Saturday, January 24, 2009

The imminent shift in uses of technology in science education

Technology has long been a part of science teaching and learning. From using some of the first personal computers to collect and analyze data to using the latest visualization tools to help approach abstract phenomena, many of us in science education have a long history of using technology. In my first teaching job back in 1997 I tried to incorporate the use of probeware/microcomputer-based labs (MBL) into every activity I could. Obtaining and having available that kind of technology (not easy to get at that school and in that time) greatly helped me to design inquiry-based activities for my students and I to engage with. Further, graphing tools made engaging with mathematical concepts (such as integration) much more approachable and tangible for my students. More recently in my last teaching job, I made extensive use of visualization and simulation software to help the students and I think about complex and abstract phenomena such as electric and magnetic fields and the variables which affect those fields. 

Those are just a few of many possible examples from my own experience, and I'm sure they echo with some of your own. I always tried to incorporate new technologies based on what they afforded me and my students, not just because they were cool or new. My hope was that I would know when I achieved appropriate use of technology when a student walked into my classroom and didn't notice the computer and MBL apparatus, much like they don't ever notice the existence of a chalkboard as something special. Full, everyday integration was my goal. 

While data collection, data analysis, and visualization/simulation technologies are great and, I believe, will continue to be a very important part of science teaching and learning, I think there is an impending shift on the focus of technological use in science education. We now have the opportunity to move beyond just using technology for facilitation of data collection, etc. and need to embrace how technology can help us with communication and collaboration. The National Science Education Standards are clear on the necessity of communication and on the social endeavor of the scientific enterprise. It seems that we have only begun to see how new communication technologies can help us to enact these goals in the science classroom. Of course, there are some great existing collaborative or communicative projects in science education (e.g. the JASON Project, the GLOBE Project, etc) but they are very focused special projects and don't reach every classroom. What can individual teachers do on an everyday basis to utilize new communications technologies and platforms in their own teaching?

Blogging, texting, IM'ing, tweeting, or any one of a host of other digital communication forms can greatly enhance our students' understanding the importance of communication and community in the scientific endeavor, and they can be adopted and used rather easily on many levels, from one-on-one interactions to one-with-many. I know there are a lot of educators out there exploring these possibilities using mobile phones (see this wikiLiz Kolb's blog, and my last post on formative assessment w/mobile phones to name a few). Here's a great blog post from Tom Barrett about using twitter in a science lesson about length of day. Students communicated with people all over the world in order to find out about their current length of daytime. I also just recently discovered GCast, which allows you to create podcast recordings straight from your mobile phone. This has great potential in classrooms, and some are already using it with their students. As I continue to look into this, I'm sure I'll find more existing applications in the science classroom. 

Having students write about and share their ideas and work in science class makes learning more authentic as well. We know from a host of literature that having an audience for student work beyond the teacher or classroom increases the authenticity of the task for the student. Further, use of these technologies and modes of sharing increase the learning network far beyond the walls of the classroom. A more global scientific community is within our reach as teachers and students. 

I really do think that we are on the cusp of a shift in how we use technology in science education. We will not eschew our current uses for data collection, analysis, simulation, and visualization, but we will begin to incorporate more communications technologies using the web and mobile devices. This can only help science learners and teachers to become better communicators and members of a global community of scientists and science learners. I look forward to seeing how this all takes place. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How can we use new communication platforms to facilitate the formative assessment process?

I don't think there is a "silver bullet" in educational practice, but I do believe that good formative assessment comes pretty close to being our most powerful tool as educators. I am operationalizing formative assessment here in a commonly accepted way. Paraphrasing Sadler (1989) among others, the formative assessment process involves 1) Making explicit the standard or goal for the learner (i.e. Where are we going to go?), 2) Finding out what the students' understandings are with respect to that goal or standard (i.e. Where are we starting from?), and 3) Taking some action to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be (i.e. How are we going to get there?). This process involves both the teacher and the learner working together through these various steps, and it makes transparent not only the goals and current understandings, but also the reasons for taking a particular course of action to achieve that goal. Further, this process can be nicely linked to learning theory, especially Vygotsky's theory of concept formation (e.g. the learner's everyday conceptions approaching the "scientific" conceptions that are the target understandings). I'll leave further explication of that point for a future post, perhaps getting one of my colleagues to guest author.

So how can we take advantage of communications technologies to help us practice formative assessment? Probably the most obvious tools are related to timely communication, which can be used to announce or remind students of target goals or standards, and which can also be used for quick feedback. Email works well for this, and I'm sure it's a tool many of us (especially in post-secondary education) already use to tell students what will happen in class tomorrow, or to give feedback on assignments, or perhaps even what to do next (i.e. How are you going to get there?). But email is asynchronous and a bit clunky for quick, timely communication. 

Course websites are great for these communications as well, but how often do you students log into WebCT or Blackboard? Once a day at most? Checking these sites also requires a bit of commitment: start the browser, navigate to the page, log in, go to message forum, etc. 

Think about how you provide goal statements and feedback or prompt a student to take some action while you are teaching: usually with a short sentence, question, or note on the board. These exchanges are often on the fly, completely synchronous, brief, and efficient (especially in the interactive classroom)- very different from most email messages and course management system interactions. But why should this type of interaction be limited to face-to-face time in class?

Enter the mobile phone. Concise, timely communication via text message or instant messaging client. Learning happens outside of the classroom walls and outside of class time. Imagine texting your class with the day's objective the morning of class, giving them feedback after class or any (reasonable) time via text message, and even prompting individuals or the whole class what to do next via text message. The real advantage here is that suddenly this process is not bounded by some artificial (though real) time constraint. Of course, many students would probably be hesitant to give your their mobile number, so that is where a messaging client comes into play. The same thing could be accomplished with IM, twitter, or a host of other instant messaging/microblogging types of services. 

A recent EdWeek article on mobile devices in 21st century learning brought this idea of mine to the fore. This is all in the brainstorm stage (as are many of my ideas) but I really think that with the right kind of course environment and with a bit of cultural shift, educators could tap into the potential of mobile phone-based messaging explicitly in the service of facilitating the formative assessment process. Hopefully some are already exploring these potentials- I'll be the first to admit that I haven't done a lit review on this one. Do you know of any work related to instant messaging and formative assessment? What are your thoughts and ideas?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Potential uses of twitter in teacher education courses

Twitter is a microblogging platform that allows users to publish brief text updates of up to 140 characters onto the web-based twitter network (aka the "twitterverse"). These updates can be generally broadcast to all of those individuals who choose to follow your updates, or they can be directed at specific individuals (these can be one of two forms:@ replies, and direct messages). Users build a network of people that they follow (followers) and within that network develop "friends" which are loosely defined as those who they interact with the most (through @ replies and/or direct messages). For a more thorough discussion of the "friend" networks developed on twitter, take a look at this paper by Huberman, Romero, and Wu. 

The rapid rise in popularity of twitter in the past year has brought to mind the following question: what are some of the potential uses of twitter or other microblogging platforms in teacher education courses? Others have blogged about uses of microblogging in K-16 classrooms in general, or about uses of twitter use by teachers, but we (@craig_schneider and I) haven't found much about using microblogging specifically in teacher education. I do have an ever expanding diigo list of pages which discuss uses of twitter in education in general. 

What follows then is our brainstorm list about how we might begin to use twitter or some other microblogging platform in our own teacher education courses. 
  • Set up a course group in a twitter app (such as tweetdeck )in order to facilitate general communication with and among students (course announcements, reminders, etc). Unfortunately, groups cannot be created in the twittersphere without the use of one of these external apps. An alternative, of course, it for users to have dedicated twitter accounts just for the course, and follow only the others in that course. This, however, could be limiting the potential of the technology. 
  • Polling. Using sites such as, teacher educators can quickly and easily poll their students about choice of discussion topics for the next class, how practicum placements are going, etc. Students could also use this feature to poll their classmates about teaching ideas or what to do in specific situations.
  • "Teaching moment of the day" tweets or posts. Students can tweet/micoblog a brief message each day they're in practicum about something of interest or something that happened during their practicum experience. These tweets can serve as the basis for class discussions, or can help the teacher educator as a sort of "temperature taking" mechanism in order to keep connected with the students' practicum experiences. A log of these tweets could be valuable for students in their reflection on practicum experiences at the end of the course.
  • Continuing conversations. Our class discussions are often (always?) limited by our time together in a common physical space. Of course we have online discussion forums where we can "continue" these conversations, but these are asynchronous and fairly formal in presentation and format. Microblogging could be used to continue the conversation on a more informal, synchronous basis as thoughts occur. Because it is so quick and easy to "say" something, a student doesn't have to log into a course management system and write out their thoughts.
  • Collaborative planning. In our teacher education courses, we often have students forms teams or pairs and plan lessons together. As students come up with ideas for their co-planned lessons, they could microblog or tweet these ideas and in doing so accomplish two things: 1) create a record of the idea, and 2) share the idea with their partner or team. 
  • "Teaching anytime". I often think of ideas or things to bring up in class discussions when I'm not in class. By using a microblogging platform, a teacher educator could tweet these ideas as they occur, thus extending the notion of the "teachable moment" beyond the walls of the classroom. 
  • Broadening the teacher education course community. We all have colleagues with whom we collaborate about our teaching. If some of these colleagues were willing and interested to be a part of the course group, they could chime in on relevant discussions within the group, and act as external friends or advisors. Further, former students might act as friends of the group and join in. Their experiences, just shortly removed from the course, would be valuable for the students. 
  • General reflection facilitation: students can reflect on the course or their experiences at any time and keep a record of these reflections by microblogging them. We know that the reflective practitioner is constantly reflecting on their practice and experience. Microblogging can help to instill this practice in teacher education students. 
We'll post some updates on this blog as we try some of these things out and as we think of new ideas. It would be nice to get a much larger conversation going about using microblogging in teacher education. That conversation could occur here in the comments, on twitter, etc. We will also cross-post this to the Classroom 2.0 teacher education group and the Science Education Research ning to see if we can drum up some interaction, and try to aggregate comments, feedback, and ideas from each of these venues. Please feel free to share your ideas and experiences. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Twitter hashtags for professional activities

Hashtags are a great way of labeling or tagging twitter posts (aka "tweets") for searching and compiling by others. For more info on hashtags, see They are commonly used by members of some groups for identifying group-related activities (e.g. amateur radio operators often tag their ham related tweets #hamr) or to label events (e.g. the recent wildfire in Boulder, CO prompted tweets tagged #boulderfire). People can then search for occurrences of these hashtags and identify others who are tweeting about a topic or group of interest, and they can save these tweets if need be.

Recently I post to Classroom 2.0 and the Science Education Research ning and proposed using a specific hashtag for science education related tweets: #scied. I've also been using the hashtags #AERA and #NARST to talk about the upcoming respective conferences of the American Educational Research Association and the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. My hope is that we, as a community of educational researchers and science educators, can start to use these and other relevant hashtags in order to facilitate searching and compiling of tweets for community-building and even research purposes. 

The twittersphere is collecting a huge number of new tweets every minute- that is a lot of information to keep track of, much of it very useful but only if we can find it. What hashtags do you use with respect to your professional activities? What others should we be using? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up" (Pablo Picaso)

I'll always remember this quote as it was taped to a shelf in the darkroom of my Dad's photographic studio. (Forgive Picaso for using the gendered pronoun "he") I read it for year and years as a child, and only later did I come to realize its true significance. I owe my curiosity and penchant for too many hobbies and questions to my father, who promoted that kind of creativity and inquisitiveness in me as a child. I joke now about having too many hobbies, but is that at all surprising for someone with a curious interest about the world? 

Interestingly, I expressed that creative curiosity through the study of science and the natural world, and through my hobbies, rather than through artistic expression like my father the photographer (who is also keenly interested in nature). This brief reflection reminds me of the importance of fostering this kind of creative curiosity is children of all ages. One avenue into that is the venerable (and often much-maligned) "hobby."

When I say I have too many hobbies it's true: amateur radio, cycling, computers, gps, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, camping, reading, weather watching/data, maps, geology, and others I'm sure I've neglected. These hobbies/pursuits/whatever you want to call them are expressions of my curious nature (or some say [intellectual] attention deficit disorder). So why do I pursue all of these things? They're fun and make me think.

We amateur radio operators often lament the lack of younger people in our hobby. Go to any gathering of hams and the mean age is likely to be well past 60. As a teacher, I formed an amateur radio club in my high school to get kids involved in this pursuit of intellectual curiosity and problem-solving. Some of the kids got into it, and others joined just because their friends did or they thought I wanted them to be there. But looking back on that experience makes me realize that my motivation to form that club wasn't really about amateur radio- it was about getting kids to engage in a hobby that make them smile, laugh, and think.

I'm sure there is no prescription or set of rules for fostering intellectual curiosity in children, but I think a good starting point is to model that curiosity yourself. One good way to do that is to engage in a hobby you enjoy and to promote that hobby in your community.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dissertation data collection: A critical time in the next few weeks

My dissertation data collection begins in earnest this week, with the pre-administration of two surveys of science teacher knowledge: the Flexible Application of Student-Centered Instruction (FASCI) and the physics-FASCI. For more information on each of these surveys, visit the FASCI webpage at The FASCI survey is content-neutral, in that the classroom scenarios presented and the questions asked are not placed in the context of any particular science content, only a "high school science class." The physics-FASCI places the same scenarios into the context of specific physics content, such as statements like "you are teaching Newton's 3rd Law..." My goal in administering these two versions of the FASCI is to investigate the domain-specificity of this particular aspect of science teacher knowledge. 

Participants from four universities around the country will be randomly assigned to take one version or the other, both pre- and post-semesters' instruction. The first of these administrations begins this week, and hopefully all pre-administrations will be complete within the next three weeks. I will then conduct think-aloud interviews and observe the teaching practice of a subset of respondents in order to contribute to a validity argument for each version of the instrument. The full research proposal can be seen at the website mentioned above.

Questioning strategies in science teaching

In my opinion and experience, one of the most powerful and useful strategies that a science teacher can use is deliberative, planned questioning. This can take many forms, and I do not mean to imply that planned questioning strategies are purely prescriptive and therefore one size fits all. Although I think they should be planned and structured, questions should also be flexible and tailored to specific situations, students, and concepts being discussed. 

As a teacher and as a teacher educator, one resource that I often use for thinking about questioning strategies is a chapter by Jos Elstgeest in the book Primary Science: Taking the Plunge (Harlen, Elstgeest, & Jelly, 2001). Hans Andersen introduced me to this work in 1995, when I was a student in his in science education methods. Although written for the elementary school teacher, this work is applicable to all levels of science teaching. 

Elstgeest begins by discussing what makes a question a "wrong question", namely that is wordy and might itself contain the answer, indicating that it aims at pure recall. On the other hand, "productive" questions lead a student to show (rather than say) that they know the answer. These "productive" questions can be attention-focusing questions (e.g. "What do you notice about..."), measuring and counting questions (e.g. "How many of..."), comparison questions (e.g. "In how many ways do these things differ?"), or my favorite types of questions: action questions (e.g. "What would happen if...") or problem-posing questions (e.g. "Can you find a way to...").

How do you use thoughtful, planned questioning in your own teaching?