A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Technology and the Classroom

After weeks of preparation, Ninehub turns to blogging

I signed up for a Ninehub Moodle account last spring, thrilled that someone was willing to host a free Moodle class online. I was so thoroughly impressed with Moodle when I used it that I began to concoct plans for turning all the professional development work I lead in the district into distance courses.

Then the whole Ninehub thing seemed to crash over the summer and I couldn’t get back to any of my stuff, which I hadn’t had time to back up yet (I hadn’t done that much so it wasn’t the end of the world). I’ve contacted the administrators but still have received no reason to hope that I’ll be able to access the class I created, and at this point, really, why would I want to access it?

Either way, here’s what I find amusing. I received an email today from Ninehub inviting me to use their new educational blogging service, called Eduperience. I’m naturally tempted by anything of the kind, since I’ve quit using Edublogs in the classroom (too slow, too unreliable, and too full of obnoxious and misleading advertisements), but the email invite sounds like it came from that guy who found my only remaining relative in Zimbabwe–the one with $150,000 for me if I’ll advance him $20,000 for lawyer fees:

After weeks of preparation, we are ready to introduce Eduperience.com – an easy blogging tools for teachers and students. . . . We always obsessed to provide useful tools for educators, therefore If you have any comments or anything we can improve, please let us know.

As impressed as I was by weeks of preparation, I followed the link, and my favorite part of the site is where they ask me this:

eduperience check out

For today, I have seen enough, but I’m not sure I’m ready to check out, thanks.

Years ago I would have thrown caution to the wind and signed a class up for blogs here, desperate for anything that would work for blogging in the classroom, even if the providers don’t know a thing about the English language. With a lot of help from unreliable blog providers and scant computer resources for students, however, I’ve moved past that stage, and my taste for risk is going down. I don’t have the energy to devote to ventures that can’t figure out capital letters or transitive verbs. It may be a snooty response, but I’m an English teacher. If I don’t have high standards here, who will?

Teachers have time for the things they value

In one class I am in teachers engaged a discussion about obstacles to innovating with and integrating technology in schools. The conversation was fairly predictable (I said nothing notable), revolving mostly around limited resources and time.  Then one gal, Mary Ann Hudziak, said this so well I was taken aback. I thought I’d pass it along, hopefully as an encouragement, and possibly as a rebuke to those of us who want to easily declare any shortcomings to a lack of time:

A few years ago, I would have given TIME as the number one obstacle.  I do not see this as number one in our district anymore.  Our teachers find the time for things they value.  This has been a great discovery for me because now I spend my energy working with staff to understand the value of things and the rest tends to fall into place.

I have had lots of trouble finding time to fix the faucet for the kitchen sink, or to continue repairing our basement, or to dig the trench in my yard to improve my roof’s drainage, or–well, I’ll stop the list there and figure that half of my point is made. I do manage to find time to play with my kids while my wife cooks dinner. Amazing dinner. Mmmm…

This shot actually wasn’t her creation, but it now can be because our guests  showed her how to make it as authentically Mexican as possible. And when my wife does decide to make it herself, I’ll have the time to play with the kids–as always.

Thanks for reading.

Wolfram Alpha gets me thinking with data once again

Technology-wise the things that get me most excited are the ones where I can’t quite see the purpose. I can see the potential for usefulness but the potential is wide enough that I can’t quite imagine its practical use. Thus, today I am thrilled with Stephen Wolfram’s new search tool called Alpha. He dubs it the computational knowledge engine, and it apparently uses data gleaned from elsewhere and computes it for you according to your query.

He offers suggested querries for you to try, but I decided to begin by asking about the temperature in my hometown the day I was born. I didn’t know how to phrase it so it could make sense, so I just asked it: “What temperature in _________ on _____________?” A tad later I was looking at a line graph detailing the temperature each hour of the day and a note affirming that the high had been 80 degrees and it hit that at 3:00pm.

Cool.

Next I asked it what the temperature was in Washington DC the week Sputnik launched–maybe the politicians’ fear raised the temp a bit? My first query confused it and it asked me if I meant Sputnik, so I clicked on the option it offered and found out immediately, without leaving the site, what day Sputnik launched  (I didn’t have to go away from my search engine to find the answer, which is why I don’t know that I’d call this a search engine and why I think Wolfram is justified in calling this something strange–“computational knowledge engine” is definitely strange). I then re-entered my phrase: “temperature in washington dc the week of october 4, 1957” and it delievered the results:

As you can see, my theory about rising temperatures when Sputnik launched are bogus, as Wednesday the 2nd was the hottest day of the week, at 73 degrees.

Another cool part of Alpha is the specific nature of the url. For example, I searched for a more relevant and controversial number after playing with Sputnik’s influence: the average temperature in the USA since, say, the Civil War. The resulting data did not chart back to the Civil War, but it did head back to the 1930s. Overall, it looked pretty steady, but if you’d like to see for yourself, I can simply direct you there with a link, and you can see what I saw without any trouble.

Now I am a humanities guy by trade, but I openly loved mathematics in high school and when I entered college I wished that math could have been less theoretical and more fun, like trig and calculus had been. Perhaps that is why I think this is so awesome–it computes whatever I want, but I don’t have to have a reason to compute it besides my own curiosity. For the sake of curiosity, I am rooting for Stephen Wolfram on this one, because I want to be able to produce any data I can conceive of. Average number of deaths per battle in the Civil War. Average number of home runs hit during the 1990s compared to the 1980s. Number of political commercials aired during the last 30 elections. Adjusted average SAT scores over the last 50 years. Just type it in to a computer and the next thing I know, there it is.

Who knows how we’ll verify the accuracy of all that data, but that is not my concern today. Today I’m just excited about the foggy possibilities, however relevant they might not be.

Thanks for reading.

Making critical research a central focus of the classroom

I am not a professional conference attendee. My experience is limited to two South Dakota affairs (a pair of TIE Conferences) and the T+L Conference this past fall, but even in that short experience, I have a decent feel for what the keynoters are saying at educational technology conferences around the country, perhaps because I spent a year gobbling up the blogs of people who seem to make a living flying around speaking at conferences. Whatever the reason, folks are telling us that we need to change and change now. Often it’s a dressed-up, conference version of the Shift Happens video, or a call for a particular strand of  some current big idea in education.

I kind of expected this when I sat down last week to hear Alan November at the TIE Conference. In one small sense, he followed the formula, championing project-based learning by kidding that the instructor should be able to go out for coffee for a half hour and then return to find her students still working, having not noticed the teacher was gone (at the conclusion of his remark I leaned to the person next to me and admitted that my students constantly ask if they could please leave, while I am actually there). In other areas, however, November broke the mold of these change-speakers and used a particular focus that has left me convinced that my practice as a teacher, and the practice of my colleagues, does need to change.

That does not happen easily for me, least of all when I am listening to folks at technology conferences. The only other speaker or writer in education who struck me as this convincing was Cris Tovani, and I found her very convincing–so this is a big deal.

What November did for me was point the emphasis away from the technology and to the information. He calls the technology the plumbing, and information the revolution. That works well enough for me and is not a particularly new insight, but where he gets me is where he applies this idea to the classroom. If information is the revolution, then we should be spending less time embedding technology and more time embedding critical researching skills.

That is the piece that sent me into glee. It strikes me as the angle of importance for technology leadership teams in school districts. My colleagues, for example, are pretty tech savvy. They adapted amazingly well to a rough launch of an online grade book and picked up almost without incident an online calendar to summarize daily class activities. What they don’t know is how to research amazingly well on the web, and that is what November is challenging us to teach our children.

Obviously we have to learn first, and while that is a challenge it seems to me that it is feasible. The feasibility rises from the emphasis on skills instead of tools. In my mind, November’s emphasis avoids communicating the message teachers often receive when talking about implementing technology. That message runs like this: “You have to stop doing what you’re doing the same old way that appears to be working and do it this way because this is the new way, and no one is going to be doing it your way anymore and it’s no use complaining when the new way doesn’t work for you half the time!”  That’s one reason why they hate conversations about technology integration.

With November’s emphasis, we’re essentially telling them this: “You know and I know that our methods of retrieving information are outdated and no one is using them anymore. It’s time to learn how to do it well with the tools that are now dominating the world of information. Then we can do it more often in our classrooms and together we can teach our students how to do it well.” It leaves me singing a tune: “Good-bye technology integration, hello research (information) integration.”

I know others have said similar things (David Warlick springs to mind) but somehow November’s statements resound more clearly with me. Perhaps it is because he has not pitted my old curriculum against a new one, or suggested that the ‘old’ literacy is bad, so much as emphasized how crucial critical research skills are. The old way still applies, it just needs the tweak of the critical eye. And I don’t think teachers will be nearly so resistant when we approach them with the need to teach students skills instead of tools.

Thanks for reading.

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The wiki as knowledge repository: Using a wiki in a community of practice to strengthen K-12 education

Note: The following article was published in the November/December 2008 issue of TechTrends (Volume 52, Number 6). The publication agreement allows me to publish it on my personal website, so here it is for you to enjoy.

The concept of managing an organization’s knowledge has caught on in recent years (Sallis & Jones, 2002). Dubbed knowledge management, the field has grown as it addresses key characteristics of knowledge, like the concept that knowledge cannot be separated from a knower (Hilsop, 2002; Sallis & Jones, 2002) and the idea that there are two types of knowledge: tacit, which is intangible know-how, and explicit, which is objective and formal knowledge that can be communicated easily (Sallis & Jones, 2002). One of the great challenges of the knowledge management field is sharing tacit knowledge in a way that passes it along to others or even converts it into something like explicit knowledge (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).

Sallis and Jones (2002) and Santo (2005) note that education has not been quick to adopt techniques of knowledge management. While addressing the reason is well beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth mentioning that the slow adoption is not for lack of need. With high stakes testing and high pressure for improvement burdening schools-especially those in K-12 public education-educators have a need to use the knowledge that resides in their local communities as strategically as possible. They also have a need to create new knowledge that will launch innovative approaches to their local and specific concerns (Carroll et al., 2003; Coakes & Smith, 2007). Strategic use of knowledge management should ultimately help these schools improve in tangible ways. Santo (2005) suggests that an “accumulation of both explicit and tacit knowledge can contribute to data-driven decision making” and an organization’s effectiveness (p. 45), a characteristic few school administrators would overlook.

Attempting even a small knowledge management effort, however, needs to be an intentional effort. There is no reason to assume that employees will seek to share their knowledge (Hilsop, 2002), particularly teachers, who can be protective of their work (Parr & Ward, 2006). To succeed, an environment conducive to knowledge sharing is a must-a culture of trust where incentives and rewards exist for sharing knowledge instead of hoarding it (Hilsop, 2002; Foon Hew, & Hara, 2007; Parr & Ward, 2006).

Creating such an environment is a difficult task, and implementers of knowledge management must recognize characteristics of knowledge and of the individuals under their influence. If knowledge resides in people, knowledge management cannot be controlled or distributed by a few administrators or executives. An organization’s knowledge is spread throughout the organization, which means when one seeks to harness, distribute, and create knowledge and innovation, one must consider the entire scope of people in the organization-for a school, this means the staff as well as the faculty (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).

Teachers share knowledge for various reasons in various contexts. Foon Hew and Hara (2007) found that teachers shared knowledge because they sensed they would gain something from it personally-whether it be a stronger understanding of an idea or a better reputation-and because they felt an obligation to their community-whether the obligation arose from a sense of principle or compassion. Schlager and Fusco (2003) observed that teachers also share this knowledge most often within their specific areas of work, with their immediate colleagues, or in response to the real difficulties of their working day-as opposed to sharing it within special in-services or professional development programs. Such a situation is not surprising when one considers that the very knowledge they are sharing is so intimately tied to the environment where it is used and the manner in which it is used (Hilsop, 2002).
Knowledge management efforts in education should therefore spread their fingers into all parts of the school and its existing organizational boundaries, growing an environment where sharing within the daily routine is encouraged and nurtured.

Communities of Practice

The most obvious strategy for managing knowledge in the educational context would be nurturing communities of practice. Communities of practice, as defined by Wenger (1998 ), are the communities in which there exists “the sustained pursuit of shared enterprise” (p. 45). In these communities, knowledge sharing is actually a by-product of the engagement that regularly exists (Carroll et al., 2003; Wenger, 1998 ). Hilsop (2002) points out that the community of practice attains such a high level of common language and assumptions that sharing knowledge becomes a “relatively straightforward” process (p. 173).

Straightforward maybe, but setting up the context for that exchange is not an easy task. Parr and Ward (2006) observed that a common state in schools is for teachers to engage in only a partial collaboration, where independence is respected so highly that members of a community do not probe deeply into professional issues with one another. Thus, the teacher is generally isolated from colleagues, working in a separate classroom with separate students teaching separate lessons, often totally unaware of what any other teacher is doing (Carroll et al., 2003). Where collaboration does occur, it occurs on a voluntary basis, which at best creates pockets of innovation that do not penetrate beyond the volunteers’ reach (Parr & Ward, 2006). Ironically, all the teachers-not just the pockets of collaborators-are working toward the same goal; but they work essentially separately from one another, creating a dynamic Weick (1976) dubbed “loose coupling” (as cited in Parr & Ward, 2006, p. 783).

The independence and isolation is magnified by the touchy nature of the teaching business. Teaching is a deeply personal pursuit and when one critiques the teacher’s practice, one is critiquing that person (Santo, 2005). Thus, a teacher might not share with colleagues for fear of the vulnerability involved – what they share could be determined not good enough (Parr & Ward, 2006; Foon Hew & Hara, 2007) and admitted weaknesses or observed failures could be used against them by administrators (Carroll et al., 2003).

Despite the obstacles, the community of practice model can work in education for a number of reasons. For one, the bottom-up feel to the creation of knowledge eliminates some of the fear teachers may have when sharing knowledge under the direct observation of an administrator (Carroll et al., 2003; Parr & Ward, 2006; Santo, 2005; Schlager & Fusco, 2003).The bottom-up aspect asserts itself when the community of practice is encouraged to capitalize on social interactions. Social interactions cannot be overlooked. Though commonly dismissed as “water cooler talk,” these exchanges are necessary for building the trust required to express a genuine vulnerability-to admit that one needs new knowledge (Santo, 2005). When opportunities to build trust are supplied, it becomes easier, even for independent-minded teachers, – to submit to the interdependent nature of a community of practice and to adopt a collective responsibility for the actions of the group (Hartnell-Young, 2006; Wagner, 2006). In fact, Hilsop (2002) warns explicitly that if these social factors of knowledge-exchange and communities of practice are ignored, a knowledge management plan is at risk of collapse.

Additionally, the community of practice transfers the acquisition of knowledge to the point of need (Schlager & Fusco, 2003). Tacit knowledge is most often passed along through conversation (Wagner, 2006) and stories of personal experience (Yi, 2006), and these stories tend to surface when the subject is most appropriate-in conversation with those closest to the situation and most trusted by the seeker of knowledge (Hilsop, 2002; Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 1998; Wagner, 2006). Granger, Morbey, Lotherington, Owston, and Wideman (2002) found this “just in time learning” to be the preferred method of knowledge acquisition for teachers, a finding that meshes well with the propositions of Schlager, Fusco, and Schank (1998 ) and Schlager and Fusco (2003) that teacher professional development is most effective when delivered in the context of practice instead of in separate professional development opportunities. Thus, key characteristics of a community of practice-its root at the point of practice and its dependence upon social interactions-specifically address some of the traditional obstacles of K-12 teachers’ practice.

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What are we doing? A small sample of answers

What are we doing here on this Internet, talking to one another, writing our stories?

I have seen a few interesting ideas the last couple days, and since I know most of the shared material from my Google Reader goes unread, I thought I’d throw down a few articles I’ve seen recently that explore these general questions: What are we doing, and what is the most wise thing for us to be doing?

First of all, my old college adviser  has lamented before about the limitations of blogs. (Why I insist on calling him “my old adviser” instead of simply naming him, especially considering he wouldn’t even remember me, I don’t know. I am not much of a name dropper, but I feel in some way that I should justify the reason I am constantly referring to him. Alas, I will use the phrasing again today.) Recently he presented some interesting ideas about how the structure of blogs could be rethought to allow great ideas and writing to dominate the real estate, rather than just the newest writing. I have tried to do this on my own through my “Featured Posts” widget, which are not the most popular posts I have written, but ones where I thought I presented an intriguing idea, or wrote particularly well, or where I simply liked it enough that I wanted others to read it. What if the blog had a built-in technology to help me select which pieces are the best? That would be cool, and if anyone can develop it, it’s probably the folks at WordPress.

Also seen on Jacobs’s blog, a fantastic knock on the awkwardness of Facebook. I like Facebook, as it has been a way for me to keep in touch in a silly way with my brother and a few other significant friends from my past, but as more and more folks whom I would never offend by denying as a “friend” add me and clog up the Facebook feed, the stupider the application becomes, and the funnier I find this video.

Another important question as folks like Richardson discuss “why we absolutely need to consider these technologies and make them a part of our own practice” is, how much (and should) these technologies enter our classrooms? It’s a different question for a university professor, and that’s why Jacobs’s answer is significantly different than mine, but it’s a legitimate question that still deserves exploration. Having ingrained technology deep into my practice and the activities of my students, and now having slowly woven it out (mostly due to a lack of resources), I cannot say I miss it terribly or that I think my students are being robbed of something significant.

Is it a waste of time, then–in particular, all this blogging? Jessica Mesman Griffith makes a nice case that our little memoirs are not a waste of time, and if I were trying to explain more thoroughly how blogging does not necessarily feed the narcissism of our culture, I would probably use this post to help me frame my argument:

The value of memoir is in treating our individual humanity with the seriousness it deserves. There’s plenty of room for self-deprecation, but we should also value individual experience as instructive, both for our own spiritual development and for what that experience might offer another, for the value of our testimony.

That’s where my argument ended when I first wrote this article, but a day later I reached the end of my current issue of First Things, which means I was reading The Public Square, a vast column that Richard John Neuhaus used to write surveying religion, culture, and public life in general. Neuhaus passed away on January 8th, and knowing he had recurring cancer, his last comments in his column addressed the gravity of his illness. Among his other wonderful words, he addressed this issue of how we’re using our time, writing away little bits and blurbs about this and that:

The question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther—when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers.

I have always wanted to be a writer and in a sense considered myself a writer. Amusingly, if I were extended a chance today to enter a writing profession I might not be interested, because it would not afford me the creative flexibility I have here, on my own blog. Little audience or no audience, there is something wonderful about writing a kind of memoir, of writing my own E.B. White essays of life, minus any worry about target audience and circulation numbers. I thus pluck along with a blog, sharing my own experiences, hoping they might prove “instructive” or at least amusing for one other. Maybe my best work could even be a type of tree, planted as I say my own prayers. Since I am still in my early 30s and, Lord willing, have much left to write, I am grateful for this medium that has arisen just in time for me.

Thanks for reading.

Teaching digital citizenship without condoning risky business

Heading into the weekend, I have begun work on a project regarding digital citizenship and general “street-smarts” curriculum for students. I am working with a few others on the project and am excited about the chance to work on something like this in a collaborative context. Projects and research into ares like digital citizenship have long appealed to me, but I have never been interested in doing it by myself. I have enough going on that I do not need to add that to the list of impossible things to do.

The first step for me with this project is to catch up to my collaborators, who have been collecting materials and articles about digital citizenship for quite some time. In reading through the sources they’ve tagged on del.icio.us, I noticed one remarkable aspect of the digital citizenship conversations right away–many of our concerns come from students sharing their inappropriate actions.

Take this article in PCPro, which discusses a study that examined teenagers’ social networking sites and found that

54% of the publicly available accounts they checked contained information about high-risk behaviour: 41% mentioned substance abuse, 24% sexual activity and 14% violence

The expert consulted exclaims, “No one says, ‘Whoa! Why are you putting that up there?'”

Or there’s this one in eSchool News, which points out that “one in five teenage girls admitted to sending or posting revealing photos of themselves online.” Again, we could echo the expert from PCPro’s article (‘Whoa! Why are you putting that up there?’), or we could ask a different question.

Isn’t it a more appropriate question to ask, “Whoa! Why are you DOING these things?” Are we alarmed that 54% of our teens are talking about their high risk behavior, or that 54% are engaging in high risk behavior? Students have always talked about these things–they did when I was in school, though I was one to avoid those ridiculous conversations as much as possible. Why are we surprised that they talk about them on their social networking pages?

Maybe we’re not surprised, but as I begin to assemble a kind of curriculum for digital citizenship, it seems rather odd that part of my endeavor is to teach kids not to talk about these things on MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo. Essentially, what that means is that I am coaching students how to hide their iniquities more effectively.

That’s certainly NOT what I want to do, and one of the keys for me will be to look at this project as an opportunity to guide students away from these kinds of activities. It may be futile, but if I forget to seize that opportunity, my work could become a kind of wink while I teach students how to hide. I’ll take futility over that option.

I’d much rather be a part of exposing such actions to light than teaching folks how to bury their iniquity deeper in the darkness.

Thanks for reading.

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