Category Archives: Educational Technology

On Personalized Learning

The term “Personalized Learning” has rubbed me the wrong way for quite some time. Admittedly this likely stemmed from stories like how Carpe Diem school ‘personalized’ learning by putting students in cubicles;

Carpe Diem cubicles

Raise your hand if you have a job where you work in a cubicle all day and feel energized, appreciated, and passionate about your work.

I can’t imagine much worse for my children. I want them exploring, interacting, discovering, and, most importantly, interested in learning. I don’t want them moving onto the next algorithm after earning a badge.

Recently it appears the Edtech community has strayed from the cubical, Khan Academy model of Personalized Learning in favor of something more nebulous; the basic idea that students can work at their own pace with the teacher guiding and tutoring on the side. This often comes with mantras such as ‘student choice’ and ‘individualized learning plan.’ These aren’t bad things, but I submit that students working primarily on their own, at their own pace, is.

Which brings me to my recent revelation about why personalized learning as a primary structure for learning bugs me; it’s still passive. It appears that most of the ‘content delivery’ is still about students absorbing information from a source passively, then working exercises or doing practice of some sort to work towards mastery. When I think of an ideal math lesson, on the other hand, I think of rich tasks that take collaboration and significant critical thinking, such as Fawn’s Barbie Bungie Jump (listen to the kids cheer in the video!), Dan’s 3 act lessons, or Desmos’s Central Park. Shooting for productive struggle, I want to walk into a math class and see kids pointing at each others work, arguing, and even cheering.  Summarized, I want math class to be engaging in the sense that students actually want to be there. 

If I want students to be learning through collaboration and dialogue, then, generally speaking, I want them moving along at about the same pace. I do have times, particularly towards the ends of units, where students are working on problems independently for solidifying problem solving or receiving remediation as needed. This, however, is usually a few days to a week, as compared to the other three to five weeks in a unit where students learn primarily through collaboration. To be sure, my beliefs here are rooted in the decades of research on STEM education which has demonstrated consistently that a variety of methods centered around active learning are the best ways for students to learn. Additionally, in talking to my wife about this, she gave an incredible insight; “What skills can you gain from class time that you can’t gain from studying?” Precisely. Studying on one’s own helps to learn content, but collaboration, argumentation, sense-making through inquiry, and many other skills are emphasized when rich activities are the focus during class time.

There are some other things that bother me about personalized learning. It appears to be rooted in the theory of Learning Styles, which isn’t really a thing, as it turns out. (see also here and here). Students, generally speaking, learn from some types of teaching and don’t from others. Identified preferences in how that learning takes place hasn’t been shown to make any real difference in the actual learning that happens.

Then there is this post which makes the claim that the ‘factory model’ of education that many personalized learning proponents want to upheave is really the first experiment in personalized learning.

Finally, I agree with Dan Meyer who states that personalized learning is fun like choosing your own ad experience is fun. (Spoiler alert: It’s not).

I do believe that proponents of personalized learning mean well, and I believe that aspects of the model woven into a class at the right time can be useful. In the end, however, I choose rich, engaging, interactive tasks over learning at one’s own pace.

What would you do with $x?

Dan Meyer posted earlier this week about how, given $1000 for a classroom, he would spend it on whiteboards for the walls, a doc cam, and some miscellaneous hardware. I tweeted the article, and got the following response;

Challenge Accepted.

Some assumptions; A class of 30 is easy to do math with (adding up costs type math, not classroom type math). I assume solid wifi since I don’t have $1mil laying around for an upgrade. The classroom comes stocked with an overhead projector, a standard issue computer, and one 4′ x 16′ front whiteboard. I’m going to assume (based loosely on my memory) that a classroom is 30′ x 30′. Lets say one wall is windows from 4′ to 8′, because it depresses me to think of a classroom without windows. Generally speaking I took the first price I found on any particular item, and I reserve the right to round anything to the closest order of magnitude, for reasons of estimation (or laziness). Also, I currently teach only physics, but have taught math, particularly Geometry, for a number of years. I’m writing this post about a math classroom because it’s more universal and more in line with what Dan and Jeremy are positing. A physics classroom adds significant cost, as full computers are desired because of software and hardware demands for digital data collection, as well as the data collection hardware purchases themselves. That said, most of the stuff I list below I would like in my physics classroom, I just would have to do more cost/benefit analysis to compare data collection devices (likely from Vernier) with the more general items below.

Spoiler alert; most of my purchases stem from a desire to encourage students doing rather than getting. Watch for that.

Unlimited Funds: My first purchase is going to be on the assumption that some donor will fund whatever I ask for, and that money unspent is money lost. That is, I don’t affect anyone else’s classroom or materials by skimping, so I don’t have to be all that ethical. First of all, I agree with all the folks in Dan’s post and get a bunch of whiteboards;

  • 36 Medium sized (24×32 in) student whiteboards ($100)
  • 36 Small (16 x 16 in) student whiteboards ($30)
  • Cover all the non-windowed walls in whiteboards ($5000, turns out quality classroom whiteboards aren’t cheap)
  • 2 rollable whiteboard dividers ($1000)

Frank Noschese wrote a great post about student whiteboards. Seriously, go read it, I certainly can’t improve on it as far as reasons to have students use whiteboards. Since I have unlimited funds in this scenario, I could purchase nice manufactured whiteboards at $120 a pop. But that’s so ridiculous that I can’t stand it. I can go to Home Depot and purchase a $15 sheet of 4′ x 8′ that makes 6 medium whiteboards or 16 small whiteboards. Why anyone would pay $12o for one of these aristocratic whiteboards is beyond me, let alone a class set for $3600. Next, covering the walls and adding dividers is to reduce barriers for students to talk about what they are doing. All they have to do is pick up a marker (I should probably have a $1000 marker budget….) and start collaborating. Clearly that takes some pedagogical skill (that I don’t know that I have yet), but we’ll save that for another post. I feel like 2 rollable dividers would be nice to be able to use in the middle of the room as well, but I think more of them would make it too cluttered. Honestly, what I really would want (but is even beyond reasonable for this unlimited funds exercise) is some system where students can easily drop whiteboards (or glass, that’d be cool too) from the ceiling, then raise it up again as a space saver. Plus then we’d have math on the ceiling, and that’d be pretty neat.

Noticeably missing: A SMART board. I don’t have one now, and don’t really want one. I want stuff that helps students collaborate and dialogue; a SMART board would be for ME. Seriously, even with unlimited funds, I wouldn’t get it simply because I want to do everything I can to encourage students to do the work. Whiteboard total: $6130.

Next let’s look at the classroom setting itself.

  • 15 Tables on Casters ($7500)
  • 30 Chairs on Casters (If you want to get crazy this could be up to $7500, but a simple internet search indicates I can do more like $3000)

Desks make it harder for kids to collaborate. I would love tables on casters for a number of reasons. I like that kids can easily group up on them. I like that we can move them into a whole class rectangle, put a couple together for larger group work, or get them all out of the way to do something more kinesthetic. Chairs on wheels would be nice too, but again I have trouble justifying the crazy expensive version. Class setting total: $10500.

Now we hit the technology setting. I’m going to start with room-scale technology.

  • 70″+ TV on casters ($2000)
  • Five 36″ TVs mounted on the walls. above the precious whiteboards, of course ($2500)
  • Apple TV for each TV to wirelessly project Apple products ($500)
  • I’m going to assume we can install some magic circuitry such that each TV can be accessed individually or they can all show the same thing, but I don’t feel strongly enough to actually research this. (umm…$1000?)
  • A teacher Macbook Air ($1000)
  • A teacher iPad mini ($300)
  • iPad doc cam setup ($130)

Actually, before I explain those, I want to add in the student technology;

  • 17 Chromebooks ($5100)
  • 2 iPad Minis ($600)
  • Chromecast for each TV to wirelessly project the Chromebooks ($200)

I saw the TV on casters once at a presentation on room design, and I fell in love with it for physics purposes. I would love to be able to roll it to the ‘front’ of the room as standard use, but then move it to the lab space to demo lab procedures, and have the flexibility to move the ‘front’ to wherever feels right. I have a harder time envisioning its use for math, but hey, dreaming big here. The TVs on the sides are more for students. I think it would be really neat while students work if “Hey Jasmine, that’s a neat graph, can you bring it up on screen 3 to show everyone?” became a reality. I like multiple TVs so students can regularly show each other, in small groups, what they are working on, hence the Apple TV and circuitry. Note that Apple TV, Airserver, and I’m pretty sure Chromecast, all use Bonjour, which can mess with network stuff that is beyond my expertise. So definitely check with someone on the IT side of things before investing there. The Macbook is so I can be anywhere in the room and still bring up something on a screen (as opposed to a desktop computer). I really like the iPad mini for classroom use because it fits in my hand easily, so I can take lots of pictures and use it as a doc cam as I walk around. The doc cam setup allows me to use it like a ‘real’ doc cam as well. I hear doc cams can do some pretty neat things, and we may be missing out on that with the iPad, but I feel like the flexibility of the iPad makes up for that. Both the iPad and the Macbook will have to be replaced 2-3 times over 10 years, so let’s add $3000 for replacement costs. Room-scale tech; $7500, $10,500 including replacement costs.

For student tech, I would go with Chromebooks because of their ease of use in a cart setting. That is, students don’t have their own, but logging into and out of a Chromebook is really easy to do. I only want 17 because I want a 2:1 ratio plus a couple extra, since batteries die and hardware stops working randomly (just when you want it the most). I want a 2:1 ratio for two reasons; first, I have heard from a number of people in 1:1 situations (we’re not there yet, though I have 10 laptops in my room) that even though each kid has a device, they often have half  go screen downs anyway. This is to encourage collaboration and to discourage multi-tasking. Kids are much less likely to check Facebook if their partner is watching over their shoulder. My second reason for 2:1 is that managing a cart is really annoying, and I think it becomes much more manageable with half the devices. I would deal with that if I had a solid pedagogical reason for 1:1, but I personally want more collaboration rather than individualization in my classroom anyway. Both Chromebooks and iPads run Desmos and Geogebra well, which accounts for probably 75% of my tech use in a math class. I like iPads a bit better for the ability to use the camera and draw on the surface, but the annoyance of lack of profiles for sharing the device easily negates that. We’ll figure out a workflow to use student devices to capture pictures and video and get it to the Chromebooks as needed. I include a couple iPads since it will inevitably be nice for some kids to just use them instead of personal devices (which they may not actually have).

We can only assume Chromebooks and iPads last about 3 years, so we should add in about $15,000 in replacement costs over 10 years. This leaves us with a student technology cost of $6000, pushing $20,000 with replacement costs.

So far in our unlimited funds scenario we are spending about $30,000 plus asking for $20,000 in replacement costs to sustain it for a bit. I don’t think money for replacement costs is common though.

Self-limit. Now I’m going to take a few things out because I have a conscience and I can’t picture an acceptable cost/benefit ratio for a couple of the items. The TVs on the walls have to go first, then the rollable large TV, and probably even the rollable whiteboard dividers. I would keep one Chromecast and Apple TV to retain the ability for both student and teacher devices to wirelessly connect to the overhead projector that we assumed started in the room (though it needs an HDMI input, and if it’s older, that would be a problem). No more need for $1000 magic circuitry though. This trims about $6000, and if we assume no replacement costs, we’re down to $24,000 now.

$20,000 limit. I would start by skimping on chairs, so getting rid of chairs with casters saves about $2000 from the self-limit amount. Then I would cut the other $2000 in wall whiteboards. It still leaves a lot of whiteboard space (I figure I can still put standard 4′ tall whiteboard around most of the room with the leftover $3000 whiteboard budget), it just wouldn’t be floor to ceiling.

The $10,000 question. This is the number I think starts to get into the realm of ‘I could potentially convince someone to actually fund this.’ It’s also where my decisions get more difficult. In particular, I really want to keep the tables on casters. I really like (at least in theory) their flexibility. So I cheated a bit, did some more research, and founds some cheaper tables. Thus what I would keep, when nailed down;

  • 36 Medium sized (24×32 in) student whiteboards ($100)
  • 36 Small (16 x 16 in) student whiteboards ($30)
  • Only add two 15′ x 4′ wall whiteboards ($1500)
  • Cheaper tables on casters, chairs with no casters ($4000)
  • 15 student Chromebooks and one Chromecast ($4500)

This puts me over budget by $130. Pin me down and I’d cheat by finding even cheaper tables and/or chairs. I’m not getting rid of the whiteboards.

In the end I basically agree with Dan and other twitter folks, but with extra cash I would add tables and Chromebooks. I think I’d add the Chromebooks first, as I really like what you can do even with just Desmos and Geogebra. But tables are really close. I honestly didn’t expect, when I started this process, that in the end I’d keep the tables. I think I need to get moving on asking for some for my actual classroom.

Note that what’s left is a bunch of things for students to use. I didn’t even try to do that (really). Here’s hoping my practices reflect my apparent beliefs.

On a personal note, this was a really interesting exercise for me to examine why I hold particular items dear in my classroom. I hope it’s insightful for you as well, and I would love for you to share your thoughts, additions, subtractions, or anything else in the comments.

Here’s the spreadsheet I used to collect items and costs, in case you want to look at it more closely.

UPDATE: Megan Hayes-Golding suggested something I really just had to add back in; a multi layered whiteboard. This definitely goes in the unlimited category. I would definitely consider finding room for it in the $20,000 limit.

I Am Not Satisfied

I refuse to believe that kids should simply tolerate math**. I refuse the idea that math as a pursuit is so trivial and uninteresting that we have to spice it up by adding systemic, extrinsic motivational gadgetry to help kids stomach it (see my favorite post on gamification by Bill Ferriter). Math is the study of patterns, a beautiful, perplexing, engaging task on it’s own, that we manage to stifle on a systemic level by reducing it to trivial tasks of memorization, regurgitation, and pseudocontext.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not against games, nor occasional extrinsic motivation. I will not, however, accept that we’re ready to throw up our hands and concede that the subjects that hold our passion are not worth the attempt to instill that same excitement in our students. So I am against the systemic marginalization of our passions for pursuits like gamification or edtech for edtech’s sake.

I refuse to believe that we need edtech, generally, to engage students. I have seen plenty of engaging lessons with the absence of technology. I’ve seen Ellis Island simulations where students take part in sorting, waiting, and deportation, a powerful experience to help students wrap their minds around something typically far outside their realm of possibility. I’ve seen students compare and contrast cultures by visiting different ethnic marketplaces and reflecting on the practices of the shopkeepers as they try to bring good fortune on their stores. I’ve seen students debate passionately about important topics that they can work to address. I’ve seen students literally cheer in physics class. They didn’t need to augment their reality in the app store.

That said, there are a lot of great ways to enhance education with technology as well. Take, for example, the video my student made two years ago about how an Ocarina works. She could have written a paper about it, but the video reaches a larger audience as well as communicates her learning more effectively. And that’s exactly my point; the learning in the video is what makes it the most awesome; the video simply serves to enhance that.

There’s the rub; use edtech, but use it wisely. If you can’t communicate the purpose in learning behind your use of edtech, then I question it’s use.

I have had my share of poor edtech decisions. I once did a research project on forces using collaborative Google Docs, where kids learned about how to use docs but nothing about forces. I’m not perfect. But I did learn from that experience, and after realizing that the project didn’t help students gain any real understanding, I ditched it.

On the note of lesson design, I am not satisfied with simplifying the complexities of teaching to where it falls on the SAMR scale. Teaching is nuanced, fluid, and has a ton of moving parts, and we’d be better off embracing that than cheapening it with a stamp of ‘modification.’

I am not satisfied with degrading the student experience of learning by sugar coating it with edtech. I believe students are adventuresome, energetic, and truly want to learn. We just need to harness that energy on a systemic scale. We can certainly harness the power of technology to do so, but it should carry the banner of learning in doing so.

This post was written because I tend to be a dissenting voice in many discussions, and recently I’ve gotten a bit of pushback about that (one example of a few). But I refuse to be satisfied with band aid solutions when a transplant is needed for the real chance of survival (or better yet, the real chance to thrive). I’m very pleased that my district is looking big picture at how we teach and how students learn first, then looking at how technology can support that. I do think, however, that the edtech community needs to acknowledge that the focus must shift in a real way towards learning as the first priority. We may say learning first, but if we then push the use of the next big app, that message is lost in translation.

I am not satisfied with how my class went this year, nor will I be for next year. But I will continually seek improvement, and will do so in the name of student learning. That’s all I ask of anyone.

**insert class of your choosing here.

Pedagogy : Edtech :: Chicken : Egg?

Today I was in an inter-district meeting via G+. We started with introductions where we were charged with sharing something innovative going on in our district. At my turn I shared that I was happy about the academic redesign process that my district has gone through over the past 6 months, particularly because I like that we are considering pedagogical shifts before implementing devices with kids. My basic claim is that I would rather see teachers ready to handle student-centered, discovery-type classrooms, which leads to a specific purpose for implementing technology to help make that happen. I was surprised when some of the members of the meeting pushed back a bit on that notion. The basic argument (which I sincerely hope I’m not mis-representing, this was a very amicable conversation) seemed to be that teachers need to know the technology to be able to teach differently using it. My frustration with a ‘devices first’ approach stems from, for example,  hearing stories of districts spending millions of dollars to ‘transform’ doing math from paper worksheets to PDF worksheets in Notability. It seems to me that we should train teachers in the (very difficult to master) craft of teaching through inquiry and student dialogue, at which point they would be ready to implement fantastic tools like Desmos or Geogebra to facilitate that learning. I’m wondering what you think, internet. Am I off my rocker? Am I missing something? Or does pedagogy first resonate with you as well? I appreciate your thoughts.

Differentiating Professional Development

Today I came across the following tweet by Kate;

I was initially torn. On one hand, I’ve been in the audience for this, and it’s frustrating. On the other, for the last couple of years I’ve been the one in front, and that’s not easy either. I’ve given some lip service to trying to differentiate this type of required professional development but haven’t followed through. Additionally, the team I work with and I have a general goal of wanting to get away from a model where teachers depend on us for technology training and instead focus on improving  pedagogical approaches, so I want to help teachers to be able to learn the specific tech skills they need, when they need it, without a need for sit-n-git PD.

So I posed a question;

There were two ideas that came out of the discussion that I am going to particularly focus on because I think they could work for me.

I like this idea because the list could even be split into ‘need to know,’ intermediate, and advanced sections so that folks who already have the basic competencies can expand their skills with that particular tool, and it could set a baseline for what we expect all teachers to know and be able to do (kinda like we do for students…) with that tool. I like that it very granularly differentiates for teachers. That said, I really like the possible collaborative nature of the second idea;

I like that here teachers could work together to learn whatever competency is expected. I think this is what I would try first, as I’m pretty big into collaborative learning and want to model that with teachers as well.

In either situation, I would like if this were the norm;

As the PD leader, I should be doing two things; provide learning experiences for my participants, and providing opportunities for them to share what they have learned with each other. (Side note: this is no different that what good teaching in a classroom looks like). One reason I particularly like these methods of differentiating PD is that it makes it more difficult for students teachers to get sidetracked, as they can move on to learn things they don’t already know. (I’m the worst student; I try to multitask with twitter, mail, and more twitter, and I end up missing a lot. For that reason as well as this study I have been trying more often to close my laptop and take notes by hand. I’m confident that being allowed to move ahead and explore, with accountability, would keep me more focused.)

Do you have other ideas for differentiating PD? Thoughts about these methods? Let me know in the comments!

What Makes For Good Ed Tech? An ISTE 2014 Reflection

A couple weeks back I attended the ISTE 2014 convention, and I discovered something;

This wasn’t the first time I got worked up about edtech, but this time my frustration is directed towards the amount of money thrown around, particularly on products that don’t consider pedagogy nor the extensive research available on  how students learn. That got me thinking about how we can wade through the dump and find the treasure.

So I wanted to look more at some companies where I really value their emphasis on students and learning to see if I could find some patterns.

Let’s start with Desmos. A quick click to their about page reveals this;

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.31.31 PM

It’s very clear, and easy to find, that their focus is on constructivist learning. Then if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that they’ve partnered with amazing teacher leaders Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson, and Fawn Nguyen to make some great lessons, designed for learning, powered by Desmos. I also had the fortune to have an extended conversation with Eli Luberoff, CEO of Desmos, and was struck by how much their pedagogical ideals influence what they do. They want to create a place for students to experience math, not a place where math is done to them. It’s inspiring.

Another good example is Dreambox. Their front page boasts

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.47.56 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.48.09 PM

My daughter uses Dreambox through her school, in a different district than where I teach. I was won over to Dreambox first by the exercises she was completing that place strong emphasis on conceptual development of place value and the meaning of mathematical operations, and then by a great conversation with Tim Hudson, a former math teacher who now designs curriculum for Dreambox. Tim confirmed that pedagogy and conceptual development of mathematics are at the forefront in the design of Dreambox activities.

Aleks

At first glance, Aleks (adaptive learning software) seems to be grounded in research.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.53.23 PM

I started digging a bit about Knowledge Space Theory, and found KST is about assessing knowledge, not about how students are able to actually gain that knowledge The difference is important. While it’s good to know what students do and don’t understand, it’s more difficult, in my experience, to actually get them to learn things. Dreambox focuses on getting students to understand concepts through conceptual development, while Aleks focuses on, from what I have seen, drill and kill practice based on what the platform decided a student doesn’t know.

Khan Academy 

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.55.11 PM

I admire that Sal Khan wants to change “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. It’s an admirable goal, and one worth pursuing.

The problem is that KA repeatedly refuses to consider research on pedagogy and student learning (see Frank Noschese’s and Christopher Danielson’s posts for starters). The about page boasts about data and badges (read Bill Ferriter’s post about the problem with badges) rather than about deep thinking and conceptual development. I won’t rehash Frank and Christopher’s arguments, but seriously, go read those posts. It’s amazing what we do actually know about learning, and that Mr. Khan is dismissive of it all.

After my Twitter rant at ISTE about edtech nonsense, Kelly made an interesting observation;

[tweet 484002706185392128 hide_thread=’true’]

Edtech as an industry seems bent largely on ‘personalization’ and ‘individualization’; there is, however, a significant research base on student learning through collaboration and dialogue. Edtech should aid in promoting methods that work, rather than move away from them. Some are. I’m hoping this post helps myself and others make some strides as to how to find those edtech companies that really do have students, rather than dollars, at their core.

As for the edtech startups,  I can only hope they heed Frank’s edtech PR tips.

Finally, the most reliable method I have found in vetting edtech is to pay attention to what the right people are saying. Everybody in the MTBoS raves about Desmos. When I originally posted to Twitter asking about Dreambox I got rave reviews from folks I highly respect. KA, on the other hand, is not spoken highly of in those circles, and I don’t ever hear mention of Aleks. Chances are good, it seems,  that if a number of twitter folks are raving about a product for it’s usefulness in student learning, it’ll be a good one. Find people who explicitly evaluate learning effectiveness, and listen to them.

 

The Current State of Educational Technology

I’m starting to feel like a technology curmudgeon.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how technology should be used in schools. Around 3 years ago I started pushing for more access to technology in my district, and I would like to think my motivation was righteous; I saw possibilities to enhance student engagement and learning but didn’t have the ability to do so because of filters/policies/lack of hardware. So I pushed. And pushed.

The first result was the ability to pilot Google Apps for Education with my kids. I had them do a research project where they investigated types of forces and used Google Docs to compile their research. It was neat, and pretty cutting edge for my district at the time (circa 2010). Did they learn how to use Google docs and how to collaborate? Sure. Did they learn any physics? I honestly doubt it.

Then from 2010-2012 I was able to acquire probeware that collects digital data for physics, then we use computers with a program called LoggerPro to analyze the data. One of the great things LoggerPro does is allows for video analysis, such that we can plot position, velocity, and acceleration vs. time for objects within the video frame. For quite some time the workflow was as follows; we would collect the data using cameras, walk to the computer lab, upload and analyze the data, then print the graphs so we could discuss it the next day.

Fast forward to 2012. I somehow was able to convince someone to give me 10 laptops to use in my room. The very first day they were ready I ran into an interesting problem with some data students had collected. Some said the data indicated a linear relationship, some said quadratic. We had 15 minutes left of class, and I made a snap decision; go re-collect the data, this time being very careful when doing the video analysis. We came back together, and sure enough every graph was linear.

This would not be possible without the technology accessible to me at that very moment. But where would this activity fit on the SAMR model? I’m not sure that really matters. In this case, kids were certainly learning more physics, though not as much about how to use technology, since LoggerPro isn’t as scalable to life-outside-school as is using Google docs. Does that make one better than the other? Depends on your objectives, I imagine. But the point I want to make was that I didn’t need extensive training to redefine my technology use in the classroom; instead I needed students to have immediate access to the technology so that they could use it in the moment for learning. My training on how students learn physics through experiences was far more valuable than learning the technology itself.

For the last two school years I have held a half-time position in my district as a technology integration specialist. This year in particular has been amazing, as we have been able to hire enough TOSAs to have a team of us who collaborate to help teachers integrate tech as well as to investigate and make decisions regarding the future of technology in our schools. I love that my boss significantly weighs our input in making decisions. My question right now is what direction these decisions should head in the area of technology integration and professional development.

A couple weeks ago I had a brief twitter conversation with a few others regarding how we (as tech trainers) help staff use technology effectively.

What I mean is that I think a focus on SAMR (or any other tech-focused PD model) loses the forest in the trees. The tech isn’t the focus; learning is.

Then at the TIES 2013 conference, my by far favorite session of day one was given by George Couros, who definitely didn’t mention any websites I can use in class tomorrow. Instead, he said this;

The biggest game changer in education is the way our teachers think.

He also showed us what success looks like. And told us to be more dog. And to jump.

But seriously. Is moving education forward really about using the flashy new game you learned? Or is it about using good pedagogy, then having tools at your disposal to be able to utilize that pedagogy? I think the answer is clearly the latter, but the majority of time, money, and effort seems focused on devices and software rather than on how students learn.

Time to change that.

The Flipped Classroom and Student Dialogue (or, Why I Became a Modeler)

Recently I have become fascinated with the research around how students learn though dialogue. My favorite piece of quick evidence is Derek Muller’s TED application video where he presents his research about videos for learning.

You really should take the six minutes to watch the video, but the summary is that he tested two types of instructional videos; direct instruction and instruction through dialogue. Students who watched the direct instruction videos said they were clear and easy to understand, yet their test scores did not increase. Students who watched the dialogue videos said they were confusing and didn’t like them, but their scores increased significantly. Interesting.

Similarly interesting to me is the recent obsession in the education world with the ‘flipped classroom.’ There seems to be some evidence that flipping the classroom does indeed increase learning; my question is why. The article on flipping linked above has an entire section on how student-student and student-teacher interactions significantly increase with the flipped model. Is this the primary reason flipping succeeds? If so, then why the obsession with video lectures and programs like Khan Academy? Is the video piece even necessary? Before I dive into this I want to give you a picture of where I am coming from with all of this.

I have taken a long road to get to where I am today as a teacher. I started teaching physics in the fall of 2005 with very little knowledge of how students learn, particularly the vast amounts of Physics Education Research (PER) that has been conducted in the last 30 years since the development of the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). I started a Masters degree in 2007, and through the research for my thesis on inquiry in physics I stumbled upon the FCI. I pre-posted my students for the first time in the 07-08 school year. Though my average postest score of 47% is above a national average for traditional teaching of 42%, I was pretty dismayed. Really? After a whole year of physics my students can’t even answer half of the FCI questions correctly? Not ok.

My research showed slightly higher student gains with inquiry, and, particularly interesting, that the standard deviation of the scores shrunk. My interpretation was that the high end learners gained about the same, while the low end learners gained more with inquiry. That’s good. But it wasn’t enough. In 5 years, my scores never got above 50%.1

I knew my kids weren’t really getting it, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Enter grad school #2. I decided in the spring of 2010 that I wanted to learn more about Educational Technology, so I enrolled in online courses at Mankato State University. I decided to research clickers (student response systems) for one of my papers, and I stumbled upon Eric Mazur’s work on Peer Instruction (PI). PI is a technique developed primarily for large lecture clases. The idea is that a multiple choice conceptual question is posed, and students answer via clickers (though this can work with low-tech solutions like raising a piece of paper with the answer on it). Particularly if the distribution is evenly split, the instructor has the students talk to each other, and then re-answer. More often than not (in my own experience) the distribution shifts towards the correct answer. Mazur has some great research out there about how students are able to reason to each other better than an expert, thus their explanations often make more sense. More importantly, the process of the discussion is another form of the dialogue used by Muller, and my suspicion is that in this lies the reason for understanding gains.

The following summer a colleague from another school in Minnesota mentioned Modeling Instruction (MI) to me. Dialogue and Inquiry are both central to MI. The modeling cycle typically starts with a paradigm lab where students use guided inquiry to investigate a phenomena. From there the phenomena, or Model, is expanded and refined, often through White Boarding. The idea is that student interaction, questioning, and revising of ideas drives the learning. And it works.

So we have Muller and his video instruction with dialogue, Peer Instruction with dialogue in large lecture classes, Modeling with dialogue in the form of white boarding, and the general idea of flipping the classroom. Most of the praise I have heard about for flipping is that it provides more time for projects, problem solving, and other more interactive methods of learning than when the teachers ‘had’ to lecture during the hour. I have to wonder if the problem is simply that lecture doesn’t work, period? Does flipping work only because teachers who flip are using techniques during class that actually do help students learn? Do the videos really have anything to do with it, if they are just direct instruction?

I will say that with both PI and MI require that before the conversation takes place students should be familiar with the problem at hand. I recall research (but can’t find at the moment) that showed gains in understanding when students worked on a problem before it was used as an example in class. The standard MI white boarding process involves students first working on the problems on their own (often as homework), then comparing in their group, then presenting their agreed upon solution to the class for more dialogue. PI requires them to first answer with their own reasoning, then compare that to another’s. Do out of class videos serve this same purpose?

I don’t feel like I have an answer to lots of the questions I have posed above. However, the main point I want to get across is that I think it is silly to focus the flipped classroom conversation on what takes place outside of  class; the power of flipping (which I would then argue is really the power of quality instruction) is the changes that can be made inside the class to promote student learning. Let’s just focus on how students actually learn, then teach them guide them to understanding using effective methods.

UPDATE: Here’s another resource that discusses the use of dialogue in Physics classes, though some of the information is the same as those listed above. The Art (and Science) of  Questioning via Clickers (podcast).

1 This is for the general level physics classes. It is noteworthy that my advanced classes have scored significantly higher. In the two years I have been testing them they have posttest averaged around 70%. Though this number is much higher, I am not satisfied with what would equate (in a standard grading scale) to a C- average, particularly with advanced kids. I do think it is interesting, however, that with essentially the same type of instruction these kids score so much higher. It is probably a combination of three things, in my estimation. 1) Higher scientific reasoning skills, which makes me wish I had given Lawson’s Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. I don’t want to over-test though. 2) More depth, both mathematical and conceptual, in the advanced class.   3) The idea that students who make it to the advanced classes are those who are able to have more internal dialogue and compare what they are learning to their own understanding without the need for the external dialogue. This may correlate to number 1, though.

Khan Academy: Criticism as an Email to my Colleagues

(Dan Meyer’s take on Khan Academy)

Last night 60 minutes did a story on Khan Academy (video here, text here). A member on my staff emailed the links to all staff, recommending the videos as a good resource for students.  Admittedly I have not watched said video yet, but judging from what came across my twitter feed, it’s the same basic Khan story. As a result, I jumped on my [email] soapbox with the following reply;

[Start of email]

I totally agree that the videos below are a good resource for students.

However, Khan Academy as a larger concept scares me. Seriously scares me.

When I first learned about KhanAcademy about a year ago, I was very excited that this excellent resource was available to my (and any) students. The problem is that Khan [and others] want to take something that is a good external resource and turn it into the main method for student learning. In a Khan school, students would walk in, sit down at a computer, and watch lectures over and over, then regurgitate the information in computer-generated problem sets. There is SO MUCH research out there that lecture in general is NOT the best way for students to learn. Over the last 7 years of teaching physics I have shifted from 90% lecture 10% learning activities to about 80% learning activities 20% lecture. Lecture is a great way to summarize what students have learned and pull concepts together. But, to be honest, I in no way believe that any class should be taught with 100% lecture. It just really isn’t how students learn, per the research and my own experience. Specifically in physics, I have found that through lecture they can memorize Newton’s 3rd law, but they cannot correctly apply it to new scenarios unless they have experienced how it works. This is consistent with research; lecture works if all you are assessing is memorization and basic skills, but not if you want students to use higher-order reasoning skills. They need to be able to think for themselves.

The concept of Khan schools is to reverse the last 20 years of solid research on constructivism and make force kids to learn traditionally, through lecture. His ‘assessments’ in math test basic algorithms and don’t get into complex problem solving or analytical thinking. Do students do better on that kind of assessment when they do Khan Academy? Sure. But do they actually think better, become better problem solvers, better analytical thinkers, better citizens? I think not.

Much of my thoughts about this stem from a wonderful blog written by a seriously awesome physics educator, Frank Noschese. He has become a leading voice nationally on criticism for Khan, along with Dan Meyer, an inspirational math educator. Dan gave a nice, sarcastic, analogy here. Frank has a number of nice posts; You Khan ignore how students learn, Khan school of the future, and here is a post comparing constructivist learning with Khan’s methods, even using video.

I’d be happy to dig up some of my research on constructivism, but I must warn you that most of what I know specifically relates to physics education. I know there is a body of info out there supporting constructivism in other subjects, I just haven’t delved into it as deeply.

Sorry for the treatise. This is currently one of my hot-button issues (I know, I know, I have many of those…)

-Casey

[End of email]

As a side note, I am not at all against the flipped classroom. I have actually done some flipping myself, when I thought the topics at hand (conversions, etc, in physics) warranted the flip. We used the extra class time to practice conversions in the context of some cool nano-science activities.  I do, however, think Sal Khan has taken what could be a good thing (the videos themselves as a resource for students) and turned it into something awful (a complete instructional program dominated by kids sitting passively at computers).

I welcome your thoughts.

***Update***  Dan Meyer, as always, has great things to say about the 60 minutes piece.

Teaching with Technology: An Interview and an Overview

Last fall I had the privilege of participating in a panel at my Alma Mater, St. Olaf College, about how technology is used in the classroom. One of the other members of the panel, Nancy Aarsvold, Assistant Director of Instructional Technology at St. Olaf, invited me to be ‘interviewed’ for a guest blog post. I wanted to share the post on learningandphysics as an introduction to my writings about educational technology. My big picture for ed tech is that technology is a wonderful means to the end of student learning, but shouldn’t be used for it’s own sake. I strongly believe that student use of technology is paramount in increasing student learning; there are far too many teachers who are technologically proficient yet pass none of those skills on to their students.

See the blog post here to read more about how I use Google Apps, LoggerPro, Wikis, and other technology in my classroom.

Blog Post URL: http://stolafiit.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/alumni-profiles-casey-rutherford-04/