A Social Media Success Story: Global Collaboration Anyone?

Rich Lehrer.jpg

Thirteen years ago, I started my overseas career in Caracas, Venezuela at Escuela Campo Alegre.  It was there that I met my first true mentor teacher, Rich Lehrer.  Unfortunately, he met with an untimely "demise" in my forensics science project the following year, "Who Killed Mr. Lehrer".  I guess he took it personally because he moved to Brazil that summer, and I didn't hear from him again until last Thursday...on Facebook chat.  

Rich: Hey Rory!

Me: Hey Rich!  Long time! How's it going?

Rich:  That's for sure!  Thing are pretty good. Hey, can I tell you about a cool global project my kids are involved in?  (No small talk for this guy!)

In short, Rich has developed a PBL unit around efficient biomass cook stoves. His 8th grade science class has formed a global collaborative with schools from Rwanda, Brazil, Uganda, and now Mumbai to explore energy usage in these country as it relates to their project. It is pretty much awesomeness.  Check it out at this link.  One of the aims of their project is to involve other schools from around the world in their ongoing Global Efficient Cook Stove Education Project. They are looking to assist other schools who are interested in mounting a global, hands-on, evidence-based, design-challenge approach to this and other issues of sustainability.  Rich's contact information can be found on his wiki site.  He would love to connect with other schools so give him a shout if you are interested!  I am hoping to connect his class with a couple of my students who are working on a connected project here in Mumbai.    Gotta love social media!

Coincidentally, I came across a post this afternoon by Steve Wheeler on my Twitter feed that speaks to the importance of global collaboration for educators.  In his post, Three Things, Steve states:

"Learning needs to be globalised. As we develop personal expertise, and begin to practice it in applied contexts, we need to connect with global communities. Students who share their content online can reach a worldwide audience who can act as a peer network to provide constructive feedback. Teachers can crowd-source their ideas and share their content in professional forums and global learning collectives, or harness the power of social media to access thought leaders in their particular field of expertise. Scholars who are not connected into the global community are increasingly isolated and will in time be left behind as the world of education advances ever onward." 

Indeed, Steve.  Well said. 

Student Learning: A 21st Century Sci-Fi E-book


Remember when? This pic showed up in my Facebook feed this morning and it sent waves of terrifying flashbacks through me.  Incidentally, my mother was a school librarian, so you can imagine.  My heart started to race, my eyes opened wide...well maybe that was the coffee.  Either way, this is the form of "Googling" that I grew up with.  In fact, I immediately Googled card catalog images... and wished that I hadn't...back to the photo.  The reference card the girl in the picture picks up will most likely lead her to a book or research article with outdated information based on research carried out in a similar fashion. There will be no rapid connections made pointing her in new directions without opening a new drawer and sifting through a stream of unrelated or outdated resource references.  When I think about how I access information today, it doesn't even compare.  Imagine if the girl in the photo found out that within a couple of minutes, she could sift through endless volumes of current, relevant information, and contact experts across the globe to learn the information that she seeks without ever leaving her computer or picking up her land line phone.  At best it would be the makings of a great sci-fi tale, a Farenheit 451 or 1984 if you will.  Though this futuristic account of card catalogs would be frightening indeed, imagine if the situation were reversed and the sci-fi novel told a decidedly harrier tale, the disappearance of the Internet as we know it and a return to card catalogs and geographical isolation.   

This made me think about how we structure learning for our students.  In my last post about problem finders, I talked about Ewan McIntosh's design thinking school, NoTosh.  In his blog post about problem finders, Ewan states, " Teachers, for too long, have actually been doing the richest work of learning for their students. Teachers find problems, frame them and the resources young people can use to solve them. Young people get a sliver of learning from coming up with ideas, based on some basic principles upon which the teacher has briefed them, and the teacher then comes back on the scene to run the whole feedback procedure." 

Now I am going to make the assumption that all of you reading this blog exist on the tech savvy side of the learning continuum.  You are after all reading blogs on the Internet, and some of you were directed here from some form of social media or RSS feed.  As a teacher, do you define your own problems or does someone else find them for you?  Does someone else supply you with your resources for learning or do you discover them on your own? 

When asked why we do so much of the legwork for our students in terms of finding and framing problems and identifying resources, we usually respond that we don't have enough time, or they aren't good at it.  If that is the case, then isn't that the one skill that we SHOULD be teaching our students ?  As teachers, we need to reprogram our card catalog habits.  I propose that we write our own sci-fi novel; one where students are empowered to discover, research, and solve problems through prototyping using their special powers of information fluency and critical thinking.  

SPOILER ALERT:  In the end, these superheroes reverse global warming, cure cancer along with a host of terrifying diseases, bring peace to the Middle East, and force Justin Bieber and boy bands into obsolescence.  Well at least that is what would happen if I was the author. 

On that note, it is spring break and I am going to give this disappearing Internet fantasy a go!

Problem Finders: Tweaking KWL for the 21st Century

Hypertrichosis , the werewolf disease.

Hypertrichosis, the werewolf disease.

In my last post, I shared the new and improved version of the KWL graphic organizer, and how I tweaked this version for the purpose of my biology class.   I am in the middle of my genetics unit at the moment, and I was trying to come up with the best way to teach about transmission of genes.  Traditionally I would give the students a set of problems that requires them to recognize the connection between alleles, traits, and their mode of inheritance (dominant, recessive, codominant, sex-linked etc.) and then they would solve probability problems using Punnett squares and pedigrees.  However, I decided to challenge myself to find a more engaging approach that required students to question and think critically about the problems.  This is when I discovered this fantastic resource, a seemingly endless list of case studies that are nothing if not perplexing.  One great example of this is the Blue People of Kentucky.  It has all of the marks of perplexity that Dan Meyer speaks of, so I decided to turn my students into genetics detectives. 

Since this is an IB biology course, there is specific content that students are responsible for learning like sex-linked inheritance in hemophilia, multiple alleles with blood types, codominance in sickle cell anemia etc.  I selected five case studies for the students to investigate and began with the classic inbreeding royals example of hemophilia. 

A fabulously outspoken student that just arrived at ASB last year took one look at the first case and said, "Not this again!  This is only like the third time that I have studied this!"  O-U-C-H!  Fortunately, the werewolf and the rest were new and interesting to him, but he brought up a really great point.  One that I had already been thinking about after watching Ewan McIntosh's TEDxLondon talk a couple of nights before. 

You see though my intentions were to engage my students by providing them with authentic problems that were somewhat messy and difficult to solve unlike the classic problem sets, I DEFINED the problems for them which were indirectly DEFINED for me by IBO.  As Ewan states in his blog post, "Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders."   

He proposes a model in which 20 to 30 global themes are presented and discussed and then the students began to gather information within and beyond the walls of the classroom and come up with problems that they would like to tackle head on.  This story ends with a prototype instead of a wiki.  I have actually informally proposed this course several times over the past two years.  Here is my vision:  

It starts with the book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.  Students discuss the different global issues and then bring them down to a tangible local level.  Allow them to create interest-based teams of problem solvers and then mentor them through their research and prototyping.  With this course, students will begin to impact their world right now.  The graphic organizer for their course?  PKWHLAEN (I know, this is getting ridiculous.  It's time to abandon the acronym). 

P:  What problem in my local community ignites my passion to the point of action?

K:  What do I know about the variables that are affected by this problems or are contributing to its existence?  This would involve not only academic research, but also data collection from authentic sources and an evaluation of the problem in an authentic setting.

W:  What do I want to resolve about this situation?  What resources, including experts in the field and project participants, will I need? 

H:  How do I find out the information that I need to create a prototype that will attempt to solve this problem?  How do I contact the people whose expertise and talents will help to make my project a reality? 

L:  What have I learned through my research?  Can my idea become a reality or do I need to go back a few steps and change my plan? 

A:  What actions do I need to take to turn my ideas into a reality?  PROTOTYPE.

E:  Evaluate the prototype.

N:  What are the next steps?  Do I go back to the drawing board?  Do I share out my ideas and expand my protocol to other communities?  Do I build on what I have already done and tackle another face of the larger global issue? 

In the middle of Christmas vacation, I received an urgent message from two students.  They wanted to call me to discuss a project idea that they had that would help bring clean drinking water to the slums of Mumbai.  They have now been doing independent research outside of school for the past three months.  Their idea has morphed from clean drinking water to designing a device that could help control the pollutants released into the air when people are burning trash.  A few weeks ago, they showed up after school to check out how the exhaust system works on the fume hood in my classroom. 

It sounds like I might have two problem finders who would make great candidates for this course.  I guess I just need to go ahead and make my proposal official.  

If you want to know more about Ewan's problem finder's mission, check out his lab!

DIY PD Part 1: Design Thinking and the Demise of Google Reader

Last week, our Director of Research and Development sent out an e-mail about an upcoming professional development opportunity.  Our school is planning to send a team to a conference this summer, and interested parties were invited to apply to be a member of the team. The topic:  Design Thinking.  Now this is something that I have been interested in for a while.  Unfortunately, I am already presenting at two conferences this summer bookending a family reunion around the same time, so I am unable to attend.  Now I am not one to miss out on anything, so after thinking about it for a while, I decided to challenge myself to learn more about Design Thinking on my own by August than I would be able to were I to attend the conference in July. 

I came up with a great plan (or so I thought)!  All I needed were the following tools:  

  1. Twitter and a "pretty" way to read and capture content (Flipboard/Instapaper)
  2. Pinboard (or another bookmarking tool)
  3. Google  Reader ... and a "pretty" way to read and bookmark content (Feedly, Caffeinated, etc.)
Screenshot 3:16:13 7:25 PM.jpeg

I was going to farm my information from three main sources.  First, my Twitter feed.  I am currently following around 300 people, most of whom post frequently about education reform, innovation, edtech, and/or research in science.  I typically devote about an half and hour to an hour a day flipping through my feed using the Flipboard app on my phone and iPad.  The plan: save all articles dealing with Design Thinking to Instapaper, or bookmark it on Pinboard with the tag designthinking.  I can also tag all of the articles saved on Instapaper, as all unread items feed into my Pinboard.  

Since I miss more articles than I can get my hands on with Twitter, I created an RSS feed for the hashtag #designthinking and subscribed to it in Google Reader. To do this all you have to do is enter this code as your feed URL: 


and replace YourSearch with the term (no hashtag).  All of this can be saved for a day when I have devoted time to learning about design thinking. 

My second source is Pinboard.   I will use this to read through all of the articles that I have personally tagged with designthinking from all of my sources (Instapaper, Google Reader blogs, Twitter).  I can also search for the tag designthinking in resources that other users of Pinboard have tagged. To manage this, I created an RSS feed for the tag designthinking that I added to my third source, Google Reader, so I don't have to actively search for this tag, it just comes to me.  To create the RSS you simply replace the word tag in this code with the tag you desire: 


Google Reader is the source that ties it all together.  A triangulation of everything really.  I can subscribe to blogs and resources about design thinking.  I can also look through articles that have been tagged with designthinking via the RSS feeds I created from Pinboard and Twitter. 

As you can see, these three main tools that I plan to use are completely interconnected.  It might sound complicated, but with a little juggling practice, the management of it becomes rote. In the end, I am able to capture and store information from an infinite number of sources, most of which I will be encountering for the first time when I finally sit down to digest the information that I have bookmarked and saved.   

Then one morning while flipping through my Twitter feed, I heard the bad news. 

The initial reactions of people across the globe were not promising.  Almost immediately, the subtitles for the famous scene from the German war film, Downfall, when Hitler realizes that he has lost the war were rewritten to reflect "Hitler's"  reaction to the death of Google Reader. 

His advisers tell him that Google is killing Reader: 

"Anyone who thinks social media is a valid replacement for an RSS reader, leave the room now." (If you are undecided, check out this post about Twitter as an RSS alternative.)

As he begins his rant, Hitler follows this up  with a few choice quotes, including:
"How dare they take away Google Reader, I have over 300 feeds in there! "
"Do they have any idea how much effort went in to collect my feeds?" 
(And several other unmentionables ones :-)

I must admit, I certainly identified with these sentiments initially.  Removing any one of my carefully interwoven sources would surely mean complete failure of the system that I had developed.  However, after reading a few posts from bloggers (that I follow on Google Reader :-), and taking a closer look at the links in my system, I realized that I had doubled back on my three main resources to allow me the mobile flexibility that I desired.  Essentially I had covered all of my bases.  I then arrived at the conclusion that with minimal effort on my part, the transition will most likely be seamless. 

Fact:  Several third party RSS feed readers prophesied the end of Google Reader, and have already cloned the Google Reader API.  Feedly, a free RSS reader, did just that. Check out this post about their development in preparation for the transition.  As you can probably tell, I like to cover my bases.  So this morning, in less than 10 minutes I signed up for a free account and transfer all of my feeds from Google Reader to Feedly (just in case Caffeinated doesn't pull through by July 1st).  I have to admit I  like the interface a little better than the one for Caffeinated.  The one major drawback for me is that I can't directly tag posts and bookmark them in Pinboard, which is something that I can do with Caffeinated.  If this is not an issue for you, you should check out Feedly. 

Regardless, I now realize that although Google Reader is going to disappear, my RSS feeds will not.  The API will just live on in a more aesthetically pleasing form like Normandy.

Screenshot 3:16:13 6:12 PM.jpeg

Now that the Google Reader is stepping aside, I am hopeful that both Feedly and Caffeinated with evolve to include the improvements that I am looking for in a reader by July 1st, and my biggest dilemma will be which one to choose!

For a positive spin on this period of transition, you might want to follow Marco Arment's blog.  He has written several posts about RSS feeds and readers since the news broke.  I would also recommend listening to his recent podcast called Negativity, Skepticism, and Doubt, as it was very informative. 

As for me, I am going to get back to building my collection on Design Thinking.  I can rest easy knowing that my system won't break down any time soon.