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I enjoyed the National Geographic documentary special on Singapore as a possible model for future cities.


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However, I watched with critical eyes and ears, particularly when “models” of education were highlighted around the half-hour mark of the documentary.

The overly broad claims made by the scriptwriters covered up fallacies and bias. For example, take the claims made after the segment on kindergarten children using “coding” blocks to learn.

The narrator claimed that approaches like these were “arming future generations of Singaporeans with the skills necessary for computer programming and literacy without exposing them to too much screen time”.

Neither a visitor to our shores nor a born-and-bred local should take this statement at face value. One fallacy is that kids exposed to such experiences will learn them meaningfully. Just ask a child what they remember from class a year ago. Heck, ask them what they learnt yesterday.

That claim was ludicrous when immediately followed up with: “This dynamic new approach to education is of critical importance for parents, helping to prepare their children for the workplaces of the future.”

Now I am not claiming that repeated and purposeful integration of lessons on computational thinking are not effective. I am pointing out that a) such lessons are not necessarily the norm, and b) there are far too many things that contribute to — and get in the way of — a child’s development.

A good start in early childhood education is important, but it is a stretch to claim that something a child experienced that early has a direct impact on future work.

A child’s education is long-term and multi-faceted while the future is murky. At best something learnt now might prepare a student for the next stage of schooling.

Revisit the last part of the quote: “…without exposing them to too much screen time”. The inherent bias is that screen time is bad.

But consider how students will need that screen time to experience and learn more deeply. Heck, I learnt of the documentary thanks to screen time on Twitter and then relied on screen time to watch it on YouTube.

It is what you do with screen time that matters. I wish people who have reach — like the groups that National Geographic partnered with — would stop harping on old and uncritical messages that avoid nuance. There is no point selling a city of the future if the messaging is from an irrelevant past.

Tomorrow's educational progress cannot be determined by yesterday's successful performance.

I have never been comfortable answering the “What is the future of…?” question. I have reflected on how myopic we are.


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John Green described our collective myopia more eloquently. He cited Philip Roth’s “relentless unforeseen” when describing our technological crystal ball gazing:

One never sees the future coming… We don’t know how it’s going to end, or for that matter, how it’s going to middle.

My field is technology-mediated pedagogy. When driven purely by teachers, technology use tends to recreate the past. When driven only by industry, technology designs try to grasp a fuzzy future.

When do we focus on the now? It is shaped by the past and it shapes the future. Relying on past successes makes us increasingly irrelevant; focusing too much on the future makes us blind. The middle now, as difficult as it might be to juggle, is a way to stumble into the relentless unforeseen.

Like it or not, this tweet can be interpreted more than one way.

Tweet about school.

It could mean that the school as a physical building literally houses and protects a future generation.

It could also mean that the school is a social structure that shapes the future. What the future looks like depends on the changes implemented now.

A third perspective is that the future — the students and what they do — is walled in by the past. If we are realistic, the implied optimism of the tweet needs to be balanced with this:

We might think of schooling as teaching the prior generation's knowledge so that youth are prepared to communicate on an equal footing with those they are about to join in the economic and civic spheres. -- Robert Pondiscio

Any creative endeavour needs critical balance. So even a straightforward slogan is not exempt from critique.

Uh, the point of a spark is to start a fire. Fires, particularly uncontrolled and poorly managed ones, are destructive. The immediate future of such a fire might look like this.
 

 
My point is this: You can be a spark, but do not expect the future to be a rosy one.

A fire might be controlled and managed in a kiln. I choose that example because schools are often described as moulding the future. If students are clay to be moulded, they are hardened by fire in a kiln.

In unskilled hands, the clay artefacts can look like monsters. My acquaintances who dabble in pottery remind me that good results are not guaranteed and to always expect the unexpected.

Clay kids might not hold their shape because they are more pliable before firing. While hardness is desirable after firing, they also become brittle.

Critics might point out what I just said was not the intent of the slogan or that no one thinks like that. I just did and did so not to be mean. Words hold meaning, some intended and some not. Unless the next slogan is in emoji, I say we add a healthy dose of critical analysis to creative writing.

Recently I read an article written with hope. Blind hope.

If the title (How the Amazon Echo Show Will Revolutionize Higher Education) does not reveal why, then its list of how-exactly will.

If the article was meant to be satire, it failed because its tone was too honest and earnest. It was almost as if the writer was sponsored to write it or wrote it to get sponsored.

Either way, the ideas focused blindly and romantically on technology in education instead of realistically and critically.

For example, one suggestion was that the device would let you “visit your alma mater’s Second Life campus from every room in your home by voice command”. Second Life? There is as much point of doing this as visiting Ello and MySpace.

How about being able to “monitor your children in their dorm rooms through the always-on video and audio feeds”? Creepy much? Legal advocates for privacy could have a field day with this one.

Maybe the legal folk could conference with the device. They could also use existing systems today to do all the items of the list and just as well if not better. The oversell of edtech is a fetish.

We already have the benefit of hindsight of the “disruption” of higher education by MOOCs and the “Uberisation” of education.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

We should have learnt from those mistakes, but we collectively ignore or conveniently forget.

The technology giants do create change and it is tempting to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the future. But the future is not just a function of technology, particularly in the edtech world.

Here it is a socio-technical phenomenon. People and mindsets shape what edtech does. This is why we still appropriate the latest technologies for show-and-tell. It is when people do something unexpected and different with the technology that change happens.

My claim is not sexy because it is not based on a fetish for technology. It is based on critical research and reflective practice. This allows me to have my head in the air while my feet still feel the ground.

You can accuse me of being boring with my approach to edtech, but certainly not of being kinky.

 
I did not think that some people are still talking about the future of the e-book. I guess this is not surprising given how the concept and practice of e-books is still largely limited to what a book does.

Publishers and developers need to take note of this observation from the article:

“A book is the opposite of a web page,” which typically has a scattered design that relies on links to other sites, Jaffe said. With a book, “an author has thought deeply about a topic, curated everything you want to know about it, and packaged into a single publication.”

E-books that most people read on Kindles and library apps are often glorified PDFs. They are not like the Web or social media. They are certainly not like the level 2, 2.5, and 3 e-books that I suggested in 2011.

Perhaps the future of the e-book is also about getting the timing right. People were not ready for less book-like e-books then. They are less resistant now.

Pushing change to readers is one thing, changing from within is another. Publishers are slow to change their mindsets and practices.

Revisiting my thoughts on e-textbooks, I realise that the concerns are the same today. Publishers may have moved on to control access to resources via institutional or proprietary LMS [example], but the same principles are in play: Limit for profit.

So let’s not call a book an an e-book unless we can relook it through a social creator’s lens first and a publisher’s lens last.

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After reading this review of research on homework, my mind raced to how some people might resort to formulaic thinking.

This was the phrase that seeded it:

Based on his research, Cooper (2006) suggests this rule of thumb: homework should be limited to 10 minutes per grade level.

What follows were examples and an important caveat:

Grade 1 students should do a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per night, Grade 2 students, 20 minutes, and so on. Expecting academic students in Grade 12 to occasionally do two hours of homework in the evening—especially when they are studying for exams, completing a major mid-term project or wrapping up end-of-term assignments—is not unreasonable. But insisting that they do two hours of homework every night is expecting a bit much.

If you assume that people would pay more attention to the caveat than to the formula, you assume wrongly. Doing the former means thinking harder and making judgements. The latter is an easy formula.

Most people like easy.

If those people are teachers and administrators who create homework and homework policies, then everyone who is at home will likely suffer from homework blues.

Am I overreaching? I think not. Consider another example on formulaic thinking.

I provide professional development for future faculty every semester, but this semester was a bit different. There was a “social” space in the institution’s learning management system (LMS) where a certain 70:30 ratio emerged.

A capstone project for these future faculty is a teaching session. The modules prior to that prepare them to design and implement learner-centred experiences. At least one person played the numbers game and asked what proportion of the session should be teacher-centred vs student-centred.

I provide advice in person and in assignments that the relative amount is contextual. My general guideline is that student-centred work tends to require more time since the learners are novices and that the planning should reflect that.

However, once that 70:30 ratio was suggested in the social space, it became the formula to follow. It was definite and easier than thinking for and about the learner. It allowed future faculty to stay in their comfort zone of lecturing 70% of the time and grudgingly attempt student-centred work 30% of the time.

But guess what? When people follow this formula or do not plan for more student-centred activities and time, they typically go over the 70% teacher talk time and rush the actual learning. This pattern is practically formulaic.

Formulaic thinking is easy, but that does not make it right or effective. In the case of the course I mentioned, the 70:30 folk typically return for remediation. It is our way of trying to stop the rot of formulaic thinking.
 


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