The Ghost of Charlie Hoban

Addressing the Educational Technology community from beyond the grave.


In the 40's and 50's I was one of the primary theorists in the field that is known today as Educational Technology.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Why CAN'T you get your GED on the Street?

I asked this question before in and I've been thinking about it ever since.

One of the most important questions that is not being addressed is the issue of DISTRIBUTION of education. The research seems to be in educational effectiveness where gains of 10 to 15% would be considered pretty decent. What if, instead of that incremental increase in efficiency in teaching those that already HAVE access -- what if we increased the REACH of education to 10-15% more people?

In 2004, the US Census Bureau reported that 85% of Americans 25 and over had completed high school. This is from 2003 data and represents about 185 million Americans. Wow. Great! 160 million Americans over the age of 25 have at least a high school diploma. That leaves 25 million without. I grant you that the distribution percentages without diplomas are heavily weighted to the older groups, but those groups also hold the fewest people. Of the 120 million Americans between 25 and 50, at least 12 million are lacking a diploma.

Only 25% of American's over 25 have a college degree.

What are the obstacles? Why are there no storefront schools like there are storefront churches? You can save your soul but not your life? Where are the support structures to help adult learners earn their GED? What would it take to increase the REACH of education by 10 or 15%?

This is NOT a rhetorical question. Why CAN'T you get your GED on the streets?



Tuesday, February 01, 2005

College and Prison

Colleges and prisons have a lot in common. In each case the administration has to validate that the inmate has satisfied his debt to society. In the case of prison, a judge – often following sentencing guidelines – chooses from a menu of available time slots depending on the seriousness of the infraction. The time cannot be spent in any willy-nilly activity, but must satisfy the codified path with sufficiently satisfactory “good behavior” in order to qualify for release. Infractions can result in extensions of that time served. Likewise colleges and universities validate that a student has satisfied his debt to society by certifying that the student spends the requisite amount of time as spelled out in the Carnegie Unit. The more advanced the degree, the more Carnegie Units must be certified and, further, the institution certifies that the student conforms his requisite behaviors to the specified norms that allege to indicate “good behavior” -- that is, he passed.

The differences, of course, should include that students want to be in college, but prisoners would prefer not to be in prison. In practice, I'm not sure that students do not share more in outlook with prisoners than we would prefer.

The basic problem is that Big-E Education is the process of certification. In this age of accreditation, accountability, and certification the notion that Education should certify outcomes has been diluted to certifying outcomes that are easily measured. We use seat time to validate courses. We use grades to certify performance. We use standardized tests to compare programs. We never once question whether any of this satisfies the social good of helping to create an educated citizenry.

What's wrong with this picture?

Until next time.



Tuesday, January 11, 2005

National Education Technology Plan

I've just read the latest National Education Technology Plan entitled "Toward a New Golden Age in American Education -- How the Internet, the Law and Today's Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations". The first 40 pages are noise. Then the report lists seven recommendations.

  1. Strengthen leadership

  2. Consider innovative budgeting

  3. Improve teacher training

  4. Support e-learning and virtual schools

  5. Encourage broadband access

  6. Move toward digital content

  7. Integrate data systems

Surely this can't be real.

Strengthen leadership? The Dept of Ed seems to think that having technically savvy school administrators is a key element. I don't disagree but they recommend that school districts spend their already tight budget money on training their administrators to embrace the new world. They suggest that the key is creating partnerships between business and higher education. If I were to paraphrase this, I'd say "You administration types need to get on board with this and we aren't going to help you. Perhaps you can band together with some other players to get what you need."

Consider innovative budgeting? Paraphrased, "If you weren't wasting all the cash we're giving you, you'd have the money you need to take care of this." Or perhaps, "you could pay for it, if you were a little cleverer with pinching pennies."

Improve teacher training? Right. Isn't this the same administration that killed the PT3 program? I'm not saying this would not be a good thing, but suggesting that it can be accomplished by "measurement, accountability, and technology resources" is a lot like saying "If I had some ham, I could make a ham sandwich, if I had some bread." The people in charge of teacher education in the majority of places in the country do not know enough about the technological landscape to be able use it themselves, let alone train teachers to take advantage of it. I don't care how much you measure the wrong thing, or how much you hold people accountable to inadequate standards, or provide them with inappropriate technology, you cannot improve their performance!

Support e-learning and virtual schools? Perhaps they're hoping that we can close down the brick-and-mortar and save all that money in utility bills. In this recommendation they do NOT recommend any kind of VALID distance educational experience, only that it be supported. This is so much like the movement to wire the schools. As we've learned, just having the wire, doesn't solve anything. Oh, and states and districts have to find a way to fund this themselves.

Encourage broadband access? Really? This is a good thing, but from the perspective of a school district, it makes no sense at all. I can't even figure out how their detail recommendations make any sense. It amounts to the government suggesting that school districts should be running broadband to the student's homes. In the meantime, we have lawsuits in Philadelphia and Lafayette, Louisiana, brought by the cable companies PREVENTING municipalities from doing exactly that. And, again, we have "the wire is the answer" without any kind of rationale for how it should be used. The "Field of Dreams" rationale, I suppose.

Move toward digital content? Why? So we can have more lawsuits for copyright infringement? So we can fatten the pockets of the DRM fanatics and DMCA proponents? Most TEACHERS still think that Fair Use means they can use whatever they like whenever they want it. What about kids? I bet most faculty think that the TEACH Act solved copyright problems. This is not a bad thing, but the legal implications of it are tacitly expressed in, "Ensure that teachers and students are adequately trained in the use of online content." Hm. I wonder what THAT means?

Integrate data systems? This is just -- in technical terms -- crap. From an educational standpoint, it's a meaningless point. It has everything to do with administering school systems efficiently (cheaply) and nothing to do with educating students. Again, I can understand where an efficient data system can help control cost. But to suggest that systems integrating school costs with student assessment data is a valid use of technology to improve learning outcomes seems a pretty big stretch to me. I love the recommendation that suggests that correlations between student achievement and resource allocations should be a key qualifier. Personally, I think that's a good idea. If the students aren't performing, then the unit needs MORE resources. Unfortunately, I suspect that the opposite response would be more in keeping with the current administration's perspective on Education -- that being "the beatings will continue until morale improves." One recommendation in this has some merit. "Use assessment results to inform and differentiate instruction of every child." Hm? They SEEM to be suggesting that students should be assessed to learn what they know in order to teach them what they need to know.

What an innovative idea.

Until next time.


Sunday, December 12, 2004

Value of Learning

Rob Reynolds has published an audio file talking about a German study written up in the Christian Science Monitor. The article says

From a sample of 175,000 15-year-old students in 31 countries, researchers at the University of Munich announced in November that performance in math and reading had suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home. And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school, those who used them several times per week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well.

Reynolds points out that what this article says is that academic "performance" suffers. What it does NOT say is whether or not "learning" suffers. Reynolds makes the point that there may be a disconnect between "useful learning" and "academic performance." His evidence - the anecdotal sample consisting of his own kids - may not have the same rigor as a formal experimental sample, but it certainly is compelling.

This is not an indictment of teachers or schools, but of the political process that has made accountability and dogma master of the curriculum.

But you all knew that, right?


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Closed Door Education

Looking over the recent changes in Title 17 and the administration of so-called Learner Management Systems, it seems to me that things have gotten a little out of hand. I appreciate the need for educational branding. It's what makes MIT different from Berkeley. I applaud the open courseware movement as instantiated at MIT and OSLO, but whatever happened to the community of scholars? When did the doors to education become closed?

Oh, I know, the actual credentialling has always been a matter of expense. There was a TV show way back when I was alive in the 60's called "Hank" about a young fellow who used to sneak into college in order to get an education. Notice that the premise here is that this fellow would attend classes to get an education -- not a degree. In the 60's an education had more value than a degree, it seems. Or perhaps the day had already passed and that is why the show did not find a receptive audience.

The issue here is that campuses have become closed even more than they ever were and with the advent of learner management systems that preclude examination of course materials outside of the class environment, even those lurking on the edge of education are left more and more in the cold. Codifying that "only-the-privileged" mentality in Title 17 is hardly a step forward.

I appreciate that this is not a universal truth. OSLO and MIT's Open CourseWare initiative are good examples. So are the MERLOT project and several other movements to make the materials of education available more democratically, but merely making the materials available is not providing education. We are missing the basic truth that education is a process of socialization. Without the involvement -- even validation -- from the community as a whole, the ivory tower becomes more and more disconnected from reality.

What is so ironic here is that the value of education is no longer very high compared to the credential. An individual who has all the requisite knowledge, the ability to practice in the domain, and the skill to do it effectively is no longer allowed to exercise that knowledge, ability, and skill unless he/she also has the credential. With that firmly in mind, what is the point of closing the doors?

Come to think of it. I guess this was true back in 1900, too. The Wizard didn't give the Scarecrow brains, after all -- only a testimonial.


Monday, November 15, 2004

Why can't you get your GED on the street?

There is a Public Service Announcement going around now from the National Center for Family Literacy. If you have not seen it, it shows a mother with a child walking along a stereotypical "tough street" in some gritty urban setting. They walk past the three-card monty dealer, the streetman for a joint touting "beautiful books inside," a guy with math textbooks in pockets inside a long coat, and a fellow with diplomas in a briefcase. Classic -- stereotypical -- twisted just slightly to make the message.

All in all, pretty good film making. I approve.

The tag line at the end is, "You can't get your GED on the street."

While I admired the use of the images and the story that developed in this brief spot, when it got to the voice over at the end, I had a "Why not?" moment.

Has the Education Machine grown too large that it will not accept the competition? Or merely so out of touch with its constituency that it doesn't recognize the need?

There is a crisis in America and a large part of it is related to a pandemic disaffection with established institutions like schools. Why else could high-stakes testing be considered a "good thing" by a large number of people? I chalk it up to ignorance, but that brings me back to the problem with schools having failed to teach the last couple of generations of voters to think. It's enough to make a fellow lose faith in Education.

Perhaps that's the problem with Education. In my day, we didn't have an "educated citizenry." The majority of people finished high school but college was the domain of the elite. Parents hoped their children would go to school, but it wasn't the norm. In 1947 only about 7% of the population was in college or professional school. It's much better today, right?

Guess again. The US Government Census Office says that in 2002 about 13% of the population not enrolled in school had not graduated from high school. Only about 28% of the population age 3 and higher is enrolled in school and that includes ALL schools from K-24. The number in college is still just about 7%. In 2003 less than 25% of the population had a bachelor's degree or higher.

So is 13% none? When the government talks about no child left behind, does that include the 18 year old dropouts? How about the 24 year olds without a high school diploma? In the thirties, if you finished elementary school before going to work on the family farm, that was pretty good. In the fifties, if you finished high school before going to work in the factory, that was pretty good. Today? The family farms are all but gone. The factories are following. Without at least a high school diploma, life is grim and mercifully short -- the kind of dark and gritty space that, unchecked, creates harsh and brutal environments of violence and unrest. It's sort of what we have now in many inner cities -- and not just in the larger cities.

So why can't you get your GED on the street? What is preventing this kind of "taking it to the people" guerilla education that would allow us to reach at least some of those 13% of people who do not have a high school diploma?

Or is it ok to leave 32 million children behind?


Sunday, November 07, 2004

Lecture as Performance

This issue of online lectures has bothered me.

A lot of teachers seem to be concerned with not having their dulcet tones perceived by students at a distance. My basic opinion is that this is an ego problem, not an educational one. The majority of teacher lectures could be summed up in about 12 well-formed sentences. Most lectures (not yours, of course, but other teachers) are as somewhat less interesting and slightly more predictable than watching grass grow.

Having satisfied the curmudgeonly impulse, I have to admit to recognizing that there are some few teachers who are, in fact, orators. Their lectures are not merely compliations of stories and facts, but actually transcend into the realm of performance. They are few and far between. I, personally, am not one of them. Listening to me speak requires a good night's sleep in advance, a cold room, and a couple of cups of coffee in preparation. Being slightly hungry would help keep you awake in one of my lectures, as well. In this, I am a firm member of the majority.

For the other 2% of lecturers, making audio available seems a likely approach. For something under a megabyte (about a million characters -- 2/3s of a floppy disk) a minute, it is possible to digitize speech for download over an internet connection. The latest craze appears to be something called podcasting where individual content creators are making digital files available for download via their blogs and rss feeds. This is only significantly different from the standard "click to download" approach on webpages because the notice that new content is available (and in some cases the content itself) is delivered via the same technology that blog updates are promulgated.

The technology is not difficult. Anybody with a recorder (and a bit of knowledge) can digitize sound and place it on a server. My anxiety over this is that so many people who shouldn't do it will.

The critical question is, "Does it add anything?"

Anyone who answers, "Of course!" is immediately disqualified.

There is no "of course" about it. Without a careful analysis of the educational need, and the instructor's skill, this can be worse than a waste of time. One also needs to consider the "size of the pipes" for the class. Teachers are, generally, on "big pipes" when it comes to data acquisition. Students are another matter.

There was a lot of noise some time ago about the "adoption rate" for broadband access. Broadband was allegedly expanding at a rate of 20% a year. The problem with these numbers was that the availability of broadband was expanding -- not the adoption! The adoption rate for houses that have broadband choices available was flat at 10% or so. So, while the numbers of households that have broadband availability is going up very quickly, people in those markets were not adopting it at the same rate.

So consider that a 15 minute talk would take to download. One minute of data transfer on dialup is about 300,000 charaters. One minute of audio would take 2-3 minutes to download, depending on compression, connection speed, etc. A 15 minute audio would take 30-45 minutes. Think about what it means to ask students to wait for the download twice as long as the performance will run. For a good performance, that might be acceptable, but it has to be a good performance. Students will punish a bad one by not listening to it all, and by simply neglecting to download any more of them.

So before you set out to make audio available, ask yourself if you're providing a lecture or a performance. If all you're doing is lecturing, save your breath.


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