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Taking an Online Course Together

Yesterday, Lori Hébert from College Prep (Oakland) invited BAISNet subscribers to take an online course with her, and as of this morning, 14 BAISNet members have signed up! This is the first online offering from an education school that I have seen in any of the new generation of social, free online courses from major universities.

Stanford Online: Designing a New Learning Environment
Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean, School of Education, Stanford University
October 15 – December 20, 2012

The Course

What constitutes learning in the 21st century? Should reading, watching, memorizing facts, and then taking exams be the only way to learn? Or could technology (used effectively) make learning more interactive, collaborative, and constructive? Could learning be more engaging and fun?
We construct, access, visualize, and share information and knowledge in very different ways than we did decades ago. The amount and types of information created, shared, and critiqued every day is growing exponentially, and many skills required in today’s working environment are not taught in formal school systems. In this more complex and highly-connected world, we need new training and competency development—we need to design a new learning environment.

The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow. Participants are not required to have computer programming skills, but must have 1) a commitment to working in a virtual team and 2) the motivation to help people learn better. All of us have been involved in the learning process at some point in our lives; in this course we invite educators, school leaders, researchers, students, parents, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, illustrators, interface designers, and all those who are interested in working together, to create a new learning environment.

After the completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify advantages, disadvantages, limitations, and potentials of at least 10 interactive learning models and solutions.
  • Describe how online communication, collaboration, and visualization technology play a role in the behavioral, cognitive, constructivist, and social dimensions of learning.
  • Describe the major components and processes involved in development of interactive education systems.
  • Communicate rationales of learning technology design approaches through team-oriented collaborations.
  • Evaluate the value of ideas, principles, and techniques used in educational media or systems.

As a Final Team Project, students will design a new learning model catering to 21st century environments and learners. Each self-formed team will design and develop an application or system that combines team interaction activities and learning support features in ways that are effective and appropriate for today’s computing and communication devices. Students must consider potential idiosyncrasies with various learning devices (e.g., tablet, phone, PC), infrastructure requirements (e.g., cellular network, wi-fi, Bluetooth), and any special hypothetical circumstances if relevant. In addition, each team must create and defend a business model (non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid) for the launch and scale up their solution.

Additional consideration will be given to teams that come up with system feature ideas presenting meaningful learning interaction and performance analytics.

More online offerings than ever before

In related news, I sent the following list of online course offerings to our faculty yesterday, and one colleague added to the list.

198 courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, UW, Princeton, Berklee, and U. Michigan.

Stanford Online
Some courses offered via Venture Lab, a new online learning platform designed specifically for group collaboration [3]

7 courses from MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley in science, programming, and public health

Started by the former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
14 courses, mostly in programming and math.

OpenCulture: 530 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

iTunes U

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative


Laptops and Tablets for Academic Purpose

University Prep is working to design the details of its RYOD (require your own device) program for the next academic year. Central to the process is clear identification of the pedagogical and curricular purposes for requiring each student to bring a computing device to school every day.

Schools implement student computing programs to varying degrees. At some, students come up with effective uses for the devices, but the overall instructional program changes little. Other schools make fundamental changes such as fully adopting eTexts or shifting instruction toward 21st century skills.

Whether related to technology or not, school initiatives have a greater chance of successful implementation when they align well with other activities at the school. By this reasoning, a new 1:1 student device program will have a greater chance of significantly improving student learning if it complements one or more other instructional initiatives at the school.

If a school simply introduces more technology without a corresponding change in the learning environment, then a very good chance exists that the technology initiative will not reach its full potential. Technology initiatives have the potential to underwhelm when introduced separately from other school changes.

Here is first stab at a roadmap, or menu, of changes in the learning environment that the introduction of student devices could complement.

  • Electronic organization of learning materials
  • Collaborative notetaking
  • Peer review and writing process
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Self-paced learning
  • Formative assessment
  • Project-based learning
  • eTexts, flexbooks, and other electronic resources
  • Multimodal instruction
  • Unified assignments calendar
  • Unified course web site system
  • Hybrid/blended learning
  • Flex weekly timetable
  • Information literacy curriculum
  • Education for 21st century skills (creativity, collaboration, communication, etc.)
Do you know student laptop or tablet programs that fit this model? That differ? That complement an instructional initiative not on the list? I’d like to hear from you.

Another Special Senior Art Gift

Last year’s seniors gave a beautiful math-based painting to the school. The Class of 2012 just unveiled these two marvels, creating for science what math received last year. Yes, that’s a strand of DNA in cat’s cradle form. Click the photo to take a closer look.

Global Online Academy

Catlin Gabel is one of ten schools that has founded the Global Online Academy, a new not-for-profit school. Teachers from member schools teach fully online courses that are available to member school students. Students take these courses for different reasons, for example to access subject matter not otherwise available in our program and to take a language class despite an off-site, afternoon dance commitment.

GOA aims to preserve the unique qualities of independent school education: small class sizes, close teacher-student relationship, an inquiry focus for instruction, and a challenging curriculum. So far, courses are living up to expectations. The teacher-student relationship is particularly rich in the online format. Most of the teachers hold a weekly Skype chat session with each student. This quite possibly creates more one-on-one attention than a student receives in a face-to-face class. On the other hand, students report having a harder time building relationships with other students, given the absence of common time together.

One of our own faculty members is a founding teacher in the Global Online Academy. His course, urban studies, immediately became comparative urban studies when it went online. Previously, students studied the city of Portland and collaboratively designed an urban improvement project for a specific neighborhood. Now, each student designs an independent urban improvement project for her city. The huge added benefit: students get to represent their own city in comparisons among the members of the class!

It has been exciting to participate in preparatory meetings and the launching of this new consortium. I cannot recall in my career ever witnessing such a close, creative collaboration among ten independent schools. Our schools are notoriously independent, yet we created a new, joint teaching and learning structure together. From our school’s point of view, we represent GOA course work as a full transcript course, because we helped to shape the program. We do not represent in this manner courses that students take through other online schools.

Will GOA grow to the point that most Catlin Gabel students take an online course, or will it remain a small niche option for specific circumstances? Each semester that passes will bring a new opportunity to monitor the popularity and effectiveness of this form of schooling.

Photo source: iStockPhoto

Learning Through Accreditation

The accreditation process serves as valuable professional development for both the members of the visiting team and the faculty and staff of the school itself. I recently returned from a school accreditation visit in Seattle. I read the school’s thoughtful, 200-page self-study, visited classes, interviewed teachers, discussed observations, and co-wrote the visiting team report with 10 colleagues from different schools. Within three days, I had gained a pretty detailed understanding of the internal workings of a school. How else can one do that?

Certain school traits are nearly universal. High schools generally follow a liberal arts curriculum. The teacher-student relationship is highly valued. At the same time, no two schools are identical. Schools have different measures of success, and they use different methods to get there. Understanding many different schools helps one learn that there is no “one best system” (Tyack). Staff who work in a single school for many years run the risk of concluding that their model of a successful school is better than others.

One school may have a laptop program and a Smart Board in every classroom. Others may rely on laptop carts, tablets, or few computers at all. One school may consider athletics a premier program, another school puts it on the same level as community service, outdoor programs, and global trips. Schools differ in the lengths of their terms, administrative positions, block schedules, academic departments, advisory structures, and so on. How the program is executed is more important than the configuration of these structural components alone.

Accreditation also provides one of the few formal accountability measures of an independent school. Of course, independent schools are ultimately accountable to their families, who can express satisfaction or displeasure with their feet. A board of trustees also provides high-level accountability in the form of school governance. Accreditation is more comprehensive and direct in its observations than any other method. While losing one’s accredited status is unlikely, the school formally presents its program to an external body for review and gains an opportunity to reflect in a manner that may inform future decisions.

This year, our school is writing its own self-study, and next fall we will host a visiting team. We have begun our process of validating the mission and explaining how we organize the program to embody the mission every day. This winter, our IT Team and Co-curricular Innovation Council groups will write two sections of the self-study, summarizing key program aspects and identifying opportunities for improvement. We should emerge from this work with a more coherent sense of who we are and specific strategic directions for the future.

Image source: iStockPhoto

A Paradox of Plenty

Interviewing a teacher candidate last year, I asked how she felt about collaborating with me to integrate my technology periods with her classroom periods. She replied, “It would be fine. I have been teaching technology to my students all year.” Of course. Not all schools are lucky enough to have a technology specialist provide students with dedicated instructional time. It is quite usual for homeroom teachers to both teach technology skills to students and determine how to use new technologies to support instruction.

Specialist instructors are a hallmark of independent schools. Tuition payments supply generous budgets, funding teaching positions in the arts, technology, and co-curricular programs: instrumental music, vocal music, painting and drawing, drama, ceramics, film, graphic design, animation, technology, library, outdoor education, global education, urban studies, community service, diversity studies, and more. Students experience a wide array of course work in many disciplines, enriching their education and broadening their horizons.

Schools with many specialist classes must work especially hard to achieve program coherence. Homeroom and specialist teachers must form strong grade level teams so that students experience a reasonable degree of consistency in purpose, values, instruction, and assessment, or else risk confusing students with contradictory expectations and rules. Teachers must regularly exchange information about students, so that each teacher understands the whole view of each child. Administrators must take care to maintain equal emphasis among programs, as specialist teachers work hard to develop events, seek community recognition, and justify their positions.

Specialist courses can only be good for students, right? Not necessarily. Providing students with such a number of classes and teachers can shortchange the development of core skills and fragment the student experience. The demands of scheduling specialist classes reduces homeroom instructional time for younger students and encourages older students to carry a heavy course load. Passing periods fragment the weekly schedule, as students travel from one building or classroom to another.

Most importantly, teachers in all disciplines must teach reading, writing, math, and higher-order thinking skills. If they do not, then students in the best-funded schools will receive less instruction in these foundational skills than their public school counterparts.

The school that does these things can create the ultimate instructional program, rich in a full range of intellectual pursuits while also intently focused on the child’s development of essential skills and habits of lifelong learning.

New Student Newspapers Online

By coincidence, sister schools Catlin Gabel and Maru-a-Pula just launched their inaugural online issues just a week apart. It’s great to see both schools embracing an online format.

CatlinSpeak: speak.catlin.edu

MAP Voices: mapvoices.org

I worked a bit with the CatlinSpeak staff, and a few thought-provoking questions came up.

What is an “issue” in an online format?

The staff plans to publish four paper issues and some additional number of online issues. To simulate an “issue” on the website, the initially planned to schedule all of the posts to publish on a specific date. In reality, it was too difficult to troubleshoot design and layout without publishing the first batch of articles immediately.

The online format forces some shifts in thinking. When breaking news happens, why not publish it to the site immediately? Major news websites no longer publish issues but rather post articles continuously as they are written. Can a school newspaper generate enough traffic without announcing new issues? Can students devote focused attention to writing and editing amongst their other school commitments?

How can we get students to read more serious articles?

CatlinSpeak had a terrific launch day as measured by site traffic, nearly 2,000 hits in a single day. However, look how steeply traffic dropped off after the home page.

Serious articles about global travel, the presidential election, etc. only received low double-digit hits. How many of those read the articles all the way through?

How much technical website expertise should a journalism class develop?

The CatlinSpeak staff had high standards for layout and design but was not able to take on the CSS customization required to make the necessary changes. Given that the design is likely to stay relatively static now that the site is launched, how important is it for the staff to develop CSS skills, compared to spending time on journalism and publicity skills? Is it okay for adults to do most of the CSS work at the start of this project, to help the staff achieve a good launch?

What collaboration is possible between Maru-a-Pula and Catlin Gabel students?

We have two student newspaper staffs writing serious articles about their schools and communities. How should they collaborate together in ways that will be worth the effort required? What could students learn from the similarities and differences in their journalistic priorities and methods?

What is the role of social media in these online papers?

The Catlin Gabel staff chose Twitter for a very practical reason: the ease of posting links to external news articles and Catlin Gabel sports scores. They are not really using it for networking, but it is effective for presenting updates quickly and concisely.

Journalism and 21st Century Skills

This year, CatlinSpeak changed from a club to a half-credit lunch class. This promotion underscores the legitimacy of a journalism class within a classic academic program. That said, why not fully integrate the class within the English department’s elective or required course of study? Communication, presentation, and global citizenship are key 21st century skills. Why not five them full status in the school curriculum?

Co-curricular Innovation Council

We have launched a “Co-curricular Innovation Council” so that co-curricular program leaders can more easily consult with each other, work together on common projects, and build stronger partnerships with classroom teachers. The committee includes directors of the global education, urban studies, outdoor education, teaching and learning, athletics, robotics, community service, Knight Scholars, and instructional technology programs. These program directors have historically directed their programs mostly by themselves or in partnership with one or two other people. This committee creates a systematic way for program leaders to request feedback from each other and launch projects together.

As co-curricular programs have evolved from mere “activities” to fully-fledged experiential learning environments, it has become more important to coordinate these programs and build stronger connections between co-curricular programs and classroom teaching. Students often refer to outdoor trips, robotics projects, or urban planning presentations as their most memorable learning experiences. Why should they experience dramatically different teaching styles between classrooms with and without four walls?

Organizing program directors together allows us to strengthen what we have in common: a focus on 21st century content domains (global citizenship, environmental stewardship, technology, etc.) and skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.). Facilitating ways from program directors to work more closely with classroom teachers creates potential for more experiential learning opportunities within classroom instruction. Our classroom teachers have been creating terrific experiential learning opportunities for years. Now they get more potential partners and conceptual support for their project work.

Director of Technology and Learning Innovation

I have changed my title to “director of technology and learning innovation.” Tech staff members are sometimes seen as just working with computers. My new title is intended to make it apparent to the school community that I also work on projects that involve technology tangentially or not at all. These have included leading global trips, revising curriculum mapping standards, and modeling collaboration fourth and fifth grade, among others.

What is in a title? An accurate job title helps clarify one’s role in the institution, especially to new employees, parents, and people outside of the school. While I generally abhor long titles, I felt that I had expanded sufficiently beyond a traditional technology director role to warrant the change.

I particularly want to emphasize learning innovation when presenting myself in order to strengthen partnerships with my many colleagues at school who are currently working hard to investigate and adopt new models of teaching and learning. I hope that this will lead to greater collaboration with colleagues on learning innovation projects throughout the school.

Always developing process improvements

If we add a responsibility to our plate, then we must remove a responsibility, right? It rarely works out that way. Not only do people expect us to continue to fulfill our existing responsibilities, but they also expect us to take on new responsibilities. Particularly for technology, current practice is always evolving, and new platforms and techniques appear at a rapid pace. Sometimes, we actually can let go of previous responsibilities that are now less important. More of the time, we must find a way to fit the new responsibilities into our existing, busy lives.

Perhaps a better way to make space for new work is to become more efficient at the old work. Each summer, our IT team performs routine maintenance and upgrades on all of the school and high school student computers. This is extremely time-consuming, but we have found it the best way to ensure that everyone has the correct settings and properly working machines for the start of the school year. We have given some consideration to doing away with summer maintenance completely but have consistently felt that this would cause more work during the school year, when people really need their computers to run smoothly.

Instead, we have worked each year to improve the summer maintenance process. We ask ourselves:

  • What summer maintenance tasks are essential?
  • How may we simplify our network systems to make annual maintenance easier?
  • How may we automate the summer maintenance process, so more happens automatically?
  • How may we get students involved in maintaining their own computers?

This year, the IT Team came up with a superb solution that accomplishes many of the above. We mailed a self-running DVD to each student. Over half of them ran the installer, performing the most easily automated and time-consuming tasks at home before bringing their computers into the office. The application is written in XCode using AppleScript, and the DVD includes the large installer files needed. This dramatically cut down maintenance time, allowed us to return machines to students quickly, and created more time for other IT summer work. As a result, we were more prepared for the start of school than ever before. Kudos to the whole team for inventing this process. Next year, we plan to make it entirely online and eliminate the DVD.