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Blast from the Past

A colleague sent me an article recently that he wanted to include as a reference for a manuscript we were co-writing.  He called it one of the seminal works on innovation in higher education and said that the article would really resonate with me. I was unfamiliar with the article so I quickly read it and was honestly blown away.

From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education appeared in a 1995 issue of Change.  Written by Robert Barr and John Tagg, the article provides a comprehensive overview of the instructional challenges institutions of higher education face and how a massive paradigm shift is needed.  Most institutions, the authors argue, hold an Instruction Paradigm where the process of teaching is the core value of what they do.  They write that this “dominant paradigm mistakes a means for an end. It takes the means or method–called ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’–and makes it the college’s end or purpose. To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds. We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best.”

What is needed, Barr and Tagg argue, is the adoption of a Learning Paradigm, where “a college’s purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems.”   To change paradigms, the authors write, requires “a constant search for new structures and methods that work better for student learning and success, and expects even these to be redesigned continually and to evolve over time.”

It’s important to remember that Barr and Tagg wrote these words almost twenty years ago.  In 1995, traditional colleges and universities were not facing the onslaught of competition that they now face from MOOCs, for-profit institutions and accelerated programs.  Back then, technology wasn’t the disruptive force that is today.   Twenty years ago, Barr and Tagg were arguing conceptually for adopting a student-centered paradigm where learning takes center stage.  Their call for change wasn’t motivated by increasing student enrollment numbers or by becoming more economically efficient.  Improving student learning outcomes was at the heart of their argument.

But Barr and Tagg’s words are as important today as they were two decades ago.  They also seem to set the stage for the learning innovations that are now occurring in education.    When reading one section of the article, I kept thinking of how the authors seem to predict the emergence of online, blended and flipped classrooms and a host of classroom technologies intended to increase student engagement.  They write that “the Learning Paradigm does not limit institutions to a single means for empowering students to learn; within its framework, effective learning technologies are continually identified, developed, tested, implemented, and assessed against one another.

At the end of reading the article, however, I was torn.  On one hand, I was excited that Barr and Tagg have provided such a rich, comprehensive foundation for the need for institutional change and helped to predict and foster the innovations we’re seeing in education.  On the other, I see how little progress we’ve made over the last twenty years and how these educational innovations are more of the exception than the rule.  In many ways, the Instructional Paradigm is still alive and well in universities and colleges across the country.  I wonder where we’ll be twenty years from today.

Beginnings and endings.

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

-Herman Melville

Most people probably don’t recognize that line but it’s the last sentence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ve included the sentence to demonstrate a point. While many people can recite the beginning to that book, few recognize the ending.  I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings over the last few weeks.  We’re nearing the end of another semester at the institution in which I teach.  Since my institution also has a winter term, like me, many instructors are also thinking about starting a new class in just a few days.  This overlap creates an interesting confluence of emotions and provides fodder for reflection.  In many cases, students enter the last day of class to take a final exam and then leave expressionless and withdrawn after rehearsing and rehashing a semester’s worth of content.  I wonder how memorable these moments will be for students.  Like the ending of Melville’s tome, I wonder whether those moments will be as easily forgotten.

In this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the ways I’ve ended some of my classes.  While I often struggle to create effective closures to manuscripts, lessons and activities, I thought these might provide some ideas for people who are considering how to end the semester.

1.  Celebrate!  In quite a few classes, I’ve held a semester-end celebration.  While these are often paired with some curricular activity that wraps up the content from the course, I find that the celebration acts to provide a distinct closure to the semester and a way to effectively rejoice from the semester long journey.

2.  I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.  In some classes, I have brought paper and envelopes and asked the students to write letters to their future selves. I directed the students to consider how the content from the course would translate to their future careers.  In one of the first graduate classes I taught, I held onto the letters for almost a year before sending them out.  Quite a few students contacted me after receiving their letters to explain how meaningful the experience was.

3.  Share the stage.  I’m not a big believer of final exams as closing activities.  Often, I’ll build a culminating student presentation as the last activity in the course.  For instance, in one of final classes tomorrow, the students will be giving formal presentations to teachers from a neighboring district to report on the collaborative projects we completed in their classrooms.  A final presentation can serve as an effective celebration and academic closure without all the fanfare.

4. Collect data. I try to be evidence-based with my decision-making as I plan new iterations for courses.  To do this, I’ll use the last class to administer a survey to examine how the course content and instruction impacts student learning.  For instance, in my instructional technology courses, I’ll use a short survey based on a larger TPACK survey.  I’ll give the survey at the start of the semester and again at the end of the semester.  After a class ends, I’ll review the anonymous scores from the students and examine how the course impacted their development.  While student evaluation data can be useful, using a survey that examines other developmental areas can be tremendously insightful.

5.  Post a reflection.  In my online classes, I typically post a long rambling reflection that reviews some of the highlights from the course.  I identify specific posts from students that were memorable or things I learned from some of the projects that students had created.   In addition to reviewing the course activities, I channel NPR’s Garrison Keillor and invite students to reach out in the future if they need assistance. The final sentence of the post always ends with Keillor’s classic ending…

“Be well, do good work and keep in touch.”

The Hour of Code approaches

Next week, a worldwide educational event called the Hour of Code will take place.  Planned during the week of December 8 -14, 2014, the Hour of Code promotes computer programming and coding as valuable life skills that everyone from 4 to 104 should learn.  Currently, over 56,000 Hour of Code events are planned internationally.  But, the big question is: why should people learn how to code?  While I could explain some of the benefits here, the Hour of Code has created a compelling video with tech superstars like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Bosh to share their opinions.

In the United States, the interest in computer science as a career is dismal. 90% of schools don’t teach computer programming at all and less than 1% of HS seniors took the AP Computer Science exam.  Looking at collegiate statistics, less than 3% of college students graduate with a computer science degree, even though computer programming jobs are growing at twice the national average.  While the market for computer science trained graduates continues to increase, the actual number of computer science graduates has decreased over the last decade.  The Hour of Code is one small effort to change that trend.  Last year, almost 15 million people participated in the event.  This year, the goal is to reach over 100 million individuals worldwide.  But the event isn’t just limited to students.  Almost anybody can plan an event. You can host one at your place of work or even at your home.  Invite your friends and family and get your code on.  Wondering where to start?  The Hour of Code has prepared a quick event guide to help.  You can also check out some of the blog posts I’ve written on coding recently.

Reflecting on PETE&C

Apps for Learning to Code

The Hour of Code seeks to focus worldwide attention on coding and increase interest in coding and computer programming.  Participation is easy.  Simply go to hourofcode.org for more information or to host an event.


Teach like a Pirate

This week, I attended a statewide conference for school administrators where I was presenting some research I had conducted with some colleagues.  During the day, I had the pleasure to attend a great keynote speech by David Burgess, a secondary school teacher from San Diego, CA.  In addition to teaching high school social studies, Mr. Burgess is also the New York Times best selling authoring of the book Teach like a Pirate.  His keynote was a shortened version of the teaching traits and techniques he promotes in his book.

Dressed in pirate garb, Mr. Burgess engaged and entertained the audience with passionate tales from his classroom.  To him, Teach like a Pirate means that educators should take no prisoners and employ an almost swash-buckling approach to getting students to learn.  But the concept isn’t just a metaphor.  In his book, Mr. Burgess explains that Teach like a Pirate actually means embracing each component of the acronym P-I-R-A-T-E.  Teachers need to be PASSIONATE and IMMERSE themselves into the content.  They need to build RAPPORT with their students and ASK questions and analyze student responses.  They need to undergo a TRANSFORMATION to leverage creativity to design engaging lessons that hook students.  Lastly, educators need to have and show ENTHUSIASM for the learning process.

Mr. Burgess is a gifted presenter and showman.  In his introduction, he explained that he used to work as a magician.  During the presentation, his ability to keep a crowd in suspense was clearly on display.  He kept an audience of over two hundred school principals, superintendents and supervisors engaged and entertained.  After the presentation, however, I reflected on the substance of his presentation.  Clearly, educators need to engage their students in the learning process through creative lessons and the PIRATE acronym offers a concise, systematic solution to this. As a teacher educator and professional developer, however, I wonder how these traits can be taught.  How do we teach educators to be more passionate?  Or to be enthusiastic?  These seem to be personality traits that would be hard to foster in others.  I’m not saying that passion and enthusiasm aren’t critical elements for successful teaching.  As a student, I’ve always struggled to learn from educators who were disengaged from the subject matter or from a lesson.  I’m only wondering how we build enthusiasm or teach passion to new and experienced teachers.  Are there activities that can help build teacher enthusiasm?  Are passion and enthusiasm concepts that can be measured?

And that’s the other main reflection I have after attending Mr. Burgess’ keynote.  In an era of evidence-based teaching, how do the components of Teach like a Pirate fit in?  Some elements (asking questions, for instance) have a strong research base that demonstrates their effectiveness.  Others (transformation?) have less explicit connections to any solid evidence base.  In his presentation, Mr. Burgess didn’t cite any journal articles or include references to support his work.  Then again, does it matter?  As I examine Teach like a Pirate from a scholarly standpoint, I can almost hear Einstein’s words echoing in my head:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

And maybe that’s where Teach like a Pirate has its most power.  It motivates educators to focus on the less tangible aspects of our practice that can impact student learning.

You can’t say you can’t play.

I’ve always envied exceptionally good athletes.  They seem to possess an innate ability to pick up any sport and excel.  I am not that person.  I was always one of the last people picked for any sport I played.  On my middle school baseball team, I played the league mandated two innings and was always safely stationed in left field.  Despite my lack of ability, however, I still got the chance to play.  Sure, I wasn’t the best kickball player or the best flag football player but I still had the opportunity to play.  No one said I couldn’t.  I didn’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch my peers play.  I still had the opportunity.  And who knows? Maybe with a little hard work and some support, I would have excelled.

I’ve been thinking a lot about opportunity lately and how we provide educational opportunities for our students.  I’m working with a team of colleagues to develop an online program in our department.  We’ve been examining different online teaching rubrics to use as guides as we build our online classes.  Every rubric explicitly states that online teachers need to support the unique needs of all learners.  But I wonder how many online teachers take these requirements to heart?  I worry that because online teachers don’t always “see” their students that they visualize some idealized, able-bodied individual who can easily access the content in whatever form they’re placed online.  I’ve heard some individuals ask, “Why would a blind student want to take an online class?” Others have said, “We shouldn’t let our students with disabilities take online classes.”  But you can’t say you can’t play.  It’s unethical.  It’s immoral.  It’s also illegal.

Maybe it’s better to discuss a different scenario.  Imagine an elementary classroom where small groups of students are excitedly engaged in some learning activities.  The teacher moves from group to group, interacting with the students and assessing their learning.  Off to the side, however, a lone student sits.  Because of his learning disability, he’s unable to participate in today’s activities.  He sits silently with his aide as the rest of the class engages in the lesson.  Would it be okay to place this student on the educational sidelines while the rest of the students learned?  But that’s essentially what online teachers do when they don’t consider the accessibility of their course content.  From providing transcripts of online videos to using templates to organize course material, you can insure educational access to all students and give them the opportunity to learn.  Wondering whether the materials in your online class are accessible?  Check out these resources from Portland Community College which provide step-by-step guides so you can select and build course content so you can provide an equal playing field so all learners can succeed.

Planning for an inclement weather day

Winter is starting to descend on the Northeastern part of the United States.  The days are getting shorter.  The nights are getting colder and words like “chance of snow showers” are undoubtedly on the horizon.  With the unpredictable nature of weather, it is probably a good time to start thinking about what happens in the event of an inclement weather day.  With the prevalence of online tools, a face-to-face instructor has more options than forcing students to navigate icy roads to attend a lecture.  While technology creates opportunities for moving a class online, planning ahead is critical.  Here are some suggestions that can help make the inclement weather days a little more productive.

1. Schedule a mock online day with your students.  With the options available in tools like Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts, almost any class can be moved online easily.  But these tools take a little practice to master.  Have your students bring their laptops to your face-to-face class and have them join a synchronous classroom.  Teach a short mini-lesson with them and walk around to show them how to use some of the engagement tools.  While this may sound time consuming, it’s important to remember that by troubleshooting the technology issues during a practice lesson, you will save yourself and your students a world of problems down the road.

2.  Make your expectations clear.  Explain to your students what you plan to do on an inclement weather day and how you plan to communicate any schedule changes.  If you’re teaching an early morning or evening class, detail when students should expect you to email them.  You want to keep in mind that while some students may live on campus, others may travel from a distance to attend your class.  Emailing fifteen before class won’t save anyone a treacherous drive.

3.  If you build it, they will come.  Another option for an inclement weather day is to schedule an asynchronous emergency module that you can quickly assign when you need it.  Some topics can be easily moved throughout a semester without really damaging the flow of the course.  In my Instructional Technology class, for instance, I have a self-contained online module that covers copyright laws ready to assign whenever it’s needed.   With a few clicks, the module can be up and running and students can still be productive despite a weather interruption.

4.  Understand your institution’s inclement weather policies.  Before you schedule an online replacement for a canceled face-to-face class, ask around to find out how your school handles cancellations and delays.  Some institutions don’t require students to participate in rescheduled classes.  Others may leave make-up classes at the instructor’s discretion.  Regardless, you need to factor your institution’s policies into your inclement weather plan.

5.  Be flexible.  With some of the weird weather issues you’re likely to face, it’s important to flexible with students.  Last winter, I moved a face-to-face class online because of an impending ice storm.  As the storm hit, some students lost power and were unable to participate in the lesson.  When the weather cleared, I communicated to the missing students that I understood their absence and directed them to watch the recorded session and complete the online assignment.


Helping the online student succeed

I’m currently co-teaching a graduate course in online instruction for K-12 teachers in local districts.  In the class, we’re examining different technologies that can support online instruction.  Rather than just focusing on tools, my co-instructor and I wanted to bring a human element to online teaching.  Online learning may be mediated via technology but the process still involves real human beings engaged in the processes of teaching and learning.  To better humanize the online teaching/learning experience, we wanted our class to explore the lives of online teachers and the students with whom they work.  Our students watched interviews with online teachers and saw video diaries of online students.  The processes were eye-opening for our class.

As the group discussed the videos they watched, one member of the class offered a list of “vital components” that students need to be successful in online classes.  As more of the class offered items for the list, the discussion started to grow and evolve.  At the start of the conversation, most of the components focused on the qualities that online students should possess (self-motivation, independence, supportive learning environment, etc).  Students select online instruction for various reasons.  Some have encountered bullying in brick and mortar environments.  Others have illnesses that may impede their ability to succeed in face-to-face classrooms.  Others choose online instruction because of their involvement in sports, the arts or in some career-related field.

As we discussed the video diaries, however, some of the class recognized that while we were seeing the backgrounds of some online students, ALL online students were not being represented.  For instance, there are students who choose online schools because they haven’t been successful in the regular classroom environments  Maybe their learning disabilities aren’t being supported or maybe their local school is having academic troubles.  As we started widening the scope and role of online instruction, the class started to recognize the importance of the online teacher.  The “vital components” started to include items like “caring, dedicated instructors” and “scaffolded instruction” and “avenues for collaboration and interaction with the teacher.”  As the list continued to grow, a few members of the class recognized that the list we were creating wasn’t THAT different from the vital components any student would need for any learning environment, regardless of whether the classroom was online or face-to-face.  The process was instructive.  I worry that we get so caught up in the medium of instruction that we lose the essence of teaching.  At it’s most basic form, teaching is about helping students learn.  Sure, there are processes and pedagogies unique to online teaching, but the goal is the same.

As my class wondered about the “vital components” that were necessary for online students to be successful, the discussion evolved into a larger analysis of our roles as teachers and the educational needs for our learners.  Regardless of the medium of instruction, we teach the students we have.  Ultimately, the most vital component for a students’ success may be us as teachers.


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