When Personalization Goes Bad

Posted by Michael Simkins on January 12, 2014

BubbleWe educators talk a lot about personalization.  My dear friend Barbara Bray is a tireless advocate for personalizing learning environments. Goodness knows we’re all very busy building and maintaining our personal learning networks.  In 1996, when I left my job as a principal to direct a federal technology project, a reporter interviewing me for the local newspaper asked me what I thought the value of technology was for education; I answered, “It’s going to enable us to personalize learning.”

As with many good things, though, there are malignant forms of personalization—insidious strains that surreptitiously undermine our ability to freely learn what we want to learn.   Barbara calls out “adaptive learning systems” as one example.  “The filter bubble,” as described by Eli Pariser, is another. A couple months ago I read his book of the same name.  Until then, I’d thought I was a pretty savvy guy about all things Internet, but Eli’s book poked a hole in my own naiveté bubble.

I consider myself to be a pretty damn good researcher.  Even before the Internet, I could walk into a library, pull out the card catalog or the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, and usually find out what I wanted to know. When the Internet came along, I mastered Boolean expressions and entered researchers’ paradise.  The only information I had trouble finding was information that hadn’t yet be digitized.

Then “smart” searching came along.  At first, this seemed great.  Start typing a couple words in the search box and voilà! Google or Bing or whatever tool you’re using just “knows” what you’re looking for. Over time, though, I found myself having trouble finding what I wanted.  I’d change my search terms all kinds of ways and I’d still get the same off-base results.  It’s like trying to explain something to someone who just doesn’t have the knowledge or context to “get it.” Like Big Brother or Jim Anderson, Algorithm knows best.  Ask for whatever you will, Knowledge Graph decides what you really need.  Not good.  In fact, creepy.

Watch this TED Talk.  Eli explains it better than I.


Education Technology Guidance

Posted by Michael Simkins on April 22, 2013

GPS screenYesterday, I received an email from an aspiring administrator with the subject line “Education technology guidance.”  He wrote that as the “closest thing my school currently has to an Education Technologist,” he’s been tasked with writing a grant proposal for funding to help his school implement a blended learning environment.  He described his dilemma as follows:

As part of the application, I am being asked to forecast the annual costs for digital content licenses, learning management systems, and data management systems. I am unsure as to whether I understand the difference between all three, never mind how to estimate a cost. As I understand it, the digital content license would be for programs like Aleks’ math program. A learning management system would be something like Edmodo or Moodle, where a teacher could deliver other content and communicate with students. I am unclear as to what a data management system would be. Could you please help clarify these three terms or guide me in the right direction. Examples of each would help.

Bless his heart.  He’s been handed a task with the expectation, apparently, that he’ll do it alone when, in fact, it should be a team effort informed by thoughtful discussion with all stakeholders.  Of course, grant proposals are rarely developed methodically. Typically, one of two things happens.  Some money is dangled in front of us and we go after it, regardless of how it fits our strategic plan; or, we find money in the offing that actually matches our plan but the window for submitting a proposal is so short we have to slap something together in a huge rush and get it out the door.

Well, we have to work in the real world and this fellow wanted guidance now, so here is what I wrote.

You’re on the right track.  Content licenses are any fees you pay to make online content available to teachers and students (e.g. NBC Learn, Discovery Education, ProQuest K-12).  Moodle is one example of a learning management system; Blackboard is another.  A data management system would be something you use to collect, house and analyze information such as student demographics, tests scores, e-portfolios, etc. (e.g. TestingWerks).  Some, like SchoolNet or ObaWorld, are hybrids and combine features.

Before you can forecast costs, you need to determine what tools you need and what you are going to use them for.  What does your school already have?  How does it keep track of student information?  What curricular materials do you use already and will still use in this new program?  How does the school track student data now?  Do you need a different system because of this program or will the one in use serve the purpose?  Basically, you can’t work on a budget until you know what you want to do and what you’ll need to do it.

That’s how I responded; how would you?


Principals in the Cross Hairs

Posted by Michael Simkins on March 6, 2013


  • Districts Tying Principal Reviews to Test Scores
  • Survey Finds Rising Job Frustration Among Principals

These two headlines, both from Education Week, crossed my desk today.  It was a poignant and instructive juxtaposition.  I spent years studying (and experiencing) teacher burnout.  I found that lack of control (perceived, anyway) was closely associated with burnout.  The current research cited lack or control as a key factor in principal frustration.

After 15 years as a teacher, I became a principal.  “Wow,” I thought, “now I’ve got the power to make things happen.”

No and yes.  I found that despite my new, elevated position, I had far less power than I thought I would have.   Principal’s can dictate, surely; that doesn’t mean anyone has to abide by the dictates.  A principal’s real power comes from sharing it, from persuasion, from setting an example, from inspiring people.

It doesn’t surprise me that today’s principals are feeling frustrated; given the context in which they work, why wouldn’t they be?

Assuming that it make sense to run education as though it were a business—a debatable assumption—then of course we need a metric for the bottom line.  Test scores alone, however, are a poor surrogate for net profit.


The Twelve Days of Christmas, Reprise!

Posted by Michael Simkins on December 31, 2012

On the twelfth day of Christmas technology gave me…

Twelve bloggers blogging
Eleven hackers hacking
Ten jobs a-spooling
Nine spammers spamming
Eight files a-loading
Seven disks formatting
Six pics-ilating
Five mp3’s
Four session cookies
Three flash drives
Two open ports
And a cartridge for my HP!

Best wishes for a warm and peaceful holiday and a very happy New Year!

(The post above first appeared in Tblogical in December 2007.)


Digital Age Learning Culture

Posted by Michael Simkins on October 31, 2012

Question mark image“What words do you associate with the phrase, digital age learning culture?”

That was the question colleagues and I posed to a group of over 100 educational leaders attending a workshop earlier this month. We asked them to respond in the form of a brief silent conversation. Each table of eight people had one large sheet of chart paper and one pen per person. The instruction was, in stream-of-consciousness style, write down all the words and phrases that come to your mind when you hear, “digital age learning culture.” Participants could pause, look at what others had written, and add additional words until time was up.

It’s interesting to see the results.  But before I reveal them, take a minute to try it yourself.

Now, watch this 30-second video to get a flavor of what people wrote.

Wordle: Digital Age Learning Culture


Here’s a Wordle that gives you a visual impression of the terms and phrases that were more or less frequently mentioned.  Click on the Wordle to see a larger version.