Computers in classroom have ‘mixed’ impact on learning: OECD report

The Globe and Mail and other sources are reporting that Computers in classroom have ‘mixed’ impact on learning. This is based on an OECD report titled Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection. The overall conclusion is that teaching is about the individual student and can’t be automated. Computers aren’t necessarily good for learning – they should be used for specific projects and used to teach real-world digital skills.

Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. (p. 3 of Report)

The Globe quotes Prof. Slotta of OISE to the effect that:

Technology is most effective in the classroom when it is used to develop skills similar to those that adults are using in everyday life, such as finding resources, critiquing arguments, communicating with peers, solving problems and working with data…

Skimming the report and the slide deck shows a complex picture where often countries like Japan have fewer computers in classrooms and do better on learning. Massive investment in computers like that of school boards who get laptops for every child doesn’t seem to lead to improvements in learning.

Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services. (p. 3 of Report)

The report also looked at loneliness and confirmed what parents have suspected,

Last but not least, most parents and teachers will not be surprised by the finding that students who spend more than six hours on line per weekday outside of school are particularly at risk of reporting that they feel lonely at school, and that they arrived late for school or skipped days of school in the two weeks prior to the PISA test.

The slide show prepared by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD suggest that there are larger questions about what sorts of skills should we be teaching in the coming age of automation. The second slide says “The kind of things that are easy to teach are now easy to automate, digitize or outsource.” A slide titled The Race between Technology and Education (title from work by Goldin and Katz) suggests that there is social pain when technology isn’t matched with education. The conclusion is that we need education for a world where many jobs can be automated. Just as the industrial revolution caused social pain in the form of dislocation and unemployment, so too could AI.

Building Research Capacity Across the Humanities

On Monday I gave a talk at the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) on:

Building Research Capacity Across the Humanities and Social Sciences: Social Innovation, Community Engagement and Citizen Science

The talk began with the sorry state of public support for the humanities. We frequently read how students shouldn’t major in the humanities because there are no jobs and we worry about dropping enrolments. The social contract between our publics (whose taxes pay for public universities) and the humanities seems broken or forgotten. We need to imagine how to re-engage the local and international communities interested in what we do. To that end I proposed that we:

  • We need to know ourselves better so we can better present our work to the community. It is difficult in a university like the University of Alberta to know what research and teaching is happening in the social sciences and humanities. We are spread out over 10 different faculties and don’t maintain any sort of shared research presence.
  • We need to learn to listen to the research needs of the local community and to collaborate with the community researchers who are working on these problems. How many people in the university know what the mayor’s priorities are? Who bothers to connect the research needs of the local community to the incredible capacity of our university? How do we collaborate and support the applied researchers who typically do the work identified by major stakeholders like the city. Institutes like the Kule Institute can help document the research agenda of major community stakeholders and then connect university and community researchers to solve them.
  • We need to learn to connect through the internet to communities of interest. Everything we study is of interest to amateurs if we bother to involve them. Crowdsourcing or “citizen science” techniques can bring amateurs into research in a way that engages them and enriches our projects.

In all three of these areas I described projects that are trying to better connect humanities research with our publics. In particular I showed various crowdsourcing projects in the humanities ending with the work we are now doing through the Text Mining the Novel project to imagine ways to crowdsource the tagging of social networks in literature.

One point that resonated with the audience at DIPF was around the types of relationships we need to develop with our publics. I argued that we have to learn to co-create research projects rather than “trickle down” results. We need to develop questions, methods and answers together with community researchers rather think that do the “real” research and then trickle results down to the community. This means learning new and humble ways of doing research.

The Cult of Sharing

Mike Bulajewski has written an excellent critique of the The Cult of Sharing. He describes the way ideas of community and sharing are being exploited by a new type of cult-like company like Airbnb and Uber. Under the guise of sharing and building community these companies are bypassing employment and labor legislation. What’s worse is that they are painting basic labor rights as the outdated way of doing things.

That’s because they’ve adopted a kind of cultural critique of capitalism. For them, the problem with capitalism is not the system itself, but rather depraved contemporary Western culture, which is greedy, individualistic, selfish and acquisitive, and rewards greedy, corrupt, ill-intentioned individuals. The opponents of the so-called culture of greed see the behavior of Black Friday shoppers and Wall Street bankers as equal manifestations of the same general phenomenon, and perhaps believing that we get the leaders we deserve, conclude that the public’s moral flaws makes them in some way responsible for the greed of Wall Street.

The sharing economy is clearly not the kind of economy where wealth and prosperity is shared between rich and poor. On the contrary, it worsens income inequality and concentrates wealth in the hands of those who need it the least. Progressive advocates are well aware of this, but they also see an upside: these startups teach their workers moral lessons about sharing, community, giving and service with a smile.

I’m not sure this is going to be the problem Bulajewski thinks it will be, but he has me worried. I hope that that shine of sharing will wear off and consumers/sharers will begin to treat this as any other industry. I also think the media will soon start reporting the downside of staying on someone’s couch or getting a ride with someone who isn’t licensed. It’s like the internet, which we all thought was a nice sharing community, until it wasn’t.

Social Innovation

Last month the Province of Alberta proposed to create a Social Innovation Endowment to “help foster new, solution-oriented approaches to solving Alberta’s complex social challenges…”. The endowment fund will be $1 billion which should generate eventually $45 million a year towards research, knowledge dissemination and prototype partnerships.

As a government announcement from March 4th puts it, “Bill 1 creates the largest social innovation endowment in Canada…” This Social Innovation fund is not the first fund to support research. We have funds supporting medical research and scientific research: the Alberta Heritage Science and Engineering Research Endowment Fund (AHSER) and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Endowment Fund (AHFMR) and there are other smaller ones.

The Social Innovation fund, however, fleshes out a full suite of funds supporting research in Alberta. The U of Alberta President, Indira Samarasekera has praised the establishment of the Social Innovation fund for this reason. It is the “third pillar” of funding (after medical and scientific/engineering) that will support the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

This leads to questions about what is Social Innovation and  How to innovate. What could this fund support? How can humanists and artists imagine their research fitting under the rubric social innovation? To answer these questions I have put together a list of links and readings I found useful and will be supplementing it.