Is It PC to Police a PC?

Is it PC to police a student’s PC? And even if it’s not politically correct, is it still necessary?No one wants to be a killjoy, obviously, but some of us are tasked with the unpleasant job of making sure that students do not misuse the ubiquitous tech tools that have infiltrated our schools with their amazing socially connective abilities. In other words, we have to make sure that kids are not texting, skyping, iChatting, messaging, Facebooking and Tweeting each other when they are supposed to be doing schoolwork or homework or some other kind of work that has nothing to do with talking to your neighbor. This role as overseer and PC police is the least favorite part of my job. To misquote the beloved Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being mean.”

I work in the library and the library is full of computers and full of students who bring various other electronic devices into the library with them. Part of my job is to monitor computer use and make sure that students are using their time wisely.  So, if someone is playing a video game, or chatting on Facebook, or watching the latest YouTube sensation, it is my job to redirect them… or if they have been “redirected” on previous occasions, simply take away their distracting device or revoke the privilege of studying in the library. Bummer of a job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, determining whether or not a student is on or off-task is becoming more difficult. At times, a student is searching for an image on Facebook to use in a multi-media presentation for Social Studies. Some students are improving their typing speed or math skills through the use of a fast-paced video game. Students collaborate with each other on many projects throughout the year and the content of text-messages during the school day is often precisely on-topic and quick succinct communication is helping the student group complete their project on time.

Most students know the rules and follow them. The biggest deterrent from veering away from work mode seems to be library layout. Most of the computer screens can be easily seen from the circulation desk where the library staff is usually working. The one table that is out of our line of sight is off limits to students who are using laptops. And students who are using laptops at the tables are aware that librarians and other teachers are often walking around, checking on student work.

One can usually tell when a student is off-task by observing body language, and by observing the students who are sitting next to them. It is hard to avoid looking at another student’s computer when a new music video begins to play. It is easy to ignore that same computer when a Keynote presentation is slowly taking shape.

But policing the personal computers is not the ultimate solution. Students eventually have to take responsibility for their own use of time and their resultant success or failure in school. They do need to understand that their own habits will help them or hurt them in the end.

There has been some talk about the benefits of “Tech Breaks” in class, where students are allowed a few minutes during class to check Facebook and messages before they all get back to the task of learning. I explained the concept to my 9th grade daughter and asked her what she thought of it. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “It pulls your focus away from class and is distracting. Besides, anytime that you are checking Facebook during school, you are doing so with a nervous attitude. I would rather wait till after school when I can really relax and enjoy messaging with my friends. I like letting the tension build throughout the day and then when the school day is over, you can see if you’ve got any notes or comments from friends. It’s more fun that way.”

I think that providing students with tools to manage their time and distractions and letting them design their own system is probably the most effective way to really manage in-school electronic device use. If a student wants to get a message to a peer, they will find a way to do it. Students do need to understand and experience the consequences of their choices, but they should also be offered guidance to improve their use of time. Perhaps a tech-night highlighting tools for workload and study time management would be in order.

Here are just a few examples of available tools:

Study Buddy App

iProcrastinate App

SelfControl (Free App)

Omniwriter (simplifies desktop; removes distractions)

Pomodori (study timer; project management)

ManicTime (tracks time spent on which sites and applications)

With students effectively managing their own digital device use, I could use my time for better things, like helping with research skills and incorporating eBooks into our library check-out system.

Classroom Outside the Box

“The classroom is obsolete,” proclaims futurist architect Prakash Nair in a recent article about how modern schools should be redesigned. The world today is very different from the Industrial Revolution era when many of our classrooms today were designed.

Thinking back over my most memorable and content-rich learning experiences, most of them took place outside of the physical classroom during well-scaffolded field trips and all of them were significant because I was completely invested in the learning activity. Although I spent most of my time in within the four walls of a physical classroom, it seems that most of the learning occurred elsewhere.

Prakash Nair is an architect who designs environmentally-friendly learning spaces. His projects are all over the world, with several of them housing thriving learning communities near the city where I grew up in Minnesota. My family built a house near a forest of a hundred acres or so, land that had been set aside as a nature preserve by its owner, railroad magnate, James J. Hill. Portions of this preserve have since been sold off by his grandchildren, but while I was growing up, the forest was my classroom. I learned about the indigenous plants, animals, insects and biomes as I wandered daily though the woods with my Golden Retriever, Cinnamon, by my side. I always thought that a school that embraced the out-of-doors would be an ideal learning space.

So I was intrigued to see that Nair had designed the “School of Environmental Studies” next door to the Minnesota Zoo where 11th and 12th grade students interact often with their natural surroundings and through their project-based learning, make positive and constructive contributions to the environment. This all adds up to a compelling motivation to move back to Minnesota so that our daughter might be able to attend this school when she reaches 11th grade.

Another example of a school that does not box its student in is the Australian Science and Mathematics School where students design their own practicals and learn mathematics and science as they explore real concepts and design their own experiments often in conjunction with University scientists.

Photo by RiAus RiAus @ the Science Exchange

These schools have student motivation and interest at the heart of their design and function. They take seriously the fact that real learning is student-motivated and tends to extend out into the post-secondary education world of life-work.

The Horizon Report, which attempts to summarize where technology is taking the world of education also confirms the value of self-motivated learning.

As one of the “mega-trends” in the report states:

  • There is a rise in informal learning as individual needs are redefining schools, universities, and training. Traditional authority is increasingly being challenged, not only politically and socially, but also in academia — and worldwide. As a result, credibility, validity, and control are all notions that are no longer givens when so much learning takes place outside school systems.

So an educational system that provides competent resources and opportunity for collaborative, student-driven learning is becoming more and more valuable in our well-connected, resource and information-rich world.

It seems as if the teacher is taking on a role as more of a guide and mentor to help students find their own areas of interest and expertise. As knowledge increases exponentially, it seems that there is a value in students being able to hone in early on their intended area of expertise. The quicker they master the foundational knowledge of one subject, the faster they can build on that previous knowledge and take it even further.

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine

Letting our students out of the box of the traditional school structure is frightening for some who feel a need to control most aspects of a student’s learning. But students do not learn best when knowledge is forced upon them. They learn best and most authentically when the learning is something that they chase after and discover for themselves. The resources for student-driven learning are now abundant and growing. Schools can now find their worth in how well they bring the tools and learning opportunities to their students and how well they ready them for the rigors of real-world work and innovative thinking.

Good Question

If a student in the modern classroom asks a brilliant question related to the topic being studied, do they receive credit for positing that question?


Probably not. Most teachers are looking for answers, and they are often looking for the specific answer that they have in mind.

My husband recalls that when he was a boy, when he got home from school, his father would not ask, “What did you learn in school today?” Instead he would ask, “Did you ask any good questions?” I guess he was ahead of his time.

The authors of “A New Culture of Learning,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely, feel that the current state of education has it backwards. They believe that questions should carry more weight than answers. “We feel the leaders of the 21st century are going to be the ones who can ask the best questions and drive things forward. The kinds of questions we are talking about lead to outcomes and those also provide a kind of verification as to whether the questions are good ones or not.” (from

True learning comes out of an intense motivation to discover something or to unravel a problem. If there is no burning question or problem to begin with, then motivation can be lukewarm at best. Many of the new teaching methods build on the motivation kindled by starting with the problem, the challenge of a game or beginning the class with the homework or lab instead of the lecture.

I know from experience that my students are more engaged with a lesson when I announce that “today is a test day!” because they know that almost all of my tests involve a game of some kind. I do have the luxury of not having to grade my library students, but they also know that if they perform well during the test, there may be a reward at the end. The students have learned that I reward cooperation more than competition. In fact, during the last “test” of whether or not students could find a book from a specific subject area in the Dewey-organized shelves, I saw students on opposing teams helping each other out on several occasions. The whole class got gummy bears for being so “flexible” and sweet to each other.Portrait by Michal Fanta;

Teachers are increasingly looking at games as a way to engage and motivate their learners. I favor active, interactive games during library class, but I can see the value of also occasionally using video game-type activities to motivate students to learn. The “games” that many teachers are talking about seem to be video-centric with each person meeting challenges presented by the computer software as it detects their level. The computer moves each user into their ZPD, their zone of proximal development. “With the best games, the player is challenged at exactly the right level and in the right way to keep the player playing. Maybe the question we need to ask is what about games causes youth to engage that our traditional approach to education lacks,” says Brian Alspach, Executive Vice President of E-Line Media, an educational games publisher well known for their game Gamestar Mechanic.”


Users, however,  do not usually have to collaborate with users not in their ability range, nor do they have to negotiate many of the social and interactive aspects of playing a face-to-face board game. The importance of providing opportunities for collaboration in the classroom cannot be stressed enough. Students can always play educational video games in the isolation of their homes, but the community provided by a classroom should always be used to its fullest potential.

This is why I think the “Flipped Classroom”  holds so much promise, especially for certain subject areas that require a basic knowledge of key concepts before problems and experiments can be tackled. I know that my own 9th grader would greatly benefit from flipped math and science classrooms. The lecture portion of a class often goes too quickly for her to retain all of the important points, and there is no replay function. The classroom setting is full of distractions and so the teacher does not always receive the full attention needed in order to grasp the complex explanations. Many students do much better in class when they are able to watch the lecture at home and then arrive at class full of questions, ready to do their homework in the presence of collaborating fellow students and a teacher who is now freed from having to lecture from the front of the room for the entire hour. Instead the teacher can circulate helping students one-on-one and in small groups with the important questions that are now being

There is somewhat of a problem applying the flipped model to my library classes, however, as library time is less of a lecture and more of a real-time interaction with story reactions and connections. During the read alouds and content lessons, there are many ad-libbing opportunities with puppets, and a constant adjustment of reading style and material to the audience present. Library time is, in part, performance and play. Some lessons can use the flipped model (for example, research skills) but others must maintain their life and liveliness.

Bringing the essential nature of play back into the classroom is a great idea. In some classrooms, of course, play never left in the first place, but in others, the spark and motivation that should always accompany learning needs to be re-introduced. Although every student needs to mature throughout the school years, too often the valuable components of the child spirit are squeezed out before a student emerges into the adult work world, just when they need the ability to be flexible, to create and to imagine.

The director of the current M.I.T. Media Lab explains, “In this new world, not only must we behave more like children, we also must teach the next generation to retain those attributes that will allow them to be world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.” – Joichi Ito

So here is a question for you… How can we ensure that students do not lose the best part of their childlike approach to the world while making sure that they are mature enough to meet all of its challenges? Although the word, “neoteny” usually refers to the retention of childlike physical characteristics, we seem to need a retention of some childlike mental attributes into adulthood, such as idealism, experimentation and wonder. Perhaps I’ve found a working name for my new school: The Neoteny Academy.

Does a TPACK Lead to a Six-Pack?

Tackling the TPACK framework may, at first glance, seem daunting enough for someone who considers themselves on the stringy-to-wiry end of humanoid body types, but is it truly that daunting? Can struggling with TPACK lead to an impressive six-pack? (And by six-pack, I do mean of the muscular variety, although out of frustration with the TPACK model one might be led to reach for the liquid version.)

TPACK, of course, stands for “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” (which you probably knew anyways, although I didn’t).  I’m not sure what the “A” stands for… I suppose it’s just there because pronouncing “TPCK” without spitting on your neighbor is just too difficult. Explaining TPACK to your neighbor may be even harder than controlling your phlegm, but I will try anyways.

When a teacher is surrounded and immersed in technology, she or he must be very careful to hold on to their best teaching practices while, at the same time, making sure that the content is taught clearly and vividly. The knowledge to do tech, pedagogy and content at the same time, without throwing your back out or spitting on the front row, is TPACK in action. TPACK inaction is when you are surrounded by the technology, but so confused by it all, that you have no drive  whatsoever (hard or soft) and are unable to make use of the wonderful tools being developed to assist and amplify your teaching.

Here’s what I said in official language:

Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK)

Technological pedagogical content knowledge refers to the knowledge and understanding of the interplay between CK, PK and TK when using technology for teaching and learning (Schmidt, Thompson, Koehler, Shin, & Mishra, 2009). It includes an understanding of the complexity of relationships between students, teachers, content, practices and technologies (Archambault & Crippen, 2009).

That’s from the wiki that has a “pedia” on the end.

When a teacher has done the tech-integration thing for a while, it becomes a second-nature-teacher-thing; as easy as eyes in the back of your head or recess duty. But when one is first starting out, like many of us, it’s best to start working on your TPACK beginning with the smaller weights… one class blog assignment a week or a class podcast at the end of a full unit of study. Once one skill is under your belt, you can add a few more, slowly working your way up to the multi-media, sound-and-lights extravaganzas to be submitted to the Cannes Film Festival review committee once they have been polished.

Building an impressive TPACK six-pack is just like most other challenges, best tackled one step at a time. But once a teacher has packed on the ability to handle the tech tools competently, then they can begin to try out the really creative approaches to education; ones that use the new technology in a completely new and original way. Jeff Utecht, in his popular “Thinking Stick” blog suggests that truly innovative tech-rich teaching creates new and different learning experiences for the students that would not be possible without the technology. To continue the “six-pack” analogy, only an athlete that has trained hard and developed muscles that can handle difficult challenges can attempt new, extreme sports that no one has attempted before. Only teachers who gain experience by daily using technology and slowly adding to their knowledge base can launch into creative and original uses of technology to teach curriculum in new and challenging ways.

Becoming a Polyglot; Adding Media-Speak and Tech-Speak

I recently went to see Martin Scorsese’s first film created for children called “Hugo,” based on the award-winning book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”

The movie followed the book’s plot-line fairly closely and was a perfect vehicle for the partially fictional story which centered on one of film’s early pioneers, Georges Méliès. Scorsese claims that he decided to make the film after one of his children complained that they were not allowed to see any of his films, which often carry an “R” rating. When I discovered that Scorsese had started a visual literacy program for middle school students, everything seemed to fit together.

The program was created when Scorsese realized that kids needed to tools to interpret the  visual imagery that they are immersed in every day. “So much of today’s society is done visually, and even subliminally, for young people, that it could be dangerous. One has to know that it is a very, very powerful tool.” The director should know. He was not willing to let his own young children watch his powerful movies; the images and ideas that they presented were not appropriate to their stage of development. The awareness of other images that they were being confronted with on a daily basis, no doubt occurred to him at the same time.

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Mono, Bi or Multi-Media

A book can now be two-dimensional (just words on a screen), or three-dimensional (visually and in terms of extended content), or even multi-dimensional (and this is where things get really complicated). Multi-dimensional, multi-media books can have extended story lines in movies, television, graphic novels, interactive multi-player game platforms, toys and merchandizing. And the digital books themselves can be animated or enhanced with sound or video, with a wealth of embedded links to make the story richer and more complex.

Now that I am aware of all that could be done with the construction of original written content, I have to intentionally decide what should be done. In the creation of content and in the teaching of creative content, I need to be intentional with the tools that I select for each intended purpose.

Obviously, in teaching students how to create a digital story of their own, I should choose tools that are simple enough to be grasped quickly so that the actual writing and editing process remains at the forefront. Google Docs seems to lend itself well to this process, allowing the teacher to keep track of the students’ progress and to edit directly. If iPads are available in the classroom, then iBooks Author is another easy and intuitive tool for students to create their own polished-looking books that can be shared with other iPad users.

Here is an example of a story created using iBooks Author and presented in a PDF format for ease of viewing:

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Graphic, Novel Information

Our world seems to be bursting at the seams with information. There is too much to take in at once. And even when we do bite off a chunk of information that we think we can handle, the information is often too complicated or convoluted to be digested, let alone masticated in the first place. A well-organized and visually-appealing graphic which presents the pertinent information can make an attractive gourmet meal out of a jumble of ingredients.

Presenting real information and even fictional stories has become increasingly visual. While the comic book market is decreasing (at least in the U.S.) the graphic novel market is exploding. At the same time, consumers of information want to see the data presented in a visually-compelling way.

In Richard Byrne’s blog, “Free Technology for Teachers,” seven tools for constructing data visualizations are detailed. The first tool, Better WorldFlux, with its pre-entered data is an amazing example of how visually-intelligent graphics can quickly elucidate complex sets of data. I went to their site and experimented with the graphics by choosing just a few countries and data parameters. I could immediately see how Japan lagged behind most civilized countries in its inclusion of women in the legislative process and government, and how far ahead Norway was in comparison at the data starting point of 1987. Then, by scrubbing through the years to the most recent data set, I could see how far Japan had caught up in this area, so that it is almost in the average range now, and how Norway has remained in the lead among world countries in this aspect. Here is a snapshot of the percentage of women in parliament with data included showing ratio of girls’ to boys’ education in 1990:

One can see at a glance how far Japan lags behind the world average in this aspect and how progressive Norway is. If we scrub ahead using the year-indicator bar to 2010, we see that Japan has made considerable progress and is approaching the world average, while Norway still has a large proportion of women serving in the government.

For my own purposes, I use Google Web Analytics to keep track of trends in web traffic flowing to my website of free children’s sermon resources at I can compare the amount of web traffic for the current week with the traffic from two years ago, for example. I can see when the peak access times occur, and this can inform me as to when I should be posting the new children’s sermon for the following week.

The challenge for me is to find the correct tool and type of display for the information that one wants to clearly communicate. One of the best examples of visually displayed information that I have seen is the progression of economic and physical health of world countries over the years. While I have only begun to learn to use this tool, some are already masters of visual display. In one of the best demonstrations that I have seen, Hans Rosling shows how the general trend is toward richer and healthier countries worldwide. This is the type of visual information that can transform the world:

The World from 1810 to 2010