Welcome to e-Learning. You can’t use the Internet.

It’s the first day of my e-Learning course and a student from another school board sent me an apologetic email.

The student was sorry to inform me that their board has blocked student access to all of the web services we use to communicate.

no-learning

This isn’t just inconvenient; it’s preventing the student from joining the community of learners that we’re developing.

When will the fear of failing their students outweigh their fear of the Internet?

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Improving the evaluation of learning in a project-based class

I’ve been struggling for a few years with providing rich, authentic tasks for my computer science students and then having to evaluate their work.

My students learn a lot of skills quickly when solving problems they’re interested in solving. That’s wonderful.

I can’t conceive of a problem they will all be interested in solving. That’s frustrating.

In the past, I have assigned a specific task to my entire CS class. I tried to design a problem that I felt would be compelling, and that my students would readily engage with and overcome. The point has always been to develop broadly-applicable skills, good code hygiene, and deep conceptual understanding of software design. The point is not to write the next great 2D platformer nor the most complete scatterplot-generating utility.

Unfortunately, I could never quite get it right. It’s not because my tasks were inherently weak; rather it’s that my students were inherently different from one another. They don’t all like the same things.

I believe that students sometimes need to do things that are good for them but that they don’t like to do. They sometimes need the Brussels sprouts of learning until they acquire the taste for it. But if they can get the same value from the kohlrabi of learning and enjoy it, why wouldn’t we allow for that instead?

So I’ve tried giving a pretty broad guideline and asking students to decide what they want to write. They choose and they complete a lot of great learning along the way. Their code for some methods is surprisingly intricate, which is wonderful to see. They encounter problems while pursuing a goal that captures them, and they overcome those problems by learning.

Sounds good, eh?

Of course, they don’t perform independently: they learn from each other, from experts on the Internet, and from me. They get all kinds of help to accomplish their goals, as you would expect of anyone learning a new skill. And then I evaluate their learning on a 101-point scale based on a product that is an amalgam of resources, support, and learning.

Seems a bit unfair and inaccurate.

I asked for suggestions from some other teachers about how to make this work better:

  • ask students to help design the evaluation protocols
  • use learning goals and success criteria to develop levels instead of percentage grades
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students explain how they have demonstrated each expectation
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students design the task based on the expectations
  • find out each student’s personal goals for learning and then determine the criteria for the task individually based on each student’s goals

I’m not sure what to do moving forward, and I’d like some more feedback from the community.

Thanks, everyone!

Learn-practise-perform cycle limits learning in CS

Like many courses, the beginning of my current computer science e-Learning class looked like this:

  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Evaluate performance task

This separation of learning from graded performance is intended to give students time to practise before we assign a numerical grade. This sounds like a good move on the surface. It’s certainly well-intentioned.

But this process is broken. It limits learning significantly.

If the performance task is complex enough to be meaningful, it requires a synthesis of skills and understandings that the students haven’t had time to practise. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s ability to accomplish something truly useful when they’ve only had the opportunity to practise small skills.

If instead the performance task has many small components which aren’t interdependent, students never develop the deeper understanding or the relationships between concepts. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s small skills without evaluating their ability to accomplish something truly useful, which isn’t acceptable either.

And there isn’t time to do both. I can’t offer them the time to complete a large, meaningful practise task and then evaluate another large, meaningful performance task.

The barrier here is the evaluation of performance. It requires a high level of independence on the part of the student so that I can accurately assign a numerical grade.

So I’m trying something different.

Instead of these tiny, “real-world” examples (that I make up) to develop tiny, discrete skills, I started teaching through large, student-driven projects. I got rid of the little lessons building up to the performance task, and I stopped worrying about whether they had practised everything in advance.

The process looks more like this:

  • Develop project ideas with students and provide focus
  • Support students as they design
  • Provide feedback through periodic check-ins
  • Teach mini-lessons as needed for incidental learning (design, skills, etc.)
  • Summarize learning with students to consolidate

I couldn’t design a sequence of learning tasks that would be as effective as my students’ current projects are. They’re working hard to accomplish goals they chose, and they’re solving hundreds of small and large problems along the way.

They couldn’t appreciate the small, discrete lessons I was teaching with the small, artificial stories. They didn’t have the context to fit the ideas into. It was only when the project was large and meaningful that my students truly began to grasp the big concepts which the small skills support.

And now I don’t have a practise/perform cycle. It’s all practice, and it’s all performance. It’s more like real life, less like school, and it’s dramatically more effective. It’s much richer, much faster learning than the old “complete activity 2.4” approach.

Evaluation is very difficult, though.

How To Become An EdTech Leader

by Noël Zia Lee at flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0 licence.

by Noël Zia Lee at flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0 licence.

I hosted a session at On The Rise this year. I’ve posted my slides as a PDF, but I knew from the start that a 60-minute session would be too short for the topic. Here is the previously-mentioned, obscenely long, supplementary blog post.

Introduction

Being a leader in educational technology does not mean becoming technically skilled. It doesn’t mean you can write code, recover crashed hard drives, or configure a router. You don’t even have to know what those phrases mean.

Being an EdTech leader means that you have relationships with others, and that you share with them using technology.

Goals

In order to lead effectively, you need some goals. Here are a few generic examples of goal types:

  • Develop skills and knowledge to improve yourself and your work
  • Develop skills and knowledge in your team
  • Foster collaboration in your team
  • Give to the larger community (beyond your team)
  • Develop personal and professional relationships
  • Share resources

For example, you might have a goal of learning how to use audio recordings for assessment as learning in a language class. You might have a goal of connecting your teachers to teachers in other school boards. You might want to develop closer professional relationships within your department. You might want to collect and curate resources to support newer teachers.

All of these are great goals, but make sure you follow one simple rule:

Have goals for yourself and goals for others

One or the other type isn’t enough if you’re trying to consciously lead. If you only have goals for yourself, you have no reason to share and support others. If you only have goals for others, you’re just trying to “improve” them without being honest about your own needs. Have both.

Kinds of Communities

There are a lot of ways to categorize communities, but the “publicness” of a community is fundamental.

Public vs. Private

This is really a continuum.

At one extreme end of the continuum we have completely public communities, which anyone can observe and in which anyone can participate. For example, Twitter is generally* publicly and globally available. What you say there is readable by anyone, even those who don’t have user accounts with the service.

(*I’m not going to put asterisks all through this post, but be aware most of these statements can be modified by user settings. For example, on Twitter you can protect your tweets so that only approved users can read them.)

At the other extremity we have completely private communities, which are only visible to the “invited” few. For example, you may have a Facebook group that only approved participants can join. The rest of the world isn’t allowed inside.

What’s best depends on who wants to participate, what their level of comfort is, and what everyone’s talking about.

You might have a private community when you need to talk about something sensitive or confidential, or when the participants are worried about making very public mistakes (particularly if this sort of community is new to them). You might protect the conversation when you need to prevent self-censorship in order to have honest dialogue.

You might have a public community when your local community (e.g. the people you work with) is a small one, and you want outside voices. It’s good to be public with universal issues, like assessment or writing.

You might partially protect the conversation by making it “read-only” to the uninvited. For example, perhaps you share the work you’re doing with your department members on a departmental blog/wiki/etc. The rest of the world can view your resources, but only your department members can update the work or comment on it.

Constructed vs. Organic

Some communities are organized and constructed. For example, you might set up a discussion group about instructional strategies, or you might create a sharing folder for rubrics. The purposes of those communities or activities are clear, and so they’re constructed.

Instead you might just set up a space for conversation to happen. Twitter is my favourite place for this. The topic isn’t defined in advance, so we can talk about anything we want to. The connectedness of the participants is what matters, not the quality of the prompt. Organic communities tend to be participant-directed and very welcoming of tangential thinking.

Halfway between these is the ConstrOrganic community (yes, I just made that up. I’m sure it’ll catch on). This is a community of people which doesn’t have a tight restriction on the conversation, but does sometimes provide prompts. For example, you might ask an open-ended or reflective question on Twitter: “How does your experience with technology in your personal life affect your use of technology in the classroom?” The question itself is posed in an otherwise organic community, but you can try to mould the conversation for a while. In my experience we don’t stay “on-topic” for very long, but that’s fine: the talk goes where it needs to, not where I aim it.

Required vs. Optional

This is one of the hardest to deal with, and it very much depends on (a) who you are, (b) what your role is in your organization, (c) who you are leading or hoping to lead, and (d) what your goals are for the people you lead.

If you’re a principal of a school and you want all the teachers you work with to reflect on their assessment practices in an online space, you might be considering requiring a writing activity in a private, online space. When you imagine how that will play out, you might be concerned that some folks might not participate, or that the participation might not be as deep and reflective as you want.

Rule of thumb: don’t require participation (at least at the beginning) if it’s not anonymous (and therefore safe). People need to trust you in order to follow you. If you don’t already have the level of trust that makes an optional task work well, then you don’t have the level of trust that makes a required task work well with names attached. By removing the names, you’ll remove a good portion of the (legitimate) fear associated with putting thoughts out there.

For example, you can create a shared online document (like a Google Doc) and make it editable to anyone who has the link. Participants can modify the document without identifying themselves, which makes it a lot more likely to be honest and complete.

Instant? Persistent?

Your interactions within your community can be synchronous (instant), like a tweet, or asynchronous, like a blog post and a comment. This is often a tradeoff between speed (synchronous) and depth (asynchronous).

Online conversations are usually persistent (they stay there forever), but they may not be easy to return to or make quick sense of later. Sometimes conversations are temporary, like a back-and-forth on TodaysMeet.com or a Google Hangout.

I wonder if having persistent, asynchronous conversations creates a thoughtful-but-cautious environment, possibly erecting a barrier or self-censorship. Is it true that instant, casual, organic conversations are more honest and allow for experimental thinking?

Email is not an effective community

It could be, I suppose, but don’t just do this. Mass email isn’t personal, interactive, or persistent (for most people), which can be good things to have. It’s typically one-way communication, and you can’t really opt-in or opt out. Other types of services will work better for you.

Possible Roles

In your participation in any community in which work is being done, you usually take on one of four roles. You’ll move between them freely and frequently once you’re a solid member of a functional community.

Quester

I have a question or problem, and I’m looking for an answer or solution.

For example, I post to Twitter, “Anyone have a good summative task for the quadratics section in MCF3M?” That’s a specific quest, and I’m the Quester. Anyone else in the community can answer, and anyone else can benefit from the answer.

Adventurer

I am trying something new, and I’m going to share my journey.

For example, I decided to try some physical demonstrations in my classroom for quadratic motion. I wrote a blog post explaining what I had come up with, shared some video from class, and reflected on how effective it was. I wasn’t an expert, but I shared what I found out (even if it turned out to be wrong).

Neophyte

I am learning something new from you, and I may ask questions.

This is great when there is a source of wisdom you can tap into. For example, I can read all about how to use Screencast-o-matic to improve an e-Learning course by watching someone’s videos or reading their tutorials. If there is something I don’t understand, I can ask questions. The answers help me, and both the answers and the questions help others (including that expert).

Adept

I have some special skills or knowledge, and I’ll demonstrate or share.

For example, I post instructional videos about how to program a computer using the Java programming language. I’m sharing some niche knowledge that I have, and I invite conversation and questions about it. I’m not looking for anything specific, but that knowledge does very little good bottled up in my own skull.

Choosing a Platform

There are three major considerations:

  1. Does the platform have the level of privacy that I want or need? This is a dealbreaker if it doesn’t. Also consider the granularity of privacy settings, because you might want to “reduce” them later (e.g. become somewhat more public).
  2. Does the platform have the functions I want or need? Think about formats, ease of use, technical support, exportability (if I leave, can I bring my stuff with me?), and cost.
  3. Will/does the community use the platform? If a platform is popular, the community might already exist or be easier to create. No one wants another password to remember.

Some possibilities

Lots of platforms serve multiple purposes. YouTube is for video, but it includes commenting. WordPress is for blogging, but it can serve as a fully functional website. Facebook is a social network, but it has private community pages. Here are a few loose categories and some popular services:

  • Blogging (WordPress, Blogger, Medium)
  • Video or Vlogging (YouTube)
  • Social Networking (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook)
  • Curating (Pinterest, Scoop.it)

Some Challenges and Cautions

Here are some other considerations when you’re adventuring online.

Be careful what you say

Think about maintaining loyalty to your employer, respecting copyright and other licences, and protecting student identity and information. There are some things that you simply can’t say in public.

Who’s listening?

You might draw unwanted attention, even if what you say is “allowed” and isn’t “wrong”. For example, what will you do if a parent has a concern about the conversation between two teachers revealing a lack of professional understanding? Also consider students, other schools, and community members.

What is privacy, really?

When you post something in a private or protected space, you’re trusting the other people in that space to maintain the privacy of your thoughts. Before you post something, consider what might happen if it were “leaked”.

Will this be personal, professional, both?

Each has advantages and disadvantages. Your decision will depend on your goals. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter from a while ago:

No takers?

What if your team doesn’t follow you? What if they want to do something else? What if your team is already doing something different? What if your team is afraid?

You’ll have to work through the reasons for your particular situation, and talk with your team. There might be nothing you can do, except for continuing to share and model good practice.

What if my preferred platform is filtered by my organization?

Is there a good reason for the filtering? Are the people who make those decisions aware of what you’re trying to accomplish? Are they supportive? Have you talked with them about it (really talked, not just made a request by email)?

Sometimes the decision makers have parameters that you’re unaware of, and sometimes you have insight they are unaware of. Talk to each other. In the best situations, neither party thinks they have all the answers.

Final thoughts

At On The Rise: K-12 in 2014 Catherine Montreuil (then of Bruce-Grey Catholic DSB) said, “Private practice is inconsistent with professional practice.”

Being connected makes someone a leader, and being open and transparent are the best ways to get connected. You don’t need to be expert, articulate, or tech-savvy.

You just need to be willing to share.

 

Late deadlines make for sleepy students

I set 11:30pm deadlines for assignments in my e-Learning course because I want to respect that students work on their courses at times outside of the instructional day. Some students take online courses specifically because of the flexibility of learning anytime, anywhere.

But most students behave like temporal gases: they will fill whatever container of time you put them in. So a side effect of that graciously long submission window is that students who could finish their assignment during the school day don’t, and they all try to cram it into their evening instead. Then they stay up far too late, which is bad for a ton of reasons.

Photo "Library visitor" by umjanedoan via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Photo “Library visitor” by umjanedoan via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

So setting an 11:30pm deadline might have been a mistake. In the future I might set it for 3:00pm and simply expect that some folks will be a little late. At least the punctual kids will get to bed on time.

Tweets from #OTRK12

Here are some tweets that I wrote, retweeted, or favourited during OTRK12. I still have to write my OTRK12 reflections in a post, and a summary of the session I hosted. Hopefully I’ll get those done this week. In the meantime, here’s OTRK12 in bite-sized chunks:

Tweets and Retweets

(Note: “the” = “they” in above tweet. You knew what I meant, right?)

Favourites

How I Use Twitter Professionally – Version 4

Two and a half years ago I wrote How I Use Twitter Professionally, then revised it with How I Use Twitter Professionally – Updated! and How I Use Twitter Professionally – Updated Again!

I guess we’ll make it an annual thing:

My tweets are public.

I’m trying to encourage conversation and collaboration, so my tweets are globally accessible. This also means I don’t make statements I wouldn’t be comfortable with anyone reading – my family, my students, my employer….

I don’t follow a lot of people.

I currently follow 370 people, of whom about 250 are actively tweeting (let’s say at least weekly). Some of these aren’t related to education; for example, I follow The LEGO Group (@LEGO_Group) and authors John Scalzi (@scalzi) and Marko Kloos (@markokloos – he has a new book out today!).

I can’t read all of the stuff they tweet. I’m relying on my tweeps to retweet the really good stuff so I have a better chance of seeing it, or to mention me if it’s something they think I ought to notice.

I accept anyone as a follower, pretty much.

Except for a few obvious accounts, I let anyone follow me. Since my tweets are public, anyone can read them (even without a Twitter account), so letting people follow me doesn’t reveal anything extra. Plus, it’s easier when you don’t have to approve people.

I don’t follow back as a courtesy.

Before I decide to follow someone, I take a look at their tweet history. Is their stream of tweets going to enhance my experience? Will I learn from them? Or will I only learn what they had for breakfast?

I’m a fan of some personal stuff on Twitter, but if you post 300 times a day just to talk without conversing, I don’t need to see it. It’s not about you, it’s just that your use of Twitter doesn’t fit with mine. I think your lifestyle on Twitter should be like the Law of Two Feet: if it’s not working for you, move on.

I don’t accept Direct Messages (DMs) from people I don’t follow.

This cuts down on the spam. Now it’s just mentions, and there aren’t too many of those. This is a good idea for anyone, so I thought I’d list it here.

I also don’t follow people who I don’t want to DM me. That especially includes students. I have my school email for that kind of communication.

I follow hashtags for a while.

I follow #OTRK12 (our annual conference in Mississauga – this week!) and #elADSB (for my Board’s e-Learning teachers). I don’t follow the very busy tags, although I sometimes apply them to my posts (#D2L, #onted, #blendedlearning, #edtech).

I try to follow the people in Northern Ontario. We face many of the same issues, and perhaps we have solutions to help each other. I like that idea.

I don’t cross post to Facebook anymore.

I tweet too much. No one on Facebook wants to read all of that stuff. The handful of FB friends who do are also Twitter users and teachers, so they just go to Twitter to find me. When I write blog posts WordPress will publicize them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, and I’m certain that’s plenty for the FB crowd.

I use Tweetdeck; it rocks.

Chrome has TweetDeck as an app; I like that I can have columns for a variety of things I want to look at. Currently I have my Twitter timeline, my Twitter Interactions, my Twitter Messages (DMs), and columns for a bunch of hashtags and lists I follow.

I say things for myself, and I say things for others.

I tweet things that I want to remember or revisit (great for “note-taking” at a session/workshop/conference). I also tweet things to inform others or start conversations. My tweets (of links and such) aren’t endorsements, but since people sometimes view them that way I try not to share stuff that I’m not at least familiar with.

I talk a lot, but not too much

I try to ask questions and help out when others ask questions. I’m proud to say I am included as an honourary member of the SGDSB educators list because I help out the teachers up there, so I think my contributions are valued.

More importantly, I’m developing relationships with these distant folks, and the growth of my PLN has helped me out in my work as well. It was very exciting last year at OTRK12 to meet people whom I knew only through Twitter, and it was surprising how natural the face-to-face interactions felt. We were already friends. So thanks, tweeps.

If you want to follow me…

I’m @bgrasley. No pressure, of course. Use Twitter however it works best for you, and don’t be upset if other people use it differently!