Campus Party – Brazil!

Campus Party link

If you happen to be in São Paulo, Brazil, this weekend, don’t miss a most excellent annual event, Campus Party.

NOT free to the public (sorry if I mislead readers yesterday), this Woodstock/Burning Man-like event hosts the latest in tech innovation, but not just any tech.  This event is about education technology, science, culture, and interactive media for furthering the minds and hearts of Brazilians,
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PBL vs. Design Thinking?

Following is my reply to a post by Master Blogger Bianca Hewes which is itself a response to a post by Ewan McIntosh and his criticism of project-based learning.  I so enjoyed my return to thinking about models-based reasoning and its relationship to PBL that I offer it to you here, in case you missed it on Bianca’s blog.

In my former incarnation as a science teacher, I became deeply invested in an instructional mode fondly known as models-based reasoning, or MBR, growing out of work at the University of California, Davis, University of Arizona and elsewhere.

Models-based reasoning, at its root, presents natural phenomena to students under carefully designed/constructed circumstances so that students may perceive the phenomenon such that discreet elements of the phenomenon may be teased out of the bigger picture. Students then undertake a collaborative and sequential process of reasoning and debate to arrive at precise understanding of the concept at hand. This methodology began in the disciplines of physics and chemistry, but thoughtful teachers in the life sciences are also using this to great benefit, particularly in the areas of genetics and evolution.

MBR is a very carefully guided process, a cognitive analogue to PBL. MBR does not take a student by the scruff and shove him/her outside with the command, “Perceive and Reason!” Why? Because students lack observational skills and the scaffold to understand simple phenomena, something required before a student can step into a very complex world and make empirical sense of it. While eager to learn and very capable, they are ignorant of both fact and concept.

Failing to carefully construct the learning context to narrow a student’s perceptual options provides too many phenomenological diversions, quickly leading to the hardening of misconceptions (shared and often easy, thus powerful, simplifications) students bring into the room; in short, the method can fail as predictably as having students memorize tables of factoids. I suspect the same holds true for any discipline, as our culture (the American political process comes screaming to mind as I write this) is rife with examples of unthinking, uncritical perception, something mercilessly exploited by well-oiled marketing machines. People simply believe what they’re told, thanks to a lack of cognitive skill.

My understanding of Design Thinking is that it is a powerful practice developed for solving complex problems, and practiced by individuals who have already acquired higher-order thinking skills. Design Thinking as a teaching/learning method does not seem to be appropriate even for collegiate-level learners unless they already have a body of knowledge and effective collaborative skills under their belts. Gaming as a teaching/learning modality is informative here: when gamers come together to solve complex problems, they bring their considerable and long-established gaming and social skills to the process. You don’t throw a non-gamer into the pool with skilled gamers as they tackle a complex project. I’ve been that person; it doesn’t work.

I suspect those who hold DT as superior to PBL will, when in the presence of flesh and blood adolescents, eventually concede that while DT has its place in advanced settings, our students first need to undertake a journey in communication and logic, to walk before they sprint. PBL in the hands of cognitive nurturers like Bianca Hewes is that very process.

More Facebook: Why are you surprised?

Something else that has caught my eye of late is the press covering the astonishing fact that students and their parents bad-mouth teachers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.  I’m not sure when “rock-star popularity among youth” became part of the teaching job description, but the idea that this is “news” struck me as kind of amusing.

two kids in a kiddie poolWhen my kids were toddlers I used to hear other parents complain about the fact that three-year-olds (and maybe even – gasp – their own three year old) tended to pee in swimming pools, and that fact diminished their enjoyment of the pool.  This phenomenon lead to my Personal Parenting Rule #47: Don’t swim where toddlers swim.

I love Facebook.  I have gobs of Friends who were high school classmates and whom I haven’t seen since, people whom I see maybe once a year if I’m lucky, and regular friends I see daily who need to coordinate a meet-up.  Also in there are a few kids who are friends of my kids, athletes my wife coaches, etc.  They exist in a group called “Kids,” and they do NOT participate in my Facebook life, though they can contact me through Facebook if they need to.

When I was first playing with Facebook, I allowed myself the ability to see former students’ status posts.  They hated and dissed some of their teachers, some of them my friends, so I changed my settings to exclude their status updates from my Facebook life.  This was their emotional space, not mine.

I remember my earliest teaching days when I thought I was a “friend” to some of my students, when I could secretly claim to belong to their generation, and when I said “we” in class, I felt like I was including them as peers at some level.  With 20/20 hindsight, what was I?  Role model & mentor?  Yes.  Trusted adviser?  Often.  Beloved teacher?  Occasionally.  Peer?  No.  Friend?  Never.

Stay out of your students’ social lives.  If they or their parents publish lies about you such that your career/reputation is being harmed, the same remedy applies: sue them.  Written defamation is libel, and teachers are not considered “public figures”; you are not a rock star.  Your principal is, however.  But know that if you share the conversation in which you are being libeled, your claim to having been damaged by their speech would likely be much weaker.

Know that just as three-year-olds pee in the pool, teenagers get unreasonably angry and verbally abusive, with parents often close behind them.  That’s why there are kiddie pools, and that’s why you don’t share your Facebook life with students.

The Edmodo alternative to commercial social media

iphone using edmodo

In future posts I will be dwelling on the instructional wonders of Edmodo, but since I just put a lot of energy into bagging on the use of Facebook by K-12 teachers for instruction, it’s only fair to consider Edmodo as a ready alternative.  Using the same set of structural criteria I used in my critique of Facebook, let’s take a look at Edmodo

Teachers are responsible for what occurs in their teaching environment.  Edmodo class pages, or groups, are occupied by invitation only via a code to enable a connection.  Any student signing up by alias can be summarily deleted, and teachers can switch signup codes or close enrollment to groups at any time.  Teachers may also enforce norms by deletion of comments made, and can guide student participation through any number of management strategies, just as in a FTF classroom.  If a teacher needs to step away from supervision for an extended period, or if certain group members are bent on disruption or abuse, comments can be fully moderated, reviewed by the teacher before posting to the group and effectively closing the page to spontaneous posting.  Since email accounts are not required for enrollment nor is there a chat function, the teacher cannot be held accountable for any back-channel interaction outside of Edmodo.  It is a non-public walled garden, always subject to teacher management.

Individual interactions between students and teachers must be above suspicion and reproach, with guidelines provided by law and a clear code of professional conduct.  All interactions between the teacher and group members are visible to the entire group and any administrator included in the Edmodo environment (if the account lives in a district subdomain).  The only exception to this rule is any comment held for moderation if the teacher has enabled that feature.  As noted above, there is no back-channel or private space for conversations in Edmodo as one would find in Facebook or Second life.

Teachers need to be able to design the learning environment to optimize learning.  While the esthetic of Edmodo is clean and certainly Facebook-esque, it is free of advertising widgets, game apps, and endless appeals to extend your Friends list through a daunting web of connectivity.  Edmodo functions as a means for groups large and small to interact on tasks.  Yes, casual and off-topic discussion is fully available and enjoyable, but they are still subject to teacher-set norms.  While Edmodo is an optimal vehicle for conducting project-based learning with its tools designed to support it, teachers can create a learning space that supports their personal teaching methods and goals through the use of polls, narrative feedback, small group assignments, etc.  Each class can have its own customized resource library, and students have a waiting depository for assignments.

Parents have the right to access the learning environment taxpayer-paid teachers provide.  Parents who wish to review their child’s activity on Edmodo can be issued an account that gives them access to what their child and their child’s teacher posts in Edmodo.  This account is special, in that they do not participate in the group, they are not visible to other group members or to their child, and they cannot see the posts or work products of other students.  They also have access to their child’s assignments and any grades maintained in the Edmodo gradebook application if the teacher uses it.  Unlike with Facebook, parent access is not dependent on any action taken by their child, being fully teacher-managed.

Teachers need to be able to provide a record of interactions they supervise.  While the necessity of maintaining physical or electronic records of all Edmodo class interactions is debatable, depending on district or teacher personal records policy, a teacher can elect to save all Edmodo pages as HTML files, a record far more complete than is possible in any FTF environment.  Also, students have no control over the fate of their posts.  Once posted, posts remain until removed by the teacher.  Should a teacher require evidence of misbehavior such as bullying or threats, s/he need only make a copy of the page to use in the course dealing with the situation prior to removing such post from the live group process.

Above I alluded to administrators and district subdomains.  It is the case that most teachers using Edmodo today do so through independent accounts established through Edmodo.com.  However, many teachers who wish to involve their colleagues in professional learning communities often seek the support of instructional leaders as they share their expertise, requesting that Edmodo create subdomains which are occupied only by the school sites and teachers of their school district.  Not only does this extend professional networking capabilities, it provides for backup in the event of an emergency.  Edmodo site administrators (which could be a colleague as well as a building administrator) can pop into your account and turn off active posting in an unexpected absence, and just as in FTF classroom supervision, administrators who can attest to the quality of the content of your online learning environment can have your back in the event of an issue.  Edmodo district administrators can create new groups alongside district school sites to serve as spaces for colleagues to network and conduct district-wide professional development activities.

Teachers on Facebook: Professional Roulette

roulette wheelThe use of Facebook by teachers has become such a deeply felt and inflammatory topic during this time of budgetary hemorrhage – Facebook is powerful and free, after all – that I felt it high time it was addressed from the practitioner perspective.

Now, before you dismiss this out of hand after deciding I’m just another set of bureaucratic flapping gums, allow me the following bona fide:  At the outset of my teaching career as a high school teacher, my district strongly advised teachers to unlist their phone numbers from the public phone book lest we subject ourselves to crank calls and toilet papered houses.  I ignored this directive, as I was the kind of teacher who took my relationship to my students beyond what happened in front of the chalk board, providing mentoring and adult friendship to those kids who needed it.  My phone was used by students only to report crises, their own or another students’, and that access prevented at least one suicide attempt, and that in my first teaching year alone.  Besides, I’ve always thought of toilet papered houses as loving acts.

So I truly get the vital role teachers play in adolescent lives, a role that goes way beyond content standards.  We dig deeply into our emotions, intellects and bank accounts to serve these young people, and when we find a tool that works in their service, narrowly-cast district policies and even our own self-interest often fade into the background noise of the teaching profession.  We particularly search for avenues to make as vital a connection to our students as we can, knowing in our gut that learning happens best in the context of emotion and relationship to peers and mentors.

The dynamic and immediate interactivity of Facebook makes it a natural medium for teachers, and the web is full of teachers extolling its power and virtue.  However, and this is a pleading however, Facebook provides a quality of access to a student’s personal life and actions that can be truly career-ending for a teacher.  All your caring and expertise will matter little if you find yourself outside looking in following the trauma of a communication nightmare.

The organizational intricacies that contribute to the teacher’s ability to walk into a room, turn on the lights, have minor children walk in and face an expectation imposed on them by parents and wider culture are not random circumstances.  Your ability to teach that class is the outcome of a long and complex political and social process, and imbedded in that process are certain conditional facts driven by law.

Facebook fails you as a teacher because it ignores the following conditions imposed by the structure that provides for public schooling:

  • Teachers are responsible for what occurs in their teaching environment.  When teachers set up a space in which to conduct instruction, whether it is their classroom, on the grass under a tree at the park down the street, or a page on Facebook, they assume responsibility for words uttered there.  It is expected that in the course of instruction and interaction that you are present at all times.  Facebook is a public space, and by definition it is free of structural supervision. If a teacher cannot actively supervise student interaction in a space the teacher uses for instruction, the space should not be available to students.  This is a no-brainer when we’re using a brick & mortar classroom; we carry keys.  In our professional role, social media is no different, but Facebook has no keys to distribute.
  • Individual interactions between students and teachers must be above suspicion and reproach, with guidelines provided by law and a clear code of professional conduct.  We have all had students with whom we should not meet with alone, with private conversations occurring with a door open to the hallway. We have also all had students who seriously misinterpreted our words leading to uncomfortable confrontations, extending eventually to their parents.  Facebook provides a necessarily private, “windowless” space for such interactions, and it is only a matter of time before things will go wrong and a teacher finds him or herself in desperate defensive mode.
  • Teachers need to be able to design the learning environment to optimize learning.  Instruction on a Facebook page is like gathering your class in the middle of Time’s Square before NYC got rid of the strip joints.  While you think you are interacting as teacher, students are chatting, the ads are rolling (marketed specifically to each student’s “Likes”), and they’re checking out your FB profile page.
  • Parents have the right to access the learning environment taxpayer-paid teachers provide.  It is the rare adolescent who “Friends” a parent.  Even rarer is the parent who provides a computer conditional on being their child’s Facebook Friend, and even then kids respond by maintaining separate “parent-safe” pages.  Consequently, when teaching happens on Facebook parents are structurally denied access to an environment they are indirectly paying the teacher to provide.
  • Teachers need to be able to provide a record of interactions they supervise.  By “supervise” I mean providing any learning environment that is part of a teacher’s professional role.  Once provided, under the law, supervision is assumed.  If students control the permanence of communications by being able to delete their posts, nothing short of a court order (good luck with that) can recover any toxic, threatening, libelous or injurious communication posted by a student.  Also, given the miracle of Photoshop, there is nothing short of a court order that can disprove a created private conversation between student and teacher.

So what’s a teacher to do?  In my next post I look at how Edmodo addresses these very issues.

Gaming to save the world. Not kidding.

Last September brought us the news that the online game Foldit had produced actual real-world solutions to a biochemical puzzle, leading to advances in medical research, specifically in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. The news of the discovery was good, but the fact that it was brought to us courtesy of the gaming culture those of my generation have long feared and disparaged was the real earth-shaker here.

Jane McGonagal, Ph.D., takes this news to the next level, and we need to pay attention.  For my entire professional career I’ve begged my students to become participants in the salvation of their deeply at-risk world.  With a number of stunning exceptions to the rule, for the most part the response has been, “Uh huh, let me get back to my X-box if you don’t mind, Mr. Storm.” For me, and most of us, this channeling of our brightest minds into (what we perceived as) mindless gaming was ample cause for despair, portending no less the end of civilization and perhaps the species.

In this TED talk linked below and in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Dr. McGonagal sees not only hope, but cause for actual excitement arising from this enormous body of talent and passion growing from the gaming culture.  Have a listen, and see if you don’t find yourself allowing for the possibility she just may be onto something.

Edmodo

At the risk of revealing my personal lag time for becoming aware of an ed tech tool for which I’ve been pining these many years, I am posting here a few links to information on a service that may well become the transformational tool of the current generation of K-12 teachers who are currently stretched and stressed beyond anything sustainable.link to edmodoEdmodo, simply put, is Facebook for the classroom.  Not coincidentally, Facebook and LinkedIn are major funding sources for this free service.  In this space, teachers can provide streaming interaction with their students through accounts they alone supervise, based on Groups established (i.e. classes) for teaching purposes.  Edmodo is wildly customizable, to the degree that the same application can also be utilized for established PLCs or other more informal interest groups with colleagues.  Edmodo is safe, a “walled garden” available only by invitation, and accessible through any Internet-connected device.  Mobile Edmodo apps allows students to interact through smart phones and tablets, in addition to any Internet-capable computer.

While Edmodo sponsors excellent webinars to get teachers and districts up & running (district-specific subdomains are also freely provided), of the 500,000 teachers and 4.5 million students using Edmodo at this writing, blogger Bianca Hewes has done a particularly nifty job in describing her use of it in her English classes, most recently in this recent post, Edmodo: resource sharing, collaboration, lessons, communication, assessments and organisation.

While Project-Based Learning (PBL) is clearly at the heart and soul of Edmodo designers and its most devoted users, it seems any pedagogical stripe can be accommodated as long as personal interaction is the goal.  Edmodo invites the curious to set up a free account and give it a go.  You just may love it.