Sunday, October 23, 2011

Online Schools - The Best Ones Have the Best Curriculum

I can remember about 13 years ago, sharing with my then current boss in the technology department, something that I had created using, probably Supercard at that time, that duplicated many of the same software instructional strategies found in an application the elementary schools were paying thousands of dollars to implement. I can remember my boss being impressed but then saying, why would teachers want to learn to create their own software when they could buy it from some a textbook publisher. The fact that I had created, what I’ll call a proof of concept, in little more than a week and incorporated aspects that I thought were more relative to the students in our schools was lost in the belief that most teachers didn’t have the skill, computer knowledge, or creativity to design and develop their own software. I may just caught her a little off guard with my impromptu presentation of what was capable. In either case, her comment bothered me, and 13 years later I’m hearing the same arguments when it comes to online learning. There are many reason why I think just purchasing tools from a large publisher is a bad idea and that as educational professionals, it just strikes me as ridiculous that we would even be thinking about purchasing online learning curriculum from some outside-our-community publisher.

First, teachers have been developing curriculum for their students as long as I can remember. Curriculum is not just a textbook the State has blessed for use in the classroom. Curriculum is not a program that streams over the Internet to some indiscriminate student in front of a LCD screen. Curriculum is the collections of tools that addresses a specific learning concept or goal that we have deemed important for identified unique students. It is a collection of content, strategies, practices, mistakes, and innovations on the part of the teacher and learner to construct meaning in the head of the student, and many times in the head of the teacher.  You will find no better curriculum developers, that are in touch with your community, know your students, and understand what is most important for your students to learn, than the hard working men and women in your local classrooms. These individuals have been doing this work from day one.  We should be taking advantage of these resources to develop curriculum, maximizing the new technology tools, and in the process providing avenues for looking at how school can be done better for our children. So much of what is currently available for sale by large publishers today in the online education arena is the same old classroom content that we have been creating and  using for years just snatched up, repackaged in a shiny new box, and stamped with the words “Online Learning Curriculum.” The worse we could do by developing the online curriculum ourselves is to duplicate what is currently available through the big publishers. Even then, our curriculum would be more targeted to our students and community as opposed to being created to address the widest audience possible. One other point is the fact that when commercial publishers talk about their online learning curriculum, try to pin point what percentage of the instruction is using technology and is online? How much of what they provide is actually different from a traditional face to face classroom and capitalizes and strengths of technology (communication/collaboration/creativity/development/voice/perspective/action) and how much of it is the same thing just viewed through a few thousand pixels.
It should not be surprising that creating curriculum for an online learning environment is not something a school district would do without cost. However, any school district that is seriously thinking about shelling out 75% or more of their ADA to commercial content provider should not be dissuaded from moving in this direction. For schools and districts that go down this road, there will be a learning curve and an initial investment of resources. It would be expected. However, successfully implementing a curriculum development process would provide the institution with advantages leaps beyond those that implement online learning programs with generic curriculum.  The best online schools will be those with the best curriculum, and those that are the most successful will have created their own curriculum.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Innovative Schools Committee - Summary

A group of teachers, administrators, and parents met over the period of a year, every three weeks, to discuss topics related to meeting the needs of the students in the Sylvan Union School District now and well into the future and provide the school board with recommendations. We brainstormed needs, and we looked at the projected trajectory of where the future is taking us, and how those needs can be addressed in light of the directions we are heading.

Initially, the needs shared numbered well over a 100 and discussions continued to define, combine, and describe them as succinctly as possible. At times, the information shared regarding our changing hyper-connected world and our steadfast educational system seemed disjoint. We struggled as a team to discover models and solutions that others have successfully implemented and may hold promise in our own. Our school district’s background has been rooted in success and achievement for students. The past models of instruction have served us and our students well to this point, and looking at some of the models left us questioning whether continuing with our current model might not be such a bad idea. However, we realize the world is changing and the demands that our world put on us are changing too. In order to server our students needs in the current world, we need to change along with it.

Our current students will be entering a world where the opportunities provided by the older system are becoming extinct. Our economy is suffering and our unemployment percentage is at about 18%. When things do improve, the jobs and needs of our world will no longer consist of those that have for so many years, been the staple of our young, educated population. In the place of those old jobs will be those that place a premium on creativity and imagination. It goes without saying that in order for our students to be successful in these core skills, they must possess a basic understanding simple principles of communication, computation, and critical thinking. We must instill in our students a desire of continual questioning and a seeking of answers, a desire for life long learning. We should never instill in our students the idea that there is a point when learning is not needed or complete. Learning is never complete and there is no end to learning.

The Innovative Schools Committee ultimately came up with 5 key recommendations. Each one was presented to the school board in subsequent board meetings this summer. They are:

1. Digital Revolution - Direct staff to create a timeline identifying strategic components and requirements necessary to provide students and schools with resources to support online instruction in blended format, alternative ed format, and accelerated instruction model.

2. Meaningful Assessments - Direct staff to keep in mind the following principles when designing and evaluating assessments:
  • Know who’s learning;
  • Attempt to build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into core assessment loop;
  • Change the learner assessment experience over time; a good learning experience takes the learner on a journey;
  • Build assessments that reward what is learned and provide goals for improvement;
  • Create assessments that clearly define paths to future goals;
  • Design assessments that increase challenge and complexity: create conditions for flow;
  • Provide assessments that incorporate intrinsic motivators like power, autonomy, and belonging.

3. Home/School Communication - Direct staff to create guidelines for home/school communication that account for new technologies and modern communication practices.

4. Changing Roll of Teacher - The committee asks the board to direct leadership to invest an equivalent amount of resources in the development of passionate, curious, enthusiastic, and creative staff equal to professional development in the area of academic student achievement.

*(Translation - As with students, the success of our teachers with the challenges of educating a modern population will require creativity and imagination. Without fostering those skills in ourselves, we will be at a loss of fostering those skills in our students.)

5. Global Relevance - The committee asks the board to direct staff to incorporate the five concepts shared by the Innovative Schools Committee into the work of the PLC and its charge of designing strategies that address improving student learning and our schools.

*(Translation - Global Relevance in today’s world translates into working collaboratively with your peers, whether they are in the classroom next to you or across an ocean. The initial steps to being globally relevant start very small and close to home. The PLC, Professional Learning Communities, system is the beginning of this process and fosters habits and strategies that eventually promote global relevance.)

The work of the Innovative Schools Committee and the 5 recommendations presented are by no means the end of the work. This is only the beginning of a process that will continue to evolve with the continued effort of dedicated community, educators, staff, parents and students. 

*(Image courtesy of leedsyorkshire, CreativeCommons Licensed  )

Friday, July 15, 2011

Floating Cities & K12 Learning - Instructional Game Theory Model

Imaging using a tool to create instruction that incorporates both synchronous and asynchronous student participation, requires students to work together, does not limit students by age, grade level or location, has very few rules requiring students to create and learn the rules as they progress, incorporates skills students will use in “work” world, promotes creativity, writing, questioning, fact gathering, uses intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, provides ample feedback (from teacher, “peers,” and self), addresses content standards, incorporates the students’ physical environment, provides a model for ethical and responsible engagement, social networking skills, multiple solutions, “highly” engaging, game play, writing for multiple purposes, digital and physical components, and the tool could be reused over and over again for different instructional goals.

Imagine that this tool could be used to teach a specific concept in a particular grade, used to teach an entire class, or even used as a tool to develop an entire school.

What might that tool look like? It may sound like I’m describing the “Holy Grail” of instructional tools. I don’t think I have discovered that particular tool, but I do think I have an idea of one that seems to point in a direction that leads to more possibilities in the “Holy Grail” tool direction.

A few weeks ago I caught wind of a site called The Floating City. It was created by Thomas Dolby, the musician - “She Blinded Me With Science” fame, and a small crew of creative individuals not numbering probably more then ten, from what I have read. The site is named after his next album, The Floating City and takes place on a fictitious world, in an era which seems to be around the time of the Second World War and loosely imaged as what the planet may have looked like if things turned out a little differently. To get a visual, think of the Kevin Costner movie, Waterworld, but taking place during the 40s with a strong SteamPunk theme. The site is designed as a multi-user game, with teams of players searching for clues as to the reason for the (fictitious) Floating City. Along the way, players of the game read the Gazette, the only remaining news paper, gather clues floating in the water, trade objects (named after some of the lyrics in a Dolby song) back and fourth to create complete sets which then can result in codes to download complete mp3s of the particular Dolby songs. Everything in the game from the objects, the Gazette, the names of locations on the world map, to the clues that are provided through game play, are provided to give players a chance at forming their ideas related to how the Floating City came about. Is there a correct answer? Will one be fleshed out? Either way, it’s a great strategy to promote creativity. If you’re interested, I highly suggest you take your browser over there and get yourself an account and check it out.

What I really enjoy about the Floating City site is how it was constructed and the learning model it promoted. As I mentioned earlier, the Floating City was constructed with a small, creative, team of developers. They took advantage of OpenSource and free tools, such as Google Maps API, and mashed up their entire game using a little of this tool, and a little of that tool, to eventually get to the environment that is the Floating City. Not having to develop a ton of code to create a discussion board, or a messaging system, or a graphic user interface, such as the game map, freed them up to develop the look, feel, and more importantly, the narrative (instruction) of the game. Looking at how they developed this got me thinking as to why couldn’t we do the same thing in our schools or classrooms. There really is no reason, aside from the prerequisite knowledge of basic installation requirements that some of these tools require, skills most of our school IT departments readily have, why could we not allow teachers to create instruction modeled on a similar tool? I think most teachers are very creative and would jump at the opportunity to create instruction that was more game like, promoted creative thinking, writing, sharing and collaborating while at the same time addressed standards, digital citizenship, and technology.

So this last week I decided to see what it would take to develop the “bones” of a similar model based on the Floating City. As a Director of Technology, I know a little about a lot of technology. I have a very liberal education as it comes to instructional technology. I’m not an expert C+ coder, or a PHP web site developer, or a database design guru. I do know a little though…just enough to be dangerous.

A multi-user (game) environment requires sharing of information between the players. In order to do this you need to store the player information. So right from the start, you need to use a network based database. My database of choice was mySQL. Looking at the other “instructional components” of the Floating City such as the discussion board and messaging system, these tools are also OpenSource (free) and work within the mySQL database. I looked at the Google Maps API, and in the short time I evaluated the API, everything made sense to me with the exception of the custom map tiles. With a little more time I probably would have figured it out, but when I went back and looked at the Floating City map, having a custom map this based on true latitude and longitude coordinates is probably not necessary. The Floating City map is used primarily to access the profile and inventories of other player and could have well been either a random representation of players on a image of a map or even player determined locations on an image of a map. So I scrapped the idea, at least for now, for using the Google Maps API for an interface component.

The Floating City is all web based and that makes it compatible with almost all devices and all operating systems. However, on the iPhone the layout is a bit cumbersome due to the layout just being reduced to fit the screen and requiring the user to pinch to zoom in on links. They probably could solve that with a custom App. I thought about doing my model just using php and MySQL. But that would also require time spent on developing CSS, php and lots of html code. It could be done, but I decided that I did not have the time. Plus, if this model is to be used over and over, I wanted a development tool that would provide me a little more flexibility. The tool that I chose was RunRev’s LiveCode. I should point out that LiveCode is not OpenSource. It is a commercial application with a variety of licensing options. However they do give a discount to educators. LiveCode stands on the shoulders of other rapid development tools such as Apple’s old HyperCard software. It allows for the development of applications very quickly and uses a scripting language that is very easy to understand. One difference between doing the development in LiveCode as opposed to doing it all in html/CSS/PHP is that in LiveCode you actually compile a standalone application. That being said, you can provide your users access to your LiveCode programs via the web and using a web plugin. The plugin can be installed by your users for free and then your application will play in the user’s web browser window, similar to how Adobe’s Flash works. The other benefit of using LiveCode is that they make tools to port your LiveCode application to MacOS X, Windows, Linux, Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Windows Mobile. So with a little tweaking on the design layout, you can compile for mobile devices.

In about a week’s time, working on it when I had the time, I was able to create my own model. The model is just the bones, there is no narrative or design yet, but the logic is all in place. The model consists of the following components:
  • User Login and Authentication
  • Location of Player on Map
  • Ability of player to relocate themselves on map and save coordinates
  • Ability to click on other players map icon and get player profile and current inventory
  • Ability for player to review their profile and inventory
  • Ability for player to initiate a trade
  • Ability for player to accept or decline a trade
  • Ability to generate an automatic message when trade is initiated
  • Ability to send a reply to received message
  • Ability to delete messages
  • Ability to send a new message to different player
  • Ability to enter code or phrase to unlock mission
  • Ability to enter mission code to receive “badge” or recognition

Though many of the missions are hard coded, based on entering the correct data by the player, because the data is stored in a database, it does provide the teacher the ability to change things on the fly such as rewards, badges, and inventory. In addition, the missions can be as varied as the teacher’s imagination. They could be as simple as a code the player types in, a website that the students is directed to and research, an audio sample or video file, or even a QRCode. As long as it can provide some type of definitive code that a player can enter into the game and that the game can verify as correct, it can be used within the game.

The following is a screen cast of the LiveCode project:

The wheels are turning, and I have some ideas for narratives that may fit well within this model. Stay tuned for both student and adult examples!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Online Learning Stuck in a Rut?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a full day seminar on online instruction our county office of education was hosting. It consisted of a panel of individuals responsible for the online school programs at their locations sprinkled throughout the California Central Valley region. The Central Valley is the “bread basket” to the rest of the State and a good part of the rest of the Country in terms of farming and produce.

Our communities in this area, due to our industries and geographic location, continue to evolve creating challenges for community services and public education. I was hoping to hear how other schools and school districts are using online education to address some of the challenges we face here in California in educating our children. I wanted to hear about how the technology has afforded them the tools to teach children in different ways than traditional brick and mortar schools.

Okay, in the back of my head I knew that I probably would not be hearing anything too revolutionary in terms of educating children. I was correct. Online learning is still in its infancy and we are still stuck in thinking about the use of our new technologies as little more than video infused, web based “clicker” (student response system) correspondence courses. We are delivering instruction in our online schools the same exact way we are delivering instruction in our brick and mortar schools. We are not evaluating how we can be using these technologies to deliver instruction in a way that is more productive in fostering student learning and that addresses the needs of our students, and not the needs of the institution.

The closest we come to addressing students’ needs in online education is be providing students with a little more autonomy in the “when and where” they receive the typical instruction. For highly motivated students, this provides them with a strategy to accelerate through the standards based content. What we should be asking ourselves is does giving the student the ability accelerate through our standards based curriculum equate to higher degrees of acquired intelligence; or just the ability to forget more of what they “learned” much quicker than a student in a brick and mortar school?

Our current vision of online learning revolves around two key points: providing students with more autonomy in how they “receive” our standards based curriculum and providing students “classroom” opportunities in content areas that their brick and mortar schools do not. Both of these are valid and positive, but for all the effort we are making to address online learning it seems a little short.

The way I see the direction of online schools, we are essentially providing the same instructional model we have today. The online learning model fits nicely with in the current structure of public education. In doing so, it also fits nicely, up to a point, with addressing the same students that are successful in our current brick and mortar schools. These students would be just as successful in our online school as they would in a brick and mortar provided: a) their parents are going to be much more involved in their child’s education than they were when they were in a brick and mortar school; and b) the curriculum for the online learning makes up for the deficiencies of separating the learner from their peers. (One factor that brick and mortar schools have in their favor, which is easier for them to accomplish, is motivation as a result of peer interaction.) This second point relates more to the fact that it is much more difficult to motivate and engage students online than it does in a traditional brick and mortar school.

Even the experts have a hard time defining the true benefits of our new technologies when it comes to online learning. iNACOL released a report titled, Online Schools and How They Address At Risk Students. If you read that report they describe successful strategies that these online institution are deploying to help at risk students. What are their solutions? Almost every one of them are strategies that have nothing to do with online learning. Strategies they share are one-to-one and small group direct instruction, and technology tools that could just as easily be used in a brick and mortar school. Other influencing factors they describe are flexibility in allowing students to go back over the content as many times as they need. We could be just as flexible in brick and mortar schools if we chose to, but this is unlikely though as we would have a heck of a time getting through all the standards based content.

The above point gets to the heart of what the real issue is regarding online learning. Online learning, and the technologies that go with it will revolutionize how we educate children. The problem right now is our trying to make online learning fit the existing model, which many would decry is not working for students on both ends of the curve, and would probably wreck havoc with some of those learners in the middle of the curve too in its current design.

When you read an article about online learning, ask yourself, could this not be implemented in a traditional brick and mortar classroom? If you are like me, the majority of “answers” you find are going to be that it could be implemented in a regular classroom. If it can, why do we need to do it online?

There are many reasons why this might be the case, economics comes to mind for one. But we will not be solving any of our problems with public education if we go down this road. The reason is because nothing will have changed except for the delivery model.

What does our current technologies bring to the table that enables us to answer the opposite? “No. This could not have happened in a traditional brick and mortar classroom.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meaningful Assessments

Tomorrow night is the second presentation I will be giving as the chair of our District’s Innovative Schools Committee. The committee has been looking at current practices and where we feel we need to begin moving to in terms of addressing learning in a modern world , what ever “modern” means...

The first presentation was titled the Digital Revolution, and was primarily the foundation for the four topics that follow. A one page summary of the initial presentation content can be found here: (Presentation consisted of a mash-up of listed video resources lasting approximately 10 minutes.)

Tomorrow night’s topic is Meaningful Assessments. Meaningful assessments, as per the committee’s definition, are assessments that are primarily useful for the student, and secondly, useful for the teacher. Educational assessments that are valued by any other entity are deemed as non-primary assessments and are not included under the meaningful assessments heading.

The presentation will begin with a review of common assessment terms such as formative and summative assessments. Examples will be provided of both types of assessments. The most widely familiar summative assessment is the state standardized tests. However, this example could possibly be argued to be defined more as a score as opposed to an assessment. Formative examples of assessment are more closely tied to the individual learner, and provide diagnosis or strategy for improvement. Though most would say formative assessments are primarily the types of assessments we are describing below, there is no reason why summative assessments could not posses the same types of characteristics as formative assessments.

Following the assessment review, common characteristics of assessments will be presented as determined by the committee. These characteristics are:

1. Assessment & Instruction are inseparable - If you can separate the instruction from the assessment, you don’t have an assessment.

2. Assessments have a specific purpose - They possess a goal or target as to what is being measured.

3. The results, or data, is time specific and by no means limit or define an individual with the exception of the identified goal or target at the instant of that assessment.

4. The results are dependent on motivation. If the results can be independent, then you don’t have an assessment you have a “score.” Scores and assessments are not the same thing.

Video Clip: Tom Chatfield: TED Video - 7 Ways Games Reward the Brain (Motivation) Fast forward to 8 minutes and 30 seconds:

Every time you hear him say game, think of learning and assessment instead.

5. Assessments provide guidance on how to improve the learning.

6. Just as the results are time specific, the assessment tool itself must adhere to the instructional and societal norms of the time period in order to be (the most) useful.

Video Clip: Social Aspects of Learning and Engaging (Full video, Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age - Session III available at

Video - Assessment (and therefore instruction too) is specific to learner’s moment in time i.e. TEDxSF - Scott Hess - Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them ← Think about the generation in our elementary schools now and how millennial characteristics are evolving in this bunch of learners...

7. Assessments should be designed based on the needs of the student in a developing modern world.

The last component of the presentation will be that the board directs staff to design and implement assessments that emphasize preparing children for a world that they will shortly inherit and to keep these ideals in mind when creating assessments:

1. Know who’s learning (What do they need/want? What’s fun/motivating for them?)

2. Build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into core assessment loop.

3. Change the learner assessment experience over time (a good learning experience takes the learner on a journey.)

4. Build assessments that reward what is learned and provide goals.

5. Create assessments that clearly define paths to future goals.

6. Design assessments that increase challenge and complexity: create conditions for flow.

7. Provide assessments that incorporate intrinsic motivators like power, autonomy, and belonging.

(The seven principles above were the result of assigning “assessment thinking” to the list that Amy Jo Kim is described as creating in the blog post,

A example of an assessment system that begins to contain many of these characteristics can be found here: The Classroom Badging System -

(image of squirrel courtesy of exfordy, on Flickr.

Monday, May 16, 2011

When Databases Ruled the Earth

When people think of computers and technology taking over civilization, they often think about armed robots, or robots with super human power such as in the Will Smith movie “I, Robot.” If technology and robots due take over it will be much more subtle than that. In a similar plot line, many people feel that education, and teachers in general, will be replaced by technology and computers. We do not have to worry so much with the threat of super human robots taking over, but what we should be cognitive of is the degree to which computers can store data, analyze data, compare vast amounts of data, and synthesize new information in just a blink of an eye.

In education we have evidence of tools like this in place right now. They are still rather crude, but they do provide a simple model of how this technology may work. Many of you have probably heard of Vantage Learning and their product, MyAccess. MyAccess is a web based writing tool for students. Students write to a specific prompt using the web based application and when they are completed with their writing the web application will fire back suggestions for how they can improve their work. This web based application is able to make recommendations to students based on the thousands and thousands of other writing assignments written to this same particular writing prompt. It has stored what qualities a good essay possesses for this prompt, and the qualities of a poorly written essay. It is then able to compare the student’s writing to this huge database of writing samples, and can then provide the student with recommendations based on what is missing from their work.

So let’s take this up a notch. We have had the ability to map the human genome now for what seems like an eternity. The genome is essentially a map that describes all of our individual genes. Each individuals genome is unique. However, there are also many similarities in genome maps. Currently we have been using these similarities to identify things that we have found common among individuals, whether that is health related similarities or physical similarities. When we ge to the point of having databases consisting of thousands and thousands, say millions, of individual human genomes and the technology to compare, analyze them; we then have the ability to synthesize new information from these comparisons. This information can then be provided to individuals with likely scenarios for their futures based on their genomes.

Now take this genome information and compare it to data stored in other databases. What other data you ask, essentially everything about us that is not related to our genome? We are the culmination of our experiences. These experiences are all stored in databases. The key word being “databases,” plural. Everything you purchase is stored in a database. Evey thing you eat, whether it’s purchased at the grocery store (think of your grocery receipt) or at a restaurant (think of your credit card receipt) is stored (potentially) in a database. Every television show you watch, every movie you download, every trip to the doctor is all stored in a database some where. The people you talk to on your mobile, the people you text, the people you “follow,” are all stored in a database.

Your children’s information is also stored in databases. Their grades, their assignments, their awards, the books they check out from the library; it’s all stored in a database. The friends that they hang out with and communicate with, and the places they hang out can all potentially be stored in a database.

If we begin comparing an individual student’s databases with thousands of other student databases, could we not provide recommendations to the student, or the parent, for improving their well being (learning, health, etc.) in the same way a web based writing application makes suggestions for improving a student’s writing skills?

If you then throw in the advances in technology as it relates to I/O (input and output) of “computers,” you can begin to see a time when this synthesized data can be delivered to the individual at anytime and on any device. For example, Google last week introduced a technology on their upcoming Android platform that will allow the camera on a hardware device to track a persons iris and provide information to the individual based on the location of their iris. Imagine eating dinner with your child at a Chinese food restaurant surrounded by beautiful Chinese paintings. Each one of those paintings is actually a “computer” and the canvas is actually a digital display device. The “picture” could recognize you (based on data stored in a database) and your child as you eat dinner; and then almost simultaneously compare the databases for each of you, your friends, your child’s grades, and within a split second provide you with information along the lines of things to discuss at the dinner table to help your child’s slumping ancient civilizations history grade. This information would be provided to you confidentially on your mobile you have resting on the table by your plate. Or it could be displayed on the digital canvas of the Chinese print on the wall behind your son’s head, held private by the constant measurement of your iris as you look at the framed picture, angling of the message’s pixels so that they are only visible to your eyes. What kind of information? How about talking points based on your child’s teacher’s current and upcoming lesson plans in his history class. Or, maybe you have a business associate in another state that you converse with regularly through social media who is going to be taking a trip to Mexico and will be staying near ancient Mayan ruins.

The true power of technology is the data that is stored within it. Someone will come up with the algorithms to take advantage of disparate databases combining what makes us who we are and to our experiences, providing us with a map of possible “learning” suggestions that are constantly updated and modified. This technology will change how we learn, and how we think of school, and who we consider our teachers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Classroom Badging System - Re-Evaluating Assessment Part II

Time afforded me during the second to last week in April, while the family was still in school, (spring break did not start until the following week for them) provided me with uninterrupted computer work time at home. There were not telephone calls, no interruptions, and except for the occasional land line call, and those I gave up answering years ago; it was great!

During that time I managed to scrape together a working beta, draft, “first-try” ...what ever you want to call it, badge assessment management system. Rather than restate what I said in the previous post all over again, this system and idea were the result of discussions that had taken place in our school district’s Innovative Schools Planning Committee in the preceding weeks. The discussions centered around student assessment, and the concepts we felt would be valuable in a effective student assessment system. The badge assessment ideas, and the resulting management system, are a working model of some of the concepts we discussed.

The committee realizes that there can never be just one assessment, but multiple measures should be used to gauge the successful learning of students. A badging system could easily fit within a total assessment strategy, and would provide some of the concepts that our current assessments systems lack. Some of these concepts are:

  • No ceiling on achievements.
  • Graphic, pictorial representation of achievement ideal for display and sharing.
  • No ceiling on what can be measured.
  • Any person with a stake in the success of the learner can contribute assessments, including the learner themselves.
  • High degree of assessment relevance for learner.
  • Assessment system can be deployed in multiple environments/formats.
  • Graphic, badge/display focus lends itself to a development of learner culture with emphasis on emotion, beauty, desire, creativity, etc.
  • Assessment system fosters intrinsic motivation.
  • Assessment systems fosters greater degree of “buy-in” from learner.
  • Assessment does not expire or is limited by a specific time period.
  • Assessments can be tied to real-world experiences.

The fun and challenging part for me during my uninterrupted computer time was to create a tool using technology that would help teachers to manage this type of assessment system. I decided to create a little web based system, and used a mySQL database as the backend and PHP to glue everything together. It was a great opportunity to dust off some skills I had been neglecting for awhile. In addition to these technologies I learned a little bit more about Spry objects in Adobe’s Dreamweaver , and very nice system called Smarty that provides a templating system to separate your html, or css design, from you PHP code. I nabbed Smarty out of the most recent version of Wicked Cool PHP Tricks by Steinmetz and Ward. The books a nice resource for other handy PHP recipes needed in the creation of basic web apps. As this was, as every time it is a learning experience for me, this little project gave me many new learning opportunities. (Actually, the project was also the basis for some ideas I was kicking around in my head related to the development of some Android and iOS applications using LiveCode . The LiveCode User Conference was the following week in San Jose. More information about my experience at the conference will follow in a later post.)

As with many things I put together fairly quickly, the code behind the system is poorly commented and the design is rather utilitarian. However, if you are interested in looking at how this thing works, or are interested in looking at the code that makes up the site, just shoot me an email.

You can access the site at:

You will need to log in with the following credentials:

Teacher - username: teacher password: password

Student - username: styler password: password

As I mentioned earlier, this site is very rough. There is no documentation or “help” screens. I’m hoping someone like yourself though won’t have any trouble figuring it out. Also, if you visit more than once, you are likely to see changes.

Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Re-Evaluating Assessment; Recognizing Achievement and Skills

My daughter is a daisy. A daisy is the entry level status of a Girl Scout. Like the Boys Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts are an organization of people that support local causes, learn about their world, and share experiences. Their accomplishments and experiences are recognized by the earning of badges that gets fastened to their uniform. This sash of badges provides a visual record of their experiences and accomplishments and are treasured by the girls that earn them.

There are many assessment systems that we use, outside of our schools, that are based on the similar principles. One obvious example is the assessment systems that are built into digital games. An elaborate example is the assessment system built into the game World of Warcraft (WOW). This assessment system has players earning honors, levels, and capabilities through their game play and are represented in an elaborate profile system within the game. The honors, levels, and capabilities are achieved through experiences and activities the players complete during game play.

Another example of an assessment system that you may be familiar with is the one found within the NikePlus running system. In this tool runners have the ability to log all their runs, sign up for challenges, track their progress, communicate with other runners, and get tips from one another on improving their running skills. Accomplishments are measured through earning awards (badges) for challenges met, and tracking progress through graphs and charts. These accomplishments and recognitions can be shared with friends on the site and to the rest of the world through social media tools.

These two assessments systems, though very different in the content areas that they assess, nevertheless have some very strong similarities. First, these assessment systems cater to the individual. They address the individual’s interest from within the confines of the total activity. For example, in WOW players can choose to work collaboratively to achieve honors and levels, or they can choose to work independently to achieve honors and levels. In the NikePlus assessment system, the individual can choose to focus on challenges such as burning calories, losing weight, increasing speed and a whole host of other specific challenges. The challenges and the area of assessment are under the control of the individuals. They are not predetermined or created by some higher organization. A second important similarity is that these systems foster a model of intrinsic motivation. The individual’s desire to to achieve and improve is based on what the individual wants to do, not on what some other person thinks they should do. Intrinsic motivation is a very powerful tool in learning and education and forms the foundation for all types of learning. One last similarity of these assessments tools is their reliance on a visual representation of the individual’s achievements. People have always seemed to gravitate to displaying their achievements and status through visual representations. I can think of many examples: beaded jewelry, military uniforms, letterman sports jackets, medals and trophies, letter abbreviations before and after names, i.e. , Dr, PhD, EdD, coat of arms, flags and banners, seals, etc. etc. Visual representations of our achievements and skills have been around a very long time.

My thoughts on these types of assessment systems, and how we assess students in our schools, was actually launched in relationship to our district’s Innovative Schools Committee work. In looking at what we would like to share with the school board, in terms of where we should be heading as a learning organization, the ideas of how we assess our students kept creeping back into my head. How useful is the current assessment system? Who is the systems useful for? Are there alternatives to the current system? Are there more relevant tools that are more current for our current environment?

It just so happened at about the same time I started formulating and idea for an alternative assessment system, the following items were shared by some of the people and groups I follow online. “Why Badges Work Better Than Grades” by Cathy Davidson, and available here: and “Badges in the real world - How badges lead to jobs, career advancement and new learning opportunities” by OpenMatt and available here: These two posts only reinforced my thinking in terms of looking at alternatives for how we assess children in our schools.

As you have probably deduced from above, the alternative assessment system I am dreaming up is based on a type of badging system. The following chart compares what a badging system has to offer as compared to our current assessment system in our schools, specifically the school report card.

Badging Assessment System

Report Card Assessment System

Graphic, pictorial representation, strong desire to display and share badges.Letter grades, A,B,C,D, F or O, S, N, U
No ceiling on achievements.A+ is the highest you can go.
No ceiling on what can be measured.Established by standards and governing organization.
Any person with a stake in the success of the learner can contribute assessments, including the learner themselves.Teacher is the assessment contributor.
Higher degree of assessment relevance for learner.Assessment record is limited in its relevance ability.
Assessment System can be deployed in multiple formats: specific content area, specific projects, theme/game based, etc.Assessment system is standardized and predefined.
Assessment System lends itself to development of a culture, or foundation that can capitalize on human characteristics such as emotion, beauty, desire, creativity, etc.Assessment system is limited in building culture or capitalizing on human characteristics
Fosters intrinsic motivation.Foster extrinsic motivation.
Fosters greater degree of buy-in from learner.Fosters limited buy-in from learner.
Assessment does not expire or is limited by a specific time period.Assessment tool is limited by predetermined amount of time, grade level, or age.
Assessments can be tied to real-world experiences.Assessment is tied to generalized content areas.

There are probably many more differences and a few similarities between the two types of assessment systems described above. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.

I am a geek. So you should probably realize that another big component to my ideas on an alternative assessment system would involve a technology component. The technology component focuses on the deployment and management of an assessment system based on badges. To be honest, the technology component interested me just as much as the alternative assessment system idea. This idea provided me with an opportunity to take something from an idea to an actual “application,” putting my teaching methods courses in the area of mySQL, PHP, and application development to good use … yes, I’m half-way joking, but truly believe if teachers came out of teaching programs with the ability to program and create tools for their students, I can only imagine how powerful that would be in our schools.

Stay tuned for part II ...

Monday, February 7, 2011

School Innovation Process - Part II: 5% Digital Proposal

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” - Dale Carnegie.

“The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all - doing nothing.”
- Benjamin Fraklin.

Just getting started with difficult tasks is sometimes the most difficult part. In regards to new ideas, the path of least resistance is not to fight an idea, and it’s obviously not to implement a new idea either. The path of least resistance is to do nothing; to be frozen in inactivity. If you're anything like me, most of you can attest from your own experiences, taking the first steps on a difficult project can often spur a bout of procrastination, but once the first steps are taken, often, things start to flow. Even if the flow was not what was originally anticipated, it seldom leads to wasted efforts. In terms of taking action to improve our public schools, much has been discussed recently about the use of technology in the news:

School CIO: The New One-to-One

Online Course Reviews: The Rise of K12 Blended Learning

Three Trends That Will Shape the Future of Curriculum

Teacher-Replacing Tech: Friend or Foe?

Teachers, Parents Question Education Reform

The writing is on the wall and the belief that an online component to public education is inevitable. Many private companies are coming out with education solutions. However these companies are commercial businesses with the ultimate goal of satisfying investors and earning money. Commercial developed curriculum can create instructional materials that address state standards, but they cannot create resources that effectively address local community needs. This is because they purposely create curriculum that can address the widest audience as possible. This inevitably will lead to curriculum that is very generic, or average at best. (I should say this argument also holds true for the current textbook materials we have even using for decades.)

Many people have a miss guided perception of technology in schools and digital curriculum. The ideas that computers are going to replace teachers is ridiculous. The evidence supporting the use of digital curriculum is supported in the concept of a blended instructional model. One where students continue to attend regular classes with other students and a teachers, but also are receiving instruction through the use of digital content outside of their normal classroom.

In terms of school innovation in general, one of the most widely sought after innovations is the ability to create more time; more time for learning, more time for school, more time for PBL (Project Based Learning), more time for meaningful computer usage, more time for professional development, more time for PLC (Professional Learning Communities), more time for relationship development, more time for individualized instruction, more time for feedback, more time for assessment, more time for student interests, and on and on and on. Many have tried to synthesize “new time.” Most of these have been focused on changing the structure of a typical school day. They have created block scheduling; class periods that last for hours as opposed to 55 minutes. They have lengthened the school day, to increase time students are required to be in their seats. Most of these have met with varying degrees of success, primarily based on whether or not curriculum and instruction had changed in response to the addition of more instructional time. One problem with these strategies is that they do not address the time outside of students in the classroom. In other words, teachers are still provided the same amount of time to develop the instruction for these longer class periods as they had when they were designing instruction for a fifty-five minute period. (Granted these examples are middle and high school examples, elementary schools face similar daunting tasks due to required minutes of instruction in content areas, and the emphasis on addressing standards found within the state assessments.) The thought being that developing instruction to capitalize on longer instructional periods takes more time, not just in the sense of the teacher developing an actual lesson, but also the fact that teachers will require professional development to effectively design those lessons to utilize the additional resource (time). So if we appear to agree that more time seems to be one acceptable solution/innovation that we have actually acted upon in the past in our schools, albeit one that is pretty much null on the scale of disrupt-ability, then how do we magically create more hours in a day that addresses all aspects of school and education, not just student seat time?

Here is my proposal. The components of which are fairly obvious, and one that leads us through a common agreed upon notion in terms of innovation. The simplicity of the idea at the initial phase will create results that compound as we get better and better at the it eventually leading to the potential to radically change how we educate children. I actually believe we have been in this early innovation stage for a number of years now, but are only now entering a period of time that all the pieces are coming together. Our actions today will only control the speed at which we get to the ultimate result and the degree to which we decide to use up resources in the process. This innovative idea is already in practice to some degree, in pockets around the country, however it is handicapped by its self-restricted small scale. The most effective use of this innovation only reaches its full potential when the number of people implementing it is beyond the size of a single school. What is this grand idea? The simple idea that school districts mandate that all teachers be required to convert 5% of their classroom curriculum into a digitally deliverable, shareable, modifiable resource.

How does the conversion of traditional classroom instruction to digital content address the ability to create time? It does so indirectly. A common argument about requiring teachers to convert 5% of their curriculum each year is the idea that they would just be duplicating what they do in the traditional classroom, just putting it in a digital format. This is actually a valid argument. But it falls directly within the acceptable norm for the initial phase of this innovation. This is common with any type of technology. The first use is to actually automate a current practice by either making it easier to do or doing it faster. This automation principle may not be relevant to education in the beginning, because teachers would naturally say that the time it takes to create these initial digital resources could be well spent in other work related activities. But that is kind of my point. If the content that they are initially converting can be delivered digitally to students, why not deliver it digitally and use the saved classroom time for more guided complex instruction? For most teachers, converting components of their curriculum into a digital format would be something completely new to them. However, if the results of their initial efforts are successful, it brings up one very important fact; if students are able to access the learning content digitally on their own, why have we been using up valuable time in the classroom for this teacher led activity? Why don’t we recoup the time we save with the digital delivery of content and utilize it in the classroom with more meaningful face-to-face instruction, and design an instructional day that can accommodate professional development?

The practice of this innovation over time would lead to additional innovations that would further improve on the initial idea. For instance, over a number years, the coordinated development of digital resource by teachers would lead to a very large library of digital instructional content. These content resources would be extremely valuable in the sense that they are locally created and address the local population. If and when a school district were to begin offering innovative alternative education programs to students, they would have a collection of instructional resources that could be readily available to that alternative education program. In addition, with an ample supply of teacher created digital resources, the purchase of “textbooks” could be eliminated and the teacher created resources could be used to create the district authored "textbooks."

This proposal though simple in idea, is vast in its implementation complexities. But by successfully addressing the all the complexities of this idea, and changing our expectations of administrators, teachers, students and parents, a few years down the road we could be really in a position to improve our public education system. Digital resources the teachers would be creating would also evolve into more powerful learning tools, a curriculum, over time capitalizing on the continued sophistication that teacher would be acquiring. It is not out of the realm of believability that with the advances in technology and software development you could have teachers creating their own applications to help improve student achievement. Granted those are extremely optimistic predictions in our current economic environment, but after a decade or so of implementation, I believe we could be at that point.

The following is some brainstorming on some of the complexities of what a proposal such as this would entail. I'm sure I've missed plenty, so if you have other ideas, questions or comments, please post them below in the comment section.

(CreativeCommons Licensed Image Courtesy of Don Wright on

Friday, February 4, 2011

School Innovation Process - Part I

Back in the Spring of 2010, I was asked, along with one of our site principals, to chair a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community members to begin investigating the future for our school district and which directions the district should be investigating for long term planning. Initial meetings focused on determining the needs of our students, schools and community as we move into the future. We listed and ranked those needs and identified the top needs receiving the highest rankings. The highest scoring main categories were: Student Communication, School to Home/Home to School Communication, Improving Instructional Program, Technology, School Culture, and Professional Development. Under each of these main categories were specific needs that were submitted and ranked high by committee members. Once those needs were identified, the committee began to research how other schools around the country and world, were addressing those same or similar needs. The results of that research were shared with the committee on subsequent dates. Not surprising, one common thread that appeared through each of the main categories was the use of technology to address the needs.

The committee also interviewed students, adults who were products of the school district, and members of the local community to gain insight as to what they felt was good about their educational experience and what they felt could have improved their educational experience. Our guests had varying experiences with the educational system, primarily due each of their unique life experiences. One idea that shared some commonality was the importance of cultivating caring relationships. This idea of relationships is important because in points at an obvious fact, we are all different. Strong relationships are built upon one to one, honest, personable contact. I’m going to take a little liberty here and stretch an idea, if students feel relationships are important, and yet all students are unique and different, how should be we addressing our approach to teaching and learning when we have 30 students in the classroom?

The answer to that question is designing instruction that is unique to each student. That is only possible when you have fostered a strong relationship with each of your students, clearly identified each of their learning needs, and possess an instruction strategies supply that you can use to pull out tools specific to their needs. At best, what we have been doing up to this point, is grouping our students together (i.e. grade levels, reading levels, pre algebra, algebra, etc. etc.) with what we feel are similar needs and using our “bag” of strategies to address those similarly grouped student needs. Does this strategy work? Sure, up to a point. Could we do better? Of course.

Our school innovation committee is at the point now where we would like to take some recommendations to our school board. These recommendation will focus on what we feel the next steps should be in preparing our schools for the future. I, being a member of that committee, have some thoughts on this and have developed a recommendation I will share at the next meeting. I will explain my idea in a future post. But I will finish with two recordings and a reference to one of my last posts.

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn have written a book titled, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns . In his recent interview on TheFutureofEducation, Mr. Horn explains the main themes behind his book and their recent updates to the book. I have excerpted out a section of that interview below with the section relevant to my idea. The full recording of his interview is available here:

The second recording excerpt below is from Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. In this recording she shares the 2010 National Education Technology Plan and responds to a question related to why innovation is only found in pockets across our educational system. The full recording of her interview is available here:

Finally, my post here, gets to the big idea I will be sharing in more depth in a future post.

Feedback encouraged...What do you think?

(image courtesy of wwworks on

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Never Ending Intravenous Drip of Potential Learning & My “Minions”

( I love the juxtaposition of the word minion as it relates to Twitter... ;-)

Twitter is like a never ending intravenous drip of potential learning. To prove my point, from the time I left the office Tuesday evening, through the wee hours of the night, to the time I arrived Wednesday morning, my Twitter “information peddlers” had been busily working away sending me potential useful information to help me do my job. I don’t pay them anything, and they don’t send me invoices, but they provide a valuable service. If you haven’t learned to take advantage of these “busy bees,” you are really missing out. You are cheating yourself. Get with it!

Here’s an example, while I was at the gym, spending time with my family, and sleeping, my “minions” sent me the following:

1. “Deep Media,” Transmedia, What’s the Difference?: An Interview with Frank Rose (Part One)
by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, USC Professor interviews Frank Rose on his new book -- The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories. Mr. Rose describes a concept of “deep media.” His description of deep media involves stories around how deep a individual wants to immerse themselves into a story. He describes his research in story telling and games and how they both relate to deep media and concepts of transmedia. How might this information relate to teaching and learning in the classroom? For me that’s pretty easy, teaching, and for the matter communication, is all about telling stories. I feel the better we can tell our classroom “stories” the better opportunity for our students to immerse themselves in classroom stories, the better their learning.

2. The New York Times - The Opinion Pages
Products of Rote Learning

Leo Botstein, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalim Symphony Orchestra, and the president of Bard College takes a critical look at higher education and its current practices of undergraduate programs that do little to inspire students to develop a passion for learning.

3. Shift to The Future
This is Brian Huhn’s blog and on this day Brian shares his creative thoughts on what the first day of school could look like in the year 2020.

4. Fast
State of the Union Address Word Cloud Shows Obama Thinking About “People”

Kit Eaton runs President Obama’s State of the Union Address through Wordle to analyze the “big words” and “small words.”

5. New York Times
The Opinion Pages
A Different Type of Student

C. Kent McGuire, former dean of the Temple University College of Education and now the president of the Southern Education Foundation. Mr. McGuire expresses his concern for higher education and its need to adapt to the modern times. These concerns sound very similar to the types of issues we all face in education.

6. Stager-to-Go
Try Not to Cry!
Stager-to-Go is Gary Stager’s blog and in this piece he describes his work between the years of 1999 and 2002 when he worked with children incarcerated in one of Main’s prisons for teenagers. His story describes a student by the name of Joey that learns to explore a passion for radio production, resulting in his work airing on National Public Radio. It’s a poignant reminder of the need for all of us to not give up a children and the need to encourage the exploration of student interests in our education system.

7. The New York Times
The Opinion Pages - Opinionator
Thread of the Union

This is a series of posts on President Obama’s State of the Union Address. This particular link goes straight to Andrew Rotherham, a cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income students achieve, thoughts on the President’s speech regarding education.

8. The Washington Post
The Answer Sheet
Obama’s faulty education logic: What he said and failed to say
Valerie Strauss asks some clarification questions following President Obama’s State of the Union Address and his statements on education.

9. dy/dan
[WCYDWT] Obama Botches SOTU Infographic, Stock Market Reels
During last night State of the Union Address, the President provided some charts to make his points. In one instance comparing the gross domestic product of the United States and China, a reader of his blog pointed out that the circle representing the domestic product for the United States was out of proportion. Mr. Dylan turned this fact into a math lesson on ratios and propaganda.

10. The Washington Post
GWU launches online prep school
This article describes a new partnership between George Washington University and K12inc. for a entirely online college-preparatory high school.

(Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Will Merydith on