Are Tablets the Way Out of Child Illiteracy?

Give them technology that they may have never seen before, and students’ brains will work wonders

Source: www.smithsonianmag.com

This article really made me think about the way many of the tools and applications are introduced in the classroom. In our classrooms, teachers expect that they would be introducing these step by step to the children, telling them exactly how to use them. But I think we forget the importance of experimentation and how this holds an element of fun, whilst more importantly leading to a deeper form of learning. In Malta tablets are going to be introduced to 8-year olds. My 2cents about the matter is that it’s not the tablet per se, but it’s how this is going to introduced in the class, that would have an effect on the children’s learning. We, as teachers, really have to learn to, at some point let go and let our children learn! 

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#ectel2014 – Keynote 2: Uli Weinberg “From IQ to WeQ”

Prof. Uli Weinberg during his keynote on Design Thinking at EC-TEL 2014

Prof. Uli Weinberg during his keynote on Design Thinking at EC-TEL 2014

The second keynote by Prof Uli Weinberg from the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, at EC-TEL was very inspiring and also a continuation and building up on Etienne Wenger’s first keynote about communities, and working together.

I think the phrase that had a stronger impact on me was “Moving from IQ to WeQ”. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to my mind – moving from celebrating the individual intelligence towards celebrating the collective intelligence. We are indeed living in a connected world. We have become a very complex mesh of connections. Whereas a couple of decades ago, the networks were still there, they were simpler and the way we taught in our schools and for our education was just about that… keeping it simple, adhering to the hierarchy. Prof. Weinberg’s talk struck close to home as he illustrated the way schools worked and still do. In schools we celebrate individualism – ‘Hate thy neighbour’, ‘Copying is cheating’, ‘Working together means that this in not your work’, ‘Avoid failure at all costs’. These are some of the phrases we push in our education, past and present. I think the one about failure is one of the most challenging and one of the most misunderstood phrases really. If I were to tell my parents that failure should be celebrated, they would of course be shocked. But so would some of my teacher colleagues. Failure is a taboo word, one that shouldn’t be even uttered. Failure is indicative of shame – of failure. But is it? If we look at games for example, failure is crucial. In the same way it is crucial for innovation and creativity. We cannot have something new, something creative, something innovative without having undergone an iteration of failures. In games, we achieve mastery by having gone through failures and persisted. Last week I had a conversation with my 5-year old who was harping at me to download more games on the iPad as he was at a challenging level for those he had. He didn’t want to fail any more. But I explained that persistence is key. To really be on top of the challenge, one needs to try, fail, try again and again, and finally get there.

But Prof. Weinberg’s talk was not just about that. It was about getting us to understand that whatever we do it’s not just about improving the technology – it’s about solving a problem in a possibly different manner. It’s also thinking about humans and putting their needs into perspective and focusing on an interplay of human values (desirability, usability), technology (feasibility) and business (viability).

He spoke about the importance of working in multi-disciplinary teams (the more complex the better) possibly having a balanced gender, and celebrating different ways in which they do things. He describes the 3 core elements for design thinking as being:
1. Multi-disciplinary teams
2. Iterative process (to involve the full power of every person involved)
six steps: understand, observe, define point of view, ideate, prototype, test
3. If you have the teams, and are using the process then you need the space, not just virtual but also physical.
These core elements can also be referred to as the 3 P’s – PPP – People, Places, Process.
Prof. Weinberg focused on two of the major principles for design thinking:
1. Building on the ideas of others – in schools, this is labelled as cheating.
2. Fail early and often – in schools, failing is not an option. Failing is a part of a process, what you experience when you start working on your first prototype. If you don’t succeed at the first time, keep trying. [It’s also what happens in games and how the best gamers achieve their best scores]
In summary, he also spoke about the challenges in design thinking. Getting a team together is the most challenging. Schools focus on the individual power not on the power of the team! We need design thinking because we are living in a connected world.
Some questions which come to mind are:
How can I lose the power of the individual to the power of the team? How can we be connected in technology but disconnected in the mind? My personal experience working in a team, has been quite limited. And I realise the need for getting together all the abilities skills and experiences to come up with something new and creative and innovative. We structure knowledge and reality in the same way – linearly.
Therefore we need a shift in paradigm.. from lecture space to shared space & from individual reward to collaborative power
And whilst the education system is preparing us to the Brockhaus (linear model) as opposed to connected thinking we need to develop ways in which to branch out from that which we are used to.
So we need to move from IQ to WeQ; harnessing the power of the collective; moving from individual to collaborative in the way we learn and live.

#ectel2014 – Keynote 1: Etienne Wenger on Open Learning… some reflections

When I realised that Etienne Wenger was going to be one of the keynote speakers at EC-TEL 2014, I was thrilled. My learning and professional development has grown with social learning theories, and Etienne Wenger has been one of the most influential learning theorists in my own learning. In fact I develop my PhD on virtual worlds and education around these social learning theories. What impressed me the most about Etienne Wenger’s talk is the clarity with which he describes his own movement within these theories and the way his thoughts have evolved in relation to our growing society and world. So Etienne Wenger started his keynote address with a question. He asked “What are the ways of thinking of people about knowing?”

Etienne Wenger at EC-TEL 2014 Keynote Address

Etienne Wenger at EC-TEL 2014 Keynote Address

 

He described how the way education has evolved deals with imparting a body of knowledge to learners. Wenger describes this as a “closed learning system”. We have always seen learning this way. Our students are used to this form of learning. During my PhD investigations, my pre-service teachers admitted that they didn’t feel they were learning because according to them learning was about listening to a lecturer, taking notes and letting the lecturer define what they should learn and how they should learn it. This defines our closed system of learning.

He describes how in the process of the development of the communities of practice theory, he together with Gene Lave (an anthropologist), started observing communities of apprenticeships in tribes. From this they emerged with a theory of organised learning where the apprentice would establish himself in a community, tracing learning as a trajectory from the periphery of the community to the centre of the community as his skills and competences develop.
So the social theory of learning questions meaning and how this drives learning. This equates to the meaningful engagement with the world. And ironically the very opposite happens in our schools. Most often we eliminate the need for meaning – we say to our children – ‘you don’t need to understand what you’re doing right now. Maybe you will understand it in the future’. So the practice of doing things which are meaningful somehow gets sidelined for the curricular content.
However, Etienne Wenger provokes – “if knowledge is a social product then it is as complex as the social world. The trajectory into the community leads to the transformation of a person. The concept of identity then becomes a central concept in the theory of learning”.
So the evolution of communities doesn’t just happen in apprenticeships and training, but communities can also be observed in other societal practices such as in work and employment. In these instances communities are formed to help survive the job. The community created by people becomes a partnership to learn how to deal with whatever they need to do. so in this way we can view trajectories in a different way than the apprenticeship community. And in these communities formed ad hoc, people’s trajectories move and they touch each other and come into contact briefly whenever people need – a constant flow of people falling out of or joining in these trajectories, still leaving an impact on the community. These communities become a constant negotiation of the socially defined competences and the personal experiences brought in by all the members. And this negotiation itself defines the community. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all the members have to agree but an equilibrium needs to be established. This equilibrium then becomes very much defined by the close relationship of power and learning.  [I would really suggest reading a bit of Foucault for this purpose :

So then the communities, in this complex mesh of learning trajectories assimilate to a landscape of practice marking your trajectory in learning. So the questions now change and evolve and now we start asking ‘how do I develop an identity in a complex landscape of learning and knowledge?’ With so many communities, ‘how could we leave the mark on the community?’ ‘how can I influence the community I form part of?’
However we cannot misunderstand. Wenger says, “We’re not just moving from a collective society to an individual society – it is still socially developed. But the negotiation of identity knowledgeability becomes more distinct. The 21st century is going to be a century of identity. In the past the community defined your identity – but the burden of knowledgeability is shifting from the community to the person doing the learning trajectory. Creating identity is going to be the main learning challenge”.
Etienne Wenger then concluded his talk with a reflection followed by a provocative question: “Identity becomes a transformative invitation – a teacher’s deepest pedagogical resource. A slight breach of the low, it is almost a theorem of love, that we can invite others into our own identities… let them be what they are not, and thus start what cannot be started“.
So Etienne Wenger’s concluding question to his insightful talk was: “If you are going to be a driving force in shaping the future of learning then how can your theory and practice help learners and educators address the fundamental learning challenge of today?” … I ask myself, what am I going to concretely do to help influence teacher education?

#ectel2014 Workshop – Learning Analytics for and in Serious Games; what I learned…

I feel really good that this year I had the opportunity to attend and participate at the 9th European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning, EC-TEL 2014. I have to say that so far it has been an interesting experience and I have had some very good conversations but I have also sat in on some very good presentations. I wanted to collate some of my thoughts and reflections about a workshop which I have attended yesterday about learning analytics for and in serious games. Now I have to state that in my own PhD work, I also make use of some learning analytics, focusing on the emergence of social networks in virtual worlds. However I am still a bit skeptic when people make sweeping statements about learning analytics and how they in fact can be used to determine the learning that takes place in an online/digital environment. Still, some of the talks in this workshop have indeed very clearly stated that learning analytics is certainly not about defining the learning occurring, but more about understanding how the learning trajectory evolves.

Christina Steiner during her presentation at EC-TEL 2014, 17th September 2014

Christina Steiner during her presentation at EC-TEL 2014, 17th September 2014

The first presentation, was a comprehensive overview of learning analytics and educational data mining and the current and future research trends in the area. The speaker, Christina Steiner described how one of the key factors driving LA, is assessment defining it as the gathering of information about a learner’s progress towards the achievement of goals and relative competences. So LA comes into play to make sense out of all the learner’s data as he traverses an online environment. Learning analytics and educational data mining have some common goals and similar definitions relating to the collection and collation of data about learners. However educational data mining emphasises automated adaptation and recommendations of a personalised learning experience. LA can be made use of in different time scales. It can be used to report what has happened (past), it can also be used to monitor (real-time progress), and it can also serve to predict (possible?) future learning issues. It is made up of 3 stages; collection, visualisation and predictive modelling, and improving on the LA process. So the main stakeholders in this are learners and teachers.

However this provokes in me some thoughts and questions: would analytics apply to all learning processes, and all learning domains? How accurate would the predictions be? Do they really predict and model learning? If a student has opened a resource, or maybe visited a site, or even uploaded an assignment or completed a quiz, can we really say that that learner has learned? Would he really have learned everything we had in mind as goals?

Let’s say that I, as a teacher, think that by performing an online activity, the learner would achieve a set objective. Therefore when I design and set up my LA process, I know that I would be measuring the student performance in line with that goal. However I believe learning is not linear. I know and everyone knows learning is a complex mesh that is very much dependent not the many experiences the learner goes through. So how can I say that a learner is advancing his progress (or vice versa) by ticking the box that the learner has gone through the activity? What sort of tools would I have to monitor what other additional skills and competencies that learner has attained by maybe going further than that activity? Maybe that activity was boring to the learner and he skipped it but that activity has prompted him to search further, and to investigate deeper than the activity. Where would that place the learner? In my books, that learner demonstrates a good critical skill set, but what about the system? Are we risking to going back to standardising learning with the inclusion of learning analytics to assess learning?

However Christina Steiner ended her talk with a very important consideration, “Serious games” she says. “should be considered as part of multiple learning tools and activities. We’re looking towards data integration not isolation”. I think we should keep this in mind. Data is only part of the larger picture, and we need to understand the larger picture to be able to fully understand learning. So what I would like to understand more is about the role that serious games have in and for learning and ways in which can we exploit the information we gather from them to improve upon and provide a richer learning experience.
The rest of the presentations gave an interesting mix of how games were assessing different skill sets and competences. One final word goes to Laila Shoukry, who delivered a really cool presentation containing her own sketches directly from her smart phone. Good luck for your own PhD Laila!

EC-TEL 2014 – some thoughts from Graz and the doctoral consortium

This year I have been very lucky to have been included on the Program Committee of EC-TEL 2014, as a co-chair of the doctoral consortium. The program of EC-TEL is absolutely packed with interesting workshops. Unfortunately with greater quantity comes also greater difficulty in choice and therefore one has to compromise which of the workshops to attend. Unfortunately this also happened to our doctoral students who probably would have benefitted more from additional feedback from the professors present at the conference. However I have to say that the written feedback they have received about their PhD submission prior to this conference has been overwhelming and of course we thank everyone who gave their input.

All of the PhD studies that have been presented during this doctoral workshop are interesting and can potentially prove to give very valid contributions to the area of TEL. If I was to give some thoughts about some of the challenges faced by PhD students in general I would say that many face the issue of research and funding. What happens in most cases is that a student tries to look for funding to be able to carry out his/her research. Much of this research comes from projects and for this we are thankful. However what transpires is that the student very much feels bound and constrained by the project limitations, needs and the expected outcomes.

I think that one thing which I have learned, being a PhD student myself is that a PhD is like an elastic. It is meant to stretch and take different forms, to explore and maybe reverse directions. It cannot be a linear process. I think that a PhD student needs to be aware that he or she will not really know the answers to his PhD investigation – until the very end … and still he or she will probably have questions that still need to be answered. Another challenge, which sounds easier than it actually is, is how a PhD student identifies a problem that he or she is curious enough about to dedicate 3, 4 or 5 years of his/her life to satisfy that curiosity. One should not be afraid to experiment in a PhD, one should not be afraid of failure in the experiments during a PhD, though that admittedly is the hardest thing to do. No one of us wants to fail. No one of us wants to admit that his /her experiments in TEL have not worked out as he/she wanted (does he even know what he/she  wanted?)

There were many more thoughts that emerged during our doctoral workshop and I sincerely wishing all the PhD students out there much feedback, much thought and experience sharing because through that we grow, and with us the possibility of good practice in research grows as well!