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Replay: Biking through Scaffolding

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next two weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in September 2012 after teaching my daughter to ride her bike.

Like many parents, I taught my children to ride a bike.  I have to say, as an educator, this was probably one of the most difficult lessons I have ever tried to convey.  In my twenty years of teaching, I’ve taught students integral calculus, thermodynamics and the theory of relativity.  In comparison to these lessons, teaching my children to ride a bike was much more challenging.  Our initial bike riding lessons incorporated falls, crashes, bleeding, bandages and tears. Even though I am an experienced educator, my patience was tested at every turn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is hard work.

The challenge, however, was not based on the cognitive difficulty of the subject matter or the physical dexterity of my daughter or son.  To be brutally honest, I place all of the blame for any learning challenges squarely on… myself.  My initial bike riding lessons were traditional ones.  I took my daughter to a small hill, positioned her appropriately and let her go.  I figured she would learn through the shear necessity and immediacy of the task.  It was sink or swim.  And she sank.  Or rather, she crashed.  And cried.  And bled.

After several days of regrouping, we attempted lesson two in bike riding.  For this lesson, I took my daughter to a level parking lot and pushed her.  Really fast.  Running behind her bike, I shouted commands like “Pedal!” and “Steer!” and “Keep your head up!”  while trying to keep her from falling.  But she fell.  And cried.  And bled.  And threatened to never speak to me again if I forced to her ride her bike again.

Frustrated and more than a little ashamed, I figured there had to be an easier way.  After a few quick Google searches, I came upon the instructional method that turned my children’s bike riding world around.   Bike New York promotes a “balance-first” approach.  In this method, the pedals of the bike are removed and children focus solely on balancing their bike by walking it around a level surface.  After mastering this task, children begin scooting and then begin to tackle other skills such as pedaling, steering and stopping.  It was a novel approach.  After the traumatic experiences I’d put my daughter through, I was willing to try anything.  I removed the pedals from my daughter’s bike and within a few hours, she was riding.  By moving slowly through different steps, she was able to master the complex task of riding her bike.  The best part?  She didn’t fall once using the “balance-first” method.  No crashes.  No tears.  No bleeding.

But this post isn’t really about the best way to learn how to ride a bike or how wonderful (or horrible) of a parent I am.  It’s about learning.  Liev Vygotsky promoted the concept of the “zone of proximal development” to describe what learners could achieve with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other.  In this concept, the knowledgeable other provides initial supports to help students learn a task.  As the learner masters this task, the supports (or scaffolds) slowly fade until the learner can tackle the task on his/her own.  The focus then shifts to a more complex task with new supports which also eventually fade.  Little by little, the learner moves through new scaffolds and new zones until s/he eventually can tackle a complete, complex task individually.

Traditional methods of teaching bike riding involve little scaffolding.  The learner attends to all of the complexity individually with little support from the more knowledgeable other.  In the “balance-first” approach, however, the whole activity is deconstructed with the learner being scaffolded through intentional, developmental stages that build appropriately to the entire activity.  While the “sink or swim” methods of teaching bike riding might be more traditional, the “balance-first” method was definitely more instructionally sound.

Replay: Democratizing Teaching and Learning

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next two weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in April 2012 after my in-laws visited.

“Democratizing” is a word you’ll hear used by many technology folks these days.  Outside of the political connotations of the word, “democratizing” means making something available to everyone.  You may have heard that the Internet has “democratized content” and made information accessible to people around the world.  Larry Lessig has argued that technology has “democratized production of creative works.”  With a laptop and a few inexpensive apps, any teenager can produce a movie, create a song or write a book.  It is clear that technology is allowing people to access information, take on new roles and participate globally in new ways.  Technology is a democratizing force.

This weekend I witnessed a very different kind of democratization, but one still rooted in technology. My in-laws were visiting my family and were staying at my house for a few days.  As some readers may know, I have a 10 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.  My in-laws love their grandchildren a great deal and enjoy spending time with them.  When they visit, I often see my father-in-law playing games with my daughter or my mother-in-law building Legos with my son.   I know this is probably what many grandparents do with their grandchildren but it’s a little foreign to me.  I didn’t grow up with grandparents myself and I find this cross-generational interaction really interesting and educational.

I walked into the kitchen Sunday afternoon to find my mother-in-law and son huddled around my mother-in-law’s iPad.  She purchased the device a few months ago and is still learning what it’s capable of doing.  Without saying a word, I sat back and watched my son as he taught my mother-in-law how to access different apps on her iPad and explained what each app did.  It was very cool to watch.  Here were two individuals separated by almost 60 years and yet their roles were clearly reversed.  My son had taken the role of a teacher and my mother-in-law had taken the role of a student.  Their ages really didn’t matter.  My son had some expertise that could be shared with my mother-in-law and it was obvious that both were comfortable in their new roles.  My mother-in-law asked questions.  My son re-demonstrated certain apps when necessary.  In a way, technology had democratized teaching and learning.  It allowed my 5 year old son to become a teacher and my 63 year old mother-in-law to become a student.

Before anyone thinks I’m just being a proud papa and championing my son’s brilliance, I don’t think my son’s technology abilities are out of the norm.  In its report called Always Connected, the Sesame Workshop examined the digital media habits of young children and found that half of five-year-olds went online daily.  While my son would love to go online every day, we try to limit his computer time and vary his experiences. He plays T-ball, rides his bike and gets dirty playing in the yard.  He’s not really a techno-kid at all.

Besides, this observation isn’t really about five-year-olds or mother-in-laws.  It’s about expertise and openness.  We’re entering a world where people have expertise to share.  Technology has blurred the definition of teacher and student.  Go to YouTube and search for tutorials on almost any piece of software and you’ll find screencasts created by middle school students.  And it’s not just software tutorials, either. Want to learn how to do a french twist?  Go to YouTube and you’ll find tons of examples.  And that’s the real message here.  Technology has given people new opportunities to become teachers and students.  Whether it’s a five year old demonstrating to his grandmother how to use an iPad or an investment banker choosing to create a worldwide tutorial site like Khan Academy, technology is a democratizing force in education.

Information Literacy: A Critical 21st Century Skill!

I’m sure we’ve all fallen victim to it.  We’re going through our Twitter or Facebook feeds and we see something that is just awesome.  It echoes our beliefs and our understandings of the world and we quickly repost it. Or maybe it’s just so timely and important that we feel the urge to share.  With a quick click of a button, we send out some piece of information to our colleagues, family and friends without ever really evaluating it.  And that’s how misinformation is spread virally across the digital ecosystem, innocently and immediately.  Through this click and share culture, countless celebrity deaths have been hoaxed.  Multiple “scientific discoveries” have been faked.  Numerous political controversies have been created.  Whether factual or not, the misinformation spreads across the Internet.

I’ve written before about numerous fact checking sites available online but a recent article on the Chronicle shows that the problem is a little more pervasive. We’re all “at sea in a deluge of data,” the article argues, and many students and graduates aren’t navigating the waters well.  In interviews with a number of employers from major companies, researchers in a Project Information Literacy study found that information research and analysis was a top priority for new hires but that new graduates often possessed “a small compass” to complete in-depth research.  Many new graduates resort to Google searches and Wikipedia and “default to quick answers plucked from the Internet.”  The Chronicle article, written by the director of Project Information Literacy, argues that what is needed is that educators begin developing students’ “knowledge in action.”  Students need to perform “a kind of athletics of the mind aided by Internet-enabled devices, search engines, and pools of data from a wide variety of outlets.”  They need to look across data sets and information sources and synthesize this information in new ways.  “Knowledge in action” is not just a scholarly or educational activity. It’s about lifelong learning and effective citizenship.  It’s a skill and framework of mind that helps students recognize which sites are reputable, which information is accurate and how we evaluate sources.

But how do we teach information literacy and develop “knowledge in action?”  First, I think we have to assume that our students aren’t just learning it somewhere else.  I had a graduate assistant several years ago who I assumed could perform some background research for a project that I was starting.  Because she had an undergraduate degree in history and had written a thesis, I assumed she could navigate primary documents and synthesize them into a cogent summary.  Instead, she shared a list of Internet sites in an email.  When I asked if she had checked out JSTOR, EBSCO or ProQuest, she said she didn’t know what those were.  The activity became a teachable moment for the student and for me.

As educators, we have to recognize that our students become information literate by doing independent research, not just in large research assignments but in day-to-day classroom activities as well.   We have to create classroom cultures that celebrate evidence-based arguments and that value critical analyses of the evidence brought to bear on any discussion.  Through these processes (and others), our students will become better consumers of information.  And we will have saved thousands of celebrities from fake online deaths.

Flipping classrooms with EDpuzzle

Last week, I facilitated a weeklong institute on Mobile Technology in Education.  During the institute, the group examined a variety of topics including mobile pedagogy, gamification and app development.  Several experts and innovators met with the group to discuss how mobile technology is beginning to shift the modes of instruction and assessment in our schools.  One of the speakers, Aaron Sams, really shook the group.  For those of you who don’t know, Aaron is the co-author of Flip Your Classroom:  Reach Every Student Every Day and is considered by many to be the father of the flipped classroom movement.  While he started his career as a chemistry teacher, he now is the Director of Digital Learning at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA and leads his own educational consulting firm.  Aaron’s discussion really resonated with the institute participants.  Since all of them were classroom teachers, they appreciated Aaron’s practical approach to flipping and his solution-based to common challenges that they may face when flipping their classrooms.  While he focused a great deal on the pedagogical applications to flipped, Aaron also shared a variety of technologies that could support flipping.  One of the tools, EDpuzzle, was new to many of the participants and really excited the group with all of its functions.

EDpuzzle is a flipping tool that allows instructors to attach videos found from common sites (YouTube, TED, National Geographic, etc.) or to upload their own.  Instructors can then embed questions at different points throughout the video to engage and assess students.  The site allows instructors the ability to crop videos to showcase a specification section and to prevent students from jumping ahead in the video.  The really powerful part of EDpuzzle is the assessment data it collects.  The site stores all of the assessment scores from all of the questions embedded in the video and allows for easy downloading of class data.  Instructors can also see the individual progress of each student and see which sections were watched multiple times (or not watched at all).  The most amazing part is that the site is completely FREE.  EDpuzzle is the perfect companion to any instructor who is considering flipping their classroom and using data to inform their classroom instruction.

Becoming agnostic

I’ve decided to entertain “agnosticism.”  I’m setting aside some long held beliefs and attempting to become unaffiliated.  It’s going to be challenging and I’ll probably go through a great deal of soul searching, but I believe my students will be better off with me as an agnostic.

Before anyone becomes concerned about my spiritual or religious well-being, let me clarify.  I’m embracing agnosticism in my teaching career, especially as it relates to technology.  Most of my close colleagues know that I’m a Mac user in my personal and professional life.  As a teacher, however, I’m supporting a BYOD classroom.  If I want my students to bring their own devices to my classroom, I have to start exploring applications that don’t just target a single platform or ecosystem.  Apps like iMovie are amazing tools for iOS devices, but they’re only available on iOS devices.  Students won’t be able to run iMovie on their Droid device, on their Netbook or on their Kindle Fire.  To truly foster a BYOD classroom, I have to work to become more “device agnostic” and start supporting all the devices they may enter the classroom.  So what does “device agnostic” mean?   In a blog post, Margaret Rouse offers a great definition.

“A device-agnostic mobile application (app), for example, is compatible with most operating systems and may also work on different types of devices, including notebooks, tablet PCs and smartphones.”

So how does an instructor become device agnostic?  First, I’ll have to start to examine the assignments and applications that I use in my classroom.  Luckily, there are a ton of resources that can help.  Searching around the web, I found a bunch of blog posts and articles that can help.  Here are a few I’ve found:

Five Tools for the Agnostic Classroom

The Epic BYOD Toolchest

Tool Comparison for the BYOD Classroom

Educational iPad Apps that are also on Android

Apps and Sites that Work For All Devices

Device Neutral Assignment Applications

The last resource uses the term “device neutral assignments.”  Device neutrality means that instructors allow students to choose whatever tools that can successfully complete an assignment.  For instance, instead of saying “use Powerpoint to make a presentation,” an instructor would just ask students to select whatever tool they could access to successfully create a presentation.  As schools and institutions start to explore BYOD initiatives, it’s important to provide students with options to complete the assignments.  Students already face numerous challenges when they come to campus.  Unless its absolutely necessary, I don’t believe that we should place additional financial stress by expecting students to purchase and use specific applications or devices.  The landscape of technology is too fertile to restrict student choice and ownership.

Change in Higher Education? Presidents speak!

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a report on university president’s views of innovation and change in colleges and universities.  Titled The Innovative University: What College Presidents Thinks About Change in American Higher Education, the report is a little unsettling.  One page reads in big bold letters:

“These are hardly the best of times for American higher education.”

That’s it.  Those are the only words on that entire page.  As if the stark realism of the statement wasn’t enough, the message was amplified by the sentence’s solitary position on the page.  To provide some support to this damning statement, the report shares data that outlines the current reality facing most institutions of higher education. Enrollments are down.  Net revenue at most institutions is flat or falling.  Businesses are questioning the quality of the graduates college produce, saying they lack basic skills such as problem solving, communication skills and adaptability.  Families are questioning the investment of a college degree. The report was clear.  These are dark days for Higher Education in the United States.

But the report wasn’t intended to be a pessimistic outlook on higher education.  Instead, it was outlining the need for innovation and change.  The report included data from surveys sent to university presidents of four-year public and four-year private, not for profit colleges and universities.  Over 340 university presidents responded to the survey and they provided a frank perspective on the innovations emerging on college campuses and the critical drivers of change.  While most university presidents reported that higher education provided a great value for students and that American higher education was still one of the best systems in the world, they also identified real need for change.  Only 2% of presidents who responded felt that the current system works well and did not require any disruption.  Contrast that with 67% of presidents who felt that massive or moderate amounts of disruption was needed to meet the needs of students.  While most of the presidents recognize technology and cost cutting as the primary drivers for innovation, almost half believe that teaching and learning should be the primary emphases for driving change on campus.  This is reflected in the types of changes the presidents see as valuable. For instance, most of the presidents were hostile about MOOCs but saw great promise in hybrid and blended learning. They saw value in adaptive learning systems and in competency based programs.  They believed technology that could foster student interaction and engagement would have a large positive impact on higher education in the future.  In comparisons with the “economies of scale” disruptions to higher education (like MOOCs), the presidents clearly were more interested in innovations that could directly benefit student learning and change the traditional modes of instruction.  Although I was a little surprised that more presidents didn’t recognize the value of open education resources, but that might be due to some “guilt by association” with the open nature of MOOCs.

According to the presidents, economics plays a large role in change on campus but the main drivers of change on campus are politicians.  Over half of the presidents responding saw politicians as the primary influence for change on campus followed closely by business leaders.  When asked who should be leading change initiatives, almost 80% of the presidents identified faculty members as the main innovators and agents for change at their institutions.

While the dire statistics on the present state of American higher education was unsettling, I found the report to be an encouraging window into the minds of university presidents.  Despite economic issues, most university presidents recognize that teaching and learning should be the main factors influencing decisions and recognize the emerging innovations that have students and their learning in mind.  They also recognize that, despite political influences, faculty are still a powerful driver of change.  Faculty work directly with students and have a great deal of control over how students are taught and assessed.  With this critical role in students’ lives, presidents believe that faculty should be in the driver’s seat for innovative efforts. These student-centered perspectives makes me tremendously optimistic about what the future holds for our colleges and universities.

My summer reading list

I find that I’m always reading.  Whether it’s journal articles that folks send me or blog posts that I come across in my Twitter feed (@ollied), I find that I’m always reading something.  But this summer, I wanted to be a little more intentional and plan out a list of books to tackle.  In this week’s post, I thought I’d share the current (but still developing) list and some of my rationale for selecting the books.  If you have any book suggestions, please use the comment section to make your recommendations.

1.  Think like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubnar.  I finished this book a week ago and sought the book out after hearing an interview with the authors on NPR.  My goal is to use some of their “freakonomics” techniques to inform some of the planning in my institution’s Teaching and Learning Center.

2.  Mindset by Carol Dweck.  I read a fascinating article a few weeks ago about work being done at the University of Texas with at-risk students and how they work to change the mindset of the students and the faculty to value and promote hard work over ability.  I’m about two thirds of the way through the book and I can see it’s potential as a great text for a professional learning community on campus.

3.  Teaching Naked by Jose Antonio Bowen.  It’s not what you think.  I’m not planning to take off my clothes and teach students.  The book focuses on moving technology out of the classroom to support student learning.  In an era of increased flipping and blending, I’m really interested in the premise of the book and how it can inform my work on campus.

4.  The Student Loan Mess by Joel and Eric Best.  This book was selected as the text for the Chronicle Book Club’s Summer Reading.  While I’m not formally participating in the Book Club, I plan to lurk through the online chapter discussions as I’m reading.  The first chapter discussion started yesterday (June 9, 2014) and can be accessed at the Chronicle website if you are interested.

5.  Real Talk for Real Teachers by Rafe Esquith.  I teach in the Professional Development School at my institution.  The PDS uses innovative methods to apprentice new teachers into the profession.  To help foster community across all members of the group, we select a common reading for students and faculty.  Real Talk for Real Teachers was selected after a few of us saw Rafe Esquith speak at the PDS conference this spring.  If you want to follow along, our group will be tweeting as we read using the hashtags #Rafe and #MUPDS.

6.  The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp.  A colleague and I are exploring game-based professional development on our campus.  We’re reading this text (and a few others) to inform the development of the project.  I hope to be blogging more about the project in the fall once we have a pilot underway.

7.  The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Ranciere.  A colleague handed me a copy of this book after I mentioned that I was reading Mindset.  While Mindset offers tons of practical examples from sports and business, the Ignorant Schoolmaster provides a more philosophical bent on education and “intellectual emancipation.”  Paired together, they should provide contrasting and complementary views on teaching and learning.


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