I am a high-school teacher who really loves teaching and really loves computers. The digital revolution has resulted in amazing tools that have helped me immensely in the classroom. The internet revolution has put me and my students in touch with seemingly unlimited resources that have informed and enriched the classroom. The social media revolution is just underway, and it may prove to be even more disruptive to long-standing practices and attitudes in the classroom.

I am proud to have recently completed a graduate program from which I learned how to work with this new revolution as fruitfully as I have with the preceding ones. And who knows what effect this revolution, and my graduate program, will have not just on my classroom, but on my own profession. Disruption does not have to be a bad word.

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Exploration: Evaluation and Data - INTE 5100

In a previous ILT course I had to create a field project. The course had us explore different ways to evaluate the effectiveness of technology use in a school setting, so I decided to create a survey of interactive whiteboard (smartboard) use in my school. This was to be a walk-through survey of smartboard use - what was being done with the smartboard, whether it was primarily a teacher-centered or student-centered use, and using a scale that rated use from inconsequential to more transformative (according to a published rubric). This was NOT a survey of how well teachers used smartboards. Since my school provides no formal training in technology use, any evaluation of how effectively the teachers use technology would be completely invalid as anything but a pre-test to determine where training resources should be focused, if there were going to be any formal training. I was about to learn how important this distinction is.

Before initiating my survey, I approached the school Principal to ask permission. I explained what I wanted to measure, and how, and she immediately had a pained look on her face. "I think you had better speak to representatives of the teacher's union first," she said. I wasn't expecting this answer at all, so I asked her why she was suggesting this. She had assumed, it turns out, that I would be evaluating HOW WELL the teachers used the technology, not HOW the technology was being used. I also explained that I would be working with a small number of strictly volunteer teachers. That made her feel better, and she gave the go-ahead.

The survey was completed successfully, with enthusiastic volunteers (both teachers and students) eager to learn the results. But at every step in the process, I remembered how the Principal had reacted, and I was careful to keep in mind (and explain) that the survey was not a judgement of the teacher, but a measure of the technology use itself.

I don't think anything like this had ever been attempted in my school, and maybe because of this misunderstanding of what it means to evaluate. I was glad that the Principal spotted the issue, but a less scrupulous administrator might spot something else - a handy way to evaluate teachers without going through the hard work of creating a valid evaluation process.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Exploration: Radical Design - INTE 5100

It seems that a lot of our instructional design projects involve bringing some sort of technological improvement to an organization or community. This was certainly true in our case. Hey, here’s a great idea, efficient cookstoves, we've designed them and now we'd like you, the Low-Tech Gurus, to design a program that will help us spread this technology to rural villages in Uganda.

The problem with this approach is that it often does not work. There’s a famous case study about this.* It’s possible to successfully train someone to bring the technology to a remote community (or to a charitable organization), but there is no guarantee that the transfer, or diffusion, of technology will actually happen.

My partner and I conceived of a different approach – let’s train volunteers from a village to bring the technology back to the village. This required us to invent a back story about two learners chosen by their community to bring the technology back to the community. Our task would be to help these volunteers learn how to teach something new to their own village. We invented this scenario to solve the problem of design, or scope creep.

This is an imaginative solution, but not particularly radical.

Our design model is basically a Backward Design model. We imagined the end goal, and then designed back from there. We arrived at our instructional objectives and placed them in our journey map. The beauty of instructional objectives done well is that they are very clear, almost strict. There’s no fuzzy language, the language is meant to be concrete and formulaic.

Being face to face with these objectives, then, is a little terrifying. Is that really what we want? Will this really meet our goal? Is it even possible to achieve? Oh no, what have we done? We thought about our objectives, and freaked out over these questions, and more. Have we done something wrong? Should we rewrite them to give us a little more wiggle room? Do we need to start all over? Rather than panic, we decided that all these doubts were a good sign. Scary meant that we were on to something. Worry meant we might be looking “radical” in the face.

For instance, our learners are a woman and a man from a village. Miremba is the wife of a village leader, and has been a school teacher. Sam is the most highly respected village ceramicist. We were deciding that they would both meet the same objectives. Miremba would actually build a cookstove, though we were sure she had never built anything ceramic before. Sam would actually cook on a cookstove, though he probably had never cooked a meal for a family before. Miremba and Sam would have to work together though their level of formal schooling was quite different. Both Miremba and Sam were held in high regard in the village, but their social status levels were different. As, of course, were their genders. We even dared to imagine that they might work together, in tandem, bringing this new technology to their community as a team.

So are we crazy, or just bold? Will our design be radically innovative or just a failure? Stay tuned . . .

* Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Notes on Radioactivity & Particle Physics

Cross-posted from Teaching Is . . .

BP Tech Applied & Advanced Physics

Some notes on how we could approach teaching radioactivity/nuclear structure


The State of Massachusetts has revised its high-school science curriculum finally. But there is an orphan unit: radioactivity. I think this must be a new unit in the science curriculum, and the State first tried to add it to the Chemistry curriculum. Then to Earth Science. And finally to Physics. Where it truly is simply added, like a wart, to the front of the Physics curriculum. No attempt is made to connect it to anything else in the curriculum.

Now of course radioactivity is a proper physics topic, and the study of radioactivity led to important developments in modern physics. At BP Tech, where I teach, I always took a bit of the school year to look at basic atomic structure, knowing that students would see it again in chemistry. The problem with just tacking on radioactivity is that explaining radioactivity (as opposed to just describing it) draws you into quantum and particle physics, which could easily eat up an entire semester, or more. I spent a whole year thinking about how to present the topic without getting completely derailed from the rest of the physics curriculum. These notes explain what I came up with, on behalf of the entire physics teaching team at my school.

Part I

Here is how I’ve tried to approach atomic structure in the past. After exploring the gravitational field and early into electrostatics (after introducing electric fields and electrons), I take a moment to look at a simple atomic model:

This model explains several things: the electric neutrality of atoms, the mobility of electrons, where our mass comes from. Later, when talking about electric current, I begin the discussion of how materials are constructed of atoms (or more usually molecules), and how electrons can basically hop from atom to atom. There is a net flow of electrons throughout a circuit but no single electron moves through the entire circuit (hence my distaste for the water model of electric circuits). I also take this moment to show various simulations that try to represent electrons moving through a circuit, and how they are incorrect and misleading.

Now it might be useful to discuss the residual charge (or residual electric field) of the electrons. Residual charge explains stickiness and friction and why chemical reactions happen and the unusual properties of water. Then when we get to the strong force, the idea of residual force will come into play, and the students will have already experienced the concept.

So this is as far as I have carried this in the past. We need to dig deeper in order to explain radioactivity.

Part 2

The nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. What holds it together?

Wouldn’t the protons repel? Yes, of course, and it does happen in nature. Some atoms spit out a proton or neutron now and again. There’s your first taste of radioactivity. So there must be another force that’s really strong but has a tiny range. Call it a nuclear force, because it only operates in the nucleus, and more specifically call it the strong force.

Two issues: why the tiny range? And why does it apply to neutrons as well as protons? Let’s assume that protons and neutrons are made of something similar, and let’s call these constituent particles quarks. It turns out that protons and neutrons are made of 3 quarks each. And protons and neutrons differ by only one quark. The strong force is what holds the quarks together. Here’s a model of a proton:

The strong force that exists outside the “boundary” of the proton is the residual strong force. This is what holds protons and neutrons together.

At this point, I think there is no sense in complicating this picture. You could point out that there are different kinds of quarks, but I wouldn’t even take it that far. And I definitely wouldn’t mention specific force field particles, like gluons. This will just draw you into quantum physics, and really the point here is just to explain radioactivity.

Exploring the atomic nucleus is tricky (and abstract) enough – too much information will muddy the waters. We’re just building on the concept of force fields (gravity, electricity, magnetism, and now strong nuclear). If you have students who wish to pursue this on their own, here is an excellent website called The Particle Adventure:

Part 3

So now we’re ready to talk about radioactivity as the result of the instability of large atomic nuclei, like those of uranium, or nuclei with too many neutrons. Basically there isn’t enough residual strong force out on the margins to hold these nuclei together.

An unstable nucleus will:
  • spit out single neutrons (neutron emission)
  • spit out single protons (rare)
  • spit out a chunk of nucleus made of 2 protons and 2 neutrons (alpha emission)
  • during these processes, the nucleus might also emit very high energy EM radiation (gamma emission)

All these emission products (particles, if you will) have a LOT of energy. If absorbed by other atoms, this energy can damage molecules and make atoms radioactive.

At this point, we are welcome to explore further anything we wish about radioactivity, including health effects or nuclear fission/fusion, or mass/energy conversion, or commercial nuclear energy, or what fuels the Sun. We have to keep it short and simple, though, because we’re not quite done.

Part 4

An unstable nucleus will also spit out – an electron! This is beta emission, and it's really weird. Why is this weird and unexpected? Well, where did the electron come from? Protons and neutrons aren’t made out of electrons!

So there must be another force, another nuclear force. This one is called the weak force. The weak force is odd, though, in that it does not cause anything to happen, it allows something to happen. Here’s the something:

But there’s leftover negative charge and energy and mass. Where does it go? The weak force temporarily holds the charge, mass, and energy, and then releases it as an electron. So that’s where the beta emission comes from.

A neutrino is also emitted, but I don’t know how much you want to get into neutrinos, other than to say that they are especially tiny sub-atomic particles with no charge. They are often the result of energy converting into mass.

So here is what the full interaction looks like:


Ultimately all this is to say that there are only four fundamental forces in nature: gravity, electro-magnetism, and the two nuclear forces, strong and weak. And we might not ever have known about the nuclear forces if it hadn’t been for radioactivity.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

WWW Drive

All the files I have generated in the course of my Master's Degree program are located on Google Drive. Sometimes this is required because there will be collaborative writing or editing of documents, or because an instructor wishes to leave comments on a document. Until recently, I have been able to host web files from Google Drive as well. This was really convenient - I could set up the folder structure to deliver images, script files (CSS, JavaScript), and what-have-you, and have an index.html file as a starting point. I was not building websites per se, but wanting to occasionally present web information in HTML format. Last year Google stopped hosting files, and I knew I wouldn't be able to do anything about it until this summer. There were a lot of broken links out there for me to fix!

If I were hosting complete websites, the normal approach would be to pay a hosting service for some server space. This would provide storage, hosting, and other administrative services. My needs are much more modest. For me one obvious solution would be to use a cloud storage service, like Google's or Amazon's, transfer my files over, and host from there. The monthly fee would depend on the amount of storage I needed and how often the files were accessed. In my case, this would amount to pennies per month probably, a dollar or two tops. At some point it would make sense to handle my whole web presence (and my wife's) this way, but I wanted a quick solution so that my graduation portfolio would be up and running.

I have opted to experiment with an interesting solution called WWW Drive. This is a free service that allows me to keep all my folders and files right where they are on Google Drive (it works with Microsoft OneDrive too). After I've signed in to Google Drive and given permission, WWW Drive looks for public HTML files in my Google Drive. It then gives me a permanent URL to use instead of the Google Drive URL. In a browser, the Google Drive URL results in a view of the HTML text and an offer to download the file. But the WWW Drive URL results in a rendered web page, just like Google Drive used to do.

Here's a web app I built as a course assignment. The files involved are all stored on Google Drive. I have a public folder called Rocket. This is what WWW Drive found and gave me a URL for. In that folder is the file index.html, which is rendered automatically. There are also files held in three subfolders: js, images, and css. I did not have to relocate or rename any folders or files. I did not have to change any code in index.html. Here's the new URL, which you are welcome to click: Or just play with the file embedded below.*

The only difference I have noticed is some latency, which is most obvious on my less-than-robust wi-fi. Also, a single line of code is added at the bottom of the HTML file linking to a small JavaScript file. It's a Google Analytics tracking snippet.

I can't tell you how WWW Drive works or whether there are security issues. What I CAN tell you is that it works like a charm.

*UPDATE 10/21/17: WWW Drive has not renewed its security certificate recently. If this continues to be the case, your browser may not allow you to view the content, and will present a security warning. Your browser may allow you to create an exception. Alternatively, the affected content is also available from my Google Cloud account here:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Reflection on INTE 6720 - Research in Learning Design & Technologies

I have known a number of people over the years who were working on their PhD research. But I’ve always been surprised by their inability, or perhaps disinclination, to explain what their thesis was about. Now I think I have a better feeling for what they were going through. I discovered from my literature review that research writing is a very odd bird indeed. What a strange way to write! It’s not at all what I’ve been led to believe in my ordinary college courses what writing a paper means. I would almost say that it is the hardest and most bizarre way to get your point across, but of course I now understand why research is written this way. And I came to actually like writing this way. Plus I can read a research article much more efficiently, now that I know what to expect.

What I really liked was learning what it meant to have and support an argument. I loved this aspect of the textbook - The Craft of Research. I’m sure I’ll paw through this book for many years, sharpening my arguments.

As part of a course I took last semester, I conducted a survey in my school using a team of volunteers. I designed the survey materials and protocols, then analyzed the two weeks of data and interpreted it using a published rubric. It was fun, but I have a much better sense now of how such a survey might fit into a bigger research project, and what it would take to write a proper paper to present the research.

My brother is a newly-printed PhD, and when I showed him what I was doing in this course, he was impressed. “I wish I had a course like that before I started writing my thesis,” he said.