Tag Archives: teaching

Making a Google Sites Portfolio Assessment More Accessible Via Screencast

Technology in education is certainly a two-edged sword. On the one hand, modern technology gives students fantastic opportunities to learn in ways that were previously difficult, expensive, or impossible for teachers to design. Teachers often appreciate new technology tools that allow them to perform many of the complex or tedious tasks of education, like correcting papers and analyzing testing data, more effectively and efficiently. Modern media tools also have the potential to convey instruction–and develop problem-solving skills–much more effectively than the overhead projectors and chalkboards I used when I started my teaching career (Net Industries, 2017, para. 11).

On the other hand, new hardware and software learning tools are being developed and modified at a rapid pace that can overwhelm even the most tech-savvy educators. Often when I show teachers a new tech tool to make their jobs easier, they will ask me how long I think it will take for this tool to be replaced by something even better. My worst fear is that education technology might turn into a sort of Red Queen’s Race, in which teachers, like Alice in Wonderland, must constantly run just to stay in the same place (Carroll, 1871).

I’m currently working on designing my Demo Course Unit, which is a mini-course for teachers who would like to integrate visual media tools into their instruction. I’d like my teachers to build an electronic portfolio as a summative assessment for this Demo Unit, so that they can collect and share several artifacts that represent what they have learned about using modern technology tools in their lesson designs. I have decided that the best way to provide structure to this rather open-ended assessment is to provide my teachers with a template they may use to construct their New Google Sites portfolios (Wise, 2017b). My template will be shared with my teachers in a way that incorporates some variation in representation, which is an important consideration of Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2015). I will provide my teachers with both a direct link to the template site and a narrated screencast video with subtitles (Wise, 2017a).


Carroll, L. (1871). Through the looking-glass [Project Gutenberg version]. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm

CAST. (2015). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WI4edhsrLD4

Net Industries. (2017). Media and learning – definitions and summary of research, do media influence the cost and access to instruction? Retrieved from State University Education Encyclopedia web site: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2211/Media-Learning.html

Wise, B. (2017a). How to build your media tools portfolio on New Google Sites [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/kGHN2_oklJg

Wise, B. (2017b). Template – media tools. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/mail.brandman.edu/wise-eduu628-demo-summ-port/

Using Google Sites to Create a Portfolio that Teachers Will Really Use

Since I left the classroom to work as an EdTech Specialist in my district, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to design a Demo Unit based on K-12 content standards such as the Common Core or NGSS. Rather, because my students are adult teachers with students of their own, I needed to find a set of standards that address professional learning and practice for teachers using technology in their classrooms. Fortunately, such a set of standards already exists; in fact, the ISTE Standards for Teachers have been adopted and used by many educators (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008).

For the purposes of my Demo Unit, I have selected ISTE Teacher Standard 2a, which states that teachers “[d]esign or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity” (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008, p. 1). I selected this standard because I try not to dazzle my teachers with all of the latest technological tools, but rather to show them how technology tools can be thoughtfully and strategically used to support and enhance student learning. I love this particular standard because it focuses on using technology tools to support not only student learning, but also creativity. I am convinced that technology should not be used only as a substitute for traditional textbook-based instruction. Teachers should also use technology to allow their students to create meaningful products with relevance to their everyday lives.



In keeping with the spirit of 21st Century learning, this standard’s key verb is to design, which occupies perhaps the highest position on Bloom’s taxonomy (Armstrong, 2017). In my school district, we spend a lot of time and resources on thoughtful lesson design. I work in the Education Services division of my District Office, where I frequently collaborate with our twelve Instructional Coaches on lesson studies and concept-building activities with grade-level and subject-area teams of teachers. We often help teachers build complete lessons using complex templates that incorporate instructional norms including lesson objectives, content and skill development, embedded checks for understanding, relevance, and (of course) technology.


My teachers work in virtually every type of classroom imaginable, from transitional kindergarten to adult school, including both general-education and special-education settings. Thus, it is important for my summative assessment to be open-ended enough that each teacher would be able to create a practical and relevant project that could be used with his or her own students. I decided the best way to accomplish this goal was to assign my teachers to construct an online portfolio of lessons, learning activities, and assessments using the New Google Sites.

The ISTE Standard gives the option of designing or adapting lessons; therefore, it isn’t essential that the teacher personally design each item in the portfolio from scratch. In fact, teachers need to know how to efficiently and strategically adapt preexisting lesson resources to meet their students’ needs. The rubric for this portfolio won’t focus excessively on details of the artifacts themselves. Rather, I hope to focus my teachers’ attention mainly on the planning, feedback, and reflection associated with each artifact. In the end, I want my teachers to design a portfolio of technology-based lesson resources that they, their colleagues, and their students will really use.


Armstrong, P. (2017). Bloom’s taxonomy. Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). ISTE standards for teachers. Retrieved from http://iste.org/standards

My Journey from Ed-Tech Novice to Expert

According to Herr (2007), one of the most important differences between an expert and a novice is that experts are able to recognize patterns fluently with little or no effort (para. 14). Whereas a novice might be able to mobilize good strategies in order to solve a problem, experts have the ability to take a step back and assess whether or not the problem at hand is truly the most important problem.

Early in my teaching career, I once asked my principal if she could increase my copy budget, because I didn’t have enough funds to duplicate all of the lab instruction booklets I wanted for my science students. Because the principal was an expert, her response to my request was not a simple yes or no answer. Instead, she asked me a series of reflective questions about how my lab program was structured, in order to better judge whether my lab instruction packets were the best use of limited funds. Her motivation may have been, in part, to help me find ways to stay within my copy budget (after all, principals know that money doesn’t grow on trees), but she also did something that only experts can do: She changed the conversation from a relatively minor funding request into a much more valuable reflection on what my students were expected to learn from their labs, and how I expected them to demonstrate that learning.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to the present year, and most of my colleagues regard me as an educational technology expert. One principal I recently worked for even refers to me as a technology guru. I don’t know if I can quite live up to that moniker, but as I reflect on my own learning journey through my current master’s degree program, I see that even experts can learn more. In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I wrote about technology’s potential to expand learning opportunities for students by motivating them to learn (Wise, 2016). While this is true, I didn’t mention another very important advantage of modern instructional technology: its capacity to make learning more accessible for students with different abilities and/or learning styles.

Over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about assistive technologies and universal design. For many students with special needs, modern technology makes a tremendous difference–not only in their learning, but in their entire lives. One of my colleagues recently showed me several types of software and devices that allow moderately and severely handicapped students to communicate; such technologies, she explained, give students access to language (K. Blevins, personal communication, March 8, 2017). I hadn’t thought about this idea much, mainly because I didn’t need to. As a general-education teacher, I’d only thought about assistive technologies and universal-design philosophy when I needed to adapt my curriculum because a special-needs student was enrolled in my class. Now my perspective has changed: Universal design isn’t just for students with special needs; it can benefit all students.

Of course, one of the consequences of being labeled an expert is that people turn to me for advice and answers to their trickiest problems. I hope that, over the course of the next several months, I may gain a deep understanding of universal design, so that I may provide useful services to not only my special-education colleagues, but for general-ed teachers as well. If I can manage to pull that off, then perhaps I may be one step closer to becoming a legitimate expert.


Herr, N. (2007). How experts differ from novices. Retrieved from The Sourcebook for Teaching Science web site: http://www.csun.edu/science/ref/reasoning/how-students-learn/2.html

Wise, B. (2016). Three ways electronic learning will be important to the classroom of the future [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://bwisetech.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/three-ways-electronic-learning-will-be-important-to-the-classroom-of-the-future/

Digital Curation: A Tool for 21st Century Learning

My first teaching job was in a high school science department that had a shared office where each of the teachers had a desk with one or two file cabinets. In those days, most lesson plans were still on paper, although there was a computer in the room with a floppy disk drive and a modest connection to the recently-invented world wide web. When I began working in that office, the department chair encouraged me to freely peruse and borrow lessons and resources from any of the other teachers, and then pointed out an empty file cabinet that I should use to begin my own collection of lessons that I would be willing to share.

I quickly learned which teachers could usually be trusted to have a well-organized drawer of carefully vetted lesson ideas, and which teachers simply stored 35 copies of every worksheet that came with their adopted textbook. The cabinets packed full of paper worksheets weren’t where I usually would find the best lesson plans, assessments, and project ideas, and herein lies the distinction between curating vs. collecting. Curators try to share a relatively small number of the best resources, whereas collectors tend to stash everything they can get their hands on. In his video, Pant (2013) gave the example of the sommelier as a curator of fine wine, which I think is an excellent analogy. Twenty years ago, I never would have consulted a sommelier except maybe to help pick the wine to be served at my wedding reception–but now, with a smartphone in my pocket, why wouldn’t I want to peek at a trusted wine review web site when I’m deciding which bottle of wine to pick up at the grocery store?

Simply put, technology has made quality curation available to everyone, including teachers. Educators now have access to literally millions of their colleagues’ virtual file cabinets on the Internet. These resources aren’t all paper worksheets, either; a URL can point to almost any type of media, from movies to blog posts to interactive learning environments. CourseWorld, for example, is a curated set of 16,000 educational videos that have been selected and indexed by a staff of over 50 experts in the humanities and arts (Nelson, 2013). What makes this site powerful is that the videos are organized in a well-designed topical hierarchy that allows a teacher to quickly drill down, with just a few mouse clicks, to a small set of vetted videos on a specific topic.

As we have discussed earlier in this course, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy emphasizes the variation of representation in teaching, so that students with varying abilities and learning styles will be able to succeed (CAST, 2011). A well-curated resource list should allow teachers to quickly access a variety of learning resources, preferably in a variety of formats, so that different types of learners can be supported. Curation itself can be an excellent authentic assessment task for students, because they would use higher-level thinking skills as they evaluate which resources they should collect into a portfolio. This is not just a cute way to structure a hands-on lesson; curation is quickly becoming a 21st century job skill, as more and more career fields depend on web-based resources for communication, training, design, and collaboration. Curation even has the power to open whole new types of learning for students. Sheninger (2013) described how high-school students used MIT OpenCourseWare to learn about video-game programming. This learning resource contained a carefully curated set of coding lessons, which the students were able to freely access as they were trying to figure out how to code their video games. Perhaps this is the most exciting possibility for digital curation: that people are free to use curated resources to quickly and efficiently teach themselves whatever they want to learn about virtually any subject.

Of course, digital curation does open up ethical and legal issues. Some of the best educational content on the Internet has been produced by people who have invested significant amounts of money and/or time. We teachers have liberal fair-use rights under copyright law, but we don’t get to steal expensive resources for free. A teacher who violates terms of use restrictions, even with the best of intentions, can expose himself (and the school district) to significant financial and legal liability. Even more importantly, we teachers have a responsibility to keep our students safe online. Many online learning resources are intended for older children or adults, and don’t feature the privacy protections and/or content filters that should be in place for younger children. Here is where curation is especially important: teachers should be able to quickly filter out web sites and web-based learning tools that aren’t appropriate to students at their grade level. In fact, this may be a part of the teaching role that won’t change by the end of the 21st century. No matter how much knowledge becomes available on the world wide web, and no matter how well that information is curated and organized for students, we will still need human teachers to guide students safely along their learning journey.


CAST. (2011). UDL at a glance [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/resource_library/videos/udlcenter/udl

Nelson, S. (2013, September 24). CourseWorld curates repository of free arts and humanities media [Web log comment]. Retrieved from THE Journal web site: https://thejournal.com/articles/2013/09/24/courseworld-launches-free-liberal-arts-video-platform.aspx#UMJwHJzTfQFaL6t5.99

Pant, A. (2013, October 7). Art of curation in education – course and instructor introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s5gpOQjuPh0

Sheninger, E. (2013, March 22). OCW supports independent study for N.J. high school students (via MIT News) [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://mitopencourseware.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/ocw-supports-independent-study-for-n-j-high-school-students-via-mit-news/

Immersive Learning: The Teacher Is Still the Teacher

The creators of the Scientopolis immersive science environment have created an interactive world where students can learn science by controlling virtual avatars in a medieval town (Immersive Education, 2012). As students make their way through the immersive learning activity, they use data from a variety of sources, including information provided by the simulation itself, which students can analyze using built-in data table and graph generators (Immersive Education, 2012). Of course, even though the students’ avatars are trapped in a virtual world of the past, the students themselves have access to an internet-connected computer, so they can also take full advantage of the research potential of the devices they have at hand.

Ideally, a teacher should structure a learning activity using this software in a way that requires students to synthesize information from a variety of sources. In the Scientopolis weather scenario, for example, students must devise a practical solution for a multi-year drought based on simulation data and their own understanding of meteorology from their science lessons (Immersive Education, 2012). If I were using this tool in my own science classroom, I would try to present the problem as a complex one that has more than one plausible answer; that way, students would be forced to make difficult decisions based on careful cost-benefit analysis. This unit on drought would be particularly relevant to my students, who live in California’s Central Valley, where the entire population is quite familiar with the challenges a community faces when water is in short supply.

An immersive and complex learning experience should contain assessments that are also immersive and complex. Formative assessment is crucial in such a learning activity. It may be tempting for a teacher to assume a back-seat role while students are working independently in their virtual worlds, but that would be a mistake. Just because students are learning by doing in an online environment, it is still the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that students are on-track towards meeting the project’s predetermined learning goals. In the specific case of the Scientopolis module, a teacher might use a variety of periodic checks for understanding, including quick surveys at the end of each daily lesson, or perhaps a longer paragraph writing prompt that asks the student to summarize progress towards the objectives. Also, teachers should not forget to check in, face-to-face, with students on a regular basis.

These formative assessments should then be used to make any necessary adjustments as the project unfolds. A teacher may discover, for example, that the project timeline may need to be adjusted, or some struggling students may need to be provided with strategic hints in order to catch up. Also, teachers should have one or more enrichment activities ready to assign in case one or more advanced students complete their projects early.

When it comes to summative assessment, teachers should not rely solely on multiple-choice or similar objective tests when students complete an immersive learning experience. After all, much of what the students learn would be impossible to measure with multiple-choice test questions anyway. Ideally, students should be asked to demonstrate their learning by completing a practical project. In the drought example mentioned above, for instance, students might prepare a real-life narrated multimedia presentation about climate change and drought for a real-life town hall meeting. Such an assessment would require a carefully constructed rubric to ensure that students clearly understand the teacher’s expectations before they begin work. As Palloff and Pratt (2009) explained, rubrics can also help minimize the chance of conflict and disagreement about project grading (p. 70). Thus, by careful design, a teacher might use an immersive resource like Scientopolis to teach valuable critical-thinking skills while motivating students to achieve at higher levels.


Immersive Education. (2012, June 12). iED 2012 save science [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/pgvDKXkbCMo

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the online learner: Resources and strategies for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Academic Integrity & Online Assessment

One of my favorite ways to support academic integrity is to ask students questions that don’t have a simple, single answer. Palloff and Pratt (2009) suggested that plagiarism is more difficult when students must solve real-life problems because they might not be able to find resources that fit the unique local context of such an assignment (p. 46). This week’s Midterm assignment that I have just submitted was a good example of this strategy, because we were asked to design a presentation that we might use with our real-life colleagues. On this assignment, it would have been difficult for me to copy someone else’s answers, because my local school district and community are different from those of my classmates. My presentation, therefore, is designed with a unique audience in mind, so it’s unlikely that another student’s responses would be fully applicable to my local context, and an observant professor might note inconsistencies if a student tried to cheat in this way. Even if I were the sort of student who cheated (and I am not!), the assignment’s creative possibilities and clear relevance might persuade me to work honestly.

In the specific case of our Midterm this week, the fusion of two different media sources (YouTube and Prezi) helps guard against plagiarism because the time stamps and account information of both sources can be compared. It might be possible for a crafty plagiarist to falsify such information on either a Prezi or a YouTube video, but creating matching false details for both platforms would be more difficult.

I think dishonesty could be further prevented by adding a web cam requirement to the screencast videos. I elected to add a webcam to my assignment anyway, mainly because I wanted to gain some practice with this software feature (Wise, 2017). By showing my face and recording my own voice, my professor has an opportunity to compare my appearance, voice, and (perhaps most importantly) nonverbal cues and facial expressions compared to my appearances in other videos and webinars. Many online assessment services now incorporate photographing and/or capturing video of the student during testing; the same advantages of preventing impersonation apply here (Pearson Education, 2017). Also, if my video narrative doesn’t match the detail, tone, or syntax of my report, then that might be a red flag that at least some portions of my project might have been plagiarized.

The integrity of this assignment could be bolstered even further by requiring students to present their Prezis at a synchronous online webinar like Adobe Connect. The professor might lead a structured impromptu discussion before, during, or after the presentation. It would be difficult for a plagiarist to effectively answer detailed questions in real time.

If the authentic context is a priority, perhaps a student could be required to show his or her Prezi to one or more real-life colleagues, who would then have to submit a separate evaluation directly to the professor. Last year, for example, I had to submit a portfolio and video clip as part of my Google Certified Trainer application (Google for Education, 2017). In addition, I had to provide Google with the names and contact information for three people whom I had trained within the past year. These three people had to submit separate evaluations of my work directly to Google via their work Google accounts. It would have been very difficult for me to cheat on this portion of my application because I would have had to hack into the preexisting Google emails of 3 separate people with whom I work. To be honest, planning and executing a successful training session would be less labor-intensive than cheating on such an assessment!


Google for Education. (2017). Google for education: Certified trainer program. Retrieved from https://edutrainingcenter.withgoogle.com/certification_trainer 

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the online learner: Resources and strategies for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pearson Education. (2017). Deliver your own exam: Testing outside a test center. Retrieved from https://home.pearsonvue.com/Test-Owner/Deliver-your-exam/Testing-outside-a-test-center.aspx#OP   

Wise, B. (2017). Khan Academy: A rationale for blended learning at the high school level [Prezi file]. Retrieved from http://prezi.com/soll5du3vxny/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy

How Should Data Be Used in 21st Century Classroom?

Image source: Pixabay

How should data be used in the 21st century classroom? This is the million-dollar question (or, to be more precise, the multi-billion-dollar question) that faces educators today. Bill Gates has demonstrated that data-driven philanthropy can help mobilize limited resources to solve persistent human problems. Modern data technologies, for example, have helped alleviate some of the human suffering caused by infectious diseases and famine in Africa (Goldstein, 2013, para. 3).

In the case of America’s education system, I see a lot of potential to for data to help, because schools are highly complex systems with complex sets of interacting variables. I was trained as a biologist, and the complexity of our education system is akin to that of the biological world. Because there are so many species in so many habitats on our planet, it took several decades just for scientists to make enough sense of the flood of available data to develop a coherent theory–natural selection–in order to explain it all. A critical breakthrough occurred when early biologists developed a standardized system of classifying species, so that they could at least agree on what to call each species, and how to place groups of species into categories by using measurable data that could give insights into their evolutionary relationships.

I see a parallel development in American education today. Our students come from a fantastic diversity of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds with widely different learning styles and abilities, and they are taught in a dizzying variety of school settings. Meaningful reform and improvement cannot occur until educators to come to consensus on which curriculum standards to adopt, and how student learning of those standards should be measured. The widespread adoption of the Common Core standards has been a huge step forward in this regard, but in a perfect world, student learning needs to be assessed consistently as well, so that apples-to-apples comparisons may be made. I hope that the Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC) will provide some much-needed clarity in how we measure student learning. The test questions on this assessment do a good job of testing levels of understanding that weren’t easily measured by traditional multiple-choice test items by employing technologically enhanced question types (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, n.d.). However, one of the tricky things about the Smarter Balanced tests is figuring out how individual test questions relate to the standards and the claims, which are the big-picture learning goals upon which the State bases its student and school reports.

Trying to solve the puzzle of standards mapping on the SBAC; what’s more, many of the standards can be mapped to more than one claim. As a teacher, I want to be able to harness the best data analysis programs to give me practical advice about how to modify my instruction to best meet the needs of each of my students. I don’t want to try to learn all of the intricacies of the data analysis, because that would take valuable time that I would much rather spend crafting good lessons and working with my students. If I were in charge of a school campus or District, I would want to try to use a carefully vetted consulting firm, such as Learning Forward, to analyze the wealth of available data. As Eric Brooks described in his video clip, the best insights for school leaders come from the skilled analysis of multiple sources of data, including non-testing data like attitude surveys (Learning Forward, 2012). Such data analysis might help teachers not only adjust their curricula and assignments, but also their methods and attitudes in ways that would enhance student learning.

Teachers, administrators, and parents might feel uneasy about trusting a hidden computer algorithm to inform their practice, as well they should (Modern School, 2013). The motives of for-profit data analysis companies must always be monitored, because schools have a sacred responsibility to protect the safety and privacy of their students. What’s more, we have to be assured that data analysis algorithms are culturally sensitive, so that we don’t make educational decisions based on data that were produced by culturally biased tests. But the potential benefits of using data to inform decision making in schools cannot be overstated. If computers can help us successfully land rovers on Mars or immunize thousands of children in Africa, perhaps they can help us better teach our students too.


Goldstein, D. (2013, January 31). Can big data save American schools? Bill Gates is betting yes. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/can-big-data-save-american-schools-bill-gates-is-betting-on-yes/272719/

Modern School. (2013, March 12). Is Bill Gates data mining your children? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://modeducation.blogspot.com/2013/03/is-bill-gates-data-mining-your-children.html

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (n.d.) Smarter assessments. Retrieved from http://www.smarterbalanced.org/assessments/#interim

Learning Forward. (2012, April 6). Data standard [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rvfp-5hCeMk

Constructivism and Blended Learning: A Match Made In Heaven?


While building an online Prezi project with my class partner earlier this week, I had social learning theories on my mind. This
is no accident, of course, because my professor had asked the students to reflect on this very assignment through the lens of social learning theories! My partner and I were separated by several hundred miles, so it might seem somewhat silly to reflect on our social interactions. After all, my partner and I have never met face-to-face, nor do we have any reasonable expectation that we will ever meet. But of course, technology can bring together people in ways that would have seemed magical 20 or 30 years ago.



Constructivist theory, according to Greene (2013), emphasizes that the most significant tool we use when we learn is language. In a traditional classroom, of course, this theory helps us understand why students don’t tend to learn very well when they must sit silently and listen to an hour-long, uninterrupted lecture from a professor. Most people don’t learn very much in such a format, unless they are auditory learners with excellent memorization skills. But most students don’t fit that profile, and even those who do can benefit from opportunities to discuss new ideas with learning partners. The best classroom teachers know how to structure lessons that provide opportunities for partner and small-group discussions, while at the same time un-structuring assignments, so students play a more constructive role in creating their own meanings while they learn. In a blended learning environment, however, this can be a significant challenge. How can I have an enriching conversation with a remote learning partner when I don’t even know what she looks like?

In the specific case of this Prezi assignment, I did have a few clues to work with. At the beginning of the course, each student was required to post a brief introductory essay about their career and personal backgrounds. When I found out who my partner was going to be, I carefully re-read her introductory post, and tried to place an image of her in my mind, similar to the mental picture I would make about a character in a novel. Although the two of us only communicated via emails and comments we typed on a shared Wiki page, I think we were able to share enough ideas and experiences to bring constructivism into the picture, but just barely so.

In order to make this sort of assignment an authentic constructivist learning experience, our interactions should have been face-to-face via Google Hangout or Skype, or at least via synchronous chatting. The potential learning benefits of face-to-face discussion cannot be overemphasized. Sociologists tell us that a majority of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. If my partner and I had been able to view even jittery, pixelated images of one another, we would have seen those all-important facial expressions, eye movements, etc. Even a simple phone call allows two people to hear each other’s voices, including their tone of voice and emotional clues that are absent from written sentences on a page. A pastor recently told me that she observes many adults, especially professionals, trying to have an email conversation that would be better conducted via a telephone call; she encourages people to set aside texting and emails when a true conversation is needed (D. Baxter, personal communication, October 9, 2016).

Constructivism In the K-12 Blended Learning Environment

Several of Vander Ark’s examples have incorporated components of constructivism. The School of One math program in New York, for example, incorporated in-person math tutoring and online video conferencing (Vander Ark, 2012, p. 84). Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan program included personal tutoring and advising for each student, so that students could have regular, rich conversations about their own personal learning goals (Vander Ark, p. 90). The creators of programs like these are tinkering with the traditional classroom structure in ways that maximize the number of rich, face-to-face conversations between teachers and students. Advance Path schools have successfully used such methods to help at-risk students succeed (Vander Ark, p. 92).

I know skeptics worry that students in blended learning programs spend most of their time receiving first-time instruction from online lessons, instead of credentialed teachers. But this criticism is based on a flawed assumption that a teacher can effectively instruct 30 or more individual students in a way that socially engages all of them, and maintains the learning within all of their individual zones of proximal development, simultaneously. Classrooms no longer have to be structured in this way! By thoughtfully implementing constructivist principles via blended learning, teachers may be able to restructure their day so they spend most of their time interacting with individual students and/or small groups. This is an exciting possibility, especially for students who have difficulty succeeding in the traditional, lecture-based classroom. Educators who work in traditional K-12 districts should study blended learning programs that have demonstrated recent success, and implement some of their constructivist techniques in their own classrooms.


Greene, K. (2013, September 8). More social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL_3qrSZBJ4&feature=youtu.be

Vander Ark, T. (2012). Getting smart: How digital learning is changing the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The Dance: Navigating the A, B, C’s of Student Motivation With Technology

Several years ago, I was speaking with a colleague while the two of us were chaperoning a dance in the gym at our high school. My friend, like me, was a middle-aged, Generation X teacher with 10-15 years of classroom experience. He shook his head incredulously and remarked that, at any given moment, over half of the students weren’t even dancing, but rather sitting on the bleachers and playing with their cellphones. Even some of the dancers were looking at their phones, which made for some clumsy accidents.

While I try not to join the sort of grumpy teacher conversations in which veterans take turns bemoaning the behaviors of kids nowadays, I think my friend was on to something: Technology has changed the way young people interact socially. What my friend and I observed at that dance has been described by Hartman, Moskal, and Dzuiban (2005) as social swarming or smart mobs (p. 69). This is a phenomenon that all teachers should be aware of. If we choose to ignore it, we do so at our own peril.

The authors went on to describe a research project they conducted at a major university, in which they characterized differences in attitudes about classroom technology between Baby Boomers, Generation X students (which, by the way, would include me), and the Net Generation of students who are currently in school. Although there were predictable differences between each generation’s perceptions about technology, the authors concluded that all three generations agreed on the attributes of a good teacher (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Not surprisingly, several of the most important factors concerned social interaction.

A: The Affective Domain

For example, the authors found that students from all generations believed “…that excellent instructors … [s]how respect and concern for their students” (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Of course, the first of Greene’s A, B, & C’s of student motivation is the affective domain–in other words, a key component of student motivation stems from the emotions elicited by their teacher in the classroom environment (Greene, 2013). It isn’t enough, by the way, for the teacher to respect his or her students; this respect must be demonstrated to the students. They have to be convinced that the teacher cares about their well-being and their learning.

B: The Behavioral Domain

What does genuine respect for students look like in a 21st century classroom? Well, for one thing, teachers should face the reality that students are now attached to their tech tools, including phones and wireless internet devices, almost constantly. A quick Google search, for example, now allows a student to quickly find the right answer to almost every detail- or fact-oriented question a teacher could ever ask. Some teachers might dream of tackling this reality head-on by taking away their students’ internet devices. I have to admit that I had this attitude as recently as five years ago.

However, I started to realize that strict enforcement of student technology use inside my classroom was becoming a behavioral battle that wasn’t worth fighting. The en masse confiscation of student tech devices is now inconsistent with the structure of a modern learning environment. Rather, we teachers should strive to ask our students the sorts of real-world, critical-thinking questions that cannot be answered with a quick Google search. We shouldn’t do this in order to make the learning more difficult. We should do it to make the learning more real.

C: The Cognitive Domain

Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban (2005) also concluded that students appreciate teachers who “facilitate student learning” (p. 76). I hear so many teachers complain that many of their students aren’t performing well on assessments, or that their grades are too low, or that they can’t keep up with the pacing calendar. When problems like this crop up, or when students seem unmotivated or disengaged from their learning, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to modify the curriculum. Think like the deejay at the dance: When the dance floor is empty, change the music.

The trick is that many teachers, particularly novice ones, don’t always feel that they have permission to modify their lessons, assignments, or pacing. I know when I was first starting out in the classroom, I was scared to deviate too much from the curriculum that the veteran teachers in my department had given me. What I failed to consider was that effective teachers don’t access their students’ cognitive domains simply by pulling the next worksheet out of a file cabinet. Rather, we keep our students engaged by crafting learning tasks that lie within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development–that magical place where students stretch their thinking just a little beyond what they are currently capable of accomplishing (Greene, 2013).

Of course, consistently hitting every student’s zone of proximal development during every lesson is practically impossible. Everyone learns at a different pace, and in different ways, so getting all of the students to learn at the same time can be even more challenging than getting them all to dance together! The key is to structure a learning environment in which technology allows students enough choices so that they can find engagement and motivation to tackle learning that is truly challenging to them.


Greene, K. (2013, September 9). Overview of social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i28IW_Odp_g&feature=youtu.be

Hartman, J., Moskal, P., & Dzuiban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation (pp. 66-80). Louisville, CO: Educause.