Trees Falling in the Forest

April 9, 2010 · Posted in Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

A long time ago, fresh out of school with a shiny new M.Ed. and a desire to change the world, I took my first public school teaching assignment in Fairbanks, Alaska. The school I taught in is no longer there, but a lesson I learned there has stayed with me for over 30 years.

I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I crafted my lesson plans carefully (indexed to district curriculum, no less!) and I worked hard to put on a good show in front of the class. One lesson built on another, a veritable symphony of pedagogic order and logic. I was stoked. Until I talked to Brandi.

Brandi was a fifth-grader with huge blue eyes and an engaging smile, the sort of person that easily made friends with peers and adults. She always tried to pay attention and she worked hard in class. She was a “special” student–identified as learning disabled, but really, as I came to find out, just a very deliberate learner who needed a lot of repetition and hands on work to grasp concepts that were easy for most of her classmates. After a series of math lessons–which I thought were beautifully crafted, if I do say so myself–I became aware that Brandi just didn’t understand the concepts I was teaching. I was a little irritated. I had spent a lot of time constructing and delivering those lessons, and I was perturbed that she didn’t get it. I think I said something like this to her: “Brandi, what’s wrong with you? I taught this last week.” I may be fuzzy on the words I used, but I’ll never forget her response: “Well, you taught it, but I didn’t learn it.”

Ouch. Catharsis can be painful. Everything I had been taught about teaching suddenly came crashing down around me. By just about any measure, I was considered a “good” teacher, but here was a perfectly willing learner under my care who was not learning what I was teaching. At that moment, it dawned on me that the most important activity in my classroom was not teaching–it was learning. It wasn’t about me, it was about them, and I wasn’t doing right by them.

The rest of that year–and the rest of my life, so far, anyway– was spent in rethinking my approach to teaching and in unlearning much of what I had been taught about effective teaching. Reminiscent of the koan about the tree falling in the forest, it turns out that teaching without learning isn’t teaching at all.

Flash forward thirty or so years. I look around in K-20 education and I’m constantly reminded of Brandi, sitting dutifully in class but not gaining much from my fledgling efforts at teaching. I see districts adopting reading and math programs that dictate that all students be on the same page of the book on the same day and that all teachers say the same things to all of the students, and I think about Brandi. I watch lectures about constructivism at the post-secondary level and I think about Brandi. With great anticipation I observe one to one laptop programs, hoping to see students exploring and collaborating and discovering only to find so many of them simply doing research on the web and writing a report, and I think about Brandi. While there are many efforts at reform based on authentic learning models and implementation of technology tools, there seems to be an even larger effort to turn public schools into factories turning out uniform products.

Convince me otherwise. Please. Let me know what’s happening in your situation that is helping to insure that the Brandis of the world can be successful and learn productively.

And Brandi–if you’re out there, I hope you’re a teacher. Experience counts for so much.

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Will 3G Lead the Revolution?

March 12, 2010 · Posted in iPhone, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

I just ordered an iPad.

I already have an iPhone. An iPhone on a 3G network is an immensely powerful tool, capable of doing just about anything I need to do on a day-to-day basis anywhere I want to do it unless that thing includes Flash, which I hope will die soon anyway and free up our processors and bandwidth for useful tasks.

The iPhone is a disruptive technology when applied to the context of K-12 schools. Schools can control what happens on their Wi-Fi networks, but they can’t control what happens on a publicly-accessible 3G network. A YouTube video that I can’t watch over my local SD’s network plays just fine on my iPhone from the same location. Schools can restrict searches, block Twitter, and prevent access to certain sites on their own networks but not on my phone’s 3G network. With 3G, I have the same access to the world in school that I have everywhere else.

The typical school reaction to a technology that it can’t control is to ban it. But students and teachers are increasingly walking into classrooms with 3G devices in their pockets intent on using them for productive purposes. They’re engaged with their technology, and that engagement can be (should be) worked into productive time spent on research, collaboration, and real-world experience. Schools can’t control 3G technologies, and they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t impact their bandwidth, their IT expenses, or their capital outlay. If students access inappropriate materials, it’s their problem and not the school’s. Deal with it, as we always have when students do inappropriate things.

But back to the iPad. Schools can somewhat justify banning cell phones because talking on the phone to a friend is not always a productive use of time and can be very distracting to others. Smart phones are still phones (although I very rarely use mine as one) and so somewhat logically fall under the same impulse to banish them from schools. But iPads are horses of an entirely different color. They aren’t phones at all (yet, anyway)–they’re very mobile, highly connected, and easily accessible computers that will work on 3G networks in some configurations. They’ll make field trips into entirely new experiences. Students already have them. Let them–encourage them–to bring them in and use them. Make sure to play your role as an educator wisely and help students understand what’s appropriate and what’s not, and when it’s OK to tweet, watch a video, or find a simulation game.

Join the revolution. It’s happening everywhere but in schools.

UPDATE: A question by way of Twitter asks who will pay for 3G access. If a student walks into your classroom with an iPhone, 3G access is already paid for. They’re bringing their own bandwidth. I can walk into my local AT&T store and buy a $199 3G-capable netbook. Why wouldn’t I bring that to school and use it the same way I use it everywhere else?

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Internet Searching and Thinking Skills

March 5, 2010 · Posted in Studies · Comment 

A recent study from UCLA (reported here) found that Internet searching exercises the brains of older people by activating their neural circuitry, confirmed by MRI records. While similar studies have not been carried out in younger students, I have always held the position that learning to search correctly and efficiently involves higher order thinking skills that are a potential benefit for students of any age. What is surprising is how few post secondary students know how to construct effective search queries. I believe it’s a skill that should be taught and reinforced, even at the post secondary level.

While search engines such as Google are becoming ever more effective at natural language searching (e.g., “How tall is the Empire State Building?”), it is still the case that forming good search queries usually results in better information. It’s also the case that the actual formation of those search queries involves thinking skills that are applicable to Boolean math and logic.

For younger students, the simple knowledge of using quotes and minus signs (-) to structure searches can be a powerful tool. For example, let’s assume that a fifth grader is looking for information on the Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Entering Martin Luther as a search query will return a lot of useful information, but it will also return information on the much more prevalent Martin Luther King. A simple application of quotes and a minus sign:

“Martin Luther” -King

instructs a search engine to search for the literal phrase “Martin Luther” but not the term “King.”

Although plus signs (+) are no longer necessary with most search engines as they interpret a search item without a + to be a required term, younger students may benefit from using a plus sign in constructing a search query. For example, to find out about Martin Luther (but not Martin Luther King) and about Luther’s role in the Protestant Reformation, a student could use:

“Martin Luther” -King +”Protestant Reformation”

Even with younger students, Boolean logic terms can be used to create a query. It’s instructive, especially with younger students, to create Boolean queries and examine their results. For example,

“New York” AND “hot dogs”

returns very different results than does

“New York” OR “hot dogs”

Using an everyday action–in this case, searching for information–can create a significant learning opportunity for students.

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The Problem with Synchronicity

March 4, 2010 · Posted in distance, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

Distance delivery of instruction has always presented educators with problems–particularly, as in my case, when you are delivering the same content to on-campus students as to off-campus students. Some of the problems are obvious: how do you deliver a hands-on science lesson to someone in another state, for example, or how do you demonstrate a geometry proof to a student when all they can see is the instructor’s  smiling face on a monitor? Most are much more subtle: how do you make the distance students in your class feel as if they are part of a community or cohort, or do you split your class into two sections and address each class separately? If you do the latter, how do you assure that both groups are getting equal access to every part of the instruction? Can you undertake some activities with one group that you can’t with another? Will that “dumb-down” one of the sections or give some students advantages over others?

Technology has solved, at least partially, many of these problems. Videoconferencing systems are much more sophisticated than they were a few years ago, allowing an “almost like being there” level of participation from distance students. Even many desktop video solutions allow multi-point connections and file exchanges in real time. Access to broadband is increasing in many areas of the country, making these services more approachable for more students. We’re getting close to the point that most students will be able to fully participate in synchronous, real time classes just as if they were sitting there.

And therein lies the problem.

The more I deal with issues of distance delivery, the more I find that striving for total synchronicity can be a waste of time (pun intended). It’s easy to assume that the more we make distance classes like face-to-face classes, the better the distance class will be. I’ve come around to the notion that we should make our face-to-face classes more like our distance classes.

I have been giving a lot of thought to distance education lately. While I have taught distance classes in the past, I had never until last year taught two sections of the same class at the same time where one section is on-campus and the other is taught via distance delivery. My initial desire was to teach the distance class via videoconference–that way, I could engage my students in real time, share my computer screen with my students, and make the experience much like being in the same classroom with me.

As it turned out, most of my rural Alaskan students did not have access to videoconferencing services. I’d have to teach the distance class using more conventional methods–Elluminate, Blackboard, and maybe even some audio conferences. I was quite concerned that my distance students would miss out on the experience of being in a “real” classroom.

So, I planned my distance section differently. I provided most of the instruction that I normally would have done in class in asynchronous formats–podcasts, streaming media, wikis, shared Google documents, etc.–and I planned the times that we were actually “together” via Elluminate so that we used the time to interact, share ideas, and react to the instruction that was provided asynchronously. I thought carefully about what it meant to interact with an instructor and planned those interactions to give students maximum time to talk and interact. We eventually decided–as a class–that we really didn’t need as much synchronous time as the schedule provided, because students were able to interact with me and with their peers in a variety of different ways, many of which were new to them.

The results were fascinating to me. My distance students interacted with me and with each other much more frequently and on a much deeper level than did my on-campus students. The distance students consistently took more initiative with their projects and eagerly shared them with their classmates, whereas their on-campus counterparts tended to perform in the usual “school” mode of finding out what they had to do to complete the project and doing just that. (We’ve trained them well, unfortunately.) And, my distance students have maintained that contact over time, whereas my campus-based students have not made efforts of similar magnitude.

My experiences with those two classes changed the way I structure my face-to-face classes and has given me new insight in what it means to bring students into a cohort with common objectives. The elements that I initially perceived as barriers to distance education became strengths, and the traditional nature of synchronous teaching–for me, at least–looked more and more like a barrier to effective interaction and involvement. When all we have is traditional structure, the answer to every problem is to create a class for it. That’s wrong. We need to create inquiry-based cohorts of students and instructors who know how to leverage their time together to get the maximum benefit from that time. We’re in the post-class era of post-secondary education, whether we know it or not.

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

There is no “now” now.

October 29, 2009 · Posted in citizenship, culture, social networking · 8 Comments 

A few days ago I had a conversation with a colleague that went something like this:

C: I just want to do what I do now with technology. I don’t want to know about social networking. It’s too hard to keep track of everything.
Me: I…ummm…it’s…did you get the time for the next faculty meeting?

What I wanted to say, and what I’ve been thinking about for some time, is that there is no such thing as catching up. There’s no “now” with technology. If you’re not constantly moving forward, then by default you’re moving backward. Particularly with technology, moving backward is an express ticket to irrelevancy. I liken it to being the best typewriter repairperson in the world–you may be very good at your craft, but who cares?

Two years ago, we weren’t talking about Twitter, and not much about Facebook. In a bit less than four years, YouTube has gone from a cautious startup to serving over one billion videos a day. Fifteen years ago we were just starting to talk about the World Wide Web. The processing power used for the first moon landing is roughly equivalent to the processing power of a Furby, a toy that was interesting 5 or 6 years ago. As quickly as things seem to change, we’re probably still on the early curve of an exponential explosion of technologies that will vastly change the way we do just about everything.

But we seem to be stuck on viewing technology as an object and not as a process. Much of the daily work I used to have to perform on my laptop (which replaced my desktop when it became much more important to be able to carry my work with me) can now be performed on my iPhone. The vessel is irrelevant to me as long as I can do what I need to do. Technology isn’t my laptop, or my iPhone. It’s a process for communicating, collaborating, creating, producing, and (somewhat recursively) for keeping up with technology. For an educator, it’s simply a tool of the trade. If you don’t understand how to use it professionally and instructionally, you’ll soon be looking for an office next to the typewriter repair shop.

The End of Schooling As We Know It?

February 26, 2009 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Sometimes I think that post-secondary schools in the US are some of the best examples we have of Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law is usually referred to as the Law of Inertia: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Newton’s second law explains that the more mass that object has, the greater the external force that must be applied to it move it from its current trajectory.

Does this sound familiar? Universities are massive by any reckoning; they employ millions of people, consume billions of tax dollars, have huge collective carbon footprints, and have basically been doing business the same way for hundreds of years. They are so ingrained into our social structure that most people can’t imagine a society in which they didn’t exist in their current form. They’re on a trajectory that will take a truly massive application of external force to dislodge them from their course.

And that force may come sooner than we think, at least according to two items that grabbed my attention this past week.

The first was a television commercial for Kaplan University. I should explain that I don’t watch TV very much and this particular commercial may have been around for some time, but last week when I first saw it it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here it is:

I first thought it was a commercial for Apple, Inc., and was surprised to find at the end of the commercial that it was for an online university–essentially a competitor for my brick-and-mortar institution. My initial thought was that the “professor” in the ad got it right–that we need to be paying attention to learners who may not fit the traditional concept of a post-secondary student. They expect to be able to use their favorite media to learn when and where they can, on a schedule that suits their lifestyle, job, or personal preferences.

The second item was an article from eSchool News entitled AASA hears what’s about to disrupt schools.” In the article, Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School predicts that within the next ten years half of all instruction will take place online and that schools risk losing enrollment to the online learning market if they do not adopt the model for their own students. The massive external force that may move schools off of their current path is something that Christensen calls “disruptive innovation”–innovation that is so powerful and so different that it completely changes the marketplace, dislodges old market leaders from their positions of leadership, and gives rise to new ways of doing business. It’s not at all difficult to see examples of disruptive innovation that have happened within most of our memories–VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet), the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the iPod, etc. Each of these innovations changed the way business was done before and allowed new players into the market, typically at the expense of the “old guard.” And it’s personal, too. This morning I spent several hours answering e-mail, editing some documents (including a spreadsheet), evaluating my students’ projects (PowerPoint lessons that they uploaded to Google Docs and embedded into their blogs) and recording their grades and my reflections on their work, and the only application I had open the entire morning was Firefox.

My job is to prepare post-secondary students to teach in K-12 school systems. It may take an even more massive application of external force to change their current vector. What should I be telling my pre-service teachers?

I immediately flashed back to the Kaplan commercial I had seen a few days before. Bob Dylan was right:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

Several Days After The World Changed

December 15, 2008 · Posted in iPhone, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

In my last post I addressed the sense of empowerment that I felt from using my iPhone 3G. My enthusiasm has not waned in the slightest. Quite to the contrary–I find it more useful every day. Given that experience, it was inevitable that I should begin thinking about the possibilities of using an iPhone in K-12 education.

The promise for a device like the iPhone in K12 education is limitless. It’s not at all difficult to imagine the way it would transform field trips, project-based lessons, and collaboration. The problem, however, is obvious–you need to sign an expensive cell phone contract in order to use one. Unless a teacher or a well-heeled student with unlimited minutes is feeling generous, the likelihood that an iPhone will appear in a classroom is remote.

However, Apple makes another device with much the same appeal as the iPhone–the iPod Touch. As a wi-fi device, it can function on school or public networks, saving documents for later perusal and running much of the same software that runs on the iPhone. It can load and view and, to a limited but growing extent, edit Office documents. It’s capable of loading and viewing very high resolution documents from the Library of Congress and other reliable educational sources. You can add dictionaries, translators, conversion programs, and other useful utilities. You can download and view movies, podcasts and electronic books on a variety of educational topics. With the addition of an inexpensive microphone, it’s a voice recorder. Add a VOiP program such TruPhone and you can make free phone calls over the wireless network to anywhere in the world. (Sister school, anyone?) As is, it makes an intriguing and engaging teaching and learning tool. It’s missing just two elements that would make it a viable replacment for laptop computers in many cases–a camera and GPS capabilities.

An iPod Touch with GPS would be able to make full use of incredible tools such as Google Earth and Google Maps on a school network. It would allow accurate geotagging of pictures (taken with the hoped-for camera), data gathered on a field trip or information from a sister school. The camera would give students an opportunity to gather data for posters, web pages, slide shows, and other place-based projects and transmit them over a wi-fi network to anywhere in the world. The possibilities are endless.

Either way you look at it–a GPS/camera enabled iPod Touch or a phone-disabled iPhone–this is a device that would have as much of an impact on K-12 education as the original Apple desktop computer did back in 1978. I hope someone is listening out there…

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