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

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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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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

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Having just driven my sister to the Philadelphia airport, I am reminded of the value of education founded in general principles, rather than a rote memorization of steps to accomplish specific goals.

I grew up in Philadephia and I have no idea where I am or how to get there on most of my trips. This is doubly true when driving to the airport. I simply know a route (in the case of the airport, for many years all I knew was that if I got in a particular lane on the expressway, I would eventually end up at the airport). I don’t know the geography. If I had to leave my route for a detour (as I did a year or two ago), I would have no idea how to recover.

Compare this to my knowledge of Somerville, where I lived for nine months and drove far less than when I was in Philadelphia (and yes, the walking knowledge is part of my point). Somerville was the the third city in four years that I had lived in, and I had developed a different approach to learning the lay of the land than my approach to Philadelphia. I got lost. I got lost a lot. I printed out directions to every place I wanted to go, but when I thought I saw a shortcut or knew my way, I took it. Sometimes this went badly. But I rapidly developed a much better sense not just for routes, but for the entire geography of the city (I can’t speak to Boston, but this worked in Cambridge as well). I had taken enough wrong turns that I had a sense of how the streets were connected (even if I didn’t always know the names).

I started working in IT when I was in high school, supporting my school’s AppleTalk network and doing odd consulting gigs along the way. In the consulting, I had several regular clients who hired me to help them learn how to use their computers. These regular clients took copious notes as I explained to them how to perform various tasks on their computers (use a word processor, print, save a file). Those folks who noted down that the menubar was where actions (or, in one English teacher’s case, verbs) were stored, that each window represented a file on the hard drive, and so forth, were rarely heard from again: they had grasped the general principles of the situation. The ones who titled their notes “How to Save a MacWrite File” and then took step-by-step notes… those were job security. Not only did they tend to lose their notes (notes more akin to a treasure map than to knowledge), but they were unable to generalize from those notes to other related concepts like “How to Save a MacPaint File” or “How to Save an AppleWorks Spreadsheet” (and they weren’t entirely certain that a file and a spreadsheet were the same thing).

Why do I mention this? The takers of step-by-step notes, maps to the hidden treasure of the Save command were learning how to use their computers by rote memorization, with no real understanding of what they were doing or how discrete parts of the process they had learned could be applied to other, similar situations. They were driving to the Philadelphia airport.

When confronted with an alien technology (or landscape or process or culture), our natural inclination is to find out how to do the few specific things that we need to do (order food, print a paper, hail a taxi, etc.). If we learn those tasks in isolation, without learning the underlying and fundamental principles that define how that technology or landscape work, we continue to operate in alien terrain. It’s quicker and easier, initially, to have our cheat sheet than to probe the situation and figure out how the dang thing works.

The temptation when teaching students (or faculty) how to use technology is to provide the step-by-step directions, neatly illustrated with screenshots, describing how to perform X, Y or Z task that needs to be done for the assignment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself, even as recently as this fall (I tried to have the best of both worlds, describing the steps, but also what the steps were doing… but I have little confidence that anyone read those longer explanations under the time pressure of September and the start of classes). These cheat sheets prevent us and our students from learning how to use the system.

Earlier this fall, a fellow teacher described his approach to teaching his students how to use different web sites. He doesn’t. He gives them the URL of the main site, tells them what to look for, and gives them an evening to poke at it to figure out how to get the information they need out of it. They might collaborate and share their learning. They might intuit how the system works. They might not get it that first night and have to seek help from their peers. But they don’t have trouble with the second assignment: they have learned how the site works on that first evening.

This seems like an argument for teaching by not teaching. Rather, it is an argument for teaching by coaching, by presenting challenges to our students for which we have adequately prepared them and allowing our students to strive and succeed. The role of the teacher is not to be the master of all knowledge, but the sage adviser capable of guiding students to the knowledge. In practice, this is not easier but rather much harder than traditional teaching: it’s easy to tell someone else how to do something, to explain what you know so that they might understand it. It is much harder to create a situation in which genuine learning can take place, to not interfere while that learning is going on, and to help facilitate and process that learning during and afterwards.

This is the challenge for teachers of technology.

Rather than teaching our students how to use a specific technology to perform a specific task, we need to present our students with appropriate tools and background to learn to use those tools. Academic computing is often relegated to computer applications classes, where students learn skills devoid of context, or to specific projects where a student “learns PowerPoint.” Instead, we need to think more broadly: what are the academic computing skills that we wish for our students to have? How can we challenge our students to develop those skills? How will we know when they have attained this knowledge?

Do we want our students to learn to use Word and PowerPoint? Well, not really: I don’t care what programs they learn to use. Let’s rephrase the question: Do we want our students to learn how to develop and write about their ideas and present those ideas in a clear and compelling manner? Hell yes. We have several tools available to facilitate this, including Word and PowerPoint. But these are just tools. Offering a class in computer applications is like offering a class on pencils: everyone involved will want to gouge out their eyeballs by the second hour. These tools have to be learned as just that: tools, part of a process larger than themselves.

The great fear of teachers who are asked to use fancy pants technological tools in their classes is that they will need to know more about these tools than their students. I ask instead that teachers know more about the skills that they wish their students to acquire, and be willing to coach students towards honing those skills while using technology, rather than teach students to use specific tools.

Certainly a teacher can’t ask a student to use a tool with which they themselves have no familiarity. But if this is a tool that is supposed to help a student achieve and exhibit the desired skills, and the teacher is him or herself a master of those skills… shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the teacher to either a) be familiar with the tool or b) reevaluate whether or not the tool is itself useful to the skill? (I’m eating my own dog food on this one: I’m writing this blog!)

This fall I have worked with a number of teachers who want to learn specific tools to enhance their own teaching. This is how these tools will end up being taught, not because we have a mandate that all of our graduates should master the Microsoft Office suite. In much the same way that a history teacher who doesn’t use outlines for his or her own analyses is going to be less well-equiped to teach his or her students to use outlines, a teacher who doesn’t use technology is going to be ill-equiped to teach their students. (And, by corollary, leaders in schools should also be using technology to support their work with faculty — same reasoning: if it’s really a useful tool, we should be using it!)

All of this brings us back to the key point however: we don’t really learn until we have had to get ourselves unlost. And, as teachers, we need to be willing to let our students get lost. Not terribly, Robinson Crusoe, Moses-in-the-desert, talking-to-our-volleyball lost, but lost on the way from Someville to Cambridge. Define a bite-sized goal for our students and ask them to chew it on their own: ask them to learn to use a technology on their own. Give them a introduction, point them to the areas they will need to explore, and let them explore!

December 28th, 2007

Posted In: Educational Technology

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I have spent the past several weeks and months trying to a) get to know my new school and b) define a vision for academic computing that complements the goals of the school.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading online (and on dead trees) in an attempt to refine my own idiosyncratic vision into something that is supported by research and generally applicable. I have spent the past few days poring over Will Richardson’s Blogs, Podcasts, Wikis (it came out a couple of years ago: one interesting twist is that I did not intend to return to technology and education after my last experience, and so am finding myself playing catch-up this year).

My initial reaction to his introduction was to cast the book aside in exasperation: he articulated the standard shiny-eyed wonder at the potential for all of these wonderful web tools to revolutionize education, the world and probably the way we make french fries as well. Standard pie-in-the sky futurist-gibber. Groan.

However, that frustration, combined with a recent talk at school by Nicholas Negroponte, Bob Metcalfe and Lars Perkins on the topic “Computer Science is a Liberal Art”, reminded me that the reason we (or at least I) study computer science is because it provides a methodical approach to handling complexity. Academic computing is a complex problem. So, let’s start by defining the problem and then think about how to solve it. Top down design is a wonderful thing.

Richardson prompted me to think about blogs as an extension of scholarly learning. Scholarly work draws on diverse sources, reading each source critically with the intent of providing a analytic and well-supported interpretation or synthesis of the information. If computer science is all done with zeros and ones, then scholarly work is all done in the footnotes. If you think that scholarly works are dry, Edward Gibbon’s footnotes will change your mind, if not your life. Blogs as the outgrowth of annotated lists of links are, at their best, scholarly works — that is, assuming that the annotations are written by someone who has critically examined the links in question and provided a useful analysis, thereby contributing the a reputation-based validation of the information.

Combine these two ideas: a need to think through a complex problem methodically and a blog as a mode of scholarly discourse, and I suddenly have all the reason in the world to blog: I can put together my thoughts under the public scrutiny of my peers, drawing clearly on the ideas of my peers, while trying to work through complex design and logistical problems.

With this in mind, over the next several days I intend to take a serious swing at using this blog as an area in which to get my vision in order. I am thinking most about the desired outcomes of academic computing in high schools: what should a high school graduate be able to do with technology? (And how does this connect to other things that a high school graduate should be able to do?) The bullet points that I expect to expand upon over the next several days are:

I shall, understandably, endeavor to steer clear of identifiable specifics, leaving much of the logistics for my (private) wiki.

Updates: adding links for the bullet points.

December 27th, 2007

Posted In: Educational Technology, Ouroboros

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