• Failing Our Students

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 1/1/2020

    I realize that everyone loves to talk about how schools and teachers are failing our students but let’s be clear when we assign blame. If our schools and teachers are often forced to focus on triage, it is because our system of evaluating, grouping and the requisite expectation setting they engender acts as the hand grenade in the foxhole. Grades and our system of grading is, to be blunt, stupid and archaic. Trying to smash a human being into one of five, small buckets based on their responses to various tests and the quality of a handful of assignments which were evaluated by a single person who is simply trying to get through a stack of these assignments so that she can go to sleep is absurd! 

     

    I know grades. As a young student I attended one private school that didn’t assign any grades for anything and another that assigned only a pass or fail status at the end of each course. This didn’t seem to hurt either school’s ability to educate their students. So why are we so obsessed with grades? It’s simple. We are obsessed with grades because we have been conditioned to be obsessed with them. I believe this problem is best viewed as one of those frustrating “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” snarls in human logic. If we just stopped using grades as a way of cataloguing humans, within a decade, no one would even question the loss. 

     

    This is not to say that evaluation is not useful or necessary. Evaluation is extremely important as a diagnostic tool and assigning a grade may be a helpful shortcut in those evaluations. However, even when used as a benchmark, grades are much more useful when they boil down to a binary value on a very specific skill. Yes or no. The student either learned or they failed to learn. Knowing a student got an 82% in biology doesn’t do an honest teacher any good. Did they achieve 82% mastery of the course materials? Did they not learn 18% of the material? What 18% do they lack? Knowing the grade a student passed any given class or test with is not terribly helpful in making decisions for that student. And I would argue that knowing what grade a student failed any given class or test with is even less helpful. “Ah, eureka, this student failed with a 43 while this student failed with a 56” said no teacher ever. 

     

    So how do we take the practice of assessment out of the dark ages where it has been used in a punitive or forensic manner for forever and begin to leverage it instead as a living, formative tool to actually help students? Well, first, in my opinion, instructional design and computer-enhanced assessments have to be embraced, improved and better understood. “Oh sure, leave it to the wire head to insist that computers are the answer.” Well, bear with me. If we can reduce our curriculum to a series of demonstrable skills (something that all teachers are supposed to have been doing for more than twenty years now) and those skills can then be objectively evaluated to either exist or not exist in a student, we can turn over much of the assessment and reporting to a computer. This means that the teacher gets to spend less time grading tests and being a data entry clerk for a gradebook and more time being an instructor. 

     

    That alone is probably worth the price of admission. However, that is not even the tip of the iceberg. Now that the computer knows each sub-skill that each student did not demonstrate mastery in, the computer can diagnosis, prescribe and evaluate remedial work for that student even in the absence of any input from the teacher. And this can all happen in real time. The computer never sleeps and it can likely evaluate the work faster than the student can complete the work. Therefore, if the computer is evaluating the assignment and providing feedback while the student is working on the assignment, the student may not even have to complete the entire task to learn and simultaneously demonstrate the skill. This could potentially mean that the gap in the student’s skills could be addressed before the teacher or, perhaps, even the student would even have been aware there was a problem under the old system. As far as the teacher is concerned, the student simply shows up the next day ready to continue with his class.

     

    Oh, but we are not done gentle reader. The computer would, of course, also be continually evaluating the efficacy of the instructor and could report immediately to the teacher that a percentage of his students sharing a specific set of traits are failing to understand this set of concepts without remedial work! The instructor has a chance to evaluate and improve the instruction. And since the computer already has a record of the remedial work that seemed to address this problem, the teacher already has a massive head start. This computerized evaluator might finally become the sort of even, unbiased evaluation that teachers can fully trust. 

     

    At the core of this entire essay is an idea that I have believed in for more than a decade and that is that Instruction and evaluation are surely linked as closely as reading and writing. Doing either act repeatedly should inform and improve the other complementary act. Assessment should not be a separate task relegated to a regimented time and place. It is the mirror of instruction. It should be woven carefully into the instruction itself. And, if the blending is artful, the student should not be able to discern where one ends and the other begins.

     

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  • Transforming Personal Productivity Into A Team Sport

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 1/30/2019 7:30:00 AM

    Leveraging The Cloud To Transform Group Work

     

    During my late twenties I spent several months living in Paris. During this time I developed a habit of journaling about every experience that had an impact on my worldview or general zeitgeist. In other words, when I eventually returned to this country, I came back with bags stuffed to overflowing with notebooks, napkins, photographs and memories that I would spend the next couple of years processing and archiving.

    After flying home I quickly returned to working on the road with a band which meant I had a good bit of free time during the day to work with a computer (a Mac plus in a road case) which I toured with. I used a very early version of Microsoft Word to slowly transcribe most of the paper documents and get them safely onto floppy disks and, later, a hard drive. It was in this process that I found a voice I did not know I possessed. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that computers, productivity software and the power of unlimited editing made me a writer.

    Oh I was always an avid reader, amateur poet and a good conversationalist, however, I simply did not have the patience for long-form prose. I was far too lazy and undisciplined to revisit a completed document even though I would inevitably think of dozens of ways to make it better after reading it the first time off of a page. As a child, I watched my grandfather meticulously type out correspondence with a care rendered extinct by telephones and television. The letters I sent, in comparison, were wild, messy, stream-of-consciousness affairs which were full of life, insights and interesting ideas but almost impossible to read for anyone save my sister who, unknown to me until recently, kept every single one of them.

    What Microsoft Word did for my writing, Mark of the Unicorn’s Performer (an early DAW - Digital Audio Workstation) did for my music and Excel was soon doing for my finances. It was the infancy of a computer dependency that continues to this day. I was soon using Premier to create promotional videos. Later I would use SketchUp to add 3D components to these videos. Computers were inserting themselves into almost every aspect of my life and, at the same time, becoming essential to just about every occupation and human activity you could think of.

    It was during this time that the term “productivity software” began to be used without a trace of irony. The idea was that powerful software would make productive employees even more productive. And, for more than a decade, this seemed to be the case. I remember writing prolifically during this period. I published materials in a single day that might have taken a week before computers. (If my previously detailed short attention span had even allowed the materials to ever see the light of day.) I can not imagine accomplishing a small fraction of what I published during the late 1990’s without productivity software.

    And yet, as prolific as I was becoming in my creative pursuits, the results were often lacking in substance and quality. The few items I had published prior to this period had been edited by a professional editor. Using a computer meant that writers and artists were often being able to bypass the editing stage. With the world wide web becoming a viable platform for publication around the same time as productivity software use skyrocketed, the world would soon have more rambling, mediocre prose (including mine) than any civilization could ever want. It turns out that editors do a lot more than fix spelling and grammar issues. Who knew?

    This failure of productivity applications was, perhaps, easiest for me to spot in the music business. Music making is traditionally a communal undertaking. Writing and performing music is greatly enhanced by the presence of other people. Music is a language and the vocabulary suffers when delivered as a monologue. In my own experience, for example, music composition quickly became an isolated and lonely task. I didn’t realize how much I missed bouncing ideas off of another player and the give and take that would often lead somewhere unexpected. There were few surprises in the studio now and even fewer happy accidents. What came out was only exactly what I played. Although the endless editing available is music productivity software meant that what came out was often a polished, perfect and utterly soulless performance. My compositional weaknesses were now writ large and soon my music began to suffer from containing far too much me.

    There is a downside to the empowerment gained from software that allows you do it all yourself. And, most of us did just that and lots and lots of creative work suffered. (Oh you just go back and listen critically and objectively to popular music in the late 1980s and early 1990s if you don’t believe me!) Collaboration in the digital realm was difficult in those days. It would take a while before the idea of a computer playground where everyone could be on the swings at the same would become reality. File types, floppy disk limitations and platform issues made any shared creation unwieldy and real time collaboration was only a pipedream.

    And then, suddenly, our precious, productivity software began to be subsumed into the cloud as SaaS (Software As A Service) began to move from fringe thinking to mainstream. There had been hints for more than a decade. The ASP (Application Service Provider), diskless workstations (which contained many elements of the modern Chromebook) and thin clients (Sun Microsystems favorite baby) had all tried and failed to pry our computers from our hands. But, as businesses grew and collaboration became the mantra of more and more newly minted MBAs, companies like Salesforce.com, Oracle and, later, Amazon Web Services and Google Docs would finally succeed and drive businesses to stop trying to patch together fragile, VPN connections just so remote users could access files kept on servers at the home office.

    Let’s be clear. At first cloud-based solutions were primarily about the money saved and the scalability. However, something cool started to happen once documents were moved to the cloud. Multiple people would access and work on files at the same time. This sharing came without the temp-file abyss that plagued users of Microsoft Office who dared to share files with a workgroup. Clever companies would eventually begin to eschew artificial, departmental structures and encourage collaboration across departments. The file server was dead. Long live the file server.

    So this is all well and good for freshly-minted MBAs who had been raised on teams and collaborative work. Education has not traditionally embraced the “team” idea. Oh, in the past, a teacher would occasionally assign a “team” project and all of the students would groan and the teacher would sigh at the thought of all the complaints that would soon come pouring in on accountability equitable roles. These projects would generally devolve into group projects rather than team projects. And, all too often, the projects would further crumble into largely solo projects. The paradigm of team value can be really tough for the rugged individualism that our country has celebrated for centuries. We should really prepare students for teamwork. We should model this way of working for our students by turning to our classroom’s own teams of teachers and . . . oh yeah.

    So how does a person engaged in one of the world’s most solitary professions model effective team building and roles? This is where the true collaboration made possible in the cloud comes to the rescue. Your classroom is already a team. What a teacher needs to do is to be flexible and secure enough in their role to allow students, as a group, the freedom to examine and modify their current, individual roles. The act of role definition gives ownership and a chance for student differences to be explored and acknowledged so that personality differences can be recognized rather than confused with substantive issues when working with new and unfamiliar problems.

    I have walked several teachers with a history of unsatisfying team projects through a simple modification of their lesson plans. The only change I made was to have them use Google Docs and Google Classroom for team interaction and to include themselves in each team. The process goes like this: The students begin working in the classroom, typing back and forth in their doc to  define their roles and then brainstorming. Students are told that all interaction should be notated in their shared document and that they no longer have to go to each other’s houses as they can now interact anytime and from anywhere. (This comes very naturally to most students.) The teacher watches the interaction in Google Docs and intervenes only if the spectre of groupthink appears or if students seem unable to form roles, settle on norms, or procedure. As the work continues the teacher checks each students contribution by highlighting each student’s name to see their individual contributions and how it fits into the whole and contact that student if they were not on-task.

    In every case this simple tweak to the teacher’s group project plan allowed the lesson to actually become what was promised. Not only that but, when I interviewed parents, teachers and students at the end of that first year of our GAFE student account roll out, this change was often highlighted as one of the most powerful. (Mostly because parents no longer had to shuttle their children from house to house, watch their student do all the work and, in one case, act as their child’s secretary and type up the final report for them.)

    Another common problem addressed by the teamwork model afforded by many cloud-based tools is the needs of diverse learners. As previously mentioned, when students are coached to investigate their potential roles they are more likely to take ownership of that role. Another benefit is that they can be encouraged to reflect on their talents and context and shape those into a role rather than accepting pre-defined roles. Since the interaction occurs through a device, shy students are often more comfortable contributing. Students who have mechanical skill deficits can leverage speech to text or handwriting recognition to contribute. It goes without saying that every student has a unique gift to bring to the party if the team is coached to be accepting. It is, in my experience, sometimes surprising to see which students blossom when they are able to share that gift with a group.

    Finally, one of the most powerful aspects of hosting team activities in the cloud is the ability to easily publish work that warrants a large audience. The fact that all of their work is being viewed by an involved audience consisting of their teacher and team members creates a sense of urgency compared to crumpled pages in a book bag. Add to this the potential to share their work with the world, and students can truly begin to see the power of a focused team working on a shared goal.

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  • The Evolution Revolution

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 9/27/2017 7:00:00 AM

    Technology has been steadily invading every known discipline and human endeavor from the time we began coming down from the trees. For most of our history these technologies have been either revolutionary or evolutionary. Revolutionary devices, such as the printing press, would precede radical shifts in our culture while evolutionary devices, such as the cell phone, would enable new efficiencies in our communications. Education has seemed to be adrift in a sea of evolutionary technologies for the last half-century. Over that same time span, while computers and the internet were revolutionizing business and medicine, education was managing to absorb both technologies while changing very little. This, in my view, says more about education than it does technology.

    Indeed, there have been moments over the last few decades, when educators seemed to take blunting the impact of a new tool as a personal challenge. We move our gradebooks to a computer but don’t ask how the process or rationale for grading might be improved. We put the same assessments we have always used online instead of on paper, but we still don’t evaluate whether those tests are telling us anything useful. This stands in stark contrast to the way business welcomes new technology. Amazon didn’t look to just replicate the bookstore experience online: they sought nothing less than to reinvent the way we buy books. Where is our Amazon moment? When will education begin to ask “how can each new technology be leveraged to create value?”

    My view is that, even though the revolution may not be here yet, we can still create value with the tools we have. So, while we await the revolution, here is how I propose we evolve efficiencies. At a minimum, the productivity netted by our current work processes can be increased dramatically by simply asking ourselves which of these tasks technology can and should do for us that are unrelated to learning. For example, when we move instructional content online we can, at the very least, make sure that all resources are redundantly linked to each other and that those links are clearly labeled. If we publish an assignment calendar or a syllabus, we should make certain that all of those required resources are clearly linked there as well. Why tell someone what we want a specific product and then make them search for the description of  that product? There is nothing to be gained in terms of pedagogy in having students hunt for assignments, flip through pages of content or locate the directions for an assignment.

    Research into learning has given us the concept of cognitive load. This theory tells us “Cognitive resources devoted to processing extraneous material not germane to the learning task take away from the ability of the learner to maximize the potential of the instructional representation.” (Cook, 2006) Therefore, we should seek to leverage these wonderful tools wherever we can to decrease the endless, Easter egg hunts that far too many online lessons currently resemble. We can also use release conditions, branching or other technologies to make certain that the next resource is available, annotated and explained as soon as it is required by the learner and not a moment earlier. This further reduces cognitive load by providing instructional guidance to guide the learner towards the construction of knowledge rather than engaging in a blind exploration of resources.  

    This belief in the promise of technology balanced against what I perceive as the current reality of instructional technology has led me to work towards a place where all of a teacher’s instructional content is available online and is well organized. I try to instill a core value that we should expend effort into making things as easy on the learner as possible. Teachers should link resources within documents and reduce the scattering of important resources wherever possible unless the lesson is in hunting resources. Furthermore, I would also stress that time should be spent with students to help them learn to organize their time using tools such as Google Calendar and collating subscriptions to homework and D2L calendars. This is how we can slowly evolve education while we await our revolution.



    References

    Cook, M. P. (2006). Visual representations in science education: The influence of prior knowledge and cognitive load theory on instructional design principles. Science education,90(6), 1073-1091.

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  • Mobile Devices, BYOD and the Cloud (Three Of A Perfect Pair*)

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 3/20/2017 6:00:00 AM

    So here we are well into the fifth year of our BYOD roll out and what have we learned? Well, first and foremost, we have learned that educators are really wired (no pun intended) into computer labs and other one-to-one computing models. Many teachers feel that BYOD is messy (it is but then so is teaching) and is best viewed as a stop gap measure to tide them over until every classroom comes supplied with a class set of devices. (not going to happen people!) I have also come to understand that this desire for one device per student is largely a comfort thing for teachers and that you have to be very gentle in pushing them towards other methods of working with students. The research, after all, has told us for years that groups or stations work better than one-to-one technology implementations. However, like so many human exercises, teaching decisions, even at the district level, are often driven by the heart and gut and other factors rather than the head. It is easy for anyone who has ever been a teacher to understand how counter-intuitive this data is. Classroom management does feel easier to monitor and maintain if the expectation is that each student should be doing the exact same thing at the same time. However, this weird goal of student synchronization has never, in my experience, been actualized. It is an urban legend much like waking up in a bathtub minus a kidney. It has never happened to anyone I know and, frankly, it would be more than a little creepy to see every student clicking at the exact same time in a Stepford-wives kind of communal ballet. However, until you confront this expectation, BYOD will not be seen by your staff as a powerful instructional tool.

    Now, the good news is that, once most teachers get used to having students doing different things at the same time, not only does BYOD start to make sense but classroom management actually seems to get easier for most teachers. I believe that this phenomenon is largely due to the teacher finally having a good reason to jettison that fictitious model classroom in their head. You know the one where students all quietly move and work in unison. This new class paradigm also paves the way for differentiation which is all but impossible in a classroom of synchronized calisthenics. Collaborative work is also encouraged by sharing devices. In fact, collaboration is a simple necessity when sharing devices. And, since a full-size computer tends to insert itself at the forefront of any task, removing that giant screen allows more eye contact which in turn enhances connection and communication. It really is a good thing.

    Another important gain to be made in the BYOD classroom is that students are learning with a device that they already know how to use. This means less teacher as troubleshooter and more teacher as facilitator. Teachers should strive to meet students where they are and where they are is on their phones. BYOD also helps to blur the line between life and school by leveraging the same device that a student uses to text their friends to conduct research and work on school projects. Wherever we make that ubiquitous device in a student’s hand a tool for acquiring knowledge, we accomplish a number of goals for the 21st century classroom. I believe that we can all agree that a “principal affordance of m-learning is that learning can take place outside of the classroom, thus extending the learning potential beyond the classroom walls.” (Liu, Scordino, Geurtz, Navarrete, Ko & Lim, 2014) In other words, students become aware that they can no longer fully escape learning and school as their own personal device now has the stink of learning upon it. This is good thing!

    Okay, so what else can we do to help BYOD succeed? Well, besides getting your teachers to stop pining for enough devices to guarantee a device in every student’s hand, (That model leaves out the “Y” in BYOD folks.) it is also important to make sure that the assigned task itself is not going to scuttle your plans. I have often seen teachers create a BYOD lesson around a website that, let’s say, uses a plugin such as Flash (an old technology not supported on a plurality of browsers and devices) and then complain that the devices have ruined their lesson plan! Uh . . . not so much. A lack of planning and due diligence on the teacher’s part can not be blamed on the devices. It is very important to make teachers realize that they are swimming in a new ecosystem. If they are going to have students use devices with a specific website, they can not simply access that site from a laptop and be satisfied that everything will be hunky dory. The teacher should attempt the lesson from whatever class of device the students will be using. A successful BYOD implementation is way, way more involved than simply allowing privately-owned devices on a school-owned network. That should be the easy part. (Of course, if your IT department botches the easy part, this conversation is rendered moot until the IT department gets their act together.)

    Another common mistake teachers make to thwart their BYOD implementation is also related to the compatibility difficulties presented by the variety of devices students may bring. A teacher should not simply throw their Office documents up on a website and expect students to be able to work with them in the same way they would in a computer lab. This goes back to planning. Teachers should, once again, attempt to complete the assignment on a similar device to understand the challenges the students may face. The act of thoroughly vetting all documents and resources used within a BYOD lesson might begin to sound like a huge investment of time and it can be just that. Fortunately, there is a way to circumvent a great deal of this testing. The teacher can choose to use a technology that was designed with broad compatibility as a feature.

     

    I am talking about cloud services.

     

    BYOD and the cloud, like shoes, should really be thought of and sold as a pair. And, it must be said that within this perfect pair the cloud is definitely the better half! The cloud without BYOD is like having lunch alone occasionally. But BYOD without the cloud is like living in your parent’s basement with a dozen cats. Cloud services make BYOD work! Students can write, comment, code, save, journal, print and archive from any device all thanks to cloud services. Without cloud services, they can . . . um . . . browse the web.

    If cloud services is the winning team in the BYOD Bowl then the short list of most valuable players would have to include Google Docs and its younger sister Google Apps For Education or GAFE. Leveraging GAFE within a BYOD rollout is rather like pouring jet fuel on a charcoal grill. Everyone is going to eat a lot quicker and everything is likely to be well done. Just be sure to step back quickly and get out of the way. (It’s funny how many times I give that advice.)

     

     

    In fact, GAFE is so powerful that some schools make the mistake of not looking any further and miss some other MVPs on the cloud team. For example, while coding tools are available within GAFE, they can not begin to compare to the simplicity and, dare I say, fun a tool like Scratch brings to the task of teaching basic coding skills to students.

     

    Khan Academy should also be investigated by any teacher looking for world-class content (their math content is without equal) and some wonderful tools for evaluating and differentiating instruction. (And they also have an app for you tablet folks.) Also, Khan Academy uses OAuth so GAFE users can walk right in the front door without creating new student and teacher accounts and class rosters so they can start taking advantage of the content right away. If you are not leveraging web 2.0 services that partner with Google, Clever, or support LDAP and, thereby, forcing your teachers to spend time building accounts for each new service that comes along, well, shame on you. You are wasting the precious time of your most precious resource. (Pssst . . . I’m talking about teachers.)

     

     

    For language arts and social studies teachers I would highly recommend Actively Learn. They have awesome topics (including current events that are actually current) culled from several major print resources along with built-in assessments for comprehension. And, would you look at that? They use OAuth and can import Google Classroom rosters with a single click of a mouse. One last app that I recommend for social studies and science teachers is NearPod. NearPod is by far the best way to breathe new life into those old PowerPoint slides you used to use back when you used to lecture far too often. (Which we know you avoid doing now.) However, you can now put those slides up on your website as a self-running or teacher directed show for homework or in live mode as classwork (Please, I just know you are not going to be showing even an online PowerPoint presentation to your students) using NearPod and include tests and even - for students with a Google Cardboard - virtual reality content. Best of all, the next morning when you will walk into your classroom you will find a report waiting for you detailing how each student did on their homework. This is the easiest way to flip a class yet for all you novice flippers.

      

     

    Liu, M., Scordino, R., Geurtz, R., Navarrete, C., Ko, Y., & Lim, M. (2014). A look at research on mobile learning in K–12 education from 2007 to the present. Journal of research on Technology in Education, 46(4), 325-372.

     
    * with apoligies to King Crimson
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  • The Search For The Elusive Win-Win

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 3/16/2017 7:00:00 AM

    Many years ago a very wise person told me that the only good deal in any business is the one in which everyone walks away a winner. A bad deal, even when it favors your company, is just that. Bad deals are mired in the worst kind of short-term thinking and only doom a business down the road. Since those innocent days in graduate school I have watched countless companies and groups follow the exact opposite path in the pursuit of profit at all costs. And, I have been amused to watch those companies fall by the wayside in increasing numbers or gobble each other up in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and try and stave off death for a few more years.  

    My friends, it was not always thus.

    So now boys and girls I would like to take you back to a simpler time (the early 1980’s) and tell you the story of a couple of companies who, in spite of being fierce competitors, worked together to create something amazing that would explode the existing market for all in their field and create an entirely new and bigger market as well. These two companies were Roland and Oberheim Electronics and their love child would become the Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI. This was, at first, simply a proposal to allow electronic instruments to talk to each other. These two companies would quickly be joined by Sequential Circuits, Korg and Yamaha to form a consortium of competitors who would propose a standard that would radically simplify the interfacing of different instruments and devices and level the playing field primarily for the good of the customer. (I know, right?) And, in doing the right thing by their customers, they would also end up making more money than any of them had dreamed possible.

    You see, up until this point, each of these companies had their own standards for controlling and interfacing their instruments with other devices. These devices used various control voltages, input - output media and gates that were highly proprietary. This, in many ways, worked to a company’s advantage in the short term. An artist would make a significant investment in one manufacturer's ecosystem and then rarely look back. Perhaps Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder could afford to use whatever instrument they wanted. However, when a mortal artist went shopping for new gear the only criteria that mattered was the brand name which would insure compatibility with their existing devices. It didn’t matter that a competitor might have a better product, the lack of interoperability with their existing devices was just too difficult and expensive to overcome. (Hey IT folks, is this starting to sound familiar?)

    And so, when the MIDI standard was introduced in 1983 with the support of all the major electronic instrument manufactures, it was ridiculed by many knowledgeable business types as giving away the keys to their business. Other, more sympathetic folks, simply assumed that the smaller players had just signed their death warrants and Roland and Yamaha would soon divide the world between them. A number of us, however, saw something else. Something that just might change the face of our industry and what it meant to be a musician forever.

    What happened next was beyond anyone’s expectations (except, perhaps, Roland’s chief - Ikutaro Kakehashi) including the very companies who had signed on to the standard. These players watched as their musical instrument market exploded overnight. Instrument retailers also benefited. Shops who had been lucky to sell a five hundred dollar guitar or amplifier every other day were now also selling two thousand dollar synthesizers. A lot of people made a lot of money. It seemed that customers had been waiting for this forever. In fact an entirely new market demographic which would become known as the “prosumer” would grow out of this new shopping freedom. Studio owners could buy any tool they took a fancy to with the knowledge that everything would just work.

    Companies who formerly had no connection to the business would soon benefit as well. Musicians like myself would purchase their first computers as we began to see a future where a computer would make the most logical central hub for our instruments.  By the mid-1980’s the innovations were coming along so rapidly that yearly trade shows were becoming archaic and a whole news industry devoted to new instruments sprang into being. Every company with a new idea was burning the midnight oil for a chance to enter one of the most lucrative markets of the late twentieth century.

    Oh, by the way, did you catch that bit about computers? That would be me. That was where I first learned the ropes of what would become my second career.

    Now, I don’t want to be too much of a Pollyanna. In fact, some companies did fail. Ironically, most of the carnage would be in the form of companies that produced flagship products at a very high price point and had a customer base or upper-level management that would not let them adapt. (Imagine the fallout if Bentley suddenly began producing an economy car.) I did watch as several former luxury-brands created very successful “prosumer” products. However, I also watched as several once-proud companies doubled down on their expensive hardware and were thrown on the scrap heap of history. (cough . . Fairlight CMI . . . cough, cough Synclavier . cough, cough)

    This brings us to the next benefit of this newly defined and ever-expanding market: Increased competition and new ideas brought soon brought the cost barrier to producing pro-level work way, way down. By the mid 1990’s if you could not produce a polished, professional record in your bedroom, it was your abilities and not your gear at fault. In less than ten years I would go from having to beg and steal studio time to co-owning and managing my own studio in Miami.

    This also took away one of the biggest bargaining chips held by record labels: access to recording studios. An artist could spend a few thousand dollars (about the cost of a couple of days in a pro-level studio) and purchase their own equipment. This shift would begin to result in more lucrative contracts for many artists and probably contributed to the demise of the old-school music business model and the rise of the music business attorney and the artist-owned label. Napster would finish the job less than a decade later.

    I could go on and on listing the countless ways in which that one small standard changed the nature of my former profession. My teenaged-self would not have even recognized half of the equipment at the gigs I was playing in my thirties. He would have been puzzled that our sound and lights were being largely run by a computer and mystified that a recording of the entire performance could fit on a single silver disc. (He would, however, have been very happy with the nightly paycheck which, by the end my first career, was the equivalent of more than a week’s worth of teenaged-me’s gigs.)

    So what has any of this got to do with instructional technology? Well, when I first entered this field twenty years ago, I had assumed that the same kind of technology-fueled change I had just experienced in music was just around the corner for education as well. After all, computers and technology were rapidly becoming far more ubiquitous in education that they had ever been in music fifteen years earlier. Surely the entire field of education was about to be turned on its head. Right? Well, I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. Well, after twenty years, I am done waiting. That’s right. I’m looking at you IT industry! How long must we wait for your critical mass event? How long can the world afford to wait for a real change in education?

    I believe that what educational technology lacks is not money, or obvious need, or even great applications. What education technology lacks is that elusive win-win contract. That moment when all the major players stand up and place the protection of turf on the back burner long enough to agree on a standardized set of communication protocols between their systems. I’m not simply talking the embrace of open-source philosophy. I’m talking about a blueprint for complete interoperability that could quite possibly be the key to giving a shot in arm to instructional technology much as MIDI did for the music industry. A set of standards that lets each company compete on the merits of their product alone and not by locking customers into a closed ecosystem. A standard that lets small, hungry players innovate, compete and add to the collective with the same authority as the big shots. A standard that discourages expending precious resources in a short-sighted attempt to corner old markets and instead encourages coordination among all parties to create entirely new markets.

    Oh I know it feels like we IT folks are making lots of change all the time. We look around at all the apps and web 2.0 services and learning management systems and it is easy to be lulled into a sense that things are really progressing. This calls to mind a quotation, which my father often attributed to Patronius but which I have only recently learned was actually written by Charlton Ogburn, Jr. in which he wrote:

    We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.

    This then is my formal indictment of my second love. This is my call to action for all users and makers of instructional technology industry wide. We have become far too adept at breaking down the same task and reassembling it in a way that appears new. We have come up with an infinite variety of ways to do the same old thing. We have wasted countless hours of our teacher’s time training them for the latest new system that adds little to nothing to our core mission while requiring teachers to jump through a new set of hoops. Oh yes, the process may change, but the task and its product remains the same. We finish our latest migration and congratulate each other on our shiny, new tools and heap scorn on yesterday’s applications. We do this even though the use of this new application typically results in no measurable progress. It is our thinking that must begin to change and every single proprietary system that keeps us occupied with learning new commands, installing new servers, creating new accounts and rekeying content is complicent in diverting us from the fact that nothing is really changing.

    For example, witness the impact of something as simple and easy as a standardized form of single-sign on. If accepted and implemented by everyone, standardized SSO would save countless instructional hours wasted creating student accounts not to mention cut down on lost time due to password resets. Imagine if every piece of content in one tool could, through .xml or any other standard, be leveraged with a click of a mouse in another system. Imagine if systems and their management was pushed into the background and the onus was instead placed on rethinking the actual task at hand. Imagine if we took even half of that development talent focused on new proprietary schema and trained it on our core mission.

    We all might learn something.

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  • The Digital Divide Gives Way To The Digital Achievement Gap

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 10/11/2016 7:00:00 AM

    "When I was young, in the late twentieth century, we accessed the internet the way God intended: with a computer over a dial-up connection. In the snow . . . Uphill . . . Both Ways!"

    And way back then there was a very real concern over the tendency of computer and internet users to be both white and male. This phenomenon was not really given much attention at first as very few people outside of the military, academic research and computer science circles (all of which also tended to be white and male) knew about the internet. However, with the invention of the world wide web and with "America Online" allowing its, at the time, massive user base access to the web, it rapidly became clear that whatever the future held was going to be built around the web. A short time later the term “digital divide” would begin cropping up everywhere. There were soon plenty of studies that clearly demonstrated this divide and for several years many short-sighted bureaucrats would suggest addressing this problem by throwing money at it. Funny Story: It turns out that did not make the problem go away.

    Now, had those overwhelmingly white, male bureaucrats stopped writing checks and, instead, bothered to check with the people sitting on the other side of that divide, they might have heard accounts of something much more shocking than a demographic under-representation on the world wide web. This could have saved a fair amount of paper, not to mention many hours spent in fruitless meetings. It turns out that this digital divide was a symptom of something much, much deeper, far more sinister and much older than computer networking. 

    The problem is that we live in a patriarchal society. It is obvious to most of us that the game has been rigged nearly from the start to favor the landed gentry. There are many theories of why and how light-skinned men took control of virtually all western societies and these theories make for  fascinating reading. But, regardless of the how or why, not one among us can deny that control was usurped and that processes, laws, dogma, mores and even religious traditions were carefully constructed to try and keep it that way for as long as possible. 

    Combine this intentional power grab with the phenomenon sometimes mislabeled as the “tyranny of the majority” and you get old, wealthy, white men running the show. And the funny thing about majorities is that, even in a democracy with secure voting rights for all, the majority are still able to oppress minorities without even trying or being cognizant of the true implications of their actions or inaction. This is because of a deceptively simple problem hidden just below the surface in many accepted western, capitalistic concepts such as supply and demand and majority rule. 

    Before you declare me a hopeless radical, give me a chance to explain myself in one short demonstration. Let’s say, for example, you have a company that makes guitars and that you and your employees, like the majority of humans, are right-handed. Even if you do not have anything against left-handed people, and genuinely wish them well, you are almost certainly going to contribute to their oppression and severely compromise their choice of instruments unless you take proactive steps to do otherwise. Look at what simple supply and demand economics tells us. On the chance that you even decide that it might be profitable to produce a left-handed instrument, it is going to be inferior to your right-handed instruments since your shop and your employees will be setup and trained to produce right-handed instruments. Therefore, if you even concede to make a left-handed guitar, you will almost certainly charge more for what will likely be a poorer instrument. That is a gross oversimplification of a thorny theory with an intentionally innocuous outcome, but I think it makes the point.

    Now let us get back to computers and the internet. There is a very real authoritarian doctrine in western culture that seeks to keep the reigns of power in the hands of the patriarch. Of that there is no doubt. Women and minorities have, of course been historically deprived of everything from learning to write, learning math, learning engineering, etc.. This has gone on for so long and is so ingrained in our culture that those in power do not even have to actively oppress to inflict damage. Our traditional gender roles and racial stereotypes do the work without anyone having to actually say or do anything. Add to this plenty of people who still do and say plenty to support active oppression and you get . . .  us. It is a difficult problem precisely because of the subtle ways in which it is sometimes expressed.

    So finally we come to the biggest hurdle to bridging the digital divide which is that works most often cited come from a time when the world was still accessing the internet exclusively with computers. Whenever one of those old articles pops up, I just kept thinking of my wife and all of her friends constantly checking everything on their iPhones. The fact that computers are now a distinct minority on the web might give people with only access to the old studies unwarranted comfort in dismissing the still-all-too-real divide. Imagine the irony if smartphones and Instagram could actually claim victory where all those minds and dollars could not. No. It would be far better for us to admit that access was never the most significant issue. The divide was never really about whether or not a specific group can access or use for the internet. It is a combination of motive, intent, benefit and the level of interaction that a group is capable of realizing that is the real question. Checking Facebook, playing  games, and sending email are qualitatively removed by an order of magnitude from starting an online business or developing a new application.

    And so I now humbly announce a long-overdue moniker change for the "digital divide" brand. I believe the market is ripe for the name "digital achievement gap" or DAP for short. This name change will put the onus on developing equal demographic representation with regards to computer device skills rather than outdated ideas of access. Access to the web is pretty universal these days. We need to spend more time paying attention to what is being done with that access. Programming classes, venture capital and business development will help. However, at the core we need to make sure that everyone can visualize a place for themselves at the table. 

    Several years ago I volunteered to teach .html and web page creation at an inner-city school. The school had all the computers and network equipment you might find at a wealthy suburban school and yet the computers were only used for doing drill and kill games and the occasional web search. In fact, they had two very nice labs with brand new computers. However, no one had bothered to plug in the switch for one of the labs. Therefore, even though all the computers were wired, the lab had no internet access! After plugging that lab (which would become my classroom) into the wide area network, I began asking about student's favorite websites to try and determine what sort of layout we might start with. I discovered that few of them had ever used a computer to do anything other than play games or look for music. Those students ended up creating a website for their school and the web became a new country to explore for many of them. The lesson I learned that year was that just buying a bunch of computers does nothing to address the digital divide. 

    The irony is that the lack of computer skill I witnessed that year is rapidly becoming part of a vicious circle as the trend towards distance and online education means that those with the ability to leverage scripting, rich online resources, and applications continue to build upon their advantage. The lack of the skills themselves become the barrier to learning the skill. Only by adding computer science, digital citizenship and web studies to our core curriculum will we put these skills where they belong: as yet another academic foundation missing in the achievement gap.

    If we can find a way to force schools and local governments to address the knowledge barrier and we will soon have a richer more varied menu of applications and websites and services. That is what equity will look like.

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  • Ch . . . ch . . . ch . . . ch . . . changes*

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 2/19/2016 9:00:00 AM

    So I was sitting in a meeting yesterday with the the department heads of, respectively, our county’s wide area network, research and development and school support teams when I realized just how far my paradigm has shifted in the last couple of years. I had, until recently, traveled the same road as the others sitting around that conference table. I also hold advanced certifications in a number of those areas and so I understand the old-school, server-centric, network model that many tech folks operate from. Indeed, up until recently, I mostly shared their viewpoint.

    The focus of this meeting was the impact of departmental roles on file access rules and how they might play out in the county’s proposed pilot of Google Apps for Education (GAFE). After talking around each other for almost an hour, it dawned on me that the problem at the root of our arguments was that we were trying to build a single system that could support two very different business processes. They were following a rigid, hierarchical organization model that focuses on departmental responsibilities. I was arguing for a flexible sharing structure that facilitated sharing across departments. Indeed, what our use of GAFE has demonstrated to me over the last several years is that most departmental silos are artificial at best and, at worst, serve to only hinder progress and communication. In that moment of clarity, my stomach also churned as I became aware that I now had a more difficult task ahead. I did not need to simply sell them on a different domain structure, I needed to show them that their entire point of view was, perhaps, outdated! The departmental ownership with a single, centralized, locus of control no longer applies to the way we (or most schools) go about the business of education.

    As with so much in the new education think, this is really just a return to a very old truth: schools have a unique mandate within society. We are tasked with, not only, passing the accumulated wisdom of our species but also seeking new knowledge and skills for a continuously evolving world. The methods used to achieve such a unique job are not likely to be exclusively found in a catalog of commerce, a house of worship or the halls of government. When I was a student in elementary school, there was a relatively, new idea that schools and government in general would be better if they were run like a business. This idea was put forth with much hubris by a business community that seemed to rule America during the middle of the last century. Indeed, school systems and governments soon began to create “C” level roles, talk about their business processes and issue departmental memos in hope that they might gain some of that business mojo. Technology certainly helped fuel this trend. Businesses were leveraging computers to gain advantages over each other and school systems and then schools soon followed suit. By the time I left high school, most schools had, at least, a small number of computers. Education continued to ape big business right through the introduction of the world wide web. The answer to every company’s question seemed to involve a computer and the internet and schools figured that what was good for the goose . . . .

    And then it all started to fall apart. After the rapid adoption of technology-driven processes by school administration and a somewhat slower pace for faculty and staff, educational leadership suddenly seemed to remember that there were also students involved in this education business. And this was when the cracks really began to appear in the whole business model. The view of the classroom as a departmental hierarchy just did not work the way it did in the “C” level suite. Students were not employees. They are not even subordinates. They were never really even customers although it is still trendy to think of them that way. Students are much more like equal partners in the pursuit of learning and knowledge. Indeed, a teacher can not produce anything without partnering with, at least, one student.

    So the nature of the collaboration between teacher and student is going to be qualitatively different from manager and employee. We should expect that the details of document ownership may need to be more fluid than the rigidly defined ownership that is typically dictated by the hierarchical roles found in chains of command.

    In this way the cloud would seem to prove a much more apt metaphor than the server-centric model of the 1990’s. However, there is another, perhaps, less obvious advantage to moving into the cloud. As Yuri Izrailevsky the vice president of cloud engineering for Netflix posted in the company blog on the day his company finalized their migration from huge, dedicated datacenters to Amazon Web Services (AWS): "Arguably, the easiest way to move to the cloud is to forklift all the systems, unchanged, out of the datacenter and drop them in AWS. But in doing so, you end up moving all the problems and limitations of the datacenter along with it,”.


    And this is the crux of my experience over the last several years. I have watched my school, as a community, slowly revisit and reshape each process from the server-centric model of file sharing and collaboration. In doing this enforced reflection, we often ended up revisiting the goal itself. It was remarkable how many times, once we understood the new order, we realized that we had never achieved what had been envisioned. And this is where progress really happens. The greatest gift of change is the opportunity to become better.

     
    * with apologies to David Bowie
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  • The White Zone (Is For Cognitive Loading & Unloading Only)*

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 2/11/2016 6:00:00 AM

    Sometimes the specialized language of academics is designed to bring clarity and, at those times, having a dedicated word for a complicated construct can significantly speed comprehension and minimize confusion. At other times, however, the terms themselves can become the equivalent of a secret handshake among those who may be less interested in clarity than exclusivity. In my experience, most academic terms fall somewhere in between these extremes. The concepts many of these terms are meant to stand in for are not terribly complicated. The concepts, however, are cumbersome to discuss using existing language. In these cases the term simply serves as a shorthand to make discussions more efficient. One such term is “cognitive loading”.

    Yes, cognitive loading is a real issue for human minds and, as an instructional designer, it is important to design around and to understand. And, yes, compared to some other terms coming out of the social and psychological sciences, it is not too hard to figure out what its meaning. However, if efficiency is not the primary goal we could just as easily say “we can only think about so much at a time” or, as my parents used to say “ put that out of your head and try to focus on the real problem.” We are not, to use a computer term, capable of true multi-tasking (processing many problems concurrently). Many of us may be able to shift very quickly between problems, but this is not true multi-tasking.

    To steal another computer term, we humans have brains endowed with an amazing amount of hard drive space. However, our random access memory (where processing happens most quickly) is relatively minuscule. We are thought to be able to only hold about four to six bits of data in working memory (RAM) at any one time. This is why phone numbers were designed as chunks totaling seven digits rather than simply as seven random numbers. By having a subset of common prefixes we reduce the first three digits of a phone number to one bit bringing our total cognitive load to five digits. and, now, with a similar subset of area codes, we add another bit to bring our total load to six digits which is our upper limit. If phone numbers were truly random strings of seven to ten digits, no one would be able to remember a spoken phone number without writing it down.

    “Fascinating”, I can hear you say, but “why should I care about any of this?” Well, the implications for educators are actually profound. If we do not design controls for extraneous, cognitive load within our lessons, our students will be left without enough free, working memory to learn anything or even make good choices. Yes, as cognitive load increases, judgment is impaired. Researchers have found that people find it very difficult to make good decisions or even healthy choices if they are asked to simultaneously perform a task as simple as (wait for it) remembering a phone number. While a list of strategies to mitigate cognitive loading is far beyond the scope of this blog post, I can suggest one area that often gets overlooked in online instruction.

     

    Take a (cognitive) load off.


    A very real challenge with online coursework is the onus it places on the learner to keep up with due dates, assignments, readings, discussions and deliverables. Not having a set time for class meetings nor a classroom context to signal a shift in behavior can be as frightening for the student as it can be liberating for the teacher. As instructors, therefore, it is incumbent upon us to keep all due dates, expectations and resources organized and accessible so that our students can feel free not to focus on them! At minimum, a course calendar and syllabus should be available which contain all due dates, rubrics and expectations. An extra step that can really help a tech-savy student would be to leverage an assignment calendar that allows students to subscribe (like Google Calendar) or, at least, supports ical exports (most current calendar applications). This small task on your part will allow the students to subscribe to your course calendar and determine how they wish to be notified of assignments and due dates. The act of setting that load down frees their attention for the actual learning tasks.

     
     
    *with appoligies to Frank Zappa
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  • Google Expeditions (A personal debriefing)

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 2/3/2016 7:00:00 AM

    Wow!

    Okay, I have been playing around with my personal Google Cardboard a bit this year and the potential of the technology itself was immediately obvious. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when our school was selected to be among the first schools in Georgia to beta test the new Google Expedition pilot. (As luck would have we actually turned out to be the first school in the state - but I am not one to gloat.) Immediately after getting the news and a firm date of February 1st from our representative at Google, I began working on the logistics and then went to the teachers who had signed up for the pilot to talk about pre-flight issues and where the best insert point in their curriculum might be for this experience. This generated an enthusiasm among teachers that was tempered by the understanding that the field trip would be far more powerful when coupled with the context that their teaching would provide. It also allowed teachers to recover a little more quickly from the giddiness of a first VR experience so that they might be better able to help students process their first VR field trip.

    The morning arrived calmly in spite of the extra folks and representatives from other schools crowding around for a look. After the morning training session to get teachers used to the tablet interface that drives and controls the field trip, teachers returned to their classrooms to await students and we prepared the two rooms that would serve as base camp for the field trips.

    The “guide” interface which runs on an inexpensive tablet is a work of pure genius. The viewers (smart phones inside cardboard goggles) are controlled via Bluetooth while the teacher’s tablet pushes out the imagery over a dedicated WiFi connection. This allows the teacher to move freely, start and stop the trip, blackout the viewers, draw virtual arrows inside the virtual space and even see exactly where all students are currently looking. The teachers mastered the interface quickly and had many suggestions for improvements.

    For their part the students were amazing. It was unspeakably awesome to watch thirty, cardboard-clad heads turn in unison to watch something the teacher was pointing out and to listen to the collective gasp of those same students. Honestly, that is an experience we educators do not get to have often enough. The wonder of really good technology is that it can create a momentary aura of magic that will surround the wizard making the magic. This is a temporal state which any good teacher (or storyteller for that matter) can leverage for maximum impact. There is a reason that the delivery of important teachings and messages so often involve rituals, ceremony and carefully controlled environments. The grandeur, lighting, music, smells and acoustics of an ancient cathedral is no accident! All of these elements combine to put the participants in a receptive mental space for contextualizing and cementing important key concepts. Even if there were no other magic in those cardboard goggles, that would be reason enough for any teacher who wants to make a point that will not soon be forgotten to leverage VR.

    I smiled right through the morning and into the afternoon. We ran two, concurrent, thirty minute trips all day long. By the end of the day we had run around 600 students through various trips and I was exhausted. We packed away the equipment and I immediately began making notes on how to improve the experience and new possible uses. It was late afternoon when I finally walked out to my car. And I was slowly becoming aware of a feeling I have not had for quite some time.

    Gather around children. Welcome to the future. It will be whatever you choose to make it. No more. No less.

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  • Students And The Blog Of Eternal Stench.

    Posted by Wayne Langford on 1/30/2016 7:00:00 AM

    Okay, the first problem I typically have when discussing blogging with teachers is to help them let go of the term itself. We are talking about journal writing folks. We are not talking  about sonnet writing or essays. There are no hard and fast rules. This is what makes the form so powerful. Like Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other outlets of online expression, blogging allows the individual to adapt the medium to fit the message. Children, those inventors of language and masters of playtime, should be great at this provided that an adult does not tell them otherwise.

    Now that that is out of the way we can discuss the rules. Ha! I did not say there were no rules for teachers. The first thing I would advise is to allow first-time bloggers to write freely for a while before the teacher offers even the most seemingly constructive piece of criticism. Practice must be allowed and it must be free of judgement. If a teacher inadvertently nurtures the inner critic in a budding writer, they will have destroyed something that no amount of instruction can ever hope to replace. This does not mean teachers should avoid commenting. On the contrary, comments are essential to show you received and processed the message. Writing without an audience is the equivalent of talking to yourself. You can not expect a student to be motivated to put much effort into a blog that they know will not be read. One other note: these early blog attempts should not be public. Public blogging (under your moderation and control) can, perhaps, be undertaken later. However, public blogging for young students opens up a layer of concerns that I will not attempt to address here.

    How to start the process with students? I would recommend that you do provide a choice of topics for discussion. The tendency to throw open the gates on content for student writing, while well intentioned, is the equivalent of a blank page staring at an author. It can be very intimidating. The comfort of an artificially imposed discipline is actually freeing to the creative process. (This counter-intuitive nugget is a fascinating topic and I encourage the interested reader to research subjects like the “oblique strategies” of creativity for more information.) If you do not feel qualified to choose interesting topics for your students, open the floor to suggestions. A cagey teacher will document the resulting discussion into a written form posted at the end of the class to demonstrate the power of conversational tone. This can help some students make the connection between talking (which most students are already very, very good at) and writing.

    By now you may be starting to realize that the same strategies that apply to teaching other forms of creative writing also apply to blog writing. Yes, good writing is good writing. The primary difference between a blog entry and more formal forms is that the blog is likely to contain what the great Mike Keneally (a great musician and superlative blogger) would call “skull bubbles”. Personal and original ideas are not only encouraged, they are essential to the process. Rubrics, therefore, should focus more on originality and less on structure and mechanics. A typical and acceptable rubric is provided by Scholastic.

    My ideas about the creative process are the result of decades of immersion in all manner of creative endeavours stretching back to well before the creation of the world wide web. I will say that these days I stay on top of creativity by following many artists that I respect either directly on Twitter, through their blogs, email exchanges, websites or, more importantly, through their art. I am, after all, highly suspicious of those who would set down rules of engagement without creating or embracing anything of beauty themselves. Like an author who does not enjoy reading or a chef who does not like to eat, the advice from someone who stands on the sidelines is less likely to have been vetted. And is authenticity not an important tenet of digital literacy?

     

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brenda_Ueland

    http://ditchthattextbook.com/2013/04/04/20-ideas-for-solid-student-blogging/

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