It's a Means, Not an End

16 April 2010

I find myself occasionally amused by the EdTech zealots---the ones who are convinced that technology in the classroom is the Be All and End All. They are the educators who will tell you that 19th and 20th century schools and their methods will be the continuing downfall of society. These are the very same ones who will shame you for not putting a computer into the hands of every student every class period (and further ridicule you if you don't suggest said computer be an Apple product).

I want to remind these people that my 90-year old stepfather functions just fine on the computer and internet. In his lifetime, any number of new technologies have emerged that his teachers had no inkling of, and he continues to learn and adapt. As teachers, we have always prepared students for an uncertain future---we have no way to tell what the world will be like (or the opportunities available) 5, 10, or 50 years from now. That was true for teachers 20 years ago (when I started) and long before that.

If you know one of these tech zealots, do us all a favour and ask them to take a breath. Technology is not an end we are preparing kids for---it is simply one of many ways and means to help students develop a mental toolkit for engaging with content. For example, blogging is a wonderful way for kids to practice reading, thinking, and writing skills...but it is not the only way to engage students with this work. Plenty of us made it through school and into the world with critical and creative thinking skills honed without ever having access to the internet. Tech can facilitate these things, but to assume it is the only pathway is silly.

I was thinking about this again as I read some suggestions that tech was going to be the catalyst for remaking schools. Sorry, but it won't be. Do I think schooling will look different in time---with learning extending beyond the classroom? Sure. But meatspace isn't going anywhere because it is the place where you learn a lot about forming and maintaining relationships. Being connected online is very different from learning to connect in person.

We spend a lot of time thinking about "ends" (standards, assessments) and not very much about the means (instruction). How do we encourage the zealots to take a broader view and think beyond tools to the possibilities? Do we need to start a "slow teaching" movement like the foodies have done?

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Get It Together, Baby

01 March 2010

As we move forward with an assessment process for 21st century skills, some aspects are straightforward...and some are squirrely. For example, constructing a task can be something that follows a regular pattern. There are parts that should be included, ways to check for alignment, and so forth. It's the evaluation portion that isn't always predictable.

Let me give you a little piece that I'm wrestling with: Organize ideas.

What does that mean to you? What qualities come to your mind when you think about a student who has organized their ideas? Would your answer be different if I told you to just consider what an organized 8-year old would look like---or are organized ideas more universal in concept (you're either organized in your thinking or not, regardless of age)?

Suppose you were constructing a rubric for this...what would you include? Does organization need an audience---in other words, does your style only have to make sense to you...or do others have to be able to ferret out the method to your madness? Do there have to be levels of detail or an evident hierarchy, regardless of whether the organization is text-only or mindmappish? Are there any aspects to organization which transcend the medium used---if I organize using notecards, a task list in Outlook, or a flowchart in webspiration, can I identify the essence of organized ideas?

What would you suggest? What would you like to see?

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The Awful Truth

15 February 2010

One of the conundrums associated with educational technology is that for all the power that is associated with the various tools, instructional practices are changing very little. An interactive whiteboard (IWB) can be used as little more than a glorified mouse pad in a teacher-centered environment. Blogs, podcast, voicethread presentations, and wikis require access---both in terms of internet filters, computers for students, and broadband. Few places have solved the management issues that arise from having cell phones as educational tools in the classroom. There may well be some stigmas attached to being "techie" in the classroom---or perhaps a resistance or philosophical basis to become so if there are other instructional models which work just fine.

Whatever the reason, there is a clear separation between those who embrace tech in the classroom and those who do not. Until recently, I didn't think the twain would meet. They still may not, but I came to terms with an awful truth this week: EdTech lacks a compelling voice. There are many superstars within the EdTech community, but they have come from within. There has been a lot of ridicule from this same community about Robert Marzano and his current foray into researching interactive whiteboards and other tools. While I agree that the circumstances for his research (i.e. being paid by a IWB company) do not engender trust for the results, the EdTech community has failed to recognize something very important: They need Marzano. Why? Because he is well-respected in the curriculum and instruction world---the one outside of technology...the one most schools and teachers live in. Marzano will be the first crossover star, much like artists that move between musical genres. It doesn't make his message any better, it just means that he will be a Pied Piper leading a lot more people toward EdTech...more than would have ever looked at the realm on their own. Those who have risen within the EdTech ranks are likely to be typecast there. A crossover will not happen from there---it must come from the non-tech side.

I am hoping that EdTech will make its peace with Marzano, instead of continuing to wage a turf war. If not, then I hope that they will find a partner elsewhere on the "outside" that they can work with. Pick a Wiggins, Stiggins, Tomlinson, or McTighe. Get a Reeves, Popham, or Guskey. Because until you capture the attention of that sort of leadership, you will not have their audience. You will not be seen as having a meaningful impact on instruction and assessment, no matter what you know to be true.

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Reach Out and Touch Some Learning

05 February 2010

I mentioned in my last post that I don't believe in grade inflation. I also don't believe in "learning styles." There is no such animal as an "auditory learner." With the exception of those with hearing loss, we are all auditory learners. We are also visual and kinesthetic learners. Our brain processes information in different ways. All of these methods of input have an impact on our learning and memory.

I have been thinking more and more about the kinesthetic part as of late. As we move further into a digital age, what will become of "hands on" learning? I understand that an online dissection can replace a real one...that a flash-based simulation can model experiments that students might not be able to complete in a school setting...that open-source tools can put powerful options into the hands of kids to create new meaning from the knowledge they've gained. There are amazing wonders to be had...but what will we lose in the process?

I haven't looked around to see if there is any ed research out there comparing the learning that occurs in a digital environment vs. real world manipulative one. I'm sure that each can be effective in their own ways. What I'm most interested in at the moment is how a teacher would determine when to use one or the other---is that based on the student or the content? Does the purpose of the learning and cognitive demand necessary make a difference when selecting one form or another?

It would seem unlikely that hands-on opportunities will disappear from lower grades. I have a hard time imagining elementary schools without scissors, glue, paint, sand, and other bits of analog exploration. At upper grades, as 1-to-1 programs become more popular and learning is moved beyond meatspace, will we forget what it is like to reach out and touch some learning?

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And In Other News...

23 January 2010

Not only did I have to deal with coming down off of a ScienceOnline 2010 high this week, I also had to kick off the assessment project which is the primary reason for my employment...all while having a rather nasty case of laryngitis. However, I have been looking forward to this week for months and even sounding like a 12-year old boy undergoing puberty was not going to stop me from enjoying the work.

There is an stunning group of educators working on this project. You never know when you put a call out for help who will respond---and even sifting through a pile of applications is no guarantee that you will have the cream of the crop. I am sure that I am not the only one who has been burned in the past by an applicant who looked beautiful on paper and was nothing but heartbreak in the flesh. This time, however, there appears to have been a perfect storm of events and I have roughly a dozen superstars from all walks of education to help guide this process.

Their presence comes at a time when I need them most---not simply for the task at hand, but as I wrestle with various ideas related to educational technology and what happens in a classroom. I had to listen this week to talk about the worthlessness of public schools and teachers from someone who has never worked in one (nor places any value on my lifelong passion for them and experiences within them). Public education is far from perfect, but it is not a useless social experiment either. How and where the most recent advent of educational technology fits remains to be seen. There are plenty of predictions out there---how these tools will transform education in the next 10 years. I don't agree. I have nothing to base that opinion on, other than anecdotal evidence. Over the last 20 years, we've seen computers and internet move into classrooms; but I am unconvinced that instruction has undergone any significant changes as a result of these tools. I think more change has been driven by policy, not tools.

I was thinking this week about the various stakeholders in the educational process and their buy-in for educational technology. It's simpler to think about those associated with higher SES; however, if I'm working a minimum wage job at Wal-Mart, should I care that my child is able to create a Voicethread or collaborate on a wiki when those tools have no impact on my world? Is that what I want schools teaching my child? Does a migrant worker care more about whether or not an interactive white board is in a classroom or whether his child feels safe at school? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I am thinking that it is a mistake to not know what these voices would say. It contributes to the ever increasing divide of haves and have nots.

I know that there is a lot of instructional power in educational technology. I know that the tools are engaging for students and can create opportunities for learning that did not previously exist. I also know that they aren't necessary in order to develop students who think critically and creatively...who can collaborate and organize information...who can read and write. As I move forward with the assessment group that I have, I will be looking for some answers as to how we justify change.

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A Preview of Coming Attractions

11 January 2010

---Science Online 2010 Promo by Cephalopodcast

Later this week, I'm off to North Carolina for ScienceOnline 2010. Bora from A Blog Around the Clock started recruiting me last August. And I, being a girl who can't say "No," decided to jump on in and participate this year.

I was telling some colleagues earlier this week that what intrigues me most about this conference is that while it is all well and good for us educators to promote "21st Century Skills" in classrooms---here is a group of adults (most of whom were educated in "traditional" environments) who are remaking their professional world. Can we, as educators, claim that blogs, wikis, cell phones, and other tools have a place in the classroom when we don't couple that with examples of how real world professionals use these? I won't pretend that the kinds of online tools available to a kindergartner today will be the same as the ones when s/he exits graduate school, but I will predict that open access and the ability to connect with others across the globe will be even more important. So I am approaching this conference with a bit of an anthropological take.

I am leading or co-moderating three sessions (more on that in another post). It has been fun for me to un-think my usual approach for this "unconference," where sessions are driven by the knowledge, skills, and interests of participants. I like the idea that I don't have to be the expert...and I also like the idea of being part of the collective expertise for the sessions I attend. My plan is to immerse myself in as many events as possible. I am hoping not to become too starstruck among the science blogerati that will be present: Carl Zimmer, PZ Meyers, Dr. Isis, and more.

So, expect a slew of posts (I believe that is the proper collective noun) this week about ScienceOnline 2010. You can also follow the event on Facebook, Twitter, and via the main conference wiki. Just click the ScienceOnline 2010 link at the beginning of the post. If you can't be there with us in person, at least you can be present in ether.

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Crossing the Rubricon

28 December 2009

Next month, an intrepid group of educators from around the state will be joining me to help construct our assessments for Educational Technology. While I can't say much about them individually (oh, those pesky confidentiality agreements...), I can say that collectively, they are a "dream team" of teachers from all walks of K-12. They have significant experience with developing, rangefinding, and scoring large-scale assessments. A few are nationally recognized for their contributions to the profession. I am totally stoked about meeting them and working with them over the next eighteen months, in part because we have some big issues to hash out. I will share what I can along the way as I will be needing your help, too.

As I plot, plan, and prepare for this project, I am struggling with thinking about how the rubrics will shake out. Take a standard like this:
Generate ideas and create original works for personal and group expression using a variety of digital tools.
  • Create products using a combination of text, images, sound, music and video.
  • Generate creative solutions and present ideas.
This standard is not about a tool. We aren't interested in whether or not a student can make a powerpoint presentation. This is a little bit like asking a student to create a picture. The kid might choose watercolors or charcoal or pastels or pen and ink or...the list goes on. The same is true for digital products. A student might choose powerpoint, but they could also choose Voicethread or Zuiprezi or GoogleApps or...the list goes on. So part of the challenge is to develop a way to score student products when there are no parameters around the media used.

The bigger challenge, however, is that these standards don't nicely fit into a rubric. I have been trying for awhile and you know what? I've decided not to try anymore, at least for now. If I am trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole---doesn't it make more sense to go find the square hole rather than keep pounding away at the round one in impotent frustration? (Okay, that sounds naughtier than intended.)

What are the alternatives to using a rubric to evaluate student performance tasks? Are there other scales of performance out there? I've been looking around...and there isn't much. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) was working on a project called EdSteps that is making some attempts to do so, but they are some distance from showing off their efforts.

Or maybe we just need to get back to the roots to rubric-ness. I was reading something recently that reminded me that a Level One performance is not about identifying the worst characteristics of a product or a list of what is lacking---it is about describing what the work of a beginner looks like. This is an excellent perspective. I know that I have been guilty of building a rubric by identifying "at standard" performance and then taking away from that to get to Level One. Instead, the approach should be more individual for each level: here is what a student at standard looks like...and here is what a student who is just beginning to engage with the standard looks like. It is more about identifying what is present, rather than absent.

I'm glad that I will have a constellation of superstars joining me in a few weeks to have some real time conversation about these issues. However, for those of you reading this who have your own ideas about how you would evaluate standards like the one described above, leave a comment for me to pass along. Suppose you could create whatever system you wanted to score student performance---would it include rubrics? Or are there other/better ways?

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That Was (Too) Easy

19 November 2009

A few weeks ago, I listened to several different people from around the country share some ideas about educational technology programs. The most frequent words used by presenters were "simple" and "easy." I suppose that there is some appeal in that; but, I kept wondering when someone was going to say "meaningful." I would have even settled for "effective."

I understand that there needs to be some room for both. When I buy a can opener, I want one that does the job, but isn't difficult to use. The most important part is that the can opens---I get the result I want from the tool I have in my hand. Someone who sells me a can opener based on how simple it is to use without showing that the tool is able to remove a lid from a can will get no future business from me.

It may be an unfair comparison between a can opener and software for collecting and managing data in schools. I still can't help but think that the bottom line is the same: the tool needs to do the job it was designed for. If it's easy to use, that is a definite bonus---but that aspect should not be the first words out of the mouths of presenters.

It also means that as buyers, we also need to be careful about the questions we ask and the values we communicate. I remember a sign that used to hang in a local store. It had a short list: Cheap, Fast, Good. Underneath that was the instruction for the customer to "Pick Two." I am wondering if our pursuit of Cheap and Fast (Easy), has led to our neglect of Good in education. It would seem well past time for us to insist on quality in our programs instead of taking the easy way out.

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Science Fiction

06 November 2009


I was listening to a keynote speaker earlier this week who was telling us just how flat the world would be someday. He had some glitzy pictures of technology gizmos---like a bluetooth headset that you could wear on your finger as a ring when it wasn't been used. He espoused tools and connectivity. He told us all about the impact of this on the classroom, where in some Hegel-ian vision, the sum total of human knowledge would be available to each and every child.

I think this was supposed to be very inspiring to the gathering of educational technology leaders sitting in the room. Me? All I could think about was Forbidden Planet. If you haven't seen this 1956 gem of a movie, it's Shakespeare's Tempest set in outer space. (Aside: The Tempest is my favourite of his works. I like the metaphor of Caliban as student and Prospero as teacher. But that's another post.) I won't summarize the film here, as IMDb can do that much better than I, but if you've seen the film, you may remember the context of the image at the left. Walter Pidgeon (seated) has a machine attached to his head which allows him to increase his IQ. Leslie Nielsen is pointing at the 3D holographic image of Anne Francis that Pidgeon has been able to create using his mind. Cool, right? Maybe not. See, the machine had been built by an extinct civilization (the Krel)---a machine used to train the young of that species. A machine that contained the sum total of Krel knowledge. This allowed the Krel to do some wonderful things, but it also led to their own self-destruction (and eventually the destruction of Pidgeon and the planet itself).

In spite of the story, I'm not fatalistic about putting learning tools and information in the hands of students. However, this connection did give me pause to wonder if we've really thought about all of the possible consequences of a flat world. This train of thought led me to another sci-fi connection:
Jurassic Park is another tale of the negative effects of "too much" knowledge. Within both the movie and the novel (which is far more interesting than the film), the character of Malcolm plays Satan's Little Helper in terms of asking the others to consider the consequences of what is being done. He points out to the developer, John Hammond, that "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Is it possible that when it comes to creating flat classrooms and embracing the idea of globalization that we are so blinded by possibilities that we aren't taking the time to really think things through? Have we considered the responsibilities that come with the power of knowledge?

Toward the end of the keynote the speaker trotted out a chestnut I've heard elsewhere: We're preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, where they'll use technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems we don't even know exist. This isn't a particularly deep observation---it's stating the obvious. I wanted to shout out that this is what education has always done. Don't you think that our own teachers were in the same position when we were in school? We are always going to be in the position of preparing students for an unknown future.

However, the speaker admonished us to be futurist and "begin with the end in mind" where technology is concerned. Other than a science fiction world, this is not possible. The platitude in the above paragraph tells us that we can't know what kind of world our students will inherit. Fiction tales from our past remind us that people don't always understand the consequences of the present on the future. The best we can do is help the next generation separate fact from fiction as they add to our progress.

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What Do You Make of This

01 November 2009



If you're an 80's kind of child, then the header to this post probably engenders a response of "This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl..." as once uttered by the character Johnny in the movie Airplane! What I'm wondering about at the moment, however, is the various ways you might use video clips like the one above in class---and whether or not using one "counts" as technology integration.

I've been pondering this while sifting through the mountain of links I inherited. Most of the links are fine (and are tagged under a list of "integration resources"), but I don't know that we can assume that just handing a link to a teacher is enough to assume that integration of technology is occurring.

When I think about video clips like the one above, I see potential for a lot of things. I see a launch for a unit of study---especially the opportunity for predictions and observations. I see a chance for formative assessment. I spy (with my little eye) a resource for reteaching or an intervention activity. I also smell a model summative assessment---something to prime kids' pumps before they go out and document an inquiry lesson within their own classroom.

Maybe Johnny was wrong in his thinking about the hat/brooch/pterodactyl. Perhaps I need to look at these links in a more Magritte sort of way:


Ceci n'est pas une YouTube video! Ceci est une "instructional material." Mais oui!

But do other teachers look at such resources in this way? Will they if I simply hand them the link---or are supporting documents necessary?

The bigger question for me, however, is whether or not using a video clip as an instructional material means that technology is being integrated into the classroom. I have been wondering if the answer is dependent upon who is using the clip. If, as a teacher, I use the pickle clip at the beginning of this post at the beginning of a unit, then I may be integrating technology (both hardware and software) into my lesson...but has it been integrated into student learning? Is it better than me actually doing the demonstration for students? Why would I choose a video clip over a "live" option?

When does something stop being a vanilla instructional resource and become technology integration? If a teacher goes to a website and downloads a worksheet to print for students---is that teaching with technology? What if s/he projects the same worksheet on an interactive whiteboard and students answer the questions or edit the passages there? Is a classroom with a single computer (and just at the teacher's workstation) able to integrate technology---or does it require x number of student computers? How many sites need to be able to get through the &$#@*! internet filter? I don't expect a single line here that will divide the issue into "this is integration" and "this is not." However, if we can't at least come up with some guidelines, how will be bring along those teachers who are still struggling to add a row to an Excel sheet or change the size of a font in a document? How do we get them to see the same possibilities as Johnny did for a piece of newspaper in Airplane! when someone sends a link to video on YouTube?

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Linkworthy

27 October 2009

One of the things I've been doing the past few days is looking at a mountain of links collected by teachers as examples of "technology integration" to share with other teachers. Mind you, the mountain represents only a minute amount of content available on the internet---and the selections made by the groups varies quite a bit in terms of focus. Some picked resources for teachers to use as lesson plans...others went heavy on the "tools" and left their uses wide open. There were groups who picked simple wordsearch games and those who selected projects to flex students' critical thinking. Since I was not involved with these groups, viewing the work has been a bit of an anthropological project. I don't necessarily agree that all of their choices were the best of what's out there on the interwebs, but the variety does say something about how teachers view the use of the internet in their classrooms.

It has left me wondering: What is linkworthy?

With young students, teachers have to make very conscious choices about what they ask students to write. Young minds and hands have only so much attention and motor skills---whatever you ask of them must be of the utmost importance to capture. I am starting to think about time on the computer the same way. The fact is, most classrooms do not have access to a computer lab very often. Perhaps there are only a few computers in the room at any given time with lab days sprinkled in a few times a year. For the precious time that there is, do we want students doing a wordsearch on the computer...or do we want students to learn about advanced search functions in Google?

I can't help but think of Elaine and her horde of sponges...having to think carefully about whether or not a suitor was "sponge worthy." Perhpas we should be as picky and miserly with our computer time with students.

How do you decide what links to collect and share with peers and students? What makes a link worthy of your attention?

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Story Time

18 October 2009

I taught myself to read when I was 2. We had those 45 records (except for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which needed a 33 RPM job) with the companion books. Somehow, listening to those and following along was enough to divine which sounds went with which symbols and the rest followed from there. Reading for pleasure has been a part of my life ever since. I like having books around the house as well as sharing and trading them with friends.

I have not, however, bought a Kindle. This is not because they aren't handy or cool. I know people you have them and love them. I am tempted to get one every time I hold one in my hands or hear how people are using them in different ways. While I appreciate what this piece of technology does, it's what it can't do that keeps me from buying one: It cannot provide the tactile and interactive experience of a book. What researchers are wondering is whether or not these sorts of cues impact the ability to read and process information, especially for young children (from Science Daily: Storybooks on Paper Better for Children):
Clicking and scrolling interrupt our attentional focus. Turning and touching the pages instead of clicking on the screen influence our ability for experience and attention. The physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, not related to the reading itself, disturb our mental appreciation, says associate professor Anne Mangen at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway. She has investigated the pros and cons of new reading devices.

Mangen maintains that reading on a screen generates a new form of mental orientation. The reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen.

"Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that," Mangen believes.

Somehow, the idea of sitting down with a little one and a Kindle does not make for the same pleasant imagery as a child with an actual picture book. I have to wonder if it is possible at all to replace that.

I like turning pages---seeing the progress I've made through a novel. When I'm using a text for work or professional development, I want my pad of sticky notes handy to make notes to place in the book. I enjoy seeing the layout of text on a page---the choices of fonts and margins and headings. With all the wonderful things a Kindle can do, it is not (currently) able to replace any of these. College students who are piloting the use of Kindles as a substitute for texts are discovering the same disadvantages, but they also have some compliments (from eSchool News):

Most like how light the device is--just over a pound--and many would be willing to overlook technical hassles if it meant not having to carry any books. Most still had to buy and carry textbooks for non-Kindle classes this fall.

Students also were impressed with the "electronic ink" screen, which Amazon touts as far easier on the eyes than reading off a computer monitor. But it can't be backlit, disappointing one student who wants to read during dark early-morning bus commutes.

Kraizel, the Case Western freshman, says always having the Kindle with her has improved her study habits. It's much easier to cram in a few minutes of studying between classes, she says, and she's noticed that when she sits down for a serious study session she's more familiar with the material.

The Kindle also can do things books can't, like read homework aloud. Una Hopkins, a 46-year-old student in the nurse-practitioner program at Pace University in New York, got five chapters finished that way when she was stuck in traffic.

"It was robotic, but it got me where I needed to go," Hopkins says.

The device's usefulness goes beyond textbooks: Another Washington grad student in computer science, Franziska Roesner, has used the web browser to read and write eMail when she's away from her computer. It's slow, but it worked, she says.

And sometimes its uses go beyond productivity entirely. Students at Arizona State have found the Minesweeper video game that comes with the device. They've also figured out how to download music.

Roesner, who was steeped in Kindle hype as an intern at Amazon over the past two summers, lamented the device's problems with PDFs, which make up the bulk of this quarter's assignments. Still, she won't write off e-readers.

"If reading devices like this really come to replace reading paper," she wrote in an eMail, "I think in 20 years we'll look back at the Kindle with nostalgic affection and amusement, like we now look back at 1990s computers."

The quote at the end makes me smile. I can't be the only one who remembers learning to program in BASIC on a Tandy computer (or who had Apple IIe computers in my classroom when I started teaching). I think the point is well taken in that we can expect several iterations and evolutions of eReaders in the coming years. Until I can choose how to interact with the information on the screen, I'll stick with my analog books in this digital world.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

08 October 2009

You might recall that I am on the hunt for rubrics and other tools that support the evaluation of student skills in educational technology (and/or "21st century learning"). In my opinion, a lot of the problem with developing these sorts of things is that we are trying to capture and deliver feedback on skills that defy quantification. Can one consistently rate how well a student innovates? collaborates? thinks critically or creatively?

I am not any closer on developing these kinds of resources; however, two pieces I read last week are prodding my thinking along. The first came from the Harvard Business Review and represented an interview with the authors of a "six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews" to identify five discovery skills these innovators have in common: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Of these, the ability to associate (make connections between disparate pieces of information) was seen as the most important; but, it's really the synergy among these things that leads to inquisitiveness.
We think there are far more discovery driven people in companies than anyone realizes. We've found that 15% of executives are deeply innovative, meaning they've invented a new product or started an innovative venture. But the problem is that even the most creative people are often careful about asking questions for fear of looking stupid, or because they know the organization won't value it...

If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they're grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Is this true for schools---both the adults within them, as well as the students? As much as I hate to admit it, we do drum out curiosity and value conformity over time. I don't know that technology will change that, but I do think it will return some of the power of learning to students. The more tools a student has at hand to demonstrate their knowledge, the greater value we place on variety. That being said, not everyone is going to grow up to be Steve Jobs...but not everyone will have to grow up to be Bubba, either.

More intriguing was this image from Inverting Bloom's Taxonomy by Sam Weinburg and Jack Schneider:


They report on a task given to two groups of history students. One group was comprised of AP US History students...the other graduate students in the field of history. Each participant was provided "a document and asked...to read it 'historically,' articulating what he thought the piece was about, raising questions about its historical circumstances, and sharing insights about the text...The document was a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892."

As you might imagine, the two groups of students approached the task differently. AP students "marshaled background knowledge about Columbus and worked [their] way toward the Bloomian peak, eventually challenging President Harrison’s praise for Columbus with his own critical alternative. [The] response, though unpolished and in need of elaboration, seems like critical thinking. And that’s how the teachers we interviewed generally saw it." As for the graduate students...

From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.”

Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.

Why, the young historians wanted to know, did Harrison make this particular declaration at this particular moment? Over and over, as they puzzled through the document, they asked “why?” In our dozens of interviews with high school students, not a single one ever did so.

Light bulbs soon started popping for the young historians. “The 1890s, the beginning of the Progressive Era, end of the century, closing of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, you’ve got the Columbian Exposition coming up the following year. Biggest wave of immigration in U.S. history.” This one was on the scent. And then …

“That’s it!”

At the end of the 19th century, America was getting a makeover. Seemingly overnight, immigration had transformed the country’s look, bringing “Slavs,” “Alpines,” “Hebrews,” “Iberics,” and “Mediterraneans” to the United States. Among these newcomers were millions of Irish and Italian immigrants who formed a new political interest group—urban Catholics. Harrison, in honoring Columbus, was pandering. “Discovery Day” appealed to millions of new voters by bringing them, along with a hero who was one of their own, into the fold.

Mystery solved.

Now that’s critical thinking...

To the historians, questions began at the base of the pyramid: “What am I looking at?” one asked. “A diary? A secret communiqué? A government pronouncement?” They wanted to know when it was written and what else was going on at the time. For them, critical thinking meant determining the knowledge they needed to better understand the document and its time. Faced with something unfamiliar, they framed questions that would help them understand the fullness of the past. They looked up from the text curious, puzzled, and provoked. They ended their reading with new questions, ready to learn. The high school students, on the other hand, typically encountered this document and issued judgments. In doing so, they closed the book on learning.

Does this illustrate how curiosity becomes closed by some classrooms? In our zealousness to teach facts and figures, have we emphasized the right answer too much...and the right question not enough?

While I may be no closer in knowing how to evaluate curiosity and innovation in the classroom, I am appreciative of these reminders to build in supports for these skills along the way. Perhaps the instructional resources I gather and share will be grounded there. Maybe the answer to evaluating students' use of instructional technology will be the questions they create.

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Once and Future Learning

02 October 2009

There's been a lot of rumbling at the state and federal levels about "continuity of learning," should the H1N1 virus (or other disaster) prevent schools from operating normally. Both the ASCD blog and Education Week have recently focused some screen time to these topics.

From ASCD:
ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter emphasizes that in addition to prevention and monitoring efforts, schools must consider how they plan to support continuous learning, both for individual students who are home for extended periods of time with the flu and for the whole student body if the virus spreads widely and forces school closures.

“Some estimates indicate H1N1 could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, which translates into considerable classroom disruption and absenteeism,” Carter writes. “Students in the same class could end up in wildly different places in the curriculum. Meanwhile, entire classes could fall behind if their teachers are out sick for several days.”

He suggests educators form professional learning communities to help them work together to assess knowledge and skills when students return to school and develop plans for instructional next steps.

If the swine flu plays out in these numbers, then there is no doubt about the disruption to the educational process. I wonder if it is more disruptive to try to keep schools open than to shut down during the peak of infection. This does not mean that staff and students would conveniently all be ill and well simultaneously, but considering the every student/class in a different place of learning at any given moment...why not slow things down for everyone instead? How is a sick teacher supposed to plan for students who may or may not be there themselves?

This is where the e-learning ramp up could play a role, as Education Week suggests. Suppose a teacher posts assignments to their website/Moodle site or e-mails students with lessons. Will this work?

To a point. We are going to have to assume that every child has internet access at home (all with the same bandwidth) and time to use it. This is not guaranteed in a one-computer household with many members. We also have to assume a "one size fits all" lesson---at this time, I suspect that few teachers are going to offer accommodations for ELL, SPED, etc. We are also going to have to assume that every teacher is equally savvy about the tools available for these kinds of lessons and how to use them.

All in all, I don't think that we're ready to offer an alternative learning environment in case of a pandemic...and we're not going to be ready by winter.

I do think that e-learning will be a typical part of future classrooms...a blended model of brick-and-mortar and virtual learning. At that point, it will be a simpler extension and expectation to go all virtual all the time for short periods. If we are truly going to be prepared for a widespread flu epidemic this winter, we need to look at some realistic discussions about what continuity of learning looks like in 2009-2010.

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Measuring Up

28 September 2009

Catching Up or Leading the Way is the most recent tome sent to me through my ASCD membership. Written by Yong Zhao, who was educated under the Chinese system, the book examines the whole "grass is always greener" machinations happening between the U.S. and China/India when it comes to education. In the west, we tend to believe that the hours, discipline, and testing present in the east represent a better system. After all, the Chinese are kicking ass and chewing bubble gum when it comes to international comparisons of student achievement. Zhao points out that the Chinese, on the other hand, are working to implement a more American approach because it allows for a workforce with more critical and creative thinking skills.

If you've been around the educational block, then the early chapters of the book will hold no surprises for you. Zhao does a nice job of summarizing the current American NCLB situation and how we got here. I'm curious to see where he goes from here in promoting "what schools can---and must---do to meet the challenges and opportunities brought about by globalization and technology."

What has me intrigued at this point in the book is Zhao's comparison between the benefits of biological diversity and diversity of talent in the workforce. He mentions the strength of populations which are not genetically identical. (Go, sex, go!) They are able to better adapt to changing environments. So, too, can countries adapt to changing economic times. I find this concept interesting, but Zhao has left out two important considerations.

First of all, while sexual reproduction results in variation and adaptability---asexual reproduction also has advantages. My students could never get that past "What fun would that be?" idea; however, the benefits include being able to become established in a new area quickly and jack up your population numbers in short order. You also save a lot of energy this way. No need for pesky mating dances or other displays. People who think lack of diversity is a species killer obviously haven't had to deal with dandelions in their yards.

If we take this a step farther and try to place it into Zhao's comparison between genetics and schools/workers, what does that get us? Is the standards-based education movement the amoeba of models?

Which brings me to my second thought on all of this. The argument that Zhao is making is that the standards movement is stamping out individuality and diversity of thinking---that in our bid to become more China-like in our systems we are losing the one thing that makes American education different: the belief in the individual...the can do. I believe there is some truth there---that the constant comparison by the US to other countries is leading to more of a focus on what we aren't, as opposed to building on strengths. An emphasis on testing is not a replacement for an emphasis on thinking. However, these are outcomes and are not the only possibilities. I also think that most teachers would claim that the standards movement is eliminating individuality and creativity in their instruction---not student thinking.

I do not believe that the [insert country of choice which outperforms US on international comparisons of student achievement] do it this way, therefore it must be the better way to teach X is the right starting place. It's knee-jerk and not purposeful. (And makes about as much sense as the Obama administration saying that we should lengthen the school day/year because that's what other countries do. Talk to me about what's best for kids, would you?) I do, however, think that the standards-based movement has the ability to ensure that students end up with choices. A student who is not expected to read, do math, write, and/or think scientifically ends up with very few choices as an adult. I really don't think this is the kind of diversity that we're after and will do nothing to break the cycle of poverty.

Zhao is right in that academic tests are not the only measure of a student's proficiency and talents; but standards are not inherently evil and not all testing is bad. It's what we do with them and why we do it that makes the difference. In the end, I keep coming back to instruction---that critical link between standards and assessment and the aspect most often ignored. It's the instruction where the magic happens with learning. It's the instruction where diversity of both teachers and students is honoured. And until it becomes part of the conversation, the rest of this discussion is no different than a "Mine's bigger than yours!" sort of argument among nations. Everyone knows that it's not the size of your (test scores; population) that matters, it's what you do with it. What's your position?

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Road to Nowhere

27 September 2009

When I visit schools to talk about grading practices, the number one issue/roadblock that teachers tell me about is their online gradebooks. There are a variety of factors that concern teachers (not all of these occur in every school/district):
  • Their school or district requires them to post grades a certain number of times/week.
  • The school or district decides the grading categories and/or comments.
  • The software only computes and displays averages.
  • The software automatically uses zeros for missing assignments.
I'm ambivalent about the use of online gradebooks as communication tools. I understand the intent of enabling families to have a better idea about student progress---hoping to eliminate the "Surprise! Your student isn't passing the class!" bombshell. The basic problem really is the limitations of the software. Teachers are automatically locked into one---and only one---representation of a grade. Some have told me that they can go in and override the final score, but this is a laborious process (and not realistic to manage each time a new score is entered). With the sheer volume of students at secondary and subject areas at elementary, most teachers are unhappy with having to jump through hoop after hoop. And they fear the repercussions from parents who have watched a student's grade like the stock market, only to not see a match between online gradebook and paper report card. In other words, teachers think that these tools are making grades less fair to students.

Are you listening school administrators? Please don't pigeon hole your teachers and handicap your students in order to CYA with some software.

Moving on...

Education Week's Digital Directions is also outlining some other risks for districts to consider. The biggest one has to do with security:
Along with the benefits, potential problems are associated with online gradebooks, and security of confidential data is may be the biggest one. Some of the information contained in a gradebook system is likely to be protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law that outlines what student information schools must keep private. So a technical glitch in the system that opens such information to the public could mean big trouble for schools.
Not to mention hacking or other unwanted manipulations. Beyond that, however, are the costs: hardware, human resources, training for teachers, site licenses, upgrades, and more.
Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the key to using a successful gradebook system is training, and that costs money, too. Roberts of the Washington County schools in Utah learned that the hard way....

Roberts estimates that PowerSchool costs the district $130,000 a year for the product, plus additional costs for maintenance of the 14 servers that handle the database and applications. He has two employees who do nothing but maintain the PowerSchool system.

If you're out shopping for a new online gradebook system, the article provides a nice list of options (although I don't know how many you can sample). At the end of the day, however, schools and districts need to be think carefully about whether or not the benefits to such a system outweigh all of the costs. Until there are some significant improvements to the software, I would recommend staying with the systems currently in place. We already know what happens when good intentions are used as pavers.

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Modern Problems

21 September 2009

Part of my job includes guiding the fulfillment of the following legislative requirement:
Within funds specifically appropriated therefor, the superintendent shall obtain or develop education technology assessments that may be administered in the elementary, middle, and high school grades to assess the essential academic learning requirements for technology. The assessments shall be designed to be classroom or project-based so that they can be embedded in classroom instruction and be administered and scored by school staff throughout the regular school year using consistent scoring criteria and procedures. By the 2010-11 school year, these assessments shall be made available to school districts for the districts' voluntary use.
Kind of exciting, don't you think? I do. My mind has been abuzz with all sorts of ways that these "classroom or project-based" assessments could look. (Tech standards are here, in case you're interested to see what we will attempt to assess.) My goal is to make sure that these assessments rock so hard that teachers will just have to have them, even though it is voluntary. Most of my focus right now is on gathering resources that might be useful for the task ahead. Some things I've learned along the way:
  • NCLB requires that every school with 8th graders report a measure of those students' technology literacy. This does not mean a formal assessment is required---most states are sliding along using a simple survey or reporting tool.
  • According to the most recent version of Education Week's annual Technology Counts report, only 13 states had some sort of assessment of technology skills. Of those, 6 are using a canned on-line test, 4 have their own online versions of a test (I couldn't see what was behind the curtain), and 3 are a complete mystery---nary a shred of evidence on the state department of education websites (most of which are painful, at best, to navigate).
  • Bottom line: I'm hanging out on my own here. Sigh.
To that end, I've been scouring the interwebs, looking for any classroom examples of assessments and rubrics targeting educational technology and/or "21st Century Learning Skills." The good news is that there are lots of nice examples of assessments/projects (unlike the NY ones I shared last week). The bad news is that the rubrics are useless in nearly every case. Keep in mind that I am required by law to develop something with "consistent scoring criteria and procedures."



The problem is that most projects which ostensibly use educational technology end up with rubrics that assess other things, such as writing or speaking skills. These rubrics aren't bad. I have no beef with them other than they supply no way to measure the students understanding and use of technology. Those are the real targets we're after. I find this lack of presence not only frustrating, but careless. With all the passion being put into the educational mindset about 21st century skills---why doesn't anyone at least make some sort of effort to measure them? If we believe that the sorts of tools and thinking that occurs in a "modern" learning environment are important...why do we have no way to provide feedback to students about this? I don't buy the argument that only the product matters. When we say we are placing value on innovation and creativity using educational technology---then there must be some better guidance than "I'll know it when I see it."

I do think that I'm on the right track with rubrics that incorporate thinking skills or focus on the qualities of educational technology products (e.g. What makes for a good podcast?), but this all feels like very new territory. This is odd when I am more or less late to this game. Many others have been focusing on educational technology far longer and more deeply than I. I have no doubts whatsoever as to the high quality of lessons and instruction out there. I just wonder if kids are getting the scores and feedback that they should have.

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It Wasn't Always Like This

19 September 2009

You might not know it, but way back when I was a brand new teacher and working on my Master's, my area of focus was Gifted Ed. I actually did put the degree to some use when I lived in NM as there, gifted children fall under Special Ed rules. They are placed on IEPs and receive special services. In Washington? I can't say that ever used what I'd learned about identifying gifted children and developing program needs. (Here, students only have to score well on an IQ test and a state assessment. Not much "gifted" about that...just smart.)

However, I can't say that the investment in my education was a total loss. The classes I took were very specific about how to construct learning experiences for gifted students---how to challenge them and access higher levels of thinking. Things that were, in fact, good for every student and should not have been reserved for a select few.

It dawned on me the other day that perhaps schools are reaching a point where the "special" instruction for g/t kids is (finally) becoming the norm for everyone. This both saddens me (Why did it take SO long?) and delights me (W00t! It's finally happening!). I think it may well be a result of technology driving that change. Perhaps a lot of what happens inside the classroom is the same-old same-old. But outside? It's a different story in terms of how kids are choosing to connect and learn. We have new "verbs" now for the kind of work students undertake.

I had this little Aha! while I was continuing the hunt for the elusive technology assessment/rubric. (This is truly a snipe hunt, if there ever was one...more on that in another post.) It started with this image from Educational Origami:


I had seen the reimagined Bloom's Taxonomy before...but not with the addition of web 2.0 sorts of skills...which then got me thinking about rubric descriptors for products...and reminded me of all the g/t file folders in my basement all stuffed with skills assessment stuff. It's the Circle of Professional Life, fer cryin' out loud. I'm back where I started, except this time, those musty old g/t folders are going to be put to use for every child. Every child. Maybe that wasn't the case in the past, but from now on, them's the rules.

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Kickin' It Old School

17 September 2009

I've been on the hunt recently for high-quality examples of assessments and rubrics for educational technology. So far, these items appear to be as rare as "ghosts, goblins, virgins, and other mythical creatures." I've found several multiple-choice tests for tech literacy. Yawn. It's far more amusing to find examples of assessments past their expiration date.

Consider Exhibits A and B (shown below) from Standard 5 of the Math, Science, and Technology curriculum from New York. But before we get there, note the cautionary tale posted on the website:
Some of the learning experiences sections are very graphically intensive in order to show the detail of student work. As an example, the 28 Learning Standards file (1310K) took 10.5 minutes to download on a 486/66 PC using a 28.8 modem and Windows 3.11. It took 35 minutes to print on a Canon 600 InkJet printer. It took less than 5 minutes on a laser printer. Your experiences may vary. If you have lower end equipment, your experience will be considerably slower. Many older printers with limited graphics capabilities may not be able to print these sections. Other printers may run out of memory. You may be able to get around this by printing in smaller pieces.
Yes, friends...these tech lessons/targets/assessments are brought to you fresh from the year 1996. They are vintage tasks. Antiques, as it were.

So, assuming that you've dusted off your 2880 baud modem...here are a couple of things for your students to do.


I got the giggles with this one. A coworker was convinced the book title was "Moose Code," until I corrected her. Is that a walkie talkie I see in the top set of, um, art? And keyboard keys attempting to escape the tech ghetto they're in? Why is there a ballpoint pen in the same set as the bongos? Do you think the floppy disk bay in the computer is for a 3.5" disk...or is really old school and awaiting a 5.25" version? I love the lines around the clip art. Somebody really did physically cut and paste these pictures. (Wonder if the images are/were copyright-free?)

But the best was yet to come:


If you can't read the task (and don't want to "click to embiggen" the graphic), you're missing the following suggestion: "...design a plan for the construction of a homemade radio speaker for the eight ohm speaker jack on an inexpensive transistor radio or cassette recorder."

We have a veritable museum of technology options.

Hey, I understand that websites have a tendency to grow beyond their original borders. It's easy to forget what pages are live and the paths they take. There's probably a lot of information from 1996 still floating around on state department of education websites.



But do you see what I see in the bottom right corner of the page? It says "Last Updated: May 27, 2009." Someone looked at this a few months ago and considered it current enough to keep. Does this mean these standards and assessments are still in use? Please, NY, please tell me you have something less than 13 years old for 13-year olds to work with...something a bit less old school.

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Getting a Boost

05 September 2009

Is it just me, or is STEM shaping up to be the Acronym of the Year for 2009 - 2010 schools? If it's new to you, it represents "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," both as individual pursuits and collectively. (Maybe it should be "S, T, E and/or M.") There continues to be some voices of concern about the lack of U.S. graduates in these areas, although other evidence suggests that the country is doing just fine. We can't compete with the sheer number of graduates from China and India due to population number differences as it is. However, student interests should be fostered, no matter where they might occur.

Two tools have recently emerged to guide schools in their efforts to identify and support STEM students.

Via Education Week (Science Panel Seeks Ways to Fan Innovation), it appears that the National Science Board has been focusing on "how can schools produce more mathematics and science students with a distinct and harder-to-define skill: the ability to innovate and become future innovators in American business, science, medicine, and other areas..." noting that policymakers have "become increasingly keen in recent years on providing new and different academic challenges for elite students...Members of the expert committee said their final report will likely have to address several questions. What are the characteristics of an innovator—ability, interest, determination, curiosity, or all of those traits? What separates innovative ability from other, related skills, such as creativity? And can math and science classroom instruction and assessment in the United States realistically be revamped to nurture innovation among students?"

Should be an interesting report to keep an eye out for.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report on an open-source (but not free) tool from the Gates Foundation that "will simulate how schools can draw students to STEM fields most effectively--a trend that would bolster the science and engineering workforce...The program can test more than 200 variables that could better inform policy makers about how programs should be funded. The model measures graduation and dropout rates, gender gaps in STEM fields, teacher and STEM industry salaries, and educator attrition rates, among other factors. 'Whether it's the answer, I don't know," said Sternheim, director of the STEM Educational Institute for 20 years. "But it could be a piece of the answer. It might even make a real difference.'"

That quote doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me, but there are some guinea pigs in Ohio, Arizona, and California who will use the software first. If it "might even make a real difference," we should know in a few years...although by then, we could well be looking for some real way to give STEM students a boost.

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Technology Literacy

01 September 2009

I was recently ruminating about the constriction of internet filters on teaching and learning in most classrooms. I wonder how this thinly-veiled censorship will impact students' ability to perform on the upcoming Technology Literacy NAEP. To be sure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is neither high-stakes (i.e. not tied to graduation or a school's/district's Adequate Yearly Progress) nor a part of most classrooms; however, it is one-way to get a comparative snapshot of learning across the 50 states.

An article in the last edition of Education Week by Sean Cavanagh (reg. req'd.) revealed that the first draft of the standards for the national assessment of technology literacy has been made available. The draft represents a "framework for the national assessment of technological literacy, the first to gauge students’ understanding of and skill in using a range of tools."

The computer-based National Assessment of Educational Progress in technological literacy, scheduled to be administered to a representative sample of the nation’s 4th, 8th, and 12th graders for the first time in 2012, will evaluate students’ understanding of technology tools and their design, the ways they can be used to gather information and communicate ideas, and their impact on society...

When it is made final, the framework will guide the design of the assessment. The draft defines technological literacy as the “general understanding of technology coupled with a capability to use, manage, and assess the technologies that are most relevant in one’s life, such as the information and communication technologies that are particularly salient in the world today.”

The committee embraced a broad definition of technology that ranges from automobiles to computers, including many of the tools that are used in daily life.

Students may be tested on their knowledge of the kinds of tools that are available and how they are used, along with their ability to apply technological concepts to solve problems. They may be given tasks that demonstrate their ability to use various technology platforms to communicate information or collect and analyze data, evaluate information, and suggest a technology solution to a given problem.

While the assessment is meant to gauge a broad range of skills that are considered essential to technological literacy, the test design may be limited in its ability to measure some areas, the draft states, such as the habits of mind and critical-thinking skills that are considered essential to a deeper understanding and use of technology.

“This is an important development, I can say that without reservations because technological literacy is such a critical element of being a successful 21st - century citizen,” said Valerie Greenhill, the director of strategic initiatives for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group. “The progression being made in the technology community away from the notion of just technology competence, such as how to use a computer, to … developing that literacy with the use of technology in daily life and in core academic subjects as well is incredibly important. To the extent that the NAEP is developing a framework that guides the development of these competencies is a welcome move.”

A number of states have implemented tests of technology or information literacy, and most have adopted the national K-12 standards in the field produced by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) committee that has been devising the framework has reviewed state technology standards, studies on assessing technology skills, and the guidelines and recommendations of ISTE and other organizations.

“We want students to understand that technology is not just computers,” said Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, who co-chaired the framework committee. The center is based at WestEd, a research organization in San Francisco.

The goal, Ms. Raizen said at a meeting earlier this month where the draft was unveiled, is to understand “the human design world, where do things come from, where does our technology come from.”

She and others involved in the project say the material represented in the framework could be covered in science class, but also in subjects across the curriculum, such as mathematics, history, social studies, and language arts.

“We’ve seen movement for reading across the curriculum, writing across the curriculum,” Mr. Friedman said. “Well, technology across the curriculum makes as much sense as those do.”

Indeed. I have only given the draft a cursory review, but things look to be on the right track. I worry about the ability to assess many of the targets outside of the classroom---however, that does not make for poor targets. The ideas are general enough that they truly could be embedded with nearly any curriculum. And, most importantly (to me), they include the concept that technology is not just stuff. On the flipside, do teachers need another set of standards to think about? (No.) Will schools embrace technology standards? (Unlikely at the current time, given the focus on literacy/math and placement of filters.) But perhaps these are good "ammo" for those trying to beat down the filters and/or justify cell phones in their classrooms or any other of the myriad battles being fought betwixt those in the trenches and policy-makers outside. It's a start.

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Make It Stop

28 August 2009

Since making the decision to move into the realm of educational technology, I've had one common reaction from teachers: Make them take off the filters. By "them," they mean their districts' policy people (and IT staff)...and by "filters," they mean anything blocking the use of web tools in their classrooms.

I feel their pain. In 2005, I tried blogging with my AP students...only to have repeated junk from IT shoved in my face to kill the project. In 2008, I had to turn my class into outlaws in order to use GoogleDocs to write lesson plans for 5-year old children. I can name any number of other instances where IT caused maximum damage to the instructional process. Since then, I've had people outside the district tell me that the "neanderthals" running the filter there have one of the most restrictive set of practices in the entire state.

All this being said, I am not in a position to make any changes to the ways districts do business...much as teachers here would like. There are few things that can be done at the state level when local control governs things. However, I can certainly do a lot of modeling of tools and listen and suggest to teachers when and wherever possible.

The past few weeks have been particularly interesting for me on Twitter, as I see how many teachers are frustrated by similar restrictions. I'm sorry, IT people, but you can't blame everything on limited bandwidth and/or CIPA. Don't tell me that you're just following what the school board says, because we know better. We know that the board doesn't tell you to block specific sites---that kids are not allowed to participate in Nings or build wikis to show their learning. You interpret guidelines...and, frankly, some of you are doing it wrong.


When I saw this tweet the other day, my heart sank at first. You see, for all its flaws I really do believe in public education. But it needs to pull its head out of...the dark ages...and allow more flexibility in instruction and learning. Now, I am thinking that parents like Alec may be the ones who provide the tipping point to get the filters scaled back (at minimum) and removed (at best). Teachers are ignored where this issue is concerned...kids are in a powerless position (and usually excluded from conversations regarding instruction and tools). Here's hoping that someone can make it stop.

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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Numbers

27 August 2009

Via Chart Porn (you heard me), the last in a long series of links, was this little gem (click to embiggen):


This is life as a series of months---with each blob representing a month in an average lifespan...and the colored blobs the average points for becoming a parent, etc. I like this idea. I see some interesting potential, both personal and for the classroom.

Or perhaps you've seen Personas from MIT---a place where information about you is aggregated from across the web to show you how the web sees you. Here is what it displayed for "Science Goddess." (Sadly, there was only one analysis available for my real name...but 17 for my alias.) The largest bands, as you might imagine are for "online," "education," and "social." Not sure why "sports" (in yellow) is so broad, but I am also not the only "science goddess" running around on the internet.



I've been collecting more and more examples of data visualization recently. So far, there are few fancy tools for the layperson, but I have to think it won't be long before a variety of tools are both readily available and simple to use. I can't help but think that these could be powerful for schools. Do we need people in school districts who crunch test score numbers for us...or do we need people who can show us the meaning within than numbers? We need some of both. Here's hoping we have the right tools soon.

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Push It

26 July 2009

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a meeting where the quality of the image being projected was awful. We were supposed to be able to read a document---and even though it was in focus, the contrast was terrible. After I realized that everyone else was just going to accept things as they were, I waited for a break in the action and went up and adjusted the projector. Voila! Now we could actually read what we were provided.

The reaction from other participants was...interesting. Grateful as they were, it had never occurred to any of them that they could make things better themselves. I must, by default, possess some mystical knowledge of LCD projectors---I had a magic touch. The truth is much simpler than that: I'm just not afraid to push a few buttons. The image already sucked---what was the worst that could happen by pushing the "menu" button and navigating via the arrow keys? The machine wasn't going to blow up. No people or animals would be harmed.

Is it really so terrifying to play? Is it so much to ask that when faced with a situation or decision, that we stop for a moment and ask ourselves "Is there a better way of handling this?"

I have come back to this theme in my mind a couple of times since the Great LCD Projector Event of 2009. I was sitting in (yet) another meeting a few weeks ago where several players needed to coordinate a calendar of events. Their solution? Develop a calendar in Excel that they could e-mail to one another and update. Okay, so that is one way to accomplish the goal. I happen to think it's a rather poor one. How do you know who has the most updated version? Who "owns" the document and communicates changes? What do you do when more than one participant needs to work on the document? We weren't going to put any secure information on the calendar---merely due dates for the different people and elements involved. Wouldn't it be better to use something like a Google Calendar that everyone could have access to at once and update/edit/view?

I watched several teachers struggle over the last two weeks with what are (to me) some very basic elements of Word and Excel: adding rows, wrapping text, inserting graphics, editing headers, and so forth. We didn't ask the teachers to do anything fancy, mind you, but as I watched some of them labor over trying to do things like add a row to a spreadsheet or table...I realized that my future job will be much more challenging than I first realized.

How do I move teachers into using web-based tools and other technology when their mindset is not based around "There must be a better way."? When they're either not curious or are afraid to just push a button?

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Seat Time

19 July 2009

I've been thinking a lot about "seat time" recently---and whether or not it equates to anything meaningful. Mind you, most of my thoughts have been related to my personal situation with determining whether or not to take the new job. The leadership philosophy that goes along with my current job kinda boils down to seat time. The idea is that the absolute most productive way to get the job done is for me to spend 40 hours/week in one chair at a particular location. I just can't quite buy this. Maybe it's because I'm more of a "learner-centered" educator...maybe it's because I think that accountability should be a higher bar than butts in seats. I may very well be off the mark---I can't deny that in the classroom, students who are habitually missing from class often struggle to meet the standards. But I'm not talking about being absent from a job---just sitting in a different location during the work day. I'm looking for a "blended model" of in person and on-line working environment. From what I've been reading, it would appear that many students are, too---and those who find this situation are successful.

The U.S. Department of Education has released a study finding that good teaching is further enhanced with technology.
A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning. Of these, 46 met the high bar for quality that was required for the studies to be included in the analysis. The meta analysis showed that “blended” instruction – combining elements of online and face-to-face instruction – had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online. The analysis also showed that the instruction conducted wholly on line was more effective in improving student achievement than the purely face to face instruction. In addition, the report noted that the blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions...

Few rigorous research studies have been published on the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students. The systematic search found just five experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K-12 students. For this reason, caution is required in generalizing the study’s findings to the K-12 population because the results are for the most part based on studies in other settings, such as in medical, career, military training, and higher education.

“Studies of earlier generations of distance and online learning courses have concluded that they are usually as effective as classroom-based instruction,” said Marshall “Mike” Smith, a Senior Counselor to the secretary. “The studies of more recent online instruction included in this meta-analysis found that, on average, online learning, at the post-secondary level, is not just as good as but more effective than conventional face-to-face instruction...”

One of the things I like about this report is that it makes the case that technology is not just stuff. It's not about the Interactive White Boards. This is not about using cell phones and/or "clickers" in the classroom. It's not about how many handhelds you have. It's about extending the classroom in space and time through on-line options. Hardware is awesome---but it cannot necessarily have the universal applications that a blog, wiki, or cloud computing can have.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report that students want more on-line options. (See? I'm not the only one who wants to work from home now and then.)

Despite a growing interest in online learning among students, the availability of online classes in K-12 schools and districts hasn't kept pace with the demand, according to a new report from Project Tomorrow and Blackboard Inc.

According to the report, more than 40 percent of sixth through 12th graders have researched or demonstrated interest in taking a course online, but only 10 percent have actually taken an online course through their school. Meanwhile, 7 percent of middle school students and 4 percent of high school students instead have pursued opportunities outside their school to take online courses--underscoring the disconnect between the supply and demand for online learning in today's schools...

The report suggests that K-12 students want to pursue online learning to gain more control of their own learning experience, have access to more courses, and work at their own pace. But middle and high school students continue to have different priorities for taking online classes, the report says: Older students were most likely to desire online classes to earn college credit, while younger students would pursue online learning to get extra help in a subject.

There is a lot of talk about "personalizing instruction" these days. I don't know that on-line options are the best for every grade and/or subject, but I do think that this is one way to reach some students.
When asked why learning through an online class might make school more interesting, 47 percent of nine through 12th graders, 39 percent of six through eighth graders, and one in four third through fifth graders said they want to learn online to "be in control of my learning." Students don't expect courses to be easier online, but they do expect the online format to make it easier for them to succeed, because they can review materials when they want and are more comfortable asking teachers for help.
Being in control of one's own learning (or work) doesn't seem like such a terrible idea, does it? If we are after lifelong learning and independent workers, it would seem that we need to broaden our definition of seat time.

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Ready, Set...

15 April 2009

I don't think Washington is different from any other state when it comes to its current economic situation. We're in trouble---with the state facing a $9B shortfall in the next biennium. Budget cuts are getting ugly, especially for education. Of course, one of the first things to get thrown out is money for professional development. While various organizations scramble for the few dollars which will be left, I wonder if it's time to really scale up on-line forms of PD.

I was remembering two EdTech incarnations from the past year. They have been around for a few years, but this was my first year to "attend." The first was the K12 Online Conference. I was a bit sporadic in my presence there; however, that really didn't matter. Even now, you can go watch any presentation and learn to your heart's content. You can do so by yourself or with a learning circle in your building. Ditto for Educon. I liked being able to hang out on my couch on a Sunday morning, watching a UStreamed panel presentation and participating in the backchannel discussion with people from all over.

I believe that these formats would work just as well for other topics: science, math, art, primary, RtI, etc. Personally, I'd love to see more conferences and wiki "archives" like Educon. With fewer dollars for PD and an ever growing need for focus on student achievement, we have to find different ways to support teachers. What I wonder, however, is how many educators would be willing to participate in this way. It's different---it's asynchronous...it may be something you do by yourself (and therefore miss out on conversation)....it may not be as interactive in terms of getting questions answered. Does that make it too weird to engage with for the average (in terms of tech savvyness) teacher? If so, what sorts of supports do we need to put in place?

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Social Experiment

22 January 2009

As social networking things go, a blog is fairly low on the totem pole. A writer like me chooses their own content and design. There is some interaction between readers and me, but it is only a step above a static website. I do have a couple of wikis here and there for various projects, and while they have not achieved the level of interaction and collaboration I would like, I appreciate the potential of a shared space. Ditto for Google Docs. In the past year, I've added Twitter to my tool set and have grown to love and depend on it. Even though all of these spaces are different in the purposes they serve and the connections they create, they seem to work for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I added Facebook to the mix. Hey, everybody's doing it, right?

I'm not sure that I get it. I've been telling people that it feels like remedial Twitter to me. Sure, it's nice to connect with a long lost friend or classmate...but then what? We only know one another as we existed decades ago and it is unreasonable to assume that whatever commonalities we shared then are in place now. People grow and change with time. I do have a few current friends added to my Facebook page, but for the most part, these are people I see or e-mail/text regularly. There are better ways (for me) to keep up.

When I think about this blog, the wikis, and Twitter, they lead to new learning for me. I get to meet and interact with people who share my current interests and who challenge me to think and move forward. My now and future selves are found in these networks. I struggle with understanding the need for one which has the primary purpose of dragging me back. Or perhaps I am just turning into a fuddy duddy and Facebook is too "young" for me.

So, I'll give it another week or two...see if this new social experiment starts to grow on me. There may be charms it has yet to reveal. Or maybe I'll just make my peace with the past, delete my page, and move forward in other ways.

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Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

03 January 2009

At long last, it finally happened. I did not have to engage in anything morally ambiguous, as it turned out. Some patience and good fortune scored me a beta testing login to Zuiprezi. I stayed up well past my bedtime last night to learn and play a bit. I took a chunk of a presentation on grading and used it as source material to see how this new software might be used.


So far, I'm generally satisfied. The interface (the "paw" looking thing in the upper lefthand corner) is easy to navigate. It's just a more visual way to display the contents of a tool bar than what we typically have. I like being able to easily resize text and graphics...position things however I like...and then connect the pieces in any sequence. The only drawback I can see at this point is that any graphics which aren't of a very high resolution appear quite pixelated when the presentation is running---far moreso than in Powerpoint. I won't say that the screenshot above represents fine design, but for a first attempt, I'm feeling pretty good about the possibilities.

I really hope that the developers for this tool are able to make a go of things, considering current economic conditions. I have to say, though, that I would definitely be willing to pay for access. I think it's an excellent tool with some great potential for the classroom. My plan for first using this tool for a grant-writing workshop I'll be doing in the coming weeks. If this style of presentation is better suited for text, then perhaps this will be the perfect opportunity to give things a try.

Mind you, my job assignment is shifting a bit. In fact, I was cc'ed on an e-mail yesterday requesting the keepers of the website to add my credentials to the "Science Ass Main Page." I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'm really only half-ass(essment), according to my contract. I am grateful to have some better job security, a raise, and access to better benefits. So if that means doing some big ass science, count me in. And with a tool like Zuiprezi in my back pocket, perhaps some of the other good things I've been waiting for will appear.

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