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.

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Gauging student learning in higher education…I think we’re missing the point

I just read an article on The Des Moines Register about a new requirement for the three Iowa regents universities. The law, according to the article, requires professors to give a pretest/posttest assessment in their courses if they have over 300 students, with that number dropping to 100 in fall 2015. These universities are then going to need to develop a continuous improvement plan for these courses and then implement it. Sounds good…right?

Overall, I agree with the sentiment of the law. We should be paying more attention to students, especially in large courses. However, I think the law misses the point or perhaps it’s the interpretation of the law that’s off. The idea of a pre/post assessment isn’t a bad idea. However, it shouldn’t be the only data point. Rather, all teachers, whether they teach a large course or small, should be engaging in formative assessment more frequently, not just summative. A pre/post assessment is a good idea for longitudinal data to see if the course is improving in the long term. But I think the spirit of the law is to help students learn better in the near term and a pre/post assessment doesn’t do that. At least not as described in the article.

As it was described in the article, the professor will do a pretest on day one, then on the last day do a posttest, with neither score counting towards the final grade. Then the instructor can make changes to the course. However, the professor does have the ability to collect data from students through a variety of formative assessments that would allow them to make changes during the same semester, perhaps the same week if needed. The idea that we can’t change how we teach until the end of the semester is a fallacy at best and ridiculous at worst. Students are changing and will continue to change, so if we are only making changes to teaching over the longterm, then I think we’re missing the point. If this is the case, this new law isn’t going to do anything productive and will likely, as some have suggested, serve to feed the bureaucratic machine.

WE aren’t very good at using technology in the curriculum

WE aren’t very good at using technology in the curriculum. WE just aren’t. And if you were wondering who WE are, that would be you and I, primary, secondary, and higher education. WE just haven’t figured it out yet. AND the way we approach “solving” the “problem” is simply misguided, because instead of approaching a curricular problem from the perspective of the curriculum, WE have decided that the best approach would be to invest in everything…but the curriculum. There are likely many out there that will say, “We invest heavily in the curriculum. Just look at (enter investment here)!” Most schools would say this. Which wouldn’t? The problem, though, is that WE don’t change the curriculum in any real way. Sure we may Skype with other schools across the nation or even give each student an iPad or laptop, but really, how much has the enacted and thus the experienced curriculum changed? I mean really changed?

I think we all know the answer, even if we don’t want to admit it. This is usually the point when I’d say there are pockets of hope here and there, but I’m not going to and that’s because everyone thinks they are that glimmer of light in the despair of our education system. Well your not, and I’m certainly not. This is because for every rockstar teacher who has changed for the better and is making a difference, there are exponentially more teachers who haven’t change, who view the SYSTEM with skepticism and suspect new innovations and ideas even more. YOU have them, I have them, WE ALL have them and in nearly all cases WE don’t do anything about them. They simply are overlooked. Passed over. Never to be seen or heard from again…except by the poor souls who have to have them as a teacher, and they can’t do anything. They have NO power and WE have ALL the power. WE don’t listen to them, even though our sole purpose is them.

While I can’t specifically address the needs of students anywhere, I can help address the needs of our society, which in my context are K12 schools. I work with people who want to be teachers. That’s why they come to UNI. So here’s what I am going to do. First, I’m going to make an explicit effort to determine the needs of our students. What do they need in order to learn and what can I do to help? Second, what does society need from us in order to prepare better students? This has many layers and one I’m going to tackle is what are schools doing that new teachers need to be ready for day one? Finally, I’m going to help faculty at UNI begin to change their curriculum so that they can meet the needs of learners and society. Maybe then we can start to have forward progress, real progress instead of this facade we have all come to recognize as progress, as change.

So that’s what I’m going to do…what are YOU going to do?

Do we want our curriculum to become “Institutionalized”?

I read something a few minutes ago that said something to the effect that when we begin using a new curriculum, teachers want to get to the point where they have institutionalized the process, so that it becomes a routine. My question is, do we really want to get to the point where our curriculum becomes institutionalized? Doesn’t that admit that we want to routinize the what and how of our courses so that nothing unexpected happens?

After reading and spending some time thinking about it, this is at the root of many of our struggles in education and making “change” (whatever that is by the way) happen. We want routine. We want the expected. It’s comfortable, reassuring. But it’s also damaging considering how quickly the world is changing. Content continues to expand at a more rapid rate everyday. Students are more diverse and thus have differing needs. And society in general is demanding different knowledge and skills, most of which we haven’t, as an education system, been able address adequately.

We need the unexpected, even though it’s messy and chaotic. That’s how the world works. Nothing of any real value comes in nice little packages.

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?

 

The Access Obligation

I’m taking a class right now that is NOT using a learning management system or LMS. During my undergrad, I only had a few courses using an LMS and my masters was mostly online, thus we relied heavily on our LMS for making the course happen. However, this is the first semester since I started my masters (I’m working towards an Ed.D. now) that I haven’t had an LMS for a course. While I generally don’t like the idea of college controlled LMS, I have grown to expect them to be used if at the very least to provide access to the syllabus and other general course information.

It may sound like I’m complaining, which is good, because I am. I don’t typically like to complain, or at least not in a public manner such as this, but I expect that course information is going to be available online, anytime, and every time I enroll in a course. The impetus of my complaint is that I’m stuck at work without my readings schedule. I have the time to read since class doesn’t start until 6pm, and have been, but now that I’ve finished my chapter I don’t know what other readings I have to do.

Now I could call my wife and have her tell my what I need to read next, or I could have been more organized and brought my folder with my paper copy of the readings with me to work…but I didn’t and that misses the point. I’m a paying customer and I have certain expectations when I spend a large amount of money. As far as my education goes, I expect to have access to my course materials regardless of where I am and when I’m accessing them. This is a base level expectation I have for my courses and is something I have become very accustomed to over the last four years.

The best part is that making these items available is something that could be done for the instructor if requested. At the very least, someone in the department or within the instructional design services on campus could help walk the instructor through the process of uploading the syllabus, readings and assignment schedule, as well as any other general course information. I’m not asking for my courses to be taught online in any fashion as much as I am asking for access. And higher education has an obligation to provide me that access, because even though I’m not likely to switch institutions, others may and others may not choose to attend a school that doesn’t provide this basic type of service.  Millennials have and will continue to enter higher education and are coming with very specific expectations for their courses. Much higher expectations than uploading a syllabus and readings schedule to BlackBoard. Are you ready higher ed? For some reason, I doubt it…

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.

Respectfully,

Daniel Mourlam