Category: tech enthusiasm

Total 118 Posts

Desmos Is Also a Curriculum Company Now

If you knew me as a classroom teacher, you knew I was very, very cranky about the ways many math textbooks treated students and mathematics, how they failed to celebrate and build on student intuition about mathematical ideas, how their problems were posed in ways that hid their most interesting elements, how they were way too helpful.

So it’s been a joy to get to do something more active about that problem than write cranky blog posts, to get to team up with some fantastic teachers, designers, engineers, and funders all continuously interrogating their assumptions about education, design, technology, math, and society, all to create what I think is …

the very best middle school math curriculum.

This is it.

Call off the search.

You found it.

Read more about the curriculum at the Des-blog, including details about our upcoming pilot.

[extremely Oprah voice] You get a debt of gratitude! You get a debt of gratitude! You get a debt of gratitude!

Aside from my enormous gratitude to the fantastic team I work with daily, I’m especially grateful to two groups:

  • The authoring / publishing team at Illustrative Mathematics / Open Up Resources who created and openly licensed a fantastic math curriculum, one which is the foundation of our own work. They dropped a massive gift on the math education community (or a hydrogen bomb from the perspective of the K-12 math publishing industry) and we were extremely happy to pick it up and build on it.
  • You. I’m talking about the folks who have been reading this blog, commenting on my posts, critiquing my ideas from day one. Your thoughts and mine are all tied together and run all the way through this curriculum.

This blog has been quieter over the last few years for reasons that are predictable – family, Twitter, the death of blogs, etc. – but also because, for the only time in my career, I haven’t been able to write about my work.

That changes today and I’m very excited to collaborate with you folks once again on the work that matters to me most. It won’t be at its best without you.

The 2010s of Math Edtech in Review

EdSurge invited me to review the last decade in math edtech.

Entrepreneurs had a mixed decade in K-16 math education. They accurately read the landscape in at least two ways: a) learning math is enormously challenging for most students, and b) computers are great at a lot of tasks. But they misunderstood why math is challenging to learn and put computers to work on the wrong task.

In a similar retrospective essay, Sal Khan wrote about the three assumptions he and his team got right at Khan Academy in the last decade. The first one was extremely surprising to me.

Teachers are the unwavering center of schooling and we should continue to learn from them every day.

Someone needs to hold my hand and help me understand how teachers are anywhere near the center of Khan Academy, a website that seems especially useful for people who do not have teachers.

Khan Academy tries to take from teachers the jobs of instruction (watch our videos) and assessment (complete our autograded items). It presumably leaves for teachers the job of monitoring and responding to assessment results but their dashboards run on a ten-minute delay, making that task really hard!

Teachers are very obviously peripheral, not central, to the work of Khan Academy and the same is true for much of math education technology in the 2010s. If entrepreneurs and founders are now alert to the unique value of teachers in a student’s math education, let’s hear them articulate that value and let’s see them re-design their tools to support it.

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Economist Herb Stein’s quote ran through my head while I read The Hustle’s excellent analysis of the graphing calculator market. This cannot go on forever.

Every new school year, Twitter lights up with caregivers who can’t believe they have to buy their students a calculator that’s wildly underpowered and wildly overpriced relative to other consumer electronics.

tweet text: "Hello my 8th grade son is required to have a TI-84 for school but we just cannot afford one- do you have any programs you could recommend"

The Hustle describes Texas Instruments as having “a near-monopoly on graphing calculators for nearly three decades.” That means that some of the students who purchased TI calculators as college students are now purchasing calculators for their own kids that look, feel, act and (crucially) cost largely the same. Imagine they were purchasing their kid’s first car and the available cars all looked, felt, acted, and cost largely the same as their first car. This cannot go on forever.

As the chief academic officer at Desmos, a competitor of Texas Instruments calculators, I was already familiar with many of The Hustle’s findings. Even still, they illuminated two surprising elements of the Texas Instruments business model.

First, the profit margins.

One analyst placed the cost to produce a TI-84 Plus at around $15-20, meaning TI sells it for a profit margin of nearly 50% — far above the electronics industry’s average margin of 6.7%.

Second, the lobbying.

According to Open Secrets and ProPublica data, Texas Instruments paid lobbyists to hound the Department of Education every year from 2005 to 2009 — right around the time when mobile technology and apps were becoming more of a threat.

Obviously the profits and lobbying are interdependent. Rent-seeking occurs when companies invest profits not into product development but into manipulating regulatory environments to protect market share.

I’m not mad for the sake of Desmos here. What Texas Instruments is doing isn’t sustainable. Consumer tech is getting so good and cheap and our free alternative is getting used so widely that regulations and consumer demand are changing quickly.

Another source told The Hustle that graphing calculator sales have seen a 15% YoY decline in recent years — a trend that free alternatives like Desmos may be at least partially responsible for.

You’ll find our calculators embedded in over half of state-level end-of-course exams in the United States, along with the International Baccalaureate MYP exam, the digital SAT and the digital ACT.

I am mad for the sake of kids and families like this, though.

“It basically sucks,” says Marcus Grant, an 11th grader currently taking a pre-calculus course. “It was really expensive for my family. There are cheaper alternatives available, but my teacher makes [the TI calculator] mandatory and there’s no other option.”

Teachers: it was one thing to require plastic graphing calculators calculators when better and cheaper alternatives weren’t available. But it should offend your conscience to see a private company suck 50% profit margins out of the pockets of struggling families for a product that is, by objective measurements, inferior to and more expensive than its competitors.

BTW. This is a Twitter-thread-turned-blog-post. If you want to know how teachers justified recommending plastic graphing calculators, you can read my mentions.

The Best App for Your Teaching is Already on Your Smartphone

tl;dr – It’s the camera. And using it thoughtfully can change your teaching in substantial ways.

I spent most of the fall in eighth grade classrooms, watching lots of teachers enact the same set of Desmos lessons in different ways and in different contexts and with different results.

Some classes were high energy, some were low energy.

Some classes seemed to learn a lot, others learned less.

There are lots of important explanations for those differences, of course, many of which have nothing to do with the teachers or students themselves. But it was also interesting to sit in some high energy, high learning classes and palpably feel that these teachers are really, really curious about their students. Curious about them personally, sure, but curious about their thinking in particular.

Students feel that curiosity – “My teacher wants to know what I’m thinking about.” – and I find it easy to attribute some significant amount of those classes’ high energy and high learning to that feeling.

Teachers expressed that curiosity using the snapshotting tool when students recorded their thinking in Desmos. When students recorded their thinking on paper, teachers expressed their curiosity with their cameraphones, taking photos of student work and projecting them up on the board.

You see this on Twitter all the time! Curious teachers share diverse student thinking with other curious teachers.

And that practice creates no fewer than twelve virtuous cycles, a few of which I can quickly describe:

  1. When teachers express curiosity about diverse student thinking, students feel that and feel license to express even more diverse kinds of thinking.
  2. The more perspectives on an idea a teacher can help students connect, the more students learn about that idea.
  3. That all feels great so the teacher becomes more curious about student thinking and consequently re-evaluates her curriculum and instruction to emphasize tasks and pedagogy that are more likely to elicit diverse thinking.
  4. The teacher becomes interested in learning more mathematics because the more math you know, the more you’re able to identify and connect diverse student thinking when you see it.

Run that cycle for a few months and you have a different class.

Run that cycle for a few years and you have a different teacher.

Run that cycle across a department and you have a different school.

It starts with your cameraphone.

BTW. If your students’ diverse thinking currently fills you with more anxiety than curiosity, I encourage you “act your way into belief” instead of the reverse. Take two minutes at the end of class to share “My Favorite Whoa,” a photo of student thinking during the day you thought was so interesting and why you thought it was interesting. That’s low commitment with a lot of upside.

BTW. If you already use your cameraphone to express curiosity about student thinking, head to the comments and let us know how you do that. Your colleagues want to know your workflow.

Featured Comments

Daniel Peter uses whiteboards:

Need to be able to put up multiple solutions at the same time so the teacher can use questions to help students create explicit connects between the solutions: similarities/differences, aha (unique, elegant, just plain interesting) and help students make connects to the underlying properties, principles of mathematics. The advantage of paper/vertical whiteboards (or old school individual slates) is I can create the congress or bansho to make those connections explicit through the organization.

Several people use Reflector. Here’s Gretchen Muller:

It turns my phone into a portable document camera. Multiple devices can be shown at a time so I can do compare and contrast between different pieces of work at the same time. I now use it in my work with educators. The first question I always get is “How did you do that?”. I use it both as a live camera so that students can explain from their desk or still pictures from my phone and iPad when I want to compare.

Allison Krasnow describes students using their cameraphones to take pictures of student work:

I received three texts (I use this evening with students sending photos of their homework showing where they got confused and asking for help. Them texting me photos of their homework when they are stuck and at home with no one to help them is incredibly powerful.

Big Online Courses Have a Problem. Here’s How We Tried to Fix It.

The Problem

Here is some personal prejudice: I don’t love online courses.

I love learning in community, even in online communities, but online courses rarely feel like community.

To be clear, by online courses I mean the kind that have been around almost since the start of the internet, the kind that were amplified into the “Future of Education™” in the form of MOOCs, and which continue today in a structure that would be easily recognized by someone defrosted after three decades in cold storage.

These courses are divided into modules. Each module has a resource like a video or a conversation prompt. Students are then told to respond to the resource or prompt in threaded comments. You’re often told to make sure you respond to a couple of other people’s responses. This is community in online courses.

The reality is that your comment falls quickly down a long list as other people comment, a problem that grows in proportion to the number of students in the course. The more people who enroll, the less attention your ideas receive and consequently you’re less interested in contributing your ideas, a negative feedback loop which offers some insight into the question, “Why doesn’t anybody finish these online courses?

I don’t love online courses but maybe that’s just me. Two years ago, the ShadowCon organizers and myself, created four online courses to extend the community and ideas around four 10-minute talks from the NCTM annual conference. We hosted the courses using some of the most popular online course software.

The talks were really good. The assignments were really good. There’s always room for improvement but the facilitators would have had to quit their day jobs to increase the quality even 10%.

And still retention was terrible. 3% of participants finished the fourth week’s assignment who finished the first week’s.

Low retention from Week 1 to Week 4 in the course.

The organizers and I had two hypotheses:

  • The size of the course enrollment inhibited community formation and consequently retention.
  • Teachers had to remember another login and website in order to participate in the course, creating friction that decreased retention.

Our Solution

For the following year’s online conference extensions, we wanted smaller groups and we wanted to go to the people, to whatever software they were already using, rather than make the people come to us.

So we used technology that’s even older than online course software, technology that is woven tightly into every teacher’s daily routine: email.

Teachers signed up for the courses. They signed up in affinity groups – coaches, K-5 teachers, or 6-12 teachers.

The assignments and resources they would have received in a forum posting, they received in an email CC’d to two or three other participants, as well as the instructor. They had their conversation in that small group rather than in a massive forum.

Of course this meant that participants wouldn’t see all their classmates’ responses in the massive forum, including potentially helpful insights.

So the role of the instructors in this work wasn’t to respond to every email but rather to keep an eye out for interesting questions and helpful insights from participants. Then they’d preface the next email assignment with a digest of interesting responses from course participants.

The Results

To be clear, the two trials featured different content, different instructors, different participants, and different grouping strategies. They took place in different years and different calendar months in those years. Both courses were free and about math, but there are plenty of variables that confound a direct comparison of the media.

So consider it merely interesting that average course retention was nearly 5x when the medium was email rather than online course software.

Retention was nearly five times greater in the email course than LMS.

It’s also just interesting, and still not dispositive, that the length of the responses in emails were 2x the length of the responses in the online course software.

Double the word count.

People wrote more and stuck around longer for email than for the online course software. That says nothing about the quality of their responses, just the quantity. It says nothing about the degree to which participants in either medium were building on each other’s ideas rather than simply speaking their own truth into the void.

But it does make me wonder, again, if large online courses are the right medium for creating an accessible community around important ideas in our field, or in any field.

What do you notice about this data? What does it make you wonder?

Featured Comments

Leigh Notaro:

By the way, the Global Math Department has a similar issue with sign-ups versus attendance. Our attendance rate is typically 5%-10% of those who sign up. Of course, we do have the videos and the transcript of the chat. So, we have made it easy for people to participate in their own time. Partipating in PD by watching a video though is never the same thing as collaborating during a live event – virtually or face-to-face. It’s like learning in a flipped classroom. Sure, you can learn something, but you miss out on the richness of the learning that really can only happen in a face-to-face classroom of collaboration.

William Carey:

At our school now, when we try out new parent-teacher communication methods, we center them in e-mail, not our student information system. It’s more personal and more deeply woven into the teachers’ lives. It affords the opportunity for response and conversation in a way that a form-sent e-mail doesn’t.

Cathy Yenca:

At the risk of sounding cliché or boastful about reaching “that one student”, how does one represent a “data point” like this one within that tiny 3%? For me, it became 100% of the reason and reward for all of the work involved. I know, I know, I’m a sappy teacher :-)

Justin Reich is extremely thoughtful about MOOCs and online education and offered an excellent summary of some recent work.

2018 Oct 5. Definitely check out the perspective of Audrey, who was a participant in the email group and said she wouldn’t participate again.

2018 Oct 12. Rivka Kugelman had a much more positive experience in the email course than Audrey, one which seemed to hinge on her sense that her emails were actually getting read. Both she and Audrey speak to the challenge of cultivating community online.