Back to school

I’ve been in schools for most of my life, but I haven’t been a student in quite some time. I just began an Ed.D. program in educational leadership at University of California San Diego and Cal State University San Marcos. We had our first classes this week, and I am pleasantly surprised by how much I am enjoying it. I’m going to try to share some of the things I’m learning and thinking about in this space.

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Because says it’s cool

Last year at the New Schools Venture Fund meeting, while I was visiting the d-school at Stanford, Bob Lenz from Envision Schools went to Facebook. When I saw Bob afterwards, he said, “These companies are desperate for people who can code. They are starting people with coding skills at $100k per year. Shouldn’t our students learn to do this?” It sure seemed like it to me.

It’s not just an economic argument, of course. While almost everyone knows how to consume content off of computers, not that many are learning how to make the computer do what they want. Producing with technology is key.

So I love these new videos from

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A few folks have asked me for some resources on how to learn to code and how to help students learn to code. Here are a few of my favorites right now.

1. Turtle Art
If you are my age, you may remember learning logo on an Apple II+ computer. Turns out there are several more modern versions of Logo, and one of them, focused on helped kids make art while learning programming, is called Turtle Art. You can download Turtle Art here. There are some slides to give you ideas here (hat tip to the Learning Creative Learning course at MIT Media Lab).

Read the rest of this entry »

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A brief history of MOOCs

While Sir John Daniel’s Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility is not new, it was new to me. Warning: the paper is 20 pages long. Who reads 20 page papers anymore?

I have read some commentary online critiquing this paper for being biased against Coursera (e.g. here), but I think the criticism sticks.

A couple excerpts:

“…MOOCs have already bifurcated into two types of courses, which are known as cMOOCs and xMOOCs. They are so distinct in pedagogy that it is confusing to designate them by the same term…

…A first myth is that university brand is a surrogate for teaching quality. It isn’t. The so-called elite universities that are rushing into xMOOCs gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online…

… Armstrong observes that some Coursera institutions are marching to a different drummer from MIT. For them, MOOCs are a sideline rather than core business. Provosts at two of the institutions said that they were not providing any pedagogical help for faculty in the preparation of the courses. ‘In fact’, comments Armstrong, ‘they looked confused at the question’…”


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cMOOCs and xMOOCs

I did not know that there are already two kinds of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses): cMOOCs and xMOOCs.

Examples of platforms for xMOOCs include MITx, Edx, Coursera, and Udacity. The ‘c’ in cMOOCs stands for “connectivism” (or constructivism?). I liked this explanation of the differences between the two.


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Lessons learned at New Schools Venture Fund Summit 2012

I was up in San Francisco since Monday at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. A few thoughts and lessons learned:

1. Teacher preparation, school leadership development
I was struck by the innovative things that are happening at places like Charles Sposato Grad School, Relay Grad School, Aspire Public Schools, and Urban Teacher Residency United. I am more convinced than ever that we need to get the faculty members from these various programs together to learn from one another. I am on this.

2. Teacher leadership
I think that the teacher leadership program in our graduate school is doing great things. I had great conversations with Tony Klemmer from National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education and someone else whose name I have forgotten (if you read this – please contact me!) about how they are explicitly working with teachers to help them develop leadership skills. For example, how do you take leadership with your peers when you do not have formal authority? We are doing this in some ways I know, but I’m interested in thinking more about how to make this even more explicit in our curriculum.

3. It’s not just test scores
I noticed a palpable shift in the conversation at the summit this year, where more people were beginning to say out loud, “Our students have high test scores but aren’t doing well in college, so test scores are not enough!” This made me feel hopeful.

4. It’s all about “student achievement”
Despite the small shift I noticed, the overwhelming feeling at this meeting is still, “all that matters is student achievement (and unstated: and all we mean by student achievement is bubble test scores).” And this is coming from my friends. This made me feel depressed.

5. The role of for-profits in education
I wrote about how Rick Hess has helped me feel more open to the positive role that for-profits can play in education. Every time I start to get irritated by for-profit people, I try to rein myself in (Rick, I really do, I swear!). Still, I felt overwhelmed by all the characters at the Summit who are looking to get rich capitalizing on the “$700 billion education market.” This made me feel creeped out.

6. Blended learning
Just when I started to get interested in blended learning, I had to go to a meeting where 3 out of 4 people are making a living selling “blended learning solutions” to schools, because “blended learning has been proven to work.”
Umm, no it hasn’t.

7. Putting college in kids’ faces
At my visit to Aspire K-6 and 7-12 schools, I was most struck by how explicit they were about college. Every classroom had a college flag at the door. The teacher was wearing a hat from her alma mater. At first, I thought it was hokey. Then I heard a 4th grader talking about his top three colleges (Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford, by the way). I saw 8th graders asking a visitor to their classroom what college he went to and then gasping with pleasure and recognition that he had gone to Duke and Stanford. I don’t think our students would act like that which made me wonder…

8. The Stanford d school is legit
Everyone and their brother is all geeked out on “design thinking.” I was totally skeptical.

Me: “Ok, but what is design thinking?”
Everyone and their brother: “It’s like a process, man.”

I was wrong. My visit to the d school was terrific. When I walked into the building, I almost gasped. I thought, “This is how people react when they first walk into High Tech High.” Super innovative space inside a boring old box. Two little nuggets from the workshop:
a. empathy — the idea of leaving your own professional ideas behind and really understanding your students/users/customers and trying to really understand what their needs are. Writing it down makes it seem trite. It struck me as powerful.
b. delightful ideas — although this reminded me of this, our facilitator made a great move to tell us to focus on “delightful ideas.” After we spent some time brainstorming a solution to a problem, we were then directed to pick a “delightful solution” to focus on. It was exactly right, because I had already felt myself gravitating towards one of our most practical solutions. Focusing on a delightful solution had a group of strangers almost falling on the floor laughing as we thought through our solution, which started to seem more practical the more we fleshed out the idea.

9. Kudos to the NSVF team for having the summit be less about going to lectures and more about having interesting experiences and making connections with stunning colleagues. By far the best summit in quite a few years.

All in all, a great trip.


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Consumption vs. Production

cross posted at

Since we opened High Tech High, we have had the mantra with technology that we are about “student production, not just student consumption.” By this we mean that students have many opportunities in life to consume more and more media and technology. Merely having a school where students consume even more content is not what we need. Instead, we think 6th graders should write a picture book about Ancient Egypt for younger children, 10th graders should write a book explaining connections between chemistry principles and major world events, seniors should create a “multimedia exhibition exposing hidden paradigms, underground cultures and unresolved issues,” and juniors should build launchers to study the concept of projectile motion.

When I think about what is happening in the area of blended learning, I wonder about student consumption and production. I mean, I like Khan Academy and MIT open courseware as much as the next person. But if blended learning means kids sitting in chairs consuming content off the internet, I wonder if we have progressed as far as we need to. I wrote about one promising example of students creating something in an online course. I am interested in more examples of this nature.


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Project based learning in an online course

cross posted at

I have written earlier about the free online course from on computer science I am taking with high school students right now. One aspect of the course that I did not recognize at first is that it is actually a project based course. It is not a “computer science 101″ course. It is a “learn to make a search engine in 7 weeks!” course (and by the way, you will learn computer science 101). The difference is subtle but significant.

When I heard about a course on learning to make a search engine, I thought, “Cool! I want to learn how to do that!” and I signed up. Imagine if the tag line had been:

Course Objectives:

  • Gain a breadth of understanding about computers and Computer Science.
  • Gain ability at developing algorithms for problems and improve logical thinking.
  • Learn something about a specific programming language (Python) and use it to write computer programs.

In fact, the course objectives above are pretty close to exactly what we have been learning in the udacity “build a search engine course.” But there is no chance I would have signed up to take the course above. Framing matters.

Why do we have to learn this?
At High Tech High, we have a design principle “real world learning” or “adult world connection.” This means that we try to design learning experiences so that students see a purpose to what they are learning. Udacity’s search engine course is aligned with this principle. They could have said, “Well, take four years of courses with us, and at the end, you will know how to do something with all this knowledge you’ve acquired.” But they didn’t. Instead, they have started teaching us the basics, but immediately in the context of getting us ready to create a search engine. For example, in week one,  we needed to write a computer program that searches for something. We could have searched for anything, but in the udacity class, we learned to search for a link on a webpage. It was obvious to me why I was learning to search for a link. It wasn’t just some exercise that the instructors were assuring me would help me “later in life.”

Designing online courses that capture some of the best aspects of project based learning would be a step in the right direction.


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Udacious learning

cross posted at

This fall, I enrolled* in the free, online, Stanford artificial intelligence course. For me, this class was a watershed moment. I have followed the development of many online courses over the years. I have often felt that the courses are really just a textbook copied onto a screen followed by a multiple choice question that asks you to recall what you just read. In other words, 19th century pedagogy, but it’s on a computer, so now it’s really exciting. In contrast, this Stanford course had a number of features that make me think very differently about what is possible in an online space. For example, although as a teacher I would really prefer smaller class sizes, I was surprised that a class with 160,000 students could lead to more learning than a smaller class would.

As a result, when I learned that Sebastian Thrun, one of the professors from the artificial intelligence class, had created a new free online university ( and is offering a new online course this spring in computer science (tagline: create your own search engine in seven weeks!), I immediately signed up for the class. But then, as I thought about it more, I thought, “I bet there’s some students in our schools who would be interested in this course too.” I had started to compose an email to all the high school math and science teachers in our schools telling them about the course when I thought, “You know what, I should take this on myself.”

A few weeks ago, I met with a group of juniors and seniors at High Tech High International and made the following pitch. Join me for 7 weeks. We will all take this online class and will support each other through a study group that meets twice a week. We’re going to learn some computer science. We’re going to learn something about how we do or don’t learn in this environment. A bunch of students said yes. I am going to post about what we are learning.

* I can’t say I “took” the course: with full disclosure, I did stop working on the class in week 4. Life interfered, which could be the subject of another post.


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Blend my learning

I’ve been invited to contribute to a new/revitalized blog on online/hybrid/blended learning called “blend my learning.” I will be cross posting my posts here and there.

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On taking a class with 160,000 classmates

When I heard about Stanford’s class in artificial intelligence to be taught online for free this fall, I knew I had to take it. At High Tech High, we have been thinking about how to use technology so that students can learn more effectively, particularly in terms of our work in our graduate school of education in working with teachers and school leaders from a distance.

I got an email on Monday telling me that class was starting, that 160,000 students had signed up, and that students are taking the class from 190 countries! I was pretty busy this week, and then when I logged on this morning, I found out that I am already behind! Yikes!

I have spent a few hours working on the course. It is fascinating. I studied physics at a liberal arts college. I find watching the lectures to be very reminiscent of attending lectures in college. Only it’s better, because I can pause to take notes, there are quizzes where the instructors “check for understanding” before moving on, and of course I can attend the lecture whenever I want, wherever I want, and can pause when I need a break.

In terms of consulting with peers, I have spent time on the forums getting help from classmates. In terms of real person to person interactions, I have signed up to attend a meetup study group session next week in San Diego which 113 people (and counting) are tracking. While it’s true that I can not stop the professors to ask questions, in fact I did not do that really all that much when I was in college anyway, and there is way more interaction on the forums (with students challenging the assignments, linking to resources to support their point of view, etc.) than I ever remember in undergraduate courses.

Also, while I am sure there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to make the course function, the instructors have chosen to go quite low tech in their approach, which I really appreciate. They have recorded videos on youtube, (30 seconds to 5 minutes each), simply pointing a webcam at a piece of paper that they write on, and the quiz questions are embedded directly into youtube.

Finally, one of the things that I find quite interesting about the class is that having 160,000 classmates actually makes the class work better than if there were only 400. In either case, professor-student interaction would be quite limited, but with so many students, there are bound to be classmates in your geographic region, plus there are that many more students interested in posting to the forums, which means that I can learn a lot, even if I don’t post there myself.

Will I be able to keep up with the work for the next 10 weeks? Not sure, but I’m thinking a lot about what this means for distance learning for educators in the meantime.


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