Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day Two

Yesterday was the second, final day of Roane State’s Ed Tech Academy. Donn King was our keynote and afternoon presenter. He spoke and presented on the role of teachers in the Internet age. His afternoon presentation offered practical advice to faculty who have flipped their class or are considering the inverted model. We also had excellent presentations on the use of iPads in the classroom (David and Ronda Blevins) and challenge-based learning (Dr. Jeff Horner and Dr. Abigail Goosie).

I don’t plan to walk through each session here. You can do that for yourself by following  #rscceta on Twitter.

My takeaway from day two is this: Teachers and librarians who believe their main responsibility is to transfer information to their students are doomed to frustration. The internet can transfer information faster, easier and better than any person can.

Mere information has become so easily shared that it is often wasteful and counterproductive to spend lots of class time transmitting information. There are exceptions, but this is true most of the time. When we lecture over content available in the textbook or review notes verbatim, we devalue the importance of those resources and undermine opportunities to connect with our students. Information transfer is not what teaching is about. Information is plentiful. Context is scarce. As Donn puts it, speaking outloud is for big picture context; writing is for detail.

I think about this often when writing an email inviting people to do something – attend an event or take a survey, for example. I have learned that most people only read short, actionable emails, and so, I often try to pare my message down to a few attention-getting sentences with a link to more information.

The same is true with teaching. Our direct instruction time with our students is limited.  Attention spans are limited. Cognitive load theory tells us that our students, no matter their age, won’t remember most of what we tell them. They will actually remember very little. Rather than play roulette with their learning, we can be more successful by focusing most of our time on helping them understand a few important ideas or concepts and then connect them with the resources to dig deeper and discover the detail. Students can’t really learn without first understanding why they need to learn. Connecting students to the “why” is the challenge and province of the teacher. This work requires creativity and persistence. This work is the connecting path to those lightbulb moments. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching much more meaningful. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching a whole lot of fun.

Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day 1

Today was Day 1 of my college’s annual Ed Tech Academy. Ed Tech Academy is our annual professional development conference around issues related to teaching, online education and classroom technology. I had the honor of working with a team of great people to plan, market and deliver this year’s academy.

Today’s keynote speaker was Dr. Mark Milliron, Chancellor for Western Governors University Texas. He has worked with the Gates Foundation, NISOD, Civitas and the League for Innovation in Community Colleges among other organizations. That’s not what’s important about him. What is most impressive about Dr. Milliron is his ability to talk about the changes in higher education in a way that makes sense. He connects the dots.

The past year has been a swirl of new ideas, technologies and potentially “disruptive” innovations in online and traditional instruction. My college is working with iPads, eText, textless courses, flipped classes, open education resources, and, most recently, MOOCs. It is a fascinating time to be a teacher. It is also nerve-racking.

With all the new tools and technologies, it is very easy to loose sight of our purpose. Here’s a secret. None of these technologies matter unless they can help students connect to their own sense of purpose, tenacity and engagement. Students cannot learn unless they have a clear sense of why they want to learn. Students cannot learn until they are committed to working hard and sacrificing immediate gratification for a future reward. Students cannot learn unless they actively participate in the process and can contribute to the goals of the class. Milliron talks more about this in his article “An Open Letter to Students: You’re the Game Changer in Next-Generation Learning“.

There has been an ongoing conversation about student engagement for several years. I have heard the term “student engagement” so often, I have forgotten what it means. There is, I think, a tendency to conflate engagement with entertainment and make engagement equivalent to interest. That is a lazy way to think about engagement. Engagement is about responsibility. Engaged students take responsibility for their own learning. This still feels like a magical pass phrase, something students are given or give.

My big takeaway is this: students can’t take real responsibility for their learning until educators find meaningful ways  to share real-time feedback about how students are performing. Amazon and Ebay do this with online shopping. Pandora and Spotify do this with music. Why can’t we do this with learning? The trick is gathering data about how students interact with their classes and then develop an algorithm that can offer real-time predictions about how likely a particular student is to succeed based on specific actions taken by that student. In other words, we need to figure out how to gather lots and lots of data points about student success, use that data to extrapolate predictive models of student success and then boil all of that down into a simple, easy-to-understand message to students about specific actions they might take to be more successful.

Let me put this another way: the challenge before us is to make learning very, very personal. We need to find ways to personalize the learning environment to present learning resources and challenges that are personally meaningful to the specific learner and then offer real-time advice on how students interact with that course. It would be very powerful if librarians, teachers and other learning professionals could figure out a way to curate and recommend specific learning resources for specific learners in specific situations. To offer a video, animation or infographic that best meets the learner’s needs at that exact moment in the same way that Amazon recommends a specific shirt with a pair of pants.

The technology is available. We just need to figure out how to use it.

Remembering a Master Teacher

My college lost an extraordinary colleague today. Dr. John Thomas taught history. He died after a long struggle with cancer.

I won’t eulogize him here. There are so many people who knew him so much better than I did. They will tell his story.

What I want to say is this: when I think about the point of educating and becoming educated, I often think about a lecture series John put together in the aftermath of September 11. In the frenzied, frightening months after the violence of September 11, 2001, John Thomas delivered a series of lectures about British mercantilism. John’s stories of the British sugar, tobacco and rum trade with the American colonies helped me understand why the study of history matters. In the lead-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, John’s impassioned, amusing stories helped me see my own times in a more rational light. I majored in history as an undergraduate, but John’s lectures were the first time I felt that I really understood what the study of history was about.

I wasn’t learning about mercantilism, colonial politics or international conflict. I was learning about the kinds of questions historians ask. I was learning how historians think about the problems they encounter in their own lives. I was observing how the well-disciplined mind brings patience, perspective and light into confused, chaotic times.

John helped me understand why teaching and learning matter. We teach to help others discipline their minds to think in useful ways that make new kinds of ideas possible. We learn to train our own minds so we can become more patient and perceptive.

John’s response to the fear and uncertainty of September would have been the same no matter what discipline he taught. It could as easily have been math, literature or biology. The subject content is not the point. Teaching can be an act of bravery, a  bold affirmation that our learning leads us forward, gives us clarity when times are unclear and offers the right questions when everything feels uncertain.

I am grateful to John Thomas and the other master teachers I have known. They remind us that the work has dignity and purpose. They remind us that the work is vital.