Monday, October 19, 2009

Not trying is not an option

The other day a teacher in one of my classes, was clearly overwhelmed with trying to learn how to integrate technology effectively. After perusing a couple of the course readings she realized many of the ways she had been using technology were at best limited in scope, and at worst, a waste of time.
She posted a message something to the effect that there was just too much to learn, too much to know, we should just stop trying to integrate technology at all and let students learn it in a few dedicated courses in HS.
Whoa! This is certainly not what we are learning in the course, which is how to effectively integrate technology. My reaction was from the gut and it follows.

I disagree that we should avoid tech until HS. Students need to have tech woven into the curriculum as just one of many tools used to teach the content. The fully integrated use of the tools will allow the skills to be absorbed without a lot of teaching of tech skills, instead they will come along naturally while the content is being learned. You don't have to teach skills to this generation, set them in front of tech and tell them what you want them to do and learn. They will figure it the tech parts. Trust me!

Avoiding tech because you might do it wrong is as bad as a student saying they are not doing math because they might do it wrong. We all learn from mistakes and hitting the pitfalls. We learn and move on to a higher level of success with each and every mistake. Not trying is not an option for our students, why would it be an option for us?

I pointed her to my previous blog column called, Living on the Edge vs. Living by the book.

How do we help teachers who have little to no technology in their classrooms, very little training in effective integration, and minimal knowledge or personal uses of technology in their lives get past this hurdle? I understand being overwhelmed. The more I try to find the cutting edge the more I realize the level of my own ignorance. I have been trained in, have used, and am an advocate for technology in education, yet I feel overwhelmed. Imagine what millions of teachers must feel like when we are discussing Twitter, blogs, cloud computing and they are still trying to figure out the address book in their email software? I look forward to suggestions, concrete baby step suggestions, to help out our teaching corps!

Yours in ignorance!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Instructor interference with learning

So many blog topics... so little time... I have more to say about the circles I keep finding in my travels around the Internet and so much more to say about paper constipation however... today's topic stems from an idea I included in a posting on my friend Lisa Chamberlin's OpenPhD blog.

Lisa is pursuing an unaccredited but very real doctorate using only Open Courses. This is a new way of thinking about online education which is opening eyes in many locations, and is causing me to rethink what I believe about online education. Those topics are explored in a guest posting made today on #OpenPhd.

One thought I mentioned in my guest posting was how an online instructor could actually interfere with student learning. While this can also occur in a f2f setting I think the danger for this happening in online education is higher because the student is not directly in front of the instructor saying, "Hey, wait...I have a question"

In the online realm if the course is poorly designed students are often stymied and frustrated. Their issues may include not:
  • understanding course navigation
  • being able do course readings because of broken links or unavailable textbooks
  • understanding instructor expectations
These are just a few of the course design issues which may need clarification. Instructors who believe they do not need to read or answer discussion postings/emails/phone calls cause students to become even more frustrated. Would a face-to-face instructor refuse to clarify expectations or answer questions about locating readings?

Instructors can also interfere with student learning which should stem from instructor-learner interaction. There are three key sets of interactions which should occur in any course:
  • learner-content (student internal/mental interaction with the materials and concepts)
  • learner-learner (student communication with colleagues in the course about the concepts)
  • learner-instructor (student learning about the content from the content expert and having their understandings expanded, clarified, and corrected)
Probably 90% of the complaints I hear about online education have to do with instructors who refuse to communicate with their students. These students report to me their instructors do not answer emails, do not participate in discussions, and do not respond to questions asked of them. Student learning has to include communication with the content expert, that is THE JOB of the instructor.

The other job of the instructor is to clarify student understandings, correct misconceptions, and expand on student learning by adding new ideas or asking deep thinking questions. This can occur through discussion or it can occur as feedback on assignments. Formative assessment we call this... assessment which helps the learner's understanding grow and develop during the course.

To be useful to students formative assessment must be prompt, informative, and accurate. Responding to Assignment 1 weeks after it was submitted is of little use to students who have now submitted Assignments 2, 3, 4, 5... without any guidance or input. As one student told me,
"Oh he is real picky, real picky about things but I only know this because I had a class from him already. All my colleagues in this class have no idea what he expects because he hasn't told us what he expects and he hasn't returned any assignments. He won't hand anything back until the course is over and then it will be too late."
This instructor returns all student work in a flurry at the end of the course. If students were failing to meet his expectations how would they have known what aspects of their work to fix as the course progressed? The answer is, they don't. And some fail or get poor grades. That does a lot for student morale! The failure is the instructors but the instructor still got paid for doing his job, even though he DID NOT do his job.

And this is today's point of ignorance... How does such an instructor look themselves in the mirror with a clear conscience? How do they cash their paycheck and not cringe just a little? How is it this person is still employed, still teaching, still perpetuating this farce called online instruction? I don't get it! Yours in ignorance!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I feel like the world runs in circles of late, or perhaps it is just my online world. Someone posts a link, I retweet it on Twitter, then suddenly someone new is following me. I posted a message about a web design class I am auditing and suddenly a web designer group was following me. Goodness, it was just one post, and if you read it, I am just taking a class. I am certainly not a web designer.

The other day I created a podcast with an audio version of a course announcement. Nothing exciting and it was clearly labeled Precourse Welcome (wow, sounds fascinating!) yet within a few hours someone had found it and wanted to be my 'friend' on the podcast site. How does someone find a podcast called Precourse Welcome and decide it is so appealing they want to be a friend... Sorry "Uncle Sid" but I didn't think this was a close enough tie to form a relationship with you!

When I do find something worthy of sharing then I go through my own little set of circles to share with all. A few family and many of my co-workers are on Twitter so I tweet the find. Then if it is a good one, I share on Facebook where more family and friends will see it. Of course there are some family and friends who... *gasp* are not on Twitter or Facebook... So I email it or text it to those folks or make a phone call... good grief!

Sometimes the communication circle feels a bit more like a noose than a group hug! Remember in the old days, you wrote a letter, put it in the mailbox. It took days, maybe weeks to update people and share news. Now, if I am without my phone for an hour and don't answer a text immediately I get messages like,
  • Are you all right?
  • Do I need to come check on you?
  • Where have you been?
  • Are you getting a massage?
  • Are you mad at me?
  • Where ARE you!?"
Outside my circle of well-meaning/caring friends and family with whom I am connected on a minute-by-minute basis, today's communication methods are even more dizzying. Today's finds were Cloudworks and Google Wave (which isn't even available yet but I am signed up for it.) I have more ways to communicate with people than I can keep track of, and everyday there are more to try out. I have been trying to keep my Delicious account up-to-date. My rationale is I can send students to it to look for resources, but the honest-to-goodness truth is, I need it to keep track of all these sites for myself!

I had set up my new Acer purchased in July so it would keep track of all my login information in Firefox. However, the Acer had serious issues and had to be returned to Costco... who handed me over $600 in cash no questions asked BTW! Once again I had to go through all the circular motions of setting up a machine. Updating Windows... restart... more updates... restart... download AVG anti-virus... download new updates... restart. ARGH! And then I had to start saving my logins all over again. I don't even pretend to remember them all now, I can't! This is just another area where I have become ignorant, I knew the logins at one time... but I can't keep them all in my head any longer.

My head just keeps spinning and I continue to be ignorant! Till later!

P.S. Stay tuned, I have more to say about paper constipation. That idea garnered some interesting examples to share with others!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paper constipation

Years back I started going paperless. Classroom assignments were turned in on a hard drive or by email, announcements were posted on my teacher webpage, grades were posted on a secure Internet-based gradebook and my school turned to email and instant messaging instead of paper announcements in teacher boxes. At home I eliminated as many paper bills as possible and began paying bills and doing banking online.

My home state of Washington eliminated a lot of paper forms nearly a decade ago because of a big push from Bill Gates and Microsoft. The story goes that at one point Bill Gates looked at all the forms he was signing and paper he was perusing for day-to-day affairs and said something to the effect of... Bring me all the forms we have to fill out, bring me all the papers we require of others in our business and let's figure out how we can be a paperless company. He pushed the state of Washington to put nearly every form required of business online.

Now I work in a virtual field where almost everything is done electronically. Almost! I'll get to the almost part in a moment. I teach online courses where most course materials are on websites (we still use some books but students can get eBooks), the assignments are turned in electronically, I make comments on them in an online gradebook or I put comments inside the documents electronically and return them to students. Students communicate by email, discussion forums, and the occasional phone call.

However all of this work is done for universities... (sound of creaking door) Brick and mortar universities... (more creaking) Or online/virtual universities who seem to have copied the worst traits of brick and mortar institutions... Sigh! Universities seem to all be victims of paper constipation!

Example of a system with paper constipation: Recently I completed teaching a 6 week course and in the mail (yes snail mail) I found, not my payment for the work I had done, but the contract they had forgotten to send me before the course started. The course begin in July, I got the course site ready in late June, the course ended in August, now it is mid-September and I am still waiting for that paper check to come in the mail.

Why is the contract a piece of paper which has to be put into an envelope and mailed? Why is the check a piece of paper which also has to be put into an envelope and mailed? Why are we still relying on the USPS system to transfer money? And Lord help anyone who moves because universities are not good about information management. I just had a contract (yes sigh a paper one) mailed to an old address, hadn't lived there in more than two years. I have received other things from this university but some functionary pulled up a database which hadn't been updated when the other databases were and my contract was 'returned to sender.' Sender shouldn't be sending me out paper contracts to start with, email it to me!

The whole problem is not limited to contracts and checks, but also applies to grade changes in most institutions. I can teach an online course from anywhere and often do! I live at least 500 miles from any institution for whom I work, so no, I cannot stop by your office to pick up or drop off a form. Grade changes should be online secure forms, most grading is now online and secure, why aren't grade changes?

Paper constipation is still endemic in most institutions for whom I work and I am tired of it. Paperless is so much simpler, easier, and quick. There are issues with paperless systems too, I admit. Like forgetting to tell a publisher you receive funds from once a year that you changed banks sometimes in the last 12 months... still trying to track down that royalty payment.

I may be ignorant about why institutions are still so reliant on paper but frankly I am tired of the paper flow, or lack of it. Universities need to get over their paper constipation and get into the 21st century with the rest of us! Yours in ignorance!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Living on the edge versus living by the book

In a previous posting I mentioned the senior citizen computer basics course I taught. In my ignorance I said yes to this venture without fully realizing how basic a computer basics course could be. What I learned was invaluable, and the experience also validated what I have observed about the current youth generation's use of technology - we'll call this living on the edge; and older generations use of technology - living by the book... except there isn't a book.

I realized how basic the computer class needed to be in the very first few minutes. These were, keep in mind, brave senior citizens who were willing to drive to a community college campus where they were surrounded by young people and who were willing to try to understand the mystifying world of computers and the Internet. I expected to help them learn basic skills such as right-clicking and click-drag but I realized very soon even that was much too advanced when one member of the class picked up the mouse and pointed it at the computer screen like a TV remote control. Later I realized this was about as technological as any of them got in their day-to-day life and it was a pretty understandable way of trying out the mouse.

Here is what is interesting to me about this - I once helped out a kindergarten teacher with her first-ever visit to the computer lab. Many of her students came to school from the farm labor camp so we assumed students may not be very familiar with computer technology. We anticipated having to help them A LOT! We were, in fact, quite shocked to see all the students knew the basics, could work the mouse and could follow our visual and verbal instructions to open a simple drawing program and start drawing.

Having had that experience with 5 year-olds who came from some of the poorest environments in our county, I somehow had gotten the impression there was a baseline of knowledge about computers that everyone had. I was wrong, the senior citizens helped me see this over and over again. This was a group who was starting very much at ground zero. I had trouble defining for myself as an instructor how low the skills needed to be. Many times I realized I had made a leap beyond their knowledge level. In fact, I wish I had been blogging then because I could have chronicled all the faux pas I made in my ignorance.

I learned very quickly they wanted step-by-step instructions in writing. They wanted to learn only one way to do things, in fact, they did not understand why there were several ways to accomplish the same tasks. For example, why would you need to have Ctrl+C as a command for Copy when there was a pull down menu where you could find the command for Copy.

I ended up creating very simple, very clear, directions for every single task, beginning with how to login to the community college system. Many of them had to refer to these written step-by-step directions every single class in order to be able to login. In essence I created a book for them, one handout at a time, which carefully explained every step, showed every menu, and guided them through the tasks.

Eventually this realization dawned on me... This was a generation who expected a user manual with every appliance and every program. They lived by the book. They didn't turn on the new clock-radio until they had read the manual which came with the clock-radio. When I relayed the message that programs did not come with a book, they looked at me as if I had grown a second head. How would you learn to use the programs, they asked, if there was no book?

The current generation however would not open a manual/book for a new program or video game. This would not even enter their thinking. Watch any child with a new game to see how they learn to operate new programs. They open it, they try something, the game ends, they try something new the next time, get a little farther, the game ends... and so on. They collaborate with buddies to find new tactics and strategies but mostly they just keep trying. They live on the edge, willing to see Game End, as they learn and get better with every try. This is a method of learning and an attitude we don't encourage nearly enough in the K-12 schools of today. (Look for a future blog post on this topic.)

By the end of the class most senior citizens had become more comfortable trying new things. They learned they weren't really going to 'break' the computer if they tried a menu item which was unfamiliar. Slowly they had learned to live a little more on the edge and a little less by the book. In the world in which they had grown up every new machine came with a user manual. There is a reason why they believed in working 'by the book.'

I have to admit sometimes I wish there were a few more books to help me work through my areas of ignorance. However learning is about the journey, not the destination, right?!
Yours in ignorance!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mobile computing... the panacea and the reality

This week I was on the move and still teaching my online courses. This is not unusual. Many of us who teach online courses do so from a variety of locations. See my friend Lisa's blog posting about Virgiwiscaliwa. My husband has a foundation which helps people and the environment in Ecuador and travels to S. America quite often. His students never know if he is in an Internet cafe in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador or if he is in Washington state, where we live. Three of our 4 children, and the two grandchildren live on the east coast, so we frequently travel to the east coast to see them. And Lisa offered to meet me in NYC this time so we could play and work!

I travel so frequently that I don't really think about what I need to have or do before I leave. In fact, this time I forgot that I had gotten a new laptop recently and didn't think through what I needed to do to set it up. Mobile computing is so much a part of my life I don't think much about it. I have a Sprint aircard so that I can get the Internet anywhere there is a Sprint phone signal but I didn't set up the new laptop to use the aircard before I left. If my destination is an urban area the Sprint aircard works great. However if you are in the hinterlands, a Sprint signal is not always available I have found.

So I find myself in Manhattan, without the aircard but I figured there would be free Wi-fi pretty much everywhere. Not really! Many people have gotten smart about their home Internet signals and have secured them (smart on their part not convenient for me) and many businesses offer Wi-fi but...

In one cute, quiet deli (with great food) they offered free Wi-fi with a purchase. What they didn't say was that their signal was so weak, and they were so clueless about their own system, that we would be knocked offline over and over again. Just sending a file from one computer to another became an exercise in patience and endurance. In another location, signing up with a particular carrier and paying that carrier was required. In other locations such as Barnes and Noble we had good Wi-fi connections but we were working on unsecured systems. This made us a little uneasy about some of the work we needed to do.

My phone does have email and web capabilities but it is still pretty slow, and I cannot access most of my course sites on my phone. I know this is changing. My daughter accesses her online courses (which use the Angel LMS) via her iPhone but the interface is pretty cumbersome. I am going to be working on a project shortly using Desire2Learntogo so I will get my own taste of mobile computing by smart phone.

Admittedly, if I had remembered to set up my laptop before leaving with my Sprint aircard, that would have helped. However, I know from experience that I cannot always get a good strong Sprint signal. And I know I can access the Internet and email from my phone but it really sucks the life out of the battery very quickly. I cannot use that option for very long each day unless I want to be tethered to a plugin to keep the battery going.

The bottom line is that traveling + computing is still not the panacea it could be or should be. The reality is that there were many times I could not get online, or could not do what I needed to do as part of my job as an online instructor/course designer. However I am still learning. Lisa showed me how she connects her laptop to her BlackBerry and uses the BlackBerry as a modem. There may well be something similar I could be doing with my Sprint phone without needing the aircard. Again, I think I may be ignorant of all the possibilities.

Yours in ignorance!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Working with outliers

One of my areas of Web2.0 ignorance has been RSS feeds. I have known for years what they were but saw no real purpose for them. Why did I want more stuff to read coming at me everyday? I have plenty to read as it is. However I recently have added a few feeds including the Information Literacy Weblog

Information literacy is a real interest of mine and will be covered in a future posting. Today there was an article from the infoliteracy feed which caught my eye. This article discussed information literacy instruction with outliers, our students who, for whatever reason, are not in the mainstream or the normal range (I could go off on what normal range could mean for hours but I digress).

Outliers was a concept I couldn't let go of all morning! The article discusses at-risk students, new business owners, older learners (over 50... what's up with that?), homeless people; any of whom might need extra help learning information literacy skills because they are starting at ground zero.

Those of us who teach work hard to help the outliers in our classrooms, in fact, it would be safe to say we spend most of our time motivating, encouraging, and supporting our outliers. We struggle with the outliers, some of us more than others. Much of my classroom and online teaching success has been due to reaching the outliers.

So... I thought I would share some of what I know about working with special populations or outliers. As I write I am picturing students classified as at-risk, but I am also picturing new online learners who struggle with the new environment of online learning, and the senior citizens from my computer basics class (I learned what ground zero really was when teaching that class. More on that another time as well).
  1. Start with building a relationship - Success in education, well in life, begins with building relationships! (Right Deb?) Outliers can be harder to build relationships with but once the bond is created it will be extra strong. Outliers resist relationships for a variety of reasons. There may be trust issues, they may be just nervous, or they may have a fear of failure which is keeping them from asking questions. Invest time and effort into relationship building from the start. In many cases all you really need to do is listen. We don't listen well in our culture. We are multi-tasking or planning what we will say next instead of really listening. I have found great power in listening (see Costa & Kallick for more on listening with empathy). Even with online students who are communicating by email or discussion forum you can listen. The trick with this is to ask a simple question and stop. For online learners I often send an email that says not much more than, What can I do to help? Once you have listened you can begin to know how to support learning.

  2. Offer support - Many outliers are not in the normal range because of a deficit. The deficit may be in skills, knowledge, or both. Years ago I learned the term scaffolding. It took me a long time after hearing that term to realize it was an overarching word for a whole lot of stuff I was already doing. Scaffolding is the support we provide to learners whether it is in the form of worksheets, tutorials, language assistance... Or the hundreds of other ways good teachers help learners learn. Outliers in particular need lots of scaffolding for their learning. For my online learners I use tech tips. In the past these have been mostly documents with screen shots (link to video on how to get a screenshot) but I have begun to do more video tech tips (video on creating a toolbar bookmark) using the program Jing and uploading them directly from Jing to their associated website,

  3. Praise, correct, praise - I believe very strongly in the power of praise (as readers of my books about inclusion and online learning already know). Tell people what they are doing well, even if it is a small thing at first. Keep offering praise but weave in corrections. Some people refer to this as the hamburger method. The praise is the bun and in between is the meat. Let people know what they are doing well, then tell them what can be improved, then offer them more praise. It works!

  4. Stand close then step back slowly - Most outliers are nervous for one reason or another, fear of failure, fear of looking stupid in front of others etc. Stick close by as they take their baby steps, the same way you would when helping a little one learn to walk or ride a bike. As they gain confidence begin to step back. Keep praising them all the way, but let them go on their own a bit more and a bit more. Pretty soon they are using the skills on their own, teaching others, sharing new wisdoms they've gained and then...
You have transformed the outlier into something new, a non-outlier. OK, I don't like that term non-outlier but it will have to do for now because I don't want to say normal. Normal is such an ugly word. Well my ignorance is showing again... what do you call an outlier who has been transformed... Until next time... Yours in ignorance!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When is an onion not an onion

I come from Walla Walla, WA where we grow sweet onions. In fact, our Walla Walla sweet onions are so sweet you can eat them like an apple. Seriously!
Yesterday I was thinking about this and I realized even though you CAN eat them like an apple, I never use them in recipes which call for apples. I only use them in recipes as onions. Why is that?
We see things in categories and an onion, however sweet it may be, is an onion. This is the category in which it belongs. To truly be creative and wise, we have to think outside of the box, or in this case, the category.
We tend to think of software and technologies the same way, each in a well-defined category. For example, word processors are for typing and creating 'to be printed' documents. Spreadsheets are for organizing data and creating graphs. Yet most (good) pieces of software can be used in a wide variety of ways.
My students and I used Excel, a spreadsheet program, to make maps of Ancient Egypt. We used PowerPoint to make interactive stories and animate architecture. How do we learn to see the new possibilities for tools? Here are a few ways I have learned to battle my own ignorance and see outside the category!
  1. Watch young people use technology. Today's youth have grown up with technology and they more fully explore the possibilities of all tools. They collaborate with one another sharing ideas and findings. They are not afraid to open menus, push buttons etc.
  2. Open menus and push buttons. Try out the tool, right click/hover to see what the menu choices are in various areas of a window, push buttons to see what happens.
  3. Use the Help menu. The Help menu may be the most underutilized tool in most programs. Using Help is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of intelligence. Help is where the ignorant, like myself, look for wisdom and enlightenment.
  4. Ask others. Discussing any tool with others opens the door to learning more, especially if the category 'others' is not limited to those in the immediate vicinity. Using Internet sites to reach out to others and ask questions is a great way to battle ignorance. Here are a couple of the major teacher discussion sites, there are lots of others. AtoZTeacherForums and Discussion Lists.
  5. Use Explanation sites. One of my all-time favorites is How Stuff Works. Their technology section is fantastic but don't limit a stop at How Stuff Works just looking for computer info, their site explains how everything works! Love it! Another favorite is Common Craft. Plain simple English explanations using paper!
  6. Use Tutorial sites. Tutorials are different from explanations. Tutorials show a procedure, they don't explain how the technology works, they explain how to do something. There are tons of tutorial sites, many specific to teachers and education such as: Education World Techtutorials, Actden Internet4Classrooms and Teach-Nology Tutorials.
  7. Use the Manufacturer or Publisher. Most technologies and software have robust sites offering help, tutorials, templates etc. Many, even those products which are not specific to education, have large education sections. For example, Microsoft has a robust collection of teacher tutorials, tips, templates and more.
This is not a comprehensive list of ways to further explore the possibilities of software and technology, but it is a starting point. The only way to become wiser is to admit what you do not know and move forward from there! Yours in ignorance!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Knowing how little I know

This blog is called Transparent Ignorance because the more I learn, the more I realize I am quite ignorant. I intend to make my ignorance transparent for all to share in this blog. After all, if I am still learning, you must be as well! We all are!
Wisdom is not the domain of the old, or the brilliant. Wisdom resides in those who are willing to look forward, admit they know nothing (or very little) and continue moving forward into the unknown. I don't claim to have such wisdom, but I am willing to seek it!
One of my areas of ignorance is the tool Twitter. FTULM (for the uninitiated like me) Twitter is essentially text messaging to a group of people. I have been text messaging, avidly, for years but Twitter was not in my repertoire despite the best efforts of friends. Frankly, I couldn't see how my personal text messages to individuals would be of interest to a group of people.
Nonetheless, I admitted my ignorance and dove into Twitter this week. One of my intended uses is group messages/announcements in my online courses. I don't know if this will work, I invited a current group of students to 'follow' me on Twitter. FTULM you sign up to get the messages sent by someone on Twitter, these messages are known as tweets. None of my current students has signed up to receive my tweets as of yet. Ah well, it is an experiment, and as all scientists and researchers know, most experiments fail. But we learn from failure, and become less ignorant in the process.