Monday, March 30, 2009

Questions to Ask When Encountering a Problem

The other day I read a forum post on Classroom 2.0 that asked, "What are the tech basics no teacher should be without?" (The discussion is located here. One thing led to the next and I thought that teachers, and their students, should know how to diagnose reasons for frustration and go about trying to eliminate these reasons.

Here are three questions that you might ask when encountering frustrations.

1. What am I not able to do that I want to do?
2. Why can't I do this?
3. What would enable me to do what I want to do?

Teachers and students should recognize that they don't have to have all of the answers to eliminate frustration.

For example, people typically know what they want to do, even if they can't do it. Rather than accepting that they can't do something, they could type a question into Google, "How do I....."

Teachers should encourage their students to see frustration as opportunities for learning instead of impediments to learning. In fact, all people should try and see frustrations in this way.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Trial Run of Holocaust Unit on Google Earth

Today, I piloted the first part of a Holocaust unit that I developed, using Google Earth, with my seventh grade religious school students. Two things caught my attention:

1. Students don't know how to use Google Earth as well as I thought they knew how to use it. Many students know how to find their own home on Google Earth; but many of them have not used the marker or trail functions. I'm going to develop a cheat sheet on how to use specific parts of Google Earth. This will make it easier for students. The challenges were certainly overcome-able.

2. I hadn't thought about the fact that many students would have a hard time finding countries in Europe. While students did have this difficulty, the activity pushed them to further develop their geographical awareness. People should have an image of the layout of the world in their minds. I'm thrilled that this activity will help in this regard.

By the way, again, if you'd like a demo of this Holocaust/Google Earth resource, let me know.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Does a Pen Have a Point?

When people ask me what my organization does, I typically say that we are educational technologists. We use the most innovative technology to develop engaging lessons that prompt students to think about important ideas in critical and creative ways.

Given the incredible array of Twenty First Century technology, I sometimes find myself wondering if a pen still has a point. The answer is "it depends." Indeed, this may not be the right question to ask. Remember that a pen is simply a technological tool.

Why should we start the question with a pen in mind, instead of with a task in mind. For example rather than asking, "What is the point of a pen?" you could instead state, "I want to accomplish X, Y, or Z. What is the best way to do it?"

As I write, I'm sitting in my favorite morning bagel joint, Einsteins. Somebody is sitting at my favorite table, the only table in the restaurant with an outlet. My computer's battery is low. So, what was I to do if I wanted to write this post. I'm writing this note as an email message to myself, on my Blackberry, that I'll later send to myself and post from my laptop. I could post the blog entry directly from my Blackberry. But, I'm not certain how to do this. Furthermore, does it really matter to my reader, how I write the article? It's simply a matter of my convenience.

As an educational technologist, however, I recognize that there are some things for which there is no substitute for the most advanced technology. For example, paper maps have become obsolete. There is not a advantage that a paper map has over an electronic map, such as Google Earth. Sure, there might be times when people don't have Google Earth in their cars, when they need to navigate somewhere. Correct!! But, then they would have GPS.

Of course, the argument could be made that not everybody can afford GPS. Absolutely true. But then again, there are people who cannot afford calculators. Do their children still learn with abacuses? As educational stakeholders we have a responsibility to ensure that all students can learn with the most advanced technologies when appropriate and only when appropriate.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Twitter Learning

Imagine the following situation: A teacher asks students to think consider an interesting question. First, one student wants to contribute an idea. Then, three students have their hands up. Soon half the class has their hands up. Unfortunately, the teacher had never anticipated spending half the class discussing this one question, but the student contributions are highly insightful and the teacher does not want to stifle the dialogue. Once upon a time, few options existed. The conversation would have to run its course.

But Twitter and smart boards have changed all that. Rather than asking students to wait their turn to speak, the teacher might have all students twitter in their response to the question. Students would simply have to ensure that their comments were fewer than 140 characters. If the teacher asks students to enter a unique class tag (identification) word within their comment, all student posts could be displayed on a smart board in front of the room. (Twitter's search feature, located at, makes this possible.) In order to ensure that students read each others comments each student could be asked to comment on at least two, or X, number of comments.

It's one thing for a teacher to ask students to Twitter.

But, publishing companies could ask students to respond to powerful questions related to important content, using Twitter. Publishers could set up their own unique terms that students could include in responses to specific questions. Content experts could be asked to weigh in on these discussions, as well. All of the sudden, academic dialogue would extend well beyond the classroom walls.

CNN does it. Why can't you?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Publishing in a World of Free

My Prediction: Chris Anderson, editor of Slate Magazine and author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, is about to reach the New York Time's best sellers list again, with the upcoming publication of his book, Free, set to be released in a few months. Anderson has already published a series of articles and blog posts in which he argues the price of many goods is dropping to zero. As you know, newspaper content is now free. Blogs are free. So, too, the information contained in textbooks has become less and less expensive.

If you don't believe me, just read this article from Edutopia. The author Tamim Ansary writes, "I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, "The books are done and we still don't have an author! I must sign someone today!" The educational publishing industry may fast be moving to an age when the author of a textbook doesn't really matter, as long as the quality of content is present. When it comes to quality - non-fiction content, particularly much of math, social studies and English/language arts, changes little. So, the content should be very inexpensive. It can be "Free."

So, the question is, how are publishers going to make money in the second decade of the Twenty First Century and beyond?

One school of thought suggests that publishing companies can offer their content at little cost and charge for professional development activities. Perhaps!!

But, I much prefer the possibility that content alone will cost very little. But content (i.e., written prose) has never been and will never be the core of a learning experience. Instead, the value of content is comparable to a students ability to engage with the content. Engagement that demands critical and creative thinking about important ideas is inherently more valuable than other content.

Engagement is not free ... Developing Twenty First Century Engagement comes at a cost!!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Kindle - What Does it Mean?

Are you familiar with Amazon's Kindle, the electronic reader? Did you know that they just released the second edition? Several days ago, I asked my friend, Steve Hargadon, why anybody would buy a Kindle if they had a smart phone. Steve replied that the text on the Kindle has a much higher resolution than a smart phone. Furthermore, the Kindle's shape resembles a book much more than a smart phone.

The new Kindle is still expensive at $359.00. But, consider the features of the Kindle.
A. It can store 1500 books at one time.
B. Readers can highlight texts and add annotations.
C. Readers can easily look up difficult words
D. Readers can choose between several different styles of font and text size.


Keep this information about Kindles in mind and now consider the weight of many traditional school textbooks. During the months of December and January I was working on a contract that required me to carry around two large social studies textbooks. I might not be really strong - but my bag was uncomfortably heavy. I'm a healthy adult but consider the backs of children and young adolescents who must carry textbooks. Why should they have to do this?

Do you know any children that have ever lost textbooks or left books that they need in school? Publishing companies and schools could most certainly work out deals with Amazon and other companies that would allow students to access books both at home and at school. (These books could be accessed on Amazon's Kindle, smart phones, or even computers.) My point: there's no need to lose textbooks or forget them at school anymore. (How many teachers have to send students back to their lockers to fetch textbooks that they forgot to bring to class? I suspect most teachers would be happy to avoid this aspect of classroom management.)


So, now, if you are anything like me, you are probably asking, so how can publishing companies make money with this model?

Publishing companies could likely make either as much money or more money selling digital books that could be read on smart phones or Kindles. After all, how often does a typical school district currently purchase textbooks? These districts don't have to purchase books every year because they use the same book from year to year. A publishing company can't make a physical book disappear. However, using innovative Digital Rights Management systems, publishing companies could make digital books expire after a set amount of time. So, each year schools would have to repurchase access rights. (Likely, rights for a year of access would cost less money than a textbook. But, over multiple years, the publishing company could generate an equal amount of revenue.)