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EdTech Update





Google's Talk to Books - blessing or bane


I am truly excited about sharing this new approach to search!  Imagine if you had the power to ask authors across time and disciplines your most burning questions or for their best advice.  Now you can. Joyce Valenza, Google's new Talk to Books: Semantic search for book and idea discovery

I've been playing around with it [Talk to Books] for a few minutes this morning. While it was interesting on a tech level, I couldn't see a practical use for it at first, but then I got into it and I was reminded of my high school English Lit class. The sample questions provided by Google, and the answers found in the books, remind me of test questions from that class. This could make it a whole lot easier to crib your way through class without learning anything ... Nate Hoffelder, With "Talk to Books", Google Wants to Replace English Lit Professors.

These two blog posts came up in my Feedly list, one right after the other. And they summarize nicely both the positive and negative views and uses of any new technology.

Will Talk to Books be a marvelous resource for us to examine serious questions across time and space and make connections we might no otherwise be able to do?

Or will it be CliffNotes and TermPaperEasy on steroids, allowing students to finish assignments without really grappling with questions they are designed to ask?

My guess? It depends. As I have argued for many years. it depends on the nature of the assignment. For my article Plagiarism-Proofing Assignments Phi Delta Kappan, March 2004, I designed a rubric for evaluating the quality of a research assignment:

A Research Question Rubric

Level One:     My research is about a broad topic. I can complete the assignment by using a general reference source such as an encyclopedia. I have no personal questions about the topic.
Primary example: My research is about an animal.
Secondary example: My research is about the economy of a state.

Level Two:     My research answers a question that helps me narrow the focus of my search. This question may mean that I need to go to various sources to gather enough information to get a reliable answer. The conclusion of the research will ask me to give a supported answer to the question.
Primary example: What methods has my animal developed to help it survive?
Secondary example: What role has manufacturing played in an assigned state’s economic development?

Level Three:     My research answers a question of personal relevance. To answer this question I may need to consult not just secondary sources such as magazines, newspapers, books or the Internet, but use primary sources of information such as original surveys, interviews, or source documents.
Primary example: What animal would be best for my family to adopt as a pet?
Secondary example: How can one best prepare for a career in manufacturing in my area?
Level Four:     My research answers a personal question about the topic, and contains information that may be of use to decision-makers as they make policy or distribute funds. The result of my research is a well supported conclusion that contains a call for action on the part of an organization or government body. There will be a plan to distribute this information.
Primary example: How can our school help stop the growth in unwanted and abandoned animals in our community?
Secondary example: How might high schools change their curricula to meet the needs of students wanting a career in manufacturing in my state?

So yes, Joyce, your excitement is right on. And yes, Nate, so is your concern. Depending on how well the assignment is designed.

Remember the Blue Skunk's First Rule of Homework:





BFTP: Educating sales callers

ernestine.jpegI sincerely dislike sales calls. I am a very tough sell. I am tight with the district's money. I am a born skeptic. And I am unfailingly polite. Being nice to someone who annoys me causes cognitive dissonance which annoys me even further. 

Sales callers (I imagine you looking like Ernestine - yes, even you guys), here are a few tips for selling to hard cases like me:

1. Talk to the right person. Believe me immediately when I say that I do not select textbooks, library books, or videos. Yes, my office orders them, but I do not select them. I make no decisions about things like photocopiers, fire walls, servers, or online databases - I only act on the recommendations of those people in the district who have the appropriate expertise and whom I trust.  Sell to the right person.

2. Tell me why I should give you my time within the first 30 seconds. Our telephones, our network, our website, our Internet filter, and our e-mail program all are working just fine, thank you. If something was not working or I had a pressing need, I would be calling you. You've got 30 seconds to tell me how you are going to save me time, save me money, or improve learning opportunities for my students. Talk fast. Oh, and give your dumb company a name that actually means something. When you say you are calling from Matrix Optimization Apogees, you could be selling diet cola or hair restorer as far as I can tell. 

3. Don't ask me how I am doing. I will tell you how I am doing. I will tell you how every tech director and every tech department employee in the entire world is doing:

I am busy. 

Unless you really want to know about my aching knees, my district's tight budget, and a troublesome co-worker, come up with a better opener.  

4. Do a little basic research and keep notes. Don't try selling me telephone service when your company doesn't serve my area. Don't offer me Internet connectivity when I am in the third year of a five year contract. Don't even bother mentioning that Windows security system since our district is 90% Mac - just like it was the last time you called three months ago.

5. "Did you get the information I sent?" is a senseless question. I get even more junk mail* than I get junk phone calls. There is a convenient recycling container right by the mailboxes in our offices. Sweet.

6. Be ready to provide local references. I guarantee that my first question to you will be: "Can you give me the names of three schools in my area that use your product or service and the name of a contact in each?"  If you can't, I will have to consider myself a beta test site for your product and we should talk about how much you are willing to pay my district to do this work for you.

7. Understand the relationship public schools have with local vendors. It's the people in my town and in my state that pay the taxes that support my schools. Anytime I can buy from that taxpayer (and parent) across the street, I will - even it means paying a small price premium for the privilege. Sorry, that is just the way we do business. Oh, an added benefit of buying locally is that if you need to find a throat to choke, it ain't out in California.

8. Know that it is sort of fun to be passive-aggressive with you people. I am always nice, but that doesn't prevent me from:

  • putting you on hold and going to get coffee
  • transferring you to somebody I know isn't in the office
  • asking you to call back at a more convenient time (when I am out of the office)

Here's my best suggestion cold callers - find a job with honor, respect, and a future. Say, convenience store stick-up artist, Internet spammer, or American Idol contestant. Something you can be proud of at your kids' career day.

Don't call us; we'll call you.


* A little bonus trivia for marketers from The Power of Intuition: And Why It’s the Biggest Myth in Business Today  By Kevin J. Clancy and Peter C. Krieg (ChangeThis brief, February 2008)

One of the best kept secrets in American business today is that the average ROI of most marketing programs is zero or negative. Study after study, using different methodologies, approaches, and data, all come to this disappointing conclusion: 

  • Nielsen reports a 95% new product failure rate.
  • The University of Michigan discovered that the average cross-industry customer satisfaction score has fallen below 75%.
  • The Marketing Science Institute determined that a 100% increase in advertising expenditures yields just a 1% increase in sales.
  • ROI measurement firm Marketing Management Analytics found that major media advertising for consumer packaged goods brands returns 54 cents on the dollar and campaigns for non-consumer packaged goods brands, 87 cents on the dollar—two losing propositions.
  • A Deutsche Bank study of packaged goods brands found that just 18% of television ad campaigns generated a positive ROI in the short-term; less than half (45%) saw any ROI payoff over the long run.
  • Copernicus observed that brand equity is in decline in 48 of 51 categories where buyers perceive the leading brands as more similar than different, and make purchase decisions based on price rather than product and service attributes. 

With this kind of track record, is it any wonder that only two out of ten U.S. companies grow organically—through their marketing efforts and introduction of new products—by more than 2 or 3 percent per year?

Original post March 6, 2008.


Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

A very cool technology initiative in our district was recently profiled by a local television station.  The "virtual reality sandbox" that uses an Xbox camera and a projector was described by one of its high school inventors as:

Students can learn about geography or topography, and create mountains to see different levels of elevation ... You can make it rain and create lakes and rivers, and then change the landscape to see what happens to that water when you create a valley right next to it.

Way cool on many. many levels. This is great example of the kinds of things we want all our students to be doing and experiencing - combining technology skills with innovation and creativity.

So, you may be thinking, it must be pretty darned exciting to be the technology director in such a technologically progressive school district. It can be, for sure.

But not this week.

This week was spent analyzing and building a sustainability plan for our network infrastructure. Tweaking a new printing/copier model for the district. Reviewing a statement of work for upgrading our VOIP telephone services. Meeting to discuss the ins and outs of changing the hosting organization of our student information system. Stategizing the collection and redistribution of student Chromebooks. Worrying about the funding of a IWB replacement plan. You get the drift.

When the terms "core switch" or "storage area network" or "multifunction device" are discussed, I have to admit that my eyes tend to glaze over. I don't remember going into education or library school or administration thinking I would be trying to figure out if we can move some applications from our FastClass section of the SAN to the Near Line section or researching the life expectancy of a wireless network controller.

Yet, I understand the importance of "the man behind the curtain" if technological magic like the virtual sandbox is to happen. I've known it for a long time. In 2003, I wrote an article for MultiMedia Schools called "Maslow and Motherboards: Taking a Hierarchical View of Technogy Planning." And while the magazine is now defunct, the concepts behind the article remain relevant.

What the model attempts to show is that without foundational pieces in place, the higher level work cannot happen. 

For all of us men and women "behind the curtain" of education, working in curriculum or assessment or HR or accounting or maintenance or ____________, an understanding of why our work is important in supporting more visible and exciting education work is critical. We need to know it in order to renew our own sense of mission and to be able argue effectively for the budget and staffing to remain a sturdy support structure.

There is no great and powerful Oz without the unsung worker behind the curtain.

Now, let's see, what will do with the seniors' Chromebooks until we can reissue them to next fall's freshmen?