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.

Blended Learning

I’ve been talking about online learning for over twenty years, ever since I realized the power of online discussion forums in which anyone could participate from anywhere in the world. I did research studies in the 1990s on the effect of anonymity in the quality of online discussions among middle school students. I have been a curator of online professional learning networks longer than we’ve known what those networks are. But the online learning that the politicians and  school leaders are talking about now is very different. Whether it’s blended learning or online learning or flipped classrooms, the idea is generally the same: use technology to disseminate academic content to students.

That’s an efficient way to use technology to make sure students are mastering the content standards. It makes teaching a science. Start with the list of things we want our students to know. Assess the students to see what they already know. Focus instruction on the gap between what they know and what we want them to know. Re-assess and repeat. Most of this can be automated. It can serve each student at his or her own individual level. It can customize instruction like never before. And it can do it very inexpensively, when compared to labor-intensive interventions.

Khan Academy does this well. So does Knewton and Brainscape and Cerego and countless other adaptive applications. And so do the so-called xMOOCs like Coursera and Udacity, which seem to be getting an enormous amount of press lately, despite their complete redefinition of what a MOOC actually is. All of these programs / companies / approaches make it easier to deliver content to students, and to ensure that the students have adequately mastered that content.

Indeed, this approach has made the online charter schools possible. My daughter is finishing her second year in an online charter. It’s almost entirely automated, with students completing reading and LMS assignments, taking assessments, and then continuing on with more content. By the end of the year, a student who has completed the prescribed coursework is sufficiently prepared to pass the achievement tests, and we can successfully conclude that sufficient learning has taken place.

Unfortunately, that’s not all we need to be doing in our schools. Our students already have all of the answers to all of the questions on the test. It’s in that little black slab of plastic and glass they carry around with them. In an era of information abundance, the simple recall of information does not make one educated. It’s much more imporant that our students can take that information, combine it with other resources, improve on it, and use it to solve real problems. It’s critical that our students are able to work together with people from different cultures, collaborating both in online and face-to-face environments. The only hope for the long-term success for our country is for our students to innovation and creatively apply the knowledge they have to develop new technologies and new solutions to problems we haven’t yet identified.

Technology can certainly help with that. We use collaborative tools and communication tools to connect with and work together with people from all over the world. We all have the means to distribute our work globally in a variety of media. We have access to enormous volumes of data that can be analyzed in new ways. We can embrace the true vision of MOOCs, now referred to as cMOOCs, which emphasize participation in a community of learners rather than interaction with content.

Maybe there’s room for both approaches. If we automate the distribution of knowledge, we can increase the efficiency with which we prepare students to take the tests. Then, we’ll have more time to focus on the more important — but harder to measure — needs of next generation learners.

Photo credit: Queensu on Flickr.

Bring Your Own 1:1

As we’ve been discussing next generation learning, it has become increasingly clear that every student needs a device. I’m not sure yet what the specifics of that device are. I know it needs to be network-connected. I know that it has to be portable. I think it should be a content creation device and not just a content consumption device. But beyond that, I’m not sure how much it matters.

Throughout this process, our thinking seems to be moving between a bring your own device (BYOD) program and a 1:1 program. BYOD implies that students bring the devices they already have — whatever they may be — to school and use them as part of the learning process. A 1:1 program is typically one in which the school provides a device for each learner. In most of these programs, the device is assigned to the student for a whole year (or multiple years). The student can take the device home, and it’s also used at school in most classes.

From an educational perspective, 1:1 is a lot easier than BYOD. I remember the early days of graphing calculators. Teachers asked the parents to buy graphing calculators for their high school math students. They couldn’t say “you must buy the TI-81.” They simply explained the features the calculator had to have, and the students brought in whatever tools they had. The results were good — the students learned how to use their devices, and most of the time everyone was able to accomplish the required tasks. But the road to success was pretty rocky. Teachers spent countless hours in class trying to troubleshoot problems with the various devices the students had. They would consult the manuals and the help systems and help the students try to figure out how their particular calculators did all of the functions they needed. It was a pretty steep learning curve.

The same can be said of BYOD programs. Some students will have iOS devices that can’t access web sites with Java or Flash. Others may have a phone or other small device that’s difficult to type on. Some students can watch videos. Some can create videos. Some have great e-readers that work with just about every format out there. Others can read some e-books but not others because of competing DRM and file format systems. Some students will have unfiltered access to the Internet through their mobile plans. Others will have to rely on wi-fi at school and home. Figuring out the various capabilities of the devices and trying to take advantage of the tools available without leaving a child behind will be a major challenge for the teacher in this type of environment.

A 1:1 program is a lot easier, because it gives the school a sense of control and the students a degree of standardization. If we give every sixth grader a netbook, for example, we can easily enumerate the things they can and cannot do with those devices. The teachers know what can be done. The tech support people can more easily identify and troubleshoot problems, and it’s much easier to make productive academic use of the devices. In short, a 1:1 program helps us stop focusing so much on the technology. Instead, we can concentrate on the learning.

But 1:1 programs are expensive. Some experts warn that the cost of purchasing the device is only half of the cost of the program, once you factor in the needs for technology infrastructure, tech support, professional development, and instructional support. In an age when we’re cutting staff, increasing class sizes, and constantly trying to stretch our education dollars, spending $200-500 per student per year on technology is probably unrealistic.

So we’re faced with the decision: do we try to go with 1:1 or do we use BYOD? I’ve been leaning toward both. Let’s plan for a 1:1 program. To do that, we’d be looking at a year of planning, and probably a 3-4 year implementation. If we pulled the trigger today on a 1:1 program, it would be the fall of 2016 before every student in grades 6-12 has a computer. Our current eighth graders will be seniors. Our second graders will be in middle school. That’s a long time. So, in the meantime, let’s do a BYOD program. Let the students bring the things they have. Do some work on the infrastructure to support a lot of technology. Increase the focus on professional development, and prepare teachers for the connected classroom. In addition to meeting the current students’ needs, it’ll help make the transition to a 1:1 program easier.

But there’s this little voice in the back of my head.

You’re doing it wrong.

What’s that?

Stop building the networked world. Use the network that’s already there.


Don’t bring your students to your learning network. Bring the learning to the students’ networks.

That’s a major paradigm shift. It ties back to the work I’ve been doing with Massive Open Online Courses. When we take an online course, we typically enroll in some kind of learning management system. We log into Blackboard or Moodle or whatever we’re using, and we interact with the course content there. We complete readings. We write reflections. We participate in discussions with our cohorts. In the good classes, we build a little learning network and we actually learn from one another.

Then the class ends. we lose our access to the learning management system. We lose the connections to the other participants in the class. We can’t get to our discussions or our reflections or any of the course content. Our time is up. The learning stops.

Instead of building this artificial learning environment, though, what if we used our existing personal learning networks? So instead of posting assignments in Moodle, the instructor posts them on a blog. Students interact through Twitter. They write their own reflections and respond to prompts using hash tags and their own blogs. Maybe it’s as simple as writing in Google Docs, sharing publicly, and tweeting out the link. (Stay with me, here, I’m about to drop an F-bomb). What if the course content were actually integrated with my Facebook feed? I go there every day already. So I see the photos of my cousin’s kids. I see that I’ve been challenged to a new Words With Friends game. I see the link to a news article that my wife posted on her wall. And I see a discussion about the online course. I see a post made by the teacher and comments from the students. Or a question raised by a student that sparked a discussion.

What happens when the course ends? Nothing. All of the stuff is still out there online. If I want to continue those connections I’ve made with my cohort, I don’t have to do anything. They’re still there. Learning can continue.

What if online learning for our students were like that? What if social networking and social learning were the same thing? That would be a lot more like “real life” wouldn’t it?

Back to devices. Shouldn’t our students — or at least their families — be making the decisions about what’s best for them? For all the complaining I do about Microsoft and Apple, I really couldn’t care less what people use. I mostly just don’t want them to tell me what I have to use. If they understand what the device will and will not do, and the merits and shortcomings of their decisions, who am I to tell them what to buy?

So, yes. 1:1. Every student needs a device. And let’s do BYOD while we’re working on getting to 1:1. And if we never actually get there, that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing.

Photo credit: Ken Colwell on Flickr.