Computers and Computational Thinking – A “throwback” to the future of thinking

The more I read about computational thinking, the more it seems to me to be mis-named. It is abundantly clear to me that critical/analytical/process-oriented thinking is required in any task/lesson/unit plan that utilizes the schema of computational thinking. But the “computational” part always conjures up in mind an image of a “computer” – which reduces it all to a physical piece of hardware and distracts from the essence, which I believe is the thought processes and dispositions of the 21st century learner. I am amused that the learner dispositions are described so broadly while the label is such a “throwback”!

In fact, computational thinking is often described in such an expansive way as to almost suggest that any kind of problem can be solved by applying this kind of thinking. An article written last year by Elizabeth Jones of the University of California raises this very point. Computational thinking, she suggests, simply encourages people to approach problem-solving as a process, as a series of steps to be taken in the effort to reach a solution. Put this way, I am similarly tempted to ask what makes this mode of thinking particularly unique or particularly computer-based.

I would also argue, alongside Jones, that there are nevertheless and indeed some kinds of thinking that preclude a process-oriented approach – particularly a moral dilemma or a question of personal values, or even something that requires a fair degree of creativity and personal opinion, such as the writing of this blog. Decisions that I am making about my writing are based on principles such as what I want to get out of this experience, what I want my reader to take away from it. And, simply, what sounds subjectively “just right” to me.

Even so, I believe I can, after all, get past the apparently illogical labeling and appreciate computational thinking as a new, 21st century style of critical thinking when theComputer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) exhorts me to consider these unique factors:

  • Computational thinking IS more tool-oriented.
  • While our human brains can perform as powerful problem-solvers, we have the power to enhance this performance with computers and various digital tools.
  • “The solution to a problem can usually be carried out by a human or machine, or more generally, by combinations of humans and machines.
  • And we all need to understand how, when, and where computers and other digital tools can help us solve problems, and we all need to know how to communicate with others who can assist us with computer-supported solutions.”

Basically, I am being challenged to re-consider “problem-solving” and how it can be served with different kinds of overlapping thinking such as logical, algorithmic thinking, as well as logical and systems thinking, parallel thinking, compositional reasoning, pattern matching, procedural thinking, and recursive thinking. If computational thinking is a handy “catch-all” label for this impressive list, then I can certainly roll with it.

Indeed, in my final project, I have explicitly listed IT and Computational Thinking skills/dispositions alongside one another on my grading sheet. This will definitely draw some blanks from the students in my Grade 8 history classes – which means I can start this conversation once again – from the top. So, step 1….!

Beyond Management of the Machine

Management of the 1:1 lap top situation in my classroom is not a big deal for me anymore, I’m relieved to say. Don’t get me wrong – it is certainly on my mind. All the time, in fact! I do have to plan out my lessons, thinking in terms of grouping together the computer work, so students aren’t powering up and down through a 45 minutes lesson, which would lose me valuable time.  I use DyKnow Monitor and students know I may be watching them. It’s a wonderful deterrent, despite the lag I sometimes experience. And probably my most frequent management strategy is directing the students to “put your lap top to sleep” or simply “turn the lap top around to face me” so that it doesn’t pose a distraction as I’m giving instructions or presenting a mini-lesson.

What does endlessly fascinate me, however, is all the amazing things we can do with the lap tops – teachers, students, ordinary people in all walks of life  – to simply our personal organization. Here are a few of the tools I have been exploring recently.

Thanks to our IT Director, I have migrated from a simple “snipping” tool to the more advanced Snagit. This is the king in the world of free tools that our school has included in the teachers’ lap top image. Snagit is an easy screen capture software that comes bundled with Camtasia Studio Pro so teachers can create screencasts, training documents, etc.

Compared to our other clunky Windows-associated Snipping Tool, this simple screen grab tool has an impressive list of image editing and annotating features. We can simply copy, save, convert, or edit images, but what I really like about it is that it keeps a history of all things “snagged” in the past for easy  recall. They fan out at the bottom very nicely! It’s window, pictured above, looks a little daunting, and might turn some people off at this point. But it shouldn’t send anyone back to the Snipping Tool. It’s easy to add callout boxes, to send via email with a simple cut and paste, but then there are extra dashing features like the addition of a page curl using the image bar. Students don’t have Snagit yet. That’s the only snag :) right now.

Then there’s Dropbox. This kind of cloud-based file back-up is certainly the wave of the future. Our IT department is seriously threatening to shut down our mainshare access at the end of this year, because it is too costly, so they have been investigating alternatives to offer us during this weaning stage. And this option seems pretty cool to me. Simply, files that we used to save on the mainshare, or on our lap top D-drives, will be accessible anyplace anytime. We can leave the machine behind. We can walk out of the building. No little flash stick thumb drive thingy to lose. Usually tragically! No bulky external drive to lug about.

It is a tri-platform tool. All the basic file types – OneNote, Word, Excel, simple images, etc – can be accessed at home by using a web-based portal or a synchronized computer at home. As long as there is an internet connection. I can simply log into and I can get my files instantly. Of course, I can retrieve photos and documents on my iPhone too.

And it’s so easy to use. After installing a Dropbox folder on my computer, files that I save into the folder are automatically saved in the cloud. (For those of us in Asia, that cloud is actually hovering around Singapore, apparently!) It has a very handy “show deleted files” button so you can check back over what you have done – wittingly or unwittingly. You can set it up to sync one way only, to avoid any headaches. And here’s a biggie: the Dropbox people will recover file errors they have made. Now, it is a tool that has been available for some seven years already, so this very powerful, flexible tool seems like a pretty sure thing. The bad news is, for reasons I can’t fathom, it is currently only available for 14-year-olds and up, so that pretty much nixes it for the middle school. It would be perfectly lovely to share a folder with students and thus do so anywhere, anytime. But, for now at least, I will have to continue to rely on the OLC and GApps for file-sharing with students.

Anyway, the first 2G is free. Then there is bonus memory available for inviting friends to join – up to a maximum of 8G. The IT-Director tells me that the school is working on a handsome deal for teachers (because we are being pushed off the mainshare) so we should wait before purchasing for ourselves. But in the meantime I see Dropbox as the long-awaited back-up option for my personal files and photos. Yay!

The funkiest untapped tool I learned about was Evernote. This kind of combines the features of Snagit and Dropbox, allowing the user to capture anything and access it anywhere. The best way to describe it may be as a clipboard for all my thoughts. I can capture a note of simple text, an audio note, an inknote, stuff that I have copy-pasted (e.g. clipping a website – a full page or part of a page, with an annotation option). And I don’t need to worry about pressing “save.” (With my huge reliance on OneNote presently for shared planning and teaming, I have rolled back into bad habits regarding that “save” button!) Everything goes into the cloud, syncing whenever I am online. The list of snippets just goes on growing, a repository of multi-formatted notes whenever I need them.

Actually, Evernote sounds like an organizational nightmare, but the snippets can be filed away into sections, much like OneNote. You can Twitter, Facebook, email, or link the snippets. So it’s like a pumped up StickyNotes (which I have loved, but also loathed because the notes/reminders are then trapped on my desktop). It’s bigger and better than Diigo and Delicious because the user can gather together a greater range of …stuff. Again, 2G is free. The school is investigating an academic version with far greater gig. And, again, its use as a tool for middle schoolers is limited by the 13-years-old-only caveat. Doh! But, in the meantime, I’ll be investigating it for personal use.

Until now, this post has largely ignored my students, because they are just too darn young to be able to use these tools for another  year or so. Therefore, I thought I’d better drop in another tid-bit that is ALL about the students:

This is a cute little concept, one of a number of tools that seeks to blend socializing and studying. It aims to harness the power of Facebook as an online socializing tool – where millions of students are hanging out anyway – and turn its purpose towards study and support. Basically, is an application that turns the social networking site into “study mode.”

While the user remains “inside” Facebook, he or she is moved away from the wall and newsfeed. With a more atypical Facebook prompt, “What are you working on?” students can join live study sessions on that topic, complete with group video-conferencing and/or smart chat. (Smart chart allows students to type in mathematical formulas). Study sessions are saved and archived so students can search for answers in previous sessions. And these study sessions could, conceivably, be used as” virtual office hours” by teachers who are prepared to give help outside of school campus time. (Making this a more attractive option, teachers don’t have to “friend” students to be able to invite them to participate in a study group, and the sessions can be private and therefore not show up in the news feed.)

So, that’s my wrap-up of recent discoveries to enhance lap top use in and beyond the classroom. I am so glad to have that first freaked-out year of 1:1 lap top use under my belt. Yet, even in that first year, once we had the school-wide routines down – the Technology Use Policy (TUP) firmed up; the file-naming protocols sorted; file saving, storage, and sharing figured out; and my own classroom rituals defined – I have been able, for the most part, to move beyond management to enhancement of teaching and learning. Enhancement and exploration of tools, such as these, to make it that much more fun to be doing this teaching gig!

Flippin’ Fantastic

I am both challenged and inspired by the principles of Mastery Learning and the Flipped  Classroom. As the COETAIL cohort video-conferenced (via Google Hangout – move over, Skype!) with Brian Bennett on this topic, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his  incredible personal journey and his insight. Here is a very young teacher who speaks like a seasoned vet, challenging me to re-think my whole approach to teaching. Not just re-think it – REVERSE it! On top of the fascinating troubleshooting process he negotiated with Jeff Utecht as they re-jigged the video connection to work around a Taipei typhoon (no less!), it struck me that his own story completely denied me the usual escape clause: “Well, that just wouldn’t work in my classroom.” He has, after all, developed his flipped classroom/mastery learning techniques in a Korean international school setting, and seems now to have successfully  transferred this to an American public school in Illinois. His pedigree certainly prompted me to listen closely as he shared with us an updated version of his EARCOS conference 2010 presentation.

On the one hand, the basic principles of reverse instruction seem to have evolved organically in my own practice. The idea that students do individual work at home (read the assigned novel chapters and answer the questions; read the textbook and take notes on a graphic organizer), and then spend classroom time in collaborative group work or some kind of dynamic classroom-only discourse … this makes perfect sense to me.

Instruction becomes the homework = CONTENT/CONCEPT DELIVERY happens at home.

Homework becomes classwork = PROCESSING & PRACTICE of these concepts happens in the classroom.

I can see how my classroom has turned around, particularly since this year we have adopted a new textbook for our new history course and, thank goodness, they don’t make textbooks like they used to! Our new Ancient Civilizations text from Holt McDougal is not simply a digital rendering of the hard copy, page by page. It includes multimedia presentations, videos, primary source-related materials, activity-maker software, interactive maps, tutorials, graphic organizers for reading comprehension and writing in a variety of genres, and other materials to extend the learner “beyond the text.”

In addition, it is becoming increasingly common for me and my colleagues to call on the MS IT Coordinator or the Librarian to create “how to” files (PowerPoints, pdfs with images, screencasts – all sorts!) for the classroom projects we undertake. Either the specialist or we, the classroom teachers, introduce the information, but now that we are several years into our 1:1 laptop situation, we have become used to the vast majority of our students being pretty tech-savvy, with just a fringe group of newbies needing the extra prompting. For most kids in our middle school classrooms these days, it would be a waste of time to take a laborious, repeat-each-step-after-me lecture on how to set up a blog, or use PhotoStory/MovieMaker/CamStudio.

With such rich resources, one question I have about the Flipped Classroom is this: When would it be appropriate to turn the vodcasting over to the students? In many cases, they would be re-creating something that already exists in a more professional form – either by our IT/IL Specialists or the textbook company! This is a wonderful problem to have, and it is a luxury of our full-scale adoption of technology for anywhere, anytime learning. In the meantime, perhaps I could start by adding a step to the homework – to the initial content consumption. Perhaps, I could ask students to respond to the homework lecture/instruction/reading via video. Although this could be just as readily achieved with a group discussion first thing in the next class…

In any event, I definitely like the importance that the Flipped Classroom places on teacher-student interaction – that this approach actually frees up classroom time for conversation and individual teaching/learning. It certainly flies in the face of concern that computers will take over from teachers. The emphasis is entirely on enriching the individual’s learning experience, not replacing one kind of learning experience (teacher-student interaction) with another (computer-student interaction).

Attribution Some rights reserved by aussiegall

So, instruction is definitely in a state of irrevocable reversing for me. Although I can (and want to!) continue this trend of flipping homework and classwork, I know that the environment I am teaching in has set me down a path of reverse instruction that will naturally continue anyway. No worries there. And with a new schedule this year that has me teaching 45-minute classes instead of 95-minute classes, I am finding that class time is just evaporating before my eyes. So, in order to move from content instruction to launching into discussions and activity, I really need to set students up to read and prepare at home, ready for doing something with that  content in class the next day.

BUT: here comes the other hand.  It is the Mastery Learning element that really hounds and confounds me. At this point, the 24/7 access has not necessarily led to increased differentiation in my classroom. Student learning has not yet become personalized. Performance objectives are not yet the standard of assessment in my classroom. Certainly not anywhere near as much as Bennett illustrated with his own model of teaching. For the most part, I still have students working all together at a pace I have set for them, in the order I have set for them, and it is only to a minimal extent that there is choice for the topic, type, or medium of assessment.

I buy into on a theoretical level. I want to do it. And I am envious of how quickly it seems that Bennett was able to switch his organization and approach to enable it. I know I can be easy on myself and just start with baby steps. That’s what kindly teacher mentors have been saying forever about change in education. Just make a start. Just do it!

But I am daunted by the thought of setting up all the procedures. I know that I want to provide the opportunity for learners to take responsibility for their content. And I know that kids will probably be almost as challenged by the idea as I am, because they can no longer just get by “playing school” as Bennett described it. I like the idea of “flipping” to  provide time for learners to explore, explain, and create meaning of the content.  It means I can focus on providing context instead of providing content. Starting with the objectives of a unit and working backwards to create the activities which will give the students the opportunity to show their mastery – objective-based assessment self-evidently empowers students to take charge of their learning.

But it is definitely going to take a lot of planning to implement this in my history classroom where standards and benchmarks are not so black and white, and learning is enriched through more of a shared journey – discussion, debate, multi-party simulation, etc. And then it’s going to take some really slick time management strategies to walk around talking to every single kid (1:1 interactions) – working ahead/behind, helping to keep them with the rest of the class as needed, but giving time to go back and practice or surge ahead in their own good time. To a point. Because I will still need to follow the school’s grading schedule, of course.

Nevertheless, Bennett shared some highly practical points that made this approach seem more concrete and do-able. He said that his units took about 3 weeks and that he prepared about 3 assignments per week for students to complete. To avoid procrastinators waiting until the last day to suddenly come up with assignments, and overwhelm the teacher with the sudden surge of individual consultation time that this would necessitate, he tells students they can only get one objective checked off on the last day of the assignment.

Bennett gives himself some leeway with quizzes; some are completed orally (one-on-one) while others are written. He has a bank of questions with which to quiz students, and some students will only need a few – because they get them right without hesitation or prompting, while others will demonstrate simply that they are not yet ready for the quiz. (He has developed a nifty rubric for this purpose: for a full score, for example, students would need to respond concisely and accurately – without prompting by the teacher – using unit vocabulary fluently in the discussion, etc).

Meanwhile, other students are working on other projects. Students can frontload or backload to meet weekly expectations, but Bennett does chase up kids who complete less than the required amount per week. Because he is keeping track of everything on a one-page Excel spreadsheet (see image) that he keeps with him as he circulates in class, he is able to keep tabs on everyone – that being a total of 100 kids at the moment (just like me!) with about 5 kids that he reckons he works intensively with (i.e. resource students who have IEPs).

In fact, I was particularly impressed with Bennett’s point that this highly personalized Mastery Learning approach ensures that teachers really talk to ALL students … because, if we are honest, we would probably have to admit that there are students in our classrooms who are not actually getting the individual attention that good teaching calls for – for one reason or another, an act of deliberate or unconscious omission. This point hit home for me.

One of my colleagues asked a good question as the video conference wrapped up. What are the characteristics of things that work well flipped? It was generally agreed around the room that the subject material would preferably be algorithmic in nature. Discrete information, concepts that students can pick up quickly, and review independently. But, once the subject territory becomes more philosophical in nature, the videos may well be less powerful as teaching tools. Too boring, maybe. Simply not so flipping fantastic.

Interestingly, on the site devoted to the “Flipped Classroom and Pre-Vodcasting” concept, described as the “brainchild of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams who are pioneers in the field of using vodcasts in the classroom,” they list specific subjects for which “flipping” is particularly appropriate – and it does not include the Humanities: “Thus far, teachers and students using the Flipped Class model have been very successful in mastering science, mathematics and foreign language. ”

YouTube Preview Image

So, how often is Bennett, a science teacher, still traditionally delivering content? About once a week in biology. But he is not doing the talking. Students are – sitting in desks facing each other. He calls it “the forum.”

I hope that’s the subject of his next EARCOS presentation, because anything with his name on it would get my attention now. In the meantime, I should work with the #flipclass hash tag to follow more teachers using a flip model. More for me and you can be found at The Flipped Class Ning site: groups of people by content area and discussion forums for collaboration and idea sharing.


The Power of Partnering for better IT/IL Skill-building

In an integrated model of technology education, a great deal of responsibility seems to fall on the Technology Coordinator and the Librarian to ensure that IT/IL goals (be they ISTE NETs or AASL Standards or a school’s own home-grown measurements of learning) are met for each child in each classroom at each grade level. This really means, that it happens through sheer force of personality  and persistence. Or when personalities clash between classroom teacher and IT/IL coordinator(s), it might not happen at all.

As described in an excerpt from an ISTE publication, “IT’s Elementary! Integrating Technology in the Primary  Grades” it takes an instructional choice that generally includes collaboration and deliberate planning. And “it takes someone with real vision — an administrator, a teacher, or a specialist—to model, encourage, and enable integration.” I am very lucky to have such a special someone in my life: our school’s MS Librarian, Peter Giordano. He is working with us to bring our grand promises to Grade 8 parents regarding our new history course to reality. He is helping us achieve effective IT and IL integration as described in a recent Edutopia article (Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?), i.e. with routine and transparent use of technology to support curricular goals.

At a recent Parent Evening  my colleague, Chris Fox, and I introduced the course and made a series of sweeping statements about the critical thinking skills we intend for our students to develop through the year. In particular, I want to focus here on our final promise – namely, to advance our students’ research and information literacy skills:

Through a series of cumulative lessons interspersed through our units and created in collaboration with our MS Librarian, Mr. Giordano, students will become more advanced users of research tools such as NoodleTools for note-taking and citation, and more familiar with the great variety of high-quality databases and other reference resources that students can expect to use again and again in Upper School. And they will become better able to organize, analyze, and synthesize that information. Because, of course, in this information age, our students don’t have trouble accessing information, but they do need to become more critical consumers of the information, and its sources.  So our study of Ancient Civilizations will provide a platform for the development of these very important 21st century skills.

So, this is where we rely a great deal on the vision and good will of  the librarian. Essentially, we are working together to create a year-long project that exposes students to the quality range of databases and eBooks that the our school libraries make available, but that are also sadly underutilized by our student body because Wikipedia is just a few keystrokes away. We want to push them to explore powerful databases such as  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online and Merriam-Webster and World Atlas and World Book Encyclopedia and Ebsco Host and Gale Opposing ViewPoints in Context and …. the list of incredible resources goes on. We want students to recognize, as wonderfully up-to-date and accessible as Wikipedia is, that some academic inquiry will be better served by tools more varied and powerful than a mass-wiki produced for free and that anyone can edit.

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by the urban mermaid

We certainly aren’t seeking to replace Wikipedia as a tool for students to use. But we do want to challenge students to realize in what ways Wikipedia is limited, and therefore the importance of having access to a toolkit, rather than just one fast-food-like research tool. In reading about CT (computational thinking), I realize that we are specifically tackling one of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  – we want to give students the exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals.

With the five essential questions providing the thematic thread though the six ancient civilizations that we study in Grade 8, we have used these questions as the starting points for reading, noting and citing, using the all-in-one research organizer, note-card and bibliography-developer, NoodleTools.

For our first civilization, Mesopotamia, we set aside two mini-lessons to begin what will become a year-long cumulative project. Of course, we had to walk students through a major start-up session to begin with because they have had a potted exposure to this tool through middle school. Some Grade 8s already had several rounds of experience while sundry others had somehow slipped through the cracks. And then there are all the new kids, mostly with no prior exposure. Unfortunately, NoodleTools is not intuitively set up so it takes a little navigation and getting used to. In advance, our savvy librarian had made sets of “Bread-crumbs” instructions available in the online classroom (OLC, powered by Blackbaud) course dedicated to the MS Library resources. He had created multiple short instruction files such as “how to cite an online database” and “how to add tags to a notecard” so students could pick and choose step-by-step instructions to follow, or simply charge ahead.

To answer the first set of EQs (essential questions) relating to the environment, we simply directed students to “get their feet wet” with Grolier Online  and Encyclopedia Britannica, the two middle school staples. Straight away, however, we delivered choice and room for individual learning needs/styles. For example, Britannica actually includes the Elementary Encyclopedia which is the easiest to use, Comptons which is great for middle school, and the world renowned Britannica which covers a whole universe of information. This menu of choice is great for kids who don’t want to advertise that they are ESL students or that they struggle with grade-level reading comprehension because they can independently and without fanfare select the most appropriate reading.

For round two and the remaining EQs, which focus on innovation and change in civilization as well as modern-day connections, the librarian was excited to share with students a new Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook. All very straightforward stuff.

But we are ratcheting it up a level as we move forward into our next civilization. The EQS will be recycled for the sake of civilization comparison – once again, human interaction with the environment + innovation and change – but we will layer into the resource selection the need to evaluate conflicting viewpoints. We also intend to do at least one “round” on advanced Google searching. And I do think we will want to get to Wikipedia, after all, and examine the discussion that goes into construction of the wiki pages, because there is certainly value in that kind of analysis, also.

We will continue to add levels of challenge into the EQ-based research with each round. Meanwhile, the MS librarian is working with the US librarian to ensure that Grade 8 students will be introduced to all the research tools and strategies they can anticipate using in the first couple of years of upper school. We know that next year in Grade 9, and for every year of school thereafter, students can expect to write a research report of significant magnitude. We also know we can reduce the stress involved if students are already familiar with the recipe ingredients for these research reports, so this is obviously one goal of the Grade 8 research project. But a research report??! We know we don’t want to go to that level of formality yet. And we don’t want to narrow it down and prescribe too much, either. That would negate the purpose of filling up their IT/IL toolkit through the year, if at the end we were to snatch back the possibility of having students select the most appropriate tools to achieve their goals. (For an interesting conversation about the place of traditional research reports in education today, see Are Research Papers a Waste of Time?)

By the end of our study of the six civilizations, the students will have piles of digital notecards that are tagged by EQ, unit, and topic, ready to be used to compose a final project. But just what that project will be, exactly, we don’t know yet. Perhaps, as David Warlick advocates in his blog, it will be more of an independent study type of project where students have access and now familiarity with a wide variety of tools, and they could design a project that applies to something – anything – that has piqued their interest through the year.

Perhaps this will turn out to be the focus of our final COETAIL course project. Perhaps…

Three Branches of Government – Many Ways of Looking at It

Visual aids have perhaps never been so important to my teaching of Social Studies concepts as when I taught about US Government this past month. In preparing and teaching this unit (Course 3 project) with my teaching partners, Chris and Erik, we rummaged into all the nooks and crannies of our visual literacy toolkit to pull out the following gems.

Students have a lot of persnickety tidbits of information to assimilate as they grapple with the idea of three branches of government  – the separation of powers, and the checks and balances. And while we would like them to be able to describe the range of responsibilities for each branch, we have more lofty goals than simply the recall of information. We want students to be able to describe what they know in metaphorical terms. We know that analogical reasoning is a higher-order thinking task, so students are set up to collaborate on a poster project for which they identify an appropriate three-part comparison and then explore just how far they can take those similarities.

Schoolhouse Rock! provides a handy example with “Three Ring Circus.”

YouTube Preview Image

Then, with the goal in mind, we begin a series of lessons that seek to raise students’ awareness about the Constitution, how it works as a “rule book” for the game of government, describing the role of the various players and their “moves.” Below is one slide from our introductory PowerPoint:

This PowerPoint punctuates a rather long lecture on the history of the Constitution and how it came about (as we need to assume little or no prior knowledge of US Government), so we know we need to give students a chance to process all this verbal and visual information in a more collaborate, student-directed activity. Two Inspiration Webs serve this purpose. Pairs work with one computer between them to take a list of key vocabulary terms/concepts and add these into the web organization, adding text to explain connections:

Then, a more detailed slide show compares and contrasts features of the Three Branches, such as terms of office:

The remaining time is divided between further interactive activities such as three BrainPop video/quizzes (“The US Constitution”, “The Bill of Rights”, and “The Three Branches of Government”):

BrainPop “Three Branches of Government” (© 1999-2011 BrainPOP. All rights reserved. BrainPOP is a business name of FWD Media, Inc. Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

And students play interactive games from the excellent civics curriculum resource, iCivics, to review, apply, and self-assess what they have learned. Once again, we add the collaborative element by instructing students to work in pairs, so that decision-making is a shared meaning-making exercise.

In addition, we have charts and posters around the room for visual reference. The students’ own “Three Branches of Government Metaphor Poster Project” will become another one of these when they are finished; thus, students ultimately have the benefit of everybody’s collective creativity and metaphorical thinking … at a glance!

Going to extremes with visual literacy: good learning principles and (gulp!) video games

One of the best PD opportunities I have had this year was an audience with Paul Gee, a presenter at the Learning and the Brain Conference held in San Francisco.

He challenged his audience of teachers with the notion that education should be a whole lot more like video gaming. This seemed like a pretty radical perspective coming from an old professor of literacy and linguistics. As I recalled, his earlier work (which I came across repeatedly when I undertook my M.Ed nearly a decade ago) had focused (much more sedately) on language and literacy education. However, as I looked over his bio, I could see the shift in focus reflected in book titles like: What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (2007, 2nd Edition) and Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy (2007). Clearly, he had found that language and literacy can be exponentially enhanced through the medium of gaming  – a marriage of entertainment, learning, and mastery.

Nevertheless, this was a pretty revolutionary – even confronting – way to start a keynote address to an auditorium of educators. Of course, clever chap that he is, he didn’t just come out with this startling statement. Instead, he worked the audience up to it with some comments of such striking logic that we didn’t even realize where we were heading until it was all so self-evident, it was hard to disagree.

Opening comments were about changes in education and the learning sciences in recent times. We used to think humans were predictable, logical beings, good at rule-following, etc. But newer theories describe the human brain as hardly comparable to a calculator and not particularly good at abstraction. Rather, our minds are good at assimilating experience – we learn best from experience.

Now, there is one big problem with this predilection: the world is not a very good teacher; we can get killed from life experience. So, if educators want to harness the power of experience for teaching and learning, then the experiences for learning need to be well-designed. We can’t just turn kids loose to learn. Teachers need to purposefully design learning experiences.

What design-elements do these learning experiences need to include? Gee provided the following list:

  • Motivation (Emotion)
    Clear goals
    Reflection IN action (Did that work? Why or why not?)
    Immediate and copious feedback
    Attention (Clarity about what to focus your attention on)
    Perspective (Inside and outside the experience  – what is the big picture as well as the individual experience)
    Practice at applying to new experiences
    Debriefing (Reflection ON Action) … reflecting and sharing explanations with other people

Enter: Video Games!

Now that Gee had me nodding and agreeing with him, I was a lot more open to his hypothesis that video games are promising for learning because they are an experience that is completely guided and controlled by the creator. In addition, video games can be understood as operating on two levels – the software is basically a well-designed experience, and the meta-game is the well-designed social interaction that takes place around the game. (People play video games, like World of Warcraft, and then get involved in a community to discuss and reflect on the game together.)

Video games = well designed experiences + well designed social interactions

Good teaching = well designed experiences + well designed social interactions

But Gee wasn’t content at having made this connection. He switched focus at this point to language and literacy ( his old stomping ground) and the point that school is designed around language – specialist, academic language. However, when kids fail with language, he asserted, they don’t usually fail at phonetic reading. Actually, they fail because they are bored by it.

Kids learn a language by having experiences with this language. You can’t learn language with other language, though. Right?

To illustrate this, imagine yourself coming home from the store with a brand new video game. (Or better yet, imagine a kid.) What happens next? Do you – or that child – rip open the wrapping to then sit down on the couch with copy of the instructions to pore over?

If you’ve ever tried to read the instructions of a sophisticated videogame, you would know that the instructions are virtually indecipherable. You have to actually play the game to get what’s going on. Then, after experiencing the game, you would have a lot greater chance of making sense of those instructions. When we can fill in images, actions, experiences, and dialogue, then we have a “situated meaning” for a piece of language. So now it’s not hard anymore; it’s obvious!

AttributionNoncommercialShare  Alike Some rights reserved by Alfred Hermida

Can teaching be like this? If we were to give our students the game experience equivalent of the biology concepts we want them to learn – instead of giving them the biology textbooks to read – Gee asserts that we wouldn’t be getting that bell curve anymore. And we could happily screw up the national testing system!


AttributionNoncommercialShare  Alike Some rights reserved by Colin Purrington

Capitalist companies in the video gaming industry have figured out the incredible power of this “situated meaning.” Take Yu-Gi-Oh!  for example.

Yu-Gi-Oh! is a Japanese manga franchise that includes a trading card game and numerous video games. Most versions of Yu-Gi-Oh! involve a fictional trading card game , where each player uses cards to “duel” each other in a battle of fantasy “monsters.” From an educator’s perspective, what’s interesting about all this is just how complex the language of these cards can be … and just how addictive the game is, nevertheless. We face significant difficulty in motivating our students in schools to take on long and challenging tasks; yet, many video games are long and hard … and kids love them!

It is this intense engagement in self-directed learning that Gee wants educators to harness. Once again, he highlighted the features that video games boast that make them ideal for learning.

  • Motivation: Oodles of it
  • Problem-solving: Research shows that if you teach facts, and test like we do today, you will get facts and formulas learned but it doesn’t correlate to problem-solving; but if you teach through problems, the person has to recruit the facts to solve the problem so get both the facts AND the problem-solving
  • Clear goals: e.g. to reach the next level
  • Copious feedback: Running scores and updates
  • Well-designed experience: Completely constructed – no real-life randomness!
  • Mentoring IN the game and in the META game (and the transfer from video game experience to real world experience  comes through the community interaction)
  • Performance before competence: Educators don’t tell students: Keep your mouth shut until you learn English … and yet we do often skip straight to the expectation of mastery, without the benefit of practice and experience, when we try to teach other concepts
  • Failure: Failure-based learning: If the cost of failure is high, you won’t continue; however, in video games, the cost of failure is made lower because you want to explore everything thoroughly because you might want to rethink your goals from time to time, try out some new styles, take risks
  • Well-ordered expertise: Learners continuously face problems they need to solve; the problems are scaffolded and ordered so as to keep players/learners right at their Zone of Proximal Development
  • Cycle of expertise: Give the player/learner a problem, (challenging, but do-able); then they practice the problem until they can do it in their sleep; then you provide the next problem, and the automatic expertise needs to be undone / challenged again

Gee made another rather “A-ha!” connection for me between education and video games – or rather assessment and video games. They make you realize how unnecessary assessment is to the well-designed learning experience (i.e. video game), because they:

  • Integrate learning and assessment
  • Provide copious information
  • Include multiple variables
  • Track growth and trajectories across time
  • Provide preparation for future learning
  • They are formative = evaluative

Think about how you can’t get out of a video game level until you have mastered that level – and then think about how ridiculous it would be to tell the gamer who has finally completed the last level: “Okay, you managed to master that level … but now you need to take a test on it!”

Despite my first impressions that his views had grown quite extreme, Gee, in his article elaborating on the ideas from his presentation, doesn’t consider his stance as either conservative or liberal, traditional or revolutionary. He says:

The progressives are right in that situated embodied experience is crucial. The traditionalist are right that learners cannot be left to their own devices, they need smart tools and, most importantly, they need good designers who guide and scaffold their learning . For games, these designers are brilliant game designers like Warren Spector [best known for the cyberpunk video games System Shock and Deus Ex]and Will Wright [original designer for The Sims games series which, as of 2009, was the best-selling PC game in history]. For schools, these designers are teachers.

So, like a good video game designer, teachers like me need to see ourselves as practical theoreticians of learning. The profit motive has prompted people in the interactive video gaming industry to produce incredibly challenging, incredibly motivating learning experiences. What will motivate teachers to do the same? Or policy-makers and governments to measure and provide the cost?

My Digital Footprint Catches Up With Me

Ironically, not long after our last f2f class discussion about digital footprints and the importance of managing our online identities, I learned that my own digital footprint had grown by a photo and a couple of comments past my personal comfort level.

AttributionNoncommercialNo  Derivative Works Some rights reserved by FatMandy

I had brought the conversation about digital footprints into my own classroom with the Fahrenheit 451 theme-related question: “Does the media control you (and how would you know)?” As mentioned in a previous blog, I have found that the following video clip (“Digital Dossier” – a project related to the Digital Native concept, and more specifically, John Palfrey’s book, Born Digital) has elicited quite a sober response from students in the past.

YouTube Preview Image

I have shown this clip a few times now since Palfrey visited our school and shared it with us. And I had always assumed that the students’ wide eyed silence represented a merging of perspectives between teacher and student – that they were finally beginning to “twig” that your digital footprint is a real, permanent, growing, parallel-self database growing out there, largely beyond our control. That this prospect, in turn, gives credence to the idea that the media really does control you to an extent unknown and unknowable. I, personally, feel some helplessness along with this realization. I even see some menace in the idea.

But this year, I discovered I was  mistaken. (Once again! Should I be surprised anymore?!) The students’ response, left to blossom with a little self-reflection, was one of awe, yes, but also one of fascination. Perhaps they were empowered by the sense of having a vastly greater impact on the digital scene than they had previously imagined. Some, I gathered, were a little daunted, but by and large the follow-up exercise produced little ripples of thrill around the room as students completed a digital-use survey.

Although I set this as an optional activity, many of my students were quite enamored with the process of measuring their digital footprint using the  Personal Digital Footprint Calculator.

This tool (as described in an article by the ReadWriteWeb people) “walks you through a questionnaire that calculates your impact based on the responses to questions about your computer usage, email usage, digital camera/camcorder usage, web downloading habits, potential surveillance areas, and geographical information, among other things. …[I]f you take the time to fill out the Digital Footprint Calculator correctly, you’ll be presented with your current ‘daily digital footprint,’ in megabytes. You can then click ‘Start Ticker’ to launch your own personal ticker that increments over time according to your digital information creation. You can even upload this, along with the .swf file, to your own web site and share your results with others.”

This process proved to be a real hit and students were soon busy with survey questions and comparison, and then also surprise at the big numbers that were churning out as a measure of their impact on the digital landscape. Their delight in big digits reminded me again of the generational divide between my feelings about being digitally exposed and their pleasure in this measure of being “out there.”

Here are a few of their digital footsteps:

(My students all came up with higher numbers than the example ticker created with wizard defaults, as presented by IDC, a Marketing and Intelligence Forecasting Firm and creators of the Calculator, sponsored by EMC).

But, back to my own digital footprint. Literally within days of this video/activity/lesson, I received a brief email from one of my quieter students. The subject line read:

“this picture of you taken by [student name] during the field trip”

…and in the body of the email:

“I print-screened the picture and comments.”

(So much for email etiquette, greetings and salutations, etc. But that’s another blog!)

Anyway, when I saw the screen shot attached to the email, I was shocked. It had been captured from a Facebook page. I was the subject of a photo, taken by a student without my knowledge, and now posted on a different student’s account. The commentary beneath lead me to believe that somehow the photographer had been able to upload it directly into his friend’s account (passwords freely shared amongst friends?), with only grudging assent from the owner of the account. I teach these two students, and each had commented. At least two other students, who I know but do not teach, had added comments.

Facebook Photo Surprise - edited

I was stunned by my own lesson hitting so close to home. By my digital footprint finally catching up with me this way. Suddenly my teaching points took on a sharp poignancy regarding becoming aware and beginning to manage your online identity.

Now, the image was not at all demeaning. (I had half a mind to ask for a copy, but that would have diluted the point of the conversation I was going to have to have with the students!) And the comments were more positive than negative. But it was a bit embarrassing, and I would also call it inappropriate.

I called out the two boys in the very next class, and said: “I believe my digital footprint has recently grown by one particular photo and several comments.”

They knew immediately what I was getting at. The Facebook account owner gave the photographer a bit of a shove and an embarrassed exclamation to signal blame-appointment. And the photographer, red-faced and grinning that furious teenage-boy grin of shame, tried a lame: “But it was a nice photo.”

I didn’t need to say much more. They didn’t seem to wonder about how I knew about it. I wasn’t going to give up my source, but it was interesting to note that they didn’t even question the notion that the public eye had somehow seen into a private account.

I asked them to help me reduce my footprint by a photo and several comments. And they shuffled away. (No apology, incidentally. But I wasn’t going to make a scene.) The next day when I made a vague reference to it, the boy said he had removed it.

So there it was – online reputation house-cleaning, one photo at a time.

It occurred to me that what my quiet student-friend had done for me in blowing the whistle on these guys, was exactly the way I want to think we can approach personal digital footprint management. And, it follows too, cyberbullying. I don’t think these two boys would have even remotely associated their actions with this concept, but I certainly was made to feel uncomfortable by the knowledge of that photo and those comments.

But if other students, friends, peers, acquaintances are willing to share what they know, in the way that my student did with a simple emailed screenshot, then what I think we can grow is a kind of Honor Code equivalent in the cyber-realm.

With social media well beyond the control of any one individual, I think this community-watch group-regulation, is critical.

Who is using who here?

Social media tools give us more scope than ever to do what comes naturally: to rewrite our lives to reflect what we truly wish they did.

Which international school educator hasn’t written home to less adventurous friends and family ensconced in middle class suburbia about their new adopted country and omitted to mention … oh, let’s see … the frightful disregard for pedestrians on the roads. Or the neglected, burping sewer system that has to be dodged on the way to work. Or the choking levels of dust pollution courtesy of Gobi desert land degradation. Or the dodgy electrical work behind the sink in the bathroom that the local landlord swears will be dry and safe. Or the fact that even a school on the other side of the world can have the same cast of unsavory characters and political strife and report-writing stresses that any school back home offers up.

Of course, we put our best face forward when we are conscious that our words and pictures will be enshrined for posterity. So, does the invention of Facebook and Twitter change any of that?

AttributionNoncommercialShare  Alike Some rights reserved by escapedtowisconsin

Some people think it does. In the drive to post interesting status updates and profile photos, there are those who stretch the truth beyond an adverb or three in order to dress up the public story of their lives. People, it seems, are doing certain things specifically for the purpose of sharing them on social networking sites. Or, more precisely, so as to manipulate the way they will be perceived online.

Some examples from student reader comments to a New York Times article: “I Tweet, Therefore I Am”

“Sometimes people make their updates angry or depressed so people can be afraid or pity them. ”

” …my friends and I took pictures because we needed a new default profile photo. Without Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have to go through all the trouble of getting a new default; we would just take pictures for memories. Now we take pictures for others to see us the way we want them to see us.”

“Instead of spending time with people to get to know them better, we check their Facebook or Twitter and judge them by what they post.”

“The blend of technology and two other characteristics of our era – communication and the need for individualism – is what makes these sites so popular. “

Teachers know that it is a basic rite of passage for young people to explore their identity. Like parents, we are often left to clean up the resulting mess! But society has changed so this ritual has changed also. These days it doesn’t matter so much where you come from or what your parents do or where you are right now. Anyone can recreate themselves and express themselves using social networking tools. Everyone can find out who they are, interact with others, and make an impact on the world with this technology. But now we also do it because others are watching.

(That’s a deliberate pronoun choice there: “we.” I am deliberately not singling out students now because Facebook has proven to have great appeal across the generations. This is not necessarily a trait distinguishing them from us.)

Any social networking site user can go to great lengths to cultivate and manage their online identity. They can choose how they want to be judged. But now the advent of this technology has significantly changed behavior. As one student commented: “We find ourselves ‘performing’ for others.” It’s not just words any more, but actions that serve our basic desire to re-write personal histories. So, does this extra step mean social media is shaping the consumer as much as the consumer seeks to shape their self-expression? When your life is an act to replay on the stage of Facebook, how significant is this? Is it just the business of life as usual transferred to a new venue – or has the new venue changed the quality of the performance? And do we head backstage much anymore?

AttributionShare  Alike Some rights reserved by boltron-

Online predators don’t pack much of a punch, but the backyard bullies do

It is a lovely turn of events to find your reading on a particular edtech topic actually REDUCES fear and loathing. More often than not, the media careens from IT-related crisis to disaster, and the media consumer obligingly laps it up, while that black cloud that always seems to be hanging over the head of the new generation of internet users takes on an even deeper hue of gloom. The ominous prospect of an over-exposed, over-stimulated, over-predated new generation of technology users looms ever larger – or so it would seem.

AttributionNoncommercialNo  Derivative Works Some rights reserved by !borghetti

What deep delight it was, therefore, to read an article by The Times’s technology columnist, David Pogue (“How dangerous is the internet for children?”) which actually suggests that the tales of doom facing children online are over-hyped.

I particularly liked this point: “The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere.”

Now, that puts it into perspective. Pogue’s article serves as yet another reminder to me that, despite all the articles and blogging, frown lines and hand-wringing, the internet is “just another facet of socialization for the new generation.”

He follows this up with more sensible advice for us onlookers: “…as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.”

Deep sigh! That’s what we want to hear, right?! (There’s that instinctive confidence that comes from assuming that our own good sense is part of that collective common sense the author has just invoked, and with that pronouncement, that we can relinquish our sense of spinning out of control.)

Pogue, in turn, references a  PBS “Frontline” documentary which confirms what we already know about the teenagers-online scene, i.e. that they are completely immersed in chat, Facebook, and other options that have simply become absorbed into their ordinary, every day lives. And it also reiterated that the sexual-predator scenario that keeps many parents and teachers awake at night, is just plain skewed.

Incidentally, the PBS report Pogue referred to in his article, also added one surprising tidbit to this aspect of online safety. It turns out, according to the data analysis, that giving out personal information over the Internet makes no difference whatsoever to a child’s likelihood of falling prey to a pedophile. Now, this seems to fly in the face of pretty much every spiel I’ve recited to my students as we’ve opened a VoiceThread account here or a Bubbl.Us account there.

AttributionNoncommercialShare  Alike Some rights reserved by Constantine Belias

Another sobering point that was raised, and one that I can easily believe in, is that many sexual propositions that kids receive have come from their peers fooling around or people just “acting weird online.” Thus, according to Danah Boyd of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, an interview subject in the documentary: “Most of the sexual solicitations, they’re not that big a deal. Most of it is the 19-year-old saying to the 17-year old, ‘Hey, baby.’ Is that really the image that we come to when we think about sexual solicitations? No. We have found kids who engage in risky behavior online. The fact is, they’ve engaged in a lot more risky behavior offline.”

Of course, the reader is not allowed to walk away scot-free after all. Pogue can’t resist poking at our persistent dis-belief that our kids will grow up just fine if we let nature take its course, (i.e. without our intervention) by concluding his article with a focus on the fear that we really DO need to face: the more murky realm of cyber-bullying.

AttributionNo  Derivative Works Some rights reserved by WTL photos

Pogue describes cyber-bullying as the far more realistic and pernicious threat to our younger internet users because kids tend to use the virtual world as their own little social laboratory, trying on different personas and pushing boundaries, in ways that tend to be a lot nastier and extreme in this anonymous environment than they would ever dare to be in face-to-face interactions. Added to this, the nastiness is significantly more damaging and painful because it is public and permanent. Plus, kids just don’t see it for what it is.

This is the real problem that we need to face as guardians of our children’s innocence and self-concept. So, I guess it had better be the subject of my next post.

YouTube Preview Image

“Keep Out!” Problematic Perspectives on Privacy

Attribution Some rights reserved by Nathan O’Nions

I guess I had it all wrong.  I was under the assumption that my students really did not care to concern themselves with the hassle of privacy settings in their fast-paced, highly social online worlds. My image of students as quadruple-clickers, seething and raging through any instance of slow computer processing/downloading, suffering serious cases of “Hourglass Syndrome” at the first sign of slow-poke technology, just didn’t align with habits of mind like cautiousness and reflection, which I have associated with the nuanced machinations of privacy settings. Uninhibited social net-casting seemed to be the typical disposition of the digital native, while trepidation, fear, even outright rejection of online communities and sharing tools seemed befitting of the doddery digital immigrant.

But it’s not a case of such opposite extremes, as it turns out. Actually, young people’s expectations have evolved as privacy protection options have expanded, and  Heather West, Policy Analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, posits that  young people  value their privacy online a whole lot more than I had first thought. New online technologies are providing internet users (digital native and immigrant alike) with more control than ever before over their information. And young digital consumers have come to expect it.

Research backs up her claim. A new study on behavioral advertising, suggests that the 18-24 year olds care the most about how their personal information is used to make decisions about them to deliver news, advertisements, or discounts. One of the authors of the survey told the  New York Times, “We sometimes think that the younger adults in the United States don’t care about this stuff, and I would suggest that’s an exaggeration.”

Actually, it’s been marketers who have often promoted the idea that kids don’t care about giving up their personal details, citing behavior on  Facebook as anecdotal evidence, and pointing particularly to the sheer volume of content kids share through such online social media. But this interpretation of the younger generation’s internet use relies on a narrow view of privacy values. And it is quite flawed.

Back to Heather West: while kids care about their privacy too, and in that way the natives and the immigrants aren’t so different after all, West still frames her argument as a generational one. The gap is in how the two groups approach the concept of privacy, not their care factor. “Digital immigrants,” she says, “tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others. Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information.”

Attribution Some rights reserved by rpongsaj

Teachers like me will be heartened to learn that teenagers themselves are actually taking steps to manage their online profiles and keep sensitive information away from unwanted eyes (including both strangers, and parents). According to studies by  Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project, “while many teens post their first name and photos on their profiles, they rarely post information on public profiles they believe would help strangers actually locate them such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number. …Some 55% of online teens have profiles and most of them restrict access to their profile in some way. Of those with profiles, 66% say their profile is not visible to all internet users. Of those whose profile can be accessed by anyone online, nearly half (46%) say they give at least some false information.” (Of course, young people post fake information not only to ensure the security of their online world, but also simply to be silly, or even to be malicious … but more on that in another blog.)  In fact, according to the Pew study only 6% of teens make their first and last name publicly accessible on social networks.

As one of the Pew articles put it,  they want their cake and they want to eat it too. It’s not “an all-or-nothing public or private paradigm.” Internet users, young and old, expect to be able to choose levels of privacy and levels of exposure to the public. West says they want what we all want: “the opportunity to choose not only what content is public, but who has access to that content. This includes privacy control for photo albums, status updates, and personal information.”

Privacy advocates might have an uphill battle against big business, but this new understanding of how kids value online privacy should  help them make their case to legislators. Meanwhile, I can rest assured that I am on the same side of the fence as my young charges, at least in this case, with the shared perspective that control over personal information is a consumer right, not a privilege.

AttributionNoncommercialNo   Derivative Works Some rights reserved by yohann.aberkane