Virtual Learning

Today I had the chance to try out some ‘technologies’ in Macquarie University’s lecture theatres.

This presentation was mashed over an hour with a ‘virtual’ hook up with Annabel Astbury and Jokay. Its always hard to know how to ‘pitch’ virtual worlds, but I see them as highly motivating and engaging spaces that students find ‘enjoyable’. The degree of ‘fun’ that they offer I think gives me some latitude to explore more challenging questions of pre-teachers.

The invitation to ‘live comment’ using Tinychat was met with blank looks as the opened their highly decorated ring-binders and set out their ball point pens. This presentation is also online, so ask questions, don’t write alone. But of course, no one was used to the idea of live note taking, but that was a message not something I thought would happen.

I think you have to have a serious message, but with mixed media presentation when talking about Web2.0 or virtual worlds. It’s a style thing. I like to use Apples ‘spaces’ to bounce around screens, but also like to have a lot of fast-paced slides, mixed with a few videos to allow a break from the onslaught.

Other like to run off a wiki or a set of bookmarks – I like pictures.

I don’t expect students will take specific ‘facts’ from the presentation, and indeed, I don’t want them too. All too often technical presentations for ICT get bogged down in ‘details’ and ‘yeah buts’. What I want them to do is take away one simple question – as “What I am doing motivating for students”, and then perhaps to start thinking of reasons to think about other things. Today I used World of Warcraft and Second Life – to demonstrate how we can use narratives and motivation to develop a range of ‘soft skills’, contrasted against the freedom of virtual worlds such as Second Life and Open Sim. I am sure that the students are not about to explore this stuff deeply. It’s just one hour in their course, but I’d like them to feel is that it is not okay to dismiss it.

The next step is to mix Second Life ‘live’ with a lecture, having students in-room and in-world. As the lecture is delivered, the backchannel should light up. All I have to do now is find an academic mad-enough to try this – or even better try and hook our theatre with another class. And to me, that is the hard part of EdTech – getting someone to take a ‘risk’ – a one hour ‘risk’. The technology itself is a piece of cake … the saga continues. A lot of work for an hour I grant you. But no matter how hard it was, it won’t be again … and there is always a next time.

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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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Wakoopa – Time of your (digital) life

picture-14This is a great little gadget, for mac and pc. Wakoopa is a widget with code you can embed online. At first glance, its a tool that watches how much time you spend with various applications. Great for finding out just how much time you’ve ‘wasted’ in Second Life or WoW perhaps.

I think it might have a far more constructive use for 21C educators. One of the greatest myths, put downs or unknowns that ‘connected’ teachers have justifying time online in networks or learning new applications. Its time that often goes totally unseen (in the eyes of HR). The amount of self-directed PD that these teachers and edtechs are doing combined with the amount of time they spend using these technologies to develop learning environments is almost impossible to measure, let along report.

I’m not going to pretend that I believe it is acceptable for teachers not to be learners or that traditional professional development models will keep pace with learning technologies. Its time to move on from passive ICT approaches.

Blogging is perhaps the most visible sign that a teacher has decided to engage in the 21C discussions and teaching approaches. But a blog post is a small part of the time people spend online, especially when starting to take in the enormity of the problems and solutions being explored by so many. You begin to read way more than you post.

Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) for example are by far an large the most important ‘technologies’ that teachers are using in professional development. These were again and again highlighted in conferences and panel discussions throughout 2008. The knowledge of all of us is greater than any one of us – as the saying goes.

Wakoopa is one way that a teacher could track their own time, but also use it to evidence their level of activity and engagement in their professional acitivity. You might not want to put it one a public page, but a private page on a blog or wiki, would be a very useful reporting tool. Of course this once again opens people to the critisism – you have too much time on your hands, you don’t have a life etc., – which to those who understand it’s transformative power, don’t really care about these days. More fool them. Recruitment ads are increasingly calling for ‘demonstrated ability’ in regard to ICTs – and I think in that regard Wakoopa could just be one of those widgets that gives real evidence of professional development.

Teen Second Classroom Nomination

Wow, I was amazed to see Teen Second Classroom, get nominated for an Eddie.

Given the amount of social networks out there, getting noiced is one thing, getting kids to use it another – but to get nominated, just fantastic. Judy O’Connell and I created the space last year, together with Second Classroom. The later, we hoped to gather 100 members by the end of the year, which I noticed we achieved this week. The aim was initially to just connect educators who are looking at virtual worlds, MUVES and games.

Teen Second Classroom we thought would be a place for students involved with this in classrooms, could come to connect and reflect on what they were doing, in an authentic and informal way. One challenge in introducing virtual worlds into a school time-table, is that it has to be accountable.

This is hard to do in Skoolaborate, given that adults can’t go and have a look around.

We felt that reflecting on the experiences was important and develop their fluent use of ‘making and collaborating’ in TSL and reflecting in a blog. A place for students to share development tips as they saw them, and to reflect on their own work.

Consider that students only had 1 hour a week in class, all 9th graders, and apart from being given the ‘problem’, had to work out just how to go about using second life to create a 2 minute Machinima film, based on a Shakespeare play. So this was a huge challenge for them, how to go about doing everything.

The students did spent more time in world, at home, at lunch etc., – and it was interesting to see how their need to ‘learn how’ led them to collaborating with other Skoolaborate avatars. This I guess was a kind of experiment on my part. They knew other people were in there … would they turn to ‘network knowledge’ as a solution – is that how they learn? – and yes, that is exactly what they did. The need to learn, make and do led them to forming relationships with others in Skoolaborate, but wasn’t explictly outlined.

In doing that, they needed to solve a number of problems – how to screen shot, how to write reflectively – what kind of writing would show their progress etc., So the work in there is all self-directed. We purposely keep well out of they way, and it was interesting to see how they started to use it. In the classroom, students worked in-world, but also checked the community for video clips and what others were doing.

The future of it? Well I really hope that some of the educators in Second Classroom, will form student groups in the Teen community – and that students will work to mentor and help each other in these environments.

As I’m not in the school now, Lucy Gresser will pass on my congratulations and continue to work with the students.

At the end of the day, the site is not mine, or Judy’s, but belongs to the students. Its important in all out ‘love’ of SL, that we hear students reflect on what they do, not just report on it as teachers.

Click here to vote if you feel so inclined.

Write a book in a day

04112008561Day 1 of the ‘Book in a Day’ creative writing project with 9th graders ended in an almost party like atmosphere from the 60 students who took part today. The final hour had 60 students in one big room, furiously working in groups to finalise their work and publish it.

The scene reminded me of the buzz that advertising studios generate in the final moments before some suited up account representative takes the creative thoughts of the writers and designers to pitch for the account.

What also stuck me was the organisational skills and co-operative skills that the students have.

04112008558No teacher was pushing them along or giving motivational speeches. From the moment Lucy Gresser posted the days work groups, the kids threw everything at it. Even the students that tend to lurk on the very brink of engagement usually, were sucked into the vortex of creative writing that was going on.

We presented a short video montage of themes from Orwell’s Animal Farm – spliced between images taken in Second Life from Tempura Island (a recent field trip with the Jokaydians). This was the visual base from which they had to produce a book – on a given theme – 8000 words. The students almost fell off their seats when seeing that – 8 0 0 0 words? – it looked impossible – and in a single day – madness, but we are  giving them a summative writing test in a day. We thought they could do it, now they had to believe it too.

We didn’t want them to start getting into graphic design, so the supplied material negated them spending time there. The end product would be a simple 5.5″ x 8.5″ book, with a title cover and about 12 pages in which 6 students developed their storyline – and each took equal share of creative writing – 1000 words each, or approximately 2 pages of writing.

04112008556Two pages of creative writing might now sound too much, but to get 9th grade boys to undertake such a thing is, in my experience, a rare thing.

We are so used to seeing students produce reports and recounts – using crutches like Google and Wikipedia, that the work done recently in community blogging in their Green Up project – gave them the confidence to engage with the task.

The way in which we’re designing projects and lessons is delivering confidence, engagement and a sense of adventure in learning – or at least that is the feedback that students are giving us. They bail staff up and talk about ‘learning’ and Gavin Hayes reported last week how he overheard kids at the cricket nets discussing teaching approaches between classes, and which worked best.

The students are very aware of what good teaching and learning is, and that accountability fuels the enthusiasm of the teacher. 9th grade is often a difficult grade, and our school used to be a proof of that. Now, we have learners, not issues.

They are reflective writers now, so this project is pushing them into being creative too. The year long skills that they have developed, under the project leadership of their teachers, especially Lucy Gresser in English was paid back in a single day it seems.

The boys know how to collaborate and share information and ideas and the groups took several different approaches to the task.

One, for example, decided that they would co-operatively create the first ‘chapter’ of a thousand words. From that they each took a subsequent chapter individually. This approach they thought would give them some common unity and style, so the remainder of the writing would be much more connected.

These are decisions that they can now make as they are experienced in what makes collaboration work. They are now a long way from the prior norms where a few do the majority of the work and the other coast along for the ride. They all WANT to contribute – and support each other using the critial friends process that they have been taught all year.

The know how to use a GoogleDoc and share it to speed up their effectiveness – they can throw 8000 words into InDesign in half an hour and format a publication. Their fluency between technologies now affords them methods of collaboration to manage time, pace and delivery.

04112008557During the day, it is significant that Google was not a tool that students used. There was no desire to try and ‘find answers’  or short cuts.

I think that the way in which the English projects have been designed and presented to students in the last 6 months have sufficiently promoted individual thinking and writing that to a large extent, students no longer see Googling as the best way to learn. They may hit it for quick facts, but do not rely on it anymore. That to me is a massive shift away from prior ‘norms’ that we saw in 9th Grade ICT based classrooms.

Lucy is writing up the more literacy aspects of today on her blog, so I’ll link there, where she has also posted up some examples of the work the students did today.

All 14 groups posted their work on time, which is 112,000 words. The next step is to work with them to extend the project in terms of design and publishing – and post the combined works on Lulu for purchase and download by their families – and of course the world.

Day 2 will see some 80 students do the same summative task – and I’m really pleased to know that Judy O’Connell will be sparing some time to come and get involved in the afternoon!

I am finding that students work really well in carefully planned tasks that have a sense of urgency and deadlines about them. We’re finding that 2 week projects appear to yeild higher engagement than 4 or even 6 weeks. Lucy is also very adept at using a range of formative methods – this is a critical teaching skill to ensure that her classes are not only meeting outcomes – but also demonstrating sound knowledge of the syllabus content.

If there’s one critisism of project based learning I have – it is in teachers being able to track and evidence syllabus content as well as meeting outcomes. There is a danger that ‘content’ is glossed over in the desire to have a ‘cool end product’. This isn’t something that is happening – and I think that using Web2.0 tools makes the formative work far more transparent, than if students were using more tradtional PBL approaches, but it does take a lot of strategic planning to build that into activities – the results however, are worth it. To see these students work right through recess and lunch, almost oblivious to it, and then to end the day so enthusiastic is amazing.

Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading and Talking in Google Docs

In my previous post, I talked about the balance and opportunity between instructional learning and inquiry (or project based learning).

My last project with Lucy Gresser in Project Based Learning at my school.

I was a real attempt at combining the two methods of learning. If you’ve not read the other posts on Animal Farm, then here’s the gist of part one of the project.

The students were charged with reading the novel in a week, in preparation for a second week of learning about creative writing. At the end of the second week, they work collaboratively to write a 7000-8000 word novel in groups of 6 in a day using Google Docs and Blurb’s Booksmart application.

These 9th grade students did not know what the second week project woud be about, whilst reading Animal Farm – but they knew it was connected somehow.

Lucy is an amazing teacher, and I’d put my kids in her charge without hesitation. She demonstrates what I think are the critical characteristics of a 21C teacher – and engages and enthuses students and uses technology fluidly to connect with students.

Part of the task, for students to select an online group – in which they would talk to a character in the book – who asks them questions – Each day, the character asks a few questions on each chapter as the student progresses – using Google Docs. The ‘teacher’ is blind to know who the teacher is online – though they do know their classroom teacher – so in effect many students online teacher was not their face to face one.

We wanted to create a feeling of a third space, in which students would undertake conversational learning. They would debate the classroom discussion online, and answer questions that we not set ahead of time. Whatever topics the students raised, the teacher expanded upon – we didn’t want the teacher to be the ‘expert’ in the conversation – so took the approach of using the various characters of the book as the students online conversational tutor.

This is a link to a PDF file of the Google Doc ‘learning’ conversation that took place over the week. The teacher comments are in green, the student’s are in black. I would really like comments on what you see going on here – in contrast to ‘instructional’ learning only.

Feedback on the approach and what you see in the document is much appreciated. How has the student reacted to online conversations, is it effective learning, do you see him grow in his understanding of the text and wider issues? How?


I’m a Wii

I thought this (raunchy?) Apple parody would make a good ‘entry document’ to use to talk to older students about ‘Digital Representation and Reputation’.

It is actually very well done and I think would form the basis of a good classroom discussion, given that students already know the “Im a Mac” ads and understand the PS3/Wii war.