Sal Khan’s take on tutoring, timely

Sal Khan’s latest project is called Schoolhouse World – basically a platform for tutoring.  This guy never rests, does he? The ideas is so much in tune with the times – to avert what he thinks is a catastrophe in the making, with distance learning models. With students wrestling with screen time, and feeling disengaged though they’ve never been so ‘connected.’

We’ve seen the rise of tutoring needs, the private kind as well as the need for one-to-one sessions. During my ‘Office Hours’ each week I get so many requests from parents about this. It’s really unfortunate. Many distance learning platforms are not designed for parents, but Mom and Dad have become the de facto tech support team in the home, while balancing a noisy, work-from-home lifestyle.

Into this mess of pottage comes Sal Khan’s idea.  Every parent of a child struggling with assignments would love it! Listen to this interview he gave Bloomberg’s by Emily Chang.

Or listen to Sal himself:

Thoughts on wrestling with ‘hybrid’ learning models as schools reopen

Photograph, courtesy Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com

The question on everyone’s mind is not, “When will school reopen,” but how.  It’s been on our minds, nagging us like crazy no sooner we closed for summer this May.  My wife and I being teachers, have different models and school environments. Hers is a Montessori – Li’l Sprouts. Mine is a classical academy, Benjamin Franklin High School.

Should her students wear masks? And social distancing two-and three-year olds? Hmmm. She has decided to wear a face shield when not donning a mask. My students will have to learn new ways to conduct themselves, from the simple things like sharing pencils and keyboards, to what to do or not during recess.

The hybrid model is something we have experimented with from March through May with mixed results. Students love computers, but aren’t exactly thrilled about being ‘instructed’ through them.  (She conducts Zoom sessions, I’ve been using Google Meet.) But having said that, we educators have to adapt to the times and be part of the learning. I love the challenge, however. I’ve been spending much of these quarantined months experimenting with platforms and lessons, while not hanging out at a coffee shop with a mask. Toggling  between face-to-face and online technologies: Screen-Castomatic, Explain Everything;  Jamboard, and Google Classroom.

Remember that ‘PLC’ buzz acronym (for ‘professional learning communities’) that got thrown around a lot five years ago? Now’s the time for us to show that we can be a true learning community. Not just with our peers, but with our students. A community of learners.  As the Coronavirus mutates, we must hybridize.  Would that make us ‘PHCs‘? Professional Hybrid Communities? Here are my random thoughts on how schools will be for the near future, at least in the US.

  1. Teachers will find ways to better connect with and understand students they don’t see face-to-face or have just a smattering of time with, should they show up in class or on camera.
  2. Parents will form strong partnerships with teachers in that there will be much more back-and-forth, rather than leaving it to annual parent-teacher conferences. We need their unstinting support as much as they need ours.
  3. We will all admit that technology is messy. It’s sometimes broken, and cannot be the magic bullet. Meaning, we will stop complaining about poor WiFi, or the audio not working.
  4. We will not forget the larger lessons we are called to teach. Yes we want to help students dot the i’s and cross their ts, but we want them to have grand takeaways that make them better people, not just high GPA achievers.
  5. The clock-watchers will disappear. It won’t matter if we run  ten minutes over to explain the difference between a web browser and a search engine for the eleventh time. The ‘lab work’ won’t end when the Bunsen burner is turned off.

Let’s not allow a virus to kill our enthusiasm. Let’s be safe. But let’s go!

The digital media conundrum

As I prepare a syllabus for a new class on media, I am fascinated by the ambivalence of so many who have moved transitioned from the analog to the digital age.

“On the one hand,” says MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media, “digital technology has been used by progressive social movements” to mobilize citizens to action. But on the other,   we have entered the era of digital media being used for surveillance, “well-funded disinformation campaigns” and extremists.

Newspapers and media organizations also wrestle with this conundrum, as this cartoon aptly captures.

From Editor & Publisher. editorandpublisher.com/cartoons

And you’re still using Facebook?

This country is in flames while Facebook continues to play the game of ‘free speech’ –basically making space for hate speech. In Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia Facebook was called out for this last year – and apologized.

Zuck’s apologies mean nothing!

Today, Facebook’s own employees have called out its morally bankrupt leader on his decision to not take down the innuendo-rich Trump tweet on the “looting…shooting”  in relation to the George Floyd protests.

There’s no point hand-wringing, and criticizing, if you’re still using Facebook. It’s time to quit! The time was two years ago, actually.

Ignoring the warnings while believing in conspiracies

Why is it so easy for people –governments, even– to believe in conspiracy theories, but ignore science? We will have to figure this one out as we deal with Covid-19.

As recently as 2018, Jonathan Quick in the Guardian wrote a detailed explanation of how we must prepare for a ‘looming pandemic,’ so I’m aghast how governments –meaning people in decision-making roles in governments, ignored this.  Here’s an enlightening paragraph, with eerie predictions at that time.

“Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey or pig, preparing to jump to a human being. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of such a threat, for it has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

Some would have dismissed these and other Cassandra-like statements as overblown. The prediction at that time was that a mismanaged pandemic could cost the world 3.5 trillion dollars.

Jonathan Quick (of Harvard Medical School, and Chair of the Global Health Council) used this infographic that puts outbreaks and a pandemic in context. I urge you to read his article, though.

If only our leaders listen to experts rather than attempt to be the experts and geniuses themselves. We didn’t elect them to spread unfounded theories, but to lead.

 

What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

Might robots might fix satellites (and not replace us?)

Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?

One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.

I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.

In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s Thrive Magazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

This is the topic, this week that I brought up at my robotics club meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School

Facebook scrutiny. Why everyone, not just the governments should do it

When it comes to foreign election interference, data theft, and broken promises about safeguarding privacy it’s Facebook and not just some secret government surveillance program we have to guard against. Mark Zuckerberg has become the face of a privatized Big Brother. Ironically it’s the government that’s now trying to peel back the curtain.

As Zuck faces questions on Capitol Hill this week this week, the questions about Libra, it’s cryptocurrency product have been asked. This blockchain product “could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. Libra’s mission, according to the Facebook White Paper, is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.”

The blockchain on which it is based is Libra, and the unit of its currency is also a ‘libra.’ It’s backed by Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and Farfetch among its tech partners.  But others are not well known, such as Bison Trails and Xapo which is a very large crypto storage service.

Much of this –and the lack of trusted names that are part of this group –should give us reason to read behind the lines of what comes out this week. Worth reading the article on The Verge, that called it an attempt to build the ‘Bank of Facebook.’ Or more to the point, that this blockchain move is its secret weapon that will help Facebook “to create a quasi-nation state ruled by mostly corporate interests.” Reuters reports that France and Germany have pledged to block Libra in Europe. Do they know something we don’t?

 

Cutting out “empty words”: Presentations this week in class

This week, my students are preparing their 12-slide presentation for a project titled, “The Future is Now.”

This is the culmination of a research project and a 3-page report based on Google’s Moonshot program. But it’s not just about creating the content and formatting the slides. I tell my students that they happen to be in “a communications class that pretends to be a computer class”. This week they are watching a TED talk by a 12-year old. But there is another student worth watching this week, Greta Thunberg,  the 16-year old activist from Sweden.

She railed against the grown-ups in the room, for stealing this generation’s childhood with their “empty words.” Speaking of Feedback loops, risks, and tipping points, her emotionally-charged speech warned that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

UN Envoy, Sri Lankan, Jayathma Wickramanayake, called climate change “the defining issue of our time. Millions of young people all over the world are already being affected by it.”