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Global Collaboration as Revolution

Every morning at UNIS we read the morning announcements to my homeroom of 23 grade eight students.  Today there were no announcements, so I decided to use the time to get feedback from the students about one of our current tech initiatives.  This year we decided to give the staff at UNIS a choice about whether to receive a Fujitsu Tablet PC or a MacBook Pro. The staff split almost exactly evenly, and we were hoping to give students a choice of platform for next year.  I was curious about which platform the students would choose and why.

Like the teachers, the students split about evenly between PC and Mac. They gave reasons like “I’m more familiar with a PC”, and “Mac’s are just cool”.  I also asked the students about how they felt about opening up the school wifi to their own smartphones and personal devices.  One of the students said that she didn’t want that to happen because it would mean that students would just be staring at their phones all day long.  Another student pointed out that they already are staring at their phones, but at least the wifi would be faster than 3G.  A third voice chimed in that students were using the cameras and such on their phones for classwork, but they were hampered by lack of connectivity.

I brought this discussion to the Tech Director at UNIS, Ed Gilbreath.  Ed and I readily agreed that we should work harder to include all the grade 4-12 students in our decision making regarding 1:1 since the students are the ones most directly impacted.  Our conversation broadened, though, to look at BYOD in general, student voice and empowerment, and top-down versus bottom-up leadership and decision making. There always seems to be a contradiction when we tell students to be critical thinkers, problems solvers, leaders, and to take a stand on issues that matter to them, but then we set up schools so that virtually every important decision is left to teachers and administrators.

Falling Skyward

This tension between top-down and bottom-up is at the heart of the information revolution, innovative education, and global collaboration.  It is at the heart of Understanding by Design and inquiry based education, the New Bloom’s Taxonomy with its focus on student Creation to demonstrate learning, and Cathy Davidson’s pioneering work at Duke University in showing the power of learning that is truly student centered. Global collaboration isn’t simply about two French classes exchanging photos and videos; it is one element in a shifting balance of power that affects schools, communities and countries.

The difficulty is that it can be hard to implement bottom-up practices even when, ideologically, we want to.  This is why so many PD presentations on inquiry and collaboration still take the form of a lecture/slideshow.  It’s why many teachers still ban use of Wikipedia rather than embrace it as a learning tool.  It’s why we’ve been talking for months about giving students choice of device at UNIS but we haven’t even begun to systematically uncover what students actually want.

My previous school, Harmony, placed a huge emphasis on student voice and empowerment.  We had a Student Selection Committee where kids could help decide who was accepted to the school; we had a Student Advisory Committee where students helped decide consequences when discipline problems occurred; and every meeting was led by a student who was selected the previous week by his or her peers.  Yet even in an environment like this we still felt ourselves slip time and again into the trap of trying to lead, rather than collaborate with, our students.

Underneath it all seems to be some type of fear on the part of the adults, though it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re afraid of.  Are we afraid of not being in control?  Is it a fear of being unnecessary or irrelevant to the process of education? Are we, as Dan Meyer suggests, trying to ‘help too much’, perhaps because we like feeling needed?  Or is it more simple: since most of us never experienced school in this sort of way is it a fear of the unknown?


Back in 2005, Marc Prensky wrote in Edutopia that the main barrier to achieving this ‘edutopia’ was the hardware obstacle of getting to 1-1 computing.  In Clint Hamada’s presentation at Learning 2.0 in Bangkok, he talked about a new 2:1 initiative at Yokohama International School in which the 7th grade students were getting both MacBook Pros and iPad minis. Clearly, at both YIS and at other 1:1 schools, the edutopia that Prensky dreamed of didn’t materialize when the 1:1 ratio was met.

In my own school, at UNIS Hanoi, I regularly hear teachers talk about how they aren’t able to get enough training on new technologies that get rolled out.  Today, when we talked about some of the new developments and future of education, one recurring theme was that the DP curriculum of the IB restricted our ability to try out new ideas.

As many schools that have gone 1:1 have found out, technology alone does not do very much.  Even schools that invest time into training workshops for the teachers often underestimate how many hours of training teachers will need for it to make a difference to their students (According to research from Stanford University, stand-alone or fragmented workshops lasting 14 hours or fewer have no statistical effect on student learning.

In order to teach and learn ‘new things in new ways’ we need to make advances in imagination. Marc Prensky’s concept of Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives is important here, because it requires a leap of imagination to try to design new lessons, classrooms, and schools for our current students, Digital Natives. This is the heart of what Prensky’s discussion of teaching and learning ‘New Things in New Ways.’

Imagination is also the essence of Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model of tech integration.  As SAMR makes quite clear, it is easy to fall in the trap of doing the same tasks with new devices (a.k.a. Substitution).  The difficulty in creating lessons at the Redefinition level is usually not a struggle to find the appropriate hardware, or to learn new software; it is a most often a failure to see the learning potential inherent within a new tool or technology.

Part of this ‘failure to see’ comes from information overload.  It seems like there are so many new devices and apps appearing every day, and so many updates to old devices, that often we find the need to shut out anything unfamiliar.  At times this can be strategic, for it allows us to process what we already know and begin to master it more completely.  Other times it can make us retreat back to the familiar.

I don’t think that the answer is that we all need to speed up our rate of change with regards to tech.  I think we need to embrace change but do so thoughtfully and strategically, so we are able to concentrate our focus on the technologies, the training, pedagogy, and the learning environment that will further teaching and learning most efficiently.  As Prensky points out, this change does not come overnight. In that same article in 2005 he wrote: “So, let’s not just adopt technology into our schools. Let’s adapt it, push it, pull it, iterate with it, experiment with it, test it, and redo it, until we reach the point where we and our kids truly feel we’ve done our very best. Then, let’s push it and pull it some more.”

Tangle by Pendlestock

How is teaching and learning changing with the introduction of new tools? Teaching and learning are changing, but not in a direct, causal fashion.  New tools are stimulating new teaching techniques, which address new pedagogical areas, which creates new learning issues, which stimulates the need for new tools.  New tools, primarily hardware and software, are just one part of a technological/educational landscape that contains numerous variable in complex relationships. Teasing apart this relationship is a major challenge for educational researchers today and in years to come; presumably this challenge will also build a market for some new tools.

Authentic Technology

Last weekend I was fortunate to attend and present at Learning 2.014 in Bangkok, Thailand. In his closing session, Jeff Utecht talked about how some teachers have been pushing the envelope of technology since the 1800s and before. He talked about how teachers pushed for the adoption of slates instead of the abacus, of pencils and paper, of calculators, and of computers. It makes me wonder if teachers back then ever discussed the nuances of using or ‘embedding’ those non-digital technologies. It certainly seems possible, but somehow the conversation today seems more focused on the tools than on what the tools allow teachers and students to do.

If anything can be said to be the heart of effective, practical, and authentic education it must be this: that these tools allowed teachers and students to tackle problems in new, more effective ways. If the tools were not effective, then they would never have been adopted whole-scale like they were. When a teacher learns about a new method, tool, or technique, there is only one question taken into consideration: will this work for me?

When teachers are reluctant to adopt new technologies, it is often because they are skeptical that it will actually work more effectively in their situation. Sometimes I feel frustrated with technology advocates who call these people ‘laggards’. I would not consider myself a laggard, and yet I often skip over new OS deployments from Windows or Apple because I don’t see much functional improvement, migrating can be a hassle when old tools stop working, and I recognize that constant platform change is more in the interest of companies than users.

We teachers are for the most part practical people. We are suspicious of technology that takes hours to set up and will be used once. We want things that will help us do what we do more easily, or else something that can help us take our lessons to the next level. We know that technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not harder. Yet we also recognize the fact that all new tools and techniques have a learning curve and take some time to get up to speed. We eventually switched from tying our shoes with two loops to using just one, but only after we became convinced that the one-loop method was actually faster in the long run.

Teachers and students are problem-solvers, and we recognize that good tools are the ones that help us solve those problems. Sometimes we are our own problems, and we are trying to improve our teaching practice, or learn enough to succeed in a particular subject area. Once in a while, we are also able to solve other peoples problems while working on our own. This is where the use of technology in classrooms becomes truly ‘authentic’. This is where advances in educational technology become truly exciting; they allow students to encounter and tackle problems that would have seemed like science fiction 30 years ago.

At Learning 2.014 last weekend I presented 21st Century Problems and Authentic Learning. When some people think of 21st century problems, they think of global climate change, terrorist threats, overpopulation, global epidemics, etc. When I think of problems today, I think of all the ways that the playing field is leveling, that the world is getting ‘flatter’. Where some people like to think about how technology has focused attention on 21st Century Skills, I am much more interested in the real problems out in the world that, thanks to modern technology, we can all collaborate on together.

Google Script – Edit Form Submission

Just finished another Google Script and I wanted to share it with you all.  There is an option when setting up a Google Form so that the submitter can go back and edit the responses.  However, if the submitter does not bookmark the URL immediately, it’s impossible to go back later and find it.

This script solves that problem by doing two things: First, it adds the link to the re-edit URL on the spreadsheet itself so that whoever is managing the sheet can have a record of it.  Second, it automatically emails the link back to the person submitting the form.

I’ve pasted the code below so you can copy directly from this post.  To use the script, set up a Form and a Response sheet using Google Drive.  Then go to the Response sheet and click Tools > Script Editor. Create a new Spreadsheet Script and delete all of the code that appears.  Paste the code below into that window.  Finally, set up an automatic trigger as described in the comments at the top of the code.  If you have any questions, send me an email and I’ll try to help!

/* Script created on 27 Sept 2014 by Paul Swanson (@teachertechpaul)

 The purpose of this script is to record the re-edit URL of a form submission and also
 to email that link back to the person who filled out the form. To use this script, you
 need to do a couple of things:
 1 - Edit the 'COLUMN_NUMBER_OF_EMAIL' variable to match the column on your response sheet
 that contains the email address of the submitter
 2 - Edit the emailSubject and emailBody variables to match your needs
 3 - Click Resources, Current Project Triggers. Click the link:
 'No triggers set up. Click here to add one now.'
 Set your trigger with the following properties:
 - Run: 'editFormSubmission'
 - Events: 'From spreadsheet' and 'On form submit'
 That's it! If you like this script, email me at paul@teacherpaul.org


function editFormSubmission(e) {
 var ss = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSpreadsheet();
 var sheet = ss.getSheetByName('Form Responses 1');
 /* This section gets the Edit URL of the most recent submission so that it can
 be sent via email back to the user. It also matches the time stamp of the form
 reponse with that of the spreadsheet to insert the Edit Url in the sheet itself.
 var formUrl = ss.getFormUrl();
 var form = FormApp.openByUrl(formUrl);
 var formResponses = form.getResponses();
 var lastResponse = formResponses[formResponses.length - 1];
 var formEditUrl = lastResponse.getEditResponseUrl();
 var formEditCell = '=HYPERLINK("' + formEditUrl + '","Edit Link")';
 var timeStamp = lastResponse.getTimestamp().valueOf();
 var editUrlCol = getEditUrlCol(sheet, "Form Edit URL");
 for (var row=1; row <= sheet.getLastRow(); row++) {
 var testTimeCell = sheet.getRange(row, 1).getValue().valueOf();
 if (timeStamp == testTimeCell) {
 sheet.getRange(row, editUrlCol).setValue(formEditCell);
 var emailAddress = sheet.getRange(sheet.getLastRow(), [COLUMN_NUMBER_OF_EMAIL]).getValue();
 var emailSubject = "Link to Re-Edit your Submission";
 var emailBody = "Thank you for your submission! If you would like to continue editing it, please click the link below." +
 String.fromCharCode(10) + String.fromCharCode(10) + formEditUrl;
 Logger.log("Send email to " + emailAddress + " with subject: " + emailSubject); 
 Logger.log("Email body: " + emailBody);
 MailApp.sendEmail(emailAddress, emailSubject, emailBody);

function getEditUrlCol(sheet, headerStr){
 for (var col=1; col<= sheet.getLastColumn(); col++) {
 if (sheet.getRange(1, col).getValue() == headerStr) {
 return col;
 // If this section runs, it means header is not established
 sheet.getRange(1, sheet.getLastColumn() + 1).setValue("Form Edit URL");
 return (sheet.getLastColumn());

Student motivation in a digital world

One of the most fundamental questions for teachers is: how do we help students become motivated?

My own thoughts on this question have reflected the transition from being a high school classroom teacher at a small, independent school called Harmony School, to being a Tech Coordinator at a large, high-power international school like UNIS.  When I was at Harmony, I and the other staff members tended to look for solutions to this problem in student choice, close teacher-student relationships, and self-directed learning experiences like Senior Projects.

Even at a small school like Harmony technology played a vital role, and that role is even more significant at UNIS.  The increasing prevalence of technology, along with the increased access at my new school, has led me to turn to technology to address the issue of student engagement in a way that is new for me.

I learned about the New Blooms Taxonomy last year, and the part of it that struck me the most was the shift to Creating as the highest level of education.  Back when Bloom was doing his research, I suspect that the main form of content creation on the part of students was writing papers.  This is still the basis for most assessment across the subject areas, but now it has exploded across boundaries into a multitude of new areas (websites, videos, slideshows, videogames, animations, screencasts, and others).

As I blogged about last week, one of the most significant consequences of the modern digital world is the availability of high quality tools to create original content.  This is the heart of the New Bloom’s Taxonomy, and it is also at the heart of the Digital Youth Project and their research on Hanging out, Messing Around, and Geeking out.  In the case of the Digital Youth Project, however, there is also a strong focus on the social dimension to this sort of behavior. In today’s world the face-to-face and digital relationships that people have are increasingly interwoven, necessitating a re-examination of the social implications of learning that is both face-to-face and digital.

The Digital Youth Project begins to do this in their white paper summary.  To summarize, they describe Hanging Out as a predominantly social process that extends physical relationships into a digital realm; they talk about Messing Around as a sort of tinkering in which kids pursue their own interests and passions by leveraging search tools, online information, and a virtual community that can help answer questions and move them forward; and they talk about Geeking Out as a highly focused and sustained effort on the part of an individual to learn about a specialized field, collaborate with other experts in that field, and possibly even turn that passion into a source of income.

Bringing these ideas back to UNIS is not a straightforward task, however.  There are many parents and teachers who are concerned, with some justification, about the amount of ‘screen-time’ a kid experiences in a day or a week.  Others voice concerns about kids who use the somewhat socially safer environment of a virtual world to avoid potentially difficult encounters in the real world.  If kids main experience is with the virtual social world, how are they to cope in the face-to-face world?  However, the opposite can be said as well, and many kids who have little experience in online etiquette often make glaring mistakes when first in these online environments.

Here are some of my conclusions:

  • There is a tremendous potential for harnessing the power of play in education, and since so many kids are playing with games, video, animation, etc, these are great avenues for kids to use their talents and interests to learn in and out of school
  • As adults, we need to be very careful that we don’t assume that what worked for us will work for kids today.  Their environment in different from the ones that we grew up in, and their ideas of balance and choice will probably look different from ours.
  • We need to look for ways to create more informal learning spaces; places where the reward for coming up with a great idea is not a grade or a gold star but rather the approval and respect of one’s community.  We must help kids find intrinsic meaning to their studies and learning so they take ownership of it, and so that they engage with it to a level that they can know the thrill of creating, collaborating, and problem-solving.


Collaborative Notes and SAMR

On Tuesday my friend Jeff Wrensen posted on his blog about collaborative note-taking:

I was taught how to take notes and jot down important thoughts on paper. In a recent discussion at school, I was told that the students don’t need their laptops to take notes, they can just use paper. My argument was not that typing notes was better, studies show that it is not (both links grabbed from Mike Boll on his G+ feed – PLN in action).

My argument was that the notion of taking notes needed to change. We are connected, as all of the articles we read reiterate, we are creating and recreating real life connections online and making new ‘geeked out’ communities possible.

I’ve been teaching note taking in my ESL classes as a group activity. Their notes look nothing like mine, they are shared Google Docs where everyones’ bullet points, details and big ideas are shared one one page.

It wasn’t that the laptop was replacing handwritten notes. It was that they are in a forced community – the same social studies, language arts and ESL class – and I was hopefully teaching them how to use that community and try to maximize its effectiveness.

His example of changing values on note-taking struck a chord with me. Here is a topic so basic that we ask all of our students to do it every day, yet oftentimes the people teaching it (if there is anyone) are simply repeating the same techniques that originated with pencil and paper technology.

When I was at ISTE in Atlanta last summer, Ruben Puentedura (of SAMR fame) actually used note taking as an example as he went through the SAMR steps. He began at the Substitution level with simple Word document style notes. At the Augmentation stage he talked about students taking notes collaboratively with tools like Google Docs. At the Modification level he proposed the idea of students tweeting their notes with a common hashtag or hashtags that would connect them with a wider world community and also share their notes with the world. Finally, at the redefinition level he shows some sort of hashtag mapping that showed where different people around the world were trending different hashtags related to a topic so you could culturally contextualize them. To be honest, the end was a bit over my head.

Two things struck me about his talk. The first was the power of collaboration and innovation. Most of the greatest advances over the past decades have been the products of powerful collaborations, and yet our schooling, testing, and paper model still focuses on individual work. I work at an IB school, and none of their actual exams or papers are collaborative. Although the momentum is towards a more collaborative environment, there is a great deal of inertia against it.

The second thing that struck me was that Puentedura’s ideas, while thought-provoking, seemed incredibly impractical. While looking at the global trending nature of a hashtag might be an interesting project, I would love to see some research that shows that this sort of ‘redefinition’ actually deepens student learning (about notetaking in this case). I remember when I was in grad school and I designed some lessons on paper that looked innovative, engaging, and pushing the envelope, but most of them I never was able to actually use. Most of the time teaching feeling like you are running a race, or putting out fires.

This is not to say that we should not strive to be innovate, engaging, and to push the envelope. In fact, that’s what my job right now is all about. However, I think it’s wise not to let our own agendas get in the way of doing what’s best for the kids. We have to be innovative and engaging while also meeting the kids (and teachers) where they are, then challenging them to take it to the next level. I’m guessing Puentedura would agree with that as well – hopefully I’ll have the chance to ask him when he comes to 21st Century Learning in Hong Kong in Dec. :)

Internet Fundamentals

What fundamental principle is the Internet built on? Is the Internet a mass of content or a mass of connections?

The other day I was talking to a friend about how hundreds of years ago the problem was the inavailability of information.  Books were precious items that contained the secrets of religions and governments, and oral news was available only when a traveler came to town with stories of distant events.

Over the past centuries, the amount of available information has been growing at an exponential rate and the problem has not become scarcity of knowledge, but rather organization and application of knowledge.  The internet is simply one of the more recent developments along this trajectory, but presumably in the centuries to come the internet too will be surpassed by new tools.

The internet is not built on a single fundamental principle any more than books are.  However, the internet is an important development in the democratization of knowledge, communication, cultural production, and more.  With the increasing ease that people can share and communicate, a new set of problems has arisen:

1 – Everyone Shouting, No One Listening

In the early days of the internet, people seemed to operate under the Field of Dreams principle, that “If you build it, they will come.”  People would upload videos to YouTube, post blog entries, and create websites with the assumption that others would magically find it and pay attention.  We still see this today in schools all the time: teachers post student videos to YouTube, and students upload blog entries, intending to reach a ‘global audience’ but in fact probably receiving fewer views than if they had just presented it to their class.

The fundamental problem is that there is more information, more entertainment, and more content than anyone could possibly absorb, so we all find ways to filter out some content and pay attention to other.  One of the most valuable commodities in the modern world is people’s attention, so finding ways of attracting and holding that attention is part of 21st century problem solving.  This is as true for HBO and Hollywood as it is for all the YouTubers who try to reach 1000 views.

2 – Freedom of Information

Another problem that has escalated dramatically with internet access, particularly high-speed access, is ownership of knowledge. Both patent law and copyright law are struggling today to find a model that makes sense within a rapidly shifting world.  The heart of the problem is that the cost ratio between creating content and distributing it has radically shifted.  In the days of oral narratives and storytelling, every performance was a unique, the time involved in reproducing it was equal to the cost of creating it in the first place.  When books were all hand-written, the cost of transcribing a new copy was enormous.

Now, with digital technologies able to reproduce books, music, video at virtually no cost, the rules have all changed.  In addition, nearly all productions are part of collaborative projects with fuzzy borders and uncertain authorship.  This global collaboration has been helped us solve previously impossible problems, but it has also brought into question the whole global economic model.

Rather than relying on selling actual things, many companies (eg. Google) are simply selling advertising and audience.  And yet for every advertising tool created, there are also tools built to block or disable them, from AddBlock+ to TiVo.  Most people acknowledge that if companies didn’t make any money, they would go out of business, and yet many today act as if anything that can be distributed for free should be.

The internet is not simply a mass of content, nor is it a simply mass of connections.  The connections between people have generated unprecedented amounts of information, and that information has in turn attracted, entertained, enlightened, and dumbed-down new people.  Like most phenomena that involve large numbers of people, the causes and principles underlying it are as complex as the people themselves.


Innovative Education

“Students are not problems that need to be solved; they are people who can develop solutions to problems.”

I’ve been turning these ideas over in my head for months, but when this sentence popped into my head I felt like it summed up much of my thinking and also provided a litmus test for “innovative education”.  For the most part, the public school education that I grew up with treated me, and my classmates, as problems to be solved.  We needed to get into colleges. We needed to learn to write papers. We needed to learn the scientific method. We needed to learn a countless number of skills, acquire heaps of knowledge, and accumulate countless credentials that would then allow us to be successful.

The classics tasks to train students for all this included tests, quizzes, worksheets, papers, presentations, and the like. By and large, the only purpose of any of these assessments was to show that we had gained those particular skills.  At its best, the tasks were similar enough to approximate real work that eventually we could make that transition.  At worst, the tasks didn’t even impart lasting skills or knowledge and ended up being simply busy-work.

Imagine a young child who wants to help his parent cook dinner.  Imagine if that child was told that cooking involved chopping vegetables, so in order to prepare for that task he can practice cutting a wooden block.  This scenario is ridiculous, and yet teachers often assign tasks to students that have no purpose other than a supposed benefit to the student from doing the task.

To give an example, as a teacher I often asked students to write reports on particular subjects. We would talk about why it was important for the students to do their own research, paraphrasing, and not to plagiarize others. What we wouldn’t talk about was why this needed to be done at all. In almost every case, a report on the students’ subjects already existed, even if only on Wikipedia. We all knew this, but still insisted that students write new reports themselves.

Innovative education is about making learning relevant to kids by helping them identify and solve authentic problems. This does not necessarily mean ‘real-world’ problems; it means problems that matter to the kids. There may be problems that the teacher cares about but the students find uninteresting – these are not authentic in that context. In contrast, there are problems that may be fictional or matter only to one particular child, but because that kids cares about it the problem becomes meaningful and authentic.