Friday, February 17, 2012

Digital Education

I recall as a first-year English teacher, with a focus on lingusitics, I walked into an 11th grade classroom and said I wanted us to examine descriptive and generative grammars rather than  traditional grammar that had its roots in Latin. While the latter taught students how to create pretty diagrams with a place for every part of speech and interjection placed smartly somewhere in that grammar cloud, it really did not teach them about how language was generated and did not actually describe actual language use cases.   

My department chairman didn't understand the need to replace a pedagogy that had been taught for a century, but to his credit didn't get in the way of this experimentation and even sat in on some of my uneven classes where we discussed lingusitic, semantics, and generative language with luster if not always precision.

I read on Twitter this morning that the Kane Academy, an online video tutorial, since 2006 has delivered 86.6 million lessons and more than 100 million exercises.  The site has approximately 3,000 videos and attracts 3,700,000 unique users per month. To say Kane is rethinking the world of education is an understatement. Founder Salman Khan boldly offers a free world class education in math, the sciences, and the humanities. So, if you want help in solving linear equations, learn more about Newton, Leibnitz and Usain Bolt, or get to the heart of Descartes and Cartesian logic, this is the place to be.  The beauty of these videos is that they are fun, easy to follow, and a long way from my generative grammar classes.

As I write this I'm listening to yet another discussion of the challenges facing the teaching profession in New York and find it, as a lifelong educator, somewhat medieval.  Beyond chesting-thumping by politicians and teacher unions, a sobering truth remains, perhaps best described in Tom Friedman's book, "That Used to Be Us."  American students lag far behind China, Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Japan in math, reading and science. Resolving tenure and retention issues do not get to the heart of the matter.

Of course, the new online offerings could not exist without search engine advances but they are more focused, driven by consumer needs and appetites, emphasizing knowledge over search., discussing Wolfram Alpha, puts it nicely. "First released in 2009, Wolfram Alpha presents a different way of interacting with knowledge and data than anything else out there on the web. Built on the foundation of Wolfram's Mathematica product. Wolfram Alpha is a 'knowledge engine' instead of a 'search engine' that we've all become familiar with. What that means is that Wolfram Alpha is more structured in the query field you use to access it, the data it uses as a source, and the results that it gives you."

So Wolfram Alpha can return answers to math or scientific queries and provide answers to its structured data. People don't want answers; they want reports.  The company will accept up to sixty file types, vector graphics, 3D geometry filles, audio files, spread sheets and custom formats from science, medicine and mathematics. If Wolfram offers any magic it is the ability to find the narrative in the data.

I acknowledge the Wolfram example, while interesting, might be esoteric. We know that education is undergoing a digital transformation and it's reasonable to ask, as has done, if we are to stay with the current notion of public education, who is going to teach students the necessary programming  and coding skills. In a way, much as educational videos might be useful adjuncts to the classroom, what is becoming more fundamental for both teachers and students is the ability to write or at least understand code. For example, Codeacademy, a New York-based online training academy, told Forbes that "Coding is the literacy of the 21st century."

More than 500,000 students from 200 countries have signed up for this academy primarily through Facebook and Twitter, though the number is surely larger since you don't have to open an account to take a course.

I have talked to students and educators in China and India about these offerings. China seems to have particular advantages. The country's commitment to science and math education is well established. China also has a huge resource problem and simply can't afford to print textbooks for hundreds of millions of students. Thus the push to use smartphones, tablets and e-readers for educational purposes. Moreover, I'm told the numbers of high school students in China learning to write code is increasing at a fast pace. The Chinese government might censor speech, but it seems to understand that coding and related skills indeed represent the literacy of the 21st century. America still does not seem to understand the advantages of China's state capitalism.

This is not an esoteric skill. As a point of reference I regularly check job postings at Google, Amazon, B&N, Twitter, Facebook and a raft of tech start-up companies.  In my informal survey I note that a large percentage of positions require coding and programming skills and facility with data fields.

I've been told that Google-and this is likely tribal storytelling--has asked job candidates to discuss HTML5 and Emerson's "Ode to Beauty," preferably in the same sentence.

No word on the casualty rate.



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