Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Google Earth - Let's Bring the Universe Inside the Walls of Our Classroom

     When creating lessons that teach 21st Century skills (Problem Solving, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Ethics and Social Responsibility), one must make sure that the lesson content is presented in a way that is relevant to his or her students.  Personalizing the lesson with the students' interest in mind is a great way to create a connection between the students and the lesson content.  After all, why would one want to sit through a boring lesson that is completely irrelevant to him or her?  I recently prepared a lesson for my students using Google Earth as a way to extend the lesson content, trying to forge a connection between them and the ancient text that I was teaching them.  Google Earth is a great Web 2.0 tool that is so much more than just a universe that you can rotate.  With Google Earth, I am able to take my students anywhere - across the planet Earth and even into the Solar System.
      My original intention with using Google Earth was to show my students the area of the world that we were learning about in class, which was Urfa, located in the southern part of Turkey.  However, there are much simpler tools that I could have used in order to do this.  Not only was I able to show my students the specific area relevant to our lesson, but Google Earth enables my students to collaborate with each other while using critical thinking skills.  Our actual lesson focused on our forefather Abraham's journey from Haran (known nowadays to be Urfa, Turkey)  to Shechem (Nablus), which is the first place he stopped after entering the Land of C'naan.  My students are able to drop pins and measure the distance from one place to the next using the Google Earth ruler.
     This was great and my students thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, Urfa, Turkey has no relevance to my students' lives whatsoever.  And neither did the distance of 375 miles.  What does that mean to a bunch of second graders?  Absolutely nothing.  So, in order to make the lesson content relevant to my students, we decided to rotate the Universe to the Mid-Atlantic area of the USA.  My students then had to collaborate using the Google Earth tools in order to discover what city or cities are 375 miles away from their hometown of Baltimore, MD.  It was not so easy.  Before participating in the activity, they guessed which cities would fall in that range of distance.  Unfortunately, through participating in the activity themselves, they found that they had a lot to learn about US geography and where certain US cities are located.  But the fact of the matter is that they enjoyed the activity, and lesson content was presented to them in a relevant way.  Now, how long did it take Abraham to travel 375 miles with camels?  That would be an entirely separate discussion.    

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Collaboration Fluency: Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment

I am sure you have heard a lot of talk about 21st Century Learning environments and collaboration fluency.  I am also sure that you have heard that all of this is very important in the future of education.  But have you been told why all of this is important?

The following blog post is a summary and reflection of a presentation given by Lee Crockett at ISTE 2011 in Philadelphia, PA.  The title of the presentation is Collaboration Fluency: Creating a Learning Environment for the Digital Age Classroom and can be accessed at

We are now well into the digital generation and because of that, we face a world on the move.  In addition, we now face a different kind of student.  These students are not just a little bit different, but are completely different than we are trained to teach and how we expect them to be.  According to Crockett, these students are even different neurologically.  They way they think and learn are different.  Because of these two factors, literacy is no longer enough.

Crockett asked the audience the following question:

Is the focus of your school and in your classroom on short or long-term goals?  Do you have a balance between short and long term goals?  Many of us are focused on short-term goals (focus on the "now" and getting our students ready for the next day, test, etc.  We take previous test data and use it to determine how to prepare our students for the next test.  However, we keep revising the curriculum

Long term goals are future focused unlike short term goals.  They cause us to think, "What are the critical skills students need to be successful in life beyond school?"

  1. Problem Solving 
  2. Creativity - in digital and non-digital environments - create new and useful solutions to problems that do not exist yet
  3. Think analytically - compare, contrast, evaluate, synthesize, and apply without instruction and supervision
  4. Collaborate - seamlessly in physical and virtual spaces with physical and virtual partners
  5. Communicate - in multiple multi-media formats
  6. Ethics, Action, Accountability - personal responsibility, global accountability

Where are the above in the curriculum guide?  They're just not there.  People are still debating over what 21st Century Skills are.  If we are not measuring how our students are getting the above goals according to Crockett, then this means that we are just focused on short term goals - the "here and now" as opposed to life beyond their schooling.  These six things listed below are the 21st Century Fluencies and are processes as to how students will master the skills listed above.  How do we teach creativity as a process by problem solving?  If the above goals will be our long term goals, how do we align our short-term goals with them?


According to Crockett, many educators state that they want to help their students master 21st Century skills; however, they are prevented from doing so by the state mandated "bubble test" or state standardized test.  Teachers feel "hand-cuffed" into the curriculum because they must focus on the students spitting back as much content as fast as possible because they know they don't have enough time to "cover" all of the content.

How do we do it all?  How do we deal with the short-term goals and with the long-term goals?  How do we make the change?  In short, by making a change to a 21st Century Learning Environment.

The Elements of 21st Century Learning
Defined by Richard Saul Wurman, "Learning can be seen as the acquisition of information, but before it can take place, there must be interest - interest precedes learning."  Wurman calls this "Velcro Learning" as our minds must be stimulated in some way in order to learn.  Learning must be sticky.  

This is all part of personalized learning.  In order to teach our students, there must be some sort of relevance in our lesson content.  If there is no relevance towards our students, learning simply will not happen.  The first element of 21st Century Learning is relevance.  

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy
The bottom levels of the pyramid (Remembering, Understanding, Applying) are referred to as "Lower Order Thinking Skills."  The upper levels of the pyramid (Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) are known as "Higher Order Thinking Skills."  

As we move up the taxonomy, the skills move from left brain to right brain in focus.  The highest level which is creating, refers to the ability to create new ideas, products, ways of viewing things, designing, constructing, planning, and producing. Crockett suggests that if we want to cultivate higher order thinking skills, why not just start at the top?  Why not just have our students create?  Creating is the second element of the 21st Century Learning Environment.  

Unfortunately, what is happening in the classroom of many teachers is exactly the opposite.  Our students are  passive learners as opposed to active learners.  When our students are seeing and hearing us, they are actually more passive than active participants.  In order to be active participants in the classroom, our students need to be ones who are actively involved as opposed to just sitting at their desks.  The best way that students can become active learners is by teaching the task to another person, doing the action, or simulating the task.  Simulating or doing the real life thing is the best way for students to learn, according to Crockett.  

In addition, a 21st Century Learning environment gets the real world involved.

+ Creating
+ Real-world
21st Century Learning

This is a different kind of learning environment which provides students problem solving, challenges and multiple processes with real world activities.  The learning is not scripted, the problems are provided and solutions have to be developed by the students.  21st Century Learning requires that students use higher order thinking skills to create real world solutions to relevant real world problems.  We need to shift the instructional approach of us teachers lecturing all of the time to students discovering their own learning.  We need to be facilitating and guiding our students in order to enable them to become active learners in the classroom.  21st Century Learning is about our students' learning - not about our teaching.  

Many teachers doubt that this change in their instruction will work.  They are scared that their students will not be able to pass their tests with changing their methods of instruction.  I can honestly attest that using such methods of concept discovery learning and project based will indeed not only work, but they will enable our students to reach even greater heights.  Rather than our students sitting at their desks and being passive, they will be able to take a much bigger role in their learning process - they will become owners of their own learning.  

Even after students take their tests (short-term goals), by learning in a 21st Century Learning environment, they still have the six critical skills that are necessary in mastering long-term goals.  
  1. Problem Solving 
  2. Creativity - in digital and non-digital environments - create new and useful solutions to problems that do not exist yet 
  3. Think analytically - compare, contrast, evaluate, synthesize, and apply without instruction and supervision 
  4. Collaborate - seamlessly in physical and virtual spaces with physical and virtual partners
  5. Communicate - in multiple multi-media formats 
  6. Ethics, Action, Accountability - personal responsibility, global accountability
Not only will the students do better and be more engaged in their learning, but they will have acquired the necessary skills for life as well.  If we are going to prepare our students for life beyond school, then we need to teach 21st Century Fluency.  Our students need to become global digital citizens.  

Why is there disconnect in our classrooms?  Through activities such as video games, our students are constantly provided with instant feedback.  Our classrooms do not function that same way.  Our students have less interaction with their teachers and do not get instant feedback.  When our students are playing video games, they are often playing against and collaborating with other people in real time.  These people might not even be from their neighborhood.  They could be from anywhere on the planet. 

The problem with only focusing on the short-term goals and not the long-term goals is that the long-term goals are necessary for jobs that haven't even been created yet - specifically those that depend on digital literacy.  According to Lee Crockett, anything that involves routine cognitive work or repetitive mental tasks   (book keepers, data entry clerks, even teachers) can be outsourced.  Personally, as a teacher, I have a big problem with the claim that teachers can be outsourced.  Apps (and technology in general) can reinforce the content being taught - teachers still need to be the ones to teach it - but that's a separate discussion.  We are seeing more and more outsourcing and more and more private contracting.  This kind of global interaction is already happening - we are relying on technology to carry out routine tasks for us instead of people.  

The jobs that are using higher order thinking skills - specifically creativity, remain.  Creative class jobs are facilitated by technology and will not be replaced by it.  They are not being replaced by technology.  The future of this country is creative class jobs, which includes utilizing skills such as problem solving, creativity, managing people, higher level skills, on the go, complete real time, non-routine cognitive tasks.  These people  will have to work with people where the work is being outsourced.   They will have to be able to manage global partners and work with people on the other side of the planet.  This is collaboration fluency - the skill that we need to be teaching our students while they are in our classrooms.  

Everything manages to happen in a global, virtual workplace - this is our future, so it is our job to prepare our students for it.  We need to teach kids how to collaborate by giving them a process which is collaboration fluency.  

The Five "E's" for Collaboration Fluency:
  1. Establish -  Establish the group, the roles and responsibilities, the norms, the group contract
  2. Envision - look at the purpose as to why the group was set up 
  3. Engineer - set up a plan to figure out how the group is going to get to where it needs to go
  4. Execution - put the plan into action - everyone completes the tasks assigned to them
  5. Examine - were the goals accomplished successfully?
Envision what your classroom would look like if you had the above steps for Collaboration Fluency posted on your wall.  

One of the areas of 21st Century Learning where we need our students to become fluent is the area of Media Fluency.

Media Fluency
This goes beyond being able to operate a digital camera, creating a podcast, or writing a document.   It actually has two components:
1) Media Input
2) Media Output
Media fluency requires that one is able to decode media and choose the best type of media that one can communicate one's message in.

Skills Necessary for Media Fluency:
1) Listen -   Not just an auditory skill, but really hearing and thinking of the content critically, whether it's a website, blog, TV show, podcast.  One needs to be able to really decode the message that is being said, understand it, and evaluate how well it is being said.  One needs to be able to separate the medium from the message.  What is the message that is being said?  The user must be able to verbalize the message clearly.  One must also be able to verify the message - is the message a fact or an opinion?  As far as the medium is concerned, the reader needs to consider the form and the design.  How does the content look?  Does the message flow?  Are the message, chosen medium, and the target audience in total alignment?  The students must be able to know this and analyze this.  

Leverage - We need to teach kids the skills to leverage media effectively.  How do we do that?  By teaching them to separate the message from the medium.  First, understand the content of the message.  Second, be aware of what the outcome is.  Consider the content and the outcome you are looking for.  

Kids are bursting with the desire to do more in school than to just sit and listen.  We've got to make this shift in how we are teaching them if we're going to allow them to do it.

Before watching Lee Crockett's presentation, I knew that creating a 21st Century Learning environment was important as well as the long-term skills that we need to teach our students.  However, I did not fully understand why.  I have been told many times that we need to prepare our students for jobs that have not even been created yet; however I did not realize how important that was or why.  I did not fully understand that so many jobs that involve repetitive cognitive tasks and that these jobs have no future since they will be outsourced.  If it is cheaper to have technology complete a task than to pay a person to do the same job and the technology will complete the task in an efficient manner, than it makes more sense to use the technology for the job.  I do disagree (and I am sure other teachers will as well) with Lee Crockett's statement that teachers can be outsourced as well.  I do agree in many cases that in schools using a 21st Century Learning environment, those teachers who utilize educational technology to help their students learn will replace those teachers who are not utilizing educational technology.

There are many teachers who will be resistant to the changes necessary to creating a 21st Century Learning environment.  Why?  Because change is not easy.  Many teachers will not want to change their instruction that they have been using for many years prior to this.  In addition, creating lessons for a 21st Century Learning requires time, effort, and proper training.  It is not something that happens overnight.  No effective PD (professional development) does.  High quality effective professional development takes months; it requires constant reflection, review, and the ability to modify based on the needs of the teacher's class.

I can honestly attest that I have implemented instructional methods in my classroom that support a 21st Century Learning environment.  Frankly, it works.  Using methods of instruction such as concept-mapping, -project-based learning, and the concept-discovery method of learning, we are putting the students at the forefront of their educational experiences.  We are putting them in the driver seats and we are giving them the keys to drive their educational experiences to much farther distances than we can take them on.  We are enabling them to become the "sages on stage" while we are becoming the "guides on the side."  All students want to learn - we need to believe that.  Even more so, all students want to learn when we present them with relevant content and opportunities for them to take control of their own learning.  I look forward to the challenges and adventures that lie ahead of me in creating a 21st Century Learning environment.  I also look forward to learning from my students who are my own teachers as I facilitate their learning.  Now that is priceless.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Virtual Environments: Second Life

As part of my EdTech program, one of my assignments for my Web 2.0 Tools course was to explore various worlds of Second Life, a virtual environment.  According to many educators, virtual environments can be excellent for teaching and learning.  Providing a virtual environment such as Second Life is as a method of learning is different than other Web 2.0 Tools. Virtual environments enable students to learn beyond the covers of the textbook or walls of the classroom by taking them to different environments or worlds.  The students choose avatars and then are able to play, explore, socialize, and participate in activities with others.

One of my tasks was to participate in a treasure hunt on an island in Second Life.  I was given instructions as to how to properly complete the task beforehand.  I followed the arrows leading me to the first treasure chest of the hunt.  Upon finding the treasure chest and opening it, I found a bunch of items deemed unnecessary and inappropriate for elementary students.  I continued on with the treasure hunt.  Upon reaching the second treasure chest, I found that it cost money to open it.  I was told that the treasure hunt was free and I continued to look for other treasure chests but did not find any.

I continued exploring the island but was really not impressed with what I had found on the island.  Since this island included a lot of marine life (different kinds of salt water and freshwater fish and other creatures), I could see a teacher using this in an educational setting.  However, it would not be my personal choice to enable students to explore a setting virtually.  It could be there are some great worlds on Second Life to use in the educational setting; I honestly do not know because I was not going to spend more time looking for them.

From this activity I learned the following the following two lessons:

1) Before introducing a virtual environment (or any Web 2.0 Tool) to one's classroom, it is extremely important that one (the teacher) researches it.  The site might appear to be free yet have hidden costs that you are not aware of.  Or the site might appear at first to be clean and clear of inappropriate content and is therefore suitable for an educational setting, but when spending an appropriate amount of time researching it, you will find that indeed that is just not the case.  Don't assume anything; you know what that leads to.

2) When researching the site or tool if you (the teacher) become annoyed or frustrated while doing so due to various factors (the site has not been properly updated or the process is not appearing to be as smooth as you thought it would be) and you are finding that much time is being wasted, do not use it in your classroom. Assuming that you are a tech savvy educator, chances are that if you are becoming frustrated and are becoming impatient with the activity or tool, your students will also - and at a much faster rate than you did.  As educators, we are expected to have plenty of patience and flexibility for our students; we cannot expect them to have the same amount of patience when learning.

If you are looking to use Second Life as a learning tool for your students, I wish you a lot of luck.  But I would rather use the time and use the concept of "First Life," enabling me to interact with my students instead of them using a virtual environment which is foreign to them and could in fact be harmful to them.  Just remember that teachers teach and technology does not replace them.  Technology is merely a tool; let's not go overboard with it and expect it to do more than it should.  Let's make sure it doesn't do harm towards our students and that it only does good.