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21st Century Learning

"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.

Connected to what?

I've had this thought more than once during the past few weeks: What if I delete my Facebook account? I have no real reason to delete it, and I certainly have nothing against Zuckerberg or the company (though recent history has definitely exposed his true business sense). I haven't posted anything I'm trying to hide, and there is no one in my Friend list who I believe to be a liability. So, what is the source of these feelings?

Hollowness.

That is the feeling I am left with when I look at Facebook. To me, it is a very hollow. I know it is not that way for everyone, such as my sister who is very involved in playing various games with several of her friends. I know many people who chit-chat back and forth with their friends all day, as if they were in the same room. I think this is great, but it's not the experience I have had. I'm not sure it's the experience I want to have.

The obvious advantages to Facebook are the networking and being able to see what people are up to (assuming they choose to share their lives) without having to ask. Networking, especially in this day and age, is a benefit. It's nice to have a central place where you can send people messages, knowing it will go directly into the e-mail inbox. It's also frustrating when you never get a response from someone, knowing your message went directly into their e-mail inbox. To this end, I would say this has been my main use of Facebook.

Facebook also does a nice job of keeping people who would not ordinarily be in your consciousness in your consciousness. Stalking, lurking or whatever you want to call it probably is not a benefit, except for those moments when you think, "I wonder whatever happened to old So-and-so," then you proceed to find him or her on Facebook, only to discover he lives in Peoria, Illinois and sells sand to hourglass companies. "Oh," you think to yourself, and move on. But at least old So-and-so is in your thoughts in some way, which is a way to stay connected to your past, I guess.

For me, the hollowness comes from knowing there are many people in my Friends list who want to know about me but aren't really interested in knowing me anymore. They want to have a connection to me in case I ever come in handy but they aren't committed enough to actually connect. I have a handful of friends who actually do write back, chit-chat or want to get together from time to time, but I am starting to think those are the friends I would have stayed in touch with even if there were no Facebook.

Like I said, hollow.

The main question for me, however, is not the impact this 21st century digitally-driven social networking has on me. I'm a grown-up with a great job, wonderful family and sense of purpose in life. I can deal with a little hollowness. The bigger question is how does this type of connecting affect people who have never known anything else? How are my children going to define friendship? Will they grow up thinking that people are information you need to simply find out? That once you know the person's information, you "know" that person? Will they believe the lie that you are what you share? Will they feel compelled to tweet, update, instragram or whatever every single experience they've had, or even worse, manufacture experiences just because they think they'll make for a good tweet, instragram or update?

When I think about the true friends in my life, I think of inside jokes, mountain adventures, long stories to fill long bus rides to school events, secret pacts made by a campfire, calling each other over college breaks to find time to hang out. I think about talking over dinner, serving together with someone other than ourselves in mind, playing phone tag for weeks until one of us catches the other person at home, road trips. Friendships should be so heavy with shared experiences they leave a wake in our past that never really dissipates.

I'm sure my children will use Facebook (or something like it), but I am starting to believe I will have to be purposeful if I hope to keep it from becoming the central piece in their social lives. Lives are more than data, and connection is more than updates. One way to help with this is to keep my account open and use it responsibly. And Friend them when they're old enough.

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.

Why digital text is here stay

As if anyone would even argue this point, I just had a flash that served as one more reminder why digital text is here to stay. This is also why The Cloud is here to stay, and why eReaders are here to stay, and why the discipline of close reading is here to stay. Here's what happened.

I was crafting an e-mail to a friend about a possible digital media study this upcoming fall. In my message, I decided to mention Jonah Lehrer's book ... again. Have I told you about his book, Imagine, lately? Do you need the hyperlink so you can buy it? Am I a sycophant yet? Anyway, there was a phrase from his book that I wanted to use (i.e., claim as my own), but I couldn't remember it. I reached to get my Kindle, and realized it was at home, as are all of my other devices that have this book on it. So, I looked up Kindle on Google, and found out they have a Cloud Reader for computers. Why wouldn't they? I mean, Amazon can sync my other devices so that when I put one down and pick up another later on, I start reading right where I left off. In a matter of 5 or so clicks, I was looking at Lehrer's book at the exact place where I stopped reading last night. I located the phrase (meta-idea), and went right back to my e-mail. Actually, I came right to my blog, then I will get back to my e-mail ... after lunch.

This kind of thing was not even possible a few years ago. If I needed to look at something in a book, I had to either bring the book with me or wait until I got home, to my office, etc. Now I have every book I own (in digital format) right in front of me whenever I need to look something up. I don't think I will ever buy another printed book again. I'm sure publishers will still send me copies of books to review, but if they ever give me the option, I want the eBook. It's important to note, I still had to read the eBook. If I want to make a note, I have to actually make the note. If something in one book makes me think of something in another book, I have to be disciplined enough to write it down before I forget. The eBook (or any digital media, for that matter) does not do the thinking for you, but boy oh boy, does it change the way I approach my scholarship. I love the Web because I find all kinds of resources I never knew existed, but what I really love is to be able to reference those resources I have already read, thought about, re-read, took notes on, and integrated into my existing knowledge base. The perfect storm of taking the time to sit still and read something, mixed with ubiquitous access when I can't remember a phrase or term or quotation. It's the epitome of distributed cognition, to me.

Oh, and my back doesn't hurt anymore from lugging around all those books.

Podcasting and Learning

I've been orbiting and occupying this big ol' Ed Techy world for quite a long time. So, I've read countless papers, proposals, articles, and chapters on "Why my media is better for learning than your media." I've studied this from a cognitive, social, motivational, and developmental perspective, and I am still not convinced that one medium is better for learning than any other. I do believe that all media have different affordances that make them better-suited for certain contexts, learning styles or learning tasks. Needless to say, I've done (and continue to do) my homework  on this one, and I get a little annoyed when people who just perhaps haven't done as much homework on this topic make blanket statements like this one:

 A new study found that students who listen to lectures on podcasts test better than those who listen in class. (You can read the entire article here.)

The "new study" in question is taken from a 2009 article in New Scientist, and it's reporting on a study done in the same year by Dani McKinney. I found these links in a 2012 blog post by Michael Hyatt. My issue is not with bloggers quoting bloggers quoting bloggers, some of whom don't understand educational technology research. The problem I have with this quote, and those like it, is that it is stated as if this were "proven" fact. Here are some things to consider when reading results from this type of research:

  1. Learning is complex and influenced by many, many factors: motivation, engagement, prior knowledge, environment, aptitude AND delivery method. To say that students who listen to a podcast at home will score better on a test than those who come to class and listen to the lecture is absurd. This can lead to all kinds of misconceptions about learning, multi-tasking, learning styles and media. "You can learn astrophysics while washing the dishes and updating your Facebook status!"
  2. Most educational technology research studies have a long list of limitations. The findings are almost always limited to the study in question, with some suggestions on how to scale it up or replicate the results. This is called "job security" for us academic types.
  3. Teacher-created exams may not be the best measure for student learning. Sure, they're great for assigning grades, but they are often mismatched with the learning objectives, and if they are multiple choice, there's a chance the students could guess and get the right answer. The test items may also be written in such a way that it is easy to eliminate answer choices and choose the right one without really knowing the material. I did not read the entire research article, so I will not make any judgments about this instructor's exam.

Online and hybrid learning environments are here to stay, and the research into best practices and learning outcomes for this model of teaching will only get broader and better. Studies such as the one I reference above are an important part in this process and must be done. Any research study should produce more questions than answers, which this one obviously did (Do podcast lectures have the same effect over an entire semester?) But please, if you are going to quote studies like this, look at the original research article and temper your statements with a qualifier or two. Michael Hyatt and Mile Elgan have thousands and thousands of readers. If I go back and read this tonight, I will have one. People believe what they read, and they especially believe what they read when they WANT to believe it. If you want to do better on tests, or learn something new, try the time-tested strategy of applying yourself and taking ownership of your learning. Don't expect media, podcasts or otherwise, to do for you what you aren't willing to do for yourself.

Wikispaces: One-stop shopping for digital learning

In the past several years, I have come to rely on Web-based website builders quite extensively in my teaching. I typically use Google Sites for the bulk of my Web content with my classes, and it has always been very reliable. I have noticed lately that the editor doesn't always load in the newest versions of Firefox. This isn't a big deal because I can jump over to Safari and finish whatever edits I need to do.

Anyway, what started as a way to write lesson plans without having to move files with me wherever I went has evolved into a complete lecture management tool. I started using SeedWiki circa. 2005 because I found myself planning my lectures at odd times, using a host of different computers. Using a wiki was a perfect solution because I could log in from anywhere and pick up where I had left off. I also liked the wiki because I could paste links and other resources directly into the page. It was a great tool.

Eventually, I started giving my class the link to my lecture notes in SeedWiki, and it wasn't long before I was using the wiki as the hub to my class meetings. I got this idea, in part, from someone else, and though I have switched tools I still use this method for managing class meetings. Some of the basics methods that I use a wiki for include:

  • Time management: I would organize each section of the class meeting using cells in a table, including the amount of time I thought we would spend on each section. Each section of the class meeting has relevant links, embedded videos, documents, etc.
  • Collaborative Learning: Keeping track of group work and collaborative learning can be a nightmare. One area of my teaching that I noticed was in serious need of improvement was keeping the class on track during group discussions. We've all seen this technique used, and it did not come naturally to me. What I noticed in many instances was that the students would spend about 60 seconds discussing the topic, then they would digress into conversation and have nothing to show for their work. Essentially, group discussions lacked accountability and there was no incentive for staying on task. What I began to do, and do to this day, is determine ahead of time how many groups the class would be divided into and create that many pages as part of the class wiki. Each group would then summarize their discussion on the assigned page. I was able to get creative too, throwing in such tasks as finding a random picture on the web, or finding a movie clip that corresponded to their main idea. As soon as the group clicked save, I was able to display their summary to the rest of the class. I had a built-in record of what each group talked about, and because anyone could edit the page, no sign-in was required.
  • Lecture Archive: Because everything that we covered, as well as what we did in class, was saved to the wiki for that day, I had a detailed archive of the class meeting. More detailed than I could have created on my own because the class helped me do it. So, when a student would come to class and ask that question that all professors love to hear ("Did we cover anything important last week?"), I could point them to the wiki and tell them that EVERYTHING on the page for that day is important.

About the time that SeedWiki went under, Google Sites (which used to be JotSpot) came around. I was already a big Gmail and Google Docs user at this point, so it made sense to start using Google Sites to manage my lecture notes. The tool itself is very stable and easy to use, but it was not ideal for collaborative learning. Students had to have Google Account and be added one-by-one to the Site before they could log in and participate in the learning activities. This may not sound like a big deal, but there were just enough moving parts that it became a nuisance. Remember, college students are basically high school students with no curfew and more access to beer, and many of them are not good at keeping track of their information. Just to give my students permission to co-edit the class Site, they had to:

  1. Open a Google Account
  2. Send me the e-mail address they used to open the Google Account
  3. Respond to my invitation to join the class Google Site
  4. Remember their log in information

When you go to start a class activity and half the class can't access the Site, it gets pretty frustrating. UVa eventually moved to Google Apps for student e-mail accounts, so this reduced some of the friction, but it was still very clunky. In Google Sites' defense, I don't think they ever intended for the tool to be used in this way, and restricting editing access to only those with permission is a security measure.

Recently, I rediscovered Wikispaces, and I think the tool has come along to point where I will start using it exclusively for all of my lecture management needs. I typically use Wikispaces about twice per semester with each of my classes, but I am starting to see how it is much more effective than Google Sites for use in a learning environment. First of all, the teacher can add users to a wiki in bulk. All you do is create  a spreadsheet with usernames and passwords, and upload it to the wiki. Students then have access to the wiki, and they didn't have to sign up or respond to a confirmation e-mail. This option is superior to making the wiki editable by anyone, as you will see later.

Second, you can create Projects within the wiki. These projects are partitioned off from the rest of wiki, making it much easier to manage each activity. Otherwise, the list of your wiki's pages gets to be pretty burdensome and hard to manage. Every time you create a new project, you can drag-n-drop the names of students into different teams, or you can let Wikispaces randomly assign students to teams. This is great for mixing up student groupings and getting students out of their comfort zones. The alternative is letting the students always pick their own groups and essentially work with the same people all semester.

Finally, there is a Discussion tab for each page, which you can use in several different ways. You can have students follow up with group projects by discussing key questions in a back channel. I haven't used this particular feature much, but I plan on using it more.

There are many reasons to use a wiki to manage your class meetings, some of which I have discussed here. What are some other ways you have used a wiki as part of your teaching?

Saving the world one student at a time

When I arrived at UNT, one of the projects already underway in the research center where I work was MSOSW (Middle Schoolers Out to Save the World). The focus of this project is to increase middle school students' interest in science, technology, engineering and math through a problem-based unit focused on energy conservation. The students participating in this project, which included schools from Texas, Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, use Watts Up? devices to measure the amount of vampire energy used by the electronic devices in their homes. This project involves a lot of in-depth learning about energy consumption, carbon emissions, measurement units for energy and power, energy costs, carbon footprint, stand-by power and product design. In addition to these concepts, the students are required to do a lot of math for conversions, and they must use a spreadsheet. Because I see such value in these types of projects, I wanted my pre-service teachers to experience firsthand what it looks like to complete a problem-based unit from beginning to end. I observed this unit being taught last year at Good Shepherd Episcopal School, but I had never actually planned and taught it myself. Let me tell you, the planning was much more time intensive than I had assumed, and I ended up staying up late one night to get all of the materials ready.

The first thing I did was put my students into groups of 2. I normally let them pick their own partners, but they have gotten, how shall we say, comfortable this semester, and I wanted to break them out of their apathetic little comfort zone. The next thing I did was set up a Google Presentation for each group. I wanted them to see how this tool worked, so I created one for each group and set them up so anyone could edit. The next thing I did was lay out the project on Glogster. I was never really happy with how this turned out, but you can see it here. The process of setting up this glog (their term, not mine) required me to go find all of the resources I wanted them to have for the project. This included a carbon footprint calculator, a vampire energy calculator, a graph maker, a couple of videos and a spreadsheet for entering some data. As the pre-service teachers went through this project, I had them report their information in the Google Presentation along the way. I also brought a few Watts Up? devices to the lab and hooked them up to a monitor, a CPU tower, the printer and the document projector. I wanted them to do the math required to calculate how much energy the lab uses in a 24 hour period. Overall, they did a really nice job and completed the whole activity, even though it was not for a grade (I will grade it in the future, I think).

Here are a few lessons learned from this tech-rich problem-based unit:

  1. Pre-service teachers actually like this kind of work. I have to say, this was hard and the students really struggled with some of the math and science concepts. But they stuck with it and took the topic seriously. I would even go so far as to say they learned something about energy conservation from doing this. I also hope they learned something about using this teaching strategy with students
  2. Glogster is kind of cool, but it has been extremely unstable and unreliable lately. On several occasions I have logged on and gotten some sort of "We will be down for the next 36 hours, but we are adding some really awesome new features!" Well, when I go to retrieve my work from a Web tool and it is not there, I'm done with that tool. That is a total deal breaker for me. So, Glogster, I am sure your new design is really awesome, but you let me down on several occasions and I'm done. I will also not be pointing my students to this tool because it let many of them down too.
  3. When you set up a Google Presentation to be edited by anyone with the link, it will not let you import images. The students made a graph that was exported as a JPEG, and I wanted them to import it into a slide. Google Presentation wouldn't let them do it, so we found a very bothersome work-around. If we pasted the image in a PPT slide, we could copy and paste the graph into the Google Presentation (but only if we use CTRL-V, not the mouse). I don't know if this was a bug in the new re-design of Google Presentation, or if they have this feature disabled for when anonymous users are editing a document. Either way, it was annoying and slowed the process down temporarily. In a K-12 classroom, this could mean the difference between a project going well and the whole thing crumbling in your hands. I do have to own this one, though, because I never tried to edit a presentation or insert an image as an anonymous user. I should have done this beforehand, but I just took for granted that it would work.
  4. Google Spreadsheet worked like a champ, and I will definitely use it in the future for activities like this. I have used this tool for years, but I had never seen multiple people entering in data at once. The students also thought this was really cool.
  5. The Vampire Energy Calculator is very cool, and I think this is what really brought the project home for the students. Even the act of physically dragging electronics into different rooms made this more like a simulation than a calculator. It's a very well-designed tool.

So, that is my first attempt at teaching the MSOSW unit, but it will not be my last. I already have some ideas for how to make it better next time, and I hope this is serves as a catalyst for some students to begin envisioning this type of instruction in their own classrooms.

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 ...

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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.

The 15-minute Experiment

One tool I have used with students for several years is a wiki. I have personally used wikis for group work, class websites and digital portfolios. However, I have had a hard time coming up with a good activities for my students that really demonstrate the affordances of a wiki (group editing, version history, comments and discussion, etc.) beyond the ability to just create a web page. In fact, my experiences were always similar to Melissa Cole, who had a lot of great ideas for using a wiki in her class but struggled to get buy-in from her class. I have had the same problem in the past, where I would set up a semester-long collaborative project for students to build a collective knowledge base. These projects always started out strong before interest fizzled after a few weeks. One interesting piece from Cole's article was the brief taxonomy of wiki usage, taken from Tonkin (2005):

  1. Single-user. This allows individual students to write and edit their own thoughts and is useful for revision and monitoring changes in understanding over time.
  2. Lab book. This enables students to peer review notes kept online by adding, for example, commentary or annotations to existing lecture notes or seminar discussions.
  3. Collaborative writing. This can be used by a team for joint research such as a group project, essay or presentation.
  4. Creating a topical knowledge repository for a module cohort. Through collaborative entries students create course content that supplements and extends delivered material.

I don't think this list is exhaustive, but it got me to thinking. How could I show my students the power of collective knowledge without giving them a project that would drag on forever, while harnessing knowledge each student currently possessed?

Well, I came up with the following idea:

Imagine you were each asked to speak to a group of students new to UNT about tips for being successful in their first semester. In other words, what do you wish you had known as an incoming student? Chances are you could come up with several good tips. But what would happen if three or four of you collaborated on the same talk? You would probably be able to come up with an even better list of suggestions for incoming students. What you will do in the next 15 minutes is collectively tap into your knowledge and experience and provide incoming students with a knowledge base that might be helpful to their transition to UNT (assuming they take your advice).

The result was this wiki, which I created using WikiSpaces. The end result is not totally impressive, and you can see that some of the students took this opportunity to be kind of silly (which I can relate to ... I was always that kid in the class). But what was interesting was the reaction from many of the students when we debriefed about this activity. For most of them, they got it. They were able to see in a  short amount of time that many people can collectively put their heads together and create something useful (e.g., Wikipedia, though that experiment has taken many years to create).

On the technical side, there was quite a lot of work I had to do beforehand to make this experiment truly 15 minutes. Here is the rundown:

  1. Set up the wiki
  2. I took advantage of the free teacher upgrade, which allowed me to add users in bulk. This takes about a day to do, since wikispaces wants to verify your .edu or k12 e-mail address.
  3. Created a CSV file with a username and password for each of my students.
  4. Uploaded the file and created the student accounts.
  5. Distributed the usernames and passwords to my class (via Moodle)

I demonstrated this process to the class as well, in case they wanted to try it themselves. I think this is an activity I will include in the future, and I may even have my students edit or add to the existing entries in addition to creating their own. I may have to find a new topic before long if this one becomes saturated, but I think there are still several topics that haven't been addressed.

So, how do you use wikis in your teaching?

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.

Teaching virtual design in a physical world

I first became familiar with the term "digital fabrication" when I was finishing up my dissertation at the University of Virginia. My advisor, Glen Bull, came into my office one day and asked me to watch a demo with a machine he had recently found. I watched with fascination as he created a 3-D model on the computer, printed it as a 2-D net, cut it out in seconds on the CraftROBO machine and folded it into an exact replica of the model on the screen. This was amazing on several fronts:

  • It took a matter of minutes to do what would have taken me a whole math lesson (or more) to do with my 4th grade students
  • The fold lines were clean and perforated. The physical object actually looked like the model on the screen. For students who have been spoon fed high-quality media since birth, that makes a difference.
  • The design was separate from the actual object, which means I could go back to the computer model and make alterations/corrections, then print another one.

That final point is, in my opinion, significant. Let me explain this by making a comparison to the writing process. For children, the act of writing something by hand is laborious. It's labor-intensive to me, and I've been doing it for 35 years. So, when children write something on paper, they want that to be the first and final copy of that particular piece of writing. It's not that they don't like proofreading, editing and revising, but every change they make means another word, sentence, paragraph or page they will have to rewrite. Writing, in addition to being cognitively demanding, is physically demanding on a child's fine-motor skills. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell is right, that the best people in a certain field aren't always the most naturally gifted, but those in the right place at the right time with the opportunity to perfect their skills. Maybe the best writers in school are those that don't get burned out from the physical act of writing.

The same is true when students are creating things in the classroom. I used to have my students cut out nets from graph paper and fold those shapes into 3-dimensional objects. After spending more than one math lesson to do this,  we could finally get to the learning. This is not considered efficient in the business or medical world, yet in education we just kind of shrug it off and learn to deal with it. And what happened if a student's shape was not exactly symmetrical or was missing a side? Well, they got to be the kid with the lopsided shape. What if I wanted to demonstrate how changing the dimensions of the shape could conserve volume but change surface area? I guess I could have the students cut out a new shape, but there goes another 15-20 minutes. The fact that the media students used to design the object also became the object used to teach the concept was problematic.

This is not as much of a problem when the students design their model on the computer because they can manipulate it without having to physically create another shape. And for all those Piaget and Montessori fans out there, the end result is still a physical object that students can touch and compare. Students learn the basic foundations of rapid prototyping and iterative design, two principals and practices that pretty much define research and development. This is a far cry from the current model of "one and done" projects in schools today.

Below is  a video created by the folks in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia who are starting to explore how digital fabrication can be applied in schools to enhance student learning.

I will follow up in a couple of days and explain how I took this concept and turned it into a learning activity for my preservice teachers.

Using Posterous as a class photo archive

I have been playing 5-Picture Charades with my classes for many years. I first came up with the idea (though I'm sure I wasn't the first person to do so) back in the mid-'90's when I was teaching elementary school. I would have my students pick an excerpt from whatever book we happened to be reading, and they would have to act out that scene in 5 pictures. They would then share the images with the class to see if anyone could guess the scene. As you can imagine, the activity was a lot of fun and the students loved it.

In addition to this activity being fun, I also noticed that there was a lot of higher-order thinking going on. Students were having to synthesize passages, evaluate which scenes most accurately characterized their passage, narrow them down to 5 images, decide how to physically portray those 5 essential scenes and ultimately create them. One reason the students loved this activity was because it was challenging, but the kind of challenging that is so much fun you don't realize how much work it actually is.

When I started teaching technology integration courses, I used this activity to teach my students how to capture, edit and publish digital images. I found that they were much more motivated to engage in these  skill-development activities when they were using their own images that they just had a ball creating. I typically gave them fairy tales to act out, but occasionally I would just give them some boundaries (e.g., U.S. History, Literary characters, etc.) and let them pick their own topic. The former category is much easier, but the latter produces much more entertaining image sets. We then use the images to practice image editing, digital storytelling and uploading (which, thanks to Facebook, most of them are already pretty good at).

The only sticky part to this activity every semester was sharing the images with the rest of the class. I tried having them save all of the images to the instructor computer, but it took forever and people ended up sitting around waiting for others to finish. I also tried having the students e-mail the images to me, but that also took forever and sometimes the images were too big to attach (this was before Gmail had such massive attachment allowances). So, it was always tricky getting everyone's images into one place where we could view them.

Well, last semester I got tipped off to Posterous by Wes Fryer, and I decided to use it today for this activity. I created a class account and had the students follow these instructions as soon as they came in from taking their pictures:

  1. Transfer the images from your camera to the computer.
  2. Go to http://posterous.com
  3. Log in using the following credentials
    • E-mail:
    • Password:
  4. Click on the button that says "Post by web"
  5. Click in the Title field and name it based on your group and section (e.g., Section 001, Group 1)
  6. On the right side of the screen, choose "Upload images, audio, video and docs"
  7. Choose all of your photos at once. You do this by holding down the CTRL key as you click on each photo. Once all 5 images are selected, click Open.
  8. After the photos have uploaded, click Publish.
  9. Have each person in the group save all 5 images to their flash drive
  10. Delete the images from the camera.
  11. Put the camera and all its parts back in the box and return it to me.

I am telling you, I have done this activity many times, and it has never gone as smoothly as it did today. The students came in and got right to work uploading their images to our class Posterous site, and within minutes we were laughing and blurting out trying to guess each group's fairy tale. There was essentially no waiting around or wondering what happened to some of the images. It is almost as if the gallery method of displaying images in Posterous was created just for this activity, and an added bonus is that I now have access to each of these images without having to go around to each computer and copy them to my flash drive.

I definitely recommend Posterous as a place to have students upload images. Flickr groups or Picasa albums are also good, but this is by far the easiest method I have ever used for this purpose.

Students and informal learning

I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to contribute to an ISTE book, Teaching with Digital Video, an effort put together by Glen Bull and Lynn Bell. One of the chapters I helped write discussed student-created video in informal learning environments. The premise of this chapter is that rich, deep learning can (and do) take place in settings other than school and without a teacher's direction. I was able to provide a few examples of such learning in the chapter.

Along these lines, I have been working with a News Media club at a private K-8 school, and one of the things the students wanted to learn was how to edit video and use a green screen. The school just happened to have recently invested in a green screen and video editing software, so the conditions were perfect for trying out the new equipment.

Because this is a club, rather than a core class, combined with the fact that the students are all new to video editing, I decided to start with something small and simple, which in this case was Charades. I told the students which scenario to act out, and we filmed them performing in front of the green screen. After each student had a chance to participate (twice!), we went to the computer lab and did some simple editing. You can click on the link below to see the result of our efforts, a simple 1-minute video:

The thing that excites me about this experience is not the technology, but the students' response to the activity. I had students stopping me in the hall later that day asking me when we were going to use the green screen again. I could tell their ideas and creativity were flowing. Green screen is cool, but students who are excited about being creative and taking ownership of their own learning is even cooler.

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.