Category Archives: Educational Technology

An apple connected to an ethernet cable

Technology Will Not Eat Teachers

In this age of digital everything, the concept of Teacher Appreciation Week may seem quaint and perhaps even outmoded. As we explore new and enhanced ways of supporting learning through evolving technology, and as we continue to ask ourselves what people even need to know, it makes sense to examine the ongoing role that teachers will play in our lives. Consider the following framework for evolving the role.

Backward Planning

How do you plan for a future that you can’t define? Postulating a workplace reconfigured by increasingly smart technology, we now know that we won’t have the same jobs to plan for as we did previously. Automation has already and will continue to eliminate certain more manual types of labor, and as machines get smarter, more of those jobs considered “safe” today.

The Role of Design Thinking

Since we can’t accurately forecast exactly what type of work people will be doing in the future, one of the best ways to prepare people for it is to teach them to more effectively approach a set of problems not yet defined. As Jon Kolko, writing in the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, has said “. . . a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.”

While critical thinking plays a role here, the ability to focus on and design a solution around the requirements of those being impacted by whatever problem is essential. So, too, is the acceptance and agility to respond to failure. Again, Kolko: “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”

The Importance of Hacking

Buckminster Fuller explained the accelerating rate at which human knowledge increases in the early 1960s. While the doubling of knowledge decreased from every 1500 years in 1750 to every 150 years by the early 1900s, it is now estimated to double every 13 months. IBM predicts that the Internet of Things will drive human knowledge to double every 12 hours.

All this to say, there is information to be had for those who want it. The most self-directed of learners will seek what they need in order to learn what interests them. Look at UnCollege and Degreed for just a couple of examples of the direction this can go in.

However, the availability of knowledge doesn’t mean that it can always be used effectively. We still need to teach our kids how to more effectively and responsibly access, vet, and use this information.

Curation, Curation, Personalization

Also because of the immense volume of information available, and because we know for sure that not everyone learns in the same way, we need technology to synthesize available resources and effectively assign those materials to particular individuals based on their need. This has become increasingly vital not only in a school-based environment, to improve mastery and increase engagement, but in business as well, to increase both efficiency and quality of performance.

The work that Maya Gat and her team at Branching Minds is one way personalization is having great impact in K-12. And I’m keeping a close eye on how Fuse Universal and Anders Pink have teamed up to provide extremely targeted learning and resources in the corporate learning space.

How We Can Continue to Appreciate Our Teachers

The role of teacher has already evolved a great deal across the continuum of learning, and observing, supporting, and being part of this evolution makes it clear that Teacher Appreciation Week is very much a vital concept.

Corporate Learning

The corporate learning team has played many roles, from stand-up trainer, to instructional designer, and curator. From delivering face-to-face training, to taking on the latest online development tools, to assessing external resources, corporate learning has seen it all. While still in a great state of flux, the agility displayed by such teams demands our admiration.

Higher Education

In the early 2000s, when we first started introducing online learning into higher education, we experienced a lot of pushback on the part of would-be subject matter experts particularly. But much of that was alleviated when instructional designers teamed with university faculty to design and develop those initial courses. I can clearly remember the mutual respect that arose from such interactions. As designers, we got to appreciate not only the subject matter expertise but also the keen awareness of student challenges in understanding, interpreting and utilizing course content. Faculty, in many cases, got a close up view of how course designers were able to break down course material and common student challenges and then parse that content into meaningful online interactions.

The lesson learned there was that the technology did not replace the faculty but instead depended on the teacher to play a different role.

Things must continue to change in higher education, but there is still a role for teachers, albeit no longer for someone only willing to play the sage on stage.

K-12

Teachers typically like to learn, of course, and so the many thousands of classroom teachers who have grasped new technologies, sweated or glided through hours of professional development, and effectively incorporated them into the classroom most certainly deserve our appreciation.

So, too, do those who have evolved their role from classroom teacher to teacherpreneur and channeled their teaching greatness into developing, or supporting the development of new teaching technologies.

Still further, consider those who may never have stepped foot into a classroom but who have driven the development of some of these new teaching tools because of their own passion for learning. They, too, deserve our appreciation.

So, no, technology will not eat teachers, but it will help them do their jobs more effectively and in the process of doing so, demand of them an agility to respond to the changing need of their audiences across the continuum of learning.

Office space with sign that says "ASK MORE QUESTIONS"

Can We Market What We Can’t Define?

From whether or not to market to how to market

“Marketing” hasn’t always been part of the higher education lexicon, and the concept of having to sell your school to a prospective student may still cause discomfort in some hallowed halls. But schools did start to market themselves more actively in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in response to declining enrollments and competition born out of the then-newly minted U.S. News College Rankings.

Traditional marketing and advertising made up for most of any available budget and consisted of billboards, posters, mailers, radio, perhaps television, and events.

As prospective students became increasingly savvy consumers, the more adventurous schools, especially those focused on online, continuing, and professional education, engaged in more sophisticated digital marketing programs that provide a more personalized experience for consumers of education.

But what is it we are trying to sell . . .

Today’s higher education market is experiencing what could be its greatest identity crisis yet. Debate continues to rage between the need for more workplace-focused education and the lack of soft- and critical-thinking skills amongst today’s job candidates.

Coding academies, once considered the enemy of traditional and continuing higher education, continue to grow in strength, in number, and apparently in their presence on the college campus.

Watson is tutoring our students and performing job interviews.

What’s a provost to do?

The world has changed, and how we prepare and reskill people to thrive in it has to change as well. So does the manner in which we reach out to and engage them.

. . . and to whom?

Student populations are shifting drastically. As universities start to see overall enrollments decrease, they have also begun to recognize the value of the “new traditional” learner, those 25 and older, and to consider their needs as well as those of their younger counterparts. And that population is changing as well.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in “The Future of Enrollment,” reports not only a decrease in the overall number of students graduating high school between now and 2023, but also in where they are coming from.

“The largest groups of students coming out of high school in the coming decade,” reports the Chronicle, “ will be Hispanics, low-income, and those who are the first in their family to go to college—all segments of the population who historically have been unable or unwilling to travel far distances for college, if they went at all.”

As the demographics change, and as the needs of the workplace evolve due to increasing dependency on technology, schools need to consider what they are offering, how they are delivering it, and to whom they are providing it.

An Ongoing Challenge

Change is the one sure thing here. As corporate learning providers continue to move ever closer to a model of just-in-time learning, so too does the university need to determine how to provide the right learning, in the right doses, at the right time.

At the same time, we need to understand today’s audience better and reach them where they are at:

  • Let the data do the talking.
  • Optimize your website to provide a more seamless experience for potential students, and to collect the data you need to understand them better.
  • Use marketing automation to send the right information to the right person at the time of need rather than overloading prospects with endless emails.
  • If something is not working, change it.
  • Get the right people into your funnel. Quality does matter.
  • Manage and track your leads with a CMS that will talk to your other technology platforms.

You can market to a moving target if you listen closely enough.

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

For free. For everyone. Forever. For $23,000 a year?

The news that one of my heroes of learning, Sal Khan, opened a brick-and-mortar school in Silicon Valley in 2015 made me push pause. Well, figuratively. What business does the leading advocate of free, on-demand, online learning have opening a full-year, full-day school? Moreover, how does the $23,000 -$26,000 a year price tag synch with what we understand are the hallmarks of the Khan Academy approach: For Free. For Everyone. Forever?

Paradigm shift aside, it makes sense that one of the more creative minds in the business of education today would want to explore alternative models of what we think of as traditional school. But at what cost?

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

According to its web site, “The Khan Lab School was founded to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.”

For those of us dedicated to the task of disrupting conventional educational practices, finding the means by which to test new types of learning is perhaps more of a challenge than designing the experiences themselves. It becomes less a question of equity than one or potential impact. Publically funded lab schools simply cannot push the boundaries of education as we know it as effectively as a Khan Lab School or an Alt School can. Even if we can agree with the general direction that alternative education is taking, more student-directed learning, more technology and data-driven support of personalized learning, can we agree on how to get there?

  • How broad a set of parameters are required to maintain a truly agile learning environment?
  • How do standards fit into an effective model for driving innovation?
  • Given that great potential for innovation, how can we best transfer these evolving best practices to the broader audience of K-12 education?

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

Having straddled the worlds of Alt Ed and traditional schooling for much of my professional and personal life for many years now, I find myself skeptical about the vision for change portrayed by some of the key players in the world of education today. How far can they push the limits of education as we know it?

I’m watching the Alt School closely to see how their playlist approach to daily learning impacts student engagement and learning. Second to my fondness for their approach to personalized learning is their belief in extending of the classroom to the greater community, leveraging the expertise of local experts and the local environment to provide truly hands-on, real-world experience. Yet, I wonder how agile the overall model is and how much room there is to adapt the model moving forward.

With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

While this mentality is more likely to be accepted in Silicon Valley than many other places, it may be a large part of what we need to do in order to evolve into effective alternatives over time. Khan Lab reminds me in some ways of the practice of de-schooling that many families engage in when transitioning from a traditional model of education to a homeschooling or unschooling model. Letting go of paradigms, and accepting rapid change and shifting priorities is not something many providers of education can deal with, or better yet offer as part of their working model.

The Khan Lab School bills itself as an open source model of education, openly sharing their work through the Center for Learning Innovation, created for that specific purpose. But the question remains as to how well these innovations can transfer to K-12 at large.

So, yes, let’s keep an eye on Khan Lab School and see what we can learn about truly experimental models of education. And better yet, let’s work on understanding how to most effectively transfer their learning to the broader landscape of K-12 so that everyone benefits.

Let me know your thoughts on this latest venture and its potential to impact on K-12 beyond Silicon Valley.

Stick figures (like a game play) on a blackboard

How Can We Prepare Our Kids for the Future?

Why should it surprise us that “knowing the human touch and how to complement technology is critical”? How have we even got to a point where “our education system is not set up for that”? Yet, that’s exactly what Michael Horn, quoted in Claire Cain Miller’s recent New York Times article “Why What You Learned in Preschool is Crucial at Work,” tells us. Horn’s comments are almost lost in a piece that focuses for the most part on the need for social skills in the workplace, but for those of us in the business of education, such rhetoric can be a bitter reminder of just how far the pendulum swings at any given moment and at the expense of our children and our future workforce.

The news is flooded with articles on the unbundling of education (of which I am a fan), and specifically the need to evaluate people for what they are able to do rather than a grade on a test in the K-12 years or a specific diploma beyond. Google is applauded for evaluating future employees on skills rather than degree, and conversations around competency-based learning are beginning to trickle down to K-12 with experiments into portfolio-based evaluations and the never-ending quest for an elixir of critical thinking.

But what is troubling is the tendency to take an either-or approach to how we can best prepare our kids for the real world.

College Ready and Career Ready: Where to Start?

We want our kids to be college ready from high school and career ready from college, yet we can’t seem to agree on what they need to get there, or in other potentially more enlightened conversations, how to get there. We need to sort out the vital role that technology should play across the continuum of the educational experience.  While we continue to debate the specific makeup of a K-12 curriculum, there are fundamental approaches to education that can provide a foundation in an otherwise less-than-stable system.

  1. Social skills should be embedded into learning at all levels. Whether in pursuit of teaching to standards (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing), or designing curriculum that is focused on 21st century technology skills, kids still need to learn to work in teams, leverage peer expertise, ad communicate effectively in order to get the job done.
  2. Technology should be leveraged to free up teachers to play more effective roles. Teachers have always done so much more than deliver content, and with teachers more focused on helping students to use knowledge rather than acquiring it, learners can become more engaged in the process as well.
  3. Don’t skimp on the arts. Learning an instrument over a number years, or building a strong visual portfolio throughout one’s school years, provides not only an obvious set of skills and a confidence builder, but also a way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it in ways that core academics can’t.
  4. Take a more integrative approach to health. Physical and mental health issues loom large in today’s generation of schoolkids, with the Centers for Disease Controlreporting that 13-20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year, with an estimated $247 billion spent each year on such disorders. Rather than merely playing triage for the medical profession, schools should be teaching kids about the importance of mind-body connection as early as possible, starting with opportunities for free play and building up to more sophisticated offerings as kids get older.
  5. Help kids to understand that learning is everywhere and is not something to “finish.” By bringing kids out into the community, and bringing outside experts into our classrooms, we can help kids establish strong connections with an expanding set of mentors and start building that sense of lifelong learning.

Focusing on one approach in absence of the others can weaken the entire system. They all need to work together for effective engagement and therefore learning to occur.

Breaking Down Walls for Better Learning and Better Performance

As Daniel Goleman has said, “We need to break down the walls between what we think of as academic intelligence and emotional intelligence.” Goleman, Paolo Freire and others have stressed the importance of seeing the world from each other’s perspectives, both in terms of developing systems thinking skills and in terms of creating the optimal learning environment. In preparing kids for the world of work, Cain Miller’s concludes that “Maybe high schools and colleges should evaluate students the way preschools do—whether they ‘play well with others’”

Providing the optimal learning engagements and learning environment for kids to build social skills while mastering academic content is a good place to start.

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

Maker Spaces and Digital Fabrication Democratize Learning

As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as DIY.org, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.

It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.

Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.

What is Beam?

The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.

Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.

Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning

Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:

  • Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
  • Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
  • CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
    • Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
    • Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
    • Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
    • Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
    • Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
    • Exploratory: Ask open questions.

The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design

Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:

  • Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
    • Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
    • Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
    • Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
  • Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.

Trying It on for Size

As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?

What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?

According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”

While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.

Women, Girls & Tech: Building Engagement in Business and Learning

Most of us know the statistics. On average, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. And only 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce is comprised of women. But maybe you are like me, and you think your gender hasn’t played as much of a role in your career trajectory.

I cut my professional teeth in a university teaching department that was led by women for the most part and in which women held the majority of positions. Somewhat conversely, I’ve worked in and on the edges of edtech for the past couple of decades, and I’ve been in situations where men dominated the top of the chain of command and where men made up the majority of engineering teams. The women I knew and worked with ran complex learning design projects and marketing efforts. We all formed an ecosystem in which people played their part, jobs got done and gender was not a frequent topic of discussion.

Stay with me here. I’m building up to something.

Opportunities for Women in Tech

Recently, as I’ve explored edtech from a K-12 perspective, I’ve been introduced to women in very strong leadership positions, running companies that are considered to be the forefront of their field: Alex Meis, Co-Founder of Kinvolved; Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds; Juliette LaMontagne, CEO and Founder of Breaker, to name a few.

So, I was a little surprised (not shocked) to hear that when the New York Tech Meetup (NYTM) group first started inviting people to demo, very few women were applying.  For that reason, according to Executive Director Jessica Laurence, they started offering a Women’s Demo Night and were able to generate interest from women entrepreneurs.

NYTM is the largest Meetup group in the world, with about 44,000 members currently. At its latest Women’s Demo Night, hosted by Bloomberg and held at their Lexington Avenue headquarters, six women demoed products ranging from image collaboration software to addiction recovery. I encourage you to visit these sites, as there is very interesting work being done by all these companies.

http://addicaid.com/

http://www.benefitkitchen.com/

http://www.blinkblink.cc/

http://www.bunchcut.com/

http://hellogoldbean.com/

http://www.weintervene.com/

Out of all of these, Blink Blink tells the best story of why and how we need to be purposeful in creating opportunities for girls and women in learning and in the workplace.

Getting Girls Excited about STEM One Circuit at a Time

Blink Blink is run by the dynamic duo of Nicole Messier and Joselyn McDonald. Messier is an aerospace engineer and McDonald is a filmmaker turned technology designer. The pair met in graduate school at Parsons School of Design. Their shared passions for technology and creativity resulted in a love for wearable tech and creative circuits. They channeled this into a means of getting more girls in tech and engineering by hosting workshops to explore crafting with technology and art.

Based on the success of these workshops, hosted by middle schools and high schools, Messier and McDonald decided to package the workshop materials into multi-project kits that kids can work on at home. The kit contains a creative circuit booklet, copper tape, conductive fabrics and thread, LEDs, crafting supplies and more. The craft kit enables individual users to make 10 different projects at a cost lower than would be required if consumers had to purchase the materials on their own.

Blink Blink has a great story to tell in terms of women in edtech and women creating engaging learning opportunities for girls in science and technology. They have participated in the innovative 4.0 Schools Accelerator Program, exhibited at SXSWedu, received the Maker Faire Editor’s Choice and Best in Class awards as well as the New Challenge Grant for Social Innovation. They are currently running a KickStarter campaign to fund production of their next round of creative circuitry kits.

Be Purposeful

Kudos to the NYTM for creating the Women’s Demo Event as well as the Women in Tech NYC group “to increase the number of women participating in New York’s technology industry.” Please visit the links above to learn more about all the companies that demoed at the event last week. Special thanks to the women of Blink Blink for making great strides towards social impact and for being purposeful in creating a company that will engage girls in learning about science in a fun, engaging and creative way.

Update: Blink Blink’s Kickstarter campaign ended successfully, raising $29,012 with 371 backers in June of this year. Visit their site to view and purchase one of their fantastic kits.

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.

Can Two Extra “Vs” Help EdTech Save Education?

Last week I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about his passion for writing, his two latest books: “The Art of the Start-Up 2.0” and “The Art of Social Media,” as well as the updated MVP (Minimally Viable Product) model. During his livestream interview withStartup Grind’s founder Derek Anderson, Kawasaki reiterated his appreciation of the Lean Startup model and provided details on the two additional “Vs” he hoped might strengthen Eric Reis’s model. As Kawasaki says, “The concept is that you have this Minimal Viable Product. You do the prototype, you test, you get the product out there.”

Adding Value and Vision

So why do we need a couple of extra Vs?

According to Kawasaki:

  • The first V is for Viable. It’s foreseeable that you will make a return, that your revenues will exceed your costs.
  • The first extra V is for Valuable: You are changing the world. You are doing something significant. You are not simply making a buck.
  • The second extra V is for validation: You have something that makes a buck, but it validates your vision for the future.

Where Are the Two Vs in EdTech?

The two Vs reminded me of proliferation of EdTech products and companies and how we need to be wary of digital bells and whistles masquerading as the saviors of education. With the endless rollout of iPad apps alone (TechCrunch reported 20,000 education apps developed for iPad in 2012 alone), one has to wonder how much “V” (any V at all, really) has gone into each one.

Lest you label me a Luddite, I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of educational technology, and I spent half my professional career helping corporations train employees using online simulations and schools expand their footprint with online courseware. But I simply have to sometimes wonder how many of today’s solutions are developed with these two Vs in mind. How valuable is the solution in rescuing education from the test-driven, grades obsessed institution it has become? And what vision is the product serving?

EdTech Products in Largest and Smallest Concentrations

Think about where the largest concentration of technology tools in education is focused today. A quick scan on The EdSurge EdTech Index reveals the highest concentration of products in the following five categories:

  1. Math (134)
  2. Language Arts (90)
  3. Games (58)
  4. Assessment (50)
  5. Science (44)

With the exception of Games, these are fairly standard subjects, right? Much of the software in that list is designed to align with and promote success with implementing the CCCS. There’s a theme here.

Where do you think the lowest concentration of tools lies? Looking at student-facing applications in K-12 with 10 or fewer apps in their respective categories, we see:

  1. Digital Storytelling (9)
  2. Arts (9)
  3. Maker and DIY Tools (10)
  4. Social Learning (10)
  5. Video Instruction (16)

To be honest, I think this second set of numbers would be higher if there were more a little extra “V” involved.

Rifting on Value

Guy Kawasaki is as powerful a speaker as he is an effective writer. When he talks, you can’t help but pay attention and enjoy yourself. And most of the time you are wishing you had said whatever he just said. So maybe my rifting on the “two Vs” is my way of showing my respect. That being said, I’ve got to admit that “value” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

Using technology to help understand and expand the ways in which people can learn is of tremendous value. The work being done to understand how people think and learn and applying that to blended learning programs, for example, is adding great value to kids previously “stuck” in preconceived notions of how to solve problems and one-size-fits-all curriculum plans. These are real tools that can help teachers support learning in diverse populations. It expands and scales the capability of those who already know how to personalize learning and enables those who may not have been doing so much of that already.

Building a better way to help kids practice for a test?

One of the other topics Kawasaki and Anderson discussed was the concept of “nail it and scale it.” “When do you squeeze the trigger?” as Anderson put it. Kawasaki’s response is to run a qualitative test: “Have you jumped curves and pushed the technology enough?”

I think this is exactly what is happening. Everyone is pushing the technology, and that is a really exciting thing. But without a coherent, game-changing educational mission, an EdTech company on its own may just be pushing the technology. That’s not really enough.

You need a little more “V.”

What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”

Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?

Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.

The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?

Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  • Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;
  • Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;
  • Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;
  • Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;
  • Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;
  • Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;
  • Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.

When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.

Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.

Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”

Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.

Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).

Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.

What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).

Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .

It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.

What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  • Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.
  • Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.
  • Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.

The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”

I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.