Sunday, 30 March 2014

what's in your digital toolbox?

This week we're off to the On The Rise elearning Ontario conference in Mississauga.

I'm presenting Tuesday on how to avoid the pitfalls of a single online learning environment by building a diverse online digital learning ecosystem.

I'm aiming to outline what I've used and how in the classroom, then I'm hoping we can crowdsource what other people have used and create a wiki of current, useful digital learning tools with explanations written by the teachers who have made them work.

Here's the PREZI of the presentation:

What's In Your eteacher Digital Toolbox?  Prezi of the presentation.

The crowdsourced links to diverse digital tools that our presentation assembled for your enjoyment...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Learning Curves

Following up on the 'just tell me the answer' post last week, I've been trying to find ways to articulate what I'm attempting to do with students so that they don't become frustrated.  It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, but what I'm hoping is that familiarity breeds confidence and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of student knowledge.  

The germination of self-directed learning should be the goal of instruction in any teaching.  A student who is forever dependent upon a teacher is a poor student indeed.  With that goal in mind I'm working out the process of developing self directed learning in students using Prezi to map out how familiarity breeds confidence and self direction.

Some brilliant Google+ sharing by Liz Krane &
Carmelyne Thompson via Josh Kaufman
Explaining this to my senior computer engineers I tried to stress that this process is what I'm looking at, not necessarily what you know.  Even though the seniors are supposed to have previous experience many don't so the course needs to be flexible in how it approaches a wide range of abilities.  If I see steady growth in familiarity through guided instruction the inevitable result should be the formation of self-directed learning demonstrated through experimentation, collaboration and troubleshooting.  Looking for what a student knows is much less important than looking for where a student is in this learning process towards mastery.  Mastery itself is really just another word for a person who knows enough to error correct and self direct their learning - expertise never came at a teacher's hand, mastery is always self taught.

Josh Kaufman's TEDtalk on how 20 hours takes you through the initial steep climb (humbling and intensely rewarding) when picking up a new skills is telling:

We fail to do a lot of these things in school.  Distractions in the form of bells, announcements, lousy chairs and tables, large classes, and dozens of other interferences break focus.  I like to say, "stop learning now, you have to leave" to students when the bell goes and students who were lost in what they were doing are jarred back into the present.

Kaufman's learning curve,
seems perfectly sensible...
On top of school itself we now have digital technology which is most effective at monetizing us if we 'surf' rather than focus.  The habits we develop while being consumers online plague educational technology as students who are used to being digitally shallow out of school bring the same lack of focus to their learning.  That we ignore digital habits and corporate influence in educational technology will probably be the reason it never does what it promises it might do.

Beyond industrialized settings and digital distractions education systems fail to recognize the basic process of learning and in doing so spend a lot of time and money producing under-performing students.  When 50% is a pass even a perfect pass rate isn't saying much.  If our learning happens on a curve as Kaufman suggests, then we are doing this wrong in just about every possible way.

About a year ago I took a weekend course in order to begin riding a motorcycle.  Difficult and uncompromising it demanded my full attention both in the classroom and for hours in the saddle.  Not paying attention resulted in possible injury (and several people were).  That weekend course might seem too short but it just happens to be about twenty hours long (what Kaufman suggests you need to get over the steepest part of the learning curve).  With the right kind of support (small class size with a 1:4 instructor/student ratio and everything we needed to learn the skill including bikes, space, etc) and an expectation of focused learning, that twenty hours got me over the hump and able to continue developing expertise in a complex skill set that I had no previous experience in.  I'd have to say, anecdotally, that Kaufman's 20 hours seems right on the money.

We don't think about learning curves in school.  We don't consider how students feel when they are picking up a new skill and feel inadequate; feelings aren't in the curriculum.  Worse, we consider learning to be a twelve year long marathon in school rather than a series of short sprints.  Student goals aren't always clear or consistent, failure isn't considered an option and learning itself is less a focus than are irrelevant personal details like your age.  We'd rather bunch students by age than where they are in their learning process.  We lose sight of the possibilities and challenges inherent in the first twenty hours of new learning in favour of decade long statistical growth.

Can you imagine a school guided by Kaufman's logic?  Students are given focused learning to get them into a self correcting phase and then are expected to self-direct their learning. There would be classrooms with very high student:teacher ratios where the focus is on early learning.  There may be other times and spaces where students are entirely independent and producing their own directed learning.  Instead of a blanket approach our classrooms and schedules would reflect our variable learning curves; our schools would be responsive to how we learn instead of the other way round.

Digital technology would lend itself to this kind of learning by offering information, collaboration and communication to students on a profoundly personalized level.  If we don't begin taking the training of digital tools seriously the consumerist habits developed by everybody (students and staff) outside of school won't allow us to de-industrialize education and adapt it to how we learn.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

You're Supposed To Tell Me The Answer

"You're supposed to tell me the answer, you're the teacher, it's your job!"

Isn't that a sad expectation from a senior high school student?  After twelve years in education this is what they think the process is about.  I wonder how many teachers it took to embed this thinking in these students.

My considered response to this was, "it's not my job to give you the answer.  If I give you an answer it isn't yours.  It's my job to ask you the right questions and give you the tools you need to answer them yourself."  This isn't a handing off of the responsibilities of teaching, and it isn't easier than giving students answers by talking at them each period; this isn't a case of a teacher becoming a facilitator.

Part of setting up the right question is carefully considering the student's knowledge and where it can go next.  The right question is a tricky proposition.  Your classroom relationship with students has to contain a lot of two way communication and observation if you're going to get a handle on where they are in their learning, you're never doing that when you're talking at students giving them all the answers.  You can't frame questions that are in a student's zone of proximal development without a lot of feedback and observation.  Teachers who talk at students and hand out answers and information like candy have little idea of where student understanding begins or ends. 

The other side of this equation is providing tools for learning.  This is a bit more complicated in an engineering class as I have to bring in a lot of equipment for student use.  That equipment needs to be open and accessible so that students are the ones setting it up and making it functional.  I was amazed this year when the vast majority of my senior computer engineering students had never partitioned a hard drive and installed an operating system.  That kind of nuts and bolts work when building a functional learning environment is vital if students are going to begin to take responsibility for their learning.

Responsibility is at the bottom of this.  Learning isn't something that you do to someone, though many of our students believe this to be the case.  Learning never happens unless the student doing the learning is active in the process, no one ever learned something from being told.

We're back at it again tomorrow, and I'm still working to convince my senior engineers that they are the ones creating their learning, not me, I do a lot to curation though.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Ebb & Flow

Many moons ago I found myself hiring automotive technicians for Quaker State.  There were a couple of odd things I did that helped find people who could survive in our tough working environment.  One was toss any résumé that was full of grammar and spelling errors.  I didn't care if a tech had perfect grammar and spelling, but I did care that if given the time they didn't take pride in their own work.  The other thing I did was invent an emergency that interrupted the interview.  The whole point of this was to test their initiative and see how they would respond to a change in tempo.

These interruptions became more and more complicated as the other guys on the shop floor got involved.  What started off as a, 'could you help me move a heavy thing' turned into faked medical emergencies or whatever else struck the fancy of the staff.  The guy who just sat there while everyone else shifted into overdrive wasn't getting the job.

You see this kind of unresponsive stuck-tempo everywhere; employees who work at a walking pace are the new normal and it's no different with students.  This kind of thinking isn't just found in work or school, but even in sports.  People who throw themselves at something with any kind of intensity are becoming vanishingly rare.  I suspect this is a response to modern management tactics based around fear and control.  Those tactics have also been adopted by education, and students have responded with a similar protective apathy.

This apathy is a combination of digitization, systematization and the business-think that oversees these processes.  Current business leadership revolves around creating an unbalanced workplace where fear and uncertainty drive employees into blind obedience.  This highly charged methodology is completely unsustainable, but then it doesn't have to be, there are always more employees to throw on the fire.  Realizing potential and maximizing efficiency are irrelevant to a modern manager, the goal is short term gain and control.  Digitized, data driven workplaces (and classrooms) are designed systemically to collect data that supports the system; statistics are as opinionated as politics.  This Taylorist wonderland is overseen by caffeinated managers whose only approach is to spin their employees into a panic at every turn (those managers themselves are managed in the same way).  The permanent engagement approach to learning is modelled on this thinking.

Days of lower energy, contemplative work and periods of off-task behavior are perfectly normal and even beneficial to the development of complex skills, but this is considered a failure in the modern world.  When working on anything you should aim for sustainability as well as intensity, but education has followed management thinking in an effort to systematize and control.

A byproduct of this shortsightedness is the inability for students to amp up their focus and overachieve because modern education wants them to be giddily engaged all the time.  The only way to achieve the highly agitated state of permanent engagement is to present simplistic, short term learning that offers constant reward.  Working toward anything other than immediate gratification is a sure way to turn off the hyper engaged learner.

I have this up on my wall in my class.  There is nothing worse than the
student who believes a flurry of activity after weeks of not building
any rudimentary skills will result in anything other than failure.
The issue I'm seeing in many students is a benign neglect toward developing complex expertise.  I'd argue that the decline in mathematical ability in Canadian students is a result of deemphasizing foundational skills in favour of short term learning strategies.  These short term strategies stress engagement and success for all at the cost of building complex expertise.  

Expecting students to work towards something other than immediate skill (the kind found in most video games) is becoming a lost art.  Long-term, complex skill sets fall apart when we can't expect students to follow along for more than thirty seconds at a time without some kind of Pavlovian payoff.

There is an ebb and flow to everything we apply ourselves to.  For someone seeking mastery, even the ebbs have value, creating a deeper sense of familiarity and comfort.  Anyone who has soaked in their discipline without a clear sense of direction knows what I'm talking about.  From the confidence that arises out of those ebbs we push beyond boundaries and surprise ourselves with new learning when we are flowing again.

Whether it's the workplace or a classroom, being hyper-engaged all the time just isn't that productive, especially if you're building long-term, complex expertise.  If we're all really just edu-tainers, then I guess we don't have to worry about that, just be sure to collect the data needed to justify how well the system is working.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Rockstars of the Digital Classroom!

Another one of those things that would have been unimaginable only a decade ago - an  international micro-conference!  Wendy Gorton of Wikispaces fame collected together teachers using digital tools in the classroom and created a virtual meeting place where they could all share their processes and practices.

Garth Holman is a teacher deep into how #edtech pushes pedagogy in Ohio.  Jessica Sullivan is living in eternal summer in Caracas, Venezuela where she is leveraging social media and digital tools to produce students who are actually digitally fluent!  Our kids should be so lucky.

That it is possible to put something together like this with little more than an internet connection and a few laptops is astonishing.  Wikis themselves are a web-specific evolution in information sharing, a crowd sourced medium for self publication.  The social power of wikis are still reverberating around the world.  Garth talked about how his students create learning content and then set it free online, my own students do something similar using wikis.  As a way of creating shared notes and interconnecting information, wikis leverage digital learning spaces in a way that many other digital tools that act like paper analogues do not.  If you're using Google-docs to replace handouts you're not getting what the new medium is capable of.  Many teachers use digital tools as a replacement for paper, but that doesn't use the fluidity of digital information to best effect.

Besides exploring the limits of digital information sharing and delivery you've also got to consider the best digital tool for the job.  If you're only using a single digital tool you're probably finding it difficult.  When trying to use Google-docs to create shared notes you've probably run into the chaos that ensues.  Wikispaces lets you create working groups and lock out areas of a wiki so only the production team in that subject can edit.  As each student builds their own interlinked page in the wikispace, they are able to produce collaborative, supported material without stepping on each other.  Diversifying your digital learning toolbox is vital.  If you're not picking the best tool for the job you're going to run into organizational problems.

I'm doing a presentation at the upcoming elearning Ontario symposium on creating a sufficiently complex digital learning ecosystem.  The idea that a single system (D2L) or a single platform (GAFE) can give you a sufficiently diverse digital learning environment isn't just simplistic, it's also a bit monopolistic.  As a digitally fluent teacher you should be able to reach out online and find the digital tools that suit your learner's needs best.

In addition to regularly using Wikispaces, I'm also a big fan of Prezi and blogging (platform irrelevant).  If you're looking to leverage digital tools in learning, offering a broad ecosystem of digital tools is the first step towards a student centred, diversified learning environment.  All of the teachers above talk about how they are using Twitter in addition to a variety of other digital tools to make that happen.