Sunday, July 29, 2007

Communication and Flat-Classroom Projects

I was inspired by a post during the school year at Julie Lindsay's E-Learning Blog. Julie, Vicki Davis, a number of educators and their students have been engaged in the Horizon Project. A cursory explanation of the project is that it is a multi-classroom student collaborative to develop a wiki on emergent technologies.

The concern was raised regarding the confusion students were experiencing from alternate spellings for certain English language words. My original comment amounted to 'Don't worry about it, the students will benefit from figuring it out themselves' and I linked to an article I had read about other young students here.

While to me, alternate spellings seemed only mildly problematic, it may be a sign of some issues yet to arise. As I began to plan for my own flat classroom projects, what other communication concerns do I need to address as learning moves from immediate to asynchronous?

This post (and probably a few more) represents a reflection on my learning and should not be confused with a treatise on communication theories. I have been greatly enlightened by a series of essays here. They represent introductory concepts but I believe most educators will find them interesting reading.

A General Model of Communication

I first came across Shannon-Weaver when our Marine Research students were trying to find a way to compare biodiversity data gathered from a number of communities. The Shannon-Weaver Biodiversity Index came out of the work Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver did for Bell Labs in the 1940's.

While the original research had nothing to do with biodiversity, it had everything to do with improving the communication of information. The initial communication model came out of an effort to reduce mechanical noise, or interference, from the information-carrying signal in telecommunications. (Bell Labs? Telephone? Hello.)

Their original model proposes that all communication systems include essentially 5 parts:

  • an information source which produces the message to be communicated
  • a transmitter which converts the message into a signal
  • a channel which is the medium used to transmit the signal
  • a receiver to reconstruct the message from the signal
  • a destination which is the intended target of the message

Mechanical noise might be generalized as any source which restricts, degrades or otherwise interferes with the integrity of the original message. While noise can be introduced at any point in the model, we are considering, in this post, interference whereby the signal received is not identical to the signal transmitted.

So, if we were to assign the 5 essential elements of a communication system to a simplified model of a flat-classroom project it might look like this ....

... and the noise addressed by Shannon-Weaver would be introduced inclusive of components 2, 3 and 4. The analogous noise in a flat-classroom system is ultimately the result of a mismatch between the operations of the transmitter and the receiver. The question is then, "what noise sources might we encounter in our system?"

A short list might include:

  • Bandwidth
  • Operating Systems - not so much platform but the version of the OS could impact item 3
  • Browser incompatibility- different ways browsers display mark-up, plug-in availability for handling media files.
  • Filters, Filters, Filters!

Take heart! These problems are surmountable.

Addressing these issues will require a good working relationship between the classroom teacher and the IT person (people). While I know that there are some "IT departments that s**k", (Call me old-fashioned, but I don't let my students use that word either.), I personally found people able and willing to support what I tried to do this year. Network filters are the biggest roadblocks to this type of project. I wish I had more access to directly handle this problem. As it stands now, there is a request and review process in order to have a site unblocked. The positive side is that, to date, I have not been refused a request.

So, establish a communication link with someone in IT.

While Shannon-Weaver is a good place to start a discussion about communication systems and flat-classroom projects, there are some limitations in its strict application.

  • It's obvious linearity.
  • It, ideally, addresses the technological aspects of communication and thus...
  • ...It operates irregardless of the meaning contained within the signal (message).

Shannon-Weaver was not inordinately concerned with the communication of intent, purpose or meaning. Yet, this is really at the core of our flat-classroom activities. Noise, in this case semantic noise, is not introduced because of a mismatch of technologies, but because of a mismatch which exists between the source and the receiver. (Items 1 and 2 in Figure 2). Such as occurs with different spellings for the same word.

Ahh.. now we have finally gotten to the original prompt for the post, but I think that topic will have to wait for next time.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Online learning earns a net gain"

This was the headline for an article that appeared in my local newspaper. An online version of the article can also be found here (Niesha Lofing, McClatchy News Service). I was wondering how long it might be before the reporting of a teacher using the internet in their classroom is no longer "news." To those outside of the classroom, it must look as if we are late to the table of information technology. From the viewpoint of an administrator:
"There is definitely a trend in the educational community at large of using the Internet in the classroom," said Bart O'Brien, superintendent of the Placer Union High School District.
So, how long would it take before things really begin to change? The changes needed seem to be painstakingly slow. Will I see “School 2.0 “ in my lifetime? Is a "trend" going to be enough to affect the changes needed? How long before comments like the one quoted from the principal are no longer newsworthy?

I do believe the reporter is looking in the right place, the classroom. The agent of change will most likely be the classroom teacher. Will there be an evolution to Teacher 2.0?

So, I began to think about it terms of what I teach, biology, and how things evolve. As the saying goes, individuals don’t evolve, populations evolve. Biologists look at the changes in frequency for a particular allele (form of a gene), say a, in a population normally at equilibrium for two alleles, say A and a. If the allele frequency in the population remains stable from generation to generation, then the population is not evolving for that allele. There is a principle known as the Hardy-Weinberg rule, which describes what it takes to maintain a stable allele frequency in a population. The H-W Rule states that the allele frequency will remain stable if ; 1) there are no mutations, 2) the population is infinitely large and is isolated form other populations, 3) if mating is random with respect to alleles and 4) if all individuals survive and reproduce equally.

If we consider our population to be the population of classroom teachers and our allele to be behaviors which include technology in the classroom. Now the question is, will the population of classroom teachers “evolve” into teachers using technology like that which is implied in the term Web 2.0.?

Let’s assess this question In light of the H-W rule,

1) A mutation. A change in the allele (behavior). Assuming, as in nature, mutations don’t start from scratch, they are small changes in established alleles. What could cause a teacher utilizing Web 1.0 to mutate into one to using Web 2.0? How about Did You Know? It has already gone viral! Viruses are known agents of genetic change.

2) An infinitely large, isolated population. The population of teachers is large, but certainly not infinite. The idea of isolation, in digital terms, is beginning to be unfathomable. The world is flat!

3) Random mating. The fact that teachers on the web seek out other teachers on the web suggests that there is selective “mating”. There is a deliberate and directed coupling of individuals and ideas. This is not random.

4) Survival. Well, this one I’m not sure of, yet. If there is no survival advantage to individuals with the mutation, then items one, two and three have no consequential effect on the frequency of the allele. The mutation dies with the individual. The change in behavior, strategy, pedagogy will have to make the teacher better suited to survive in the changing environment of education. What selective pressures are going to be acting on this mutation once it is introduced into the population? The future needs of our students? The school of 2.0? 2020 Vision?

This last item really is driving many discussions. It is also going to exert the greatest selective pressure on our analogous “allele”. As we do now, we will continue to see “Teacher 2.0” pop-up in the population in a generalized form, utilizing a variety of 2.0 tools. Eventually, as “School 2.0” (our environment) establishes itself, it will begin to exert pressures which will probably create new niche species from this original population. The problem is that in biological situations this change takes a long time.

How long? I’m not sure.

Okay. Well at least I remain hopeful

Friday, March 30, 2007

Worth the Risk

The recent assaults on Kathy Sierra only underscore the importance of teachers in promoting acceptable use of the internet and exposing the insidious nature of cyberbullying.
I have been teaching science for 20 years . Risk assessment and safety are topics discussed the first week of every school year.
Let me tell you, the science laboratory is a dangerous place and the potential for bodily injury or worse is present. Yet we allow, dare I say, encourage our students to participate in laboratory activities every year in our science curriculum. Why? Risk/Benefit assessment. The risk of having students participating in properly operated and maintained laboratory facility as part of a high school course of study is far outweighed by the benefits of inquiry that can only be attained by a hands-on lab experience.
Are there concerns? Yes, but students are instructed in proper procedures for safely conducting themselves in the lab and then monitored throughout the activity.
Have the safety issues changed over the past 20 years? Yes.
Do we close down high school lab facilities as new safety issues arise? No.
There is a deliberate and collaborative effort on the part of the science teaching community to develop and communicate new protocols to allow students to continue working safely in the lab.
For example, during the 1980's, concerns were raised about the risks of AIDS infection during the blood typing lab conducted in most high school biology courses. The protocol changed such that a school or volunteer nurse would conduct the bloodletting step in the procedure. Later, as the risk of hepatitis and other blood borne pathogens became more likely, the Florida legislature halted the use of any human tissue, including blood, in the secondary laboratory. Did this stop the activity? No. The intervening years saw the development of blood substitutes and synthetics so that today, students still conduct the lab procedure. Some might argue that something is lost in the student not determining their own blood type, but the lab skillset is still practice and assessed.
Now a new risk emerges, exposure of our students to cyberbullying.
I believe the call to act (Vickie Davis, Andy Carvin)in response to this issue of cyberbullying will prove more effective than the call to remain silent (Robert Scoble). As in the case of lab safety, together we can develop the protocols which establish the behaviors for our students to engage the internet safely.
As for being on the cutting edge, I will paraphrase a Boy Scout mantra. There is no safe way to swing an axe, but there is a safer way.

Friday, March 23, 2007

John Seely Brown

In a correspondence with Darren Kuropatwa, he indicated he had most recently been influenced by the work of John Seely Brown and his description of the "atelier learning" in the core academic areas.

The following represents my first impression from a limited review of his work.

I think, therefore I am.

I participate, therefore
I jam!

"Much of our knowing is brought forth in action, through participation -in the world, with other people, around real problems"
John Seely Brown "Growing Up Digital"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

If I Build it ....
I was contemplating how I was going to raise my students' awareness of the potential of the class blog if they don't come to it. I am taking a big gamble here devoting time and resources to this endeavor. I've just plowed under a significant portion of my cornfield. Will they come?
Then I downloaded the slides presented in a panel discussion by Kathy Sierra at SXSWi.
While I rarely like the application of business models to education, the Seven Blog Virtues (for a Global MicroBrand) are keenly appropriate.
Sierra writes:
...a way of thinking about blogging for the purpose of building a Global Microbrand (whether the brand is you, your product, a cause, etc.).
I think, at least in the beginning, I am trying to sell my students on the idea of coming the class blog . In this sense, then, the Seven Blog Virtues are an imperative if I am to entice them and sustain their interests.

Global Microbrand Virtues:
(from session transcript by Laura Moncur)
  • Be Grateful: MOST important. Every moment people give us attention, it’s a gift. I never stop being grateful. It’s REALLY a gift.
  • Be Humble: When I look at someone’s blog, it’s all about you and that isn’t really giving something back. Our job is to make people feel better about themselves in a legitimate way. Give them a gift.
  • Be Patient: It takes time for things to grow. We just wanted to build a blog, give what we can give, help people and respect the gift of attention.
  • Be Brave: Grow a thicker skin. As you become more popular, the critics will come out. Don’t have death by risk aversion. If you’re doing something that people love, then there are some people who are going to hate it. You don’t want EVERYONE to hate you.
  • Show Respect: If I can just give something back, it gives them respect for their time. Give them superpowers.
  • Be Generous: Give away whatever knowledge that I have. Give things away. If you can teach someone how to do something, then they will be better at what they can do.
  • Be Motivating: Put someone that someone else wants to say out there. Talk to the BRAIN not the mind. Include pictures.
As I turn the blog over to the students (after all, it is their blog), I hope I will have modeled the virtues well as they develop their own voice.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Teaching, Learning, Teaching, Learning...
Just because I haven't written about my progress doesn't mean I haven't made any. I guess the products of my learning will have to bare witness to my journey. A great deal of credit goes to the talented contributors to the K12 Online Conference this past October. I encountered more talent in this workshop than in all my 20+ years of workshop attendance. The number of workshops and the asynchronous nature of the conference provided me with an unparalleled opportunity in educational technology.
My first year of teaching AP Biology afforded me a situation for developing a Moodle Course. Except for the external blog we have for the course, the content is primarily managed in Moodle. I've tried to use as many different modules as possible (chat, discussion, wiki) as I increase my proficiency. What has been best, is it seems to get around the filters the district has in place for social web tools. We have been able to work in the chat module as we develop the wiki content. Though there have been a few bumps, Moodle has performed well.
Eldridge and Gould describe a model of Punctuated Equilibrium to explain the sudden appearance of forms in the fossil record. I guess my evolution was punctuated as of last week when I left my mark in the digital fossil record. I have been gathering all of this knowlege and these tools to transform the learning interface for my students. I was ignited by several recent posts to Darren Kuropatwa's blog. The current addition of a SmartBoard to his class had me wondering about the Interwrite SchoolPad that I had started using last year. He had mentioned uploading the day's SmartBoard content into a slideshow on SlideShare. After loading the latest version of the Interwrite sofware, I realized I could export my pages as a .pdf to SlideShare and paste the slideshow into a classroom blog. So now I needed to activate blogs for each of my classes. A couple of emails to the district's IT department had my blogs lifted from the filter (at least for reading, editing from school will be a problem I think.) Here is one result. This seems like a good time to hit the School Advisory up for the funds to purchase 4 more SchoolPads to pass among the students.
Now, Podcasting.
I have been toying with podcasting for some time, but the fearless nature with which Mr. Kuropatwa wrote about podcasting challenged me. So, I took the bait. My first podcast was was a microphone on the teacher desk and me lecturing an introduction to the classical genetics of Mendel. Nothing great but there it was!
So, in the last two weeks I've redesigned my website, posted a podcast, established four classroom blogs (with slideshows) and one master blog for myself.
None of this, though, would have been possible except for the fact that someone took the time to share their experiences with me (us). I am grateful.

A Difference: SmartBoard Day 1