Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mobile Learning, FOR REAL!

I went to a fantastic NSF presentation today with University of Michigan Professor of Education, Elliot Soloway. For years he has researched the use of technology in the classroom and has developed tons of learning software that has more or less flopped in the real world. So instead of revealing his newest software development project, he spent his time telling the NSF where they need to re-prioritize their education investments. Here are the main, and significant, points:
  • Public schools will never reach a 1:1 student to computer ratio
  • Laptops/Computers are not sustainable because they require too much costly maintenance and become outdated quickly
  • Most public schools employ vastly underqualified IT teachers/directors
  • Training teachers on computer applications tends to be very time consuming and ineffective
  • Most teachers do not effectively integrate computers into their curriculum
If I don't have a computer and Internet connection, I can't do my work. To many Americans, technology is absolutely essential in their lives, yet public schools are terrible at technology integration. Used wisely, computers allow students to tailor lessons to their skill level, access information quickly, have a more active role in learning, and share their learning experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, kids LOVE technology!! But schools all over the country are faced with those above obstacles. So what's the solution? How can we successfully integrate technology into public schools? How do we use what kids love into an educational advantage?

The answer? Mobile devices. Smartphones, PDA's, Blackberries. Sorry, no iPhones :( Are they not computers? Do they not have nearly all the software that you could access on a laptop or a netbook? And what about all those applications? Compared to software, programing mobile apps is a cinch and you can get it to people faster. Kids are already comfortable using cell phones. Heck, they can text faster on a phone than I can type on a computer! And there are already great learning apps available. For instance, last month I downloaded a bunch of free apps to learn French. They weren't great, but I have a feeling that if I just chalked up the $9 for a good one I could have really started making some progress. I can hear pronunciations, type in responses, and watch two French people interact with second grade grammar! Another use is taking pictures. In biology, have students go on a playground scavenger hunt by taking pictures with their mobile device of recently learned flora and fauna. More uses: download and read books for free, access current events, track constellations, learn vocabulary, explore the periodic table (for real!), use as a scientific calculator. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

The other awesome part - mobile devices are cheap!! They're a fraction of the cost of a laptop and applications are either free or affordable. If companies like Verizon or Cingular pull this off, they'll likely offer the devices for free and just charge for wireless access. Providing every student with a smartphone and a keyboard will save tons of money for public schools. They could even outsource the technology, like they outsource their buses and cafeterias.

As smartphones increase their storage capacity and lower their costs, the desktop and laptop computers become more obsolete. The New York Times published a recent article stating that laptops had no impact on student achievement, cost too much to maintain, and meet with resistance from teachers. Prof. Soloway shared many case studies where mobile phone integration avoided these problems. He's visited schools all over the country and found that teachers learn quickly on mobile devices and students complete their assignments and love using them for learning. More controlled research needs to be done, but so far, the results seem very promising.

Unfortunately, most public schools ban cell phone use during school. Also, without solid evidence from controlled research, education complemented with mobile devices may be a hard sell to the Department of Education and school boards. And will children go blind from looking at a small screen so often? It's important that we don't lag on this research. Schools are laying off teachers and students are falling behind in technology competency. The sooner we can come up with strategies for using mobile devices wisely and effectively in the classroom, the sooner we can close the technology gap, the sooner we can save our schools money, and the sooner we can enrich learning.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The bridge is crossed, but stay on the train!

Woot. According to recent reports by the National Research Council and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, women have stepped up in science and math. The achievement gap between males and females in math performance across all age groups is now nill, and women who apply for and join university faculties in math and science are as likely to succeed as men. Of course, there are caveats. Women still don’t have comparable salaries and are underrepresented in fields like physics, engineering, and computer science. We do, however, hold the majority of degrees in psychology and biomedical sciences. Further proof that women will one day no longer need men since we’ll probably figure out how to reproduce without them with science! Heh, no, I kid. On a more serious note, even though many of them are now obtaining advanced degrees in science, retaining women faculty is proving more challenging. An MIT study in 1999 found that one of the biggest reasons for female faculty dropout was overwork from balancing their career and their family life. Well crap- what do we do about that? What a shame for these accomplished women to spend so much time and energy and money building their careers, and what a loss to the colleges and universities. Should universities provide free day care or offer flexible hours? Should they provide more funding to hire academic assistants? Should new fathers be entitled to the same benefits? I don't really have a great suggestion, but as an aspiring female scientist and advisor, I would love to hear some advice on what I can do to prepare my future.


Here's the link to the NY Times article

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lure the undergrads...

I spent most of today reading through various articles analyzing the success of federally funded undergraduate research programs. As I read through the descriptions of these various programs, I asked myself, what really matters in creating a fantastic undergraduate research program? Sure, funding and facilities and good students and good ideas are important factors, but none of those variables sounded completely essential to me. After some reflection on my own personal research experiences, I came to the conclusion that the most important element that determines the value of a student's research experience is the passion of the investigator who serves as their mentor. Without that fire in their belly, that drive and excitement, resources will go to waste and students will struggle to realize their full potential as young, promising investigators. As I went back and reviewed the research program descriptions, I was surprised to see that none of them required any sort of faculty development. I have a lot of faith that most faculty scientists can organize great research opportunities for their undergraduate students, but the federal funds for these programs aren't to provide summer science jobs and cheap undergraduate labor. The intent of these programs is to inspire more students to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology. But money doesn't inspire. Enhancing science competency doesn't inspire. Only a mentor that is passionate about their work and excited to share their daily experiences will be an inspiring role model. Those are the kind of people science needs now.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Civility or Consumerism?

After returning from my first official day at the NSF (which mainly consisted of orientation and staff introductions), I attended a phenomenal lecture by Dr. Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard and a liberal political philosopher. Here's his main point: the markets have outstretched far beyond their moral limits. Allowing technocratic cost-benefit analyses to dictate policy judgement is objectionable, especially on issues that are truly moral or political in nature. Really, how can you create an accurate pricing model for air, water, or human life, and is that really even appropriate? Prof. Sandel points out that we live in a market society AND market culture, where civility and morality have taken the back seat and we feel comfortable determining pollution levels and cigarette taxation based on the hypothetical dollar value of a human life. We're at the point now where government has no choice but to step in and regulate where and how far markets can dictate their influence. Conclusion: Stop running a cost-benefit analysis where democracy should govern. Start choosing civil duty over consumerism.

(Just as an aside, I chatted with Thomas Friedman from the New York Times after the lecture. It was awesome!!!!)