Thinking About Digital Literacy

I was asked to speak at the VCU School of Education’s Teaching Literacy in a Digital World Conference this past Saturday. I’ve haven’t spent much time thinking about “digital literacy” in the past few years. It’s been somewhat mashed together with other terms that overlap like- digital fluency, computational thinking, etc. – and like those terms there’s not much agreement on what it is. I glanced at a few definitions prior to making this but didn’t really stick with one. When Dr. Leila Christenbury started the conference she referenced the “find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet” definition of digital literacy so I added that while I waited and it makes as good a framework as anything else.

A chunk of the presentation is on GitHub here or you can fork it here. I opted to do the presentation with reveal.js and on GitHub mainly because I need to be expanding my own competencies (digital and otherwise).

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I struck the “differently” portion because I wanted to orient things more towards the idea of doing things and didn’t want people getting caught up in the nuances of whether it was really “different.”

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This was an attempt to connect with the audience. I believed they were mainly k12 teachers or faculty in the School of Ed (who tend to focus on k12). I tend to try to give myself credibility in a couple of ways. The first is that I have taught and I have taught in a really difficult situation. My first experience teaching was with 6th graders in an alternative setting. I’ve also taught in many different subjects and worked with students across grade levels. I’ve also worked with students outside of the school setting. I think that matters. I’m lacking lots of ways but I’ve got some street cred and some breadth. I’m fighting being put in the “he’s-just-a-higher-ed-talking-head” box.

I also bring my own kids into the conversation because I have four kids and they range in age from 12 to 5. They aren’t necessarily indicative of the population as a whole but they personalize the story in a variety of ways and humanize me a bit.

Finally, I stress that I’m not a nerd that’s focused on technology my whole life. I’m a history major. I have mixed feelings about technology. There are many times I consider forsaking every modern trapping and moving to the woods. Don’t put me in the “another-tech-worshipping-nerd” category.

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All that being said, I chose to make this presentation in reveal.js by writing HTML (like you see above) because it seemed like fun.

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So as we talk about digital literacy, I’ll use these four elements to try to ground myself because I can wander astray pretty easily and this topic gets messy fast without some anchor points. But before we launch into details I want to set the stage a bit because “digital” anything tends to become a loaded topic.

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There are some people who are going to say literacy is literacy and things aren’t changing.

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There are other people (sometimes the same people) who will tell you that technology is destroying the world. Selfies tend to be a primary piece of evidence. My argument tends to be that technology has made things people have always done more evident. Selfies, from paintings to photographs, have long been a presence . . . and what is more indulgent . . . taking a quick picture or spending days painting a quadruple self-portrait? And I’m not even arguing about the right/wrongness of it. I just maintain we usually blame technology for bringing evidence of the things we have always done and we also have a tendency to make the impact of that technology universal in a way that it is not. A good friend of mine just moved to Italy. The way we use phones in the USA is not the way they’re used in Italy. Many of things we dislike about technology are simply expressions of the culture we’ve created.

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But technology and digital do complicate things. It’s difficult to tell which of the images above is “real.” That is my father-in-law. He happens to be a football coach. He’s coached for both those teams but was lacking a bio image. I, with very little Photoshop experience, was able not to switch out the shirts but to actually change the expressed colors of the image. Add a little cut and paste for logos and presto- a new reality that is very difficult to distinguish. Now certainly people have always had the ability to manipulate photos but the bar to doing it well is now considerably lower and accessible to far more people. That’s both awesome and scary.

This is a 3D scan of a passenger pigeon skull. It’s both interactive in a digital way and it can be printed out as well. That line between what is real and what is digital is steadily growing blurrier. That’s kind of crazy but wasn’t really made concrete to me until I received the following email from my son.

thingiverse printing request
My kids do write emails. It is a different world and while they aren’t some sort of cyborg-digital-native, kids growing up in this environment have some different ideas. I got the email above from my oldest son. He’s twelve. Notice a few things. First, he sent it to all four of my email addresses. I’ll consider that a marker for importance. Secondly, the email has a link in it. Minor in many ways but one of the main things that makes digital really unique. Third, if you look at the email signature, you’ll see it indicates this email was sent with an iPhone 8S. He does not have an iPhone and there is no 8S on the market. It is a strange and uniquely digital joke. One that I really appreciate.

The link in the email led me to this 3D file. It’s GoPro mount for Nerf gun. He wanted to be able to film a first-person perspective of his neighborhood battles. That has a number of crazy layers including that he’s post-processing the video and adding all sorts of special effects. I’m not saying he’s a normal child and he has been raised around an odd father but this was totally on his own and it’s something I don’t know that I’d have ever considered. The idea of 3D printing something is still so foreign to me that I don’t know if I’d have thought of looking for the file. I think that expectations around how the world works is entwined in this idea of literacy. It is skills and dispositions but it is also expectations.


After all that, let’s get back to our framework. Finding stuff. Can we find digital stuff? Sure. Can we find good stuff? Can we find it fast? Can we find it when Google/Bing can’t? Do we know where to go to find certain things faster/better than Google? I’d argue that the answer here is mostly no.

Most people can type in stuff in Google but I rarely see evidence of taking advantage of Google’s internal options to find things faster/better. Google itself gave up on advanced search and removed it from the front page. So Google may have gotten better but I don’t think people have. The deep dependence on the tech to make up for the lack of thought worries me.

Then there are even simpler things. We teach kids to scan for keywords. Do we do the digital equivalent? Do we teach them to do a simple ctrl+F/cmd+F when they need to find words in a large body of text? Maybe but, if so, it doesn’t seem to stick. Search for “love” in Maria Montessori’s work. Think of the complexities around “finding” when you look through text more deeply.

We also have a tendency to teach evaluation through overly simplistic things like “it is a .com or .edu site?” We’ll default condemn Wikipedia rather than looking at talk pages and analyzing sources. Instead we’ll offload validity to a third party and say “trust all things on .gov/.edu or paid for by the library.” This triggers the part of me that wants to go live in the woods. Trust no one. Analyze everything. Always. You must not blindly trust.

My Facebook feed conclusively proves that adults have no idea how to evaluate what is real vs what they wish was real. There’s no doubt the digital world makes that harder because it is easier to make something look professional. It is easier to decontextualize/recontextualize something. But all these things point at weaknesses we’ve had for a long time. We’re just now seeing more and more evidence. The adults who had old school educations aren’t any better at this than “millennials” and it’s not because the content is digital.


We aren’t so good at use either. People often don’t know when (let alone how) to take advantage of the standard pieces of the Office suite. When should I use a spreadsheet1 vs a table in Word? When do I need a presentation vs a document? These are simple(r) choices for the most part around established products (what!?). We’re talking about 25+ years here and we aren’t even getting into the idea of online tools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s complex stuff. Just being able to read some of the new multimedia-dataviz-interactive journalism is difficult. Creating these messages technically and conceptually brings up huge additional challenges to literacy.

But we miss huge basics in this literacy. I guess it’s literacy anyway. RSS readers still have value. Even if RSS dies, the concept that information can flow and come to you rather than vice versa is important and will play out in other technologies. Is that a conceptual digital literacy?

There’s also scale. If we’re better at finding things, we tend to also need better ways to organize and store what we find. What role does taxonomic and folksonomic structures for organizing information play in digital literacy? What role do Diigo or similar tools play in digital literacy? How do we gain more benefit from the same amount of effort? How do we teach these concepts within tools but without becoming dependent on the specific tool? It’s messy stuff.2

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Then we get into the link. The building block of the Internet. When do you link? Why? How does it differ from a footnote, from a citation, from a tool tip? When do you open a link in a new window vs a new tab? More importantly, as always, how do you get people asking themselves questions like these when they use/create links?

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Do you consider parsing a URL a literacy? It might be. Alan does it for fun but also functionally and with purpose. Knowing there is login in URLs opens up options in the same way that understanding page numbers in a book changes how you view those elements. URLs are a major element in how the web is organized so understanding them can be beneficial but the diversity there is intimidating and further complicating by the ability to add tracking and other variables to URLs . . . but don’t we want literate participants on the Internet aware of stuff like that? I think so but also recognize how big and complex this is.

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The problem and potential of digital literacy keeps expanding. We have new ways to collaboratively annotate information and people doing it- for Kanye and for Shakespeare. Our options for visually and interactively representing information continues to expand. It has potential. There is plenty of good there but it’s more complex than it once was. You can see into someone’s process like never before- be it art, writing, or programming. How do I find useful communities? How do I participate in communities in ways that matter for me and the community itself? Additional complexities multiply with the idea of sharing, copyright, EULAs, terms of use, and the pervasiveness of ad-supported-“free” tools.

It’s a bit crazy but beautifully so in many ways. It has so much potential, much of it untapped. We have the chance to focus on digital literacy as an outlook, as something dispositional. We’re not teaching keyboarding. We are not teaching PowerPoint. We are working with age old questions and challenges but with the ability to bring to bear an entirely new set of options. Digital literacy can be, at least partially, a dispositional belief that fluidity is desired, malleability is possible, and that all these considerations can be fun. It is a chance to blur lines towards a modern day Vitruvian literacy. Many challenges? Undoubtedly.

1 not to mention function, autofill dragging, sparklines etc.

2 and you can only mourn Google Reader for so long

Red Dot It on Twitter

twitterdot animation showing an alternate presentation using a dot instead of a heart icon

Given the level of despair and rage resulting from Twitter’s move to the like/heart option, I have decided to save the world. It seemed a worthwhile way to spend two minutes.

This codepen was handy in figuring out how to make the arrow part of the tooltip the right color.

The following chunk of CSS thrown into a plugin like Stylebot will now enable you to simply red1 dot something. It is simply a circle which could mean anything. Instead of the tooltip displaying the word “Like” you now have a blank canvas upon which you can think any word you want.2

div.HeartAnimation:hover {
    background-color: #e12b36;
    background-image: url();

div.HeartAnimation {
    background-color: #aab8c2;
    height: 20px;
    width: 20px;
    margin-top: 15px;
    border-radius: 15px;
    background-image: url();

.tooltip-inner {
    background-color: white;
    box-shadow: 4px 4px 2px #efefef;
} .tooltip-arrow {
    border-top-color: white;

Another option that’s probably simpler and more fun, although unlike Gizmodo, I didn’t copy him.

1 Change the color if red is offensive.

2 In reality replacing the text via javascript seemed a bit too much effort for this sort of nonsense. I can justify two minutes but not ten.

If it seems like playing . . .


If it seems like I’m playing lately it is because I am. The last week or so has been an exploration of all sorts of fairly odd things. Markov chains, Twitterbots, McRibs1, photo walks to name a few items.

These are easy things to dismiss as trivial. It’s not necessarily obvious how these strange wanderings connect back to outcomes that other people may want or how they mesh with the idea of online learning at VCU. I believe that’s because we’ve created a belief that (in many things) we know both where we are (point A) and where want to go (point B) and that whatever gets us between these two points most “efficiently” is the best path. I’m going to try to both justify the value of a wandering path by pulling in pretty disparate examples2 from time/space with some recent examples of these wanderings coming to fruition.

Similar patterns of over-narrowing happen in lots of areas. People tend to think they know lots of things they don’t.3 I see elements of this narrowing in terms of the echo chamber, the specification focused patterns of today’s world4, and the general lack of joy evident in work and school.5

Here’s a fairly typical pattern for me.

Stage One – September 2011

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On Sept. 22, 2011 at 10:48 PM6, I took a picture of a random artifact from my youth and put it on insta-facebook-agram so one of my friends could see it. Based on his enthusiastic interest, I decided to figure out how to make a digital version which I had as a working product on Sept. 24th.

Stage Two – August 2013

Nearly two years later (roughly August 8), I stuck my head in a meeting and heard a complaint about a Buck’s Institute tool. I knew from my vast experience with PHP fortune sticks two years earlier that I could make something like what was requested. The details of that exploration are in this post. The short version is that I opted to learn a chunk of javascript because I couldn’t manage rotate the variable independently in PHP. That got me involved with javascript libraries which in turn opened up a few other avenues of creation. A few days later, I made a gif randomizer which let me know I could randomize images as easily as text.

A few more days and I built some bean shaped math manipulatives I’d seen while helping to unpack supplies at an elementary school. This pushed me into touch libraries because the students most likely to use them would have iPads instead of laptops. That same basic concept (you can make user-movable things on the internet) branched into sight word refrigerator poetry after a conversation with a high school English teacher. This was finished up around August 27.

The same basic concepts came back again on September 19 when I built this getting-to-know-you page for the ITRTs after seeing this Dan Meyer post from back on August 7. I agree it’s not the most wonderful example of technology but it did open up a few conversations and I had an ITRT ask if they could move the red dots. My response was sure if they could figure out how to do it. This allowed me to squeeze in a quick Firebug/Inspect Element/CSS conversation and bring up that this is how some middle school kids had been tricking their parents about their online grades.7

Stage Three – November 2013

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Jump to another job and a few months later. A conversation between Gardner, Jon, and myself wanders to the idea of algorithmic construction, Twitterbots, and human attempts to derive understanding8. In many ways the #ds106 generator is a combination of all of these wanderings (and more). Like the best fortunes (sticks or otherwise), there is ambiguity to parse and use to construct meaning. There is also the combination of paths I’d taken previously- Google –> StackOverflow and Github. Little bits and pieces adding up.

At the same time we’re working on a logo for Online @ VCU. Thinking about what we hoped to accomplish and what I’d like the logo to represent led me to think of networks and connections which resulted in some flash backs to some interesting things I’d seen digging through javascript libraries back when I was trying to drag beans around. I’d remembered trying to do something with D3 and collapsible force nodes (just because I thought they looked interesting). That led to the idea that our logo should represent a networked relationship. On top of that being interactive would be an interesting plus and . . . for the next step an organic logo that is built by the actions of our users would be pretty interesting.

I don’t know if it’s heutagogy or combinatory play9 or maybe something else I haven’t learned a word for yet. Things like this happen all the time. It all adds up and comes together in beautifully unexpected ways and it’s not just information or skills- it’s people as well. In the end I really believe it is about interesting intersections but how will you know what to blend if you don’t wander around a good bit? My goal is to be interesting by being interested.10

Currently, I’m also prying at using a IFTTT recipe to capture my Twitter stream in a spreadsheet for analytical experiments and possible use later as a variable generator.

I remain, I hope, usefully deranged.

1 Strangely, McRibs and I have coincided before.

2 All the links are from my Diigo links rather than looked up for this post. I mention that because it’s an example of what I mean by seemingly aimless wanderings coming together at points in time.

3 It could be that my belief that we don’t know what we think we know is derived from a similar confirmation bias but I usually see that pattern cycling towards confidence rather than less . . . but I would think that wouldn’t I? . . . this does get meta pretty quickly.

4 Or 1945

5 It is not a coincidence that both teachers and students go insane with happiness when school is canceled for snow. Consider just how thankful both groups are to have one day of not going to school.

6 The NSA knows everything about me.

7 Crazy on so many levels. The students would pull up their online grades and change them in the browser. It’s like super ninja level whiteout.

8 Algorithmic oracles and Markovian driven divination both have a nice ring to them.

9 Not a victim of Churchillian Drift- Einstein did say that.

10 Amiable weirdness would be acceptable as well.

Strange Screenshots

I take screenshots of things I think are strange or perhaps illuminate something about the strange world we now inhabit. Think of it as my personal take on The New Aesthetic. All of these images are pulled from my actual life and interactions with former classmates, friends, coworkers etc. There are a blurred out series of iffy pictures down there if you’re easily offended you might opt to skip this post.

Laser toe fungus available now.

Social media makes some really awkward conversations permanent.

I am influential in Zoolander, very, very influential. This happened shortly before I deleted all of my authority.

Some things you shouldn’t tweet from Harper’s Weekly Review(which would also make a great project).

Laptops don’t even make the list any more. Strange times.

The app-ification of education is proceeding at full speed. Reality doesn’t matter much and we’re losing the war of perception.

These four images are someone’s Instagram likes posted in Facebook.I can’t believe he realized this would happen, yet here it is.Social media makes for some really uncomfortable juxtapositions.

Modern day job benefits are not what they once were. Geek desks and monster monitors are pretty attractive to me though.

Someone I follow re-tweeting CNN’s coverage of Greek issues showing up right next to Real Time WWII Tweets also dealing with Greek issues. Everything about that is odd to me.

Buying Instagram friends? I guess you could do that.’s version of Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind seems to have suffered water damage prior to being scanned.I found this hilarious.

Social Media Talk

I’ve spoken to the PTA at Tuckahoe Middle School for the last two years about social media. It’s been pretty interesting both times in that I take a closer look at things that I tend to take for granted. I think both conversations have gone pretty well. I’ll document the conversation below (mixed with a few things I did with our principals a while back) for anyone who might have to do the same.


I start with a slide that mixes the pictures of as many radically different people with Twitter accounts as I can find. I get the audience to try to identify the people. The one I’m using now has the Dali Lama, Rupert Murdoch, Sarah Palin and a few others. My goal was to have a few easily identifiable people and a few that took a tiny bit more effort.1 I wanted a wide diversity in political views, ages, etc. After we’ve ID’d the people, I ask “What do these people have in common?”2 I mention that you’ve probably heard references to Twitter after shows like Good Morning America, etc. Hopefully this gets people into the mindset that Twitter (and social media in general) is becoming more broadly adopted and is being used by mainstream media.

My next move is to argue against polarizing social media. It’s not black and white. While social media is not responsible for the decay of morals in America, it is also not the magic elixir that will heal all of our ills. I will say that social media is a powerful tool that opens up opportunities to increase the consequences of your energies and actions for good or bad.

What is social media?

I’m defining social media as any platform that allow users to communicate and connect with an audience. That’s a fairly broad definition but intentionally so. If the focus is on both the positive and negative aspect of social media, both come from the ability to communicate and publish for an audience. There are nuances of difference between sites and the ability to “friend,” the types of media you can publish, internal tools, etc. but the unifier is simple two-way communication.

That opens up a lot of terrain and I want to emphasize that. It’s too easy to say “I don’t let my kids go on social media,” or to write off all social media as trivial. This is also an opening to the discussion of how it’s not an on/off decision for schools.

At this point I emphasize different aspects of social media starting with CNN comments (and their high level of offensiveness), hitting Amazon comments (and that whole weird genre of fake product reviews) and then getting into things like Instagram and emphasizing that computers are certainly no longer a necessity. This type of cell-phone-based social media also adds the more immediate and integrated geographical data issue that can be a surprise for parents and kids. It’s not that I believe there are legions of internet kidnappers out there but I do think people ought to understand what data they’re disclosing.

The Social Media Pantheon

This isn’t a bad place to start when talking about the depth and breadth of what can be meant by social media. I also emphasize that social media on the web has been around in different forms for a long time. The Well being a very early example and I talk a little about IRC and Usenet. While not exactly social media as we think of it today, I think they provide some historical context.

I then move on to LinkedIn as something that some parents have used and it provides a touch stone as well as a pretty easily seen career/income relationship.

MySpace is next mainly because I want to stress how transitory these sites can be. Banning one site isn’t going to achieve your desired result. The Internet (and what is cool/hot/hawt) is a moving target. You have to focus on behavior as opposed to URLs.

Facebook takes a little time but is once again a familiar space for many parents. Many have used the site and understand the main capabilities. FB is mainly there so I can talk about its attempts to move into the mobile space3 held more by Twitter, FourSquare, Yelp and the like. Once again, I’m focusing on the mobile component and the importance of geographically aware elements in the popularity of the services.

I highlight a few people who’ve made their names through some bad choices that were documented on social media. I work from Phelps4, to Matthew Stafford and then hit Anthony Weiner. I work up to Weiner as his behavior was especially stupid and it put quite a contrast to the teacher (Ashley Payne) in the right hand corner who was fired for posting that picture. The point being some people document their stupidity and seemingly beg for punishment but there is also some real overreaction to things going on right now. Most people can’t believe the teacher was fired for that picture. I then point out The Facebook Fired, a site entirely dedicated to people fired for their social media actions. I may get into some of the issues that I documented in this post but it depends on the audience mood.

This is playing towards what people expect and I don’t apologize for that. These are the things parents are worried about. I lighten it up a bit at the end with Literally Unbelievable with a focus on the fact that what may be documented may not get you fired but it could convince people you’re an idiot. This also give me a chance to plug media literacy.

The Good

Now I get to focus on the things that are more interesting and fun. These are the things you don’t really hear about on mainstream news shows or on Oprah.5
I have used

From this the move is towards MOOCs/OpenCourseware and the more freeform places where you can join social media communities that are focused on learning. I hit Instructables and Make so I can open up the maker movement discussion and the tie in to use for science, physics etc. in our classrooms.

I take some detours and encourage questions from the audience but that eats up an hour pretty quickly. It’s a fun conversation and I get to talk about interesting things. The fact that raisins have QR codes and ketchup has its own Facebook page is too much to resist.

I ended with this tweet and the challenge that instantaneous access to worldwide communication is something these students will always have to deal with. That’s going to be a wild ride that will require an ever increasing skill set and media savvy.

1 Don’t make people work too hard at this point or everything will stall and you will make enemies.

2 I believe you already know the answer.

3 We talked some about the purchase of Instagram. A few parents brought up Instagram as the major social media element in their kids lives right now.

4 This may be a stretch but I’d argue without social media this would not have blown up nationally the way it did.

5 Is Oprah still on? Apparently not. Geraldo?

6 Yes, part of it is the fact that the video embarrasses me now.

7 I’m also a member.

The textbook as unreliable narrator


Safe and trustworthy – each resource is selected to be K-12 appropriate, and held to the highest NBC News Standards and Practices.

Washington Post

NBC told this blog today that it would investigate its handling of a piece on the “Today” show that ham-handedly abridged the conversation between George Zimmerman and a dispatcher in the moments before the death of Trayvon Martin. A statement from NBC:

“We have launched an internal investigation into the editorial process surrounding this particular story.”

Great news right there. As exposed by Fox News and media watchdog site NewsBusters, the “Today” segment took this approach to a key part of the dispatcher call:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

Here’s how the actual conversation went down:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.

The difference between what “Today” put on its air and the actual tape? Complete: In the “Today” version, Zimmerman volunteered that this person “looks black,” a sequence of events that would more readily paint Zimmerman as a racial profiler. In reality’s version, Zimmerman simply answered a question about the race of the person whom he was reporting to the police. Nothing prejudicial at all in responding to such an inquiry.

-Washington Post

These two things came my way at about the same time. I don’t want to overstate things based on this one example but it does exemplify one argument I keep having with people. The “vetted” world comes with its own inaccuracies and biases yet we don’t seem to approach this content in that way. Textbooks, NBC’s media library, statements from members of our government, the content of library databases we provide students etc. are all things that ought to be looked at with the same critical eye we encourage for other less “trustworthy” sources of information.1

I wonder to what extent we’d have a more interesting and involved classroom if we introduced the idea of the textbook as an unreliable narrator. It’d be interesting to see what students would consider worth proving vs what they’d just accept. There’s a lot you could play with there. It’d certainly be a fun book to write.

1 Suspect everyone and follow the money might be a good rule of thumb.

Bloom’s Rocks!

Rocks are going to REVOLUTIONIZE education! Just look how easily rocks cover all levels of Bloom’s!

Flying without a license


I write things on my rocks and it helps me remember. I can also use rocks as eco-friendly flash cards.

Quartz Varieties


Comparing my rock to other rocks demonstrates my understanding. Sometime I categorize all of my rocks.

Skip Rock


I apply what I know about physics and use my kinesthetic intelligence to skip my rock.

Molasse inspection


I like to use conglomerates to help me differentiate between components and analyze the role of different composite pieces.


Sometimes I just sit on a large rock, quietly reflecting on my rock- thinking about how we are all on a large rock and stuff like that.
Greet the Golden Hour


My rock can be used to make many things. I use it as a hammer mostly but I can stack my rocks into cool towers, use it as a canvas, make it into an arrowhead, or use to ground grain.

Digital Content- Things to Consider

Henrico has had a long and interesting relationship with digital content. We’ve been struggling with this issue since we first went to 1:1 back in 2001. We’ve used everything from simple networked directories to full blown learning management systems (Blackboard and Angel). We’ve bought content. We’ve made content. We’ve had content submitted openly from any teacher and content only shared after careful vetting by content specialists. So we’ve tried most thing I can think of. Now the pressure is on to make a scale move to digital content and to do it well.


Use digital content to help define and reinforce best practice in the classroom.
Digital content and digital curriculum are not the same but if you are making this kind of shift it makes sense to think hard about how to use this content to shape teaching in the classroom. Duplicating a text in PDF format won’t get at any sort of change, nor will the slightly modified “rich” online textbooks that most publishers put out.

Invest Internally
The current model in education is to pay outside vendors for “expertise” on a regular basis. This ends up causing a variety of problems. The most important being that our own teachers end up being “given fish” over and over again and then people are surprised to find that they cannot “fish” for themselves. We’ll wish we invested more in our people as funding continues to dry up.

For example, I have argued that we should not buy any sort of map software for social studies. We have Google Earth and the Internet. We should use them. We should invest that money in our teachers, giving them the training and time to find and create specific maps that align to our content in ways that matter instead of spending money on products that give us every map under the sun but don’t create embedded evangelists, increase teacher skills, or provide a pathway towards the habits of mind required to be a creator instead of a receiver.

Current Impediments

Lock In/Overhead
More and more digital content is not sold as digital content but rather as part of a larger LMS/CMS package. Each LMS you take on adds overhead for the students and teachers who have to navigate between and within the various systems. If you add things like Study Island to the mix, it would be easy for teachers to be building and organizing content in three or more systems, each with its own capabilities, quirks, and isolated content.

That’s bad enough but the really unfortunate thing is that most of these systems do not have any way to get your work out. The longer you use the system and build within it, the more trapped you are1. Our initial use of BlackBoard in 2001 taught us the importance of being able to get content/work out. We spent a great deal of time and effort to create courses and build within the BlackBoard system and when it was found the system would not work for us- all of the content was lost. Needless to say, this hurt us badly in terms of teacher trust and hampered subsequent adoption of other systems.

The Box Set Model
The music industry seems fairly progressive and forward thinking compared to the way digital content vendors bundle content. I would be more than happy to pay lower overall costs (higher per item) to be able to target exactly what I want to buy. The current model is worse than the album model the recording industry clung to for so long, it’s closer to only selling box sets. I don’t want to give teachers the Tom Jones box set. I just want that one song. Forcing me to buy the box set actually dilutes what I’m trying to do while adding cruft that someone will have to sort through. The fact that paid content comes with a presumption of approval makes granular decisions about what you provide even more important.

Clarity For Us, Garbage For You
I want to know what people are using and I want to know on the item level. I have every confidence that the vendor knows this yet most data I get from these systems are absolutely worthless. It’ll be logins from the beginning of time2 or I won’t be able to see anything below a 10,000 ft view. This makes it impossible to tell if people are using specific recommended pieces of content or, conversely, if they’re using items you’d rather they didn’t. You can’t ask questions, you can’t target PD, you can’t even tell if it’s worth reordering the product.

1 Expect price hikes.

2 Elluminate is bad about this as is Quia.

Based on Faulty Information

Their opinions are based on faulty information .

I shot this quick clip in one of the classrooms that was doing the performance based assessment. The audio is terrible but what this student says is perfect.

It’s actually kind of scary because there are people who don’t do this out in the public- like they don’t check their sources and stuff, therefore their opinions are based on faulty information.

Now if we can create more assessments that cause students to come to those simple, yet powerful, conclusions I’ll be very pleased.