Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning and Humility

I’m taken with this notion: as we get older, continuing to learn is an expression of humility. There are many implications of this perspective for our personal and professional lives. Moreover, there’s a real challenge here—similar to what we discussed regarding transcendence.

I’m writing a longer article on this notion this week and would love to get your thoughts on the idea in particular and any implications you see. You can either post here or email me directly at


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memorable Messages

Some of my own memorable messages came flooding back last night, loosed by a drive-time conversation. I was taking Alexandra, our 10-year old daughter, and her friend to swim at the YMCA. En route, the subject of science came up because they had just visited a health clinic on a field trip. Then Alex’s friend said it, the classic: “science is hard.” As an educator, all the alarm bells and warning whistles went off – particularly given my sensitivity to the importance of gender issues in teaching math and science. So I probed a bit more.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

She went in to a long explanation about how a series of other people had told her about how hard science was, giving me at times exact quotes. At 11, she was already convinced that science was not for her.

We kept the conversation going for a bit and I tried with all my might to convey some counter communication. We talked about how science could be incredibly fun, full of discovery and adventure. We talked about how easy the basic process of science was (we even used kid-speak to talk through the observation, hypothesis, testing, reporting, conclusions, and sharing cycle of science) and how neat it would be to be a part of making discoveries that made life better—or better yet, saved lives! Alex and her friend perked up and began talking about things they wanted to discover or make. I’m sure they were humoring me until we got to the pool; but, it was still fun to hear them talk about science without fear in their voice for a little while.

Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence is a must read to really get the power of these memorable messages. Seemingly off hand comments and throw away lines can turn into mind wiring realities—particularly for those following every word of a parent, teacher, coach, or pastor. Positive and negative comments that we might see as trite or silly end up shaping the way people think for years at a time—for a lifetime for some. Indeed, in student focus groups, I’ve heard so many students talk about how they were told early and often that “math is hard,” “girls aren’t good at science,” or “you’re not college material” that I think we should have laws against these phrases ever being used again!

I’m struck by how careful we have to be in our many roles—particularly leadership roles—about the messages we send. Whether we want to accept the responsibility or not, many of these comments stick. The good news, however, is that the positive ones can stick as well. To this day, I hear the voice of a little Filipino pastor—Pastor Cruz—from my childhood church who always took the time to send the most positive and affirming messages my way. His messages were reinforced by a series of inspirational teachers and coaches, most notably a faculty member at Mesa Community College, Jim Mancuso. His message—“it’s amazing how luck seems to follow people who work really hard and care about what they do”—has stuck with me to this day.

What are the messages those you teach and reach will take away? Not the big theoretical treatises, but the little life theories that emerge in conversations off to the side, throw away lines, and jokes. Are we as intentional as we should be about these messages? Or, are we content to let these life changing communiqu├ęs happen by accident?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Treasuring the Work: Portraits of our Students

Battles with educational bureaucracies can be brutal. Seemingly simple requests require forms, signatures, and endless steps in an archaic process journey. Tangling with temperamental technology can tempt the most dedicated educator to throw their hands up in disgust. The bits and bytes seem to conspire to make the task of engaging digital-age students a daunting one. And clashing with colleagues that seem dead set on demonizing the best-intentioned innovations you champion can cause you to ask the question, “Why do I put myself through all this?”

Here’s why. *Portraits of Life: Student Experiences is an exhibit showcased at Montgomery College in Maryland. It’s a tribute in words and photographs to diverse students that chose education as their pathway to possibilities. It’s a powerful look at the faces and places of these students, their stories, and the futures to which they aspire. Moreover, it’s a useful reminder of the reasons most of us champion education—to change lives for the better and, by extension, make our world a better place.

During one of the focus groups we did for the book Practical Magic: On the Front Lines of Teaching Excellence, a seasoned instructor told us one of her secrets. She said that she kept a “treasure chest” of student evaluation comments, personal notes, stories from her journal, and clippings of her students successes packed away in a special box. When we asked her why, she said the reasoning was simple. “There are many times in your career that you question your worth, your sanity, or your ability to really make a difference. There are times you feel like, despite your best intentions, you’ve just been punched in the gut. These are the times you need to cook your favorite meal, pour a glass of good wine, and open your treasure chest. You need to remember your whys for all this work.”

The Portraits of Life showcase is a moving visual treasure chest of student stories. These are powerful whys. None of these stories excuse the sloppy systems, troubling technology, or cultural challenges we sometimes face in education. However, they do give us good reasons to do the important work of improving our schools, colleges, and universities so that we can teach and reach well the students who come our way—students working for brighter tomorrows after often-challenging yesterdays.

*This effort showcasing students followed an earlier project that profiled Holocaust Survivors (absolutely worth a look as well).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Worried, Innovative, and Changing

The stakes for education are high, and the pressure is on. Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is a stark admonition to educators to ready our students for a time where science, politics, and demographics converge as never before. The metamessage is not difficult to divine. It’s summed up in one of the book’s best quotes: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” However, change is not easily accomplished in the hallowed halls of education tradition. It is because of this standard resistance to change that some authors are asking if higher education may be the next bloated industry to go—much like the housing and banking industries. The link to Arthur Levine’s Higher Education in the Age of Obama in particular is a must read.

These worries notwithstanding, it is still an amazing time to be in education. Education has never been as central to economic prosperity as it is today, which means it is viewed less and less as a luxury and more and more as a necessity. Moreover, just think of the tools we have today! We’ve talked about many of these here, from YouTube to Gaming to Social Networking to Open Courseware to Mobile Devices and a ready army of student assistants in Generation We ready to take it to the next level.

While I take pause because of the challenges, I remain excited and heartened by the innovation, inspiration, and insight drawn from the field. And here’s some more. Check out this virtual resource from Google on ancient Rome:

The teacher who sent this my way was almost giddy when talking about how she planned to use this with her class.

Now check out this gaming simulation for medical education put together by George Washington University:

There is so much excitement about their effort they have been hard-pressed to handle the flood of requests to either leverage or model their work.

In short, while there are great concerns about the road ahead in education, there is great excitement as well. The challenge will be to catalyze positive change in educational institutions and systems in thoughtful and substantive ways. If we’ve learned anything from the banking and housing failures, it’s that advocating sloppy deregulation and taking dangerous risks with our nation's mission critical systems might not make the most sense going forward. However, I fully agree that “if we want things to stay as they are” (America serving as a model of high-quality, dynamic education), “things will have to change.”

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


If you don’t think our dynamic American education system of public and private schools, colleges, and universities matters,
If you don’t think that parents and grandparents reading to their children and grandchildren and pushing them to excel in learning matters,
If you don’t think inspirational teachers, counselors, and mentors matter,
If you don’t think Pell Grants and Student Loans matter,
You’re not paying attention:

Love or hate his politics, Barack Obama’s story is not possible in any other country. Moreover, his path to the presidency shows clearly that even with all of our challenges, in America, education remains one of the most powerful pathways to possibilities. We have a lot of work to do to make it more effective, more open, more dynamic, more modern, and more responsive. However, we have to keep in mind how important it really is. President-Elect Obama puts that fact in clear relief.

So if the question about American education is: “does it matter?” The resounding response must be:


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Generation We

In our New Generation of Learning work, we’ve been talking about the rise of “Generation We.” And now comes an interesting manifesto—on YouTube of course—from a group of these folks. Notice the dialogue about education here and the aggressive connection they make between education and opportunity. Interesting!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe the Governor

For all the talk about Joe the Plummer in the last few weeks, it was the commentary of another Joe—Joe the Governor—that impressed me.

As Governor Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and I talked over lunch on Thursday, he made one thing clear – he needs the education leaders and teachers in his state to take their efforts to a new level, to educate more citizens at higher levels than ever before. Even more impressive, was the fact that he got up after lunch and issued the same challenge to a room full of college presidents, faculty, and staff.

“I hate to put this pressure on you,” he said, “but let me say it straight: you hold the future of this state in your hands. I can bring the best companies in the world in, but if we can’t produce a world-class work force, there is no way we can compete. Tax breaks and give aways aren’t what it’s about anymore. These folks want an educated, motivated, and ready workforce. Whatever we need to do to change and help more of our children and adults be successful, let’s get to it. I’ll support you in any way I can. But you have to be willing to try new things, to step up to this challenge. I’m talking about flexible schedules that aren’t tied to an agrarian calendar—six-week, six-month, nine-month training programs, different kinds of credentials, and new technologies. Everything needs to be on the table.”

This Joe said it as plainly as he could—for West Virginia to continue its positive growth, the education system needs to transform. Coal and natural gas resources will not be enough to ensure a positive future.

My job was to follow Joe the Governor and catalyze the conversation on what’s possible in education transformation. But he was a hard act to follow. However, his closing statement provided the needed impetus to drive our dialogue. Pointing at the audience, he said, “I have more faith in you than you do. I know we can do this. We must do this. Let’s all do this for West Virginia.”

While Joe the Plummer’s getting some major media right now—and probably a book deal as a result—I liked Joe the Governor’s message better. He’s the kind of Joe we should be listening to!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debating Reflections on Education

As I reflect on last night’s Presidential Debate between Senator Obama and Senator McCain and the conversations about education and America’s future, I am debating the value of the debate. It’s always encouraging to hear education being placed front and center in these debates. Education is indeed a lynchpin in today’s economy, and as such has both economic and national security implications—i.e., no country has retained prominence when their economy falters. However, education is so much more than a utilitarian tool to power local, state, and national economies. Education is also about personal transcendence – giving people a pathway to possibility. A progressive society has to embrace this role as aggressively as it does the others. I’m not sure we marry both roles in our education debates as we should.

Moreover, we continue to discuss education in terms of discrete silos and systems – reifying a model of education that no longer exists. We predominantly talk about K-12 and “educating our kids” and higher education as “going to college.” Today’s education world in the US is so much more dynamic. We have dual enrollment programs and early college high schools helping high school students earn two or more years of college before they graduate from 12th grade. We have incumbent worker programs in community colleges that provide credit courses for workers during their breaks. They aren’t “going” anywhere when they go to college. Moreover, the static conversations about college as a one-time event cause even more challenges. Sure we still have a segment of higher education that attends college in a traditional way—4 years, on campus. However, an increasing number (if not the majority) of students in higher education are swirling in to and out of the system at different ages and stages. Students transfer between institutions in ever-greater numbers and they return on a regular basis to upgrade skills or change career directions. (Often not by choice!)

Today’s debates about education need to move beyond the static “improve K-12” and “increase access to higher education” arguments. We need to talk about supporting policy and practice that enables a dynamic system of learning that spans early childhood programs, K-12, early-college high schools, dual-enrollment offerings, AP courses, adult literacy programs, community colleges, universities, workforce development, and contract training in on-campus, online, and blended formats – at the very least.

Education debates need to be about more than just improving our economy and protecting our national status—they need also to be about helping individuals move to the next level. Education debates need to be about more than advocating new models for K-12 and better financial aid for universities—they need to be about fostering a dynamic system of multiple providers using a myriad of tools to reach individual, local, and national learning goals.

It’s time to change the debate and possibly change our education system for the better!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Open Courseware in the Mainstream: The Big Blend Continues

We’ve talked here about the need to leverage open resources and educator social networks for some time. Moreover, the build out of the blended learning infrastructure—in terms of facilities and online environments—has been a continuing theme. These dialogues are hitting the mainstream more regularly. Check out this article in the NY Times on the rise of free digital textbooks as a counterbalance to the publishing industry. And the big blend continues!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Power of One and Many

Today’s blog is a reflection on the power of one and the power of many in education institutions. It’s something I see in my work all the time. However, it’s not a topic that is often directly discussed.

When I talk about one, I’m not referring to the “all-powerful” senior leaders with the many being everybody else. Yes, formal leaders make a huge difference in shaping the culture, systems, processes, and outcomes of an educational institution. Quality presidents, chancellors, deans, superintendents, and principals are essential ingredients in the educational excellence mix. I’ve written about educational leaders at length here and elsewhere—see the Catalyzing Positive Change in Education post for just one example. However, there are many others beyond formal leaders that have a powerful impact in our education institutions. Indeed, sometimes individuals completely outside of the formal leadership structure can empower or destroy an institution. These individuals have embraced the power of one.

While any institution’s organizational culture has a unique flavor and form, it is often these key individuals in the cultural community that spice and shape it. Sometimes it’s a longstanding patriarch or matriarch who is asked to bless or berate change initiatives. Sometimes it’s a newcomer, whose voice and verve compel the community in new directions. Other times, previously quiet members are inspired to step forward and take leadership in driving a dialogue. New purpose or passion ignites their efforts, and the fire soon catches.

Most institutions have several of these archetypes in play at any given time—a number of “ones,” if you will—wielding different levels of power. Some use their influence to move the institution in positive and progressive directions. To them, any innovation that might improve the institution is worth a good look and thoughtful exploration. However, there are also times when proposed changes could be harmful. Most of us have seen educational institutions pushed by authoritarians or over-the-top advocates to accept extreme action and large-scale initiatives without involvement or understanding. During these times, the positive power-of-one player is willing to civilly confront the change agents and call for dialogue and more careful consideration. The authoritarian or extremist will quickly label this person a trouble maker. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether playing the advocate or protector role, these positive and progressive folks are usually motivated by service—service to students, learning, the institution, the community, or all of the above. Most important, almost everyone in the culture knows that these individuals make the school, college, or university a better place.

Other times, however, there are powerful players determined to protect turf, settle personal scores, and stop anything that might make them have to learn something new. A friend of mine calls these folks CAVE people—Colleagues Against Virtually Everything. Their mere presence in conversations gives rise to bullying tactics and uncivil discourse. Everything and everyone is fair game in their quest to maintain the status quo. They play out their personal issues—fear, insecurity, or ego—on the institution like it’s a bad episode of Dr. Phil. Unlike the positive and progressive voices, their core motivation is most often service to self. Their root question is: How will this change impact me? They convincingly cloak their self interest in compelling arguments. But those who can see through their often-impressive rhetoric understand the real intention. Deep down, almost everyone in the organization knows that these negative players make the institution a worse place to be—except, ironically, for the negative player themselves. They revel in the attention and influence.

You truly see the impact of these individuals when a culture turns—usually in times of stress, transition, or opportunity. In some cases, a previously positive culture allows negative, cynical, caustic, self-interested and influential voices to take the stage and drive the conversation. With these voices left unchallenged and given focus—often for fear of confrontation—a once dynamic school or college is soon mired in mediocrity and wrapped in conversations that are full of sound and fury, but lead to nothing.

Other times, however, either through luck (a person leaves) or choice (a negative person is marginalized or a positive person embraced), you see a move in a positive direction. You watch a culture literally cleanse itself of the influence of negative players; or, you see the culture begin to embrace the opportunity offered by another voice. They are inspired, however slightly, to move and take positive action. Sometimes a negative voice, once marginalized, finds their way out of the organization. They just don’t fit anymore. Other times, they realize the energy is going in the other direction, and respond in surprising ways. Indeed, the best outcome is when a previous problem person becomes a cultural symbol of positive change.

Regardless of the outcome—progressive or regressive—the impact of these key individuals is undeniable. However, don’t give these “ones” the keys to the kingdom just yet. In my experience, it is the power of the many that really holds the key. It is the many that either give or deny power. As the Buddhist saying goes, “it is what we pay attention to that grows.” An academic community can literally change the channel. It can finally decide it wants to watch a different program, hear a different voice, one that is more likely to make the school, college, or university a better place for everyone. The focus of the many—or the lack thereof—is the secret behind the power of one.

Given this relationship, the best question for the many of our educational institutions might be “which ones?” Who are the informal leaders that bring a positive and productive voice to the community? Who are the power players we should unplug? When one of these individuals gets attention, does it feel like this place is getting better, or worse? More important, do we feel enough resonance to add our own voice, so we feel like together we are making this a better place for ourselves and our students? And, for some in the many group, the most important question might be: “is it time for me to lead, to add my voice to the mix?”

You’ll have to be the one to answer that question.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I’ve been on the road the last few weeks, mostly speaking at fall-semester convocations. I just love these kick-off events for colleges, universities, and school districts. It’s a great time to hear about their successes, challenges, and innovations.

One of the conversations we explored on these campuses surrounded the speech series Ready?: Dramatic Change and Transcendent Learning. Check out the sample presentations here to see a more full description. You can also download my white paper from SAS Press to explore this transcendent learning framework—critical, creative, social, and courageous learning—in more detail.

What was fascinating about these dialogues was the near unanimous contention that our students will have to learn more, more quickly, and more often than previous generations—and that we’re not sure they’re ready for it. Moreover, they’ll need the courage to learn, to break out of comfortable patterns, if they truly want to transcend—go to the next level—throughout their careers. Remember, we talked about this here a few months ago. Most important, however, was the also near unanimous sentiment that one of the best ways for them to develop the courage and capacity to learn more effectively is for us to model it as we work through the change issues in our institutions. In short, we need to bring critical reflection, creative solutions, civil dialogue, and courageous learning to our efforts or we seriously undercut our lofty learning lessons.

Are we ready? Are they ready? These folks argued that we’re best served by getting ready together!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Learn to Earn World

Check out today's David Brooks column in the NY Times on education called The Biggest Issue. He points to studies that show historically education is vital not only for personal success, but community and national success as well. Indeed, it may well be our national commitment to increasing educational attainment that made the US the radical success story of the 20th century. So as our state and national budgets begin to be slashed after the November election --as most government watchers agree will happen, given our economy--we should not look to education as an easy target. It's penny wise and dollar dumb. The 21st Century demographic, economic, and technological trends with which we now wrestle demand a redoubled commitment to create a dynamic P-20 education system that serves increasingly diverse individual, community, and national learning needs. While I firmly believe it's a learn to live world, it is certainly a learn to earn world as well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Catalyzing Positive Change in Education: The Four Pillars

For those not familiar with the four pillars framework, I have used it as the foundation for change initiative work in institutions for years. The framework is based on the idea that to work toward positive change in education, these four support pillars all have to be present:

Catalyze Conversations: Involve the broad community in key dialogues on important issues to ready and engage them. In a recent white paper, I used four key conversations as examples of these efforts: students swirling into and out of our education systems throughout their lives, the impact of globalization, the changing face of institutional advancement, and the build out of the big blend—technology and human intensive—learning infrastructures.

Inspire Innovations: Spark action from the community and support key innovations. Put simply, we need both a readiness and willingness not just to talk about, but try and test new things. In the paper, I suggest four major innovations impacting education as examples: K-20 partnerships, strategic enrollment management/learner relationship management, gaming and social networking, and educational and civic engagement.

Champion Insight: Create the systems and cultures necessary to ask and answer the hard questions about the impact of our conversations and innovations. Topics range from analytics to learning outcomes to evidence-based (or inquiry-based) education. I outline four steps that must be taken to champion insight: start with strategy, build out the technology, raise your sights, and ready the culture.

Foster Leadership: Without quality leadership at all levels (faculty, staff, administrative, and governance) change initiatives will at worst not work or at best not be sustained. I offer four fundamentals for fostering leadership: find it, grow it, energize it, and renew it.

I hope you find this framework useful!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Waking the Fire

We’re in to campfires. Our family and friends love to get a fire going, cook out, roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories--the whole thing.

Everyone seems to have a theory about camp fires. They tell you the best mix of wood and tinder; which kind of wood burns the longest; how much space to leave between the wood to let in oxygen; they set up the logs in X patterns, teepees, and square crisscross. We’ve seen it all.

New technology has crept in as well. Commercial fire starters are a cheap tinder mix, but make your life easy if you don’t have the time to rustle up dry leaves, small twigs, or newspapers. Nana is never happy about fire starters. Seems like cheating to her.

Lighting a fire is an often-used metaphor for learning. All the pieces fit: tinder (engagement strategies), room for oxygen (reflection and critical thinking), theories of arrangements (learning theory), and new technologies (reading this on a computer, are you?). Moreover, once a fire gets going, there is an intense, glowing center that continues to light new fuel as it is added (deep learning informing new experiences).

However, what strikes me most about the metaphor involves what can happen the next morning. A new day is here. The sun rises, birds sing, dew glistens, and little creatures all around bring greetings as you stretch awake. The camp fire that was the literal center of attention last evening is spent—reduced to a small pile of grey ash. But wait. There is a tiny plume of smoke rising from the center. You can easily kill the fire by spreading the ashes to burn out the last bit of fuel. Pour a bucket of water on it and the final spirit of the fire sizzles and releases a billow of smoke to the heavens.

But you can wake the fire as well. You have to stir it to add some oxygen. And be careful, if you don’t add anything new, stirring can lead to an even quicker death. You have to add new fuel. Carefully add tinder and wood to the existing fire, and within minutes your glowing, warm friend is back as hot as ever. In fact, the deep center of a woken fire catches quickly and cooks a great breakfast.

This is the learning metaphor that warms me. For all of us, there are times we burn down. Our ashes are glowing, but there is no fire. All that seems left to do is to wait for the bucket, the sizzle, and the smoke.

But if we are stirred--by teachers, reachers, kids, grandkids, new technologies, or old photographs--and new learning is carefully added, we can wake up hot as ever. Indeed, our lives are a constant cycle of fire renewal, adding fuel and tending flames. So don’t be fooled by the sullen ashes in yourself or others. Look for the plume of smoke, and see if learning can wake the fire.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Are You a Life Entrepreneur?

I love this new book: Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. It’s written by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Many of us in the education world know Chris for his vision and leadership in founding, the innovative online tutoring company.

In short, Life Entrepreneurs advances the idea that there is a new breed of entrepreneurs who buck the conventional wisdom of entrepreneurship. They are not enamored with killing themselves and sacrificing family time in the process of starting new ventures. Indeed, they are applying traditional entrepreneurial skills toward the end of creating a more balanced, integrated, and personally fulfilling life. The venture fits the life more so than the life fits the venture. Indeed, its ideal when they are a synergistic blend—i.e., you are doing your life’s work in a way that lets you live a great life.

Central to their premise is that often you can’t find this beautiful balance by working for someone else. You have to start your own thing. Courage, passion, and purpose are all a necessity here—as are mindfulness, effort, and insight. However daunting it may seem to leave the embrace of working for someone else, Gergen and Vanourek profile people from all walks of life who have taken this fulfilling plunge. Its inspiring stuff, made more so by the sense of personal exploration that is at this movement’s root.

The reactionary education question that jumps out for me after reading this book is whether or not students at all levels of education are actually learning the skills necessary to even test these waters, much less jump in. Because of the volatility in the job market, we now talk about preparing students for careers and not jobs. However progressive these statements sound, we have to ask ourselves, do our schools and colleges prepare our students more to fit in or find a fit? Are we consciously inspiring the creativity and introspection necessary to become authentic life entrepreneurs?

The good news is that America has one of the best and broadest education systems accessible to second-act students—those returning to pursue a life’s dream. So, even if you don’t get what you need on your first swirl through our education system, there is still hope. From community colleges to alternative-delivery-model universities to corporate training providers, we have one of the best on-demand learning systems in the world. You just have to be an entrepreneurial student and use it.

And so the final question: Are you a life entrepreneur?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Let’s Open Up in Education!

Open education is on the move. Check out the Cape Town Open Education Declaration to explore an example of the ideas behind this movement. Putting quality resources at the fingertips of educators around the world is the ultimate goal—opening up accessible learning opportunities to millions.

Serving as board chair for the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME)—an organization founded and inspirationally led by Dr. Lisa Petrides—I’ve had the pleasure of watching one powerful response to this open education movement. ISKME’s response is showcased in the Open Education Resource Commons (OER Commons) site. We had our spring board meeting this week, and once again I was taken aback by the breadth and depth of this initiative—not to mention it’s skilled use of Web 2.0 strategies (e.g., social networking) to connect educators and content in compelling ways. And while the resources already available are stunning, it’s the long-term potential of this initiative that has me beaming.

If you're an innovative educator, it will be worth your time to visit OER Commons and check out the thousands of quality, open, and innovative learning objects/resources available across K-12, community college, and university settings. If you want to learn more about the background of the initiative, how to best leverage the content, and how you can contribute, check out this presentation put together by Mark Basnage that describes one of the OER Commons international pilot projects.

I hope you decide to explore and leverage the resources on OER Commons. More important, however, the folks at ISKME hope you’ll be willing to add your voice and talent to this emerging open education community. There’s so much we can do together in education if we’re willing to open up!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Private- and Public-School Independence Day

Monday of this week was Independence Day . . . well, sort of. I spent the day with leaders, school heads and directors from the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools (PNAIS). We talked learning, technology, leadership, educational trends, and more with representatives from independent K-12 institutions of all shapes and sizes. We’re not just talking about private schools serving “elite” kids who would do well in any context. Many of these institutions are designed to serve at risk, developmentally disabled, and special-needs children. Several provide specialized education outreach. For example, one school was run through a social service agency and focused on educating the children of the homeless.

What struck me when I talked with these leaders—some of whom actually founded their schools—is the passion and purpose they bring to their focus on student learning. Moreover, many expressed a common challenge of leveraging creative and innovative educational strategies, while being laser focused on documenting and advancing educational quality. Indeed, a major part of this meeting involved their dialogue about learning outcomes and accreditation strategies.

Of course, public schools are wrestling with many of these same challenges; however, their contexts are radically different. Public schools in the US are more often than not swimming in funding challenges, testing trauma, school-board sagas, leadership transitions, and teacher turnover. Those who fight for focused learning conversations in the public school arena report feeling like voices in the wilderness. Ironically, its business leaders that sometimes end up driving learning dialogues in the public school arena. The State Scholars Initiative is one such business-partnership endeavor—focusing on inspiring rigor-, relevance-, and relationship-based learning strategies in public K-12. The independent school conversations, on the other hand, don’t seem to need the external push to bring learning to the center of the debate. The drive seems internal and independent of requirements.

I wonder how we can bring this sense of independence, ownership, and passion back into our public schools? Some turn to charter schools and key innovators to find the recipe for this independence—for example, see the Mavericks in Education D-Wade schools for some unique ideas on serving the at-risk students in the public arena. But the larger questions of scale, scope, and significance loom as we vision transforming the larger all-important public school system that serves millions and builds the foundation for our economy on the road ahead.

There are no easy answers here. And there are PLENTY of showcase examples of individuals, programs, schools, and districts that do amazing work with a learning-centered focus in our public schools. However, the daily dialogue of our public schools is all-too-often dominated by so many other things besides high-quality learning. Budgets, buildings, and boards capture the conversation—and most of the energy and effort of the leadership.

Here’s hoping for an Independence Day for public schools somewhere in the near future—a day when the passion, promise, and purpose of our teachers and students can be unleashed in the creative quest toward more inspiring, deep, and relevant learning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

*The Technology Prayers for Education

Imagine, if you will, a time on the road ahead when information technology becomes so ubiquitous, stable, and integrated into the educational enterprise that it is no longer the center of great debate, fervent support, or angry contention. The hardware, software, networks, and integrated database systems work together to make everything we do easier. We are empowered to better focus on students and their unique learning journeys. Information technology simply "goes away" from immediate attention, no longer trapped in wonder and confusion, and is more comfortably welcomed as an everyday and valued part of our world.

Although some would have you believe that this heavenly time is upon us, our everyday experiences defy the prophecy. All too often, we find ourselves earnestly turning our computers off and on again, hoping that their demonic behavior will somehow be exorcised by a lack of power. We passionately pray for the lost document to return, for the e-mail attachment to open, and for the wireless card to connect. First-born children are jokingly offered as sacrifices to keep a computer lab working through a class period or a network connected to a printer. And, the technology mystics on our campuses still descend from their mountain tops to help us solve problems without being able to adequately explain what they've done—trust them, have faith we're told.

All the while, academic leaders and scholars all over the world are offering poignant prayers within the text of national studies, conference programs, and committee reports to any and all powers that might help us realize what Steven Gilbert from the TLT Group calls "a vision worth working toward" with technology. Judging from the rhetoric of the researchers and painful practical experience, the following prayers are going to have to be answered if our desired technology heaven is ever to be realized on earth, if technology is ever to "go away" in the best sense.

Please Make it Work
Help our hardware, software, and systems stabilize to the point where befuddling incompatibilities, buggy software, and conflicting network protocols are a thing of the past. Give us truly user-friendly projectors, programs, and web services that don't embarrassingly crash in the middle of key projects or important class presentations. Weave change and improvements seamlessly into products and services, so our health is not endangered by the stress of our technological worlds being turned upside down with each new version of software or upgrade in hardware. We'll gladly take the responsibility for the problems we cause in use if only the information technology itself can mature to the point where these all-too-frequent problems no longer take precedence over our work with students.

Please Help Us Accept It
Give us the patience to temper the true believers and carefully listen to thoughtful critics. Help us understand and welcome technology as a tool, not as a savior sent from on high or a devil destined to destroy us. Let not hyperbole or fear stand in our way as we thoughtfully integrate information technology savvy as a basic skill, necessary for our students as they become educated citizens in a world fueled by and filled with information. Teach us all the important lessons of critical reflection and intelligent consumption of the mass of information at our fingertips.

Please Help Us Pay for It
Show us the bottom of this hell-fire pit in to which we seem to be pouring our money for technology upgrades, improvements, replacements, ERP systems, course management systems, and data warehouses. As we explore purchasing, leasing, and elaborate phasing plans, give us options that don’t force us to sacrifice the Peters of our organizations to pay this pervasive Paul. Finally, grant us the wisdom to integrate technology planning into the broader production of a learning-centered institution, where technology plays a role without overpowering the more important members of the cast. In addition, help technology become a welcome part of our overall infrastructure planning—and the lion of facilities shall lie down with the lamb of technology.

Please Help Us Help Each Other
Encourage us as we collectively embrace the humbling feeling of techno-ignorance. Help us use this process to better empathize with the fear and discomfort, the challenge and stress that many of our at-risk students feel as they begin their studies at our institutions. Bring the continuum of technology users closer together and keep us open to learning from anyone—external agencies, internal trainers, and colleagues. Let us not forget the importance of professional development and technology support as we move forward. More important, open our spirits to the possibility that students may need to be our guide at times as we step into this new world.

Please Help Us Bring All into the Fold
In our zeal to move forward with technology, let us not leave anyone behind. Help us remember that education can be the gateway to information technology inclusion for all, much like public libraries were for the printed book. Remind us also of those with disabilities and their needs. Quality technology accessibility efforts can help many more ascend in education. Help us work to make sure that any and all of our students can benefit from the information technology infrastructures we develop.

Please Let It Bring Us Closer Together
Tempt us not with terse e-mails, immersive ipods, bombastic blogs, and beeping blackberrys that consume our time and inhibit thoughtful, sensitive, and more substantive interactions. Make us more mindful of the ways and whys of our communication, so technology becomes a useful tool in improving and expanding our relationships—so technology remains the medium, not the message. Let us never lose sight of the importance of the caring smile, the encouraging word, and the interested ear. Remind us that human connections change lives in the education world more so than any email, podcast, social network, or interactive game ever will.

Please Let Learning Lead the Way
In all we do with technology, let us ask the burning question: "How does this practice, policy, or procedure improve and expand student learning?" Moreover, let us use technology to answer even more insightful questions about our students’ learning journeys. And let these answers help us ensure that our technology use significantly supports them all. In short, grant us the ability to move beyond the intoxicating interest in the novel and the new to a deeper and more systemic concern for the learner and the learning.

In Closing
If someday all of these prayers are answered, our image of a time when technology "goes away" may come into full relief. Until then, however, most of us will continue searching for answers to these prayers and grappling with the emotionally charged issues associated with each. And, we will keep turning our computers off and on with mystic and positive expectations.


*I used this framework in a town meeting this week and promised to post this slightly updated version. I wrote the original version of this piece with a dear friend, Dr. Cindy Miles, who is now the Hialeah Campus President at Miami Dade College.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reaching Higher at the Virtual High School Conference

Visiting New Hampshire was on the agenda this week--spending some time with the good folks at the Advancing Online Learning, Virtual High School Conference. From the VHS president and CEO, Liz Pape, to the instructors and administrators attending the conference, the conversation could not have been more engaging. Some fascinating findings from recent research were presented. For example, today 30 states have state-led online learning programs and 42 states have significant supplemental online programs or full-time programs. In addition, more than half of all school districts offer online coursework, which is a 30% increase from 2004.

What was most encouraging, however, is that the conversation here wasn't about basking in glow of the expansion of online options. More dialogue was happening about how these options are blended with on-ground education and how the quest for even higher-quality could be continued. From the recently released North American Council for Online Learning's national course and teaching standards (a GREAT document by the way) to the National Education Associations course and teaching standards, they showcased the benchmarks and presented the challenge--innovate with online education, but don't forget the quest for quality in the process.

Above all, my favorite characteristic of the educator conversations at this event surrounded their commitment to leveraging online education in the high school space to expand our ability to help students develop 21st-century skills. These folks were all about advocating new techniques to help inspire the learning of everything from critical thinking to decision making to interpersonal skills to information literacy to media savvy. I just loved it! Because thinking about how we leverage new tools and techniques--in conjunction with the tried and true--to reach for higher learning is always more compelling than the tired "get on board or be left behind" technology rhetoric we hear far too often.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Looking Over Your Shoulder: Mobility and Learning

This will be a quick Blog today – I just want to get this idea out there for some dialogue. As most of you know, I’ve been doing a good amount of work on the New Generation of Learning project. As part of the conversations I’ve been having with educators surrounding new technologies and learners from different generations, we’ve been exploring mobile learning technologies—everything from Blackboard’s recent purchase of NTI to the rapid expansion of iTunes University. I plan to do a lot more writing on this topic soon, but the following mobile learning example is just so interesting, I wanted to get it in the ether.

The bad news is I didn’t get the name of the faculty member that shared this idea. So, if you’re reading it and it’s you, just let me know so I can give the proper attribution. She was an English professor just putting her toe in the water with using mobile learning. She gives writing assignments that include graded draft review stages of each paper. Now, instead of written grading for the draft reviews, she records MP3 files of her responses as she’s reading the paper (in essence a mini podcast for the student). For example:

“I really like the introduction—nice use of metaphor. The second section needs some grammatical clean up. You might want to think about the dragon imagery—is it too intense for this topic? And what about a stronger transition here in the middle . . .”

She still gives them a grade on the draft stage, but her feedback is all in the voice file. She then sends the podcast to the student (I think through the Learning Management System) along with the grade.

According to her, the students flipped. They loved having this mobile, in-depth feedback. She loved literally being able to talk her students through her impressions. They told her they often began their rewrites immediately, listening to the recording on their iPod as they worked on the paper at the coffee house. “It was like having you over my shoulder the whole time,” one student told her. They reported how much more personal the feedback felt – and how it seemed so much more encouraging.

This is such a simple, yet useful strategy for leveraging mobile learning tools—particularly in feedback-intense disciplines like writing. I’m sure it’s not new. I just loved how it’s being applied with today’s technology.

Just thought I’d share!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Shoes . . . and Other Thoughts from WGU's Graduation

I just returned from a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Western Governors University (WGU). The meeting was held in conjunction with their February graduation ceremony. WGU is an interesting story in the world of education. Just five years ago, this online, competency-based, non-profit university, formed by forward-thinking education governors, received its multi-regional accreditation and started its work with some 500 students. I joined the board four years ago when they were just passing the 1,700 student mark. Today, thanks to the great work of President Bob Mendenhall and a dynamic team of leaders, mentors, and support staff, WGU has more than 10,000 full-time students spread across its business, education, information technology, and health colleges. About 650 students from 48 different states were a part of this graduating ceremony. Appropriately, some were live with us in Salt Lake City and others joined the ceremonies online.

While at some point I probably need to spend a good amount of time talking about the successes of WGU over the last five years, I want to take a little bit of time here to talk about shoes. Yes, that’s right, shoes.

Whenever I attend a graduation and have the great pleasure of sitting on the dais, I’m struck by the shoes. As the students cross the stage, if you take a minute to look below the hemlines on the black gowns, you see it all. These celebrating students are sporting sporty shoes, practical shoes, dress shoes, work shoes, boots, pumps, stilettos, and even sandals. Some shoes are new, symbolizing how special this moment is for the graduate. Some are worn, almost telling the trying story of where that student has been on their educational journey. Some look comfortable, especially on those students who seem full of confidence. Others clearly need to be broken in, for those who are about to go on to a very different life.

Of course, the shoe sights are more interesting when it’s an institution that has a diverse student population. And WGU not only has ethnic diversity, but age diversity as well. In this graduation, we had students as young as 20 and as seasoned as 60. Moreover, the stories of their journeys were as unique as their footwear. Several students spoke during the ceremony about overcoming significant challenges to achieve their degrees. Some spoke about inspiring educators and mentors who guided them. Others told of grade-school teachers who tried to kill their aspirations—telling them they were “not college material.” Some praised the support of family and friends. Others told of finding new strengths in themselves. Their stories made you laugh and they made you cry. Most of all, they made you proud—proud of these determined students who now are on such an exciting pathway.

But these stories also made you proud to be a part of the education system we have in the United States. Yes we have challenges in policy and practice, funding and finance; but still, the opportunity in the US is unparalleled. Because of the diversity of our educational opportunities— from public and private K-12 schools to local community colleges to state colleges and universities to small independent colleges to Harvard to Western Governors University—students from all walks of life, from disparate and diverse backgrounds, at all ages and stages, can walk on the pathway to possibility that is education . . . in whatever shoes they like.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Transcendence and Education

During one of the catalytic conversations I often hold during consulting visits at colleges, we started talking about transcendence and education. One teacher commented that, for a minute, she thought we were going to start chanting. Sorry, no soft music and mantras on this one folks. However, what we were opening our minds to in this conversation was the importance, process, and challenges of transcendence in education—for all of us.

Transcendence is about “taking it to the next level,” as one student put it. She was right on. Much of education is about helping students transcend their current state. Sometimes it’s their financial state—helping them leverage education to move from working poor to credentialed professional. Sometimes it’s their state of knowledge—challenging them to move from curricular beginnings to more nuanced and full understanding of content. Sometimes it’s their state of mind—helping them move from having unquestioned belief systems to embracing critical thinking and problem solving. Sometimes it’s their state of ability—assisting them in their progression from fumbling nursing student to well-trained clinician, from frightened med student to a quality doctor.

However, arguably one of the most vital transcendence challenges for students involves their state of belief. Do they believe that they are capable of going to the next level? Do they believe they deserve it? Do they believe it’s worth the effort? An important part of breaking this boundary is overcoming a fear of the unknown. Research is pretty clear that our students’ internal homeostatic psychological systems—systems that try to keep things at their current pace and place at all costs—are not all that cooperative about this “next level” stuff. Indeed, student self sabotage is one of the key barriers to student transcendence.

Great educators understand these transcendence journeys. Indeed, their work often revolves around being the instigators, guides, cheerleaders, and celebrators of and for student transcendence. One of the great psychic benefits of being an educator includes watching students of all ages and stages take their steps along this journey to move up and on. It is always inspiring to see a student overcome internal fear, to break old borders down, and move beyond where he or she even dreamed possible.

What came out of our discussion next was an interesting and ironic turn. Because we as educators know the power and promise of transcendence, why aren’t we embracing it for ourselves more—particularly in areas like brain research, technology tools, and a host of other possibly transformative education topics? Are we really challenging ourselves to do the work necessary to transcend—go to the next level—as educators. Can we do more to transcend our state of knowledge about brain research? Can we work more with each other and our students to improve our state of ability in using learning management systems, e-portfolios, blogs, podcasts, social networking, gaming, and analytics? And, most important, can we overcome our fears about the new and novel (particularly regarding technology) to ask the hard questions about whether or not these intriguing theories and power tools might take our teaching and student learning to a new level? Are our own fear-based homeostatic systems keeping us stuck? Or are we on the move?

Physician heal thyself is the phrase used in the medical community. It was a phrase used in this conversation as well. Put simply, not only should we be energetically encouraging our students toward transcendence, we should be willing to take the transcendence journey ourselves. The students in our group assured us they would be just as joyful in watching our move to the next level as we are in watching theirs :)