Unemployed Math Teachers Fighting For Bread In The Streets

Our panelists tonight told us that a “bottom-up”, flexible, somewhat-adaptive, omnipresent, open educational resource set is emerging.

Learners around the world can and will use it if necessary to learn outside of traditional schools.

Reformers face major challenges to bring this resource set into American schools, but it is also sorely needed.

Your questions are:

  • What surprised you about what you heard? What points do you most want to challenge, emphasize, or investigate inside or outside of class?
  • What role does your own personal skill-set, current career, or potential future career play in this space, and what would you like to contribute to it as it develops?

This “open education resource set” — at least in math education — seems balanced heavily towards video lectures and exercise sets. These are aspects of a math education that very few people recall fondly.

So there may be some use for people who can find online instructional models that amplify engagement and cognitive demand, even marginally. Math teachers of the future should be at least passingly familiar — pedagogically bilingual, maybe — with online instructional design. At the very least, I think there will be a seat at the table for people who know enough math education research and enough about the capabilities and limitations of network technology to be of use to both crowds.

Apologies for the self-promotion, but here’s an example (and write-up) I prototyped today in which I’m trying to marry Dan Schwartz’s cog psych research with Khan Academy. I hope the field finds this kind of contribution valuable because I found making it to be a whole lot of fun.

Richard Elmore’s Blistering Assessment of Institutional Schooling

HGSE professor, Richard Elmore, goes in on institutional schooling:

I no longer believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore. I view my work as palliative care for a dying institution.


…. the modal classroom in this country is designed, point for point, to be the exact opposite about what we are learning about how humans develop ….

The whole thing is something to behold. Only eight minutes.

Can an incubator survive without copresence?

The assignment here was to take a function of the university system (I chose its function as an incubator of talent) and imagine unbundling something we find in the university’s current, bundled configuration (I chose copresence).

I’m struggling to think of examples of incubators that incubate talent as well as a university does, that manage without the copresence of residential dorms and a physical, immobile campus.

We should expect to see the best examples of non-copresent incubators in the field of technology where members are extremely comfortable with the technologies that facilitate non-copresence. But as often as we find people working and learning remotely in the field of technology, Google, Apple, and Microsoft still have enormous home offices in Mountain View, Cupertino, and Redmond, with comparable satellite offices around the globe. Even smaller firms like 37Signals, who make their friendliness to remote workers a point of pride, still maintain an office in Chicago. Imagine K12 and Y Combinator both call themselves “startup incubators” and both have physical offices and host events in the same physical location.

This isn’t to say incubation is impossible without copresence. My own talent has been incubated immensely in the relationships I’ve made on my blog with people I’ve never met. It’s just that to say that it isn’t ideal, that those relationships and my talent would have been incubated more quickly had we been in the same room more often.

Assessing Open-Mindedness

I read Michael Goldstein’s description of the assessment data coming out of Khan Academy. I listened to the CEO of Knewton, Jose Ferreira, talk about the assessment data coming out of his platform. I feel hollow. These platforms measure the time of day and the amount of time a student spends looking at a webpage. They measure hint tokens. What can they tell us about what a student does on that webpage though? What can they tell us about what a student knows and doesn’t know when she gets a problem wrong?

They can measure proficiency but only if the task is defined down to the cornmeal that a machine can easily digest — multiple-choice and objective-response items. Free response gives them indigestion. When it comes to assessment and the relationship between learners and machines, the learners are giving way more than they’re getting. They’re meeting the machines more than halfway.

If the NRC’s 21st-century competencies should even be assessed at all (open question) I don’t have a lot of hope that a machine on its own can grade them. We would need humans. But that doesn’t mean co-presence is required. We may be able to use machines to eliminate the need for co-presence while not letting them dumb down our assessments.

One example: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is designing assessments for California’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Look at one. You have a large text entry field and the prompt to “explain.” A machine has no hope of grading that meaningfully but a human can. So the machine offers an expansive, permissive input field and just passes the data along unmolested to a human not co-present for grading. I can live with that. (Whether the human can live with grading just that assessment for forty hours a week is another open question.)

Another. Here’s an assessment for “intellectual openness” that may not be possible without machines. (Again, I only want machines to facilitate the non-copresence. I don’t want them anywhere near the grading itself.)

Imagine: a student takes a survey before the assessment that asks for her opinion on any number of inflammatory issues. Thumbs up or down, perhaps. A Likert scale, maybe. “Do you agree or disagree: the death penalty should be legal?” It doesn’t really matter.

The machine then pairs that student with a non-copresent student who’s taking the assessment at the same time who holds the opposing view. They are linked to each other in a chat. They need to explain their own views and attempt to convince each other while maintaining an open stance towards an idea with which they disagree. The non-copresence is a blessing here. You engage someone with whom you have no meaningful history. We control for past history. A human reads the transcript later and uses a rubric to determine the open-mindedness of each participant.

(The exact elements of that rubric are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Collective Effervescence

Our homework from the previous week was to name and describe education’s current revolution. It felt like an exercise in reduction at a time when educational technology has already reduced so many disciplines down to whatever cornmeal can be processed by a computer. I didn’t participate. That said, we reviewed some of my classmates’ responses that were funny, cathartic, and interesting in different cases:

  • #hacking. Breaking up, unbundling, and getting access to supposedly secure aspects of higher education.
  • Credential sprawl. The proliferation of credentials will complicate the credentialing bodies and what professions will look like.
  • Dashboard-ification of schooling.
  • The open network. Open access. Open source. More transparency in the schools and their results.
  • Professionalism. The application of business principles to education. A focus on education being about the professional direction it might take you. Data and analytics and technology brought to education. Broadening the definition of who is a professional.
  • Decentralization.
  • Survival of the fittest. Increasing competition at the level of providers of education. Universities. Online providers. Professors competing for star status. Competition for jobs from students around the world.
  • Education bubble. Overspeculation. Lots of resources pushed on untested products that don’t solve immediate needs.
  • Massive Online Opportunity for Cash. 67,000 people are sitting in a virtual room. It doesn’t take a genius to think that $1.99 will turn you an enormous profit.

Our conversation then circled this question:

Co-presence is no longer a necessary precondition for learning. You can learn from someone without being in the same room as her. Given the massive expense of co-presence (buildings, opportunity cost, time, etc.) what is co-presence good for? How should it be used?

This is an enormous question we should consider more often in our ed schools. The flipped classroom teachers, to their credit, have been considering it for a long time, though I think they’ve come to the wrong conclusions.

Mitchell Stevens referred to Durkheim who described a concept called “collective effervescence,” which is probably worth my future study.

Collective effervescence is why we attend football games live rather than watching from the comfort of our barcaloungers.

The preconditions of collective effervescence are coordinated action, physical co-presence, and collective identity. Stevens demonstrated this by having us sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round. The implications for the classrooms of the future are unclear to me.

I think this week’s homework assignment is excellent and needs a little more thought before I commit some words to a post:

Choose one of the National Research Council’s three categories of 21st-century competencies (cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal). Take that category, and consider it in light of learning environments that do or don’t allow for physical co-presence. What opportunities do learners get to practice these competencies? What opportunities do educators have to evaluate them, formally or informally?

Enroll your kids in my MOOC for kindergarteners.

There has to be a line, right? We should champion and study our innovations while at the same time drawing clear lines around the space where they’re useful and being honest about the space where they’re not. If Sannier thought there was anything MOOCs couldn’t do, any discipline or student for whom the MOOC modality would be any less than perfect, he kept it to himself. Kindergarten? Civics class? Science lab? We need to start drawing lines around the problem space for which “MOOC” (and “online education,” more generally) is the solution.

I’d like to point out also that MOOCs make the most sense if you accept the pedagogy of several hundred students being spoken at in a lecture hall. If that is the highest we aspire to pedagogically, then, yes, let’s take the people who speak at students best and have them speak at many more students, all at once. But does being spoken at in a large room ever rate as the best part of anybody’s higher education? There are many people, including Tom Sallee at UC Davis and Eric Mazur at Harvard who have innovated around the large lecture hall, creating environments for experimentation and peer instruction.

I can accept a decrease in the quality of the education we offer if we compensate in other areas like affordability and scale. But to hear Sannier (and other proponents of MOOCs) talk, there is no downside here, which sounds a lot more like a sales pitch than an appeal to reason.


Two links of interest for the crowd watching the slow motion car crash at the intersection of higher ed and social media:

  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever,” which, in part, covers a conflict at the annual MLA conference over the ethics of tweeting proceedings.
  2. That debate spilled over onto Twitter (dubbed #twittergate) and was captured by Adeline Koh.

If you’d like to register an opinion, the crucial questions in those two links are these:

  1. Is it okay to tweet conference proceedings? Under what conditions? (ie. If the presenter gives permission.)
  2. How should a scholar conduct herself online and how should the academy value that conduct?

Such growing pains, though, right?

Why math ed startups dominate the edtech market.

I was surprised by the first week’s reading selection, which delved far into education’s past for a course so explicitly concerned with its future. In class, Stevens tied those readings to our present course, highlighting the different purposes education has served over time, and pointing out that one of those purposes — the development and allocation of human capital — receives the lion’s share of the attention in policy discussions.

Setting aside the lens of policy, it would be interesting to look at different startups that have received either acclaim or funding and examine their assumptions about the purpose of an education. Would we find most of them focused on developing human capital also? Would we find any that didn’t?


I’m a current math ed doctoral student at SUSE but I have something of a double life around here. My scholarly pursuits include a lot of blogging, Tweeting, and RSS reading. I’ll give a talk on math education to a small group, film it, and put it online where it’s viewed by more people than read some of the journals in my field, people who comment on it, critique it, and improve my ideas. There doesn’t seem to be any room for that kind of scholarship or peer engagement in higher ed, which has sought out the same indicators of status for — what? — centuries. I’m taking this course, then, in no small part to figure out if I have a future within education’s digital future and what that might be.

Dan Meyer