Last week I read this blog entry, Give a kid a computer…what does it do to her social life? It summarised a research paper that claimed to study how computers influenced social development and participation in school.
The paper might seem like a good read, until you realise its limitations. The blogger pointed these out:
A few caveats of these conclusions should be borne in mind. First, the study only lasted for one school year. Second, having a smart phone, with the constant access it affords, may yield different results. Third, children were given a computer, but not Internet access. Some kids had it anyway, but the more profound effects may come from online access.
The single year study is quite a feat even though a longer longitudinal study would have been better. The researchers were probably limited by schooling policies and processes like access to students and how students are grouped.
I am more critical of the other study design flaws.
My first response was: Computers only, really?
Phones are the tools, instruments, and platforms of choice among students. You can take away their computers, but you can only remove their phones from their cold dead hands. If you wanted to study the impact of a technology set that was key to social development and school participation, you should focus on the influence of the phone.
My second response was: Not consider Internet access, really?
That is like studying the impact of cars on air quality or travel stress by limiting the cars to a thimble of fuel. Much of what we do with computers and phones today requires being online. You can focus on what happens offline with these devices, but this is such a limited view. This is like saying you observe what happens in one minute out of every hour and claim to know what happens all day.
There might be a need to study the impact of, say a 1:1 programme, but this would likely happen in the larger context of Internet-enabled phone use. It does not make sense to silo study the impact of non-Internet computer use.
My third response on reading the abstract was: Self-reporting via surveys, really?
There is nothing wrong with surveying itself, particularly if the surveys were well-designed and valid. However, self-reporting is notoriously unreliable because participant memories are subject to time, contextual interpretation, emotion, and other confounding factors.
Given that the study was quasi-experimental, where were the other data collection methods to triangulate the findings? These methods include, but are not limited to, observations, interviews, focus groups, document analysis, video analysis, etc.
While my critique might sound harsh, this is the norm of academic review. If a study is to inform theory or practice, is must be rigorous enough stand up to logical and impartial critique.
There is no perfect study and on-the-ground situations can be difficult. But if the researchers do not manage the circumstances and design with better methods, then their readers should read critically with informed lenses. If the latter do not have them, this doctor offers this free prescription.
As I watched this YouTube video about a maker-cosplayer building his own K-2S0 “costume”, I wondered about what “maker spaces” represent in schools.
Are these places good-to-haves or must-haves? Are they PR showcases or actual tinkering spaces? Are activities driven partly by curriculum, or largely by passion?
What are the honest answers to these questions? What are the hard truths and blatant lies we have to face up to about maker spaces?
In my opinion, maker spaces should be built on just one foundation: Learner passion. This allows any learning environment to be a “maker space”, even a conventional and seemingly resource-poor one. Learners make and make do in these circumstances and in any subject.
I am not just making this up. Reflect on what is important about maker spaces and you might arrive at a similar conclusion.
What is your response to this tweet?
I have a few. One is that it is impossible to distill all that is teaching in a tweet.
Another is that the question presents a false dichotomy to seed discussion. The “telling” and the “letting” actually represent different ends of a large spectrum.
A more straightforward response, particularly from teachers who have learnt to go beyond telling, is that teaching is both.
I would point out that there is an imbalance. Teaching is still heavy on telling and light on letting. Telling is easier to do than letting, but easier does not mean better or more effective.
Just moving from monologue to dialogue is difficult. The talker must listen, analyse, clarify, and meet the learner where they are at. Reaching learners and empathising with them is fundamental to teaching. If we do not, we are just telling and yelling. Then no one is listening and learning.
This video with the clickbait title follows the Betteridge Law. This is any headline asked as a question that can be answered no.
The answers are more nuanced. After reviewing some research, Hank Green concluded by pointing out that the differences of gamers and the nature of games mattered first.
Something similar could be asked of and answered about any technology enhanced or enabled process, e.g., do iPads improve grades, does access to social media harm socialisation, do algorithms boost teaching?
The nature of people and what they do matters. Let’s not be tricked by the press squeezing the low-hanging fruit and vendors leveraging on what you do not know.
Just as video games do not cause the type of violence you read about in newspaper headlines, the good that you see in technology-mediated interventions are not the due to technology alone. It is part of a socio-technical system and the social part is too rich and complex to have a simple answer.
I find Rube Goldberg machines fascinating. They are basically just chains of immediate cause-and-effect, but when well done, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
So how did this Japanese group make a better Rube Goldberg machine? They added a narrative to it. The rolling balls were characters in a story that featured friendship, misadventure, a rescue, suspense, and a happy ending.
It is one thing to build a creative and intricate Rube Goldberg machine; it is another to let a narrative drive it. But ask almost anyone which they will remember and they are likely to say the one with the narrative. We are just programmed that way.
Now what do your change initiatives look and sound like? Be they piecemeal or systemic, is there a narrative that drives it? Does your change process look like a checklist, a spreadsheet, or a story? What connects and moves people? What is your next move?
Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.
Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.
If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.
While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.
The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.
The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.
It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.
So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.
The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:
Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.
In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.
The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.
School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.
This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).
Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?
Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:
- Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
- Boutique programmes
- Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)
The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.
The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.
Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.
We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.
One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.
This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.
Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:
- The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
- The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
- Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
- Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
- Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
- Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
- Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.
If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?
We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.
We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.
Reading this article from my RSS feed, Bon Voyage Copy Machine, reminded me of a process I led as head of an e-learning centre several years ago.
Like most departments, mine had a fax machine and photocopier. They were largely redundant because we did not send faxes or need much by way of paper copies.
If some ancient entity demanded it, we could rely on an online service to send the odd fax. We also needed paper copies only when a similarly outdated department inside or outside our organisation required it.
We calculated the costs of maintaining both a fax and copy machine. In the case of the fax machine, the taxes alone from the annual phoneline subscription far exceeded the cost of our yearly usage. The photocopy machine needed paper, toner, and servicing. Paper was relatively cheap*, but the cost of toner could buy a new machine.
*Paper was cheap, but wasteful. The copier was LAN-linked and people from other departments could accidentally send print jobs to our machine.
So we got rid of our fax machine by writing in to folks in charge. My assistant also calculated the cost of getting rid of fax machines across our entire organisation and having just a few shared ones in a central location. The savings were substantial, but the suggestion to centralise fax machines was ignored because convenience and being in the comfort zone mattered more than cost and change.
We invested in a newer and networked copier that would scan and send e-copies to our computers and phones. This reduced the cost of consumables. It took a while for other departments to follow our lead, but they had an easier time because we had already battled with written proposals and were a case study of cost-savings.
The cost of staying in the past is not just overtly financial. There is also the hidden cost of maintaining change resistance and inertia. The financial cost is easy to see on a spreadsheet and justify to an administrator or policymaker. The stubborn costs are not.
Like it or not, the world has moved away from cassette tapes, film rolls, and diskettes. We should add to this lot the fax and copy machines. Unless you operate in a museum, they are as obsolete as the thinking behind their use. If you can find reasons to justify them as a worker today, you might be obsolete too.