The DEMML™ blog is about the Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™,
an XML standard being developed by Grant Sheridan Robertson.
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Philosophy Statement

When discussion turns to "educational technology" many consider only those "technologies" that can be used to augment a typical American classroom. Thoughts turn to digital projectors, computers, software, and the internet. All of these technologies can be quite beneficial. They allow teachers to illustrate principles that would be very time-consuming or difficult to illustrate using only a chalkboard. Computers and software can provide drill and practice with much more immediate feedback which greatly enhances learning. And the internet can be a source for a vast wealth of information, providing access to almost all the knowledge of mankind right in one's own bedroom. They are the power-tools of education. Unfortunately, these power-tools are being used in the same old context as the previous "hand-tools" represented by chalkboards, pencil, and paper. Just as power tools make building a house faster and more efficient, if one builds that house using the same plan as in the past then one will end up with the same old inefficient, thin-walled, rectangular, box. Sometimes, however, a new tool or material will come along that has the power to entirely change the industry. Rather than build houses out of 2x4 studs and drywall, some are experimenting with spraying structural foam onto a form made of nothing more than a bubble of plastic sheeting. Many of the same tools (power and hand) are used to finish up the building, but the entire definition of a house has changed. Similarly, adding technologies to the classroom while keeping the same old educational system will result in the same old, ineffective, shallow, rubber-stamp learning. The only way technology itself can truly affect the educational system will be if that technology is revolutionary enough to completely redefine what we mean my "education."

In the old system "education" has meant that a teacher stands up in front of a class and disseminates information in a manner and at a rate designed to meet the needs of the "average" student. Unfortunately, very few students are "average." Students differ in the rate at which they learn as well as in the ways in which they learn. Some learn best when lectured and handed facts. Some learn best when given interesting projects to work on. New, technologies, especially the internet, seem to lend themselves to this kind of project-based-learning. Wonderful "web-quests" have been created to lead students on a journey of learning through the vast pile of content that is "The Internet." For many these are much more interesting, and thus more motivating, than simple reading and lecture. However, for those who lack a solid foundation of knowledge within which to contextualize their discoveries, a web-quest can be nothing but an exercise in frustration. Yes, it is possible to write just the perfect web-quest (or any other lesson) for any specific level of student proficiency. The problem is that only a few students in any one classroom are ever going to be at that exact level at the same time. All others will be either bored or lost. And this gets to the crux of what is wrong with the current educational system. It is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sure, there are different grade levels but they are based on age, not ability.

Therefore, our revolutionary technology must redefine "education" from "one size fits all" to "every size is available to all." This is not a simple proposition. We cannot simply throw students into a library with internet access and expect them to naturally find the right material for them to learn what they want or need to know at any given time. There is simply too much content available and it is essentially a disorganized pile as far as a young mind is concerned. The enormity of the chore is overwhelming. You are more likely to get small fires than any real learning. On the other hand, there are simply not enough trained teachers to individually guide each student on their own learning path. Again, there is simply too much material out there to choose from, too many methodologies for teaching that particular material, and too many variations in student interest for any one person to keep track of what material should be presented to each student next. There are barely enough teachers to provide one for every 30 students in this country. Not to mention all the children with no teacher at all in less developed countries. This is where technology can step in. It is possible for computer software to test students to determine their interests and abilities as well as track changes in them over time. Based on this information it is possible for software to choose just the right material to present to each student at just the right time. Naturally, this will require material that is highly organized and coded for all these different variables. Although this kind of software and material does not currently exist, it is possible to do. The teacher is then left to do more of the things that only a human teacher can do. Things like motivating students to want to learn and guiding them in a much more general way to ensure that students don't focus their personal learning too narrowly or avoid important subjects as some may tend to do.

For such a computer-based-education system to work it must also follow sound educational psychology principles. It must be designed around the way that people actually learn. Again, there is no need to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Many theorists have many different ideas on how people - and particularly children - learn. Usually a teacher will decide on a particular philosophy and adhere to it throughout their entire career. Software does not need to be so single-minded. Multiple versions of content can be created that teaches the same things but from different perspectives. It can even take many different perspectives into account simultaneously when choosing material to present to a student. A student may be in Piaget's Formal Operational stage of development while still being a person who learns better when an authority figure explains something to them in no-nonsense terms as proscribed by Vygotsky. A student may need motivation to continue with a difficult topic and so may need rewards as described by behavioral theorists, but may also need scaffolding built for them to better understand the material at hand as suggested by cognitive theorists. Many students learn best when they construct the knowledge from project-based experiences but can only be expected to "construct" accurate models in their mind if they already have a solid foundation of knowledge based on drill and practice. Therefore the content must be coded and tagged to reflect all these different aspects of educational psychology rather than simply choosing one to the exclusion of the others.

There is one educational theory, however, that must be adhered to throughout for this software system to be effective. Unfortunately this is the theory that seems to be given the least attention within the educational community. Some textbooks refer to this as brain-based or neuronal learning. Simply put, it is learning based on how our brains actually work at a cellular level. The brains of all animals from the lowly sea-slug to humans work in essentially the same way at the most fundamental level. They remember what is necessary for survival. What is deemed necessary for survival is chosen based on the frequency with which it is experienced. This has been proven to be true at a biochemical level within brain cells. When signals are presented at a synapse within a certain time after a previous stimulus, then chemicals build up in that area which reinforce the growth patterns of that synapse and cause it to stay there. When the signals are not repeated then the chemicals dissipate, the synapse recedes, and that memory is lost. What this means is that it is not enough to teach a student something once and expect them to retain it for any reasonable period of time. That material must be repeated over and over with increasing time period between repetitions until that time period is effectively the rest of the students life (or for however long they desire to remember the material). Unfortunately, that pattern is not set in stone and varies by student and difficulty of the material. It would be impossible for any teacher to calculate exactly when is the best time to repeat previous material, even if they only had one student. It is also impractical for a teacher to ask just the right questions at just the right times over the length of time necessary to build solid memories. And, no, questions on a final exam are not enough. However, it is entirely possible for a computer program to do such a thing. A student's personal learning system can repeat material that was originally presented years earlier and in just the right form to reinforce that learning today.

Where does all this leave the teacher? Are they left out of the equation? Not at all. However, only those teachers who are willing and able to make the transition from lecturer to mentor will thrive in the new system. Some may also say that many districts cannot afford more than one computer per classroom let alone one per student. They are likely buying the wrong computers. Students do not need computers capable of editing video in order to learn. XO laptops, from the One Laptop per Child project, cost only $199 each and are more than adequate for most educational content. There are even computers available for only $12 in some countries that can be used to deliver material in this form. Given the high cost in both time and money associated with training a new teacher, and the incredibly high turnover rate, it is far less expensive to provide each student with an adequate computer. Simply put, it is impossible to produce enough teachers to educate all the people in the world but it is entirely possible to mass produce enough computers to do the task.

So, to sum up, my philosophy is that educational technology will only ever be an evolutionary change in a system that no longer meets the needs of students until that technology reaches a new and revolutionary stage. That technology must be able to instruct each student individually while relieving the teacher of the burden of tracking each individual student's progress. Then the teachers will be free to do what they really do best, encouraging and mentoring students in a more general way towards their individual learning goals. Using technology in this way, rather than simply to augment existing lessons, will also free up more good teachers while weeding out those with less motivation and enable us to educate everyone in the world.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Computers As Writing Instructors by Greg Miller: a Review

Writing-instruction software is designed to analyze the text of an essay and either give it a simple grade or feedback as to what could be improved. Some find it indispensable for improving the skills of beginning writers while others are skeptical as to its efficacy. The primary benefit seems to be the speed with which results can be returned. When students are able to get feedback within seconds and try again right away, it can drastically improve their skills.

There are three major commercial providers of writing-instruction software: Vantage Learning, Educational Testing Service (the producers of the GRE exam), and Pearson Education who charges $30 per student per year. My first impulse is to grate against a commercial service making a profit on teaching children to write. However, I have often paid far more than $30 for a book that taught me almost nothing about a subject. So, if more students are learning to write and gaining the confidence in their ability to learn that comes from that, then I say $30 is well worth it. Although I did find it disheartening to learn that my chances of getting into graduate school may be affected by a computer program.

One factor that limits the usefulness of these programs is that they need to be trained on about 100 human-graded essays before they can be used. This means that these programs could not be used for the unique, context-specific types of essays that most teachers assign for classes. However, those essays are usually used to asses a student's knowledge of the material taught in the classroom, not teach them to write. If the student has learned to write better by practicing using standardized essays and computerized feedback, then they will be more confident and able to focus on the question at hand rather than being hampered by inadequate writing ability.

Some naysayers complain that the software can't measure certain things such as accuracy or clever writing. However, I believe that it is at least a start. No one is recommending that humans be taken completely out of the picture. But the software can be used to quickly and easily bring students up by several levels where the teacher can then take over and start working on the finer points.

I do have one real concern that wasn't addressed in the article: Have the commercial providers patented all of the technology to such a point that it would be impossible for an open-source project to be able to do something similar. This is important because, even though I think $30 is a fair price to pay to learn how to write, it is still a bit too expensive for most of the people in the world. While the commercial programs may have certain special features that many would be willing to pay for, it would be nice if the rest of the world could still have access to the basic algorithms. This would keep the other six billion people in the world from falling even further behind.

Greg Miller. “Computers As Writing Instructors.” Science 2 Jan 2009: 59-60.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

"Flat" is the new "Global Village"

Way back in the late 1980s, just after I had left the USMC and was working at CMSI, the museum hired a new curator named Joseph Deken. This guy had written a book called "The Electronic Cottage" in which he extolled all the virtues of the dawning computer age. In the book he explained how the world was getting smaller and that people would soon be able to do any number of things right from home or anywhere around the world thanks to the magic of computers and near instant communications. It had been incredibly popular. Now, all of us electronics technicians felt we already knew all of that stuff. We chided him for saying what we had already known for years. He wrote the book in 1983.

Naturally, I don't have perfect memory, and when I was first recollecting all this I incorrectly recollected that the book's title had been, "The Global Village," another term that was common back then. In trying to find the book I uncovered 14,990 books with "the global village" in their title dating back to about 1968. And that is on Amazon alone. So, when I read the glowing reviews of Thomas Friedman's new book, "The World is Flat" I was somewhat nonplussed. It seems odd to me that the phrase "global village" has been written about since at least 1968 and the idea of an "electronic cottage" has been popular since at least 1983, yet the notion that the earth is suddenly flat - again - is inexplicably all the rage.

Why is it that the education community is only just now jumping on this bandwagon? I understand that computers were difficult to come by for schools back in 1968. But postage was cheap, yet only a few teachers helped their students find pen-pals. In 1983 personal computers had been around for about seven years and weren't so terribly expensive as to be out of reach for most schools. Certainly less expensive than the new, oak desk in the superintendent's office. And yet, I didn't see a single computer in a single school until I went to college in 1978. It was an expensive private college and they had a mere two computers, one TRS-80 Model-1 and one Apple II. Why is that? Why has it taken 33 long years since the introduction of the first inexpensive, personal-computer for the education community to finally, really say, "Hey, maybe this is something we should look into."

I'm certainly not going to make any friends when I say that I think the main reason is pure laziness. Laziness and fear of new things. When I was in sixth grade it was a risky and experimental proposition for teachers to ask students to work on projects in groups. They had to hire a special experimental and risk-taking teacher to come in and do that. Woop-de-doo! Education theorists from Vygotsky on had been promoting collaboration as a means to better learning since the 30's. It took teachers till 1966, another 30 some-odd years, to get around to it? Laziness and unwillingness to change, that's what I say.

So, some guy comes along, stealing an old term to coin a new phrase which means something we have known all along and suddenly everyone is interested. So what has Thomas Friedman got that Lev Vygotsky and Joseph Deken didn't have? About all I can figure is that he has a better publicist. I guess I should just be happy that the education community is finally getting the message and working on how they can incorporate these "new ideas" into their curricula. I guess I should see the bright side and say, "Isn't it wonderful that everyone is recognizing that a change needs to be made and are working on figuring out how to do that." But I have to wonder, what is going to happen when it is time for the next big change to be made. Is the education community going to sit around for another 30 years, waiting till another crisis of ineffectiveness is ready to burst in their faces like a festering boil, before they - that would be you, current education students - actually do something about it?

You all claim to want to be teachers. So I would presume that you would want to be effective teachers. Well, that is not going to come easy. You are not going to be able to stick to the same old things that teachers have been doing all along. You can't simply teach to the test so your district can claw their way past the NCLB minimums. You must be willing to innovate and change, every darn day if need be. It shouldn't be only the exceptional teachers like Eliot Wigginton who throw the textbook out the window and ask their students to start a project that eventually grows into "The Firefox Book". It shouldn't be only teachers like Ron Clark who "drink the chocolate milk" of creativity and finally get their students to pay attention. Every single one of you has to be willing to really stick your neck out, even when those around you ridicule you or worse. You must be willing to embrace technology - and not just as a way to distract yourself when you should be paying attention in class. Yes, I see you. Unless you actually plan to become one of those "statistics" who burn out after just a few years, you really have to devote yourselves like you have never been devoted before. You must learn how these kids think. Then you have to learn how to get them to change their thinking. They have been trained all their lives to believe that school is boring. You have to break through that. It takes work and practice and skill and more practice.

I know, I am not going to become a teacher, so many of you may think I have no room to talk. But I am doing my part in the way I can be most effective. Are you? Or are you just surfing Facebook, biding your time till the bell rings?

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Isaac Asimov predicts DEMML (sort of)

In 1988 Bill Moyers did an interview with Isaac Asimov about his (then) recently released book, As Far as the Eye Can See. In this interview, Asimov predicted that we would all eventually be able to have computers in our homes that could connect us to vast libraries of information. The interview is up on YouTube in three parts which I have embedded here. I have also included a few notes that took while watching the videos:

Part 1:

  • 4:17 - Moyers asks, "Do you think we can educate ourselves on […]anything that strikes our fancy?"
  • 6:50 - Learning more makes us more comfortable in the universe.
  • 8:42 - We can have a revolution in learning.
  • 9:30 - If we educate children from the start into appreciating their own creativity, then we can all be creative.

Part 2:

  • 0:00 - Access to computer based education and information, and the ability to learn at one's own pace will make it so that people will enjoy learning. At school, the one-size-fits all approach makes learning not enjoyable.
  • 1:10 - Computers don't dehumanize learning. They do the opposite by creating a one-to-one relationship between information source and information consumer.

Part 3:

  • This section primarily speaks to the importance of emphasizing science and rational thought over mysticism.

Additional Thoughts:

I think it is important to note how much emphasis Asimov places on individualized learning rather than a one-size-fits-all model. He points out the problems we have in the classroom with trying to educate a room full of students, assuming that they all learn the same. While Asimov did predict the vast amount of knowledge that would be available on the Internet, he did not predict that it would also be a disadvantage. He assumed that the information would be organized like a "library," never imagining that we would be in such a rush to pile content into as many web sites as possible that we would forget to stop and organize it as it went in. This is one of the primary goals of DEMML™. While I have no plans to organize the entire internet, I do plan to organize all of the information that people will need to educate themselves about the world around them. I believe that DEMML™ will finally realize Asimov's dream.

P.S. The entire interview is also available on the PBS web site here.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

The Importance of Fostering Creativity in Education

There is a conference that is put on every year called the TED conference (for Technology Entertainment and Design). This is an invitation only conference for only the best minds in the country. The best scientists, designers, and activists as well as quality artists, static and performing. These are the most creative minds in America giving lectures to each other about their craft or simply whatever they think is important. The motto of the conference is "Ideas worth sharing." So it is no surprise that the lectures are often about creativity itself. How to get it, how to use it, or just how wonderful it is to have it.

What I find most interesting, however, are the lectures about the importance of fostering Creativity in our children, both in the classroom and out. Here are three lectures which I think truly speak to the importance of creativity. The first is "5 dangerous things you should let your kids do." It is about the simple things that we used to do as kids, or at least when I was a kid, that may be a little dangerous but that teach kids many important things about the world around them. The speaker, Gever Tully, warns that by not allowing our kids to do these things we are depriving them not only of the learning but we are, in the end, are making them less safe because they do not learn how to be safe with dangerous things when they do encounter them. You can even download a comic about a summer camp called The Tinkering School, where Tully teaches kids to build things that they dream up.

The second lecture is the best. Ken Robinson is hilarious. His talk, "Do schools kill creativity?" is full of humor but addresses a serious issue. By overemphasizing only the few subjects that turn our children into good workers for businesses we are killing their creativity. Then, just because they don't all fit that one highly restrictive mold we are labeling more and more of our children as ADHD. Think about it, we would rather label children as diseased than simply change the way we teach them.

The last talk is simply about the importance of creativity in our lives. Author, Elizabeth Gilbert's talk "A different way to think about creative genius," discusses the ways in which we treat creative workers differently. Interestingly, the issue of de-emphasizing creativity in our children - because of the perception that they could never get a job actually using their imagination - comes up in this talk as well.

If you don't know about TED then you should take a look. Each lecture is about 18 minutes. They cover topics from environmentalism to new technology to the arts and the talks are given by the very people doing the work. These lectures would be great to use in a classroom or you can just watch them for personal inspiration as I do.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson. team is making educational games available for $12 computers.

There is a group of people from several different universities who have started an organization called to create free educational games that will run on a type of computer that is already being manufactured and sold in India for only $12. The computer is based on the same chip that used to be in the old Apple II computers but is all contained within just the keyboard. It plugs into an existing TV just like a video game. Wired Magazine has an article about it here.

I truly believe this is the kind of "educational technology" that is really going to change the world. It is a simple idea, it is incredibly cheap, the learning can take place at home, and it can be done any time of the day.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

First DEMML blog post

Well, this is my first real post for DEMML blog. I finally got Blogger set up to show the header the way I want it. I will need to edit the web site to point here. Heck, that site needs a lot of updating. I guess I have been pretty busy with school and stuff these last few years. Not that I haven't been working on DEMML off and on during that time but I just haven't had time to update the site.

In the mean time I have a few posts I put up on a blog I was required to create for my Educational Technology course which I will transfer over here.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.