Significant innovation

Calling for innovation in education seems to be a big thing. The argument for this position would seem to be that new ideas are better or that goals have changed and adjustments must be made. There is little doubt that when it comes to the job market the world is changing, but who needs which skills to take advantage of these changes and which educational setting is best suited to helping learners develop these new skills? Are these new skills more advanced or just different? Are these skills different or do they build on traditional skills?

The innovation I see as necessary in K12 is very different from the changes advocated by others. New ideas such as coding for all, making, or project-based learning are useful and interesting, but do not address what I think is the core challenge. I think it useful to differentiate core information and skills from additional skills. In my opinion, he most significant problem is the variability in core skills that cannot be addressed by group-based instruction in the earliest grades with the consequence that more advanced students are held back and struggling students do not get the attention they need resulting in failed progress and motivational problems. The most meaningful innovation would focus on ways to individualize the development of core knowledge and skills providing the foundation for personal learner interests and more optimistic attributions for learning activities (some have taken to calling this a growth mindset).

The idea that all learners should acquire certain common skills is present at every level of education. This core may reflect essential life skills and a foundation for progress in other areas (e.g., reading, writing, math) or perhaps an expectation of the public for contributing to society  (e.g., civics/government).

I think we are at a point when schools must do multiple things in multiple ways. Perhaps a theme here might be individualization, but understanding that individualization can mean different things. The individualization in individual interests should likely be addressed by increasing options and the individualization in speed of learning core expectations due to differences in aptitude and background knowledge should be addressed through systems allowing progress when mastery is demonstrated. Grade level is not a reasonable way to think about individualization when it comes to this second category (core content). Students quickly become quite different when it comes to level of achievement. Using a group-based approach to teaching the same things to students who are advancing at different rates is far from optimal or innovative.

I often write about technology providing practical ways to implement sound educational ideas that have been extensively researched and often ignored for years. Often, the problem is one of finding a way to make the tactics employed by researchers practical in classroom settings. I recognize present technology-based implementations of individual progress systems as based in the mastery-learning research of the late 1960s. Sal Kahn is one of the few technologists who seems to recognize this connection and it took some years before he described what his group has done as a form of mastery learning.

I would like to see public schools try what is sometimes described as a “mastery” model. There are different variations, but the approach I think is most practical make use of technology to individualize core areas. The use of technology should not be understood as eliminating the importance of educator involvement. To the contrary, in these areas the technology allows educators to identify critical obstacles and to function as more of a tutor.

I see public schools ignoring such blended models and leaving them for charter schools. This is part of what I mean by talking the innovation game, but not taking on the most significant challenges. In the present political climate, I see this as a problem for public education.

What makes content a learning resource – 5

This is the final post in my series concerning the modification of content as a learning resource by layering activities on the original content. My final post offers a demonstration of two services. I have saved this demonstration because prioritizing the rationale for such services and the tactics for using such services must be considered for the services to be effective. I am working on additional tutorials/demonstrations that are available from my “layering” pages.

What makes content a learning resource – 4

Video annotation

More and more online video is being used in K-12 classrooms. This may be the case because educators want to expand the exposure to content sources beyond the traditional textbook. It may be because some educators are exploring flipping their classrooms and are creating the videos themselves to replace presentations they would offer during class time. It may simply be because educators find interesting and informative YouTube resources they can make available to their students.

With the exception of educator created video which would likely be developed with an understanding of the target student audience and an understanding of specific curriculum goals, the video content to be assigned could very well be an example fitting more toward the content rather than instructional resource end of the continuum I have been describing. Certainly, educators could preface exposure to the video with guidelines and follow up with a discussion. However, the layering process I have been describing can be applied to video and allows more immediate and embedded techniques for influencing productive cognitive behaviors.

I am guessing that annotating video is a more challenging concept for most educators than annotating static multimedia. We all have at least observed and probably have participated in highlighting and annotating static content and using these additions as part of the process of review. I would be the first to admit that tools for the addition of prompts to video is less well developed. I assume that part of this lag can be attributed to technical challenges, but I also believe that there has simply been less interest in the educational use of video. Tools are available and will grow in sophistication as interest in making use of video grows.

The method of association between original and added content must differ with video. With static online multimedia, the learner scrolls through the content and added content scrolls along wherever inserted. With video, adding content on top of a constantly changing display that appears in the same location presents problems. The solution has been to use the timeline for the video to integrate the moving imagery and content that appears in an adjacent window. You use the timeline when you scrub through video to move ahead or back rather than allow the video to run in real time. Ideally, the content related to the video should pop up in the adjacent window shortly before one reaches the related point in the video and should either stop the video at an appropriate point or allow the user to turn on and off pausing the video at those points when additional information has been displayed. The online services I have reviewed have yet to achieve this level of sophistication and learners pretty much have to scroll through the adjacent content window to locate added content. This is not a problem with short videos, but it is limiting when working with longer presentations.

How can layering improve the experience of learning from video? I would suggest that most of the prompt categories I outline in Layering for Learning apply. For example, a comment at the beginning can establish context and activate existing knowledge. Comments can be interjected to bring attention to particularly important points. Questions can be added to check for understanding and when necessary encourage review. These are traditional design tactics that classroom educators can apply.

The next and final segment in this series will provide a couple of examples of existing services for layering.

What makes content a learning resource? – 3

Layering for online media

In the first two installments of this series, I attempted to provide a background for the concept of layering suggested tasks on experiences as a way to convert content (or experiences) into learning resources. This post will address just what some of these tasks might be.

To be clear, I have suggested that layering could be a general way to understand what is added to content/experiences to improve the likelihood of learner understanding and application. Even instructional designs such as project and problem-based learning are tasks added on top of content/experiences in order to improve the likelihood of learner understanding and application. My interest is in promoting the more familiar use of layering as has long been applied with traditional paper content and can productively be applied to online content (web pages/web video).

So, let us begin with what I am guessing is familiar. As a college student and perhaps as a professional, many of us used and continue to use some paper textbooks. Often, to improve the processing of this content for immediate understanding and in preparation for later review (studying), many of us added highlighting to this content and perhaps added notes in the margins. We may have noted “key ideas” available at the beginning of the chapter to activate existing knowledge and prioritized our attention to the chapter that followed. We may have used “boxed” recommendations for application embedded within the chapter and used questions at the end of the chapter to check for understanding. All of these additions contributed by the designer or that we added might be considered layered on the basic content in an effort to manipulate the effectiveness and efficiency of our cognitive activity (reading, studying).

If you make use of ebooks, you may continue to use many of these add-ons. You can highlight and annotate. The digitization of this content and the online connection even allows more powerful uses of these tactics. With Kindle books, you can identify the content most commonly highlighted by other readers (a form of group intelligence) and you can search your own additions for a book allowing far more efficient location of your own ideas than would be the case attempting to locate what you had highlighted or annotated in a paper book.

The core idea I am promoting in Layering for Learning is that as a teacher/designer and as a student, tools are available for adding a variety of devices for encouraging effective cognitive activity on top of web pages and web video. These tools are available now. I want to suggest what some of these additions can be. Not all tools offer all of these additions, but all of these additions are available.

  • Highlighting
  • Annotations (note taking)
  • Questions
  • Invitations to discuss
  • Prompts – suggestions, external links, reminders, added information (images, text, video)

Perhaps you expected a longer list. Recognize that the items on this list are versatile and pretty much allow a teachers/designers to extend existing web content as if they were the original author. Often these tools are available both to the teacher/designer and student and allow information to be passed in both directions. For examples, educators might highlight key points to make certain students recognize these points or have students highlight and see what students see as most important. As was suggested in the second installment of this series, mature learners apply some of these techniques on their own and yet students receive little assistance in learning to take effective notes, to use highlighting effectively, or to generate questions for personal review. The bi-directional shareability of these tools allows expert modeling, peer sharing, and the evaluation of student tool implementation.

Video layering does not allow all of the enhancements mentioned here, but more may be possible than you realize. I will describe video layering in the next post.

What makes content a learning resource? – 2

This post continues my series for educators/designers on turning content/experiences into learning resources. The initial post identified three cognitive tasks that must be applied to content/resources for effective learning. These three tasks were described as – knowledge activation, thinking, evaluation and regulation. This post will consider various ways these cognitive tasks might be activated.

I understand that some of the ideas I am presented may be abstract. I believe I can describe ideas like thinking or regulation clearly, but this may not mean that readers can convert such descriptions into specific tasks or activities. I will eventually get to an attempt to identify the multiple activities that can be layered on online content to modify such content into learning resources, but perhaps one such example would be helpful at this point.

Questions are a very versatile tactic for encouraging knowledge activation, thinking, and regulation. As a learner, I can ask questions of myself. As a designer, I can attempt to manipulate/encourage the cognitive activities of learners by asking questions. I can ask a question before access to new content that requests learners to remember something I believe represents relevant background knowledge. I can ask a question during the consideration of information or experiences that encourages specific thinking activities – application of a newly acquired content. I can ask a question to reveal the success of understanding and encourage rereading or further thinking should the learner be unable to answer the question. There is a great literature on the use of questions, when to ask questions, and what types of questions are suited to specific goals. This is not the location to review this research, but suffice it to say that questions have proven value, but the use of questions by many teachers is less than ideal. I use questions here as an example because I believe most of us can see questions as a means to encourage different types of cognitive behaviors in learners.

Now, back to the goal for this post. I am working toward a model that proposes teachers/designers can add various activities to online content (e.g., questions) to create from this content an instructional resource. However, before doing so I think it is important to understand that to create such modifications may not always be necessary and may be damaging under some circumstances. I know this may seem to make the life of a teacher more complicated, but I think this is reality and careful analysis should reveal this to be the case to most with classroom experience. Simply put, what works in an optimal manner will depend on the learner and the content to be learned.

Here is my way of thinking about this reality. When considering learners attempting to master content, I think it possible to imagine learners functioning in one of the following ways. To make this more concrete, imagine a specific form of content (reading/studying a web page) and perhaps a specific strategy for encouraging the key cognitive activities (questions). I imagine learners functioning in one of four situations:

  • Unprompted/automatic
  • Internally prompted
  • Externally prompted
  • Unprompted/passive

The unprompted/automatic situation describes the behavior of the most advanced or sophisticated learner and suggests that mature learners apply and adjust cognitive behaviors directly. These cognitive behaviors do not require the use of an artificial tactic such as questions to activate productive cognitive behaviors. Requiring that these learners respond to questions would be unnecessary (busy work) and may hinder the existing cognitive capabilities by requiring the learner attend to unnecessary tasks.

The internally prompted situation involves learner capable of applying an artificial tactic without external guidance. These learners use such tactics to encourage productive cognitive behaviors and benefit from the addition of these tactics. So, for example, such learners might use self-generated questions as a strategy to rehearse and check for understanding.

The externally prompted situation involves the learner responding to content that has been augmented by tactics added by a teacher/designer in an effort to encourage productive cognitive behaviors. Using my example, the teacher/designer might ask learners to answer questions before, during or after exploring content.

The unprompted/passive situations involve learners lacking productive cognitive behaviors attempting to process content without the addition of external tactics.

So, back to the question, what makes content/experiences a learning resource? The answer depends on the learner and the content. With some learners and some content, the content is already a learning resource. With others learners and content, learner applied or teacher/designer encouraged strategies can transform content into a learning resource.

I am guessing you will see that this system makes sense, but question the practical value of thinking in this way. What is a teacher working with 25 students to do with the argument that students are all over the place when it comes to how they might best learn the same content? I cannot say I have a perfect reply to this challenge, but I think an accurate representation of reality is a good way to begin and then to work from there to see what options are available and what compromises are acceptable.


What makes content a learning resource? – 1

I have decided to write a series of posts on the adaptation of online content as learning resources. This is in keeping with K-12 educator in making less use of traditional textbooks and greater use of online content (web pages, video). While I have written textbooks, I have always had some nontraditional views when it comes to learning content and I think my experience with applied educational psychology and instructional design may offer educators some insights. I have written a book on this topic, but I find that each time I write about a topic I develop new ideas so the effort to author a series of blog posts.

This post serves as an introduction to the topic of the difference between online content and online learning resources. It occurs to me that maybe content is not exactly the right word.  Perhaps ‘experience” would be better. Experience is more general and would include activities ranging from what we read and write to what we do with physical materials. Hence approaches such as “making”, problem-based learning and project-based learning are often seen as alternatives to reading, listening and watching. Still, there is a core idea across all learning tasks that something (ideas, concepts, skills) are to be learned and the activities of making, solving problems, or completing projects will result in mastery and retention of certain knowledge and skills. To me, the things to be learned are the content and the other activities are added as a way to create a learning resource.

Perhaps you are not used to thinking like this. I find it useful to differentiate the content/skills to be learned from the activities that are applied to increase the sucess of learning. Such activities can be applied by the learners and eventually learners must get to the point that they are in control and can make decisions regarding what activities should be applied for themselves. In K-12 settings, this independence may be the eventual goal, but educators typically make decisions regarding the activities that are added to content exposure in order to improve understanding, mastery and retention

My theoretical background comes from cognitive psychology which I think is very helpful in understanding what learning is and how ti happens. Any educator needs some core ideas about how learning happens. Part of what I think academics such as me must be able to do is to translate some of the core ideas of cognitive psychology into a form that makes sense to educators. This is what I will try to do here. To keep these posts to a reasonable length, I intend to have a specific focus for each post. The focus here is to list specific cognitive tasks the LEARNER (capitals for emphasis) must accomplish to learn.

Activate existing knowledge. We are certainly capable of pure memorizations, but learning for understanding and application requires that we integrate new ideas into our existing mental structures. I will leave mental structures vague for the moment, but simply put we organize ideas and skills into models or systems. Information/skills are not stored randomly. Perhaps such a structure might be thought of as a “personal theory” of something. A personal theory is how we think something works, a strategy for approaching a certain kind of issue, etc. Knowledge activation simply means we must activate what we already know (our personal theories) when we are learning something new in order to build a better version of these existing theories. Simply put – no activation, no connection, no improvement.

Think. I am a big fan of thinking. Most educators are the same. Content exposure is not enough. As simple as it may sound the learner must think about new ideas. Thinking can take many forms (summarization, imagining applications, etc.), but an important difference between exposure (content, experience) and learning experience is the addition of thinking. Many of the activities educators attempt to add to exposure might be thought of as different ways of encouraging specific forms of thinking.

Evaluate and regulate. I don’t mean testing. I mean any cognitive process frequently fails. This is a good thing. It is good thinking is not overly careful. Being perfect about the thinking leading to learning would be far too time consuming. Think of effective thinking as quick hypotheses with quick evaluation. Fail quick, BUT be able to identify the success of your efforts. Effective readers and effective learners (studiers?) do this. This is one very important distinction between those who struggle and those who do not – the capacity to immediately recognize failure so that minor problems do not become major problems and major problems become discouraging. Quite frankly – those who struggle simply do not know what they do not know. Most of us know in a moment that the last sentence did not make sense (I hope it did, but maybe it did not). If the lack of understanding was obvious to us, we could do something immediately. Even simple rereading drastically increases understanding, but you need to only reread when necessary or things simple become overwhelming and inefficient. Activities can be added to content/experiences to improve evaluation and regulation when learners are unable to execute such cognitive actions themselves.

Three big requirements. Easy enough to state and I hope understand. If you were a successful student and are a successful life-long learner, you do these things with little mental effort, but I hope with some thinking you can recognize them in yourself. The challenge for any educator is to develop these skills in naive and struggling learners.

Kinkos Coursepacks Revisited

Educators have long had mixed reactions to heavy reliance on textbooks. For those of us who teach at the college level in courses emphasizing research, we wanted students to have an exposure to original sources rather than read a secondary and likely dated textbook. This meant the assigned of journal articles. It was easy enough to create a syllabus listing a dozen or so articles students were supposed to read. Even with smaller courses of 25 or so students, this could lead to problems as many students would wait until it was close to the time for a given article was to be read and then try to find it in the library. This competition often meant that the journal was not available or perhaps left on a desk somewhere in the library not to be reshelved for a day or two. There were some other issues. Some students just did not like to work in the library or wanted to have a permanent copy so they tore the articles out of the journal. Copy machines were originally 5 cents a page, but some students must have thought this was too much. Other students made personal use of the assigned journal articles by highlighting or underlining the articles in the journal as they read. A useful study tactic for some, but a mess for others who got there late.

The course pack was a solution to this desire for the desire for personal copies of required reading. College campuses always had several copy services near campus that met various student needs. One of the most common was Kinkos. Kinkos and other copy services started creating course packs for sale to students. The prof or a grad student would make copies of the entire collection of articles to be read and take the collection to Kinkos. Kinkos would duplicate all of the articles at a price lower than the per page cost when using a library copy machine and sell the collection to students. Typically, purchasing a course pack was not required, but the time and frustration in locating assigned readings and the opportunity to have a personal copy that could be annotated and was personal were such advantages most students when with the course pack. It was a good deal, but it was eventually decided when Kinkos lost a costly court case that this was a violation of the copyright held by the authors and the journals. Kinkos continues to offer course packs and will attempt to obtain permission for the articles, but there is a cost required by most journals and this was pretty much the death of course packs.

Copyright is a complex topic when it comes to educational applications. As an educator or student, you can go to the library and make a copy of a journal article. What you can’t do is make copies for others – I assume especially if you charge. You may know that college libraries pay thousands of dollars for some of the journals they carry and this is likely to be many times more than it would cost individuals (especially if a journal is controlled by a scholarly organization and you pay dues to that organization). The high cost to libraries assumes multiple users but it does not allow for mass reproduction.

Many have likely forgotten this situation or maybe never knew it existed. Now, most libraries purchase digital access. They may still carry some paper journals but digital access allows libraries to offer a far larger collection at a lower cost. The downloadable pdf is the modern equivalent of the paper copy generated by a copy machine. I found it to have great advantages and even for those journals I purchased and were sitting on the shelves in my office, I usually would download pdfs of what I wanted to read. These pdfs could be highlighted and annotated and services such as EndNote could be used to create collections of such pdfs online so that they could be searched and reread from any location with an Internet-connected computer. This technology upgrade really made academic work easier and more productive.

Here is where the copyright thing comes in again. College students have access to these online collections as well as faculty members. However, the digital search systems take some learning and experience to use successfully. Some students and some faculty thought that it would just be easier to for the faculty member to assemble a collection of the pdfs to be read and simply make them available to students through the class course management system (CMS) or some other sharing mechanism. This is again a technical copyright violation (in my opinion). Since it does not involve a charge, I really don’t know if legal action has ever been taken. I don’t do this with my students and simply explain that learning to locate the pdfs of primary sources is a skill that is important to learn as a professional competency.

This lengthy introduction was intended to broach the issue of copyright and related skills students should be expected to acquire as related to online content (web pages and video). Students at all levels are being assigned more and more online content. It can be a matter of cost, but certain current topics are going to be available online and not in a textbook. As we prepare the students we work with for their futures, we also realize more and more of their informal learning will rely on online content.

Online content with certain issues. Dealing with these issues and helping learners deal with these issues is part of the preparation of learners for their futures. Online content is less vetted than educational content so we must be concerned with inaccuracies and spin. The issue I am raising here – not appreciating the rights of content creators – is likely less familiar to educators, but I think of great long-term importance.

Anyone familiar with technology can likely offer multiple suggestions for collecting and offloading online content. The can recommend ways to copy and download a YouTube video. I use a popular service called Evernote that allows me to save a clean copy (no adds or surrounding material) of the content from web pages. I assume the same rationale applies to online content as it does to content in the library. A learner is allowed to make a personal copy for personal educational use. Sharing this content might be easy, but it is a violation. So, I can download the content I have captured in Evernote as a pdf I could distribute. I would regard this as inappropriate behavior.

So – what to do when you want to use online content.

1. The most obvious approach is to send all learners to the source. This is the equivalent of asking each student to download their own pdf. I recognize that students need equipment and Internet access to do this. I recognize that some schools block services that might have useful content (YouTube). These are issues that are important, but the solution is not copying.

2. Ask permission. Why not? The author may not regard it as a big deal and happy to say go ahead. I just finished a Kindle book in which I wanted to use screen captures. After writing a book with a commercial publisher I am sensitive to the expectation that such content must be provided with permission. I was 5 for 5 in my requests. You may be ignored or turned down once in a while (most likely ignored) but then just move on to something else. It wouldn’t hurt to let students know that you are asking the author if it is OK to make a copy as this would be a good lesson.

3. Use a service that takes care of the permission issue for you. A K12 service I really like (Newsela) is a good example. This company offers content on a wide variety of current topics and is most unique in offering each “story” at multiple reading levels. There are other tools for the learner and student associated with this content and I think it is an impressive service. It does cost, but so do most quality educational resources.

4. Layering (this may sound like an ad, but you can learn this on your own if it sounds interesting). Layering is the term I am using to describe services that combine original content and educator or learner contributions. By layering I mean that the core content as created and served by the author is combined with secondary content served by the layering service. Layered content might include questions, highlighting and annotations, prompts and suggestions, links to other content, etc. It is a way of giving users the opportunity to personalize without taking away any of the rights assumed by the author. You do see ads as intended by the author and content in the margins as might be a function of the service the author used to offer the content (e.g., a blog service). I understand that ads are an issue (especially for learners under 13), but if so this would be one of the situations in which should look to suggestion 2 or 3. The layering services I am describing are available for both web pages and video and I see this as a little known online service category that will grow in popularity among educators and researchers. I also see this type of service as offering similar opportunities to EndNote for less formal online content.

If you are curious, I suggest you take a look at my book. You can download a sample at no cost if the $3 price tag is a concern. If you want to start on your own, I would recommend taking a look at DocentEDU.