Friday, August 5, 2016

Turning online possibilities into real opportunities

How much time do you spend online every day? It's not a rhetorical question. Think about how much time you spend starting at an illuminated screen--computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Okay, now. How are you spending that time? Facebook? Instagram? Checking out the latest celebrity stories? Researching something? Going through your email?

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has a new report on how the digital divide continues to widen between rich and poor students, and more so in some countries than in others.

If you live in the US, don't bother looking for the United States because we're not even on the chart. I suspect that means we didn't participate in the study, but I imagine most of us can guess our results.

You should review the actual report rather than read only what the World Economic Forum surmises about the report; however, there is a particularly telling quote: "'They may not have the knowledge or skills required to turn online opportunities into real opportunities,' the report says."

And that's true. Disadvantaged students may not be savvy about the extent of the possibilities or even how to find out about MOOCs or or anything else, providing they know what a MOOC is or that there is such a thing as an online course.

There is no doubt that students can find these things on their own provided they look for them, provided they know to go look for them. That's a big "if."

Another part of the equation for more disadvantaged students is what their parents and teachers know about online possibilities. If teachers and/or parents don't know about online learning, online job possibilities, etc., then how are kids to begin to figure that out? And maybe the kids are mostly focusing on online games because they don't know about anything else. Or maybe games attract most of their attention because those ads are better and more compelling. Or maybe because they don't have much hope about changing their situation.

So how do we help disadvantages learners anywhere in the world learn to take hold of the power of online and find the opportunities or make their own opportunities? Well, it might not hurt to partner with some of those games in which kids are so interested and create some ads or teasers that are compelling enough for a click. But that isn't all. Check this out.

It's a quote appropriately at the bottom of the OECD report. Is the issue internet access? Is it the device? Nope.

It's reading. Because when kids know how to read, they can find what they need and want to find. They will begin to learn more when they read so they can ask questions.

I don't think reading is the end of the story though I firmly believe it's an important part. Not only do students need to know how to read, they need to know how to think critically. And their teachers need to be sufficiently trained to know how to help their students find resources online OR their teachers need to know how to go online to the entire edtech/learning network of educators--and that's millions of people--to help their kids find what they need and want to find and learn. Only then can students--and their parents and teachers--begin the hard work of turning online possibilities into real opportunities.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

First pedagogy, then technology. Maybe.

This isn't a new topic. George Couros raised it in his blog post Pedagogy Before Technology? He wondered if the absence of the word "learning" in the definition of "pedagogy" might be an issue. Pedagogy, after all, is about teaching.

In the past several months, and perhaps longer, I've developed a particular twitch when educators focus only on their teaching. When talking with administrators about observing the teacher in the classroom, I've received puzzled looks when I've asked what they observed about students learning while the teacher was doing his or her thing. I've managed not to ask what might be an obvious question: "If a teacher teaches and there are no students in the classroom, is learning taking place?"
After all, as George suggests, education isn't just about teaching. I might be delivering a great lesson and doing it really well, but if my students are just going through motions and not actually learning, well, I haven't done my job.

I'm a fan of thinking first about pedagogy, but that doesn't mean that pedagogy remains at the forefront at all times. In my work with educators, it is inevitable that someone will say, "Well, that won't work with my students." Whether we're talking about an instructional strategy, an approach to building a lesson, some sort of technology resources, or anything else, there are teachers who flatly reject something because they think it won't work with their students.

Now I know that this is often code for "this is too complicated/hard/confusing for me so I'll blame my kids," but I've also had teachers who have gone on to explain why the thing is a problem for his or her class. As we've talked, we've usually found ways to adapt or modify the thing, but the point is the teacher was thinking first and foremost of her students.

So while pedagogy is, in fact, "the method and practice of teaching," good teachers automatically incorporate their curriculum and their learning objectives as part of pedagogy because they are thinking about their practice of teaching. And because they are thinking about learning objectives, they are thinking about their students--who are the strong readers, who are the ELs, who has diverse needs, etc. When they then think of instructional strategies, they also think about low- and high-tech resources to help them help their students achieve the learning objectives.

The teachers who are thinking about their students and their students learning, don't think first of pedagogy and then of technology. For many of them, there is no real differentiation as they think about various instructional strategies and resources, selecting some and discarding others.

Now that is not to say there aren't those who find a new tech toy and want to figure out how to integrate, and often because they want to play with the toy. I've been guilty of that, but even as I think about the new tech gadget or resource, I think about how it will help my students learn or how it will help move the engagement needle. There have been plenty of times I've had to set aside my new toy with great reluctance because I just couldn't find a relevant way to integrate it. However, as a result of that process, I learned more about the way I might use that technology and thought through the possibilities which meant I was that much further ahead for the occasion it was going to make sense. . .for the students.

Where Need Meets Creativity

The temperature hovered in the upper 80s/low 90s for the full two weeks. The second week we were so grateful to be in an open-air space with languid ceiling fans helping circulate the slightly humid air. Providing professional development in one of the poorest countries in the world while wearing shorts was a novelty for me, and on many levels. Nice shorts, mind you, but shorts nonetheless. And practically a necessity. But thinking as though there was no box in sight was what really challenged me.

In that second week, some of the local teachers had sessions they wanted to offer their colleagues. While the math session was quite good, the one that ripped my heart and blew my mind was the session on creating manipulatives and other hands-on resources using recyclables.

By our first world standards, none of them were extraordinary except they were simply because of how they came to be. Need to find another way to help slow readers learn letters and their sounds? Use some old CDs, some scraps of paper, and whatever else you can find to create a sort of flash card concept. Looking for ways to help students learn their times tables and practice their addition, subtraction, and multiplication? Let's make up some games using our hands or using those CDs but with numbers on them. Yea, you want to know more about that, don't you?

So you could buy some number wooden disks for about $30 or get the rubber ones for more. Or you could paint numbers on an old CD or some pieces of wood or whatever scrap makes sense and has some substance.

One of the game ideas was something like a "whack-a-mole" but for addition, subtraction, or multiplication. Put some of the disks on a table and call out the operation and the result of that operation. Kids have to smack the right disks. So "addition" and "10" and kids have to smack 8 and 2, or 6 and 4. You get the idea. Yes, it will be noisy. There are probably a dozen variations on that game alone.

The other game we developed needs no manipulatives: just hands. Think of rock-paper-scissors. Kids start in pairs. The teacher calls out an operation: addition, subtraction, multiplication. Division is possible, but harder. Anyway, each kids smacks fist in palm and then shows some number of fingers; a fist on the third beat is zero. The first kid to complete the operation correctly based on the fingers shown, gets a point. So the teacher hollers out "multiplication" and the first kid shows 2 and the second kid shows 3. The first of the two to shout out 6 wins a point. So maybe you play to 5 points and then two pairs form a quad. Now you can work up to your 10 time tables and do more complex problems.

The way this version works (and this is my own variation) is each student shows a number on the third count after the teacher calls out an operation. In pair #1, the first kid shows a 3 and the second kid shows a 0 (fist). In pair #2, the first kid shows a 4 and the second kid shows a 2. Each pair has to add its numbers and then perform the operation. So the first pair ends up with 3 and the second pair ends up with 6 and if the operation was addition the first pair to call out 9 wins the point. Another variation is multiple operations. The teacher calls out "multiply and add," or "subtract and multiply." Each pair has to perform the first operation on its own numbers and then the second operation on the combined numbers. So with multiply and add, the first pair gets 0 and the second pair gets 8, and the first pair to call out 8 wins the point.

Now I'm back in my first world environment and murmuring with delight as I cuddle up to my technology and mind-numbing options. But I cannot forget what I saw those teachers bring as they tried to figure out how they might replicate some of our ideas using whatever they could gather and scrounge. Not just their passion and determination (let's talk about grit, shall we?), but profoundly creative ways to engage their students and make a difficult learning experience more interesting.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Riding the edge of beyond: Tech trends for today and the future

Back in the 70s a nifty band called The New Seekers put out an album titled Out on the Edge of Beyond, which was also the first track. Love the title. Love the idea of being on the edge of beyond, perhaps where there be dragons. In other words, stepping into the unknown. All right. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

Well, what prompted this mashup of media references is an article from the recent ISTE conference. If you're not familiar with it, ISTE is quite likely the largest educational technology conference in the world. It is, after all, the International Society for Technology in Education. ISTE is a conference I try to attend, but this year the respective pulls of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks were much greater (pictures are available). Anyway, over 18,000 educators were at this year's conference in Denver. Most of them techno-geeks like myself, but many others just finding their ways.

ISTE and more localized events, such as EdCamp, are important for educators and not just for collaboration. However, as we share our learning, we share our insights and our perspectives for preparing ourselves for the road ahead even as we strive to prepare our students (and their parents) for their futures.

So let's get to those trends. First up: big data. My response. Ugh. Seriously. I'm so weary of big data; so weary of data and data-driven decision-making. So weary of people scrambling to aggregate and disaggregate and forgetting to pay attention to the actual student. I'm not anti-data, but I recognize we do have slews of data. So much data teachers cannot possibly figure out how to mine it all to get relevant and useful information in a timely fashion. It's one thing to have data but it's quite another to have the information you really need and can use to help kids understand how they are being successful and what they need to do differently.

Next up: augmented reality. Yes, that's here. I've seen folks trying to figure out how to make use of AR and VR, and we're on the edge of figuring out how it will matter for learning. Forget college and career readiness for now. I was at a lovely place in Cody, WY (Buffalo Jump Winery where they have lovely food and truly excellent wine) talking to a young man about a hunting show he wanted to create. He was excitedly explaining how he would use a videography buddy and a GoPro. I asked him if he thought about making it a VR experience and then I showed him a VR app on my phone. His eyes went wide with excitement. You know that look: when a kid discovers the like totally awesomely best new toy ever! Yea, that look. When I think about the kinds of differences VR could make for kids learning about the world they might never otherwise see or experience, I get goosebumps. And then I think about how kids (and, okay, grown-ups) could be trained through VR, well, the possibilities become endless.

On the other hand, there are other practical uses for VR and AR. My mother has dementia. My stepfather recently passed away, also a victim of dementia. The assisted living facility where my mother still lives has an AR experience so staff members and family members, if they're interested, can get a sense of what it's like to have AR. I'm trying that for the first time at the end of this month. I'm terrified, but I'm also looking forward to it in case it helps me better understand what's going on with my mom. Just think about the potential for that kind of application for VR and AR. Yea, the edge of beyond.

The third trend is the semantic web. The author of the article, Meg Conlan, didn't refer to this as the Internet of Things because they're not the same. Stay with me for a few. Semantic refers to language or logic. You know how you sometimes get a message about data being incompatible? That's a semantic problem. There are patents and various technologies that make sure that, for example, certain stuff that works in OSX isn't compatible with Windows 10 for proprietary reasons. And that's why there are companies that make money but creating software that helps you "translate" between otherwise incompatible formats. But what if there were bridges that made that data and content interconnectivity even easier? Well, it's coming.

The fourth trend is extreme BYOD, which sounds more dangerous than it is. I've worked with schools and teachers who spend a lot of time yelling at kids about earbuds and phones. Yikes. Kids are bringing their stuff. I've seen some pretty banged up smartphones, but kids still use them to listen to their music and text. Smartphones are a reality, people, so let's make use of them. Let them bring their phones and use their phones so we can teach them about how to use them responsibly, but also how they can use those gadgets for something we call learning. When we invite kids to download free apps, maybe a few VR and AR apps, maybe a few math and reading apps, just maybe they'll figure out ways to use them for something other than music and texting. Like creating some pretty amazing video with audio that demonstrates their learning in a way that makes sense to them. We've got to be thinking forward even as we work in the present.

The last trend is transmedia, which makes sense to me. BYOD + AR/VR + whatever other stuff we bring to the classroom and invite kids to bring to their learning experience makes it transmedia. Do I want kids to be able to write a coherent paragraph? You bet. But if they want to create a video to show me what they've learned about the different types of cells, they have to write a script. I'll take the video plus the script as their learning products. And then I'll have evidence--and data--that makes their learning and their thinking very visible. And then I'll be encouraging them to continue to develop skills in ways that promote and refine their interests.

Educators who embrace the possibilities are going to have a far greater impact on students. I'm not saying we get widgety and tech-focused for every single lesson for every single student. There are some more old-fashioned strategies we may have to employ for some skills and for some lessons. But integrating technology in pure, seamless, and meaningful ways has got to become a higher priority for many of our teachers.

The power of these possibilities isn't just for the future. The power of these possibilities is for our classrooms today. Right now.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Drowning in data. But is it useful? [edited]

Take 2. When I published this blog post the first time, I included a story of a helicopter parent situation I experienced. I wanted it to be a nice lead-in but it was mostly because I liked the story about misguided parental expectations. The fact is, though, that college professors are somewhat protected from helicopter parents because most of their students are over 18 and, therefore, adults. Not so much K-12 teachers who, because of all kinds of digital resources, can share with detail and immediacy nearly every moment of every child's classroom day. That is, to be, a nightmare in the making.

There are several challenges to having too much data, and this is not a recent development. It's probably been a decade since I was talking with a friend who was explaining wearily the work she had to do aggregating, disaggregating, and reaggregating data. Why? Data-driven instruction to inform student learning and achievement.

I've talked to teachers recently who say they have far too much data and they have no idea what to do with most of it so they ignore it. Would it be helpful to know how long it took students to answer algebra problems? Yes, it could be. But knowing that it took Student A 7.2 seconds to answer the question while it took Student B nearly 3 minutes to answer the same question is only part of the data picture. Sure, the more data I have the more specific a profile I have of that student, but what if Student B took nearly 3 minutes to answer the question that day because she'd had a fight with her best friend earlier and that was on her mind?

As noted in this article, "What's At Risk When Schools Focus Too Much on Student Data?", an overabundance of data encourages the helicopter parent in the worst possible ways but could also numb students to possibilities. By the same token, because there is much that raw data cannot measure, we run the risk of missing what's really important.

I think we also run the risk of data fatigue. Let's say one of my typically better students has an off day and I'm able to talk with him for a few minutes. He shrugs a lot and answers in non-committal monosyllables. If I know this student at all well, that is data and could signal potential problems that influence his ability to learn. What if the off day shows up in an assessment that is part of the dashboard? What if every time we look at that dashboard we see that off-day grade that serves as a reminder of whatever caused that off day?

There is value in data; I'm not disputing that. At some point, a group of educators at a school need to sit down and do an audit of all of the data they are gathering and figure out what's really useful and what's really helpful and to what extent. Then they have to resist the temptation to codify that information, but to share it with their colleagues and have an open conversation about the data that seems to provide the most value for most teachers and then determine the best way to supplement and amplify that data for the student so the student understands the progress of that student's achievement.

Then, if there are student-teacher conferences, the student could actually participate in the conversation about what he is doing and what he think he needs to improve or continue to grow. When teachers meet with parents, the student could again be part of the conversation to explain things to the parental units and to let those parents/guardians understand what the student believes she needs to improve or continue to grow.

Without context or focus, data is just data and of little use to anyone. And too much data is just too much data.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

When is Math More Than Math?

It's not really a trick question. Math is always more than math. Because it's also reading, problem solving, creative thinking, and yes, computational thinking.

Last week I was working with some high school students who were working on some test review problems. As an aside, what is with these people who are writing horrible test and test review questions? Do they have to go through some special training to learn how to write questions that only reinforce students' belief that math has no relevance to their lives? Okay, I'm stepping away from the rant.

Anyway, I was working with students who were working on some math problems. They sighed as they read the first problem. Yes, it was a stupid question so they were immediately frustrated by the stupidity of the question. So I told them, "Yes, the problem is stupid but the math is not, so let's break it down." Computational thinking.

Sure, this is a skill we try to teach all students. How to figure how what is relevant and what is not. How to read between the lines to figure out what is being asked of them. How to figure out when to add, subtract, multiple, or divide. How to make connections between the domain-specific language and other vocabulary. Yea, this is a lot.

So we backed up to review the table and the words in the problem. That's when I had an "Aha!" moment. They didn't know how to read the table. They didn't understand the relationship between the rows and the columns or what each represented. So we backed up a bit more.

Then I drew bad pictures to represent what the problem was asking them to do. Then they started drawing pictures because they were still struggling to figure out the very simple math they were being asked to do. And then, as we working on the second row, one student noticed the pattern. That fast she saw it and filled out the rest of the table without doing the math. She was exasperated when I asked her to explain how she knew what to do, but then she saw how excited I was that she'd discovered this thing and I wanted her to explain it to her friends, in Spanish if that was easier. Heads nodded.

Okay, back to the table so we can figure out the next part of the problem. "Miss, what's the point?"

Ahh, the enduring question. The wrong answer was so they could pass the standardized test. Then I asked if any of them worked in retail. Heads nodded accompanied by groaning. I asked how many of them had to do inventory. More groaning and nodding. So we spent a few minutes talking about why stores do inventory and how inventory data can influence if they stock more blue shirts than green ones. They shrugged.

"What happens if the store orders too many green shirts when people really wanted blue ones?"

"The store has to put those green shirts on sale."

"Right. Which means they might not make back the money they spent which means they might not make a profit or which means they might not have enough money to pay you."

Now I had their attention and now we could talk about how creating a table to graph actual sales is important. If only the math test prep people created questions that connected to what kids are doing and learning in real life and the hard way. Maybe then the kids would see how math matters.

But let's get back to when math is more than math because math is more than math because, as I said, it's reading, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and more. And it makes me laugh and annoyed when many of us say we're not "math people." I'm guilty of it myself but the reality is that math is part of much of what I do, in work or otherwise. Every. Single. Day.

I like math. I don't love math and I have no desire to understand higher level mathematics like trigonometry and such but I know it has a purpose and I'm grateful for those who like it, love it, do it.

When I do some research on how we see math, I'm dismayed. We have created a culture to think math is some onerous "other" loved only by math nerds. We talk with some condescension or disparagement, depending on our point of view, about math vocabulary as though art, music, dance, and architecture, among many others, don't have their own vocabulary. We talk about math literacy (and science literacy) as though it's too hard for kids. But if kids can learn how read sheet music--and not just the notes, they can learn operational symbols. If kids can learn adagio, they can learn inequalities. If kids can learn the language of music and dance, they can learn the language of math. We have to learn how to teach it as though it's not a chore, but part of a larger movement of a fantastic symphony of this thing we call life. And that from an English major who became a computer programmer/systems analyst and is a full-on tech geek.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Computational Thinking: New, but Not New

Remember how the ads changed as people walked by electronic displays in Minority Report (2002)? I remember being a little creeped out by that. And yet, a mere 14 years later, that kind of data analysis is possible as are those kinds of ads displays.

You thought it was pretty cool, or pretty creepy, when Amazon could make recommendations for purchases based on what you'd just bought. Or enticed you by telling you what other people bought when they bought whatever you'd just added to your cart. Peer pressure in shopping. What do they know that I don't?

What's behind those two very straightforward examples? Big data. Lots and lots and LOTS of data. Floods of data. All being crunched and analyzed by algorithms, and then further crunched and analyzed by the people who decide will appeal most to your data profile. Cool, and creepy.

The more we know about big data and its ongoing influences, the better. That's true. In spite of, or perhaps because of how uncomfortable it might make some of us. However, the fact that big data is not going anywhere underscores even more the importance of computational thinking.

You can figure out the gist of computational thinking by breaking down its name: computational + thinking. Maybe it makes you think people are expecting kids to learn how to think like computers. Hmmm, not exactly because, after all, computers are being trained to think like humans. However, without getting too weird, yes, in some ways, computational thinking is streamlined thinking and may seem a little too concrete for some. I think, however, perspective has a lot to do with it.

There are some who believe that computational thinking is the skill of the 21st century, and it could be. The folks at Queen Mary, University of London define computational thinking this way:
. . . a collection of diverse skills to do with problem solving that result from studying the nature of computation. It includes some obviously important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain, and team work. It also consists of some very specific problem solving skills such as the ability to think logically, algorithmically, and recursively. It is also about understanding people.
Some time ago I was asked if I knew anyone who might help with a data analysis project. I took a deep breath because this sounded boring to me, but then I was told the project was to analyze data for what wasn't there. Say what? In other words, not looking for specific patterns and trends in the data, but looking for what wasn't in the data. I found that immensely interesting though I couldn't imagine being the one to do the work. Still, the question of what don't you see stayed with me.

But let's get back to computational thinking.
In other words, I think many of us have already been doing what is now called "computational thinking." The adjective "computational" that gets added reinforces the fact the ways we can use technology to complement, reinforce, undergird, supplement, amplify, anchor, and scaffold our thinking and our work.

Perhaps it might also remind us how interconnected our learning can be. That what we learn in science or math can often contribute to what we are able to do in ELA and social studies.

My friend Lori Feldman is a special needs educator and she's been talking about computational thinking for several years now.  This chart from a Google class on computational thinking shows the relationship of computational thinking and subject areas that are not computer science. I've no doubt we could come up with lots of examples for each of the concepts and many related in the same subject area. For example, analyzing a character could be "recognize and find patterns or trends." I've no doubt musicians, dancers, architects, graphic designers, poets, gardeners, and many others could find applications for each of these computational thinking concepts, too.

The point is computational thinking is not new and, most importantly, it's relevant in areas other than computer science.

Even more importantly, computational thinking is a skill we have to integrate in our teaching as teachers and one we have to help our students develop and refine.