Tag Archives: teaching

A Tech Support Parable (With a Happy Ending)

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 9.56.34 AMMy 74- year old mother is my most reliable barometer for how difficult learning new technology can be. For those of us immersed in new media and online tools everyday, we tend to forget how overly complicated the world can feel.  I offer you this tale, from last night, a tech support parable.

My mom has a new iPad (Christmas gift) that she’s trying to master.  We’ve had a few sessions together with it where she’s mastered the basics – email, searching on the web, and using the camera. She likes her new iPad very much and, for the most part has found it pretty easy.  Up until last night, I’d say that her two main challenges have been understanding the language around the computer (techy jargon) and using her finger to “touch” – she tends to use her nail or not get her finger in just the right place.  But she’s been mostly quite successful due to her good cheer, native smarts, typing ability, and persistence.

Mom has an in-home Comcast connection, with a recently upgraded modem to give her wireless for her new iPad. Yesterday she responded to a message on the iPad asking her to update her system software, which she dutifully followed.  In true Apple fashion, it led her through the steps, screen by screen. When she got to the “almost done” part, her iPad asked her to identify the network to which she would like to connect.  Full stop.  Before she headed out to the Apple Store (which has become a life-line for her, though she says that she always looks for the “Genius” who is patient with older people), she called me (90 miles away).  Given what she told me I explained that the problem she was having was a connection problem, not an iPad problem, and that the Apple store folks would not be able to help her. Oh.

So then we began to troubleshoot together.  We quickly arrived at the limitations of her understanding – what is a network? why does it have a name? what is a wireless signal? why are there other networks in the list (who owns those?), why does it need a password?  I don’t have that password.  If I were to pull out the most common theme to technology problems I encounter it would be the whole access management/password confusion thing.  Passwords for your network, your computer, your Apple ID, the individual sites you visit – which ID and password for what, etc.

After retrieving the paperwork from the Comcast technician’s recent visit we determined that there was no network password to be found. Comcast had thoughtfully provided a brochure with a to-be-filled in worksheet for the technician to write in the name of the home network and the password – both of which were blank.

Hokay, we need to call Comcast.  But I knew I couldn’t do it for her; it was unlikely that Comcast would talk with me about her account.  So, I set up a three-way call on the telephone.  I asked Mom to find her latest Comcast bill, as we would need the information therein.  She gave me the number, I placed the call, and looped her in, and we worked through the (formidable) phone tree (that kept urging us to go to the web site to solve our problems…as if!) and finally got a live person (roughly 10 minutes).  Meet Paul.

I explained the situation to Paul, who was extremely kind and patient. Only problem, Paul has a very heavy accent.  I knew that my mother could not understand him.  So, we played out a hilarious kabuki where Paul would ask a question, I would repeat it to her slowly and loudly, and my mom would answer. Finally we got to the meat: she needed to locate and read off the WEP code on the bottom of the modem.  “The what?!”  I urged her to put her phone on speaker, while she located the modem and studied it to find the code.  It took a few minutes to find the speaker button on the phone (“why do they make these buttons SO small?!”). Paul and I waited patiently, listening to her rummage around, “Oh, my! Those numbers are so small! I can’t read that!”  I suggested she find her magnifying glass.  More rummaging.  “Here it is!”  Now she read off the code….H21247323bA556…..I wrote it down and read it back to her.  Check.

Now, says Paul, we need to type that code into the network password blank to join the network.  I translated: “Get to the screen with the blue Join button, Mom.”   She’s still got the phone on speaker, so she can have her hands free, but that means I have to shout.  “H!!!”  “212!!!!”  “Wait, wait!” she says in a panic, “There are no numbers on this keyboard!”  Oh, right.  The iPad has multiple keyboards.  So I explain that she’ll have to access the “number keyboard” and then go back to the “letter keyboard” – that long access code had no less than five switches between keyboards, each one painstaking at her end.  “But I can’t check to see if it’s right since what I’m typing is just dots.”  Riiiight.  Oy.  She finally typed it all in and clicked “Join”.  “Unable to join the network, ” she announces proudly.  Paul and I sigh.  Let’s try it again, just in case there was a mistake.  Paul reminds her about caps/lower case.

“Ok,” says Paul.  “Maybe the technician did assign a password, but didn’t write it down.  I’m going to ping your modem from here and zero it back to the Access code, just to be sure..”  “What’s that?”  asks my Mom.  She’s still hanging in there but I can tell that Paul might as well be speaking Greek and she’s getting tired.

Paul puts us on hold (extremely annoying music) while he does his bit.  She and I try to talk, shouting at each other over the ridiculous music and end up laughing hysterically.  Then, suddenly, my mom is no longer there.  Oh, right!  When Paul pinged her network from Comcast, the phone cut out.  Oh, Paul, you should have thought of that.  Now it’s just me and Paul.  On our own.  He comes back and walks me through what to do.  I also ask him to walk me through how to change her network name and password to something a bit more memorable.  He does, and of course, those steps are even more arcane than the shenanigans we’ve been up to so far.   I’ll have to be hard-wired on her network, with a laptop, type an IP address in, get to her SSID, change the network administration settings…yaddha, yaddha….I’ll figure it out, eventually, I’ve got to run since I’m sure my mother is wondering what the heck happened.

I call Mom back.  As I feared, she’s mystified as to what happened.  “Why did you hang up on me?!”  I explained what happened when Paul sent his signal from home base.  “But that was the internet, not the phone!”  Right.  Let’s let that one go for now.  So, she gets back in position and we go through the gymnastics of typing in the WEP code again, this time I remember to pause in the shift between letters and numbers to give her time to change keyboards.  “This is crazy!”  says my mom and we both laugh, realizing we’ve now been working on this for nearly an hour. And, amazingly, we get it right on the second try!  BAM!  She’s online.

I explain to her that when I’m there visiting next, I will get in and rename her network and assign a new password.  My Mom helpfully suggests that perhaps we could choose a shorter password, something with only letters.  “How about ‘shit’?”  she offers.

So, a couple of things here….

1.  I can’t say enough good things about my Mom’s persistence.  Lesser people would have given up much earlier.  I’m not sure what motivates her to hang in there, but hang in there she does.  And, I think that persistence is the key.

2. Do modem and computer manufacturers have to name everything in such confusing ways?  WEP, ping, router, IP address…it’s all just gobbledygook to most people.

3. When technicians come to your home to set up your network, could they please write everything down?  Fill out the darned paperwork provided, please.

4.  Can’t we come up with something more workable with this whole password management thing?

5.  The importance of holding tight to your sense of humor.


Filed under Teaching with Technology

A Network Effect Case Study: #organellewars

Here’s a really good network effect story for you – out of Brad Graba‘s Illinois high school biology classroom.  Mr. Graba decided to modify an oft-used student project for his unit on the cell.  In the typical “organelle project”, students pick a cell organelle (the nucleus, the mitochondrian, etc) to promote and (working in teams or as individuals) they wage a campaign for their organelle to be elected President.  Their stump speeches contain the rationale for the organelle’s importance to the cell – what their “job” is, what happens to the cell if they are out of action, how they relate to the other organelles, etc. The project culminates in an “election” where the class votes to choose a “President Organelle”.  Teachers typically do this activity in the fall (around election time).

Example Storify from the Organelle Presidential campaign.

Mr. Graba decided to add a social media twist to the project and encouraged his students to use Twitter to get their organelle’s stump speeches out there.  Students signed up for Twitter accounts in the names of their organelles (e.g. MightyMito), with identifying photos (many used iconic micrographs) and started posting their messages.  Students composed some really interesting and funny messages, adding to their posts with images, drawings, and links. Within 12 hours the Twitter stream caught the attention of a couple of cell biology researchers, including Anne Osterrieder, from Oxford Brookes University in the UK.  She blogged about the student project here and suggested that the students use Storify (a site that facilitates storytelling through the curation of social media) to assemble their various tweets, images, and other resources for each organelle. Check out this one on the Revenge of the Nucleus (“May the Nuc be with you, young eukaryote”).

More scientists tuned in, adding to the tweets, giving students suggestions, articles to read, other sources of information, and actually weighed in on the vote.  John Runions (@JohnRunions), aka Dr. Molecule in the weekly BBC Radio show, caught wind of the project and suggested the hashtag #organellewars, to make it easier to find all the posts. The interest of the scientists and the BBC, of course, spurred the students on.  Bam.  Network effect.

What great work.  This teacher did it right.  He picked a meaningful assignment, selected the right tools for the job, made the expectations/goals clear, provided all the necessary scaffolding, and then turned it over to the students so that they were the producers – not passive consumers.  Once they caught fire and started producing good material, others noticed.  The students now have pride of ownership, a sense of what real, working scientists do, a deeper understanding of cell structure/function, and a compelling record of their work – and Mr. Graba has a few new tools in his tool box.



Filed under Teaching with Technology

Experimenting with Participatory Media: Mike Gaines at University of Miami

Mike Gaines teaches general biology to undergraduates at University of Miami. He’s one of those incredible educators who is always trying something new – regularly reinventing his course and his approach in order to keep it fresh, alive, and interesting (for his students and for him!).

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Mike Gaines' wiki page

Recently he decided to introduce participatory media to his course (BIL 150).  For some time he’d been looking for a good way to turn a critical analysis of science in the movies into a workable course assignment and a wiki site seemed like a good way to organize it. He built a course wiki site, using Wikispaces, and gave his freshmen biology students the assignment to watch two movies, Contagion and 50/50, and then post their analysis of the biology in those movies (misconceptions?  inaccuracies?  controversies?)  as wiki entries. The student posts are very revealing. You can almost hear their wheels turning as they apply the course concepts (cell division, genetic mutations, viruses) to the science plot twists of the movie (cancer treatment, infection, and disease management).

Following success with that, he started a new page on the wiki site where students would record their observations and reactions to the Richard Dawkins lecture, The Magic of Reality.

Now he was up and running, he decided to experiment further.  Twitter, Wordle and Pixton quickly came next.  He used Twitter to keep in touch with his students, conducting virtual office hours to answer questions and take the “pulse” of the course. After each exam, he asked students to create Wordles (word maps) of their reactions to the exam so that the students could easily (at a glance) check in with each other on their sense of it (really hard?  how’d you do? what concepts were confusing?  how much and how did you study?) and how their own reactions compared to those of their peers. I thought this was a particularly ingenious use of a simple media tool. It was so interesting to read their potent relief as their calibrated themselves to their peers on terms other than test scores.

What I think Mike has done particularly well here is to design his teaching approach so that he’s engaged his students in an authentic experience, where the representation of his students’ knowledge is absolutely essential to the ongoing flow of the course.  There is no busy work here, no tack-ons – everything the students are doing feels important and part of the fabric of the course.

Cleverly, Mikes also used that course wiki site to get final feedback on the course from his students. He set up a new wiki page for student feedback and asked them all to post their comments, suggestions, gripes, and concerns on that page.  From the looks of it, almost all of his students posted something and many of them wrote a quite detailed and useful analysis of their experience.  There are some excellent insights there, but if you don’t have time to read them all, here are a few of my favorite student remarks:

“Because our audience was middle schoolers, critical thinking was required to help express technological and biological in an understandable manner to a general audience.”

“I enjoyed having the opportunity to provide my own input (through Twitter especially) because it gave me a chance to actually think about things more thoroughly. For example, by simply asking us to tweet you about what we found most hard about the test, you are asking us to rethink the test and try to figure out what went wrong. Tweeting is such an easy way to provide input but it really helps spark thinking.”

“Throughout this course twitter has been used as a useful tool to communicate with the professor. Although it may seem informal, it is an effective means of communication because a student can ask the professor a question as soon as they think of it. The comments from twitter were then converted to Wordles, this was exciting because as a student I got to see that other students had the similar concerns and comments on the course.”

“In particular, I thought the use of twitter was a fantastic way to connect with Dr. Gaines and make you stand out in a large class. The same goes for the Wordles, which allowed you to have some valuable input on the tests. It really showed that Dr. Gaines cared about us as students, and didn’t view us all as just one gigantic class that blended together.”

Pretty darned impressive.

And here’s what Mike, himself, had to say about the experience,

“My advice to teachers who want to try this is that once you become familiar with different aspects of Web 2.0 technology, it will be a useful addition to your pedagogical tool kit. It’s how todays students communicate. I had some fears at first because I felt my students were “digital natives” while I was a “digital immigrant” and I would know less than they do.  But this did not turn out to be the case. This teacher and his students became partners sharing their different expertise in the digital world to make my large lecture class more interactive and exciting.  So go for it!”


Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

Listening with Big Ears

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening these days. Mostly because I’ve had to do quite a bit of it. I’m working on a new project that involves a number of stakeholders with very different opinions about the planned outcomes. Wending our way to agreement involves some pretty serious listening.

So, I’ve been asking myself, what makes for good listening?  When you think about good listeners you’ve come across, what qualities do they have?  What makes them a good listener and how do they do it?  (please add your thoughts to the comments here, as I would love to expand this topic). As I usually do when chewing on something, I ask my trusted friends and colleagues what they think (they always come up with much savvier ideas than I can on my own).

Sure enough, they came up with all kinds of good stuff. And, as with any big, meaty question there is never one tidy answer. There are a number of listening approaches that work and a range of qualities that make different people good listeners. But it seems to me that a prime quality is the importance of listening without an agenda. As my friend, Chalon Bridges, told me listening is all about genuine curiosity, an interest in understanding others, a willingness to absorb new information, and a desire to grapple with colliding ideas and ambiguity – to not know the answer. 

Hmm…yes.  I think that “not knowing the answer” part is really important. I would refer to that as listening without an agenda. In conversations I often find that the listeners are not really listening, rather they are trolling for a shard of information that just might support their own point which they are so eager to make. They are listening, with an agenda, expecting (and then finding!) what they need to torque the conversation their way. Unfortunately this kind of listening ignores all the other information that comes in. When we listen this way, we filter and prevent ourselves from learning anything new or surprising. Listening well, without anticipating the answer, or when we’re careful to not creative ourselves too specific a map, we can leave ourselves open to new interpretations and information.

My friend, Ilona Miko (who is a neuroscientist) reminded me that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, of course, is a sensory process and listening is a cognitive translation of those hearing sensations.  She assures me that both are quite active processes, physiologically, but she went on to say that, for her, listening is also an active process consciously.  As in, when she listens, she finds that she needs to ask a lot of questions.  The questions help to clarify what is being said and adds to the information exchange. I know from being listened to by Ilona that her questions have the added benefit of reassuring the speaker that they are being carefully attended.

I also asked my friend, Josh Frost what he thinks and he came back with a favorite quote of his, from the movie, Pulp Fiction which I thought summed it all up beautifully.  It’s this exchange between Uma Thurman and John Travolta:

Pulp Fiction


UT:  “Do you listen, or do you wait to talk?”

JT, after thinking for a moment: “I have to confess that I wait to talk. But I’m working on it.”

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Painting by Robin Remick

This week I came across a terrific piece in the Huffington Post by Brian Cohen (who is the President of Idyllwild Arts Academy) about teaching creativity.  In it, Cohen talks about the importance of giving students room to figure things out for themselves – allowing them to struggle a bit and discover on their own. He quotes the artist Paul Klee in the opener to his essay, “Genius is the error in the system.”

Which made me think of my good friend, Robin Remick, who is an abstract painter. I recently went to an Open Studio of hers and, much to my delight, she walked me through the work she had on display. There, in the studio where she created her stunning paintings, she talked to me about each piece.  Where she was when she painted in, what she was trying to accomplish, how the colors and materials she used worked together.  While listening to her, I was particularly struck by the role of error in her work. More than once she talked about “not knowing what would happen” and just rolling with it.  For instance, on one recent painting she had experimented with applying a coat of resin to the finished painting.  The resin bubbled up in an unexpected way which she, at first, saw as a problem. To correct it, she poured lavish amounts of resin on the bubbled up places and, in the process, created these thick dollops of resin that gave the painting an interesting textured look with unexpected visual dimension – which she ended up liking very much (me too).  She explained that it’s often that way with her work. That the so-called “mistakes” lead to unexpected discoveries, that working with new materials that she doesn’t yet fully understand leads to intriguing results. This, she told me, has become a familiar theme to her.

Of course, you must have confidence to let that happen. For Robin, who is a thoroughly trained painter, with an MFA and years of experience to guide her journeys and experiments, she has the confidence to roll with her “mistakes” and venture into new territory. But surely there is something to be captured from what she’s discovered – and what Brian Cohen recommends –  that could and should be applied to education? That we need to find room in our fervent curriculum planning to allow learners of all stripes to make mistakes, to take risks, to wander a bit and see where those foibles and flounderings lead? To spend time in that unsafe place of not-knowingness and get comfortable there?

As Cohen explains to the faculty in his academy, your first answer might not be your best and your last answer may well help you to get to the next, but it won’t be the next answer. Modeling that sort of not-knowingness and comfort with errors and unpredictable results feels incredibly right-headed to my ear.

“Creativity involves understanding and, paradoxically and simultaneously, not knowing; entering a process where ready answers are inadequate to the task, and where the resolution at first uncertain. You can know a lot about something and be thought to be good at it, yet not know for sure where things are going to come out.”

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Learning in Action: Interview #4 with Ruth Gleicher

The Dunes project with Niles West High School

For about a month now, I’ve been blogging about an ongoing project with Ruth Gleicher, a high school biology teacher at Niles West High School, just outside Chicago.  You can read the first two posts here and here. Bascially, I’ve been riding along while Ruth has re-invented an ecological succession project, that she normally does with her AP Biology students. She wanted to give the project some new juice, incorporate web 2.0 tools into, and weave some formative assessment into the plan. With each major step in the project, I’ve interviewed Ruth to find out how it went, what she’s learned, and how the students have responded.  Here are the recorded interviews:

And here are the documents she refers to in the interviews:

The storyboarding guide:  storyboardfordunesproject.

The project’s RAFT rubric:  DunesRAFTrubric.

The reading guide:  readingguideindianadunes.

Ruth’s Posterous space

Her students went on their field trip to the Indiana Dunes in September and have now completed their projects. The assignment was to tell the succession story of the Indiana Dunes to an audience of your choosing (making a connection between you, as the narrator, and your audience).  The students had multiple web 2.0 tools to choose from when creating their story – some created digital books, some shot video, some created comics, and still others did VoiceThreads.  You can find the students’ posted projects on their class blog site (pictured above). Without exception, they are creative and wonderful expressions of the students’ understanding of succession.  I was truly impressed by how much time and effort the students put into their work.

One of Ruth’s observations, now that the project is complete, is that she feels she has a much better handle on what her students know (and do not know) about succession.  In other words, their projects were deeper, authentic expressions of what they knew and understood.

Unfortunately, the formative assessment part of the plan didn’t go so well.  The students had two weeks between posting their project and the point at which Ruth would grade them. She encouraged them to comment on each other’s work and recruited a few other biology teachers to post comments.  Most of the students got 2 or 3 comments but, unfortunately, they didn’t respond to them nor did they opt to revise their project in light of the feedback (even though there were some specific issues to address). Ruth’s take is that this formative assessment loop is not a familiar path for her students – once an assignment is turned in, that’s the end of it. She’s eager for ideas to help encourage this important aspect of the project so if any of you have suggestions, please comment below – we’d love to hear them.

I also wanted to reflect on the way that Ruth and I have been working together. It’s interesting to tally up the many ways Ruth we productively used new media tools as we worked.

Skype:  Ruth and I used Skype for our planning conversations and for the interviews.  Since the voice were coming through my computer, I could easily record the conversation and then post the recordings online.

WireTap:  I use this regularly to record audio – it’s a wonderful, versatile, and fool-proof piece of recording software.

Google Docs:  Ruth posted all of her student worksheets and rubrics as Google Docs which made it easy for me to edit and add suggestions. It also made it easy for the students to access them – they could either save and then print them as PDFs or Word docs, or they could save a copy and create their own version of the original, also a Google Doc, so they could modify it, write in their answers, online.  Having the activity’s documents online will also make it easy for Ruth to share her work with other teachers.

VoiceThread:  A few of the students used VoiceThread for their projects.  They uploaded digital images taken on the field trip and added their own narration to the images to tell their succession story.

Issuu.  Quite few of the students used Issuu for their projects to make online books – Ruth’s speculation was that this was the easiest of the tools for the students to use and required much less work.

Pixton.  A few of the students created comic books, using Pixton, for their projects. This was the tool that Ruth was first drawn to.  She particularly liked the way you could add comic drawings to real photos to tell a story.

Posterous.  Ruth used this free application to create a publicly accessible blog site where her students could post their finished projects – all in one online spot – so that others could see them and comment. By posting the projects and specifically marking out time for peer review, Ruth is emphasizing important elements of the scientific process (as well as good writing) – multiple drafts, reshaping one’s ideas based on the meaningful input of peers and outside experts, editing, proofreading, and refinement. And since the projects are all online, and easily accessible, she’s erased the boundaries of the 50-minute class and the limits of getting feedback from those in attendance at Niles West HS.

Thanks, Ruth – it’s been a really good learning experience and great fun as well!


Filed under Teaching with Technology

Connecting the Dots: Billy Beane, Nate Berkus, and Neil Selwyn

What do Billy Beane, Nate Berkus and Neil Selwyn have in common?  Other than the fact that they are roughly the same aged, succesful white men, I know that it seems like an unlikely trio.  But let me try to take them one by one and connect the dots, as I seen them…

Billy Beane

First, Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team.  Beane is well know in baseball circles for his data mining and in-depth analysis of baseball’s volumes of statistical information in order to gain a competitive advantage as he built his team.  He is more generally famous these days for being played by Brad Pitt in the newly released movie, Moneyball, based on the book of the same title written by Michael Lewis.

In the book, Lewis recounts spending the 2002 baseball season following Beane, the players, and the game as he gained a deep appreciation for this method.  Paying attention to statistics, of course, is not new to baseball – GMs, talent scouts, coaches, and fans have done this for time immemorial.  What was different about Beane’s approach was his willingness to rethink baseball, how the game is played, and who is best suited to which position.  He searched for inefficiencies in the game and for the story behind the statistics.  For example, rather than tracking hits, he looked at on-base percentages.  He also looked at mitigating factors involved with the various collected statistics (the weather, action leading up to errors, what else was happening on the field).  This more nuanced scrutiny put Beane in the position of being able to see raw potential in a player that others, looking at more conventional statistics, might have missed.  As a result, players who were seen as washed up or underperforming could be picked up for less money and, in the right circumstances, be allowed to shine.  For example a weak shortstop, with the right ingredients, and under the right set of circumstances, might wind up being a terrific pitcher.

I drew an instant line of sight between Beane’s unusual way of looking at data and education.  Isn’t that precisely what we should be doing with assessment?  And I think there are some valuable lessons in Beane’s approach for educators, for instance, his unflagging sense of the game as a whole.  While Beane burrows deep for facts and figures, he doesn’t fall into the trap of reductionist thinking but, rather, keeps the entire game and all of its interlocking parts in his mind’s eye. As Lewis puts it, for Beane, “the probability of any one thing happening in a baseball game is influenced by everything else that happens.”  Nice. Like a baseball game, what happens in a classroom is infinitely complicated and measuring the “outcome” of any one student (high stakes assessment) doesn’t tell you all that much (nor does it come close to what you need to know) about the potential for that student, or the teacher, or the classroom itself.  Beane attempted to make his approach to the game of baseball more scientific as he tried new and different measures to assess what was going on in the game.  Ultimately, he (and others who now use his methods) came to realize that there is a certain amount of “gut instinct” at work here as well; that it’s all extremely complicated, with many, many moving parts, and in order to really understand what is at work you must look at the detailed data AND the whole picture.  Yeah.  Sounds familiar.

Nate Berkus

Second, Nate Berkus.  I know, it’s a leap, but bear with me.  For those of you who don’t watch daytime television, Nate Berkus is a design professional.  He entered the television scene as a consultant, sometimes brought on air by Oprah Winfrey.  He worked his magic with re-imagining small spaces, bringing order to clutter, and sharing his design insights and eventually earned his own show, which airs weekday mornings at 10:00 a.m.  I first became aware of Berkus through a gut-wrenching tragedy in his life.  He happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka, with his partner, when the 2004 tsunami hit.  Somehow, Nate survived, but his partner did not.  That heart-wrenching story was enough to compel me to watch his show, which I’ve now seen a few times.  While my motivation for finding the show in the first place was to gain some insight into how someone survives a tragedy of that proportion, my motivation for returning to it more than once was a fascination over what he was able to accomplish, design-wise, with very little money and a little elbow grease.  And here’s the thing – all of the home or apartment “make-overs” featured on his show involve him.  Nate is always there – with his sleeves rolled up, ripping off plaster, hanging shelves, stapling fabric, and hanging pictures.  Sure, he has a team of worker bees and he directs their efforts, but you always see him doing the work.  My guess is that it’s the doing the work that’s given him this gift of seeing possibilities.

Neil Selwyn

And that leads me to Neil Selwyn. I know, it’s been a long path, and you’ve been very patient.  Neil Selwyn is a British sociologist who writes beautifully and intriguingly about the integration of digital media with everyday life. I’ve just come across Selwyn’s essay (first published in the Europa World of Learning, 2012) entitled Social Media in Higher Education.

In this essay, Selwyn takes a look at the challenge that social media tools and applications present to higher education.  He examines social media and new types of learners, as well as new types of learning, and takes a deep look at the way higher education is responding (or not) to these influences.  I appreciated his even-handed and thoughtful description of the challenges – Selwyn’s training as a sociologist really shines – he carefully considers all the facts and issues in an objective manner. For example, Selwyn points out that internet access is not as ubiquitous as we’d like to think and that digital inequities persist along race, class, and gender, age, and geographical lines, making clear that social media use is not the equitable and democratic activity that it is often portrayed to be.  What’s more, students’ preferences for particular tools vary within economic and social classes, as well as ethnic boundaries.  Selwyn is also bald about the fact that social media use by many falls far short of the participatory and interactive potential and all too frequently falls down on the side of passive posting – or worse, carping from the sidelines. But even with the disparity between educational rhetoric and educational reality in mind, Selwyn still winds up on the optimistic side.

Particularly compelling to me was his call for a new “pedagogy 2.0″ as in this passage here:

“Nevertheless, many higher educators believe that universities are capable of accommodating (and benefiting from) these shifts in emphases. Some commentators have therefore begun to talk of the need to develop a ‘pedagogy 2.0’—i.e. innovative pedagogies that leverage these affordances to support learner choice and autonomy.”

He states that there is “room for higher education community itself to assume a greater role in shaping the development of social media on the ground in higher education settings. After all, social media technology is something that is supposed to be created by its users—higher education institutions and educators included.”

So here’s what I take from considering the work of these three seemingly disparate people, as I think about the application of new media to education:

  • We need to keep trying new things and consider alternative (unusual) ways of examining what goes on in a learning experience.
  • It’s important to regularly assess the very measurements in use, to make sure they are still working and telling us what we need to know.
  • Data is good, particularly when it’s analyzed in relationship to the whole
  • We must engage with these new tools and applications ourselves (you can’t figure out how they will work best for learners unless we understand them from the point of view of a user)
  • We need to keep our heads – to look at the problems and challenges with clear and unflinching eyes, and listen carefully to the short-comings as we embrace the possibilities

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Learning in Action: Interview #3 with Ruth Gleicher

Ruth Gleicher's AP Biology Students at the Indiana Dunes

I’ve been shadowing Ruth Gleicher, AP Biology teacher at Niles West High School (in Skokie, IL), for the last few weeks as she re-imagines an ecological succession project with her students.  This week, Ruth and her students went on their field trip to the Indiana Dunes (that’s them in the photo above).  Ruth has altered the project from the paper brochure she required her students to create in years past to a menu of possible digital projects (a video, an online comic book, a VoiceThread, or a digital storybook). She has also included a formative assessment stage, where the students storyboard their project before building it. Ruth hopes that the assignment’s redesign will help spark their imaginations, encourage their creativity, and facilitate peer review and networked sharing. Ultimately, Ruth believes that this new approach will help the students more fully grasp and understand the concept of ecological succession while helping her better assess and diagnose their misconceptions and gaps.

I’ve been recording short conversations between us as Ruth recounts her insights and observations on the development and implementation of this new project.  Here is conversation #3, recorded jus after their trip to the Dunes:

Ruth Gleicher Interview #3

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Learning in Action: Interview #2 with Ruth Gleicher

For the last week, I’ve been blogging about my ride, alongside Illinois high school teacher Ruth Gleicher, as she works to revise an ecological succession project for her AP Biology students. Last night, Ruth and I spoke, via Skype, and I recorded the conversation.  In this recording, Ruth reveals her thinking process about the assignment, the materials she’s created in the last few days (since our last interview), the project format options her students will have, the timeline for the project, and her expectations for the outcomes.  Here’s the recording:

Ruth Gleicher Interview #2

Here are the materials that Ruth refers to in the recording:

The storyboarding guide:  storyboardfordunesproject.

The project’s RAFT rubric:  DunesRAFTrubric.

The reading guide:  readingguideindianadunes.

The student image collection:  ImagecollecitonforDunesTrip.

To sum up the project’s timeline….

9.20.11  Students will go on field trip to the Indiana Dunes

9.27.11  Storyboards due

10.6.11  Student projects posted

10.21.11  Ruth evaluates projects

One of the many things I admire about Ruth’s plan is that she’s made room in the schedule for input and refinement.  There are two weeks between when the students post their projects and when she evaluates them.  Projects will appear on the class blog site, comments are encouraged, and the link will be shared with other AP Biology teachers and content experts.  Based on the feedback they receive, students have the opportunity to refine and improve their projects.  With this interesting addition, Ruth is modeling the network effect at its best. Wonderful.

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Learning in Action: Planning the Project with Ruth Gleicher

Ruth Gleicher and I are working together to reinvigorate her AP Biology “Dunes” project by turning her students into producers, authors, and film makers.  Ruth’s plan is to assign her class the task of creating a digital story to explain ecological succession, after a field trip to the Indiana Dunes.  Here is a PDF of her original assignment: 0821_001

In this previous post, I’ve explained the challenge before us.  Now, onto my recommendations for Ruth on the digital tools. Here is an email that I sent to Ruth this week:

Hi Ruth,

So, what  we want to do is to reinvigorate the “brochure project” that you used to assign by using new media tools so that your students will be able to create and share digital stories. But, as we discussed, you want to think through the instructional plan before we jump to discussion of tools.

You mentioned that you were interested in formative assessment for your students, so regardless of what method you (or they) choose to create their succession project, I would suggest requiring them to storyboard their story first.  Storyboards are paper plans for the eventual project – a roadmap of the story they plan to tell.  The great thing about storyboards is that it forces the producer (your student) to grapple deeply with the concepts before they get caught up in the fun and zeal of the technology.  They make sure (and you can see) that they understand the biology behind the story and they have a firm grip on their plan, before they invest in the creation.

Here’s a great site that explains what a storyboard is and why it’s important to do. Here’s a site that will send you a free pack of storyboard templates. And here’s a web-based set of printable storyboards.  And here’s another.

The other thing to keep in mind with these participatory media tools is the “participation” part.  By posting their stories online, it’s a tremendous opportunity to share, do peer review, and get others to comment on the students’ work.  That is what you sometimes here referred to as “the network effect”. Get people talking – get them to share, reference each other, build on each other’s stories.  If they feel that they have an audience, that there are other people listening/watching, the quality of the work, the amount of time they invest (and, of course, what they get out of it!), will increase.

So, onto the tools…

Video:  Home-made videos can be very powerful.  And with video cameras being so cheap these days, it’s relatively easy for students to produce their own videos.  You can buy a Flip video camera for ~ $90. Armed with their camera, your students could go out and shoot some footage at the Dunes then, using some simple editing software, create a movie to tell the succession story.

VoiceThread:  This is a free web tool that allows students to create a narrated “slideshow”.  So, it’s their voice, talking through the images (which are jpgs they upload).  In addition to creating a nice, visually-based story, others can go into the created VoiceThread, after its posted, and add their own comments, so that the story continues…

Podcasting:  I’m a big fan of podcasting (reminiscent of radio…). What I like about it is that it’s relatively simple and low tech.  You just use an ipod or any of a number of cheap digital audio recorders. Record an interview with an expert or a student talking through story, timeline, or a series of images.  You can leave it there, with just the recording (up on a web site or on iTunes, for anyone to listen or download), or you can play with the audio recording to enhance it. To do that, you import the podcast into an editing tool (Garageband on the mac, Audacity on the PC) and then add images or video clips to the audio.

Present.me Another free web tool.  With this one you can create fully recorded sessions, with slides (PPTs).  One stop shopping here – you get the video of the presenter, their voice, and the images.

Blogging: Blogs are great tools for reflection and growing community.   You could set up a class blog or individual student blogs. Or you could do a combination of both, where the individual student blogs all roll up (and feed into) a class or “mother blog”. Students write about their experiences, the photos the data – they tell the succession story in installments. The key is to get them to read and comment on each other’s posts. You could also line up some outside content experts (or other teachers, NABT friends) to comment on the students’ posts.  That’ll really fire them up!

Comic Books:  A fun way to tell a story that seems to appeal to kids. There are a number of programs to do this that are very easy to use and allow for a tremendous amount of creativity.  For instance, Comic Life (a Mac program) is one I use frequently. It’s all drag and drop – dead easy – and your output can be jpgs or PDFs, so easy to share what you’ve created. Here’s a web-based comic creation site, Pixton, that I’ve used before with good results.

Issuu: This one allows you to create and publish a “storybook” online.  This would be great for anyone who had in mind creating a digital children’s book, to tell their story. You can upload images, documents, whatever and then build it into a magazine-like narrative.  In the final product, the reader flips the pages online as they work their way through.  Very nice output and its easy to use this one, they could structure it so that their drawing was on the left-facing page and the photo of the same thing was on the right and then explain how the two are related.

Animoto:  allows you to create a sort of “music video”. Photos (that you upload) that dissolve and spin, using special effects, played to music that you choose.  You can insert a sort of narrative into it by adding images with short lines of text.  I’ve seen some really high impactanimotos, like this one on the light reactions.

Include Drawings:  You mentioned that you’d like to their hand-rendered drawings in the final product.  If you have access to a scanner, they could scan them in and include those drawings as jpg.  Easy.  So, basically, with any of these programs, the idea is to make sure that all of their assets are jpgs (whether they are photos or scans) and just upload those into the application of choice.  You can use Skitch (for Mac) or SnagIt (for PC, but that one’s not free) to add illustrations, doodles, and annotations to your uploaded images or screen captures.

Google Maps and Google Earth:  Images and/or footage from these tools could be nicely incorporated into the student projects. Done simply, they could use Google maps or Google Earth images (screen shots, uploaded as jpgs). At a more complex level, they could create a Google Earth movie (a screencast) that zooms in on the dunes location, giving relational information or they could create a kmz file (an overlay) that zooms the viewer from place to place in a predetermined way.  There are a number of tools that allow you to do screen casts of the action on your screen – my favorite is Screencast-o-matic.  And speaking of screencasts, students could use a tool like Eyejot to record a short, talking head video using the web cam on your computer.

What do you think of these?



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