A Paradigm Shift in Classroom Design

Science Lab

Photo: Science Lab at Smithsonian in DC. We need one of these.

I have really been struck with the idea that we have reached a plateau in new technologies. I realize that useful, new gadgets and sites will continue to come out, but what we have currently will help us provide so much more to our students than we ever have before. So, why aren’t we seeing the change we need at the pace we need it and the pace the kids deserve it?

The answer is us. It truly is us. We are the problem. We are the disablers. We are the barriers the students cannot break through. Don’t get me wrong. We are using new tools with students in some amazing ways. We are engaging them like never before. Yet, we do it in spurts. It is just a modernized version of our old, standby friend the poster project. The kids get all excited, not because it is a good project, but because it is not a text and worksheet. That’s just wrong. To quote my friend and mind stretching mentor Dr. Gary Stager, “The blame lies within the bankruptcy of our imaginations.”

Yes, it is a start, but what good are starts if we hit the brakes every single block. It takes us forever to get across town where we should really be at already.  We should be buried in the middle of local conversations about how we could be changing teaching practices to better fit the kids we see coming through our doors. Seriously. What progress is made if we only automate the same boring routines? What new level (notice I said level and not concept) of learning is achieved if we continually return to the old textbook and worksheet far more often than open ended projects? And, yes, tests can still be passed if we do things differently.

It’s not just the teaching style that needs change, though. Shouldn’t it also be about the learning space? It is for them.

We have so many places we need to start with this. ISTE is moving forward with a new initiative as well.  Consider getting involved with it. But for now, let me begin with the presentation below. It is a nice conversation starter sure to thrill some, confuse some, and tick off others. Which category are you in? Wanna talk?

Ideas to Inspire

Nope. That’s not my title. It is the title of a site by Mark Warner (picked up via Kevin Jarrett). This is a great site to visit when you are trying to find ideas for instruction to engage your students.

Mark has done a nice job of categorizing the ideas by either subject area (core and elective areas) or possible Web 2.0 tool that you are considering using. He has also provided nice, shared Google Presentations to walk you through them. Each slide is an idea. This makes it easy to just keep adding more as they come in.

If you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, there are enough ideas there to inspire something new in your mind. Then you can go back and share your idea with him so it can be added and maybe help the next person looking. That is what the collaborative web is all about.

Visit Ideas to Inspire today. In the meantime, consider these science ideas:

A Dynamic Celebration of Learning

“The portfolio is a laboratory where students construct meaning from their accumulated experience.” – Pearl and Leon Paulson

With our district’s website overhaul out of the way, our sights are now set on ePortfolios. Our goals:

    * 100% coverage of certified staff by the end of the 09-10 school year
    * 100% of our students at the middle school maintaining them with the transfer to high school as 8th graders promote each year
    * Utilization of ePortfolios as evidence of staff mastery of state and federal technology application standards; future reporting to SBEC
    * Utilization of ePortfolios as evidence of student mastery of state and federal technology application standards; current reporting to TEA for NCLB

Before we started considering different platforms for this project, we needed to nail down what we felt were important attributes of any software solution. After multiple meetings, conversations, and general mulling it over, we decided on these:
Opensource – This was not a have-to, but is was one we wanted to work toward. There are some nice commercial choices out there, but we did not want our staff and students tied to a paid source due to the next characteristic. Also, many opensource softwares can be stored and launched completely from a flash drive. This means our ePortfolios can be carried around on a keychain or in a pocket if so desired.

  • Portability – This was a must have. Our goal is to create a system our students can take with them when they leave the high school to improve their chances of college entrance or job placement. Much like paper portfolios, the students need to be able to show them off at will.  We also felt it was a priority that our staff had them as well for two reasons; One, we are on the cusp of our state education department requiring our teachers to prove technology mastery to maintain certification, and two, if our teachers are familiar with the platform then they can help our students design and maintain high quality portfolios.
  • Usability – The platform must be easy to use and personalize. Each of our staff and students have different personalities and qualities. The ePortfolio should represent them as such. With multiple, customizable templates and plugins, they should be well on their way to the end product of their choosing.
  • Popular – This sounds like a stupid characteristic, but a popular solution is one that enjoys more support by a larger community. With opensource software, the community depends on each other to make the product better. We will also rely on it to keep ours afloat.
  • Flexible – We knew there were several items the users would need for this tool to be effective. It needed to provide:
  1. privacy – Not all items are meant to be published, but the learner (for this post, learner = students and teachers) still needs to flesh out the content. There might be a time the content should be made public, but not always.
  2. ownership – This relates directly back to the usability listed above. The learner should be the ultimate decision-maker as to the appropriate content to be published and how it is presented.
  3. reflection – Learners should reflect on their learning. They need a place to post, edit, re-post, and so on. Alvin Toffler shares, “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Reflection in an ePortfolio will help our learners adapt to this.
  4. collaboration – Barbara Harrell Carson, Thirty Years of Stories, shares this: “Students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know, care about them.” Collaboration is imperative for them to become lifelong learners. If they enjoy the learning process because of who they can work with, then they will enjoy learning as a habit, not a requirement.
  5. linkable – Our learners need to know how to link to content stored in various forms and locations. The solution should allow for this while also offering local storage of files. As Dr. Helen Barrett shares from Portland State University studies, hyperlinking leads to metacognition which leads to deeper learning.
  • Durable – We need a solution that was not buggy, but more importantly we need one that will be around for a long while. This kind of lends itself back to being popular. If there is a large community built around the software, chances are it will sustain a long life.

We set off to discover a solution with these needs in mind. Considering the conversation around the idea of us implementing ePortfolios has been ongoing for well over a year, we have had the chance to preview a number of ideas, theories, and  examples. Blogs was one of our early thoughts, but we did not want to pigeon-hole the entire program right off the bat.

Wikis were considered, but it seemed like it would be just an electronic paper folder. While that might be attractive to some, we wanted our users to have more flexibility in organization and presentation without having to know lots of coding.

HTML sites is always an option, but we would rely on our users learning HTML. So, it wasn’t an option.

Moodle was another option, but I think it does not have the portability nor the nice appearance many of our users would be after. It is broadly used and even has hosts offering the use for free. It just was not exactly a good fit with our users.

Mahara is fairly new on the scene these days. While it looks promising, it lacks the portability and usability. Portability really ranks high on our list, so this left Mahara out of the final cut.

We ended up back where we began: blogs. Blogs give the user the chance to customize the final product. They can also be hosted on the Internet both in paid and free hosting services. I wish I could say that we looked at tons of options here, but the truth is that the easy choice was WordPress. More specifically, WordPress MU (WPMU). WordPress is a very popular platform that enjoys a worldwide fan base of users who eagerly work to improve both its main coding as well as new templates and add-on extensions. We also knew that WPMU gave us plenty of extra options as a useful communication tool and learning center within our school district. Administrators and teachers can utilize them to share information with students and parents. Teachers can also use them to create epicenters of learning in sharing, reflective, and collaborative formats.

Our choice was further solidified at NECC when I was able to sit down with Dr. Helen Barrett, the Godmother of the ePortfolio. Seeing her sitting in the Blogger’s Cafe was like spotting a movie star. Her reaction, though, was unlike most stars out there. She was very welcoming, open, honest, and sincere in her thoughts and comments and treated me like an equal colleague. She was more than interested in our project and willing to help in anyway she could. Her more than fifteen years of ePortfolio work is very impressive.  We talked about her new book that she was working on that even supported our plans. I recommended her as a feature presenter at TCEA. I can only hope she is able to make it. She is the type of professor that you could sit and have great conversations with. I hope to do more of that in the future.

Now that we had our software solution, we had to look for a host. We could house it internally, but that would require more from us in tech support than we are equipped to handle.  Outside hosting would cost more per month than typical hosting because WPMU requires a VPS server. Not a problem, but it was something to keep in mind. We chose SiteGround as our host because of the superior tech support they have provided us in hosting our district website. Let me tell you, I cannot say enough good things about the work SiteGround has done for us. Our website is based on the Joomla platform, so they are not worried about the opensource nature of what we will use.  Kudos to those guys and gals.

So we had a solution and a host. The next thing was all of the coding to make it look and act just right. Twitter to the rescue. While I was online following the conversations one evening, I saw Kim Estes commenting on several WPMU sites she was working on. A quick trip over to the Burleson ISD site showed some very impressive work. I asked for some tips and tricks from Kim, and I got all of that and more. I will not go into detail (I’ll leave it to Kim to share her work with you), but I will tell you that she is one talented individual that I am proud to have connected with. Her BISD site was nearly exactly what we were looking for on ours, and she was more than happy to help out. I was so impressed that I talked her into letting me hire her for a day to work with our middle school staff. Her training was so popular that other campus teachers and administrators sneaked in for a little small group assistance from her. I cannot overstate this about Kim. She is a talented, hard working educator who sees nothing but what is the best for ALL kids. That is the type of person I love to work with. Heck, I even have her lined up to Skype into a presentation I am giving in the spring. Her experience and knowledge is just too vast to hide in Burleson.

There you have it. The process to go from idea to implementation has been a long one. With the advice of folks like Dr. Helen Barrett and Elizabeth A. Hebert, our work will move forward. I will blog about our hopes and dreams, beliefs and choices, and our successes and failures. I hope that you will follow along and offer advice.

While it might be lonely being one of the few (the only ones?) in Texas making a leap of faith into a project like this, it will be a wonderful learning experience. Even a Texas legislator that I had the opportunity to meet with last week in Austin called it brave. We are putting ourselves out there for criticism, but I feel our staff and students are prepared. They do such great work academically, this is just a logical next step for them to take. They deserve the chance to showcase their hard work. We do know one thing. When Texas decides that it is time for students to be assessed authentically and educators to present their technology proficiency in an authentic manner, White Oak ISD will be ready.

Visit the Roughneck Blog and ePortfolio server today and see what’s going on. We are in the early stages, so come back here and share your feedback. We are happy to have you be a part of the process.

PS – The title of this blog post is a snippet of a metaphor Dr. Barrett uses for ePortfolios. Here it is in its entirety:

“An electronic portfolio has the potential to
become a dynamic celebration of learning that documents a teacher’s
professional development across his or her career.”