Category Archives: Education

‘Innovative’ K-12 tests always around the corner

In a workplace or higher education world of advanced test questions that approach full simulations, why are so many K-12 school tests so, well, Scantron? Blame time, money and appropriateness.

Over at EdSurge, I examine the reasons why what had been called “innovative test items” (now, over time, being re-phrased to “technology-enhanced items”) are the types of questions we don’t routinely see on tests in K-12 classrooms. Bubble sheets still rule, and it’s not because there aren’t alternatives, even established ones.


One especially fascinating workshop session at the Association of Test Publishers’ Innovations in Testing conference in early March examined six now-common categories of technology-enhanced questions — hot spot, video, short answer, drag and drop, audio and multiple response (which a presenter noted were sometimes incorrectly, and amusingly, called ‘multiple multiple choice’).

One of the two session speakers, Cynthia Parshall of CBT Measurement , said test taker unfamiliarity with new test question types and their potentially complex interfaces was slowly being eroded by consumer technology. “The whole world of Swyping is making drag and drops more intuitive,” Parshall noted.

That said, going beyond simple text-based multiple choice (which assessment professionals call “selected response,” as opposed to “constructed response,” the latter in which the test taker has to build or create a correct answer without choosing from a list of options) has its own challenges. For example, Parshall cited quality assurance when sound is involved: “For one item, the stem (written question introduction) referred to a ‘he,’ and the audio was a female voice.” The learning curve with new kinds of technologies for test questions goes beyond the test taker.

The lack of advanced test question types in K-12, however, is likely to start changing with the introduction of the online-only student assessments from the two Common Core assessment consortia. But the obstacles to widespread adoption in K-12 are pretty steep.

Read, “‘Innovative’ K-12 Tests: Almost Always Just Around the Corner,” at EdSurge.

Startup marketing dos and don’ts

There’s a fine line in technology startups between learning from what others have done and being constrained by it.

It’s a line I try to walk in mentoring entrepreneurs in various venues (from Startup Weekend event roles to sitting on the Advisory Board for the inaugural SXSW V2V). Recently, I’ve taken part in two free webinars from the Education Division of the Software and Information Industry Association aimed at helping edtech startups navigate the odd and weird waters of the education marketplace.

And they are now posted for anyone to view.

The kickoff Ed Market 101 webinar, “Is Your Product Ready for the School Market?” covered some of the basics of making sure a startup was prepared to enter the market, and common obstacles easily overlooked by entrepreneurs more used to the somewhat more rational consumer or enterprise markets.

A subsequent Ed Market 101 webinar, “How to Spend Marketing Dollars (If You Have Any)” covered one of my favorite topics: long-fuse effective awareness and important sales support tactics in education technology, and the awful and persistent money pits.

Even established pros may find them useful refreshers on the current state of the art and science.

Privacy, digital disconnects at EdNET 2013

Education industry execs say the darndest things. And at EdNET 2013 in Denver, one of the major education industry conferences, that remained the case.

Over at EdSurge, I pull together the common threads from the 25th annual EdNET in the areas of privacy issues and digital disconnects (and toss in a few “heard and overheard” quotes).

What I didn’t include is the wide range of predictions and observations in the closing View from the Catbird Seat session, which featured long-time, knowledgeable session leaders Anne Wujcik and Nelson Heller, accompanied for the second year by a relative newcomer.

The Catbird session started with us being asked to describe the biggest successes of the past 25 years (I chose NetDay‘s wiring of classrooms for the Internet and the double-edged sword of “edtech” going mainstream), biggest disappointments, then go in depth on a trend with a brief presentation, and end with our predictions for the future of education (mine with a nod to my recent GeekWire column on the unexpected — at the time — runaway success of the first graphical web browser).

Tweets tell the tale. Starting with the disappointment.






For the rest of the EdNET themes, read “EdNET 2013: Privacy Goes Very Public,” at EdSurge.

A week of Frank quotes

Sometimes, your words wind up in others’ stories. And wind up telling the story better than you could have directly.

That’s been the case in the past week when I’ve seen thoughts I’ve shared on everything from science-fiction technology to education technology appear under the bylines of others. (And yes. It’s all the same Frank Catalano. I just haven’t made a big deal about my science-fiction writing to those who know me for education and other technology, as EdSurge perceptively observed.)

Edtech is at one end of the spectrum. Jennifer Chang, in Success Magazine, provided an overview of areas of entrepreneurial involvement currently under discussion and debate. I pointed out that there isn’t just one kind of education technology, but at least three: the digital curriculum materials and devices that students see, testing and assessment software teachers use, and the stuff students never see.

“The third bucket tends to be ignored a lot, but the third bucket is things like student information and data or portals for parents to look at grades,” explains longtime industry strategist and analyst Frank Catalano. “All three of those buckets are important, but when people think about technology in classrooms, they tend to think of stuff that generally faces the student, not the stuff that teachers use in lesson planning or that administrators use to run the school.”

There’s also the matter of people being really awful at predicting how unfamiliar tech can change lives, as was shown years ago when focus groups hated the idea of automated teller machines.

“ATMs transformed how we think about banking in ways that nobody could foresee at the time they were introduced. Technology could do the same thing for education with the right emphasis put in the right places,” Catalano explains.

And I come out in favor of making sure startups know enough about education — but not too much, so that knowledge can be used as the basis for true innovation.

“It’s important to talk to teachers and talk to students, but don’t let it completely constrict your thinking,” he warns. “If the music industry knew exactly what it [needed] and music consumers really knew exactly what they wanted, they would’ve been the ones who created iTunes. And they didn’t. It took somebody from the outside, who didn’t come from the industry but knew enough about it and was informed by the people in it and the customers to do something transformative. To me, that kind of plays against the concept that only teachers or education administrators can come up with good ideas. That’s not true. They have important input. But sometimes to do transformative thinking, you need somebody from the outside who can sort of internalize the issues from a new perspective.”

At the other end of the spectrum? USA Today, where Jon Swartz did a well-researched and fun piece, “Today’s technology lives in sci-fi films of yesteryear.” Think Google Glass, drones and all that. My take:

“The best predictive movies are based on well-thought-out books or short fiction by some of the best minds of speculative fiction,” says science-fiction writer Frank Catalano, pointing to Philip K. Dick (whose stories inspired Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and The Adjustment Bureau) and Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

More recent tech came up when I took part in the GeekWire Radio podcast, verbally reviewing Google Chromecast (in advance of my GeekWire column on the streaming video device for televisions).

And Getting Smart, an edtech blog, cited a white paper I’d written and quoted me a bit more in discussing digital Open Badges and how these smart web images, with embedded data, might fit into the future of professional credentials in, “Mozilla Open Badges to Show Career Readiness.”

It was an unusually busy week. To be Frank.

Bill Gates, data and education’s future

A not-so-quiet giant, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a force in education reform and education technology. So Bill Gates’ closing keynote was closely watched at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, an event focused on education and technology.

Though it had some new observations, as I write in my GeekWire column, the keynote broke no new ground. What was most interesting is that it provided a lens through which to view both Gates’ efforts and a core SXSWedu trend: the growing importance of education data.

SXSWedulogoGates spoke as the better-known SXSW (“south-by-southwest,” for the uninitiated) conferences on the interactive, film and music industries were about to begin, with shrink wrap freshly applied to lamp posts and bus shelters to prevent damage from the coming posters, paint and — as locals matter-of-factly informed me — urine.

A couple of interesting tidbits about Gates’ talk that I didn’t capture in my GeekWire piece:

  • Gates received an unusual standing ovation from sections of the packed ballroom — but it came after he was introduced by SXSWedu’s Ron Reed as “an Edison of our age” and took the stage. Three was no equivalent ovation as he left.
  • Gates took no questions after the keynote. This, too, was unusual for a SXSWedu speaker. Even former Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, who keynoted last year, took a number of questions. And Pearson arguably is as controversial in education as the Gates Foundation.

For a more general overview of SXSWedu and the role of data in education, listen to the GeekWire Radio podcast as I co-host with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and feature guest Chancellor Jean Floten of WGU-Washington. WGU is the fully online, accredited Western Governors University and a pioneer in web higher education. Floten provides a good perspective.

Finally, a caveat. That Reuters story about SXSWedu and data? While I’m quoted in it, my quote actually had nothing to do with the main thrust of the piece, the Gates-funded student data initiative inBloom. The reporter and I didn’t discuss inBloom but we did talk about the overheated space of technology startups in education, and my comment wound up where it did when the story was edited. Still, in a general startup context, that quote is worth repeating here:

“The hype in the tech press is that education is an engineering problem that can be fixed by technology,” said Frank Catalano of Intrinsic Strategy, a consulting firm focused on education and technology. “To my mind, that’s a very naive and destructive view.”

With that as a caution in light of the very real positive potential of education data and technology, read my column, “Bill Gates at SXSWedu: the future of education is data,” at GeekWire.

Edtech opportunities — and obstacles

Understanding the various forces that are buffeting (I will not use the word “disrupting”) K-12 education is challenging even for those of us who work inside the industry.

Common Core learning standards. One-to-one computing, tablet and Bring Your Own Technology initiatives. Adaptive and personalized learning enabled by tech. Open Educational Resources for digital “chunked” content that can be mixed, modified and shared. And many foundations and education reform organizations stirring the pot.

For the MIT Enterprise Forum in Seattle, I moderated the panel discussion “Obstacles and Opportunities for Entrepreneurs in Education” for its November program. It was a PowerPoint-free 90 minutes with DreamBox Learning CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, McGraw-Hill Education Center for Digital Innovation Senior Vice President Randy Reina, and Startup Weekend Seattle EDU organizer and the Evergreen School teacher Lindsey Own.

We considered, debated and batted about all of the above topics, with a focus on technology and what entrepreneurs both outside and within the education community need to know.

The video of the full panel has been posted on YouTube (thanks to Puget Sound Video’s professional recording):

Among the highlights: what entrepreneurs need to minimize risk, and the role of foundations. It’s worth watching if you’re only peripherally familiar with the issues and what’s already being done — or simply want a deeper understanding.

The edtech “bubble” bounces along

I appear to have struck either a chord or a nerve in my latest GeekWire column expressing concern about a potential entrepreneur-attention-investment “bubble” in education technology (Here comes another tech bubble — in education, GeekWire, Oct 23, 2012).MrBubble

A week later, it’s been either directly referenced or redirected (but not, actually, refuted) by four other education technology or tech sites. A quick rundown, if you want to follow the evolving commentary:

Education investor and venture capitalist Fred Wilson was the first to face the “bubble” hypothesis during the massively open online course, Ed Startup 101. While he wouldn’t take a position on the bubble question, he did offer, ““Investors think there’s a lot of money to be made at the intersection of education and technology. … This will turn out to be a hyper-competitive market.” (Fred Wilson on ed tech: four takeaways for educators and entrepreneurs, GigaOM, Oct 24, 2012)

A more direct response came from Lauren Landry at BostInno which, after describing me as a “hipster” (an appellation that caused great amusement to those who know me), went on Continue reading The edtech “bubble” bounces along

Surviving Startup Weekend EDU

I’m used to thinking like an entrepreneur — I own my own business, I’ve advised or been part of tech startups and even as a teen I published a bi-weekly science-fiction newsletter that was sold through local retailers.

So I was excited to take part as a newbie mentor at Startup Weekend Seattle EDU recently, one of the very first Startup Weekend events to be focused on education technology. Which, of course, is a large part of my day job.

I’ve chronicled my observation-based tips for budding edtech entrepreneurs in a column for GeekWire, “Survival tips for Startup Weekend EDU.”

While the 54-hour marathon — from pitching to building to presenting a startup — is the heart of the Startup Weekend experience, the brain is partly provided by the speakers. And Seattle EDU organizer TeachStreet assembled a stellar bunch: venture capital’s Vinod Khosla, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, Maveron’s Jason Stoffer and tech industry luminary and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor. A few pithy quotes that didn’t make it into my GeekWire essay: Continue reading Surviving Startup Weekend EDU

Three drivers of the digital classroom

Digital K-12 education is finally coming into its own.

This simple statement may evoke disbelieving cries of “What – again?” Those of us who have been around the Lego block a few times recall similar statements during the boom-bust cycles of packaged personal-computer software, multimedia CD-ROM, and dot-com, bringing to mind pioneering names like Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Knowledge Adventure.

NIE_1905_Slide_ruleThe assumption during each cycle was that consumer trends in personal computing were so compelling that they would force their way into K-12 classrooms. The reality was that consumer tech was a much less irresistible force than the classroom was an immovable object – immovable, in that it had been largely unchanged since the ’50s. And I don’t mean the 1950s.

Two developments may make this decade the charm: consumer-level expectations about technology among educators and their influencers, which set the stage; and three rapidly evolving digital trends that are unique to education. Continue reading Three drivers of the digital classroom

Science destroying my childhood: the video

Remember Pluto? The brontosaurus? Starfish? If so, the accuracy of your childhood science memories are now, well, wrong. According to science itself.

O’Reilly has kindly posted my Ignite talk on the subject from Ignite Seattle 11. For those unfamiliar with the Ignite format, each speaker gets five minutes and 20 slides – the slides auto-advance every 15 seconds, and the speaker is not allowed notes on stage. It’s a wonderful, terrifying event.

Here’s the talk, How Science Is Destroying My Childhood. Judge for yourself:

And if you’re tempted to try your own Ignite talk, read my tips for success. Or, at least, not abject failure.