Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Flip the staff meeting

Now that classrooms are being flipped all over the world it's maybe time to see how we can flip other practices at work. Take the average departmental meeting. Most of these meetings are taken up with monologues where the manager or sometimes another staff member simply presents information. Since the supposed aim of a meeting is to discuss it's surprising how little time is spent actually doing that and how much time is devoted to one way communication.

Steven Anderson has written about this in a post called Flipping ... It's not just for the classroom. He proposes prerecording the information element of the meeting and letting members see it before the meeting, thus freeing up meeting time to discussion and decision. He offers several suggestions of tools that can be used to distribute information in advance of a meeting and even starting the discussion in advance. Tools like Google Docs, Edmodo, Jing, Screencast-o-matic and VoiceThread can be used to present the facts and start an asynchronous discussion so that when we actually do meet we can discuss the issues with a better understanding.

"No matter what you use, try it! See what you and your staff can do with that extra time if you share that information digitally and reserve that faculty meeting time for faculty learning time. Try the Faculty Flip!"

It's difficult to have a meaningful discussion when you've only just been given the information. Many people need time to digest that information before voicing an opinion. In many meetings only the most vociferous staff members are heard. By flipping the meeting you ensure that everyone has had time to consider the facts and hopefully a more informed and less spontaneous dicusssion can take place. 

Worth trying at least.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Looking over the fence

Looking Over The Fence by born1945, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  born1945

I read so many articles and reports on issues around the integration of technology in education and nearly every one singles out professional development for teachers (or the lack of it) as the key issue. It's not enough to just hope that teachers keep up to date with the latest pedagogical theories and the latest trends in educational technology. This has been the general policy for many years and the result is a widening digital gap between teachers who are already using technology in innovative ways and those who simply haven't even investigated the qyestion at all. It's not enough either to offer the occasional training day in the hope of inspiring action. There needs to be a coherent strategy for professional development for all teachers to ensure that they are all able to take advantage of new methods and tools in a pedagogical way.

This is the theme of an excellent post by Tom WhitbyHow do educators get to know what they don’t know?. He remarks that professional development (PD) needs to be radically rethought, needs investment and needs support. It must be seen as simply an integral part of the job and time must be allotted for discovery, testing, collaboration and discussion. Teachers need time to look over the fence at what's going on outside the classroom.

"We need to change PD. It must be part of an educator’s work week, and that includes administrators. We need educators to connect with other educators to collaborate and maintain relevance. Educators need to explore their needs and address them with solutions of their choosing after exploring the options. Faculty meetings can address procedures in shared documents with educators, while using the time in meetings to discuss pedagogy, methodology, best practices and new ideas. Educators need to be supported in trying new endeavors. When we address PD as evolving and continuous, and not as a teacher workshop day, we will begin to bring relevance back to education. Schools that do this now will be the first to tell us this. Of course, we need to connect with them for that to happen. Connecting educators is a first step."

It is of course important that technology meets the needs of teachers. But needs are generally based on past practices and if a teacher is happy using tried and tested methods then there are no needs that technology can meet. However there are often new opportunities available to enhance teaching and learning that the individual teacher has not even dreamt of. If we simply based all development on meeting present needs we would never have invented television, cars, computers, mobiles etc etc. No-one actually needed those things. We were all perfectly happy with horses, radio, landline phones and so on.

We need to develop a learning environment at work where people are encouraged to look over the fence and see what is happening in the world outside. New technologies and methods should be met with curiosity instead of being dismissed offhand. "What if ..." instead of "Yes but ...". Words like curiosity, innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity are often used in schools' and universities' glossy strategy documents but the hard part is creating a climate for such qualities.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


CC BY Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
It's a true sign that you have become famous when your name gets used to describe a process. That's what's happened to Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, one of the most successful online learning sites  of the last few years. Today the site offers thousands of short and clear videos explaining all the concepts used in high school maths, physics, chemistry and biology with an in-built self-test framework that enables you to move up levels and gain rewards. It's the prime motor behind the flipped classroom concept and has won considerable media interest worldwide.

Will Richardson writes about The "Khanification" of education where non-teachers like Salman Khan are taking the lead in offering online education. He wonders that if non-teachers can have this kind of impact then what is the role of the trained teacher? The challenge of khanification is that the trained teacher's role has to be reassessed and redefined and that such a discussion is very timely.

"In many ways, I’ve been pushed by Sal Khan’s lack of teaching experience more than by his videos. But now this growing acceptance of non-teachers as teachers of content and skills (and, in some cases, better teachers of content and skills) poses an ever greater challenge for us to redefine the profession. And it circles back around to that question that I pose in the book: what is our value as classroom teachers in a world suddenly filled with teachers?"

There's an important distinction here; between instruction and teaching. As Tony Bates pointed out recently (My summer paranoia: computers will replace teachers in higher education), instruction is easily automated/recorded whereas teaching is a pedagogical process that requires human contact and interaction. Both sides are needed in education but maybe we need different types of educators: the experts and enthusiasts who are good at instruction and the teachers who provide the context, guidance, mentorship, depth and discussion. Teachers have so far been expected to do both tasks but maybe we're seeing a new division of labour. The teacher is not being replaced by a computer but the computer is helping to make the difference between teaching and instruction clearer.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Teacher as entrepreneur

While most of the xMOOC interest is focused around the big league players like MIT, Stanford, Harvard and friends, another looser model is flourishing. Udemy started in 2010 and today offers around 5000 courses from a very wide range of teachers and enthusiasts. The difference here is that whereas the xMOOC players (edX, Coursera, Udacity) offer university approved courses, Udemy allows anyone to upload their own course and offer it on their virtual  marketplace. Some courses are free but many have a fee, though generally very low. It's up to the course creator to set the price and size of the course.

Udemy have now launched a new course publishing platform as described in an article in TechCrunchUdemy Rolls Out New Publishing Platform To Help Teachers Create Quality Online Courses, This provides you with a step-by-step guide and read-to-use templates that enable you to design and launch your own course site. You decide whether your course is going to be free or fee-paying, how open it is, what language it uses and other parameters. Then you are guided through curriculum design and how to add your content (text, photos, diagrams, videos etc). Once the course is ready you can then add it to Udemy's catalogue and start marketing it. Udemy even offer its teachers a  closed Facebook group, The Udemy Faculty Lounge, for discussions and help. The video below gives a short introduction to how the publishing platform works.

The fee-paying aspect makes distinguishes Udemy from the major xMOOC players but it's a voluntary issue and teachers decide themselves what price to set, if any. However if your course attracts thousands of learners, that modest fee can amount to a nice little earner. In an interview with Udemy co-founder Eren BaliQ&A: Every Expert Will Teach Online In 10 Years:

"... we believe strongly in a sustainable model in which instructors are rewarded and able to earn an income from the amazingly in-depth courses & learning content they deliver. Our top 10 instructors earned over $1.6 million in their first 12 months on Udemy and I hope we’ll go on to enable many more instructors to earn a living teaching on Udemy."

This enables the individual teacher or enthusiast to offer a course that is not part of an institutional portfolio and the opportunity to earn some money from it. It could also enable smaller institutions to offer massive courses for small fees and still earn enough to cover costs to some extent. This is not going to revolutionize learning or threaten the formal system but it offers another pathway to learning and widens the scope of informal learning.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Learning as a process

Scally Wag - One small step for Callum. by myDefinition, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  myDefinition

In gaming you generally get rewards for taking small steps forward. Rewards come thick and fast when you're on the lowest levels (I have extensive experience in that area) and those small symbols of encouragement help you to push on towards the serious levels of the game. If you make a mistake your character automatically gets a new life and you just keep trying till you succeed. Regular rewards and the ability to practice over and over again until you get it right mean that most players will get many hours of pleasure out of the game and will be highly motivated to buy the follow-up game that will undoubtedly appear within a year.

This is a subject discussed in a new article by Justin Marquis, Teaching Students to Fail Their Way to Success. In education the emphasis is more on the end result (exam, test, assessment) than the process and the stakes are high. A failure doesn't automatically give you a new life and can often lead to the pupil/student giving up the course completely.

"With a focus on testing, competencies, and teacher accountability in education, the focus is taken off of playing the game (learning) and put on finishing it (outcomes). While standards, standardized tests, or marketable skills (in higher education), are part of our educational reality, they do not need to be the focus of your teaching. Whenever possible, given the constraints of a schedule, give students the opportunity to work at their own pace towards clear learning objectives."

Failure is part of the learning process; you'll never learn to skate without falling over a lot. In gaming failure is treated as a natural element and each failure can lead to success next time. That element keeps us involved and small "failures" are motivators to try again rather than demotivators. The key in education is to focus on the process of learning rather than the result of it.

"We live in a connected world where "knowing" something is much less important than knowing how to find information and apply it. Part of that process is understanding how to respond to failure when things don’t work out. Adjusting your instructional objectives to help students understand that learning is a process of which failure is a key ingredient will help them to be successful when there are no more tests to take and failure is not an option."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

From flipping to empowerment

CC BY Some rights reserved by MillionaireAt19
The flipped classroom has been one of the main educational trends of the past year or so. The idea is to move the input sessions to net-based videos that can be watched at home and spend class time on discussion, practice and feedback. Teachers can either record their lectures and demonstrations or use other teacher's material that is available as open educational resources. It means that class time is used for real contact between students and teacher and not for one-way communication.

However an excellent article by Shelley WrightThe Flip: End of a Love Affair, takes the flipped classroom several steps further. Just flipping the classroom is only the beginning of a process. It's still a traditional model where the lecture still dominates even if there's more flexibility. Shelley wanted to teach the students to learn for themselves and noticed that as they became more confident they didn't need to be given videos to watch at home, they started finding material for themselves. The flipped classroom evaporated and became the empowered classroom.

"As this new way of learning played out over time, my students found they didn’t need me to locate or create videos for them. Instead, they learned how to learn, and they were able to find their own resources. For me, this was a much more important skill than following my directions or using the resources I told them to use. As this shift occurred, the flip simply disappeared from our classroom. It took almost a year for me to notice it was gone. Instead, our classroom had become a place where students discovered and shared their own resources, while engaging in projects with each other. There was no need for me to assign video homework or create portable lectures. It all happened during class."

The students had assignments to carry out but were empowered to choose the route and the tools for themselves with the teacher as a constant facilitator and advisor. Interestingly they were also enthusiastic to combine digital with traditional media. Some used textbooks, others digital resources. Some designed web resources whereas others built physical models in the classroom. Most combined all forms. We learn in different ways at different times and using different media. Digital and analogue thrive together and so it must be. Using technology in education is not about replacing; it's about adding new dimensions, new methods and new combinations. So the flipped classroom eventually evaporates and you have empowered students who have learnt how to learn. Surely that is the objective of all education.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Getting a degree used to be a passport to a well-paid job but not any more. When well over half of all school leavers go to university a college degree is anything but exclusive. Furthermore students all over the world are putting themselves in serious debt to pay for this not so exclusive commodity. Employers are less and less impressed by degrees and increasingly interested in soft skills like creativity, teamwork, initiative and grit (as mentioned in my last post). Many students do not feel that traditional educational institutions foster these soft skills and prefer to drop out and go their own way.

One such student is Dale Stephens, featured in an article in the Dutch web magazine SURF (September 2012). He represents the concept of uncollege, a variant on the unschooling model, where you take charge of your own learning and development but in collaboration with peers both in your neighbourhood but mostly on the net. He has founded the site Uncollege which features advice on alternative educational paths, networking skills, reading lists and the chance to join the Uncollege Hackademic Camp in January 2013.

Stephens isn't against universities and schools and isn't planning a revolution. He simply wants to show that there are other roads to a fulfilling career than via your nearest university. Those who don't fit into the often narrow path of higher education need relevant new alternatives. Maybe universities can reinvent themselves to create learning environments more tuned to fostering creativity and entrepreneurship.

"Colleges should provide access to opportunities. My ideal college looks like a gym – it’s not something you drop out of, but rather a physical space you drop into. you go there when you want to learn something, you can take out a subscription to use a laboratory, you can meet your professor, who acts as a life coach and points you in the right direction. ideally, universities should provide directories of people with similar interests, they should focus on forming communities of students around topics. in short: they should serve the student as a user."

Here's a TEDx presentation by Stephens from last year.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

When the going gets tough

Determined by Dvortygirl, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Dvortygirl

Although I firmly believe that learning can be fun and that elements such as gaming and collaboration are an integral part of 21st century education there is still a lot of hard grind involved in mastering new knowledge and skills. No matter how many interactive tools we use and how much innovative pedagogy we apply you're still going to need to sit for endless hours practising and perfecting. Learning a language, for example, needs hundreds of hours of hard graft to get those words. phrases, sounds and patterns into your head until they become instinctive. Same goes for music, maths, physics, chemistry and pretty well every subject you can name. There are no easy short-cuts to mastery and although there will be many moments of pleasure and discovery there'll still be months and maybe years of hard grind. New technologies can stimulate us to learn and can facilitate more effective learning but the hard work still remains.

In education we love to measure and assess skills but we focus on the skills that are easiest to measure (fact-based memory checks, ability to write in a given framework) and leave many non-cognitive skills untouched. An article in Mind/ShiftHow Important is Grit in Student Achievement?, raises one such skill, namely grit. The article focuses on research by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania into how to assess grit which she defines as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” Grit is that determination to keep battling even when you don't fully understand or see where the battle is leading you. It's a quality that some have and some lack and is not always related to intellectual ability. Many highly intelligent people lack this determination whilst many less gifted individuals succeed because they work very hard and never give up.

"But intelligence leaves a lot unexplained. There are smart people who aren’t high achievers, and there are people who achieve a lot without having the highest test scores. In one study, Duckworth found that smarter students actually had less grit than their peers who scored lower on an intelligence test. This finding suggests that, among the study participants — all students at an Ivy League school — people who are not as bright as their peers “compensate by working harder and with more determination.” And their effort pays off: The grittiest students — not the smartest ones — had the highest GPAs."

Not all people have this quality and even those who do exhibit it in different settings. Someone can show incredible dedication and perseverance in one activity but can give up easily in another. A classic example of this are those who show total commitment to their sporting ambitions but the complete opposite attitude to academic activities. The challenge is to find out how to inspire grit in education. As Duckworth puts it in the article:

“Which experiences do we give kids to get them in the direction of more grit and not less?”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Publish your own interactive e-book

Publishing has never been easier. Instead of being tied to pre-set textbooks many teachers are writing the course literature themselves and then publishing it for free and in many cases making it available for reuse, adaptation or translation. Last weekend (28 - 30 September) there was the much-publicized online collaboration project between a group of Finnish teachers to write a new school mathematics text book (see article in EdudemicFinnish Teachers Are Writing An Entire Math Textbook This Weekend). This type of production highlights the power of social media in education where virtual teams of teachers and students can produce a new book without needing to meet in person. Of course they must have had plenty of material and ideas up their sleeves but the process must have been inspiring. More will undoubtedly follow.

The Finnish group wrote their e-book using open source software that requires programming skills but for less technically interested teachers there are plenty of simple tools available. Apple's free iBook authoring tool is one such tool and I'd like to recommend an excellent step by step guide to writing an interactive e-book by Shawn OzbunCreate an interactive eBook for the iPad using iBook Author: THE COMPLETE GUIDE. The authoring tool is pretty locked into Apple's walled garden of course but it is remarkably easy to produce very attractive professional ebooks by following the templates and pulling in the resources you wish to use (assuming of course you have the rights to use them). have a look at the introduction film below and then go to the full guide.

Another authoring tool that works on all platforms is Widbook. More basic than iBooks but highly practical. All you need to do is write the book!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncomfortable truths

Open space office by jepoirrier, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jepoirrier

I've just read an article about how often behavioural research is disregarded because it clashes with ingrained traditions and beliefs. The article is in Swedish (Det är dags att tänka på hjärnan - Dagens Nyheter) but you can always try it via Google Translate. It features a researcher called Katarina Gospic and she lists examples of where brain research has produced uncomfortable truths that we prefer not to deal with.

One such uncomfortable truth is the fact that open-plan offices do not make people more creative. Research clearly shows that people do not work effectively in such environments since we need to use the most creative part of our brains to block out the surrounding noise and distractions. But, despite all research results, the open-plan office still dominates, in many cases with ever-shrinking square metres for each employee. Basically, the financial incentives to maximise the use of office space outweighs the research results.

Gospic also points to research showing that large financial bonuses have virtually no motivational effect on people who already earn high salaries. Bonuses can, however, have a postive effect on low wage earners. Once again these results have had little or no effect on business practice. Money talks.

It seems that although we like to believe that we rationally base our decisions on the latest research, if that research clashes with tradition or financial expediency then we conveniently disregard it. There is plenty of research into how learning is a social process, that we learn best in practical and real-life situations and that few people learn simply by listening and memorizing. However this clashes with fundamental beliefs in education (ie schools as institutions, lecturing, classrooms, age-group segregation etc) that are not only deeply ingrained in society but also are very cost-effective structures for mass-education. Changing the system may cost a lot of money and involve a major rethink of many of the central structures in society. Maybe best to simply keep Pandora's box firmly shut.