True of EdTech as Well

There are more brilliant paragraphs in Morozov’s recent set of reviews than there are in most books, but this one stuck out in particular:

Given TED’s disproportionate influence on a certain level of the global debate, it follows that the public at large also becomes more approving of technological solutions to problems that are not technological but political. Problems of climate change become problems of making production more efficient or finding ways to colonize other planets—not of reaching political agreement on how to limit production or consume in a more sustainable fashion. Problems of health care become problems of inadequate self-monitoring and data-sharing. Problems of ensuring one’s privacy—which might otherwise get solved by pushing for new laws—become problems of inadequate tools for defending one’s anonymity online or selling access to one’s own data. (The Khannas are not alone in believing that “individuals [must] gain control over the value of their time, skills, data, and resources. We must be ruthless in earning from those who want our attention.”)

It is in the developing world where the limitations of TED’s techno-humanitarian mentality are most pronounced. In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets. According to the Khannas, “centuries of colonialism and decades of aid haven’t lifted Africa’s fortunes the way technology can.” Hence the latest urge to bombard Africa with tablets and Kindles—even when an average African kid would find it impossible to repair a damaged Kindle. And the gadgets do drop from the sky—Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say “no” to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.

This is how Silicon Valley is destroying us, and how it is destroying education as well. And my point of departure from just about everybody is that even in the Corporate/Open-source debate we are still submerged in the idea that the solution is technology and not governance or laws or additional funding, but if we all adopt the right technologies we can avoid messy messy politics.  If Browser 1 is stealing your info and selling it to porn sites, your best personal option might be to go to Browser 2 or to buy additional software. Your best societal option is to make and enforce laws against stealing info. Getting those two things confused is a recipe for disaster, and it is what happens when a self-help culture collides with governance.

Lehrer’s Dylan, Information Literacy, and Van Halen’s Brown M&M’s

I don’t want to pile on Jonah Lehrer — if you want the low-down on what happened to the up-and-coming and now down-and-falling star of pop cognitive science, you can get your fix on the Google.

But I am interested in the lessons we can learn about information literacy from this, particularly because I think I failed personally to apply my own information literacy skills in the case of Lehrer. And from such things come great lessons.

What do I mean? When I read Lehrer’s Imagine, I didn’t know all of the topics Lehrer discussed at a level of detail — I’ve never worked at Pixar, I’m unfamiliar with modeling urban design, etc. But I did know one of the subjects quite well — Lehrer opens with a Dylan story, and I am a longstanding Dylan fan (Such a big fan that I actually read Bob Dylan’s unreadable Finnegan’s Wake like book Tarantula at one point. Yeah.)

Lehrer got some of the details on Dylan wrong, in the way that most people tend to get them wrong. To take just one example, people who aren’t terribly familiar with Dylan but know a bit tend to think that “Like a Rolling Stone” was a turning point in Dylan’s career. In fact, the shift to electric happens an album before that, and the vocal style of the of the song is pretty firmly ensconced in Dylan’s work before the electric change. As far as the lyrics, which is what Lehrer focuses on, that shift too comes much earlier — there’s a scene in Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s autobiography, where Dylan is watching a musical, and he realizes that one can essentially write musical theater without the theater. You can listen to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Maggie’s Farm” on Bringing It All Back Home, and hear how that works out — there’s that blues element, but there’s also this sense of dropping into a middle of a story, with so many references to external elements that our mind has to build a crazy surrealist backstory to it (What medicine, exactly, is Johnny mixing up anyway?).

So what “Like a Rolling Stone” is, really, is not a creative breakthrough, but it’s the point where Dylan turns all those dials up to eleven at once. Any serious study of Dylan will show you that.

Lehrer doesn’t see it that way, and shifts around some facts to make it the breakthrough moment lyrical moment he needs. And reading through the book I gave it to him — after all, it’s kind of a subtle point, right?

But here’s the thing — it’s not a point that he is making in a blog post or a conversation over beers. It’s not a slide in a conference presentation on a tangential matter. It’s a chapter in a published book.

Which brings me to Van Halen’s famous “bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones removed” rider. The request for this has been portrayed as rock star vanity, but it was far from that. Here’s why Van Halen requested this at all their gigs, from the rock star gigolo, David Lee Roth:

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

“The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

To me, this is what most information literacy looks like. In non-academic life, you can’t check everything. You can’t check every reference, and redo every computation. You have to trust people most of the time. But when you find brown M&M’s in the green room, it’s time to freak out a bit. You either cancel the show, or you start checking everything you can.

The Dylan mistakes were the telltale M&M’s, and I should have known enough to stop there, and treat the book from that point on as a hostile witness. But I didn’t, and a lot of people didn’t. And pretty soon the stage was collapsing under  us.

These things matter, and when we find such things, we should take a lesson from the patron saint of Information Literacy, David Lee Roth. What did you do, David, when you found brown M&M’s in a green room in Pueblo?

“The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.

“I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean ‘What is this before me?’ . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.

“The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced. It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.

“Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?”

Now that’s what a critical consumer of information looks like.

Laptops and Class Attention

From a recent study reported in the Chronicle that used eye-tracking data to track time-on-task (defined as “as looking at the professor, at PowerPoint slides, or at notes, or talking to neighbors about a discussion question”).

Mr. Rosengrant hasn’t finished analyzing correlations between on-task behavior and demographic data. Over all, though, a student’s location in the classroom was an enormous factor affecting whether the student was on task, he said.

“The students who were in the front and center of the room really were on task much more than the students in the back of the room,” Mr. Rosengrant said. A variety of reasons account for that pattern, he said. Students at the sides of the room are more likely to have to crane their necks to see the board, which is tiring, while students at the back are often distracted by the visible computer screens of those sitting in front of them.

I’m moving in my own class to a more forceful laptop policy (laptops will be closed during class presentations and discussions, period) and the main reason is that in student evaluations (both informal and summative) the persistent student complaint I see is that I didn’t crack down hard enough on the Facebookers. Honestly. It is the students that are asking if we could please crack down on web use unrelated to class. And the reason they cite is that is is pretty darn hard to pay attention to class when so many people are web browsing.

This study suggests that those students might be right. Now certainly there’s a bit of reverse causality at work in this study — your best students might not sit at the back of the lecture hall to begin with. But put yourself in the shoes of a student that is in the back — she sees you and twenty or thirty computer screens in front her — computer screens that are doing all sorts of crazy things. LOLcats, animated GIFs, Facebook chats, Youtube videos.

There’s not really a world where this is an ideal environment for learning. And one thing that student in the back is paying for, most definitely, is an environment conducive to learning.

Diehard laptop policy anarchists will say — well, if your presentation is more boring than the internet, then maybe you’re the problem! To which I say — have you ever been on internet? If we’re asking professors now to be more interesting than browsing the internet we are going to have to radically adjust the pay scales….