Category Archives: Technology

Personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology

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I just got back from vacation, which was a great time to read the The Three Body Problem science fiction trilogy, a wonderful series that revolves around the protoganist using first principles thinking to negotiate with an alien species.

Upon return, I read this Rand report on personalized learning, which was funded by the Gates foundation. The report covers a small set of schools in the early years of implementation, so best not to draw too firm of conclusions.

The report found:

  • Charters that adopted personalized learning strategies saw a +.1 effect in math and no statistically significant in reading.
  • District schools (very small N) saw no achievement gains.
  • Charter schools implemented personalized learning strategies with more operational fidelity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the authors noted:

In this theoretical conception, schools that are high implementers of PL [personalized learning]  approaches would look very different from more traditional schools. In practice, although there were some differences between the NGLC schools and the national sample, we found that schools in our study were implementing PL approaches to a varying degree, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.

So in this sample, charters outperform traditional schools (thought by a lesser margin than urban charters as a whole outperform traditional schools); charters execute better; and the schools themselves don’t look radically different than traditional schools.

Hence the title of this post: personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology.

Without a technological breakthrough, the current personalized learning efforts will, at best, lead to modest improvements on the execution of common place ideas (using data to drive instruction, executing leveled small group instruction, investing children in goals, etc.). School will look the same and be a little more effective and pleasant for all involved.

This is fine and the world is in many ways built on modest improvements.

But for personalized learning to live up to its hype (as well as to its philanthropic investment), it will need a technological breakthrough.

Instructional platforms might be the first breakthrough, but even here I think the primary effects will be more around scaling great school models and content rather than deep personalization.

The crux of the issue is this: computers are simply not as good as humans in coaching students through instructional problems.

Your average person off the street remains a more effective grade school tutor than the most powerful computer in the world.

Until this changes, personalized learning will never realize its promise. The problem is one of technology, not practice.

Future rivalries: the platform vs. the chief academic officer

I’ve previously written on the rivalry between chief academic officers (who manage instruction) and chief schools officers (who manage the portfolio of schools).

In traditional districts, I deeply believe that the chief academic officer should report to the chief schools officer, who should report to the superintendent.

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In the future, I think the chief academic risks losing another battle: this time with instructional platforms.

In his book the End of Average, Tyler Cowen makes the argument that those professional who form symbiotic relationships with technology will thrive. He cites the example of hybrid human-computer chess teams.

It is likely that the same will be true in education.

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My hunch is that in the future most schools and districts will be on educational platforms that combine human curation of content and algorithms to develop an instructional program from afar.

In this sense, many school operators will outsource many of the traditional roles of a chief academic officer to a platform.

Once these platforms get good enough – chief academic officers who claim “I know our children better” and demand full control of the academic program – will lose. The platform will be better.

The platform , on average, will be better than a chief academic officer.

But this does not mean that a platform, on average, will be better than a platform + a smart / humble / hardworking chief academic officer.

As with chess, the hybrid may very well win.

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How might a chief academic officer add value in this new role?

She could:

  1. Monitor relationships and place students and teachers into groups in a manner that would be difficult for a platform to intuit.
  2. Utilize local community resources to augment instruction.
  3. Provide intensive academic support to students who are not progressing as expected.
  4. Provide non-academic interventions to struggling students.
  5. Run experiments to test whether new platforms might be better to adopt.

In other words, the chief academic officer might morph into a chief learning officer that focuses on psychology, relationships, anomolies, and technology acquisition.

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Timing is one of the hardest part about incorporating technology into daily operations.

Move too fast and you have a mess.

Move too slow and you’ve harmed those you’re serving.

Over the past year, I’ve tried to spend time learning about the major platforms out there.

It feels like it’s getting close.

Not yet sure who is Friendster and who is Facebook.

The race is on, as they say.

5 ways Facebook could help make us better

Before getting to the recommendations, some framing thoughts:

  1. It is impossible to tell how Facebook affected the election. There is too much causal density in who people vote for to point to one cause and say: that’s the thing that mattered.
  2. I think there’s a major danger in saying: “people voted for Trump because of fake news” instead of acknowledging that people voted for Trump because of a combination of cultural and policy beliefs.
  3. Liberals have plenty of fake news of their own. I’ve spent the past 5 years dealing with a constant stream of unscientific articles about New Orleans education reform in papers such as the New York Times.
  4. The research on how people form and solidify opinions is messy, and I think social media gives a chance to run a lot of new experiments rather than assume we know how opinion formation occurs.
  5. I think censorship is almost always the wrong answer, and the line between editorial scrubbing and censorship is very blurry when it comes to a communication platform like Facebook.
  6. Since the advent of advertising driven media, every medium has had to figure out how to balance revenue and legitimacy. Modern fake news has been a problem since the creation of the penny newspaper.
  7. In considering Facebook, I think the first solution set should be to try and figure out how to harness the power of social media rather than curtail it.
  8. Ultimately, it’s not Facebook’s job to make us better; it’s our job.

Recommendation #1: An Opt-In Intellectual Diversity Function

Facebook should create an opt-in intellectual diversity function that harnesses its algorithm to populate a user’s feed with diverse intellectual opinions. This could be done throughout the newsfeed, or opposing viewpoints could be tagged to specific articles.

Overtime, Facebook could track what types of opposing articles are clicked and viewed – and tweak its algorithm to place the most effective type of opposing arguments for each type of person or issue.

Recommendation #2: An Opt-In Share My Story Function

From what I understand, personal posts garner much more engagement than article sharing. And my hunch is they are more effective in making people explore other opinions.

Facebook should create a share my story function that allows a user to give Facebook permission to share a personal story with strangers who have opted-in to the intellectual diversity feature.

Facebook could then share powerful personal stories that provide different viewpoints to its users, as well as track what types of stories resonate most with people of different intellectual viewpoints.

Recommendation #3: An Intellectual Diversity Rating

Facebook should provide the opportunity for each user to see a feed diversity rating score, that gives the user some (imperfect) estimation of the intellectual diversity of her feed.

Recommendation #4: Alternate View Feed Day

Facebook should have one day a year where users can opt-in to receiving a typical daily feed of a user who shares opposite political views.

So for a whole days a user would see the news / articles / etc. that a user from the opposite political spectrum would usually see.

Recommendation #5: Livestream Beer Summits

Occasionally, Facebook could livestream a summit of two people with different political viewpoints engaging in a discussion / visiting each other’s homes / going to a bar / etc.

It could provide a model for what we should all be doing more of: talking to each other.

In Sum

I don’t know if the above recommendations would work or not. Perhaps they would backfire and create more belief anchoring and division.

My major point is that instead of trying to censor social media we should run a bunch of experiments to try and figure out how it might make us better.

Lastly, like most posts, this post was born out of an exchange with friend: thanks to Mike Goldstein for inspiring this post by coming up with recommendations #1 and #5.

Post Vacation Reflections

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I just got back from vacation. Despite some bouts of unfortunate weather, I climbed Gothic Mountain – or, more accurately, 98% of Gothic Mountain – the last 2% was a little too risky for my tastes.

Some reflections below:

1. Less Twitter: I’m going to try and cut back from Twitter. While it is an extremely valuable source of information, it also encourages shallow thinking, tribal affiliations, and consumption of information that will be meaningless in a day or two. Out on the trail, I could feel my mind slowing down – there was less speed, more curiosity, and deeper thinking. I was also shocked to see how not much had changed in the week I was offline – Clinton did that, Trump did this – and life goes on…

2. Less Caffeine: Caffeine, like Twitter, speeds up the mind and, in my case, makes me a bit anxious. Before going on vacation, I was “on” caffeine for most of the day, which I think led to less rigorous thinking and more snap judgments. I’m going to try and move one cup of coffee in the morning and 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon.

3. Deeper Reading: I read a lot. And at my worst all I am doing is scanning headlines and abstracts for information that confirms my beliefs or hunches. I need to spend more time deeply thinking through less sources of information.

4. Getting My Head Around the Corner: I feel like I have spent the last 3-4 months trying to peak around the corner of where the next 20 years of education are heading – and how this aligns to my current work. It is unclear to me that I’m operating with the right long-term strategy; or, rather, perhaps what I’m working in is an important part of the puzzle but I can’t yet see the full puzzle, which is frustrating.

Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

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The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.

Who Will Education Platforms Liberate?

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I’ve been living in San Francisco for a few months now.

During this time I’ve had the chance to talk with some great educational entrepreneurs who are making different platform bets.

A platform is a plug-and-play business model that allows multiple participants (producers and consumers… who may be one in the same) to connect, interact, and create value.

Education platforms are varied.

Some are content neutral: numerous programs can plug in and users can access in any way they want.

Some deliver more standardized content: fully baked competency curriculum, tasks, and assessments – with  more heavy curation of user generated content.

What I’m most curious about is this: who will education platforms liberate?

Platforms could liberate students. They might be better able escape mediocre curriculum, weak assessments, and substandard teachers and get better instruction, psychological development, and career guidance through platforms.

Platforms could liberate teachers. They might be able to better escape terrible district mandates and simply close their doors, plug into the platform with their students, and execute a far better instructional model.

Platforms could liberate school founders. The barriers to entrepreneurship could significantly decrease if a new school is plugged into a platform that does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of technological, operational, and academic infrastructure.

Of course, platforms could end up liberating them all: students, teachers, and school founders could equally benefit.

On the other hand, platforms might also not deliver and simply liberate investor of their money and educators of their patience.

War! What WAS it Good For?

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I just finished reading War! What is It Good For?  by Ian Morris.

It is well worth reading.

Morris’ thesis is this:

  1. Government is the primary source of the reduction of violence in societies.
  2. Wars caused societies to merge, thereby increasing the scope, scale, and efficacy of government.
  3. It would have been great if societies had figured out a way to merge without war, but this, unfortunately, has rarely happened.
  4. So, like it or not, war has been the driver of government innovation.
  5. Therefore, wars have been the primary cause of our long-term decline of violence.

Or more fully:

  1. There was a lot of violence in the Stone Age.
  2. Back then, “wars” were just a bunch of back and forth raids that resulted in a lot of violence and not much productivity.
  3. However, then farming came along, which added territorial capture to what had previously been a plundering game.
  4. Once you capture territory, you have to figure out how to govern it in order to extract its resources.
  5. This requires you to figure out how to govern.
  6. When people govern better, violence goes down.
  7. So while wars cause a spike a violence, their long-term impact results in a net reduction of violence.
  8. However, with the advent of nuclear weapons, wars will likely soon become “unproductive” – in the sense that they might destroy humanity rather than lead to better governance. WWI and WWII gave us a taste of where modern war might be heading.
  9. Generally, massive war breaks out when a superpower declines.
  10. The USA will likely decline by 2040-2050. And global warming might also really start causing country collapses by then.
  11. This might cause humanity to destroy itself in a world war.
  12. The best way to avoid this is either to create world government or to turn into robots.
  13. The odds of turning into robots are higher than creating an effective world government during a time of superpower decline.
  14. Or perhaps we’ll muddle through another superpower decline even without a world government or turning into robots. We have survived this long, after all.

Depending on your viewpoints, you might find this historical analysis to be crazy. Or you might find these future predictions to be crazy.

Read the book and judge for yourself.

Personally, I find this historical analysis fairly convincing. As much as I wish it would have been otherwise, war has been the primary vehicle for scaling government, and government has been a boon for humanity.

But I’m surely not an expert so I could be very wrong.

As for the future, who really knows.

But I think we should heed Morris’ cautionary tale.

This Time Might Not Be Different.

The next time a superpower falls, history could well repeat itself, and we could be thrust into global warfare.

All of which surely puts education reform into perspective.

The sound and the furry of over testing will be nothing compared to the sound and the fury of humanity ending.

One last thought: given the above, would it be better or worse for USA to announce that it would never use nuclear weapons?

If you believe that the answer to our problems is maintaining USA dominance until we reach the singularity or create a world government, then you probably want the USA to maintain a credible threat of nuclear war.

If you believe that the USA will decline before we have a world government or reach the singularity, then you might actually view the USA never going to war as the only a way to avoid destroying humanity; as such, you might prefer USA to renounce warfare and simply be peacefully conquered by the world’s next superpower.