smartboards--"The problem was that the smartboards didn't really line up with the needs of the school boards and the schools. They didn't ask for them. It wasn't a choice they made."

Interestingly, this development comes a few months after La Presse revealed that the company that makes smartboards (Smart Technologies) had, in 2011, hired Martin Daraiche,  a lobbyist who had previously worked as an advisor to both former Liberal Premier Jean Charest and former Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau. The mandate that M. Daraiche was given was to ensure that "a directive was established following the [government] budget which would confirm the mandate to furnish every classroom with an interactive blackboard in order to improve student success." Evidently, given the level of success that smartboards had under the Liberals, M. Daraiche's lobbying efforts met with some measure of success.

In Science in Action (1987), Bruno Latour talks about a popular (but, in his view, false) conception of technological progress that he calls the "diffusion model." In this model, worthy ideas and technologies seem to spread and multiply under their own steam, without human intervention. Latour comments at some length: seems that as people so easily agree to transmit the object, it is the object itself that forces them to assent. It then seems that the behavior of people is caused by the diffusion of facts and machines. It is forgotten that the obedient behaviour of people is what turns the claims into facts and machines; the careful strategies that give the object the contours that will provide assent are also forgotten...the model of diffusion invents a technical determinism, paralleled by a scientific determinism. Diesel's engine leaps with its own strength at the consumer's throat, irresistibly forcing itself into trucks and submarines, and as to the Curies' polonium, it freely pollinates the open minds of the academic world. (p. 33)
As Latour explains, people work very hard on behalf of both ideas and technologies to construct strategies that will make them "just catch on." If these strategies work well, no one will ever notice them--the machine will simply have been "built right" and will have "really caught on." Smart Technologies tried hard to do this in Québec classrooms and failed. But it is instructive to realize that it is the failures that we notice and not the successes, which are all around us. Cellphones are a great example of a technology where we have bought into the diffusion model wholeheartedly; we have forgotten all of the strategies that were pursued in order to make cellphones appear necessary.

Are some of you out there reading this teachers and professors that are struggling with technologies that are trying to inevitably diffuse their way into your classroom? Is a smartboard or clicker system that will revolutionize student success just around the corner for your little nook of the educational realm. Tell us about it in the comments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Killer Robots Bite Back (with a helpful educational website)

Some years ago, back in grad school, I asked one of my fellow students what he was working on. "I'm working on building robots," he told me, "Robots that fly around and can bite people." At the time, I was a bit taken aback by this, and I took some consolation from the fact that educational theory, my own subject, had somewhat less direct destructive potential.

As it turned out, however, my colleague had picked an excellent dissertation topic--as of 2012, the robots that bite (and that do rather more than bite) have been proliferating. One might say, in fact, that we are well into the era of the killer robot. Naturally, not everyone is overjoyed about this. What with this business of unmanned aircraft wiping people out left and right, people are starting to see these 21st century engineering marvels as harbingers of the surveillance society. As a result, drones have a bit of a PR problem.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Conscientious objectors to the testing regime

This post comes from guest blogger, Carolyn Browder, a masters degree candidate at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University:

I recently read an article in The New York Time which profiles a movement of Brooklyn parents who are boycotting the standardized testing at their children's schools. Their complaint is not with the content or style of the tests--they concede that the tests may be worth while for measuring content knowledge as their children progress through school. They are instructing their children to sit out the tests out of fear that standardized tests are being overvalued in teacher evaluation. Many school districts are evaluating teacher performance based primarily on student test scores, and these parents fear that this will produce unhappy, unsuccessful teachers. First, placing such a tremendous value on the tests strips teaching of any artfulness or creativity. Second, teachers who believe they are successful because they train their students to perform well on a multiple-choice test might have an inaccurate perception of what successful teaching really looks like. For both of these reasons, Brooklyn parents and other around the country are showing concern that not only are standardized tests potentially disenfranchising students but they may also be causing harm to good teachers and reinforcing undesirable attitudes in bad teachers.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama’s Re-election: What Can We Anticipate for Education?

On the day after the election, many of us in education may be wondering what might have been and what will be when it comes to the presidential impact on schooling.  Mr. Romney’s election may likely have ushered in increases in school choice programs (especially vouchers and for-profit charter schools) and decreases in school spending (at least if Mr. Ryan’s budget would have held out).  With those changes on the loosing end of the ballot, should we anticipate more of the same from a second four years of President Obama?  In some ways, yes, I believe we will see more of the same—for better or worse. 

Given Mr. Obama’s emphasis on the need to keep America competitive in an increasingly technological and knowledge-based global economy, we will likely see more focus on recruiting and (hopefully) preparing math and science teachers, which will be backed with government funds.  We will likely see continued efforts to alleviating bullying and the achievement gap in schools, but we will likely see less federal funding to aid in doing so, especially as the last of the stimulus money dries up, putting Obama’s major first-term project, Race to the Top, at risk.  And while Race to the Top funding may cover some of the performance pay plans that the president desires, others will go unfunded by struggling local districts. 

Money may be sought from other sources, however, as I believe President Obama will continue to celebrate philanthropists and foundations that sponsor educational innovations.  Relatedly, I think President Obama will continue to applaud the efforts of organizations leading the charter school movement.  If his pattern from the first term holds, he will likely do so without enough careful scrutiny of the practices of those schools, especially in terms of how they use public dollars or meet the needs of poor and minority children with pedagogical styles that sometimes jeopardize other educational opportunities, like the development of good citizenship. 

I suspect we will also continue to see Secretary Duncan offering NCLB waivers, despite the fact that these have angered many political opponents who see them as circumventing the good intentions of the original law, which had Democratic roots, bipartisan support at the time of signing, and a Republican legacy.  Hopefully this situation might provoke positive changes and a reauthorization of the overdue ESEA law during Obama’s second term.  Additionally, I anticipate that Republicans at the state level will continue to push school voucher and tax credit legislation despite Mr. Obama’s position against it, as demonstrated by his stance on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  Finally, the next four years will begin to show us the usefulness and effectiveness of the new Common Core State Standards, an endeavor that Obama’s administration has supported, sometimes dangling funds in front of leery states in order to get them on board.

This is what I anticipate.  I welcome hearing from you regarding what you suspect we will see in the next four years.

Photo credit: Romeo Area Tea Party

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Just came across Ushahidi and am wondering how this "crowdsourcing" tool might support the kind of communication and community-building (read education) that Dewey -- and Jane Addams and others -- locate at the heart of democracy.  Remember, the cure for democracy is more democracy!   Anybody have ideas on how this came be used educationally?