Sunday, February 23, 2014

Can We Teach Students How Not to Multitask?

This week in my Higher Education in the Digital Age class we read, listened to, and watched several articles, blogs, interviews, and presentations on the topic of multitasking. We were asked to respond to this information in the following writing prompt:

What are the most compelling arguments for and against multitasking? How does technology change our ability and/or inclination to multitask? What are the implications for higher education?

The case against media multitasking was laid out most clearly by Clifford Nass, the recently deceased professor of communication at Stanford University who studied the effects of media multitasking on information processing ability.  His published paper is available here. In an interview with Science Friday's Ira Flatow, titled The Myth of Multitasking, he said that,

"The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking."

Professor Nass's words resonated with me. I've found myself talking a lot lately with both my students and my colleagues about how to handle the ubiquitous smart phones that almost all of my students have and by which many of them seem to be perpetually distracted. The task of learning mathematics requires sustained focus on a single activity.  Having unrelated media available only distracts students and limits their ability to learn.

Nothing in our readings contradicted Professor Nass.  Instead, there were several arguments in favor of using 21st century media like smart phones to access and share information. In "Once Sideshows, Colleges' Mobile Apps Move to Center Stage", Megan O'Neil describes how Georgetown, Duke, and other universities are integrating smart phone apps into their business operations, doing things like having students register for classes and soon pay their bills from their phones.  Other articles reported on how teachers are using social media, with Pearson's "Social Media for Teaching and Learning" reporting on how faculty used social media at home, in professional communication, and in their classrooms. Non of these publications claimed that increased media multitasking helped students learn more or learn better.

My sense as a classroom teacher is that to help students navigate the multimedia bombardment in which they are now immersed, we will have to find ways to teach them how to limit their multitasking when the task at hand requires it in order to achieve the focus needed for sustained concentration of thought. Self awareness of how media multitasking effects a student's learning may very well become a critical tool for student success.  Teaching students how not to multitask may be the real skill necessary for achieving in the 21st century.

University of Washington Professor David M. Levy is working on this very idea.  The Chronical of Higher Education article, Your Distracted, This Professor Can Help, describes how Professor Levy runs a class called "Information and Contemplation" that specifically focuses on teaching students how to still their mind and focus their attention as a way to gain mastery over the distractions caused by media multitasking.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Teaching in the 21st Century

Here is this week's blog prompt for Higher Education in the Digital Age:

Is the role of educators changing in the 21st century? If so, how? Is the role of the university changing in the 21st century? If so, how? What role does technology play? How does this connect to learning?


There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes "the practice of freedom," the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.  -- Richard Shaull

The struggle between the two kinds of education described by Richard Shaull in the quote above is not a new one.  Because of the power that any entrenched system of social relations has to reproduce itself, education as the practice of conformity continues to be the norm. It will continue to be so, as long as the social relations responsible for the present system continue to exist.

Where there is oppression, however, there will be resistance. Efforts toward education as the practice of freedom go back at least as far as the progressive education movement, which began in the late 19th century. During the 1930's, at a high point in the struggle for working class democracy, the largest longitudinal educational study of its kind was conducted -- the Eight-Year Study of thirty high schools given the opportunity to experiment with progressive approaches to pedagogy and assessment of student learning. The study demonstrated the efficacy of humanizing educational approaches in high school as they related to student success in college. This study could have been part of a broader effort for educational reform, but only in the context the struggle for democracy in general. Unfortunately, WWII and then the right wing backlash of the McCarthy era buried this research away for over half a century.

The technological revolution offers tools and possibilities to the movement for democracy that have never before existed. Nothing illustrates this better than Field Notes for 21st Century Literacy, a collaboratively produced educational resource created in an intentionally democratic, non-hierarchical classroom. Like the free software movement from which it draws inspiration, Field Notes offers a glimpse of the possibility of a society of freely associated producers.

Ultimately, whether the role of educators and universities in the 21st century is changing or not will depend more on campaign finance reform, the voting rights struggle, and the struggle for openness in government than it will on the existence of any particular technology, though information technology does offer the democratic movement a powerful tool with which to potentially impact each of these other struggles.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reflections on Online Learning Experiences

This week in Higher Education in the Digital Age we were assigned the task of spending at least an hour in each of two online learning courses and then reflecting on these experiences using the following prompt:

Write a critical reflection of your 2 online learning experiences. What was engaging? What promoted learning? What was not engaging or did not promote learning? How would you improve one or both of these online learning environments?

The first of the online learning experiences was to complete at least one learning module from Hidden in Plain Sight, a course on historical thinking for high school history teachers.  For my second online learning experience, I used the first four modules from Codeacademy's JavaScript course.

I'm a huge fan of of online learning resources.  Even before I began the Open Book Project back in 1999, I had starting fantasizing that one day educational resources would be ubiquitous, high quality, interactive, and free. Both of the learning modules I looked at this week were indeed high quality and interactive. Neither one, however, was free (as in speech -- see Gratis vs. Libre).

At present you can use the Codeacademy materials without charge.  I'm using the JavaScript course with my Web Design and Development students this year. It is high quality, interactive, and allows students to move through the material at their own pace with continuous automated feedback.  Computer programming lends itself to automated feedback of this kind.  Still, since the materials are not Open Educational Resources, I can't make a copy of them, so I have to use them with caution, understanding that they could change or disappear without warning and I would have to immediately seek an alternative resource.

The Hidden in Plain Sight resource was far more restrictive.  You need to pay $40.00 to use the materials, which are unreachable without a user name and password.  It's a shame, too.  Hidden in Plain Sight makes history come alive in a way my high school history courses never did.  It is designed to help teachers learn to teach historical thinking as a core component of their history classes. I would venture to say that the authors of this high quality educational resource care about this approach to teaching history, and would like to spread the word about it, reaching as many high school history teachers as they possibly could.

That's where the contradiction comes in.  The requirement that this educational resource have an exchange value prevents it from reaching its full potential as a use value.  It has always rubbed me the wrong way to see large expenditures of human creativity and resources essentially spent making things worse.  Digital resources cost almost nothing to reproduce, so vast amounts of human energy are spent making it more difficult to access and reproduce them, so that they can be withheld from anyone who has not paid the required fee to access them.

It's a loosing battle in the long run, because this kind of information wants to be free. Until our society comes to terms with the outmoded ways it produces educational resources, however, we will be stuck with this contradiction. Until the day when the educational value of human development becomes more valued by our society than exchange value, we will continue to be held back by the efforts to turn knowledge into a commodity rather than a shared human resource.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Higher Education in the Digital Age

I haven't written anything here since last June, not because I haven't been busy with free software and free education projects, but because I have. I've been working on the following projects / initiatives, some on-going, and some new:
  • writing Open Book Project resources for Web Application Development, specifically HTML, CSS, SVG, and JavaScript resources
  • collaborating with Activity Central on a small XO-4 deployment with my beginning ELL students
  • collaborating with the SchoolTool project to develop SchoolTool Quiz
  • participating in Arlington Code Shop meetups at the National Science Foundation each Thursday evening
  • collaborating with my dear friend Khady Lusby on her Open International sponsored school in Senegal
  • working to create a student enterprise called NOVA Web Development that will offer aspiring young web application developers their first work experience
  • exploring data science as an area of study which we should be incorporating into our IT program at the Arlington Career Center
  • participating in the planning effort around a new STEM program at my school
So it's not that I haven't written because I have nothing to say, but rather that I've had no time at all to say it.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I'm in grad school at George Mason University (GMU) in a Doctor of Arts program in Community College Education. It is this last point that will compel me to be a much more active blogger over the next few months.  I'm taking a course called Higher Education in the Digital Age, and regular blogging is going to be a requirement for the course.

I haven't cleared it yet with our professor, but I want to make these blog posts serve double duty, to both meet the requirements of the course and to get back to documenting the free software and education projects on which I'm working. Let's see how it goes...

Here is our first weekly prompt:
"Describe a memorable experience (positive, negative, or somewhere in between) related to higher education in the digital age." 
Last semester I had my first experience with higher education in the digital age.  I took my first graduate class at GMU, a course titled "The Community College". The course was taught as a hybrid class.  We actually met in the classroom only twice - on the first day of class and the last.  The rest of the time we met either on-line using Blackboard's Connect features, or together on two field trips we took to Washington DC and Richmond.

I've been using Google Hangouts for meetings with folks around the world (SchoolTool meetings often had participants from Providence, Rhode Island, USA, San Salvador, El Salvador, Vilnius, Lithuania, and Arlington, Virginia, USA) and found Blackboard Connect to work similarly.  I loved being able to attend class and engage in lively discussions with my classmates while sitting in bed.  Given the over hour commute each way from Arlington to GMU, it was wonderful to have that 2+ hours back by participating in the class remotely.

Utilizing this same technology, we were able to meet with three guest speakers from remote places in the country.  The whole experience definitely struck me as an effective use of technology to eliminate the obstacle of location on the ability of a group of learners to share in a learning experience.

Given the difficulties of parking at GMU, it is an institution that can greatly benefit from this kind of use of technology.

I'm active in my local community, and I definitely prefer to attend gathering with my fellow community members at a shared location in real space rather than cyberspace. When long distances and inadequate public transportation make getting together in person difficult, however, these on-line real time collaboration tools are a good substitute for being there.

On a final note, it is my duty as a free software activist to complain that neither Google Hangouts or Blackboard Connect are free software.  I'm confident that as these technologies become more common place, free software tools to do this kind of collaboration will emerge.