Enjoying Spring Break

It’s spring break, and we had a great, windy sail today on our C&C 27. 60 degrees, 25-30 mph sustained winds, and we sailed under reefed main sail alone. Started process of teaching wife how to run the engine, and she did a great job.

Overall good parts: seven year-old daughter didn’t get scared once. Wife did all the foredeck work, including stowing the unneeded jib underway. Learned to reef our main on this boat. Had no problems with tacking and jibing in significant wind. Next time, we’ll take along “the blade” as our foresail, just to learn how to use it.

Tired when we got back in, but we’re ready to go out again. I also posted a photo gallery from the trip.

Sailing with family

Sacred Fears, and Why We Cherish Them

So, here’s what happens.

Today’s students seem to meld the impossible. They’re wired, yet socially adept. They stare at tiny screens, yet enjoy camping and cycling and sports. They score high SATs, yet enjoy counter-culture social messages. New communication mediums seem to bring them closer together, instead of isolated. “Expert learner” becomes the norm instead of the exception, as it should be in our easy-content-access environment.

Roll the tape back to the beginning: didn’t we want computers for students for a more individualized learning experience? The computers were supposed to empower. Twenty-five years later, there is ongoing enthusiasm to use them, explore, communicate, create and mash.

In an earlier post today, I noted how some students are hauntingly intelligent– their insights and awareness are startling. In some ways, teachers and adults maintain limited archtypes of students in mind, pretending they are less metacognitive than they are. We also can’t believe that they socially synthesize new mediums and tools so easily, because when we look at “gamers” and “geeks” of our own generation they seem isolated and side-tracked. The reasons we keep shouting “slow down, slow down” may be weaker than we’re comfortable admitting.

Wired CoverThis morning during breakfast, I read several articles in the latest Wired Magazine. The theme of the issue is the “New World of Games,” and the basic argument is that games are now becoming more open-ended and involving the “second processor” of the gaming environment (the player’s own mind).

Within all games, even Chess, there is a “possibility space” that exists between the set beginning and ending state. The new games are expanding this space, to enable players to have much more complete social and creative control. At the high end, these experiences may be at the same cultural level as participating in the creation of literature.

Again, I roll back the tape to 1989– the main reason I put computers in college writing labs was that word processing could “extend the compositional environment” in which students could think and re-think their ideas and examples for a longer period of time as they composed. The revision process as play– technology enabled more of this, just as the written word did centuries before.

But at this point, I’m rambling. It’s just that these recent experiences remind me that we need to be aware of risks, dangers, mis-use, time sinks and all the other problems with technology, but not close our minds to the potential and opportunities. The core reasons why we use educational technology are still there, and in some cases are blossoming.

We also need to respect our students’ ideas and involvement in the process, and learn more from their views and ideas.

Music, Movies and Mondo 2000

The best part about getting away from school, and “out of one’s comfort zone,” is that it allows one’s mind to reset and think fresh about the issues that surround and basically stare us in the face.

Mondo 2000Many years ago on a cycling trip in New England, I picked up a marked-down copy of collected articles from the defunct Mondo 2000 Magazine. In the relaxed, removed environment, the subversive collection of articles about technology and society were refreshing and challenged me to think fresh about what I was doing with college students and computers.

My batteries have run down lately. So many years have passed. On the cycling trip to Napa, I spent more informal hours with high school students than ever before, and in some ways I believe they began to show me what I was losing sight of.

Similar to the vibes in the Mondo 2000 articles, these kids are a wired group. Nearly all had iPods, some nanos, and some video iPods. One had brought a full group of movies on the video iPod to share with others during the car rides and in the tents, and they deftly used splitters to bridge out to multiple earphone sets (or simply shared buds). They had cigarette lighter DC adapters to charge their units, and once the movies were done they shared music collections, contemporary comedian performances, and other media recordings.

Fight ClubWhen we slept on the floors of commons rooms in the churches, the students used the big screen TVs and DVD players for movies. There was time in the evening for one movie in each location, and the students started the trip by watching the movie Office Space together, and then closed the trip by watching Fight Club together.

Obviously, I was a little concerned about our US students watching a movie as violent and relatively sexist as Fight Club, but I also reeled back and wondered by they chose those two movies of all the choices they had to bring and present. More importantly, the two movies were similar in certain respects.

Office SpaceIn both films, the protagonist “wakes up” from a zombie-like existence of meaningless work and mind-numbing consumerism. In both films, they take creative control of their existence, leading to relatively destructive yet life-improving results (at least for them). So, why did these two films get selected by our 14 students?

More thoughts on this later…

Back from Napa Valley

Ah, I’m back from the Napa Valley cycling trip. Four of us took 14 students on an eight day trip to the Redwoods, Sonoma County, and Napa Valley. Six rides of 15-45 miles, five nights of camping, two nights sleeping in churches, and 1423 miles of driving. We visited five different vineyards.

Sonoma VineyardBest part of the trip: the students. All were positive and enthusiastic, and patient when things went wrong temporarily. I had a great time talking with them around the camp fire, being a silent listener during the long drives, and being simply stunned by how hauntingly intelligent they are (especially in the “expert learner” forms of intelligence). More on this later.

Napa Valley wine cellarChallenging parts of the trip: the weather (rain and cold on about half of the days), the camping (sometimes no water, othertimes only cold water in the showers), the driving (more tiring than the cycling), and the overall density of the logistics (lots of bikes to maintain, camps to create and tear down, etc.). The leaders noted that this was one of the most difficult trips weather wise, and they’ve been leading this trip for ten years.

I’ll post some more thoughts about this trip, the student’s choice of media, and other observations later today.

Cycling in Calistoga
Cycling into Calistoga.

The Evolution of the Internet

It’s an interesting time, because the myspace.com uproar and response have made us all a bit more conscious about formal and informal student computer use. Overall, I think this is good, as long as we don’t fall asleep again once the news moves on to the next “bleeds it leads” story.

My general feeling is that VREs (virtual reality environments) are going to be a significant part of our future. As the general processing power of our systems increases, as well as our bandwidth, what other profitable horizons are there? According to Wired, there are some who have already found a way to make a living in SecondLife: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70153-0.html.

If I’m not mistaken, there are some companies that have opened stores in SecondLife, so that you can research, discuss, purchase and have goods shipped to your home. If the Apple Store were to move into this environment, and the imagined growth in enrollment occurs, I wonder if we’ll laugh someday about the quaint “2D” Internet we used to use.

As for students, I hope that the entire IM scenario doesn’t play out again. We can all ignore SecondLife and it competition, be reactive instead of proactive, and in general allow new communication mediums to be shaped more by our children than by our social or educational systems. Jason’s correct that this is simply an evolution of gaming software and 3D environments that many kids have already spent considerable amounts of time to explore.

As educators, we can’t track down every new development, and I’m not in perfect agreement with Prensky. However, I’d rather be proactive and thoughtful before new systems reach critical mass (myspace.com, and others). Not all will become part of the educational experience, but it seems unlikely that none will, unless we all decide that the bunker approach is fruitful and rewarding.

VRE Spaces and Digital Citizens

I received a thoughtful response from Jason Johnson about SecondLife on the ISED-L discussion list. (Reposted with permission of author):

Right now we are seeing a lot of active participation in RuneScape. Similar
in basic function to SecondLife (avatars, chat, etc.) but more directed like
a MMOG. This type of interaction and game play is also essential to the
future of the video game industry (Just look at what Bungie, to name one, is
doing with Halo 2 and interactive gaming on the Xbox). In other words, it is
already ignored at our peril.

I think the technologies are ripe for educational use (think of SecondLife
in Spanish or Latin), but the investment is still very high in providing the
backend and most (but not all) schools want a more controlled environment.
Sure they can purchase a private island, but I think the real advantage
would be to utilize the extended community (e.g. Run a business, develop
public art, community activism and research). However, there is a certain
amount of FUD generated by mainstream media already (like the the article I
can not put my finger on about rating prostitutes in SecondLife) that will
make it difficult from a PR perspective to use as a teaching tool.

But, beyond immersion and research programs, wouldn’t the use of the unique
qualities of VREs (virtual reality environments) simply be an more
sophisticated extension of Marc Prenskey’s ideas around gaming to teach
skills (with all the benefits and problems that implies).

What we are finding most difficult is tracking with the social norms
surrounding these. Interestingly more of these communities are being more
up front about creating their own social norms, advertising them, and allow
users to self select. SecondLifers get banished to the “corn field” for a
period of time depending on offense for violating these rules. Occasionally
you have communities like World of Warcraft restricting gay guilds as part
of a corporate policy decision but the norms are increasingly community

At the same time, student and some parents feel that these norms and
explicit rules are unimportant. People are rather casual about what they
agree to on a computer and expect to be able to reverse their decision when
conditions become adverse (when was the last time any of us read an EULA end
to end). However, when actions online carry over into the real world it is
too late reversals.

I think the more students can interact with others they already know in the
real world, in these kinds of VRE spaces, the better digital citizens they
will ultimately be. In that regard it does not matter what is taught
(Spanish, art, biology) as long as the medium does not get in the way of the
learning, conducting class in a VRE (full or partially) provides the
additional benefit of learning how to conduct oneself properly in that
environment. Given the effort and expense (time and money) necessary to
create a VRE I am not sure schools can do more than that at this time.
Sounds like a perfect elective or after school program for now. Maybe an
honors course in a year or two. Wish my kids were old enough.


Cycling in Napa Valley

My Bruce Gordon Touring BikeStarting tomorrow, I’m helping to lead an OES Winterim trip. Upper School students set aside six days just before Spring vacation to experience intensive learning in settings and contexts that are different from their normal school lives. In our case, we’re taking 14 students to do a week of cycling in Napa Valley.

I’m less than relaxed with the idea of driving a Suburban for the whole week as part of the convoy, but the riding should be nice. I’ll be gone from tomorrow afternoon until the following Thursday. I’ll be taking my Bruce Gordon BLT touring bike, which I rode on a great Glacier Park Tour back in 2004.

Thoughts about SecondLife…

A couple of weeks ago I posted a question about SecondLife, and since then I’ve had many interesting conversations about it.

SecondLife has 158,000 users at the moment, and over $100,000 of real world commerce each day. It’s a 3D environment that’s very similar to the Metaverse of the book Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson (a book my entire staff read a couple of years ago). Individuals can alter their avatars and build just about anything in the environment. There is both a teen and an adult “world,” and the behavior in the adult environment is not unsimilar to the unlimited bacchanal of the movie Westworld.

I mention this because there’s little question that there’ll soon be a media blowup about what happens in SecondLife, and as a result the enrollment (free, with some stiff hardware requirements) will likely skyrocket. For an early Wired article, see http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,67142-0.html.

Before going into full panic about the environment, it’s worth noting that some educators are using the online space in interesting ways. (Please note that you’ll need an account to access some of this material):

Educational Program FAQ: http://secondlife.com/tiki/tiki-index.php?page=Campus%3A+Second+Life+FAQ

Classes offered by Colleges using SL: http://forums.secondlife.com/showthread.php?t=60133

“The Metaverse” BLOG origniating at Elon U. Check out the left sidebar, 4th block down: “The Past: 2005: Virtuality”. This is curriculum for a 300 level class exploring VR based ons SL: http://trumpy.cs.elon.edu/metaverse/

Very rich presentation done at the “Games, Learning, and Society Conference” this last June, Elon U again.

So, I’d like to ask what others are thinking about this environment. Currently, I see it as a niche for the creative who have strong systems and access, but in the future I could see it becoming the next MySpace.com and/or Facebook.com. The entire environment raises interesting questions about identity and attitudes about society and community. Currently, I find it too controversial to even discuss with students, but in the near future I bet it will be discussed a great deal. Also, I’d be surprised if some of our students haven’t explored it already.

Any thoughts? Thanks!

SecondLife Skyscraper
Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Community Bulletin Boards

I got my start with Bulletin Boards back in ’89 at American Unversity when I started up “Between the Lines” for the composition department on a 286 with one modem. We served the DC area…

Today, we installed a new system from vBulletin, using the A Small Orange hosting service. We’ll also be integrating PhotoPost Pro, in a manner similar to this sailing forum site called Cruisers Forum. Our goal is to create a closed board for alumni with full photo gallery functions for users.

So far, so good. The hosting is costing us $20 a month to begin, and the software for both products was about $290. I’ll post some screenshots later on as the system is tweaked.

Online Space: Email Paradigm

Yesterday morning we had a WebEx demo of FirstClass ED, an extension to the FirstClass email system that allows the creation of classes, assignment exchanges, curricular content, shared calendars, parent viewing, roster, grade book, etc.

In it’s own way, the system makes a lot of sense. Leverage your faculty’s comfort with an email system to a general learning system, and keep everything in one place with as much drag-n-drop as possible. Instead of a web page system, this email paradign is much faster and can operate over a 14.4 modem. They don’t have an offline caching system yet, but I believe they are working on one. For the time being, one must be online for the magic to happen.

I could see this as a possibly strong solution for our lower school and possbily middle school, but I’m hesitant about our upper school. My sense is that colleges are going to grow the Blackboard style systems (web pages), and enable more social networking tools (like Facebook) into their systems. The FirstClass ED system is a bit toned down and more private, and it wasn’t clear to me yet how well it handled non-FirstClass materials (traditional web pages, Word docs, PowerPoints, etc.). I’m wondering if Moodle might be better for upper school (but more than needed for lower school). At the same time, I wondering if there’s enough benefit for maintaing multiple systems (Exchange, First Class, Moodle).

We’ll be taking a closer look at FirstClass ED in the future.

eLearning, and the Future

Ready2NetSeveral strong topics were discussed last week during a webcast Ready2Net session at the Blackboard World Conference. The presentation had three different panels discuss “The Future of eLearning.” Some parts are better than others, but the entire webcast can be seen here:


The issue of “data that eLearning is successful” is part of the discussion. Most of the research at this point doesn’t suggest that eLearning is superior, but only equivalent, to traditional classroom learning. That prompted some on the panel to wonder aloud if the problem isn’t how we evaluate traditional classrooms. Are eLearning classrooms being held to much more rigorous evaluation than traditional classrooms, or is it that the traditional means of evaluating classes are too weak or disconnected to what happens in eLearning environments?

One could make the same argument about ROI. If we hold the technology infrastructure and online systems to strong ROI standards, are the traditional departments being analyzed in the same manner and held to the same standards? It would be an interesting exercise to quantify the educational work done with students to really reveal the value of the investment…

My sense is that much of the work a school does with students is preparatory for later stages of achievement. If later achievement is reduced because of a lack of opportunity or experience years before, how is that factored into ROI? We all know that students “make up their minds” about their interests and sometimes abilities at surprisingly young ages. If opportunities for math, science, art, languages, music, sports, history, literature, technology and other departments were reduced to only immediate returns on investment, would we be rewarding “early decisions” instead of encouraging exploration and challenging students beyond their first thoughts or struggles?

There is a possibly looming risk of schools “pricing themselves out of the market.” Balancing opportunities seems key, as well as recognizing that we can’t provide all things to all students. Some schools will specialize, which is fine. Others will be more comprehensive, and in doing so I hope they acknowledge the need for change.

Cycling Around San Diego Bay

Always fearful of suffering tech conference “burn out,” I took my trusty Bike Friday to San Diego this week. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, I was able to cycle around San Diego Bay to Coronado and return on a ferry. I’ve posted a picture gallery of the rides, and I downloaded the map and cue sheet for the “do it yourself” ride from a San Diego County Cycling site.

I started riding about 3:20 p.m., did the 25 miles to Coronado, and then took the ferry back to San Diego for $3.50. Both days I was just in time for the 5:30 p.m. ferry, but there were others at 6:30 p.m. and later. The first ten miles or so were pretty urban. After that, it was mostly off-road paths.

The bike is a veteran of many conference trips (DC, New Orleans, Spokane, Philadelphia, Colorado, and now San Diego), and in general I feel lost and isolated in a new city until I’ve cycled around.

Bike Friday on Ferry

Second Thoughts on Blackboard Conference

Now that I’ve had some time to think about the Blackboard World conference, I actually have some ideas. I was there partly by accident, since normally it’s for clients and not prospectives like myself. I didn’t manage to meet other K-12 independent school members there.

There are lots of great things going with Blackboard, including their number of clients now that the WebCT merger has gone through. They’re aiming to become a “standard” for elearning, and I’m in favor of some of this if it means that portfolios can become a meaningful part of the college applications process, for example. Or if it can be easier to have intercultural student exchanges, if they are worldwide. Blackboard shouldn’t be the “only” way to do these things, but it wouldn’t be bad for some standards were set for realistic change.

In terms of the product, not all stories were great. The story I heard about the grade book was that they’ve been working for a year on a new component called Caliper that will be an over-arching assessment and standards tool. They hope to have it out next year.
However, there were still a lot of complaints about the grade book, and they acknowledged the issues but noted that they couldn’t revamp the grade book before Caliper was at least over half done (since the two systems will intermesh). The “interim” action on their part was to increase communication with third party grade book vendors to create a building block for the system (meaning one could use the third party grade book and import/export/mesh with the building block).

Some issues with this– I don’t believe the Basic system supports building blocks, for example. Many seemed to feel there was too big of a difference between Basic and the Learning System (in features and cost), and one acknowledgement was that they were working on hosted, interim options between the two.

Other impressions– the majority of Blackboard’s clients are higher ed, and it appears that a majority of the K-12 clients are districts or even groups of districts. For an individual school, the product is available, but it’s not clear how the cost per user plays out when that is done (in annual licensing fees and the cost/complexity of building and maintaining the system). Additionally, it seems as if there were and are cross-platform issues for Mac users (Visual Editor just repaired for OS X if one uses Firefox, for example, but Safari still doesn’t work right).

There’s also a cool add-on called Backpack that allows students to download nearly all course data into a client and then use it off network, off Internet. This type of idea has great potential, but again this is a Windows-only tool for now. In my 50/50 cross platform school, we carefully avoid implementing tools that only serve one part of the population.

I was impressed by what the higher ed customers were doing, and some of the school districts. Their plans for increasing social networking tools and lifelong portfolios are not bad either. In the future, I could imagine a consortium plan for a Blackboard system through NAIS, but I’m not in the league needed to run such a large setup.

Additionally, in terms of actual use, even the “best” class page examples from K-12 weren’t significantly better than what we are currently doing with low to no cost SharePoint sites. (International connections, multimedia, course content, discussions, paperless exchanges, timed sequences, etc.) We don’t have an online grading system, content management system, or unified educational portal system yet (and we may not want all of them).

So, next week we’re watching a demo of the new FirstClass ED system, we might request a demo copy of the Microsoft Class Server 4.0, we’re toying with the idea of upgrading to our own SharePoint Portal system, and we’re not beyond exploring Moodle (further)and part-by-part solutions like Edline.

It’s a big issue…

Senseless First Thought Drivel

Nope, I’m not the type who can do realtime, streaming commentary during conferences I’m attending, complete with fishbowl quality cell phone pictures of tiny people behind podiums…

I will note that the Blackboard World conference has exceeded expectations, and I feel surprisingly happy to be surrounded by higher ed colleagues again. In any session, there’s about 2/3rds higher ed and 1/3rd K-12. Many of the higher ed presenters are dead serious about their work, and overall the entire conference has a reassuring “yeah, we’re doing it” esprit de corps. I wish every conference I went to had this atmosphere.

I’ll post second thoughts about the conference later this week or next week. I’ll also post some cycling pictures. I did bring my Bike Friday, and I had two excellent rides around San Diego Bay to Coronado, and then a ferry ride back to downtown proper. Ah, I feel refreshed.

I should also note that our tech team retreat to Rockaway Beach, Oregon was a lot of fun. We had several serious discussions about K-12 Computer Science, Second Life, Online Communities and other issues. I’ll post some notes about these meetings as well.

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