#UNIETD Post 2: Learning Experiences with a Purpose

Metro Candy Bar

This past Friday UNI hosted the ITEC Student Technology Fair for eastern Iowa. I was a judge at the fair and is something I enjoy doing each year as it gives me a chance to see how elementary and secondary students are learning. In the past there have been some great projects, but this year many of the projects seemed to be at a different level. So while I have gained some insight into the work students are doing, I’m also getting a better picture of the type of learning experiences their teachers are creating for them.

What stood out for me was the purposive nature of the projects. One project from Metro High School in Cedar Rapids created a business where they created a mold for chocolate bars, which they sell with proceeds being reinvested back into other programs in the school, such as their robotics team. There was also a young man from Olewein who is creating 3D models of oil platforms for a company based in Arizona. He’s already employed by the company and he’s still in high school. Needless to say he’s smarter than I am. There was also a middle school student from Waterloo who has created an Amber Alert style GPS button parents can sew into their kids clothing. The idea is that if the child is abducted he/she can push the button and a message with the GPS coordinates will go to the parents so they can be found. When I asked him how he came up with the idea he explained that he was friends with a local child who was abducted and murdered this past year. Another stand out was a project by a fourth grader where she built a skyscraper inside and out using Minecraft. She even had a water filtration system for a garden area inside the building.

So when I look at what these children are doing, they are engaged in projects with a purpose. Whether it’s a fundraiser for their school, working with a real corporation, trying to keep children safe, or simply following their interests and creating amazing designs, these kids are creating with a purpose. One of the comments I have heard from those attending and others I have shared my experience with is that they couldn’t do something like this. They explain they don’t know where they’d even start.

My reaction has been that while these are amazing projects, they are all within the grasp of all teachers. What makes them see out of reach is the difference between what they are doing and what we currently do. It’s hard to see a clear path in doing something like this if we don’t step outside our current paradigm. As I consider how I would approach something like this, what I feel would be key are a couple considerations:

  • What is the essential question I want students to engage in? What is the task or problem they are trying to solve?
  • How much freedom am I giving my students to pursue their interests? Am I giving my students a choice? Am I letting my students take ownership of their learning? Am I getting out of the way?

There’s certainly a lot more to this than these two points, but if we can’t do these two things, then we aren’t going to unleash our students’ inner creativity that our education system has been crushing since elementary school.

#UNIETD Post 1: What would Dewey do?

Dewey (1976) said:

…to satisfy an impulse or interest means to work it out, and working it out involves running up against obstacles, becoming acquainted with materials, exercising ingenuity, patience, persistence, alertness, it of necessity involves discipline, -ordering of power-and supplies knowledge (p. 25).

I’ve started reading Dewey a bit more lately as I begin writing my dissertation and I’m struck by how clear he is and, yet, how muddied improving our educational practices have become since Dewey’s time. Sticking to what I know, I immediately reflect to the professional development experiences surrounding new technologies that teachers everywhere are subjected to, some times on a monthly basis. The idea that no single technological innovation exists for all teachers (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) highlights the almost cruel nature and certainly squandered learning time for teachers when they attend such professional development sessions. So as I reflect and make sense of what I’m reading, I ask: What would Dewey do? How would Dewey approach professional development for teachers surrounding what in fact are critical issues facing not just our society with regards to being competent problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, etc., all at the intersection of content, pedagogy, and technology.

The quote above, to me, provides some clarity. While Dewey was talking about children, I feel at heart we all are children only as we get older we conform more to society and the responsibilities that go with being an adult, an employee, a teacher, a parent. Why can’t we explore the topics, the needs, the desires that our teachers have? That’s what Dewey is saying we should do and when we do, it’s going to be a little bumpy and that’s okay. The bumps provide openings for weaving in subject-matter  knowledge and skills, which is the concern we all have as educators. How will the students learn the content if we don’t teach them? They key is to indulge students in their interests and use that to wrap in the content they are supposed to learn.

So as we approach professional development for teachers, we should listen and think about what Dewey would do. Let’s listen to the teachers and see what they’re interested in or what problems they are experiencing in the classroom. Then start working with them so they can create educational technology solutions at the intersection of content, pedagogy, and technologies.

My #ITEC13 Reflection

After two days of waking early and making the trek to Des Moines from Waterloo, I find myself on #ITEC13 +1 having trouble sleeping in to my normal 6am and instead thinking about everything I learned over the last two days…at 4am mind you… So, rather than have an isolated reflection while futilely trying to go back to sleep, I might as well get up and share my thoughts, my ideas with anyone who may be interested, which brings me to my first major takeaway: As educators, we find ourselves constantly taking resources and ideas from the internet, but when was the last time we contributed?

Jeff Utecht was the keynote on day two and I’ve been a big fan of his for a few years now. So having the chance to hear him speak in person was amazing. There were a number of things that he brought up, but perhaps one of the most compelling was the need for educators to contribute to the larger community. How are we giving back to others who we don’t directly interact with? Certainly we give back in our classroom, schools, and local communities, but what about the larger community? How are we contributing to the advancement of the profession? More and more I find myself thinking about non-positional leadership and how we are advocating, leading, and working with others to advance meaningful change. Hearing Jeff talk about sharing with the larger community only served to reinforce this concept that each of us are leaders and do have opportunities to lead within our profession and beyond the classroom. For me, I’ve seemed to fallen off the larger community radar a little over the last year. Things get busy, I have small children and I have a pretty full schedule. Yet, given all of that, I still feel this nagging feeling that I’m not contributing enough. I’m not posting enough about what I’m doing or enough about some of the ridiculous ideas that I have that I want to start putting legs on. This wasn’t a major theme Jeff had, but it was an important theme, and has given me pause for reflection, as I hope it will do for each of you.

Sticking with Jeff a little longer, there were two other things that really stuck out for me. The first was the idea of a moonshot idea. As Jeff described it, a moonshot idea is an idea that seeks to change something that appears almost impossible. However, we strive to make that moonshot idea happen because we are bothered by it. We want it to happen and refuse to let it pass us by. The name moonshot comes from when JFK said we would put a man on the moon. No one knew how to do it, but we were going to do it anyway. There was a drive, a passion for making it happen. For me, moonshot ideas are what keep me going, keep me asking questions, and make me challenge those around me. Things bother me. Some more than others, but being bothered is what has kept me feeling like I can make change happen. Probably the biggest thing that bothers me is ineffective use of technologies in the classroom that is then highlighted as increasing achievement, learning, (insert term here) when in fact nothing has really changed. Scott McLeod had a session on this called Gratuitous Use of Technology (or something to that effect). While I missed the session, that really sums up what bothers me. It may be a far cry in comparison to putting a man on the moon, but nevertheless, it still matters, it’s still important, and it really bothers me.

The other thing that really stood out from Jeff’s keynote was the video of the young man doing a Rube Goldberg, at what appeared to be his house. This child, I think he was in fourth grade, but can’t really remember, creates this impressive Rube Goldberg machine and he makes a prediction about how many times his machine is going to succeed and how many times it will fail. I think it was a two to 14 ratio. As the video continues, it starts showing the trials. The first three are a bust and then on the fourth a success. What happens next is the best thing. This kid literally flips out. He is so excited that it worked on the fourth time when he predicted that if would fail “umpteen” times. I immediately thought, when was the last time we were this excited and willing to fail “umpteen” times? The mantra seems to be if we can’t do it it right the first time, we better not even try. I’d say this was a common theme I ran into throughout the conference. It’s okay to make mistakes, but what we do next is what matters. What’s worse is that we appear to be sending this signal to our students via standardized tests with all the focus on getting the right scores and the high stakes nature of the tests. Nothing in life, at least in my life, is as high stakes as those tests are for students and schools. They aren’t realistic and the emphasis we place on them as a nation, state, and local community truly bothers me. This certainly is a moonshot idea and it’s almost embarrassing that it is.

Other highlights from my conference experience:

  • Teaching students how to search is truly critical. We don’t live in a world where we can organize everything into nice little units. Our knowledge is too large, complex, and changes way to fast to keep up. Being able to sift is going to be much more important that sorting. I actually started this with my son last night. We started searching for orange juice and he loved it! (Henry’s four BTW)
  • Our knowledge has a half life of 18 months. This is interesting for me since the work I did for my doctorate in my first couple semesters is going to be outdated by the time I write my dissertation. Let’s not even go to textbooks…
  • Some key things when it comes to searching on Google: find the ads, the more links to a website means Google thinks it’s an authority, use the search tools to refine results, site: and filetype: are very useful for getting the resources you want, reading level is also helpful, and it is possible to search for dated materials, such as newspapers from the Korean War era (type Korean War, limit results to 1950-1955, and click on the news link in Google).
  • It’s easy to make info grams. Some resources: infogr.am, easel.ly, and piktochart.
  • Never underestimate the power of Twitter. The majority of my resources, including those from the previous bullet, came from Twitter. One person was at ITEC, but the other was in Oklahoma. Not to mention all the things I would have missed that were captured by others via the back channel #ITEC13
  • Speaking of Twitter, it still has a spam issue. I hadn’t really noticed it for a long time, but during the conference it was certainly present in the hashtag. But I did learn that you can filter your results. For me I used #ITEC13 -hidelink (Hidelink was what was spamming everyone). Thanks to @jamiefath for that one!
  • Kids are important and are missed when they are gone. But do we let them know that? My guess is not enough.
  • We are social creatures, yet school is typically the place where we can’t interact either with those literally sitting next to us or those in the larger community. If we want students to be engaged, let’s give them something to be engaged in.
  • There are a number of apps in iOS 7 that use location and notification services that really don’t need to. All that does is suck my battery life down and shares more than I really want. Check it out in settings and take back control!
  • There were three 8th graders at the conference (perhaps more, but I only saw three). It seems like more and more young people are showing up at conferences and I love it. Young people have a voice and they should let it be heard. As I was working on this post I saw Ian Coon tweet out something that appears to be a student bill of rights (I don’t think that’s what it’s called, but something generally like that) about what they want from their school and their educational experience. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to later today when I get to work. I don’t know if K12 students have to pay for ITEC, but they shouldn’t. These are the people we need to invite in, because above all, their voice counts, yet they are the most underrepresented group in education. We should be inviting them in so we can learn from them.
  • I met a number of people I follow on Twitter. Always a fun experience. I also had the chance to meet up with some people I hadn’t seen in a few years, even since high school.
  • Looking for more? Check out #ITEC13 and http://www.jeffutecht.com/itec

Finally, perhaps the best part of the conference were the conversations I had with my colleagues on the way to and from the conference. We were able to talk about more things in the two hour drive there and back than any number of meetings would have accomplished. This is on top of the interactions we had during the conference. For me, I was able to get a ton of feedback on my dissertation topic and some new directions to keep my work moving forward.

So all in all, I had a great conference experience. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay for all the afternoon sessions. Time is a scarce resource, but even with my mostly limited ITEC experience, I still feel I’ve been rejuvenated and am ready to keep on being bothered.

Expressive Arts Project-Based Learning Project

Map of Project Steps


I working again this semester with a faculty member at UNI that teaches an Expressive Arts Integration teacher education course and thought I’d share the project map I’ve created the more or less maps out everything we’re doing.

To give a little context to what we’re doing and what we’ve done in the past, this is a project where small groups of UNI teacher candidates are paired up with small groups of elementary students. The UNI students teach a series of lessons to the elementary students using one of the following art themes: drama, music, visual arts, and dance and movement. This is a project that the professor has done for a number of years, but since the closing of Price Lab School, I’ve been involved in making this project happen from a distance.

While this semester is logistically a little different, what happens is that the UNI students learn about using the arts to teach content in meaningful ways, by preparing lessons for when they travel to the school to teach to their small group. These lessons are done collaboratively, both planning and teaching. In the meantime, commercials are recorded and posted online for the students in the schools to watch. I think both the UNI and elementary students enjoy the videos, especially when the students respond, either in their letters or by creating a commercial of their own and sending it to UNI. We also do some low tech handwritten letters to the students to help them get to know each other more. I am actually a big fan of handwritten letters since it seems everything else is so digitized. It’s always fun to get real mail!

Finally, after the students go out to the school and teach their lessons, they create some kind of documentation artifact, such as a book, poster, etc. that documents their day and the learning that took place. The elementary students are then each provided a copy of the documentation as a form of capstone to the experience.

What I like about this project is that it is a real project. Everything that’s done in this course centers around preparing for this experience. I also like amount of autonomy and student choice that the UNI students have in creating their lessons. There are some requirements, but overall, they have a lot of choice in what they teach and how they do it.  Like all good projects, it takes a lot of time and planning, but it’s worth it, because it’s real.

iPads and Field Experiences

This semester we are doing something different at UNI with one teacher education course. With the rapid diffusion of 1:1 schools throughout the state of Iowa, we thought it might be a good idea to try setting up a field experience course this way. We are taking it slow and are going to collect some data as we go so we can try to make better informed decisions. Here’s the general plan:

  • At the beginning of the semester, on day one, we provided 24 students enrolled in a professional development school field experience course with an iPad
  • We installed four apps for them (iMovie, Garageband, Keynote, Page) and then gave them full access to everything else on the iPad. Apart from being owned by UNI, it is their iPad for the semester
  • On the first day I did a very short overview of the iPad, since there were some who hadn’t used one before. I used Sugata Mitra as an inspiration for my overview and essentially left if up to the students to figure out how to use it
  • Throughout the semester the plan is to discuss during class ways they can use the iPad in their instruction and then start implementing those ideas each week as appropriate during their field experience
  • The professor is going to provide contextualized demonstrations for using the iPad effectively as an instructional tool periodically during the semester
  • Finally, the iPad is there as a resource for students to use as it’s needed, which is how it should be. Ubiquitous

I know this isn’t a lot, but we’re just starting this little experiment and I wanted to give an update on what’s happening here at UNI and TQP as it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. As things develop and there’s more to share, I will!

Knowing When and Why, Not What and How

I was reading this article today and thought it summed up my beliefs about technology. The real challenge is convincing others to believe the same.

Knowing when to use a particular technology for activities such as collaboration, or why to use a certain technology for acquir- ing specific disciplinary knowledge, is a vastly more important, transferable, in- finitely relevant type of knowledge, one that will not quickly become antiquated with ever-changing technological trends.

-Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe & Terry, 2013, Pg. 133

Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe, C., & Karr, J. A. (2013). What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(4), 127–140.


One way to gauge student learning more frequently

I just posted about how doing a pretest/posttest assessment isn’t going to help students enrolled in a course now. So I thought I’d share one educational technology solution that nearly anyone can use in their courses. I’m going to make this post in the context of a large scale course with students number close to 300, but it is just as applicable in a smaller setting.

A simple solution for checking for understanding is having a quick out the door survey for students to complete about whatever about the lesson. How I would set this up would be to have a survey in Google Forms or Survey Monkey or even Poll Everywhere if you wanted, that was very short. I’d have two likert-type scale questions with the usual strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, etc. Here are my questions:

  1. I understand the topic of today’s lesson.
  2. I still have questions about the topic of today’s lesson.

Then I’d have one open-ended questions:

  1. Please list any questions you have about the topic of today’s lesson.

The KISS principle really comes into play here. Keep is quick, easy and to the point. There’s no need to have in depth surveys or other assessments for students to take if you are trying to make minor adjustments to your teaching so you are more effective and the students learn more.

Will this take time? Yes, it will take some time, but not that much and you really shouldn’t devote that much time to this unless there’s problem. The good thing about using these technologies is that there’s a built-in analytic tool that makes analyzing that much data really easy.

Does this mean I shouldn’t do a pretest/posttest? No, still do that. It’s data and it can help you improve over time. Just don’t base all your decisions on those data points. That’d be like making major decisions on student standardized test scores…oh, right…can’t win ‘em all…


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