#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.


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!


What does it mean to be student centered? Can we still consider a lesson student centered if the learner isn’t involved in the planning process? At what level does the learner become involved? These are some questions I’ve been reflecting about for the last day or so. The more I think about learner involvement and student centered instruction, I begin to feel like there is a continuum. On one end we have high student involvement throughout all aspects of the lesson, from planning through lesson evaluation. On the other end, we have low involvement throughout the entire lesson.

Traditionally, I’ve thought that student instruction was somewhere in the middle of these two points. Probably more towards the high involvement than then low, but not all the way to the extreme points. As a rule of thumb, I never go all in to one extreme over the other, but I’m wondering how student centered a lesson really is when the learner isn’t interested in the content being learned?

I understand the fact that the more relevant a lesson is to the learner, the more engaged and committed he or she will be to the learning process. But is that enough? What if the learner sees no value in the content or sees value, but wants to be more involved in the selection and design of the lesson? As I reflect on how I’ve taught in the past, rarely have I considered the value learners place on the content they are engaged with (I’m not going to say learning because I’m not sure they really are learning the content if there is a philosophical barrier between what I’m selling and what they’re buying). The content is important to me, but maybe not to everyone else.

I’d make the argument that if faculty (and probably students too) don’t believe in the content or how it is being disseminated, then minimal learning can take place. I don’t feel it’s enough to be student centered in the way that the learner is actively engaged, or even to the extent that the lesson is hyper relevant to the learner. I think there is another factor involved that is preventing a number of new ideas from being implemented. And I think that factor is full disclosure involvement from content selection, through design, and implementation.

I wonder how many of us that provide learning opportunities for faculty (as well as students) do this on a regular basis? I know I don’t…perhaps it’s time that I start.

Developing Teacher TPACK

I was reading over at drzreflects.com about his post on TPACK and it triggered a thought I have been thinking about a lot lately.  I often think about how poor much of the professional development we have in schools is, but I’ve often struggled to define what would make it better. I’ve been searching for a construct that would help me conceptualize what would constitute really good professional development. After reading more about TPACK lately and coming across Leigh’s post this morning, I thought I’d share my idea about developing a teacher’s TPACK. Here’s my comment:


When you mention how we implement TPACK in our teaching, you touched on a topic that has been in the front of my mind for some time now. I think as we consider about how TPACK can be implemented in practice, we have to think also about how teacher TPACK can be developed. I think there are at least two levels of TPACK implementation we can consider with regards to level of technology use in the classroom: integration and innovation. We have been integrating technology for a long time using TPACK whether or not we really knew we were. I view integration as happening once we make a decision to use technology and include it in instruction. We make a decision about a technology, which then makes a change in how we teach the content, the P and C. However, if we think of TPACK as a knowledge to be developed in teachers, I think we can reach technology innovation which is the creation of new types of learning experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without the technology. I believe there is a continuum between these two lenses if you will that teachers move along as they develop an awareness of TPACK. As the they develop each domain of knowledge: T, P, C, T, TP, TC, PCK, and TPACK, they can begin to see stronger connections between each domain and how each can be leveraged in the classroom to create new learning experiences.

As I think about how this type of knowledge development can be created, I go back to how Mishra and Koehler (2006) explain how they implemented it in masters courses. They called it learning by design, which reminds me of problem based learning. They had students work together in groups that were responsible for defining, designing and refining a solution to a problem over the course of a semester. As I look at how this can be applied to practicing teachers in PK-12 schools, I see great potential. But it requires professional development practices to change.

Not sure what I was hoping to accomplish with this comment, but your post spurred my thought process, so I wanted to share. Happy summer break!


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?

Professional Learning Communities

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about anything substantive here at Technology Tips so I thought I’d do a short piece about something I’ll be engaged in for this next semester.  At UNI we have the goal of becoming the premier PK-12 teacher preparation institution in the US and to that end I’m on a committee that is working towards this end in the area of technology.  What’s interesting about the work that we are doing is that we are only focusing on technology use in a roundabout way and are instead looking at the underlying teaching teacher education faculty are using in their courses.  It is the pedagogy teachers use that will ultimately determine how technology is used in the classroom.  Only then will we be able to design creative, meaningful, authentic learning experiences for our students.

We recognize that this change is going to take many semesters.  Mainly because we are talking about changing the culture within teacher education, which like any culture change, takes time.  So our first step is to create the opportunity for faculty to see some of the possibilities through a mini pilot of a few faculty.  These faculty will be engaged in a professional learning community during this semester as we look at different things we can do in their classrooms to become more effective.

Many of the specifics are still to be worked out by those in the PLC, but here is the general idea:

  • Meet face to face once a month to reflect on our teaching practice, observe/interact with other educators who embody what we feel as effective teaching, learn new strategies/technologies
  • Communicate via Twitter when we are apart about things we are trying in our classrooms, resources we find, and to ask questions both to our small group and to others in the Twitterverse
  • Reflect on new strategies, innovations, etc. that we are trying in our courses through a group blog
  • Continuous focus on how to improve student learning in their courses

The end game for this small pilot PLC is to both create the opportunity for other teacher education faculty to see the process they will eventually be going through, as well as become a better teacher which should lead to greater student learning.

My role in the PLC will be as a facilitator.  I’ll help organize meetings, teach faculty how to use certain technology, assist with instructional design, etc.  If the faculty want to try something, I’ll be there to help them do it, which is a crucial component in any change process. I clearly have my work cut out for me this next semester, especially since this is my first PLC I’ve been apart of and I want it to be a success.  And part of that success means connecting with others who have been a part of PLCs in the past.

So…what has worked well for you? Is there any PLC resources you could recommend as we get started?  What can I/we do to help make this PLC a success?  Help us out by leaving a comment!