A view from the front of the class: METC14

Gateway Arch, St. LouisTonight, I’m wrapping up a very busy and successful week in St. Louis at the Midwest Education Technology Conference. (#METC14) It’s a huge event, with multiple presentation streams, a huge tradeshow floor, and thousands of attendees. I travelled all the way from Vancouver, BC Canada to deliver my presentation on social media, and also to learn from fellow educators on many of the topics that concern us as connected teachers. Technology moves at a faster and faster rate, and in the world of education, we are seeing the effects first hand. Our students have a world at their fingertips – literally, and teachers are rising to the challenge of how best to deliver a thoughtful and inspiring education to a new generation of learners.

If there was an overarching theme to the event it was that technology should not be used for technology’s sake. Sure, we like the glamour of new devices, we like having fun with new apps and web 2.0 tools, but in the end, one presenter after another talked about how to focus on the learning, not the technology. Just like a chalk and slate, technology is the tool for learning, not the learning itself. And how we empower and inspire our students to create with it is the basis of education. In my session, I talked about how to make social media part of a strategy that inspires students to construct knowledge through social connections. Whether its a 140 character Twitter post, or a longer blog post, we can use the right social media tool as a springboard for different depths of learning. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we prefer Twitter, Today’sMeet, or Padlet, as long as the function serves the purpose.

In the program I work for, our students have iPads, but while the initial challenge was in getting the iPads into the hands of the students, the bigger challenge now lies in developing new and innovative teaching strategies that leverage the abilities of the device. Obviously, just giving the students a tablet isn’t going to suddenly improve their learning. In fact, it’s going to take the faculty some time to continually improve and modify their lessons to take advantage of the new mobile environment. A strong epistemological approach will always trump the ‘next cool app’.

Finally, the key takeaway as we all go home from a conference such as this is to get started. It’s easy to come away from an event energized, excited, and full of great intentions. Then we get back into our classrooms where there are already not enough hours in the day, and we let it languish. It’s time to act. Deliberately drop something from a lesson plan in order to replace it with something new. There really is no better time than right now. Make changes in your class this spring, try out some new ideas, get some confidence in doing something different. You may not have complete success, but you will then have the time you need to refine it for the fall. Set up a class Twitter account, and get the parents following it. Start a remind101 account to text information to your class. Create a class Diigo account, and get students started collecting web links and annotating interesting information in a shared web collection. Open a Padlet wall for each class, and ask students to contribute, or to post to it as homework. There are so many options, all it needs is a bit of a spark, and the courage to get started.

I invite you to connect with me on twitter @kenjeffery so that we can share information. We all have the same goals and challenges; there is a fantastic benefit in building a socially connected community of educators.

A call to educators: Change is upon us

Teaching in higher education is my second calling. My first was in an industry that has been radically changed by the advent of modern communication technology.

I was in print.

For many people, if you mention the word ‘printing’, they will say it’s dead. If you search the internet, you are as likely to get information on computer printers or 3D printers, as you are information about the printing industry.

“I never get anything printed anymore” people say. Their desktop printer can handle most things that would have been printed in the past. There is virtually no consumer market for printing. Even business cards have been commoditized to the point where you can order them online for ten bucks. Not surprising, as over the course of history, the ways that we communicate with each other change. And not since Gutenberg have we seen a communications revolution affect the printed page quite so dramatically as the last few decades. And it’s not over yet.

As a teenager, one of my first jobs was running a letterpress printing press. I learned how to cast metal type. Then I moved into composition where the text and images were ‘pasted up’ on boards, using a T-square and right angle.

Then a computer company called Apple created a computer called the Macintosh.

from Wikimedia commons - Alexander Schaelss
Game changer.

Some printers thought is was a nice toy. It was simplistic, it didn’t work all that well, and while the idea was novel, it wasn’t going to replace the knowledge and expertise of a trained typesetter. Of course, they still had to be highly skilled, but in no time, technology started to change everything they knew. Over the last 30 years, it’s been a bumpy ride for anyone in printed communications. Many companies have failed, highly trained professionals have fallen behind that couldn’t keep up, and newspapers are on their last gasp. But printing is far from dead. It has evolved. Modern printing companies are high-tech, lean, and contribute to a $640 Billion industry worldwide. The companies who are thriving now are the ones that don’t run scared from technology, but openly adapt to it. Was it a blood-letting? Absolutely. Is it over yet? Not at all.

About 6 years ago, after managing to survive and adapt to these changes, I made a career change to higher education, only to see so many of the same warning signs I saw years ago! Technology IS changing the way we teach. Devices infiltrating the classrooms. Distance education is being liberated in both time and space by asynchronous online education. And all I can say to myself is, “didn’t I go through this once already?”

Because I can see that it is following a very similar pattern. And if it even remotely resembles the change that happened in print, then we are in for one long and scary ride. It’s evolve or die, folks. I’m afraid I don’t have any other way to say it. Because not only do I think it’s not over, but really, it’s barely started.

Educators, I implore you to understand this. In the beginning, many printing companies laughed at new technology. They thought that ‘business as usual’ was going to cut it.

It didn’t.

So now, when I hear an educator say that they don’t allow technology in the classroom, it makes me a bit nervous. Of course, there are times when we need to put down our phones and pay attention. But business as usual is not going to survive. We need to meet the learners where they are. We need to engage with the technology that can enhance the learning experience, not detract from it.

Ask yourself: what are you doing in your class to adapt to the changing times? Because there is no way that genie is going back into the bottle. The devices are already in the hands of the learners. And other educators are already using technology to guide students to better learning. What are your plans? Because if I’ve learned anything over the last 30 years, it’s that there’s no going back.

Macintosh Computer – from Wikimedia Commons, Alexander Schaelss

Tips (and gripes) on using video in learning

Video learning came to mind as I was thinking about how e-books and digital textbooks don’t have to just be a text-dump copy of the paper book. Since the digital format of an e-book allows for interactive elements, video, and other digital assets to aid in comprehension, why wouldn’t we take advantage of the technology? A few months ago, I worked on a project that was merely a proof-of-concept for myself for creating a pdf e-book with embedded video. Through my experience with that, and related academic study, I have collected some thoughts on how to best do video for learning.

In the mainstream, there are a ton of do it yourself (DIY) and self-help videos on the internet that will show you how to fix or make just about anything. For example, if you had never fixed a flat tire on your bicycle before, you could grab a patch kit and read the instructions. But why not access the collective knowledge of the internet? Go to YouTube, and… 380,000 results later(!) you know how to fix a bike tire.

Video instruction is very valuable for something like fixing a tire on your bike. Through visual instruction, psychomotor skills are easily transmitted through video. Video lectures are a more focused learning experience than the traditional study of a textbook. The learner can see how it works, and can listen to narration guiding them through it. Many of us have had very good experiences with video instruction.

However, there really are 380,000 YouTube results for “how to repair a bike tube”. This is a ridiculous number. What this indicates is that there are more people interested in making videos than there are people watching them. We only need one! Or realistically, maybe a couple dozen to account for different kinds of bikes, but even then, the other 379,976 of them are not really needed. Lesson one: why reinvent the wheel?

there are more people interested in making videos than there are people watching them.

Reading is one of the fastest ways of receiving information. For another example, perhaps I’ve got a halogen houselamp with a burned-out bulb. I want to take the old bulb to the store in order to buy the correct replacement. Do I unscrew the old bulb (it seems stuck) or do I push-and-turn? Back to the internet, where the first three hits are helpful people that will show me with video! But I don’t need to waste time watching video to answer what really doesn’t need video to explain in the first place. All I need is someone to say, “push the bulb in, and turn counter-clockwise.” That’s all. Lesson two: Don’t use video when simple words will suffice. Words are always faster.

Which brings me to the next point, that of video length. If there is only a simple task to accomplish, there’s nothing worse than having to sit through a 15 minute video. If I’m reading written information that I am already partly familiar with, it is easy to skim through. But unless the video software has a transcript or bookmarking feature, there’s no easy way to fast-forward without potentially missing out on the information you are looking for. Lesson three: keep it as short and concise as possible. It’s important that videos exclusively target what the student needs to learn. If I load a YouTube video and the narrator says enthusiastically, “Hi there! My name is Bill, and today, I’m going to show you how to change a lightbulb. But before we get started, I’ll first show you what tools we are going to need in order to…”  *click. That was me, quitting the video. My life’s too short. If you want to go into detail, do a quick overview first, then go back and get into the fine details and troubleshooting tips.

What about TED talks? These are very informative, and run upwards of fifteen to twenty minutes. And we all like watching them, right? Well, yes, we do. Because they are entertaining. TED makes sure that the presenter is highly prepared, and that the topic is concise, interesting, and entertaining. Keep in mind however that simply presenting information in a stimulating and interesting digital video format will not automatically lead to in-depth learning. Lesson four: if we have lots of information to cover in one video, inspiration and enthusiasm won’t fix everything, but it helps. I’m not a big fan of the term, “edutainment”, but there’s a nugget of truth to it when it comes to video instruction.

We know that video isn’t the best method for instruction in every case. Some other options instead? Written word, flow charts, tables, infographics, transcripts, or screenshots. Save the real-time audio and video instruction for when it’s most useful. There’s no denying the amazing power of showing a complicated, visual task with video. Just don’t get so enamoured with it that you use it for everything.

Postscript: I have spoken to a number of friends and colleagues about this topic, and I would like to disclose that I may be a bit of a grumpy-britches when it comes to video. There are many people who like to learn via the slower pace of a video instruction. They like the teacher to take the time to establish a rapport instead of going straight to the action. And if they are presented with the option of reading instructions, or watching a video, they will choose the video. However, I hope that what I’m saying makes sense, and that perhaps as educators, we can find the best ways to make use of video instruction in the future.

Brecht, H. D., & Ogilby, S. M. (2008). Enabling a Comprehensive Teaching Strategy: Video Lectures. Journal of Information Technology Education, 7, IIP71–IIP86.

Karppinen, P. (2005). Meaningful Learning with Digital and Online Videos: Theoretical Perspectives. AACE Journal, 13(3), 233–250.

Building my PLN: online and connected

One of the best things that has evolved for me this year is the growth of my personal learning network (PLN). There are two main thrusts to this change, interestingly enough, neither directly related to the school I work for. We do have PD opportunities at work, and the sessions are excellent. They usually consist of a seminar-style dump of information, where I scribble ideas in a notebook, get inspired about the topic, then close the notebook at the end and get back to work. The short burst of information is useful and often inspiring, but I’m always at risk of letting it slip away over time, if I don’t put it to use right away. Obviously there is a value in such formalized professional development (PD), but we mustn’t overlook the value in ‘build your own’ PD or informal PD.

The two greatest additions to my PLN this year have been my classmates in my Masters degree program, and Twitter. Most notably, this has brought about a huge increase in the number of people I can refer to for information on an large number of topics. Taking a graduate degree program has caused me to be substantially immersed in the subject matter. This is a connection to 40 or so other students that are experiencing the same courses, research and writing that I am. This part of my PLN has been all about support, camaraderie and helping each other find new sources of information. It’s a more intimate, close-up view of education in technology-mediated learning. I have met each of these people personally, and expect to remain friends with them for a long time.

Twitter has brought a wider view to my PLN, also in two distinct realms. First is a group of outstanding educators from around the world who share their challenges and successes on a daily basis. These are people I would never have had the chance to meet, were it not for the connectedness of a communication tool like Twitter. These connections are about education and learning itself. The ability to expand my learning in best practices for teaching. Other educators share suggestions on what works, and give the encouragement needed to try new classroom strategies. Where else can you read a book about teaching, and interact with the author one-on-one if you have questions? The second component of a Twitter PLN is in the subject area(s) that I teach. I teach in graphic design, typography, and other graphic arts. Finding and following a number of others in this field keeps me current on what is going on in the world of design, and again, affords a reach that would be impossible before the advent of social networking. In both of these contexts, I am also able to share my expertise back to others at the same time. I’ve worked in the print and graphic arts industry my whole life, but only been teaching for the last 5 years. Naturally, for some topics, I’m able to gain information, and on others, I’m able to share. This two-way sharing of knowledge is what makes it all work, quite seamlessly. 

The biggest, most important suggestion for adding to your PLN? Get involved. I’ve had a Twitter account for a long time, but nothing happened much while I watched from the sidelines. Reply to tweets, ask questions, and start a blog so that you can share your insights. All of this will start a ‘snowball’ effect, and put you in contact with more and more experts. One final word of advice would be to not worry too much about your ‘follower count’ – this is merely a number, and unless you are selling something, it doesn’t matter too much in the beginning. But as you interact with others, and you start taking part in sharing information, you will find the count starts to climb naturally. Just let it go. Meet people, discuss topics you are interested in, and most of all, have fun!

Voice-activated learning

In our case study this week, I have been trying to find articles and information about how language can affect the usage of technology in learning. We come to a course like this knowing that the content will be in English, but how does that relate to those of us that may have another language as our first language? I can only speak English, and the course is challenging enough. But if I were to be studying in a language that was not my first language, I’m sure it would be more of a challenge. I have met some wonderful people here in the program who are doing just that.

Since adult learning is social learning, the way that we can connect with each other, support each other, and learn from each other is very important. We must endeavour to continue to support each other online, particularly when rules such as APA writing style are hard enough in English. I liked the joke that the APA style was invented by psychologists in order to drum up business! Of online students in Australia from a study performed by John Hannon (2007), “half (50.2 percent) did not have good communication with students from other cultural backgrounds”. We must carry on supporting each other, and trying not to lose anything in the translation. I’m looking forward to it.

I will leave you with a short video about the challenges faced when using technology in other cultures.


John Hannon, B. D. (2007). Cultural diversity online: Student engagement with learning technologies. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 418-432. doi: 10.1108/09513540710760192

Social media in the classroom

Of particular interest to me right now, and what may end up being a fascinating research topic is the use of social media in the classroom. I’m not sure the term ‘digital native’ is as accurate or appropriate as some might think, but in my experience, there are many learners in my classes that are using social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and others to communicate with their peers. From a research perspective, we can’t say many. We have to ask, “how many?”, “how often?”, or more appropriately, “Is there anything to be gained from it?”

The epistemological implications need to go beyond just how social media is being used in the class, to some sort of reporting of any benefit to learning. It is fine for instructors or facilitators to make the class ‘cool’ by using these resources, but if it isn’t bringing improvements to learning, it may be increasing the facilitator’s workload for no reason. ImageI know in my program, that by setting up a facebook page for our students (in our face to face classes), as a forum for posting interesting articles, discussion topics, and class information, our contact with the students has improved. The students are online so often, that even last minute room changes are appropriate posted there, than via more traditional means.

This blog is an example of a school assignment, and it was assigned with specific criteria. While it may be a valid project for learning, a facilitator would have to be careful to guide the use of social media, if it were to be expected to be successful at contributing towards student success at meeting or exceeding learning outcomes. Of course, this is just speculation based on my personal experience with a certain group of students. But I do think it would be interesting to study the addition of a social site to work alongside more traditional online learning portals such as D2L or Moodle.