Obsession with tools

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We are obsessed with tools. You can look anywhere in the world of educational technology and all you see is tools: How will the iPad change schools? How do we incorporate Google Docs into our classrooms? What technologies should we include in the syllabus of our Ed Tech class? What kind of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) do our teachers need to be successful in incorporating emerging technology tools into their teaching? 

[Ed Geek side note: I find this last most infuriating. What is next Spacial Pedagogical Content Knowledge (SPoCK)? Emotional Pedagogical Content Knowledge (EPiCK)?]

I think the obsession with tools stems from an implicit (and unfounded) notion of scarcity described by Chris Anderson in his book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price". We treat technological tools like they are scarce and we have to decide how best to use the ones we have. This is wrong. If you only have a few tools (blackboards, slates, pen, ink, paper), then you have to think about how to best use those things to teach something. These days, however, we are swimming in tools.

I am giving a talk this week in the College of Education about organizing my digital intellectual life. I was planning on talking about Google Reader, Zotero, Endnote, and Papers (yeah, I know, tools), but really about the flow of my intellectual work. In the process of getting ready for the talk I did some research on the internets and met with the amazing PSU librarian, Ellysa Cahoy. The result was a spate of other tools that do this kind of work, including Connotea, Bibsonomy, Easy Bib and Knight Cite. This reinforced for me is that it is not about the tool, it is about the practice or workflow I am trying to accomplish. What is the task? I want to manage information (in the form of journal articles, mostly) in very particular ways. I want a digital intellectual workflow that is as friction-free as possible. I want to see the journal articles I care most about, I want to gather them into an organized system, I want to read and annotate them and then I want to cite them in new knowledge artifacts I produce. I don't care what tools I use. It is NOT about the tools. In this, I am an agnostic. 

We need to start thinking about things in terms of what we are trying to accomplish [Ed Geek note: Can think about this in terms of Gal'perin's (1974/1989) notion of orienting basis of action], not which tools we will used to accomplish them. I don't care about Twitter, I care about multi-channel student discourse. I don't care about Google Docs, I care about supporting collaboration around digital knowledge artifacts. The barrier to creation of new tools is dropping and the cost of acquiring new tools is ahead on that downward curve. Many tools are free. They are getting easier and easier to build. In a world where you can make (or find) exactly the tool you want for the job, isn't the most important thing being clear about the job? 

Who is a dime a dozen?

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I recently read:
 
"'There's a feeling, I think, that good teachers are a dime a dozen,' said Higginbotham, 32. 'I'm not sure what you'd have to do to distinguish yourself enough as a teacher to get tenure.'
[Higginbotham is] an English professor at Ohio State who's up for tenure in three years. By then, she will need to publish a book she's writing about conceptions of girlhood in the Middle Ages to have any chance at the promotion." [AP article]

I have to say that I find this comment and the context surrounding it to be frustrating. First, the obvious, good teachers are a dime a dozen? Really? Has she ever attended a higher education course? The increasing empahsis on research and scholarly production make it routine for professors in some fields to see one class a year as an onerous teaching load. One thing that my field has made abundantly clear is that to know something does not translate into teaching it well. Is she really arguing that higher education institutions (especially large research-focused ones) are bastions of teaching excellence?

Having a junior faculty member focusing a great deal of her intellectual energy on a book about conceptions of girlhood in the Middle Ages exactly captures what seems broken about the way we think about faculty and their relationship to their students. If we can set up a system that knows how to value esoteric books written for a mircoaudience, can't we set up a system that knows how to evaluate teaching in meaningful ways? I think we have lost sight of the mission of a university here. Do we really want all faculty to focus the preponderance of their effort on scholarship at the expensive of teaching? Do we really want our faculty to be spending more time thinking about girlhoods past, when to do so means giving up thinking about the girlhoods of the students present in their class?

Here we go again

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The iPad has arrived and with it the usual claims about the transformation of everything education. I saw that the TLT group here on campus has taken up the issue in the form of a post at Geek Dad. What disappoints me about all this is that it is so predictable and so seemingly ignorant of past prognostications of this type. People have been saying that technology will transform "everything" about teaching and schools since there have been schools. One of my favorites:

"[This technology] appealed at once to the eye and to the ear, thus naturally forming the habit of attention, which is so difficult to form by the study of books...Whenever a pupil does not fully understand, [it] will have the opportunity...of enlarging and making intelligible."

This was said about the chalkboard in 1855. 

My point is that if we want to change schools the place to start is with the teaching. Technology is an amplifier. There is plenty of evidence that technology in the hands of teachers with outmoded pedagogical practices just gives us more and faster outmoded practice. We need to start with a conversation about how to change teaching and then see how technology can support the transformation. I know it sounds obvious, and yet there are so few examples of it happening out there. We are willing to spend huge sums of money to put technology into our classrooms, but are not willing to put more than a pittance in to supporting the teachers in reconsidering how they teach. We are spending money to amplify what is already wrong with schools. It makes me feel like I am watching This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel explains the special volume on his custom amps:

"Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? ...Eleven. Exactly. One louder."

If we don't change the way we think about teaching with technology the iPad in schools will just be one louder.

ETS Talk(back), Part 1

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I am a regular listener of ETS talk, a great podcast here at PSU. The most recent episode (issue?) was a live broadcast from Educause Learning Initative in Tampa, FL and starred Cole Camplese, Allan Gyorke, and Brad Kozlick. Listening to them talk about their experience there got me thinking about a couple things, but I am going to break them up into separate posts.

Part 1: Intellectual Infrastructure

Cole was talking about one of the frustrations he had with the post-presentation questions at ELI. They were typically about privacy and copyright and not the issues or the innovation. This got me thinking about the exceptional infrastructure we have in place at PSU to support digital expression (you can see details about this in Cole's blog). What it made me think of what that having great infrastructure really must develop along multiple dimensions. The infrastructure that Cole needed to address the questions from ELI hecklers is an intellectual one. What does that mean? Well, imagine for example that ETS formed hot teams not just to investigate emerging technology, but also to investigate emerging intellectual issues around teaching and learning with technology. In this way you could have white paper that address copyright, privacy, student identity, and other intellectual issues central to the technology infrastructure. The white paper would be targeted at faculty and others without the background to understand the details of this, but need to be familiar with the issues. The result would not just provide an answer for hecklers with nothing to do buy nay say (the response becomes - "we have an entire intellectual infrastructure at PSU to address all these issues (give URL), so we don't want to spend valuable time here addressing those kinds of questions). Much more importantly it provides well-grounded, thoughtful support for innovation in teaching and learning spaces. Just as with the technology dimension of the platform for digital expression, the intellectual dimension frees people to focus on the issues they care about and innovate in their own space. 

Next up: Dimension three of the platform - pedagogical infrastructure for innovation (the one I really care about).

Interview by Cahoy

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I am participating with a little experiment that was brought to my attention by my favorite PSU librarian, Ellysa Cahoy. You can read details at her blog, but suffice it to say that she sent me some questions to answer and I will provide answers here. In addition, if you comment that you would be interested in being interviewed by me, I will send you some questions, you post the answers with a trackback to my blog, and the cycle continues. Anyway, here goes:

1.  What kind of student were you, and has this impacted how you teach your students? 

I guess if you get a Ph.D. you could not have been too bad a student, so I was pretty good. I was hot and cold about courses, and the teacher had to really get me interested otherwise I would shut down. I think that what this has done to me is make me uncomfortable not having dialogue. I start feeling strange and awkward whenever I am doing a lot of talking. I am not saying I don't talk a lot in class (I am an academic after all), but I often find myself trying to control that impulse.

2. Is more synchronous conversation online (via Facebook,Twitter, etc..) making less-synchronous blogs the soon-to-be equivalent of obsolete Geocities pages?

I don't think so only because the tools have different affordances. For example, it is hard for me to keep a record of my tweets, they are ephemeral and have to be short (see question #2), so I can't go into depth. I think the way that we adopt technology is that when it first comes out we use it for everything and think it will take over, then we realize that it is only good for what it is good for, but it is good for that. We find the niche the technology fits in our life and is sets up residence. It is like books. All these new technologies have not killed books, just changed how and when we use them (at least for now).

3. Have you ever achieved the elusive 'Twoosh'?  (and if you have, please complete your answer to this question in exactly 140 characters.) ;)

I have made twooshes on occasion, but do not take the challenge of the zen twitter masters koan of making the twoosh the only tweet to make.

[Side note - had to go to twitter to make that one work out.]

4. You're offered $5000 a month for life, BUT with the qualification that you may only use Windows-based computers (and no iPhone, either) for the rest of your life.  Your decision?

No chance. It would be like sawing off part of my brain, and you can't pay me enough for that.

And just because not every question has to be tech / ed related...

5.  What's your favorite children's book to share with your kids?

Well, we are reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as a family right now. If we are talking picture books, I am classicist: Where the Wild Things Are or Goodnight Moon. 
Recently I had a hallway conversation about "serious games" with a man who takes games seriously.  Chris Stubbs, an affiliate of the Educational Gaming Commons here at PSU was that man.  I told him that one of the worries that I have about the use of games in educational environments is that games are designed to have (relatively) low thresholds of frustration compared to the world at large.  What I mean is that you might have to struggle with part of a game for hours to complete a task, but the game is designed for you to be able to complete the task, and is even optimized to have that task be frustration enough to keep you engaged without being so hard that you loose interest.  My point (and I don't believe it to be a new one) was that this can lead to a reduction in students threshold of persistence (this is not an empirically tested claim, just a working hypothesis).  So by motivating students with games we may actually do long term disservice to their ability to solve / struggle with real problems that are not as clean.

Being a thoughtful and intelligent fellow, Mr. Stubbs sent me an email afterwards that responded thusly:


So games lack the complexity and the difficulty of many real world tasks.  As you pointed out, education can be very difficult at times and that is not a complexity that games can easily match.  But why should they?  If you look at a video game as a tool in the educational tool box of an instructor (as opposed to a replacement to existing teaching methods) then what harm is there in its simplicity?  In fact, the lack of relative complexity or difficulty is what  could potentially open doors or spark interest from people who might otherwise have been turned off by a particular topic or field.  In this way, I suppose you could think of them like good marketing materials.  They can help get students engaged or excited about learning, but it will still be up to traditional teaching methods to take them the rest of the way.  In my opinion games can teach to a point, but I think their greater value is in the interactivity and the enthusiasm they can spark.  "Use them for what they are good at, not for everything" would probably be the simplest way of putting it.

I sent him a response, but then thought putting it all up on a blog post might open the conversation to my many readers to comment.  Or at least we can continue the conversation in a more public place in case anyone is actually interested.  So, here are my further thoughts:

I agree with your general point.  I guess the thing that worries me about games (and serious games in particular) is they are frequently seen as both "teacher-proof" and "teacher-replacements".  I don't think games are evil, but I also don't think that they teach in the absence of a pedagogical framework that can (often) only be provided by a teacher.  The history of technology in education is that every new (new) thing is taken to be the salvation of schools because it will get kids fired up about learning.  Inevitably this turns out to be wrong, but onward to the next savior technology that will gets kids jumping up and down to learn.  It is a bad cycle and makes cynics out of teachers very quick.  When you tell someone that the only way that people will be interested in what you do is if you let them play games while you do it, it is not much consolation that they will enjoy the games.

Back in your court Mr. Stubbs (or maybe we can turn this into four square if there are a couple other interested parties out there). 

Seeing is the Key

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So, this is a little bit of an experiment.  I have to write a rationale for a funding agency that characterizes my research in a way that helps non-educators, and specifically business people, understand why what I am doing has value.  I have to do this in one page.  I am going to post a draft of my one page here in the hopes that some folks, educators or not, out there will tell me if I am making sense.  Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Understanding Professional Pedagogical Vision in Science Teaching

Fewer students are majoring in science and students do not see science as a field of creative expression and personal initiative. The current generation see facts as a keystroke away and they are immersed in dynamically creating for and contributing to the development of their communities through tools such as Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. We must transform science teaching to engage this new generation. The field of science education, through standards documents and peer reviewed research, is clear the direction of this transformation should be toward classroom inquiry science teaching. However, what classroom science inquiry means has been a debate in the field of Science Education since there has been a field. Inquiry has been used in place of hands-on investigations, described as minds-on activities, and is represented as a continuum from guided or teacher-directed to open or student-directed. One point of agreement is that transforming science teaching will help students understand science better and it will help them experience science as a disciple that requires creativity, initiative, and in which they can make contributions to a larger community.
 
Perhaps the dominant reason inquiry is not common practice is that prospective science teachers have not experienced inquiry science teaching as students, so they can’t recreate it when they become teachers of science themselves.  We have a self perpetuating system. Many science teacher educators are attempting to address this cycle by modeling inquiry science teaching for prospective science teachers or by engaging prospective teachers in science investigations. There is evidence that these experiences improve prospective teachers’ likelyhood of developing inquiry science in their own teaching, though the effects often wash out quickly.

However, these interventions are built on a key assumption: prospective teachers see the models of inquiry science teaching the way science teacher educator do. Imagine two people in an airport watching a baseball game, one is from the US and the other from the UK.  While they are both watching the same game, they are not seeing the same thing.  The person from the US sees the center fielder make a great catch on a fly ball, hit by a switch-hitting batter, off a left-handed fastball pitcher’s out and away curveball.  While the person from the UK sees all the action, they can’t interpret what they are seeing, and in that sense they literally cannot see the game of baseball.  It is likely that a more subtle version of this phenomena happens with prospective teachers when they watch inquiry science teaching.  They cannot interpret what they see in meaningful ways. What makes this worse, is they know something about science teaching from their own schooling and thus believe they understand what they are seeing.  Charles Goodwin, an anthropologist, described this ability to see and interpret events in a particular way as professional vision.  

The research questions I will be investigating are: (1) How do expert and novice teachers see science teaching differently?; (2) How can these differences begin to define professional pedagogical vision in the context of classroom inquiry science teaching?  Put simply, my research project will attempt to understand the differences between expert teachers and novice teachers when they look at science teaching.  Through the intensive use of teaching experiments, field observations and video analysis, I will develop a framework for how expert teachers see inquiry science pedagogy. I will ask experts and novice to analyze examples of classroom science teaching and use their analysis along with discussion around their analysis to understand what they attend to and how they interpret what they see.  My hope is that by understanding how experts see classrooms, and in particular differentiate between inquiry practice and non-inquiry practice in science, I can help prospective teachers “learn the game”. 

Our Students Rock

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Just a quick note, but Donna, a student in our CI597: Disruptive Technologies course just did a search about Wenger and Communities of Practice and our course Pligg site came up #2 in Google.  Pretty amazing that our students' stuff is getting out there like that.  Take a look.

Define that

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Sloppy language makes me crazy. I am sure I am guilty of it, but I still want people to be clear and clean to the extent that is possible.  The reason for my deep hatred of ambiguity is the the devil is in the details (to coin a phrase), and when you say something I get to interpret it the way I like, so if you are sloppy then we can agree without really agreeing (or more commonly disagree). 

This comes up because as a result of this problem of mine I am causing students in my class to (at best) leave class with head pain, or at worst leave my class believing me to be "crazy".  [Short aside: I am hoping this is why they are saying that, because if I am acting crazy in some other way, then I am more worried]

Here is the question that began all this craziness and head pain:  In the context of Web 2.0 tools, what constitutes a boundary object (In terms of Wenger's framework of communities of practice)?  The discussion centered around whether the thing that is reified (fancy name for written down or captured in some form) is the boundary object or whether the tool was the boundary object?  So is a twitter post an object or is twitter (as an application) an object.  The reason this matters is depending on the choice you make there you get different implications for how you define community and what role technology plays in that community.  The added layer to this is how does RSS (content is king) impact this question.  If you post it to twitter and then it goes to ten other places, what is the object now and which community is it a product of?  Is that a question worth asking? Is your head hurting yet?
There is a great little application that I use to keep track of my books called Delicious Library.  If you have not seen it, I strongly suggest you check it out.  What I have been thinking about around this app is how it's usefulness could be extended.  One of the nice features is that you can use a digital video camera to scan in books via their barcode.  So, you aim the camera (the built in one will do nicely) it scans the book and downloads all the information from Amazon.  What I thought about first was that this would be great for is wine (I had just come from the wine store).  I would love to come home from the wine store, scan in all the wine I just bought, have the information on the wines downloaded from Wine Spectator or some such site.  I could rate the wines and comment on them.  Have it sync up to my iPhone so I can carry my database of great wine with me, and I would be a happy guy. 

It also reminded me that there is a tremendous amount of data that is embedded in our environment that we don't even attend to.  Everything we own these days has (or had) a barcode, and increasingly things have RFID.  Data, data everywhere - crazy.  That then got me thinking about what else might have a barcode that I could scan in and download data on to build my own little local database?  I am sure there are more things out there, any suggestions?

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