Category Archives: Musings

Satisfice Your Ed Tech

They might be different in terms of UI, price, and ease of management, but that difference won’t show up when you’re measuring student achievement. Photo Credit: Martin uit Utrecht via Compfight cc

I used to read a lot about new gadgets –  smartphones,  in particular.  I’d pore over the latest announcement from Mobile World Congress and compare side-by-side photos of the next generation of the current device.  After careful research I’d select the best device out there.

And then I’d look out the window and realize I’d spent hours of a beautiful day in front of a screen for a device that did pretty much what my old one did.

The danger of choice is that having too much of it confuses and complicates the decision-making process. It applies to shopping for smartphones as much as it does wading through ed tech software and hardware. Every week my RSS feeds me yet more articles about “10 Apps to Use for X”  or “iPad vs. Chromebook: which one wins for students?” They tempt me,  and my teachers,  to get lost in a forest of comparisons that,  ultimately,  bring very little marginal benefit to student learning.  Using HaikuDeck over PowerPoint will not result in a measurable boost to student learning as measured against the standards in any of the classes offered at our school (although teaching principles of effective presentations would). Teachers have other, more important decisions to make to maximize their instructional effectiveness.

Continue reading Satisfice Your Ed Tech

Converting Standards-based Scores to Final Course Grades and GPA

You’ll have to jump through some hoops and play the game of school to get standards-based grading implemented – and that’s okay. Photo Credit: pianowow via Compfight cc

I wish I’d had standards-based learning training when I started my FIRST teaching job –  I would have been a more effective planner and assessor. Now that I work for a school that does SBG at the secondary level  I can see how the approach leads to units more closely aligned with learning outcomes and facilitates feedback that is much more descriptive,  relevant,  and practicable than what I gave as a new teacher. But I also see where the criterion referenced philosophy standards-based grading is still working within the context of the norm referenced framework of college applications –  and I’m coming to believe that these can be reconciled if you’re willing to accept the reality of the latter.

Continue reading Converting Standards-based Scores to Final Course Grades and GPA

Conditions for Standards-Based Grading: Eliminating Grade Averaging

In a previous post1 I described in broad strokes the components necessary for implementing standards-based grading. One of these is the elimination of grade averaging; specifically, using the mean of all the scores in the gradebook to determine a student’s final score. At our school we’ve done this to the extent recommended by Marzano but stopped short of giving teachers full discretion to determine the final grade. For us the challenge has been deciding which system should replace mean-based averaging – or whether full discretion should be left to the teacher.

How should we measure student achievement? Certainly not using mean-based averaging - but other types are fine.
How should we measure student achievement? Certainly not using mean-based averaging – but other types are fine.

Continue reading Conditions for Standards-Based Grading: Eliminating Grade Averaging

When Reality Meets Philosophy: An Introduction to Standards Based Grading

In the roughly seven months since my last real post I’ve moved halfway around the world – literally – to China, where my partner and I now work at Nansha College Preparatory Academy. Of the many, many interesting things about this new experience is the fact that our new school uses standards-based grading (SBG) – at the secondary level. What we’ve found is that although our faculty are committed to it, it’s a challenge to make practices of SBG meet the potential promised by its philosophy.

Our school uses JumpRope to capture our standards-based grading data.
Continue reading When Reality Meets Philosophy: An Introduction to Standards Based Grading

Qualifying SAMR

We live in an age that loves to upgrade. Our smartphones get thinner bodies, bigger screens, and more features. Our meals get new packaging, more taste, bigger portions. And our schools get new buzzwords, new standards, and new technology. As tech coordinator, part of my job is to facilitate the learning process by ensuring that teachers and students have access to computing resources and the knowledge to use them. Many of us coordinators evaluate tech integration according to the SAMR model:

Courtesy of Digital Learning Team

When we’re inspecting how technology changes teaching, it’s more useful to discuss the way the learning process and product change, not how much they change. Photo Credit: paurian via Compfight cc
It’s not useful to evaluate technology solely by SAMR, though. Treating it as a hierarchy, with “Redefinition” being the goal, is the same as saying that “change is good.” But few would argue that New Coke’s taste “change” was good, or that a “change” in US election districts to make it easier for an incumbent party to stay in power is productive, or that the “change” in a virus so that it mutates into a more easily transmissible strain is a good thing. So why should we treat “redefinition” as the top level of a hierarchy of tech integration? If it isn’t broke, should we be trying to fix it?

We need a qualifier that helps us to evaluate the substitution, augementation, modification, or redefinition that is happening – something that tells us what is broken and how to fix it. We’re making a conscious choice to integrate technology, and schools hire people specifically to help teachers do this, because… why? Because of broad ideas like “21st century learning” and because students are “digital natives” and because “we need to prepare them for an [unspecified, but different] future?”

The necessary qualifier, for me, is authenticity – one of the cornerstones of Understanding by Design. Does technology help you make students’ learning more authentic – are they practicing skills and habits, and creating products, that approximate things they’d do in the real world as productive citizens and employees? It’s easier to go into a teacher’s classroom and introduce them to new and, for many teachers, difficult technology concepts when explained like this. Your students should make videos not because it’s “fun” and “different” but because visual literacy is an important way that we communicate in the modern world. They should make an ebook because self-publishing is how lots of authors, like Hugh Howey, are finding success these days. They should make use of tools like Glogster and Prezi and Xmind because presenting ideas to a group should look as professional as possible and because professionalism is effective – if you expect it in the workplace, why shouldn’t you expect it at school? Our director rejects resumes because they look shoddy and cast doubt upon potential teachers’ competency as a whole.

Sometimes I feel that my position as “IT Coordinator” actually undermines my ability to help teachers. The title carries along with it an implication that I’m getting teachers to use technology for it’s own sake, which is hardly the case. My counterpart at the International School of Ouagadougou is the Curriculum Coordinator/Tech Integrator, and was formerly a Learning Community Director in Belgrade. Someone responsible not for technology but for learning. We say that technology is not something that should be taught separately – so why should those of us who support classroom teachers be referred to as people doing something distinct from learning support? And when the next generation of teachers enters the workforce already fluent in technology, why will “technology integrators” even be necessary?

Maybe redefinition is what is needed in my career.

The Generational Digital Divide, Elucidated

Somtimes I feel like I’m part of this generation. Photo Credit: x-ray delta one via Compfight cc
As part of a jigsaw in class today, I asked students to email me a photo from one major event in modern (post-1949) Chinese history. One student found a suitable image using his iPhone, and then came to my assistance, because he had not idea how to use the Mail program. I was the first one to show him how he could email a photo saved to his Photo Library. And even though he had two email accounts, neither was set up on his device – he simply doesn’t use email for communication (the kids like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Viber). Once we got one set up, we was mystified by what the CC and BCC fields stood for. (Another thing the kids find difficult is the concept of email bounces. I often get kids complaining that I don’t receive their emails, and when we check their inboxes there are clearly bounce messages because they misspelled my email address – but these warnings just don’t register with them) I found the contrast between our preferred modes of communication amusing – especially since I was born in 1982 and grew up around computers myself. This just goes to illustrate the care schools need to take when deciding on electronic communications platforms – which one will best serve the greatest audience (parents, teachers, and students) at your school?

The WoW of Flipped Classrooms

There’s a whole world of free and open higher education online for you to battle through! photo by rangzen on Flickr.

I’ll get to my response to the flipped classroom this weekend, but I came across the topic of “Massively Open Online Courses” on Slashdot and had to share. Basically, where the flipped classroom is about taking direct instruction out of the primary and secondary classroom and replacing it with higher-level thinking activities and an increased role of the teacher, MOOCs are about replacing and/or supplementing higher ed with independent courses open to anyone with an internet-connected device. They’re distinct visions of technology integration, but they both reimagine the role of the teacher and student:

If you were asked to name the most important innovation in transportation over the last 200 years, you might say the combustion engine, air travel, Henry Ford’s Model-T production line, or even the bicycle. The list goes on.

Now answer this one: what’s been the single biggest innovation in education?

Don’t worry if you come up blank. You’re supposed to. The question is a gambit used by Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist named this year to head edX, a $60 million MIT-Harvard effort to stream a college education over the Web, free, to anyone who wants one. His point: it’s rare to see major technological advances in how people learn. (Regalado)

I’ll come back to this about a later, but think about this: in an era of democratized information where finances and student visas are huge obstacles to higher education, are MOOCs the future?

Slashdot: MOOC Mania

Moodle Gives Me a Headache

Not pictured: broken window, pavement rushing to meet me.
Some rights reserved by Zitona

If you’ve ever tried to send a message to a student or class on Moodle, then you know that the effort is liable to induce stabbing pains and an intense desire to throw yourself out of the nearest window.

I was grading some projects tonight and wanted to send quick notes to two or three students with some immediate feedback. Now, if this was one of my friends I was trying to get in touch with, I would:

  1. Open GMail
  2. Select friend from buddy list
  3. Type message and hit “Send”

Here’s what the process is like in Moodle:

  1. Go to Course
  2. Go to Participants
  3. Select class from “Separate Groups” menu, since 190 students are enrolled in my Moodle course
  4. “Show all students” because only first 20 are listed by default, and listed by Last Access date rather than something logical, like last name
  5. Select relevant students
  6. With selected users…Send a message
  7. Type message and Preview – there is no option to send directly (because having a preview of a one-sentence message is critical)
  8. Send message


Is Moodle being designed by anyone who actually teaches and uses the darn thing? Here’s what the Moodle interface SHOULD look like:

  1. Messaging window in left column. All enrolled students are grouped according to Moodle’s built-in Groups function.
  2. Select student from list
  3. Type message and hit “Send”
  4. BONUS: Right-clicking on student brings up options to send message via Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and/or email. Students could opt in to these options by putting them in corresponding fields in their profile. This way students have the choice of how close to, or far from, they want to be from their teachers – they can delineate their own school/home boundaries. This brings me to my next question:

Why are we still so far apart from our students?

As I alluded to above, I realize there’s the issue of boundaries here. But I don’t see why we aren’t making it easier for students to opt in to being more connected to school. After all, a young person’s only responsibility for which they are tangibly accountable is to do well at school (yes, I said it. Social and emotional development is taking a back seat, at least in this post!). I use a Facebook group to keep in touch with my swimmers; some of my students send me questions on Twitter. I find this far more convenient than email or making announcements during class – it frees up time for instruction. Moodle is what many, many schools use to structure their virtual classroom extensions… but Moodle is not at all doing a good job of bringing us together in an online community.

Helter Skelter

Alright, I suppose Sisyphus had it harder. Public domain by Bibi Saint-Pol.
My girlfriend and I are recruiting this year, and are finding the process fun but inefficient. For all the labor-saving that technology is supposed to bring us, the world of international recruiting still seems like a Byzantine process.

Sisyphus and the Hill

First of all, recruiting is labor-intensive. We’ve registered for ISS, so our weekly routine consists of running separate searches on the ISS website:

  1. I search for Tech and Social Studies positions
  2. Chelsea searches for English positions
  3. One of us reads off the available positions while the other finds matches at schools by eyeballing the list of search results (or doing a cmd-F text search on the page)
  4. When we encounter a school that has positions for both of us, we add it to a spreadsheet indicating the school and type of position; we share that spreadsheet using a Dropbox shared folder.
  5. We contact that school.

Why isn’t there a way to search only for schools that have open positions for both of us? It seems a trivial matter to add the necessary database query and return the appropriate results. It would be even better if you could save your search as an RSS feed so that new posts showed up in your reader instead of waiting for weekly email updates or manually running searches again.

Complete This in Triplicate

This begets the next step in the process: that of actually contacting the schools, which involves a considerable duplication of effort. One would think that ISS would have some way of sending our applications to the school, but ISS warns us:

 “Expressing interest attaches your dossier to the job posting, however, schools receive a high volume of candidate dossiers in the “Express Interest” category; a follow up email will further indicate your interest in a position.”

 So the next step in the application process is to directly contact the schools. We’ve been applying directly to schools through their website. This process may range from sending an email with attached resumes to filling out a multi-page online application that asks for (no joke!) the activities you did in high school. Do school really care about details like that, or are they looking to see that you’re willing to put in the extra effort?

The Bottom Line

So how do our ISS memberships really benefit us? It’s really only two ways:

  1. ISS functions as a – a way to quickly search jobs across dozens of schools. But the search functionality is depressingly basic in this day and age.
  2. More importantly, ISS gives us access to job fairs, which is really where business gets done. Some teachers, especially those who have been abroad long enough to amass a substantial rolodex of contacts, are able to go outside the normal channels. But most of us rely on ISS, Search, or UNI for the chance to sell ourselves in person.

A Brave New World

I’m surprised that ISS doesn’t try to sell itself as more of a one-stop-shop for recruiting. I’m guessing that its other enterprises are more important to its core competencies. I’d be fascinated to hear about the process from the perspective of recruiters: what do administrators rely on when looking for people – not in terms of professional backgrounds, but in terms of the actual process. Right now the process seems very… well, Web 1.0 – ISS is a repository of information, but not a medium for communication. Why not roll in some of Int’l School Reviews’ features – provide some sort of social network for recruiting members to contact each other, whether to set up roommates at job fairs or get in touch with employees at prospective schools. Streamline the search functionality so that teachers (and, presumably, administrators) aren’t spending time searching when a computer could much more efficiently match criteria. Make the application process more robust, especially if we’re spending the time to upload our resumes, references, and personal statements. Give us more control over our profiles (and let us delete files ourselves rather than making us ask you to do it)! ISS has recently added features that let teachers upload video responses to interview questions, but this seems to be making the job search process less personal – a school sends you questions, and you send video responses. It’s asynchronous communication in a real-time world.

The biggest advance in international recruiting in the last ten years has been Skype. Is it time for another paradigm shift?

The Spirit vs. The Letter in Real Life

Screenshot via ArsTechnica
In my last post, I discussed whether international residents should bother following US copyright law. Besides the fact that many of the principles behind US law are also sound ethical principles, the main reason is that even if you live abroad, most of the online services we use are based in the US and therefore subject to US laws such as the DMCA. Hot on the heels of my post comes the news that notorious file sharing library The Pirate Bay is preempting legal challenges by getting rid of physical servers altogether, so as to free themselves from following any national laws at all:


The Pirate Bay is getting rid of its physical servers and exchanging them for virtual machines spread across multiple cloud services. By hosting its infrastructure in multiple data centers and even multiple countries, the widely used torrent site says it will avoid being shut down by authorities targeting BitTorrent sites.

This is an example of a site that expressly tries to follow only the letter of the law; or, more accurately, tries to be outside of legal juridisctions altogether! It seems like the cloud is the new Sealand.

Read more at ArsTechnica, my favorite tech site: The Pirate Bay ditches its servers, sets sail for the cloud