Thursday, October 31, 2013

Engaging Students in a Social Media Age

Note: This blog post is an adaptation of a series I did on my website.

A few months ago, I attended the HI-TEC Conference, which brings together practitioners in a number of STEM and high-technology fields to talk about best practices, significant research, and other important topics. At the HI-TEC Conference, I was as a co-presenter with Julia Makela on our work studying applied baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields, as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project. That presentation was recorded and live-streamed, so it may be viewed at any time by clicking here.

At that conference, I had the opportunity to watch a presentation by Dave Sweeney, owner and operator of viz-bang!, an organization that promotes using social media and online media, such as video to help businesses reach consumers. The title of this presentation was “Where the Kids Are: How Teens Use Social Media.” In this session, Dave talked about some of the research released this summer by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, entitled “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.” I recommend that everyone read this report. Much of what it highlights is what many educators already know: that teens in particular are increasingly using mobile technologies, social media, and other technologies. Further, today’s high schoolers are moving away from social media giant Facebook in favor of technologies such as Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, and others. This finding from Pew was not particularly surprising, as I’ve similarly found that students were less likely to prefer Facebook for a number of reasons, most notably because Facebook was not a space where students felt they had privacy. This is in large part because of the size of students’ Facebook networks, which commonly includes brief acquaintances, family, and others. For more personal interactions with a smaller network of close friends, students turn to other technologies, such as text messaging, Twitter, and others.

Social Media as a Distraction
Several attendees at Dave Sweeny’s session commented that students’ usage of these technologies provides “nothing more than a distraction” for students. Dave’s response challenged this belief, arguing that these technologies are the new reality of K-12 and higher education; students will continue to use such technologies, and as such, practitioners are tasked with finding ways around the detriments of such technologies. Here are my thoughts:

-       Students will always be looking for a distraction for the things in which they are not interested. Lack of interest is not a new thing.  When I was in high school and college, if I was not interested in a topic, I found a way to “zone out” of the content, and this was well before technologies such as smartphones provided an easy way to do so.  In addition, these technologies are not going away. Students go where their friends are, and their friends are on mobile and social networking technologies. Whether we want it or not, these technologies (or variations on these technologies’ themes) are here to stay.

-       Educators must be willing to meet students where they are. I understand how difficult it is to engage students who are used to 140 characters of Twitter, texting, other online networking. Students are savvier at communications than we often give them credit for. They are unafraid to e-mail faculty, employers, and other professionals to voice concerns, and consume media more than ever. If practitioners can find a way to reach students in online outlets, the same type of momentum that drives funny videos viral could also push your message to a wider audience. Today’s students are ready to engage! We just need to find the right strategies to meet them where they are.

The conversations at this conference and this particular session were quite engaging. They revealed to me the myriad viewpoints practitioners have toward online technologies and how to engage students, with some lamenting that such technologies stifle education, while others see such innovations as a way of improving education, employment, and other areas. With the advent and growth of massive online education (MOOCs), open-access journals, new social media platforms, it is evident that such tools for online collaboration, publication, and education are rapidly becoming mainstream. It is up to educators and practitioners to identify those that have the greatest potential for improving education and to utilize them in a way that engages each new generation of students that enters our doors.

I have other thoughts based on these conversations and others that I would love to discuss, either in future blog posts or individually. Feel free to comment on this post or e-mail me at to further engage.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Standardization Reforms: Is the Pot Guilty of Calling the Kettle Black?

Much of the current critique and criticism of education policy reforms of our day casts doubt on the motivation, paradigms, and practices that standardize education; here and here and for example (by no means an exhaustive list).  And, while those critiques are not only necessary and, in my opinion, mostly correct, the implication is often that colleges of education and the status quo of preparing future teachers, are by default, better.  However, the blame for the growth of standardizing reforms is not to be entirely had by Pearson, Michelle Rhee, the Gates Foundation or the rest of the lot from the neoliberal reformer camp who view standardization as a mechanism for equity. 

In fact, traditional colleges of education have not done enough to raise the social perception of teachers and the profession, recruit and properly train pre-service teachers, and actively subvert reforms that seek to standardize pre-service teaching.  Colleges of education continue to promote pedagogies of standardization and, in turn, prepare their teachers to do the same.  And with the threatening extinction of foundations courses, colleges of education are considering their work to be limited to preparing future teachers for the privatized and standardized work environments awaiting them – all the while dismantling foundations courses that demand students think critically and challenge what it means to be educated and conversely, schooled. 

With this in mind, it is easy to suggest that colleges of education have adopted the perspective that the teachers they produce are commodities that will, in turn, produce a commoditized product for the schools in which they serve.  

This type of approach to teacher preparation understands teaching to be a standardized hard service rather than a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning.  Deron Boyles makes this point by addressing the dualism of hard versus soft services, I will quote him at length,

[w]hat makes the service “hard” is really the ease of measurement of the topic or process.  Differently, “soft” services in schools include counseling and teaching.  They are traditionally seen as “soft” because they have not been as easy to quantify.  This distinction between the ease of accountancy associated with “hard” versus “soft” services gives us one indication of the larger purpose of privatization: to de-skill teaching and learning such that the traditional “soft” services become subsumed under the behavioristic, scientistic, economistic logics of “hard” services.  A form of reductionism, the ideology of privatization calls for breaking down complex relationships into their most component parts for ease of accountancy. (p. 359)

Accordingly, such narrow views of teachers and the attempt of reducing teaching into standardized segments of “best practices” for duplication/reproduction are an attempt to reduce teaching into measureable units as part of the quest for certainty.
Instead of colleges of education churning out automatons who espouse phrases like “data driven decisions,” and “evidence-based practices,” or anything written by Ruby Payne for that matter (see here and here for examples), colleges of education ought to be producing free thinking agents of change who will stand up against the privatization and commercialization of our nations schools.

Indeed, colleges of education ought to begin to take the lead in confronting and subverting standardized reforms that have become too common in the colleges themselves.  It is one thing to espouse subversive rhetoric in foundations courses while silently abiding by teacher-preparation methods courses that approach preparation in standardized fashions (e.g., methods on test development, behavioristic classroom management techniques, and general strategies for increasing test scores) all in the name of “helping teachers get jobs.”  However, this characterizes colleges of education as complicit in the rapidly growing standardization of teacher preparation and pedagogical methods instead of characterizing them as the true champion of real and meaningful educative learning that follows a democratic training experience.  Juxtaposed to colleges operating with the mantra of preparing graduates for jobs, we need our colleges of education to forgo the standardization movement that is too often linked to the effort to privatize for profit.  Then, and only then, will teachers be equipped to fight standardization in their classrooms because they know their colleges of education and the professors therein have their backs.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Foundations and Feds Push “Freemium” Deals on Districts to Privatize Policymaking

Foundations, Feds, and interest groups have a plan that will create more room for private companies to influence what schools buy.  And in an effort to facilitate such relationships, the Education Industry Association (EIA) has announced a new initiative aimed at helping education companies sell more to public schools by changing the rules on how sales get approved. EIA, in fact, has been awarded a special grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under an initiative created by the Feds to spur digital innovation in schools.  The problem (as defined in the announcement):

Why should it take 6 months, 10 months or even longer to complete deals with school districts? How can a start-up lacking [a] national sales force and without an established rep gain traction with school buyers?  How can companies access educators and hope to have them fall in love with your solution, and convert these pilots and freemium deals into revenue?

Put differently, the established public policy process for getting buy-in from district staff and teachers before large purchases (for which principals can’t just write a check) is, according to the EIA, too cumbersome. It is, as we have heard so many times in reference to public policy and its perceived failures, overly bureaucratic.

To date, EIA’s marketing campaign to influence the procurement process has been slow but steadily building, most recently through its announcement of an alliance with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which represents over 13,000 school district superintendents.  In this scheme, EIA offers school districts a list of approved members (business seal of approval) in exchange for more open access to districts by those vendors. Vendors, in turn, secure district contacts whereby district administrators purportedly get providers with a demonstrated record of effectiveness.

In May 2013, the Education Industry Association wrote to its members,

EIA will recommend high quality suppliers of school services and products, who are in good standing with EIA, for the AASA School Solutions Center, the go-to resource used by district buyers when they seek vendors. This is the first-time the SSC will promote instructional services, ed-tech solutions and academic products. Accepted companies may promote this AASA connection to local district decision-makers and AASA will make door-opener introductions on your behalf. In addition, vendors receive booth space at the annual conference and are highlighted in AASA publications to their membership.

There is a lot more going on here than chummy relationships to reduce red tape. There is a long history of schools purchasing textbooks, test scanners, and grade books.  But we are at a very different juncture– a kind of watershed moment in which the private industry is focused on transforming the agenda and policy adoption process at the local level.

It is a brilliant strategy really. If you can find a niche as a broker between vendors and schools, much else opens up in the way of recommending the purchase of particular products and transforming contracts from one-time purchases to expensive leases that require upgrades. This post here is part of a longer chapter through which, as Gary Anderson, Stephen Ball, and Christopher Lubienski, among others have written, the very nature of public policy is transformed.  Accordingly, privatization is not limited to goods and services, rather, it includes policymaking itself. The private sector’s involvement with point-of-sale processes brings it one step further into decision-making around the use of public funds– beyond influence on agenda setting and policy adoption and deep into policy formulation and evaluation.

The stakes are high everywhere but particularly in big central cities. Providers gravitate to cities like New York and Los Angeles because cities with more students mean more revenue.  For example, many companies selling technology charge by user fees.  That is, the more students or teachers in a district, the higher the revenue – even if the unit price is low.  Charter schools get money based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA) or seat time. If we follow this thread further, we can see why organizations like EIA would want more influence over the rules for contracting in public education. Streamlining public policy around the procurement process opens up markets, and not just for the start-ups referenced in the EIA announcement. 

Streamlining could eventually involve making big sales as customers click “BUY” rather than having to go through multiple presentations to district leaders in an effort to maintain transparency. But, making the decision about whether every child in a school district should have a tablet over a music program or smaller class sizes is very different from making the decision to purchase staples and pencils. The interest of education foundations – like the Gates Foundation – and the Federal government in the EIA initiative is telling. It suggests a broader agenda at play in reimagining the local in local governance. The marketing letter from the EIA announcing the partnership uses the language of a “freeium offer.”  But public policy is meant to be deliberative and transparent. It shouldn’t be for sale.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Microtel Inns, Dairy Queens, St. Sensible and Detroit Country Day: Realities and Myths of “Choice”

Michael Paul Goldenberg has some good insights on when/why choice doesn't work.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The data is in and K12 Inc.'s brand of full-time public "cyber school" is garbage. Not surprising for an educational model kicked off with a $10 million investment from junk-bond king Michael Milken. . . . [read on]