Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cargo Cult Education

Australia has just elected a new Labor government; the new leader, Kevin Rudd, in most respects appears to be a distinct improvement on his predecessor, Liberal (= conservative in Australia) prime minister John Howard.

One area where I am not convinced is Rudd's obsession with putting technology in the classroom.

Somewhere in the various newspaper articles about the Rudd transition, I saw the phrase "evidence-based".

I am curious what sort of evidence is behind the drive to put a computer on every high school desk. A computer is only a tool, not some kind of magic. I have seen plenty of evidence that dumping computers into a situation without a definite plan for their use is a waste. Consider for example the article in the New York Times (4 May 2007), "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops". This article reports on wide experience with excessive computers in the classroom getting in the way of learning – as well as bad experiences with the high cost of maintaining the computers.

All of this is quite predictable. Any organization in which technology is introduced with no strategy, and no plans for long-term costs like maintenance and support, is bound to run into trouble.

On a recent trip to Denmark, I put these views to academics, and they agreed with me. Since computers have become common in schools there, mathematics scores have declined, and the perceptions that computers are boys' toys has dramatically reduced the fraction of female students studying computer science. This specific evidence is anecdotal, but the fact that it is repeated in multiple parts of the world lends it some credibility.

What kind of evidence, in any case, is there to support putting computers in classrooms? I've been publishing in computer science education for 20 years, and have yet to find a convincing study showing that computers transform learning positively – outside of very specific contexts, with carefully planned use.

The notion that putting technology into classrooms will somehow magically transform learning is nothing more than cargo cultism.

The one variable which most consistently affects educational performance is the teacher. If the Rudd government is serious about transforming education, it should be looking at scarcity pay in areas like maths and science – a far better investment.

Postscript: A report (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS) showing that England has top or near-top scores on two fronts is interesting reading. On the one front, computer gaming, 37% of English school kids play computer games for 3 or more hours a day (22% of these reportedly play games for 5 hours or more). The other? The biggest drop in reading skills between 2001 and 2006 in any developed country included in the report...

This bit is worth quoting:
There is a negative association between the amount of time spent reading stories and articles on the internet and reading achievement in most countries. The data ... suggests that 9–10 year-olds were considerably more likely to use computers for playing games than for reading on the internet and that spending three or more hours doing either was associated with lower reading attainment.

So there you have it: not only is spending time on the net not good for reading skills, but kids in any case prefer to play games. Will this be any different in Australia? Time will tell. But we have a proud tradition to uphold: waiting for the rest of the world to try something, then copying the mistakes ...

Monday, 26 November 2007

Odense, Denmark

Trust the Danes to come up with an innovative solution to global warming and obesity: slap a 180% tax on cars, so everyone has to ride bikes instead of driving everywhere.

I'm in Odense, the third-largest city in Denmark, birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and a nice compact city to explore on foot (if you can avoid being run down by bicycles). November is not the best time to be here – grey skies, the constant threat of rain and coolish temperatures. But it's not as cold as I'd expected. Odense is on an island close to the Gulf Stream, which warms it considerably compared with similar latitudes in North America.

Why would you want to visit here in winter? For one thing, you don't exactly have to fight off hoards of tourists. For another, you can also observe first-hand another Danish innovative solution to an Australian problem: skin cancer. They don't have a sun here. At least, I don't think so. I didn't see one. And since it only gets light around 8am, and starts to get dark just when the day is getting into its stride at about 4pm, I'm not totally convinced there's actually a sun up there beyond the clouds.

Danish innovation aside, what's to do in Odense? Eat, for a start. Having invented a cure for obesity, the Danes put it to the test by having some of the best food on the planet on offer. Forget stodgy creations with a plonk of sugary slime on top labelled as a "Danish" in the Anglo-Saxon world. Danes have mastered the art of pastries. Then there's cheese – not only the local varieties, but also a huge range from the rest of the world. There are two markets, each run twice a week, where you can buy such delicacies, as well as local and imported produce. Not only that, there's another benefit to the Danes' disdain of the car: shopping is not dominated by malls. You can wander the city streets with a wide variety of shops in various shapes and sizes. Speciality shoe shops, cheese shops, an impressive selection of wine shops (covering the range from everything European, through South African, Australian and South American) … and did I mention? … you need to keep watching for bicycles.

The Danes have a funny attitude to personal safety: helmets are not compulsory for riding bikes. The theory goes, biking is healthier than not exercising. If some people may be put off riding by wearing a helmet, they will be less healthy. This is more of an impact on society than the odd person getting brain damaged. But they are proud of their cycle-friendly streets: there's even a counter near the centre of Odense, showing how many bikes pass that point.

I shrug off this piece of local knowledge and walk. The city centre has several cobbled streets; recreations of the old style, not ancient. Buildings have a charming variance – other than row houses, there is very little repetition. Bright colours distinguish units in row houses, breaking the little monotony there is. Every now and then, there's a giant arch in a building, leading to a courtyard, square or even a fresh group of roads. There are little surprises around each corner.

For the keen tourist there are sights not to be missed: Hans Christian Anderson's house (sorry the picture's a bit grainy: the low light defeated my camera), the museum dedicated to the famous story teller, monumental churches, concerts, the fairytale old buildings … but for me the most fun aspect of Odense is being able to stroll around in a place so exotic compared with any I've lived in, yet one which makes strangers feel totally at home.

Some practicalities … the written language looks reasonably easy if you know another Germanic language but if you are only visiting for a few days and have thoughts of working up a conversational vocabulary, forget it. Like English, Danish has a maddening tendency to break its phonetics rules at random: syllables disappear in the transition for written to spoken, with no obvious rules. Most Danes speak passable to excellent English; the worst I encounter is having to use gestures to work out how to pay in a supermarket. Go to a bookstore and you will find out why: many of the titles are in English. Denmark is a small country, and there's a limit to how much original literature and translated literature is available. So Danes make do with English.

Denmark, along with the UK, did not adopt the euro. An Australian dollar buys you about 4.5 krone. Divide prices by 5 and you won't be far off. Most things are more expensive than in Australia by virtue of high taxes (not just on cars – 25% VAT for example).

If your budget is tight, get a hotel which includes breakfast, and eat out for lunch when menus are cheaper. Ubiquitous Maccas aside, I didn't encounter any bad food in Odense – so be prepared to try the less flash looking restaurants. For example: Mama's Pizzeria, totally unpretentious looking, has really great pasta. I had panzerotti filled with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts. Incredible. I'll have to make it at home.

Getting there … There's an airport in Odense, but train connections from Copenhagen are easy, with a round-trip ticket starting from 458 krone (with an option of another 20 krone each way if you want to reserve a seat). The fastest train takes under an hour and a half.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Time to stop denying denial?

According to this article on the BBC web site, an open invitation to submit evidence of bias against climate change doubters' research revealed almost nothing.

The opposite case is also interesting to contemplate – that there's a natural bias in favour of contrarians, even if they have nothing to offer.

If climate scientists are successful in making the case that the problem is really, really serious, the obvious next step is not more funding for climate science, it's more funding for alternative energy. By making the case as strongly as possible, rather than making it easier for them to earn grants, they are making the case that funding should shift to an area in which they have no competence.

On the other hand, who does benefit from stringing the debate out? The deniers, especially those whose work isn't very good. A fair number of papers and even books have been published because of the mindset of being "fair", allowing a contrary position space, and so on – which shouldn't have been published on their merits ... Soon's work on solar effects using bogus data, Lomborg's ("I taught a class in statistics for social scientists so I'm a statistician") books misusing references on a grand scale, for example).

And of course there is a fair element of being in denial on the possibility that the science is right, hence the backing by normally careful editors of the Economist and Wall Street Journal of contrarian positions with little or no substance.

Bias? I would say it is on the side of denial, not on the side of the mainstream.