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Archive for January, 2005

Ever since the Bush administration took office in 2001, U.S. federal education departments have been moving to implement highly restrictive guidelines to federally-funded educational research.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences backs research that makes claims of causality based on random-assignment experiments (see also the affiliated What Works Clearinghouse).

This has become increasingly frustrating to many educational scholars in the U.S., including those with expertise in educational evaluation, who recognize that random-assignment experiments are seldom feasible in education, and that when experiments of any type are feasible, they are usually best preceded by other forms of qualitative or mixed methods research to help understand the contextual features that shape a particular educational innovation.  For example, a couple of us at UCI are beginning to investigate Automated Writing Evaluation software.  For us to start off with an experiment, randomly assigning a large number of students to use it and others not to use it, without better understanding how its used, what features it has, how different types of students react to it, how different types of  teachers make use of it, etc.–would not lead to very robust results, as we would not even be able to design the appropriate treatments or controls.

Mahdabi Chatterji, an educational evaluation expert at Teachers College of Columbia University, has written an outstanding article critiquing this narrow approach to research and instead arguing for what she calls extended-term mixed method evaluation design.  Highly recommended.

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No More Internet for Them

Miguel Marcos and I had a brief exchange in the comment section of the following message about the value of the Mac Mini vis-a-vis other computers.  One of the points that I was making was that security problems with Windows computers are making them increasingly unattractive for a lot of people.  Here’s an article from the L.A. Times on how some people are abandoning the Internet due to the tremendous hassles of spam, viruses, and spyware.

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Apple’s Biggest Mac

I’m convinced Apple’s new Mac Mini will be the company’s most important computer since the original Macintosh.  Here are just some of the audiences it will reach.

Switchers: Imagine a family that bought a cheap Dell for $700 and is getting sick of viruses, security problems, hassles connecting peripherals, and all sorts of other unpleasantries.  They never would have thought of investing $1000 plus in a new Mac, but they just might think of switching over for $499, and just bringing their keyborad, mouse, and display with them.

Media Center: Want something in your living room to be a digital music/DVD/digital photo server — perhaps connected to your TV instead of to a monitor?  Here you go.

Newbies: Have an iPod and hoping to buy your first computer?  Are you more concerned with digital photos, storing music, and playing DVDs than you are with business software?  What a great entry level computer.

Portables: Do you work at home and the office, but don’t want to drag a 6 pound iBook back and forth while working off a laptop screen and keyboard?  Throw this in your briefcase (6.5 inches wide and two inches tall and only 2.9 pounds) and just plug it into a screen, keyboard, and mouse at your destination.

Multiples: Want a second computer on your desk to move files, work on when your first one is on the blink, or just play around with?  Now’s your opportunity.

The bottom line: Apple picks up market share on Windows computers for the first time in years–not dramatically, but noticeably, while positioning itself for greater gains in years to come.

What do you think?  Are there other audiences or purposes I’ve missed?  Do you see any educational uses?

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“The Story of My Life”

After re-watching The Miracle Worker, I got inspired to read Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life.  The book describes Helen Keller’s life from birth to the age of 21 in three parts: Keller’s own autobiographical account, a collection of Helen’s letters, and reports and letters from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

I find Helen, who was born in 1880 and died in 1968, to be one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century.  Far beyond simply learning to read and write, she became a public intellectual, graduating from Radcliffe college and writing and speaking magnificently about the rights of the disabled and indeed of all people on the margins of life.

The Story of My Life provides a remarkable portrait and is one of the only existent autobiographical accounts of first language development.  Most people learn their first language as an infant, and thus cannot remember the process to report on it.  Helen provides a fascinating glimpse at how she learned English, and the value of the account is heightened by the inclusion of her letter’s and the reports of her teacher.

Keller was taught by what Sullivan called the natural method of instruction.  Sullivan, who herself had been partially blind, simply signed to Helen abundantly throughout the day (using fingerspelling into Helen’s hand") about things that Helen was interested in.  As Sullivan described her approach, "Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences….I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it; but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of thought; thus the learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knolwedge.  In order to use language intelligently, one must have something to talka bout, and having something to talk about is the result of having had experiences…I always tried to find out what interested her most, and made that the starting-point for the new lesson, whether it had any bearing on the lesson I had planned to teach or not" (The Story of My Life, p. 317-318).

Sullivan’s signing was soon supplemented by reading (using braille or raised print).  Keller read things that at first were far difficult to her, but simply tried to pick out words she knew.  She then became adept at guessing words words from context.

Keller was an incredible person who was gifted by a brilliant mind, an intense curiosity for and love of life, and the priviledge of living in a wealthy family that could provide her an around-the-clock private tutor.  The fact that Keller could see and hear until she was 19 months old also eased her transition to language later on (and, indeed, even before Sullivan came into her life, Keller had already developed 50-60 rudimentary signs that she used to communicate with people around her).  But I believe that the method  that Sullivan used was also critical to Keller’s success, and for an excellent account of that method in practice I recommend The Story of My Life.

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