Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Game Theory

When we consider video games, it is important to check our bias' at the door.  There has long been evidence of game playing benefits.  Now, with a culture of young people deeply entrenched it is time to do a better job harnessing this promising approach to learning.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A Sense of Place

"A Sense of Place" is an audio discussion based on the experience of two students (Tannis Eamonn and Jeff Tang) and two instructors (Dr. Wilson and Dr. Schwier) in the University of Saskatchewan's ETAD program.  This piece examines the idea of disappearing space in education as online and blended learning remove the geographic necessity from organised education.  Is place still important?


Monday, 16 January 2012

Charter Schools

A telling quotation from the 2004 program evaluation on charter schools in the United States.  The failure to offer something comprehensively different to that which already exists can probably be held as the number one failure of the structure.  If there is no quantifiable difference in instructional strategies between Charater Schools and traditional forms of schooling then why support the the higher cost model during economic downturns?

"Instructional Strategies. While charter schools have the opportunity to use alternative instructional strategies (e.g., distance learning), 91 percent of the charter schools surveyed in 2001-02 used classroom based instruction as their primary instructional delivery method"

Report here

Friday, 12 August 2011

Soft Skills?

“What we’re moving toward,” Horn says, “is the realization that if our expectation is to educate every single child successfully, then we need structures that can individualize and personalize, and there’s no way to do it in the way we have historically approached this.” (Davis)

We need options.  It seems that digital access offers learners the freedom and resources they need to maximize their learning potential.  But, what about those among us for whom the digital age symbolizes a loss of the tactile and a disconnect with the real world around us? 

Aside from the reams of information and entertainment offered by Internet access, the increasingly sedentary lifestyle partly attributable to our global addiction to the screen – what about the learner who just doesn’t connect with computers?  What about the notion of Nature Deficit Disorder?  What about all of the research and writing that went into books like Nabhan and Trimble’s The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, Richard Louv’s Lost Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder or Kahn and Kelhert’s Children and Nature.  Add critiques of our techno dependence like Neil Postman’s Technolopy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology and we are struck with a serious conundrum. 

Should our schools be incorporating more or less digital media? 

Students need digital access and some need more face time and others need time to go home and work in isolation.  This has been well known and applied in a variety of ways since Gardner's multiple intelligences came along thirty years ago.

But what about these other aspects?  MOOC's and e-learning and workstations are fantastic but what happened to that notion of educating the 'whole child', a catchphrase so popular during the 90's?

The NexGen ultimate tour is now complete and it is worth taking another look at their model of expedition education, if only as a reminder of the soft values that the digital age can easily overlook.

Interviewed after their fifteenth and last game, George Stubbs captures the elusive nature of goal-setting.  


NexGen vs Sub Zero - Post Game with George Stubbs from NexGen Ultimate on Vimeo.

Clearly education happened, yet the goals from the outset were murky. 

"How is this being paid for? How’s the bus going to work?  What are the details?  At some point I just sort of trusted him, and I think that’s what everyone did."

The NexGen team begain their tour 3 - 6 and finished 8 - 7.  They evolved as a team and through travel, challenging themselves by raising expections, through peer teaching they ended the tour not only better ultimate players, but as Stubbs says, "better people".  

"We’ve made lifelong friends, we’ve all become better ultimate players…we’re all thrilled with it and I think every single person on the tour would say the same thing."

"None of us knew what exactly to expect other than that it was going to be a ton of fun and that’s exactly what it was.  We’re all better people for it."

Stubbs has difficulty articulating his growth over the month.  It can by mystifying to clearly establish the learning goals and assessment of 'personal growth'.  Surely, leadership skills and co-operation were fundamental.  

In many ways NexGen reminds us of the importance of experiences like residential summer camps and outdoor centres.  Camp Wenonah near Bracebridge, Ontario whose mission statement, "Providing opportunities that develop a healthy respect and appreciation for one's self and others and for the natural world", admonishes us not to neglect those soft skills that remain crucial, even within the educational shift brought on by the digital age.






Tuesday, 9 August 2011

'Entourage' and Blended Learning

For decades educators have been searching for ways to individualize education, researching methods for students to explore their own interests at their own pace. Unfortunately, our traditional structure of education makes this difficult. Even Vinny Chase from Entourage understands that we do not all learn the same, nor do we all have the same learning objectives,

     Vince: So, how’s it look?

     E: Your grammar’s horrible.

     Vince: Who cares?

     E: We were in the same class since we were six,

        it’s shocking to me that you can’t punctuate.

     Vince: E – it’s all stream of consciousness.

     Turtle: You can’t really spell either Vinn. 

               Faithful is f-a-i-t-h-f-E-l.

     E: No, it isn’t.

     Johnny: It’s O-l

     E: No, it isn’t

     Johnny: So says you.

     E: Are you guys all illiterate? Mrs. Carbonne would

        shoot herself if she could hear this.

Although traditional schooling worked for E., apparently Mrs. Carbonne’s English class was not able to address the learning needs, or perhaps learning interests of Vince, Johnny or Turtle. Maybe Mrs. Carbonne needed a more constructivist approach. Maybe Mrs. Carbonne needed a structure that applied some of the concepts of blended learning.

Blended learning generally refers to incorporating online learning into traditional brick-and-mortar schools to create hybrid learning experiences for students. It has been happening for a long time in a multitude of ways. The Carpe Diem Charter school in Arizona claims many successes through their blended learning model. Their particular structure tries to solve a part of a riddle that frustrates many educators, namely that “students are losing the motivation to learn.” If we ignore the suggestion that students all used to be excited about school, we are left with the notion of motivation. No doubt Vincent Chase had the same issues as a student.

Carpe Diem school claims to understand that, “nobody learns the same subject area at the same pace or with the same abilities”. They claim to ‘de-systematize’ everything.

After watching the Carpe Diem promotion video, cost and funding questions leap to mind, despite the convincing chart. Surely this must cost a fortune. However, Jay P. Greene, author of Education Myths claims that they have simply juggled the traditional funding model.

“Carpe Diem has successfully substituted technology for labor. With seven grade levels and 240 students they have only 1 math teacher and one aide who focuses on math. Covering 6-12 and 240 students and getting the best results with a demographically challenging student body = no problem for Carpe Diem. Their founder, Rick Ogston, told me they use less staff than a typical model, and have cash reserves in the bank despite relatively low per pupil funding in AZ. They have never received support from philanthropic foundations, making due with state funding…” (Greene)

In many ways Carpe Diem impresses. As blended learning models continue to emerge, we must hope that governments do not insist on adopting a standard program for every school in the province, but instead embrace the multitude of possibilities to suit the needs of the diverse communities around the country. Ontario’s ‘Homework Help Initiative’, offering free math help online to students in school divisions across the province is a step in the right direction. Undoubtedly more of this is to follow.

Is money better spent on machines that people? Carpe Diem seems to think so. This sounds like a tough sell to teacher unions across the country, but the educational accountants in Alberta can attest: When the economy suffers, it is easier to stop buying computers than stop paying teachers.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Film, Theatre and the Classroom

It is often accepted that the advent of film led to a decline in the popularity of theatre.

The movies and the stage are vastly different mediums, often identified by film’s ability to transcend time and place versus the physical presence of the actors in theatre.  It would be hard to argue against the success of film over the past century.  The talkies have become an unbelievably lucrative business while theatre, with few exceptions, relies on philanthropy for its survival.

Could it be that online learning and the traditional classroom hold a similar relationship?

As the Fringe Festival gestures on and the tents of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan continue their white summer silhouettes by the riverside, the question seems timely.  The classroom may soon attain the nostalgic status of live theatre.  Like the writers who moved from New York to Hollywood, teachers will shift from schools to laptops, complaining as their predecessors did in theatre about the dumbing down of their profession.  Said writer Ben Hecht after leaving Chicago,

Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle. 

Surely it must be tempting to step away from the terrors of classroom management to the safety of an ipad screen…. in a deck chair.

Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Film and Theatre’ reminds us that,“the history of cinema is often treated as the history of its emancipation from theatrical models.”  It took film a long time to move away from the habits of an unmoving camera, exaggerated gestures and overly adorned sets.

Likewise, it will take distance learning some time before it can separate itself from the habits of classroom teaching.  Discussion rooms that mimic conference style discussions, video speeches that stand in for the lecture theatre and the stasis of essay assignments remain unchanged.  Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard who cries,

You are, are you? Writing words, words, more words! Well, you'll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues! 

The advent of colour and sound did not kill cinema and digital learning will not kill education.  But, like film, digital education must find its own unique strengths as a medium if it is to thrive.  Like film, it must not simply imitate that which came before, it must locate its strengths and build upon them.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Gatto and the MOOC

Consider the MOOC.  No, not Douglas Rushkoff’s Mook from Jackass - the MOOC.  Massive Online Open Course.  Less obnoxious, less male.

In 1991 John Taylor Gatto published an article titled “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”.  The piece outlined six tenants of schooling that Gatto claimed were universal in traditional schooling.  If you haven’t read it - please do.  Click on the hyperlink.  Trust me.  You’ll laugh.

Now, we know from Craig Watkins that to successfully master technology, access is not enough - scaffolding, mentoring and modelling are all necessary to increase learning potential.  And, one of the great travesties in education is the hierarchical access to learning around the globe.   Since this hierarchy leads to less mentorship for lower income learners, we need an alternative.  

If we agree that the alternative also has to respond to Gatto’s six lessons - we must consider the MOOC: 

1) Stay in the class where you belong
MOOCs do not classify by age and ability.  They are open spaces, they are free and everyone can participate.  Learners come and go as they please.  

2) Turn on and off like a light switch
MOOCs promote independence among learners.  Participants choose what they do and how they participate.

3) Surrender your will to a predestined chain of command
MOOCs are peer shared and peer connected.  Although there are facilitators to aid with the scaffolding and mentorship often required to progress, there is no boss.

4) Only the teacher determines what curriculum you will study
MOOCs link information from blogs, twitter, video and articles from all over the internet under one heading.  Material is peer shared and peer connected.  Material is collaborative rather than hierarchical promoting network creation that encourages lifelong learning.

5) Your self-respect should depend on an observers measure of your worth
In a MOOC, you decide if you are successful.

6) You are being watched
Okay - Google is always watching you.  We can’t escape this one.

But Mr. Gatto 5/6 - it looks like the MOOC has got you covered.