Category Archives: Writings

On Education and School Reform

There’s been some news recently in school reform circles centered around the opening of the Microsoft “School of the Future” in Philadelphia this fall. One such story is this one at the excellent blog and discussion site of John C. Dvorak. There, in the comments, you can already see the debate among the public-at-large about the effectiveness of school reform measures. This is a common and distrubing trend in talks about school reform. The uneducated public has little knowledge about what makes schools work and what doesn’t. What they have is “feelings” and articles from newspapers and magazines that are often incorrect and unreliable. Anyway, I wrote the following response in an attempt to encourage people to research and understand the problem before complaining and making foolish statements. If you’re interested in this sort of thing a must-read is “The Academic Achievement Challenge” by renowned educator Jeanne S. Chall. I don’t agree with a lot of her conclusions in the book, but it’s a great place to start the discussion.

As someone in the middle of an Education PhD program I have a few things to say. I don’t want to get into a long debate about this because I simply don’t have the time. First, I have read some about these Microsoft schools but I’m no expert. That said, the general public (and the politicians that cater to their wants) knows very little about education. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of research about how students learn best and the best methods for teaching. The problem with implementation is at least twofold.

First, things like interdisciplinary learning work well, very well in fact. Here the implementation problem is generally cost. To do interdisciplinary learning well teachers of different subjects need to meet on a daily basis for a considerable amount of time and have additional planning time to boot. In effect you reduce the amount teachers can actually spend in front of a class by a quarter, meaning you have to hire more teachers and thus spend more. This is not something that makes the public or politicians happy. If you stary cutting corners to try and do it anyway you end up with less than satisfactory results and no one is happy. I always say that education would be the most expensive thing for the government to provide if it was done right. If people knew how much it really cost to educate someone there would probably be calls for the end of public education and a serious debate about whether education is worth it, it costs that much.

Secondly, public perceptions of education are a barrier to improving it. There is not general public (or political) support to take research into the classroom and apply novel teaching methods. In addition to costing more things like interdisciplinary learning, more teamwork and not having to memorize useless facts and instead learning how to research and solve problems are not what the majority of people want taught in schools. Parents generally are unhappy to learn their child no longer needs to memorize massive amounts of information such as dates and names which can be easily looked up. Even in the comments here you’ll find that people will debate what students should memorize vs. not. The effect is that novel teaching methods are usually undermined and not put fully into place making them less effective. The mentality is often that “I learned all this stuff in school, why aren’t my children” without the realization that there has been a paradigm shift in the world and what was appropriate in the past may no longer be appropriate.

My personal opinion is that people are far too open about criticizing education when they have little knowledge about how the education works. If you’re serious about wanting to make a change in education (or anything else for that matter) and want to criticize it you should spend a copious amount of time studying the research and not the junk you see in the newspapers and magazines, I mean real research studies published in refereed journals. If you start wanting to make changes before you understand why things are the way they are you end up wasting a lot of energy and can potentially cause a lot of students to be ill-prepared for their futures.

The Facebook Privacy Problem

Regular readers may remember the this short article I wrote on how the information on the internet is going to be a problem for people in the future. Recently the online social networking site made some changes and people could easily see just how easily this information can be disseminated on the Internet. The change was followed by shock and revolt by Facebook users but the changes remain in place as of today. I wrote the following opinion for an online discussion list and thought blog readers may enjoy it as well.

As a Facebook user as well as a graduate student and computer professional the current controversy over the changes made by Facebook are of particular interest to me. My own experience and discussions with other members of the Internet generation leads me to believe that these users still do not see the “privacy light at the end of the tunnel“. Most users remain unaware of the risks associated with putting any kind of personal information on the internet and grossly misunderstand the ability of individuals and organizations to aggregate such data into profiles of users for anything from relatively benign marketing purposes to something more sinister such as identity theft.

The thing that’s really important to remember here is that the changes made to Facebook did not and have not made any information that was previously private available to the public. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the Facebook team as can be read on their blog. In other words the only difference is that you are now presented with a list of all the recent changes your “friends” have made. Of course this information was available to you before, but you had to seek it out on each users’ page. Personally I find the feature to be quite a useful one and think it has been a long time in coming. In my opinion the usefulness of social networks such as this is to allow you to stay current with the lives and events of a great number of acquaintances quickly.

Where the problem comes in is that people have been hiding behind “security through obscurity” for some time. Most users don’t think twice about what information is available (to their friends) on their user page. Suddenly the information in thrust into the light and they are alarmed. Of course their have been newspaper stories around the country warning students that employers can and do look up prospective employees on the internee before hiring to see what kinds of people they are, but in my experience most students feel so removed from the employment process they aren’t concerned about this. Secondly, their is an incorrect perception that Facebook is a closed network. Because of this students feel free to post things they normally wouldn’t want “public”. Still others feel that they will be able to change or “clean” their pages before looking for a job. The problem with this is that I have no doubt this information is being crawled and archived by many people and could still be used against you in the future. Obviously alumni now employed in various field still have Facebook accounts and are typically quite accommodating when employers ask them to look up a prospective hire on Facebook. Still other users may be running bots through the network and collecting as much information as possible about as many people as possible for any number of reasons.

As mentioned by Alessandro in a recent message to the list there do exist a number of granular privacy controls which can be exercised within the Facebook environment. Few students take advantage of these tools as they fail to see the ramifications of having so much information public. My real concern is that this will soon blow over and people will go back to ignoring the implications of sharing so much data with the public. Even after several years of incidents being reported in the media there remains a problem with individuals and businesses understanding that once something is out on the Internet the cat is out of the bag. There’s no going back. By its very nature the Internet is a public place and is going to be crawled, indexed, cached and stored. It amazes me that people (especially those who have grown up with computers and the Internet) still fail to grasp this concept.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the implications of people sharing data on the Internet and certainly not the last. For more thoughts on how this might effect the ability of people to hold various jobs in the future or perhaps change our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior I encourage you to read this short article I wrote on the topic back in March.

Obviously I don’t expect that people will remove all personal data from the Internet, nor do I think they should. Much of the usefulness of computers and the Internet springs from the ability to search vast databases of information. As a Facebook user and someone who has had a personal website for much longer than that I provide a lot of personal information about myself. The key here is for people to understand the ramifications of doing so and, most importantly, to think about what they say and do in public before they do it.

Your Digital Life

I’ve often wondered who will be able to run for political office in forty or fifty years. People, especially youg people, seem to be so naive about posting things online. For years online forums and messageboards have been a place where people vented. Now sites like Myspace, Facebook and others are creating such a low barrier to entry that almost every middle and high school child in the United States has some kind of web presence. What many fail to understand is that once something is posted or “said” on the internet it never goes away…ever. The internet is also quite easy to search if you know what you’re doing. This dangerous combination means that everything you write to a messageboard can be found at some point in the future and “can and will be used against you”. Any kind of off-color comment or joke you ever made online, even if your intention wasn’t to hurt anyone, is public knowledge.

Employers already know about this. BusinessWeek recently ran an article called “You are what you post” that talked about some of the implications for job seeking but I think the arena where this will really get the consultants salivating is politics. There are so few people who are able to hold their tounge and never offend anyone. In the past politicians have relied primarily on obscuring and making it difficult to find embarassing things about their past. When today’s teens start running for political office these things will only be an internet search away. Remember that posting to that email discussion list about STDs you made when you were 15? How about that time someone on a messageboard got you mad and you called them a racial slur? You may have forgotten these incidents but the internet has not and neither will your enemies.

I wonder if the politicians of the future will need to be groomed from birth to have no defects and think very, very carefully before ever speaking. On the other hand our society may end up becoming more accepting of faults which would not be an all bad outcome. This remains to be seen but in the meantime those of us who have always tried to think about how what we say today could come back (for better or worse) in the future are going to be much better off than the indiscriminate masses.

Patently Absurd

I have recently read an excerpt from an interesting letter by Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson regarding the concept of patents.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

The ideas of Jefferson apply to more than the modern definition of patents. Indeed, it could be argued that Jefferson is against the entirity of so-called “intellectual property”. He does point out that an individual may keep an idea to themself, something we might now refer to as a “trade secret”. In any event, if you’re interested in intellectual property and the problems surrounding it the full excerpt is worth a read and included below.

You might also be interested this piece at the “Right To Create” blog which attempts to explain how our broken patent system is actually costing us economically rather that stimulating invention. This is another interesting read.
Read more »

Photography is Right

Now more than ever photographers are under fire from government officials to stop taking pictures of “sensitive infrastructure”. Never mind that there is no evidence showing that photography has played an important role
in any terrorist attack in the last forty years. Perhaps more importantly unrestricted photography by private citizens has played a critical role in the fight for civil rights and protecting the freedoms we hold so dear. Much of the harassment faced by photographers is due to a lack of understanding by both the general public and police forces about what is and is not permitted in the United States. In general, if you’re on public property or have permission from the land owner you can photograph anything you want from that location. This has not changed by the implementation of the PATRIOT Act or any other national legislation to date which is a common mistake made by government officials. For a more complete understanding of the laws involved I suggest taking a look at Attorney Bert P. Krages The Photographer’s Right”. For a truly in depth look at the laws and concerns for photographers take a look at Bert’s book “Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images“.

Unfortunately, many police officers (and even federal agents) fail to understand these rights. One grievous example of this is the story of Ian Spiers, a Washington state resident and photography student, who was harassed by police on two occasions for taking photographs of a local lock and dam as part of a photography assignment. He details his experience on his web site Brown Equals Terrorist. Lest you think this is an isolated case I suggest you listen to the National Public Radio Morning Edition story where they interview several East coast photographers who have also been harassed. The rights of photographers are being trampled from coast to coast and over zealous government officials who seem to have no understanding of the law and little regard for individual rights are making a mockery of the constitution. If you’re interested in this sort of thing one resource where you can stay up to date on the issue is the news site which tracks news stories related to legal issues surrounding photography.

When Good Engough Just Isn’t

Mark Gibbs a regular columnist in the trade paper NetworkWorld recently wrote an article lamenting the current lack of quality in consumer electronics. I encourage you to read his article “Digital Lifestyle, Part II“. Not only do I agree with his analysis of this disturbing trend in consumer electronics but I would suggest that it could be expanded to other parts of our life. Americans have become comfortable with mediocrity. I like to call this phenomena the Wal-Mart syndrome. In a continuous effort to get more for less, which any physicist will tell you breaks the first law of thermodynamics, we have put up with increasingly shoddy products. Think for a moment about the products of your youth. Food usually came in glass, paper or metal packaging and I bet that eight track player you bought as a teenager will still work if you pull it out of storage, I know mine does. Now think about the CD player you bought five years ago, does it still work? Assuming it wasn’t supplanted by superior technology chances are it stopped working. How about your TV? Do we even attempt to have these “electronic appliances” serviced anymore? No, the answer is that we simply go any buy a new one.

I first verbally expressed these concerns after coming back from a shopping trip with my parents last spring where they were looking at digital camcorders. My mother was wondering why the prices for the models I was encouraging them to look from the camera store are were so much higher than those at a big box retailer. At that point I realized that what has driven me to “professional” grade electronics is the steep drop off in the past 18 years. Most mass market consumer electronics are just not built and tested in the way they once were. While the decrease in price has made these electronics available to people who would otherwise not have access to them it’s still hard for me to say
that’s a fair trade for the consumer.

The reason I call this the Wal-Mart syndrome is that I believe that discount retailers, and especially Wal-Mart, and largely responsible for this decrease in quality. We have come to expect products to be far less inexpensive than they have been in the past and thanks to pressure from retailers manufacturers have done just that. Certainly, manufacturers have streamlined their practices in an effort to decrease cost but you can only take that so far. At some point the manufacturers started making trade offs in quality to meet retail pricing demands. I feel this is a shortsighted move and flies directly in the face of the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra we all heard in the 1980s. Still more dangerous is that this acceptances of mediocrity is creeping into other facets of our lives such as our educational system. As Gibbs points out in his article there is an entire generation that believes mediocrity is acceptable. What will happen when these youngsters become voters, managers and CEOs? Think about all the times when “good enough” just isn’t.

An Open Letter to ABC Affiliates

I recently read about a letter written by the ABC affiliate association president to the head of ABC. It seems that the affiliates are upset about the recently announced licensing of ABC’s ‘Lost‘ television program for distribution via the Apple video store. I must say that I am both disappointed and underwhelmed by this predictable letter from threatened affiliates.

For years networks have relied on so called “appointment viewing” of their shows but this model does not seem to interest the iPod wearing, Xbox playing, Tivoing and all too busy generation of today. The time where the family would gather around the radio each week to listen to the latest installment of Fibber McGee, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny and Richard Diamond. Today our lives and the lives of our children are filled with work, school, sports, music lessons, debate team, play practice, scouts, yearbook, medical visits, twenty-four hour grocery shopping and all the other things every American family wants to partake in. We no longer clear our schedules to watch a TV show. Empowered by timeshifting technologies such as the programmable videocassette recorder and the digital personal video recorder many of us now watch our favorite shows on our own terms. Meanwhile television stations and networks have been neglecting the radical shift in viewing habits hoping they would just go away. I applaud ABC for recognizing this is not the case. Rather than be preempted by the rising star of the audio and video podcasts such as This Week in Tech, DigitalLife TV, Systm and others ABC has taken the lead by taking the content to the consumer in the format they want.

This is smart on the part of ABC for a couple of reasons. First, they have jumped ahead of the other major networks by cutting this deal early on. Secondly, they have started a trend of paying for mobile video content. Think about it, if consumers can get used to paying for mobile TV content this early in the game ABC will have paved the way. It’s much easier to do this now than after consumers become accustomed to free content such as the podcasts mentioned above. If subscription supported mobile video content becomes the norm ABC will have gone a long way towards making sure it stays a relevant player in the video production and distribution game for some time to come.

Of course, all this progress comes at the expense of the affiliates and they know this. You’re affiliate probably won’t be going off the air today or tomorrow but with this deal they see the writing on the wall, traditional TV distribution will eventually die. Of course they would like to prolong that as much as possible. What I would have liked to see instead is a commitment to local programming by the affiliates. People are still going to want their local news, sports and weather. What if the affiliates decided to embrace this personal media empowerment and worked a deal to offer mobile audio, video and on demand web versions of their local newscasts? Some of the affiliates have played with web video but it’s clear the main business is still the broadcast news. By adopting a system like the video podcasts mentioned above local stations could offer news updated throughout the day that viewers could download to their media devices and watch or listen to on the train in to work, over lunch or on the trip home.

The world of broadcast media is changing but that doesn’t mean the affiliates need to be left out in the cold. Instead they should be banding together and working out a plan for offering RSS based local audio and video content to the consumer. Make it inexpensive or free and advertising or sponser supported. Whining will get them nowhere, if they don’t change with the times they will be left behind. On demand internet media has arrived for geeks and before long everyone will be on board, either that or they’ll be “Lost” themselves.