Monday, February 16, 2015

PD Conference Design

It's no secret that the majority of PD conferences for educators tend to follow a "one size fits all" model that tries to make everyone happy. While fun, these conferences aren't always the best use of educator time and money, and at least some of us think we can do better. With that in mind, last night on #CAedchat, +Karl Lindgren-Streicher+john stevens, and I led a discussion on PD conferences, in which we tried to develop a better understanding of what educators want from their conference experiences (Qs here and Storify digest here). To help drive the conversation, we shared a survey with the #CAedchat community asking a number of questions about what conference participants want to see, including questions on presenting vs. attending, session length, keynotes, etc. By the close of the discussion, we collected 67 responses, which can be found in this Fusion Table.

ISTE 2014 in Atlanta
To generate better discussion through justification of responses, we intentionally kept the questions very simple, with only two responses each. For example, we asked respondents to choose whether they preferred "unconference" discussions or speaker-led sessions with no room for combination. In other words, we encouraged participants to stay off the fence. Moreover, we left responses vague to allow respondents to interpret the choices themselves. Long vs. short sessions, for example, could be interpreted in a number of ways, based on each respondent's own interpretation. This way, we can better target the subjective reaction and emotional response of each participant, since that's the ultimate goal of a study of sort.

In the end, we hoped that the #CAedchat discussion and deeper understanding of the data would allow us to work toward better conference experiences, and we encouraged everyone to write a blog post on their ideal conference, based on our conversations.

Designing a better conference experience based on the opinions of conference participants requires us to not simply give in to all the requests and preferences conference participants have. If so, the conference experience that caters to everyone would end up pleasing no one. Rather, design is about going deeper to uncover needs that the respondents themselves may not even be aware of, and that's exactly what we wanted to do with both the #CAedchat discussion and survey.

A few caveats: our survey was very cursory, with a relatively small sample size. And owing to the fact that we only used Twitter to circulate it, our respondents are self-selecting, in that they are likely to be regular conference participants. Ideally, we would have surveyed those who don't regularly participate in conferences, with the goal of creating the kinds of experiences that could encourage more participation. Nevertheless, our data was very interesting, and I think there's great value in using a survey to collect data, followed by deeper discussion of it.

Some of our highlights are given below:
  • Of all the various educator roles represented at conferences, teachers seem to participate less often than others, and only administrators give presentations with less frequency (the unlabeled group below point to entrepreneurs). I think we need to find a way to encourage more teacher participation.

  • Gender plays an interesting role: while women report going to more conferences than men, men tend to present more than women. When we filter the data below by school role, however, women in TOSA roles have given more presentations (6.8) than men (5.2) on average over the past 3 years. Again, I think these data indicate that not enough teachers without formal titles or tech roles are presenting at conferences.

  • It seems to be the case that those who attend more conferences tend to prefer no keynotes or featured speakers and that those who present often tend to prefer longer sessions that are focused on pedagogy and follow the "unconference" model (i.e., more discussion than presentation).

We must be careful to overgeneralize from these data alone, and the commentary in the #CAedchat thankfully added some valuable depth to the study. In looking through last night's discussion, engagement and socializing with other people (unsurprisingly!) seemed to be apparent needs, regardless of conference type.

A majority of us do PD to learn from others in social environments, where we have an opportunity to share our own thinking with other people. Hence, it may be logical to conclude that, the more we go to conferences, the more we want "unconference" sessions to allow us to converse with each other (in opposition to led sessions).

And we also tend to like shorter sessions, since they give us time to connect with other people and give us a chance to stay engaged with the topic of discussion (we also tend to dislike keynotes and demo slams, unless they engage us in similar ways).

I was a little surprised at the preference for shorter sessions, given my own way of thinking; but after learning from others why they prefer these types of sessions, it makes better sense to me, and if I had the opportunity to design a PD conference on my own, I would certainly have to keep this in mind. However, I wonder if the the desire to be social at conferences is strongly correlated with the self-selecting Twitter crowd, since not all conference participants (at least on the surface of things) are interested in meeting new people.

Knowing what I know now, I would design a conference that spanned 2 days, at minimum, and I would keep sessions relatively short, reserving one longer block a day for a deeper dives into various topics. I would create as many engaging social opportunities as possible by emphasizing the "water cooler" conversations that are had in hallways, giving participants a chance to share ideas out on butcher paper, Post-It notes, etc. One keynote could open the event, and we would provide closure through reflecting on our experience in small, thematic groups. At the end, it's no surprise that quality conference experiences are build by the people who attend them.

In this brief study, we've identified some trends that aren't surprising at all and a few that are, I think. There's plenty of analysis left to be done, though, and anyone interested is welcome to use the Fusion Table and Storify digest to dig deeper. In the meantime, I would love to see some other people's blog posts describing their ideal conferences. And I'd also welcome more feedback on the questions we discussed last night. Feel free to reply here to keep the conversation going.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Let's Design a School!

Crossposted at SlowchatED.

If you enjoy Twitter conversations on education and you're not yet familiar with #slowchatED, I highly recommend having a look. Rather than juggling questions and answers at the breakneck pace of many popular discussions, the #slowchatED model offers the opportunity for conversations that may benefit from a little more reflection. We push out one question per day over the course of a week, and throughout the week, participants are welcome to share their ideas as they are able and at their own pace.

Using the #slowchatED model, I'd like for us to design a school together, looking at individual aspects of school models over the course of the discussion. We've discussed similar questions in other Twitter groups, but I don't believe that we've given ourselves sufficient time to explore our own ideas in depth, nor have I see much discussion of what an actual schedule, org chart, etc. would look like, if we had a say in their creation. With this particular discussion, I'm hoping to see not just theoretical ideas but actual concrete and specific solutions to the problems we've all dealt with. It's one thing to give our opinions as critics, but it's another thing altogether to offer solutions to problems we regularly discuss from the point of view of designers—we need to start doing more of this kind of work. Though each question below is broad enough for a Twitter discussion of its own, we'll use them to work toward our own designs for successful school models in this way:
Q1 What does your ideal school calendar look like (i.e., daily schedule, teaching vs. service days, etc.)?
Q2 What does your ideal physical space look like (e.g., classrooms, offices, community space, etc.)?
Q3 Describe the ideal organizational structure of your school. Who makes decisions and how?
Q4 How do you hire, train, and retain quality teaching talent? Outline your ideal supporting PD program.
Q5 What else makes your ideal school unique or what wild idea would you love to try? What did we miss?
Q6 Write your school's mission statement.
I'm eager to hear a variety of thoughts on these questions, but I'm even more excited for the ancillary conversations that will be born from our discussion. In particular, I'm curious to know what I haven't yet thought of as being of central importance for school design. It will certainly be the case that the room will be smarter than any individual, and thanks to the variety of points of view and the general diversity of opinion on Twitter, I expect that these questions will be just starting points allowing us to explore school design more deeply. I hope that we push each other's ideas to give us the opportunity to dive deeply into what we think is fundamental for school design. There will be no wrong answers!

With these questions as our starting point, how might we design a school? This is your perfect world in which you get to build your perfect school. Assume that there are no restrictions or limits for our designs; but however imaginative and revolutionary they may be, let's also try to build a school that's feasible. At the end of the week, I'll invite everyone to reflect on our respective school designs and capture your model in a blog post of your own to share what you learned in the process. I can't wait to see what we each build over the course of the week of Feb. 9.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Roman Architecture in Minecraft

The caldarium in a Roman bath

Last year, as our school began its 1:1 BYOL program in the 7th grade, I had the opportunity to redesign our Latin IA course to incorporate technology within the Latin program. In doing so, I redeveloped our introductory level curriculum around thematic "modules" that are each split between core content work and a project devoted on some cultural component, e.g. Roman architecture and engineering (cf. the complete course breakdown). I've written a little about these projects, e.g. the Modulus I project on Roman geography here, and soon, hopefully, I'll have more to say about the overall project and its evolution this year.

A latrina from a Roman fort

We're currently finishing up Modulus IV, in which students were challenged to learn something about Roman architecture and engineering using some provided resources, including Yale's free MOOC on Roman architecture. Using this content knowledge, kids were then asked to build an authentic Roman structure of their own choosing, as determined by their interests. Ideally, their structure ties into both our Modulus II project, in which they developed an ancient persona using an infographic and our Modulus III project, in which they described how this persona would have interacted with people using modern social media. The Modulus IV project, to continue with this progression progression, asks students to consider how Romans interacted with physical space. In particular, we considered the following questions:
  • What were some of the most common Roman structures?
  • What did they look like and why?
  • How did the Romans build them?
  • How did Romans use them?
An elaborate Roman villa

A number of options were available for building the structure, including pen/paper, Build with Chrome, Sketchup, and Minecraft (but only for the kids who chose to use it). It's not my intention to privilege Minecraft to our other project platforms, and the projects done with the other tools were exceptional. But using Minecraft, i.e., a video game, posed the biggest challenge and risk, given that not everyone believes that a game can be used as an educational tool. Based on our accomplishments in just a week, I think we've proven them wrong: several other teachers commented on how much the kids were talking about the project all week, and the collective work done in our world has amazed everyone who's seen it.

Last year's Minecraft projects were fantastic, but because kids using it worked on their own in single-player mode, I wasn't able to oversee their work nor could I keep it together in some central place. This year, thanks in part to +Diane Main's session at edcampSFBay last August, I decided to use a server and ended up using Apex (paid), which allows up to 24 players to be logged into our world at any time (other options are available too). All in all, 21 students elected to build in Minecraft, and I've been able to watch them work together over the course of the week. While there is no "group" option within the project, with groups of kids working on a single structure, most kids have decided to build complementary structures in our makeshift town.

The finished product to this project (whether using Minecraft, Sketchup, etc.) is a screencast video that narrates students' engagement with the questions above, while also pointing out any salient architectural features or interesting points of engineering students want to share. The videos will be uploaded to YouTube to share with the each other and the rest of our Latin program.

A working aqueduct

We didn't use as much Latin in this project as I anticipated, but the quality of work done has been quite impressive and the cultural understanding that we gained provides a worthwhile offset. Kids who build structures by hand did a fantastic job recreating Roman homes and other public structures, and those who used Sketchup and Build with Chrome did amazing work modeling Roman temples and arenas. The Minecraft projects were exceptionally creative, especially with the Romecraft texture pack that turns Minecraft blocks and tools into their comparable ancient versions and allows us to build columns, mosaics, and other amazing things in a more authentic Roman style.

A Roman amphitheater

Working together in one place, our class built excellent examples of homes, baths, temples, a forum complete with shops, a working aqueduct, and even a latrine, along with a road connecting most of our structures (cf. some screenshots here). Most impressive, perhaps, was the way the kids helped each other, with the more experienced crafters lending their support to the noobs, giving them helpful advice and even landing a hand in construction. Through watching them work in it this year, I myself learned quite a lot about Minecraft and now appreciate more than ever how intricate and involved crafting is with it. In addition to architecture and engineering, it can be used to teach art, design, geometry, Boolean logic and circuit design, physics, and so much more.

Though I only asked for videos about a minute in length, the average video ran for 4min (cf. a great one below). I'm amazed how much effort our kids put into their work in such a short period of time, and it's truly remarkable what kids can accomplish when working together toward a common goal. If there were any doubts in my mind about independent project work of this sort, they've been summarily dismissed. Not only did our Latin students absorb a thorough amount of content that they were able to relate to ideas developed previous projects, but they had an opportunity to explore their own creativity and work together to build something they themselves deeply valued. Most of all, they had fun doing it, and I'm confident that a high percentage of our class found themselves in a flow state when working on their projects. We'll continue using Minecraft in our JCL club meetings, when our world will continue to evolve.

Educators interested in using Minecraft in their classes should have a look at the free Minecraft for Educators course offered online by the Canvas Network beginning later this month. Below, I'll list few things I learned that would have helped get the project off the ground a little more smoothly:

Setting up the server
  • If not using MinecraftEDU, a hosted server, e.g. on Apex, is advantageous, in that it runs 24-7 and doesn't depend on the power of your own computer. For a server allowing 10 simultaneous players, the cost is $4/month, and for 24 players, it's $7/month—a very worthy investment.
  • The Minecraft Wiki is hugely helpful in understanding how the game works, including learning how to use commands. There are also a number of amazing communities supporting Minecraft builders, like the G+ Minecraft in Education community, to name just one.
  • Before opening up the server to players, make it very clear that "griefing", i.e. giving other players a hard time by damaging their work, will not be tolerated in any way. Kids will put a heroic amount of time into their work, and so anything that prevents students from working or tampering with their work in any way cannot be allowed.
Game play and manipulation
  • It can be very helpful to learn how the coordinate system works in Minecraft, since, upon creation of a world, you can set aside a clearly defined area in which students are to work. From there, work can proceed radially outward. Otherwise, it may be difficult to track all of the work that will spread out over a surprisingly large area in the game.
  • As soon as they begin working, ask students to provide you with the coordinates for their particular workspace and keep them handy. You'll be easily able to teleport both yourself and others around using them.
  • OP yourself (i.e., make yourself an operator) and use some of the more helpful game rules to make it easier for everyone to build, e.g. "/gamerule doDaylightCycle false" for permanent daylight, "/gamerule doMobSpawning false" to keep harmful mobs away, "/gamerule keepInventory true" to ensure that death doesn't lead to lost items, etc. The command "/weather clear" is also very useful for keeping the rain away, etc.
  • When first starting, put players in creative mode and set the difficulty to "Peaceful" to allow players a chance to get comfortable with game play. Otherwise, some mobs may spawn that damage structures. Combat can follow as soon as players are ready.
  • The "tab" key can be used to autocomplete names of players currently on a server. For example, "/tp mo" + tab will automatically give "/tp mosspike" (assuming there are no other players with a name beginning with "mo").
  • The "@" selector can be used to select multiple players, which can be very iseful. @a, for example, selects all players, @p selects the closest player, @r selects a random player, and @e selects all entities. Therefore, the command "/gamemode 1 @a" puts all players in creative mode.
  • The "adventure" game mode can be useful for taking screenshots and watching others work. In addition to being invisible, you can't interact with blocks (i.e., you can't break stuff!).
  • For those who don't have the $27 game, I highly recommend sharing Minecraft work through a screencast. On Macs, this is easily done using Apple's native Quicktime. With PCs, there are a number of free tools like Jing that easily record screens.
  • Ensure that the computer volume in Minecraft is low enough that it doesn't interfere with the tour narration.
  • It can also be helpful to turn the chat off while screencasting, which can easily be done in "Settings".
Since I'm still a noob myself, I'd welcome comments and suggestions to continue the conversation, and I'd love to see what others are doing with Minecraft in their classrooms.