Define your “moonshot”

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some posts from the 8 Blog archive. With the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing, I thought replaying this post from April 2013 was appropriate. Enjoy.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

In his recent Educause article, Josh Jarrett examines the different innovation strategies employed by institutions of higher education.  Of the ones outlined in the article, the concept of the “moonshot” really resonated with me.  Taken from President Kennedy’s iconic speech outlining the mission to the Moon, the moonshot as an innovation strategy involves clearly defining the operational goal yet recognizing the difficulty of the task.  In 1962, President Kennedy outlined the goal “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At the time, this was a huge challenge historically and scientifically.  As many people know, the Russians had launched Sputnik into orbit five years earlier and were planning its own mission to the moon. Rather than sit idly by, the President pointed to the heavens and gave a clear destination.  “We choose to go to the moon.”

Examining America’s space program at the time, getting to the moon would be a nearly impossible task for the country.  Sputnik didn’t just mark Russia’s ability to achieve the world’s first artificial satellite; it showed the country’s dominance in space.  Weighing in at 185 lb., Sputnik far outweighed the 4 lb. satellite that America was developing.  How could a country that lagged so far in the space race be the first country to land on the moon? President Kennedy, speaking before Congress, outlined the challenges.  “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”  The moon was the goal, Kennedy repeated that day.  And the country got to work.

I think a lot about innovation and the work many of us do in higher education.  In many ways, the traditional academy is being challenged by outside forces.  There are for-profit institutions, online programs, MOOCs, and so many other “disruptions.” Much like America was concerned about its security and its long-term technical competitiveness in 1962, colleges and universities are facing some of the same concerns today.  How should we respond?  Do we hold steady and hope that we’ll weather the storm?  Do we allow our institutions to slowly evolve and transform into some unknown entity that may be more viable in the future? Or do we select some nearly impossible task, define it as our “moonshot” and get to work?  The choice is ours.

It’s important to remember that the “moonshot” involves more than just identifying the destination.  The “moonshot” recognizes that there are challenges ahead and that we’ll learn from the journey.  We just need to select the appropriate target and get to work.


Minecraft and the power of IKEA

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in February 2013 after reflecting on my kids’ addiction to Minecraft.

My children are living in two worlds.  Almost every evening, I have to ask my kids to shut down their iPod Touches and return to planet Earth.  After some minor protests, they’ll re-engage with my wife and I but I can see it in their eyes.  They long to return to the boxy world of Minecraft.  For those of you who may not know, Minecraft is an online application where players build their own worlds.  Minecraft functions almost as if someone had digitized an entire box of Legos and shipped them to an imaginary 3D world.  While it’s often called an online game, no one “wins” at Minecraft.  In fact, there aren’t any rules or points to score in the game. Players just build.

The game has two basic versions:  survival and creative modes.  In survival mode, players must survive an attack of zombies, monsters and spiders and maintain their health by collecting resources available in the Minecraft world. My children typically play in creative mode.  In creative mode, the objective is more free form and open: create your own world.  By assembling Minecraft blocks, my son and daughter build trees, houses and all sorts of different structures.  When I talk with my kids about their Minecraft world, they light up.  My son will show me the house he’s built inside a mountain and my daughter will show the elaborate forest she’s constructed.  Even though they’re just selecting and assembling blocks in a digital space, they’re proud of their work.  They’ll excitedly navigate through their Minecraft world showing me all of the products of their labor.

While thinking of the pleasure that my children derive from playing and building in Minecraft, I heard a news report on NPR that discussed the IKEA effect.  Researchers at the Harvard Business School examined people’s affection for products they had assembled from IKEA.  Compared to products that came pre-assembled, individuals valued objects they had assembled themselves significantly more.  People value the products of their labor when they are able to successfully complete a task, the researchers claim. Put more simply, labor leads to love.    Even though the participants in the study were simply following step-by-step instructions when assembling the IKEA products, the researchers found a greater valuation of these objects in comparison to similar pre-assembled ones.  But the research wasn’t just limited to chairs and bookshelves from IKEA.  Researchers found similar effects to more hedonic products like Origami flowers and Lego structures.  When studying the construction of these objects, researchers found that the participants valued their creations so much that many expressed a desire to showcase the objects to others.

And that’s the motivation behind Minecraft.  Give players the opportunity to build something and they’ll value the experience and the product of their labor.  Even when applied to a virtual space where players assembled objects from a finite number of pieces, the IKEA effect can be powerful.  Just look at my 6-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter.  They’re absolutely under the influence of the IKEA effect.  The IKEA effect explains to some degree why it’s so difficult for them to shut off their iPods and return to the land of the living.

But the IKEA effect isn’t negative.  It actually can be really powerful when applied to our classrooms.  Consider incorporating opportunities for students to create something in your classroom.  Maybe have them create a digital story. Or conduct some research.  Or even build a website.  While the labor for these projects may not necessarily to lead to love, it may help build ownership into the classroom content and have them value the course content even more.

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.

The Branded Teacher

I’m going to be doing some traveling over the next few weeks and thought it would be a great opportunity to rerun some of my favorite posts for some of my newer readers. Enjoy this post from September 2017.

I want to start this post by conveying my deepest respect for teachers. Over my 25 years of teaching in K-12 and higher education environments, I’ve worked with literally thousands of innovative and dedicated professionals. They spend countless hours creating lessons and grading papers and often spend hundreds of dollars out of their own money for classroom materials. They deserve our admiration and support.

I have concerns, though. But not with teachers’ quality or their dedication. Rather, I’m concerned about a growing trend in schools and in professional conferences: the branded teacher. If you know some teachers in schools, you likely know a Google Certified Innovator or an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Or maybe you know a Seesaw Teacher Ambassador or a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.  These are just a few of the big corporations who have developed branding relationships with educators. While these programs offer amazing professional development opportunities for teachers, I worry about the potential influence that these branding relationships could have on the profession, on our schools and on our students.

I first took notice of the potential influence of these branding relationships a few years ago when I served on the review committee for a statewide educational technology conference. As I reviewed conference proposals, I could see that some presentations appeared almost as if they were commercials for a specific technology. On some, a company representative was even listed as a co-presenter. After I raised concerns to the conference organizers, we tried to develop a more transparent review process to require proposers to disclose any existing branding relationships. The practice became pervasive enough that I chose to discontinue reviewing proposals for that conference.

One may ask, “So, what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned earlier, I have tremendous respect for teachers and I celebrate their efforts for professional growth and recognition. My concern lies with the potential influence these branding relationship can have on our schools. But I’m not the only one. Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing how widespread these branding relationships are and how some lawmakers and education experts have concerns. In the article, a Columbia University professor worries that some teachers can be “seduced to make greater use of the technology, given these efforts by tech companies.” A Maine attorney general explained, “any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic.”

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am unaffiliated with any corporation. I serve on the advisory board of two conferences, but I regularly disclose that information when I’m working with colleagues or when I’m blogging about my experiences with those groups. I have chosen to remain unaffiliated because I didn’t want my students or my colleagues to question my opinions or my advice.  Whether good or bad, my recommendations are not built on any relationships I have with any company, corporation or group.  They are my own.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing any teacher for developing a branding relationship with a company. For some schools, a teacher’s participation in a branding program can help the district acquire much needed technology or supplies. Also, with the low salaries that some teachers are paid, I totally understand their desire to seek additional compensation. But I worry about the ethical implications these relationships create. For instance, when I go for a medical check-up, I would hope that any prescription or treatment that my doctor recommends would be based on my needs as a patient and not on the doctor’s prior relationship with a pharmaceutical company. But that might not the case.  In a 2016 study of 280,000 doctors, researchers found that physicians’ “receipt of industry-sponsored meals was associated with an increased rate of prescribing the promoted brand-name medication to patients.” I think that many people would find that level of influence concerning.

And that’s my concern about branding relationships in education. Studies have found that teachers make over 1500 educational decisions each day. I worry that too many of those decisions are guided by the tacit influence of branding relationships with corporations rather than on the influence of best practices or from educational research.

Zipper Merges and Evidence-Based Practice

I’m going to be doing some traveling over the next few weeks and thought it would be a great opportunity to rerun some of my favorite posts for some of my newer readers. Enjoy this post from November 2017.

I drive a lot.

I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts but I feel the need to mention it again. I drive a lot.

Driving a lot means that I get to experience certain driver behaviors more regularly than many others. Almost daily, I’ll encounter the people who drive in the left lane without passing. I’ll see the people who drive for miles and miles with a blinking turn signal. I’ll also see those people who weave in and out of traffic and try to gain whatever minuscule advantage they can.

Across all of the different driver behaviors, there is one that I have taken on as my own personal mission: the zipper merge. If you’re not familiar with the term, the zipper merge relates to lane closings on a highway. You probably know the situation. You’re driving along and you see a sign that says, “Right lane closed in two miles.” This usually starts the countdown. Another mile down the road, you’ll see another sign that says, “Right lane closed in one mile.” In case you missed the previous two signs, you’ll be alerted again a half-mile, quarter mile and 1000 feet before the lane closure. For obvious safety reasons, departments of transportation are excessively vigilant about communicating pending lane closures.

The challenge, however, is what you as the driver do as you encounter the numerous signs. For many drivers, almost inexplicably, they choose to merge when they see the first sign. Maybe they don’t want to be rude and wait until the last minute to merge.  Or maybe they were taught to merge when they see the first sign. Or maybe they just follow the actions of the majority of the other drivers on the road. Regardless of their rationale, they merge early, usually a mile or more before the lane closure.

But, here’s the bigger challenge. Research shows that traffic will move more quickly if drivers wait until the merge point. Many departments of transportation officially recommend the “zipper merge.” In practice, this means drivers should wait until the lane closure and take turns merging. The name actually comes from how the merging traffic would look like the teeth of a zipper coming together if viewed from above. In a study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, they found that the practice reduces the overall length of a backup by 40-50%.  Research also suggests the practice makes merging safer for everyone.

I’ve been advocate of the zipper merge for a while. For some reason, however, the practice is viewed as rude, aggressive and ineffective. Despite numerous states advocating for the zipper merge as a driving practice, many people still merge early and cast an angry eye at those of us who wait until the lane closure to merge. I’ve gotten in my fair share of social media debates with friends and colleagues who look down on us zipper mergers. I’ve also received quite a few offensive hand gestures, honks and curses from neighboring drivers who chose to merge early.

This brings me to the larger point of this post. The zipper merge is but one example of how data and evidence don’t always align with practice. Despite research showing it to be safer and more efficient, the zipper merge is not widely used. But that’s the same result for a host of other evidence-based practices. As humans, we don’t always do the “right” thing.

Bringing this back to teaching and learning, we have to be sure that the practices we choose align with data and evidence. Give prompt feedback for growth. Incorporate active learning instead of lecturing. Provide explicit learning objectives and outline clear expectations. While I don’t know if any of these rise to the cultural dissonance created by the “zipper merge,” there’s a lot of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of these teaching practices. We just need to get instructors to merge into the “right” lane.

Best Practices for Conditional Releases

Last week, I wrote about how I’m prepping for an online teaching workshop that I’ll be leading later this summer and that I’m focusing mainly on some advanced online teaching techniques (like conditional release). In that post, I defined the different types of conditional releases and gave examples of how I use each with my online courses. This week, I thought I’d dig a little deeper and discuss some of the best practices for using conditional releases. These best practices were originally shared in a 2011 article in the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning by Gardner, Fisher, Raffo & Brinthaupt (2011).

1. Conditions for release should be reasonable and realistic.
Sure, we all want our students to earn 100% on every quiz and exam. But, is that a reasonable and realistic expectation for every student?  Make sure the achievement-based conditions you use in your online class aren’t ones that impede capable students from being able to progress in your class.

2. Conditional release is best used with activities or assignments that lead to the mastery of course content.
When I first started using conditional releases, I considered making every reading and assignment be conditional on students’ accessing all course material and successfully meeting my achievement standards. While this may have been reasonable, I now only set achievement and activity conditions for the most important assignments in my classes. This communicates to my students that it is critical that they master this content before they can move on.

3. Conditional release is best used when course content progresses linearly or builds on itself. 
I have some colleagues who open their entire online courses at the start of the semester and allow students to work independently through the course content. While this may seem like a logical place to incorporate conditional releases, it could also create some challenges for students. If Module 2 requires students to have mastered material in Module 1 before moving on, it is critical that conditional releases are used to direct students in this manner.

4. The reasons for using conditional release and for using specific release criteria must be transparent and clearly communicated to students.
Whenever I use incorporate any conditional releases into my classes, I’ll communicate to students the exact conditions they’ll need to meet in order to progress in the class. I also explain why the conditions are being used so students better understand my instructional rationale for controlling their access to course content and assessments.

5. Teachers who use conditional release need to be flexible.
I use controlled releases a lot in my online classes to schedule when content and assessments are available to students. I often encounter students who may have family emergencies or other situations that impact their ability to access content on the schedule I’ve created. Depending on the nature of their issues, I’ll provide additional access to these students outside of the release conditions I’ve created.

6. Conditional release is best used with caution.
In one of my first experiments with conditional releases, I mistakenly created nested conditions that would have been impossible for students to meet. Students needed to access an article that would release a quiz, but the article itself wouldn’t be accessible until after they took the quiz. Be careful that you’re not creating a series of conditions that frustrate students or hinder their ability to progress in your class.

Gardner, J., Fisher, L., Raffo, D., & Brinthaupt, T. (2011), Best Practices for Using Conditional Release in Online Classes, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 8(1), 3-15.

Conditional release?

I’m prepping for an online teaching workshop that I’ll be leading later this summer and I’m doing some digging into the research and best practices around conditional release. The workshop is designed to target more advanced online teachers and I’m hoping to expand the use of conditional release to support online students. If you’re not familiar with the term, conditional release is when a teacher makes the release of course material contingent upon students meeting a particular condition or reaching a predetermined criterion.  Gardner, Fisher, Raffo and Brinthaupt (2011) identify three different ways that conditional release can be used in online classes: action-based release, achievement-based release and controlled release. Each type can support different pedagogical innovations and support students in different ways. Here are some examples:

Action-based release:
In an action-based release, course material is released based on student activity. I use action-based release pretty extensively in all of my online classes. For example, I set quizzes and discussion forums to be released only after a student has accessed all of the content in a module. In some classes, I use action-based releases to let students choose which content they want to study. For example, after a student chooses a reading from a list, related content will be released so the student can dig deeper into the content. I’ve also used action-based release to make sure students have completed a pre-assessment prior to starting a module.

Achievement-based release:
While action-based releases are great ways to direct students based on their activity and choice, achievement-based releases allow teachers to release course material based on student academic performance. Some instructors may want to set a specific score on an exam before students can move to the next modules. Other instructors may want to provide remediation materials to students who performed poorly on a quiz. With achievement-based releases, these instructional choices are easily implemented. Achievement-based releases can also allow instructors to differentiate course readings, activities and assessments. For example, an instructor could use the performance on a quiz to break the class into three achievement groups (high, medium and low performing) and provide different supports and activities for each. While this would require some additional work and pre-planning, it would give groups of students a more personalized learning experience.

Controlled release:
I’m not going to undersell this; controlled releases are a godsend. With controlled releases, I’m able to set release dates for all of my modules, course materials and activities before a class even begins. While this may sound like a lot of pre-planning (it is), controlled releasing course content allows me to focus on interacting with students and providing feedback on their work. Controlled release also helps me keep students on schedule and working through course content together as a single learning community.

If you’re new to conditional releases, you may want to research how your learning management system uses them and talk with your instructional designer about ways that you can use conditional releases with your students and content area. If you’re planning to incorporate conditional releases in an upcoming course or module, I strongly recommend letting students know when and how they’re being used. For example, if students have to score a 70% on a quiz before they can move on, make this absolutely clear to students. While conditional releases can offer some creative instructional solutions for online teachers, they’re only beneficial if they’re used in transparent ways with students.

Gardner, J., Fisher, L., Raffo, D., & Brinthaupt, T. (2011), Best Practices for Using Conditional Release in Online Classes, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 8(1), 3-15.