Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Digitizing into Oblivion

[Update 15 Jan 2012]
Read it and weep:
Truly, this guy is scum.

[Update 28 April 2012]  No but -- for real.


A new movement  within, or we might say against, education, conveniently combines increased profits for tech companies (and perks for the bureaucrats who award those contracts) with the broader attack against unions in general and teachers in particular.    It downgrades the pesky human factor, and provides students instead with a digital simulacrum or cybernetic prosthesis.   This teaching-style is ideal for raising a generation of autists.  Your can read all about it here:
A comment on the human costs here:

Now, folks, I am no Luddite.   I majored in math with a minor in physics, and took biology, astronomy, and chemistry-for-chem-majors as well.  While editor-in-chief at Franklin Computer/ Franklin Electronic Publishers, I crafted electronic reference products for schools.  The Web is wonderful;  I burn frankincense before Wikipedia in little jade bowls.   But I sense a scam here.

For one thing, the effects of such technology-driven juggernauts  are visible in my own very large public-sector workplace -- one which is extravagantly well-funded in some ways, unbelievably underfunded in others  -- mostly in ways that inconvenience the workforce . 
Some of these technology ‘upgrades’ obviously waste money and may be the result of sheer inertia or even kickbacks.  As when the old photocopiers that worked just fine (and which are decreasingly needed as the office is now largely paperless)  are replaced by monstrous behemoths, split for some reason into two different units connected by cables that eat up floorspace (itself at a premium  since we're crammed-in like pickles in a jar), and which jam all the time.  Or, thousand-dollar “smartboards” that nobody uses.
Tellingly in this context, one of the (by far) lower-cost items -- books -- have come in for particular budgetary axing, and ideological attack.
Judging by our old holdings, we once had a respectable if not world-class collection  in such areas as languages and mathematics.   (As, a multi-volume masterpiece on Yemeni tribal poetry, written in French by an eccentric Swedish count, based on his travels in the nineteenth century.  Or, the Gesammelte Abhandlungen of Hermann Weyl.)  These treasures were spread principally over three locations:  the main campus, the research campus, and the school.
Then they closed the libraries at the school and at the research facility.  The books went into boxes, maybe some into the dumpster, I don’t know.
Then the remaining library was starved for funds.  It has not been able to buy new books for years; key journal subscriptions have lapsed.

Lost in the stacks

The last time I visited the remains of our main library,  the comfy chairs had been stacked in a corner with a sign “Do Not Move”.   The map-room had been roped-off:  “No admittance”.    And the librarians had a haunted, hunted air -- it felt like Fahrenheit 451. 
Though the fact has absolutely not been publicized, and is to be presented rather as a fait accompli, our last remaining library is in fact scheduled for the chopping block.   The books might just be pulped. (I’ve been working with a sister institution to see if it will house the refugees.)   And a nervous librarian told me that, in the mean-time,  “We’re not supposed to use the word ‘library’ anymore.” 
What, I said, uncertain of having heard aright.  Some new taboo?  That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named ?
“We’ve been told to say ‘data delivery portal’,” or something like that.  And printed matter (what our grandparents referred to as “books”) is to be replaced by software.   The new system is already in beta, only it’s a strange kind of beta, since none of the library uses are aware of it and hence are not trying it out, and indeed the librarian had been warned that she was not to let people know of its existence.  Feeling as though I had stumbled into some paranoid thriller set behind the Iron Curtain, I followed her as, in a hush, she penetrated to the rear of her ill-lit cluttered office, and she demonstrated how it works.
I wanted to browse recent issues of the American Mathematical Monthly.  The system, it seemed, wasn’t really set up to do that, but you could seek a particular article if you already knew its title and so forth.  We tried a few, and most had only the title and perhaps an abstract, with “Text Unavailable”.  But finally we found one that said Click here for full text.  We clicked.  No text.
I raised a skeptical sexagenarian eyebrow.
She shrugged helplessly.  “That’s what it does.  I’ve told the development team several times, but they say they are satisfied with the way it works.”
Well of course they are !   On-time and under-budget!  The actual utility of the product doesn’t matter -- none of the people who sign off on  or enforce these things  do actual research.

And the kids will look great for the photographers, posed before the rows and rows of screens.

Two options confront us.
(1)  Fight this thing.
(2)  Shut up and drink the Kool-Aid, and sing this merry tune:

~    ~    ~

There are many well-thought-out experience-based Readers’ Comments on the NYTimes article.  Samples:

I see that most readers were not fooled by this computer snake oil. I am a former computer industry engineering director, now a college professor and also a faculty advisor for "Mastering Physics" one of the best (the best?) online learning systems for physics. I STILL think the teachers are right. My students do use Mastering Physics, but if I had smaller classes I would use it less. There is something about working with pencil and paper in math and science that involves you with your thoughts in an intimate way that no computer can. The famous mathematician Ramanujan used a slate and chalk because he had no pencil and paper. Our students would probably be OK to use a tablet computer if they treat it like Ramanujan's slate. I agree with others that having a computer on invites multi-tasking and distraction. I also note that my students treat online homework like a computer game. They guess at answers rapidly and see what sticks rather than carefully working out solutions and then entering a final result. The Mastering Physics software attempts to guide them through the solution process, but it is still much better if they can accomplish the work without a guide.

I am a former 3rd grade teacher from a low income school in NYC. I was an education major years ago when it really was a serious subject with courses in developmental psychology, philosophy, etc etc. I wanted to teach and took it seriously. Of course we had no computers then, but I know I would have embraced them and used them well. However, I went into teaching because I wanted to help kids learn and they knew that. I became attached to lots of the kids, and them to me.

Many years later, I got a calll from a psychiatric facility that a former student of mine was hospitalized. He told the nurse that he remembered me and that I said I would help anyone of my students if I could. The nurse put him on the phone, and we chatted a while, and he calmed down. What an honor for me (and he was not the only student I ever heard from, there have been many).

Now I know this is emotional and intense but I ask, how many students would remember a computer or an online instructor who never saw them in person, and would have done this??

Technology in the classroom is a nuanced issue, and the Idaho legislature has approached it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In my experience with technology in the classroom (which includes a high school that required laptops), the results were definitely a mixed bag.

Unrestricted laptop use in class encouraged online chatting, and I can honestly say that I do not remember anything from my two online undergrad courses.


There are also a few posts, diametrically opposed, saying, basically, “Gleichschaltung!  Get with the program!!”  But, interestingly, though all the posters’ names are different, they each manage somehow to slip in the name of a certain ostensibly-not-for-profit company (that is for accounting and reporting purposes;  doesn't mean the insiders don't get rich)  that stands to benefit from this scam.  Additionally, since online content increasingly involves advertising, you can figure out cui prodest.  (There is a precedent in Chris Whittle's ad-infested classroom videos.)


[Update 5 Jan 2012]
Another pertinent reader comment:

As a proud ex-Boise Brave, a student at the only high school in the state that consistently listed as one of the top 500 (or whatever the listing is) schools in the nation, I have one question:

How is the state with one of the worst internet speeds/cellphone coverages, where apparently BEARS TAKE OUT THE INTERNET, supposed to handle this?

Same deal at our language campus:  It was without Internet access for weeks, owing to some stupidity on the part of Verizon (which denied all responsibility).
So, if you use the Web as a teaching auxiliary, fine, wonderful;  but have a back-up plan.  (When I give a talk at work, I always bring paper handouts,  in case the computer doesn’t work, which is often the case.)

[Update April 2012].  Tetelestai.
The volumes have been carted offsite  to what we can only call a Konzentrationslager for books.
The vandals who accomplished this  are hopping about, scratching their armpits, and awarding each other  promotions.

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