Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Making Sure the Juice is Worth the Squeeze: A #BbWorld13 Rant

MMM. so much work
My wife has a simple rule about eating. She refuses to eat food, no matter how good it tastes, that is not worth the effort. No crab legs; no lobster. Fresh squeezed orange juice? right out. This typically works to my advantage since i get to look like a superhero just by cracking a lobster tail for her.

This thought was going through my head this morning as I started to reflect on the conversations that I had yesterday evening entering the vendor fair. If you have not been to one of these conferences, it is a sight to behold -- booths from all of the big names in Educational Technology: Blackboard (duh), Macmillan, Pearson -- you get the idea. If they have made money off of teachers and students (and, in this case, hook into the Blackboard ecosystem), they are here.

As I was walking in, I was wrapping up a conversation with two Blackboard administrators who were discussing the best practices for rolling out new versions of the software (a generally thankless task). They asked how we did this at Brebeuf Jesuit and I had to go into the elevator speech about why a school-geek would present at Blackboard World since we don't use Blackboard (our school uses the k-12 product that was acquired by the LMS-megalith two years ago: EdLine).

The conversation turned to our BYOT program and I made a comment along the lines of 
“but BYOT isn't limited to a device. We encourage our teachers to try new things and new products. They just need to link into it from the LMS so parents and students know what is going on." 
Sometimes these experiments cost a little money and sometimes the program grows big enough to warrant a site license or broader training and development (“Flipped Classrooms” are a good example of both of these).

The response was striking:
“That is a wonderful idea. That’s just how it should be. How do you pull in the data and activity from all of these different sources so that you can report it?”

My response: The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Interlude: #EdTech Worshiping at the  Altar of Analytics
My colleague’s question is legitimate in this day and age.  In modern education, if you can’t attach a number that can be processed as an analytic permutation that shows adequate yearly progress, personalized student growth metrics, or widgets per cognitive unit then your program is dead in the modern educational water.

We had a vendor who was very excited to come to our Jesuit school and show us a program that would give district level curriculum administrators incredible data with drill-down (a wonderfully popular buzzword) potential all the way down to the number of students within specific grade-bands who correctly answered a multiple choice question on an in-class quiz.

Think about that: Why would a district level admin need to know that 32 percent of students getting a "C" in Mr. Smith’s English classed missed question 3 on the pop quiz? She wouldn’t.

But that is what sells. Thanks Gates Foundation.
End Interlude.

My actual response:
"We don’t collect the data. Given the choice between forcing teachers to use only those products that can be effectively parsed for data of questionable value (see last year’s bbworld post on Analytics), we would rather err on the side of academic freedom."

But what I meant was "The Juice Isn’t Worth the Squeeze."

Some technologies being touted at Blackboard World ‘13:
  • Lockdown systems: create a browser that does NOT have access to the largest repository of human knowledge ever
  • Monitored Proctoring Systems: Use webcams to make sure that students are actually taking the test, paying attention, not using tools inappropriately
  • Lots and Lots of analytics w/ Drill-down
  • eTextbooks with student activity features including how many seconds each student spends on a particular page
  • "Flipped Classroom" video software that records the number of times a student watches a segment, quizzes them for attention, and notes the number of blinks per second (one of these might be snark).
All of these systems gather data and report it back in very pretty charts and graphs. Many of them, by nature of the blackboard ecosystem, can cross apply this data to grades and demographics.  Most of this makes data gurus (of which I am one) drool and harken to the Big Data Acolytes’ dreams of the future of education.

But very little of this has a practical application in the day-to-day life of the teacher. The day-to-day life of the teacher does not afford time to get through all of the class material, let alone parse and analyze data to find trends that might indicate an individual learning difference.

But it is for this data that we are willing to place handcuffs on the creativity of our teachers and our students and deny them access to emerging, innovative technology that is often free!
  • Before we invest in the newest product on the vendor floor...
  • Before we become dazzled by reports that may never be printed let alone impact our classrooms...
  • Before we forbid the use of tools or websites or apps simply because they don't contribute to AYP...
Let's take a collective step back and think about the purpose of data. When the CEO of Blackboard says in his keynote: "BIG DATA unto itself doesn't matter that much", it may be a good time to reflect.

Data is a tool that has the potential to inform our educational practices, to give new opportunities for students in the classroom, to provide appropriate and indicated experiences.

But at the point that we sacrifice new opportunities, innovative experiences, and best practices because it doesn't fit our data gathering methodology... The cost has become too high.

The Juice is no longer worth the squeeze.