A Quest for Utopian Status

I didn’t like Sesame Street as a child and seldom watched it. There, I’ve admitted it.  Aside from the Count, Cookie Monster (one of my favourite stuffed animals as a child), and those weird aliens that said “yup yup yup uh huh uh huh” there’s not a whole heck of a lot that I can recall from Sesame Street.  My fond memories of educational TV are largely comprised of Fred Penner’s guitar (my first concert!) and Mr. Dressup’s tickle trunk.

Given my lack of knowledge relating to Sesame Street, this week’s blog post could be a bit of an adventure.  When I first glanced at Postman’s quote (“We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.”) I immediately thought to myself – “Postman seems like a killjoy”.  I mean, come on, we’re talking about Sesame Street! While I wasn’t the biggest fan (4-year old me was clearly a television elitist), millions of other children adored the show so they must have been doing something right! I’m also aware that as a Social Studies teacher, I am constantly hammering home the importance of critical thinking but have we really gotten to the point where not even Sesame Street is being spared? A harmless kids show featuring a vampire with a knack for counting?

Count von Count.  Children’s entertainer/number enthusiast.

After a couple of days of pondering what Postman was trying to get at – he may have actually been on to something (to an extent).  From what I can tell, Sesame Street can, in fact, give the impression that schools are (or at least should be) an educational utopia.  Vampires teaching kids to count, an inquisitive giant yellow bird, a pessimistic grouch living in a garbage can, and an overly cheery red high-pitched monster (plus whatever the heck Snuffleupagus was)? What’s not to like? Well, one can jump to the slightly oversimplified conclusion that if a child watches Sesame Street religiously then they (as well as their parents) will expect all learning to be as engaging as Sesame Street. This can then pose problems for teachers whose students become frustrated when the traditional classroom isn’t filled with the types of engaging characters that Sesame Street is.  At the end of the day, what’s more fun – drill/practice math lessons or the Count?

Fast forward to today and teachers are still under pressure to ditch the “traditional methods” in favour of a more engaging approach, this time with technology coming to the forefront.  When one considers the wide range of technology/media that many kids today have access to at home (smartphones and smart televisions, streaming media, gaming consoles equipped with virtual reality, etc.), surely it’s a reasonable expectation that our teachers should follow suit and incorporate tech into the classroom especially when you consider the potential that educational technology has?

One of our required readings this week – “The Importance of Audio Visual Technology in Education” argued that

The importance of audio visual (AV) technology in education should not be underestimated. There are two reasons for this; one, learning via AV creates a stimulating and interactive environment which is more conducive to learning; two, we live in an audio-visual age which means that having the skills to use AV equipment is integral to future employment prospects

The second point there is key – given everything that technology can do, employers are increasingly looking for AV skills when considering applicants.  If part of the education system’s role is to prepare students for the workforce then one can easily make the argument that teachers need to incorporate technology into their lessons not only from an engagement standpoint but from a future employment standpoint as well.  

In a similar vein, Kevin Pitts (2015) argued that

A literate individual is no longer one who can simply read and write, but one who can place language within a broader context – a multimodal world. As information can be expressed through multiple modes, the ability to interpret and connect the multiple modes through a variety of literacies (e.g., print, digital) becomes essential.

In addition, as was pointed out in Michael/Joe/Sam/Kyla’s presentation from Monday, “digital literacy allows for a whole different side of understanding”.

Ong (as cited in Klein & Gale, 1996) described the technologizing of the textualized word (i.e. the re-mediation of traditional literacy in electronic media) as secondary literacy (as cited by Pitts, 2015) – Image and quote are taken from Michael/Joe/Sam/Kyla’s presentation.

If we want to both engage students AND prepare them for a life outside of the school then incorporating technology is a must.  Now, that’s not to say that technology is a magical saviour that’s going to turn the classroom into an educational utopia. Challenges exist.  For starters, not every student has access to the same technology at home. By the time they hit high school, most students have smartphones. The key word, however, is most.  In addition, schools aren’t on a level playing field when it comes to access to technology.  

  • Some schools have data projectors in every room.  Many don’t.
  • Some schools have Smart Boards in every room.  Many don’t
  • Some schools have a wide variety of computers (powerful desktops, Chromebooks, etc.).  Many don’t.
  • Some schools have iPads.  Many don’t.
  • Some schools have a high quantity of technology.  Many don’t.

Furthermore, even if a school has all this tech, it needs teachers that actually know how to use it! All the tech in the world is meaningless if you don’t have teachers that are either able to use it properly or at least willing to take the time to learn.  

Tech is great.  Data projectors, Smartboards, iPads, Chromebooks, YouTube, Google Read/Write – the list could go on and on.  We’ve come a long way from when I was in grade school when the overhead projector was king. The modern-day classroom has so much potential to engage students in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of even 20 years ago.  Its importance is also critical when you consider that “retention rates improve 55% when images are used alongside text” (Paddick, 2016).  That said, we also need to be cognizant of the fact that, while technology has limitless potential – not every school is on a level playing field.  Much like Sesame Street, we can’t assume that schools have reached utopian status. Challenges exist but it is imperative that teachers/schools do what they can with what they have in order to incorporate tech into their classes.  At the end of the day, that’s all a reasonable person should expect.


Testing, Testing, 1…2…3

For this week’s blog, I opted to focus on a handful of extensions that I could see myself using the second that I return to work on Tuesday – UBlock, DF Youtube, and Grammarly.

Before I dive into the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of the aforementioned apps, I figured it would be worth adding a little bit of context.  I am currently in my 4th year of teaching at Martin Collegiate teaching English Language Arts and Social Studies to grades 9/10 as well as Core French to grades 9-12.  Also, aside from one, I had never heard of any of the extensions that were listed as options (which is part of the reason why I’m excited to be taking this class, it’s always nice when I can actually take something from a grad class and use it in my own classroom).  

The first two extensions that I looked at – UBlock and DF Youtube appeal to me because of their potential to reduce minor headaches.  I, like many other teachers, use a data-projector fairly religiously. Since I teach Social Studies, I’m constantly using the data projector to project whatever current event or website that I’m discussing for all to see. While most of the news websites that I frequent tend to be free of annoying pop-ups, I do stray from those websites from time to time.  It is quite frustrating to be engaging in a serious class discussion about the current events of the day only to have a popup advertising an obscure product rear its ugly head. It certainly doesn’t destroy my lesson but it can potentially disrupt the flow and distract some of the students. That said, pop-ups are far from the only disruptive form of advertising on the web.  The Nielsen/Norman Group did research in 2017 on the most hated online advertisements and each form is disruptive in its own way.  Personally, I find the Prevideo no skip (When you play a video on a website, an advertisement plays first) and Retargeting (when you play a video on a website, an advertisement plays first) to be the most frustrating from a teacher’s point of view. Any video where you are forced to view an advertisement first is disruptive – especially when the content of the video that you’re attempting to watch is serious in nature. Retargeting is frustrating because a) it distracts students and b) they’re intrusive! It’s not so bad when I’m at home but I don’t need my students knowing my shopping history.  It just goes to show you that teachers need to be careful when using a work computer or signed into a Google account associated with work.

All of this brings us to uBlock, an app that claims to be “an efficient blocker: easy on memory and CPU footprint, and yet can load and enforce thousands of more filters than other popular blockers out there”.  It is hard for me to properly judge the effectiveness of uBlock since I’ve only been using it for a few hours (I previously used “AdBlocker” and found it to be merely adequate) but if it can deliver on its promises then I’ll appreciate having one less headache to deal with when I’m in front of the class.  uBlock can also be beneficial to students when they’re researching for a paper. It’s hard enough to remain focused when there’s 30 other students in the class so any tool that can help minimize distractions on a computer is potentially helpful.

The benefits of DF YouTube are fairly similar to uBlock.  I make frequent use of YouTube in my class and the ability to have greater control over that experience is quite appealing to me.  The ads before the videos are frustrating but they’re not the only distraction. DF Youtube’s ability to clean up the main page and hide recommended videos, the trending tab and the toxic comments is greatly appreciated.  Like uBlock, I haven’t spent enough time with DF Youtube to adequately judge its effectiveness but I did notice that the “hide related videos (end of video)” feature wasn’t working during my initial test run. Overall, this appears to be a tool that I’ll appreciate but that my students won’t really notice (still a handy tool to have though!).

While useful, both uBlock and DF YouTube aren’t going to greatly enhance my teaching experience.  The next extension that I’m going to look at, Grammarly, has the potential to be more of a “game changer”.  As both an English teacher and an old man, I’m constantly ranting about the state of grammar in our schools.  

“The kids these days, they just don’t know how to spell or write properly – not like back in my day at least!” – S. Gardiner, 2018.

Prior to this class, I had heard of Grammarly (thanks to several of those annoying YouTube ads that I just finished complaining about) but I never thought about using it, choosing instead to rely on the standard spell check feature, Google Read/Write and my own teaching skills/lessons.  After installing Grammarly, the first thing that I noticed is that it is currently not fully compatible with Google Drive – a problem because my class is quite Google-centric. On the bright side, I was able to easily upload an existing document into Grammarly. The document that I chose to upload was an assignment from a previous Masters class that I did quite well on.  Overall, I was fairly pleased with what I saw. I was provided with a handful of suggestions for ways to improve my writing and the overall experience seemed user-friendly. The downside is that in order to correct the apparent 19 wordy sentences, 17 word choice issues, and 6 “intricate text” problems, I need to upgrade to the premium edition for the low-low cost of $140/year.  This leads me into my question of the day, does the free version of Grammarly do enough to warrant having every one of my students download it? Does it actually provide an experience that students aren’t already getting through a standard spell-checker or good old fashion teaching? I ask because I genuinely don’t know and am hoping that one of my friendly classmates can shine a light on its benefits? In theory, any tool that will help students with their writing is a tool worth having but I’m not sure if it isn’t just more of the same?

With regards to Google+extensions+privacy, like Amy stated in her post this week I don’t get particularly hung up on privacy concerns.  I understand that it’s a major issue and I should probably be more concerned than I am but at the moment, it’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about (maybe I will change my tune by the end of this class).

In conclusion, the extensions that I looked at appear to be helpful tools but they don’t appear to be “game changers”.  But that’s okay! A tool doesn’t have to redefine a student’s/teacher’s experience in order to be effective.

Note:  As already mentioned, my relationship with these extensions has lasted mere hours.  It would be interesting to come back to this blog post at the end of the semester to see if my thoughts/opinions have changed.


Mixing it up

Greetings once again, fellow ECI&I 833ers.

Today, I’m going to attempt to articulate how theories of knowledge and learning have underpinned my own teaching philosophy and classroom practice.

For starters, I’m going to admit, I haven’t spent much time putting a lot of “deep thought” into my teaching philosophy and its origins.  When people ask me to describe my teaching style, I usually say something along the lines of “I’m serious when the situation warrants it but overall I’m quite laid back, sarcastic, and self-deprecating”.  Even when I’ve been in situations where teaching philosophies have been discussed (internship seminars, for example), my contributions to the discussion have been as straightforward as the one I just mentioned.  That said, maybe it’s time to take another trip down memory lane and look at how I became this self-described laid-back sarcastic/self-deprecating teacher.

I was in the process of my internship 13 years ago and even though the memories have become increasingly distant, I’m fairly certain that my teaching philosophy consisted of something along the lines of:

“I want my students to have fun, learn as much as possible, and both like and respect me!!!!” (the excessive exclamation marks represent my youthful exuberance).

Jack Black from School of Rock.  If only I could be as “cool” as him.  Photo retrieved from: https://www.slashfilm.com/school-of-rock-tv-series-nickelodeon/

Beyond that, there aren’t many specifics that I can recall from my internship so let’s move on to my first year of “real” teaching. After a year on the sub list I managed to get my first contract teaching elementary core-French (a far cry from my university major of secondary social studies).  Since I was on a temporary contract, I knew that I had to do well in order to earn that all-mighty continuing contract.  Earning that contract was going to be a difficult task given my total lack of experience teaching both French and elementary students but I was determined to give it my best shot.  In my first year, my classroom management strategy was to try to play the nice/fun guy. Surely by being likeable (no lectures here, lectures are boring and I want to be well liked!) the students will appreciate me, fall in line, and we’ll have a grand old time! Swing and a miss.  As you can probably predict, I was largely walked all over (by a bunch of students that weren’t even half my size!)

An accurate representation of my first year of teaching.  Image retrieved from: https://www.agonybooth.com/arnold-schwarzenegger-to-kindergarten-cop-ill-be-baaaaaack-sort-of-42797

Somehow, I managed to earn a continuing contract at the end of the year and was kept in that same teaching position.  I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes of the previous year. It was at this point where one could make the argument that behaviourism became my dominant “teaching ethos”.  I figured that the best way for students to learn (and for me to keep my sanity) would be in a strict, “I say and you do” environment. Lectures, note taking, handouts, and voice raising became commonplace as I fought for my students’ respect.  Ertmer and Newby (2013) characterized the learner in a behaviourist environment as being “reactive to conditions in the environment as opposed to taking an active role in discovering the environment” (p. 48) – and I believe that this accurately depicts my classroom during this particular stage of my career.

An accurate representation of my second year of teaching.  Image retrieved from: http://elmifermetures.com/kindergarten-cop-questions/collection-of-solutions-arnold-schwarzenegger-shut-up-hd-youtube-in-kindergarten-cop-questions/

I felt that my second year of teaching was more successful than the first simply because I wasn’t walked over (thus ensuring that I’d actually be able to sleep at night).  That said, did I actually become a better teacher? Were my students actually learning anything in my classroom? Maybe. But just because a classroom is silent, doesn’t automatically mean it’s an effective learning environment.

Let’s jump ahead 10 years to the present.  I’m currently in my 12th year of teaching (having experienced a wide variety of teaching placements but now in a secondary social studies/ELA classroom) so what theories of knowledge and learning have underpinned my own teaching philosophy and classroom practice? They probably all have, to an extent.  I’ve already mentioned my behaviourist leanings (which still occasionally play a role) but cognitivism certainly exists in my classroom through scaffolding. “Designers (in a cognitive setting) use techniques such as advance organizers, analogies, hierarchical relationships, and matrices to help learners relate new information to prior knowledge” (p. 52).  

Meanwhile, constructivism plays a vital role in a social studies classroom through the multiple perspectives gained in class debates/discussions.  “Learners (in a constructivist setting) are encouraged to construct their own understandings and then to validate, through social negotiation, these new perspectives” (p. 57).

The relatively recent theory of connectivism has a part to play as well with its focus on the “ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts” (Siemens, 2004).  Making text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections is not only vital reading strategy but it’s also a tremendous way to demonstrate understanding of a particular topic in a humanities classroom.

Each theory of knowledge/learning has a part to play.  By staying in one particular box, you neglect the strengths of the others which is why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the content of the learning pyramid.  Yes, assigning arbitrary numbers to knowledge retention rates is a silly exercise but each component of the pyramid has value in the classroom. Therefore, rather than assigning a specific theory to my “sarcastic/laid back/self-deprecating” teaching style, I’m more likely to borrow a line of thinking from Candice Benjes-Small and Alyssa Archer:

“Think multimodal.  People’s attention spans are short, but they do tend to retain more when the instructor mixes it up: interspersing short lectures with peer collaboration, or after reading a passage, interacting with an online tutorial.”

I like the use of “mixing it up”.  Like Joe mentioned in his blog this week, “there are merits, and drawbacks, to all of the prevailing learning theories we have discussed. On top of this, the elements of what makes one theory especially meaningful for the situation of one student I support might make that theory ridiculously inappropriate for the situation of another”.

By “mixing it up” I know that I’m doing my best to ensure that every student has an opportunity to both succeed while also improving in areas where they need the practice.

A trip down ed tech memory lane

Greetings, fellow EC&I 833ers.

Before I dive into my first blog post, I must admit that I am really looking forward to taking part in this blogging venture.  To date my grad classes have primarily focused on relatively “dry” writing so I’m very much looking forward to a change of pace!

Upon reading this week’s articles, I found myself taking a rather nostalgic look at my own experiences with educational technology.  My very first memory of technology in the classroom was when I was in the first grade. There was a game on the Commodore 64s in my school’s computer lab that required the user to type a word that appeared on the screen.  This had to be done in a timely manner because an alien spaceship was slowly descending as you typed. If the spaceship landed before you completed the word? Game over. Truly a thrill a minute.

From there the Apple craze took over our elementary school with Mac-Classics replacing the Commodore 64s.  At this point, two games stand out to me. The first one being the infamous “Number Munchers” where basic math skills were reinforced and success was rewarded in the form of a cheesy cartoon.

Image retrieved from: https://www.macintoshrepository.org/5786-number-munchers

The second game was “Lemonade Stand” where I first learned the concepts of supply/demand and capitalism (as an 8-year old, I took great pride in charging construction workers $5 for a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day).

Image retrieved from: https://www.pcworld.com/article/2972721/software-games/the-17-best-educational-games-of-the-70s-80s-and-90s.html

December 25th, 1993 proved to be a major technological turning point as it was on this morning where I got the internet (on a side note, I can’t recall a Christmas gift that I’ve gotten as much use out of as this one!).  The internet opened up a world of endless possibilities with search engines such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, and Lycos providing me with a gateway to all kinds of information (both good and truly awful).

Image retrieved from: https://digital.com/about/altavista/

From an educational perspective, computers continued to provide me with many valuable skills as I progressed as a student.  Typing skills were enhanced thanks to “All the Right Type” while my creativity (or lack thereof) could be on full display thanks to “Print Shop Deluxe” and “Microsoft Works” as well as website builders such as “Angelfire” and “Geocities”.  

So what’s the point of this meandering trip down memory lane? Well, for starters my experiences with technology have helped shape both the person and the educator that I am today.  One of the quotes from this week’s readings that struck a chord with me was right at the beginning of Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know About Technology” article:

“Technology giveth and technology taketh away”.

I took this quote and applied it to my own personal context.  As stated earlier, technology has helped provide me with many valuable skills.  Do I owe my self-proclaimed “elite spelling skills” entirely to the aforementioned spelling game on C64? Probably not.  However, what that game did was provide me with an engaging way of honing my spelling. The threat of aliens landing on earth was much more engaging than daily spelling tests with either my teacher or my parents.  Same thing with other educational games such Number Munchers, Lemonade Stand, and another old favourite of mine – Sim City. All of these managed to engage me in ways that textbooks and direct instruction could not.

So if technology has “giveth” where has it “taketh away”? From a personal standpoint, the first thing that comes to mind is that time spent playing non-educational video games (something that I still do to this day) probably could have been better spent learning practical skills such as anything to do with home ownership (something that I’m very much paying for in the present, both literally and figuratively).

All of this brings us to the point of this post – providing a contemporary definition of educational technology.  For me, educational technology is about taking the technology at our disposal and using it in meaningful ways to enhance student learning.  Simply giving a student a computer in order to type up an assignment is not meaningful engagement.  Giving that same student a computer with tools such as Google Read/Write that both the student AND the educator are well versed in is meaningful engagement.  Teaching lessons on media literacy or the importance of evaluating sources when conducting research that incorporate computers/smartphone usage is meaningful engagement.  A geography lesson using Google’s “streetview” or “maps” feature? Meaningful engagement.

Technology is going to continue to play a vital role in the classroom.  Therefore, educators must find ways of meaningfully engaging students using the very tools that are relevant to them.  By doing so, we’re not only doing our jobs but we’re helping to provide them with the necessary skills to succeed in either post-secondary education or in the workforce – something that’s backed up in Channing’s Blog this week where she points out that “65% of grade school children will have jobs that do not even exist yet” something that places an emphasis “21st Century Skills” rather than  on content.

That’s all for today, time to go enjoy some mid-September tobogganing.