May 2011 Archives

The One Click Solution

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What is it about the Staples easy button that makes it so marketable? Is it simply that we (people) want things to be easy?


Since 2003, Staples has used its trademarked easy button for a successful marketing campaign. Staples wants you to remember it as the one click solution for all of your office supplies. In essence, when you think of Staples, you should equate it with easy shopping for office supplies.


Recently in education, there is a push towards data driven decision-making. We want educators to make curricula decisions, teaching decisions, and even classroom management decisions based on theory AND data. Data on the teacher-student and student-student interactions must be collected and analyzed. However, the accumulation and interpretation of data takes time and effort. Add data recording, editing, and analyzing to the already busy schedule, teaching load and research requirements of the professor, and it seems like an uphill battle for the professor to find enough time to gather the data to make these data driven decisions. Educators need a one click solution for data collection and analysis.


On March 23, 2011, a few representatives from Microsoft's Education department visited campus and met with Penn State representatives in the efforts of teaching and learning with technology. Among the representatives from Microsoft were Cameron Evans, Microsoft's Education chief technology officer and Allyson Knox, Academic Program Manager for Microsoft's US Partners in Learning program. During our time with Cameron and Allyson among others, the Krause Innovation Studio staff discussed possible avenues and ways to partner and collaborate with Microsoft to develop one click solutions to current educational problems.


As the conversation developed, Dr. Kyle Peck, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory and the Aerospace Education Services Project at Penn State and friend of the Krause Innovation Studio, suggested partnering with Microsoft to develop a one click solution for data collection and analysis in the college classroom. Kyle recommended creating "software that can pull in four flip cameras" and synchronize the timing of the video and audio to create an easy solution for professors. I found out later that Penn State is already testing a similar system that coordinates multiple cameras (angles) and microphones and collects the data onto a flash drive. At the beginning of the lesson/lecture, the instructor inserts a flash drive into the computer and clicks on record (a one click solution)! Immediately following the conclusion of the lesson/lecture, the instructor stops the recording and the data is synchronized and saved on the flash drive, ready to take back to his/her office for analysis purposes.


After Kyle introduced the idea of a one click solution to digital records of practice, Cameron Evans added an innovative idea - using the Kinect software and hardware available on Microsoft's Xbox 360 to "read the temperature of the classroom." Cameron added that the system needs to be "passive, with no responsibility for the teacher." A guerrilla video type system - video recording that involves multiple views/angles and microphones on teacher and on student activities - as opposed to the traditional, back of the classroom surveillance video type system, could add enough detail to enable the professor to understand the learning as it occurs. However, considering the magnitude of space needed to save multiple camera angles, audio feeds, and sensory input (Kinect), it might not be possible to save all synchronized data onto a flash drive, unless that flash drive was rather large in storage space. No, instead of a flash drive, the one click solution could include a cloud computing storage solution to enable access from any computer - both the professor's office and home computers. 

I listen to audiobooks. I just don't seem to have time to read much anymore. Currently I am listening to Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a great biography of cancer, but it is also a wonderful look into the scientific process and how we solve or address complex problems. One of the most powerful chords that the book struck with me was around how aggressively some researchers pursued cancer treatments independent of understanding how cancer worked. The reason this struck a chord is that it feels like a similar pattern has emerged in educational research where there is a confusion between evaluation (figuring out the efficacy of something) and research (trying to understand how and why it is or is not effective). 

I have seen this pattern in many aspects of the work I do. As a journal editor, I see manuscripts where teacher educators give their students some kind of pre/post measure to see if the methods class they teach changes their students [fill in blank here with something like knowledge or beliefs]. There is no consideration of why this might happen, it is not a theory driven inquiry based on what we know about learning, it is evaluation of a methods course. Not research and yet we get hundreds of these manuscripts a year.

As a new reader in research on learning spaces I have seen the same pattern. Spaces are evaluated for how they impact some factor (activity, engagement, talk, etc.) that the researcher implicitly, but rarely explicitly, links to learning. Again, there is little theory driving the inquiry, and never learning theory. This theory-free type of trial and error seems unlikely (as it was with cancer) to lead to productive advancements in our understanding of the interaction between learning and the spaces where learning happens.

Finally, I have seen the pattern in my work in innovative pedagogy with technologies like the iPad, where educational technologists rush to determine if the iPad transforms learning and teaching by putting lots of iPads in schools. There is no attempt to think about why an iPad might positively impact learning (other than the ever-present "engagement"). There is no theory of learning being tested. It is simply an intuition (which has proven consistently incorrect) that [insert new technology here] will transform education and to prove this we will measure something.

Trying to cure cancer by trial and error using different treatments led to little understanding, and some major misunderstandings about the nature of cancer, not to mention its impact on human health. We seem to make the same mistake when we confuse evaluating the efficacy of an educational intervention and investigating the nature of the process that explains why different interventions are likely to work or not. We have to stop doing educational work from intuition and determining success using superficial measures focused on efficacy and ignoring quality, models and mechanism. We must move to theory-driven research with a focus on how and why and not what or how much. Continuing down the "evaluation in a research disguise" path is likely to lead to some major misunderstandings about learning. And frankly, we can't afford any more of those.
The key word in the title of this blog is "our". Let me explain...

At the end of March, I attended the 2011 Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State University. During one session, The New Clickers: A Panel about the Spring 2011 Clicker Pilot, I had the opportunity to hear current PSU faculty and lecturers discuss the use of the clicker tool in their own college classrooms. I had heard one of the presenters, Dr. Sam Richards, deliver a dynamic and engaging presentation on A Radical Experiment in Empathy at TEDxPSU, and I was interested in observing him in action (using clickers) during one of his classes. I approached him after the session, introduced myself, and set up a time to observe him. The rest of this entry presents a summary of my observation of Soc: 119 and a respectful critique of Dr. Richards' use of clickers in his classroom. 

Observation Date: Tues. March 29, 2011
Time: 4:15-5:30 p.m.
Course Title: Soc 119: Race and Ethnic Relations
Number of Students: approx. 500
Background on Clickers: Students were given iClickers at the beginning of the semester and asked to bring them to class for a minimum of 2/3 of the lectures. Participation in clicker questions during class counted as 5 points towards the final grade for the course.


When Dr. Richards asks a question, students respond using their clicker and the results are displayed. Dr. Richards interprets the results with the students and modifies his lecture on the spot in a teacher-centered manner. In effect, Dr. Richards is clicking his way through race and ethnic relations. His use of clickers in Soc: 119 is not much more than a replacement of asking students to raise their hands, with the added affordance of enabling students to be anonymous. In a classroom of this size, it is hard to argue with Dr. Richards' approach. His lecture works wonderfully and students stay engaged throughout. 

Although Dr. Richards is providing his students with an engaging lecture, there are opportunities he may be missing in regards to using clickers in the classroom. Dr. Richards could be more student-centered with his approach in his lectures. Even though the space is not built for it, he could ask students to interact in small groups with those closest to them, and allow the students to analyze the data from clicker responses on their own before he jumps in with his critique. For example, "Turn to your neighbor and ask them to describe what they see in the data, and once you have an agreement, compare your opinion with others around you," might provide just the student-centered collaboration that could transform Dr. Richards' lectures. This example is much more than a small change in Dr. Richards' lecture. It is a systemic change in how he teaches. He must change the learning environment and his teaching paradigm at the same time. Instead of using a teacher-centered approach based on the number of students and layout of the space, he could change everything by encouraging small groups in the space with student-led reflection and critique. 

With this change, Dr. Richards' will provide opportunities for his students to click their own (our) way through race and ethnic relations.

NOTE: The Story Behind the Image of Dr. Richards...
A little past the half-way mark of the lecture, Dr. Richards invited students to volunteer for what he calls "commercials." Students are given 2-5 minutes to plug an activity, organization, upcoming event, or just talk about something of interest. One student used the time to show a comic and ask his friend to be his girlfriend, all while wearing a red clown nose. Not only did this get some laughs and ooos and ahhs, but Dr. Richards asked for the nose and wore it during the final minutes of the lecture, showing the level of engagement of Dr. Richards with his students. 

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