Monday, August 31, 2009

Multi-tasking & overconfidence

Full disclosure: I'm doing this while getting my kids' lunches ready and proofreading their homework. So according to the research, this post might be of inferior quality.

That's because the concept of multitasking has been researched by Stanford University recently. Their findings are creating quite a stir! People who multi-task a lot are awful at it, while those who do not multi-task can do it much better. Exactly opposite of what you'd think.

The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking. The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they're much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they're gifted at it.

The full research findings are here. Interesting food for thought. Perhaps this exists because the process of multi-tasking appears to be easier than it actually is, or perhaps the more you do it, the more your skills deteriorate.

Or perhaps, the study itself is flawed. Cathy Davidson takes it to task for poor research design, basically saying the test measures your ability to focus on one item when others are interfering. But multi-tasking is not solely a skill of blocking external stimuli, but rather keeping track of multiple stimuli.

Two thoughts. One is we need to examine this cognitive ability more closely in schools. We have all used the rhetoric that "digital natives can multi-task". We need full analysis of whether they can multi-task well, or if they just multi-task a lot. Similar to saying my son does cartwheels all the time, but that doesn't mean he's good at them. If we are going to design instruction with multiple tasks running concurrently, we better know as educators that it truly leads to better learning and not just trust the rhetoric.

Second thought, and I'm taking this from the most mind-stretching blog currently in my reader. Jack Uldrich at Unlearning 101 argues that while the results of the research are open for debate, one separate thought ist standing out. That being those who don't multi-task think they are lousy at it, and those who do multi-task think they are gifted at it. He labels this as over-confidence, one of the most important things we need to "unlearn" in order to be successful.

I like the way Uldrich articulates this:

If you are a multi-tasker, I am not suggesting that you unlearn the skill -- only how proficient you believe you are at the skill. (Preferably, I'm hoping you'll unlearn your over-confidence before you slam into the side of my car at some intersection because you were texting a friend while at the same time checking out the latest Tweet from Shaq.)

More on unlearning: Unlearning as a 21st Century Skill

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Day of School Care Package and H1N1

Having young children in elementary school and a wife who teaches kindergarten, you tend to notice trends quicker. Some time in the past couple of years, it was determined that elementary teachers providing care packages on the first day of school for students was essential.

Not sure what a care package is? It usually is a brown paper bag filled with odds and ends like a lifesaver, an eraser, or a piece of gum. The trifles themselves aren't important; it's the symbolic significance of each. The lifesaver lets the student know there will always be help available, the eraser lets them know it is okay to make mistakes, and the piece of gum helps remind them to "stick" to it, even when challenged.

Full disclosure: I did not teach at the elementary level and have never been mistaken for a warm fuzzy kind of guy. But, while this simple (note that I avoided the word "cheesy") gesture is lost on me, my kids and my wife seem to like it a lot.

Much more cheerful than receiving an emergency kit for H1N1.

But given reports that Swine Flu could infect half (half?!?) of the United States, your school better have one of those, too. And as Marshalltown CSD can attest, when the crisis hits, its not just as simple as calling school off.

ASCD has some good directions on where to get started:

From Nashville to New York, schools seem to be taking to heart new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed to curb the spread of the flu while minimizing disruptions to learning. They're educating students about proper hygiene, communicating to parents the importance of keeping their sick children at home at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever, and making preparations to separate ill students and staff or selectively close schools with high-risk populations should the need arise.

For school nurses and educators (as well as the general public), the government has set up to disseminate information.

ASCD goes on to mention that what is most crucial is a contingency plan, which can be difficult for schools to do in the face of such uncertainty:

A couple of anecdotes demonstrate the possibilities. According to a Baltimore Sun article, Maryland's Anne Arundel County Public Schools has prepared contingency plans in case schools are closed. Over the summer, officials considered how they could offer homework assignments or teach online. The Los Angeles Times reports that Los Angeles Unified School District is contemplating various methods of continuing children's education by delivering lessons and instructions through public-access television, automated phone calls, the Internet, and the mail.

I recently visited with an official from Des Moines Public School about this very topic. Using technology, be it Moodle, Google Docs, or even a system of email, can help continue instruction even if students are not physically able to meet. The problem of course is the breakup of instruction. While Moodle could offer schools the best home-bound instructional model, almost universally in Iowa, teachers are unprepared for how to teach at a distance with Moodle. That would be a long-range plan at best.

3 Resources for Administrators to Help with Contingency Plans
  1. Start with the Department of Education's resources, including their recommendations.
  2. The federal government has also provided a communications toolkit for K-12 schools (pdf). This gives you sample language and steps to follow to keep your community informed.
  3. Meet with your technology staff, your AEA educational technologists, and/or (at Heartland) me about looking at technological possibilities to conduct home-bound education.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things My Ed Tech Consultant Forgot to Tell Me

(Because, while we edtech consultants are the biggest enthusiasts for integrating technology in the classroom and push it as much as we can, we often forget to mention the pitfalls with integrating technology the wrong way...)

1. While as a whole, integrating technology is a must for a 21st century education, for any individual lesson, not integrating technology is always an option. Some things are better done not on the computer.

2. While, yes the world is changing, that change goes deeper than technology. Just giving every student a computer does not mean they are getting different & better education.

3. There is definitely a point where you can "do too much technology" in a school improvement plan. Looking at 5 tools at a time only assures you of doing all 5 not as well as you should.

4. While awareness of tools and modeling how they work is important, the only way to assure your whole school is effectively learning how to integrate technology is through coaching. PD sessions where you see and practice a new tool when you haven't been coached through implementing the last one are counter-productive.

5. Integration of technology, like anything else you do in the classroom, should be SMART goal-oriented. That is, it needs to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. And, the goal is not to integrate the technology, the goal is to improve student achievement.

6. Because of number 5, you need to acquire concrete data about student learning, before, during, and after integration, to see if your integration is effective. If it isn't, don't keep doing it the same way. Re-evaluate what you are doing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Login time

In schools, technology exists to support learning, first and foremost.

Which frustrates me when I visit two schools in one day where it takes over 20 minutes for a laptop to login. That's 20 minutes of lost instruction time. How can this happen?

The culprit in both cases was the authentication process, where the computer goes out over the network and checks with the server if the user has the rights to log in to the computer. In some schools, this is compounded by roaming accounts, where the server stores the files of the user as well as the permissions (which applications that user can access on the computer).

Now first, the IT perspective on the issue. Controlling authentication, permissions, and user files centrally is much easier for IT to manage. They can change permissions en masse at one time, and can back up files automatically. Doing this makes a lot of sense for schools.

Problem is, what logically makes sense doesn't always actually work. The worst decision I ever made as a technology coordinator was to allow a local business in our community set up a thin-client network based on the logic above. Our $10,000 server set up to run this setup continuously froze (and then took 15 minutes to re-boot) on the basis of all the services it was running. It also allowed no flexibility for new programs a teacher wanted to try (even the Adobe suite couldn't run over a thin-client setup). Meanwhile, our Macs with their local authentication took mere seconds to login.

Macs aren't immune however. You can set up Macs with an Open Directory, where they too can authenticate, handout permissions, and host files from a server instead of the client's computer. At one school I recently witnessed, a user went to a professional development session on iPhoto, and opened up her library on the lab computers. When she went back to her room, she couldn't open up her iPhoto library on her computer anymore, because it had been automatically updated for the newer version of iPhoto in the lab. She will now have to walk down to the computer lab to use iPhoto until her own computer's version is updated, which could be never (and at the least will be a couple of months).

Here's the bottom line for administrators. Yes, network authentication and even directory hosting are good things, and yes, I've seen many districts where it works very smoothly. And, generally, I'd trust the IT staff on their recommendations of the best system.

However, there should be a concrete expectation. A lab of laptops will never take more than 2 minutes to login. If it typically does, a new system must be found. More than 2 minutes to login is unacceptable loss of instruction time.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Putting the tool before the purpose, illustrated

My visits with schools this fall has been permeated with my thoughts on mistakenly putting the tool before the purpose in education, and how this is the wrong way to go about things.

Case in point, straight from me. I spent a day last week working with a district about the Iowa Core and 21st Century Skills. In the afternoon, I had a session giving teachers resources and examples for using blogging and Google Docs in the classroom. After a quick bit of introduction to concepts with the whole group, I had them break out and work on topics that were appropriate to them, be it "how the tool works", "how do you assess with the tool", "how to supervise student use", and so forth.

As I was floating around to visit with teachers as they worked, one teacher asked me to help clarify whether blogs or wikis would be best for her classroom. She explained that she wanted students in literary groups to collaborate in a back-and-forth discussion over questions posed by her, and that she wanted this easily assess-able. After visiting with her a bit, we found that what she was truly looking for was a nested discussion forum, and the tool that was the best fit by far was Moodle. After an impromptu demonstration of Moodle, she was then psyched and eager to get started.

Again, starting with a set session on "blogs", or "wikis", or "insert your tool here" when the teachers don't have the purpose of integration or the place in their curriculum picked out is a waste. Had she continued to set up a blog and try to force her educational lesson into it, it would have done two things: 1) wasted her professional development time, and 2) frustrated her, possibly to the point of becoming jaded about the use of instructional tools.

This old trend is hard to get away from, as it is the old mindset for professional development. Get away from it, we must, however.

Friday, August 14, 2009

South Dakota Testing 21st Century Skills

Busy time of year for me... only day not at an inservice for this week and next.

THE Journal reports on South Dakota mandating statewide testing in 21st century skills, becoming the first state to explicitly do so. They are using the assessment created by, which is specifically aligned with the NETS standards.

Some quick thoughts:
  • In general, I applaud the move. In the words of Tony Wagner, what gets tested gets taught. In Iowa, while we will push the concept of 21st century skills in the rollout of the Iowa Core, unless there is a test, it will remain a secondary concept to specific skills on the ITBS.
  • The fact that "21st century skills = NETS standards" will raise some eyebrows. It's to say that technology literacy is the only literacy in 21cs. Financial literacy, civic literacy, employability skills, health literacy...? But, if you dig deeper into the NETS standards, you find there is some general overlap with other areas. At the very least, you have to start somewhere in assessment, and the NETS standards looks the best place to start of any.
  • The test is a coupling of multiple choice and performance based tasks. Not the ideal, but impressive given the logistical challenges that any performance-based tasks provide. I am curious to see how "communication and collaboration" is assessed.
  • The test does have problems assessing one of the standards. From THE Journal:
    A sixth category, Creativity and Innovation, is also included in the assessment, although this area is not a "skill" per se, and there has been some controversy within the education community over how the category might be standardized and assessed.
I would counter that "creativity and innovation" is most definitely a skill, one that some people are more gifted than others, but a skill that can be developed nevertheless. Gifted education researchers have used tools to measure creativity before, usually along the lines of finding the number of different solutions to a task, the number of original solutions to a task, and then a subjective valuing of the originality of the solutions.

Iowa should do the same as South Dakota, but should look for a different assessment product, one that gathers significant data about creativity.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Madison - Pre-conference workshop

The first day pre-conference featured two workshops, one of which I left early as we hadn't moved past introductions after an hour. It's never a good sign when you are almost half-way through your presentation and you are still saying "In this presentation, we're going to...".

The other workshop, however, was very interesting for me. Entitled "GameQuest: Designing and managing educational game projects", it was held by Les Howles, David Gagnon and Cid Freitag from UW-Madison. The three serve as eLearning and Infotech consultants for the university, and described their work as working with professors to take content from their courses and to create games and simulations to enhance learning.

While it is at the university level, it is interesting to see the process in motion. They showed a game on material engineering, where the user needed to construct a structure that cryogenically secured liquid hydrogen. Choosing different compounds to build the structure's containers, struts, etc., the user got to experiment and see the result. They also showed a simple simulation of dropping a ball down a pyramid of pegs to understand the concept of probability (and what happened to that probability if you tinkered with certain variables).

First thought I had was how this can expand our thinking of educational gaming. They mentioned the following distinctions:
  • Simulations = artificial scenario set up to test or demonstrate natural or artificial phenomenon.
  • Game = activity that is rule-based and has an easily-identifiable goal to motivate the user.
  • Simulation-game, or "serious game" = one that combines the features of both, becoming a bigger project with more potential uses.
Second, they gave an excellent overview (by no coincidence through a simulation-game that the audience took part in) of the project management of simulation-gam development. This overview mimicked what their process is, everything from RFP's from college professors for possible products (and the accompanying selection criteria they use to select one), to how to assemble a team and handle the most pressing issues, which were more group dynamics than troubles with technological bugs or pedagogical uses. They showed the delicate balance in weighing those group dynamics with building quality, and yet, meeting deadlines.

They mentioned a 6- month timeline with a group consisting of 1 instructional designer, 1 graphic designer, 1 programmer, a teacher assistant, and the content expert (the professor who provided the RFP). And they came away with a dynamic educational game that met the professor's objectives.

We should do this in Iowa. Putting together a project team of people working part-time on the project, we could output 2 quality simulation-games per year that would fully align with the Iowa Core and could be used for free by all of Iowa's teachers.

Think about it. A simulation-game where students are colonial explorers setting up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and trying to survive. A simulation-game where students create a species and experiment with different structural features to evolve and thrive. A simulation-game where students analyze real MRI data from other individuals and make diagnoses, and then compare their conclusions with conclusions drawn by doctors from the same data. A simulation-game that shows the effects of greenhouse gas, as well as the adjusting of carbon emissions by different policial or business-related proposals.

The constraint to this, I believe, is ultimately not money. If we are ahead of the curve, a well-built gaming project could save districts from purchasing other software, and these projects become costly only if you lose the focus on the educational objective and get too engrossed in the immersive nature of the game. As the person sitting next to me (himself an educational gaming designer) mentioned, once the game reaches the point of complexity where it is more of a movie than a game, the learner becomes passive. Cheaper 2-dimensional graphics and cutting out audio synchronization and graphical effects puts more focus on the user's interaction in the game itself.

On the contrary, I feel the constraint is vision. It is understanding, and then communicating to others, the importance of this type of learning, which is considered "playing" by many disapproving teachers. If a vision is established by Iowa's leaders, this can be done, it can be done immediately, and it can be done well.

BTW - hashtag for the conference on Twitter is #DistEd09.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Madison Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning

I'll be attending the UW-Madison Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning the next three days. This year marks the 25th year of the conference. Last year's conference featured both George Siemens and Curtis Bonk as presenters. This year's is headed by Penn State's Michael Moore, who is a pioneer in the field of distance learning.