Quick Thoughts on the State of Tech Ed

Earlier today, I was sent a request for an email interview from a CMU undergraduate. I only had a quick turnaround time to reply (so she could get enough info to write her paper about technology in education), but her deadline encouraged me to be brief in my responses. With her permission, I share her questions and my answers here. As I prepare for many professional development events coming up in the next few weeks, this was a good time to capture some of my thoughts in such a succinct manner.

What are some specific topics you have researched in technology?
My research focuses on the ways that teachers integrate technology into writing instruction. In particular, I am interested in how K-12 teachers blend a writing workshop approach to instruction with specific technologies such as blogs, wikis, collaborative word processing, digital stories, and other multimedia to engage students in meaningful writing and learning.
What are the “hot topics” right now?
Given President Obama’s interest in STEM and the new national educational technology plan, I think that the main focus on technology use in education is for science and math instruction. Also, with the push towards more student engagement, paperless classrooms, increased wireless broadband access, and tablet computing, I think that we have an interesting opportunity to change the ways that teaching and learning takes place inside and outside of school.
Describe the current debates of using technology in the classroom
I think that the main debate centers less on why we should use technology, as that is more or less a given, and more on why to use it. On the one hand, we have advocates for online/virtual learning that acts as a supplement or replacement for instruction. On the other, we have advocates who suggest that students should be using the technology to communicate and create, not just for remediation. As we continue to push for technology in schools, I hope that we invite students to be collaborators,  communicators, and creators, and not just to reinforce old models of instruction with newer, shinier tools.
Have you read any informational journals or books on technology?
I do read journals and books, and those are helpful resources, but get most of my news comes from educational bloggers/tweeters and eSchool News.
How do you conduct research?
For the most part, I do research with teachers as we co-design curriculum and instruction that is technologically-rich and pedagogically-sound. This involves time talking and planning with teachers, working with them and their students, doing follow-up interviews and surveys, and then integrating my thoughts and ideas into the existing literature and knowledge about technology in education and writing.
Where do you get funding to support your research?
Mostly from grant dollars which allow me to have release time. For instance, we currently have a grant from the National Writing Project for our local CMU site, the Chippewa River Writing Project. Also, I am working on a Title II Professional Development grant, WRITE NOW.
If I were to look for sources to write grants, where would I go?
For your own classroom, you would look most likely to local sources like community or school foundations. For the district or regional level, you would look to other agencies such as the Michigan Department of Education or National Writing Project.
What are the most enjoyable parts of being a researcher?
For me, the most enjoyable part of being a researcher is working with teachers to help them develop their own passions and ideas into classroom practice. The second most enjoyable part is being able to write and talk about those ideas in my own CMU classes and in professional development sessions that I lead around the country.
Do you ever work with a partner? How?
I am almost always working with partners. From the teachers that I meet with and plan projects to other CMU staff and faculty who help me develop and implement grants, I am working with partners all the time. Especially with writing, I am constantly working with colleagues to do grant applications, human subjects research applications, chapters, articles, books, and presentations.
What are the frustrations of being a researcher?
My main frustration is that I have to divert my attention away from research, writing, and collaboration to write reports and attend meetings that have little to do with my research. Yet, I understand that this is how the university works, and I really do enjoy being a researcher so I am willing to put up with the frustrations.
What do you think will come with the future of technology in education?
That’s a huge question. While I am not 100% sure of what will come, what I would hope will come is something like this: all teachers and students will have ubiquitous and uninterrupted one-to-one access to a tablet or other computing device, high speed wireless internet, and numerous online, open educational resources. This would allow for anytime, anywhere learning that truly pushes us to be instructional coaches and leaders for our students, since the answer to simple questions will only be a Google search away, and we can spend our time answering the bigger, more complicated questions through project-based learning.
Are there are connections to other disciplines? Or opportunities for interdisciplinary research?
Yes, there are many, many opportunities for this when you think about writing and technology. I think that you could connect to any discipline given the interest that you can generate from working with colleagues in that discipline. In particular, I am interested in how English teachers and librarian/media specialists could work together to address concerns about information literacy, copyright, and plagiarism.


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2010 MVU Online Learning Symposium

Notes from 2010 Michigan Virtual University Online Learning Symposium
November 9, 2010 at Michigan State University

Opening Keynote: Steve Midgley, Deputy Director of Education Technology, US DOE

  • Context
    • National Technology Plan (released just today), Four Components: Mobility, Social Interactions, Digital Content, Print to Online
    • This does not mean that we will have a “teacherless” curriculum, but the online marketplace offers many interesting opportunities
    • How do we find the right content and connect it with the right student with the right teacher at the right time?
    • Challenge from President Obama: “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
    • The crucial thing about this is that if you graduate every student in the pipeline today, we will still not meet this goal. Stats show that many students are not graduating from high school, so this implies that many people need to get re-engaged. This will only happen with online learning.
  • Content
    • Teaching, Learning, Assessment — Infrastructure — Productivity
    • Assessment the way it is working today is pretty fouled up
    • Using $350 million to develop new, next generation assessment
    • DARPA project to assess Navy ensigns “in the field”
  • Learning
    • Some major points
      • 21st century expertise
      • How people learn
      • Personalized learning
      • Universal design for learning
      • Informal + formal
    • Social search — more people go to YouTube from Facebook than from Google
      • What does it look like in a social context that is professional?
    • New models (Netflix/Blockbuster) — what does this look like in education?
  • Assessment
    • Major points
      • Measure what matters
      • Embedded assessments
      • Real time feedback
      • Persistent learning record
      • Universal design
      • Continuous improvement
    • New models of assessment being developed being developed
    • NOTE: I haven’t read up much about this, but there is information about it being distributed through MDE and other news outlets.
  • Teaching
    • Main points
    • What does “highly effective” really mean in an online environment?
    • Connected
    • Online
    • Informal + formal — we can’t organize in ways offline that we can online — some technologies require connectivity to work at all (e.g., Wikipedia)
    • Inspired
  • Questions and Answers
    • Wikipedia — many schools block it, and then students are expected to use it in college to get started with research — this is crazy
    • What other “spaces” can we create for teachers to share ideas and resources? What is officially sanctioned by the state, and what is not? What is the role of textbook publishers and other research-based work to integrate with teacher knowledge?
    • We can’t test everything that we say we want kids to learn, only certain things, and some kids are learning more at different times and in different ways. So, then the question becomes what happens to kids as they figure out seat time/credit hours?
    • Intellectual property — how do teachers’ ideas get recognized in these online spaces? Creates problems with copyright and fair use. Creative Commons and Open Courseware as one option, but also some states and districts have earned RTTT money and are sharing through other avenues.

Conversation with Michigan Online Teachers of the Year

  • What has surprised you about online learning?
    • The personal connection, the human touch. Part of this is about the evolution of the internet and how we use social networks today. It is very easy to develop the relationships.
    • When you never see students face-to-face, and you are teaching 125 a semester, when someone writes that “you are my favorite teacher” — that is motivating. The additional thing that surprises me is the connections that you make with your mentors and how much of a factor that they play in their students’ lives.
  • What are your major apprehensions?
    • The fact that the technologies continue to change. Need to keep on top of things, for instance with the 21 Things for 21st Century Educators. (NOTE: I am not so sure that I agree with this statement — I think that there are generally principles about online learning and digital literacy that we need to know, but that we get way too caught up with the tools.)
    • If we don’t teach kids how to use their mobile phones properly, how will they learn these life skills? (NOTE: Again, I am a bit concerned about the tone that we take when we assume that we, as educators, have the “right” answer about how, when, and why we use the tools. Not that I disagree with the principle that we invite them to use these devices and applications, but I do worry that once we co-opt the digital tools and spaces that they are familiar with, we are changing the purposes and audiences for which they write and work).
    • Assessment is built in to the system — the fact that student time online is logged.
  • What are the roles that teachers and students play in the process of online learning?
    • If you are just introducing it, you have to give it time. Initially, it depends on the success of the students that are there — highly motivated kids are successful and motivate other kids to continue working, too.
    • This is rewarding for teachers — we enjoy having the opportunity to teach in a more flexible model. Old model was to have AP kids in advanced classes and remedial kids in other courses (kind of a dumping ground, without mentor support). We have now moved to a model where most students who are in our courses actually get to work and achieve a passing grade.
    • We can bait the hook, but students need to bite. People talk about the way that online learning is better because it offers students new opportunities as compared to what they have experienced in school. This is especially true for students in credit recovery. Still, they have to be motivated and self-directed. (NOTE: So, in what ways does online learning really change the paradigm? That is, if students are reluctant to engage in school, for whatever reason, does the flexibility of online learning really overcome the negative feelings that they have towards school?) Can you meet them online through Skype and Adobe Connect or other similar tools?
    • What are your strategies for connecting with online students? It is not about loving your subject, it is about loving your students. Students see it and recognize it, and they reciprocate.

Lunch Keynote: Milton Chen, Senior Fellow and Director Emeritus at George Lucas Educational Foundation — “Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools” and Edutopia

  • Interesting note — Chen was born in Negaunee, and his father was a mining engineer
    • “I am here as an accident of history” — China was an ally, and my father was able to come to the US and learn about mining at Penn State, and my parents were married in 1945, although my mother didn’t arrive until 1949. They didn’t plan to stay in the US, but the stayed and I was born in 1953.
  • Imagine an Education Nation: “A learning society where education of children is teh highest priority, equal to a strong economy, high employment, and national security, which rely on education.”
    • The book is a “curation” of many resources from Edutopia; interesting that the magazine has been discontinued; e-books now outsell print books
    • “I think this is the first decade of the twenty-first century for education.” — we are at the tipping point.
    • Innovation — the key to creating an education nation; it is a “must do” than a “nice to know”
    • Bugscope
    • Google is 12 years old, YouTube is 5 years old, Edutopia YouTube Channel
    • Clay Shirky — we are witnessing the biggest change in human innovation and creativity in history; every media that we have ever known is now on a device in our pocket next to every other media
  • These are old ideas… Dewey
    • “From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school… within the school itself while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.” The School and Society Lecture, University of Chicago, 1899
  • 6 Leading Edges of K-12 Innovation
    • Thinking
    • Curriculum and Assessment
    • Technology
    • Time/Place
    • Co-Teaching
    • Youth
  • The Edge of Our Thinking: Ending the Education Wars
    • From the either/or to both/and hybrids
    • Phonics and whole language
    • Arts and core curriculum (opening minds with the arts)
    • Learning in nature and technology
  • Curriculum Edge: Globalizing the Curriculum
  • Technology Edge
    • We want all students to use technology; weapons of mass instruction (one-to-one is the weapon that we need to employ)
      • We need to reduce the 1:6 student/computer level to a one-to-one (it can be done for $250 or less, per year)
    • iPod, iListen, iRead: EUSD iRead Program
      • Technology is only technology for those who were born before it existed
      • Using the iPod as a device to record students’ own voices reading: the “missing mirror” in literacy instruction
      • This is not about just getting to the standards, this is about having kids learn more, and learn earlier
      • Have students see how other students are learning; what are the different paths that other students take and how can we learn from this public learning process?
  • The Time/Place Edge
    • Getting kids out into the community for place-based learning
  • Co-Teaching
  • The Greatest Edge: Today’s Youth
  • What is your definition of a great school?
    • Make it short, make it measurable — are the kids running into school as fast as they are running out of it; are the kids so excited about their work that they do not want to leave school?

Closing Keynote: Richard Ferdig, Kent State University

  • Building the plane while we are flying it — and that’s OK
  • Is K-12 online learning academically effective? — this is not the right question
    • Example of TV and video games — not good for kids, right?
    • Actually, depending on the TV or game, it is good for you.
    • Asking the right question — when are courses taught “better” online as compared to face-to-face?
    • Quote from USDOE: “On average, online learning students performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
  • So, the better question is “When is online learning academically effective?” or “Under what conditions is online learning academically effective?”
    • How is online more effective? What are the conditions under which it is more effective?
    • Is “X” technology better for learning? — Sometimes (under certain conditions)
  • So, when is K-12 online learning academically effective?
  • So, what do we look at?
    • Student and Teacher
      • With teachers, we know that a teacher has a significant role in mentoring students through their online experiences
      • Highly qualified teachers matter in virtual schooling as well
      • How can we get highly qualified teachers?
        • Professional development — because not any teacher can teach online, they need particular skill sets for teaching online — engaging parents and mentors, using virtual school resources
        • Teacher education is not the answer — they are not working with K-12 online schools. Do they have virtual internship programs? Most teachers leave colleges of education without any preparation to teach online.
        • Lack of PD opportunities – not all have online experiences, only 21% had a customized experience
        • Does PD work — sometimes. PD only works when teachers take charge of their PD experience.
        • PCK — talk about teacher knowledge for practice, in practice, and of practice
        • Classroom — inquiry — community
        • Suggestions/Recommendations:
          • Record and reflect on exemplary practice
          • Ownership of the PD model, using innovative means and tools
      • Does online learning affect student retention?
        • Retention is a significant problem, and they drop out for different reasons such as their own individual reasons, or institutional reasons. This happens at key transitions points, students are myopic, and there are disconnected understandings about what is happening and why.
      • Solutions
        • Better communication
        • Individualized instruction
        • Additional mentoring
        • Connections to jobs
      • Why did it work?
        • Accepted by peers
        • Accepted by online teachers
        • Learning styles were met
        • Connections to real world
        • More opportunities for expression
        • In short, all the reasons they dropped out of their F2F school is why they succeeded online
  • Understanding Virtual Schools
    • 80/20 — most of what happens across states is common, although there are some unique features depending on the state
      • Partnerships — including school, university, research, and evaluation
      • Exponential growth
      • Retaining both students and teachers
      • The funding dilemma/opportunity
    • Best practices
      • Engage in attention on pedagogy, innovation with technology, etc.
  • What are some ways to get to better practice?

Reflections on the day

Along with all the technology interests that I have had over the years, my formal introduction to online learning began around the turn of the century when I was trained as an online instructor with the Michigan Virtual High School. Because of a variety of reasons, not the least of which was starting grad school, I taught my last online course for them in 2002. Given my continuing interests in online and hybrid models of learning — especially in professional development for teachers — it was good to come to the conference today and get reconnected with the state of online learning.

I do have significant concerns about the commercialization of online learning and how models like MIVU, Blackboard, textbook companies selling products, charter schools and other organizations who are working, in one way or another, for a profit versus the model of open courseware, collaboration, hybridity, and free or opensource web-based tools. This is a significant wedge that continues to grow. For instance, I set my courses up with a wiki, invite students to use free tools for collaboration and bibliography management, and engage with a variety of other tools. contrast this with the subscription that my university pays for to use Blackboard, including all the proprietary tools and content management.

One of the resources that I was reminded of, and I know I need to continue my participation in, is Edutopia. Milton Chen talked about the many ways that educators are innovating, and that the “internet makes learning international.” It’s been one year since I was invited to be a moderator of a group on Multimedia Literacy, and I need to get involved again.

Also, the implications for professional development for online teachers has just as much, if not more, resonance with our needs for traditional professional development. One of the main points that I will take from the final talk by Richard Ferdig is the fact that teachers, like students, need customized, just-in-time learning opportunities to find out more about how to teach and learn in their own context. I hope that we are doing some of that with our work this year in the CRWP/CGRESD partnership, and I look forward to seeing results from that work.

It was an interesting day, especially in the sense that this conference was one that I chose to attend because it was outside of my normal areas of conference-going, yet remained on the border of them and moved my thinking forward in new ways.


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