10 October 2012

Looking at someone else's course and this week's readings

I had to do a little writing for the week:


There are many elements of a course which contribute building a successful learning community.  I found the Venn Diagram (Swan, 2004) useful in thinking about this idea. As instructors, our responsibility is to create an environment conducive to learning, which contains three types of presence: social, teaching, and cognitive. Students coming from a face-to-face environment (or being a part of one at the same time) will crave the social presence. In fact, I would say this social piece is extremely (if not the most) important of the three. According to Social Development Theory, social interaction plays a vital role in the process of cognitive development(Vygotsky, 1978). If an online course is expected to be a successful learning community, it must include those critical elements. They are opportunities for students to interact

  1. with one another,

  2. with the instructor,

  3. and with the content.

This must all be done in such a way that students can interact asynchronously (or with synchronously, but in limited amounts). This sounds an impossible task, but we have found that there are many tools available to both students and instructors that make it possible to build community in a course.

Before we go much further, Roblyer & Ekhaml (2000) bring up a good point when they that a definition of interaction must be agreed upon. Citing Gilbert & Moore (1998) they note that “interaction… is a reciprocal exchange between the technology and the learner, a process… referred to as ‘feedback’.” This seems like a reasonable way to describe it. I once described it in a blog post as a sharpening stone and a knife. You talk to one person, they take your information and are changed. They respond and you are changed. By interacting back and forth, you are both changed, hopefully for the better.

In our online courses as SNU, we use discussion boards as a way for students and instructors to interact. However, I’ve seen many courses in which students were “discussion-boarded” to death. I imagine that’s a bit like being water-boarded, but I’m not sure. We also use collaborative projects/documents as a way for students to interact. Google Docs, specifically, makes this a great tool for students. I always enjoy presentations much more (as an instructor) when it has been created by several students. Probably my favorite (these have gone in reverse favorite order) is video. YouTube makes it so easy to create video (especially when integrated with QuickTime on a Mac) to create video, there’s no reason to not use video in online courses, for everything from feedback on essays/projects to instructions and introductions for each week’s assignments. These follow the tips provided by Patricia Smith in “Developing Community Online”  (Faculty Focus). I do think it’s extremely important to recognize that students are quite different from those of just a couple of years ago. If faculty insist on using outdated modes of contact or assignments styles/types, student interactivity, outcomes, and learning will likely suffer. As instructors, we have to let students know the expectations for communication and participation in the course. We should also be willing to adapt (within reason) to modes of contact/instruction that work best for students.

It has been (widely) accepted that interactivity is crucial in education. Even John Dewey, back in 1916, referred to interaction as the “defining component of the educational process that occurs when the student transforms the inert information passed to them from another, and constructs it into knowledge with personal application and value” (Anderson, 2004). If our outcomes for online education are the same as for our face-to-face courses, why would we perceive interactivity differently? At least on our campus, there is no differentiation between outcomes in online learning and those of face-to-face. The courses even count for the same amount when it comes to calculating load.

While I was looking at the Intro to Fine Arts course, I noticed a couple of ways the instructor worked at building community with students. The main one was giving them a schedule of “virtual office hours” in which students could interact with the professor. I never saw the link, but I suspect this was due to the fact that it’s a model course and the link was not live. I also noticed the numerous discussion boards available each week. Students were required to post discussions and then respond to one another.

I ran this through our rubric (which was designed based on Quality Matters and SLOAN-C resources) and you can find it here. Before being offered at SNU, we would need to revise and insert some assignments to encourage more community. We follow a Prepare, Discover, Analyze, and Share (PDAS) model here at SNU. We encourage instructors to give students the opportunity to prepare (usually something like lecture or reading), discover (go find information or construct it), analyze (allow the information to interact or change them as the learner), and share (bring information back to the class and share it with other students). I’m not naïve enough to think this is the only way students can learn. It just happens to be what works best for us.


Anderson, T. (2004). Chapter 2, Toward a Theory of Online Learning. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from Theory and Practice of Online Learning: http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/ch2.html#three

Faculty Focus. (n.d.). Online Classroom. (R. Kelley, Ed.) Retrieved October 2012, from Faculty Focus: http://facultyfocus.com

Roblyer, M. D., & Ekhaml, L. (2000, March). How Interactive are Your Distance Courses? A Rubric for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from University of West Georgia: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/roblyer32.html

Swan, K. (2004). Relationshipes Between Interactions and Learning In Online Envrionments. SLOAN-C Editor for Effective Practices in Learning Effectiveness , 1-6.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.




24 September 2012

Creating an online syllabus

I'm working on a class to get a certification for online learning - course design. As a result, I'm working on an online class and I needed to create/tweak a syllabus. I've been studying some different resources for online syllabi:

  1. The Syllabus

  2. Creating an Effective Online Syllabus

  3. Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Environment

  4. Developing Your Online Syllabus

I've collected my thoughts while looking at best practices for creating an online syllabus:

One of the interesting differences between K-12 and higher ed is the importance of a syllabus. I think this mostly has to do with 3 factors: (1) the amount of time you have students on a weekly basis, (2) the fact that you only have higher ed students for half of the year and (3) students in higher ed also have more responsiblity to do independent learning as far as the content of the course goes.

In K-12, students get a lot more handholding than they do in higher ed. We need to give explicit information concerning the text (students have to find their own text, it’s not provided), students need to know where to go for help (tutoring, disability services, etc. - they don’t have a guidance counselor or special ed case worker to guide them) and the list could go on.
Inviting a colleague to see your syllabus is an interesting thought. Usually, this doesn’t happen on our campus unless there’s a problem, i.e. grade appeal. Having recently been in K-12, there isn’t the culture of sharing that is (more) expected in higher ed. Many (even on my higher ed campus) are unwilling share and show what they are doing. Without getting too philosophical, I think this is what’s wrong with education. We’ve cultured an atmosphere of secrecy instead of a collegial peer learning network. I definitely see the value in encouraging peer review on syllabi. If for no other reason than to get another set of eyes on it to “keep the university out of trouble”. For instance, if I forgot to include our disability statement, that could be a real problem in many cases.

As an adjunct instructor in Physical Geography, I really appreciate the analogy of the syllabus as a road map. Not only to see where we are going, but what kinds of challenges/experiences will the learner encounter along the way? Do I have to buy my own gas or is there a built-in system of help available?

I know many students have a problem with organization. Most classes use the first day of school as a day to cover the syllabus. This probably seems like drudgery to many students. What kind of strategy can we use to increase the usefullness of the syllabus and recapture that first day of class? Here’s my idea: why not create a screencast of the instructor going over the syllabus and require students to watch that and take a quiz over it? Just a thought. We need to sell this syllabus as a tool, rather than a requirement. I do really like the idea of giving a schedule to show explicit scaffolding of concepts so students can understand, I need to learn A before I can get to B. It’s a process of sequenced steps, not a bunch of individual activities. It’s got to be sold as an overview, not simply a list.

For students, the contract is likely the most important piece. They want to know “how they are going to get (earn - hopefully) their A (B, C, D, whatever). Explicit instructions on how to earn what points for what activity. Certainly the expectations from the instructor may be the most significant piece in this section. What can they expect time-wise from me? Do I keep up on grading? Do I start and end class on time? If I am contacted, what expectation is there for a response? What is the best way to contact me?


05 September 2012

Fall 2012

So I'll resist the urge to talk about how long it's been since I've posted. I haven't posted. Oh well.

I'm starting on my SLOAN-C certification for Online Teaching. This is a fully online workshop designed to prepare faculty to teach online (as the name implies). Another adventure. More learning. Just my thing. I'm excited to learn more about something that will make me more effective at my job. What is that job? I'm an instructional designer and I work at helping faculty discover the tools and strategies they need to effectively accomplish their learning objectives in an online format. It's a new job and a new position; I've only been here since January. I have zero formal training in Educational technology except for an undergraduate class and one graduate class. Why did they hire me again?

I know my writing has been quite boring and dry lately. I'm hoping to make it more conversational and reflective again and move away from the drab literature review I was doing during my last class. I've got to get back in the habit of reflecting. I miss it and I miss knowing that I have something to catalog my progress as a novice course designer.

I will just say I've learned so much over the last several months. I'm beginning to play a little bit with code. I really want to learn more HTML, JavaScript and CSS. It's a large task, but I really love it. I've even toyed with the idea of a second undergraduate degree in programming or computer science or network engineering. However, that's likely not to be due to my advanced age and time restraints on getting this doctorate done.

29 April 2012

20 April 2012

Stoll and Jonassen on Computers in the Classroom

I can see just why Stoll engages 8th graders so well. He is a character and seems to epitomize the mad scientist persona. However, I think he ought to stick to physics. Schools do need to be high-tech, but I disagree that schools think they need to "have the glitzy computers." (Stoll, 1996). His argument seems to leave no room for a middle ground. Basically, he says that we either have to believe that technology is going to revolutionize education or there should be none. I would agree with his argument that "a good teacher is the most important thing in the room" (Stoll, 1996). I saw Dr. Stoll use an oscilliscope to demonstrate the wave equation. When did he learn to use that thing? Was it not in a classroom? I believe by simply using that in his rant against "modernizing the classroom" he nullifies his argument. The technology didn't revolutionize his equation, but it sure did ENRICH it. I would also agree that "edutainment" is not the main goal, but we do need to make learning fun. I would be very interested to see him try to talk to a bunch of elementary students about learning being "hard", it "takes committment", the "reward is the pay-off." (Stoll, 1996) I also agree that there is no way to "instantly fix education". Railing against technology in education isn't going to fix it either.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I both agree and disagree with Dr. Stoll. We do need to teach students that there is a payoff in education and it comes AS you learn. However, his argument is quite outdated in today's connected world. Not that he doesn't understand what's going on, but he certainly was not a fortune teller. Classrooms are more full of computers and media delivery systems even more than they were in 1996, not to mention that the internet looks quite different than it did 14 years ago, as well. He even said "information can get you the answer", therefore if you are able to FIND that information (information literacy/fluency) it can assist you in solving problems. I sat today monitoring students while they took End-Of-Instruction tests. While I didn't see every single question on the Biology test, not one that I did see were factual, so I'd say Dr. Stoll's argument that testing rewards students who are able to memorize factual information is null and void, too. No one, especially in this class, has ever said that computers should replace a teacher. If a teacher can be replaced by Google, it should. For the record, we are going to need both the plumbers and the programmers. This was true 14 years ago and it is still true today. If the libraries don't adapt to the new digital literacy age, they need to go by the wayside. It's called survival of the fittest. It happened to the blackboard creators, the wagon wheel makers, and the spear makers. Change happens! As a scientist, this guy should recognize that.

Jonassen, et al. fall MUCH more in line with my ideas on how technology should play a part in students' education. The quote on p. 32 says it best, "Computers can most effectively support meaningful learning and knowledge construction in higher education as cognitive amplification tools for reflecting on what students have learned and what they know." I've made this confession before and I'm sure I'll make it again: I'm a constructivist and technology (especially web-based tools) provide a perfect avenue for students to stroll into the information and show what they know. It provides a means for students to (learn to) collaborate and showcase what they have done. We don't need computers with a full suite of software and the latest gadgets. We simply need internet access for our students with a dependable network connection. Additionally, students need access at home. In fact, this may be the most important aspect of my "grand vision". There are only 8 hours in the day for instruction. However, if students have access at home, we can allow them to "get" information as homework and focus class time on concepts on which more instruction is needed. Class time can be spent on scaffolding instead of instructing.

11 March 2012

The Problem with Problem Based Learning

Prompt #5 - “Discuss ill-structured vs well-structured problems.  Refer to Jonassen's (2000) article”

The Problem with Problem-Based Learning -
by Jody Bowie

Jonassen (2000) quotes Gagnéa (1980) as saying “the central point of education is to teach people to think, to use their rational powers, to become better problem solvers” (p.85). This statement resonates with me and follows my own philosophy of education. In fact, this idea is the basis of the parent discipline of the natural sciences: Physics (formerly, Natural Philosophy), which provided a natural fit for me as a teacher (or has the fact that I taught physics shaped my philosophy of education? Maybe this will require further reflection/research.) The greats like Newton and Galileo worked toward an understanding of observable phenomena. They worked within/on ill-structured problems. These phenomena had been observed, e.g. acceleration, gravity, etc., but not explained. These problems (and the way in which these men solved the problems) are still the basis for entry-level science classes of today. Science classes are taught within the historical context of the Journey of the Pillars of Problem Solving.


Problems are an “unknown entity” (2000, p. 65) solved via a “goal-oriented sequence of cognitive actions” (Anderson, 1987, p.250). These problems vary in complexity, domain, and structure. Hopefully, they are presented in varying levels based on age/developmental appropriateness.  Our main focus will be on structure because while Jonassen argues that among the charateristics of problems “... they are neither independent nor equivalent” (p. 66), the structure of the problem is dependent on the other areas, i.e. complexity and abstractedness.

Well-structured problems are formal, domain-specific, have a very well defined initial state, and have a clear solution. Because there is often a single solution nature of well-structured problems, these are relatively easy to assess. They can be assessed in a “mass-gradable” format, e.g. multiple-choice. There is a clear solution to these problems and (hopefully) the teacher knows or, at least, has access to, this solution/answer. Occasionally, there is only one path to the solution and all students draw on the same intellectual skills/processes to arrive at the “destination”. If you can find the answer to your problem in the back of a book (or on Google), you are working on a well-structured problem.

Ill-structured problems are more broad, often cross-disciplinary, may or may not have a well-defined initial state, and do not have a clear, single solution. These problems are much more difficult to assess and may be graded via a “component/skill rubric,” i.e. a rubric with specific components of a concept or skills that need to be assessed individually. These problems might cover a number of skills/ideas and often incorporate seemingly unrelated ideas. However, when students begin to consider the implications (economic, cultural, morality, civil-rights) of their particular solution, these “unrelated ideas” become very relevant. Ill-structured problems have numerous answers (or none) and will likely give students the opportunity to arrive at solutions in through a number of paths (strategies).

To address Cates’ question of “I am also curious as to how everyone feels about the new Core Standards and if it will be easier, or more realistic to incorporate ill-structured problems into classroom instruction?” I’m not sure whether or not it will be “more realistic or easier” but if PAARC is making assessments with ill-structured problems, you can be that teachers had better be exposing students to this type of assessment. Otherwise students’ performance on the assessments will be a disaster. I don’t mean to sound like we should “teach to the test.” However, if our objective is to increase students’ ability to problem solve (authentically) and the assessments are designed as such, our instruction should be driven in those tests. Isn’t that how the objective or learning outcome/assessment relationship is supposed to work? This ties directly to Jonassen’s assertion that two very strong predictors of success in problem-solving is students’ familiarity with problem type and their domain knowledge. If students have sufficient domain knowledge and have some familiarity with the problem type, they will be able to be successful in solving the problem. The reciprocal of this is that successful problem solving should be an indicator within the domain specified by the problem. Students can show mastery (or at least knowledge) of a domain or concept within that domain.


Based on the title of this post, there should be problem. So where/what is it, you ask? It lies in the planning on the part of the teacher. Teachers (no surprise) are the key to students’ ability to problem solve. (If the rest of this writing sounds like I “know it all,” I do not mean it that way. I’m learning so much about what I did wrong in my classes of the past and I’m doing my best to apply that to my current teaching load.) If teachers rely only on the practice problems in the book, Scantron (or self-grading tests), and pre-made test banks, we will keep getting what we have always gotten, or worse, as shown in the results of the 2009 PISA.Teachers must target their instruction to the needs of the students. How can pre-made materials, test banks, powerpoints, possibly know what your students need to learn, based on their current level of knowledge/skill? I keep thinking over and over in my head as I write, “Set the bar based on the abilities of your current students. Set that bar high. If some make it over, great. Hopefully, everyone else jumped as high as possible.” The fact remains, the bar needs to be adjusted according this current group of students. Likely, that will involve keeping up with current research within a discipline, reframing knowledge within that domain in current cultural and socio-economic lenses. Not only will this allow teachers the ability to always have new problems for students to solve, they will model one of the intended outcomes of PBL: living as a lifelong-learner.

As we discussed during Week 6, many adaptive, stand-alone technologies are emerging in education. These technologies give students a pre-test, identify their weaknesses, and differentiate autonomous instruction to meet the students at their point of need. These technologies assess based on factual information, skill attainment, and/or some analysis. These assessments are based on problems that have a specific answer, likely based on the fact that we have not yet written an algorithm allowing a computer to assess ill-structured problems, due to the nature of those problems. My point here is that many lower-level thinking processes, facts, and skills can be replaced (to some extent) by a program (adaptive technology). This leaves the teacher in the role of lab monitor. While I am not implying that fear of losing our jobs should drive us to enrich our students learning experience through authentic problem-solving experiences, job security is a side-benefit! Assessment of ill-structured problems, at least currently, can only be done by a human, capable of considering all aspects of a students solution and the way in which they arrived at that solution.


Teachers must continue their learning to be enabled to engage students in ill-structured problems, while still engaging in authentic assessment of students’ problem-solving skills, ability to think critically, and domain knowledge (concept-specific). As a part of this, students should also be assessed on their ability to make cross-disciplinary connections. This can be done easily if other disciplines are brought into the process. For example, Michelle and I are going to be a part of paired class next semester, in which she will teach writing/research (skill) and I will teach technology (skill), through the lens of American History (the context). Finally, these problems should be student-directed. Students should be able to construct their own relevancy/motivation by being allowed to choose a topic that both fits the context of the class and is something in which they are interested. Jonassen suggests that students “...think harder and process more deeply when they are interested...” and “...have high-self efficacy” (p.73) Allowing students to select their own problems enables them to choose those in which they are (or can be) interested and believe they have the ability to solve.


  1. Anderson, J. R. (1980). Cognitive psychology and its implications. San Francisco: Freeman.

  2. Gagnéa, R.M. (1980). Learnable aspects of problem solving. Educational Psychologist, 15(2), 84-92.

  3. Jonassen, D.H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational Technology Research & Development, 48(4), 63-85.

  4. Plekhanov, A. (2011). PISA Results: How does quality of education compare across the EBRD’s countries of operation? Retrieved from http://www.ebrdblog.com/wordpress/2011/03/pisa-results-how-does-quality-of-education-compare-across-the-ebrds-countries-of-operation/

02 March 2012

I've been doing a little reading about web accessibility this morning. I ran across this excellent infographic. I really want this printed in color and large format for my office.


 Web Accessibility for Designers infographic with link to text version at WebAIM.org

28 February 2012

Prepare, Discover, Analyze, Share

I had the opportunity to share an online pedagogy training with our faculty at SNU. We did a little discussion of ADA and how can offer equal opportunities for learning to our students with disabilities. We also talked about our online template. We use Moodle as our LMS and when I begin working with a professor to develop a course, I set up a new course for them from a template. While we hope that instructors can make a course their own, we do want to have some similarity between all of our courses. If students know exactly where to look for resources (assignment lists, etc.), we reduce their cognitive load and free them to learn content, instead of trying to learn where components of a course can be found. Our online courses are only 6 weeks long, so they have a small window in which to learn where resources within the course are located.

Our main focus of the training, however, was the PDAS model. While we do not expect every course to have each of these four components in every single week of a course, we do hope to balance these strategies throughout their courses.

Prepare is the part of a course in which students are "instructed" on the concepts or information to be learned. Usually, this would look like students reading from texts, watching videos, reading journal articles or websites, or some kind of similar activity. The key to this component is that professors tell students where to get the information. This is instructor-centered learning. As a side note, I personally think this should be minimalized in a course. I'm a constructivist and I think students learn best when they have to go find information.

Discover is the antithesis of the previous strategy. In discover, students construct their own knowledge. They are tasked with finding the information on their own. They have to go and "do" something. This particular strategy could take many forms, e.g. experiment (science), argumentative essay (english), find patterns of behavior in a culture (social studies), etc. The bottom line is that students begin to find their own knowledge and evaluate that knowledge for parts of it they find relevant.

It is hard to talk about either of the first two without bringing in the third component: Analyze. This is the part of the learning process in which students actually do something with the information they have learned in the first two steps. After all, if you learn something and do not do something with that knowledge, what's the point? In analyze, students might compare and contrast two stories they have read. They could read a piece of literature and create a modern version of the work (video?). They might analyze a piece of literature through the cultural lens through which it was written (literature and social studies connection). I have always enjoyed looking at the historical context of science and thinking about why advances where made. There might even be a fine arts connection to be had here in this step (pointillism and atomic theory?)

Finally, students need to Share. How can you have any kind of class without some kind of buy-in to a social theory of learning? Students need to interact with others. This becomes even more important when you consider that by simply taking an online class, they area at a disadvantage in the social aspect of learning. This means that we, as designers/instructors, must be purposeful in creating opportunities for students to share their knowledge with others. This accomplishes two things: the "sharer" learns more by being forced to communicate their learning, either in writing or in the spoken word. The "sharee" learns more by being exposed to other's worldview, perspective, and ideas of what is important within a particular knowledge domain.

This model of learning is not new to most of you, I would imagine. You probably have components of this in your classes, whether online or face-to-face. I'm learning this as I begin to deepen my understanding of classroom models and learning theories: In education, as in Physics, there is not yet a Grand Unified Theory. No single learning theory works for every single learner. We must use components from many different theories to enable students to be successful in our domain.

As teachers, we must be able to offer students opportunities to learn, based on their particular learning style. There may be learning theories that work better for differently structured domains or even from one "class" in a school to another, i.e. this year's sophomores, juniors, seniors, etc. This idea is why every teacher should be a learner (yes, SNU School of ED, I also think we need to be lifelong-learners). I didn't really understand this when I was in school. When I finished my undergraduate work, I thought, "I've arrived." However, continuing my learning beyond that has shown me just how much I don't know. That, I believe, is where true learning begins.

05 February 2012

my name is jody and I am a constructionist

In chapter 1 of the book “Situating Constructionism,” (Papert & Harel, 1991), the authors drove my thoughts to students and what kind of instruction they were receiving in our classroom. I began to wonder, “Were my students programmers of their own education or were they programmees of my idea of what their education should be?” For that matter, which one should they be? While I would love to say they started at a point and began to drive their own instruction based on what they learned, I will admit there was a significant component of each semester in which I was the “driver of the train” and all of my students were on simply passengers. Isaac Newton once said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” My hope is to become the kind of teacher who will allow every student to find the smoothest shells and prettiest pebbles. (I purposely rearranged the quote to include alliteration; clearly he was not a writer!)

Papert & Harel (1991) allude to an experiment (done by Harel) which gives “statistically hard evidence that constructionist activity—which integrates math with art and design and where the children make the software—enhances the effectiveness of instruction given by a teacher in the same topic.” This gives me a bit of heartburn because I do not know what factors they gauge the “effectiveness of instruction.” The context would indicate student’s engagement as the primary factor. However, can we allow that to be the only factor? Is that even what the author meant? Maybe I am just grasping at straws, but I really need a bit more information.

One of my favorite quotes of the chapter:

“The presence of computers begins to go beyond first impact when it alters the nature of the learning process; for example, if it shifts the balance between transfer of knowledge to students (whether via book, teacher, or tutorial program is essentially irrelevant) and the production of knowledge by students.” Papert & Harel (1991) (emphasis added)

Now they are simply pandering to me. This is the one of my core beliefs about education reform. Teachers have to begin to move from a class of knowledge transfer to knowledge production;  an effective means to do that is through the integration of technology. Wikis are a great example of this kind of reform. iBooks Author will also allow students to publish their artifacts for a much broader audience; one that is beyond the four walls of their classroom. I appreciate that Papert & Harel mentioned computational thinking as a mindset. I wrote a blog post about computational thinking in another class. It is encouraging when reformists make the same kinds of connections to other disciplines, since they expect students to do the same.

The most significant piece of the discussion of Logo and “microworlds” (Sawyer, et. al) was the fact that it was born of one idea, from one person. He saw a radical new way for students to learn and built it into an entire movement in education.

These “learning places” are not quite autonomous, but I get the impression they really are virtual locations/ communities where students can drive their own learning, find their own relevance, create mashups of different subjects, and create thoughts and ideas which previously did not exist. Students walk away from “school” (I don’t think they ever really stop learning if we are doing it right) with an artifact, a picture of what they have learned, something far more valuable than a grade, to show others the kind of thinking he or she is capable of doing.

This artifact component of constructionist learning really resonates within my framework of education. If I see a student’s grades, I can certainly make an inference about the kind of success they might be able to have in a class. However, if that same student brings me a computer simulation they have written, or a kinetic sculpture they have created to show a mathematical principle, or some other original creation, I am able to make my own assessment of their learning and skills. If I see on their transcript that they have all A’s, what does that really mean? In an era of grade inflation, when many students (and parents) expect that he or she will have A’s in every class, what do student’s grades really imply? If we truly want to evaluate a student, we need to see that the student is capable of producing at a certain level. We would like to know that he or she can master, or have already mastered, a specific skill. The student needs to show he or she can make connections between other subjects (this one is near and dear to my heart). I imagine you can see that I am a proponent of some kind of portfolio for students. A place for students to “put” these artifacts, which show what they have learned over time. How can a student’s learning/growth truly be measured if there is not some baseline with which it can be compared? While I do not have the answer to the “where & how” question of portfolios, I do know if my own kids were not let high school early college, I would create a portfolio and start putting their student work on it. Likely, it would be a wiki and the student would have edit rights.

Last year I got to witness the U.K. version of Project-Based-Learning (PBL). I had a day to observe at OldMacher Academy in Aberdeen, Scotland. I attended a science class with some 6th or 7th grade U.S. equivalent students. They were working within a PBL context and their driving question was something like “How can we send a person to another planet?” Honestly, I had a bit of issue with the question, simply because it was one that had already been answered. However, I suspect it was appropriate for this age group. Their driving question had many different areas in which they needed to learn content: Newtonian mechanics, planetary astronomy, chemistry, ethics (we can go, but should we?), human biology, relationships, and the list could go on and on. In reality, I have no doubt a driving question such as this one could take an entire year for students to answer. Even then, there would still be “meat left on the bone”. It has such a far-reaching context, I’m not sure it could even be answered in a single school year.

While I was observing the students at OldMacher, I saw 7th graders (or 8th) engaged in the learning process, asking questions, and making discoveries that were relevant to the topic at hand. I did not observe students who were bored or misbehaving. I do not mean to imply that PBL makes teaching/learning all roses, stars, and unicorns. The teacher was was working even harder than the students. She had no time to visit with me because she was busy asking her own guiding questions and giving gentle nudges, in context, as needed.

No doubt, I had an effect on the class as well. After all, the observer effect is one of the basic tenets in physics. As you observe an object, you change it’s state, simply by observing it. It is entirely possible students were on their behavior because I was in the room. Nevertheless, students, by all appearances, were learning and doing so with some independence and self-direction.

My point in all of this can really be summed up in one sentence: If the Constructionist candidate were running for the Office of Education Reform, I would vote for him or her. Not only would I vote for the candidate, I would knock on doors to campaign for this person. I would tell my friends about the merits of this view of education (I kind of already do this). I would volunteer to work in the campaign. I would do whatever I could to get the Constructionist candidate elected. After the reading last week and this week, I find that I am not a constructivist; instead, I need to register to vote as a constructionist.

29 January 2012

constructivism or instructivism?

Who Am I as A Teacher?
When I was teaching physics, I used both the instructivist and constructivist models in my classroom. I did (and still do in my current classes) a significant amount of lecture and guided questioning; however, we also spent (spend) a significant amount of time with students doing their own independent, student-directed learning.Instructivist - When students were learning fundamental principles, there was lecture. However, I was not the only person in the room doing the talking. During lectures, I asked guiding questions, students would answer in small groups and then share their ideas. Usually, the questions drew on personal experience and were designed to expose misconceptions about the guiding principles. This is often referred to as cognitive disequilibrium (although some call it cognitive disequilibration) espoused by Piaget (see equilibration), which clearly falls under the constructivist paradigm. So, even though I was using lecture/guided thought, am I an instructivist?

Constructivist - Once students began to master those foundational principles of physics, one day a week, I turned students loose with a computer and my own version of a problem based learning project. They knew the components that were to be included in their artifact, but they were able to do everything else, from picking a topic to designing an experiment/demonstration. This kind of explicit instruction is clearly instructivist in nature.

I use my examples (the links) above to show that in practice, at least for me, the line between constructivism and instructivism is quite blurry. Everything I can think of that I have done/currently do in my classes have components of each theory.

In every class I teach, I start the semester/year with two of my favorite Nature of Science activities: The Checks Lab and The Polar Bear Game. In both activities, students come to understand some of the components of science, i.e. evidence, inference, interpretation, etc. One of the the key concepts I focus on is that we all bring a different viewpoint to the “game of science.” We look at the evidence in different ways. Our experiences change the way we view the world, clearly a constructivist viewpoint. However, I guide students to that realization through questioning, which is instructivist.

Who Am I as A Learner?
When I was a Master’s student, many of my peers were very uncomfortable when the explicit guidelines were not given for a particular project/artifact. They wanted to know exactly what was expected. I found that I learned best when I was not limited by the written expectations of a project. So that indicates to me that I am a constructivist learner, or at least I can function in the role of one. Often, I felt as though I was running a bit “rough-shod” through assignments. Without clear guidance, I felt uncertain as to what I should be doing. However, when I look back on what I learned and how I was influenced by that experience, I feel that my learning was enriched because of the lack of guidance. While I do not have any evidence to support a qualitative claim as to which type of learning/instruction is best, I have my own anecdotal evidence to show what works for me.

So Which Theory is Best?
I hate to be a fence-sitter, but I really think the answer to the question of “Which cognitive theory is best?” is “It depends!” Students of today need to learn some foundational principles of a discipline, but they also need to be able to have enough freedom to explore the ideas and concepts with which they most closely associate relevancy. I have found that with some guidance (instructivist), students can find that relevance in any topic of a discipline (constructivist). That said, the teacher must be receptive enough to his or her students to be able to know when instructivism is needed and flexible enough to give students what I like to call “learning room.”

In the hotly debated Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) article, the authors use a constructivist model to make their point. I find it ironic (not just coincidental) that the authors use their own experiences to influence their knowledge base. They came up with a question, designed an experiment and/or used other’s experiments, and interpreted the results to make a claim. They even cite their own research as evidence in favor of their claims (Sweller is referenced no less than 21 times). Does anyone else see the irony there? I do not mean to imply that this is poor practice, but when you are trying to make a point and your practice supports the opposing viewpoint, it is, to say the least, amusing.

While not explicitly stated, I supposed the mention of “novice learner” by both Downes and Kirschner, et al  indicates that everyone can agree that activities in learning need to be age-appropriate. For instance, it would not be appropriate to turn lower-elementary aged students loose on the Internet, although Dr. Sugata Mitra would likely disagree. However, if I take some high school students to a play ground with a curved slide and a merry-go-round and ask them to determine some of the basic principles of rotational motion, they might actually be able to “discover” some of them.

No doubt this debate may never be settled. It could be a bit like quantum mechanics. One of the basic concepts is that one cannot know both the position and speed of a given particle, if you know one, you change the other. This is known as the Uncertainty Principle (Heisenberg, 1927).
It is also entirely possible that we may never know whether constructivism is more correct than instructivism; or whether it is the other way around. Another idea in quantum mechanics that a particle can be in two places at once as shown in The Double Slit Experiment (Young, 1803). It may be that constructivism and instructivism are both right and wrong (depending on the circumstance). This is the more likely scenario.

18 January 2012

The Demonization of Wikipedia

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="269" caption="Wikipedia isn't quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be."][/caption]

No doubt you have been on Wikipedia or at least seen it at the top of your search results. As a teacher, I did not allow students to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but I did encourage them to use the site. There are many uses and contrary to what most teachers say, it does not need to be avoided. Wikipedia has been demonized in education. Whether or not that has a good reason is open for debate, but the mindset needs to be changed.

Two years ago, I spent about six weeks working with a couple of physics researchers at Oklahoma State. When Dr. Rizatdinova wanted me to learn something, she always pulled up Wikipedia first. Was this ignorance? Or does she recognize that Wikipedia is, on average, more accurate than print sources? I suspect it is the latter. She has a PhD in High Energy Physics from Moscow University, so I can only imagine she has a pretty clear understanding of how to find correct information on the internet.

Back in 2009, I had a realization: Putnam City High School did not have a Wikipedia page. I thought to myself, "How can this be?" At that point, I realized I had two choices, I could continue to be a consumer of knowledge (and allow my students to do so) or I could model for my students what being a producer of knowledge looks like. I chose the latter. I did a minimal amount of research about the history of Putnam City High School and started a Wikipedia page. This was one of only two edits I made to the page. I only mention that because it has some (not a lot) of information on it, most of which was put there by others. There are actually people who enjoy building pages and some of them found our page! My second edit was to correct the mascot. I could have noticed the error and pointed it out to others, further casting the site in a bad light. However, I decided it would be better to make the page better.

A couple of weeks after I created the page, I went back to the page and there was a note at the top saying, "This page does not meet Wikipedia's quality standards, you can help by adding citations and information." What? They have "quality standards"? They actually want you to add citations? To show where your information comes from? That sounds a lot like the kind of thing we teach students when writing papers. I suspect Wikipedia could be used as a tool to teach writing, instead of being talked about like the plague.

Over the last two weeks, I have talked (probably too much) about Wikipedia over the course of some professional development I have done about technology. One was at Deer Creek Schools and the other at Yukon Public Schools. I spent some time talking about how students should no longer look at the web as a place to simply get information. They should also look at it as a place to construct their own knowledge base and add to the overall knowledge about a topic. This is (at least part of) the purpose of Wikipedia.

Oklahoma recently adopted the English/Language Arts and Mathematics Common Core State Standards. These standards mandate that students should "Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate..." Wikipedia would be a fantastic place to do that. By the way, this was cut and pasted from the grade 3-5 standards.

Imagine starting a Wikipedia page for your school (neither Yukon nor Deer Creek have pages for any of their schools at the time of this writing). You could have students develop interview questions, contact members of the community, video the interviews, post them to the school district's webpage, and then link to the video interviews as primary sources for your Wikipedia article(s). Would students think differently about their writing if they had that kind of ownership? Would they write differently with that kind of audience?

I recognize that Wikipedia can be used incorrectly. As teachers, should we continue letting students use it incorrectly? Or should we be proactive in our approach? I hope you will reconsider how you present Wikipedia to your students. Like most things on the web, it can be used to learn something.

I challenged the teachers from both Yukon and Deer Creed to build Wikipedia pages for their schools. I'll be interested to see if they pick up the gauntlet. What about you? Does your district have a page? Does your school? Is there some other way to integrate Wikipedia into your teaching? I would love to hear your ideas.

**I posted this today because Wikipedia is blacked out to protest the US Government's efforts to censor information on the internet through SOPA and PIPA. Both of these bills (like most) have a good intent. The controversy comes in from the way in which they are doing the "policing".**

12 January 2012

Here we go again

I have no idea if anyone actually gets anything out of what I'm writing, but it's time to start learning again, which means writing/reflection. I've taken about 6 months off from school, but I'm back in class taking it to the next level. This time it's Trends and Issues in Educational Technology.

For class, I've been reading The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005). I've just started, but the first part of the book is fantastic!

It begins with a bit of educational history, starting with the early years of Public Education in America and the concept of instructionism. While I write this, my computer says that instuctionism is not a word, but you are all familiar with the concept because it's how you were taught in school. There was a lot of wrote memorization and factual learning, but not a lot of critical thinking or application. It did a good job of preparing students for the "industrialized economy of the early 20th century" (Sawyer, 2005). However, in today's knowledge economy, this won't work any longer. Students cannot continue to be taught fact after fact. They cannot continue to be taught the same way they were 100 years ago, because the world is not the same place as it was 100 years ago.  We have to teach students how to think. Thinking is a skill. In order to teach it, students must be put in the position of practicing that skill. The only way they will get better is to practice.

Before picking up this book (on my new Kindle), I'd never heard of the Learning Sciences. I guess I had a vague understanding of what they were/are, but didn't know them by that name. However, beginning in the 1970's and ending in the 1990's, scientists and researchers began to word towards a consensus on the way in which students need to learn to be successful in today's society. Those are:

  • It is important for students to gain a deep conceptual understanding. Many of you can probably recite Newton's 2nd law of Motion, but could you apply it to a situation?

  • In addition to teaching better, some focus needs to be on students learning better. Great teachers are so important, but if the student (or teacher) doesn't have some grasp on how they learn, it may not do much good. Passive learning is no longer acceptable. Students must take control of their learning and begin to construct their own body of knowledge. (I know, Piaget has been saying this since the 60's!)

  • Schools must create an environment where learning can occur. Facts are okay, but teachers and schools need to put students in situations that encourage thinking deeply about concepts and there must be some real world application.

  • Successful learning comes as a result of building on the learner's prior knowledge.  Again, no passive learning. Students come in with prior understanding (or misunderstanding) and often only learn enough to pass a test, but their learning in no way affects the way in which they interact with their world.

  • Reflection is important. That's why I write here. It's not so anyone can read. It's so I can process. This blog is a place for me to actively analyze my state of knowledge. What did I know before and what do I know now? How are those different? How will what I've learned impact me? Will it? If not, why not?

**bold sections: The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences, (R. Keith Sawyer, Ed. 2005).

Next week, I'm doing my "final" professional development session with public school teachers. I say final only because it's the last commitment I made while a State Dept. of Ed. employee. I'm supposed to talk about Problem-Based Learning. The early part of this book, while not explicitly so, talks about Problem-Based Learning.

Students need to engage in inquiry, beginning with a driving question and proposing a hypothesis/solution. They need to use complex representations to communicate and collaborate. They also need to use models, represented in some visual format. That's basically what my presentation is, in 3 sentences. If you are a Yukon Public School teacher, don't bother coming to listen. You just got the nutshell version!

Finally, there is a situativity perspective. This means that knowledge is not static. Knowledge is a process. I think of it as a sieve. When you interact with the information, you change what is there and it changes you, as well. It goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and moves into a fundamental change in the way in which learners collaborate. This change comes as a result of the collaboration.

Bring it on. This is going to be a great class.

In case you are wondering what's going on here, here's a little intro video I made of myself for class.

09 January 2012

Social Media in the Classroom

Today is the second of what I hope will be many days of work at SNU. Friday was the official first day, but that was time spent in Human Resources with a little bit of running around and meeting with the Director of Online Learning. She got me a broad overview of the grant and it's purpose; so at least I have a vague idea of the direction we are moving.

I'll be spending some time today in faculty workshop. I'm going to be doing some PD with faculty about using Social Media in the classroom. Seems like pretty standard fare if you've been reading my blog for very long. However, it occurred to me that the powers that be want me to teach the faculty something new. These are the people who were my teachers, mentors, & professors (and continue to be so). It just struck me as odd.

I'm going to organize my thoughts here a little bit.

A few of the biggest things I like about Social Media in the classroom is that it can bring new perspectives in (through non-class members sharing), it expands the boundaries of the classroom (again, engaging people outside the classroom in conversation), and it can extend the amount of time students spend learning your content (by continuing the conversation outside the 50 minutes see your face each day). I'll spend a bit of time talking about a few of the tools available and how to integrate those.

As I write this, I'm thinking specifically about faculty who are late adopters (or non-adopters) and I can see them looking at me with skepticism. What in the world is that about? These people know me. Many (dare I say most) of them, I have a pretty good relationship. In fact, that was what I stressed in my interview. I already have significant amounts of currency in my relationship accounts with many of these folks. So what am I worried about? I know there are going to be some who don't "buy it" who are not (and maybe never will) drink the technology Kool-Aid.

Facebook - It's a great way to extend the time you can interact with students. According to TechCrunch, 85% of them are using the site already. That statistic is from 2005, so I would imagine the number is much higher. You can create a group for each class. You could post materials and put reminders there about assignments, due dates, or even just a word of encouragement. The great thing about it is that you don't have to friend your students. As the teacher (or the student) you post on the group wall and it shows up in the news feed of everyone else. It's like seeing all of your students outside of class and talking to them about class.

Twitter - Twitter could function similar to Facebook in that it uses status updates to carry on a conversation about class/content. However, there are no groups. But there are hashtags. If you create hashtag for your class and have your students tweet using that hashtag. For instance, if you wanted to see what conversation is happening right now about Education, you could look here. If you are on twitter, the "Discover" button at the top is a hashtag search. If you have never heard of a hashtag, it is analogous to a keyword search. If you have ever searched for an article in a database using a keyword, you already understand how to use hashtags. They are simply searches for keywords in the conversation that is happening on twitter. It's simply a way for you to focus on what a particular subject of conversation. If you aren't sure what a hashtag might look like for your classes, I teach an Earth's Natural Disasters Class. It starts next week, so it's a winter class. My hashtag could be #ENDwint12. I could then have students use that hashtag everytime they tweeted anything related to class and I could easily search for it.

This strategy is especially useful for things like reminders, changes, canellations, etc. You can also use it as what is called a "backchannel". This idea is akin to passing notes in class, but you are able to see it. It gives students the option to ask questions, make comments, etc. without interrupting what's going on. These are very useful during formal presentations, but could also be utilized in the classroom.

Twitter has a 140 character limit. Imagine asking students to synthesize an entire semester's worth of learning in your class into a single tweet? You might be surprised at the results.

Google+ - I could probably share for an entire hour about each of these tools, but Google+ probably has the most functionality. It has components of both Facebook and Twitter. The great thing about this one, is that since SNU is a Google Campus, all students and faculty are already on Google+. They need only click their name at the top right hand corner of the page (when logged into email) and then click "Join Google+" and set up their profile.

In Google+, you have what are called "circles". This would be very similar to a group on Facebook. You add people to circles. They have no idea how you have your circles arranged. They only see that you have said something. You simply choose which circles you send your update to. If I had a Physical Geography circle, I could add students. When I write an update on Google+, I simply choose my Physical Geography circle as the group to with which the update is shared. Like all update services, you can share links, photos, or places.

One other really great thing about Google+ is the Hangouts function. You create a hangout and it becomes a virtual space for you to interact via webcam and voice with people who come to your hangout. Think of it as office hours without students having to actually walk into your office. This is fantastic for you if you teach online. You can still interact with students even without them being at your physical location.

This is my starting point for what I'm going to talk about this afternoon. What have you been doing with Social Media in your classroom? I'm certainly open to ideas to share!