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Michael Feldstein
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Michael Feldstein commented on a post on Blogger.
Because of some peculiarities of the way Google+ comments work, I can't reply directly to Rebecca Meeder, so I'll just put it on the main thread.

Rebecca, Pearson does hire SMEs. Tons and tons of them. They have whole teams of experts in learning design, learning science, and data science in addition to the massive numbers of discipline-specific subject matter experts they have always used. I work with some of those people on a regular basis in my consulting capacity and have spoken with more of them in my analyst capacity. Most of the ones I have met that are working there now are both super-smart and genuinely trying to do their part to improve education. I have much less direct experience with Knewton, but the people I have met there who actually work on product on a daily basis have seemed similarly sharp, well-intentioned, and to your point, knowledgeable. That's not the problem.

The problem is we have an unprecedented situation where mass-market products can potentially be active participants in a class. Nobody has a good handle yet on the full implications of what that means or how it will shape the future of education. I certainly don't. Phil and I hope that the videos we created that I highlighted in the post take us a step or two forward, but when you think about all the changes and all the different niches and particular contexts of education all around the globe, it's daunting just to try to wrap your head around it. Even if you're a SME. For non-experts, they're trying to understand stuff that runs directly counter to the folk psychological understanding of the way that learning works. If you've ever read Howard Gardner's "The Unschooled Mind," this is on that level. It's on the level of getting people to truly understand natural selection or angular momentum. It's much, much harder than it seems like it should be.

That's before we even get to institutional pressures and culture. These forces are different for a startup like Knewton than for an old line textbook publisher like Pearson, although they end up producing surprisingly similar results in many cases. Pearson is a company of 40,000 thousand employees. Think about that. Many of those people, including many who have risen through the ranks to become executives, have been selling books for 20, 30, or even 40 years. Many of them are very good at doing what they've been doing and have built their careers on the skill set that they have developed through a lot of hard work. Suddenly the fundamental nature of their business changes, practically overnight. If you're the CEO of a company like that (and you are also probably one of those people who came up through the ranks that way), how would you go about getting everybody on board with a new vision and message, particularly when you're not even sure what it needs to be yet?

Let's return to the case of Christa Ehmann, who I probably treated unfairly harshly in the piece. I don't know her, but her PhD in Education from Oxford strongly suggests that she is neither stupid nor ignorant. And if you read her piece carefully, it's not arguing for the Netflix of education. She's actually proposing something that is a step forward from the robot tutor narrative. She's suggesting that environments can be designed to facilitate human teachers' work with human students.

But the way she wrote about it was inside out. It was supposed to be an article about people but it ended up being an article about systems, where the people are described as not much more than pieces being moved around on the board. A more charitable way of framing that portion of my post would be to say that if even somebody as smart and as well trained in education as Christa Ehmann must be could use that language in a general marketing piece without alarm bells going off in her own head, then there is a serious cultural problem inside the company. When you're embedded in a culture of 40,000 people, many of whom have been in the trenches together for decades, some of the ways they have of seeing the world that may seem odd or off to you at first gradually come to feel normal after a while. That's just human nature. I doubt that Ms. Ehmann really thinks about education the way that piece came across when she is thinking deeply about it, but humans can't think deeply about what they're doing most of the time if they want to avoid walking into walls or oncoming traffic. We adopt mental reflexes, many of which we absorb unconsciously from the culture around us. Changing an organization like Pearson requires swimming upstream against strong currents of both the ways that normal people naturally think about education and the culture of a huge organization that has been successful at doing its business a particular way for longer than I have been alive. (And I'm old.) And all of this assumes that everybody in a company of Pearson's size is both smart and well-intentioned. While the percentage that are is significantly higher than educators often given them credit for, it is not and never will be close to 100%, any more than it will be in any particular group of 40,000 people.

Make no mistake: This is an extremely difficult problem. I'm not hitting Pearson and the rest of the industry this hard because I think they're all idiots who are making obvious mistakes. I hit this hard because it takes a lot of force to move a boulder of this size, and because a blog is generally a tool of blunt force.

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Apparently, Peter DeCourcy is so much smarter than me that he has blocked the ability for riffraff like me to reply directly to his comment on my post (although he clearly feels extremely comfortable and confident pointing out the laughably obvious flaws in the thinking of plebes like me). Unfortunately, that means that I don't have the opportunity to point out to him that missing from the long list of things that he can't assume I know is an equally long list of things he assumes that I believe about social constructivism. (To quote a VERY SMART man, "Delicious irony.")

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, dude.
Delicious irony. The fact that you don't see it right away demonstrates the persistence of a much more dangerous ideology. And why is social constructivism a more dangerous ideology? Because it is the one that is generally taught (or I should “learned” or better yet “constructed”) in Ed schools (see Steiner and Rosen’s “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers” in Hess, Rotherham, and Walsh’s A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? or David Labaree’s The Trouble with Ed Schools) if I even need to cite a source or two. Technically, I think Voltron could be an excellent teacher (latest Avengers movie). If you don't understand that, then you don't understand why Wiggins and McTighe had to defend Hirsche in Understanding by Design. And you also don't understand the debate between the cognitive load theorists and constructivists. Nor can I assume you understand how one's method of teaching means almost nothing unless one's method of assessment keeps pace (Follow Schwartz on preparation for future learning); seriously, if you are testing for recall, the length of your lecture is pretty unimportant. Nor can I assume that you understand Bloom's Two Sigma problem, the real problem with the "social constructivist" ideal. In fact, if we follow Labaree in The Trouble with Ed Schools and label the traditional/constructivist binary as the latest name for the conflict between administrative progressives and pedagogical progressives (see “Progressivism, Schools and Schools of Education: An American Romance” available online, but I recommend the book, see Ch. 7), we can see that this latest “rise” of their ideology is the continuation of perhaps the oldest debate in the modern education system. Nor can I assume that you understand how dominant cultures obfuscate their power relations; you may need to know Lisa Delpit's "Other People's Children". So, as amusing as Derrida may be, from which direction would you like the deconstruction?

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Alert unnamed readers prompted me after the last post on the Unizin contract to pursue the rumored secondary method of joining for $100k. You know who you are – thanks. While researching this question, I came across a presentation by the University of…

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Phil started his last post with the following: I’m not sure which is more surprising – Instructure’s continued growth with no major hiccups or their competitors’ inability after a half-decade to understand and accept what is at its core a very simple…

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I’m not sure which is more surprising – Instructure’s continued growth with no major hiccups or their competitors’ inability after a half-decade to understand and accept what is at its core a very simple strategy. Despite Canvas LMS winning far more new…

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Recently I described an unpublished study by Dragan Gasevic and team on the use of Knowillage / LeaP adaptive platform. ((When the study started Knowillage was an independent company; mid-way through study D2L bought Knowillage and renamed product as…

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I’ve been meaning to write an update post on Unizin, as we broke the story here at e-Literate in May 2014 and Unizin went public a month later. It’s one year later, and we still have the most expensive method to get the Canvas LMS. There are also plans…

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When giving keynotes at conferences over the past two years, I have observed that some of the best non-verbal feedback occurs when pointing out that personalized and adaptive learning does not equal black-box algorithms choosing content for students. Yes,…

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At this point I’d say that we have established a pattern of behavior. Michael and I have been quite critical of D2L and their pattern of marketing behavior that is misleading and harmful to the ed tech community. Michael put it best: I can’t remember the…

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It would be interesting to read (or write) a post mortem on this project some day. Two and a half years ago I wrote a post describing the University of Phoenix investment of a billion dollars on new IT infrastructure, including hundreds of millions of…
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