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The blink response

I started re-reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell recently.  While I read the book almost a decade ago, I thought it was time to revisit the text.   Several colleagues have been talking about the power of the blink test in our work with students.  So, I decided to pick up the book again.  Blink discusses the power of “thinking without thinking” and the “impact and consequences of instantaneous impressions and conclusions.” If you haven’t read anything by Gladwell, he’s worth your time.  In his books, Gladwell uses stories and research to bring home elaborate and nuanced concepts.  Like his other books (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath), Blink will definitely not disappoint.

Blink was originally published in 2005 and I can remember reading it soon after it came out.  I was in a very different place professionally and personally.  I was teaching high school and my daughter was only four at the time.  Fast forward a decade and I’m now teaching at the collegiate level.  My daughter will enter high school herself next year, which has created a world of new challenges for me as a parent.  I provide this background since we all interact with texts based on our own contextual life experiences.  Just like a song that may seem sad or happy based on the state of mind we’re in, texts are colored by our experiences. In this case, sections of the book that didn’t resonate with me before seem to be jumping off the page.

Take an early section on studies conducted with students observing college professors.  In research conducted by psychologist Nalini Ambady, students were given a few seconds of video showing college professors and asked them to rate their teaching effectiveness.  Despite watching only a few seconds of silent video, the split decisions made by students closely aligned with the evaluations given by students who spent the entire semester with the professor.  Ambady shared her work in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In the article, she talks about the power of “thin slices” of observation and the importance of nonverbal behaviors.  In the study, professors who received high ratings were not the most attractive or the ones who looked more scholarly.  Instead, the instructors who received high ratings were the ones who were judged more positively on affective dimensions.  Maybe the professors smiled a little more.  Maybe their body language communicated compassion for students or openness.  Maybe their presence communicated a warmth that resonated positively with students.  Regardless of the specifics, those affective dimensions came through in the short, thin slices and impacted the students’ blink response.

While some may see Ambady’s study as casting a questionable light on student evaluations in general, we should resist dismissing the study or Gladwell’s book.   As I tried to explain to my daughter this morning as she was selecting outfits for school, we’re all being judged by the people we meet.  Whether it’s for our dress, our attitudes or for how we interact with others, all of us are being judged as a result of split-second decisions by the people we meet.  Thankfully for us as educators, the affective nature of our work is what resonates with our students in the thin slices.  If only the blink response by my daughter’s middle school peers was as simple.

Weathering the storm

My students hate my right now.  Okay, I’m probably exaggerating.  They don’t hate me.  But they’re definitely frustrated with me.  In my instructional technology course this week, the students have a screencasting assignment where they examine an assigned technology from the perspective of an elementary teacher.  They evaluate the site’s ease of use and outline how the tool fosters collaboration, creativity and problem solving with younger students.  The screencasting component is actually part of a multiweek examination of classroom technologies.  The students will slowly expand their lens as they start to look at privacy issues (with CIPPA, COPPA and FERPA) and different models of technology integration.  The screencasting component was step one of the larger activity and the students were clearly frustrated.  I could see the frustration as some of the students entered class and I could hear it in their voices as they tried to explain the challenges they were facing in my class.

The students were frustrated because they’re struggling and I’m not saving them.  I’m not trying to be a bad guy (or a bad teacher) but I’m trying to help them become better problem solvers.  I want them to troubleshoot technological issues and try to come up with solutions on their own.  When they email me with their problems, I’ll send them links to helpful sites or give them guidance on Google searches to conduct.  What I won’t do is simply say to them “Click here and do this and then do this.”  Some of the students clearly want this level of support but I can’t bring myself to do it.  And that’s why they hate me.

In Jan Chappuis’ book on Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, she outlines the importance of effective feedback for students.  “Effective feedback,” she writes “does not do the thinking for the students.”  Think about it.  If you’ve ever graded papers and marked off all of the grammar or spelling errors you found, you were do the thinking for your students.  The students would correct those specific errors but would not learn to avoid these mistakes or how to correct these errors on their own.  Instead of circling every spelling and grammar mistake, make a mark next to the sentence in which an error occurs.  This will alert students to where to find their mistakes but not fix the mistake for them.  It’s the classroom version of “Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day.  Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”

While this may sound logical for grading papers or fishing, my students probably won’t be able to translate this reasoning to the world of technology.  They see the technical hurdles and are frustrated at my unwillingness to save them.  But I’m looking at the bigger picture.  If they navigate the technical challenges today on their own, they are better equipped to fix the problems they’ll face down the road.  They have to weather the storm on their own today to be better prepared for the ones they’ll face in the future.  It’s frustrating, no doubt.  While I’m happy to provide them with support, guidance and words of encouragement, the storm is theirs to navigate alone.  That might make me a bad teacher. Or a really good one.  I really don’t know.

On the horizon… Live-streaming!

A friend of mine is really into 3D printing right now.  He supported a new 3D printer campaign through a crowdsourcing site and was able to purchase one of the first models.  After receiving his printer last week, he’s been excitedly creating all sorts of objects with his new printer.  Despite a few initial sidesteps, he wanted to demonstrate the process to other people, especially the other supporters of the crowdsourced project who didn’t receive their printers yet.  While he had recorded a few videos on the process, he wondered whether he could share the event live to people.  He emailed me and a few other technology geeks on campus and we discussed possible solutions.  It wasn’t long before he was became one of the first live-streaming 3D printers in the world.

For those of you who may not know, live-streaming involves broadcasting live video online.  Imagine you’re watching a video on YouTube. Instead of viewing some prerecorded event, however, you’re watching the activity live.  The process has been around for a while.  For instance, Ustream has offered live-streaming services since 2007.  But the landscape has changed.  With the introduction of Meerkat and Periscope, live-streaming has gone mobile.  Now, any event that happens anywhere can be live-streamed to the world.  Attending a conference or concert? You could live-stream it to your friends who couldn’t attend.  Getting married?  Live-stream the joyous occasion to all of your relatives.  Seeing some historical event unfold in front of you?  Live-stream it and share the experience.  The opportunities are endless.

And that’s the concern. While live-streaming presents innovative possibilities educationally and socially, it will inevitably be misused.  And then we’ll start to see all sorts of rules and regulations about live-streaming.  For instance, I recently visited another institution and there were “No Google Glass” signs posted in various locations.  At some point, live-streaming will be banned in certain places or for specific occasions.  I can imagine “No live-streaming” signs being posted outside public restrooms and restaurants.

Despite the potential misuse, there are real educational opportunities with live streaming.  Writing for Education Week Teacher, Starr Sackstein identified five ways to use live streaming in your classroom.  These include live streaming lessons and partnering with other classes from a distance.  As a teacher educator, I see great possibilities with visiting international classes or observing master teachers through live streaming.

It’s important to remember that the process, at least from a mobile standpoint, is at its infancy.  Using Periscope and Meerkat can be kind of like visiting the “Wild West.”  Neither app is able to work without Twitter and the public nature of the apps can potentially open users to odd interactions.  My 3D printing friend received some odd requests from a few viewers when he live streamed a recent printing endeavor with Periscope.

The two mobile live streaming apps seem very similar but the have some minor differences.  For instance, Meerkat is public only and live only, meaning that anyone can see what you live stream and there is no way to save streams online.  The live streams can be reshared to others via Twitter, which means that any live stream can shared to a person’s Twitter followers even though they aren’t the one actually attending the event.  This means that live-streaming historic events can go viral as they’re happening.  Periscope provides a little more flexibility and customization.  With Periscope, live-streams can be kept private and rewatched for up to 24 hours after an event.  To check out more differences, check out the recent reviews on Slate and USNews.

Engage and Assess with Plickers

I’m not often blindsided by instructional technology.  With Twitter, Facebook and a bunch of like-minded, creative friends, I usually hear about new learning technologies before they become widely adopted.  But I missed this one.  Plickers is hot stuff!  And it’s free and easy to use.  If you’re an educator and have always wanted to jump into the world of clickers, push those thoughts and ambitions aside.  Plickers is what you want to try. Here’s a run down for how Plickers works.  An instructor goes to the Plickers website and prints off a different Plickers card for each student in their class.  Each Plickers card looks like a cross between the aliens in Space Invaders and a QR code.  When used in class, the student holds up their card when asked an engagement or assessment question.  The instructor uses the camera on her smartphone and pans across the room.  The camera registers each card as a different  response for each student.  You may be wondering how students can answer differently if they’re only given a single card.  That’s probably the most innovative part of the Plickers assessment system.  The orientation of the card registers the student’s response.  Holding the card one way will register as an A.  Holding the card another would register as a B.  The system supports four different card orientations so instructors can ask multiple-choice questions with up to four responses. The Plickers website has card groups for small classes (under 40 students) or larger classes (up to 63 students).  In addition to offering the cards, the website also allows instructors to create questions and classes on their computers that easily sync with their smartphones.  If an instructor connects a card to a specific student, the site and app records the student’s responses which can be used for grading purposes if the instructor chooses.  Plickers is an easy to use system that doesn’t rely on students buying any expensive technology or instructors.  Maybe that’s why over 52,000 teachers in 112 countries have used Plickers. If you’re worried about Plickers being free now and then moving to a pay system down the road, fear not.  The system was first developed by Nolan Amy, a former math teacher, who explains: “Plickers is free. And don’t worry, we’re not going to suddenly start charging for the product you love. As former teachers, we know how important it is to be able to depend on the tools you use. In addition to constantly improving the always-free version of Plickers that exists right now, we’re hoping to add a Premium, paid version as well.” So jump in.  Download some Plickers cards and start engaging your students today.  With almost no financial investment, what’s stopping you?

Why I like to teach online

A few days ago, I was working with some colleagues who were developing online classes for the first time.  Since it was a new experience, they were examining all of the different ways to foster interaction and participation in the class.  I explained that they had to manage three different means of interaction in their course:  student/student interaction, student/instructor interaction and student/content interaction.  Most new online instructors focus their attention on student/content interaction.  They upload screencasts they’ve created or link to journal articles online.  They make sure that their students can effectively access content that helps them learn.

But that’s just one aspect of an online class.  If we want to create online classes that resemble our collaborative face-to-face classes, we need to consider the other avenues of interaction.  Students need to interact with their peers to help build their understanding.  Online students need to be able to interact with us as instructors so we can support their learning effectively.  And this is where the new online teachers were struggling.  While we generated a bunch of strategies that could help foster more interaction and participation, they worried about getting it right.  How would they know if the strategies were effective?

And this is why I like teaching online.  As someone who is highly reflective of his own teaching, I like the data that online classes can provide.  Almost every aspect of a student’s participation and interaction in an online class is captured while they engage in the course.  In a face-to-face class, a student’s participation and interaction can be observed while a lesson is occurring.  Once the lesson is over, however, any remnants of that participation and interaction are lost forever.  Sure, face-to-face instructors can record a lesson to watch later but that usually changes the nature of the class.  This “observer effect” can change how the students behave and participate in the class.

In an online class, however, participation and interaction are reified via the learning management system.  “Reify” is one of those words that sounds pretty complicated and scholarly.  In my mind, though, it’s the best way to describe the nature of an online class.  Participation and interaction are abstract processes that are hard to visualize or capture in face-to-face settings.  But in online realms, those abstract processes are made concrete.  They’re reified.  When a student comments on a peer’s post, the comment is captured in text. When a student struggles with a screencast, we can see that they need to watch it a few times.  When students don’t understand a given assignment, we can see their frustration through the posts in discussion forums.

This “reification” provides a world of information for reflective practitioners who work in online settings.  At the end of the semester, I can go back and look at how students interacted with content, with their peers and with me.  I can see areas where they may have struggled and revise course content and processes as needed.  And this is the advice that I gave the new online instructors.  Try to make the course as effective as possible but be ready to examine the course at the end of the semester and make improvements.  By examining the archive of instructional footprints that remain after a course is over, they’ll have a better idea of what worked and what didn’t.  And that’s one of my favorite parts of teaching online.  Analyzing the reified remnants of an online class informs my teaching and makes me a better online instructor.

Tips to Make Your Webinar Great!

I’ll be honest.  I usually find webinars to be a huge waste of time.  I’ve signed up for so many over the years and have been utterly disappointed almost every time.  While the content of the sessions are usually strong, it’s the presentation style that ruins the experience.  Usually, the presenter talks on and on and forgets there’s even an audience participating in the session.  While the webinar is being held in some synchronous platform (Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx, etc.), the presenter completely forgets to draw on these tools and transmits information lecture-style to the group.

It’s funny, though.  Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to lead a few webinars for different groups.  While I’d like to think that it’s due to my amazing webinar skills, it’s probably due in part to the financial situation at many institutions.  It’s less expensive to invite a speaker to present through a webinar than to travel to the institution and speak for an hour or so.  After leading a bunch of webinars over the last year, I thought I’d share some tips for making your next webinar great.  Not planning to lead a webinar anytime soon?  These tips will work for leading a synchronous online classroom, too.

1.  Engage the audience.  Since the webinar is being delivered through a synchronous platform, remember to use the functionality of the space to your advantage.  Use the audio tools or the chat window to get the group talking.  I usually dedicate the first minute or two of the webinar so attendees can share brief introductions.  I also build in engagement questions throughout the presentation to change the pace and lessen the passivity of the webinar.

2.  Be conversational.  I’ve shared the need for conversational tones in other posts.  Mayer’s research with multimedia has shown that people learn more from conversational presentations than formal ones.  While you may want to sketch out the points you plan to make in your presentation, avoid writing a formal script.  The formal tone of your presentation will undermine its effectiveness.

3.  Don’t read your slides.  This relates to another one of Mayer’s multimedia principles and it’s a killer in a webinar or in any presentation environment.  The practice is governed by the “redundancy principle” which discusses how the brain is impacted when redundant information is presented through visual and auditory channels.  The redundancy creates a “cognitive load” for the learner which will significantly diminish the effectiveness of the presentation.

4.  Practice, practice, practice.  Few people enjoy practicing but it’s critical to the success of any activity.  Take a few minutes and become more familiar with the synchronous space.  If you have a co-presenter, run through the presentation together so you have a good idea who will be leading which parts of the presentation.  You may even want to invite a colleague to participate in the practice run so you can test out the engagement questions you’ve planned.

5.  Evaluate your slides.  Some slides don’t translate well to a webinar format.  If you’re using PowerPoint, steer clear of font sizes less than 32 point and don’t fill every slide with text.  If you’re using tables or graphs, make sure the graphics are large enough to be easily read and interpreted.

6.  It’s time for change.  Don’t spend a ton of time on any one slide.  Some presenters suggest changing every five to eight minutes.  While I don’t follow any set time standard, I try to infuse enough fluidity and change in the presentation to keep the participants interested and engaged.

7.  Share the stage.  The best way to get a group involved is to have them share their expertise.  This works in a face-to-face environment or an online one.  Providing a few minutes for people to share their ideas or experiences draws the group in and helps them find ownership and value in the session.

Drowning in Data

I spoke with a reporter last week about an event I was planning.  My institution’s public relations director had contacted the reporter to see if the newspaper would be interested in writing an article covering the event.  In the interview, the reporter asked directly “Is this something that would make our readers click?”  Obviously, the reporter was talking about clicking on a link for the article on the newspaper’s website.  While I think the reporter was trying to gauge the larger interest for the event, he also communicated something else.  Data matter.  In the newspaper world, it’s no longer about subscriptions.  It’s clicks.  When readers visit the newspaper’s website, they click to get access to an article.  But the click isn’t just an access point.  It’s a piece of data.  It shows how many people have engaged with the article, which is important for selling advertising space.  If an article can generate many clicks, the newspaper will presumably benefit from an uptick in advertising revenue.  The newspaper can show exactly how many people have engaged with the article and can use those numbers when talking to advertisers.  That’s the power of clicks as data.

But there’s also a negative to clicking.  Although the event was a novel collaboration across many institutions of higher education in our area, the article never appeared in print or online.  The reporter obviously decided that there wasn’t enough clickable interest in the event and he needed to focus his attention elsewhere.  In the interview a week earlier, I asked the reporter whether clicking influenced which stories the newspaper ran.  “Penn State stories generate a lot of interest.  We broke a click count record recently with an article about Joe Paterno.”  It shouldn’t be too surprising that the paper’s website features a drop down for Penn State.  Helps to generate more clicks.

That’s what I really worry about.  Since we have the ability to measure something, then it becomes important.  We don’t really question what the data say or how the data can be misused.  The newspaper is guided by clicks so it runs more articles like the stories that have generated clicks in the past.  With this logic, we should all expect more controversial stories about fallen athletic coaches in our local newspapers.  We should also expect to see fewer feel good stories about local educational efforts.

Data are everywhere though and media outlets aren’t the only ones being misguided by data.  Look at our public schools.  Sometime in the last decade or two, bureaucrats decided that scores on state assessment were the most important pieces of data.  School years were organized around the assessments and entire subjects were dropped so that students could focus more time and attention on the assessable content.  Just like a newspaper solely focusing on articles that can generate clicks, schools have limited their focus to the content that is being assessed.  The trouble with data is that it can narrow our lens so we’re only paying attention to what we can measure.  It’s not good for our newspapers.  Or for our schools.


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