Author Archives: sharpriley

Major Digital Project 6: Gaming the Gamification

I’ve been meaning to dig deeper into the gamification aspect of Duolingo for a few weeks now, but I’ve been finding it also takes a lot of time to simply describe what I have been doing each week. So I’ll try to keep this summary brief:

  • I have continued using Duolingo, hitting a 30 day streak, making it into the Ruby league (more on that later), and just generally using it as my daily, baseline learning activity. It’s been an easy habit to maintain so far.
  • I watched another episode of Spanish for Beginners, this time about mastering the verb “Ser.” I found it less useful than the first episode; it is maybe challenging because my progress in Duolingo and the video series don’t match up at all so they feel a little disjointed. I don’t regret watching it, however.
  • I mentioned offhand in one of my classes that I was trying to learn Spanish and one of my students who speaks Spanish as their first language got really excited and wanted to talk with me. I was able to say “I need help in Spanish” and she replied “I can help you.” I was definitely flattered by their generosity.
  • A colleague of mine overheard me practicing with Duolingo over the lunch hour and said two of the educational assistants she works with speak Spanish as their main language. She volunteered to introduce us and said they would be happy to practice with me. Looking forward to it!
  • Lastly, I started playing with an Open Education Resource from MERLOT that someone shared with me in the chat last class. It’s a nice way to be exposed to actual native Spanish speakers. I’m trying to remember who shared it with me, but I appreciate it!

All in all, an exciting week! And with my committment to Duolingo unwavering, I’d like to unpack why it is so easy to remain consistent with. As someone who has, at times, struggled with commitment to things like the gym and meditation, I believe Duolingo is designed in a way to maximize interest. In essence, it’s gamified.

Gamification, for those unawares, is the process of adding game elements to something that’s not a game. Wikipedia has a surprisingly thorough article about it. The article lists some of the various game design elements that are common in gamification: points , leaderboards, badges, avatars, and performance graphs, to name a few. I will explore how these appear in Duolingo.

Points

Duolingo uses a system of XP to track progress. You earn XP by completing an exercise, and bonus XP for getting streaks of answers correct. This XP is used to determine your ranking in each weekly league. The image to the right shows that I am in first place in my league for the time being.

Leaderboards

As mentioned, Duolingo uses a series of leagues to track your progress. Each week, your XP is tracked against similar but randomly selected players. If you end the week in the top 10, you get promoted. If you end in the bottom 5, you get demoted. So far, I have been promoted every single week through bronze, silver, gold, sapphire, and now ruby. This incentivizes your progress each week, especially since the top 3 finishers get lingots, the Duolingo currency (I’d need a whole other post to explain the nuances of that system). However, the quality of competition also goes up with each league too. It’s like I’m in my own little English Premier (Soccer) League!

Badges

Duolingo has a set of achievements that are easy to unlock initially, but increasingly harder as you progress. I most recently unlocked an achievement for using the app for 30 consecutive days–no small task, in my opinion. Those who follow me on Twitter would know I was pretty excited about unlocking it. The Champion task shown in the image is definitely the hardest to achieve, as it requires unlocking and getting to level 1 of all 159 (!) skills in the course. I have achieved the Big Spender one, but a glitch has prevented it from registering properly. I sent in a help request because it’s annoying me and I’m pretty dedicated to fighting such battles.

Avatars

Duolingo does have a system of avatars, as my last photo demonstrates. However, it seems that the majority of users don’t upload avatars, nor do they have any real impact on your progress. As far as I can tell, you can’t even message other users, so the value of avatars is minimal compared to other circumstances I have seen them used in, say, for example, on Twitter.

Performance Graphs

Duolingo presents you with a pretty basic performance graph, but only on the desktop version of the app. It’s something I wish I could have the raw data for because I like analyzing data, but it’s an interesting thing to glance it. It certainly shows that there are days that are more productive than others.

Conclusion

So there you have it. It’s pretty clear that Duolingo is indeed gamified, and I am far from the first person to write about it. In my experience, the gamification has helped me stay more committed to learning, and has been a net benefit. That said, many of Duolingo’s own users are critical of the system, and I do think it is always worth assessing whether gamification is adding value to a learning ecosystem, just like a teacher themselves would. If additional learning isn’t happening, it probably isn’t worthwhile. Am I being too black in white in judging it as such?

Oh My, OER

Open Education Practices, or OEP, refers to the practice of utilizing Open Educational Reources, or OER, in a transformative, meaningful way. These concepts were all things I was intuitively aware of before taking this course, but I now have a way to describe them accurately. So, as Confucious once said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

Educase’s “7 Things You Should Know” provides a good overview of Open Education Practices. I particularly liked the quoted description Cronin and MacLaren provide that defines OEP as the “use/reuse/creation of OER and collaborative, pedagogical practices employing social and participatory technologies for interaction, peer-learning, knowledge creation and sharing, and empowerment of learners.” I suspect for many educators the principles of OEP are appealing, but, like many things, the challenge comes in execution.

The Velvet Devil” by Morten Wul is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This week, we were tasked with reviewing an Open Educational Resource. Like Daina, I was drawn to the aptly named MERLOT (Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching). She pretty much immediately recognized that the resources were not especially age-appropriate for her context, but, as a teacher of Grade 11 and 12, I dug a little deeper, to see what I could find. Would MERLOT shine like a robust red wine? Or would it leave a bitter taste in my mouth like when I tried making homemade wine in my basement?

The history of MERLOT is pretty fascinating, to say the least. Wikipedia and their own website detail the story pretty well, but it’s safe to say it was a pioneering effort in open education, having been started over 20 years ago as a project by California State University. The website gives off a professional, polished vibe when first opened:

If anything, my first vibe was that of JSTOR, a site which is decidedly not free (and issues in the academic publishing field are a whole other topic of discussion).

I decided to use the site as if I were a teacher who just stumbled upon it. A course I often teach is History 10, which is basically a European history course. It’s also a curriculum older than I am, a curriculum without outcomes (which works well with modern report cards), and a curriculum that has supposedly been in the process of being renewed since at least 2009 (I have hope, though). Anyways, venting aside, it’s a good choice because European history is likely a subject taught in the United States, which is presumably where most of MERLOT’s resources come from.

Searching “Industrial Revolution” yields 90 results, displayed as such:

Each resource provides a summary, description of the material type, author, creation date, and an interesting set of reviews both by an editor and by users. The process to become an editor appears very thorough, and bears much similarity to the peer-review process in academia as far as I can tell.

I decided to investigate the Second Industrial Revolution resource because it had five star reviews in both categories, and was described as an “Online Course Module” which best describes what teachers are often looking for in terms of resources, at least in my experience. The splash page for the resource itself provided very little additional information: the key button is the one that says “Go to material.”

In this case, I was sent to a standalone website that resembles a webquest of sorts on the Second Industrial Revolution. Rather than a laborious step-by-step, image-by-image breakdown of the resource, I decided it would be easier to make a quick video. I believe this is the first time I have ever thought that making a video would be the “quick” option for anything, so I am definitely getting more comfortable with the tools out there and realizing their utility.

Screencastify’s website wasn’t loading for me today for whatever reason, so I tried the rival tool, Screencast-O-Matic. Here’s the end result:

Please don’t judge me, I’m new to the Internet!

I spent some time looking around at other resources too. To my surprise, there were a few resources regarding Canadian History, which was a bit unexpected. For English Language Arts, there is usually a great deal of potentially valid resources, but the crux is always adapting it to what is being taught. In my experience, it’s rare I use something as-is for ELA, as I am very particular about how I want to approach an issue. I know there are a few other ELA teachers in this class, so I’d be interested to know if that’s just me or what.

Anyways, my overall impression of MERLOT is that it is a valuable, but not standout, website. It definitely contains high-quality materials, but not at the critical mass that would make it especially valuable to K-12 teachers. Perhaps it would be more useful for a post-secondary instructor, especially a sessional lecturer thrown into a new environment with little support (an issue apparently even at the University of Regina). But realistically, with how many time (and energy!) constaints teachers already have, I don’t see them flocking to MERLOT rather than, say, TeacherPayTeachers, even if they agree with the high-minded ideals of open education. Challenging the commodification of education is not always top of mind on a Sunday night while prepping for 10 different courses.

I suppose my biggest takeaway about Open Educational Resources and Practices is that there’s room for the movement to gain acceptance and widespread adaptation. What’s challenging is addressing the fact that most teachers probably agree with the principles of Open Education, but that those who have the time, money, and energy to implement such practices (bureaucracy, educational consultants, publishing companies…) are probably less enamored with the idea. Changing the norms of open education may have to come from the bottom-up, which unfortunately puts more responsibility on classroom educators, but reflects how meaningful, long-term change is often brought about.

Major Digital Project 4/5: Hola YouTube!

On Twitter last week, I got a huge response (ok, 11 likes) to my tweet about leaving blog posts unpublished. Just my luck that a tweet highlighting my flaws would make it big. It was reassuring to hear that at least six of my classmates, and Dr. Couros himself, deal with the issue too. There’s something oddly heartwarming about not feeling alone in your struggles!

Well, here we are and I’m about to merge two long-standing incomplete posts (farewell blog posts 4 and 5, we hardly knew ye) into one mega post! I like to think of this as the blog equivalent of the omnibus bills used by our recent Liberal and Conservative federal governments to throw everything including the kitchen sink into a single piece of legislation. And like their process, no criticism of my method is allowed either! Read on, or don’t. There’s probably a hockey game on or something.

In all seriousness, it’s been a good week and a half. It’s been nice having someone else learning a language in the course. Daisy’s blog has been an interesting place to compare my progress to hers. While I definitely have much less background with my language than she does with hers, it gives me a sense of where a more advance learner would go. Thanks for paving the way for those of us in the back, Daisy!

I’m also getting more and more flashbacks (Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp anyone?) to my days of Core French all the way from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Fun fact: I took a French course in my third year of university and dropped it because I felt so overwhelmed. This time learning Spanish has been much more manageable, largely because I can set me own pace. I’m also supported by my apparent addiction to Duolingo (yes, it’s a real thing). Please send help.

Seriously though, I made my way into Platinum League folks (trigger warning: ‘folks’ links to an image of Doug Ford). I don’t know what it means to be in Platinum League, but I am sure pumped about it. I’ve also completely maxed out my skills for much of the early levels, which has a strange similarity to my urge to be a completionist in video games (no, not that Completionist). I still think I might talk about gamification in Duolingo one week because I think it’s a fascinating topic.

In addition to my continued work with Duolingo, I have branched out into YouTube as a source for my learning. In order to find the best Spanish learning video I could, I used the tried and true method to find good videos on YouTube: sorting by most views.

What I found was the series Spanish for Beginners, hosted by Dr. Danny Evans. I didn’t do any background research when I watched it, but I did now, and I was surprised to learn this show is produced by the network, Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters or AIB. I felt that was surprising enough to mention.

Anyways, episode was 27 minutes long (that feels like 3 hours with how busy I’ve been lately). I watched it on my phone while on the treadmill, so there were ads as well, which reminded me of why I should do more stuff on my computer and probably stop using my treadmill.

When I started watching, I’ll admit I was pretty reluctant. A video that long seemed almost certain to be a bore, and I felt my Duolingo work was pretty comprehensive to begin with. By the end, I was definitely reconsidering that position.

The first episode really went into the mechanics of language in an accessible, yet thorough way. That is pretty much the polar opposite of Duolingo, which basically throws you into the language, as I learned when I first used it.

As the screencap shows, Dr. Evans did a lot of work explaining things such as the pronunciation of vowels in Spanish. This helped me moved past the simplistic mimicking I had been doing on Duolingo, which I could always tell was somewhat off, but never could figure out why. Knowing vowels themselves are pronounced differently has helped me navigate that better.

Another section of the video went into the pronouns of Spanish, with a chart that should look awfully familiar to anyone who knows basic French:

“can I copy your homework?”
“yeah just change it up a bit so it doesn’t look obvious that you copied”
“ok”

I think one of my biggest realizations is how there are so many similarities between the romance languages and that I should try and leverage my above-average ability in French (I have spent a lot of time in that country…) to make the transition to Spanish a bit easier.

Next week, I’m gonna keep using Duolingo, which is my only no-brainer. From there, I’m undecided whether I should continue using the Spanish for Beginners series on YouTube, which was definitely good, or if it might be worth seeking out an even better video series to compare. Of course, using some other techniques to learn Spanish could also be worthwhile; someone mentioned on Twitter reaching out to the local Newcomer Welcome Centre. I think that’s a great idea, but also a bit intimidating.

If you have any thoughts about where to go next, leave them in the comments below. Otherwise, que tengas un buen día!

Remixing the Remix

I was pleasantly surprised this week when the Everything is a Remix series made its appearance on the reading/viewing list as I have a bit of background with it. I used his analysis of remixing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in my Media Studies 20 class several years ago to great effect. It’s a great watch for any Star Wars fan, or any teacher wanting students to look deeper at the structure of the work they are studying:

Stars Wars fans: watch this. Everyone else, do what you want!

While I used the Everything is a Remix video to help my students to develop their own ability to analyze texts, specifically video, the core philosophy expressed in this series of videos is worth exploring outright. To quote the creator Kirby Ferguson, in his TED Talk, (also worth a watch):

“We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another.”

(Emphasis mine)

The video’s title, Embrace the Remix, gets at this in a pretty easy-to-understand way. We build on each other and shouldn’t be ashamed of it! I think this is especially true in the education sector. Teachers need to share, and share more!

Remix” by Bill Benzon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I have been very fortunate to spend much of my career around teachers who shared their resources very willingly, something I heard mentioned in a few blogs this week. I really don’t know what I would have done without these people along the way, and am a bit mystified by those who are unwilling to share (sorry if this applies to you, nothing personal, but I just don’t get you).

I mean, think about it, we are not in a profession that is competitive by nature. These are not trade secrets we need to prevent rivals from having. If our goal is the best education for every student in the school system, sharing between teachers is an obvious best practice.

I love the suggestions of Google Drive (such as by Amanda) this week, because that is a simple tool that has revolutionized my ability to both share and receive files. Gone are the days of sharing a bulky 1 TB Seagate hard drive between six teachers to cobble together history resources. I still have it, in case anyone is interested. Things can now be shared online with the click of the button.

This discussion reminds me that I am the sole administrator of a 345-member strong group on Facebook called “Saskatchewan Grade 10-12 Teacher Resources and Idea Exchange.” I want to be clear that I did not create the page, and I am not even sure how I became an administrator (the others left I guess?) Nonetheless, it serves as a good example of the sharing happening all the time in our profession.

Here’s the last few posts on the page. It demonstrates a few of the categories of posting I have noticed over the years:

  1. Teachers asking for help with something. This is by far the most common post. Teachers are often looking for resources, usually specific, such as the second request, but sometimes more general like the first. For those of us who remember being a new teacher, I think this is a familiar feeling!
  2. Another type of post is people or groups soliciting or asking for something. In this case, it’s Social Studies Saskatchewan, the PGN (Professional Growth Network) for social studies teachers of our province inviting them to their annual conference (I went, had a great time, and met some cool people!)
  3. A third type of post, and perhaps the most interesting, is an individual sharing something neat they found that they think others would be interested in. Here’s a great recent example:

As the only moderator of this page, I witness a lot of interesting things being posted, asked for, and just being shared (emails and Google Drive links are commonplace in the comment section). I have been very keen on using things I encounter here in my own classes, but have been very reluctant to share (Kyla‘s comment that Daina referenced this week really spoke to me–teachers are often hesitant to have our own work judged). This week’s lesson has maybe shifted my thinking and will definitely push me to share more of what I’m doing, rather than being a passive consumer.

If the stats of the Internet are to be believed, 1% of us produce new content, while 99% of us lurk. I am aiming to join the 1% baby!

Major Digital Project 3: Duoling-whoa!

It’s rare for me to get addicted to an app, but that’s what has happened to me with Duolingo. Perhaps even rarer, it’s an app that’s educational! Or is it? That, and more, in this week’s update on my major digital project!

Last week, for those keeping score at home, I decided upon a direction for my major digital project and took baby steps in getting it started. The first step was to download and try the app, Duolingo (it’s also available on an internet browser, but I’ve moved to using it almost exclusively on my phone).

Well, here we are, one week, and not much else has happened beyond Duolingo, and I’m kinda ok with it. That’s because I’ve spent hours using Duolingo, with at least 30 minutes of time spent on it each day over the last week. This despite it being one of the busiest weeks of my life and career so far! So how’d it happen?

Duolingo embodies the principles of gamification. That is, it takes something that isn’t really normally considered a game (learning a language) and makes it into one. Very effectively I might add. I hope to research more into this for a future post, so if anyone has any resources or knowledge about gamification, I’d love to hear about it.

When you use Duolingo, you make your way through different levels focused on different topics and skills. In this image, you can see the first five skills: Intro, Phrases, Travel, Restaurant, and Family. I have reached level 5 (the maximum level) in intro and level 3 in the rest. You need to complete skills to make your way forward in the course, much like a game.

A screenshot of what Duolingo looks like on a Chromebook

When you click a skill, you get sent into a lesson. A lesson is basically a “stage” in Duolingo that you have to “beat” to move on. The stage consists of a variety of activities or questions based around language. Typically, it consists of: giving a sentence in the new language and asking you to translate it by dragging and dropping words into the correct order, having you read a sentence in the other language out loud (and it does a pretty good job of monitoring your pronunciation), identifying new vocabulary supported by images, and so on.

I learned about screen recording on Slack with help from Amanda and Brooke (thanks!), and found the App AZ Screen Recorder for my Android phone. Last week I did a very brief screencast of a desktop lesson in action; here I recorded an entire lesson from my phone, which is something I have never seen done before (seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a video recording of a phone screen before which is weird now that I think about it) and certainly nothing I’ve ever done. Watch a bit of it to get a good sense of what a lesson looks (and sounds) like.

I recorded this myself, but credit to Duolingo for the content!

Re-watching the video now really confirms how far I’ve come–like many skills, I suspect learning a new language comes with early gains followed by an eventual plateau. We will see if an when that point comes!

My goal next week is to expand my scope beyond just Duolingo, perhaps by exploring Spanish language learning resources on YouTube–this series looks like a decent starting point. That said, I think I’ll continue using Duolingo as my base learning tool. What do people think? Any suggestions for where to go next? I genuinely want to keep progressing!

Adventures in Video Editing: WeVideo

I’ve had WeVideo bookmarked and untouched at the top of my browser window for well over a year now. And I’ve yet to really ever explore the site despite my colleagues’ success with it and my desire to get into 2019 with video editing.

I’ve always been interested in the video medium. I can still vividly recall making self-taught Flash videos back in 2003/2004 (I incidentally rediscovered some of these videos when I learned that Geocities sites were archived from Professor Couros in one of our first meetings). This was the pre-YouTube era, back when Newgrounds was king–anybody remember that site?

I feel like I adopted YouTube pretty early, and made some videos, mostly for school projects, on an old Sony miniDV camcorder, editing the raw footage on a VCR. And then, in university, my professor Jay Wilson was very instrumental in pushing me into video editing in some of the Ed Tech courses I took. Rumour has it that my classic Tommy Douglas parody of Drunk History is still out there in the ether, unlisted on YouTube.

I appreciated Kyla’s blog post last week where she mentioned the loss of Media Studies as an elective at her school because that’s exactly what happened at our school too. I enjoyed teaching it for several years though, and video editing ended up being a fairly critical component of the course, largely due to student demand. However, we really struggled effectively using Adobe Premiere Elements 6, a software almost 10 years old, on desktop PCs that were over 10 years old (I’m talking Celeron processors here). But we managed.

Today, not teaching Media Studies has made video editing something I use less readily, yet it is probably more important than ever. And the increasing trend of having computers with low processing power (Chromebooks and the like) has opened the door to a new paradigm in video production. Splice, developed by GoPro, is a fantastic tool to use on cellphones, which often have cameras that put consumer-grade camcorders of only a few years ago to shame. And WeVideo is the most familiar of the online video editors where processing is done on a server rather than a computer.

So, here goes. What is WeVideo like?

In short, it’s very easy to use. The interface you are presented with is likely familiar to anyone who has edited a video before, with a clear timeline and a work area to drag content from.

It also functions like you would expect, with an easy drag-and-drop style, the ability to “snap” video clips together seamlessly, and very easy trimming.

With a subscription to the service, like our school division has, you are also granted access to a huge database of stock footage, images, and music. As their website describes:

WeVideo Essentials™ contains over 1,000,000 licensed and royalty-free videos, images, and audio clips from which to choose, available to the users of Education and Business plans.

“Royalty-free” means you can use any Essentials media within the WeVideo editor, and then post your completed stories to any website without risk of them being pulled down due to copyright protection. You are licensed to use the media, and there is no required attribution. Consider all the videos, images, and audio in the Essentials library, yours to use in the WeVideo editor as you please.

https://wevideo.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360001256094-Essentials-Royalty-free-stock-media-for-your-stories

When you’re arranged the video clips you want, whether original or from the library, you can then add music, text, transitions, etc. This feels a little limited compared to some high end video editors, but more than sufficient for most purposes, especially in the education sector.

So that’s the basics. It’s easy to pick up, use, export video, and very student friendly.

I plan to introduce WeVideo in my classes whenever we have an assignment that has a video option to it. For example, students in ELA 20 have to create an interview with a character from their independent novel study and present it either in person, or as a video or audio recording. WeVideo could make the production of the video easier than ever before. And that’s a big deal, because videos are often very labour-intensive, in my experience.

I consider WeVideo to be another step forward in video-making, making the art more accessible to more people than ever before, just like consumer camcorders, home computers, and cell phones before it.

Major Digital Project 2: Option B Underway!

Have you ever witnessed other people do something impressive and feel like you could never do it yourself? That’s how I feel about learning a second language. While I know it’s possible, my self-efficacy is apparently lower with this skill than with most. That made me want to challenge myself with learning Spanish for this project, as there are few opportunities that would push me to follow through with it quite like this. While that was the prime factor, I have a variety of reasons for why I wanted to learn Spanish.

  • I hope to one day finish my Bachelor of Arts degree, which requires a course in a second language.
  • I travel frequently, have visited several Spanish-speaking countries and wished I knew a bit of the language, and want to go to South America in the near future.
  • Spanish is the second biggest language in the world by native speakers, something I didn’t know until recently. So, there’s utility there.
  • I teach numerous EAL students, and Spanish seems to be the second most common language spoken, behind Tagalog.
  • This is clearly a learning task that others have tackled and challenged based on the great examples of student work provided.
  • It definitely meets the syllabus guideline of being “complex to learn, worth learning, and of great interest to you.”
  • The opportunity for face-to-face input in our Zoom session last week and comments on my blog helped me make my decision.
  • It’s sure to be a lot of fun!

Anyways, it has gradually become more and more clear to me that this was the best option. So now the fun begins…

What now?

What do I do?

Where do I go?

I did what any teacher would do: look at what others were doing and copy them (let’s be honest, this is a great way to learn that we sometimes discourage). I looked through the various example blogs listed earlier, sent out a message for help on Twitter, and benefited greatly from reading Daisy’s first post. So my first week of my project was one of exploration and, as you will see, apparent big, easy gains in knowledge.

Daisy mentioned challenging a proficiency test to gauge her working knowledge of Italian, so I thought I’d do the same, just for kicks:

Seeing that I received less than 25% on a four option multiple choice test confirmed that I have absolutely no background with the Spanish language.

Duolingo is one of the few language learning resources I had heard of before starting this project. I had used it for an hour or two five years ago to polish up my French and it was mentioned on Twitter and several of the blogs I read. Therefore, I decided to start there. After creating an account, I learned that Duolingo had its own aptitude test that is administered before beginning the course. What happened next might shock you…

I absolutely rocked the quiz! A combination of being an English teacher with a fairly strong grasp of sentence structure with cursory French made basic Spanish seem fairly intuitive. The website/app is also really impressive from a design perspective–it comes off as polished, accessible, and, frankly, fun. I actually enjoyed working my way through the first exercises.

I don’t full understand the structure yet, but after an hour or so of work, I had accomplished level three in the intro and started chipping away at the other categories too. I am on my way! I’ve embedded a sample YouTube video to just test out Screencastify and YouTube!

What’s History without Knowledge?

Of all the resources provided in EC&I 831 this week, it was Pavan Arora’s video “Knowledge is obsolete, so now what?” that resonated the most with me.

Pavan Arora delivering his TED Talk.

I found his main argument, that the education system must be drastically overhauled to deal with the commodification of knowledge incredibly persuasive. And scary, oh so scary, because I’m not sure if we’re ready for it.

At the same time, I recognize that the education system has already changed rapidly (or perhaps struggled with change) even in my short career. Consider the pervasiveness of cell phones in the classroom, and the opportunities and challenges that presents. Just today I had a student, with my consent, use Siri to find what the definition of “anthropology” was in front of the entire class. Sorry World Book, but times are changing. And that student did exactly what most of what we would do in real life if we wanted to find the definition to something quickly and efficiently.

As a history teacher specifically, I particularly struggle with the daily reality of teaching an outdated curriculum composed largely of knowledge objectives (and no outcomes!) against a backdrop that has, and continues to, change rapidly. Yes, the current version of Economics taught at our school is a curriculum document from 1975, nearly a half-century ago. It has made me question my competence as a teacher numerous times; sometimes because I feel like I’ve strayed too far from the curriculum, and other times for following it closely against what I perceive would be best practice. Sometimes it seems like I can’t win.

To give an example, here’s a snippet from one page of the 557 (!) page History 30 curriculum:

Note the heavy use of the verb “know,” which reflects the former (and arguably current, at least for some of our colleagues) importance of teachers communicating knowledge to students. Now that this knowledge is easily accessible, a bigger challenge has arisen. We need to find ways to teach students, as Pavan Arora said, “How to access knowledge, assess knowledge, and apply knowledge.”

As a teacher, I believe I have succeeded in starting to move away from a knowledge-based history course. For example, I have eliminated and replaced traditional research essays and final exams with much more meaningful (and challenging) assessments.

I’ll use one as a case study of sorts. I am greatly indebted to Blake Seward, the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, and my colleagues in being able to facilitate it with my students; Issac Newton’s famous remark about standing on the shoulders of giants accurately describes how I feel.

Regardless, I have found the use of The Lest We Forget Project to be groundbreaking in my History 30 classroom.

This project asks students to choose a Canadian soldier–often randomly–who died in the First or Second World War and construct a narrative about them using a variety of sources, especially their service record. Amazingly, Library and Archives Canada has digitized all of their records and made them publically available.

This means students must investigate these primary sources themselves to find the evidence. They are not curated at all; in fact, most students are the first person to ever view their soldier’s service record, which is a humbling fact. The handwriting is messy, the acronyms are puzzling, and the answers to many of their questions are non-Googleable. In short, it’s an assignment that focuses less on what the knowledge is, but rather how and why we access it. It’s one example, but I think I am pushing beyond a simple, knowledge-based history course.

I do believe the use of social networks in the classroom has the potential to aid in this “post-knowledge” era, but my current practices with it are limited. Whether it’s because of my own personal reluctance, or the stance of my school division (different sites are graded as green, yellow, or red for use in the classroom: social media sites are definite reds!), I just haven’t got there. I have, and will continue to, read the posts of my colleagues and classmates though, as their practices are increasingly making me feel like taking the plunge! I was flattered when my coworkers started using the Lest We Forget project, and I hope you’ll be flattered if I beg, borrow, or steal your ideas too!

Major Digital Project 1: Options, Oh, My!

I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about my major project. Like a lot, a lot. Probably more than I’d like to admit. When my students were working on a writing assignment in class this week, several remarked that coming up with an idea was the hardest part. As I’ve worked through several ideas over the past few weeks myself, I think I agree wholeheartedly!

I think I’ll discuss my thought process chronologically, recounting where I was and where I am now at! I’ll note that I didn’t really favour Option A or Option B, having considered both as long as they would be valuable to me and/or my students.

Idea 1 – My Political Journey: My first idea felt like a great fit at first because I am effectively being forced to experience Option B on my own right now as a first-time campaign manager for my friend and fellow teacher’s federal election bid. I’ll keep the actual political side of things out of this because it’s not really relevant to the assignment, but I have already been learning how to use Mailchimp, scheduling and boosting posts on Facebook, and setting up digital events with Eventbrite. I was excited about this prospect and even emailed Professor Couros about it right when the course began.

Verdict: As much as I am indeed learning about social media in a hands-on, baptism-by-fire way, this wasn’t an ideal fit. The campaign will (thankfully!) be over soon so it’s perhaps not timely enough, and the proper documenting of my progress is very tricky. Confidentiality is important, both for voters and for the methods political parties utilize in running elections. Ultimately, I’ll have to settle for keeping my learning to myself with this one.

Idea 2 – Student Vlogging, Podcasting and Screencasting: This felt like another natural option, as I am teaching an online class for the very first time this semester. As such, utilizing these type of assignments seems like a no-brainer, and is realistically more of a necessity when I don’t ever get to have these students all in class with me. I’m indebted to a colleague and master teacher colleague who helped set me up for my first time teaching online, so I am already am in a framework that seems to be working so far.

Verdict: I love these ideas, but the course I am teaching is so heavily derived/stolen (this is the first time I think I’ve ever really used someone else’s work this much) from my colleague’s course that it would be dishonest to use it for my assignment in any way. I will note that the first module students are currently working through has a screen-casted small assignment and a video essay for the culminating task, while the next module has them pitch a TED talk and ends with a group podcast. Needless to say, I’m very excited to see what students create!

Idea 3 – Personal Learning Project: This week, I’ve taken Option B back to its roots by asking myself what I really would like to learn to do. Through brainstorming (with help from my girlfriend and others), I have narrowed it down to a manageable short list: learning basic Spanish, learning to run (couch to 5k, etc), or learning some form of basic coding.

Verdict: These are all ideas that appeal to me in that I want to learn the skills but probably otherwise wouldn’t make the time or have the discipline to do so.

I need to take an additional language course down the line to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree, so taking Spanish would help me prepare for that. It’s also a language that’s widespread and would help with future travel (30 countries and counting!), and might pair well with my better-than-average-but-by-no-means fluent French.

Running is something I used to do on occasion, but I have really found my fitness has declined since becoming a teacher (correlation = causation?), so that’s appealing, and I believe I would like seeing the visible progress day-by-day. Of course, winter means I’d probably be stuck on a treadmill, but that would make quantifying things super easy.

Coding seems to be all the rage these days, and, despite a background pretty heavy in both math and science and technology, it is something I know nothing about. I was once asked if I would teach Computer Science but wasn’t confident enough in my abilities to take it on. It was then predictably shuffled off to an unsuspecting new teacher (that tendency to happen in education is a whole other discussion), who seemed to get the hang of it quickly. I also could create an app and make millions of dollars–haha, I was joking about this part, but one can dream.

At this point, I’m happy I managed to narrow it down this far, but I’m not sure how to make a final decision between the three. I think considering applicability to the assignment, value to me personally, and value to me professionally are all criteria in my head so far. I’d be very interested to hear what others think and how they made these decisions themselves!

Idea 4 – Student Blogging: This one’s got a bit of history. I have used blogs with my students in the past, and the results have ranged from acceptable to poor–and for some individual students, very, very poor. Certainly never what I hoped for. So this choice would be for me to tackle Option A with the intent of using blogs with students so they don’t suck this time.

Verdict: This one’s really only been given recent consideration, and I have mixed feelings about it. Much like how those who have gotten sick off of certain alcohols can never drink them again, my aversion to blogging is fairly significant and perhaps just as irrational. I’d really need to find a purposeful way to incorporate them into my class (probably ELA 20 because it has strong curricular justification), and to carry it out so it goes well for students. I used to be a huge reader of blogs, especially in the hockey world in the proto-Twitter era (circa 2005), but I am not sure where they fit in our world now. My apologies if you’re reading this Professor Couros, but I sometimes even wonder if blogs are a bit of an outdated medium. For anyone reading this, I guess I’d need you to sell me on this option a bit too, because I’m obviously still reluctant!

So that’s where I’m at. I think I’m gonna keep this post old school without the barrage of links like my first one. I know that reading lengthy walls of text is not really common these days, but this blog post was as much for me as it was for you, trusty reader. So please excuse my barbarity; I’ll be sure to load my next blog post up on memes.

EC&I 831: Social Media & Open Education

My Social Media Background

I’ll just check Twitter for 5 minutes.

— Me, sitting on the couch from 7:00 to midnight

Hello, World!” It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had a blog. 7 years, in fact, since I graced the halls of the University of Saskatchewan. It’s neat to be back.

Social media. An increasingly dominant part of our daily lives. For me, social media is, like anything else, to be enjoyed in moderation. I get news faster than ever with Twitter. I connect with friends literally around the world through Facebook. I chuckle at memes on Reddit. But I do find balance is important and something I haven’t always been able to achieve.

Throughout middle and high school, computer games were my addiction. At some point, gaming has taken the back seat to social media as my main technological pursuit. Social media imbues both my personal and professional lives, and I suspect this is true for many others. It’s not something I’ve reflected much upon because the process has been so gradual.

Today, social media is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I see at night. It’s that pervasive, and that alone sometimes seems problematic. Yet the benefits are numerous: near-instant communication, increased efficiency both at work and play, and an ability to find information that once was considered the realm of only experts.

I have read a great deal of discussion about the dangers of social media: psychological harm, online bullying, invasion of privacy. For me, those dangers haven’t been a reality, yet they do linger in my mind, especially as a teacher of teenagers. I don’t think we fully understand the impacts social media is having on us, and might not for a long, long time. It’s a new horizon, and we’re all floating in space together.