Friday, July 31, 2015

Daily Announcement: A New Inoreader Feed for #NTPoC

It's been another great week at #NTPoC. We've had fun posts on mapping our social networks as well as ongoing conversations related to student engagement and openness.

With regards to the latter, Laura Gibbs has created a really useful resource for us -- the #NTPoC Inoreader feed.

"This is a display of my Inoreader feed for #NTPoC. It combines items from people blogging for NTPoC along with Google+ and Twitter hashtag searches for the Power of Connections course. This same content is also available as an RSS feed.

And please use the hashtag #NTPoC to share and connect at Twitter or at Google+! You can see an #NTPoC hashtag Twitter widget at the Power of Connections blog. For more,  see Laura's  homepage at"

Thanks, Laura!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Daily Announcement: Mapping Your Social Networks

The Unit 3 Artifact Challenge is about mapping your social networks. This is a fun and informative activity that helps us take a look at how we're connected for collaboration with others.

Laura Gibbs created this great blog post with her results, and I've created one as well. Also, Cody Taylor has shared this great animation of his e-mail network.

I also want to say a big THANKS to everyone participating in the course so far. I'm presenting the keynote at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference today and am sharing many ideas and examples from our collaboration together.

Finally, if you haven't yet checked out Laura's #growthmindset memes blog, I highly recommend it! It's a collection of "growth mindset memes" to help promote Carol Dweck's model of the growth mindset in fun and memorable ways.

See you online!


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Daily Announcement: Openness and Collabortion

​As we continue looking at "The Power of Openness" this week, I'd like to share this post on openness as a pathway to collaboration. Here's a quote about improvisations and how they support openness and collaboration.

"Improvisations are also extremely useful as a way to promote collaboration. By definition, they are "open" -- they have no right answer. This means they tend to be student-friendly and also make for great group activities. When there's no "right" answer, students spend less time trying to promote their own personal perspectives."

Our Unit 3 improvisation has us look specifically at "addition" improvs and provides a model for exploring openness and collaboration even further. Check it out and, while you're at it, add a line or to to the "Exquisite Corpse" story I have started.

See you online!


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Openness as a Pathway to Collaboration

By now, everyone knows that I am a huge fan of using improvisations as a way to model student creation and ownership. They are also useful from a teaching perspective because they are generally abstractions, that is they adapt easily to different learning environments, pedagogical preferences,  and disciplines.

But improvisations are also extremely useful as a way to promote collaboration. By definition, they are "open" -- they have no right answer. This means they tend to be student-friendly and also make for great group activities. When there's no "right" answer, students spend less time trying to promote their own personal perspectives.

This line of thinking is one of my primary topics for my Thursday keynote address at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference. In particular, as part of that presentation, I'll be sharing a number of video clips to illustrate the value of "constraints" and "addition" when it comes to improvs and promoting student engagement.

One of the video clips I'll be showing and talking about comes from the 1995 movie Apollo 13. It is a great example of how problems without "known" or "right" answers -- situations framed by openness -- really lend themselves well to collaboration.  The clip below is one of my examples. In this scene, NASA engineers are faced with the proverbial problem of having to make a square peg fit in a round hole. Goo luck with that, right?

This type of problem certainly invites collaboration and team problem solving. It also sends me back to the drawing board over and over again to design improv models that present similar variables and create the same type of collaboration in courses.

Daily Announcement: Fun Things to Do Today

Everyone really seems to be getting into the spirit of the course now. That means you can come along when you have time, work at your own pace, and jump into the activities, readings, and discussions that interest you. Here are a couple of things to consider today.

1. If you haven't yet introduced yourself to the community, consider going to the o back to Unit 1 and the Make a Connection activity. As an example, here is my introduction along with Laura's.

2. If you're looking for something really quick to do today, go to Unit 3 and "The Power of Addition." This has an example of the "Exquisite Corpse" improv and I have already started to a story in the comments section. Join us by adding your lines to our story.

3. Over on the formal course site (, there are a number of conversations going on as well. In particular, I love the new posts going up on the "Framing Connections" activity from Unit 2. Cody Taylor's fantastic history of his personal computing is definitely worth checking out.

See you online!


Monday, July 27, 2015

Daily Annoucement: Welcome to Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of Power of Connections. We’ve opened up the content for Unit 3 and, with this unit, are focusing on “The power of Openness.”We’ll be exploring that topic by looking at open content, open networks, and open pedagogy, and discussing how these can have an impact on student engagement.

I highly suggest you begin your journey in this unit with Creating Collaborative Communities, which contains a video discussion with Kerry Magruder on the need to designing curricula for collaboration.

Also, if you weren’t able to make it to Friday’s Twitter chat, don’t worry. We’ve captured the entire conversation here on Storify.

See you online!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Storify: July 24 Twitter #NTPOC Chat

We had our first #NTPoC Twitter chat this past Friday, July 25, 2015. I created this Storify using tweets tagged with #NTPoC, so some conversations may be missing a tweet or two. Here is the Storify page. The topic: STUDENT ENGAGEMENT. Enjoy!

Unit 3: SNA Artifact Challenge

Now it’s your turn!

Use one or all of the tools we shared in "mapping Your Social Networks," to create a personal network map. When you’ve created your map, capture it as an image and share it here with the the learning community. Also, please share any observations about what your maps revealed or how they surprised you.

Unit 3: Mapping Your Social Network

I am by nature a very kinetic and visual learner. You may have a sense of this already from the first two artifact challenges (the photo introductions and the web history). So, as I was chatting with Rob the other day about my connections in the online world, I of course wanted to make a visual representation of those connections to understand them better. That is, I wanted to map my online social connections.

There is a whole discipline around this kind of activity called Social Network Analysis (SNA), which is a set of tools and analysis methodologies designed to show the hidden social connections within networks. Wikipedia has a great article here, and you can also read a great article on “How to map your social network.” From the BBC are a lot of great free tools that you can try in under 20 minutes in order to get visual images of your social networks. Here are some of those tools with examples.

Mapping Your Twitter Followers

Let’s start with the simplest tools and output using your Twitter account. These two tools are not really analyzing your social connections, but they do give you an attractive map of where your followers come from.
  • TweepsMap – This tool produces a free map of where your twitter followers are located around the globe. Here is my map, for example. It is kind of cool to see that I have followers in Australia and Norway – I didn’t know!!


    Before you use TweepsMap, you will either have to let TweepsMap post a Tweet for you to access a free map, or pay $4.99/month to access their full services (including some social analysis tools.)
  • MapMySocial – As with TweepsMap, you must allow MapMySocial to access your Twitter account, including posting Tweets.

    With MapMySocial, you get to see the profile pictures of your twitter followers. Here is my map.


    Special NOTE: If you choose to enable any service to access your Twitter account, you can always revoke access by going to your Twitter Settings, then select Apps. You will see a list of applications that can access your twitter account., and can click to revoke access.

Mapping Your LinkedIN Network
  • – This site creates a diagram of your LinkedIn network, showing how different users are connected to each other. You can also see outliers with no connections to anyone else in your network. It also lists some measures of your network like the number of clusters you are connected to.

    Here is my graph. Please note that I have removed the names to protect the innocent.



    You can click on each node and it will highlight who that person is connected to. This helps you to see clusters and connections that you didn’t anticipate. It really is a lot of fun to play with. I was really surprised at how many people I have with no connections (out there on the fringes). As I look at the individuals, I can see that some of my outliers COULD be connected to other people in my network, i.e. I know that these two people work for the same organization, but for some reason they are not connected.

Mapping Your E-mail Network

  • Immersion from MIT Media Labs – Immersion uses the metadata from your emails (To, From, CC and time) to map the connections within your email. You can map your Gmail, MSExchange or Yahoo mail. There is also a Demo account if you don’t want to put in your own credentials.

    You can move through time to see how the connectors in your email have changed over time. Immersion focuses on your inbox, so if you are very tidy, you may not see too many connections.

  • Comment

    Here is my connected work email. I did remove names since I have some student emails. But you can see the clustered people (the green group is one specific project I am working on, so there is a lot of cc’ing on these emails). The big blue dot is my boss.

Unit 3: The Game of Education (Discussion)

Just as Von Neumann and Conway imagined thought experiments in which a set of simple rules, combined with the appropriate elements or resources, could result in complex and amazing environments, I want us to do the same thing with education or learning).

With that in mind, our question for this discussion is simple: Given an environment (civilization) that consists of children, adults, families, communities, and government, what four simple "rules" can you imagine that would result in the highest level of learning within the environment?

Unit 3: The Power of Addition

Exquisite Corpse

In our first two units, we looked at improvisations that prompted new perspectives by imposing constraints such as time and resources. There were no wrong answers, certainly, but the design of these activities can cause a particular type of anxiety for some students.

Another type of improvisation focuses on addition or expansion as opposed to constraint. These are often collaborative and/or flexible enough to allow participants to add new rules or modify the activity on the fly.

Addition improvs can be simple and brief, or focus and deeper levels of problem solving, like complex games.

Exquisite Corpse is good example of a simple addition improv. This improv was originally designed as a surrealist parlor game, and a common version asks a group of people to construct a story by having each person contribute a sentence (or sentences) without knowing what the person before or after has written.

My wife and I used to play Exquisite Corpse with our kids while waiting for our food at restaurants. We would take a napkin, and one of us would begin by writing the first line to a story. That person would fold the napkin so the others could not see what s/he had written and then the next person would write a line. Here are two actual samples we created in one of those activities.

Round 1

Player 1: It was a typical day in New York.

Player 2: And Batman was standing vigilantly against a wax paper moon with cutout stars of fluorescent glitter.

Player 3: He, as usual, pretended he knew what was happening when, as always, he didn’t have the slightest clue.

Player 1: She thought the toilet was a swimming pool and jumped in.

Player 2: But my mother blew her nose graciously and left.

Player 3: It was soft and squishy.

Player 1: KABOOM!

Player 2: His hands motioned soundlessly in the background while he belched.

Player 3: No one ever knew for certain, but they always suspected the mailman.

Round 2

Player 2: The dog howled at the lonely moon while three men sang badly around the fire.

Player 3: She always wondered why he did that.

Player 1: Blaaaaaahhh! He puked everywhere.

Player 2: The drink went down hard but came up with ease.

Player 3: Why oh why do these things always happen to me, she thought.

Player 1: Then I saw it, the huge marshmallow.

Player 2: I’m so in love I can’t stand it.

Player 3: What not? No one will ever know.

Player 1: And then I want to bed.

If you want to play this here, simply add a comment, put the the number in the story sequence in your title, and then write out your contribution. Stacy and I have already started the activity with our two contributions.

The Game of Life

As I mentioned, other addition improvs are more serious in nature. These are designed to be cerebral activities and are generally set up like thought experiments.

We can actually find the framework of such improvs or thought experiments in early thought simulations on self-replicating machines. John Von Neumann was an early pioneer in these experiments who, realizing that such machines could not be produced with the technologies available to him in the 1950s, turned to the computer pattern games created by the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

Ulam suggested that Von Neumann construct an abstract universe for his analysis of machine reproduction. It would be an imaginary world with self-consistent rules, as in Ulam’s computer games. It would be a world complex enough to embrace all the essentials of machine operation but otherwise as as simple as possible. The rules governing the world would be a simplified physics. A proof of machine reproduction ought to be easier to devise in such an imaginary world, as all the nonessential points of engineering would be stripped away.

With this inspiration, Von Neumann devised a thought experiment to show that it was indeed possible to provide machines with the necessary resources and sets instructions that would allow them to create copies of themselves or, new machines that were of equal or greater complexity. His experiment consisted of an infinite checkerboard as his universe. Each square on the checkerboard could be any of a number of states corresponding roughly to machine components. A "machine" in this model was a pattern of such cells.

As Poundstone points out, "Von Neumann’s cellular space can be thought of as an exotic, solitaire form of chess.The board is limitless, and each square can be empty or contain one of the 28 types of game pieces. The lone player arranges the game pieces in an initial pattern. From there on, strict rules determine all successive configurations of the board."

In other words, Von Neumann came up with an "open" model that allowed a "player" to establish the initial state or setup of the game pieces, and then watch to see if that setup would produce a self-replicating machine. What he discovered through this experiment was that yes, there are initial settings that can allow a machine to self-replicate. His experiment also provided a framework for modeling how a simple set of recursive rules can produce complex interactions and complexity in different environments.

The British mathematician John Conway revisited Von Neumann’s work in 1970, when he published his seminal Game of Life in Scientific American in 1970. Like Von Neumann’s experiment, Conway’s game was a zero-player game, meaning the evolution and result of the game is determined by its initial state, requiring no further input by the player.

Conway’s game was less complicated than Von Neumann’s, however, and it was more applicable. It was simple enough to be programmed into computers of the day and thus provide a simulated proof. Thankfully, Game of Life has retained its appeal and significance over the decades, and as a result there are a number of excellent online versions that allows us to play with the phenomenon of emergent systems first-hand (such as this javascript version).

Like von Neumann, Conway designed his game to be played on an infinite two-dimensional grid of square cells. Rather than having game pieces to place on the cells however, Game of Life allows us to set initial patterns simply by marking cells with one of two possible states, either "alive" or "dead." Once the game begins, at each step in time every cell interacts with its eight neighboring cells. Through these interactions, we can witness the following transitions:
  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if caused by under-population.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overcrowding.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

As we play Conway’s game, we are indeed struck by the complexity that can be produced from simple, recursive rules. We see new patterns and behaviors develop. We find that patterns can actually recreate themselves along with their initial instruction set (just as von Neumann imagined). In fact, if we did not know how simple the game rules and components really were, we would swear that some of the resulting behaviors could not possibly be produced by anything so primitive.

Von Neumann’s self-replicating machines experiment, as well as Conway’s Game of Life, point to all kinds of fun addition and/or design improvs that we might practice across the curriculum. These improvs generally begin with a desired outcome or hypothesis, and then ask participants to come up with the simplest design or set of rules/components to achieve the outcome.

These improvs tend to be more advanced and require more thought. We’re going to try one out ourselves this week, in our discussion titled The Game of Education.

Unit 3: Exploring Open Pedagogy

With regards to student engagement and helping learners create meaningful connections across their own and other networks, a key consideration is how we can design the learning experience to embrace open learning and collaboration.

In our conversation below, Stacy addresses this topic, as well as some of the important aspects of an open pedagogy, one that gives the student more ownership of the learning experience and its outcomes.

Some of Stacy’s comments are also captured in a list of eight qualities of open pedagogy that she, Laura Gibbs, and I discussed earlier this year. That discussion was actually a preamble to a#OpenTeachingOU Twitter chat on open content.

Let’s take a look at that Twitter dialogue as a way to look at the ideas and observations of other instructors and thought leaders (scroll down to question 2).

Unit 3: Creating Collaborative Communities

Kerry Magruder is Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma, as well as Associate Professor of History of Science. More to the point, he’s an amazing person, a real academic rock star, and has one of the coolest jobs I can imagine.

He gets to play with really old manuscripts!

Kerry began his career as a science instructor, but eventually gravitated to History of Science as a way to address the fact that, too often, he saw science being taught without any connection to its discovery and practice, or without reference to the larger scientific community. As he says in our interview:
Manuscripts are windows into the past, the stories of these creative people with great determination and often times quite limited resources accomplishing amazing things.
If people think science is cold and impersonal, we need to awaken an interest, awaken an imagination so that they can see a creative and personal side that comes out from all these stories.
One way to define Kerry’s work is as that of a custodian of connections – someone who expands the context of learning by connecting past and present. In his own words, he’s about "connecting the viewer back to the content and the concepts," and about "recovering the lost connections that can bring out the real meaning and personal relevance of science."

Kerry is also a big fan of openness and sees it as a key component in both scientific advancement and in the way universities design learning. I think his observations in the interview below provide a nice framework for our discussions on openness as an important part of student engagement.

My conversation with Kerry raises a number of questions about student engagement.

How do we facilitate more "openness" across the curriculum? This seems particularly important in lower-level courses where we have groups of students with such diverse discipline interests. Can we engage them more deeply by helping them find connections to their personal learning interests?

How can we model Kerry’s "communities of collaboration" in our own course designs? What kind of problems or activities lend themselves best to bringing together diverse groups to solve them?

How can we use technology to reinforce or facilitate collaborative problem-solving? What technologies do you find most useful for collaborating to solve problems with a group or team?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Daily Announcement: My Web History

Thanks to everyone for the great comments and sharing in the course so far! Lots of fun going on this week, that's for sure. Maha Abdelmoneim posted a great reflection for her Unit 2 improv, and Stacy posted hers s well (and  with a completely different twist on the activity -- she went with images! ). It's another great reason I find improvs so useful in teaching -- they really lend themselves to great flexibility.

Also, if you've been waiting to jump into the Unit 2 Artifact Challenge, why not take this piece by Laura as good motivation to get started on yours ( I ended up opting to write about my personal computing history, and really enjoyed my leisurely stroll down memory lane.

Finally, don't forget about tomorrow's Twitter chat! Tune in to the #NTPoC hashtag at 10:00 AM CDT and explore student engagement with us for an hour.

Engaging Students by Choosing What Science to Teach

[This is a guest post by my friend, Dr. Tom Hsu, Co-founder of Ergopedia. You can read more about Tom at the end of this post.]

A typical science book is close to 1,000 pages. Intimidating. Dense. Very few students are able learn all the material in a typical science curricula in one year. This is especially true considering we actually have only 36 weeks, and would still be true if we had twice that much time. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t teach it. Teachers are pretty good at working under impossible conditions; we can teach anything. The students just wouldn’t be able to learn it all. Which brings me to my title; if the goal is to engage students in learning, and have them learn, then what science should we teach? Within that 1,000-page body of scientific knowledge and skills, what is most appropriate for our students? What is learnable, teachable, important, and relevant? Out of the teachable and learnable subset, what fits into our standards and assessments?

You love science! I love science. We each find our specific area of science fascinating, and long ago learned its language and customs. To help our students learn we all need to take the difficult but necessary step of moving to the other side of the desk. We must stand in the shoes of someone who does not speak our language, does not know the meaning of endoplasmic reticulum or molarity or periodic force. Someone who does not care at all that the quadratic formula is beautiful. Then we need to go outside the school system altogether. What knowledge and skills will help our students succeed in fields other than research science? Many fewer than 1% of students ever become research scientists. Should our curriculum be driven, as it is, by the purpose of preparing research scientists?

I became successful because of public schools. I can still remember exactly when I decided I liked science. In the sixth grade my teacher did a science lesson on paper airplanes. She brought in a student from a local college to help and he showed me different ways to make a paper airplane fly. Then they both helped me learn to make it fly even farther. I was hooked; I wanted to build airplanes and eventually went to college to study aerospace engineering. I was hooked because:
  • The curriculum was made meaningful to me.
  • I had a positive, successful (carefully structured) hands-on experience 
  • I got to do the real stuff, building an airplane, without lots of theory. Later, I wanted to learn the theory!
At Eastman Kodak, where I once worked in engineering, we had an informal prize whenever one of us needed to use calculus in our jobs. We awarded it only once during the several years I was there. I challenge you to think about each topic in your curriculum as it applies to success in real life, outside of science. You will find that many ideas in “standard” curriculum are not useful! Maybe they were once useful, but no longer. Maybe they are useful to research scientists, but so what! We spend inordinate amounts of our precious class time teaching many concepts that are important to no one but specialists in our discipline. They are not bad concepts to teach. But what are we neglecting in their stead?

I believe the mission of k-12 science education is to give all graduates of high school useful scientific and technical knowledge and skills. By “useful”, I mean the things they can use in their lives, outside of laboratories and outside of science education. Leave the universities to train the research scientists. We need to prepare everyone else; the business people, the contractors, and most important the future parents, to understand how our technical world operates. People have a tendency to fear and mistrust what they don’t understand. America became great on the basis of our technical and scientific prowess. We need to keep that torch burning by making sure all Americans are able solve problems and make informed technical decisions based on sound scientific knowledge and reasoning.

Observation: Students are engaged when they are successful at learning. Therefore, curriculum should provide learnable, understandable content that is grade-appropriate.

The first high school science course many students take is biology. Open a typical high school biology book and look at the first few chapters. You will find protein synthesis, respiration reactions, DNA, enzymes, catalysts, hydrogen bonding, and a laundry list of fairly advanced chemistry topics! I have found the Kreb's Cycle, a graduate level topic not so long ago, in an introductory high school biology book in the introductory chapters. Is this how to engage students in science? By bombarding them with 2,000 new vocabulary words and concepts they are unprepared to understand? In fact, the traditional high school biology course with its overemphasis on vocabulary and memorization disengages students from science.

There is a strong movement to put physics first in the high school curriculum followed by chemistry, then biology. Being a physicist, naturally I think of physics as the most important science, right? Wrong. The drastic changes in human society that came with the agricultural revolution (2,000 years) the industrial revolution (300 years) and the information revolution (40 years) will pale before the changes that will come as we explore our ability to change our very species itself and the detailed workings of our planet. If the wrong microbe were to get loose homo sapiens could become extinct far faster than the dinosaurs.

I agree with the physics first initiative because physics is the easiest way to engage students in learning systems thinking and quantitative reasoning. Traditional biology with its overemphasis on memorization and vocabulary fails to adequately prepare students to understand their role in the larger ecosystem of Earth or even the functions of their own bodies. To understand modern biology you really need a foundation of chemistry. And to understand why chemistry occurs you need to understand energy, atoms, and systems. That is why physics should be first: because it is the most direct way to teach the big ideas of energy, atoms, causality, and systems. Physics provides the foundation for chemistry, which is the foundation for biology.

Few students think physics is engaging because they don't like math. It has nothing to do with physics and virtually everything to do with how math is taught. Throwing the traditional wall of "physics" math at eighth and ninth graders will NOT get us where we need to be! Physics First needs to be a different physics than was Physics Last (or no physics). A ninth grade physics course must develop the big ideas of systems, energy, and atoms conceptually and mathematically, with the concept preceding the math and not vice versa. Energy conservation is such an important idea that it should not wait until mid-year. Many traditionally important results, such as free fall, and mechanical advantage can be developed using energy arguments far easier than with traditional vector algebra. We need to rethink how we teach physics as well as what we teach to develop a sound foundation of both understanding and quantitative thinking.

Observation: Questions are more interesting and engaging than facts.

I am a strong believer in guided inquiry. In guided inquiry a group of students is presented with a phenomena, offered some pertinent questions and a suggested path of inquiry that might lead to an explanation. We developed some very special experiments that create situations that are easy to describe and reproduce, yet deep in understanding. For example, imagine a track that starts with a downhill slope followed by a level section about as long as the slope. A little car starts from the top of the hill, rolls down the hill, along the flat, and then bounces off a rubber band at the bottom. After bouncing, the car then rolls backward and partially up the hill again. Students notice that the car never rolls back as high as it started. Why? What is the explanation for why the car never goes higher than it started? Energy of height (potential energy) is proportional to height. Energy of speed (kinetic energy) is proportional to speed. The car never rolls back higher than it started because that would require more energy than is available.

Once students see the big idea that the car needs more energy to get higher, we pose the next question: is there any way the car can be made to go higher than it starts? If so, how, and why? Once they are thinking in terms of limited energy, students quickly realize that they need to give the car more energy. For example, a small push downwards at the start gives the car additional energy. Pushing adds energy and the car can now roll higher than it started. By using a real car and track, students learn almost immediately about efficiency. Friction diverts some energy and it takes a substantial push just to get the car back to its initial height.

Curriculum and equipment must work together. You wouldn’t want your surgeon operating with a kitchen paring knife would you? A scalpel is specifically designed for surgery and the equipment for learning science should be created specifically to learn and not merely to demonstrate! Just as a scalpel is more than “a sharp knife” the effectiveness of a real car and track as a learning tool is based on designing the actual car and track to have just the right kind of friction, the right sorts of angles, the right kind of wheels and bearings, a technique for applying a controlled force, a way to measure level, and countless other details. You just can’t get this kind of deep learning to happen with sticks and strings. Actually you could, but few of us have Galileo’s talent, patience, or time!

Choosing what to teach

I believe we cannot teach all of the content in most science standards in a way that most of our students will learn it and retain it. That means we must choose which content to teach and which to ignore. We favor the use of some very practical questions when choosing what to emphasize in a curriculum.

Question #1: Is there a useful application of this concept, outside of academic science, that students can understand at the level they are at? If there is no such an application, or the application is incomprehensibly advanced, you should think very hard about teaching a different concept instead. There is plenty in the curriculum to choose from!

Electricity provides a good example of how to apply question #1. To most of the world, the important aspects of electricity are voltage and current. Voltage and current are the things we use every day when we plug in appliances or turn on a light. Current is what flows and does work. Voltage measures the available power that is carried by a quantity of flowing current, such as one amp. One amp of current from a 120 volt wall outlet carries 120 watts of power to do useful things. 120 watts can propel a bicycle and rider up a moderate hill. The same one amp of current flowing out of a 1.5 volt battery carries only 1.5 watts of power. 1.5 watts is barely enough power to light a night light; not nearly enough to ride up a hill. The amoount of current is the same. The voltage tells you how much power each amp carries. Voltage and current are real, measurable, every-day concepts students can measure and use. We build circuits, make light bulbs glow and only then, once the student has some successful experience and, only then do we ask what is really going on inside those wires. Then is the time to learn the more abstract concepts of electric forces and fields. We call this the STEM approach. We use practical applications of engineering and technology (amps and volts) to teach the science of physics (electricity and magnetism).

Consider the fact that virtually every traditional physics course begins the same topic of electricity with electric charges, the electric field, and Coulomb’s inverse square law of the force between two electric charges. Almost no one outside physics uses Coulomb’s law or cares that electrons really move from negative to positive. In many books the short (and inadequate) section on voltage and current is at the very end of the unit. Many (if not most) physics teachers never get to the end of the unit and therefore the majority of students never learn the practical application of electricity. Why do physics courses start with the abstractions of charges and electric fields? We call this the "anti-STEM" approach! The anti-STEM approach is to subtract all practical engineering and technology from the teaching of "pure science.

Question #2: Does the concept help build understanding of the big picture or is it a small detail?

I have seen a k-12 science curriculum that teaches density for two weeks, every year, in every grade, from grade 4 to grade 9. In the grand scheme of things density is a tiny detail. Its emphasis in the curriculum is far in excess of its importance. Physics is no better at prioritizing content. Fully one quarter of a traditional physics book is devoted to building up the equations of accelerated motion. There are subscripts, superscripts and symbols; there are diagrams and frictionless examples; and there are difficult-to-parse word problems that carefully construct situations of constant acceleration. Do you know that in the real world there are virtually no situations of constant acceleration! Students must survive a half-dozen chapters before they get to the really important and useful ideas of energy and systems.

Question #3: Is the concept important today, or is it only historically important?

Unless the historical development is really important to understanding what is useful today, we skipped it. We want students to learn science that they can use today, not science that was interesting 100 years ago. History is important, but not as important as having a scientifically literate population who can evaluate scientific issues rationally.

Question #4: How can you teach this concept while introducing the fewest number of new words or equations required for the student to learn and apply the concept?

This is hard for us since we know the language and customs of our scientific disciplines. Try marking out every word not in common use and see if you can still teach the big idea. The average educated person’s vocabulary is around 20,000 words. The average 9th grade biology book has more than 2,000 new words; words that a student must decipher to be able to understand the important ideas in the book; words that will never be used again outside the narrow world of research biology and medicine. Can we teach the ideas without this incredible barrier of words? For example, I have seen the term “endoplasmic reticulum” on an 8th grade state assessment. Why is this term there? In my humble opinion you can teach the important ideas in biology, such as ecosystems, food chains, anatomy and physiology, heredity, evolution, and the organization of life on Earth, without 90% of the big words. Wouldn’t you rather have students understand the important ideas instead of the specialized vocabulary?

Question #5: Is there a way for students to get hands-on experience with this concept?

Teaching the mathematical representation of electric fields (Coulomb's law) to ninth grade students is almost a waste of time. Students have neither the mathematical skills, nor the experiential background to understand and use the concepts. Unless you are willing to invest the time in providing experiences to give kids a handle on the abstractions, don't hold students responsible for learning material that can only be understood using mathematics above your students heads. That doesn't mean your shouldn't talk about cool things like time travel or quarks! It just means that "engagement topics" such as relativity should not be on the test, and students should know that they are not responsible for understanding time travel.

Using technology

Technology is a great way to introduce concepts in science and make them engaging by being relevant. For example, instead of starting a sound unit with the theory of waves, why not start by asking how a CD works? 100 years ago you could only hear music if you were next to a musician! Very few people heard enough musicians to even have a favorite band. The recording of sound was tremendously important to the development of culture, and engages kids. Exactly how do you capture a sound and record it so it can be played back? You probably can’t find a kid today who does not know what an MP3 file is. Do you know what an MP3 file is? How is it different from the sound recorded on a CD? The technique of starting with technology is interesting and engaging to students, I have done it many times. The other way (theory first) is boring to most students; I have done that too!

About the author

I should warn the reader that while I am expressing one personal opinion many of these ideas have come from other teachers across America. It has been my pleasure to have taught, and worked with, more than 18,000 teachers over the past 25 years, both in workshops across the country and in courses I have taught. Over time, I developed some of these rules from my own classroom teaching, in urban and suburban schools, public and private, with students ranging from fourth grade through graduate school.

Some of my critique of "pure science" comes from a background of practical engineering. Even in my "research" career I liked to build things, first at the superconducting accelerator at Stony Brook, and later on the Alcator tokamak fusion experiment at MIT. My work in industry including developing the first color copiers (Xerox, Dupont), manufacturing photographic paper and film (Kodak), manufacturing science equipment and publishing books (first with CPO Science and now with Ergopedia).

At heart, I am a teacher. When people ask me what I do, I proudly inform them that I am a science teacher. When asked how I got that way, I said that my own teachers made a huge difference in my life. My father was a cook and my mother was a waitress. I grew up in public schools, and along the way have been a carpenter, a cook, an engineer, a bicycle mechanic, a nanny, and even a musician (although, to be honest, I never actually earned any money as a musician). Every one of these experiences has enriched my ability as a teacher.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Daily Announcement: A New Language in 25 Words

 I'm on my way home this morning from my quick trip to Boston, but I wanted to take a moment to encourage everyone to take a look at this week's improv challenge (along with my attempt posted in the comments). I realized, after I finished, that I would likely have benefited from some math symbols or elements. However, from a poet's perspective, I think this works okay for my planet's civilization.

Also, I've posted a my initial thoughts on the Extending the Improvisation exercise, so please fell free to beginning tojump in with your thoughts as well! And speaking of thoughts and discussions, if you hadn't seen these already, please check out the conversation on Stacy's post on student blogging.

Finally, I hope you'll be able to join us for our Twitter chat Friday at 10:00 CDT. Stacy, Laura, and I will be there, and look forward to hearing everyone's ideas on student engagement. As a reminder, here are some of the questions we'll be throwing out. That said, we'll gladly jump off in any direction that interests the group.
  • Q1 - What does good student engagement look like to you?
  • Q2 - Who or what should students be engaging with? The Instructor, each other, the content? 
  • Q3 - What is the role of a teacher or facilitator in promoting student engagement? 
  • Q4 - What are examples from your own learning experience that point to the power of connections? 
  • Q5 - How is self-reflection part of engagement? How do we encourage learners all ages to be more self-reflective? 
  • Q6 - How can we encourage students to engage after the course is over?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Today's Announcement: Exploring Student Engagement Thorugh Connections

Welcome to Unit 2, everyone! Our theme this week is “The Power of Connections,” and we’re going to be exploring the importance of both self-reflection and collaboration when it comes to student engagement.

A great way to start the week is to read the dialogue and watch the inspiring videos of Emilee Little and Chris Brewster in the first item in the unit: “Student Engagement and the Power of Connections.” And by the way, if you want to hear more about/from Emilee and Chris, you can watch their full interview videos by following these links:

Also, while we’re on the subject of engaging through connections, I thought I would throw out this fun item my wife and I created yesterday (in our copious spare time). 

This is a sendup of all the edtech news roundups I’ve created over the years, as well as a good example of an “open” or “addition” improv (I’ll be talking about those next week). I designed it to appeal to a number of the different communities I belong to -- personal and professional -- and can use it to network between them. Besides, what’s not to like about something that bridges The Grateful Dead and Les Paul and Mary Ford?

As always, please comment on the items you read or watch and use our hashtag -- #NTPoC!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Unit 2: Student Engagement and the Power of Connections

Rob: Remember the Power of Connections video interviews I taped over the spring?

Stacy: The ones where you were trying to collect different perspectives on how learning connections happen and how they impact the trajectory of people’s lives?

Rob: Right. I also wanted to show how educators and artists design their learning networks and build out connected learning models.

Stacy: I’m hoping you’re getting ready to say that we’re going to watch clips from some of those interviews as a way to kickoff our discussion of student engagement through connections.

Rob: As a matter of fact…

Stacy: Because there are some really great stories we can share from those interviews.

Rob: I completely agree. I can think of two,in particular, that might provide a great starting point for our discussion about the relationship between learning connections and student engagement.

Stacy: I’m guessing one of those is Emilee Little from New Land Academy?

Rob: It seems that great minds really do think alike. So, do you want to provide a brief introduction?

Stacy: Absolutely. Emilee is the passionate educator who founded New Land Academy in Oklahoma City to serve the refugee community.

Rob: You know, until I met Emilee, I didn’t know there was a refugee community in Oklahoma City.

Stacy: They are a portion of those fortunate families whose requests for permanent settlement are granted each year (approximately 1% of the 50 million refugees worldwide are accepted for resettlement).

Rob: Right. And the young learners at New Land come from countries such as Burma, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These are young men and women who’ve lost their sense of connection, who aren’t sure who they are, why they exist, or where they’re going.

Stacy: And I know that New Land has developed an incredible approach to curriculum as a way to help these kids recover their sense of identity and worth.

Rob: It’s inspiring. So inspiring, in fact that we should probably let Emilee tell us about it.

Stacy: Agreed.

Rob: I really love hearing about the Rhythms they design around at New Land (see Figure 1.1).

Stacy: Yes, their work points to the importance of that first connection – the connection with self (Bestowing Identity).

Rob: What they’re doing with regards to self-reflection and helping students reach out from that identity is amazing. A great lesson for all of us.

Stacy: Okay, who’s up next?

Rob: I thought we’d go in a slightly different direction with out next video. In this one, we’re going to meet Chris Brewster, the Superintendent at Santa Fe South Schools in Oklahoma City.

Stacy: That’s the charter school in South Oklahoma City that’s transforming their community and the lives of their students.

Rob: Indeed. Chris is a real visionary and the work going on at Santa Fe South is incredible. In this interview, we’re going to hear describe how the team at Santa Fe South Schools are redefining both student and community success by fostering connections and making everyone responsible for learner outcomes.

Stacy: Wow, he brings up some really tough issues, like who is responsible for maintaining learner connections and building community.

Rob: I love his statement about being relentless in not letting kids disconnect.

Stacy: And valuing community outside the classroom.

Rob: That’s a big theme in both of these videos – the extension of the learning community way beyond the class cohort.

Stacy: Okay, here’s a question for you.

Rob: Yes?

Stacy: Both Emilee and Chris work in K-12. Does the same commitment or responsibility apply in Higher Education?

Rob: And if so, who’s responsible for creating and maintaining connections these communities?

Stacy: Those sound like great questions for our community.

Figure 1.1

Unit 2: Why Context Matters for Meaningful Connections

Rob: So, what’s your idea of a meaningful learning connection?

Stacy: My background in information science tends to steer my thinking toward information connections.

Rob: Okay, so what’s your idea of a meaningful information connection?

Stacy: One that’s more than meaningless data.

Rob: Which would be pretty much the equivalent of noise.

Stacy: Bingo. Information doesn’t actually become informative unless you connect to it at the right time and place.

Rob: So for you, meaningful connections happen when when learners connect to information at the point of need?

Stacy: And context. Information without connection or context is just data.

Rob: And by context you mean personal context.

Correct. Informative information, data with strong potential of becoming useful knowledge for a person, must generally be perceived as necessary or meaningful.

Rob: I’m suddenly being transported back in time to my high school Geometry class, the one with the teacher who constantly cleared his throat and said, "Ah...there" before every sentence."

Stacy: I take it you didn’t take away much from that class?

Rob: Not really. I couldn’t see any value in the subject and no one could explain to me what possible application the theorems and axioms might have in my live.

Stacy: So you never made a connection with geometry?

Rob: I did later, when I found it really useful in framing houses.

Stacy: Exactly. You had context and made a connection.

Rob: This reminds me of something Dan Myer wrote recently about modeling math. He said it’s "the process of turning the world into math and then turning math back into the world." It’s about helping students see math in their daily lives and understand is incredible usefulness.

Stacy: Exactly! It’s about providing context and, through that context, motivation for connecting to the information.

Rob: And for you, personal context is the key to making meaningful connections and increasing student engagement.

Stacy: Correct. Now it’s your turn.

Rob: What’s my idea of a meaningful connection?

Stacy: Yes.

Rob: I think it’s an extension of your idea, actually.

Stacy: How so?

Rob: Well, for me, meaningful connections happen when we want or need something. I believe that, as teachers or facilitators, our responsibility to to help learners understand what they need (and why – that’s your context), and then to introduce them to the networks and communities that make sense for them.

Stacy: That reminds me of you picture from the Long Room at the Trinity College library in Dublin.

Figure 1.2: [Bruce Washburn, Long Room, Old Library, Trinity College, July 15, 2014,]
Rob: How so?

Stacy: Well, the books there weren’t organized like our modern day classification systems. The library wasn’t designed for users to browse the stacks.

Rob: You’re right. Books were organized by size and then alphabetically within that grouping. The librarians knew where the books were. But wait. I hope you’re not you’re not thinking that I see the teachers as information gatekeeper.

Stacy: Not at all. I was thinking rather, that in your model, the teacher or facilitator’s role is to help each learner find his or her own context that makes sense of all the information out there.

Rob: That’s exactly how I see it. We’re here to help them find the personal context that makes their connections with people and information make sense.

Stacy: In other words, the context that will make their connections meaningful.

Rob: Right on.

Unit 2: A New Language in 25 Words

In the video interviews at the beginning of this unit, we heard both Emilee Little and Chris Brewster talk about the importance of identify and self-connection. As we’ve seen and discussed, self-connection is a critical step to the entire student engagement process.

We want to continue with that theme in the improvisation activity below. This is another "constraint" improv, design to force participants to see things differently (and creatively).

More specifically, this improv will allow us to explore the importance of language as part of the process of self-connection. Keep in mind that, while we will be using human language as part of this particular improvisation, we’re really talking about language in a much broader sense. This is an important thing to remember because it helps us see possible variations on the improv for different disciplines and courses.


In this activity you will be exploring both the power of language to define both our identity and our experiences. The average graduate student has a personal vocabulary in the tens of thousands of words, and in addition knows many sets of rules, both absolute and conditional.

But have you ever wondered just how many of those words and rules are necessary to communicate your basic and necessary information each day? What is the smallest number of words and rules necessary to communicate the most basic and necessary information each day? What constitutes the necessary and basic information you need to communicate each day? Is it better to have one word/phrase to express many ideas or many words/phrases to express the same idea? Do more words and rules lead to greater clarity or to more confusion? Common wisdom seems to say that larger vocabularies are indications of greater awareness, but is that really true?

Improvisation Activity

You have been chosen as part of a small team whose mission is to colonize a new planet. The ship you are traveling in is small, as are the consequent space and memory allotments for each team member. You are allowed only the minimum baggage necessary for survival and building, as well as a small amount of space for personal items. As a colonizing unit, your entire community is permitted a total allocation of only twenty-five words for communication.

"Twenty-five words!" you say. "That’s drastic. It’s draconian. It’s not enough."

Nevertheless, twenty-five words are all you are allowed.

So, what words will you take?

Take ten minutes to come up with your personal list of twenty-five words. When you have finished (you are on your honor so only take 10 minutes, please. The time constraint makes a difference), Once you have completed your new language, please create a blog post and provide a link, or simply create a note on this page. In either case, use the title "My New Language – FIrst Name" (e.g. "My New Language – Rob) to make it easier for everyone to comment. Once you have shared your new language, please take the time to study and comment on the languages created by others.

A hint. It is generally a good idea to include an "opposite" word or two so you can double the range of your words easily. For example, words such as "not" and "no" are generally worth their weight in semantic gold.

A second hint. Consider the range of phonemes that comprise your word list. This, in turn becomes your range of utterance.

A few things to think about as you read the contributions of other participants. What do you notice? What possible connections do you see between the choice of works and identity?

Unit 2: Extending the Improvisation

Our "A New Language in 25 Words" improv was designed to help promote self-reflection. The words we choose and emphasize can certainly say a lot about who we are and how we think.

What I would like to think about now is how this improv might be reused as is, or modified for reuse in different disciplines, courses, or situations.

For example, in this improv we constrained the use of language or communication elements to help participants create a new "product." I could see doing something very similar with a different type of "language," such as a programming language or mathematical language.

What are some other possible applications you see? What modifications would you make to the current improv that might make it more effective? More fun and engaging? Are there similar improvs or constraint activities you have used or participated in previously? If so, what did you like about them?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, feel free to link to any Web resources, personal blog posts, or other social media sites that you want to share with the community.

Unit 2: Artifact Example: My Web History

This week, we’ve been talking about connections, about how information is not really informative unless you get it at the right time and place. Information is most valuable when it’s matched to a specific need. Without connection or context, it’s simply data or, even worse, noise.

Recently, I started thinking about how our information needs actually change over time, and how our organization and structuring information change as well. These thoughts, coupled with my reminiscing last week about my favorite bookshelf, set off on a mini-project that I hope you will find interesting. It’s about tracing the past in order to visualize the context of where you are now.

The questions I have in mind for this project are:
  • What is my documented history in the world of the Web?
  • How has my presence changed over time?
  • What is my current existence in the Web?
I started to build out my answers by looking at my own web presence. The first thing I wanted to know was, "What was the first web page I ever made available on the Internet?"

I can still see it in my mind. It was a page I created to to support the art history class I was teaching. I built the HTML in a simple note app – the old fashioned way – and it was AWESOME! It even had some tiled background images and other touches that were en vogue at the time.

The question is, does it still exist and can I find it?

Okay, so on to the Internet Archive WayBack Machine (here’s more information about the Wayback Machine).

I knew that my first website had one of those / addresses, but wasn’t sure if it was associated with my first/last name, or initial+last name. I decided to begin by searching for, and – bingo! – my first sign of a trail! WayBack had a page directory archived From August of 1997, the exact month I left the University of Colorado as an employee. What are the chances, right?

And what did I find there in that archived directory? ME! Stacy Meiser. Unfortunately, the page itself was archived, meaning I must have already removed my pages, because it looks like this...
(Just for fun – here is what the University of Colorado at Boulder’s webpage looked like in 1997

Now, you may be getting nervous because you think you’ll never get to see my marvelous first web page. But don’t despair! I don’t give up so easily!

As a next step, I dug through my current computer (yes, I am a bit of a digital hoarder), and looked through some of my oldest files (sorting by "Date Added" and "Date Created," then filtering by .html). And there they were, some of the study pages I created for my class!

Now that is a beautiful webpage for 1997-ish, even if I do say so myself. The one thing missing in my files was the tiled background image file, so I did insert a new one, but this is a fairly good match to what I would have used at the time.

I found some other interesting digital in my archive, by the way, such as duplicates of all of my art images, small low resolution thumbnails and higher res/larger copies of the same images. Does anyone else remember when we had to structure our pages this way – economies of size so pages would load through modems – trying to keep the page size as small as possible? For me it is also interesting to see that my penchant for bulleted lists is nothing new.

The next webpage I created was for my work as the Distance Education Coordinator at the University of Central Oklahoma. Once again, check out the awesome tiled background image. I don’t know for sure, but I would bet good money I made this with Claris Home Page.

One quick note about finding this page. As with my Colorado page, I didn’t remember the specific URL of the site I created at UCO, so I started in the WayBack Machine with my best guess – This didn’t return anything, but it did give me the option to search all archived pages under

I filtered for terms that I thought I might have used in the URL of one of my pages, like "distance learning," and "WebCourse," finally it was IVE (interactive video) courses that got me back to our domain of "cyber." I would never have remembered that on my own.

After I left UCO for OU, I didn’t really have a strong web presence for a long time. I was listed as an instructor and had a page that linked to course syllabi, but most of my recent web life has been lived through the LMS since I spent 7 years teaching full time. Over the years, I have started more than one blog, although I am not as consistent as others, and I have a Google+ page and a Twitter account. I’m not sure it’s worth mentioning my very dormant LinkedIn and Facebook pages.

So, going back to the initial thoughts I had before I started this project, and as I have concluded many times before, it’s not really about the wrapper or the layout or how you build or structure something. It’s about the content itself! It’s about what we put out there for others to absorb and what we gain from sharing information with others. When I first began making webpages, I was putting a lot of content out for my students. It was not always well structured but it was available for them.

As I moved into more formatted websites, I realized that I was actually posting less content. Now, as I move back to blogging, I see myself more willing to be open with content, to share ideas as I work through them. This process is invigorating, and I am going to push myself to be more "out there."

I have also been a stronger consumer on the web (my RSS reader has 100s of feeds). What has changed most dramatically for me over the last few years is my general frustration with internet silos – the loss of good RSS support from Google and the subsequent lack of RSS support from websites and services like Twitter. I have also grown increasingly aware of how boring and crushing a closed system like an LMS can be for students. These systems often become mostly about the administration of the course – how to keep students in one place, track them, structure their interactions, and drive them through the course content. There is no room for students to interact organically – the space is all about content and interaction coming from the instructor, casting the student in a passive role. Even discussions within these systems must be initiated or created by the instructor.

In the past, I made a very conscious decision to keep all of my content and my students’ work inside of the LMS. Learning online was relatively new and I wanted the students to have everything in one system, some place that felt stable and safe for me and for them. As I move outside the LMS, I have been trying to focus more on breaking down the system walls that exist, for myself and for my students.

I am now striving toward a paradigm of working out loud, of documenting my work as I work through it. I am also encouraging my students to do the same. I want them to learn out loud and to share their learning and working processes publically. Of course, this has to happen in spaces where students can start and own their conversations, where they can make choices about how to interact and be allowed to make and show their work creativity.