Feature Article Benchmarking
Stephen Downes, January 12, 2011.
Benchmark comparisons often do more harm than good. Moncton is not Calgary or Vancouver, and we shouldn't try to be. What works well, and reflects success, in those cities may be something very different from what works in Moncton. What we value here - bilingualism, say - might be thought of as unnecessary or worse in the other centres. Half an Hour, January 12, 2011.
The Chronicle's 'Brainstorm' blog continues to spew material seemingly intended to discredit either the act of blogging, academia, or maybe the Chronicle itself. In one post, for example, David Barash delivers a facile treatment of 'the meaning of life', reducing our choices to either being deluded that there is a God, or concluding life has no meaning at all. But there are many other choices; as I suggest, for example, the meaning of life is our reason for living, which may be based in any number of factors. In another post, longtime snark Kevin Carey suggests that "the higher-education lobby would like you to believe that students and parents don't make rational information-driven choices," an allegation refuted, he writes, by evidence showing some people use information to select colleges. Of course, nobody argues that college selection (or anything else, for that matter) is completely non-rational, and certainly not Hartle, whome Carey purports to refute. But where the real world diverges with Carey's thinking is that such decisions are not based on rationality alone. Of course, that's a completely different proposition from the straw man Carey props up, and is not in any way refuted by the fact that some people are somewhat rational some of the time. One wonders why the Chronicle continues to publish this stuff. Does it really believe its readers are idiots? Can we not ask for educated, critical and reflective opinion, even in blogs, from the publication that touts itself as the voice of higher education?
Between the class of pundits who make safe and boring predictions based on current events ('tablets will be big', 'gesture-based interfaces will be big'), those who make predictions in line with their own self-interest ('the classroom will never go away'), and those who say that you can't predict the future (as though they've never expected the Sun to rise or waited for their monthly paycheque) is that small, achingly small, class of pundits who actually grapple with the future and wrest out of it meaningful and probably reliable predictions. This article is a case in point, where 20 very informed writers each make one interesting prediction. The last three predictions (numbers 18, 19 and 20) are pretty weak, but there are some very strong and challenging points in the list. For example: 'The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist.' And: 'Returning to a world that relies on muscle power is not an option.' And: ''Russia will become a global food superpower.' What does a world in which just those three statements are true look like? Not like our world.
Before getting too wrapped up in those wunderapplications now available on iPads and Blackberries, and before putting too much stock in Facebook and Twitter for your sourcing of online content, it may serve you well to heed the observations in this post. As the author notes, Firefox has basically killed the RSS subscription button, Chrome has no RSS reader, and the browsers are basically turning their backs on content syndication. And "if RSS dies, we lose the ability to read in private," argues Asa Dotzler. And I don't think it's a coincidence, either. As Kent Newsome writes in Why Big Media Wants to Kill RSS, "they can't make as much money if we read their content our way... as they can if they can force us to read it their way- at their site, complete with scads of browser-clogging tracking scripts and ads galore." Nor can they control the influence of competition from hundreds of smaller sites.
This post actually occupied my thought and browsing for longer than I might have expected. The post is a summary and review of John hattie's Visible Learning, which is "a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement" in education. Cale Birk captures the message quite effectively by considering six common claims about learning and comparing them to "what the reserach says." For example:
- The bold, loud claim I hear: "Decreasing class sizes is a key to student success!"
- What the research says: Of the 138 factors... this was ranked as number 106
- My new thought: Not the high-yield strategy that I believed.
The full list of factors appears to be unavailable on the web, unfortunately (I searched) and most of the other posts just pick and choose from them to make their own points (like this one, for example, which selects 20 of the 138 factors to make it look as though Hattie recommends direct instruction). And (such misuse aside) it seems to me that the effectiveness of such an analysis is limited to the selection of factors shown; thousands of factors can impact learning, and success itself can be defined in multiple ways, and so a comparison of 138 factors as related to factual recall is limited most of all by the imaginations of the examiners, and not by any empirical fact.
From the article: "Microsoft announced today [January 11] that Office 365 for education, the company's next-generation cloud productivity service for K-12 schools and universities (and the successor to Live@edu), will launch later this year." This is enterprise software, not so much stuff for the desktop - "Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online, Office Web Apps, and Office Professional Plus desktop software." And, according to the article, Office 365 for education includes "enterprise-class tools for better communication and collaboration." Existing Live@edu students will migrate to the new system. I don't see this so much as a game-changer as Microsoft reading 'cloud' and thinking 'enterprise'. And maybe they're right?
Interesting speculative piece on how to reform the education system with $100 million. The premise of the piece is that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's "theory of change" - a set of beliefs about the best strategy to produce a desired outcome - is mistaken. Zuckerberg's theory of change is, essentially, that "empowering the chief is the key to a school's success. These execs are expected to foster competition, raise expectations, emphasize metrics, and take on the unions." I agree with the author, that this isn't a very good theory of change. Like him, "I wish he had taken his $100 million, and some of his smartest people, and designed a new framework for education from the ground up." But the article is not otherwise very reassuring. It provides links to 13 "radical ideas", almost none of which are even worth considering (Will Richardson offers one decent suggestion in #6 and Albert Wenger part of the answer in #13). I wonder what OLDaily readers would do with $100 million.
This short clip gets to the heart of some of the things I talk about here. George Lakoff describes frames, which are composed of elements (eg., doctors, scalpels, operating rooms, etc) and scenarios (the doctor uses the scalpel in the operating room). Frames are physically realized in the neural circuitry of the brain. See, eg., Jerry Feldman, From Molecule to Metaphor: Toward a Unified Cognitive Science. Additionally, says Lakoff, every word in every language is defined relative to a frame. See, for example, Charles Fillmore's frame semantics. These frames consist not just of words but of metaphors - "more is 'up'", for example. These are created as the two become associated with each other in experience; eventually the neural activations associated with each become connected, and form a circuit, which is a physical connection in the brain. See also Lakoff's full talk here. Via Said Hamideh.
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