The Change is Here

The change that is happening in the middle grades right now continues to astound me.

Eighteen months ago, our sixth grade teachers asked that we get rid of the carts of computers in their classrooms and just assign devices to the kids. It’s a small shift, really. Instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, we now have a computer in each student’s hands. But what a difference it makes.

DSC_0854-aWhen we say that we want technology to be ubiquitous, this is what we’re talking about. When it’s needed, it’s there. It starts up quickly, it has a great battery life, and technology problems are minimal. The students have them in study hall and at home and on the bus. When it’s not needed, it’s turned off and moved out of the way.

So, yes, students use their devices to access online resources. Some of those are the curated materials selected for them by their teachers and textbook publishers. Some are the results of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. They’re learning how to evaluate the credibility of those sources. In most cases, they’re much better at it than their grandparents are.

But they’re also using the technology to take ownership of their learning. Teachers are giving more choice, but they’re also tailoring instruction to the needs of each learner. Quick formative assessments are used to assess the needs of the class, and plans are dynamically adjusted to best meet those needs. That’s the big challenge in the middle grades, and the biggest reason why middle school has traditionally been so awful for so many people.

Next, students are collaborating  on creative projects to show evidence of their learning. They’re not just writing essays and putting together PowerPoint presentations. They’re making videos and infographics and simulations using tools that I don’t understand. They’re discovering how to write for different audiences and how to use multimedia to best convey their message. They’re combining knowledge from different domains and applying it to real problems.

And while they’re doing all of this in their science social studies classes, they’re also improving their technology skills, working harder on schoolwork, and having fun in the process.

So when I asked 12-year-old students why they like the 1:1 program, they responded with things like this:

  • I can personalize my work they way I want it and it helps us become independent learners.
  • When I need assistance, my fellow students and teachers are there to assist me; whether it consists technology help, or homework help. The 1:1 program helped me with achieving my school goals.
  • It helps us learn about the digital world and helps us become independent learners.
  • It gives you a chance to learn more, and do what you can’t on paper at school, while with the 1:1 program, you can do both electronic learning and non-electronic learning
  • The learning is fit for me and I feel that I can learn more things in a shorter span of time than I could before.
  • I’m able to chat or video chat my friends to talk about homework problems that I’m confused on.

If you want to see all of the results, including responses from parents and many colorful and encouraging graphs, they’re here.

So this week, we’ll collect the Chromebooks for the summer. When the students come back in August, we’ll give them back. We’ve been working with the seventh grade teachers for most of the school year to get them ready for this. For the most part, I think they’re ready. Then, we’re going to start working with the eighth grade teachers.

But the high school has no idea what’s coming.

The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.

A Textbook Description

I want to free my students from textbooks. They shouldn’t have to carry half their weight around in their backpacks all the time. When they get to middle school, it starts to get out of hand. Each student has 4-6 books. They’re big. They’re heavy. And they have to go back and forth between school and home all the time. Once they move on to high school, the textbook problem is ridiculous. The books are twice as thick, and twice as heavy. I want to change that.

TextbooksSo I switched to the electronic version of the textbook. The e-book can be accessed on a tablet or computer or Chromebook. There’s nothing else to carry. All of the content is right there on the device.

That’s called substitution. I have substituted one technology (an electronic book) for another one (a physical book). There are some advantages (it’s easier to carry) and some disadvantages (the device has to be charged to work). Overall, though, not much has changed.

But now that the textbook is electronic, we can start to do more with it. Maybe the map in a world history book is interactive. Maybe there’s a video in the literature textbook showing a scene from Hamlet. Maybe there’s an animation showing how the water cycle works in the science text.

At this point, there are some clear advantages gained from the electronic version of the text. Mostly, it’s the same content we’ve always had. But now it is expanded and supplemented with additional resources. This is called augmentation. We’re using the technology in the same way, but we’ve added something to it.

But these devices that the students are using to access their books are also connected. So in addition to the content in the book, there are links to other resources. Maybe there are forums where students can debate the causes of the civil war, or collaborative spaces where they can explore the effects of DNA folding. Maybe students can react to the textbook by adding their own notes, and then sharing those notes with others and annotating one another’s comments. This is modification. The technology is starting to change how learning takes place.

But what if the book could do more than that? What if it could adapt to the needs of the learner using it? At the end of each section, there are discussion questions and progress checks. What if the book could adjust to how the students perform on those progress checks? Maybe there’s more supplemental content that can help develop understanding. Maybe it can figure out that the student is missing some key prerequisites and adapt the content to fill those gaps. Maybe it can adjust its own reading level to fit the needs of the learner. At this point, the methodology of teaching and learning starts to change. The text is more than just a static resource. This is called modification.

By now, it’s not really a textbook at all. It’s a resource entirely different, with interactivity, adaptability, and collaborative features built in. We think of it as an online resource, or a collection of online resources. The textbook may live on as a metaphor, but the resource only vaguely resembles the printed volume we started with.

This process is called the SAMR model. Developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, this is a framework for evaluating the level at which technology integration is happening in classrooms. It’s not meant to be judgemental: modification is not always better than substitution. Instead, it helps guide conversations about how technology is used in education, the effectiveness of those efforts, and the capabilities that will come in the future.

This video from Common Sense Media explains the idea very well.

Photo credit: Timuiuc on Flickr.