Less is more

By Jeff Gerlach

image by hooverine

Every course of the MAET program has translated to my career and I’ve implemented what I’ve learned on a grand scale. As I reflect on my learning there are three courses that stick out in particular that have done more than just teach me new skills, they have evolved the way I think about education.

I’m a believer in project based learning, differentiation, and giving students more executive control of their own learning. I’ve found that taking a less is more approach to lesson design and technology implementation provides very powerful learning opportunities for my students… of their own design. In other words, providing less on my part does so much more on the student learning side of things.

Paving the path to serendipity

image by Winged Foot

CEP 891, better known by Online Literacy and Reading-to-Learn in the Digital Age by those who love elongated titles, was quite possibly the most influential course that I took in the MAET program. As an online learning enthusiast, I’m very intrigued with how the online medium has fundamentally altered the way that we read and learn.

The major component of this course that has impacted my own practice is that the instructors (Rand Spiro, Michelle Schira Hagerman, Paul Morsink) took this course as an opportunity to embrace us as colleagues on a quest to understand the new literacies of the online environment. We utilized screen-casting to capture our thought process via think-aloud readings. In reviewing our recordings, we paid careful attention to literacy strategies that had been long established within hundreds of years of reading printed text as we explored the new wrinkles that digital text introduced. It was amazing to meta-cognitively analyze our own reading practices in this manner because it helped to define previously unrecognized and unconscious online literacies that I had been engaging in.

The fact is that I am an advanced online reader, I have been without knowing it. I had previously assumed that online reading was actually easier than printed text, but the cognitive load of reading online is actually much greater. One cannot assume that all digital natives will excel naturally in online literacies because they are “native” to the environment. Online literacy strategies must be taught just as traditional print ones. Yet this is an arduous task because online reading takes place in ill-structured domains in comparison to printed text. Authorship is fluid, site organization is drastically unstandardized, the purpose of content is often unclear, “reading” has taken on a whole new meaning with the integration of multi-media to accompany text, and above all else… the reader has greater ownership of the reading goals.

Per Rand’s research, which was in agreement with my own experience, I learned that the deepest of web learning occurs when readers serendipitously navigate the internet. Devouring information that is linked to fluid learning objectives that constantly evolve as new information redirects the learning path, is the quintessential height of web learning. It’s a simultaneously empowering and debilitating reality for teachers. On the one hand, online reading has the ability to fundamentally tailor itself to individual students… complete differentiation. On the other hand, it is very difficult to structure this learning experience for our students because it is so inherently organic. Upon careful contemplation however, I’ve come to the realization that serendipitous web reading is not a stand-alone skill that can be taught. It is the unconscious state of mind that is reached when one can autonomously utilize the individual skills needed to be an advanced web reader.

So in teaching my P-CITeS framework, I do so in the hopes that students will internalize the concept of critical source review. In the same vein, the learning modules that my colleagues created in CEP 891, teach similar and different literacy strategies that are critical to the advanced online reader. It is the aggregate of these learned skills, in addition to the plethora of skills still yet to be defined or taught, that results in advanced online reading. Furthermore, it is deft implementation of these skills that allows for successful deep web learning that is of a serendipitous nature.

It is certainly a complex and interesting cause. I’m proud to be on the leading edge of recognizing it and I hope to play a large role in further defining it.

Knocking down the walls

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I teach in a huge traditional bricks and mortar school district. I teach at the secondary level so my interaction with kids is restricted by a bell schedule, an implicitly accepted relic of industrialization. Students come to my class, I ask them to only think about social studies, and when 55 minutes passed a bell tells them to stop their thoughts because it’s time to go think about math. In all honesty, I don’t believe that any one way of structuring student schedules is better or worse. Similar to the debate over standard-based/test-driven instruction, no matter the limitations I believe I can still teach how I want to teach. I have to have that attitude because believing that my ability to do great things with my students can be affected by institutional structures is a downright defeatist way of thinking. That being said, I’m not opposed to dreaming up alternatives.

In CEP 820, Teaching K12 Students Online, I created my first online classroom and Michelle Schira Hagerman was a huge help in pushing me to make it better. I used Moodle as the course management system, taking advantage of it’s interactive social functionality and additionally using it as a launching pad to learning modules that I hosted on google sites. I essentially utilized moodle as a private haven where students could share completed work and interact with one another. Each student had their own password protected account, giving everyone an identity that I could use to monitor both academic progress and behavior issues. Allowing lesson material itself to remain public via the google sites allows greater community access to the lessons I’ve designed to work within my course, potentially allowing other teachers to utilize them or for some other use that I myself could not even conceive.

I implemented this online classroom for three months in my 7th grade social studies classroom. I secured enough netbooks so that there was roughly a 2:1 student to computer ratio and upon roll-out of the online classroom I simply posted a link on the board in my classroom, sat back, and observed how my kids would respond to it. The screencast tutorial on the main page was prominent enough to draw their first clicks and this video gave them the grand tour of the essential components of the classroom.

Some students enjoyed the experience, some did not. It’s very tough to convert a bricks and mortar classroom into a fully online classroom for a few reasons. First is that for students who have attended a traditional school for their entire school careers, it’s a huge paradigm shift. Many of the students who struggled were students who excelled within the teacher-centered, lecture –>discussion –>assignment classroom model. With my role shifting to that of facilitator, I believed they missed my setting the pace of class and the overall collective interaction that comes with it. Technology enhances our virtual connectedness through our physical isolation. If I’m asking students to interact with one another through a message board when they are a country apart, it’s pedagogically sound. When I ask them to do this when they are physically in the same room, it is an inferior and limiting form of communication. I think for the sake of creating an entirely web-based classroom, I fell victim to a little instrumental thinking. It’s important that in the future, I utilize all the positives of a bricks and mortar setting while supplementing the online learning where it brings the most value.

Some of that value comes from the learning modules themselves and the executive control that it gives students. Students can read at their own pace, when they come across words that they do not know often a hyperlink is provided for them to dig deeper into the text if concepts are familiar they can ignore any linking and keep moving forward. When watching a video, the student decides when to press play, when to re-wind, when to stop, when to ask questions, when to take notes, and pretty much dictate the entire viewing experience. I always bemoaned the inability to ask questions as we screened videos in class at the same time. As a student myself I remember that I would miss things the first time through watching a video. In addition, when screening a video as a group it is rude to pose questions immediately even if that might be the best thing for individual learning. When students have executive control, these issues are remedied.

Thinking more broadly, the online learning model extends the operating hours of the classroom to 24-7 and infinitely increases the locations for learning. Work on social studies for 55 minutes a day if you wish, but who’s to say it can’t be in the evening rather than the morning? If I have my thoughts flowing in social studies, why should I arbitrarily stop because I’ve reached the top of the hour? Why can’t I exhaust my thinking over a two to three hour span today and focus on biology in 20 minute increments or vice-versa? As a teacher and learner, the goal is to reach objectives… not put in a certain number of minutes spent working toward them. Greater autonomy given to students of when and where they complete work could translate to more independent professionals down the line. Thoughts come when they come and rarely follow a standardized timeline. Giving students executive control of how and when they interact with material capitalizes on the “ah-ha” moments that otherwise might be stifled by the one-pace-fits-all model. It’s definitely a different way of approaching the structure of the classroom, and it could be quite messy with such fluid requirements of students. The fear would be that less rigidity would result in inactivity, that students need to be forced to physically be somewhere in order to learn. While I recognize this significant drawback, I feel that if it had the ability to increase the productivity of my students I would love to explore it. At this point there are just too many unknowns without further testing of the tools I’ve begun to develop.

Speaking of the tools, I found moodle to be quite cumbersome and lacking in intuitiveness. In the future I’d like to build an online classroom out of wordpress, as I’ve been a participant now in several classes that have used it as a course management system. I think I would be more likely to use wordpress as an all inclusive learning domain, which could help to cut down on some of the format irregularities of the moodle/google sites/many extraneous web-based learning resources that I employed in this first design.

It’s still very much a work in progress, CEP 820 was only the starting point. I feel that online learning will continue to be one of the (if not THE) most defining aspects of my career moving forward. I am fascinated with it’s possibilities and diligent in the cause of balancing the best of online and traditional learning in a hybrid format. The ultimate goal is, and always will be, to do what is best for student learning.

Life is better by design

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Ideas do not teach themselves. This is evident not only by the existence of learning institutions, but by the success (or lack of success) of the individual learners that pass through them. Ideas are at the heart of all learning, yet why do some students learn while others don’t? Furthermore, why do some students appear willing to learn while others do not? I’ve come to realize that engagement has everything to do with designing for it. That being said, ‘good’ design is hard to define and has an exponential amount of aspects to it.

In CEP817, Learning by Design, Punya Mishra and Kristen Kereluik helped to enlighten me on the impact that design has on many facets of our lives. We addressed everything, from newspaper formatting to toilet art. Yet, our real focus was how we could learn from the designs around us to become better designers ourselves. Design isn’t just a tool to think of in my own creations, it is a daily interaction with the world you and I live in. Being able to recognize design that makes life better, in addition to design that hinders it, lets one think about how to make people’s lives better or worse through design. A power that all of us have, regardless of our desire to have it.

I think lesson number one of design is that there are very few designs that are totally good or totally bad, most have elements of both. For example, my car can remotely start, but only from a range of 50 feet. My favorite t-shirt has an oder resistant chemical treatment which makes it the perfect gym shirt, but in order to ensure that the treatment doesn’t wear off it must air dry instead of quickly drying in the dryer.

There is give and take to all designs, this impacts the daily decision making that comprise our lives. As a teacher, specifically, I need to weigh the affordances and hinderances of any technology that I implement in my classroom. The ultimate goal is to design lessons that are intuitive and engaging, utilizing powerful learning resources with a careful balance of familiarity and ‘newness’.

Ultimately, good lesson design is determined by relate-ability to the student. Since the human experience is different for everyone, good design incorporates both shared experiences and an opportunity for the learner to couch their own individual experiences within open ended aspects of the design. Teaching by design is all about relating new concepts to people’s interest. All ideas are worth learning, in fact there is a desire to learn about them. Good design allows the learner to discover for themselves the why and the how of this reality by creating the context.

This is why I’ve started to encourage my students to think about the design of their learning that they couch their ideas inside of instead of focusing solely on ideas. When evaluating their work, I no longer collect it… instead I visit them individually and in small groups, asking the same request over and over, “could you explain your design to me.” This question is awesome because it goes beyond whether they know the material that they are expected to learn. They are asked to meta-cognitively analyze their own thinking process and to produce something that is more than notes, it is art, and the reciprocal learning value of art far exceeds that of bland ideas on a page.

Making synthesis of it all

Technology in the past, present, and future has all served the purpose of providing an advantage to humans in various aspects of life. Just as many technologies of the past are outdated, so too will today’s and future technologies fall from favor. What remains is the people and the want to make life better, easier, and more exciting. My goal as an educator has been to give greater autonomy to my students. Challenge them to construct their own idea capturing art to share with their colleagues in a perpetual cycle of learning. My participation in MAET has taught me a lot about technology, but it’s taught me even more about people and learning.