Where Do We (Virtually) Go From Here?

Photo by Markus Spiske on UnsplashLast night, in conversation with colleagues during a writing group meeting — and, as an accumulation of many ideas, from numerous conversations in the past week — I shared an idea, probably not a completely original one,  but one that garnered some conversation on Twitter nonetheless. Forgive the typo, where “it” should be “if”:

Responses were varied.

At risk of over-simplifying, they stretched from “yes, we need to do this now” (as some districts are preparing to do) all the way to “no, it can never happen because of equity and access issues.”

True.

Digital equity issues in pandemic times, as Pew Internet has shown us in the past, have been, as reported by The New York Times and others, laid bare. Equity issues, if they ever really were really all that hidden, are now right out there for everyone to see.

That said, when we come out of this crisis, I don’t think that educators, in general, and educational leaders (at the district, state, and national levels) as well as policy makers (again, at the local, state, and national levels) have any more excuses for NOT embracing digital learning.

Some have done this well in the past 30 years. Some have done OK. Most, let’s be honest, have done poorly with embracing technology that can support high-leverage teaching, substantive learning, and meaningful reform in education. Many other scholars and critics make this case much more eloquently, and their work is worth reading (Larry Cuban, Neil Selwyn, Stephen Downes, and Audrey Watters, among others, are all good voices to begin listening to right now).

While we have many companies that are stepping in to offer “free” internet access for a while, and access to their ed tech tools, this is a systemic problem that needs to be solved. Otherwise, schools and districts will be stuck with guidance that is effectively useless, and models of online learning that are not aligned with best practices for teaching students, inviting them into collaboration, and leading them to deeper, generative, and substantive learning.

Moreover, if the trend holds, and more employers encourage/allow for remote work, we could argue that a move like this would also help prepare our students for their careers. That “career-readiness” thing always seems to get politicians’ attention.

At any rate, what are your thoughts?

Should the state legislators — when rewriting the rules on seat time requirements, waivers for weather-related (or pandemic-related) days off, and the ways in which K-12 education should prepare for a digital future — require schools to have at least one “remote learning day” a month during the regular school year?

Let me know what you think, in the comments, or by sending me a note.

Thanks. Take care, stay safe, and be well.


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On COVID-19 (and the Moving of Courses from Campus to Cloud)

Photo of man typing on laptop, wearing a surgical face mask by Dimitri Karastelev on UnsplashAfter conversations with colleagues and family in the past few days — and awkward pauses during a conference on Friday, moments which would have normally been filled with handshakes and hugs — I, too, felt compelled to write about the topic everyone is talking about.

As we (collectively, read “we” here as “the education community”) make decisions about how we might cancel face-to-face courses/school sessions and move them online for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, I urge a bit of pedagogical caution.

That is, I hope that we don’t simply try to push teaching and learning practices that are often evident in poorly designed instructional settings (both face-to-face and online) in front of students, from kindergarten to graduate school, who may not be interested in, let alone prepared to, learn online.

For those who would encourage me not to bury the lead, here are my three main ideas that we need to keep at the forefront of planning online instruction:

  • Plan for less time consuming content, and more time for students to create it.
  • Invite genuine dialogue with students, and listen intently to their responses.
  • Establish and strengthen relationships with students by communicating clearly and providing feedback in a timely manner.

And, before going any further into this post, I need to acknowledge those who have lost loved ones, and those who are first responders and medical staff on the front lines of managing the crisis. Empathy and appreciation are in order for all.

And, for those who are in positions of power at schools, colleges, and universities (among other institutions), each dealing with COVID-19 in profound ways, both personal and public. The fact that so many universities and K-12 schools around the world (and now beginning here in the US) are thinking about how to continue educating our students in a time of emerging crisis shows their deep dedication to these students and our society’s common good, even in a time when panic could be the default. For that, I thank all of you, and know that we share the goal of continuing to educate our students

Yet, we need to do this in a productive, engaging way.

As we hear announcements (as well as rumors) that some schools and colleges might tell their students to stay home after spring break (and, indeed, some already have), this creates major implications for teaching and learning. If we are going to move our courses, quite literally overnight, from the classroom/campus to the cloud, there are a number of important things for us to consider. Here are just three, all of which deserve more attention as a way to think through what we will do in the days, weeks, and months to come.

Point 1: Poor Teaching in Face-to-Face Settings is Even Worse Online

First, we know that the vast majority of “online learning experiences” are designed to meet only the basic needs of content delivery, effectively keeping students’ learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and not fully engaging them in the critical and creative capabilities that technology has to offer. This is why “lecture capture” technology has always bothered me. If we are just capturing screen recordings of didactic lectures, what are we really doing to help engage students with technology in substantive ways?

Put another way, whether content is created and delivered synchronously or asynchronously, the more important question is this: what do we want students to do with what they are learning? If we might be asking students to sit in front of their screens for hours and hours, consuming educational content, what will we ask them, in turn to do to demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways, possibly employing collaborative learning and principles of effective instructional design?

In other words, we don’t just want us pushing streaming video content, screencasts of slideshow presentations, and multiple choice quizzes at our students. We need to see them create, which connects to point number two.

Point 2: Students Must Have a Voice

Second, even though students may not be the ultimate decision makers in this, please take the lessons we have been learning over the past few years about how important it is to listen and invite dialogue from everyone. All voices matter.

Additionally, there is nothing worse than simply inviting dialogue and summarily dismissing it. If you are moving classes online, then consider what students want (and need), which may likely include time and tools for engaging in conversation about the content they should be learning (as well as how they are feeling about the outbreak itself, the effects it is having on society, and the effects it is having on them and their families).

So, while going through the process of making the decision to close schools and move online, at the very least I would encourage school leaders to welcome conversation on social media, to take a survey of parents’/students’ needs and wants, and to think critically and creatively about how to help students and educators who are new to learning/teaching (or reluctant to go) online.

This is a real concern, as I can point to colleagues at my own university who still refuse to teach online, in any capacity, and I have heard many stories that echo this sentiment from my K-12 colleagues. Also, I hear horror stories of students who basically clicked their way through terribly-designed online courses, only to still end up with an “A” at the end and nothing to show for their learning.

Even if the institution has made the decision to go online, then we all need to figure out ways to keep the conversation with students and stakeholders going.

Again, this needs to be genuine dialogue and, eventually, will likely mean that people come together face-to-face as soon as it is safe to do so. While this may not be for everyone, and it may only be for a short time, if the risk-to-benefit ratio for reconnecting is significantly higher than the possibility of illness, then we need to learn all we can about the psychological effects of pandemics and how to mitigate them for our own students.

Going online for learning, if someone really is hoping to be in a face-to-face environment, needs to acknowledge students’ humanity, and respond appropriately.

Point 3: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Perhaps as a way to summarize the two points above, I reiterate a theme that I often share when people ask me some version of the question, “What is it like to teach online?” Depending on how the question is phrased, my pat responses are usually something to the effect of “It’s all about relationships,” or “relationships, relationships, relationships.” This is just as true in face-to-face settings as it is online, of course, yet online relationships take a different kind of effort for educators.

No matter what we do as educators, we need to act as leaders and facilitators, helping our students see the goals we have set for them through our activities and assignments while, at the same time, listening to their ideas, needs, and wants. We need to give them timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback. We need, in short, to be present in all the ways that matter.

Moreover, we know that not all students are interested in or eager to learn online. Even for those who are, they may not know how best to manage their time and ensure that they are staying focused.

To that end, we need to engage in a variety of practices to open lines of communication and stay connected. For me, whether teaching face-to-face or online, I use a few consistent practices to help students know what I am thinking and to invite their questions. Each week, I aim to:

  • Provide a substantive announcement, pointing to new course content and readings as well as reminding them of upcoming deadlines.
  • Send at least one individual email or message (using Voxer this semester, though other tools could do the same) to students at least once every two weeks, either providing feedback on an assignment or praising them for participation in class activities. This might also be a “check in” message if I haven’t heard from them.
  • Update my appointment calendar so students can connect with me (without a series of “are you available” and “how about one of these times” emails). Personally, I pay a subscription fee of about $120 a year for a service like this because my university doesn’t offer it, and it is worth every penny in terms of the connections I can build (and time I can save).

Conclusion

This is all just a bit of thinking on a weekend as I catch up on headlines from the week, scan my education-related newsletters and blogs, see what’s happening on the Edu-Twitterverse, and reflect on conversations with my wife and colleagues.

Of course, I am still learning how to be a better teacher each day, and my hope is that we can use this specific conversation about school and university closures as a means to move broader conversations about what it means to teach and learn in a digital, interconnected world.

We owe it to our students to do this work well, and even more so in a time of crisis and confusion. If we are, indeed, going to move our classes online in response to the crisis, then we still need to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning, ensuring that we are meeting students’ educational, social, and emotional needs in the process.


Update on March 12, 2020: Typographical error corrected.


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Open with Intention: Digital Diligence at the Moment of Connection

Everytime we touch a device (or activate it with our voice), we do so with the goal of doing something. Maybe it is to look up information. Maybe it is to play a game. Maybe it is to buy something. Maybe it is a combination of these three common uses, and one leads to another in unexpected ways (and, without hardly a thought having gone into it, we wind up with another digital download charged to our accounts or a package that ends up on our doorsteps).

These brief examples, for me, are indicative of what we can do when we approach our interactions with technology — and with one another — from a stance of digital diligence. In addition to opening up our screens with a purpose (which can, to be clear, be for entertainment, if that is indeed our choice at the time given where we are at in our school or work day), we also need to think about what it means to approach with a stance of creating and connecting, not just consuming.

For instance, in thinking about how I interact with my own devices (and invite students to consider what they are doing with their), I wonder: how can we question our own motivations as the screen lights up? While it becomes increasingly faster and faster for our screens to recognize us (from passwords to fingerprints to facial recognition), there is still a split second in which we can move away from a mindless act of accessing the device and, instead, to evaluate the decision that we are making.

One way to do this might be to look retrospectively at what we have done in the past as a way to predict what we might do in the future. With the advent of apps like Screentime, we can quickly see where our time is being used and, as we plan for the day or week ahead, we can look at past patterns and determine when and how particular apps have added value to our relationships, study, and work, and which ones have detracted from them. Assessing our usage of apps can give us insights about what we might want to click, or not, when we activate our phones. Making the choice to stay away from an app that sucks away our time, or clicking on a particularly tempting link, while difficult, is possible.

To be clear, this is not a new idea. As one example, we can look to Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self podcast, and the “Delete That App” part of the challenge. We can also look at ideas like Sally Kohn’s TED Talk, where she encourages us to fight the urge to click on clickbait. What I would like to do is extend these ideas as part of a lesson we can teach students, even those in elementary school and certainly those in middle and high school, and as a part of an English language arts curriculum.

In short, I would invite students to set a purpose for using the tech, in much the same way would would invite them to set a purpose for reading. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it is something that I was thinking about as we look to the common strategy of purpose-setting. Just as we would ask students to use these questions in strategic ways when approaching a text, there are a few questions that we might ask as we approach a use of tech.

Setting a Purpose for Reading Setting a Purpose for Using an App (or Browsing the Web, Playing a Game, or Otherwise Using Tech)
What do you know about this topic?
  • What do you know about this app (website, game, etc)?
  • Have you experienced it before, or is it new to you?
What do you know about this genre?
  • What do you know about the way that this app (website, game, etc) functions?
  • How might it be similar to or different from other apps (websites, games, etc) that you already use?
What do you hope to understand/comprehend as a result of reading?
  • As a result of using this app (website, game, etc), what do you hope to have gained?
    • Is it primarily for entertainment? To learn a new skill? To provide more context/knowledge about a topic?
  • About how long do you plan to use this app (website, game, etc), and why is that an appropriate time frame?
  • How will you know that your experience using this all (website, game, etc) has been successful?
    • How will you feel? What will you come to think about in a new way?

 

Again, all of my thinking on these blog posts in the weeks ahead (as with all blogging, really!) are tentative. I would appreciate any and all feedback, helping me refine what I am sharing so I can translate that into substantive lessons for my book.

How might we be able to use these purpose-setting questions with students to help them open their screens with intention?


Photo by Le Buzz on Unsplash

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Teaching Digital Diligence: Writing My Way Toward (More) Intentional Technology Use in English Language Arts

As the change in calendar is likely to do for all of us during these first days of the new year, I am looking back (and ahead) at an unfulfilled goal from 2019, and thinking about what I need to do to get back on track with a book project that I first shouted out last July: Digital Diligence. My work on the book has stalled, and this semester affords me a bit more flexibility to write, so I begin here.

As I noted in that post last summer, I define digital diligence as an intentional and alert stance that individuals employ when using technology (apps, websites, software, and devices) for connected reading and digital writing, characterized by empathy, purpose, and persistence. This is clunky, and needs reworking. Yet, it is what I have for now, and it is the core argument of the book, which will be designed as a professional resource for teachers of English language arts.

I want to explore the idea that we, as teachers of literacy, need to interrogate the ways in which our students are using — and are being described by others, including the news media, as using — their devices. Or, to play on the common trope, we should consider the ways in which our technologies are using us and work to help our students push back against these models. The past few years have been dominated by stories of device addiction, a loss of privacy, and (continued) lack of thoughtful technology integration into teaching and learning. What I hope to do, then, is use this book project as a way to re-center the conversations about students’ uses of technology in a more proactive, purposeful manner.

For instance, we often see headlines about technology addiction and the negative influences that social media, smartphones, and gaming are having on our (and our students’ lives). Also, in preparing my materials for promotion, I revisited the 2017 supplement to Pediatrics, focusing on “Children, Adolescents and Screens: What We Know and What We Need To Learn,” in which I co-authored an article. The titles of the articles alone, in addition to the arguments made in them, are all still pertinent. Yet, they all tend to skew toward negative connotations and a fear-based approach to exploring the topic. Even a search on this New Year’s Day for “technology addiction” has yielded a number of recent articles, including a year-end NYTimes piece from Kara Swisher noting that “a lot of tech is still addictive, and digital hate will continue to travel halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed.”

I don’t deny that these challenges are real (I face them myself, and with my own teenage children). Nor do I deny that there are significant problems with educational technology, as Audrey Watters’ summary of the past 10 years worth of failed ed tech shows us. There have been, are right now, and will continue to be many, many problems with all things related to ed tech.

Yet, I do want to push the conversation about how teachers teach with these technologies (as well as how students can create and learn with them) into a slightly different direction this year. Whether we say we are beginning the third decade of the twenty-first century or closing out the second decade, the simple fact is that we can’t ignore teaching a more active (and activist?) stance of digital citizenship/literacy in our schools. As noted above, a stance of digital diligence will continue to push our thinking, helping other educators become more aware of the ways in which we talk about and, in turn, teach toward a more robust view of educational technology in our classrooms.

Thus, to motivate myself to work on the project, to stay focused, and to gain insight from colleagues, I have decided that I must create and share a brief blog post about one key concept from the book each week for the next few weeks. I need to do this to stay on target with my writing, and I might as well share some of my thinking along the way in hopes that it can foster a broader conversation.

In talking with some colleagues over the holidays, I had thought about doing these as “live” video sessions on FB or YouTube, yet I know that my schedule is likely to remain busy in the weeks ahead and, instead, I will commit to a regular goal of producing one blog post per week, and seeking feedback. I will see how this works through January, and then move forward from there. 

To that end, this is entry one of this digital diligence web series. Nothing fancy here, just some initial thoughts on what I mean by “digital diligence” and how I hope to explore this concept more in the weeks and months ahead. I am always seeking feedback from colleagues, and if you are willing to try some of these ideas in your classroom and provide some feedback on what you and your students experienced when using the technologies and lessons, I would greatly appreciate it.


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Saturday Morning Sessions for NYSRA 2019

This morning, I am honored to facilitate a two-hour workshop at the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference, “Creating Your Digital Writing Workshop,” as well as a one-hour session, “Research Writing Rewired: Examining Multimedia Non-Fiction as a Mentor Text.”

Creating Your Digital Writing Workshop

Guiding Student Writers as They Work with Digital Tools” post on Middle Web

GDoc Handout (Force Copy)

During the first session, we will be delving into a number of digital writing tools such as blogs, digital stories, and infographics that can contribute to what you are already doing in your writing instruction as well as appeal to a new generation of students. In this interactive session, we will explore how new ways of thinking about well-established practices in the writing workshop—student choice and inquiry, conferring on writing, examining author’s craft, publishing writing, and broadening our understandings of assessment—can be updated for the digital age. Tools might include:

Research Writing Rewired: Examining Multimedia Non-Fiction as a Mentor Text

GDoc Handout (Force Copy)

In the second session, we will explore how, in our networked world, the research writing process that we once learned has become obsolete. 3×5 cards and outlines are giving way to bibliographic management tools and mind mapping software. Moreover, students are now able to engage in the research process by reading and evaluating the work of others while simultaneously using the technology in their pockets to do their own primary research. By exploring a Pulitzer Prize winning multimedia piece from the New York Times — “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” — we will think critically and creatively about how students can combine media to create an informative, engaging work of non-fiction using tools such as Adobe Spark.

Also, we will draw from resources from my co-authored Corwin Literacy book, Research Writing Rewired, and the book’s companion site.


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Teaching and Learning (Digital) Literacy in Higher Education

This morning, I am honored to present for the College Reading Educators during one of their session at the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference. My talk will focus on the idea that, without question, learning continues to change in the twenty-first century. Higher education faculty have always valued the teaching of reading, writing, and thinking — and see that our very notion of what it means to be literate is evolving. How, then, do we enhance and extend traditional literacy practices in this digital age? This brief talk will provide some background on Dr. Hicks’ work as a teacher of digital writing, connected reading, and critical thinking for both undergraduate and graduate students, many of them pre- and in-service teachers, at Central Michigan University. Links from the presentation are embedded in the Google Slides and include the following:

Scholarship

Tools for Connected Reading, Digital Writing, and Disciplinary Thinking


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Summer 2019 Publications: RRQ and English Journal

While they both require individual or institutional subscriptions to read, I am pleased to share my two most recent co-authored publications:

Turner, K. H., Hicks, T., & Zucker, L. (Advance online publication). Connected Reading: A Framework for Understanding How Adolescents Encounter, Evaluate, and Engage With Texts in the Digital Age. Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.271

From the Abstract

Since the emergence of the World Wide Web and e‐reading devices in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reading research has focused on issues of website credibility, search and navigation strategies, and the ability to comprehend text on‐screen as compared with in print. What has been missing, however, are data about the specific texts that adolescents are reading in these digital spaces, what devices they prefer, and the strategies that they employ… The authors propose a new framework of connected reading, a model of print and digital reading comprehension that conceptualizes readers’ interactions with digital texts through encountering (the ways in which readers seek or receive digital texts), evaluating (the ways in which readers make judgments about the usefulness of digital texts), and engaging (the ways in which readers interact with and share digital texts)…

Canady, F., & Hicks, T. (2019). Reconsidering Student Inquiry through Digital Narrative Nonfiction. English Journal, 108(6), 25–31.

As an alternative to the traditional research paper for an English 11 class, a digital narrative assignment positioned students as multimedia storytellers.

Thanks to my colleagues with whom I have collaborated on these pieces, and for everyone who has shared continued words of encourage and support upon seeing these new publications.


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