Open versus Closed

The focus of the learning this week is on PLE, which are considered “open” and Learning Management Systems (LMS) which are considered “closed.” Examples of LMS include Blackboard, Moodle and other content delivery resources.  They are considered “closed” because someone (a teacher) controls the content and the activities, unlike a PLE in which the learner personalizes their learning using the tools and content that suits them.

I hadn’t really thought of LMS as being closed before reading the PLENK resources this week, and in particular this transcript of an interview with several leaders in teaching and learning with technology.  I have been particularly interested in online learning for a few years and within the last two have begun to design online courses.  One of the things I have done is to incorporate elements of a PLE into those courses - encouraging the creation of delicious and Diigo accounts, using Adobe Connect to have the participants meet and interact with one another in real time, create blogs and wikis, etc. etc.  In that manner - I hadn’t considered the courses closed but realize now that if I am providing the learning opportunities - it really isn’t personalized. They are still completing the activities as a matter of completing the course, but I am not sure that it extends beyond that.

What is interesting about online learning is that it hasn't really reached our region yet.  I have tried to provide opportunities for teachers and administrators to engage in online learning because I think that they need to experience how different it really it in order to understand how to use it with students. Participation in those is low but loyal.  With students, it is mostly being used for credit recovery and I have found in reviewing much of the courses that the activities and assessments are "Google-able."  No critical thinking, no collaboration, no creativity.

Which makes me realized that most of our teaching right now is pretty closed - in fact, there are few classrooms (let alone buildings or districts) where I see networked teachers who have all you see in this model*:

The Networked Teacher (Couros, 2008) 

I am pondering how do we help the teacher become more networked so that they can develop a networked classroom?  And not networked for the sake of being networked, but because they can't imagine operating any other way?

PBL Thoughts

I have been spending the past two days working with regional colleagues on Project Based Learning (PBL) following the Buck Institute Model.  In wrestling with how to work with teachers around this model, I noticed that PBL also matched the Collegial Circles that I have written about previously.

The seven essential features of a "good" project are as follows:
1. Driving Question and a Challenge
2. Need to Know
3. Inquiry and Innovation
4. 21st Century Skills
5. Student Voice and Choice
6. Feedback and Revision
7. Public Presentation

In looking through the list, I realize that this is the exact process that the teachers go through when developing their focus and plan for learning.  What is really intriguing to me is the "need to know" piece. This isn't what content is needed, but the fact that what you are investigating is a real need to know (hoping you can hear the emphasis in my voice!) Meaning you want to learn about it.

Two more districts that I know of are moving towards this model for professional development - which captures the passion of teachers and for me, honors them as professionals. 

In the training, we have been wrestling with how to move "traditional" teachers to use the tools in their toolbox and embrace project based learning - at least a few times a year.  This model captures the passion of students and for me, honors them as learners.

Maybe if we set the model up for teachers, they will be comfortable with it in the classroom.


Week 1 of PLENK2010 has my head spinning.  Our first task as I understood it was to start to define PLE and PLN which fits into the reasons I wanted to begin the course: to flesh out the differences between PLE/PLN and a community of learners as I know it.  Interestingly, between the readings, the conversations and the new readings from the links in the conversations – I am learning that there is no one definition for either PLE or PLN.  Instead, they seem to be evolving definitions and points of discussion.  (Which means – if I use them, I should define them to give a context to those I am working with!)

As I am slowly distilling it from the readings, a personal learning network (PLN) is just that – the people with whom you interact and learn.  What I am discovering in reading and reflecting upon my own practice is that this network might be “one way.”  That is – I might consider some people to be a part of my network ( I learn from them) but I never engage with them.  While network implies interconnectivity, if I simply follow people on Twitter and never engage with them (reply or even retweet) or they don’t follow me back, I may still consider them part of my network.  They inform my learning.

A personal learning environment (PLE) on the other hand seems to be use to define the tools that are used to build and enhance the PLN – to encourage interaction.  Most of the reading and links seem to indicate that this environment is mainly “virtual” – meaning that it is not face to face but done by any number of the web tools that are available to connect and collaborate.  Wendy McGrath created a list of PLE guiding principles and one really stood out to me: accessible from multiple touchpoints.  This makes a great deal of sense to me as I think about how I use Twitter, Facebook, blogs and Ning to connect, learn and interact.  I have many of the same “friends” in these arenas but I interact with them very differently depending upon the limitations of the touchpoint.

In reading the week 1 discussion, Josh Underwood suggested the term “personal learning ecology” to try and capture the dynamic nature of PLN/PLE. Jennie Swann added to that by citing Brent Davis’ work* in which he refers to ecologies as “webs of interactions within particular systems.”  I am leaning a bit toward this usage as it seems to me that it would expand beyond just the “virtual” connections that can be made when made refer to a PLE.

As an example, I meet with a small sub-group of Communities for Learning three times over the course of a year.  Once a year the larger group converges upon Connecticut and we meet together for an entire week.  I connect with many of these people face-to-face between meetings and with an even smaller subset of that group virtually.  This is not just one learning network for me – it is the hub.  However, much of my work within Communities for Learning is also informed by a different group of people with whom I interact online via any number of tools.  And yet more of my work is influenced by those I interact with face-to-face on a regular basis.  Therefore my ecology, my system of learning, combines both face-to-face and virtual interactions with a variety of people.

Davis, B. (2004). Inventions of teaching: A genealogy. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Making Learning Transparent

For a few years now, I have been interested in the intersection between technology and my work as a Fellow in Communities for Learning.  As I have been engaged online through Twitter and delicious and my blogs, the terms  "PLN" and "PLE" kept cropping up.  And I have wrestled with them - their meaning, their value and how they are similar to/different from the learning community that I engage with.

I am excited to participate in the Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge course which begins this week (it's not too late - you can join!) The course is part of a giant research project on PLEs and will examine the learning that occurs as a result of interaction and participation in a distributed community.  I am fascinated by this - both as a learner as well as someone who has encouraged the engagement of others online without really knowing if there are benefits!

I'll use this post to post questions and try to synthesize my thoughts and learning.  I encourage you to join the course but if you can't do that - try to engage here.  I'll tag all posts that relate to the course with PLENK2010 so you will know when the blog posts are on that versus the other fun things Jenn and I discuss. 

I hope to see you somewhere along this learning journey!

A Daily Difference

We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.
- Marian Wright Edelman

I think we are too hard on ourselves.  In our work, in our daily lives, in our relationships with others - we never think we measure up.  That there is something we could always do better.  That we could always be better.

The beginning of a new school year is always a bit rough for me.  I miss my students.  I  miss any students.  I miss the daily interaction with them, learning from them, feeling like I have a purpose.

Not that I don't think I have a purpose now. Just that it is different.

I left the classroom because I thought I could make a larger difference.  That instead of just impacting the students I had that year, I could impact ten times that number by working with their teachers.  That I could be a real change agent in the field of education - something that hasn't really changed in 100 years.

Maybe I set my sights too high.  Or maybe, I am not looking at the small differences that I make. I'm going to start looking closer.  And I am going to start letting others know when they have made a difference for me.

 Have a fantastic new school year!


"It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act. It starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more."
Margie Piercy, "The Low Road"

A political poem, but one this week has me thinking about changes in education.  In New York State (as elsewhere) they are happening fast and furious without someone helping teachers understand in the bigger context of things what is going on.

This week, as districts are being impacted by the decision to change cut-scores on the NYS Grades 3-8 assessments in Math and ELA, there is an under-current of panic.  Of frustration.  Of confusion.  And I am not sure that in the end we are keeping the kids in mind.

In theory, these changes that are coming at us are intended to be what is best for kids.  I absolutely have to believe that.  We do need to look at what we teach and how we assess and ensure that we are producing citizens who will be able to succeed and prosper in life after high school.  That is our responsibility as educators. 

And as educators, we know what works with our students.  They are unique and there are no two classrooms across this state, country or world that are identical.  We need to take the "bounded autonomy" we have in our schools and classrooms and serve those students first.

We need to persevere through these changes.  More than that - we need to investigate them, question them, implement them and reflect upon them.  We need to remember that we serve people - often very little people - and that we have a big responsibility. To them.

To Blog or Not to Blog - That is the Question!

As a part of my session on growing and enhancing learning communities using technology tools at the NYSCATE Leadership Summit, I am introducing participants to a variety of tools within the context of the dispositions of practice from the ARCS framework of Communities for Learning.  One tool that we are sharing is blogs.

For me, blogging has been a way to put my thoughts out to the greater world.  Sometimes I get feedback in the form of comments, sometimes I don't. (That makes me very sad by the way! Post a comment! Just don't post spam!)  Either way - the very act of putting my question out there, of writing about my thought process helps me to clarify my work and the vision I have for that work.

When I began blogging, there was the initial fear of "what if I say the wrong thing" - particularly as I blogged about my work.  Then I ran into the problem that my chose blogging platform was often blocked in district (very frustrating!)  However, I persevered and my blogging continues.

I find that I blog less often than I used to - perhaps because I tweet more? - but that I am always reflecting on my work which will usually result in a blog post.  As a result, blogging is one of the most important tools that I use.

If you are new to blogging, what are your concerns or questions about blogging? What most intriques you about blogging?

Guest Post:: Thoughts on NYS Scale Score Changes

The text below was shared by a colleague on the DATAG listserv. It's a worthwhile read for a calm and rationale approach to the (pending) uproar about the changing scale scores.

I’ve been working with many teachers who are discouraged at the news that SED will raise cut points this year and thrust schools back into embarrassing situations because groups won’t make AYP. As we read the rhetoric from newspapers and politicians who hammer public schools with glee, it is easy to feel like teachers are the whipping boys and girls for so many of society’s problems. The move to value-added assessment and changes in teacher accountability lend credence to this interpretation, since increasing teacher accountability is being sold nation-wide as the key to school improvement. Longer tests are offered as a means to produce better data sets so we can identify our weak teachers and terminate them before they do more harm if we accept the tone of the US DOE. Yes, I’m simplifying, and I’m reminded that DATAG began as a group dedicated to making appropriate use of data to inform professional development and school improvement without playing a blame game. We have to reengage in that effort every year.
My work with DATAG and with local teachers takes quite a different tact that is more positive and recognizes how much success New York has experienced in improving student achievement since NCLB began. I want to reframe the dialog around testing and raising cutpoints: It’s a reflection of our success rather than the notion that we have been ineffective or settled for low performance all along.
First, let’s review that our standards are criterion-based, not norm-referenced. That difference is important here. We have, however, treated our tests as norm-referenced in the ways we have allowed outsiders (and ourselves) to report them. The development of our standards came with extensive work by experts and with teachers who carefully described what they thought a student should do at a given grade level and subject, based on our standards documents. So, we define the kinds of achievement in ELA, for example, that a student in grade 8 should be able to do by the testing date in a given year. When we have a passing rate of 50% in early years (forgive me for not looking up the statewide level 3 proficiency rate when this began, but it was dismal) we were embarrassed and we worked very hard to improve that rate. And, so that we were comparing students on tests of the same difficulty level from year to year, SED and the test developers worked hard to create tests that held the proficiency scale score at 650 for each succeeding year. That process was designed to hold that proficiency level constant even as the tests changed each year. What that grade 8 student had to know to reach 650 was judged to be equivalent from year to year. Folks who understand the IRT models (like our DATAG colleague and frequent presenter Kathy Feller) help us to understand that a 650 in 2004 is the same as a 650 in 2010.

Today, we see the proficiency rates of students and schools rising every year. Since we have different questions on the test every year, we can’t cheat to produce this improvement. Have our tests tended to concentrate on some standards more than others? Yes, but that is because we have too darn many standards and some are more important than others, on which most of us can agree. The point I want to make is that as NY educators, we have done a good job of increasing student success in becoming proficient on the skills we developed, and at the level that we agreed was appropriate for each grade level. We should be proud of that, and there should be regular statements to that effect in recognition of our success.

Let me use a very simple analogy. Think of your gym classes and teaching students to jump over a bar. In grade 3 we want kids to jump over a bar that is 18” high. In grade 4 we raise it to 22”, and by grade 8 kids are jumping over a bar that is 40” high. When we began, our kids were not used to being asked to jump, so many of them couldn’t get to 40” by grade 8. Today, most do, since we’ve done well in getting them in shape. Now, we’ve decided that our initial, well-designed 40” grade 8 target is too small to ensure that students are ready for the real world and high school, so we raise the bar to 44”. That will cause kids to fail, but it sets the whole bar higher and we have to readjust.

Think sports. When I was in middle school the world high jump record was 7 feet. New methods of jumping and better coaching has pushed the record to 8 feet 0.46 in. So if one set a goal in 1956 to be the best in the world, you targeted 7 feet as your goal and if everyone reached it you would be the best coach in the world. A decision to use 7 feet as your target would not be good enough today because 7 fee is not world-class.
Back to our cut points. Our leaders have decided that our goals are no longer world-class. When we set them, they were among the hardest in the nation. The national norm equivalent score for level 4 when we tested only grade 4 and 8 was the 96th to 98th percentile, which CTB recognized if you reached the right folks to talk to. We know normed scored for each question because the questions came from nationally normed samples. [Note: norm sampled is not the same as norm-referenced. Norm sampled means the questions were tried out on students across the country before appearing on the final test. Norm-referenced refers to how scores are reported] So, a level 4 student was better than 96-98% of students in the country.

And the level 3 kid had to hit the 68th percentile, which is a full standard deviation above average. We no longer have national norms available for our questions so we can’t make those statements today. But while many states reduced their test difficulty or their cutpoint to improve NCLB passing rates, New York has not. We have held to a 650 cut point for proficiency and we improved year after year. This was a significant success, but now it has been decided that our targets, though higher than most states, should be raised.
I wish that the dialog over raising cut points had focused on the original high standards and on our success at progress toward reaching them. Were we all praised for the progress we have made, we could more enthusiastically accept the idea that the world around us keeps raising their standards and we want to stay ahead of that rising tide. Let’s applaud our progress and reset our standards so that we are encouraged to continue our improvement.

This kind of dialog is not impossible to achieve. I hope leaders who roll this out can be more cognizant of our successes as they raise our cutpoints. We should explain this as a next step arising from our success, not because of deficiency, bad teaching, low standards, etc. After all, we do the same with our students—as they succeed, we raise the bar on what we expect from them because we know they are ready for greater challenges. That’s how I want SED to position these changes, and that’s how I would like to see these changes portrayed in the media by those who lead us in the coming years.

Dr. Brian Preston
Lower Hudson Regional Information Center
Elmsford, NY

ISTE 2010 Reflection: Google Culture

My Sunday session was an all day session with folks from CUE who are all Google Certified Teachers (a dream I have -if I could only work up the courage to make that video!)

You can read my session notes here if you are interested in what I took away in terms of the tools, but the bigger take away for me happened in the first 10 minutes of the day when Mark Wagner (@markwagner) talked to us about the Google Culture.  As a former English teacher, he made some great analogies about teaching and connected them to the Google philosophy.  It not only helped to set the tone for the day, it helped set the tone for the conference for me.

What was interesting to me was first, "Google believes no one should be more than 150 feet away from food."  I laughed at this as in my office, I think we have modified the rule to substitute chocolate for food.  Even our workshop participants are upset when we don't put chocolate out until the afternoons!!

On a serious note, the 20% "rule" was compelling.  Googlers devote approximately 20% of their work time to a project that might fall outside of their scope of duties but is a passion they have or something they want to fix with current Google tools.  Many of these make it to Google Labs (which is something everyone should check out) and many more become Google tools as we know and love them today. (Read here for an example that I found doing a quick (you guessed it) Google search!)

I wondered how education might be different if we allowed our students to pursue the 20% within our classrooms.  What if in my social studies class, I set aside one day for the students to investigate and create something related to the history we were studying.  Their choice on the topic and the way they would share the 20%.  I know, I know - grading.  But I think that might be easily addressed with a well thought out and developed rubric - one thought out and developed with the kid so that they had real ownership over the learning and the process.

What if in providing professional development to teachers, 20% of their day/year was following their own course.  If there are 8 hours in a work day, one hour (less than the 20%) wouldn't be about supervision or planning or the other things we do but in the pursuit of what we wanted to learn about.  I think the reason that collegial circles have been so successful in the district I worked in is that teachers chose what they wanted to work on and were given the time to do it.

What if in designing professional development, my team were able to devote 20% of their time to pursuing what they wanted to learn.  I certainly think they have this time and we have the resources available for them to do it -but I think they might disagree.  And the reason that my team would disagree and that students and teachers aren't doing what I suggest is that it isn't part of our culture.

Digging deeper into the Google website, I found their "Ten Things We Know to Be True" list that exemplifies their philosophy.  We all have mission/vision statements in our districts, but what if we created similar lists?

Digging further, I found another list related to design (also called "ten principles that contribute to a Googley user experience") - what if we created our own list that would be relevant for designing lessons and professional development?

Thinking about these things - I took a different view of what was being offered at ISTE.  How many sessions demonstrated that they had a different philosophy of education - one that encouraged design and creativity and play? (LOTS!)  How many teachers were willing to pursue their passions and learn more and learn differently? (LOTS)  So I am wondering about the changes the rumored 16,000 folks in attendance will make.  If each person makes one small change as a result of their learning here - that's a whole lotta change! And if each person were able to inspire change in just one more person who didn't attend the conference, that's a whole lotta change agents!

ISTE 10 Reflections: Leadership Bootcamp

Saturday was Day 1 of the ISTE conference for me and I attended the Leadership Bootcamp session. I have to admit that due to the altitude, I was a bit foggy for the whole thing.  As a result, I am not sure that I was able to engage the way that I would have liked to. That being said, the sign of a "good" learning experience for me is when I can walk way with some questions. 

1. How do we make technology use sustainable?
Before everyone jumps all over me for this - I am NOT talking about the tools and tool use for the tools sake.  I am talking about teachers becoming true learners and using technology as it evolves.  All too often, I see teachers put on the breaks when it comes to using technology even when it would make their life easier and have their kids more engaged.  Why? How do we combat the resistance? What kind of leadership does that take?

I am also interested in how we can use technology to sustain our learning.  In this case, there is a Ning available to continue the conversations and the organizers plan some follow-up sessions much like the pre-pre-conference session.  Chris Lehman advocated for holding Educon- like sessions locally during the same week and connecting.  Having tried to get an unconference going in our region - I know that this is easier said than done.  So - what can I do to continue/sustain my learning?

2. When are we really going to start teaching kids to be critical consumers of media?
Time and time again this came up as we discussed kids using content.  And when asked who is supposed to teach this - lots of different answers came out.  Shouldn't we all be teaching this? Not as a stand alone subject or unit, but integrated into every lesson we teach and every media we use.  Why isn't that happening?

3. How do we start moving past connecting to creating Communities of Practice?
During his really great talk, Scott Elias talked about the "strength of weak ties" and the power that connecting with others via Twitter and other social networks brings to our profession.  But so far, these are still only in the conversation stage.  We haven't really gotten to showing a change or improvement in our practice as a result of these conversations.  Sure - I could do this individually but I don't often share that with my network.  We don't house those ideas someplace and truly build off of them.  As teachers, we still very much have walls around our classrooms.  How do we start to break those walls down?  Once we start - how do we keep breaking them down?

4. Why are our policies getting in the way of our progress?
Dr. Scott McLeod shared this question at the start of his session and gave us some really great things to think about.  The biggest for me was thinking out Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) and what message it sends to our students, parents and community.  It made me really think about the policies that our district has in place, and how people just feel comfortable to state that "it is policy" in response to something.  How can we have thoughtful and meaningful conversations about policy that are productive and have learners in mind? How can we start with an assumption of trust?

These are rough and I have just started thinking about them but I needed to get them out of my head and onto the blog before the other learning this week fills my brain.  If you would like to see the backchannel from the conference and use Twitter, search #lbc10.  If you would like to see my unedited notes, look here.  If you would like to help me wrestle with these questions, please comment below!

In Defense of Rubrics

Learning doesn't happen just in schools.
Just because you're in school, doesn't mean you're learning.
A keystone of learning is self-reflection.
Learning is a fantastically messy business.

I think everyone who is engaged in discussions about teaching and learning would agree with the previous statements. At the end of the day, if you're engaged in the discussion, you've already committed to changing the stricture in whatever way works for you. As rubrics come up in discussion again, I am thrilled to engage in discussion with other educators who are committed to change.

As I've shared on my blog, I'm all about addressing my ignorance. I have no problems being corrected when I'm wrong, because the alternative just doesn't make any sense. However, when it comes to rubrics, I'm standing fast. Plus, I've got some pretty compelling strong support on my side.
* rubrics define the features of work that describe quality. (Arter & Chappuis, 2006)
* used to evaluate the quality of students' work. (Popham, 2006)
* a rubric identifies all the needed attributes of quality or development in a process (Martin-Kniep, 2001)

This is not a rubric.


1 pt.
2 pt.
3 pt.
4 pt.
Student uses 1 source.
Student uses 2 sources.
Student uses 3 sources.
Student uses 4 or more sources.

This is not a rubric.


1 pt.
2 pt.
3 pt.
4 pt.
Writing has lots of mistakes.
Writing has a few mistakes.
Writing has some mistakes.
Writing has no mistakes.

How do we know? Rubrics are about quality... and you can't count quality.

A movie doesn't win the Academy Award because it had 4 crying scenes and the others only had 3.
Your favorite book didn't make you feel something 17 times while you're least favorite book only made you feel something 2 times.Your partner didn't suddenly become perfect for you the 9th time they did something for you.

In life, we don't count quality. I write that as if it's a truth and it can be argued. However, generally speaking when we talk about quality, we talk about attributes and definitions. We don't stop and count and determine what is good. "Sorry, Barb, can't recommend this as a good restaurant. The waiter took 17 minutes to refill my water. I recommend the one next door. They only took 12 minutes." We know, though, the traits of a good restaurant and if a friend of ours opened a new restaurant and asked for feedback, we wouldn't sit there and count.

In school, it is not physically possible to provide all students with feedback all of the time. There will come a moment when a child has to self-assess their work. Without understanding what quality looks like, their efforts are likely to result in guessing. Yes, we tell them. Yes, we give them verbal feedback. But we know students don't remember everything we tell them. A well-developed, thoughtful rubric can help students understand the attributes of quality. Consider this rubric that @russgoerend and I co-constructed. The rubric describes the quality of the presentation - note the top level is all about "breaking the rules" and the bottom of the document contains a checklist.

I think "rubric-esque tables" are developed way too frequently because we think rubrics are better than checklists.But, if you want specific things in order for a student's work to be considered acceptable, tell them what you want in a checklist. Checklists aren't bad or less then. They each serve a purpose in communicating expectations. Personally, I'd like to take a red pen to a certain website and rename 90% of their "rubrics" as "scoring guides". Many oft-shared critiques of rubrics are actually discussing "scoring guides" - and identify major problems with that tool. It seems were in a cycle of critiquing a tool while we're still negotiating a common understanding. My hunch is if we polled 100 lawyers and asked them to define "contract", there would be near unanimous agreement. I wonder what results we'd get if we polled 100 educators about "rubrics"?

If you'd like to read more about what makes quality rubrics, I invite you to check out the rubric wiki. I am always open to discussions of challenges and flaws in rubrics and how we can create better rubrics with and forth students and I would like to extended the invitation to readers who have identified those flaws to ask themselves if their concerns are with rubrics or impostors.