Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Everything is Subjective

This morning I read a post by Russ Goerend that hits on a lot of issues that have been going through my mind lately and the subsequent conversations on Twitter around the topic have clarified my thinking a little bit more. The topic is data.

In Russ' post he embeds a Tweet from another educator whose logic bothers him:

To which Russ replies:
If that’s what you are without data, what are you with data? “Just” a person with an opinion and data? Just a person with data?

This led to an even more interesting thought when Russ' post was discussed on Twitter:

William didn't reply so I felt the need to butt in. This line of reasoning is what I have been thinking about lately and felt this the logical place to express this idea:

To which set off a debate on the semantics of which was opinion, the data itself or the act of collecting it which to me is not nearly as important as the fact that this all calls into question the nature of data and the value of objectivity. Continuing to think through this conversation today I came to this thought which had not occurred to me before:

Two books I have recently read (actually one I am half-way through right now) address this issue but never quite nail it down. First, in Gerald W. Bracey's (2009) Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality: Transforming the Fire Consuming America's Schools Bracey discusses how data can be twisted around to make make arguments that the data itself doesn't necessarily support. One example he gives is the data that lies at the heart of the (1983) commission report, A Nation at Risk, which arguably set off much of the data-driven madness we are currently under. In that report Bracey says there was a data set consisting of 9 points (3 tests given to 3 different age groups). Of those 9 data sets all but one showed growth and improvement by students attending our school but the report only uses that one data set from that one test given to that one age group to base its claims that America's schools were in serious trouble. Here we have an opinion that is not only choosing the method of gathering data it is determining the data set upon which to focus attention. And, as so many education writers (Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravich, Herb Kohl, and Johnathan Kozol just to name a few) have pointed out, the instruments we use to collect this testing data are also flawed and reflect a cultural bias of the test makers. The data itself is boiling with bias and opinions.

Then, in Neil Postman's (1985) Amuzing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman points out that the nature of what we consider reliable data sources has changed over time. Once it was that “feeling is believing” then “saying is believing” then “seeing is believing” then “reading is believing” then “deducing is believing” and now “counting is believing.” Postman argues that it is the media driven culture that has reduced our concept of what is believable data to that which can be counted, that which can be objectified and abstracted.

So, as Postman points out, the nature of truth is flexible and as Bracey points out, there are ways to manipulate the truth. Among all this non-linear discourse on the matter was a conversation I had with Jennifer Borgioli stemming from and included in the conversation with William and Russ on Twitter. Jennifer nails the real issue with this tweet:

If you want to effect change the real issue is not how we use data. Data can be used as either a tool or a weapon but it is not the greatest source of power. Instead, we ought to be thinking about how to create new social constructs. Objectivity only exists within a context and objective measurement can only exist within that kind of frame of reference. Ultimately everything is subjective. Our collective fetish with data has caused many people great harm because it ends up being used as a weapon. Data is by nature an abstraction and when it is used to measure people it objectifies people; when people are objectified it opens them up to be exploited. The way to fight "counting is believing" is to construct a new context where something else is the arbiter of truth. What that looks like and how we get there I am not completely sure.

Reading is Believing:

Feeling is Believing:

Counting is Believing:

Never Tell Me the Odds!

Deducing is Believing:

Seeing is Believing:

That's no moon. It's a space station

Saying is Believing:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What is the purpose of school? @irasocol @jillbromen @EllBillofRights @karenj17

At #edcampmn today I had the occasion to ask a few more people for one-question interviews in my ongoing, "What is the purpose of school?" project.  Thank you Ira, Jill, Karen, and Ruslana for these additions.

See how others have responded to this question:

If you are interested in adding yourself to this collection send me a recording of yourself answering this simple question, "What is the purpose of school?" You can upload it to YouTube, Vimeo,, or whatever your favorite video sharing site is and post a link in the comment section below. Or, you can email me at if you prefer (do not attach a video file directly, use a third party like filedropper instead). I would love to hear how you respond. When I feel I have reached a critical mass I will create a special site devoted to addressing this question where all responses will be showcased. At that point I will also begin aggregating these responses into categories and constructing some way of analyzing and comparing responses in the effort to reach some kind of conclusion. And, in case you are wondering, the purpose of asking this question is to draw attention to the diversity of responses and to show how varied responses produce very different outcomes in schools.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The New Digital Backpack

A little over a month ago I wrote about the temporary demise of my Digital Backpack resource tool.  Well, after many hours of sweat and labor and nearly getting repetitive stress disorder from doing so much copy and pasting I have resurrected or rather reincarnated the Digital Backpack, this time with a few new features.

I have moved the Digital Backpack to Google Sites but also have created a backup version with Wikispaces.  New in the Google Sites version is navigation via drop-down menu, mobile browser support, and identifiers for web aps that either work "as-is" on iOS devices or have a downloadable iOS app available in Apple's App Store.

external image iOS%20icon.png- Tool will work on iOS devices.

It had been nearly a year since I had updated the Digital Backpack with new tools before it shut down.  This recreation of the Digital Backpack forced me to go through and verify that every link worked and remove tools and sites that have gone on the dead list.  I also have been bookmarking tools all year in Delicious with the intent of putting them in the backpack but never got around to it.  The new Digital Backpack has over 100 new tools than the older version.  Here are just a few of my favorites that made it into this update:

  - Event registration service that is free for free events.
- Add voice to your slide presentations.
- Online camera. Take photos with your webcam and edit them.
- Online collaborative whiteboard.
- PrimaryWall is a web-based sticky note tool designed for schools that allows pupils and teachers to work together in real-time.
- Free online customizable virtual world with video conferencing capability. Gives you a customizable virtual showroom where you can upload picture files and 3d models.
- Create online polls quickly and easily without needing to have an account.
  - Online collaborative video editing. Integrated into Google Drive. 
- Corkboard is kind of like a cross between Posterous and Delicious.  Create corkboards to post collections of things such as websites, photographs, QR codes, videos, etc. Corkboards can also be collaborative.  Post to your corkboard from numerous devices.
- online resources aligned with MN content standards, ISTE NETS, MEMO standards, P21 standards, & more.
- Create video playlists from videos across multiple video hosting sites.
- Simple sharing platform. Post content by dragging and dropping what you want to share.  Also supports bookmarklet, email, and Twitter posting to make updates. Share photos, links, or text.
- Upload your documents and publish as an ebook accessible across platforms and devices.

 - Draw on Google Maps and share your creations with others. No sign-in required. Also generates embed code for sharing on websites.

   - enter a url, draw a box around what you want to share on that site. generates a url of the site with everything darkened except the part you highlight.
- Automatically generates properly formatted citations of sites you bookmark.  Also allows for annotation and notes.
  - embed tweets, Facebook status updates, and Google+ posts on your blog or website
  - Take up to 5 urls and shorten them into one.
- create QR Codes that you can track and analyze
- gives your phone number a URL    

Also, the old Digital Backpack had grown out of many of it's categories.  Some categories had evolved into something else and others emerged that I didn't have a good place for.  With the Google Sites version I will have much more flexibility to adjust to these changes and evolutions in the technosphere.  

I still have more revision plans for the Digital Backpack.  I hope to find time to add free iOS Apps soon and if I can find an Android user who would like to collaborate with me on this to add Android tools as well. In the old Backpack I had an iOS App companion site that went down completely.  Besides, most of those apps are outdated now and would have had to be replaced.  

Let me know what you think. Are there sites I am missing that should really go into this backpack? 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cyborg Orphans, School Filtration Policy, & Cyber-Bullying

I have been pretty silent lately on my blog as well as Twitter. I have suspended the Twitter part of my Twitter Book Club but have kept reading.  I guess I need some time away from this social media sphere.  I suppose it is fitting being that the book I am currently reading is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together. In Alone Together Turkle takes a rather critical view of the role of social media (as well as other technologies) in our lives and warns that all this online personification might not be very good for us. I have to agree to an extent. I have always had a conflicting relationship with technology and often find myself on the cusp of retreating to a one-room cabin in the mountains. However, new connective technologies are not going to go away. We have collectively as a planet adopted smartphones and all the connective applications that go with them as extensions of ourselves.  Turkle acknowledges this and postulates that with this kind of adoption that we are all cyborgs now for better or for worse.

I started my temporary social media retreat just following very sad news in early May of a teenager in a neighboring community who committed suicide after relentless bullying. Take a moment to watch this news segment:

Of course, in Rachel's case her bullies seem to have used far more than just electronic communications to torment her (as is nearly always the case) but in the interview with her friend's father near the end of this segment it appears what sent her over the edge was a text message. I have to believe that a lot of the harassment that happened in this case took place across different platforms as well.  We know her locker was one space for nasty messages and we know that they used SMS texts but I would presume bullying also took place in other places such as Facebook.

Now, in a strange twist of events it looks like no charges will be filed on any of the girls who bullied Rachel but charges may be filed on those who have now been harassing those bullies. It also looks like the text message that supposedly sent this girl over the edge was actually sent from her own iPod at her father's house. Police are not ruling this as a suicide yet but as an accidental death believing she was using the suicide attempt to get her father's attention. Her father believes she sent the text trying to get kicked out of school. Either way, it is clear that Rachel was crying for help and no one was really listening.

Even though it appears in this case that the cyber-bullying was oddly self-fabricated it doesn't change the fact that all of this could have been prevented by the adults in Rachel's life and the teachers at her school paying more attention. This means opening channels of communication and being responsive. There are plenty of other cases of cyber-bullying leading to teen suicide. Here are just a few:

video platform video management video solutions video player

Now is cyber-bullying really any different than other forms of bullying? School bullies tend to do their taunting and harassment away from the eyes of teachers and other adults. Take Rachel's case again.  Where did the bullying occur? It occurred in the bathrooms, locker rooms, and hallways, places in the school that likely were not well supervised.  Facebook, YouTube, and other online social media as well as messages that can come across on the tiny screens of cell phones are just another place, another place where we can interact and another place where bullies can post harassing messages away from the eyes of adults. 

We are never going to completely stop bullying from happening. But, we can be proactive and work to reduce the number of places where our children might be bullied.  It is all about the environment.  Unfortunately, too many school leaders have had this same thought but come to the misguided conclusion that the way to reduce is to ban or block.  For years I have seen schools block access to social networking sites and ban cell phones in the classroom.  This does not prevent students from using these tools and it does nothing to curb cyber-bullying. It actually has the opposite effect.  An outright ban is akin to a school plugging its ears, closing its eyes, and singing, "la la la la la." It creates an environment where our kids are left to their own devices (quite literally). It creates digital orphans.

If Turkle is right and all of this connective technology really is not all that good for us these instances of teen suicides being linked to cyber-bullies is surely a clear example. Also, if being tethered to our online tools fundamentally changes what it means to be a person, if the sum of our physical and digital selves makes us all a kind of cyborgs; and the young are far quicker to adopt and adapt to new technologies, then perhaps there is some truth behind Prensky's notion of the Digital Native. If all of this is true then the children who enter our schools are adolescent cyborgs entering an environment designed for yesterday's children.  With their digital spaces accessible through 3G and 4G networks beyond the reach of the school's filter and school policies prohibiting teachers from entering those spaces with them we are creating a breeding ground for disaster.

If our children are coming to school tethered then the school needs to be tethered as well.  The school needs to take responsibility for acknowledging the presence of these digital spaces and must be responsive to the things students do and say in those spaces.  The school doesn't need to take responsibility for what the kids say but they do need to respond to it.  We need to open our filters, monitor student cell phone use, look, and listen.  If there is a problem the kids will let us know but only if they perceive us as being responsive to them.  If we don't create open and responsive learning environments we will only see more tragic consequences.  We will end up with a nation of orphaned cyborgs.