Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Never Ending Intravenous Drip of Potential Learning & My “Minions”

( I love the juxtaposition of the word minion as it relates to Twitter... ;-)

Twitter is like a never ending intravenous drip of potential learning. To prove my point, from the time I left the office Tuesday evening, through the wee hours of the night, to the time I arrived Wednesday morning, my Twitter “information peddlers” had been busily working away sending me potential useful information to help me do my job. I don’t pay them anything, and they don’t send me invoices, but they provide a valuable service. If you haven’t learned to take advantage of these “busy bees,” you are really missing out. You are cheating yourself. Get with it!

Here’s an example, while I was at the gym, spending time with my family, and sleeping, my “minions” sent me the following:

1. “Deep Media,” Transmedia, What’s the Difference?: An Interview with Frank Rose (Part One)
by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, USC Professor interviews Frank Rose on his new book -- The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories. Mr. Rose describes a concept of “deep media.” His description of deep media involves stories around how deep a individual wants to immerse themselves into a story. He describes his research in story telling and games and how they both relate to deep media and concepts of transmedia. How might this information relate to teaching and learning in the classroom? For me that’s pretty easy, teaching, and for the matter communication, is all about telling stories. I feel the better we can tell our classroom “stories” the better opportunity for our students to immerse themselves in classroom stories, the better their learning.

2. The New York Times - The Opinion Pages
Products of Rote Learning

Leo Botstein, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalim Symphony Orchestra, and the president of Bard College takes a critical look at higher education and its current practices of undergraduate programs that do little to inspire students to develop a passion for learning.

3. Shift to The Future
This is Brian Huhn’s blog and on this day Brian shares his creative thoughts on what the first day of school could look like in the year 2020.

4. Fast
State of the Union Address Word Cloud Shows Obama Thinking About “People”

Kit Eaton runs President Obama’s State of the Union Address through Wordle to analyze the “big words” and “small words.”

5. New York Times
The Opinion Pages
A Different Type of Student

C. Kent McGuire, former dean of the Temple University College of Education and now the president of the Southern Education Foundation. Mr. McGuire expresses his concern for higher education and its need to adapt to the modern times. These concerns sound very similar to the types of issues we all face in education.

6. Stager-to-Go
Try Not to Cry!
Stager-to-Go is Gary Stager’s blog and in this piece he describes his work between the years of 1999 and 2002 when he worked with children incarcerated in one of Main’s prisons for teenagers. His story describes a student by the name of Joey that learns to explore a passion for radio production, resulting in his work airing on National Public Radio. It’s a poignant reminder of the need for all of us to not give up a children and the need to encourage the exploration of student interests in our education system.

7. The New York Times
The Opinion Pages - Opinionator
Thread of the Union

This is a series of posts on President Obama’s State of the Union Address. This particular link goes straight to Andrew Rotherham, a cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income students achieve, thoughts on the President’s speech regarding education.

8. The Washington Post
The Answer Sheet
Obama’s faulty education logic: What he said and failed to say
Valerie Strauss asks some clarification questions following President Obama’s State of the Union Address and his statements on education.

9. dy/dan
[WCYDWT] Obama Botches SOTU Infographic, Stock Market Reels
During last night State of the Union Address, the President provided some charts to make his points. In one instance comparing the gross domestic product of the United States and China, a reader of his blog pointed out that the circle representing the domestic product for the United States was out of proportion. Mr. Dylan turned this fact into a math lesson on ratios and propaganda.

10. The Washington Post
GWU launches online prep school
This article describes a new partnership between George Washington University and K12inc. for a entirely online college-preparatory high school.

(Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Will Merydith on

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Big Target Goal: Digital Delivery of Learning

The preponderance of information related to the future of educating our students using technology, specifically online, to address the needs of unique learners is great. Articles such as 10 Reasons Students Say They Prefer Learning Online, ViewPoint: The Future of Education Lies in the Cloud, and Reshaping Learning From the Ground Up, an interview with Alvin Toffler, all provide anecdotes of how technology is going to shape education in the future. Even our own U.S. Department of Education in their National Education Technology Plan 2011 provide a diagram with the learner and the computer at the center of the diagram.

The report states, “The challenge for our education system is to leverage technology to create relevant learning experiences that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures. We live in a highly mobile, globally connected society in which young Americans will have more jobs and more careers in their lifetimes than their parents. Learning can no longer be confined to the years we spend in school or the hours we spend in the classroom: It must be lifelong, lifewide, and available on demand (Bransford et al. 2006)."

Initially, the ideas for this reflection began germinating after my Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Superintendent asked me to research a product that one of our school board members was approached about at the last California School Boards Association conference. The vendor that approached our board member was sharing their program for creating an online school and for supporting online classes for students. Their program could provide the entire online school for a participating district, from the curriculum, the teacher, the student management system, you name it, for a considerable percentage of the student state ADA (funding.) However, if we chose to take on some of those responsibilities, such as providing our own teachers, then the fee was reduced accordingly. Their program addresses home school students, online schools, credit recovery programs for the high school, and just about every alternative education scenario you can think up. According to the marketing materials, it is used by states across the country.

I reviewed the vendors web site and their accompanying demo lessons online. The lessons were pretty standard fare consisting of flash based multimedia files. Many of the online screens contained considerable amounts of text, and the font was pretty small. Their lessons where also a combination of online and traditional offline activities with textbooks. In some of the lessons, it appeared the lessons were more offline than online.

After reviewing their site and examples, I began to wonder what a good reason would be to go with their solution. I could only think of one reason. That reason would be to use it as a tool to evaluate what works well and what doesn’t as a school district begins to pursue the development of it’s own program. The big disadvantages I can see with adopting a program like this are: 1. You are turning over control of educating your students to a private company. 2. The instruction provided by this type of company is designed to address as may different types of students as possible. As a result it is very generic, and will not adequately address the unique characteristics of your learning community. 3. It is expensive. From what I could tell through reading some of the evaluations of this product online by parents that are using it, the vendor makes it’s dime not by selling to home school families, but by selling to the public school districts at a premium. If you care to review some of the reviews by parents using this program, I have included them here and here.

If the experts are predicting that the schools of the future will be taking advantage anytime, anywhere digital delivery of instruction, catering to the unique needs of every learner, why haven’t we made that the priority in public education? Why haven’t we began converting our traditional classroom based instructional processes to digital processes? We seem to be dancing around the fringes of the big idea by focusing on 1:1 student to computer programs, “flipping” instruction, and other partial solutions. If we are heading down a blended, or online delivery of instruction, why are we not requiring the individuals that know our students the best to convert 5% or 10% of their instruction each year for digital, online deployment? Granted, for school districts like my own, there is a lot of hard work to be able to get to that point. It will not be an easy task. However the alternative, in my opinion, is a lot worse. What do you think?

(Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Shaggy Paul on Flickr)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shortchanging Learning

The last two days of professional development at times reminded me of when I was a kid and going to church every Sunday with my family. I remember many nice things about going to church, but at the same time, there were huge contradictions that left me struggling with questions of my faith. Our professional development over the two days have focused on the research of effective instructional design. Instruction that is designed with the focus squarely on the student and their learning. There were a lot of great ideas, such as emphasizing lessons that are designed to provide the student with a clear idea of the learning objective or learning goal; the use of graphic organizers to cement declarative knowledge; and tips for effectively using rubrics for student assessment and feedback. However, at times, especially when discussing the research on declarative knowledge, I found myself back in a church pew as a teenager, trying to decipher the logic behind what the priest was stating in his sermon.

Let me explain. For this particular workshop, the presenter had broken down instruction into two different categories, declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge in simple terms is knowledge based on facts, details, concepts, and principles. Procedural knowledge is knowledge based on processes or skills, for example, how you probably learned to do long division. During the workshop, one of my “church pew” moments came when the facilitator was providing an example of a strategy to help teach declarative new knowledge. The presenter asked us if we could name all thirteen of the original United States colonies. I had been taking notes on my iPad and I immediately typed out the question into Google and almost before she had the words out of her mouth, I had multiple listings of the correct answer in my browser. She proceeded to demonstrate the use of a mnemonic device and spent the next eight to ten minutes creating a whimsical story about a cow using the beginning word parts of each of the thirteen original colonies. Was her strategy successful? Sure. There were some who could remember the story, and then recite the state names. But that’s not my point. Some people could argue that having students memorizing a whimsically story in order for them to recite the first thirteen colonies is not very useful learning. But that’s not my point either. My point is that we are using a tool for learning that would have been useful for students in 1776. It worked then, and it still works today, but it’s completely outmoded by the technology that we as adults use day in and day out. Mnemonic devices are a tool for the memorization of facts, concepts, details, and principles. Technology, search engines, and the web are tools for learning declarative knowledge too. The technology tools are much more efficient tools than those such as mnemonic devices. How many times this week have you used a mnemonic device to remember something in your work? How may times have you used your computer to look something up in your work?

I am afraid if we use the example above and multiply that by everything we are required to teach students, we are wasting a ton of time. In terms of the end result, reciting the original thirteen colonies, whether you use a mnemonic device or a search engine, the end results are the same, with one exception. If you use the search engine you’ll have banked approximately nine minutes to teach something else. Communities that recognize this fact potentially have the ability to increase student learning exponentially just in the fact that they have more time for real learning. Real learning that focuses students on the “whys” and “how comes?” Learning that requires students to think, form opinions and test out their ideas and opinions on each other. Does it really matter that students can recite all thirteen original colonies, or is it more important for them to understand what those thirteen colonies stand for? If we continue to use outmoded tools, I’m afraid we will have no time for the learning that matters most, the “whys” and the “how comes.” What do you think?

(Creative Commons image courtesy of isforinsects on

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The PLC Mindset and Trust

I was on my way home yesterday listening to NPR on the radio, and a segment came on about the Cirque Du Soleil and the process the trapeze artist use to develop trust. Do they have some type of rigorous, multi-step process they run through to develop trust in one another? No. It something we all use, and probably the most important tool there is in developing trust in one another. What's that magical tool...? It's called "talking to one another." The trapeze artists are constantly taking with each other. They're talking when they are away from the show, they're talking to each other high above your heads when you're waiting for them to zoom down out of the sky. What are they talking about? Could be anything from what the guy in the second row is wearing to how their left pectoral muscle is a little sore. I think in developing trust, what they are taking about is not as important as to the fact that they are talking. In my opinion, the fact that they are regularly conversing leads, almost unconsciously, to the development of trust between them and the ability to perform when the "chips are on the table." (Granted, what they are talking about becomes most important after the trust is developed.)

Professional Learning Communities (PLC) are not things. It's not a seven step program, or a goal. A PLC is the development of a mindset. The PLC mindset is a group of individuals, working towards a common goal, and all expected to contribute, evaluate, and foster the continued learning of the entire group. Ultimately this learning is used to continue improving on their groups goal(s). In schools, most of us have developed pieces of this mindset, or even the whole mindset but usually on a much smaller scale. We have a buddy teacher, or we have a grade level team, or a teacher at another site that we trust and regularly practice our version of the PLC mindset. One of the the strengths in a PLC mindset comes from greatly widening our circle of influence and influencers. This however is not a comfortable thing for us to do. The effectiveness of PLC mindset is highly dependent on the development of trust amongst its members. In my opinion and effectiveness of the PLC mindset is almost solely based on the degree to which there is trust amongst its members.

Here's the rub, if the most effective way for developing trust among each other is to simply talk to each other, how the heck do you do that when there are close to 1000 members in the PLC? For that matter, how do you do that when there are only 40 members in the PLC? If you were to graph all the people that you would consider your contacts, people that you have interfaced with, and take into account all the conversations you have ever had with those individuals, and then chart them on a graph like so:
I bet those that you feel you trust the most are those that have high marks for previous conversation. Sure their will be exceptions to the rules, as there are probably people you have talked to a lot that you trust about as far as you can throw them. (Wouldn't you like to know who that person in the upper left of the chart is...?) But my guess is they will be the exception and not the rule.

What are the solutions for developing trust in a PLC if the logistics of being able to frequently talk with each member face to face is just not possible? I think one such solution is the advent of electronic social media. Whether you call it FaceBook, or Twitter, or your own BuddyPress deployment, encouraging members of the PLC to share what they are doing, feeling, thinking, in brief, sometimes nonsensical bursts of content can begin to provide members of the PLC with a statement of who each of us are and begin to allow us to develop that important trust component when the logistics of doing that in person, face-to-face, is not possible. Now I'm not suggesting that you have to friend every single person in you PLC mindset group, but it may not hurt. Also, if we literally did "friend" everyone in the PLC we may suffer logistics from getting through everyone's posts, but with proper filtering skills, and with a conscious effort in being economical with the amount of information that we post, it could be done. By having those asynchronous conversations with each other online maybe those online conversation can help to develop trust in one another? What do you think?

Twitter: jpatten
Facebook: jpatten1

(Creative Commons licensed photo courtesy of JMRosenfeld on

Monday, January 3, 2011

Aviary Beta Education Version - Cloud Based Web Apps

Aviary a popular web based suite of tools for creating images, vector graphics, audio and music recordings has released their beta education version. The education version of Aviary allows teachers to create a private classroom suite of tools that their students can use on any computer, netbook, etc that is Adobe Flash capable (sorry iPad users). The interface is clean, professional looking, and advertising free. Those of you that have used Kerpoof with smaller children will welcome the cleaner streamlined interface. Aviary eliminates the distractions of some of the competing education focused web based tools. Aviary provides a nice introduction to drawing and editing interfaces that are typically found in similar professional and prosumer level tools.

If you’re and educator, you can request your beta education account at:

Aviary Education Version from John Patten on Vimeo.