Tag Archive for digital culture

When Griefers Strike: Community, Citizenship and Rebuilding

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What does it mean to be a community? When disaster strikes, how does a community respond? What does it mean to see real-world consequences of digital actions? When one group’s project was digitally vandalized just a day before it was due, a class of 6th graders demonstrated U Prep’s commitment to community and social responsibility by jumping in to help rebuild.

As an interdisciplinary project in 6th grade, students explore the effects of damming (and releasing) the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Students choose to focus their research on a particular discipline such as Literature or Social Studies. In the Science track, led by 6th Grade Science teacher Quynh Tu, students build recreations of the Elwha River valley before, during and after the dam phase in Minecraft. Working with creations of the Elwha River basin pulled from satellite mapping data, students label the effects of the dam and removal on the geography and ecology of the basin. Using a school-run Minecraft server, customized with an educational version called MinecraftEDU, all of the teams create their models in distinct areas of one shared digital world.

The day before the projects were to be presented to their peers, one team logged in to find their work had been extensively vandalized (called “griefing” in gamer culture) using the same tools that students had been using to build their environmental models. Trees were burned, a dam destroyed, a valley was flooded, and the valleys were filled with creatures called Golems which had been created by the vandals. In addition to one group’s models, the common loading area and instructions were destroyed as well.

The affected group took pictures of the damage, and reported it to Ms. Tu. When the class met for their last work session that day, Ms. Tu, Middle School Director Marianne Picha, and Director of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast asked the targeted group to describe what happened to the class. The students described how hard they had worked on the project, and how sad they were to see their work destroyed. They were obviously nervous about the deadline to present the next day, and weren’t sure how they would be able to make the deadline.

Without any teacher prompting, the conversation evolved as the class began to brainstorm solutions. Could the server be restored from a backup? The server backed up daily, so the server could be restored to the last image before the project was vandalized. That would mean that all the group’s work for the last day would be lost, though. The targeted group thought about that for a minute, and said that they didn’t think it would be fair for all the groups to be penalized just to save their work. Can the deadline be moved? It might be possible, but with the entire 6th grade ready to present on Friday, and with camping trips and beach day coming up the next week, it would be very doubtful. Finally, one student suggested: Most of us are done and ready to present. Can we help them rebuild?

The class moved into action as everyone logged into the world and begun to build–some finishing their own projects, and others helping the targeted group clean up and rebuild their work. The three students who had originally built the world shifted into project management mode, deciding what could be delegated to others (“There were trees all along this stretch of the river,” or “Drain out all the water,”) and what they had to rebuild themselves (such as their original dam design). As other groups finished their work, they moved over to help the class-wide rebuild. The period ended and moved into lunch, and students ran out to get their food and brought it back to the classroom to continue working. Throughout the rest of the day, whenever students finished work in other classes, they returned to help out, and a large group continued working after school. Finally, by the time the afternoon ended, the project was rebuilt and all the groups were ready to present their work the next day.

The nature of Minecraft, being an open space in which all students build freely, presented a calculated risk that someone would abuse the project or another student’s work. Responsible citizenship is a core value of the University Prep academic program, and these students demonstrated that value in action with their response as a class to this situation.

My Watch Thinks Everyone Should Learn to Code

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(img: The Very Excellent DC Rainmaker)

Outside of my Education vocations and avocations, I am an avid triathlete. Triathetes have a bit of a reputation already as being tech- and data-geeks of the sports world, and being a technologist by day and triathlete by night, I’m probably not helping the curve. My tool of choice up until recently was the Garmin 910xt, a training computer which helped me analyze all of the various metrics of my training and performance. When the Wall Street Journal asked recently why so many “mere mortals” were conquering athletic feats like the Ironman, training computers like the 910xt were a large factor in their narrative.

Sadly, my “training brain” fell off my bike during a race earlier this year and was lost to the tri deities (or a very lucky course official). It got replaced by the Suunto Ambit 2S, a newer multisport (fancy word for triathlon) watch. Disclaimer: My wife works for a sister company of Suunto. We purchased the Ambit as a replacement in order to “keep it in the family.”

Two Paths Diverged

The Garmin has a feature built into its website that allows you to enter a workout plan ahead of time (e.g. certain distances, speeds or times). The watch will then cue you when it’s time, for example, to run, stop or change speeds. The ability to create and enter these kinds of workouts is a huge part of what makes training technology so appealing– based on modern training science, building more complex but specific and targeted workouts is more effective than “go run for an hour.” Side note: If you want to know more about this, you should contact my wife. She has her MS in this and trained people at the Olympics. I read some magazines and am not going to be in the Olympics. Garmin made this very easy.




 All of the hallmarks of a modern web-based application: Drag-and-drop editing, drop-down menus, bright friendly color-coded interface. This is designed to let you do what you want to do as quickly and easily as possible and get you on your way without ever having to see (as a dear former colleague liked to say) “into the belly of the beast.” So when I was setting up my new Suunto, one of the first questions I asked my wife was how to enter interval workouts like this.


“You write an app for that,” she replied.


Suunto’s entire backend service for their watch is not the slick “nothing-to-see-here” recipe of the Garmin interface. It’s an Integrated Develop Environment. Users develop “apps” for particular workouts, publish them to an App Store (“App Zone”), download and modify other apps– It’s some part App Store, GitHub and gym locker room swirled together.
This is how Suunto envisions creating workouts. ("Sleep Monitor," by PPIIOOTTRR)

This is how Suunto envisions creating workouts. (“Sleep Monitor,” by PPIIOOTTRR)

To really drive this home: that screengrab above is not from any hidden backend– that’s from the main App Zone page for this App. Suunto is upfront and loud-and-proud about showing you that this is a pile of code, and here’s how this App runs.

Once an App is developed, you have the ability to play with the variables in the App Zone before you download it to your device and execute the workout. If someone has the backbone of a workout that you’d like to do, for example, but you want to change the number of repeats or the amount of time, you are presented with a series of slider bars to customize it for your purposes.

(Customizing "High Intensity Intervals," by Movescount)

(“High Intensity Intervals,” by Movescount)

Again, note the Slider bar labels– those aren’t “plain English”– those are the variable names from the code. Does your average user know what “INTDIST” is?

I’ll admit that I got a little “new device whiplash” when I saw this. As with many rough device transitions, this was an issue of planning and time– I wanted to be out the door in 10 minutes on my run. I did not have time to deal with this new paradigm. So I went through the standard stages of Inconvenience (“I don’t have time to deal with something new!”), Anger/Annoyance (“Why can’t this work like my old tech?”), Dismissal (“This new stuff is ridiculous. Who needs these features?”),  and finally arrived at Open-mindedness (“Okay– What can this do and how does it work, and does it match a need or interest for me?”). Thinking a little more clearly, I can see what Suunto’s going for here– their App Zone is filled with thousands of apps that are far beyond the stock “off the shelf” capacity of the Garmin (or even of what the Ambit ships with). Even just the basic interval workouts have more flexibility than the Garmin template builder, and there are definitely times when I was using my Garmin and got frustrated at wanting to be able to get it to do something that it wasn’t an option in their interface. Suunto’s market differentiation here is giving users the keys to the entire hardware package– all the sensors, monitors, transmission protocols and output, and saying “Go nuts, people.”

With technology in general, there is a continuum which pits convenience/usability versus customization/flexibility. The operating system battles, Internet platforms, EdTech platform/program decisions and user tool choice often boil down to the essential question of “Do I trust somebody else to decide how this technology should work for me, or do I want to invest the time and energy in making it my system?” Neal Stephenson argued passionately in “In the Beginning… was the Command Line” (great short summer afternoon read!) that as a society of computer users we are abdicating the power and willingness to bend the tool to our will and instead making ourselves adapt to dumbed-down versions of consumer tech in the name of convenience. Here’s the alternative, if users are willing to accept the learning curve.

This is Not a Drill

This is not a Kickstart project or a fringe startup trying to muscle into an existing marketspace. Suunto is a well-established fitness technology company. They’ve looked at the market, though, and clearly decided that their direction is going to be in favor of customization and flexibility over ease-of-use and user learning curve. While we debate the role that a universal skill of coding has in our students learning, Suunto seems to have already decided that it’s coming and there’s a widespread enough talent and interest base to support a major product line. Honestly, I wish them luck, but… while I’m ideologically on-board with their plan, and I’m probably pretty far to the tech-savvy side of their user base, I gagged a bit at the idea that I had to either a) write an App myself or b) find and modify an existing one, just to go out and do the workout that I had planned for the afternoon.

This is the first major case that I’ve seen of a piece of consumer tech from an established major company banking on the “codeability” of their user base. As such, I think it’s a fascinating test case for the Internet of things and how hackable manufacturers will make their devices, as well as whether a consumer base will adapt to seeing scripting languages appear in everyday life. If this is indicative of a growing trend, or if this training device has legs (ha!), it may signal that the “should every person learn to code” argument has already left the academic sphere and that the consumer technology market will answer the question for us.

Say That to My Face?


(img: forum.xda-developers.com)

A common concern of Digital Citizenship and online bullying is that many people view the “culture of the Internet” as one riddled with negativity and behavior that’s anti-social (if not outright sociopathic). The trolls and “lowest-common-denominator” debates that run below your favorite news site or online magazine scare away many teachers from using online publishing, forums or discussion boards in class. Why is it that behavior norms are so different online? An interesting structure came through this morning from 99U: “Born Hatin': Why Some People Dislike Everything.”

Psychologist John Suler proposed what is perhaps the best known analysis of the phenomenon in the Online Disinhibition Effect. It lists six primary factors as to why we may treat others differently online than we do in person:

  1. You don’t know me. Anonymity protects the critics “real life” reputation and shields them from retaliation and owning their actions.
  2. You can’t see me. Face-to-face interactions tend to have more empathy because we can see the person we are engaging with. It’s hard to feel ashamed when you don’t even know who’s affected. You’re just a screen to me, not a person.
  3. See you later. I don’t have to deal with your instant response, or even wait for it! I can dump my thoughts on you and never return.
  4. It’s all in my head. Suler argues that online interactions can distort reality. I can make up whatever attributes about you that I want, justifying my actions.
  5. It’s just a game. The overused response of critics who do sometimes get called out: “It’s just the Internet, man!”
  6. Your rules don’t apply here. This is the internet, where closing out a live chat isn’t rude, despite the fact that leaving in the middle of a conversation would be rude in real life.

Being able to lay these out for students could open up lots of interesting ways to engage with the norms of digital culture– role-playing, for example, or acting out example comment threads could be a great way to confront the gap between online speaker and listener (albeit a bit dangerous– manage this activity carefully). Using imagery or posters to create responses or counter-arguments to these points could form the basis of a school digital citizenship campaign.

These rules aren’t just about being online, though– I see some of these in play on a regular basis in the interactions between bike commuters/cyclists and drivers, for example (which got a great treatment in this Norwegian public safety video). Furthermore, the article presents this theory in context of a larger finding: some people are inherently “likers,” who are more inclined to respond positively to new ideas, while some are inherently “haters” who will find a reason to rate things negatively. “It paints a very clear picture: no matter what you create, a small group of people will hate it, often without reason.” This is another, equally important lesson at the root of all culture and society, digital or face-to-face: You manage your own behavior, and accept that you can’t be responsible for how some people act. The balance is to accept meaningful, productive or informed critique while recognizing and discarding the trolls and haters.

Do Suler’s six factors translate to your observations or experience with online publishing and discussion? Can you see a way in which you might want to use these as a coaching tool with your students? How do you coach giving and receiving online feedback? Join in the comments below!

The Boss, 57 Channels, Sushi, and Personal Knowledge Management


I remember a conversation my parents had when I was a teenager about the television. I don’t remember the setup, but I do remember my mother bemoaning the fact that, in essence, “There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on.” Because the TV served so much garbage, she believed, the TV itself was garbage (I’m oversimplifying, but I don’t think mis-characterizing). My father’s indignant response: “We have the History Channel now! Discovery!” In essence, he focused on the needles of specialized, targeted content amongst the haystack of generalized, least-common-denominator entertainment.

I relive that conversation nearly every day in the context of the Internet’s role in schools and classes, and I believe it’s one of the most important critical understandings of learning in the Internet era. When teachers disregard the Internet as a source of learning, or only allow certain “pre-approved” sources of content, the reasoning almost always comes down to either fear of or experience with students:

  • Using weak sources
  • Wasting too much time trying to find good sources
  • Getting off-topic

I think the underlying assumption is that the Internet is a faster, bigger, louder and more obnoxious version of Bruce’s TV: “A message came back from the great beyond: there’s fifty-seven channels and nothing on.” If we follow this belief to the extreme, we get policy decisions which reflect a view of the Internet as 99% “low-grade” rather than 1% “high-grade” learning potential. Blocking YouTube, social media and limiting the ability for students to email outside of their school/district are prime examples. YouthBeat conducted a survey of their readers and revealed (unsurprisingly) a wide range of opinions about the usefulness of the Internet, but the part most interesting to me was how hard it was for parents to come to terms with the blessing and curse of student access:

With the exception of a few, most parents temper their critiques of the Internet with an acknowledgement of all the ways that the Internet has served their children well– helping them explore their passions, efficiently and effectively complete homework, play stimulating and challenging games, and more. And for many, it’s not a matter of being ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but how they can make the most of it for their children…

–Youthbeat.com, “Changing the Conversation about Internet Safety

You know why the Boss couldn’t find anything on his 57 channels? He was flipping channels “round and round till half-past dawn.” Even the History Channel has gone weird in the middle of the night. Skills, context and guidelines matter for successful information management. Thankfully, they’re a whole lot easier with social web tools. Would Bruce have taken the .44 to his TV if he had On Demand and streaming video?

I’ve written before about a couple of the different models of Personal Knowledge Management that are floating around the education world. I believe that while they all phrase things slightly differently, looking at models of networked learning have three common threads:

  1. Input. An active gathering and filtering of information or expertise from diverse sources.
  2. Processing. Creating a personal knowledge construct based on those unique inputs, as processed by the individual learner.
  3. Output. Demonstrating the knowledge construct in order to a) prove understanding, mastery or skills, b) contribute to the further advancement and communal knowledge base, and c) subject ideas to the rigor of communal discourse and public review and ensure that they hold up (or continue to evolve them based on new input)

The metaphor often used to describe Information Management with online networked learning is “drinking from the fire hose”– the idea that there’s a deluge of information and you’re trying to capture some of it while not getting blasted down the street. I’ve started playing with a new metaphor:

Conveyor Belt Sushi (wikimedia.org)

At a Conveyor Belt Sushi restaurant, there is a constant stream of food moving past you. You observe what is being offered, make some intentional choices about what you want to eat (which sometimes involves trying something new which looks interesting) and build your menu around your preferences as well as the offerings available. Sometimes you can make a special request if you want something that isn’t coming around. All of this is happening within many different contexts: families having evenings out, dates, business travelers networking, and more.

The first time you go to a Conveyor Belt Sushi restaurant, it’s a little odd. It takes a little orientation to figure out how to do it. Sometimes, you eat too much, or you get frustrated waiting for something particular to come along. Sometimes you don’t know how/where a restaurant serves beverages since they aren’t coming on the belt. Eventually, though, you figure out the context of this different method of serving. Like I said– the metaphor is still under construction. The key message, though, is that if you walked in, sat down and grabbed the first three things that came down the line, you’d get a mixed-bag. You might not enjoy your experience very much. You might decide that these restaurants were a horrible way to eat. You might go hungry because you wouldn’t want to grab the next dish blindly, but you wouldn’t know where to go next.

You need Conveyor Belt Sushi Management Skills–the guidelines which help you operate successfully in that context.

Recently, Harold Jarche put out a challenge to show your PKM workflows. In the next few days, I’ll show my workflows and the tools that I use, but also discuss these three key stages (input, processing, output) and how to apply them to classroom settings. I hope to do so in ways that can be introduced to existing classroom structures without requiring radical curriculum/classroom redesign (although there are certain underlying assumptions about many classroom structures which PKM directly challenges. Some conflict here is unavoidable). Along each stage, I look forward to hearing the tools, processes or resources which are helpful to you in the same vein!


“The Students Will Figure It Out”

With both digital citizenship and digital skills– what’s the balance between direct instruction and experiential/discovery learning? A teacher asked me yesterday, “Don’t we want them to learn what makes sense for them?” I would argue that part of our responsibility as educators is to make sure that they’ve tried on enough hats to know which one fits. Otherwise, isn’t it the educational equivalent of the infinite monkey theorem?

What Real Digital Citizenship Looks Like

I recently set up a hallway station with Scratch and a MaKey Makey to invite students to play with basic programming. The hope was that students would do this relatively unsupervised– for much of the day, I wasn’t around and just let the station run. Obviously, there are a lot of risks in this approach: I felt like in our school community it was a relatively safe activity to run.

I came back at one point and saw that a student had entered the following program for one of the six inputs:

  1. Set Volume=500%
  2. Play “Meow”
  3. Repeat 12001 Times

Who knows how long it had been running before I got there, but the program was happily meowing away (although mercifully, capped at 100% volume). Just after I walked up, an 8th grade student came over to look at the program. I asked him what he thought we should do about it. He thought for a second, and said “add another program that stops it. That way people can start it and see what happens, but then stop it.”

What would the “responsible adult” suggestions have been?

  • Turn off the speakers
  • Delete the offending program
  • Take down the station or add supervision

The student’s suggestion both preserved the learning opportunity of the original looped statement, as well as providing an easy way to manage the consequences. I stepped back and told him to make it happen. He grabbed a friend walking by and the two of them figured out the necessary steps in a few seconds’ time and continued on to class.

Problem-Solving and Collaboration, applied to responsibly solving a problem that had arisen. All this in a non-destructive, non-restrictive solution which allows further development/forward progress. To my mind, a perfect encapsulation of what we want digital citizenship to look like.

Personal Knowledge Management and Student Process

@KimKierkegaardashian - A mashup of Soren Kierkegaard and Kim Kardashian. Demonstrates understanding of irony?

How do we learn and process vast amounts of information in the digital age? How do we practice filtering and deep thought in an information deluge? Why do we have such rampant disagreements on whether the Internet is a “good place to learn?” For many of us it’s an exciting time to be in education because of these questions. Pedagogues and thinkers from diverse fields are combining their expertise to form a new set of learning strategies that reflect both the myriad sources of information available via networking and the ease with which anyone can demonstrate their thinking and learning for examination, critique and sharing. Going by terms such as “connectivism,” or “personal knowledge management,” many attempts to build a framework of digital-age learning share common threads which highlight the essential skills and processes of a modern learner. Regardless of any particular preferred framework or methodology, these common threads reveal general stages that we can practice, develop, model and instruct. Read more

What’s Wrong with this Picture?



According to this TeachThought.com list, the #1 app for a smoother-running classroom is a timer. Not a communication tool for students to work together. Not a note-taking/organizational tool for students to save their work. Not a research tool to help them access whatever resources they need. Nope, if you want a smooth-running classroom with your iPads, invest in… a timer.

How Do We Put Digital Learning on the Wall?

I love the Internet... searched: "fridge computer."

(image from “Reincarnating an Old Laptop as a Fridge Computer,” Samidh Chakrabarti)

An open question for you…

Visualize a school hallway. Better yet, peek out of your door and look at your school’s hallways. I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t have to walk far to see your first piece of student work on a wall somewhere. In classrooms, libraries, hallways and common spaces, we post student work everywhere that we can. There are several reasons why we do this– off the top of my head:

  • Celebrating student success
  • Making learning visible
  • Creating interest in visitors and other students
  • Demonstrating what happens in classrooms
  • It’s fun!
  • Making useful resources (timelines, reference posters, etc.)

All of these are important, because they honor and validate student work. Just as families put good work up on the fridge or wall at home, we value students’ learning artifacts.

When those artifacts are visual, though, how do we value them? How do we honor them and give them a place of importance in our learning spaces? We can’t stick a website on the fridge, nor can we hang a movie in the library. If we want our students and teachers to value digital learning artifacts, don’t we have to be able to afford them the same role and (relative) permanence in our school as the physical posters, art projects, photographs, graphs and charts that we can use to line our halls? I’ve had very open-minded teachers say to me that they would love to make their project products more digital, but they want them to be on the walls so that everyone can see them.  On the flip side, I’ve had great student work that I’d love to hold up as great examples of learning– except they can’t be held.

How can we turn a school from a display vehicle for physical learning artifacts into one for all learning? How do we share high-quality digital products with our community in a way that honors and values their work? What are our “digital fridges” upon which we can display great work?

Breaking One-sided Conversations: Reflective Journals and Discussion Forums


Reflective writing (both long-form and informal) has always been a staple of my courses. From an early mentor, I appropriated a weekly “What Did You Learn This Week?” Friday prompt. A third teacher in the same school modified that to “What Did You Learn This Week, and How Did You Learn It?” This is the form that I’ve been using most recently, but with a discussion forum instead of the little scraps of paper I used to collect. The goal of using a discussion forum is to move from a “reporting tool” to one for conversation. That process isn’t natural for my students, though, so I’m taking a different approach tomorrow…

The How-To

I used to collect these brief reflections from students on the way out the door on Fridays. Collecting them on paper posed some advantages:

  • It was very easy to see that everyone was doing the same thing at the same time,
  • It was a quick transition from any activity into writing during the last five minutes of the period, and
  • It was easy for me to quickly rifle through and scan them (although was this really an advantage?).

Mindful of these advantages, I wanted to move it to an online discussion forum model to take advantage of some additional possibilities:

  • Using an online tool preserves a student’s weekly reflections so that they can zoom out and look back at several weeks at a time. I need to explore this capability more.
  • Using a discussion forum allows me to reply to a student’s reflection to ask follow-up questions or validate good points. This is what I’m currently tinkering with.
  • Students can attach links or files to share as part of their reflection. As of yet, I haven’t built this out in class.

We use Schoology as our LMS, which allows for discussion forums which can be individually assigned to students. I create a discussion forum for each student, title it with their name, and assign it to them only. This ensures that no one else can see the forum (or, obviously, what’s in it). The reflections are now between the student and myself. I put all of these discussions in a separate folder within the course to keep myself organized. This also lets me use the “next” button within the Schoology interface to quickly navigate through lots of them in order.

I originally did this within Moodle, and many other LMS’s have the same capability one way or another.

Is Anyone Listening?

I am pleased with the quality of reflection that I get from students initially. Their posts fulfill my initial goal of getting them to think about how they learn their material and what sources were useful for them, as well as having them identify and focus on some of their achievements throughout the week. But what I get is often something like this (fictionalized response):

Student: This week, I spent most of my time working on using Masks in Photoshop. I found some great tutorials online.

Me: I’m glad that you found some useful resources! Are there any that you think would be useful for the class? Can you post them in the Updates section for everyone? Tell me more about the Masks that you used this week– what did you use them for? What did they help you do?

The thread ends, and gets repeated next Friday. I am asking unanswered (and potentially unread) questions.

Is it Grading, or Conversing?

I was wondering why I never got any replies to these questions. It’s certainly not that my responses are invisible– Schoology includes them in the notifications feed, which students check fairly often. They’re also all displayed inline when a student submits their next submission. So why are students not answering the questions sent to them? I think the answer lies in what they think they’re receiving: I think that we’re having a conversation, and they think that it’s feedback. Before we, as adults and professionals, say that “They’re the same thing!,” think about how the feedback process traditionally runs:

30 GOTO 10

For this to be a meaningful conversation, we have to break the association with grading/feedback so that students internalize that it is a conversation. As all of the students in the class are starting to blog, we’ve been talking about what makes a good blog comment, so it’s time to drive home the importance of using commenting as a way to continue a conversation, not just let feedback die on the vine. As authors of a blog, students should respond to the people wishing to have a conversation with them about their ideas.

Conversation Fail

I’m going to open class tomorrow with a short and utterly ridiculous dramatic reading with a couple of volunteers from the class. After we have (hopefully!) a few laughs, I’ll ask them to take a minute and discuss why blogs have comments. We’ve talked about what kinds of comments they’re hoping for in their blogs, so I hope that conversation comes back and we can use it to tie back to the idea of the reflective journals as conversations like the blogs, and not just feedback to be tossed and ignored.

(Google Doc Link – Share per license at bottom of post)

Speaking of Comments…

Do you use discussion forums or anything similar for your students? Do you find a similar lack of threaded conversation? How do you address this? Comment below!