Monday, June 29, 2015

The second half of Monday (ISTE 4)

The day continued much as it had begun, as a series of long walks, and not that much great info. I don’t mean to complain. I mean to whine and moan. But complain? Not my style.

On my way to the tables, I took a quick detour through the expo room. I chatted with the Microsoft representative about tech infrastructures, then with the McGraw Hill Rep about digital and print textbooks. They were both very reasonable. So many tables were full of people selling “digital learning” but I am still not convinced that such a thing exists and that students are any different and can’t just learn.

I headed over to the tables for the 11AM group. I saw one table in which a company was selling its e-books and its websites which collect and organize research tools. The one which showed how students can publish their work as real books and isn’t that nice. I didn’t stick around to ask how their service was any different from the many other publishing options available online. I’m not arguing that self-publishing isn’t a nice way for students to see concrete proof that they existed, but they did nothing to convince me that their company was better suited to the task than any other.

The next table was the marketing division of Powtoon which is a piece of presentation software. It exists based on two important educational pillars – one, that students need to create presentations to prove they know stuff and, two, that these presentations must be on a computer at least, and preferably, online (unless you pay more for the ability to download them to your own computer so you can watch them even when the internet disappears). I then went to a table at which a teacher was showing how she used Google docs to create virtual e-books with her students. The students could take material and annotate it, color it and jazz it up and then be able to access it whenever they want and make it a resource for others. It was nice but I was struck by the fact that she wasn’t trying to sell me anything. She told me what she did. Now I have her secret. I don’t need her anymore.

I then made the mistake of making eye contact with the students from Mexico so they launched into their sales pitch. Now, they weren’t selling anything either – they made a website using Google sites and they were proud and wanted to walk me through how one creates a website. The training and practice of making a presentation is a marketable skill so there is value in that but the truth is, I know how to make a website and seeing it done in Spanish isn’t all that useful to me. But who can walk out on a Mexican 8th grader who is really interested in practicing English and showing off a web site? For my troubles, I got a free t-shirt. I only hope that XL in Spanish still means “extra large.” Maybe next year, there will be an app that teaches students how to make a presentation at ISTE.

Off to the table at which the woman presented her research about whether having a school newspaper (online or print) increases literacy. She also wasn’t selling anything so I skipped to the end and found out that, yes, it increases literacy, but students prefer making and reading print of electronic papers. The last table also showed how students can use Google docs in order to free up the writer in each of them. Apparently the secret is out.

At the same time, there were 2 other table sessions which I missed and which sounded really interesting so they probably weren’t and life will go on. I hiked over and got myself situated outside of the room in which the “Should we get computers out of the classroom” panel discussion was going to be held and ate lunch. While there, I chatted with a volunteer who tried to get me to go into a session about “redefining Learning.” I told him that I was quite happy with how it as already defined and didn’t see the need to redefine it. That bothered him. We both agree that, methodologically, skill/drill and rote memorization and spitback are not very good, useful or rich teaching styles and don’t encourage deep learning but since I don’t define “learning” as the effect of those styles, I don’t see the need to change. I also see the flaw here as one in the teaching and assessment, not in the “learning” part of it, so I’m not sure what he thinks happens when you redefine learning by changing teaching and ignoring learning. Has learning really changed? My students still seem to learn and I do things the old-fashioned way. Maybe they are lying to me and they haven’t learned a thing. Maybe they learned how to lie.

Well, win/win I guess.

Am I threatened by challenges to my tried and (maybe) true methods? Or am I rightfully and righteously angry at this phantom belief that the world and the teenaged brain has changed so markedly that we have to reinvent the virtual wheel? Is it that things are so broken that we should start over or maybe, there are parts that have ALWAYS been broken and never should have been the preferred method, regardless of the technology involved.

I will now summarize the 5 speakers at that session – I don’t have their names but they are all, supposedly, very important people well respected in the field of something or other. They have written books and, no doubt, said very important things. They all kept quoting a guy named Seymour Papert. He was, it seems, the go to guy as it relates to technology and education. I wouldn’t know – I’m an idiot who knows nothing about computers and even less about teaching.

Guy 1 (Maybe “Will Richardson” maybe not – one guy introduced the topic and then an Australian guy spoke and I don’t know the name of either) – 10.2 billion dollars was spent last year on Ed Tech and that’s dumb. Tech is viewed as a faddish cure-all and it is slapped on without looking at the real cause of education problems. We are trying to fix symptoms, not problems. If a student says that he finds Facebook more interesting than a teacher’s lesson, the teacher shouldn’t coopt Facebook; the teacher should make the lesson better. I liked this. This spoke to me. This was a high point in the conference to me, and the fact that any people clapped was heartening.

#2 (Audrey Watters) – We must give up on computers because they are no longer subversive. In fact, they are symbols of neo-liberalism, libertarianism, imperialism and colonialism. And maybe some other isms. I lost count. Computers are an extension of the government/corporate machine through which the white man controls. The networks and servers control and surveil all of us; they monitor and manage us. Computers were designed to be tools of war and should be removed not just from the classroom, but possibly from the planet. She’s nuts. I had written in my notes that she is a Luddite and then later she got up (as if by some psychic force) and explained that being a Luddite isn’t bad because the true Luddites were OK with some machinery – they just didn’t like it out of their control. Whatever. I have failed to communicate the depths of her crazy.

Third up was David Thornburg who didn’t deal with computers in the classroom. He focused on the Raspberry Pi, and Arduino. They, as tiny computers, will democratize computers in a way that the Apple II didn’t and all will be right with the world. The problem was that back then, instead of kids continuing to code new programs, companies made ready-to-use software and so kids didn’t have to learn to code. If kids code, the messiah will come. Of course, this doesn’t address the topic, but it gave him a chance to wax poetic on the Arduino. Often.

The next guy (no guess on name) – said that as a tax payer and parent, he believes computers should be out. Computers haven’t changed teaching or learning. They are supposed to give kids agency over being self-learners and they haven’t. We have, he said, “lost the conversation on learning” so no one asks why we have computers in education at all.

The last guy was Gary Stager who is a big wig and such. Whatever. He railed against computers, starting out by posting a number of quotes from Papert (who he painted as a Jesus figure who was not understood or believed in his lifetime, but whose prophecies have all come to pass and he was made to suffer for the sins of everyone) and in fact, he was simply putting them up on the screen, and reading them. Not so effective a method. He said that he has grown frustrated with ISTE because it sold out to big companies which sponsor it (he named companies and sponsors and insulted them. I try not to bite the hand that feeds me unless I am being fed by a man made out of chocolate). He said that the power is being given over to the corporate machine and the powerful get more powerful. He was starting to sound crazy. He then continued to bash ISTE as an organization, wondering what its role even is. The model of education hasn’t changed so any new technology can only support an old and failing system. His was a slightly different flavor of conspiracy theory. He did say that “any teacher who thinks he can be replaced by a Youtube video probably should be.” Nice. He also pointed out that having a conference on Education and Technology is silly because we don’t feel the need to have a conference on “Education and Pencils.” Very true but that’s be a rocking conference.

I stayed behind to ask then why, instead of “reclaiming” ISTE, he doesn’t just advocate dissolving it. He chafed at that and defended its existence. It was then that I realize that THE MAN had gotten to him, too. Trust no one!

I went back to the rooms with tables for another report on research, this time, with a student who had studied 1:1 laptop:student use. She was in Indiana so she was piped in via some technology or another which made it hard to see and hear her. All I could note was that she couldn’t get any verbal or visual feedback as part of her presentation and that made me question online teaching in general, but I’ll move on. (By the way, this time the tables were numbered but the noise was still an issue.) Her central question was If (and if so, how much did) laptop use affect test scores, attendance, GPA, proficiency and graduation rates. This was all done via a metastudy so the fact that her district was 1:1 was sort of irrelevant. Then she used her own school to research qualitative student response. Ten of her student said that they liked computers, so there you go. There was a majority of positive response: students who used computers felt more comfortable using computers and students felt more prepared to use computers in college. They didn’t like use policies. Hurray for research. [One class did work to create its own use policy so students understood why the rules were there.] She proceeded to load up slides and read them. There was a compulsory ACT program on the laptop so kids used it and felt more prepared for the ACTs and their scores went up. They liked the math program they did on the computer (it tied in with their text book and had answers). The students felt that some teachers were afraid of using and/or breaking computers and that limited student enjoyment.

She didn’t talk about HOW computers were used in the district in any classroom. But as long as they are popular, I guess.

I moved to the talk on the “Gamification of the ELA Classroom” because I teach ELA and I like gamificating things so, yeah. I had to forgo the talk on assessments, failure and deep learning but hey, games are worth it. Well, you’d think so.
The teacher identified three versions of “game based learning”:
1. Playing actual games on or off line
2. turning the class into a gamed experience, like a store, so students earn points through behavior modification
3. Making the class and curriculum into a gamed setting. This is the one he focused on.

He said that games give the opportunity to fail and try again and only move on once competence is proven. Games also give options for paths to success and they teach the right path through in-game hints. So why not do that with English class? (hint – because it doesn’t work…shhhh). In games, losing is a distinct possibility, the game play is differentiated and the levels are scaffolded. This was right around where he lost me. He created a background scenario for his students (time travelers encountering poetry through the ages in England) and allowed students to gain “Experience Points” (XP) by performing certain activities at each level and stage. He explained to the students why they were studying the material, gave them background information through videos or frontal lecture, assigned a text, had students prove that they read it, had the students create a summative creative project and then perform a more traditional, individual assessment. Totally different from a regular class because instead of grades, their success at each point was rewarded with those points which then added p to an overall rubric-based grade. But simple mastery only garners the students 85 points. So whence an A? From extra work within the curriculum or additional “badges” which are independent tasks. And if they earn enough badges, they earn all sorts of freedoms, like the freedom to choose the structure of their next assessment, and if that isn’t enough to motivate a teenager, I don’t know what is.

He decenters the class by incorporating all the buzzworthy methods of blended learning and flipped presentations, and simply employs the artifice of “game” to keep teacher and student interested. He could do the same with technology but that would just be called (his words), “good teaching.” He admitted that it was silly to have a conference on technology because it should focus on the right way to reach students, and if something is a tool, it is mentioned, not made the focus. He didn’t explain certain nitty gritty bits – if I assign a paper, how do I measure “competence”? Is it about the writing? The content? The argument? A paper is a complex assessment tool and a grade is rarely a cut and dried measure of mastery. Whatever. I left when it seemed acceptable to leave.

The last thing I went to was the “birds of a feather” meeting. I eschewed the Jewish group because I knew I’d see all the participants 30 minutes afterwards, at dinner, and I went to the “Weird Teacher” meet-up. It was weird. We didn’t have a room so I had to sit on the floor and nurse a painful back. As an icebreaker, each teacher was asked to tell something weird about him or herself. I lied and said I was afraid of ice cream. They believed me. We went through ten attributes of the weird teacher. What was scary to me was that there could be teachers who DON’T do these things. Anyway, everyone exchanged Twitter handles and I wrote “I hate Twitter.” We’ll see how that plays out. Here I am, the new Jew on the weird block and I lie about a phobia and insult their app of choice.

We returned for a dinner and another faculty meeting, and now, I have to wrap up all my stuff and prep for tomorrow.

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