Why Record Lessons?

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Salman Khan, extracted from a video about the ...

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Recently, I viewed an On Demand movie called Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Twice during the fairly complex plot, Cooper said something that I either didn’t catch or wanted to ponder. I rewound to hear the line again the first time, and stopped the video in the second case. Without On Demand controls, I would not have fully appreciated the film. As I thought about the benefits of On Demand movies, I also reflected on Salman Khan’s Mathematics videos. In his talks, Khan clearly says that his cousins liked the recorded version of him explaining Math better than listening to Khan live. This is a common sense scenario that we have avoided for years. When we read books, we have the luxury of rereading words and passages as many times as we wish. In the traditional classroom, however, we have one shot at capturing that key statement from the teacher. If we are shy, we are destined to find a classmate we trust to hopefully get the information. If we are bold, we risk being chastised by the teacher for not listening.

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In a world in which the teacher is the sole source of information and knowledge for the student, there is an expectation that students will be hanging on every word spoken, and to some extent, students do comply. When I approach the whiteboard with my marker, I hear the rustle of papers as students scramble to record what I am about to write. Most interesting about this scenario is the rationale for note taking. Our working memory can retain five to seven pieces of information before it overflows. In order to retain one of those pieces of information, a connection must be made by each student that causes that information to be incorporated into longer term memory. Writing what the teacher says does not make a connection. Writing something else meaningful to that student does, but how many students actually record those kinds of notes, and how many are instructed to?

One of the reasons Khan promotes his videos and the more generic idea of recording lessons and explanations is because it allows students to learn at their own pace, outside the classroom. Extending Khan’s idea to a broader learning model, one is introduced to the “flipped” classroom. In a flipped classroom, students learn material at their own pace outside of the classroom, and then come to class with the goal of increasing understanding by utilizing the skills and talents of the teacher. Those who learned more slowly outside of class are the focus of the teacher’s attention in class while those who learned more rapidly are either asked to help the others or move forward independently. Of course, there are many variations on that theme, but the general idea makes sense from a teaching and learning standpoint because it appeals to the strengths of both students and teachers.

The flipped classroom is not a radical concept. English and History classes have used the idea for years. Students read an assignment, and come to class with the goal of enhancing their understanding and analysis of the materials they have read. Where the traditional flipped classroom lost its identity was in the notion that the teacher subsequently had to reinforce understanding of the reading with a lecture or highly structured discussion driven by leading questions. What Khan and others are advocating is to shift the burden of learning from the teacher to the student both in and out of the classroom. Just as On Demand video is tailored to the needs of the movie watcher, videos of lessons and explanations allow students to absorb new material at their own pace, review lessons when studying for assessments and exams, and return to any specific detail when it disappears from one’s memory. In short, the mode of presentation is consistent with the operation of the brain and the mechanics of learning. Finally, the teacher is freed to be a teacher when students arrive in class, focusing on those areas that are most difficult for that specific group of students. Everybody wins.

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

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It’s been over a month since I finished “teaching” the 2011 Technology and Learning Institute (TLI). I have vivid and fond memories of my eight students (teachers, really), and the lessons these young people taught me (see their blog for more details). What I’m not sure about is whether those lessons apply to teachers of any age or early career teachers only. In the past, with teachers of mixed experience levels, I assumed the most effective approach was to “teach” them how to use a technology tool in several curricular contexts, and then turn them loose to play with and discover the capabilities of the tool themselves. This year, however, my teachers told me that my role was to “introduce” them to the tool for about ten minutes, and then get out of the way so they could learn and incorporate it into their own teaching styles and content; pretty sophisticated stuff from a group of teachers with no more than three years’ experience.

Most experienced teachers now understand that both “the sage on the stage” and “the guide on the side” are not pedagogies that can be used exclusively. When a child’s brain is learning effectively, teacher intervention is minimized, but when anxiety interferes with the learning process (the amygdala kicks in), teacher intervention is often exactly what is needed to restore student confidence. In the case of my TLI teachers, was it their familiarity and comfort with technology that instigated their independent learning or are the current technology tools easy enough to learn either through great product design or superb documentation? If the latter, then I have to rethink professional development for technology integration, minimizing the “presentation” element of the teaching, and becoming more of a resource to assist when teachers get stuck or be a sounding board for their curricular ideas.

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This is an important question for educational technology specialists because it impacts the allocation of our resources. Perhaps large group workshops will turn into information sessions rather than classes. Smaller groups will become collaborative exchanges of ideas rather than tutorials, and one-on-one instruction will really be exploration. In short, the real learning will occur during the interaction with colleagues, and the interaction with technology tools will be more self-taught skills. I welcome such a change if it is real, as it creates conversations in which my colleagues are  talking about student learning rather than which key to press next. What my TLI teachers were reminding me of in June was the need for us to stay focused on why we do what we do, to enable and enhance student learning. I salute these young people for their insights.

eBooks Meet Better Learning

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After reading Craig Mod’s June 2011 article, “Post Artifact Books and Publishing,” I was reminded of my study of history. The reason we can draw conclusions and see trends in the past is because of our distance from the events. In the midst of the eBook “paradigm change,” it is difficult to do the same because we lack that distance. Still, true visionaries such as Craig Mod help us to piece together what may be happening to eBooks. Mod argues that when we stop thinking of books as artifacts, physical and static works that are read in that singular context, we will understand the digital and connected book. Certainly there is a place for books as artifacts. There is little reason for my two favorite novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, to be digital and connected. They stand on their own as great works of literature. Alternatively, a science, math, or history text is really an ongoing conversation about what is true and what is not. The answers and applications change over time.

Last spring, I made the radical assertion that the Learning Management System (Blackboard in our case) should not contain the book (a direction Blackboard is pursuing aggressively), but the book should contain the learning management tools. My students have long told me that the book is their fundamental unit of learning. If we had to strip education of almost everything concrete, students would still prefer to have the book instead of a classroom and technology. The book represents both their anchor and compass. If we listen to our students, we will reverse engineer the teaching and learning tools we currently use, and make the book our platform for delivering content and learning. To make this proposal real rather than a vision for the future, I will develop  a prototype to test in my fall thematic world history course. To illustrate what i am talking about, peruse this preliminary and limited prototype I developed for American Diplomacy using The Learning Mag, a tool developed by Will Delamater at eReadia.

Using the eBook as the learning and content delivery tool, students will enjoy a completely dynamic learning platform in the form of their familiar book. That’s what Craig Mod was suggesting: eBooks are not analog books turned into digital form so they can be read on eReaders, tablets, and laptops. eBooks are dynamic, collaborative, ongoing discussions of knowledge that can be delivered using all of the rich media tools we are currently using in the learning management system. In short, they are one way to meet the needs of our students while still maintaining the high standards of our teachers.

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