My friend Joe Thibault recently emailed me about a new site he has started with Sean Behan (a crackerjack Ruby programmer). Their site, called PostLearn, is essentially an affiliate job board for education. While I wish them success in their endeavor, I won’t be joining as I believe this model suffers from a couple of major flaws.

PostLearn affiliate graph

Right: Graph of PostLearn affiliate traffic, lead by freetech4teachers.

The greatest flaw is immediately visible from the affiliate graph: one site drives a vastly disproportionate amount of the traffic; Free Technology for Teachers alone accounts for over 90% of the traffic, and consequently will receive far more affiliate revenue. Except it will probably receive all of the revenue. In an affiliate model, there is a certain base amount of traffic required before you can get a single sale, a minimum that I doubt many of the others on the long tail (including yours truly) would reach. Effectively, the entire pot of affiliate money is controlled by a tiny oligarchy of sites.

This would be acceptable (it’s a free market, after all) were it not for the fundamental flaws in the Internet economy. This flawed economy is controlled by a small oligarchy of noisemakers. This oligarchy isn’t particularly hard to enter: just abandon journalistic ethics and post lists of the top n ways to write lists.1 Boom! Traffic.

Unsurprisingly, just as in the larger Internet, the most popular PostLearn affiliate simply rehashes merit-less news stories and tips.2 Looking down the page, lo and behold, we find a list of the aforementioned variety. Sadly, this content is rewarded far more generously than potentially more deserving comment.

Google AdSense grants us some slight freedom from this paradigm by democratizing advertising. Though the most trafficked sites still receive the vast majority of the revenue, smaller sites do share in some of the revenue, potentially enough to offset minimal publishing expenses. In this way, Google AdSense resembles most modern democracies: while the elite still maintain most of the power, the little guy does get a small voice. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than an oligarchy of the unthinking elite.

Fusion Ads

Above: The exemplary Fusion Ads logo.

However, we can do one better with a meritocracy. Rather than being a detriment, advertising can be a force for good on the web. Fusion Ads and The Deck are prime examples of this. Instead of rewarding breadth of content, these networks focus on finding blogs which consistently post material with depth. By handpicking their members these networks ironically end up leveling the playing field and giving quality content a chance to shine. I truly believe this is the advertising model that will save the web.3

With that in mind, I offer this challenge to Joe and Sean: devise an advertising platform which will improve the quality of the edublogosphere. In my opinion, such a model should observe three crucial principles:

  1. Popularity doesn’t necessarily correlate with merit. Meaningful blogs with strong reader relationships will, in the end, provide greater long-term benefit.
  2. Be selective. The quality of small, niche groups is more easily controllable, making them more marketable.
  3. Know the audience. Most readers are going to be job seekers (teachers) not job posters. The billing and payment strategy should reflect this.

Whether they choose to implement these ideas or not, I wish Joe and Sean the best of luck and look forward to their response.

Jack Cheng elaborates on a learning method developed by Paul Pimsleur for memorizing language vocabulary:

[Pimsleur] observed that the first time you learned a new word, you’d forget it almost immediately. But if you reviewed it again as you were about to forget it, each subsequent review would exponentially increase the staying power of the word. To put it another way, if you could only remember the word for 5 seconds at first, reviewing it after those five seconds would boost your retention time to 25 seconds, then 2 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. At this rate, the tenth review wouldn’t have to take place until about four months after the first.

I’ve been employing a similar method for building my vocabulary (in preparation for the unavoidable SAT). Essentially, whenever I run across an unfamiliar word, I note it as an alarm in iCal set to go off 5 minutes later. Once prompted, I try to recall the word (and look it up if I forgot), then change the alarm to go off in 10 minutes, gradually increasing until it’s up to a year. Right now, I’m working on writing some software to automate this process, including the ability to add words from my iPhone.

Sorting algorithms (like Quicksort) are frequently represented visually, but they can also be represented musically. Through guitars and drums, a UCLA grad student has created auditory demonstrations of sorting algorithms. Showing what sorting algorithms sound like would be an excellent opener for a lesson. These demonstrations connect an abstract concept to something we can hear, making it far easier to grasp.

John Gruber provides an excellent analysis of Gall’s law as it applies to Apple:

Start with something simple and build it, grow it, improve it, steadily over time. Evolve it.

My only addition is that this same logic applies in all situations. The best way to build a better school system is to start with small, excellent schools and work from there. The best way to rebuild the economy is to start with simple, working banks and build from there. The best strategy for anything: build simplicity, evolve complexity.

Apple iLife

In any reasonable system, computer applications would not be a class. When schools think about digital literacy, far too many focus on the simple: teaching tools. Teaching tools is easy: it’s easy to add “digital literacy” to graduation requirements and plop kids down in mandatory technology classes. Unfortunately, this is exactly the wrong approach. In doing so, you teach students to use the tools, but not how to use the tools. A tool, and knowledge of it, is only as useful as how its applied. Truly teaching digital literacy requires integrating the tools directly into the curriculum of other disciplines, which is definitely difficult.

The problem is that schools are trapped in the mindset which is used to teach other tools. Other tools are virtually indistinguishable from their content. When you learn to read (particularly at advanced levels), you also learn to read. In the process of learning the tool, you learn the content, and vice versa. Schools have attempted to do this with technology, to poor results. When you teach technology as its taught in most schools, you only teach the tool, without the application.

Even worse is when IT administrators try to add rigor to the technology education in exactly the wrong way. Apparently, one technology director feels that students should use the most difficult software, just because it is difficult.

However, even iLife has its drawbacks in an educational setting. It simply hands so much to the students that they struggle with software (whether Windows, Linux, or even pro-level software on the Mac) that isn’t so brilliantly plug and play. Yes, iLife rocks in many ways, but the level of spoonfeeding it encourages actually makes me think twice about using it widely, especially at the high school level.

This argument essentially comes down to iLife being too good. Yes, you read that correctly: the software is bad because it’s too good. Apparently, we should make students’ lives miserable, because they’re going to be miserable when they grow up.

The fact is that 99% of students are never going to need to go beyond basic multimedia productions. The highly usable tools of iLife are more than satisfactory for everything but professional tasks. Beyond that, the future programmers and film editors probably have the initiative to seek out and learn the advanced software themselves.

This argument reminds me of the teachers who used to (and still do) require students to never use calculators. There argument for this usually amounts to the idea that students won’t have calculators in the “real world.” Of course, in the real world calculators are readily available: every computer and cell phone has one. When students go out into the world, they will be able to make decisions with their sotware. In fact, that’s probably a far better thing to teach: how to chose good software. Clearly this IT admin could use a lesson or two himself.

The bottom line is that schools should never teach students to accept the subpar. This is the kind of thinking which puts IT administrators and educators at odds and puts technology above actual learning. Technology, especially bad technology, should never be taught for technology’s sake.

(Via Daring Fireball)