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EduTech Africa 2018 – Moving Beyond the Technology to Make a Difference

Over the last decade or so the focus of the ed tech conferences I have attended has shifted increasingly away from the technology itself towards what we can do to transform education. In the early years it was as if ed tech enthusiasts were like magpies, dazzled by every shiny new tool. Some of that sense of wonder still exists, of course, and is healthy. We need to be alive to new possibilities as technology evolves. But over the years we have learned to become more discriminating as we found what tools actually worked in our classrooms, and learned not to try to do too much at one time. The focus started shifting towards pedagogy, towards how to use the tools effectively. Behind this was always some thought as to the significance of the impact of technology on education. Common refrains have been the development of 21st Century Skills, personalised learning, a movement away from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, problem-based learning, what technologies will disrupt education and learning based on the burgeoning field of neuroscience. The overall sense has been one of promise, that technology has the potential to make teaching and learning more effective, and that education will become transformative in liberating humanity from a model  grounded in the factory system and a mechanised reproduction of knowledge and skills. This year’s conference was no different in content although the technologies have changed somewhat. The focus has shifted towards Artificial Intelligence, robotics and coding, especially how to involve women in STEM and how to infuse computational thinking across the curriculum. However, this is the first time the sense I have is not one of advocacy, but of militancy. Speakers from the world of work were united and adamant in a condemnation of schooling itself. A clear preference for extra-curricular learning and the futility of academic qualifications was presented stridently. Employers, we were told, prefer people able to solve problems. If any learning is required it can be delivered, just-in-time at the point of need, online via MOOCs. Tertiary qualifications should be modular and stackable, acquired over time when required to solve real world problems. Educators endorsed this stance stressing personalised learning and the use of Artificial Intelligence and even real-time feedback from brain activity. The sense was one of an urgent need for a curriculum based on problem solving rather than subject disciplines. If you need some Maths to solve a problem you can get it online. You don’t need to study Maths divorced from real world imperatives. The very idea of tertiary institutions is clearly under massive assault, and it cannot be long before they come for secondary schools as well. What scares me about this is not that I don’t agree that learning should be problem-based at some level, or that degree programmes should not be using MOOCs and blended models to achieve greater modularity and be more student-driven. What scares me is what we lose by doing that. My fears are based on two premises. Firstly, I believe that knowledge should be pursued for knowledge sake rather than for the needs of the world of work alone. Of course our education should prepare us for employment or entrepreneurship. To argue that it shouldn’t is folly. But knowledge has its own trajectory and logic. Mathematical knowledge, for example, represents a body of knowledge bounded by rules and procedures. It forms a coherent system which cannot be broken up into bite-sized chunks. Can one quickly study calculus without studying basic algebra just because you need calculus to solve a problem? Historical knowledge is not just about reading up on Ancient Sumeria on Wikipedia quickly. Historical knowledge is founded on a system of evidentiary inquiry within a narrative mode of explanation. I worry that just-in-time knowledge will lack a solid enough base. If we erode the autonomy of the universities and do away with academic research, what happens to knowledge? It will become shallow and facile. Secondly, I believe that the discovery model of learning is deeply flawed. Of course, if left to our own devices, following our curiosity, we can discover much. It is a fundamental learning principle. But it is not very efficient. There is no earthly reason why teaching should be ditched. Being told something by someone else is as fundamental a learning principle as learning something for yourself. It is an effect of socialised learning. We learn from each other. Teaching is an ancient and noble profession, and there seems no reason to ditch it now. The scholar’s dilemma is that it is unusual to discover anything unless you know it is there, and this requires guides and mentors. The world we live in is complex and vast and we need a working knowledge of a great deal. Without extensive teaching, it is difficult to see how we could acquire the knowledge we need. I would argue that we need a broad-based liberal education, focusing on critical thinking and problem solving, which gives us a grounding in Mathematics, the Sciences, the Arts and Humanities. At this stage, after a first degree, say, the best approach could well be just-in-time content delivery delivered online. Just because technology can disrupt education doesn’t mean it should. Teachers have been very conservative in their adoption of new technologies, and I think this is a good thing. Education and knowledge are just too important to change willy nilly. We need to be certain that we are not destroying our evolutionary advantage, our ability to think, simply because we can.
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EduTech Africa 2018 – Day 2 of Just-in-time Learning

 

Dr Neelam Parmar

On the second day of the Conference the focus seemed to shift from what schools should be doing, to the nature of learning itself. Dr Maria Calderon took us on a whistlestop tour of what neuroscience has to tell us about learning. Key to understanding this is the surprising role played by emotion in mediating learning experiences. If the amygdala is too excited learning is blocked. Ian Russell then stressed the importance of changing the way learning happens in schools so that it reflects how the world now works and students are better prepared for the world of work. Learning needs to be flexible and delivered just in time. Employers are interested in your skills not your qualifications. The days of students earning a degree and then entering the world of work are gone. Mark Lester amplified this idea by stressing how tertiary learning is increasingly blended and modular. Life-long learning is the new norm.

Dr Neelam Parmar presented us with a model for weaving together technology and pedagogy. Choices around technology and pedagogy are driven by decisions around curriculum and finding a match between schools and the world of work. She left us with an image of the accelerated use of AI in schools: robots in China that monitor student attention and nudge them awake when they fall asleep.

It is in many ways an image which encapsulates the future and its possibilities. Technology can deliver a more personalised, seamless tracking of educational achievement, much of it delivered online. Students of all ages can learn what they need to learn just in time, building their own curriculum. The curriculum can be based on the task, the challenge at hand. And yet there is a danger, a danger that we will lose the ability to discriminate out what it is that is important to learn. The dilemma of self directed study is that you can’t know what you need to learn until you have learned it.

There is a strong movement away from traditional school disciplines, towards problem based learning, and I believe this is a mistake. Knowledge is coherent because it is bounded by a field. If it becomes nothing more than fodder for solving problems we lose something very valuable and that is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Something happens when you do history for its own sake, not just to prepare for a career in politics, for example. Or if you do maths just for engineering. You lose a certain perspective, you lose knowledge itself. Knowledge is not just something you gain to live, it is something, almost tangible that enriches our lives because it throws up surprising perspectives and unleashes powerful forces of change.

The conference this year had a strong sense that the teacher is increasingly irrelevant, and I’m not that convinced that wide awake robots are the best solution. I think the teacher will be with us for quite a while yet!

 

 

EduTech Africa 2018 – Day 1 Just-in-time Teaching


The first day of the Conference started with an impassioned plea from Sameer Rawjee to make schools places where possible futures could be prototyped rather than relying on the reproduction of the present. He envisioned a future world of technology where the role of technology was to make our lives easier and liberate humanity. Schools should be places where this vision of a future where humanity has a place and can thrive is fostered and explored. This set the tone for a conference where coding, robotics and Artificial Intelligence was foregrounded, and where the role of technology was to transform pedagogical practice, empowering flexible, life long learning focusing on the development of skills, attitudes and dispositions in tune with a changing world.

Chris Rodgers spoke next on robotics and the importance of makerspaces in fostering learning and problem solving as a basis for integrating and reorganizing the curriculum. When solving problems, students arrive at a diversity of solutions, and draw on what they need to know, when they need to know it. Teaching becomes just-in time interventions, reflecting the way the world works.

In the break away sessions this theme was amplified. The role of the teacher has to change. Learning needs to become more flexible, and with this change comes the need for relevant knowledge on demand. A move from a push to a pull model, if you like. The classroom of 2030 will have to reflect this out we will have failed or students.

 

The Matrix Game as a Thinking Tool

Matrix Games (developed by Chris Engle) are an excellent classroom tool. A handbook detailing their application in education and other professional settings has recently been published. They represent a flexible and easy to use game mechanism for any role play or simulation setting. In brief, players (either individually or in teams) make arguments about what they wish to do and why this should happen. An umpire then assesses these arguments and evaluates how likely they are to succeed. A die is rolled to simulate luck and the argument either happens or fails to happen. Games can be relatively free-flowing or more structured depending on the context and desired result.

So, for example in a History class in a game simulating the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik player might argue that the First Machine Gun Regiment would lead an assault on the Winter Palace, with the backing and support of the party and that this would succeed because the regiment was well armed and prepared, was militarised and supported the party and because the palace was weakly defended by troops whose loyalty was suspect. The umpire might rule this argument average, giving it a 50% chance of success. The umpire’s reasons for ruling this way might be that although the First Machine Gun Regiment historically did indeed ask the Bolsheviks to take action, the Bolshevik leaders turned down their request to begin the revolution, fearing it was premature. Each player makes arguments which either succeed or fail and the game develops in his way along its own trajectory. In this example it is likely that the players will develop a better understanding of the background and the forces at play in shaping the outcome of the revolution. The Matrix Game is an excellent tool for running simulations in the classroom, but I want to argue that the Matrix Game represents a cognitive tool in its own right and should be added to every teachers’ tool box. The Matrix Game supports two major cognitive processes: thinking and communicating with clarity and precision and listening with empathy and understanding.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity & Precision:

When advancing an argument, players need to think about what they want to happen and the reasons why this action will be successful. This can be scaffolded by providing a matrix of reasons (which is why it is called a matrix game), but usually players use the matrix of the real world or of imaginary worlds to draw on for supporting their arguments. In this way the argument represents the conclusion and the matrix of reasons the premises for any logical argument. The form of the Matrix game thus forces players to think in logical and coherent ways about what they want to argue and why it should work.

Empathy & Understanding:

Players assume different roles and compete against other players to have their perspectives advanced. This necessitates understanding the world from another’s point of view and simulating action from that perspective. I am currently running a game in which different interest groups compete to mine the moon. Each team makes arguments from their own perspective. By setting different victory conditions for each team, the players are scaffolded in framing their actions from a certain point of view. See the graphic on the right.

Because different teams have different criteria for winning they will try to manoeuvre game outcomes in their favour. I like to set Victory Points at 2 or 1 points for different outcomes. A player can claim a win on 2 points, or a partial win on 1 point. They lose if they achieve none of their victory conditions. This encourages players to work with others to reach compromises.

I believe that this mechanism helps students to develop an understanding of different perspectives in ways which encourage a much deeper appreciation of how actions are founded on world view and one’s standpoint.

Setting up a Matrix Game

Matrix Games are easy to set up. All you need is a context and roles for players to simulate. You can set up role play cue cards as depicted for the Mining The Moon game, or allow players to define their own roles. Play normally proceeds in turns during which each player gets a chance to advance an argument, but you can adapt this to suit your needs quite easily. For example, I sometimes let players submit an argument whenever they wish to, but then I make them submit in writing and adjudicate in the order received.

When umpiring arguments it is a good idea to assume average as a starting point and then decide if it is weaker or stronger based on criteria more directly linked to the curriculum. Go with your gut instinct. I always try to reward greater understanding of a context and give reasons why I am ruling something weaker or stronger. Adjudication, of course, is always done in terms of what has succeeded in the game. You cannot have one argument cancel out another. Arguments that support other arguments closely are automatically very strong.

If you try out a Matrix Game in your classroom, please drop a note in the comments. It would be great to hear your experience.

 

 

Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

There is an essential dichotomy in education between knowledge for knowledge sake, and knowledge for other purposes, such as vocation. This division of purpose describes how knowledge in any field is positioned relative to other fields of knowledge. If I am studying Mathematics, for example, am I studying it to further my career as an engineer, or am I learning it for its own sake? This idea conveys a sense of the relative autonomy or heteronomity of knowledge. In the classroom students will often question why they are learning something. Will they really need to know trigonometry in their future lives? Why does the school not recognise their extensive and autonomous knowledge of Pokemon? Why study Shakespeare? Why study Latin?

I have written previously about semantic waves in the classroom. Semantic waves are an idea generated by Legitimation Code Theory – a perspective drawn from the ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, authored by Karl Maton, and describes how ideas range from abstract to concrete (semantic gravity) and from simple to complex (semantic density). Knowledge building depends upon the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity and semantic density. In this article I would like to look at another idea taken from Legitimation Code Theory which I believe has relevance for classroom teachers – the idea of autonomy tours (Maton & Howard, 2018).

I apologize for the highly academic discussion which follows. It is necessary I am afraid. The discussion is somewhat complex, but the idea behind it makes instant sense, I think, to any teacher and speaks directly to how we teach. How do we tie together different types of knowledge students are exposed to or bring into the classroom from outside? We are tasked with teaching a curriculum, but we also know that we need to leverage what students already know, or what they are learning in other subjects, and that we need to prepare our students for using what we are teaching them to solve problems or get ahead in life. But to give students useful cognitive tools we need to give them access to the rigorous and fairly insulated positions within the disciplines we teach. If we teach Maths we need to teach Maths properly, not just as a tool to help kids balance their budgets. We need to teach our subjects for their own values and worth (autonomy) rather than just as slaves to other purposes (heteronomity). But we cannot be blind to other purposes either.

In Legitimation Code Theory the notion of autonomy is expressed as a matrix describing the relative Positional and Relational Autonomy of any constituent (idea, actor, etc). What does this mean?

Positional Autonomy (PA) (the vertical axis) refers to how a constituent is positioned relative to a field. For example if the field is the study of History and you are studying the Russian Revolution, looking at the railway networks in Russia, this constitutes knowledge that has weak PA because it is not strongly related to the discipline of History. Looking at reports of debates inside the Smolny Institute might be considered as having strong PA because it is directly positioned as historical knowledge.

Relational Autonomy (RA), (the horizontal axis) on the other hand refers to how constituents of a field are related to other contexts or fields. This speaks to the question of the aim or purpose. For example, if my aim for looking at railway networks is to further my understanding of how revolutionary ideas were carried across Russia then it has strong RA towards the field, but if it is to do some historical train spotting it has weak RA.

Both PA and RA form a spectrum with gradations, varying from Strong Positional Autonomy (PA+) to Weak Positional Autonomy (PA-) and strong Relational Autonomy (RA+) to weak Relational Autonomy (RA-) as seen in the table above.

Describing these polarities as a matrix allows us to describe four distinct autonomy codes.

The Sovereign Code (PA+, RA+) describes when status is given to strongly insulated positions and purposes. Eg. using Historical knowledge to teach History. This is teaching the curriculum to learn the curriculum.

The Exotic Code (PA-, RA-) describes weakly insulated positions and purposes. Knowledge outside a discipline is used for purposes other than pursuing that discipline. Eg. discussing the rugby in a History class. It has nothing to do with the curriculum and is not being used to illuminate what is being studied in any way. 

The Introjected Code (PA-, RA+) also called the Roman Code describes knowledge from other positions being used for the purpose of pursuing aims within that discipline. Eg. using Geographical knowledge to teach History. Although not directly part of the curriculum, it is being studied to help understand an aspect of that curriculum better.

The Projected Code (PA+, RA-) also called the Trojan Code describes using insulated knowledge for other purposes, Eg. using historical knowledge for another purpose, telling a joke or making a point about modern parallels. Curriculum is being used for another purpose which lies outside the curriculum.

We have had to wade through quite a technical explanation above, but I hope to show now how this speaks to classroom practice. Learning which stays in one code risks never having any relevance to building knowledge. One of the greatest weaknesses in our education system is that students can display knowledge of something they have learned, but never be able to use that knowledge in different contexts, or to see the relevance in one discipline of what they have learned in another. Worst of all it is utterly divorced from their real lives. There is no knowledge building between disciplines and so students are being robbed of the ability to apply their knowledge in different contexts and for different purposes.

An understanding of the autonomy codes, I believe, helps a teacher to understand how they need to shift between the codes to maximise knowledge building practices.  The Sovereign Code represents the target of knowledge, but if students already grasp the concepts then staying in the Sovereign Code represents boredom and monotony, and if they do not understand the concepts then there is little opportunity to grasp them being offered. Staying in one code represents severe limitations on any course of study.

For most students the only field available to help leverage academic knowledge comes from every day knowledge (the exotic code). Teachers who do not range out into other fields to help students understand are missing an opportunity. Most classrooms see frequent journeys into the exotic code as the teacher tries to make material accessible. As a schoolboy in the sixties and seventies much of my education reflected a one way trip out of the sovereign code and into the exotic code. We might have been sitting in a Maths class, but all someone had to do was say, “What did you think of the rugby on Saturday, sir?” and all thoughts of Maths went out the window and the rest of the lesson revolved around poor ball handling and who should be selected to play against the All Blacks! However, trips into the exotic code are vital for anchoring understanding. Teachers often, quite legitimately, use knowledge of unrelated things to help explain an idea or concept they are teaching. Let us say a teacher is teaching a topic around international trade. Because students have little or no knowledge of trade between nations, the teacher might well use an analogy of how kids trade Pokemon cards, and bring that idea back to the context of the lesson. Without this trip into the exotic the concept might never have been understood. The key of course is the ability of the teacher to bring the discussion back to the point of the lesson, rather than getting stuck on the exotic and never returning. A return trip is needed between the codes, bringing the lesson back on point.

Equally, the ability to tie knowledge across different disciplines is crucial to building worthwhile knowledge. Students will often use Mathematical knowledge in a Science class, graphing data, for example. This represents inter-disciplinary knowledge building. Geography often presents knowledge relevant for the study of History, and so on. These return trips run between the Introjected and Sovereign Codes. If students are given a sense of how they might be able to apply the knowledge they are learning in other contexts, then we have journeys between the Sovereign and Projected Codes.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, however, is the notion of an Autonomy Tour, in which the teacher will lead a class from one code, through another or more codes and return to where they began. What is powerful about this is the idea that knowledge is being linked and applied in different contexts and for different purposes. Modelling such a tour teaches students how to build knowledge across different contexts and how to apply what they have learned in new contexts. The idea of the Autonomy Tour offers a powerful way of analysing what goes on in the classroom, but also describes virtuous practice. As classroom teachers it is vital for us to think about how we use our pedagogical approaches to maximise the benefits of knowledge building and plan our lessons to help students make sense of what we are teaching them.

Bibliography

Maton, Karl & Howard, Sarah. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.

 

Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour. Yes. It’s a video game. So . . . yes, it’s also an awesome teaching tool

Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour. Yes. It’s a video game. So . . . yes, it’s also an awesome teaching tool

Glenn Wiebe writes about the value of video games as educational experiences. One day perhaps all educational content will look like this.

History Tech

The video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag came about five years ago. And as an avid fan of Assassin’s Creed, my son and his friends were some of the first in line to purchase it. And play it.

A lot.

If you’re not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed line of video games, they’re basically an action adventure featuring a centuries old struggle between two groups of people – the Assassins, who fight for peace and free will, against the Templars, who believe peace comes through control of humanity. There’s fighting, walking around, some fighting, sneaking around, more fighting, some running, and then some more fighting. Fairly typical video game.

The thing that makes the series a little different than many other action adventure or first person shooter games, is the creators of Assassin’s Creed have been very deliberate about mixing the historical fiction of Assassins vs. Templars with real-world historical events and figures. In Assassin’s Creed III…

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Posted by on June 1, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.

 
 
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