• "Now You Can Blog!" Published 2006-04-29

    Recently, a friend of mine was lamenting about his school's "technology plan" which included the provision for LDC projectors in every classroom. The problem was that most projectors provided were of such low quality that the room had to be completely dark for the projected image to be clear. Furthermore, his setup required a fifteen foot extension cord running across the room. (Not the safest in any classroom much less one that is completely dark.)

    He was citing this as an example of the disconnect between "the plan" and "the implementation". And his story is nothing new. Many technology plans and the projects that result suffer from lack of leadership to ensure proper implementation. In some cases, what is lacking is the leadership to get the necessary people together to work out the impact of a project on the various systems that it touches. In this case, the project lacked the leadership to rollout the projectors in phases so that problems could be discovered and fixed.

    But the biggest aspect missing from most technology projects is the leadership required after the hardware and software are in place. Specifically, I am speaking of the leadership to ensure that the technology is being used to further the projects intended goals.

    I mentioned this to my friend after asking him what his fellow teachers were doing (or wanted to do) with the projectors. As expected, he indicated that the school had provided no vision or context for the installation of the projectors nor did it offer any training or discussion on how to exploit the educational benefits from having a LCD projector in the class. Sure there were sessions on how to create a PowerPoint presentation but none that addressed how to create a presentation that enhances learning!

    All of this is said in the context of blogging. As anyone who has been successful in using blogging technology to enhance learning will tell you, the technology is the easy part. It is the implementation of pedagogical practices that is challenging.

    Continuing with the conversation with my friend, he told me that he had received a memo titled "Now You Can Blog", celebrating the launch of the school's blogging software that will allow all teachers to setup blogs for their classes. No mention of training or workshops other than directions on the technical steps of creating and post to a blog.

    It is certainly wonderful to hear of schools embracing technology as a means of enhancing learning. But schools that rollout new technology without providing the leadership to affect learning are doing a disservice to the work that I and many others are attempting. A technology venture without provisions for modeling, encouraging, and assisting enhanced learning is at best just going to be a fun toy and at worst be a complete waste of money making it all the more difficult to implement a truly well provisioned technology project that will affect education.

  • Who Controls the Internet? Published 2006-04-28

    There has been a great deal of discussion over a bill coming out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Broadly speaking, the bill attempts to provide a framework where by those who own the pathways by which Internet traffic travels will have more control over the traffic. The concern is that sites that can pay for it will get better and faster pathways for their content. Telco and cable companies (those with the pathways) argue that this is good for consumers who will be able to download content (e.g. movies) faster.

    Let the market dictate which content providers we have access to? NO, let the market dictate which content we consume. We should have equal access to all content. Take a look at FM Radio. It is expensive to get a license to broadcast and as a result our radios are rendered useless. With the exception of publicly supported radio stations, the Los Angeles airways are full of crud. Then came the Internet and streaming audio. Today, I can listen to stations from around the world and download podcasts made by Craig in his car during his lunch hour. Will AT&T afford Craig the same pathways as Clear Channel?

    Another analogy would be the cable television industry. As the cable companies own the pathways by which the content comes to our home, they have control over what we watch. For the longest time I had been fighting for my cable company to offer one a particular station (ok, it was a soccer channel). Every time I called in, the cable folks were polite and said that they would take down my request but change was not going to happen until enough people requested the same station. I was fortunate (though my wife may argue) and enough folks requested the station. However, my friend who only lives a few miles away but has a different cable company cannot get the same station. I know there are many other stations out there that we are not getting. I have come to accept that the cable companies determine which stations we can receive, but I am not willing to let them (or the telcos) have the same control over Internet content.

    The concern is that large companies will be able to afford the price of the more expensive pathways creating barriers to entry for new or smaller companies. I think United Streaming is a great resource for teachers. Their library of videos and images can really help the innovative teacher create unique and effective lessons. United Streaming is part of Discovery Communications (e.g. The Discovery Channel), so they are positioned to be able to afford to pay to get on Verizon's fast network. But what about some start-up that is producing the next generation learning-centric content? They will not be competing on the same playing field as far as the ability to deliver their content. What's more, should Warner Cable be able to block delivery of United Streaming content in favor of their own (Time Warner) content?

    The Internet has been a great place for innovation, but without network neutrality − non-discrimination toward content providers, future innovation seems threatened.


  • The Evil that is PowerPoint Published 2006-04-23

    From a recent story from the Ragan Report (PowerPoint in Government) ...

    "Edward R. Tufte, a political scientist at Yale University and one of the world's leaders of information design, claims that PowerPoint assaults intelligence in a number of ways, including discouraging creative thinking. By imposing an authoritarian presenter/audience relationship, Tufte claims PowerPoint fails to provide a creative learning environment where a mutual exchange of ideas and information can occur.

    PowerPoint has certainly been given a bad rap, and in many cases, justifiably. As Dr. Tufte argues, PowerPoint has the ability to discourage creative thinking. I remember working with one particular classmate during my Masters work preparing for a group presentation. It had been drummed into him that the structure of the PowerPoint presentation should be X with the number of pages per speaker should be Y and we should spend Z minutes on each page (etc.). He was reacting to my suggestion that we try something novel (creative?) with our presentation. Luckily for my sanity, the group sided with me and we developed a PowerPoint that allowed us to offer a presentation where the direction was less linear and prescribed and more open to where the audience wanted to go.

    Yes, PowerPoint in its base form does tend to lead the user toward linear (static) presentations. It also has many features that allow for a more engaging style of presentation. I would argue that it is the presenter, not the tool that should be the focus of discussion. Teachers prone to linear, authoritarian presentations will produce PowerPoints that are linear and authoritarian. Teachers who favor a creative classrooms and strive for the mutual exchange of ideas will produce PowerPoints that support their desired learning environment. A few example to illustrate my point...

    • Manny used PowerPoint to create a Jeopardy game. While still "authoritarian" in that there were right and wrong questions to the answers, it was not linear and certainly was fun.
    • Michael used PowerPoint to display focus question key to his lesson. Displaying a question on the projector offered the class a visual clue that he was moving onto another topic ensuring a sense of direction toward his lesson. Each question allowed for discussion where more questions could be raised.
    • Cari, like Michael, used PowerPoint to display questions, but in this case she included follow up slides with answers. She used the question to first elicit discussion from her class. She then would display the "answers" and have the class discuss to what extent they felt the "answer" was the best answer to the question.
    • Rob used PowerPoint as a reference resource to a presentation. During his conversation with the class, question would arise regarding statistics or facts that he had gathered in the PowerPoint. He would then navigate to the slide and, for example, display the gross earnings for UPS last year. In this case, the discussion would dictate which slide to show, not vice-versa.
    • Mark uses PowerPoint to record a presentation on a topic that his students can use as a resource to explore the subject outside of class. This leaves his in class time free for discussion and really understanding the topics. (See Giving the students what they want: Short, to-the-point e-lectures)

    PowerPoint is not the problem; the teacher is! PowerPoint is just a tool; it can be used to promote creative classrooms or it can be used as part of a stagnant authoritarian learning environment. Innovative teachers can use PowerPoint to support their innovating teaching methods.

  • Online Communities: In-House vs. Public Published 4/23/2006 12:50:00 PM

    A recent survey of new college graduates claims that “Social networking is a dominant new trend, replacing many traditional avenues for entertainment and the sharing of information.  There is a big shift away from alumni networks, supplanted by significant gains in social networking sites and the use of instant messaging. In fact, only 32 percent of respondents indicated they would seek out alumni for social purposes, down from a high of 70 percent in 2003. Conversely, visits to social networking sites have grown by 30 percent among frequent visitors.”

    This is a quote from two folks (Andrew Shaindlin and Elizabeth Allen) from Caltech’s Alumni Association.  Their belief, as they relate in Online Networks: A New Tool for Alumni Relations, is that such public online communities as LinkedIn, Tribe, Friendster, and Classmates, are useful tools that educational organizations can use to promote alumni communities. Using a public (third-party) solution in place of an in-house network allows a school/college to leverage the array of tools and services already developed and tested.

    But, more interesting is Shaindlin and Allen's discussion on the benefits of opening the community to those beyond the alumni.

    ...allowing alumni to connect in a single mass (e.g., being individually listed in a typical online alumni directory) is to miss out on the potential of the network to grow proportionally to its scale. Instead we should enable alumni to label or tag themselves with characteristics they find relevant and persistent to their networking needs.

    These tags will include characteristics that are both related and unrelated to their time at their school/college offering a richer online community experience.

    Shaindlin and Allen suggest that the role of a public (third-party) online community is to supplement a school/college's in-house alumni network, not replace. With an ever increasingly digital-savvy alumni, opportunities are opening for schools/colleges to maintain connections with their graduates. Thus, the challenge is to identify these opportunities and provide innovative solutions that enhance the relationship between the school/college and their alumni as well as encourage relationships among the alumni themselves (and with the rest of the "outside world").

    Although most public online communities are free, these services, to be used effectively by an institution, will come at a cost.


  • e-Portfolios to Aid College Admissions Published 2006-04-11

    School administrators were stunned yesterday by the revelation from the College Board that an additional 27,000 SAT tests from the October exam had not been rescanned for errors. College Board Acknowledges More SAT Scoring Errors from Washington Post(24-Mar-2006)

    Are you surprised that errors were found in the scoring of numerous SAT exams?  We shouldn't be!  Remember the Election of 2000 - "hanging chads"and all?  Everyone with experience using Scantron-like scoring knows that the system is fallible.  Of course, the story is not that the scoring process resulted in mistakes, but that so many mistakes were made.

    For me, the story should focus on how colleges and universities (and the educational system in general) evaluate our students.  Currently, admissions criteria are based on high school grades, standardized test scores, recommendations, and admissions questions/essays. With the exception of student responses to admission questions/essays, these items are summary criteria. Wouldn't it be great to offer the admissions committees more specific examples of students' potential?

    The idea of student portfolios is not new. But as more and more student work is developed and submitted electronically, it has become easier to maintain an e-portfolio for all of your students. In my vision, each course would require at least one opportunity for students to add to their e-portfolio and the school would require an interdisciplinary capstone project in the Fall of the senior year, the deliverable being some form of electronic publication - anything from an essay to a digital story, blog, podcast or even movie.

    This e-portfolio would be made available to colleges and universities to aid in their admissions process. All entries into the e-portfolio would include metadata. Course information and assignment objectives for each entry would offer context for the entry. Entries could be viewed in chronological order to reveal student progress. Entries would be tagged by discipline offering information to support standardized test scores such as SATs and APs.

    Of course, such a solution will require work. High Schools will need to lead the way and there will be a period where student e-portfolios will not be used by college admissions committees. Whether or not college admissions committees embrace them, e-portfolios offer many other advantages.

    An e-portfolio system provides students with the opportunity to "publish" their work. Making student work a part of their "permanent record" will give students a better sense of ownership and pride in their work. It will also put more pressure on the student to perform at his/her best. E-portfolios also offer parents an opportunity to see their child's work published. Students love to show off their work and love getting the attention and accolades that only a parent can offer. It may not be cool to bring home a paper or test to show off to your parents, but it is another matter if your parents can check out your masterpieces themselves.

    In this age of high-stake tests dominating the conversation, let's offer our students the opportunity to really show what they have learned. E-portfolios provide the vehicle.

  • Measuring Success in the Classroom Published 2006-04-01

    Listening to discussions about "our failing educational system", I have heard a wide range of statistics quoted by pundits to support the argument that we need educational reform. Many offer poor scores on standardized reading and math exams, others point to the number of students dropping out of school. Still others (including myself) see our current educational system not reflecting changes in our society nor meeting the needs of an increasingly global economy.

    Whatever reason we give for the need for educational reform, or whether we even need reform, we must ask ourselves how are we going to measure success. This is an important question as the way we measure success affects the way we teach. The following is from futurelab, a UK non-profit group doing research into learning in the 21st century:

    High-stakes assessments exemplify curriculum ambitions, define what is worth knowing, and drive classroom practices. It is essential to develop systems for assessment which reflect our core educational goals, and which reward students for developing skills and attributes which will be of long-term benefit to them and to society. There is good research evidence to show that well designed assessment systems lead to improved student performance. In contrast, the USA provides some spectacular examples of systems where narrowly focused high-stakes assessment systems produce illusory student gains; this ‘friendly fire’ results at best in lost opportunities, and at worst in damaged students, teachers and communities. [1]

    I was in a conference session on digital storytelling recently speaking to a teacher who was using digital storytelling in his classroom. He was very excited with the results - his students became engaged, active learners who were challenged, a far cry from his days of "teaching from the book". The concern was how well his students were going to do on a required standardized test. Other teachers in his district had been preparing their students for the test since the beginning of the school year. In other words, they were teaching to the test.

    Now, I cannot predict which group of students will do better on the test, but I would not be surprised if kids in the digital storytelling teacher's class scored below those students who had been preparing for the test all year. I would, regardless of the test results, characterize their course a success. They participated in a learning environment that got them excited and challenged them. They produced work in which they could take ownership as well as pride. None of these qualities can be measured in a standardized test.

    I have done much more research on assessment in the last few years than I have ever done in my career, but my feelings on how to improve student learning remain unchanged. Students need to be active learners, faced with real work that matters, and directed by constant informal assessment (by both teacher and peers). In fancy terms, this means more "authentic" and "formative" assessment.

    I believe that NCTM is on the right direction when they warn that high-stakes tests should only be used as a component in measuring student success. In their position statement on high-stakes test, NCTM recognizes that these large-scale tests can only represent a sampling of the overall goals of the curriculum and often "focus disproportionately on simple mathematical outcomes".

    ... "The most challenging standards and objectives are the ones that are undersampled or omitted entirely … [and those] that call for high-level reasoning are often omitted in favor of much simpler cognitive processes." [2]

    This statement best summarizes my fears as we struggle with pressures to teach to the test. Whether it be nationally (unfunded) mandates or pressure to do well on AP exams, there are forces undermining the efficacy of your teaching. You need to take responsibility for measuring success in your classroom and you should not rely on simple high-stakes assessment or else you will be missing the best part.

    So how are you measuring success in your classroom?