Friday, March 13, 2009

Thinking Like Apple

In response to this post, Miguel comments:

Tom, you make some fascinating points, in particular, the UPS device. However, a UPS guy doesn't also have to do grades, track attendance, respond to email, keep notes, access a curriculum management system, etc....a teacher does. Why should districts buy a device for every purpose when they can buy one that simplifies things?

Well, it's a matter of priorities, isn't it? I'm not saying that every task deserves or requires a specialized device. In general, I'm in favor of an XO-style device (particularly for the kids) that can act as everything from an ebook reader to a video camera. However, in an elementary school, in 2009, tracking reading and math assessment is a special case. Whether or not it deserves the prominence it has is a separate question.

But, the fact of the matter is, in a very (painfully!) real sense, the job of the school is to create, track, and improve those numbers. And the worst possible world is one where data-driven instruction has bad data. And the first step in getting good data is getting data entered regularly and accurately. It is the sharp end of the spear. Get that wrong and millions of dollars downstream on analysis, storage, decisions based on data, school closings, people hired and fired, etc. all goes in the wrong direction. It is not the place to cut corners.

It's up to the vendor to make an assessment interface that meets District needs rather than have the District go bankrupt trying to buy and manage and support the device the vendor has decided will work best for their product.

I don't understand what "District" people perceive their relationship to vendors to be. Wireless Generation is an ed tech company that thinks like Apple. They compete on quality, maintain competitive prices without going after the bottom of the market, emphasize user experience, good design and smart technologists, and keep control over a full stack of services with as few outside dependencies as possible. If that's not what you're looking for, I'm sure someone else will be happier to sell you a cheaper product. Go buy something else. We need more companies like Wireless Generation in ed tech that set a standard of quality and usability and stick to it, even if there are users who'd prefer something crappier and cheaper.

By the way, crappier and/or cheaper is sometimes the right choice, depending on just how much crappier and cheaper it is, how sensitive the task is, etc. But overall, the problem in ed tech is not that there are too many expensive awesome products. It is all crap no matter how much it costs. That's the real problem.


Anonymous said...

As an elementary teacher can I add my two cents here?
Most of the devices, and the data tracking systems used to monitor children's reading scores would probably fit your definition of "crap" at this point. While I haven't had the joy of using Dibels (hey look, I get a PDA to put in reading speeds!), like most school districts in Reading First, we're tracking "fluency" or reading speed which has taken on this scary level of import in assessment for elementary grades based on the false notion that the faster a kid reads, the better their comprehension (it was probably one of those correlation/causation mistakes, or it works in a large aggregate of white middle class students, but not in the rest of the world). So, there are LOTS of data entry systems out there to put these numbers in, but no matter their ease of use, functionality, or how cool they look, your still putting in...crap, until that's addressed, your buying a caddy to transport pig shit.
P.S. Doug Noon has blogged a bit on Dibels

Tom Hoffman said...

Yes, there's that too... multi-dimensional crap. I'm not an elementary literacy expert, so I try not to get too deep into which assessments are better and worse. In my limited observation some are useful.

But ultimately, when one is wearing one's data systems hat, one has to be agnostic about whether or not the data itself is valid. The job is to get it in and out accurately. Validity is someone else's job (or my job when I'm wearing that hat).

Anonymous said...

I'm going to push back here Tom, because I know you don't want to go in the weeds, BUT I'm kinda pushy that way. Bear with me. There was an excellent system of reading assessment for the lower grades called a running record ( in the "bad old" days of whole language instruction. It takes more time to administer and analyze than a simple fluency, but like many things, you get more data. I WONDER...could technology help make an assessment tool like that more efficient?

Sorry for "your" "you're" typos in last comment.

Tom Hoffman said...

Actually, I thought we were talking about running records... Is this the same kind of thing:

Anonymous said...

Crud, missed that in my tour yesterday. AWESOME! I saw they had something for DIBELS (all fluency based--my impression, CRAP), and didn't look much further.As an elementary teacher helping write remediation plans in a low performing school, and a gal who likes her tech, this looks good.