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Future of K-20 Education – NEASC

“Our children are not necessarily poorly educated— they have been miseducated— we have educated them for an economy that may or may not exist anymore.” -Zhao
In attending the NEASC annual conference for the first time, I expected to hear about learning as it relates to accreditation.
It was refreshing to find a rich discussion about the future of learning across the K-20 pipeline as presented by Yong Zhao. Zhao was a very engaging speaker in the plenary session on Thursday, making some powerful points about, at its crux, the organization of our educational system for a different sort of economy— one which creates good employees— but for jobs of the past, not jobs of the future. Also some humorous points about the main “readiness” he is concerned with is “out-of-basement readiness” of college grads, ie, the financial, emotional, and social independence of college graduates to embark in the workforce.
In attending the student panel organized with or by Zhao on Friday as well, first— it’s always refreshing to hear learners’ perspectives on the teaching and learning process. We did that at our own Summer Tech Institute (thanks to one of our designers who organized it) and it was really eye-opening to faculty and really shifts the power of student voice in a pivotal way. So first, it is great to give voice to the student experience by putting students on the stage to discuss their learning experience.
In the course of the student panel, Zhao challenged the students to describe opportunities where they have engaged in authentic problem-solving, which connects to their community and demonstrates their talents to the world. The students conceded that for the most part, most of school is about contrived problems that meet the needs of the teacher (employer) but not the greater society.
I was glad too, that Zhao made mention of the difference between learning and credentialing. A challenge for disrupting the education system is that schools, by and large, exist as credentialing organizations, which as a greater mission seek to educate, but do so by identifying and breaking down milestones along the way which generally reduce learning to credentials. There are also real barriers to creating authentic problems for students— not insurmountable ones— but real logistical challenges, depending on the subject area. Really, the only path towards making this vision realistic is new ways of working across education — collaborations, partnerships, interdisciplinary etc. that will also fundamentally disrupt how we teach and administrate schools. Lastly is always for me the question about whether society (all stakeholders, including students themselves) really is ready for everyone to have this sort of empowering education.
For me, this feels like a topic that is often at the fringes of educational discourse, and it was great to see it front and center at NEASC.
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Analytics and institutional strategic planning – research synopsis

As I prepare for an upcoming SCUP North Atlantic presentation on blended learning and planning, I’m reviewing the literature on learning analytics and its influence on  planning.

This article: Numbers Are Not Enough. Why e-Learning Analytics Failed to Inform an Institutional Strategic Plan in Educational Society, 2012 describes one institution’s approach to analytics where very detailed data was pulled to understand how users were interacting with the learning management system (LMS). The university also pulled grade (student achievement) data from the system to be used in the analysis. It is also worth noting that in addition to the financial investment required of accessing this additional data, they had a large advisory committee with senior leadership and widespread campus representation. This committee was then charged with the planning process to choose the next learning management system.

The article points out that although these analytics were ostensibly to be used in the strategic decision-making process in selecting the institution’s next LMS, that did not happen. As the authors note, instead of focusing on the “initial state” described by the analytics data, the committee focused on “ease of migration.” While that is not surprising, it would have been interesting to see if there was a missed opportunity for someone to reframe the debate through the course of discussion. Should someone have been tasked with reminding the committee periodically of this data? Of course the cost and ease of migration is a critical concern when considering a large transition; however, the initial state data could have been used to bridge a key point that the authors go on to make.

This key point is that the analytics data supports a “transmission” based understanding of learning instead of a community of practice or connectivist view of learning. Through researchers recognize the importance of peer-peer social connectedness online, those connections were not critically clear in the initial data.  One might draw a larger distinction between technology-enhanced versus online courses in this case. If a course has face-to-face meeting, it would be very reasonable to expect that most of the interaction in the LMS is with content. Another consideration is that perhaps LMS data best captures time-on-task related to content moreso than collaborative efforts. For example, savvy students might construct responses to discussion questions off-line, and thus a quick response on the discussion forum might not reflect the time engaged on-task.

Still, this data might also lead to questioning the pedagogical underpinnings of the learning management system. If the baseline data shows that there is more interaction with the content and the institutional philosophy is that cultivating engagement with the community is a priority, they could choose an LMS that supports that function more visibly and use the next round of data to measure effectiveness of this solution. Of course, it could be that LMS’s in general have similar functionality in that regard and that a comprehensive professional development plan to encourage course design that prioritizes interaction and engagement with peers might be just as effective.

It’s also advantageous that the committee had access to grade data and the correlation of student achievement to every single aspect of LMS tool use that they studied clearly shows that the longer a student engaged with any aspect of the course, their grades reflected this.

Despite the limitations of the analytics derived from the system, they are still an important baseline on which to measure the success of endeavors to improve teaching and learning with technology.

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Making learning visible and connectivism

I’ve stepped out of the twitter conversations a bit, or a lot, and f I haven’t done as much reading and following along with the conversation as I would like, so apologies to the #rhizo14 community. I read Simon’s blog post “Enabling the Future” and it is beautifully written, which is to say, it takes the reader down a path that might be shared by many potential learners who sit before you if you are a teacher in a formal classroom, or who sit beside you if they are a fellow learner in a fellow classroom, and they haven’t bought into the value of sitting with their hands folded waiting amongst three hours of class time for the 10 minutes that really connects them to the learning. They are not interested in having knowledge transmitted– they want to be part of learning experiences that engage them in the world. I particularly love this aspect of the description, though:

I was fortunate to have done my early teaching in a progressive language school which allowed me sufficient freedom to deal with all sorts of uncertainty. I learnt the eclectic way: teaching blind and sighted students together, teaching, around 1992, an evolving group of mixed-level unemployed learners. Learners would arrive at different times, with completely different backgrounds, objectives,  levels. Frankly the idea of people turning up ‘mid-course’ was my normality, similarly the idea of community being the curriculum.

The bold above is my emphasis. Certainly, having learners physically arrive in a classroom at different points in a curricular progression is challenging to manage, but when the learning target is language, even if all the learners started the first day with the same lesson, they would all start with different skills and prerequisite knowledge anyway. It’s always been funny to me that we assume that by having the shared learning experience together, we somehow level the playing field. What I’m saying is the attitude represented above is helpful in any learning environment.

Also, the pedagogical orientation matches the subject area: Language must be learned by interacting with a community. It’s an ideal match for a loose pedagogical construct that values the contributions of learners and strives to meet everyone where they are at when they enter the community. The only way to gain communicative competence in a language classroom is through interacting with others. Still a constant influx and outflow of learners is very challenging. I’ve also taught in this sort of language-learning environment as well, and it was ok, but I always felt that everyone learned in spite of the chaos.

What about other areas of study, though? What about science, where concepts are necessarily sequenced and expertise wouldn’t typically be encountered through daily interactions with others. Some people can be really motivated by being in an environment that stretches them, whereas others might be intimidated by this and feel overwhelmed and choose to be disengaged rather than “fail.” An advantage that most educators prefer about a required set of shared experiences is that it gives some control over the “inputs”– we can say that we specific video clips together and engaged in 10 hours of discussion together and read xyz pages of text as a requirement. However, even with similar inputs, the outcomes could vary significantly, so why is everyone so confident in the value of a shared experience in terms of its production of outcomes, rather than its creation of a set of shared inputs?

I think the reason why is nicely summarized in the comments of Stephen Downes’ recent post Theories Related to Connectivism:

In transmission theories, learning is taught. In construction theories, a learning environment is created, and learning is created by the students.

If we focus on the inputs, we can control the process– “learning is taught.” For educators who are constructivist, but concerned with contact hours, I would ask why? Why wouldn’t the focus be on outcomes and having students demonstrate their learning?

This also leads me to a question about connectivism. Connectivism is a relatively new term, coined to describe how learning is constructed in a social network. Social network analysis has its first origins in the late 19th century, but with  digital application in the 20th century. Digital artifacts and new methods to make visible connections and learning artifacts. Should an element of connectivism be that a learning environment is created and learning is created and made visible by the students? Is there an element of connectivism that is tied to showing and demonstrating the connections and construction of knowledge, which is increasingly facilitated by digital tools?

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Uncertainty, redefining “failure,” and the importance of prototypes

As I caught up with tweets and blog posts after taking a few days away, I saw the word failure crop up quite a bit.

I particularly loved @cris2B ‘s suggestion to teach in beta. I see this piece as redefining a perception of “failure” in teaching and learning.

Also, the piece about filter failure resonates…it sounds like this is a useful type of failure to encourage as well since it might stretch our perspective.

I would love to see a shift in how everyone sees the learning process, a separation between formative and summative assessment (in the minds of learners as well as teachers), and infusion of creativity and risk-taking throughout the learning process to better prepare people for the summative assessments (which ideally would be performance-based–but that could be a whole other post).

I’m going to take this out of the classroom to edtech/instructional design/media development. Within this space, there is a need for innovation, creativity, and iteration. While I’m not sure there was ever a time where every detail could be tested before a launch, now the development timelines are tight. Often with technology integration projects, one has to design and teaching in beta, if for no other reason than the technology is continually evolving. But beta can’t feel like beta either– it has to be well-thought out and good enough for prime time. We need to borrow from past success to have solid, tested elements and then continually push the envelope with another piece of the design to continually expand and improve and create new opportunities. The best teachers and learners are always going to be looking for that 10%, and as facilitators in this process we need to look for these opportunity and recognize them, even when (maybe especially when), it’s the pedagogy that’s pushing the technology to adapt. There needs to be a space for technology development to finally take seriously the needs of learning design.

A design model that helpfully incorporates the idea that a first pass at design is the rapid prototyping model.
Rapid prototyping allows for more frequent input from stakeholders, opportunity to clarify critical points in the design process. It can be helpful for identifying “failures” before they occur— those these might (and often are) constraints in how workflows and interactions can work within available technologies.

Is this how this SHOULD work? No, in an ideal world, we would be able to construct virtual learning environments with the specific affordances that will enhance the learning we wish to foster. In a sense, our physical environments aren’t always or even often constructed in ways that foster learning, but we have gotten better at intentionally designing physical space (with University of MN being at the cutting edge of evaluating this). Just as physical space has constraints, technical “space” has constraints and specific affordances and characteristics that must be accounted for in a design.

But in the classroom and learning experience itself, let’s look for ways to recast “failure” as a necessary step in learning to be creative and iterative.

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Outliers and Alzheimers

Last weekend, I suddenly craved reading some good old-fashioned print books. As the weekend got started, I felt like I really should be doing something besides reading electronic sources, so when we went to the library, I picked up two books– Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Now, one thought I had was that I would be demonstrating a better habit for my daughter since I would clearly be reading a book instead of staring a computer, but at one point, she grabbed the book I had set down and hid it in the other room, so as far as she is concerned, ipad or book– it’s all media and it distracts from what is truly interesting, ie, her– so I’m not sure this change was well-received.

That aside, both of these books were fast reading and seemingly about very different issues and yet I’m going to stitch together a synopsis that interconnects them. Outliers posits that there is no “self-made” man (and I do think man is appropriate, since the only example of a female success in the book is the author’s mother). The thesis of outliers is that where success occurs, there is someone who is smart, hardworking, and tenacious, but who also just happened to be born at the right place and time for his/her particular brand of success. A slightly more subtle message of the text is that in a lot of cases, if society created rules, systems, and structures that helped level the playing field, there would be even more opportunity for people. In a sense, Gladwell’s thesis about outliers is, in itself, born in the western narrative of meritocracy. If we didn’t have that narrative, there’s no need to refute the idea of being “self-made.”

In contrast, Still Alice is a fiction work written from the perspective of a very accomplished and successful professor who finds herself diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. One could say that the underlying message of the book is that it doesn’t matter who you are, if Alzheimer’s is in the cards, there will be no escaping its unraveling (at least now, but stay-tuned for medical developments).

If societal zeitgeist is the fodder for the economic success outliers, at the same time, the limits of our health and well-being are connected intricately to our place in space, time, and history. Glance at this infographic of the 10 most amazing inventions of the past 50 years, and there is reason to hope that diseases like cancer or Alzheimers will have cures. But that doesn’t help the one person right now– who doesn’t have access to educational experiences that will tap into their innate skills or who isn’t coached how to advocate for their needs in order to navigate the world or who has a deadly genetic combination that will unravel itself at some biologically predetermined point in time.

What both of these books hold at the center, though, is a real sense of privilege. Outliers is all about privilege– all sorts of privilege– intellectual, social, cultural and historical. How can a book about someone with Alzheimers be about privilege? The main character, a professor, a very intelligent woman, has a supportive family, can speak to medical professionals assertively, can advocate to the medical community for her human dignity. Now, in many ways, the book is also about a loss of privilege and a shift to moving from being independent to NEEDING to depend on others to make one’s way in the world.

I think this is a helpful place to approach learning broadly. When learning, everyone is both privileged and in need of a helping hand, with that balance shifting from moment to moment.

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Enforced independence – Week 2

Self-motivation, self-regulation, ownership of learning — these are all characteristics of effective learners.

As Dave notes in the introduction to the week, the goal would be to have learners who say, “I don’t know what this is, I’m going to find out what this is” and to think about their responsibility for their own learning in a different way.

What I hear in this statement is that an important characteristic of the learning experience is the cultivation of volition, the conative domain. What inspires people to have the drive to keep trying, to persevere? How can that be fostered?

I appreciated @barry_dyck ‘s description of supporting learners in setting their own learning goals in their own areas of interest. The description and the overall suggestion of the need for students to self-assess in the context of the theme of enforced independence reminded me, though, that self-assessment is great when there is an expert/mentor/teacher who can helpfully assess how to help a learner get to the next level. It’s very empowering to have learners engage with areas of personal interest to them and a faster path toward examining higher order thinking skills, problem-solving approaches, etc. that can be emphasized regardless of subject. Providing opportunities where learners engage with learning something of interest to them, in some instances could outweigh any other learning objectives. In a classroom where learners are choosing how to attain a beginning level of knowledge in a subject area, a teacher can help the learner navigate the meta-tasks of “how do I figure out something that I don’t know” and problem-solving skills and other fundamentals of being an effective learner. However, to get to an intermediate or advanced level of knowledge, the learner is going to need a mentor or coach or community that is willing– depending on the desired area of expertise– to assist with a roadmap to higher levels of expertise. A part of this knowledge is generalizable skills about how to learn or problem-solve, but this will be coupled with content knowledge in the desired skill set. Also, I think it’s helpful to think about what we really mean by self-assessment. Do we mean that the learner will assess their progress towards their learning goals or are they actually assessing their own knowledge? How can they know what they don’t know?

Barry’s scenario is a very specific context; what about in other learning contexts? When I think of traditional adult learning (undergrad, graduate experiences), some of the common approaches might be–

  • Allowing free choice for a project (with free choice varying anywhere from choosing the topic to choosing topic/modality of presentation, etc);
  • Opportunities for experiential learning requiring learners to apply key concepts to own experience; i.e., use of authentic assessment;
  • Inclusion of regular reflection cycle (modeling after Schon’s model of reflective practice or Kolb’s learning cycle);
  • Encouraging/rewarding effective use of social media, leveraging community, creating connections with experts
  • Creating a culture of risk-taking, rewarding reflective failure
  • Creating learning contracts
  • Peer review
    • Book Improving Assessment Through Student Involvement highlights several studies where the benefits of involving students in peer review are highlighted. When criteria are discussed in advance of assessment, student ratings align closely with instructor ratings. It is thought that the process of engaging in peer review provides students with more critical eye of their own work (p. 117)

A last note is that the traits of effective learners are (or should be) driven by intrinsic motivation, but for adult learners fear can be a powerful factor. It can be challenging to take risks, and the stakes get higher the more advanced one’s perceived skill level.  Self-efficacy and the ability to see oneself as able to move past potential obstacles is key to success in a range of learning environments. For those arriving in classrooms without this belief in their own agency, helping to create that belief should be the foremost objective (which is a way of coming full circle to really appreciate the power of the model Barry described).

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