College Ready

As the father of a high school senior, I’ve spent some time on college campuses over the last several months. We’ve visited elite private schools, small liberal arts colleges, and large state institutions. We’ve talked to admissions counselors, students, professors, and department heads. We have toured campuses, attended classes, listened to the promotional talks, and asked a lot of questions.

The goal of this, of course, is to find the right fit for my daughter. But along the way, the educational technologist in me has noticed some things.

dok_chartOver the last ten years, we have changed the way teaching and learning happens at the K-12 level. We work hard to get beyond the knowledge level. Education used to be about imparting knowledge. Teachers and textbooks provide content to students. They take tests to show that they have “learned” that content. We called that education. Now, we spend more time on strategic and extended thinking. Having the facts is important, but it’s not enough. We’re asking students to analyze and synthesize the knowledge. We want them to apply their learning to new challenges.

Technology plays an important role in all of this. Of course it’s an information resource. We do spend a lot of time teaching students how to find, filter, assess, and cite online resources. But technology also allows students to collaborate and communicate in unprecedented ways. It allows teachers to differentiate, tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of each student. And technology is also a platform of creation, where students can make something new that demonstrates their learning.

These are the things we’re doing with middle school students. But at the undergrad level, most of what we’re seeing is a reversion to knowledge dissemination. Classes may be lecture halls of 300, but honestly, in most of the schools we’re looking at, those mega-courses are rare. Still, the classes are set up to have an expert standing at the front of the room talking for an hour while everyone else writes down what she says. Students will do some reading, and they’ll write some essays. They’ll sit for a few exams that will act as summative measures of what has been learned. Maybe there will be a project, and in some rare cases that project might have some real world relevance. But the bottom line is that we’re going to spend $100 an hour for my daughter to sit in a room and listen to a professor talk.

28488183456_f55c47232f_zThe role of technology in these schools is tangential at best. Granted, we have not visited a lot of them, and we have not seen every program. But we have been to 8-10 colleges and universities this year. At those schools, students use computers to take notes and write papers. They probably use the Internet to do some research. That’s about it. No one talks about blended learning. While many of these schools have online courses, they treat them like they’re a separate branch campus. They’re not using the online tools to help with the face to face courses. No one considers technology to be an indispensable part of learning. They still have computer labs. While many students have laptops, it’s not a requirement or even an expectation that students will bring their technology. Unless specifically asked about it, no one at any of the schools even mentioned technology or how it’s used for classes.

The question, then, is what do we do about high school? Our teachers make the very valid point that their job is to prepare students for college. In the school where I work, almost all of the students choose to continue their education at the university level, and we should do everything we can to prepare them to be successful in that environment.

28520201495_a99a7d0599_zAs these middle schoolers grow up, are they going to lose the sense of inquiry that we’re trying to foster? Will high school become a time when they unlearn how to ask questions and simply give the teacher what he wants to get the grade and be a “successful” student? Or, if we advocate for increased rigor at the high school level, do we endanger our students’ success at the college level, where they’re expected to be very good at digesting and recalling information?

If we teach the students to adapt, they’ll be fine. If we focus on problem solving and innovation and application, they’re not going to have any trouble with defining and categorizing and recalling. They may be frustrated with college being too easy, but that’s a great problem to have.

On the other hand, if the goal is “college and career ready,” and almost all of our students are going to college, we may be making K-12 education a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

Image sources:
DOK Chart: Jason Singer, Curriculet
Rows sign and Miami Seal: me

Are We There Yet?

I’m a believer in personal learning networks. I’ve often said that I have learned far more from my colleagues than I have from any graduate course or workshop or conference. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, exchanging ideas, debating instructional approaches, and uniting in finding the best ways to leverage technology to improve learning and best meet students’ evolving needs.

map-29903_1280The technologies have evolved over the years. Online bulletin boards and usenet made way for web-based discussion boards and email lists. Blogs and wikis made it easy for anyone to post ideas online, and podcasts, Skype and Google Plus made it easy to connect with audio and video. The move to mobile and the integration of social networking tools have made connecting a friction-less part of life. It’s easier, sometimes, to use these tools to message the people in my own home than it is to go upstairs and find them. At the same time, these tools have made it easy to blend my social networks with my professional learning networks. Everything is in the same place.

At professional conferences, I’ve increasingly moved away from the the pre-planned presentations, in which a speaker talks about a topic for an hour, in favor of more interactive sessions that are more improvised and targeted to meet the needs of the people in the room. For me, this trend began with Educon several years ago, and has continued through the EdCamp movement and the unconference components of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference, OETCx. I think the exchange of ideas on that informal level is just as valuable, and perhaps more authentic, than the sessions that have an “expert” doing all the talking.

At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly disengaged in the last couple years. I’m still writing here (at least once a month), and I get good feedback about the ideas I share. But I’m really not reading a lot of blogs anymore, and I’m not reading any on a regular basis. I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, but most are not directly related to technology or education. I check in with twitter occasionally, and find an occasional resource or perspective being shared that’s new. But for the most part, it’s the same things over and over again. Testing is killing American schools. We have to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. Common core sucks (except when it doesn’t). Everyone’s attacking education and teachers, and no one is doing anything about it. Politicians haven’t got a clue. Yeah. I’ve heard all that.

Learning must be student-focused. We have to meet the individual needs of every student. Differentiate by adjusting rigor. Assessment should inform (formative) and reflect (summative) learning. Evidence of learning happens in more ways than just test performance. Learning must be relevant to the student. It has to be active. Insert your favorite John Dewey quote here.

None of this excites me, because it’s not very groundbreaking. I have to use that word carefully. I’ve been twice accused of killing podcasts by claiming that they’re not adding value to the global conversation.  But I’m more likely to jump into Facebook these days, which I’ve curated to be entirely social, than I am to check Twitter (which is mostly professional). The same people are talking about the same things they’ve been talking about for the past decade.

A couple years ago, I tried to lead a conference session on moving the conversation into practice. We all have great ideas on what education should be, but sadly that vision is not fully realized in very many schools. Even in my own school district, where we have vertiable edtech rock stars, there’s a lot of disagreement about how to best put these ideas into practice. The session was quickly derailed and devolved into a weird mix of “Pearson is evil,” and “we have to protect our kids online.” I was embarrassed that we couldn’t get further than that.

The more I think about it, though, the more I see the edtech conversation as a weird combination of candy and Jaeger shots. The retweets from conferences are the ones that are witty and shallow. Find the 12-word sound byte, and you’ll be popular. It doesn’t matter if you say something new, as long as you’re clever about it. I think I’m ready to have a salad or a pint of ale or a grande cafe con leche. Let’s  dig a little deeper and spend a little more time.

Coursera keeps telling me that it has suggestions for me. Maybe I should take them. Or perhaps I should be engaging with fewer people on a deeper level. Tools like Slack and Viber make it easier to organize small teams. Maybe that makes sense for collaborative learning projects with more  specific goals in mind.

We know that the success of learning is largely dependent on setting goals ahead of time, and then demonstrating that progress has been made toward reaching that goals. At this point, though, I’m not sure that “continued professional growth” is a sufficient goal. I need to be more specific about what I want from my learning network, and curate  the network to meet that goal.

Image source: Pixabay.

The Role of Technology in Education

It would be easy for a self-proclaimed educational technologist to claim that technology is an indispensable component of modern education.

It’s not.

What do you really need to teach a child how to read? You need a child. You need a willing teacher. It’s helpful to have a book. Everything else is superfluous. When I visited Remba Island in Lake Victoria five years ago, I found a “school” crudely built with corrugated steel and chicken wire. There were no doors or windows, just open spaces to let people — and light — in. Children sat at wooden benches on the dirt floor. There was no electricity and no running water. But there was learning. Students were learning about the water cycle in one classroom and arithmetic in another. In this place where I couldn’t open my mouth without ingesting insects, learning was happening. And there wasn’t a computer or a mobile phone or even a digital camera anywhere in sight. There were just committed teachers and students who needed an education.

But we’re in the first world, not the third world. The expectations here are a bit different.

8720604364_85c5931a14_z_d[1]Technology gives us the opportunity to differentiate and personalize learning in unprecedented ways. Computer programs can break content standards down into specific learning targets. Software can assess students, identify their weaknesses, and provide instruction to address those challenges. It can adapt along the way to provide remediation or extension where appropriate, and it can vary the pace of instruction to fit the needs of the learner. Because the student is constantly interacting with the content, the very act of learning becomes continual formative assessment. Teachers can access this data and use it to intervene where appropriate, identifying patterns in student achievement gaps and working to fill them. Because their roles are shifting away from direct instruction, teachers can spend more time interacting with individual and small groups of students, providing the personal attention that was never before possible.

But that’s not the exciting part of technology in education. While everything I’ve described is possible, there are few tools that actually deliver on this promise. And they miss one important fact: this approach is perfectly suited to disseminate content to students, but simply acquiring content is far less important than it was a generation ago.

My parents went to school because school was where the knowledge was. The teacher was the content expert, and if there was anything about biology or Shakespeare or trigonometry that she didn’t know, there was a textbook with all of the answers. The role of the teacher was to share this knowledge with the students, and we called this process education.

Today, the students already have all of the content. It’s in the device they’re carrying around in their pockets. They don’t need to learn about the civil war from the bald guy in the shirt and tie at the front of the room. They can pull up countless primary sources, documentaries, and analyses of every event with just a few keystrokes. The teacher’s job, now, is to help the students make sense of the content. They have to filter, analyze, and synthesize it. They need to be able to combine disparate ideas in new ways, creating new insights that can be applied to the complex problems they’ll face in this century. They have to be able to ask relevant and insightful questions. They need to be able to think critically and creatively about the problems they’re trying to solve. They must be able to articulate their new ideas in both traditional and new ways, and they must do all of this collaboratively, because none of us is smart enough to face these challenges alone.

Technology makes all of this possible. Students use both general and specialized search tools to find the relevant information they need. They use online tools to curate, annotate, and document these resources. They use social networking tools to connect to one another, sharing resources, providing context, and engaging in conversations about the content and their learning. They use cloud-based tools to work together on the creation of documents and presentations. They use media tools to easily record audio, create video, remix content, and make new products. Then, publishing this work to a global audience is trivial. They engage with their audience through comment systems to react to one another’s work. Along the way, they build a personal network of peers — both within and outside the school — that becomes a cohort of life-long learners.

The value of technology in education is not in making things more efficient or less expensive or more engaging. It’s in making new things possible.

Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.