Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.


Tinkering: A “Boys Only” Club?

Boys only?

According to the NCES, since 2004, girls have -in general- been shown to outdo boys in nearly every measure of academic success.  Girls outpace boys on nearly every one of our measures of “winning” when it comes to school.  And yet, when push comes to shove on earning degrees in engineering or computer science, boys still outpace girls by margins of 77% and 85% respectively.  The overarching assertion:  girls don’t tinker. Or at least, they aren’t often encouraged to.

Tinker. In nearly every published version, the origin of the word seems to trace back to an itinerant mender of kitchen utensils- and more specifically, those made of tin.  As a verb (of which we are obviously more interested here) it hints of clumsy, unskilled or experimental efforts.


After that little search, I’m even more interested than before.  Clumsy?  Haphazard?  Unskilled?  Somehow I have always elevated the word in my mind toward something more sophisticated.  I wonder why I so highly regard this word (and many of its associated meanings) when it seems this may not even be the general consensus at all.


Just last week I read an Education Week article entitled Teaching Girls to Tinker by author Lisa Damour.  As an educator of nearly twenty years and a father of two girls under three years of age, this article certainly gave me pause.  I’ve gone forty years (see how I slid that big number in as text) assuming that even if “tinkering” was not done with a specific purpose in mind, it was still a valuable effort.  The idea of tinkering being a valuable pursuit seems to be at odds with the definitions I found today.  And yet the truth remains…  at times, connotation means everything.  Think of how these two statements paint opposite connotations of the word:

He tinkered with the nation’s economy by regularly deregulating banks.

She tinkered with the lure in order to make it run deeper in the water.

Perhaps overall success… or gravitas plays a role here?  Of course my take on this comes through the lens of a teacher/instructional coach.  Before sitting here to type this evening, I even asked the Twitter crew what sort of off-the-top-of-your-head definition they’d give for the word.  Twelve of them responded with:

tweeps on tinkering

tweeps on tinkering

I see tinkering on par with the sort of purposeful play I so highly value in the classroom.  The kind of play we don’t do enough.  The sort of thing most NCLB required state exams force teachers to push aside.

I find it interesting that although some of the twelve Twitter responses speak of tinkering as simply “messing about,” most contain language that seems to elevate the activity a bit, such as: “investigate”, “modify”, and “explore.”  Several even mentioned it as something that leads to an actual accomplishment.  Is it perhaps that the vast majority of these people are educators?  Or is it that they are progressives?  Things got even weirder while writing this post tonight when I clicked a Twitter link to view the list of scheduled “conversations” at Educon2.2.  A quick scan down the list shoved me smack into a Sylvia Martinez presentation entitled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency.”  Her brief description of the session mentions that the content will surround themes she’s been exploring on her blog.  Networked digits provide digital serendipity, no?

Tinker vs. struggle?

Regardless of our take on the meaning of tinkering, apparently by some measures girls are not being afforded an equal share of the tink.  Damour points to the 1994 book Failing at Fairness which includes an observation that, “…teachers allow boys to struggle with mathematics problems long after they have rushed in and rescued girls from the same struggle.”  This seems certainly overlapped with the concept of “tinkering” mentioned here…  but it also seems to go in a bit of a different direction.  This quote speaks directly of struggle.  How much overlap do you see in these two words?

scientific struggles

I try to create struggles every day.  More often than not, it’s my classroom modus operandi.  In short, I try to engage students in a concept…  address the fuzziness between what we know and what we don’t know… point towards the structure we’ll be using to explore it…  settle on how we’ll evaluate our work…  and then allow the relatively safe struggle between learning and meaning to take place.  My role is coach.  My day to day mission is to support this type of tinkering with ideas within the framework of standards in which we work.

This tinkering takes its highest form when actually following a problem through to include actual harvesting and analysis of data followed by conclusions that lead back to more problems.  In line with data presented in the article, my females generally tend to outpace my males in achievement.  How do the numbers hold up by the time my students graduate from college?  Even with the dawn of social media, this data is still fuzzy.  So I’m left to wonder…  could I too indirectly contribute to the tinker-divide outlined by Damour?

At home

The bottom line for me is that any article that comes back to haunt me a day later is a good one.  In fact, just the other night I found this one still on my mind.  That night my two-year old approached me in the kitchen with toy troubles.  She had stuffed far too many toys into a little lunchbox that holds critters.  While holding it up to me with two hands and two big eyes, she asked me to “fix it, Daddy.”  I looked down to see both ends of the latch not quite matching up with the strain of the critter load.

the tinker box

My gut reaction was to reach right down and latch it right up for my little dollface.  However, I stopped short…  sat down beside her and coached her through it without touching it myself.  I wonder how that might have played out if Delaney were a boy.  I don’t consider these tiny struggles to be “tinkering.”  I do, however, consider them to be related.

And yes, I still open doors for women.  When you’re forty (twice in one post!) and were raised to be (roughly) a gentleman, it is just something you do as a kneejerk.  Heck, to me it is a courtesy thing toward other humans in general.  So yes, I treat men and women differently on a conscious level.  It’s the subconscious level I wonder about.


*Sculpture by iwishmynamewasmarsha on Flickr.
*Twitstream definitions by the twelve mentioned in the image.
*Classroom inquiry by me.
*Tinkerbox by me


Collaborative social media: How do you do business?

Shifting practices

Not long ago, the MS Office suite comprised the bulk of computer applications in the world of mainstream business.  I have to admit that as a career biology educator and instructional coach, I have precious little knowledge of the “real” business world.  That said, this past year I have found my work overlapping many trends in business as I explore the efficacy of collaborative online applications in education.  I am deeply interested in them as a framework for professional development as well as for classroom utilization.

“Yeah, but mainstream businesses aren’t using the Web 2.0 stuff…  those are mostly a few cutting edge companies with money to burn.”

How much more “mainstream” can you get than Best BuyWill Richardson pointed to the above video a couple of days back on Twitter, and I have held that browser window open since that time.  I really enjoy some of the language found within.  For example, one gentleman interviewed said that Web 2.0 applications allow the workforce to “…try a lot of different things, fail really fast, and then try things again.”  I dig that attitude in almost any endeavor.  To me it is pretty clear that being fearless and willing to innovate is a big plus in much of the business world as well as in education.  I also like the fact that another interviewee listed the following things as benefits to social media applications being implemented within the company structure:

  • better loyalty
  • less office politics
  • ability to meet other individuals passionate about the same things
  • ability to stretch an idea across an entire organization

fail gloriously

Shifting schools

Now which of those things is not good as well for a school faculty?  Of course blind loyalty leads often to the Abilene Paradox, and this is never a good thing.  However, other than that, I’m betting that this list of four things is something all school administrators and staff would value in their world as well.

Those four items, as well as a few others, are a target of our school’s shiny new social network- Virtual Southside.  This site was piloted by a cohort of 20 teachers and administrators at Benton High this year in the midst of an academic technology integration program.  Starting next year, with our entire staff online in the program, this site will be a major part of how we conduct asynchronous staff professional development.  Today I interviewed several cohort members about the benefits of working within our social network this past school year.  A short list of their replies about our foray into social media is as follows:

  • develop general comfort with social media
  • ability to collaborate asynchronously
  • differentiated professional development
  • makes all staff a “professional developer”
  • makes professional work transparent
  • allows feedback from a wider dynamic of personalities
  • provides an archival record
  • creates an avenue for extrinsic motivation

virtual southside

Nearing the end of our first year employing social media in our school and in our classrooms, I am excited to see some of the benefits rolling in.  In my opinion, the featured video showing similar strategies in a mainstream business model provides another interesting nod to the value of utilizing these strategies with our teachers and students as well.  Are collaborative social tools being used currently where you work?  What role do you see for social media in our schools and with our students?

Artwork thanks:

*Thanks to Stephen Collins for the “fail gloriously” slide image.

Connectedness Has Colleague Seeing Pink

Below is the text of an e-mail I received from a favorite colleague, Terri Johnson, a day ago.  This is a fun little glimpse into one of the many connections being made worldwide by teachers in my district this year.  While I could go on about positive global connections made by colleagues in the quest to create personal learning networks- this time I got a really nice little play-by-play.

Pink Shirt Day

I had to tell someone–and I knew you’d appreciate it.

A series of serendipitous events:

  • 1. You taught me the value of Web 2.O.
  • 2. I finally started using Twitter.
  • 3. Following lots of great people.
  • 4. Barak Obama tells all Americans to try to help others-volunteer. (I read about it via Twitter and watching live streaming at etc.)
  • 5. Thought, OK! What can I do? What can my students do?
  • 6. @teachmescience on Twitter Discusses National Pink Shirt Day to put an end to Bullying.
  • 7. I recall Pink Shirt Day being mentioned on Channel One last year.
  • 8. Start a discussion in my Teacher Advisory Class about the Pink Shirt Day and Bullying-they decide we should promote it at Truman.
  • 9. We’ve made posters, kids have created Commercials to run in the AM at Channel TMS (our student run news program.), and are creating pink “labels” for kids to pass out and wear on the date-February 25th.
  • 10. I mentioned this to @teachmescience via Twitter as a thank you for the heads up.
  • 11. She mentions this via e-mail to the Radio Station who started Pink Shirt Day.
  • 12. Evidently “National” meant Canada.
  • 13. Said radio station just e-mailed me asking to set up a telephone interview for Wednesday Afternoon.

How fun is that?!?


So, apparently, she and a couple of her students did a radio interview on the Christy Clark show during school today on CKNW AM980 in British Columbia, Canada.  Unfortunately, it was far too wild of a day for me to listen in, but I hear it was a great experience for all.  A little research on my end led me to the website for Pink Shirt Day, as well as Christy Clark’s page on the topic.  Apparently, this little movement aimed at ending bullying is gaining quite a head of steam, as Ms. Clark says on her site:

“I encourage all of you to wear something pink to symbolize that we as a society will not tolerate bullying anywhere. I wish I could take credit for this idea but it comes from two incredible Nova Scotia high school students.”

Terri-  of course I’m hoping you’ll pipe in here to give up a few more of the details.  Way to dive in an immerse yourself with like-minded professionals the world over.  And what’s more…  involving your students every step along the way in real social action.  You are modeling some pretty powerful connections.

*UPDATE: This just in, an audio link the piece (about halfway through).

Trolling My PLN For Edtech Vision

Calling all brains

I’m asking for your help.  If you could pick anyone, anything, or anyplace, What books would you read?  What conferences, workshops, or meetings would you attend?  Who would you travel to meet with?  Who would you fly in to sit at the table with you?  Who would you pick to help you in your strategic brainstorming or planning?  Who could help inject progressive, innovative ideas about the future of education and the technologies that will drive it?  Anyone.  Yes, I am serious.


This post is a straightforward attempt to leverage the power of my PLN.  It is my goal to get some fresh input about that very thing…  fresh input.  As a generalist instructional coach on what could realistically be called a “21st Century upgrade” mission in my building, I have spent countless hours in research this past year.  In fact, this blog originated from some of my earliest explorations into how a school can systematically raise the tech literacy of its staff ahead of a larger edtech implementation with students.

Here’s the deal

I am pleased to say that I work in a district with some success in incubating innovation.  We locally help to fund innovation with a fantastic “Apple Seed” grant program for creative projects.  We also celebrate ingenuity with an “Innovator of the Year” award- presented alongside the T.O.Y. award each year.  On a district wide level, our administrators in charge of curriculum & instruction are working hard to implement constructivist-leaning instruction and content-specific best practices.

In my opinion, we have long lacked such a mandated, district level approach to educational technology integration.  We invested early in a robust and speedy system-wide fiber optic network.  We have always succeeded in putting current, state of the art technological tools in the hands of our children.  What we now recognize the need for, is an innovative and comprehensive plan to elevate the technological savvy of all SJSD faculty members.  21st Century literacy skills (whatever you think those might be) cannot be developed in our children by skipping over our staff to do so.  We are ready to do the staff development required in readying our own workforce…  to ready those of the future.

macbook pro inside out

Our crew

A district task force was assembled to study the situation.  Our group consists of three instructional coaches, one social studies teacher, a library/media specialist, our district’s technology curriculum specialist, and our chief operating officer.  We have been told that we are “taking one year to study.”  One year to learn everything we can about what the future of learning will look like-  at least with regard to information and communication technologies.  Experimentation with free online technologies has been spawned and is growing in a grassroots way in a few places already.  My home high school actually has a building-wide implementation plan that was put into play this past summer.

The goal is to get just enough perspective about what we are currently doing… and what we still need to do…  before making any more large scale technology purchases.  The idea is to put the “buy it and they will come” -approach to edtech integration to bed for good.  This task force is headed by our C.O.O.  He is a direct sitting member of our superintendent’s council.  This level of buy-in is aligned what I had in mind when I wrote a post entitled “Increasing Our Level of Vitamin A” last November.  We are really to the point in our little corner of the world where we need to think long and hard about our mission and vision prior to buying even one more laptop.  Smart move, methinks.  And this mission had better be flexible.  Life moves pretty fast in these circles.


Why should you care?

I don’t know if I can say why you should care about a project in Missouri.  However, I do believe I know why you will.  Because you are a bunch of committed, forward-thinking educators.  Folks like us know the power of buy-in at all levels of implementation.  Here’s betting that the readers of this blog realize the power potential of solid know-how combined with administrative support.

Please help.  I could submit my own recommendations.  I essentially do that quite regularly behind the driver’s seat of this blog.  The articles I write examine interesting avenues and advocate passionate positions.  My blogroll is a list of folks I rely on for new learning.  I have a set of books on my shelf that were important to me, but really…   the elements of my learning network allow it to be a dynamic, hyper-responsive, thing.  There is even a pretty good chance you came here from the Twitterverse-  and that has become a frighteningly good resources as of late.

Speed Writing

We are locked and loaded for NECC 2009.  We are set for a sit-down at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino this March.  We recently sent a small contingent to METC 2009 for a last minute look at a few of the presenters.  We are ready to grab a few keystone texts for the group to dive into.  We are ready to visit the top workshops available where our learning/time ratio will be strongest.

We are going to take a slow, smart, focused look at this issue.  I can make informed suggestions as it is.  Yet- this post marks one of the ways I am increasingly gaining input.  Here’s betting that an emerging best practice in “informed decision making” includes surveying your PLN as an crucial step.  What do you say…  will you make a suggestion for our study?

Artwork thanks:
*Fisketur by ergates on Flickr
*MacBook Pro Inside Out by Christoph*B on Flickr
*Focus by ihtatho on Flickr
*Speed Writing by margot.trudell on Flickr