Monthly Archives: August 2013

Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

More RFP Looney Tunes, This Time from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Health Care Innovation Award Program

Having been a grant writer since before the flood, I should not be flummoxed by a hopelessly inept RFP. I wasn’t flummoxed by the recently completed Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Health Care Innovation (HCI) Awards Round Two process, but I was impressed by the sheer madness of it.

This Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA, which is CMS-speak for “RFP”) was exceptionally obtuse and convoluted. I should expect this from an agency that uses 140,000 treatment reimbursement codes, apparently including nine codes for injuries caused by turkeys.

The HCI FOA was 41 single-spaced pages, which is fairly svelte by federal standards—but, in addition to the usual requirements for an abstract, project narrative, budget and budget narrative, it also includes links to templates for a Financial Plan, Operational Plan, Actuarial Certification and—my personal favorite—the Executive Overview. The Financial Plan was a fiendishly complex Excel workbook, while the Operational Plan and Executive Overview were locked Word files.

Since the Word documents were locked, spell check and find/replace didn’t work in the text input boxes. Every change had to be made manually. Charmingly, the Operational Plan template had no place to insert the applicant’s name or contact info. So when the file is printed for review, which I’m sure it will be, and gets dropped on the floor with several other proposals, which is possible, there’ll be no way to tell which Operational Plan is which.

This could be a problem in an Operational Plan.

My vote for the most fabulously miss-titled form is the “Executive Overview.” Remember: a one-page abstract was also required, so an Executive Overview seemed redundant until I realized it was 13 single-spaced pages, with tons of inscrutable drop-down menus and fixed-length text input boxes. It seems that CMS is confused as to the meaning of “overview.”

The Executive Overview was really another project narrative, disguised as a form. If one double-spaced the Executive Overview, it would be about 26 pages long. Although the FOA nominally allowed a 50-page project narrative, the length of the project narrative was effectively much shorter because of convoluted instructions that required the project narrative file to include other documents. Our project narrative ended up at 35 double-spaced pages—not all that much longer than the so-called Executive Overview.

This FOA also included four “innovation categories” that were obtuse and mostly interchangeable. The FOA required that the selected innovation category be listed four times, once in the abstract, twice in the project narrative and again in the Overview. Since the categories were confusing at best, our client changed their selection a couple of times during the drafting process, which meant it had to be changed in four different places each time.

The grant request amount had the same problem, except that it is also included in the Financial Plan, budget narrative, cover letter and Actuarial Certification, as well as the abstract, project narrative, and Overview. So when the budget changed—which it inevitably did—each change had to occur in seven places to maintain internal consistency.

CMS, of course, never thought to link the various templates so that global changes could be made. But then again, why would they? After all, the authors of this FOA don’t write proposals and aren’t concerned with simplifying the process, which brings me back to the nine categories of turkey injury treatment. I wonder who keeps stats on turkey injuries. I would like to meet the GS-13 in charge of domestic fowl attacks at the Department of Agriculture.

Links: Cash Transfers, Bike Life, Car Costs, FQHCs, Save the Movie!, Homelessness, and More!

* Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash. This reminds me of the people I knew in high school and college who wanted to “volunteer” or “build houses” in some developing country over spring break; I would usually say something like, “I bet poor people would much rather have the thousands of dollars it takes to fly you there, house you, feed you, and secure you than they want you.” This did not make me popular but is still nonetheless a sentiment I stand by.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year. This and the above link demonstrate that one way to increase the real wealth of many low-income people might be to change the fabric of U.S. cities from one that favors cars to one that favors bikes.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most universities are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* “A Louisville Clinic Races to Adapt to the Health Care Overhaul,” yet the article fails to even mention FQHCs / Section 330 Providers. Another reporter who is clueless about how human services are actually delivered and the world of grants.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* The Best Hope for France’s Young? Get Out.

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* How government co-opted charities. Isaac has more or less been telling me this since I was knee-high to a HUD NOFA.

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

* “Hawaii buys homeless people one-way tickets out of town,” which reminds me of a favorite argument about affordable housing: there’s actually a lot of affordable housing in the U.S., it’s just unevenly distributed because most people who nominally care about affordable housing don’t really care about the underlying price structure or those who are priced out. One way to solve the affordable housing problem in places like New York and San Francisco is to buy houses in, say, Detroit, and move people there.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpected moving piece.

Is It Worth Your Time to Cozy Up to Program Officers and Bat Your Eyelashes? Maybe, But Only If It’s Nighttime, They’re Drunk, and You’re Beautiful

Many nonprofits think they should try hard to develop “relationships” with funders, particularly with foundations and, to a lesser extent, government agencies. In my experience, this practice is mostly a waste of time. Like an aging hooker at a honky-tonk bar, it could work, but it helps if it’s late at night, the lights are low, the guys are drunk and she’s the only more-or-less female in the bar.

Funders, and especially foundation program officers, may not be hip to too much, but they do recognize the cozy-up strategy. Let’s take the bar analogy above and flip it. Instead of a honky-tonk, we’re in a trendy cocktail lounge in downtown Santa Monica like Copa d’ Oro, the foundation program officer is a beautiful aspiring actress and your nonprofit is an average lounge lizard. Like the babe, the foundation program officer knows that wherever she goes, she’s going to attract lots of nonprofit suitors, all of whom think their pick-up lines are original and figure they’ll get to the promised land by being fawning and obsequious. Unfortunately, as the Bare Naked Ladies sang, it’s all been done before.

Foundation program officers have heard every pitch you can imagine and are probably immune to your many charms. This is not to say that an executive director or development director shouldn’t drop in to see the program officers at the larger foundations in your region, as well as show the flag at conferences and the like (free proposal phrase here—we like “and the like” better than etc.). Let them know you exist. They want you to kiss their ring, or more likely their probably ample rear end, and that’s fine too. If you were passing out bags of gold coins to supplicants, you’d want obeisance too, and you’d get it.

Program officers are special and, with rare exceptions, your nonprofit is not special. Get used to this dynamic. As we’re fond of saying, “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Like the actress in the cocktail lounge, the foundation has something lots of folk want. It’s just a question of application and negotiation, so to speak, in both cases. Rather than chatting up the program officer, we think it’s more important to try your best to understand the foundation’s funding priorities, follow their guidelines scrupulously and submit a technically correct and compelling proposal. This will get the program officer hot—not trying to ply them with metaphorical $15 cocktails.

But remember that the larger foundations will have so-called “program officers” who are actually just flacks—they don’t make decisions, but they do interact with the public. If you call foundation flacks, they’ll just say, “We can’t say anymore than what our guidelines say on the website. You have an interesting idea, and we look forward to evaluating your proposal.”

Government program officers are a different story and are often more susceptible to sweet nothings being whispered in their ears. At the federal level, most program officers at HUD, DOL and the rest of the agencies toil in crummy conditions in DC. Anyone who has ever visited such offices will remember the ancient computers, mismatched steel furniture and, most importantly, stacks of old proposals, reports and other detritus that has washed into their cubicles. Nothing seems to get tossed.

Federal program officers are more or less like your crazy Uncle Joe, living in the basement that no one ever visits. Uncle Joe is only allowed upstairs at Christmas and on his birthday. It’s a big deal when a live would-be applicant shows up to discuss YouthBuild, Mentoring Children of Prisoners, or whatever. If your agency targets specific federal programs, it’s not a bad idea to visit DC and make the rounds. Bringing a dozen donuts or offering lunch might not hurt. Just don’t visit in August. Anybody who can—including Congress—leaves DC in August, when the malarial mists gather in the heat and humidity. Remember the District was originally a swamp and many would say, remains so, at least from policy and political perspectives.

It’s also a good idea to touch base with state and city/county program officers of favored programs from time to time. As one moves down the food chain in government programs, program officers are more susceptible to politics and politicians, so one should be careful about influence peddling. If you really want to use your political muscle—assuming your agency has any, which most don’t—this is best done by lobbyists or perhaps an influential board member, who understands the political situation. Such influence is rarely peddled in a face-to-face with a program officer. Instead, it takes place on golf courses, dimly lit restaurants and the office of the governor/state representative/councilperson/Commissioner of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.