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Google is selling Cardboard?

I purchased a Google Cardboard recently.  If you’re like some of my friends, you may be wondering when Google started to sell boxes and why would I want to buy one.  But Google Cardboard is not just any cardboard box.  Sure, it’s made from cardboard but it’s also designed to be an inexpensive virtual reality (VR) system.  By slipping in a smartphone loaded with special VR apps, Google Cardboard becomes a window into an alternative, three-dimensional world.  Think of an updated View Master view finder.  Instead of looking at still images, however, Google Cardboard allows you to look up and down, sideways and watch specially recorded video.  It’s a pretty novel experience.

The consumer virtual reality marketplace is on the verge of becoming pretty competitive in the next six months.  Early next year, the Oculus Rift will be introduced.  Started through a Kickstarter campaign, Oculus Rift is hoping to position itself as the gold standard of consumer virtual reality.  While Facebook recently purchased Oculus, the Rift will not be cheap and will require specialized computer hardware and software to operate. Google Cardboard is something different entirely. Released last year, Cardboard was designed to be inexpensive and run on a smartphone.  Despite its adoption by companies like Volvo, the New York Times and Mattel, Cardboard isn’t the only smartphone VR system in town.  Samsung is also offering a Gear VR to run with its Galaxy smartphones.  Recently, the Gear VR sold out on Amazon and Best Buy within hours of its initial release.  The Gear VR sells for $99.

Unlike the Gear VR, I purchased my Cardboard on Amazon for $16.  A few days after my purchase, I received a small envelope in the mail.  I don’t know what I was expecting to receive but Cardboard is literally a piece of cardboard with parts to fold and slots to insert. I have to admit that I wasn’t very impressed initially.  I really couldn’t believe that a virtual reality system could be built out of such meager materials.  But that’s by design.  Following the simple directions, I had my Cardboard built and ready for viewing after a few minutes of folding and tucking.  I own an iPhone 5s and had downloaded a few of the recommended Cardboard apps prior to receiving the device.  I slipped my phone into Cardboard and began watching dinosaurs walking around.  I also was able to visit the Eiffel Tower and attend a U2 concert.  My nine-year0old son enjoyed playing a target shooting game where he aimed by moving his head around.  Despite my initial disbelief, Cardboard was pretty impressive.  Sure, some apps worked better than others and some of the images were a little distorted.  But it’s made out of cardboard.  And it only cost me $16.

Cardboard made me think a lot about the educational applications of virtual reality.  I can see virtual reality as an option to help students experience processes that are impossible to view in real-life.  With a VR headset, a student could visit a volcano, tour the universe, navigate the atom or travel back in time.  More than these examples, however, I see real opportunities for students to participate from a distance in learning environments.  Recently, the local news featured a story of a kindergarten student who was participating in class virtually by using an iPad.  The student was undergoing cancer treatments and technology helped him participate in the class and stay connected with his peers.  Possibly, down the road, students could use virtual reality headsets to be more fully integrated into the learning process.  With the inclusion of inexpensive and easy to use options like Google Cardboard, I’m sure we’ll see tons of educational applications down the road.

Teaching tragedy

It seems like a lifetime ago.  I was in my tenth year of teaching high school physics and the school year had practically just begun.  I was in a new father fog, having just brought home my newborn daughter weeks earlier.  Looking back, it almost seems like my days were twenty-five hours long with the mix of midnight feedings and the sleepless panic of a new world of expectations and responsibilities.  In a way, school became a refuge.  In my job, I mostly faced problems that could be solved with a few equations of motion developed centuries ago.  Unlike the problems and situations I mulled through my head every sleepless night, the problems I tackled in class always had clear-cut answers.  While we as a class delved into our problems, the school bells would interrupt the day and let us know when it was time to switch classes, head to the bathroom or go to lunch.  With the chaos of my nights as a new father, I appreciated the regiment of my days.

But then, one day in early September, the planes came and downed several buildings in New York City and Washington DC.  And I stood alone in front of the class and I didn’t have answers.  Any lesson plans I had for the day were useless.  That day, I was teaching tragedy instead of physics.

With the recent incidents around the globe, I’ve been reminded of that day.  On Facebook, my teacher friends have been discussing how they spent their recent classes and whether the topics of Beirut or Paris have come up.  In reading their posts, there is one thing that is clear:  these are complex problems that are not easily discussed.  Despite the landscape of curt memes and witty political retorts being shared on social media, these problems don’t have easy solutions.  And they don’t have easily identifiable causes.  Some people are choosing to blame certain religions, political parties, government leaders or larger economic and environmental forces, but that’s oversimplifying things.  Besides, I’m not a political scientist or an economic expert.  I’m an educator.  Despite our backgrounds, sometimes teachers are enlisted to teach tragedy.  Even when we don’t want to answer, tragedy comes knocking.

When I think back to that September morning and to the worried high school students that I had in my classroom, I think I did okay in my role as a teacher that day.  While not much physics was taught that day, I worked to calm my students’ fears.  I also communicated the power they had as individuals to make the world a better place and how their roles were critical for instituting change.  If the tragedy conversation were to come up today, I’d probably have better language to discuss it.  I’d bring in the concepts of fixed and growth mindset and how each of us can either accept the world as it is or work to make the world as we want it to be.  Concepts like freedom and safety and equality are social constructs that aren’t fixed in time.  They require work and dedication to develop and maintain.  Adopting a growth mindset isn’t just applicable for working with students or training athletes or fostering more positive relationships.  It’s applicable to the world around us and to the larger concepts that we hold dear in our society.  Adopting a growth mindset means that you have to practice to get things right.  That means we have to practice freedom and safety and equality and respect.  Everyday.  Despite tragedies.  Despite chaos.  Despite the conversations the run counter to these concepts.

I could certainly be accused of oversimplifying really complex societal issues in this post.  But I’m an educator and I see the growth mindset being integral in everything we do.  Sure, it may be a simple way of seeing the world but the next time I’m enlisted to teach tragedy, that’s the lesson I’ll choose to teach.

Encouraging cellphone silence?

Every Tuesday, I sit down to write a new blog post.  Some days, I struggle to come up with a new topic.  Other days, topics find me.  Today, it’s the latter.  It seems that NPR published an article today on its nprED website on increased efforts to silence cellphones in collegiate classrooms.  The article features a professor from the University of Colorado Boulder who gave students a daily participation point for shutting off their cellphones and leaving them on a table in front of the class.  The strategy went into effect after 100% of the class voted for the participation points for cellphone silence plan.  Asked how the class discussions went after the cellphone silence plan went into effect, the professor remarked, “we had an exceptionally engaged class.”

I’ve explored the interaction between technology and classroom environments in this space before.  I’ve written about research on the distraction caused by laptops in lecture-based classrooms and how taking notes on laptops isn’t as effective as taking notes by hand.  But the cellphone silence issue is a different entity.  Cellphones are primarily a communication device.  While some people may use them to take notes, research the Internet and collaborate on documents, ultimately they’re still phones.  They’re primarily used for communicating with people from a distance.  Whether through texts or Facebook Messenger posts or phone calls, cellphones are still used to communicate.  And that’s where the issue lies.  If a student is trying to engage in a classroom discussion, how can they fully participate if they’re being distracted with texts or calls or Messenger posts?  If they’re using their cellphones to communicating with people from “there,” how can they fully be engaged “here?”

Reading through the comments on the page, I’m struck at the conversation occurring over the issue.  Some folks have pointed out that their universities have done away with phones in classrooms and use cellphones as the primary emergency.  The classroom policy could potentially impact weather emergencies and active shooters on campus.  Others are recommending jamming the cellphone signals, leaving the devices inoperable in the classroom.  Some discuss the challenges of cellphone addiction and complain about “these kids today” and their ability to participate in meaningful face-to-face communication.  Like most comment sections on a webpage, there’s a diverse set of opinions being shared.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Should instructors ban students’ cellphones?  Should we reward students who willingly shut them off during class?  Or should we set up technological systems that interfere with the cellphone signals?  Honestly, none of these options seem all that palatable.

When confronted with issues like this, I find it useful to focus on my instructional role on campus.  Sure, we’re all hired to teach content.  But more than that, we’re hired to teach students.  Sometimes, we’re teaching them about the awesomeness of the Michelson-Morley experiment or the wonders of Maxwell’s equations.  Other times, we’re teaching them about life.  Through our work, we help students learn about broader, more transferable concepts like persistence, hard work, dedication, motivation, passion and so much more.  Maybe it’s time to teach them about self-regulation.  Students need to learn that in order to participate in the here and now, they have to be present.  Here.  And now.

While this lesson will help them participate in the activities in our classrooms, it will also help them beyond those walls.  These lessons will serve them better than introducing incentives or instituting police states into our classrooms.  While teaching the importance of self-regulation and the power of presence can help them become better learners, it can also help them become better spouses, parents and co-workers.  And that’s a lesson that deserves to be taught.

Better Student Feedback with Classkick

In a post earlier this year, I discussed Grant Wiggins’ Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

That’s a hefty list of essentials that can be difficult for some instructors to meet.  Thankfully, new tools are always being developed that can help instructors.  Take Classkick.  Classkick is an iOS-based app that helps instructors monitor and support student learning.  Instead of distributing paper-based assessments, instructors can use Classkick to distribute digital worksheets to students on their iPads.  As students complete the assessment, the instructor can monitor their progress and provide feedback.  It’s a great tool for instructors who are trying to incorporate more paper-free assignments in their class but it’s also a great way to foster more tangible, ongoing and timely feedback.  When using the app, students can raise their hands which alerts the instructor that a student needs help.  The instructor can then help the student progress with their work and scaffold their learning individually.  The app can also support more collaborative learning environments by allowing students to help one another.  The great thing is that all of the interaction and feedback is completely transparent for students and instructors to see.  Besides capturing all of the interactions and feedback between students and instructors, the app also allows the teacher to capture student progress in real-time.  Check out this short tutorial on how an instructor can use Classkick.

The best part of Classkick is that the app is free for instructors and students.  While I recognize it would be better if the app was agnostic and worked across a variety of platforms, I also see the amazing opportunities that app provides.  Looking across Wiggins’ Seven Keys to Essential Feedback, it’s clear that tools like Classkick provide exciting new ways for instructors to meet the needs of their students and support their learning.

Evaluating evaluation

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we evaluate instruction in higher education.  My thoughts emanate from different discussions I’ve had with colleagues regarding quality of instruction both in online and face-to-face formats.  Traditionally, colleges and universities have relied on student evaluations as measures of quality instruction.  As I’ve written before, these measures often reflect other dimensions beyond good teaching.  I’ve discussed the power of the “blink response” and how important affective aspects can be in determining student satisfaction in classes.  I’ve also written that students don’t always know what quality instruction looks like and may be confused about what their role in the process should be.  Stark and Freishtat, writing in ScienceOpen, also examined the use of student evaluations by looking at some of the statistical, contextual and comparative implications in collegiate environments.  Looking across the data, they write “There is strong evidence that student responses to questions of ‘effectiveness’ do not measure teaching effectiveness.”  It’s clear that there’s room for improvement in how we evaluate quality and effectiveness.

Recognizing the problem is only half the battle.  If we wanted better measures of quality instruction, what would they look like?  Please understand that I’m not advocating any widespread bureaucratic system of evaluation like some K-12 educational systems have adopted.  But I think a larger discussion needs to happen.  In online settings, we have measures like Quality Matters who have developed comprehensive rubrics for evaluating online course construction.  The list includes a condensed set of observables that they feel every online class should have.  The challenge, however, is that while the QM rubrics identify elements of quality instruction, they don’t capture whether learning is occurring.  It’s the age-old dichotomy between outputs and outcomes.  While the QM rubrics examine clear outputs, they don’t capture outcomes.  They identify factors that are observable and countable (identifying clear student learning objectives, for instance) but don’t capture whether learning has occurred.  From my point of view, the QM standards are a step in the right direction but we still have a distance to travel.

In my travels recently, I came across an evaluation system developed by Kirkpatrick that identifies four levels of evaluation.  The system was developed for use in training systems so it’s not directly applicable to our roles in higher education.  But the levels can provide some fodder for conversation.  In Kirkpatrick’s model, the levels of evaluation include:

Level 1:  Reaction –  Evaluations at this level examine the satisfaction of participants, whether learners felt engaged in the learning process and whether the content was relevant.  In Kirkpatrick’s framework, this is lowest level of evaluation hierarchy yet this is where most of our current student evaluations reside.

Level 2: Learning – As instructors, this is where I hope most of us spend our time.  We want to see whether students have learned the content we’re teaching.  Systematic evaluations rarely focus on this level unless students are working towards some larger certification.  How do we use student learning in our courses as a metric for examining quality and effectiveness?

Level 3:  Behavior – In Kirkpatrick’s framework, this level of evaluation examines whether learners have changed behavior by participating in the instruction.  This may be hard to capture at the collegiate level but it may be helpful for instructors to think about the behavioral implications of our classes.  How can we capture behavioral aspects from our instruction?  How can we use this data to communicate instructional quality?

Level 4:  Results – This one may be even harder to conceptualize in collegiate environments.  In Kirkpatrick’s framework, this level examines the measurable results (reduction in injuries, improved morale, etc.) that come about from the training.  Again, while not a perfect fit for higher education, it might be instructive to consider.  What are the tangible results from our classes? Can they be measured?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think we need to start thinking more broadly about instructional quality and leave behind the ineffective student evaluations.  We also need to consider how we can develop ways to not just measure quality more effectively but to foster it more comprehensively across our campuses.  After all, it’s hard to promote quality when we don’t know what it looks like or how to effectively measure it.

Student engagement deconstructed

“Student engagement” is one of those concepts that seems overused these days.  Almost everything is designed to engage students.  Websites.  Physical technologies.  Classroom activities.  But what does it mean to “engage students?”  Sure, we have measures like the National Survey of Student Engagement which defines “student engagement” in part as the “amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities.”  This is a useful first step, but I wonder whether engagement is really just reflected in the amount of time that students spend and the amount of effort they put forth.  What about the emotional and cognitive connections that students make when they’re engaged in a lesson?  Is that captured in “time and effort?”  I don’t think so.

Recently, I came across a 2014 article that was published in Simulation & Gaming.  The article, written by Whitton and Moseley, seeks to deconstruct student engagement in more useful and measurable ways.  Rather than look simply at the amount of time that a learner spends engaged in an activity, the authors wanted to broaden the lens to examine engagement based on ways of being, emotionally, psychologically and cognitively.  Synthesizing the research on engagement as it applies to learning, they propose six types of engagement including:

Participation: Engagement as doing – Loosely thought of as “time on task,” this type of engagement is critical.  Learners must attend class, log into a computer or “go through the motions” in order to more fully engage in the learning process.  While considered superficial on its own, this type of engagement is the important doorway to the other types of engagement Whitton and Moseley identify.

Attention: Engagement as commitment – Beyond attending class, engagement as commitment means that learners have committed to take part in the activity and have bought into the lesson.  Students have decided to pay attention and actively engage in the lesson.  Since it doesn’t capture a learner’s motivation for engaging, this type of engagement is also considered superficial.

Captivation: Engagement as enthrallment – Similar to attention, captivation represents a deeper level of engagement since it encompasses a psychological involvement with the activity.  When captivated, a learner is so engrossed in the activity cognitively that they lose track of time.  Whitton and Moseley connect this type of engagement to more intrinsic motivation on the part of the learner.

Passion: Engagement as feeling – In passion, the learner has become so emotionally connected with the activity that they feel a “strong emotion pull, be that empathy, anger or excitement.”  The engagement can span beyond a single activity and across temporal events.

Affiliation: Engagement as belonging – At affiliation, the learner starts to identify themselves as belonging to a larger community.  The learner takes on roles and responsibilities that helps them identify with the larger group and develop a sense of belonging to a larger social structure.

Incorporation: Engagement as being – At this level of engagement, learners take on new ways of being and see reality in different ways.  They become so immersed in the activity that they see themselves differently through their involvement.  This type of engagement, the authors write, can have “profound effects on a learner’s sense of self and personal identity.”

While presented as unique and discrete, the six types of engagement are not presented as a hierarchy or as interdependent.  At least not yet.  More connections between the types may surface down the road a bit as the deconstructed engagement types gain some traction.  Lost in this conceptualization, however, are the classroom strategies for fostering the different types.   I can see natural connections between learner-centered pedagogies (active learning, problem-based learning, etc) and the types of engagement.  That’s another possible outcome from this work.  Ultimately, however, it’s just great that we have a little broader view on what student engagement really is.


Moseley, A., & Whitton, N. (2014). Engagement in Simulation/Gaming Symposium Overview. Simulation & Gaming, 1046878114556438.

Dear Students

This blog usually focuses on technologies and innovations for teaching and learning, especially in collegiate environments.  Most of the readers are folks who are involved in these capacities in some ways in institutions of higher education.  This week, I’m going to take a little detour.  I’m writing this week’s post to students.

Dear students,

I don’t mean to be snarky or condescending with this post but you’re driving your professors crazy with your emails.  My Facebook feed has been exploding with colleagues discussing the tone and professionalism of their students’ emails.  With an eye towards educating those problematic email senders, I thought I’d compile a short list of email Do’s and Don’ts to help students craft better emails.

  1. DO read your syllabus before emailing.  Most of the emails from students can be answered by looking through the syllabus. Sure, it was distributed at the start of the semester but it probably includes answers to the questions you have.  Wondering if you have class this week?  It’s in the syllabus.  Wondering about the attendance policy?  It’s in the syllabus.  Planning to ask about the readings for tomorrow?  I bet it’s in the syllabus.  Start there.
  2. DO use a salutation to start your email and address your professor professionally.  Sure, some professors don’t mind being called by their first names. Many others, however, prefer a more formal address in communications.  Start the email with a “Dear Dr. Smith” or “Good Morning Professor White.”  I know this is really formal for today’s communication avenues but an email to your professor isn’t the time to drop a “Yo” or “What’s up!”
  3. DO identify yourself by name.  We teach a lot of Mary’s and Lyndsey’s.  Let us know which one is emailing.  It’s like the dentist.  While you only have one dentist, each dentist may have thousands of patients.  Narrow down the field when you email your professor by including your first and last name.  Don’t assume that your email address will help them deduce who you are.
  4. DO include the class about which you’re emailing.   When you say you have a question about next week’s class, understand that professors often teach classes on multiple days.   Instead of being general, say something like “I am enrolled in your Wednesday morning section of ABCD 101.”
  5. DON’T ask whether you’ll “miss something important.”  Professors mostly teach classes about which they’re tremendously passionate.  We’ve dedicated huge chunks of our adult lives studying the subjects we teach and hold advanced degrees in the content area.  Is it important?  Absolutely.  Instead, simply ask, “What will I be missing?”  You’ll get a kinder response in return.
  6. DO give your professor some time to respond.  One night a few years ago, I received multiple emails and follow-ups from a single student.  The student assumed since I hadn’t responded that an additional email (or three) might be warranted.  The problem with the student’s logic was that all of the emails were sent between 2 – 4 AM.  While some professors are available by email at all hours of the day, give your professor at least 24 hours to respond before following up.  If you’re emailing at a time when the college is typically closed (during breaks or over the weekends, for instance), allow extra response time.
  7.  DO read the syllabus before emailing.  I know this is the first item on the list but it’s so important that I chose to list it twice.  Seriously.  Read your syllabus.
  8.  DO include a relevant subject line.  Every day, professors receive hundreds of emails in their inbox.  Make your email stand out by including a subject line that alerts your professor to the contents contained within.
  9. DO use appropriate grammar and spelling.  An email to your professor isn’t the time for LOLs and OMGs.  It’s also not the time to use hip alternate spellings for everyday words.  Your email should be crafted using all of the proper punctuation and grammar that your middle school English teacher taught you.
  10. DON’T use all caps, emoticons or emojis.  In text-based communications like email, we often adopt non-standard forms to convey added emotion and tone to the written words.  We may add a smiley face or a word in all caps for emphasis.  But the effectiveness of this communication depends on how they’re processed by the recipient.  Rather than relying on these alternate devices, use your language effectively to communicate more clearly.

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