Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Using ‘Second Life’ opens up new world of communications to students

Condensed from “In Focus” The College of New Jersey Magazine, June 2009

Karen Cooper ’82, a doctoral candidate in instructional technology at the University of Central Florida, spoke on “How Technology is Changing the Way We Learn.” Cooper wasn’t on The College of New Jersey’s campus though - she was at home in Florida - and some of the NJ students were not even in a physical classroom - they were sitting in their dorms wearing pajamas and slippers. Cooper’s lecture took place in ‘Second Life’ online, 3D, virtual world.

In ‘Second Life,’ users design their own avatars and interact with other “residents” inside a user-created virtual realm. Although ‘Second Life’ looks like a video game - and many people use it only for recreational purposes - a growing number of educators are incorporating it into their pedagogy.

College of New Jersey instructor Yifeng Hu rented an “island” within ‘Second Life’ on which she built the virtual campus where her classes meet. During these in-world lessons, students can attend class inside a virtual castle or even atop the platform that floats above the island (in ‘Second Life,’ flying is as easy as pressing the “F” key on your keyboard). These virtual meeting spaces offer everything a real-world classroom would - for example, projector screens and video monitors that can be used by the instructor. But the in-world class sessions offer some distinct advantages, according to Hu.

“The interactive nature of ‘Second Life’ really helps the students become more engaged in the learning process,” Hu said. During an in-world class session, students can continuously ask questions and make comments via ‘Second Life’s live-chat feature. The students also use the chat feature to “reinforce and complement each other’s perspectives,” thus creating a more meaningful dialogue during classes, Hu said. An added benefit of using the chat feature, Hu discovered, is that “shy” students are more willing to participate in class discussions.

“They love it,” Hu said. “They’ve said to me several times, ‘We should have class within ‘Second Life’ all the time.’” Perhaps more importantly, she added, “When the learning process is more fun, it is also more engaging for the students.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

700 NYC Teachers Are Paid to Do Nothing

Hundreds of New York City public school teachers accused of offenses ranging from insubordination to sexual misconduct are being paid their full salaries to sit around all day playing Scrabble, surfing the Internet or just staring at the wall, if that's what they want to do.

Because their union contract makes it extremely difficult to fire them, the teachers have been banished by the school system to its "rubber rooms" — off-campus office space where they wait months, even years, for their disciplinary hearings.
The 700 or so teachers can practice yoga, work on their novels, paint portraits of their colleagues — pretty much anything but school work. They have summer vacation just like their classroom colleagues and enjoy weekends and holidays through the school year.

"You just basically sit there for eight hours," said Orlando Ramos, who spent seven months in a rubber room, officially known as a temporary reassignment center, in 2004-05. "I saw several near-fights. `This is my seat.' `I've been sitting here for six months.' That sort of thing."

Ramos was an assistant principal in East Harlem when he was accused of lying at a hearing on whether to suspend a student. Ramos denied the allegation but quit before his case was resolved and took a job in California.

Because the teachers collect their full salaries of $70,000 or more, the city Department of Education estimates the practice costs the taxpayers $65 million a year. The department blames union rules.

"It is extremely difficult to fire a tenured teacher because of the protections afforded to them in their contract," spokeswoman Ann Forte said.

City officials said that they make teachers report to a rubber room instead of sending they home because the union contract requires that they be allowed to continue in their jobs in some fashion while their cases are being heard. The contract does not permit them to be given other work.

Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, said the union and the Department of Education reached an agreement last year to try to reduce the amount of time educators spend in reassignment centers, but progress has been slow.
"No one wants teachers who don't belong in the classroom. However, we cannot neglect the teachers' rights to due process," Davis said. The union represents more than 228,000 employees, including nearly 90,000 teachers.

Many teachers say they are being punished because they ran afoul of a vindictive boss or because they blew the whistle when somebody fudged test scores.

"The principal wants you out, you're gone," said Michael Thomas, a high school math teacher who has been in a reassignment center for 14 months after accusing an assistant principal of tinkering with test results.

City education officials deny teachers are unfairly targeted but say there has been an effort under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to get incompetents out of the classroom. "There's been a push to report anything that you see wrong," Forte said.

Some other school systems likewise pay teachers to do nothing.

The Los Angeles district, the nation's second-largest school system with 620,000 students, behind New York's 1.1 million, said it has 178 teachers and other staff members who are being "housed" while they wait for misconduct charges to be resolved.
Similarly, Mimi Shapiro, who is now retired, said she was assigned to sit in what Philadelphia calls a "cluster office." "They just sit you in a room in a hard chair," she said, "and you just sit."

Teacher advocates say New York's rubber rooms are more extensive than anything that exists elsewhere.

Teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings around the nation typically are sent home, with or without pay, Karen Horwitz, a former Chicago-area teacher who founded the National Association for the Prevention of Teacher Abuse. Some districts find non-classroom work — office duties, for example — for teachers accused of misconduct.

New York City's reassignment centers have existed since the late 1990s, Forte said. But the number of employees assigned to them has ballooned since Bloomberg won more control over the schools in 2002. Most of those sent to rubber rooms are teachers; others are assistant principals, social workers, psychologists and secretaries.

Once their hearings are over, they are either sent back to the classroom or fired. But because their cases are heard by 23 arbitrators who work only five days a month, stints of two or three years in a rubber room are common, and some teachers have been there for five or six.

The nickname refers to the padded cells of old insane asylums. Some teachers say that is fitting, since some of the inhabitants are unstable and don't belong in the classroom. They add that being in a rubber room itself is bad for your mental health.
"Most people in that room are depressed," said Jennifer Saunders, a high school teacher who was in a reassignment center from 2005 to 2008. Saunders said she was charged with petty infractions in an effort to get rid of her: "I was charged with having a student sit in my class with a hat on, singing."

The rubber rooms are monitored, some more strictly than others, teachers said.

"There was a bar across the street," Saunders said. "Teachers would sneak out and hang out there for hours."

Judith Cohen, an art teacher who has been in a rubber room near Madison Square Garden for three years, said she passes the time by painting watercolors of her fellow detainees.

"The day just seemed to crawl by until I started painting," Cohen said, adding that others read, play dominoes or sleep. Cohen said she was charged with using abusive language when a girl cut her with scissors.

Some sell real estate, earn graduate degrees or teach each other yoga and tai chi.

David Suker, who has been in a Brooklyn reassignment center for three months, said he has used the time to plan summer trips to Alaska, Cape Cod and Costa Rica. Suker said he was falsely accused of throwing a girl's test sign-up form in the garbage during an argument.

"It's sort of peaceful knowing that you're going to work to do nothing," he said.

Philip Nobile is a journalist who has written for New York Magazine and the Village Voice and is known for his scathing criticism of public figures. A teacher at Brooklyn's Cobble Hill School of American Studies, Nobile was assigned to a rubber room in 2007, "supposedly for pushing a boy while I was breaking up a fight." He contends the school system is retaliating against him for exposing wrongdoing.

He is spending his time working on his case and writing magazine articles and a novel.

"This is what happens to political prisoners throughout history," he said, alluding to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "They put us in prison and we write our `Letter From the Birmingham Jail.'"

Associated Press, June 23, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

John Dewey and the School in Rose Valley

Not all education in comes from books or computers. Preschool education, I believe, is jeopardized by too much paper and not enough people. What children learn about interacting with people, in the early years, will determine their success as adults. Savvy parents -- if they can assemble a peer group for their child -- can create a community for their 2's, 3's, and 4's, but an organized community like a nursery school is the more likely option.

All three of my children had the opportunity to attend progressive nursery schools. The two youngest ones went to the School in Rose Valley, based on John Dewey's ideas, founded in 1929 by Margaret Rawson, a pioneer in the Orton technique for dyslexic readers. It has classes for 3-year-olds through sixth grade. We were not able to keep them at SRV beyond age 4, but the children -- and I -- treasure the SRV experience. If you are not familiar with the John Dewey concepts, see below. Waldorf Schools have similar values. Here is a link to how SRV builds community.

Those early years are so important. "Who takes the child by the hand, takes the mother by the heart."

******below an excerpt from an SRV newsletter

The School in Rose Valley in Moylan, Pa, is built on the Progressive philosophy. The principles that are used in planning curriculum were first named by John Dewey, a founder of the Progressive Education movement in the early 20th century. These principles are as relevant for 21st century learning as they were in their founding. There are seven:

  • Childhood is important in and of itself, children need to be allowed to be children, and school should be child-centered.
  • Learning is based on experience.
  • Learning should be active, engaging children in doing, experimenting, manipulating and constructing their understanding of the world.
  • Learning should capitalize on children's interests, so that they are engaged in the curriculum and motivated to learn.
  • Learning should be purposeful, involving meaningful projects and problems that facilitate the acquisition and retention of knowledge.
  • Learning should be a social activity, because children learn more and develop deeper understandings when they are working and engaging with others.
  • Children must learn to be critical thinkers who will continue to grow intellectually and morally throughout their lives.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Schwarzenegger: Digital textbooks can save money, improve learning

By Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of the State of California

Today, our kids get their information from the Internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones. A world of up-to-date information fits easily into their pockets and onto their computer screens. So why are California's public school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?

California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg's printing press.

It's nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators' hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.

In February, we helped schools weather this storm by freeing up categorical restrictions on spending, and we must continue making these changes so more dollars go directly into the classrooms.

That's why I am so excited about the digital textbooks initiative California just launched. Starting with high school math and science books, this initiative paves the way for easier access to free digital texts in California's schools. By frequently updating texts as they are developed, rather than continuing to teach from outdated textbooks, we will better prepare our students.

For example, many textbooks still describe television technology in terms of cathode-ray tubes, without even mentioning LCD or plasma screens that are being sold today. If California is to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, this initial focus on math and science texts is critical.

These kinds of digital instructional materials are rapidly becoming available. Across the state and around the world, well-respected educators have designed customizable texts to meet the unique needs of their students. Federal grants have funded research that is free for public use. And now California has put out an initial call to content developers, asking that they submit high school math and science digital texts for our review. We hope the floodgates are open. We'll ensure the digital texts meet and exceed California's rigorous academic standards, and we'll post the results of our review online as a reference for high school districts to use in time for fall 2009.

California must take the lead on using 21st century technology to expand learning and serve our students, parents, teachers and schools better. Even in good economic times, state government should always strive to use taxpayer dollars to the greatest effect. But especially now, it is imperative that we find ways to do more with less.

Last year, the state earmarked $350 million for school books and other instructional materials. Imagine the savings schools could realize by using these high-quality, free resources. Even if teachers have to print out some of the material, it will be far cheaper than regularly buying updated textbooks.

If the clamor for digital music and online social networking sites is any indication, young people are the earliest adopters of new technology, and cutting-edge product options are cropping up as quickly as the latest Facebook fads. However, there are those who ardently defend the status quo, claiming our vision of providing learning materials to students for free would risk a high-quality education.

That's nonsense. As the music and newspaper industries will attest, those who adapt quickly to changing consumer and business demands will thrive in our increasingly digital society and worldwide economy. Digital textbooks can help us achieve those goals and ensure that California's students continue to thrive in the global marketplace.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is Governor of the State of California. He wrote this article for the Mercury News in San Jose, California. It was posted June 6, 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don't prop up failing schools

By Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn
Special to CNN June 2, 2009

Editor's note: Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen and Innosight Institute Executive Director of Education Michael B. Horn are the co-authors along with Curtis W. Johnson of "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns."

(CNN) -- Historically the federal government has been a small investor in the nation's education system. With the recent economic stimulus bill, however, this changed virtually overnight.

There is great danger in the sudden and massive amount of funding -- nearly $100 billion -- that the federal government is throwing at the nation's schools. District by district, the budgetary crises into which all schools were plunging created the impetus for long-needed changes.

The most likely result of this stimulus will be to give our schools the luxury of affording not to change. This is borrowed money that we're pumping into our schools, and it comes at a price. Charging education isn't changing it.

That our schools need to change should not be surprising. Just walk into your local school and enter a classroom. Odds are high that it won't look too different from a classroom from a generation or two ago.

Sure, there might be some computers in the back of the room and perhaps an interactive white board instead of a chalkboard, but chances are high that students will still be sitting at desks lined up in neat rows with a teacher at the front delivering the same lesson on the same day to all the students. This might be acceptable if society and the skills many people need to succeed in today's economy hadn't changed either, but they have.

While U.S. schools stand still, the rest of the world is moving forward, and this has a price tag -- not just for individual children, but also for the nation.

We urge the federal government to consider four criteria when creating new programs or grants for states and districts to help transform an outdated educational system into one fit for the 21st Century.

First, don't fund technology that simply shoves computers and other technologies into existing classrooms. We've spent well over $60 billion in the last two decades doing just that, and there is now overwhelming evidence that when we do it, the current unsatisfactory system co-opts the technology to sustain itself.

We should instead use technology funding to bolster new learning models and innovations, such as online-learning environments, to level the playing field and allow students from all walks of life -- from small, rural communities to budget-strapped urban schools -- to access the rich variety that is now available only to children in wealthy suburban districts.
Second, don't fund new school buildings that look like the existing ones. If the architecture of new buildings is the same as that of existing schools -- designed around teachers delivering monolithic, one-size-fits-all lessons to large batches of students -- it will lock students into another century in which the physical infrastructure works against the flexibility needed for student-centric learning.

Instead, invest in bandwidth as an infrastructure of change. The government has a productive history in investing in infrastructure that creates change and innovation -- from allocating land to those building the transcontinental railroad and the land-grant colleges in 1862 to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding the creation of the Internet.
To allow all districts to realize the power of online learning to advance us toward a student-centric system, the federal government should help deliver broadband capabilities necessary not just for today's needs, where schools already lag, but also in anticipation of tomorrow's.

Third, don't fund the institutions that are least likely to change. Our research shows that institutions are good at improving what they are structured to do, but that transformative innovations that fundamentally change the trade-off between cost and quality -- disruptive innovations -- come from start-up institutions.

This means that there is a high probability that spending money on existing schools of education will only result in their doing more of the same, for example. Meanwhile, there are a host of disruptive training organizations that are providing comparable educators at lower cost, such as Teach for America, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, and New Leaders for New Schools.

Alternative certification, including alternative programs from existing schools of education, has grown at a 29 percent compound annual growth rate since 1997. The government must embrace this and back the winners, not defend the old institutions.

Fourth, direct more funds for research and development to create student-centric learning software. Just a fraction of 1 percent of the $600 billion in K-12 spending from all levels currently goes toward R&D.

The federal government should reallocate funds so we can begin to understand not just what learning opportunities work best on average but also what works for whom and under what circumstance. It is vital to fund learning software that captures data about the student and the efficacy of different approaches so we can connect these dots.

Transformation of any existing system isn't an easy process, but ignoring the laws of innovation, although it may be perhaps politically expedient in the short run, will only make it more difficult.

When the federal government directs future funds toward education, having these principles in place will go a long way toward making sure we're not simply charging education, but that we have a fighting chance of changing it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn.

Monday, June 1, 2009

First General Motors, Next America

By Richard Miller
Author, “In Word and Deeds: Battle Speeches In History”

It was said once that what was good for General Motors was good for America. I would update that aphorism: what is happening to General Motors is happening to America. Some of this is a bitter necessity–but much of it will be very bad, brought on by the voting public’s collective refusal to face the consequences of our nation’s (and our own) increasingly reckless financial behavior over the past three decades.

The truth is that the president is just doing with GM what we, the people elected him to do: manage America’s decline and do it gently, painlessly, without seeming to abandon the old tropes of American Greatness.

First, about that which is necessary. The key word here is “deleveraging.” GM, like many other corporations, homeowners, and credit card borrowers simply incurred too much debt. Most of GM’s debt was self-inflicted–ordinary borrowing. But much of the most damaging debt was simply conspiratorial. Unions and management had few incentives to control the former’s spiraling wages, benefits and pensions while the latter had to avoid strikes and keep the machine running in order to earn its rich salaries and bonuses.

As for shareholders and bondholders, as long as GM played its own Ponzi game of being current on debt service, and as long as the stock rose in the general equity mania of the last generation, few asked many questions.  Meanwhile, the only market that really counted — the domestic auto market — had been shrinking steadily for GM since the early 1970s. And the government (us, of course) was fond of its CAFEs, EPAs, OSHAs and other regulatory burdens that it imposed on the company. It all added up to what you now see unfolding before your eyes.

And what is very bad about GM’s situation? The Obama administration, in the name of the public good but in the fact of political payoff, has paid billions and pledged upwards of $50 billion dollars to a company that has failed to raise one dime of private capital. And all this done without querying GM exactly what it will do differently to compete with Mercedes, Toyota or even Ford. Do you know what will be different? Please comment if you do because despite studying this GM for years, I don’t have a clue.

Now here’s the surprise: I don’t blame Obama one bit. Sure, he broke his campaign pledge against Washington “politics as usual” by giving us Chicago “politics as usual.” In this case Alderman Obama delivered to his ward bosses at the UAW. But the truth is that the president is just doing with GM what we, the people elected him to do: manage American decline and do it gently, painlessly, without seeming to abandon the old tropes of American Greatness.

We, the public, wanted to avoid the pain that the logic of our (former) economic and social system would have required of GM: file a non-government subsidized bankruptcy petition, and hope that the washed through assets would actually be acquired by some guy with a better idea on how to build cars.

“Too big to fail,” we said in our collective arrogance. Too much pain. Too many suppliers forced out of business, too many workers unemployed, too many pensioners struggling to survive on reduced benefits. All probably true, and all part of the economic logic that built this country. Brutal, yes, but when you see the pain that the Indians and Chinese are willing to bear in order to supplant us as world leaders, you may remember that it’s a price our ancestors bore when America was ascendant.
The truth is that as a nation, we’re no longer “up to it,” the “it” being the costs associated with world leadership. We, GM and America have entered our dotage. Obama isn’t the problem, he’s just a symptom. (And to demonstrate how non-partisan this is, remember that it was Republican Bush ‘43 and his trusty sidekick “Help U.S.” Hank Paulson who argued for Detroit’s first $25 billion as well as $700 billion in TARP funds. It was at that very moment that Old America was declared dead and gone by its elites. All Obama has done is turn up the volume on the same song.)

As a lifelong Republican, I’d love to bash the loyal opposition. But not this time. As a collective group we elected Obama to stop the pain. By making General Motors in effect a new department of the federal government, Obama, by deferring the pain to the Chinese government’s willingness to buy our bonds, has only done what we asked him to do.
Managing America’s decline–it’s only a secret inside this country.

from Fox Forum May 31st, 2009
Postscript by Max Paul:

What does this have to do with education?

GM shows that the skillful and hard knuckles political power applied to securing and maintaining personal and corporate income is not going to hold up against market forces in the long run. A good part of the American education establishment is similarly built and continues to build on politically obtained regulation and job protection, regardless of better education becoming available at lower cost. Not only for GM, America is not an island where the inhabitants can be forced to invest in yesterday’s products supplied at a dictated price forever. More and more, education is a global market. If the American GM-like attitude to “serving” it continues, also American education will lose more and more market share, not only overseas, but also at home. Other, better education providers, at far lower costs will make inroads. And they won’t be American.

GM should be a wake-up call to American education to, as President Obama says, “start fresh,” totally, with all those cost burdens removed. Unless that can be done, the present American Way of education will become the way of the past.