Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Chicken or the Egg, Which Comes First

Something has been on my mind as of late and I feel compelled to write about it.  I am grappling with why technology is so often pushed to the background into a supporting role.  I know, I’m biased right, I’m a technology advocate.  It’s true but that is not why I believe technology should always be first when considering an activity, a way of working, a way of learning, and a way of teaching others.

Way back in 1985, my wife and I got married.  We planned a honey moon trip to California.  We bought some paper maps and had access to, yes, an atlas!  We figured out our general plan then as proud BCAA members, asked for driving maps to be produced.  We studied and followed those maps carefully all the way down and back over the next couple of weeks.  Now fast forward to 2015, we are planning a trip to Spain.  iStock_000019171659XSmallShould we use the same approach with the same tools (technology) to plan a trip?  No of course not.  We are using Google Maps and other Internet resources to plan things out, much faster, in a far more informed manner.  The other day while using Google Earth I ‘visited’ Ronda in the south of Spain from where we will be starting a week long bike trip through the country side, village to village.  I was exploring the city and surrounding landscape, viewing crowd sourced photos, and ‘walking’ the streets, etc.  If I had used the traditional tools, this would be impossible to accomplish and experience.

When people set out to build houses 80 years ago, they had basic technology consisting of hand saws, hammers, nails, and wood.  It was a very manually intensive task and they had access to very little options in terms of materials.  Fast forward to 2015 and the saws are electric, come in many shapes and sizes, nails are ‘pounded in’ with nail guns, wood is screwed down with cordless battery screw drivers, and because of technology driven ways of using, creating, and manufacturing materials, they had amazing diverse materials available to them.  Go through the list of trades, business workers, medical practitioners, and other occupations and you see technology at the forefront in every case in a modern society.  Work practices and procedures are designed and planned with technology at the core – the technology is primary and the methods are wholly dependent.  And, what they are able to accomplish, would be impossible without the technology.

I remember (vaguely…) my high school years (1980-81) and how all knowledge and information was obtained from encyclopaedias, books, and our teachers.  We learned what we were told.  There were no other options or sources available to us.  We wrote papers, did worksheets, solved problems (on paper), all to satisfy our teachers and to get good marks on our report cards.  Fast forward to 2015 and classrooms are starting to operate differently for sure.  Teachers are adopting newer technologies, albeit slowly.  In most cases I encounter, the new technologies are still quite optional, are afterthoughts, are add-ons, are reserved for special projects, etc.  I don’t recall from 1981 that our books, encyclopaedias, and our teachers were optional, afterthoughts, add-ons, or reserved for special projects.  So why are new technologies treated so differently?  I think things are backwards…

I still see tweets, blog posts, and hear people say that pedagogy is first and foremost important and technology should be considered for ways it can support the pedagogy.  Pedagogy is really just a tool, a technology itself, used to teach and to cause learning to take place.  But how one teaches today should be fully if not now, when - questiondependent on the technologies available.  Why are so many schools still hanging on to the use of textbooks when not one of their students will ever use a physical book again as a reference or tool for learning once they leave school?  Why would a lesson be designed based on the absence of information technology and then add in that technology to enhance the lesson?  Doesn’t it make more sense to design lessons based on all the technologies at ones disposal, to the point where the lesson could not exist or be used without the technology?

It is true that technologies fail, let us down, and can be difficult to learn to use.  But this is changing rapidly.  I think the time is now to start with technology first and change-20272_1920consider everything we do from there.  Technologies bring game changer opportunities, better ways of doing, and open doors that were never before imagined.  In our work and in our learning, we need to maximize the use of the tools (technologies) available and keep our eye out for new ones, all the time.  The alternative is to wake up one day and discover that what we knew and held on to as our ways of doing have become rather obsolete.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Is it really cheating?

When I was a young student we had to do our school work mostly independently.  It kind-of matched to the workplace where people mostly contributed individually.  I remember in university one of my computer science professors would say “I don’t care how you get the assignments done but I will get you on teamwork concept on blackboardthe test”.  His point was that if you don’t do or understand the work that you turn in you will not be able to pass the final which was worth 50% of the grade.  I think things have changed where we value collaboration, reuse, and innovation more than just following the rules, doing it yourself, or doing it ‘my way’.  I certainly value a balance of this from those that are part of my team.  But, what do students in our schools today experience? 

I was speaking with some teachers the other day and the English department head asked about using a tool Turnitin.  This tool ensures that “[s]tudent work is instantly checked for potential plagiarism using pattern recognition algorithms.  An Originality Report is generated in a matter of seconds.”  It will also provide “rich feedback” on assignments that students hand in.  She is struggling with assigning homework to her students that involves writing as she is concerned about how easy it is to use work from the Internet as their own.  I responded that Turnitin is a powerful tool but asked whether it is mostly a band aide to a problem and perhaps there are ways to think differently about cheating?  It comes down to a question of what is important for students to learn which relates to what is assessed.  There are provincial curricular requirements and exams for English so the test is certainly something that teachers are faced with preparing students to do well on.

This may shock you but the world actually values cheating.  Innovation is all about using the work of others as input into generating incremental or revolutionarily new ideas.  One could argue that there are rarely original ideas anymore, rather just mash ups of existing ideas, to create something newer.  What if English students were allowed ‘to cheat’ on essay writing?  What if they were assessed on the process they used to source materials perhaps with a requirement to incorporate a diverse set of sources.  They could be expected to integrate diverse material into a finished document.  Perhaps some of their sources had to come from building connections to original authors through social media.  They would work in a small team where each person is expected to write iStock_000008393347XSmall(assemble) their essay from a different perspective (time, historical figure, take a side, etc.) to ensure effort from all.  The students could learn about efficiency through reusing work and applying it to a specific context.  Perhaps students would have to demonstrate their understanding of what they produced through 1-1 meetings with their teacher and a public presentation to the class.  We expect employees in modern work places to not reinvent the wheel unless that is the only option.  We want employees to leverage others work, with appropriate credit where due of course and with understanding of the outcome.

What does it mean to ‘learn English’?  There are the words and their meaning, grammar and other technicalities.  There is the skill of conveying ideas in writing, making it interesting, bringing something to life through words, building characters, writing for an audience and purpose, etc.  Why not leverage an app to learn words, grammar, form, sentence structure, etc. and free the teacher to facilitate projects involving flickr - langwitches - information fluency - 5603842003research and summary, audiences, writing with persuasion, writing short (or long) novels, etc.  Design learning that involves group and individual work, original thought, and public speaking.  Teach kids to communicate in various mediums that are formal and informal, verbal and written, audio and visual, video, blogging, tweets, etc.  Allow students some freedom to choose their final media which might be written text, a video production, or creation of their story or essay in an environment like Mind Craft.  I know that these are all ways that many teachers already incorporate but perhaps it could become more pervasive?

My wife and I are planning a trip to Spain for 2016 and are actively learning Spanish.  We are not taking a class but rather are using an app, Duolingo.  We set our own daily targets and the Duolingo digital coach will gently remind us to put in the learning time.  As it teaches us to translate Spanish to English, English to Spanish, speak it, choose the right words, it builds our vocabulary, grammar skills, and it keeps score and tracks areas of weakness to reteach.  I also use Google “spanish to english” to translate words and phrases or grammatical constructs I’ve forgotten.  Perhaps this is cheating but if it helps me to learn Spanish easier, why not?  The goal is to acquire enough Spanish this way to be able to converse, read, and write it somewhat effortlessly.  That’s the desired outcome.  With all the technology available to students and teachers today shouldn’t learning a language and all that entails be quite different, perhaps easier and more tailored to student needs, than it has been for the past decades?  Perhaps what was once cheating could be referred to as resourcefulness.  Share your perspective and ideas here on ‘cheating’ and I’ll pass them along to others as the opportunity arises.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Be Strategic

It is so easy to be busy in our jobs.  You know, doing email, returning phone calls, and having meetings.  Some days on my commute home I wonder what happened during the day.  Busy does not equate to progress and most definitely isn’t strategic.  What does it mean to ‘be strategic’?  Why is this important to making positive progress?  Is strategic planning still a relevant business function in this ever fast changing world?

IMG_0673My wife and I visited Greece this past year and saw amazing examples of architecture and focused energy in creating complex structures and infrastructure.  When you think of the resources they had at their disposal, it seems impossible that they could have done the things they did 1000’s of years ago.  Take the Isthmian Canal for example. It was created to replace the more difficult method of rolling ships across land on logs.  But, it took incredible focus and resources to complete.  It was a very strategic goal designed to make far faster and easier passage from one part of Greece to another.  Without intense focus, they would have never accomplished their goal.

“Strategy is important because the resources available to achieve these goals are usually limited. Strategy generally involves setting goals, determining actions to achieve the goals, and mobilizing resources to execute the actions. A strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources)” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategy (Jan. 2, 2015).

Leaders need to regularly assess the current state of their organization to determine what needs to be changed so as to make improvements or create game changers. To be strategic, they will be concerned with setting goals to focus effort and resources on specific actions designed to make the changes deemed necessary.  It would seem then that a plan would be important for documenting and tracking the assessment, the desired changes, and the specific goals and actions.

I have seen (and participated in creating) some poor examples of ‘strategic plans’.  You know the type, loaded with paragraphs of descriptive text, diagrams, and quotes, and an excessive number of goals and objections that tend to dilute rather than focus efforts.  As well, I’ve rarely seen a strategic plan be used to regularly guide an organizations actions.  Its completion (the writing) often serves as a proud culminating moment and then it is dusted annually for key people to write about their progress towards achieving the goals.

One of the realities that I think leads to loaded (unruly) strategic plans is how much consultation is needed to create them.  The (lengthy) consultation process often results in a lot of advocating by interested parties to have specific goals included and where there are many stakeholders involved, the plan can become unruly.  Also, ownership and accountability for specific goals is not always assigned.  It is important to identify who is expected to achieve each goal and what happens if they failed to do so in the expected timeline.  Regular review of and reporting on of progress is important to keep people focused on what’s been deemed strategic.

In my woriStock_000019296536XSmallk of late advancing the use of technology I have not pursued the creation of formal strategic plans.  Rather, I’ve found strategic IT roadmaps to be helpful.  A roadmap is guide based on a few key strategic themes.  It is designed for the same purpose of a strategic plan but is far more focused on critical specific needs.  The roadmap is used to generate specific initiatives to make specific progress, reduce risks, or solve problems.  A strategic IT roadmap could be the outcome of a lite weight strategic planning process that involves stakeholders in understanding the context, identifying areas of need, and setting direction.  A roadmap would forecast and translate this direction into actionable initiatives.  Stakeholders could also be helpful in fleshing out details, addressing obstacles, and reviewing progress.

For example, An organization that has fallen behind in their effective use of technology might have two foundational strategic themes such as Infrastructure (sub-themes: network, security, servers, storage) and Access Equity (sub-themes: devices for people to access online services and tools, and access to adequate support).  Within each theme/sub-theme, specific initiatives (connected to supporting the organizations evolving priorities) would be designed, proposed, prioritized, and funded.  A rolling five year forecast of budget needs would be developed for each theme to inform the organization of the commitments necessary to advance and maintain the roadmap.  The roadmap serves as a tool to signal the direction and magnitude of strategic investments.  It is a ‘living document’ in that for each budget cycle it is revised and updated so as to keep it adaptable to iStock_000008217437XSmallshifting organization and environmental priorities.  Once sufficient progress is made on foundational themes, additional strategic themes could be pursued and road mapped to rely on earlier themes.  Think of it as building a house on a solid foundation.  Sometimes though, organizational pressures require inclusion of progressive themes before foundational themes are adequately actualized.  Such is life in complex organizations.

Being strategic is important, a plan is helpful, but make it meaningful and consider using roadmaps as a tool to focus and actualize the work.  If you aim at everything you will hit nothing in particular!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Just Google It!

The other day I was cutting the lawn and my mower cut out.  The previous time I cut the lawn, it cut out about 6 times ‘for no reason’.  This time, it would not start again.  I asked one of my sons about it – he is a 3rd year automotive apprentice – and he said he’d check it out.  He took a look, tried a few things then disappeared.  Questions signpost in the skyAbout 10 minutes later, I hear the mower start up.  I asked him what he did and he said he ‘Googled It’.  He found an article or video that matched the symptoms of our mowers problem and tried the suggested solution.  It worked!  The gas tank cap wasn’t letting air in so he loosened it off a bit so it could breath then duct taped it for now, so it would work.

We have been interviewing people for some new technical support jobs we created.  One of the questions we ask candidates is to describe how they keep their knowledge and skills current or in other words, how do they learn in this fast paced world of technology.  More often than not, the top answer involves reading web content such as online articles and magazines, usually driven by the need to search out ideas and answers.  Fewer are those that say they have downlaod the e-bookrecently taken a course at a higher education institution, studied to obtain a current certification, or read a book.  It seems that knowledge is becoming more just-in-time and even transient to some degree.  Having been a traditional learner who actually still values classroom or at least course based learning, reading books, and attending conferences, I find myself thinking that the ‘school of Internet’ is a bit lazy.  I think I might be wrong about that though.  Some of the interview candidates shared stories from their work experience of tackling complex projects or problems that they had not previously faced, and learning how to do the work, by ‘researching’ online.  I’m not sure that a traditional course would help with real-time work like this.

It is true that you can find out how to do something, almost anything, by searching online.  I had to unclog one of our bathtubs last summer and the drain stopper was atypical.  I could not figure out how to remove it.  I watched numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) videos on how to unclog a bathtub but none matched the type of drain stopper I was dealing with.  Finally, I stumbled upon a video posted by someone who had the exact same stopper – he said he spent a lot of time, like me, looking for the right video but could not find it.  So, when he figured out how to remove the stopper, he felt compelled to post a video showing the steps so others would have an easier time of it (like me).  Isn’t it amazing that people take time to record sophisticated projects and problem solving with no expectation of anything in return?

There is so much information and knowledge moving online, actually all of it is!  The value of a traditional classroom based education is in question.  By that I mean using the traditional broadcast technology where a person lectures or imparts information and knowledge to others and they are assessed on how well they can recall it later.  The value of a face to face learning experience should probably be more focused on relationships, communication (written, verbal, electronic), collaboration, developing initiative, learning how to think critically, problem solve, undertake research, and learning how to learn.  All content is electronic and perhaps soon all online and free so what is needed is careful guidance, facilitation, mentoring, and coaching to help learners (young and older) access relevant content while they develop important competencies such as those listed earlier.  It is less about what you know (sorry Jeopardy) and more about knowing how to know, relate, care, give, support, think, express, etc. and finding and connecting relevant content as needed.

The power of Internet search grows with every individual search.  “Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average (visualize them here), which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide” (Nov 11, 2014 http://www.internetlivestats.com/google-search-statistics/).  Beyond search are sophisticated analytics and predictions tools like IBM’s Watson which “has ingested more than 600,000-plus pieces of medical evidence, and two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the area of oncology research. Watson has the power to sift through 1.5 million patient records representing decades of cancer treatment history, such as medical records and patient outcomes, and provide to physicians evidence-based treatment options all in a matter of seconds” (Feb 8, 2013 http://www.mskcc.org/pressroom/press/ibm-watson-hard-work-new-breakthroughs-transform-quality-care-patients).  Watson is becoming the most capable cancer diagnostic ‘doctor’ on the planet.

In this years municipal election there is a candidate, who will remain unnamed here, running for the school board where I live who believes “students need to put down their iPads and smart phones, and learn the way that their parents’ generation did.  We need to get iStock_000022796717Smallback to basics – reading, writing and ‘rithmatic, and learning how to communicate with each other”.  I think she is missing the reality of our age – it is nothing like the previous generation and learning the ‘old’ way will not serve students or adults well.  Sure, there is a lot of off task use of digital devices but that is more of a growing pain in a system that takes an inordinate amount of time to shift gears.  We need to embrace the future while retaining the important aspects of the past!

I am increasingly appreciative of the power of “Just Google it!”, how about you?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Paradox of Technology

I suspect that we all know of people who long for the simpler days of old.  Perhaps you are old enough to remember when a family had one telephone available to them, it was plugged into the wall, had a long curly cord, and you might have used it once or twice a day.  Now we have a phone, actually a super computer, in our pockets with us 24x7 and we interact with others possibly 100’s, for some maybe 1000’s, of times a day.  We try to keep up with the flows of our Facebook flickr - langwitches - Learning then and Nowcommunity, Twitter streams, Text messages, phone calls, Face Times, email messages, SnapChats, Pins, Skypes, etc.  It is overwhelming isn’t it.  Oh for the good ol’ days of the one phone, you know the one where you ‘dialed’ the number and hated numbers with “0” in them.  You know, when you had to wait when the party line was on a call. 

That may be a simplistic example but with all our technological advancements there are benefits and consequences.  For those of us on this planet who have been fortunate to enjoy these advancements, I believe overall, our lives are better off.  Technology has not overwhelmed us or made live unbearable as some might have us believe.  Rather, we have overwhelmed us by allowing our technology to control us when it should be the other way around.  Why do some of us like to blame the accessibility technology creates for us, as the reason we are stressed out?  Technology is meant to make life simpler, reduce our workloads, make it easier to communicate, make us more efficient, give us time back, create new opportunities, etc.  If so, what are we doing wrong ‘cause that’s not what a lot of people seem to experience. 

Think about how much time we spend hunting and gathering relative to our ancestors or to those in poorer countries without the benefits of technology.  Think about how much leisure time you have.  Sure you might think you have very little but that may be just how you allocate your time to your kids, spouse, or how you let your work consume you.  Maybe you are addicted to Facebook or other online 20140730_165352917_iOSspaces.  Technology certainly plays a role in enabling us to do more, communicate more, and consume more (information) but it is really our choice in how balanced or imbalanced we become with our technology use.  Get outdoors and use your tech to capture and share the beauty of our environment!

This summer I decided to take a Facebook holiday for 3 weeks.  I didn’t check my feeds, ‘like’ any posts, or share the wonderful things I was up to.  I was kind-of getting tired of feeling the need to stay tuned into the lives of those I’ve friended.  It was great to take a break.  I often do the same with Twitter, email, and other communication tools.  What I can’t see myself giving up though are all the other tools that help me find places, discover recipes, read or listen to books, listen to music, write out my thoughts and notes, arrange events, research and plan trips, track budgets and expenditures, pay bills, etc.  I remember when Shelley and I first got married.  I got the job of dealing with the finances… I used a paper log to track our bills, their amount, due date, etc. and would refer to it so I knew when to write the cheques and get them into envelopes with stamps and off to the mailbox.  I reconciled our cheque book using a hand calculator and piece of paper.  I used to have to deposit our pay-cheques by driving to the bank and waiting in a line.  It was painful and tedious.  Now almost all of our bills are automatically paid, pay-cheques are deposited automatically, other bills are paid online on a specified date via the bank website.  Recently I have been able to deposit cheques via my phone by taking a picture – it goes into our account immediately.  I use a spreadsheet to track our budget and expenses and to reconcile our cheque book and it takes minutes to do.  This is way better than the pre-technology era.

I was mountain biking yesterday with a friend and we got to talking about buying bike parts.  I’ve always bought at local shops but he got me thinking about how much markup there is and how much I could save buying online.  I said I needed a new front bike tire soon and he said lets combine an order – we’ll get free shipping to Canada from the UK for an order over $99.  I asked him what sites he uses and later he texted me the web addresses when I plugged into my computer browser to search out the tires (tyres in the UK) I wanted.  I found them, emailed him the link and he put in the order.  The tire cost nearly 1/3 what I paid in a local shop!  How simple is that and how cool to save that much on the cost?  I like shopping local, to support the local economy, but when prices are marked up that much, using technology saves me money and time.

Play Blocks With LettersSo what’s my point you ask.  I think the advancement of technology has created huge opportunities and benefits but also has caused great difficulties for some people to manage their lives.  It makes it hard to be and feel balanced.  Technology is agnostic, it is neither good nor evil so let’s not blame the technology, rather let’s be more thoughtful about how we take charge of our time, our behaviors, and priorities.  Use technology to its fullest to make your life better.  Let’s teach and help each other maximize our use of our technology while maximizing the quality of our lives.  Learn to be the boss of your tech and leverage its power for the better! [image: © iStockPhoto #000008477174]

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Should It Be Created?

I recently watched the movie Transcendence (see trailer).  Having read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near a few years ago, I thought it would be cool to see a movie roughly based on similar Stream of digital data and eyeideas.  Note… I found the book to be interesting but disturbing, likewise the movie.  There is an internal drive within some people to pursue inventions for the sake of the science.  Unfortunately, there are consequences to new inventions that go along with the perceived benefits.  As new seemingly miraculous inventions are conceived, we should be more vigilante about asking “why”.  Why should we even try to upload a human brain or any brain, into a machine?  Why should we try to ‘live eternally’ within a machine as a digital existence?  There are scientists like Ray Kurzweil who believe it is possible and that the capability should be invented.  But should it? 

Okay, back to earth… I personally don’t believe it is possible to transcend our human existence into a digital one nor do I think that it would ever be an appropriate outcome if it were possible.  But what about some of the more recent creations or ones in the works?  I continue to be amazed at the game changer our SmartPhones have become.  The other day I went on a hike with my (adult) kids up the Lions near Vancouver, BC.  I used the Strava app on my iPhone to record the hike (see Strava hike) 20140730_185433558_iOSwhich I uploaded to my Strava network and to Facebook once we were done.  I took ample photos with the phone’s camera which I uploaded to share on Facebook, creating conversations and giving people I’m connected to a glimpse into our day in the mountains.  If an emergency occurred, I could call for help.  Just a short 10 years ago, none of this was possible out in the deep woods.  I would have had a flip phone that might have a cell signal, a handheld (large) GPS tracker, a bulky camera, and sharing any of this information would not be quick and nor easy.  The SmartPhone is a great invention for sure.  But, there are all sorts of ‘evil’ uses for predators, criminal activities, remote detonators, etc.  We have learned to accept these consequences along with the benefits.  But did we consider the consequences before the SmartPhone was invented and ‘allowed’ on the market?

What about the current hype around quad copters?  These are pretty cool tools and useful for surveillance, surveying, and playing pranks I’m sure.  Amazon is pursing the use of these tools for same day delivery of online orders in some cities.  I’ve read about these being flown into fireworks displays creating safety concerns for people below and near airports causing concern for airport traffic, etc.  These tools could be used for inappropriate video and picture recording and privacy violations.  What consideration was given to the dangerous and inappropriate uses before these were invented and made available to the public?

There is an explosion of innovation in the medical uses of technology.  It probably won’t be long before prosthetic limbs are indistinguishable from the original.  Innovative ways of delivering drug therapy to target cells is emerging.  One day there may be nanobots available, small ‘machines’ designed to seek out say cancer cells and repair them, or perhaps designed to improve our memory, eye sight, hearing, muscle strength, intelligence…  Would this be bad?  I for one would welcome anything that improves my memory and intelligence!  But, what are the consequences?  Should this be invented?

Hopefully young people flowing through our education system are being exposed to ethical learning scenarios and dilemmas.  Future iStock_000023020317Mediumscientists are in our grade one classes today and they need to learn to question innovations and inventions and learn to have the wisdom and strength to know when to appose them versus pursue them.  With how fast things are changing through new inventions being created, this should be a growing area of importance and concern where we are learning to ask ‘Should it be created?’.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading With the Machine

It is an interesting debate.  Especially when it is with a librarian who is passionate about books, the conventional paper-based type.  I’ve listened to (and read about, on a machine) the arguments for paper-based books, the cognitive advantages, the feel, the humanity of it.  Education Series (sky high books)I think this is a case of hanging onto a long tradition and it repeats itself over and over through history.  Even when the Gutenberg press was invented, the religious leaders of the day tried to paint it as a tool of the devil.  I suspect that was to protect the vocation of the tireless monks copying texts and to protect the political leaders power and control over the spread of knowledge.  Or, how about when the oral tradition was shifting to a written one, albeit using stone tablets.  There were fears that peoples ability to remember would be lost.  With any change in tools, there is a sense of loss and a sense of wonder and gain.  Reading is one of those practices that is under siege from the perspective of the old ways are being significantly challenged.  I wrote a few years back about the Future of Books.

I was in an elementary school last week and the vice principal, who teaches 0.7 of which a good chunk is library, took me into the library for the ‘reading block’.  All students in all classes were involved in some form of reading activity at the same time and it occurs every day.  In the library she had kids (grade 2’s in this case) grab laptops (works on Windows, Mac, iPad, iPod, etc.) from a cart, sit around round tables, put on head phones and use a reading program called Raz-Kids. They logged in using the class ID, found their profile (a folder) to get to their selection of books and progress information.  They have access to hundreds of books that are age / grade relevant.  Each student chooses which book they wish to read or picks up where they left off.  They also use this tool from home. 

With Raz-Kids, the learning work flow is something like this:

  • choose book
  • listen to an engaging human voice read it while it high lights the words, presents photos, drawings, and background sounds and music to support the storyline
  • once they are confident they can read it, they will read aloud to the machine, there is a record button to record them
  • once they are confident in their understanding of the content, they take an online comprehension quiz – the machine will redirect them back to parts of the book for sections they do not pass the threshold on
  • once the machine ‘feels’ (the teacher is involved too) the student is ready to level up, it presents more advanced books to choose from

The teacher has access to all the students reading information such as which books they have completed, how they scored on comprehension, and to their recorded self-reading.  Think about the efficiency alone in this approach.  The teacher would never have enough time to observe, listen, assess in the way the machine does.  The machine is making possible the impossible in supporting and evaluating these kids.

Importantly, the kids’ parents can access the same information.  iStock_000008573353SmallParents are encouraged to read along with their kids, to listen to their kids read with the program, etc.  Now, the extra amazing part of this is the school and community population is 75% ELL (English Language Learners)!  What a fantastic way for the kids AND their parents/grandparents (many multigenerational families living together) to learn English together. 

So what might the future of reading with machines look like.  What if the machine analyzed facial expression, eye movement, pace, etc. and connected that to the point in the book the reader was at.  It could correlate content type, word complexity, background sounds iStock_000010007327Largeand music, machine reader voice tone, gender, etc. to how the human reader reacts.  When the human reads out loud, it could correlate their pronunciation, pace, flow, etc. to the content.  The machine could pop up meanings of words, offer to explain context, etc. when it ‘notices’ the reader struggling.  Perhaps the machine could offer a rich 3D immersive experience of the content to the reader.  The reader would put on some 3D immersive equipment and ‘enter in’ to the book to experience it with all their senses.  The machine would learn their readers preferences, nuances, ‘intelligence’, etc. and tailor assistive materials and experiences to the reader to maximize enjoyment AND comprehension. 

You might be thinking, ‘you are crazy Brian’.  If you are, you are falling into the trap on using the past and the present to predict the future.  Let your imagination run out on an exponential change scale and what I am describing is most certainly possible, probably within 10 years.  Through the massively parallel connections between human brains through the Internet and the mass collaboration on ideas, research, and inventions, new technologies are arising faster and faster every year – exponentially faster that is.  So, I get that we like our own traditions and experiences, i.e., ‘the book’, but we will need to get over it and take advantage of the new possibilities.  We are holding back the potential of people when we limit their access to new technologies.  I’m not na├»ve in thinking all technological progress is good and healthy, but I do believe we should leverage the good aspects where possible.