Sunday, February 28, 2010

Getting teachers to use more technology

Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. That's the first thing I thought of when I read a blog-posting prompt for a class I am taking: "What is the best way to get others at your schools to use more technology in their teaching and the students' learning?"

The main charge for my position at my school, as I understand it, is to coach and assist teachers in integrating technology into their teaching. I don't see my job as getting them to "use more technology." There is a fine distinction there, so let me see if I can make the line clearer.

I have latched on to a couple of guiding principles for my work. The first one is a techno-take on the Hippocratic Oath of "First, Do No Harm". The second one stretches Occam's Razor: All things considered, the simplest solution is the best solution. The second principle relates to the idea of "appropriate technology" and the "Keep It Simple" principle of design. And usually, the simplest solution will be a low-tech solution. Electronic equivalents complicate.

I see my role as helping teachers accomplish their teaching tasks most effectively. In terms of technology, that means identifying the most effective technology to deliver instruction or facilitate learning. (There might be some fine points to make re: teachers teaching vs. students learning, and who is doing what in the process and whether the center of it is closer to the teacher or the student, but let's set those aside for now.)

There will be times when there will be compelling reasons to use new technologies. But always, with any medium or tool, there are trade-offs. Marshall and Eric McLuhan's "Four Laws of Media" captures this idea of something gained, something lost. According to their "four laws", every medium (and they include tools as media) enhances (this is the part we tend to focus on), but it also obsolesces (something is lost or made obsolete), and when taken too far, it reverses, or yields an undesired, or even opposite effect (the classic example is the automobile that results in gridlock). [FYI, the fourth effect is retrieves.] While something is gained, something else is lost. It may not be a zero-sum game, but there are definitely trade-offs.

Case in point: virtual math manipulatives are kinda neat, and offer some useful opportunities for students. But they are also virtual, and the tactile benefits of handwork is lost. Or online collaboration -- the online medium inserts itself into the communication process, and collaboration is altered. While online collaboration creates new possibilities, the benefits of face-to-face communication are lost. If we only interact with online personae and avatars, I fear we will end up somewhere on the autism spectrum, incapable of reading faces anymore.

Anyway, I do not see my role as encouraging the use of more technology, but assisting in the process of making wise choices to help teachers be successful. While I can't say I am doing a particularly good job at this (why is a subject for another post), it means working closely with a teacher, understanding what she is trying to accomplish, and making her aware of her options, including the benefits and drawbacks.

If the concept of classroom technology is relaxed to include traditional tools like chalk and blackboard, and even lecturing, my understanding of what a "lead technology teacher" should be perhaps becomes clearer. I work with teachers (or should anyway) to help them select the most appropriate tool for the job and use it effectively.

If teachers are driving the teaching process (understood in whatever way one wants to conceive of what teachers do), then I do not need to "get them to use more technology". I just need to help them clarify what tools will help them the most (and hopefully do no harm). Given the opportunity, they will use as much technology as they need, and hopefully no more.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

21st Century Literacy

The term "literacy" is tossed about a lot, and is loaded up with many layers of meaning. Case in point is the video "What Does It Mean to Be Literate in the 21st Century?" from a couple of Canadian teachers. Definitions (or really, "understandings") provided by the teachers interviewed in the video range from classic "read and write" printed texts to facility with tools, to a Gardner-esque "multiple literacies" that correspond to different intelligences (e.g., emotional literacy, outdoor literacy).

I prefer to go with a media-independent notion of literacy as the ability to construct (or maybe discover) meaning from the world. "Reading" becomes a generic term for this process -- reading clouds, reading printed text, reading symbols, reading faces, reading film, reading math proofs, reading music, and so on. One teacher in the video used the Freirean terms of literacy as not just reading the word, but reading the world. And I might add, again in Freirean terms of active engagement, not just reading the world, but writing the world as well. Literacy becomes a general ability to be in the world in a meaning-ful way.

When it comes to electronic technology, literacy is often reduced to facility. The U.S. Department of Education, back in 1996, defined technology literacy as "computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity, and performance" (cited on this Technology Literacy page). One state education office defined is as "the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology." The ability to use a technology is a rather shallow skill -- much more important is the ability to create meaning, and to gather (or construct) meaning from what is done with the technology.

Electronic technology is only a subset of the technologies around us. The phonetic alphabet is a technology. As is the book and the newspaper. Part of being a critical reader and writer of any medium, is understanding the prejudices that the medium pushes onto the world (hence McLuhan's "the medium is the message"), and also the social context or matrix within which any particular technology is developed and deployed. Technologies always change the person that uses them. Literacy means understanding those changes, and being able to make critical and ethical choices.

The Alliance for Childhood's TechTonic report does a nice job of exploring this dimension of computer technology:
In the past, technology literacy was largely defined as skill in operating computers. That narrow approach was misguided from the start. But it is now dangerously outdated. A new approach to technology literacy, calibrated for the 21st century, requires us to help children develop the habits of mind, heart, and action that can, over time, mature into adult capacities for moral reflection, ethical restraint, and compassionate service. (p. 8)
And later,
The Alliance for Childhood proposes the following definition: Technology literacy is the mature capacity to participate creatively, critically, and responsibly in making technological choices that serve democracy, ecological sustainability, and a just society. (p. 60)
So what are the most important aspects of 21st Century literacy? As always -- the ability to construct or discover meaning in the world, the ability to make critical and ethical choices about the tools available to construct or discover that meaning, to engage meaningfully with the world. With new technologies, that means understanding how those tools are used to construct meaning, what "meaning" looks like, how to decode and critically reflect on media artifacts. (At my school at least, we spend a fair amount of time on strategies for making sense of printed texts, but no time on strategies for making sense of TV, movies, music, PowerPoints, websites, etc.) It also means understanding how economic systems work and how they push technologies into particular directions.

And especially it means learning how to think.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Computer games as learning tools

I'm thinking about games (in particular, computer games) as learning tools. Can computer games be effective learning tools? Of course. It is possible. A more generic question would be, can children learn from play? And the answer is even more "of course".

There is considerable literature on the importance of play in learning. Susan Engel, the director of the teaching program at Williams College, summarized this in a recent New York Times op-ed piece ("Playing to Learn"):
Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.
The Alliance for Childhood has published a lot of material about the role of play. The title of their most recent report summarizes their general perspective: "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School." Their report argues that "play builds competence in many domains."
Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.
A Big Question though is whether the benefits of play in general are preserved in the realm of computer-based games. A key term in the above quote is "socio-dramatic play", a feature transformed or completely missing from computer games. Yes there are social games (role-playing ones in particular), and the Internet is great for matching up players from different corners of the world. But computer-mediated communication and socializing is not the same as face-to-face socializing. (For more on this see an earlier posting, a response to Heather Bromberg's chapter on whether MUDs are communities.) The recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey on media use of 8-to-18-year-olds reinforces this idea, finding a strong correlation between higher media use and lack of personal contentment, boredom and getting into trouble. (The report does caution about assuming a causal effect, and that the relationship may go in either direction -- bored, unhappy kids may immerse themselves in media, as opposed to more media use making kids unhappy. But the point remains that they are not happier for their media consumption.)

If computer games fall short in developing social and emotional skills, what about cognitive skills? Computers are used extensively in education, and even when a computer activity doesn't rise the the level of game, they still have a gaming component (rewards, playful screen design, even just interacting with the machine having an element of play to it). Computer game play, like all play can engage students in content, and as Engel noted (see above), children learn best when they are engaged in what they are learning.

So don't computer games have an important role? Certainly computers have their place (for a good summary see M. D. Roblyer and Aaron Doering's Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching, chapter 3). The whole debate is a complex one, intertwined with learning theory. Let's just say for now that yes, they can be helpful under specific circumstances and with the proper teacher-support.

The more interesting question to me is how effective can computer games be in teaching about history, economics, and social studies in general.

Take chess. Chess is a very abstract game, using an idealized playing space with highly stylized pieces. Technically the pieces refer to feudal social positions, but in practice, they represent six sets of abilities. On the other hand, a board game like Monopoly is much less abstract, more anchored in the world (in particular, real estate markets in 1930s Atlantic City). And then you have computer games like SimCity or Civilization that purport to be about the actual world. But what can they teach one about how the world really works? Any lessons from chess will likely be stylized, abstract, and as a result highly transferable. Lessons from SimCity or Civilization (e.g., how to keep cities happy and productive) are likely to be at best shallow and at worst, misleading.

Yes games like SimCity and Civilization can be fun In the course of play, one needs to practice some math, and cultivate some kinds of problem-solving skill. But the depth of problems doesn't go that deep. One masters the rules of the game to achieve pre-set goals. For all of the engaging graphics though, these games fail to rise to the pure simplicity masking deep deep complexity in a game like chess. For a hint of this, check out Garry Kasparov's wonderful article The Chess Master and the Computer from the the February 11, 2010 New York Review of Books (here's some more blog and quotes from the article).

It is very important to recognize that SimCity and Civilization and other games are designed. That is, they are not the real world. [Yes chess is a social product, and in a sense "designed", but more in the way that evolution "designs" -- chess has evolved over time, with many hands and minds touching it, refining it, smoothing it. It has withstood the test of time, and doesn't require electricity.]

Will Wright and Sid Meier and other game designers have a particular understanding of the way the world works. And that understanding, including ideology, power relationships, how the world changes, the range of possibilities, infuses, and ultimately limits, the games. Games are highly structured, and only work because they have well-defined rules. (There is a substantial literature on this too, but here is one link to a 2004 article from a libertarian website that looks at this: "Free Play", from Take-away quote: "Political ideas are infiltrating not just the back-stories of games but their 'play mechanics' -- the inner workings that shape game behavior. ")

I actually spoke to Will Wright about the question of possibilities in SimCity, briefly, on the floor of MacWorld, more than 15 years ago. Why not have an element of citizen morale that could kick in in times of trouble? After all, morale was an important component that saw the heroic citizens of Leningrad through its thousand-day siege, and London through the blitz, during World War II. And why not have a potential of solar power as a possible technology, instead of just smoke-spewing coal-fired plants and nuclear power plants that inevitably blow up? Wright just got mad. (Maybe these things eventually made it into SimCity, I haven't looked at the game in a decade.)

[The idea of ideology infusing a game is true even of a centuries-old, rich-in-tradition game like chess. Chess is a war game, with a heirarchy of pieces, and an implicit ideology. (The ideology includes some surprises. I like the idea that (a) pawns can checkmate a king, (b) the queen is the most powerful piece on the board but not the most important one, and (c) a pawn can become a more powerful being when it completes its journey across the board.) Chess to me is a pure game: it is a game of deep thought, of intricate patterns, of complex problem-solving. It is also rich in life lessons. Some of the life lessons are short-changed when chess is played against a computer. Gone are the social niceties of shaking hands before a game, the discipline of touch-move, and the novelty of human play. Online is different from face-to-face.]

When computer games are used in the classroom, there is always a teaching moment to clarify the hidden sides of the game. Especially with games that attempt to portray actual events or processes. What does it say about what happened or happens? What does it imply about power and change? What is there? What is missing?


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Scantron performance assessment, so far

We began the online Scantron Performance Assessment at our school last week. Here are some initial observations about the testing so far.

As a plus, the web-based software has been responsive. I assume there is some significant load on the test servers, since I think most CPS schools are operating within the same test window as us. (I'm not sure of this -- in any case I haven't seen a problem with test server response.) When tests have been interrupted, the Scantron site has been doing a good job starting back up where the students were. (We have had a particular situation where students have accidentally unplugged computers mid-test.) The administration functions are easy to use, and the reports are nice (all caveats regarding the type of test that it is notwithstanding!).

On the negative side, I see a number of issues with the assessment:
  • Younger students (3rd graders in particular) are unfamiliar with the testing medium. Some have limited experience with mouse buttons, especially avoiding the right mouse button. Accidentally pressing the right-mouse button throws up a context menu, and clicking the wrong item seems to exit the test. This confuses them.
  • Then there is the general anxiety about "taking a test". If the regular classroom teacher is not present to help ease student anxieties, I suspect that students will not do as well.
  • There is of course the general stress of test-taking, but this is true of paper-based tests as well (or does the computer have a special authority?) Still, for some students at least, the stress probably has a negative effect on performance.
  • Student focus, behavior, and alertness varies during the school day. Prime testing time seems to be at the very beginning of the day. However, it is not possible to test all students at the beginning of the day (unlike ISAT), given equipment constraints, and the fact that we are administering 3 tests X 15 classrooms = 45 test sessions in a 12-day test window.
  • There is an opportunity cost to the assessment -- diverting teachers from teaching, expropriating technology prep time or lab availability to do assessments, plus the administrative time to organize sessions.
The adaptive aspect of the test means some students may take longer to complete the test. This gives rise to a few issues:
  • The reading assessment contains lengthy passages. After an hour of reading text on-screen, test fatigue starts to set in, which must affect performance. The test actually seemed cruel for some 4th graders who kept seeing additional reading passages to read and answer questions on.
  • Students who complete the test early need to be kept occupied. It is hard enough to keep students still for extended periods, especially if their regular classroom teacher isn't present. If they are in a lab, they want to do fun things with the computer. Splitting the class up (sending students who are done back to their regular classroom) presents additional challenges for both the classroom teacher and the test proctor.
  • Keeping students focused on the test for 45 minutes or an hour can be a challenge.
  • Students who take longer to finish see their peers finish. This looks like it becomes another source of anxiety.
Test integrity is another issue:
  • When students take a paper-based test, desks are re-arranged in rows. In a lab setting, students are sitting next to their fellow test-takers. Students have to be told not to talk to the students next to them, not to be distracted by what is on their screen, not to volunteer answers. Students have to be trained how to take the assessment.
  • Some classes, when inclusion students are present, exceed the number of computers in the lab. Special arrangements have been made (commandeer some laptops from the Parent Resource Center, use an overflow room), but test administration and adequate proctoringbecomes an issue.
  • At least one student had the wits to call up an online dictionary to help with some vocabulary passages. Oops. It is difficult to monitor 35 computer screens at once.
  • I see this one as a big flaw: Testing is active for students outside of school hours. We have one student who completed the test on Sunday from an ATT IP address. I am able to log on as a student and begin and resume testing.
From at least some of the points above, it is clear that the assessment medium is in-between the student and their skills and their understanding. It is not a transparent, neutral thing. I repeat a sentence from above: Students have to be trained how to take the assessment. Not only do they need to know the content being assessed -- they have to master the testing medium ("testing as a genre"). This includes not just the format of text passages, the deliberate deception built into multiple choice answers, the often ambiguous test questions and answers. It also includes things like pacing and focus (testing as an athletic event). With the computer thrown in the mix, they need to master the mouse and keyboard skills, understand how buttons, program flow and the browser works, and deal with physical factors like screen glare, reading text onscreen, and sitting in a chair at a keyboard for extended periods of time.

If this was just part of the overall assessment toolbox for teachers, the negatives above might not be such a big issue -- a good teacher would just factor in the limitations of the testing medium. But this test is different I think -- teacher careers will hang on the results. (See previous posts for the rapid advance of evaluation teachers on the basis of student test performance.)


Friday, February 5, 2010

A PD I liked

Another course assignment -- thinking about a great professional development that I attended, and what made it great. The assignment actually is about the last great one, but I have a hard time thinking of a great one, at least recently. I attended a good day-long program on websites for K-8 students last year. "Good" because it was fast-paced, because I learned about a lot of new websites, because it reminded me of how much stuff is out there. The presenter was up on web resources, and I felt that I learned a lot from the session. The session included a good takeaway reference with a companion web site to keep the reference material current.

What made it good for me might have made it not so good for other attendees. I appreciated the speed and density of the material, but someone with less comfort with the Internet might have felt that it was too much. Since attendance was voluntary (it required payment), the PD organizer could forewarn attendees of the workshop level. The attendees could self-select if the PD was for them. This is a much simpler PD scenario than one where attendees with a wide range of skills and expectations are required to attend.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A good read

Here is a link to a charming op-ed piece about child development and its curriculum implications: Playing to Learn by Susan Engel, the director of the teaching program at Williams College (from the 2/1/10 NYT). Some choice quotes:
Imagine, for instance, a third-grade classroom that was free of the laundry list of goals currently harnessing our teachers and students, and that was devoted instead to just a few narrowly defined and deeply focused goals.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.