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Today I draw a link between a newspaper that calls itself Today and schooling.

Over the last few weeks, I noticed the Today paper experimenting with different web publishing formats.

I had previously been able to read desktop and mobile versions of the same article from Today. Recently, however, some pages seem to only be desktop-only or desktop-like.

Whether the pages were desktop or mobile, I could load them in Reader View in mobile Safari and get only text and images that were relevant to the article. There were no other distractions. Lately, I rarely have the option to toggle Reader View.

I have also noticed that some pages do not load content on the desktop or mobile browsers if ad blockers are on or privacy apps are active, respectively.

The Today paper is doing this despite Google Chrome and Apple Safari browsers cracking down on various types of ads and trackers.

The paper needs to stay ahead of the game, not fall and roll backward into the web publishing past. Back then newspapers pushed what they wanted — content, ads, and trackers — with very little consideration for reader experience.

There is a similar parallel in schooling. Some schools restrict technology use (“it is distracting”) and others ban them (“it is harmful”) in favour of ye good olde days. They push content and testing with very little consideration for how students actually learn best.

Both newspapers and schools need to get a broader sense of what is happening today. Readers and students want more say and involvement, have more rights, and feel more empowered.

Modern web browsers already reflect these changes. Users can install blockers of ads and trackers. Content creators can upload and share their thoughts on multiple platforms with only themselves as filters. But the Today paper seems to want to roll back time to yesterday.

Students today might block boring or irrelevant lessons by averting or closing their eyes. They do create content, but this is often heavily filtered, strictly dictated, or otherwise constrained like recipes. Schools still are stuck in the past.

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

This is not news. I share the quote above as a critique of how many schools prepare students more for the past than the current and much less the future.

The sensing mechanism that newspapers and schools have is the same. What they create as artefacts are mirrors with which to reflect on themselves. What they critically read, watch, or listen to online serve as looking glasses to anticipate tomorrow.

Our daily rags sometimes do us a disservice by publishing articles like this.

A headline that reads “Eating too much fish while pregnant raises child obesity risk” is not only inaccurate, it is also irresponsible. The researchers highlighted that there was no direct link and said that making such a hypothesis was “speculative”. The study did not prove causation; it only suggested correlation.

The headline is what grabs eyeballs. It is clickbait based on fear or worry.

If not scientifically or research literate, the layperson typically does not distinguish between correlation with causation. Perhaps we need a SkillsFuture course on this because it is a valuable lesson in lifelong learning.

If not, then we might ponder the observation of one of the readers: The Japanese consume a lot of fish, and presumably that includes pregnant women, but they have a relatively low obesity rate. So what gives?

Rising above irresponsible reporting, I wonder if literacy in schools includes the sort of critical thinking that 1) distinguishes between correlation and causation, and 2) encourages questions with counter examples and data.

Is such literacy relegated to “cyberwellness” programmes or is it integrated in the context of actual content?

Reading an article like the one recently published by the Straits Times (More schools tap tech tools for learning [archive]) should raise critical questions instead of blind acceptance.

For example:

  • How many of the 360 mainstream schools in Singapore do this?
  • How common are such practices? How special are the lessons?
  • How transparent are the tools?
  • How different are they pedagogically and experientially from outdated practices?
  • How effective are such experiences?

The general public should learn to ask these questions to keep schools accountable. These questions matter because they affect our children and use our tax dollars (see this Hechinger report on the overall ICT masterplans; amounts are in US$).

What are markers that might reveal an article to be making a mountain out of a molehill?
 

 
When examining the health of, say, a freshwater ecosystem, the marker species are amphibians because they are the most sensitive to changes in the environment. A newspaper article can be more complex because the narrative can fool the casual reader. However, there are the equivalent of sick, missing, or dead frogs.

Future Schools

Nearly a decade ago in 2007, the Ministry of Education (MOE) named five pioneering “schools of the future” under its Future Schools project. These schools, picked as test beds for the use of educational technology, are, according to the MOE, “trailblazers” in engaging in information and communications technology (ICT) projects.

In later years, another three schools joined the initiative.

In the Singapore context, the first dead giveaway is the reference to the Future Schools [PDF]. Cosy up to closed circles and you will hear how this is an experiment that is not working. The model is not scalable because the context of each school is different.

Another barrier is poor communication. It is not as if the Future Schools do not share, it is that they do not share quite nearly enough and on a scale necessary for system-wide change. Hosting visits and dialogues is good; creating community is better but sorely missing.

I am aware of one teacher grassroots effort, a Google Educators Group, that meets regularly. All involved stand to benefit from the community because this strategy relies on buy-in and ownership, not policy and good PR.

Buzzwords

The MOE has since observed that more schools – beyond the eight schools selected for the programme – have experimented with technology for learning and teaching. But it did not reveal the number of schools that do so.

Ignore the words like “trailblazers” and take note of phrases like “but it (MOE) did not reveal the number of schools that do so”.

Buzzword: Digital native

Educators told The Straits Times that students, being digital natives, are more involved when technology is used in their learning.

Another phrase that should set off alarm bells is the labelling of students as “digital natives” by any interviewee. This term has been roundly critiqued and criticised for more than 10 years (sample of criticisms). Even the originator of “digital natives”, Marc Prensky, has backed down somewhat and moved on to digital wisdom.

“Digital natives” is artificially divisive (us and them), not entirely based on critical research, populist, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is often used in articles and speeches by people who do not know the history of the phrase nor why it has been rejected by thought leaders and progressive educators.

Buzzword: Engagement

“Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age,” said Dr Victor Lim, deputy director of technologies for learning at the MOE. “Technology can be used not just to increase students’ engagement, but also to… help them learn better.”

“Digital natives” is often used beside phrases like “Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age” and “Technology can be used… to increase students’ engagement”.

Any practitioner worth their salt will know that “comfortable use” of technology is not the same as responsible or effective use of technology. For example, being able to Google something on a mobile phone does not guarantee critical thought.

The use of “engagement” indicates a peripheral and non-critical use of technology. If a teacher needs technology to switch students on, the technology is likely a novelty. It could be bait for a lesson that is not meaningful to the learner.

Stanford don Larry Cuban has come out against the use of “engagement” [article]:

… he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained.

“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Here is a list of readings and musings on why engagement is fluffy.

Technology merely to enhance
I am against simple engagement because it is typically used alongside “enhancing” a lesson instead of “enabling” it. A tool that enhances is optional; a tool that enables is essential. Your phone can be optional or essential for your life and work. Guess how the modern worker and current student will describe their mobile devices.

If a tool is essential, a lesson cannot proceed and learning cannot happen without it. When the tools are essential, they are also transparent. No one bats an eyelid about using pens and books in the classroom because they are part of the environment and shape practices. The same should be said about current technologies in the classroom. The must enable, not merely enhance.

Buzzword: Future-ready

He added that the tools help students to achieve “future-ready” competencies, such as thinking critically as well as communicating and collaborating with others.

Another marker is the uncritical use of buzzwords like “future-ready”. What is this really?

Words are important because they hold meaning and are verbal contracts. Can you guarantee this state of being when the future is uncertain?

I have reflected before on why future-ready is a misnomer. Do not take my word for it, take Seymour Papert’s.

Sneak preview of my blog entry on a quote by #seymourpapert.

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Papert did not use the term future-ready. If anything, skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration are needed now. They are meaningful now. They are necessary now. The ability to keep learning variants of such skills starts now. There is no need to qualify them as future-ready.

The usual suspects

 
If you do not get this reference, you need to watch this movie.

I have nothing against the schools listed in the article. They are doing good work. However, the press does them and MOE a disfavour by citing the same schools over and over again.

To its credit, the press sometimes does include a new school among the usual suspects, preferably a neighbourhood school.

Buzzphrase: Technology is just a tool

“Technology is just a tool,” Dr Lim said. “It is the educators who make the difference.”

There is also harm in perpetuating old narratives like technology is “just a tool”. Technology is not just a tool; they are more like instruments. Instruments require care and constant practice to perform well with them. Technological instruments show the joy, art, and love of learning.

To use “just” is to say they do not have impact on their own and to not recognise that tool use is a socio-technical phenomenon. Marshall McLuhan put it best when he said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” One need only pay closer attention to how we walk, talk, and read with our mobile devices to see how our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Very few will deny that it is a good teacher that makes the difference. There is no need to placate the fearful by reminding people, teachers included, that teachers are important. What should be said though is this: Any teacher who can be replaced by technology, should.

 
I return to my pond analogy to point out the markers.

  • The sick frogs are the Future Schools and using phrases like digital natives.
  • The missing frogs are the schools whose educational technology examples and strategies that remain unreported.
  • The dead or dying frogs are the old narrative of buzzwords that attract flies.

It is easier to just accept the news article as is. It is just as easy to ignore the article and this critique. It is more difficult to question the article for the good of the system.

Which have you been taught to do? Which would you rather do? What should you be doing?

Today’s rant is about the irresponsibility of some news rags and the importance of developing critical literacy among our learners.

In his critique of homework, Alfie Kohn ripped into poor and irresponsible reports by newspapers of research articles. I suspect that the reporters were not literate enough in the field of practice they were writing about or their editors had broader agendas to fulfill.

I might say the same of the Straits Times (ST) take on Tata Communications report, Connected World II: Where does the Internet come from?. ST labelled us the “second most Internet-addicted people in the world”.

Singaporeans_are_second_most_Internet-addicted_people_in_the_world__Survey

At no point in the report did Tata suggest Internet addiction. This phrase was not in the summary of findings nor in the research implications.

The Tata report made reference to “our growing reliance on the constant flow of information through digital media”, but that does not imply addiction. We rely on the Internet for information, work, entertainment, and education.

ST was entitled to make their interpretation, of course. But was this justified given the larger context of Tata’s research? Was this ethical given the responsibility of a newspaper to report and inform?

ST did not provide a link to the original report and I had to look for it. If ST wanted to make that claim, why not link to Tata’s study in part to give credit, in part to answer unanswered questions?

ST knows that most people will not question their interpretation of the study or bother to ask even the most superficial questions.

Juicy headlines sell newspapers, never mind if they are accurate or not. And as long as ST does not step on government toes or breach OB markers, they can keep dancing and sailing.

That is why our learners must learn critical information literacy. They must learn not to take anything at face value.

These days doing some research online is not like going the extra mile. It is an extra yard. By working smarter, a learner need only take an extra step that could make a difference in being informed or being misled.

The WSJ wants you to know that “at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading with a book or e-book helps” your brain and reduces stress. But they would prefer that you read a book. Quietly. Or snuggle up with a newspaper perhaps?

I would argue that I have the same gains (and then some more) by dedicating at least 30 minutes of reading my Twitter stream or RSS feeds.

Here are the gains blow by blow.

Deepens empathy and provides pleasure
I am not sure how any book or e-resource actually deepens real empathy, but I find reading off my screens pleasurable. I take even greater pleasure in that I can hyper read to learn something more deeply or to explore more widely.

Heightens concentration
Being able to stay on task on a screen that produces an occasional pop-up and reading while balancing in careening public transport takes a lot of concentration. Dealing with a quick reply and then having the discipline to return to task is also a form of concentration.

Enhances comprehension, particularly of complex material and Enriches vocabulary
The fact that I can fact check and look for definitions online more easily than I can with a book definitely improves my comprehension and vocabulary.

Improves listening skills
I do not know how reading a book quietly to yourself does this. But I do know that my computing devices can read to me if my hands or eyes need to be elsewhere.

Reduces stress
It is certainly relaxing to be able to be able to read for a one 30-minute stretch. I do not mind if I get ten 3-minute moments of reading too.

So does the medium matter as long as I achieve the same gains?

More importantly, does the medium matter if I learn to read in a way that is more relevant?

Newspaper by KC Toh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  KC Toh 

 
Earlier this week my son informed me that his teacher told him to bring a newspaper article to school.

I reminded him that we do not subscribe to any paper. This has been the case in his decade on Earth and well before that when we were living overseas. The only papers we got were the ones that wrapped fish or those that were stuffed in my inbox at work.

My son told me that his teacher said that we could print out a news article. And the article had to be about an accident. In Singapore.

I obviously have several issues with this.

I can understand the need for a theme (accidents), but the news is not only about accidents. If the theme must be accidents and you want fresh news, then you should learn how to use Twitter, Facebook, or (ugh!) Stomp.

My wife pointed out that the accident need not be a local one. Using a news article on how snow caused road accidents in the normally snowless southern states in the US could provide a more global view of the same theme.

Then there is the need to print an article out. The school refuses to let students bring devices they might already have. I wonder if the teachers realize the messages they are sending intentionally or not.

There is a saying that lessons are often not taught; they are caught. Our kids pick up on behaviours, nuances, and the unsaid. Restricting them to paper tells them that teachers are not current, not willing to change, and part of the problem.

One of my favourite sayings is:

We have 21st century learners being taught by 20th century teachers in 19th century classrooms.

Sometimes it feels like the classrooms are 20th century and the teachers from from the 19th century.

The problem is that many schools and teachers are still stuck in old school mode. Not physically, but mentally. They reinforce what they are comfortable with instead of focusing on what the learners need. They prepare them for the past instead of the present and future.

They also contribute to the problems generated by paper. Think of the raw materials, the cost, the unnecessary human-based processing, the ridiculous combined weight of these papers, etc. We are leaving these paper problems with our kids. Instead of helping them think of new solutions, we tell them that the solution is paper.

Then there is the task itself.

Who was the homework for? The child or the parent? Who searched for the articles, evaluated them for worth, and printed them out?

Imagine if the task was instead described as one where the parent could model behaviours like selecting news sources, logging in to get past a paywall, using search engines, talking out loud during the analysis and evaluation, decision-making, and even how to print.

Is all this too much to ask for?

This was recently featured in the Straits Times.

sl_not_a_game

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Second Life (SL) is not a game. There are no levels to go through, points to get, or game bosses to kill. It is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE).

There are MUVE games like World of Warcraft, but SL is not a game. As its name implies, SL is another life you can live. It can be as mundane or as exciting as you want it to be. You can recreate your existing life or live out a fantasy. If you wish to create a game-like environment, you can. But SL is not a game in itself. It is a virtual space to create and collaborate.

Newspapers do a disservice by spreading this sort of misinformation. Label SL a game and other layperson perceptions creep in: Violence, addiction, anti-social behaviour, no educational value, time-wasting, etc. This could not be further from practice. Half the battle to win the minds of an overly critical but ignorant public is lost.

This is one reason why I include SL and other 21st century learning environments in the ICT course that I facilitate. I offer a Prezi presentation on educational SL to any and all who are interested. But the best thing you can do is get a SL avatar, try it out for yourself and read about the powerful things that people are doing with it to promote meaningful learning.


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