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Teaching Naked: The workshop, not the dream

Last week, I attended a workshop hosted by our teaching excellence center called Teaching Naked. This is a catchy title for both Jose Antonio Bowen's book and workshops, but I find it a little ironic considering the content from his presentation. When I think of "teaching naked," I think of eliminating all adornments and superfluous elements from the class. I had a professor at UVa, Dr. John Sanderson, who taught this way. For an entire semester, he taught our Tests and Measures class without the use of PowerPoint, a LMS, or any other instructional tools. He showed a couple of short video clips on the VHS player, and he would occasionally bring some handouts. Most of his diagrams were written on the board when we arrived, and the majority of the class was discussion and lecture. It was an engaging class and quite helpful in my development as a researcher. I had already taken Stats I when I took Dr. Sanderson's class, and he did a nice job of filling in the gaps of what I had missed the first time. He truly taught naked. On the other hand, Dr. Bowen's workshop centered on using A LOT of technology. His approach to teaching could best be described as the "flipped classroom." He presents students with a variety of media to watch, think about, and learn outside of class, then uses class time to engage students in activities that require face-to-face human interaction. I like this approach to teaching and hope to emulate it with the same skill as Dr. Bowen, but I do not consider it "naked." In fact, it is quite heavily adorned with a host of social media tools, to the extent that I wondered how a students, or the professor, would keep up with it all. He talked about e-mail, Twitter, Socrative, Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, Skype, YouTube, Merlot, and several other tools. What he did not talk about at any point in the talk was PowerPoint. In fact, the take-away message from the workshop was, "Stop delivering boring lectures using PowerPoint and start engaging your class more ... during class time."

Some of Dr. Bowen's ideas were not new to me. Socrative, Twitter, YouTube videos, Google Docs. I use each of these tools in different ways to support my teaching and keep students connected to the class. Other ideas where, quite honestly, not ever going to be part of my workflow: Facebook groups, Skype, or MOOC's. But I did take away some ideas I would like to implement either this semester or in the spring. I have already taken one suggestion, which is to send student materials related to class electronically after class is over. This way, they are not reading the paper instead of listening. I also would like to try broadcasting a Google Hangout session live sometime before the next paper is due. I have responded to nearly 30 e-mails in the last two days, each of which ask essentially the same 3-4 questions. I will give the Hangout a try and see if anyone joins in to ask questions that everyone can hear the answer to. This also lets me record the session, so students who miss can watch it later. I have never been that open to devoting time in the evenings in this way, but after spending at least two hours in the last couple of days responding to e-mails, I like the idea of reducing this down to an hour. Show up, let the students ask their questions, and get them to work.

In addition to some new ideas to apply to my teaching, the hour and a half spent listening to Dr. Bowen speak was quite enjoyable. He's funny, intelligent, and has some very keen insight into the way students think and approach school. I haven't decided yet if I will read his book, but I will definitely look through his website for some new ideas. In no time, I will be teaching naked too!

TCU Lyceum 2013

Last week I had the opportunity to speak about educational technology to a group of 26 principals from around the state. When I say a "group of principals," what I really mean is "some of the very best principals" in the state. All of the superintendents in the state were contacted and asked to recommend their highest performing principals for the TCU Educational Leadership Lyceum 2013, and these principals were among those recommended and accepted. To say I was intimidated would be a huge understatement. I have taught classes to large groups of people virtually everyday for nearly 10 years, so it would stand to reason that I was up for this task. The truth is, I analyzed, planned, re-analyzed, over-planned, and perseverated over this presentation for weeks.

I will be the first to admit my presentation was kind of all over the place. I started with something about the past and future of educational technology ("Let's start by talking about the invention of fire ..."), then I mentioned something about the myths and actual findings of ed. tech. research, and I ended by showing them a few tools/activities that I like to use in my classes. Since this was my first presentation like this, I made the common rookie mistake of trying to do too much within such a short time frame. The presentation was scheduled for 3 hours, which seemed like a lot of time, but once I got the participants involved in some activities, it flew by. As usual, I left the presentation with a pretty good idea for what went well and what I would do differently if I were to get this opportunity again.

Here are my main lessons from this experience:

  1. Less is more. People can only remember a certain amount of information, and they are probably more likely to remember a handful of compelling activities than a bunch of information.
  2. There are no style points. Actually there could be, but if they distract from the One of the main mistakes I made was trying to switch between too many programs. I was projecting my main points using the Broadcast feature in SlideShark. I was mirroring the display of my iPad using AirServer when I wanted to demonstrate something. I was pulling information from several different browser tabs. It got confusing for me, which means it was definitely overload for the participants.
  3. Use activities to illustrate a point rather than making them the point. I knew this as I planned the presentation, and I still gravitated to this error like a moth to a porch light. I usually like to arrange a presentation around 3-4 big ideas, and I have activities that make them come to life. This time, I did that for 2 out of 4 of my main points, so it should come as no surprise that only half of my main points went over well. Anyone who has done this sort of thing for awhile knows you can't just show people tools. One fourth of the audience is two steps ahead and bored, one fourth is with you, and half of them are totally lost. I had to re-learn this lesson the hard way.

Overall, I feel very fortunate to have been included on the program for this amazing group of principals. Their energy and love for students was evident in just the brief time I was with them. They asked great questions and willingly participated in the activities I had set up for them. Many of them followed along and took notes on their personal devices, which I believe increases the probability some of these ideas will live on beyond the short workshop. I am also thankful for my colleagues at TCU who invited me to be part of their team. I look forward to many more excellent experiences in the future.

Lecturecasting with a Bamboo

I recently got a question from a teacher about recording mathematics explanations using a Bamboo from Wacom. I have never used a Bamboo before, but I know people who have and I've seen other tablets like it, so I knew what this teacher was asking. When using a Bamboo, you project your computer on the screen using a digital projector, and the tablet is essentially a big mouse pad that lets you draw or write with a stylus. I have used similar tools before, and there is no projection on the tablet itself. You can just see your marking on the computer or projector.

Since the computer is the "brains" for the Bamboo, rather than an app on an iPad or other tablet, Bamboo users must use a program that runs on their computer. To my knowledge, the are not many computer programs that function as a whiteboard AND let you record your explanation. One would have to use a whiteboard app concurrently with screencasting software. This may become more trouble than it's worth, in my opinion. There is, however, a web tool called Educreations that works as a whiteboard that records pen strokes on a virtual whiteboard. The developers really push the iPad app, but there is a web component to it as well. I have used it with my students, and it works pretty well when there is no iPad available.

Using this tool, the teacer would project the browser page using the computer, and the Bamboo would be the writing tool. I wanted to walk myself through the process and recorded a demo, seen below (Note: I am not using a Bamboo; rather, I am remotely accessing the screen from my computer on my iPad using SplashTop. The iPad is acting like a Bamboo ... complicated, I know.)

The teacher to whom I was explaining this process bought his own Bamboo and teaches in a school devoid of many technological tools other schools have access to. My goal was to point him to something free that offered most of the things he wanted to do. Conceptually, this teacher understands the value of digitally recording complex explanations to students. He can go back and revisit old problems without having to rewrite them on the board, and since the entire explanation is recorded the students can watch it later when they are working independently. I tip my hat to teachers like this who catch a vision and seek out information to make it happen given the resources they have access to. iPads and other tablets are slick, trendy, and honesty, quite powerful, but they are not the only way to implement innovative teaching strategies with technology. No matter what the tool, there is no replacement for persistence and creativity.

Projecting lectures with SlideShark

As I mentioned in a previous post, I used my iPad during the Spring 2013 semester as a control center for displaying images, video, and (don't judge me) bullet points. In my imagination, this made me the coolest professor on the planet. I oozed awesome with every gesture and swipe of the iPad. My students thought I was a dork.

I don't know if that word actually came to mind, but the vibe was definitely tangible in the room. My protocol for projecting the iPad display was pretty reliable, but I was using AirServer over a Bluetooth connection that could only handle a small amount of data at once. There was often a delay between what I was doing on the iPad and what the students were seeing, and sometimes the connection would freeze altogether. This connection would also not handle video or any type of animation. Personally, I did not see this as a big deal, but my students did and said as much on their course evaluations.

This prompted me to re-think how I was going to use my iPad as a portable lectern, or if I was going to do this at all next semester. I revisited a few different options I had explored before, and nothing seemed to do what I wanted. That is, of course, until I happened to read the SlideShark blog. I had used this app a few times already for presenting slides, and I liked it quite a bit. I was able to monitor my presentation with a timer, see my presentation notes, and quite importantly, preserve any animations I had embedded in the slides. The app also handles embedded video pretty smoothly without the need to include the video file somewhere on your device. Everything is computed in the cloud and is downloaded to the mobile app.

Until recently, I still had to mirror my iPad display onto my MacBook via AirPlay by way of AirServer in order to use SlideShark. Even though it was a step up from some other apps I was using, it still got hung up sometimes and would stop advancing the main points I was covering in the class meeting. Apparently this is quite exasperating to undergraduates (though they expect me to be "cool" with their "multi-tasking").

SlideShark has now added the Broadcast feature to it's app, which lets a presenter remotely control slides through the cloud from an  iPad. This means I do not have to connect my device to my MacBook via AirServer. I just have to make sure my iPad and the computer connected to the projector are both online. Here is a brief rundown of the workflow:

  1. Upload the presentation to your SlideShark account
  2. Open the SlideShark app from your iPad
  3. Download the presentation to your device
  4. Open the presentation and click Broadcast
  5. Open a browser on the computer connected to the projector
  6. Go to:
  7. Your slides will be remotely controlled with your iPad and displayed through this browser window. You can expect a 2-4 second delay between the device and the browser. When you stop to think about it, that is FREAKING AMAZING! 2-4 seconds?! Are you kidding me?!

Of course, this method is not perfect. You can't ...

  • Show the iPad display. This will only show your slides. If you need to switch between apps, you will still need to use something like Reflector or AirServer.
  • This option is not free. After June 15, when the trial period ends, the ability to Broadcast slides will set you back to the tune of $95 a year. That is not chump change in my household, but I think it will be worth the money if I use this tool as much as I think I'm going to.
  • I have still had some problems getting videos to play. The FAQ section says that any format of video other than AVI or WMV will not play in-app. Since I'm a Mac user, this is a problem. I am still testing it out with .mov format, since that seems to be the .wmv equivalent on a Mac. You should also be prepared for a very lengthy upload time, depending on how many videos, and of what size, you include. Additionally, this will eat up your storage space if you upload too many large files with embedded video.
  • You will encounter problems if you try to include active links to web pages. Since the slides are running within an app, the link will open a browser but it won't be visible through the Broadcast meeting in the browser. Oddly, hyperlinks within the document, such as Action Buttons, still work. This enables users to create non-linear presentations, if that's what they prefer to do. I rarely use this feature myself.

If you are interested in using your iPad as a mobile lectern for teaching, I would recommend  testing this and other methods of remotely controlling your iPad in order to see what works best for you. If your school/workplace does not block AirServer over WiFi, this by far the best way to go. If that is not an option, SlideShark may be a pretty dependable workaround.

It's not you, it's me

For several years, I have asked students to fill out a Student Information Survey at the beginning of the semester. I adapted the same survey from semester to semester, but it essentially consisted of the same questions. Sometimes it was worth a grade, other times not. Sometimes I made the fields required, sometimes not. Since I have typically taught tech-integration courses for the past several years, most of my questions were technical in nature. I wanted to know such things as their current tech setup (type of computer/OS, access to other devices, etc.), experience with current tech trends (social, mobile, Cloud, gaming, etc.), the intensity of their love/hate relationship with tech, and how their teachers in the past have used it. I also asked a a couple of questions about how they learned best and about any teaching experience they had. Overall, this Student Information Survey was not very exciting, but it helped me establish a baseline for what I was dealing with. Now that I do not teach tech integration classes anymore, I have found my current survey needs to be updated as well. For one thing, I have started calling it a "questionnaire," which may just be a semantic issue, but it seems to capture what I am actually doing. The most notable change, however, is the questions themselves. Instead of getting descriptive data, I want the students to be introspective about themselves as learners. Based on a few studies I have read lately, I have learned that student evaluations of their professors are based more on their self-concepts as learners than on the efficacy and characteristics of the professor. For example, one study I looked at used a hierarchical regression analysis to investigate the relationship between students' academic self-efficacy and professor characteristics. The result of this study showed that students with high academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to professors with characteristics such as content expertise, professionalism, and disagreeableness (i.e., argues, challenges, steps on toes). On the other hand, students with low academic self-efficacy tended to give high ratings to such professor characteristics as compassion, helpfulness, and student-centeredness (though I personally find that trait to be problematic). The Social Exchange Theory is alive and well in the classroom.

In essence, the college classroom is no different than life in general: People evaluate others based on how they feel about themselves.

In response to this belief about my students, I want them to think a little more deeply about themselves as learners and unpack some of the jargon they tend to throw around. One example of psycho-babble jargon students tend to use is "engaged." For example, when I ask the question, "When do you learn best?" they will often respond by saying, "When I am engaged in my learning." My first response is, "Well, yeah, that's kind of how learning works. It's not a passive process." But I have really started to think more deeply about what students mean by "engaged." I always assumed engagement was a trait of the learner, as in, I am listening, taking notes, asking questions, participating in the discussion: I am in engaged.  Based on my experience in one class last semester, however, I suspect many students have a completely different vision for what "engaged" means. I now believe they see this as a trait of the instructor, as in, you are doing things in class that I deem worthy of my attention. The professor is engaging the students. It all comes down to locus of control. In a perfect world, both of these conceptualizations of "engaged" are true, and the professor is carefully thinking about how to present ideas in an organized and compelling way, while using strategies to draw the students into the process. At the same time, the students buy into this and are internally motivated to participate. Both parties fully understand their role in the process and take it seriously. Of course, I have no idea if any of this actually true, or if I just obsessed about it way too much and displaced a lot of my own insecurities onto the students.

This is why I am asking new questions. I want to know how my students evaluate themselves as learners, how they describe "engaged learning," and how they know if they have learned something or not. I am also including a question that asks them to rate themselves at multi-tasking. This item alone will probably explain 90% of the variance in test scores. In case you have never read my reflections on teaching college students, I believe multi-tasking is a horse apple dipped in a cow pie and sprinkled with bird droppings.

My purpose in asking these questions is two-fold. First, I want my students to honestly think about themselves as learners. I am not expecting light bulbs or fireworks, but I do want to push this issue to the forefront. Second, I want to know their (mis)conceptions about learning and teaching so I can address it. Once I know what they think about these important concepts, I can show them research that either confirms or refutes their beliefs. More importantly, it gives me the opportunity to make the class not just informational, but also transformational. Any time a person has the chance to reflect and say, "I used to think ..., but now I know ..." it opens the door to personal growth. Isn't that what all teachers hope to engender in their classrooms?

So, what strategies or activities do you use to learn about your students? How do you use that information? Is it valuable? Take a minute to let me know what you think.

I used to hate Twitter until I started loving it

I opened my Twitter account in late 2007, about a year after the company started. I wrote my first tweet in early January 2008. I must have gotten inspired and posted another one 3 months later, after the twins were born. Then silence. In that time, the company and its brand grew like crazy. Celebrities were battling to see who could get the most followers. Athletes were displaying their intelligence for all the world to behold. People were losing their jobs over ill-advised tweets. One reporter even used it to tattle on the President for saying, "jackass." And all this time, I refused to use it. It wasn't just refusal, but a complete loss for any real reason to use it other than feeding my ego and trying to look hip. I will just come out and say it, "I hated Twitter," and I refused to use it.

Yet, I still managed to get 31 followers. This is approximately 1 million less than Ashton Kutcher, but it still feels like a lot. I actually know most of the people who follow me, and I wonder if they are disappointed that I don't post more. Probably not. To date, I follow no one on Twitter. I have no idea how clever Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, or Ellen DeGeneres are because I don't read their tweets. I assume they are just as clever in 140 characters as they are in 1 hour on television.

Fast forward to Spring 2013. I am teaching several classes at a wonderful private university in Fort Worth. I have many students and many, many papers to grade. I am constantly getting e-mails, and I constantly have information I need to e-mail my students. Our learning management system has an announcement tool and mass e-mail function, but they don't work great. Some of the students don't check eCollege very often, and my mass e-mails to the class many times end up in the Spam folder. The announcement tool is clunky, and it takes about 10 clicks and a login to post something, and that is just for one class. Yet, several of my students suggest, quite honestly, that they would like to get more frequent updates about events and assignments, especially when items were posted to the grade book.

Clearly, I needed to do something different. Enter Twitter. It hit me one day that I could just as easily post something to Twitter and embed a widget on the home page of my course eCollege shell. Now I can post announcements from my phone, iPad, or MacBook, and they immediately go to the feed on my homepage. No logging in. No saving. No e-mailing students to announce a new announcement. The students can actually follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my Tweets. I will confess this is probably the one area of technology where I can honesty say they know more than me. Whatever they do, they can get my announcements and updates in a format that works for them. If they prefer to check eCollege, that works. If they like to get updates via e-mail, they can get that. If they want push notifications on their phone, foggedaboudit. Services like Twitter take the content and let users decide what they want to do with it and how they choose to receive it. Since the process is so easy, I'm much more likely to post class announcements than if I know I need a 5-10 minute block. The 140 character limit forces me to be concise. No more wordy, rambling announcements with 20 updates and 10 links. The announcements are short, simple and easy to remember. I can also include links to other documents or resources.

So, I do not consider myself a "tweeter," but I have found a use for this tool 5 years after creating my account. I am eager to see how this works when I start using it from the onset of the semester. I don't think it will lead to better learning or more student engagement, but it will keep me connected to the class in a way that makes sense to them. And if there is less complaining, I'm in.

Clicker concept vs. Clicker hardware

The first time I saw a demo with clickers, I was hooked. I was a doc student at the University of Virginia, and the Curry School of Education had a class set of  30 clickers and a receiver that professors could check out and use with their classes. A colleague and I checked out the clickers to use with a class of preservice teachers. We spent about two hours setting them up and testing them, and everything seemed to be on track for an exciting romp of student engagement and deep learning. (sarcasm). Honestly, we just wanted to see how they worked and look cool in front of the students. The short story is this activity totally flopped. The student accounts did not work and only about one-fourth of the clickers would register with the receiver. We spent a little time doing the awkward technology dance, then we bailed on the idea and proceeded with our activity sans clickers.

I have had this same experience in a dozen or so classes, workshops, meetings, and conference presentations. Thankfully, none of these have been at my expense, other than the annoying time lapse created by people insisting something will work if they bang on it long enough. In my own teaching, I had all but abandoned the use of clickers simply because they never seemed to work properly. Rather, I would use strategies that I knew were more stable, such as Google Forms. I could create a short form, send it to the students (via e-mail or a address) and get instant feedback from my students. The interface was pretty simple, and assuming I didn't ask my students questions requiring a long, wordy response, I could take a quick pulse from the class in a matter of minutes.

Most of my classes have met in computer labs, so access to a browser has never been a problem. However, I had to rethink how to implement this strategy when I was in a traditional classroom. I tried having students send responses from these forms using their phones a couple of times, but the forms did not render very well on the small screen. This was also before smartphones had the kind of saturation they do now. About half my students had smartphones, and some of them were a little sensitive about using data for school activities (though no one seems to hesitate when it comes to sending and receiving texts during class). Go figure.

Once I started teaching a large lecture-type class at TCU, I knew I had to start thinking again about ways to engage the class. I found it very difficult to encourage discussion among a hundred students, and the "think, pair, share" technique was wearing thin because their mini-discussion never went anywhere. Very few of the students actually wanted to share their conversation with everyone else, and those that did were my usual suspects who did all the talking. I began researching ways to facilitate clickery-type activities in my large class without making the students buy actual clickers (at a $100 a pop) or bring their laptops (and all the wifi connectivity issues that come along with that).

After a lot of searching around and trying different apps, I settled on Socrative. Socrative is an app that works on multiple platforms (i.e., browser, iPhone and Android app, tablet), and it can be controlled by the teacher from either a computer or mobile device. Teachers can send out general questions (Multiple Choice, True/False, Short Answer), or they can create quizzes ahead of time and send those to students. Responses from preformed quizzes can be aggregated into a spreadsheet and sent to the teacher for later analysis. There is a separate app for teachers and students, and there are separate URLs for both if anyone is using a browser.

The best feature of this app, in my opinion, is the ability to create quizzes in a spreadsheet and upload them to the teacher account. I have found the spreadsheet to be much easier to use than the web interface because of how easy it is to copy and paste items, as well as move things around. Here is an example of a quiz created using the template, and you can download it from Socrative here. Once students have completed a preformed quiz, you are given the results in a spreadsheet. Below are two examples of what these reports look like. Correct answers are highlighted in green and incorrect in red. You can also see if a student did not respond. Students have to enter their name before they start the quiz, but I deleted them in these examples.

Running a close second to the spreadsheet-import feature is that results are updated in real time on the teacher app or account. I could display the teacher screen and see the results change as students sent in their responses. I still have not found a way to show both the questions and the results at the same time, but this hasn't been a deal breaker for me.

Quizzes can take the form of traditional MC or TF, short answer, Space Race or short answer. My college students had a strange euphoric response to the Space Race activities, which I cannot fully explain. Actually, the response from the students was very positive. They all added the app to their phones, and I would put SOCRATIVE at the top of the page that included a question. Without fail, when  SOCRATIVE popped up on the screen, the class instinctively grabbed their phones and waited for the question. They even memorized my room number, which was helpful for those times I became the absent-minded professor and couldn't remember it.

A final perk of this tool is that it runs through the Cloud rather than relying on infrared sensors to send and receive signals. As long as both the student and teacher devices are connected to the Internet, the tools works. To date, I have used this tool about 100 times and never had issues with data being received. I have had a few instances of students getting a weak signal on their phones, but those instances have been isolated and infrequent.

On my mid-semester questionnaire, several students mentioned this tool specifically and remarked that they liked seeing the results from these short discussion questions show up immediately on the screen. Turns out, students like seeing how their ideas or opinions compare with everyone else. They also like using their own phones or computers to do this without having to purchase an clicker. Pedagogically, I would typically have the students discuss the questions in pairs or groups of three and make them converge on an answer. I tried to make the responses such that students had to choose between all seemingly good options. I like to think the discussion was the best part of the activity and the technology just facilitated it.

So, how do you facilitate class discussion? Do you use clickers or apps to do this? What are you techniques?

Mission Control

I have always been one of those teachers who likes to show a lot of stuff on the screen. Before projectors, I displayed graphs, charts, images, and graphic organizers using a TV or overhead projector. I have always loved supporting what I have to say with visuals. So, it should come as no surprise that my computer, or any computer, is a necessary resource for my teaching.

I also like to switch back and forth between media. I am that guy who always has about 10 tabs open in a browser, and an addition 5 programs running on my computer. I switch between slides to documents to video to applications. I'm sure this drives my students crazy, but they get used to it. One thing I never got used to was being trapped behind my computer while I teach. I am definitely not one of these roam-the-room types, but I don't like to stand behind my computer and constantly have to look down at my screen. Since I utilize far more tools than just PPT, the little clicker thing never really worked for me. What I have always wanted is a miniature control panel that fits in one hand and allows me to switch seamlessly between apps and media, and even mark up that media for emphasis.

Well, during the Fall semester this capability literally fell at my doorstep when my department bought me an iPad. I had always wanted to use an iPad, but I didn't want to spend the money. I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new devices. Anyway, I got the news from my dean that I would be getting an iPad, so I began researching ways to use it as a mission control for teaching.


My first task was to figure out how to mirror my iPad on the screen of my MacBook Pro. I discovered there are basically two ways to do this. You can use the iPad as a remote desktop and control the computer using the device. I tried PocketCloud, Doceri, and Splashtop 2. PocketCloud never really worked for me. I would be logged in, but I would have trouble connecting my two devices. Doceri worked pretty well, and even allowed me to mark up the screen, but it cost money and I didn't really like trying to find things on the screen. Besides, I was far more interested in teaching from the iPad apps than I was using the programs on my computer. Splashtop actually works really well, and I was able to get it for free. However, it is still just a remote view of my computer, which is not what I want. I much prefer the interface and ease of use of the iPad.

To keep this short, I settled on AirServer to mirror my iPad on my MacBook. There are a couple of programs that do this, and I liked this one best after downloading a couple of demos. AirServer fools your iPad into thinking your MacBook is an Apple TV, so you can use the built-in AirPlay to wirelessly mirror your device. For AirServer to work, your MacBook and iPad must be on the same wireless network. My university is very strict when it comes to using the wireless network, so this kind of thing is blocked. I found out, however, that I can pair my MacBook with my iPad using Bluetooth, and it works just the same. The only hiccup is when I try to stream video from the iPad to the MacBook via Bluetooth. It almost always freezes, so I have started playing video files directly from the hard drive. Other than that, this is a great solution that has not failed me yet.


The next thing I had to do -- and I am still doing -- is find apps that enable me to enhance my teaching with the iPad. I mean, if there is no value added, then why spend $12 for AirServer and bother figuring out how to mirror the display? I did quite a bit of reading and researching different apps that do the things I want to do in my classes, and I have found a pretty nice set that I rely on regularly. Here they are by category.

Presentation Slides

  • SlideShark: Easy to import and sync from the cloud, and maintains animations and formatting
  • Explain Everything: A nice combo of slides and an interactive whiteboard. Also lets me record my talk and upload it directly to Google Drive or YouTube (which I have yet to do.) By the way, when I Google "explain everything," it gives me a definition for the word "everything." Now that's pretty funny.

Cloud Syncing

  • SugarSync: This lets me sync everything (that I want) from my computer to the cloud. I can then access it from the iPad and send it to just about any app.
  • Google Drive: This basically does the same thing, with the added bonus of displaying Google Docs, which I use a lot. This interface is also much better for images and PDFs.

Student Engagement

  • Socrative: This is a clicker app that still just blows my mind. I hope it stays free forever, but I'm sure it won't. I can send out quick polls to my class, both forced-response and open-ended. I can also create quizzes and exit tickets, and have the results e-mailed to me in a spreadsheet. I will probably write exclusively about this app later.

In order to demonstrate how this works, I have created a short video of how I move between apps during one of my class meetings. This is unedited, but you will get the point.

Let's Make a Deal

This post is prompted by a Facebook post from a former colleague:

Students used to ask me if they could earn extra credit after grades were posted. Now they just ask if I will bump up their grade. Why do they ask that?

The very first semester I taught a college course, one of my students came to me with what I thought was a strange request. She admitted to me that she had not done as well in the class as she normally did, she had a lot "going on" that semester and wanted to know if I could possibly give her some extra credit to help raise her grade to a B. I thought about it, then responded to her that to give extra credit to one student meant I needed to give the same opportunity to all students. Because I was a graduate instructor for this class, my overall GPA was closely monitored. If the class average was too close to a B+, it was assumed my class wasn't very rigorous and I wasn't expecting much out of my students. I responded to my student and told her that I would not be giving post-hoc extra credit to any of the students. Consequently, in subsequent semesters, I would give all students the chance to earn extra credit by attending various speaking engagements on campus: guest lectures, convocation, etc. They would attend, sign in, write an analysis of the speaker, and get some extra points. This seemed fair at the time.

The next class I taught was a summer class at a community college, and it was not a public speaking class. So, the extra credit assignment did not really fit the subject matter. Besides, the class was offered in a quiet little town in the Rockies, and there weren't that many opportunities to hear people give speeches, unless of course, I wanted them to attend church or a school board meeting. The former is risky in a public education setting, and the latter is just plain torture. So, rather than offer extra credit, I added "participation" points into the course total. Students who came to class, participated and turned their assignments in on time received all of their points. This seemed like a cool thing to do, until I realized it was inflating my grades quite a bit and students who did rather low-quality work were still making a decent grade in my class.

This brings me to my current philosophy on extra credit, which is that I don't give it. I also don't give participation points. Students are given assignments, quizzes and in-class activities, and their final grade reflects how they did on those assignments. Ever since I decided to simplify my life and eliminate extra credit and participation points, I have noticed most of my students step up to the challenge do do pretty good work. I still get the occasional plea for extra credit, or more likely, asking if I will take a late assignment for partial credit. I always let them do this as long as it is before grades have been posted. Usually, the partial credit does keep them from failing, but their overall grade is not stellar. I never give extra credit, either corporate or individual.

So, this gets me to the FB post that prompted all of this. A new twist on this phenomenon of students asking for extra credit is for them to come right out and ask for a boost to their grade. Like my colleague, I have had at least a half dozen of these requests in the past few years. They have ranged from ...

I really, really want to make the Dean's List this semester. Is there any way you could bump me up to an A?

to ...

I'm in the "People's lives depend on my competence" Program, and I will get kicked out if I fail your class. Is there any way you could give me a D? A C would be better.

to ...

Is there any way you can bump my grade up to a B? I'm less than a point away!

This last request was actually the most recent (over the weekend), and it was obvious the student had neither read the syllabus nor totalled his points for the course. Yes, he was less than one percentage point away, but 7 actual points from a B. I looked at his scores again very carefully to make sure I didn't make an error in my calculations. Nope, Excel proved trustworthy once again. Then I looked at his scores on the papers, which can be a little more subjective. No, he did fine on those. I then looked at his exam scores. Ouch! Someone had not been doing his reading, and when I saw that 18% on the final, I knew his final grade would stand.

My motto has always been "I won't do something for students they aren't willing to do for themselves." My other motto is "A student's grade should be based on his effort, not mine." OK, both of my mottoes -- which I don't go around reciting, by the way -- have some holes in them, but you get the point. There is a growing attitude among some college students that they are flipping the bill for college and it's the professor's obligation to smooth the road out along the way. Any hint of frustration or micro-failure (as opposed to macro-failure, such as failing out of school) along the way means the professor isn't doing his or her job. I guess I see it differently.

Imagine you bought a house. The bank lends you the money for that house, but once you take possession it is completely your responsibility. If you live there for 4 years, make some improvements, keep it clean and stay caught up on general maintenance, there is a good chance you will be able to get a return on the investment. If you live there 4 years, have keggers every weekend, punch holes in the walls, let the lawn die and allow the place to get grungy, it isn't because the bank sold you a bad house. The bank also didn't fail to do their job. The truth is, maintaining and improving a house is hard work, and it never really ends as long as you own the home. This is kind of how I see a college education. The student is making an investment, but what he or she does with that investment is completely up to the student. It should involve some frustration and micro-failures along the way, as well as an understanding that some subjects just can't be made easier. (A great explanation of the role of criticism and frustration in the creative, and learning, process can be found in Jonah Lehrer's book, Imagine.) They're hard because they're hard. Which reminds me, if you found college Calculus easy, I hate you. But you're also my hero.

This is where I will end this. I have spent the last decade or so trimming the fluff out of my courses and helping my students understand that things which are hard are hard for a reason, and it's not because I suck at my job. I promise my classes that I will come to every single class meeting fully prepared with well thought-out activities, examples and food for discussion. I take my job seriously. I also expect them to show up fully prepared with well thought-out questions (and challenges) to the material I make them consume, and that they take their jobs seriously. For each assignment, they start at "0" and work their way up, so there is never any need to ask why I "took points off." I will explain every single point (or lack of) in my comments. If they come to every class meeting prepared and do every project to the best of their ability, they won't fail. I will answer every question they have, no matter how stupid they think it sounds. If they are good stewards of the "credits" they have sitting in front of them as they plan and complete their assignments, there won't be any need to ask for extra credit at the end of the term. B, or C for that matter, is not a failing grade. And no, I will not bump you up a grade, no matter how much you think you deserve it. That devalues the work done by your classmates who actually earned that same grade without any special treatment.

So, what are your stories about bizarre (audacious, narcissistic, self-indulgent, etc.) student requests? How do you handle the issue of extra credit or participation grades? I would love to broaden my perspective on this issue.

Mine, Yours and Ours

This semester was one of the more challenging I've had since I began teaching college. For one, I was teaching 4 classes: three undergrad and one grad. Three of the classes were completely online, and the other was hybrid. The hybrid class and grad class were at a large university in my city, and the other two classes were at a small community college about a thousand miles away. Confused yet? Good, because that is how I felt most of the semester. What made this particular semester even more challenging was the nature of the courses I was teaching. I call them Mine, Yours and Ours, and each course presented its own set of challenges.


I have taught these online sections of the same class for about 7 years. This began as an experiment, and it was so popular within the community college setting in which it was offered that they asked me to teach more sections. For three years I only taught in the summer, then I was asked to pick up one section in the fall and spring, and now I am teaching two sections each semester and two each summer. This particular course can be used as a substitute for basic composition, and apparently there are a lot of students who do not want to take basic composition. This class still requires the students to do quite a bit of writing, but the crux of each assignment is not me pointing out the deficiencies in their writing. (Of which. There. Are. Many.) I focus more on their content, but I still point out areas of their writing that need to be improved in the subsequent papers. Anyway, the course is not that hard and students who stay on track all semester almost always make an A. Everyone else usually makes a D or F. Seriously.

I could easily teach this class in my sleep. I know exactly when each assignment is due, what I am looking for from each student, and I can usually successfully guide students back on track when they show signs of dropping out. One of my sections this semester did kind of implode (only 10 out of 23 students completed the class), but this is the first time this has happened. When I finally hand this class over to someone else, which I will be doing in the fall, I feel pretty confident that I know it well enough to help the new instructor get off to a good start. In other words, I feel like I totally own this course and have command of what happens throughout the semester. In fact, most of the teaching I have done throughout my career falls into the Mine category. For good or bad, it's my course.


Another of my courses this semester was an online graduate course. When I was asked to teach this curse ... I mean, course ... I felt pretty confident I would be able to do it just from the title. I promptly found out which books the professor had been using, obtained desk copies and proceeded to look through her syllabus. I contacted her former teaching assistant, and this is when I found out about something called Intellectual Property. I already knew what this was, but what I didn't know was that at this particular school that meant I was supposed to teach the course "as is." The lessons, assignments, discussions, etc. were already loaded into Blackboard and all I had to do was show up.  This didn't sound so bad at first, but as I began looking at the assignments I knew this was going to be very challenging. Maybe I am just immature, but I found it REALLLLY hard to enforce assignments with students that I never would have given in the first place. I never really got control of my serve the entire semester, and I think the main reason was that I felt such little ownership of the course. Many of the assignments were outdated, the technology the students were using was definitely outdated, and some of the tasks the students were asked to perform were not even possible in the most recent versions of the software. To add insult to injury, I was not allowed to have access to the server the students were using to host their websites. When they would e-mail me with questions about uploading (or Putting, in this case), I didn't know exactly how to help them because I did not have access to Put files on the server. How can you help someone with something you have never done before?!? I could not even see the files on the back end to tell them if they were in the right directory or not.

I have taught this exact course at another university, but I completely designed and implemented it myself. I was able to answer student questions (and challenges) with confidence because everything that was there was something I put there. The students learned a lot, and the evaluations turned out pretty good. I will not even look at the evaluations for this class. Had it not been for the fact that this class was made up of pretty motivated Master's students, this would have been a total disaster. I am willing to bet the students already think it was.


The final class I taught this semester, a hybrid course at a large university, would mostly be described as a team effort. The course outline was made up of several topics I chose myself and some that were "part of the course." Most of the course policies were my decision (attendance, late work, participation), while others were required to be  common across all sections (readings, exams). This course has historically been a source of student data using a battery of attitude and self-efficacy instruments, so there were some lessons that we were all encouraged to teach in order to assess changes in those areas. Some of the modules for this course were designed as part of a grant-funded project, and I taught them for all of the instructors. This was quite time consuming, but it did give me a chance to refine my teaching strategy over several iterations, which is good for improving my personal instruction. Most of the instructors for this class give the same assignments, though they differ in how they are graded and how much work the students are expected to do. The area in this course with the most variation was in the final project. Without going into a lot of detail, this varied greatly across different sections of the course. I guess the bottom line here is that overall this is a good course, but the student experience is very different depending on who is teaching the section.


My experience with teaching this semester gave me a front-row seat into some of the big issues facing higher-ed teaching in this era.

  1. Canned content : college courses :: canned food : nutrition. I believe it was necessary for me to teach a pre-planned course of someone else's content in order to experience how utterly horrible this is as an educational model. Yet, there are dozens of institutions, both non- and for-profit, that follow this model. My experience with being given a course shell already populated with assignments, readings, discussions and projects was nothing short of disastrous. The entire course, from the terminology to the tools to the links, was out of date. Can I get a "screencast" from the congregation? How about a screenshot? Maybe a video lecture where the slides and voice-over are in the same file? Nothing. This notion of taking a course shell, changing the dates on the syllabus and serving it like yesterday's meatloaf is not as efficient as some people think it is. Instruction is not some thing (i.e., knowledge) that is delivered through a human to other humans. It is the act of a human taking a thing (subject matter) and transforming it into a learning experience for other humans. If a person can gather a bunch of resources and teach himself something new, that's great, but it isn't teaching, and I'm pretty sure universities do not intend to build themselves on this self-help model. If the "teacher" is just the person who makes sure Blackboard is working and points students to the person who actually has access to the server, then why in the world did I bother getting a Ph.D.? Where is the expertise in that?!?
  2. I have completely re-thought my strategy for handing over my online course this fall. My original plan was put everything in a folder, burn it to a disc and giving it to the new instructor. Given the chance that the new instructor might take my content and do what I was forced to do with the grad class, I will probably only give the new instructor as many resources as he needs to get started. I think there is some value in having to think through the course and make decisions about what to assign, and when. The new instructor should come up with his own tests and assignments based on what he thinks is important to know. I have lived with the course so long, I may be missing the point entirely and don't even know it. I want to be helpful, but I also want what is best for the students. And after my experience with the online grad class, I think that what's best for the students is when the instructor puts his or her advanced degree to good use and brands the course with his or her brain, perspective and creativity, not someone else's.
  3. Standardized courses are really tricky. My first experience with a standardized course was a public speaking class at a large university that ran between 60-65 section each semester. It was required, in classes of 20-25 students, for every single undergraduate in the university. I don't think there was one graduate instructor, adjunct or professor who taught the class exactly as it was supposed to be taught. I think they were all pretty similar, but you can't expect intelligent, creative individuals to teach something in the exact same way. The hybrid course I taught is a completely unique experience from section to section, and I think that is OK. But you also want to ensure that in a certification program, as this one is, all students are held to the same standards. Standards vs. Personalization. That is a really hard balance to find, and it is something I will have to think about a lot this summer. In the fall I am teaching a 100+ student course with several TAs to "manage" smaller groups of students. I want the TAs to be themselves and explore their own style, but I also want each student held to the same standards. No shortcuts. No trying to win cool points by being lax. Again, I had to have this experience with a multi-section standardized course because I am about to be in charge of one myself.

Every semester I have taught at the college level has been so different. Nothing has played out exactly the same way twice. No two groups of students have responded exactly the same way to the same project, story or reading. This is what makes it fun, but it also makes it incredibly challenging. The only thing that is guaranteed is that nothing is guaranteed. Oh, and cliches. You are guaranteed to see a few of those if you read my blog.

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?

When do preservice teachers become professionals?

This semester, while I consider it a success in almost every way, was very challenging in terms of dealing with students. I have been teaching at this level for 12 years, and there is very little I haven't encountered to this point. I have seen everything from students getting put in jail to deaths in the family to a student in my class passing away in the middle of the semester. Each of these circumstances, and everything in between, is very sad and a burden to deal with. I dealt with the same thing when teaching elementary school, so I know that this was part of the deal when I signed on.

It is not uncommon for me to get a message from a student during the semester that this or that issue is going on and they will either need to a) drop the course past the deadline, and need my permission, b) won't be able to turn in an assignment on time or c) will need to miss one or two classes.  I actually had a student this semester go to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and her mother e-mailed me TWICE from the hospital waiting room to tell me her daughter would miss two weeks of class. Remarkably, she only missed one week and was back on track in a matter of days! So, I get it that life happens.

Well, there was a whole lot of life happening this semester. A whole lot. Some of the circumstances were real, and I was able to work with those students. But many of the circumstances were very vague and handled inappropriately, and in many instances, could have been avoided. I won't go into detail about some of the more entertaining excuses I got, but needless to say, dinnertime chatter between my wife and I was very colorful this semester.

What really gets to me about these many, many life issues is that I had no idea they were occurring until several weeks after the student had stopped coming to class. From my vantage point, here is what typically happened:

  • Student misses class
  • Class involves activities that are either for a grade or necessary for completing an assignment
  • More weeks pass
  • I e-mail student to see if he or she intends to complete the class
  • Student e-mails me and says they have not been in class because of "family issues" and wants me to "help them get caught up"

Please forgive me if you think I am being unreasonable for being suspicious when this particular scenario plays out about 4-5 times with different students in two different sections.  One time? Sure, I will probably take the bait. But when it happens repeatedly, I start to detect an odor. Here is what I think is happening from the student's vantage point:

  • Student misses class
  • Student finds out from a classmate that the missed class session involved activities that were either graded or necessary to complete an assignment
  • Student intends to contact me and let me know why he or she missed class
  • Student proceeds to miss more class
  • Student takes a reflective look back at the last few weeks and analyzes which, if any, events in his or her life could legitimately be called a "family issue" that needed intense and unwavering focus, to the extent that all forms of electronic communication were simply not possible until this very moment
  • Student contacts the professor and vaguely states that he or she has been dealing with "family issues," and wonders if there is any way to make up the activity, either through a special appointment (which he or she is totally willing to do based on my schedule, as long as it is on Tuesday between 1-3 or Friday after noon but before 5) or extra credit (which I will have to create, chase down and grade based on criteria I will need to, you guessed it, design)

This all comes down to Fundamental Attribution Error. Everyone, not just college students, has a tendency to justify and explain their own circumstances in a way that is favorable toward themselves. That is human nature, but what about professional behavior? I mean, assume these excuses were coming from teachers with students showing up in their classrooms everyday. Would this same approach to handling life's circumstances stand up? Even in the worst cases, a professional would have to let someone know what was going on so the school could arrange to provide supervision (a substitute teacher) for the students. I mean, I had a teaching partner give birth over lunch break and she called from the L&D room to let us know she wouldn't be back to teach that afternoon! So, is it unreasonable to expect college students to handle their affairs, especially when it comes to their professional training as educators, as professionals?

As a form of catharsis, I wrote came up with the following list of professional behaviors that I think preservice teachers should be expected to demonstrate:

Professionals …

(Meetings) Are not late for meetings Come prepared for meetings Are actively engaged during meetings Don’t make appointments that conflict with meetings Let people know beforehand if they have to miss a meeting, and why

(Projects) Meet their deadlines Are proactive Don’t make excuses when deadlines are missed

(Group Work) Do their own work Do their part

This list is not exhaustive, but I am trying to get some traction on the set of behaviors I should expect from my preservice teachers. These are behaviors that will be expected of them during field experiences, student teaching and in the workplace, so why is this not the case for their classes? Perhaps I am being unreasonable and this blog post will cause an uproar. I actually would welcome that. If I am in some way off base, I would like to know so I can determine the correct way to respond and interact with students when it comes to their personal affairs.

So, let me hear from you. How do you deal with these kinds of circumstances with students? What are your expectation for professional behavior in your classes?

Inspiration is for amateurs

This time of year, when there so much to do, I find it hard to get motivated to do some of the things (e.g., grading) that I don't want to do. This morning as I was driving to work, I was reminded of an interview I once saw with Chuck Close, a professional artist. He has these words for anyone who is emerging with their profession:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

This is a popular quotation, and for good reason. If I treat motivation (inspiration) like it is something that I must have before I can do anything meaningful or productive, I will end up wasting a lot of time. I have experienced this first hand recently with my writing, where I have been much more systematic about chipping away at manuscripts than I have in the past. There have actually been studies about this, and they show that writers who set aside smaller chunks of time each day for writing actually get more done that writers who set aside larger chunks on a couple of days or who set aside a whole day. This seems counter-intuitive, but having squandered many  a "writing day," I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it. After I get this figured out, the question will shift to, how do I get my students to adopt this philosophy?

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.