Realities of the Digital Age for Educators

What does effective leadership mean in the Digital Age? As administrators create modern digital learning environments, it is important to keep in mind what we mean by “Digital Learning”. Transitioning from print textbooks to dynamic digital resources has profound implications for education leadership. View this engaging webinar, led by Discovery Education’s Senior Director of Global Learning Initiatives Hall Davidson…

…and hosted by yours truly!

via TICAL – Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership.


Vialogues is an interesting Web 2.0 tool created at Teachers College. Basically, you watch a video and enter comments as you watch. Your comments and those of other watchers show up on the right side of the screen, time-stamped according to the point in the video when the comment was posted. The comments stream is a bit like a backchannel except comments can be added at any time, not just in real time. Whenever a person enters a comment, even days apart, the comment is placed in the stream according to its time in the video, not it’s actual posting time.Diagram of Vialogues

You don’t need any special skills to get started with Vialogues because you can simply use a video from YouTube or Vimeo as the basis for inviting comments. As for resources, obviously you need a computer with audio and video in order to interact (no app for this yet!) if you want to restrict who gets to participate, you have to enter email addresses of the people you want to invite.

The unique advantage of this tool is time-stamping comments, so it’s going to be useful in teaching or training when that’s helpful. In a film-making class, you might have students comment on each other’s projects. A coach might use film of a game and have players watch and comment on what’s happening. In a political science class, students might watch a politician’s speech and comment with questions, observations, identify rhetorical devices, etc.

There are some drawbacks, however. The most serious is that as far as I could tell, the time-stamping feature is not intuitive, at least not to me. My “test” Vialogue was “What really makes you happy?” I noticed that all but the last couple comments were stamped 00:00. I started to watch the video and tried entering my own comments. Even though I did not comment until a minute or so into the movie, my comment got time stamped 00:00. It took quite a bit of trial and error before I figured out how I could make sure my comment was time-stamped accurately, and if I wanted to pause the video while I composed my comment, I had to start the comment, then press pause. I made a short video to show you what I mean.

The other major drawback is that you can only use YouTube or Vimeo videos unless you upload your own. For example, I wanted to use a Ted Talk and have students in my class try out Vialogues, but no can do. So if you want to go beyond YouTube and Vimeo you need to either create your own video or download the video you want from somewhere else and then upload it to Vialogues—and before you do that make sure you have the legal right to do so! Also, it will be difficult to use this in a learning management system, so if you plan to “grade” the comments or even keep track of who commented and who did not, that’s going to require extra work on the instructor’s part.

359 Connections and Counting

I’ve been a member of LinkedIn for a number of years.  When friends who don’t use the site learn that I do, they often appear puzzled and ask, “Why?’

Good question.  I sometimes wonder about that myself, especially when I’m reviewing my credit card statement at the end of each month and see the $19.95 fee I pay for an upgraded account.  What do I get out of it?  Does it help my personal learning?  Facilitate communication?  Strengthen my attachment to a professional community?  Actually, I think so!

Should you, dear reader, be unfamiliar with LinkedIn, it is what is called a professional, as opposed to a social, online community.   It serves as a huge, 24-7 networking event.  When you join, you create a resume-like profile and let the world know what you’re generally interested in—making new contacts, renewing old acquaintances, consulting, finding a new job, and the like.

Screenshot of my LinkedIn profile with overlay of typical "You might know" suggestions.

A basic activity on LinkedIn is to make “connections.”  As in Facebook and marriage, people become connected only by mutual consent.  When I first joined, most members worked in high tech, sales, or marketing fields.   Over the years, though, the breadth of occupations represented as grown remarkably, and I’ve built up a stable of over 350 connections.  These range from fellow educators to lawyers, business managers, and artists.  Each of these people is someone I’ve worked with somehow, somewhere, or been introduced to by a friend or colleague we have in common.  Occasionally I scan through my connections and, like looking up at the face of Heavenly Valley after you’ve skiied your way down to the base, it’s a rather satisfying and reassuring experience.

While I have not called upon this network often, when I have it has been very useful.  Let me give you a recent example.  I was doing informal research for an article on, “How, in a school setting, can you get the most value out of the technology you already have.”  LinkedIn makes it very easy to communicate with ad hoc groups of your connections.  I selected 50 and sent them a brief message that asked for an “off-the-top-of-the-head” answer to that question.  Within 24 hours I received replies from nearly everyone from which I garnered all sorts of good ideas that served as the foundation for my article.

Periodic “updates” are another LinkedIn feature I find useful.  These come to your mailbox on a schedule you choose.  Like a beneficent tattler, they offer little tidbits on what your connections are up to.  This one just got a new job.  That one published a book or article.  Another one is off to consult in Singapore.  This offers a great opportunity for serendipitous discovery.  I will often find someone doing something that’s either relevant to a current project or gives me an idea for a new one.

Despite its usefulness, LinkedIn can be a distraction and an annoyance.  Updates on my connections’ activities land in my mailbox and I read them, even if at that moment it’s the last way I should be spending my time.  Or I log in with the sole purpose of making a 5-minute update to my profile; the next thing I know I’ve spent 20 minutes perusing lists of “suggested connections” LinkedIn so thoughtfully provides.  And annoying?  I hate it when I get an “I’d like to add you to my LinkedIn connections” message from someone I’ve never heard of, only vaguely remember,  or whom I do know and with whom I’d prefer not to be associated.   Even though it is superbly easy to decline (just a simple click; no explanation needed), I can’t bring myself to do that.  So I struggle to come up with some face-saving response or, worse, just leave the request unanswered in my queue where it gives me twinges of guilt every time I see it.

Reflecting on my experience with LinkedIn leads me to think more generally about how the Internet has impacted my personal learning as well as that of my adult students.  For me, it’s my own personal, instant, world-wide library.  It provides easy, deliberate access to peers, friends, and colleagues.  It enables serendipitous discovery by providing a continuous information flow.  The Internet also distracts me, enables if not encourages procrastination, and deters if not disables deep thinking.

I suspect that the adults I teach experience similar effects.  However, testing that hunch will be an important first step in working with any new group of students.  Such a test would include some simple survey questions as well as class discussion designed to draw out the various ways people structure their time on the Internet to enhance its usefulness, overcome distractions and other drawbacks, and cope with the negative aspects beyond their control.  From such a discussion could emerge a very useful list of suggested components for a personal online learning space and guidelines for constructing and using it.

So you’re going to teach online?

You’re an experienced teacher with years in the classroom under your belt.  You know kids.  You know schools.   You know your subject and how to teach it.  But now, for whatever reason, you’re going to teach online.  That raises at least two big questions.

How might your instructional methodologies need to change?

I can’t speak for you, obviously, but I can reflect on how my own methods might transfer online, or not.  My first inclination is to say that almost everything I’ve learned over the years will serve me well online.  In an earlier post, New Lease on Life for Old Innovations?, I talked about many of the concepts and approaches to teaching I learned many years ago or picked up along the way, all of which were considered to be “innovations” or “reforms”  at the time—and many of which still seem to be considered so today.  Ideas like individualizing instruction, project-based learning, mastery learning, Socratic dialogues, outcomes-based education, multi-age classrooms and non-graded schools all have their parallels in the current online learning literature.  These are all approaches I’ve built into my teaching over the years and which I think would stand me in good stead in an online classroom.

When I think about what I would need to change, what comes to mind are some of my habits, rather than my approaches.  I love to build learning experiences along with the students.  I like to get them involved in planning what we are going to do.  I  enjoy spontaneity and seizing the serendipitous.  From my recent reading about online teaching, it appears these habits I’ll need to dampen, if not abandon as online teaching seems to require that a course is fully and completely “packaged” before it starts.

What skills and strategies might you improve or expand upon in order to best support student learning in a blended or online environment?

Here I definitely can come up with a To Learn list.  Thanks to an elective typing class I took in 8th grade, I am a typing whiz.  I may not be able to make a free throw or bat .500 but I sure can burn up a keyboard.  I’m online all the time and totally comfortable communicating in writing.  The area where I’d like to learn more is in creating multimedia.  In particular, I want to become more skillful at editing audio and video files.  Also, I’d like to become a better photographer.  For that, I need to learn more about both the technical aspects as well as how to frame and compose a photo.  If I take 100 pictures, I’m lucky to get one good photograph; the rest are snapshots at best.  Acquiring such skills would enable me to create more effective learning resources to support any courses I might teach.  And heck, they’d be useful in my personal life as well.

Online or Off, Is Good Teaching Good Teaching?

Too often, my right arm suffers from DSD—Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.  Involuntarily, it just goes flying up into the air.  Fortunately, it takes not the form of a Nazi salute.  Instead, it eagerly volunteers, “I will.  I will.”  The next thing I know, I’ve accepted yet another assignment or job and my task list grows like Pinocchio’s nose.

Signing up for Leading Edge Certification is a recent example.  According to its web site, Leading Edge Certification is a “national alliance of nonprofits, universities and educational agencies that provides educators a demonstrable way to show they understand how technology changes teaching and learning.”  I signed up for several reasons.

  •  TICAL is a member of the Leading Edge Alliance; I continue to work closely with TICAL.
  • The Alliance is developing a certification path for school administrators; I’d enjoy coaching them along that path.
  • I love teaching and I’m fascinated by—and sometimes skeptical of—online, virtual approaches to teaching.
  • I love learning new things and staying abreast in my field.
  • Seems like it would be fun.

This past Wednesday, my cohort had its initial and, I understand, only face-to-face meeting.  We spent the day with expert online instructors who provided both an overview of the course content and practical tips based on their personal experience doing what we’ll be learning to do: deliver online education, and training others to do so.  I had not really known what to expect; I just signed up “on faith.”  Now that I see what I’ve gotten myself into, I’m both excited and a bit anxious.  The curriculum, activities, and resources look fantastic.  Where I’m going to carve out the time to actually do what’s required is another matter.  I suspect faith will be the operative word here as well.

One of the things we did on Wednesday was to take a couple of self-assessment questionnaires that purport to rate our readiness to be online learners and online teachers.  I did OK on both, but not great.  My downfall was in the areas of self-discipline and habits of timeliness.   The assessments assume that a person who self-reports as getting distracted, having trouble juggling multiple demands, and inconsistent about meeting timelines will not do well as an online learner or instructor.  On the surface, that seems to make sense.  On the other hand, in my case, I’ve found that when I have firm, non-negotiable deadlines, I meet them.  My tendencies to procrastinate or to let myself get sidetracked are best checked by knowing that if I’m late for the flight, it’s gonna take off without me.  So for this sloth-like fly, the way this course is structured with “adaptive release” of the assignments and clear, no-nonsense deadlines may be a recipe for success.

What’s my highest priority at this point?  I really want to learn how people experienced as online instructors contrast online teaching with teaching in a traditional, face-to-face classroom.  I believe that “good teaching is good teaching,” but I also know that you always have to adapt your teaching methods not only to your students but to the context and environment in which you are teaching.   Like any teaching situation, the online environment poses its own challenges.  How do you read body language when you can’t see the bodies?  How do you give a virtual pat on the back?  How do you deliver the “gimlet eye?”  As an eager, idealistic online instructor, how do you avoid “online teacher burnout?”  I’m going to be on the lookout for skills, strategies, and tools that can help answer those questions.

New Lease on Life for Old Innovations?

Are you a fan of online learning?  Or, more generally, what is now being called “digital learning?”  Many schools and districts are jumping on this bandwagon, and those who believe the solution to our educational problems lies in the marketplace say online learning is the disruptive innovation that will trigger sea change in how we go about schooling kids.

Recently, as I read a policy brief on the topic from the Innosight Institute, it struck me that so many of the concepts and positive features associated with “digital learning” are not at all new.  In 1970, at UCLA’s lab school, teaching interns learned to “individualize learning.”  That meant pre-testing students and tailoring learning activities to reflect what students already knew.  We used a variety of “programmed” materials for independent work.  We grouped students with shared needs.  We re-assessed progress frequently and regrouped students as needed.

At the lab school we were also taught to “personalize” learning, though we did not call it that then.  We were told to make instruction “meaningful” to the students.  In practice, this meant getting to know your students well and then designing learning activities that would appeal to their interests and make sense to them.  We were also taught to vary the amount of pressure we put on individual students; the theory was that some students needed more prodding and structure while others might wilt or withdraw if pushed too hard.

My first teaching job was at a non-graded elementary school.  Instead of the usual first grade, second grade, etc., we had three school divisions: early elementary, middle elementary, and upper elementary.  A typical student might spend three years in early elementary (including a kindergarten year), two years in the middle level, and two years in the upper level.  However, we had the option of moving students earlier or later without having to make a decision to hold back or skip a student until what would have been 5th or 6th grade—a point at which you had a lot more information about a student then you would have when making a repeat-kindergarten or repeat- first-grade sort of decision.

In the 1980’s, the district in which I worked launched a new initiative in outcomes based education.   Of course that quickly became referred to as OBE.  The district hired William Spady, the “father of OBE,” to come and indoctrinate us all in the concepts and practices of OBE.  The gist of his message was that schools should focus on what students will face after graduation, and then “design down” from the outcomes for all other aspects of educational delivery.  He presaged the idea of learning as “the constant” and time “as the variable” with his emphasis on “expanded opportunity and instructional support.”

It was also during the 80’s that I was introduced to competency-based learning systems in the form of criterion-referenced assessment.   Define what students needed to know and/or be able to do in order to demonstrate mastery.  Then test them.  They either met the bar or did not.  If they did not, give them time and opportunity to learn some more and test again.  William Glasser’s approach in Schools Without Failure depended on such assessments.

In their time, each of these practices—individualized instruction, non-graded schools, outcomes-based education, criterion-referenced  assessment—were considered “innovations.”  I guess they were never disruptive, though.  Certainly, they did not spread and become the norm.  Perhaps digital technology will give them a new lease on life.