Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What is Online Learning Anyway?

Yesterday I attended a brainstorm/information session about the possiblity of creating some online hybrid classes for some of the schools in our consortium. The rational for such a move would be to try to keep students enrolled in our schools who might be tempted to transfer to an online school. While the intentions with this are good there are some fundamental questions that this raised for me.

First, why do students choose to attend an online school? I know from also working for an online provider that many online schools attract students who normally would not attend tradional public school. These include students who would otherwise be homeschooled, students who have had problems in their traditional settings ranging from bullies to expulsion, students who have physical disabilities that prevent them from leaving their homes, and students who are not challenged in a classroom where the teacher has to teach to the middle child. Which of these students would be served by a hybrid class? Certainly families who want to keep their children at home would prefer homeschooling or 100% online instruction to a hybrid. Students who leave because of problems with bullies most likely won't escape that problem in a hybrid class where they might meet with those students once or twice a week. If we expel a student we are excluding them from a hybrid class as well. This leaves a narrow margin of students who would be better served because a hybrid course might provide a more customizable learning environment. Then, if a learning environment can be customized in a hybrid setting for some students why not apply the same principles to all instruction?

Second, what benefits are there to online learning above F2F instruction? It seems the biggest benefit to online learning is customization. Students in online schools can often login and do their work whenever it best suits them. Learning plans can be customized much easier for online students because in large part they work in isolation or at most in very small groups. Additionally, when a student is in a classroom full of other students in a traditional setting they can opt to learn passively. It is not possible to be a passive learner in an online class. Passivity in an online class is the equivalent of truancy. So, the two big advantages to online learning are customization and active learning.

Third, how could online instruction benefit from a f2f component? It seems the only thing that really is lacking in online instruction are strong syncronous learning experiences. Lectures can be recorded and watched. Engaging projects can be assigned that promote self-directed learning and inquiry. And the computer can be used to automate many assessments. What is left? Field trips, class discussion, and some forms of experiential learning (lab and studio projects). Therefore, in a hybrid setting the f2f component should be reserved for reflective dialog and experiential learning.

Fourth, where do these students go if for the rest of the day they have to follow a traditional bell schedule? If a student is enrolled in one hybrid course but are still in their classes for the rest of the day it seems to negate one of the benefits of a hybrid course: flexible scheduling. If a student still has to abide by a bell schedule for seven of eight hours of the day but has one hour somewhere in the middle for a hybrid, what are they doing for that hour on days they don't meet? Do they work alone in the media center? Do they go home just to turn around and come right back almost after they walk in the door? It seems this can only work if a student has a lot of hybrid classes. For instance, maybe they come to school in the morning for a traditional schedule but only have hybrid classes in the afternoon. That way they might only be in school one full day and the rest of the week they have the option of spending a whole afternoon on each class or spreading out the workload over time. The only way this works is if enough classes are offered this way. If only a handful of courses are offered this way the project is doomed for failure because one of the big advantages is negated.

Fifth, what is online learning anyway? Online learning is a term we hear a lot and it is generally used as a term to describe schooling done on the computer. This has come to be seen as somewhat revolutionary but to those who don't understand it it sounds like a one-size-fits-all scenario. It seems ridiculous to lump this into a category for a model of learning. Would you ever say that you are enrolling in a book learning option or a video learning option? Learning is learning and good learning should utilize all relevant modes. This includes online tools and resources as well as text, video, games, face-to-face, experiential learning, and every other mode or model we have. The online tools and resources that make online schools possible are really just another tool at the disposal of teachers in any setting. Any class can be a hybrid class. The question is whether or not those tools fit learning objectives or whether or not they make fiscal sense for the school system.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Ideas For Education - Phase 3

I have been following David Warlick's "Big Ideas For Education" project over at 2 Cents Worth and have found it quite engaging so far. If you have not seen this project or participated I encourage you to visit the project website and take a look. There are still two days left in Phase 3 where he asks bloggers to blog about the ideas participants from phase 1 and 2 came up with for recommendations to the President-Elect's Department of Education. The following is my reply:

Schools have pretty much been the same for 100+ years. Why have they not significantly changed when our world has? I believe we are nearing the dawn of an awakening and revolution in education. Some might argue it has already started to happen. Our public schools, and the compulsory education curriculum, were originally founded upon two main overt purposes: to produce an informed citizenry, and produce a productive workforce. One aim is chiefly Jeffersonian and the other Hamiltonian. Underlying both of these aims is a hidden goal to produce an obedient population. While all three of these goals have their merits, certainly it is better to be informed, productive, and lawful than ignorant, lazy, and criminal, there lies in these aims a basic flaw.

In an attempt to create an informed electorate a curriculum or group of standards must be developed. The people who write this curriculum have a lot of power to influence the thoughts and opinions of others. By choosing to show someone one thing or not show another our thoughts on a topic can be changed dramatically. Just look at the role of evidence in court cases. So, in an attempt to create an informed electorate our schools result in stifling free thought. Curriculum, even with it's best intentions, can be nothing more than state sponsored propaganda.

During both the industrial revolution and the ag-based economy that preceded it we needed workers who were productive and could follow instructions. Many of the mainstays of traditional education were very good at training students to become obedient, non-questioning, producers. Chief among these are our traditional notions of homework. Much of this homework was, and still is, simply busywork and does not effectively reinforce stated learning objectives. What it did and still does teach is the endurance to work through mindless tasks. This is a valuable skill if you work on an assembly line and have to spend all day following instructions from your boss or carrying out repetitive mindless tasks. However, most of those jobs are gone today. Writers like Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman, and Clay Shirky all agree that what is needed in our workforce are creative thinkers. Any job that can be reduced to automation is either going to be replaced by software or it is going to be outsourced. This aim of producing a productive workforce has squashed the new need for a creative workforce.

This third aim of compulsory education of creating an obedient population is also problematic. While this aim has never been stated overtly, it is overwhelmingly apparent in how we structure our schools. Sit Down! Be Quite! Do Your Work! Our high school students follow a bell schedule, often sit in neatly ordered rows, and are forced to follow a set of rules meant to maintain an authoritative structure. These rules often are impediments to inquiry, free thought, and creativity. We do things like ban cell phones rather than use them to engage students in learning. We impose penalties for trite infringements like wearing a hat in class. And we stifle reflection and dialogue by maintaining that our classrooms need to be quiet. And what happens when a teacher, the pedagog, decides to bunk this system and promote inquiry, reflection, creativity, and free thought? The school removes the pedagog.

I believe we are on the cusp of a great awakening in education. School choice, differentiated instruction, homeschooling, online learning, alternative education, and the charter movement are all addressing the questions underlying what has been wrong with our traditional school system. Each addresses something different but all are important in the public discourse about what schools are for. All are disruptive innovations, as Clayton Christensen describes, that will cause the ultimate demise of our traditional public school system.

When the camera was invented the visual arts went through an identity crisis known to the art world as Modernism. Modernism was all about defining what art was. With the camera art was no longer necessary for simply creating images, the camera was much more efficient at that. The artist was not needed for the same reasons they were needed before. This identity crisis produced as many theories of art or art genres as there are theories of education. The information economy and flattened world, brought on by advances in both information technology and automation, is to public schooling what the camera was to art. Without having the same workforce needs we did in the past and with unlimited information at our fingertips we no longer really have any need for schooling as we have always known it.

Now, we are at a point where we need to do some serious reflection about what our education needs are in our country. What are schools for? What is the end product of schooling? What do we value? What do we need? It seems these last two questions are pivotal. Before, we needed schooling to produce workers for a production economy based entirely on infinite growth and citizens to support that economy. It seems that two issues facing our country are colliding here. One is public schooling but the other is the economy. Our economy is a mess right now. I believe this mess has been a direct result of the systems need to continually grow. How much do we really need? At what point do our needs erode our environment? Has our culture grown to value profit above happiness? As we work to address all of these issues we all need to take a deep look at ourselves and decide what is important. If we continue on the industrial economic paradigm projections show we will not be able to compete with other emerging superpowers like China and India. If we continue down this path we have been on we will ultimately loose that game but also pollute the Earth to the extent that quality of life issues will be physiological, not just psychological. Since we will be destroying our earth in the process, the economic game we have been playing is a zero sum end game.

How do you get out of a zero sum end game? Change the rules of the game. Change the reason for playing. Another product of the flat world is the assimilation of different cultural ideas. This might be our saving grace. There are cultures on this planet that have fundamentally different values. Bhutan, for instance, measures their national level of happiness and that is used to measure their success or failure, not monetary or material gains. Material possessions, levels of happiness, as well as the environment are aspects of our quality of life. Rather than focus on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) the change we need is a shift in our focus to GQL (Gross Quality of Life). Any education policy must address this. Education ought to enrich students, grow their curiosity, expand their minds, and foster their creativity. Support of charter schools, online education, alternative education, and homeschooling are all a step in the right direction.

People are waking up. The awakening is happening. Dropout rates are on the rise. Homeschooling is on the rise. Online schools have seen a 30% annual increase in enrollment for the past seven years. Charter schools are springing up everywhere. Teachers like Clay Burell are leaving school and pursuing an unschooly attitude toward education. All the while, our public schools are cutting programs that arguably contribute more toward GQL than what they are keeping in reaction declining enrollment.

Our national curriculum should not be a list of things we have to learn but rather an open curriculum that promotes inquiry. The arts, physical education, vocational programs, and extra curricular activities need more emphasis. Our schools must promote inquiry, honor free thought, foster creativity, and honor independence. Wake up! The awakening has begun. This revolution will not be televised, but it will be available on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Delicous, Twitter, Plurk, Myspace, Blogger, Wordpress, Vimeo, Blip.tv, Ustream.tv, and Google.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Building Your Own Personal Learning Network

Here is a new video I just finished meant to show teachers how a personal learning network can work and illustrate some tools that can be utilized to build one.


Building Your Own Personal Learning Network from Carl Anderson on Vimeo.

What Are Schools For?

I came across these two thought provoking videos today that put into serious question the role of and value of compulsory education. I am not sure I agree with the overall message being put forth here (they smack of conspiracy theories). I do think they shine a light on an issue all schools need to face. I think we need to be talking about the issues raised by these videos and have a serious public discourse about the role of schools, their purpose, and how we can improve them.

What are your thoughts/reactions?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Technology Integrationist In Chief

Yesterday afternoon I read this article from the Associated Press that gave me goosebumps. I can't begin to articulate how exciting this prospect is. It seems that just as Obama utilized the power of social media to build a fantastic campaign his administration is going to continue the use of similar technologies to communicate with the public and give citizens a voice to affect policy. Imagine, a White House blog where people can comment on proposed legislation bypassing old channels to get their message to the president. Imagine a weekly YouTube message from the president (the new fireside chat?). Imagine a govergnment social network that allows people to be grouped by geographic location or interest group that could be called upon to effect change locally. If nothing else this is likely to lead to a much more informed electorate.

We still have 67 days before Obama takes office though. In the meantime they have set up a site where you can submit your vision for the country and send letters to the president-elect. The policy window is open and now is the time to voice your ideas. Go to http://www.change.gov.

YouTube & Student Speech Class

Last year our high school staff all received laptops with integrated webcams. Most teachers said, "Why would I want to have a webcam?" Believe me, I was asking the same question two years ago. Today I find a webcam absolutely essential for what I do. This fall I was able to talk our high school speech teacher into trying something new using her integrated webcam. She would use YouTube's Quick Capture feature to record and publish student speeches to her YouTube Channel. Then, at the end of the week she brought each of her classes to the computer lab to critique each other's speeches by posting comments on each other's videos.

This method has many advantages. First, since the students know their speeches will be published for anyone to view it forces them to think more about their audience. Second, by tagging videos appropriately it can intice people outside the class to offer their feedback. Finally, allowing students this method of critiquing each other's videos provides the potential that students will get more feedback on their speech.

So, in an attempt to help promote this here is my request. Visit the site, watch one or two student speeches and offer some commentary.

Getting on Board With Google Docs

For the last year and a half I have been promoting Google Docs among the staff at the school where I work as a Technology Integration Specialist. When I first started using Google Docs two years ago I thought it was a no brainer that teachers would want their students using it as well. I was convinced it would replace the standard office suite and I still am despite Microsoft's reported efforts to move their suite online in the next version. Regardless of platform cloud computing is revolutionizing the software business and making possible collaborations not possible before. If the collaborative features alone are not attractive enough to invest a little time to get comfortable with these services the fact that student's work can be available from any computer anywhere should seal the deal.

You would think.

As with other technologies I have promoted and teaching strategies I have promoted to take advantage of new and existing technologies for education I hit a wall. I found that I could talk all I want about how great Google Docs or Zoho or other online office suites are but unless teachers see a need to change what they are using or are given enough time and incentive the change is not likely to happen. This isn't always true though. Last week I introduced Xtranormal to our staff and immediately a few teachers started using it with their students. This is because sites like Xtranormal provide something fun and engaging that did not exist before. We have word processors, we have spreadsheets, we have PowerPoint, what more do you need?

Well, I may have stumbled onto a solution today. Toward the end of the last school year I started introducing Google Docs to students who had some unique problems that Google Docs could solve but Microsoft Word could not. These students all thought Google Docs was great and started using it as their office suite of choice. They even got a few of their friends on board. This got me thinking that maybe if I want our staff to make the shift to using more cloud services the change can be more efficiently accomplished by the students.

Today I learned that our 7th grade English/Social Studies teacher was having every 7th grader create a Google Docs account and that he was going to expect students to use it to submit their work to him by assigning him as a collaborator on every document for his class. He was also going to give them their assignments by assigning all students as viewers or collaborators of documents in his account. Now, if he did this every year, within 6 years all students grades 7-12 will be using Google Docs which will encourage the other teachers to jump on board as well.

I also have to mention the other variable involved here. Our school was using old thin clients for most of our labs for many years. Last year I acquired from the federal government enough Pentium 4 PCs to replace all of these severely out dated machines with actual computers. Problem came with our Microsoft licenses. We did not have enough licenses for all of these machines so instead of ponny up the money for them we installed OpenOffice. The students didn't really like OpenOffice all that much. There were features they were used to having in Microsoft Word that OpenOffice doesn't have and they kept running into filetype frustrations. While OpenOffice is a great program it still can't outperform Microsoft Office. This gave us an oportunity to give the students a choice. If they were unhappy with OpenOffice they could use Google Docs or Zoho instead. Many students made the shift. Now with all 7th graders making the shift we will see how long it takes before our school is completely on board.

Next step: Put the staff development budget on Google Docs and assign members of the group as collaborators.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Open Source & Education

I came across this panel discussion of education fellows today at Pop!Tech. Fascinating and powerful discussion regarding open source principles in education and education reform.

At the end of this video a question is asked, "With all of this technology, what is lost?" What are your thoughts?

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I have been playing around this week with a new web2 service called Xtranormal. I am extremely pleased with this really really really cool tool. Xranormal provides for teachers a very easy way to make high quality animated movies. You don't even have to create an account to use this service. All you do is choose what characters you want in your movie from a list they have available, choose your settings, abient sounds or background music, and type the dialog each character says. There is a click and drag interface for changing camera angles and making the "actors" do gestures.

I see great application of this tool in education. Kids can make stories come alive. This tool puts the focus in movie making on writing which is huge.

With the Video Download Helper Firefox add-on installed you can extract a finished video as an flv file from their website. From there you can upload it to anywhere else you might want to host the file, convert it to a file type that will work in other video editors, or do whatever you like with it. I honestly can't say there has been another tool that has excited me so much since I was first turned on to virtual worlds.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

9 Year Old Uses Halloween Costume To Poll His Neighbors on the Presidential Election

I came across this clip on CNN today of a 9 year old with a clever election related costume.

I wonder if he encountered any election fraud or hanging chads.