Important vs Urgent Skills

One Reason Flipped Learning Makes Sense in a STEM Classroom

This is the first generation of STEM teachers who must choose between teaching important skills and teaching urgent skills.  In previous generations, there was no difference. The important skills were the urgent skills. Now there is a fork in the road, which presents a threshold challenge to STEM teachers in 2017.

“Importance” is about how much something matters. “Urgency” is about how soon it matters. In previous generations, it was understood that the more knowledge students had when leaving school, the better their career prospects. The urgency of exam preparation incentivised students to learn the important skills that would later underpin their career success. But that is no longer true.

There is a growing, collective understanding among STEM teachers that the skills which prepared yesterday’s students to thrive in a knowledge economy are inadequate preparation for today’s students. As information continues to be commoditised and processes automated, retaining knowledge is less important than it once was. It is still helpful for a student to know the first 20 elements of the periodic table, but failing to know them is a much smaller handicap than it was 20 years ago. After all, you can ask Siri what the atomic mass of copper is, should you ever need that information.

I’m not saying (as some do) that knowledge has no value, nor that looking something up (no matter how efficiently) is as good as remembering it. If students are ignorant on a topic, they have no filter through which to sift new information. In a “post-truth” world, critical thinking is more valuable than ever and critical thinking is problematic for someone who lacks the context that knowledge affords. Nevertheless, YouTube is a pretty effective knowledge prosthesis.

Creativity, problem-solving, resourcefulness, computational thinking … these are skills that have always been valuable but are now at a premium! Teachers get this. Every time I mention it in a presentation I notice teachers nodding. But there seems to be a disconnect between that understanding and the way many teachers plan their classes. Many of us still spend a large portion of our class time teaching knowledge. Why? Because in November students will sit an exam to answer questions that in any other context would be googleable! If we have failed to prepare them for that we will have let them down. We’ll not have done any favours for our own reputation, either! Personally, I don’t think exams effectively measure student learning in any meaningful way in 2017. But as a science teacher I have no influence over the State’s assessment processes (“God grant me the serenity…”). For as long as exams are the gate through which students must enter to pursue a STEM career, we need to hold that gate open for them.

Therein lies the dilemma we face in 2017. Do we spend our valuable class time on the most important or the most urgent things? Do we equip our students with the skills that will matter to them most, or those that will matter to them first? Do we prepare them to thrive in the economy of the future, or to thrive in the exams of November?

I don’t think we can neglect either! But clearly there is insufficient time to do both.

Since we are unlikely to be given more time, we need to make more efficient use of the time we have.

A common criticism of the flipped classroom model is that it is still a fundamentally didactic, teacher-centred approach. I don’t disagree with that – although if done well, I do think that it is much more student-centred than it might seem. Nevertheless, it is not my aim in this article to discuss different approaches to the flipped classroom model, how to do it well, nor to explain how it can be student-focussed. The point I want to make in this article, rather, is that it is much more efficient than traditional approaches. By taking didactic learning out of the classroom, class time is reclaimed for more “important” learning tasks, those which prepare students for the economy of their future. At the same time, it allows students to cover the “urgent” content they need for exams much more efficiently. They can, for example, listen to a lesson at double speed, while multi-tasking it with washing the dishes (or some other mindless chore), thereby saving precious at-desk study hours for other tasks. It also makes that kind of learning demonstrably more effective.

In many ways, I think the term “flipped learning” does a disservice to the concept of flipped learning by implying that it is the wrong-way-round. On the contrary, I think it should be the new normal – at least until we do away with high-stakes standardised testing.

Nobody races down to the bank during lunchtime any more, to withdraw cash during bank hours. Instead, we enjoy lunch with our colleagues in the staffroom. Then we multi-task cash-withdrawal with our grocery shopping that evening when the bank is closed. We don’t call it “flipped banking” – but that is what we are doing! We are using technology to time-shift a necessary, “urgent” errand to make more efficient use of our time, while also reclaiming our lunch time to rest and cultivate rapport with colleagues – both of which, are important but not urgent.

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Why students still need knowledge when anything can be Googled

In my enthusiasm to explain why teachers should be spending more time with their students working at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I have often pointed out the fact that knowledge has falling value. I stand by that statement. Google is a pretty good knowledge prosthesis. A head full of knowledge is unlikely to get you a job any more. The skills that make a person valuable now are the so called “soft skills” – problem-solving skills, entrepreneurship, computational thinking skills, presentation skills, communication skills, an eye for design and leadership skills. Those skills are hard to automate and you can’t easily google them. In 2017 a head full of facts is only valuable at trivia nights. Oh! – and in exams.

But in my effort to point out that the value of knowledge is falling, I have sometimes been misunderstood to be saying that the importance of knowledge is falling. On the contrary. In many ways the importance of knowledge is rising!

Every year the Oxford Dictionary announces their word of the year; a word that has entered the public vocabulary in a profound way. In 2013, for example, the word of the year was “Selfie”. Can you guess what the word of the year was in 2016?

“Post-truth”.

“You can’t believe everything you read in the papers” is a saying that long predates the internet. But the saying is doubly true now. You definitely can’t believe everything you read on the internet. As the value of knowledge has fallen over the past two decades, it has taken trustworthiness down with it. That’s the downside of the internet giving everyone a voice. There are now lots of unedited voices being exercised.

A student without knowledge in a subject, has no filter through which to sift new information. In a post-truth world, knowledge is more important than ever – it’s just not what employers will be basing their hiring decisions on.

The Threshold Challenge for Teachers in 2016

 

My favourite definition of education is this:

“Education is a conversation between one generation and the next, about what is important” ~ Sir John Jones.

The quote does, however, invite the question – “What is important?”

At a secondary school recently, I asked that very question of staff, who discussed it in small groups, and together we make a list of what they thought was important. Here’s what was listed (in no particular order):

  • Learning how to learn
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience / Willingness to risk failing
  • Teamwork
  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Independence
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Tolerance and understanding of others
  • A growth mindset
  • Research skills
  • Digital citizenship
  • Self-awareness / Self-assessment.

What interested me is that nobody mentioned “memorising important historic dates” or “knowing the first 20 elements of the periodic table”.  Nobody even mentioned “learning times tables”. That’s not to say that those things are no longer useful, but that nobody mentioned them, shows me that teachers know, tacitly, that some things, while still useful, are now less valuable, and other things which have always been valuable are now even more so.

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The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which, in our heart of hearts, we know have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.  Do you see what I mean? If we spend all our class time teaching creativity, communication skills and resourcefulness – we are doing them a disservice if they face an exam testing their knowledge recall in a room where communication is banned and resourcefulness is called ‘cheating’.

The threshold challenge for teachers in 2016, is how to spend more time teaching the things which have increasing value, while still preparing our students for assessment systems that primarily measure the things that have falling value.

We have to do both, not either/or. That is one reason (of many) that the flipped learning model makes so much sense. It allows us to make sure we are covering the knowledge they will need for the exam, while freeing up significant class time for “…what is important”.  Flipped learning is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end – which end is the freedom to teach the things that matter most, in engaging ways, whether or not they are assessed on an exam.  (Until the yoke of exams is lifted off our shoulders).


 

If you are interested in flipping your class, or if you have already done so, but are looking for easier, cooler and more effective tools, workflows and strategies, I’ll be running a workshop in Melbourne on 19th February.  You can find the information about that workshop here.

Or if you would like me to present to your staff on this, or any other topic related to the use of ICT in education, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Publishing a podcast just got simple!

If you make a podcast for your students, you really should create an RSS feed for it – so they can subscribe using their Podcast app of choice.  There are lots of advantages in this:

  • New episodes are downloaded automatically in the background when the student is connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Students have control over playback speed.
  • The app remembers where they are up to if they don’t finish listening in one go.
  • They can create playlists for continuous play

The Problem

I’ve found lots of teachers who make ‘podcasts’ for their students don’t do this; instead, they simply upload the podcast to a folder on their school LMS and instruct students to go there and download it.  Even though services like PodOmatic make it simpler than it once was to create an RSS feed, I think a lot of teachers still just think there are too many hoops to jump through.

The Solution

I’ve just discovered a super-cool, and drop-dead simple service called JustCast.  Go to the JustCast website, click a button to allow access to Dropbox.  They then create a JustCast folder inside your Dropbox folder, and give you an RSS feed for that folder!

Any audio file you drag into that folder within Dropbox, gets pushed to the apps of anyone subscribed to that RSS feed. it’s so simple I’m stunned that it works – but, incredibly, it does!

The free service allows you to have three episodes in the RSS feed at any time. Adding a fourth episode will make the oldest episode unavailable to subscribers. Upgrade pricing allows unlimited episodes in the feed. (But three might be enough?)

I’ve discovered another really convenient use for JustCast – I’ve set this up for my own personal use. I’ve subscribed to my own RSS feed! Now any random audio file I want to listen to while driving, when dragged into my JustCast folder in Dropbox, appears in my podcast app along with all the other podcast I listen to. Sensational!

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Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Tapes: A Ridiculously-Quick, Frictionless Screencasting Tool for Mac OS X.

AppIcon.175x175-75A while ago I wrote a post covering all the screencasting tools I could think of from expensive-and-complex at one end of the continuum to free-and-simple at the other. Since writing that post, I have discovered another screencasting tool that I am quite enamoured of.

Tapes is the simplest and fastest way to make a screencast I’ve ever seen. It’s quick. I mean really, really, quick to use.

Click on the Tapes menu bar item, choose “Record New Tape” and bang! you are recording. When you choose “Stop and Upload”, it instantly tells you that a link has already been placed on your clipboard. You can immediately paste that into an email or discussion thread, even as the video is still being uploaded in the background! It’s that easy and quick. Watch this little 1 minute demonstration to see what I mean. It’s really quite something.

It’s not the tool I’d use to make a full-featured screencast. But for a quick explanation, it just can’t be beat.

Tapes has a one-time purchase price of $12:99, which also gives you 60 minutes of recording each month (ongoing) but if you buy it from this promo code, you’ll get an extra 15 minutes per month.

If you are looking for a free alternative, QuickCast is similar but not so amazing.  For example, unlike Tapes, when you click to record, it gives you a 5 second count-in, whereas Tapes just starts recording.  Also with QuickCast, once you finish recording, you have to wait until the video has finished uploading before a share link becomes available. Furthermore, once your video has finished uploading in QuickCast you have to pull down the QuickCast menu and click on the video, to copy a share link, whereas Tapes does all that for you.

Those shortcomings in QuickCast might seem inconsequential, but they mean you’ll find yourself wasting minutes every time you make a screencast, whereas in Tapes – as soon as you’re finished recording, you can paste the link somewhere, and forget about it, moving on to the next task. That increase in efficiency is noticeable – and since efficiency is the core reason for wanting to use either of these apps in the first place, Tapes is the better choice.

 

Finally! Record the Screen of Your iPad in Any App, with Narration.

Yesterday X-Mirage added the ability to record not only your iPad screen and audio via Airplay, but also your voice narration.  I’ve been waiting for someone to implement this for ages.

First, Before we get to the details, here’s a little video I made to demonstrate how good the result is.

I’m a fan of iPad screencasting apps like Educreations, Collaaj and Explain Everything, but the limitation on all these apps is that they can only record within the app itself, due to Apple’s sandboxing policy. In other words you can’t use Explain Everything to make a video tutorial about how to change settings in the Settings app, or how to create an eBook in Book Creator or how to write a formula in Numbers or Excel.  Nor can you use them in combination with a content-based app to make a screencast explaining a topic.

X-Mirage is not the first computer application to allow video mirroring from an iOS device. It’s not even the first to provide a video recording function. In fact, both AirServer and Reflector have made this possible for some time now. But X-Mirage does something these others don’t. [Edit: actually AirServer has recently added this functionality too]. It allows you, via your computer’s microphone, to simultaneously record your voice. Now you can simply work on your iPad and describe what you are doing, and X-Mirage captures it all!. When you are finished, the video and two audio tracks are mixed down into an MP4 video and saved to your computer. [It seems that this is only possible on a Mac at this stage. The PC version of both X-Mirage and AirServer will record iPad video and audio, but not your voice – sorry PC users].

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

X-Mirage is remarkably simple to use. With your iPad and computer connected to the same WiFi network, Launch X-Mirage on your computer, then swipe up from the bottom bezel of your iPad to bring up the Control Centre. Tap the AirPlay button at the bottom of the Control Centre, and choose the X-Mirage option and toggle mirroring to ‘on’. You will then see your iPad screen mirrored to your computer.

To start recording, click the (quite obvious) red ‘Record’ button at the right edge of the window. To record your microphone as well, you also need to click the smaller microphone button immediately to it’s left. That’s in fact the only part of this process that is anything less than child’s play – you have to click both those buttons when you start recording. First you need to start the video recording, and then once that is going, click the microphone button to start recording your voice.

x-miragewindow

Because X-Mirage uses your Mac’s microphone (not the microphone in your iPad) you do need to be aware of your computer’s proximity (Ie. you can’t be walking around with your iPad while recording). The upside of this, however is that if you have a good external microphone attached to your Mac, your screencast’s audio will benefit from better sound quality than if X-Mirage recorded from the iPad’s microphone directly.

X-Mirage is $16 with discounted educational pricing available from the website.

Even at the full price, It’s well worth the money (in my opinion).


 

PS. I do know that it’s possible to use Reflector (or AirServer) to mirror an iPad screen to a computer, then simultaneously use some other screencasting software on the computer to record what Reflector was displaying – I’ve done that myself a number of times.  It’s a lot of mucking around, though, and for all that effort you have to really want to make a screencast for it to be worth the effort!

 

The IT tail wagging the pedagogical dog

I was recently talking to a teacher who attended a PD day I ran in Melbourne, when he expressed an all-too-common frustration. He returns to school after such a day, inspired to implement his new ideas – but finds his efforts thwarted by roadblocks at every turn. Roadblocks erected by his school’s computer technician who has unbending views about which web services, sites and devices are ‘best’. Teaching staff have no say in the matter.

On his school’s network YouTube is blocked. iTunes is blocked. Dropbox is blocked. One teacher wanted to bring in his own AppleTV and connect it to the projector in his classroom, but the technician wouldn’t allow it. Staff are not permitted to install software on their school-issued laptop and if a teacher brings in his own laptop to school, he is not able to connect it to the school network.

I hear teachers lamenting this situation often (more often than you probably imagine). I’ve even known a few teachers who, having started out inspired to reform their teaching, have eventually given up trying because their IT department wouldn’t support any of their initiatives.

It’s wrong.

I’m not saying some sites shouldn’t be blocked at school and I absolutely appreciate the instrumental role that a technician plays in a school (great technicians are worth their weight in gold! — this I know from my own school experience). Neither am I saying that technicians shouldn’t offer advice and guidance about technology choices. They obviously have invaluable experience, insights and knowledge. But a technician’s primary focus is necessarily on technology, whereas a teacher’s is on pedagogy. We need to remember the primary purpose of schools and keep those two foci prioritised accordingly.

If an application or service poses a real threat to the security of the network (Bit Torrent, P2P), then I think it’s the technician’s place to make that call. But in many schools, something is disallowed because the technician thinks students will waste time on it (YouTube, Twitter) or they just don’t like it (Macs, Weebly), or it side-steps a system they have spent time setting up for the school (DropBox, Schoology). In such cases it’s not an issue of network integrity but classroom management — making it an educational decision that should be decided by teachers.

Great technicians are enablers – reducing the friction of implementing new teaching ideas.  Alas, in some schools the technicians are the source of the friction.  Teachers (and principals) shouldn’t put up with that.

Make screencasts interactive with eduCanon

I’m daily investigating teaching tools in the hope of finding one that gives me the dopamine hit I get from discovering a really great one. Every once in a while, something comes onto my radar that immediately stimulates my brain’s reward and pleasure centres. That’s what eduCanon did.

Like most great ideas, eduCanon is based around a really simple concept; it really only does one thing – but it does that one thing very well. It allows you to embed questions into any screencast (or any video for that matter) hosted on YouTube, Vimeo or TeacherTube, and it tracks your student’s responses to them.

As students watch the video (from within eduCanon), and the playhead reaches the time marker at which you’ve inserted a question, the video automatically pauses, and the question slides in from the left. Once the student has read and answered the question, she clicks “Submit”. Then your explanation appears, either explaining why the response they chose was incorrect, or confirming that it was correct. On clicking the “Continue” button, the video automatically resumes playing until the next question is reached. It’s really quite a fantastic thing to add to your video lessons, helping students to stay focussed and leaning forward while watching.

Because eduCanon uses HTML5, rather than Flash, playback works great on an iPad, too.

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The first time students watch a video, they are unable to skip through the video; they have to watch the whole thing from start to finish and attempt every question. Once they have watched it once, however, they are then able to come back at a later date and skip around the video reviewing specific parts. This is useful if (say) they understand the introductory concepts in a video, but want to review more sophisticated concepts toward the end.

The process of building questions into your video is utterly friction-free (that’s one of the things that impressed me most about it). You paste in the URL of the video, then watch it play. When it gets to a point at which you want to ask a question, you simply click the “Build Question” button. Then you type in the question, two or more (multiple choice) answers, click the radio button beside the correct answer, type in an explanation for each of the multiple responses, and click the “Save Question” button. Simple!

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You have the option of publishing your videos as “public” which means you can share them with anyone to use for personal learning/revision. If you would like to see it in action, have a look at this sample which I have published as a public video. The answers people choose in a public video are not collected by eduCanon.

The real magic happens though, when students link to you (using your teacher code). You can assign a video to the class, and then eduCanon collects data for you on your class’ completion of the task and their responses to your questions.

One of the most commonly asked questions I receive about flipped and blended learning is “How can you know if your students have watched the video?”. Well, this is one way to know!

I think it’s remarkable that all of those features are 100% free! (and that includes add-free). An optional “premium” subscription ($48/year) gives you additional features, such as the ability to export your class data as a .csv file so you can import it into your own class record-keeping software or Excel spreadsheet. A premium subscription also gives you the ability to create free response questions (whereas the free version only allows multiple choice questions).

Verdict: This is the most exciting new web 2.0 platform I’ve found this year so far. I’d recommend it for anyone who makes screencasts or educational videos for their class.  The small investment of time required to type in the questions should see a big payoff in student engagement.