Monthly Archives: May 2010

If I was creating a course about technology in the classroom…

One must pity the poor bastards developing courses for ‘mature age students’ – opinionated know-it-alls with ludicrously high expectations of their courses, expecting a decent ‘return on their (time and fee) investment’. So I preface this post by acknowledging that anyone who puts together a tertiary course deserves credit for the significant effort required to do so.

Last week we finished up the component of our program that looks explicitly at the use of information technology in education. There are several important things to note here;

  • with technology playing an ever-increasing role in the classroom, it is vital that teachers understand how it can be used to create effective learning environments
  • from our visits to schools early in the term it is clear that teaching staff generally have very low levels of comfort and experience in introducing information technology into the classroom – particularly the interactive white boards (IWB) and laptops that are part of the ‘digital education revolution’ which is upon us
  • pre-service teachers come to the profession with vastly different levels of familiarity with technology, and a suitable course must cater for this range of experience

Unfortunately, after our last lesson I was left with a feeling that an opportunity had been missed. The course had seemed somehow unsatisfying – I did not really feel more ready to enter a classroom and ‘get all digital’ with students.

To explore my unease, I went back to the unit outline and looked at the different things we spent time doing throughout the term. Roughly speaking (across lectures, tutorials and out-of-class work), this broke down into four categories;

  • Literature and policy – familiarising ourselves with government policy and guidelines about technology in the classroom (such as the DER and Connected Classroom initiatives) and exploring the literature on technology use in education
  • Classroom skills – hands-on skills for technology use in the class, including managing a classroom full of students on computers, and using the IWB
  • Resource evaluation – looking an digital tools and content that may be used in the classroom, and assessing them to determine their value and suitability
  • Resource creation – learning to use tools to develop digital resources (such as PowerPoint, animation studios, and Notebook for the IWB), and creating multimedia digital resources to deliver on specific learning outcomes

I then went through the unit outline and estimated the number of hours that were being allocated to each task. This was obviously somewhat subjective (also, I assumed that we were spending as many hours on the course outside of class as in class), but you can check my working here if you wish. The chart below shows the rough breakdown of the 44 hours of course time across these four activities;

In short, as you can probably guess from the chart, I felt that we spent far too much time creating resources and not enough time learning how to use technology in the classroom. I’m not sure where this focus has come from, and I do acknowledge that teachers having some skills in resource creation is a great thing, but I don’t believe that over half of the focus of a course on technology in education for pre-service teachers should be on multimedia resource creation.

So, what do I think we SHOULD be learning? Well, without giving it the thought it deserves, if I were creating a course of this type, I’d break it down something like this;

  • Current state of play – technologies that are in the classroom (PC labs, digital video), those that are coming soon to the classroom (IWBs, personal laptops, video conferencing), and the government policy relating to them
  • Digital literacy needs – what skills do we need to be equipping our students with (from typing to search literacy and critical media appreciation)
  • Modes of technology use in education – what are the different ways technology can be used, what are the pedagogies that underpin these approaches
  • Evidence for efficacy – what literature is there (particularly recent studies) that shows how and why technology can assist in fostering learning outcomes
  • Hands-on skills – particularly for those with less experience, what are the core skills needed (this may include some time working with an IWB, a basic grounding in PowerPoint if necessary, basic overview of video-conferencing, and a show-and-tell of the Lenovo laptops being deployed to many schools)
  • Issues and ethics – dealing with contentious topics like privacy, cyber-bullying (to use the term du jour), inappropriate material, disparate levels of technology in the home etc.
  • The future – exemplars of projects using technology in new and innovative ways (such as School of One, whether you like it or hate it), emerging technologies and their potential (from augmented reality to Siftables)

It would be unfair not to point out that there were a number of positive aspects of the current course as it was delivered. It gave us exposure to a range of typical educational resources (the kind we might choose to use in the classroom), we had the opportunity to see the scope of different resources developed by our peers (many people seemed to find this the most interesting part of the course), and it gave us experience independently developing out skills in new media-creation tools (a realistic scenario when you are out in some remote school without support, learning new software packages).

It was, however, essentially a course in ‘multimedia resource development for the classroom’. This is a valuable skill, but perhaps more suited to an elective – what we need as pre-service teachers is a good grounding in technology deployment in the class that will enable us to be agents for change as we move out into an education system undergoing dramatic technological change.

EDBT5501: Are you willing to share your digital resource?

In the tutorials this week we got to see the digital teaching resources our colleagues had created (well, those people that were in our class at least). From the conversation, it seemed that some people were keen to get copies of other people's projects to potentially use in the classroom. Unfortunately the approach to sharing seems to be 'ask the person whose thing you like to email it to you', which is a bit clunky, so I thought I might try this…

If you ware willing to share the digital resource that you created, email it to me (as a single file) with a title and a short description at 

If there is sufficient interest (let's say if I get more than ten emails) I will create a new blog at and upload ALL the resources I get sent. That way everyone can look through (including the resources from people in other classes) and download the ones they are interested in.

TEDxYouthDay, Nov 20

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in the audience at TEDxSydney (highlights were Michael Kirby, Nigel Marsh, Rachel Botsman, Seb Chan, Mr. Percival and PogoMix). Toward the end of the day, TED’s global licencing director Lara Stein spoke about the many TED events occurring around the world, including TEDxYouthDay, which caught my attention.

TEDxYouthDay is a series of events around the world on Youth Day (Nov 20) to inspire and empower young people. No doubt the most popular format will be ‘viewing parties’, where schools and other groups screen such gems as Bill Stone, Arthur Benjamin and Theo Jansen.

What intrigues me most though, is the idea of getting young people involved in creating a day where they share and explore their own ideas. Now that would be fun!

School of One: data-driven pedagogy 2.0

Following our lecture this morning on the use of data in education, I couldn't help wondering about an interesting pilot project I heard about recently on the Freakonomics Podcast. 'School of One' is a project being trialled in New York for a couple of months. What intrigues me about this project is that it seems to be borne out of a set of concerns and beliefs that I completely empathise with. Here's Arthur Levine setting the scene…

"Today's schools are an anachronism. They resemble the assembly lines of the industrial era, when they were conceived. Groups of 25 to 30 children, beginning at age five, are moved through 13 years of schooling, attending 180 days each year, and taking five major subjects daily for lengths of time specified by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910. These schools are time-based — all children are expected to master the same studies at the same rate over the same period of time. They focus on teaching — how long students are exposed to instruction, not how much they have learned. They are rooted in the belief that one size fits all — all students can benefit equally from the same curriculum and methods of instruction. We have learned much about education since today's schools were created. We know now that what students learn and what they are taught are different, and that learning is what matters."

Where they go from there is interesting. From their website, "The School of One pilot program departs from the traditional classroom model. Rather than one teacher and 25-30 students in a classroom, each student participates in a combination of teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, independent learning, and work with virtual tutors. To organize this type of learning, each student receives a unique daily schedule based on her academic needs and recent progress. As a result, students within the same school or even classroom can receive very different instruction, each lesson tailored to the concepts a student needs to learn and the ways she can best learn them. Teachers acquire data about student achievement each day and then adapt their lessons accordingly."

So, we are bringing together three important things here: multi-modal learning (not just teacher-led), digitally delivered learning (both individual work and 'virtual tutors' using voice over IP), and continual assessment and refinement of personal learning plans. The model has been consciously borrowed from progressive businesses. If our present model of schooling was developed two hundred years ago based on the industrial paradigm of the day, School of One is truly based on the modern 'information society', 'Web 2.0' industrial paradigm.

Have a look and make up your own mind. From even a cursory examination, I have serious concerns – both philosophically and practically – about the program. What interests me most is the eagerness with which it is being greeted. Clearly this is very much the solution 'of the moment'. Where it goes from here will be very interesting to watch.

Dan Meyer’s Maths Makeover on TED

Another great education talk from TED. I’m a big fan of inquiry-style methodologies which we have been focusing on a lot within ‘Human Society and Its Environments’, but I have been anticipating maths and science teachers rolling their eyes at exploratory discussion-based approaches. In this absolutely wonderful ten minute presentation on better maths teaching, Dan Meyer looks at how to foster engaged, persistent, creative problem solving. Some of his pointers? Use multimedia, and ‘ask the shortest question you possibly can’. 

In praise of the draft Australian Curriculum

"They've come up with a curriculum that is deep, not wide, so I think it's about quality. Another feature is that teachers now know what to teach, it's really quite explicit.They know how well to teach, through the standards, and I think the best part about it is that they can spend their time working out how to put it together, how to organise it, for the individual children in their class."

– Lesley Englert,Principal of Upper Coomera State College. From 'An Introduction to Australian Curriculum' (short video).

…god help us all.

There’s a seventh circle of hell…

…reserved for those who create poor diagrams.

I am a big fan of a nicely put together diagram, something that brings to life the richness of data, or the complex interplay between ideas. Unfortunately, one consequence of this is a sensitivity to a diagram that not only fails to add to what it portrays, but introduces extraneous and confusing elements. ‘Global Perspectives: A framework for global education in Australian Schools’ is a resource for educators that aims to improve the quality of ‘globally aware’ teaching across a range of disciplines. On page 5, it includes the following diagram to provide a context to the sections in the remainder of the document.

Let’s take a moment to examine some of the semiotic messages within the diagrams;

  • big lovely circle-y-ness speaks the the global and holistic nature of the content, that’s fine
  • lots of colours (and the jigsaw motif) draw on the ‘multicultural’ themes and are reflected in the rest of the design of the document, no issue there
  • the distinct colours of the lower half are at odds with the ‘integrated’ rainbow of the upper half, which seems to suggest a philosophical distinction that isn’t really there
  • the five concepts in the top half are shown in a fashion that suggests one is somehow ‘core’ with the others sequentially wrapped around it – this is not the case, and there is no reason that one should be ‘inside’ of another, nor that they have any strict order
  • the ‘temporal/spatial dimension’ does indeed run right across the five top ideas, but it in no way ‘separates’ them from the four ideas at the bottom, as the diagram suggests
  • the jigsaw pieces show that the lower concepts are interrelated (which they are), but not in the sequence inferred by their positions – I would also suggest that the idea of interrelation is more critical to the ideas at the top than the bottom
  • the top/bottom dichotomy also suggests that the four ideas below are somehow ‘foundations’ which the top ideas emerge from – this is not particularly the case

Beyond the various semiotic elements that are misleading in the diagram, there is also the lost opportunity to build meaning into the diagram using these types of tools. Where is the flow of causality or process (something diagrams are good at showing), what is contingent on what? Are there any relationships between items in the top half or within items in the bottom half that are worth showing?

Diagrams are hard. Complex diagrams are really hard. But they can be incredibly powerful teaching tools if used well. Check out some Edward Tufte, or Nancy Duarte’s Slideology for some inspiration.

Stupid Illiterate People

Yesterday I had the opportunity to deliver a workshop for a group of job-seekers being assisted with re-entry into the workforce. I had a little background on the group, and knew in particular that one of the participants was a middle aged man who was to all intents and purposes illiterate. This was an interesting challenge – there would be someone in the room who would assist when required, but I was conscious not to rely on written material as much as I usually do.

Point of the story is that despite believing myself to be a pretty open minded, non-judgmental type, I still found myself surprised when this guy turned out to be one of the more astute, thoughtful and collaborative participants in the workshop. Regardless of my best efforts, I has just assumed that illiterate would mean uneducated and less intelligent.

My saving grace was that after recent Study 1 lectures, I was very aware of the idea that my expectations could actually affect the behaviour of the participants. The feedback I had from one of the organisers was surprise at the level of engagement and performance (particularly from the gentleman with literacy issues). It was a pleasant surprise that the simple act of expecting exactly the level of participation I would expect from any other group apparently had such a significant effect.

To Impart and Absorb, with Urgency

The NY Times published an interesting article yesterday titled 'Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed'. The whole article is interesting in its assessment of the charter school strategy in the US, which the author suggests if producing a small number of excellent case studies, and a lot of very mediocre schools.

What is more interesting is the way that the whole discourse occurs within the context of high-stakes testing as the way of assessing excellence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the schools excelling at this type of tests are often the KIPP-style environments that sound more like a military academy than a high school.

The underlying philosophy of learning was laid bare about halfway through the article while criticising the classroom climate of one of the schools that failed to excel. The author found that "there was little sense of the urgency to impart and absorb knowledge that lends an electricity to classrooms at [one of the more successful schools]".

In our course we talk lots about richer, more complex pedagogies; two-way processes; collaborative learning and inquiry. I think it's sometimes important to step back and listen to the conversation within and around the industry. It reminds us that there are still an awful lot of people talking about 'imparting knowledge' for those spongy students to absorb as urgently as possible!