A Rare Sighting

Collectors consider a Honus Wagner baseball card to be one of rarest.  A “near mint-mint” copy sold for $2.8 Million in 2007.

Action Comics #1 was released in 1938 and features the first appearance of Superman. While it originally sold for ten cents, collectors consider a near-perfect copy one of the rarest comic books.  A copy sold for $3 Million on eBay in 2014.

Reportedly, there are only six known copies of Shakespeare’s signature in existence, which is pretty surprising considering how much he’s written. Collectors consider his autograph to be one of the rarest.

This post isn’t about collecting things.  Or about Superman. Or Shakespeare. Or even about baseball.  It’s about rare stuff.  It’s about the things you don’t see everyday.

I started a new online class last week and the first assignment was due recently. One of the first activities I have my online students complete is recording an introductory video. The students share their majors, their hobbies and their goals for the class.  I usually pair this with some readings so the students have to make sense of course content at the same time. As I was watching the recorded introduction, one video stuck out.  While the class is a required course in several education programs, Mark (not his real name) isn’t pursuing a degree in the field. Although he’s a graduate student on campus, Mark is enrolled a program pretty far removed from education. I wondered whether he was misadvised or had accidentally signed up for the wrong class. As the add/drop period just ended, I worried that maybe Mark would be stuck in a class he hadn’t planned to take.  So, I emailed him.

My email went something like this.

“Mark, I’m wondering why you’re taking our Educational Technology class. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re in the class but I’m wondering about your future goals and how this class fits in with them. Did your advisor recommend taking this class? I’m trying to get a handle on your plans and how I can support them.”

Mark responded almost immediately. He shared a personal story about his journey to class. While I won’t go into a lot detail about that, his rationale for taking the class is what made this interaction (and him) really rare.  He wrote:

“I’m taking this class because I felt it would be a good fit for me. It’s not required for my program or anything but it will help me learn about some of the newer technologies that I’m unfamiliar with. This was a personal pick for the summer.  I felt it would be a positive addition to my existing knowledge.”

I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for the last decade. This is the first time that I can remember that a student took one of my classes just for the sake of learning. The class wasn’t going to satisfy a check box on his transcript, help him maintain state certification or reach some contractual requirement at his school district.  While those are common reasons that people enroll in my classes, Mark was motivated by something different. He recognized gaps in his own knowledge and expertise and wanted to fill them. He was here just to learn. And that makes him pretty rare.



Be More Stubborn

When my wife and I first became parents, we’d get lots of advice from experienced mothers and fathers on how best to raise kids.  Some would say things like “provide lots of structure” or “tired kids are happy kids” or “let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.”  As new parents, we waded through these pieces of wisdom, looking for the ones that best reflected the types of parents we hoped to become.  Across all of the advice we received, the one that my mother-in-law shared stands as the keystone to our roles as parents.

“Be more stubborn than your children.”

As most parents know, kids can be pretty stubborn.  Children can get fixated on a toy or an activity and scream and yell until they get their way.  And they can be resolved in their emotion and steadfast in their desire.  They want their way and they’re prepared to fight it out and create a fuss until their parents give in. But that’s when the “be more stubborn” parenting mantra needs to kick in.  If a parent gives in to every demand a child makes, long term, the child can become selfish or lack respect for their parents or become undisciplined.  Being “more stubborn” means having faith in your choice as a parent and waiting it out.  While the child is focused on the short game, as a parent, you need to focus on the long game.  It’s not always easy to wade through the cries, screams and temper tantrums but, in most cases, the resolve pays off.

I was reminded about this parenting mantra recently after a meeting with some colleagues.  We were discussing a class that one of us was teaching and how the students were resisting the teaching strategies that my colleague was employing.  As she explained the goals with her assignment and the strategies she was using, I tried to alleviate her self-doubt and explain that what she was doing was pedagogically sound.  Despite her students’ resistance, my colleague was trying foster an active learning environment in her class which would ultimately lead to more student engagement and increased student learning.   I also shared the research on how active learning was a little like broccoli; students know that it’s good for them but they don’t always enjoy it.  I blogged about this research a few years ago in a response to our campus newspaper’s attack on faculty who “weren’t doing their job.”  Despite our best intentions, many students want us to lecture to them so they can passively receive information.

But that’s when we need to be more stubborn than our students.  If we know that the instructional choices we’re making are in the students’ academic interests, we need to face the resistance and be resolved in our expertise and decisions.  While I doubt that many of us will face temper tantrums from our students, we may face some individuals who don’t readily see the value in the assignments we’ve developed or the instructional techniques we’re using.  In these instances, we may need to patiently explain some of our overall goals to help build buy-in from students.  In the end, however, like the parent facing the cries and screams of a difficult child, we may need to be more stubborn than our students and remember that what we’re doing is in the students’ be interests, whether they recognize it or not.

Mindset: A primer post

I’m helping to leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on campus around the book Mindset: The new psychology of success by Carol Dweck.  The book was first published in 2006 but is being revisited by a lot of educational institutions as a way to jump start more student-centered instruction.  Our FLC has met a few times already and we’re really seeing a lot ways that Dweck’s work communicates to the roles that instructors play in students’ success.  This week, I thought I’d assemble some of the Mindset resources we’ve shared in our FLC and some of the ones I’ve come across over the years.

What is Mindset?  If you’re new to the mindset concept and wondering where to get started, this site is a treasure trove of resources to provide a great first step.

Who Gets to Graduate?  This is an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago and really showed the power of adopting a growth mindset at the institutional level.  The article is a little long but rich with ways that institutions are incorporating the growth mindset holistically.  The study that focuses on the impact of different messages in pre-orientation videos is particularly powerful.

Resources for Teaching Growth Mindset:  Edutopia has adopted mindset as one of its focus areas and has assembled loads of great materials to help educators incorporate the growth mindset in their teaching.  The section on giving better feedback to students can be really eye-opening, even for experienced educators.

Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff:  This is another resource from Edutopia but focuses on more administrative processes that can help to foster the growth mindset in departments and schools.

Recognizing and Overcoming a False Growth Mindset:  Mindset definitely has some detractors.  While I think some people balk at the concept itself, other have trouble with how growth mindset is used (and misused) by educators.  In this Edutopia article from earlier this year, Dweck herself addresses these head on.

Nurturing Growth Mindset: Six Tips from Carol Dweck: This appeared in a recent Education Week and discussed Dweck’s keynote address at the Leaders to Learn From event in Washington, DC.    The tips can help provide some comfort for those of us who are still struggling with our own fixed mindsets.  Dweck identifies that we all have fixed mindsets sometimes and that we should recognize these and “name it, claim it and talk about it.”

Becoming agnostic

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from last year.  This post was originally shared in June 2014 and discussed the need to adopt agnostic policies with the technologies we use with our students.  In an age of “bring your own device” policies, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for teachers to break free of platform dependency.  Enjoy.


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

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

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

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

Five Tools for the Agnostic Classroom

The Epic BYOD Toolchest

Tool Comparison for the BYOD Classroom

Educational iPad Apps that are also on Android

Apps and Sites that Work For All Devices

Device Neutral Assignment Applications

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

Three easy steps to build more student engagement

As regular readers know, I’ve been working on a collaborative project with a local school district for the last few semesters.  The project is in support of a Flipped Classroom initiative in the district and the students in my instructional technology class create learning objects that district teachers use for several classes.  While the project has been successful, I had a few student groups last semester that struggled to collaborate and communicate with each other and didn’t fully engage with the project.  This summer, I wanted to develop ways to foster more student engagement and came across “engagement theory” by Kearsley and Shneiderman (1997).  While usually applied to online and distance educational environments, the theory also can be applied to face-to-face learning environments as well.  Engagement, Kearsley and Shneiderman argue, comes from involving students actively in higher order cognitive processes like creating, problem-solving, evaluating and decision making.  To be successful in these types of activities, students must be engaged in collaborative teams that make meaning of the content and apply the content to authentic situations through problem-based projects.  As I read more about engagement theory, it sounded perfectly connected to the type of activity in which my students were participating and gave me a good lens to examine some areas for growth.  Kearsley and Shneiderman proposed three components to help support student engagement:  Relate, Create and Donate.

1.  Relate.  Communication is critical for student engagement.  Students working in collaborative groups must interact with each other and plan, organize, debate and discuss relevant issues.  While learning is often viewed as a solitary process, in engagement theory, students learn by socially constructing their understand by relating and interacting with their peers.  In my classroom project this fall, I plan to stress the need for communication and collaboration and offer more avenues for students to interact with one another.

2.  Create.  For engagement to occur, Kearsly and Shneiderman argue, students must be involved in some authentic work where they create something that applies the content in a real-world context. This component was the main focus of my project.  My students were creating short instructional videos.  Without intentional support and attention to the other components, however, I saw that some groups floundered.

3.  Donate.  In engaged learning environments, students make contributions through their involvement.  I think this component has two interpretations that are meaningful to collaborative projects.  The authors intend that the project should have some outside focus where student efforts are donated to some larger context or issue.  The term, however, also implicitly communicates that individual students must contribute their effort, ideas and energy to the overall success of the project.  In my classroom project, I assess students’ individual contributions as well as the overall success of the group.  My hope was this would foster more individual responsibility and involvement.  By positioning the project in more altruistic terminology, some students may be more motivated to be involved and contribute their efforts to the project.

By communicating these collaborative components with my students, I hope to foster more engagement this semester and build more success with the classroom project.  Be sure to check back later in the semester for an update.

Step outside of the course management system

Even the best course management system has limitations.  Since they are designed primarily to protect student data and insure reliable, secure access to course content and assessments, course management systems have walls.  While the walls are digital, they are no less real.  These walls control what information can be accessed, when it can be accessed and by whom.  As you’re considering what types of content and interaction to add to your course shell in a CMS, remember that the boundaries will limit you, your students and your class.  If you’re thinking of incorporating any of the following aspects into your course, you may want to consider stepping outside of the CMS.

1.  You want your students to author content for worldwide access.  When students in your class are completing research or writing content that you want them to share with the world, you need to look beyond the walls of the CMS.  A colleague of mine has her advanced Spanish students write blogs outside of the CMS so that native Spanish speakers can comment on their work.  Locked inside a CMS, the blogs would not have the global reach and the same authentic nature as they do in more accessible locations.

 2.  You want your students to author content they can use after a course ends.  While a CMS provides secure access to course content, what happens when the course ends?  What happens when a student graduates?  Usually, student access to course content and to the work they’ve contributed ends at the end of the semester or when they leave the institution.  If you want students to have more open access to course content or want them to develop materials that they can use later in their careers, break free of the CMS. For instance, a blog or a wiki would make great portfolio tools that students can use to showcase their work beyond the dates they are enrolled in a course or at an institution.

3.  You want your students to interact with people not enrolled in a course.  Technically, most CMSs will allow you to add guests or guest speakers to a course shell.  At some institutions, however, the process of adding an “outsider” can be cumbersome or forbidden. Stepping outside of the CMS opens your students to a host of communication options like Google Hangouts or Skype and does not limit their interaction to the people enrolled in the course or working at your institution.

4.  You want to develop a learning community that lives after the class has ended.  Opening up an old course shell is like visiting a ghost town.  The discussion boards are the lifeless remains of engaging conversations.  The modules stand as empty edifices where occupants once played.  I’m being a little dramatic but the reality is that most courses within a CMS are only active when students are enrolled in a course.  But what if you wanted to foster a learning community that lived beyond the confines of the course?  Consider having your students join Twitter and develop a hashtag unique to your group or course.  This way, participants can still interact with one another long after the virtual tumbleweeds have descended on your course in the CMS.

5.  You want your students to be creative and utilize the landscape of tools available online to demonstrate their learning.  Most CMSs have a limited number of interactive tools and assessment options.  Opening a CMS discussion board to embeddable content from outside sources can really tap into your students’ creativity.  Students could make movies that they post on YouTube, make interactive webpages using Glogster, or play out a debate with GoAnimate.  While these tools live outside of the CMS, they can help to embed a creative element to your dull CMS.

Are there other activities that would prompt an instructor to step outside the CMS?  Share your ideas in the comment section below.

Working with these students today

At a conference yesterday, a colleague approached me and asked me about working with “these students today.”  Since being on a sabbatical and overseeing an outreach program at his institution, he’s been away from teaching for a few years.  This semester, however, he’s back in the classroom and he’s troubled by the students’ work ethic, their level of engagement and their ability to critically think.  He wondered how I’m able to work “with these students today!”

There is no doubt that students in our classrooms have more access to technology and information then ever before.  Some have written that this unprecedented access to technology has changed the students.  For instance, Marc Prensky has written extensively about Digital Natives and claims that the brains of our students have changed by being constantly connected.  While Prensky’s work has been debated and scrutinized, it’s also been fodder for those educators who see technology as the downfall of humanity, for learning, and just about every other societal aspect we value.

I try not to get too caught up with debating whether the students have changed or not.  My role as a educator is to teach the students I have.  I don’t spend too much time worrying about the types of students I had five years ago or the ideal students with whom I’d like to work.  The students I have are the ones I am going to teach.  I need to do everything in my power pedagogically to help them learn and help them meet my expectations.  If I’ve been a successful educator with “these students today” (and you’d have to talk to my students to know for sure), it’s because I believe in a few foundational tenets that guide most of work.  I shared these principles with my colleague and explained that these aren’t really new concepts at all.  They’re rooted in concepts shared by John Dewey almost seventy five years ago.

1.  Meet the students where they are.  I’ve written about this in other posts, but I think it’s relevant here.  Being successful educators requires that we understand our students and use this understanding to guide our instruction.  We shouldn’t lower our expectations but we do need to develop lessons with our students in mind.  Understanding students and their needs is important, Dewey writes in Experience and Education, because

“without this insight there is only an accidental chance that the material of study and the methods used in instruction will so come home to an individual that his development of mind and character is actually directed.

2.  Make the content relevant and meaningful.  I know this may be difficult with some content areas, but I think it’s important for educators to help students make connections between what they’re learning and their lives.  We need to ask ourselves “How will what they’re learning inform other areas of their lives?  Why is it important?”  As educators, we often focus on the “future” at the expense of the now.  By making the content more meaningful in their present lives, students can be more motivated to learn.  As Dewey writes:

“It means that a person, young or old, gets out of his present experience all that there is in it for him at the time in which he has it. When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

3.  Let the students take ownership.  Last week, our campus held its Spring Convocation.  At the event, our associate provost shared a video compilation of some interviews he conducted with students.  One theme present in all of the student interviews was the students’ desire to take ownership of their work.  Students want to play an active role in developing the classroom structure and want to make choices in the way they can present their work or be assessed.  This sounds like a pretty radical idea but it’s also rooted in Deweyian philosophy.  Returning to Experience and Education, Dewey writes:

“The way is, first, for the teacher to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs, and past experiences of those under instruction, and, secondly, to allow the suggestion made to develop into a plan and project by means of the further suggestions contributed and organized into a whole by the members of the group. The plan, in other words, is a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation.  The teacher’s suggestion is not a mold for a cast-iron result but is a starting point to be developed into a plan through contributions from the experience of all engaged in the learning process. The development occurs through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.”

Experience in Education was published in 1938 but Dewey’s words still resonate with us in the 21st Century.  As we struggle with “working with these students today,” I wonder whether we’re just wrestling with concepts that educators have faced for decades, concepts like freedom, democracy and liberty.   It’s easy to target a cell phone, Facebook or an iPad as the negative catalyst for our students.  I think the real challenges are much bigger.