Thursday, July 31, 2008

Intersections between Professor and New Mother

As a nursing mother, I was stuck like glue to my infants for the first six to seven months. They do not recognize or even respect such lofty titles as Doctor. To them, mom means milk. To my two, mom meant meals and cuddling every two hours.

When my first child was a few weeks old, I received word that I was being considered for a Teaching Excellence Award in our Faculty. I had to update my teaching portfolio and actually enjoyed the process of reflecting on my teaching philosophy and various projects. The writing and revision usually took place with a hungry infant in my lap -- hands hovering over the keyboard, small little head seeking out some nourishment. My two month old baby was never far from me because I was nursing exclusively. My husband worked full time and in order to attend the interview required by the awards committee, I had to find someone to watch my infant. A dear colleague agreed to watch my baby while I attended the hour long interview. Like many a proud mom, I dressed my baby up in a cute little outfit complete with matching socks and bonnet and felt only mildly anxious as I left him in the capable hands of my colleague, who was mother to two teenagers, and a female doctoral student. They both had my cell phone number, just in case...

The committee sitting around the table included several male and female colleagues and a representative from the Alberta Teacher's Association. After the interview, I was told by one committee member that I had enthusiastically answered a variety questions about courses I had taught, detailed my teaching philosophy, discussed various projects I had worked on that contributed to teaching, and the research that I had published on teaching and learning in higher education. During the interview, though, all I remember is this distracted feeling of separation as I imagined my hungry child kicking up a fuss. When the interview was over, I hurried down to my colleague's office to collect my still very happy baby who did not seem unduly alarmed by my absence.

I was informed that I had received the Teaching Excellence Award a few weeks later. Of course I was delighted. I brought my three month old baby to the Faculty for the event. The award was presented during a Faculty meeting, and a few colleagues still marvel at how well behaved my infant was during the first part of the meeting. All was fine up until a few minutes before the awards presentation; my baby had started to squirm and turn insistently towards my chest. I left the room to find a quiet spot to attend to my hungry baby. While I was out of the room, the dean announced my award. So, I got all dolled up, and got my baby all dolled up to attend this presentation and I missed the vital part because there is no reasoning with a hungry baby!

A few years later, my second child was born. At two months old, this baby accompanied me to educational technology conference on campus. I had submitted two proposals to present different research and development projects at this conference, one on my own and one with graduate students. I can remember showing up for my conference sessions in full professional dress, baby carriage in tow after having just dropped my two year old off at a day home.

At one point, I was presenting the slides during my session and my baby was in the stroller off to the side. As I scrolled through the first part of my presentation, baby started to get fussy, so I had to pop over to the stroller to comfort him and then glide back to the podium. This balancing act was carried out in a dark room filled with dozens of faculty and graduate students in educational technology; sitting in the front row was the present and past presidents of the association. Nice. Thankfully, the crowd seemed sympathetic to this mother-researcher dance (at least, nobody was overtly rude) and I carried off the presentation reasonably well. By the end, during the question period, my baby was no longer content in the stroller, so I answered most of the questions, rocking back and forth on my feet, with my tiny infant cradled in my arms.

At lunch, at the same conference, I had to present the editor's award to the author of a paper that received the most nominations. At the round, eight person table, I just rolled the stroller close to my seat so that I could keep an eye on baby. Call me paranoid, or just extra-sensitive, but I definitely detected a frosty tone to some of the remarks about a stroller parked at the table. After I had presented the award, and the luncheon was drawing to a close, I had to find a private place to give my infant lunch.

After settling onto a bench hidden behind some plants, I nestled my child in to nurse. Turns out my cloaking strategy was not effective; One of our very talented edtech graduate students spotted me, and sauntered up for a conversation. After a few minutes of back and forth talk, she kind of realized what I was doing. With a chastized look, she said "Oh, do you want me to come back later?" I reassured her that it was fine with me if she stayed. She replied, "I just cannot believe that you are here with a small baby, while on leave, while nursing, and presenting your research, and giving out awards. Don't you professors ever stop?"

And in that very moment I thought, "no, no we don't".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Yes, Children Can Learn With Technology (if we can get past the "I have a curriculum to cover" approach to doling out information)

A graduate student email-interviewed me recently, and prepared a web summary of our exchange for a course assignment. One of the questions she asked was, "Often teachers will voice that the lack of machines and the lack of software make teaching with technology nearly impossible. In your opinion, what is the biggest technological obstacle that teachers face?" My response was that the biggest obstacle is pedagogical.

In my recent work (Jacobsen, 2006) I argue that several essential conditions need to be in place to support meaningful use of technology for learning, among which is ubiquitous access to reliable technology. However, it is vital to understand that access to computers and networks does not make much of a difference to the majority of teachers – the biggest obstacle that teachers often face is pedagogical – most adopt a reductionist stance on learning (I will qualify this argument later…). The second obstacle is techno-pedagogical – most teachers have underdeveloped skills for using interactive technologies in constructivist ways. Teachers will always argue that they have (i) no time, (ii) no access to technology, software, networks, whatever, and (iii) that technology doesn’t make a difference anyways when they have a curriculum to “cover”. Blah, blah, blah.

I believe we need to better understand the relative challenges that individual educators, entire school staffs, and entire school systems face when deciding whether or not, and then how, to use technology for learning. We need to study the nature of support that persuades teachers, schools and systems to make the shifts from transmission pedagogy to constructivist approaches to learning and when to invite technology into their classrooms, schools and systems.

Therefore, I do not believe that the question is whether we have enough machines, or not, or whether we focus on developing “technology skills” or not. If we are to take advantage of the power of technology to connect people with other people and link people with ideas, then fundamental changes to teaching and learning are required when computers come to school. Therefore, our approaches to professional development need to be part of an overall approach to educational reform and leadership in schools and school systems, rather than just with individual teachers and individual skill levels.

In my recent book, I argue that the issue is not whether technology makes any difference in learning (Jacobsen, 2006). We know that learners of all ages can use technology for imaginative and creative design work and that meaningful learning can result. The issue is not whether there is any credible evidence or enough “hard” research linking effective use of technology with meaningful inquiry and learning. I cite dozens of researchers who have provided example upon example upon example of meaningful learning with technology (Jacobsen, 2006). The time for piloting technology is over (Negroponte, 2006).

The problem is that after more than 25 years of experience with computers in K-12 classrooms, we have not seen the meaningful uses of technology for interdisciplinary inquiry by children in some classrooms and some schools spread much beyond the enthusiastic early adopter teachers and visionary innovators. It is generally accepted that the problem of uneven adoption of technology extends to other institutional settings.

What does it take to move technology for learning beyond the early adopters? Building upon Becker’s (2000) research on the use of technology for learning, I identify ten essential conditions that support innovative teaching and inquiry-based learning with technology in K-12 schools (Jacobsen, 2006):

(1) Supportive leadership
(2) A learning, risk-taking culture among staff
(3) A colleague, from within or without the school, to walk the road with the teacher (a mentor or critical peer)
(4) Ubiquitous access to reliable technology
(5) Time for professional dialogue and connections
(6) School board and parent support
(7) Secured, sustainable sources of funding
(8) On-site capacity and leadership
(9) Diffusion of the mentorship relationships
(10) Designing learning communities that resist the urge to turn back.

So, while I argue that the genesis of the problem can often be understood to be teacher pedagogical beliefs, techno-pedagogical skills and attitudes, I recognize that teachers are subject to the political, social, technological, economic and cultural contexts in which they work. So, even teachers who readily embrace inquiry and have relatively good skill and experience with the technology will run up against problems using technology for learning if there isn’t supportive leadership, supportive and helpful colleagues, access to reliable technology, and so on. An individual teacher cannot easily link her students to peers in another country without an internet connection and a computer in the classroom.

Of these, I think that responsive and embedded professional development is probably the most important condition for effective technology use for learning, along with supportive leadership. Teachers are asked to make major changes to their practice when computers come to school – they need to adopt constructivist practices (big change for many) and they need to constantly learn new media and methods to do with the technology (this tends to get easier over time), they need access to colleagues and positive mentoring, they need parental and board support, they need the digital tools and networks, and so on.

Therefore, I believe the biggest barrier is the relative lack of effective and meaningful PD – public schools have more computers and better networks than ever, but these are still underused and often mis-used because appropriate investments in professional development (both inservice and preservice) have not been made, and there is a need for strong and supportive leadership to connect the dots and make things happen in schools.

Finally, I think the biggest gap that we need to address is between those teachers who believe their role is to "transmit knowledge in predefined curricular bits and easy to swallow pieces" and those teachers who see their role as constructing meaningful learning opportunities and supporting children in constructing their own knowledge using disciplined inquiry. If teachers see themselves as "delivering the curriculum" then they will try to use technology to "deliver information". If teachers see their role as cultivating scholarship and supporting innovation, inquiry and creativity, then they are more likely to design a constructivist learning environment for children. I see "delivering information" as an under-use, or mis-use of schooling and technology. On the other hand, if teachers see their role as supporting learners in constructing knowledge, communicating their understanding, solving challenging problems, inquiry, and decision making, then they will tend to use technology to support these forms of thinking and communicating.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An EdTech View on Literacy and Harry Potter

A dog's age ago, Margaret Wente published a column in the Globe and Mail about the demise of books, entitled, "Need more bad news? Try schools without books", on November 22, 2001. In brief, Wente argued that schools were diverting money from teacher-librarians and libraries to fund more computers in schools; she worried that this shift in priorities would result in children reading fewer books and, therefore, developing fewer literacy skills.

In response to the column, I sent Margaret a letter in which I presented an alternate, educational technology view on literacy and books. She didn't respond, but I came across this letter the other day and believe that many of the points are still relevant and worth sharing almost seven years later.

To Margaret,

In your recent column, "Need more bad news? Try schools without books", you make some good points, albeit, sensationalized a bit to get people's blood running. I need to ask: Have you paid attention to the Harry Potter trend? A good majority of children in Canada, and many many adults, have read all four of these books and cannot wait for the author to write the next one. Children and adults are lining up to buy... books. In our multi-media age, children and adults are also trooping off to the theatre to see the movie, looking up Harry Potter information and movie trailers on the web, posting comments on fan sites, and sending each other email about their favorite wizard.

It is unfortunate that you only present one perspective effectively in this article. Most of your arguments are presented with the barest of facts and tend to polarize debate as an "either/or" dichotomy. The "grim news" is not that schools are buying less books (because parents are buying more books) and that computers have come to the classroom; the bad news is that some booksellers are seeing parts of their market share dropping, and like the luddites of past technological shifts, are resorting to fear tactics as an attempt to hold on to the past version of their industry . Playing on people's fears, rather than presenting honest and well reasoned arguments, is both inaccurate and immoral.

The truth is that books AND computers are today's literacy and authoring tools. Via and, and other online sellers, people now have more access to better, cheaper and more beautiful books that ever before. You likely used a word processor to write your article in the Globe and Mail -- it is also published on the web. The only reason I knew about your article was because a colleague forwarded the link -- I didn't need the paper version to access your argument.

You end the article with: "Yet books, not computers, create the common ground for literacy and love of reading. Is anyone listening?" Well, I am listening, but I simply do not agree with most of what you say. I agree that books are very important in our culture; however, books are not the only way to create a common ground for literacy and love of reading. To be literate means more than just being able to read books. Literacy includes a critical reading of texts of all kinds (books, newspapers, websites, cultural norms, facial expressions, and so on), from authors with a range of perspectives; literacy includes writing and expressing oneself using multiple media and forms; literacy includes counting and numeracy, and yes, computing - Andrea diSessa (2000) makes a well-reasoned argument for the growth of computational literacies -- you should read his, yes, book!

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant communication medium has been the printed page, whether it be a newspaper, an essay or a novel. And people not only consumed; they authored. Children read novels in school, and they write letters, essays and poetry. Other dominant mediums in the past 50 years have been radio and television - and people consumed, but rarely had a chance to author unless they were in specialized fields and media occupations. The dominant media of today are interactive and social; today's interactive media includes international networks, digital video and hypermedia. Unlike the predominantly broadcast media of the past, digital technologies and the Internet enable both adults AND children to author, publish and exchange their stories, their narratives using text, graphics, animation, sound and video on public web servers.

One of our most important jobs as educators is to help children to read the many texts and media forms in their world. We must also teach our children to author using the media of their time… It is not enough to teach children in the ways we were taught - because they live in a different age. Yes, stories and information shared in books AND via computers and networks can create a common ground for literacy, and promote a love of reading, writing and communicating with the world.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Donald Norman: A Scholar of Interest to Educational Technologists

When I was a doctoral student, I took graduate courses in computer science, psychology, management of information systems and educational psychology. One reason for this interdisciplinary choice of courses was the nature of educational technology itself, and my felt need to broaden my scholarship and doctoral coursework to include an understanding of other related disciplines. Another reason was that I had completed my master of science degree in the same educational psychology department, and had already taken most of the 'in-house' courses in my area.

In a computer science graduate course, Dr. Mildred Shaw assigned a paper entitled, "Norman, D. A. (1980). Twelve issues for cognitive science. Cognitive Science, 4, 1-32." Our task was to publish a brief review of the article on our web sites. In brief, Norman discusses 12 concepts, or issues, that must be considered in the study of Cognition (i.e., belief systems, consciousness, development, emotion, interaction, language, perception, learning, memory, performance, skill, thought). My "take" was that Norman argued for the discipline of cognitive science to adopt a broad view which includes consideration of evidence from various disciplines, such as the neurosciences, cognitive sociology and anthropology, linguistics, psychology, education, and the study of artificially intelligent mechanisms. Norman asserted the value of multiple philosophies, multiple viewpoints, multiple approaches to common issues -- which rang true to my developing understanding of educational technology as an interdisciplinary field of study. Norman argued that cognitive science could / should bring together heretofore disparate disciplines to work on common themes.

Norman's ideas about an interdisciplinary, multi-perspective approach to scholarship in this article resonated strongly with me and I began to gather and read his other works. In this context, I recommend that educational technologist students and researchers might like to read other books by this great thinker - I have read most of Donald Norman's books, and have used 3 of them as course texts*.

- Norman, D. (2007). The Design of Future Things.
- *Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things.
- *Norman, D. (1999). The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. See review.
- *Norman, D. (1994). Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine.
- Norman, D. (1992). Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles.
- Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things: (originally under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things, 1988).

Learn more about Donald Norman and his works at these websites:
Donald Norman's jnd website:
Podcast on Emotional Design:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Celebrating Folk Music and Freedom on the Alberta Prairies

What do professors do for fun? "Are you going to take any holidays this summer?" asks a colleague in the elevator. "Yes, we are going camping this weekend," I respond.

In the middle of July, my husband and I get ready for the annual, two-hour trek to the South Country Fair in Fort Macleod. Our goal: three days of folk festival fun and camping on the banks of the Old Man River. We used to drag our old 1970s Bonair tent trailer to the fair; now we cruise down the highway in our small motorhome - perfect for four people. We pick the same spot to set up camp every year -- close to the banks of the river and a five minute walk from the fair grounds.

Fair headquarters used to be an old army tent. Now, the HQ is a log structure that displays programs, CDs and t-shirts on picnic tables. Meandering through the campground, we encounter tarot card readers enclosed in tie-dye tents, poetry readings by grungy hippies younger than their circa 1960 campers, and teenagers selling beaded jewelry and hemp chokers. We narrowly miss getting sprayed by a water truck sprinkling the wide swaths of prairie to keep down the dust.

It only takes a few songs by the first band Friday night to stir the blood of the dancers. Boys, girls, children and women in wraparound batik skirts and bare feet do a folk hop in front of the stage. A six year old in a fluorescent bathing suit, an expectant mother with a toddler, and nubile teens and suntanned goddesses form a cohesive whirling dervish that sways and undulates to songs about social justice. "You have in god we trust on your money, but school children aren’t allowed to pray in school" croons the Welsh guitar man with biting humor. After the first few sets, we stroll back to the campsite, a little sunburnt and thirsty, to roast a few smokies and refresh our drinks. Festival friends from previous years stop by, a French woman and her children from Vancouver Island, a waiter from the Kooteneys, and a couple from Chestermere Lake.

A hot morning sun the next day sends a multi-aged throng to the river for relief. Along with the children, we throw on sandals, scale the eight-meter river bank, and body surf with hundreds of other neo-Woodstockians down the fast moving Old Man. In the afternoon, we meander through the Artisan tents, where one can choose from Celtic
artwork, bright sarongs and dresses, and bongo drums. Participants wanting more than a garment or hemp hat as a festival momento can get a temporary henna tatoo at the Mehndi Artistry tent, or saunter across the way to a tatoo tour bus where they can make a more permanent body art decision.

The first year we came to the South Country, we stood in rain one night at a tiny modified Boler, and waited while two hippie chicks assembled our bean burritos and watery coffee. Yum! Both were delicious. Nowadays, there are wider culinary options, from fruit juice slush to mile high indian tacos, designer coffees, the ubiquitous mini-donuts, and all kinds of meat on a bun with fries or poutine.

The Fair’s diverse crowd includes minivan couples who arrive with children in car seats, dreadlock teens in refurbished schoolbuses, and fifty and sixty somethings who sit cross-legged on woven blankets. The friendly family atmosphere enables adults to indulge in the odd concealed beer and turns a somewhat blind eye to other kinds of partying, as long as patrons are well behaved and respect the rights of others to have a good time. Swarms of children run around to tents and activities set up just for them, from an Earth ball, face painting, puppet shows, to the clowns. Kids can make crafts, walk the labyrinth and splash each other with water from the ancient pump.

In the early evening, the ground in front of the main stage becomes a multicolored tapestry as people stake out claims with dozens of blankets, quilts and old sleeping bags. Can you dance in leather pants o’ lady with a tambourine? The sun goes down and more people are up dancing than clapping and hooting from lawn chairs. Weekend acts can range from a bad boy fiddler from Cape Breton, a Swiss songwriter, to a Japanese drum group from Winnipeg. Crowd favorite, Fred Eaglesmith, shares the stage with musicians from Taber, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.

A brief evening rainstorm does nothing to dampen the spirits of the festival die-hards. Tarps, raincoats and unbrellas form a sea of protection against pelting raindrops as the bands play on. The dustbowl dance pit becomes a mudbath, fraught with multicolored flashes as barefoot young dancers wave their glowstick treasures attached to every limb. This Fair is not subject to the eleven o’clock curfew of many city fairs - music lovers often indulge well into the morning. Late night revelers meander back to their sites along a moonlit path strung with fairy lights.

Our first visit to South Country Fair was ten years ago. Now we make the annual trek with our own children, several great friends and their children, and anyone we know who wants to tag along. For three glorious summer days, our family joins hundreds of Canadian and international souls, liberated from 21st century cares and concerns, to enjoy groovy outdoor music and wholesome camaraderie on the southern Alberta flatlands.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Day in the Life of One Education Professor

At social events, I have become used to questions about what professors actually "do". I usually offer a brief overview of the teaching, research, and service responsibilities that characterize most education professors’ workload. If the person doesn’t wander off for another cheese and cracker, I’ll share juicy tales of my field research, traveling to distant lands to present at conferences, editing an academic journal, interviewing participants or working closely with student teachers, classroom teachers, graduate students and many bright and interesting colleagues. Oh, just give us a chance and we professors can become the life of the party!!

During many of these conversations, I almost always get asked, "If you only teach 9 hours per week, what you do with the _rest_ of your time?" There are a number of ways one might answer such a pragmatic question. One way I thought I could explain what professors do with the "rest of their time" is to share a couple "days in the life". Here are a couple of mine.


8:30 - Meet with Associate Dean to discuss course scheduling, staffing and workloads and the development of new courses.

9:00 - Edit academic journal. This role involves (i) receiving manuscripts, (ii) completing an editorial review, (iii) deciding whether to reject or peer review, (iv) sending manuscript to 2–3 peer reviewers, (v) managing the peer review process, (vi) communicating with authors, (vii) selecting manuscripts for inclusion, (viii) creating a table of contents and article order, (ix) writing an editorial, and (x) managing the revision and final layout stages with the copyeditor.

12:00 - Meet with colleague to discuss course development, research projects and graduate supervision.

1:00 - Meet with another colleague to analyze data and prepare a conference presentation about a three year research project.

3:00 - Service: Tenure track position, a committee meeting to discuss and select potential interviewees.

4:30 - Gently stuff 24 student papers in bag to mark at home that night.


7:45 - Prepare letter to support former doctoral student's application for academic position.

8:30 - Prepare and submit proposal on conference website to present results from a year long research project.

10:00 - Read and respond to present doctoral student's draft research proposal.

11:00 - Department meeting, many items on agenda, the most thrilling of which is graduate admissions and how photocopying budgets will be scrutinized.

12:45 - Hasty lunch at desk while reading email and preparing for next net meeting.

1:00 - Login to SL to meet with doctoral student.

2:00 - Review graduate admissions files.

3:00 - Review transcripts from field-based research project.

4:30 - Pack laptop in bag and head to car.


8:00 - Arrive on campus, grab a coffee, blast through a couple dozen emails from solicitors, respond to important emails, listen to phone messages, photocopy an article and refine slides & plans for afternoon class, review a draft of a newsletter, grab snail mail from mailbox, sync iPod, water plants, and read favorite blog.

9:00 - Teleconference with colleagues here and at another university to discuss and negotiate details of a province wide research project.

10:00 - Serve as external examiner on a masters thesis. Think, what a great project!!

12:00 - Eat lunch in car while running a few errands.

1:00 - 4:00 - Lead a doctoral seminar (about which an entire other post can, and probably will be, written!).

4:10 - Grab iPod, stuff a few articles & books in my bag, jog to car.

At some point, if the person isn't shifting uneasily towards the buffet table, or the bar, I launch into an analysis of multi-level committee work in different parts of the academy, and if time permits, end with a thesis on the relative merits of the paper versus electronic daytimer. Uneasily, perhaps, I realize I am only partially joking about this last part.

Still. "If you only teach 9 hours per week, what you do with the rest of your time?"

I estimate I spend at least as much time preparing for a seminar as actually leading it. I read several articles and book chapters before selecting the few that I will assign to students. I browse hundreds of websites, listen to dozens of podcasts and draw upon a vast network of expertise in my own professional network when selecting case studies or exemplars to use or guest talks to highlight in a seminar.

When speaking to a fellow educator or, at the very least, another pedagogical enthusiast, I might launch into my ideas about instructional design, development and assessment, how to review and select good texts (widely defined) that will provoke discussion, why and how I develop tasks and assignments a certain way, the standards and criteria I employ in a rubric, and the joyful time spent reading and responding to student work. Though I am committed to and passionate about my many funded and unfunded research projects, one achievement I am particularly proud of is an excellence in teaching award. Now, that was hard work.

When I started as an junior, assistant professor many years ago, I believed I would spend a great deal of time reading and reflecting upon scholarly works, writing academic papers, going for leisurely lunches once in a while, and working closely with talented students and colleagues. I was correct in that I get to do all of those things, and a great deal more!