May 2016

I spent this morning in the company of extraordinary women. First, I was delighted to attend the National Center for Women in IT keynote address “Intersectionality & Diversity in Computing: Key Dilemmas and What to Do About Them.” by one of my sheroes, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Next, I attended a talk by Mimi Ito about how the intersection of youth and digital culture were converging with traditional opportunities to create greater social capital, particularly among underserved populations. At the end of her session, my friend Cynthia Solomon (recipient of the NCWIT Pioneer Award last night), raised an important issue. She expressed concern about how Minecraft charges users and therefore makes it inaccessible to poor children. Dr. Ito agreed about the financial barrier to participation and said that important people, such as herself, were asking Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, to make the software free. The audience was pleased with that response.

This might surprise you, but I disagree. Schools, teachers, and kids should pay for software.

Software does not grow on trees. It is created by artists, programmers, writers, designers, and engineers who need and deserve to feed their families, just like the humble teacher. The continuous devaluing of software, along with other media, profits no one in the short-term and giant corporations in the long-run. This phenomena not only harms the earning potential of creators, but ensures that educators will be deprived of high quality tools and materials. Sorry, but you get what you pay for.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re just poor teachers. Our budgets are slashed to the bone. We fundraise for crayons. Software is ephemeral. We should not have to pay for it like when we happily purchase “real” things; flash cards, interactive white boards, or that hall pass timer that reminds kids to poop faster.

There have only been a handful of truly innovative software programs ever created for learning (MicroWorlds, The Zoombinis, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Rocky’s Boots, LogoWriter, Inspire Data, My Make Believe Castle, Broderbund’s Science Toolkit) over the past three decades. That development pipeline has rusted over while software becomes “free.”*

Inspired by Dr. Harris-Perry’s address, I suggest that we are looking at the Minecraft cost issue from the wrong perspective. The problem is not that Minecraft (or even better more educative software) isn’t free, but that schools are so poorly funded they cannot afford to pay for what they need.

Fix the funding system! Make Silicon Valley pay their fair share of taxes! Give teachers discretionary funds for classroom activities! Change the tax code to allow teachers to deduct classroom materials from their income tax! Don’t destroy the handful of creative companies who create great materials for children.

Don’t tell me that you’re preparing kids for S.T.E.M. jobs while demanding free software!

The High Cost of Free

Aside from the vulgarity of Donors Choose, the most unattractive example of teacher dependency and low self-esteem is the desire to become corporate certified. What’s next? Should teachers where festive holiday sweaters affixed with corporate sponsor logos like NASCAR drivers or Happy Meals? If not, then why the rush to advertise your corporate affiliation on your blog, Twitter profile, or CV?

Google is not your friend. They are a giant corporation selling users and their data to other corporate customers. That doesn’t bother me 10 percent as much as the spectacle of educators begging for corporate affection.

Go ahead. Name a single educational idea or value Google has added to educational practice. Cheap, free, and easy are not powerful ideas. There is nothing progressive in using cloud-based versions of office software or denatured half computers in the form of Chromebooks. Why should any educator care what Google thinks about teaching or learning?

Google certification is particularly embarrassing. I do not understand why any “professional” educator would parade around in an “I can use The Google and type a memo” sash. Such educators are uncompensated evangelists and walking billboards for Google, perhaps at their own peril.

The price of integrity must be more than “free” photo storage or use of a Web-based word processor.

Don’t believe me? Read Maria Schneider’s Open Letter to YouTube, “Pushers” of Piracy. Really read it. Read it again. Think about it. Share it.

Ms. Schneider is neither a crank or Luddite. She is a spectacularly talented composer who earned the first ever Grammy Award for an Internet crowd-funded project. In her article, she details how Alphabet/Google/YouTube profits from piracy, protects pirates, demonizes artists, and strong-arms creators into entering self-destructive business arrangements. Like other corporate bullies. Alphabet/Google/YouTube hides behind lobbyists while portraying themselves as martyrs.

Teachers need to stand with creators, not Google. If teachers do not view themselves as “content creators,” then they should be reminded that there are powerful corporate interests who would like to replace them with YouTube videos and a Web-based comprehension quiz.

Don’t stand with Google! (or any other company)
Schmoozing with salespeople does not and should not define you as an educator. Stand with and on the shoulders of other great educators. Be content to be a customer, never the product or a prop.


Footnote
* Next time you are told that “The Cloud is free,” ask how much money your school/district is paying to employ IT personnel who guard, monitor, secure, or block it. How much does all that extra bandwidth cost? What can’t children do or learn while waiting for “The cloud” to have the functionality of a 5-10 year-old PC?

This week, I will speak at my 29th ISTE Conference (International Society for Technology in Education, previously NECC) in Denver, Colorado. I have made at least one presentation every year since 1987. I signed the charter that created ISTE, organized one of its SIGs, and edited an ISTE journal for a few years. I was a keynote speaker at the final NECC Conference in 2009 before the conference was rebranded as ISTE. Despite my well-publicized concerns about the direction of the organization (see bottom of post), I attend the conference each year because educational computing is my life’s work and I refuse to abandon the field, no matter how tempting.

In the past, I have expressed my concerns over the quality, relevance, and too-often corporate nature of the ISTE keynote speakers. I have demonstrated the flaws and lack of objectivity in the session selection process and lamented the celebration of corporate interests.

These concerns have often been dismissed as sour grapes. My public statements certainly have not been beneficial to my career or my visibility on the conference program. Despite the popularity of my sessions, the 2013 conference organizers put me in a tiny room and turned away hundreds of educators lined up for my presentation.

For this year’s conference, I proposed two presentations. One, Programming: The New Liberal Art — Why and How to Teach It was accepted.

29 other accepted ISTE 2016 sessions cite my work or collaborations with Sylvia Martinez in their proposals.

The following proposal was rejected – obviously irrelevant

Mindstorms at 35: Examining the State of Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

The most important book ever written about technology and education, Seymour Papert’s “Mindstorms” is 35 years old. This session led by Dr. Papert’s longtime colleague will review the book’s big ideas and engage the audience in an evaluation of the current state of education in light of Papert’s work.

Longer Description

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Papert began calling for 1:1 computing. He invented the first programming language and robotics engineering system for children. In 1970, Papert predicted the maker movement and his entire career was dedicated to creating contexts in which children could encounter and engage with powerful ideas.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas is arguably the most important book ever written in the field ISTE represents. This presentation will introduce Papert’s ideas to newcomers and ask veterans to candidly evaluate his predictions in light of the current state-of-practice. 

The presenter will also share video clips and textual excerpts from recently unearthed and overlooked work by Dr. Papert over five decades.

Objectives

  • Review or introduce the powerful ideas contained in Mindstorms
  • Introduce a new generation of educators to the powerful ideas of the father of educational technology, Seymour Papert
  • Challenge teachers, policy makers, tech directors, and administrators to do more with computational technology in order to amplify the potential of each learner
  • Take a good hard look at current practice
  • Explore what Papert had to say about 1:1 computing, the Internet, robotics, engineering, game design, school reform, teaching, and learning over half a century
  • Introduce constructionism to a new generation
  • Honor an intellectual giant never invited to keynote an ISTE or NECC Conference on the 35th anniversary of his seminal book

Session Outline 

  • Explore what made Mindstorms revolutionary
  • Review Papert predictions for what kids might do with computers and how schools would react
  • Discover recently unearthed video and texts shining new light on Papert’s work
  • Discuss the state of educational technology in light of the challenges Papert left for all of us

Supporting Research 

In addition to countless Ph.D. dissertations written about Papert’s work, I would direct you to the following:


Past articles about ISTE:



Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is a veteran teacher educator, author, speaker, publisher who worked with Dr. Papert for more than 20 years. He was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional research project and is the curator of the repository of Papert documents, The Daily Papert.

His ISTE 2016 session will be held Wednesday, June 29, 8:30–9:30 am in room CCC 110

I am a teacher because I delight in being in the company of nutty kids.
 
Today, I was at a school in Tasmania where I last worked nearly 20 years ago. The campus has 714 flights of stairs and my giant classroom was at the top of them. I was a bit nervous because they wanted me to work with 70 or so 6th and 7th graders on redesigning their school.
 
Since form follows function, I decided that we should spend a good deal of time thinking about the status quo and the future of learning. We did this through outrageous videos, polling, data analysis, and experimenting with my favorite unsolved number theory problem. I introduced them to Big Picture Schools, Frank Gehry preparing architects without instruction, and my friend Pete Nelson, the Treehouse Master (since that’s not a career school prepares you for). I asked them to think of wild, but not silly, ideas about the future of schools. They broke up into teams to design and build models of future learning environments.
 
The moment to begin had arrived and a kid sat alone at my table at the front of the room. At first I assumed he was a naughty kid forced to sit alone at the front of the room, but he just chose to. I could tell that the kid was listening, but he was also drawing continuously on any surface he could find. The kid seemed truly loved by the teachers I spoke with.
 
He wasn’t big on collaboration or brainstorming. So, I handed him a copy of The Language of School Design and asked him to look through it for interesting ideas he could share with his class later in the day. He inserted bookmarks as quickly as I could tear paper scraps for him. At one point in the chaos, he asked if I had headphones he could wear to listen to music.
 
I immediately thought of my great friend Peter Reynolds‘ stories of how a math teacher observed him drawing and invited Pete to make math films. Peter often talks about how that single kind gesture changed his life and made him the successful artist, author, and animator he is today.
 
So, I emailed Pete with the subject: Kid in Tasmania needs your help…
 
I asked if he would speak with the kid via email or Skype.
 
Pete wrote back right away and agreed to chat with the kid. He told me to say Howdy. When I showed the message to the kid, he literally jumped in the air and asked if he could show the email to all of his friends. I had asked a librarian to get me copies of books Pete wrote or illustrated so I could show the kid. He was already quite familiar with Pete’s work.
 
During a discussion of how we might improve education in the future, my young friend made a quite articulate case for teachers to respect kids who draw all of the time (paraphrasing, but he used the words drawing and respect).
 
Throughout the day, the kid asked me on several occasions if it was time to present his research to the class.
 
As the day was winding down, I inserted two slides into my deck:
  1. The best time of the day is… (open doorway animation)
  2. MaX Time!!!!!! (and it was time for the kid to share his architectural findings)
He was neither nervous or embarrassed by my Fozzie Bear-like introduction and managed to find some of the pages he bookmarked in order to tell us why he thought those architectural ideas were worthy of consideration.
 
At the end of the day, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you ever so much for everything today.”
 
It doesn’t get any better than that.


After six hours of working with the hordes of kids, I was driven to the primary school campus to lead a wearable electronics workshops for 30 or so kids and their parents. But, that’s a whole other set of stories…