Adventures (Minus the Sleepovers) in Sexism in Education Technology
I wrote what is easily the most important, intense blog post I’ve ever written. The outreach from the education, technology, and educational technology sectors has been astounding. I’ve cried reading some of the stories women have started sharing with me about their experiences. Sexism and rape culture is a very real problem in edtech and education, and it clearly has been receiving too little attention. I just hope we can this as an opportunity for reflection, healing, and progress, and that we all can start incorporating empathy into our practices.
Note: It’s a bit of a dark read and might/should make you uncomfortable. I did my best to keep it light, but there’s only so much one can do considering the subject matter.
Thinking about Career Planning
Is this really the best that we can do for career planning, especially at the high school level? Just thinking or talking about it? That’s about as effective as being an entrepreneur who never builds anything, or asks any good questions of customers. [For the record, the “Get experience” is about job shadowing, which I argue is exposure over experience]
The last time someone asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” before writing my college application essays was in the fifth grade. Yet we sort kids based on their perceived aptitude and limited career musings.
With the exception of my Architecture class, the subjects I have been most interested in as an adult were miserable to me in high school- for a variety of reasons: teachers, assignments, etc. I’m lucky that I maintained my curiosity, otherwise those fields would have been forever tarnished.
We’re making kids choose careers at 17/18 based on limited course catalogs, experience, and exposure to what’s out there. Not to mention that hardly anyone admits the nonlinearity and indefinite nature of career trajectories, beyond letting kids know it’s okay to change college majors. That’s a problem even when we’re ignoring that jobs are invented and destroyed all the time, and that there are ways for people to combine their passions in ways that can’t be described by any O*Net profile.
We can do better for career education. Just think about it.
Let’s Skip the Professional Development: Because No One Says “Let’s Create Lifelong Students”
This week, I’ve been writing my Statement of Purpose for a graduate school application- with a theme about learners versus students- and having conversations around teacher feedback for education technology company product development. So it seems fitting that I should stumble across this today:
I find there are still learners and students. The learners search for information on how to use the tools, play around with them and experiment in the classroom. The students wait for a training session or workshop, attend them, complete assignments but there is not a significant change in the use of the tools.
One conversation I had recently was with a teacher-turned-entrepreneur about getting teachers more meaningfully engaged in education technology feedback. In our conversation one thing that really stood out was her assertion that we need to give teachers professional development so that they can learn how to give useful feedback to companies. That assumption rubbed me the wrong way.
Professional development seems to be the go-to for doing new things in the field of education. It never really seems to get questioned more than “Does #edchat do a better job?” It’s telling of the system’s attitude towards learning. It screams “you can only learn if you’re being taught.” It’s a horrible tone for a system that has recently become much more reflective on creating lifelong learners.
Fortunately, some teachers are learners, not just students. They’re already experimenting and giving their feedback, whether you teach them or not.
Challenge, Failing, and Learning
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been thinking about dropping out of graduate school.
I’ve hesitated about talking about it here for many reasons, including but not limited to: the irony of an education activist talking about the irrelevance of my education, the potential for the institution to take my remarks the wrong way, and embarrassment for getting into this situation.
And then I stumbled upon this article about failure by famed education pundit Alfie Kohn. This really struck a chord with me:
Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning. That’s not something we’d want to eliminate. But when students who are tripped up by challenges respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out, they sometimes do so not because of a deficiency in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because those challenges — what they were asked to do — aren’t particularly engaging or relevant.
While I disagree about his conclusions and some points in particular (like denying the ability to give zeros, based on my personal teaching experience), I think he’s indirectly said something really important about failure and learning.
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In Why Kids hate school - subject by subject, scientist Roger C. Shank provides a point by point takedown of most of the subjects we learn in high school. Shank notes that “every single subject taught in high school is a mistake.” The post is worth reading in full but here are some excerpts:
Chemistry: A complete waste of time.
Because Tumblr isn’t built for real long form blogging I’ll summarize what opebukola said: students should learn things that don’t matter to them because it teaches them the ability to learn, have grit, get the job done, and not just do what we want to do.
I think that all of those can be taught without making kids go through subjects they have no interest in. Ever heard the quote “Find what you love and let it kill you”? It’s something I have seriously related to every time I really dedicated myself to anything I was interested in from an independent research paper to launching a website. One was on affirmative action, the other on online dating. Both were things I became interested in through my own exploration, learned independently from school, and did with no prompting and little supervision.
I think people are inherently curious about lots of things, so students not knowing exactly what they want is going to make them more, not less, likely to explore subjects. If you compound this with enabling students to explore their interests freely, then students will have to be able to teach themselves and find their own interest in learning because there will be no teacher with enough expertise or time to closely manage and guide every single student. I think there is much more value in having teachers be facilitators and mentors than teachers in high school. Instead of just saying they want students to become self-reliant, responsible, and developing depth in their interests, high school teachers should actually follow through.
The best times I’ve ever had in terms of personal learning were whenever teachers stepped back and gave me the freedom to do something more on my own terms, or whenever they weren’t involved until the final review. It gave me the ability to explore my interests without having to worry about finding the right answers. It took grit to teach myself things and to actually figure out what it was that I was going to be learning. It took countless sleepless nights, reading more than I’ve ever had to for class in high school or college, and many yells of “What am I doing?!”. They were more “real world” to me than and of the desk jobs I’ve had.
Furthermore, I think our society has this unhealthy obsession with making people go through undesirable experiences for personal growth. As if doing what you want is always a walk in the park. There’s always a bit of something that you don’t want to do with something that you want to do. But we’d rather have students be miserable for the sake of being falsely well-rounded and “developing character.”
Syracuse University researchers use nanotechnology to harness the power of fireflies
Three of my favorite things: Syracuse, fireflies, and science.
Discovered in my first alumni newsletter (yikes!). At least my first thought wasn’t “So this is another random project that is paid for by my tuition” for the first time in years. Because installing solar panels on the less fortunate’s homes really should have been a priority for the university.
When we say that someone has “learned” a subject, we typically mean that they have shown evidence of mastery not only of basic cognitive processes like factual recall and working mechanical exercises but also higher-level tasks like applying concepts to new problems and judging between two equivalent concepts. A student learning calculus, for instance, needs to demonstrate that s/he can do things like take derivatives of polynomials and use the Chain Rule. But if this is all they can demonstrate, then it’s stretching it to say that the student has “learned calculus”, because calculus is a lot more than just executing mechanical processes correctly and quickly…
Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world.
Learning at these levels requires more than watching videos (or lectures) and doing exercises. It takes hard work (by both the learner and the instructor), difficult assignments that get students to work at these higher levels, open channels of communication that do not just go one way, and above all a relationship between learner and instructor that engenders trust.
Maybe what’s right about the Khan Academy is that it can get all of the learning about a subject required for standardized tests out of the way when the student is not in the classroom so that they complete more difficult, higher level assignments with a trusted instructor in the classroom. I think that anyone who believes that Khan Academy is trying to replace this is severely misguided.
…the challenge wants both nonprofit and for-profit startup ideas from middle and high school students that address four key areas: helping middle schoolers successfully transition to high school and graduate; helping students develop skills for success in college; helping students ‘choose affordable colleges that best suit student needs, consistent with their education and career goals’; and increasing ‘the likelihood students complete their college degrees on time or early.’
Am I the only one who sees a problem with this challenge? If high schoolers haven’t been to college already, are they going to be the ones who help students develop skills for success in college? Last year, fifty-four percent of college freshman said that “their college classes were ‘more difficult than they expected in terms of what students needed to know and what was required to get good grades’.” Sure, entrepreneurship can unexpectedly or accidentally answer questions, but this totally seems like a realistic challenge. (Side note: that sarcasm font really needs to be invented soon.)
Nerdy observation from someone who works in edtech:
It is no longer okay to not know how to hook your computer up to the projector. Are you using a computer? Does it need to be hooked up to a projector? Then you need to learn how to do that.
I tried giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the laptop VGA connection is missing or hidden. Maybe he’s not wise enough to know he can unhook the VGA cable from that doc camera, or even the computer in the workstation to his left (and use that for his laptop instead). Maybe he forgot the dongle he needs to hook up his Mac. But if none of those things are true, then this type of nonsense is just not okay.
As someone who actually wants to work in edtech, it’s actually really sad to have to say these kinds of observations. It’s sad that being able to connect a laptop to a projector to show a PowerPoint/Keynote (or Prezi- but please, God, no Prezi) is considered instructional technology. It should be common sense, not the introduction to an entire field.
And if it’s a PowerPont/Keynote, he should know what’s he’s presenting on well enough to be able to lecture about it (or pitch) without having to use slides.
Taking a Break from Education
Despite my increasing commitments to learning and writing about education, I have found myself spending less and less time participating in education. At first I thought it was just because I was spending so much time learning to code, starting up my company, keeping up with classes, and writing about tech for Infospace, but then I realized this new schedule really isn’t keeping me from participating fully. The real problem is that education is estranging me, and there was entrepreneurship with open arms. It’s not to say that I’m jumping ship, or abandoning education, quite the opposite. Now I’m just taking the lessons that I’ve learned from entrepreneurship to change my outlook on education and vice versa. I think that there are a lot of things that they could learn from one another.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned? Attitude is everything.
To put it bluntly, education is depressing. The entire sector is filled with people who are tired, do thankless work, battle red tape and apathy, and incessantly bicker. There’s an economy of schadenfreude and an incessant cynicism for those who do well. Don’t believe me? Just look at Diane Ravitch.
There’s also (in tech terms) a disparity between the consumers and the customers of education. I’m not interested in appealing to the customers. They’re too invested in passing state tests and keeping their tenure and unions. In my time in Silicon Valley and working on my startup, I’ve learned that passion and an idea can take people far places. This concept has pushed me to keep learning new things and keep working, despite the difficulty. Sadly, that’s not the case with education right now, not on a system wide level. Right now, I don’t have the idea to help the consumers, especially on a grander scale.
I’m not abandoning education by any means. I can’t dedicate my life to something that doesn’t have a grander vision. Entrepreneurs lack the same kind of cohesion that education has. There’s a collective vision that happens in education because, at the end of the day, it is (or at least should be) about kids’ education and changing their lives for the better. With entrepreneurs, it can be about making money, changing norms, building value, becoming a better designer/developer/entrepreneur, just doing your own thing, or some combination of all of the above. Their vision can become a collective vision for their company, but what it is exactly that entrepreneurs are supposed to accomplish is designed to be a question mark. I’m creating an online dating site because I care about changing the way that people interact with one another for the better, and if I can help a few people fall in love that would be pretty cool, too. But it doesn’t quite compare to changing a broken system.
So when it comes to dealing with the status quo, dealing with red tape, and fighting off the cynics, I’m going to go in the direction that is encouraging, appreciates experimentation, and doesn’t called failed attempts failures. For now that means that I’ll be spending more time in tech and working on my non-edtech startup (youshoulddate.me). It’s giving me a chance to become non-jaded again, look at things from a new perspective, and learn a few lessons about change that can be applied to education. I’d rather be the continual newcomer with fresh input than a jaded pundit with the same input. So for the moment, I’ll be mostly removing myself from the education space. I need to not burn out on something that I care about.
I’ll still be posting on here from time to time whenever I read something of interest or have some new thoughts, but I won’t be as prolific a writer as before.