Five reasons you might be a romantic educator

Another way of looking at ‘integration’ of technology is to see it as a hybrid solution. I remember Top Gear reviewing the Toyota Hybrid car, suggesting “this car has two engines. Normally, in say a Bugatti, this would be fantastic, but here one’s electric the others petrol – neither are very good”. Rather awkwardly digital-traditional hybrids haven’t sat easily or consistently in school either. In many ways, like electric cars the infrstructure simply isn’t there. But I’m a romantic, and I think that rather than paint a picture of a ‘digital classroom’ – building romantic classrooms is what successful teachers are doing now, and these people are somewhat irrepressible because they understand digital culture and society more than the machine which seeks to control it. If this wasn’t the case, we would walk outside and the world would be steampunk. Here are five reasons I believe in the romantic classroom.

1. Ambivalence towards a tipping point.

Some teachers and students get a great deal, others nothing in between is ambivalent interest waiting for a tipping point. As classrooms and lectures today don’t operate in isolation from society, so it’s possible that kids don’t experience any continuance in how they learn with technology, and recent Australian report show no increase in student engagement or satisfaction in recent times. It would be easy to think if students have a laptop, then digital hybrid learning is changing learning on a wholesale bases. Without clear evidence on a wide scale, the question is how do we know hybrid education is better than an alternative? For example, government policy to allow parents to purchase a laptop for their child directly (as parents carry the risk anyway) and then to present digital education as a family and community concern.

Let’s pitch a something else. Say we create a digital department who’s sole job is to work on topics from and in the digital domain. Digital is already a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people
who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years – create a superstructure where a willingness to participate has a reward system. The department is publicly visible in ways to which education might be generally unaccustomed, yet where scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit.

2. The drop out zone

While this sounds exciting, even a depiction of the “connected educator”, the problem is that it doesn’t work (yet). Much of the current research is around how to identify students at risk of drop out which then leads to predictions of virtual school success. Overwhelmingly, they find digital-opportunities tend to benefit primarily already-advantaged learner and educational access does not equate to educational opportunity.  The advantage schools have in prediction lies in policy where kids are not really allowed to physically drop-out, where as online, dropping in and out is the experience loop itself – and completely normal. In higher education, students can easily drop out. In 2010 this cost Australian Universities billions of dollars. Drop out rates among teachers, in my experience is similar story. While 30 sign up for some technological training, only half show up and two percent will persist on a reflective process of experimentation – often  over 12 months before they believe it is successful. Along the way is a sea of self-doubt – and we know the human brain hates that sensation. This means very few become digital-explorers, most remain users of the provided infrastructures – and many do it perfectly well in the context of the institution. There’s no data on how long exploration lasts either, some feel happy to put down roots in some topic or interest, while others continue to roam the metaverse in search of wonder.  More pragmatically, when only 11% of Australian have a Twitter account (which doesn’t indicate activity), I seriously question how this use (exploration method) among educators can have all but marginal benefits,  It’s easy to tune in and drop out – and results little public-sphere or institutional improvement so far. It has no scale.

3. The utopian elevator to nowhere

The Gates Foundation paints a different picture, they believe “In this paradigm of next-generation learning models, students and teachers— both secondary and post secondary—will have access to high-quality, relevant, and engaging content in a variety of forms.” In addition they say they hold “a belief that providing investment capital to strengthen emerging information and learning technologies, collecting and sharing evidence of what works, and fostering a community of innovators and adopters will result in a robust marketplace of solutions and a larger pool of institutional participants”. In other words, throwing money at it will lead to greater participation and quality. It forgets that what people imagine and what they believe are quite different things – and that for many people, this is a very Victorian idea where mechanisation will lead to greater discipline. There are then people who are are going to challenge this – romantics if you like – those who highly value individual success, pastoral activity and local community (the rural life). Look on Twitter, which is more evident? People doing what Gates suggest, or the romantics?

4. The crash-zone

The point (to me) of using digital technologies is to shape it to discover something new and wonderful in it, to do things that are otherwise not humanly possible and open doors to break the illusion being presented by people who title things with cybertopian headings. None of what they espouse tackles perceptual infrastructure issues that hybrid idealism creates (making it worse). For example, we can use technology to demolish the utterly dysfunctional 9th grade electives and replace them with digital departments (which are not the same as virtual schools). Electives are generally a 2 line system that has been around as long as mass-education. It was a way of water shedding kids using the aggregate that the numbers who get what they want – are sufficient to perpetuate the chain, but not flood it.  In column A are four subjects and in B, another 4. You choose 1 from each line and there’s no guarantee of satisfaction or transparency. Typically is you like music and technology and they are on the same column, you can’t do it. This nightmare persists regardless of whether the school has laptops, iPads or a holo-deck. It’s insane to then moan kids are disengaged in a topic that they were herded into in the first place or think giving them a laptop will somehow make them more interested.

5. Great  teachers are romantics

I believe in creating romantic learning experiences, and these lead to deeper learning. It doesn’t matter if this is in adult, primary or secondary education. People are pre-wired mentally drop out if they believe something is crap or they can’t imagine any emotional engagement in it.  Kids who grow into using the Internet independently, focus at school on things they like (as do adults) – they create friend networks and vary interest towards their academic subjects based on their belief of success and intrinsic motivation – which they call ‘work’.  Kids now have so much access to digital youth culture that they can easily opt out of ‘work’ and into thier networks of i interest – most of which are highly romantic, based on friendship and binary opposites – as is the nature of youth. This is actioned as updating your profile, liking your friends, posting a photo, support a friend in crisis  and so on. This is what digital technology is for – to react against the machine and to escape reality (which itself is an illusion of the actual world).

To me, successful teachers which use hybrid technology (not opimal technology) almost always create romantic positive digital spaces. The poor ones use hammers and gears of the machine. The best create the illusion of a digital department (usually for almost no money) and bring in like-minded friends to fuel the richness of the experience loop they want- the bad ones hold a webinar and talk.

I think that by using technology is to discipline students. To me, those who use it to break the illusion, and open doors have a lot in common with romanticism and for the most part use it against the machine, just as Blake wrote deceptively simple poems, using the technology of his day. That seems kind of wonderful to me.


Young peoples opinions of digital media

What patterns can be found in the interactive media activities and opinions of young people?

I’ve posted a few times that I see patterns in the way students use media in combination around gaming and their social activities. This isn’t all kids – and it’s really hard to know what percentage of kids we might be talking about.The patterns I see appear far more sophisticated and inter-connected than the ones they are using in school. I only have to look at my own kids to see this – but are they representative or an anomaly?

Some teachers are attempting use patterns they have found useful in personal learning networks towards classroom routines such as blogs, wikis and so on. The problem here is that no two people see or use the same patterns. In fact, the personal learning network is little different from a user-group apart from it’s lack of stable membership and tendency to homogonise itself into the same factions in the ‘real world’. The pattern here can be seen by holding regular #edchat (general) #mathschat (maths) #englishchat and so on. Once these patterns emerge, they seem to become region based #ukmathschat, #Ozmathschat and so on. The exception here is the USA, who generally believe the are the alpha-party so don’t bother calling it #usamathschat 🙂

Whilst the software and hardware teachers use in class have some commonality with their own out of class preferences and patterns, there are omissions and forced compromises, such as mobile phones, policed and determined by layers of policy makers at numerous creating non-uniform ‘break-points’.

Education favours a belief that what has been proven to be true is good (and can be improved upon), while everything unproven (unfamiliar) is highly suspicious and easily ignored. School improvement therefore generally approached as N+1 (where +1 is innovation). Innovation in this context is always an intransigent compromise. This leaves the classroom practitioner working in a filtered-intersection which is neither ‘traditional’ or ‘post-modern’. This has always troubled me, especially as popular thought-leaders on stages talk often show examples of the ‘untethered’ internet of things – to fuel their argument that these things are crucial manifestations which underpin their demands for academic, social and cultural reform in schools.

What I am interested in is looking at these patterns, to see if what is being cited as ‘essential’ in this intersection is actually representative of kids opinions. If you like, I choose to challenge the popular notion of the ‘net-generation’. It’s going to take some time to achieve this, as ideally I’d like to have a few thousand kids fill it in. What I don’t want is a convenient sample, drawn exclusively from ‘students’ but from ‘young people’ who are using technology.

Because there is no classification scheme, I’ve used an hierarchical agglomerative cluster from educator’s responding to #edchat. Of course this is my ‘opinion’ of what they we’re talking about from the analysis.

  1. networker
  2.  producer
  3. traditionalist
  4.  gamer

It would be fantastic if you would consider asking someone 8-16 to complete the survey, or asking your class to do so. I’ll publish what I find in the near future under creative commons license. For those willing to do it with a whole class, I’m happy to Skype into your class sometime and run an activity around these questions as a thanks. [timezone permitting]. Just email me if you do, I’m not telepathic.

I’m going to the UK for a month or so in a few weeks, and this survey will be online for a month from today. I’d love to hit 2000 plus respondents.

Filter Bubbles and Monocultures

“The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture.” F. S. Michaels

I’ve just bought “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything”, after reading the brief, but always to the point introduction on Brain Pickings, one blog I make the time to read. As time moves on, I find myself more interested in the nexus between story, technology and culture than I do ‘education’ per se, mostly as I find much of educational technology discussion insufficient to describe, let alone explain what I see when kids play multiplayer video-games. Increasingly I find Edu-Twitter less and less useful in terms of discovering new ideas for learning theory and hold a deep suspicion that ‘EdTech’ serves a market-need, and is highly artificial.

Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online — unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web. –  Eli Pariser

This idea of a filter bubble is also really interesting – as clearly once inside the bubble, it’s hard to leave it.

Listen to the natives

Prensky also said “our kids will start listening again when we begin to listen, and to value their passions and developing skills.” Games designers are listening. Ralf Kostner uses “fun” as a synonym for “unforced learning”.

So let’s be open about this, student-centred-learning can clearly happen effectively without a teacher. If we look at research on retention of information, lectures, powerpoints and textbooks – to a child – they barely crack 10% info-retention rates.

It seems odd when we stack up the research, the trends, the forecasts which do listen, and do collect extensive data (such as OECD), that learning isn’t often about fun, discovery, discussion and mobility. Perhaps this is simply to keep 90% engaged in a practice that works 10% as well as it could.

No one felt sorry for the typing pool or the finished artists when technology arrived to make their jobs obsolete.

Realism, Relevance, Retention


This is a bit of a passion piece, but I think it’s important to say. I listened to some of the audience’s questions during Will Richardson’s presentation in Sydney last Friday. As ever Will was pulling out the main issues that face parents and teachers. As ever, some questions were very specific ‘which blog do I use’ or system-damming ‘but it’s blocked’ and ‘but I don’t have time’.

The Industrialist 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic), are still being cited as the capstones of learning –  when learning is cited as ‘failing’-  the call is to go back to basics – as if technology is somehow disconnected from these things. Learning with technology is part of the ‘digitial’ 3Rs – realism, relevance and retention. These are things to strive for in relation to a broader array of classroom activities. They are enhancing the capabilities of gifted teachers, not displacing them. But even motivated teachers find it difficult to access professional learning that is going to allow them to learn to do it. We have the ability to transform learning  and increase motivation though technology, and still address traditional ‘values’.

Imagine a global virtual world in which students have to negotiate through the complex politics surrounding a wildlife habitat construction project in the developing world, making the case for its economic and environmental benefits. Students take on the ‘role’ of diverse stakeholders, and though classroom research – the can role-play, using exploratory and explicit learning to put forward their solution for a negotiated outcome. They interact in a virtual world, develop models and ideas – blended these with reflection and discussion in other online media such as a blog or wiki to collect and justify their collective action.

picture-11We now have 6Rs, Reading; Writing; Arithmetic; Realism; Relevance and Retention. The above experience can be created using a range of technologies; MeetSee, Edublogs; Skype; Google Docs etc., and easily blended into the classroom. Teachers can connect with other schools (see Jenny Luca’s recent presentation), and can easily ‘chat’ using very low bandwidth, low-tech web tools such as Tiny Chat. In primary years, this can be created with Quest Atlantis, or ever the excellent eKidnaworld (an Australian parent developed virtual world – that needs your support!).

What is critical is that teachers have access to ongoing ‘mentors’ that can show them how to create this – though adaptation of existing, readily available technologies.

To be effective, teachers need to learn about more than Bloom’s taxonomy, but to learn how to develop learning frameworks that contructively align outcomes (what do we want them to learn), activities (how to be create motivating classrooms) and assessment (how to we know they did it). Teachers also need to learn about ‘communication’ with digital media. More often that not, they focus on ‘marking’, and not ‘talking with’ students using more informal strategies.

So before teachers begin to utilize new laptops and faster networks, there remains a huge need to help schools develop goal-orientated, achievable learning frameworks to renew curricula, and will place valid, relevant arguments to the Department of Education as to why students need to access curricula that motivates. Duty of care relates to a physical state, not a virtual one.

The current policy of ‘banning’ sites is at best inconsistent. Are schools breaching Google’s AUP in schools?. If a child is bullied on their way home on a mobile phone – does the school breach it’s duty of care? If someone complains about a ‘blog’ then, despite following policy,are teachers are left at the mercy of the legal system? In short, unless ‘we’ move to a  position where we have effective policy, effective leadership, professional learning and on the ground ‘help’ for teachers, we might as well return to the 3Rs of the 1950s. We will fail and continue to orbit the issues and not end the digital winter. The best professional learning is happening inside personal networks, not systemic ones – and I don’t see any movement forward in public schools.

The DET needs to be brave, it needs to release teachers to mentor based professional learning, and link that with clear assessment via the NSW Institute of Teachers, in co-operation with the Teaching Unions to ensure equity. Instead we find Queensland and Western Australia blocking Quest Atlantis (as the data is held off-shore) and the DET using Twitter to make announcements, but blocks it in school. In short it is a mess and the debate over laptops and school intrastructure is meaningless unless clear policy and action is taken at DET level. I’d love to have that conversation.

Will’s session was another demonstration that teachers want to learn, but lack access to people who can help curriculum leaders, libraries and classroom teachers renew curricula and develop 21st Century pedagogy. There is no preparation for the introduction of fibre connectivity or laptops in the classroom, and well over a decade since the DET ‘re-trained’ teachers.

Realism is not present; what we are doing is no longer realistic. Relevance; current professional learning is limited to policy implementation. Retention; motivated teachers are ‘expelled’ by systems unable to recognise the significance of what they are trying to do. In our desire to be equitable, we fail students. Access to powerful professional learning and therefore powerful schools is increasingly limited by geography and social capital. Bringing any scale to what is a massive problem is difficult in Australia, imagine how much more complex it is in the UK or USA.

However, I wonder at what point someone (maybe me?) form some organisation to deliver 21st Century Learning in whole school, public access level in Australia. PLNs are great, but I think that we need to start something far more significant, that is recognised as professional learning and in some way aligned to recognition and motivation, and in such a way that it transcends the organic and provides constructive advice, policy and lobby for change.

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Graphic-a-day #5 – I’m Engaged

Engaged Learners are active in making sense of the world – through media literacies.

They are not listing, identifying or seeking, but collectors (delicious), critics (comments), creators (youtube), phototogaphers (nokia), composers (garage band), joiner (facebook).

The pace of change has not yet been matched within education-especially higher education. We need curriculum leadership that values flexibility over rigidity, and process over content.

Media Literacy should be a core component of all school learning frameworks.

Yet with our complex system of faculties and departments, courses and units, curricula and assessment, we offer students little control over their own learning. We should be discovering which are the most effective way of using technology to facilitate learning and building classroom practice from the student outwards.

The NSW Quality Learning Framework promotes

  • Intellectual quality
  • Quality learning environment
  • Significance

These are very ’rounded’ desires. As a parent, I am not sure these things are anything less that I expect from the educational system. Whilst some schools are still preparing to adopt the aims identified in the QLF, the Rudd government has released proposals that transcend many of the ‘desires’ of the older framework. Specifically, greater ‘online’ learning.

Online Learning is in itself a complex notion – do they mean ‘learning management systems’ or facebook? However the original NSW QLF is far less specific about technology than the federal government is.

The Howard Government’s was cited as having a lack of investment and passive approach to technology. Rudd’s ‘digital revolution’ has been labeled ‘too ambitious’ by the NSW Teaching Federation and the Department of Education – who deliver on the QLF. By 2012, over 16,000 of teachers will retire anyway – placing the burden on higher education to deliver ever greater levels of ‘tech savvy’ teachers.

Darcy Moore describes the problem.

“As you know we have been concentrating on professional development and introducing systems to support digital learning. We really need leadership at the moment and expectations are not being met”

Engaging students through ‘frameworks’ is problematic using 20th Century management strategies. The ‘lag’ between policy and adoption is getting bigger. We need to be brave and clear about what ‘online’ means. Engaged online means active online, not spectators – for everyone – not just students.

Digital Winter

I’ve been working on a (not sure what to call it) – thing that’s a bit too big now to call a blog post.

But the idea in it is that of students being in a ‘digital winter’ when it comes to ICTs. I think that several years ago, ICTs were more engaging to students, but as technology became ubiquatous in their lives, the activities often have not moved on.

So the ‘digital winter’ is the idea that many students have frosted over in ICT lessons and are reasonably ‘cold’ when it comes to motivation. Perhaps this is why so many simply copy and paste information, rather than become engaged. We talk about students being passive in ICT, but I think it’s worse than that, I think they are often stone cold.

So in designing activities in mainstream classes (not project based learning), I think that rather than being a teacher, you have to think about being and ‘information architect’.

How do we present information so that it thaws out students? How do we present it to students so that they engage with it – from multiple perspectives?

Central to that is finding ways in which the activity itself relegates a lot of the ‘copy and paste’ experiences to what they in fact are, low order thinking.

How can we ‘copy and paste proof’ learning and raise the levels of learning to higher order thinking? How can we do that with out making it overly complex, or too prescriptive? How can EdTechs (if there is such a person) model this to teachers who may have fairly low interest in ICT, or have limited access to it? ...

There are a lot of questions raised, just in thinking about developing an activity that uses read/write methods, so its very helpful when students help you out with some of them.

One thing I’ve learned, forum discussions are best used when students start them. They tend to attract 4x the responses than if a teacher does.

Teachers should join the conversation when asked and not wade in with their thoughts. Being seen overtly monitoring and commenting in a discourse community makes it a ‘creepy tree house’. The value of the forum is often that you get a window on the ‘zone of proximity’.

Here is an example of students doing just this.

Create entry documents that are are ‘short’ on details. Let the students identify this! It creates discussion.

The project is introduced, not all answers given at the outset. It is a concious decision – not to give out all the answers, or even all the information. Un-packing a brief is as important as answering it.

I’ve lost count how many times in the past that I’ve told students when reviewing exams ‘read the question!’.

Maybe they do, they are just not great at unpacking it. Creating discussion allows them to ‘find fault’ – something they love to do – and it helps them unpack the overall picture. Sneeky, but it works.

I also try to desk-top-publish briefing documents.

Okay, so I’m an ex-art director (ouch the salary drop hurts) so its not that hard for me to knock out some InDesign or Photoshop – but presenting the task as visually ‘different, is another key motivator. Advertisers know the value of making visual statements that make people stop and think.

More often than not, most school assessment tasks are rather bland and predicatable word documents off a ‘schooly’ template. They represent a slow test, not an exciting activity.

Back to the Digital Springtime … creating peer debate and interest motivates. Motivation leads to effort.

One for All Grade Assignments

Rather than design an assessment task that is handed out in several grade classes, and worked on in ‘silos’. I am learning that desiging one in which the entire grade work in a discourse community – works better. It is also way easier to model and support the teachers – who are also often thawing out.

Using your PLN to bring ‘outsiders’ into the project makes it more authentic and adds more interest. What is great to find out are forum discussions that indicate that the students are warming to undertaking the task.

In a grade task, it only takes 5% of students to get engaged early, to draw the interest of the others. Immediately, a new pedogogy is created, and the project takes off. Just be sure to call it a study group with Senior Students, not a Blog or a Ning or whatever. Does it work? well this project went live 1st September 2008, this discussion was started 3 days after. The students are indeed not used to this ‘kind’ of learning – but they do engage with it – once they thaw out a little.

I read and thought about Kim’s post about the professional development cycle, and this lead me to think about the learning cycle.

  • Re-engagement comes from out of a “Digital Winter”, so you need to suprise and generate interest in a project though their curiosity.
  • “Digital Spring” happens when a few students start to ‘try’ out the EdTech and sandbox it – More students watch, than take part, but never the less, the hit stats show that more visit than post.
  • “Digital Summer” happens when kids start to lead the discource community, taking over often from the early adopters, and from the teachers
  • “Digital Fall/Autumn (proper)” – the evaluation and reflection of the project – usually started again by students.

Of course what we are all dreaming of is the Endless Summer! You want to make sure the Winter is short. So that we can learn from the task, and invent a better one!

Where did the work go?

What do parents think when their kids school really starts delivering on the promise of 21st Century Pedagogy? Not the end result, when they sit the exams, but right here right now. There is a possible issue if we don’t effectively communicate what happened to their work. As parents, we soon learn from primary years, that our kids get homework. We are keen to see them doing it, and keen to help them if we can. That homework used to come in a familiar book. In our school, kids also write their homework in an official diary. Parents are instructed to sign it, so they know that we’re giving them work to do.

This, to parents, is what learning looks like. A physical book, a record and observable activity somewhere between getting home and bed time. If you then start getting kids to work online, then the line becomes really blurred. There is less observable evidence, and therefore parents become concerned that their child is ‘doing less’ and therefore may be ‘learning less’.

Communicating a radical shift in the process we’ve been insisting on for a long time, must lead to some concern. For example : I have a project running with 156 kids all working online in their current project.

This is a massive shift, and we’re working hard to embed reflective, critical literacy inside the project. Writing in a community, reflecting on their learning is a critical 21st century skill, and doing it on this scale poses teachers with a very different pedagogical challenge. How do we co-ordinate feedback ‘visibly’, so that parents can ‘see’ what their kids are doing, and how their teachers are supporting this.

One way is to ensure that parents get the URL and get to observe, not just the work, but the collaboration, success, frustration and creativity that as teachers, we see, but couldn’t before give parents a value added shared experience.

Secondly, we encourage teachers to reflect on the week, using the same scaffold that we are modeling to students. It also helps with the comment challenge. If we comment too much, we are overtly interfering with the very ethos of project based learning. If we don’t comment enough, then we are seen as apathetic – doing little more than ticking off the event of posting a journal entry.

I am encouraging, and modeling, the idea of teachers using a weekly post in their page of ‘Ning’. It is an opportunity to show kids that we are learners too, and that we are listening to them. It is also a powerful way to ‘weave’ the learning scaffold – by referencing the work of kids using hyperlinks. Rather than say ‘It been great to see students understanding the project’ – we can hyperlink a few words to a few examples of what we are talking about – so we are evidencing teaching success and student support.

In a class this week I gave an example of how blogging communities give students more opportunity to demonstrate their learning than can be done in our normal mode of operation.

I asked the class a question. Immediately, a dozen hands went up, and kids all started pulling the usual faces to catch my attention – in the hope they would be selected to answer it. So I asked the teacher – “what happens to the other 11 kids, how do they feel at the very moment we make our selection”.

We empower one student and de-motive 11, that seems like a stupid thing to do. But thats how classroom questioning works. But in a classroom blogging community – every kid gets to answer it. Not only that, the kids are asking the questions, and teaching each other.

So I really think that teachers need to consider the effects of moving their classrooms online. Sure the parents like the idea that their kids are online-savvy – but they don’t really know what that means or looks like. Its critical to consider the implications to parent confidence when the ‘books’ and ‘worksheets’ suddenly stop being the normal method of evidencing activity. As kids don’t communicate what they are doing on the computer much of the time, there is a real risk that we loose some degree of confidence.

Giving parents the URL, allowing them to see the work in the community and being able to see what the teacher is thinking about, what they are doing reflectively – significantly changes the communication channels and the relationship that parents have with teachers. I think it is a great move away from the passive nature of parent-teacher relations – but equally some teachers are not going to be too happy about being ‘outed’.

Just an observation following a parent comment this week – “I am not sure he is studying as much as he used to”.