Category Archives: Technology

Parent letters

Here is an email that a friend of mine—father of a first grader in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and math-teacher-on-parental-leave—received from DreamBox, an “adaptive learning platform” for K—8 math.

Congratulations! [Child] successfully completed a group of DreamBox Learning lessons.

Are you familiar with the concept of compensation? This is a strategy that can be used to make addition problems “friendlier”. To use it, just subtract a “bit” from one number and add that same “bit” to the other to create two new numbers that are easier to add mentally.

[Child] learned this strategy by completing a series of lessons using the special DreamBox tool, Compensation BucketsTM. For example, when shown the problem 29 + 64, [Child] turned it into 30 + 63. Towards the end of this unit, [Child] was adding 3-digit numbers with sums up to 200!

On the Run: Friendly Numbers

Take turns supplying two numbers to add. The other player has to make the two numbers into a “friendlier” equivalent expression. For example if you say 38 + 27, [Child] might say 40 + 25, or 35 + 30.

Remember, your encouragement to play two or more times per week for at least 15 minutes each time will help [Child], because knowledge is built most effectively when concepts are presented regularly. You can always check [Child]’s latest academic progress on parent dashboard.

Best regards,
The Teachers at DreamBox Learning

I’ll let my friend say what he found so great here. I agree with every word.

I just wanted to share this Dreambox support email I got today as [Child] was working. This is perhaps a more impressive feature than the software itself.  Not only does it provide a very simple explanation of what skill she is learning, it provides the jargon needed to have a conversation with her: “Bits”. As a middle school math teacher that was always a roadblock for a lot of parents: the language parents didn’t use themselves when they were in math.

Compare against the report I receive on a weekly basis from XtraMath.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.12.23 AM

You should know that DreamBox is a for-profit corporation that charges for its services, while XtraMath is a non-profit that provides its services for free while soliciting donations to continue the work.

But here’s the thing: XtraMath is not a free version of DreamBox.

Math fact practice with an emphasis on speed is not a version of conceptual development. It’s a totally different mission based on completely different understandings about what it means to learn mathematics.

DreamBox is trying to help my friend support his daughter’s mathematical development. There is an actionable message: Play with this idea that relates to something she’s been working on.

XtraMath is giving parents “the information they need to know how well their children know their math facts, and the progress they are making toward mastery.” But what are parents to do with that information? How do they support their children in moving forward?

Ultimately, this is a question about data in ed-tech. I’m not here to single out XtraMath; it’s just the case that’s in front of me each and every week. There are lots of ed-tech products out there trying to do what XtraMath is doing.

When kids do things on computers, it is easy to collect data about what they do. It’s easy to turn that into a report or a dashboard.

It is much more difficult to determine what it all means. But data without meaning isn’t useful.

For instance, what does Tabitha’s report above mean? What am I to understand about Tabitha’s mathematical knowledge based on this report? This is the major representation her school offers of her progress in third-grade mathematics. What am I to make of it? More to the point, what is a less mathematically knowledgeable parent to make of it?

But what is a school to do?

I say provide more meaning, less data.

Don’t include free as a primary criterion for adopting materials.

Create and invest in things and experiences that support all caregivers in supporting their children’s mathematical development.

Lay off the speed-based fact practice and find ways get kids talking, thinking, and doing.

And what is an ed-tech company to do?

Invest its limited resources in crafting materials consistent with research on children’s learning and on parent communication.

Coursera [#NYTEdTech]

Daphne Koller said the following to an audience of 400 people [starting at 19:08 in the linked video] attending an educational technology conference.

There are so few opportunities for those of us here in this room to learn something new in an engaging and fun and high quality way.

From my notes. Red question mark is mine and was definitely not reflected in Ms. Koller's tone.

My notes are a paraphrasing. Red question mark is mine and was definitely not reflected in Ms. Koller’s tone.

She followed up immediately with this claim:

If you take away the residential requirement for enrollment [in college], all of us can be lifelong learners.

Also from my notes. Red comment mine.

Also from my notes. Red comment mine.

As a service to readers, I will state the assumption here:

“Lifelong learning” refers to learning that meets an external standard, and which is externally certified.

Smart Notebook app now available

I am looking at my Gmail inbox and I see that Smart is announcing the release of their Notebook app for iPad. Before I read it, let me state that I know it’s going to offer integration of the iPad with the SmartBoard.

I know I’ll be able to control my Smart Board from my iPad with this app and a wifi connection, right? I can draw or write on the iPad as I move around the room and the image will appear on the Smart Board in real time. Right?

Now I’ll open the email.

Ad copy:

Students can actively engage in personalized learning by creating basic multimedia files and completing SMART Notebook lesson activities using a choice of tools on their iPads. They can also learn collaboratively by saving files to work on at different times or by sharing the iPad screen to the SMART Board interactive whiteboard for whole-class discussion.

As personal devices become increasingly integrated into the classroom, SMART Notebook for iPad provides a versatile and highly anticipated option for your schools and districts.

That bolded text seems to hint at what I’m after. The following is from an online review:

A great app that lives up to its purpose. While on the outside it appears to be just a drawing app with no SMART Board connectivity (which is not the intent of the application,) the application lives up to SMART Product’s reputation. The application is perfect for small group instruction, to where the need of an actually SMART Board is unnecessary, or carrying a laptop across the room to pair it with an Interwrite pad can be tedious (in my position as a technology head and reading interventionist, painful…)

Hmmm…now I’m less hopeful.

Bob Jackman has done a really nice video overview of the app’s capabilities. But my feature doesn’t get addressed in it. (And by the way, the amount behind-the-scenes monkeying it must take to get these features up and running is astonishing.)

Seriously, “Can I control Notebook with my iPad?” is a question that has been asked many, many times in Smart Board sessions I have done. Teachers want these things to integrate with each other. I’m not convinced that they do yet.

The app is really intended for students to interact with a Notebook file on their own iPads. It costs $6.99.



Spinning wheel

Here is a crappy video of a spinning wheel.


I needed one for Calc 2, where we are studying parametric equations. I Googled “spinning wheel video” and found nothing that would be at all useful.

Now it exists. Hopefully someone will take the time to make a better one someday. And hopefully they’ll let me know once they have.

Until then, I am a bit embarrassed at how low the bar is for instructional innovation in higher ed math.

And if you want the QuickTime file so you can pause, edit and generally have your way with it, shoot me a note on Twitter and I’ll make it so.

Smart Boards excepted, right?

From EdTechResearcher by way of Audrey Watters at Hack Education:

In general, our findings cohere with 30 years of educational technology research. There are a handful of teachers who make remarkable use of new technologies, but for the most part, when teachers adopt new technologies, they use them to extend existing practices rather than to develop innovative practices.

As a dear colleague of mine once noted in a Smart Board session, “It’s just like the chalkboard; it’s the teacher’s worksheet.”

If I see one more f’ing Smart board disabling a chalkboard…

…I’m gonna ‘splode. Ladies and gentlemen, an interactive whiteboard is a supplemental technology, not a replacement technology.

From today's New York Times

From a post a year ago


Problem solved!

Don’t worry…I promise I’m not gonna turn into tech-tip guy. I’ll get back to the business of teaching and learning mathematics quite soon.

But I have solved a problem.

Be forewarned…if you don’t also have this problem, then your response will be Cry me a river.

And it’s a rich-guy problem. Not rich in the 1%/99% sense, but rich in the developed world/developing world sense.

What I’m saying is that I know teachers in the Peace Corps don’t have this problem.

OK. Here’s the scenario:

You’re a teacher. You use a computer in instruction. But the computer you use when you teach is not necessarily the computer you use when you plan. How do you make sure the files you need are where you need them, and that they’re the right versions?

Me? I have an institution-issued iMac in my office. But I use my personal laptop in the classroom, and that laptop travels with me. If I’m in my office, I’m usually on the iMac because it has the bigger keyboard and screen and an actual mouse, etc.

So planning and other current work files need to be accessible on both devices. Here are my previous solutions…each has its own limitations:

THe “I:” Drive

At my institution, each faculty member has a large partition on a server. It’s accessible through a shortcut on the desktop, and through a complicated series of links and logins over wifi and the Internet.

It’s cumbersome to log on to, and it’s only as good as my Internet connection. If WiFi is wonky, I can’t use my files while I’m teaching. Remote file storage is no good when you need instant, responsive access. It’s a good backup, though.

Flash drive

I love my SanDisk Titanium Crüzer. (Umlaut is mine, but don’t you agree it belongs?) It’s shiny and metallic and it slowly pulses a lovely blue light. It’s fast and responsive.

And when I leave it behind I’m screwed.

Oh and it doesn’t back itself up.

enter dropbox

David Pogue is the man. I knew vaguely of Dropbox, but hadn’t looked into it. He wrote about it recently and I saw a solution to my problem.

Here’s the brilliant thing about Dropbox: Your files live on both computers and they sync automatically in the background while you work on other stuff.

Let me repeat this.


So as I plan on the iMac, my files are modified on the laptop (assuming I’m connected to WiFi, which I normally am). When I pack up the laptop for class, the modified files come with me. If WiFi is wonky in the classroom, no problemo. They are on the laptop.

I cannot overemphasize this point. The files are not just in the godforsaken cloud. They are on my hard drive. Both hard drives. As long as I have had WiFi access recently, I’m good. I don’t need WiFi access while I’m using the files.

No log on. No links. No syncing. No physical object to leave behind.

2 gigs of Dropbox is free.

And frankly, if you need more than 2 gigs for your teaching you either teach film or you need a better way to organize your files.