Deep internet-related thought of the day

Facebook and social media are undermining a wide range of literary skills but they are building others such as, I would argue, certain kinds of contextual understanding.  I definitely feel that my ability to interpret a series of interspersed elliptical comments, and their relationships to each other has been enhanced dramatically over the past few years, from reading comment threads on Facebook.

I can imagine that one day, when social media is itself superseded as a common form of conversation (by, say, remote brain control), that there will be many pundits ruing the deterioration of the types of literary skills that I referenced above.  In other words, future generations may come to appreciate social media for the literary skills it promotes, rather than feeling despair at those it undermines.

The Future of Education

I’ve noted elsewhere some exciting developments in online education (most interestingly, this year, the opening of MITx, which is worth checking out).  This recent article about educational badges available online helps me to formulate, a bit more, a thought that has been gelling in my mind: If lower information-sharing costs help to make distributed systems more realizable in financescientific research (see here, too), hardware design and development, etc., etc., then why not in education?

A key quotation:

Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students using Mozilla’s proposed badge system might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online résumés detailing what they studied. And students could start showing off the badges as they earn them, rather than waiting four years to earn a diploma.

The current university system’s great asset is that it concentrates people in a learning environment.  But it also, as the quotation above implies, limits visibility to the student’s actual learning, limits student flexibility with regard to learning goals, defers recognition of achievement for several years, and does not lend itself easily to synchronous immersion in the professional world.  I’m interested to hear other’s thoughts on the viability of the model suggested in the article.

Privacy, Data, and Performance

In a fascinating legal decision that may have repercussions for how government employs large databases to measure performance, a New York state court ruled that “the New York City Education Department must include teachers’ names in the performance-data reports it provides to news outlets to fulfill open-records requests.

Will this decision have a chilling effect on the publication of government data about agency performance?  Or will employment in the government simply come to mean that one’s work records are increasingly open to public scrutiny?

Educational Data Mining

A recent Education Week article on “educational data mining” (EDM) highlights several key resources and insights.

To wit:

  • “the first international conference on the subject [was] held in 2008 and the first academic journal [was] launched a year later.”
  • the article reports on a study that demonstrated how aggregating large amounts of student data helped researchers make better evaluations about whether students were guessing while doing their work
  • several other centers focused on the field are referenced

A key quote: “Analysis of massive databases isn’t new to fields like finance and physics, but it has started to gain traction in education only recently.”  The expansion of large scale data mining into the human services field is just beginning to explode and will have great consequences for how we conceive of education.

Data Quality Campaign: Cool Maps on Ed Data Systems

The DQC is, in their words, “a national, collaborative effort to encourage and support state policymakers to improve the availability and use of high-quality education data to improve student achievement.”

You can check out (on their homepage) the maps they use to chart state progress on their “10 Essential Elements” and “10 State Actions” for data quality improvement.  I’m intrigued, personally, by the relative strength of the Southern states.

Texas Two-Step: A Pair of Trends that Undermine the Textbook Influence of the Lonestar State (Pt. II)

A friend forwarded me an article about the Texas textbook market that validates some of the observations/predictions I made in March.  Specifically, it highlights trends that could be undermining Texas’ influence on the textbook market (while also questioning the validity of the theory to begin with).


1) Texas’ actions re: curricular content could be giving rise to opposition in other states.

“The debates in Texas only heighten the sensitivity” in states and districts elsewhere to review those materials more closely before signing off, Mr. Diskey [executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers] added.

2) Texas is participating in breaking up its own influence by responding to incentives to provide for digital instructional materials.

In any case, amid concerns about the high cost of printed textbooks and the rapidity with which they become outdated, the Texas market for instructional materials is poised for a potential sea change. The recent legislation is expected to provide districts with new sources of digital textbooks and other electronic classroom materials.

“Now we have all of these new ways of acquiring instructional materials in addition to the traditional process,” said Anita G. Givens, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

For instance, the state education commissioner was given authority to approve a list of digital textbooks that districts may buy with state textbook aid, providing them with new options beyond the materials adopted by the state board. Also, districts for the first time will be able to use a portion of that aid to pay for hardware, such as laptop computers, to access digital content.

“That is a big shift,” Ms. Givens said, “because one of the cost drivers in terms of whether electronic [material] makes sense is whether [schools] have the infrastructure and the access points.”

A friend today summed up the new economy: “It’s about information and networks.”  Changes in how instructional content is delivered remain one of the best symbols of this evolution.

Integrating Information Systems across Municipal Departments: A Threat or an Opportunity?

Integrating data systems across municipal human services departments (such as those of public health, social work, and education) may conjure up images of Big Brother for some but, according to Dr. John Fantuzzo of the University of Pennsylvania, the spirit that we bring to the task may have the greatest ramifications: “The integration of data systems across city agencies can empower regular people if we take advantage of the opportunity by presenting attractive interfaces with thoughtfully organized information to the general public.  If we continue to see data as simple a mechanism for fulfilling reporting requirements, however, I do think that we will have missed a big opportunity.”

Fantuzzo, along with his fellow principal investigator, Dr. Dennis Culhane, and Executive Director, Dr. Phillip Hawkins, is leading an effort to establish a community of experts who can establish standards, ethical and technical, for the establishment of Integrated Data Systems across human services departments; can develop research regarding best practices in the field; and who can then proceed to guide interested parties in improving the coordination of data collection, sharing, and analysis across departments, and between institutions and the general public.  The work builds on Culhane and Fantuzzo’s earlier collaboration with Dr. Trevor Hadley (all three of Penn) to develop a Kids Integrated Data Systems (KIDS), in Philadelphia, that Fantuzzo suggests could eventually become part of that city’s governance practices.

Fantuzzo’s ambitions are high: “The demand to make data relevant to, and interactive with, the lives of teachers, parents, doctors, and all community members is an ethical, as well as an economic, one.  We shouldn’t just deal with data as if its collection and distribution were a formal ritual designed only to release funds.”

Usability and Usefulness: Teachers and the Data They Love

I promised I’d return to the question of usefulness and usability in Instructional Improvement Systems, as it relates to the Wireless Generation report I discussed in an earlier post. Here are their conclusions, interspersed with my comments:

“First, data must be fresh: between a day and a week old . . . One large district discovered, soon after the launch of its teacher-facing system, that teachers started to call the help desk to complain as soon as the data are even three days stale.

This teacher behavior happily dovetails with research (discussed previously) that shows that short-term data analysis is most convincingly correlated with improved instruction.

“Second, data must be rich, providing multiple sources so that educators can ‘triangulate’—home in on a particular problem with the confidence that different measures agree. Many standardized assessments (including those sold as ‘formative’) are tuned for the middle of the curve, not for below-proficient students; they may be able to pick out at-risk students but do a poor job diagnosing what is causing at-riskness.

Third, data must be fine-grained enough to be instructionally actionable . . . for instance, if standards do not differentiate two-digit multiplication items that are cast as computation versus word problems, teachers may not uncover the students who need extra support in approaching word problems.

The two points above outline the classic problem of moving from a data system that provides general descriptive information (about the whole dataset) to one that provides actionable information about particular challenges.

“Fourth, if users are truly to explore data, access tools must be Google-fast and Apple-simple, with response times of, at most, a few seconds.

Who can argue?

“Finally, data needs to be clean and accurate. Happily, the best way to establish accurate education data for a student is to show it to that student’s teacher—or, of course, the student—and provide him or her with a way to address errors, for instance, by calling a help line or clicking a ‘report a problem’ link.”

Understanding variations in user behavior is an often-neglected aspect of information systems design and is a defining pursuit, as I see it, of the field of knowledge management. Concrete, human, details, such as these, increase my confidence in the expertise of the analyst.

So far, so good.

Next time we take on this issue, we’ll look at some of the peculiar dynamics that arise when initiating systems change in a non-competitive environment, such as characterizes good chunks of the human services world.

A Systems-Based Look at How Your Child Is Being Evaluated

The question of when to aggregate, and when to distribute, innovative energy in the development of data systems is an omnipresent one.  I’ve discussed before how user-friendliness, especially important in the human services field, depends upon the robustness of the underlying information system.  A recent Wireless Generation (an organization covered in an earlier post) report (a) discussed the history of information system development in state school systems and (b) provides suggestions about how to make such systems accessible, engaging, and useful.

Today we’ll cover (a), the history and will spin out some of its implications for the strategic aspects of data systems development (We’ll take on (b), usability and usefulness, at a later time.). Continue reading