Monday, January 30, 2012

Social media spaces and learning potential...#change11

    At the invitation of my district’s educational technology department, I recently presented to a group of instructional leaders about the use of social media in education. Specifically, my topic was Twitter. In planning the session, I decided to avoid the discussion of how students might use Twitter in the classroom, opting instead to excerpt a couple of paragraphs from Personal Learning Networks, by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli, before presenting a quick YouTube video* and linking to some relevant hashtags and users.
(I used this page on my wiki and asked for participants to reflect on a Google Doc one day and an Edmodo discussion thread another day.)
    The session was a success in that it generated a big buzz among the participants, most of whom opted to create Twitter accounts although I had not required, recommended or facilitated their doing so. Principals giggled, listing and followed each other. My old boss asked why her profile picture was an egg. When I explained the relationship between Twitter's bird logo and her default profile pic, she delighted site's nifty metaphor about comparing new users with unhatched chicks.
    Since the participants grappled with the safety concerns of student use during earlier presentations on YouTube and Facebook, I closed with the first minute and a half of Will Richardson’s TED talk and made the comment, “ In the interest of full disclosure, I could have just as easily guided you through Twitter content that would have generated a strong anti-Twitter sentiment. I thought for our purposes today it was more important to show how it might be used in professional development and why a high school teacher might argue for allowing students to use Twitter for research.” I wanted to finish in a way that might both honor and push back against their critical thinking about social media tools in the classroom.
    Afterward, I returned to an analogy I’ve been kicking around: Saying that schools should not use social media tools in the classroom by citing the potential dangers is like schools citing crime statistics and refusing to do community-oriented projects in the city of Chicago. Facebook is a huge virtual space that users explore largely without tour guides. As we consider the use of virtual spaces, especially gigantic virtual spaces like Facebook and Twitter, how can we map those spaces and identify the learning spaces within with the best potential?

* In an interesting connection to Howard Rheingold’s discussion of attention and his directing participants to the selective attention test, I noticed only on the third or fourth viewing of my screencast video that one of the trending hashtags on Twitter during my recording was "#mustybutthole," which went completely unnoticed even among my co-facilitators who sat through my session twice in three days. A sadistic part of me wanted to point it out afterwards** as an example of selective attention.

**Aside from my sadistic impulse, I would direct educators’ to the inappropriate hashtag in order to point out that Twitter, like most any public space that educators might explore for possibilities, will have evidence of public use that educators might categorize as misuse.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ritual Dissent (#Change11)

During his live webinar last week in the change11 MOOC, Dave Snowden discussed the power of ritual dissent to support decision making, saying that there is tremendous learning in organizations happening in the ritual grumbling around the water cooler.

Because of my work as an instructional coach in a large school district, I think about the role of dissent among educators in a school. In collaborative learning environments, like the workshops I’ve attended and sometimes facilitated through my local National Writing Project site, I often hear teachers remark that the learning opportunities are so much stronger when they have an opportunity to escape the typical discourse of negative coworkers. So, I wonder about the benefits of water cooler-style grumbling.

On the other hand, I also believe that a large organization like my school district can fall into repetitive cycles of “groupthink,” where the same types of ideas recur year after year and solutions to new challenges sound reminiscent of our typical approaches.

Recently, I have begun using a version of Peter Elbow’s believing and doubting game in workshops I lead about 21st Century Literacy. On these few occasions, I notice less vocal community members, freed perhaps by the protocol, challenging more vocal members. After these workshops, when I sift through teachers’ handwritten doubts about the role of technology in education, I also find that the opportunity to dissent has allowed some to express their fear.

In learning environments, where so much of the learning potential ought to be measured by the interaction between, and the participation of the participants, what are some ways we can put a premium on dissent?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Close study and cow clicking... #Change11

A thought that resonated with me from Dave Snowden's live session this week in #change11: If instructors identify the learning outcomes for a course too narrowly, we leave no room for independent thought. Thoughtful  instructional design creates a learning environment with room for student exploration and discovery.

Snowden experiments with assessment that privileges original thought, and he talked about a course he teaches in which a substantial part of the grade is dependent on the students' ability to think of things he, the instructor, had not already thought of. Traditional instructional design, including some thoughtful backwards design, does not account for the possibility of student discovery as anything more than an anomaly indicative of "giftedness."
Snowden’s comments support an inquiry-based approach in classrooms, virtual or physical. In my experience as a literacy teacher, one of the strongest models for providing students an opportunity to engage in an exploratory, focused inquiry comes from Katie Wood Ray's Study Driven. Ray advocates for writing instruction based on "close study" of texts, where students deconstruct mentor texts in order to discover possibilities for their own writing. By beginning with the question "What do you notice?" a teacher provides students practice with the transferrable skill of deconstructing a thing in order to identify possibilities for constructing something that might approximate, resemble or surpass the deconstructed model. The teacher guides- a sage alongside- supporting the deconstruction. This type of instruction leaves room for students to discover things that the teacher never noticed about a piece of writing, a genre, or an author's body of work.

That is one way I try to understand Snowden's critique of identifying outcomes prior to instruction. I'm also reminded of a story I read recently in Wired Magazine about Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker, a social media video game he created to demonstrate the pointlessness of social media games. Bogost identified the learning outcomes participants in his game would acheive. By playing his one dimensional, challenge-free, strategy-free game, he reasoned, his audience would both experience and agree with his commentary on social media games. Instead, his game, designed to bore and discourage participants, gained popularity. More important, players commented that Cow Clicker actually involved a deep strategy that escaped the designer, where users found ways to entice other players to click on cows other than their own, discovering ways to manipulate other actors in the network. To his own chagrin, and contrary to his intended outcome, Bogost worked on the game for more than a year to see his experiment through and to meet the consistent demand of the gamers who clicked on cows.

In an online environment, like this MOOC, the feedback learners receive can resemble the feedback in a social media game, quantifiable in blog posts, comments and re-tweets. It is up to the learner to make meaning of it all. Participants might choose to borrow from Katie Wood Ray’s concept of close study, deconstructing and studying the parts of this MOOC we access in order to understand the concepts the course explores in the hopes of reaching new insights, in pursuit of original discovery. 


Saturday, January 21, 2012

I don't want to...

After a fairly typical week of my work in classrooms and in collegial coaching conversations, I found myself thinking about the approaches that I find promising when working with teachers and those that I will not try for fear that I might find myself working with teachers in a way that devalues what they bring to their work or betrays the trust that seems central to my work.

When I think about it too hard, I’m reminded of Lloyd Dobler explaining his thoughts about his future to Diane’s dad in the movie Say Anything. 

Here’s what the instructional coach version sounds like:

I’ve been giving my approach to instructional coaching a great deal of thought. I have decide that I don’t want to mandate anything, prescribe anything or require anything as an instructional coaching strategy. I don’t want to prescribe anything mandated or required, or mandate anything that is required or prescribed. I know I don’t want to require a teacher to teach in way that is prescribed or mandated.

I also do not want to monitor for teaching strategies that have been mandated, prescribed or required. Nor do I see myself assessing anything someone has monitored in response to a mandate, prescription or requirement.

I don’t want to report on anyone, assess anyone or try to read deeply into someone’s thinking to see how they are responding to a mandate, prescription or requirement.

I’ve read several books on instructional coaching now, and gotten just enough experience with it that I think I can support teachers with their instruction when they want support with planning, teaching, assessing and evaluating.

What I am really interested in now are Jim Knight’s partnership principles and using dialog to identify the best ways I can help a teacher with the thinking work and the teaching work they do in the course of their sometimes-hectic jobs. Basically, I cannot figure it all out right now, so I’m just going to listen to teachers and ask them in a lot of different ways how I can help with what is currently interesting them or challenging them the most.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Before we dismiss the massive, networked course...#change11

During Friday’s live session for the Change11 MOOC, Valerie Irvine and Jillianne Code questioned the importance of the recent popularity of Stanford’s online course that registered more than 58,000 participants. One of them asked, “Who would want that?”  

At first glance, from a student’s perspective, an online course of 58,000 cannot provide a learning experience comparable to a traditional course. We know from experience that larger courses mean less contact with instructors. In a large college course with 200 or more students, the instructor typically lectures from the floor of a hall in front of students in stadium style seating. So, as the size of the course grows, the value for the learner seems to shrink. Through that lens, the huge participation in Stanford’s course seems to be an Internet phenomenon, like the 32 million views of The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger , a “viral video” on YouTube.

Irvine and Code are not alone in their skepticism about the learning potential in a large course. According to the Illinois online network, the value of an online course deteriorates when the number of students enrolled exceeds 20.

Online learning has its most promising potential in the high synergy represented by active dialog among the participants, one of the most important sources of learning in a Virtual Classroom. However, in larger classes (20 or more students), the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator. The medium is not being used to its greatest potential.

This argument follows a very traditional line of thought that we can hear in the halls of schools right now, where teachers feel their instructional capacity diminish when the number of students in a brick and mortar classroom exceeds 20 or 25. A teacher faced with a classroom of 40 students in a brick and mortar school will typically express a sense of hopelessness. In my role as an instructional coach, I find myself thinking with teachers about how to manage the paper load that is a byproduct of a teacher-centered classroom.

One of my expressed goals in participating in this MOOC is to explore the possibilities of networked learning that Micheal Wesch presents in A Portal to Media Literacy. (I’ve chopped out the pertinent excerpt using Tube Chop, but I highly recommend the hour-long YouTube original.)

In courses like this MOOC or in Stanford’s open course, the role of the teacher is transformed to such a degree that we have to look carefully at the role of the student to really consider the potential value for learners. Wesch cites Metcalfe’s law as a driving force behind rethinking teaching and learning at the university. The learning opportunity of large open courses lies in the ties or potential connections. The number of participants creates the opportunity for social learning among those enrolled, alleviating to some degree the problem of not having instructor contact. 

Seen through this lens, the opportunity to learn from peer participation and interaction in a MOOC compares favorably to so many gigantic lecture style classes at traditional universities, where the structure situates classmates as competitors rather than potential supports. With professors and institutions focusing heavily on research, freshman courses are often tended most closely by graduate teacher assistants, whose availability is often as limited as their teaching expertise and their depth of content knowledge. Now an open course, with the explicit invitation to collaborate with peers, who, by virtue of their sheer numbers, would be accessible around the clock, begins to look favorable to the brick and mortar lecture hall and its steep price tag.

Another consideration: I think it is worth noting that I’ve received more peer feedback on my writing for this MOOC in two weeks than I received on all the papers I wrote during my freshman and sophomore year at a public university. That says as much about the importance of blogging and authentic publication as it does about the learning structures in a MOOC. Before we dismiss MOOCs and open courses as inferior to traditional courses, we have to consider potential of networked learning in comparison to some of the broken, antiquated learning structures bundled into a public university education.

Comments welcome.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Talking while the teacher is talking: learning in the back channel of #change 11

I’ve experimented with back channels in my 7th grade language arts classroom. On occasion, I used it as a way to focus students’ attention during Socratic circles. The outer circle of students, three times larger than the inner, armed with netbooks, had to respond on a wiki page discussion thread to the participants’ comment during the discussion. The outer circle recorded questions, reactions and quotations from the one participant they tracked. Since I was working with adolescents, the silent social opportunity during the Socratic circle kept everyone active and engaged, which can be a challenge when the outer circle has to sit quietly and record on tally sheets or some other paper record to track the conversation.

So, I believe in the potential of back channels and was excited to participate in the chat room during both of Howard Rheingold’s live sessions for the MOOC this week. From past experiences in Blackboard Collaborate, I’ve grown accustomed to the webinar format and I bounced my attention from the chat thread to the video feed of Rheingold’s presentation. It was interesting to participate this way. He taught us that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, just task switching. According to Rheingold, we pay attention costs with each switch.

With that learning in mind, I reflected on my participation. Between the two sessions I felt at times engaged, rewarded and distracted by the chat.

I wonder: What are the implications for teaching and learning in back channels, when participants effectively talk while the teacher is talking?

I’m thinking of ways participants might revisit the back channel transcript to support ongoing thoughtful participation and so that we might better understand the potential. Here are three possibilities I see for using the back channel transcript:

1. Have participants search through a transcript of the back channel and code their responses based on how they feel their participation impacted their attention to the session or their learning.

2. Ask participants to connect the small, quick discussions with other discussions online. For example, search for discussion forums and comment threads elsewhere online where participants might extend their conversations. (A quick teacher discussion in a chat room might easily connect to some of the larger group discussion threads on, for example.)

3. Ask each participant to identify the most important post in the back channel and blog about that immediately afterward.

Please add any suggestions you might have in the comments.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Surviving Education: #change11

In his talk today for #change11, Howard Rheingold spoke about being a survivor of the education system, venturing a guess that if he was a student today, he would likely be medicated. Lucky for him, his teachers sent to the art room- where his mother taught- which probably provided a small solace in the face of a larger concern that boys often encounter: classrooms just don’t seem to fit.

This type of reflection is so important for educators - me- to hear, the idea that a distinguished thinker and teacher had to learn in the margins and on the edges of school, and sometimes endure compulsory education. So often, teachers and leaders in education- me-  develop blind spots about the quality of their education as a direct result of the success they experienced in school. We struggle to see clearly a system that rewarded us consistently.

At the most recent convention of the Colorado Language Arts Society, I had an opportunity to listen to Jovan Mays, an award winning slam poet from Colorado, speak about his experience in school and how he developed a love for writing and the spoken word. Interestingly, he confessed to toiling in the “low reading” classes for much of his educational career and to suffering from a misdiagnosis of ADHD. His story and his poetry are an inspiration to anyone who teaches or writes, but what I took from his talk is that he survived school by excelling at football (he went on to play Division I) and slam poetry. Lucky for Mays, a high school English teacher stopped labeling him and started paying attention to his passion for poetry. As a result, Mays is probably writing right now.

Our schools don’t have tests to identify talented poets, especially ones who grow too restless to sit quietly and read after a few hours.

So, I have to attribute my small academic successes to not only aptitude and effort, but also to my ability to sit still - which some of my peers might have lacked. I have to reflect that I probably would not have done very well on a test to identify talented poets. Lucky for me, schools are only testing for speed and accuracy, those skills that serve me so well when I’m watching game shows.

A local teacher and writer, Mark Overmeyer, writes about his effort to work on his own blind spots in his book What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop. In spite of his self-proclaimed lack of coordination, he took a modern dance class at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City. “I purposefully set out to take something that would make me struggle.” Overmeyer trips and stumbles in spite of expert instruction, but gains insight about teaching that he might not if he took a writing course and - surprise- excelled.

When I heard Rheingold speak today, I returned to an idea in Overmeyer’s first chapter and in Mays’ presentation at the CLAS conference: Schools don’t need to change for students who traditionally find success in them- though we might question how we should best qualify success in a system so bent on quantifying it- schools need to understand and better support students who struggle to learn in school. We don’t need a system that serves only the lucky.

Here’s hoping that the culture of learning emerging online helps us in our effort to understand learning better.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sorry I'm late for #change11

I kept my New Year’s resolution yesterday, joining the #change11 MOOC. My modus operandi in open courses is to arrive late and participate as though I haven’t missed a thing. This fall I participated in the P2PU course, Writing and Common Core: Deeper Learning for All, joining in week three of and eight week course. Staying true to form, I’ve jumped on this MOOC’s train long after it left the station.

Still, I find myself wanting to apologize or gain approval. My experience with schooling tells me to talk with the teacher, offer an excuse, and inquire about how to make up what I’ve missed. Having read quite a bit about open, distributed courses, I know I have no such responsibility and the compulsion to make up what I missed is a misplaced desire, a remnant from traditional education that sticks with me.

In a college Spanish class, I involuntarily glued halting Spanish sentences together with verbs left over from high school French. One learning experience carries over to another.

A traditional course is to an open course as reading a book is to reading Twitter, the underlying processes are the same- learning and reading- but the context is different enough that it will take some getting used to. I was surprised reading Personal Learning Networks, by Richardson and Mancabelli, at just how explicit the authors were in explaining how to read Twitter. They explained that “few if any Twitter users actually read all the tweets from those they follow,” (Richardson and Mancabelli, Kindle location 1145).

In this MOOC, on the how it works page, the facilitators make the reading expectations clear:

You are NOT expected to read and watch everything. Even we, the facilitators, cannot do that. Instead, what you should do is PICK AND CHOOSE content that looks interesting to you and is appropriate for you. If it looks too complicated, don't read it. If it looks boring, move on to the next item.

Intrigued by this endeavor to filter off everything about school that doesn’t mesh with learning, I gauge my comfort level in a learning environment where I can arrive late, leave early and I don’t have to keep up with the reading. I’m left to reflect on how open education models have the potential to help us rethink so many of the sacred cows in education that really lean on old paradigms of scarcity and authority.

So I’m hopeful.

But I’m also a product of a traditional education, and I can report experiencing anxiety about falling behind in the P2PU course and budgeting time to share my final project and my reflection. I asked myself how I could feel the same anxiety for an open course with no tangible responsibility on my part. (One night I told my wife I needed a few hours to finish my homework.) I wonder now if my sense of commitment to the course was raised by the small numbers in the course (someone might notice if I don’t finish), or by my participation in the webinars, which might have made me feel committed to the other participants.

On Twitter yesterday, I read a tweet from @koutropoulos, in which he asked if taking two open courses, #ds106 and #change11 “would be too much together.” It caught my attention because his concern strikes me as evidence of how traditional education informs our thinking in distributed courses, where responsibility and authority function so differently. A traditional graduate student would definitely have to weigh the responsibilities of taking two courses at once because the work load could be prohibitive and his performance might suffer. In these MOOCS, however, a student could sign up for both and do exactly as much as he wanted in either. All his participation would only add value to the courses, so why would someone interested in both choose one or the other? I wondered if his concern about the age old balancing act of managing course load is a holdover from traditional education, like my desire to apologize for arriving late and my nerves about finishing my homework for my P2PU course. “There is only one logical choice,” I said to my computer screen. “Sign up for both. There is no down side. Right? Stephen Downes is not going to fail you.”  

Is he? Do I need to show up at his office hours and talk to him about all the work I’ve missed?

Some questions:
What are the implications going forward? Will future generations of students construct their own schedules, choosing to participate in, for example, two MOOCS a semester and two traditional courses? Will they make those decisions based on how they learn best and how they respond to syllabuses, homework and instructor feedback?