How smartphones will kill the standardized test


Markets love data.
Picture the stock market. Chances are you’re imagining a bunch of people staring frantically at numbers. There are lots of numbers, so many that they need giant screens to display them all. All of the numbers are constantly changing, and each change feeds an already-intense flurry of activity. People are morphing strategies on the fly. In the next room, banks of computers are humming away trying to uncover new and interesting relationships between all of those numbers. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good at allocating resources to grow the economy, good enough that it’s failures rather than its successes are front page news.
Now picture the market for innovative ideas in education. This market is no less important, but it looks very different. There’s far, far less data. The data can’t be aggregated on a bunch of screens, it’s siloed in statistics and reports scattered across the country. That siloed data is updated rarely, usually just a few times a year. Sometimes these updates set off flurries of activity, but just as often people fail to see their significance. Individual researchers look at trends, but the data is so fragmented that intensive data mining is severely limited. This system makes headlines when it succeeds.
I’m not arguing that our education system should look or act like Wall Street, I’m saying that the way we collect, organize and analyze data about education has a powerful impact on the way that we allocate resources to improve the education system. Data on education is expensive to acquire, more expensive to verify, and tricky to categorize. As long as that’s the case, the way that the education system innovates will look less like Google and more like the Vatican.
Well guess what, that’s changing.
There is a tsunami of data speeding for the education system’s coastline, and it was triggered by an earthquake called the smartphone. Let’s jump ahead seven years to the point when smart phones are as ubiquitous in low-income classrooms as the number two pencil. Consider the explosion of smartphones in low-income markets around the world, their rapid commodification, and the fact that a rapidly growing percentage of mobile phones are being donated to charity. It’s only a matter of time before enough schools will have enough spare iPhone-level technology available to lend phones to the kids who don’t have them.
Right now kids interact with teachers and each other by talking, raising their hands, and writing on paper. The only real visibility we get into classrooms is when kids write on paper that is standardized and machine-readable, a data collection process that has profoundly transformed the face of public education. Now consider the crappy, out-of-date cell phone of 2018. It can convert human speech to text. It can read body movements like the recently released Microsoft Kinect. You want data? Get ready to track eye movements.
This coming tsunami raises opportunities and challenges for educators, researchers, parents and kids. Assuming that the data can be anonymized, validated and organized, this trend also opens the door for profound revolutions in educational funding. Innovators can be rewarded for creating learning concept by concept, and enough data will exists to uncover complex relationships between things like abstract logic and nutrition. Funders will have real-time dashboards telling them what kids are learning, what they’re failing to learn, what they’re choosing to learn, and what factors outside of the classroom are impacting their performance. They can be on the phone like Wall Street brokers, directing funding minute by minute to the places where it can have the most impact.
This kind of extreme transparency raises larger moral questions that our society must grapple with, but there is little doubt that it is coming and leaders in educational innovation need to be prepared. That tsunami of data will be an unintelligible mess without a taxonomy to make sense of it all. Self-generating taxonomies like XML or the Dewey Decimal System are the only way that the breadth of educational data will ever be categorizable. Funders should start rewarding innovators who can provide data which fits these taxonomies as a way to begin replacing standardizes testing with something much, much more powerful. Above all, we should see technology in the classroom as a tool which transforms decision-makers even more than it transforms kids.

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What would it look like to reinvent education like we’ve reinvented news media?

I’m writing this blog post from unused space in the San Francisco Chronicle building. The Chronicle has had to scale back recently, and so the space is getting used by number of early-to-mid-stage web startups. A few dozen feet from me is Change.org, a nifty activism platform that’s busy delivering customizable content on a suite of customizable platforms to a generation that hasn’t cared about a newspaper in over a decade. What does that generation’s kids think of textbooks?

Educators face an incredible challenge: constructing and delivering compelling content to distracted audiences with very few resources. The apocalypse and emerging rebirth of news media is an important example of how the systems which deliver this sort of content can be radically reinvented. Many of the tools making up this new wave of media can be directly applied to educational challenges, when they can’t they serve as an important inspiration.

There’s no question that the education system is structured more like a newspaper than a mashed-up twitter prediction algorithm, and for the time being that’s probably a good thing. Still, it’s worth asking what a reborn education system would look like.

Who produces the content?

Newspapers: Most content is produced by national and international press syndicates, with a handful produced by local reporters.

Schools: Most content produced by national textbook companies, with a handful produced directly by classroom teachers.

New Media: An-ever-shifting mix of experts, formal journalists, video artists, graphic designers and everyday individuals. This mix shifts based on the needs of the storyteller.

New Schools: ?

Who arranges the content?

Newspapers: Editors decide which national and international stories to run and which local stories to approve among their staff. Reporters have a small amount of leeway to arrange stories as they wish.

Schools: A combination of national, state, and local agencies decide which content students must learn. Principles and teachers have some leeway to arrange curricula as they wish.

New Media: Sophisticated algorithms aggregate, filter, and prioritize content from across the internet. Consumers customize these algorithms to suit their preference.

New Schools: ?

How is the content displayed?

Newspapers: With ink on paper. Newspapers have shifted focus to online content, though they are struggling against waves of new competition.

Schools: With ink on paper, chalk on a board, or verbally. More advanced technology is generally available to teachers and is becoming ubiquitous among students in the form of cell phones.

New Media: In whatever platform the end consumer prefers, including but not limited to laptops, e-readers, televisions, pocket LED projectors, cell phones, smartphones and printers. There is a strong preference for displays that are fully interactive and wifi-enabled.

New Schools: ?

How do users interact with the content?

Newspapers: Articles can be read, circled, clipped out, photocopied and physically shared.

Schools: Students are encouraged to highlight important ideas and take notes in the margin. Workbooks can be filled out. Answers to questions can be shared verbally.

New Media: Content can be shared, rated, and commented on in a wide range of online social networks. Content regularly “goes viral,” inspiring an exponential spike of sharing and derivative content. This possibility of widespread recognition inspires widespread creative contribution.

New Schools: ?

Does that get any ideas flowing?

Do you know of educational innovators who are filling in some of those question marks? Please share in the comments section.

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My Worldview in a Nutshell

I've never read this book, the cover just looks cool.

I've never read this book, the cover just looks cool.

Pretty much everything worth talking about, from global civilization to a human relationship to an individual thought, is an example of a complex system with emergent properties. [Oh noes! Math!]

These systems are driven by the evolutionary algorithm: differentiation, selection, and exploration. When differentiation, selection, and exploration happen you get thinking, relationships and cool civilizations, when they fail you don’t.

Exploration is about going down a path and discovering a punch of other paths. It requires the time, energy, and information to properly explore.

Differentiation is about understanding which options are worth pursuing. It involves looking at a bunch of options and saying “these few are the interesting ones.” It’s often about understanding, expressing, and absorbing emotion. If you don’t pay attention to emotion, you’ll go down a path that makes people cranky.

Selection is about making plans to explore an option or a set of options. It involves good planning, solid commitments, mobilizing resources, and having the necessary expertise. Selection requires tasklisters, trust and training.

The evolutionary algorithm tends to operate across scale. An evolving highschool is made up of evolving groups, which are made up of evolving relationships which are made up of evolving conversations which are made up of evolving thoughts. This creates a fractal-like structure. It also creates “Black Swan” uncertainty in which big, totally unexpected events happen out of nowhere.

Our brains are tribe machines. (If I’m reading Dunbar right.) We evolved them to think about relationships with other people, not to do abstract algebra. This means that we’re much, much better at thinking about the way that human relationships evolve than we are at thinking about anything else.

Unfortunately, the way that we talk about relationships fundamentally limits this power. The concepts that we use to describe relationships (“finding the one,” “just friends,” “networking,”) tend to prevent meaningful connections from forming. They get in the way of the evolutionary algorithm doing its thing. Someone could probably find a nifty way to blame this on something, but I don’t really care.

This means that in most human situations the evolutionary algorithm is somehow being suppressed. If you know how to identify and remove that suppression, you can create disruptive self-organization pretty much anywhere.

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Finding the Money in Water: The Smart Landscaping Boom

With the epic battle raging around AB32, you may have missed another piece of landmark California sustainability legislation. AB 1881, the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, lacks many of the buzzwords that we associate with sustainable business opportunities and green jobs, but don’t be fooled. This baby packs a punch.

Greener Pastures
AB 1881 mandates sweeping water efficiency measures in all new landscaping projects over 2500 square feet, covering everything from drip irrigation to the use of local plants to smart irrigation control systems. To meet these stringent requirements, the ordinance requires landscaping projects to be audited by certified landscape auditors. These requirements are coming online as we speak, as cities and counties around the state enact the mandates that AB 1881 requires.

Why should a bunch of pumps and green collar auditors be on our radar? Because landscaping is to urban water use what 18-wheelers are to gasoline. Of the 8.8 million acre-feet of water used by California’s urban areas, about 2.6 million are used for landscaping (1). The kind of efficient landscaping practices described in AB 1881 could save 20% of that water, possibly more. In a state that’s looking from a water crisis into the precipice of climate change, those water savings will be sorely needed.

We use a tremendous amount of energy to move and treat all that water; the embodied energy in an acre-foot of urban California water could run a microwave nonstop for four months (2).  Moving and treating landscaping water accounts for around 5% of our state’s total electricity use. That mean that some pumps and guys in green caps can save can save a whopping 1% of California’s electricity.

Mapping the Opportunity
According to the 2007 economic census landscaping in California is an $8.2 billion industry. AB 1881 could create some significant growth in that number, growth that will be captured by whoever is best poised to deliver water savings efficiently and effectively.

The winners will vary. Irrigation behemoths like Jaine Irrigation Systems will see a shift in their existing product mix, and may switch their strategy and partnerships accordingly. Groups like the California Landscape Contractors Association will see their ranks swell, and will see increased demand for everything from green jobs training to data services. Finally startups like Hydropoint, which specializes in smart web-based irrigation software, will be the best indicator of this emerging sector’s potential.

The real opportunity will come downstream. It’s common for states across the country to mirror California’s environmental legislation, and with water stress looming in areas that were once considered secure, there is every reason to expect AB 1881 to spend some time on the photocopier. Combine that with the pendulum eventually turning back in real estate development, and you’ve got an area that anyone interested in clean tech and green jobs should be keeping an eye on.

(1) Estimates on this number vary, this one comes from the California Water Plan’s section on efficiency.

(2) An average microwave takes a kilowatt of power, which makes it a useful example when talking about kilowatt hours (kWh). A research project at UCSB estimates that it takes an average of 3,519 kWh to move and treat an average acre-foot of imported urban water in California.  The rest of the stats about water and energy are derived mathematically.

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Finding the Money in Water: Why You Should Watch the Chesapeake

Fortune magazine has called water the oil of the 21st century. As watersheds around the world become increasingly strained, thirsty communities and businesses will be in the market for anything that can ensure sustainable access to this life-or-death resource. To understand this rapidly growing ecosystem, I sat down with Mike Van Patten, CEO of Mission Markets Earth. Mike specializes in trading environmental credits for things like wetland mitigation and water quality, and asked him where to find the hottest market opportunity on his radar. He answered before I could blink.

“No question,” he said, “it’s the nitrogen and phosphorous emissions markets in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Like many watersheds around the world, the Chesapeake is in a state of crisis. Mounting pollution is killing off the bay’s oysters, which provide reef-like structures that are a cornerstone of the region’s ecology. It became clear that business as usual could send the Chesapeake’s ecosystem into a tailspin, risking widespread environmental, economic, and political fallout.

To address the issue, President Obama and the EPA created a cap and trade system for emissions into the bay and its tributaries. These sorts of regulatory-driven credit markets are becoming standard practice around the US and Australia, we should expect more of them wherever strains on water quality and quantity create enough political will. This is an exciting trend for Mike, who’s recently launched  is the first centralized multienvironmental exchange for these credits, and should be equally exciting for any entrepreneurs with good methods for preserving watershed health.

In the Chesapeake, one of the most pressing issues is the emission of nutrients, mostly phosphorous and nitrogen. These nutrients primarily come from wastewater treatment plants, where they are expensive to abate, and from agricultural runoff, which can be significantly reduced with a relatively small investment. The economics are simple: according to the World Resources Institute Virginia farmers can expect to take home an extra $50 million a year by cutting their runoff and selling the resulting credits. The result is green jobs in hard-hit rural areas, and businesses which specialize in reducing the largest source of water pollution in the country.

A $50 million market won’t raise many eyebrows among venture capitalists, but we should watch it as a microcosm of things to come. If water is the constrained resource of the 21st century, then markets like the Chesapeake are our best indicator of how that constrained resource will lead to opportunity.

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Citizenship In A Corporate World

On December 31st, 1600 Queen Elizabeth I signed a charter for the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, better known as the British East India Company. As one of the world’s first large joint stock companies, this new entity was able to quickly amass wealth by promising the rich of England that it could use their wealth to bring them further riches. Before long this new wealth had amassed wealth, power, territory and an army to rival the British Crown. Fortunately the Company and the Crown soon found that they had distinct but largely complimentary interests, and worked in tandem (though not without tension) to usher in a new kind of era.

In today’s world, this tension between the Company and the Crown is played out in the complicated but complimentary relationship between states and large corporate entities. Multinational corporations sit next to, and often above, the governments which define the traditional axes of global power. Yet we treat them differently than states. We are citizens of states. In a democracy, being a citizen means voting, attending jury duty, occasionally writing letters to your senator, and otherwise contributing to the functioning of a just democracy. Most of us do this, if sometimes grudgingly, because we would not accept a world in which government operated without this sort of democratic participation.

So what about that other base of power, the corporation? What does it mean to be citizens of a world under increasingly corporate control? As the governing forces around us evolve, our notion of citizenship must evolve with them. Even though corporations are not democracies (at least not in the traditional sense), there are roles that, as citizens, we can and should take in their governance. Doing so will allow them to operate happily to the benefit of humanity as a whole. Failing to do so can have the same dire consequences as  failing to hold any concentration of power in check.

So how can we, as citizens, participate in the governance of these gargantuan institutions? Here are a few things to think about next time you’re done at the voting booth:

Vote With Your Calendar, Not Your Wallet– Here’s a dirty little secret: what you do with your time has a much greater impact on the world than what you buy. Time spent engaging with companies, employers, shareholders or even talking with friends about a brand will be vastly more impactful than anything you do with your wallet.

Though much-touted, “voting with your dollar” has very little impact on corporate decisionmaking. If you pass up Coke for their violation of labor rights there’s no way for your lack of a purchase to make it back to HQ. Ironically, carefully researching and purchasing the best brands has little impact on corporate behavior UNLESS you communicate to the corporation that you’re doing it. The one exception to this is new, struggling socially and environmentally sustainable products, for whom you dollar can really make a difference.

Be A Shareholder Lobbyist– Corporations may not be democracies in the traditional sense, but they are accountable to their shareholders. If you don’t have the kind of bank to swing shareholder elections all by yourself, there are lots of ways to help build coalitions of investors who want to make sure corporations make decisions that are good for the planet and society.

Talk About Brands– You could pass up McDonalds for decades and they would be none the wiser, but a tweet about #mcdonalds is sure to catch their attention. Talk about which brands are doing well and which are doing poorly, and make the discussion as public as possible. This kind of open, public dialog is the lifeblood of any just social system. If you care about an issue, see where companies stand on it by checking out their sustainability reports. Talk openly and often about which companies are doing well, and which are doing poorly. To make the discussion impactful, use the company’s brand. Whatever you have to say will stick in the heads of everyone listening, and you’ll get much more attention from the company.

Push for Regulations- Ultimately, corporations have to play as best they can within the rules of the game. Though some of them may not like it, we can and should change the rules to make the game as socially and environmentally beneficial as possible. Pushing government for smart, effective corporate regulation is the best way to make this happen.

Make Change In Your Workplace- Historically, big changes in corporations happen one of four ways. Either shareholders make them change, new regulation makes them change, someone attacks their brand and makes them change, or an internal group of employees makes them change. Contrary to popular belief, these big changes rarely originate from the top. A small group of employees somewhere in the organization gets together around a shared set of values, comes up with a plan, and gets the top brass to buy in. If you’re one of those top brass your job is easy. If not, start looking around your workplace for one of those small teams. They are an incredibly powerful way to create change, and can be a great career move. If no one around your office looks promising, look for industry coalitions devoted to sustainability. Most industries have them, from architecture to healthcare, and they’re a great way to get ideas and mentorship, make contacts, and figure out how to build support to change your firm. If your company still won’t change, then quit and find a company that will. The need to attract and retain a smart, energetic workforce is driving many companies to adopt better practices, and your skills would always be useful in a worker-owned co-op or some other alternative corporate model.

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The Facts about Bottled Water

Presented by Online Education
The Facts About Bottled Water

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