Archive for March, 2005

Technology as Fad?

A student asked me the following question:

I am curious about the seeming one dimensional focus we are embarking upon in reference to technology as our "next saviour for public education". I have not seen much research in terms of support for any bandwagon tool or program that is outweighed by small class sizes, regular contact time, communicative teachers and parents in a school setting that is safe and secure….so my question would be what are the socio-educational ramifications of attempting to integrate technology in a more intensive manner and what research has Mark seen that supports technology having a greater impact on learning than teacher time and reduced class sizes?

The notion behind this is that digital technology is a fad, and an expensive one at that, that is either being thrust down on schools by overeager administrators or technology salespeople, or simply being naively adopted instead of other more promising and cost-efficient reforms.  Larry Cuban more or less makes this argument, putting digital technology in the same category as radio, television, and film, all of which he viewed as sold into schools with a lot of false promises and none of which he felt had much impact.

Well, the bottom line is, I don’t buy it.  I don’t see computers and the Internet like radio, film, and television in this regard.  I see them more like paper, pens, books, and libraries.  In other words, yes, radio, film, and TV have a huge presence and impact in society, but people really don’t use them much for knowledge production.  But paper, pens, books, and libraries, are used intensively as tools for knowledge production.  These things entered the school system naturally, because they were the tools that people used to read, write, and study — and nobody ever did any studies to see whether books were more cost-effective for learning than codexes were.

As computers and Internet access become cheaper, it is thus inevitable that they will gain more presence in schools, as witnessed by the steadily falling student-computer ratio in the U.S.  — which has now fallen by some accounts down to 3.8:1.  And this ratio will continue to fall, as sure as  night follows day, though it is unclear what form the computers will talk (desk-tops, laptops, palmtops, or something else not yet invented).

So yes, are some schools or districts investing foolishly in computers?  Yes, very likely.  Does a focus on technology sometimes take away from other more cost-effective innovations?  Yes, undoubtedly.  But will more computers and faster Internet access continue to penetrate schools?  Yes, undoubtedly too, because costs are falling and more societal forms of literacy, knowledge-production, and knowledge-sharing are moving to digital relams and this will be reflected in school purchases of technology.

So I prefer not to ask the question whether the presence of computers is better than the absence of computers, due, for example, to high costs.  Because,  we are still at the relative beginning of the digital era, and whatever seems expensive today might seem very different in five or ten years.  Rather, I see the penetration of computers in schools as inevitable, and try to learn about how we can make this penetration as beneficial as possible for improving education among diverse students.


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There’s an interesting story that emerged in New Jersey about a hotheaded teacher who regularly screams at students who refuse to stand for the national anthem and sometimes pulls there chairs out.  One of the students in the class caught the teacher in action on videotape, and it’s been circulating online.  The student who taped the incident was allegedly suspended from school for 10 days, with no punishment for the teacher.

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NLP and Espionage

Putting natural language processing to service in the field of espionage: With Terror in Mind, a Formulaic Way to Parse Sentences

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Google as corpus?

Corpus-based research — either for deep insight into language or to try to answer practical questions of language use — suffers from several difficulties.  First, the corpora of authentic language use that have been assembled are usually not big enough.  Second, they are usually biased in certain ways (for example, containing mostly examples of academic or journalistic text rather than texts from other contexts and sources).  In addition, corpora are also often clumsy to access.

My guess is that many people are starting to use Google as a huge corpus, mostly for practical information but occasionally for more academic pursuits.  I personally use Google as a corpus several times a week, when I try to figure out, for example, when I try to find out whether Chanukah or Hanukkah is the more common spelling (as it turns out, it’s the latter, by more than a three to one margin).

Though this post in more than a year old, it includes some very interesting commentary on the dangers of using Google as a corpus.  Follow the links in the article for some further discussion of related points.  The bottom line is there is a lot of junk on Google that can seriously distort results.  I doubt if the distortion would seriously affect my own research on the spelling of the Jewish holiday, but more serious usage inquiries could be thrown a curve.

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A good deal!

I see in this article that doctors get paid $24 to $30 to email their patients.  Don’t you think that professors should get the same for emailing their students?

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