A School in the Cloud: Self Organized Learning Environments

I watched Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize winning talk which is both about a school in the cloud and about Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE). It made me think of so many projects I have worked on over the years, like teaching or learning on p2pu and other open networks. Schools in the cloud.

In his talk, he asks us to help me design the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other using resources and mentoring from the cloud. This is what he calls a Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE).

He is seeking educational partners to help design and build the physical building that will house his School in the Cloud, where students will try out a range of cloud-based, scalable approaches to self-directed learning.

TED offers a SOLE toolkit that might help you contribute to a global network of educators and retired teachers who can support and engage the children through the web.

This not about credits and degree programs. Like the original idea of MOOCs, it is about engaging communities, parents, schools and afterschool programs worldwide, to transform the way kids learn.

This requires facilitators and the SOLE model relies on educators to model curiosity, prompt questions, and support the learners through the process.

Where are the typical incentives that exist for teachers? A job, a salary, personal feedback and face-to-face relationships with students? They don't exist, at least not in the form you knew in school.

Can you deal with that?

Should Kids Be Taught To Write Code?

I reposted an article on my Tech+Learn+Tech scoop.it site asking if we should be teaching kids to write code. The few comments it received are split on the answer and I imagine that is true for the wider audience of educators.

Some people (non-coders especially) view writing code for web pages or for applications as incredibly dull and boring. On the other side are those that see it as a way to be creative.

Personally, I don't support teaching coding for the purpose of training young coders to some day do things like write iPhone apps. As much as I hated taking math classes in high school, I do recognize that there was some value in the practice because of the logic, precision and critical thinking that it required. I understand the idea of a "beautiful equation" but I never found any beauty in them.

I took COBOL and FORTRAN as an undergrad in that previous century. I had one of the first computers in my classroom in 1979 and I learned BASIC and taught it a bit. Some people thought we would need to learn to write code, but I always believed that other people would write the code (in education) and we would be the users. I can write code for web pages, but I'm falling behind in that area and don't much care to keep up.

But, as the article points out, teaching coding is not a new pedagogical idea. The original article gives 15 reasons why kids need to learn how to code. I picked some of the accompanying quotes to get your brain started. You'll notice that those quoted are clearly on the side of answering Yes to this post's questioning title.

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” — STEVE JOBS, THE LOST INTERVIEW

“If you can program a computer, you can achieve your dreams. A computer doesn’t care about your family background, your gender, just that you know how to code.”
Dick Costolo – CEO, Twitter“I believe technology should give us superpowers. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn to think, analyze, and create with technology.” Hilary Mason – Chief Scientist, Bitly

“Coding can unlock creativity and open doors for an entire generation of American students. We need more coders — not just in the tech industry, but in every industry.”
Mark Pincus – CEO and Founder, Zynga

“Code has become the 4th literacy. Everyone needs to know how our digital world works, not just engineers.”
Mark Surman – Executive Director, The Mozilla Foundation

“To prepare humanity for the next 100 years, we need more of our children to learn computer programming skills, regardless of their future profession. Along with reading and writing, the ability to program is going to define what an educated person is.”
Salman Khan – Founder, Khan Academy“Programming allows you to think about thinking, and while debugging you learn learning.”   Nicholas Negroponte – Founder and Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab

“Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth.”
Susan Wojcicki – Senior Vice President, Google

Digital Assignment Design

Anyone who has moved a course from face-to-face to an online environment knows that some things that worked fine in the classroom don't work as well online.

You hear about the learning theory that is labeled "constructivist" a lot these days, particularly with online learning. One popular finding from that area of learning research is that assignments that work need to focus more on process, rather than the task. But that is more challenging to design.

Identifying tasks is not only easier at the outset, but is probably going to be easier to analyze and assess. Tasks can be quantifiable and gradable. Process-based learning is much harder to evaluate because there are more variables.

I found this to be especially true in the five-year Writing Initiative at PCCC that I finished directing last fall. Although we used existing tasks such as an exit essay exam that existed before the Initiative as a quantifiable assessment tool, it was clear that this was not the best way to demonstrate the changes in the writing of the students in the wider sense.

The difficulty for us was partially that to shift the focus to process, we needed changes in what faculty valued in their grading. We introduced rubrics for writing but also for information literacy and critical thinking. We also introduced the use of ePortfolios to the college.  Because we included technology into the learning environment and students used it in their writing process, the assignments evaluation and grade should also include those elements. That represents a big change for many faculty.

Designing digital assignments is often seen as something for online learning, but students are learning digitally in any classroom on or offline. Students are using computers to work on projects, do research, collaborate with their peers, and interact with resources, but are then graded on the final product. The process is not included.

To evaluate the process of research and the organization and application of found information is obviously a large part of the learning process and is certainly important to a teacher's overall objectives in giving the assignment. But if the evaluation is based solely on the final product, students realize that the process is not valued in the same way.

Some instructors successfully used multiple smaller writing tasks rather than the dreaded semester-long research paper and then segmented their writing assignments. In this way, you might grade the topic design or proposal as the first element. This can be as a simple as a title and first paragraph to establishing goals, timelines, resources, technology and other elements if appropriate.

And the final learning objects don't always have to be "the paper." Again, this is new ground for many teachers and a final product that is a website, wiki, blog, video or combination rather than a paper is really radical. But digital assignments by their very name suggest images, links to Internet sites and a much wider scope for what an assignment means for the student and the teacher.

Gogy: Peda, Andra and Situated Cognition

I was reading an article called "The Problem of 'Pedagogy' in a Web 2.0 Era"  and it got me thinking about how often we throw around that term in higher education even though very few educators at that level have any formal training in it.

Higher education faculty don't get any courses on pedagogy or learning theory in their degree programs. Faculty members in four-year universities are often researchers and their focus is on their research and not on how learning occurs and perhaps not even as much on their own disciplinary knowledge as those at other colleges.

Of course, there should be faculty development efforts at all colleges and those should include workshops and presentations to increase awareness of the basic research in learning theory of the past few decades as well as what is being found currently.

All teachers learn by teaching. That in itself is a learning theory that has several names attached to it. But that learning process is made more efficient by exposing faculty to what we know about pedagogy. That doesn't mean just learning the language of constructivism or Bloom's taxonomy. It means trying out lessons and being exposed to new approaches to what is often very old content.

And if you are teaching older, non-traditional students, then you really should be aware of what has been found to work in the field of andragogy. Pedagogy literally means "leading children" and came first from studies of students in grades K-6 and then later included those in secondary school. Andragogy was a later area of study. Malcolm Knowles and others theorized that methods used to teach children are often not the most effective ways of teaching adults. I think many college professors would say that their students are often somewhere between those two -gogies. The 18 year old freshman, the 21 year old senior, and the 23 year old graduate student are very likely to sit in a classroom with a 28 year old freshman, 35 year old senior and a 50 year old graduate student.

I would love to be in a discussion with a group of interested educators about some learning theory like "situated cognition." If the topic is new to the participants, all the better. Situated cognition is the name given to the theory that knowing is inseparable from doing. It proposes that all knowledge is situated in activity which is bound to social, cultural and physical contexts.

To take this theory on means nothing less than making an epistemological shift from empiricism. To put it into action in a classroom would mean encouraging thinking on the fly rather than the typical back-and-forth of knowledge storage and retrieval. Cognition cannot be separated from the context.

If it sounds radical, it's because it is radical. And yet, students and teachers have been doing it throughout their lives - though probably not very often in a classroom setting.

Do I think this should be the new way to teach? No. But I would love to hear educators talking about it and about learning theories, pedagogy and andragogy with some of the same passion that they discuss their research, promotion and tenure, and contracts.