Image Attribution

Background image by anarchosyn

Friday, May 29, 2015


As part of my modernization theme, I ask kids to take a look at the issues behind the most ubiquitous item in modern day life - the cellphone (and tablet and soon-to-be watch). For the purpose of this mini-unit we focus exclusively on Apple products, although I stress that much of what they learn can be found in products made by other companies.

They begin by reading links and watching videos about rare earth minerals in week one and then transition into the factories that actually make the products in week two. I try to pace this so that I have a whole group discussions (the groups range in number from six to eight students) once per class to help clear up misconceptions and answer specific questions from the readings. The page with all of the materials can be found here: Gizmos.

During week three the groups begin to create their mini-documentaries using Mozilla Popcorn. I share this rubric with them, and we spend a portion of class going over all of the aspects. I provide suggestions for how to organize their work, but ultimately leave it up to each group to decide what structure works best.

When all is said and done, I end up with decent final products that I share with the other classes and teachers and parents. One of the biggest obstacles is that Mozilla Popcorn doesn't read HTML5 very well, which is the new standard format of YouTube videos. Also, as you can see below, if the owner of a video decides to remove it or make it private - you've lost it in your remix.

(Yes, I am aware - as are the students now - that the picture that starts the second video is not accurate.)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Authenticity Is The Barrier

I could list all of the soft skills needed to create online content, but you could also just google it and find the same list. Instead I want to discuss some of the systemic roadblocks we face.

I has a casual conversation with some of my students at the end of class yesterday concerning the prompt for this module, and the common issue they brought up was confidence. They are worried about being wrong in the open. They are worried about being wrong for the world, and this disturbed me greatly. It isn’t that the desire to be correct in a public forum is strange or that we naturally tend to hide our work from others (how may teach with closed doors?) I was stuck mostly on the same word that kept coming up - wrong. We have been trained to always see right as good and wrong as bad. So if student’s biggest fear with creating online work, of leveraging the amazing tools at hand and the unprecedented access to eyes and minds across the globe, is being wrong, then perhaps we are doing it wrong…

Perhaps the real barrier here is how we, the teachers and the school systems, are trying to implement these radical changes in how information can be gathered, created, and shared. Are we trying to mold this untapped potential into what we already know and feel comfortable with? If we continue to reinforce the culture of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, full credit or no credit, pass or fail - of course kids will be worried about creating something that might be wrong. Especially if we share their work with the world.

Let’s break down the most common, lowest barrier entry into creating online content: blogs. Blogs serve a purpose, right?. They allow kids to connect with folks other than the teacher, they allow them to write for an audience. Or do they? Sure, blog posts are for a real audience, but what is the difference between a real and a forced audience? A forced audience is real, but it isn’t authentic. Can we produce authentic situations within our confines? Maybe. I believe it is possible and also extraordinarily difficult - especially given the value system of many colleagues (value is the wrong word here). Our system isn’t designed to be authentic, and the humans that exist within our system have been trained to not be authentic within our walls. Outside of our walls we are authentic beings engaging in various levels of non-traditional learning...but inside our walls, many are not. Kids are trained to be/act/do things a certain way since K. Teachers are told exactly what the learning outcomes must be and are judged by how well they move kids from point a to point b. We are linear in formal education and life isn’t linear. Authenticity isn’t linear but we like to think it is. This isn’t a delirious scathing request to burn it all down, either. There are benefits to direct instruction, but we need to look at and address these issues (new lit) from a systemic lens. How does the entire culture shift? Once we begin to make headway there, then authenticity will follow. 

When we make things to be shared online, what is the real value? My kids write blog posts each week and for many it is a simply a chore. I ask them to think deeply and respond to something (anything) from the week’s content. It is open, there are not specific questions to respond to. And what do I get? Retelling. Why? Because it is safe. Moreover, what is the actual point of the blogs? Is a passive audience an authentic one? Sure they are public, but what benefits are they reaping from this? Even when people blog and use their strong network connections to get reads and replies (#comments4kids) - is that truly authentic? I believe the kids see the difference between forced connections and natural ones. Once that initial reaction (be it euphoria or fear or both) wears off, once the newness and novelty of getting forced eyes on your work goes away - so goes the motivation. Now, if you were truly connected deeply within a culture that embraces you and what you do (gamers, twitch, etc) - if you move from the outer to the inner circle of acceptance within a society - then you have authentic eyes and minds. Until that point, it is a dog and pony show.

Friday, May 22, 2015

weasel words, clearly, cmd+f

Here is a short lesson that you can adapt for your needs. It focuses on reading the internet and uses a handful of tools to assist students with  the physical aspect of reading and introduces some conceptual ideas to assist with validating sources.

Here are the links to all the materials:

I'd love to know of anyone (looking at you pre-service teachers) ends up using this.

Monday, May 18, 2015

bubbles and bias and new literacy, oh my!

One aspect of the new literacies that crosses up users of the Internet at all efficacy levels is judging the reliability of sources. This is an issue that is constantly in flux. It is changing as quickly as the modes of online communication and interaction are changing, which is always. The barriers to posting content online are basically non-existent anymore. Anyone can put content online, and they often do. However, most people (not all) are savvy enough to spot obviously erroneous information or at least suspect sources when a site looks something similar to this:

People with moderate Internet skills often can see when Wikipedia should be used with caution:

Even our students (well, mine at least, by the time they get to 8th grade) already know that the tree octopus is a hoax. The days of the static, single authored, omnipotent, must-travel-to-it  website are dying. In fact, I'd say they're pretty much dead outside of webquests and things we create for our students. Instead we have dynamic, multi-authored, and boots-on-the-ground information that comes to you. And now we arrive at the one of new reliability problems.

I've been duped, probably numerous times, by the deluge of tweets that flood my timeline after a major news story breaks (a major news story according to a middle school social studies teacher looking for content and connections - sorry not sorry, royal baby). However, the one event that truly comes to mind is the Boston Marathon Bombing. Like most of the nation, and especially us here in New England, for a week straight I was glued not to my television, but to my phone. CNN and pals were too slow. All I had to do was pull down and release on my phone screen and I'd be rewarded with fifty new tweets about the topic. Many of these tweets contained misinformation, hearsay, and unverified pictures - but at the time, the in visceral rawness of the moment, none of that mattered. In fact, it never even crossed my mind for the first few days. Once it did occur to me, the idea of real time terror was something that made me step back and realize I was not as savvy a consumer as I had foolishly imagined myself to be. 

This realization has not made me disavow twitter for breaking news altogether. There is most definitely something positive to be said for news in real time, from primary sources, unaltered by the mainstream media - when taken with a grain of salt. I relied on twitter for news and updates from Ferguson this past summer, Baltimore last month, and Burundi last week. While I have focused my information flow to a few reputable curators of news (most specifically Andy Carvin and the crew at to name a few) there still arises a new, more dangerous, problem. By getting my news from a self-selected list of people whom I trust, I have put myself soundly into a filter bubble. This is perhaps a much more harmful problem than the erroneous websites that most people associate with misinformation on the web. Within a filter bubble I have the comfort of confirmation bias and the amplified effect of an echo chamber, resulting in a steadfast belief that I am always right, which simply is not true.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Online Collaboration Mini-Unit


Here is the link to my class website for the war theme. Here you will find all of the embedded videos I use (the cost/benefit analysis introduction and the timeline tutorial). Here is a copy of the google form the students use to collect their data. The link on the actual website won't be available to anyone outside of my school domain, therefore I made a copy of it for you to see.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Online Collaborative Inquiry

Using Google Docs in 2011

Effective online collaboration involves a few key components. First, everyone involved must understand that despite the digital medium - the essence is the same. One of the first things I impress upon my students each year is that there is really no major distinction between online and real life. There are certainly different aspects to how information is shared, but in the end, what you are left with is human generated content. Be it face to face or asynchronously online, communication is the same. I strive to have the same rules apply. This should always be rule number one - what you do/say/type/delete digitally you also do/say/type/delete in "real life." Framing it this way makes it  easier for students to understand. I prefer to use the terms digital life and physical life as two sides to the same coin that is real life.

Let's look a google docs, for example. This is probably the easiest entry into online collaboration for students, however, if certain norms are not established - it can quickly devolve into chaos and mayhem. In order to help you avoid potential catastrophes I'll lay out just a few things to keep in mind.

  • chat
    • It takes kids all of 0.7 seconds to find out that a document shared between them also has a pop-out chat feature. The idea of this feature is to allow collaborators to discuss the document and plan without writing on the document itself, which can get messy very quickly. I remind kids that what they say on the chat is the same thing as saying it aloud in class. If you would not raise your hand and say it aloud in a "normal" class setting, don't say it on the chat. Just be sure that you are logged on to the chat prior to the kids (open multiple tabs if needed for each document) because unfortunately you will only be able to see what has transpired if you are on the document. There is no backlog. Lastly, depending on your style, you might want to be a tad lenient with the chat. The "real life" thing works both ways. In "real life" you know as well as I do that kids will stray from topic in face to face discussion to a degree. It is inevitable, and if we are to hold onto the real life/digital life mantra - we should hold it for all things.  
  • deleting other's work
    • Depending on how many kids are accessing the same document, you might run into several issues. It can be very overwhelming to have multiple cursors on the same page trying to type at the same time. Imaging the physical world equivalent for a moment. How impossible and absurd would it be to have a group of several kids trying to write on a single piece of paper at the same time? Additionally, could you imagine a student erasing the work on another student's physical paper work? I'm sure it does happen from time to time, but I guarantee it does not happen with the frequency and flippancy of erasing work on a shared digital document. Online collaboration does not mean that they must all work on the same document at the same time. I frequently tell kids to open a new document for themselves and work there, then copy/paste on the shared doc and begin the process of negotiating through the editing and revising process.    
  • accountability & revision history
    • Another benefit of using google docs with collaborative projects is the high accountability factor. You can see who contributed what to the document and when they did it. In short, you can assign grades based on actual contributions to the document. This allows the kids who always bear the brunt of the work to breathe easier knowing that their contribution will not be diluted amongst the entire group. It also lets those who typically coast by on the shoulders of peers know that their usual course of action is no longer an option. This is by no means a perfect solution for fair grading. I typically create a google form (like this one) for kids to complete at the end of a project as a supplement to checking the revision.
Here is a short video tutorial showing you the chrome extension Draftback for google docs and how it can help you visualize the edits made on collaborative documents.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Internet as text...

To be honest, I am struggling with how to respond to this prompt. The Internet is the typical text in my classroom and it has been for several years now. This is my second year with 1:1 chromebooks, and prior to that I had a classroom set of iPods (4th generation touch). The internet has been my primary text essentially since 2011.

This is not to suggest that I am always using it as effectively as possible, and there is certainly always room for improvement. For now, allow me to explain what it is I do:

After a difficult start to a true 1:1 experience in 2013/2014 - I did some major revisions to my class over the summer. This year I attempted to have three different themes running concurrently in each of my four classes. Essentially, I embraced the idea that not everyone had to be doing the same thing at the same time - which is entirely possible when you are 1:1. If you need more proof - just look at what we (you and I) and doing right now. I'm just finishing Module 1, and most of you are on Module 2. At any rate, have a look at my syllabus and the related sites (Identity, War, Modernization)

The jury is still out on how well this worked (we have several more weeks left of the school year) - but I am leaning towards the idea that this was revolutionary for me as a teacher. This format meant there would be zero lecture time. I would launch class, the kids would work, and I would circulate and spend roughly 10 - 12 minutes with each small group engaging in discussions and clarifying misinformation. The class was socially structured, so that kids were encouraged to discuss the ideas they were working on with their group. It got loud, and to the untrained ear it might have seemed chaotic - but if you listened closely, the discussions were on point. Kids were negotiating a shared understanding and building context together. Each week they were required to submit a blog post focusing in on a particular aspect of that week's content that struck a chord with them (a link to that rubric is embedded in my syllabus above).

The most difficult part for me was simultaneously the most rewarding. At times it felt like kids were not as focused as I'd like them to be. I often wondered if they were truly getting the ideas I was hoping they'd get. I missed being the expert. I missed hearing myself talk. I missed feeling smart. Then I stepped back and stopped thinking about myself. I began to really listen to kids and to probe their understanding - and I found that most of the time they were creating their own understanding. I realized how much more powerful this is. Instead of remembering what I told them, they were making the connections on their own. These would be connections not soon forgotten because it came from them. It was theirs. They owned it, and it was this format - via the internet - that made it possible.

Multimodal for days...

I've been creating multimodal tutorials for my students and staff in my district for years. Here are a few recent (and real world - not created for a class assignment) examples.

First, here is an overview of Evernote that was presented to my board of education last spring.

Next, we have a very brief video showing staff at my school how to fix an error in their online grade books.

Finally, here is a video I created to show students how to find CC licensed images on Flickr for their projects and blog posts.

My Philosophy

In reflecting upon my experiences as a student I have come to understand that the heart of my belief system relies on what was done poorly by my teachers. In thinking about my high school and even college experiences (to a lesser degree) I am amazed that I can not recall a single positive learning experience that has had an impact on me today. I often wonder how have I come to know anything at all? I have crafted my vision of thinking, learning, and teaching based upon my perception of the failings of others. I have found myself determining what I should do as a teacher when confronted with what I believe should not be done. In fact, one of the most influential passages I have read in terms of helping me form the general basis for what I want to do, in light of what should not be done, was from a reading for a previous graduate program (not completed) in History. In the chapter, Docile Bodies, from his book, Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault outlines how formal schooling could be a place created and perpetuated for the purpose of instilling the cog-in-the-wheel ideology needed to essentially subjugate individuals. When Foucault writes, “From the master of discipline to him who is subjected to it the relation is one of signalization: it is a question not of understanding the injunction but of perceiving the signal and reacting to it immediately, according to a more or less artificial, prearranged code,” I can not help but draw parallels to my experience with formal education. Everything was to be done without question or, in many cases, full understanding as to why the action was being required (be it cursive writing, memorizing dates, or solving for x). Further, judgement of said menial task was often seemingly arbitrary, even when great pains were taken to tell me why I needed it for some abstract future endeavor. Some may call this “hoop jumping.” I firmly believe that it was the hoop jumping I endured that made me believe what I do today about effective teaching and meaningful learning. I also, unfortunately, see much “hoop jumping’ still occurring in classrooms.

It would be safe to say that my experiences, or at least my understanding of them, are in stark contrast to Thorndyke’s Law of Effect which states, “[r]esponses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened; responses that are followed by discomfort are weakened.” (Ormrod, 2008) Clearly it is my belief that the discomfort of my schooling experience has strengthened my resolve to not be that way for my students. I would go so far as to argue that Bandura’s concept of modeling has, for me, been effective in the negative sense. The modeling of what not to do has been the driving force in helping me understand what I should do.

So far I have espoused my beliefs in the negative. I have alluded to what I believe by making explicit reference to what I do not believe. That line of reasoning can only go so far, and at this point has run its course. In short, I believe that thinking is a situational endeavor that is at once reliant upon others and occurring solely within one’s own mind. It is paradoxical in nature as we rely on others to help us understand and create meaning, but ultimately the meaning we derive is our own and is based on our experiences and previous understandings. It is both social constructivist and solipsistic, if such a combination is even possible. Furthermore learning is ultimately conditional on motivation, and motivation is largely situational. The goal of teaching, then, becomes less about the impartation of knowledge and more about creating an environment that is highly motivational and personal while staying within the framework of a common goal (a community).

I believe that optimal learning, that is, true and meaningful learning, occurs when individuals are placed in authentic situations with well defined frames and ill defined problems. Authenticity gives a sense of true purpose. It provides a powerful motivation that can not be artificially recreated. The motivation to do or learn something is never greater than when it is intrinsic. Surely extrinsic motivators can get the job done. We accomplish tasks all of the time that have extrinsic motivators attached. The problem is in the very phrasing I chose to employ: get the job done. The word “done” suggests that it is a finite concept. External motivators such as, for example, grades, tend to motivate students to do the minimum required to achieve whatever they deem to be an appropriate grade and that is all. End of story. “I got an ‘A’ on my paper and therefore I do not need to think about it anymore. My learning here is done.” (Interestingly, while this paper I write is ultimately for a grade, what makes it legitimate for me is that I am not writing it for you. I am writing this for me, as it is my philosophy and I am about as authentic an audience as I can think of for that end.) True learning should never stop. I often liken it to a never ending staircase when I bring the subject up with my students. The acquisition of a certain amount of knowledge should lead to more questions, which leads to the search for greater understanding through the acquisition of more knowledge, which leads to more questions, and so on and so forth for all eternity. This process should be as personal as possible, after all it is your staircase. Too frequently, we are asked only to build the first step, then stop and have that step judged, and then maybe build a first step somewhere else, have it judged, then stop, and so on. Soon, one might question the purpose of having to build various “first steps” for others to judge and provide reward or punishment and then begin to simply go through the motions of “step building.” There is a loss of motivation and true learning is not occurring.

A key factor in creating authentic learning environments is to include ill defined problems that need to be made into well defined ones. The creation of the problem, and the process one must go through to decide what is important to ask, and what is important to know, is perhaps more important than finding the correct solution. The ill defined problem exemplifies the authenticity of which I have spoken. I attended a conference several years ago (TEDxNYED in 2010) where one of the speakers (Dan Meyer) explained this in a manner that stuck. He was speaking specifically about math, but the concepts carry over into every subject or better still, life. After showing a typical word problem from a text book, he pointed out how all of the information needed to solve the problem was laid out in an orderly fashion, essentially walking you through the steps. In order to pass the chapter test, you did not have to learn the concept, or even understand the problem, you just had to be skillful at decoding the textbook. Dan then asked the audience how many problems we have solved in real life (ones that were worth solving) where we knew all of the given information in advance? This was a watershed moment for me. I suddenly realized that everything I have ever solved in my life, every authentic issue that I had to grapple with, everything that caused me to learn something, all revolved around forming the proper question first and defining the important terms. Nothing worth solving in life comes pre-defined. The authenticity is derived from the construction of the problem. The construction of the problem is where social constructivism plays a vital role.

We ultimately come to understand things on an individual level, but we take a social road to get there. I would argue that both Piaget and Vygotsky have equally valid points to make about this. Piaget’s notion of sociocognitive conflict (Ormrod, 2008) certainly has its merits. An individual forms an initial understanding of some phenomena, and when this does not mesh with a different individual’s interpretation of the same phenomena, conflict ensues. It is in the process of resolving the conflict that negotiation occurs. The negotiation that takes place is akin to haggling in the marketplace of ideas. Both parties laying their best offers on the table, listening to the other’s point of view, constantly refining their argument, until both sides settle on a mutually agreed upon understanding (or else walk away and begin the process elsewhere). The refinement of such thinking would not work as well if the individuals in question remained isolated from one another. However, even if kept in isolation with an idea, individuals still attempt (albeit in a less effective manner) to socially negotiate meaning with themselves. Vygotsky’s notion of self-talk or inner speech (Ormrod, 2008), while dealing specifically with children, clearly carries over to adults. Playing devil’s advocate with oneself is precisely what I am talking about. I do it all the time.

One aspect in which Vygotsky surpasses Piaget is in his approach to scaffolding. The ill defined problem of which I spoke earlier is only viable in a classroom setting if it is contained within a well structured framework. If we are to teach, then we must provide a scaffolding of advanced thinking. The trick is knowing when the structure is too generous. This is a fine line to walk. How does one provide authentic experiences with ill defined problems and yet contain these experiences within an artificial structure? Surely that takes away a hint of authenticity, does it not? This is something I am still trying to come to grips with. Obviously children need adult models in thinking as well as action. For a multitude of reasons, the world cannot be run by babies! So it is our job to find the threshold of authenticity, the minimum structure for the ill defined question, and walk that edge. I am speaking, of course, of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Ormrod, 2008).

There are several obstacles to creating the learning environment of which I speak. First and foremost is the manner in which school itself is set up. How can I help my students to craft meaningful and authentic learning experiences within the span of 40 to 45 minutes? Further still, how can anything be truly authentic in school, when it is so compartmentalized? Life is not compartmentalized. We do not wake up each day and break the day down into seven or eight blocks of time and devote each block to the specific study of one particular aspect of the whole. It is therefore a struggle to conceive of real world problems that are to be digested in bursts of 40 minutes over the span of several days. It is not impossible, but it is a struggle to do so and to do it well. Additionally, in many cases the mandated curriculum is one that follows the “inch deep, mile wide” philosophy. This typically leaves little room for exploration and requires artificial time lines which skim the surface of understanding, cheapening the entire process.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Just When I Thought I Was Out...

...They pull me back in. They in this instance refers to the state department of education.

Hello ORMS folk. My name is Dan Agins, and I'll be tagging along on your journey from now until the end of June as part of an independent study for Ian. My main purpose for doing this is to make up the credits I am short on in order to move from a provisional to professional certificate in the state of Connecticut. I have already completed my master's in educational technology with the UCONN 2 Summers Program, where I had Ian as an instructor for one of my classes. This, however, does not mean that I'll be phoning it in, so to speak. Educational technology, and more specifically, new literacies - is a passion of mine. So is learning. While I may be well versed in this area already, I look forward to looking at new perspectives and pushing my own thinking with your assistance.

Now for some general background: I teach 8th graders about history and the world (aka social studies) at a title one public school in southeastern CT. I am currently in my 11th year. This is my second year being 1:1 with chromebooks - and I have recently become a skeptic again. More on that later.

Here is some fancy looking stuff about me.