Daily Herald discusses appropriate tablet use in school but misses bigger point: do new tablets help students learn more?

The Daily Herald had an editorial yesterday that argued tablets used by students at school and home need to be used appropriately:

Other districts also have committed to the devices’ use, though some taxpayers might see them as an extravagance. Educators get just as starry-eyed over new technology as the rest of us, and why shouldn’t they? Kids are growing up with lightning-fast change in the electronic tools we use every day. This is the world they know and will need to keep knowing, and schools are adapting.

But how they adapt is key. Without good policies and solid technology plan that includes training and evaluation, the tablet revolution — called “one-to-one” programs by educators — could amount to little more than handing kids high-tech notebooks at best or, worse, free video gaming.

Gurnee Elementary District 56, for one, is rolling out its iPad initiative for middle-schoolers this week and appears to be doing things right by involving parents in a checkout night with consent forms, user agreements, guidelines and a downloadable instruction manual. It cannot stop there, however, nor can administrators be certain those 46-page manuals will be read.

Perhaps the most important way to make these devices as cost-effective as possible is to ensure teachers on the front lines have the training to use them to their fullest and to focus the instruction on learning, not the device.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about the appropriate use of tablets but the key is here in the last sentence of the quote above. Do the tablets and iPads contribute to student learning? It is one thing to suggest students need to learn about new technology. This is helpful in itself, particularly for kids who may not have consistent access at home. And tablets may help students to be more engaged in the classroom. But, there is a bigger question that should be asked here: does using a tablet help students learn math or reading or science or social studies or other subjects better?

Another interesting sociology course: Baseball in American Society

A student writing in the newspaper of Florida Southern College discusses a unique class on campus:

It is not secret that Sociology professor Dr. Edwin Plowman is one of the most eccentric professors on this campus. His “Baseball in American Society” class has by far been one of the favorite classes. Dr. Plowman has some experiences that none of us will ever be able to call our own and he shares them in every class session. Oh, and my personal library grew with the books he assigned that I just did not ever want to sell back to the bookstore.

A few thoughts about this class:

1. Is the class mainly about baseball and how it fits in American society or about American society through the lens of baseball? Both could be very interesting – baseball has its own logic but the game has both influenced and has been influenced by larger social forces. As a baseball fan myself, this sounds like an interesting course to teach.

2. This is reminder of how students view courses. It sounds like the professor tells some good stories and also assigns  books that a student would want to hold onto after the class. This is what makes this class interesting for this student. (And what does it mean when a student says a professor is eccentric?)

Teaching 9/11 in schools

Now that we are nine years removed from September 11, 2001, this is something I’ve wondered: how do schools teach about this day? According to the Christian Science Monitor, there seems to be a variety of approaches.

Another place to look would be school textbooks. With evidence that textbooks either just plain get it wrong or present biased perspectives, how younger generations learn about 9/11 will be something to watch.

Overall, both specific school lessons and textbooks will help shape the American collective memory regarding the event. This collective memory can take time to develop and is likely to be controversial; just look at how long the 9/11 memorial is taking to shape up at Ground Zero.

Rethinking how to study

The New York Times highlights recent research that suggests older methods or habits for studying may not be worthwhile. Instead, there are new suggestions for studying that haven’t yet caught on:

[P]sychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite…

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills…

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

These would be worthwhile for any type or stage of learning. While it may be initially difficult to change ingrained habits, switching to new study methods would pay off in the end with improved abilities to retain and utilize knowledge.

Reading about this could lead to some interesting questions regarding how people and students learn or acquire their study habits. Is it an intuitive process that each person needs to figure out for themselves? Do most people simply do what others have told them to do? How often do we assess our own studying/learning habits to determine their effectiveness?

LA Times portal on value-added analysis of teachers

The Los Angeles Times has put together an information and opinion filled portal regarding their recent publication of a value-added analysis of Los Angeles teachers.

Measuring teacher performance is a tricky subject as there are a number of factors at play in a student’s academic performance. In an article, the newspaper summarizes how value-added scores are estimated:

Value-added estimates the effectiveness of a teacher by looking at the test scores of his students. Each student’s past test performance is used to project his performance in the future. The difference between the child’s actual and projected results is the estimated “value” that the teacher added or subtracted during the year. The teacher’s rating reflects his average results after teaching a statistically reliable number of students.

In addition to these methodological questions, there are number of other fascinating issues: should this sort of information be publicly available and how will affect teacher’s performance? Is it an accurate assessment of what teachers do? What should be done for the teachers who fall outside the normal range? How will the politics of all of this play out?

For those interested in education and measuring outcomes, this all makes for interesting reading.

(As a side note: I can only imagine what discussions would ensure if similar information was published regarding college professors.)

Quick Review: Fall

With classes starting today, I thought I would make the argument that Fall (loosely defined here as late August to late November) is the best season of the year. Here are the reasons:

1. School starts. I’ve always enjoyed school. Now as a professor, it feels good to get back into the classroom and see energetic students again. There is always lots to do. The academic calendar has started anew.

2. The weather improves. I’m not a big fan of really hot summer weather and Chicago has been above normal hot this year. I enjoy the cool edge on the breeze. Today’s weather of about 77 degrees with sunny skies was perfect for the first day of school. And I can’t wait for the chillier days when it feels good to sit inside and read but is still pleasant enough outside to not need a heavy coat.

3. The sports world picks up. After a stretch with only baseball on the air, football, basketball, and hockey start. I enjoy watching both the professional and collegiate level and by October, there is quite a variety of action.

4. Special days. Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer (and summer break), my birthday rolls around, and I enjoy looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I know others would disagree with me but I’m planning to enjoy the next few months.

The economics of tutoring

The New York Times has a piece analyzing the ROI of private, non-remdial tutoring.  On the one hand, journalist Paul Sullivan quotes a “cynic” who likened “tutoring and private school as a forward contract on the Ivy League, with anything less being a disappointment.”  On the other, he notes

[o]n the positive side, for children, tutors can often comfort them and let them talk to someone beyond their parents. “They can say what they want and that person will translate it to Mom and Dad,” Ms. [Sandy] Bass [editor and publisher of Private School Insider] said. “That’s what the kid needs because they’re afraid of letting Mom and Dad down.”

I sense that non-remedial tutoring is driven more by the former than the latter.  I wasn’t personally tutored in grade school or secondary school, but I did take the ubiquitous BarBri bar review course after graduating from law school.  I took this course because I felt that I had to:  everyone else was taking it, and I couldn’t afford to not have the same “edge.”  (Never mind that state bar exams are designed to test one’s knowledge of the law, a skill presumably learned during the preceding three years of law school.)

Is non-remedial tutoring just an arms race?  I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and comments.

Plagiarism in the Internet age

The New York Times reports on how getting information from the Internet has changed students’ perceptions about plagiarism:

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Anthropologist Susan D. Blum studied students at the University of Notre Dame and came to this conclusion regarding attitudes toward authorship:

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

If so, this is an interesting change. It suggests the concept of individualism is changing from one where a person develops unique ideas to one where individuals are creative with existing material.

Perhaps this generation tends to think information on the Internet (and other creative material) is common knowledge. One traditional rule about avoiding plagiarism has to do with common knowledge; if it is widely known, then no citation is needed. What is being confused then is the ease in which the information can be obtained versus whether it has an author. It is true that it is often easy to do an Internet search and find something out. That does not mean that the information is known to all – easy access does not equal common knowledge.

It seems like the best course would be for students to cite all external sources, even if a student thinks it is common knowledge.