Category Archives: Educational technology

Technology sprints; understanding plods.

This being Computer Science Education Week, Tuesday evening’s #RuralEdChat was about the role of technology in education.

Black and gray cover of Koestler's Darkness at Noon

A political prisoner reconsiders impact of technology on history.

As so often happens, I ran across an unrelated passage in a novel I’m reviewing tomorrow at GreatPenformances, which struck me as related.

The novel is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, the novel is about Nicholar Salmanovitch Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, in an unnamed country that certainly is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. (Koestler was a communist until 1938 and spent time in Russia.)

Rubashov is arrested for acts against the Party. He’s being held until he produces a suitable confession, at which time he knows he will be killed.

Rubashov writes a diary, meditating on his political career and contemporary history.

He says, in effect that history swings from absolutism to democracy, then from democracy to absolutism, depending on the political maturity of a country’s citizens. That maturity, Rubashov writes, depend on citizens recognizing what’s in their own best interests. Here’s part of that entry:

Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization. …

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy … Until the next jump of technical civilization … again sets back the masses in a state of relative immaturity, and renders possible or even necessary the establishment of some form of absolute leadership.

Rubashov likens the ability of citizens to understand the impact of technology to the progress of a boat through a series of locks. The boat rises within its lock, but even at the top of its lock, it is far from the level to which it must rise to make progress forward. The mistake of socialism, he thinks, was that it assumed the people’s ability to understand the implications of new technology rises steadily.

The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine. The capitalist system will collapse before the masses have understood it.

We probably would do well to consider whether the fictional Rubashov is right about how long it takes people to understand the true impact of any new technology.

If he’s right, we’re in deep trouble.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni


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Are you a technologically literate teacher?

blog post title against collage of technology graphics

Could you, for example, walk into the office of a typical small business somewhere in America — a construction company, for example, or an independently-owned convenience store with fewer than 10 workers — and begin work immediately doing routine work, such as answering the phone and taking messages, using the office computer for recording receipts and disbursements, and faxing documents to state agencies?

Naturally, you’ll say you’d need some training. That’s undoubtedly true.

What’s also true, however, is that small business people expect college-educated people to know or be able to pick up very quickly skills that people with a high school education do every day.

I believe that being able to pick up new skills quickly is going to be the most sought-after attribute of 21st century workers.

The last time I tried to hire an editorial assistant for my publishing business, I asked people who’d lived in this community all their lives for suggestions. An ex-teacher was highly recommended.

She was interested in the work and the pay until I told her we use Open Office rather than Microsoft products because that’s what my customers use.

That was a deal breaker.

“I’d have to go take a course to learn how to use it,” she said.

The woman might have been a wonderful teacher, but she didn’t have the technology skills for an entry-level job in a small business.

If you have to go take a training course in a software program before you can use it, you can’t handle an entry-level job in a small business.

Folks, one word processing program is pretty much like another.

And if your skills are up to the challenge of the entry-level work in 2017, can you honestly say you’re able to prepare your students for today’s workplace, let alone tomorrow’s?

Related reading:

Work Experience as Education

The Collaboration Model for Entry Level Jobs

Dear Applicant: The reason you weren’t hired.



Filed under Educational technology, Lifelong learning

1989 NY distance learning pilot holds ideas for today

The DCMO-BOCES began a distance learning program in 1985.  The belief then was that distance classes were suitable only for highly motivated academic achievers, so the program offered AP courses, some of which could be taken for college credit.

In 1989, when I was the program’s coordinator,  we tried a summer session for eighth grade youngsters whose home schools predicted they would not graduate if they continued on their current trajectory.Screenshot of abstract about STAR program in ERIC database

Seventeen students at four schools participated in the 20-day, 60-hour Summer Telelearning for Academic Renewal (STAR) program. They were tied into a single class via phone lines with then state-of-the-art modems that permitted voice and data to be transmitted on a single dial-up land line. Each site had a single IBM computer, which everyone clustered around, and a speakerphone.

Blended learning, 1989 style

Roughly 90 minutes online of each day’s program was online and 90 minutes offline.

Each school site had a teacher who supervised the group at that site and taught the full four-site class during a quarter of the online time.

When one teacher was presenting, teachers at the other three sites participated in the whole-class activities just as if they were students themselves. That gave teachers a students’-eye-view of what constituted good teaching in the online environment.

Although there were many problems with technology, inadequate training, poorly defined expectations, there were some rather unexpected successes.

Team teaching benefits

Having a team of teachers sharing the teaching—and all its frustrations—turned out to be hugely important for students.

I suspect most of the students had never seen adults disagree without resorting to verbal or physical abuse. Their vocabularies were limited to the most basic words.  They lacked appropriate vocabulary for expressing frustration or anger.

In the team teaching environment, students mimicked the ways teachers interacted. By the third day of class, students were saying “please” and “thank you” without anyone having suggested they do so.

They also quickly caught on ways to express frustration without verbally attacking the person who aroused their ire. We heard them offer suggestions (“perhaps you could try—”) rather than criticism.

2 ideas that might update

Two ideas from that 1989 experience that might be worth investigating with 2015 technology are

  • Teacher teams at different locations share presentation responsibilities
  • Teachers participate along with students in the activities the instructing teacher assigns

The report I wrote about the experience is an ERIC document; however, since the original was not in digital format it is not readily available. Thanks to a very helpful librarian at SUNY Oneonta’s Milne Library who remembered how to use an ancient machine (I think it was microfiche) in the basement, I was able to print a copy three years ago.

Note 1: I retyped the ERIC document. If you would like a PDF of my retyped copy, drop me a note through my contact form and I will email one to you.

Note 2: The ERIC indexing information says the page count should be 23 pages but I have only 22. I think there should be a final page summarizing students’ responses to questions about the best and worst part of the summer program.  If anyone has access to the ERIC document ED317205 and could make me a copy of the page stamped 23, I’ll retype it and add it to the PDF I made for ERIC.


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Advanced computer skills for Common Core

Educators have been wailing that students may not have the advanced computer skills necessary to show the extent of their learning when tests aligned to Common Core State Standards roll out.  I have spent quite a bit of time poking around the standards in English Language Arts.  I hadn’t seen any I thought required  advanced skills, but what do I know?

Curious about what advanced computer skills might be required, I signed up for a webinar offered by Atomic Learning on the integration of Common Core and technology. The webinar  began with quotes from teachers about the computer skills they feared their students would not have. Among the vague rumblings of fear were a few specifics.

One teacher feared students wouldn’t be able to open a PDF file.

Another was concerned that students would not know how to copy text from one file and paste it into another.

There’s no way to know whether the quotes are representative even of clients of the company, let alone whether they are representative of American teachers.

But it is rather scary to think even a couple American teachers consider opening a file and copying and pasting to be “advanced computer skills.”

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Milestones in my online education

This month is 30 years since I first went online to work.

In January of 1983, I became city editor for a small newspaper with a decentralized staff. Reporters worked from offices in the county seats, rarely coming to the main office.

They sent their day’s news budget by computer. Later, after the stories came in, we conferred by telephone as I edited copy as deadlines loomed.

It was, by today’s technology standards, a clumsy system, but it worked. We got the paper out on time most nights, and we delivered a good product to readers.

Since then, I’ve taken courses in online education and taught online, but that initial job working together with people to produce a product remains the defining experience of my online education:  It taught me the potential of computer connections for collaborations across geographic boundaries.

What was the defining experience in your online education?


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Visionary educator anticipated 2012

Twenty-five years ago, the late Freeman VanWickler anticipated today’s harsh educational climate and began to prepare for it.

VanWickler saw distance learning as the only way small rural school districts could overcome the challenges of demographics and geography and provide quality education at affordable prices. Under his leadership,  the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in New York’s Delaware, Chenango, Madison, and Otsego counties had an nationally recognized distance learning program.

In that pre-Internet era, classes were created by dial-up connections between computers, which delivered graphic content, while audio was provided by speakerphone. The program’s best teachers, such as  Michael Foor-Pessin of Otselic Valley Central School District, former Colgate University and Norwich High School teacher Raymond T. Howes, and College of Saint Rose special education professor Edward Pieper, understood how to overcome the audiographic technology’s limitations by focusing on its assets: It was an almost ideal medium for small group instruction.

Unfortunately, the policy makers of the DCMO BOCES could not see understand how students could possibly learn when they could not see a teacher lecture. And today’s drivers of online education—declining funding, teacher reductions, emphasis on post-secondary education—were years away.

Distance learning seemed a silly waste of money to school boards and administrators.

VanWickler relentlessly sought publicity and funding for the program, but it was a battle he lost.

When VanWickler retired,  under his successor the distance learning program was dismantled.

Today VanWickler’s successor has retired, and distance learning is the fastest growing segment of education.

In Memoriam
Freeman A. VanWickler
June 18, 1927 – April 13, 2010

[fixed broken link 2016-01-31]

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Using technology to deliver professional development

How to get teachers to use technology in  their classrooms is a major concern of some educational administrators and of almost every instructional technician. The most common approach to the problem appears to be offering professional development training. The training often takes the form of workshops and short courses during designated times.

Many of the PD training program descriptions I’ve seen are for generic presentations designed more to show what the technology can do than to show what a teacher can do with the technology. Teachers complain they have to go back to their classrooms and figure out on their own how to use the technology in their situation.

I wonder if a more useful and cost-effective program could be developed using technology to deliver the professional development to teachers in their classrooms at times when they need it.

One technology that might be used for professional development on a small scale is a wiki.  Suppose a school working at implementing Common Core standards in its classes were to allow teachers to create an discipline or area-specific wiki to which all teachers in the school have access.  Having representation from teachers of, for example, math K-12 would allow teachers to see how one years’ program can be made to build on the previous years’ instruction.

Another way to offer PD on a small scale is to using a free services to embed a live chat feature into the webpage of the school’s IT program. Instead of teachers having to figure out on their own how to use a technology for their needs, they could simply join an online chat with the IT person.  Those same teachers might see the value of putting the same feature on their webpages so they could provide outside-class help to students or meet with parents whose schedules don’t permit them to attend conferences. [The chat service I initially suggested, Wibya, is no longer available. has a chat service for collaboration and another designed especially for support desks. A free, one chat channel is also available from Embedded Chat.]

How about instead of saving those slide shows for big presentations, the IT people make less sophisticated resources for teachers, such as a set of slides about 5 free ways to make copies of an assignment available 24/7 to students? That PD could be made available to teachers 24/7 via one or two of the technologies described in the slides.

Other more ambitious uses of technology might be workable in some situations.

Suppose a school district or a group of schools or districts were to offer a professional development program on the order of the Homework Hotline where kids call in with questions and a teacher talks them through the solution.  Instead of live video on cable TV, teachers could join the PD Hotline by going to an online meeting site.

Different discipline areas could be available different days with facilitators sharing responsibility for responding to teacher requests for help with particular classroom problems.  Having directed a distance learning program, I know it would be challenging to find and train people to facilitate a PD Hotline, but the results might be worth the effort. Among other things, the program might use a great teacher to teach the most difficult-to-teach students but also give that great teacher opportunity to teach the brightest and best: your faculty.

Some PD Hotline sessions might be designated for cross-pollination across disciplines:  English language arts teachers might be joined by the fine arts faculty, for example, or the social studies faculty joined by the foreign language faculty.

Use of meeting technology would permit all PD Hotline attendees at a session to suggest options.  Additional resources should be provided via services the instructional technologists want teachers to use: a public folder in Dropbox for documents, Slide Share presentations, etc.

I know none of theses ideas would achieve 100 percent participation from faculty.

I know none of theses ideas would result in seat-time records so important to state education departments.

The ideas might not work at all. I probably have 6 or 8 ideas that don’t work for every one that does. I’ve never found that failure rate any reason to stop thinking.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Help Me 🙂 uploaded by djayo

[Links updated 2014-04-01; Lin repaired 2016-01-22]

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Learning lessons from a cat


George was smarter than he looked

A lot of what I know about learning, I learned from a cat.

When I moved into a new home, the kitchen door was badly scratched by the previous owner’s pets. I determined my animals were not going to claw the door.

I bought a set of fake sleigh bells at the dollar store and hung it beside door just about cat’s ear level. Evey time the door opened, the bell jingled softly. When the cat needed to go out, she’d move to the door, I’d give the bells a good shake and then open the door. Within a couple of weeks, the cat learned to ring the bell when she needed to go outside.

That cat died.

I adopted a replacement from the local animal shelter. George was an older cat, rather stupid looking, but he was up to date on shots and already altered. The positives outweighed the negatives.

For the best part of the month after George took up residence, it rained nearly every day. I didn’t attempt to teach George to ring the bell because I didn’t want him to associate the bell with getting soaked. (Also, I didn’t want to go out in a downpour with a cat to make sure he knew which house was his.)

When the rain stopped, I started letting George go out, but I was too busy to teach him to ring the bell.

One noon after George had started going outside by himself, I was having lunch at the kitchen counter. George was sitting nearby staring at the bell. After a little while, he walked over to the bell and gave it a hard smack with his left paw. I got up and opened the door. George’s eyes got big and his jaw dropped. Apparently that was the response he wanted, but he hadn’t been entirely sure the bell was what made someone open the door. George plodded out.

Next day George repeated the performance, starting from the same position on the kitchen floor.  I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The third day, George sat in a different place before he got up to ring the bell. Again, I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The following day, it was lunch time, but I was still working in my office when I heard the bell ring. I went to the kitchen, where George was waiting beside the door. I let him out.

In the second week, I heard the bell ring one morning while I was working in my office. When I got to the kitchen, George was sitting in the pantry in front of his empty food bowl. He looked at me, then he looked at his bowl and looked back at me. I filled the food bowl.

Some years later, I moved and couldn’t take George. He ended up in a new home in a different state. His new cat care provider  fastened George’s bell beside the back door. George rang his bell when he needed something until shortly before he died of old age.

What George taught me

  • Learning occurs fast when the a smart cat sees what’s being taught will let him accomplish something he wants to do.
  • Immediate success encourages repeat behavior.
  • Smart cats rule out alternative explanations for the results they experience. (The door opens only if I sit in a certain place before I ring. The cat care provider has to be in the kitchen.  I have to be wearing my lucky flea collar.)
  • Smart cats use what they’ve learned for purposes the teacher never anticipated.

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Education equity in Web 2.0 era

As education leaders were debating policies for empowering Web 2.0 schools earlier this month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center released its 2011 report  looking at the educational, social, economic, and physical well-being of America’s children on state-by-state as well as a national basis.

The data should be disturbing to anyone who is involved in education:

  • 20% of children in the US live in poverty.
  • 31% of children in the US live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment.
  • 34% of children in the US live in single-parent families.

What do those figures mean for schools? They mean that:

  • There are kids who will not be able to bring their PDs to school regardless of the school policy on PDs for the simple reason their families cannot afford personal devices such as laptops, Blackberries and iPads.
  • There are kids for whom the question of sending their teacher a friend request will not arise because they have no place to access Facebook. Public internet access is not as widely available as many people seem to think.
  • There are parents who won’t use the school’s website to access their children’s homework assignments because they don’t have a computer to use even if they know how to use a computer.

If learning is not confined to physical spaces like schools, perhaps instead of putting all our energies into discussing technology policies to empower Web 2.0 schools, we ought to put some energy into thinking about how to provide equitable access to education resources beyond the confines of schools.

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Resourcefulness in the Web 2.0 world

A group of teachers were discussing options available to students who didn’t have internet access at home.  One teacher said teachers should treat access issues as a means of promoting resourcefulness. Kids could just go to the public library or to someplace with wireless access.

I decided to test how well that theory would work in the rural school district in which I live.

Bainbridge-Guilford CSD is primarily in Chenango County, NY. BG takes in small bits of two other counties: Delaware County, across the Susquehanna River, and Otsego County a few miles to the northeast.

For the sake of making things easy to follow, let’s say BG 11th grade social studies student Terry Nonet is assigned a team project on Monday that’s due the following Monday. It requires students to divvy up online research and put their findings in a Google doc.

Terry is in luck. He has a week to work on his project. He’d have been in trouble if he had one or more online assignments to do overnight. With a week to arrange to get Internet access, he may be able to complete the assignment.

The Bainbridge Free Library has four public access computers, available for one hour on a first-come, first-served basis. The library is open several times when Terry could go there outside of school hours:

  • Monday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm
  • Tuesday: 1 pm-6 pm
  • Thursday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm

Terry ought to be able to get to the library even if it’s 20 miles from his home and his family has only one car which his mom needs to go to her minimum-wage job in Norwich. Terry might have to miss work or leave his younger siblings unsupervised after school in order to do his social studies project, but meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry has another possibility.

The Chenango County Public Transit system stop in Bainbridge is just three blocks from BG High School. For a buck, Terry could hop a bus after school (there’s one that leaves Bainbridge at 4:30 pm) and go to Sidney where the Sidney Memorial Public Library has six public access computers available one hour per day to anyone with a fine-free library card.

The Sidney library is open until 8:30 pm so even if Terry has to wait for a computer, he ought be able to get access for an hour. If he needs more time, he could hike out to Kmart and use the public access computers there. It’s about a two-mile walk from the library to Kmart, but Terry could have free use of the computers adjacent to the customer service desk for 15 minutes.

The only difficulty Terry might encounter if he goes to Sidney to use the Internet is getting home. The next bus back to Bainbridge won’t leave until 5:50 the following morning. Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry hasn’t exhausted all his possibilities yet. He could go to a public library on Saturday.

There is no public transportation on Saturday in Chenango County so he’d have to hitch a ride to Bainbridge or to one of the member libraries of the Four County Library System that are open on Saturdays and provide public access computers. He’d have to present a fine-free library card, wait his turn, and do all his work within an hour, and get back home again. With a little luck, he’ll be able to do that and go to his part-time job and take care of his younger siblings while his mother goes to her minimum-wage job in Norwich.

Of course, with all the waiting around for public access computers, Terry probably won’t have time to do his part of the project and interact with his team, too. Terry’s teacher will probably mark him down for that. And since he won’t have the opportunities for online interaction that his more affluent peers with their laptops and broadband have, he’ll be at a disadvantage if he goes to college.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

The really sensible thing for Terry to do is get himself a laptop computer with wireless access so he wouldn’t have to depend on public libraries for a computer. If he’s really careful with the money he has left after he buys groceries for the household and doesn’t take any time off from his part-time job to go to the library to do his homework, he ought to be able to save enough money eventually to buy a laptop so he can do his homework in a place that has free wireless access.

Apparently, the only unsecured wireless access point in Bainbridge is the public library. The service is available 24/7, but unfortunately there is no public place where Terry can use a laptop after school when the library is closed unless he goes to Bob’s Diner, which is probably not the best place to do a social studies assignment.

The other public libraries in the Four County Library System offer wireless. There are also two Delaware County businesses that offer free wireless access within eight miles of the center of Bainbridge. But even if Terry had his own laptop, there’s the problem of transportation to and from the wireless access site. Chenango County public transport stops running before 7 pm weekdays and there is no weekend service. Delaware County has no public transportation at all.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

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