Author Archives: karen

Ed Tech Themes and Issues in a Nutshell

I’m teaching an online course this summer for budding school administrators. They’ve been discussing issues related to using “Web 2.0” kinds of technologies for the past two weeks and this week, I took a moment to summarize some of the themes and issues that emerged. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience, so here’s the posting with some changes to protect the innocent.

After reading your blog entries and Web 2.0 papers and listening to your elevator speeches, I was struck by several ideas that seemed to cut across all the conversations we had last week. The three themes are lack of time for learning and implementing technology; inadequate, unequal funding for education; and a disconnect between educational goals and assessment. I think the first two are perennial problems in education while the third is a contemporary issue.

There is never enough time in school and yet every year more stuff gets added and nothing gets taken away. Is it any wonder that teachers seem reluctant to add yet more things to their classrooms? Especially when adding technology can bring additional challenges in terms of classroom management and technical glitches. Whenever I hear someone talking about how China or Japan has yet again “beaten” our kids on some international test, I always take a moment to remind them that teachers in those countries only teach half the day with the other half reserved for planning and professional development. Can you imagine? It would seem like a paradise to US teachers who have just grown used to the idea that they do that kind of work outside of the school day, often for no additional pay. So much about school needs to be rethought but the agrarian calendar under which we now labor is looking more and more outdated when web-based resources offer opportunities for teaching and learning all the time.

Inadequate, unequal funding has always been a problem. Most of you seemed to think that your school district was doing better in this area in terms of commitment to technology funding. But as someone pointed out, supporting technology funding in a time when teachers are losing their jobs gets difficult especially since there seems to be a shared sense that many teachers aren’t using the available technology to its maximum capabilities (or even at all!). In your elevator speeches, several of you questioned how the state can help with this…certainly, Virginia’s online testing initiative has been one way to get hardware into schools that might not otherwise be able to afford it. Virginia has been at the forefront of educational technology planning, something I wrote about in the VSTE Journal several years ago. I analyzed the trends seen in the planning since it began in the 1980s.

Finally, many of you pointed out the disconnect between notions of 21st century skills and our state assessment program. In a comment to one of your papers, I traced the development of content-based assessment to A Nation At Risk, the landmark report that came out in 1982. The report was mostly concerned with what kids didn’t KNOW, and now 30 years later, we have based our system on teaching and testing content. Yet, business and educational leaders are suggesting that process skills are lacking. Yes, students might know facts, but they seem unable to problem solve or think creatively and in a world in which assembly line jobs are getting scarce, being able to think on your feet is essential. Our students are leaving the classroom for a world that is much different in terms of working. Since this is getting long, I’ll end with a video clip…this is from True Stories, David Byrne’s film about a fictional Texas town. About two minutes into the clip, the owner of the town’s big business explains his vision of the future. He ends with a pretty profound comment about the nature of work and play in the future. It makes me think…am I working or playing right now?

Shakespeare, History, and Wikipedia

Once an English major, always an English major. During a recent trip to Denver, I bought Charles Beauclerk‘s book about the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. Then, browsing in the Tattered Cover Bookstore along the 16th Street Mall, I found Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro in which the author makes the argument for the man from Stratford as the author.

While questions about who really wrote Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar have been debated since the mid-19th century, the Internet is playing a role in the 21st century version. Shapiro suggests that the Oxfordians have made better use of the web. He may be right: take a minute to compare their Wikipedia pages. The Baconians are clearly lacking in detail compared to the Oxfordians. If you want a behind-the-scenes view of Wikipedia, check out the page devoted to the authorship question in general. It’s undergoing an overhaul and clicking on the Discussion tab will give you an idea of how Wikipedia works.

Since the historical evidence is pretty slim, being able to sway public opinion is an important piece of this debate. After some 500 years, opinion is probably more important than facts. Jasper Fforde imagines a world where Baconians go door to door to lobby for their theory. I imagine a world where most people simply don’t care. Hate to end on such a cynical note but the few people to whom I mentioned my current reading–even my old English teaching buddies–seemed to be stifling yawns and finding excuses to get away.

Finding the People in the Picture

This fall, I will be teaching an introductory qualitative research course. My own dissertation research used a qualitative methodology to learn more about how teachers plan for the use of technology. I interviewed and observed teachers at work in their classrooms with their students. I wrote short vignettes describing that work and the challenges they faced from high-stakes testing to inadequate access to resources. While I’m sure my research will not have much of any impact, I am proud of the way I represented the complexity of the classroom through the voice of the teachers.

For me, that’s the value of this kind of research. Certainly, quantitative research with its percentages and statistics and measures of error, is useful for wider “big picture” sort of research, providing access to general trends and suggestions for practices that might lead to greater success in whatever given area is being studied. But, qualitative research paints a different picture, of the people themselves, the ones who make saying anything definitive about education very difficult. I am often much more interested in those personal stories and insights than in the big picture ideas because they remind us that education is first, and foremost, about human beings.

If you’ve been following the news about the school in Rhode Island that had decided to fire all its teachers as part of its reform efforts, you’ve seen a glimpse of this tension between the big picture and the individual people. The latest news is that the administrators and teachers have negotiated an agreement and they will not be fired after all. My thoughts about the agreement itself are for another post, what I’m interested in here is the way the story plays out in the version I read at NPR.

You have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the people in the story. The teachers are only present in the person of the union boss while the school district itself is represented by the Superintendents and a state administrator. They aren’t really “people” in my book but talking points who are saying all the right things about this agreement and the efforts they are making to improve education in their district. Even the Obama administration plays a role, but again, one that is preordained and peppered with words like “accountability” and “chronically underperforming.”

But there, in the last few sentences are the people: the parents and students who haven’t been involved in the agreement and yet who will be influenced by its outcomes.

The teachers largely have won the support of students and parents, many of whom believe the staff has been made a scapegoat for the woes of a high school in one of the state’s poorest cities. Norma Velez, whose 15-year-old son, Jose, is a sophomore, said she was pleased to see the teachers return. “When the teachers teach to students — some of them — they don’t want to cooperate with the teachers,” Velez said. “They just do what they want, and they hold up the rest of the students.” Julia Pickett, a 17-year-old senior, bristled at the description of the school as failing. “I don’t like that perception of us. I think we’re a great school,” she said. “Just one test score doesn’t determine whether a school is good or bad.”

Here’s that glimpse of the real people behind the “facts” of the story…the brief insight into the kinds of classrooms these teachers face each day. The momentarily glimmer of the idea that the human beings behind the numbers don’t see themselves as failures. And, in support of my own bias, the suggestion that teachers are not the only ones to blame but have been part of a wider failure of imagination throughout the education community that has developed simplistic, easy to evaluate definitions of student achievement and success. It does often get boiled down to a number–just one test score–and the human beings get lost.

A Birthday Reflection

I turn 48 years old today. When I was born, the Vietnam War was just heating up, the Summer of Love was still five years away, and Kennedy was in the middle of those glorious thousand days that came to be known as Camelot. I am on the far edge of the Boomers and can even claim Generation X status when I get annoyed at what I think is the sometimes smug Boomer culture. All that Boomer optimism had faded by the time I came into the world and those of us in the 13th generation grew up in a much more cynical age. I have a good friend who is on the other end of the Boomers and when we play the Boomer edition of Trivial Pursuit she knows all the answers to questions about Howdy Doody and the Beatles. I get the ones about Watergate and the war.

There have been some positives over the past five decades…such as a focus on environmental conservation. But it doesn’t always feel like things have gotten much better. I lived just 30 miles from Three Mile Island when it melted down and am now sick over the oil gushing into the Gulf. Earth Day began when I was seven because things had gotten so bad that rivers were on fire and whole communities were being poisoned. Now, we regularly see bald eagles flying over head. But we still haven’t figured out how human beings can live without destroying everything else.

And, then there’s education: A Nation at Risk was written in 1982 and I am watching its influence play out now, nearly 30 years later. That report was all about what students didn’t know and that’s what we are busy trying to test now. There was little concern for what they could do or whether they could think and how schools could foster more critical, creative problem solvers. I wonder how long it will take to see any influence from current reform efforts as the slow educational pendulum continues its eternal swinging?

Technology was not absent from my classroom when I started teaching in 1988. They were very old school: film strips, film reels, an overhead projector and an oft-used record and cassette player. I did have a computer in my room…an early macintosh that was used with a laser printer to desktop publish the school newspaper. It was hidden away in the back room. There was no Internet, just the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, most of which we did not have access to. Yet, we learned together with the materials we had. Much of the technologies supported my presentations as a teacher. But they also provided creative outlets for my students. My students used the analog video camera to make public service advertisements. After cleaning the strips in chlorine, they used pens to draw their own film strips. We listened to music as part of our poetry unit and watched the movie versions of Shakespeare’s work which added an interactive element to what was often a text-only approach to literature. I didn’t really think about it as “technology,” the way we talk about digital technologies today, but was glad to have choices related to how I could present and have students interact with information.

The excitement today, I think, is what students can do with the technology. Creating film strips and analog videos seem like cave writing in comparison to digital videos and interactive web sites. My worry? That all this great technology is still mostly being used to enhance teacher presentations and kids don’t get much chance to do their own creation and interaction. I was glad to see that several of my pre-service teachers this semester adopted Google Maps for their lesson projects and allowed students to do the creation. You could argue that it’s not that innovative since teachers have been doing map work with students forever. But what a step away from the flat views with their colored pencil hatch marks. Add markers, draw lines, zoom in and out, check out the terrain, the possibilities are endless.

I’m a huge fan of Google Maps as a great example of the interactivity that I think is really the innovative part of digital technologies. I used it recently to plan and execute my recent walking tour of Denver. I created the map on my laptop, pulled audio from the Denver Story Trek website, and then moved everything to my phone. (Don’t get me started on my phone…I really am in love with my Droid.)

View Denver in a larger map

It’s been an interesting time to be alive. Technologically, watching the world move from analog to digital must be a similar experience to the generation that went from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles. I’ve seen great cultural shifts as well particularly in terms of individual rights. The landmark civil rights legislation was signed when I was a toddler. And while it didn’t pass, the Equal Rights Amendment was part of the milieu as I came to adulthood in the 70s. I’ve grown up surrounded by conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation and while we are a long way from answers in any of those areas, we’re moving in a positive direction I think as we learn to think of each other as individuals first and then members of particular groups second. We’re complex beings whose identities are woven from disparate threads.

I’ll close with the weirdest thing about being this age: the President of the United States is my age! And, I graduated from William and Mary with John Stewart. My generation is moving in to the leadership, joining but also changing the establishment while the next generation breathes down our necks.

The Science of Not Knowing

NOTE: This is a cross post from my mostly about reading blog In One Place. But the ideas about science are important for educators as well.

There are moments when reading and real life come together. Not to be too dramatic: but now is one of those times. As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico, my companions for the journey are Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. And, both of them make the same essential point about science: the real power and terror of science is that neither doesn’t nor can know everything.

For Dillard, the not-knowing can be seen in the natural world, in something as seemingly simple as an elm leaf:

Or again, there are, as I have said, six million leaves on a big elm. All right…but they are toothed, and the teeth themselves are toothed. How many notches and barbs is that to the world. In and out go the intricate leaf edges, and “don’t nobody know why.” All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine.

Berry’s comments are in response to Edward O. Wilson, who in his book Consilience, celebrates science and discounts the possibilities of learning in and from mystery:

He understands mystery as attributable entirely to human ignorance, and thereby appropriates it for the future of human science; in his formula, the unknown = the-to-be-known…If modern science is a religion, then one of its presiding deities must be Sherlock Holmes. To the modern scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always redeemable. the appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of “the answer”.

Don’t nobody know why…and yet we teach students that there are answers. I am outraged that BP was not required to have a solution to what was clearly a potential problem. I suppose we can blame it on a failure of the imagination but the cynic in me can’t help but blame it on a desire for profit. And an unwavering belief in science to solve any problem. I, of course, am hoping along with everyone else that this IS a problem science can solve, and quickly, but at what cost?

BP, with its string of abuses, clearly has not real concern for the world community other than as a market for its oil. Berry points out that science is often conducted with economics rather than community in mind and quotes Wilson’s description of the “cardinal principle in the conduct of scientific research: Find a paradigm for which you can raise money and attack with every method of anaylsis at your disposal.” Berry goes on:

This principle, in effect, makes the patron the prescriber of the work to be done. It would seem to eliminate the scientist as a person or community member who would judge whether or not the work ought to be done. It removes the scientist from the human and ecological circumstances in which the work will have its effect and which should provide one of the standards by which the work is to be judged; the scientist is thus isolated, by this principle of following patronage, in a career with a budget.

Hmmm…as I typed those last words, I realized how hard I was being on scientists, even if I was only channeling Berry. I’m blaming scientists for the flaws in a system that is much larger than them just as teachers often get blamed for failed reforms for which they had no responsibility. I imagine some scientist, in a planning meeting for the platform, quietly suggesting that this could be a problem. His solution, however, did not meet the cost analysis: what was the chance of this happening and how much would it cost? What the number crunchers failed to consider, however, was the cost if it DID happen! This could ruin BP. I don’t think anyone has the heart to bail them out.

Musing About History

I have been doing more blogging over at In One Place, my mostly about reading blog. I’m participating in the 75-book-challenge at LibraryThing so I’ve been reading a lot in varied areas. Two recent books made comments that struck me as connected to ideas about education. These are not fleshed out ideas, but rather gut reactions: thinking out loud. Here’s the first one…

The Age of Chivalryis a National Geographic Book about the middle ages, moving from 300 to 1450 AD. The last essay in the book focuses on the Hanseatic League, which I certainly don’t remember from my history courses. Thank goodness for Wikipedia! There is a photo of the Cologne cathedral, which took nearly 600 years to complete (1248 – 1880) with a 300-year break in the work. I was struck by the sense of history, of shared community over time that led people to finish the work of their ancestors. I was reminded that each day I walk on a 300-year-old campus, literally in the steps of American giants. I’m not sure my beloved institution is joining the 21st century as quickly as I would like but they may feel a responsibility for defending those three centuries of tradition.

And that may not be a completely terrible thing. I don’t think our contemporary culture values the lessons of history or the connections created by shared traditions enough. Instead, we see them as outdated, old fashioned even. The builders in Cologne didn’t tear down the medieval cathedral; instead, they added to it, following the original plans but using updated building techniques. Even into the 21st century, Cologne is preserving history, deciding in 2005 to ban development around the cathedral. I know that some people see it as a monument to an oppressive, unappealing past and would be happy to leave it behind, but tradition and history still has something to offer, including beautiful monuments to the beliefs of our ancestors.

I Think I’m In Love

Is it possible? After all these years?

I’m in love with a phone.

My relationships with cell phones have been somewhat spotty. I started life with a AAA phone in 1998, moved to one of the first Treos, and then settled on a pay-as-you-go phone from Target. It worked for me since all I really used it for was to call my husband from the road to let him know when I would be getting home. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling very outdated. In a meeting earlier this year, I was the only person who wasn’t clearly communicating with the others through text messaging, reduced instead to jotting notes on a colleague’s pad of paper. And, I’m anticipating being on the road more often and don’t want to have to rely on available wireless networks to do a quick email check. Lots of reasons…

So, I took the smart phone plunge. But, I didn’t buy an iPhone even though as a Mac user, I really wanted one. With coverage continuing to be an issue, I went with the Droid. And, after two weeks, I can honestly say that I love it and I’ve hardly made any phone calls at all! I check email, post to Twitter, and take and upload photos to flickr. I’m reading a book, listening to music, and playing Sudoku. In a few minutes, I’m heading to a class and I’m honestly thinking about skipping the laptop altogether and just taking the phone. I’ve gotten pretty good at using the keyboard, both virtual and hardware.

There’s still some things to work out: I couldn’t get the wordpress app to work so I’m posting this entry from my desktop. The phone won’t connect to our home wireless but it’s the fault of our old router, I think.

But every relationship has a few bumpy patches and I’m willing to live with these minor annoyances because I just love this phone!

Post Pencil?

Sharon has been writing eloquently about Sherry Turkle’s book Simulation and Its Discontents, which I also read as part of the “choose your own reading” part of the course. Go read Sharon’s posts, particularly the one about socks, and then come back…no, really, go…

Turkle’s book is a microcosmic look at experience of the analog to digital transition. I am part of the generation that is living through that transition. Like Turkle’s engineers and architects, I face the fundamental question: As technology replaces so much of what we do “by hand,” what analog practices do we want to keep around? I know that some of my colleagues would probably say none, having developed digital lives for themselves.

But, as I face the transition, I find that there are certain things I like to do with a pencil in my hand and the digital alternative is simply not as satisfying. The main one: my to do list. I use it, in conjunction with a print calendar, to map out my months, weeks, and days. It’s the way I’ve always done it and I have yet to find an online alternative that satisfies me. I begin my day by jotting down what I want to accomplish and still get a thrill when I can draw a line through it at day’s end.

I also prefer using a pencil and paper for brainstorming and drafting. Like Turkle’s folks, I sometimes feel as though word processed text looks too complete and the highlighting and commenting tools do not provide the same level of contact with the text in order to complete detailed editing. Of course, my advisor and I used these tools to pass drafts of my dissertation back and forth but my own work on the draft often include lots of handwritten work from outlines, to diagrams, to chunks of text. My spiral bound notebook is included in the archives of the project because much of the thinking about themes was concocted in its pages. At some point, I tried using a digital graphic organizer but somehow the technology got in the way. I wanted to scribble, to draw wavy arrows, to circle words, to jot pictures, to create messiness, and the software seemed to demand neatness and order. I wasn’t creating for someone else but instead trying to dig into my own thinking and the pencil was more inviting than the mouse as the tool to facilitate that process.

While these activities seem mundane compared to Turkle’s folks who are grappling with the meaning of simulations for their very work, they illustrate in a very practical way the decisions we make each day about our use of technology. I think it’s important to consider these decisions and provide opportunities for kids to understand them as well, lest they become like the younger designers who see no value in the old ways and rely, sometimes too completely, on the simulation.

The Almost Paperless Classroom

Earlier this semester, I did an interview with WM’s Director of Academic Information Services about my “paperless” classroom. I explained how I was avoiding doing any printing or copying but offering documents online and reframing activities to take advantage of the web.

A quick example: I play the TPACK game with my students, putting together content, technology, and pedagogy to create ideas for using technology in instruction. Normally, it is a very paper heavy activity as I print out cards and lesson sheets. This semester, as I prepared for that class, I considered digital ways to present it. I ended up using an online flash card site to create the game. The flash cards had a pedagogy on one side and a content area on the other and then students were challenged to come up with their own ideas. I skipped the paper recording sheet, opting instead to have them use a wiki page. It was fortunate that I had done this…the night of the class I was sick so we met in Elluminate instead and having the online resources made it much easier to stick with the plan!

But, last night, the paperless dream came to an end. We were using Scratch and while I talked the students through an introduction, I wanted them to be able to explore on their own. But I also knew that some would appreciate some written handouts to follow along with and Scratch has these great program cards where you learn a bit of code at a time. I considered just having them access the cards online…but trying to navigate between the card and the Scratch window on the laptop is often difficult because there just isn’t enough real estate on the screen. So, I printed…ten copies of three pages which I handed out a bit ruefully.

There’s a lesson here, though, about practicing zero tolerance: it just doesn’t work. My students would have been frustrated if, in order to keep up with my paperless dream, I did not provide them with what they needed to be able to learn. In this case, it was a piece of paper. They agreed with me that they preferred to have a paper guide along side their laptop rather than having both items on the screen. So, it was a pedagogical decision and one that I stand by.

Next week, we meet in Second Life so we will be both paperless and classroomless so maybe that makes up for my 30 pieces of paper.

Addendum: A 20th Century Voice

I’m reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a collection of short pieces describing life around The Shack, the country cottage he and his family inhabited for many years. The descriptions follows the months of the year and I’m reading one each day, treating myself to Leopold’s vivid insights into the flora, fauna, and humanity of the place. Leopold’s prose should be part of every writing class as he captures the whole experience. Here, March geese, who seem to know there aren’t hunters in the spring, “wind the oxbows of the river, cutting low over the now gunless points and islands, and gabbling to each sandbar as to a long-lost friend. They weave low over the marshes and meadows, greeting each newly melted puddle and pool. Finally, after a few pro-forma circlings of our marsh, they set wing and glide silently to the pond, black landing-gear lowered and rumps white against the far hill. Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails.”

After I finished my blog post about gardening as a 21st century skill, I picked up Leopold to read the entry for March. The whole piece is about the arrival of the geese in Wisconsin in early Spring. His comment about being involved in the natural world seemed a perfect punctuation to my own thoughts on this Spring morning.

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for the geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.