On fetishes in technology and education.

I’m working through a grant application. There’s a fair amount of attention to detail needed for grants, but the parts that drive me nuts are the formatting issues. As a grant reviewer, I know well the desirability of uniformly drafted grants, so that reviewers can fairly weigh the ideas of a grant, and not its font choice.

That said, much of the grant and publishing world requires a fetishistic attention to formatting. I’ve been thinking about the line between defensible attention to detail and fetishistic obsession in education and technology lately. So much of what I read is fetishism, which is unfortunate, because obsessing over the specifics of a thing can often obfuscate larger needs.

Just a couple examples. Wade into the Apple universe and you’ll discover legions of websites devoted to every feature of iPhones, along with speculation about what future changes there might be. So what one feature would you like of your next cell phone? Yeah, a better battery. I don’t need my phone to summon Thai food with my preferred spice level to a location of my choosing, or make my laundry experience next-generation social, just make the phone battery last longer.

But that’s not the Apple fetish.

In education, we see a fetishism of analytics and “data.” To be sure, as teachers we can better use formative, diagnostic, and summative assessments. That said, most software solutions incorporated into learning management systems are not based on sound educational research, at least as far I can see. Rather, there’s a data fetish that “personalized learning” will be facilitated by real-time tracking of student activity. There’s actually been a logarithmic increase in student data collection in the last 10 years. Have we seen a noticeable uptick in student learning? Nope.

There’s a fetish that more data will yield better results. I think about that as I train for a marathon. I recently purchased a new GPS watch that gives me oodles more data, including heart rate, leg cadence, and recommendations for how long to rest after a workout. And that information tells me something, but it doesn’t help me do the thing itself, which is run. There is no substitute for thing itself. Data can’t help when my kids get sick and I can’t run or tell me why certain muscles are sore. The data page that comes up on the web page associated with the watch looks like a NORAD command center. It’s a fetishistic display of what the watch company thinks will help sell more watches. But it doesn’t make me faster. In the end, I will run, and a simple timer will tell me how fast I covered a distance. Distance over time is not sexy, but it tells me far more than any fetishized data visualization.

All of this is to say, I think we need to ask for less detail in many parts of education and technology, and ask instead what really matters for meaningful learning.

What we don’t see. Or why is long distance running so white? @NPRCodeSwitch

I promise to bring this back to history and education, but I’m going to start this post with a long digression about running.

Gene Demby is reporter for NPR’s podcast Code Switch. Code Switch talks about race in America, and Demby was [featured](https://www.runnersworld.com/im-a-runner/gene-demby) in a fall Runner’s World (September?) magazine section called “I’m a runner.” In the podacst, Demby displays a powerful intellect while explaining the hidden codes of race. I like to think of him as a combination of Cornell West and Samantha Bee, crazy smart but very approachable.

So, here was Demby in a magazine I’ve read on and off for 25 years, and, until very recently, the magazine has been a paean to whiteness. Page after page of smiling white people.

After reading the article, I went to my local YMCA to run on the treadmill, where I saw this [image](http://exerciseunlimited.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Photo-Aug-11-12-21-00-PM.jpg) . My Y is a community gym with a wonderful diversity of members. I’m as likely to have a Somali grandmother on the treadmill next to me as I am a 19 year college white male. Old, young, black, brown, white, it’s all good. But almost no one looks like this woman in the picture. She’s tan (I live in MN, home of the not-tan people), thin, and running alone in nice clothes. Oh, and very, very white, so white she makes me feel vaguely not white.

And I started thinking, in more than 25 years of running, how many people of color do I see, and why?

In short, long distance running has a race problem. Look at the finishing videos of most races: predominantly white folks. [Running socks](https://feetures.com) show white people. Google “running” or “marathon” and most of the images will be white people (and most pictures with people of color are ads or winners of major marathons- not everyday runners). Instagram and twitter searches all show the same thing: white people running.

Why does this matter?

-One: representation matters, especially for kids and new runners.

-Two: I see more people of color on the roads than I see in popular representations of running on the web.

-Three: Running provides overwhelming benefits that seem to accrue to a smaller group of people than could be the case.

Which brings me back to education. I’m struck by what I’m doing and not doing to help me students of color see the benefits of studying history, and getting their college degrees. And while I’m conscientious of this issue, I also suspect I’m missing things. Because I went 23 years without thinking about how white my sport is, both in image and in reality.

Safe home

More ed tech internet of $h%@$t

I got  an email from Top Hat, an ed tech company that has packaged a content management stystem with slick graphics. I looked at it a year ago and thought, “why would I have my student pay for another LMS?.” Top Hat uses a bunch of fancy buzzwords like “interactive content” and “active learning,” but I haven’t seen anything that one can’t do in a standard LMS or with existing software for which my college already pays.

It costs nothing for instructors to use, but students pay for four months or $38 for a year. That’s on top of the technology fees students already pay to access a college’s LMS.

Today I received an email inviting me to Top Hat seminar on “Strategies for Succeeding as Adjunct Faculty,” hosted by three adjunct faculty. This might appear a noble gesture on the part of Top Hat. In reality, the push by ed tech companies with duplicative technologies into higher ed contributes to the problems of colleges exploiting adjuncts.

By my analysis, there are two issues at play. One, instructors adopt texts and technology and students pay for those adopted resources. Based on different measures (2012 and 2015) textbook prices have gone up over 1000% in the last 40 years. Housing, pharmaceuticals, medical care, even the general consumer price index comes even close to that rise. [As a side note, the costs may be stabilizing given the adoption of Open Education Resources, some of which are free. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics [tracking](https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/CUUR0000SSEA011?output_view=pct_3mths) Now, Top Hat claims that they want to help hold down the cost of text resources, which is admirable. But duplicating existing resources doesn’t hold down costs, it explodes them. If three different instructors chose three different add-on CMS’s for their courses, plus a text book, a student could easily be out another $100 every semester. To pay for this extra $100 the student either takes on more debt or works more, and both correlate to lower student success in college.

So, duplicative ed tech that costs students additional money balloons the cost of higher education, which makes fewer students capable of taking as many courses. Downward pressure on enrollment stresses college finances which are increasingly reliant on tuition as state legislatures of all political persuasions have dis-invested in higher education over the last 30 years. As colleges are squeezed in their finances, they attempt to higher cheaper labor, like adjuncts. So, ed tech is contributing to an existing financial problem.

That is just the money. The second issue at play is the idea that technology can solve the problems of money, graduation rates, “student engagement” or the adjunctification of the professoriat. The idea that tech is the answer is being driven by venture capitalists who see the same windfalls they accrued with pharmaceuticals before the FDA cracked down. Pharma as un-scrutinized panacea gave us the opioid crises. What will tech as panacea give us? Certainly not a more just system for adjuncts or better prepared students.

For the record, the arguments against duplicative ed tech are both right (it costs too much) and left (it doesn’t reflect progressive values that empower students).

Safe home.

A short note on the technology of running and teaching.

I saw a fat, middle-age man running yesterday, gut bouncing up and down as he strode past me. He was wearing a button-up-the-front dress shirt that looked like a cheap blouse and some type of khaki pants. I had on the usual panoply of high-tech plastic and wool that is the rich runner’s sartorial norm today. As the fat man ran past, going the other direction, I thought “damn, that guy is awesome.”

No, he wasn’t running fast. No, he wasn’t noble or stoic or anything hidden (that I know of). He was just fat, and dressed for casual Friday, and running. That is, he was doing the exact same activity I was doing.

There are some who might read this story as a “see, triumph of the will” paeon to grit in the face of resource scarcity. I find arguments that anyone can accomplish great things if they put their mind to it to be ahistorical, and blind to issues of structural access and empowerment.

Individuals do succeed in the face of scarcity, but as a teacher, I do not want to design to my courses around superlative dedication in the face of lack of resources. Poor kids with average motivation to access resources should be able to succeed at the same rates as rich kids with average motivation to access resources.

That said, I saw this guy, twice, on each side of the lake and it got me thinking about what is necessary and what is sufficient when teaching with digital history. There’s a conference going on right now called HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) and I’m following it on Twitter. A number of the presenters attend to issues of poverty, a number of them don’t. But this guy got me thinking, what do my students need to learn history and what is nice, both in terms of historical thinking and in terms of technology. You need athletic shoes to run on asphalt. The tights, jacket, special gloves, hat, undershirt, those are great and help me feel better. But I need my shoes.

So, tonight I’m thinking about (again) about minimal computing, and wondering if I need to beta test all my digital lesson plans with an underpowered, 11″ Chromebook. Because that guy is awesome.

keybase.txt

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I hereby claim:

* I am an admin of http://jacknorton.org
* I am djacknorton (https://keybase.io/djacknorton) on keybase.
* I have a public key ASBEU-3BLYscio2OYHimAy5GMOd_Jmn4qCzST4jfsRgXLQo

To do so, I am signing this object:

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which yields the signature:

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And finally, I am proving ownership of this host by posting or
appending to this document.

View my publicly-auditable identity here: https://keybase.io/djacknorton

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My 95% rules. Or why I critique others so little on social media.

Like you, I have strong opinions about a variety of subjects. Most of these subjects are not my expertise, but I still have strong opinions. I just read a tweet about men asking their wives to change their names when the couple marries. I thought, I should comment/like/reflect or problematize that idea. Then I thought, nope. (Full disclosure, neither I nor my wife changed our names when we married. )

Social media amplifies peoples voices, but as a rich, white, heterosexual male, my voice is pretty amplified already. Too often, I find that my contribution to a discussion on social media wouldn’t lend new insight, only  reinforce an existing argument thread. So, 95% of the time, I say nothing.

The other 5% of the time I think about saying something, but often still don’t. Say with the naming question, I am familiar with four different naming practices around the world (U.S., Spain, Northern Ireland, and Cultural Revolution China). Though not expert, I could offer a minor exposition on what last names mean(t) to families in the world. Still, my comments might focus on a tiny part of a larger sentiment. Say I criticize 5% of a thesis, and I agree with 95% of the rest of the thesis. What part of my words will be amplified?, the 5% criticism. This way lies perdition. Or at the least a circular firing squad.

Again and again I see nominal allies pick each other apart publicly for small disagreements. Those disagreements may contain great meaning (what order do you use: LGBTQIA, GLBTIAQ) but to those who disagree with the premise of the argument, it’s an opportunity for attack.

So, I don’t comment on 95% of the material for which I hold an opinion. On the 5% I do think about commenting on, I make sure that my comments focus on the 95% of the argument I agree with, not the 5% I don’t. That 5% of the 5%, (.25%) I feel compelled to weigh in on, I try to write long form, here, or to the originator directly. Social media for me is for sharing resources or quick networking, not nuanced discussion or prolonged arguments. Just in case you wondered why my retweet to tweet ratio is more than 50:1.

Except for the Nazis. We should always say no to Nazis. It’s not hard to say no to evil, right @jack?

Ed tech from a parent perspective.

As faculty at a college, I use a great bit of technology. And I get pitched in emails by ed tech companies regularly. Others, such as Audrey Watters , have ably documented the fraud and corruption involved in the ed tech higher education world. Between working with tech (including some programming) and reading widely about evidence-based scholarship of teaching and learning, I don’t pay much attention to ed tech pitches by email: two seconds and it’s in my junk email.

I now have school-age kids, and am seeing the push by ed tech companies in the K-12 sector. For example, I recently saw the new company Class Tag pop up as sponsored posts at a couple teacher blogs. Here are a couple of concerns from a cursory, 5-minute review of their materiel.

  1. Their privacy policy “works similar to the way Facebook notifies of of friend requests.” I don’t think a privacy policy should work “similar to” anything: it should be explicit. Also, if you want to borrow a privacy policy, perhaps not Facebook?

Privacy policy

 

 

2. Parent shaming seems to be built into a scoreboard. If a parent doesn’t click through emails, they must not be engaged in the kids schooling, yes (NO).(this image comes from a teacher blog , not the company web page.)

Parent engagement dashboard 3. Translation is tough right? We pay people money to accurately translate others’ words, in medicine, in law, in literature. How is this startup going to accurately translate complicated messages about deeply personal learning issues? It’s not. And the translations will confuse everyone.
Language translation image

4. The privacy policy indicates they will share personal information (parent information, not children under 13) with any “affiliate of ClassTag who is in the same corporate family as us as long as their privacy practices are substantially similar to ours.” What is the same corporate family? And how substantial is substantial? The same corporate family makes little sense if Class Tag is a start up. Unless, like so many ed tech companies, what Class Tag wants to do is get big enough to be purchased by a larger company, that then mines the personal data of the start-up.

 

 

 

 

 

This is not a substantial review of this product or of those endorsing it. That said, knowing what I do of how higher ed tech operates, I’m gradually learning that K-12 ed tech works the same way.

As a final though, consider that this product is free to the teacher and parents. As so many have noted, you either pay for the product, or you are the product. There is no free.

 

 

Going quiet.

During various times in my career, I’ve stepped back from public-facing work. I attend but do not present at conferences. I organize fewer meetings. I avoid stirring up trouble.

This is one such time. On sabbatical, I work reasonably hard, taking coursework, reading widely on history and pedagogy, and doing my best to self-teach myself new tech. Currently I’m in a statistics 101 course and trying to decide if I want to host static pages on github using jekyll. I’m also reading about capabilities approach to development, feminism, and pedagogy and thinking about how it relates to signal theory, which is the purview of biologists and business folk. I came across both capabilities theory and signal theory in Zeynep Tuecki’s Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.

What started with a “hey, I should read more” has turned into a fuller literature review. Right now, as I’m learning about both ideas, my ideas are inchoate. That said, I started my project with the idea that I could make my courses just a bit better for students in poverty. It turns out that the capabilties approach deploys a parallel idea of justice, encouraging us to make things more just regardless of where we are rather than try to set up a perfectly just system and work to that. What’s more, I’ve the beginning of a pedagogic framework that blends Freire’s notions of empowerment with the capabilties approach to justice.

So, while I’m not teaching this year, I find myself working as much as during “regular” work time. . . working quietly.

Safe home.

Reflections on others’ assignments.

Several things struck me as I viewed the video responses. First, most of the projects were imagined to be bigger than they turned out to be. In short, the originating scholars eyes were bigger than their stomachs. That’s common amongst graduate students and newer faculty, but not always. The project on historical writing seemed realistic in its scope, especially with two creators.

I appreciated the attention to aesthetics and user interfaces most folks created for their projects. I struggle with how much attention to put into web design and how much to focus on other items. It’s less a question of UX versus pedagogy and more a question of how much time is available.

Finally, I engaged much more with the short videos than I did with the finished projects in module 8, even the well refined ones. There is an inherently safisfying element to a human explaining why they did what they did that isn’t reflected, for me, in texts or links.