The Absurdity of One-to-One Initiatives


As comes up every year, someone in our department suggested we go one-to-one. Of course, this sparked lively debate. So much so that do to the frequency of these debates and the cycle of outrage I invariably go through after each one, I’m motivated to write out the multitude of reasons that going one-to-one with textbooks is an absurd idea.

First, let’s talk about costs. A good textbook costs close to $100. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many you buy. If a kid has five classes, that means it’s going to cost roughly $500 dollars per student to go one-to-one textbooks. And it’s not just $500 one time. Of course not, because in a few years much of what’s inside the books will be dated. They will need to be updated and some of them will be so obsolete they’ll need to be replaced entirely. Do we want to go through the up front costs and then the future costs to update and replace them?

Second, let’s talk about letting teenagers carry around several hundred dollars in textbooks. Have you seen the average teenager’s bedroom? Of course not! There’s too much stuff on the horizontal surfaces (and maybe even the vertical surfaces) to actually see any substantial part of the room. Are we going to let kids, who can hardly get a dirty tissue to the trash can across the room, be responsible for hundreds of dollars worth of school property? I think this is a nightmare that no administrator or teacher wants to deal with.

Third, I’d ask you if the cost is worth the benefit. Sure, textbooks have lot’s of knowledge in them. Give students books corresponding to the subjects they’re learning allows them to easily and quickly look up information, helpful diagrams, maps, and other media, but don’t we have teachers for that? Teachers have much of this knowledge, and if they don’t, then they can look it up in their book and deliver it to the students. What’s the point of a teacher if all the information is easily available to the students? Sure, the best teachers might use the books in coordination with their teaching ability to create near sublime learning experiences, but this would surely only be the most motivated of teachers, not the norm.

Fourth, it would be a logistical nightmare. Suppose your high school has 1000 students. Then we are talking about THOUSANDS of textbooks to keep track of. Not just keep track of, but record those that go missing and those that are damaged. Then schools have to make determinations about how much the damages cost. Then who pays for it? The students? What if it’s an accident? What if the student can’t afford it? What if they get lost in a house fire? Who’s on the hook for the bill then? And who does this burden of tracking fall upon? The library? The administrators? The teachers? There’s no good options. And then, who fixes them? Do we offload this responsibility on the already short staffed library personnel? We’d probably have to hire somebody to spend part of their day repairing textbooks, so tack that on to the bottom line.

It seems clear that the costs of trying to put the these resources into the hands of each student almost certainly outweigh the benefits. But this fight will never die. Year after year we’ll continue to hear how we should “give students access to the tools they’ll be using when they leave us”. Given what I’ve outlined above, I can’t see the logic that results in this being a good idea.

Update: I should make something clear. This is purely satire. I am simply trying to make the argument that when it comes to discussions of 1 to 1 technology I think the problems that are brought up are often ones that we have solved in other contexts. This situation never came up in my department. And even if it had, I would never throw them under the bus like this publicly. Once again, this is purely satire.

The Classroom I want to Visit (and someday have)

You walk in and are immediately taken by the number of students either focused and working independently (often with ear buds in) or quietly collaborating. The teacher is difficult to find at first but then you find her, huddled around a whiteboard working out a few different ways to approach a problem involving polynomial equations. The furniture is easy to move and comfortable. Small tables for small groups, single desks scattered around the room, with oversized chairs scattered around as well. The walls are neutral colors, not the standard white that bounces fluorescent light almost as well as a mirror. As you look around a brief, friendly, argument erupts in the corner over why long division of polynomials is more pure than synthetic division. The teacher then stands up, walks around the room checking on students, snapping pictures of student work with her iPad. She then projects some mistakes she found students had done and the class discusses the thinking that led to them. There are rugs, art on the walls, a laptop cart in the corner, and a projector screen towards the front (or what you assume is the front) of the room.

I read an article recently called “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks”. This got me thinking, again, about learning environments. This topic sparks a few questions in my mind:

  • What are environments that I prefer to learn in?
  • What makes an environment conducive to learning?
  • How do you develop an environment that can be easily transitioned from independent work to collaborative work to whole class work and everything in between?
  • How much is my classroom layout getting in the way of learning?

To at least partially answer these questions I don’t think Starbucks is a bad model, in some respects, for what a great learning environment looks like. Obviously Starbucks is more conducive to independent learning, but I like some of the big ideas.

Learning environments should be comfortable

I can see that if you wanted kids to avoid falling asleep you would make the seating uncomfortable. I’d rather make the classwork engaging enough that students don’t fall asleep. I’m not saying we should all work in bean bag chairs. I’d hate doing real work in a bean bag chair. But I’m not everybody and I don’t hate the idea of having options like that for students that do prefer to work in the type of seating.

And comfortable learning environments go beyond just the furniture. Rugs, art, music, lighting, and the teacher’s attitude all contribute significantly to the environment.

Learning environments should be flexible

As technology changes the way content is delivered and the way that students interact with content, the classroom should change. The amount of time a teacher spends lecturing to the entire class should probably be decreasing. This means that the work done by students in class will be more fractured. Some students may need to watch instructional videos. Some may be writing blog posts. Some may be working on a group project. Some may be using computer graphing technology. The teacher may need to work with some students that have been absent. The teacher may need to give a lecture to the entire class.

This is the future of learning. The class setup needs to support this.

Learning environments should be safe

I don’t mean that students shouldn’t feel like someone is going to physically hurt them, although that is obviously true. I’m saying that students shouldn’t walk in and feel like they’re in a place where mistakes are not valued, their opinion is not wanted or their thoughts are better kept to themselves. This doesn’t have much to do with a “Starbucks classroom”, but I thought it worth noting.

In all seriousness, I want to visit a classroom that has these characteristics, so if you teach in Michigan and have a classroom environment similar to the one I described, then I’d love to observe a lesson!

Any other thoughts on classroom environment? Anything I missed? Drop a comment below!

Educating in a world of Robots

The problem with the way we educate and the things we value in education is that it isn’t preparing students to work in a world of robots. I don’t mean C3PO and R2D2. I’m talking specifically about a world in which most people have access to and actively utilize artificial intelligence.

What’s artificial intelligence?

This is important to understand before moving forward. When I talk about artificial intelligence (AI) I’m talking about machine learning. The idea is that a computer (or several computers) can take a large amount of data, run algorithms and software on that data, and use it to make decisions and predictions. AI already exists in many of our lives.

  • Have you ever asked SIRI, Google Now, Cortana, or Amazon Echo anything? – AI

  • You know how Google photos (and other software) looks for faces in photos and groups them together accordingly? – AI

  • Remember when that IBM computer, Watson, beat those guys in Jeopardy? You guessed it – AI

  • Cars that drive themselves? – AI

Here’s a few other ways AI probably also impacts our life right now.

Before I get into how this should change the way we educate, you need to listen to this four minute segment of The Tim Ferris Show podcast in which Tim interviews Kevin Kelly, the co-creator of Wired Magazine.

Go directly to the part of the interview where Kevin talks about how artificial intelligence will be as disruptive as the industrial revolution (by clicking the link), come back to this post, and read on.

If what Kevin says is right, and it probably is, then we need to drastically rethink how we educate and what we value in education. Here’s a few skills we need everyone in society to have in a world that’s drastically different from anything we’ve ever known.


Answers are easy and will only get easier.

You may be thinking, “not all answers are easy.”

You’re right. But many of the answers that are difficult to answer are generated by quality questions first. These questions are often deeper than most realize. In fact, the question is often the most important part of the process. If you’re answering a worthwhile question then it’s likely that you’ve spent some time framing and developing it. Take this example Warren Berger cites in his book A More Beautiful Question.

The developing world has a shortage of incubators. For years, health organizations and philanthropic groups asked the logical question: How can we get more incubators to the places that need them? A relatively straight-forward answer to that question was – donate them. But that was the right answer to the wrong question. This led to thousands of incubators being donated to poor nations, “only to end up in ‘incubator graveyards,'” as the New York Times reported. … The better question, which was eventually asked by health officials working on the problem, was Why aren’t people in the developing world using the incubators they have?

As it turned out, the problem was that people in the developing world didn’t have parts to fix the incubators (and other donated medical equipment) when they broke. The solution became to build incubators out of mostly car parts, as these were much more abundant.

Had the question not been reframed people would’ve continued with the easy answer to the wrong question. The technologies that will develop over the next decade will require a society that can ask the right questions.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s an Einstein quote, and here are a few more if you still don’t buy it.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution I would spend 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes?” – Albert Einstein


Consider what computers can do now. They can drive cars, analyze photographs, win chess games, and predict the song you want to listen to next, among other things.

Consider what computers can’t do now. They can’t design a more fuel efficient car. They can’t take a photograph of your child that’s worth hanging in your living room. They can’t develop new games. They can’t write a song.

They can’t create. At least not yet.

This leaves the creation to people. Everybody says this and it’s because they’re right and it’s true.

Assembly line work is dead or dying.

We can’t educate for that world. We need to educate for a world that we don’t even understand and can’t predict. But given the information we have now it certainly seems that people that can create, or work on teams that create, will be the ones that are least likely to be replaced by robots.


Technology will bring with it many solutions but also many problems. More and more society will be at the mercy of algorithms.

Consider how Facebook tweaked news feeds to determine how it affected people’s moods. Are we, as a society, okay with that?

Kevin Kelly brought up an interesting point in regards to self-driving cars.

Should the car favor the driver or the passenger in an imminent accident?

How far do we take our knowledge of genetics and human genome modification?

To what extent do we sacrifice our privacy in the name of safety?

What are the ethics of making physical attacks through computers?

There are a plethora of other questions that will arise. With great change comes difficult questions that society will have to answer. Members of society will need the ability to reason logically. They need to be able to reason in contexts where there is no simple answer. Students that think most problems are simple and straightforward often become adults that think the same, failing to realize the complexities in problems. A healthy democracy thrives on a society’s ability to have healthy, rational discourse. Anybody that’s seen social media or cable news can see this slipping away quickly, and I fear a society that can’t think beyond the soundbites will fall to those that know how to control them.

We can teach these skills in classrooms. We can develop our classrooms in ways that foster questioning, creation, and reasoning. But this means that many of us need to shift how we teach what we teach. We can’t simply continue to value only answers, giving students the illusion that the world they’ll live in will be simple. A world in which the important questions don’t have four choices and a bubble to fill in.

I’m not arguing that knowing is dead. But “knowing stuff” will certainly become less and less valuable as knowing what to do with the stuff you know becomes more valuable. The skills that we need to know (questioning, creating, learning, reasoning, etc.) help us connect the knowledge “dots” in the world. It will be more important to know how to attain certain knowledge than to have/store it. A person needs to be able to find information, skeptically analyze it, then integrate it and apply it to the information they already have.

If we can’t help students develop these skills then we’ll fail as educators. Our job is to prepare our students for the world they’ll live most of their lives in. In many ways that world is shrouded in unknowns. But the skills I’ve outlined above will almost certainly always be needed to thrive.

I am not going to be the one that buries my head in the sand and in 20 years says, “I didn’t know it was coming.”

And I get that t’s scary. Assembly line education makes sense and is straightforward. It’s what most of grew up with. It makes sense.

Teach vocab word. Practice vocab word. Test vocab word. Know vocab word. Learn next vocab word. And so on.

See nail. Grab hammer. Strike nail.

The problem is that computers are good at that. Better than people and only going to get better.

The scary part is that teaching the skills outlined above is fuzzier. It’s difficult to isolate it down to a data point. It requires teachers with knowledge of how to teach the skills and trust in the teachers to teach them. This is scary for teachers and administrators and probably most people in education. But it’s the skill set that the average member of society will need in the near future and it’s our prerogative to teach it.

How 10 minutes on Twitter reminds you that you’re awful and not trying hard enough

There’s a trap that’s easy to fall into as a “connected educator” as demonstrated by the experience I describe below.

Early on in my teaching career I realized that the internet contained a tremendous number of resources. I also realized that the helpfulness of many of them was debatable. For instance, when I Googled “interesting ways to teach slope intercept form” and the first hit was Purplemath and the second hit was Khan Academy I realized flaws in my approach. Thankfully I discovered great educators on social media, at the same time discovering that many of them blogged and shared their resources, thoughts, and ideas.

Real teachers that created actual activities, tried them, and then gave advice along with their reflections.

The first few years this was awesome. I frequently read other teachers’ blogs, tried their activities, and interacted on Twitter with them. I started making my own activities, shared them, and grew as a teacher.

But sometime in the last year my mindset towards Twitter shifted. This happened especially late at night, when I was working on some mundane grad school assignment, and my average number of hours of sleep was approaching the highest number my daughter could count to at the time (which was 4).

I’d scroll my Twitter feed and just get angry. I’d see people that shared a resource, I’d read it and think, “man why didn’t I think of that” and then that person would put up something amazing the next day. I’d see people having daily in-depth conversations about complex ideas in education. I’d see people in Twitter chats dropping 140 character manifestos or 38 tech tools you need to use right now.

It was a constant bombardment of the good stuff other people were doing that I didn’t have time to do. Here’s a taste of what I’d regularly find in my feed.

  • Educators attending conferences
  • A teacher tweeting about a webinar they just attended
  • Worse, a teacher that put on a webinar
  • A better _________ activity over ___________ than what I’d created
  • A tweet reminding me of the problems with direct instruction, typically after a day in which I’d lectured every hour
  • A tweet about the latest education fad (why hadn’t I heard of that before?)
  • An image of students doing something awesome

And so on.

After seeing variations of the above, I’d typically see a tweet that went something like this:

“I teach in a project-based, standards-based, gamified, flipped, modeling, choice-oriented, maker driven, discovery driven, UDL, MTSS, CCSS, SAMR, TPACK, MDE, NCAA, SMH, LOL, classroom in which I give students 20% of class time to work on something they’re passionate about.”


The more time I spent on social media the angrier I became. Didn’t all these people have full time jobs, families, classes, staff meetings, non-staff meetings, difficult students, and a stack of papers to grade thicker than than my college calculus textbook?

What I came to realize was that yes, some of them did have all of these things. Some of them didn’t. But I remembered a fundamental truth about social media which is that people generally share the most positive aspects of their lives, personal or professional. My Twitter feed was the aggregation of everybody’s best stuff.

Just like I designed it to be.

My real problem was that I was jealous of educators that were doing better things than me. Jealous that other teachers came to realizations before I did. Jealous that I wasn’t contributing.

I was looking at every educator and mentally placing them “ahead” of me or “behind” me.

And that is foolish.

Education is not a competition. It’s like many things in life that we tend to turn competitive that shouldn’t be. The focus for educators should be growth. To move forward from where you are today and improve a bit tomorrow.

I’ll share a few things that helped me when I was in this situation or whenever I feel myself wondering into that mindset.

Remember that it really is about growth

This is probably most important. People are sharing their best stuff because we all get better when we share and collaborate. Although it sometimes seems like people are subconsciously trying one-up you, that’s likely not the case. They’re sharing things they’re proud of, as they should.

Get off social media for a while

Yeah. Just stay away. I found I wasn’t getting anything from being on it, except frustrated. So I stayed away for a while, checking in as infrequently as possible. If something in your life consistently brings you down, try to stay away from it.

Vent to somebody

Man, it felt good to complain out loud. I’m sure there’s some sort of psychological research backing this up but from experience I know that being able to verbalize my frustrations cooled me off. My wife can also attest to this.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of feeling like you’re not doing enough. You’re not reading enough. You’re not writing enough. You haven’t interacted enough. You’re not innovative enough. You’re not creative enough. And on and on and on…

Enough is what you decide it is. If that bar is set too high then it’s okay to lower it. We’re all just trying to get a little better each day.

Bring your cell phone, just don’t destroy your learning…

I’d like to start of by saying that I love technology, specifically Apple products but really any kind. If you were to ask my staff they would probably say I’m a “techie”. I keep an eye on the edge of both educational technology and technology in general. I’m getting my masters in educational technology. I’ve tinkered with technology since my parents got their first computer. I am a proud owner of the Apple watch and an iPhone. I browse the App store frequently, looking for the next great life-changing app. I learned to code HTML and CSS last summer. This is all to convince you that I’m cool with technology.
And for the longest time I was cool with my students bringing their technology to my class. But as of late I’ve been concerned with my students and their relationship with their technology. Also, as an extension of that, I’m concerned about how teachers interact with students and their technology. Before I specify my main worry, it’s important to note that technology is far better and more ubiquitous than ever. Most of my students have a smart phone of some kind, or at the very least a cell phone. This trend is only going to continue. Because of this I’ve been fairly lax in allowing them to bring, and use, their phones in my class. Sometimes we use them for educational purposes, but much of the time they follow guidelines set up early in the year (have them put away during a lecture, it’s rude during group work, etc.). I’d guess this is close to many teachers’ policy regarding cell phones, although I know it’s on a spectrum.
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Okay okay, so my concern stems from an observation I made last school year. When I gave my students independent work time, and sometimes even in collaborative groups, students were always “checking”. Whether it’s a notification, a text, a snap, or simply to check their twitter feed my students were frequently bouncing between my class and their phones.
I went a long time with no problem with this. When I’m in meetings or working I often check my phone, especially text messages and notifications. However, I noticed that I’m much more inefficient and unproductive when I’m constantly checking. In fact, the brain is not built to do two things at once. Although students think that they can easily switch back and forth from phone to focus, it’s an illusion. Check out this article that for gobs of research on the negative effects of multitasking on learning. From this the question becomes how do we adjust our policies or approach to account for this. How do we strike a balance between the usefulness of cell phones in class and their ubiquity, and the fact that they might be destroying learning in our classrooms?
My thought is that, as the aforementioned article suggests, we first give students the facts. Read them the studies and explain to them how it negatively affects their learning. Beyond that we also need to teach them how to balance it all. This first requires acknowledging that they will always have a device with them. So if that’s the case, how does a student balance the distraction against the need to focus?
First, set aside a time to “check” everything. For instance, when I’m working on something I might commit to work for 15 minutes before I check Twitter and Facebook. I then set aside an amount of time that I’ll do that and stick to it. I’ve found that no matter how hard you try, you never make it to the bottom of those feeds so there’s no point in trying. I’ll get as much out of 5 minutes of checking as I will out of 20 (and probably feel better about myself). This probably means students should flip on “do not disturb” so that there’s not even a buzz to distract them during the focus time. Second, we should explain that not only do they like knowing what’s going on with their friends, but they’re also likely addicted to Dopamine (video below). Every time they get a notification, text, or mention they get a shot of dopamine. The brain learns this and then seeks more of it in the same way (mentions, updates, texts, etc.). This is addicting and it’s not a particularly healthy addiction. Last, I think we should emphasize that the focus in class should be on learning and that multitasking detracts from that, not only for them but also for their peers.
I guess that’s a long way of saying that I’m going to much more intentional with my cell phone policy this year. As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or on twitter.

Reflecting on our Digital Literacy Webinar

In my current grad class we were given the opportunity to host a webinar. Our group chose to focus on digital literacy as our topic and we were fortunate to have a few experts (Jenna Snow, Tom Driscoll, Teresa Diaz, and Allison Cicinelli) contribute to a fascinating discussion. Our conversation took us from what we mean when we say “digital citizen”, to whether our students’ typical technology interactions are hurting their critical thinking and attention span, to how digital literacy can help students in their future, and  advice for teachers starting out in educational technology.

I would encourage you take some time and check out our webinar as well as other MAET Bridge webinars.

Outlining my Ideas for my “Deeper Learning through Technology” Grant Proposal

My grant request entails getting tablets for each one of my students. I understand that 1-1 device programs seem like “the thing” right now and it may make some wonder if my pursuit of this is just me jumping on a bandwagon. Rest assured this request is driven by sound philosophies of learning and designed closely to develop the Six Facets of Understanding (Wiggins and McTighe) in my students.

I started this proposal with an eye towards what I wanted to accomplish with my students. I want them to gain and demonstrate a deep understanding of mathematics. As outlined in my introduction students frequently leave school with only a surface level of mathematics and this can hurt them in their future. To enhance overall understanding I want to focus on a few facets of understanding that will be especially developed with this technology.

The writing (and increased frequency in which it happens) will help explain their understanding of mathematics. This process forces students to put their understanding into words and sentences rather than simply going through the procedures of solving the problems. The prompts help with developing self-knowledge, but also are designed to help students interpret the mathematics beyond abstract concepts. Writing forces students to put concepts into a form that is understandable for other readers. In addition to having students write, these devices make visualizing higher level mathematics orders of magnitude easier than any other technology. The real power in this is that it gives students perspective and allows them to put concepts in context. They also provide a tool for applying mathematics to more difficult problems. Without these technologies students can get lost in mathematical concepts that the technology can handle easily. Lastly, these devices are ideal for giving frequent, formative feedback. This helps students understand what they don’t understand quickly, one of the most important factors in pushing understanding further.

(This is a project for my current grad class in the Master’s of Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. You can view my other projects here.)

Intro to “Deeper Learning through Technology” Grant Proposal

The problem I’m trying to address is the lack of deep understanding of mathematics in many of my students. Students that leave high school with a surface understanding of it often view mathematics as a mysterious list of algorithms and formulas (ask somebody to name something from high school math and many will say “the Pythagorean theorem”). They also (I believe) struggle with college mathematics because their high school understanding of mathematics is weak and disjointed. They don’t leave high school as mathematical thinkers and then struggle when the difficulty is increased. I think carefully implemented technology can help students understand mathematics more deeply.

I’d like to put a tablet in each one of my student’s hands in order to increase three things that help students learn more effectively: writing, exploration and play, and feedback. If each student has a device they can write frequently and authentically (via blogging) and this helps students solidify concepts in their mind as they’re learning. Also, exploration and play are necessary to help students get a “feel” for mathematics as well as help them engage their preconceptions about ideas. With a tablet, today’s powerful graphing and demonstration utilities are in the hands of students. Last, technology is especially adept in providing frequent feedback via formative assessments. My aim is that students will leave me with not only a deeper understanding of math, but also a grasp of the methods and tools that led to that understanding. If I succeed they’ll not only leave me as better mathematicians, but also more effective learners.

(This is a project for my current grad class in the Master’s of Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. You can view my other projects here.)

A Call to Innovate…Now


Click here to read about South Korea’s telepresence tools

If you can be replaced by a video then you should be.
If you can be replaced by a computer program than you should be.
This post is not designed to incite anger. It is not to suggest that technology is a better job at teaching that most educators. The purpose of this post is to get some thoughts off my chest (starting with the above two lines).

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