Thursday, June 25, 2009

Are Digital Textbooks a Catalyst?

In 2005, The Vail School District in Vail, AZ substituted laptops for textbooks in Vail's first 1-to-1 high school (link). Superintendent Calvin Baker oversaw the change and his district now had the freedom to purchase digital content the way he purchased digital music. The 1-to-1 program allowed teachers to surf the Internet, find interesting content, and only download what they need. Teachers found it easy to adapt their "playlists" to state standards. This more malleable content has great potential for individualzied learning and will work well with curriculum design methodologies like Understanding by Design (UbD) .

The move away from textbooks has put the district back into control of its curriculum. Baker noted that there is more creativity and collaboration, "I thought that when we implemented Beyond Textbooks, teachers would go out and find the 'music', so to speak, that they needed and share it with their peers," he says. "The phenomenon that has occurred is that a significant amount of teachers are saying, 'All that stuff that's already out there is pretty good, but I'm going to write my own.' They're actually creating their own music. They're writing it, they're uploading it, and teachers all over the district now can use it." This blog discusses some creative ways to have a paperless classroom (link)

The ability to work together has inspired teachers to take more ownership of the curriculum. The district built curriculum guides in Apple iCal and each unit has a link to a wiki page. Both are dynamic and support RSS subscriptions for change notification. Kelly Creasy, a fifth grade teacher at Vail's Ocotillo Ridge Elementary School has seen her peer network grow since she began posting. "Normally you just have the other teachers here at your site, and occasionally if you're on a committee or if you're at a meeting at the district office, you might touch base with other teachers in your grade level, but that's such a rare occurrence," she says. "Now you're finding out names; I know other teachers because of what they've posted on the Beyond Textbooks site. I've gotten e-mails from other teachers saying that they liked what I posted and wondering if I had anything else. I've started to form partnerships with other teachers, sending materials back and forth."

Inverting the Curriculum
Before the 1-to-1 and digital textbooks programs, Vail was like most other school districts in that they tried to shoehorn textbooks and supplemental materials into state standards. Now, Vail inverts the curriculum by starting with the desired outcome and working backwards. Vail CIO Matt Federoff says, "We were working backward. We started with what we had and then tried to make it work. We realized that what we should do is start with the standards, and use the standards to then select our content."

Textbooks 2.0
Textbooks are squarely in the cross hairs of educational reform. Students dislike them because of their weight. Teachers realize that new editions are slow to evolve - other than a few new pictures. The notion of the textbook is outdated. Their manufacture is rooted in ideas from the industrial revolution. Why does a student need to carry around a whole year of content? Teachers should be leveraging the incredible amount of educational content on the web. This is a great opportunity to find deeper, more conceptual material and real world application. Moreover, teachers should be starting to create their own content or mashups of other sources.

OpenSouce Movement
There is a groundswell of movement towards open source textbooks. At the very least, textbooks written using web2.0 technologies can be updated frequently and incorporate ideas from diverse sources - including teachers and students. This would be a boon for Creative Commons (link), who seek to foster orderly sharing of ideas when profit is not the motive. (link) built a whole website because, "we are dissatisfied with the large expensive art history textbook. We find that they are difficult for many students, contain too many images, and just are not particularly engaging". FLexr (link) provides a content repository where teachers can customize their own textbook with open source content from multiple sources. See my Delicious bookmarks for related links (link)

California recently gave a boost to the open source movement when it formed the California Open Source Textbook Project (COSTP) to combat their spending of $400 million on textbooks annually. COSTP is a collaborative, public/private undertaking that is trying to create broad distribution of existing K-12 "open source" resources. This takes social networking and brings it to the textbook industry. Why should textbooks be immune to a Web2.0-type movement?

Open source textbooks could pave the way for collaboration between teachers and eventually allow students into the design of their own curriculum (key aspect of lifelong learning). It has the potential to lower expenses, reduce back problems, and foster better content. I believe that teachers working together - across schools - will produce higher quality content and more thoughtful lesson plans. Kelly Creasey underscores this point, "I know other teachers because of what they've posted on the Beyond Textbooks site. I've gotten e-mails from other teachers saying that they liked what I posted and wondering if I had anything else. I've started to form partnerships with other teachers, sending materials back and forth." If teachers are able to design their own content - every year - then they will likely avoid the trap of marching through the year to the "content coverage" drum beat.

Image used under CC license (link)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Write, Draw, Act, and Build

We recently has a consultant conduct a professional development workshop focused on differentiated instruction. Our move to a block schedule next year will make it possible to drive deeper into topics and do more engaging activities. Trying to reach every student involves more flexibility in the medium used for activities, curriculum, and assessments.

We did an excellent activity where each teacher ranked our preference for doing an activity involving drawing, acting, writing, and building. First, we did a simple history activity where we had to use our least favorite medium. We were paired with other people of the same interest levels. Then, we repeated the activity using our most favorite medium. My least favorite was acting and my least favorite was building.
It is interesting to note that the likes and dislikes were evenly spread. This means that when you pick one for your class, you are only addressing a minority of the students! It was a great way to empathize with a wider range of students. I also discovered mediums that my students may like, but I ignore because of my own personal preferences. Here are a few important ah-ha's:
  • During the activity that I liked least, our group planned quite a bit and was collaborative. It was the most fun for me. So, creativity starts with discomfort and time is necessary for creativity.
  • During the activity that I liked most, our group worked more individually. Even though we had a clearer vision before starting, we needed more time to "perfect" our project.
  • The writing activity was the most difficult to do collaboratively.
  • The medium of expression overwhelms content in the projects. This was easily apparent as the content was very trivial and the medium was solely responsible for our enthusiasm.
  • Personal interests and preferences were most easily integrated into the acting medium.
  • Several of the mediums actually encompass other mediums. For example, the writing group started with drawings first as a brainstorming tool. My acting group started with writing to script our project.
These techniques for differentiated instruction have the potential to make deeper connections within students. It is important to keep in mind that some students may still like the "sage on the stage" approach. Large groups can hurt productivity - even when the group likes the activity. Be careful to target groups of around four students. Also be careful when making groups with students of mixed ability levels. Sometimes it works to mix highly achieving students with lesser achieving students and sometimes it is better to have students with similar achievement levels.

The activity sensitized us to the anxiety that students potentially undergo in the class room. It also gave us a range of ideas for activities that may not always spring to mind.

Image used under Creative Commons (link)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Honesty as a 21st Century Skill

I am still working on defining important 21st Century Skills given the changes in global demographics and increasing power of the Internet (see previous post). I came across an article in Long Island Newsday (link) that cited the results from a survey of 30,000 high school students. A whopping 64% of them admitted to cheating at least once in the previous year. Students become adults as seen in a recent poll where only 10% trusted large corporations (link). Honesty should be the first 21st Century skill that we teach our students. I don't blame them because students are a product of society and they have been exposed to examples of dishonesty or unethical behavior from sports, government, and business.

Role Models?
Baseball is still in the midst of a steroids scandal. Although there has been a few suspensions, it looks like baseball is not aggressively trying to restore its reputation. The message students probably hear is that it is acceptable to be dishonest when "everyone else is doing it". Baseball management has not been very aggressive unraveling the layers of deceit.

Business leadership has it fair share of dishonesty. It ranges from several Silicon Valley executives illegally repriced options to outright accounting fraud (link). Although not illegal, there are examples of CEOs feelling overly empowered:
  • Spending $1.2 million decorating their office (see itemized list)
  • Spending $50 million to buy a jet (see article) before public outcry quashed the deal. The ex-CEO of the same company still using company resources for personal junkets (see article) despite being the 843 riches man in the world (see list)

The government should be held to higher standards given that it represents people and partially sets the moral tone for the country. President Obama lost several cabinet appointees because they either didn't pay their taxes or had questionable business practices.
  • Sen. Tom Daschle (nominated to head the Department of Health and Human Services) withdrew because he underpaid his taxes by $140,000 between 2005 and 2007 for a car service used with a business partner (see article).
  • Nancy Killefer (nominated as government performance officer) withdrew her nomination because she had a tax lien on her house for $1000 because she did not pay unemployment taxes for on hired help (see article).
  • Gov. Bill Richardson (nominated for Commerce Secretary) withdrew his nomination because he is under state investigation for corruption (see article). Secretary of Treasury nominee
  • Tim Geithner was confirmed as Secretary of Treasury despite owing $34,000 in back taxes (see article).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the Internet is Powerful

Clay Shirky gave a brief speech that is available on TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). TED was founded in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds with the goal of spreading new ideas. Their brief videos are always though-provoking and it is required viewing for any teaching thinking about 21st Century skills.

The main points are:
  1. The Internet is the first innovation to support all forms of communications simultaneously: one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. Past innovations were more narrowly focused (e.g., telephone, mail, e-mail, etc.)
  2. The Internet is the first medium that is bidirectional. That is, consumers of information can also be producers of information. In his words, "it is like a newspaper coming with its own printing press". Earlier innovations were more broadcast-oriented (e.g., newspaper, radio, etc.)
  3. The Internet is an all encompassing medium. Historically, the major technology and communication innovations were built as stand-alone products that had their own medium. Phones use wires and airwaves. Newspapers and magazines use paper. Movies use film and television uses airwaves. With the advent of the Internet, all forms of information can be part of the same digital medium. This means that the digital boundaries between different types of media are now porous. All types of digital information are just bits of data. Users can define their own unique combinations of media (called mashups). Companies that can provide the mapping links (meta data) between disparate types of information will be among the most powerful.
Clay Shirky also has a book called Here Comes Everybody (link)

Video Follows...

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Connected Classroom

Students need to have technical skills commensurate with a world in which billions of people have computing devices. Suffice to say, information will become even more of a commodity than it is today. Successful students will understand how to find information, analyze it and collaborate with others. This will undoubtedly involve Web2.0 technologies. While there are pitfalls to introducing Web2.0 technologies to students, the benefits far exceed them.

Web2.0 websites are usually not dedicated to educational purposes. As a result, it is easy for students to stray from teacher-directed resources to potentially inappropriate resources. In the pre-Web2.0 world, teachers would give students URLs to relevant class resources. These websites were usually content-oriented with text, multimedia, or visual simulations. Today, teachers should leverage the power of Web2.0 and provide websites for collaboration and analysis.

Digital Scenario
Teacher coordinate resources across website using tags. Consider a teacher that uses free services from Flickr (photos), Slideshare (presentations), Youtube (videos), and Delicious (bookmarks). The teacher could tag the resources to make them easy to find for a particular curricular unit.

The "connected classroom" has multiple discussions occurring at the same time. The teacher has the ability to "tune" into any one of the discussion simply by projecting the relevant website on a screen or Smartboard. Consider having two Smartboards, or at least two LCD projectors. This way the teacher can lead one discussion and students can use the other projector to host peer discussions. The "connected classroom" will likely by dynamic with the teacher promoting important discussions so the whole class can partake. The dynamic nature of the classroom may also be chaotic and so different roles should be established, such as scribe, researcher, leader, editor, inquirer, etc. Students could take turns on different roles to learn an appreciation for all roles - a key aspect of successful collaboration.
  • a "back channel" chat for questions and secondary discussions (see note 1)
  • a collaborative document to capture and preserve findings
  • chat for students working together
  • informal polls for the teacher to check if students are understanding
  • online quizzes to ensure that students are listening and processing the lesson
  • concept maps for thematic overview and connections to other curriculum
In this classroom, there are several online discussions that increase the likelihood that students will connect. In addition, the teacher can use these to spot areas of confusion or areas that deserve primary attention. Once more of the class informal knowledge is captured digitally, then students may be able to work more independently outside of class time. This would lead to the possibility of learning at home instead of home being a place for homework.

Minor Pitfalls
Most web2.0 websites are free or very inexpensive (at least for now). Teachers and students create an account and provide an e-mail address. The vast majority of web2.0 websites are general purpose and not specifically setup for educational purposes. These risk is that students become bored and stray from the teacher-recommended content. The other potential risk is that another member of the website contacts the students directly. In both cases, these are excellent opportunities to teach students how to act appropriately online.

A connected classroom provides more ways to be engaged in class. It also provides more autonomy for students to take control of their learning - and potentially their own assessments. A more digital classroom also has the flexibility to extend beyond the physical classroom and class time. If students have an interest, then they can pick up and contribute to any of the discussion threads on their own.

Image is from Alpha Galileo Research (link)
Note 1 - Twitter is a great back channel. Increase the use of peer comments by making students review other students' posts to make sure a question has not already have been answered. Hopefully, students will spark up conversations and not wait for the teacher to be the only one answering questions.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Best Software You are Not Using

Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) is an open-source e-learning tool that is well-suited to the a web2.0 classroom. It is capable of supporting a range of pedagogical approaches. It is also a hub for activities where teachers can see what other teachers are doing and adapt activities to their own class. Today, LAMS is a browser-based system, but it will likely run on iPhones in the near future.

The system provides frequent feedback to students - either automatically or from the teacher. Feedback and the workflow design allows students to move at their own pace and do optional tasks if they are moving faster than other students. The projects tasks can be easily adapted to actual students outcomes. Teachers may refine it with more or less tasks, reflection collaborations, or checkpoints.

LAMS provides the following great features:
  • create multi-step assignment using a visual tool - students see a map that shows the overall project and their progress
  • project steps can provide students different tasks choices - including optional tasks
  • groups can be created either randomly, from a list or based on the score or answer of a previous step
  • "branches" provide for individualized learning as sequences can change based on percent correct, number of attempts, or time to complete task
  • teachers can collect data from students via tables
  • "gates" are checkpoints where students must successfully complete a task before continuing
  • students get a private notebook for reflection
  • students can use websites within the LAMS browser, so it makes the websites seem integrated
  • system tracks which resources have been used by which students
  • students can build an online wiki, spreadsheet and mindmap, as well as, these other tools:
LAMS is an interesting curriculum tool. I have designed a few projects, but have not yet tried them in class. I am anxious to contact people who use it. Here is a list of users and a few reports evaluating LAMS (link)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Deja Vu

I read the following post on Ms. Pohanka's blog called One Student at a Time (link). Everything she said was true of my own experience in Middle School. I am going to keep these observations in mind when I revamp my curriculum this summer. I couldn't say it any better, so I used her words.

1. They like to talk.

  • I think they like to hear the sound of their own voices. They will talk anytime, anywhere about anything. If they raise their hands, ask first what they are going to say. If not, you may be sorry.

2. They rarely are still.

  • They give new meaning to the phrase “movers and shakers”. They can somehow climb into a chair and sit in positions that I didn’t know were even possible. Don’t expect them to sit still for very long; it won’t happen.

3. They eat strange food for breakfast.

  • Seriously, a Mountain Dew Slurpee? I’m not kidding.

4. They are opinionated.

  • They love to argue…about anything. They will need reminders that they don’t have to argue everything that everyone says. If you give them a debate to do as a project in class, they will put that to good use and will learn everything so they can argue.

5. They all have amazing and often unseen talents.

  • Fencing, horseback riding, soccer, music, acting, and more are all things that they can do, and do well. Get to know what they like to do outside of the classroom and you will be shocked at their wide range of interests and talents.

6. They are compassionate.

  • They will ask how your weekend was; they will notice a slight limp and ask how you hurt yourself. They remember everything you tell them about yourself and will bring it up later to your delight.

7. They are 21st Century Learners

  • They get it. They love to collaborate and work together. They get that it makes sense to work to each persons strengths and get the best out of everyone they can. They aren’t afraid of anything you can throw at them that is new. They will figure it out and make it work.

8. They will make you a better teacher if you choose to rise to the occasion.

  • Teaching them is hard if you expect them to be just like all of your other classes. They aren’t like all of your other classes. If you try to put them into that mold, it won’t work. They will drive you crazy. But, if you rise to the occasion and take the time to figure out what works for them, you won’t be sorry. You will be a better teacher.
Classroom picture from Flickr (link)