Sustainability and Innovation

Via Doug Belshaw, this excellent quote from an article on sustainability and innovation:

Our experience tells us that it is exactly because American companies are so amazingly innovative, entrepreneurial, and intensely competitive that they can’t find ways to deal with the global challenges. Finding sustainable solutions isn’t about discovering new, ever-more disruptive ideas. It requires the opposite, something very un-American: standardization, slowness, and centralization. To most, more ideas are always better. But in this case, the more green solutions we have, the less effective and efficient processes become.

Emphasis mine.

I recently spent a good part of an evening looking for the particular plug that goes to my Galaxy Tab. I feel like I spend a lot of time searching for the right cord to things. And of course, new device, new cord — you can never reuse the ones you have.

I have something like 20 or 30 orphan plugs at home, none of them the slightest use anymore apparently.

I’m sure there’s benefits each manufacturer would point out to the specific cord they designed, etc., etc. But the net effect of cord propagation is lots of cheap plastic waste and lost hours searching for plugs. In the end, the value of the innovation is counteracted by the incompatibilities it creates.

When you innovate within a standard, sustainability (both ecological and financial) becomes possible.

I think you could apply some of this to OER or educational practice in general, but I’ll let you all do that yourselves.

What Nick Carr (maybe) Misses About Memory and Integration

What Nick Carr (maybe) Misses About Memory and Integration

Nick Carr on the recent Science article on the effect of Google on memory:

If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?

I suppose the thing that occurs to me is that there’s two sides to this question of storage. The first is that, yes, to the extent we know something is easily retrievable, we may spend less effort in trying to integrate it. I remember reading an article once about professors who announced that lecture PowerPoints would be available after class (after having lectured for years without sharing the lecture) — the result was not an increase in student test scores, but a dramatic drop. Students stopped trying to actively process presented material and make mental connections while listening. And ultimately, this hurt student development.

I think though there is another side to the issue — to the extent we are accessing external knowledge, someone has to externalize it, right? And the process of externalizing information is also a powerful form of integration.

So in other words if we are Googling more but also microblogging more, things could (perhaps) move to balance out. The person that agonizes over how to capture a speakers’ thought in 140 characters may be going through as rigorous a process of consolidation and integration as the person who is try to remember what the speaker is saying.

I don’t know that, of course, any more than Nick knows for sure the patterns on display in the Science article will lead to the effects he fears — but it’s worth keeping somewhat of a larger focus, looking at the overall impact a set of behaviors has on these processes rather than just one behavior in isolation.

Spaced retrieval: Absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing.

Spaced retrieval: Absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing.

Sorry, no online version. But the abstract says it all — spaced retrieval matters, but these systems to perfectly control the spacing (through gradually increasing it) may be hooey:

Repeated retrieval enhances long-term retention, and spaced repetition also enhances retention. A question with practical and theoretical significance is whether there are particular schedules of spaced retrieval (e.g., gradually expanding the interval between tests) that produce the best learning. In the present experiment, subjects studied and were tested on items until they could recall each one. They then practiced recalling the items on 3 repeated tests that were distributed according to one of several spacing schedules. Increasing the absolute (total) spacing of repeated tests produced large effects on long-term retention: Repeated retrieval with long intervals between each test produced a 200% improvement in long-term retention relative to repeated retrieval with no spacing between tests. However, there was no evidence that a particular relative spacing schedule (expanding, equal, or contracting) was inherently superior to another. Although expanding schedules afforded a pattern of increasing retrieval difficulty across repeated tests, this did not translate into gains in long-term retention. Repeated spaced retrieval had powerful effects on retention, but the relative schedule of repeated tests had no discernible impact.

On the Miliband Loop

I’m actually with Ed on this one. Since, like the reporter, the public apparently has no listening skills, most people fail to realize he directly answers each question quite adequately.

Q: Labor thinks you’re saying the strikes are wrong, why aren’t you taking their side?

A: I *am* saying the strikes are wrong. And the reason is because negotiations were still going on. 

Q: Are people saying different things in private than in public? (Typical idiotic reporter question — let’s start a fight!)

A: I’m saying both in public and private just what I’ve said here.The strikes are wrong. Because negotiations were still going on.

Q: Have *you* said different things in private? (Fight! Fight! Fight!)

A: I’m saying the same thing to everybody. The strikes are wrong because negotiations are still going on. 

Q: Are you mad at the strikers? Has this impacted your familiy? (Does it make you mad? Are they making you suffer? Did they make your kid cry?)

A: I’m not talking about my family, thanks. The point isn’t about me, the point is the strikes are wrong, because we were still negotiating, and we need to keep doing that.

And so on. Every answer the reporter needs is in the initial statement. His questions are ridiculous in light of that.

But of course the reporter doesn’t want the official statement that accurately represents the views of the party as an institution. He wants a gaffe, a fight, a soundbite no one else is getting. A tear, a bit of anger about the personal question. A hint of internal strife (Labor in disarray!). All he needs is 30 seconds of gaffe, “Miliband testy about striker actions! Labour coalition fractures!” and he runs lead tonight.

Had the reporter asked a question that wasn’t answered initially, something that took half a brain to ask, I might have sympathy. Had he asked, say — “How did we get here? What are the long term fiscal pressures that push us toward this stuff? Is this both an efficiency problem and a revenue problem?” I might have some sympathy.

But no, every question he asks about it is to support the story he wrote in his head on the car ride over, a story that has nothing to do with a single issue of public policy — the Labour movement feels betrayed by the Labour party! Miliband defensive about throwing Labour movement overboard! Miliband upset about strikers disrupting his kids education! (Or alternatively — Miliband’s child’s education *not* upset by strike — Miliband out of touch!)

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Like a wind-up toy the reporter will keep asking his question until he gets the quote that fits into his Mad-Libs of a story outline.

As much as I’m sure Miliband is a prat, the defender of actually getting information out to the public about the Labour position here is Miliband. The person that really couldn’t care less about the value of information is the reporter. Though I doubt anyone will see that.

Minutes after I read Winer’s “everyone should run their own webserver” piece, I get this. 

I think sometimes we’re crazy people, driving old cars we repair ourselves, telling people how easy and cheap it is to maintain that 1993 Diesel BMW with the Fryolator oil-burning mod and the homemade solar charger. I’m actually really sick of running my own server, and if people like me are, I think the chances of a broad personal cyberstructure movement, failing some sort of subsidization of it, are somewhere between nothing and 0%, no matter what it’s social benefits might be.

Assessing the sort of engagement that matters

Assessing the sort of engagement that matters

I was looking at the new BioScience article on how useless self-reports on pedagogical style are as an assessment of impact, and I got interested in the tool they used to double-check the results, the RTOP — a method of coding videotaped classes for the frequency of different engagement-focused behaviors. That led me to these two graphs from a 1999 study, the first on inter-rater reliability of the instrument after initial calibration, and the second on the relation between RTOP scores and normalized gain on pre/posts:

Lots of caveats here, esp. regarding sample size, but pretty impressive nonetheless. Anyone out there had experience actually using RTOP? Curious for the ground-level view…

“The literacy rate among college graduates is lower today than it was 15 or 20 year [sic] ago.”

John Stossel talks to former Tobacco Junk Science Guy Richard Vedder about education:

“Do kids learn anything at Harvard? People at Harvard tell us they do. … They were bright when they entered Harvard, but do … seniors know more than freshman? The literacy rate among college graduates is lower today than it was 15 or 20 year ago. It is kind of hard for people to respond in market fashion when you don’t have full information.”

First, feel free to place the following paragraph from SourceWatch wherever you see the mainstream press quoting Vedder:

Vedder was a member of the Tobacco Institute’s clandestine Economists’ network — a group of academics that the tobacco industry recruited who worked behind the scenes to fight proposed tax increases on cigarettes and the declining acceptability of public and workplace smoking by generating favorable research for publication, presenting favorable papers at academic conferences and symposia, and being ready to challenge the “social costs” economic arguments employed by anti-smoking activist at public and legislative forums. Members of the Institute’s Economists Network also assisted by writing letters-to-the-editor and lecturing to journalists on behalf of the industry.

I suggest the comments box of the Chronicle next time he shows up there. 

I got curious though about the statement about the literacy rate, though, because unlike much of what he says it strikes me as possibly true.

So I looked it up.

The short answer is that it is true, with caveats. Here’s the report he is likely referencing, and here’s the finding on two basic adult literacies (basic stuff, like reading labels or short informational pieces):


Changes between 1992 and 2003

  • Less than or some high school
  • Down 9 points in prose
  • High school graduate
  • Down 6 points in prose
  • College graduate
  • Down 11 points in prose and 14 points in document
  • Graduate studies/degree
  • Down 13 points in prose and 17 points in document

Here’s the caveats:

  • 2003 is the most recent year. So saying we know that college students read worse assume that the trend has continued. It may have, but if this is the data he’s relying on, we certainly don’t  *know* that.
  • The report makes no distinction between those that have been out of college for a while, and those that just graduated. One assumes that the shift came out of recent college graduates, but for all we know it could be the result of an aging population. 
  • There’s the whole 11 points issue — this is 11 points out of a total of 500, so your are looking at a percent correct decrease of about 2%. It’s hard to see that as a news item unless it is a steady trend, and again we don’t know, as these figures are 10 years old.

I would not at all be surprised if college turned out to be failing in this regard. The research behind Academically Adrift is a pretty good indicator that we are failing dramatically in helping students attain very basic competencies. But this is not the stat that proves that. 

On the other hand the rest of that report (if you read it carefully) is not an argument that there is too much education, but that there is not nearly enough.

Hippocampal brain-network coordination during volitional exploratory behavior enhances learning

Hippocampal brain-network coordination during volitional exploratory behavior enhances learning

First, I love this introductory paragraph. Scroll bar!

Influential theories of human development, perception and action all emphasize the crucial role of an individual’s control over what he or she does, how and when1234. Successful ‘active learning’ educational practices5 emphasize the importance of the individual’s control over learning. We see the positive effects of such control in everyday life, when we experience the difficulty of extracting information from a website when someone else is controlling the scrollbar, when it is difficult to learn a route as a car passenger rather than the driver, and so on.

Second, the design is pretty neat:

In our studies, adult humans studied arrays of common objects arranged on a grid, viewing one object at a time through a small moving window (Fig. 1a). Each subject participated in two viewing conditions, one with self-initiated active control of window position using a computer mouse or joystick and the other a passive condition. The self-controlled, active movements of one subject were recorded and played back as the passive condition for the next subject (Fig. 1b), so that the visual information displayed during the active condition for subject n was the same as that displayed during the passive condition for subject n + 1. Visual stimulation for active versus passive learning was therefore matched through the combination of ‘yoking’ the window movements in the two viewing conditions across pairs of subjects and the precise control of viewing location provided by the window. In this way, subjects viewed the same visual information in the same order for the same durations in both conditions; any differences in performance outcome could therefore be attributed to the effects of active control (relative to passive viewing).

Did you get that? The difference between the active and the passive condition is that in the active one the subject controls essentially the scrolling over the grid, and the in passive one she just watches it. But the brilliant bit is the passive condition gets played the recorded movements of the last active session. They see things in exactly the same sequence, they just aren’t controlling it.

What they find is that controlling the presentation in even this minor way has significant benefits for recall. It’s too odd a study in some ways to draw broad conclusions. But it’s worth wondering about whether such issues might factor into the efficacy of something like self-advancing versus user-paced slides. etc. And it reinforces for me that what feels like the most effective presentation may not always be the most effective presentation. My guess is the students in the control condition felt more “taught” but of course they recalled less. 

The Shock Doctrine Goes Platinum

To clarify my last post — Record companies

  • are evil
  • have made a series of poor decisions
  • will not be around in their current form in a decade or two

Whew. Just had to say that for those that had worried I’d gone over to the dark side.

The question isn’t really what direction the trajectory is — the question is “How steep?”

“Broadband eats everything” says we have nothing to lose — pack up the bags and move on. H.Ed. is done.

But broadband hasn’t even been able to eat a business that is almost pure content in the space of a decade. 

Honestly, I think that rising Medicaid costs (and the societal cost of care for the elderly generally) is having far more impact on higher education right now (today!) than the internet. The internet is going to radically change education, absolutely, but it’s role in the immediate future is not as a tsunami, but as tsunami response plan. It’s important to keep that straight.