Are we worried about becoming irrelevant?

I asked a group of people yesterday if we were worried about becoming irrelevant and the response has stuck with me. We were talking about the big push in K12 for 1:1 computing. As the discussion unfolded I threw it out there and asked at what point do we become irrelevant if we don’t meet the needs of learners coming from 1:1 schools and if we aren’t preparing our graduates enough for teaching in a 1:1 school? Nothing specific about the response from the people in the room stood out, but rather it was more what wasn’t said. The looks on some people’s faces said more. It felt as if some in the room thought that what I said was absurd or that I’m out of touch with the demands of the higher education classroom.

But here’s the thing, I can see a future where students either transfer away or simply don’t attend colleges and universities that don’t create the type of learning environments where students can work together with other students and experts to solve real problems. The needs of students are changing. They have different interests, different learning preferences, and they aren’t afraid to shop around for education that meets their needs.

As we talked yesterday, one thing that came up was that a number of the 1:1 schools in Iowa aren’t being effective, which I can’t argue with. I know there are schools in the state that just bought a bunch of computers, gave them to the students, and hoped for the best. But, there are a lot of schools that are doing amazing things with the technology, whether they have 1:1 or not. They are implementing learning environments where students are the focus, not the teacher. The students are doing all the work. The students are guiding their own learning. Is it happening everywhere? No. Does that mean we shouldn’t respond, knowing that this type of learning is best practice? No. We need to respond and respond loudly. But we aren’t. Most colleges and universities aren’t, or if they are, we don’t hear their stories. I know we get hung up on the technology and how that is only going to distract from learning. But what if it doesn’t or even better, what if it does distract? Not from learning, but from the way we used to learn. What if learning changes?

I’m in a curriculum theory and development course right now and something we’ve been talking about is that the curriculum should reflect three distinct groups: the subject matter, society, and the learner. My concern isn’t that instructors aren’t teaching their content well, but rather that they might not be considering the needs of society and the learner. They are experts for sure. There’s no debating that. However, how they leverage their expertise depends on their consideration of the learners and the society in which we all live. These things do effect the way we use our expertise. But for many instructors, they are teaching to the past without look towards the needs of the future or even the present. I think we’ve been too quick to discount the latest generation. They are unique and with that have unique needs considering the changing landscape within which we live.

So how are we going to respond?



When things don’t go as planned…

Model of technological, pedagogical, and content knowledgeUsing technology in the classroom can be high stakes. There are a number of things that can go wrong, from technical issues like the WiFi going down to the lesson not going as you expected due to an unforeseen issue. There certainly are things that can go wrong, and sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. I think teachers who want to use technology in the classroom, but have a tough time doing so because of the potential for failure, need to remember that teaching is a complex activity regardless if technology is used or not. Things go wrong. The power goes out, the wrong instructions for a project are handed out, there’s an interruption in the hallway, or worse in the classroom that stops everything. Technology is no different. Things go wrong here too, but the difference is, with non-technology things, we pick up the pieces and move on. With technology, however, it seems like we give up. We can’t go on, or even think about how we could go on if something went awry. Why?

I was leading an in-service for secondary teachers at a school last week and we ran into issues with the Internet. We were exploring iPads and how they could be used in a very low stakes way. Not looking at going one-to-one but as a way to enhance the current learning taking place in their courses.  As luck would have it, the Internet went down and wasn’t available for the rest of the day. I adapted. We relied on the tools available at the time to finish the in-service, and from what I heard from a few of the teachers afterwards, it was a pretty decent afternoon. Certainly not life changing, but valuable.

I’m not telling my story here for my ego. I’m talking about it because it underscores a key area I feel we need to develop as educators. I’m talking about teacher technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge, or TPACK. I was able to adapt to my situation when the Internet went down, because I knew what I wanted to do, how it could be done, and what I could use to get there. I acted much like teachers do in classrooms every day.  However, I think we grossly underestimate the role technology knowledge and its interactions with just content and just pedagogy have in the teaching process. While many effective teachers can handle curve balls in the non-technology classroom, many of those same teachers would be overwhelmed if they were in a similar situation like I was last week.

I feel we are still in technology as an isolated knowledge mode, rather than as an equal player mode. There is a dynamic relationship in TPACK. Any change in one is going to result in a corresponding change in the other two (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). For me, teacher TPACK is on a continuum. It isn’t something a teacher achieves, even though there may be varying degrees of TPACK. A teacher’s TPACK just keeps enhancing and adapting do new or different contexts. Teachers aren’t able to come to PD sessions, learn about or even experience technology and expect to attain TPACK. There’s more to it than that. Teachers have to learn about the technology, pedagogy, and content, and their interactions with each other as a whole and as individual entities, in a variety of contexts.

I think the main focus of developing teacher TPACK is on the confluence of each knowledge domain and rightly so. But that overlooks all the other areas (TK, PK, CK, TPK, TCK, PCK). These are all just as crucial to develop as TPACK, even though TPACK is the variable we’re trying to enhance. TPACK may be what teachers use as they demonstrate their effectiveness with technology in the classroom, but in order to demonstrate that effectiveness through TPACK, teachers must first have a firm grasp on each knowledge domain. If not, I’m not sure that teachers, regardless of how effective they may be, can handle problems with the technology when they arrise in the classroom.

There has to be a better way to helping teachers use technology. We know it’s not focusing on the technology, and I’m not sure focusing just on TPACK is the next logical step. To me, it seems like we need to think about TPK, TCK, and PCK and how they fit in the overall picture. Without them, I’m not sure we can develop teacher TPACK.

Your thoughts?

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Open letter to those providing tech support in educational settings

Dear Technical Support Professional,

Today I helped a faculty member I work with setup her iPads to use in her classroom. She had technical support in her college come help her set them up but they ran into problems and couldn’t come back for two weeks. This is a problem.

While I fully understand the constraints that tech support professionals operate under, especially having been one myself in a school district, it is completely unacceptable to allow faculty to struggle with a technology problem for two weeks, when in reality a day is too long.

There appears to be a misperception in the hierarchy within the organization. You see, faculty, teachers, and students, are near the top of the hierarchy, with support staff such as technical support, near the bottom. However, it appears that we have inverted this hierarchy and now support staff, in particularly technical support, believe they are able to dictate when problems will be addressed, when equipment will be setup, and which policies will be in place. I’m writing to say, enough is enough. It’s time to find your place.

Plain and simple, technical support professionals don’t get to make the rules, they don’t get to dictate policy. They get to support the people in the organization that need help with technology. Sure there will be give and take, especially as budgets continue to shrink. But you work for the faculty, teachers, and students. You are there to make their lives easier. You are there to make their teaching better. You are there to make it possible for their students to learn better. You don’t make unrealistic demands that effect teaching and learning. You aren’t qualified to make such decisions. You are there to make things possible.

I respect the knowledge, work, and commitment to your profession. I have been there. I have been technical support. I know what it’s like. It’s tough and stressful and unappreciated. You are the person people come to when they are unhappy and rarely are you thanked for your contributions. I’m not writing to be a pain. I’m writing because even though you are frustrated, stressed, unappreciated, and any number of other adjetives, you have a role. A crucial role. A role that is perhaps one of the most important in the school. Your role is to support faculty, teachers, and students in whatever they want to do in the teaching and learning process regardless of how outrageous it may sound. Innovation is outrageous by design and we need to embrace that if we are going to make a difference.

I want to thank you for all that you do and encourage you to help make things happen. We need you.


Daniel Mourlam

Leadership Day 2012: Don’t Adopt Technology on a Whim!

My message for this year’s leadership day is going to be simple: Stop making decisions to adopt technology on a whim! You are damaging your school every time you decide to adopt a new technology initiative, because your faculty, staff, and students cannot be expected to change every time you attend a conference and come back with the latest flyer from the vendor hall. Gather a team that represents all stakeholders in the school and work together to create a vision that has student needs at heart.*  Once you have that vision, bring every resource the school has into making it happen, including technology.

I may seem a little harsh, but I have become frustrated with both administrators and teachers, who lack the common vision for where they need to be and how they are going to get there. When this happens, numerous initiatives are started and the disconnect is so great that it is difficult from an organizational standpoint to support everything everyone is doing. The cliché, a mile wide and an inch deep, is very reflective of where many schools find themselves. Everyone has their vision for what needs to happen, but since many of these visions compete against each other, no one can do them well, not to mention enact meaningful change.

If you find yourself in any leadership position, I urge you to stop and take a step back. Gather key stakeholders that represent your school community and take a deep breath and consider where you want to go. What’s important? What skills do your students need to leave with as they enter college or the workforce? What is the light at the end of the tunnel that each student needs to reach when they leave? Define what that is, and then begin talking about how you can get there. How will you use every resource the school can leverage, including technology resources and funding, to make that vision happen? Most important, how are you going to  build capacity within those around you? Figure out what it is that you need do and do it extremely well. This isn’t going to be easy, but it has to be done.

I want to conclude by saying that once you have made your plans and it comes time for implementation, be sure to encourage a culture where change is embraced. Any meaningful change you implement is likely going to be different from what has been done in the past. Teachers are going to need support and lots of it. If a major technology initiative is being implemented to support the vision, be sure to support a culture where teachers and administrators are willing to work with each other and willing to fail together. Perfection isn’t achieved on the first run, so be willing to re-invent your plans, your techniques, and most important, yourself. The road is going to be bumpy and mistakes are going to be made. Lead by example and take risks that could end in failure,  learning from your mistakes. Be willing to move on to find the right solution.  And above all, be true to your vision and stick it out. Don’t let the static of vendor halls and technological novelties interfere with your vision. Don’t adopt a technological innovation on a whim.


*Yes I know schools have these teams, but I often question their effectiveness. How much is what these teams accomplish for show and how much is for real change? Is the culture present within these teams to allow for failure without blame? Is this team really helping your school move forward? If not, maybe it’s time for a change? Certainly not all schools are like this, but I’m sure too many are.

What does it really mean to be 1:1?

I’ve been struggling with something lately.  I’ve been confronted by a variety of sources about the true nature of 1:1 computing in education.  The argument I’ve been presented with is that many of the things advocates of 1:1 say are benefits were really available before 1:1 computing.  Some of these include: authentic learning experiences, student-centered instruction, collaboration, differentiated instruction, and so on.  I too have advocated for these as benefits of 1:1, but having interacted with a varying viewpoint, I’m left wondering what it really means to be 1:1?

Before going on, I want to disclaim that I believe digital technology is a crucial part of the path forward, and the main source of my dissonance is not advocating for the traditional teaching model, but rather, wants to know explicitly the what, how, why, etc., that makes 1:1 desirable.  The issue, which he and many others, including myself, have found is that too many decisions to go 1:1 have been based on, “We can’t fall behind.  Let’s get the computers and then we’ll figure it out later.”  I think this is where the shadow argument for 1:1 emerges.  People have made a decision to go 1:1 without thinking about why they really should go down that road.

I’m not saying that 1:1 is a bad model or even the wrong model.  What I’m saying is that the reasons 1:1 is held up as being THE model, really are things we could have been doing already.  This is a problem and it’s spreading throughout education, at least in Iowa, and it isn’t being addressed.  The consequences of not tackling this problem are severe in terms of student achievement, teacher and administrator effort, and the general economic conditions of schools.

I’m guilty of promoting 1:1 in the very same way I described as a problem, but now that my mind has been opened by a differing viewpoint, I can’t go back.  I’ve changed.  No longer am I what Bloom calls innocent.  This still doesn’t change the fact that I think 1:1 can be a good model, but it does mean that I need to be explicit in how I define the benefits of 1:1.  Right now, I, like many educators, am not being explicit, and that’s a problem because that means I can’t give a consistent message of what 1:1 really means.  And if others like me can’t consistently explain what 1:1 means, then why are we doing it?

Rote learning: A necessity but not for the classroom

At UNI we are still in the transition to Google Apps and the last major transition is from our old calendar platform to Google Calendar.  As I was reading the email I noticed that instead of having formalized training sessions on how to use Google Calendar, there was a link to where users can find training on all apps.  This left me wondering, why aren’t we doing this for all rote training needs we have?

As a technology specialist and educator, I understand that in order to reach innovative use of technology in a course, it is necessary to have some “how-to” knowledge about the technology being used.  Typically (going to generalize here) this is taught in large group sessions in a very rote way.  Click here, this feature does this, and so on.  We’ve all attended these trainings and many, including myself, have led a number of these sessions.  I’m wondering however, if we’ve reached a point where we no longer need to concern ourselves with teaching rote knowledge.  If we have very good tutorials on how to use X or what X is, do we really need to take up time “teaching” this when we are all together?  Wouldn’t we be just as or even more effective if we hand picked the videos we wanted our colleagues or students to watch so they can gain that rote knowledge that’s absolutely necessary for being successful?  Then, couldn’t we spend more time learning about how we can be effective with this technology in our courses?

I believe we have entered a point in society that you have to be a lifelong learner.  You simply cannot function without that essential characteristic.  At UNI, I’d say nearly all the people I work with would more than be capable of lifelong learning and I’d imagine many of you would agree you see the same in your colleagues.  However, as educators, have we truly embraced what it means to be a lifelong learner?  Do we take the initiative to learn new innovations as our organization adopts them?  I don’t think we have and I think we are wasting time organizing formalized training sessions on the latest innovation.  I know I’m guilty of this, we all are.  But I think we have a professional duty, as educators, to learn about new innovations as they become available in an asynchronous way.  I’m not saying you need to be an expert in every innovation, but I do think you need to be knowledgeable enough to either have a discussion about the innovation and/or be able to use the innovation in a basic sense without having to sit through an hour or even a full day workshop.

I’m going to shift gears slightly, but remain on the same topic.  I think we need to begin developing this literacy in our students as well.  How much time do we spend in education teaching students rote knowledge?  When was the Civil War?  What is the atomic weight of Boron?  What is the formula for calculating the surface area of a parallelogram?  We need to stop teaching our students how to do these things in our physical classrooms!  The answers to these questions can be found online and are very well articulated in a variety of mediums.  Why, I ask WHY do we still use low level rote instruction?  We’re good at doing it, but someone else is better and they’ve decided to share it with you for free (usually)!  Send your students to these resources online to learn this knowledge and then in class have them apply the concept they learned at home, the library, a friends house, etc.  It’s the application of the concept that get’s interesting and is where students have questions and is where our efforts as teachers should be.  Helping students apply knowledge in a meaningful context.

I’ll end by saying that rote learning, is necessary, but it shouldn’t be the only kind of learning that takes place.  I remember when I was in student teaching, my university supervisor asked me, “When are you going to develop the low level knowledge needed for your students to be able to answer the high level questions you’re asking them?”  This statement has remained with me ever since.  Before we can synthesize, create, or analyze, we need to first be able to understand the concept in its most basic form.  I think advocates for reform forget this, especially those who are critical of the flipped classroom.  I think flipping is exactly what we need to be doing, but it’s not the only thing.  It’s just one piece in the puzzle.

Make time for the important things…

I’ve been busy lately.  If you come here often, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t done much writing this month.  In fact, this is only my second post this month, but I’ve been busy and writing on my blog hasn’t been the most pressing thing lately.  I mean, c’mon, I have two small children, a busy job, and I’m a doc student!  You’re probably thinking, “Stop complaining, everybody’s busy, suck it up!”  We are all busy in our own ways and as I’ve said before, when you add something to your daily routine, you have to give something up.  Essentially, you make time for the things that are important to YOU!

This is essentially what I’ve done for my doc classes.  I have a professional goal that I want to achieve and I’ve committed to waking up early to do my readings and other homework for my courses.  This may seem like a small commitment for many of you, but for me 5am would have been out of the question a few years ago.  Now, let’s apply this to the classroom.

We are all busy and have only so much time in the day to devote to our courses.  However, sometimes, a new innovation comes along that we are really interested in and want to pursue.  But where do we find the time?  The truth is we prioritize what’s important and make the time.  Just like I’m giving up sleep, you too may have to give up something you really like or want to do.  It’s part of change and part of becoming a better teacher.  You may not want to do it, but if the innovation is something you really believe in and something you think will help you be more effective or improve student achievement, then you make the difficult decision to make the time where you can.  Because in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about what’s best for your students.

As an aside, if any of you know of a good way to stay awake that doesn’t include drinking coffee, PLEASE leave a comment!!!