Visions of Online Learning

Are we, as educators, approaching this in the right way?

To deal with the growth, the University of California is launching an extensive effort to make sure applicants’ online high school courses are on par with traditional classroom instruction.

More students across US logging on to online classrooms – The Boston Globe

To be honest, I am not sure that I want online courses to be “on par” with traditional classroom instruction. While I do not want to get in a finger-pointing, name-calling game, the fact of the matter is that “traditional classroom instruction” is becoming more and more a relic of education’s past, not a model to emulate.

Moreover, what is it about the “online experience” that makes it an online experience? If it is simply listening to video versions of lecture and completing the same homework assignments that have been given year after year with Word or Excel instead of a pencil, paper, and calculator, then we are going about it all wrong.

Shouldn’t, instead, the purposes of online learning be to engage students in reading and writing tasks that require multimedia authoring, collaboration with others with whom we typically would not or could not work, and engagement with materials that are fresh, relevant, and contextually useful to one’s own inquiry?

This is not to say that there is not a place for some traditional “content” in online learning. However, my experience as an online instructor was one where I simply monitored students as they were supposed to work independently through a prescribed set of curriculum. One of our coordinators called it the “nag and brag” version of online teaching, only to touch base with students when they did something wrong, fell behind, or did a great job on something.

This, to me, is the failure of our current paradigm about online learning. We do not need to replicate traditional classroom experiences. Instead, we need to think about what it means to engage with content and collaborate with others in ways that will both catch the attention of and expand the abilities of our students.

I hope that Michigan, as the first state to adopt an online learning component, is able to move beyond the traditional visions and be, instead, visionary. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.

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Notes from Brian Winn’s “Serious Games” Talk

Brian Winn, an Assistant Professor from Comm Arts and one of the directors of the Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab, gave a talk on “Serious Games.” Here is part of his bio:

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media, Co-Director of the Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab, and a Principal Investigator in the Communication Technology Lab at Michigan State University.

I design, create, and research interactive media design, including game design, digital game-based learning and interactive health communication. My expertise is in designing engaging serious games that balancing learning, pedagogical, and gameplay objectives. My award-winning interactive media work has been presented, exhibited, and experienced around the world.

Notes from the talk, “Making Learning Fun: Getting Serious about Games”

(Note: Check out a recent interview with Brian on the Spartan Podcast site)

  • Play, Games, and Learning
    • Play as problem solving
      • Playing is a form of problem solving used by many animals
      • Uniqueness of games
        • Imposes formal rules on top of play
        • Adds goals and objectives
        • Thereby play is structured for a particular purpose
      • Merlin Donald, Origins of the Human Mind
        • “Human children play rule-governed gaems by imitation, often without any formalized instruction. They invent and learn new games, often without using language.”
    • Why do we play?
      • Ring around the rosie: Cognitive development: mimicry, coordination, self-awareness, spatial relationships, empathy
      • Childhood socialization
      • Chess, checkers: mental sport
      • Olympics: celebrate athleticism, peace amongst nations
      • War games: preparation for war, tactics
    • What types of problems are there?
      • Survival
      • Education
      • Business
      • Political
      • Military
      • Health Care
      • Science
      • Entertainment
      • More…
    • Why we play digital games”
      • You learn something from any game: characters, rules
      • But, does the thing that you learn transfer outside of the game world?
      • Most digital games attempt to solve the entertainment problem, nothing else
  • Serious Games Movement
    • Serious games are any game whose chief mission is not entertainment
      • They can also be entertainment games reapplied for missions other than entertainment
        • Ex: Civilization in the history classroom
    • But, why serious games?
      • We are all products of our environment
        • Baby Boomers: TV, typewrite, memos
        • Gen X: Computes, email, early video games
        • Gen Y: Web, IM, interactive games
      • Games are a way of life for many people: the average 8th grader plays video games 5 hours per week
    • Why are we interested in games?
      • They are engaging and goal-oriented
      • They are challenging and provide rapid feedback, adapting to what the player does as he/she plays
      • They build individual expertise
      • They have a social aspect to them; most games throughout time have been multi-player games
        • The image of the computer game is that we have one player on his/her own computer, bust as networks have grown, so have interactive games
        • Humans like to tell stories and games provide a rich context for sharing experiences. Even if they are not in the same game, they can share experiences about that game (player walk throughs, reviews)
    • In a typical game:
      • Player adopts a character, perceives task to complete tasks, picks up vocabulary, explores and test boundaries, adapts to the game, realigns expectations and judgments through each exploration, reappraising the cause and consequence of their actions.
      • Replace “player” with “student” and “game” with “subject matter.”
    • But why Serious Games?
      • Parallels with progressive pedagogy
        • Active, constructivist learning
        • Problem-based learning
        • “Authentic Professionalism” (Gee) and communities of practice
      • Where are serious games being used?
        • Education: Higher Ed and Pre-k through 12
        • Government: Fire fighter training
        • Healthcare: educating someone about how to stay healthy and games for exercise
        • NGOs ad corporations
  • Case Studies
    • Life Preservers
      • NSF Funded Game
      • Education Goals
        • Framed by national science standards for middle-school science
        • Evolution, adaptation, and natural history
      • Design Goals
        • Accurate science vs. fun gameplay
        • Appeal to both boys and girls
      • Research Goals
        • Due to play style differences between genders
        • Girls will explore more, boys will just try to win the game
        • Girls will learn more than boys from the same learning game
      • Mixing science fiction with science fact
        • Initially, we were going to try to be completely factual, but to create an engaging experience, we needed to do some science fiction for story, but the science facts come in throughout the game
        • Based on the concept of invasive species and how we stop them or what happens once they are in an ecosystem
        • Learning objectives: to understand the “tree of life” diagram and interact with it; look at the different aspects of the species and think about the adaptations that went on with each creature.
        • Mixes interactive tutorials with mini-lessons, and can be played in one class period
    • FFC: The Fantastic Food Challenge
      • Developed for the MI Food and Nutrition Program
        • Developed to teach low-income adults the knowledge, skills, and confidence to feed their families nutritious meals
        • Based on the concept of Yahtzee, you roll and take food items and place them on the food pyramid
        • Designed to be a gender-neutral game, and the audience was not familiar with computer technology in general
        • Based on our research, the people who played the game learned more than just reading on the website or brochure
    • Voyage Beijing
      • The idea behind this was to understand culture as important in business communication and negotiation
      • Based on the explosion of US business in China and meant to simulate a business person’s first experience going to China
      • Sets you up with a role as a manager and lays out the story that you need to go to China to resolve some quality issues in your product development
      • Designed as a virtual experience to understand knowledge about China (what is the time zone, can I use the ATM, do they speak English) and you get more “knowledge” experience
      • Also, you get “impression” as you interact with people and that can go up and down
      • You can create and add to a journal focusing on names, places, and cultural references
  • Issues: Practical, Cultural, Design, Research
    • Cultural: “Educational” games are not fun, like broccoli dipped in chocolate
    • There are few examples of fun educational games and many boring ones (like Math Blaster)
      • How do we change perceptions? Can you?
    • What is “fun?”
      • This is a highly contested question in the sense of the content, the persona designing, the person playing, the relationship this game has to other games, how many players are involved and many other factors.
    • Cultural problems
      • Clark Aldrich – “I think educational simulations (games) can be fun, but more importantly they must be satisfying.”
    • Designing serious games is hard
      • Integrating learning into play
      • Balancing content, pedagogy, and fun
      • Cues from entertainment games
      • What is important in terms of learning objectives?
        • Knowledge, skills, and attitudes
        • You can’t do everything in a game; it is a tool that can be added to a class with a particular, limited set of objectives
      • It is hard to make games: design, programming, art, production, content, pedagogy
      • Not too many good, easy-to-use, affordable tools: Brian uses Flash and Director mostly
    • Games are expensive to make
      • Commercial games cost from $1 to $25 million over 1-3 years
      • Life Preservers, for instance, was made over six months and on a grant
    • Assessing effectiveness
      • How do you show learning? Is a score on a game the same as a score on a test?
    • Serious games have competition from other forms of media and there are many cultural preconceptions about games that we have to overcome (games are for kids/boys/etc)
      • More and more people are beginning to consider games as a way to learn, and the positive value of gaming in education
      • Decision makers are not gamers (average age of gamer is 31)
    • Gaming is a young “industry”
      • “Serious Game Developer” isn’t in the yellow pages
  • Resources

Notes on Timothy Shanahan’s “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”

Here are notes from a talk today:

Timothy Shanahan, Current President of the International Reading Association

Tim Shanahan is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the UIC Center for Literacy. He has played a leadership role at the federal level in making connections between literacy research and educational policy. Dr. Shanahan served on the National Reading Panel, chaired the National Literacy Panel on Language and Minority Children and Youth, and chairs the National Early Literacy Panel. His research interests include: the relationship between reading and writing, the assessment of reading ability, family literacy, and school improvement. Dr. Shanahan has published numerous research articles and written and/or edited several books including Teachers Thinking, Teachers Knowing (1994) and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research (1992).

Notes from the session, “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”:

  • Understanding reading in the context of US policy; having become a combatant in the “reading wars”
    • I had been invited to be a part of the National Reading Panel and served on it for two years trying to synthesize research through a meta-study
    • The real upswing of all this is that it led to $5 billion infused into reading education
  • An Ideological History Lesson
    • Governmental role in education
      • 1600s: MA, CT, and NH establish public schools for religious reasons
      • 1788: US Constitution ratified, no mention of education
      • 1791: Amendment X for state’s rights
      • 1791: 7 states make constitutional provision for public education (e.g., establish school boards)
      • 1800s: Freedmans‘ act for curriculum for freed slaves
        • First time that feds intervened in local schools at such a large and systematic level
      • 1900s: Increased centralization, immigration
      • 1950s and 60s: ESEA and focus on science and technology
      • Current: More centralized curriculum
  • Current forces in education
    • Explosive growth in informational technology
    • Internationalization of economic markets
    • Changes in the relationship of literacy attainment and well being
  • Current changes in the economy
    • Growth of service sector and decline of manufacturing
    • Transformation of low education blue collar work into skilled labor
    • Free trade movember of low-paying jobs and workers
    • Outsourcing of middle-income jobs and immigration of high-income workers
  • Changes have led to:
    • More jobs that require reading
    • Increased correlation of reading achievement and economic success
  • Current status of education
    • Since “A Nation at Risk,” US education is continually in “reform” mode
    • From 1971 to 1994, there has been no improvement in reading for 4th graders
    • Cost of education has risen in real terms
    • Public dissatisfaction is still there because the fundamental problems have not changed
    • Educators have not been sure footed (neither convinced of the need for reform nor clear on how to make things work better)
      • Where are the experts at the table in most of these debates?
  • What’s the Point?
    • The politicians aren’t crazy — reading has to improve
    • Their “solutions” are frequently wrong, but they deserve credit for making serious attempts to solve a real problem
    • They are deeply frustrated by educators who don’t seem to recognize the problem (or who want to respond with the union shop kinds of solutions)
  • Context for NCLB
    • Low NAEP scores and the reading wars in the 1990s
      • As it got bigger and bigger, politicians decided to do something that they hadn’t done in education before: appoint an expert panel
        • I had become a member of the National Reading Panel
          • They didn’t want our opinions; they didn’t want opinions, they wanted a determination of fact
          • We can’t make recommendations except for recommendations on more research
          • Can’t tell how well we thought things would work, or not
    • Changes during the Clinton administration
      • focusing Title I money on poorest schools
        • This hadn’t happened before, and the dollars were focused a little bit more on poor districts
      • Reading Excellence Act (SBRR)
        • Some direct money is given to states for reading education, given on a grant basis, although this was done before the NRP was finished
        • Every state was able to decide what they wanted to call; “research” and there were no standards on it at all
      • Pushing adoption of proven curriculum
      • Move from professional development to volunteers
        • Big fight on money for teachers vs. volunteer tutors
  • National Reading Panel
    • Appointment process began in 1997
      • How do you build authority and trust?
      • Took 300 nominations and the Secretary of Education created the panel
    • Open meetings with transcripts
    • Public hearings around the country
    • Explicit methodology: replicable searcher, pre-established inclusion criteria, research had to be consistent with questions, meta-analysis
      • Some things we were not able to find conclusive evidence about things, so we didn’t include it
    • Findings on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, professional development
    • Controversy
      • There was a very real chance that this would have all ended up on a shelf, but we had a new president come in and he made it the cornerstone of federal literacy policy
  • No Child Left Behind
    • 2001 reauthorization of ESEA
    • More Title I funding, but more accountability
    • Reading First ($1 billion a year for K-3 PD, curricula, materials)
    • This allows Congress a way out of the unholy bargain. We can control quality without being a part of local decision making since the NRP did it
      • Congress keeps its hands clean of the controversy
  • Results of all of this…
    • Higher 4th grade achievement on both the NAEP and the NAEP trend items (reduction of achievement gap, sizable gains, highest trend performance ever)
      • What’s indisputable is that 4th graders are reading better now than they were 12 years ago, despite how you spin the politics on how the gains have been made and by whom
      • With all the state and federal focus on K-3, there has been some improvement at 4th grade. But…
    • No improvement for older students
      • 8th graders are not moving up, so we are losing the gains between 4th and 8th grade
      • What you see in the whole body of ed research is that Reading Recovery, Head Start, and other programs is that we know how to raise achievement early but that we don’t know how to sustain it
        • For instance, the difference between kindergarten full and half days had their gains erased by the end of first grade because all the same students did all the typical first grade curriculum.
      • We need to reform the system at all levels from the ground up. We need to keep all day kindergarten and then do PD for teachers in first grade to work with these higher achieving students.
  • NCLB/RF Problems
    • Accountability of goals of NCLB are unreachable and fail to reward success
    • The costs of testing are burgeoning in terms of lower morale, corruption, mistrust, etc.
    • States are encouraged to reduce standards
    • Peculiar corruption of Reading First
    • Subtle shift of NRP to WWC
    • Problems with the newer panels (NELP, NLP)
  • What is needed to make research-based policy work?
    • Substantial public support for research
    • Open way of determining specific research priorities
    • Benefits for researchers who choose to do this work
    • Is this likely? No:
      • We don’t see evidence so public support for research.
      • The feds are maintaining power over priorities.
      • There is no real infrastructure for carrying out recommendations for policy into practice.
      • There is likely to be evidence soon of the effectiveness of the Reading First policy.
      • There is no increase in university commitment.
  • Question and answer session
    • Shifts in thinking: Clinton and the Democrats wanted national testing in the 1990s, but the conservatives didn’t want to lose local control; now it is vice versa because all the states have their own standards.
    • Reading First: There is survey data to show that Reading First teachers actually feel better now that they “know how to teach reading” and have books in their classrooms. Part of the reason for this success is the Reading Excellence Act.
    • What is dividing the field is not methods, but thinking about the social and cultural aspects of what counts as evidence.
      • What grad students need to do is set aside the rhetoric of whether things are “good” or “bad,” and look at the field as a whole. It doesn’t mean that there are times when different questions demand different kinds of evidence, especially as it relates to policy.
      • There are people in medicine who do anthropology, but they don’t move into the policy debate.

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Collaborating, Cooperating, and Co-opting

So, I have finally caught up on my RSS reading. Sort of. I keep getting side tracked and have been looking at two collaborative tools — Zoho Writer and ThinkFree — that I\’ve known about for awhile, but came up in my reading tonight. (To digress for a moment, my goal this next week is to read my feeds in Google Reader every day. We\’ll see how that goes…).

That said, I am interested in thinking more about the entire notion of collaboration that the discussions of the read/write web and school 2.0 have generated in the past year, and especially in the last month or so. It seems that every podcast that I listen to or blog that I read points to \”collaboration\” as one of the \”new literacies\” and that social networking (as a proxy for collaboration) holds such great promise in schools for rethinking the teacher student relationship, curriculum and instruction, and just about everything else.

What I find lacking in most of these conversations is a discussion of what would happen if schools do/are already co-opting some of the collaborative and social tools that students are using outside of school for classroom use. Now, this is not to say that I don\’t think that we should try (or else I wouldn\’t blog about these topics on a regular basis). However, I do think that we need to carefully consider what it means to \”collaborate\” as compared to just \”cooperate\” and what happens when we try to use tools in school that students gladly use on their own, but may (or may not) like to see in schools.

My concern stems partially from the many, many curricular documents that seem to be touting 21st century literacies and, inherent in those literacies, the idea that students collaborate. To the extent that we see collaboration happening, all the better. Yet, I don\’t know that schools encourage collaboration (where the sum is, indeed, more than the total of the individual parts) so much as it promotes cooperation (hey, let\’s get along so we can finish this project). There are many power structures in schools — from the community to the school board to the administration to the teachers to the students to cliques and types of students — that may say they want collaboration, when in fact what they want is cooperation.

This becomes problematic. When we teach under the guise of collaboration, yet all students are not expected to contribute meaningfully to the project, then we shortchange all the students working on it. We have all been a part of a group or taught a group of students who foist the work upon one or two students (or, contrarily, choose to take it upon themselves as martyrs). Moreover, there are times when group work is meant to be busywork and cooperation, not collaboration is the goal.

I don’t know that I have a strong thesis for this argument so much as I just want to express some thoughts and concerns about the current discourse surrounding the word “collaboration.” I would be curious to hear how others are interpreting that term in different contexts and to know whether or not I am thinking clearly about it. That, I feel, would be a powerful, collaborative discussion.

If the Read/Write Web is About Community…

then this group of students exemplifies what community can be.

Brian Crosby and his students have begun video conferencing with a homebound student using a laptop with a web cam and Skype. Just today, I was talking with a group of academic advisers about how they could connect with their students via Skype, and this example goes to show that these technologies — ones that just a few years ago were cost-prohibitive or extremely difficult to use — are fundamentally changing the ways that we read, write, and interact with one another.

Congrats to Mr. Crosby, his students, and his administration for allowing them the opportunity to use Skype in this way. I look forward to hearing about how they use other read/write tools to stay in touch with Celeste.

The Read/Write Web for Academic Advising

Of the four presentations that I have to do today, tomorrow, and Friday, there is one that I am really developing from the ground up and need to think through quite a bit. In thinking about how Mobile Social Software and other read/write web tools are impacting youth, this question will become increasingly important as time goes on.

So, I will be meeting on Friday with some academic advisers to help them think through how newer technologies can help them do their work. I have been asked to think about how messenging, blogging, podcasting, and social networking could contribute to better relationships between advisers and students. I think that I will start with Educause’s 7 Things article about Facebook, and then move in to a broader discussion about how and why we, as adults, use technology to communicate. Then, we can start thinking about what students might want/expect of us.

In preparation for this meeting, the advisers generated a “top ten” list of questions that students typically ask them in order to help frame the discussion during our meeting:

  1. What do I still need to graduate? When can I graduate?
  2. Are my University requirements done?
  3. What’s a cognate and what should I do for a cognate?
  4. What Study Abroad programs can I go on? How will the credits work in my degree?
  5. What kind of careers/jobs can I get with this major?
  6. How can I find and sign up for an internship?
  7. How long will it take me to graduate if I change my major to ___________?
  8. I want to take classes near home this summer. How can I do that?
  9. A class I want/need is full. How can I get an override?
  10. Do I have to do the foreign language? How can I get it waived?

So, I am trying to think about how all the technologies listed above — and others that aren’t like RSS, Google Calendar, and wikis — could help contribute to helping these students. I am also wondering if these are very Web 1.0 questions. That is, most of these seem like they could be posted as a FAQ on a static web page or, if they wanted to add some interactivity, on a wiki. Thus, I am interested in the deeper questions that these questions are getting at and I am curious to think about how some read/write web tools might help develop better relationships between advisers and students.

As I end this rambling post, here are some things that I am thinking about:

  • Getting everyone signed up for Facebook and learning the basic functions of it
  • Getting everyone signed up for Bloglines or Google Reader
  • Creating a Google Calendar that they can subscribe to
  • Using Skype to carry on a conversation with voice and/or chat

What else makes sense here? What other things might an adviser, or a teacher, need to be fluent with in order to stay connected with their students, answer questions in a timely manner, and develop stronger relationships? Thanks in advance for your ideas.

Of Photography and Five Paragraph Essays

For the past two Mondays, I have been attending a photography class. This was a Christmas present from my wife, and a much-needed break from the regular weekly routine in this cold, cold mid-winter stretch. The award-winning photographer teaching the class, Ron St. Germain, shares a number of tips and tricks while also teaching us the basics about how to operate these fancy (or what we thought were fancy until we realize all the things they can’t do) digital cameras that we’ve owned and never really known how to use.

In the first two sessions, he has basically told us to stop doing everything that we are doing with our cameras. Or, should I say, what they are doing for us. Point and shoot with auto focus? Turn it off and use your shutter and aperture settings. Automatic flash? Turn it off, too, and use a detachable, multi-directional flash. Saving in JPEG? Stop it, and switch over to TIFF or RAW formats because the JPEG may be space-saving, but is also taking out details in your pictures that you may want later. In short, take control of your camera so you can take better pictures. Otherwise, you will continue to get the same type of pictures that you have taken for years on auto pilot and that have never turned out.
As I was processing all these tips on the drive home tonight, I began to recall a conversation that I had with a group of high school teachers during a professional development session a few weeks ago. The topic of the session was “writing with purpose,” and we discussed a variety of reasons and genres for writing. Towards the end of the session we began a discussion about the five-paragraph essay (5PE). While I thought that showing them a video from the Annenberg Foundation and discussing reading a Jim Burke book would open up a conversation about essay writing that would critique the 5PE, what I found was exactly the opposite. Teachers in the session offered all the usual thoughts on why and how the 5PE works for them:

  • The kids don’t understand what an essay is at all and this gives them a model
  • You have to know the rules of essay writing before you can break them
  • When kids are in a testing situation, they need a model that they can rely upon

While I would like to believe that all of these are palpable reasons for teaching the 5PE, I simply can not buy it. As an amateur photographer, my instructor is basically telling me to throw out all the automatic settings on my camera and learn how to shoot manually. As a teacher of writing, I think that I should invite my students to throw out the automatic settings, too.

Instead of talking about a particular form, the 5PE, — just like relying on the settings that come installed on my camera — we need to talk clearly and carefully about audience, purpose, and situation of a writing task. Just as I no longer point my camera at a subject and let it do all the work, I don’t think that a writer should put a mold into place and then try to fill it.

This will only become more important as students compose multimedia texts. Beyond the many connections to composing that I could make with this digital camera example, I want to keep thinking here about the ways in which I should control the camera (or the form of the essay), and not how it should automatically do things for me.

Perhaps I am extending the comparison between my camera and the form of the 5PE essay a little far. Yet, I do believe that writing teachers need to consider the ways in which they frame the writing tasks in their classrooms. I want to make sure, especially with digital writing — which is by its very nature non-linear and multimodal — that we do not offer templates or pre-set notions of what a digital story, blog, wiki, or other composition should be (having X many links or images, for instance). Like the automatic settings on my camera limit me as a photographer, these preconceived notions of what a composition can be limit what a writer can attempt in his or her essay.