Tuesday, August 04, 2015

10 reasons why Salman Khan is a more important educational theorist & practitioner than Ken Robinson or Sugata Mitra

Why do I think Salman Khan is a far more important educational theorist and practitioner than Ken Robinson or Sugata Mitra? First, his ideas are concrete and innovative; second, he actually practices what he preaches, on scale, globally. Like Google, Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, a not-for-profit, has an ambitious mission statement, to provide “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”. He is an outsider in education, in that he comes from business, namely hedge-fund management and attributes his success, to not being art of the educational establishment. It is this that allowed him to get on and do what he did, which was create a large set of YouTube videos and learning management software, now used by millions around the world.
1. YouTube videos
Khan’s work started by accident, when his cousin Nadia failed a maths test. Others, such as her brothers joined in and word spread. He tried Skype but it was too unwieldy for four or more students, so he recorded sessions and uploaded them to YouTube. The YouTube videos have proved immensely popular. There would be no Khan Academy without YouTube, a good example of how synergistic online services can mutually support each other. Innovation begets innovation.
He decided, boldly and deliberately, to keep the background black, like a chalkboard and eliminate the talking head. This was to make students feel as though he were sitting next to them not talking ‘at’ them. Faces, he thinks, are a distraction from the content. The advantages of recorded videos include the ability to stop, rewind, replay, take notes, hear again (especially if it is in your second language), and for practice and revision.
Khan does feel that educators fail to act upon their best research. Recognising that the standard lecture is an arbitrary time period, based on the Sumerian base-6 number system, and overlong, his videos are relatively short. He discovered that lessons of about ten minutes were long enough. He is particularly scathing about the lectures he received at MIT, many of which he decided to skip. In fact, by deciding to skip the “tired old habit of the passive lecture” he managed to do many more courses, double in fact. His anti-lecture stance was comfirmed by his time at Harvard Business School, where case-based learning is the norm.
2. Flipped classroom
Having content on YouTube led to another innovation. On homework he is highly critical of teacher training and the fact that most teachers ‘wing- it’ on the design and setting of homework, with too much focus on quantity not quality. This led to the idea of the Flipped classroom, the idea that homework could do what was traditionally done in the classroom, deliver core content, leaving teachers free to do what they do best in class, teach and help students understand things they’re having difficulty with. He acknowledges that it wasn’t his idea but his work allowed it to happen in practice.
3. Mastery learning
From the start the Khan Academy included question software and, in adding a database early in its development, he found that the data was a useful learning management tool. His ‘knowledge map’ concept laid out subjects showing what depends on what, allowing recommendations on what should be taught next, not in a strictly linear way, but based on dependencies, not moving on until you had mastered the prerequisite learning. Mastery learning was his adopted teaching method, and he recognises that Benjamin Bloom was an important precursor. Self-paced learning was the means to deliver this mastery, competence-based learning. 
4. Streak assessment
He is critical of traditional assessment and marking, claiming that partial success can be a problem. He calls it the ‘Swiss Cheese’ problem. He is not against testing but poor and inadequate testing. So on assessment he had streak tests of ‘ten-in-a-row’. He admits that ‘ten’ was an intuitive’ number but wanted the tests to be aspirational as well as motivational (when they got all ten right). In addition to tools for tracking progress, tools for teachers and exercises, there is also an adaptive online exercise system, that personalises the learning and provides useful analytics.
5. Khan Academy in schools
Khan Academy started to be used in schools, initially in the Peninsula Bridge project in San Francisco. Early work identified the need to identify who got ‘stuck’ where, which became a key and sophisticated mathematical feature later in the development of the software. One of his conclusions was that this approach could avoid the downside of streaming, which tends to bake inequality into the system. By allowing competence-based progress, this can be avoided. Another interesting finding was that students who struggled at first, sometimes streaked through when they had gained confidence, suggesting that Carol Dweck’s growth-mindset factor was at work in maths.
It was an email from a black student, that said “…can say without any doubt that you have changed my life and the lives of everyone in my family” that led Khan to leave his well-paid hedge-fund job. By this point he was getting more views on YouTube than Stanford and MIT OpenCourseware put together. Then, in 2010 Google, Ann Doerr and Bll Gates stepped in with finance and other pilot projects started in Los Altos with positive results. Use in schools started to expand significantly and globally. An interesting additional cohort of learners started to emerge – adults and professionals, who wanted to improve or close gaps in their knowledge of maths. Originally maths, the content has expanded into the sciences, finance, medicine, art history, computer science and continues to expand in terms of subjects and the number of videos and resources.
6. The One World Schoolhouse
His book, The One World Schoolhouse, sets out a vision for a free global education. Recognising that parents, and even teachers, may struggle with some subject matter, he sees reliable resources as essential for progress. In addition to the flipped classroom model, where students learn on their own through personalized software and content, then the teacher acts as a coach, enabler or facilitator, to do more sophisticated forms of teaching, the Khan Academy is available 24/7/365. He feels that this can free teachers and learners from the tyranny of time and location. Several other innovative ideas emerged in this text.
7. Multi-teacher classrooms
Khan favours multi-teacher classrooms on the basis that students and teachers are different and that variety on one side should be matched by variety on the other. Peer support and learning would also emerge, rather than isolating single teachers in their own classrooms. His vision is of large classes of a hundred or more, of varying age, without fixed periods doing a variety of tasks, including online learning.
8. Stop marking
He would get rid of letter grades, echoing Dweck, Black and William. Students would have a running appraisal narrative, helped by software, that leads to rich and fruitful feedback. Mixed age classes also allow students to help each other, allowing assessment of other social skills
9. Stagger holidays
The ‘agrarian relic’ of the long summer holiday leads to billions of dollars of infrastructure lying inert and empty. It is a period of forgetting, except for the richer students who get enhancement through support at home. He would rather see perpetual learning, with staggered holidays, as in most other organisations
10. Decouple learning from assessment
He also recommends that we “separate (or decouple) the teaching and credentialing roles of universities “. This would dampen out social inequality and open up access and opportunities for all, as well as lowering costs and student debt. Less lectures, frees time for more intern work, not just during the Summer and real projects. Subjects would have online support from services like the Khan Academy and others, namely good content plus adaptive software and student tracking.
Errors appeared in some of the content, which he admits and corrects. and he has been criticised for teaching without a deep knowledge of pedagogy. However, every effort is made to re-record and correct errors and improve on teaching methods. The flipped classroom concept has also been criticized for being difficult to implement in practice, especially for students that are not compliant on the autonomous work demanded by the model.
Far from being short of pedagogic knowledge, Khan is highly reflective and critical of the failure of education to pick up on valid research on lectures, competences, homework, efficiencies, cost, forgetting and learning styles. Khan doesn’t like the way education ignores clear findings in research, as it hangs on to the past and fails to innovate. He is also critical of the cost of education pointing out the very high cost of traditional schooling with much of the budget spent, not on teachers but adjunct services. His belief is that the ‘enlightened’ use of technology through ‘technology enhanced teaching’ is the answer. Technology needs to “liberate teachers from…largely mechanical chores”.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Joy of Sex – my joyless journey into sex and tech

Sky Arts has just had aired 'The Story of Joy of Sex' about that famous Alec Comfort book. I watched with interest, as I produced the interactive version in the late 90s. I thought it was going to be a lot of fun but turned into something else – a set of lessons in life and business.
All projects have unexpected screw ups
First we had to scan and digitise all of those original drawings. They were held in the publisher’s basement vault, so we had them couriered down from London. They needed insurance and security, as each drawing was, as they say, a money shot. The book had been a phenomenon, breaking taboos in media and publishing. As I found out – nobody ever owned up to buying it but It sold squillions. Big problem - one drawing was missing - the erect penis. So I commissioned 'Big Bill' (6'5"), a Brighton illustrator, to come up with the goods. It took longer than expected as he used himself (and mirror) as the model, so whenever he turned to draw in detail, it drooped. Had staying power, did Bill.
People will do anything for money
The video shoot was even weirder. The young couple were great in a narcissistic sort of way, a couple in real life, they did what they had to do – for the money. The shoot for the old couple, in a swimming pool, in the section on ‘Sex for the older couple’ was toxic. They had broken up recently. She hated him, he still loved her. She feigned arousal and undying love in a worryingly, well practiced manner, while he was bitter with unrequited love. It was horrible.
Edutainment is neither fish nor fowl
This CD (pre-internet) was an educational product, commissioned by the publisher. I say ‘educational’ but the interactivity, which was quite smart, didn’t do what the book did – which was not educate, but titillate. I’ve been suspicious of edutainment, serious games and gamification ever since (see critique here).
People want porn
This project taught me that people are pure in their wants and when it comes to sex, they want porn. Sure enough, the internet exploded not long after this work and porn drove lots of the innovation in tech. It was ever thus. Read ‘The Erotic Engine: How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google” by Patchen Barrs. Payment models, methods of payment, streaming, biofeedback, driving up demand for broadband – and lots more. It made SnapChat a success, expect it to be central to the development of the VR market.
Expect the unpredictable
Despite what I said above about games, the best bit of the product was the ‘Mr & Mrs’ game. You could play this with your partner at home. First the presenter pops up and asks you a question, while your partner has earphones on or is out of the room. You write it down. Then you’re partner is asked the same question and you compare answers. Simple but a real hoot., especially at parties – if you want them to end in bitter accusations, acrimony and people heading for the door shouting abuse at each other.
If you don’t know the famous story about the TV version of this game, listen up. The husband was asked “What’s the strangest place you’ve ever had sex?” After lots of evasions the husband finally says “…in a bus shelter”. His partner comes out of the booth and is asked the same question. She is horrified and refuses to answer. Several times she refuses to answer. Then the presenter says “…but your husband has already given us an answer”. She looked horrified, thought for a moment and said, “OK…  it was up the bum”.
Rules of one medium don’t always apply to another
I worked with a really lovely guy, Peter, from the BBC, but TV production is different from interactive production. In games and sims, it’s POV, you are the director, so you have to break a lot of the traditional rules of TV and film production. These lessons apply to the new medium on the block – VR. Virtual reality has a grammar of its own and it’s not the grammar of TV and film. You need to think in terms of scenes, slow things up, understand that the viewer will look around, take their time and explore.
Lesson 7: When it comes to consumer buying nobody knows jack
We built this thing but it sold diddly squat. Wasn’t as bad as our foray into feature films, where we lost a fortune on funding “The Killer Tongue”. You can watch it on YouTube – if you have patience, resilience and the ability to watch plotless tat.

I’d like to say I came out of these experience s a better person but I didn’t. I came out wiser, more cynical and determined to avoid mistakes. Forget all that bullshit about failure being good for you - that’s usually mouthed by people who have a fall back position – rich parents.  It’s painful and to be avoided at all costs.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

ASU wants to be a new sort of University and they're getting there

Watched TED 2 last night (the drug-fuelled bear not the over-righteous talks) and ASU was the butt of the bear’s jokes. I thought– they’ve done it, ASU have achieved stardom by being referenced in the culture of ‘cool’. Actually, TED 2 is a lot less funny than TED, but back to ASU. I love ASU.
The ‘Crow’
Michael Crow has run ASU since 2002 and is a smarter than the average bear. His goal, well vision, even dream, was to create nothing less than the "New American University". It’s all in his Designing the New American University (2015). Here he explains how he wanted to do the unthinkable – grow research at a blistering pace and, at the same time, raise the bar on teaching in terms of both access and quality. Any one of these would have been difficult, all three at the same time, tricky.
The key word for Crow is ‘scale’, a clever word on which to hang a vision. Scaling student numbers or bums on seats is easy enough but that is to focus on the wrong end of the learner. Quality has be scaled and attainment (less drop-out) also scaled – that’s a ball crusher. And its here that they have embraced a certain truth, that scale must come through the smart use of technology. They take this as an assumed truth, as self-evident. If you can get increased numbers of students over that first year undergraduate hurdle (in maths, writing and reasoning) you’re well on your way to sustaining subsequent quality.
Profs are doing it for themselves
But here’s the rub. Courses are almost universally owned by individual professors. They design, develop, deliver and assess their own courses. It’s their baby and so implementing technology is like threatening to pull their offspring from their arms and shove them into some sort of uniform collective nursery.
That’s why tech in HE remains a cottage industry. It’s stuck at the fragmented level of the individual. So when Blackboard is rolled out, all of these profs create stuff, but they don’t have the resources and skills to do it well, so we end up with lots of low quality, repository resources. It’s all a bit crap really.
The trick is to get a collegiate thing going with all of the profs involved in the teaching of say, maths. Now you have a posse of maths profs. Explain to them the power of adaptive learning and personalisation. They get it – it’s down to the power of maths. Maths is a touchstone here as it’s such a hurdle for many students.  It also happens to be well defined with clear dependencies. – ideal for adaptive learning. ASU manage to get approximately 85%  through developmental maths. The national standard for success is around 55% to 60%. They think the theoretical limit is around 95%. That’s smart, recognising that success should be real and not too utopian. At the same time they have to move faculty towards a different sort of coaching and supporting role. That’s the hard bit.
Global Freshman Academy
Now for the big bear hug. You’ve proved over five years that the technology has significant results on reducing drop-out and increasing attainment. You’ve shown that groups of academics, working together, can leverage this technology on the scale that’s needed. You now roll this out across all undergraduate courses and subjects – for free. Using EdX, they are producing a full slate of courses. – doing things on scale. The cultural change is immense but so are the benefits. To what problem is all of this a solution? Losing too many students. It was that simple. Once everyone focused on that one problem, the solution was obvious.
Next step is a step up
The next step is to match student expectations on the quality of online courses. They all have smartphones, good laptops and experience exemplary content on all of these devices. Education needs to meet those expectations. This is really hard. Learning is not entertainment and often damaged when it becomes too glitzy. The stuff that’s produced within Blackboard looks like the stuff that was done on computers before these kids were born. Within the next few years every high school leaver will have been born in the 21st century and every teacher and academic in the 20th century. This is not an arbitrary decimal barrier. The turn of the millennium was when online really started to rocket. Over the last 15 years we’ve seen an eruption of services that these students use daily, if not hourly, even by the minute. That’s the new challenge and one I'm glad to be involved in, as I'm in an organisation that is providing adaptive courses in a range of subjects that ASU see as critical to their vision.

Michael Crow is not without his critics, some are as angry as a bear with a sore head at his effrontery – how dare he take responsibility away from the individual academic?  He has , after all, challenged the nay-saying power of academics who want to keep it all at their single cell level of evolution, whereas his vision is of a multicellular future. He can’t afford to let those attitudes win, as that is what keeps access low and costs high. What Crow rejects is that the system will always be built on scarcity and not abundance. He wants to scale out of scarcity into high quality abundance through technology and adaptive technology, which personalises the learning experience.  They are redefining the University as a scalable organization serving the public good. You may not like his vision, but a vision it is.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Greece – how does its education system fare? (It's not good)

While Finland gets all the attention in education, lauded for its performance, few look at the other end of the spectrum, the poor performers in Europe. So what’s Europe’s poorest performing country? Guess what – the ever topical Greece.
Teacher-student ratios
Sadly, Greece is a high cost, high staff but low attainment system. Greece has four times more teachers per pupil than Finland, extremely low student-teacher ratios in both primary and secondary but performs poorly in almost all areas. The student-teacher staff ratio is an astonishing 7.66 in socio-economically disadvantaged schools and 9.29 in advantaged schools, which are among the smallest in PISA-participating countries. Only one country out of the sixty one, has better (smaller) ratios. To put this in context, their student-teacher ratios are twice as good as ours in the UK.
Teaching hours
The number of hours primary teachers spend teaching in public institutions is comparatively small in Greece, ranking 32nd smallest out of 33. Lower secondary teachers teach the fewest hours of any country, ranking 33rd out of 33. Upper secondary teachers are not much better at 32nd out of 33. So, it’s lots of teachers, who teach less than in almost all other countries.
Poor performance
When students are asked whether they feel happy at school, Greece comes 56th out of 64. Nearly half of all students report skipping classes, which puts Greece a disappointing 9th out of 64. So despite the low student-teacher rations and high number of teachers, student attitudes are awful.
School culture
When it comes to taking responsibility for the curriculum, course content and assessment, Greece comes stone last 64th out of 64. It’s not much better on the use of data to compare results and improve the system, where they’re 63rd out of 64. In other words the system lacks flexibility and oversight.
School guards
Lastly, and this is an odd one, there’s the issue of school guards. This caused uproar in the recent Grexit negotiations. The Greeks were criticized for overstaffing and having ‘guards’ in schools, a subject that vexed outside observers from countries where they do not exist. Interestingly, a significant number of these ‘guards’ had Masters degrees and PhDs. How do we know this? Because when the guards were laid off a special exemption clause was inserted to preserve the jobs of these over-qualified staff.

The data suggests that the Greek school system has exemplary teacher-student ratios, but the teachers teach less and the outcomes are dreadful. The school guards’ issue simply shows that the system is somewhat out of control with regard to staffing.  Christos Tsolakis, an honorary professor in the Education P Department of the Aristotle University of Macedonia, saw poor education as the root cause of the Greek problem. “The economic problem is only the surface. The real problem of Greece, however, is the educational lack as well as the cultural crisis. Unfortunately, we Greeks have not yet clarified the meaning of being educated. Ethical concepts such as understanding what is right and wrong, respecting the laws, understanding the meaning of egalitarianism, rate, measurement and democracy retreat in front of amorality have been long forgotten”. Education would appear to show, in microcosm, some of the problems the Greek state faces in implementing reform. Given the brouhaha over school guards – a fight to the death to keep them all employed, the future looks bleak.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chief Happiness Officers – send in the clowns?

This whole thing is getting out of hand. I don’t need an HR manager, who’s primary skill is in pay and rations, to be responsible for my emotional well-being. Since when did HR professionals turn into pseudo-psychotherapists? So you’ve read some populist paperback on ‘mindfulness’, attended some half-baked, Ponzi scheme course and now you feel qualified to rain happiness down on us all?
Happiness is a dumbed-up state
Despite the idea being widely rejected as simplistic by John Stuart Mill and almost every serious thinker that’s ever thought deeply on the subject, the idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of unhappiness/happiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. These simple distinctions; happiness=good/unhappiness=bad; positive feelings=good/negative feelings=bad, are puerile and misleading. These false binary narratives are all too easy. Even Seligman, the pied-piper of happiness came to reject the term.
The fake ‘wellness’ syndrome in the workplace is another spin on the happiness theme. But beware of words ending in –ness – wellness, mindfulness, happiness. They’re catch-all terms that purport to mean everything but in the end mean little or nothing. Life is not a course and life is not an illness. We don’t need an army of narcissists telling us what to feel and how to feel it.
Binary thinking
Unfortunately HR has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and middle managers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as hapless HR people try to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of coaches, counsellors, mentors and therapists are crawling all over organisations searching for the pathological deficit. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people with creepy ‘open questioning’ techniques come in to offer cures. This is not a plea for grumpiness, it’s a plea for realism and sanity, before the therapeutic brigade start seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their platitudes.
Chief Clowns

Every bit of psychobabble that comes along is scooped up by people who seem to be paid to read self-help books and turn them into courses. By all means create these ‘Chief Clown’ roles, but expect the ridicule you deserve. People deserve dignity at work, fair pay and conditions, a safe workplace and a good work environment. They’re adults, not children. You’re NOT a chief and my happiness is MY business. Finally, let me throw my own personal piece of psychobabble into the mix - people who constantly fret about being happy are usually, in fact, miserable sods who want to foist their own deep dissatisfaction with themselves, on others.

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