Guest post: The War Against Edu-Industry

a fence

A while ago I wrote a post titled “are we fighting a war” in which I argued that humans being dumber benefited corporations and thus they would fight to make it so. The only way I saw of beating that was to fight back through better education.  Lindsey Wright sent me a great response detailing how the fight may be lost as the corporations are taking over our places of education.

A little bit about Lindsey:

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

 

Take it away Lindsey:

 

Education is constantly in the news. Whether it’s spending cuts, cheating scandals, or abysmal standardized test results, it seems that the only news about education is how it’s failing students. However, beneath the headlines there is a truth — one perhaps even more disturbing than poor math scores and falling literacy rates — and it’s one that school districts, governments, and corporations don’t want to acknowledge. While educators work every day to teach their students, they’re battling a system that is, at its heart, a business. A big business for that matter. According to the Encyclopedia of American Education, the for-profit education industry is a $100-billion-a-year behemoth, and with so much money riding on students’ narrow shoulders, it’s hardly a wonder the industry will do anything in its power to hold school districts in its thrall. However, the questions people should be asking are where is this money spent, how does it affect education, and what is the lasting affect of inviting corporations into the classroom on students?

 

Where’s the $100 Billion Going?

 

The Encyclopedia of American Education cites four specific divisions in the for-profit education industry. The first, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the industry’s profits, is educational services. This category encompasses corporate training programs (the seminars educators must attend in order to gain or maintain their certifications), tutoring (generally in the form of after-school tutoring at a for-profit institution), language instructions (including English as a second language materials and reading programs for weak readers), and test preparation (the standardized tests that are re-written every year to reflect the constantly changing district, state, and national curriculum goals).

 

Next on the docket with 33 percent of the for-profit education pie are for-profit, proprietary schools. These include daycare; private pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools; and for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. However, this segment also includes education management organizations (EMOs). As highlighted by the National Education Policy Center, there are currently 50 for-profit EMOs operating in the U.S. Their operation method is simple. In exchange for a fee, they manage under-performing schools as charter schools, all the while claiming they bring corporate reforms and market-based solutions to education.

 

Twelve percent of the money the for-profit education industry makes is dedicated to the production and sale of learning products. This includes textbooks, educational software, and school supplies. Each time a curriculum changes, new textbooks must be purchased. Similarly, each time a new remedial reading or math program is introduced, new learning software must be bought.

 

Finally, 11 percent is dedicated to electronic services. This includes outsourcing of cloud software (such as Schoolnotes.com), internet education portals (like LexisNexis) and, of course, the ubiquitous online school. It should be noted that, true to the driving push to integrate technology into the classroom, electronic services is the fastest-growing segment of the for-profit education industry.

 

How Does the Industry Affect Students?

 

Unsurprisingly, the for-profit education industry affects nearly every aspect of students’ learning experience, from how they learn to take tests as well as what they are taught, right down to textbooks they are allowed to read. Textbooks are tailored to individual state curricula. Those curricula, generally, are decided upon by the state’s board of education, an elected body that does not necessarily have any educational experience. In fact, in 2010 the New York Times ran an article highlighting just what goes into establishing a curriculum and selecting textbooks. In Texas, 100 amendments were passed to the state’s 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, economics, and sociology courses. The amendments followed along party lines and included:

 

• Changing textbooks to reflect more of the positive contributions of Republicans.

• Eliminating the use of the word “capitalism” in economic textbooks and replacing it with “free-enterprise system” to avoid the negative connotations of capitalism.

• Altering the history of McCarthyism to include the release of the Venona papers (a supposed excuse for McCarthy’s hunt for communist infiltrators that destroyed many lives).

• Cutting Thomas Jefferson’s name from a list of those whose writings inspired revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

What these changes reveal, along with the amendments the board refused to adopt (such as acknowledging the contributions of Hispanics in Texas history and the secular roots of the American Revolution), is that the state of the American classroom is a political minefield. Students are subject to the machinations and agendas of political leaders who ignore what’s best for education — in this case, accuracy — for the sake of furthering a political cause and creating a new generation of voters and consumers.

 

EMOs and standardized tests are another way corporations and politics are infiltrating the classroom. In Duval County in Jacksonville, Florida, four schools that had been dubbed “struggling” by the standardized testing of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), has resulted in a state mandate that they be turned over to an EMO. Yes, a state mandate. According to the article “Duval School Board Delays Vote on ‘Intervene’ Schools” by Topher Sanders appearing in The Florida Times-Union, should the schools, which have been listed as “D” or “F” schools by the state consistently, fail to show adequate gains on private-company funded standardized tests this year they will be turned over to an EMO. Thus far, it doesn’t look good for the schools.

 

Advocates of educational excellence point out that, if these schools are struggling, something needs to change. Yet the truth is the schools are only struggling when measured by one specific standardized test put forth by a company with a vested interest in ensuring that the state continues to purchase from it. As highlighted in the article “Test Problems: Seven Reasons Why Standardized Tests Are Not Working” by David Miller Sadker, Ph.D., and Karen R. Zittleman, Ph.D., the issues related to standardized testing are myriad.

 

For instance, at-risk students in ill-funded schools are called upon to demonstrate the same capacity as a student from a well-funded school with a strong socioeconomic background — something that is often not possible. Different learning opportunities are one reason. Another? In Ohio, for instance, 80 percent of students from families with incomes of over $30,000 passed the state’s exams, while only 20 percent of those from families with incomes of under $20,000 passed them. Why? It’s a combination of factors such as educational opportunity and emphasis on education, but it’s also linked to the fact that students from households with low incomes are not targeted consumers. Standardized tests are biased against them.

 

Another issue related to standardized testing is that higher test scores don’t actually mean more learning. Rather, higher test scores are related to teaching students how to take the test. Students are taught that test-makers rarely will write three questions with the same multiple choice answer bubble in a row. Additionally, they’re taught how to read the question and eliminate the incorrect responses. Yet they’re not taught how to think critically, decipher information, or develop independent thought processes. Instead students learn to spit out the information the test-maker says they should, to the detriment of their worldview. In fact, standardized testing has actually cut the breadth of school curriculum. Teachers spend so much time teaching to the test that the students do not gain the broad knowledge base they should be equipped with before they enter the real world.

 

Currently, the educational system is beholden to entities that view it as just another way to earn a profit. Students are no longer individuals, but consumers to be generated. As a result they end up  lacking the independent thought and critical thinking skills necessary to decipher positive messages from the negative, strong arguments from their weak counterparts, and consumer-based advertising claims from legitimate studies. It is not the students’ fault. It is that of the system, a system which celebrates mediocrity and doesn’t allow teachers to teach or learners to learn. Instead, the system is designed to indoctrinate students with a particular worldview, the ultimate goal being to turn them into consumers who will continue to fund the corporate machine that made their education, such as it was, possible.

Helping students learn how to learn

nick confused

I am currently working for UBC Student Development / UBC Library as the Student Development Coordinator for the Chapman Learning Commons. My role includes managing the space, the students who work in the space and the learning services that are run out of the space.

What makes this position fascinating for me is the problem that it poses, namely:  how do I manage/create/frame services in a way that actually leads to them helping students be better at school?

This problem is massively difficult, as at a university level, being better at school requires students to break over 12 years of bad habits and replace them with good habits. As anybody who has tried to pick up good habits knows (especially in the time-constrained university environment), changing habits is very, very hard work that takes time to show results. Anything that one creates to help students do this has to be really, really good (if it is possible at all).

So, for this summer, in order to actually achieve this goal I’ve settled on 4 different principles that will hopefully lead to success.

  1. Hire good students. This piece is critical. Having awesome students work on these projects helps keep things in perspective, makes customer development easier and brings a fresh sense of energy and ideas into the field. This piece’s current status is definitely “mission accomplished”.
  2. 1-on-1 peer mentorship is currently the only really feasible solution to this problem. Having a well-trained peer guide you and keep you accountable is a hundred times better than any online resource or workshop that I could create.
  3. Solve the pain. Students experience a lot of pain and the whole point of this is to help reduce that. Wording like “learning services” means absolutely nothing to most students, we need to frame things in a way that shows them how we will help them get rid of their pain.
  4. Be lean and agile. Concepts like “Do More Faster”, “release early, release often” and all the other techniques that I have learnt around successful software development and entrepreneurship apply in this context too. We are here to actually fix the problem, not just follow through on the requirements document.
That’s the plan, 2 months in I hope it’s working. One of the pieces that we’ve made some big strides on is the Learning Commons website. If you’d like to see some of the principles in action compare the current site to my student’s current prototype (principle #1 can be seen in the quality of the work). We still have lots of work left to do on it, but the idea should be clear. If you do take a look, please drop some feedback, they are iterating fast so any feedback helps!
Current Learning Commons site
Current Learning Commons site
New Learning Commons Site
New Learning Commons Site

(if you’re looking for a place to put the feedback, just comment below)

Using Game Design Theory as a Framework for Course Design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

A while ago I wrote a post titled “school is just a game, let’s make it a good game“. At the time I thought I was really clever for coming up with it. Unfortunately, the idea was being looked at in other places and this idea now even has a title: “the Gamification of education”.

Gamification is one of those words that just sounds dirty. It sounds like (and just could be) a disease that people want to unleash upon school (this could also be due to the fact that “gammy” was a part of my slang vocabulary as a child). To many it is in fact a dirty word, the sentiment of “wait, what, we’re going to use operand conditioning to get students to learn?”… “This is evil and mindless and corporate.” is travelling around.

Of course, if you apply the FourSquare method of just tacking on “achievements” to a course, this sentiment is justified. But what if instead of turning school into a crappy game, we started with the premise that it is already a game and that a way to improve it would be to make it a better game?

In order to test that premise I spent 4 months working with Kimberly Voll to review the current literature around game and course design looking at what good game design was and seeing if we could apply it to course design. The in-depth hectically cited paper and poster are attached below for those who want to read them but here are the cliff notes:

We looked at 7 different elements (these are not the only 7, just the ones we looked at) that designers play with to create good games and looked for places in course design literature where these elements had been looked at. The 7 are:

  • Motivations: Designing in a way that complements the reason for playing
  • Reward: Providing multiple types of satisfying rewards
  • Punishment: Creating punishment that can be enjoyed (games that never punish you suck)
  • Challenge: Keeping the game just hard enough to be engaging
  • Story: Providing a narrative and sense of mystery that pulls the player forward and gives them a sense of purpose
  • Community: Giving players a chance to interact with other people
  • Freedom: Giving players as much agency as possible (or at least the illusions of agency) within the game’s structure

By tweaking these 7 different aspects game designers create incredibly engaging games. If we want to make a more engaging course, all we have to do is tweak those elements as well. Notice, we don’t have to add the elements, they are already a part of the course, they just need to be fixed. A key thing to note is that this is not a one-size-fits-all way of looking at things, each course (just like each game) would need to come up with a unique way of improving on these elements.

Paper is below and I will be writing much more about this as I go on to work on it over the summer and study it as a Master’s thesis.

Paper on using game design to influence course design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010

I just finished presenting a workshop on Personal Learning Environments to around 300 international students for UBC’s JumpStart international orientation. I think it went really well, but for anybody reading this that went to the lecture, don’t hesitate to comment below on how I could improve.

My story arc was as follows:

In order to create and effective personal learning environment you need to recursively go through the following process: Continue reading “Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010”

Learning through a narrative

Future of education

I just finished reading “The Future of Education – re-imagining our schools from the ground up” by Kieran Egan. It describes the idea of “Imaginative Education” (IE) and gives an example of a timeline in which this superior form of education could be the norm by 2050. I’m unsure of my opinion about most of IE and will spend a lot more time looking into it before I draw firm conclusion.

The one thing that really struck me about IE was the concentration on narratives. In the book students are given an arbitrary topic when they start school (for example “leaves” or “wind”) and work on a portfolio around that subject for their entire school school career). They are then guided by portfolio mentors to apply everything they learn to this topic. So for instance, when learning about metaphors, they are asked to find metaphors in literature involving leaves. When learning about area, they can find the best way to estimate the area of different kinds of leaves. This way of teaching serves the duel purpose of not only making students an expert in their topic, but also
gives them something tangible to relate their learning in all areas to. It forces them to develop a habit of applying the things they learn.

Now, I haven’t figured out how I feel about the idea of an “arbitrary” topic (I think students should at least have some influence in the choice of their topics). However, at a university level students like myself should have the power to choose their own topic and follow it through. I chose my topic of improving education (both in method and in distribution) a long time ago but can see many points in my education where I have failed to relate my learning back to that. For instance), why was I bored stiff in my databases class when I could have been finding ways to relate it to my passion? Boring as SQL may be, it can be seen as a powerful upgrade to parts of human language due to its exceptional clarity. The questions I should have been asking myself could have been as follows:

Should everyone learn how database queries work simply in order for them to understand the pure logic that it creates?

Is this type of logic necessary?

Does that kind of thinking make innovation more or less likely to happen?

So many questions could be formed from something as boring as SQL queries. I know that the ones above are very surface level, but that is precisely because I was not thinking deeply about this while they were being taught databases in depth. I have this feeling that I would have been able to draw many deep and meaningful connections.

From now on I intend to try my damnedest to relate everything I learn in school to my central topic and in order to test how powerful this way of thinking can be.

Multi-touch Collaborative Diagramming

This term I took Computer Science 444 – “Advanced Methods for Human-Computer Interaction”. The main outcome of the course was to go through the process of designing a user interface and evaluating it using formal experiments, producing a paper at the end.

I had the pleasure of working with 4 absolutely fantastic team-mates, Piam Kiarostami, Gabe Silk, alexandru Totolici, and Jre Sarenac. Each of us intuitively picked a role and we worked like a well-oiled machine.

The project we worked on was a collaborative, tabletop,  multi-touch diagramming tool that we dubbed “collabee”. We compared our interface to the more traditional ways of diagramming collaboratively (whiteboard and computer) then analysed our results. Below are the reports that we wrote, as well as a video on the project that we produced (it’s only 4 minutes and be sure to stick around for the surprise ending).

Continue reading “Multi-touch Collaborative Diagramming”

School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.

The idea here is that games and school have more in common than does school and life. So perhaps, instead of finding ways of engaging students by turning to real life, we should be turning to game design.

How is school like a game?

Both School and Video games are highly repetitive environments where you overcome deliberate obstacles in order to reach a goal. In both cases, you pay money in order to perform work. I’m going to use one of my favorite games of all time, Diablo 2 as an example in some direct comparisons.

Continue reading “School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.”

Personal Learning Network Presentations


My prize for best returning presentation

Over the last 6 months I have given two presentations on the ideas of Personal Learning Environments/Networks. The first one was in late August for UBC Jump Start,  a 2 week orientation program for students that I attended in my first year at UBC and that provided me with great friends and learning experiences. The second presentation was give at the 2010 UBC Student Leadership Conference, a conference that I have been heavily involved with over the past few years and this year was co-chaired by two good friends of mine, June Lam and Robert Winson. I had some technical difficulties with the first presentation, but the second one went really well, I even won the “best returning presenter” award for it.

Continue reading “Personal Learning Network Presentations”

Connectivism and Connected Knowledge – The first post

This year I am participating in the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK09) course offered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I was considering taking it for credit, but ran out of time and energy to jump through the hoops needed to make that happen. So instead I am doing it for fun, learning for the sake of learning, because it is a topic that really interests me (I will have to put some of the principles from my very first blog post into practice).

So what is Connectivism anyway? After reading and watching much of the first week’s content here is my interpretation: Continue reading “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge – The first post”

Personal Learning Environments

From Sonson on Flickr
From sonson on Flickr... click on image to go to source

At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Image via Wikipedia

The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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