Another dot in the blogosphere?

According to this TODAY article, an NLB survey revealed that 7% of 3,500 locals “did not read in the past year, whether it be books, e-books, online or print news articles, or magazines”.

That was the pretext for launching the National Reading Movement last year.

I have no objection to reading and enjoy the process. What I worry about is the narrow definition of what “reading” is and what the purposes of reading are.

From the examples of reading material, reading seems to focus on text. How about reading (interpreting) images and videos, particularly in non-book media?

Is the purpose of reading restricted to justifying the conventional function of libraries, e.g., lending books and promoting basic literacies?

How about promoting fluencies of different sorts of reading? Do readers think critically about what they read and watch? How do they discuss what they read and listen to?
 

 
If you do not consider these functions of libraries or examples of “reading”, lift your nose up from between those dusty pages and evaluate what is happening around you.

Libraries are more important than ever, but not just for the reasons of old. They are not just places to borrow books to read. They are spaces to self-define, learn independently and critically, and possibly find community.

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LEGO: Chill-axing at home.

Building with LEGO can be both creatively constrictive and constructive.

If you limit yourself to the manual, you follow the prescribed recipe to recreate exactly what is on the box and what everyone else has. If you do not, you might create a mess or something truly your own or both.

Many kids start with free form building, and when they get older, end up following the manual to get identical copies. The parallel to schooling could not be more obvious.

My son has just about grown out of LEGO. He still tinkers with it, but not as religiously as he used to. We recently put piles of dusty bricks away in storage and not a tear was shed.

Yesterday I asked my son if he could help me with some adult LEGO. We had purchased two IKEA storage units and I wanted to cut down the assembly time.

Our near simultaneous build reminded me of something I might now call IKEA pedagogy.

IKEA assembly iconography.

I am not referring to the iconographic or visuals-only instructions in IKEA manuals. These are very much like LEGO manuals. There is little room for error and there is no latitude for free-building unless you are doing an IKEA hack.

No, I am referring to the pedagogy of a lead learner.

As I was assembling something new, I remained just one step ahead of my son. This meant that if I made a mistake, I had the option of warning him or letting him make the same mistake.

While I tried to remain ahead by virtue of my greater experience and strength, there was also a chance that my son could have overtaken me.

The pedagogy of being a lead learner is one of teaching while learning yourself, but the learning always comes first. Both lead learner and students learn by trying, making mistakes, getting immediate feedback, and remediating.

The mindset of a lead learner is one of humility. One or more learners might be better or faster at some things. A lead learner needs to balance free exploration and providing close guidance.

Being a lead learner is harder than being a conventional teacher because the learner and learning come first, not the curriculum and tests. However, with enough practice and building of trust, students learn to think and do for themselves. There is no LEGO or IKEA manual for this, but the results are greatly satisfying.

We assembled two sturdy storage units in the same amount of time it would have taken to make just one. My son gained some confidence and contributed to a household effort. I also have the confidence that I can rely on him in the next build. Maybe he should be the lead learner in future.

I was taught a lot as an undergraduate majoring in biology. Not all of it was true.
 

 
One thing that a lecturer taught me was this factoid: Human DNA is almost 99% identical to chimpanzee. That has stuck with me because it was so jarring.

The lesson then was that it took just 1% of evolutionary tweaking and protein-making difference to have a human. Back then I just took an expert’s word for it.

Today I have YouTube condensing the work and critique of several experts. The video below was built from five published references.


Video source

The main takeaway from the video is that the absolute number (99%) is misleading. The number was derived under conditions like ignoring portions of genomes and arbitrary rules so that the number is neither valid nor reliable. Change the rules and the number changes.

The larger issue is how students today might still be taught: From old textbooks, with outdated pedagogy, and without access to more than one source of information.

The biggest sin of any teacher is focusing just on content. This means the delivery of information and the testing by regurgitation of it.

Content is (or it should be) a means to an end. The end is not to reproduce that content in a test because information can be challenged and knowledge can change. Content should be a way to teach thinking.

The teaching of content today should not just be learning-about. It should focus on learning-to-be. In the chimpanzee and human DNA example, it is not just learning about the 99% factoid. It is about asking critical questions about it and knowing how to find valid and reliable answers to those questions.

Rising above, the teaching of a juicy factoid like human DNA is 99% chimpanzee stems from the pedagogy of answers and the attempt to engage students with interesting nuggets. The critique of such a factoid starts with the pedagogy of questions and continues with the empowerment of students to think and act critically.

Last week, a local newspaper tried to brew a storm in a teacup by reporting that a parent sues school for refusing to return confiscated phone for three months.

This is the sort of headline and article that only helps a newspaper sell more ads. It does not help change the rhetoric, mindset, or behaviour around phone use in schools.

One predictable reaction to this was the “parents nowadays” sort.

Another set of reactions, in a follow-up article by the same paper, was parents that sided with the schools that have strict rules about phone use. The common refrain seemed to be that such rules “minimise distraction and temptation”.

I do not buy that. Nor do I agree that “such confiscations can be ‘teachable moments’” about school rules or for “values like responsibility, respect and self-control”.

I am not saying there should be no rules. I am saying that these rules are a relic function of schooling when they should be more about the current and future.

Let’s break the issues down logically.

When people focus on distraction and temptation, what they actually want is for students to pay attention to their teachers.

Students of all ages through the ages have been distracted when the lessons are not interesting, meaningful, or challenging. We are asking them to pay attention when the product and process do not seem to be worth the price.

As phones are much more interesting, meaningful, or challenging, they become the “distraction” from the teacher or “temptation” away from the lesson. The blame is placed on the student and the phone instead of the teacher and the teaching.

When a student gets caught for giving the phone more attention, it is an opportunity to teach and reinforce a school rule and not much more. Learners are unlikely to learn responsibility, respect, or self-control if the phone is taken away from them because there is no circumstance and context for them to develop and practice those values.

Learners needs to have the phone to decide they should pay attention or not. They need to read contextual cues to decide if the use of the phone when someone is doing their best to teach them is irresponsible or disrespectful. This is how they learn self-control.

It might help to view these values as skills-in-action instead of fuzzy concepts. Phone use is the context and circumstance to practice these skills, just as planes and flying are the context and circumstance for pilots to get good at what they do.

In a phone-free environment, there is no pressure for teachers to teach differently. For example:

  • Why teach what is Googleable when it is more important to think about what you might find online?
  • Why limit learners to consumption when creating, sharing, and critiquing are more powerful ways of learning?
  • Why keep teaching in the artificial confines of the classroom walls when phones can make those walls transparent or break them down?

I wonder if the newspaper could instead feature what academic purposes of phones in classes might be. (Hint: See my questions above.) This could go some way in educating themselves and parents that phone use is not all bad.

It is telling that parents, school authorities, and other stakeholders focus on the negatives of phone use. It is just as telling that the newspaper opted to focus on schools that disallow phone use when there are other schools here that have more reasonable usage policies. The paper seemed to grudgingly report that:

ST understands that most polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education do not ban the use of phones on campus, though students are discouraged from using them for non-academic purposes in classes.

I wonder if it did its homework in finding out how many primary and secondary schools have more logical phone usage policies. My interaction with different schools and education institutes here, thought limited, has revealed a riot of colours instead of the monotone grey presented by the newspaper.

In siding with an old school message, the paper reported:

Acknowledging that some parents may be concerned about their child’s well-being, most schools also have payphones or alternative arrangements for parents who want to contact their children urgently while they are in school, such as calling the school office.

If a message is truly urgent, why delay it with unnecessary intermediaries? There could be circumstances that require some protocol, but even world leader open themselves via social media and modern organisations flatten hierarchy for more direct reach.

Furthermore, the well-being of a child is not restricted to when he or she is in school. Some rely on public transport and the phone is a lifeline in the event of delays, emergencies, or just plain checking in.
 

 
In 1982, ET needed to “phone home” in order to return to his home planet. A communication device was a lifeline to where ET needed to be.

Current phones are where the learner of today is at and indicative of where they need to be. They are periodic tools and everyday instruments for learning how to be: How to think, act, and behave.

Restricting or banning their use might provide the so-called “teachable moments”. However, such moments are not necessarily learnable ones. The latter are powerful, meaningful, and interesting to the learner. These are the same properties we might afford a phone. Instead of turning them away, we should be embracing them.

We let ET phone home. We should let our students phone home, too, with the ET (educational technology) that they already carry in their pockets and bags.

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There are some videos that you watch on YouTube and there are others that are on Vimeo. Those in Vimeo tend to be in a class of their own.

A good example is this animation about two robots mining gems.
 

Video source

There is not a word uttered in the video, but the message is clear: Cooperation is constructive; competition can be destructive.

The same could apply in the context of schooling. There will be times when competition is important or even necessary, e.g., competitive sports, fund-raising, friendly rivalries.

But there are times when it is counterproductive, e.g., teachers not sharing resources or students not helping each other in order to stay ahead.

Unlike in the video, the impact of negative forms of competition are not always and immediately obvious. They fester and rot, and as they normalise, we say it is just part of our culture or defend it by saying there is nothing wrong with competition.

Competition is not always a good thing. If you cannot see that, then you need to let these two robots remind you why.

About a week of intensive creating with the new Google Sites interface have left a few more impressions on me (read my first impressions).

The create and edit interface has less obvious but useful drag-and-drop features. I discovered one when I brought page elements together to group them.

Drag and drop to create nested navigation links.

I found another when I wanted to create nested items (a sub-menu; see screencapture above) in the navigation bar. I only had to drag-and-drop page titles so that they stood alone or were associated with one another.

It was also very easy to embed Google-hosted elements, e.g., YouTube videos, GDrive items. I could either insert by URL or select from the item bar on the right of the editing interface.

Embed GDrive elements.

However, there was no proper embedding of non-Google elements, e.g., Padlet, AnswerGarden. I use those two alternatives because Google does not offer the equivalent of these tools.

Inserting (not embedding) non-GDrive elements.

The lack of proper embedding of these elements in Google Site pages means my learners cannot use them immediately. They have to click to open them in a new browser tab first.

The editing interface sports a “Publish” button to save changes, but there does not seem to be a publish reminder. As the page editing is WYSIWYG, it is easy to click away in the navigation to another page and start editing the latter. I have not determined if there is some sort of auto save when jumping between pages or if changes are not saved when doing this.

The new Sites seems optimised for desktop editing only. Trying to load new Sites in a mobile browser results in this message (see screencapture below).

New Google Sites not editable in phones or slates/

The old version of Sites could be edited on a phone or slate. While this was not ideal, you could make changes in a pinch.

The new Google Sites is slick and relatively simple to use. But its walled garden approach to its embeddable resources reduces some usability. Its coders might cite security as the main reason for not allowing embeds of non-Google ecosystem elements.

The recent GDocs phishing attempts showed how vulnerable sticking with a popular moniker can be. Perhaps the compromise in usability is a tradeoff for user safety.

Recently I read an article written with hope. Blind hope.

If the title (How the Amazon Echo Show Will Revolutionize Higher Education) does not reveal why, then its list of how-exactly will.

If the article was meant to be satire, it failed because its tone was too honest and earnest. It was almost as if the writer was sponsored to write it or wrote it to get sponsored.

Either way, the ideas focused blindly and romantically on technology in education instead of realistically and critically.

For example, one suggestion was that the device would let you “visit your alma mater’s Second Life campus from every room in your home by voice command”. Second Life? There is as much point of doing this as visiting Ello and MySpace.

How about being able to “monitor your children in their dorm rooms through the always-on video and audio feeds”? Creepy much? Legal advocates for privacy could have a field day with this one.

Maybe the legal folk could conference with the device. They could also use existing systems today to do all the items of the list and just as well if not better. The oversell of edtech is a fetish.

We already have the benefit of hindsight of the “disruption” of higher education by MOOCs and the “Uberisation” of education.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

We should have learnt from those mistakes, but we collectively ignore or conveniently forget.

The technology giants do create change and it is tempting to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the future. But the future is not just a function of technology, particularly in the edtech world.

Here it is a socio-technical phenomenon. People and mindsets shape what edtech does. This is why we still appropriate the latest technologies for show-and-tell. It is when people do something unexpected and different with the technology that change happens.

My claim is not sexy because it is not based on a fetish for technology. It is based on critical research and reflective practice. This allows me to have my head in the air while my feet still feel the ground.

You can accuse me of being boring with my approach to edtech, but certainly not of being kinky.

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