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An interesting discourse

I have been attending the SxSWedu convention in Austin this week. It has been a good experience – I have learned new things, been in rooms with people who don’t just talk about changing things, they are actively involved in that change. My highlight, however, took place, for the most part, this afternoon and evening when I participated in a social event designed like a game called Learning is Earning 2026.

The game, designed by Jane McGonigal and in collaboration with the Institute for the Future and the ACT Foundation, is centered around a world where education has been transformed into a social credentialing system. Citizens earn “edublocks” when they learn something new and are encouraged to do so through a points system, as well as potential job opportunities and student loan payoffs. Once a person has learned something, they are encouraged to teach others.

The game I participated in this evening was designed to engage its participants in thoughtful dialogue about the pros, cons, potential impacts, and other important considerations surrounding this idea. I have to say that when I first watched the promo video for the “Ledger” system that would house edublocks, I was excited at the possibilities – and I still am. However, the act of participating in the conversation tonight really got me thinking about all of the potential problems that would have to be solved before a system like this would work.

I won’t go into details about all that I learned tonight – I fully intend to explore these possibilities further. What I would like to say is that the entire platform, where my participation was encouraged by a points system and possibilities of “leveling up” and even potentially being invited to the Institute offices in California, was extremely engaging. The diverse opinions and perspectives of the group, coupled with the incentives, kept the conversation lively and made me more likely to play devil’s advocate to dive as deeply into the content as possible.


My original character on UO

Is it my old gamer self shining through (I used to spend hours and lots of real dollars on my citizenship on the Great Lakes shard of Trammel in the Ultima Online MMORPG, or is it a generally competitive human nature that fueled my participation? I believe some of the people I had discussions with this evening would say – Does it matter?

My big question from tonight is – Can the incentive to learn be material (money, points, prestige) or should it be a desire to learn for the sake of learning?


Coffee update from DENSI 2014

Yes, everywhere I go at DENSI, folks talk about the infamous Tim Childers and his coffee habit. Little do they know that I am the queen of coffee. My husband and I spend nearly as much on coffee each month as we spend on our car payments. When I’m traveling, i’m always looking for that perfect coffee shop, preferably not Starbucks. At one time, though, I was mayor (on Foursquare) of three different Starbucks in the DFW area as well as a little coffee shop in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I’ve been trying to kick the habit, but still enjoy my morning coffee.

Because of this, I have been in search of coffee shops within walking distance of Vanderbilt. I thought I’d share what I have found here so that other coffee lovers like myself and Tim can check them out. 

1. Of course, everyone wants Starbucks. The scoop on Vanderbilt Starbucks is that there is one in the Barnes and Noble which is less than a block away, but if you keep walking, you will find a real Starbucks right next door to the Barnes and Noble. This brings to mind the original Shrek movie when everyone scrambled out of the Starbucks when Shrek walked in and they ran across the street to another Starbucks. I won’t critique their coffee because everyone knows Starbucks.

2. My second day in Nashville I had to try Atmalogy.Atmalogy is located next to Chili’s, which is across the street from the dorms. According to their website, the term means “the finding of one’s true self.” Atmalogy is a funky space within a large converted house. They serve coffee along with healthy sandwiches, wraps, and other small snacks. The service is a little slow, as it often is with local coffee shops, but the atmosphere within the shop is worth slowing down a bit. Each room of the house has been decorated into really cool spaces to gather and talk with friends. One space doesn’t allow shoes, another has one of those cool hanging egg chairs in it. Atmalogy also offers classes in guitar and philosophical talking groups. The coffee itself was okay – I don’t believe they roast their own, but it was good. Note to my fellow soy lovers – they don’t have soy, but they do have almond and coconut milk. I love almond almost as much as soy, so this was okay with me!

3. At lunch Sunday, Pam Inabinett, first-timer Audra Barton, and I decided to take a little walk to Cafe Coco. This is a longer walk, but still very doable. Cafe Coco is open 24 hours, which is convenient for DENSI attendees. They have a coffee shop, sandwiches and pastries up front in the converted house. Around back is a small bar which also offers the same menu as up front. This is important to know when there are lines, which according to Foursquare there always are. When we went, there were no lines and we sat outside in the patio area (which has electrical outlets!) and enjoyed a really nice lunch. I went back in to sample the coffee and my iced soy latte was really good – their coffee has a nice flavor to it.

Let me know if you find a great spot!


I decided to (attempt to) write a blog post each day that I am at the Discovery Educator Network Summer Institute (DENSI). DENSI is a week that Discovery brings together a hundred or so educators from across the country to learn and share with each other. This is my sixth institute and, as always, I already started a journey of enhancing my understanding of true technology integration yesterday.

Our day was short – checkin was at 3:00, but we still had a lot of time to sit and visit with each other. Before checkin began, Judy Uhrig and I started talking about her news stories and I shared an app with her called TouchCast. TouchCast is a simple way to create news casts that look like real news shows. Adding names, tickers, and images is very simple and with one touch, you can begin a live newscast while it records. I created this TouchCast the first time I tried it out.

Later in the evening, I also shared a time-waster called Thisissand. This app probably doesn’t have a use in the classroom, other than a calming influence on those students who need to have something in their hands in order to focus. However, I was at a conference talking to Hall Davidson once, and he came up with a great use – start the app at the beginning of a conference session. At the end of the conference session, the size of the sand art you have created is a measure of how good the session is. You will just have to decide whether you will add sand to it for each thing you learn or whether a large piece of art means you were so bored that you played with Thisissand the whole time. Here is one of mine from a session I attended – I won’t tell you which way I did it:



Even then

I’m working on a master’s degree in Sociology with a focus on cultures and institutions. Today, I came across an interesting observation in a paper written in 1903 by Georg Simmel entitled The Metropolis and Mental Life. I have nothing to add to what he says here. I’m sure that educators will understand its meaning, and considering this idea has been around for over 100 years, can ponder on the reasons why things have still gotten to where they are today:

Here in buildings and educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technology, in the formations of community life, and in the visible institutions of the state, is offered such an overwhelming fullness of crystallized and impersonalized spirit that the personality, so to speak, cannot maintain itself under its impact. On the one hand, life is made infinitely easy for the personality in that stimulations, interests, uses of time and consciousness are offered to it from all sides. They carry the person as if in a stream, and one needs hardly to swim for oneself. On the other hand, however, life is composed more and more of these impersonal contents and offerings which tend to displace the genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities. This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.

Microsoft vs. the Google

This year’s ISTE conference has been a very different experience for me. It is the first time I’ve attended without having a presentation obligation. I’ve really enjoyed having power over my own schedule and I’ve noticed some things that I believe may be unique to this year.

One of the things I’ve noticed is an increased presence from Microsoft. Beginning on Saturday when they started handing out free Surface RT tablets, continuing when Bing made the announcement about Bing for Schools, then surprising me when Bill Gates himself tweeted using the ISTE13 hashtag. I know he was tweeting for the foundation, but Microsoft still comes to mind when one sees that name.

I had a bit of a Twitter conversation with Mark Wallaert, who is a behavioral scientist working for Bing, and it really got me thinking about how Google is embedded in education and Microsoft is sort of skirting around the outside of it.

Google has been working its way into classrooms for years. There are thousands of teachers who have adopted the free and easy-to-use Google docs in their classroom, districts have adopted the free Google Apps for Education, and ISTE has been full of sessions about how to maximize the use of free Google products. All of this seems very nice of Google, but the company has actually earned millions of dollars from the advertising that appears in searches at schools across the country, so don’t feel sorry for them.

I have always been a Microsoft user who also loves Google. Because of pricing, I choose to use the PC platform and my first smart phone, by choice was Windows based. I’m an Android user now, but that would be a topic for another blog post. I have spent the bulk of my adult life in the corporate world, not the education world. In that universe, Microsoft is king. In the education world, it is not.

Will Microsoft take a bite out of the education market with the roll out of the new Bing for schools project? Time will tell. It is just interesting to me that Microsoft is making the move for the education community – I will be standing on the sidelines with my Surface tablet, iPad mini, Android phone, and PC laptop, ready for the ride!

Tell me what you think . . .

Things I never remember to do at ISTE

I’m not a newbie at ISTE, but I wouldn’t call myself a veteran, either. I have attended a few, but I never attend two consecutive years. This means that I have two years, at minimum, to completely forget all of the things that I learn when I attend. Here are some of the things I’m realizing that I have forgotten this year. I’m sharing in the hopes that typing and reading this list will help me remember next time. I also hope it might help someone who is visiting ISTE for the first time not feel quite so much like a newbie:

1. I really wish I had thought to get shirts printed with my Twitter handle. Either that or purchase one of these cool Twitter nametags. This isn’t an ego thing – I just really like to connect with folks who are in my Twitter network, and the more of us who are walking around with our Twitter handle visible, the easier those connections can be. I also really like Dave Tchozewski‘s wish that we all have our Twitter handles hanging above our heads in word clouds, but that augmented reality app isn’t quite perfected yet.

2. Once again, I totally forgot to bring printed sheets of address labels with my contact information so that I could sign up for anything and everything in the massive exhibit hall. Truth is, I normally run from the exhibit hall after just a couple of minutes of exposure – it is just too much for my easily distracted mind to take in. However, this year my main goal is to last at least one hour in there, and the stickers would have been nice. If you see me in there tomorrow, ask me how long I’ve been there – and encourage me to meet my goal. It will be difficult, but I am up to the challenge!

3. I never remember to pace myself or to take restful breaks. This means that I’m overloaded and worn out by 2:00 (which is also why I have this rare moment to write blog posts – I’ve already returned to my hotel for the afternoon. For those of you who are attending ISTE on school business, this works out okay if you do like I did and arrive a couple of days early to take in HackED or workshops, or other pre-conference offerings. We don’t normally work on Saturdays or Sundays, so the hours you accumulate on those days can spread through Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, to complete your full work day.

4. Bring cash. In my “regular” life, I never carry cash. Transactions with me are strictly a plastic or app exchange. When I’m in the same location for this long, I really need to have cash on hand to tip hotel staff, valets, etc., and I never have it with me. Note to hotel staff, etc.: If you got one of those nifty gadgets that plug into your smart phone and allows you to take credit card payments, I would be really generous!

It isn’t all forgetfulness, though. Some of the things I have done right this year are:

1. I took Kathy Schrock’s advice and purchased a case for the Surface tablet. I bought a cheap one and had it shipped to my hotel so that when I returned to my hotel on Saturday with Surface in hand, the case was waiting for me at the hotel desk.

2. I’ve been very strategic about what I carry with me. I’m quite happy using my phone (an HTC Evo LTE) as my only mobile device. I can do anything I need to do with it. Blogging isn’t so comfortable on it, but I would be lying if I told you I will ever blog during the conference. I always reserve that for reflection at the end of the day.

3. I actually remembered to bring a water bottle this year. It is great to be hydrated all day without having to purchase an expensive bottle of water at the convention or wander the streets of San Antonio looking for a CVS.

4. This is something I never fail to do at ANY conference – I found Starbucks! There are a bunch of them close to the convention center. The best ones of the nearby stores are the ones in the lobbies of the Marriott Rivercenter and the Marriott Riverwalk.

Enjoy the conference! 

Parents need to know

I was lurking around in an #edchat Twitter conversation this morning when the discussion turned to the question of why parents do not cry out against standardized testing in education. I began thinking about the 15 (yes, that is a number high enough I don’t have to spell it out according to grammatical rules) tests that each student in Texas must now pass in order to graduate from high school. It has taken a long evolution to get us here, but here we are, expecting every student (in some districts) to grasp the concepts of physics, every student to understand more Chemistry than I did as a second year science major in college, every student to embrace the concepts of pre-calculus to the extent that they can pass an exam at the “end” of the year (the tests are mostly finished by the end of April).

I am old enough to remember the movement that started all of this. I remember hearing news stories about people graduating from high school who couldn’t read or sign their own name, perform simple addition and subtraction, or compose a complete sentence. Appalling, yes. How did we get from there to here?

I believe it has a lot to do with trust.

Parents trust the education community to be the experts – to know the best practices that facilitate student achievement. The slow evolution of testing from making sure every student has the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic – to this expectation that every student is a carbon copy of the next one, and therefore, should know exactly the same things before graduating from high school has effectively desensitized parents (and I say this as a parent myself). It simply doesn’t register when our 3rd grader wakes up one morning, begging us to cook a huge breakfast for him because his teacher said he would fail his high-stakes test if he didn’t eat well, that there is something wrong with a child this age being stressed about performance. We don’t connect the dots when our sixth grader calls herself stupid in math when it used to be the subject she loved the most that her confidence level is directly proportional to the score she got on the district benchmark test.

Parents trust that the institution forced upon every child in America knows what it’s doing, and the fancy titles “Exemplary”, “Recognized”, an “A+ school” are indicators of student success, but what they don’t know is that these titles are only measures in a moment of time. These measures only reflect how much that student knew in that moment when they were taking their test. It has more to do with “cramming” and test-taking strategies than it does with any skill needed to live a successful, productive life.

As a parent, I am disgusted with the importance that is placed on test scores. I am disgusted with grading policies that reflect how well my kids can comply with their teachers’ directives than how well they can apply what they know.

I have wished that I didn’t know – that I could just trust.

The good news is, I see a revolution on the way. I see more and more parents saying “wait a minute!” and asking the questions that need to be asked, giving their children the okay to not stress about the test, and demanding recognition that each student be seen as an individual, not one who came from the same blueprint as the next one, but one whose unique abilities and interests should be championed. Even students are keenly aware of the impact this reduction in their individual worth has had on their own futures and are speaking out.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long for them to be heard.