The Digital Divide 1998 and Now: Not So Different. Or is it?

The New York Times carried a story last year that I wanted to write about concerning a study of the different ways technology is used by students from different backgrounds. It looked at fourth and eighth graders who answered questions about their classroom experiences while taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That is the test that is often nicknamed the "nation's report card." 

When I searched for the story yesterday, I turned up a blog post from whose take on that study was that the findings from 2013 when compared with 1998 show a "shockingly" similar digital divide.

The N.A.E.P. data shows that 34% of eighth graders who took the math exams in 2011 used computers to "drill on math facts" while less than 25% worked with spreadsheets or geometric figures on the computer. Only 17% used statistical programs.

The survey data also shows clear differences among racial groups and income levels. The results might not be what you would expect though.

More than half of the black students in 2011 said they used computers to work on math drills, but only 30% of white students said they did. Similarly, 41 percent of lower-income students (ones eligible for free and reduced lunches) used computers for math drills, while only 29% of students whose families earn too much to qualify for the lunches.

The article points out that "Remarkably, virtually the exact same study, was conducted by Harold Wenglinsky of the Educational Testing Services Policy Information Center in 1998, with strikingly similar findings.
Boser looked at background surveys from the 2009 and 2011 NAEP tests, and Wenglinsky looked at the 1996 NAEP background surveys."

What are we to conclude? Fifteen years and new technology and new software, but the patterns of usage and inequality remain. Is it technology, classroom practice or students?

Breakthrough Degree Programs

Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) is a program that wants to accelerate educational innovation through applied technology. Their goals include showing dramatic improvement in college readiness and completion in the United States. They provide investment capital to expand the use of proven and emerging learning technologies, for collecting and sharing evidence of what works, and fostering a community of innovators and adopters.

How do they define a “Breakthrough Degree Program”? These are programs that generally depart from the higher education’s structures with which we are familiar. They question how we typically use technology (preferring to allow faster progress to a degree via personalized pathways or competency-based learning), tuitions (preferring more affordable costs), how course time is used and measured, and new roles
for students and those who support students.

At the website, you can read more about their work and their partnerships. Those partnerships provide the investment capital - and sometimes are the reason that their ideas are looked at with some suspicion by educators.  Their Executive Committee, comprised of EDUCAUSE, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, guides the project’s overall efforts. (EDUCAUSE has management and fiduciary responsibility for the program.)

Examples of what a “Breakthrough Degree Program” can look like can bee seen in Southern New Hampshire’s "College for America," Northern Arizona University’s "Personalized Learning Program, and programs at Rio Salado College. These programs address alternatives like subscription models for tuition with one low-cost, all-inclusive rate. They also experiment with college-level learning being driven by and built upon the experiences and competencies that students bring with them. Some focus on support systems that use technology but rely on advisors, peer mentors, coaches, and instructors.

NGLC also likes to support K-16 partnerships tying postsecondary work to the being done in K-12 (see iNACOL and CCSSO) since college readiness and college completion are both big issues on campuses and appear to be intertwined.

Off the Clock: Moving to Competency-Based Learning


There is a good article, "Technologies that Unlock Competency-Based Learning" by Dian Schaffhauser, that looks at how in New Hampshire a shift away from an educational system based on "seat time" is already underway.

I have been writing about "competency-based" programs for a few years, but a real national shift started in August 2013 when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report calling for the dismantling of their own "Carnegie Unit."

That unit of measurement, which is tightly tied to the high school and college credit system, is being questioned even by those who created it. One alternative getting the most attention is CBL - Competency-Based Learning.

This new approach flips the Carnegie Unit (time is the constant and learning is the variable).
Learning becomes the constant and time is the variable. That means students take as much or as little time as they need to master a competency. The main requirement is that they continue to make progress. The student who completes a 15 week, 3 credit course in 9 weeks moves on. Another student takes 20 weeks to complete those competencies.

Obviously, this requires some big shifts to how we view credits, degrees, semesters and coursework.

It's an idea that has been used more in online courses and programs than with F2F courses in recent years, and technology plays a big role in this transformational approach.

According to the article, New Hampshire was trying this concept prior to the Carnegie announcement. High schools there have been shifting since the 2008-2009 academic year from the traditional time-based model of credit for sitting in class for about 180 days and moving students on even if they have not mastered the content.

The program has had challenges, which is what we would expect.

In a somewhat oversimplified explanation, you have a competency itself, and an assessment by which that competency is measured. New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) sees a competency as including a "student's ability to transfer concepts and skills across content areas. A sample competency might be the following: "Students will demonstrate the ability to comprehend, analyze, and critique informational text in print and non-print media." VLACS is a a competency-based charter school for grades 5 to 12. Tuition-free to in-state students, this "alternative school" appeals to a variety of learners, including those who want to take courses not offered by their own schools.

How would this work in colleges that don't have the time luxury of 180 classes and a 10 month year? 

Will we see the completion rate at colleges decrease as students speed through courses in less than a semester - or will it get even longer than it is now because students cannot meet the competencies for certain required courses?

Many questions still to be asked and answered.

The End of Skeuomorphism

Would you ever put your music, pictures or videos in a "folder"?  Well, you do digitally. That's skeuomorphism.

A skeuomorph is an object that retains some design elements to earlier objects. Why do designers use them? Because our brain is organized by analogies and it is key to the way that we understand. 

For example, when designing early graphical user interfaces for computer operating systems, designers used the skeuomorph of a paper folder as a place to put "files." This made more sense when you were filing word processing documents than it did for music files, but the analogy has held on to this day.

Skeuomorphs are not just computer-related. When you see physical objects with faux rivets to look like they are made of metal, or stitching to give a leather look or faux wood on a cars side panels or dashboard, these are all skeuomorphs.

Add an old design element to a new one. Some designers view them as cheats, especially when they are less than subtle. Other designers like that they help users make connections.

PowerPoint replaced trays of 35mm slides in presentations and so Microsoft used "slides" as the term and the framing device for each file in the presentation.

We still see various icons of trashcans and wastebaskets as the place to dump out deleted files.
Even though we click rather than "press" many icons on screens, they still look like and are referred to as "buttons."

If you never worked in a photo darkroom, then some of the icons and terms used in the Photoshop software package may seem strange. In order to move photographers who had used darkrooms into the digital world terms like dodge and burn and the sponge and eyedropper from the darkroom were retained in the digital darkroom.

An article in Forbes magazine suggested that it was time for skeuomorphism "to die."  The author points to Apple's design whiz Jony Ive as one person there who would rather not design with that nod to the past.

Apparently, Steve Jobs did not agree. That's why we saw on Apple products: calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome. When a technology is new, it helps. Taking notes on a screen may feel more comfortable if the the application gives us "pens and highlighters" and the screen looks like a lined notebook or sticky notepaper.

But at some point, the technology is familiar enough that we shouldn't need these nods to the past.

My students don't know what I mean by a Rolodex, but they recognize the cards as a symbol for a contact.

Skeuomorph is from the Greek: skeuos (container or tool) and morphê (shape) and has been used since the late 1800s.

But the design concept has been around since antiquity and can be seen in leather and clay pottery which used traits from the wooden counterparts of earlier artisans. Clay pottery with rope-shaped handles were creating a connection to a familiar shape and usage.

Digital skeuomorphs abound. Your digital camera or smartphone still makes a shutter-like click is an auditory skeuomorph since there is no mechanical shutter present. Even the swipe on a pad to turn a page is a nod to the actual paper page turning motion.

Apple's iOS 7 is seen as a shift from skeuomorphism to a cleaner, more digitally pure design. The death of skeuomorphism? I doubt it. 

Does a old dial television still work as the symbol for a video that streams over the Net?