Announcing Learneroo.com

I’ve written many posts on Zappable about education and technology, but I was always interested in doing more than just writing. I recently began working on such a project, one that will let people learn in a more interactive manner:

Learneroo.com – Learn by Doing

It’s still a very early version, but hopefully it will improve quickly! Since I’m now trying to practice much of what I preached, I copied some posts from here  to the Learneroo blog. Finally, I entered Learneroo into a contest from Elance.com, please vote for it (it’s just a couple clicks):
Vote for Education

Software security, College Costs

The US government warned about using Java due to a vulnerability that was being exploited to install malicious software. Oracle has since released a ‘patch‘, but people don’t really need to run Java applets that much anymore. I don’t think these vulnerabilities are relevant to other software that runs on the desktop or phones.

Also, an exploit of Ruby on Rails sites was published last week. While a patch was released, some sites won’t update quickly enough. This  will probably cause an increase of hacked websites as hackers find vulnerable websites. I wonder if it was really necessary for people to publish the vulnerability so quickly.

College costs have been rising at a ridiculous pace, despite the poor economy and their poor results. A group of people create an infographic on this topic and sent me the link to share: College isn’t cheap. It shows how many college graduates are stuck with school-debt, but cannot find jobs. I think there are big problems with getting people into so much debt when there’s no guarantee their degree will help them.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that colleges have finally begun cutting tuition increases and offering more scholarships. This means they need to cut back on some programs. However, there are much greater changes that will need to happen, such as greater use of technology in education.

Mathematica, Bing vs Google, Web Hosts

Mathematica
Mathematica 9
just came out and it has a bunch of new features, such as a suggestions bar which helps you perform various actions after you enter a query, and support for units, like “centimeters and gigabytes”. I think math education should make much greater use of computers, and Mathematica is the most powerful tool to do so. In addition, it has many beginner-friendly features, such as the ones above or the ability to enter input in English if you don’t know the Mathematica syntax for something. Perhaps math education should be based on figuring out how to turn real-world problems into a format Mathemtica can understand.

Mathematica Suggestion Bar

Bing vs. Google 
A while ago Google changed their shopping search from being free like their regular search to paid-only inclusion, like PriceGrabber and Nextag.  Microsoft just launched a campaign against Google, calling them Scroogle. It attacks Google for not stating more prominently that the results are paid, and that they even partially base their sorting by how much much a merchant pays.

I don’t know if it’s such a big deal. Google Shopping used to be filled with all sorts of low-quality sites, and now it’s much easier for them to keep it high-quality. However, they have lost Amazon from their results, which makes a pretty big difference. Also, it would be better for the user to not factor in pay when you initially display an item. They don’t seem to do that though for a general search, and for a more specific one, you can always sort by price, which wasn’t useful when they had low-quality results.

Web Hosts
I made a couple of small changes to the Web Host chart, including adding another free static web host. More of those services should be coming out soon with the announcement of Google Drive support for web publishing. To keep on top of updates and add additional details, I created a Webpage version of my web host guide. This should be the one-page stop for people to find the right web host.

Top Posts on Zappable

Although I have a top posts section, I thought it would be helpful to provide links to some selected content, organized by topic. (Note: I put an asterisk by posts that are first in a series.)

Education

Web & Programming How-To

Articles on SeekingAlpha and LifeHack

Miscellaneous

Choice and Innovation In Education

Goldman Sachs recently sponsored an essay contest on the following topic:

What should we do to create a strong US education system that works for all, that improves student outcomes and enables our country to regain its leadership position in the field of education?

Below is the beginning of the essay I submitted.


In a famous parable, a group of animals get together to establish a school for their young:

[The animals] adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easy to administer, all animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming, better in fact than his instructor, and made excellent grades in flying, but he was very poor in running. Since he was low in running he had to stay after school and also drop swimming to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the duck.

Other animals fared no better than the duck. Each animal had its own strength and weakness, but the one-size-fits-all approach of the school wouldn’t let the animals focus on their strengths. Real schools suffer from a similar problem. Every child is unique, with his or her own interests, capabilities and style of learning. However, the schools lump everyone together into one system, with one curriculum, one pace, and one style of teaching. This prevents students from studying the subjects they enjoy in the way they learn best. The American school system needs to diversify its approach to education. Schools should offer more subjects outside the standard curriculum, teach in new ways besides the traditional lecture, and make greater use of technology in learning. This will ensure that all students will be able to learn the subjects important to them in the way that works best for them…

Dwolla, Tesla, Math Education and Earthquake Prediction

Everyone now and then I post a few recent interesting tech links with some comments. Most of the links usually come from Hacker News. Today, I was able to paste in the 4 links quickly due to Email All Tabs, a life-saving (or second-saving) extension. I may be a bit biased about this extension, since I recently made it and submitted it to the Chrome store. Future version of the extension may include more features (such as the ability to include many long links). Anyways here are the links of the day:

blog.dwolla.com/masspay-launces-with-10-new-partners
Dwolla, the practically free payment provider, announces a new product for mass-payments. I always thought the fees Paypal and the credit companies charge seem somewhat high. They often take around 3% + transaction fees just for handling the money. I wonder if money changers in medieval times charged that much for providing a similar service that also included currency conversion:

In the market, most large transactions were done not by cash/coins, but by transfer order of funds on the books kept at the local money changer(s). After a market/fair ended, merchants gathered at the local money changers and withdrew their deposit in their own different currencies. The rate of exchange between different foreign currencies and the local one were fixed between the opening and the closing days of the market.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_changer

teslamotors.com/blog/tesla-approach-distributing-and-servicing-cars
Tesla Motors does not feel its sufficient to invent a new class of electric cars, they also want to create a new model for selling them. They have managed to completely skip the standard car-dealer controlled sales process. Car dealers have too much legal protection from competition, so it’s nice to see someone challenging them. In this post, Tesla’s CEO diplomatically explains that he understands the protectionist car-dealer laws, but they do not apply to Tesla, which does not deal with car-dealers. 

refsmmat.com/articles/unreasonable-math.html
Obligatory link about math education.~ This somewhat long post says math is about rules that can be used as Lego blocks to build things, while schools just get people to memorize things that have been built. Its true that math education often just consists of memorization, though its often the rules that are memorized. It may be difficult for many people to learn how to wield math, so the educations system just settles on getting them to act like machines (see my early post on this). I think math education needs to be taught in different ways to different people, depending on their aptitude and inclination. 

bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20025626
Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for incorrectly predicting that an earthquake wouldn’t be so bad. Seems pretty crazy, but I didn’t look into the details.

Eric Schmidt on Innovation: Patents, Self-Driving Cars and Education

Last night I attended the AllThingsD interview with Eric Schmidt. Yesterday’s post focused on smartphones, this post will go through the second half of his discussion.

Patents
While Schmidt wasn’t willing to discuss specific patent fights, he did emphasize one point: The patent fights harm little companies the most since they don’t have the resources to fight patent claims. Small companies have created the most jobs and innovation and so patent disputes can cause great harm by harming them.

This seems true, though patent trolls probably only sue companies that have enough money to be able to pay them. Though perhaps large competitors could sue small companies out of existence, but I don’t know if that is too common. No matter what,he current patent system is pretty ridiculous.

Google and Self-Driving Cars
Swisher felt bothered that Google was involved in everything instead of just focusing on organizing information and called Google a Borg. She also said Google Glass is ugly and wasn’t so in to self-driving cars. Schmidt replied that they want to be in the center of the information revolution. But he said they should be celebrating innovation instead of dissing it.
He said that people shouldn’t really be driving cars and that self-driving cars will save many lives. Car companies will be able to implement components of Google’s technology in a few years, but their will still be a driver behind the wheel and a big red button to turn off automated driving. Also, Google Glass will provide new opportunities and experiences for people.

Clearly Google no longer just focuses on making information accessible  but now does all things software. I don’t see any reason to be bothered by that, as they seem to be doing a good job and provide basically everything or free.
Schmidt seemed to imply that humans will need to be monitoring the driving. People have a hard-enough time staying focused on the road now when they are driving, so I doubt they will be able to when the computer is doing it. Though maybe the computer will be able to pause the YouTube video when there’s an issue that require’s human attention.

Innovation & Education
Schmidt said there’s low morale in the US, which is a demographic problem, a global problem, and an automation problem. He seemed to be saying there was low unemployment because software and globalization are taking over jobs, but he felt that more innovation was the solution. He said the platforms created by Google and their competitors can create many job opportunities in the US.
The solution is also to improve education to help innovation. Currently, the gap between the elite and everyone else has widened, but it needs to be closed. Mossberg asked if he things online MOOCs like Udacity are the future even for the elite. Schmidt replied that these new initiatives are just version 1 and that they glimmer with possibility, i.e. yes. He said there has been very little innovation and real competition in education but these new online offering are changing that.

If technology is part of the problem of low-employment, perhaps increased innovation will just make things worse? However, improving technology has not caused long-term unemployment, since it has always created new markets for people to spend their money on. So the online platforms may provide many more new jobs. This type of work is not for everyone though, and better education won’t necessarily help. However, I don’t think there’s an immediate risk of widespread unemployment.
I think Schmidt hit the nail on the head about the potential of online education. Who more than the head of Google recognizes the power of software to revolutionize industries? He stressed often how competition drives innovation and lowers prices. This is something the government-backed system of education sorely lacks, but there is now potential for change.

The overall theme that emerged from this discussion was the power of innovation. By allowing competition that isn’t restricted by unfair patents or over-reaching unions, great things can be developed that will benefit everyone.

News on Changing the Education System

It is quite difficult to change the education system. New Orleans was able to do so after Katrina, but even that may not always be enough, as Mayor Bloomberg found out:

Mr. Bloomberg wouldn’t have won [approval to start new schools] even if he had razed the schools to the ground and salted the earth. The union contract says the city has the right to open new schools that “did not previously exist.” But Mr. Buchheit ruled that a school cannot be “new”—even if it has a new staff that runs the joint in new ways—if it replaces an old institution, as if a public school has some permanent claim on being. This metaphysical adventure raises the question of whether New York can change any school ever.

New York has been able to offer some schools outside of the public school system, and Joel Klein, the former head of the NYC public schools, reports their results:

But what really puts the lie to the notion that poverty prevents dramatically better student outcomes than we are now generally seeing in public education is the performance of several individual charter schools or groups of such schools. For example, Success Academies, a charter group whose students are almost 100% minority and about 75% poor, had 97% of the kids at its four schools proficient in math and 88% in English. Miraculously, that’s more than 30% higher in both math and reading than the state as a whole.

Joel Klein is currently the head of the educational division of News Corporation. They just announced Amplify, their new plan to provide students and teachers with interactive educational tablets. Big money is now behind efforts to improve education with technology. Meanwhile, every day more universities are joining with Coursera to provide educational content for their online courses.

While Coursera is partnering with the universities to provide traditional educational content, some are taking a completely different path. With college tuition more expensive than before and the job market worse, some are turning to apprenticeships. NPR reports on Siemens apprenticeship program in North Carolina which focuses on teaching student-workers practical skills. A related development recently has been “programmer boot-camps” which lets people without programming experience learn to build websites in only 3 months. Venture Beat reports on an online program called Bloc.io. Apprenticeships were the way people learned skills for thousands of years before college attendance became widespread. Companies may increasingly start wondering why they are asking for students with a degree instead of people with the skills that are actually needed. Together with online education, this may lead to new education system.

Taking on the Public Schools

The U.S. public school system is a government-protected monopoly that fails to provide a satisfactory education for millions of children. Charter schools are government-funded alternatives that operate independently from the public school rules and are therefore often able to find ways to provide a better education with less spending. Since they are not part of the standard system, if they fail to perform well they can be shut down. The Wall Street Journal and the Economist both just published articles about the advantages of charter schools over the public school system:

America Has Too Many Teachers (WSJ)

Charting a better course (Economist)

Khan Academy and Math Education

Two professors just released a parody video critiquing Khan Academy.  Its pretty boring and too nitpicky, so you can instead read the article about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Their basic critique is that Khan Academy focuses too much on procedural thinking and not enough on actual thinking.  This is an issue, but traditional education suffers from a similar flaw. Often, schools just teach for whatever test it is that students must take, and ignore actual understanding of the material. To properly explore a topic, one would have to hire an very good teacher to teach a small group of students who are all at a similar level. This would be very expensive. A more realistic plan would be for students to use quality interactive software to learn the material and be able to discuss it with their peers, and when needed, be able to consult with an expert or advanced student. This balanced option could probably produce the best result for many students at the lowest cost.

The other complaint in the parody is the quality of Khan’s videos. It’s true that Khan’s videos are pretty simple, but he himself recognizes this. He stresses the main power of the site is the amount of data they have and their ability to add new features. For example, they added an intelligent quiz tool, and they will be adding additional interactivity in the future. This will improve the site, but there is also room for other players to contribute to online education. For example, if a site would make it easy for many people to create interactive educational content…

See also:
Math Education
The Future of Education 

Computer Science Curriculum

Teach Programming Instead of Computer Science

A basic problem with the Computer Science curriculum is that it does not teach students what they’re interested in or what they need to know professionally.  Most students would probably prefer practical programming experience but they get CS degrees since that is all that is being offered at their college. The schools don’t want to be a “trade school” so they instead require students to learn difficult and often unnecessary material. Besides making it more difficult for the students who do succeed, it ends up scaring off many people from a career in software development all together. Its time for more options to be offered and for some disruption in the education system:

Higher Education’s Online Revolution (WSJ)

Software beats humans at teaching

How does blending learning compare to the traditional model? A new study finds that they can teach the same amount in less time:

In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software — with reduced face time with instructors — did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses…
“Our results indicate that hybrid-format students took about one-quarter less time to achieve essentially the same learning outcomes as traditional-format students,”

As elearning becomes more popular, I think it will continue to demonstrate its effectiveness, which will create a cyclic effect and cause further adoption. Its biggest challenges will be taking on the current monopolies in education, but I think in the long-term it will succeed.

Link: Report: Robots stack up to human professors in teaching Intro Stats | Inside Higher Ed.

Paul Graham’s Frightening Startup Ideas

Paul Graham discusses some “Frighteningly ambitious startup ideas” in a post on his blog (based on a speech he gave which is available here). He wants someone to replace 1)Google 2)email 3)universities 4)Hollywood 5)Steve Jobs 6)code optimization and 7)doctors.

For #1, he suggests a startups create a search for hackers, though I think it might be easier to focus first on certain high-revenue categories that Google doesn’t do so well at. Both #1 and #7 sound very difficult, I’m not sure if a startup will be able to solve them, but there are larger companies (like IBM) which are making progress in those areas.

For #2, I don’t know if email will be replaced anytime soon, but I assume more features will be added to it to help people manage its magnitude. Gmail and Hotmail already both have some features to help with this, and I assume such tools will improve.

#3 is an area I am especially interested in. I don’t know if universities are about to disappear, but I think the traditional lecture model will be upended.

PS
Another interesting link from today: Job Growth and Loss (LinkedIn). Looks pretty good for Tech stuff. Of course, some of the shrinking areas may be rebounding now, while some of the growing ones may be in a bubble (see the greenest one on the chart).

The Future of Education II – A New Curriculum

In a previous article, I discussed how interactive technology can be used to move beyond the lecture-system of education that has been dominant for so long. In this article I will discuss what material should actually be taught. I think the educational syllabus in many subjects should be changed to reflect the changing nature of knowledge. In addition, the educational curriculum should be changed to teach new skills that are relevant to the information age.

People are Not Hard Drives
The development of computers and the internet has changed the way people can access information and therefore changes the nature of the material people will need to learn. When knowledge was stored in books, perhaps it made sense to require people to memorize large amounts of information. However, since knowledge is now available at the touch of a smartphone (or even through speech), people can have easy access to the information they need without having to have spent years memorizing information. This information can obviously be much vaster and more up-to-date than anything they could have memorized. This does not mean that people will not need to learn anything and can just become an instant expert in any field by Googling any issue they have. (Try fixing your car’s transmission based on an eHow guide.)

An expert will need a solid understanding of the principles of his field and practice in applying them so that he can correctly draw on database of information to solve a specific issue. This is what students will need to learn instead of memorizing thousands of little details. Perhaps a student training to become a doctor no longer needs to memorize every inch of anatomy. The curriculum of many fields still remains focused on the same material as it did a few decades ago, but it may be time to revise it in light of modern technologies.

People are not Computers
Computers can do much more than just provide access to relevant information. Any problem that can be solved with clearly-defined steps can be programmed so that a computer can solve it. This fact also needs to be taken into account when designing a syllabus of study. Many areas of education involve students learning to mechanically implement set procedures and formulas to solve problems. This is particularly true in math-related areas such as mathematics itself, the sciences and parts of business and economics. These mechanical processes can all by definition be solved by a computer, so why pretend that these technologies do not exist? Human computers were once necessary, but they have since been supplanted.

Instead of focusing on being the computer, students should learn how to do the things computers cannot. They should learn how to use the computer tools and learn how to take real-life problems and convert them into a form that computers can solve. Computers are still quite poor at solving general real-life problems unaided by humans, and this is an important skill people will need. Even as computer programs improve, there is always an area where computers cannot solve problems, and people will be needed to work on them. Instead of teaching methods that are no longer needed, the focus of  education should be on the areas that are beyond the reach of computers.

This does not mean students should not learn any principles of a subject that a computer can solve. Students who are training to be an expert in a field should learn the basic principles of it so they can fully understand the material and be able to apply it in cases where a specific program does not exist. But it is not necessary for students to memorize a large number of mechanical methods for solving specific problems (without understanding them) when they will anyways just use computers to solve such problems. Plugging something into a formula or into a computer involve about the same amount of understanding, just one way is a million times faster. So perhaps it is not necessary to for high-school students to learn all those formulas and methods. Students should either understand a subject, know how to apply it, or learn what computers cannot solve, but there is no reason to treat them like mechanical computers themselves.

A New Curriculum
New technologies should cause more changes than just modifying the focus of specific subjects. The curriculum of subjects itself should be changed to meet the needs of the times.  Besides learning subject-specific computer skills, students need to learn general computer-skills that will allow them to use computers effectively in many different areas. There are many computer skills that many people do not know well, from the most basic (such as typing) to the more advanced (programming). Since these skills are often extremely useful, they should take precedence in an educational curriculum over less important subjects.

A Simple Example
Typing is obviously one of the most common and useful skills of modern times. People almost never write things by hand anymore, but instead type almost everything. Yet many elementary schools still focus on teaching cursive in 4th or 5th grade! While this was never very useful, nowadays it is completely pointless since no one writes in cursive. Many people never learn how to touch-type correctly and instead use the hunt-and-peck method to type throughout their life (I’m currently using a modified pecking method myself to type this myself). This is probably one of the most basic things that kids should learn when they are younger. There are also simple related topics people should learn, such as keyboard shortcuts and the purpose of certain keys, e.g. the “home” key. (I’ll teach that right now: It lets you go to the beginning of a line without having to press the arrow key 20 times. You’re welcome.) These skills are very basic, but learning them can probably save people hundreds of thousands of hours over the course of their lifetime.

Other Computer Skills
Typing is a simple example of the most basic skills people need, but there are many other areas people need to learn, such as greater proficiency in using operating systems and common computer programs. For example, many people do not know how to perform common tasks in Word or Excel (such as managing styles or creating graphs), despite their common practical use. There are also certain higher-level skills that are very important. For example, while there is a huge amount of information easily available on the internet, it is not always easy to quickly find the information a person needs.  There are skills and techniques people can learn to improve their ability to construct and filter searches, and to organize and index information they encounter. Google and other services cannot automatically find the best result for the exact thing a person is looking for, so people need to learn the skill of good searching and organizing.

Programming
Currently, high-schools force students to learn many difficult subjects in the math-logic realm, such as trigonometry and geometry, which they may never use. Yet there is a basic logic-based skill that would be of more interest and relevance to all: programming. Instead of learning so many details of math, students could learn programming, which can be used to do math and much more. While many people will not have any interest in programming full-time, most people will get some benefit form learning the basics of programming. This will enable them to do many tasks in the modern age, such as creating simple apps or websites, using macros in Excel, performing simple manipulations of text, or writing simple scripts for various scientific or business applications. Programming can be considered one of the basic skills that people should know in modern times.

Some may fear that adding these computer subjects to the curriculum may cause other subjects to be de-emphasized. In some cases, it may be possible to use more effective educational methods so students can learn both the old and the new subjects. However, people may need to choose which subjects have priority. Perhaps subjects should be empirically evaluated for what actual benefits they provide for the students. Studies have shown that most students do not actually improve their critical thinking skills over the course of the time in college. In a struggling economic climate and with extremely high prices for tuition, perhaps it may be time for the curriculum to focus on practical skills that students will actually use throughout their life.

Link: New interactive teaching techniques

Excellent article on “active learning” from Harvard Magazine. As I discussed in a previous post, it is hard to justify the traditional lecture-style of education that has been dominant for so long. This article discusses the advantages to having students participate in the learning and teaching of the material. This is similar to the traditional “chavrusa” style that is common in Jewish Yeshivot.

“The person who learns the most in any classroom,” Mazur declares, “is the teacher.”

Compare the above quote from the article with this one from a Talmudic sage:

הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן
I learned much from my teachers, but more from my friends, and more than both from my students

Eric Mazur on new interactive teaching techniques
(via TorahMusings.com)

PS:
Stay tuned for the next article on technology and education…