Friday, December 18, 2009

Iowa Core, in a Nutshell

I've had this conversation enough that it is time I posted it. For many educators, the Iowa Core Curriculum comes across as more confusing than it really is. Partly, that is due to problems with a roll-out, and another part due to questions about mandates and timelines. With non-educators (and many educators would openly admit, with them too), there is too much jargon that comes across as fluff, the eduspeak of those of us who have worked in education for a long time.

But at its heart, the Iowa Core Curriculum is really simple. Its really solid. And, there's little argument about it, even though there is consensus we could do a better job on these things. Here is the Iowa Core Curriculum, boiled down to seven basics:

1. We have to always be changing.
Because, the world is always changing. And we have tended to say that we're pretty good at what we do, which can create complacency. Eduspeak calls this the culture of continuous improvement, but basically it means we can't rest on our laurels. We have a process where we get better, going on all the time.

2. Change has to be based on data.
We can't make changes willy nilly. We have to seek data so that we can make a good decision. And most importantly, we have to know what kinds of data we seek. It isn't always the ITEDs. In fact, it usually shouldn't be. As schools, we have to be better at a) defining what we're after, b) knowing how you measure that, c) actually going out and measuring it, and d) interpreting it to make a decision... as opposed to twisting it to reinforce the decision we have already made.

3. We teach what we should be teaching.
The word thrown out here is alignment. The Iowa Core gives us essential skills and concepts for students to master. The problem is not that those are different than district's written standards and benchmarks... they usually aren't. The problem is, a district's standards and benchmarks are different than what actually goes on in their classrooms. We need to actually look in our classrooms and determine what is actually taught, what is "covered", and what is assumed to be covered by a different grade level.

4. We have good instruction and assessment when we teach, and we know what that means.

The Iowa Core identifies 5 characteristics of effective instruction. But even here, there isn't anything magical about these terms. They refer to teaching that is constructivist in learning. Deep learning. Less topics, higher-order thinking. More focus on analysis and creativity, less on rote memorization. Ongoing feedback, students driving the learning. Authentic learning environments, activities in the real world. And differentiation around a student's abilities, interests and prior knowledge.

Teachers have heard these buzzwords for years... the Iowa Core isn't new here. What's key is calibration. Can teachers look at a lesson being taught and identify if it is higher-order or not, how it can be more authentic, etc.

5. We develop 21st century skills in all that we do

Perhaps the biggest of buzzwords with the Iowa Core -- 21st century skills -- are actually well known. Show teachers a clip of a good lesson and they'll be able to identify the skills taking place, be they creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, innovation, etc. The problem is we see them as a discreet skill, as though we need a separate lesson on creativity in our curriculum.

Rather, they should be the lens by which we look at all that we do. You've got a unit on polynomials, or structuring a paragraph, or the process of osmosis. Great. How good is that unit at developing creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, etc? How can you make it better at those? Each lesson, regardless of content area or age level, should have that as the implied focus, the universal outcome.

6. We need to work more closely with those outside school
And, that's not just communication. Are we actually collaborating with others, partnering with others? Parents, community groups, local businesses, other schools, government institutions, the list goes on and on. We need to admit as educators that we can't teach students the best by creating an insular environment. We teach better when we bring in external "teachers".

7. We need good leadership
None of the other things happen without good leaders. And leadership doesn't always come solely from administration. We need to be systematic about building leadership... it won't happen just on its own. We need to adopt attitudes of balanced leadership, giving other people the chance to lead in the areas of their strengths.

No one is saying we need poor leadership in schools, of course. But when we talk about a district that doesn't have quality leadership, we tend to throw up our hands. Not much we can do there.

That's the wrong attitude to take. Every school needs quality leadership. Therefore, we need to not just pay this lip service, but actually invest time and money into leadership development. Administrators and teachers alike. The Iowa Core emphasizes to districts that this is a priority.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Google Sketchup & Build Your Town

As I mentioned before, Google is partnering with the DE and AEAs to provide Google Sketchup to Iowa schools.

For teachers interested in using Google Sketchup but unsure of a hook to your classroom, you should know about the Model Your Town Contest from Google. The contest asks students to design 3d renderings of buildings in their towns via Sketchup, and then submit those for Google Earth.

Grant Wood AEA has taken the lead on this and is offering training for teachers in Google Earth. You can check out their website for more details about the project. Heartland AEA is developing an online course for Google Sketchup as well. Those interested to know more can contact me or Denise Krefting at the Heartland office.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More from Will Richardson

Some more thoughts from Will:

On the Youtube video below: "We have now the tools where students can go, access the broadest of networks, asking help from strangers they have never met before. Youtube can be a method to get direct feedback on your performance."

"80% of students are involved in social networking, and an overwhelming majority of those (probably 95%) are not taught how to engage in it by an adult. You as an educator HAVE to teach my kids how to interact with adults online... its how they will learn in this world."

"Schools need to be learning communities not teaching communities."

"A new graduation requirement we should have: students will be able to create, navigate and grow their own personal learning network."

"The strength of a network is in diversity. Not diversity as we usually measure it, but diversity of ideas."

"I want my kids to fail safely somewhere using social media than never get the opportunity to interact with the world"

"Everywhere I go, teachers are fixated with units. Why? Why does everything have to be in a unit? We have a unit for this and a unit for that? The reality is, learning can't always be chunked. It's not units, it's the way we do things, our culture of learning."

Tim Limbert, technology director at Newell-Fonda, has an excellent write-up of the day

Jeff Dicks, superintendent at Newell-Fonda, reflects on the day and the implications for his district. Good quote of his to highlight:

I assure you, Newell-Fonda is listening to this conversation. Our laptop program was a great step in providing devices for each 9-12 student. Now we are seeing that is just a piece of the puzzle, and more important, we need to create a curriculum to support our access.

Scott McLeod's writeup for the day, parts one, two, and three.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Will Richardson: "You need to share more"

I'm still percolating thoughts from yesterday's session. Here are my biggest three.

We have a lot of enthusiasm from the represented districts about teaching in the 21st century. They want to gear instruction towards project-based learning. They want to embed technology. They want to prioritize creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. They want to connect with other schools. And, this enthusiasm--this willingness to try and risk failure--is absolutely critical for a district to be successful.

But, there is perhaps a perception of the districts that their involvement with a one-to-one means they are truly teaching in the 21st century. Will repeatedly mentioned purchasing the digital technology and using it is actually very easy. It is transforming the curriculum that is difficult. He asked where districts taught Wikipedia, or taught about sexting. He asked about authentic assessments and internships. And, the educators there realized, there is a way to go.

And this is a problem. When the Newell-Fonda's, Okoboji's, and Van Meter's of the state try new things, they don't have a model or blueprint to look at. They have to build the plane while flying it. And in addition, given their relative position to other districts, it does look like they are doing things very well.

These districts have to re-calibrate their understanding of effective teaching. No longer can they compare themselves to "business-as-usual" instruction that you might see in other Iowa districts... they have surpassed that. They now need to look at schools like the New Tech High school or Science Leadership Academy. They have to see how these schools go beyond having computers and using projects to fully improving instruction and assessment.

We have a lot of enthusiasm from the districts... much of the conversation was driven by them. But there wasn't much conversation from DE or AEA consultants (myself included). You could make too much of this, but the contrast with who was participating was striking.

My thought is this: Not every school has the leader who can vision schools functioning in the way Will Richardson talks about. We need statewide leadership to help promote one-to-one initiatives and not merely cheer lead. I'm not sure that has happened up until this point.

The biggest takeaway was Will's reflection, invaluable as an outside viewpoint looking in. He mentioned that the current work of the schools represented, and their leadership they are providing, is excellent. But, it is pockets of excellence at this point. Much as a district has an excellent teacher here and an excellent teacher there, if there are districts doing great things, it was apparent that they were in isolation from everyone else.

Will asked several superintendents how other people knew what they were doing, and the response was typically "Come visit us" or "Look at our website". Which isn't active sharing... it's passive sharing. A willingness to share doesn't mean anyone is going to do it. And this has been the downfall of our statewide efforts many times before.

Will mentioned Clay Shirky's analysis of what constitutes a community. Shirky writes that while networking and connecting is important, people mistake that for a community. True community starts with sharing, then moves to collaboration, then to collective action. Collective action is the place we want to be in Iowa, where we are moving forward all schools. How will we start the sharing?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Will Richardson visiting with Iowa Leaders today

Through CASTLE, I will be joining about 35 other people from education, administration, AEAs, the DE, higher education, and business to visit with Will Richardson. Will, who is a renowned blogger and author about 21st century education, will be addressing what leaders are currently doing to move forward education in Iowa... and what they should be doing more of.

I will admit, I'm very excited for the day. Scott McLeod is doing an excellent job of networking leaders in Iowa, and this day will be a chance for those leaders to connect and stretch each other's thoughts. Add to that Richardson, who stretches educator's thoughts for a living.

For those unfamiliar with Will Richardson, here are some of my previous posts about his work. He is an educational thinker I recommend every district put on their staff reading list.

Will Richardson
Your PLN
21st Century Skills = Fluff?
Using Wikipedia in the Classroom
The Digital Curriculum, Student Research, and Diigo
Paperless at Inservice
Pageflakes and iGoogle

Image from

Our chat space for the day
Our etherpad for the day
Our hashtag for the day

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You never write anymore

I see it's been almost 2 weeks since the blog was updated, which I can only partly blame on Thanksgiving. Truth is, I have a list of topics that need addressing, but I haven't gotten to them.

The reason there haven't been as many posts recently is a sudden flurry in online content development projects for Iowa that I've been involved in. They include:

• An Iowa Core foundations module
• An online course for Google Sketchup & Earth
• An course on instructional design (one of several to be offered as part of a sequence of courses available for would-be online instructors)
• A repository of information and networking space for 1:1 schools in Iowa

The one I am most excited about right now is an online course Toy Waterman is focusing on, which uses Atomic Learning's individualized assessments. Teachers can take the assessment, and Atomic Learning will prescribe technology tutorials that are best for the teacher. What's more, the instructor of the course can prescribe their own tutorials.

The vision for this course is that districts will be able to host their own session of the course, not needing a teacher as much as a facilitator (the course is self-paced). So, when districts are struggling to figure out how to provide technology professional development during the year, especially individualized professional development, they can implement this course, and have teachers walk through the steps to improve their professional practice.

It goes beyond Atomic Learning. Toy is integrating resources on digital citizenship & internet safety to help teachers prepare lessons around those topics for students (a requirement for districts with e-rate), as well as an activity where participants apply their technological pedagogy to a lesson that integrates 21st century skills (by looking at the Iowa Core essential skills and concepts).

More to come on each.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Working ahead?

A question I posed to a teacher recently, who had some difficulty thinking what she would do:

Let's say you had a policy in your course that allowed a student to test out of a unit (and if you don't, that would be a good place to start). Once the student tests out, they have enrichment activities.

You notice a student who, in class, is reading the next chapter of the textbook, googling key vocabulary terms for it, whatever would be involved, in order to pass out of that unit.

Do you as a teacher allow that to happen? Do you encourage it?

At first blush, this would seem to be the perfect scenario. The student has initiative with a measurable goal in mind. They are becoming an independent learner, acquiring their learning in their preferred method. And, they are working at their own pace.

Yet, as parents of the students above could attest, this doesn't happen much. Why not?

The first barrier is even having the option to test out of units in the first place. Often, the thought is the curriculum is "too essential to let a student clep". Or "too difficult to even let them try." Or, group work is required during this unit, so others in the class are depending on this student. Or, you can't "test out" of physical fitness. Or choir. Or...

But let's say a teacher sees the light and allows testing out. And then sees students cramming before the test-out. Isn't it difficult to let go of that locus of control? Isn't it intended for students who already know the material? Is it hard to possibly perceive that the student would rather not learn the material the way you teach it?

The problem is that, even in these situations, the class is a teacher-centered class. Not a student-centered class. Despite allowing students to test out, the control really still rests with the teacher. To allow it to happen is the first step. To encourage it is the end goal in 21st century teaching and learning.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mt. Washington is 6288 feet tall

Or so I learned this past week.

Today, my daughter takes her social studies test over the northeast states. I helped her study this week for the test, and I'm glad to say I see a perfect score on the horizon (not due to my tutorage).

The format for this unit, at least how it was reported to me by my daughter (and this is often at variance from the truth), leaves much to be desired however. Students have a thick social studies book filled with facts galore to cover every possible standard, benchmark, and performance indicator of all 50 states (to make the book marketable). But they don't really read the book; there is a CD audiobook of the text that is played at the beginning of the week.

The next day, they are given a worksheet packet with 15 questions on it, fill-in-the-blank style. The teacher reads question number one, which reads Mt. Washington, which is in _________, has a height of __________ feet. The teacher asks if any students know the answer, and students try to remember what they heard the previous day. The teacher then gives the correct answer (or confirms it), and the class moves on to question #2.

That's it. Test given out today.

• There are _____ states (number). Name them.
• _________ is an important industry in the northeast because the coastline has many harbors.
• The type of government in which all of the people vote for laws is called a ___________
• When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they drew up an agreement that would help them to make laws called the __________
• A ditch dug across land to connect one waterway to another is called a __________
• The _______ _________ built in 1817, is a long ditch that connects the Hudson River with the Great Lakes
• A way of making large quantities of the same product is called ___________
• In the U.S., your rights are made possible because of our plan of government called the _________
• Our national government has 3 branches, known as _________, __________, and _________
• The place where Congress meets is in the _________ building
• NYC is also known as the city of ___________ because people from all over the world live there.
• The reasons that our nations first factories started in the northeast was because of _______ power and __________ power
• List the state capitals from each of the northeast states.

Note a pattern to the questions? If so, you are better than me. These are knowledge-level questions about geography, economics, government, and history. And there are several questions that aren't about the northeast.

This isn't to pick on my daughter's school or teacher. I think what I see here is an anomaly, and that literacy and math are not taught this way. It's more to pick on the lesson design, which I feel is unfortunately typical in elementary social studies curricula.

  1. There is too big of a dependence on the textbook.
  2. There is too much information covered, given the little time spent on it in class, and the information is incoherently jumbled together.
  3. There is a missed opportunity to work on reading skills embedded across the curriculum
  4. The information covered is too low-level, factual-based, and doesn't lead to higher level thinking
  5. The assessment is non-authentic recall
  6. The information is, for the most part negligible (this will be the last time in my daughter's educational career she will be expected to know how tall or in what state Mt. Washington is)

Here's the scenario of what this leads to: I started reading the question "this is an important..." and before I could get to "industry", my daughter shouted out the word "fishing!" I asked her an application question "Where else is that industry important in the United States?" and she responds "That's not on the test." "I know, but where else it is important"? "Dad, I don't know, we haven't gotten to the other parts of the United States."

You never will. There is too much in social studies to cover everything.

What I want her to know is that, being by a coastline, it is logical that fishing will be an important industry. Therefore, other states/nations with coastlines will also have a significant fishing industry. Even if we haven't heard the official textbook CD. The lesson design precludes her from making associations like this.

If you look at the questions in the list, they are not all equal. The state capital knowledge is beyond negligible (how many of the 50 do you know, and has that had any impact on your life?). Some other questions could lead to deeper learning (like the Mayflower Compact or Erie Canal), but listing it in a factual method and then moving on makes them irrelevant as well. Meanwhile, perhaps two of the most important concepts of social studies, worth an intensive unit all in of themselves, democracy and the constitution only get one question devoted to them. In the midst of everything else. Very much, a mixed message to students.

When we discuss the Iowa Core, this is an example of what we need to do. Get rid of the rest of that stuff. Determine what is important. And then have a deeper lesson, leading to deeper conceptual and procedural knowledge, with authentic and formative assessment. Which will lead to permanent learning.

I give my daughter 5 months to forget that Mt. Washington is 6288 feet tall (she does have a good memory).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nate Silver, Math, and Quadrant D

The big mistakes we make with the rigor and relevance framework is that we assume higher-order thinking is "tougher" and that more relevant means a story problem from a 2nd-person perspective. And, neither are the case.

Math is a great example. If you were a math teacher, and you were asked to make your curriculum more rigorous, you would probably eliminate some of the easier skills and replace them with skills that are tougher. Or given that math often works sequentially, eliminate chapters 1-4 and replace them with chapter 21-24 in the textbook.

You'd definitely be upping the difficulty, but would that result in students having more rigorous thinking skills? Not if the replacement skills are taught the same way, it wouldn't be.

In that same vein, traditional math instruction is definitely analytical, I'd say more so than traditional language arts or social studies curriculum, and analysis is a higher-order skill. But is it critical thinking? How much do students actually critique what they are learning? Even the best math instructors struggle with that... it's hard to critique something as black and white as mathematical theorems.

One of the biggest names in math today is that of Nate Silver, the founder of the popular political statistics blog as well as the inventor of the sabermetric statistical model for baseball PECOTA. Silver's use of statistics and mathematical logic, both in baseball as well as in politics, ranges from the simple to the extremely complex.

But above all, it's very accurate, as PECOTA was the gold standard in predicting player performances and team results for years (other mathematical models have now caught up to it), and 538 successfully predicted 49 out of 50 states from the 2008 election with an algorithm of polling data.

There are two ways teachers can use Silver's work as the basis for quadrant D math activities (and no, one of those is not to do a biographical report on him... the biographical report on the "famous mathematician" or "famous chemist" or whatever being one of the worst ways for a student to learn more about that subject). One is to look at how to mathematically determine an otherwise non-mathematical quality. Silver asked the question "How can we predict the success of a baseball team or a presidential candidate?" and then developed the mathematical model to do so. But that question could just as easily be to rate the "best" musical act of all time or the most influential president of all time.

Starting off with a theoretical question, and then looking at the math that could help you support the answer uses a higher order skill not often associated with math: creativity. It also is relevance... true relevance. Not just take my problem and make it a problem that involves money. But rather, actually look at how real mathematicians in the world would use the content and skills to solve a real-world, unpredictable problem.

The other way would be to look at the ethics behind math and statistics. As we mentioned earlier this week, Silver questioned the methodology of the polling company Strategic Vision, which has been producing some shaky polls used to advocate for certain political causes. The method he used is to look at the trailing digits used by the polling company, which shows a non-random pattern. Silver then concludes the company was fabricating the polls, quite the claim.

Not only has this episode been relevant in terms of its impact on the world we live in, but it also has unfolded before the viewers eyes through an ongoing blog (Silver does a fairly good job of explaining some very abstract patterns). Again, you have the task of working through some unpredictable situations (proving a statistical polling company is lying is not a predictable part of any curriculum). And oh by the way, Strategic Vision hasn't polled since Silver's inquiry.

Now, this comes from a non-math teacher's perspective, but this is what the Iowa Core is getting at. The counter argument to doing this quadrant D work would be 1) it's time consuming and 2) takes us away from the mastery of essential skills and concepts. But that's actually its strength. It does take a student away from the collector of formulas and theorems to becoming the critical thinker in an inquiry-based setting, and it gives the student an appreciation for how math is relevant in the world around them.

Arthur Benjamin talks about statistics (and how it is overlooked in American curricula) with this short TED talk.

Other links
An explanation of PECOTA
The methodology behind 538

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Lesson from Oklahoma

Earlier this fall, the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs released the results from the survey it had commissioned about the civics knowledge of high school students, which were very alarming. Only 23% identified George Washington as the first president, 29% identified the president as being in charge of the executive branch, and 43% that Democrats and Republicans being the two major parties in America (10% identified the two parties as Communist and Republican). OCPA decried the results as proof of the failure of Oklahoma's educational system, and the results of their survey were used in many major publications.

But, almost as soon as they were released, questions began to be raised. Could it really be that only 2.8% of the 1000 polled high school students, as the survey claimed, could pass the test (which is a meager 6 out of 10 correct)? And none would get 8-10 correct? In a random distribution that would bring about 600 college-bound students and 50 gifted students, none got 8-10 correct?

This raised some questions, most notably by statistician Nate Silver. Even starting with the assumption that only 23% of the sampled students knew about Washington, the results still looked fabricated. Simply put, the distribution of student scores matches almost identically to a homogeneous distribution of probability. However, students are not homogeneous... a student that gets the first three right is much more likely to get #4 right than one who got the first three wrong.

Silver wasn't the only one, as he mentioned today. State representative Ed Cannaday, a former educator, also thought something was fishy. He conducted the same survey in school districts in his own congressional district within Oklahoma (N = 325). And, he found an entirely different set of results. In fact, 98% identified George Washington as the first president, 85% identified the president as being in charge of the executive branch, and 95% identified the correct two political parties. In fact, the average score in Cannaday's survey was 7.8 correct out of 10, very striking considering the OPCA survey said none in 1000 scored more than 7 correct.

While Silver doesn't focus specifically on it, still what is clear is the subtext of OCPA being a conservative group pushing educational policy changes. And, by the reach of the survey's results, which landed prominent places in Time, Newsweek, and the USA Today, it can be said the survey was successful, however dubious. Now that headlines have blared how Oklahoma's public schools are failing miserably, the damage is done, and a page 12B follow-up article will not do anything about it.

The lesson here is twofold. One, that in an era of data-driven decision making, standardized assessment results still run secondary to sensationalized opinion polls in the effort to sway public opinion. And two, that schools appear to be not off-grounds for fabricated politicization. Which means one thing...

If you are an Iowan representative, you better be extra critical of any external data used to describe the achievement of Iowa's students.

And if you are a newspaper, like let's say a Register in the state capital, you should be equally cautious.

Using standardized data as a measuring stick for how well the nation's schools are doing is troubling enough for many reasons. It becomes infinitely worse when using non-standardized survey data.

There are a million reasons behind the data, all the way down to whether the students had any breakfast this morning, to whether the test had cultural bias within it, to whether a teacher happened to give the students the answers. Now we have to add nefarious purposes of the testing provider to the list.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Parent-Teacher Conferences, and Asking the Students

Parent-Teacher conferences are coming in full swing with the start of November. P-T conferences were frequently disappointing in our districts, as parents had busy schedules and were keeping track of grades online, thus decimating participation. Even requiring parents to come in to P-T conferences in order to get the student's report cards didn't work; parents came in, got the paper, and immediately left. I had a similar experience with a face-to-face parental advisory group when I was a principal.

About 2003, I stopped putting any hope in P-T conferences or Parental Advisory Groups, and instead prioritized online communication. And it worked, tremendously. I had near 80% participation rate in my parental advisory group with an online communication format. I found online communication better for two reasons. I could initiate the conversation at any time, and parents were more likely to respond.

The takeaway was this. Parents care. They want what is best for their children, and they want a voice in that education. There was something about the convenience of interacting online that made it possible.

What I realize now is that I didn't offer them a forum to talk to each other online. All communication was back and forth via email with me. A discussion group or a blog would have produced more authentic sharing.

Which brings me to what Russ Goerend is doing. In addition to his other online professional learning activity, he uses blogging as a centerpiece of his teaching. His blog serves as ongoing writing instruction for students as well as a springboard for student discussion. Moreover, the blog offers parents a chance to not only find information and access notes, but also to participate in the discussion about how to improve the classroom.


Come to think of it, there was one compliment (I take it as a compliment... those who disagree with my pedagogical outlook will consider it a weakness of mine) that I received at the P-T conferences I had that was very rare for other teachers. Parents really liked the fact that I asked students for their thoughts on what we were learning in class and how we learned it.

We went beyond just offering multiple project choices for individuals. We actually had discussion about the format to instruction and the way we learned best, and sections of my courses were taught completely different from other sections based on what the students argued they learned best with. These usually spilled over into individual discussions with students, both inside and outside of class. For me, frankly, I felt like I was doing what I should have been doing; it was their education, after all.

Russ of course does it better than I do. I love his open threads for students and parents alike to contribute to. Teachers and administrators need to do more of this. It creates more empowering, ongoing dialogue and creates a culture of continuous improvement. More on the responses from students about the technology teachers should use tomorrow.

To do this requires a teacher to be open to criticism of their teaching, that they indeed do not have all the answers and are looking for input. I won't be naive; this is a major hurdle to most teachers, whether we want to admit it or not. But it is one we need to overcome.

Related Post:
Why aren't we asking students?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Heartland Tutorial on Ning & Online Communities

We just finished our facilitator training for our agency-wide learning teams, which included a discussion about using collaborative online tools for better learning. Each learning team (think: professional learning community) will be using an online collaborative tool of some sort.

For training purposes, I created a tutorial on how to use Ning to build an online community, with an assist from a self-paced tutorial by Anthony Armstrong. The tutorial currently features the following sections
  • Joining and Participating in a Ning
  • Creating and Administering a Ning
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Using Collaborative Documents in a Ning
Right now, it's just a start... we'll be adding more information to the tutorial as we go. Feel free to take a look.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping an Eye on Net Neutrality

There certainly are many current educational issues in politics today, with the debate over standardized assessments, national standards, teacher merit pay, charter school funding, and the like. It might be safe to say that net neutrality is the one furthest off most educators' radar. It shouldn't be.

Net neutrality basically states that the content on the internet should be equally available to people. That is, unlike cable, you shouldn't have sites that are intentionally blocked or slowed down by internet service providers because they stand to make money if you instead go with a competitor.

The following graphic from Jason Linkins gives a good visualization of this (CORRECTION, the graphic is from a different user, reported on by Linkins):
We currently have net neutrality, but certainly many telecoms and internet service providers see the abolishing of net neutrality as a cash cow. And, politicians have moved to restrict the FCC from assuring net neutrality by introducing legislation (ironically named the Internet Freedom Act).

Schools could feel the impact of a loss of net neutrality in many ways. You could start with the additional costs to purchase the internet. And as some have predicted, like the cable companies, rising uncontrolled costs could see the advent of a new technology competitor, much like satellite TV. Would schools be equipped to handle "the new web" if something came to fruition?

Many educators have turned to free web 2.0 tools in an effort to provide collaboration and creativity in their curriculum. For the longest time, the warning was that the developers that made these free services might not make them free anymore, causing an educator to be "stuck". But sources like Blogger and Wikispaces have not made any inclination that they would go away from free services.

But, that changes. It wouldn't have to be the developers at Wikispaces who say "no more free wikis". It could be the internet providers who could do that. That's not to say that there wouldn't be other agreements (many districts work with local telecoms right now to receive free cable), but it adds an unknown to the equation.

On a deeper level, the question of open access to all information vs. censorship comes up. Is it censorship if students won't have access in schools to certain news outlets? Some would argue the internet is a big place; there will always be resources available for students. But others would argue that denying students the access to information, no matter how "little" the effect is deemed, infringes on the basic rights of students.

Maybe the best way to frame this is, is internet a right (like basic utilities) or a privilege. The issue isn't quite so black and white, but it is something that educators should have in their peripheral vision because it will affect schools.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Learning = Fishing

At Heartland, we are putting into effect learning teams, which are similar in principle to professional learning communities (PLCs). The teams afford our consultants the opportunity to learn from other consultants in areas that they prioritize, making them better at their profession.

As any administrator that has tried to institute PLCs can attest (or, anything new, for that matter), change isn't embraced by everyone, even when it directly benefits their autonomy. For many, it is an opportunity, but for others, it is a mandate that they don't have time for...

Wait a second. Learning is a mandate. And some educators have a problem with that?

Well, that's not quite fair. In visiting with some of those who had some concerns, it isn't that they have a problem with learning, per se. They just feel they learn quite well with their current routine.

Unfortunately, that's not what the research in adult learning says. And the difference is perhaps best illustrated with a metaphor. Learning is like fishing.

1. You can't learn much if you don't get off the shore. Learning is an active process, requiring effort and initiative. If you wait for the fish to come to you, you might get lucky and have something wash up next to your feet. But it isn't the effective way to do it; get in a boat and go navigate the big lake. If I told you to go learn as much as you could in one day, you wouldn't do what you normally do in a day. You would change your routine.

2. Learning isn't just quantity, but also diversity. Some beginning fishers like to go to the same hole and pull out perch after perch just to say they caught 50 in one day. There is nothing wrong with catching a large haul every once in a while, but you can't do that all the time. As fishers become more sophisticated, they realize that a diversity is important--bass, crappie, and then walleye, and even muskie.

3. Learning is organic, not systematic. I went through all the checklists of "how to fish" with my kids, be it how to bait, how to cast, how to hold the line, etc. It didn't necessarily lead to catching fish, and that is frustrating to seven-year-olds. Many learners go through the same frustrations. I did the steps someone told me to learn algebra, or to grow tomatoes! What they don't realize is learning must be done multiple times in a variety of ways to be internalized, and there is no systematic schedule to it.

4. Diversity of learning requires different locations. Move that boat around. Put the line deeper. Or in other words, check out different sources of information. Use different tools to acquire information. Including ones you haven't tried before.

5. Diversity of learning requires different times. Saying to educators, "the time you will learn is during this once-a-month, two-hour professional development session" is like saying to the fish, "the time I'm catching you will be at 2:00 in the afternoon". That isn't necessarily when you are ready to fish, or when fish are ready to be caught. Adults must have access to learning at all times in an ongoing basis to truly be most effective.

6. Diversity of learning requires casting your widest net. Some during our sessions were slightly upset that they couldn't choose to work with those that they were most comfortable working with for their learning teams. But, the reality is people don't learn as much from those who they are closest to, much like you don't always want the fish that are right next to the boat. People learn more from those farther away.

As an analogy, fishing illustrates what George Siemens describes as connectivist learning, how adults learn best in today's age. We don't learn by prescribed times, locations, sources, people, and methods. We learn instead by a diversity of practices and by creating a wider network with more nodes. Wider networks mean learning can come at any time and not always when one is expecting it.

But to create wider networks, we need to seek out new sources, tools and people. And, that includes people we don't know. Developing our own personal learning networks to fully utilize the tools of today. And embracing online communities to interact any time, pace, and place.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interactive Gaming for Pre-Literacy Development

I'm starting to focus on studies about the involvement of interactive games for preschool/primary students in the building of pre-literacy and pre-math skills, given some mounting evidence that this is an underutilized area in education.

The latest: THE Journal reports on a study from the Educational Development Center that suggests preschool students learn pre-literacy skills better in an environment with repeated exposure to interactive games. The specific skills were letter recognition, letter naming, letter sounds, and understanding story concepts.

Take this study with a grain of salt. I'm not convinced of the methodology, as the comparison group was a science curriculum, not a literacy curriculum, and it was commissioned by PBS, which while I admire their overall work in helping students learn, they still have a vested interest in seeing a positive correlation.

Best news though is that it is leading to further studies. Given available technology that is more accessible to young students than ever before, this will lead to more purposeful game development for that age, with a better tie-in to the Iowa Core.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Teachers Beware: Facebook Usage is Dangerous

Or so says Justin Bathon at the Edjurist, on multiple occasions.

Actually, Justin has many valid points. I've had several discussions with administrators this year alone who have mentioned younger teachers are sometimes unaware of the dangers of Facebook, namely that it is open, easily traceable, and permanent. When teachers make the mistake of getting caught up in the forum, whether it be an avenue to vent, a place to post candid pictures, or a forum to show yourself as a fun-loving person, the line can be crossed very easily.

Perhaps the most famous case involves a teacher from Charlotte, NC, who on her Facebook page:
  • Listed her hobbies as "drinking"
  • Said her job was “teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte”
  • Said she was "teaching in the most ghetto school" in town.
I suppose if you want to start a checklist of what not to do on your Facebook page, that would be a good start.

Prospective teachers take note. It was our policy when I was a principal to not only Google a person, but to fully examine their Facebook page, and I currently recommend that to administrators that I visit with. In recent days, one reported back to me that, upon visiting a prospective teacher's page during the summer, that teacher was immediately dropped from consideration (no comment as to why, which has unfortunately let my imagination run wild). And certainly, just because you are already hired does not mean that inappropriate actions via Facebook are okay. They are not only very strong grounds for dismissal, they are also easy data to gather, as opposed to non-digital evidence.

I'm not quite as strident as Justin on this; I do believe that educators should use the tool personally to become familiar with it, not only because it can help them understand social tools to possibly use in the classroom, but also because it offers many positives to a person's life. It helps them become connected and collaborative with others that they normally would not have. But what is a non-negotiable is that teachers need to have an understanding of digital citizenship, at the very least because they are expected to help their students have an understanding of digital citizenship.

The NEA is similar to my thinking. They have posted both on the benefits of social networking in the classroom (despite the myths) as well as some of the professional pitfalls. Those two articles are great resources to share with your teachers.

And, if you would like some more, below is a brief presentation on the dangers of Facebook.

And perhaps my all time favorite, someone actually getting fired via Facebook. Add this one of what not to do to the above list.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Having an Appreciation of Technology

Was in a meeting today, the brunt of which was visiting about some of the phone calls our agency has received recently. This discussion was not to be unexpected; we recently changed to a new system and there was sure to be a breakdown in communication as it got further away from us. Couple that with the urgencies that mandatory certification provides (I need this now!!!) and we knew this would happen.

But, some of this impatience is remarkable given how technology has made our lives easier as a whole. I sometimes have the same conversation with teachers, who get overly frustrated by some of the available web 2.0 tools not being the exact perfection they were seeking (you mean we have to create student accounts to use Google Docs?).

This video comes to mind from Conan and comedian Louis C.K.

Friday, October 16, 2009

ITEC 2009 - David Warlick

Presented twice at this year's ITEC conference, once on the digital curriculum and once on the state of e-learning in Iowa. More about those in another post, but the handouts from those can be found here.

Didn't get to as many workshops as I was hoping to, either. I found myself in many side conversations on the state of technology in Iowa, which actually was a much better thing than attending the sessions or presenting... nothing beats two-way conversation. It was good to visit with many of the people I see only in the Twitter-sphere, such as @AngelaMaiers, @karlhehr, @RussGoerend, @tdejager210, @jamiefath, @beckymather, @acrozier22, @mctownsley, @sethdenney, and @MikeSansone.

Seth, by the way, had the most apropos tweet from the conference.
That was the statement made by David Warlick, which even after hearing before twice, I came away from his keynote very impressed. Not just for the mantra-quality of the statement, which definitely rang true (lots less sessions about how tools work or that are labeled gadgets & gizmos this year). But more so for his way of making what we are working for--improved student learning, not student technology use--so simply put.

His best example of this was a lesson redefining of mathematics literacy. Students took live data from worldwide geological sites of the location of earthquakes. That data was then formatted into a spreadsheet and scatterplotted using Excel (poor ol', 1.0, much-bashed-at-ITEC-in-years-past Excel!).

The result is this.
Which, as Warlick noted, is basically a map of the world. The nature of data to visualize in this method is not only a valuable skill for students to learn, but also clarifies the concept of latitude and longitude in numeric sense, or in other words, literacy of the mathematical concept of coordinate geography. All done with a non-trendy tool to boot. This wasn't about the technology, it was about learning of an essential skill.

And on a tool note, for those who asked me about the presentation application Warlick and others used at ITEC, it is called Prezi, and there is a free online version you can use. Here is Warlick's from ITEC.

My personal opinion though (many of you will want to stop reading here), while I think Warlick did a really good job using the transitions to add to the meaning of his presentation, I do not like the tool. Distracting. Definitely not presentation zen. I know, I know... blasphemy... I'm the only one at ITEC who will say that, so peruse and make your own judgment.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leadership is a non-negotiable

I'm working this week with the 20th different district of my 2009-10 year. There is some variance in the level of involvement I have with them, but generally it is very similar: visiting with teachers about need for change in schools, the Iowa Core, 21st century skills, project-based learning, and technology integration. Universal themes that each school is dealing with.

By asking me to visit with teachers about those things above, you can safely assume that all the districts feel they are important (that's the way I feel... I'm sure there are more jaded responses).

But, let me tell you, there is a dramatic difference in the leadership at these schools. And I don't say that as someone who has worked closely with the district or has quite a bit of data over many years to tell me that, because I don't. Here's what I got:

• At some districts, the superintendent is taking it all hands-on. They initiate the contact themselves. They have taken the pre-requisite steps and gotten key people on board. The technology coordinator is in the loop. They have a vision of where they'd like to go, what they'd like to see at their district, but are open to meshing that vision with other people's thoughts. They use the professional development opportunities to highlight successful things teachers are doing to reach that vision. They are not only at inservices, but they are fully participating, active in the small group breakout sessions, sharing their thoughts openly during discussion. And, they have a plan on how this will be implemented, with specific steps, supports for teachers, set expectations, and opportunities for evaluation.

• At some districts, another key figure has taken the initiative, perhaps a curriculum director or technology coordinator. The superintendent is on board, but the vision is shaky. They are more interested in hearing my vision for their school than they are of crafting their own vision. The administrators attend the sessions, but aren't necessarily taking a prominent role. They agree that planning for how action will be implemented is important, but they are likewise not sure how they will get there.

• And finally, at some districts, while a key figure has initiated the contact, the superintendent is absent. There is never really a desire to talk about vision, but only "could you visit with teachers about x and y?" There is no plan nor a discussion of a plan... the expectation is planting the seed will lead to magical sprouting of teacher development. And most telling, no administrator attends the session.

Even though that's all the data I see, I know which districts have strong leadership and which do not. Actually, so do you, even though you've had no contact with these districts. What's more, I know right now which districts are changing to meet the changing times, which will continue to be reactive instead of proactive (tottering with the initiative du jour), and those that my visit was a complete was of time for nothing will come of it. Note, nothing is said about an administrators actual knowledge of the initiative (in this case, technology), only their participation.

If you are a school leader reading this, here is your takeaway... leadership is a non-negotiable for change to happen. You need to take an active role in planning this before it happens. You must create a plan for afterwards. You must not only attend, you must not only participate, you must advocate.

If you cannot attend, cancel the inservice. That's right. There's no point in requiring a presenter to come in and teachers to attend if you are not there. Nothing will be picked up, and if by some chance something were to be picked up, it cannot be acted on. The message of having no administrator at the session speaks unbelievable volume about either a) the important of the topic, or b) the quality of leadership... and perhaps both.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What I'd like to see for an iTouch

While I looked at what's out there yesterday, I still see quite a bit of potential to be reached, and reached within the next two years. There's even potential for these needs to be developed locally. Grant Wood's Andy Crozier and I recently attended a session on Apple iTouch App development, and given the (nearly) free developer kits out there, there is potential for the AEAs, and enterprising schools, in partnership with developers from the state's universities, could produce items such as these, in perfect alignment with the Iowa Core.

1. An easy-to-use flashcard program, where a teacher can quickly go in on the internet and upload curriculum related information that the student's iTouch would then draw upon, giving students an interactive way to check their understanding of teacher notes immediately after a lesson... and anytime thereafter.

2. Tools that mash geochaching information, such as photos or data, that tie in with a geographic location. Google Earth's iTouch app works well, and with the availability of free Google Sketchup licenses for Iowa, students can build 3-D items in addition to adding photos and data. Research is coming out that, given students increasing acclivity toward visual references for a schema to house non-visual information, geocached mapping serves as a referential package for student learning (such as Google Lit Trips).

3. Simulation-games, where a student has an interactive lesson to experiment, explore, and practice the skills they have acquired, such as what UW-Madison is doing. Here's a screenshot of a simulation-game created for students to interact with the Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art.

4. Clicker-style formative feedback, where a teacher poses a question to class, students select one of the answers, and the teacher can pull up live feedback from the "polling" via computer and display over a projector. The data could be displayed anonymously, or tracked by students when they log in.

5. In the same vein as above, a way to quickly generate online quizzes, especially ones that can be dynamically generated.

6. Personalized data programs, such as health and fitness monitors, musical composition devices, visual arts portfolios, allowing students to track their own learning. This one will be a ways off, as there needs to be better ways to import data and images into the ipod.

7. Apps that give practice for skill acquisition. This is the place where the first educational apps are, including ones for math facts, spelling, vocabulary, scientific equation balancing, etc. These are much more interactive than a simple multiple-choice quiz problem. Problem right now is they aren't customizable--I can't create a vocabulary activity over the first grade sight words in my curriculum. But this could change with advances in the software.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Educational iTouch Apps... What's Out There?

Hardware issues aside (still no camera or voice recorder in the iTouch, which if added, would make it a more full-featured formative assessment tool to use in the classroom), I still am high on the iTouch at the elementary age. It continues to be a more intuitive interface for primary students to pick up and use, making the technology serve the curriculum faster.

But, educational software for the iTouch is still in its infancy. There have been some simple apps created, focusing on one particular skill or concept (like multiplication or state capitals), but we're a ways from a really robust educational app that could be the centerpiece of a curriculum. However, given the speed things are changing, that "ways" might be traversed in a few months.

Tomorrow, I'll touch on the things I'd like to see on an iTouch, some of which might exist today, but could use more development. Here, though, is what I've seen so far.

This teacher tube video describes what it labels as the iSchool initiative, a curriculum aided by the computing power of an iTouch

I've limited myself to free apps for now, and my target audience is ages 3-10 (the age of my kids, since they are my test audience). The older grade levels have more built in use, just as mere content vessels (like audiobooks or a referenced periodic table or historical maps)... if you are a secondary teacher, you are more likely to find something to use right away because you can use it as an accompaniment to your regular instruction easier. But I think the more interactive programs are definitely suited for younger learners at this point.
  • Google Earth - application for searching geographical information, including geocaching.
  • Basic Math, Brain Tuner Lite, Math Drill, Multiply Flashcards - applications for math fact drilling
  • gFlash and iFlipLite - programs that allow teachers to create their own flash cards
  • Flickr and Image Search - for finding images
  • aNote Lite and Evernote - two note taking tools for organization
  • Remember the Milk - organizational to-do lists for students to use
  • Blanks - a program that gives drills on vocabulary words
  • Spel it Rite, ShakeSpell, Spell - interactive spelling programs
The reviews are mixed on these... very easy for my kids to learn and become engaged, could serve for enrichment in many cases. On the other hand, some have been overly simplistic and not well designed. Blanks for example generates definitions from some a dictionary, so they'll occasionally list something like "a trait of being curious" with the correct answer out of the four choices being "curiosity" (and the other three being adverbs or something non-relative).

My two favorite have been great for my 3-year old. iWriteWords allows students to trace the path of letters and connect the letters to sounds and visual pictures (a bee for the letter b, for example), which has done wonders for Hannah learning her letters. And, HippoShapes allows students to select the shape described, using a variety of different textures and settings. Neither are very complex programs, meaning Hannah taught herself how to use them. Both isolate the skill that is part of the curriculum (pre-literacy skills such as letter recognition and shape recognition are pretty much universal).

Learning in Hand (a great place to start for an overview)
I Educational App Review
iPhone and Kids
Online Educational Database's Top 50 Apps
99 Apps for Students
Apps Hopper
Springfield, IL CSD

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wagner and the Flip Camera, part 2

Yesterday, I looked at the use of videotaping of instructional lessons for the purpose of calibrating teacher understanding of effective instruction, and Tony Wagner's advocation for this process.

For the record, I'm a huge advocate for exactly this. But I don't want to oversimplify the issue. There are some problems with video that has to be overcome.

1. There has to be clear distinctions between professional development use and evaluation use. This is the same issue teachers had with me when I conducted walk-throughs. No matter how much an administrator says, "this is not for evaluation... it's just to gather data to help you reflect later," teachers are not comforted. And for good reason. There were several times when I made a walkthrough visit where I saw bad instructional practices going on that I had to address. If I enter a classroom and videotape a teacher who is sarcastically putting down a student, that has to be addressed, videotape or no. For this reason, teachers (and teacher unions) are naturally apprehensive. Where's the line?

A successful administrator will make that clear up front, that yes, there are some non-negotiables that will be addressed, video or no. And, a successful administrator will help facilitate a staff discussion about what those instances are, so it truly is a staff norm and not an administrator-created expectation.

2. The elephant in the room is time. Flip helps, but it still requires time to 1) know when a video opportunity exists, 2) capture video, 3) watch video for the opportune moments to share with teachers, and 4) then package the video so that teachers can effectively learn from it. And, time is exactly what administrators don't have. They will need to make time, emphasizing this over other things.

As an administrator, my walkthrough trainer had a good perspective on this. She mentioned that a successful administrator will clearly state to parents, teachers, students, or even their superintendent: "Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting with you. And I'll do that as soon as I am finished visiting teacher classrooms, to help our school become better." In other words, the principal needs to communicate to everyone that this is how their school gets better, and therefore, this is where my priority is.

3. Another problem, but one that will go away quickly, is the disruption videotaping causes. Simply put, turn on a videocamera and a class doesn't function the same way it normally does (which is great for a rowdy classroom).

But like walkthroughs, this goes away with repeated exposure. Once students get used to the practice, it becomes invisible. In fact, when I ramped up my walkthrough usage to "each class, 3 times a week", it took 3 weeks before students didn't give me a second glance. UNI's Price Lab is a testament to this, as their students are more than accustomed to visitors and outside eyes on a regular basis.

• Wagner didn't stop at videotaping classrooms, however. Another big use of videotaping is with student focus groups (especially graduated students... or students who dropped out). A pointed interview with students can get right at what they see as working well and not working well in school. We'll touch on this in a later post.

• Schools shouldn't (unless rare exceptions) show the entire staff the video footage of an individual teacher. That should be reserved for a more safe setting like a PLC. But the whole staff can still benefit from watching video from external teachers. Just as with evaluator training, there are video clips available that can be used (check with your AEA). And Angela Maiers regularly posts video lessons on her website along with a written post of what she is trying to accomplish in her lesson. Those are great places to start.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wagner and the Flip Camera

One technology coordinator jokingly grumbled with me: "Darn that Tony Wagner. My superintendent goes and sees him last Wednesday, and now I've got to buy all these Flip cameras!"

Which was very near the first words out of my mouth when Tony Wagner told the audience on Sept 16 that his favorite professional development technology was the easy-to-use camera. I'm down on record as saying "there will be 200 different purchase orders for those cameras across the state tomorrow".

First off, the camera. It is very popular, even among camera enthusiasts (our Final Cut Pro trainer, a professional photographer, said that for video quality, the camera rivals many of the more expensive models). I'm not a video camera expert at all, but visiting with a couple of individuals at Heartland who are, they mentioned their Flip cam has better video quality than their 3-chip camcorders that were about 3 years old.

Of course, they also mentioned that while Flip was the rage, there are several viable alternatives out there that might be even better. One of which is the Creative Vado, that has gotten some press recently. Here's a list of some others.

The central point is, Flip or competitor, these cameras are point-and-shoot easy to use, yet still have a much improved picture quality. They are lightweight, which means an administrator could carry one in their pocket and be ready for any instructional moment. And, they are easy to load, as video is recorded in a FLV file (it doesn't have to be "imported", just copied). In other words, the workflow to go from video opp to video-watching opp is infinitely better.

This is why Tony Wagner is a fan. He made several strong statements about why our schools haven't been able to improve. For example, "Teachers working alone, with little or no feedback on the quality of their lessons, will not be able to improve significantly, no matter how much professional development they receive".

This is a profound insight that I agree with completely. First, much off professional development stays in levels of abstraction, with words like "rigor", "rubric", "authentic assessment", "quality instruction", and "educational outcomes" bantered around. What PD is often short on is specific definitions of each with examples. A "high rigor lesson is... and is not..." with examples of each.

Because of that, teachers walk away from professional development re-inforcing their own understanding of what quality teaching is. We all agree "rigor" is important, and yet, we all have different classroom instruction. There needs to be the opportunity for calibrating.

Enter video. Have teachers watch video clips so they can calibrate their understanding of all professional development terms. What is this teacher doing well for classroom management? Is this teacher using effective formative assessment and feedback in this lesson?

But don't stop there. Allow the recording of teachers' lessons, and ensure the oppotunity for teachers to work with each other in PLC's. You can provide as much PD as you want, but unless you get to this level of analysis, where it comes back to the actual teaching in the classroom, you have no assurances of improvement.

This is all great, and I am a firm advocate for this practice. However, as I pushed back on the conversation at my table during the conference, there are huge pitfalls to doing this that need to be overcome. I'll look at those tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Conversations with Vic Jaras

Vic has been busy recently, working on E2T2, ARRA, as well as creating partnerships with Google. He had a chance to share information with the Heartland area tech coordinators this past Thursday. Here are some of the things he shared.

• He will be conducting a statewide webinar on October 7 for E2T2 (and will have a follow up session in Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs). The RFP's deadline is Nov. 24. He also has put together a set of FAQ's on the DE website to help answer questions about the submission process.

• While E2T2 and ARRA use the same guidance structure, they are two separate funding opportunities with their own set of rules. Vic mentioned that ARRA will have more transparency requirements and faster reimbursement cycles than E2T2. Also, the state's media service directors met in September and are looking to invest a bulk of their ARRA dollars into online learning. This could help pave the way for some statewide funding of instructional design positions, some additional purchased content, or some opportunities for local districts to reimburse teachers who create online content.

• Speaking of which, the DE continues to emphasize the need to create online content that would be available for emergency situations. Vic is looking into agreements for temporary telecom assistance should a disaster befall a district, and having a repository of online content could assure that instruction continues, come tornado, flooding, or flu. Both Vic and I will be presenting on online education at Monday's Risky Business conference.

• Finally, Vic has worked with Google to develop a partnership. For Iowa schools, they will have free access to enhanced accounts of Google Earth, as well as Google Sketchup, a 3-D development tool allowing students to create in Google Earth as a virtual development. Google has set up a train-the-trainer day Heartland will be hosting (on October 1). Vic mentioned representatives from each AEA will be there, as well as some LEA representatives. After that date, registration codes would be available for schools.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Changes to the Heartland Mandatory Training Site

We have rolled out our new online training site. While the site maintains the same trainings as before (including Mandatory Reporter for Child/Dependent Adult Abuse, OSHA trainings, Ethics for Educators, and 504 training), the trainings themselves have been updated.

Some of the benefits of the new site:
  1. It features a "student portfolio". A teacher logs in before registering for a particular course. Once they have logged in, they are able to see all the courses they are registered for and have completed, as well as the status of the courses (it mentions if and when that certification expires).
  2. The student portfolio allows teachers to print all their own certificates without having to retake/work their way back through the course.
  3. The student portfolio allows teachers to go back in and review the content as a reference without having to "register" for the course again.
  4. The overall look is updated, more stable and user-friendly.
When a teacher first logs in to the system, they will need to register. We've highlighted where to do that in the picture above. For those looking for assistance operating the new site, we have some tutorial videos available on how to register, sign up for a training, navigate, print certificates, change settings, and review material.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wagner for those who missed it

Dr. Tony Wagner's presentation at the Polk County Convention Center on Wednesday was very well attended; packed actually (I almost didn't have a place to sit for lunch). Best about it was the high level of LEA participation. My former home district of Decorah sent a delegation to make the 3.5 hour trip to hear Wagner, and visiting with a couple of them, they said it was well worth it.

That's the critical piece. Those at the DE and the AEAs are familiar with the Wagner's work, but visiting with several teachers and administrators, the general consensus was that LEA educators were not. They had heard him mentioned and maybe had seen a list of his 7 survival skills, but had not read his books.

So for those educators on the front lines of changing our schools, hearing Wagner speak candidly about what schools need to do to change, giving many concrete examples of schools doing it now, and not slipping into "the sky is falling... we're so far behind" panic that other speakers are guilty of, was a potential vision-crystallizing event.

Unfortunately... not every LEA educator (or district for that matter) was able to attend. So, here's a primer of the basics of what he said, much of which can be grabbed by reading The Global Achievement Gap and Change Leadership.

There is a convergence in the skills needed for college, the work force, or to be a productive citizen... we don't prepare student for one or the other now. Those 7 survival skills, or the lack of them, is leading to higher dropout rates in high school and college (the US has slipped from #1 in the world at college completion in 1995 down to #13 in 2005). This is because students are not "college and work ready" when completing high school (white & Asian students = 37%, Aftrican American students = 20%, and Hispanic students = 16%).

Students in this day are motivated differently than students in past generations. That isn't to say they aren't motivated. They are motivated differently. Students are using the web for extending friendships, self-directed learning, and for self-expression. They are constantly connected (except in school), and have an accompanying need for instant gratification. And students are less interested in doing things for money as they are to making a difference... doing worthwhile work.

  1. Critical thinking/problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination
Not increased content standards, more testing, or smaller schools, at least not by themselves. They won't lead to improved performance alone.

Speaking of alone, teachers cannot work with little to no feedback on the quality of their lessons.

Wagner says "The challenge of change leadership is to create a 'system' for continuous improvement of teachers' lessons and supervision in a common vision of the performance standards students must meet."

1. Holding ourselves accountable for what matters most. Not focusing on AYP when graduation and college completion is more critical for student success than "proficiency". And using assessments that measure the 7 survival skills instead of content knowledge.

2. Doing the new work. Using constructivist learning strategies that emphasize the survival skills. This includes requiring all students to do internships or group service projects, because the learning is authentic.

3. Doing the new work... in new ways. Developing teacher collaborative teams, like professional learning communities. Utilizing video to tape teaching, and then reviewing the video to concretely see what's working and what isn't. And assuring every student has an adult advocate driven to make sure the child succeeds.

1. Use Data Strategically. This includes disaggregating the data and keeping it simple, but also dramatizing it to make real. Wagner shared the story of the "living bar graph", where an educator took 10 students with her to various community meetings and had 7 sit down to illustrate the point of the number who weren't ready for college. By doing so, community members would frequently come up to the educator on the street and ask the question "how are we doing this year? Are we improving?"

2. Create Consensus on Priorities through Dialogue. This means talking about what is important for students to know and be able to do when they graduate, and in light of that, what are the schools strengths and weaknesses. What should the school do to meet those needs?

3. Collect Qualitative Data. This means asking students and recent graduates for their perspective, especially on the schools strengths and weaknesses, what would be some things they would change, and what they feel good teaching looks like.

Wagner touched on several other topics which I'll touch base on in the future, including:
  • Unpacking what we mean by "critical thinking"
  • Calibrating "rigor" so that all educators have an understanding of what makes a lesson effective
  • How to use videotaping to improve professional practice
  • The purposes and best practices of a "learning walk"
  • Holding focus groups of students, and the questions to ask
  • Effective constructivist learning (avoiding the meaningless posterboard project)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Follow up on Moodle Uses

Thought I'd quickly link to this post by Joseph Thibault. He's got some examples of Moodle courses for the eight steps of Moodle. Worth a read.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Degrees of Moodle Use in the Classroom

One tool quickly gaining the interest of schools is Moodle, the open-source learning management system. It is at the same time extremely versatile and free, making it a favorite.

However, Moodle is not for the faint of heart. After showing it to teachers, I often hear something along the lines of "Whoa, that is a lot more complicated than a wiki!"

Yes, that's true.

But, you can also do much more with it. Not just in terms of individual tasks, like a discussion board and a database, but also big-picture outlook. You have several different starting points. And best of all, you can start and just get your feet wet, or when you are ready, you can always progress in your use. There are many acceptable levels of use that improve your classroom instruction... you don't have to become fully immersed in it to use it well.

While the list below isn't all-encompassing, here's a common look at the different steps in Moodle use in a K-12 classroom:

1. Repository - Teachers often start with Moodle just by taking their worksheets and handouts saved in MS Word or as .PDFs and uploading them to Moodle. Immediately, you have a place for students to get their classroom resources, at school or at home.

2. Links to Websites - The next step for teachers is to take the handouts of classroom activities, especially those that involve browsing on the internet, and make them into a page right in Moodle. Then within that page, they can insert the live links. Suddenly the paper assignments have become digital assignments with a launch-pad to the internet.

3. Classroom Calendar - Using the calendar block, teachers can put in upcoming classroom events, such as assignment due dates or the dates of tests. This works well not only for students, but also for parents.

4. Digital Assignment Dropbox - Until this moment, the Moodle course could be used without any student accounts (open for all to see). But if the teacher takes it to the next step and has her students make accounts, the student can turn in their homework via Moodle assignments. What's nice, it allows for submission at home (at all hours of the night) and stamps it with a date & time when it is turned in.

5. Classroom Discussion Board - There are some big limitations to class discussions face-to-face. One, not every student gets to speak. Two, not every student gets to interact with every other student. Three, there is a limit on time. And four, if a student isn't prepared for class that day, they often cannot participate. But with a Moodle discussion board, a topic can be discussed at any time during the day, and it makes it easy for all to interact and for the teacher to see what each student has added.

6. Enrichment - Frustrated by trying to differentiate instruction with only 2 ears? Teachers can create enrichment or acceleration units in Moodle that offer learning at a different pace than the regular class.

7. Supplement - After one gets familiar with Moodle, they see that there are some assignments that are better done digitally online. Even though students might report to the same room, more and more of their time can be done in the digital world of Moodle. This includes online quizzes, wikis, and lesson modules in Moodle.

8. Full Online Course - The final step, but not necessarily one that leaves the school's building. Think of a senior project or a seminar done independently by students via Moodle.