The Paradox of Possibilities

Time.  Counting down.

2014 begins with me, as I do every year, reevaluating a bit of what I’ve been up to, a bit of what I’m planning to do, and a bit of what I’d like to do.  And I’m a lucky guy, as I’ve never had a longer list of all three types of things when I sat down to start a year.

As I write my way into 2014, I’m stuck by all the things I could choose to do.  How will I spend the minutes of this year?  My brain of late is rushing with all the different things that I could be doing.  Here, in no particular order, is what flashed through my mind just now:

  • Explore the possibilities available in Longmont and the surrounding area for partnering with Spanish speakers to offer additional family-focused technical assistance in our new 1:1 initiative.
  • Wondering about and thinking through how our 1:1 initiative is also a family digital literacy initiative, to some degree, and wondering about how to support student learning through the lens of family learning1
  • Declutter and rethink my home office.
  • Explore the possibilities of moving from physical book collections in our secondary schools and building digital libraries for students and staff to access via our iPad 1:1.
  • Date my wife more.
  • Helping schools to think through how to repurpose no longer necessary lab spaces by rethinking the use of space in those rooms.  This might be looking at the Third Teacher and similar resources to create learning commons, or collaboration spaces.  It might mean building “iPad writing labs” by purchasing some wired keyboards.  It might look like something I haven’t imagined.
  • Build robots with my children.
  • Rethinking how we do professional development in my school district as the district has decided that we should not be utilizing substitutes to free teachers up during the school day, but rather that we should fit professional learning for adults into nights, weekends, and summers.
  • Play more music.  Maybe even write and record some.
  • Redeveloping and redefining my digital and paper workflows – collections of notes, active projects, and lengthy lists of to dos – in order to improve my efficiency and focus on any and all of these tasks.
  • Finally replace those shrubs in the front yard.  Determine if they are, indeed, dead, or just resting.
  • Wondering about my long-term career goals and whether or not I’m working towards them in my current work.
  • Diving deeply into how my children interact with technology, each other, and the world.
  • Helping teachers to rethink analog habits at a time of digital change and the eventual 1:1 move.  Wondering about how to help teachers both bring along the practices that they value and abandon the practices that they do not, either analog, digital, or some combination thereof.
  • Train for longer races as a runner who’s certainly 10K capable, but somewhat intimidated by half-marathons.
  • Thinking about family history, family archives, and the long term digital legacies I’d like to create, manage, and leave behind.

Again, these are just a few of the many things I’m wondering about wondering about as the year begins.  And the more I think about it, this is only a small fraction of a very large list.  I know that I can’t do all of these things, or at least do them all well.  I know that I am a very lucky person, as I have the opportunity to have my thumb in all sorts of projects and wonderings and dreaming about these and other things.  But I’m also struck by, when I take the time to map some of these ideas out, the idea that sometimes, it’s easy to see all of the things I could do and get stuck by the sheer “bigness” of it all.  I can get paralyzed by all of the possibilities and avoid moving in any one direction as I know that movement one way certainly closes doors on the other ways I could’ve gone.

One of the big takeaways of my freshman year of college was the phrase “opportunity cost,” one I picked up in an economics survey class.  Wikipedia provides a clear definition:

In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. Assuming the best choice is made, it is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by taking the second best choice available.

I get stuck too often in wondering which thing to do at the cost of not getting anything done.  So If I’m making a resolution this year, and, hey, it’s never too late, or a bad time of year, for a resolution, it’s this:  I pledge to recognize that I can’t do everything I’d like to do, but I’ve got to pick some things to focus on, otherwise, I’ll never get anything accomplished. As I age, I discover that I have less and less time available, and saying no to some things is the only way to say yes to others.

Deep breath.  Let’s dig in.

  1. Is a school district responsible for students only, or do we have a larger mission to support learning of all types for all folks? []
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Data Dashboards

In a district meeting I’m a participant in, we’re reading the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution.  It’s an interesting book, and the main thesis is that change isn’t about doing everything, it’s about breaking the essential stuff you want to get done into bites that people can handle, then building structures and cultures around those bite-sized pieces, helping the folks you work with understand how to measure and take score of their efforts and how they contribute to a larger goal.  It’s not a radical idea, but it does make sense, and the execution is the hardest part.  I like the book and am looking forward to our continuing conversations (and hopefully action) about the text.

One of the biggest and most interesting elements of the book, to me at least, is the idea that you must trust the people in your organization to be able to track their own progress in what they do.  Specifically, the authors suggest that while leadership should set the large goal (the “wildly important goal” in the language of the book), the participants in the work should be tracking and measuring their own small pieces of that goal.  And, I’m sorry, but let’s dig into the weeds of how the book says to do that, because it’s going to be helpful.

The authors argue that there are two types of measures that folks can use to assess their progress.  They call them “lag measures” and “lead measures.”  Lag measures are the ones that we often think about when we’re talking about goals:

A lag measure is the measurement of a result you are trying to achieve.  We call them lag measures because by the time you get the data the result has already happened, they are always lagging. . . . Lead measures are different; they foretell the result.  They have two primary characteristics.  First, a lead measure is predictive, meaning that if the lead measure changes, you can predict that the lag measure will also change.  Second, a lead measure is influenceable; it can be directly influenced by the team.  That is, the team can make a lead measure happen without a significant dependence on another team. (pp. 64-65)

In school terms, a lag measure is a state test score, or an end of year report card.  But a lead measure might be a habit or practice that you implement or work on throughout the year, taking score every now and again.  More on this in a minute.  The book specifically mentions schools and schooling, and I thought this was a good way to say it:

For example, it’s easy for schoolteachers to measure the reading levels of students with a standardized test.  Often, they obsess over these lag measures.  However, it’s harder to come up with lead measures that predict how students will do on the text.  The school might hire tutors or reserve more time for uninterrupted reading.  In any case, the school is likely to do better if it tracks data on time spent reading or in tutoring (lead measures) rather than hope and pray that the reading scores (lag measures) will rise of their own accord. (p. 66)

The tracking of lead measures is so important, the authors argue, because they’re how you move in a new direction.  Figure out what to observe, and the observation and tracking of it can change a course, or improve a result down the road.  That’s, again, pretty basic thinking, but it’s right, and the hard part is building the habits and the follow through to do that.  In fact, it’s so hard, that the authors argue that one of the four disciplines is to “keep a compelling scoreboard” of those lead measures so that folks can pay attention to their change process.  They phrase it this way:

The third discipline is to make sure everyone knows the score at all times, so that they can tell whether or not they are winning. (p. 80)

The scoreboard is a tool for engagement:

Simply put, people disengage when they don’t know the score.  When they can see at a glance whether or not they are winning they become profoundly engaged. (p. 80)

More important than having the scoreboard, though, is that the people playing the game1 need to be in charge of that scoreboard.  They need to be trusted to use it.  And the trust is sometimes hard to build from manager to employee, or teacher to student.  Or district person to school person:

“So, how can I tell if they’re doing these things?” the manager asked.

“You won’t.  Your people will track themselves.” 

“How do I know it’s accurate?” the manager asked. “What if they lie?”

We bet he could trust them.  (p.71-72)

As I read about these measures, and started to think about what lead measures we might want to focus on, which is tricky, because we’re still, as a team, trying to determine our wildly important goal2, I realized that we don’t, in general, give our students much trust when it comes to how we ask them to pay attention to their learning.

We collect an awful lot of data about our students.  The third party tools that we buy for them to use as intervention, remediation, and sometimes textbook, collect lots of information about them, too.  But when do they get that information back in a way that could help them to manage their own learning better?

Could we build some tools that would help to foster metacognition and habits of attention that would help our students learn better?  Could we build them some compelling scoreboards and tools that they might use to get better at learning?  Can we help them build their own?

That’s a powerful idea for me right now.  And there are certainly others thinking about this.  Audrey Watters has written multiple thoughtful posts about the intersection of the Quantified Self movement and learning, and I’d encourage you to read her work.  And, as I asked in a post a short while back, I’d encourage you to be thinking about how your students interact with the data you collect with and about them.

Maybe, too, you should be helping them to determine their own data dashboards to help them reach their own “wildly important goals.”

Right?

  1. A metaphor that might be a bit stressed here, but stay with me []
  2. “Do learning better,” isn’t terribly specific. Nor is my current favorite: “Learn more better.”  Teacher version: “Teach more better.” []
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It’s Not About the Circuits. It’s About the Making.

I’ve had several really positive interactions this week and last about some of the work we’re starting in my school district around make/hack/play.  But in two conversations last week, I was struck that the folks asking me questions had equated “Making”1 with “building electronic circuits.”  That’s a bad connection, and I wish folks would move past it.

Sure, the Maker movement can point to the excitement around DIY projects like this or this or this, and I’ve been playing around with some of these little kits for building my own robots and circuits and small machines, but to say that the one is the same as the other is to miss the larger point2.

Of course, people, myself included, are pretty good as missing larger points.  Our brains like simple A=B connections.  They’re simpler and easier and faster than larger and longer points.  I know that I’m guilty, far too often, of being in a hurry to grasp a big idea and to speed things along I latch on to an analogy or an example that isn’t quite the whole thing, but is close enough to get me to the end of the conversation or the conflict or the beginning of the next thing.

If you put a thousand people in the same room, and start talking about “education technology,” a large group of them will know that you’re talking about computers in the classroom.  And another group will be certain that you’re talking mobile devices.  And a third will nod their collective heads, excited that you’ve grasped the importance of Big Data or content delivery.  “Ed Tech” is shorthand.  And real quick here, in the middle of a moment3 where the idea of Making and Makers and/or hackers is still really fresh and exciting and up for grabs, if even a little bit, let’s make sure we’re not going to fall into another trap of shorthanding some useful phrase into an empty nothingness of overgeneralization.

Gently and kindly, I’d like to say to you that Making isn’t just about circuits and transistors.  Or about robots and tank treads.  Or drones or LEDs embedded in belt buckles and clothing.  Making is more primal than that, and far too important to leave to the geeks with soldering irons.

The knitters are Makers.  As are the cooks.  The writers, the poets, and the children with construction paper, scissors and glue.  The kid making dresses and slacks in his basement is a Maker.  So is the young lady weaving flowers into bracelets and wreaths.

If you’re building something from the stuff you’ve got on hand, then you count.  You’re Making.  That’s a good thing.  And I want to help build cultures of Making and Makers that recognize that the thing made is less important than the habit of the Making.

It’s not the electronics that are essential for the 21st Century, though they are important.  It’s the idea that the world exists to be made better and fiddled with that matters.  And too often, at school, work, or in general in the world, the notion that stuff needs making and that people, even you, and maybe especially you, should get to making it is pushed aside and left for someone else.

So, sure, let’s get excited when the kids want to grab some parts and make a BattleBot.  But let’s get just as pumped when a different group of kids get the idea that there’s a play that needs writing.  And let’s lift them up, too.

Okay?

  1. I’m using the capital “M” when I talk about Making the movement.  Maybe I shouldn’t be. []
  2. This, by the way, isn’t a mistake that visible spokespeople of the Maker movement are making, I’d say.  They get this. []
  3. It may not be the middle of the moment.  It may be past it.  But it feels like it’s still malleable to me, at least. []
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#beyondthetextbook – Considering Inputs

I’ve been meaning to write more about the idea, expressed by many at DML, myself included, that we need to be paying lots more attention to our inputs in education, rather than our outputs. I wrote a note to myself near the end of the conference so I wouldn’t forget:

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  • So we need APIs that’ll help us pull our data out of the tools we use and put it into the tools that we use so that we can build dashboards of useful data
  • input information, not output information – but maybe some of both – descriptive tools – not prescriptive ones this is important and I need to write about it
  • inputs rather than outputs; experiences rather than tests
  • describing the learning by the institution – not so much on the student1

Mimi Ito, responding to Doug and my ideas, said it like this in a really solid summary of the entire DML 2012 Conference:

We need to be looking much more at the connections, relationships, and spirit of inquiry that goes into the system, and focusing less on optimizing measures and pathways that sort kids, schools, and teachers based on output metrics.

The continuing comments on my last post, as well as some of the thinking I saved to do for later, are helping me to make more sense of the notion of focusing on inputs, at least how that might relate to the #beyondthetestbook conversation.

I think the emphasis on educational outputs, i.e. test scores and not much else, is pretty wrongheaded. And it leads to the degradation of the educational environments that we should be building up. But we knock them down instead, in the name of what we get out of them.

One of the more interesting elements of John Seely Brown’s keynote at DML was his discussion of how gamers build dashboards, or collections of vital, real time information, to help them complete complex elements of the game. He referenced World of Warcraft, in particular, but I suspect this is true of many games and the gamers that play them. Certainly, this is true for me as a learner and as a grownup – I collect the necessary data that I need when I’m learning about something or making a decision about it. Brown suggested that such dashboards for learning might be things that students need to make2.

And I began to wonder what the dashboards for learning might need to look like. Certainly, the value isn’t in the dashboard so much as it is in the making of the thing – identifying what one needs to know in order to do the thing he or she wants to accomplish. And so the creation of a good dashboard for learning is certainly dependent on the availability of the necessary raw materials that someone would need to cobble together to build such a dashboard for learning.

So I went looking for those raw materials. And it’s pretty clear to me that students, in general, don’t have those sorts of materials readily available. Even if schools wanted to encourage students to make these sorts of dashboards for learning, they couldn’t do so3.

I found two places in my daily life that have useful dashboard for learning stats available. Here they are:

The first is from this blog’s WordPress Dashboard – a pretty simple collection of information. The second is from my Amazon account – which is a bit deceptive. I’m not reading 39 Clues – my daughter Ani is, but I think it’s interesting that I’ve got a limited look at what Amazon sees when they look at me.

I know it’s limited because Amazon certainly knows an awful lot more about me than they let me look back at. They know what I highlight. What page I’m on in every book I’ve used. How long I spend on each page. How often I flip back and forth. What I do on their website after I’ve read a particular book or books. And much, much more. I can get to a few of those items. Not most.

If only they’d share some of that information back with me. Imagine if schools had that sort of information about students’ reading habits? Suppose the books themselves could tell the teacher if they were being read4?

And if students could examine their own reading habits and limitations, and fiddle around with the data their devices and systems were collecting on them, then perhaps those dashboards for learning wouldn’t be so hard to create after all.

Dan Meyer said something the other day about dashboards via Twitter5. I responded that, certainly, portfolios could be dashboards for learning. He replied that portfolios aren’t so “heads up,” or words to that effect. And he was right. Portfolios are too output heavy, and not useful for quick glances along the learning way.

But building portfolios, now that’s a fine way of figuring out if you’ve learned anything.

So the question for textbooks, then, is this – how can a text provide data about its use to those who use it? How can students own and manage and fiddle with that data to track/monitor/explore their learning? And how can we create spaces within our books for students to make sense of their learning? How can our students’ inputs be privileged in the texts that we make, use and create at school?

Dan sketches out, here, how a math text might look when spaces for inputs are considered thoughtfully. I wonder about how teachers and students can meaningfully share annotations via their texts. I wonder what tools could provide this sort of input information easily – Instapaper, I’m thinking, or Evernote, have fabulous collections of data about their users. I use those tools daily to help me learn things. How could they make my data available to me in more useful ways? What sorts of infrastructures would need to exist for that data to be useful in a dashboard for learning?

And, of course, I wonder about the other inputs that are worth wondering about. What am I not considering in terms of inputs? How are you considering inputs in your work?

  1. This was in reference to comments by Gever Tulley that much of assessment in his school is done by the staff and about the experiences they’ve created – did they accomplish what they wanted them to, etc. – and there’s less emphasis on what each individual student learned. The students themselves are focused on what they’ve learned. There’s some control left for them in their learning. []
  2. And the making resonated with me – it’s less about the actual dashboard, and more about owning a process through laying hands on the data and the pieces and building something out of them. []
  3. Maybe I was wrong about this – are there data sources that I’m not thinking about? []
  4. Certainly, students would figure out ways to game these systems, but tracking inputs could be a fine way to see what a student was doing – and where they were stuck, or confused, or frustrated, or what have you. There’s potential there. There’s also danger there – tracking data and privacy concerns are important and worthy of consideration. []
  5. I looked, quickly, but couldn’t find the exact tweet. My apologies. []
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Not #beyondthetextbook. #betterthetextbook

A big bunch of friends, associates, colleagues, and interesting strangers will be sitting in a conference room in Maryland this weekend, talking about the future of textbooks. This is market research, but hopefully semi-public and sharable to others. I suspect it’ll be an interesting conversation.

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I’ve written before about some of what I think needs to happen when it comes to textbooks at schools. And my colleague, Kyle, is working very hard with our curriculum staff to prototype some of what our new curricular resources might look like. But I thought it would make sense to share some thoughts here, as grist for the mill of conversations in Maryland.

I’m hoping that folks’ll at least take some time to make sure they’re working from shared definitions when it comes to words like “textbooks” and “resources.” Might not hurt to define “curriculum.” The problem with those words, and others that are likely to come up in the conversation, is that “everyone knows what they mean.” But they know that differently. Shared definitions matter.

I’d humbly offer this definition for textbook – “A collection of information organized around thoughtful principles intended to provide support to instruction.” It’s not the best definition – I’m sure there are better1 – but before you go too far into a conversation about moving beyond something, it’d be good to have a sense of what it is that you’re going to move beyond.

I might drop “book” from the word, but I’m divided on that, as I’ve learned it’s hard enough for people to consider that video or audio are “texts.”2 The book part really bugs people. That said, a “book” has never been a codex. That’s the delivery technology.

In your conversations this weekend, try to separate the delivery technology – the way the information gets to the people – from the information you’re trying to send. If you argue that “the Internet is the textbook,” then you have failed to separate delivery from information. You can’t completely separate the two – the way something comes to you affects what you get, of course – but try to at least be aware of the two elements. And take advantage of the right delivery tools to allow for the types of stuff you want to see your textbooks do.

Also try to refrain from overgeneralization. “Textbooks are dead,” might feel good to say, or to retweet, but is a foolish statement. No, BYOD solutions aren’t the only answer. Student 1:1 environments aren’t the only answer. There is no one size fits all answer to the problems you are trying to solve. Platform and device neutrality and Web standards are pieces of the puzzle you’re trying to solve. So is on-demand printing. Or sometimes mass printing. Paper is not the enemy, nor are screens the savior.

Don’t be afraid of relying on expertise. Expertise, after all, is what you’re looking for in a textbook. The reason for textbooks is to bring a collection of human expertise on something together. But do not let that expertise lie in a publisher’s office alone.

The best textbooks moving forward are likely those that start with small building blocks from publishers, OER repositories, classrooms, websites, movie studios, and pretty much any other source for interesting information, and they become textbooks when they are hung onto a curriculum frame by a local school district. This might be done by a committee of teachers, or a small group of curriculum coordinators in a front office somewhere, but what important is that it’s not done by a salesperson seeking to please a state official in Texas or California.

The shift that I hope is coming in instructional sources is the local creation and curation of this stuff, followed by the local distribution of it to students. Some of this local curation work will be scalable and useful to other places – that is one advantage, for both business and school interests, of the Common Core State Standards. But lots of it won’t.

If textbook companies want to sell us things for and in the rest of the 21st Century, they should be selling the building blocks of content. Small pieces. They should be selling expertise and guidance in how to create these local curriculum creation teams. They might sell the platforms that help us to put the pieces together and distribute them to our communities. Discovery actually does this now – and could lead in this area.

But no publisher can sell us monolithic books written for imaginary populations of lowest common denominators. That’s why folks are so angry with and about textbooks – in the race to create One Book to lead them all, our publishers gave us stuff that wasn’t super-duper for anybody. And we bought it.

We’ve got to better the textbook. Not move beyond it.

Looking forward to seeing what folks come up with during the conversation. I suspect I’ll have more to say on the matter.

  1. Wikipedia’s isn’t bad. []
  2. Wikipedia even has trouble differentiating between the format and the content in their definition of “book.” But the entry on the term still might be useful. So, too, would “text.” []
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Brushing Back Cobwebs

I was reminded tonight of Karl’s post about writing poorly in public.1  I’ve been stuck lately, and not in a good way.  The words haven’t been coming as I’d like for them to.

Which is a bit of a fib.  I’ve also not been making the time for them these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been in need of a break, or so my body has been telling me, and so I’ve not forced myself to follow old habits and sit patiently at the keyboard and bang away until I’m not disgusted by what I see.

I’ve been reading instead.  It’s been good to give myself the break from writing.  Reading, in some ways, is much easier than writing2, and through my reading, I can let ideas sit on the back burner of my brain, stewing and simmering into something.  But, eventually, and maybe that’s now, I’ve got to do something with what’s stewing back there.

So here we are.

Later tonight, I’m going to put the finishing touches on a draft for a proposal for a series of teacher researcher badges for the DML Teacher Badges Competition.  Why?
That’s a question I’ve been wondering pretty heavily about since the first badges competition was announced earlier this fall.

And I’m still not sure.  But it seems to me that this is one of those times where I’d rather figure out the value of something by fiddling with it rather than flinging rocks from a safe distance.  The more I hear how folks want to use badges, the less I’m convinced they’re transformative.  New bottles.  Old wine.  Vinegar, even.

But suppose I’m wrong.

  1. Which is really Seth Godin’s post about writing poorly in public, I guess. []
  2. In other ways, much more difficult. []
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When Badges Backfire

One of several things that worries me about the DML focus on badges is that it’s entirely possible that a badge will backfire.  Badly.

If a badge’s purpose is to motivate folks who are doing interesting work on the fringe of school or teaching and learning, well, that’s very tricky business for a couple of reasons.

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It’s possible, likely even, that the folks already doing the work on the fringe don’t need the motivation. They are, of course, already doing the work.  And the institutionalization of the fringe work may well kill the work that you were trying to cultivate.  It might be that the fringe was what made the work, ahem, work.

And so the badge saps the motivation from those who were already motivated and kills the thing they were motivated to do before the badge came along.  That’s before it may, or likely may not, bring new folks to the work to witness its horrible death1.

That wouldn’t really help.

But, because I believe badges are here to stay, and they’ll likely be with us for some time, and I hope in my better moments that my cynical self is ultimately wrong about them, then it makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity.  The trick, in supporting badges, then, is to think about badges that wouldn’t actually be motivational enough to start folks doing the work, but would be handy to have for other reasons.  Credentialing, perhaps, or community discovery.  And you’d want to focus those badges on work that can live in the mainstream, and won’t die when brought from the fringe.

If you’re counting on a badge to serve as a motivator, a reason to get students into the game, then I’m thinking you’re miscounting.  But, if you’re wanting to use a badge much in the same way as Pac-Man uses power pellets, or Sonic uses rings, or Mario gold coins, then you may well be on to something.  Don’t let the badge be the carrot.  Let it serve as a map or a pointer.  Don’t let the badge sell the game – but let it add to the gameplay.2

And make sure that the organizations that are supporting the badges are the ones that you want pointing the way.

In my next post, I’m going to lay out why I believe that the National Writing Project, or some organization like them, should be pushing hard to propose a teacher inquiry or practitioner research badge.  They’re they right people to do so, and teacher research is certainly worth of more attention in our schools.  And teacher researchers could use tools like badges to help them find one another.

But that’s not the best reason to badge teacher researchers.  I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

In the meantime, what other stuff might you add to the list of useful badges?

  1. I recognize this is a cynical-sounding viewpoint.  I would enjoy being proven wrong here. []
  2. I also recognize that using a game metaphor here might be a bad idea – because plenty of the folks who are eager to see badges in play would also like to turn school into a big game.  That school, in many ways, already is a big game, just not a very engaging one, is another conversation for a different day. []
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Ruminations on Implications: Notes from the Thesis

I’m taking a break from writing up the implications portion of my thesis by coming over here to write some more.  I’m beginning to get to the place in my research that I have some definite things to say about what I found out.  But I’m having some trouble saying them.  Not because I know what they are – but, I think, because of what I’m using to write.  Word is not where I go to think.  It’s where I go to comply.  When I need to think about something, I come here, to a WordPress window in my browser1.

So maybe I’ll just try to do a little bit of freewriting here and see how it goes.  Here’s what I think I know right now as it relates to my research.

To start with, here are my research questions:

  • What does reading and writing for school-related purposes look like in school-sponsored online writing spaces?
  • Who is doing the writing in these spaces? The reading?
  • Are the new tools and affordances of online digital writing, tools like hyperlinks, and affordances like immediate publication and world-wide audience, a factor in these spaces?  If so, how?

While it’s certainly not a definitive collection of all the writing that’s happening in my school district, I’m going to take a guess and say that the three weeks of blog posts from the beginning of this school year that I’ve looked at in the course of my study are a good-sized sample of the public writing happening in my school district.

And, to start with, there’s just not enough of it.  In three weeks, I can count on both hands the number of classrooms doing public writing in this space.  And that leaves me with three fingers left to count other things.

Are students and teachers blogging or writing online2 in other spaces?  Certainly.  One of the limitations of my study, one that I knew would be a problem for some of what I was wondering about, was that I am limited to public stuff.  If I wanted a fuller picture of what the writing that’s happening online in my school district looks like, I need to interrogate our district’s Moodle.  I need to peer into our district implementation of Google Docs.  On Thursday, a teacher in our district started sharing a Google Docs collection with me from one of his classes.  He was excited about the number of texts they were producing together.  I’ve not yet opened the folder – but I’ve watched a hundred or so documents enter into my document list.  Sometimes in real time, I’ve seen them drop into place.

Writing is happening. But why not here?3

Here’s what I know about the writiing that I am seeing:

  • Students and teachers aren’t talking to each other, for the most part, via the blog engine.  I suspect they are talking in class, but they’re not writing back and forth in these spaces.  Three quarters of the posts I saw during the period of the study contained no comments.  Of the ones that held comments, only another large handful could be considered any sort of conversation – back and forth between the author of the post and the commenter(s).  If these students are writing because they expect an audience, well, then they’re still waiting.
  • Because no one’s responding, there’s a sense that no one’s reading.  Multiple times, I saw little snippets of text, clearly put up as tests, or left behind as mistakes, that weren’t taken down or adjusted.  Why bother, if no one’s looking – or it doesn’t seem like anyone is?
  • The kind of writing that’s being asked of students in these spaces?  Well, it’s interesting – I can break it down into three types – daily summaries, written collectively by elementary school classes; reflective essays about various topics; and responses to teacher questions.  Lots of it is writing that doesn’t require a blog.  And it’s writing that involves very, very, very little source material.  Very few quotes.  Very few links.  And the links, when they’re present, are not  embedded in the text.  They lie naked and open in the text.  And that seems problematic to me4
  • The writing that staff are doing is a little bit better5 – like students, they’re writing reflective essays, and sharing lots of newslettery information.  But I can’t be sure, from this data set, if the folks they want to reach are being reached through this vehicle.
In short, the blog engine seems to me, in this data set, at least, an utter failure underutilized tool.
And perhaps that’s an okay place to stop for right this moment.
  1. And, yeah, I suppose that means that I’ve a significant bias about blogs and the power of blogging that, if I haven’t yet, I need to be sure to disclose somewhere in the thesis. []
  2. Oddly, in my world, and perhaps in yours, the word “blogging” has come to mean anything written in a Web browser that isn’t an email, no matter where it ends up.  Isn’t that interesting?  I might be a blog snob, but that bugs me.  And it probably shouldn’t.  It’s less of a problem for me than it used to be – I don’t correct people now when they say that.  I used to. []
  3. That’s not one of my research questions.  So what? []
  4. But, again, I may well be a blog snob.  But if the potential of the “writing of the 21st Century” is that it happens online and organically and is connected to other texts and blah blah blah – suppose it’s not.  Is that *bad* or *problematic* or just unfortunate?  Or is it just so?  As I’m in the middle of arguing that we need to make sure students have the tools to do this sort of work, a body of data that suggests, nah, it’s not so important,” is a little bit problematic. []
  5. Oops – judgement again.  Might need a better word than, ahem, “better.” []
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Digging Out My Sash

I took a quick peek at the Mozilla Open Badges project a little while back, and liked what I saw.

It’s an attempt to create an open infrastructure for badges around the Web. I like the technical pieces that allow anyone to offer any badge to anyone else in a consistent way. It makes sense to build tools that work for everybody, and that are open. I like that.

And I thought I was something I’d want to explore later, as I’m always looking for ways to help make the professional development I’m doing to make sense to other people. Maybe, I thought, a badge could help1. I put that idea on a side burner.

Then yesterday happened, and I’m going to have to pay a great deal of attention to the project. In a hurry.

That’s because this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition is all about the badges.

It was fascinating to listen to the announcement2 and to follow along as the tweets came rolling in. It was, and is, also fascinating to consider the possibilities opened up through the use of badges to build portfolios of experiences and skillsets, to show the world what students, of all ages, can learn and do.

Except. Hang on a second.

I’m writing this post when I should be working on my thesis. The thesis is the last thing I’ve got to do in order to earn my badge Master’s degree in English Education. But it seems like there’s an awful lot of important questions wrapped inside assumptions in DML’s competition announcement. Felt right to at least try to get them down.

The Twitter stream of commentary, a piece of which was captured earlier by Audrey, was chock full o’ questions and concerns. Alex and plenty of other folks have all written thoughtfully about the announcement. It was clear to me, as I watched the announcement follow up panel, that the group, as a whole, didn’t have a consistent idea about what badges were/are/for/might do. I heard each of these possibilities:

Badges as credentialing

Badges, I heard, might be used as a way of denoting that someone has a particular skillset in a field in which there might not be a current credentialling method. Makes sense, and is the most straight forward use of a badge. Think Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Medal of Honor.

Badges as awarding credit

This one seems mostly similar to the previous function of credentialling, but it’s not. Quite. Earning a badge that counts as credit would require that a credit-granting institution3 would accept the badge in lieu of another requirement. Put enough badges together, and you get a really advanced badge. Or a diploma. Or a degree. So, not only can you do something in the eyes of an institution, but will another institution believe them and let you take a pass on their test of competency?

Badges as a way of honoring non-school learning

I’ve written before about how I find some of the most interesting learning taking place on the edge of school and home, in semi-school spaces. After school clubs. Fringe projects. And I want that learning to “count,” in the sense that I don’t think that teachers should have to fight so hard for those types of learning experiences. But I wonder if the best way to honor that learning is to make sure it stays out of school. If, as I heard a panelist say during the announcement, school is so ineffective and terrible at learning, then shouldn’t we try to fix school? Might we want to move some of the good semi-school learning into the classroom?4

If badges are an attempt to rebuild school, well, that might be a fascinating idea. Or a terrible one.

Badges as motivation

Students will be more inclined to go after a particular type of learning, I heard, if there were a motivator to push or pull the student along.5 That’s a dangerous reason to even consider a badge, I think, as I know enough about motivation to know that, as soon as the badges go away, the learning stops. Not good. Uh uh. Don’t pursue this one.

Badges as assessment

Actually, the badges wouldn’t be the assessments – just proof of their successful completion. And that’s where this starts to get tricky for me. For one thing, I don’t think enough folks understand that a badge involves assessment of one sort or another. And it’s the assessments and experiences that we want to fiddle with in school.

Badges as curriculum design

If badges can count as far as credit in traditional schools and universities, then badge program designers are now curriculum designers. What I didn’t hear at the announcement, but hope to hear about soon, is how folks might think about the Common Core SS, the current consortia developing the next generation of school assessments, and their thinking about badges.

Those were the purposes I heard in the time I was listening. And that’s complex stuff.

Other folks, I’m sure, who are smarter and more articulate than I am, will soon start talking about this work and what it means for power relationships between traditional schooling and other institutions.6 But what I’m not hearing people talk about, or suggest that they understand, is what it is that it means to “count.” I mean count in two senses of the word – both the mathematical meaning of seeing how many of something that you have, but also the way a student asks when they’re handed an assignment – will this count? Does it matter?

And, at school, we’ve done a bad thing by tying “counting” or “mattering” to “grading.”

If all badges do is fiddle with the object that students are taught to worship, rather than working to eliminate idol worship altogether, then there’s not much sense in exploring them.

If badges transform all grades that matter into “pass/fail” situations, well, that might be something. To match what students can do with their academic credentials as measured by actual performance tasks would be a good thing7.

But, if the DML competition encourages thinking and writing and exploration and action around ideas like the idea that any accountability system, or accreditation system, is ultimately a subjective system, made by people, however we design it, then I say, let’s rock. But let’s do so carefully.

Badges are not magical. They do not cure cancer. They are unable to stop large (or small) scale forest fires. Badges, particularly digital ones, cannot be eaten. The digital kind can’t even be burned for fuel. Badges do not make children smarter, or hard work less difficult.

But they’re certainly worth talking about, if they might lead to productive change. And, if they’re going to make a grand entrance in teaching and learning, at school and in the community, then I hope to goodness that teachers are paying attention.

  1. Give us a way to show scope and sequence, or perhaps a “brand” for our teachers in a way that would be postiive. I wasn’t sure, and still am not. []
  2. I only caught the second half, but I think that was the really fascinating bit. []
  3. school, university, etc. []
  4. Or, can that learning only happen on the fringes? If that’s the case, then I want more fringe. []
  5. Cathy explains that idea further here, in point four of a definition of badges. []
  6. As I was about to post this, I ran across this post from Alex. And while I don’t have a place to stick this quotation properly in the text, I wanted to save it and share it with you, so here it is: What I believe we must resist is mistaking real motivation and meaningful learning for increasing our value as a human commodity in the marketplace. I’m fairly sure that education doesn’t make us “better” humans. I don’t even think learning can make us “more” human (whatever that might be), though it could expand our experience in interesting ways. The one thing we have to prevent is schooling making us feelless human. []
  7. Parents and plenty of other people would have trouble, for a time, as ranking their children to other people’s children might be more difficult, but that would pass. []
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“Pummeled by a Deluge”

Rebecca Blood, a lifetime ago in Internet time, wrote of weblogs:

We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions.

And when I read Dean yesterday talking of owning one’s space to share one’s words, and then Tony’s post about the value of Twitter, I am reminded that I lean on Dean’s side of this conversation.  Twitter is to relationships as wheel decals are to roller skates. Nice to have and to use, but far from essential.

Twitter is the spice that flavors what you’re putting on the table.  It might be the after dinner snack.  It may well be the connective tissue that flavors the stew1.  But it’s not the meal.  It’s part of the deluge2, and we must push against it,  building spaces where we can be thoughtful.

 

  1. Because you just needed one more awkward meal metaphor in there, didn’t you? []
  2. At least sometimes. []
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