The dissonance of DataMan

A long time ago, when I was a child in school, I had trouble learning my times-tables. Back then, it was expected  that students would acquire this important life skill through rote memorization. And every student was expected to be able to recite the table up to 12×12.


I guess I remembered some of it, but I have to admit to this day, I’m a little foggy anywhere from about 7X8 upwards. But I suppose I knew it well enough at the time to get by. To this day, I still know enough of them that if I forget one, (8×9=?) I just go down a level (8×8=64), and then add back up (64+8=72). In this way, I suppose I’m using my knowledge of how numbers work, to compensate for a lack of memorization.

But at the time, it was a struggle. My parents would grill me at the table every night. One night, as my father was quizzing me, he repeated a particularly troublesome one for me:

“Three times six?” he said.

“Um, er…” I was grasping.

“Cripes, you know this one,” he urged. “Three sixes!”

At this point my most excellent brother, four years younger, called out, “Sixteen!”

For goodness sakes.

So began my introduction to educational technology. My parents bought me a new gizmo that would help me fix my flagging math memorization troubles. It was a calculator-sized toy called ‘Data-Man”. It had an LCD display, could randomly display math problems (like your times-tables), and you could type in an answer. Right answers were rewarded, and it would tally your score, with the goal of urging you to keep improving.

Say hello to Dataman

The problem was, even back then (we are talking, what, almost 40 years ago?) I recognized something that confounded me to no end. Right there, in my hand, was a device that ALREADY KNEW THE ANSWER. And instead of making me more interested in memorizing math facts, it only made me wonder,

“Why am I memorizing something that I can look up at a moment’s notice?”

I was in grade school, already wondering why the hell I was memorizing something that I LITERALLY didn’t need to. It seemed ridiculous that I held a device in my hand that could do the math for me, only it refused to do so, in order to force me to do it myself. Oh, sure, the teachers at the time would say things like,

“But what if your calculator breaks, or what if there isn’t a calculator handy?”

Seriously? Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there’s a calculator in every phone, in every computer. I never have to do any math when I’m not near a device of some sort to help me with it. Even google does math.

So here’s the question that educators should be asking instead:

“If you can readily look up the answer on the internet, should it belong on an exam?”

We should be performing summative assessment based on traits like skill and creativity, on the ability to put knowledge to use. Not on memorizing or regurgitating data.

Because the data is already out there, man. That’s no longer the issue.

We need to teach students what to do with it.

Image: Daniel VILLAFRUELA [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons FROM:

Are Mobile Devices Distracting? Of Course!

CC by 2.0 - AFS-USA Intercultural Programs
CC by 2.0 – AFS-USA Intercultural Programs

As is common for someone as interested in social media and education as I am, I regularly come across articles and studies such as the one referenced in this article on CNN. And the first thing that comes to mind is:

Well, DUH!

Because these results are not surprising at all! I do not disagree, nor would I suggest that the study is inaccurate. I’m sure that the results they experienced are very valid in respect to what they were testing for. However, in my mind, there is a huge point being missed here. And to me, it’s painfully obvious.

Yes, phones and mobile devices can be a distraction. It is not surprising that if we ban them, traditional testing results will improve. But that’s also the problem. We keep measuring the disruption of mobile devices against a well-established, yet dated paradigm. We are taking a new technology, and superimposing its influence on a system that is otherwise long in the tooth.

Murphy and Beland said their study doesn’t mean phones and other technology can’t be used to boost learning.

In my view, comparing a new technology to ‘the way we have always done things’ is terribly myopic. I can imagine that when moving pictures were invented, they were seen as a foolish distraction from the enjoyment of live theatre. The invention of the printing press was heralded as a foolhardy waste of time, folly that would take away from the skill and craft of hand-lettered books. In this light, perhaps we should be more visionary in our thinking around connectivity and testing. Here’s a common question I hear from many of my forward thinking contemporaries in the field of education:

“If a test answer can be found on the internet, is it worth having on an exam in the first place?”

We live in a connected era. Not soon, but RIGHT NOW. In many countries, students are coming to class with a whole world of information that can be accessed through a device in their pockets. Their social network is on there. Their entertainment is on there, in the form of games and videos. And it’s very possible to have their educational tools on there. It is an always-on, instant connection to a literal world of information. So why are we still doing studies that are measured by traditional test results? Is this study suggesting that the THE WORLD IS A DISTRACTION? Do we really want to force our children to focus on boring and outdated models of memorization and regurgitation?

Now before you go thinking I’ve got pedagogical blinders on, I will admit that I do believe that there is still a place for dedicated, concentrated study. Particularly as they mature, students need to be taught how to deal with the issue of digital distraction. They need to be taught effective models of digital citizenship, so that they are able to discern for themselves how to integrate connectivity into their lives, and most importantly, when. Let’s move forward with technology, not bury it. Let’s instil a new work ethic in ourselves, one where we not only have a connected device in our pockets, but that we know how pedagogically valuable it can really be! We don’t have to send students down to the library anymore to access a massive tome called an encyclopedia.

Why are we banning one of the most exciting advances in the history of education? I don’t know. But the sooner we all realize this, the sooner we can collectively create some really exciting models for learning!

Original CNN article here:

Original Study found here:

Autonomy Vital for using Social Media in Education

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is third in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


5 – Autonomy

The fifth topic that came to light when assessing the educational opportunities of social media is that of autonomy. The ability (and in the case of adult learners, the desire) of the modern student to feel empowered and take control of their own education. And for the teacher/facilitator trying to create a constructive educational environment, this is certainly key. I have listed it last because it is not only important while working with learners, but that it also is an important goal for leaving the student with tools for seeking out further education long after they have left the classroom.

When using or adapting social media to an educational purpose, keep in mind that social media is all about giving the learner control. They are granted the autonomy to decide how to get themselves invested in a task (engagement), how to choose the social media tools to use (interactivity), proceed to build a response to the challenge (creativity), and how to judge for themselves whether they have learned what they need in order to feel successful (self-mediation). All of these previous topics I have presented now come together, and are drawn into a cohesive whole by the learner, when we give them their own autonomy. As a teacher myself, I have seen that when I do not give enough autonomy in the classroom, the students will take it anyways, resulting in a class that seems at odds, or even ‘out of control’.

While there is a definite benefit to granting the learner autonomy, the challenges can be difficult. It is often assumed, particularly in the case of millennial learners, that the student is well versed in the use of social media, and have innate skills in its use. This is not always true. While there is often talk of the ‘digital native’, it should be seen as a social distinction, not one of skill. Students of all ages will still need direction and guidance as to how to use social media effectively. Privacy is also a very real concern that students voice when asked to engage educationally with social media. Students value their privacy, and while they welcome educators connecting and working with social media, they can also be deterred from using social media if they feel that they are unable to keep a separation between their existing, personal lives, and that of their academic pursuits (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013). This creates a very real and challenging dichotomy, particularly in older grades, and in higher education, where students want more academic online interaction, but at the same time, are guarding their digital privacy. As an educator, it is important to get a sense of which types of social media are more personal and private. A few that come to mind as being more individual and private are Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine. However, it should be noted, that the ‘usage’ of social media tools changes over time. For example, as we see more commercial entities posting to Instagram, or students migrating to new sites such as Yik-Yak, Tumblr, or even Tinder.

software design should instead focus on the invariant aspects of practices that emerge independent of the specifics of the interaction

Dwyer & Suthers (2006)

Finally, the end goal of this challenge is to instil enough autonomy that learners will keep on going, even after they leave your class. Just because the course ends, doesn’t mean the learning has to stop. A student’s academic life should include their cultivation of a personal learning network (PLN), an online community that engages, supports, and continues to challenge the individual in their academic pursuit. How exciting it would be if the student is able to continue to connect with their newfound PLN, a network that was encouraged and built with assistance of their instructor in a class that they already ‘graduated’ from. So go out there and use social media to send your students off after your class with the autonomy to further their learning.

That’s the last post of this series on using social media in education! Go back to the first post if you missed any of it.


Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J. D., & Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology 2013. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Analysis and Research. Retrieved from

Dwyer, N., & Suthers, D. D. (2006). Consistent practices in artifact-mediated collaboration. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1(4), 481–511.

Get Students Creating with Social Media Tools

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is third in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


3 – Creativity

The traditional format of taking notes, studying, and then parroting information during an exam is well embedded into traditional learning systems, both in schools, and online. While this system continues to work, educators are excited to find new ways of encouraging learning. The addition of creativity to this list of strategies in using social media is derived from studies in constructive learning, and also in activity theory. Activity theory is used as a framework in this sense, described commonly through the saying, “you are what you do” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). It is through committing to understanding and processing new information through activity, that learners can assimilate and build new knowledge. Such activity is not carried out by rote or as a disembodied action, but as “doing in order to transform something” (Barab, Evans, & Baek, 2004, p. 200). This aligns quite well with the use of social media tools, because as Leont’ev proposed,

the human individual’s activity is a system of social relations. It does not exist without those social relations

(Leont’ev, 1981, pp. 46-47).

Surely we have all seen instances where students become engaged in a school project, and they become more invested in not only the outcome, but in their own interest in the subject matter as well. I think of a nephew who, as I sit down to dinner with him, recounts all kinds of interesting and detailed information about dinosaurs. This knowledge comes to him through his engagement and ‘creating’ with the topic. Not only that, but in his social recounting of the information to a third party (me, as his uncle), he is required to know the material well enough to be confident to portray it cogently. In this example, for learners at a younger age, I equate ‘play’ as being aligned to activity theory in processing new information. In this way, constructive learning benefits from and is well aligned with activity, and throughout both, there is this overall benefit to the learner in interacting socially. This leads very well into tasks requiring creativity.

Constructivist learning entails a required participation from the learner into constructing their own knowledge. For example, in a study by Heafner & Friedman (2008), grade 11 students that created wikis for a school project demonstrated greater understanding and retention than peers who learned through teacher instruction. The recent emphasis on integrating maker culture and systems into classrooms is another example of building learning successes through creativity. I find it interesting that while arts & crafts are more accepted in younger grades, we ‘wean’ students away from this type of creative learning as they get older. Even as an adult, I still feel that I learn more when I try to build or create something myself. This is not to imply that everyone learns the same way; it would be folly to think that creative endeavours could completely replace focused study. But with modern access to today’s social media tools, it’s a great opportunity to make decisions about when to use it and how it can best serve particular learning situations.

One thing I keep reminding myself is that the goal is to encourage learners to become creators, not memorizers. The goal to get learners creating artifacts of learning, stimulating ideas through construction while resolving cognitive conflict. Imagine students building knowledge and taking control of the subject matter, not simply absorbing it like a sponge, but interacting with it, turning it over in their minds, creating with it. Connections. In this respect, social media tools can be used to great effect. Get your students making wikis, audio editing, video creation, building infographics (, or using online software to help create poster boards ( There’s even a site where students can create a (fake) Facebook page for historical or fictional characters ( Teachers have also had students use Twitter to create fictional re-enactments of world events, as seen through historical figures, as recounted in this study (Jensen, Caswell, Ball, Duffin, & Barton, 2010): and with examples at

Regardless of the tools you choose, get the learners using social media to create, not just parrot information. Allow them to play with the subject matter, and leverage the power of curiosity to boost their success!

Come back Monday for part 4: Self-Mediation


Barab, S. A., Evans, M. A., & Baek, E.-O. (2004). Activity theory as a lens for characterizing the participatory unit. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 2, 199–213.

Heafner, T. L., & Friedman, A. M. (2008). Wikis and constructivism in secondary social studies: Fostering a deeper understanding. Computers in the Schools, 25(3-4), 288–302.

Jensen, M., Caswell, T., Ball, J., Duffin, J., & Barton, R. (2010). TwHistory: Sharing History Using Twitter. In Open ED 2010 Proceedings. Barcelona: UOC, OU, BYU. Retrieved from

Leont’ev, A. N. (1981). The problem of activity in psychology. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The Concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Nardi, B. A. (1996). Activity theory and human-computer interaction. In B. A. Nardi (Ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human–computer interaction (Vol. 436, pp. 7–16).

Using Social Media Interactivity to Encourage Learning

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is second in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


2 – Interactivity

In researching how to frame the use of social media within constructivist learning, the next key driver that became apparent was that of interactivity. It’s a word we hear often, particularly in terms of computer systems, software, and online portals. In the early days of the internet, information was presented on web ‘pages’, as it was expected that people would want to ‘read’ the information, just as we had been doing from books, magazines, and newspapers. Of course, it didn’t take long before online activity became more than that. Taking advantage of the two-way nature of the Internet, websites became more interactive, allowing the user to take part in the dialog, not just read static pages. I would point out that I’m not referring to trivial actions such as clicking buttons or advancing slides as interactivity. These are very low level interactive tasks, and simply getting a person to ‘click a button’ does not make an experience interactive, at least not in the learning sense.

Mental functioning of the individual is not simply derived from social interaction; rather, the specific structures and processes revealed by individuals can be traced to their interactions with others.

(Palincsar, 1998, p. 351)

In a similar fashion to the analogy above, education can benefit from interactivity. In this digital age, we can take advantage of the kind of interactivity provided by online social media and web 2.0 tools. And as above, I’m not talking about just pressing buttons. Related back to the ‘social’ part of social constructivism and social media, a good term for interactive learning would be dialogic interactivity. That is, interactive processes that encourage the learner to engage with the information (as described in my previous post) by having to examine it, process it, and then act on it. Much as we do when we are talking to each other, we take in the information, process it, and then respond.

Strategies for effective use of social media can take cues from these findings. As Beauchamp & Kennewell (2010) point out, this involves a shift from using Internet connected tools as an object IN the interaction, to using it as a tool for CONDUCTING the interaction. Here are some examples of social media tools that an educator might use to align with this strategy:

There are hundreds of possibilities available online, many that offer free or low-cost options for teachers. As more teachers find and use these tools successfully, it is important for us to share our successes (and challenges). The goal being that once learners are able (and eager) to engage with new material and learning opportunities, then they will benefit from doing so in an interactive, two-way, dialogic process.

Click here to continue to part 3: Creativity


Beauchamp, G., & Kennewell, S. (2010). Interactivity in the classroom and its impact on learning. Computers & Education, 54(3), 759–766.

Palincsar, A. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.

Creating engagement with social media

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is second in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The first post can be found by clicking here.


1 – Engagement

In examining social media use through the lens of constructivism, the first recurring theme was that of engagement.

While “about three out of four undergraduate students agree or strongly agree that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes” (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, 2013), and undergrads report owning two to three internet-enabled devices, almost 75% of US college facilitators still ban the use of smartphones in class.

In my career as an educator, I see this to be a common challenge. We continually try to engage our learners to become interested, and consequently, delve deeper into the topics at hand. Internet connected technology can be used to increase learner engagement. But while students seem keen to use their mobile devices, they often find them to be a distraction from what we are trying to achieve. Elkind (2004) proposed an answer suggesting that “technology is forcing educational reform, but we need to harness it to the best philosophy of education we have available. I believe this to be constructivism” (p. 312). That’s easy to say, but not as easy to implement. The shift isn’t simple to make, as it needs to happen at three levels: with the teacher, curriculum, and society. Teachers can effectively change their own teaching, but they may have less control over curriculum, and at the societal level, change takes even more time and effort. Communication needs to take place between all the stakeholders such as educators, parents, school boards, and government.

It is easy to find educators who want to get their students interested in the subject material. And I see the challenge myself in post-secondary education, where all too often, students have learned that to survive, they need to study and memorize the content expected of them in order to get them through the next exam. To be sure, this is a successful strategy. What it may lack in retention, it makes up for in efficiency. What interests me from a constructivist standpoint, is the number of studies that show that certain learning tasks can be enhanced by encouraging students to ‘talk it through’ with each other (Palincsar, 1998; Taylor & Cox, 1997; Teasley, 1995). In fact, students simply talking with peers about a reasoning task (without any teacher involvement) still showed an increase in success over students that worked on the problem alone. In other words, even though a teacher didn’t inject any new information, the ‘talking’ students still exhibited better learning outcomes (Teasley, 1995).

But students are talking all the time, aren’t they? We live in an era where learners are connected by so many connected and mobile devices, shouldn’t we be seeing an increase in learning organically? Not quite: “When left unguided, [emphasis added] students will use Facebook in ways that are both positively and negatively related to their engagement, studying, and on-campus involvement” (Junco, 2012, p. 169). From this, we must take heed not to leave students unguided, and hope for the best. We need to use the technology that they are familiar with using, to help them find greater success in what they are learning.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license.
Photo:NEC Corporation of America, CC-BY

To this end, when we talk about increasing engagement, we mean to specifically increase the learner’s engagement with the learning, actively working with the information they are gathering. This isn’t the same as simply ‘getting students interested’. Putting snazzy and modern graphics on the cover of a textbook might make it seem more engaging to the student, but their take-up of information in the book will likely remain unchanged. We do want to get students excited about the material, but then, I believe we have to go one step further, and encourage them to engage with the content directly.

All of which leaves us asking, “How do we do that?”

Social media presents an opportunity for educators. If we can avoid gimmickry, and create specific, concrete tasks for students to complete using Internet-connected social technologies, then we are aligning with the research that shows socially constructive learning to be beneficial. Engagement can be encouraged by getting students sharing interesting information with their class, connecting with experts in the field, asking questions that still confuse them, and supporting each other through the daily struggles of academic life. Many educators I know have had success with microblogging (such as Twitter or Today’s Meet), pin-boarding (like Pinterest, Tackk, or my favourite, Padlet), or even photo sharing with apps like Instagram, Flikr, or Apple Photo Streams. It is less important what the particular social app is, but the main goal is to get them to become more immersed in the learning, and talking to each other about it using interpretive conversation. Start off small, and in the words of Jean-Luc Picard, “Engage!”

engage meme

Click here to continue to part 2: Interactivity


Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J. D., & Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology 2013. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Analysis and Research. Retrieved from

Elkind, D. (2004). The problem with constructivism. The Educational Forum, 68(4), 306–312.

Junco, R. (2012). The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement. Computers & Education, 58(1), 162–171.

Palincsar, A. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.

Taylor, J., & Cox, B. D. (1997). Microgenetic analysis of group-based solution of complex two-step mathematical word problems by fourth graders. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(2), 183–226.

Teasley, S. D. (1995). The role of talk in children’s peer collaborations. Developmental Psychology, 31(2), 207–220.

Social media in education

As part of my Masters Degree, I researched and wrote a paper on the use of social media technologies in teaching and learning. I looked specifically at how it might relate to constructivist teaching pedagogy, and specifically, if social media could be an effective tool for assisting students in knowledge building and meaning-making activities. This post is one in a series examining the five main themes that I discovered in my research. The full paper can be found by clicking here.


The first objections I often hear from people when I talk about using social media as an educational tool is, “I want my students focused on school, not chatting with each other about what they are going to do after school.” Or, “Social media? I don’t want to see pictures of everyone’s food!”

So the first step is to clarify the way I used the word ‘social’ for this study. In the context of education, social wasn’t used to mean leisure activities. Certainly, we often think of social time as something we do with friends outside of work or school. But social media use can be more encompassing. Social is about how we interact with each other, how we relate, how we connect as individuals. It is in this broader sense that I am interested in social media, and through it, social learning. Therefore, in order to discern useful strategies for using social media in education, I first needed to frame the enquiry within a learning environment. There is much talk about how cell phones, social media, and social computer technologies can be a distraction for students. This is true! In fact, I discovered many studies that proved just that. In situations where students were required to participate in sustained private study, or conventional lecture / note taking / recall, the use of social media such as Facebook were shown to negatively affect outcomes. Imagine trying to read Faulkner or Dostoyevsky while someone keeps interrupting you! In a more specific view, my interest was in using social media to support collaborative, connected learning through social constructivism. Situations where students are learning together could be an appropriate opportunity for the enhanced connectivity of social media.

Social constructivism is a model put forward by epistemological thinkers such as Dewey (1938), Bruner, (1966, 1996), Piaget & Inhelder (1969), and Vygotsky (1978). Constructivism posits that knowledge is constructed by the learner through their ability to compare learning experiences with their existing schemas. Social contructivism, as promoted by Vygotsky and Leont’ev includes the proviso that this meaning making is not only enhanced through social interaction with others, but that learning itself is primarily social, and rejects that the locus of knowledge resides solely within the individual (Palincsar, 1998). In other words, we learn better when we are able to talk to, share information with, and ponder with others about concepts.

Click here to continue to part 1: Engagement


Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction (Vol. 59). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Education and experience. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Palincsar, A. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, Ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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!