Monday, July 19, 2010

My whatchamacallit's gone haywire again.

"My whatchamacallit's gone haywire again. Can you have a look?" I listened to the voicemail a half dozen times. That was the entire message. No name, no telephone number, no date, no time, not even the name of the school. The message was left on my personal cellphone; I suppose I should have known better than to give that out! I did not recognize the caller's voice. I could only assume that it was a teacher calling from one of the schools where our company provides technical support. She probably did not realize that there is a whole team of people here, working with many different schools, addressing many aspects of educational technology. She probably did not consider that, given my role in our organization, it might not be particularly cost-effective for me to serve as first responder whenever a whatchamacallit goes haywire.

A more rational person would simply have deleted the message after hearing it the first time. If it were important enough, the teacher would surely call back and leave a more detailed message. Alas, the obsessive-compulsive side of me could not let it rest. It might be a relative or close friend who expected that I would recognize their voice. I was overcome by curiosity. I began playing the voicemail for other members of our team. Finally someone -- I believe it might have been Tom -- recognized the voice. After searching our memories and databases, we ascertained which district, which school and finally which classroom. We dispatched a member of our technical staff to "have a look." The teacher was not available to discuss the problem. There were about six computers, a printer, a scanner, and one or two other peripheral devices in the classroom. None were marked "out of order."  Each device powered up and appeared to be operating normally, after a quick test. Now what?  It was a wasted visit, since we just did not have enough information to work with: no trouble ticket, no screenshot, no error message, not a clue as to which device was malfunctioning. That teacher was surely frustrated the next day because her whatchamacallit was not repaired, probably interfering with her lesson plan that attempted to integrate technology into the curriculum.

For a long time, it had been my suspicion that each profession developed its own complex jargon primarily as a sort of barrier to entry, to protect practitioners from competition. While that might be partially true, there is in fact tremendous problem solving power to be gained by assigning precise names to things. Computer programmers, for example, spend a great deal of time choosing mnemonic names for variables. The very idea of a variable, after all, is to assign a name to a meaningful quantity whose value is unknown or might change. Names help us remember the relationship between structure and function. Shared names within a community of practitioners make it possible for communication to occur more efficiently -- I want to say, "at higher bandwidth" -- and for best practices to be replicated. (If recipes were to specify 0.3 ml of NaCl, instead of a "pinch of salt," perhaps even I could learn to cook.) Admittedly, sometimes it has been forgotten that giving a phenomenon a name is by no means the same as explaining it. That mistake itself has a name: it is called the "nominal fallacy," and giving this "bug" a name helps us remember to avoid falling into that very trap.

Recently, in one of our summer workshops, I noticed one 11-year-old boy who was especially adept at assembling robots using Legos. I began asking him about this skill, and I soon realized that much of his expertise came from knowing the names of almost every piece. He could describe not only the various types of gears, such as a worm gear, but also their purposes, such as trading speed for power, or changing the direction of rotation. Whether it is Printers or Robots or Internet Service Providers or Flash Drives, no one can deny that technologies of every size and shape will play a fundamental role in the future lives of the children in our schools today. If our goal is to prepare them to live productive lives in this new land, should we not add a few new, technically precise words to our own vocabularies?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ohm's Law is just a theory.

It was a science lab in junior high school. We were studying electricity and magnetism. The assignment was to hook up various circuits involving a battery, some resistors, and a meter. We were to record the readings from the meter and verify that E = IR. This should be easy; I had already built a Ham Radio from a Heath Kit and I even knew how to solder.

This was not a good day. My data did not seem to agree with Mr. Ohm's theory at all. Of course, if it said so in the textbook, it must be true. Perhaps I was doing the calculations wrong? Possibly I was reading the wrong scale on the meter? Or, more likely, was I reading the color codes on the resistors incorrectly? Still, no matter how many times I double-checked my work and re-tried the experiment, E did not turn out to be anywhere close to I times R. I came back and tried again during lunch. I came back after school.  Eventually, I ran out of time and turned in my troubling results. Everyone else seemed to have gotten the right answers during class. I was devastated. In those days, I had thought I would become a physicist; but I began to rethink my career options that evening.

The next day in science class, a tough lesson unfolded for all. The actual wires we had been issued for our Ohm's Law experiments were not the typical hookup wire they appeared to be, the sort one might use for this sort of thing. Our science teacher had played a devious trick on us. He had substituted special, high resistance wires. My data was right! At first I felt angry. Apparently, other students may have "fudged" their data so as to obtain results consistent with the textbook expectations. It was a lesson no one in our class could ever forget, a science teacher's rendition of "the truth shall set you free." My posting about The Science Fair and The Troubleshooting Game, written more than a few decades after that day in science lab, was, without a doubt, a direct consequence of my junior high science teacher and his trick wires.

Instead of a lab, my teacher could have lectured to us about the importance of reporting the data from our experiments carefully and accurately. He could have cited examples of infamous scientists in history who had lost credibility and ruined their careers, when their reported findings could not be replicated and colleagues began to suspect the integrity of their data. We could have taken a multiple choice test about the scientific method and answered questions about simple circuits by solving with Ohm's formula. Instead, he had designed a hands-on learning activity that created a vivid memory, changing forever how his students saw the world. When will we devise assessments that capture this kind of impact?

Current technology provides unprecedented opportunities to design innovative learning activities that build on our students' natural curiosity and wonder, activities that inspire and encourage, activities that demonstrate deep principles and powerful ideas. Unfortunately, technology is so often used, instead, to enable "delivery of information" to become more efficient and slightly more compelling. Providing "training" to teachers on (say) how to do presentations using an interactive white board may lead to improved "delivery." However, the benefit of new technology is severely limited without also radically changing this outworn pedagogical approach. Professional development must go beyond "learning how to operate the device" and instead challenge educators to take on a completely different role: instead of being the "givers of knowledge," great teachers should use technology to create learning experiences that foster a deeper kind of understanding, an internalization and "ownership" of the knowledge that will not be forgotten a few days after passing the test. Our goal for technology integration should be to design learning experiences that change, not just test scores, but lives.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

My grandfather could fix anything. If you had a problem with your electric food mixer, he would take it completely apart. He would lay out every screw, every washer and every wire, neatly and in order on the workbench, to study them. He would write away to the manufacturer to get the schematic and study that as well. He would clean every part so that there was not a spec of dust.  He would oil every moving part carefully and then put it all back together. The whole process would take a long time, but when he finished, your mixer would work even better than when it had first been purchased from the Sears Roebuck Catalog. It might have been his first time tinkering with that particular type of device, but once he was through with it, he could not only explain its theory of operation but he had six ideas on how to design a better one. He was an engineering supervisor at "The Western" (The Western Electric Company, the manufacturing arm of AT&T in those days). He had little opportunity for formal education, but he had lived through two World Wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, had thought deeply about many things and seemed very wise.

So when I obtained my first slide rule, I asked my grandfather how to use it. He was pleased by my interest, but agreed to teach me on one condition: I must first learn to do "figuring" by hand, including an understanding of the principles that enable the slide rule to work. One of his benchmarks was that I must be able to compute cube roots using a procedure similar to long division. Once I had accomplished this goal, I could then also get a circular slide rule. Now, one day I would join Texas Instruments, but long before that day I realized that being able to take a cube root by hand might no longer be an important life skill, since we lived in an era of transistor radios and handheld calculators. My deeper lessons from this experience, however, went to how much my grandfather loved knowledge and wanted to share it, and, especially, how he experienced the importance of mathematics on a personal level in his everyday life.   Students tend to be more astute than we give them credit for; if their teacher "hates math" or considers themselves "bad at math," the main takeaway from math class will be that mathematics is something to be avoided, that even "smart people like our teacher" will get a stomach ache should they ever find themselves in a dark alley face to face with an integral sign. Surely it matters more that students sense our love of learning than that they can name the capitals of all fifty states or recite the value of π to N places?

Meanwhile, the modern version of my grandfather's slide rule debate rages on. Is it bad to give students calculators before they have learned their multiplication tables? Should students be allowed to use Mathematica before they can derive the quadratic formula by completing the square? Should we provide access to Geometer's Sketchpad before students can prove congruency of triangles using side-angle-side? Should students be required to use a hard bound Encyclopædia Britannica before they are given access to Wikipedia? Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions! It was not learning to take a cube root before learning to use a slide rule that stimulated my own intellectual growth; my inspiration came much more from my grandfather's evident passion for a deeper understanding of how things work, all the way down to the individual nuts, bolts, and wires.

When my grandfather retired, my mother and father bought him an electronic musical keyboard, since he loved music but had never had the opportunity for music lessons. It was not the sort of keyboard one might buy for a professional musician: you played the melody with your right hand, by following a color coded system, superimposed over the simplified sheet music; and you added harmony by pressing a single button to select the chords with your left hand. Still, that first night, when he managed after a relatively short time reading the manual to bang out My Wild Irish Rose (in honor of my grandmother, Rose McCloskey), we all sang along and clapped. And I saw a sparkle in my grandfather's eyes that night the likes of which I had not seen since that day when I first took a cube root by hand and then was allowed to learn all about the slide rule.

So I was completely perplexed, the next morning, when I heard that the keyboard was being returned to the store.  What my grandparents really needed, since we lived in New Jersey, was a new set of snow tires.  Someone -- I doubt this was entirely my grandfather's thinking -- had reminded him that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."  Shortly after that, our extended family packed up and moved to the San Diego area;  the snow tires were sold in a garage sale.  And it was not very many years later that my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died.

Sadly, some of our most experienced, senior educators are apparently advocates of the "old dog" canard.  "I've been teaching for 40 years and I never needed more technology than a chalk board and a red pen.  Why should I change now?"  "There just isn't enough room in my classroom for that thing; take it out of here."  "Besides, you can't each an old dog new tricks."  Meanwhile, we live in a world where most people will change careers two to three times in their lifetime, each time learning new skills and completely reinventing themselves.  We all pay lip service to the importance of developing students who will become lifelong learners.  Why do we forget that our students always learn more from our actions than from our words?

One senior educator I knew -- one who had used all of the familiar excuses to avoid integrating technology into their own teaching despite all the pleading and cajoling I could muster -- called me a few months after retiring.  "I just bought a computer.  I have time to learn it, now that I am retired. I want you to show me."  Of course, I was -- mostly -- genuinely delighted.  Still, I have some human faults, so a part of me could not help but thinking, "Why, then, did you deprive your students of this wonderful opportunity to see you finally acting as a lifelong learner? Take the cursed computer back to the store and get the snow tires!"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Few Encouraging Signs

I was already on the opposite side of the Bay when I got the call. I was scheduled to work with a school on "cloning," a procedure to rapidly install software on a large number of computers, without carrying around a stack of CDROMs. Cloning also ensures a consistent experience for students and teachers, so it is one of those "best practices" schools need to learn about and adopt, to ensure that learning is not interrupted by one-of-a-kind glitches and that technical support does not become a black hole of pain. However, this call had to take priority.

It was the school librarian. (This was a public school, but times were better then.) "You have to come right away! All the computers in the library are infected with a virus and it is erasing our hard drives!" I was skeptical, since I knew the library computers to be Macs, but malware infestations on school networks can spread faster than head lice, so I could not ignore the risk. "OK, I will need to cancel my other appointment first, but I can be there in about an hour. Meanwhile, unplug all the computers from the network and turn them off."

When I arrived, the mischievous looks on the faces of several students were my first clue. However, booting up a few of the computers did not show anything obviously wrong, beyond that they were disconnected from the network. I started checking to verify that there was antivirus software installed.  I asked a few questions to find out if anything else had been changed.  Then, the first symptoms kicked in. Even I had to suppress a laugh. These students had managed to bypass the desktop security and install the "Bad Dog" screensaver! In case you have never seen it, the first few minutes of this YouTube video, demonstrating the Windows version, will give you the gist. Besides wasting my day, these students had enjoyed a terrific joke at the expense of a somewhat technophobic educator.

The fear of looking foolish in front of technologically savvy students is one of the great challenges educators need to overcome. This energy and interest in tinkering can be given a positive outlet, by offering students the opportunity to become the modern equivalent of the "A/V kid" (you know, the geeky one who used to thread the filmstrip through the projector). I have also noticed that high technological expertise -- once a social stigma for youngsters -- now seems to increase social standing. I see this as a very encouraging sign.

There are other encouraging signs, suggesting that adoption of innovative technology may be starting to take hold and perhaps even starting to matter. One reason is that so many amazing things are now either incredibly lower in cost than their previous counterparts or they are entirely free.  Other trends I cannot explain but they seem to be positive ones.  Here are a few of my current personal favorites.

  • Netbooks, FlexBooks, eReaders, iPads, iPhones, Droids
  • Creative Commons
  • Google Docs and Apps (Cloud Computing in general)
  • GAVRT (Lewis Center for Educational Research): Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope
  • Our Courts (Sandra Day O’Connor)
  • High Performing Charter Schools
  • Parent Volunteerism; Millennial Students
  • Robotics, including cheap sensors

It might be a coincidence, but it also occurs to me that we not had to deal with a school emergency involving a virus infestation for a very long time.  The threats are real, but growing numbers of schools seem to have finally  adopted some best practices, such as installing modern firewalls and keeping virus definitions up-to-date.  I'll have more to say about these and other encouraging signs in future posts.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Top Ten Barriers to Adoption of Innovative Technology in Schools

It was the early nineties. In those days, I worked for an incredibly exciting technology company, one that has since removed the word "computer" from its name. Many of us in the company's R&D group were passionate about emerging commercialization of what had formerly been called the ARPA Network. Imagine a hyperlinked network of computers enabling anyone, anytime, anywhere to access all of the world's information! Unfortunately, all of the major vendors still believed that they could somehow own this "online service" opportunity, such as by providing better, proprietary content: America Online, Microsoft/MSN, Compuserve and Apple each had proponents of this belief. That "no one is in charge" of the Internet was incomprehensible. Indeed, when one of our Programs embarked on an experiment where we connected a T1 line to a school, to see what would happen and how it might be used for learning and teaching, we were told by a senior official in K-12 Marketing that it was an ill-advised, boutique project, since schools would never have that sort of bandwidth!

In those days, "using the 'net" meant learning FTP, Telnet, Usenet, Gopher and such. Most people outside of the computer science community found these applications to be esoteric and inaccessible. However, within R&D we were contributing to sponsorship of a new application being developed at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications, called Mosaic. Mosaic enabled non-techies to browse the emerging world wide web -- what most people now mean when they say "Internet." I was charged with organizing a demonstration to try to ensure that our senior decision-makers really understood the significance of this new technology and would continue supporting the project. The meeting was to be at 8:00 AM. My team stayed until very late the night before, setting up equipment, testing the Internet connection to the room, bookmarking the URLs for compelling examples, and so on. When we left for the evening, everything was working well and we were ready for the big event.

Alas, at 7:45 AM the next morning, as the various Vice Presidents were wandering in, we discovered, much to our dismay, that the network was down. Fortunately, we had ordered food and beverages; no one would attend a meeting if you did not offer food and beverages. I was getting ready to do a tap dance, while we continued frantically troubleshooting. The computer was fine, the cable was fine, the wall outlet tested good, and there was even working Internet in other rooms in the building. Finally, at 8:05 AM or so, we found it, just in time to capture most of our audience before they left in disgust! In order to plug in the coffee pot, since there were not enough power outlets, the custodian had unplugged the router. After all, it was just a box in a closet that no one seemed to be using, so unplugging it shouldn't matter.

The reader might be thinking, "Sure, but that was a long time ago. People know better nowadays." Unfortunately, that would be incorrect. Even recently, we have seen trouble tickets in schools where a teacher actually unplugged the power to the classroom switch in order to plug in their laptop, and then reported that the network was down. And we frequently encounter schools where the copier, fax machine, and server cannot all be operated at the same time without blowing a fuse.

My point is that there remain serious barriers to successful adoption of technology in schools, challenges that might not seem to matter, until you have spent some time in the trenches. Here are my top ten. In homage to David Letterman, I'll count backwards; but in honor of Kernighan and Ritchie, I'll end at zero.

#9. Unenlightened Assessment
#8. Passwords
#7. Financial Disincentives
#6. Proprietary Lock-in
#5. Regulatory Environment
#4. Parents
#3. Systemic Resistance to Change
#2. Inadequate Professional Development and Technical Support
#1. Insufficient and Inequitable Access
#0. Budget

Most of these barriers require further explanation; I will elaborate in future posts. I also hope to suggest some ways to overcome the challenges. Some barriers, such as those posed by well-intended parents, simultaneously suggest a glimmer of hope. And, no doubt, I have missed a few. Readers are encouraged to share comments, both to remind us of barriers we have overlooked, and to help find ways to tear the barriers down.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Please join us at SVII Wednesday

If you are local to the S.F. Bay Area, please join us for a live dinner discussion at the SVII First Wednesday Society Dinner, at Bay Cafe & Restaurant, 1875 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, on these and related topics. Other panelists include Ruben Kleiman from Netflix, Murugan Pal from CK-12 Foundation, Jim Spohrer from IBM, and Cameron Curry from The Classical Academies. Howard Lieberman from SVII will serve as moderator. Bring your laptop and help us brainstorm initiatives to tear down the barriers to technology innovation in education!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

How Timmy Got a Laptop

One of my favorite Bizarro cartoons, by Dan Piraro, shows a kindergarten class.  The children are sitting in a circle on the floor when their classroom door opens: it is a telephone call for one of the children.  Zack's father is calling from work: he needs help with his computer!  This would not seem so funny if it did not ring true.  That children know more about technology than their parents -- and certainly exhibit far less fear of it -- is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities for using technology more successfully in our schools.

Recently, my friend Barbara shared this real example.  (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)  Timmy is twelve years old.  He is visiting his school library.  By now you know that this must be a private school, since it not only still has a library but it even has a librarian!  On his way out, Timmy spies what appears to be an Apple laptop computer in the trash.  He asks the librarian, "Excuse me, Ms. Lacey, but did you really mean to throw that computer away?"

"Yes, it went dead on us."
"Well, then, do you think I could have it?"
"Because I'd like to try to fix it."

So, Ms. Lacey hands Timmy the broken laptop, but without either a battery or a power adapter.  Timmy  takes the computer home and begins tinkering.  Soon, Timmy calls up his Big Pal, Joseph, to ask for help with the laptop.  Joseph, a doctoral candidate at a prestigious institution, comes over that weekend to try to help.  Next, Timmy and Joseph visit the Genius Bar at a nearby Apple store.  The Apple genius provides additional help.  Still, the computer is still not completely operational.  Back at school, the librarian asks Tim how it is going with the dead computer.  Timmy tells her about their progress and the help that they received at the Genius Bar, but he also mentions the difficulty of making further progress without a battery.  Impressed by Timmy's resourcefulness, Ms. Lacey says, "OK, as long as you really think you can fix it, here, take the battery, too."

Needless to say, having the battery results in huge leaps forward.  Joseph's brother, known to friends and family as a "computer whiz," joins the fray, jury-rigs a compatible power adapter, and before you know it, the laptop is operational once again.  Timmy becomes ecstatic, running around the house, jumping up and down like a maniac!  (It is left as an exercise for the reader to guess what happened once Timmy's school learned that the discarded computer had been revived.)

 One reason I like this story is that Timmy, while extremely bright, did not get the computer working completely on his own.  Instead, what he did was to draw upon his network of resources, including adults, to solve a problem that actually involved overcoming a series of sub-problems.  His ability to accomplish results through others suggests a bright future in management.  In earlier times, Timmy might have invited us to help whitewash the fence.

Readers might wonder how a computer that could be repaired by a twelve-year old, with a little help, could have ended up in the trash, in the first place.  Remember that grown-ups have neither the time nor the patience to fight with a computer that continues to misbehave after multiple repair attempts.  Inadequate technical support, even in private schools, remains one of the major barriers to successful technology integration.  The further  reality that the labor costs to repair technology often exceed the replacement value has contributed not only to growing landfills but also to inaccurate data about how much technology is really out there in our schools.  (Schools often keep their dead computers around for a while and continue to count them when reporting student:computer ratios, since better ratios make for better public relations.)  Student labor, however, is not expensive.  Even younger students have the time, patience, curiosity and motivation to just keep googling and tinkering until they get the darned thing working again.  Often, there is nothing to lose if they are unsuccessful, so why not let them try?  As one element in an overall strategy for improved technical support in our schools, student tech teams can play an important role.

Please "follow" my blog!

If you have been reading and enjoying these posts, please follow my blog!

There are several benefits to following blogs, including:

  • Notification of new postings
  • Google Friend Connect provides a "Reading List" feature, making it easy to keep track of new postings you have not yet read, for each the blogs that you follow
  • People who know you and respect your taste will be more likely to read this blog
  • Other readers may be more likely to read comments posted by followers
  • If a growing number of people follow my blog, I'm far more likely to keep posting!

To follow a blog, you must have an account on any one of these services: Google, Twitter, Yahoo!, AIM, Netlog, or OpenID.  There are many reasons to have an account beyond following blogs, and accounts are both free and easy to set up.

So, if you are enjoying this discussion, please let us know by becoming a follower.  More importantly, the discussion will become richer and create a sense of community through comments from readers.  If you have an idea to share or just think a post is interesting, cool, or funny, please let us know!  Posts are moderated and you must have an account on one of the above systems; this is just to provide minimal accountability and help ensure a respectful, "on topic" conversation.

Please don't be shy -- join our conversation!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Science Fair and The Troubleshooting Game

It is early February.  E-Rate applications (to help our client schools obtain Federal funding for technology) are due any day now, but nevertheless I am volunteering a bit of time to serve as a judge at a  Science Fair.  After all, everyone wants to encourage students' interests in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM].

The project I am discussing with the other judges is going to end up being awarded an Honorable Mention.  The student looked at factors influencing plant growth.  Some plants were given water, Miracle Grow, and sunlight.  Others were given water and sunlight, but no Miracle Grow.  And so on.  Some were just given water, and the last group was given Clorox Bleach instead of water.  The student's hypothesis was that the plants given water, Miracle grow, and sunlight would thrive and that the Clorox plants would die.  There were weekly measurements of plant height and leaf size over several months.  The display was neat and it was apparent that a computer had been used to prepare a spreadsheet showing all the data including graphical representations of the effect of various factors.  The key elements of "the scientific method," as prescribed by the Fair rules, were clearly present.  So why was I troubled by the award of an Honorable Mention?  To me, an "interesting" science experiment is one where you offer a hypothesis that stretches known science -- at least a little bit -- and where your predicted outcome flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  For example, if the Clorox plants had flourished, that would be interesting!  The scoring rules limited our options, but my position was that this project showed no imagination, no questioning of textbook knowledge, no risk-taking, no innovation, no improvisation.  Yes, it did show ability to follow directions, ability to recite the steps of the scientific method, and an all-too-rare work ethic.  I found it troubling that, from the moment this project was conceived, it was a slam dunk; student, parents and teacher could be confident it would earn a good score.  I worry that, too often, such well-intended activities merely enable students to learn "about the scientific method;" they do not necessarily enable students to experience what "being a scientist" is all about.

In our summer camps and after school programs, we play a different game, one that involves troubleshooting with technology.  Teams of students are each allowed to insert one or more faults into a computer system or network.  (We start with one hardware problem and later progress to software problems, network problems, and situations were there are multiple faults.)  Before they are allowed to insert the fault, they must make a prediction as to what the effect will be on system operation.  Then they must prepare a "Trouble Ticket" that makes a clear distinction between observed symptoms and underlying causes.  Another team must then diagnose and repair the fault.  There are many variations of The Troubleshooting Game.  Sometimes, Instructors set up the faults, to illustrate particular issues.  Sometimes, it is a Help Desk scenario, where students must troubleshoot over the telephone, without being able to see the computer screen or other faulty device.  Often it is a timed race.  The grand finale might involve students inserting a complex cluster of faults, after which it becomes the task of the Instructor to face such a challenge with an honest risk of failure.  It isn't "rigged."

The Troubleshooting Game of course provides practice for skills ranging from, "make sure everything is plugged in," to "turn it off, count to ten, and turn it back on" to "listen for the secret phrase."  However, when these simpler, "triage" tricks do not solve the problem, a more careful reasoning process must then be used.  For example, suppose there are two identical computer systems.  One is working normally, but in this case the screen on the second system is dark.  What might be wrong?  To formulate possible hypotheses about the fault, we must reason backwards from symptoms to possible underlying causes.  Perhaps the brightness was turned down to zero?  Perhaps the monitor is defective?  Perhaps the video card has failed (or is just not seated correctly in the slot)?  Is there an experiment we could devise that would provide evidence supporting some hypotheses but not others?  What about swapping the monitor from the failing computer with the "known good" monitor from the working computer?  If the symptom "follows" the monitor, what should we conclude?  These student-devised experiments must be improvised on the spot, in collaboration with a team and under time pressure.  Again, the activity is not "rigged" because the "right answer" is not known in advance.

Now let's suppose the "known good" monitor works correctly on the formerly dark computer.  Does this prove that the problem was a bad monitor?  Let's check!  Let's try putting the allegedly bad monitor on the known good cpu.  In this case, strangely, it works!  OK, then, let's try putting the allegedly bad monitor (which has just been shown to work correctly on the good cpu) back on the originally dark computer.  Wow!  Now both computers are working fine!  How can this possibly be?  In this case, the cable connection from the monitor to the computer might have been just loose enough to cause the dark screen symptom.  The very process of doing our fault isolation experiments resulted in correcting the problem.  (This sort of "observer effect" is reminiscent of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.)

In my view, the experience of students playing our little game feels more like "being a scientist" than at least some of the Science Fair projects I have been asked to judge.  Except for the most trivial or contrived examples, the reasoning involved in troubleshooting corresponds precisely to the steps of the scientific method, as applied to human-designed (rather than nature-designed) artifacts.  Experiments tend to be easily replicated and data tends to be somewhat less ambiguous, which seems fine for students lacking the resources or statistical training to require p < .05 before an "Aha!" moment is allowed.   Students love "The Game" and beg for additional opportunities to play it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Once you hear the secret phrase, you know you are getting warm.

A teacher presents with this problem: many parents say they aren't getting her electronic newsletters.

After some investigation, I notice that some of her messages are "stuck" in the email queues on the server.  Since I deal with these sorts of issues often, I immediately suggest double-checking whether the addresses on a few of the stuck messages are incorrect.  Although it is not unusual for people to say that they double-checked, often there is a typographical error.  "No, that's not it."  "Well, OK, at least the syntax of the email addresses seems to be correct.  Let's explore some other hypotheses."

Next, I notice that the date on the stuck messages is 12/31/1969; but this is 2008.  "Aha!" say I. Perhaps some of the servers at the parental receiving end are not accepting the messages based on the absurd date.  And, for those cases where the messages did not appear stuck in the queue, yet the intended recipients still claim that they never got them, very likely they are buried in an automated Junk folder or just at the wrong end of a very large inbox sorted by date. "Obviously, the clock battery is dead on your computer.  If you replace the battery and then set the date correctly, this will stop happening."  I provide detailed instructions on how to remove the old battery and take it to Radio Shack.  "It will cost about $12.  Do not tell the person at the store that it happens to be for a Macintosh computer."  (Store personnel will invariably say that they do not carry parts for Macintosh computers.)  Great!  Problem solved ... or so I thought.

A few weeks later, I get another call from the same teacher.  "It is still happening."  After some back and forth to verify that the battery was indeed replaced and that the computer is now showing the correct date and time, I have to admit that I am stumped.  Perhaps there is a wrong date on the school firewall or a proxy server? Perhaps the teacher uses one computer to send the newsletters but a different one for daily work such as individual email?  The conversation goes on, via electronic mail, for several more weeks.  I am truly baffled.  Then one day, it happens, the email equivalent of a casual comment in the hallway: "well, actually, the newsletters are being sent out by the FileMaker server; but that shouldn't matter, should it?"  The secret phrase, at last!

Troubleshooting and its software equivalent, Debugging -- whether it is for an electronic mail delivery problem or an overly enthusiastic toaster or a sound system where one channel is silent -- these are the topics and thinking skills that have always fascinated me.  Sadly, this topic is not even mentioned in the "core content standards" taught by our schools.  Yet, people who are crack troubleshooters become far more valuable employees in practice (whether in IT or in countless other fields) than those who lack this skill but who list A+, MCSE, CCNA, Ph.D. or whatever other forms of certification on their résumés.  Often the clues to what is going wrong come from observations of the user, the environment, the organization or the situation, rather than the faulty device itself.

The above anecdote illustrates just one example of a powerful troubleshooting technique.  Time and time again, I have noticed that, the moment the user tells you, "bla bla bla, but that shouldn't matter!" you are finally getting very close to the crux of the matter.  Invariably, a closer look at whatever it is that shouldn't matter will lead you straight away to what is wrong.  It is like that other simple trick -- turning it off, counting to ten, and turning it back on -- which also fixes so many problems.  The trick of asking what might have changed that "shouldn't matter" is among the most powerful tools in the kit used by skillful troubleshooters.  As easy as this is to understand and remember, it seems almost criminal that we not only do not consider it part of the "core content curriculum" for all students, we do not even bother to share such powerful little tricks and habits of mind with our educators.  Anyone who has ever helped another person "fix their computer" has heard this phrase countless times.  Why are we keeping this phrase and other tricks of the troubleshooting trade a secret?  And where, in our broken education system, are the pundits saying, "bla, bla, bla, but that shouldn't matter?"  If we dig deeper around those areas, we are apt to get a clue how to fix this thing.  Surely, making Troubleshooting / Debugging a required subject for both students and teachers is going to be part of the solution.  But wait, didn't Seymour Papert tell us this, years ago?

Does school technology even matter?

In a little town, not so long ago, but certainly far far away, concerned citizens openly wondered whether technology mattered much in their schools.  In this town, after a good deal of money had been spent to purchase computers about five years ago, kids were being sent down the hallway for 45 minutes, once per week, to the computer lab, thereby allowing the regular classroom teacher to have a prep period.  In the computer lab, there was a "computer teacher," who introduced keyboarding skills and demonstrated the proper procedures for setting the margins in a popular word processing application, using a version of that software that was no longer being sold or supported by the manufacturer.  The activities used for word processing practice had little to do with any topics being discussed in the regular classroom (such as, say, how to properly address a business letter to be printed on paper and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service).  A few months later, informal analysis of recent standardized test scores revealed that those classrooms visiting the computer lab once per week for three months did, in fact, score slightly higher than those that did not; but the difference was not statistically significant.  Since funding for the town's schools had dwindled, year after year, and other programs such as sports, music, and art were facing budget cuts, this disappointing data was cited by several outspoken taxpayers during a heated School Board discussion.  The meeting concluded by cutting the budget line items, not only for the upgraded word processing software, but also the salary for the computer teacher.  The technology program wasn't improving test scores much, anyway.  So, reducing funding for it really shouldn't matter.  Right?

Like those taxpayers, my parents never were very excited about computers, perhaps partly because of early assumptions about what benefits might or might not derive from using them.  So many things -- such as the emergence of commercial air travel -- changed in their lifetimes.  (To this day, more than a few people from my parents' generation actually take pride in their inability to use those silly, time-wasting contraptions; some are still employed as teachers.)  Their son, however, was born into that first generation of students fortunate enough to so much as lay hands on a computer before graduating from high school.  Even to do that much, I first had to be selected for a special summer program at a nearby University.  Touching that first computer changed my life.  From that moment forward, the potential of technology to change how I learned anything -- how people could learn anything -- became my life obsession.  Several years later, when I heard Seymour Papert at MIT talk about how every school -- indeed every child -- should have a computer, as their own personal power tool for learning -- while more sensible folks were laughing at the economic infeasibility of this notion -- I did not laugh; I was captivated.    When Alan Kay envisioned the Dynabook, in Scientific American -- the conceptual forerunner to Apple's new iPad -- folks more worldly-wise than I will ever be explained that such a thing could never be made sufficiently cost-effective for public education; but I remained transfixed.

The children who come into our schools today -- the first generation for whom computers have always been part of their lives -- part of their furniture and a permanent attachment to their ears -- often carry more computer power in their back pockets than the million dollar computers I was allowed to use in grad school.  Possibly they are learning more on the school bus, using these devices, than they learn in class during an entire school day.  Even parents are surprised and sometimes shocked to find that all such devices must be powered down at the school entrance, on penalty of confiscation.  For our children, going to school is a lot like boarding a commercial airliner: after clearing security, we are strapped in our seats, the pilot decides where we are going, how we will get there, and when we will arrive; and -- even though most of us may have difficulty believing it --  we are told that the tiny signals from our small devices might somehow interfere with much more important communications and cause the airplane of public education to fall right out of the sky.

For a very long time, educational technologists, myself included, have been utterly convinced that there is something almost magical about these tools for helping people learn.  Technology in schools is no longer a "yes or no?" question, but more of a "how much?" and "of what kind?" question.  Yet the reality of what happens in schools almost universally falls far short of the tremendous potential we envision.  Why is that?  Why aren't these incredible devices being used in more empowering ways?  Why does school technology so often look like that little town, far, far away, where "computer" is a "subject" you spend 45 minutes a week learning about?  What are the barriers preventing a more enlightened approach from taking hold and changing everything?  Obviously cost has historically been a major obstacle; but Moore's Law has dramatically altered the math here; and if money were the only problem, then why is it that even economically disadvantaged children, nowadays, seem to have better technology at home than at school?  What are the barriers preventing powerful networks of knowledge devices from utterly transforming our schools? The answers to these questions matter a great deal for our children and for their future.  Through anecdotes and years of hard knocks, I hope I might make a small contribution here toward understanding how we can make technology matter more in our schools.