Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

30 May 2012

Motivating Students - Opportunity Isn't Enough

In his book, Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen and his co-authors identify four objectives that U.S. society has asked of public education. Each one is incremental; that is, each adds new expectations while still retaining the previous objectives.
This latest goal is both transformative and controversial. There's little doubt that society is looking to our educational programs to relieve poverty. But many educators are skeptical about their ability or responsibility to address the poverty problem. Regardless, schools are no longer judged exclusively by their top achievers or even average scores. Frequently, the focus is on the bottom performers -- often at the expense of average or high-achieving students. 

The new goal is based on three important observations:
  • Educational attainment predicts financial prosperity.
  • Financial prosperity of parents predicts children's educational attainment.
  • The most important predictor of educational attainment is the educational attainment of the parents.
    (source here)
When a school fully embraces the "Eliminate Poverty" goal it must accept responsibility for student motivation. Previously schools were expected to offer opportunity. If a student didn't take advantage of that opportunity it was their problem -- or the family's. Now, schools must motivate students to achieve, not just give them the opportunity. The trouble is, schools don't know a lot about motivation.

Dan Pink has been studying what motivates us. There's a body of research into motivation that goes back to the 1960s and earlier. But organizations have been slow to apply this knowledge because it's counter-cultural. It turns out that carrot and stick type motivators like financial incentives, fines, privileges and so forth are effective for repetitive, mechanical type work. But when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks, bigger incentives actually impair performance.

The candle problem, studied by Sam Gluksburg is an early study that showed this effect. More recently, the Federal Reserve Bank sponsored a study of incentives which concluded:

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But, once the task called for ‘even rudimentary cognitive skill,’ a larger reward led to poorer performance.
(Dan Pink, Drive, pg 60 quoting a study by Dan Ariely et. al.)

For cognitively demanding tasks, Dan Pink has identified three motivators that are effective:
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose
This has all kinds of implications. For example, in order to place greater emphasis on student achievement, states and districts are considering merit-based pay systems for teachers. But teaching and learning are cognitively demanding activities so merit pay is unlikely to be a functional motivator. Meanwhile teachers are complaining about reduced freedom in the classroom -- a loss of autonomy.

But, the subject of this post is student motivation. Since the advent of the Carnegie Unit, students have received academic credit for seat time. Keeping students in seats is a mechanical task so schools and vice principals are compensated according to attendance rates. We even have truancy laws that require that children spend a certain number of hours in school and punish them when they don't comply. As with teachers, we're using traditional incentives to motivate a mechanical task -- simply being present.

Of course, presence doesn't equate to learning. So how can we use autonomy, mastery and purpose to motivate student learning? There are numerous opportunities and great teachers naturally apply them. Here are three examples:

Automony: In studies of whether changing instruction to match learning styles helps students learn better, researchers find that simply offering students a choice of activities resulted in better performance. This makes intuitive sense because when students choose their own activities, they're invested in the outcome and should perform better regardless of whether the activity is a better match to an individual's learning style.

Mastery: Khan Academy includes a learning map that graphically displays the topics that students have mastered and their progress toward achievement goals. It grants badges for particularly important achievements.

Purpose: How often do parents and teachers hear the question, "Why do I have to learn this?" Lack of purpose is a strong demotivator. Educurious encourages authentic learning by posing real problems to the students and connecting them with real-world experts.

We have more than 50 years of research indicating that motivations are much more complex than carrots and sticks. Yet we keep resorting to these familiar tools despite their ineffectiveness against cognitively-demanding tasks. As schools take greater responsibility achievement, not just opportunity, it will be important to apply the right motivators.

18 May 2012

Federated Permissions - Post Facebook

The early web was strictly a public place. Everything out there was visible to everyone. Not too long afterward, private services appeared. Between the extremes of private services, like online banking, and public services, like Twitter, is a spectrum of permissions management.
Whenever permissions are restricted to some degree a credential is needed -- usually a username/password combination. Even public services like Wikipedia use credentials so that contributors can be identified. The result is that anyone that spends more than a minimum amount of time on the internet has a bunch of credentials to keep track of. This has resulted in a call for federated identity systems that let you log into multiple services using the same credentials. 

The most well-known federated ID systems are OpenID and SAML. Despite OpenID being supported by Google, Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace, AOL and many other popular sites, it remains largely unused by individuals. The trouble is that most people have solved the problem by simply using the same two or three passwords across all of their services. To them, the convenience of this approach outweighs the security risk.

In computer security we talk about two components -- authentication and authorization. Authentication is determining who someone is. Authorization determines whether that individual should have access to particular data or services. Federated ID solves the authentication problem but the much more complicated authorization issue is left to the individual websites. Not only does federated ID not solve the authorization problem -- the current solutions can make it more complicated.

For example, in order to preserve privacy, SAML issues each service a different identifier for the same person. This is intended to prevent sites from correlating user behavior from site-to-site. But it makes it really hard to grant privileges because the person granting rights doesn't know the ID that will be randomly assigned to the individual. Meanwhile, there are other ways to correlate user behavior anyway.

Which brings us to Facebook.

Facebook is really a privacy manager. Sure it supplies features like a profile, wall, forums, messaging, photo sharing, games and so forth. But better versions of most of these features are available elsewhere on the web. What Facebook lets you do is selectively grant access to your private (or semiprivate) information that is stored in those services. And Facebook's advantage is that they have accounts for a majority of internet users in North America. That lets them remain dominant despite being pretty bad about managing privacy.

What's next? With competitors envious of their position and users wishing they could jump ship it seems unreasonable that Facebook will remain dominant. I think the next step is Federated Permissions. This would be a system that lets me share private information with select individuals or organizations -- friends, family, business associates, care providers, etc. -- regardless of their identity provider.

To help bring this about. I'll start with some definitions, two Use Cases and a set of Requirements.

  • Identity Provider: The service that "logs you in" and tells other services that you are who you claim to. In the use cases below, I suggest that your email provider is also your identity provider. That would be a convenient option though not the only one.
  • Content Provider: A service that trusts your identity provider and supplies certain content and services to you.
  • Public ID: An identifier assigned to an individual that others can use when granting permissions. In the use cases below, I assume that your public ID is also your email address -- also a convenient option but not the only one.
These definitions are commonly used by existing federated identity systems.

Use Case #1

Sara Smith is organizing a student exchange trip to Germany. In order to share the group's experiences with people back home she wants to share photos and an online journal. All of the students should be able to contribute material and, because the students are minors, only family and select friends should be able to access the content.

First, Sara logs into "genericmail.com" which is both her mail provider and her identity provider. She creates two new groups called "germany2012crew@genericmail.com" and  "germany2012family@genericmail.com". She loads these with the email addresses (public IDs) of the people going on the trip (crew) and family and friends remaining home.

Next, Sara creates a new blog using "semiprivateblog.org." She grants write access to "germany2012crew@genericmail.com" and read access to "germany2012family@genericmail.com". She goes to "sharemyphotos.org", creates a photo album and grants equivalent access.

Finally, she composes an email describing these services and sends it out to the two groups. Since these groups double as email groups the messages get delivered to all of the right people.

While on the trip, lots of stories, messages and photos are shared with the people back at home.

Use Case #2

Max Jones has been attending Notable Community College for two years. He's applying to Potential University where he intends to complete a BS.

First, Max accesses the application page on Potential University's website. So far, he's unknown to Potential University but he's able to log into the site using his public ID, "maxtowin@genericmail.com". Upon logging in, the Potential University site requests access to Max's personal profile. This causes "genericmail.com" to pop up a window asking Max permission to deliver the info. Max clicks "yes" and re-enters his password for verification. The application form is pre-populated with Max's name, address, birthdate, etc.

Next, the application form asks about previous education. Max enters "Notable.edu." Potential U. requests access to Max's transcripts from Notable. As with the profile, Notable pops up a form asking for Max to grant permission to share the transcript. Max grants permission and the information is shared.

Moments later Max is informed that he has met the basic acceptance criteria.


A federated permissions system would be based on a set of standard protocols and a network of trusted services. Here are some basic requirements. OpenID and related initiatives fulfill some but not all of these.
  • Public Identifiers that are well-known so that permissions can be granted as easily and conveniently as addressing an email message.
  • Public Group Identifiers that can be used to grant permissions to groups of people with ongoing management of membership. (Notably, the membership of groups doesn't necessarily have to be public.)
  • Revocable Trust relationships between identity providers and content providers.
  • Revocable Permissions for individuals and groups to access content and services.
  • Standard Policies for relationships between identity and service providers.
  • Audit Trails to monitor compliance with policies and regulations.

Today, Facebook's IPO received a lukewarm reception. Could it be that the market is already anticipating a post-facebook option for managing privacy?

08 May 2012

When Will Education Productivity Improve?

Recent studies of 1:1 laptop:student initiatives show minimal benefit to supplying every student with their own laptop. This shouldn't be surprising.

Studies from the mid-1990s showed that, twenty years after the introduction of the personal computer, they didn't substantially improve personal productivity. Indeed, annual productivity growth in the US averaged around 1.2-1.5% between the mid-70s and the mid-90s. Economists at the time had several explanations: Perhaps the benefits were mostly in quality of life improvements rather than personal productivity. Maybe inflation had hidden the benefits. Increased government regulation was consuming resources. Or perhaps productivity gains were lost to solitaire and spam (even before Farmville and World of Warcraft).

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
While these may be factors, two important theories were confirmed when the productivity gains finally arrived in the late 1990s and the 2000s.

First is the Network Effect, the idea that the value of a good or service is increased by the number of others that are using it. The classic example is the telephone. It's not terribly useful to have the only telephone in the world but the value of your telephone increases with each other telephone that someone buys. Network effects related to the internet really started to take off in the late 90s. These included email, the world-wide-web, e-commerce and much more. Obsession with the network effect contributed to the Dot-Com Bubble but the productivity value of the effect continued even after the crash.

Second and related is Organizational Change. If you introduce new technology to an organization but practice continues as usual, there's increased cost (for the technology) with limited benefit. The structure of an organization must change in order to take advantage of new technologies. In other words, the way goods are produced or services are delivered has to be redesigned with the new technology in mind.

Organizational change is hard. An entire discipline of Change Management has been developed around it. As a result, technology is frequently deployed in hopes that organizational change will spontaneously follow. Technologists like myself are often guilty of taking this approach. But external pressure is is usually the real catalyst for change. In the case of business productivity, that pressure came in the form of economic recessions.

The recessions of 1990-1991, 2001 and 2007-2009 have all ended in so-called Jobless Recoveries. In each case, while GDP rose -- indicating an end to the depression -- employment remained low. Many economists believe that jobless recoveries occurred  because the organizational changes were finally made that took advantage of available technology. Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT economist, says, "It's as if the economy had a pent-up potential for labor savings that hadn't been harvested until the recession." If you look at the chart above, you'll see a correlation between productivity growth and the end of recent recessions.

Returning to education: Teaching and learning are today where industry was in the early 1990s. We've had computers in classrooms for decades. Learning Management Systems are installed at nearly every college and university in the US and in many high schools. Yet, educational achievement remains flat.

As with other industries, educational institutions will have to take advantage of network effects and make organizational changes before the potential of education technology can be realized. Unlike most industries where productivity is measured by the dollar value of goods and services delivered divided labor invested, I believe educational productivity should be measured by student achievement divided by the dollars invested in their education. So far, we have a few examples of institutions achieving superior results by this measure. Each operates very differently from traditional education. They include:

A number of other examples are coming online and we're excited to see the results. I'll report on them here.

(As with most of my posts, I link to a lot of background information here. If you're interested in this topic or seek evidence to support these claims, I encourage you to follow the links.)