Recognizing Devaluation in EdTech and Teaching

by Brian Bennett on 06/27/2016

ISTE 2016 is in full swing and right on cue, my hype-o-meter tolerance has dropped significantly. A huge concentration of edtech vendors and Twitterati all in one place can lead to a lot of mumbo jumbo. But, we'll power through the next four days and try to pull the wheat from the chaff.

Two big things that come up in waves each year: A) If you're looking for tech, free is what you deserve as a teacher, and B) If you're creating things, it should be given freely to the rest of the teaching world.

Free is king in edtech and it's killing good tech.

Exhibit A:

He later goes on to say:

The idea that resources for teachers should all be free because of a moral imperative is dangerous and devalues the hard work that goes into creating content.

If you go through the tweets, the main argument is that a lot of the materials on Teachers Pay Teachers (or similar) are really crappy. There are a lot of crappy products available that I choose not to buy. The guy selling it is perfectly within his rights to sell a product to compensate for the time put into creating it. There has to be some kind of recognition that all work is not equal and that being paid for significant time and effort to create a product is completely appropriate, even for teachers.

Second, my moral obligation is to my students first and foremost. I don't charge them for resources I create, much of it on my own time. I also choose, freely, to give a lot away to the teaching community because I don't feel the time I've put into those resources was significant enough to ask for compensation.

Expecting teachers to work for free devalues those hours and allows edtech companies to fill the gap and make good money while they're doing it.

There's another parallel to explore: expecting free software for the sake of teaching devalues the hard work of development, QA testing, troubleshooting, and maintenance of code. The time is valuable and it is completely appropriate to be compensated for that time.

The free-as-best mindset is a dangerous delimiter being placed on what is valuable or invaluable in education based on price alone.

Unfortunately, in order to appeal to the education community at-large, the free-as-best standard is being encouraged by edtech companies. The following was shared by PhET Sims:

The image is well-intended. But, the message is the same one that's plaguing edtech: all software should be free. (If you're not familiar with PhET, it runs from grants and individual donations. I'm a big user of their sims in my own classroom and I've taken the step to donate some money to the continuation of the project.) I'd be willing to bet that the developers working for PhET to create and maintain the simulations like to be paid for their work. The sims aren't free and the cost is not exposed clearly enough to the user.

ISTE concentrates these ideas and feeds the perception that price point is the main factor in the usefulness or value in a product. There are costs everywhere and to keep doors open as a company, you have to meet those costs. If you're not paying cash for a service, that cost is most likely data you're contributing, and that's for another post.

If you're at ISTE right now (or if you know someone who is) please keep this in mind as you research and share about new tools. Don't perpetuate the free-as-best narrative because in the long run, it's going to cost us all.

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Using the Hypothes.is API in a Google Apps Script

by Brian Bennett on 06/8/2016

I've started using the Hypothes.is annotation tool more lately, mostly at the behest of Kris Shaffer. He started writing about it's potential for public discourse on research back in April and has since created Pypothesis to turn his annotations into a blog post using Python and the Hypothes.is API.

The API is pretty simple - it can take a call for various requests (username, annotation, etc) and return information to use within your app. Kris used Python to create a Markdown page to post on a GitHub-based blog. Coming from K12 land, I see Google Docs serving as the larger research-curation hub and I figured, why not turn this into a simple Google Apps Script?

So I did.

It's nothing fancy, but it works. It's nice that the API is so straightforward...Kris mentions how easy it is to jump into if you've got even a little experience with scripting. The hardest part, in the Google Script world, was interacting with the JSON. But, I managed to get that worked out.

As you can see, this will search for annotations under my username. There are other parameters you can use in a search, including multiple at a time. Read more about those in the docs. Also, John Stewart has a much more thoroughly developed Google Spreadsheet which takes multiple search terms and returns results from an API call. Very cool application to play with.

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The Education Freeconomy Gobbles Up Another

by Brian Bennett on 06/1/2016

Free in education is a big deal. Don't bother mentioning paid apps in front of teachers because you'll lose the group. Last year, we saw Geddit close it's doors. This year, there are two notables closing shop before the fall: Curriculet and Snagit for Chrome. The two are in slightly different boats but they're closing for similar reasons.

Curriculet was a text annotation tool built for schools. You could rent (much like a library) an ebook and then add annotations on top in a user community. The idea was that teachers would be able to assign a novel and have students socially annotate their learning. It was a really great idea and implemented rather well. They were never free, which is unique for an edtech startup. They recognized the cost up front and tried to cover their bases with subscriptions.

Unfortunately, they were up against the publishing world. Plus, if a school already has hard copy books, why invest in a digital copy? I think social annotation is on the cusp of becoming something larger (see the work being done by Hypothes.is) and that Curriculet may have been in front of the curve too much. I think this idea will have more legs, either from a standalone company like Curriculet or through traditional publishers (maybe), in the future.

Snagit for Chrome was another beast. TechSmith, already popular with flipping, was trying to jump into the Google Apps for Education space. There are a ton of independent developers doing cool things and sharing their work through the Chrome browser. It's nice because Chrome levels the device playing field - teachers can use apps and extensions on traditional desktop or laptops through the browser and students can rely on a stripped-down Chromebook to access the same material.

Google Apps may be "the great leveller" (more on that in another post) but it's also siphoning the ability for software developers to run sustainable businesses. Everything in the Chrome store is free. There are some paid apps, but most have a free user version. The lowest common denominator soon dominates the system. When a company, like TechSmith, comes along and tries to run a traditional business model within a free-only economy, they need to evolve (which is unlikely given that it's a single product in a larger portfolio) or they have to jump ship.

In the meantime, teachers are caught in the middle. There is a large amount of trust for name-brands getting into the Chrome space. Many relied on Snagit because they trust TechSmith. Now, they're left to change their entire system. Again.

Welcome to the land of the Free.


I've written other posts on the idea of free software. Check them out if you want more stories of great companies being run out of business.

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Hacking Together an Auto-Tweeting Spreadsheet

by Brian Bennett on 05/25/2016

A while back, I had looked at automating tweets from a Google spreadsheet to reduce the insane number of clicks it takes to do in TweetDeck and HootSuite (5 clicks? Really?) I hit some roadblocks and let it slide because in the long run, it wasn't really important to me. More of a fun experiment.

I jumped back into it a week or so back to try and solve the last little problems. I was able to create a script which loops through a spreadsheet checks the current date and whether or not the tweet has been sent. If those conditions are met (TODAY and NOT SENT), it will automatically post the tweet.

The sheet, like all the other Twitter sheets I've used, is run with Martin Hawksey's fantastic TwtrService library. It allows you to authenticate and tweet right from Google Apps Script and saves a ton of time.

I ran into a problem that is as-yet unsolved: I can't get the sheet to stop after posting one tweet. So, if you have multiple tweets on a given day, it will send all of them at once. That's not good, especially if you're promoting an event over a period of time. I've tried a number of solutions, but I can't seem to find one that works. I'd love to hear if you're able to take the source and tweak it to work.

In the meantime, Martin also took a (much more elegant) pass at the task. His sheet is also available and works really well. The goal is the same, but his mechanics and implementation are much more refined and effective.

It's a good example of multiple ways to skin a cat. I'm a novice coder (I tell people I know enough to break something) and he's an expert doing all kinds of things. The great thing is, all of this code is open and available. I can make a copy of Martin's page and dig into his solution. I learned a few tricks about checking for multiple conditions, which is what I was struggling with. I became better at scripting through my failure and his success.

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The Line Between High Expectations and Impossible Expectations

by Brian Bennett on 05/12/2016

I absolutely hate teaching bonding. The abstract nature of atoms, the minutiae of nomenclature, and the details of writing formulas bog students down and I struggle to meet their needs. So, we do POGILs, simulations, speed dating, labs, and drills. Lots of time is spent trying to correct patterns of work to meet the learning objectives.

This year, I just can't seem to meet those goals. I feel like I'm at my wits end and I'm just ready to move into something else for the plain sake of mixing it up a little bit.

I know it's not my fault entirely. I know I can rely on the multiple short assessments - formative and summative - that I've given over the last three weeks (almost) checking on progress. I know I've recovered and retaught major points of confusion.

I also know I can't force students to do something they're patently disinterested in doing.

Standards based grading is a double-edged sword in that regard. They've done plenty of work, but there is still a major lack of understanding of the main ideas, so I cannot report, through the grading system, that they've learned the objective. Ethically, I'm not willing to cross that line. At the same time, I question the level of expectation I've set up as students work to demonstrate what understanding they have. Am I expecting too much?

The line between high expectations and impossible expectations is thin. Trying to walk it is an exercise in rationalization and stubbornness.


The photo in this post is a Public Domain photo of a Penrose Triangle. It looks like it should exist, but in reality, is an impossible shape.

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