Pedagogy, Not Outcomes – How to Do Maker Models for Language Arts

In PEI we are working towards bringing ‘maker sensibility’ to our classrooms and trying to come up with a functional approach to getting this done. I’m hoping to help support the pockets of creative projects that currently happening in our system with maker/tech and pedagogy supports that can allow teachers to feel as comfortable as possible putting student lead creativity at the centre of their classrooms.

I’m working towards a model I’m calling STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts, and Math). It takes STEAM sensibility and embeds it deeply into the language arts classroom.

What do the words really mean?
The acronym STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) means different things to different people. The usage of the acronym STEM (without the arts) is fairly recent, its really only come into fashion in the last 10 or 15 years. It’s a response, partially, to the concern that some people have that we need more science-type people being trained in our schools. There is a great deal of debate around whether this is true. I am comfortable, however, claiming that the kind of critical thinking that can come from exploring STEM style projects can be useful to students. Let’s take that as a shared premise and move forward.

The addition to the A (Arts) in STEAM is a recognition that there’s more to being a successful STEM person than just the STEM. You need creativity and the ability to communicate. I think of it as a way of mapping the STEM concern to the Maker movement. When you combine the research skills that come from STEM with the creativity that comes with art, you end up with the potential for a rich classroom experience that creates some connective tissue between our curricular silos. That’s when this gets really exciting.

Maker movement in education
There is a great article in edutopia about the maker movement.

In a day when everyone thinks, “There’s an app for that,” many educators believe that we’re missing the point of technology if we think its best use is programming kids to memorize math facts. Students don’t want to use apps — they want to make them.

The maker movement is committed to putting students at the centre of their learning. That learning ‘may’ involve the use of technology, or it may be building things out of cardboard, but it brings a hands on, student lead flavour to how we explore our curriculum.

Maker carts
Here in PEI we are taking a maker cart approach. Imagine a cart that you can roll into you classroom with everything from cardboard screws to 15 Microbits on it. That number ’15’ is relevant because we’re looking to populate the carts so that kids can work in pairs. The carts will also have an age appropriate collection of other things that can help you make things, both tech and craft. This gives us a bit more flexibility in terms of scheduling, and it is WAY easier to get one cart down the hallway, then to get 24 kids down a hallway :). You can also imagine the contents of a maker space divided into four or six carts that could be used at the same time by different teachers.

Custom Educational Furnishings
Here’s one from Custom Educational Furnishings

STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts and Math)
So what are going do with this stuff? In a real classroom? Excellent question, thank you for asking. I want to work it into language arts. I mean, not only language arts necessarily, but its the real focus of my interest. i want kids to create an elephant out of cardboard, and build a robotic interface inside of it that lights up its eyes, or makes it roar when you get too close or… whatever. But i want them to use it as a communication object.


I have zero interest in measuring creativity
I have no interest in measuring how creative a kid is. I’m happy to encourage creativity all day. Reward particularly interesting bursts of it. Take pictures of it and post it online. But i have no interest in giving your cardboard elephant a 92 and your cardboard treehouse a 78. None. If we think of the maker process as a pedagogy… then i don’t have to. It’s the WAY that we go about learning something, not the something that needs to be learned.

More time for being creative
If I’m in a language arts classroom, working on a personal reflection about my elephant, or doing procedural writing about how to build it, or explaining to someone else what the elephant’s backstory is and turning it into a story – i have TIME. I have time to work on my creative process. I have time to get comfortable with the coding I’m using to make its eyes flash red. I have time to allow my project to iteratively improve. Too often these kinds of creative projects are rewards before Christmas break, or march break or after a long stretch of hard work. I want to provide the possibility to have it integrated into the work we’re doing. Weeks not hours.

Because it totally makes sense in language arts
But the journey of maker into language arts isn’t just a matter of finding time in the day. It makes sense because of narrative. So much of the creative is about coming up with a narrative for what you’re doing. Whether that’s just the name of the thing that has evolved out of your creative process or a whole story about it. The communication. The writing. The collaboration. The reflection. These are key skills that are needed for citizenship. Team that up with some coding and some maker skills and you’ve got a killer combination.

How does it work?
This is still emerging, I figure it will continue to evolve as we get more and more people involved in thinking about it. At the current time, we’re thinking about putting a clear guidelines for achievable tech projects (make the lights blink, launch an elastic band) in with the maker carts. We’re also working towards having trainers in the classroom (and the staff room) to help teachers work through things their first time or two. They would be flexible projects that you can build around. This figures that once teachers get their minds around it with projects that are maybe a tad more scripted than a traditional JUST MAKE classroom, they’ll be able to take it from there. We’re also talking about graduated carts that help kids develop (say, in grade 1) the skills they’re going to need (maybe by grade 5) for doing the programming, wiring and building up required for these projects.

The key, though, is to design these projects so that it isn’t just the geeky teachers that get involved. We want LOTS of teachers to think “hey, i can get started with this”. That diversity will bring more art, cooler LA projects and more practicality to the maker process.

I’m super excited.


Supporting Digital Practice – making time-for-learning

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks here in PEI. We’ve launched the first part of the training and discussion for our maker cart project. We’ve been working on pulling together all our information pieces on supporting technology in the system. We spoke with the principals about our work and have had a fair number of them reach out excited to get involved. We’ve been thinking about how technology can support language arts. We’ve been working towards better basic training in technology in the form of google certified educator. We’ve been thinking about how we can improve our wireless infrastructure in the long term. The digital strategy committee approach (yup, I suggested we solve a problem with a committee) has been fantastic. As always… getting the decision making worked out is a critical step in the process, many thanks to the leadership in k12 here for letting us set it up.

Digital Practices
Dedicated time-for-learning is critical for digital transformation (or, really, any change project). While we are planning learning events with teachers for both the maker work and with google, getting time-for-learning with the curriculum consultants and the coaches is just as important. This week we start a 2 month-ish course on digital practices. The course itself is based on the ed366 course I taught at UPEI for years, but modified for smaller class sizes and the more specific use case of being within an education system.

‘Digital Practices’ are the things that I do that are born out of the affordances of our digital communications platforms. It is an assemblage of the digital skills i might have mediated through the digital literacy and habits that i have acquired. Or, to put it more simply, it’s ‘being digital’.

It’s tricky business, talking about this stuff, and it inevitably leads to some contradictions. One of the biggest advantages of digital spaces, from my perspective, is the return to orality. When we depend on a finished text (say, a printed book) to arrive to us in the mail, we are the receivers of the knowledge that is contained therein. I can certainly work through that text with my other, previous learnings, but I never get a chance to contribute, to ask questions that can get answers… I’m not part of the knowledge creation process. When we think of an oral discussion (at least, a good one) there is a chance for both sides to contribute, a chance for us to move together to a new understanding. Digital spaces allow for this to happen with text. We can collaborate on something that becomes knowledge through our interactions with it.

It’s not all sunshine and roses of course. Collaborative texts tend to reduce themselves to consensus… which can be nice, but can sometimes privilege existing ideas over new ones. There is much greater safety in sending out a printed text that people read when you’re not in the room. If the reader hates it, or it makes them angry, you are not in the immediate line of fire. These advantages and disadvantages need new social norms… new practices to make them effective and still maintain our own healthy relationships. These digital practices need to be negotiated, they need to be talked about out loud in ways that many of our 20th century practices don’t. I’m going to run a course about this. It’s going to be fun. A few opening thoughts…

Tools vs. practices
Years of teaching courses like this have lead me to believe that most people are coming expecting to learn ‘how to use a bunch of tools’. I can totally understand this. You see people using tools, they claim to be effective with them, you too want to use the tools. Truth be told the ‘how’ of these tools has simplified (in most cases) to the point where the technical using of them is an almost incidental part of the learning process. There’s all the world of difference between ‘learning how to use a hashtag’ and ‘knowing how to use a hashtag to avoid getting it hijacked’. One involves knowing that when you put a character (#) in front of a word it becomes a tag, and the other involves hours of working in an environment to come to understand how twitter spam/trolls work. People will probably learn how to use tools in the course, but I probably wont be teaching much of it.

I’m still pretty stuck on the idea of complexity being important when teaching digitally mitigated practice. I think that separating things to learn out into simple, complicated and complex concepts allows us to make space between things that are easily accomplished by more rote means and those that require us to settle into a concept and work our way around inside of it.

There’s always been a maker strand in my work, but I’ve never formally acknowledged it. I was uncomfortable with the term, but the last six months preparing a maker project here in PEI has led me to feel much better about it. I’m expecting to have a big solid maker section in this course and to use it to demonstrate differing analogue/digital approaches to learning/teaching with it. Do I need to have ideas for the kids before I arrive? How do I structure student lead ideation so that all my students can succeed and I don’t make it teacher centric? Is the internet really full of good ideas? How can I work with other teachers to create more relevant ideation spaces?

Community as Curriculum
It always come back to this for me. I feel more strongly about it now then when i first wrote it 10 years ago. The goal for me is for each person in this course to be able to be able to become a member of a conversation in a community of knowing in the subject. Can you pass? Can you engage? Do you know how to ask questions? Do you speak the language? Can you help? We learn to become members in a community of knowing by practicing and learning together. When the community is the curriculum.

At the end of the day practices lead to citizenship, as they do in the rest of our lives. The ways in which we interact with each other, with our community, our schools ourselves… these all make up our actions as citizens. As more and more of our communications are mediated through the internet, more and more of our lives as citizens are mediated through it as well. If our schools prepare citizens, it is essential that they prepare them for being good citizens, online or offline.

Building a worksheet for rhizomatic learning in the k12 classroom

The first paper I wrote on rhizomatic learning turns 10 this year, and if you’d told me that I was every going to write the word ‘worksheet’ and ‘rhizomatic learning’ in the same blog post i would have coughed my coffee on my keyboard.

And yet, here I am.

Two years ago I committed to using the Arduino to model rhizomatic learning and, for the last year, I’ve been leading the digital strategy for k12 in my province here in PEI. Next week we start the next phase of our work and start looking at how we can integrate microcontrollers and maker activities (and coding) into various parts of the curriculum in our schools.

But how to teach it?

And, more importantly, how do we support teachers (many of whom don’t currently use these approaches) in such a way that they don’t fall back to step by step approaches to using it. Because, i have to tell you, it’s really REALLY hard in the real world not to just tell people what to do with a microcontroller. I’ve found that each time I have this crazy urge to just go “look, plug this in here, nail that over there…” Technology is hard. The multitude of travelling road shows that make this stuff look attractive in the classroom might look snazzy when you see them, but the practicalities of using this stuff in the classroom can be overwhelming.

And yet… I want students to be able to follow their own paths with this stuff. To create a curriculum by interacting with their community. I want them to build connections to what they already know in an organic, authentically student lead manner.

To design things we can’t ourselves imagine.

Some challenges
Technology projects are hard
I have yet to find a limit to the possible impediments to a wide open “lets play with this to make something cool” approach to using microcontrollers in the classroom. I’ve had people straight out panic at the ideation point. I’ve had people go down a rabbit hole of something that was entirely impossible (at least, as far as i could tell). I’ve had people with full circuit boards with one wire out of place that we couldn’t find. lack of tools/resources appropriate to the task. Boredom. Frustration. Fine motor skill challenges. Organizational weaknesses. I mean… I could do this all day.

Error identification
lets assume that someone has a reasonable idea and a reasonable path to get there… sometimes it doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? Well… if i had time to sit down with it for 5 minutes I might be able to figure it out, but when 10 other people need my attention, i never get 5 uninterrupted minutes to look at it. Troubleshooting these things is partially about experience, but its also about process. Once your other students become more proficient, this isn’t such a problem… but first day… the day that will convince the teacher that this is really a terrible idea… those other kids aren’t always a whole lot of help.

Knowledge gaps
Some of that knowledge gap is simply mine as a teacher. Hey dave, any idea what voltage this is at? Hey dave, can i plug this in here? Hey dave… you get the idea. And, of course, in a rhizomatic classroom this should be student lead. But the internet is not generous to the uninitiated in this kind of technology. The forums can be terse and distant and, in some cases, totally unresponsive. Can i really let a kid wait 2 days for an answer to a question? And, as that question is a fact “what voltage does this thing need to be at?” finding it is not discovery (outside of effective searching practices which are important…) doesn’t it make more sense if i can save their time for the truly explorative part of this. Plus… I want lots and lots of teachers to be able to do this. Some structured resources are going to make creativity easier? Right?

Concepts of success
So much of our schools system is built around things being finished. Success is having a project done and presenting it. Finishing the paper. Finishing the test and getting a grade. many of these projects will not work OR get finished. The existing social contract does not really favour this. We need to provide a scaffold on which students can build their own sense of success.

All kinds of other feelings

“Educational research says:” you need to give people a clear sense of what success looks like. While I agree that having people understand the contract under which you are using your power as a teacher is important its that word ‘clear’ that gets me into trouble. I like learning to be messy. Like life. When you don’t give people a clear sense of what success like, we enter a whole realm of real (and super important) human feelings that we need a way to address. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO!!?!?

A worksheet
So I’m working on a worksheet for a core project. (it’s setup for comments. Feel free to go ahead and tell me what you think)

The project i’m designing this around is an elastic launcher

Arduino project unlocked. Attacked by my own children

A post shared by Dave Cormier (@cormierdave) on

It’s a pretty simple project from a tech perspective. At its core is an arduino uno, a button and a servo. Combine code from two into one… ur done.

Project management
The left side of the worksheet is for the project management pieces. What are your goals? How will you know you’ve reached them? What approaches are you going to take to get there. What will you actually do and when?

Put simply, I’m imagining giving this to teachers fully filled out. At least for one version of the project.

Goals (what change are you trying to make)
Main goal
Build an elastic band launcher
Accurate? Beautiful? Easy to use? Sturdy? What kind of launcher is right for you?

Success Measures (how will you be able to measure that change)
If it’s accurate? (i can hit a target five feet away)
Ease of use? (how quickly can people use it?) (Can a five year old use it?)

Approach (what approaches will you use to shape tasks)
Copying a list of actions from an existing model
Working with partners to fill out my task list
Ask for help

tasks and timelines
Process stuff
Getting the thing plugged in
Checking the arduino works (blink)
Checking the button works (button)
Checking the sweep works (sweep)
Building stuff
Trying to combine button and sweep
Building a gun
Getting a base
Attaching the sweeper
Finding a front peg
Attaching both in a reasonable space

The process from here, then, is to have teachers remove the pieces they wish to to allow for more student choice. You might hand out the worksheet with the sub-goal section blank. You might focus on strategy development one day. This approach allows you to develop different kinds of skills and limit the points of complexity on any given project.

Socio Emotional Learning
On the other side of the worksheet is the narrative. How are things going? Am I panicked at the ideation stage? What did I do when I couldn’t get the stupid thing to work? It’s a list of Writing prompts that you may or may not include… but the idea is to create a place for the discussion around the feelings that people are having related to the projects. Are you nervous about building? is it really just boring for you? Do you feel like its a rote process?

Ideation challenges
What if my goal isn’t cool enough?

Success measures
How do i measure things like beauty
How accurate do i need to be?

My partner isn’t doing any work
Aren’t i just copying their work?
How much should i have done before i start working on that?
I can’t get the teacher’s attention
What should i know to ask for help as effectively as possible
Is this too much work? Can i make it easier?

Tasks and timeline
OMG what are they saying? I can’t read this
What are these little lines for on the resistors?
What happens when i can’t get it to work
What materials should i choose?

What I’m getting at
What I’m trying to do with this worksheet is scaffold the classroom experience so that 25 kids can all have some kind of success in the work they’re doing. They could be really successful in their reflection on feeling helpless when faced with this task. Most (all?) should be able to do the initial rote work that will be part of the testing phase for the technology. The tracking of their timelines and tasks will give them success markers and also allow them to return to the work two weeks later and find the place they were at.

Does this still retain enough creativity? Does it still allow learners to learn rhizomatically? Well. It still depends on the teacher. If you do a few like this will you be able to remove the shackles and let them just build? I hope so. Maybe they’ll be able to translate these skills to home and take a more rhizomatic approach there.

What I do know… is that the scaffolding is necessary. It wont be fair to teachers or students without it.


Our schools aren’t broken, they’re hard

Another blog post today (which i wont link to) about how education is broken and how technology is going to save it. This is a favoured phrase of the consultant who wants to sell you a technology to ‘fix’ said broken system (#techcharlatans). Fortunately for my blood pressure, a good buddy (@kreshleman) posted a the perfect Chesterton quote for the occasion paraphrased to…

Don’t tear down a fence unless you know why it was put there in the first place

Our particular fence (free public education) serves a ton of roles in our society, many of them quite well served actually. The problem (which #techcharlatans conveniently overlook) is that when you pull one string on that system to try and fix it, you tend to tear the sweater somewhere else. SO much easier to just call the thing broken so you don’t have to put your shoulder to the wheel and do long term sustainable change. When the cup is broken, you throw it out and replace it with a computer. Can’t drink with a computer you say? Agreed. A computer isn’t an education system either.

One year anniversary
I’ve been working on digital strategy for the PEI department of education for a year now. I walked into a perfect situation, really. Coming in on the tail end of a massive infrastructure investment by the government in edtech (new wires, wifi, bandwidth and computers for most everyone) the stage was set to try and create some sustainable technology supported education. I’ve been given enough time to dig into the situation here and help put some things in place to try and support some long term change. It’s been very enlightening getting under the hood and seeing just how complex a system provincial/board education really is. A few lessons learned from year one.

Building trust
One of the implications of #techcharlatans is that teachers have been promised a hundred easy, solve all your problem, silver bullet projects in the last 20 years. Those didn’t work.

My first goal was to get a project out the door that solved a problem in the system with technology. The project we ended up launching in September did just that. We’ve saved hundreds of teachers piles of searching time by putting up a system that allowed them to gather all their material into one spot. was born. It works and its growing.

Constant improvement
Put a system like that in the wild, and people are going to start innovating. And they are. I’ve spoken to parents who’ve been using the system to find out what their kids are supposed to be understanding. They are also using it to find out ‘what’s next’ for their kids in math. Good and bad there. New ways of communicating? Great! We’ll have to track the implications of it and adapt as we go along.

Decision making
Technology projects everywhere tend to cross over different departments and responsibilities. Lawrie Phipps told me that this is called “matrix decision making”. Where a project reports up through multiple decision makers who may or may not have similar ideas of how to get a particular problem solved. Imagine 6 people sitting around a table all reporting to six different directors. It’s a common problem, and we had it.

We’ve moved on. As of a week ago we now have a digital strategy committee (new name pending) that is empowered with making (some) decisions around technology for the system. We’ve managed to pull in many of the people in the know and have some of their time committed to both the planning and the doing of projects that can help the system. Fingers crossed by that should allow us to get piles of work done quickly.

Digital citizenship
Yay! Tech is great! But should we be using that freeware software in our schools? What happens to the data? Has the terms of service changed on that software since the last time we evaluated it? That’s the trick with all this. People want to use new and interesting software with their students, but companies are getting trickier about how they hide their upsells. (I’m looking at you Prodigy Math #nolink)

We’re also trying to update our approaches to teaching kids how to evaluate the internet. We’ve been adapting @holden’s work, to help guide effective searching for instance.

And here’s the rub. All that and I really haven’t spoken that much about how the experience changes for students in the classroom. Those are just a few of the projects we’re running and changes we’re making to try and create a scenario where the change we want to make in the classroom will stick, that it will be fair for teachers, that it will be useful for students.

Project management and wellness
What i really want to do (and I realize i’m two years into saying this) is be part of creating a k through 12 continuum that uses microprocessor type things (microbit/arduino whatever) and coding to teach project management and wellness. Can you make a plan? Do you know what to do when it fails? Can you deal with the disappointment? Can you ask for help? Have you learned anything in the process? Is your planning getting better? Did you find your answers quicker? better?

These kinds of questions allow use the tech to support a creative environment where we can use the awesome creative potential of the tech to teach important life lessons. And, as we go, teach #digciz. To help our students become better citizens. But that’s hard. Really hard. It takes a village.

But that doesn’t mean our education system is broken. It’s not. Citizen building is an huge, complex task… needing constant attention.

Do your democracy a favour. Say no to a #techcharlatan today.

Supporting Healthy Digital Practice – An approach to digital strategy in k12

For the past year, I have been working with the Department of Education in PEI to support Digital Practice (a term i settled on working through ideas with Lawrie Phipps). I landed in a wonderful situation in the k12 system here where someone had already gone through and replaced all the hardware (wires and computers). The system is full of people who are willing to engage in difficult conversations, and the department happens to have several people with deep system experience around technology. My task has been to come up with a strategy for supporting ‘edtech’ in the system.

In a nutshell? Start by supporting teacher digital practice.

If I had gotten this role 5 years ago, I think I would have come out with a number of what I now think of as ‘shiny’ project. Things that are impressive, that could show people what is possible when one thinks of the teaching and learning process from a digital perspective. These projects are great for the students who do them, but not necessarily for the teachers. Shiny projects are exhausting. They are normally targeted at the ‘most-invested’ teachers, who are often involved with a number of other projects too. You want your shiny project to work, so you overfund it, over support it, and generally create a situation that is totally unsustainable. This is what I have done in the past… and what I would have done.

Not this time.

Changing the relationship to technology
The technology that was replaced was… not perfect. Being a good technology person 3 years ago on PEI had a heavy dose of ‘reseat that RAM’ and ‘let’s try rebooting it and see if it helps’. That’s not to say that there haven’t been amazing tech projects, there have, but much of the time and effort went into trying to make the technology work. Several smart people here took it upon themselves to fix that problem, and, from what I can see, they have. Which is great. But now we need to reboot the relationship that our teachers have to the technology. Their trust in it is not strong, because they’re smart, and they have long experience of not being able to rely on it. So… project one –

Solve a problem in the system using technology – create trust in technology …by showing it can actually help

The Teacher Platform
One of the legacy issues of a non-performing technology infrastructure was the scattered nature of resources in the system. You might find your curriculum outcomes in the filing cabinet, or on a website. You might have resources on your schools network drive. You might have gotten an email two years ago with some assessment stuff. Bits and pieces, here and there. There were certainly some initiatives by folks to solve it, but not for the whole system.

Our first project then, was to create a platform that contained resources that were essential to the system. I used Moodle. A Moodle, I might add, that is externally hosted with the excellent folks at Lambda Solutions. External hosting was a critical element of the plan because if we’re going to build trust it has to work – ALL THE TIME. So far, it’s been excellent.

We started by creating a course for a course. We picked a pile of math courses to start with and started putting in links to iconic curriculum documents and included other important things that people were looking for. Basically, we started with using Moodle as a document repository. But. Moodle CAN be a collaborative platform (of sorts) and it can also be a course platform. I think that putting necessary resources in one place could save the average teacher an hour a week. I hope they keep that hour. I don’t want it for anything… other than the building of trust that technology can, when it is used in response to actual needs identified by actual users, be helpful to them.

The fact that it creates a very specialized platform that allows us to add concepts, connections, advice, and ideas at a course level is a bonus. We may never do that, that decision lies in the hands of the users… BUT THEY COULD.

Digital Practices Course
So, with phase one underway (lots of guest user access, 216 teacher registrations through google integration) its time to look to the next part of the process. How do we encourage healthy digital practice across the system. I’m not particularly interested in teaching people to use a specific technology, I never have been. I am interested in hosting a discussion in our system about how we can help folks shape healthy and effective digital practices. No one has told any of those 200 teachers how to register their account, they figured it out. That ‘figuring it out’ is the kind of digital practice I’m interested in supporting. These practices are the normal, everyday things that we do that are different in digital spaces. Different sometimes because you have to do them differently. Different sometimes because you can do them better.

lateral searching
Mike Caulfield has written a book on effective searching practice. One of the strategies that he talks about is lateral reading of digital contexts. “Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.” It’s a digital practice that our students need to understand, and that means that everyone in the system responsible for them needs to understand it.

Understanding your goals/roles
In a digital space you are a million times (exactly a million) more likely to wander in to a social/knowledge situation that you weren’t introduced to. Imagine walking into your kitchen and running into 500 people who’ve been involved in a 7 year conversation. That’s what happened to me yesterday doing research for my son’s new hedgehog. A quick google search and BANG I’m in the middle of a new conversation in my kitchen. How do I navigate that? What do I want to know? How should I act? What’s my role? These are things that we understand (most of us) well enough in our analogue social situations, but digital spaces require new frameworks.


A number of us got together last year and put this framework together to help us talk about what some of those different roles.

Those are two of the practices that I’m interested in supporting with the course. There are tons more, and, as per usual, I’m not particularly interested in everyone LEARNING EVERYTHING, but rather hosting a discussion that allows people to learn the things they need to learn. The course is still moving through the approval process, and a review process. Would love your feedback on it.

The strategy continues
Lots more work started in that strategy. Once its all approved I’ll write another post, ’till then, it’s digital practices time.

An introductory Arduino class design

Last weekend was Oscar’s 11th birthday party. For those of you in the know, that is the age that kids receive their letters of invitation from Hogwarts and, therefore, we were having a Harry Potter themed birthday party. I admit I probably went over the deep end on this. The kids and I made magic wands out of 3/4in maple dowels. Bonnie made an awesome Harry Potter cake. Bonnie and I designed three ‘tests’ for the ‘Initiates of the Maple Wands’. 1. Potions class (we made bath bombs… they only had their magic wands for stirring… super messy – super fun) 2. History of Magic (bonnie ran a lively version of mostly Harry Potter themed Jeopardy) 3. Muggle studies (We made a security system on the arduino platform)

(links to my introductory arduino posts and here)

I started working with Arduino hardware at the beginning of 2016, thinking of it as a potential platform for real world projects for kids. I have ZERO electronics background, so it really took me a year of playing with it on and off to get my mind around how you could use it with kids and still make it fun. Most of the introductory lessons I saw online involved “attach this wire to a light, make the light blink” kind of activities that are designed to provide a SET OF SKILLS in small steps along a linear pathway. I hate this approach to learning. I wanted something that got to a useable project very, very quickly and then allowed for discovery after the project was built.

A word on what Arduino is
It’s a tiny computer platform that you can attach to little sensors. You can use it to build a project that senses when a bird comes to your feeder and counts them, or takes their picture, or opens the feeder door. There are other platforms out there (rasberri pi, microbit) but this one seems to have the balance of flexibility and power that I was hoping for. If you put ‘arduino kit’ into the googles, you’ll see the price range and possibilities. Here’s a collection of cool projects that people have done.

Choice of project
I very much wanted to kids to have some level of success on their project in the first 15 minutes of the class – so i couldn’t have something that was too complicated. I expected that the kids wouldn’t have any prior experience (with the exception of my kid). I was also going to send the project home with each of the kids in the hopes that they would experiment with it, so I had to keep the price down. I decided on making an alarm system that would buzz when someone when someone got close to it. I cobbled the project together from various online examples. Project cost was a little less than $15 each at the end of the day, when you include batteries etc… It took a fair amount of prep. Just sayin.

Classroom design
I wanted us to get to work very quickly, so I didn’t even explain what the project was when we started. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t really understand/be paying attention, so I jumped into talking about stuff right away. All their parts were hidden in a little cardboard box on the table when they came in. I got them to open it and lay all the parts out in front of them. I was hoping for the surprise ‘unboxing’ part of the process to give them a sense of adventure/excitement. Mostly that worked.

Arduino box

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I got them to hold up the battery first. Everyone got that one right :). From there i got them to hold up the breadboard, the Nano, the wires, their friend… just a quick roundrobin so that each table would probably have someone that knew what each part was named. Important to note that though i did preload the code on each of the Nanos, i left the code printed out on the table and made no reference to it. One kid asked what it was and I said “meh, it’s just the code, don’t worry about it for now”. This only took a couple of minutes and we moved right along to wiring things up.

The arduino system can all be connected together without a soldering iron using jumper wires. I guided them through ‘what connects to what’ in a basic, step by step manner. Put the proximity sensor in the breadboard. (student: “what’s a promix… what’s a whatever you said” me: “someone hold up their proximity sensor” it wasn’t long until they just started asking each other). From there i got them to plug in the wires one at a time, establishing that each table confirmed that each set was setup (minus the power, I made them all hide their batteries back in their little boxes). This took about 10-15 minutes.

Attaching the battery
I made a big production out of this. Attaching the battery wrong gives you a good chance of frying the board, so we talked a fair amount about safety, about caring about their work, about being good to the machine. I told them that I had fried one of them that morning (which i had doing last minute prep). So they attached their battery… and about half of them worked. Working being the really annoying buzzer started to drone when someone ran their hand in front of their sensor. Much troubleshooting of wiring ensued. It was at this point that we started to talk about ‘what the project could be used for’. “I could scare my cat!” “it could protect my wand!” “i could use it to keep my sister out of my room!”

The moment
You’ll note that no one has really ‘learned’ anything at this point. It’s mostly been call and repeat, simple domain stuff. There was a trap in the middle of this lesson that was really ‘the beginning’ in a sense. I had changed the code on one of the projects to make the buzzer sound like a police siren. When that project started working the room went silent for a second… and then blew up. “why doesn’t mine do that? How did you do that? What’s that?” When i got them settled (and got the police siren unplugged) i explained that the code on his project was different than the code on theirs. “can i change mine? Can i do it?”

The code
So I got them to look through the code (on the paper on their tables) and figure out where they needed to change the code to make the sound change. We changed the frequency, we changed the delay, we changed… we made a lot of noise :). Then we started uploading new code to each of their projects (I was only working with one computer). I also started to refer to the code when people were asking me “i unplugged a wire by mistake, where does it go?” Then our hour+ was up and it was time for Pizza. I struggled getting them out of the room to go eat pizza… which I’m calling a victory. For the rest of the party, kids would walk out of the movie, the pizza, whatever, and ask if i could upload updated code to their project. We got an idea of what the code was… a teaser in a sense.

The point
This was an interesting challenge. I don’t particularly like a ‘structured activity’ but with something as complicated as an arduino project, the kids have a fair number of things they need to know just to be able to follow basic instructions. I really wanted to start the project in the middle and work my way back to most of the basic skills, so that we hit them in context. From that first class we should be able to modify the existing project, add pieces to it, or wander off into new projects as we go along. I even included a light snippet in the code which could easily lead to the damn blink project if people really want to do it. Some of them may learn to code, some may do more of the artistic work or the planning work… i don’t really care.

I want them to understand what code is (not necessarily ‘how to code’)
I want them to get a sense of how the digital part of the world they are growing up in works
I want them to dream up projects, learn to research them
I really want them to find the parts of this they like to do, and find friends who are interested in the other parts – the ultimate 21st century literacy
Also safety. That too. And confidence confronting uncertainty

I’ve heard back from what two of the kids did with the project they took home. One kid apparently terrified his cat – which i guess is a successful adaptation of the project, though maybe not the one I would have chosen :). The other kid I heard back from took the little box, cut holes in it and turned the project into a robot that protects the side dresser of his bed. Four of the five kids want to come back, and, with the other kids who’ve expressed interest, we’re going to be looking at 7 or 8 kids in our little arduino club to start. I’ll keep testing out the design and see what happens. How does this look in a class of 25 or 30? Don’t know yet. One thing at a time 🙂


Project parts
Arduino Nano
Jumper wires
9 v. battery
9 v. battery connector
Proximity sensor
Mini breadboard
Small box

Things I learned
You need to have two or three sets of spares of everything. It’s so easy for this stuff to stop working. Having a spare working project on the side so you could check parts would be super useful for troubleshooting “is this broken? Nope, it works over here! Ok then it must be something else”

The cheaper Nano version I used requires a special CH34X USB-SERIAL DRIVER. The standard one is called FTDI. It’s the way your computer talks to the Nano over USB.

Be very careful when plugging in the battery power. I fried one of the nanos getting the ground and the power lines mixed up.

The code I used.


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A Change Sprint – workshopping new ideas in a hurry

During a conversation in my back yard this summer with the excellent Robin DeRosa, she and I decided, once again, that most of us trying to do things differently in education all face the same kinds of issues.

We also noted that as our roles become more embedded and visible in our respective institutions, it is more difficult to do the deep speculative work necessary to come up with plans for change in education. Or at least, it’s more difficult to do it in the open.

I need to think out loud. But out loud isn’t so easy when my work is institutional and not just a MOOC run out of my basement. Being public before you’re ready means the work you’re trying to do can go in a negative or damaging direction.

And yet. The complexity at the core of the educational system requires a particular kind of multiplicity that can only be achieved with many perspectives. I realized, talking to Robin, that not having access to multiplicity was keeping me stuck in my own head.

The genesis of ChangeEd
We all have some core people in our network that we turn to for practical advice and who, when they are stumped, sometimes turn to us. I’ve spent much of the past dozen or so years working out loud with an excellent group of thinkers and practitioners. Two of my favourite people to work with on nasty problems are Rebecca Petersen and Lawrie Phipps. One day in September of last year, a few months after the conversation with Robin, I was talking to Rebecca and Lawrie separately about some work that we were poking away at. In each conversation, we talked about our desire for the intensity that can come from MOOC like experiences, or conferences (eventedness you might call it). We noticed that the calls to Twitter for participation weren’t quite doing the same thing they used to.

And then the three of us, in separate conversations, started talking about what a model for participation could look like. It turned out that they had both had conversations similar to the one I’d had with Robin in the summer. We decided to develop a model for how we could pull together the expertise we needed in a semi-protected way, and still participate in a broader open dialogue that is such a part of our practice.

The goal: make a call out to a group, think really fast, make something, call it quits.

There are any number of sprint models out there to choose from, agile development methodologies etc…but this one has been working well so far, emergently, the three times we’ve tried it.

Change Sprint
I love to work with people f2f, but the challenges of pulling together a conference/project to trying to fit everyone’s schedule is impractical. The problems we were looking to solve were mostly time dependent, and we all have other things to do. There have been a couple of synchronous discussions via Google hangouts over the course of our Change Sprints so far, but we are mostly using Slack. Not perfect, but it allows people to drop in for five minutes when they can, and participate as they can.

A Change Sprint is focused on a central question posed by the member who calls or convenes the Spring to action. Each question, so far, has changed at least slightly in the course of each of the Sprints – the question can be iterative but it guides the discussion. A participant will convene a Sprint because they want help with an idea, a problem, a challenge…and are looking for a particular kind of outcome. They might want a model. They could need something said in a particular way, or need an idea workshopped before it goes out into the wild.

Before beginning, each convenor has to create a simple project charter that explains the necessary background in a simple, organized way. The charter allows people to get up to speed in a hurry, and provides a location for discussion around broader contextual issues.
We have a google template that has been working well for us.

It’s been really important to us that the sprints are as efficient as possible. We put the time limit on a sprint at 5 days, but any can end if the initial target is met and the convenor’s challenge addressed.

Success Measures
Ultimately these will be judged by the success measures that are part of each charter. They could include…better questions. A model. A rationale. A paper. A sketch of a plan. A series of guidelines. Constant movement towards an outcome is a good way to keep the discussion moving forward. That outcome also creates the potential of participating in a broader open conversation after the Sprint is complete.

Criteria for participants
We picked the first 10 people we could remember having this conversation with. We weren’t interested in people who would ‘take over’ a conversation, but rather, busy, practical people who love an opportunity to take a run at a thorny problem. We really wanted to keep the number small, and have tried not to think of all the terribly smart people we didn’t invite.

The Change Sprints have been hard on the logically minded among us. If you wish to understand each item that whizzes by in the chat or if you want to read each entry this may not work for you. If you miss the first 25 minutes of the starting hour, you could be 300 messages behind. We had a couple of people who have withdrawn themselves because they aren’t able to ‘just’ donate an hour or so of their week to a conversation… they need to be all-in or all-out. That’s cool. That’s part of what makes them great professionals.

You also can’t guarantee that you are going to get to any kind of resolution. Sometimes the conversation rolls in the right direction and sometimes it doesn’t. Our first Sprint went so well (with the Learning Participant Ecosystem Model) that it’s easy to get disappointed when you don’t finish with a nice drawing :).

CC by Non Commercial
Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

You really can’t do them very often. I wouldn’t think that more than 3 or 4 a year for any group would be possible and still maintain the enthusiasm. I might be wrong about that… Dunno.

Why you might want to do this
The Change Sprints we’ve done have replicated some of the power of the connected conversations I used to have on the open web, while cutting out much of the institutional risk. The focus on an specific outcome keeps people on task (mostly) and gives people something to rally around. You could setup a Slack channel (or a private Facebook group or whatever) fill out a charter, setup a start time and say go. You just need ten smart people to work with and a reasonable vision of where you want to get.

The thing I like about how this model works out is that it provides a clear structure for participation.

Participate as much as you can over the next five days. Then its done. If you can’t participate this time, or something comes up, that’s not a problem. If you can participate, be constructive, and keep nudging the problem around. Focused effort can do amazing things

Stealing project management language for change in education

I’m starting out a new role here in Prince Edward Island. I’ve always been interested in the way that educational systems work, they way they were formed, how their systems match their goals. It seems that I’m now going to get the opportunity to work inside another system and see if I can be of any help with the aligning of goals and strategies, and the refinement of objectives and tasks. I find this change process endlessly fascinating, but, as with anyone who spends too much time with a given topic, my language gets lazy and I tend to not explain ourselves very well. I thought it might be useful to take some time at the start of this work to redefine my own framework for turning the input that people give me into reality.

For many of you this is just your day to day. It took me several years to come to terms with how I felt about this language and to believe it was important. I have now come to believe that great ideas only become reality if you can turn them into a plan. Hard to believe I ever had to ‘come to believe’ that in the first place…

I should also say that I am sensitive to how this can be see to support the corporatization of education. This is certainly not my intent. I believe that learning is a complex system that needs to be dealt with outside of a structure that counts ‘winning and losing’ in the same way it counts money. That being said… we need a way to organize our work so that we can get it done. I like to think of myself as having stolen something useful from the other team rather than having gone over and joined them 🙂

Establishing a common language
Half of the misunderstandings (yes, exactly half :P) that people have are because they don’t mean the same things by the words they are using. In the first two days that I’ve been working here I’ve asked questions like “what do you mean by curriculum?” or “when you say learning what do you mean in this context?” a bunch of times. I think it’s necessary to make this negotiation a constant presence in any change discussion.

For today I want to go through how I feel about four different words: Goal, Objective, Strategy and tasks. I’m in no way claiming that these are the ‘true’ definitions of these words but, rather, this is the story that I attach to them.

Why do we need to categorize these things anyway?
I’m going to be working with people from across the sector on projects. Today I’ve spoken to two teachers (one in an administrative role, one not) one person from the strategy end of the department and one curriculum consultant. Each of them is critical to an effective education system, but they all work in very different environments. As I (as one teacher said) get a sense of their ‘day in the life’ I’ll be listening to their stories and seeing where they might fit with the stories being told by others. Some of those stories might be around goals for the system “we need students to be more independent” or objectives “we need more students to be doing unsupervised work”. One of those things is a measurement of the other… maybe. But we don’t want our goals to be restricted by a single measurement – “hey, we have 10% more students doing unsupervised work” does not mean that we suddenly have independent students.

Goals (IMO and you can insert that IMO in the rest of what I’m going to say here) are the vision that we have for ourselves. It is the conceptual change we are looking to make. They are hard to create, and are better if everyone involved in the process contributed to their creation and is on board. People need to ‘believe’ in goals. They aren’t things that are true, necessarily, but rather something that we all think represents a valuable direction. They are by their nature nebulous, and, because of this, they need help.

Objectives are the change that happens that contributes to a goal. As illustrated above, an objective may or may not ACTUALLY contribute to a goal, and alignment and realignment is critical in any change process. It’s usually good to have several objectives (whether simultaneous or sequential) in order to cross reference success. Objectives are often (though not always) things that can be observed in the world. Countable objectives are nice “10% more students are submitting independent projects” but sometimes we are interested in non-counting nouns – “students are happier in class”. In the latter case, some kind of qualitative collection mechanism is required, but I’m as likely to trust a collection of teacher stories as I am a number like 9.7%.

This is the plan part of project plan. What are we going to go about doing to try and make that change. This involves a heavy bit of historical research – the change you’re trying to make has probably been tried before. Find out what happened, what the successes were, what pieces of it are left over? From there you need to include all the players in the conversation. What kinds of things have you been trying, do you have pilots that have worked, what kinds of obstacles are in your way?

Strategies are the heavy lifting of any project, but they are worse than useless if they don’t map up to objectives and goals. Every strategy you propose is going to have an ‘opportunity cost’. If you try this opportunity, you aren’t going to be able to do something else. You are going to be taking valuable people not only away from what they do everyday, but you are crowding out other ideas that could better serve your goals. Also, even if your strategy is perfectly executed, if you don’t have a mechanism for showing people how this change is actually happening (achieved objectives) your project will. not. last.

I hate a project that doesn’t last. Unless it’s not supposed to.

Tasks have people and they have due dates. If you have a strategy that doesn’t have people attached to it, with time allotted in their schedule to finish the work by a given date – it is destined to live on a shelf. It might be beautiful. It might align perfectly. And there certainly is a place in the world for pieces of art like this… but they will not make change happen. I lied earlier, this is the actual heavy lifting on a project. This is where the project manager comes in. Someone has to wake up in the morning wondering if the tasks that were assigned to everyone have been completed.

Tasks should not be complex… they require more resilience and time allocation than deep thinking. Without them, though, you will be destined to be in meetings where people say things like “yeah, we should really get around to doing that”. I do not like those meetings.

How does all this help?
I’m going to use this simple PM framework throughout the first steps on my new role to keep track of the ideas and challenges that I’m hearing from people. People always believe that some change needs to happen to any education system – and that’s great. I’m very happy that people are passionate about education. The challenges identified by some people require task level solutions, some are entire goals all by themselves. As I bring them all together, I’m going to try and see where they fit with each other, where overlaps and possibilities exist. This kind of framework helps keep me honest. And, more importantly, it allows me to take what I’ve been collecting and show it to the next person. To keep the conversation growing.

A final word on 1% (marginal) change
I like to keep a separate list while I’m doing this kind of work of “things we could just fix”. Every system contains pieces that are important to the members at a local level, but don’t really have a mechanism for improvement. It might not be a big enough problem by itself to make it to a senior table so the problem persists. What I have found is that if you can collect several of these problems together, you can bring those to a senior table and have them looked at. If you bring ten and get approval to fix six of them, you’ve made important change at a local level in six places.

These things add up. A little fix here, another fix there, and soon the whole system is getting better. It’s the change version of take care of your pennies because the dollars take care of themselves.

Looking ahead
I’m not committed to ‘change’ as a ‘good in the world’. I just happen to like helping to fix the things we’ve agreed can get better. I’m more than happy to look at something and say “that’s awesome just the way it is”. As often as not when you categorize stuff in this way, that just what you find… things are actually ok. And, if they aren’t ok, you are halfway to solving the problem already 🙂

Planning for educational change : what is education for?

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that impact both education as a system and challenge some people’s conceptions of what learning is and might be for. The latter is compelling, and projects like #rhizo14 and #rhizo15 have led to some amazing conversations, some interesting papers, and, more importantly for me, have broadened my network of good educators to work with. While I am interested in this work, and plan to potentially host another one this fall, I think of these projects as an exploration space to think about what learning is for. They are not ‘the change’ they are more the ways in which we consider what might be possible… what learning could be for.

Education vs. learning
I’ve been making this distinction for years, but I’m not really sure if I made it up or if I stole it from someone. For me ‘education’ is the system that we have in place as a society to allow us to ‘educate’ most people in our society. Education is by its nature normative, meaning that it has a particular perspective on what a society is and enforces that perspective in curriculum, in classroom structure, in assessment as well as across the social contract among teachers, students and administrators.

Learning is something that can happen in an education system. Frankly, it pretty much necessarily happens in an education system, but more because humans are learning machines and will learn from any situation. What they might learn… now that’s a bit more individual. I, for instance, believe that high stakes testing leads people to believe that there are ‘answers’ to important questions and makes it more difficult for them to deal with complex situations later in their lives. Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?”

What learning can be for?
Learning can be for a tonne of different things. Sometimes we want to learn something to accomplish a specific task. I, for instance, am a proponent of spatchcocking turkeys. This article from the excellent, does a good job explaining the technical skills required for the process. What I like about the article, is that it also provides the rationale for doing it that way. That may or may not be something you want to learn. I learn a bunch of other things from serious eats. I learn about taking my cooking seriously. About the value of questioning established orthodoxy. Just in time learning. Clear end goal. Clear pathways to getting there. I have a pile of literacies I’ve acquired over the years that allow me to get there. I can read. My parents taught me to question the status quo. I’ve been cooking since I was ten. Now I cut the backbone out of my turkey and cook it flat. And, maybe most importantly, i can afford a turkey.

Learning is also something we want each of our kids to do. We want them to learn how to keep themselves safe. We want them to learn to be creative. We want them to learn how to be happy. Maybe their Timestables. Maybe some chemistry. Maybe writing. The pathway for each of these kids, though, is not as clear. I figure that I’ve got decent odds of teaching any individual person something at any individual time. Most teachers, i think, probably feel the same way. How does it scale? How do we contribute to a system that chooses good things for them to learn. Or, maybe more importantly, a system that embodies things that we want them to learn. What should that education system be for? Can we have an education system that embodies happiness or wellbeing? Should math be the hidden curriculum and self-respect what is actually studied?

What is education for?
Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.

That’s not to say that we don’t teach ethics, or that most of us haven’t combed through our history books to try and find ways to address issues of race and gender… we have. But for every attempt to address complex societal issue there has been another (another 10) addressing basic skills. Cross reference that with provincial, national and international standards testing and you’ve got yourself a nice complex problem. Bring it to, say, the university level, or lifelong learning or pre-k and with all the added power structures… you’ve got yourself a really interesting ecosystem to think about.

What’s it for? What does success look like? Who does that success serve?

Thinking about change in Education
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design at Georgetown University earlier this year (excellently hosted by Eddie Maloney, Josh Kim and Peter Stokes). It was a gathering of folks interested in change (mostly related to edtech). Lots of excellent debate. While this was mostly a conversation amongst people in Higher Education (who’s voices are not likely to be marginalised given their place of employment, race etc…), the themes I saw emerge there are similar to those I have seen before and since in these discussions around the world. The discordance (to my ears) between the words change and innovation. A challenge to differentiate between change from (this terrible thing is happening and it needs to stop) and change to (there’s this thing we’d really like to have happen, lets figure out how to do it). The multiple perspectives on the value proposition of higher education. Are we doing basic skills? Are we preparing students for jobs? Are we the last bastion of the mid-nineteenth century vision of a better society?

All of these things could be true. Most of them could be true at the same time. This is what, i think, makes the field of education so compelling right now. What I’ve become most interested in is how we can make change stick, at least partially. Part of that I think, like any other complex project, is to keep a constant conversation going around what the goals ACTUALLY are. I think goals on complex problems need to be expressed, yes, but they are a journey of becoming. You can say you want an education system that emancipates a society, but what is that going to mean when you’re choosing curriculum? When you’re doing teacher training? When you’re talking to parents about the possibility of changing what it means to succeed? How many times are you going to come to understand what emancipation REALLY means and develop a shared language with everyone in the system.

Are we ready to commit to change that could take a generation… with constantly renegotiated change? Can we even do that?

I’m interested.

A last thought about learning
Learning is going to happen. I might learn to write a good sentence. I might learn I’m too dumb to write a good sentence. I might learn that writing a grammatically correct sentence is more important than writing an interesting one. I will learn.

Learning will happen. The question is… what learning do we want our education system to be for?

New Student Orientation – Orienting, Not Informing

* This is a crosspost of Orienting, Not Informing, posted on Michael Rutter’s Higher Ed Gamma on Inside Higher Education. *

For the past few years, I’ve been working on making changes within our institution’s New Student Orientation (NSO) process. For some institutions orientation is about level setting, about placement inside a program. For the elite, where students have been heavily filtered, it can be purely about creating a sense of belonging to a brand. For most of us in Higher Ed, it’s a time of great temptation. Do we academically remediate? Do we explain what university is? Do we tell them how to find their classes? Is it the final step in the recruitment process?

While the current obsession is to focus on how well institutions prepare their students for the job market and other ROIs, we do have to ensure that students get to the finish line (graduation), learn soft skills (employers like those too), and, one hopes, have a good experience in the process.

The problem is our ideas tend to drift off in the direction of broadcasting important information you need to know once we try to scale passed about 100 people or so. Lets put that online! And – while I may be to blame for introducing the words “Massive Open Online Course” into the current higher ed lexicon (sorry) – I don’t believe institutions ought to be trying to MOOC our way out of orientation with mass online orientation experiences. Or rather, I don’t think online orientation can be the sole approach we take, if our goals include retention and – at the core of retention – belonging.

When what you do is promote change in education, via communities and digital platforms, it surprises people when you start talking about orientation and the first week of school.
But what makes the process of change interesting to me is that it forces you to examine first principles: what is this thing that you are trying to do? Why would someone do it? Who are the people you are trying to do this with? If you can envision yourself jumping for joy six months from now, what just happened to make you jump?

The transition from high school to university is just that kind of compelling challenge. At an institution like ours, close to a fifth of our student body can turn over every year… more than 800 new undergraduate students will join us this week. Whether they stay – whether our institution becomes a part of how they see themselves – is partly on us and how we respond to those first principle questions.

Each one of our students arrives with some cultural understanding of what a university is. Some may be gleaned from movies or TV, some from guidance counsellors, teachers, parents, siblings, literature. There is no one ‘university’ that corresponds to these disparate visions. The contemporary university (for most of us) has to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.

The temptation in addressing this challenge is to try and make your university ‘A Thing’ and then tell people about it.

When looked at from this perspective, it sounds like an awesome idea for an online course. A big one. A course you might even call ‘massive’.

At first glance this could seem (and seemed to me the three times we tried it) to be the easiest way to address challenges that students were having when they came to university. Online, we could give them an introduction to their science courses. We could give them information about parking, about student life, about the way that our Registrar’s Office works. We built our first MOOC-style orientation course in 2009, well before the word was in common usage outside of Canadian connectivist circles.

The problem with taking a MOOC-like approach to orientation, however, is that it ignores the complexity of the change you are trying to make in orienting learners to higher ed. The students coming to our universities are coming from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. They need a variety of information. Many, in fact, are coming to the university to gain the very literacies that are REQUIRED in order to be able to learn online. If the very cadre of students you are trying reach are the ones most likely to populate MOOC attrition rates, then orienting them online as part of a huge group is not likely to leave you jumping for joy six months from now. If the intricacies of Student Support or higher education administrivia are beyond many new students’ zone of proximal development, offering them optional videos is not going to scaffold the critical learning experience required.

I am not suggesting that online learning is the problem either. Students are not necessarily more prepared to internalize this information face-to-face. My view of NSO was changed forever in the midst of a discussion with a focus group of student leaders, wherein one of them looked at me and said, “look Dave, you’re not going to teach anyone anything new in four days. If I don’t have a place to put this information going in…I’m not going to know it all coming out… you’re wasting your time with these training sessions.”
Point. While information can be handy, information doesn’t create change by itself.
What I was hoping for in designing this year’s process of orientation is an experience that starts students on the journey to believing that they can. That they can learn. That they can find help/information when they need it. That they can confront the challenges that emerge at university. That they can use their networks to offer the support they need to do whatever it is they want to do.

In our local context, that approach has been framed under the label “resilience,” though not in the simplistic, neoliberal “grit” sense that the word’s taken on in US education of late.

Rather, we developed a resiliency model that spoke to us, and committed ourselves to the idea of ‘healthy connections’ as our objective for orientation. We’re trying to create experiences that enable students to make healthy connections to each other, to their student mentors, to faculty and staff, and to our local community, all in their first few days on campus.

Each day of NSO this week is led off by a mentor-led dialogue (in small groups: 2 mentors for every 15 first-years) that addresses the issues that are going to be taken up that day. We’re looking at issues like “choosing to build community: how,” “adulting,” and “getting through your first two weeks of classes.” These mostly involve fishbowl-style discussions and other activities aimed at helping students develop language with each other, make connections with other, and understand a few of the options they have, rather than at getting them ‘the’ answer to any of these issues.

You can’t tell people to believe they can do things any more than you can sit people in a classroom and tell them to make healthy connections with each other. It’s an experiential process. Deep down, I think we’ve known this for years. If you look at the hazing rituals that are so a big part of what many of us may remember orientation or frosh week being years ago, it was about providing a shared experience that sometimes allowed people to find people they could rely on. Unfortunately for many, those shared experiences often happened at the bottom of a bottle, or in any number of dangerous and damaging circumstances. Change – a huge culture change – was needed.

So if we’re jumping for joy six months from now it will be because we’re seeing our student mentors having difficult discussions with the first year students they mentored this week. It’ll be because those mentors built trust enough to become the conduits through which first year (and other!) students connect to the supports they need when they need them.
We hope, like anyone else does, that this leads to higher retention rates, but by far my bigger hope is that it leads to more students feeling they belong here, and that they can make university work for them, in their own ways. No amount of information is ever going to make that happen.