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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.
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.
I am teaching a course this semester about Disruptive Technology in Teaching and Learning with Cole Camplese.  Having a bunch of smart people in a room talking about technology and education is a real treat for me.  This past week we were talking about RSS and Blogs as content management systems.  As part of this conversation we took a look at Christopher Long's page as an example of what faculty can do with the blog as a content management system. 

Here at PSU in Science Education we have been talking a lot about our graduate program, and in particular about how to give graduate students feedback on their progress through the program.  We have been talking about a portfolio that would include a research statement, a teaching statements, and papers that represent their work in courses and outside.  We were then planning annual meetings to talk with individual students and give them feedback.  Of course this all makes a lot more sense (to me) as an online eportfolio in the form of a blog with some connected static pages.  Students teaching and research statements would be static pages (though the content would change over time).  All their other work for courses and outside of course would be included in the personal content management system.  By using tags they could mark things they wanted feedback on or things they felt represented their best work.  Faculty could check in at any time with progress and students could have a (public) record of faculty comments on their work.  I realize it would be a big leap of faith, but I wonder how many faculty / departments are doing something like this out there.  Clearly Chris Long is, but I would love to know if there are more people out there researching in the open.

Next semester I get to do something that I have been trying to do for quite a while now - teach a course with my friend, Cole Camplese. Cole has been dragging me along as he cuts a swath through the teaching and learning with technology space. In the Spring semester we will be teaching a course called Disruptive Technologies (CI 597). The idea is to think about how technology, and in particular social tools, can impact teaching and learning. You can hear the podcast for the first class via iTunes U or via Cole's blog. I am really looking forward to seeing how this stuff plays in the real world of teaching and learning. One role I have in this course is focusing on the K-12 space (really in my case that means secondary). I would love to hear from folks how they are using these tools and if there are IT constraints (e.g. Google Docs is blocked) in using Web 2.0 tools . Stay tuned as well and I will be pointing to more of the work from the class.

Again with the talking

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Alright, I admit that I am a sucker and got myself into this, but I have to return to a favorite topic of mine - education / professional development via talking at people. Today I signed up for a workshop here on campus intended to help me prepare grant proposals. What it was, it turns out, was two hours of me sitting and listening to people tell me things that could have much more expeditiously been read from a web page or brochure. Interestingly, they gave me just such a brochure and website in a packet as part of my materials for the "workshop".

I want to be clear, that this is not a criticism of a particular instance, but more a question about the model. People in almost every context seem to think that talking at people in a room = learning. Why is it that ideas like faculty development are so trapped in a model that is clearly ineffective? How is it that everyone in that room with me (I would bet) had a very similar reaction (e.g. the guy next to me was reading his printed out emails and grading papers), and yet the feedback the organizers will get about this workshop will unlikely be quite good (otherwise they would stop having them).

Where are the models for faculty engagement that work? Why is nobody thinking about this in a serious way? We had a room full of very smart people and yet the result was a uni-directional firehose of trivia. I am sure that some of those bits stuck with folks, but overall it was not a good use of time for either the presenters or the audience. Is this really where we are at a world class university? I have to say I have been hanging out a lot with technology people lately, and one in particular seems to have cracked the engagement thing to some degree. Cole Camplese has a vision for an infrastructure for supporting innovative teaching and learning using technology. I think we need to consider what the human infrastructure is for supporting innovation in scholarship. Maybe there are similarities, maybe not, but with this many smart people wasting this much time, it deserves more consideration than it is getting.

Making cool digital artifacts is the charismatic megafauna of the digital toolkit. Everybody thinks it is cool and it does have a great wow factor, but it is not really where the power of the toolkit lies. This is why I feel such a sense of disappointment when I see teachers focusing students on creating powerpoint, webpages, even movies or other more thoughtful digital artifacts. Watching someone create, in minutes, a slick little video or podcast, for example, is impressive. Ultimately however, it distracts from what I believe the technology is all about. The real power of ubiqutous computing is the digital glue that can be created to hold the pieces together, both personally and across a community (or classroom). Search, share, critique, comment, and create a evolving reflective community archive. This is what gets me excited about digital tools and digital expression. Not the expression, but the interaction that the expression can (and should) lead to.

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