Tag Archives: bias

Technology and Education


Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?


Talking to Everyone


         The Croll-Lee Report on FSL in New Brunswick has been justifiably criticised as sloppy and limited in its use of research on methods of teaching FSL.  Critics have also pointed out the inaccurate use of figures and tables provided by the New Brunswick Ministry of Education.  It was unfortunate that New Brunswick children were so ill served in what was a good cause and for which there was so much solid evidence available.

            Before I go further, I want to discuss academic research in the social sciences as it has some bearing on this issue. The social sciences such as education are seen as soft sciences because so little can be proved quantitatively.  By quantitative, I mean what can be measured and reproduced given the same situation.  For a start, it is impossible to have identical situations where people are concerned.  In education, no two teachers are alike and no two classes are alike.  No matter how carefully we select for similar age, gender, socio-economic status (i.e. are they upper, middle or lower class) race, faith and ability the classes may be similar but never the same. To do that we have also recognised our own bias, abandoning the myth that researchers operate objectively in studying their subjects     

For many people, this is a new way of looking at things.  Acknowledging bias in scientists, valuing description and narratives as part of the results of research? This is a different world from the expectation that numbers are the most precise way and therefore the best, least biased way of measuring the world around us.  We admit our bias and record it with the narrations or anecdotal evidence.  Sometimes, as action researchers, for example, teachers doing research as they work, the bias is very much a part of the research.  

Just as quantum physics discovered that under some circumstances observation changes what is observed, so too, observing in the social sciences changes what we observe.  I suspect quantum physics may have opened the quantitative thinking world to the potential of qualitative research.  This recognition and the awareness of bias have lead the researcher to include herself sometimes in the story of the research.

That being said, there were facts and figures that needed to be included in the Croll-Lee Report.  The commissioners did comment that little useful information was available.  This is not surprising.  Education ministries and school boards do not evaluate results for their programs as a rule.  They may do it as a spot check or because anecdotal evidence suggests it is necessary but rarely in an ongoing fashion.  Before we become too critical, we have to remember that many ministries across the country have been asked to cut the fat, the deadwood and all positions not relevant to teaching.  Researchers and analysts would be among the first to the guillotine.

A reporter in British Columbia, responding to the events in FSL education in New Brunswick asked the B.C. ministry of education how their French Immersion program was doing.

Asked for comparable B.C. figures [to those citing dropout numbers and numbers achieving ministry goals in N.B.], an Education Ministry spokesperson said the government does not have them. “We don’t track early immersion students through to Grade 12,” she said… “I guess tracking French students was something we’ve never done,” she said.

According to Education Ministry policy, the “major goal” for the French immersion program is for students to become bilingual. The ministry is not, however, checking to see how many students meet that goal.

         From Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008, TheTyee.ca

                  However, the dearth of statistical information should not have stopped the commissioners from making good use of what was available.  When I was tearing my hair out trying to get a handle on calculating statistics for a course on research design I took in graduate school, a colleague explained to me that I didn’t have to do my own statistics.  Many people hire a statistician to help them plan the taking of data and the analysis afterwards; studying stats was a good idea, as it would give me an understanding of what was involved.  It was sufficient that I understood the theory and the kinds of cases in which certain methods were used so I could work knowledgeably with the experts.

            Similarly, if time was limited or neither Lee nor Croll were adept at number crunching, they should have employed someone to do it for them.  The sad fact is that the few errors I reviewed with the aid of my own number cruncher may have given them the wrong numbers, but if they had done them the right way, they would have had almost as effective evidence for the points they were trying to make.

            Another unfortunate error was the lack of explanation of research results into the three major teaching methods they were discussing.  Croll and Lee did not need specific expertise in this area; if expertise were needed in all the topics they covered in their review and recommendations, they would have needed experts in teaching FSL, learning disabilities (especially language related ones), school organisation and management, rural and urban schools, language development and teaching L1.  That would have just been the beginning. 

            The purpose in doing graduate work in a subject is to learn to do original research, think logically knowing your own bias and add to the body of knowledge. Most importantly, the student develops expertise to be shared with other people so they don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing their own research or guessing wildly. The student also acquires the skill to read work in other disciplines with a critical eye.

The academic information was available and I have reviewed it in my last post.  With the tools at their disposal, they should have been able to do a more thorough and clearer job.  Dr. Croll taught at the University of New Brunswick, which had a Faculty of Education and housed the Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC).  I am sure the latter would have been happy to provide appropriate information; they certainly were after the report was published.  In fact, Paula Kristmanson presented a paper on Intensive Core French (see April 19 post on 3 options for FSL delivery) at the fourth International Symposium on Bilingualism in 2003.  She was then at UNB and is now at L2RIC.

If time had been a problem, they should have asked for more time.  If they had a proposal but needed to review it with others who had more specific expertise, then they should have asked for time to do that.  In other words, they did not have to be experts, they only needed to know when to consult them.

What did the commissioners get right?  They did their best to make sure everyone was heard.  I know that one complaint was that there wasn’t enough time for everyone to be heard.  I also know that many people pass the large signs in their neighborhoods announcing an application to deviate from the local bylaw in a building application and neglect to stop and read the details.  They are often the first people to complain when application is approved, the building is built, the tenants move in and they discover the deviation is going to affect their property.  I read through the lists of organisations that were contacted and asked for input; if their members were contacted then, as far as I can tell, every avenue was used to communicate with stakeholders.

The anecdotal evidence the commissioners provide in their report made it clear that there was general and considerable discontent with the way FSL worked in New Brunswick.  The issues were not the small irritants of school life; they concerned quality of teaching, availability of resources and equity issues.  This was not a problem of a few rotten trees, it was a tangled forest of education where flowers bloomed in a few clearings and much of the undergrowth in the rest was so thick it made progress difficult.  The department of education and Croll and Lee were trying to see the forest.  That they botched it is regrettable.

For some interesting criticisms of the report go to http://educationinnb.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/a-response-to-minister-lamrocks-justifications-for-his-fsl-plan/#more-195.     The author does not give sources for many of his facts and he doesn’t state his credentials for weighing the arguments given by the ministry.  However, some of his points are solid.  One of the best points he makes is that Croll and Lee recommend starting the FSL program in Grade 5 with Intensive French.  He correctly points out that programs where Intensive French has been used at that age have had students who have already had several years of French. 

What the commissioners proposed was to start the students study of FSL with Intensive French.  This was not something that had been studied although Intensive French and Intensive English at this age had proved successful with learners who had some of the L2.  By some I mean a little. Starting L2 learning with IF is an idea that needs to be thrashed out with second language teachers and especially those with experience in Intensive French.

The blogger above inadvertently makes a point on behalf of the ministry when he demonstrates that 20% of New Brunswick students, who are the right age for Early French Immersion, live too far away from an EFI program to make it practical.  You will remember from an earlier post that just under 50% of N.B.’s population is rural; one could infer that most of the students who are too far away from EFI are part of that rural population.  Perhaps the ministry was aware that two French streams were de facto discriminating against rural students.

The obvious solution to this is to put French Immersion into all schools, but to advocate that is to forget the enormous costs of two streams in five grade schools of 100 to 200 students. 

In the end the Croll/Lee report was a disaster because it was intended to correct a number of problems but due to its sloppiness created a political whirlwind which destroyed any chance of seriously reforming FSL in New Brunswick.  It became a rallying point for the middle class to push French Immersion rather than a place to start discussions concerning the most effective way to teach French to children.

 

Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008, TheTyee.ca