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.

Why Mobile Matters: Take 2

The iPad is not a disruptive influence on our current system of education. The iPad is really only a symptom of the actual disruption, which happened several years ago while no one was paying attention. The Web matured, and that changed everything. The iPad and other touch screen tablets are more or less natural outcomes of a simple, powerful truth: information is no longer scarce.

I have been thinking a lot about mobile internet technologies, like tablets and smartphones, and imagining how they might best be used in our libraries, classrooms and personal lives to facilitate communication, idea sharing and learning.

I took a pass at a Mobile Learning manifesto several months ago (see Why Mobile Matters: Take 1). Here I go again.

I don’t necessarily believe or grasp everything I say here. I am testing ideas to see how they fit. Please improve these ideas with your comments.

Information is no longer scarce. Information is easy, sometimes almost effortless, to get. People don’t have to visit libraries to begin finding out things they are curious to learn. People don’t have to visit classrooms in order to hear lectures and be told things by content experts. People can Google, Wikipedia, and Bing. People can use Facebook and Twitter to crowd source answers to basic questions. You Tube and eHow offer a rich trove of “how to” videos on most any topic that are much more useful than any product manual.

More and more books (though certainly not all) are available either in part or in whole online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg and various eBook sellers. Many of the most useful of these books are not free and are not easy to get unless you buy them, but they are increasingly out there in some form or fashion.

People don’t read magazines and journals. They read collections of magazine and journal articles filtered, curated and reassembled into interest packets by RSS feeds, blog posts, Tweets and article aggregators.

We don’t go to information anymore. Information comes to us.

Information isn’t scarce but context and authority are. We are  buried alive by our personal media collections and information sources. We can instantly access terabytes of saved data, articles, opinions, document and other artifacts but often have difficulty seeing how these interrelate. We know everything yet understand nothing. Learning is the process of making sense out of nonsense (or not sense), like Rumpelstilskin spinning gold out of straw. Making sense from not sense is not an easy skill. It takes practice and patience. Making sense from not sense requires mindful attention and focus.

Information is common but context and authority are uncommon.  Just because information is easy to discover does not make it useful. Just because information is factual does not necessarily make it true. We need authorities to help establish facts we can trust and turn into knowledge. We need authorities who can help us see how ideas interrelate and how we can use information to create useful knowledge.

Okay, enough of that for now.

Here’s the short take:

We live in a world where information is easy to find. A person no longer needs to be an expert to find things out. The 19th century schoolhouse, or “factory”, model of teaching is over. We don’t always need to spend time sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture to find things out. We can now listen to the lecture on our own time, where we want and when we want through video, podcast or other Web-mediated information transfer. Sitting in a seat and receiving information is not always the best use of our time.

We do need the help of experts to teach us how to use this information, how to assimilate and make sense of the information we have found.

That’s why some teachers are experimenting with flipping their class — lecture at home and activity-based learning in the classroom.

People learn best by doing things. People learn by making things. People learn by synthesizing and connecting ideas. People learn by sharing ideas and having those ideas explored, critiqued and improved. People learn by exploring on their own and by exploring together.

Tablet computers can be useful in the classroom to help accelerate this process. iPads can let students search for relevant information and report. iPads can help students share their ideas easily and have those ideas critiqued and improved. iPads can help students offer feedback on how well they have understood key concepts and synthesized new ideas. iPads can help students gather textbooks, lectures, notes and other resources together in one place to be used and understood.

The iPad hasn’t changed the world. The world changed and made the iPad necessary.