Wednesday, July 30, 2003

More Dropout Stories

Defending Dropping Out of School
I linked to the precursor to this article a few weeks ago, and the author has followed it up with some personal success stories of kids who dropped out of high school. I don't include these as proof that more kids should drop out, but as a starting point for understanding why students want to leave in the first place:
Craig M. Murphy, now an army combat medic, got his GED a week after he dropped out at age 16. By this June, just as his high school classmates were graduating, he already had 48 college credits. "Many of our troubled students are troubled because they think," he said. "High school asks them to memorize. They want to think and form opinions, not regurgitate dates and numbers on tests."
Many states are now talking about raising the mandatory school age to 18, just as the push for more high-stakes testing gathers steam. Seems like a recipe for disaster...

Monday, July 28, 2003

Essential Questions

I following one of the hundreds of links in my course and found Framing Essential Questions. It's an older article about problem/project-based learning, with some excellent examples and a list of characteristics of questions that spark real learning. My favourite: "Essential questions spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. They derive from some deep wish to understand some thing which matters to us."

It also includes a nice reality check to chase the idealism: "It would be best if students could learn to frame their own essential questions, but in most cases they will require several experiences with teacher generated questions before they can shed years of practice with trivial information-gathering questions."

I thought that really summed up one of my recent arguments -- the problem with progressive approaches to learning (constructivism, project-based learning, authentic assessment) isn't necessarily bad instruction/facilitation (although this may occasionally be the problem) or flaws in the learning models's the fact that they're often tried on people of all ages who are used to be spoonfed meaningless hoop-jumping exercises, and the new methods require them to think, which is quite uncomfortable if you've never had to before.

As an extension of essential questions, Diane introduced us to the concept of I-Search assignments, which are research projects that require the student to study something they're actually interested in (what a radical concept), find compelling questions to answer, document the searching process, and create a paper and separate project as artifacts of the activity. Solid stuff, and not rocket science.

10 Stages of Web-Use Nirvana

In my course on designing web-based learning, I've been seeing these patterns in the comments from my teacher-classmates about using the internet in their classes:
  • The internet is a scary, dangerous place where kids could get hurt
  • The computers in my school are broken and useless, and the lab is always booked
  • Kids just waste time surfing and getting into trouble on the internet
  • The students are more interested in finding their own stuff rather than listening to me
  • They could do research using books in the library just as effectively
  • This list could go on and on, but you get the point...
There are also defenders of the value of the web, but even those posts include disclaimers about the need to protect kids, limit their choices, and only use the technology as an occasional tool. I'm starting to feel like I'm alone in my belief that the internet (including emerging communication technologies, learning-object repositories, wireless, simulation/video, and everything else that we're just getting a taste of now) will change everything in education. I haven't had the energy for a point-by-point rebuttal, because I'm just not on the same page.

Before I gave up in despair, I checked out this list for teachers wanting to do more internet integration: 10 Stages of Web-Use Nirvana. It shows how an ambitious teacher (in an ambitious school) could go from learning to use a search engine to facilitating rich self-directed online learning experiences in a decade or two. Big thinking...I like it.

Classroom Connect

My instructor gave us a link to this site, which promised some really cool interactive learning modules. It was supposed to allow "students to explore historic and scientific wonders. They virtually journey all over the globe to learn about the environment, ancient and modern cultures, and the stories that bring these cultures to life."

But when I went to check it out, I found that the entire site is brochureware for their new professional-development programs. It looks like they've seen the writing on the wall when it comes to educational web content aimed at kids -- nobody is willing to pay for it. So I'm guessing that they changed their business model to attack a new market. It would be fascinating to hear more about that transition and whether it's working or not.

The next link I checked was a profile of a fascinating project-based learning unit...and it looks like real learning. The teacher uses a research method called Big6, but when I tried to check out their product, the site was dead. Another educational content casualty? I found some basic info about the approach, though, and it looks really simple and solid.

Anyway, The Global Challenge seems like one of these ultimate learning experiences -- cross-displinary, student-focused, research-based, relevant problems requiring analysis and comparison, freedom to learn within a well-defined structure, flexible scheduling and authentic assessment. Compare that to four chapters in the textbook, a bunch of handouts and several hours of lecturing and you get a comical contrast. But it seems to take a super-teacher to make these things happen.

Learning by Design

Learning by Design
I check elearningpost a couple of times a week, but I plucked this link from George's blog. The article is long and a bit dense if you're not into this stuff, but it accurately reflects how I view my own professional development...although probably in the opposite direction. The author talks about being an instructional designer moving more into the realm of true design. I've taken a more convoluted path, from an education degree, to learning-content creation, to interaction design and information architecture...but I see myself moving more into the realm of instructional design. For me, that means learning more technology and getting the credentials, however misguided that approach might be. His critique of the instructional design field is probably spot-on -- the primary one being that it tends to take an industrial view of learning: analyze needs of organization, create solution for all, implement solution, evaluate. I've thought of this at web design conferences put on by User Interface Engineering or Adaptive Path -- user-experience work is all about finding creative ways to give individuals what they want...but it seems that most education is focused on giving students what someone else wants them to learn.

The Whole Picture of E-Learning

The Whole Picture of E-Learning
I quite enjoyed this ambitious article from George Siemens. I wish I had seen it at the beginning of my current programme design course. The model he's created for the article would have given me some context -- it's been one of those courses that I never really got a handle on, even though I can jump through the hoops and get passing grades. The contrast between the quality of the learning experience in that course and the other one I'm taking -- Designing Web-Based Learning -- is shocking, and it's mostly attributable to differences in the instructing style. In the first one, I'm feeling lost, the chosen materials are dull, the discussions never get going, and nobody seems to know whether they're getting it or not. In the latter, the discussions are rich and spirited, the materials make you want to read beyond what's required, and you always know where you stand. Both offered in WebCT using a similar structure, but one prof is "the ghost in the machine" and the other is an active participant and organizer. Not that any of this has so much to do with George's article -- but I'm thinking his model could be applied equally well to all types of learning.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Growing Up Digital

In my web-based-learning design course, we've been looking at this quote from Don Tapscott:
"Growing up is about learning. The Net Generation are beginning to process information and learn differently than the boomers.... The destination is different and so is the route the kids must take."
Some of my teacher-classmates are actually disagreeing with the statement, basically implying that kids are kids, and talking at them will continue to help them learn for many generations. I started one post on the message board with something like: "well, I'm not sure how to respond, since I disagree with your entire educational philosophy..." Kind of inflammatory, I suppose, but I just couldn't let it go unchallenged.

Gwen at work has helped me see just how different kids are processing information now. One of the best papers she discovered through a conference she attended at Berkeley, and I found it inspirational. Bizarrely enough, it has the same title as the book by Tapscott, but this one is by John Seely Brown: Growing Up Digital (pdf). One of the best insights is the description of a new evolving definition of literacy he's calling information navigation, and kids are already doing it without thinking.

Teaching Perspectives

Another assessment, except this one measures your approach to teaching and education. Since I'm not teaching, I had to fudge it a bit, but the results are still fascinating. You could take it while thinking "if I was a teacher..." and find out some interesting things about yourself.

Not surprisingly, I ended up with nearly the lowest possible score on Transmission. Even in my student teaching, I refused to "perform" for the class -- I'm a terrible lecturer and I think it's mostly useless. I was way high on Developmental: "effective teaching must be planned and conducted 'from the learner's point of view'". Next highest was Nurturing, which I think I wish I was. All the questions related to nurturing had to do with helping students succeed, give them self-esteem, focusing on their strengths -- those are things that I know are important, and I wish I could do better, but it certainly doesn't come naturally...another reason I'm not a teacher.

I think I was more honest about Apprenticeship, which I also believe is important, but probably wouldn't do very well. That may be because I don't think it should be the teacher modelling all behaviour, but it's pretty hard to get appropriate mentors for every student. Social Change was down the list a bit...perhaps I need to read more Adbusters again to get my activism fires stoked up again.

Learning Styles

I just took an interesting Learning Styles Assessment that seemed better than some. It only takes a few minutes, and may actually help you figure out why some school situations have driven you insane, even giving some ideas for how to adjust your studying to learn more and stay sane.

My results:
  • Strongly reflective learning vs active learning -- new teaching often emphasizes doing things instead of thinking about them, but I like time to think. Sometimes I've wondered whether I prefered thinking because it's easier and less risky...less chance of failing.
  • Strongly intuitive instead of sensing -- the words don't seem to fit in this one, but with the descriptions I agreed with the results. Sensing learners like facts, sequence and details. Intuitive learners prefer possibilities, connections and innovation. According to the assessment, I apparently don't have a sensing bone in my body...which is probably true.
  • Equal balance of visual and verbal, which isn't very interesting at all. I like words and pictures, with little preference.
  • Strongly global vs sequential -- I don't really get this one, but I know I'm not sequential, and my score was way into the global. Quote from the results: "global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it." Yup, pretty close to how I operate.
This assessment isn't slick or flashy, but packs a lot of information into a quick process. The questions are worded nicely, but it would be great to have a middle ground option for some of them. Probably the most valuable takeaway for me was to try to understand how people using the sites/software I design might approach the information in a totally different way than I might. A reminder that we need to do more user testing on everything -- prototypes, mockups, finished pages and interaction flows.

Perhaps I like these better than the multiple-intelligence quizzes because they're more horizontal rather than vertical, or domain specific. So instead of saying that someone has more or less musical intelligence, you might say that someone with a reflective learning style tends to approach new music by listening or composing rather than singing or collaborating. It seems to be more flexible.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Designing for Educators or Students?

I threw together this quick scenario to show some of the issues I've been stuck on lately: the tyranny of curriculum (and testing), teachers' desire to control learning, the value of for-fee online content, and student motivation in self-directed learning....

Let's say I'm designing a piece of educational software teaching high school students about self-employment. In my initial research, I find out that students want to know which small-business opportunities can make them the most money in the shortest amount of time. In sharp contrast, I find that educators want the software to align with the administration's career-development standards and they want students to learn the step-by-step process of setting up a business. So students and teachers have different goals, and I only get paid if teachers buy the software.

The majority of our teacher/customers say they want a specific structure, preferably sequential with limited navigation options so students stay on-task, which isn't constructivist at all, but keeps them sane in the computer lab. It seems that they're happiest if we create a digital textbook that satisfies prescribed outcomes, with a few multimedia elements for so-called motivation. The students are just jumping through hoops, because they can see from the very first screen that they're probably not going to get what they least not any time soon.

Instead of engaging in the carefully-designed step-by-step interactive business plan module and "learning" about business licensing, a student can do a couple of searches in Google (which she already has open in another window) and gradually figure out which entrepreneurial opportunities have the best time-to-profit ratio.

The student starting down this path in Google is in control of her learning, more motivated, and more likely to retain what she learns. She probably won't learn about the nuances of business licenses in her exploration, but if she's motivated enough by what she finds and actually pursues it further, she'll eventually do another search (or find someone who knows something about it) and learn about licensing at exactly the right moment. Same information, but more likely to be learned, valued and applied. The only problem in a school setting is that this urge to check it out is unlikely to occur when the education system demands that she check it out, which either erases the possibility of it ever occurring, or she'll do it on her own time.

The secondary issue is the role and viability of commercial learning materials. In a virtual classroom where students learn how to find their own sources, weigh their credibility, and design their own paths to knowledge on the web (and through networked experts and collaborators)....why would they need to pay for content?

Emerging Roles of Teachers

Is the Role of the Teacher as the "Knowledge Authority" in Danger in an ICT-Learning Setting?
Stephen Downes dug up this article from earlier in the year, covering the shift in teaching from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side". It's focused on the influence of educational technology and elearning, but shouldn't all teaching be moving in the same direction? Only the most pompous educators would claim that they are the keepers of all knowledge and are transmitting it to their students. There are Grade 8 students right now who know twice as much about Egypt, dinosaurs or military technology than their teachers do, and they know how to find out more about whatever topic catches their interest. This short article lists the new (and probably more effective) roles of the teacher: tutor, learner, collaborator, developer, researcher. That's the kind of teaching I would enjoy.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Digital Kids, Games and Instructional Design

The Impact of Digital Games in Education
Russ and I got into a discussion this morning about the overlap between instructional design and game design -- then this link showed up on elearningpost today. Don't you love when that happens?

I don't have time to read the whole thing right now, but I'll have to come back for the full meal deal. A quick skim revealed some gems, though, and it's right in the area I'm considering for my thesis next year.

Clearly, in the analysis of the designs of commercial products, market considerations are a major factor. One very important difference between educational software and video games is the type of buyer, that is, the person who selects the material. Educational software is chosen by adults: Teachers and parents. So manufacturers and retailers stress the fact that the products are ideally suited to application in the school curriculum.

I've been stuck on that point regularly when pondering a game-like career-planning application. If it focuses on curriculum, it's unlikely to actually appeal to kids. If it really gets the kids involved, it's way less likely to appeal to the educational purchasers, unless the "results" of using the system are truly fantastic. Lots to think about here.

Friday, July 11, 2003

The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams

The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams
Jesse James Garrett showed us this model when we were down in San Francisco for the Adaptive Path conference on the business of user experience. Looks like he's fleshed out the descriptions a bit, but I still love the simplicity of his model. We're running into issues in our current web project, mostly because of ill-defined roles and process -- this focus on competencies and dependencies might save us some grief. I find it interesting how this overlaps with the instructional design course I'm taking, but it seems like user experience as a field is more refined than in the education realm specifically.

Disengagement and Loathing in High School

Disengagement and Loathing in High School
Gwen sent me this link to a four-page description of a journalling project done with about 50 high school students. No surprise that teenagers find school boring, but should that have to be universal and enforced? Why are we wasting all that time and money?

Free the Children

Mom and I got into a cool discussion of parenting after reading this article in Time magazine (which I used to love, but haven't really been able to tolerate in the last couple of years). The premise is that kids' lives are so regimented, that even summer gets filled up with sports teams, camps, schedules and trips, with no time for just living and figuring out how you want to spend your day. It probably sounds like a nostalgic argument to some, like an attempt to recreate 1950s childhoods for today's kids, but it made me wonder whether we're constraining their ability to make decisions and take responsibility for their time.

The average kid graduating from high school has had mostly regimented days from the moment they hit daycare in their first or second year. Schedules, bells and pressure are key features of their entire K-12 experience. Although college introduces more personal freedom, the expectations are still pretty clear. Is it any wonder that many college grads are totally lost after college (or before), when they're expected to make their own path for the first time?

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Mainstream eLearning

Sometimes I'll mention e-learning in a normal conversation with non-education folks, and I get semi-confused half-nods. Everyone seems to kind of knows what it is, but the details are foggy. This article from the Globe and Mail covers the basics quite nicely: E-learning coming of age

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

RoadTrip Nation

I was going to write a proper review of the RoadTrip Nation book, but I haven't got around to it yet. The web site actually gives you a really good idea of what's in the book, and this article gives some good background. A quote about what they learned about career planning by talking to successful people:

There is usually no master plan, and most great people take time off after school instead of plunging into work, even if they go into debt. These insights confirmed that they were onto something. "Their stories," Marriner says, "are totally contrary to what society tells our generation right now."

Personalized Curricula

Is Dropping Out of High School Always Bad?
This article talks about the educational philosophy of the founder of Education Week, who is now 71 years old. I agree heartily with this vision:

"He wants a new system in which students at about age 13 or 14 can design their own personalized curricula, with the help of parents and advisers. He thinks all the individualized programs should have a heavy dose of real-world experience, including jobs, internships and volunteer work, and some time away from home in programs like Outward Bound. Even students whose plans are little more than well-organized ways to drop out, with most school time spent outside the classroom, should still be allowed to participate in any school activities, including athletics, that are important to their growth and development, he says."