Engage Me with IT - Project-Based Learning: Reflection on Session 1

This is the second in a series of posts related to Engage Me with IT.

Our first Project-Based Learning session was quite interesting. Our focus was on the notion of open vs. closed questions. Closed questions tend to be information-gathering or low-level questions - very rarely is knowledge formed from such questions, but rather students look up knowledge of others. Open questions, on the other hand, challenge students to form their own knowledge - they can take that basic information and do something with it. I saw a great summarization: closed questions tend to be answered with shorter answers, and open questions have longer answers.

We also briefly discussed performance tasks, and the challenge of teachers constructing such tasks. GRASPS is a framework for helping teachers design performance tasks:

  • Goal: What is the goal of the activity for the students?
  • Role: What is each student's job?
  • Audience: Who will be receiving the results of the task?
  • Situation: What is the scenario under which the students will be acting?
  • Product/Performance/Purpose: What will be created?
  • Standards and criteria: How will the task be judged/evaluated?
We'll continue to look at this framework in later classes.

As a follow-up activity to the first session, there are four questions to reflect upon:
  1. What ideas are sticking with you from today?
    I particularly liked our sharing of closed and open questions. Everyone developed an example of closed and open questions, and then meandered around the room sharing with others. Then as a group, we each shared one question that we really liked.
    Everyone agreed that the open questions were much more interesting and intriguing than closed questions - if teachers think so, I know students think so.
  2. What ideas affirmed your pre-existing assumptions about PBL?
    In my experience, teachers tend to balk at implementing project-based learning because it can be more time-consuming - more time to develop and plan tasks, more time to implement during class, etc. But I also believe that spending a little more time on higher-level tasks can pay off on developing better thinkers.
  3. What questions do you want to address next?
    This is perhaps a little big as the next single topic to discuss: I've always liked the idea of project-based learning taken to the level of simulation or immersion - becoming deeply engaged in the scenario of the task. In my former life as a science teacher, I had the idea of running my chemistry classroom like a research lab, in which students received grade reports structured like paychecks, labs were real-world problems for which students had to develop the experimental technique and "purchase" the equipment, and produce products or information for clients. I'd like to revisit that idea - of creating an immersive PBL environment and what it can do for student achievement.
  4. How and when will you use what you've learned today?
    My first challenge is to look at how I want to redeliver this to my staff. PBL looks different in every department, so I think I'll need to reach out to my technology-savvy teachers to help craft a professional development plan for redelivery. I might even start with the simpler task of introducing/discussing closed vs. open questions.


Engage Me with IT - Project-Based Learning: Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts related to Engage Me with IT.

For the 2011-2012 school year, our county Technology department is offering some professional development under the umbrella of Engage Me - a district-wide framework that is intended to help teachers develop learning experiences and products that have high expectations and result in student engagement.

Technology is offering three Engage Me with IT series of courses - BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology), CLOT (Collaborative Learning Online Tools), and PBL (Project-Based Learning). As we are heavily engaged in piloting BYOT concepts here at my school, and I feel pretty comfortable with finding and using online tools for collaboration, I chose to engage in the Project-Based Learning course.

As a former science teacher, PBL has always been something that I've been interested in, both as a teacher and an instructional coach. The power of students learning by asking and answering their own questions is often lost in most classrooms - even science classrooms. My interest in simulation games is a close fit to PBL, so I'm hoping I'll be able to add some insight into each (PBL and gaming) from the other.

Part of the class is to post reflections on the content discussed during each face-to-face session; I'll be posting mine here, along with any useful PBL items we uncover.


Google's new Chrome OS Netbook

So Google is getting even more into computing with the development of their new Chrome OS. It's based on the Chromium OS project, their open-source OS platform. (Chrome OS is specific to the hardware on-board Google's netbooks.)

It's primarily a web-based OS - there is very little software on board the computer, to the point where it literally boots up in a matter of seconds. (I've seen it - it's a thing of beauty.) The entire interface runs out of Google's Chrome browser, with the ability to install and run web apps. It's got VGA and USB ports, and both Wi-Fi and 3G radio on board. (It also comes with 2 years free of Verizon (?) 3G connectivity, which starts only once you activate it.) One major hardware change - they've replaced spinning hard drives with flash memory. It's sleek, it's fast, it's cool.

I had heard some whisperings of it, but didn't really get a chance to see it in action until I ran into Stephen, a student at my school. He is a computer programmer and TSA member, and was approved to pilot one of Google's CR-48 Chrome netbooks for free. I had a chance to see it in action a bit, and Stephen seemed initially impressed with it. He and I were drawn to it for the same reasons - curiosity about whether it was a viable computing alternative, and interest into whether it would work for some of our day-to-day computing needs.

Needless to say, I promptly submitted my own application. I registered as an educator, and requested about a dozen netbooks for some students and staff to test out. (I'm hoping I wasn't asking for too many, and wrecked my chances.) Our district uses web-based services which are reported to have to use Internet Explorer, so I'm interested to see how well the Chrome netbook is able to integrate with some of those services.

A quick, lightweight, simple-to-use-and-maintain netbook like this has great promise for teachers and students - I'm really hoping that Google will approve my meager request to have educators field-test them. With my school's BYOT initiative, it seems a great fit to provide students and teachers with another technology alternative, to see if it can hold up to the rigors of the classroom.

I sat down with Stephen the other day, because I wanted to capture his ideas and opinions of the Cr-48 and Chrome OS experience from the beginning. He's had his netbook for about two weeks now. After the audio file, I'll give you a quick summary of his comments.

Tell me a little about what your computing background is.
  • Linux, Windows and Mac user
  • Some programming in Visual Basic, PHP, Java, JavaScript
  • Teaching himself C#

Tell me a little of what you know about the Google OS.

  • It's all web-based; appears to be based on Linux
  • Can't "dig" into the Chrome OS like you can with Windows
  • Would like to open up the file system more, but understand why they haven't
  • Interface is through Chrome browser
  • Apps run faster - perhaps because of the solid-state HD, perhaps fewer processes running

What attracted you to the Google OS notebook?

  • It was free :), plus free 3G for two years
  • Wanted a netbook - has a very robust laptop for programming and gaming, but bulky
  • Too large a footprint to use effectively in the classroom (with books, papers, etc.)

How much getting used-to did it take?

  • 2-3 days to get used to it, particularly the keyboard
  • Has been trying to use it exclusively (part of the requirements of pilot program)
  • Sometimes switches to other laptop, because Flash seems a little "laggy" and buggy
  • Loves the fact that updates happen automatically - apps and browser

Do you think this could be a useful tool for teachers and students?

  • Useful particularly for students - good battery life, keep notes online
  • Fast - before, taking quick notes was faster on an iPod, now taking this out is faster

Do you see that the Google OS notebook might have any drawbacks, particularly for educational use?

  • Wi-Fi and 3G are necessary - if you don't have an internet connection, there's not much you can do
  • Some apps will work offline temporarily, but not a whole lot of offline
  • Google is working on Gmail and Docs offline
  • 3G is getting cheaper, so it's a more viable solution
  • Good cheap plans - including pay-as-you-go


iPads in schools? Too much, I think

Not too long ago, news floated around that Georgia legislators were looking at the option of replacing school textbooks with iPads. With the rise of more portable devices - larger than a cell phone, which would not be a great medium for reading books regularly - this seems like a natural step for educators.

Employing a digital device to handle the print material allows for easier updates of content: rather than the cost of writing, editing, printing, binding and shipping thousands of new textbooks, the content can be updated on a digital file and made available for download. Additionally, the content on a digital device can be more appropriate for this generation of learners - infused with images and multimedia, interactive, shareable, and integrated into other resources (like the web).

My concern with this is the device itself. Granted, I have not had the opportunity to play with an iPad, but I do know that the general public has a very "starry-eyed" view of anything Apple produces lately. While the iPad might be the most visible tablet device, it still lacks elements that would make it a killer educational tool.

First is the price - I've always felt that part of the price in newer Apple products is due simply to the name. (Why is it that the iPad has taken off lately, whereas Windows tablets from about a decade ago seem to have fallen into shadow?) To make it an effective educational tool, it needs to be a lot cheaper, so that schools and systems can afford to replace them regularly - and to make them available to teachers, as well.

Secondly is the proprietary nature of the iPad. Apple's always been notorious for holding onto the programming of its devices - and while writing apps is accessible (for example, using IntroWizard or AppBreeder), I imagine working with the OS is not. That might be a huge sticking point for school systems with well-developed IT infrastructures.

So while I applaud Georgia legislators for looking forward, I think aiming for the pie-in-the-sky iPad is not the right way to go. I had a chance recently to preview a Barnes & Noble Nook from the B&N across the street from my school. The Nook is powered by Google's Android OS, and has just about as simple an interface as the iPad. It and similar devices have the ability to host and run apps, browse the web, etc. I'm not sure licensing with Barnes & Noble is necessarily the right answer, either, although with a smaller pricetag (in the $200-250 range, as opposed to $499 and up for the iPad) it's much more cost-effective.

Okay - so here's my killer educational device:

  • An Android-powered tablet - Android is infinitely more customizable than the iPad OS.
  • Multiple USB ports for students and teachers to connect jump drives, peripherals, etc.
  • Wireless VGA for teacher tablets. (This might be cumbersome right now, so the technology still needs some developing. Allowing teachers to be freed from cords while displaying work on a projector or interactive whiteboard is a deal-closer for me.)
  • Wi-Fi capability to connect to a school's or location's Wi-Fi network.
  • An on-board integrated software security package that includes:
    • GPS access to help retrieve the device in the event of loss or theft.
    • monitoring software, accessible through teacher administrative software - this could both monitor student's activity, and incorporate "screen-sharing" or remote control to allow teachers to interact with a student's tablet.
    • anti-virus software.
  • A tweak to the Android OS that restricts installation of apps - either through password-protection, network verification (only when connected to a specific Wi-Fi network, for example), or some other control measure.
  • Simple device control buttons for the most common functions - Home key, left/right keys for page navigation, Internet key.
If someone could develop a device for cheaper than most on the market, and market it specifically to schools and school systems, that would be an outstanding emerging market, so to speak.

I'm really excited to see what develops with this technology in the educational arena this year.


Ahead to 2011

Happy New Year everyone! The holidays didn't quite permit me the time to post as I thought they would, so I guess it's time to get back to it now that the new year is here.

Thinking about what I want to do in 2011, a couple of things come to mind.

Stay Connected to Issues

There was a lot that transpired in 2010 in the educational venue - Michelle Rhee in the D.C. school system and her creation of Students First, the National Technology Education Plan, President Obama's moves to support education, NBC Network's Education Nation conversation. Several of those I felt that I was only aware of peripherally or after-the-fact, and I feel kind of irresponsible about that. My personal feeling is that, within my lifetime, there's going to be a radical upheaval in education that will shift how teaching and learning appear - hopefully, some of these initiatives are going in the right direction (Education Nation bringing the conversation about education to the forefront), although some perhaps are not (Michelle Rhee's tactics). In any case, I'm going to spend some time retroactively looking at some of those issues (posts to follow).

Stay Connected to People

One concept which has grown exponentially with the increase in connectivity tools - Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, online learning, etc. - is the Personal Learning Network (PLN). Those who have embraced it have found fantastic uses for it, such as on-demand training and assistance, connecting with people at local and national conferences, etc. Most educators have similar networks in place but might not have an actual label for it. Our school district is shortly (by the end of January, hopefully) going to move towards removing some of our restrictive internet filters on teacher accounts, so that faculty and staff can access sites that might have some educational relevance. These include the sites I mentioned above, but also Google Images, YouTube and other similar media sites.

With our faculty now being able to access these tools at school, it makes their Personal Learning Network - and mine - much more accessible. Those teachers who may not have a data plan or smart phone in order to access those sites around our firewall (alas, I fall into that category) can now access them using their school laptops, and reap the benefits of PLN's. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to collect some information and relevant blog posts to share with my staff on developing and utilizing their PLN and create an online training using our course management system.

That's a start - don't want to bite off more than I can chew. After a disappointingly silent end of 2010 for techieteacher, I want to get back into the swing of things. Those two things will give me plenty to do.


Online Learning - The Wild West of Education

[This post has also been cross-posted on building a new box, my blog on school reform.]

I've recently begun a three-class course to receive an add-on endorsement to my teaching certificate in Online Learning. In my position as an instructional technology specialist - and in a desire to be able to teach online myself - I thought it was an important move.

Only a month into the first course, I'm finding that the anticipation is that it will be a very metacognitive course. After all, the first course is Introduction to Virtual Learning Environments - taught in a virtual learning environment. The courses are entirely online with no face-to-face (albeit I'm taking the course with a handful of teachers that are at my school, which allows us some interaction not normally present in an online course). This brings two things to mind.

The first is whether the course (or courses) will meet their own expectations. On the surface, I'm sure they will. As the audience for the course is educators who are already exposed to a high degree of technology (including Angel Learning, the course management system used throughout my district and to deliver these endorsement courses), it's not as if entirely new content is being delivered - in this case, the course differs greatly from, for example, an online physics course for a student who has not had physics before. I'm hoping that the current course reflects a very different model of teaching and learning, which leads into my second thought.

That second thought (hold on tight - it's much broader than the first) is that online learning is as different from traditional classroom learning as the computer is from the pencil and paper - and the methods by which online learning are implemented and built need to be just as different. When the computer was first introduced into the classroom over two decades ago, it was frequently used as little more than a drill instructor - repetitive practice was simply transferred from paper and pencil to the computer. Teachers - particularly younger teachers who were more connected to the blossoming Information Age - had an idea that it could be a revolutionary classroom tool; they just didn't quite know what to do with it yet. Now that computers are found in almost every classroom - in many cases, multiple computers and computing devices - the use of those computers looks incredibly different than it did all those years ago. (I was going to use the phrase the classroom of today instead of the use of those computers, but the fact is, it doesn't. That's a topic for another post...)

Online learning has the potential to take that same step - potential, I say. I'm not sure it's done that way very much in current online learning classes. A colleague of mine is working on a Master's degree of Instructional Technology from the University of Georgia, and there is a significant online component to it. However, he continually laments that the online course is poorly constructed and a joke - he frequently logs on, and goes about other business while the traditional classroom element of a lecturing professor is replaced with a video of a lecturing professor. It pains me to hear this, because this is a course in training other educators to use that same technology - and it becomes a vicious cycle. Fortunately, my colleague knows it's a poor example - or more accurately, an example of what not to do - but it still, I think, is representative of a typical online learning environment: one in which the traditional classroom has been replicated as much as possible.

The online learning environment is the Wild West of education - some pioneers are starting to venture out into it, and are figuring out how best to tame the land, but overall settlers are still trying to bring the comforts of home with them to this new land. That environment, however, appeals to and suits an entirely different type of learner. Lisa Nielsen over at The Innovative Educator has a post on 10 Reasons Students Say They Prefer Learning Online, as well as an introductory guide to online learning. Included in that post is a graphic map of issues and considerations for using and implementing :

The most interesting this I find about this map is the note about next generation models of online learning, and how they need to reset the model to focus on competency-based learning. See it? The small DNA-like graphic tucked into the bottom of the diagram? I think that's a significant part of the problem with online learning - the notion that the method of teaching in an online learning environment is so different from traditional classroom teaching that it's considered "where we're going next." Unfortunately, like so many things in education, if we wait to go there next, we may never get there because where we are now will be so entrenched in the system that it'll be acceptable as the way things should be done.

If you are an online learning pioneer in some way - an online teacher, a district official overseeing or implementing online learning, a content developer writing content for an online environment, and so on - recognize that this is a radically different learning environment, and as a result the same old way of doing things  no longer works. You have to find ways to engage your students when they're self-directed. You have to create authentic, relevant, honest assignments that will benefit your students - they will get something out of it besides learning how to quickly finish it. You have to use the interactive tools of your learning management system to provide students authentic feedback. Don't be afraid to try something new, maybe something not tested yet by lots of folks - there's a learning experience both for you and for the online students in analyzing why a certain type of activity didn't work - that in itself will be an important skill for students who are graduating from our institutions. All of this takes time and energy, yes - but does it take any more time and energy than that first year you were a teacher and had to create all of your traditional classroom materials and lessons yourself? 

Let's go, folks - hitch up the wagons and head West, while you still have time to shape the frontier in the way you want. Otherwise, all the land will be taken by folks who do the same thing as back East - and it won't look any different, and it won't move us forward.


The Geopolitics of URL Shorteners

Just a couple of days ago, I had a "well, duh" moment that I hadn't really thought through, regarding the use of URL shorteners and their domains.

A URL shortener is a site where you can take a long URL that's not very easy to remember - such as http://www.theresagreatsiteyouhavetosee.com/and-the-page-is/in-a-directory/andheresthepage.html - and shorten it to something more manageble, like http://sho.rt/url. The URL shortening service simply redirects visitors to your original link, and many services also include tracking and statistics tools.

One of the most popular is http://bit.ly, mainly because it is easily integrated with Twitter. You can shorten a URL and send it out via Twitter all at once. Another service is http://ow.ly. Both feature extremely short URLs, and create their short URLs using 4-6 alphanumeric characters.

What I was aware of with these sites - but didn't really think about - was the top-level domain. Top-level domains ("TLD") are the part after the last dot in the overall domain, and tell you what type of site you are visiting. The most well-known TLD's are .com, .org, and .net, which are intended to indicate a commercial, organizational, and network site respectively. In addition, there is .edu (indicating an educational site, reserved exclusively for higher institutions), .gov (governmental sites), and .mil (military establishment sites) - all three of these are closely governed. (Whereas any user can register a .com, .org, or .net domain, such is not the case with those three; they are internally distributed.)

The three-character domains are certainly not the only ones - some newer TLD's with four or more characters like .mobi, .info, and .name have come into use in the last few years. The other TLD set that have been around since the beginning are county codes. For example, sites that end in .us are United States organizations. (Sometimes these are subdivided further, for example many school systems use .k12.XX.us, where XX is their state abbreviation.) Other country codes are .uk for Great Britian, .ru for Russia, .ca for Canada, .au for Australia, and so forth. (Wikipedia has an article listing almost all of the top-level domains, country-based or otherwise.

The whole point of this post is this notion of country code TLD's - particularly, using them for something that's not country-specific. Some country codes have become desirable of late because of their potential use in creating easily-remembered URLs. For example, Columbia's .co is a possible alternative to .com, as both could stand for company. Another well-known domain (but not necessarily the country) is .tv, which belongs to the country of the islands of Tuvalu. (Do you know where they are? I had to look them up.)

In the case of my previously-used URL shorteners, they use the TLD of .ly, which is Libya. With many more services trying to capitalize on the adverb-conjuring .ly domain, Libya has now begun to crack down on registrations and activities of those sites - it has disabled some services which it claims is in violation of religious law.

Another URL shortener service that I was recently introduced to is http://goo.gl - Google's service. The one thing I don't like about it (as compared to my previously-used bit.ly) is that you can't create customized shortened URLs - you must use the 5-character string Google creates for your link.

But as its domain is based in the much more stable Greenland, it might still be a wise switch.