Monday, March 23, 2015

Breaking the "Either-Or" Paradigm of EdTech Use

One of the biggest challenges we face is helping teachers understand that
technology doesn’t have to replace traditional teaching, but instead can support it.

The other day I was having lunch with a head of school, who relayed something one of her teachers said about technology.

This particular teacher said she was reluctant to use technology in her classroom, because she thought it interfered with her ability to connect with her students. She explained to the head of the school that she had a class of students with special needs and learning preferences, and she believed technology simply “got in the way” of teaching them.

I was perplexed to hear that, because—as I pointed out —one of the biggest benefits of technology is that it can help reach all learners. For instance, if a student isn’t particularly strong at decoding text, technology can help him hear the words spoken aloud as they are highlighted, which might improve his reading skills. Imagery can help students understand an abstract concept and technology provides access to multiple images and the ability to create pictures or video that illustrate an idea.

Another way technology can help us reach all learners is by enabling students to present what they know in different ways. One student might might show understanding by creating in prose, another might create in audio and images, and yet another student might create in video.

Technology—if used wisely—offers different avenues for getting information to different students and in a way they’ll understand. It also provides multiple pathways for different students to demonstrate their understanding. And isn't reaching all learners our ultimate goal?

The teacher the administrator was describing had fallen victim to a common misconception about technology use in schools: She assumed that technology was meant to replace traditional teaching -- instead of support it.

One of the biggest challenges is helping teachers understand that technology use is not an “either/or” paradigm. Because we integrate technology in the classroom doesn’t mean we must forgo face-to-face conversations. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon instructional practices that have worked successfully in the past.

If technology is used effectively, it should actually enhance traditional instruction. In this case, the teacher in question worried that technology was getting in the way of effective conversation. Yet, if the teacher administered an anonymous survey with questions such as, “Did you understand the lesson? What questions do you have? Was the homework difficult or easy?  Do you feel like you’re ready to move on to a new topic?” she would elicit the kind of insights that can improve face-to-face classroom discussion. Online surveys and polls are but one to a wealth of pedagogical information and a window into students’ minds.

Technology shouldn’t get in the way of good teaching. It should support good teaching by providing the tools to make teaching and learning more effective. Helping teachers understand that technology is not an either/or paradigm, and that traditional and modern methods can work in tandem, is critical to crafting a mindset for productive and successful learning.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Does Awesome Learning Look Like?

Innovation doesn’t start with tools. It starts with questions. 

EdTechTeacher teamed up with Google to host a Google for Education Jamboree in Boston recently. During the opening, I talked about what I think innovative teaching and learning look like.

For me, the process begins with engaging questions that challenge students to address issues and solve problems. Innovation doesn't start with technology, but technology can spur innovation through problem-solving research, creation, and collaboration  The key is to formulate questions that lead to deeper learning and engagement. As Program Manager for Google Play for Education, Marta da Silva said in kicking off the event: “If we’re just asking questions that kids can Google the answers to, then obviously we’re asking the wrong questions.”

During my keynote I played a video about the grand-prize winners of the 2014 Google Science Fair. Three 17-year-old girls from Ireland became interested in addressing the global food crisis after learning about the Horn of Africa famine in 2011. When they discovered nodules growing on the roots of pea plants while gardening, they learned that a certain kind of bacteria lives in these nodules and draws nitrogen from the air, storing it in the plant’s roots and enhancing their growth. Encouraged by their teacher, the girls wondered: How might this knowledge be applied to cereal crops, helping farmers in underdeveloped countries? Through experiments, analysis, and field trials, the girls determined that the bacteria could be used to speed up the germination process of certain crops, like barley and oats, by up to 50 percent—helping to meet the rising demand for food worldwide.

What can educators learn from their example? This life-altering project began with a simple question that sparked the girls’ interest and tapped into their desire to make a difference. When the right question enters a student's ear,  awesome learning can happen. So, let's continually work on asking questions that matter.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Student Screen a Distraction? The #1 Antidote

In a post that first appeared in Edudemic, I relate that I enjoyed the luxury of teaching in a 1:1 laptop classroom for seven years. In my classes, students took daily notes on computers, did research, created essays and various multimedia publications, and worked on collaborative projects.

Yet I knew that if I wasn't watching their screens, my students would at some point be doing something they were not supposed to be doing. So, while I was thrilled with the tremendous educational content available to my students, I was concerned with the less-than-desirable elements pervasive on the Internet.  Today, I stroll through many schools that are using technology extensively and invariably I see students using computers for Facebook, IM, playing games, checking sports scores, and all manner of other "evil" things. (BTW, this is as true in middle school classrooms as it is in graduate schools.)

Many teachers have decided that they need to crack down on -- if not entirely eradicate -- screen distractions in their classrooms. (A minority of teachers accept it as a form of 21st century doodling.) So, I regularly get questions from teachers asking if they can lock students into apps (yes, that's possible) or watch student laptop screens remotely (yes, that's possible, too).

Yet, I rarely indulge in discussions of "Big Brother"strategies. Instead, I prompt teachers to consider the most important truism regarding screen distractions:

The best classroom management tool is a good lesson. 

If the activity is engaging and challenging, there is an authentic audience, and proscribed time limits exist, students won’t mess around.

I see the phenomenon at work regularly in my workshops. The more time I spend "teaching" teachers something the more apt they are to check email, Facebook -- or whatever. The more time they spend "doing" in a challenging and engaged environment the less they go off task. And if they know they'll have to present their product to the group, or post it online, they're focused.

More importantly, it happens in classrooms all the time.  I know because when teachers relate stories of engaged students using technology, their students all ask the same question:

Can I have more time to work on it?

The ingredients for cooking up engaging activities vary, but certain elements are constant. For one, the activities are challenging. There's no "click-along-with-me-and-do-what-I-do-kids" passive activity in these classrooms. Instead, it's more like: "This is hard. And I'm not going to tell you how to do it. But I expect what you create will be excellent."

There's also an authentic audience. Tell students you're going to present their work at conference, or submit it to a state publication, and then watch that heightened focus in their eyes. Note that the audience doesn't necessarily need to be outside the school walls. Just tell them you're going to show their work to other classes and teachers. As one teacher noted: "I didn't realize how little I mattered, until I told my students that I was going to publish all their work to an audience."

And great teachers figure out other ways to make kids care. They personalize the content -- drawing connections to kids lives -- and help students understand why what their doing is important.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Would You Openly Critique Your Colleagues Work?

Could we in the United States create school cultures in which instructing colleagues on how they might improve performance is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?

In an eSchool News editorial I contrast the atmosphere of collegial review in the Singaporean education system and in the United States. I recount the experience of participating in a constructive but pointed critique of a young Singaporean teacher and thinking that "if this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally."  
As I relate in the piece, I sat on my old school's faculty evaluation committee and critiqued colleagues' teaching practices in face-to-face reviews and reports. Throughout this period, I was concerned that a critical review might damage my working and personal relationship with a colleague and create an awkward situation for years to come. At times I tried to be obtuse in leveling criticism at a teacher’s practices and spent most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths.
In my Singaporean experience, the air was totally different. The committee did not retreat from pointed criticism of the young teacher. At the end, the teacher even appeared genuinely appreciative and I learned that formal, face-to-face discussions of teacher pedagogical practices are the norm in the Singaporean system. 
Doesn't it make sense that to better the teaching craft we should review teacher practices regularly? How can we create a positive, non-threatening culture of collegial review?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Want Teachers to Incorporate Technology? Enlist "Bob"

Classroom practices are most profoundly changed by peer-to-peer interactions -- not by top-down directives. 

One of the most frequent questions I get from school administrators is: "How can I get my teachers to use technology?" (Interestingly, I often hear from classroom teachers who ask: "How can I get my administrators to use technology?")

The issue is complicated and has more to do with tech attitude, than tech aptitude. Educators wear many "faces of fear" when it comes to technology. For some, it's discomfort with the technology itself. For others, it's the unease that technology elicits. Many wear both faces and more. Factor in that schools are highly conservative institutions and it's no surprise that changing educator practices is daunting. 

In an eSchool News editorial I write that classroom practices are most acutely and profoundly changed by peer-to-peer interactions over a sustained period. It's those informal exchanges between educators during the day, and formal peer-to-peer instruction during the year, that can prompt real and lasting instructional change.  Top-down administrative directives simply don’t change beliefs, often provoke resentment, and rarely change teacher practice. Once the door shuts, it's a teacher's classroom and they'll teach how they see fit.   

So, administrators need to identify and enlist respected members of the faculty who can influence their peers. Educators like "Bob." Bob is a veteran member of the faculty and not necessarily tech-savvy. But Bob is not intransigent, either. He is not opposed to using technology, but is skeptical and has reservations and anxieties.

Enlist Bobs and you can influence an entire faculty. Like Bob, most teachers are somewhere in the middle of the tech-integration spectrum. They're not completely opposed to technology, but they're not tech evangelists either. They need to go in steps and be reassured. Put a tech-loving-twenty-something colleague in front of these teachers and you'll see anxiety and apprehension in their eyes. But, put Bob in front of them and you'll get reactions like, "Well, if Bob is willing/can do it, then maybe I will/can." Enlist a few Bobs and you have stepping stones that lead teachers to new insights, burgeoning confidence and the eventual realization of a tech-infused project.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Multimedia Decoding: "Observe-Reflect-Question"

Video is the fastest growing medium on the Internet and increasingly young people are consuming cultural content. The 30-minute documentary Kony 2012 became a worldwide trending topic on the Internet and in less than a week more than 80 million people had viewed it. The video vividly depicted atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) over the past two decades. It called for students to immediately join a movement—by sharing the video, signing online petitions, and “Liking” on Facebook—with the ultimate goal of pressuring world leaders to capture Joseph Kony by the end of 2012.

Emotions ran high because of the vivid images in the video and many teenagers came to school asking their social studies teachers to address the issues.  Yet, as teachers soon realized, many of their students were ill-equipped to critically analyze the content: not just the video itself, but also the ways in which the video had become enmeshed in a Web-based campaign and broader social networks.

As many teachers abruptly came to realize, critical inquiry of video -- increasingly the norm for consuming information -- needs to become part of the primer for teaching 21st century literacy.  Teaching students how to decode video is foundational to the development of effective global citizens in our networked world. 

Fortunately, The Library of Congress “Teaching with Primary Sources” series located at  provides an excellent “Observe-Reflect-Question” framework for video analysis. The questions below from TPS-Barat Primary Source Nexus are adopted from the Library of Congress list of video analysis questions: 

OBSERVE: Identify and note details

  • What type of video recording is this (documentary, entertainment broadcast, animation, advertisement, speech, interview, press conference, testimony, etc.)?
  • What is this video recording about? What is the main topic or theme?
  • What is the title of this video? Is there any other text? If so, what information does it provide
  • What is/are the main setting(s) of this video recording?
  • Is there live action? Are there special effects or animation? If so, provide a brief description of what you see.
  • Who helped to make (perform, produce, or broadcast) this video recording?
  • Are there details that suggest the time period this video recording relates to? Is the creation date listed in the bibliographic record? If the creation date is listed, was this video created at or around the same time period the content relates to?
  • What other details do you notice?

A distinguishing aspect of video is that it can be seen multiple times in different ways. Students can rewind to review any part, or the entirety, of the video or slow the video down to focus on a particular element. In addition, students can watch a video without listening to sound to help focus on particular aspects of interest. Students might then be able to better understand how music is often integrated to create an emotion or reaction and even manipulate a viewer into action.  

As students move to critical analysis, they should be prepared to reflect more carefully on what they have observed and start to draw conclusions: 

REFLECT: Generate and test hypotheses
What tools and materials might have been used to create this video recording?
Why do you think this video recording was created? What might have been the purpose of making this video? What evidence supports your theory?
What tone does the video recording have? Why do you think this tone was used? How does the tone affect the feeling or mood of the video?
If special effects or animation are present, how do they affect the feeling or mood of the video?
Who do you think was the audience for this video recording?
What do you think the creator might have wanted the audience to think or feel?
How do you feel during and after watching this video recording?
Does the video recording show bias through words or images? If so, towards what or whom? What evidence supports your conclusion?
What was happening during the time period this video recording represents? If someone created this video today, what would be different/the same?
What did you learn from listening to this video recording? Does any new information you learned contradict or support your prior knowledge about the topic of this video?

Finally, students should ponder the questions hardest to answer and consider how they might find more information to help them answer these questions:

QUESTION: What didn’t you learn that you would like to know about? What questions does this video recording raise? What do you wonder about . . .

Also, teachers should encourage encourage transmedia navigation so that students not analyze online video in isolation. Students must learn that they should consider multiple sources of information on the topic as it may provide a more balanced perspective. Is there an independent news article on the topic? Are bloggers offering varied viewpoints? What are their rationales and motivations? Are visitors being encouraged to “like” a video or post or perhaps join a Facebook group? Why? Who is behind it? What does the makeup of the group tell you about their interests and motivation? Are you being encouraged to act in a certain way, such as supporting a campaign? Who benefits if you do? As such, students should consider viewpoints, data and information found in posts, images, charts, graphs, interviews, reports, and surveys. A good rule of thumb is to teach students to study at least three separate source elements and three points of view. 

Unless students learn to decode and analyze video, they will be at a disadvantage to deal with varied communication challenges in both their professional and personal endeavors and may fail to become discerning information literate citizens in a global age.  The implications for individual development and for fostering a productive democratic society are enormous. Teaching video decoding and analytical skills must become a priority. The most successful and forward-thinking schools are already in the process of examining their curricula and their instructional approaches to determine what steps need to be taken to provide teachers with training, if necessary, so that every student is prepared with multimodal literacies.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Six Characteristics of Great Workshops (& Great Classrooms)

[This is an excerpt from an editorial to appear in the June edition of eSchool News]

As much as possible, Justin Reich and I have designed EdTechTeacher professional development workshops to embody the characteristics of great classrooms. If we want teachers to integrate exemplary practices and lead and inspire the next generation, then we must prepare them in exemplary learning environments.

To this end, we deliberately construct a workshop environment which embodies the following:

1. Constructivist
EdTechTeacher workshops are marked by experimental learning. Participants are actively discovering the features, properties, and potential of an app and a device. They are being challenged to make sense of tools for themselves. By not controlling how learners receive and process the information, we do not position ourselves as the sole expert in the room. Instead, knowledge comes from everyone. (To quote Harvard’s David Weinberger: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”)

In EdTechTeacher workshops we want teachers to fail early and to fail often. We want them to encounter stumbling blocks and obstacles, and start developing the persistence and creativity to work through these challenges.

2. Collaborative
We want teachers to work collaboratively to uncover solutions to the challenges we provide. We want them to work independently of us and thereby gain some measure all of confidence that they can solve future problems. We do not want to be the sole experts in the room. We do not want to control the knowledge. In the instructor-driven model, problems are often averted.  In the collaborative model, educators are working together, collaboratively, to make meaning and to help each other.

3. Differentiated
By providing both beginner and advanced challenges, participants work at their own pace, allowing us to model strategies for differentiated learning.  Furthermore, we introduce apps that provide multiple pathways to learning. By providing access varied tools we attempt to give diverse learners very ways to understanding and presentation of content we are helping ensure that we meet the needs of all learners. We also provide for differentiation as different individuals present educational content in different forms. Some create virtual tours, others tutorials. Some are primarily visual, some primarily auditory, some mostly text-based.

4. Personalized
As instructors we circulate the room, providing just-in-time assistance and encouragement. We work as facilitators and not principally as experts, and try to foster a proper balance between self-exploration and direction.

Additionally, the singular access to devices allows a more individualized educational experience. Instead, while students are working individually or in pods, the teacher is now free to move about the room and engage students on a more individual and personal level, providing guidance and support. In this sense, the learning becomes less teacher and more student centered.

5. Mobile
A mobile device adds a unique element to professional learning, because it removes the limitations of a classroom. No longer is the teacher the purveyor of information. Rather, students have a wealth, even a glut, of information available at their fingertips. They can now take that device (with its access, content, and materials) with them out of the classroom—on field trips, bus rides to sporting events, the library, a park, home, and more.

Our Explain Everything challenge simulates a mobile learning experience for workshop participants. We hope it’s also a catalyst for teachers to devise mobile learning experiences for their students.

6. Goal Oriented
In a challenge-based technology learning environment we attempt to simulate the types of learning spaces we hope that teachers will emulate in their classroom. In all, there is a marked emphasis on student directed learning. It is in the constructive learning environment where the learners are making sense of the tools and technological environment.