Reimagine Education

I want to put something on your radar in case you don’t know about it: The Reimagine Education conference. I’m not sure how I found out about it, but I was excited to learn that this is a group that supports innovation and change in education (particularly with technology). I’ve never been before (I’m hoping to go this year), but the conference serves as a, “global competition designed to identify the most innovative, novel approaches to higher education.” You can see last year’s award winners here, and I would note that while they might emphasize higher education, some of these ideas can be applied with a variety of ages.

I was excited to learn that my good friends at Edorble was recognized with a Silver award from the conference in 2016. Their work is a great example of something that is not just limited to higher education and can be used in a variety of contexts. Make sure you check them out as well as the other winners.

After learning about Reimagine Education, I decided to see if I could convince them to let me be a judge. Somehow, I managed to get them to agree to this. Did you know you can apply to be a judge? The nice thing about being a judge is that you are not required to attend the conference. You judge about 20 projects from the comfort of your own home (or your favorite bar – I’m not judging). They expect that each project will take you about 30 minutes to judge which comes out to about 10 hours of work. They give you a half-price ticket for being a judge.

Now, I’ve never been to the conference before, but I do hope to go (December 4th-5th in Philadelphia). I got a little bit of sticker shock when I first looked at the prices (even with a 50% discount). But, let’s get real. There are several options for how you can attend the conference. The full experience – which looks like it includes every meal under the sun – costs 900.00 (full price). I spend around 2000.00 on a conference give or take a bit for everything. So, when I framed it like that I realized that even the full price ticket with all the bells and whistles (you can get tickets for less than that) was really on par with my normal conference going budget. So a 50% off ticket for being a judge?

More than do-able. I’m so in.

I am also so excited. As a judge, I’ll get to see the innovative work people are doing. At the conference, I’ll get to see some of this in person (I assume) and meet a whole new range of people. I’m expecting to see a range of ideas that can inform and transform how we teach in higher education.

Who’s with me?

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Virtual Presence

I’m over halfway through reading a book by Ethan Nichtern called The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Yes, I identify as a Buddhist. However, it doesn’t matter if you do or not as the book is full of ideas that can give you much to consider in terms of how you live your life. In this case, I started to think about how some of Nichtern’s ideas could be applied to teaching.

There is a section of the book – pages 128-129 if you have it – where he discusses being present and what it means to be present in relation to technology use. I love the following quote:

Physical reality and virtual reality are locked in a twenty-first-century tug-of-war. The answer is not to destroy our technology and go back to some pre-virtual paradise – the answer is to turn communication into a mindfulness practice. We need to know the guidelines for when we are physically present with someone, and when we are virtually present with someone, and to create principles around each of those periods of communication, so that we engage in each more fully (pg. 128).

When I read this quote, I found myself asking the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be present both virtually and in person?
  • How do we use technology in our teaching mindfully?
  • How can we help students engage in technology mindfully?

At this point, it seems critical to define the term mindfulness. I found a great page that expounds on it here. While I am sure there are many different ways to understand what mindfulness is, I do like the concept that it is about paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner.

And let me tell you, that is really, really, REALLY difficult to do. But it’s something I work on.

With a good working definition of mindfulness set in place, I’d like to take a look at the questions I posed. What I want to do in this post – you’ll notice the title is Virtual Presence – is move beyond the idea of how to get students to stop screwing around online during class and instead think about the issues of mindfulness and technology in terms of how do we (as teachers) stay present and then how do we help our students do the same.

What Does it Mean to be Present both Virtually and In Person?

I’d like to start off by considering what it means to be present virtually. You might teach an online class, or (like me) you might find yourself teaching a blended/hybrid class. In these cases, students are expected to maintain some sort of virtual presence and so are we as teachers. What does this presence look like and what does it mean to stay in the moment?

As Nichtern stated, there is a constant back and forth for our attention between the physical and the virtual reality. As I write this, my attention could be pulled away from any number of things. And we might determine that some of those “things” are more valid than others. My dog standing by the door needing a walk was definitely a valid pull out of this virtual space and into the physical one.

On the flip side, one could be present physically in a classroom – as a student or a teacher – and have any number of virtual distractions attempting to pull your attention out of the physical. I recently bought a fitness watch that would buzz whenever I had a twitter alert. It constantly snapped me both from the physical into the virtual and from one virtual task (such as writing a blog post) into a different one. I turned off notifications because the distractions were interfering with my work and in no way beneficial. But I give the example to show that it is also possible to be tugged across virtual experiences just like your attention could be tugged across physical ones (you want to pay attention to a class discussion but you also want to have a side conversation with your friend).

So being virtually present means doing all of what I outlined before I started this section: paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner. So whatever space we are in, these are some basic guidelines to be attuned to. The thing is, it’s not an either/or situation. As my dog demonstrated to me, I could choose to stay in the virtual – and not walk her – but there would be consequences for me that I would not enjoy. So to some extent there is always a dance. We have to figure out how to bound this dance to some degree – like when I turned off watch notifications – but this is something we each have to figure out on our own.  I can encourage my students to engage in mindfulness, and we can even discuss it, but I am not about to quantify it for them.

How Do We Use Technology in Our Teaching Mindfully?

Technology pushes and pulls us in and out of physical reality. And yet, for most of us, there is a need to us it. I will admit that I can get distracted when shown a new technological tool that I *might* be able to use in my teaching. But I’ve gotten better at staying focused. It’s fine to get distracted by a piece of technology at first – to think, “Oh – look at this shiny new thing. I wonder if I can use it in one of my courses?” – but then it’s time to settle down and consider if it can REALLY be used.

When I think about using technology mindfully in my teaching, I generally start with examining how a tool can be used to help or enhance learning. I also consider how it might be used to completely redefine what we are doing in my courses. As basic as it sounds, I love tools like Twitter because my students can keep talking to each other throughout the week. It changes the dynamic of what it means to be a student and a teacher. It’s not just about showing up for class once a week and then wandering off until next time. We can start to use technology to think about regular, sustained engagement and what that looks like.

And this is where the mindfulness really starts to kick in.

Because we all know to not use a tool for the sake of using a tool. We all know to evaluate how the tool might connect to learning. But the interesting thing about technological tools is that they can transform learning in ways that push us to be mindful in different ways as well. As we use a tool, learning can start to look different. In my twitter example, I started to see what it meant for students to engage in interactions between sessions. But then I had to start to be mindful about what it meant to engage. What did I want to encourage in my students and in myself as an instructor? This is where I believe mindfulness starts to get really interesting in our teaching.

How Can We Help Students Engage in Technology Mindfully?

Like any of us, our students will operate along a continuum of how mindfully they engage with technological tools required in our class as well as the general push and pull between the digital and the physical. I do think that how we set up experiences for students, and the guidelines we use to frame them, can contribute or inhibit how mindful they are being.

For example, in the spring of 2016 I worked to think about how to use twitter chats with my students.  The first time I did this I was focused on how many times a person tweeted. This encouraged students to be mindful of the total number of tweets they produced during a week and probably not so mindful about how they interacted with others. And I can’t blame them. I directed them to be mindful about quantity.

So I changed it up. The next time, I still had a focus – though greatly diminished – on quantity but now I was trying to communicate to students that I wanted them to engaged in sustained and interactive participation during the week. But it still came down to me counting people’s tweets. Things got better, but the focus on quantity was still higher than I liked.

In about a month, I am trying this again with a more focused effort on quality (I think). I’m also not going to be counting anyone’s tweets. While I do try to help students think about quantity (because they will want to know something about this which is fair), I have shifted to having them demonstrate how they think their participation is going. Ultimately, they do not get points for participation in and of itself. They get points for examining and reflecting on their participation and considering what they like about it and what they want to do differently.

Whew. I think I might have something decent in place. Finally.

Mindfulness is an Ongoing Process

The twitter example shows how I had to work to get an experience for my students to a place I was happy with and that supported the things I wanted it to support. The first time I tried twitter chats I  was very mindful about what I was doing. However, in practice I started to see where it all fell apart and did not support what I wanted it to.

So I refined it.

And then I refined it some more.

But because I was always mindful about what I was doing, and because I was willing to examine and refine an experience, each iteration got me closer to what I was aiming for. Ultimately, I want my students to be mindful about their interactions when using twitter. However, they are in a class, and they are receiving a grade. Therefore, the structures I put in place will guide them to be mindful about particular things. This might mean they ignore or do less of the things I want because of the very structures I put in place.

Sometimes, I am responsible for a lack of mindfulness in particular areas from my students.

I am looking forward to seeing how this newest version of my twitter chat assignment shapes students into being mindful and engaging with each other.

One Year Ago Today

Two Years Ago Today

 

How Do We Help Bring in the Digital?

Not too long ago, I came across this fascinating piece. The article looks at how a high school teacher (Eddie Kim) and his students developed a business where they take classic texts and play them out in a video game format. If you click on the link, you can see some examples of their work and read about it further. They also have a website.

As I was reading the piece, I came across the following quote:

Despite his devotion to the classics, Sedlacek emphasizes the importance in letting them find new forms. “I don’t think it helps to act as if the classics occupy a sacred space isolated from the rest of culture. It’s better to allow these texts to be played with, to put them into conversation with the other media that make up our world.” He describes video game puppetry as a “postmodern mashup of old and new, high and low. Video games lend flair and fun, the stories lend wisdom and gravity. Together, they give the audience a chance to appreciate both for the unique feelings and thoughts they can evoke in us.”

This quote, along with the work that Eddie and his students have been doing, led me to the following question:

To what extent are teacher educators engaging educators in ways that allow them to do this king of work and/or develop the capacity to do so?

I’m not here to say that every teacher needs to learn how to translate the classics into a video game. What I am concerned about is how well we support teachers in developing the background knowledge and thinking abilities that allow them to engage their students in creative and new ways. I think doing so is going to require us to think very differently about teacher education. Specifically:

  1. We have to stop looking at things in silos, and we have to stop organizing classes that way.
    1. While my institution doesn’t offer a specific educational technology class in the programs I teach in, I could imagine that such a class isn’t unheard of. The masters program I teach in does offer a content area literacy course (how to help kids develop their abilities to read/write in the academic disciplines), and we use edtech tools in the course, but not in ways that merge and blend to the extent that Kim has done.
  2. I can see the argument for silos. If I teach a course in content area literacy, then (theoretically), it should allow me and my students to go in-depth into that topic. In reality it doesn’t. It allows for a superficial skimming. To be more in-depth the class would have to be more specific – like developing academic literacies in English/Language Arts for secondary students. This thought leads me back to…
  3. Making an argument for competency based education and getting rid of classes as the way we structure education – at least from the Masters level on – in teacher education. While such a model is not a guarantee of a better education, what emerges is the opportunity for students to create a plan of studies that allows them to go more in depth and overlap disciplines.

So you can see that my point here isn’t to argue that we need to add more classes or different classes because I think the existing model is limited and dated. What we need to do is find ways to help teachers think critically about content and the pedagogical techniques they use to employ that content. It’s not just a matter of learning content or learning tools. It’s how we think about them and employ them in our teaching.

In some ways, this requires a mindset shift from teachers at both the pre and in-service levels. All teachers want tools to address the issues they are facing and help their students learn. I get that – totally reasonable. But if you’re the teacher who shows up and wants to be handed a list of the best tools and how to use them – with the intention of pretty much just plunking them down into your instruction – then you have to make some changes. Now and then this mindset is ok and works fine, but it can’t be the default mode if you want to get to someplace as interesting, creative, and relevant as Kim has.

We Have To Engage With the Digital

The article discussing Kim brought home to me the importance of engaging with the digital in K-12 instruction. I consider myself to be someone who is relatively up to date on edtech issues and tools, and I am always interested in learning more. I work to infuse my courses with technology in ways that serve learning. I want the teachers I work with to learn tools in was that are useful and relevant to their learning of course content, but (ideally) they will gain insight into how to use those tools in their own classroom.

So how do we help teachers start to use digital tools in ways that extend and reshape what learning looks like in schools? I don’t have the answers here. I barely had suggestions. I only know that I look at what Kim does and I want to figure out how to help the teachers I work with acquire the skills they need in order to design experiences of that caliber.

 

Two Years Ago Today

One Year Ago Today

 

Teaching in a Virtual Environment

As you can probably tell, I tend to be into how to use digital tools in my teaching. I’m also interested in how to teach in online/virtual environments. I teach in a masters program that is hybrid. This means that about 50% of the time we meet face to face and 50% of the time is supposed to be some sort of online/blended learning. There are any number of ways to approach this online/blended aspect. Today, I want to discuss one new tool I’m considering using in the fall.

Edorble is fairly new and (I think) still in beta mode as I write this. It is a 3-D virtual world. I learned about it because one of the founders (Gabe Baker) used to work for TES, and I’m a long time fan and user of Wikispaces. And so our paths eventually crossed.

Edorble is intended (though not entirely) to be used with educators.  I was able to download it and claim a world for myself without any issue. You can have additional worlds, but you have to have a separate email account for each. You design an avatar once you get in, and only people who have the room number can join. The world you claim is not just free and open to anyone who wanders in.

edtheaterOnce in the world, there is an amphitheater where you can come together as a group. In the theater, there is a screen and a blue circle in front of it. Whoever stands in the blue circle controls the screen, and you can show a number of things on that screen. You will see that there are specific sites already on the screen (You Tube for example). These sites are pre-loaded on, and you can’t change them or add to them. I think they are working on modifying that. Like I said – currently still in beta mode.

Now, how do people communicate? You talk. That’s it. In a way it’s just like being in a room with a bunch of people. If everybody talks at once you likely won’t hear anyone clearly. Students can also raise their hands.

There is also space in the world for students to breakout into small groups. I believe they are also going to be adding additional screens along the lines of what is in the theater. This way, students could be in small groups and look at something online together and discuss. When you are in your group – and in your own space – you will only hear what others in your space say. So if I’m in the theater, I will only hear people in the theater. If a group is outside and talking, I will not hear them. Just like real life.

What To Do With This Space?

This space brings about some new and interesting ways to interact with students, particularity if you have online or hybrid courses. I haven’t totally figured out what to do with it yet. On a very basic level, you could hold office hours in this space. You can meet a student in the theater and talk to that student while others wait outside. Those outside the theater won’t hear your conversation.

You could give a lecture in this space or have students give presentations. This is good if you meet 100% online and need some time to come together.

I also see this as beneficial to a program at large. You could have one room for a program. You could host

Students can hang out in small groups within the world.
Students can hang out in small groups within the world.

discussions/meet-ups in this space as well as guest speakers for your program.

One thing I can envision – just off the top of my head – is using this as a space to highlight something called Teach Me

How. This started last fall. The idea is that one of my students – classroom teachers – could share with us a particular method that had been used with K-12 students. They would be teaching the other teachers how to engage in this practice and lead a short discussion about it. Edorable could be a great venue for this. We could host Teach Me How sessions in that space, and it could be a great way to have multiple classes come together (if I could figure that out logistically).

Anyways, I wanted to use today’s post to highlight Edorble for you. I’m looking forward to thinking about how to use it in my hybrid courses this fall, and I can’t wait to share what happens!

Two Years Ago Today 

One Year Ago Today

Next Week: The Argument for Front-Loading