Week 4- The Internet and Education

In the vast majority of the schools I work with or have taught in, it is definitely not the case that the internet has transformed K-12 education in ways that were unprecedented by giving everyone access to all the knowledge of the world.  Neither, has it, in my experience, pushed classroom learning away from content and basic skills or enabled more authentic, situated learning.  To date, I have only ever been in two classrooms out of the dozens of CPS schools I’ve worked with, visited, or toured where I saw practices that even remotely approach this description.  Even then, the sophisticated use of BYOD and blended instructional methods were still teacher-driven and focused on content and skills.  I must admit, my own classroom was not one of the two, knowing what I know now — though no doubt I would have said otherwise when last I had my own classroom in 2008.

Dynamics At Play

There were a number of dynamics at play in the early days of the internet that I believe short-circuited this utopic vision from becoming even a partial reality.  To be sure, “there is an essential lesson we must take to heart if we are to construct a new informational paradigm for education — that Internet architecture by design undermines hierarchy and liberates the end users at their powerful personal computers and mobile Internet devices….  The machine is really a giant centrifuge, forcing power outward from hierarchical systems to computer end users, individually and collectively forming a networked global society”  (pp. 68-69).  In as much as this is true, the industrial model of schooling has a vested interest in preventing this educational nirvana from being realized.  Still, there are some other specific dynamics I see as interfering.

High Stakes Testing and School Reform

The early 1990’s were the point where high-stakes testing and school reform were shifting into high gear.  As Waks has noted, these have the effect of solidifying the industrial model of schooling.  So even as some educators wanted to innovate as part of a “reform” agenda on one hand, they were bound even more closely to the industrial model on the other via the use of test scores to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of their reform methods.

Cost and the Digital Divide

Then as today, costs for digital hardware and some software are prohibitively expensive and out of the financial ranges of most schools.  Beyond a few labs, hardware carts, and faculty laptops,  schools lack the funding to put a device in the hands of every student. While doing so is far from guaranteeing high level learning via such devices, digital instruction and learning without them is impossible.

The high associated costs in the early days drove the digital divide separating the digital haves from the digital have-nots — whether a family or a school district.  Costs for hardware, commercial software, and basic internet service, never mind even more expensive high-speed options, all contributed to setting up this initial divide.  When thinking in terms of academic allocation and legitimacy, as Waks does, one can see a digital analog being set up by the initial and consequent digital divides.  People with access to the internet have a far wider allocation to the new social and network structures of the digital age.  So even as the internet can be a disruptor of the allocations made by the industrial society and its schools, the economic realities of the industrial society transferred its allocations to the early digital/information/knowledge society via the digital divide.

Roll of Professional Learning and Educator Mindsets

Professional learning for both teachers and administrators has a profound impact on the extent to which information and communication technology gets implemented in a given school.  Peggy Ertmer and Anne Ottenbriet-Leftwich have researched (PDF) technology change in schools and have found that in schools where teachers adapted ICT in meaningful ways, all had six characteristics in common:

  1. They were well equipped for ICT.
  2. Their focus was on changing the process of learning using ICT.
  3. Skills were acquired as part of the process of using those skills purposefully.
  4. The school provided support.
  5. Teachers had opportunities to discuss, reflect and troubleshoot with peers and facilitators over time.
  6. The nature of student learning changed along with teachers’ beliefs and knowledge sets.

They have found that both teachers and administrators need quality, differentiated professional development that addresses their educational belief systems as well as the learning needed for any given digital tools.  In fact, Ertmer and Ottenbriet-Leftwich found that substantive and lasting change around digital methods will not occur with out the former in particular.  They also found that school culture is a major driver of change.  In schools were the administrators believe incorporating digital learning is a vital aspect to teaching and learning, teachers are more likely to include them in their practices.  Even where administrators had laissez-faire attitudes about technology, those schools did not make any meaningful shifts to include digital instructional practices.

When we think about Ertmer and Ottenbriet-Leftwich’s research and acknowledge the paucity of time, money, and attention given to substantive, quality, professional learning for most US teachers, it is no surprise that schools are not making the shifts they need to make to bring teaching and learning into the digital age.

Affordances of Web 2.0 and a Wishlist

Still, 2017 is not 1997.  As Waks notes, Web 1.0 was about desktop hardware, dial-up connections, and downloaded applications.  The internet was essentially an application in as much as it could only be accessed via the Netscape browser.  However, Web 2.0 is mobile, apps and data live in “the cloud”, the browser and the internet have become an operating system in and of themselves through which we can work, play and interact with nearly anyone on the planet via millions of digital networks (p. 81).  Even though the world has shifted to this more interactive and participatory model of Web 2.0, I wonder if many educators and parents are not thinking about it in Web 1.0 terms, even as many of them make use of the networked technologies in their personal lives.

What do I wish were different?  To start, I wish that with the affordances of lower costs and greater access to what danah boyd calls “networked publics”,  adults will realize what young people have.  Namely, that Web 2.0 is indeed all about connecting people, not computers (p. 81).  That it is defined by social and commercial factors and not technology (p. 82).  I would like educators and parents to allow kids to engage more in the behaviors identified by Mimi Ito as hanging out, messing around, and geeking out in these digital spaces.  I would like to see teachers push their own use past administrative mere tasks with email and online gradebooks and into more instructional practices.  I would like to see students, educators, and parents all “make [their] web experience more interactive and engaging…with creative ideas” (p. 82) and realize that the digital sphere is not something separate from “real life”, but just another “social and commercial milieu, not [emphasis added] the underlying technologies” (p. 82).  Finally (for now) I’d like teachers specifically to take hold of the “bisociation” Waks cites Arthur Koestler as describing (p. 86).  Such “bisociation” in the era of the mash-up and  Open Educational Resources provides a great frame for pushing teachers out of their isolation and towards more collaborative work.  I’m imagining “bisociated” lesson plans, unit plans, and curricula.  Perhaps even a time where the term “cross-curricular” planning fades away to be replaced by “bisociated planning”.  A time when teachers creating user-generated content on web sites and wikis like Teachers Pay Teachers or the Smithsonian Learning Lab is de rigueur and not reserved for the “tech geeks” among us.

And, I see this all coming to pass.  In the next 10 years?  Perhaps.  But given the tremendous impact and change the internet has wrought on global society, I don’t think even education can insulate itself from the changes for long.

For more, check out these other media sources.

Alan Kay on Arthur Koestler and “bisociation”.

Mimi Ito on connected learning

An excellent interview with danah boyd on On Being.

Waks, L. J. (2016). Education 2.0: The learningweb revolution and the transformation of the school. New York, NY: Routledge.


Week 5-Acceptable/Responsible Use Policies & Digital Citizenship

Our readings this week focused was on Digital citizenship, access, and policy.  A shift, but one that turned out to be fruitful in terms of getting me to think about more nuts and bolts of ICT implementation, teaching and coaching.

Digital Equity and  Access

The more I read and the more I experience as a student in this grad program, the more I believe the path to better access for students runs through teachers having direct ICT learning experiences themselves.  District and school policies, administrator attitudes and priorities, and parent fears and misconceptions all hold their various concerns and possible obstacles.  However, the critical juncture ultimately is the teacher who either understands the need for students to have connected learning experiences or does not.  For those that do understand, they do all they can to provide those experiences.  Continued support and professional learning about  is, of course, vital, given the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the internet.  However, for those “reluctant” or “traditional” teachers, their understanding needs to be developed.  With new knowledge and continued support ought to come a change in instructional behaviors.  Most teachers want to do good by their students.  But they also feel the need to be experts in their classrooms.  So if we provide teachers with their own professional learning experiences that ask them to practice the 4 C’s as learners, they will likely recognize the power of such learning experiences and want to provide the same for their students.  In so doing, students have increased, and hopefully better, access.

Digital citizenship and acceptable/responsible use policies our school

It was 2009 when last I had my own classroom.  Looking back to that time is instructive given how much has changed in the ensuing 8 years.  Our use policy was an AUP since the notion of an RUP didn’t exist yet.  Or if it did, no one at our school was privvy to the concept.  Students and parents had to sign a form acknowledging that they read, understood and would abide by its terms as well as any consequences for their breach.  Additionally, students had to pass a mandatory multiple choice quiz about the AUP’s content with a grade of 80% or better in order to gain access to the school network.  (They could take it as many times as they needed to attain the minimum score.)  But as Rethinking Acceptable Use Policies to Enable Digital Learning describes it, “[r]equiring students to sign a document indicating they will comply with the district policies may or may not mean that they understand and accept the commitment they are making.  A ‘sign off’ could be as casual and thoughtless as the way people sometimes place a check in the accept box on applications or software ‘terms and conditions.'”  The quiz was meant for students to do more than merely sign off; but looking back, I don’t think it was significantly more than that.  While the large majority of students passed the quiz on the first try, I would surmise that most of them were going for short-term cramming more than long-term understanding.  Designing an RUP and the on-boarding process around it today, I would definitely include student voice in its development and some kind of course work to deepen their understanding by applying it in real contexts.

Approaching digital citizenship in your class

Again, going back to 2009, I can see that I definitely focused on what students should not do with technology.  That included everything from using the CD drives to play advisory-labeled music, to looking at web sites they shouldn’t be on, to playing games or designing gym shoes instead of doing assignments.  (Looking back now, I should have leveraged the creative aspects of those last two examples. But what did I know?)   To be fair, though, I was also giving assignments that usually hovered around the substitution level of SAMR and occasionally at the augmentation level.  So it’s not likely they saw why doing the work on a computer necessarily mattered to their learning.  In other words, their behaviors were, in part, a sign of boredom or low relevance.  At the time, we used eChalk, which was as close to an LMS as we got in 2009.  Every student account included an email address.  So the kinds of citizenship behaviors students demonstrated on a computer were a bit more limited.  However, cell phones were another matter.  None of my students could afford smartphones, so the most distracting thing they could do with their phones during school was text friends and family.  And text they did. Sexting became an issue.  At times, fights both in and out of school, would erupt as a result of texting drama.  In one instance, we even had parents drawn into texting drama between their children come to the school midday prepared to fight each other.  Unfortunately, our reactions in the face of these events were all punitive and centered around confiscating cell phones if they were visible during the school day and then requiring parents to come to the school to pick them up.  Repeat “offenders” would get detention.

Needless to say, my approach would be very different today given all the creative, collaborative ways to use phones now.  I would certainly identify the ways students need to protect themselves if they find they are in an uncomfortable situation online.  But I would focus much more on how to support each other, protect each other, and inform adults when they are in those moments.  That’s the doing part instead of the don’t do.  It’s no different than teaching kids not to get into a stranger’s car and what to do if they’re approached by someone they don’t know.  I would also spend the vast majority of time and energy focusing on all the amazing 4-C’s ways of doing, creating with these devices.  A quote by Bryan Alexander has become a favorite of mine and it undergirds my thinking now.  “We hit on the web as a major feature of literacy and learning.  And that’s a good thing.  We didn’t identify a horrible monster.  We identified a really powerful platform for human expression and connection, with flaws, with problems.  But that’s a major stride forward for the human race.”

See also: TIE 524 Week 6: Critical Thinking & Information Literacy

Thus, to my way of thinking, we need to mediate the flaws, yes.  But we cannot let the flaws completely define how we use the web such that they impede our using it for all the great things we can do online.

Resources, tips and ideas from the week’s readings 
 This text was very useful in helping me reframe my thinking, shifting from AUP’s to RUP’s in the Web 2.0 era.  It informs much of my discussion content today.
This is a great framing question and my answer would be “No”.  The model described here where teachers have to engage in the work of citizenship themselves, not just have the work described to them by an expert lecturer is the one that, as I said above, is the path to better ICT access and 21C learning.  (And I feel sorry for the one teacher, whose last name is Snowden.  That can’t be easy right now, especially working in the [ed] tech field!)

What I liked most about this blog was not only examining ones digital footprint and how to create a positive one, but I particularly like the idea of improving one’s digital footprint. When it comes to thinking about our digital footprint, we more often focus on the tattoo aspect in that once you put something into the digital world it’s out there permanently since we can’t control what remains on, say, Google’s servers, or what other people might download and save from our posts. And that’s a lesson that any Internaut needs to understand at the deepest level. However, we can in fact scrub our identities on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. by going through and deleting elements that might not fit with the online persona we wish to present once we have a better understanding of digital citizenship. This is definitely a surface scrub given that we will never know what is saved at deeper levels of cyberspace. However appearances matter.  At least anyone who would be looking to manipulate or make judgments about us based on our digital presence would have to work harder to find that ill-considered material as opposed to simply finding it right there on our public social media feeds.



This week’s readings definitely touched on some of the policy matters surrounding the use of ed tech.  Not our usual fare in class so far.  But that shift toward the practical and legal matters was an interesting shift to get us thinking about a different perspective in regard to this work.  It was also instructive for me to compare where we were 8 years ago and how the times and tech require a rethinking about the policies we put in place and how to roll those out to teachers, parents, and of course, our students.



Week 3-Learning Management Systems and “Edupreneurship”

Processing Questions from Lucy Gray Following EdSurge & Otus Presentations

1) What do you think of EdSurge?
Image: Lucy Gray

Beyond randomly finding an article or blog post with an EdSurge URL, I’m not that familiar with the site.  Since Mary Jo Madda’s webinar appearance I’ve spent some time browsing the site.  In general, I’d say it looks like a useful clearinghouse of information.  Their Product Index is an elegantly organized resource and provides a succinct breakdown of each product.  Actual user reviews make this particularly useful through both the Case Studies and Summit Reviews.  Providing teacher voice as a professional word of mouth — an educational Yelp, if you will — takes some of the  uncertainty out of purchasing or usage decisions  for unknown, untried products.  The one area that I’m skeptical about and will need to spend more time on is the Research section.  When Pearson and AT&T Aspire logos are so prominently displayed as funders, red flags go up and the page feels rather advertorial.  Still the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation are funders as well, if one reads the mouse print.

2) Did you learn about any new tools from Mary Jo? If so, which ones?

Most of Mary Jo’s talk seemed more general and was a confirmation or reiteration of much of the research I’ve read thus far in my studies at NLU.  Mainly that in many cases, technology isn’t changing the look and feel of classrooms.  As she put it, students are still sitting at desks in forward-facing rows looking at a teacher, work is not student centered, and tech is “sprinkled” into instruction as an add-on.  She added what the research bears out, namely that this is the case with even many tech savvy teachers.  That said, she did mention a few resource I would like to explore: Global Nomads, Everfy, Remind, and particularly the 50 States Project.

3) Any other takeaways from Mary Jo’s portion of the webinar?

The two takeaways, again, weren’t anything new, but confirmation, which is always affirming.  The first of these was her articulation of the three requirements schools must meet to qualify for particular grant funding:  Total and functioning wifi infrastructure, a 5-year plan to continue funding once the grant is depleted, and a 5-year professional learning plan.  The other was her description of how schools in Houston take on new tech initiatives.  They roll it out.  This is something I am constantly wrestling with teachers about.  When we start something new, we cannot start out at 100%.  And to expect that starting at 100% is not only unreasonable, but borderline abusive.  We have to ramp up and build capacity over time when trying new things.  So when implementing a new program or piece of software, begin with a small cohort of schools (or departments or teachers) to establish a learning curve.  This is just, well, reasonable.  As is:

  1. Letting the small cohort determine or at least negotiate what is a manageable set of standards for minimum use
  2. Determine a period of time for safe practice
  3. Assess how the work is progressing
  4. Identify and acknowledge early power users that play beyond that identified minimum use
  5. Make tweaks to refine the work for continued success within the context of the particular classroom/school/district
  6. Repeat the cycle with the refinements.  
  7. Then allow the learning from that process to be leveraged by the next cohort through some kind of mentorship or guided practice from more knowledgable others who learned it first.  

(That last one sounds downright Vygotsky-and-ZPD-esque.)  

Both these takeaways are just basic and essential sustainability practices.

4) What do you think of Chris Hull’s “teachpreneur” story?
Image: Lucy Gray

I have to acknowledge a bias at this point.  The advent of the digital age and the democratization of and explosion of creativity it has facilitated all through society is an incredibly good thing.  However, I am turned off by two notions that seem to have sprung up along with this creativity, particularly in our consumerist-capitalist society.  The first is that this explosion of creativity should be monetized where it can be.  The second is that once we have discovered our creative idea, we must leverage it to become entrepreneurs, essentially leaving behind the work we were doing that led to the creative discovery in the first place.  And we should not just be entrepreneurs; but entrepreneurial “disrupters” of the status quo.  Inasmuch as this pertains to education, ours is a profession that has been beset by snake oil salespeople for decades.  So my bias is that I am highly skeptical of yet another way to sell educators on new, tech-based products, most of which are usually marketed as “the last xyz product or platform you will ever need because it does everything educators need to do in one convenient package.”  To paraphrase Chris, I am wary of the “shiny-shiny” effect of new educational technology.

That said, Chris stands out as the rarer example in that he has, so far, stayed in the classroom even as he’s entreprenant.  This gives him a bit more credibility.  His product grows out of his experiences as a working teacher and is not some corporate or academic software designer making products he thinks teachers and students need.

I do wish the webinar had been more academic and less product demo.  I would have liked to explore pertinent ideas about teaching in the digital age. Perhaps wrestling with big questions like “Why are LMS’s necessary for teaching and learning in digital age classrooms?” or “What kinds of functions and information are most important when using an LMS?” and “How can that provided information be used to improve teaching and learning?”

5) Have you ever come up with an idea related to ed tech that you might like to develop?

No. I tend to work better along the lines of finding ways to extend the use of tools others have developed beyond their intended use or to use them in innovative ways.  It’s taken 7 years of independent consulting, but I’ve learned that I am not entrepreneurial or a “teacherpreneur”.  While there are elements of being my own boss I’ve enjoyed, I’ve found I work much better as part of a single school community, with all members working towards the same mission.  I don’t think I would want to “dilute” that work.  And as I stated above, I resist this whole notion of everyone having to be an entrepreneur.  I do not like how that moniker and type of activity have been elevated as some kind of ideal we all should be shooting for no matter our profession.  It feels as if you’re not really contributing if you’re not “disrupting” or being “entrepreneurial” and making money from it.  We still need individuals who are dedicated and focused on the science and craft of education (or insert-profession-here since entrepreneurship is now applicable to any profession).

6) Check out Otus. What do you like or not like about this platform?

Otus looks to be another tool that efficiently and effectively allows teachers to see all kinds of data about their students.  It also seems to allow for quick differentiation (once lessons and assessments are created/input) in terms of what lessons and assessments are assigned to what students.  Teachers can then spend more time talking, analyzing, evaluating, and thus making decisions about next steps regarding their own performance as well as their students’.  They don’t have to spend all their time searching for data and aggregating it.

While this kind of data can be useful, it is only one kind of evidence about how well teachers are teaching and how well students are learning.  It is only one type of snapshot in an album of evidence that tells the story of student learning and growth over time.  I would like to see the tool also store and pull up actual student artifacts as easily as it does data points.  Looking at student work — not just final grades or completed assessments — and having discussions about what that work reveals about teaching and learning provides far more detailed insights into student understanding, misunderstanding and confusion than looking at scores alone.  Scores show trends.  Work products show details and nuance about the state of student growth.  Being able to quickly select and aggregate said products as easily as scores and statistics would make this platform truly unique.

Since research bears out that what teachers use technology for most is communication, student management, and administrative work, I’m wondering how disruptive Otus really is.  Perhaps if there were more functions that facilitated teachers’ use of ICT instructional tools?  (And perhaps there are, I don’t know as I’ve only just learned about Otus two days ago.)  But then again, if you try to make any one tool all things to all people, it winds up doing nothing very well.  Perhaps it is sufficient that it appears simply to be a quality tool for teachers to do what they usually do with technology.

Week 10-Frameworks for Evaluating Technology

When SAMR first crossed my path last term, it seemed an elegant way to evaluate the role of a particular technology for whether it was innovating the learning process or just being sexy.  Among many of the teachers I encounter, technology is, as Liz Kolb noted, a gimmick.  Students with iPads are being tricked into thinking they are learning while the teachers who deploy them feel cutting edge.  (Though, the kids are not being tricked.  If I had a dollar for every time I asked a student about what they were doing with a device and was met with a lethargic explanation through a smirk and some eye rolling.  Yeah, they know!)

My SAMR Experiences

SAMR has been useful in my coaching in two ways.  I look for opportunities to stretch my coachees into at least augmentation or modification.  For instance, I recently set up a discussion board in Google Groups for an ILT I work with to extend faculty conversations around learning walks beyond teachers’ physical time together.  Granted, it’s not a lot compared to what we’ve been using in our NLU course work.  But even for my teachers who want to embrace technology, it’s an ah-ha since they don’t venture too far down the GAFE paths they have available to them.  They are easily overwhelmed and quickly become anxious when asked to use features outside their workflow in programs they use everyday.  In general, they struggle with their own ability to transfer skills from a known program to a new one.

In another school I’m helping the faculty map their curriculum using Google Docs to collaboratively write their maps, collect resources, and view each other’s maps.  This is the first that they have effectively been able to visualize the curriculum as a whole.  However, teachers have struggled to find enough time to meet to work collaboratively on course team maps.  CPS’s turning PD days into furlough days has only exacerbated the issue.  While many see the value of the project, they are tired of fighting to carve out tiny parcels of time to meet and do the work.  So just last week I proposed they stop trying to meet face-to-face as it was less necessary than they thought given the powerful collaboration tools that already exist in Google Docs if only they would use them.

Part of a concept map to show teachers how to use Google Docs more remotely and collaboratively; Image Source: D. van Dyke
An enthusiastic teacher’s Google Groups discussion thread; Image source: D. van Dyke


In my instructional work I’ve brought SAMR to planning meetings and coached teachers through using the framework to analyze and evaluate their current technology.  Many are surprised to see that they’re operating mostly at the substitution level with occasional dips into augmentation.   We all get excited when the conversation then turns creative and the teacher starts visualizing ways to redesign a lesson such that those iPads or Chromebooks are being used for modification or redefinition.

Frameworks From Heaven

SAMR was an epiphany when I first encountered it.  But having these other analytical and evaluative tools for ICT integration feels like revelation.

TPACK, 3E, TIM are all new to me and I can see each having its place.  3E and SAMR seem more entry-level frameworks for teachers just starting to wrestle with ICT integration.  They are relatively simple and straightforward.  Given their complexity, however, TPACK and TIM seem to be for more sophisticated evaluation of technology deployment.  The pedagogue in me appreciates how TPACK operates from the interplay among multiple domains and context.  TPACK acknowledges the complexity and locality of teaching and learning and demands that the teacher does as well.

Different visualizations of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

TIM reminded me less of a rubric than of a continuum of skill development like something along the lines of a practitioner model of professional growth such as the Dreyfus model.  Such models allow practitioners to position themselves on the continuum with the skill sets they currently possess.  This creates an evaluative environment, but with less judgment and critique since the model honors practitioners at their current level of experience.  It also suggests that their place in the model is dynamic.  The longer they practice the more skills or “tools” they acquire.   As they grow in experience they travel along the continuum.  Such implicit messaging can be powerful for teachers working to improve their practice.  There is an implied level of safety which is an important motivator for growth.

Kids are savvy enough to know when an iPad or laptop activity is engaging them cognitively or when it is just a glorified textbook.  We’re not pulling anything over on them by simply putting a device in their hands.  These frameworks are great tools to level up our “teaching with tech” game.  They not only foster teacher reflection about how effectively they teach with technology, but having multiple frameworks allows us to differentiate for the sophistication of the teacher using them.

For Further Reading
The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition - Stuart Dreyfus


Week 7-Gamification

When it comes to game theory, I have had only a passing, skeptical interested.  But my recent studies have started me thinking about gamification from a different perspective.  So that is my selected adventure this week.

The quick Answer to One Framing Question

The week’s framing questions for the topic were provocative.  Do I think we need to gamify our classrooms to engage students?  This one I can answer quickly.  No.  There are many ways for creative teachers to draw students into learning without having to sexy it up with a video game interface.   That “no” is even firmer if it means that gaming is the only way we conduct instruction since no teacher can be successful with only one method or strategy in their toolbox.

Do I think gamificaion is bribery and the way students learn in the 21st century?  As a result of my course work last term and my readings and explorations this week, those answers are now more complex.  As I said, the idea of gamification has been, at best, at the edges of my professional interests.  When thinking about my own gaming experiences my gut tells me there is something there that I “get” as it applies to learning and I have trusted that academics have teased out all the theory for those teachers who want to traverse that route in their classrooms.   But this grown up, serious teacher never pursued deep research into game theory because I was fine with my practice as it was, thank you very much!  But last term was a watershed for me when it comes to thinking about the conditions that provide powerful learning experiences.  The course of study Dr. Angela Elkordy put together for Intro to the Learning Sciences required us to think deeply about our own learning in every conceivable context (documentation of which is posted on this blog under the NLU Class Journal Entries tab above).  Examining my own informal, collaborative, digital, self-directed, just-in-time, playful learning experiences caused me to realize the potency of learning in these other-than-formal contexts.  Those reflections have led me to re-evaluate some core beliefs about teaching and learning — for both students in the classroom and teachers in professional learning.  That re-evaluation has ramifications for my thinking about game theory.

Constructivism and Game Theory
My niece learning to code on her mom’s phone by playing Lightbot (and then teaching me!) Source: D. van Dyke

I’ve always believed that teachers needed to be more facilitators of exploration than dispensers of information.  I am a constructivist.  So my instruction — be it with children or adults — is designed accordingly.  My lessons are always written for the specific learning needs of the students in front of me.  Pacing is a dance with students’ zones of proximal development.  Formative assessment is central for two-way feedback, metacognition, and reflection for both students and myself that then determine my next planning steps.  With the growth of digital technology and mobile tech particularly, it makes sense to leverage these to push the boundaries of constructivism even farther.  Additionally, I see clear connections now between constructivist methods and the way games work for those who play them.

Any-time, just-in-time, exploratory learning all cement learning in long-term memory.   As a result of Dr. Elkordy’s strategies with us, I experienced first hand how learning new content through learning a new app permanently inks that neural tattoo on the brain.  Almost weekly I learned a new app of my choosing by exploring it, playing in it, and not from a formal training course or a user’s manual.  Then I applied my understanding of the app to demonstrate my understanding of the course content.  All of this was done informally, in my time, with just enough difficulty to challenge me.   Except now I don’t only understand the content.  By learning content through the use of a digital tool, I now understand so much more than just the content itself.  Not the least of which is that the learning I structure myself is highly enjoyable and more often than not elicits flow and the consolidation of understanding in long-term memory.  These are the learning conditions I want to create for my students and teachers.

A More Complicated Answer to the Other Framing Questions

As to the questions of gamifying education as bribery and being particularly suited to 21st century learners, I believe it is neither.  The way humans learn best is the way humans learn best whether they are of the 11th century or 21st century.  What is different about the 21st century is our knowledge of how the brain functions; the advent of technologies that allow us to align our pedagogy to our neurology, psychology, sociology; and the economic imperative that we change the way we do school.  In as much as game theory and educational psychology share underlying elements, I can accept gamification as a methodology.  Though does it always need to be so literal as turning the learning process into an actual game?  Especially since doing so requires an incredible investment of time and effort to convert a unit of study into a game that will create the conditions necessary for deep understanding to occur.  So I have generated a few key questions that could help guide decision-making when thoughts turn to gamification:

  • What are the concepts from game theory that are applicable to a given unit of instruction?  A given set of students?  Under what circumstances might it be useful to apply those concepts to improve teaching and learning?
  • When teachers decide to convert a unit into an actual game, what online platforms are available to facilitate the implementation and that can quickly and easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
  • When teachers want or have to make the game themselves, how can they create elegant games that don’t require disproportionate amounts of time to construct and relatively easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
How can we make certain gamifying efforts result in students learning the intended content and not just playing the game?
Video: Heck Awesome blog, Carrie Baughcum

Still, informal learning, unstructured learning, choice, and play are powerful contexts in which deep understanding can occur.  These modes are, as Willis calls them, “neuro-logical”.  It makes sense to create them when possible since they activate optimal learning pathways in the brain and foster new, strong synaptic connections.  Well-designed games create these conditions and leverage the same brain processes for learning.  Thus, including high-quality game-based instruction could be a powerful method for teaching and learning.

Gamifying Professional Learning

What was already a paucity of professional learning time in CPS has been completely eliminated this year as a partial “solution” to the budget travesty being visited upon CPS teachers and students.  As a result, I have started leveraging ICT options that are included with GAFE to continue our professional learning despite losing our PD calendar.  Via Groups and Sites, we continue the work asynchronously by holding discussions of professional readings, presenting aggregated learning walk evidence and sharing thoughts and insights about them.  We have already moved quite a bit of planning to remote, synchronous spacetime via Hangouts and Drive.  So the idea of gamifying professional learning is just an extension of this.  Taking PD into the realm of gaming would have the combined benefits of making PD more relevant by providing teachers with differentiation, choice, and timing.  I have also started researching adding digital badges to the work which I find terribly exciting!  On my goal list for next year:  implementing a badged, gamified professional learning series for the schools with which I work.

Digital badges for both student and teachers.  Video: HASTAC

Below are three game-based PD ideas I’m totally stealing from our readings this week:

Fired Up For February — Gamifying professional learning; Source: Unified School District of De Pere, WI


A Language Geek’s Rhetorical Finish

Even as I find myself being convinced of the benefits of game theory as instructional practice, there is still something that doesn’t sitting well when I hear phrases like “gamifying the classroom”.  If you’ll indulge the English teacher unpacking language here.  A game is a diversion or something trivial.  Something that can be taken less seriously.  Even in the multi-billion dollar world of professional sports, the expression, “It’s only a game.” is used to readjust perspectives when emotions are high.  Yet the very project at hand for education is de-trivializing digital instruction among reluctant educators.  So while I can see the underlying value and power of this way of “doing” teaching and learning, I wonder if framing it as “gamification” works against us.  I don’t have an answer as yet for what to call such a complex process.  Maybe a few rounds of Words With Friends will do the trick!