Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Playing with Toys

Part of the fun of teaching pre-service teachers about digital technologies is that I get to play with them. This year I got hold of a pair of the cutest little BeeBots (https://www.bee-bot.us) as a way of introducing coding to some of my teacher education students.

It was hilarious watching adults trying to work out how to program the BeeBots to follow masking tape on the floor and having to think about the commands they would use. I provided them with laminated cards that replicated the BeeBot commands and had them convert their instructions to an algorithm.  We started with 'programming' a student as a whole group, which I believe was helpful way to introduce computational thinking in a non-threatening way.

I had them play on Kodable as well, some on my iPad some doing paper-based simulations. Again I asked them to develop the algorithms to direct the Kodable characters to their destinations.

What was rewarding was the high level of engagement as they developed their responses to the challenges at each work station. What was interesting was watching their varied reactions - 
some of the students took to this like ducks to water, whereas others found the terminology intimidating. Most were ok with the concepts.

For those of you who haven't come across these types of programs, the tools I used have been designed for  young children (2-8 perhaps) to introduce them to foundational coding and computational thinking skills and techniques. They both require you to code, but at quite simple levels.

However, a progression to Scratch started to raise the anxiety levels. Too many possibilities!!

So, my initial reflections:

  • I was surprised at how few had any experience with tablets. Most had laptops and smartphones but very few had tablets or had used tablets. The idea that these tools have become part of a teacher's toolkit was a revelation to some. My concern is that the majority of primary schools in Victoria are acquiring iPads at a great rate - will my pre-service teachers be prepared to teach with these tools if you they not familiar with these tools?
  • Some of the pre-service teachers were resistant to exploring coding, despite a very gentle introduction to the terminology. Some switched off and relied on their partners to carry the intellectual load. Will they adopt the same stance when they are teachers, being asked to integrate the new Digital Technologies into their classroom curriculum?
  • Setting up a variety of workstations where students worked in small groups or pairs was a successful strategy that was particularly helpful for those pre-service teachers who were resistant. Will they adopt a similar strategy in their own classroom when faced with children who are lacking engagement with coding (although who can resist those cute BeeBots, I ask you?)
  • This took time - and within my own curriculum I don't have enough time for my own students to master these tools and importantly the thinking behind them about computational thinking.
  • I don't think all my pre-service teachers were all believers that teaching coding was important, certainly not as important as teaching literacy and numeracy.
My bigger questions, however, relate to how teachers in schools are reacting to the new requirements to teach coding, algorithms and computational thinking in general. Will these same reactions I saw amongst my own pre-service teachers is be played out amongst teachers in primary schools? Will teachers incorporate these strategies into their classroom practices or will we see a reversion to the weekly IT class model, where a specialist teacher takes the students in Digital Technologies classes that focus on computational thinking? What might such a strategy be saying to the students? That digital technologies is something separate to what happens in the classroom everyday, that it is something that only people with special skills can do? Does positioning digitech as something that is a specialist area of study fly in the face of the intent of the digital technologies curriculum in Australia and other pushes to incorporate 'coding' into schooling that are gaining popularity across the world? Or should we be positioning digitech as a specialist subject area, and resource it appropriately with equipment and teachers skills in teaching it? Will forcing reluctant teachers to squeeze one more thing into their already crowded curriculum result in our students missing out on quality instruction in the digitech area. Will schools who employ a teacher skilled in this new curriculum area and capable of teaching it be more effective at achieving the sort of learning outcomes intended in this new curriculum?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hybrid spaces - teaching meets social media.

For the last few years a colleague and I have run an innovative project in our undergraduate teacher education program, called eTutor. The idea behind the project was to establish a secure online environment where pre-service teachers could 'tutor' school students from overseas countries in English through online conversations. In 2013, with the assistance of a Seed Grant from the Office of Learning and Teaching we extended the project to include students from Australian schools as well. This year over 250 pre-service teachers are currently Online engaging more than 600 primary and secondary students from six countries in online conversations in the secure, private eTutor environment. Students from India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Nepal and China interact in eTutor with pre-service teachers and students from three schools in Melbourne, Australia.


Pre-service teachers encourage small groups of participating school students to post comments and blogs or participate in online chats about a range of topics. Students write about their interests in their profiles, or respond to questions and small tasks set by the pre-service teachers, using correct English language. Topics might relate to Games We Play, Things We Celebrate, Foods We Eat, or other topics that promote an exchange of cultural information. Students also post images and videos that form the basis of conversations.  So far, soccer (aka football) is the most popular topic of conversation! Seems like it truly is the global sport. The topic of conversation is not the focus, however - the intent is to simply engage the school students in writing, in English, working on the assumption that practice makes perfect!

If you are interested in learning more about eTutor, you can visit the companion website at edmedia.rmit.edu.etutor.

It was hoped that through such close, personal encounters with students from different cultures, that pre-service teachers would develop their intercultural competence, that is their ability to communicate effectively and with empathy with people from different cultures. In a world of growing diasporas and globalisation, teachers in Australia, and elsewhere, are facing increased cultural diversity in the classroom. Standards for graduating teachers recognise the need for teachers to be able to teach students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (AITSL). However, my pre-service teachers don't always have opportunities to develop their awareness of the role cultural and linguistic diversity can play in a classroom and how they need to take an inclusive approach in their classrooms. eTutor was designed to give them an opportunity to practice strategies of inclusivity, and of engaging culturally diverse students. It was also designed, through sharing information about their own and others' cultures, to open them to cultural self examination, to interrogate those often black-boxed cultural assumptions that shape who we are as teachers. In a Frierian sense, we were offering opportunities to change pre-service teachers' ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in an action oriented approach - rather than simply offer abstract knowledge about intercultural competence we created an authentic space where intercultural competence could be practiced.

Another aim of the project was to fuse pre-service teachers' growing knowledge and skill in teaching (engaging students through questioning skills, giving feedback, developing stimulating learning activities in ways that are inclusive and supportive) with their well developed social media and digital literacy skills. In one sense, eTutor was designed as a 'third space' - a hybrid space that grew out of the connections between the domains of the physical classroom with which pre-service teachers were becoming increasingly familiar, and the online spaces of social media, with which pre-service teachers were most comfortable. eTutor constituted an entirely new space for learning and teaching, one that was in many ways fundamentally different from either individual domain. Within this new or third space, pre-service teachers crossed the boundaries between their customary roles that existed in the physical classroom, where the notion of how teachers behave was clearly defined and understood, and their roles in social media, where again the role as communicator was clearly to them.

In theory, it should be a match made in heaven. However, what is most interesting is how many of the pre-service teachers found this new space difficult to negotiate. For example, whilst built to mirror much of the same functionality of social media (posts, image sharing, video sharing, chat) it didn't look exactly like mainstream social media tools. A minority percentage of pre-service teachers found it difficult to locate where within the site the students had posted their blogs or messages, claiming 'it's not like Facebook' even though they had access to a user guide, and the site provided notifications that mirrored those in Facebook. Despite my pre-service teachers being high users of social media (even during my classes!) it seems that eTutor did not feature as highly on their priorities. When away from the physical classroom setting, remembering to check eTutor for new conversations and posts was challenging for some pre-service teachers. I try to draw parallels to a face to face setting by explaining that the lack of attention to the online students was akin to ignoring the students in the classroom. I ask them to think how their students would feel if their teacher didn't communicate with them for two weeks. The penny drops and my pre-service teachers feel terrible for ignoring their online students. 'But Nicky, they don't seem real' is a common rejoinder.

One pre-service teacher also explained that checking social media is like a quick break for their brain - it doesn't take much time or much concentration. Whereas in eTutor, it is more than just skimming the latest posts. As tutors they need more time to consider how they might respond to the students' posts, or what online task they might create to engage the students in further writing.

Pre-service teachers also find it challenging to create the same type of 'classroom culture' online that emerges out of the spontaneous interactions that characterise the physical classroom. Nothing much in eTutor is spontaneous, other than the real time Chat which is serendipitous and ephemeral, but requires careful crafting and consistent attention. Conversations can take some weeks to run their course, as students are not always online frequently.

What is emerging from the eTutor project is consistent with Bhabha's warning that a third space cannot be directed by old principles, but that new ways of interacting in this space need to emerge and evolve. eTutor, like any third space is neither easy nor quick, but is a continual construction, which may never be fully achieved (Klein et al., 2013).

Further reading about Third Space theory:

Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Klein, E. J., Taylor, M., Onore, C., Strom, K. & Abrams, L. (2013). Finding a third space in teacher education: creating an urban teacher residency, Teaching Education. DOI: 10.1080/10476210.2012.711305.

Rutherford, J. (1990) The third space: An interview with Homi Bhabha. In J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference (pp. 207-221). London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Zeichner, K. (2010). Rethinking connections between campus course and field experiences in college- and university-based teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61, 89-99.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What does the 'C' in ICT stand for??

I know it's been a while since my last blog - I am acutely aware that it is probably too much time and far more time than I had planned! But the habits of a lifetime are difficult to change. Sitting on a computer reflecting openly about my own teaching practices doesn't come naturally. It's easier to sit passively and watch TV, or to play mindless games on my iPad, or to plan another class, or mark an assignment, than to sit and think about the things I do! Note to self: more self-discipline about reflecting (just like I tell my own students! Walk the talk time).

In my last blog I flagged that I was taking my students out of the sheltered university environment into a real primary (elementary) school, to put into practice some of the things we talked about more conceptually, from the safety of a uni classroom. This blog focuses on what that experience demonstrated.

My pre-service teachers, and I, spent an afternoon each Monday for three weeks, teaching with technology to children in Grades 1 and 2. The 25 students were split into five classrooms, where they were asked to enrich some existing curriculum with digital technologies. The curriculum in question was the Integrated Curriculum unit that focused on Community, specifically focusing on people in the community who help us, such as doctors, ambulance and fire services. Using a combination of iPads and netbook computers, often shared between two children, my students:

  • used Popplet to brainstorm what the children knew and what they wanted to learn
  • asked the children to use Popplet to plan and storyboard ideas for a video
  • guided the children to use Bitstrips for Schools to create comics about different emergency services; they used Skype and smartphones to bring in people from beyond the school to talk about fire fighting
  • helped the children create short iMovies, some with costumes, props and role play, others where the children interviewed each other about emergencies, others using digital photos taken on a recent excursion to the local Fire Brigade.
  • used Google maps to plot where all the children lived.
During this time I had the privilege of wandering between the five classrooms, checking in on how my students were progressing, what problems they were encountering (and there were many!) and how the students and teachers were responding to what was being taught and how. Importantly, I was able to observe what was happening in each of the classrooms. So what did I see? What did the 'c' in ICT stand for in this school?

I saw some wonderful examples of how placing technology in the hands of the learner can have a powerful and positive impact on learner engagement. In every classroom I saw children willingly, actively and, often excitedly, participate in the activities my students had designed. I wonder though, how much of this was a novelty factor - the novelty of having a team of new teachers in the classroom coupled with the novelty of having access to technology that wasn't really used very much in these classrooms?

The school, a fairly average school in many ways - size, academic standards, socio-economic status of families who send their children to the school, as well as access to technology - has invested in technology across all year levels. For the times my students were teaching, each class had access to 24 devices - either iPads or netbooks. The classes usually had access to either 12 iPads or netbooks, however, it became clear fairly quickly that the devices were not used commonly, other than as an activity for early finishers. In one of the classrooms, devices regularly had flat batteries and the teacher wasn't sure where the cables were to re-charge the devices. In some cases, the devices had not been configured for internet searching capability, but were restricted to 'edutainment' apps of limited educational value, but which kept the children occupied. The teachers in question didn't know that the devices could be used for searching the internet! It was perhaps not surprising then, that the children in these classrooms were highly engaged when my students asked them to use the devices to create things, rather than to more passively use the pre-loaded content on the devices. To me, what I saw reinforced the idea I frequently stress with my students that technology in the classroom is best used as a tool for creating, rather than a tool for consuming. And when children are asked to create things, they are usually highly engaged. So that's the first 'c' - creating.

children working on iPads in pairs, communicating with each other about their workAnother thing I saw was children talking with each other about their learning. My students had children working in pairs or small groups on creating their products. In each classroom I saw, when children were engaged in creating movies or cartoons or popples, they were also talking with each other. I saw them talking about the apps they were using, about the processes they were following and about their ideas for what might be in their digital creations. They were helping each other learn how to use the various apps, but importantly they were also talking about the content that went into their digital creations, providing my students with ample opportunity to assess their understanding of the concepts that lay at the heart of these lessons. I also saw some of the children using technology to talk to people who were beyond the classroom - real people who had fought horrendous bush fires in places not all that far from the school. The children were intrigued and captivated. They asked intelligent and enquiring questions and listened to the answers, then incorporated ideas from this conversation into their digital creations. So another 'c' - communicating.

When the children were creating their iMovies, they took turns filming and acting, then they took turns editing, all the time giving each other (unsolicited!) advice. They offered advice on how to make the devices work and were proactive in ideas about how to improve their ideas. The talk in each classroom was inspiring and evidence that, when coupled with engaging activities, digital technologies can be a catalyst for cooperative and collaborative learning. Two more 'c's - cooperating and collaborating.

The digital creations also provided evidence of the extent to which the students were developing their understanding of the concepts being taught. I often put forward the argument that digital technologies offer many students an alternative mode of communicating what they know and understand that doesn't privilege the written word. My students saw this in action. In one particular example, a new student had recently enrolled at the school. He had virtually no English language, and his teacher was having trouble including him in many of the planned learning activities, the majority of which were dependent upon fluency in spoken and written English. However, in making the movie he was able to contribute by helping to film his peers, by acting in the movie and in editing the finished product. My students were amazed at how happy he seemed to be when he was able to make a contribution. They commented on how much more confident he became in the classroom after this activity. There's another 'c' - confidence!

This all sounds almost like Pollyana - everything coming up roses, to mix a pair of metaphors. But not everything went to plan. Sometimes technology the students had tested at lunchtime failed in the moment in the classroom, for no apparent reason. Sometimes batteries were flat, or cables were missing, or classroom procedures ate into time my students had planned. Sometimes logins wouldn't work when they had worked an hour earlier. Sometimes, the curriculum just didn't really lend itself to more inspiring and authentic ways of integrating digital technologies. My students commented frequently that they would have loved to have had more time for the students to explore other digital apps but were constrained by the nature of the curriculum and of the classrooms they were in.  They felt, and I agreed, that we were simply layering some bells and whistles onto a very traditional, teacher-centred curriculum. They wanted to experiment more and have the students lead the learning, with more independent use of digital technologies. They felt that prior to our involvement at the school, the children had used technology in very limited ways, meaning that more time than they had planned was spent in showing the children how to use the devices, although not as much time as the classroom teachers thought would be needed.  One of my students remarked that integrating technology is messy! And indeed it is. But my students responded positively, showing their adaptability and flexibility in dealing with the unexpected that happens so often in a classroom. My students learned about the complexity of planning and implementing technology-enriched curriculum in the real world of the classroom. There's my final 'c' for now - complexity.

The process of organising site-based experiences for pre-service teachers is also complex. Trying to coordinate timetables and schedules between a university and a school is difficult. Trying to find a school where there is adequate technology and teachers willing to open their classrooms to preservice teachers is also difficult. Encouraging my students to take risks with their practice was a risk for my own practice - would they step up and do a good job? Would they acquit themselves to an adequate standard in the classroom? Would the technology the school claimed actually be available and working? Would the classroom teachers allow my students to take control of their classroom? Would they want us to come back?

So was it worth it? As a teaching strategy for me, definitely. As a learning experience for my students - absolutely. It allowed my students to put into practice some of the principles and theory about technology integration I talk about, in a safe and supported way.  Whilst they weren't always able to do as much as they wanted to do, they did enough to walk away with enormous confidence in their ability to tackle technology integration on their own. And as a catalyst for technology integration at the school - indeed! In weeks 2 and 3 of our program, ICT student leaders from Grade 6 joined our classes with the express intent of learning about some new apps, and to take that learning back to their own classrooms. Some of the teachers who allowed us into their classrooms have been seen to be using the apps our students showed their children!

And what come next? At the request of the school leadership, I return next year with another group of pre-service teachers, in different classrooms and with a more open-ended curriculum that my students get to design from scratch! Can't wait!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Where are the digital technology role models for my students?

A couple of years ago I did some research on my students (what most academics do at some point in their careers!) into their digital literacies that formed the basis of a conference paper at AARE – click here for more information. My students are mostly young, mostly straight out of school or coming out of a gap year or a false start with a different area of study. Most of them are pretty handy with devices – at least for communicating with each other, for Googling things (funny how to Google is now a verb!) and a few other things. Some (minority) are very handy with their devices for a range of other things. These days all of them are confident that whatever the technology, they can work it out. Even my older, mature age students come around pretty quickly to working stuff out fairly easily.

But most find it difficult to build a bridge between their personal use and their professional use of technology. They have limited experience in using digital technologies in their own schooling – mostly Googling things, typing up assignments and the odd PowerPoint presentation. The majority of them also don’t see much interesting use of digital technologies when they go out to school on professional experience placements. Not much of a basis to build upon.

Each year I teach a couple of digital technologies elective courses/subjects, and at the beginning of each course I ask the students to blog about their previous experiences with digital technologies when they’ve been in schools on professional practice. And every year I get the same answers – they see children being asked to type up their good copy on the computer (what is this saying about the value being placed on handwritten or hand produced work compared to computer generated products, not to mention asking young children to do the same thing twice- where is the learning in that!), and to ‘play’ on (insert pre-populated edutainment product here) if they finish their real work (computer as busy-work, time-filler not real work!), and they see the teacher using the interactive whiteboards (not the students). And disappointingly, some of my colleagues fail to inspire them with new ways of integrating digital technologies in other parts of their teacher education, although fortunately that is slowly changing. Not exactly a source of inspiration for their own teaching!

My current class of 25 students have spent the last few weeks blogging about their own experiences with digital technologies as their first assignment this semester. I must say, the enthusiasm they display is heartening. They are, without exception, convinced that knowing how to integrate digital technologies is essential for them as aspiring teachers and that they need to ‘re-evaluate our identity as a teacher due to the ever-changing teaching environment’. They are considering the need to relinquish some of the control teachers traditionally hold, and are exploring more student-centred approaches that reflect and build on the technological literacies their students bring to school. One student observed that:
  ICT has changed the way children socialise, interact with their peers and their whole world…except for school! So yes we need to consider what captures their interest and inspires them to want to learn at school.
But they despair at the lack of innovation they have seen in how teachers in schools are using digital technologies. Stories like the following were typical in the blogs:
 I have seen very limited digital technology being used, and often when it is I feel that it is a token effort to somehow try to incorporate the use of ICT, as if to tick it off as being done. Whilst on placement the only form of digital technology I witnessed was computers/iPads etc being used a babysitting tool... for example, groups of students used ridiculous math websites, but by the time they had logged on, the session was over and it was time to pack up. 
Fortunately, a few students observed more positive ways of incorporating digital technologies into classrooms, particularly where access to devices wasn’t a constraint. In one example, students were inspired by viewing Inanimate Alice, a digital novel, and were asked to ‘write’ the next episode:
students were self motivated and totally captivated with the learning task. The students were expected to come up with a punchy storyline whilst still incorporating all the elements of a narrative. They used their ICT skills beyond their comfort zones to produce some magnificent work! The outcome was the most authentic, valuable and creative work that surpassed my expectation!
In another example, students were using iPads to talk about their texts:
In literacy students would record/film themselves on their iPads discuss about the text they were working on, rather than sitting in their seat and writing it down in their literacy books which is how it is done majority of the time. In sharing time, the students would mirror their recording on the interactive white board to share their work with the rest of the class. They were really keen to show their work and produced amazing things.
I wonder how familiar this story is with other teacher educators who are trying to instill understandings of the role of digital technologies in the classroom? How many of you are hearing the same stories from your pre-service teachers about the limited ways they have observed digital technologies being used? I also wonder how we can move beyond this story, which hasn’t changed much in my experience of teaching teachers over the last ten years. How can I ensure that my students see some of the wonderful, amazing and inspirational technology-enriched teaching that I know happens in some classrooms, in some schools? I guess that’s my job!! To inspire them, to provide examples they can follow but also to give them opportunities to create their own ideas about authentic and meaningful uses of technology.

Next month, I am taking this same group of 25 students to a nearby primary school to work in the classrooms with teachers and students to try new things with digital technologies – well, new to my students and new to the school. I want them to have an opportunity to connect theory - the ideas and the applications we’ve reflected on, talked about and tried in our uni classes – to practice in a real classroom, with real teachers and students. I wonder what will happen??

A starting point...

A blank page is always terrifying. I never know where to start. So, deep breath and off I go.

Why create a new blog? Good question. Aren't there enough people self-indulgently blogging about their work, their lives and any miscellaneous idea that pops into their heads? We live in a networked world, one where at the click of a button or the swipe of a finger we can tell the world our troubles. Without any filters we can sometimes share too much. But just as there exists negativity in some circles about the over-sharing that happens in social media, there are others who recognise the power of social media to make connections. I guess that is at the heart of this new blog of mine - a desire to make connections with colleagues around the world on areas of common interest.

So what's this blog going to be about. Well, I'm an academic at an Australian university, helping to prepare the next generation of teachers, for both primary/elementary and, to a lesser extent these days, secondary schools. My main focus, but not the only one, is on the integration of digital technologies (what we used to call ICT) into the classroom. My teaching and research centres on questions of what does effective integration of digital technologies look like? How can we better prepare new teachers in integrating digital technologies in ways that move beyond a ‘tick the box’ approach? How can I harness digital technologies in my own teaching so that I am modeling approaches that could work for my students in their own classrooms? So this blog is about that journey – sharing the approaches I take to my own teaching, the experiences of my students and some of the projects and research I participate in that relate to teaching teachers about and with digital technologies. I hope that whoever reads this blog talks to me about my work and about their own work, so that ideas can flourish, develop, become enriched.