Technology Integration is the Messenger

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For the past twenty-two years, I have partnered with teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. During that time, my partners have fallen into three broad groups with a corresponding range of experiences. The first group consists of those teachers who recognized at some point that student engagement could be radically improved without sacrificing rigor. As a result, these folks were open and willing to experiment with technology tools that met their learning goals, even if some experiments failed. In most cases I served as an enthusiastic coach in the wings just in case something went wrong, encouraging the teacher to take the lead. The second group was open to trying new things, recognized the student engagement issue, but was not completely sold that some form of technology integration was the best solution. They wanted me to play a more visible role, raising their comfort level and being present when the new tool was launched so the kids would see me as a partner in crime with the teacher if the lesson went south. The third group was convinced technology integration would take on a life of its own, and would detract from the classic content and skills that defined the goals of the course (the distraction argument). They weren’t completely closed to the notion that some technology tools might support student learning that was difficult to achieve otherwise, but those scenarios required convincing and a strong support commitment (I’ll work by your side until the bitter end).

This pattern was repeated for many years in a culture where faculty were encouraged, but not required, to innovate. in short, we wanted the development of faculty innovation to move at the pace most comfortable for our teachers. And why not? Their existing teaching was not broken, and in many cases met that high standard of excellence. Our idea was to “future-proof” teaching and learning so societal and technological changes would not take us by surprise. Then one day we changed the rules a bit. We gave every teacher an iPad, but still did not ask anything of our faculty other than to experiment and assess whether this tablet device might help us enhance teaching and learning. Shortly thereafter, however, we did require our students to purchase an iPad. The rationale was that if teachers incorproated great apps to use in and out of the classroom, every student would be able to participate in the new experience. The response, as always, was mixed as the program evolved, but there was a different tone to the negative responses. For the first time, I heard anger. The source of this anger is wonderfully articulated in this post by Terry Heick on the te@chthought site.

I agree with most of Terry’s points, but there is one that stands out for me:

And this is where things get stressful. Technology doesn’t make teaching better or worse, simpler or more complex–it changes it all entirely. The frameworks. The models. The training. The instructional design. Curriculum. Lesson design. Assessment. Learning feedback. Classroom management. School design. All of it.

Not everybody articulates all of these challenges on a regular basis, but they persist as subliminal stimuli that can serve to frustrate and sometimes enrage a teacher who takes great pride in what they do on a daily basis. Again, Terry articulates the underlying reasons; that edtech tools tend to make everything we do more explicit and exposed to the outside world:

Further complicating matters is the difficulty of effectively integrating technology in the classroom. This is hard for some educators (who do it well) to appreciate. You have to understand content, teaching, and technology on nearly equal terms, and when you don’t it all has an awkward way of illuminating the holes in a teacher’s expertise. That doesn’t mean that teachers that question edtech do so simply because they’re not good at it, but rarely do you hear people complain about things they do well.

When edtech consisted of a chalkboard, we walked into our classroom, closed the door, and engaged in the art of teaching. When all of your course content, explicit pedagogy, assessments, and rubrics are on the web, for example, the whole world might know how you teach, how you approach your curriculum, and your relationship with students. Removing the kimono can be a very humbling and threatening experience, even if this additional explicit scaffolding has a significant upside for students.

Then we hear Finland bragging that they achieve the highest PISA scores in the world without any technology, and one is suddenly cast in the role of questioning whether the anger of some of our teachers is justified. In response to the anger issue, I would supplement the view Terry presents. First, technology integration, as Terry points out above, can be inherently disruptive to educators and education. There are a cadre of people out there, led by Clayton Christensen, who champion disruptive innovation on the grounds that education today suffers from an incompatibility between current practice and the way kids learn. Their solution stops short of blowing up the existing infrastructure, but creates evolving pockets of disruptive innovation that demonstrate success, and then incorporates them into schools in ways that will effectively transform the traditional structure. What Christensen calls for, customized learning, student-centric classrooms, and increased use of appropriate technology, are sound principles of twenty-first century education. The challenge is getting there, and if we are going to retain the good teachers who have dedicated their lives to our kids, then I suspect a less disruptive and more organic shift will be necessary (putting tremendous pressure on good professional development resources). It is critical to remember that while this disruption is occurring, we are still educating children. I would hope that our students do not become the casualties of a necessary sea-change in the educational process. For many years, each time school systems implemented new programs, the kids caught in the transition were the losers while teachers and administrators adjusted and learned new approaches on an annual basis. Further disruption on a larger scale could result in more disconnect between students and their educational goals.

Second, since the advent of the personal computer, the laptop, and particularly with mobile devices, it has become clearer that the teaching and learning focus in the classroom is shifting. In that shift, teachers are still the experts and the necessary role models for our children, but the learning process becomes more dependent on active engagement by students (as a result of both culture and brain research). We have evolved beyond an educational system that was designed to turn out good American citizens who would find gainful employment, making a contribution to our world-class economy (the factory model). We have progressed from a series of self-contained disciplines and skills that had a finite core to an interdisciplinary world that has an unlimited scope of knowledge and leaves us with more questions than answers. Problem-solving is often beyond the reach of individuals, and must be attacked by groups of people globally with a variety of skills and expertise. So, the other source of teacher anger with technology is the age-old process of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Yes, there are technology tools that will enhance the learning experience in a teacher-centered classroom, but they  are limited to tools that support the curation and presentation of rich digital resources, basic research, and document production. Reaping the full benefit of edtech in a mobile environment requires students to take charge of their own learning, and use their mobile tools for good reason: to connect with others to solve problems, to polish and enhance collaborative research skills, to create their own content in peer groups, and to make things using tools for design. If the approach to teaching and learning changes to a more student centered enterprise, then technology integration becomes a smoother process because all of the issues that Terry mentioned above must be addressed prior to the incorporation of technology (the last step in curriculum design is matching the technology tools to the goals of the lesson). Otherwise, edtech becomes the stimulus for rethinking teaching and learning. That has been a widely used strategy for promoting innovation in our schools, but one unintended consequence is that edtech becomes the messenger that innovation is necessary, and is therefore the object of the ire of some teachers.


Why the debate about technology in education is over

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Sometimes one is asked an innocuous question that leads to a good deal of reflection. In this case, I was asked to recommend articles characterizing the debate regarding the effectiveness of technology in education. I quickly thought of positioning somebody like Nicholas Carr opposite Will Richardson, providing a clear debate forum. Then I realized that I would be doing the individual requesting the information a disservice. While there will always be naysayers who believe that both the pristine Socratic approach to learning should not be sacrificed and technology invites lack of focus and distraction, the resulting dichotomy created by Will Richardson, who argues that learning is necessarily collaborative, and effectiveness is the right network of connections, just feels contrived. The differences articulated in the traditional debate are polar extremes rather than a synthesis of how technology reinforces our best efforts at teaching and learning. And that is why the debate is no longer useful.

The Socratic Method

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If we think about the changes in technology, education, and brain research that have occurred since the mid-90s, it is not surprising that a debate that had substance at one time no longer does. Recall the famous Apple promotional video made at the Dalton School during that timeframe. It led to countless visits by educators worldwide to see what Dalton was doing. We  overlooked the primary lesson learned then, and only today has it become more clear. In the video, Frank Moretti, then Assistant Head of School (currently at Columbia’s CCNMTL), likened the integration of technology in education to the use of a lever to move a boulder. Somehow we forgot that message, and became very focused on the tools themselves instead of how they were being used in the context of a teacher’s pedagogy. Even today, we read from reputable journalists that online learning will eliminate the need for teachers. It sounds like failing to move the boulder, and deciding to walk around it. We move forward, but the boulder is still there to potentially crush us.

Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the dominance of web media, and the incredible availability of information if you know where to look, we are in a position to move the boulder with a much more sophisticated lever than we had in 1995. Given the latest brain research, we can keep our students stimulated and learning by encouraging them to engage others, exercising higher order thinking skills, and embracing an interactive world that was previously available only in printed narrative or teacher lectures. And yes, our students will be distracted, and yes, boys will not embrace these new tools for learning as quickly as girls, but since we can anticipate these nuances, we can adjust to them.

At the end of the day, however, the effective integration of technology tools is all about excellent teaching. When we believed that technology alone could improve education, we stumbled again and again. Some of the tools excited teachers and students for a brief shining moment, but the Hawthorne Effect is neither real nor sustainable. It takes talented teachers who understand the current educational landscape and believe that our profession is all about kids learning, and teachers coaching those kids, to make the transition to 21st century learning. Much of public education today is a “Race to Nowhere,” packed with metrics that are based on the factory model fallacy that all kids learn the same way and have the same potential. We know these assumptions are biologically flawed, but are unwilling to confront those assumptions in this “land of opportunity.” In every school, public and private, there are great teachers, assisted by great technologies, that constitute the tipping point for effective teaching and learning, and they have done it with the tools that our kids are using; they have met our kids where they live and learn. The fundamental principles of the pristine Socratic method, the Agora of the classroom, have not changed. What has changed is how we implement the engagement and learning that the Classical Greeks made fundamental to their culture. Doing that successfully incorporates the best of the old and new, and consequently ends the debate.

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A Social Media and Politics Project

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I’m currently working with one of our best students on a Capstone project that asks the following question: “Is there a form of social media that, properly analyzed, could be used to predict the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election?” After consulting with a polling expert at Wesleyan University, we came to the conclusion that it was possible to use social media based on polling theories, but that we would be in uncharted waters. This Professor suspected there was a chance that Twitter might be used to forecast a national election outcome, based on the assumption that Twitter had become a reliable gauge of public sentiment in some circles. My student immediately searched for similar studies and uncovered the following:

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

1. The CIA has an  entire division that does nothing but look at public data for the purpose of characterizing the mood of a nation or group: “The intelligence analysts at the agency’s Open Source Center, who other agents refer to as ‘vengeful librarians,’ are tasked with sifting through millions of tweets, Facebook messages, online chat logs, and other public data on the World Wide Web to glean insights into the collective moods of regions or groups abroad.” (The Atlantic Monthly – Jared Keller)

2. Analysis of Twitter feeds have already been used to predict the behavior of the stock market, perhaps an even more fickle index than public sentiment: “Here we investigate whether measurements of collective mood states derived from large-scale Twitter feeds are correlated to the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) over time… we find an accuracy of 87.6% in predicting the daily up and down changes in the closing values of the DJIA.” (study completed at Indiana University)

I love this project because it combines rigorous analysis of political trends and a study of Twitter as a predictive rather than reflective social networking tool (what some have called “crowdsourcing”). Suppose we could ascertain the ongoing sentiment of our students through a review of an appropriate Twitter feed?  Love to hear your feedback.

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Online Learning and Quality Education


I recently completed an online course entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I suppose that makes it a meta-course. The Online School for Girls (OSG) was the course provider, and my instructor was a science teacher at the Westover School. Of course, in the online world, it wouldn’t matter where she taught. Suffice it to say she was very good online instructor. While I learned a great deal about constructing online courses, I also reflected about whether one could create an online course that would approach or exceed the quality of the best face to face (F2F) courses.

Online Learning

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Several observations and  lessons come to mind:

  1. In the online world, the teacher cannot be the center of the classroom. That structural modification, although it has been endorsed for years, is transformed from a suggestion to a requirement. Students are self-directed based on the instructions and requirements of the course. That means the content and activities have to be designed for student-directed learning.
  2. The notion of time is completely redefined: a) Course content and activities must be divided between what would have been class time and homework time. Both are now merged into one online setting. b) Concrete goals and activities are no longer defined by days or numbers of classes. The online course provides a roadmap of activities, and can impose due dates on those activities, but the parameters of task completion must be explicitly spelled out because there are no bells ringing or class attendance requirements. The course is goal-oriented rather than time slice-oriented. c) Length of online courses is also variable. Courses with specific objectives are completed when those objectives are met (novel idea?). Those timeframes may be 4 weeks, 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, and may not fall neatly into the boundaries of terms or semesters.
  3. The notion of interaction is also redefined. Some interaction between teacher and students can occur as it does in the F2F world; technologists call that synchronous communication — all parties are interacting in the same time slot. More commonly, however, the interaction is asynchronous, meaning that teacher and students communicate at their leisure during a loosely defined timeframe. Knowing which method is appropriate for a given lesson component is critical to ensuring student success, and both techniques are important to simulating a F2F classroom.
  4. Clarity and feedback have a higher standard in the online world. We always strive to be clear with our students, but if we are in a F2F classroom, we will know there is confusion by observing either questions from students or looks of confusion on their faces. In the online world, there will not be immediate feedback, often requiring student initiative to clear up the confusion. Frequency of assessment, both formative and summative, would be more important in the online world so students receive more rapid feedback in the absence of the F2F teacher.
  5. There are web tools available to help teacher and students get to know each other and communicate better. Threaded discussion boards, video lessons, screen casts, VoiceThreads, online chat or video chat, and Skype bring people closer together when online. I felt like I knew several of my classmates reasonably well through these tools, but am not sure whether I would have known them even better if we had enrolled in a F2F class.
My initial conclusion, having completed my test drive of an online course, is that we might approach the quality of a F2F class, and that would mean quality online learning has a future. The questions of whether online learning is a good substitute for F2F classrooms, and under what circumstances, still stand, however. I’d like to hear feedback.
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Hybrid Class Discussions

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The independent school world has always prided itself on an approach to learning that was effective and well-suited for smaller class sizes. It is popularly known as the Harkness method, named for the inventor of the oval tables (1930) that were used to promote self-directed class discussions. The belief was that students could be trained to participate regularly and substantively in discussions that were designed to ferret out the answers to essential questions of the daily lesson.

Harkness Method

Harkness Method

For three quarters of a century, the Harkness method has worked well in educational environments where the faculty believes that students are capable of discovering and constructing knowledge with well-crafted coaching from the teacher. As I reflect on my experiences with what we tend to call “discussion-driven” classrooms, I see some challenges with today’s students that might be addressed with minor modifications to the original concept. These changes are based on two assumptions:

  • Not all students participate in discussion for a variety of reasons, even if it is an expectation of the course.
  • Even though class sizes are smaller in independent schools, discussions of 12-16 students almost guarantee that not everybody will be able to participate regularly.
The hybrid model is not an original idea. Others have proposed several iterations over the past few years, so this proposal is simply a variation on a theme:
  • Divide the class into two random groups of similar size.
  • One group engages in a traditional class discussion.
  • The other group participates in the discussion through a live blog such as CoverItLive that is projected in the classroom (they are not permitted to speak).
  • On a daily basis, students shift frequently between the spoken and written contribution, but both groups are expected to participate together and in concert.

There are several benefits to this strategy (if it works) that might speak to the individual needs of some students. Those who are intimidated or prefer not to speak in class will have the opportunity to participate. Those who prefer to reflect on a question before responding will have the opportunity to do so in the written genre. Those students who dislike writing as a form of expression will write more frequently, and about topics and viewpoints that they feel strongly about (the same motivations for speaking in class).

Will there be challenges implementing the hybrid discussion? I can anticipate several. First, the logistics of ensuring some continuity between the two camps may be complex. Traditional discussions sometimes move at a pace that would be difficult to match for writers. On the other hand, slowing down discussions to encourage more depth might be a benefit. Second, students may not like the hybrid format, both because it is different (and therefore risky) and because they will not always be able to play their stronger suit, depending on the group to which they are assigned. Again, alternating groups might strengthen both spoken and written skills over time.

After I have experimented with the hybrid discussion in my class for a few weeks, I will report back in this blog with anecdotal results and student feedback. I am hoping I can add the hybrid discussion to the “teacher toolkit for increased student engagement” that I am building this year.

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Engagement and Learning

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I’m currently taking an online course from the Online School for Girls (OSG) entitled “Teaching Online Courses.” I’ll talk more about the experience when I complete the course in two weeks, but I do want to talk today about one of the challenges of online course design that I have encountered.

Online Learning

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Posting content to an online course doesn’t seem very different than posting that same content in Blackboard for my face-to-face (F2F) classes. The greater challenge is what to do online to replace the 200 minutes of class time that will no longer exist, at least as we know it in the traditional sense.

If I am to keep a high school student’s attention for 200 minutes over the course of a week without any F2F contact, then I will have to provide individual and collaborative lessons that are high on the engagement meter. What do I mean by engagement? I love Carol Ann Tomlinson‘s explanation from her 1999 book, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum:

Engagement happens when a lesson captures students’ imaginations,
 snares their curiosity, ignites their opinions, or taps into their souls.
Engagement is the magnet that attracts learners’ meandering attention
and holds it so that enduring learning can occur. Understanding means
more than recalling. It means the learner has “wrapped around” an important
idea, has incorporated it accurately into his or her inventory of how things
work. The learner owns the idea (p. 38). 

After pondering the passage, I think of either highly collaborative activities that require students to work with their peers, engage in problem solving, and resolve differences in point of view, or individual activities that emphasize good communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship, and a good deal of imagination (Wow! These are among Tony Wagner’s seven skills students need for their future). I’ve addressed a few of these in the F2F classroom, but that was my option, or so I thought. In the online classroom, I must develop these skills if I wish to truly engage my students.

The last sentence in Tomlinson’s quote, however, is the most telling. How do we, as teachers, help guide our students to ownership of ideas? This is not a legal question about intellectual property, but a pedagogical question about the role of the teacher. When you design an online course, many of the traditional structures of teaching and learning are collapsed because the classroom is no longer fixed in time and space. Therefore, I cannot be a “sage on the stage,” and must morph into a “guide by the side.” Isn’t it interesting that those elements that are essential to online courses are also critical to student engagement and mastery of skills for the future? If one accepts the premise of the question, then one would also want to transform or at least modify the traditional F2F classroom in the same manner, even though it may not be a requirement.

That may be why current research from the U.S. Department of Education (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning) concludes the following (with qualifications): Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction (p.xv). Thus, my conclusion is that every teacher learn to teach an online course; not because many of those teachers will likely teach an online course in the K12 world or because K12 education will become primarily online in delivery, but because it will help to instruct us in making our traditional or blended curriculum more engaging for our students. That is the primary reason I need to take the online course I am taking very seriously. It will make me a better teacher regardless of the delivery model.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the experience of taking an online course and how integrating some online or blended courses into the curricula of bricks and mortar schools can create a more acceptable cost model for the school.

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