The future of the internet — and how to stop it

Yesterday I recieved my copy of Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.  When I first saw the title, I wondered why anyone would want to stop it?  So, I decided to read the book and find out.

Chapter 1 details the birth of the PC and its development. PCs are distinguished by their programmability; they can run software written by other parties. This is compared to the information appliance, an end-point box that the owner/user cannot modify and that only runs software controlled by one manufacturer.

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Battle of the Networks” The early years of the telephony system are used as a comparison point. AT&T began with a monopoly over equipment and infrastructure. AT&T tried to prevent other devices from using their network, and this battle was lost in court. The floodgates were opened for all sorts of other devices using the telephone network. This then evolved into services like CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy. Before the Internet there were bulletin board systems (BBS), turning any PC into an information system.  These BBS systems were connected via software called FIDOnet. These amateur innovations produced surprisingly functional results.  Next step – enter the Internet.

The Internet was designed by academics and engineers who had little concern for controlling users. It was started as a “for non-commercial purposes” enterprise, but began accepting commercial  interconnections in 1991.  A hobbyist wrote software for PC users to connect their computers to the Internet, called Winsock. With Windows 95, anyone with a PC could connect to the Internet. The Internet was owned by no one and anyone could use it.

Zittrain calls the principles that the Internet was built on “the procrastination principle” and the “trust your neighbor principle”. The procastination principle assumes that the problems of the network will be solved by others LATER.  The trust comes into play as we are trusting the people using this network to not negligently or intentionally disrupt it. Like leaving the front door unlocked… Users of the internet travel around with obscured identities. No data transmission is prioritized over any other.  The problems arise when this network designed by academics and purists is now used by the general populace who may not share the same ideals.

To be continued…

Using Podcasts to Revolutionize the Use of Instructional Time

While researching podcast use, I stumbled across a Ning for Educational Vodcasting. A vodcast is a podcast with video content. Vodcasts and podcasts have been in use in the university setting for about five years now, since the Duke University initiative of 2005 where all students were issued iPods.  The most common use of the podcast in education is to make recorded lectures available online. This technology is now being used by some K-12 educators as well. However, podcasting has not been widespread. (see Why Podcasts Haven’t Revolutionized Education Yet)

The most exciting potential effect of podcasted lectures is to turn the traditional instructional sequence on its head. By creating podcasts of lessons,  contact time between individual students and teachers could be maximized.  Students could listen to the lessons outside of class, allowing time in class to be spent in problem solving, laboratory work or remediation. I wonder how many teachers/professors are exploring this potential….

Science Teaching and Computers….

By the end of Cuban’s book, most readers are probably ready to deny that there is a need for computers in instruction.  However, in 1986, I do not think than Cuban foresaw the kinds of uses of computers that students engage in on a daily basis in physics classrooms. Current methods of inquiry in physics would not exist without the automation of data collection and analyses that a computer enables. Students develop the Laws of Physics collaboratively in groups, working with computers.  One student commands control of a computer that is used to collect data from a motion sensor on the motion of a falling ball. The 100 distance measurements the computer takes every second are displayed live, in graphical form. The students work together to use their mathematical and logical reasoning skills to draw conclusions about the accelerations and forces present in this motion and create models to represent what they have observed. One student records the groups work using a page created on a class Wiki. Through guiding questions and occasional assistance from their teacher, the students develop a mental schemas for physical phenomenon, and learn how to use tools of modern-day scientists. This scenario also could not exist without personal interactions between students and with the teacher.

I can only speak for my own field. Physics pedagogy has developed over the last 15 years into an activity-based, inquiry environment where computers facilitate types of measurements and analyses that were not possible before computers. Computers enable students to get visual representations of abstract phenomena. Computers remove the tedium of manual data collection and enable the student to practice critical thinking analyses.  The mundane, busy work that was where the majority of time was spent in the labs of physics past is now automated. Students are engaged in higher level thinking. I could not imagine going back to the old ways.

For other content areas, computers might not be as crucial to the curriculum.

The evolution of the machine: from content dispenser to learning response system

In Chapter 4 of Teachers and Machines, Cuban examines the teaching profession and the myriad of tasks the teacher is expected to accomplish in a relatively small amount of time. One of those tasks is the evaluation, selection and adaptation of appropriate technologies into  the teaching routine. The teacher must perceive that the technology has sufficient value to warrant the personal energy cost  of implementation (p. 66).

The technologies of film, radio and television failed be perceived this way for various reasons:

  1. A lack of efficiency and flexibility (unlike the chalkboard and textbook) (p. 65)
  2. Difficulty in fitting the technology to the specifics of the curriculum (p. 70)
  3. Inability of the technologies to match levels of instruction to differences among students (p. 57)
  4. Perceived erosion of classroom authority by extensive use of the technology (p. 70)

These are themes that continue from the previous three chapters. The bottom line is that teaching is a very personalized task. How we teach is determined by many factors including our own style, the learning styles of our students, and the levels of readiness of our students. Machines such as film projectors, radio and television, with their “one size fits all” solution via a large group presentation do not accommodate learners.  The program may be a more novel way to present some information, but then it must present the information prescribed by the curriculum to be useful. Even then, it takes considerable energy for teachers to locate this content, review the content and integrate it into the existing teaching repertoire.

The computer may have been perceived this way in its infancy. Without appropriate software or applications, the computer itself is not particularly useful. However, we have now entered an age where a myriad of applications are available for free. Many teachers have developed content for a large number of courses and through the world wide web, the computer can easily be used as a tool to match levels of instruction to students. The computer does not fit into the same category as these other machines… it is flexible, adaptable and efficient.

So, the question in my mind is… will computer-based courses delivered online be replacements for some classroom teachers?  I think the answer to that is a resounding YES. Will online courses replace ALL teachers… definitely not. For students in some content areas, an online delivered course that accommodates the learner is a better solution than sitting in a classroom of 30 students taught as a unit with worksheets. And with the ability of this machine to incorporate multimedia, simulate real world events, adapt the content to learner performance and provide instantaneous learner feedback it can be a better teacher than some I have seen. However, the potential of the computer as teacher in this manner has yet to be realized. It will take experienced teachers who are experts in specific content knowledge, technology applications and pedagogical principles to develop this software or applications that can realize the full potential of the computer.  Ironic, isn’t it?

Instructional TV… a short-lived love affair

In Chapter 2 of Teachers and Machines, Larry Cuban reminds us of the cyclic nature of technology implementations in education. Instructional TV goes through its cycle… Early adopters are followed by varied degrees of adoption. Small pockets of best-practice appear and some poor usage is noted. Eventually the novelty wears off and there is a subsequent  decline in utilization. All this leading finally to a measurement of a pitifully small impact on education on the large scale (p. 43).

What can be learned from these observations? I came up with four “truths” from this reading.

First truth: No technology (instructional television or otherwise) fits every teacher’s teaching style or students learning style. Ideally, teachers will select the technology that best suits their  needs. Teachers need to be regarded as the content experts, and should be involved in the decisions as to what technologies are appropriate for their content areas.

Second truth: No technology is going to completely replace the teacher.  The best practices seen in instructional television involved teachers planning activities for before and after television program. Students still need a hook to engage them and a task master to keep them engaged through the design of the activities the students will participate in. In Samoa, where televised instruction was used the most widely and students spent the most time watching programs, students were unhappy with this approach. When there is a shortage of teachers, technology may fill a short-term need. However, a television does not substitute for a teacher.

This made me think about what I have read and heard about high school education transitioning to online delivery formats. If history repeats itself, and the implementation of online learning is anything like the implementation of instructional television, it is more likely that we will see hybrid models of high school instead of completely virtual ones. There are some students whose needs will not be met in a completely online environment, and some subjects that are not well suited to the online environment.

Third Truth: Some technologies will be used as “filler” and not as true instructional tools. Cuban documented increased use of television programs in the afternoon, supposedly to give students a break after learning all the hard stuff in the morning (p. 44).  Some teachers did not plan around the program and did not ensure student engagement with the content of the program (pp. 45-6).  Surely this is not an effective use of this technology. I know I see similar ineffective implementations in classrooms today, where the computer is used as a game station or a fun extra thing to do, instead of using it to build student knowledge.

Fourth Truth: It has yet to be shown that the use of instructional television yielded increases in student learning compared to other methods of instruction (p. 38). This remains as a barrier to increased implementation by many teachers.  If it aint’ broke, why fix it?  Is this new tool better than what I am already using?  Is it worth the effort to implement?

So in the end, Chapter 2 continues the theme of Chapter 1. Technology implementation cycles have come and gone for film, radio and TV. How can we learn from this in our modern day technology implementations? We need research-based solutions that are proven to improve student outcomes. We need to involve teachers in the development and implementation of educational technology applications instead of having business and government pushing technologies into schools.

Also interesting… Larry Cuban’s January 31, 2010 blog revisiting Teachers and Machines

Everything changes and nothing changes…

When I first opened this book, my initial thought was… Why am I reading this 24 year old book?

So, perhaps my mindset was a bit negative at the outset. I dutifully began reading Chapter 1 of Teachers and Machines. Cuban’s discussion of reform in American education at the turn of the century struck a chord with me… “Pedagogical progressives called for instruction that built upon student interests, that opened up classroom windows to the larger world, and that plunged students into activities that had intellectual and social outcomes…”(p. 10)

This statement could have come from professional development that teachers currently receive, even though a century has passed. This is still good practice (yet not all teachers practice it!).

Enter the educational miracle known as the motion picture film.  Brimming with potential, yet careens unharnessed and unguided through the schools for forty years. Spotty and sporadic implementation… why? This is the part that resonated with me… the four obstacles to utilizing the potential of film in classrooms (p. 18) Remove the word film and replace that word with any technology and the four obstacles would still apply.  These are universal obstacles to implementing ANYTHING in education on a large scale: teacher lack of skill, cost, inaccessibility, and fitting the technology into the curriculum.

Many technologists write about technology implementation obstacles. Leggett and Persichitte have coined the acronym TEARS to encompass these obstacles:

T – Time

E – Expertise

A – Access

R – Resources

S – Support

I think this is quite appropriate, and as a classroom teacher I have experiences those TEARS quite literally when I have struggled to implement something new I believed in.

I think the question for educational leaders here should be: “How can we minimize the TEARS?” What can be done to streamline the process of implementing new technologies?

Pre-Course Reflection

As teachers, we have all heard the spiel about how our students are the digital natives and we are the immigrants. However, in my workings with 11th and 12th grade high school students I have found a wide variance in the level of comfort and skill that my students have with technology. A significant time investment is needed to allow students to become proficient at using new tools. Time with students is limited, and to maximize its use decisions must be made as to which technologies will produce results that make them worth the time investment.

Of the proliferation of Web 2.0 tools that are available, many of them seem genuinely useful. However, there are obstacles to overcome in K-12 education to enable teachers to utilize these tools. District network and internet policies often interfere with or prevent the use of potentially useful tools on the web. As a mere teacher, often my opinion is not valued as to the worth of a particular application or tool, and my requests are often denied… even when the request has no associated cost. Part of my motivation for this course and this degree is to put myself in a position where my opinion will be valued, and to gather evidence of the value of new tools.

What have I been able to use with my students?  This  year my students have their own Wiki at ghsphysics1.pbworks.com. They have collaboratively created online laboratory portfolios in which they have used Google Docs to create embeddable graphs of data, as well as an online Equation Editor to create professional looking equations in their pages using LATEX. Instead of using paper, students use an online template to create their own PBWorks page and collaboratively write their lab reports. Many lab activities involve computer-based probeware; students can upload images of the graphs of data they collect to their PBWorks pages. Java applet based simulations are also used, there are some really fabulous ones at University of Colorado at Boulder.

To incorporate new developments in science and technology into my course, I created a class account at Google Reader. This tool aggregates the information from an incredible number of online resources into an easily accessible format. My students each select an article every two weeks and create a post to the class wiki about what they found. They also read and comment on their classmates posts. I would like to have my students use blogs for this next year, but implementation might be cumbersome since students do not have email access at school.

My new blog.

This course sounds like it will be fun and interesting. I missed the first class due to the District Tournament for Scholastic Bowl at my school (I am the coach). So now I am playing catch up and reading about what happened this evening.