The online Global Education Conference began on Monday, September 17. Please join in throughout the week.
In the last 15–20 years, Sweden has suffered a downturn in several important aspects of the elementary and secondary education system. To begin to illustrate the state of Sweden’s schools, we can make a comparison with the heavily criticized American education system. It is a common and understandable belief, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that Swedish schools compare favorably with American schools in terms of educational outcomes. But the weakest American students in 8th grade performed significantly better than the weakest Swedish 8th graders in the TIMSS Mathematics assessment in 2011, one of the international comparative tests that have existed since the 1990s. In the latest cycle of the TIMSS Mathematics assessment, conducted in 2015, the weakest U.S. and Swedish students performed identically, but American students outperformed Swedish students in all other percentiles.
In contrast, Swedish students outperformed their U.S. peers across the entire distribution in 1995. A similar negative development can be observed in Swedish students’ performance in the PISA. Swedish 9th graders performed above the international average in the first cycle of PISA in 2000, but then Sweden’s results steadily deteriorated in each of the three PISA core areas—reading, mathematics, and science—until a low point was reached in 2012. Another PISA assessment conducted in 2012 revealed shortcomings in creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, and perseverance, and ranked Sweden 20th out of 28 countries. The findings in the TIMSS and PISA assessments suggest that there has been a significant decline in knowledge among Swedish students in recent years.
Yet the average merit rating (based on grades) in the final year of Sweden’s elementary schools has markedly improved since the late 1990s, which is highly suspicious. Indeed, the disconnect between international assessments of Swedish students’ performance and their grades is compelling evidence of rampant grade inflation in Swedish elementary schools, and the same problem is showing in secondary education as well.
Furthermore, Sweden has one of the highest levels of absenteeism and late arrivals in the OECD. Depression and anxiety among children aged 10–17 also increased by more than 100 percent from 2006 to 2016. According to Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, the reasons for this dramatic increase are most likely linked to schooling and the transition from school to adult life. Similarly, physicians have suggested that the soaring prescriptions for ADHD drugs in Sweden, where as many as nine percent of boys are medicated for ADHD in some counties, are related to factors within the school system.
Finally, there is a kind of malaise in the teaching profession. There is an acute shortage of teachers, mainly caused by a high dropout rate among students in education degree programs. A further crisis component is the selection of applicants. Today, only five percent of teachers deem their profession prestigious, and barely half of them would choose the same occupation again. This fall in teaching’s status is reflected in the sizable share of applicants with low grades from secondary school and who grew up in homes with less cultural capital. Moreover, teachers are one of the least satisfied groups in the Swedish labor market, even though teachers’ relative wages have increased sharply in recent years. A recent study showed that four out of ten active teachers are considering leaving the profession.
What on earth is going on
(Excerpted from “Post-Truth” Schooling and Marketized Education: Explaining the Decline in Sweden’s School Quality)
Is the public library obsolete?
A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.
Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $10 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.
But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”
Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.
Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.
I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.
For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.
For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.
In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another
To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or McDonald’s. These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.
Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong. The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places. They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. But you rarely see a police officer in a library.
This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene. During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! — those who most need help. What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.
The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.
Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.
This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support. The author, an economist, suggested that Amazon replace libraries with its own retail outlets, and claimed that most Americans would prefer a free-market option. The public response — from librarians especially, but also public officials and ordinary citizens — was so overwhelmingly negative that Forbes deleted the article from its website.
We should take heed. Today, as cities and suburbs continue to reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it’s important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. It’s worth noting that “liber,” the Latin root of the word “library,” means both “book” and “free.” Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.
If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need. (NY Times, 8/9/18)
On Monday, I posted a blog about one NY Times’ writer’s decision to stop “Tweeting” and spend time on other pursuits. Perhaps she would like to take up a new hobby? That seems to have been the solution for many other who have now found that the Internet can be a place to learn new skills by connecting with other “hobbyists.” Pottery, painting, cooking, you name it!
While much of this is not new, the way the Internet can help steer us toward something useful bears mentioning in the name of growing digital skepticism (see Monday’s blog). It is a reminder that the Internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole. There may only be a small number of potters in any given city, but online there is a whole ceramics metropolis willing to help.
Art, for example, is an empowering thing. Most people think they can’t do it, and when they realize they can, it’s amazing – it opens up a whole new world, and that world doesn’t really have time for a lot of “fighting and fussing.”
“Have laptop, will travel,” could be an alternative title for this blog, but I am getting a little tired of all this alternative wordsmithing. Aren’t you? What’s in a name after all. But when you put “digital” with “wanderlust” I do get a little concerned and confused. Carrying your laptop to a foreign destination does not quite have the same connotation or actual experience of “living” in a foreign land. These digital nomads typically travel to and work in another culture for a 30-day co-working experience. So it truly becomes a shared work experience for a small group of like-minded technological-savy individuals coming from a wide variety of countries, averaging in age from the mid- to late 20s and 30s.
The two main groups that seem attracted to this cross-cultural experience are millenials interested in taking time off from traditional work and aging baby-boomers who have financial resources and flexibility. Could be a life-changing experience, but I am not sure that having all the latest technology will make it so. In fact, it might get in the way. As one of the past participants noted: “The opportunity to go live in a foreign city for a month and interact with the local people and experience their culture – that’s priceless to me. But culturally, we need to understand each other for the world to work, and this is a way to achieve that.”
Understanding each others’ cultures may not always be a simple, painless process. But in the end, I think these digital nomads will easily benefit more in terms of what they learn and experience in these cultures than in what they may have contributed technologically.
Maybe technology can really help us all stay connected in the “time of Trump” wherever we are. I guess we are all stil free to travel whenever and wherever we want, but I am not really that sure anymore? Luckily we now have video “portals” that allow us to keep in touch with relatives, possibly refugees, who may be stranded in some country that our “so-called” president has now decided is inhabited by terrorists who are intent on infiltrating the heartland of America. Can someone really give this current White House occupant a more reasoned and experienced view of who are real foreign enemies might be. Russia somehow comes to mind.
Thanks to these video portals, American immigrants from majority Muslim countries (not sure of the exact number now since it seems to vary on Trump’s whims on a given day) now have an opportunity to share their thoughts and stories about their lives in these times. If they don’t, that’s okay too. I can remember a time when a newly-formed NGO, Global Nomads, just before the Iraqi War, conducted a similar type of video exchange between American and Iraqi teenagers. It all seemed so hopeful at that time, and then the bombs fell. Global Nomads is still pursuing such video portal exchanges around the world, http://www.gng.org
But even the mundane commonalities and awkward exchanges resonate: there is the sudden proximity to a person who might share your favorite soccer team, who likes to hang out at coffee shops and scroll through Facebook – even if they happen to live in a sprawling, dust-covered refugee camp where they share a single tent with several family members.
Don’t retreat into video games and computer screens: engage in social activism and politics to create a more just world. This is not your usual encyclical message from the world leader of Catholicism, but this is not your typical pope. “Dear young people, we didn’t come into this world to vegetate, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: To leave a mark.” Pope Francis decried a modern escapism into consumerism and computers that isolate people. In many ways I believe this has become an unintended consequence of technology’s power to connect us with the rest of the world. It also empowers us to escape into a more self-centered existence.
Francis’ call challenges Christians to be more courageous, to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes, and to set out on new and unchartered paths. Leave your comfort zones and tend to the needy of the world was also a major part of the pope’s appeal. I believe that technology is also a tool that can help us reach out to the needy of the world. This may not have been part of the Pope’s message that day, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind this interpretation. You can go online to find an organization that may be of interest to you in meeting the Pope’s challenge. Have a look at the many social action websites listed on charity.org.
Please also keep those walking shoes handy. Maybe you will also be inspired to set out on new and unchartered paths.
Just wanted to keep you posted on the daily celebrations here in Vietnam. This is all new to me as well, but I would like to share with you a little bit about what I am learning. Let’s start off with the national holidays which you probably didn’t know about before. Today is Ho Chi Minh’s 126th birthday. Well, he is not really around to celebrate with us, as you know, but there are special exhibits and performances throughout Vietnam especially in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). If you are so inclined, you can refer to him as “Uncle Ho.”
Yesterday was Buddha’s birthday. Like Ho Chi Minh, he is not around to celebrate with us either, having died 2,560 years ago. Buddhists are still very much a minority in Vietnam, but they are being encouraged by their Supreme Patriarch here to make more contributions to national construction and defense, environmental protection and climate change efforts. I am not really sure how you can improve your contributions in these areas. I am just reporting on what I read in the papers here FYI.
Now for some technology news. May 18th is also Vietnam’s Science and Technology Day. I don’t think there are any planned national celebrations related to the implementation of educational technology in the schools, but if I hear of anything else, I will pass that information along as well. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.
I am not really that sure how to comment on what this all means (and I apologize for the lateness of this blog on a M0nday night in the U.S.). But I am fascinated about the concept of having child White House Science Advisors, particularly since the one recommended by President Obama was fortunate enough to have an iPad in his hands as a toddler. As an adolescent, he has now been successful in making toys and miniatures on his 3-D printer.
What’s not to like about all this? Mostly, there is a lot to like, and this story should be an inspiration to us all. But why do STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) success in the early academic grades warrant a presumption of better preparation for livelihood in the twenty-first century? Some might say that we are limiting our children’s futures with such early predeterminations. And as a parent in the end of the last century and now a grandparent in the current one, I continue to believe that all of our current school-age students will probably need some facility in STEM subjects, and many others as well. I think the real challenge is to prepare these students to be much broader and curious learners. The world is changing much too quickly.
Our children need to feel that they contribute in many varied and meaningful ways. STEM subjects may be the routes for many bright students, but there are also many other avenues for future learning and success in this century.
Cargo shipping containers are being converted for use as “spaces” to connect individuals internationally. You have probably seen these containers stacked at any large port across the U.S., and perhaps most prominently at major harbors on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. When equipped with internet connectivity, the container “space” also seems to provide an atmosphere which is uniquely suited for very personal one-to-one conversations about topics that are of common interest. The only prescribed script is a simple prompt of “What would make a good day for you?” Each session lasts twenty minutes.
While university campuses may be home to many of these portals around the world, the very nature of the containers’ mobility make it very versatile in reaching out to different communities. Some have permanent locations, while others are exclusively mobile. Full body images are projected on a giant screen which seems to create a more personal experience. At the College Park location, individuals there were connected with others in Afghanistan, Mexico and Honduras. Some of the other permanent locations include Cuba, Iran, and San Francisco.
The container portals are the brain child of Amar Bakshi, a former foreign correspondent. Ironically, Bakshi found that the most informative exchanges over the course of his reporting years were the times when he turned off his camera, his cell phone was dead, and he would talk to the person sitting next to him on a bus. He felt that these conversations were very honest and expansive because “we weren’t concerned that what we said would get back to our mothers or bosses.” Maybe that’s also what happens when you’re talking to someone inside a shipping container in another part of the world?
Monday will be Memorial Day in the U.S., and we are all reminded to take time to remember those who are no longer with us, and perhaps spend more time with those who are the most important in our daily lives. Perhaps the title of this blog deserves some explanation in this respect. “TechtoExpress” is not only intended to reflect an “express” mode in the rapidity of our dealings with others. It surely has that capacity in terms of how quickly we can communicate on any topic with anyone in the world. Technology also empowers us with many more tools to “express” our thoughts and emotions using new powerful digital tools. More expressive opportunities are now available for more people, who may become the new “artists” of a new century.
Happily we can also now connect with family and friends even when we are not able to be with them personally. Such tools as FaceTime and Skype enable us to do that in real time. So let’s always remember those we love and those who loved us and now live in our memories. And be grateful for the technology that enriches our daily lives so that we can “be” with those we love in so many ways.
Many worry that technology is rapidly accelerating our loves so that we have less time to spend with our closest friends and family members. I don’t think it has to be that way. Do you?
Happy Memorial Day Weekend!
I know I posted earlier this week about MOOCs and online courses at Arizona State University, and I am going to comment on higher education again and one university’s initiative on global learning. There is clearly a difference in this school’s approach to enrich their curricula and expand students and faculty’s ability to collaborate and learn globally. In this case, Missouri S&T appears committed to developing a longer term strategic plan that combines distance and online course delivery rather than offering online courses as simply alternatives to on-campus attendance. They have also instituted an award system for faculty whom excel in teaching online.
For the past academic year, nearly two dozen faculty received Teaching Excellence awards for either outstanding or superior (commendations) performance. I think this is a clear and powerful message from the university’s leadership that they are committed to expanding their global reach through their online and distance learning capabilities.
This is a great paradigm for learning in the 21st Century. Using the power of technology in the service of greater global knowledge and partnership.