What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

The Problem with the Silver Bullet in Education

What is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem you are trying to solve is complicated, such as education, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Complicated problems often have multiple variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. When we look for a silver bullet, we run the risk of investing significant sums of money in an unrealistic solution that will never deliver the expected returns.

Solving complex problems requires having an underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of expensive and comprehensive tools

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) committed over $1 billion for a silver bullet – to put aniPads in EDU iPad in the hands of each and every student in the district. Long story short, the initial roll-out proved to be a major failure and not because the devices lacked in performance. One of the key problems was that teachers only received a few days of training on the devices. Perhaps even more critical is the fact that, according to a published report by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.”

This is, unfortunately, an incredibly expensive case for the importance of having underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of pricey and comprehensive tools. According to Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Districts are starting with the technology [tool] and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding the technology [tool] in service of that.”

Until education identifies a problem and/or opportunity that requires technology as a means [tool] to address it, any implementation or mandated use of these tools and/or apps will be underutilized and run the serious risk of creating more problems than it even stood the chance to solve. In the case of the LAUSD, teachers reported significant levels of frustration, the iPads required more bandwidth than was readily available, and last by not least, it cost the district a significant amount of money (total proposed expenditure was estimated to be $1.3 billion when the entire project was complete).

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your school that you need to address – pick 1!
  • If you do not already have a model for addressing your problem/opportunity, design one that you and your team have the capacity and ability to execute
  • If you are struggling to identify or design a strategy, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth – talk to people impacted by problem/opportunity, talk to potential users of solution, look for existing research
  • With a strategy/approach set, Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you execute – what are others doing in your field and consider what are others outside of your field are doing with similar problems
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and people; be open to switching tools when necessary – problems and opportunities evolve and so will your needs

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

Is EdTech an Epic Fail?

First of all, let me start by saying I love tech!  I embrace it and always stay on the lookout for new apps and new devices that can add value to my life, business, and activities.  Many of my friends ask me for ideas on what tech solutions might be a best fit for them.  This is precisely why I am writing this article.  The key to what I do for my friends is finding what tech solutions are a good fit.  The fit I am looking for is that which exists between lifestyle, habits, needs, and solution attributes.

Which brings me to education and edtech.  School staff and faculty often ask me how they can integrate technology into their curriculum and classes.  In some of those cases, they already have the technology purchased and need to know how to integrate it.  Unfortunately, this is often already doomed because the wrong question was asked.  This creates the proverbial problem of putting the cart before the horse.

ipad-schoolThe question we need to be asking is how can we best leverage technology to meet our objectives.  This question is radically different from the one that is most often asked because it suggests that technology is simply the tool driven by the existing objectives of the school.  Not only does this question position schools to enjoy the benefits of technology in alignment with their particular needs, but it also positions edtech entrepreneurs to develop and deliver more effective solutions. Continue reading

Learning Math in Real World Contexts

I was waiting for my pizza at a local pizzeria today and something struck me.  I have been reading Bruno Nardini’s, Portrait of a Master: Leonardo that covers the life of Leonardo Da Vinci.  There was a time in school where he became very unsatisfied with the way subjects were abstractly and vaguely taught.  He wanted something more concrete, something he could put his hands on, much like his personal studies of nature.

In a way, it seemed he wanted to learn with a purpose in mind, perhaps within a more concrete context.  Maybe he wanted to learn in a way that allowed him to see the application of the topic.  It then hit me, I’m often asked by my math clients – why do I need to learn this?  How will I be able to use this?  In a way, they are asking me the same thing Da Vinci might have asked someone of his class work. Continue reading

Building Your Math Toolbox

If you have ever put together a piece of furniture or completed a do-it-yourself project at home you have probably pulled out a toolbox and used your tools on an as needed basis.  Perhaps you had to hammer a nail into a wall and located your hammer to do so.  Every now and then though, you cannot find that hammer and are faced with the challenge of hammering in that nail another way.  You look around and find something that might work even if not originally intended to do so.

This is what we do, we solve problems with whatever means available to us.  We all do it in some way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, an accountant, a student, a drug dealer, or a mobster.  You do what you have to with the resources available to you.  The same goes for math students.  I introduce every student I work with to the concept of the mathematician’s toolbox.  As we move from one topic to the next I make sure they understand that this is another opportunity to build their toolbox and make it more complete.  As we approach new topics I always ask them what tools can we use to solve some of these problems before even exploring the new tools.  Continue reading

Roadmap to College Success

While working on a personal project I thought about all of the choices students face when selecting required and elective courses.  For instance, students have to take a certain number of sciences to graduate college – but which ones do they choose?  Students have spots for electives – but again, which do they choose?

During my first semester of sophomore year in college my girlfriend at the time helped me list out all of the courses I would need to take between second semester sophomore year and graduation.  We took it semester by semester and all I had to do first was decide what my limit on credits would be.  I thought 18 on average, never more than 21.  So, with all of these empty semesters and individual slots open it was time to start plugging in courses.  Question now was, how would I do that? Continue reading