Friday, August 28, 2009

Links on play + link on distraction

Here are a few links on the importance of play in learning, especially for younger children. The first is an op-ed piece from the New York Times about baby smarts, Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think.

And then some follow-up comments.

And there's this related 2008 NPR story, Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills by Alix Spiegel (thanks Roberta!)

Finally, apropos my earlier post related to attention / distraction, there's this link from Russ Revzan's "Thoughts of Russ" blog:

Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows

(Russ works with CUIP, the Chicago Public Schools - University of Chicago Internet Project, advising schools on how to make the most of their new technologies).


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beyond textbooks

Some links from today's (8/9/09) New York Times:
In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History

Beyond Textbooks

CK-12 Foundation: "CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the U.S. and worldwide. Using an open-content, web-based collaborative model termed the 'FlexBook,' CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality educational content that will serve both as core text as well as provide an adaptive environment for learning."


Friday, August 7, 2009

An open-ended inquiry webquest

Webquests are typically examples of guided inquiry. The webquest defines a task for the student, and takes the student step-by-step through the quest. In the better webquests, students have some leeway in terms of outcomes and procedures. Even better webquests rely on student direct observation, perhaps through hands-on experiments or observing artifacts available on the web (e.g., investigating movies, animation, old radio programs, or even webquests).

In an earlier post, I looked at the relationship of webquests and open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry looks more like real science-in-practice. It requires the student to develop their own questions and methods of investigation. It also requires a more delicate role for the teacher -- guiding the student, but not telling or directing too much. The student is on his or her own path of discovery.

The assumption then is that, all things being equal, open-ended inquiry is better than guided inquiry. With that in mind, I put together a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of a webquest. I identified five parameters to assess:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Goal is to acquire concrete concepts
  5. Capable of maintaining student interest

Most webquests that I have looked at score rather low: they generally don't provide questions that aren't open-ended questions, and they often don't rely on direct observation.

Given the nature the webquest format, is an open-ended inquiry webquest possible? What would it look like?

Here is a link to my effort, called Knowledge Explorer. You also need to look at the accompanying Teaching Guide, and in particular the "Important note" to make sense of what the webquest does.

The subject matter is not so important, I don't think, as long as it is capable of attracting the interest of students. Social justice pedagogy suggests that you start with something from student popular culture (see earlier blog posting). Since the world is interconnected, the in-depth investigation of any social phenomenon will provide insight to the whole if the various connections are pursued critically. So in general terms, Knowledge Explorer is about exploring a commodity of interest to the student. In my specific case, it is a snack food of the students' choice, but I suppose this could easily be opened up to starting with any commodity of the student's choosing.

The quest begins with a focused examination of the physical commodity, allowing questions to arise from that. (This is one part of the direct observation.) This part of the investigation relates to the methods of qualitative science; you can read more about this if you want in a piece I did called Talking with History.

The student then develops his or her own questions out of the direct observation and designs a research strategy to investigate the questions. At this point the teacher must intervene in the webquest to support the student's investigation. The teacher can (and thinking about it, should) support the investigation face-to-face by asking probing questions, how-type questions and so on (see the Teaching Guide for examples taken from An Inquiry Primer by Alan Coburn).

The new part in this webquest is that support and scaffolding can also be done via the webquest. Technically this is done using a dynamic web page (specifically, some trivial PHP code). The teacher places files of HTML code snippets in folders assigned to each student group. Students select the Process page for their group; as the page loads the web server scans the group's folder for any snippet files, and displays the contents of the group-specific snippets on the group's page. Rather simple, and should not be too difficult for a teacher with moderate web page design skills. I realize that that might be too much of an assumption -- the code skills might automatically exclude most teachers from using such a webquest.

At this point, the Knowledge Explorer webquest is a hypothetical, and needs to be shaken out in the classroom. Let me know if you are interested.

I have no idea how this will go over in practice. One issue I see is true of all open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry requires more effort on the part of the teacher, because it requires closer work with the students, monitoring their progress, anticipating their needs, getting into their thinking deeply enough to plant suggested avenues of investigation without explicitly telling the students. Which sounds like the way things should be. But it is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Time which teachers rarely, in my experience, feel like they have. The attraction, I think, of traditional guided-inquiry webquests is that they allow some measure of higher order thinking exercises with little or no extra work on the part of the teacher. Even better, teachers can use existing webquests developed by other teachers, too often I expect, with no modifications. The webquests succeed, in some little way, of automating the teaching process. To bring the teacher back to the center of the webquest in the spirit of open-ended inquiry means giving up the time-saving, automated benefit of the webquest.

This is one of the knotty dilemmas of digital technology-supported pedagogy. Digital technology offers the possibility of extending the teacher's reach (e.g., via automations like webquests), but to be used with optimal effectiveness, the wits and insights of the teacher must be brought back to the center of the teaching process.

There is no royal road -- or automated one -- to education.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Virtual science education

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

So William Gibson began his classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. That sentence captures the inversion -- or is it sublation? or negation? of the human-nature relationship. Human-made technology is not like nature. No -- the opposite is the case. Nature is now like our technology. Our technology has become the reference point, more real than nature. Our life around and in technology has become more primary, a more recent and ready reference point, and in that sense more real, than our experience with grass, breeze, sunlight, woods, robins, etc. etc. Quick -- can you say what phase the moon is in?

River City is an interactive computer simulation application for middle school science students. The program is hosted on the ActiveWorlds virtual world platform. Students work through different stages of a simulation of an American town in the late 1870s beset with a mysterious disease. Students adopt avatars and move around the town, "interacting" with town residents, visiting town sites, collecting data, and conducting virtual experiments. Students can chat with each other in the virtual world, collect notes, make hypotheses, and test them. The simulation was developed as part of a National Science Foundation Harvard research project.

One of our 7th Grade classes did the project last year. I can't say how much their science knowledge grew by using the project, but I was impressed by how engaged students were in the project. The silence in the classroom as 30 students focused on their laptops was ... amazing. As simulations go, River City looked varied, well thought through, and fun. The students tool on new bodies, traveled through time, flew through a 19th-century town, and investigated disease without the risk of getting sick. What's not to like? I look forward to seeing the research results (the research portion of the project officially ends this month; Activeworlds is considering keeping the project alive on a fee basis).

In a world where virtual science activities are just part of an overall rich science curriculum, with lots of "wet science" and field trips and nature walks and other real world experience -- in such a world River City-type projects could be a useful addition. Virtual worlds create certain guided experiences difficult to achieve otherwise.

But... (as Pee Wee Herman famously said, "everyone I know has a Big But -- Let's talk about your Big But") In my school we don't have a rich science curriculum, and River City was the closest that that 7th Grade came to a real world in-depth scientific investigation outside of science fair projects. This is not the fault of the teacher, or the school necessarily. The ultimate factors I think are the big ones of the polarization of wealth and poverty associated with globalization, the related processes of de-industrialization, the privatization of education, the overall destruction of the working class, the war on the poor, ... As a result: the destruction of the family unit, deep social problems transferred to schools, and in the school, shorter school days, large classes, stressed teachers, crumbling infrastructure, the rule of the standardized computer-scored test, and on and on. We know this already don't we?

These desperate times become a rationale for the expansion of technology in the classroom. Save money -- do science virtually! One of the problems in this line of thinking is that virtual reality is a poor, poor replacement for real reality (somehow, perhaps sadly, I don't think that that phrase is redundant). It also makes for poor scientists. Goethe (who considered himself as much a scientist as a poet) said that "Insofar as he makes use of his healthy senses, man himself is the best and most exact scientific instrument possible." (the quote is from Douglas Miller's 1988 translation of Goethe's scientific works, p. 311) This may sound heretical to those who have been taught to mistrust their senses in favor of the cold precision of technology. But I think it gets to the notion that scientists need to be open to the sensual world to successfully investigate the world. Science has an intuitive and imaginative dimension that comes into play in the identification and the formulation of hypotheses, and this dimension is crippled when robbed of the interaction with the real world. Science cannot adequately be done in a virtual world. Too much is not there. (More on this: Maura Flannery wrote a nice article, "Goethe and the Molecular Aesthetic"; see also Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute.)

Computer applications cannot encompass (support, yes; encompass, no) an inquiry-based learning experience because computer applications are programmed experiences. They incorporate rules of the program designers, a minuscule subset of the law system of the universe. Regardless of the possible paths of investigations that programmed worlds offer, they are nevertheless impoverished representations of the world. The learner is channeled into the limited imagination of the programmer further constrained by his or her chosen technology. Inquiry-based learning -- the heart of the scientific adventure -- is supposed to avoid the "sage on the stage" teacher model; but instead, in virtual worlds, the teacher's role has been supplanted by the programmer. And worse, the supplanting is not immediately apparent. The programmer is a hidden presence, the wizard behind the curtain.

Given the dismal funding of education and the awful pressure on public schools, teachers are between a rock and a hard place. Yes a rich set of real world interactions supplemented by developmentally appropriate technology would be ideal. But the real world is more and more out of reach of the public school. We are offered up virtual experiences instead. And in the inversion (or is it sublation? or negation?) captured by Gibson, the scary part is how compelling the virtual experience can be.

Let's hear it for the negation of the negation...


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Criteria for evaluation of educational web resources

Here is another blog posting to satisfy a course requirement. This one lay out some criteria for the evaluation of web-based educational materials.

My list starts off with criteria I lifted from a university library site. This is only natural I think, because educational web resources function much like other media resources. Librarians belong to a profession devoted to material evaluation and selection, organization and retrieval. From the librarians list, the site should:

  • be relevant to school learning goals
  • the site should have quality content. Some indicators of quality include peer-reviewed content, positive reviews from librarians, or an authoritative sponsor.
  • have a significant amount of content
  • be distinguished from sites that cover similar subjects (e.g. in ease of use, or in depth in particular niche)
  • be easy of use
  • be reliable (available), stable, without broken links

Really good sites

  • continue to be updated, and informs the visitor of what is new.
  • allows others to share their great ideas, multiplying the sites usefulness.
  • are easy to navigate
  • from a design point of view, are not cluttered, with a clean design. Visiting the site shouldn't tire the visitor. (While not an educational site, I consider the site a prime example of hyperactive clutter and difficult to use. I like the design of the Mrs. Meacham's Classroom Snapshots site -- thanks again Lindsay.)
  • have no popup ads or other ads that interfere with the content
  • have a way to easily contact the site operator
  • is supported
  • does not use browser specific features (and specifically, will work fine with Firefox)
  • use cookies responsibly
  • are responsive -- they have enough hardware and bandwidth behind them to support their purpose
  • have useful search functions
"Easy to navigate" and "clean" granted are subjective terms, and show my design preferences. I don't like frames, especially when they are poorly implemented.

The above criteria are really independent of the educational purpose of the site, and really apply to any site that intends to inform visitors.

If a site has a social networking feature, it also needs to have some protections for students. Educational sites should be free of advertising, and shouldn't be commercial sites masquerading as educational sites. I'm thinking that the most appropriate educational functions for websites should be either sources of information (search engines, online encyclopedias, archives, newspapers, tutorials, etc.) or places where students can express themselves (e.g. wikis, blogging, cartooning, digital storytelling, postering, etc.) I have mixed feelings about virtual manipulatives -- hands on is generally better. I am suspect of the educational value of role-playing sites and virtual worlds; also of testing or drill sites, and gaming sites. My next post will consider the role-playing/virtual world sites.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inquiry-based learning and webquests

Best technology-in-education practices direct students to problem-based / project-based / inquiry-based student-centered learning models that are the hallmark of progressive and constructivist education. The student is pushed to exercise and build higher order thinking skills through the problem-solving process. Ideally, computers and other digital technologies just provide additional means of investigation and reporting.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a method of learning where students pursue an interesting open-ended question (that's my working definition of IBL). The student is the subject of that definition, the main actor. The object of their pursuit needs to be interesting to the student, to ensure the pursuit takes place. The object of the pursuit is an open-ended question: the question may lead the student in many possible directions as part of a process of discovery. Ideally, through IBL, students develop stronger transferable knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world than through traditional educational methods of fact-delivery and regurgitation. Inquiry-based learning works especially well for developing concrete concepts as a result of direct observation. Hands-on exploration is an important component of the best IBL. Also important is allowing students enough time and space and encouragement to formulate their own questions and conjectures. I see five important categories in the measurement of the "inquiry quotient" of a lesson. The best IBL:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Has as a goal the acquisition of concrete concepts
  5. Maintains student interest

Inquiry-based learning and other student-centered approaches to learning are subtly inverted when technology takes center-stage, and the inquiry becomes centered around and dependent on the technology being used.

Educators have developed different genres of applications to try to implement technology-based student-centered models. "Webquests" are one popular example. Webquests are structured investigations oriented around a given task. Students work in teams using well-defined roles towards accomplishing the given task. Students are often expected to produce a report or deliver a presentation arguing for a position or solution that they have developed. Webquests support student collaboration, typically require the students to make their own assessments about a topic, and defend conclusions they have reached.

As an IBL application, though, webquests cannot help but fall short. First, by design they provide an already-constructed question (the task). Maybe students have a choice of possible solutions, but a webquest (in Bernie Dodge's original definition) cannot provide a truly open-ended question. Webquests are really a "quided inquiry" structure (see, e.g. QuestGarden, the site for a webquest creation tool developed by Dodge, where it is described as "guided inquiry made easy"). In Alan Coburn's spectrum of inquiry models, "guided inquiry" falls in the middle between "structured inquiry" and "open inquiry". Students are provided the problem and materials, but they must devise their own procedure. Second, as the name "webquest" suggests, webquest observations are usually observations web page content. (One can view video of phenomena, but this is a weak second-best to direct observation. Math explorations can be done using virtual manipulatives, which might come the closest to working with their real world counterparts, although something still is lost when the physical activity is sacrificed.)

This is not to say that webquests can't be valuable learning activities. Good webquests require students to be creative in assembling and combining data, and reflect and build on what they find. Students can build their collaboration skills and skills using computer applications. But as inquiry-based learning, webquests miss the important elements of student-formulated problems and direct observation.

I developed a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of webquests, and then tested it out on ten middle-school math related webquests. (You can view the rubric as well as links to the webquests and how I scored the webquests by clicking here.) The highest score I gave any of the webquests was a 14 out of 20. That particular webquest, The Dilemma of the Dangerous Meat Loaf, did use some direct observation that was brought back to the webquest, and, with a little tweaking, allowed for a high degree of open-endedness. [I should note that I developed the rubric as part of an "inquiry quotient" webquest developed by Craig Cunningham at National-Louis University, and in this case, my direct observations were observations of webquests.]

As guided inquiry lessons, webquests can be useful. A potential danger in their use is to think that they can replace direct observation. An exercise that pushes the student beyond "guided" and into "open" inquiry would push beyond the boundaries of the webquest format. Possible features of such an exercise might include heavier reliance on student collection of data via direct observations, and perhaps a relaxation of the task directive -- this is something to explore.