and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip (and it is, again, a bit FirstClass-centric, focused on some of our internal systems — we’re running a WPMU blog server and a MindTouch DekiWiki).

We won’t rehearse all of the problems with email attachments here (Can I open that file? What happened to my disk quota!? Which version was it?) Instead, let us focus on things that improve the experience. In fact, here’s a short video Top Ten list:

Links from the video

March 11th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I have long used Flickr for my own personal photo sharing needs — it’s pretty much a de facto standard in circles in which I travel: a clean interface, strong support for connections between Flickr and other Web 2.0 services, and very real support for innovation in terms of user-designed and coded add-ons. All this adds up to Flickr being a very flexible, very powerful photo sharing service.

My idea was that my students could get to know one of the standard photo sharing services as part of the new media design experience. Using Flickr would expose them to some of the new media concepts inherent in working with Web 2.0: hosting information online and then reusing that information in other forums (for example, embedding their Flickr-hosted pictures in blog entries on our blog server). As Flickr also supports sharing within groups, comment boards and tagging, my hope was to have the students engage with each other’s photos online via Flickr.

In Practice

Signing up for Flickr was a real challenge for my students. Partly this was because they needed more support from me in understanding how to sign up for access to a web site. Partly this was because Flickr is owned by Yahoo, so they needed to (confusingly) sign up for a Yahoo ID and then link that Yahoo ID to a new Flickr account. (I had signed up for Flickr so far back in the day that I hadn’t had to jump through those hoops — and had already had a Yahoo ID to link to my Flickr account when they merged). The sign up process provided an opportunity to discuss digital footprints and privacy online, to help my students think about both protecting their privacy (concurrent with the school’s legal obligations under FERPA) and about how they present themselves to future employers and the like.

My students also wanted a significantly more structured guide to how to upload photos and share them to our class group on Flickr. Note that I say “want” — they were not eager to explore and figure out features on their own (or to read the help documentation from Flickr itself). I gave them a (privately throw-away) assignment to post their first few pictures that only one student completed, who already had a Flickr account before the class.

When it came to linking our class blog to their Flickr accounts, my students also ran into difficulties. The process, while well-documented on Flickr, is somewhat technical and they did not have a clear enough idea of the purpose or desired outcome to really dig in and engage with the process. Plus, they had a lot of typos trying to enter the blog XML-RPC address by hand. It was not a confidence-inspiring performance. Similarly, when it came to posting to the class blog from Flickr, very few of the students really grasped that this was a one-click process — almost all opted for much harder (and, frankly, lower quality and more annoying, approaches to embedding their photos in the blog initially).

By and large, once photos were uploaded, students were successful in sharing those photos to the group photo pool. They were also good about going in and providing comments to each other, when assigned to do so. Interestingly, they could spend an entire class totally obsessed with flipping through each other’s photos online, but actually adding comments was not a voluntary instinct.

After the first few photo uploads, we ran into Flickr’s free account limitations (which, again, I had forgotten about because I don’t run up against them): only 20MB of uploads a month, only 200 photos per account maximum. Complicating this was that the Flickr interface (uniformly reliable in other environments), routinely hung when attempting to upload files from the media lab (probably having to do with the school firewall). Students would spend 20 minutes trying to upload three photos and find that the process had, in the end, failed. To get around this, by the end of the first quarter, I was uploading the lion’s share of the classes photos to my own Flickr account.

In addition, once uploaded, the photos in free accounts are not available at full resolution. My hope had been to use Flickr as a repository for the class’ photos. Instead, it was at best a secondary viewing area: the students didn’t have access to the full resolution images for editing purposes via Flickr. Worse, several of the students didn’t grok that they could download photos from Flickr at all and opted to take screenshots of the photos at very low resolution on the web. And then edit those screenshots. Rather than working with their original files. And I discovered this not because they asked me how to do this, but because I saw them at work editing the screenshots. Enterprising. Stupid, but enterprising.

Flickr did provide a great basis for discussion of photography, composition and style. Flickr’s gallery function allowed me to collect sample photos “live” from the web to present concepts and be the focus of class discussions. This could be a useful tool for having students do a photo scavenger hunt, for example.


I was distinctly underwhelmed by the experience of trying to use Flickr in the classroom. I think that there were really three things that were a marked failure in this:

  1. I really failed to anticipate all of the limitations of a free account on Flickr (and the complexity of needing a Yahoo ID to play the game at all). This was totally my bad: I knew all of these limitations, but either didn’t think that they would be an issue (“oh, we won’t take that many photos…”) or just didn’t process their ramifications (“20MB a month should be enough!”). I had actually looked around at other photo sharing sites, including Google’s PicasaSmugMug and using our FirstClass class conference and decided that Flickr provided the best interface and flexibility for what we were doing in class.
    In retrospect, I think I would have separated the photo sharing from the photo archiving plan and explicitly started my students off using the Classes share as a repository for all their images, and then having them post images directly to the class blog for discussion and portfolio purposes.
  2. I mistook “digital natives” for web experience. Which is pie on my face, since I’ve long made the argument that these are not one and the same, and that our students really benefit from our teaching in terms of critical analysis, literacy and just plain common sense online. The students just didn’t get how to sign up for an account on a web site online by themselves, and they weren’t really interested in learning. I should have structured that process differently, and, well, in a more structured manner.
    I think that I came in with misplaced expectations about both the background and attitudes of the students. I anticipated a more web-savvy crowd and they were not. In retrospect, I was rushing through much of my material at that point, trying to “stay on top” of the course outline as I understood it. Everyone would have been better served if I had taken a day or two out of my outline earlier in the semester to sit down and talk through:

    • Sharing files online. Literally: where are those files and how do you put them there.
    • Accounts on web sites, how to get them and how to use them
    • How different web sites can be made to work together.
  3. The school firewall and web filter did me no favors. As I learned over the course of the first quarter, any time that I decided to rely on sites not directly hosted by the school, I was in for a world of pain at some point along the way. Usually, this pain took the form of problems signing up to use the site (as happened with Flickr) or uploading content to the sight (as happened with Flickr). On the one hand, this is a strong reminder that the school does host a number of useful tools and that I should turn to those tools first, where appropriate. On the other hand, this was just infuriating — I was having experiences with web sites that I have not had ever before — and that I didn’t have when I left our campus network. They claim that the the home crowd is the 12th player on the field at football games. The school network was definitely the 12th player on the field in my classes this fall.
    Using external sites does raise very real and very consequential privacy concerns — and concerns that need to be presented clearly to faculty at the outset in the form of simple guidelines. The rule of thumb that students’ last names never appear online is great, and workable. But cutting us off from free and useful technology is really just exasperating.

In the end, I came away from this experiment feeling pretty dejected.

February 12th, 2010

Posted In: Social Media

Tags: , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I wanted to structure the feedback that my students presented to each other during our video critique. We often brainstorm the criteria that we will be using to review work as it is presented, and I post our criteria on the board or on the wiki as a reminder throughout the process. This time, I created a new Form in Google Docs and entered our criteria as questions. I then embedded the form in our class notes for the day, and each student filled out the form as we viewed video. I embedded the responses as a spreadsheet on a linked page, so that the the students could review the feedback they had received and post their responses to our class blog.

In Practice

Creating the form live went relatively smoothly — the only hang-up was my inability to type in public. Fortunately, the students were proofreading on the screen and caught me when I made errors. They were also able to help guide me when I got distracted and forgot what I was doing (“Mr. Battis, we’ve already got that question at the bottom of the screen…”).

It took very little instruction for the students to figure out how to use the form. The most complicated thing they had to do was refresh the page after they had submitted their feedback so that they could get a fresh, blank form for the next video.

We settled into a routine where I played each video through twice, once for them to watch, and once to remind them of details as they entered their feedback.


After we finished reviewing videos and posting feedback, I put the question to the students: was this better, worse or the same as having a verbal critique of the same material (which we had done in the earlier digital photography unit). The response, by and large, appeared to be that this was actually really helpful: there were enough things to pay attention to while watching the video that being able to take notes into the form let them not forget things that were important.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

For the last few years, I have found that, when appropriate, I get far more use out of my notes if I take them on a computer. Using the computer allows me to keep my notes organized, to instantly create links to related information (either within my notes or on the web), to flag my own questions as they arise (and unflag them as they are answered), to find ideas in my notes later (search is way faster than flipping through my notebooks and legal pads), to share my notes with colleagues and students, and to link to as references and resources in later iterations of documents.

In Practice

It’s not always kosher to have your laptop open in a conversation. If I take notes in a one-on-one meeting in my laptop, there is a real danger that I will be talking to my computer rather than the person I am meeting with. (Simultaneously, if I take the notes on my laptop, I am able to refer back to them more easily than in handwriting.) Personally, I have found that if I feel compelled to take notes by hand, that those notes are not going to make it into my computer except in extraordinary circumstances, and that the only service that paper notes have for me is as a memory aid (“the information has passed from at least one neuron to at least one other neuron, crossing at least one synapse in the process, giving you a faint hope of remembering the information.” — Duane Bailey).

If there are network connectivity problems (or battery power level issues), my notes may either not be available or may disappear entirely (as happened at one point this fall, taking notes on [a major collaborative project] presentation). This doesn’t happen with notebooks. However, referring back to the last paragraph… those notes would have gone into the ether anyway (for me at least) if I had taken them on paper.

I find that I am much more willing to share my digital notes than I would hand-written notes — not just because of legibility issues, although those are real, but also because when I share my notes, I share it with an expectation that the recipient will be adding some input to those notes, adding value for me as well.

I have also found that using the tagging feature of the wiki gives me a tool for taking attendance at a meeting — who was there, so that I can find notes based not just on content, but on the makeup of the meeting: “I know we discussed this in EdTech, I think Scott said something about it…”


As someone who spent years not taking notes on anything, simply remembering what was said to the best of my ability, I find that taking notes on my computer is a massive advantage: it allows me to empty my brain and forget things with confidence. And taking my notes in a wiki makes them instantly shareable and referable from any computer, anywhere. I love it.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.

In Practice

Shared Projects with Colleagues

I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.

When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).

Student Documentation of Process

Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).

The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.

Professional Development

One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.


At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I started off using this model in both my [high school] classes. I post an outline of the class to the wiki before class. At the start of class, as I discuss the agenda for the day with the students, I project the outline on the board. After discussing the agenda (my plan, their questions, etc.), I ask for three volunteers: one to take notes into the outline during class, one to review those notes for content before the next class, and one to review those notes for clarity before the next class. The content reviewer is responsible for correcting any mistakes (or omissions) that the original notetaker made. The clarity reviewer is responsible for proofreading and correcting the notes into a readable, standard English format.

In Practice

I found, almost immediately, that while the [media design] class was (grudgingly) willing to do the notetaking, the [computer animation] class revolted against it. The revolt in computer animation had a lot to do with the difficulty of simultaneously following along with the processes that we were learning in a computer modeling application and also keeping a browser window open and taking notes into the wiki. Theoretically, a dual display setup might have ameliorated some of those concerns (screen real estate was demonstrably at a premium as they were trying to use both applications, the browser and the 3D modeling tool). However, the real issue lay in the division of attention.

I have stopped asking the computer animation class to take notes into the wiki, but continue to encourage them to take their own notes (a practice that none of them engages in voluntarily — and their difficulty grasping new concepts reflects real difficulty storing the concepts for reflection, whether in their heads, their notebooks or their computers).

I have substituted somewhat more detailed notes of my own in the outlines for computer animation, or links to more detailed tutorials online covering the same concepts that we are learning in class, or links to screencasts demonstrating the concepts and processes we are learning in class. (One challenge that I have run into is that, using Blender, many of the tutorials and screencasts assume a great deal of prior familiarity with the materials, if not the tool, so I have been working on recording more basic level screencasts for that class).

On the flip side, we have settled into a routine in [media design] in which I ask for a notetaking team only on days when I know that we will be having a concept-based discussion/critique/lecture (as opposed to process or application-based lessons). A core of students have stepped up as fairly reliable notetakers, although I am working to spread the responsibility out across all students in the class — although I have set up no formal system of rotation (this lack of a formal system is actually based on previous experience with rigid rotations on what is, essentially, a creative task: it’s lousy. It works far better to set up an expectation that everyone will do it, and then ask for volunteers in the moment, while creating a (public) tracking system to ensure that no one is left out.

One issue that I have run into, particularly over a span of project-based lessons which are not discrete lessons but actually the continuation of a single idea (editing a video, for example), is that I lose track of time and forget to keep the wiki up-to-date. I focus my attention on the process occurring in class, rather than in documenting the process. Since my rationale for documenting the process is provide a resource for the students, this is deeply problematic and something that I need to address.


Early on, I realized that I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between concept-based and practice-based classes, and to create different models for collaborative notetaking in each of those environments. My computer animation class did well in articulating their frustration (mostly) respectfully, and speaking up for their own needs and learning styles.

I have not incorporated the notetaking into the students’ grades (which was, really, something that slipped my mind), framing the notetaking not as an assignment, but as a collaborative study tool. I’m not sure that this is a winning motivator for students. I think it works in my [media design] class because they are a) intrinsically interested in the material at a more conceptual level and b) generally a year or two older on average than my computer animation class. That maturity is reflected across the board — preparation, classroom demeanor, participation, actual product. It would, of course, be easy to connect a grade to participation in the notetaking (do some math, figure out how many times everyone needs to do it to cover the semester or quarter and assign it that many times).

The other missing component, and this has much to do with my teaching style, is adequate review of the student notes, to provide feedback on quality (and quantity). Early(er) in the year, I should have dedicated much more of a class period to going over the previous period’s notes and pushing each of the members of the notetaking team to be more accountable. To be honest, the switch from meeting my classes 4-5 times a week to 2-3 meetings (yay for changing schools!) left me running ragged trying to keep up with material, and process fell by the wayside.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

As part of my education technology role at my school, I am a member of our high school “Laptop Leaders” group. A few weeks ago, at the end of our first quarter, the Laptop Leaders were asked to document the work they were doing, to create a shared resource, both for themselves and for other teachers. Ultimately, this is preparation for more large-scale adoption of laptops and technology in general as teaching tools in the high school.

The teachers in this Laptop Leaders group were selected last spring, so I joined the group late, at the beginning of the school year and had, really, only a sketchy plan for what I would be working on. The outline (lightly revised) is below. My intention is to share my various write-ups related to this process in this space.

Collaborative Writing and Editing

I’m working with students to develop a class wiki as a collaborative information source, with students contributing class notes, screencasts and other updates and expansions on course content.


I’m working with students to use the class blog as a publication platform for ideas/questions relevant to the greater community in their discipline (e.g. develop [my class] blog into a discussion of [media and design] and related ideas in the outside world).

Social Bookmarking

I’m working with faculty (and students) to use social bookmarking tools (specifically Diigo) to create dynamic and annotated resources for each other (and for and by students).

Social Media

I’m working with faculty and students to develop personal learning networks that tie together all of these Web 2.0 tools to create an online identity and a group of “fellow travelers” studying and exploring the same area. In students’ case, we’re working on this as a class (blogging), but for faculty tools like Twitter (and personal blogs) may also be useful. Also looking at other sharing sites (e.g. Flickr) for use as collaborative tools.

Useful Tools

In the interests of sharing, when I was at my last school, I sat down and created an profile of the handy applications that I use day-to-day. I’ve added this to my profile [on the school wiki], along with a (slowly growing) list of tools that I’ve built for special purposes around school.

Updated November 22, 2009: I should mention that I have Bowdler-ized some of these posts to protect (at least a little), the identities of my students. When posted to our school wiki, there are a number of links to examples. If you pop me an email or a comment and identify yourself, I’m happy to share these examples. Just trying to do some due diligence with regard to my students’ privacy.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Educational Technology, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nate Kogan, writing about his plans for “classroom 2.0” collaborative writing assignments in his history classes in the coming year, notes student resistance to working collaboratively:

While many students seem to dislike group work, I think the resistance stems more from the fear of being saddled with all the work by one’s potentially indolent group-mates rather than from inherent resistance to collaborative work.

[Full disclosure: Nate is my brother-in-law, and I have been following his thoughts about teaching with technology with some interest all summer.]

While studying for my M.Ed., I found myself revisiting the role of student full-time after a decade-long hiatus: it brought me back to the classroom with fresh eyes. The process raised two big pedagogical questions for me:

  1. How do I teach my students to ask questions? Not even good questions, just questions. I realized that, as a long-time A student, I’d never spent much time confused, and therefore hadn’t had to spend much time figuring out how to get unconfused. Over the course of my studies, I realized that this might be the most important thing that I, as a high school teacher, might be teaching any of my students. And, never having been taught (or, at least, never having noticed being taught — merely encouraged to just do it) how to learn reflectively and ask questions that clarify and resolve my areas of confusion… I was (am) a little at sea about how one teaches this intentionally.
  2. How do I teach my students how to work collaboratively? This is, after all, what the real world is about. It’s vanishingly unlikely that my students will find a role for themselves in which they don’t have to work with other people toward a shared goal (okay, one or two of them may turn out to be costumed superheroes or reclusive, genius novelists… but the vast bulk are going to have to play well with others).

I think that these two questions are related: working collaboratively with peers creates a more free-flowing and less performance-anxiety-inducing environment than working independently and presenting to the teacher (and one’s classmates). Or, at least, it can. That environment could, if the stars align and sufficient support and guidance is provided, even result in an setting in which students are free to debate, critique and improve each other’s work. That is, they could learn how to reflect on what they’ve learned and ask questions of each other about that work and the progress that they have made.

In graduate school, I had a wealth of group project experiences. The least successful was my year-long “school developer” project that was, effectively, my master’s thesis with a group of four other students working with a local elementary school to develop a strategic plan for expansion from K-5 to K-8. Lord, this experience was miserable, partly because my Meyers Briggs profile was the complete inverse of my teammates, and partly because we had no idea what we were doing as a team and were thrown into trying to do things before we actually were a team. (It calls to my mind my panicky, parental feelings of inadequacy when my classes have to interact with outsiders early in their time together — I don’t trust them enough to believe that they’ll be presentable, and they don’t trust me enough to believe that I haven’t set them up for a fall or for boredom.) Long story short, the team suffered from terrible group dynamics, mission creep, lousy communication with our “client” school, confusing feedback from our peer teams and professor, and unclear end goals for both the class project and the school’s mission.

The most successful team of which I was a member was actually formed to write a single collaborative paper over the course of the semester. The professor, Janice Jackson — a former elementary school teacher and district administrator and all-around mensch — spent the first half of the semester devoting significant portions of class to not only teaching about group dynamics in the abstract, but giving us time as teams to work through those very dynamics as we learned about them. By the time we had any kind of work for which we were accountable, we were, quite honestly, a little tired of meeting and exasperated at Prof. Jackson. It all felt excessive. However, when we sat down to do our research and write it up, it turned out that all of our (very diverse) Meyers Briggs personalities meshed, that we each had clear roles within the group that we had explicitly negotiated, that we had clear expectations both of each other that we had explicitly stated and of what our end result should be (that we had proposed and had approved by Prof. Jackson, explicitly), and that we felt safe working through early drafts of our paper sections together and receiving what was sometimes drastic criticism and demands for reworking.

The process matters. It really, really matters. And that class with Prof. Jackson was the first time that I had ever worked in a group in an academic setting that had consciously set aside (or had set aside for it) time to figure out how to be a group. That that experience was bolstered by conceptual background in group dynamics surely didn’t hurt. Prof. Jackson gave us both the time and background to develop clear understandings of both the norms of our group and our own roles within the group. And this idea of understanding one’s role in the group, and trusting one’s collaborators to fulfill their own roles and responsibilities, is key to successful collaboration. Without that trust, one ends up either abdicating all responsibility (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — there’s no way we’re going to do well, why should I try?”) or striving to fill in all the perceived gaps (“yeesh, what a bunch of clowns — if I want it done right, I’ve got to do it myself.”).

So, how to develop this experience of a trusting, collaborative project with high school students? They’re certainly at a different developmental place than I was at 30 (well, I hope they are — mostly for my sake). I don’t think that loading them down with all the conceptual background and vocabulary that we received from Prof. Jackson will make a sale to them. But I do think that striving to develop that environment of trust and delegation among teammates, with clear understanding of roles is worthwhile.

I’ve tried to do this in a number of settings. When I was working at as an outdoor, experiential educator, I found that large group projects could be done well by delegating specific roles within the project to specific students, thus providing clear accountability for specific portions of the project. My preferred iteration is to work with the students to develop a top-down design (what Wiggins’ confusingly refers to as a “backwards design”) that parcels out the work into self-designed and allocated responsibilities. One iteration of this was to present a large question to the group (“How does human management impact the ecosystem?”) and then help each student develop an area of expertise within the larger question (water, birds, tourism, sound, etc.). The wrinkle is that no student can accurately predict a topic in which they will maintain an abiding interest throughout the project, and therefore slippage and shifting will occur and needs to be negotiated gracefully.

Another approach, which I used last year with my Application Design class as we were working to build a CNC lathe, was to break the project apart into modules with the class, and then solicit volunteers for small teams to tackle each module. We prioritized the modules, and each student was responsible for shifting from module to module as they were interested or the module needed development to support dependent modules of other teams. Students were encouraged to engage with other teams, and sometimes shifted from team to team based on changing interests, but there was always a core student or pair of students who was, at the end of the day, managing each module and responsible at least for rallying other students to that module’s cause.

In both cases, I found that developing clear (and concise — unlike this entry) roles for the students in collaboration with the students gave them significantly more buy-in. Students who engaged with the project were able to throw themselves into it without fear of having to “carry” their peers (each student’s contributions were documented along the way — automatically by Google Code, in the case of the CNC lathe project), and, in fact, over-achieving students tended to provide a catalyst for under-achievers: they asked thoughtful and critical questions, provided assistance and generally raised the intellectual atmosphere a notch or two. Simultaneously, the multiplicity of roles and modules provides enough overlap that if one or two students totally peace out, the rest of the team can gnash their teeth briefly and move on without being hindered or damaged. Where successful, I found that I had students who were pushing me to do more research to support their work and that I was relying on their work and questions to lead the class.

In both cases, I also took some significant time out both early on and throughout the project to step back, examine and work through group dynamics. Not necessarily conceptually, but pragmatically working to resolve issues and grudges (and, not insignificantly, to celebrate and highlight successes). While I strongly encouraged my students to hold each other accountable and to work issues with their teammates out with their teammates, I was also a consultant to individual exasperated students on how to do this, and a general-purpose umpire for the whole team, calling time-out when it looked like a brawl (or tears) was brewing. In my umpire role, I was also able to highlight particularly good or interesting work by individual students or teams for the entire class, providing a clear model of the desired outcomes and behaviors.

August 11th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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Andrew Watt’s response to Sarah Fine’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post captures much of what resonated in her piece with me as an independent school teacher: the challenge of simultaneously charting one’s own career and life goals while working towards institutional goals which may be formulated, articulated and executed with varying levels of clarity and thoughtfulness. I think we can simply stipulate that administrative transparency and collaborative decision-making go a long way towards both better decisions and teacher longevity. (It’s really hard to imagine wanting to stay at a job where your responsibilities are both out of your own hands and unpredictable, right?)

What gave me pause was the throw-away thought at the end of Watt’s response:

The other side of this equation is the revolution in technology.  Whether they’re technophilic teachers who embrace tech but chafe against daunting rules and regulations, or technophobes who fear so much as a cellphone in a student pocket, teachers are right to see computers, cellphones, and the Internet as a threat to their existence.

Because there are learning resources out there now which are better than at least some teachers, in some subject areas.  The range and depth of these offerings are only going to increase.

I. Am. Not. On. Board. With. This.

And it’s not because I’m a raging technophile (which I am), or because I cling to an older model of teaching and classrooms (granted, I want to grow up to be Frank Boyden). It’s because I believe that teaching is not about content-delivery. Teaching is about helping students learn. And the best way for students to learn is to work (and play and live) with adults who espouse and model learning, how to learn and joy in learning.

Yes, technology is changing how we deliver content — and how we manage our classrooms, and how we assess student work, and how we research, and what sort of work counts as “work” by and for our students. And automobiles replaced the horse, the printing press replaced scribes, machines replaced craftsmen, etc. Change happens. The role of the teacher, however, remains essentially the same: facilitate, support and develop the learning process for students. How that work is done may change dramatically, but it is fundamentally the same goals with new techniques.

Teachers aren’t going to become superfluous because of technology. They’re going to become more necessary. They are more necessary.

[N.B. This is not an indictment of technophobe teachers. Suffice it to say that one of the real joys of my job in the past few years has been to engage in collaborative learning with master teachers who self-identify as technophobes. As we discuss how technology might support their teaching goals, I simultaneously learn a great deal about how to formulate and evaluate those goals, with masterful techniques demonstrated. Thank you! More on this at another time.]

August 10th, 2009

Posted In: Teaching

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Shelly Blake-Pock just posted a question on his blog about teaching math in a paperless environment (in fact, since I started gearing up to respond, he’s posted some follow-ups as well).

Last year, wearing my math teacher hat (nominally given to me as a member of the Math & Computer Science department — normally only worn on the most formal occasions), I got involved in a project with my department trying to work with our students to develop a mathematical Wikipedia. The idea was that kids would write up their mathematical knowledge for the younger students and their classmates, creating a review site focused on what the students thought was important to know about the material we were covering in class.

The big idea was that this would push the students to both reflect on what they knew (as they worked to articulate it for less experienced students) and take part in some independent learning (as they researched their topics to figure out how to write them up). It wasn’t really a rousing success, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the kids were assigned topics (rather than selecting their own) and ended up mostly parroting their textbook into the wiki. There wasn’t any real collaboration or peer-review going on, at least not in a really critical sense (“Why did you explain it the way the text book does? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now… do you get it?”)

However, Brian Lester and I got excited about the idea of how one would pursue this project from a mechanical standpoint: how would you post mathematics in an editable, readable and shareable way on the web? We went through a number of permutations, but the solution that I think contains all of the desired mechanical qualities is this: use MathML. There’s a handy [take-a-deep-breath-this-is-about-to-be-a-lot-of-jargon] Javascript ASCII-to-MathML translator library online from Peter Jipsen at Chapman University. It works really well: you type in text as you would on a calculator and it gets typeset as you would see it in a professionally printed text. And you can go back and edit it.

MathML requires a plug-in for Internet Explorer 7 (no idea about 8, but I’ll bet it still needs the plug-in), but Firefox can read and parse MathML natively. Peter Jipsen has links to some helpful fonts to download to make it all look a little nicer, but they’re truly optional. Once it’s set up on your server, you just include a magic incantation at the beginning of the page to invoke the translator, type in your calculator equations, and whamm-o: pretty equations!

Now, this only handles equations on the web. We didn’t get to graphs or diagrams in our experiments last year. But I can tell you where I would look for graphs — Google has an embeddable chart generator that might work. I hope there are other similar tools.

Again, all this is with the stated goal of readable, editable, shareable mathematics online. This doesn’t address doing the exploratory work: this is the write-up and reflection after the exploration. Without a tablet, I’m not convinced that one can do general mathematical work on a computer. And with a tablet, I’d add FluidMath (still in beta, I think) to the list of must-have applications.

August 4th, 2009

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

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