Sunday, December 5, 2010

Challenges, Opportunities, and Inspiration

Sometimes it's great to step back from the trees and see the forest. It always leaves me energized and confirms that we're all involved in the most important process in the world - educating for tomorrow.

While the challenges are many - so are the opportunities.

The videos entertain and point us in the right direction.

Enjoy. Get inspired. Take some action.

Sir Ken Robinson - Changing Education Paradigms

 CoSN (Consortium for School Networking) - Learning to Change, Changing to Learn

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bridging Content, Purpose, and Collaboration: Jason Science Reviewed

Reviewing Jason Science  

Thinking, writing, and acting with a focus on education today can seem frustrating sometimes - change seems to happen slowly and the potential seems limitless.  However, it’s worth acknowledging resources that really are working and changing the way that teaching/learning occur. 

In previous posts, we explored three applications that bridge the gap between content, collaboration, and purpose as easy access points to initiate change. One such resource noted in the earlier post was Jason Science and for those of you not familiar with it, you should be. It’s a  great resource that scores very high on placing students in an authentic context - thinking and acting like historians, mathematicians, writers, artists, or (in this case) scientists.

The site is geared for middle school students and combines a traditional online textbook with actual research and expeditions undertaken by scientists in the field. Topics then culminate with analysis of the scientist’s findings as well as a call to action for students to conduct their own research. For example, a unit on Plate Tectonics begins with a chapter on geology with the following culminating activity, known as a mission.

From Jason Science: Tectonic Fury, Mission One

To begin this assignment, you will analyze Dr. Wise’s geochemical data collected from rocks around Sebago Lake in Maine to determine the concentration levels of the element tantalum in different areas. From this analysis, you will determine areas which contain high enough concentrations of tantalum for practical mining. Once you have completed the analysis of Sebago Lake, you will analyze your local geology. Using maps and samples collected in the field, you will develop a model of locations in your area which are economically practical for collecting commercially valuable rocks.

Jason Science is a subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, and the site delivers content with print, text, and digital media.  While some elements are for sale, a great deal of the curriculum materials are available free of charge online.

The materials are an excellent example of authentic learning, but fall short of being called Challenge  Based Learning. (Review the criteria again.)

Another nice touch is the personalization of the content with specific scientists who are shown and briefly introduced. That small piece of personalization, the wealth of content accessible in many formats, and (most importantly) the analysis of real research and the extending challenge/mission of personalizing the concepts to the student’s context, can only help reduce the all-too-familiar student refrain “why are we learning this stuff?”.

It’s worth a visit, and share the site with someone else who you think might be interested.  

Changes in the way students learn don’t happen everyday, we need to reward examples that are making a difference.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Death of Education, Dawn of Learning

I've taken the title of this post from an inspirational video that really speaks to the urgency of our job as educators.
The video comes from the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and obviously includes some technology heavyweights sharing their insights on the future of learning and technology's role with that process.
I found this video on another great blog site called Digital Chalkie.

Thought-provoking stuff.  The implications of such a change obviously require decisions from national systems, Boards of Education, and school design experts. But I'd like to connect this topic to the theme of my blog at a classroom level, and ask two questions:

What 2.0 technologies are out there that teachers find engage students in collaboration and authentic applications of content?

2) When we view the new model of technology/education (as it is shared in this video)  are we better off:
     a) setting up these innovative (and different) types of schools and then comparing their (hopefully improved ) results as an indicator of the new model's effectiveness. In essence, transforming education by leaving the old system behind entirely and signing on new "believers" through data/perceptions?


    b) developing and sharing technologies that assist and support the existing structures (schools/teachers) to apply this new model of learning within their current environment so that a slower but steady groundswell of opinion builds more quickly for the much-needed change to the system.

Obviously, these options are not exclusive of one another. But which is a more effective model to bring about change?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hardware with Innovation Potential

Our posts thus far have focused on the software innovations that have the potential to change education. But lets give some fair time to the school design and hardware issues that are also moving things forward as well.

One interesting innovation is the SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments) idea being developed by Sugata Mitra. His entire concept raises some thought-provoking questions, but the idea that most intrigues me is the development of these SOLEs, and the potential they have to MAKE us change our approach.

I also wanted to share an interesting idea article from the Washington Post which was featured on a daily emailing I receive from SmartBrief on EdTech (which I recommend as well).  My favorite line from the article, discussing the future of education as we contemplate all of these tech changes, states that we'll see a "hybrid model between in-person classes that leverage technology and online classes that replicate human interaction"

I second that.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Evaluating Sites as Effective Problem-Based Technologies: Dreambox, simCEO, and simCity

Our last post developed the criteria for effective educational technology solutions - solutions that have the ability to transform education by integrating Challenge/Project-Based Learning. We outlined criteria that would help develop resources like the Oregon Trail with 2.0 technologies.

Today, we’ll apply these criteria to a few resources, knowing that it is next to impossible to find sites that meet all the criteria. And I’m hoping others can share sites that they feel merit attention!

We’ll start with a quick review of our criteria before reviewing the following three sites.
DreamBox :  K-3 Math site
simCEO: cross-curricular simulation primarily for HS/MS economics
simCity cross-curricular simulation primarily for MS/HS social studies

(Criteria to evaluate effective technology solutions for Challenge/Problem-Based Learning)

What we need then, are educational technology solutions that meet the following criteria:
1) are naturally engaging, placing students in authentic situations which require students to “think like mathematicians / historians / scientists / …” as they apply knowledge and construct their own understandings.
2) are collaborative (and take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies where applicable), promoting an environment that requires learners to discover and make meaning of content together in order to be successful
3) are tied closely enough to content to merit an easy integration in the classroom, but flexible enough so that objectives in varying complexity / disciplines can be met
         3b) are naturally holistic connecting multiple disciplines, contrasted with solutions that allow for extension activities that MIGHT possibly be added to provide connections to other disciplines
4) have a timely (immediate) feedback mechanism, whenever possible
5) allow learning to occur on the learner’s schedule in a relaxed environment
6) meet as many of the other characteristics of best practices in Brain-Based Learning and Project/Challenge - Based Learning as possible.

There are numerous examples of effective uses of technology into which content is naturally embedded - and I define effective technology as “able to re-define how learning occurs” contrasted with simply being a more efficient deliverer of traditional learning.  A few examples that I like are WebAssign   or Jason Science.

But we’re looking for effective examples of Challenge/Project-Based Learning technologies into which content is either embedded or inherent. So, lets get right into applying our criteria to our three sites.

Dreambox Learning
Summary:  A K-3 math site which operates in a closed environment (teachers register and then add their students) in which individual students navigate their way through on online map by answering math problems along the way. Think Dora the Explorer solving math problems to find the treasure !  The instructions/problems go beyond mere computation and offer exercises in truly understanding concepts such as place value. The lessons are personalized to the student’s past navigation and a longitudinal record of growth is shared. Parents can access result as well.

Review: As a multi-award winner, Dreambox has a lot of offer and scores quite well in the latter criteria, numbers 3-6. The immediate feedback and longitudinal record of progress are true assets. The site lacks any inherent collaboration for students - perhaps not surprising given the students' age.  While I can attest to the natural engagement for students from my own daughter’s personal experience,  Dreambox does not perfectly fit the criteria of asking students to “think like mathematicians” in order to succeed in the environment. As mentioned, the tasks themselves are well-developed and aim at mathematical understanding, not necessarily number-crunching. However, the authentic task (navigating the map) is not mathematical in itself. The math lessons are “breaks” along the way of this navigation instead of useful in navigating the terrain.

Summary: (full disclosure, author is the co-creator of this site)
A MS/HS cross-curricular closed simulation (teachers register and then add their students) in which students:

  1. CREATE their own companies
  2. RESEARCH each others' companies online
  3. TRADE:  Manage a portfolio of $10,000 by buying and selling shares in each others' companies which immediately influences share prices.
All of this takes place in a customized environment (place, time, duration of simulation, complexity) that is set by the teacher who can also integrate content by sharing dynamic news (real of fictional) with users, encouraging users to make adjustments along the way.
Participants "win" in one of two ways:

  1. “winning” entrepreneurs create the business that ends with the highest share price
  2. “winning” investors end with the largest portfolio value

Review: SimCEO scores well on all six criteria with two potential weaknesses.
The primary asset of simCEO is that is engages the students in an authentic task that is easy to understand. Students are engaged and excited to succeed. The environment also allows teacher to customize the simulation for age groups or specific outcomes.
The drawbacks:
1) The “content” involved is inherent and not directly stated. This allows more instructor creativity, but poses potential problems because specific content cannot be evaluated as effectively/objectively as DreamBox
2) The collaboration is limited. Individual students have a running message board with the instructor, but not each other. And, while students benefit from seeing how other students respond to specific situations (by reading each others’ business plans, portfolios, and the adjustments to each along the way), individual participants* do not interact with each other to further one another’s knowledge and collaboratively provide a solution to the authentic task. (*Exception: Multiple students can be grouped to constitute an individual)

Summary: You have to be hiding to have not heard of simCity. What began as software that allowed users to create / develop their own cities within a dynamic environment, has expanded now to include additional stand-alone programs focused on creating “destinations”, “societies”, and an added module that allows a more detailed look at transportation issues within simCity.

Review: (note: I have not experienced all the modules mentioned above.)
simCity provides an intriguing and engaging environment for students to apply skills. It scores high on our 6 criteria. The obvious benefits include the clearly defined authentic task that students are engaged in.  There are 3 potential downsides.
1) The simulation engages students in the multi-faceted skill of “city-building”, asking students to apply higher-order skills in an authentic environment. However, the content inherent in city-building does not lend itself easily to traditional classroom content. Creative teachers will need to carefully develop their outcomes and structure the simCity environment in such a way as to allow students to apply their knowledge of this content successfully.
2) The finished product is not, in itself, a product that addresses the content. Whereas, in simCEO or Dreambox, the process of the simulation leads to products and natural feedback on content  (understanding of math problems (for DB) or analysis of news, investment decisions, or persusive business writing (for simCEO) ). simCity instructors must build in these formative and summative assessment prompts into the simulation.

3) Similar to simCEO, the simulation does not provide inherent collaboration between students who are working to come up with one solution.  It could also be argued that there is no obvious "winner" and solutions need to be evaluated much more subjectively.

All three are effective classroom tools. They simply represent examples of what is possible. I’d love to hear of others that stack up well on the proposed criteria. Lets get them out there.

I close this little mini-analysis by sharing an interesting note I picked up from one of my favorite blogs regarding gaming in education: Play Think Learn.
From a March 26 post, Nicola Whitton shared Three challenges for game-based learning
The latter two (of the three) have significance for further developing our list and the challenges that remain for educational game programmers in developing effective technologies.  She shares:

  • The commercial focus on the development of behaviourist learning games, which highlight repetition of fairly trivial tasks, because they are easy to design and easy to evaluate the immediate learning impact. I’m not saying behaviourism doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t have a place in learning, but simply that if the focus is on behaviourist games then we are missing out on a big opportunity. While many games exist that clearly show higher-level learning (for example, the lateral thinking, problem-solving and strategizing required in the Zelda games) these have not yet been translated into games for formal learning.
  • The barriers to entry into the field for most educators. Except in areas such as computing and engineering, it is almost impossible for a teacher with a good idea to develop a learning game, which means that innovation is limited to commercial developments (where markets for sophisticated constructivist games are unproven), research projects or enthusiastic individuals in technical disciplines (where the outputs are often unsustainable) .

As always, your thoughts are welcome and needed.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A "Bridge" Connecting What?

A “Bridge” Connecting What?  

In my last post, we shared some background into Brain-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Challenge-Based Learning.  We left with a few questions:
1) How well-suited are the classroom learning activities aligning with these characteristics? 
2) Specifically, how is technology being used to develop activities that align with these characteristics?

As a visual learner, I've taken the liberty of summarizing the characteristics into a chart. Obviously, there are many overlapping criteria in the three models of learning and I did my best to align similar aspects in the same row, although it is fair to say that these alignments are certainly debatable.

Aligning BBL, PBL, and CBL characteristics

Many of you most likely remember the simulation Oregon Trail - the purpose-filled quest with educational outcomes and content buried within. How closely have we adapted classroom resources like that – utilizing all that Web. 2.0 can do – to create innovative, collaborative, and dynamic environments where students are constructing their own learning for an authentic purpose?

How are we using technology in the classroom to enhance learning?


We all recognize that technology allows us to access INFORMATION – of course, we can thank Google, wikipedia, and those webcams shooting us the live feed of the watering hole in the African safari, but lets not forget other applications (online or not):  digital field trips, explorations of the solar system or the human body, or online textbooks. Technology allows information to be presented in a much more creative manner; it can be interactive; it some cases it can even be responsive and prompt us to construct meaning. These are needed and helpful applications of technology. But at the end of the day, these examples of technology are presenters of information. 

(There is no doubt that if we are utilizing technology correctly in this information-access capacity we need to be re-structuring the “what” of our curriculum to deal with the information overload and instead help students to effectively find, sort, and sift information into a pattern that has meaning - namely, making our students "information literate". 
For those interested, there are many Info. Lit. leaders out there like David Warlick and Patricia Senn Breivik . But I digress… )

The other use of technology in schools tends to be more glorified applications of Web 2.0 and how these technologies are meant to transform school. It is in this category, that we often hear the refrain that the specific technology application is irrelevant, and that the skills of this new “information literate” curriculum are meant to take focus - and somehow 2.0 technologies will easily be incorporated into the classroom to help in this process.

But current Web 2.0 technologies (Twitter, Facebook, and even Wikis and Noodle to a lesser degree) can pose a struggle to a teacher who is aiming to achieve specific learning objectives demanded from state standards. These Web 2.0 applications achieve high-marks in creating the collaborative environment that we all envision in a Problem/Challenge Based Learning classroom,  and they certainly make use of technology to make that environment a reality.  But they will continue to be under-utilized until teachers are presented with a more clearly defined way in which these technologies can get students to the standards in a way that is effective and efficient. We should be striving to also develop technology applications that DO have content embedded (think Oregon Trail) and still allow for learning environments that are consistent with the chart above.

While it is impossible to disagree with wise folks like Dave Warlick who espouse that it isn’t about the technology – that schools today should strive to produce information-literate users who can sift and sort through the mountains of information, recognize bias, and utilize Blooms upper levels fluently – I believe the technology really does matter ! If we attempt to implement 2.0 applications and hope/expect that these the more traditional content standards are integrated more efficiently, we are going to force teachers into an either-or mentality where their devotion to information literacy will almost surely come at the expense of content (and standardized tests) which are so highly valued. In this light, we may be causing a confusion (and reluctance) for some teachers who can't justify the use of these 2.0 technologies and therefore don't embrace them.

 Project Based Learning

There is a third way that technology is being applied which synthesizes the two, known as Project Based Learning. Usually, these include a healthy does of technology (and usually, Web. 2.0 technologies !)  tied into a specific topic such as analyzing water treatment facilities, or saving polar bears. The projects are great examples of specific topics in which students are involved with an authentic purpose and utilizing technology to compile and share data with other student-users who then collaborate on questions, proposals and solutions. In many ways, these projects blend the best of both worlds – the content, skills, and understandings that are needed to analyze water quality combined with Web 2.0 applications to promote collaboration and feedback.

In the truest sense, these authentic activities allow students to “think like scientists / public health officials/ historians /etc." It is no wonder that these are the types of activities that often spur the break-out enthusiasm in students that give the topic life when the unit is over.

If there is a drawback to these, it is that the slices of content may not be applicable to all . (Do other/many schools study water quality in the 9th grade?) Furthermore, these types of projects usually require at least one teacher to be well-versed on the sources referenced, collaboration tools used, and overall structure of the project requirements to become involved. This is especially true for those pioneer teachers who initially start the project and put in significant hours of development.

Bridging this Divide:  Developing / Using Technology AS Problem-Based Learning, Not as a Supplement to It
But we certainly can see the development of technologies that offer both the content and the freedom to teachers and students (again, think Oregon Trail) so that multiple directions can be taken, students can explore, and teachers can customize according to students' abilities and course learning outcomes.

What we need then, are educational technology solutions that meet the following criteria:

1) are naturally engaging, placing students in authentic situations which require students to “think like mathematicians / historians / scientists / …” as they apply knowledge and construct their own understandings.

2) are collaborative (and take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies where applicable), promoting an environment that requires learners to discover and make meaning of content together in order to be successful
3) are tied closely enough to content to merit an easy integration in the classroom, but flexible enough so that objectives in varying complexity / disciplines can be met
          3b) are naturally holistic connecting multiple disciplines, contrasted with solutions that allow for extension activities that MIGHT possibly be added to provide connections to other disciplines
4) have a timely (immediate) feedback mechanism, whenever possible
5) allow learning to occur on the learner’s schedule in a relaxed environment
6) meet as many of the other characteristics of best practices in Brain-Based Learning and Project/Challenge - Based Learning as possible.

Applications that can meet these criteria are easy to integrate and truly help bridge the gap between the two categories of technology integration that largely exist thus far. We’ll have our Oregon Trail for Web 2.0

The most logical source for these types of applications will be educators. In a future posting, we’ll explore some examples that are out there, ask for your help in identifying others, and share a few structural resources that are currently available as well as a few that we need to add in order to encourage more innovative technologies.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bridging the Technology Gap

What better way to start than a short video on Defining Our Problems from Tina Seelig, Executive Director of Stanford University's eCorner. (Full Podcast here.)

I like that video, and not just because it promotes the notion of entrepreneurial thinking (which will likely be a feature of a later post), but because it shows how easily we define our problems in education based on the way in which we pose the question. Namely, that the nature of trying to improve or tweak a system that was set up for yesterday’s outcomes is limiting the amount of progress we can make. Many wise folks are in the midst of educational reform of a larger nature – Joel Rose's A School of One in NYC, and Dennis Litsky’s Big Picture Schools are just two examples. While grander re-assessments such as these are the future, my goal for this blog is to remain in the more mundane world of the current reality – practical applications that have the potential to impact learning in the current school structure and aid the transition of larger reforms by showing what is possible.


Having just returned from the Lausanne Laptop Institute, a great 1:1 Conference at in Memphis, it’s easy to be jazzed about all technology can do to change education.

Like other educational conferences, I always leave with my mind spinning between theory and practice – between what I’ve just heard, and what my school (American International School of Budapest) does.

But I was also left with an uncomfortable feeling as well. Why does it sound so easy to change in theory and yet the applications struggle to be implemented and/or have done fairly little to alter the way in which students learn? I left with a nagging feeling that we still have a gap that does not seem to be addressed much.

Is it really true that “it isn’t about the technology” ? – that it’s about using that technology to teach students about sifting, searching, finding, evaluating, applying, summarizing (and every other higher order of Blooms Taxonomy that can be used). If it’s not about the technology, why is it that so many Web 2.0 technologies (with their wide open infrastructure and social networking opportunities) are not widespread and easily adopted within K-12 settings. And why haven't we integrated this new curricular reality more readily and thrown out the content to make room for the information literacy? I suspect it's because education is a massive institution, and we still have a lot of reluctance toward discarding some of these elements - many are still not sold on how to do this, what it looks like, or how different it all is.

What technologies currently exist that are easy to integrate? How closely do these technologies align with new research-based models of learning, instead of using technology for technology’s sake ? – promoting a more high-tech environment for the same type of learning.

We can’t address these questions until we get some grounding into current learning research, which thankfully is abundant. For the sake of providing some yardstick, we can share some brief nuggets regarding two areas: Brain-Based Learning and Project (or Challenge)-Based Learning. The summaries below are by no means meant to be exhaustive; they are simply meant to provide an overview so that we can attempt to link these areas of research together and have some framework to assess the current uses of technology in education. Interested folks are encouraged to read more about these topics at the links mentioned.

Rendering of human brain.Image via Wikipedia
There is a pleathora of research available for interested learners. I'm a fan of Eric Jensen. Eduscapes also puts together a nice summary and links to a few sites.
Our goal is to simply share a few bullets related to the characteristics of activities that need to be present to tap into the research in brain-based learning. These would include:
(from Caine and Caine's 1994 research)
1. Relaxed alertness - a low threat, high challenge state of mind
2. Orchestrated immersion - an multiple, complex, authentic experience
3. Active processing - making meaning through experience processing

Susan Kovalik identified 9 elements of thematic instruction that are compatible with tapping into brain-based learning. These elements are:
Absence of Threat,
Meaningful Content,
Movement to Enhance Learning,
Enriched Environment,
Adequate Time,
Immediate Feedback, and
Mastery (at the application level)

There are a host of other similar "learnings" out there - authentic, inquiry-based, etc. - that would be applicable here as well. To be succinct, I've only listed the two below.

Again, a wealth of resources are available. (And while they are similar, note that Challenge / Problem are not completely the same.) Here are the major characteristics that define these types of learning activities, as (currently) defined by that bastion of source citation, Wikipedia.

1) Multiple points of entry and varied and multiple possible solutions
2) Authentic connection with multiple disciplines
3) Focus on the development of 21st century skills
4) Leverages 24/7 access to up to date technology tools and resources, allowing students to do the work.
5) Use of Web 2.0 tools for organizing, collaborating, and sharing
6) A focus on universal challenges with local solutions
7) Requirement that students do something rather than just learn about something
8) Documentation of the experience from challenge to solution.

1) is organized around an open-ended Driving Question or Challenge. These focus students’ work and deepen their learning by centering on significant issues, debates, questions and/or problems.
2) creates a need to know essential content and skills. Typical projects (and most instruction) begin by presenting students with knowledge and concepts and then, once learned, give them the opportunity to apply them. PBL begins with the vision of an end product or presentation which requires learning specific knowledge and concepts, thus creating a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts.
3) requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new. Not all learning has to be based on inquiry, but some should. And this inquiry should lead students to construct something new – an idea, an interpretation, a new way of displaying what they have learned.
4) requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication. Students need to do much more than remember information—they need to use higher-order thinking skills. They also have to learn to work as a team and contribute to a group effort. They must listen to others and make their own ideas clear when speaking, be able to read a variety of material, write or otherwise express themselves in various modes, and make effective presentations. These skills, competencies and habits of mind are often known as "21st Century Skills". For more info:
5) allows some degree of student voice and choice. Students learn to work independently and take responsibility when they are asked to make choices. The opportunity to make choices, and to express their learning in their own voice, also helps to increase students’ educational engagement.
6) incorporates feedback and revision. Students use peer critique to improve their work to create higher quality products.
7) results in a publicly presented product or performance. What you know is demonstrated by what you do, and what you do must be open to public scrutiny and critique.

In a general sense, the task before us is to analyze the degree to which our classroom activities support the characteristics of BBL and CBL/PBL. And more specifically, how can technology provide support to move in this direction. To what extent are we designing and utilizing technologies which support these models of learning?

In the next segment, we'll be exploring the two general uses of technology in education thus far, and the bridge that we need to connect the two.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Welcome -

Former Chinese leader Deng XiaoPing, when asked how he explained his desire for socialism with more capitalist elements, quoted a famous Chinese proverb stating:
"No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat."

It can be argued that the current model for education is not structured to be an effective mouse catcher; it is not set up in a manner to allow for students to learn the skills and knowledge that they will need to be effective and productive citizens in tomorrow's world.

With that in mind, I hope to explore innovative, effective learning practices that engage students in skills that will be needed for their future. Technology will obviously play an important role in this process. In short, I hope to find some good cats!

This blog will be my own learning tool - but I hope it proves useful for others as well.