Final Project Reflection

Maybe it’s a lack of vision. Or perhaps unrealistic implementation. Either way, I have demonstrated yet again that there is a lot to learn from failure. I wanted to leverage technology to create a virtual, multimedia art gallery and while the computer did allow, to some degree, for this to happen, I’m not completely sure that I have achieved anything beyond the level of simple “Adaptation” level of technology integration although the learning characteristics are “Authentic” as “The teacher creates instruction that purposefully integrates technology tools and provides access to information on community and world issues. The teacher directs the choice of technology tools but students use the tools on their own, and may begin to explore other capabilities of the tools.” All of this is according to the Florida Center of Instructive Technology’s website matrix.

The goal was to engage senior IB TOK students in a discussion about the nature and definition of “art”. Students were grouped in pairs or trios around one computer and asked to come up with a “working” definition for art that they could all agree upon. Then they went to the class website and “walked” through the virtual gallery (nothing fancy, just a series of interconnected webpages each with a single or paired work of art. Students were to then “test” their definition against these challenging works to see if they were included or excluded by their initial definition. They were to reflect on each work and make a comment as to how their definition would include or exclude that work and whether they were personally happy with that inclusion/exclusion. Thus they made their way through a variety of mostly avant garde 20th and 21st century art. The benefit of technology in this project was that each student could, as in a real gallery, stop and take as much time as they wanted to look at and discuss the works. But more importantly, technology allowed for the inclusion of multimedia that would be difficult to do without at least some laptops spread around the room.  If this were simply done with 2 dimensional works of photographs of two dimensional works then a whole section of the lesson would have been abandoned.

That beings said, I don’t think, in the end, the entire lesson was a success.  Students were very heatedly engaged, but the really dynamic conversations occurred face-to-face rather than in the comment section.  While as a teacher this makes me question the value of the activity as constructed, it did demonstrate what I think is so fundamental about who we are as human beings.  When engaged with challenging, thought provoking material, face-to-face beats mediated communication every time.  While I had the urge to discourage (and thus sacrifice) the organic, dynamic conversations that were happening, I resisted it as despite the effort I had put into planning, what was naturally arising was the authentic student learning I would be stifling with an insistence on slavish engagement with the technology.

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This has made me think further about what is lost in what seems to be a mad dash by most schools to achieve a 1:1 academic environment.  While I do not doubt that there is immeasurable value in each student having a laptop, I am increasingly convinced that in class, the ratio should never be more than 2:1 with 3:1 being ideal.  My experience over these last four years in a laptop school consistently suggests that the 1:1 ratio can be, in many situations, an authentic conversation killer.  I realize this sounds like I’m banging my Luddite drum but I do not deny the value of appropriately leveraged technology use in the classroom, I simply believe that my lesson served as a potential experimental warning, mostly to myself, of what is lost if we try to construct curriculum to fit the technology rather than vice versa.  I don’t want to claim that COETAIL is, in any way, encouraging a blind insertion of tech into every lesson…most thoughtful proponents are much more nuanced and selective in what tools serve what purposes.  But as I walk around the halls of our 1:1 school, I notice that, for most classes, the laptops are constant, individual, often isolating presences rather than targeted classroom tools used to customized tasks.  Do I have a solution to this?  Not exactly, but I am certainly not averse to having students close their laptops when they are an uncalled for distraction.  Richard Moore has some nice thoughts on the whole classroom management approach to this.

Anyway, the project has been an opportunity to confront some of these ongoing concerns about the double-edged power of the technology.  The lesson plan for the project.

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face-to-face with darwin

What will the classroom of the future look like. With MOOCs, iTunes University, and other surrogate content providers changing the nature of how information moves, the classroom will need to be different. I certainly believe flipping will be a major component of the future. But the teacher will only be obsolete if they make themselves so. I’ve become convinced that face-to-face interaction is hardwired into our social genetics as suggested by Patricia Kuhl’s work on infant language acquisition. You can see her TEDTalk below, but the key component is that when 10 month old-babies were offered language instruction in a 2nd language, there was zero effect if done via audio or video recording (Take that, Baby Einstein!). But direct, human, face-to-face engagement had profound effects on learning. The neurological response was equivalent to the children native to that language. This gives hope that education will not simply be downloadable and teachers anachronistic. Evolution has programmed sociability into our genes; no technological nurturing will radically alter our inherent nature to seek and thrive from interaction with one another.

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consistent but not coherent

Could I function in my classroom without my computer?  I don’t think so.  I use it every day, all day, in every class.  All my materials are digital (and so far I have only printed 120 sheets of paper for my 85 students in just over a month of school).  This means that I’m on trajectory to use about a ream of paper by the end of the semester (although the requisite written exams might push me over the top!)  Every class is centered around a Google Site where all resources are available and organized unit by unit, lesson by lesson.

But this only describes MY use of technology in the classroom. My students all have laptops but I must admit that my engaging them through their laptops is consistent but not coherent.  I communicate with my students, distribute files and have them work collaboratively on shared documents analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing various digital sources of information into their own products.  But despite all of this, I can’t claim to have any clear method to my madness.  Everything is ad hoc.  While I have some consistent approaches I don’t imagine my students would be able to discern a coherent philosophy of technology integration from their experience in my class.  Es gibt keine gestalt.

So where am I?  How do I proceed?  What are my next steps?  Not unlike my own efforts, the advice or input I get about how to integrate is similarly consistent but not coherent (i.e. it does connected in an intentionally meaningful way).  I mean no offense to the many wonderful and dedicated people I work with, I simply don’t feel as if there is a clear and consistent message about what it means for a classroom.  I get tons of wonderful suggestions for cool new features, products and programs (excited to learn more about Wix (thanks, Robb) and 11trees (thanks, Dan), both of which I was turned on to today and think they hold great promise.  However, each of those suggestions represent another beautiful tree in this lovely technological forest, but as the old adage goes, I need to start to see the forest for the trees.

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on losing one’s footing momentarily

Without a doubt, the single most revolutionary idea I have heard in nearly 20 years of teaching is the flipped classroom (reverse instruction) model. Embodied in any “revolution” is the promise and terror of that word. Destruction and Recreation all at once. Om, Shiva!

Ugh!!!  I just lost four paragraphs!!!!!  Technology giveth and technology taketh away!!!!

Alan November was the first to introduce the concept to me at the EARCOS Conference in Manila two plus years ago.  I remember him showing YouTube clips of an MIT Physics professor (I think) who had somewhat flipped his undergraduate Physics classes to have lectures away from class and problem solving practice in class.  The benefit, pedagogically speaking, allowed for students to be monitored in their practice rather than in their initial introduction to the concept.  At first this sounded perhaps six-of-one-half-dozen-the-other but the neurological component was huge.  The traditional model of introductory lecture followed by repetitive reinforcement through homework problems worked adequately when the concept was clearly and correctly understood by the students but as was often the case with challenging material, when students misunderstood a concept, repetitive reinforcement was hugely counter-productive with students establishing neural connections on how to incorrectly solve the problem.  The repetition and the time between misconception and correction (even if it was only 24 hours) was sufficient to require an even longer time and greater effort to get the students to unlearn what they had incorrectly enshrined in their neural network.  Clearly, the traditional method had its flaws.

With reverse instruction, the content delivery shifts and the conceptual, dendritic point of contact occurs under the watchful eye of the instructor.  The benefit is that incorrect approaches or bad habits are caught before they have a chance to be reinforced so that realigned students can build effective and long-lasting neural pathways to understanding and not, like our beloved streets here in Taipei, be paved and then torn back up section by section the next day.

This promise is all well and good, but the prospect of radically overhauling ones practice requires not only a herculean effort in terms of revision of curriculum and pedagogical paradigm, but also demands the sort of “leap of faith” of which Kierkegaard spoke.  And I don’t think its too far off to wax evangelical about this shift.  This stuff is revelatory.  What Alan November spoke of and Brian Bennett has experienced is a sort of pedagogical promised land.  And there seems to be no greater sin than to have seen the truth and then turn one’s back on it.  But it requires a leap of faith for as John Sowash says, “Now that you’ve freed up class time, you need to use it productively. This can be a challenge. You’ve spent all of your time and energy developing your lectures and now you don’t have the time/energy to develop new, innovative, interactive classroom activities. This is where I need to improve. It takes a while!

So that is the revolutionary crossroads; the proverbial road less traveled.  I’ve got to say with two new courses this year, two small children and too few hours of sleep, it’s oh so tempting to say , “next year.”  But as old Søren liked to say, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”  So here’s to at least trying to lose my footing, however momentarily.

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180 Degree Turn at 8,000rpm

I have been thinking about the semantic debate that Jennifer has noted regarding the descriptors of “integrate”, “embed” and her addition, “camouflage” as ways of “infusing” (ISTE language) technology into education.  The constructivist underpinnings of this desire to empower students with the tools to make meaning are noble and encouraging, but I continue to struggle with what all too often feels like “integration” in what Jeff rightly deems an awkward bionic-retrofitting of technology to a pre-IT paradigm.  Perhaps this is why I have such a hard time conceiving of the meta-cognitive meaning of integration/embedding/camouflaging/infusing.  Perhaps what is required is less time spent on technology and more on radical curriculum reconstruction.  I think of ways in which my current knowledge of technology might inform the way I might re-conceive the very practice in which I’ve become so/too well trained a la Gladwell.  But to this end I really feel I’ve only seen fleeting glimpses of a Brave New curricular World.  Our Google Hangout’d guest, Brian Bennett, in the last COETAIL session has clearly been to the proverbial mountaintop and seen the future.  I fear my age and “practice” has made it more difficult for me to follow him there but I do want to be “saved” from my current wretched state (sorry, got a little too MLK there).  I think the “flipped classroom” and “reverse instruction”suggest the 180 degree shift that is required and this while still running in the previous direction at 8,000rpm (this is type-A Taipei!).  It’s a daunting task but one that I hope could be done in a piecemeal unit-by-unit fashion (which I realize it the exact task of this course)…if not, a sabbatical is in order!

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NETS for Dummies

I honestly don’t know. I find most talk of IT integration to be alternately high-minded and clueless. What is one to make of “Model Digital Age Work and Learning” if the meaning of these terms is still open for debate? We’re currently working at a school that has eagerly gulped down the 1:1 Digital Kool-Aid and now everyone 6-12 has a laptop, but I still wonder if we’re not all carrying around what Alan November called $2,000 pencils. Despite all the best intentions of all constituencies, I can’t point to a single, meaningful discussion about what this all means that the school has had either pre or post laptop. Perhaps our former IT director, Russell L. said it best when he suggested that technology was as much an inherent and indefensible “good” as books in a library. Books are the tools of traditional literacy as computers et al are the tools of digital literacy. But that still doesn’t make it any clearer what we work and learning we are to be modelling.

I consider myself reasonably technically adept (all my courses are on websites I’ve constructed; classes contribute to blogs and Diigo communal bookmarking; my classroom is virtually paperless) and yet I have no idea what I’m “modelling” to my students with regards to the Digital Age! I do focus on critical analysis and thinking skills, especially with regards to media, but much of that seems to predate the “Digital Age” so can I claim this focus just carries over and now I simply model these same analytical skills on a laptop, using an LCD projector and YouTube? That seems somehow less than what I was hoping this whole “Digital Age” would offer us and yet we’re now in Course 4 and I’m no closer to seeing the digital light. Perhaps we’re just all too close to it. Perhaps this is the plight of those living during a paradigm shift…they have no perspective from which conceive of just what is shifting and where it is shifting to. Very few understood the shifts in science, math, music and art that occurred in the first decades of the 20th century as they had no vantage point on the shift. Perhaps we, too, cannot imagine the world we are in the process of creating. I honestly don’t know.

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Dead Man Walking

For several years now I have shown the 1995 film Dead Man Walking to my students towards the end of our unit on ethics. We’ve already discussed the ethical theories espoused by Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Kant and Mill and as I know most are heading to the US for university, I ask if they know if their new “home state” has the death penalty. I often laugh as some of them begin to realize that UC Berkeley, Dartmouth, Yale and UPenn not only offer great undergraduate experiences, but also the potential for lethal injection! I’m cruel, I know!

While the film always generates great and heated discussion as it quite adeptly walks the tightrope between the two sides and graphically demonstrates that there are no easy answers to be had, I have begun to realize that there is a visual literacy aspect I could add to the proceedings. Granted, I have now watched this film a dozen times so it’s not surprising I’ve picked up on things that most people don’t get in a first viewing (unless they’re film students).

This year, I prefaced the showing by asking them to watch the relationship between the two main characters, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), especially as they interact in the prison scenes. When the film is finished, and after we’ve had the usual post-mortem discussions on the death penalty, I turn their attention to that initial prompt and ask them what they noticed. I then give small groups digital access to 21 screen shots from the film and ask them to put them into a PowerPoint in chronological order. This isn’t too difficult as there are cues and they have just finished the film. Once they have the 21 in order, I ask them to look over them and as a group, see if they can see what story has been told simply through the images.

I ask them if they can determine, through the 21 images alone, which side of the issue the filmmaker, Tim Robbins, is likely on. This puts them in the position of assembling data, analyzing and then synthesizing it into a single argument about the subtle but clear bias of the filmmaker. There are some techniques of light, shadow, pov, etc. that when stripped of all the other aspects of the film start to become clear when they see these images in stark contrast.

Sean Penn’s character moves gradually from dark, oblique, caged animal (in contrast to Sarandon’s white, direct human) to a light, direct human being as he’s being walked to his execution. The point of view shifts from Sarandon’s side of the screen to split-screen to Penn’s side as our allegiances shift as well. Similarly, the actual venues for their meetings shift from cage to glass to direct contact.

In a final step, I ask groups to choose which one of the 21 images best embodies the essence of the entire film. Which single image tells the entire story…if you know how to “read” it correctly.

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Going, Going, Gone

Evolution has programmed us for visual acuity, especially when it comes to movement. Listening has never triggered our reptilian fight or flight alertness as any lecturing teacher with any self-awareness has known.

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And as our students are increasingly weaned on hyper-kinetic levels of movement, we must acknowledge this and differentiate accordingly.  The recent footage of VP Biden dozing off during Obama’s recent budget speech is just a funny, cross-generational reminder of the need for visuals to access our Darwinian interest levels.  Colbert makes light of it here, and Biden’s probably sleeping because he’s 68 and it’s past his bedtime or he thinks he’s on the train back to Wilmington, but there is a reason why USA Today is America’s most popular daily newspaper in the US.  It is keenly aware of the visual nature of its audience.


CNN just published an article that says as much for infographics as a whole new medium of communication.

“Today, visualization has the potential to become a mass medium. Engagement — grabbing and keeping the attention of a viewer — is the key to its broader success. The clearest, most precise graphic in the world communicates nothing if nobody looks at it…

The best kind of visualization, like the best kind of story, is one you can relate to. Ask yourself: can users see themselves? A 2009 New York Times feature showed a graph of unemployment — including not just averages, but letting readers highlight trends by gender, age, education. The title? “The Jobless Rate for People Like You.”

This kind of interaction puts the “you are here” dot in the visualization, orienting viewers and letting them add their own context. (“Aha, so my unemployed 20-year-old sister isn’t the only one.”) By offering personalized entry points, a visualization turns into a mirror. And we all know people love mirrors!”

The article also mentions the fabulous representations of this type of data presentation from Hans Rosling at TED.  If you’ve never seen these, check them out in order so you can be blown away by his extra special, attention-getting finale in talk #2.

We have to focus on leveraging the innate visual acuity of our students to aid their deeper understanding rather than bemoan the speed with which they become bored of 20th century static stand and deliver modes of education.

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Teaching Visual Literacy

I have taught a unit on media literacy within TOK for several years now.  While the IB doesn’t include visual literacy in the TOK diagram and syllabus, it is such an essential application of critical thinking in today’s highly mediated world.  Neil Postman, of whom I have written about before, is our key text for this unit but one of the most powerful warm-up exercises that gets students very clearly focused on issues of propaganda, juxtaposition and manipulation is this great little 60 second commercial from Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Honestly, it’s such a perfect piece you could teach the entire unit on it and it alone.

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Generally, I have students watch the clip twice before saying anything.  Then, I assign them a focal area, either text, images, sounds, or juxtapositions/contrasts.  Each group then watches the clip again paying particular attention to their focal area.  Groups then dissect the piece together extracting the key elements of their area and then lead the class (sometimes frame by frame) through an analysis of the piece from their perspective.  Once every group has presented, I ask them who they think produced this, why and when.  They speculate and then I ask them to go online and answer those questions.

It generally doesn’t take them long to realize that Competitive Enterprise Institute is a “thinktank” that is heavily sponsored by Exxon Mobile and that this piece was run on US national television in prime time the week prior to the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  This is usually sufficient to open up lots of discussion about propaganda.

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Death by PowerPoint

I first heard about Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen book from our IT Director at school.  He leant it to me and I read it cover to cover in a single sitting…that’s not so impressive as it’s got a lot of pictures and “negative space.”  It is one of those bellweather books that represents (hopefully) a paradigm shift from the traditional “Death by PowerPoint” to a thoughtful, brain-research supported infusion of digital literacy into the classroom.


Of course, PowerPoint of any kind can serve as a glorified lecture bell and whistle, but if used correctly in the service of stories and promoting multi-modal links to student learning styles.  But Reynold’s book is more than simply a book about PowerPoint or Keynote presentations and like Zen itself, has an aesthetic sensibility to accompany and compliment the philosophy it espouses.  The book can be read simply as an ode to creative construction in an era where design and delivery are increasingly the coins of the realm.

My father used to work in the marketing department of the food division of Proctor & Gamble back in the 1970s; it was the heyday of the JIF, Pringles, Crisco and Duncan Hines brands.  Recently, reminiscing about that time I told my father I still carried a level of brand-loyalty for those P&G items and was surprised when my father informed me that P&G had shed those marquee products over the past twenty years so that none of them were produced by P&G anymore.  Beyond the surprise, I was curious why P&G would have dumped these household names that companies spend millions of dollars to develop.  He told me that he started to see the writing on the wall even back in the mid-70s when executives kept asking about the “-er” factor in the products; by “-er” factor, they meant “bigger”, “better”, “faster”, “cleaner”, “flakier”, etc.  These “-er” factors were what manufacturers developed to distinguish their product from the competition.  Back in the early part of the 20th century you could find an “-er” factor to exploit and gain market share against your competitor.  However, by the 1970s, the R&D and production methods used by all the major multinationals all but eliminated the “-er” factor.  JIF wasn’t really any different than Skippy.  Duncan Hines had no “-er” on Betty Crocker.  There was nothing left to develop and thus no new marketshare to exploit…beyond design and in a low-cost item like peanut butter or cake mix, there was no shinier box or logo that would really alter the playing field.  And without that “-er” factor, the brand was stuck and from a stock standpoint, offered no potential value.  Thus, over the course of 20 years, P&G sold off these once marquee brands.

My point here is that what happened with P&G’s food division has happened across the board in modern corporate manufacturing, there really is no “-er” factor that a computer company or software company can offer that truly improves their product over their nearest competitors.  Nobody really claims that Coke and Pepsi; Nike and Adidas; or Apple or PC are wildly different offerings…well, except maybe Apple devotees.  They will each get you more or less the same thing.  What Coke, Nike and Apple seem to have taken the upper hand with is design; whether technical or marketing.  None of these companies market their product, they market an ethos [Just do it!], a philosophy [Coke adds life!], an outlook [iLife to iEverything].  The Onion made fun of this very thing years ago with a hysterical piece entitled “Nike to Cease Manufacturing Products” with the piece going on to say “Citing creative confinement and a desire to focus exclusively on what it does best, the Nike Corporation announced Monday it will cease manufacturing athletic shoes and other sports-related merchandise in order to devote itself fully to the creation of state-of-the-art television advertisements.”

We live in an age where design has become the leverage point for success.  There were dozens of mp3 players but only one iPod.  There are literally hundreds of cell phones but only one (well, now four) iPhones.  They are immediately recognizable and infinitely preferably to all others.  This is true, too, of a post-Presentation Zen PowerPoint.  Once you have seen the design approach, the aesthetics of message crafting you can’t go back to anything else.  Once you’ve seen an Apple, everything else just pales.  Once you’ve recognized that Zen is the only way to PPT.

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