Theory and Practice

Beyond Technology

The medium is the message. – Marshall McLuhan

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 6.54.50 PMNew York City libraries will soon let patrons “check out the Internet” by Nancy Scola (The Washington Post, December 4, 2014)

New York City residents can now check out an Internet hotspot to use in their own homes. This normally monthly financial obligation is available to any patron with a library card and are currently enrolled in a community-based program, such as citizenship classes. This is in response to a University of Albany-SUNY study that found that “in 2011, nearly 30 percent of households in New York City were not subscribed to broadband at home”. It is part of a broader initiative by the city to close the digital divide. A related program includes turning city pay phones into WiFi hotspots.

Critical Digital Literacy Explained for Teachers (Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, December 2014)

This website highlights a framework developed by Juliet Hinrichsen and Anthony Coombs from the University of Greenwich. Their purpose: To provide a conceptual understanding of how we read in the informational/digital age.


These five domains and descriptions may be a departure from our current understanding of literacy. For example, learners need to “develop familiarity with the structures and conventions of digital media”. This standard would likely include the use of hashtags and the difference between saving and publishing. In addition, educators should understand the “issues of reputation, identity and membership within different digital contexts”.

Maryanne Wolf: Balance technology and deep reading to create biliterate children by Joan Richardson (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014).

In this interview with literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf, Richardson investigates the current status of deep reading in the age of digital texts. She also inquires as to how educators might want to change their instructional approach. Dr. Wolf shares from her findings that reading an eBook, such as on a Kindle, does not adversely affect comprehension when compared to reading in print.

At the same time, Dr. Wolf recognizes that learners need to be taught how to select the format of text based on the purpose for reading. She highlights her own experiences in reading on a screen. “I become more like the medium: I read for speed and immediacy.” The interview is concluded by Dr. Wolf proposing a new term for the educational lexicon – “biliterate”, or the ability to successfully read both in print and online – to describe the new expectations for learners in the 21st century.

Daniel Learned ALL About Audiences Yesterday by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, December 11, 2014)

Bill Ferriter, a middle school teacher, shares his frustrations with regard to a series of negative comments his students received on their blog. Mr. Ferriter and his class are actively involved in sharing information about the negative affects of sugar on human health, using the hashtag #sugarkills to connect their thoughts. One commenter pointed out the possible errors in the students’ thinking, apparently unaware of the effect his negative responses had on the students. Mr. Ferriter deleted this person’s comments, and lamented on whether providing a global audience for his students is worth the risk.

The Mismeasure of Boys: Reading and Online Videogames by Constance Steinkuehler (Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison, July 2011)

This working paper describes a study conducted three years ago, regarding the connection between reading and videogames. Dr. Steinkeuhler points out the decline of males pursuing post-secondary degrees, as well as the increased likelihood that boys are being diagnosed with ADHD. Dr. Steinkeuhler also questions the negative perception of video games, and how many assume that this activity takes away time from boys actually reading.

Instead, “for many young people, reading is not an activity replaced by videogames, but rather it is an integral part of what it means to participate and play”.  This theory is supported by her findings, that when motivated to achieve the next level in a video game, the participants were able to read six grade levels above their current reading level. Dr. Steinkeuhler concluded this study by stating that “the findings about videogames can be viewed as one powerful solution to—rather than a cause of—the problem of adolescent boys and reading.”

Searching for trends…

I hosted my second Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Twitter chat on Thursday night. We use the hashtag #atplc, a community supported by Solution Tree, publisher of many PLC resources. Our topic for discussion: Beliefs and Values. We tried something different that night. Instead of our regular Q and A, I posted a Google Form to survey the participants on their own beliefs about PLCs. Out of seven statements, we found total agreement on one. I shared out the results to the participants, which then directed our subsequent discussion in the chat.

From the moment I shared out our beliefs survey and started watching the results, the Twitter chat stopped existing as a Twitter chat for me. It became an authentic examination of our beliefs as a community of practice. The technology faded away as I shared out the final results, read the participants’ responses, and followed up with questions that would help the discussion reach deeper levels of learning.

It is in times like these that I realize technology is more than just a tool. Just like the professor who assumed the role of a student from a previous post, I have found that technology is a context for learning and not merely another tool for instruction. The chat I just described would not have occurred without the affordances of what is possible online. To designate digital access as anything less than this may reflect a lack of experience or understanding in the possibilities. I have been guilty of this misconception in the past.

The five highlighted articles here all have one thing in common: The discussion is not about whether technology is necessary, but about how technology can best be applied to the context of learning. Sometimes this context may need help to be realized, such as allowing library patrons to check out WiFi hotspots, or exploring the effects of video games on boys’ reading comprehension. But the more technology becomes an integral part of the learning process, the less it feels like technology at all. It is often simply how we learn.

This post is sponsored by:


We bring the technology; you bring the imagination.

Gepeto Crowdfunding Video from Yugen on Vimeo.


Theory and Practice

Learning by Design

We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. – Jim Collins

Coffee Shops are Better Than Classrooms by Andrew Campbell (Looking Up: A “Professional” Blog, November 14, 2014)

This post starts by profiling author J.K. Rowling and her penchant for writing in coffee houses. Rowling finds that these locations allow her to see where her writing takes her, without constraints. Campbell identifies the many benefits of this type of environment (connected, comfortable, choice, space, music) that could be applied to schools. He describes classrooms of the past as “a cross between a hospital operating theatre and a Viking longboat”. Campbell, a 5th grade teacher and writer, helps the reader recognize that the modern classroom has changed drastically, and encourages educators to follow suit by developing learning environments where students can “learn how to think creatively and solve problems innovatively”.

Less Teaching and More Feedback? by Grant Wiggins (ASCD Inservice Blog, August 27, 2012)

Highly respected educator Grant Wiggins had an epiphany while playing Tetris on his iPad while waiting for his plane to arrive at an airport. “You don’t need any teaching. You only need a good feedback system.” Wiggins expands on this provocative statement by acknowledging that a key to student learning is “good design”, where “direct instruction is mimimized”. He concludes this brief post by stating that “formal teaching plays a minor role” in a classroom that prepares with both the student and the essential learning in mind. (Note: The title for this post is a take on Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s seminal resource Understanding by Design.)

Gulf Shores Elementary: Empowering Teachers and Students Through Project Learning by John Norton (Alabama Best Practices Center Blog, June 4, 2014)

An elementary principal, Julie Pierce, is profiled in this post about her school’s learning journey as they implement project-based learning (PBL) at the upper elementary grades. This rethinking of the school’s current literacy and content curriculum was initiatied by the teachers themselves. The staff were the “experts who happened to be teachers”, attending PBL trainings and advocating for more authentic learning experiences in their classrooms. Pierce readily admits that she had reservations about this change, especially when test scores reflected an implementation dip. But she showed trust in her teachers, and soon enough observed classrooms that developed “exploratory learning experiences” which “helped children become deep thinkers and problem-solvers”. (Disclosure: John Norton is the editor of my first book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment)

Blogging in a Primary Classroom – With Only One iPad! by Kathy Cassidy (Primary Preoccupation, November 11, 2014)

This 1st grade teacher highlights a new app that allows students to more easily post on their blogs. Her purpose in sharing is to show how simple it is for students to share their learning with a broader and authentic audience. Easy Blog Jr. and Easy Blogger Jr. give learners a more streamlined way of sharing their writing online. Cassidy offers several screenshots of how this app works. The multiple benefits featured about this technology appear to make it a worthy purchase.

Tapping Technology’s Potential to Motivate Readers by Kristin Conradi (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

The author starts this article by noting that technology is not the answer to what may ail education, while still acknowledging how the digital world can augment and even redefine student learning. Conradi outlines a number of steps in integrating these new tools into classrooms. She starts by suggesting teachers “figure out precisely what motivates different invididuals”, followed by determining the type of motivation that students need, differentiating between “self-concept and attitude”. Conradi documents the decline in student motivation for reading as they progress through the middle grades. To remedy this, she recognizes how the social aspect of technology can provide for “opportunities for discussion and collaboration” among older readers. In addition, allowing students “the possibility of shared written, multimedia products with a global audience” can provide learners with “purposeful opportunities to engage with literacy”.

Finding the nexus…

Last year, one of our teachers and I facilitated an after school computer club for students. Our question: If we gave students access to technology, would learning naturally occur? The inquiry was not resolved with a simple yes or no answer. Yes, students enjoyed using apps such as Minecraft to create complex worlds, as well as to work with others in developing their creations. Just as frequently, kids would struggle to follow the ground rules for these online interactions. One way the teacher and I resolved these conflicts was by removing the technology and replacing it with Lego Mindstorms, as you see in the above photo.

While our action research might seem haphazard at first glance, we did have a plan in mind. We were looking for various levels of engagement, what work students produced, and the type of collaboration that would occur in digital environments such as Minecraft. That it did not go as well as anticipated, and how well students transitioned away from the technology-reduced learning environments, should be celebrated. This example may be what all the above examples have in common: Educators who put more time into preparing for powerful learning and students’ needs, and how this compares with simply putting in the requisite amount of effort and energy to plan for just-good-enough instruction.

Whether it is recreating a classroom to make it more like a coffee shop, or implementing project-based learning, it is the design that determines learning environments and allows teachers to teach. When these factors are considered prior to instruction, teachers have access to more teachable moments because students are more likely to be engaged in deeper learning. It allows the teacher to provide more feedback to students, instead of being sequestered to the front of the room. Having access to technology, whether as readers or writers, demands similar amounts of preparation for learning outcomes. My biggest takeaway from these articles is that the amount of time teachers put into preparing for instruction is directly related to how students at all levels are engaged in the learning. In conclusion, learning is more dependent on what happens before the lesson actually starts as when it actually begins. Planning for specific outcomes and preparing for what is possible may be the difference between good and great teaching.