Monthly Archives: May 2015

Ongoing Transitions in the New Educational Ecosystem

One day you’re a sage on the stage; and the next, you’re struggling for more hits on YouTube, more followers on Twitter, or more +1s on Google+. Or maybe, as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education recounts, you spent two years creating an online course, and the administration decides to assign it to someone else to teach. Whether you are a teacher in K-12 or a university professor, the demands on your time and the challenges to your skillset have risen yet again.

That roles are changing, or evolving, is clear. How can we support the necessary, ongoing, transition in roles while maintaining the quality and dignity of the players?

Flip Your Classroom or Flip Out

It should be clear by now that your students need you. How they need you has shifted, but we still need talented PEOPLE to facilitate the learning experience across the educational continuum. As information becomes more ubiquitous, teaching requires more in the way of curating and guiding students through the information rather than being the source of it.

Leading students to independence

In high school and in the years building up to it, we should be supporting kids in developing critical thinking skills by allowing for more experimentation, failure and hands-on mentoring within the classroom setting. Let students come to the class with questions of their own and provide the guidance necessary for them to work through problems alongside their peers.

Building up to deeper and slower thinking

By the time kids get to college, they should be ready for deeply immersive learning experiences. These classes should be led by instructors who not only have subject-matter expertise to share but who are also ready to guide students through the highly analytical discovery processes required at this step in the educational process.

Define Roles for Course Authors, Developers, and Facilitators

As institutions of higher learning provide more online offerings, there needs to be further clarification of roles within the process of creating and delivering the courses.

Course Creation

The process of deconstructing an existing course and developing it for online delivery is complicated, if done in such a way that provides for maximum interactivity and engagement. The upside, of course, is you have content to work with.

The process is also complex if starting from scratch, but there is the added effort of locating and developing new content.

In either case, you have complex process of parsing out instruction into cognitively digestible morsels, a process that requires expertise that is frequently outside of the skillset of most instructors used to delivering content via traditional means of lecture.

Many universities are building out their own instructional design departments to help support this process, while others are engaging the services of outside development teams. In either case, the instructor working as a subject matter expert on the development of a new online course will have to devote many hours to the process. The entire effort is streamlined if the instructor is paired with a trained instructional designer to support the process.

Course Delivery

Should the course author automatically be assigned the role of course facilitator? We know that more institutions, both corporate and higher ed, are looking for more of a human touch in their online offerings these days. These synchronous or asynchronous online courses require then, skilled teachers to engage with students in online discussions and provide feedback on assignments.

The challenge for many institutions is how to make the best use of their resources. An instructor may need to devote up to six months working as part of a team to develop an online course. The case of Jennifer Ebbeler at the University of Texas at Austin, where it is reported she spent nearly two years developing the course should be an anomaly these days. It’s not clear whether she was working alone, as part of a team, or what guidelines were in place to ensure an efficient development process.

So, between the required effort for development and the goal on the part of many to insert facilitation back into online learning puts an extra demand on school administrators to assign the appropriate resource for this task. If it can’t be the course author, it needs to be someone trained effectively for the task, someone familiar with the content, and someone willing to work within the compensation limits placed on such roles.

If scheduling and finances permit course authors to be course facilitators, that may be ideal for those who desire to and have the skills to play that role. If not, a course author can also play a role in managing a team of graduate students, for example. Decisions around who does what need to be made early on in the process so that expectations are clear.

Unbundling of the Teaching Profession?

As education evolves, we are seeing “a la carte” offerings beginning to disrupt all sorts of institutions, with certificate offerings and alternative, professional educational services on the rise. In College Disrupted: The Unbundling of Higher Education, Ryan Craig says that this unbundling is possible in higher education because, unlike K-12, “there is no countervailing force to stop it.” But I wonder if the change in K-12 is coming from within. Teacherpreneurs who may have previously stayed and fought for the profession are leaving K-12 to work for or found their own companies to offer technology-enabled teaching resources. They may not be “teachers” according to the old definition, but they do still “teach.”

Teaching is changing from K-12 through university, and we need to be creative about how to best continue to train, recruit and motivate those who will continue to play a vital role in the classrooms of tomorrow, whether they are face-to-face or virtual, whether they are part of an institutional “package” or not.

Balancing Learning Technology with the Human Touch

I guess that image of President Obama learning how to code as part of last year’s Hour of Code was not enough to convince everyone of the value of technology in education. Despite there being little agreement over the specifics of technology in learning, there is a growing trend that values a high degree of human touch when implementing technology in learning. And that can result in some unexpected challenges to the role of teacher in both face-to-face and online learning environments.

She Says, He Says: Arguments for and Against Technology in the Classroom

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Does Technology Belong in Classroom Instruction?” engaged Lisa Nielsen, Director of Digital Engagement for the New York City of Education; and Jose Antonio Bowen, President of Goucher College in a thumbs-up, thumbs-down war of words over the role that technology can or should play in the classroom.

Nielsen’s portion of the article, titled “YES: New Tools Let Students Learn More, and More Deeply,” highlights how technology not only provides access to more resources but also expands the classroom beyond the walls of the school building. Students, working with guidance from their teachers can learn how to sort through the information available online, appropriately cite their sources, and .share on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, for example. “There’s more deep thought happening here,” says Nielsen “than there is without technology.”

Bowen’s contribution, titled “NO: Classrooms Must Be a Place of Focus and Mental Stillness,” tells us that “Finding relevant and accurate currents in an ocean of often useless or misleading Internet content is a persistent problem” that technology in the classroom doesn’t solve. “In fact, it is a distraction from the real solution: teachers taking the time to help students learn to process and think.”

Both these educators value the role of the teacher in the classroom, but Bowen insists on a tired, teacher-centric model in which “Teachers demonstrate what smart people do.” Nielsen’s is more hands-on model in which teachers do share expertise but in which they are also expanding their skills and toolsets along with their students.

Designing Interactions to Facilitate Learning

Following the initial skepticism of MOOC-style learning, many in the academic and technology community have begun to push for more cohort-based learning and peer engagement in online courses. At a recent Open edX Meetup in New York, representatives from the McKinsey Academy and George Washington University spoke to the importance of building more of the human touch into the online learning experience.

A massive study of online learning “Preparing for the Digital University,” funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, included an investigation of the different types of interactions required for success in online learning: student-student, student-teacher, and student-content.” This section of the report emphasized that human interaction in online courses can help increase the efficacy of the learning experience. The report calls for “sound instructional design” to create these interactions and included amongst the criteria for instructors “a positive attitude towards technology” as well as their “facilitation and of the learning process and monitoring of learner progress.”

The research found that all three forms of interaction produced positive effect sizes on academic performance, with student-student and student-content interactions having higher effect sizes than student-teacher interactions.

According to the report, important course design characteristics that shape the learning experience are flexibility, personalization, forms of assessment, use of small group learning and designed interactions, and soundness of adopted mix of pedagogies, technologies, and media.

Unexpected Rewards of Failing with Technology in the Classroom

Keeping technology out of the classroom is not a reasonable expectation these days; neither is keeping the teacher out of the class, whether it’s a face-to-face situation or online.

Kids are comfortable and capable with many forms of technology, especially their own personal devices. So, we need to meet them where they are live. At the same time, the role of teacher becomes even more valuable in guiding students through activities that may sometimes challenge their own expertise.

Nick Provenzano, 2013 ISTE Teacher of the Year and author of The Nerdy Teacher blog has some advice for teachers incorporating new tech tools into their teaching: “Don’t be afraid to fail publicly. It’s OK! You’re trying new things.” “You can’t be perfect, and you don’t want kids to feel like they can’t make mistakes, either.”

The same sentiment is echoed in an article on “Computing in the Classroom,” in the latest Harvard Magazine. The article addresses some of the challenges and initiatives to incorporating coding instruction into the classroom. “Students are accustomed to feeling this uncertainty; teachers, less so. Implicitly, many regard expertise as their source of legitimacy: a store of knowledge, in the form of facts, to be transmitted to the children. They want all the solutions to all possible problems before they feel comfortable leading a lesson—and because computers are only beginning to return in the classroom in these new ways, few have that expertise.”

Karen Brennan, who used to head up the ScratchEd forum and is now an assistant professor of education at HGSE, noted that when issues arise to break down the day’s lesson, “teachers could model problem-solving for their students even if they didn’t have all the solutions. Indeed, a small degree of uncertainty might be preferable: making room for more spontaneous discovery, and more authentic and rewarding classroom interactions.”

Teaching Transformed

The challenge to expand one’s skillset is similar in higher education, where faculty are being encouraged to participate in the development and delivery of online courses, something that can take faculty out of their comfort zone. Whereas in K-12, schools are building out the role of technology coordinators to support teachers in their adoption of technology, institutions of higher learning are either building out their own instructional design teams or partnering with external resources to help with the design and building of their online courses. These resources help faculty transform their expertise into more engaging online experiences, ensuring a better blend of interactions within each course.

If the trend continues, they will also build in enough facilitation and tracking of student progress so that the experience is more high touch than that of early MOOCs.

In both instances, teachers are learning new methods of teaching while on the job. It’s about as hands-on as you can get.

Meetups and Goodniks: Technology-Enabled Social Impact

“You can never be smart enough to know how it will evolve.” Such was the advice from Scott Heiferman, CEO and co-founder of Meetup, the online platform for organizing face-to-face meetings that now boasts nearly 200,000 meetup groups worldwide. Early recognition came when people started using the platform to organize for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, something its founders had not planned on. “Whatever you’re doing, you need luck; you need a hook. We had politics.” Heiferman explained.

The occasion was the launch party for Goodnik’s skill-sharing platform, an online community for people to swap services and support social impact projects. It was a good example of how the Meetup platform has inspired and enabled other groups to pursue their own missions.

Heiferman shared several tips for success with Nate Heasley, Founder and Executive Director of Goodnik, an organization that since 2002 has provided training and resources to start-up social entrepreneurs. And when Heiferman talks, people listen. With over half a million monthly meetups and 21.47 million members in 180 countries, he and his team have figured a few things out.

Preserve the Core

Primary to his philosophy is the concept of empowering people to do what they want to do. “It’s not about you,” he insists. “It’s about others.” With that, he also believes that success lies in knowing who to listen to. Heiferman reminded the audience of Jim Collins’ advice in Built to Last, “Preserve the core, but stimulate change.”

Preserving the core, to be useful to others, Heiferman has not been afraid to take chances. Four years after launching Meetup, Heiferman decided to start charging for services. The initial backlash was huge, resulting in a loss of 95% of their activity. But with the fees came more discerning customers; they built it back up and continue to work hard to empower others through the platform and to simplify the user experience. Reducing their sign-up process from three steps to one, for example, brought in three times the number of users.

The model must be working, as Heiferman announced last night, they have reached the $100M revenue mark.

An Alternative Currency Model for Social Entrepreneurship

Goodnik currently deals in a different kind of currency. In his quest to encourage people to do good for others, he has developed a “time-based alternative currency” called Goodnikels that are earned in the service of others and which can then be spent in seeking out the expertise of others in the system.

In honor of the launch of the online Goodnik platform, Heasley organized a face-to-face skills-sharing experience wherein attendees sought advice from technical, legal, and business experts; paid for their services with Goodnikels; and then mined others for advice, paying them as well. The activity mirrors what will happen on the site as well. Judging from the level of engagement, people got a lot out of the exchange and were appreciative of the expertise shared.

When asked what he expects in terms of the growth of the network, Heasley noted “During our beta test we were working with a group of several hundred members. My expectation is that this will grow rapidly as communities like co-working spaces, alumni groups, meetup groups and others become aware of the value a skills-exchange provides to their members, and how it can enhance community. But really it’s not just about the number of users, it’s about how they’re connected. A person can find someone to work with even in a community of a few dozen fellow coworkers or alums.”

How Will It Evolve?

What about the concept of Goodnikels? Will it catch on? According to Heasley, “There are thousands of Goodnikels in circulation, and there have been many successful exchanges so far. Most of the exchanges have been for ‘consultations’ where one person is looking for just an hour’s worth of advice on a particular topic. That’s how we recommend our users to start their projects, since otherwise they might not know what is realistic on a bigger project. As the system expands, we expect to see more projects of 10-20 hours, as well as people continuing to use it for one-hour consultations.”

Will Goodnikels become the currency of choice for social entrepreneurship? And will the Goodnikel skills-sharing platform help drive more social impact projects? Time will tell whether or not the system works and how it will evolve. As Heiferman pointed out earlier in the evening, “Everything we thought it was going to be, it wasn’t.”

Gritty Educational Models to Prepare Kids for the Real World

If we could really step back and apply the principles of backward planning, we may not need to be talking about grit at the post-secondary level of education. But there it is in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Looking Beyond Data to Help Students Succeed, and a related one, An Enrollment Experiment, Grounded in ‘Grit,’ discussing  two schools looking beyond standard assessments of performance and measuring noncognitive skills in order to help students who might otherwise struggle survive and excel in the college environment.

The articles relate how schools such as Santa Monica College and Portmouth College are implementing such assessments and follow-on programming to keep students in school and contribute to their success once they graduate. The noncognitive traits that are measured include things such as study habits, time-management, confidence, test-taking skills and perseverance (aka “grit”).

Both schools provide feedback to students and then assign coaches or mentors to work with students to bolster their confidence and keep them on track. The assessment used by Santa Monica is SuccessNavigator, developed by ETS and taken by over 25,000 students on about 150 college campuses. Portmouth’s approach incorporates a program called “Launch Pad,” which is a three-week online course, assessment and face-to-face experiential learning program to get students started. Mentors and additional coursework are also part of the plan to keep students on track.

No question that the programs can add value, and Santa Monica and Portmouth are both community colleges supporting a large number of first generation college students with their own set of challenges, including both academic and non-academic ones. You get the sense from reading the articles that grit is something particularly required by a particular type of student or demographic.

But the reality is that we all need grit in our learning design.

What is Grit?

Angela Duckworth, a former middle school and high school math teacher turned psychology professor is known for her research in intelligence. She focused on a personality trait that she calls “grit,” “sticking with things over time until you master them.” A gritty person, therefore, is one who “approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” In comparing students on the basis of intelligence tests and grit, Duckworth found that students with higher IQ test scores had less grit and conversely, those with lower IQ test scores had more grit. And if you haven’t already guessed, amongst those study participants, the grittiest ones actually had the highest GPAs.

Duckworth created a test called the “Grit Scale,” a series of 8-12 items on which you rate yourself. For example: “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” The Grit Scale has predicted success in West Point and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s also the basis for the most recent work in colleges seeking to support student success.

Who Needs Grit?

If we look back at our first two examples, grit is certainly something that can help students to overcome adverse circumstances, such as those encountered by first generation students in community colleges. My argument is that if we were doing things right in K-12, we wouldn’t need it there. This, of course, brings us back to not only debates over equality in education but also over high-stakes testing and all the emphasis on test prep to the detriment of other subjects and other approaches to learning.

Grit can be a loaded topic, with arguments focusing on the socio-economic factors that constitute challenges or barriers to success, but from a learning design perspective, it’s clear to me that we all need a little more grit in the learning process.

How Can We Apply More Grit to K-12?

Grit can be applied to many learning approaches that put the child in the driver’s seat and allow for extensive, self-directed, problem-based learning. By immersing kids in longer-term projects, and supporting their learning with mentoring and coaching throughout, we can support learning that over time will help develop mature, critical thinkers.  Thomas Hoerr, author of Fostering Grit, said something that reminded me of one of my learning heroes, Paolo Freire: “Fostering Grit is dialog. It’s not something that we do to our students; rather it is something we do with them.”

He also said that teaching for grit “means taking the long view,” which is why I say that while implementing additional support at the community college is a good thing, it would be better to have started earlier and imbued all students with grit through meaningful learning engagements throughout the educational process.

Will Old School Practices Remain as Education Redefines Itself?

As the worlds of higher education and K-12 redefine their missions and reshape their offerings, we continue to see resistance to models of learning that seek to engage students in more practically-oriented, design-driven programs. This week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, three articles detailed shifting focus in college curricula in which either the authors or the commenters questioned models in which curriculum veered away from a traditional liberal arts foundation: “The ‘Maker Movement’ Goes to College,” “The Slow Death of the University,” and “Now Everyone’s an Entrepreneur.”  The articles illustrate how, even as change is seen on campuses running innovation labs and encouraging more hands-on, experimental and experiential learning, concern is still being voiced over a lack of adherence to more classical models of learning.

In K-12, we see great strides being made in the public and private sector by programs such as IntrinsicAltSchool, and the Institute of Play, just to name a few programs. At the same time, we are confronting a huge crisis in confidence in our public educational system spurred in large part by the Common Core and PAARC testing.

What History Reveals

It’s a curious exercise to look back from where we are today to the history of education in the United States, and to try to predict where we might be in the next 20 years or so. Beginning with what some people call “permissive” roots, when parents had control over their children’s education to the compulsory era, when the government stepped in and compelled children to attend school, we can see the role that standardization has played in learning over time.

Given the great state of flux at all levels of the educational continuum, from K-12 on through higher ed and corporate learning, one wonders how much of the system as we now know it will remain. Will any of these concepts be in place 20 years from now?

Segregation by Age

Introduced by Horace Mann in Massachusetts in 1848, “age grading” became the norm across the country. Given what we know about how people learn, does strict age grading still make sense? In the big shift toward blended learning design, and with the part that neuroscience now plays in designing personalized learning programs, does age matter as much?

Standardized Curriculum

Also introduced by Mann was the concept of standardized curriculum was implemented in the 1837 with the goal in mind of offering the same high quality learning material to all children no matter where they went to school. The very fact that we have a Common Core Curriculum to fight over nowadays begs the question as to how successful we have been in researching, developing and implementing standards over the past nearly 200 years. One also wonders where we would be if even half the brain power, money and technology now devoted to supporting the new standards and associated testing had been focused on further understanding of how people learn and how to continue to engage them in the learning instead.

Compulsory Attendance

The shift from parental authority over their children’s learning to more governmental control occurred over time but most strikingly between 1852 and 1918 when the movement towards compulsory attendance began and was enacted into law. People will argue that compulsory attendance was an effort to either save or manage the nation’s diverse citizenry, particularly the children of immigrants who would otherwise be working under conditions that were favorable to no one, whether child or adult. So, with child labor laws, compulsory education laws ensured that children of certain ages would be in attendance at schools for a certain number of hours per day and days per year.

Given today’s dropout rates (The Institute of Play lists this as 3M per year, with Pew Institute figures from 2013 at 2.2M), one has to question the effectiveness of compulsory attendance. More importantly, given alternative means of learning, a single model of compulsory schooling doesn’t seem to hold up.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth  

Free public education is a gift; yet, it’s one that we must continue to question as options for learning evolve and as learners, teachers, and families continue to express dissatisfaction. Universities are already evolving their models to include standalone online programs as well as incorporating online elements into on-campus programs to provide more flexibility for their students. Those are changes that recognize the value of new and adjusted models of learning.

For K-12, there are so many options to extend learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom, particularly for high school students. This includes great programs in design thinking like Tools at School and Breaker; as well as elearning days, where kids learn from home, online with peers and teachers; and new school concepts and curriculum models like those of the AltSchool and Institute of Play.

In examining the current state of public education in light of its historical origins, I’m reminded of some of the commentary provided by those involved in the Independent Project. When a group of students at Monument Mountain High School became dissatisfied with their learning, they started a school within a school where they guided their own learning to great results. Speaking about public education, Peter Dillon, Superintendent of Berkshire Hills Regional School District, noted “It’s the foundation of a strong democracy . . . a chance for people from all different backgrounds to come together and learn together and engage in meaningful ideas and grow from that. When schools and districts get that right, it’s tremendously powerful. When they get it wrong, it’s really enfeebling and horrible.”

We need to look at this great gift of ours and make sure that it’s something to actually be appreciated by those on the receiving end.