The Best Technology Tool

I met an educational technology expert recently who said that the industry was facing a challenging dilemma. With all of the new apps and websites and technologies available to students and teachers, he worried that we were now being bogged down by the “tyranny of choice.” I hadn’t heard the phrase “tyranny of choice” before so I googled it. That initial search led me to the Stanford Center on Longevity where they summarized the “tyranny of choice.”

We presume that more choices allow us to get exactly what we want, making us happier. While there is no doubt that some choice is better than none, more may quickly become too much. Drawbacks include regret, unattainable expectations and paralysis.

That’s right. Being offered too many choices can be a bad thing. Think about it. You probably know some restaurant that has an unwieldy menu that takes ten or fifteen minutes to digest. As you stare at the twenty seafood options and the fourteen chicken dishes, you’re facing the tyranny of choice. As you peruse the pages, you may feel some paralysis by the options. When you finally order, you may have such high expectations of what you’ve ordered that you’re bound to be let down. Which can ultimately lead to regret. Yes, you should have ordered the lobster ravioli.

That’s the tyranny of choice.

Bear with me as I stick with the restaurant theme just a little longer. This weekend, I came across an article written by Frank Bruni titled “The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50!” Having recently hit the five decade milestone myself, I read Bruni’s work with anticipation. Which restaurant would be the best for my newfound demographic? I half-worried that I would now have to start eating at some national chain like Applebee’s or TGIFridays. Or maybe I’d have to start regularly eating at McDonald’s? The horror!

But that’s not what I found. Instead, Bruni wrote that, with age, he’s found comfort in consistency. Examining his evolution, he compared it to his cocktail choices.

When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. At 54, I just want martinis, because I’m certain of what’s in them and of what that potion can do.

Certainty and consistency. That’s what the best restaurant provides, according to Bruni. He’s willing to eat the same thing at the same restaurant over and over. There’s never any regret. There’s never any unattainable expectations or paralysis. There’s no tyranny of choice.

So, what does this have to do with educational technology? And what is the “best technology tool?”

With the explosion of educational technology, I think a lot of people are finding comfort in the certain and the consistent. Sure, new tools are introduced each day and they have different affordances (and constraints). As risk takers and innovators, we need to try them out and see how they impact student learning and engagement.

But those new tools don’t always work the way they’re intended. And they don’t always lead to the desired instructional results. Some aren’t consistently available. Others can be glitchy.

The best educational tool is the one that reliably and consistently does what we want it to do.

It’s not a flashy choice. Or a sophisticated one. But it’s the right one.

So, while I’ll continue to innovate and try out new technologies, I’ll return to those tools that are consistent and reliable.

They’re the best.

Create Interactive Online Content with H5P

I’m always looking to expand the ways I engage my students in my online and face-to-face courses. I’ll look for new websites or applications that I can incorporate into my classes that can help students build their understanding of content or provide feedback to further their development. Years ago, I would use Flash editors to create simple matching games or multiple-choice quizzes to help student learn. Those efforts ended with the advent of mobile devices, however. Since mobile browser didn’t support Flash applets, I didn’t want to create something that only a fraction of my students could use. While mobile devices ushered in a new era of technology ubiquity and information access, the dawn of smartphones and tablets also sparked a downturn in Flash-based content online.

A colleague shared a site with me that has me really excited. H5P allows users to easily create interactive online content that they can embed on blogs, websites or inside a learning management system. Since its HTML5 compatible, it can run on any device. Want to create a simple matching game so your students can practice vocabulary words? Or maybe you want students to interact with a YouTube video you’ve assigned? H5P has you covered. With a few simple clicks, your students can be interacting with the online content you’ve created and getting feedback on their work. With over 35 different content types, there are so many possibilities for the creative instructor to inject interactive content into their courses. I envision geography teachers using the site to share interactive maps, history teachers sharing online timelines and biology instructors creating microscope images that allow students to zoom in and out.

Since the site is free and easy to use, instructors could also have their students use H5P to create content that they can share with their classmates. For instance, students could use the multiple-choice generator to create assessment questions to help their peers study for an upcoming exam. Since all of the content can be shared via links or through embedded content, they can be easily shared in a discussion forum. By being HTML5 compatible, the content can be viewed by students using computers, smartphones or tablets.

I know that some readers may be thinking “HTML5 Content Editor? That sounds really scary!” In reality, the site cannot be easier to use. Not only can you create some really cool content with a few clicks, the site also offers tons of demonstrations and tutorials to help you get started. Definitely don’t let the technical jargon I’ve shared in this post scare you away. The site couldn’t be easier to use!



All-Time Top Ten Posts

In the spirit of the season, I’m posting the most visited posts from the 8 Blog.  Last week, I focused on the posts from 2017.  This week, I’m reviewing the most viewed posts since the 8 Blog started back in 2009.  Enjoy!

1. Nine Copyright Friendly Sites for Student Multimedia Projects Written in October 2010, this post still gets a lot of shares and visits. While many of these sites still offer access to copyright-friendly media, ISTE published this post earlier this year on four sites for free and fair use photos.

2. Designing Infographics on your iPad From June 2013, this post outlines a few apps for creating graphical representations of data with an iPad. The infographic landscape has expanded since this post was written.  To check out some additional tools for creating infographics, check out: 8 free tools for creating infographics

3. Presenting to Colleagues I wrote this post in July 2013 after attending a conference session where the presenters just read their slides to the attendees. In the post, I offer six ways to make your presentation more effective.

4. Sites for Students to Create their own Comics Seeing this post from March 2011 make it among the top 10 brings me great joy. As a self-professed comic book nerd, I love that readers see value in having students create their own comics.

5. What’s your Teaching Metaphor? In this post from August 2016, I discuss the different metaphors we use to describe our instructional roles and what research says about the way we use language to describe our teaching.

6. Being a Worm in Horseradish You can categorize this post as one of more philosophical tomes. In this post from May 2013, I discuss how different customs and traditions can develop on a campus but they may be hard to recognize. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his TED Talk, “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”

7. Applying Multimedia Principles to Screencasting This post, written in July 2012, draws on work from Richard Mayer that examined how multimedia can support learning. Mayer offers different “multimedia principles” to guide the selection and creation of learning objects. I discuss how these apply to screencasting.

8. Innovation Involves Risk Taking From February 2012, this post tells the story of Michael Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University and his efforts with integrating technology in his collegiate classroom.

9. Applying Google’s 80/20 to your Class From January 2012, this post outlines the Google policy where workers can use 20% of their time focused on projects of their own choosing. I discuss how educators can leverage this policy to foster more student ownership over their learning.

10. What’s your Teacher Perspective? This post from May 2016 discusses the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI). Developed by Daniel Pratt in 1998, the TPI is a tool that instructors can use to self-assess where among the five discrete teaching perspectives their teaching lies. In the post, I also share my assessment results from an online TPI survey.




Let’s Talk about Learning

This semester, I’m teaching a class on Emergent Technologies and Innovative Practices for students in our new Educational Leadership doctoral program.  All of the students are leaders in area schools.  Some are principals.  A few are assistant superintendents.  One is a business manager for a local district.  They’re a really smart group who are going to engage in some really heady discourse over how we integrate technology in schools.

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester and I think some of the students are seeing a disconnect.  While the class is titled “emergent technology,” we’ve actually spent very little time so far talking about technology at all.  While we’ll be digging deeper into technologies later in the semester, we’ve spent most of the class discussing learning theory and broader theoretical constructs like TPACK. So, what gives?  Why would I organize the class in such a way?  I think my instructional decisions for this class are best captured in a Tweet I came across this weekend.

“We can’t have conversations around technology until we are ready to have conversations around learning.” @justintarte

I don’t know Dr. Tarte but I think we’re kindred spirits. The education community spends a lot of time talking about devices and apps and learning management systems but very little time discussing learning.  The larger challenge, however, is that educators, school leaders, parents and other stakeholders hold very different beliefs about learning and we don’t spend a lot of time hashing these beliefs out in public forums.  One of the books my doctoral students are reading is Teaching Crowds by Dron and Anderson (2014).  In the book, the authors discuss different pedagogical generations and how beliefs of learning changed during these time periods.  In the behavioral/cognitive era, pedagogy was focused on teaching the individual. The behavioral/cognitive tradition assumes that “there is a body of material or specified measurable skill to be learned that may be transmitted to the learner.” The focal point of this pedagogical generation is the instructor and the one-to-one or one-to-many delivery system.

The social constructivist era, however, changes this focus.  In this generation, social interactions and constructing understanding through experience are the central vehicles for learning.  Few people learn in isolation, social constructivists would argue.  We learn by interacting with one another and by experience the world around us.  These social constructivist beliefs helped to usher in the next pedagogical generation: the connectivist era.  In this generation, the focus isn’t solely on the individual but also on the larger community in which one participates.  In the connectivist era, learning occurs in groups and is demonstrated in and distributed across people’s ability to participate.  Connectivist pedagogy recognizes that “knowledge exists in a social and physical context as well as a personal one.”

These are very short synopses of the larger pedagogical generation described in Dron and Anderson’s text.  The larger takeaway, however, is that different people that are involved in decision-making in schools can hold wildly different beliefs on how people learn.  Not just because of the influence of these pedagogical eras but also from their own experiences as learners and as educators.  These beliefs, however, inform technological decisions, whether through explicit or tacit means.  Someone who believes in instructive forms of learning would select and use very different technologies than someone who believes in more social and collaborative processes of learning.

And that’s why I’m spending a large portion of my doctoral class examining learning theories and the research-base behind each.  As educators, we need to recognize that technology decisions should not just be based on availability, cost or efficiency but should also reflect our beliefs about learning.

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.