January 2011 Archives

On the morning of January 27, 2010, the world eagerly awaited the newest Apple creation - what Steve Jobs was calling the first great tablet computer, and what has become known as the iPad. While I remember reading many stories from authors explaining how the iPad would fail (e.g. Nations, 2010 and spark0919, 2010) and others that ridiculed the name (e.g. Women Mock the iPad, calling it the iTampon), I had a feeling that the iPad would be very successful. 

In fact, I was so convinced that the iPad would not only be successful, but would create such a buzz that shortly after the announcement, I decided to shell out $202.56 (what I could afford at the time) to buy one share of Apple stock on my etrade Roth IRA account. Smart or foolish?

Here we are, approximately one full year later from the first iPad announcement. And, if we measure the success of the iPad according to the change in Apple's IPO since that day in 2010, we can say that the iPad was a huge success.... today, Apple's IPO is trading at $343.53, a whopping $140.97 above the price I paid! I realize this is a very limited way of looking at the success of the iPad, but I think it provides enough of a "wow" effect to make us think Apple is doing something right.

What is it that Apple is doing right? One only needs to look at the success and popularity of the "App Store" to find a possible answer. There are so many applications or apps available in Apple's App Store that one is sure to find an app that will improve life or at least make it seem better in some form or another. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article listing six top smartphone applications for "improving teaching, research, and your life". Given the goals of the Krause Innovation Studio, to enable innovative teaching practice, it was important to find out if this story held any gems or golden nuggets (i.e. tools that support the teaching and learning process in higher education). In the article, the author, Jeffrey Young, used his twitter account to elicit information from higher education faculty on the most popular and useful iPad apps to support teaching and learning. I explored the six apps below and provide questions for further discussion:

1. Attendance simplifies the role call process and enables teachers to learn names of students using uploaded images of student faces. However, besides increasing efficiency of recording into a database, this is no different than using a paper copy. Do you agree?
2. WildlifeObs or Roadkill in theory (not available as of this post) enables anyone to take a picture of an animal (preferably dead) and send it to a growing database for research on roadkill. The idea, distributed data collection, is a game changer in terms of how we think about the collection of data. How far (creative) can you take this idea? 
3. Dropbox, Goodreader, Evernote provide opportunities for storing/collecting, reading, and annotating research articles (among other items). Although they do not provide new ideas, these apps enable us to begin to use the iPad as a mobile, almost ubiquitous, research tool. What else needs to be added to research apps before they provide us with ubiquitous researching?
4. JotNot Pro is another game changer in terms of capturing everyday objects as images and tagging them through OCR text analysis. Young explains how students can shoot pictures of a handout and use this app to convert into a text document. If we stick with the everyday object idea, do you think this is one huge step forward towards the evolution of the semantic web?
5. CourseSmart provides users with a viewer for purchased textbooks from the CourseSmart company. People are pushing online textbooks lately because they are cheaper and when done right, using interactive features and links, they do have a "cool" factor. However, I still prefer a physical copy of the textbook. What do you prefer?
6. MindBlowing is a savvy app for brainstorming presentation ideas with a concept map feel to it. It provides a middleware from ideas to product by enabling you to find resources (i.e. images, audio, video) and store them in your concept map.

Based on the list above, it is safe to say that using iPad apps to support teaching and learning is smart. What I'm left wondering, however, is how smarter could I have been if I had purchased more shares of Apple's IPO on January 27, 2010?
I was in a meeting on Friday with two of my colleagues talking about another project I am involved with focused on teaching Earth and Space Science. We we talking about a piece of software, Starry Night, we are considering using in one of the teacher workshops focused on Astronomy. My colleague suggested there was a piece of software being developed by a graduate student here at PSU that might also work well. He went on to describe software that helped student learn Astronomy concepts and included the game elements as rewards for students doing well on the teaching sections. In that meeting I attempted to describe what I see as the fundamental differences in two opposing categories of technology that these two represent. 

Starry Night is software designed for teachers to use in the support of teaching something. In this case is allows student to explore questions about the sky set by the teacher or the students in a way that is not possible without the software. Students can't see the night sky during the day. Using technology they don't need to worry if the sky is clear for observations or if the live in a city whose buildings and light pollution makes star gazing difficult on the clearest nights. Student can move the celestial sphere around to look at different times of day/year to see what patterns emerge. Starry Night allows them to explore and examine natural phenomenon in ways that can't be done with out the technology. This is an example of technology for teaching. 

The other type of software is what I see most commonly in educational technology, it is software that is intended TO teach something to students. It attempts to remove the human interaction from the learning process. The most obvious examples of this category are the classic "drill and kill", which exist in many forms and with good game design or fancy graphics can be rendered almost unrecognizable as one of its kind. However, at it core these kinds of technology attempt to take the teaching onto themselves and obviate the need of a teacher. Based on both my experience and on my understanding of learning theory, this seems like a task that is well beyond the technology of the day. 

It is possible/likely that technology can help students with remembering rudimentary knowledge objects like times tables or being able to recognized obtuse angles. Deeper and more complex ideas, like states of matter, however don't hold up well under superficial memorization. Knowing that a liquid is something that "takes the shape of its container" is just as likely to lead to misunderstanding about the world than it is to help students understand the nature of liquids (for example, thinking like an elementary school student apply this definition to sugar or flour). 

Teaching is a cultural activity and learning occurs through participation in practices with oldtimers in those practices. However, a critical part of that interaction is that oldtimers, and by extension the cultural practices, are changed by the interaction. This is not possible even with the best technologies right now. Once we have technology that can act as true participants in a cultural practice, not just artifacts for the distribution of specific aspects of human practice, then we might have technology that can teach. Until then, if we want to have significant impact on student learning, I believe we need to focus our energy developing technologies for teaching rather than technologies to teach.
what am I going to do with it?

That is the question that seems to be missing from two major conversations that have played out in the pages of the New York Times. One had to do with teaching, the other with technology (and teaching), so I feel like they are fair game.

Out of chronological order is a piece discussing iPad adoption in multiple school districts. The final quote, was for me, the most telling (and typical):

"It's not about a cool application," Dr. Brenner [Superintendent of Roslyn Schools] said. "We are talking about changing the way we do business in the classroom."

This hyperbolic quote could be transposed into almost any era of public education and could refer to almost any technology going back to (and including) the chalkboard. I think the quote from principal Scott Wolfe of South Mountain Elementary School is a much more accurate description of the likely impact of the iPad:

"I think this could very well be the biggest thing to hit school technology since the overhead projector," Mr. Wolfe said.

That is to say that the iPad is as likely to change the ways schools do business as much as the overhead projectors (formerly the magic lantern) changed the way schools did business, which is to say very little indeed. There is plenty of evidence that technology (itself) does little to change the way teachers teach (see anything Larry Cuban has written). The one thing that technology is good at, and the iPad is particularly good at with this particular generation of kids, is getting students attention. 

This brings me to the piece about "Building a Better Teacher" from way back in March. This was about Doug Lemov, "a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder" who recently published a book called Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put students on the path to college. This provides a "taxonomy" of classroom management techniques that he extracted from video of teachers he selected as great (based, it seems, primarily on the students test scores or improvement of those test scores, or "value-added" assessments). However, the taxonomy is largely about attention as well, in this case how the teacher can use techniques to get them to quiet down and listen up. 

Lemov is contrasted with a number of educational researchers, in particular Deborah Lowenberg Ball (for full disclosure the current dean of my alma mater, The University of Michigan) and Heather Hill, a professor at Harvard and former student of Dr. Ball's. In the context of contrasting attention from engagement in real learning they describe the example of Wilma, who has every eye in the class on her, ""but when you look at the math, things begin to fall apart."

What I see in these two cases is an exact analog between the 49 techniques and the iPad in terms of their role in the classroom. The teacher (or the iPad) has the student's attention, but the fundamental learning question si what is she (it) doing with it? I think the problem with both the iPad and the taxonomy techniques is that getting students attention is the easy part and attention is not engagement in learning. To engage students, which means to help them to grapple with, learn, and understand ideas, the teacher must deeply understand the content or ideas they are trying to teach as well as how to support their students' learning of these same ideas in deep and meaningful ways. The combination of this deep understanding of ideas and how to help support students' engagement with them in complex ways has been called pedagogical content knowledge by Lee Shulman and was called in the article Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching by Dr. Ball. Whatever you choose to call it, it is the thing that teachers have to have (or be able to do) once they have the students' attention. It underlies the ability to make on-the-fly decisions about how to help the student in front of you and take their ideas and help them build them into something better by engaging in meaningful practice. Right now few (if any) technology tools do this work and Wilma's examples shows that it can be difficult for teachers too.

I know we have to have students' attention, but if you can't do the hard part of engaging them in ways that help them deeply understand ideas then you may as well let them play Angry Birds on those iPads, at least you will have their attention, which means they will be learning, right?

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