The lure of the shiny and the new

shinythings

I attend several ed tech conferences a year and after a couple of decades I have come to some conclusions about the ed conference game.

Educators are attracted to shiny new things? I fall into this group. By new things, I actually mean new gadgets, new instructional philosophies and new instructional strategies. Professional presenters develop an ever changing schtick – making, coding, storytelling – in order to satisfy this demand.

I also attend at least one educational research conference a year. Certainly, there are trends in the topics that seem most dominant, but things move more slowly from year to year and ideas are openly challenged. The community as a whole looks at proposals and asks do they work, what does work mean, why does it work, what are the boundary conditions that define effectiveness, etc.

Don’t interpret this as criticism of any given shiny new thing, but learning is not magic. What are the first principles? How do learning experiences impact cognition? How do experiences modify motivation? I would argue the history of educational trends would argue against limiting our perspective to what tends to impress us at any given point in time. The transition from one shiny thing to the next comes with overhead. It takes time and it takes money to make transitions from one thing to the next. There will always will be those who both feed and take advantage of this constant overhead. They show educators the new things, explain how the new things are applied, and accept payment in return. These individuals should not be our only educational heroes.

I wish conferences offered some combination of proposed practical tactics and critical examination. I wonder how this could be accomplished? What if one of the key notes was given by a relevant educational researcher? Researchers and practitioners now seem to not only work in different worlds, but seek out conferences that further distance these two communities.

Outside Aisle

I have a tradition applied at each tech conference I attend of finding something in the vender area that I think deserves greater exposure. To qualify, a product must come from what I consider a little known vender. I have taken to calling this quest “wandering the outside aisles” because the smaller booths are positioned in these locations.

The FETC selection for 2015 comes from Keytech, Inc. and are devices for adding touch technology to existing screens. So these relatively inexpensive devices can be positioned over monitors/screens of any size or even over a white space targeted by a projector. The touch surface then allows interaction with the display. An interesting option allows multiple users to act upon the surface at the same time – think several elementary students drawing simultaneously.

keytech

 

keytecboard

Traveler

marksuper

Mark at the “Home of Superman” rest stop.

We are on the road for 6 weeks and I assumed there must be some app or service to automatically track the trip and allow images and comments to be added along the route. Finding something to fit this purpose was more difficult than I had anticipated. There are plenty of apps for planning a trip, but I found few options for documenting a trip. We also tend to make decisions as we go so I wanted something that would be flexible.

The app I am using (Android only) is called The Traveler. The app is a project of Ball State University. I think this is pretty cool. I have encountered a few glitches with the app (see the image that follows – there should be an image icon rather than the way point marker), but I can live with this.

travelermap

We have had to drive hard to get to Orlando for the FETC conference. 1600 miles in three days does not leave a lot of time for photography.

The social component of the service is pretty interesting. You can follow our progress online. I intend to add many more images during the conference and then in the weeks that follow. This app would seem a way to offer students an interesting virtual tour.

 

Why a textbook

There is an anti-textbook bias rising among educators. I am trying to understand why. I know that at the college level there is a great concern with cost. As I have argued elsewhere this argument typically accompanied by the tab for a sample semester is often misrepresented. What I mean by this is most students resell their books so the actual cost is 1/2 the tab that is reported. In the K-12 environment I am not certain just what the most common issue. Perhaps the problem is the structured nature of the content limiting the creativity of the teacher and/or the students. It is not my intention to argue against these positions beyond noting that the cost of textbooks is frequently overstated.

My interest here is in explaining what I think the value of a textbook could be. In other posts, I have argued that a textbook in contrast to individual resources providers learners a structure for the content presented. Learning is only partly about the ideas stored, but also about the organization of this content. The author or authors responsible for a text typically do more than just present a set of ideas but built these ideas into a meaningful structure.

After reading many of the popular books, not what I would consider textbooks, being discussed online by educators I propose one additional benefit of many textbooks. Textbook authors are not necessarily promoters of a given instructional strategy or position. In our approach, we present multiple strategies and also deal with the known limitations and available research findings associated with the different approaches we discuss. Most of the popularized professional development literature lacks this balance. When I read promotions of student coding, project based learning, or a position such as Internet searching rather than fact learning, I cringe. The research literature simply would argue that in general these are flawed positions. In other words, promotion of these positions as strategies that are generally superior are misleading and poorly informed (e.g., learning by doing is superior). This schism between the research findings and the desires of those promoting without critical analysis a given strategy is difficult to justify.

So, if you are willing to pay someone for a product, I would suggest it is most valuable to invest in products that offer a careful analysis of strengths and weaknesses rather than attempt to popularize a new idea without an open mind to what is known about effectiveness.

Something concrete enough to discuss

I find that future educators often glaze over when I mention research. When faced with this reaction, I often propose that researchers face a challenge many “experts” on educational topics are not required to address. Researchers must be very concrete when it comes to the topics they study. I did say concrete. The notion that academics are abstract is a representation and when true applies to explanations they offer but not the techniques they use. Unlike other experts who can offer generalizations, researchers must conduct experi ents. They are doer and not talkers. They have to define their interests in terms of specific situations and actions. I describe this as “operationalization” which may not be a familiar term. It pretty much means researchers are required to explain how an hypothesis is turned into an investigation. They cannot hide behind vague terms – motivation, engagement, creative, etc.

The skills of critical thinking and literacy make a good example. Both sound like areas in which we want to encourage achievement, but what are such skills when it comes to a specific setting? My own interest is in these skills as applied in online learning. Here is an example of a study developed by a researcher focused on these skills. I encourage educators to consider the “Methods” section.

The great thing about the specificity of research is that the methodology offers something concrete to discuss and debate.

My 2014 blog data

I have blogged since 2002. In recent years, I have split my attention across three WordPress blogs. My blogs are hosted on my site (not the Word.Press hosted site), but I can use analytic tools provided by WordPress. This has been the case for the past few years.

blogyeartotals

My views has declined recently and I have been trying to figure out why. I thought the issue was a user switch from RSS feeds to Twitter (I do not work hard at developing a large Twitter following which would receive notifications of new posts), but it seems more a decline in posts being located in searches. I do not understand why this would happen unless there has been some change in how near the top of search results my content appears.

learningaloud.com--blog

 

The major decline has been associated with my main blog (learningaloud). My post numbers are down a bit because I now post to several sites. but this would not totally explain this sharp drop. The Curmudgeon Speaks blog is up in numbers. Do folks want funny over serious?

Be the bridge

Howard Rheingold’s NetSmart offers an interesting analysis of the potential benefits of online networks. As I understand his analysis, there might be a couple of issues anyone hoping to learn from an online community might overlook.

networkbridge

The first is “the power of weak ties”. A tendency of those new to the network might be to motivate friends to convene for online discussions. I am reminded of the “edchat” phenomenon when bringing up this issue. In comparison to those we know, “weak ties” bring something new to a conversation – different ideas and perhaps challenges to existing ways of thinking. The value in advancing thinking is to experience different perspectives and challenges to existing personal views.

Given that “echo chamber” networks are likely most common (my comment), members of a given network who bridge to other networks (networks with different perspectives) are particularly valuable. Such participants may not be the most prominent within a given network, but add the diversity that encourages a deeper examination of topics.

It might be helpful to examine what you consider your personal learning network in this fashion. Are you a bridge? Does your network involve those who serve as bridges? Do administrators participate with classroom teachers? Do researchers participate with practitioners?

These analyses offer a description of what types of learning groups are most productive, but not necessarily how to develop a productive group. I have a thing with those who use the phrase “from what we know about learning”. I would prefer that something specific follow this phrase rather than assuming any position taken has been magically justified. Here is one thing I think we know about learning (from Piaget and other constructivists, conceptual change research, etc.) – models of the world mature when existing models are challenged. Being willing to maintain an open mind and to seek diversity are important characteristics in learning individuals and learning groups. So, one place to begin in generating a more productive learning group might be to define the diversity in the existing organization and consider how this diversity might be increased. It would seem quite practical to examine the transcripts from past discussions and look for indicators of variety and even contradiction.