Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reflection upon Combining Learning Techniques with Technologies

My Initial Learning Theory
            Instructional strategies are not a new concept to most teachers, and are definitely not new to me. The traditional strategies used are a part of teaching and teacher tools. Good teachers vary their instructional techniques in their classroom, intending to reach all their students by one or more of the various methods. Strategies such as non-linguistic representations, feedback, cooperative learning, similarities and differences, and many other techniques may be effective; however, the previous seven weeks has shown methods and tools to take these strategies to new heights by the incorporation of technology. The integration of this technology must be done correctly, or it simply becomes another repetitious, expensive worksheet, detracting from the learning process instead of enriching the students' experiences. The learning strategies and technology, when blended correctly, have a true synergistic relationship that can bring all students to a higher level of engagement, leading to better and stronger long term retention of practical knowledge.
            At the start of this class, I was pleased to discover some true science that validated much of the actual learning process from our brains. The vital part of our brain, called the synapse, acts as a connection between memories and experiences (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011a). My personal theories of how a brain works, specifically that these connections can be strengthened with repetition, seemed to validate some learning methods, like practice and repetition. The more a connection is used, the stronger it becomes. Another concept was the power of the initial knowledge connection. If this initial connection is weak, then building its strength may be a monumental task; conversely, it can also be so strong that it remains strong despite the passage of time. The challenge of creating the powerful initial connection is just as vital as building existing connections.  
            Technology can be used in numerous ways, and it was proposed that there are two categories of its use, that of an instructional tool, and that of a learning tool (Laureate Education, 2011b). This delineation  is illustrated well by using an interactive whiteboard as an example. The use of the interactive whiteboard as a fancy chalkboard is an example of the instructional tool. There is no added value, or educational benefit from this use. If the interactive whiteboard is used to bring experiences to the classroom that would never have been possible, such as a virtual field trip, then it becomes a learning tool. When technology is a learning tool, as opposed to an instructional tool, the real benefits and values are realized. Student engagement, questioning, and application are used, all of which increase the connections in the brain, allowing for the long term retention of the knowledge. Another example, from an earlier time, is the use of calculators. If a calculator is used in a manner to allow the students to concentrate learning on the higher level concepts instead of addition, then a higher value of the calculator is realized. For example, students may be in a high school class in business, and they may be looking for financial trends. Without a calculator to do the math, the students' time is spent concentrating on the arithmetic, and their higher level analyses may never take place. The calculator frees up their brains to higher levels.
Classroom Adjustments
            Another instructional practice that was discussed was cooperative learning. I always recognized the power of putting heads together in order to get solutions, but this does not always apply itself well to a middle school classroom. Middle school students can be a challenge, easily distracted to the social goings-on of the school rather than keeping within the lessons of the day. Although I have attempted to group students on numerous occasions, there are times when this simply does not work. During this course, cooperative learning was a highlight of a week's work. I was struck by the recommendations from the textbook for group work. A powerful tool I had not used was that or positive interdependence (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007, p.140). The group must have the attitude of sinking or swimming together, each contributing to the success or failure of the group. This is an area I immediately revisited in my classroom. Once some additional requirements were implemented, the students responded well. I had previously used random and varied selection techniques to group students, which are part of the recommendations from the text, I was not holding the students, as a group, responsible. This seemingly minor adjustment has made a major impact on the cooperative learning in my classroom. We do not work in groups every day, because the students will still be required to assess their knowledge individually on tests and standardized tests; however, the initial connections made in a group setting can be more appropriate, and therefore stronger, than those made by the individuals.

Implementation of Technology
            I hope to implement quite a few technology tools into my classroom this school year. I have gotten a set of responders, which work in conjunction with my Smartboard. Similar to the Smartboard, the challenge of the responders is to use them as a learning tool as opposed to just an instructional tool. The responders provide several forms of feedback to the students. There is a summary of the students' responses that can be shared at the end of the lesson, which can help give a student direction to their required studying. The responders provide almost instantaneous feedback to the students, which provides a greater impact than the feedback at the end of the lesson (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007, p.42). I have used this quite recently in my classroom, and the improved test scores from prior years was remarkable. The level of engagement was much higher, and the specific feedback worked on several levels. Overtly, the feedback showed each student their strengths and weaknesses so they each knew what to study for on the upcoming test. Covertly, each student went away with a feeling like their effort in the class that day meant something, and gave them a direction that would provide additional positive results. Instead of the instructor , speaking generally to all the students, requesting that they review for the test, now each student was shown how they could pinpoint the specific areas that would best help them. For a first attempt, it was very powerful. I hope to continue to refine and improve upon the use of the responders.
            Another technology tool I am planning to implement is VoiceThread. An area that is difficult for  middle school students is public speaking, specifically presenting a project in front of their classmates. Each year, my classes have a long term project where they use a spreadsheet to spend a pretend million dollars. In the past, I have required the students to present their project to the entire class using the Smartboard. This use of my Smartboard falls under the instructional category, adding no value other than to project larger images. Some students seem accepting to the public speaking portion, and others are terrified. For this year, I will be asking them to use VoiceThread for their presentation portion of the project. They will be required to present their purchases, one per slide, using either the audio or video portions of VoiceThread. Once their presentations are completed, an additional step will be to comment on presentations from their fellow students, only with a twist. The students from section one will only comment on section two's presentations, and vice versa. Since all the students are part of the AVID program at my school, this crossover between the sections will allow for an interaction between them that has not previously been possible. The comments will also be part of the project grade. The use of VoiceThread will allow the students to script and practice their presentation, perhaps in a setting to alleviate their nervousness and anxiety, leading to a higher level of presentation. I believe this is an appropriate level of expectation for middle school students. The collaboration between the students is expanded to all their fellow AVID students rather than just their classmates.

Improvements and Moving Forward
            Technology can be a wonderful tool in our classrooms, and can be much more powerful if used to elevate learning. It is important to differentiate when technology adds value compared to technology being used simply for the sake of its own use. For example, in my previous career in product marketing, I was responsible for presenting profitability to our upper management. This was traditionally done using numbers on an overhead projector. In a particularly bad year, we switched to using a computer-generated, color graphic that was produced by a spreadsheet program. The colors and the presentation of the numbers overshadowed the importance of the numbers, masking a bad financial year. Eventually, the negative results became the message. We need to prevent this type of use of technology in our classrooms. Technology should be used to elevate the learning, not simply to fascinate the students.
            I believe the most important statement made throughout this course was made by Michael Orey when he spoke of the importance of “students are actively engaged in learning” (Laureate, 2011b). Technology can be an asset to ensure that students are engaged, and should be used that way. I have immediately started incorporating images into all my Smartboard screens. When the images are used in conjunction with the linguistics, allow the students to use both types of representations, thus having a better way to retain and recall their knowledge (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007, p.86). I believe that I am utilizing a wider range of learning techniques, providing additional connection paths for my students' brains to connect and retain knowledge in the manner best suited for them rather than my way.
            I believe I have already begun two of my long terms goals, and that this class has been responsible for providing me the means and justification for both. The first is the use of cooperative learning, and the second is the implementation of the responders. As I previously stated, the cooperative learning is powerful, and I have gained additional knowledge about the proper  implementation of the groups. I would like to have the students work in groups on a daily basis. At the present time, they work in groups about two days per week, and there needs to be a rationale for grouping, such as a project or an activity. With middle school students, the challenge has been a classroom management issue. If the students did not have group roles, then they would relapse into socialization. With groups, specifically with role defined and individuals held accountable for group success, the socialization has decreased. I intend to use this grouping and the successful grouping strategies earlier on in the middle school cycle. I loop with seventh grade students up to eighth grade. Traditionally, the group work in seventh grade is difficult because of the maturity level. I intend to start with groups as early as possible, and I believe that the succeeding is more likely with the additional grouping techniques.
            The second long term goal of using responders on a more regular basis is one of practice and refinement. The responders raise the level of engagement and participation, and the students need to be continually aware of the benefits gained from participation rather than simply clicking in an answer (Duncan, 2009). In addition to raising the engagement level, the lessons and use of the clickers need to provide the student with a tangible, real result. If the lessons are not kept fresh, then after repeated use, the excitement level will drop. I will be building a knowledge base of responder files, gathered from various places in order to maintain the effectiveness of the responders. Websites, fellow teachers, previous courses, manufacturer's samples, and self-developed files will provide me with effective and continually engaging lessons that utilize responders.
            The past seven weeks has been a well-organized and implemented, yet most challenging time. The background of how our minds work provided a logic basis for emphasizing certain expansions of traditional techniques. Coupling traditional learning techniques with technology showed how learning and engagement can elevate the brain synapses, thus creating and strengthening learning connections. More has been added to my teaching pedagogy. I have seen not only how to implement technology, but how to avoid pitfalls after the implementation period. Throughout the course Michael Orey's message that students must be actively engaged in learning, has been a focal point for me. Regardless of the means, if students are not engaged in the lesson, they will not retain the knowledge. Technology can assist the teacher in getting the students engaged, but it alone cannot lift the students or keep them engaged. The teacher, using a variety of techniques and resources, has the best chance of elevating student engagement, which leads to the best opportunity for student learning.

Duncan, Douglas. (2009). Tips for successful clicker use. Retrieved from The University of Colorado website:

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011a). Program one: Understanding the brain [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011b). Program thirteen: Technology: Instructional tool vs. learning tool [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom
            instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Connectivism and Social Learning in Practice

Confusion Over Times and Rotations
Once of our assignments this week was to utilize an online collaboration tool called VoiceThread. We were free to choose any need, problem, or situation we are confronted with in our school or classroom. Our school changed its starting time to an hour earlier, and then implemented a rotating block schedule. These two changes far outweigh other issues, and cause me confusion and drive me to inconsistency in my classroom. If you have been in a rotating schedule, please take a look at my VoiceThread, and make comments, suggestions, or just add a sympathetic note. Every little bit helps!
The link to the VoiceThread is:

Connectivism and Social Learning in Practice
Cooperative learning has always been a powerful tool. In our school, we all have posters hanging up that speak of the WICR learning methods. W is for Writing, I is for Inquiry, R is for Reading, and C is for Collaboration. We know how powerful students helping students can be, whether it is learning in an academic classroom, or on the blacktop at recess. Although we all feel like we a good teachers, a peer perspective can be an important breakthrough teaching method.
Connectivism as a learning theory, explained and broken down by George Seimens, has three key roles. These roles are explaining how learning occurs, allowing creation of future models of learning, and helping to make sense of the present world (Laureate, 2011b). Together with Michael Orey’s definition of constructivism as social interaction while constructing (Laureate, 2011a), the practice of learning in a social environment can be powerful if done correctly. This is the challenge we face as educators in the implementation of a social classroom.
Orey also goes on to address the needs of the social classroom environment, breaking the material into three groups. The teacher needs to be sensitive and aware of what the child already knows, what they are able to learn at this moment, and what the student in unable to learn at this moment. Orey refers to these are the Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD). In order to achieve learning, he suggests that the highest layer can only be achieved by having a More Knowledgeable Other, or MKO, in the setting. This MKO can be the teacher, a peer, a parent, or even a resource like a computer. This MKO can assist the student to reach the higher levels.
In order for social classrooms to be effective, there are four recommendations from the text Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007). It is recommended to use a variety of criteria to group students, using informal, formal, and base groups, keeping the groups to a manageable size, and combining cooperative learning with other classroom structures. While the text makes these generalized recommendations, it does not go into specifics of the criteria; for instance, what is considered a manageable size of each group? Will two students be sufficient, or are more required in order to have an MKO within the group? While I can appreciate that the text implies the teacher, who knows the classroom best, should be the one responsible for the groupings, having a theoretical example would have been helpful. There are two old sayings, first that there is strength in numbers, and the second of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Finding strength, while not spoiling the soup, is the challenge.
An additional challenge is finding the correct mix to optimize the collaboration or social learning. The mix of students, their abilities, group sizes, and numerous other variables into appropriate groups is the most daunting challenge of this social constructivism. I personally believe that middle school students should be challenged to interact with each other, breaking the elementary school “boys and girls” groupings that occur if the students are allowed to choose their own groups. In my class I use “buddy sticks”, which are nothing more than tongue depressors with a color, a college name, a number, and a shape on each one. The students can either choose or are given a buddy stick, and then I choose how the pairings occur, either by color, by college, or by shape. This way the students are not able to discreetly swap sticks so they get the same color as their friend. The students, knowing that the selection is random, do not complain about their pairings. I can also double up the pairs into groups of four, which is the largest grouping I use.

Figure 1 - Buddy Sticks.  Notice that the pairings change so that the students cannot swap sticks to be with their friends. The choice for colors, colleges, numbers, or symbol pairs makes the possible combinations numerous compared to just colors.

Once the groupings are completed and the students have relocated into their groups, cooperative learning can occur. Some instructional strategies work well in groups, particularly those activities that cannot be done by individuals. These include jigsaw and pair share. What I have seen is the power of groups when applied to those activities that we traditionally think of as individual, like homework, know-want-learn, and taking notes. In these cases, the MKO can act like a mentor or a director, keeping the group focused by assisting and facilitating the activity. Not only is this powerful from a resources standpoint, because we are only one person with 24 hours in our day, but it can also be powerful from a teaching standpoint. The MKO may re-teach the material from a unique perspective, allowing the learner to grasp the knowledge in a slightly different form than what the teacher originally intended. When this occurs, the brave teacher (and I consider myself brave) will allow the MKO to show their new perspective to the entire class. Each time this has happened, and it happens often in my class, there are additional students who now understand the material. A teacher who may be insecure will not allow control to be relinquished; however, those who cede their control momentarily are rewarded with a true learning moment.
Integrating technology and social learning simultaneously is a synergistic relationship. The diversity of the students’ technology knowledge is a wide range.  When paired or grouped appropriately, the result of students assisting others becomes very powerful. The MKO student feels empowered, and the learning student does not feel belittled. Both take on a positive role, and both benefit from the grouping. The text also recommends that a project be implemented in order to best use technology in a social constructivist classroom. The projects include webquests, movies, creating websites, and reaching out beyond the classrooms. Within webquests, for example, the students bring on their wishes to see different locations, views, and what is important to them. When they share these ideas and directions, their views of the knowledge are expanded, and the connections are made by the students. Although the connections made may seem illogical to a teacher, the students, and their peers, may find the connections absolutely rational.
All the groupings are their activities are in alignment with the ideas behind connectivism. Siemens states that education is like a weather system; complex but not complicated. There are so many factors, so much material with abundant information that the amount of knowledge is not the issue, but how the new knowledge gets connected, i.e. networked, to existing knowledge. If connectivism facilitates the networking of new knowledge, then groups, which add a new vision, technique, perspective, or other method to establish the connection, are vital.

Todd Deschaine

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011a). Program eight: Social learning theories [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011b). Program nine: Connectivism as a learning theory [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.