Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reflecting on the demoralization of an entire profession

Paul Bogush offers a sad and very honest view into a teacher's psyche, yet most teachers have felt this way at one point or another.  I know I have.  Teaching is by-far the hardest job you'll ever love.  Teachers are being blamed for ills that can be directly attributed to the system. We can not afford to further demoralize an already over-burdened profession.  We need more teachers to "step out of the corner", as Paul says, and speak out on what should really be done in the classrooms.  I believe most teachers know how to reach kids.  That may (and should) look different depending upon the teacher and the students in a given class.  But, teachers are being forced to conform to a system of uniformity, high stakes testing, and fear.  I wonder how many teachers struggle with shame because they follow the directives rather than do what they know is best for kids, or worse, hide in the corner with fear because they ARE doing what is best for their students.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Personal vs Personalized Learning

I was reading the Washington Post article, Bill Gates' troubling involvement in school reform,  when I came across the following excerpt that troubled me even more than the focus of the article.
What is the next experiment Gates is likely to foist on our schools? It looks to be online learning, as the new magical answer to "personalized" instruction.  This practice has been once again pioneered in NYC schools through the discredited practice of "credit recovery," in which students are encouraged to spend a few days online, cutting and pasting their answers into a software program, in order to quickly gain the credits they need to graduate, even if they have failed all their courses and/or never attended class. 
I hate to think this is anyone's vision of online learning.  Unfortunately, it is just this type of off-the-cuff statement in a mainstream news article that can turn a few words into a reader's permanent perception.  But, what actually caught my eye was the reference to "personalized" instruction.  While some use personalized and personal learning interchangeably,  I believe the distinction is important.

There is considerable discourse around personalizing the learning experience.  A few examples include Jeff Rice in California, Pearson, EdWeek, and The Training Place that defines a number of different types of personalization.  Note that these are all slightly different approaches.  Most suggest that the educational activity be customized for the learner.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, a more customized approach to learning would be a welcome change from the current prescribed curriculum offered in most schools.   But, this is not the same as personal learning.

Consider a US automobile license plate.  All states and many countries provide the option to personalize your plate.  You can create a "vanity" tag within the limits of the system (e.g. 7 letters, original, not obscene).  Whether or not you personalize your tag, you are required by the state to have one.  Personalized learning has a similar connotation to me.  Personalized learning, while customized for the student, is still controlled by the system.  A district, teacher, company, and/or computer program serve up the learning based on a formula of what the child "needs". 
I believe personal learning environments are different from personalized learning environments in that the learner controls the learning process.  He or she constructs the learning environment based on what will be learned and who will be invited to participate in or support the learning.

I will be the first to admit that The Networked Student and Welcome to My PLE examples walk the line between personalized and personal learning.  While the students have some level of choice, the teacher retains control over subject area and some content.  These young students are networked learners in training.  Some level of scaffolding is required to facilitate greater autonomy in the long run.  In these examples, the ultimate goal is to scaffold the personal learning process so that students will assume greater control over time.  I'm not sure this is the goal of personalized learning.  I fear we are already mired in semantics.  Are we using the appropriate terminology?  I'm really interested in your thoughts.

What is the difference between personalized and personal learning environments?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Teaching HOW to learn, HOW to Multitask, HOW to Focus

Two articles on how the use of technology changes our brain appeared in the St. Petersburg Times this morning.  Tied to technology, and paying a price (NYT version of article linked) points out our deteriorating ability to focus as a result of our extended use of "devices".  When Technology Takes a Wrong Turn (Washington Post version linked) explains how constant use of GPS devices causes our hippocampi to shrink thus decreasing our navigational sense.  These articles are intriguing to me, and not just because of my general interest in educational technology.

I left corporate eLearning management nearly six years ago to pursue a doctorate in educational technology and return to K12 teaching.  I felt strongly that the coming wave of technology would mandate a change in teaching.  First of all, I knew what would come to be expected in the future workplace because I was already there.  Seven years with IBM and AT&T Network Services led me to believe that the constant multitasking associated with my job had changed my brain.  I couldn't prove an actual physical change at the time.  At the very least, I know it changed the way I think and approach problem solving and work.

I boldly entered my program at the University of Florida stating my plan to conduct fMRI studies on learners' brains to support my hypothesis.  My colleagues did not exactly laugh at me, though they knew the practicality of obtaining the proper equipment, approvals, and cross departmental associations would definitely be a challenge.  Even so, I attended brain conferences and pursued that dream until my passion shifted (ever so slightly as it turns out) to networked learning and personal learning environments.  This was an easy shift as one of the first tasks required when I joined IBM was to set up a personal (professional) learning environment.  Accessing the right information and managing an extensive network of social contacts was critical for success in my role.  It also required constant multitasking and shifts of attention.  All calendars were public and colleagues could schedule your time unless you blocked it out.  I actually had to block out time for focused activities, times when I would power down to study networking documents, create presentations, or design instructional materials.  Nothing in my former education had prepared me for this way of working.  Sadly, very little in our current system of education prepares students for this future reality.

Emerging brain research is important to help us understand the processes necessary for a successful, productive life.  We don't yet know what all of this means for learning.  Brain scientists caution educators from responding to each new discovery with sweeping changes in pedagogy. But, I'll go out on a limb with my gut feeling that successful adults will be required to multitask effectively AND have an ability to focus when necessary.

What does this mean for our students and our teaching?  Isn't part of our job as teachers to help students learn HOW to learn?  Regardless of whether multitasking is good or bad for our brains, the momentum is not likely to reverse in the near future.  Nor is the need for rigorous thinking, problem solving, and focused attention.  We are failing our young people shamefully.  We must help them balance multitasking with focused attention by presenting opportunities for both and providing strategies for shifting between the two effectively.

Some will argue that you can't teach effective multitasking.  I'm not so sure.  As an experiment, try writing a paragraph or working on a crossword puzzle while listening to instrumental music.  Then try the same verbal task while listening to a news program or favorite podcast.  In the latter situation, you will likely find that you cannot attend to both activities effectively.  (Dzubak, 2008)  We have recently learned that different parts of the brain are associated with different activities.  Some people may also be more effective multitaskers than others.  Even with the limited research available, we can help students recognize their strengths and limitations.

Our schooling/teaching should provide a balance of digital connectedness, opportunities to multitask, and opportunities to focus when tethered to technology and untethered.  Achieving that balance should be a thoughtful goal throughout the curricula.  Providing effective strategies for managing this type of learning should also be mandatory.  I believe in both digital and traditional rigor.  While I'm a rabid proponent of effective technology integration in schools, I'm not convinced we should toss out all traditional means of learning.  Writing is thinking and there is great value in thoughtful writing beyond 140 characters.  There is value in listening to a lecture, evaluating that content, and applying it to an authentic learning activity.  There is value in working through math problems, answering document-based questions, and (drum roll please) studying for a rigorous essay test based on 30 pages in your AP History text.  The problem is we're already doing those things.  That's all we're doing and it's just not enough.  Whether we like it or not, our children are on their own in a very complex, powerful, yet potentially overwhelming environment that requires extreme responsibility and savvy to navigate effectively.  How can it be that we're not there to help them?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Temporary Instructor Opportunity at UF

Temporary Instructor, Educational Technology, University of Florida

The Educational Technology program within the School of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education at the University of Florida is seeking an individual to teach multiple sections of EME 4401: Integrating Technology into the Elementary (or Early Childhood) Curriculum.  This course prepares prospective elementary (or early childhood) teachers to use technology effectively in the classroom. This is a temporary position (Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 semesters) and will involve teaching no more than 4 courses each semester. This one-year position is funded with non-recurring funds and, thus, is not renewable. Salary is approximately $40,000.

There is an established curriculum for the course but the selected person may work with Educational Technology faculty members to revise it to meet the needs of the program and the strengths of the individual.

The ideal candidate will have (1) experience teaching with technology in K-5 settings and (2) technology-related experiences with prospective and/or inservice teachers. Preferred qualification include (1) advanced coursework in Educational Technology, (2) evidence of involvement in the field, (3) substantial knowledge of free tools that allow students to create digital content and (4) knowledge of alternative assessment strategies for post-secondary learners.

Interested individuals should submit a cover letter, curriculum vita and 3 reference contacts to Dr. Kara Dawson ( Review of applications will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Personal Learning, Drive, and Autonomy

This era doesn't call for better management.  It calls for a renaissance of self-direction (Pink, 2009)
I've been listening to Daniel Pink's audio book version of Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  I haven't found it all that surprising, but it has me thinking about the relationship between personal learning and self-determination theory (SDT)

Pink (2009) asserts that management isn't the solution, it's the problem.  He extends the word management beyond the common business definition to include our social structures and institutions.  (Yes, including education.)  He cites Ryan & Deci's (2000) work on self determination theory in support of autonomy for workers and learners.  (Note:  There are others who have thought about SDT in a K-12 context.  See  Reeve & Halusic (2009).  

Ryan & Deci (2002) identify three basic psychological needs:  competence, relatedness, and autonomy. The optimal social environments satisfy all three of these needs.  Human behavior is either controlled or autonomous.  Autonomy is different from independence.  It means acting with choice (Pink, 2009).

Realizing Pink's renaissance of self-direction for education will be challenging.  Centuries of institutionalized control are not easily undone.  Pink points out that humans are curious and self-directed "out of the box".  Passivity is the result of years of "management" and control.  My experience working with middle and high school students on personal learning environments supports this perspective.  It's even more challenging when we try to direct personal learning toward system-imposed content standards or the rigor required for deeper learning of these standards.

I know what you're thinking.  Directed personal learning is an oxymoron.  But, the reality of the current situation in our K-12 classrooms is that years of passive learning have undermined student autonomy.  Myths about student learning preferences further constrain our progress, especially when it comes to learning with technology.  It is common in teacher professional development sessions to hear that students want to learn with technology.  Actually, some, not all students enjoy using technology for social, entertainment, or learning purposes.  Few have had consistent, quality technology integration in school.  When asked to create artifacts based on rigorous inquiry or to use technology for rigorous study, the complaints range from "I don't like technology because it doesn't work" to "my teacher isn't teaching me" to the ever popular "just tell me what I need to do to get an A".  This does not describe every student.  Of course, there are those who embrace autonomy, especially when given curricular choice.  I offer these seemingly negative examples to encourage educators to think realistically about the consequences of a passive learning system and the hard work it will take to undo those years of indoctrination.  

I happen to believe strongly in learner empowerment and the value of technology as a means to achieve autonomy.  I'm also realistic about the steep climb it will take to get there.  I offer some suggestions for creating an atmosphere conducive to learner autonomy within a system that is not likely to change quickly.
  1. Taking back control and responsibility for learning can be facilitated by teachers who scaffold the processes that support learner autonomy.  These processes include digital responsibility, digital literacy, organization of content, collaborating/socializing with others, and synthesizing/creating (Drexler, 2010)
  2. Integrating those processes into early grades will ensure that personal learning environments of increased complexity can be constructed in the secondary grades and beyond with greater focus on the learning outcome rather than the processes or technology needed to support it.
  3. Building a teacher and learner disposition of experimentation around technology use that recognizes the speed at which new technologies emerge and the tinkering required to adapt technologies for learning.

 I'm intrigued by the possibility of a renaissance of self-direction.  I feel I've been able to build that reality in my personal learning and professional work, and I want even greater empowerment for the next generation.  More importantly, I believe those learners who are less autonomous will be at a distinct disadvantage. 
Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2002).  Handbook of Self-Determination Research.  New York:  University of Rochester Press.

Pink, D. H. (2009).  Drive:  The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us (1st ed.). Riverhead Hardcover.

Reeve, J. & Halusic, M. (2009).  How K-12 teachers can put self-determination theory principles into practice.  Theory and Research in Education. 7(2). 145-154.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Decision Making and Systems Thinking: Week 3 - #edfuture

I was fortunate to attend AERA in Denver over the last few days.  As a result, I did not have a chance to participate in the Ed Futures Elluminate session at the regular time on Tuesday.  But, I had plenty of time to think about the plethora of solid educational research that will never translate into educational policy.  It's an ongoing frustration for most of us in the field, yet we can't stop thinking about the possibilities.  Maybe that is the allure of a structured approach to future thinking.  

The Education Futures Elluminate recording and assigned articles prompted me to pull out a handout from the conference (one of few actual pieces of paper I kept) because the decision-making issues in Weick's (1993) article were sounding very familiar.

Relative to poor decision-making, Weick quotes Morgan, Frost, & Pondy (1983:24):
Individuals are not seen as living in, and acting out their lives in relation to, a wider reality, so much as creating and sustaining images of a wider reality, in part to rationalize what they are doing. They realize their reality, by reading into their situation patterns of significant meaning" (Morgan, Frost, and Pondy as quoted by Weick, 1993).
This immediately brought to mind J. Michael Spector's AERA presentation, Integrating a Systems-Thinking Perspective into Learning and Instruction for Complex and Challenging Tasks.  Spector quotes Dietrich Dorner's (1996) Logic of Failure.
Highly trained, well-intentioned adults often make bad decisions when reasoning about complex phenomena.
What is more complex than our system of education?

Spector goes on to explain that these bad decisions happen for a number of reasons.
  • Acting on instinct
  • Failure to anticipate-delayed effects
  • Focus on one aspect of a complex system
  • Failure to understand non-linear effects
  • Less analytical & reflective thinking as a problem worsens
  • Accidental reinforcement of undesired behavior
  • Failure to recognize internal feedback mechanisms and change over time (Spector, 2010; Sterman, 1994)
 He advocates for a systems-thinking approach to help students learn to solve complex, ill structured problems.  It seems systems thinking can also help us with future thinking, at least as we begin to consider education futures.

Anderson and Johnson (1997) define essential characteristics of systems:
  • A system's parts must all be present for a system to carry out its purpose optimally.
  • A system's parts must be arranged in a specific way in order to carry out its purpose.
  • Systems have specific purposes within larger systems.
  • Systems maintain their stability through fluctuations and adjustments.
  • Systems have feedback.  (Anderson & Johnson, 1997)
Each of us exist in silos of expertise in the field (or system) of education.  Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to affect change.  We constantly make decisions without all parts present.  Anderson & Johnson (1997) advise that we should think in terms of the big picture, balance short-term and long-term perspectives, recognize the complexity of our system, and consider patterns.  They even offer a worksheet at the end of the paper that might come in handy as we move deeper in the course.

Anderson, V., & Johnson, L. (1997) Systems Thinking Basics:  From Concepts to Causal Loops, Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications.  Retrieved from

2010 Horizon Report Johnson, Laurence F., Levine, Alan, Smith, Rachel S. and Stone, Sonja. 2010 Horizon Report. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium, 2010.

Karl E. Weick . Reprinted from The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch
Disaster by Karl E. Weick published in Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (1993): 628-
652 by permission of Administrative Science Quarterly. © 1993 by Cornell University 0001-

Morgan, Gareth, Peter J. Frost, and Louis R. Pondy. 1983. "Organizational symbolism." In L. R.
Pondy, P. J. Frost, G. Morgan, and T. C. Dandridge (eds.), Organizational Symbolism: 3-35.
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Contemplating the Future of Education: Week 1 #edfuture

I am participating in the Open Course in Education Futures facilitated by George Siemens and Dave Cormier.  I'm excited about this course for two primary reasons.  First, I like the concept of a structured approach to contemplating the future of education.  Second, I'm fascinated by the format of the course.  Having also participated and enjoyed #CCK08, this is another opportunity to learn from numerous brilliant people and get some ideas for an open course I will be offering next spring.

I recently returned to John Dewey's (1913) Interest and Effort in Education looking for a quote.  Instead, I ended up with the following quotes from the Editor's Introduction leaving a strange sinking feeling in my gut.
It's active acceptance by teachers would bring about a complete transformation of classroom methods (p. v).

Somehow our teaching has not attracted children to the school and its work (p. vi). 

Good teaching and the teaching of the future, will make school life vital to youth (p. vii).

At the present hour, we are very deeply concerned with the universal education of youth (p. viii)
The final solution is to be found in a better quality of teaching, one which will absorb children because it gives purpose and spirit to learning (p. x).
Is it just me or do these 100 year-old quotes sound hauntingly familiar?  If the teaching of the future is going to make school life vital to youth, how far in the future do we have to go?  Suddenly David Wiley's Parody doesn't seem so far fetched.

So, I'm beginning my journey into education futures by looking back at the past.  I believe this is important if we really hope to facilitate change.  Most of us like to think that the benefits of technology will help transform education, but we absolutely cannot assume that a trend in the consumer, media, or business world will necessarily translate to a trend in the education world.  That is why the structure of future thinking is so important to our field.  We have to be able to approach our administrators, districts, and policy makers with visions of the future supported by research and thoughtful consideration of trends.  IAF's Guide for Thinking about the Future suggests we set achievable goals to be reached within a reasonable amount of time based on articulation of a vision of the future we want to create.  Somehow I'm not as worried about the vision, mission, goals, and strategies as I am about the implementation.  I wonder if Dewey had those same thoughts 100 years ago?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Personal Learning Environments: Student Processes and Decisions

We in educational technology are often accused of focusing too much attention on technology and tools rather than cognitive processes. I've struggled with this myself, most often because I enjoy assessing the learning potential of new technologies. John Seeley Brown might call this tinkering. I get a charge out of playing with the tools myself and presenting them to my students to see what happens. As a teacher, I'm all about what is practical in the classroom (even if I sometimes try to push the limits of innovation). My evolution from teacher to researcher has been a long journey. All those prior years of classroom experience influence my perspective. I "know" something works with students because I feel it in my gut. There is never time to sit back and observe what happens before moving on to the next challenge.

Focused research on student construction of personal learning environments has given me the opportunity to sit back and watch learning from a process perspective. What processes do students go through when constructing personal learning environments?

(Click on the diagram to enlarge.)
The model above reflects the research findings. If you compare this version to the older Networked Student diagram, you see the shift from tools to processes.

As with a flowchart, the rectangles represent processes. The diamonds represent decisions. The student (or the student in collaboration with the teacher) decides which tools to use to support the learning processes.

Some processes in the diagram are not supported by tools, especially in the areas of learning and practicing digital literacy and responsibility. If we truly wish to empower learners and provide our students with the skills necessary to become independent networked learners, then direct instruction is critical and necessary in all five categories. I view the holes in this diagram as the teachable moments, as verification that teachers can be the facilitators of personal learning. Through direct instruction, we can teach our children how to fish, then step back and learn as much from them as they learn from us.

To ponder:
  • What do you think about the relationship between direct instruction and personal learning?
  • Do you see areas on the diagram that require teacher intervention?
  • How many of our secondary and post secondary students are equipped to construct effective personal learning environments?
  • What would you add to this diagram?
Meet one of the students who participated in this research project.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Networked Student from a Process Perspective

I've been working on The Networked Student Model from a process perspective. Having identified the processes students go through when constructing personal learning environments, I thought it would be interesting to see how the original model fit within the processes.

Here is the original.

Look what happens when we regroup and distribute the organizational tools and contacts amongst the processes. There are some definite holes.

This was a good exercise for me for three reasons.
  1. I realize the power of research, why it is important, and how detailed qualitative analysis can yield valuable insight beyond the experience gained merely in practice.
  2. In order to create a model that is practical for classroom use, I need to move beyond the organizational tools and include processes such as digital literacy, digital responsibility, synthesis, and creation.
  3. The development of API widgets for web applications such as NetVibes, iGoogle, PageFlakes, and Symbaloo provide organizational possibilities that offer powerful means for organizing content. This should also be incorporated in the model.
Next step: Revise the model to reflect the process perspective. (More to come.)