Alexandria Online

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where is the Front of the Class?

Blackboards, whiteboards, SMARTboards, projectors: they are all at the front of the classroom. "Eyes up here!" or "eyes on the board please!" have been cried out by teachers through the ages. The classic schoolroom has always been oriented toward the front, where the teacher stands or sits.

When every student has a laptop, the old schoolroom gets an abrupt reorientation. The work is right before the student. There is no more front.

We still install projectors and interactive boards on one of the walls of our classrooms, but the idea of "front" has changed. And teachers seem much more excited about an Apple TV attached to the projector than any kind of interactive technology.

Any laptop in the room can use Airplay to project wirelessly to an Apple TV, whereas with interactive boards, one person - usually the teacher - occupies the "front" of the room and manipulates the information there.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Collect, Classify, Listen, Copy: Unplugged Learning

In 1972, my Sixth Grade teacher had us create our own leaf collection. Mr. Walker, an avid botanist and environmentalist, had done this for many generations of students, who had grown up, graduated, and come back to visit him and tell him, "I still have that leaf collection we made in Sixth Grade."

Many of the elements of what is known as "21st Century Learning" were completely absent. We traveled around campus in early Fall or took field trips to local parks or private properties to collect leaves. Each student got a leaf from each specimen of tree or shrub; each student pressed it when we returned to the classroom; each student mounted it on paper exactly as Mr. Walker instructed us to. Once the leaves where pressed and mounted, Mr. Walker wrote the Latin name of the specimen on board; we copied the name into our book; he read a brief description of the specimen from his notes; we copied exactly what he dictated. At the end of the project, we all had exactly the same thick, three ring binder full of mounted, classified leaves.

There was absolutely no creativity, no individualism, no differentiated learning, no analytical thinking, no "higher-level" skills, no critical thinking, no technology or media literacy, no innovation. Nor was there an assessment at the end of the project.

Naturally you can guess what ironic observation I am going to pass on to you now: that we learned a lot from that project; that no one will ever forget doing it; that we developed authentic confidence by acquiring skills and mastery; that we were very proud of our very own, first book. We had to be exact. We learned to listen, imitate, copy, reproduce. And the book we produced was a completely accurate, flawless recreation of a small circle of useful, existing scientific knowledge.

That experience was very similar to the experience my father would have had when he was in Sixth Grade. But my son has had a very different experience. It would be hard to validate the following comparison, but in some ways I believe that I feel older at the age of 52 than my father felt when he was 52. His world changed pretty fast, but mine has changed faster. He was a child in the era of steam locomotives, watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon on a black and white tv with his own, young children, and had grandchildren who used computers in college. But he never owned his own computer. And neither did I until I was 28. His sons copied notes into a notebook; my son does research using online sources.

There was nothing wrong with the leaf collection project in 1972 and there is still nothing wrong with it. But it cannot be repeated today. Those activities will not resonate with 6th graders in 2013 as they did in 1972. They will not recognize it as education and will not respond to it. Is our 21st Century way better? It's no better and no worse; but now it is the only way.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Save Your School: Maintain Maximum Signal Strength

If you want to keep your school growing and thriving, turn up the signal. Yes, you need high bandwidth, but take that as a metaphor for learning and teaching.

Schools have to let in as much new content as they can bear. The quality of online content is soaring. At first the promise of the internet was over-hyped: the complete universe of written matter was available, but who wanted to read through all that?

Now the content has been formed, indexed, packaged and polished. It is easy to find age-appropriate material that fits into any curriculum. There are ingenious tools that deliver adaptive, intelligent content. The medium -- the way the instruction is delivered -- has become more interesting than the message -- the content. For the very best stuff you have to pay money; a lot of it is free.

But if you really want to pursue excellence, you need to transmit as well as receive. Make sure your signal is a two-way synchronous signal. Your school should generate its own content and methods. Dont strain yourselves: we don't need every teacher to be publishing original textbooks. Think more along the lines of the remixes that make M.I.T.'s Scratch social engineering site so brilliant. Receive the signal and remix it; respond to the signal; reply.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Online Credential

When I first saw the World Wide Web using my Netscape browser, I was skeptical of its commercial potential. Would people really type in their credit card numbers and expect goods and services in return? Just like the early days of credit cards, however, there was just too much money to be made for such a revolutionary idea to fail. And so internet engineers developed systems that inspired consumer confidence and trust.

We are at the same point with online education. It is now possible not only to get a great education online, but it is possible to get credentialed because the engineers are at it again and have developed a way to inspire confidence and trust. ProctorU has developed a way to ensure that when a student takes an assessment online there is no cheating; ProctorU has just signed a contract with Coursera, the largest vendor of online courses or MOOC's, to proctor their assessments. (See this article in the New York Times from 3/2/2013.)

Will brick and mortar schools go the way of book stores, video stores, music stores (and the music industry for that matter), broadcast television, newspapers and magazines? Each of these industries died in their own, unique way and they were reborn in new forms. That is also inevitable for schools. More content will be delivered online and more assessment will be done online. Even portions of our schools' communal lives will be led online. Students will be credentialed without ever being physically present on a campus.

It is difficult to know just how this transformation will take place. The textbook industry has been working for years now to continue to exist and be profitable while adjusting to the revolution in content delivery. Education is notoriously conservative and evolves very slowly. Schools need to be thinking about this now, but it is probably too soon to set up a private K-8 on Minecraft just yet.