Rethinking Assessment Through the Theory of Connectivism

I had the privilege of being a guest instructor recently at the University of MLogotipo Universidad de Monterreyonterrey in Mexico. One of the things I love about guest instructing there is I get to talk with students about so many different topics. In one class I may be asked to talk about my experiences as a teacher, and in the next class I may be answering questions about the educational systems in America. I find the experience both challenging and invigorating.

Shortly after I arrived in Monterrey, I was contacted by instructor,Mónica Quintanilla, who was interested in having me talk to her class about the theory of connectivism. This was a topic they had been recently studying, and she was hoping I might be able to add to her student’s understanding. I was excited about the opportunity because an online course I am currently teaching covers various learning theories, including connectivism. This was the perfect opportunity to delve into the theory a little deeper and fine-tune some of my own thoughts on the subject.

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Connectivism is a theory that describes learning as a process of accessing and connecting information that is distributed throughout a networked environment (Siemans, 2004). In this theory, what becomes most important is not the specific knowledge one currently has stored in memory, but rather the ability to access and make meaning of knowledge that is needed now and in a future point in time. As Siemans describes it, “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe” (Siemans, 2004). In other words, it is the access to the content that is more important than the content itself.

We now live in a time that I like to call the era of ubiquitous information. You can ask me a question about most anything and I can find an answer for you within a very few moments using my smart phone. Not only can I find the answer to your question, but more than likely I can find a video about it, a discussion forum talking about it and a website dedicated to it. With information this accessible, there is less reason for me to store it in my head. What I need to do, however, is make sure I maintain an understanding of how to get to the information when I need it. It is also important that this understanding not become stagnant. How I get to that information today, may not be the same way I access it in a month or a year. Part of my current learning has to focus on how to maintain my information access.

Something else I have to take into consideration is the change in the “half-life” of information. As Seimans discusses, less than forty years ago the “life of knowledge was measured in decades” (p. 1). Today, knowledge in certain fields is not expected to hold true beyond a few years or even months. So quite literally, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. This means I have to discern which information is up to date and accurate. This requires an even greater understanding of information access because part of finding accurate information is checking multiple, reliable sources.

The last aspect I have to consider is my ability to make meaning of the information I am accessing. This involves higher-level thinking skills such as evaluation, analysis and creation (Bloom, 1956). It’s not enough for me to access the information. I also have to know how to interpret, connect and apply that information in order to successfully solve the problem or complete the task at hand.

Part of my conversation with the students (all of whom are preparing to be teachers) had to do with the implications of connectivism in the classroom. In my mind, the implications are profound. Since significant changes have occurred in how we access information, it seems to follow that changes should occur in how we assess student relationships with that information. Is it necessary, or even relevant, to continue assessing students with instruments designed for low-level thinking skills such as memorization and recall?

This is certainly not a new idea. Educators have been creating instruments that assess higher-order thinking skills for decades. This is not to say that things should no longer be committed to memory. We could digress into a very long discussion on what information is worth memorizing. Making it through the day is much easier if we have certain information stored in our brains. Basic mathematical facts come to mind. A healthy vocabulary, basic scientific concepts, certain phone numbers and the names of our children are just a few things we need commit to memory. There are certainly more things to add to this list, but the bigger question, I think, is how much of the content we teach still needs to be memorized by our students?

I also think it is very important to question the appropriateness of assessing our students in isolation, with no resources other than their memories. How often outside of school are we required to solve a problem, complete a project, or make an important decision without being able to consult others or access our resources? The answer to that question is almost never. In this era of ubiquitous information, wouldn’t it make more sense to assess students on their ability to access and make meaning of the information they need in order to solve a problem or complete a challenge? I see this as a fundamental shift in student assessment. A shift that recognizes the landscape has changed. A shift that also makes student assessment more authentic and relevant.

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To demonstrate this line of thinking, I posed a challenge to the students. I put them in groups of three and told them their task was to get me home in the quickest and most economical way possible. They were allowed to use any resource they had access to, but they only had 10 minutes to complete the task. At the end of the 10 minutes they had to fill in a table I had displayed on the board. I would then choose my method of travel based on their findings. The resultsof this challenge were interesting, and in my mind further legitimized the theory of connectivism. As you can image, the students went straight to their laptops and smart phones to find their information. It was no surprise that all five groups decided the fastest way for me to get home was by plane. What was interesting, however, was that every group went to a different source to search for my tickets. This resulted in each group having a different price and length of travel time. The students knew there were numerous ways to access the information they needed. What they realized, however, was in order to find the specific information that met my criteria they needed further knowledge of how to access the best information. This, of course, is not easy to do. As anyone who has recently purchased an airline ticket knows, finding the best deals with the shortest layovers in the timeframe you need is quite the challenge. Having knowledge of the best places to go to get your tickets saves you time and money, and in the case of my classroom challenge, gives you a chance to excel in an assigned task.

The intention of this writing is not to argue that all other learning theories should be ignored at the expense of connectivism. As with most things in life, the best approach is a balanced one. There are still things students need to memorize. Students still need experiences that deepen their understanding through scaffolding. Students still need opportunities to make their own meaning and to learn from others. However, what connectivism recognizes, more acutely than most learning theories from last century, is that we are living in a world that is networked as never before. This network, this connectedness, is going to continue to grow and strengthen in a variety of ways. Some of these ways we can predict, but others we can only imagine. As educators, it is critical that we accept this fact and assure we are properly preparing our students. One way to do this is through the theory of connectivism.

-JG

*Special thanks to Mónica Alejandra Quintanilla for inviting me to her classroom during my visit to UDEM.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Addressing 5th Graders at End of Year Ceremony

I had the honor of being the guest speaker today at the 5th grade ceremony for Maryvale Elementary School. This is the speech I gave:

Over the last couple of months, I have had the chance to work with many of you to help you with your video projects for science class. This project was a fun way to help you learn more about making healthy choices.

But something else that this project did, and I know several of you have already been thinking about this, is it introduced you to the basic skills you need to make a movie. In other words, you could use the steps you just learned to make the science video and make any kind of video you wanted to make. And since you’ve been through the process you know that what it’s really all about is telling a story. In fact, a good bit of the time spent making a movie is deciding how exactly to tell the story.

I want you to imagine something with me. Imagine that you decide to make a movie that tells your story. The big day arrives for the premiere of your movie and you invite me to come. So there I am sitting in the theater about to watch a movie about you.What am I going to see? Remember this is your story, so what is your story going to be?

There are lots of stories out there. Some of them are great, and some of them are not so great. So what makes a story great? It turns out there are a few things most great stories have in common.

The first is there is a main character. And it really helps if that main character is someone who is likable. The fancy name for the main character is the protagonist. So in your story guess who the protagonist is? Right, you are. And since you are a likeable person, you already have the first ingredient for a great story.

The second ingredient is the protagonist has to be presented with a challenge. This can be a physical challenge, a mental challenge, an emotional challenge. Whatever it is, this challenge requires the protagonist to make an important decision.

Let’s say you’re a good athlete. You’ve worked hard since you were little to be really good at your sport. People are starting to take notice and the future is looking bright. But then something happens. Maybe you get injured during a game, or you’re in some kind of accident and now you can’t play.

The challenge you face is that it is going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to get better so you can play again. In this story, the important decision is what you will do. Do you work hard and get better so you can play again? Or do you give up and walk away from the challenge?The decision that you make will determine whether this is a great story, or a story that’s not so great.

Maybe in your story you’ve started middle school and some of your friends are starting to make bad choices. You know that what they are doing is wrong because the people who love you, the people who are raising you, your family, they’ve taught you right from wrong.But your friends are pressuring you to follow along and do what they are doing. This would be the challenge in your story. And the decision you make, whether it’s to follow your friends or to do what you know is right, that decision helps determine whether your story is a great story or a story that’s not so great.

When we watch a movie, or hear or read a story, we want the protagonist to win. We want that person to rise to the challenge, to do the right thing, to make the hard choices that in the end make it a great story.

So as you move on from Maryvale Elementary and into middle school and then high school, I want you to think about all of us, your family, your teachers, your friends, think about all of us sitting in the movie theater, waiting to watch your movie. Are you going to rise to the challenge? Are you going to do the right thing? Are you going to make the hard choices that make your story a great story? The choice is up to you. After all, it’s your movie. It’s your life. So do me a favor and make it a great story. 

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Update

My lack of recent posts makes it appear as though I have either abandoned writing altogether, or taken a very long hiatus. The truth is that I have been posting my writings on the Edutopia website in an attempt to reach more educators. Here are the links to those articles. Please take a look and add to the conversation. -JPG

The Power of Video

As teachers and as learners we know that educational videos can be very helpful with conceptual and procedural understanding. While it is true that pre-made videos can be effective in the classroom, one of the most powerful uses of video is when we give our students the opportunity to be video creators.

For example, watching a video that explains inertia can help deepen a student’s understanding of the concept (assuming of course that the video is well done and the student is paying attention). Assigning a group of students to create a video in which they explain and demonstrate the concept of inertia, however, takes learning to a whole new level. When students are involved in producing academically focused videos they are actively engaging with the content and their collaborative group. With the proper teacher guidance, these collaborative activities can result in deeper conceptual understanding for each student.

Here are a few things to consider when planning a video creation activity for your students:

  1. Video creation activities do not have to be extravagant endeavors that take weeks to complete. With the right planning, an effective activity can be completed in just a couple of sessions.
  2. Think about the various roles needed in each group and design group sizes accordingly. For example, each team would need a camera person and a video editor, and (depending on the project) a fact checker, actor(s), script writer(s), a props manager, and a director.
  3. Build in check points throughout the project to ensure students are on track and to rectify any misconceptions that may arise.
  4. Have each group develop a story board for their video before they begin shooting. This will give the groups time to brainstorm ideas and to visualize each scene before ever picking up a camera. Approving the story board is an excellent check point in order to ensure each group is on task.
  5. Put a time limit on the length of the videos. Depending on the focus of the activity, a video that is 1 to 2 minutes in length can be plenty of time to demonstrate student understanding. In fact, creating a short, 30 second movie trailer may be perfect for your project. When students are limited by time they must focus on being precise, and being precise requires a deep understanding of the concept.
  6. Don’t worry about having a high-end video camera for the students to use. Let them use their phones or other devices with built in cameras. Many of today’s devices capture video with amazing quality.
  7. Provide a grading rubric to each group so they are very clear on what is expected. Design your rubric around the key aspects of the project.
  8. Set aside time for a “video premiere”. Student motivation is greatly increased when they know their final product will be shared with an audience of their peers.

Video creation activities can be a great way to deepen conceptual understanding, maintain student interest, and help students develop skills for working in a collaborative environment. Video projects also allow students to unleash their creative talents. So let the cameras roll and be prepared to be amazed and entertained by what your students can do!

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#5 Notes from ISTE (Disruptive Innovations entry 1)

The start of the school year is always a busy time for me as a teacher and as a father. I did not finish my ISTE entries as quickly as I would have liked, and before I knew it, school was upon us. My apologies for the delay.

For this entry about ISTE I would like to share the start of a correspondence that has been taking place between Dr. Teresa Foulger and myself. Dr. Foulger is an associate professor at ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College (http://education.asu.edu/faculty/teresa-foulger). I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion she facilitated on the topic of disruptive innovations. I was somewhat familiar with the concept prior to the discussion, but I was curious to see how it was being applied to educational settings.

In the opening comments Dr. Foulger laid out the definition of disruptive innovations. She defined it as something that is, “intrinsically motivated, it is enticing, it takes root, it improves, it spreads, and it can kill the leaders”. Obviously these kinds of innovations begin with a perceived need or desire and the vision and capacity to fulfill it. The spread of the innovation as stated above is intrinsic. Someone tries it out and decides for himself (or because of his peers) that it is worthy of continued use. In this regard the innovation requires a groundswell to become disruptive. In other words the innovation is adopted from the ground up. It creates a subculture of users and continues to grow until the usage reaches a level of critical mass. At this level the innovation begins to affect (disrupt) the larger culture in a significant way.

What I noticed, however, was that there was a difference between this concept of disruptive innovations and what the panelists were describing. The people making up the discussion panel represented brave individuals who were pushing the envelope in their various capacities within education. The common theme among their stories was they discovered, or were introduced to, a problem that needed a solution. These problems varied from low levels in math competencies to preparing Chinese high school students for American higher education. In each case, these individuals saw a way to address the problem(s) and took steps to present their solutions to those that would need to be involved or who would need to give permission. Invariably there were pushbacks to these solutions. Change is hard. It is even harder for those who are complacent, those who are afraid, and those who are at the top. The panelists persisted, and eventually change began to take place.

As disruptive as these individuals may have been, I do not believe we can call their solutions disruptive innovations for two main reasons. The first is that although the supporters of the innovations were intrinsically motivated, many others that were involved were not. For some (i.e. those not wanting change) the innovations were only accepted for extrinsic reasons, such as receiving a more positive evaluation or keeping their job. If an innovation must be accepted because it is a requirement then, by definition, I do not believe we can call it a disruptive innovation.

The second reason I believe these are not disruptive innovations is because they do not start from the bottom and create a groundswell in the sense that has been described above. Although the solutions presented by the panel had to be approved by various administrators or board members, they were essentially applied in a downward motion. For example, the panelists from a Texas University were brought in to help with deficiencies in mathematics. Their solutions were implemented with classroom teachers. This was a top-down implementation of a solution, not a bottom-up groundswell due to intrinsic motivation and enticement.

An example of what I would consider to be a disruptive innovation is what Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams did in their high school chemistry classes. They were faced with the problem of students missing a great deal of school due to sports and other activities. In 2007 they began recording their lectures and posting them online so students would not fall behind. This, and the subsequent shift in the classroom dynamics that came about as a result of these recordings, became known as flipping the classroom (2012). This technique started in two classrooms in one high school because of a need. The success of this technique for these two teachers caused them to begin sharing their technique with other educators. These educators became intrinsically motivated and enticed to try it for themselves. The technique began to take root, to improve, and to spread. Other than killing the leaders, the technique of flipping the classroom meets all of the criteria of a disruptive innovation.

            Since I am suggesting that what the panelists described were not disruptive innovations, I would like to share my thoughts on what I think they are. Although this may not apply to every situation that was presented, I believe these are examples of performance technology. According to D. Van Tiem, J. Mosley, and J. Dessinger (2004), performance technology is defined as “the systematic process of linking business goals and strategies with the workforce responsible for achieving the goals” (p. 2). For our purposes the word “business” in the previous definition could be replaced with “educational”. The authors also list six main objectives of performance technology:

  • Analyze observable workplace behavior.
  • Associate the behaviors with related environmental factors, such as organizational culture and mission.
  • Determine the causes of exemplary and problem behaviors.
  • Design possible solutions, called
  • Put the interventions into action.
  • Monitor and measure the results to document the effectiveness of the intervention toward designed change. (p. 2)

The strategies that were described by the members of the panel seem to closely follow these objectives, especially what was presented by the group from Texas. These interventions are applied from the outside-within and from the top-down, or at least the middle-down. These interventions, when applied correctly, can be very effective, although we could not call them disruptive innovations.

I suggested to Dr. Foulger that it might be fun to try and come up with a name for what the panelists were doing. They might be called Educational Performance Technologists, or EPTs. Or, we might could say they specialize in educational performance technology. Actually, I don’t know if that term has ever been used, so we may be on to something with that one. Who knows, maybe some day sessions will be offered on educational performance technology at an ISTE convention.

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References

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Van Tiem, D. M., Mosley, J. L., & Dessinger, J. C. (2004). Fundamentals of performance technology. Silver Spring, MD: ISPI.

#4 Notes from ISTE, 2014

It’ a Matter of Perspective

I mentioned in my last post that things would get a little nerdy. With that in mind I will make a concerted effort not to disappoint…

It’s funny how people have different opinions about the concept of celebrity. I guess in our culture there are certain individuals that most people would agree have obtained celebrity status. Michael Jordan comes to mind, along with Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Albert Einstein. These are individuals who have transcended what originally put them in the spotlight. They have become recognizable by almost everyone – they have become celebrity. Other people manage to scrape the lower altitudes of the celebrity stratosphere when they become recognizable to subgroups within the larger society. If I mentioned the name Ian MacKaye to my 5th grade students they would undoubtedly give me the same blank stare I get sometimes during math instruction. But for me, and others who had similar teen angst, Ian represented something pretty profound. Of course, if my 5th graders pointed out Iggy Azalea to me I wouldn’t have any idea why she was of any significance (I had to ask my son for the name of this currently popular singer).

In that same line of thought we all have different reasons for choosing certain people that we would consider ourselves to be “fans” of. For me, fan status has fluctuated somewhat over the years. Having the chance to meet an NFL player would have been the greatest thing to ever happen to me as a boy, but today I tend to view professional athletes as grotesquely overpaid entertainers who are seldom worthy of praise. Nowadays I am deeply moved by the bravery of people like Bradley D. Conner and Malala Yousafzai, while I am turned off by people like Gucci Mane or Miley Cyrus.

Prior to ISTE I was involved in developing an online course for my school system. As part of our research on blended learning we were introduced to Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR model. This model describes technology integration through four phases: substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. I found this video of Dr. Puentedura describing his model: video. I must confess I really enjoyed watching this video. I appreciated his description of the model, and I also enjoyed listening to Dr. Peuntedura’s accent and the meter of his speech.

When I was selecting events to attend at the conference I saw one was being offered on the SAMR model. Since this was something I had just studied I thought it would be a good session to attend. To my surprise and delight Dr. Puentedura was the session’s presenter. I won’t go so far as to say I was star struck, but I must confess I was thrilled to have the chance to see and hear him in person. After a very informative and well-presented session I thought it might be nice to speak with him and possibly get a picture (how’s that for being a fan?). To my surprise and amusement however, it turned out that I was not the only one with that idea. A line quickly formed of attendees who wished to speak to and have their picture taken with the good doctor. I waited for a minute or two trying to decide if I would get in line. I couldn’t help laughing to myself about the situation I was finding myself in. Here I was, a guy who used to be the lead singer in a rock band that performed with groups such as Crowbar, Nuclear Assault, Soilent Green, and even 2 Live Crew, and now I was debating whether or not to wait in line to meet the brilliant professor who developed the SAMR model. Like I said, my fan status has fluctuated over the years. I wonder if Dr. Ruben will be selling T-shirts at the next convention?

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#3 Notes from ISTE, 2014

Since the next couple of posts from my experience at ISTE will be on the nerdy side, I thought I would include this short post just for fun.

Motives

I should say that I am an observer of people. I minored in anthropology as an undergrad and I have never shaken my fascination with human behavior. I knew before arriving in Atlanta people would have various motives for attending the conference. For some there would be a genuine interest to learn more about innovations in educational technology. For others it would be a chance to get out of town and spend time with friends and colleagues. For some it would be a professional obligation, and still for others it would be a quest to acquire as many freebies as humanly possible from the vendors. I also discovered, as I rode on the shuttle bus that first day, that the goal of some was to single out and photograph individuals that met their pre selected criteria for that day. On this first day for example, their challenge was to find people that were overdressed for the conference. Although probably not the best use of their time and technology, the game sounded interesting, if not a little disturbing. I’m still not sure if they took my picture as I got off the bus…

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