Learning through a narrative

Future of education

I just finished reading “The Future of Education – re-imagining our schools from the ground up” by Kieran Egan. It describes the idea of “Imaginative Education” (IE) and gives an example of a timeline in which this superior form of education could be the norm by 2050. I’m unsure of my opinion about most of IE and will spend a lot more time looking into it before I draw firm conclusion.

The one thing that really struck me about IE was the concentration on narratives. In the book students are given an arbitrary topic when they start school (for example “leaves” or “wind”) and work on a portfolio around that subject for their entire school school career). They are then guided by portfolio mentors to apply everything they learn to this topic. So for instance, when learning about metaphors, they are asked to find metaphors in literature involving leaves. When learning about area, they can find the best way to estimate the area of different kinds of leaves. This way of teaching serves the duel purpose of not only making students an expert in their topic, but also
gives them something tangible to relate their learning in all areas to. It forces them to develop a habit of applying the things they learn.

Now, I haven’t figured out how I feel about the idea of an “arbitrary” topic (I think students should at least have some influence in the choice of their topics). However, at a university level students like myself should have the power to choose their own topic and follow it through. I chose my topic of improving education (both in method and in distribution) a long time ago but can see many points in my education where I have failed to relate my learning back to that. For instance), why was I bored stiff in my databases class when I could have been finding ways to relate it to my passion? Boring as SQL may be, it can be seen as a powerful upgrade to parts of human language due to its exceptional clarity. The questions I should have been asking myself could have been as follows:

Should everyone learn how database queries work simply in order for them to understand the pure logic that it creates?

Is this type of logic necessary?

Does that kind of thinking make innovation more or less likely to happen?

So many questions could be formed from something as boring as SQL queries. I know that the ones above are very surface level, but that is precisely because I was not thinking deeply about this while they were being taught databases in depth. I have this feeling that I would have been able to draw many deep and meaningful connections.

From now on I intend to try my damnedest to relate everything I learn in school to my central topic and in order to test how powerful this way of thinking can be.

Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective

Last week I spoke at ETUG 2010. My talk was entitled “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”. In the talk I made a case for user-centered design and then explained the perspective of over 96% of the users of educational technology. Below is the video of my presentation (only starts about 1:50 into the video) and read on for a short summary.

http://blip.tv/play/AYHmsGQC
Continue reading “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”

Current Wordle

Clint Lalonde recently wrote about using Wordle as a reflective tool in order to decide whether the blog posts that he wrote for class were on topic. I like that idea a lot.  It also reminded me of thoughts that opened09 had circling in my head. Over time, a writer’s skill and focus changes, that is a given. But how to monitor this? I think Wordle provides a visual representation that is simple and powerful. I will try and take wordle snapshots of this blog every few months and compare them, mostly out of interest, but also as a way of reflecting on my own constantly changing passions and motivations.

So here it is, 17 August 2009, the Wordle for all my content is:

my Wordle
my Wordle

Gmail Pro Tip: List all unread mail.

I don’t know about you, but I am terrible at organizing my email. I didn’t realize that “archiving” was something that somebody should do with email until I had thousands of unarchived emails and decided to come up with a different way of doing things. This is what I do:

I treat unread email as to do items. When I check my email I respond to the things I have time to respond to and the rest I mark as unread so that I can respond to them later. This is a very hassle free system. Except, there is one big problem. Gmail does not have a default “show all unread mail” button. This means that it is hard for me to compare my unread mail (to do items) and prioritize this means that some big tasks end up being buried under pages and pages of emails. Of course, with Gmail’s new addons this is very easy to do. Here is how:

  1. Go to “settings” then “labs” on the top right menu bar.
  2. Scroll down and enable the quick links addon.

    enable the add links in settings
    enable the add links in settings
  3. in the search box type in the following: in:inbox in:unread. Click search mail

    search box
    search box
  4. In the quick links box (middle left of your screen) click “add quick link”.

    add quick link
    add quick link

And there we have it, now your Gmail is set up to list all of your unread mail without the interference of stuff that you have already dealt with.

Personal Learning Environments

From Sonson on Flickr
From sonson on Flickr... click on image to go to source

At CELC 2009 I was part of a panel of students that tried to answer the question: Personal Learning Environments. What do students think? The other students on the panel were Angeli and Zack. Cindy Underhill was the mastermind that brought us all together and did a superb job of directing things.

So what did us, the students have to say about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs)? I don’t know how much I can speak for Zack and Angeli (although we did agree on the majority of things), but here are my (heavily supplemented) answers to the core questions that Cindy asked:

1) What do we know about how students define personal learning environments?

For this question I avoided the (arguably defunct) definition of PLEs as an environment that educational technologists create for students to learn in (nobody even brought it up in the session). Instead, I defined it as “the environment in which I learn” (I think a lot of people are starting to agree with this definition as well). This includes a bunch of distributed technologies (a topic that I regularly blog about), but it also includes other things, like my classmates, my roommates and very big pieces of paper. This is important, so everybody in ed-tech listen up: you cannot create an entire PERSONAL learning environment for students! It is impossible. Every student has their own way of learning, every student evolves their environment continuously (look at how my tools have changed) and any one tool will be obsolete as quickly as any other piece of technology. Don’t despair though… there is still plenty of work for you to do. What students really need are small, lightweight tools to help them learn. The process should be as follows:

  1. Find out where the gaps are in the student’s learning
  2. Fill the gap with an easy to use tool.
  3. Let them know it exists and show them how to use it (the part, in my opinion, that professors and educational technologists are worst at).

I didn’t get a chance in the session to really flesh that out… but there you have it. Give me the tools and let me use them to build my own environment.

2) How do PLEs contribute to the development of learning competencies?

With my definition above, this question doesn’t make too much sense. The reality is, that a PLE only really contributes to the development of a student’s “learning competencies” when they know what the hell that means. Or when they care. Students don’t often take the time to think about how their current study techniques are actually helping them to learn. They just study and pray that they pass the exams… which brings me to the next question…

3) Are PLEs effective without educational reform?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Image via Wikipedia

The answer is… only a tiny bit. My PLE is helping me to get good grades… not to learn. In fact, because of how education works, most students don’t have PLEs… they have “PGGEs” (Personal Grade Getting Environments)! At the end of the day, that is what most students really care about. Why shouldn’t they? As Cindy said in her follow-up post “We’ve structured the education system this way, it’s not their fault”. I am often way too busy memorizing things to actually learn them.  Learning takes time and effort… it also takes practice and conversation, it is much more efficient to get good grades by memorizing the textbook. This is not only a curriculum problem, it also has to do with the whole way degrees are structured. A Small anecdote for a recent event in my life:

After speaking to someone in Science advising I realized that I will not graduate from University if I do not take the second introductory (1st year) Physics course. I took the honours version of the first course and scored 87%.  I would dearly love to take a 4th year Psychology course on human behaviour instead… but if I do take it, I won’t graduate. The irony is that for me, the Physics course will be a breeze, I will ace it easily.  I find it so easy that it doesn’t interest me at all. If I took the Psychology course I would enjoy it a lot more. It would also be a lot more difficult and I would actually learn something new. It would contribute far more to my plans for the future than the Physics course.

Seems wrong doesn’t it? That same story is being told by countless times hundreds of thousands of students all around the world.  Then professors complain that the students are not interested in the stuff they teach. If you give students the freedom to choose what they will learn and emphasize through proper assessment that they are there to learn and not just there to get good grades, then students will be interested. I would bet my life on it.

Conclusion to that long-winded rant: Without educational reform students don’t care about learning, therefore their “learning environment” is severely neglected, making it ineffective.

4) What’s your role in supporting the development of personal learning environments?

This was kind of a double-edged question… one for us to throw back at the audience. My comment that I threw back out to the audience was this:

You cannot expect students to think about and improve on their learning if you are not modeling the behavior and seeing what works and what does not.

They may all have finished formal education, but in this information age we all have to continually learn and the better we are at it, the more successful we will be. My challenge then, to anyone who reads this post is:

Think about your own personal learning environment. Really dig deep and figure out what contributes most to how you learn. What distracts from that learning? Now, patch, build and experiment with your own environment to try and improve it. You will find yourself much better off for doing it.

If you are involved in education at any level and you cannot do what I have asked above… then you are really incapable of helping students do it as well.

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The two fundamental problems of education

OLPC pilot Thailand - Ban Samkha - hiking
Image via Wikipedia

While attending the 2009 Canadian e-Learning Conference I was suddenly struck by the fact that there were two very different ways that people were trying to better education. There are simply two things that need to be accomplished before education is fixed. These are:

  1. Access
  2. Reform

Access is an obvious challenge, there are too many people in the world that do not have access to a good education.  Reform on the other hand is less obvious, but also necessary, even the best education that is given to the wealthiest of people is deeply flawed and missing something essential, that education has to be fixed.

Now, here is the problem, where do we devote the most of out attention in order to have the maximum impact possible? On the one hand, giving the uneducated even the most basic education seems to be the most important, but again, do we want to be giving them a deeply flawed education? However, we can’t ignore those that suffer while we slowly chip away at the entrenched problems that education currently faces.

Since both are necessary, the only real course of action is a two-pronged approach. Whenever dealing with one problem we need to constantly be mindful of the other. This can be done as they often go hand in hand. The best example of this has to be the open education movement. By creating open and free educational resources (as well as encouraging their re-use) we not only provide access (by lowering the cost of providing/consuming education) but also help with reform, as we allow (and encourage) educators to build on and refine what others have done… creating something much better, instead of continually reinventing the wheel.

Of course, open education is not the only way that we can marry these two goals. The one laptop per child initiative, efforts to utilize technology in the classroom, project-based learning and a whole host of other movements and projects are capable or bridging the gap between these two fundamental educational goals. All that it takes is some thought, creativity and awareness. I challenge anybody who is working to try and improve education to really think about which one of the problems they are currently addressing and to look for ways to augment their effectiveness by addressing the other problem.

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Seth Godin: Create a movement

If you are one of the people who watches the TED talks often (and if you are not, it is in your best interest to become one) then you have already seen the video below.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

I was introduced to the phenomenon that is Seth Godin by my friends Rob Winson and Matt Corker. Seth Godin is one of the most revered marketing gurus of our time.

In this TED talk he talks about the importance of creating movements or “tribes”. He says that every now and then “someone stands up and says: this one is important”. This is a cause that I am passionate about and I want to organize people around me to help get something done. He ends with “go out and create a movement”.

:en:Seth Godin
Image via Wikipedia

My movement is simple. Let us help to fix education. Education is broken. There has to be a better way to teach human beings to contribute to society than what we are currently doing. Studying textbooks and tests are an incredibly inefficient way of learning. Humans have evolved to rely on education. We have stopped adapting physically and are using education to drive our adaptation. In order to continue to evolve and create the best society that we can, our education system has to evolve. The fact that things are being done the same way that they were done 100 years ago is crazy. Education has to be fixed.

Now of course I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to fix education, nobody. I have some ideas, but they are not guaranteed to work. What is needed is for students, educators, parents and anybody else involved in education to experiment openly and to document their successes and failures. For people to realize that things are not working and for them to work to improve them. With critical mass, we can change things.

So, wanna join my tribe?

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Grading on a curve. Making students evil?

Disney - Evil Emperor Zurg!
Image by Express Monorail (Hiatus) via Flickr

While studying for my recent test in Artificial Intelligence, I used Quizlet (still an awesome service) to create a deck of flashcards in order to help memorize all of the terms. As I was about to post the link on the class discussion board so that others could use it, I hesitated. The reason for my hesitation? I asked myself, “if the grade for this test gets curved? Would others using this possibly lower my grade?”

The answer to the question is of course yes. If the grade had been curved my helping the rest of the class would have hurt me. I posted the link in the end but am still disgusted by the fact that I even considered not sharing with others just to improve my own grade. I am even more disgusted by the fact that I have to make that choice. What if I was really into getting good grades (although we all know what I really think of grades)? Could I mislead people on discussion boards or during study groups in the hopes of bringing down their grades and increasing my own? How many students do this at the moment? Yuck!

So, the model of curving grades is broken. If it fosters malicious competition then it is not a model that should be used. The model cannot just be thrown out though, as it is very useful.It protects students from professors who have lost touch with just how difficult their material is. It helps to make sure the course grades from year to year are consistent. So how to fix the model?

My one proposal is to give students who work towards increasing the understanding of their fellow students some form of bonus grades. If a student can provide proof of the fact that they helped to increase the understanding of their peers then they should be rewarded in some way. Sharing is a good thing… not a punishable offense!

 

Update: The actual test that I took was not curved in the end. In fact it was a really well written test with all the questions relating directly to the learning goals of the course and most students in the class did really well. I still have many other courses where grade curving and scaling will be applied this year, but Artificial Intelligence isn’t one of them. 

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Microsoft shares its vision for the future… I can’t wait!

Here is a concept video that Microsoft recently showed at a conference. I found the original here (take a look at the comments, it’s pretty interesting).

http://images.video.msn.com/flash/soapbox1_1.swf

Although, with all the recent layoffs at Microsoft maybe 2019 might be a stretch.

Maybe it’s time to start backing Aubrey de Grey on his quest to help us all live to be 1ooo years old just so that we can all live the the cool future that is sure to come…
http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

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The problem with grades

Yesterday I followed a link from D’Arcy Norman to this article in the Globe and Mail about a professor who was fired because he gave all of his students A+ grades so that they could focus on the learning instead of worrying about grades. While reading the very humorous comments I stumbled across a reference to this Calvin and Hobbes comic:

© Universal Press Syndicate
© Universal Press Syndicate

It highlights what I hate most about the way the world conducts education.

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