The educational foundations we build in our formal schooling are not meant to suffice a lifetime. Foundations are laid so that they may be built upon, but it is up to the individual to recognize and seize upon learning opportunities. Obtaining my Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) at Michigan State University, after years of informal on-the-job teacher education, has leveled and fortified my previous pedagogical foundations while constructing new layers of knowledge in technology integration, learner experience design, and research evaluation. Every course in the MAET program involved assignments that stretched what I had previously thought I knew or could do. As I near the end of my degree, reflecting back has helped me recognize more and more the effects and potentialities of this new knowledge on my thinking and practices as an educator previously teaching K-6 English as a foreign language (EFL) and currently teaching science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) in grades 6-12.
Of the ten courses I completed throughout the MAET program, these four served were particularly influential: Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education (CEP) 812: Applying Educational Technology to Issues of Practice, Media and Information (MI) 830: Foundations of Serious Games, CEP 822: Approaches to Educational Research, and CEP 815: Technology and Leadership.
Recognizing Passion And Feeding Curiosity
My current educational practices would be drastically different without CEP 812: Applying Educational Technology to Issues of Practice cementing my foundation in educational technology. Encapsulating the MAET program’s guiding theory, Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK), the course gave me greater appreciation, as well as a critical eye, for technology’s potential role in education. Developed by Drs. Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler, the TPACK framework helps me navigate the connections and constraints of combining technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge. Many consider technology integration a wicked problem due to the number of ever-evolving interrelated variables and contexts. To practice wrestling with such an ill-defined problem, I collaborated with a virtual team to reimagine how classrooms could make failure as powerful a learning mode as success. My team and I focused on changing grading systems from traditional numerical grades to standards based grading (SBG) with more formative assessments. I looked for ways to implement some of these changes in my own classroom, and while the increase in formative assessments, like 1:1 reading time and exit tickets, were welcomed, parents and some students had trouble accepting SBG. This reinforced the intended lesson that these solutions, like those of other ill-defined problems, were options that, should they be implemented, would each lead to new knowledge and challenges, further changing the problem-solving process.
CEP 812 also guided me through analyzing the potential drawbacks of my technological surroundings. Since it is crucial to feed one’s own curiosity, the course challenged me to ensure I was getting a balance of opinions free from filter bubbles, which occur when web search algorithms use your own interests to cull non-conforming views. I used the social media platform Twitter to add new sources of varying viewpoints to my daily news feed. Looking past my personal habits, CEP 812 encouraged me to seek out potential problems by using digital surveys to better understand technology integration practices in my professional workplace. I gained experience collecting, interpreting, and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, and the report increased the school’s investment in professional development and technology. Furthermore, the trust I established in researching my colleagues’ habits and then presenting the report to the administration set me on a path towards other leadership roles. This experience enabled me to more confidently and effectively serve my school at an organizational level.
The final reflection of CEP 812 focused on an op-ed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman titled, “It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q.” The article suggests that because of all the technological advances in our hyperconnected world, the old average is gone and individuals must gain skills complementary rather than servient to technology in order to succeed. In this new context, one is better served by passion and curiosity than I.Q. alone. Reflecting on this message led me to expand my role as an educator to acknowledge and nurture students’ passions through assignments that have options and grant autonomy. When teaching EFL, this meant transforming English from a teacher-directed subject into a medium with which my students could feed their own curiosity of the outside world via digital technology. Similarly, I now utilize project based learning (PBL) to deliver STEAM education in which hands-on activities simultaneously feed my students’ curiosity of the physical world while allowing for trial-and-error learning that encourages a growth mindset.
Designing The Learner Experience
With my focus shifting towards a more student-centered learning environment, MI 830: Foundations of Serious Games provided me further insight into the learner experience. Serious or applied games refer to those whose primary purpose is education or skill-building, rather than entertainment, but which are essentially goal-oriented problem-solving experiences. In Learning and Games, James Paul Gee, one of the guiding thinkers on the subject, explores the hypothesis that games in which players have agency to change outcomes create diverse learning experiences. Through completing different gamelabs, I examined game mechanics (rules) and their resulting dynamics (behaviors) that enhance user engagement to make serious games mirror good learning. First, this gave me the skills to better evaluate digital games with which my EFL students could practice. Second, I was able to make some adaptations to games, like integrating journal entries to follow the narrative of a time travel murder-mystery game in order to push students’ verb tense recognition. Such situated learning that gaming can offer so well helps contextualize content that could otherwise be difficult for students to understand.
Observing my students engage with select digital games helped me recognize how game-based learning complements efforts to personalize learning. I saw how well-designed games offer formative assessment through low-stakes opportunities to learn through failure, which satisfyingly readdressed the ill-defined problem I had faced previously. And just as CEP 812 had taught me to ground my instructional decisions in TPACK theory, MI 830 looked beyond game mechanics to apply a number of learning and motivation theories. Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory highlights individuals’ need for feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness in order to spark intrinsic motivation. To promote my students’ feelings of competence and autonomy, I worked harder at differentiating and personalizing my curriculum by content level and task. When I made the transition to PBL, this theory reinforced my need to guide curriculum through driving questions rather than the projects. Projects, while fun and full of application and problem-solving, depend on driving questions for relevance with which students can relate.
My final project in MI 830 encompassed designing a game from the initial conception and playtesting, to iteration and marketing. This project was full of rich learning experiences that demonstrated the intricate challenges of creating a serious game that was educational and entertaining. Designed while I was an EFL teacher, it is a simple card game highlighting interactivity and peer-correction and is grounded in Piaget’s theory of assimilation and accommodation. The process of playtesting, in which the designers observe people playing the game, was the most informative experience. Pre- and post-tests revealed the game was effective in reviewing the target content, recording player interactions revealed moments when the game did and did not flow, and most importantly, the players had such great input for improving the game. I have since brought elements of playtesting into the classroom in order to better analyze and iterate my own curriculum, but also introduce students to the process and include them more in the creation. The best practices I learned in MI 830 taught me to design serious games, but also informed the design of my curriculum and classroom environment.
Leading From Any Level
Two particular MAET courses, CEP 822: Approaches to Educational Research and CEP 815: Technology and Leadership, advanced my professional growth and leadership skills. While MI 830 gave me the tools to evaluate games and activities based on learner experience design, CEP 822 focused on comparing instructional tools and methods by analyzing supporting research. Guiding much of the coursework was Daniel Willingham’s book, When Can You Trust the Experts?, which makes the argument that given the time, energy, and costs needed to implement changes in an educational setting, it is important to vet proposals as much as possible. Individually chosen lab assignments, from dispelling the myth of whole language learning to a data editorial about the lack of research supporting a Common Core State Standard that all kindergarteners should read emergent texts, taught me the basics of how to bypass testimonials and find good research.
Gaining the skills to then discern between reliable scientific research gave me the confidence to tackle a broad problem in my school. Having already analyzed and influenced technology integration through data collection and analysis during CEP 812, my problem-seeking led me to the EFL curriculum. For my CEP 822 final project, I devised a research action plan to evaluate the effectiveness of a U.S. published native speaker textbook being used in an EFL environment. First, I observed the problem thoroughly. Misunderstanding the problem can lead to an ineffective, and possibly expensive, solution. Given the opportunity costs of changing curriculum, I wanted to improve what we had. Next, following Willingham’s approach, I began researching curriculum evaluation and reading for key criteria of good research. What was studied and how? Was there a control group? How large were the sample sizes? And lastly, was the data statistically significant? Supported by an extensive literature review, my research action plan provided my school with focused research questions and methods by which our EFL curriculum could be evaluated biennially with quantitative and qualitative data in order to adjust supplementary material.
As a leader, I knew I had the patience to research and plan change, but any good leader must also know one’s weaknesses. Studying leadership styles in CEP 815: Technology and Leadership I immediately recognized my tendency to steer away from conflict. Changes are easy when everyone is onboard, but I must remember that conflicts around change can be sources of creativity and growth. To manage complex change, a category in which technology integration can certainly be included, the framework for thinking about systems change, adapted by J. Thousand and R. Villa, keeps five criteria in balance and helps troubleshoot when things do not go well.
As my CEP 815 final project, I wrote a vision statement inspired by my new position as a STEAM teacher. I believe collaborative PBL and digital technologies are fundamental to helping students form iterative mindsets and think of themselves as agents of change who can tackle the advanced problems facing our planet. I firmly believe such educational experiences can change lives. Afterall, it was my introduction to maker education in the MAET program that led me to switch from teaching EFL to STEAM. I know having an understanding of my own leadership style and my experiences in educational research will continue to positively affect my lifelong learning and improve my professional growth. These are the skills I need to be a trusted leader who values evidence over opinion and makes changes that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Whatever Lies Ahead
As I prepare to graduate from the MAET program with skills I had never anticipated before enrolling, I know I have become more thoughtful in all my instructional and leadership choices. In issues where I may lack experience, I now have the tools to gain better knowledge on my own. Thanks to the MAET professors’ culture of sharing work online, I learned from my fellow cohorts through their examples and generous feedback. I am confident in my curriculum designs to engage my students and prepare them for the challenges ahead, and that I am ready for the complex and ill-defined problems that I may face in the future.
March 15, 2019