The nine steps to quality online learning…

This week in the course "How to Teach Online," the focus was on the fundamentals of online teaching, and how one would employ those fundamentals in their own teaching practice. In particular, the materials presented focused on concepts that revolve around Tony Bates' "Nine Steps to Quality Online Teaching." For reference, click on the links below.

The Nine Steps of Quality Online Teaching
  1. Decide how you want to teach online.
  2. Decide what kind of online course you and your students need.
  3. Work in a team. 
  4. Build on existing resources.
  5. Master the technology.
  6. Set appropriate learning goals for online learning.
  7. Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Evaluate and innovate
My first impression with the list, after having read through each of the steps, was that while everything I read was sensible, based on my own experience, something seemed out of place. Let's examine the first step - "Decide how you want to teach online." 

While I agree with Bates that this is probably the most important step of the nine, I don't believe it should be the first step at all. That is, unless you are a master online educator with the skills and confidence gained by knowledge and experience. For the average educator, with limited or minimal experience and skills, you might as well be jumping into the middle of the ocean with no idea where to go. What are the options? How does it all work? What are the tools and technologies available? Are there policy implications? What technical or other issues will we have to face? To paraphrase a certain unpopular former politician - we don't know what we don't know.

The majority of educators I know will look at an XBox 360, or a Playstation 3, or a Wii, and to them it is all the same. To them, those disparate game systems are all "Nintendos." All three may be vastly different, supported by different technological ecosystems, targeted at different audiences, but to a majority of educators that I know, it is a distinction without a difference. They are game machines, kids play video games on them, hence they are all "Nintendos."

I constantly encounter the same attitude and outlook amongst colleagues when it comes to online teaching and online resources. Get into a group discussion about the issue, and you'll hear phrases like "We could use Google," or "why not use SkyDrive?" To the layman, those ideas probably sound just fine. To the more practiced ear, the phrase "please specify" pops into mind. How, exactly, would we use Google or Skydrive? What services? To what purpose? Do we need an LMS? or a CMS? Or both? What about the stakeholders? What sort of infrastructure do we have to contend with? Is this for a class? A subject? A grade? A school? A school system? And that's not all. I could list dozens more questions off the top of my head.

But that's the thing. It's not my first rodeo. I've immersed myself in e-learning for quite some time, and I have had time to come to know what I did not know. I have also come to expect the existence of a broad swath of more things I do not know, but knowledge of which will be of importance sometime later down the road. And as valuable as that is, that knowledge is of little or no use to those around me until they have had a chance to stumble over some of the same bumps in the road. 

This is why, the way I see it, the first step should really be "work in a team." In any group, a very few will be experts, some will be conversant, and the rest will be minimally able, but relatively willing. Once you gather your team, start out with a collaborative task that involves at least some of the tools and technologies you think might be employed. An online unit, for example, including the lesson plans, materials, and assessments. This is where you "design course structure and activities." As this occurs, the team will start to "master the technology" through the process of the collaborative tasks, as they construct materials collaboratively, reflect, edit, ask for help, offer assistance, etc. But that's it. That's where I end the list, at least for round one.

Rome wasn't built in a day. It may be cliche, but it's apt. Your team of educators will spend time struggling through the many issues that will inevitably crop up, as they implement this new thing. Technical issues, complaints, disagreements, worries, ridiculous objections raised by the technical illiterate. As irritating and annoying as these things are, they are a necessary part of the process. And unless and until you confront them, there is little point in engaging the rest of the nine steps.

In the end, I'd say that Tony has it about right, except that I would probably shuffle the deck. My nine steps to quality online teaching would look something like this:

The Nine Steps to Quality Online Teaching (Revised)

Round One

1) Work in a team
2) Design course structure and materials
3) Master the technology

Round Two

4) Evaluate and innovate
5) Build on existing resources
6) Decide what kind of online course you and your students need
7) Set appropriate learning goals for online learning
8) Decide how you want to teach online
9) Communicate, communicate, communicate



 

iCloud iWork Beta Open for All

Now, I'm a Mac fan. 100%. I use a Lenovo ThinkPad at work, but it's more of a grudging acceptance of the tool I'm given than anything approaching enthusiasm. When it comes to my creative work, be it video editing, presentation development, audio editing and production, even writing, I feel more comfortable using a Mac. In my old job, I had a MacBook Pro that I carried with me everywhere I went, moreso even than my second daughter and her ubiquitous blanket. Luckily, when I had to hand that MacBook in after changing my job, I still had my trusty iMac at home. Still, not having access to Keynote or iMovie at work can be a massive pain. (At least until I can afford to spring for a new MBP...)

Well, this is where Apple's iCloud iWork Beta steps in. Up until now, Apple has had amazing software, and unbeatable hardware, but their online services were beyond awful. Atrocious is a more apt description. Even Microsoft's SkyDrive was leaps beyond what Apple had put out, even including the stunted and awkward Word and Excel Web Apps. No, when it came to online tools, I really found only Google had the a full suite of apps I could reliably use.

Sure, I had to contend with some shortcomings. I love Google Docs Presentations, but boy it takes work to make a Google Docs Presentation look smooth or stylish. I love the collaborative and security features of Google Docs Spreadsheets, but I sure wish Google Docs Spreadsheets made it easier to add hyperlinks in a cell. Or even more than one hyperlink per cell. Google Documents is a dandy word processor, but man I wish Google Documents could handle tables less like a fingerless man playing the piano. Still, as a whole, Google Docs/Drive can be a powerful tool. But what about this new iWork thing?

At first glance, it's pretty good. The Keynote app is slick and smooth. It functions more like the iOS version of Keynote than the OSX version. The interface is fast and intuitive - Drag and drop image placement, easy to use masks, quick and simple slide transition options, and the presentation plays smooth as silk. The same slickness and simplicity is evident in the Numbers and Pages apps. The real drawback for all three, however, is in the collaboration and sharing options. Thus far there appears to be no collaboration options at all. As for sharing? After you set up a mandatory iCloud Mail account (name@icloud.com), you then have the option of sending your document in the iWork format, a PDF, or the equivalent MS Office format. Not share, as in send a link, but share as in send an email with the file as an attachment. (Hey Apple, the 90's called...) Unfortunately, this is a bit of a deal-breaker for me.

With Google Docs Spreadsheets, for example, as long as I own, or have permissions for a sheet, I can use the "ImportRange" function to pull the data from multiple sheets into a central data collection tool. Currently I use this for mark aggregation, as I have my teachers enter marks into individual markbooks made from a Google Docs Spreadsheets, and that data flows into a master sheet that I use to keep an eye on student performance. In addition, when it comes time for unit planning, I set up a Google Docs Spreadsheet with multiple tabs, and use the permissions functions to assign people to specific tabs for lesson and resource development. During this process, dozens of educators work simultaneously on the same document, creating content, adding comments, or using the chat function. It's an incredibly powerful tool in this manner. Also, for Google Docs Presentations, I set up resources that I then publish online, giving me an embed code I can use to embed the presentation on any of the various blogs I have set up as learning resource management tools. Because of these powerful sharing, collaboration, and data linking options, even though Google Docs/Drive is the square kid at the dance, it is the square kid with a mickey in his pocket, and the keys to a sweet ride.

Overall, I could use the Keynote App to develop a presentation, then upload that to Google Docs, as a clumsy workaround for sharing and embedding. But after what I have seen with the newly released Bunkr,  a fully HTML5 presentation app that has blown my socks off recently. Still, if you just want to make a stylish presentation, a magazine quality document, or a basic spreadsheet, then iWork Beta is a great (free!) option.

How to Teach Online

I am enrolling in another MOOC. I tried a few Coursera courses a while back, and did not successfully complete a single one of them. They were great while I was in them, but I just did not have the time to really engage them. Mind you, I was concurrently enrolled in two MFA courses and a Masters thesis... so in retrospect the lack of time was something I should have figured in advanced. They say the eyes are bigger than the stomach, and likewise the intention is often greater than the allotted free time.

In any event, being on the last legs of my thesis, and working in an an environment that is rapidly integrating e-learning into the curriculum, I figure that the "How to Teach Online" MOOC offered by the University of Hawaii might be something I can devote the proper amount of time and attention to.

The course is asking students to post about  their progress, and about class assignments on personal blogs, the feeds of which will be aggregated by the course. So if you see the label "tomooc" on a post, it's just me submitting an assignment.

I'm hoping this will be informative.


Grinning Streak

I run through a lot of personal musical fads. Lately I've been listening to Capital Cities "Safe and Sound" as my daily let's-feel-good-the-workday-is-done-time-to-go-home song. Prior to that it was non-stop "Of Monsters and Men". But everyone has a band, at least one band or group whose music and ethos became indelibly embedded in their soul, whose every new album or release brings out a sense of anticipation and excitement. It's why some people feel shattered and betrayed when a band like this breaks up, because the emotional connection is so intimate and real. The band that is like that for me, my band, is the Barenaked Ladies.

Now, I won't say I love every song they have ever made, nor would I say that the songs of theirs that I love the best should be at the peak of every critic's top-ten list. Indeed, there are a number of songs of theirs that I will skip past wihtout a thought. However there are other songs, songs where with just the first chords, I feel, invoked within me, a sort of reverie, emotionally transporting me in place and time, a la Anton Ego upon his first taste of Remy's ratatouille.

BNL's latest album, entitled Grinning Streak, is now available on You Tube. The entire album is free to stream, and while I have had only a single listen through, my snap judgement is that this is one of the best albums byt BNL in a long time. Some albums I have had to have multiple listen throughs before I started connecting to them and appreciating them, some I have had an almost instant connection to. Grinning Streak falls into the latter group.

I'm looking forward to the next few days. My playlist is set.

Coursera – Week 1

The Grimm's Household Tales
In has been an interesting introduction to the free, massive open online courses offered by Coursera. I've enjoyed the experience so much that I've already signed up for two more courses - Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, set to start on September 10th, and Greek & Roman Mythology, which starts on September 24th. I'm looking forward to them, but seeing as how I will also be launching into my masters thesis in poetry, as well as two single semester courses on playwriting, and teaching creative writing around then, I'm not sure if I will be able to see those courses through. Considering the results of my first week with the two courses I am currently enrolled in, Listening to World Music, and Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I may indeed have to be a little more on task to keep all those plates spinning.

Week 1 - Science Fiction and Fantasy

The course is taught by Eric Rabkin, from the University of Michigan. Thus far I have enjoyed the videos, although they are traditional lectures. That said, the videos do cut away from Rabkin to display example texts, illustrations, and pictures. The audio is always clear, and Rabkin has a knack for explaining complex topics in a relatable and understandable manner.

The course expectations are clear. Each week we read a text, and are expected to write an essay of between 270 and 320 words. The submissions page will not accept any entry above 320 words, which helps encourage concision. After submitting an assignment, you have to read and evaluate essays by 5 of your classmates. These essays are chosen at random, and provide no identifying information, just the text. Your job is to give them a score of 1 to 3 (1 = Terrible, 2 = Average, 3 = Awesome) for two separate categories, form and content. In addition to the numerical score, you have to write comments/critiques of between 30 to 150 words for each category, with an additional optional comments section for anything else you might have to say. In one of the videos, Rabkin explains that for each category, 10%-30% of the marks should be a 1, and no more than 20% should be a 3.

Thus far I have given scores that range between a 2 (lowest score possible) and a 4 (average).  Of the six essays I evaluated (after the first five you are given an option of evaluating more), none showed any real creative thought or effort, and only two had a (barely) university-level command of English. As the course currently has an enrollment of between the high five and low six figures, the participants will represent a broad spectrum both academically and culturally. While this might mean that I should perhaps focus more on the ideas being expressed than the precision with which those ideas are conveyed, as this is meant to be a university-level course, conducted in English, it would be better if my evaluations reflected that.

Overall I have nothing but good things to say about how Rabkin and his team are running the course so far. Based on the e-mails they have sent out to the students, and also based on what I know about the general nature of those who would flock to a course in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Remember, I'm an internet nerd too, and I know what my people can be like), I am absolutely sure that Rabkin and his assistants have been absolutely hammered by a deluge of irritating, off-topic, mind-boggling e-mails. That they seem to be taking the feedback in stride and maintaining a the integrity of the course and the prepared syllabus is refreshing.

Week 1 - Listening to World Music

I'll admit it, I was not a good student this week. I downloaded the videos, watched them, enjoyed the lectures, but when it came to the assignment, I messed up. I didn't pay proper attention to the submission deadlines, and missed the deadline. One thing I'll say is that I love the fact that these courses have hard and fast deadlines. When the deadline passes, you can't even attempt to submit a response. When I'm a conscientious student, there is nothing I hate more than seeing late and overdue submissions make their way in to the marking pile.

The course is taught by Carol Muller, from the University of Pennsylvania. The videos are also lectures, but put together differently. Muller is recorded in green screen, and the Powerpoint slides are are placed behind and to the side of her. Where Rabkin's videos featured him sitting and cutting away to show slides, Muller is standing, and always present in the videos.

Hopefully I can get my act together for week 2, and get things done on time.  

Build Up, Don’t Tear Down

I came across a post on Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, regarding a recent Washington Post article that was critical of Salman Khan, and his online education efforts.

Reading the article put my blood pressure up a mite, and I ended up leaving this as a comment on McLeod's post.

I'm of two minds on that article. On the one hand, I do agree that the aesthetics of Khan's videos leave much to be desired, but as to whether Khan's approach is inherently bad teaching? I'm not so sure.

A normal teacher is observed during a lesson around two or three times a year wherever I have worked. After an observation comes a feedback session where everything that occurred in the lesson is nitpicked.  Strong areas are highlighted, areas of improvement are pointed out, and the teacher walks away with a record of that observation. 

Generally speaking, teachers wear their Sunday best when being observed. They pull out the assessment tool, make sure to touch upon the key elements being assessed, and put on a show. While every other lesson in their day-to-day practice may still be good, it is rare for any teacher to bring their B-Game to an observation. And after the observation is over, they are left to keep on keeping on.

But that's not the case for Khan. For Khan, every lesson is an observed lesson. Every lesson has thousands of keen eyed educators assessing and nitpicking it, commenting on it, and judging it.  Imagine if every lesson you taught, day after day, were observed in the same manner? Would you be brining your A-Game each and every time? Would you be as infallible as the Pope with your facts, figures, explanations and analogies?

Probably not.

This, then, is what so irritated me about this article. It encapsulates a mindset that I find absolutely infuriating. 

So Sal Khan goes ahead and teaches a couple thousand different lessons. Some are great, some not as great. But instead of saying "Hey, this is an awesome foundation we can build upon", or "I like Khan's video, but I would add that another way to conceptualize (concept) is...", all I hear is "How come Khan doesn't explain (insert concept) as good as (insert educator's name) does?" Or they make an entire video about why Khan was wrong on some point or another.

Khan is trying to do something that few educators have tried to do. He is trying to create a broad swathe of resources that can be accessed by anybody, covering a broad span of topics, grade levels, and subjects. As Odin was the "All-Father" some see Khan as turning into the "All-Teacher," and look upon that with the specialist's contempt of the jack-of-all-trades, and dismiss his work as merely a lesser effort.

The article says "[i]n the class it's bad teaching, and online it's a revolution?" In a word, yes.

Khan's lessons, whatever their merit, are there, online. Available to one and all. You can put the greatest teacher in the world in a room and have them teach the greatest lesson ever taught, and it will still amount to less than what Khan has achieved. Why? Because that lesson, however good it was, ceased to be the moment class was over. All that would remain would be, as Tenacious D would put it, a tribute.

Serious educators do not criticize and tear down. Serious educators analyze and build upon. Don't like Khan's explanation of something? Then edit his video, add your own spin. Credit the source and make it better. 

That's the whole point of the creative commons. It's the underlying principle of the scientific method. It's the entire basis of western culture since the enlightenment.

Make, share, use, make better.

Okay. End of rant. But as a postscript...

Bad teaching? That's a first world view. I teach in Asia, and for students who study the Indian syllabus, or in similar systems in Asia (which is most of them), what Khan does is what they want. The student centered, problem solving, independent learning approach is better, but it is not the norm in the most populated areas of the world. It is only prevalent in wealthy nations, and even there these approaches are limited to the relatively privileged groups.

Teachers in North America are insanely privileged in comparison to teachers almost anywhere else. In South Asia, the average teacher barely earns a subsistence level wage, has to contend with enormous class sizes, and has little to no logistical support. Students get little to no individual attention, so resources like what Khan produces are an absolute godsend. Sure he may be just going over example after example, but you know what? That's what the they want over here. That's how education functions over here.  It's not a question of what is best practice and what is not, it is a question of what actually is. 

"[H]ow the price of an iPod changes as you buy more memory" may not necessarily work as well in Bihar as it would in Iowa. 

Coursera, or Teacher Learn Thyself

As a proponent of free, open resources, and someone who hubristically believes they know a bit about online education (most likely a false belief, but we all need our illusions), I thought it might be good to jump into the world of MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses. This week, my education began.

MOOCs are a rapidly growing area of education that has the potential to be incredibly destabilizing, at least to the current higher education model as it exists today. edX, MITx, Udacity, and now Coursera are some of the organizations, or entities, pursuing this model. At some point in the recent to mid past, I had put myself on a mailing list for Coursera, but as I hazily recall, at the time I looked at Coursera, the courses on offer were STEM focused, and thus not something I'd attempt to touch other than at gunpoint. Did I want to study computer science? No, not really. What about artificial intelligence? Possibly. It's something I am interested in, and if presented through a humanities framework, probably a something I might try. But since the course seemed to involve math higher than basic addition and subtraction, I took a pass. None of the initial courses offered by Coursera interested me, but the initiative still seemed a neat idea that I should keep an eye on.

Well the initiative turned out to appeal to a broad swath of people from around the world. Since launching, 1.5 million+ students have signed up for courses. The artificial intelligence course I took a pass on ended up having 50,000+ students enrolled. Only a small fraction of those students ended up passing the course, but then that's a good thing. Of the 46,500+ students who did not make the cut, they all learned, for free, a lesson that every debt burdened higher-ed dropout wishes they had learned - that not everybody grows up to be an astronaut (tip o' the hat to E.L. Kersten).

Which brings me to the key thing that motivated this post. Now, I love university, and the university life. I didn't do the standard four year run, due to finances, ending up finishing my B.A. over a more sedate seven year stretch, and I am currently in the fifth year of an MFA, just starting my thesis in poetry. (I know... I know... but still I like it). Yet university is a massively expensive proposition for the average person, and the ROI for almost any degree is nearly negligible at the outset. At best, getting a Bachelors, or a Masters is akin to investing in a 30 year bond. It'll pay out eventually, but you have to wait a while.

For a guy like me, who likes reading, likes writing, like wrestling with esoterica that has nothing whatsoever to do with the world of work, money, or practical and applicable skills, university is great. That's my thing, you know. I like it. I'm good at it. I can't rebuild an engine, and can barely change the oil on my car, but analyze a text? I've got six shooters in both holsters, my friend.

But then, isn't that kind of useless, in a practical sense? The humanities don't add value to the world in the physical sense. They don't build houses, or design telecommunications arrays. But isn't the point of existence in this modern age that we don't have to live as our hunter-gatherer forbears did - with each and every day focused only on practical tasks necessary for survival? Music, art, novels, and movies are all completely unnecessary for survival, completely impractical, yet they are what make the day to day of life worthwhile for so many. They are, in a word, fun.

This is the reason I signed up for these Coursera courses. I like the humanities. I like musicology. Paying thousands of dollars for these courses would be a reckless indulgence for my family, financially, and would offer no benefit to us monetarily. I may have been imprudently indulgent in pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing, and now an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, instead of trying for an MBA or JD, but I can defend my choice of degree in that I will end up with a graduate degree, period. The credential will be something I can leverage for my family's benefit. In my line of work, regardless of experience or intelligence, the difference between a Master and Bachelors translates into a whole swathe of better job opportunities, and extra income. That I am studying something I enjoy, and am good at, is a bonus. But if not for the fact that I can use my degree for a practical purpose, and have the ability to complete it, pursuing it would have been purest folly.

I keep reading articles about millions of students in the US and Canada who enter into university, only to drop out with a mountain of debt, and these stories always upset me. I really hate the precedence of the academic credential in the modern world, because the end result is a highly destructive and self-defeating educational paradigm. Students go to high school to prepare for university, and anything less is frowned upon. Based just on the dropout rates for high school and university, there are a heck of a lot of people not cut out for higher education. Yet so many feel pressured to give it a go, and universities capitalize on this.

Anybody who has ever sat in a massive lecture hall in a first year introductory course has taken part in a scam. Where I did my B.A., at York University in Toronto, I had to take two "Foundations" courses. These were 9 credit courses (With 30 credits being a full load) where a single professor would lecture to over 500 students, while TAs (always grad students being paid a pittance) would lead smaller groups in seminars. Since I was going to school in Canada, the tuition was not outrageous. Maybe $200 and change per credit. Still, that amounted to $1800 per student, for a total of nearly $1,000,000 for the course. In the US, where the per credit course is that much higher... you can do the math.

So what's wrong with this? Well these courses are often used to separate the serious students from those who should not be at university. They are marketed relentlessly, and are usually forced upon students as a requirement, with the result being that a sizable portion of the students who paid for these classes deciding to eventually drop out. It makes sense for the university in that these courses are money-makers, and often go a long way to supporting the budgets of entire departments, yet for all those students who end up walking away with nothing but debt, the experience was anything but beneficial.

Some students will have dropped out due to financial constraints, but with the readily available, and seemingly free-flowing credit laying around for students who simply want to give university a go, it is probably more likely that those who dropped out did so because the learned that university level education was not right for them. The level of reading, the writing requirements, whatever it may be, these students ended up learning, to their detriment, that they made a HUGE mistake.

And this is where something like Coursera is a godsend. Imagine if, in the final year of high school, students were required to take a Coursera style university course. Not for marks, but just as a participation requirement, just to determine wether university education was right for them. The first, and immediate effect, I believe, would be a massive reduction in the number of students giving college a go. These students would see university level education for what it is, not good or bad, but difficult and not for everyone, and might perhaps then be open to alternatives, to trade schools, vocational programs, or entry-level positions with on-the-job learning.

This is how something like Coursera could be destabilizing for the current higher education paradigm. It pulls the curtain back on the wizard, dispelling the marketing slogans, and enticing offers. It allows those who love to learn in a community of learners to do so. For those who are not quite prepared for the university level, it offers a risk-free opportunity to experience higher-education.

Over the summer, I will be doing two courses through Coursera - a course in World Music offered by The University of Pennsylvania, and a course about Science Fiction offered by the University of Michigan. I'll post my thoughts about it from time to time, how the course operates, and perhaps posting some of my assignments and the associated lectures or texts (where copyright allows).

It should be fun!

Why are so many teachers resistant to eLearning?


I came across a great article in Slate, today - Why Johnny Can't Add Without a Calculator by Konstantin Kakaes. The argument, in simple terms, is that what we really need to teach math is paper, pens, an old fashioned blackboard, and a textbook that is at least a decade or so older than the students. As a key example of this, Kakaes points out the story of Vern Williams, a celebrated super teacher who may very well be the John Henry of Math Educators. Williams refuses to use newfangled devices, and feels they are a menace to real education. Reading this, I found myself smiling, somewhat taken aback by the utter nonsense of it all.
I'm sure Vern Williams is a superstar teacher. But Vern Williams is just a singular being, he is not legion. Of math educators, he may be the LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, but in being that, there then is the reality that there is something he is not - your everyday normal educator. Indeed, in highlighting Mr. Williams special nature, Kakaes even spends time telling us cherry picked anecdotes of examples of technology uses in the classroom he has witnessed which, no surprise, failed to blow him away. 
In a classic example of thunder without lightning, bark without bite, Kakaes ends up making three critical errors in his argument.
First, he sets up a straw man. He chooses the example of teachers who are not yet fully trained in how to use technology in the classroom, and holds their example up as proof that technology in the classroom is all just a waste of time. An argument worthy of William Jennings Bryan.
Next, Kakaes forgets something that is the root of all mathematics - logic. You cannot scale a single person. Vern Williams may be an amazing educator, but you can't clone him by the tens of thousands. The only thing that can bring Mr. Williams wisdom and methods to the masses is the very thing being demonized in the article - technology. To wit:
But drawing up a lesson plan is itself educative: A teacher who plans his own lecture is forced toward mastery of the material, but one who downloads a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t have to know anything beyond how to download the presentation. It is a mirage of efficiency: empty calories.
Drawing up a lesson plan my be educative, but using a lesson plan prepared by a master teacher is far more so. The same goes with the materials, exercises, and examples they create and curate. Great teachers can be hamstrung by poor materials, but those who are merely average to good can often be sunk by them. 
The final error in this piece is that Kakaes is essentially arguing against something he plainly knows nothing about. He tried a few programs and didn't like them? Read a few studies he didn't agree with? Saw a few teachers who didn't blow him away? Plain as day, every example he puts forth as proof of his claim is so utterly weak that it is laughable. This is not someone who knows the theory and practice of flipping a classroom, or how to leverage the interactive properties of technology to enhance engagement, or how teachers can effectively extend their classroom into their student's own homes and give students the kind of individual support that until now only the wealthiest families had access to.
What eventually brought about a final snort of derision from me was this gem near the end of the article -
Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this.
Clearly Kakaes has never heard of social networking, or learning management systems like Edmodo, which exist to promote discussion, and do not operate according to some strict, linear paradigm; tools which are as useful or not according to who uses them and how they are used. 
I don't often have this sort of reaction, but at the end of the article, I was nearly yelling at my screen. If this 20 year old math text is so great, why isn't it digitized! If Vern Williams is so great, then why isn't his every lesson plan, self created resource, and descriptions of his methodology online? Is the 0$ price tag of Google Docs too much to handle? Does clicking the "upload" button present in insurmountable challenge? And how is it not better for students to have access to the lessons and wisdom of their teachers wherever they are, over only seeing them a few times a week?
The truth is, Kakaes argument is one that I have found all too common, in my experience. In another time, Kakaes and those who think like him would react to seeing automobiles drive past by doubling down on horses and carriage makers. What is so plainly obvious to someone like me, is glaringly not obvious to those like him. Which begs the question, why?
Permit me, if you will,a few preliminary thoughts on the matter.

Why So Many Teachers Resist eLearning
1) A key stumbling block is conceptual. The vast majority of teachers I work with don't really grasp the breadth and scope of this paradigm. All our teachers were encouraged to embrace 1:1, but efforts in that regard seemed to be viewed more as a faddish bureaucratic requirement. Like putting up posters of student work before an observation. Changing this mindset is not impossible, but it does require patience, effort, time, and a plan.
2) The next issue is generational. It's like a technological KT boundary. Those that are early thirty-ish and under generally get it, and those over, generally don't. I can't remember where I took this analogy from, maybe Scott McLeod or someone in that educational travelling visionary set, but in my training sessions I generally open things up with this statement - To teachers, a computer, is a tool. It is something you use for your job. It has a purpose and a function, like any other tool. To students, a computer is their environment, their ecosystem. It is not just something they use, it is something they use for everything. Friendship, love, entertainment, school, personal exploration, commiseration, engagement, all of it, everything, is mediated by a computer of some sort. Whether it is a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, doesn't matter. They are all doors and windows into this world that overwhelmingly informs everything they understand about everything around them.
The average teacher doesn't have the frame of reference to truly grasp this. They talk about kids being "addicted" to their cell phones, or their computers, or their video games. They see the behavior as an aberration, a deviation from what they perceive is the norm. What they don't understand, or can't accept, is that the behavior is not a deviation, or an aberration, it is the norm.
3) The third problem, in my opinion, is behavioural. There are a variety of reasons teachers will resist change. For example, they may not want to spend their own money on buying technological tools. I used to work construction. I bought my own tools, my own gear. This is how trades work. Chefs buy their own knives. Artists buy their own brushes and paints. I buy my own microphones, and cameras, and cables. But for some reason most teachers I know feel that their employer has to pay for these things. If I walked onto a construction site and said "You gotta buy me some tools" I'd fast be finding someplace else to be. But teachers seem to see things differently. Perhaps this may be because teachers don't see these technological things as tools of their trade yet, but as esoteric extras.
Also aligned within this behavioral subset is attitude. Teachers who are burned out, or just don't care, won't bother. Teachers with ten years or less until retirement don't see a compelling reason to change their practice. Then there are the teachers who are just hanging on by their fingernails, barely able to control their classes, unsure about whether they picked the right profession, and just don't have the wherewithal to take on something that seems so alien and insurmountable.
The above are all reasons why other teachers are resistant to this model. They. Them.
But there is, strongly feel, another, bigger reason - us.
In every school there are a handful of techie types like myself, comfortable with technology, conversant with it, who proselytize constantly, spreading the digital good news. But how do we look to everyone else?
How receptive are you to the guy on the street corner telling you to repent now? Because that is how we can seem to our colleagues. The faithful, the converted, shouting out our news, our truth. The problem is that we are telling, but rarely ever showing.
I get excited about cool new tools, as many others do. We'll ohh and ahh, and just gush with effervescent imagination like a hippe Carl Sagan who'd just chugged two shots of Atomic Jello laced with LSD.
"Oh it's amazing! You could snargle! With the burgleforg! And then zaxxan the piffleburp!
Listening to us "Terds" speak (Teacher-Nerds... though on reflection perhaps that is an unfortunate amalgam...Teeks, anyone?) is like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher.
What's worse, not only will the un-digital not understand us, but we will often be impatient with them. Our every expression and action will appear to scream "What kind of moron are you? A two year old can do this!"
It doesn't matter that none of what they perceive is true. It doesn't matter if you truly are a helpful person, who holds their colleagues in the highest of esteem. The actual, bedrock truth doesn't matter. Only what is perceived to be the truth does.
I learned this the hard way. Full of energy, positivity, ideas, and a willingness to expend effort on behalf of others, I found myself constantly being sideswiped by politics in the workplace. Accusations, insinuations, lies, and some insanely mean comments. I kept being yanked into the principal's office, and more than once thought I'd be out of a job right then and there. I had to really step back, and evaluate what I was doing, and how I approached what I did.
That was when things started to change for the better. Before I suggested something to someone, I'd put myself in their shoes, and think about how it would fit into their practice and skill level. I learned patience. I kept my door open, and any time a colleague came by, whether I was teaching or not, I'd wave them in, listen, and see what I could do.
It amazed me how fast things began to change. All I had to do was wait for the right openings. Instead of pushing solutions on to others, I'd wait until someone came around with a problem. When my department started having a mess of marks as spreadsheets got fired back and forth, and people did or did not copy and paste correctly, I set up a Google Spreadsheet, shared it, and the problem was solved.
It is not a fast process, but I found that the key was to look at small things that saved others time, frustration, and effort. Small things that did not require much of them, and offered instant, observable benefits. That's the gateway drug, the gateway tech. That's where it starts.
Over time, with patience, and humility, I think we can effect the change in other teachers that we seek.
And then, once we open their eyes, we can start taking the good and the great, the best practices, the amazing resources, collecting them, collating them, and promoting their use.
We don't tell scientists to invent their own scientific method. We don't tell architects to draw up their own building codes. We don't ask doctors to whip up their own medicines. Professionals, including teachers, work best by building on what has come before, by implementing best practices, and not re-inventing the wheel each and every day.

The eLearning Workroom on YouTube

It had to be done, I guess. I've now got the knack of doing video online on my own, but there really is no escaping that YouTube juggernaut. I hemmed and hawed over the idea, but finally decided to set up a dedicated channel for my new Educational Technology initiative, The eLearning Workroom.

The idea behind this initiative is to create videos and video series focused on a broader implementation of technology in the classroom, not so much on how I might use a certain whiz-bang neato thing with a couple of students in my own class, but more on how technology and online services can be harnessed in a way that it can benefit the faculty of an entire school or board, and the thousands of students connected to them.

Teachers are dedicated, often ingenious, but not always efficient. A teacher's classroom is, in practice, an isolated fiefdom. A place where procedures and traditions develop in a bespoke manner, where assignments and collected materials are both varied, and as unique as a fingerprint, from classroom to classroom.

It's not that teachers don't share resources, because they do, but almost always in a haphazard, ad-hoc manner. I might share worksheets with a colleague I like, but perhaps not with a colleague I am on the outs with. I might pop by the classroom next door, but perhaps not beyond that. Not everyone has all the best stuff, and often a herculean effort is endlessly required in order to find, make, and organize materials, worksheets, and lessons. More often, those herculean efforts need to be repeated as documents are lost, curriculum objectives shift, or people move.

This endless waste of time, just getting stuff together to use for a lesson, is the both the bane and the ordinary condition of almost any teacher. It is just a part of the job, and always has been. But that does not mean the situation is okay, or the situation has to stay. There is, in fact, a better way.

In the second video on the eLearning Workroom blog and channel, I begin a series where I explain and explore the power and utility of the Open Learning Network. The first video takes us step by step through the creation of the initial network, and subsequent videos will explore how we can link resources to this network, and utilize technology to do things with teaching that were not possible in the past.

Ever wanted to mark 1000 tests with the click of a button?

How about having an entire year long course prepared in advance?

What if you, your students, and their parents could access every pertinent piece of information they might need to succeed, all in a single place?

What if, instead of spending a third of your day trying to get your students to quiet down and listen, and a further half vainly trying to explain and re-explain the same concepts over and over again, you could skip all that, and free up more time in the classroom than you ever thought possible?

What if you could actually be a teacher? Not a task master, or a disciplinarian, or a burnt out wreck trying day by day just to make it to the last bell. But a teacher, in the truest sense. Not the font of all knowledge, but the guide, the friendly face, the helping hand.

That would be pretty nice, wouldn't it? 

The Act of Watching TV Goes Back to the Future

I got my wife the new iPad 2 for Christmas, and it quickly became the go to device for my kids for watching music videos and playing games. Recently, however, we started using it to watch TV shows.

Hooking it up to the TV was simple, we just had to buy a little adapter, and an HDMI cable, and voila! MP4s on the big screen. For some reason, our DVD player only supports Dvix/Xvid .AVI files, so MP4s were something we only saw on the computer.

But now we could watch them in their full compressed glory.

Only one hitch. Watching a show, pausing a show, or changing to another show requires someone (me) to ponderously leverage themselves off the couch, and stumble over to the TV table to hit the home button, unlock the screen, and hit the pause button.

It brought me right back to my childhood, back when this was how I had to change the channel when I was a child (only we turned a knob back then), back before there were remote controls.

But then, in back-twinge induced moment of insight, I realized something... Remote controls were never invented. No. They have always been with us, just changing forms, is all. Remotes today have two batteries, remotes back then had two legs.

I... did have a remote for the iPad! In fact, I had three just waiting to be called upon.

Now I need only mention "Oh I better pause the show..." and make to move in order to spur six little legs into motion, all competing to beat me to it.

As my parents had trained me, so I now pass that on to my children.

Until they make a remote for my iPad, you know, the kind with two batteries.

Or maybe I'll just stick with what I've got. For as long as I can, at least.

Memo to Leafs: Thai Girl Goalie is Awesome




It'll never happen, mostly because the Toronto Maple Leafs are addicted to sucking, and they like to fill their roster like the Oakland A's from Moneyball (except that the Leafs ride high on a pile of fithly lucre, which makes their actions seem doubly insane), but if they did decide to take a leap into the unknown, and maybe whip up some excitement, I dont think they could do any better than signing 17 year old Wasunun Angkulpattanasuk.

Wha? Who? You say.

Just recently, at the Under 18 Challenge Cup of Asia, the Thailand team found themselves sans a goalie. Apparently male Thai's think being a goalie is a sissy thing, which only goes to show that they haven't seen enough footage of Patrick Roy or Ron Hextall. In any event, since none of the boys would put on the mask, the Thai team had no choice but to take on little Wasunun as their lone hope in net.

Once in the UAE, the Thai team nearly faced disqualification for this coed situation, but since the goalies don't interact with the other players, the tournament officials argued, there would be no chance of gender contamination, and therefore she could play (*Again, Roy, Hextall, et al).

Maybe they thought a girl in net would be a great opportunity to light up the scoreboard. Who knows. But what they got was a size two skate up the rear, because this little firebrand wasn't just standing around.

By the end of the tournament, the Thais has scored 47 goals, with Wasunun letting in only 4 total. A GAA of 1!

Introducing the eLearning Workroom

I recently gave a talk at the TESOL Arabia Pecha Kucha 20X20 event at the Dubai Women's College, and the feedback I got was extremely positive. So much so that I was inspired to get moving a bit, and start producing videos aimed at educators hoping to grasp the e-learning basics that they may have been struggling with as their schools, and around the world, shift to more e-focused curricula. (Gasp! That was a lot to say in one breath!)

So I set up a new website solely for educators, featuring video tutorials. I would like to introduce to you The eLearning Workroom

My first post is my talk from TESOL ARABIA 2012. There was a technology malfunction, so I had to redo the audio. Same stuff, just nicer sounding!

Talkin’ with James


About a decade or so ago you would have found me rushing up and down the streets of Toronto going from one interview to the next. Not interviews for a job, but interviews with authors for my radio show "Covered & Bound" on CHRY 105.5FM, and later for my (now defunct) hand-coded-in-html blog "Engaging the Word".


I saved all those old interviews, an archive that numbers in the several hundreds, and I decided to start putting them back up online. I got to looking at Tumblr one day, and found that this was the perfect format for these interviews.

They are long form (20 minutes to 1 hour long)  interviews with authors from all across the publishing spectrum.

If you like HBO's A Game of Thrones, for example, you might want to check out the two interviews I did with George RR Martin.

I've linked to it at the top of this blog, or you can click this link here - Talkin' with James