Friday, December 29, 2006

Second Life: A venue for professional development?

Following is a transcript from the National-Louis University, National College of Education Technology Committee, in which I describe the professional development possibilities of Second Life. The participants are me, Stuart Carrier, Xiuwen Wu, Rob Bowe, and Jane Moore.

CraigC: okay, second life

CraigC: before i go any further, and before you go to the web page, does anyone know what secondlife is?

StuartC: not familiar

XiuwenW: No

XiuwenW: Heard of it

XiuwenW: on ChicagoTribute

JanePM: I followed the website earlier--seems weird--a virtual life?

CraigC: okay, let me be maybe the first to say this to you: this technology represents the future of distance education.

CraigC: i am writing a grant with CPS to do prof dev for CPS librarians.

RobertBo: with Gail bush?

CraigC: one of the central library people (head of tech) suggested investigating secondlife as a platform for pd

CraigC: (yes, writing it with gail)

CraigC: i was skeptical, because i had read the tribune piece and saw it mainly as a playground (which it is....there's all kinds of kinky stuff going on there)

CraigC: gail called it "loopy tunes" (but she hasn't seen it as i have)

RobertBo: You know what they say about Librarians.

CraigC: yes

CraigC: anyway

JanePM: That was my first impression as well...what does it offer that Tapped In, for example doesn't?

CraigC: there is a set of "islands" that are devoted to librarians

CraigC: i now have an office there

CraigC: and have met many of the key players

CraigC: (my wife has been wondering if i have a first life)

CraigC: and

CraigC: i have seen the future

CraigC: jane's question is THE question

JanePM: Scary!

CraigC: what's the value-added compared to tappedin?

CraigC: there will be a huge generational thing on this

CraigC: and many "serious" people will reject it

CraigC: but

JanePM: I can't imagine why I'd want to do professional development in a site where I can buy realistic vamp wounds.

CraigC: i think they will be wrong to do so

CraigC: lol

CraigC: jane, you are an object lesson in skeptism

CraigC: bear with me, okay

JanePM: That was on the first page I got to when I searched for you.

CraigC: i'm not given to wild embracing of new tech just because it's new

JanePM: Always glad to oblige.

CraigC: (jane, you're only on the web site, not the world)

CraigC: it's not a web site

CraigC: it's virtual reality

CraigC: interactive virtual reality

JanePM: OK, set us straight.

CraigC: with hundreds of "locations" and "events" and millions of users and growing FAST

CraigC: every person has an avatar

CraigC: (you see the 'scary" ones on the home page)

CraigC: the librarians are mostly more pedestrian in appearance

JanePM smiles

CraigC: (I've been playing with my appearance, as most people do)

JanePM: So, how do we "find" you?

CraigC: okay, i'll cut to the quck, becuase i have to take a phone call at 11

CraigC: my SL name is Dewey Jung

JanePM: Cute

CraigC: you can search for me if you ever get online

CraigC: my office has the NLU logo on it

StuartC: ok Dewey

CraigC: if i'm online i'll bring you to it

CraigC: (I hear the snickers already.)

CraigC: (this is going to be a tough sell, i can tell)

JanePM: So, we have to join to "see" you?

CraigC: anyway, the other day i was wandering around on infoisland, land "owned" by the alliance library system of western illinois

CraigC: yes jane

CraigC: this was before i met all the key players in the alliance's sl presence....they are the ones who gave me my office

CraigC: anyway

CraigC: i was wandering around and noticed a lot of people gathered together on my map, so i went to see what was going on

CraigC: i found

CraigC: a class on how to do animations in sl

CraigC: let me tell you, it was the most profoundly interesting distance education experinece i have ever had

CraigC: about 50 people from around the world gathered for this previously-announced class

CraigC: we all sat around in a comfy "lecture hall"

CraigC: the instructor told us all to click a spot to get the "course materials"

CraigC: we immediately had sample scripts, images, how-to guides, etc. in our inventory

CraigC: he told us where to find the shareware program qavimator.

CraigC: and how to install it

CraigC: he tells us to use the chat for very general comments and questions, but to instant message him wtih specific ones

CraigC: so the class begins

CraigC: there is a whiteboard

CraigC: he's set it up with screenshots of each step in the process

CraigC: we use our inventory to do more complicated stuff

CraigC: he's talking on the chat and some students are talking on the chat

CraigC: he is responding to IM's, almost immediately.

CraigC: my questions are answered immediately

CraigC: there is no need to 'wait your turn" or to try to listen to quiet voices

CraigC: meanwhile, the students are IMing each other, all over the place

CraigC: networking, finding out about cool tricks

CraigC: so we create animations

CraigC: and we TRY THEM OUT on ourselves during the class

CraigC: so you get to SEE immediately ,what people have done

CraigC: you can IM people to ask them how they did it.

CraigC: WIthin 1 hour we had all made animations

CraigC: within 2 hours we had all built complicated gestures with sound, animation, scripting.

CraigC: it was engrossing.

CraigC: okay, i'm done.

JanePM: I'm exhausted :)

XiuwenW: Does this site charge a subscription fee?

CraigC: not for basic membership

StuartC: i see the distance learning implications

CraigC: stu, i hope so

JanePM: Yes, if you can get past the initial impression.

CraigC: i chatted with a 70 yr old chemistry prof in world

RobertBo: It looks like some charge a fee.

CraigC: he beleives that the VR aspect adds a kind of "physical presence" of others that makes the whole experience so much more "real" than a simple chat room.

CraigC: i agree.

CraigC: yes you can spend money, for sure

CraigC: on land

CraigC: events

CraigC: "stuff" like clothing, skins, furniture

CraigC: but a lot of it is free, too

CraigC: and you can build your own stuff

CraigC: i built a sign, a table, decorated my office

CraigC: mark my words, folks, our "online" work is going to change dramatically within the next year or so

RobertBo: 5 cents to visit the doktor

CraigC: and i would bet

JanePM: We heard it here!

CraigC: that don grady is not going to lead the way.

JanePM smiles

RobertBo: Very interesting!

CraigC: i don't expect this committee to do anything right away

XiuwenW: If students can interact with an expert while viewing the solar system video, that'll be neat.

CraigC: i wanted to inform you

CraigC: we're going to write some experiments into our grant

JanePM: Thanks,'s worth exploring.

StuartC: definitely

CraigC: but we're also going to back it up with a webct presence

CraigC: (just to be safe)

StuartC: yes

CraigC: i recommend going in world

CraigC: look around

CraigC: if you don't find anything interesting, let me know, and i'll be a guide for you

CraigC: Dewey Jung

CraigC: or email me.

CraigC: i have to go

JanePM: Thanks, Craig. I need to go as well. Bye, all. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Digital Division; or, do you really know how wide is the divide?

I've just been reading some of my students' papers and I'm thoroughly disgusted and depressed.

The assignment (as part of a graduate class on "Integrating Technology Acrosss the Curriculum") was to write a reflective analysis of the current condition of technology availability and integration in the students' current school. (To avoid confusion, I'm going to call them my "teachers" from now on even though they are my students....but they are all teachers.) Eight teachers completed the assignment. Three of the teachers pretty much just gave the facts without much analysis. But those who provided analysis present a stark image of the educational landscape in Chicagoland today.

Most of the teachers in this particular cohort teach in the Chicago Public Schools. One left CPS last year for a "plum" job in suburban Glenview. The contrast between the technology available in Glenview and that available in CPS is profound. In Glenview (where they use exclusively Macs, mostly less than 3 years old), there are two mobile labs that can be signed out by any teacher at any time; there is a full-time technology support STAFF (that means more than one person) available on call; problems with any equipment are usually solved THE SAME DAY they are reported; there is a wealth of software; students have access to a variety of assistive technology devices (my teacher works especially with special needs children); students can log into their person accounts to access their files and setting from anywhere in the school district (including the library); the availability of digital cameras, scanners, printers, copiers, lamination machines, as well as materials for this equipment is nearly unlimited.

In the Chicago Public Schools--you won't be surprised to hear--there is much less technology: fewer machines, less availability of mobile labs or even computer labs to sign out; fewer peripherals; more older machines; less software; shakier technology support; limited money for ink and paper. This much, I imagine most of the public knows, because it is widely reported that while CPS spends about $5800 per elementary school pupil, some of the suburbs spend as much as $14,000. (Glenview spends about $7,000$10,780 per elementary school pupil, showing that it isn't only expenditures that makes the difference.) The general public recognizes that many suburban districts have great schools--that's why many families with kids move there, if they can afford to.

What is not so well understood is what comes through from comparing the analyses written by the CPS teachers. While none of these teachers are in a "charter" or "magnet" school, the differences between the schools in terms of equipment, software, support, and administrative concern about technology is HUGE!

In one of the schools described by one of my teachers, the "computer teacher" (who also serves as technology coordinator, but who gets no time to perform that role) almost never gets any requests from the teachers to tie her computer instruction into the regular curriculum. The computers in her school are (for the most part) running Windows 98 (and of course they crash regularly). In another school, 7 of the 34 computers in the lab "do not function"; another regular classroom teachers has 3 computers in her classroom (there is no computer lab in her school); of those, only 1 currently functions while the other two "await repairs."

In the Glenview school described by my teacher, one gets the impression that technology is valued, and that it is used regularly as seamlessly as a regular accompaniment of instruction. In at least one CPS school, with 175 functioning computers in the building, and 6 or 7 in each classroom, the computers are also used regularly by the teachers as part of the daily instructional routine. But in some of the CPS schools, one gets the impression that the kids get "computer class" once a week for 40 minutes (in which they learn, perhaps, MS Excel apart from any curriculum context) and never during the regular classroom; or students are allowed to "play games" on the classroom computer as a reward for finishing other work early.

What perhaps bothers me more than anything about reading these papers is the difference in outlook, or attitude of those who work in the better-endowed versus barely-endowed schools. An air of optimism, cheerfulness, expectation, readiness, and (indeed) professional fulfillment attends the papers of the suburban teacher and the one who works at a fairly well-endowed CPS school, while the overall impression from the poorly-endowed CPS school teachers is one of depression, despair, resignation, helplessness, and approaching apathy. My students (the teachers) KNOW what's fair to kids; what works for teachers; what is "up-to-date" and what is not. They know that "the system" (of which they feel as cogs in the machine rather than empowered participants) is failing the kids.

Many studies have shown that when you "correct" for other variables, technology makes little difference in student achievement. You can have a "high performing" school with little technology as well as with a lot; and you can have a "low performing" school with a lot of technology (or so they say). And it's true that if you just count the number of computers or internet access points the schools do not differ all that much. But the "impression" (perhaps the "gestalt" is a better word) that one FEELS in response to the different situations described by my students is extremely telling. It's not "about" the technology; rather, it's "about" the attitudes that are engendered by the overall level of physical, emotional, technical, and administrative support in these buildings, and about the personal energy that teachers have (either left over, or generated) for the students.

The other thing that comes through clearly to me is that even within CPS, there is a pernicious and absolutely "effective" system of "natural selection" among the schools for the talented, energetic, and visionary teachers. The most stressed out and unhappy of these students work in the most depressing, under-resourced situation. The more forward-looking and optimistic of them work in the better schools. My sense is that the causal influence goes both ways. The schools with visionary and excited principals are able to attract the brighter and more optimistic staff memhers, which in turn reinforces their already-happy atmosphere. The teachers who feel trapped in stiuations where their talents are neither tapped nor inspired are the ones who are the most pessimistic and down-cast to begin with. And these unhappy teachers, I hate to say, are doomed to stay in those situations, unless they manage to raise themselves above the muck that surrounds them.

The image of "natural selection" that I just referred to is, in fact, fairly descriptive of what is happening in the American educational "system" (or, more accurately systems). Survival of the fittest operates not so much on the basis of what people deserve, but on what they already have. The poorer do, indeed, get drawn further down, and behind. The richer get richer, and feel generally entitled to their, um...., entitlements. Teachers, increasingly, are competed for the same way that cities and towns compete for industries with tax breaks and special dispensations. The teachers with "the right stuff" find themselves drawn to the magnet schools (in the city) or the suburban schools; the ones who increasingly fall into despair or who cannot remain optimistic, competitive, and cheerful become the "veterans teachers" in the poorer neighborhood schools, struggling against many odds to maintain their own sense of purpose and to transmit that sense to the children. With dilapidated equipment, uncaring administrators, non-existent support, and no real future to look forward to, it is no wonder that the children themselves fall increasingly behind, subjected, in turn, to their own natural selection forces once they leave school:

"Technology has eliminated many U.S. jobs, as has global competition, particularly from low-wage countries such as China. Highly skilled, educated workers in America will thrive as demand rises... while low-skilled jobs remain vulnerable to outsourcing." Source.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Should "technology integration" be an important goal in schools?

I was being interviewed the other day by a technology consultant who is writing a chapter for a book about best practices in professional development. One of the questions that she asked me was "What are the most effective ways that schools can increase technology integration in the curriculum." The implication of her question--confirmed when I asked some questions about it--was that technology integration is without a doubt a good thing, and anything that schools can do to increase technology integration is also a good thing.

As someone who works in a university program called "Technology in Education," I would be expected to be an advocate of technology integration. And yet I found myself quibbling with the assumptions of the question, instead of answering it as posed.

What I found myself saying (and, upon reflection, wanted to reiterate here) is that technology integration is not necessarily a good thing. There are both good and bad applications of technology, and schools should strive not to maximize technology integration, but to maximize student learning. When the use of technology increases student learning enough that the negative consequences of using the technology are offset, then technology integration is a good thing.

Some of the negative consequences of using technology are easy to see. Computers cost money that must come from somewhere; often, it comes from other parts of the budget, such as textbooks, materials and supplies, teacher salaries (or from not hiring someone to decrease class size, the extracurricular budget, facilities, science equipment, musical instruments. Even when computers are funded using "new" dollars such as from a grant or referendum, putting the money to computers means that other needs remain un- or under funded. The effort necessary to pass a referendum to purchase computers might be better placed into building a new gymnasium.

But computers can "cost" the school in less obvious and more pernicious ways. Veteran teachers who rely on more traditional methods often are marginalized. Decision-making often becomes heavily influenced by techies on the faculty, in the administration, or on the staff. Computers take up space that might be used for other purposes. Student (and teacher) attention devoted to computers might otherwise be spent on art projects, or face-to-face discussion, or social activities that don't have obvious educational purposes.

Teachers who are pushed to "integrate technology" are differentially affected by this pressure. Younger, more technically oriented teachers, or those predisposed to group work or "open-ended" projects, may find that such expetations help them to do what they already want to do, while other teachers--older, perhaps, or more given to lecture or traditional assignments such as research papers or seat work, or more interested in whole class discussion--may find such expectations distracting or annoying. Some teachers may even become "turned off" from the school administration and spend precious energy on resistance and refusal rather than on doing what they do best.

When a school makes an investment in computers, there is a natural desire on the part of the adminiistration to make them "worth it," and so teachers are pressured to use them, even when such use is not guaranteed to increase student learning. And the truth is that a lot of the ways that computers get used in schools may actually decrease learning. A project that 25 years ago might involve use of the school library might be redesinged to use the Internet, where students are much more likely to use questionable sources, to "copy and paste," and to waste time with endless browsing. Student presentations become protracted opportunities to practice using a variety of fonts and colors in PowerPoint. Activities that might previously have focused on the construction of a diorama or collage shift to a competitioin to see who can find the funniest cartoon about the Cold War.

The best studies of the effects of technology integration show that technology integration per se has little beneficial effect on student learning. Other than the likely effect of increasing technology skills themselves (a relatively minor goal in the wide range of learning objectives), technology integration only improves student achievement when their use is combined with substantial changes in teachning methodlogy, class management, and assessment. Rarely do technology budgets include sufficient teacher training is the mere use of the technology, let alone in the complex contextual alterations necessary to support increased achievement.

If we look at the history of education during the last 2500 years or so, the methods that have "worked" have varied little. The major technological change prior to the late 20th century was moveable type, and the mass production of books that made possible. The advent of books worried some academics, who feared what their availability would do to students' listening and reasoning skills. It would be hard to find someone today who continued to argue that "book integration" is bad for schools. But there is a lot of bad "book integration"--both teaching methods that use books improperly and the use of bad books (such as most textbooks). And if you think about it, the availability of books has certainly had a negative effect on people's ability to listen to lectures or oral storytelling, which has become a nearly lost art.

If we allow ourselves to think critically about the use of computers in education, we will likely find ourselves critical of many of the practices we see in schools. I can think of dozens of scenarios in which I have seen computers misused. There are many more examples of misuse than examples where the use of the computer clearly increased student learning. Most computer use in schools is mindless, unimaginative, and anti-intellectual. Encouraging more of such use is tantamount to seeking more mindlessness, less imagination, and less focus on intelligent teaching and learning than we have currently.

By almost any criteria, we should urge caution in the push to "integrate technology" in schools. Rather, we should urge educators to focus on the desired result--student learning--and use technology only when it helps achieve that goal.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Why is information expensive?

Everyone should subscribe to A Word A Day. For more info see

In addition to a new word every day, the service also provides a new "random" quotation every day. Here's the one from today:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. -Herbert Alexander Simon, economist, Nobel laureate (1916-2001)
The idea that information "consumes" our attention (and even ourselves) us is interesting to me, and it is one of the primary reasons that we need to teach our students how to make good decisions about what to pay attention to, especially since our popular culture is infatuated with "information" that is of little educational value.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"For their own good"

I was truly gratified and surprised that only a day or so after I posted my first real blog entry (just below this one) that I had 9 substantive, engaged comments from others who are interested in this topic. I thought: hey, this blogging thing might be fun. I also thought: I better watch what I say because people will notice! :-)

It is interesting to me that the comments ranged from "kids will be kids and you can't stop 'em although you should try a little bit but it's really the parents' job" to "the school damn well should inform the parents of what the specific kids are doing because we have to do everything we can to save them from themselves."

This latter type of comment is the kind of reaction that I saw from some of those veteran teachers at IL-TCE, and which led me to make my post in the first place. The impulse to do whatever it takes to protect the kids, even to the point of "telling on them" to their parents, makes sense if you focus entirely on the harm that could come to them if we don't. It certainly is "for their own good" if by informing their parents we save them from abduction and rape and if their parents or the school can make an example of them and save lots of other kids from making these stupid mistakes in the first place. If we ONLY focus on the benefits of "extreme intervention" then extreme intervention is always justified.

(This, of course, is part of the reason that so many Americans support the so-called War on Terror or the so-called War on Drugs. If by curtailing the civic liberties just a little bit of every American, or by jailing just a few more American citizens for drug and gang behavior we can prevent another 9/11 or save a 13 year old ambitious young black girl from being shot by an assualt rifle while looking out of her front window, well then it's worth it!)

Yet.... Yet... Yet....

I'm sorry to say this, but we also have to look at the negative consequences of these extreme interventions. And there are negative consequences. The loss of civility resulting from every tiny little increase in our fear of strangers in the streets is eventually palpable. Eventually, we lose everything if we give up "only what is necessary" to be "completely" safe from terror, or random violence. We become nothing more than bats huddled in the proverbial cave if we can no longer let ourselves lay without a care on the soft grass in a city park, or take a bus downtown with our kids to visit the museum. We lose an immeasurable amount of parental involvement and fatherly love by locking up so many young men for relatively minor crimes. (Where have all the fathers gone?.....)

What I'm saying is that EVERY social intervention, minor or extreme, has unintended consequences. When teachers become "the MAN" who cannot be trusted because they will inevitably "tell on you if they find out," children put less effort into school, view every rule with suspicion, and begin to work even harder to hide their behavior, becoming "hardened criminals" (instead of just naive kids) well before their time.

I think it makes sense for the tech-savvy teachers to educate their colleagues on the dangers of myspace, and to make sure their students and their students' parents understand these dangers as well. That's our job as teachers: education. But when we start "informing" on kids to parents we immediately begin to tear down whatever trust exists with our students. I realize that in many schools there is very little trust to begin with. My message is that this, too, can probably be traced to things that we or others did in the past, allegedly "for their own good."

I look forward to further discussion.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Loving teachers who love too much

Last week I attended the Illinois Technology Conference for Educators (IL-TCE), an annual event that, for me, is primarily an opportunity to spend time with old and new colleagues and see what the vendors are trying to sell to the schools. Sometimes I attend a session that offers an interesting and novel approach to using technology in the classroom, although most of the sessions are more mainstream, reflecting the "dissemination" phases of a new technology rather than innovation.

Oftentimes, I am more struck by what is being discussed in the hallways and lunchtables at the conference. This year, my ears perked up as I was walking from the exhibit area to the lunch area. I passed a group of veteran female teachers talking animatedly with each other. I paused briefly to take in a bit of their conversation. One teacher was saying to the others "and so, by going to her page and following the links, I was able to find out who her friends are and what they are doing as well." It didn't take long before I realized they were talking about, an Internet site that allows anyone to post a personal "home page" with links to friends, photos, music, and various other stuff too eclectic to be described.

As the conversation proceeded, the theme that emerged was that these teachers have come to realize that offers them unprecedented access to the private lives and private thoughts of their students, and they are APPALLED. I mean appalled at the things that some of their teenage students are thinking about and doing (parties, drinking, sex, drugs...). It amazes them that their students aren't even embarrassed to admit to these things on myspace, and that in fact their students seem proud of their exploits (or, in many cases, their desired exploits). "Don't they know that anyone can read this stuff on the Internet?" exclaimed one anxious teacher?

The other thing that emerged from the conversation (I was looking at the program, appearing not to be paying too much attention) was that these teachers really are anxious for their students, especially their female students, and their protective, teacherly instincts are kicking in. Several of the teachers described new efforts in their school districts to systematically explore the myspace pages of their students and to either confront the students with the idiocy of putting this stuff out there for the public or even informing their parents. Many of the teachers believe that they have a public duty (as the most technologically savvy of the caring adults in their communities) to act to protect their students.

While I applaud this impulse and believe it to be a manifestation of the eternal moral duty of teachers to guide and protect the young, I also find it a little disturbing, that the teachers feel so adamantly that it is their duty not only to counsel the students but, perhaps, to inform their parents. I think I would take a somewhat less activist approach, and instead send home a letter from the principal to all the parents letting them know about this new form of PDA (public display of, um, whatever it is) and urging the parents to talk to their students about the advisability of putting certain kinds of information out into public.

Without a doubt, every parent of a youngster, age 10 to 20, who has regular access to the Internet, ought to be wondering how his or her child is responding to the opportunities and challenges of this new information age. Any parent who doesn't know what his or her teenager is posting on myspace or elsewhere is abdicating his or her duty to protect and counsel them. Teachers who are similarly informed are, perhaps, going beyond the call of their duty, but you've got to love 'em for it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Welcome to technopaideia, the blog of Craig A. Cunningham.

I am interesting in the relationship between education and technology, but also in education itself and in technology itself: in thw ways we learn and the tools we use.

But more than that, in the ways our society decides to educate and the tools our society chooses to use.

I'll be writing about these topics in this blog.