Learning is Play

Here’s something awesome: Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show. Her motto? “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” I came across Sylvia via Dr. Gary Stager’s blog post about her blog which features some withering critiques of educator attitudes about technology and learning. But you can read that on your own if you’d like. What I’m interested in is Sylvia’s amazing perspective on learning.

Again, her motto is “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something.” Mess around, geek out, and keep in mind that there are no real consequences of failure except more learning. Learning is not a competition or a zero-sum game. When I learn something, that’s not one less thing you can learn. In fact, when I learn something, you are more likely to learn as a result because we are social learners. So, relax. Have fun. Play, and give yourself a break when you feel like you’re not getting it.

Anxiety over performance, programmed into everybody through a focus on grades from a tender age through post-graduate education, is as normal and predictable as tail chasing in kennels. It’s a totally normal reaction to the institutional structure of schools. But, there is hope for all learners! For one, school ends eventually. For two, even if school continues, abandoning identification with grades and performance is tantamount to liberation and can be ours, easily. Approaching a problem as play, as tinkering, is the key to escape from anxiety. Sylvia is cool – she’s crazy talented and knowledgeable, curious and driven, funny and creative. She has the keys to the kingdom. She plays, and learns, and teaches while she does so. What a role model for students and teachers alike!

The iPad 2 for Learning: Media Models & Simple Solutions

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Student searching for podcast software

Today was interesting with our iPads in Digital Journalism. Students are working on a first podcast based on a short current event article written last week. I provided links to tutorials on two ways of making a podcast – one in Garage Band and one in Aviary on their laptops. Most students dove in, playing with different options and experiencing some real frustration with inflexibilities in Garage Band. However, many swiftly figured out ways to make Garage Band work or found other apps for recording voice and sound.

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A student makes a podcast in Garage Band

 

Two students spent almost the entire period searching the App Store for paid apps that would “make the podcast,” as they described it. They ignored the tutorials even after redirection and lost an hour looking for simple solutions for sale. Is this the design of the iPad and App Store?

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Exploring the Stitcher Smart Radio app & learning from models

Another student found the Stitcher Smart Radio app and explored podcasts, listening to several. She reported that she “just listened to a lot of podcasts to know how it should be.” This is an example of using models to learn and playing to the strength of the iPad – media consumption.

A number of students in the class are almost finished with this podcast project and stand ready to help their peers along toward completion themselves. Already, kids have gravitated toward one another based on percieved strengths and natural cooperative learning seems to be taking place, although for one student who dislikes and is uncomfortable with technology, I’m concerned he’s taking a backseat and not learning hard skills of media creation as a result. We spoke about how they are working together today and this is something I will keep an eye on going forward.

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Searching the App Store for help

Finally, it was interesting to hear how students are developing strategies for the podcast, some working solely on the iPad or fluently on the device, as some might say. Others are offloading to their laptops or Macs at home in order to create the product. They will submit their podcasts by uploading them to their Posterous blogs (or Spaces, as they have recently been rebranded). I have an open mind right now about which way is best and figure the proof will be in the pudding!

Please excuse any weird formatting or lingering spelling or grammar errors. I wrote the first draft of this on my iPad in the WordPress app and uploaded photos from the iPad through that app. It was awkward at best, and I have endeavored to clean it up on my wife’s netbook with a German keyboard. This hasn’t been my favorite blogging experience ever! I think I like my Android phone for blogging more than the iPad. Hmm…

How My Thoughts are Changing 2: Digital Natives?

Beyond information literacy (Dr. Gary Stager, linked blow, might blow me up for “fetishizing information”), I am not convinced at all by the arguments for or my experiences with “digital natives” insofar as they are more savvy with technology or somehow fundamentally different from earlier learners. As Siemens notes, “How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized.” (¶32) He goes on in the same paragraph to state that “learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity,” but I wonder when learning was? Babies and toddlers don’t learn language through monastic study because that’s silly and people are hardwired to learn in cooperation with one another (David Brooks is all over this in his book The Social Animal and related TED talks). So, as NYU’s Clay Shirky points out repeatedly in text and Ted, computing and networking allows us to connect and learn from people well beyond our physical space, but does this really fundamentally change us?

After all, as explored in “Living and Learning With New Media: Summary of Findings From the Digital Youth Project,” kids follow personal interests into the interwebs, emulating models and avoiding behaviors that might get them shunned. Kids create media, like digital photography, that lives up to “the expectation of an audience of friends that makes the effort worthwhile. Youth look to each other’s profiles, photos, videos, and online writing for examples to emulate and avoid in a peer-driven learning context that supports everyday media creation” emphasis mine (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 26). So what’s new? The learning is social, it self-organizes and creates genre – note the now classic high angle Facebook profile shot. But, I’m not sure that these kids have been radically altered beyond simply having new tools to use.

Will Richardson covers the flawed idea of “digital natives” when he writes:

One conclusion that I totally agree with concerns the knowledge that kids have around these technologies from a learning perspective:

Overall, as Bennett et al. (2008) suggest, there is little strong evidence for the main claims of the net generation literature, which they summarise as follows:

  • Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.

  • As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

Weller makes the point that

There seems little real evidence beyond the rhetoric that the net generation is in some way different from its predecessors as a result of having been exposed to digital technologies. There is some moderate evidence that they may have different attitudes.

Different attitudes, different practices, but not different hardwiring that gives students an innate leg up on my generation. Dr. Gary Stager responds to Richardson’s post in a comment by exploring the implications of the digital native perception this way:

First problem, the notion that being “exposed” to technology changes anything. Papert fought this simple-minded criticism of his work for decades.

I agree with the author that most young people have an alarmingly superficial understanding of or agency over the technology so central to their lives. We do not help this by fetishizing the information aspect of computers and pretending that “computing” (verb) is a thing of the past. For far too many kids, computer use in schools is a lot more like “Computer Appreciation,” just as science is often just “Science Appreciation.”

We conclude that the chatting we do over the Internet is revolutionary while leaving the curriculum untouched and unchallenged.

As we start to consider the movement from “hanging out” to “messing around” and “geeking out,” Stager often speaks about teaching computing, teaching robotics in constructivist learning spaces that support and allow for tinkering and exploring technology as “new spaces of possibilities” and authentic learning (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 26). Rather than teach PowerPoint 101, or “Computer Appreciation,” the curriculum should change and students should be getting their hands dirty, geeking out like the kids who, on their own, were:

Raised in a context where economic constraints remain part and parcel of childhood and the experience of growing up,xlvi they were able to translate their interest in tinkering and messing around into financial ventures that gave them a taste of what it might be like to pursue their own self-directed careers. While these kinds of youths are a small minority among those we encountered, they demonstrate the ways in which messing around can function as a transitional genre that leads to more sustained engagements with media and technology. (Ito, Horst, & Bettanti et. al 28)

What I see in my 1 to 1 classes is a lot of frustration with the basics and almost no programming, coding, hacking, or otherwise digging into the technology and geeking out. There may even be an argument to make for Computer Appreciation, but that should not be the end point. Students who have an opportunity to geek out and build stuff, break stuff, hack stuff, combine stuff, and otherwise play may have life altering experiences leading to self-efficacy with technology that becomes a career path, a lifelong ability to solve problems, or satisfaction at school that makes essay writing or calculus less painful. I’d say that’s a powerful potential. After all, we are all connected and problem solvers might help me, freeing me to do something else, teaching me to solve my own problem, or making something I use problem free. That’s the power of geeking out, as I see it.

 

How My Thoughts are Changing 1: Connectivism & Information Literacy

My reading as part of the ZIS Coetail cohort has me thinking a great deal about what we should be doing in schools to facilitate learning and information literacy with today’s technological tools. I’m going to explore this in two parts. First, I’m interested in information flows and school policies. George Siemens points out in his “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age” that

Learning, as a self-organizing process requires that the system (personal or organizational learning systems) “be informationally open, that is, for it to be able to classify its own interaction with an environment, it must be able to change its structure…” (p.4). Wiley and Edwards acknowledge the importance of self-organization as a learning process: “Jacobs argues that communities self-organize is a manner similar to social insects: instead of thousands of ants crossing each other’s pheromone trails and changing their behavior accordingly, thousands of humans pass each other on the sidewalk and change their behavior accordingly.” (¶15)

Immediately I wonder: can China learn? The authoritarian impulse to ban or control information is outmoded in governance and in education. At The European Laptop Institute at The Hague last fall,  numerous sessions revolved around the blocking of social media in general and Facebook in particular, often referring to this as the teaching of digital citizenship! Clearly, in systems with tight information control, students as a community are going to self-organize in ways that ultimately defeat and undermine the system that controls information, ants burrowing under the wall to borrow the earlier metaphor. This happens in places like China in really interesting ways (that link is eye opening!), and more famously in all of the countries of the Arab Spring. Why wouldn’t it happen in schools? Besides, it misses the point entirely. Autocratic moves try to impose order on chaos, but as Siemens points out, “Chaos, as a science, recognizes the connection of everything to everything.” (¶14) Rather than waste time and resources on controlling information, schools would be well served to transfer ownership of information to the community and work to add structure to channels or prioritize channels of connectivity. Additionally, schools should teach information literacy (digital and analog), because

When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses. (Siemens ¶31)

Firewalls and draconian policies transfer responsibility for navigating digital realms to the institution and away from students as users. We should seek to cultivate students as connoisseurs of information and as captains of their information channels. If we are “offloading” information into our computers and networks, then students have to have retrieval skills and higher order thinking abilities like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Schools should not seek to control information and should make kids information literate and not fall for the myth of the digital native, which I’ll look at in a subsequent post.

The iPad 2: Responsible Use & Making Obsolete Policies Obvious

As part of the action research project we have embarked upon with students in my Digital Journalism class as part of the iPad pilot, we asked kids to read and edit our school’s Responsible Use Policy for the iPad. This policy is intended for a 1 to 1 tablet laptop environment, and the students immediately began digging in and turning up lots of incompatibilities, from points intended to protect the network from viruses to the hackable nature of the iPad. One of the first “ah-ha” moments came over the school publishing policy, which is well outdated and well-meaning, but not compatible with an environment chock full of digital publishing and sharing. As a result, a conversation has been initiated that I hope will lead to substantive, progressive changes, but we’ll see. In terms of what we could actually change ourselves, we edited the policy in bold print as follows:

Faculty, staff, or students may not transmit or seek access to materials which violate laws, infringe on copyrights, or have threatening, obscene, or racist content unless in the context of investigative research.
This change made sense in a journalism classroom. I applaud the young woman who pointed it out and re-wrote it.
I understand that streaming video or music, social networking sites,  instant messaging and chat, video games are not allowed during class time unless used for completion of classroom activities or permitted by a teacher;
This change probably says more about the power of iTunes than any other, but the iPad is a media machine, so this policy without the change handcuffs the functionality of the tool. The next change is related to this one:
I will not intentionally disrupt school network traffic with high bandwidth use for personal entertainment such as downloading music, videos, or online gaming;

The next two relate to the nature of the iPad. We synced all class iPads to a single account with no way to purchase apps, but shared the password to allow the downloading of free apps:

— I will not give out my password to anyone nor use someone else’s password or log-in identity and I understand the dangers of giving out personal information;

—  I will not share the ZIS Digital Journalism account information with anyone;

This next change comes from our savviest Apple student who proudly hacks his family iPads to allow for free app use. He is clearly the expert in the room. This point initially dealt with viruses, worms, etc.:

— I will not deliberately introduce any harmful or nuisance program or file including executable files from untrustworthy websites, or deliberately circumvent any precautions taken by the school to prevent this from happening;

Again, from our 15 year old Apple expert:

— I agree to comply with trademark, copyright laws, data protection laws and computer misuse laws, and to give credit to all sources used. I also agree not to jailbreak or otherwise hack the iPad in any way for any reason;

The next changes were necessary to navigate the tricky nature of a 1 to 1 iPad setup, because kids can authorize the iPad on their own iTunes account and put a lot of money in apps, music, and other media into the iPad, only to give it up in the spring. Of course, de-authorizing the iPad should mean they lose nothing from this activity, but we also wanted to circumvent students begging for apps from parents that are “necessary” for school. If they pitch the idea to the class, we can get paid apps, but they don’t need to be buying them on their own.

The user accepts responsibility for all software on the machine. The user agrees not to alter the core configuration of the iPad, but may install additional software or apps without approval by the ZIS IT Department. However, any apps purchased by the student for use with their iTunes account are their own responsibility, must adhere to previously stated policies of responsible, acceptable use, and will not be reimbursed by ZIS for any reason.

Finally, the iPads were provided with funds separate from our 1 to 1 program and intended as a pilot. As such, the iPads don’t carry the same sort of insurance as their laptop brethren. So we added the following, which I think is totally fair:

The user accepts responsibility for the physical security of the iPad. The machine is not insured under the school’s insurance policies and will not be replaced irregardless of accidental or purposeful damage or destruction. Additionally, if a user is deemed negligent they may be held responsible for replacement of the iPad, such as the iPad being left unattended and in view in a car or unattended in a public place, in which case the user will be held personally liable for any loss or theft.

We provided students with big, burly cover for their iPads and wished them well. In order to take their 1 to 1 iPad, students returned the cooperatively modified RUP with signatures from themselves and their parents, as well as with an action research informed consent letter that I’m happy to share if anyone is interested (just comment). This week, we are off and running, students are keeping reflective notes in shared Google docs as we go, and I’m excited to see what happens next.

iPad 2 Pilot Begins!

Today we put iPads in the hands of the students, and it was pretty fascinating to watch. Immediately, students began following their interests and trying to shape the platform to fit their needs. One student signed up his student email account, got a Google app for Docs, Mail, and Reader all lined up first thing. Another set of kids set up Facetime unsuccessfully, switched to student emails, and threw on Dropbox between hilarity with Photo Booth and video. Another kid read several articles on The New York Times and then grabbed the app once he worked out how to navigate the App Store. Yet another interviewed a fellow classmate for an article he is writing while another peer made videos into films in iMovie. And this was in the first fifteen minutes.

Students kept notes in Google Docs while they worked, noting questions and tracking their decisions as they went. Questions arose about using multiple accounts, sharing apps and media downloaded via their personal accounts, and connectivity (which was surprising and is something I still don’t really understand – they were working on the wireless just fine).

As we reflected after the fact, we broke down several categories of users that emerged instantaneously:

  • The utilitarian – give me the apps I need to succeed in class and make my life easier
  • The social networker – let me talk, chat, and share with my peers
  • The media maven – let me have my music and find the entertainment and information I want
  • The creator – smile for my camera, mug for my video camera, and talk to my recording device. I will alter, cut, slice, and splice until my little heart’s content
  • The pragmatist – I will use this device for what it gets me of value and want to know how I can use to make something of value

All students veered between these categories at least a little, but some landed pretty solidly into one category. Surprisingly, I didn’t see a single student who fell into the social networker category alone. The kids who sweated over Facetime and Facebook also were first to arrange their student email accounts and set up Dropbox. Something is happening here and it’s exciting. My first impressions are much more complex than I had anticipated and suggest that we have made the right moves in allowing kids a great deal of flexibility, ownership, and a transparent role in the action research component of the pilot. I think they feel honored and excited to be feeding back information and teaching the teachers. More to come soon!

Schools are Messy Places

Yesterday, a colleague unearthed what she thought to be one of two missing video cameras “belonging” to a course I now teach. Tucked deeply away in a closet, amidst a snarl of cables and battery chargers was a camera. Not one of the cameras, but a camera. As we marveled a bit at the mysteries of schools, she said (and I paraphrase) that without a more relaxed approach to some of these items, to inventory, to the organizing of stuff, our school would not have come so far so fast with technology.

Which got me thinking – hard as it may be to swallow, schools are messy places. Schools will never serve their most important functions in our society and be cost efficient, totally personalized, streamlined pods where students dutifully follow their playlist for the day, tick the box, score points, or earn Mario Brothers-style gold coins while teachers stare into their digital dashboards and adjust their classes of seventy like an America’s Cup skipper. Some like Tom Vander Ark spout wild, jargon-laced treatises and sometimes even almost start schools, but the underlying dream of all corporate reformers is a shiny new kind of school running with for-profit efficiency, even if not-for-profit.

Of course, even the shiniest, ivory Apples can’t seem to stay neat and clean, yet the image of the squeaky clean corporate model persists. Imagine: Apple loses a prototype for each of it’s last two iPhones and the buzz seems to be that it’s a publicity stunt on Apple’s part. Because Apple is hurting for publicity, right? Maybe the easier explanation is that programmers like to get hammered on tequila, too, and that the iPhone is a slippery fish in a trouser pocket. But, how could this happen again? Because it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have the phone in the real world, the real, messy world, where people spill drinks and throw down their backpack and cycle with their phone on the handlebars and get frustrated about a particular function and then change the function. Messy is dynamic and dynamic is successful.

Likewise, schools are messy, dynamic places when they function well because learning is messy and dynamic. Just today, a student I’ve never met before gave me a lesson on a new Adobe web design software that I’ve never heard of before and showed me his photo website that he just built with it. If his laptop didn’t allow him to install software or had crazy admin hurdles in place, he wouldn’t have built the website. Sometimes, when the powers that be cede control and let things happen, stuff gets broken, lost, misplaced, misused, and sometimes abused. It’s expensive – messy is often expensive. But, it beats a rigid bureaucratic or authoritarian approach because that cost is an investment in creative energy. School reformers who lead with efficiency should have their hands slapped with rulers because school is an investment in the future, and investments take courage and a stomach for delayed gratification, neither of which are values of the “efficient” corporation.

Do I wish someone would have slapped a sticker on one or both of those video cameras? Sure. Heck, I would settle for having noted the location of the shelf in this out of the way closet where they were stored. But, if we had those cameras, we may not have embarked on our current, messy iPad pilot that involves students as experts in their own learning and explores what’s possible with these tools. The outcome may be unimpressive, but nobody is going to be hurt. In fact, kids given such opportunities may learn to take agency in their learning process. It’ll be hard to test the results, but the kids will know. That’s messy for you.

Subtext is Engaging

Twice today I was captured in a classroom conversation about very different texts – one a short story, the other a persuasive essay on language, culture, and identity. In both cases, students began the discussion with their own ideas from a short exercise focusing on small sections of texts followed by small group discussions. Observing their small group discussions, I found they were all on track, sharing ideas revolving around important literal ideas and meanings. When we brought it back to the entire class for a conversation, ears pricked up when we began to circle ideas and meanings existing in the subtext, created through subtle mechanisms from a single word choice, to elusive concepts like tone.

As a few glassy expressions caught glints of interest, I was reminded of why I have so much fun with critical literacy. Students know something is going on here, and they want to dig in and uncover the dirty truth, or tricks, girding so much of communication. Always, a student or two discovers a funky bit jutting out of the surface of a text and, with a little focusing from me or from a peer, they start excavating until they uncover a critical piece of the subtext. You know they’ve grabbed something essential when vehement opposition springs up in a small group; there is always a naysayer. Once we get into an entire class setting, if I manage to ask the right questions and not blow the whole thing open, ruining the fun, it’s an amazing sight to see heads start nodding and kids start rushing to ask questions, or share an idea as the layers peel away.

Subtext – everywhere and nowhere. Man, it’s fun when they get after it.

The iPad 2 for Learning: Some Answers, More Questions

The first big list of questions I had have led to more questions and a few answers:

  • Syncing – not that big of a deal, for the most part. We will sync the iPads to a single MacBook Pro and a single iTunes account, purchasing apps with a gift card so as not to leave an open tab for HyperAngry Birds 18 to be downloaded at 1 am and so on. I don’t think this is going to be a bother for students in terms of “ownership,” but I may be wrong. Of course, because of the locked down proprietary structure of the iPad, following RSS content is not totally smooth if not routed through the Apple system. For example, if students set up a Google Reader account, they can easily read blog posts, watch video, and listen to podcasts from a single location, but, alas, the Google Reader apps cannot stream podcasts and the podcast links don’t work in Safari. So, the iPad is not a one-stop shop for digital content without each student having an individual iTunes account to which the iPad is synced or unless the paradigm is teacher centered, teacher directed media consumption, which is not a way that I will operate with secondary school students. So, new question: Is there a way to make the iPad into a totally functional media machine without individual iTunes account syncing?

    Sad T-Rex struggles to type on the iPad, just like me. Thanks to ijammin.
  • Accessories – they are legion. They are expensive. They are often necessary for the functions we have come to expect from our digital companions. So, better budget for them, educators! A case is a must, a stylus comes in second place, a keyboard is awfully desirable, as I look like a Tyrannosaurus Rex typing on the thing. I’m sure there’s more…
  • The million dollar question: So far, nifty sidecar for me. But, students don’t have their hands on them.
  • New question: Is a proprietary, death-by-a-million cuts approach good for education? Do we really want to be buying lots and lots of cheap apps when the Internet used to (and, truly, still does) offer totally functional free versions of these apps?
  • And another: I’m super, super lucky to be working in a well-resourced school willing to take risks and experiment with possibilities in order to give kids the best possible learning environment. So, I have iPads. So far, it feels very extravagant. As I noted in my first reflection on the iPad for teaching, I could really use the iPad or a ringed notebook for the lesson planning function via Google Docs, and the notebook wins for ease of note-taking (funny, that). Perhaps more than a question, I have a quandary about the expense of the toy/tool/device. Will what we learn justify the expense? To that end, I’m working hard to learn as much as possible.

More questions are coming and I look forward to sharing some student questions and answers as we research the possibilities together.