California’s Bold Step

Have you heard the news? Governor Schwarzenegger announced that he wants to explore digital free and online accessible textbooks that are standards aligned.  These books will be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Keeping inline with the spirit of the state, there are various opinions about this.  I hope we can have a fair and open dialogue about this important issue. As you can well imagine, we are very excited about this development.  Now, we Californians are thinking out of the box, which is what we do best!  We are on our way to making education accessible to many more students, as well developing alternative ways to get content into the hands of the students.

I have been following the dialogue about this on different blogs.  In general, people are feeling like this is a good thing, considering that the cost of textbooks is getting to be unaffordable, which is a situation that needs to be remedied ASAP.  We can not keep treating this as, “We don’t worry about what it costs.  We never look at the price when we go through the adoption process.”  This attitude is what has gotten us to where we are.  Of course cost matters.  How can this mentality be allowed to continue?  It is irresponsible and continues to contribute to the divide between who can afford to buy the books for their children and who cannot. Since we are not going to be sorting out our budget mess quickly, it is even more important that we look for alternatives.

Here is what people are saying about the announcement.   Please keep in mind that the details of the announcement and how it will work are yet to come.

  • “Textbooks are a surprisingly controversial issue in California and there is a lot of political baggage and bureaucratic red tape”
  • “Individual changes to textbooks can become a source of fierce debate and there are a multitude of special interest groups battling over what the textbooks should say and how they should say it.  It would take edit wars to a whole new level.”
  • “How to keep the old system from penetrating the old (new) system – considering that there are a lot of lives depending on the old system – lobbyists, PR/Marketing, publishing houses…”
  • “How to deal with pedagogy and topics – lecture based teaching vs. hands-on activity, predefined process of content exposure vs. student driven learning needs, problem-based learning vs. procedural-based learning, conceptual learning….”
  • “Printing copies of the books.  You can pay someone to write them but you still need to get copies into the students’ hands.  Electronic distribution – aside from the initial cost; replacing lost/damages readers would be an ongoing cost and nightmare”
  • “This will never happen as school administrators are extremely risk adverse.  They will never be able to accept the risk that the reason their students didn’t do well is that the open source textbook they used didn’t meet the state/federal curriculum standards.  The state/federal education agencies will also never certify that any textbook meets their curriculum standards.”
  • Wow! As a teacher myself, I would love this! No more worrying about sharing texts, them getting lost. Why shouldn’t we have open access to all text books, I know that education is a business, but maybe, it shouldn’t be.
  • great idea if it works…
  • Yeah, let’s complain about modernizing school so that the public school system will fail to provide children with a decent education….

 

In general, the conversion is either this is great and about time or doubts about how this might work.  This is a very healthy conversation as a new path is always full of the unknowns.  And unless we embark upon it we will never know for sure how to take care of these doubts.  As Paul Romer says “Crisis is a terrible thing to waste!’


Thirteen Year Itch

Have you heard about an important concept – the thirteen year itch?  It seems like we never give a concept enough play time.  We tend to judge anything tried in schools a success or a failure quickly; particularly if it does not match our own perception of right ways to teach.  Many reforms or ideas are tried for around three or so years before educators as well as parents starts pinpointing what does not work.  Very rarely do we hear from people about what is working.  This tends to bias the conversation.  Sadly most ideas or reforms are too quickly judged.

Learn by doing

To ensure that the pendulum does not swing too quickly, we need to determine what would be a realistic time allocation to judge the effectiveness of a program.  As an example, people who start charter schools feel that they are under the gun as soon as they start.  Many times people declare a new charter school a failure or in trouble too quickly.  People expect that in year one things will be rosy.  Unfortunately, it is not that simple and often students don’t do well in the first few years.  Generally, students in many charter schools are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and are far behind their more advantaged peers.  Dean Deborah Stipek believes that there needs to be a period of about 3-5 years before you can see any results from intervention.  Not all students respond to new situations at the same rate.  Not only do the students in these schools need to learn how to learn before they can show you how much they can learn, the teaches need to figure out what will work with their population of students.  Dean Robert Sternberg has shown that students cannot be fairly tested unless they have relative familiarity with the process and can build upon some amount of prior knowledge.  Once they master the process and become familiar with what is expected from them it is much easier to produce results.

On one level, giving a program the right amount of time is important, yet at the same time, no one  wants to experiment with their children. Would it be fair to introduce interventions at the pre-kindergarten level to really determine the effect?  Furthermore, we would then have to follow them for 13 years(i.e. time span of K-12 schooling).  Only then could we say that something works or does not work. Right? We cannot wait for thirteen years to find out something didn’t work because you cannot go back and retry.  As a parent we want to make sure that educators are not experimenting with “my child” but doing things that will be most effective.

My own explanation for the 13 year itch centers around the fact that we forget that children learn differently.  It is extremely important, when creating new programs in education, to remember that everyone has their own learning style, their own rate of learning, their own passions, and their own needs; what one student may consider failure, another sees as success.  Why is it that we cannot target individualized as well as customized learning within the constraints or requirements that we have outlined for K-12 standards based education?

Learning how to learn

What makes a teenager a teenager?

Last week I was at a meeting at a well known university.  The focus was technology and how it is impacting students and the educational system. To prove their point a panel of teenagers was show cased.  This panel consisted of both males and females.  So here are some of things that the teenagers had to say about themselves and their peers:

Most teenagers have some or many of the common “tech toys” – computer, iPhone, cell phone, iPod, etc.

They use their computers as their TVs, phones and music repositories, among other things.  Yes, video games are a huge priority. If you think that only boys play games online, think again – even girls are playing games – “Puzzle Pirates” and other girly games while boys like WOW – World of Warcraft.

Most teenagers get their news from Comedy Central .  They follow many blogs and even write their own blogs.  Additional time is spent on texting and listening to music.  Facebook is the preferred vehicle of communication. Very often they are doing all these things at the same time…………Multitasking in the 21st century   smiley-cool

Teenagers are “flashy,” they love and want bright and colorful things.  They want to be in style.  Keeping up with their peers in the same sentimentality as their parents who have to keep up with the “Jones’e”.  Everything has to be convenient.

One interesting question they were asked was, “What one piece of technology would you choose to keep if you had to make a choice?”  Would you be surprised that the response was – a computer.  The reason being that a computer can work like any one of their favorite instruments – it will continue to keep them connected to their peers, the outside world and their music, while allowing them to do their work.

On the issue of textbooks – textbooks are too wordy and filled with too much information.  Keep them to the point.  We don’t need clutter!  No they do not know what a Kindle is and would not want the Kindle .  They like to “read” their books.

The February 2009 issue of Phi Delta Kappan talks about how media and technology impact the lives of children.  Children are now the owners of these tech toys at younger and younger ages.  As per the article, 82% of the children are online by 7th grade and experience about 6.5 hours per day of media exposure. Wallis, in an article published in Time Magazine in 2006, supports the fact that these students, when exposed to these tools at an earlier age can learn to use them at the same time – multitasking is possible.  How it impacts their brains and capabilities remains to be decided.  Many people believe that they are not able to focus, whereas when you ask the students they will very emphatically will tell you that they can only learn with music. Wallis will tell you that the human brain is not designed to multitask as well, and that errors increase and things take longer to complete.  The reality is to be decided.

In the end, even though their teachers used Powerpoint, projectors and Smartboards to teach them, according to the teenagers “the teacher was still the preferred mode” of being taught!  A surprising comment from one of the students, which the rest agreed with was that, “(we) cannot learn from notes from a teacher online, we need a teacher.”

So here is our charter – to provide content that engages many kinds of learners since the students of today have many things that can fill up their time and make them feel that they belong.  Keeping their minds occupied is easy.  It’s with what you occupy their minds is the question!

 


Choices, choices, choices, and choices…………………

Is having many choices a good thing?

Lately this question about content for K-12 has been popping up very frequently in my mind.  In my role at CK-12, I meet with teachers and administrators, attend education conferences, and work with other non-profit people who are all working towards improving education.  I have heard from teachers who are looking for ways to pass on their self-made supplemental materials, or from administrators who are frustrated with the amount of funds that states are spending, such as California spending $600 million per year on textbooks.  And then there are others that I have met with who are making amazing progress in multi-media educational material and creating fantastic videos, such as renderings of how the heart works, or the showing the lifecycle of a virus.  Yet, as I meet and share ideas with all of these people, I cannot help but wonder, “is something in our system fundamentally broken?”  All of us are working to create more and better educational materials, yet we spend billions of dollars a year and still find many of our students are under served and unmotivated in the classroom.  What is all this content creation leading to?

In order for us to educate our children we provide many choices- isn’t this equivalent to feeding a baby who won’t eat?  We keep presenting different kinds of foods in the hope that the baby will eat something!  Because we have to educate many kinds of learners we have to offer many different kinds of content in the hope that something maybe will make it clear to them and learning or understanding will happen.   Here is an incomplete listing of the kinds of choices we provide:

  1. Printed material, such as:
    • Core Textbooks
    • Supplemental material
    • Other Source materila
    • Library material
    • Museum content – science kits, written material,
    • Special created material by the teacher themselve

    Online

    • More text
    • CDs of more text
  2. Collaborative media – Wikipedia, YouTube
  3. Interactive media –
    • Flash animations
    • Videos
    • Musicals
  4. After schools activities related to academics
  5. Clubs – Sciences clubs, math clubs, writing clubs
  6. Summer schools
  7. Gaming
  8. Others

Clearly, the question we have to ask is how much choice we need to provide?  How much do the basic tenents change?  In mathematics 2+2 is always 4.  Of course these tenents never change, what changes is the relevance to the times, culture, the technological advances, updates in recent findings, and other factors.  What changes is the answer to the question “how can we engage every kind of student with content”?

I cannot but help think about how some of the most accomplished people did their work with so little choice.  How much choice did Einstein need to make his predictions that impacted the future of the human race? During his time he had some basic information from reading books and Reading in the darkfrom conversations with other people, plus something to document his ideas – book and pen, or chalk and chalkboard.

How much choice for learning did Srinivasa Ramanujan have at his beck and call?  Yet, this man, born to a very poor family, had only an old book and street lamp at night become one of the most celebrated mathematicians. I remember a few years ago I went to the State of Kerala, India I was constantly surrounded by children who kept begging for “One pen please….”implying all I need is one pen and I can learn. Luxury!

The candy sellers of Brazil were young children who had no schooling or any mathematical training, however they could all do very complex mathematical computations because of their need to sell candy and maintain their market edge compared to the other children selling candies.  How much choice did they have to study market economics?  No learning tools, or even no notebooks or paper or pen…………

In another example,  Professor Yunus gave 42 women in Bangladesh $27.  The most impactful outcome of this act was these very poor women’s ability to change the way they lived and to send their children to be educated not only in a four year colleges but to become professionals such as doctors.  How much choice in instructional material do you think they had?

How much content choice do we need?  Already we have so many choices, yet we cannot make much of a dent in the outcome for our students compared to other nations.  It’s not clear how much choice we need, but perhaps we need to provide students content that they can relate to, i.e. personalized content.  This is the premise that CK-12 is founded on – lower cost of content as well as individualized content.  No matter how much content we provide it will not make much difference unless the content is individualized for each students needs.  For further cost impact, CK-12 will house the content in one place as an open resource such that we don’t have to recreate the content over and over again.

We need choices because we are not educating one child but many students at the same time.  Even though we need to be able to provide content for all students, it has to be affordable.  Providing content to all for free so that we don’t have to pay for everything over and over again is the only way that we can make education affordable.   Let’s provide choices that are useful and impact learning.

Writing on a box

Looking forward to a new dawn

As CK-12 starts its third year, the world around us is changing in many ways – yet we at CK-12 continue to think about how to level the playing field by giving access to information for all students in K-12 area.

2008 will be remembered in history for many things that changed the way we think about our lives. Let’s run through some of the more notable ones.

We made great strides in making it possible to have access to resources for less fortunate people in areas such as Microfinance (www.grameenfoundation.org) microgiving (www.kiva.org), and education (www.donorschoose.org). A large portion of human-beings continue to be generous and actively involved in closing the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

Yet on the flip side, rifts continue to grow and persist between people because of value systems and clashing ideologies: one man’s sacrifice is another man’s tragedy (Bombay shootings, Suicide bombers).

Much progress in improving living standards has been made by two of the largest nations – China and India – Chindia effect. Chindia showed the world “how the world could do it right“; something that the for all help from large organization such as World Bank, UN, and others could not happen.

I Can't Afford an Actual Sign

The American economy enjoyed record highs and demoralizing lows. The beginning of 2008 showed many promises of a rosy future with choices in jobs and unbelievable market conditions. Technology companies lead the way with DOW Jones showing unseen advances – Apple and Google became global household name. Collaboration (Wikipedia) and sharing (DIGG, Tumblr, Twitter) on the internet became a new norm. In the last couple of months the dominoes came tumbling down and the American economy suffered losses like it had not seen before.

Zero-to-hero culture continues with Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin a.k.a. Tina Fey, Madonna left her husband and joined the ranks of Britney Spears in being “a model of commitment“, so children have little option but to turn to the likes of Hannah Montana.

The power of the weapons changed to the power of the fuels – oil and the Middle East are now commanding the spending. The world turned upside down with the fall of the banking system disasters. With this disaster many walls came tumbling down and exposed how people were manipulating the system – Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, and Satyam’s became symbols of capitalist morality or I should say immorality. Layoffs became the story of the year bringing unemployment to 7.2%.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the nature of the human race!

Dear President Elect Obama,

What will your legacy be?

Will you help us to make our children become rational thinkers such that they can learn to think what Madoff et al are doing to them?

Will you help us to take NCLB to a higher standards as it should have been – No child left behind but all allowed to move ahead?

Will you help make education affordable?

I believe “YES WE CAN” is “YES WE CAN THINK”

At CK-12, we believe that we provide a crucial piece of the educational puzzle.

CK-12 provides the tools necessary to create, access and disseminate content for free. Governor Schwarzenegger, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent for adopted content. Can we help to reduce that cost substantially?

Free Books

The content generated through CK-12 tools will be dynamic content open to all to re-purpose to their own needs rather then static content bound by covers and controlled by a few. If access to information is the step towards learning and critical thinking, then CK-12 provides this access to information freely and at no cost to the user other than the cost of resources – paper, printing, etc.

The mission of CK-12, embodies the generosity that the people of the United States have historically and continuously demonstrated, by making the content provided to all in a democratic manner both nationally and globally. We are well on our way to providing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) content via FlexBooks that we have commissioned. We are working with the Commonwealth of Virginia, DC school systems, Project Algebra, Arizona State University, and many others to bring 21st century educational technology and content to classrooms everywhere.

We believe that we all have to invest in the children. They are our future.


What can I do?

Have you ever wondered why so many people believe that the open source software movement is a good thing?

There is a common belief that the wisdom of the crowds is right because many more people have a say in it and more eyes are watching what is being said. It is the collective vs. what one person believes, and that people are willing to provide their wisdom in an open and free platform.

But does it work well outside of software?

Open-course/Open-source

For example, within education, medicine or even music? Is it the answer to all things?

We, in education are moving towards more and more open systems as well. In software development, where this movement originated, there are many examples of its success, FSF, Linux, Mozilla Firefox to name a few, yet does it work and will it work for education?

Intuitively it makes sense to someone like me that we need to try the phenomenon of Open Educational Resources as well such that we can alleviate some of the problems in education e.g. cost of textbooks, production of instructional material in a much more time effective manner, etc. Like many other writers, Yochai Benkler in his paper “Common Wisdom Peer production of Educational material” talks about many significant benefits when using common wisdom approach over commercial developments of educational material. His major points include:

  1. Common wisdom approach taps many more contributors vs. single author
  2. Do not have to have a standard product for many different districts or states vs. many learning objects that can be used by different teachers for different learners according to their own needs
  3. Global reach for the poorest
  4. One-size-does-not-fit-all benefit
  5. Moving away from the tightly controlled environment to generating collaborative network for all kinds of learning materials.

It is clear to many if not all educators that one-size-fits-all is really one-size-does-not-fit-all. When will we start educating students beyond the let’s teach them as a group?

If you were to ask me, “What is the one thing that we can do that will take us to that step?” I would respond that, as a first step, we can provide access to information to students for free.

I believe that leveling the playing field for one will help as a first step towards helping educators be more successful. Note that while I am not implying that this would ensure success in learning, what I am saying is that access to information is an important part of providing education to everyone.

Mitchell Library, Sydney

I still remember when I came to the US, the fact that I could walk into a library and have access to “Scientific American” was such an exhilarating experience; something that made me want to learn. This is the emotion we need to invoke when we open the doors of the collective library to our upcoming students.

Now if this is the case, why is it so hard for educators to take the leap of faith and contribute to the open educational resource effort?

I think the answer lies in the message of Carol Dweck, the author of the book “Mindset“. It is really hard to move from what you firmly believe. If you believe that the process of writing a textbook is hard you will not attempt it.

We also know that many educators make their own instructional materials and put aside the textbooks that their districts or states have made them buy. If you have the tools and have been producing your own text material why would you not contribute your work so that you can help many other students? In our focus groups we have found that even if the teachers have well tested and contextualized material they will not contribute. The primary reason for this is because many teachers believe that their work is not perfect, will not be right, and hence they are reluctant to take that leap and open their work for others to criticize.

There are many excuses to not contribute, but there are many compelling reasons to do so. Let’s list the main reasons to contribute:

  1. Customize content for students
  2. Empower educators, parents, as well as the students themselves to use content that is right for that particular student
  3. Heavy weight on young peoples backs for more information read “Pack it Light, Wear it Right,” in Washington Post.
  4. Change the long lead time as well as the expensive ways that textbooks are produced and increase accessibility

help wanted

But some feel they cannot contribute, whether it’s a perceived lack of experience, or more likely lack of time, there are many ways to contribute to the “open source” movement. We only need look at the software world for some guidance. Ways include:

  1. Help by writing small units, questions and answers, alternative explanations
  2. Help improve the books that we have seeded
  3. Help determine the quality of the images that we have produced,
  4. Help with editing the content on our site
  5. Help with placing tags
  6. Help with identifying the content to your State standard
  7. Help by contributing any content that you might have authored or are using in your own classroom. Please make sure that this content is not copy righted but can be converted to CC by SA license.
  8. Help us using the material and giving us feedback so that we can take the content to the next level
  9. Help us by identifying any multimedia material that you use that we can place in the content for future

Even if you only contribute one single sentence, then that means we are one sentence further forward than we were without you. Each contribution, no matter how big or how small, is moving us all forward.

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What’s in a back pack?

It is that time of year where our nations school children are preparing their back packs ready to head back to start their new academic year. The contents of these bags has definitely evolved over years, considering now the average student’s back pack will contain more technology than NASA had to take Apollo to the moon.

But one thing that has stayed constant is the good old fashioned text book. While it requires no batteries or boot up time, it still is the heaviest and most inflexible item in there.

Take for example, the current academic debate going on in the astromony world regarding the number of planets our solar system has. Is it 9, or is it 8?

preparation

People in the know” decided that we actually have only 8 planets, based on the assumption that Pluto is too small to be a planet. Oh dear. Now we have all these text books that has the wrong information, and to make matters worse, depending on the State, it could take anywhere from 1 year to 6 to get it corrected. So not only are our children carrying around these heavy tombs, it turns out, the information inside of them is out of date!

The problem doesn’t end there, the same “people in the know” are being challenged by other “people in the know” and the Pluto debate is far from over.

But thats life. We live in an ever evolving world, where new discoveries are being made, old thinking rechallenged, as we increase our awareness and knowledge of the world and universe we inhabit. How is the humble back pack meant to cope?

The problem with our textbooks is that their granularity is simply too large. It only takes one paragraph to be wrong, for the whole book to have to be reprinted. So imagine when a whole discipline changes, in our Pluto example. They simply can’t take this level of change.

But here we are, asking our new students to carry around these tombs of outdated information in and out of school every day.

There has to be a better way no?

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@Google Presents: CK12 Founders

CK12 founders Neeru and Vinod Khosla and CK12’s President, Murugan Pal speak as part of the @Google series. CK12 is a non-profit organization, launched in 2006, that aims to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide.

Many of you know Vinod as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers before founding Khosla Ventures. His wife, Neeru, is an accomplished philanthropist, while Murugan is a serial entrepreneur who most recently found SpikeSource after a stint as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at KPCB. Together, they will discuss their vision for CK12 as well as take questions from the audience.

This event took place January 17, 2008 at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

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Wikipedia Founder Proposes Support for Open Textbooks

Esther Wojcicki over at the Huffinton Post wrote a good article on the overall state of the free online materials and how it is going to be moving towards a more colloborative approach.

To read the full piece visit here

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