Viewing entries in
Teacher Education

TCSS 2015

This weekend I had the opportunity to co-present in a couple of sessions at the Texas Council for the Social Studies (TCSS) annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas. I was in two different sessions, one on Friday and one on Saturday. Details and resources from each session are below.

Growing in your craft: Accessing social studies support & resources for K-12 teachers

This session was organized by Dan Krutka at Texas Woman's University, and also included Michelle Bauml from TCU and Katie Payne from UT Austin. We discussed resources and organizations in which social studies teachers can use to get ideas for their teaching. We shared some resources, then we opened up the discussion for others in attendance to share the resources they use for their teaching. The latter part of the session was excellent, and I could barely keep up as I scrambled to take notes. You can view our slides and group document below. The document is open for anyone to contribute, so please feel free to add resources you find helpful (if in fact you teach social studies).

High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech: Promoting Historical Thinking with Images

Michelle Bauml and I also presented a session on using images in social studies instruction. We knew there would be a wide variety of participants with differing levels of technology skills, so we wanted to present activities that range from no technology needed to those that require somewhat advanced technology skills. This session included several hands on activities and many examples. You can view the slides and session resources below.

K12 Online Conference 2015

I recently contributed to a panel for the K12 Online Conference 2015 about the changing role of technology in teacher preparation. The project was led by Wes Fryer, and other panelists included Cyndi Danner-Kuhn and Dean Mantz. The K12 Online Conference is completely free, completely online, and completely full of excellent presentations about innovative practices in classrooms across the country. This is my second time to be involved in a presentation, and it is a great experience.

Besides the convenience of being able to learn and collaborate without the burden of travel, this conference has an amazing reach. As of this morning, our panel discussion had 22 views on YouTube, and it was only posted today! I usually do not get 22 people in any of my conference presentations, so it is remarkable to think more and more people will get to engage with our ideas over time.

You can see our presentation description on the K2 Online Conference website, and I have also embedded the panel discussion below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONiELpzAP9Y

All In: The New LMS

Today I attended a presentation sponsored by Apple about the changing role of mobile technologies in higher education, particularly colleges of education. This is of particular importance to my college right now because we are beginning to talk a lot about how and why to use different types of technology in our courses. Many faculty have been using technology for many years in their courses, but we are starting to see a shift in the role of technology in terms of how students access and use information. The presentation today, given by John Landis, Ph.D., was very much in line with the conversations I have been having with some of my colleagues over the past few months.

I will be honest, Dr. Landis' presentation was impressive. He is a great storyteller and is current on the trends and predictions sweeping through both K-12 and higher education. He understands that technology has traditionally been used to help teachers do what they've always done more efficiently or faster. He knows that students these days can get the same content traditionally transmitted from the instructor on any device, anywhere, at any time. And it's usually a lot more interesting. None of this was new to me, but it was still delivered in a fresh and relevant way. Landis presented a blend of theories, examples, and demos, primarily from his MacBook and iPad Mini, and the technology worked like a champ. He mirrored his iPad display using an Apple TV, and could switch pretty quickly to his MacBook Air to demo other programs. As a pretty heavy tech user, I was impressed that he was able to change speeds in so many different ways without so much as a hiccup.

What this presentation made very clear to me, however, was something I have been mulling over for quite some time. It is this idea that in order to fully leverage the benefits of one device, you must fully employ all of the devices in that particular ecosystem. In this way, Apple is actually becoming a device-based LMS. Just like Blackboard or Moodle have a suite of tools under the hood, Apple has an array of powerful tools that can really change the way teachers and students approach learning. The catch, however, is that one must buy in to the whole ecosystem in order to really see these benefits. For example:

  • I can create a customized, multimedia iBook on my MacBook for free, but it only really handles Mac-based media (.mov, Keynote, Pages, etc.).
  • Only my students with an iPad can download the multimedia version of the book and get the full benefit. Students running Mavericks can also read the book on their Mac, but students with Android or Windows devices are left behind.
  • I can mirror my iPad to my MacBook using AirServer, but it's not stable and does not work over my schools WiFi. If I want to really mirror my iPad, I need an Apple TV.
  • I can sync content across devices with a variety of tools, but the only way to sync ALL of my content is with iCloud, which is only for Mac.

The point is, each tool Dr. Landis showed us does amazing things. I want to try everything he showed us (except for the stuff I am already doing ... I want to keep doing it). But the only way to leverage the capabilities of each tool is to use it as part of the Apple Ecosystem (a term he used repeatedly). Apples are meant to work with other Apples, and there is really no motivation to make them work with Android (Google) or Windows. My workarounds, as I have found, are much more complex than the typical tech-using teacher is willing to mess with. I have found a way to teach from my iPad without using AirServer, which is a pretty awful replacement for an Apple TV. I use Google Docs to host and share course files, which works pretty well most of the time, but it's not as slick as content aggregated in an iBook. I have founds ways to do the things I want to do, but it's always a little more work when I am doing this across devices and outside "the ecosystem."

My take-away message is that Apple, Google, and Windows really are trying to create a system, and already have, where users must be "all in" in order to reap the benefits of their technology. More than ever, their tools only really play well with their own family members, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a balanced digital life across platforms. With the exception of a few apps like Evernote or Google Drive, content on your device stays on your device.

I have no idea which ecosystem TCU will join, but I think they will eventually need to decide. These companies, which control the market, are leaving us very little choice otherwise.

iPad Mini-Projects in a Lecture Course

When my college got a cart with 20 iPads, I began brimming with ideas. I had been teaching in a computer lab for about 7 years, and there were many ideas I had always wanted to try on tablets and mobile devices.

Computer labs can be a challenging place to teach, and I must admit I am still not completely comfortable having to remind students repeatedly to stop looking at Facebook or Zappos. There are many activities you can do in a technology-enriched classroom, but it takes some time and careful planning to teach the students how to carefully move media from a camera to a computer to the cloud to a different computer and back to the cloud. Some of my students never become quite comfortable with storing and retrieving their data from multiple devices, even though the technology is advanced enough nowadays to make the process seamless.

An environment which is even harder to teach in than a computer lab is a large lecture hall. Until last fall, the largest class I had ever taught was about 30 students. This all changed when I began teaching the course for my college intended to orient early-career students to the big, wide world of education. This class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, and they are a mix of education majors and folks from other programs seeking an elective. The class meets for two hours, three days per week. I typically facilitate lecture/discussion on Monday, Wednesday is spent in schools observing teachers and students, and Friday is a lab with more discussion, presentations, and other activities. Needless to say, this class is its own planet with quite a bit of gravitational pull.

Teaching this class presented many challenges, but the most immediate to me as professor on record was to make the Monday lecture/discussion not so brutal. Here are a few facts you may or may not know about college students :

  1. Their primary objective is to earn a high grade. This is particularly true at a private university.
  2. This objective tends to keep the students' focus on points, scores, and averages.
  3. This tends to divert their attention away from learning for the purpose of mastery.
  4. Class time, therefore, is seen as something required to help them meet their objective.

This becomes challenging because anything the students perceive will not be on a test or included in a paper becomes unnecessary, in their opinion. So for me, the goal has been to make the Monday class meetings something the students want to do rather than have to do.

One method I have used is mini-projects with the class iPad cart. I didn't want to burn the students out with these projects, but I had a few ideas I had used on a smaller scale. I was ready to try them on a larger scale with more students. My iPad mini-projects this semester included:

  1. Short Public Service Announcement videos about risky behaviors many students try in school. The students got into groups of 3-4 and made a short PSA about the risky behavior they were given (e.g., drugs, alcohol, delinquency, pregnancy, STDs, and cheating. They had to include at least two statistics we discussed in class, and the video had to include everyone in the group. They uploaded the videos to a common Google Drive account, and I made the videos available for each student to view.
  2. Group wiki about the hard decisions school districts must make about funding and cutting programs. Each group played School Budget Hold'Em, then reflected about their decisions on a wiki. The iPads turned out to be not so great at editing a wiki, but thankfully many of the students bring their laptops to class.
  3. Thank You video to participating school. The students in this class, in addition to hearing me pontificate each week about the mysteries of education, observed in local schools for an hour each week. I put them in groups and had them record short thank you messages, which I edited into one video. I then sent the final video the schools, which I assume they enjoyed but I don't really know for sure.
  4. 5 Picture Charades about the various philosophies of education. They worked in teams and tried to portray a different philosophy of education (traditional, progressive, existential, and critical) in 5 pictures. All I have to say is, students can be very creative when they want to.
  5. Flipped lesson outlining the lesson sequence using Educreations. The students were given relatively easy topics, such as long division, simple machines, branches of government, and subject/predicate, and instructed to create a short lesson for students. One of the requirements was to label each section of the lesson (activate background knowledge, state objectives, explain the concept or skill, guided practice, independent practice), which I think was one of the key parts of this project. The students thought the main take-away was learning how hard it is to explain things succinctly and accurately. I still find that challenging with my own children.

I learned a lot about using iPads with a large class in a lecture hall setting. There were a lot of challenges and mistakes, but not as many as I would have predicted. As technology usually goes, my hiccups came in places I didn't predict. I think the students received this projects pretty openly, and their products were very good for the most part. The other challenge was finding time to watch and read their creations. 20, 2 minute PSA videos can take a lot of time to get through, especially when you add in transition and loading time. I will have to think of a way to do this better. These activities definitely stretched me and increased my own skill set, and I am eager to try it again in the fall.

"I used to think I was good at explaining stuff ... "

I've taken a hiatus from this blog since August 28. I actually have started three other posts that I abandoned for various reasons. Well, now I'm back. For now.

This year as I began my new position, I was given access to a whole new variety of digital tools. At UNT, it was digital fabrication and energy monitoring. I had enough devices to give one per group of students, which meant I could do some really cool things. It's a lot of fun teaching project-based learning to future teachers when you have the tools to do it. Of course, there were other things we didn't have at UNT, like interactive whiteboards and mobile devices (specifically, iPads). So, there were some other important skills that were hard to teach.

At TCU, I don't have the project-based learning tools, but I do have an interactive whiteboard, my own iPad and cart of 20 iPads for students to use in class. This has opened up a whole new domain of learning and teaching with technology. I have been able to do activities with my classes I thought I would never be able to teach. My goal over the course of the next several weeks (months?) is to post some of these activities, along with examples from students.

The first activity I would like to talk about is Flipped Classroom lessons using Educreations. I have been piloting several of these Digital Whiteboard apps, such as Show Me, Explain Everything, and Knowmia, and Educreations was the best fit for this activity. Show Me also would have been a good fit for my activity because it instantly syncs lessons to the Cloud and you can access the video files from a browser. Additionally, it lets you download a copy of the video file to your computer in case you want to do additional editing or combine lessons. Educreations does not have this capability yet. As a side note, Explain Everything (paid) and Knowmia (free) are very robust tools and worth learning. They allow you to import and export media and projects to other Cloud services like DropBox, Google Drive, Evernote, and Box. There are many tools for presenting content, including embedding web pages, video, and audio files.

For this activity, I gave the students three "badges" they were to earn: video editing, screencasting and a flipped lesson. The idea behind the flipped lesson is that students present content to students to watch and learn at home with the intention of doing more collaborative, hands-on activities at school when everyone is in the same room. The students worked in pairs to create and record a short lesson, which they later uploaded to the class Educreations account.

Beyond the simple interface of the tool and how fun it was to create mini-lessons, I knew this was the only way for my students to see the importance of developing this competency as a future teacher. The students commented on how great it would be to create examples for how to correctly work math problems, edit their writing, convey science and social studies concepts that students and parents could watch at home during homework time. This is usually when students have questions, and many parents feel frustrated trying to help their children. I can't speak for everyone, but I routinely would tell my dad, "But that's not how the TEACHER did it!"

An added benefit for this activity is that students got to practice explaining academic concepts at a level their students could understand. You really have to think about such aspects as pacing, language, examples and sequence when you are planning these lessons. The students were able to practice presenting to students without dealing with some of the environmental factors that often stump early-career teachers, such as crowd control and limited attention spans. As one student explained, "I used to think I was good at explaining stuff, but this activity really forced me to think about what I was saying and how fast I talk." Even though this was not my intention, the class got an impromptu lesson on micro-teaching.

I plan on integrating this strategy into my classes many more times in the coming semester. Ideally, I could work with a teacher (or two or three) and have my students create mini-lessons based on the content being address in the schools. My students would get experience teaching lessons in a concise, understandable way, and the teachers and students would have resources to utilize at home. An added benefit would be feedback from teachers and students about the quality of their lessons and explanations. We'll see how this goes.

To see some examples created by students in my class, visit our Educreations page.

Guest Blogging in the U.S.A.

The following post is something I wrote as a guest blogger on Wes Fryer's popular blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity. My contribution will be posted on June 21.

The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer.

-Bertrand Russell

The first time I remember “creating” something for a school assignment was in 3rd grade. Up until this point, what I remember about school involved completing worksheets at my desk, reading from various texts in front of the whole class, and being placed in groups based on my ability in math and reading. This all changed in Mr. Beaver’s class, my 3rd grade teacher.

Mr. Beaver involved his students in various activities and challenges, most of which required us to build something with materials we found at home. He would come into class one day and toss out some ambiguous statement as if it were a hook with a worm: “My daughter bought a kite this weekend, and it works pretty well. I wonder if she could have built a kite out of supplies she found at home. Nah, probably not. That’s too hard for someone her age.” This was just enough for a few of us to go home and try to prove him wrong. During the school year, we had several projects that involved creating things: electromagnets, dioramas, kites, maps. For a kid who liked making stuff anyway, it was a fun year in school.

This experience probably planted the seed in my mind that projects are a fun and engaging way to learn. As a teacher, I tried to implement several different projects throughout the year, and now I spend a fair amount of time helping other teachers design and implement student projects in their classrooms.

Most of the work I have done in recent years has centered around digital media: teachers helping students combine images, audio, video and/or text to express their learning through such products as digital stories, documentaries, podcasts, virtual museums and comics. More recently, however, I have been involved in projects that cross over from digital media to physical media, otherwise known as digital fabrication or desktop engineering.

The focus of this initiative, under the direction of Glen Bull at the University of Virginia, is to teach students to apply math, science, engineering and technology skills and concepts to real-world problems. Students create digital models of objects such as electrical circuits, windmills, and gears, print and cut them using special equipment, then construct the components into a physical object. This short video describes the process of digital fabrication.

The concept of creating virtual 3D representations of objects before creating the physical object is not new. Many of the things we use everyday - cars, homes, buildings, city plans, electronics, and aircraft - were first designed and tested in a virtual environment before the physical object was ever built. Similar to storyboarding in movies and game design, virtual models help designers test and troubleshoot their products without making potentially costly mistakes that waste resources. As teachers, we want our students to be problem solvers and identify areas for improvement early in a process rather than later.

An integral part of this initiative has been training teachers - both in-service and preservice - how to integrate engineering and fabrication activities into their existing curriculum. Our research has confirmed a line of previous studies that many in-service and preservice teachers, especially at the elementary level, lack confidence when it comes to teaching math and science. This can be a barrier when it comes to encouraging teachers to create engineering design projects for their students. In response to this problem, we have been replicating engineering design projects being done with 4-5 grade students in Virginia with preservice teachers in North Texas.

If you are interested in reading examples about digital fabrication in a teacher education course, I have provided a few for you here:

The University of Virginia also has a wealth of resources on this topic, which can be accessed for free on the Make to Learn website. Most of these activities do not require a Silhouette cutting machine and have been successfully implemented in some classrooms with nothing more than scissors. I have also found some excellent activities at robives.com, but I have yet to try any of them with students or teachers.

My hope is that sharing some of the work being done in the area of desktop engineering with a larger audience will generate some interest in doing this type of work in the classroom. This initiative is in its infancy, yet it has already attracted quite a bit of attention and buy-in from several school districts, universities and the National Science Foundation. The need for our students to be creators, thinkers and innovators has never been greater, and there seems to be no better way to foster these qualities than to engage students in activities that require creativity, thinking and innovation. Students already have a reputation for being massive consumers of digital media and other technological innovations, and they are one of the largest groups to create and share digital content. Now, with the emergence of desktop engineering we have the resources at our fingertips to help them discover the relationship between virtual and physical media and further explore what it means to play with media.

Digital Fabrication, take two

Yesterday I was asked to cover a class for one of my colleagues, so I planned another round of digital fabrication activities for his students. I had done the same thing last week with another colleague's class, using the materials I developed last year. The first attempt last week did not go nearly as well as I remembered the activities going last year, so I was motivated to rethink how I was presenting the content, as well as the activity I was having them do. The "old" activity was challenge that involved designing a container for tootsie rolls that would maximize the surface area:volume ratio. The concept was good, and the students approached it with enthusiasm. However, it turns out that their math abilities were a pretty major roadblock to getting anything substantive out of the activity. After the box was built and they stuffed it with tootsie rolls, the learning was basically over. This issue has roots in several factors that are true of most preservice teachers.

  1. Preservice teachers' pedagogical knowledge has more to do with their worldview than their aptitude or attitude. Since most of them were taught from a traditional approach, the chasm between problem-based design activities and the lecture-test-essay model they are used to is a quantum leap. The problem is not that they are resistant to new pedagogical approaches; they simply have very little, if anything, to which to anchor them.
  2. Before preservice teachers can understand something as a teacher, they need to take a step back and experience it as a student. Activities, therefore, need to be authentic and replicate, as much as possible, the way it might be done in a classroom.
  3. Based on the previous two observations, if the instructor wants preservice teachers to abstract pedagogical principles from an authentic activity, he or she is going to have to lead them there. You can't expect inexperienced teachers coming from a traditional paradigm to naturally make connections between the activity they just did and broader educational ideas. It's like giving someone from a remote tribe in the Amazon rainforest a debit card and expecting him to naturally gravitate to an ATM and get some cash. The notion that there is "money" in a "bank" that can be "accessed" remotely just does not mesh with the way he thinks the world works.
  4. Finally, authentic activities must be accessible. That is, they can not be too hard nor too easy. If the activity is too easy, the preservice teachers think it is fluff and busy work; if it's too hard, they can't envision themselves teaching that way. Either extreme will likely reinforce the worldview you are trying to change.

To improve on the previous activity, with these observations in mind, I designed the following challenge:

  1. I started by describing the mentality of many students today, which is that every task they are given in school has a right answer, and their goal as students is to get the right answer the first time. Many teachers reinforce this mentality by how they conduct their classes. At present, the world works much differently than classrooms do. In the world, we encounter problems to which we must develop solutions. These problems are typically ...
    • Ill-defined: the cause of the problem may not be readily apparent
    • Ill-structured: because we don't know the cause, we don't know where to start exploring solutions
    • Complex: there are many factors involved, each of which influences the other, and we don't know how changing one factor influences the other factors
  2. I then tell them the story of William, a 14-year old boy from Malawi who had to drop out of school because is family was literally starving to death. They could no longer pay for his education, so he used the library to try to educate himself. From reading physics and "green" energy books, he got the idea of improving his family's way of life by building a windmill and generating electricity for his home. Using the images and diagrams from a book on wind energy (he was not able to read English very well at the time), he built his own windmill from old car, tractor and bicycle parts and provided electricity for his home. Soon, people from all over came to his house to charge their cell phones. Not long after this, he built another windmill to pump water to irrigate his family's crops.
  3. I transition to the next point by telling the students that William solved his problem by using the resources available to him to create a solution to his problem. This took several attempts, and you can see how he improved his design from the first windmill to the second. In the same way, teachers need to provide opportunities for their students to solve problems using their available resources. Since there is no single right answer, students must be evaluated using different criteria.
  4. I then talked about a new set of resources that students have access to. We talk for a minute about how everything they use now was first designed in a virtual 3D environment before it became a physical object we can use. I took a minute to show them ModelMaker, a simple tool for creating 3D shapes from 2D cut-outs.
  5. I then explained the challenge, which was create a windmill that was able to lift a bucket of tootsie rolls. They would construct their windmill using card stock, a pencil and masking tape, and they would design their bucket using ModelMaker. The group able to lift the most tootsie rolls would win the  challenge, the prize for which was getting to eat as many tootsie rolls as they wanted. :-)

Here are some pictures of the activity ...

 [kml_flashembed publishmethod="static" fversion="8.0.0" movie="http://www.curbyalexander.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/fieldtrip2.swf" width="400" height="300" targetclass="flashmovie"]

Get Adobe Flash player

[/kml_flashembed]

In summary, this activity was a vast improvement over the previous activity. The preservice teachers were able to see for themselves how their design choices affected the way their windmill functioned. Some groups created a "cute" windmill that would not spin, while others created an aesthetically bland windmill that performed wonderfully. Some groups put more focus on the size of their container than they did on the design of their windmill, and one group created a wonderful windmill but their bucket too small. Had the bucket been bigger, they were convinced it could have carried the most tootsie rolls. For some of them, the fact that they created a machine that actually worked was very rewarding in itself. I will do some follow up with my own students to document their reactions, but my impression was that this was effective and worthwhile. And in the spirit of engineering and the design process, there was room for improvement.

Digital Portfolio tools

These days I am thinking a lot about digital portfolios. I have been looking at a lot of them, talking a lot about them and coincidentally, evaluating a lot of them. So that I don't forget all of this by next Fall, I want to put my thoughts down and try to galvanize some of the lessons I have learned this semester. I presented this project at the very beginning of the semester. I think this was overwhelming to some of the students, but my objective was to make sure they knew about their portfolio all semester. I knew some (or many) of them would put this off until the last minute, but I also knew some of the students would appreciate getting an early start. So, I discussed with them the purpose of a portfolio, and we also talked about digital footprints and job searches and other big ideas. Then I showed them some examples of different portfolios from former students using a variety of different tools. The last thing I had them do was open an account with the tool they wanted to use, then send me the URL of their portfolio.

Tool Pros Cons
Google Sites This is an easy tool to use. The interface is simple, and it is easy to find the features you are looking for. There aren't any hidden features or misplaced menus, just a simple set of tools, layouts and themes to choose from. I have used this tool for several years as a way to organize my lectures, and it works great for this. File uploading is especially easy because it is done directly on the page rather than in a dashboard. You can choose to hide the attachments on each page, then create a link to them. Sites builds the menu as you create pages, so the navigation is almost a no-brainer. You can also easily embed videos, slideshows, images and docs from Google's other services. If you a Google apologist, like me, you will find this very easy and convenient to use. There aren't really that many options when it comes to the look and feel of your Google Site. There are some nice themes, but there is nothing that really stands out or looks flashy (if that is what you are going for). As one of my students put it, "I want my portfolio to look cute." Not exactly my objective when making a portfolio, but that's important to some people. You are able to customize the appearance of the Google Sites, but it takes some time and a little HTML know-how. This is not something a lot of preservice teachers want to dive into.
WikiSpaces Like Google Sites, this tool is incredibly easy to use. The interface is very similar to Google Sites, and there are a lot of widgets that allow you to add different media to each page. The file manager is quite different than Google Sites, but it is very easy to use. Each page also has a discussion section, so you can center conversations around each page, as well as see the history for the page. This is quite different than Google Sites, where most of this information is hidden. The History tool is nice if I need to see when a page was last edited (as in, after the deadline). I don't make a big deal about this unless it is a major edit. Aside from being a pretty good portfolio tool, WikiSpaces is a great environment for teaching wikis and collaborative knowledge building. To demonstrate the power of collaborative knowledge building, I had my class collectively make this wiki in about 15 minutes. Like Google Sites, this options for layout and themes are pretty spartan. Some people like this, including me, so it really isn't a con. But the cuteness factor is pretty low. You can customize the website to some degree, but you will have to live with some of the layout features. You will also need to change some of the settings as soon as you create your wiki. The default setting is for anyone to be able to edit the site. If you are using this tool to create a portfolio, you will want to turn that feature off and make yourself the only editor.
Webs This tool is where you start to trade ease of use for look and feel. The first two tools look very much like something you would expect from a wiki. Webs looks more like a professional website. You have a lot of options in terms of themes and layouts, and they all look very nice. If you choose to use this tool, be prepared to spend some time messing around with it. I have done a lot of blogging, web design, web mastering, etc., so I was able to make sense of Webs pretty easily. My students, however, struggled with this tool. Once they spent some time with it, the interface started to make sense. I would not recommend this tool to novice web creators. Unless you upgrade to the paid service, you also have to put up with ads on your website. Personally, I wouldn't want ads for reducing belly fat (pictures included!) on my educational portfolio.
Wix Of all the tools, this one looks the best. Wix is built on Flash, so it looks very professional and, well, flashy. You are able to upload about any kind of file, and Wix has built in widgets to play and display media. The majority of my students were drawn to this tool because they look so good. Intimidated by new tools? Not familiar with web design? Don't choose this tool. It is NOT for beginners. I had many students choose Wix, and I was able to walk most of them through it. Some of them bailed out and went for Google Sites or WikiSpaces. You will spend a lot of time formatting and figuring out the layout. The end result is a fantastic-looking portfolio, but you will put a lot of sweat equity into it.  The most frustrating feature in this tool, which is true of Webs as well, is embedding a YouTube video. By far, the clunkiest I have EVER seen. This is disappointing considering how well some of the other features work. I guess the developers ran out of steam.
Weebly This tool is surprisingly easy to use. I am least familiar with it because I didn't have any students choose it. This is how I usually master a web tool, by answering all of their questions. The interface is drag and drop, and even though some of the features (e.g., file uploading) aren't very intuitive, the overall ease of use is a plus. The free service does not include most of the cool features Weebly has to offer. They tease you with a host of widgets and options, but when you try to add them to your page you get a pop-up telling you they are only available for Premium customers. This might not be a bad idea for someone who wants to keep this portfolio around after the class (or graduation) is over, but I am realistic enough to admit that most of my students drop this project like a hot rock once they have a grade.

So, there is a simple breakdown of tools you can use for a digital portfolio. This is not exhaustive, nor is it very detailed. But there is enough information to get someone started. I will still recommend Google Sites and WikiSpaces to my students, and I am pretty sure they will still choose Webs and Wix. They're like moths to a porch light. The good thing is, the more of them that choose Wix and Webs, the better I will learn them and the better my support will be.

What tools do you use for digital portfolios? Am I missing anything obvious? Let me know!

And the portfolios started rolling in ...

At the beginning of this semester, I wrote about my revised portfolio project that I give my preservice teachers. I was in a portfolio funk, and I needed to try something new before I started resenting this project altogether. Isn't it funny that after you have taught for awhile, you can start talking about your projects as if they are people? Maybe it's just me. I have this metaphor in my mind where each of the assignments are these unfamiliar visitors that enter my classroom at about the same time each semester. I introduce them to my class and talk about them a lot for a week or two, then I give my students a chance to get to know this stranger a little more on their own until he isn't a stranger anymore. Then he leaves and doesn't come around much until the final portfolio is due.

OK. Focus. So, I rolled this assignment out at the beginning of the semester and showed them several examples. Of course, these examples were all based on the old way of doing the portfolio. So, I created a couple of examples on my own using the new way of doing things. Then I proceeded to remind my students very often to get started early on their portfolios and not wait to the last minute. They did anyway. Then I offered a work day where I didn't take attendance but they could come and work on their portfolio and ask questions. Many of them came, some did not. They probably should have. Some students didn't come to the work session but later e-mailed me long lists of questions. Not cool. Then today they turned them in.

Coincidentally, I went to visit my 94-year old grandmother this weekend. She has no Internet and I didn't bother driving to Panera or Starbucks to find a connection. So, during the final crucial moments in the semester for my students when they finally have one last chance to put it all together and make a case for that A they think they deserve, I was silent. I had no idea what kinds of messages I would have when I finally checked my e-mail. I was already constructing responses in my head as the blue bar moved across the screen toward the newly refreshed Gmail inbox. And there it was, a very full inbox ...

But none of the messages were from my students. At least none from the section who had to turn in their projects today. Could this be? I had to know for sure. I went to Moodle, and sure enough a large portion of the class had already turned in the assignment. They did it! I looked at a most of them, and I was beyond pleased at their work. Yes, there were some errors and missing items, but for the most part they looked great.

But the thing that really struck me was the learning that took place in order to get these projects completed. This was no easy task, no matter which tool the students chose. They had to learn how to host files online, and how to make sure a file was readable by anyone who happened to see it. They learned about file sizes and formats, and how to make navigation simple and effective. It was really amazing to see how so many of them stuck with their questions until they figured it out. All things considered, I didn't have one person who expected me to bail him or her out. This is a huge win in my opinion.

So, for now my faith is restored in the power of portfolios. I am left being a little less cynical and little more confident in each student's ability to meet a challenge head on. Yes, I had a couple of them confess that they were up all night finishing, but I can hardly take the blame for that. I will probably never know the full impact of this project, or class, on the bigger picture of their teaching career. For now I am just basking in the satisfaction that they did such a great job and took ownership of their work.

I will follow up in a few days about some of the tools they used to create their portfolios and discuss (at least from the perspective of my class) the pros and cons of each tool as a portfolio management system.

And now that I think of it, I need to have Mr. Portfolio come by more often. Maybe dinner or tea, and he can tell me how his kids are doing ...

A (mis)Conceptual Framework

I am in the process of wrapping up yet another semester of teaching preservice teachers how to use technology in their classrooms. It is at this point in the semester, when all of the projects except the final portfolio have been graded, that I start thinking about what went well and what didn't go so well. As someone who is very self-critical, I look at each project and think about ways to improve it for the next semester. This semester, I have been thinking more about how the whole class is structured rather than how to improve each of the projects. I actually think that most of the projects and class activities went well this semester, but the course in general was just a collection of disjointed assignments.

I have also been struck by some of the things the students have written in their assignments this semester. I'm not surprised or shocked because I was an undergraduate once and it takes time to get your head around the complex world of learning, students, schools and education. I don't think anyone ever totally gets their head around it. (Sorry, Arne.) But, for some reason I was able to see past the grading of these assignments and start to see some themes emerge. These "themes" emerged as misconceptions about how students learn, classrooms interact and schools operate. There were a lot of assumptions without a lot of support for their claims.

So, for once I am going to keep the projects and class activities, but I am going to rework the framework within which I present them. Rather than framing the course around technology tools, I want to frame the course around educational concepts that directly address preservice teachers' misconceptions about learning, teaching and technology. A similar approach has been tried before quite successfully by one of my colleagues, and I am ready to get out of the box a little bit. I have started a draft of my (mis)conceptual framework for teaching preservice teachers about how to use technology as part of their teaching. The general idea is that I will talk about a major educational concept (e.g., scaffolding), introduce a major misconception associated with that concept and address that misconception through a technology-based project.

This may end up being the worst idea ever, but it may also work like a champ. I have redesigned this course about half a dozen times or so, and I am not afraid to try something totally new. I'm sure I will be writing something around next December reflecting on how this new approach is working. Do you have thoughts or experience with this approach? I would love to hear your ideas.

Implementing Digital Fabrication

As I mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of aspects of digital fabrication that I really like. Students being able to design, create, evaluate, re-design and re-create objects that they conceptualized on the computer. Students being able to physically hold something they designed in a virtual environment. There are many elements of this kind of teaching that represent many of the hopes people have had for infusing technology into teaching and learning: direct application, real-world importance, creativity, etc. Until recently, most of my experience designing and fabricating objects had been done in my office on my one machine that is connected to my computer. There was no waiting for other people, no transferring files from one computer to another, no having to think about how and where to save files so I could resume my work at a later time. In the back of my mind I knew that the experience I had fabricating objects would be much different than the whole-class experience my students would have, and there were several technical aspects of this process I had not anticipated until I released it into the wild with my students.

I had some ground rules for myself when deciding how to introduce this activity:

  1. I wanted to give the class 1-2 authentic tasks to do. I did not just want to just have the students using the software for the sake of using the software. That has never turned out favorably for me.
  2. I wanted them to be able to finish in one week. That means one class meeting for one section and two for another.
  3. I wanted them to have fun and like what they are doing. This all gets back to my belief (and that of many other people) that one way to change attitudes toward technology is to provide people with engaging, meaningful and yes, fun activities that include technology. People, teachers in particular, tend to abandon technology because they have had bad experiences with it.

So, I set out to design an activity that met these criteria. I had the students complete these activities and submit their work when they were done. The first activity was used to introduce the software (no printing or cutting involved), and the second activity was for application. Overall, my students were very gracious and rolled with the punches. They seemed to like the second activity more than the first (Really!?!), and though I have no data to support my claims, I truly believe they understand digital fabrication more than they did after reading an article and watching a video. Here are my reflections (both technical, pedagogical and philosophical) from the experience.

  1. You have to print from the same computer you will use to cut the shape.  If you print from a computer that does not have a Silhouette connected to it, the software will put the wrong orienting marks on the paper and it will be useless for cutting ... unless you want to cut it by hand.
  2. The trial version of the software does not let you save your work. You must have a licensed version to save a project on one computer and open it on another.
  3. The printing and cutting step of this process is a bottleneck. I have 24 students in each class. They worked in groups of 3, and I brought 2 fabricators to the lab.  Under ideal conditions, everything went pretty smoothly. As soon as there was a hitch, and there were a couple, the line got a little backed up.
  4. The more fabricators you have, the better. However, the trade-off is that the more fabricators you have, the noisier your classroom will be.
  5. I received a couple different versions of this comment, "I have a hard time envisioning myself doing this activity with my class." It's hard to situate an activity within an instructional context AND create obvious connections to other instructional contexts. When you give preservice teachers a task, they tend to focus on the task. A seasoned teacher may do a better job of seeing those connections because she will have more applied experience than a novice teacher. In other words, I could have done a better job of facilitating what Salomon and Perkins call high-road transfer. I think requires some application and reflection, which we didn't really do.
  6. Related to the previous observation, there needs to be more emphasis on creativity in teacher education programs. Rather than being a thing a person either has or doesn't have, I think of creativity more like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to grow and stay healthy. The older I have gotten, the more purposeful I have become in my creative pursuits. As for my role in the creative development of my students, I think the best way to do this is for them to create a digital fabrication activity in their preferred content area. It's one thing to be able to do my activity. It's an entirely different level of creativity to be able to create a learning activity for a group of children. I may do this at some point.

Overall, I would say this was a good activity for my first attempt at a new concept and new technology. I have a completely different vision for how this will look the next time I do it, which is evidence of learning on my part.

Digital identity

The first time I thought about managing my identity as a teacher was during my junior year in my teacher education program. The final project for my language arts methods class was a professional portfolio that included: a narrative about myself and my philosophy of teaching, my philosophy of classroom management (which was so ridiculous I am ashamed that I actually put it in print and let others look at it) and examples of exemplary lessons and other projects I created for my teacher ed. classes. I remember putting a lot of time and thought into this project because I knew it could potentially be something really cool/impressive to show during a job interview. At the time, my portfolio was quite the technological wonder. Yes, the deliverable was still a printed document (a book printed and bound at Kinko's), but I designed the entire thing on my Mac LC 520 computer. This was a stark contrast to how my classmates completed the project, which included a mix of word-processed and photocopied pages thrown together in a three-ring binder. I used a scanner and Clarisworks to make the entire portfolio have a consistent design throughout. At the time, it was quite impressive, and I think I still have a copy somewhere in a box in my parent's basement.

With all of the digital tools available now (17 years after I crafted my first portfolio!), there is no reason that preservice teachers shouldn't be able to put together a killer digital portfolio. While many of the principles for presenting a portfolio haven't changed that much, if at all, in 17 years, the tools we have access to for making one are lightyears beyond my little all-in-one Mac.

I entered the world of digital portfolios when I was teaching the class "Teaching with Technology" at the University of Virginia. I had my students create a digital portfolio using HTML, and they hosted it on their Home Directory. The project started off very clunky and frustrating and eventually became one that the students all loved and commented that they felt most satisfied with. I eventually abandoned NVU and Home Directory for Google Pages (now Google Sites), and the quality of the projects increased exponentially (not to mention the number of e-mails from frustrated students almost vanished). Looking back, the major drawbacks of this portfolio were that it focused on the projects only from my class and most of the students viewed it as an "assignment" rather than a tool that would continually evolve and could ultimately become an archive of their teaching careers.

My journey into the world of digital portfolios continued when I taught at the University of Illinois Springfield. The department I was teaching in (Teacher Education) had adopted TaskStream for the teacher candidates to use for building their digital portfolios, so I had to adopt this tool as well. Overall, it was pretty easy to use and the final product looked very professional. Besides the fact that the portfolio's format was very prescribed (meaning, it helped my department meet its objectives more than it helped the students meet theirs), the main drawback with TaskStream was that it cost money (not a little money, either), almost ensuring that 99% of the teacher candidates would not use it after they graduated. Once again, I was stuck in this rut of "assigning" a digital portfolio for a "grade," which means when the grade is given the assignment is done.

So, when I was asked to teach a section of "Computers in the Classroom" at the University of North Texas, I was once again in the position of thinking about how to structure my final portfolio project. Having a little more freedom than I did at UIS and having learned some lessons from UVA, I tried to improve my portfolio project. Here is the project description from last semester (Fall 2010). As you can see, it is still pretty "my-class-centric."

But it's amazing what one little blog post can do to spark some new ideas. I taught concurrently with Wes Fryer last semester, and we were constantly bouncing ideas off each other. He addressed digital portfolios in one of his posts, which helped me develop my latest iteration of my digital portfolio project.  Here is my latest project description, which I am pretty happy with at this point. I'm sure once my students get their hands on it I will see some areas that need clarification or revision. The obvious weakness of the current version is my rubric (which really isn't a rubric), which I will definitely be revising.

So, do you give a final portfolio assignment? How structured/open is it? What elements do you have students include that I have overlooked?

Technology and Priorities

I am at the SITE conference in San Diego, and after 1.5 days of presentations I have heard one theme emerge above all others. This theme can be reduced to one question, "Why do students, who use technology in almost every aspect of their lives, seem so clueless when it comes to using it in their teaching and learning?" You may have seen versions of this conversation framed in other ways: digital natives vs. digital immigrants, 21st Century learning, Content-creators, Millennial Students, etc. The assumption on the part of teacher educators is that students who love technology in certain areas of their lives should love it in their learning and teaching. I would like to suggest a radical idea: teens and college students don't love technology. They love what they can do with technology, which is to address their priorities and motivations. Take technology out of the picture, and this is what I know about college students:

  • They like to have fun
  • They are more likely to listen to their friends than their parents or professors
  • They like to be entertained
  • They are confronted with a lot of information that has challenged their worldview, and they are trying to make sense of it all
  • They view their classes as something they have to do to a) stay in college and be with their friends and b) graduate and move on to the next phase of their lives

So, why do students know so much about certain technologies yet know so little about other types of technology (e.g., educational/learning technology)? The technologies they know and use help them address their priorities, and as sad as it may seem, being a life-long learner is not a priority for them at this stage in their lives.

I spend a lot of time talking to teacher candidates about knowing their students and meeting where they are in their skills, abilities and prior knowledge. As a teacher educator, I must do the same with my students. I need to understand their priorities and motivations, and meet them where they are.

My Band plays in a Garage in the Cloud

I recently read about a suite of web-based tools hosted by aviary.com, and I was quickly blown away. Most of the tools are for image editing, but they recently added an audio editor. Each of these tools is web based ,which means they require no downloads, installations or updates. Each time one of these tools comes out (e.g., Google Sites, Weebly, PBWiki, ScreenToaster), I can feel a new life being breathed into my teaching.

When I was teaching ed tech classes, I was always hesitant to show my students applications like Photoshop, Camtasia and Dreamweaver. These programs are powerful and may very well be useful to teachers, but they required a massive leap from what the preservice teachers already knew to what they needed to learn to be successful with them. At different times, I dabbled with the tools, but the focus quickly turned to the tool itself and I would be inundated with e-mails about how to do this or that. I know there are folks who consider the ability to use these tools a necessary literacy for teachers in the 21st Century, but I chose to keep our discussions and projects grounded in pedagogy and the classroom. This makes choosing tools for different projects quite difficult. On top of their complexity, there is the issue of cost and accessibility. If I in fact wanted my students to use these tools and strategies as teachers, it hardly made sense to rely on expensive software that they would a) not have access to once they left the university and b) had to come to the computer lab to use. Using Everett Rogers' criteria for "adoptable innovations" as my framework, it made sense to me to use tools whose trialability, observability, compatibility, relative advantage and complexity matched the needs of teachers.

It just so happens that in the last few years, as more schools are experimenting with student-created digital media, the tools to create these media have been moving to the Cloud. For example, I was eventually able to replace Dreamweaver with Google Page Creator (now Google Sites), and I noticed immediately that the "how do I make a picture show up on my website"  questions vanished. Our conversations shifted to questions about pedagogy and implementation with students in their classes. However, until recently there were no suitable web-based alternatives for editing images and audio, or for creating screencasts. I still had to rely on desktop programs for podcasts, and I got pretty good as using PPT as an omnibus program for all things related to digital images.

Well, I have recently discovered, thanks to TechCrunch, a suite of new tools that may potentially transform (yet again) the way I do things. Aviary has developed a web-based audio editor that allows users to record, mix and download audio files without ever leaving the browser. The interface is extremely easy to use, and you can add up to 10 tracks. Worried about copyright for the audio clips students put in their projects? Myna (the name of the audio editor) provides over 14,500 loops for users to mix into their recordings. Of course, if you are planning on becoming the next Jared Hess or Brian Ibbott, you will need to get permission before using the music loops, distributed by APM Music. Creating an account is free, and you can either save the audio file online or download it to your computer. Needless to say, I am very eager to test this out and see if it's feasible for my students to use. Here is a screenshot of Myna (captured with Aviary's screen capture tool ... of course).

Good teaching is hard to model

I was a school teacher for 8 years, and by my own standards (as well as the feedback from parents, students and principals) I did a pretty good job. Sure, there were aspects of my teaching that, when stacked up against the literature I encountered in grad school, would have been labeled less than exemplary. But I think in most respects I was effective, had a good relationship with the students and parents and my students left my class with a lot more knowledge and skills than they came in with. The problem with all of this is that it occurred within my classroom and was only observed by my students and me. And my students weren't really critiquing my teaching. They were active participants in the process and the reason the teaching was taking place. Contrast this with my current teaching assignment. I teach about teaching. So, when I tell the students they should do  this or that, I need to model this or that. When I was a teacher, I would try implementing this or that, and sometimes would continue using this and completely abandon that. And it ended there. My teaching strategies were the means to an end ... student learning. Now, the end is parallel to the means. I want my students to learn good teaching techniques, but I also feel this pressure to use good teaching techniques in order to teach them. It would be far easier to plan a lecture, flip through some slides and give a test. But it seems to me that the best way to teach certain pedagogical approaches -- say, cooperative learning -- is to design lessons that implement those pedagogical approaches. Additionally, they can't be done in a "community of practice" sense either, where I make some mistakes and we talk about the teachable moments and learn from the things the professor screwed up on. The lessons need to be delivered with precision and completely thought through. I feel at times like I am stuck in some performance assessment nightmare, where I am being judged not only on my knowledge of the content but also by my delivery of the content.

When the preservice teachers have had a chance to participate in the teaching strategy, it seems to me, we have something to talk about. They observed/participated in it, and now we can talk about it in real terms, rather than treating the teaching strategy like some straw man that everyone beats down yet has no real experience with. As my advisor used to say, it's easy to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks, but it's a lot harder to actually do something meaningful and thoughtful. Of course, he was referring to publishing, but it also applies to the art of teaching.

This is all fresh on my mind because I just gave a lecture to my students on how to lecture. My talk was well planned out, and I had a lot of good suggestions for the students. But as I reflected on the class, I was struck that I didn't do some of the things I had told my students they should do when lecturing to students. Strategies such as providing students with a note-taking template and using questioning to check for comprehension and engage the listeners. Basically, I didn't feel like I effectively modeled what I was telling my students they should do in their lectures.

This brings me back to the title. Good teaching is hard to do. It takes a lot of extra time that the teacher will really never get paid for. That never really mattered to me because the standards I set for myself were always higher than those imposed by other people. Good teaching really is hard to do, but it's even harder to model.