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.

Strategic Play

Part 4 of a six-part series reviewing examples of the six activity modes.

Strategic Play emphasizes the manipulation of resources – military, financial, or “human” – over a longer term. In games that emphasize problem-solving, achieving pre-set goals determines progress, while games that encourage a strategic mode of play often enable players to select their own or the computer’s benchmarks. Games with strategic activities include The Sims, titles in the Tycoon series, Civilization, and the Age of Empires. Few educational titles have incorporated this play mode.

I love strategic play, but I am only semi-good at it. To excel at strategic play, you must be able to see the multiplicities of options and how your decisions now affect future fortunes.

Desktop Defense: This is my favorite online strategic game. The player is given a starting pool of money to purchase or improve towers which then are placed on the game board to prevent the egress of little blobs of different types. As these blobs are stopped, the player gets more money to spend on the defensive towers. This is a common set-up for strategic games; another good example is Bloons Tower Defense with monkeys and balloons, always a winning combo.

A simple-to-learn, hard to master board game is Othello, which is a territory-capture game. Here two players are assigned a color, black or white. The players gain territory by placing their color to capture the other color between two of their own. These tiles get flipped — exposing the player’s color, and hiding the opponent’s. Play continues until all squares are filled. The exposed colors are tallied and whoever has the most wins.

Many games categorized as Role Playing Games (RPGs) contain a good bit of strategy. Based upon the Dungeons and Dragons games popularized in the ’80s, RPGs, such as Monster’s Den, have the player form a party of characters of varying strengths and weaknesses. These characters have human personas — pictures, names, and types, but really are a series of statistics that the player controls through add-ons found mostly through pillaged treasure and reward. Often cast in a mythological world, character death is temporary and nullified through use of potions or spells. Ensorcelled armor or weaponry improve the stats of the character.

Prepping for the DML Badges competition…

In 2 days I’ll be flying out to California in compete in the Digital Media + Learning Badges Competition. There I’ll be presenting Computers4Kids’ Teen Tech program. I’m super proud to be heading out to this pretty elite competition; the MacArthur Foundation funds and Mozilla sponsors. Computers4Kids is definitely one of the smaller organizations that will be competing, but I’m feeling pretty confident about my ability to make a winning argument.

We’ve been working hard for the past few years at C4K to align what the kids are doing to national standards. I think this sets apart from a lot of other non-profits. And while it’s personally and professionally gratifying, what keeps me grounded and directed is that everything we’re doing leads to further student success. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that all this leads to agency success: recognition=more money=greater sustainability, but it’s hard for me to maintain excitement about that.

The realization I had the other day is that by aligning what students learn and practice to recognizable and recognized educational outcomes, we can better communicate to them, schools and employers how valuable their skills are. For under-served students in particular, having that self-esteem and self-worth is crucial. I want to arm myself with the knowledge that C4K is making a real difference in youth’s lives and that curricular alignment and larger efforts like badging systems contributes in a significant way.

Social Play

Part 6 of 6 on an ongoing series about the six activity modes.

Social Play takes several different forms, all centered around social interactions between players, avatars and opponents.

One form of social play is the control of characters in interactions with other computer generated characters, a la old school The Sims. This seems to have been replaced by the more interesting (maybe) interactions of avatars controlled by humans in online environments like Second Life. People can meet strangers, develop relationships, even get married in these virtual communities. These interactions are set apart by their representation of 3-D avatars which can interact in a virtual world.

Another kind of social interaction is the live chats which can take place in a variety of online forums. Again, here, the player can interact with a friends and strangers, but here it takes place with a text dialogue. Typically it is external to the game play.

Multiplayer games allow all sorts of cooperation and competition between players. Sometimes players will alternate between competing and cooperating with the same groups of players.

Often in digital games we concentrate on the controlled interactions that we create, but there are a great number of interactions that happen outside of the planned gaming environment. I often observe the coaching and tutoring that goes on between people in the same physical environment. While it is easy to design for one player per station, oftentimes players enjoy cooperating and sharing the same station. I also will model how to use a game or an activity on a station to elicit excitement and engagement with students. Let’s not forget that a people still like to interact in real life together.