Being there, just virtually

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Google announced it was releasing its full Expeditions app for free to educators.  While in its beta testing, the Expeditions app allowed over a million students in 11 different countries to take virtual field trips using Google Cardboard.  With the inexpensive virtual reality viewers, Expeditions offers some exciting opportunities for educators who may not have the ability geographically or financially to visit certain locations.  Take Lance Teeselink, who is a seventh grade student living in Iowa.  By using Google Expeditions and Google Cardboard, his class was able to visit Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Few American students get to visit Dubai and experience this architectural marvel but Lance’s class was able to visit the city virtually.  With the full release of the Expeditions app, students will be able to visit 200 different locations.

While virtual reality offers tremendous educational opportunities, I wondered a little about the research that was being conducted on virtual field trips (VFTs).  While the concept of VFTs has been around since the 1990s, most research has explored the use of synchronous classrooms and video to support student exploration of remote locations. Contrasting these methods, virtual reality has the ability to offer more immersive experiences for students.  By using smartphones with virtual reality headsets, students can explore locations independently and interact with the environment more directly.  Since the virtual reality aspect is relatively new, however, very few research studies have examined this in any empirical way.  As schools start offering more VFTs for their students, I thought I’d share a few areas that educational researchers should investigate.

Student autonomy: As the technology offers students some independence in exploring virtual environments, I wonder how much autonomy should students be afforded. For instance, what are the instructional benefits to allowing students to explore the Buckingham Palace on their own without a guide? Or the Great Barrier Reef? While the Expeditions app allows the instructor to guide and pause students as they navigate a virtual environment, I wonder whether independence and autonomy may be more motivating and educational for students.  Or are virtual docents needed to help students navigate virtual spaces?  Research can help to inform this.

Presence: While virtual reality offers a window into a remote world, the sensation of presence isn’t solely based on visuals. When we visit a location, our other senses (touch, scent, sound) help us fully experience the environment. Can these be incorporated into virtual reality experiences? Are they educationally beneficial? While this may sound somewhat silly, a recent article in Make magazine examined virtual conferences and how participants needed to see the virtual faces and hands of other participants to feel fully present in the conference. The article discussed how individuals don’t just communicate with words and facial expressions but with hand gestures as well. But what others aspects play a role in students’ sense of presence in virtual environments?  More research can help to shed some light on this.

Identity and Diversity: Our view of self is socially constructed. We develop our identities by interacting with our environment and with one another. How can virtual reality play a role in students’ identity? I wonder whether STEM-related VFTs can help students see themselves as potential scientists or mathematicians and maybe help motivate them into STEM-related careers. I also wonder how VFTs can help to broaden students’ perceptions of diversity.  Could VFTs be a tool to foster understanding of other religions or cultures? Again, these are areas that deserve some research.

While these are just a few of my VR musings, I see great potential for virtual field trips. As we start to broaden the focus to include places that are impossible to visit, I think the educational opportunities continue to multiply. Students can visit the nucleus of an atom. Or the surface of Mars. Or experience a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Or participate in the Moon landing. While each of these undoubtedly has educational benefits, we need more research to determine the best ways to leverage these experiences for students.


Falling into a Niche

My neighbor and I were debating the differences between Spotify and Pandora recently. I explained how I loved Pandora and its ability to introduce me to new music. When I create a channel based on specific artist or genre on Pandora, the service plays other musicians who have similar sounds. While I try to stay on top of new music, I find that without listening to Pandora or satellite radio, I’m rarely exposed to new artists. “That’s exactly why I love Spotify,” my neighbor explained. “I know the bands I like and that’s all I want to listen to. I don’t want Pandora playing all this stuff I don’t know or like.”

As I talked with my neighbor, I realized his position of Spotify vs. Pandora is actually representative of a much larger trend online and in society: the niche. When it was originally developed, the great promise of the Internet was its unlimited access to information. It was going to be a democratizing force. It was going to foster greater conversations and expand learning opportunities to more populations.  While these positives are undoubtedly happening, there is also a counter effect that is far less positive.  I worry that with the growing expansion of the Internet and other online services, we’re all falling into knowledge niches that limits our worldviews and development. Here’s my reasoning. When I go onto Facebook, Amazon or Netflix, the magical algorithms working behind the scenes are processing my likes, views, searches and creating a “filter bubble” that only shows me more things that they think I’ll like. Since I read an article about a Marvel movie in development on Facebook, my feed is now populated with other articles about superhero movies. Since I bought a book on Online Teaching on Amazon, I’m shown similar titles. Since I watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, I’m shown similar series. The goal of these services is to make it easier for me to find other things I like.  While I appreciate the assistance, in a lot of ways, it’s narrowing my field of vision.

While some of this narrowing is a result of the filter bubbles created by algorithms, applications and services that run behind the scenes, our “knowledge niches” can also be directly attributed to our own overt choices and actions. Take recent political discussions on social media. In Twitter and Facebook, I can choose to which people I’ll listen and which ones I won’t. With the growing negativity regarding some issues and events, I’ve chose to hide certain people from my Facebook feed and unfollow others on Twitter.  While this my lower my blood pressure in the short term, it also narrows my access to the larger political discourse and creates an “echo chamber” where my views and opinions are constantly being reinforced.

Before anyone thinks my opinions are just the musing of some curmudgeon, consider this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Looking at the spread of information on social media, the researchers found that online users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.” While the researchers primarily focused on the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation, the findings are similar to discussions occurring in other venues.  Take this blog post that discussed an “un-conference” session on echo chambers in science communication communities last fall. The author writes about her worries that she’s “preaching to the choir” and that we’re all becoming “more exposed predominantly to opinions like our own versus information that might challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Growing up, many of us were advised by our parents to “find our niche.” The reality, however, is that through filter bubbles and echo chambers, the niches we’re finding aren’t helping us gain access to information that can help us grow or develop. So, what’s the solution? How do we avoid falling into a “knowledge niche?” I welcome your comments and solutions.


Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., et al. (2016). The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 554–559.

Fertile ground for innovation

There are a few industries that seem to be getting a lot of attention from the big technology companies.  Take self-driving cars. Despite a recent casualty involving a self-driving Tesla, Google, Intel and several other companies are investing tons of time and money into researching and building “autonomous vehicles.” With the potential productivity opportunities and convenience that self-driving cars could offer, companies see the field as a growth industry. With all of the attention and experimentation, some strategists estimate that there could be over 10 million self-driving cars by the end of the decade.

But that’s one of the advantages of working in a field that offers a lot of potential growth (and profits) for companies.  The technology giants descend on the field and, for better or worse, invest resources in exploring ways to capitalize on the market.  Think drones, virtual reality, near field communication and so much more. The big players are all working in the same sandboxes.

For those of us working in education, we should feel a little lucky. With the number of K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions, education is drawing a lot of attention from technology companies. With the number of books, devices and applications that the educational industry purchases each year, Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are eying additional ways to leverage their market share. With the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference just recently occurring, many of the firms used the conference as an opportunity to announce some new projects and initiatives.  Here are some highlights.

Amazon:  Where do teachers go when they’re looking for educational materials? Maybe there’s a high school teacher who is looking for a worksheet with some practice problems or a first grade teacher searching for a lesson plan on how to teach fractions. Most teachers find these materials strewn across a bunch of different free or pay sites like  With Amazon Inspire, the company is offering to house these materials in one easy-to-use location.  Just like it disrupted the book industry, Amazon hopes to create a one-stop online marketplace for educational materials.  The service is in Beta right now but educators can request access by visiting the site.

Google:  With the growth of Chromebooks in schools, Google has become one of the major players in the education market.  The company used ISTE to announce several new products.  Google Quizzes is a new function within Google Forms that allows teachers to easily create self-graded online assessments.  They also announced Google Cast for Education, a Chrome app that allows easy screen sharing for teachers and students across wireless devices. Additionally, the company cemented itself as one of the main virtual reality innovators by releasing the full version of its Expeditions app to schools.  Offering over 200 different virtual reality trips to educators, it has the potential to change the landscape of field trips in schools.

Apple: Apple came out of the gates a few weeks ahead of the ISTE conference to announce its new coding platform called Swift Playgrounds. Targeting middle school and high school student, the app is designed to help students with no coding knowledge to learn how to program in a fun, game-based way.  The app is free on the App Store.

Microsoft: While other companies (Google and Apple, for instance) have dominated the educational industry as of late, Microsoft is attempting to change that trend. Microsoft has partnered with ISTE to identify Microsoft Showcase Schools and is working with edX to offer educational technology and leadership online courses starting this fall.

Incompatible Beliefs?

This weekend, I read a lengthy news report that examined the performance on state assessments for several local schools. The report included all sorts of measurable aspects – teacher salaries, per pupil expenditures, SAT scores and so much more. In each area, the report ranked the schools according to each factor so that readers can easily see which schools were at the top (or bottom) of each category.

Looking across the report, some things stood out. For instance, the schools that had the greatest percentage of ESL (English as a Second Language) and Special Education students had some of the lowest overall scores on state assessments.  Not surprisingly, these schools were also some lowest funded schools and had the highest rates of students living in poverty. While I recognize that there are many factors that influence assessment data, the report points out some important incompatible beliefs that most educational leaders hold.

If you would survey school leaders and state officials, most would espouse the importance of differentiation in education. Considering the diversity of students who enter classrooms, they argue, educators can’t teach every student the same way and expect the same results. Students come to schools with a variety of needs and abilities and it’s important for educators to differentiate their instructional techniques to support their students’ learning. Consider this scenario. It’s quite possible that a teacher could be working with a blind student, an ESL student and a student with a learning disability in the same classroom. Obviously, teaching the content in the same way to all three of these students wouldn’t yield similar results.  Although it can challenging to vary instructional approaches with the diversity of students present in schools, few would argue with the basic need to differentiate instruction.

Alongside the widespread support for differentiation, there is another fundamental belief that most educational leaders hold – the need for academic standards. Decades ago, local schools adopted their own curricula and course of study. This approach, however, created inconsistency in expectations across schools. Leaders argued that it was difficult to identify which schools were successfully educating their students and which ones were not. Now, states provide detailed standards for almost every content area. These standards outline the academic targets towards which students and teachers should be working. Standards, leaders argue, provide guidance for teachers and help to create consistent and rigorous expectations across schools.

But that’s where the challenge lies. While educational leaders espouse the importance of differentiation and standardization, they don’t see the underlying incompatibility with these beliefs. The incompatibility, however, doesn’t originate in standardization and differentiation philosophically. Instead, the issue stems from standardizing assessment. Clearly, it’s possible to have similar expectations for students as long as educators teach them in different ways. The challenge is that we can’t turn around and then say that every student has to demonstrate what he or she has learned in the same way. Let’s return to the comparative data that was shared in the education report I referenced earlier in this post. In our state, every ESL student must take standardized assessments in English. No matter how much teachers differentiate their instruction to help these students meet the academic standards, if they can’t demonstrate what they’ve learned in English, they will fail. If we widen the lens to include the diversity of students taking standardized tests, the data shared in these educational reports becomes a little clearer. As educators, we need to negotiate these beliefs of standardization and differentiation to make better decisions on behalf the students with whom we work.

Smarting from Smart Devices

After reading an article in a recent New York Times Magazine, I’ve been wondering about how smart devices are making us smart. Titled All Knowing, the article was part of the magazine’s on-going feature called “First Words” which explores the use of words and phrases in society and examines the origin and development of language.  According to the article, the word “smart” has its roots in the Old English word for “painful, severe, stinging.” If you’re puzzled with the connection, think of bumping your knee.  “Wow, that really smarts.”  Get it?

While the word was also used to describe being “quick witted” centuries ago, the word “smart” wasn’t connected to intelligence until the 20th Century. These days, however, smart is also applied to all sorts of “intelligent” devices.  We have smart phones, smart watches and even smart refrigerators.  A whole world of inanimate objects has suddenly become intelligent. Or have they?

Another way to interpret these “smart” appliances, the article’s author Jacob Silverman suggests, is to examine the impact they have on our lives. Most smart phones users claim that the data plans and connectivity gives them greater access to information and great ability to communicate collaborate and participate in the increasingly connected world. But these devices can also inflict pain. While the pain may not be severe or stinging, the unseen negative impacts are still present. Let’s broaden the lens a bit. Besides providing access and opportunity, the devices are constantly collecting information on their users. Whether through apps installed on or native to the device, smart phones are covertly collecting a slew of personal information on every user. But user data collection isn’t just limited to smart phones. Smart refrigerators are charting our purchasing patterns. Fitness devices are monitoring our exercise activities. Even personal assistants like Siri and Alexa are collecting tons of information in an effort to make the services they offer more efficient and better tailored to their users’ needs. But what happens to all of the data that’s being collected? I’m sure that some of this is outlined in the end user license agreements to which we all quickly click “I agree.” But this is one source of the potential pain inflicted by these devices. With more of our personal information in the hands of invisible others, I worry about the demographic profiles being created on each of us and how these data can be leveraged for commercial and political purposes.

I recognize that some readers may see this cautionary post as the musings of some crotchety old person complaining about all of these newfangled doodads. That’s not my intention. Instead, I want readers to critically examine both the positives and the negatives of the technologies we bring into our lives and educational environments. While we often highlight all of the great benefits afforded by new tools, we fail to recognize the subtle pain or risk the technologies may be engendering. With a little awareness and some educated decision-making, however, smart devices may smart a whole lot less.

What can a shrimp teach us about learning?

Here’s an interesting piece of information I learned last week while listening to the Radio Lab podcast:  A two-inch shrimp helped to keep America’s submarines safe during World War II.  Amazing as it sounds, the pistol shrimp exhibits a 200 dB popping noise that cloaked America’s submarines during German sonar sweeps.  To hide their vessels from the enemy, US submarine captains would direct their crew to park in areas where pistol shrimp lived.  The shrimp’s loud popping would provide enough noise to effectively hide the submarines from the Germans. While the Americans trained their sonar operators to ignore the sounds of the pistol shrimp, the Germans didn’t.  Throughout the war, the beds of the pistol shrimp helped to provide an audio shield for American submarines.

Investigating the pistol shrimp a little more unveils some pretty amazing details. The loud popping noise is created when the shrimp snaps its claws to a close. If you’re wondering how a tiny claw can create such a loud noise, the truth is it doesn’t.  At least not directly.  The snapping claw happens so quickly that it causes a tiny air bubble to form.  Since the pistol shrimp lives at the bottom of the ocean, the air bubble that is generated experiences an enormous amount of pressure from the surrounding water.  Almost instantly after it’s created, the air bubble collapses into itself and creates a tiny explosion.  Some researchers say that the temperature from the compressing air bubble is comparable to the surface of the sun.  While the explosion is tiny, the resulting noise is not.  Besides creating enough noise to confuse submarine sonar technicians, the popping noise also helps to protect the pistol shrimp from its enemies. I doubt many of its predators are able to navigate through the noisy explosions to dine upon a feast of pistol shrimp.

At this point of the post, readers may be wondering how the pistol shrimp has anything to do with teaching and learning. Part of me is just amazed at the evolutionary process that helped this tiny shrimp create such a powerful defensive mechanism. But I also can’t help to think about how this naturally occurring action was effectively used by American submarine captains. Through training, the captains were able to use the sound of the pistol shrimp strategically to gain an advantage. In some ways, it’s similar to how instructors have been trained to use active learning techniques in their classroom.  I know this may sound like a huge leap but hear me out.  From an evolutionary perspective, humans are fundamentally social beings. We interact with one another and construct our understanding of the world by interacting with it and with one another. While some instructors may see these social activities as being distractions in their classrooms, other instructors use these processes strategically to gain an educational advantage. Just like the explosive results from the pistol shrimp’s tiny claws, bringing social activities into the classroom can have significant impacts on student learning.

Years ago, when I was teaching high school physics, an administrator came to my door to observe my teaching.  Seeing that I was facilitating an activity rather than lecturing, the administrator offered to come back “when I was teaching.” I explained that he probably should observe me now since this was what teaching looked like in my classroom most of the time.  Just like the German submarines viewed the pistol shrimp, my principal viewed active learning as a noisy distraction in my classroom and almost missed the powerful learning that was occurring. Ultimately, it all depends on your point of view.

Want to cause change? Be a trim tab!

I’ve been seeing a lot of “Time Hops” showing up on people’s social media feeds these days. The Time Hop allows us to take a peek into the past and remind ourselves of we were and help us better visualize where we’re likely to head. This week, I’m featuring a blog post from April 2014. This post explores the powerful nature of modeling. Enjoy.

It’s hard to turn an ocean liner. By anyone’s definition, an ocean liner isn’t a particularly agile vessel. Displacing millions and millions of gallons of water, ocean liners are massive and awkward. They lumber through the water, barreling along on their predetermined paths undeterred by slight fluctuations in the ocean. But ocean liners do turn. They navigate successfully to dock at ports and to dodge the occasional iceberg. While they aren’t as agile as a speed boat, ocean liners change directions. It takes more time but ocean liners can be turned.

Most people would credit an ocean liner’s ability to change direction to the ship’s rudder. Not surprisingly, the rudder of an ocean is itself a massive object, standing stories and stories tall for larger vessels. But what turns the rudder? The easy explanation is that a steering wheel turns the rudder and the rudder changes the direction of the ship. Closer examination, however, reveals the structure and function of a much smaller and less well-known object: the trim tab. Simply put, a trim tab is small rudder connected to the larger rudder. Turning the steering wheel turns the trim tab, which builds the pressure to make the larger rudder move. It’s the trim tab that does the work. Though tiny in comparison to the larger rudder and to the ocean liner as a whole, the trim tab is the one that’s doing all of the work. The tiny trim tab deserves much of the credit in the changes in direction that an ocean liner experiences.

Lately, many people have come to expect big changes and disruptions organizationally and societally. They want to see programs and systems quickly and easily changed. But not every organization is a speed boat. Some are ocean liners and require trim tabs to help them change. Some organizations need pockets of innovators who work to make changes that will help the larger system change. They need people to act as trim tabs and help the larger organization change path.

Buckminster Fuller is one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects, inventors and innovators. Among his many achievements, Fuller is credited with the design of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion map. Fuller passed away in 1983 and had the following simple phrase written on his headstone:

“Call me Trim Tab”

Fuller believed in the power of individuals and how the actions of a few could make great changes in larger systems and society. In an interview, Fuller explained his viewpoint:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

While it’s important for organizations to discuss becoming more agile and to examine weighty systems and processes, we also need to recognize the great changes that a few committed innovators can have to any larger organization. Acting as a trim tab, each of us can have an effect on the larger direction of our respective institutions. While the impact may not be apparent immediately, there’s power in the work of the individual.