Category Archives: Education

Instructional Design Rules to Break

The world of instructional design is overrun with endless rules. Many rules are steeped in years of research and driven by appropriate learning theory. However, we think there are some rules that are OK to be bent, twisted, or broken to fit specific needs. There’s an old saying that in order to break the rules, you need to know them. In this series, we are going to take some long-lived rules of Instructional Design and discuss the when and how to break them. Agree or disagree? Let us know!

Rule #1: “Avoid Direct Instruction

Direct Instruction (DI), is the explicit teaching of a skill-set using lectures or demonstrations of the material, rather than exploratory models such as inquiry-based learning (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Direct_instruction&oldid=526504905). Think of the last “training class” you sat thru while a droning facilitator dumped data from a seemingly endless PowerPoint deck. Many Instructional Designers try to avoid DI at all costs because it’s seen as old-fashioned, ineffective and didactic. Exploratory learning came along in reaction to the DI “sage on the stage” model, and has been overused to such an extent that many see it as the only way to design effective instruction. However, by rejecting DI because of assuming its leading to a poor design, we lose out on its distinct advantages.

Research tells us that learners must construct their own understanding in order to truly learn. In the real world, learners working through exploratory models often go down rabbit holes, learning valuable information and skills, but ones that may not be relevant to the task at hand. Exploratory learning is critically important when you want learners to be invested in the topic and when skills are more important than fact. But for learning data and facts, DI cannot be beat.

DI can save time and effectively transmit data, facts and procedures. We’re not arguing that DI should be used exclusively. Many learning organizations use DI exclusively (and, in our opinion, ineffectively) in the form of PowerPoint-style data dumps with little interactivity. A better model is to create an exercise that encourages the learner to explore a relevant case study, view targeted direct instruction related to the case, conduct problem-solving and reflective group work, and then finally prepare a presentation or teach-back to their peers. Don’t think you have to avoid DI at all costs, just be sure to integrate it effectively with interactive activities and exercises.

This series is co-written with Total Learner. Check back for the next rule to break: Get Buy-in From All Your Stakeholders.

Too Many Apps

It’s only been four years since the Apple app store was launched, but there are over a half million apps available. In addition there are also all the apps that are embedded in websites and in Google’s store. How do we possibly focus on getting our key tasks done while being told that we need to try this or that new life-changing app? Here are some techniques that I’ve been using to good effect:

Reading Headlines
I don’t read every blog and article the moment it comes out. If I read tech blogs everyday I’d get whiplash. Every new app and tech company is going to change the world. Except they don’t. I wait for the hue and cry to die down and let others weed out the technologies that won’t last. I resist the need to try every last fix-all solution by remembering my History of Ed Tech professor showing us the lantern slide, blackboard, tape player, TV, etc that was going to change the education world and bring in a golden age of human development.
Asking Questions
When a technological break-through lasts long enough to make it worthwhile to invest, I ask friends who I respect what the educational applications are, what the limitations are, and what’s the likelihood that it’s going to be around for a while. Even if there is no cash cost for using a tool, the time and energy that a user spends learning the tool has a price and that becomes a complete loss if the app is going to be absorbed or cut (e.g. Google Wave).
Rejecting Tools (even popular/useful ones)
There are some services that I don’t I need. Spotify is probably great, but I haven’t been convinced that it will add value to my life. I like music, but I’m not an audiophile. I often want it to provide background to other productivity. I mostly don’t want it to bother me. I’ve collected a pretty good iTunes library and I’ve curated some pretty great Pandora stations. I know that Spotify probably is great, but I’m cheap– I don’t want to add another subscription to get the features that really set it apart from competitors. I also want to minimize the amount of time that I spend taking care of my technology– each app that we install means another tool with its own updates, subscriptions to manage, privacy to consider. When we adopt and adopt again we’re devoting more of our time to means not the ends. I’ve got 3-4 ways to listen to music I like already, I’m not sure that I need to add another.
Following Instincts
Sometimes a new app just seems great, a no brainer. If it’s appealing, easy to use, with a clear educational component– then yes, I use it– hello Bitstrips.com. I don’t reject apps just because they’re new. I’m not a crazy luddite. I hope that I am merely a thoughtful luddite. Following my instincts has made me reject any locator type program like foursquare as creepy and unneeded even before I read articles like this.
Investigating on Need
I figure out what I need to do before searching out the app. I don’t find an app and try to shoehorn it into a curriculum or task just to say that I used something new. Using this method we’ve found apps to calculate percentage change, to create secure passwords and teach students how to use javascript.

One technique that has proven invaluable for me is accepting that I can’t stay abreast of every innovation. I shift the focus back from the shininess on the web, and back to the reality of what I really want to do and accomplish. Freeing myself from being an early adopter has definitely reduced my anxiety about what I am missing.

Unplug the Games: The value of human to human play

This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.

Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood  journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.

Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:

  1. An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
  2. Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
  3. Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
  4. Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.

Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.

Education Online

Just a month ago our sleepy college town was rocked by the announcement that the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, was unexpectedly resigning. The intervening weeks saw vigils, rallies and protests and eventually the reinstatement of Sullivan. Conspiracy theories about the business school, wealthy donors and even Sullivan’s weight abounded, but despite the secrecy that cloaked the Board of Visitors’ (UVa’s governing body) actions, one undeniable theme was the desire to move quicker to implementing online courses. Responding to the brouhaha, Jordan Weissman presents a cogent argument about why online courses will not suddenly replace the traditional “brick and mortar” experience. The comments section includes vigorous discussion about the comparative values of both. The comments illuminate the wide range of current philosophies about college and education, and several discuss how introductory college courses could transition from face to face to online formats similar to the Khan Academy curriculum — which consists of online, video-based tutorials and short courses.

I’m not a huge fan of Khan Academy. I recognize its incredible value and what a remarkable resource it is. My problem is that it should be viewed as a tool in our teaching and learning repertoire, but instead it’s positioned as the savior of a broken educational system. Show me the students who feel Khan Academy unlocks their inspiration and stirs their passion for a subject. The most enthusiastic recommendations for Khan Academy are from students using the videos and practice to pass a standardized test in a subject in which they are struggling.

I’m passionate about the word and concept of education. I feel deeply responsible for “leading out” the best qualities of students. The typical format of many online classes is simply a data dump of facts. If that is the purpose of our colleges and universities, then online classes would be completely appropriate. However, if our goal is to create an informed and thinking citizenry (which I am beginning to think is NOT the goal of many of our institutions), it is a mistake to use instructor-led lecture followed by multiple choice standardized tests to assess knowledge acquisition.

It’s certainly possible for face to face instruction to have the same shortcomings as what I’ve ascribed to online learning. However, facilitating and creating quality online curricula is even more challenging than teaching face to face. In the classroom the teacher and students can interact in a synchronous exchange of ideas full of facial and body cues, aiding full discussions. Trying to emulate that online is challenging and time-consuming. When I taught online, I spent a great deal of time writing personalized comments and rebuttals, seeking to engage students and encourage them to revisit their quickly scribed reaction papers. Much of the time was spent developing a personal connection with each student — much easier in the real world with eye contact, a smile or a quick chuckle together. Once that critical relationship of trust was established, my constructive critiques and guidance were much better received. My students got much more out of this than having a series of multiple choice tests, or writing responses that disappeared into the ether, but these kinds of interactions require a small teacher:student ratio, committed teachers, and commiserate pay.

While the Sullivan/UVa turmoil was deeply personal for me, there are broader implications for our educational systems, our cultural institutions and even our society. When Sullivan’s resignation was first announced, “philosophical differences” between her and the Board were cited. Although that justification was decried as insufficient, I believe that no truer words were spoken. I fear that much of the push for online classes is in service of corporate concepts like “efficiency” and “return on investment (ROI)”. I fear a time when education is only valued for quantifiable returns, and contemplation, reflection and the study of the deeper arts of the human existence are abandoned for the sake of memorization of quick facts and software tools. There is no question that there are real economic concerns related to tuition costs and the ability for college graduates to find meaningful, remunerative work, but the economy and money are not the only factors that drive our society. We will inevitably embrace online learning, but we owe it to ourselves to be thoughtful in our implementation and create opportunities beyond rote memorization.

A Legacy of Education

My dad died two months ago. Since then, I have been reflecting about transition and my own life purpose. When considering my father’s influence on my life, I came to realize what an impact he had on my life as an educator.

My dad encouraged independence in deed and in thought. He  exposed me to radical thinkers and authors. He demanded that I question “facts” that the news presented and he encouraged me to see alternate views and sources, not to simply accept prevailing thought or opinion.

My dad was a dedicated peace activist and fought for equity and justice. He taught me that the powerful were just people– and that it was okay to question them.

My dad’s work on civil rights and his housing refugees exposed me to cultures and conditions that many of my peers never saw. Simply living life with people who were outwardly different than me, made me realize that they too were people as well, having the same wants and desires as all of us.

My dad and I both received our Master’s from the Curry School of Education, even sharing a professor. While we didn’t often sit down to formally discuss pedagogy or educational philosophy, his opinions and actions left a firm imprint in me and how I view education. I learned to question the mores of the educational system and to reject the assumptions that it might make about learners.

My dad educated me by questioning and challenging me. It wasn’t always comfortable to defend my assumptions, but it taught me to stand by decisions and opinions that I felt were right, and to yield when shown to be wrong. I too have a reputation for direct talk and questioning. I now see it as a sign of respect to treat an individual as a person worthy of serious debate, no matter their age or status.

Bob Covert, the professor who Dad and I shared, hammered into his students the importance of acknowledging their own biases and histories as they taught and researched. What are your stories? Who influenced you to teach? What are the underpinnings to your own educational philosophy?

An introductory Tom Joseph reading list:

Skills, not Content at the DML Badges Competition

Earlier this month we were lucky to get to share portions of the Computers4Kids curriculum at the Digital Media and Learning Badges competition. As I’ve mentioned, C4K didn’t win the money prize, but we were thrilled to be included. C4K offers training, one-on-one mentoring and college and career transition guidance to low-income youth in 7th-12th grades. With the exception of training, which has a clearly defined set of objectives, the C4K curriculum provides an intensely individualized program which accommodates the needs and interests of both our students, and our volunteer mentors. The challenge has been to provide a meaningful measure of what our students are achieving.

The DML Badges Competition asked organizations to create badge systems that validate out of school learning. We chose to present the college and career transition aspect of our program, Teen Tech. When students come to Teen Tech they focus on academic, job readiness, technology and/or service projects. As they attend over their high school years, their interests and needs change depending on school or family obligations, their age or other extra-curricular activities. Teen Tech’s curriculum needs to be flexible to accommodate our students’ changing priorities, however, our metrics need to capture what the students are learning so we can monitor their progress, uncover their challenges, and review the data to inform how we evolve the curriculum.

In this situation we can’t focus our measures on what content is being learned. On any given day, 10 students may be in the lab, working on such diverse tasks as Trig homework, mixing a new song, writing an English essay, practicing Photoshop in preparation to teaching a workshop.

All of this is why we do focus on broader, recognizable and valued skills. We work with students to fit their work into one of 5 learning domains and then map them onto ISTE-NETS for students. The table below demonstrates that alignment for some sample activities.

Badge Tasks Selected Skills (ISTE-NETS)
Plan -Identify tasks and final goal
-Create timeline
-Adjust  plan to reflect feedback from critique
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
(Use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.)
Learn & Apply -Identify and Perform 15 new technology skills in Adobe Dreamweaver Technology Operations and Concepts (Demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems and operations.)
Create -Create, assemble and organize all components of your website, including images Creativity and Innovation (Demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology
Reflect & Revise -Perform self-evaluation before formal critique
-Participate in formal critique
-Revise products according to feedback received
-Write final summary of the project
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making 
Present -Upload website
-Advertise it via social media
Communication and Collaboration

I think this kind of thought, investigation and analysis is what sets Computers4Kids apart and why the DML Badges Competition judges selected us out of a pool of 500 teams submitting content and frameworks. Multiple people have asked, how could they award such large institutions like Disney-Pixar, Microsoft and Intel in a competition intended for small non-profits? I’ve come to realize that the competition had nothing to do with awarding the most needy, or the smallest, or most efficient. We were competing toe-to-toe to demonstrate that we could reach the widest audience with international companies that have huge resources, instant name-recognition, and deep pockets of personnel. Our six employee organization got into the room with them and showed that we’ve got the goods as well.

Underdogging it at the DML Badges Competition

Last week, we all went to the DML Badges Finals competition to represent Computers4Kids and Teen Tech. By we all, I mean me, Dolly, Paul, and Brandon. We’ll post the content and idea behind in a second blog, but this one is all about the process.

This was a Big Deal to Computers4Kids and our team. This competition was funded by The MacArthur Foundation (you know, the geniuses) and sponsored by Mozilla and a whole bunch of high profile educational organizations. With only 3 full-time and 3 part-time staff, C4K were certainly the underdogs. And we didn’t win. We lost to teams from Disney-Pixar, Smithsonian, 4-H, American Museum of Natural History and other institutions that you’ve heard of. But, we started in a pool of 500 teams and went on to be in the final 64. Here’s what we did right:

  • Do What You Know
    • We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. I took content that I knew extremely well– the Teen Tech curriculum that lab staff and I have developed and refined over 3 years– and refined and reordered it to fit the competition constraints.
  • Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
    • Going in we knew we were leaner than most of the organizations, but we know what we do well. We’ve built a curriculum that is flexible and closely meets our learners’ needs and is aligned to national standards. We know our logic model, assessment strategies, and actual educational outcomes are more realized than most organizations our size or larger.
  • People are Your Power
    • We assembled the best team we could and sought qualified outside opinions. Everyone who worked on this project shared similar vision about what’s important in education, learning and design. High pressure situations with tight deadlines are not the time to bring in the devil’s advocates.
  • Let Go of Ego
    • Good products require that you be willing to let ownership go. When someone tells you to revise, do it. Unless they’re wrong, but if you’re working with the right people, they’re not.
  • Appreciate the Process
    • Even though we didn’t win the money, we accomplished a great deal. I took the opportunity to meet with the Teen Tech Manager to figure out what was working with our program and what wasn’t. We’ll implement these changes shortly. I generated material that we’ll use to describe our program better. I refine my own thinking. And we had fun. You’re not good at ID if you don’t love doing it.