Monthly Archives: November 2010

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What do you do?

Maybe Jim’s right and I am eating babies1. I struggle quite a bit with a lot about this job. I didn’t think I was already at the baby eating stage but sometimes it’s hard to see from inside.

I often wonder where guiding becomes restricting. I am unsure how tools of reflection become tools of assessment and then evolve into dogma. It happens though.

My goal is to construct things that help people think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. The reality seems to be that many people need some scaffolding to do that. There are a variety of reasons for that. I think in some cases it’s just a way of providing some shoulders to stand on, not necessarily the shoulders of giants but a least a boost above starting from scratch.

I don’t believe that roots out creativity or individualism unless it’s done incredibly wrong (which often happens) but that’s an application of formula, of recipes, instead of an attempt to create reflection and conversation around pedagogy and concepts. I think the latter can be done but it’s much easier to do the former. To dictate that a course will contain X, Y and Z- always. And that those structural components somehow create worth and quality. I believe that path leads to stagnation and death. It creates a thin ice of believable competency. Underneath that ice lurks a lot of dark, cold water. I feel the same way about a lot of edtech stuff. It creates just enough of a veneer to allow people to mislead themselves that what they are seeing is far better than what it is. IWBs often being a prime example.
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I believe we are at a time and place where scale and speed matters. It is not a good time to be a public school teacher.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic but I’ve talked to quite a few education vendors. They aren’t laying people off. They aren’t cutting salaries. Business is great. Educational consultants are hiring. BlackBoard is on a buying spree and Pearson is teaming up with Florida Virtual School. For profit charter schools are riding a wave of media2 into the hearts and minds of America. It’s a great time to be an education vendor.

Meanwhile, pupil-teacher ratios are rising, salaries are frozen, teachers are laid off. Public opinion of the profession and the institution is low. Gallup has education being of greater concern to Americans than war, immigration and lack of money. Seriously.

We have to turn the corner here and I believe we have to do it with speed.
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1 The saddest part of that quote is that it was mine and originally used against Barney (the purple dinosaur, not the sheriff guy.

2 An Oscar? Seriously, for an infomercial?

Assessing Online Course Quality

If you’re looking for answers, this is the wrong place. I’ve got a lot of questions though.

We are trying to increase the number of online courses we offer. I have my own opinion about what a good online course looks/acts like but I’ve been looking for something from people who have more credibility and more experience. So, let’s take a look at one of the major players.


The National Standards of Quality for Online Courses

This document is fairly large- detailed in odd ways, vague in others. I get the feeling after breaking it down that it’s something a consumer/purchaser would use to evaluate a course as opposed to a creator evaluating their own course to improve it.

The rating scale for each element:

  • 0 Absent—component is missing
  • 1 Unsatisfactory—needs significant improvement
  • 2 Somewhat satisfactory—needs targeted improvements
  • 3 Satisfactory—discretionary improvement needed
  • 4 Very satisfactory—no improvement needed
  1. Content – 14 items in this section

    I get frustrated that

    The course content and assignments are of sufficient rigor, depth, and breadth to teach the standards being addressed.

    is given the same weight as

    Issues associated with the use of copyrighted materials are addressed.

    Giving these factors equal weight in the rubric makes no sense to me. There are many similar examples. I have no confidence that the end numeric score would equate to quality.

    I also find the descriptors to be fairly limited if the rubric is to become a decent guide for teachers creating courses.

  2. Instructional Design – 16 items in this section

    I realize rubrics have limits but phrases like the one below don’t seem to give the reader enough focus or clarity to really do anything.

    The course provides opportunities for appropriate student interaction with the content
    to foster mastery and application of the material.

    I understand the need to be general but statements like these leave me with more questions rather than less. Maybe that’s a good thing but I don’t think it’ll help the majority of teachers I know make better online courses.

  3. Student Assessment – 7 items
    I wonder about the relative weight of this section.

    Assessment strategies and tools make the student continuously aware of his/her progress in class and mastery of the content beyond letter grades.

    Lots of questions here.

  4. Technology – 13 items

    The course accommodates multiple school calendars; e.g., block, 4X4 and traditional schedules.

    I have no idea what that has to do with technology or why that’s really a key component of an online course. I can see why that would matter if you were making courses as a vendor but it’s still course design in my mind.

    The course makes maximum use of the capabilities of the online medium and makes resources available by alternative means; e.g., video, CDs and pod casts.

    I don’t think you can do both of these things. It’s like the backup laptop lesson. If you are really using laptops to do something unique and powerful, you’ll have a hard time providing a paper equivalent.

  5. Course Evaluation and Management – 7 items
    This section is particularly consumer focused but I like this idea although I’ve never seen it done.

    The results of peer review and student evaluations of courses are available.

  6. 21st Century Skills – 1 item
    Essentially, it says go look at an additional rubric which references P21. That makes this thing even larger and more unwieldy and still it’s not providing the kind of guidance I’d hoped for. It may be that I’m looking at the wrong tool or the wrong provider.

I’m feeling a lot like I felt when we made the TIPC. I looked at the things that P21 and ISTE offered and felt that neither helped teachers see what quality meant in the classroom. The audience always seemed to be some other group. The size of the documents were too large while also remaining too vague. So we made our own version. I’m hoping we don’t have to do that again with online courses.

If you know of quality rubrics for this kind of thing, I’d like to see them.

My Phone Coughs Politely

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I’m a bit old school when it comes to phones. I habitually leave my phone on vibrate. I never notice that it vibrates. This occasionally makes people mad. I do this mainly because I’m absent minded and don’t want to be that guy with the annoying phone going off.

The solution came to me the other day.

I needed a ring that doesn’t sound like a ring, something that’d be a normal sound in most places1. I can make custom ringtones for the iPhone in Garageband.

My phone now coughs politely2.

In case anyone else wants to sound vaguely sick, but maintain politeness, here is my cough ringtone as a m4a and as a m4r ringtone.

1 The mosquito ringtone would not work for me because it’s noticeable to kids. I want something unobtrusive to everyone.

2 My guitar still gently weeps. I’m unaware what other objects I own do.

Random Thoughts

Camel Back, AZ

Here is a rough idea of what I am trying to engineer for myself and what I am hoping to spread to the people I work with.

  1. Passion Based Halos – Many people I know start off in jobs because they have elements that engage them in some way. Then, in many cases, the little things start getting in the way, eating up the focus that got them there in first place. Take me as an example, I am in a new position where I attend many meetings and write many carefully worded emails. There are lots of details and other fairly mundane things to manage and worry about. At my core, I do not like any of these things.

    I got into this job because I find the place where technology, culture and formal education unintentionally meet to be completely fascinating. I realized I wasn’t focusing on that because my energy and time was being eaten by all sorts of evil. As a result, I refocused and made sure I was making time to read and think about this particular space. I then created a structure that required little additional work/time on my part but which holds me accountable. This gets my brain back into the right kind of cycle. It changes how I deal with the other issues in my job and keeps the good parts of my head from totally atrophying.

    Not everyone is going to be really excited about such an obvious connection to their job but most people I know have things outside of work which they are interested in and would pursue no matter their career. Those passions and interests are powerful and should be moved into their jobs deliberately- something like Google’s 20% idea. I see it as drawing fun and interest into jobs, infusing them with the kind of energy and excitement that many jobs lack but with benefits that will range beyond the obvious job satisfaction elements. People who are doing things they are excited about do a much better job. People feel the excitement and respond in kind1. Good halos will help keep darkness at bay.

  2. Engineered Serendipity (or luck favors those who are connected and interested aka Internet Karma) – I believe it is important to share your interests and the things you do with them in an open way. This leads to a number of good possibilities. Things will turn up at the right time. People will help solve your problems. It has happened to me many times.

    I also believe you should make an effort to introduce degrees of randomness into your input streams. Don’t just follow people in your career path or with your beliefs. Make efforts to avoid the echo chamber and you will be rewarded. I believe it’s especially important for educators to pay attention to things that the masses of humanity enjoy and partake of without being forced.

  3. “Educational” – We have to keep in mind the context in which people put things that are considered educational. “Educational game” is not a compliment. Expectations for most things educational are very low. When people say they prefer X to Y in education, it’s often like saying they prefer warm dog food to cold dog food. The standard is very low and people don’t hope for much. That’s why comic sans, clip art and IWBs are often seen as steps up. I try to compare things in education to things in the real world. We need to set the bar higher. I try to ask myself if people would do this in a world where they had free choice.

1 most of the time


#VSS2010 – DAY 1

This is my first time at the virtual school symposium. So far it’s very similar to NECC or any of the other edtech conferences I’ve been to. The format is very traditional. It is vendor heavy. Wireless sucks. They don’t take nearly the advantage they should of the Internet. If conferences want to survive they’ll also figure out some really useful things to do that can only be done by having this many people in the same physical space.

I know that sounds pretty negative. I’d say it’s accurate. If any of the conferences want to share their profit margins on these things maybe I’d feel more magnanimous.

Random thoughts so far1

Just because something rhymes does not mean you have to retweet it as gospel. I know there’s research that shows that rhyming has something to do with people’s perception of veracity but still.

Many people have not read Disrupting Class (or maybe I don’t understand the book) but they insist on quoting it. One of the major points of the book was that the disruptive innovation occurs in a place where there is no competition. The product is also usually inferior to the product in the main space (Apple PC as toy vs IBM mainframes). That’s certainly not how people are using it. I’m not really buying chunks of that book anyway but it seems we ought to be able to use the term in the same context.

One of the vendors was giving out the book2 Waiting for Superman as a gift people could win. I asked the vendor if they’d seen the movie. As she ran away, she said it was great and may have missed my comment about corporate propaganda.

One thing, I have seen is that the parallels between online ed and tech integration are more similar than I’d like. Both groups seem to continuously conflate3 pedagogical concepts with tools that might enable them. Both groups have a dearth of good examples available to the public and yet that’s one of the strongest needs I’ve seen. The vendor is also playing a major role in presenting at these conferences in ways that are subtle and overt. People seem to be waiting for one-size-fits-all solutions that they can buy.

The most unfortunate parallel is a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. One of the oft tweeted phrases was something like “Let’s focus on next practices, instead of best practices.” That pains me and seems to indicate continued confusion about what is a tool and what is a proven learning strategy that will work just fine online.

1 Session summaries and day #2 will be saved for the plane ride back.

2 Who knew there was also a highly biased book?

3 Higher Ed’s favorite word