and I'm all out of bubble gum…

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I’m at EduCon right now, and I’m always struck by the tools other people use that I’ve been missing out on. And always surprised by the tools I use every day that other people have never heard of. Skim is a great example of this. Here’s what I use.

January 26th, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology, How To

Tags: , , , ,

Having just bent my mind to thinking about some of the ramifications of changes in communication, I just came across this madly cool article on information visualization in the Christmas issue of the Economist (which, lets face it, is sort of like a double-issue of pornography for news-junkies).

January 2nd, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology

Tags: , , , ,

My first year teaching, a bright young thing just out of college, I spent the summer before-hand in a state of panic: I assumed that, having gotten a job teaching AP Computer Science, that I would now need to be an infallible expert in computer science. This level of pressure had me practically hyperventilating before my first class.

Fortunately, what gradually became apparent to me (and has been reenforced often since, even as recently as my most recent evaluation this fall) is that the value in my teaching (and, I presume, all teaching) is not in what I can explain to the students, but what I can help them explain to me. And things get really exciting when my students get to explain things to me that are new to me. In fact, the most freeing moment I have had in the classroom was the first time I said, “Gee, that’s a good question. I have no idea. Let’s figure it out.” The practice of working as a collaborative team to solve a shared problem is real, and it is true learning.

Previously, I alluded to the idea of being willing to get lost in the hinterlands on the way to our educational destination. In this scenario, the teacher serves as the knowledgeable and resourceful guide. My best service to my students is to help them prepare for that journey, to load them with the background knowledge they need to tackle real and challenging problems. In this, the question of how and what to communicate to my students arises. I don’t want to tell them too much, for fear that they will come to rely on me, rather than their own intellect, for answers. But I certainly don’t want to tell them too little, for fear that they will never emerge from the hinterland.

This fall, as my computer science class can attest, we have swung both ways, but I think we’re finding a happy medium. As we reach equilibrium in that state of my life, I am turning my attention more directly to the other part of my life, working with faculty on uses and goals for academic computing. And I find myself in a similar bind. What and how should I be communicating? In a previous incarnation of this position, at another school, I believe I said too much and limited the creativity and actual learning of my colleagues. At the same time, I cannot rely on my colleagues now, who are working the so-called “triple threat” while striving to consistently improve their own teaching, to just “figure things out” on their own.

I think that this is exactly the situation for which we must prepare our students: we want our students to be able to lead, but to be able to collaborate with their colleagues to achieve the best possible results. How then, do we prepare our students to do this? And can we use these same tools ourselves to accomplish these same goals for ourselves (surely we should be as good at this as we would like our students to be, and if we’re not… now is an excellent time to get better!)

I believe the first step is to actually consider the nature of the communication that we are doing and to try to use appropriate tools for the problems at hand. Traditionally we are used to face-to-face meetings (which occur in real and simultaneous time for all participants, in a single location), mail (snail or electronic, it amounts to an asynchronous discussion occurring in multiple locations), or some telephonic communication (simultaneous real-time discussions occuring in two different locations). These same basic limitations apply to our communication with even the latest technology (are we in the same location or different locations? Can we talk at the same time or different times? Will this conversation take place all at once or over the course of several communications?)

But we have new tools that let us make better use of both our synchronous and asynchronous time. Consider the process of developing a joint document (a proposal for a new course to be taught by a team of teachers, for example). With our triple-threat schedule, we may only be able to find one quick time for a face-to-face meeting, but we can use wikis and other shared document tools (e.g. Google Docs) to share a single, evolving draft of our writing. Technologies are coming into play to allow us to do the same for video and audio editting.

Similarly, if we want to work the kinks out of a new idea, we would normally try for a face-to-face meeting (with a whiteboard, of course). But what if we blogged the idea, and then the discussion takes place in the comment threads? The same conversation can now take place asynchronously. Or perhaps we want to thread several discussion topics together, as in a discussion board, allowing for more free-wheeling discourse. Or we would like to link together connected ideas in different threads with hyperlink references.

What this describes is a new paradigm for communication. Processes which are traditionally thought of as happening synchronously and face-to-face can now be done asynchronously and at a distance. And this is what we need to be preparing our students to do. And the tools that we can use as teachers to work together in an increasingly pressured educational environment to squeeze the greatest result out of our efforts.

This does not supplant our traditional communication approaches, which still have great strengths (tone, inflection and body language, anyone) but complements them, allowing us to collaborate in a broader array of challenging situations to get more done with greater coordination of effort and less coordination of schedule.

January 2nd, 2008

Posted In: Educational Technology

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