About Mark

I am an associate professor of educational technology in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary

Productivity for a new year – focus on efficiency or effectiveness?

I don’t typically spend a lot of time making resolutions, intentions or even major goals as I transition into a new year. Instead, I prefer to look back at the prior year and take stock. In part, this means reviewing my projects and determine whether they should be continued, paused, or deleted. I also try to think about areas in which I struggled in the prior year and how I might be able to address these challenges in the new year. Finally, I try to take a stock back and look at my work life holistically. In general, how are things working?

One thing I’ve been mulling over the last few days is my personal productivity. In some ways, it’s been a really productive year. I’ve generally done a good deal of “shipping” this year – journal articles, workshops, and even my first book, And Action: Directing Documentaries in the Social Studies Classroom. I’ve met my deadlines and moved my projects forward. This is mostly thanks to my task/project management system. Over the last couple of years, I’ve really perfected my system of capture, organization, and execution using my software of choice – Todoist. I can generally crank through my tasks on the way to meeting the next deadline. I had a nagging feeling of discontent, though, as I reflected back on 2013.

I was listening to the latest episode of the Mikes on Mics podcast, and hosts Mike Vardy and Michael Schechter were discussing the meaning of productivity. Mike Vardy was arguing that the key to productivity is balancing efficiency and effectiveness. 

This resonated with me, because I think I had a really efficient year last year, but I don’t know how effective it was. For me, effectiveness boils down to a question – am I working on the right things? When I look back, I don’t see a grand plan or overarching vision to my projects, publications, etc. I think I’ve been working hard, but I don’t know how much time I’ve spent being deliberate about my choices for what to work on. I think that for me, as things come at me, I just want to say yes. And with a high level of efficiency, I can usually manage to get things done. What’s missing for me is attending to the question of what I should be working on. 

So, here’s my focus for the year. It doesn’t matter how efficient you are if you’re working on the wrong projects. Likewise, even if you have a great sense of the right work for you this year, if you aren’t able to organize and manage your projects it’s likely that you either won’t get things done, or you’ll miss deadlines. So, I guess that if I were going to make a resolution, intention, etc., for 2014, it would be to find a proper balance between efficiency and effectiveness in terms of my work.

Results of Online Hybrid Teaching

Back in November, I wrote an initial post on my first real foray into extended hybrid teaching. As a quick recap, students progressed through a three-week fully online module on lesson planning for technology integration in the K-12 teaching.  Aside from two other single session online experiences, the rest of the 15 week course took place in a face-to-face format. And while the students expressed some discomfort with the fully online module, they were mostly positive about the experience. Before I really looked at the work my students produced, I was fairly happy with the experience. What remained for me to see was what their work in this module looked like. Upon further review, I’m quite pleased.

At the conclusion of the three-week module, students turned in a technology-enhanced lesson plan that they could implement in their student teaching internship. Along with the lesson, students had to turn in a technology product that tied to the lesson. For example, if students planned to challenge their students to create a digital timeline or wiki space, they had to create a sample of what their students might create. Finally, students had to complete a semi-structured reflection on their rationale for the technology they included and how they saw the use of technology connecting with both their content and instructional strategies. The last portion of the reflection asked students to discuss the planning process in which they’d engaged in the module. In this post, I’ll quickly summarize the products they created along with their reflections. 

The products that students created were quite strong. I have used a validated assessment rubric to score the lesson plans and products. When I compared the scores of students in two sections of my course this year with students in the prior two years, their rubric scores were significantly improved. The students who completed the experience completely online scored better in all dimensions of the rubric than students in the prior two cohorts. This was encouraging.

Perhaps even more encouraging to me were their reflection responses. While I don’t have a way to systematically compare these reflections to prior years, I am all but certain that these reflections were far more substantive and nuanced than in prior years. The vast majority of the students were able to articulate fairly sophisticated rationales for the technology they included in their lessons and how it connected to their content focus and instructional strategies. This is often difficult for preservice teachers since they don’t have nearly as much classroom teaching experience, even compared with novice teachers. There is a fair bit of research that novice teachers tend to default to their own experience as students when designing their own instruction. In essence, they often “teach how they were taught.” In the case of this cohort, however, it was clear to me that they had developed significantly stronger rationales than prior groups.

It difficult to say whether these differences were solely due to the online module. My gut tells me, though, that this particular cohort was not that different (if at all) from prior cohorts. My strong suspicion is that it was the extended time to reflect, increased chances to discuss their evolving thinking, and the requirement to document their ongoing thinking that was afforded by the asynchronous online module that made the difference. I’m so intrigued by these results that I plan to move more of a similar Spring course to a fully online format to see if these hunches hold up.

I’ll be documenting the process of developing this new blended course, which I hope will be roughly 50% online through a series of posts. I’ll develop out posts on the planning process, facilitation strategies, and the roll-out over the next semester. I hope that you’ll follow along and add your comments as I go.

 

Online Storage and Access

With all the digital content in our lives (documents, images, presentations, pdf files, etc.), it’s critical to develop a robust storage solution that allows you to access what you need, when you need it, from where you need it. In this quick post, I’ll share two online file storage and access solutions that will literally make your life better – in a geeky sort of way.

Option 1 – Dropbox

I started using Dropbox probably 3-4 years ago with the free 2GB storage account. At first, I really only used the Web interface that allows you to upload documents into folders you create through the Web site. Once uploaded, you can access your files in Dropbox from any Web browser or through apps on your phone or tablet. Stop there, and this is already pretty amazing. 2 gigabytes of free storage that you can access from anywhere. Add to that, though, the ability to share a folder or single file with anyone via an email address or link, and you’re really cookin’ with gas. I’ve saved the best for last, though… Install the desktop client, and Dropbox creates a local folder on your computer’s hard drive. From this point on, any time that you save a file into this folder it is uploaded to your online file storage automatically in the background. Access and change a file on your smartphone? It’s automatically uploaded to your online storage and downloaded to any computer with the client installed. I literally have Dropbox installed on probably four computers or tablets and the service magically keeps the files synced across all devices. Really amazing. Seriously.

Option 2 – SkyDrive

Just when I thought nothing could trump my love for Dropbox, I discovered Microsoft’s SkyDrive through my work on the Technology Enriched Instruction project. SkyDrive does everything exactly like Dropbox, except it includes 7 GB of free storage (both services offer multiple upgrade options to get more storage space). This just where SkyDrive gets warmed up, though. The huge added benefit of SkyDrive is the built-in, free Web apps that allows you to work with your files via any Web browser on a computer or tablet. These Web apps are essentially slimmed down versions of all the Office applications. So, if you save a Word document in your SkyDrive folder, you can access the file through the Web browser, then click on the Edit tab and you can edit the file in your Word browser or, if installed, on your desktop application. Either way, as soon as you save changes to the document, it’s automatically uploaded to your online storage space (and all your computers or other devices with the desktop application installed). There are free Web apps for Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, my personal favorite notetaking utility. It really is an incredible tool… for free. 

I’m sure there are other options available, but these are two outstanding, free ways to store and access files online from anywhere. If you don’t already use one of these services, what are you waiting for? Get to it.

Diving into Hybrid Teaching

At the College of William & Mary, the primary part of my teaching load is working with undergraduate and Masters students in our teacher preparation program to help them to effectively integrate technology in their teaching. One of the capstone projects in the course is to challenge them to design a technology-integrated learning experience that they can use in their student teaching next semester. I introduce them to a flexible planning approach that I developed with my colleague, Judi Harris, called the learning activity types (LAT) approach. For novice teachers like my students, this is an involved process that typically spans three class meetings. In the past, I’d facilitated this process in class, using a variety of whole group and small group activities. For the first time this year, we designed an online module to replace this in-class experience. In a series of posts, I want to explore this shift to a hybrid model that focuses on three primary areas: my experience as an instructor in this new mode of teaching, benefits for and limitations to the learning process for the students, and learning outcomes for the students. In this first post, I’ll briefly over the process and module and share my insights as the instructor.

I used Blendspace to host the online learning module which spanned three weeks. During this time, we did not meet face-to-face for any portion of the work. Students worked through the module asynchronously with periodic checkpoints and assignments that they were to complete either individually or in small groups that I had created for them. They shared their work along the way through a BlackBoard discussion forum, Google Hangouts, and a commenting feature in Blendspace. In the end, students completed their instructional plans and turned them in to me through group blogs, which are publicly available.

This was a new experience for me as an instructor. I’ve done a number of online experiences for students to complete in lieu of meeting for class. I’d never done a multi-week experience that spanned such a long time, however. Moreover, this module guided them in the process of creating the key assignment for the course. So, in both these ways, this was a bit of a risk for me.

It certainly took some adjusting my time and work during these three weeks. Of course, I completed the vast majority of the planning for the experience in advance. My primary role during the three weeks was to facilitate discussion, provide feedback, and occasionally crack the whip when students fell behind in the process. This meant that I spent a considerable amount of time online – and particularly in BlackBoard. I really value and enjoy the face-to-face interactions with students, so this was a shift. I always felt a little bit tethered to my computer as well – particularly during a few of the more challenging phases. So, while I wasn’t meeting with the students during the scheduled class time, I’ll bet that I spent more time responding to their posts than I would have in class.

While the time spent in BlackBoard was not my favorite, I quickly saw real benefits for doing this experience online. First, students from different sections of the course were able to work together. Perhaps more importantly, I think the increased accountability of students posting their work on the discussion board encouraged them to participate more fully in the work than if they’d done so in the form of small group discussion in class. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that students’ thinking was visible in this way allowed me to answer questions and correct misconceptions or misunderstandings early in the process. Consequently, from my vantage point, students understood and engaged in the planning process to a greater degree than students in prior years. In my mind these benefits far outweigh the bit of discomfort I experienced in facilitating the work online.

All in all, things went well. With the help of my students, I’ve identified a few areas that could be ironed out. There was some confusion about when certain steps were to be completed. In some cases, members of the groups worked at different rates, making the discussions together difficult. I incorporated a few too many tools (Blendspace, BlackBoard, Google Hangout, group blogs) – both for me to stay on top of and for the students to navigate. Fortunately, these are all manageable fixes that should be fairly easy to implement the next time around.

What’s not clear to me, yet, is exactly how the students worked through the process. In the next post, I’ll explore this aspect of the work. I’m cautiously optimistic about the results, but I’ll have to go to the data.

Don’t Get Lost in “Doing” Productivity

One tricky rabbit hole that is easy to go down is becoming so focused on “doing” productivity that you don’t get anything done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to continually check myself to make sure I’m focused on the important work in front of me and not experimenting with the latest system or app. I had planned for a couple of weeks to do this post, and then I ran across this post from Asian Efficiency –  Why you should stop fiddling with apps. It’s an excellent post from Thanh Pham. Enjoy. 

21st Century Learning Design in the College Classroom

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on helping to develop a project called the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) program. This is a professional development effort developed by faculty and sponsored by Microsoft to help college professors find ways to integrate technology in their teaching. It is structured around two frameworks. The first, technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK), helps participants find ways to connect their disciplinary knowledge with their instructional approach in ways that utilize technology effectively. This part of the workshop helps faculty to identify ways the technology can support teaching and learning in their discipline.

 

In working with faculty from around the world, we found that many faculty also require some assistance in thinking about when technology will really make a difference in their teaching and their students’ learning. To address this need we’ve began to draw on the 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) framework. This framework was developed by Microsoft partners in learning in conjunction with SRI International and Innovative Teaching and Learning research program. In contrast to many other 21st-century skills frameworks, the 21 CLD framework is both research-based and very concrete in terms of classroom application.

The framework identifies six primary skills that students should develop as they progress through their education: collaboration, knowledge construction, self-regulation, real-world problem-solving and innovation, use of ICT for learning, and skilled communication. Along with the definitions for each of these skills, the framework offers detailed examples and rubrics of how educators can design learning experiences that substantively address that particular skill. This framework appeals to me as a teacher in its specificity and the ability to think in terms of different levels of implementation. 

This 21 CLD framework has been very helpful in the TEI workshop in both providing a strong rationale for faculty to consider integrating technology into their teaching and in offering a vision for what this looks like in the classroom. If you’re interested in exploring ways to meet the needs of your students in the 21st century, increase the rigor and interactivity of your coursework, or challenge yourself to level-up in terms of what you ask your students to do, please check out the Partners in Learning website for an overview of the 21 CLD framework and associated rubrics for 21st-century learning design. If you’re interested in the Technology Enriched Instruction workshop, I encourage you to check out that site as well.

How do you integrate one or more of these skills and your teaching?

 

Determining Priorities: The Eisenhower Matrix

One of the aspects of being a professor that I really enjoy is the freedom to pursue different interests and projects. I do find it challenging at times, however, to select among competing priorities. Because there’s never enough time to take on all the possible projects that come your way, it’s important to be able to determine those opportunities that are the best for you, personally and professionally. One such strategy is what’s become known as the Eisenhower Matrix (fans of Stephen Covey will also find this familiar).  

This method was said to be used by President Eisenhower to help him to determine priorities by considering a task or project relative to how urgent and how important it was. According to this method, the more urgent and important a task or project is, the higher you should prioritize it. If a task or project is low in terms of urgency and importance, it’s probably not worth doing. It is typically presented in a four quadrant matrix, as depicted in the image below from the Mindtools blog:

I particularly like how the author of the post characterizes each quadrant with a descriptor. Labels help me, I guess. 

As a new opportunity or task comes your way, consider it’s urgency and importance relative to what else is on your plate. You can use your work roles/responsibilities to help you define urgency and importance. You can also consider your own personal needs and desires as factors that help you position an opportunity on the matrix. For example, I recently received proofs back on a book that will come out this November. Assuming it comes out on time, it will coincide nicely with a conference presentation about the book. Now, if the book is completed and printed in time, this may result in higher sales and greater visibility for my work. Therefore, while attending to the minutia of the proofs was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do today, it was both urgent and important. This translates into a “critical activity.” In contrast, while developing an ebook on effective presentation techniques with digital media is very interesting to me, relative to what else I have on my plate, it’s probably not urgent or important. In other words, at least at this point, this would probably be classified as a “distraction.” Beginning this blog is kind of an interesting case, however. While it’s not likely to help me to advance in rank or line my savings account, it is a personal interest and is sustaining to me personally. It helps me to process my ideas and hopefully develop a community of like-minded folks to share strategies, tools, and ideas. Therefore, while not urgent, it is important to me and therefore I would classify it as an “important goal.” So, it’s worth doing, but probably will get put on the back burner in cases where more urgent and important tasks come to the fore.

 

 

 

 

Eisenhower is said to have remarked, What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” I think of this approach as a kind of compass to help address Eisenhower’s observation. While still requiring some thought and subjectivity, breaking down a task or project’s relative urgency and importance can be a helpful cognitive tool to prioritize your work. What’s trickiest for me is not spending too much in the “interruptions” category. A high percentage of emails certainly fall into this category. And while some of these items do need attention, the matrix helps to keep me focused on trying to stay in the “critical activities” category as much as possible.

 

What tools and strategies are helpful to you in being strategic with your priorities? 

Paper vs. Digital

When considering how to be the most productive, digital vs. paper is a key decision. We have lists to make and review, ideas to sketch out, notes to take, and information to keep track of – all of which can be done through digital, paper, or some combination of means. This is something I’ve continued to struggle with over the years, but I feel like I’ve finally hit on what works for me.

First, it’s important to point out that there advantages and disadvantages for choosing one approach over the other. Paper equals simplicity. Nothing is quicker or less obtrusive than jotting down a quick note in a notebook.  You can select from a range of different size notebooks, writing tools, and products. Paper is great for quickly capturing ideas, sketching, and processing information in a number of ways. This format also has a number of limitations. When you have a number of different projects and meetings, it can be very difficult to keep things organized. It’s also very tedious trying to find a particular note among a number of different notebooks, pages, and sections. 

 

 

You can also use a range of digital tools to capture and process ideas. From robust, full-featured note-taking and data processing/organization applications like OneNote and Evernote that work on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, IOS, Android) to more single purpose tools like OmniOutliner, Padlet, or MindMeister, one can easily find a digital processing tool to fit a particular need. Digital tools provide a number of advantages. First, it can be easy to lose a notebook. I know I’ve lost several. When this happens, you are completely out of luck. With digital tools, they are often automatically backed up to the cloud. So, not only can you recover them, you can access many of them from any Internet-connected device. Searching for specific notes or information is also much easier with digital capture tools. You can incorporate any type of digital content and also share your ideas much more easily than with paper.

 

 

The trick, I think, is to find the right balance for you between the “naturalness” of pen and paper with the utility of digital tools. After much searching, I believe I’ve found what works for me. For quick notes (e.g., when someone shares a Web address with me over lunch, I jot it down in my David Allen Notetaker Wallet) or to plan out specific tasks for a day (see the post on the Emergent Task Planner) I prefer paper. This is the quickest, and least obtrusive way for me to capture this info. For all my note-taking, I’ve migrated to OneNote. This is the easiest way for me to gather everything in one place, access it on all my devices, and easily search across all my notebooks. For a discussion of how I use OneNote, check this post. It’s not a flawless or totally consistent system, but it seems to help me get things done.

This is what’s working for me. It may not work for you in the same way. I think the key is to choose deliberately, based on the tool’s affordances and constraints. What are the key tools in your workflow in managing all the stuff in your daily life?

 

The Microsoft Surface as a Productivity Device

One of the things that intrigues me most about personal productivity is the idea of designing efficient and effective workflows. By this I mean developing common sets of processes to accomplish different tasks. For example, I often need to read and comment on my students’ writing. In the past, I relied on printing their work and marking it up with a pen. I would then pass these back the following week in class. This worked fairly well for me and my students, except for three issues:

  1. My writing is terrible – I even had trouble translating my own writing when students couldn’t read my chicken scratch
  2. This process delayed my getting comments back to students in a timely manner – particularly on rough drafts that they hoped to revise prior to submitting the work
  3. Unless I made photocopies of the commented work, I didn’t have a record of comments I’d given them at different stages of the process – a problem with a major piece of writing like a dissertation proposal that goes through many revisions

So, these issues were frustrating enough that I was determined to plan a better workflow.

To mitigate these concerns, I began to use the robust commenting features built in to Microsoft Word. Between highlighting snippets of text, tracking changes, and adding comments in the margins, I was able to replicate the same kind of process without some of the challenges inherent in working with paper/pen.

When the iPad was released several years ago, I began an experiment in trying to shift this workflow to a tablet device. I loved the lightweight form factor and ability to read the work more like a document on a table in front of me instead of reading on a vertical screen of my laptop or desktop. I was especially jazzed about the idea of being able to add hand drawn comments and scribbles via a capacitive stylus. Fortunately, a number of robust PDF editing apps were developed for the iPad. I so wanted to figure out and enjoy this workflow, but after two years of near constant exploration, I ran into some new (and old) workflow challenges.

  1. I had to convert every piece of student writing to a PDF file, then either email it to myself or save it to Dropbox in order to access it on the iPad
  2. It was often even more difficult to get the commented documents off the iPad and back to the students
  3. Using the capacitive stylus to leave handwritten comments made my poor handwriting even more difficult to read.

Essentially, with the iPad I introduced even more problems to my workflow than in either of the first two approaches.

When I began working with the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project, I had the opportunity to explore a range of Microsoft software, tools, and devices. About two months ago I received a Surface RT and began to explore this as an iPad alternative. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Surface is an entirely different device than an iPad. While the iPad is an excellent consumption and entertainment device (my kids love using it for all kinds of activities), trying to use it as a real productivity device was a constant headache for me.

Here’s what the workflow looks like on the Surface.

  1. I either save my students Word documents to a Dropbox or Skydrive folder (or set it up so that the students can upload files there directly)
  2. I open them up in the full version of Word (that’s included for free on the Surface RT) and use the full set of track changes, comment options, etc. to mark up the documents
  3. I can use the same capacitive stylus with the writing recognition tool built in to the device and it does an amazing job of translating my chicken scratch into crisp, clear typed text
  4. I simply save the file and send it back.

The addition of this one device has literally transformed the way I can provide students with feedback on their writing. The workflows I use with the Surface are not only way more robust and simpler than the iPad, I actually find that this 2 pound device has replaced my laptop and desktop for all but a few key functions. The best part is that not only can I develop these workflows easily, I actually look forward finding new opportunities to use this productivity tablet.