Cognitive surplus watch

Cognitive surplus watch

A lot of Shirky’s formulations are spot on, but I’ve always felt uneasy about the cognitive surplus idea. It’s not just, as Carr points out in the linked article, that there’s not much evidence that the Wikipedia hours are coming out of a surplus, but it’s the view of human endeavor as a noncount noun, an undifferentiated quantity like the sugar production of a country, or the amount of sunlight hitting Guam. 

It also reminds me a bit of Office Space, the main characters firmly convinced they can get rich by shaving off rounding errors. 

This isn’t to say there isn’t some truth to it. I just don’t know that surplus is the right frame. I feel that to a large extent the people that always had hobbies now have hobbies that can have a worldwide impact. But that’s about taking time away from building canoes to update the Wikipedia article on building canoes. It has nothing to do with Seinfeld reruns. 

Schoolchildren Can Also Learn Complex Subject Matters On Their Own, Researchers Find

Schoolchildren Can Also Learn Complex Subject Matters On Their Own, Researchers Find

Another entry in the great debate, I suppose, though it comes down in part to what you mean by “on their own”:

Following an introduction on the general topic by their teachers, the school children were given a workbook of geometric tasks that they had to solve on paper and using a computer over four school periods. Calculating the surface area of Gran Canaria was just one of the real-world, free-form assignments the students had to tackle. The workbook material included explanations and examples of various problem-solving approaches. The teachers took a back seat during the session but were on hand to answer questions from the children, who worked in pairs.

“We expected students who were weaker at math to benefit more from a greater degree of guidance through the module,” reports Reiss. “But we didn’t see a significant difference between these and stronger students.”

This isn’t actually surprising to me — it reminds me in some ways of the NCAT Emporium Model, which has also seen spectacular success with traditionally low-performing students.

But there’s a lot of ingredients here that are essential — well-defined tasks, immediate feedback, required course meeting times, availability of teachers for assistance when online resources and peer resources fail, measurable outcomes.

This is why I’m watching the MOOC space with interest, but I am not sold on its direct application to higher ed’s pressing problems yet. The MOOC’s adaption into remedial use (for example) is going to require some additional contrivance. And I think we’re headed that way, but not there yet.

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show

The “buggy-whip” theory of industry collapse has never really sat well with me. You know, the idea that the buggy-whip producers couldn’t see that cars would collapse their industry, etc.

Here’s the problem — did anyone back then really produce (and only produce) buggy-whips? I imagine most “buggy-whip makers” were really leather workers and did quite alright as the nations GDP rose and folks could afford more leather goods.

I guess in some way that validates the analogy. But my point is that it is not as dismal a proposition to be a buggy-whip maker as many people seem to believe it is. The industry morphs, but the players remain the same.

In any case, far from being eaten by broadband, publishers seem to be entering a golden age of profits. Maybe that’s temporary. But I have to say it’s not what a lot of people predicted would be the case 18 years into the Web, and it’s worthwhile to look at the reasons why this particular content industry is not imploding and recalibrate our predictions.

EdCamp Keene is Next Wednesday

I haven’t blogged much about EdCamp Keene this year, partially because we got about to 75% of our 115 capacity within 24 hours of announcing it. So I’ve been letting the rest of the registrations slow-cook so that we don’t have to turn too many people away.

But I have to take a moment and say I am still a bit amazed by it. First of all, there’s the money aspect. We are putting on a free conference for 115 people including lunch and a T-shirt for $700 or so. Total.

More than that, we are again getting K-12 educators into the same rooms as college professors and educational technologists, and if last year’s conference is any guide people love this part. They really do. When a college professor looks at something a fourth grade teacher has put together and suddenly gets how it might be applied to a college classroom — it’s a crazy, magic moment.

Thanks again to the people last year I bounced this off of who said to go for it: Sue, Jenny, Tom, Martha, Jim, Dan — it’s really been transforming for me. For everyone, really. There’s a grounding in common mission that comes about at these things that just resonates so deep it gives you calm, even in these turbulent times…

Oh yeah. almost forgot. We can squeeze in maybe 10-15 more people. If you are reading this and are interested in coming, or if you are just interested in what I am babbling about, check out the website.

The Most Interesting Chart You’ll See On Peer Instruction This Year

Came across this brand-spanking-new study on Peer Instruction with this cool graph from a previous study in it:

What you are seeing here is a chart of right/wrong responses for a 3 question sequence in a Peer Instruction test — 1st question, 1st question after Peer Instruction, then results for an isomorphic question to test true transfer.

And it’s fascinating. It’s like watching a network fix itself. (Except it is not just the network, it’s the structure around that network that makes it so effective).

You really want to read the full study though to see the beauty of this…the authors do a really nice job of discussing the ways of thinking about how to effectively track student progress, etc. And they make an important discovery regarding isomorphic questions — asked to write an isomorphic question a professor almost always writes a *harder* question than the original, and this tendency tends to mask student progress.

A Means A: Solving the problem of unbundled credentialing

A Means A: Solving the problem of unbundled credentialing

I am suspicious of any idea posted on, to say the least. I mean really suspicious.

But this is an interesting point a poster there is making — we need to come up with a hybrid solution to credentialing.

Why? Well, unbundled credentialing tends to lead to teaching to the test, and ultimately narrows curriculum, as we have seen (in spades) in the K-12 space in America.

Bundled credentialing, on the other hand, tends to get a bit incestuous over time — “Of course our students are competent, they get an average grade of B+!”, etc.  

The solution, says this guy, is to use a third party agency to “Test to the teaching”:

One solution might be an independent assessment center that is sort of a cross between the Advanced Placement testing system and Swarthmore College’s outside examiners. Like the AP tests, it would use a rigorous grading system that people could trust. Like the Swarthmore system, the examiners would show some flexibility in adapting to any course syllabus, so that the syllabus and the curriculum would come from the bottom up (teachers and students) rather than from the top down (the rigid curriculum of the AP folks).*

(*What if a teacher of, say, organic chemistry, offers a dumbed-down course that omits a number of difficult topics? The folks at A Means A would write an exam and give a grade based on the curriculum, but they would also report that the curriculum failed to cover topics that ordinarily are covered in organic chemistry.)

There’s a number of problems with this, certainly, but it represents better thought about the unbundling of credentialing than I often see elsewhere. 

Rank-order Grading

I have lots of reservations about rank-order grading, but found this interesting:

This paper reports results from a unique classroom experiment that explored the potential of using rank-order grading to improve student performance and learning. Findings suggest that student performance is significantly improved when facing a grading system based on student ranking (norm-reference grading) rather than performance standards (criterion-reference grading). The improved outcomes from rank-order grading largely arise among the high performers, but not at the expense of low performers. Results indicate rank-ordering may eliminate the incentive for high performing students to “stop” once they achieve a stated objective, while not diminishing the incentive for lower performing students.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really address the students (upper lower/middle) that we are struggling to reach, so it’s a non-starter. It’s a nicely designed, high-quality study though.

Looking into contract grading tomorrow.

The truck that delivers our groceries

Neat quote from a 1996 paper by Charles Schlosser:

As early as the mid-1960s, reviews of the literature made clear that there was “no significant difference” in the educational effectiveness of various media (Chu and Schramm, 1975). This conclusion was memorably restated by Richard Clark, who offered a powerful analogy: “The best current evidence is that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievements any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in nutrition” (Clark, 1983, p. 445).

I don’t buy this fully, but it’s a great analogy. It’s also a reminder of how old our daily debates are.