Sunday, June 16, 2019

Running in my Father's Footsteps

Note: This obviously has nothing to do with EdTech but I recently found this essay that I wrote in July 2008 and it still feels timely for me so I thought I'd offer it up as a Father's Day (and Independence Day) offering for you all.

Young man smiling, sitting on a fence in front of a horse
My Dad at Will Rogers State Park, approximately 1964
Running in my Father's Footsteps

Unlike me, my dad was a pretty good athlete. When he was young, his favorite sport was basketball. He was the point guard in a competitive amateur league that even played in a tournament in the old Sports Arena. He loved playing softball too, and I spent many Saturdays in the summer tagging along, watching the Times reporters team play against other offices like the District Attorney, or split into Kiddies vs. Codgers.

My dad always encouraged my interest in sports, and if he ever felt disappointed that I was completely lacking in talent, speed, and coordination, he never let it show around me. We spent endless hours tossing the baseball, or the frisbee, or shooting baskets. He was a strong swimmer too, and I loved being in the ocean with him. I wanted badly to be good at baseball; two years in Little League taught me that except for throwing, catching, running, and hitting, I could have been a decent ballplayer.

Like most men devoted to his work and his family, he found it harder and harder to get out and play sports, and he started to get a little paunchy and out-of-shape. I guess it was sometime in his late thirties that he started running, or as we called it then, jogging. He would put on his shorts and head down the to high school track and run a mile, or two, or three. It seemed to be just enough exercise to help him feel like he was keeping in the game. A few times, I tried to run with him but it really had no appeal at all for me. I associated running with P.E. class, and P.E. class with humiliation. But I always admired his consistent effort.

In 1978, a local group started a 10K race in his town, Pacific Palisades. By then I was off starting my own life on the opposite coast, so I didn't pay much attention, but at some point my dad decided to start running the Will Rogers 10K. I guess he ran it about 10 times over the years, and while I have no idea what kind of times he ran I don't think that mattered to him. He was proud that he was taking care of his health and proud to be out there putting in his effort in the race.

The Will Rogers race gets its name from Will Rogers State Park. The first half of the race starts downhill and then climbs, but overall it's fairly flat. The second half, however, turns down the hill on Sunset Boulevard from Chautauqua, until it reaches a wide sweeping curve at the bottom of a hill. Then it climbs a series of steep switchbacks to the park. After passing through the park the course runs down a steep hill and then back up Sunset to reach the Palisades. It's not an easy 10K.

Will Rogers Park was the home of the famous writer and humorist who built a beautiful ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains so he could have a little piece of Oklahoma but still get to Hollywood for his career. When I was very young, my parents started taking me to the park. We'd visit the polo ponies, hike up the hills, and occasionally tour the rambling ranch home of Will Rogers. I was always fascinated by Will Rogers - he seemed so clever and witty, and I loved his home. There was something about his humor and his good nature that I always associated with my father, and when I found out that Rogers had died in an airplane crash the day before my father was born, the connection became even stronger. Will Rogers most famous quote, "I never met a man I didn't like", seemed to me almost as if it was something my father had said.

Despite my father's good nature and his strength and his exercise, cancer proved to be even stronger and he died more than 10 years ago, a young man by any standard. This was a sad recapitulation of his father's even earlier death from lung cancer. It's still hard for me to believe he's not around, and I miss him all the time.

I started running about two years ago. It didn't really have anything to do with my father at the time. I was getting close to 50 and for some reason decided that I ought to complete a marathon. My original idea was just to walk it. As I got stronger in my training, I decided that I'd get there faster if I ran at least part of the time, so that's what I do now - walk some, run some. I'm very slow, but to my great surprise, I love it. After years of frustration and humiliation related to sports, I've found something I really like to do, and the fact that I'm slow doesn't bother me, at least most of the time. I completed that marathon (another story) and since then have run a half-marathon, a 21-mile race, and maybe a dozen 5K and 10K races.

Last week I ran the Will Rogers 10K for the first time, but the earlier part of the week was marked by another event I had promised myself I would complete around my fiftieth birthday - a colonoscopy. I was about a year late, but I got it done, and they even removed a polyp. In theory, a polyp left in is a potential cancer, so removing it might have saved my life - who knows? Just before I went in for the "procedure", the doctor asked if I had any questions; I told him no, but that I wanted him to know that colon cancer killed my father, so I was counting on him to take his time and look around carefully. He wrote this information on the chart with the solemnity it deserved.

Three days later I was out on the course with my oldest good friend Robert. His father hung in longer but died in the last year. We had both run the 5K version of the Will Rogers race, but we were tackling the 10K for the first time. Robert told me he'd run with me, but frankly I'm a lot slower than he is and I didn't want to hold him back. I told him I'd be glad to see him at the finish line.

I hadn't trained for the race very well and by the time I made the turn down Sunset away from the 5K course I was getting pretty tired. It was a hot day too. But it was exhilarating running down the middle of Sunset Boulevard, a beautiful day, a beautiful road and no cars. I began to think of my dad and all the times he had run this route before me. This was the road he'd run, he'd seen the same eucalyptus trees and guard rails and street signs. He was here before me, and now it's my turn.

I'm not one of those people who imagines the dead looking down upon the living and watching them. My cosmology doesn't really permit that kind of sentiment -- my dad was here, and now he's gone, and that's how it is to me. But as I was running down Sunset, and especially as I turned up the narrow driveway that marks the entrance to the park, I had the feeling that my father knew what I was doing and he was proud of me. It may not have made me run any faster, but it did buoy my spirits and I had one of the most enjoyable runs I've ever had.

It was a long way back up Sunset and I was glad to see the end of the race, but I did manage to run through the finish with my arms up and a smile on my face. So what if I was the 932nd runner out of 986? Robert and Lucy and her sisters were there to cheer me on, and like my dad, they encourage me no matter how slow I am. I ran my race, and I'm proud of it. Despite adversity and pain and doubt, my dad ran through the finish line every time, including at the end of his life, and that's one of the lessons I learned from him. Nobody but me knows what it feels like to put out my best effort, nobody will necessarily reward me for it or think much of it, but I can do it Dad, I can do it. I know what my best is and I won't be satisfied with less. He knows that, and he's proud of me.

Michael Berman
July 6, 2008

Postscript: Yes, I still run when I can. Right now walking is what my body wants to do but I will run again as soon as I'm ready.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Humanized Learning: Utopia versus Dystopia

As part of the recent ShapingEDU gathering I was invited to develop a brief utopian/dystopian vision for education in the year 2039. I chose to imagine what Humanized Learning could become, if we stay true to human values (utopia) or use it as a commercial buzzword (dystopia). I'm happy to share these scenarios here & interested in your response.

A video screen during a video conference showing a number of students on webcams reacting to news from their instructor
Students reacting to news from their instructor (courtesy @hlcdance)
Utopian: Institutional and political leaders understand and support the essential role of meaningful human interaction in the learning process. Artificial intelligence and other algorithmic strategies are used thoughtfully and carefully scrutinized for bias, with constant oversight and shaping by human hands. Students never feel that they are learning from machines because there are thoughtful, sympathetic, well-trained experts (teachers!) with whom they maintain constant communication and connection. In addition, student to student interaction and connection is incorporated into the learning journey. An ethic of humanized learning ensures that every student has the opportunity to achieve their potential, especially those who start with the greatest disadvantages. As institutions, teachers, and students get progressively more adept with learning in the online space, a greater proportion of learning is online, at a distance, technology mediated, but always with the right balance of computer and human interaction and caring teachers present throughout the journey. Over time, the student becomes a learner and the learner becomes a teacher, with each human maintaining agency in their educational journey of a lifetime.

Young woman in institutional clothing with eyes closed, in a chair with futuristic machinery on both sides of her head
"Machine learning" (from the Netflix mini-series Maniac)
Dystopian: Humanized learning continues to be a buzz-word, but is anything but human. The default learning interaction for students is based on a shallow conception of artificial intelligence, typically touted as "personalized" but reinforcing social, cultural, and economic boundaries. The shrinking class of those who can afford it opt-out of the teaching machine for themselves and their children, choosing to use instead highly-trained, human teachers and mentors. Everyone else is shunted to a dull machine-delivered curriculum focused mostly on the short-term needs of employers and the profit motives of the providers. Human interaction, when available, is typically provided by poorly-paid "customer service representatives" who are trained primarily in how to get students to sign up and continue to pay for instruction, regardless of quality. Students who fail to thrive in this system are blamed for their failure, attributed to a lack of intelligence, grit, or character.

Thanks to Samantha Becker (@sambeckertweets) and Lev Gonick (@levgonick) and everyone who helped organize and participated for a very interesting conversation at ShapingEDU. Also big thanks to Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) and Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) whose writing and presentations have deeply influenced my thinking on this issue. And special thanks to the shameless & fearless Heather Castillo (@hlcdance) and her students for giving us a glimpse of what humanized learning utopia can look like.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

How Academic Pricing Works: A Fantasy Dialog

I recently engaged in a Twitter conversation with respected colleagues about institutions that charge an extra fee for online courses. They were arguing that this fee was arbitrary and unfair and I agree totally. However, some of their comments suggested that they don't have the experience that I do with the (often arbitrary) fees that get charged. I immediately imagined how the conversation might have gone, Let me emphasize - this is imaginary, but based on my experience is a completely plausible scenario.

Date: 2010
Place: Provost's Office, Major State Unversity
Present: Dean, Provost

Dean: I think it's time we expanded our distance-ed courses. The students really want the option.
Provost: That's great! How much extra revenue can we pull in? We could really use it after the state cuts.
Dean: Well... it's not really going to bring in anything other than the tuition. And we have some expenses - we really need to hire an instructional designer, and we're going to need to license a better LMS. I was hoping you could find a way to provide some extra resources. I figure we need $250,000
Provost: That's a nice idea, but I got nothing. You need to figure out how to fund it. What if you charged a fee for the online courses?
Dean: That doesn't seem right - I mean, we charge the same for all our in-person courses no matter what they cost. These students aren't even going to take up classroom space.
Provost: Yeah, I hear you, but we need the money. How many students do you think you'll have online?
Dean: We'll easily have 2,500 in a year.
Provost: So, we can charge them $100 each and that should do it. I'll talk to the CFO And if this works out we can try to figure out another way to fund it in a year or two when the budget recovers.

Date: 2014
Place: Provost's Office
Present: Dean, New Provost (2013)

Dean: I wanted to talk about the fee for online courses.
Provost: Oh, OK. What about it? Do you want to raise it?
Dean: Well, we did it to start up our program, but the old Provost agreed it wasn't really fair and it was a stopgap. We should drop it.
Provost: How much does it bring in?
Dean: It's actually up to about $750,000 a year
Provost: Well, if you drop it, how are you going to make up the $750,000?
Dean: Don't you think we could get a baseline increase to cover it?
Provost: Not really. You want to hire new faculty don't you? And then there's the cost of the settlement for that tenure dispute, that's going to be at least $250,000. Revenue is revenue. If we can that, YOU have to make it up. I don't have that kind of money sitting around, despite what the Senate Budget Committee says.
Dean: Well, OK, they never complain about it so I guess it's not that big a deal.

Date: 2018
Place: Provost's Office
Present: New Dean (2015), New Provost (2017)
Provost: I want to talk to you about the online course fee
Dean: Yeah, I can't find anyone who even remembers why we have it
Provost: Well it's a good thing we do. The President has asked me to come up with a million we can give back to go into Advancement to support the Capital Campaign. I figure we can use $500,000 of that fee revenue. And I'm going to need $250,000 to support the consultant for our assessment project.
Dean: So I can keep $250,000? We really need that to pay the instructional designer. We could use another one but I'll hold that position open.
Provost: Thanks for helping out. And let's think about going to $150, it's not really that much and it's been $100 for a long time.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lessons from Protesting

photo CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

As I watch the activity on campuses around the US on #NationalWalkoutDay, I'm vividly reminded of my own experience as a student growing up in the last great era of student protest.

In 1968 I was in sixth grade at Mar Vista Elementary in Los Angeles. 1968 was a remarkable, violent, turbulent, divided year, not just in the US but notably in Mexico and much of Europe. I'm the oldest in my family, but I had friends with brothers and sisters at UCLA, Venice High, and other centers of protest - as well as friends with siblings, cousins, and neighbors in the middle of the violence that was the US intervention in Vietnam.

At some point, a group of us at Mar Vista decided we needed to protest. I honestly can't remember what the issue was, but we decided we would occupy the flagpole in front of the school and prevent the flag from being pulled down at the end of the day. As class ended for the day, we assembled in a ring around the flag pole, sat down, and waited.

As I recall, at some point the campus custodian came to furl the flag and found a small group of 10 and 11 year old kids surrounding it and informing him (politely) that they were protesting and that the flag could not be taken down. He probably scratched his head a couple of times and headed to principal's office to get advice and counsel.

Next, our principal Lorna Round came out to talk to us. She asked us calmly what we were doing and we explained the issue and our actions. She listened patiently and respectfully to her students, who were probably confused both about the meaning and means we had chosen to protest. She was not patronizing, but did inform us that the custodian couldn't go home until the flag was down, so she was hopeful that we could wrap up the protest before too long.

So we sat and maybe sang a song or chanted something, then got up and headed home.

You could say that this was just an act of entitled children (which we mostly were) playing at protest, and you'd be right. But it also taught us that if we spoke up, there were people who would listen. I was also taught by Mrs. Round that respect is the cornerstone of civil society, and that children have ideas and rights, and deserve to be heard. I remember this action more vividly than any civics lessons or lecture on the First Amendment.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Undead Factoid: Who Decided 65% of the Jobs of the Near Future Don't Exist Today?

An article published this week on leads with the following breathless description of the future of work:
We live in a world of accelerating change. New industries are constantly being born and old ones are becoming obsolete. A report by the World Economic Forum reveals that almost 65 percent of the jobs elementary school students will be doing in the future do not even exist yet. Both the workforce and our knowledge base are rapidly evolving.
Amid the questionable - do we really live in a world of accelerating change? - and the obvious - things are evolving - we find the very specific claim: 65 percent of the jobs our elementary school students will do don't exist today. Supposedly this startling fact has now been revealed by the World Economic Forum, and thus we should do... something. As if we thought everything was great about education, but now that we have this 65 percent figure, it's a call to action and we need to start changing education right now! Think of the children and their futures!

What follows in the article is a set of mostly non-controversial recommendations - like, teach students to think critically, and communicate well, which sound like excellent suggestions. But I (and others) bristled at the 65% - how could you reveal such a thing? I mean, you could predict it, but why 65% and not 55% or 72%? It just feels arbitrary and made-up. And I knew I'd seen this number before, so I decided to do a bit of digging. 

First of all, the World Economic Forum didn't "reveal" it - they refer to it as a "popular estimate" and attribute it as follows: 
McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, "Shift Happens",
This is a YouTube video that you've probably seen that's loaded with facts and figures of various levels of reliability, designed to convince you that the world you know is changing rapidly, to generate gasps and chuckles from audience, and perhaps, to lead to some good conversation. I admit, I enjoyed it the first 20 times I saw it and even showed it a couple of times. I did have trouble with the statement that "We Live in Exponential Times" - what the heck does that even mean? But it does have a gee-whiz quality that's entertaining if not particularly enlightening.

Anyway, this version from 2006 has more than 5 million hits on YouTube, and there have been subsequent versions and it even seems to have launched a cottage industry for the creators - but I couldn't find any reference to the 65% statistic, neither in the presentation nor on the website. The website referenced by the World Economic Forum report has links to sources but most of them are broken (that exponential change at it again, I guess.) I suppose it may have appeared in one of versions, but I couldn't find it - so the trail seemed to end at "possibly invented for a YouTube video". 

But - Google to the rescue! - I found this article from the Atlantic in 2011, an interview with Cathy Davidson about her then-new book Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.  The interviewer starts with:
One of the foundational facts of your book comes early on. "By one estimate," you write, "65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven't even been invented yet." 
The Atlantic article doesn't mention a source, but googling the title & author brought me to a blog post by Davidson from just over a month ago, responding to a BBC piece that aired on a program called More or Less about statistics. Apparently the 65% stat came up recently in a town hall with a British politician, prompting the BBC journalist (who had a reaction similar to mine) to try to track it down. Go listen to the BBC program, it's fascinating. Davidson says she encountered the stat in a book by Jim Carroll (disappointingly, not this Jim Carroll)  and that it may have come originally from an Australian jobs report - which nobody can find. Furthermore, the BBC examines information on changes in the job market over the last 15 years and finds that - a most - a third of jobs today didn't exist 15 years ago, making the claim highly unlikely. (And, given that the original Jim Carroll book is 10 years old, nearly provably false.)

But just six weeks after the BBC debunked - and Cathy Davidson largely walked away from - the 65% claim, it becomes the lead of a brand new article, attributed to the World Economic Forum. It will no doubt be the reference for a presentation in the future, be cited in strategic plans, and quoted at school board meetings. Some factoids live on as zombies, like bits of urban legend, and I'm sure that this blog will do nothing to kill this one off.

By the way, thank you to the many K-12 public school teachers, and the liberal arts faculty members, who educated me pretty well for the job I do, which didn't exist when I was in Kindergarten. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Edtech Curmudgeon's Top Predictions for 2017

photo credit: Viewminder @ Flickr

Well, it's that time again. Time to look back at all the wonder that was the year 2016, and to look forward with excitement and trepidation to 2017.

They say that Alan Kay said that "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." They say that, although I once spent a day with Alan Kay and not once did he say it. He did tell an interesting parable about Buddhist monks and a basket of croissants however.

So without further ado (if indeed that WAS "ado") here are my predictions.

  1. Microsoft buys Prezi and creates HoloLens Prezi, supporting exciting presentations. Their motto is "It's PowerPoint, but it's 3D!" (In a related story, edtech budgets struggle to keep up with the demand for vomit bags.)
  2. The march of data continues, as universities across the country find new and better ways to help their stakeholders find, analyze, and visualize incorrect and incomplete information.
  3. A major company in the education space introduces a new LMS intended to disrupt and revolutionize the LMS market. Meanwhile, Canvas continues to sop up what's left of the market like a piece of bread on a gravy plate.
  4. A new concept, the Flipped Flipped class, dominates 2017 edtech press coverage. The Flipped Flipped class, inspired by Uber's experiments with driverless cars, eliminates the need for hiring expensive and noisy contingent faculty, as students can watch videos IN CLASS without an instructor present.
  5. A panel on diversity in ed tech carries on valiantly even after the one woman invited to join the panel can't attend because her travel funding is pulled at the last minute. 
I had more predictions, but I lost them when I cancelled my Evernote account.

Have a wonderful 2017, and remember, the future is always just up around the bend, past the signpost. If you look carefully, you can see it from here, just like Russia.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Three Laws of Bureaucracy

Basset Hound asleep on a patio in the sun

As I executed one of my important job functions as a senior administrator - scrawling my name in ink on pieces of paper - #2 below came to mind. For completeness, I figured I needed three. Not terribly original I know, but it made me feel a little better...

The Three Laws of Bureaucracy
  1. An institution at rest tends to stay at rest.
  2. For every action, there's an equal and opposite pile of paper.
  3. The life of any initiative is inversely proportional to its impact.
Got any more?
Photo credit: Don DeBold @flickr CC-BY 2.0