Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

In a former life I was an Ed Tech Director. One day, my boss asked me to form a committee to develop a plan for a refresh of our classroom technology. He wanted to know what new classroom technology to buy, at what cost, and and on what timeline.

I responded. “Sure, but before I do, I have a question for you. Imagine you walk into a classroom and think to yourself, ‘Wow, THIS is the best example of teaching and learning I have ever seen. If only every teacher and student could have an engaging experience like THIS, the learning for students in our district would be off the charts fantastic.’ Can you please describe for me what it is that would make you think that?”

Why ask that question?

Technology is not the driver of learning. It seems ridiculous to have to say that, but I do.

I am part of a Facebook support group for teachers that use a specific technology product. A question was posed to the group:

A screenshot of a facebook post that reads "Question: What are your favorite virtual activities that work for engagement?" It shows 7 likes and 31 comments.

Quickly teachers chimed in to offer ideas.

A slide with screenshots of Facebook comments, including: Nearpod, Jamboard, Book Creator, Quizizz, Kahoot,, Mentimeter

Here’s the thing…

The initial question didn’t ask what technology tools do teachers use to check for understanding or to provide for collaborative learning space. The question asked for “activities” that work for engagement. “Activities” signifies that the response should be a verb, but the responses were nouns.

Why is that?

Before I answer that, let’s look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.

Sinek’s Golden Circle asks people to start by defining the WHY. It’s what drives us to do what we do and how we do it. In education, people may define the WHY as standards, or high stakes testing, or maybe college and career readiness (the new buzz phrase) but it’s deeper than that. The WHY is (or should be) something along the lines of providing students with the skills, knowledge, and capacity to lead a meaningful life.

Once we have an idea of what those skills and knowledge should be (WHY), we connect it with the standards we are told to teach (WHAT) and develop objectives and lessons (HOW) that guide progress towards achieving the WHY. Without the WHY, we’re back to the old factory model of “Open head, pour in content, move to next grade” education system.

So what’s this have to do with that Facebook post?

The teacher asked for ways (i.e. activities) to engage students in a virtual context. I would have expected responses like this one:

“I post a photo of a Renaissance painting to facilitate student-led conversations using the Step Inside Thinking Routine so that students can explore the historical era through a persona perspective. I have them share their responses in breakout rooms so that they can engage in authentic conversations which my students seem to enjoy. They then share a summary of the conversation when we reconvene.”

This type of answer engages in WHY. I can see from it that the teacher’s WHY includes: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, open dialogue, and reflective thought. It also shows the WHAT by connecting to world history and art standards. And there’s even some HOW in the explanation of the activity steps and the use of breakout rooms.

Technology products aren’t what create engagement or learning. People do that. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) defines engagement as the WHY of learning. It is how learners get engaged and stay motivated through challenge, excitement, or interest. Because engagement is the affective domain of the brain, “some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential” (UDL Guidelines).

“Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.”

UDL Guidelines

For every product that was shared on that Facebook question as an engagement method, I can list ways in which that tool could also be used to disengage students from learning. The tool is just a tool. A hammer is great, but not when I need to loosen a screw.

As teachers, we need to be careful not to get caught up in the edu-glitter of Ed Tech tools. Today it’s JamBoard. Before that it was a SmartBoard. And a white board. And way before that, a chalkboard. The tools shift, but our focus on the WHY should not.

Oh yeah, back to my story…

I never got a response from my boss. And so he never got a refresh plan from me.

Innovation is when something new is created and implemented that adds value. Inventions happen every day, and every year inventions find their way into our classroom. 

It’s only when an invention adds value that they become an innovation. A lot of times we get caught up in the invention, or the idea. I call this the glitter dust syndrome. 

Ever receive a card with glitter on it? It’s pretty and you’re excited to receive it. But after you read the card and put it out for display, you see it… glitter. It’s everywhere. It’s stuck on your clothes, your skin, your carpet.

It added no value to the card. In fact, sometimes the message of the card gets lost because you’re too busy cleaning up the glitter. If there is no value add, there’s no innovation. Just invention. 

So how do we determine whether something is going to be a value added innovation in our classroom or a case of glitter dust?

Design thinking.

We are all designers. Every lesson plan you write, every bulletin board you create, every assessment you assign, even the outfit you put together for today. But that doesn’t mean you’re a design thinker. Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others. 

Design Your Mask

During my keynote presentation at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Saturday, I asked everyone in the room to design a mask that they could wear without holding it. They also had to be able to see through it. One piece of cardstock paper was the only material provided. The timer was set for three minutes.

Just about everyone was able to design a mask and wear it. But then I asked them to trade masks with the person sitting next to them. Quickly, they realized that their mask didn’t quite fit their colleague as well as it fit them. Maybe the eye slits were off, or the way it latched on to their face didn’t quite work. Those who used their glasses to hold it on had to also give their glasses to the colleague, which caused some blurry moments!

Why didn’t the mask fit as nicely on the colleague as it did on the designer? What needed to happen for the mask to fit somebody else?

Innovation in Education

Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others.

When considering innovation in education, it’s important to differentiate between invention and innovation. What is the value add for our students? Is there one? Schools implement adaptive tech programs that promise to increase reading scores. Tables on wheels are placed everywhere. Social-emotional curriculum is purchased. 

But whose face are we designing the mask for when we do so? Are we simply covering our students in glitter dust?

When we recognize that our mask doesn’t fit everyone else like it fits us, we realize how our bias, our experiences, our beliefs, impacts student learning. And we start becoming human-centered designers. 

This is the difference between designers and design thinkers. 

This blog post is adapted from a keynote I gave at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Feb 8, 2020.

I Do Not Think that Tweet Means What You Think It Means…

If you’ve been on Facebook for any decent amount of time lately, you’ve probably seen this post:

Costco $75 coupon post from Facebook

It seems like every so often, this coupon, or other fake ones from Southwest, Disney, etc., make the rounds online. The scam encourages people to click on a link and follow a few simple steps to claim their $75. Those few simple steps usually include giving out some personal information, such as name, email, phone number, etc. which can then be sold for data mining.

If you’re like me, you dutifully respond to your great-Aunt or long lost friend from 3rd grade to let them know the ad is fake. And yet, it keeps on circulating.

Say No to the Hoax

When we teach digital citizenship, or any digital literacy course, scams like this are often included. In fact, even to get my university email account activated, I had to take a cybersecurity course that include a section on how to detect hoaxes like that Costco coupon.

So why then, on Twitter, do I see so many educators fall prey to similar scams? Not sure what I’m talking about? Have you seen any tweets like these lately?

Last I looked it had 209 responses. Over 200 people freely giving their personal information via Twitter. 120 people retweeted it to encourage others to share their personal info.

To what end? Let’s examine this tweet more closely…

We have a person asking others to help show how far a tweet will go. And yet, it doesn’t disclose the original location. Hmm… how will the 200+ people know how far it’s gone? Guess only the originator gets to know.

But wait, the tweet says it’s for a geography class. Who teaches this class? Again, we don’t know. And if the teacher isn’t included, how is the class following the progress of this tweet? Are they manually reading every response and retweet to create a map?

What if a teacher is looking to connect with another geography class for a Mystery Skype or other collaborative event… can they connect? Nope. Because this tweet has no identifying information.

Just a generic tweet.

The Quest for Tweet Impressions

But don’t be fooled – there is a reason for it. Every time someone responds, or retweets, the author gets elevated in the twitter algorithm. Why is that important? Because the author gets more exposure, and more exposure means more followers… and more followers has potential for more gigs and more income.

Here’s an example of a tweet I made in September, and the analytics from Twitter.

You can see that Twitter is calculating total impressions. Impressions measures the total number of views of a conversation. So even though I only have 6k followers, this one tweet has been seen over 81k times. How? Because every like exposed my tweet to other people in that person’s timeline, and even more exposure for retweets and for replies. From that one tweet, 100 people clicked on my profile – that’s 100 potential new followers for me. Yay me!

Next time you see a tweet, or a post, that asks you to share it with the world, or provide personal data, before you click that “post” button, ask yourself:
Is it truly about contributing to or supporting someone, or is it a promotional scam from the sender?
When’s the last time you saw the tweet author engaging in conversations with followers?
How many tweets are built on personal exposure pushes? Share my tweet. Read my book. Attend my session.
What professional growth or meaning do you get from participating in the request?

And then go look at some cute puppy photos instead.

Postscript (12/10/19)

The author of the tweet I shared here reached out privately to explain that the request was from his wife, and said that I had made a fun project turn nasty. This post wasn’t about him, and wasn’t about being “nasty” (which is an interesting term to use these days for someone questioning a practice, but 🤷🏼‍♀️), but these types of algorithm-playing data requests in general. Although I do find it interesting that the post request has been repeated multiple times (but now with explanation of wife included) … So again, I just ask people to think before replying or sharing or divulging info on all social media platforms.

As some of you know, I took a career break this summer. My first break from working since I was 14 1/2 years old. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. One of the by-products of that break was being able to connect with people I previously felt too busy to connect with, and provide them with any expertise, crazy ideas, or just goofiness they desired.

I spent time in classrooms co-teaching or observing lessons with teacher friends, as well as dispensing tech support and professional trainings for clerical (aka classified in edu world) staff. I also volunteered as a Designer-in-Residence at UCSD, and have been enjoying stretching my brain in the world of academia. In fact, yesterday I sat in a room full of computer science students and listened to Professor Ravi Chugh talk about “Bi-Directional Programming with Direct Manipulation.” I may even be able to fool you into thinking I understood the talk if I throw out acronyms like PL and GUI and terms like output-directed programming 😛.

The Curse of Averageness, or is it?

This opportunity to expand and immerse reinforced a concept I read recently in Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%!: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. Mark writes:

Most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re exceptional at one thing, chances are you’re average or below average at most other things.

Mark Manson

Assuming that’s true, then it would make sense to seek out those who may be exceptional in an area in which we are average (or below, gasp!) and improve our own skillset. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t. Instead, we internally judge ourselves for not being up to par because society (aka the media) focuses on the exceptional only, not the average. The best of the best… and the worst of the worst. It sells. Can’t deny it.

It’s crazy. We all have something to offer. Sure, we may not be extraordinary, but we have something dang nabbit! I may never be able to create a PL to GUI bi-directional platform for programmers, but I can certainly help streamline your Gmail madness, or recover a lost password for your (okay my) grandpa’s bank account. And I can certainly ramble on and on about the talks I have listened to, or books I read, in an attempt to provide a nugget of inspiration for someone else. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s me. It’s what I have to offer.

So How May I Be Of Service to You?

So here it is… I started two new ventures to share my averageness with the world, and I hope it brings you some extraordinary value.

YouTube – I have no desire to be a YouTube star, as you’ll see by the low-fidelity quality of my videos. But I am starting to post some tech tips on there. These are tips that illicited “oohs” and “ahhs” when I shared them at a recent professional development. Short, relevant, and (hopefully) applicable.

Podcast – Again, no desire to be a podcast star, but sometimes I have ideas, and I share them with people and then I think, that’s too much energy to try to write in my blog. And then, poof, it’s gone. So after chatting with Paula last night about hackathons and entrepreneurs, I grabbed my phone and recorded my thoughts. And so here’s the first episode. I don’t know how often I’ll post these, but I will. And who knows – maybe you’ll be in the next one. Again, super low fidelity. In fact, episode 1 was recorded in my car sitting in traffic (hands-free of course).

I hope that these ventures in sharing encourage others to share their little bit of above average with others. After all, it’s the community that helps us grow.

And since you’re here, and reading this, do me a favor…leave a comment. Let me know what you’re thinking… what’s your above-averageness that you can share with others? What do you wish I would share with you?

And then, subscribe. Subscribe to this blog, or the YouTube, or the podcast, or all of it. Because those subscriptions show love, and value, and make me feel like maybe being average is a pretty cool feeling to have.

Got Consent? These Kinders Do!

When Sandy invited me into her kindergarten classroom to co-teach an iPad lesson, I thought it’d be a fun opportunity to not only visit a friend, but to engage with some littles.

Let me just start by saying, I could never teach kindergarten. Kinder teachers have such a unique job – they are not only teaching academic standards, but they’re teaching how to do school, how to be a friend, how to eat a meal without adult help, and so many other essential life skills. All while cutting out circles, singing songs to gather student attention, and blowing noses of sick students.

I was exhausted and I only helped out for an hour!

Life Lessons

What stood out to me the most from this morning, though, was how Sandy was teaching students about consent. When we talk about teaching consent, most people equate it to sexual consent and they bristle at the idea of it being taught in school.

But consent is so much more than that. A Harvard University newsletter article by Grace Tatter defined consent as “the notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries, in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and build healthy relationships.”

Teacher taking a photo of a student with an iPad
Sandy modeling how to take a good photo of a friend.

Today, the classroom lesson was focused on taking good photos with the iPad. The life lesson, however, was about consent. Sure, students learned how to get in closer to the subject, and how to take a non-blurry photo. But more importantly, they learned to ask permission before taking the photo.

Sandy: What do we say before we take a photo?
Class: May I please take your photo?

Sandy: And what if the person says no? Is that okay?
Class: Yes, it’s okay to say “No thank you.”

As the students practiced their iPad photo taking skills, I watched them practice using consent language. Not only were they asking for permission to take the photo, but they were asking if the photo was acceptable. These are huge life skills, and they’re starting at age five.

When I said my goodbyes to the class, Sandy once again modeled consent.

Sandy: Miss Laura, is it okay if I hug you goodbye?
Me: Yes it is.

What a powerful lesson these students are learning. Social-emotional learning takes on many forms, and for Sandy’s class, it’s just a natural part of their kindergarten day.

You’re a rock star Sandy!

This post is also posted on my Cagefree Thinking website. Sign up to receive email notifications when I post an entry, or follow me via WordPress!

A colleague in her Master’s program asked me to answer a few questions for a class project she is completing. My responses are below. I’d love to hear how others would answer these questions.

What are the instructional goals that we are aiming to accomplish with mobile learning?

Our goal is to provide students with access to information and resources whenever and wherever they need it. We still have a Tech Lab at each school, but the Tech Lab is for enrichment… a chance for students to learn things that a classroom teacher may not have time or expertise in, like coding. Robotics, greenscreen, etc. Then, with our mobile devices, students should be able to take what they’ve learned in the Tech Lab and apply it to classroom learning. Example: A group of 5th grade students are working together to explain to others how tides work, and what is the significance of their patterns. They weren’t told HOW to teach others. One student grabs his Chromebook and starts building out a Scratch movie… he didn’t learn that in class. Another student starts researching information. And a third boy started a Google Slide. Their self-directing their learning. They need mobile devices if this is to be successful because they shouldn’t have to wait for a scheduled time, or a device to become available, in order for learning to happen. We want technology to be ubiquitous, like binder paper and pencils. Only then can it truly become a learning mechanism and not just a consumer device.

How will the mobility of the devices in our school/district/institution improve teaching and learning?

I watched a webinar the other day on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) becoming the key to successful organizations, rep lacing IQ. Why is that? Because IQ used to be connected to WHAT you knew. Now, with technology, it’s easier to fill the holes of what we don’t know. “Google it” is the default answer to many questions asked these days. So consider, if we could reprogram school so that “Google it” becomes the norm (instead of this fearful entity that students use to “cheat”), then teachers and students could spend more time teaching and learning about the really important things, like emotional intelligence and the other soft skills, which are deemed most important to the future of jobs:

1. Complex problem solving

2. Critical thinking

3. Creativity

4. People management

5. Coordinating with others

6. Emotional intelligence (new)

7. Judgment and decision making

8. Service orientation

9. Negotiation

10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

What would you like to be able to do with mobile devices that was previously difficult or impossible?

I’d like to be able to ensure that the mobile devices in students’ hands are all equipped with 4G (5G?) internet. The equity/access gap is real, and we increase it when we give students devices but not access. We create this false sense of equitable access to resources and then say things like, “Well, they can just go to Starbucks if they need internet.” When we say this, we’re negating the full experience of the child. So before we start getting excited about OER (Open Educational Resources) and before we start pushing the “Google It” answer, we have to make sure that all our students have access.

Then, we need to make sure that all our students are equipped with the tools and resources to navigate the complexities of media literacy. I don’t think a device can provide that…yet… but it’d be great if it had an AI that could help students select reliable sources of information. There are some apps and web extensions that are heading this route, but I’ holding out hope for the Star Trek transponder that meets this need for all of us. ☺

Reflect On Our Practice

“We are generating more information and knowledge than ever today, but knowledge is only good if you can reflect on it.”

Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations

I had the pleasure of being interviewed the other day by an educator pursuing an advanced degree in educational technology.

It was a pleasure because her interview questions made me reflect on my current practices, my past practices, and my reasons for each.

All great interviews should involve both parties walking away feeling like they have both contributed and learned something – whether it be for a job, or a research paper, or a podcast.

I share with you abbreviated forms of her questions so that you, too, can reflect on the work you do. And hey, if you want to share an answer, that’d be fabulous.

1. As part of my master’s program, I was asked to develop a professional development (PD) course around Universal Design for Learning.  This PD was designed for the learning to happen over several weeks.  However, in my current school district, PD days are booked at the beginning of the year, and there are many competing initiatives all promoted at the district level so that it becomes close to impossible to do any PD that extends beyond an hour because there is a need to provide PD for the wide range of initiatives.  Do you have similar issues in your district?  If so, how do you work to provide some long term, meaningful PD?

2. Currently, our district provides PD as a one size fits all approach.  I believe part of this strategy is for accountability. How do you help move the district to more differentiated learning for staff?  How do you get administrative buy in?

3. At one time, our 1:1 program encouraged parents to think of the Chromebook as a family tool.  Parents were encouraged to get their own email accounts and to log into their student’s device in order to look for jobs, pay bills and to work towards increasing their employable skills by becoming more proficient with technology.  However, concerns have prompted the tech department to lock down all devices so that they now may only be used with a district email address, thus taking the tech away from the parents. Can public schools close the digital access and equity divide for both students and families, or are 1:1 programs actually contributing to the divide?

4. As part of our master’s program, we have been encouraged to become familiar with UDL, OER, Copyright, Creative Commons and Internet Use Agreements.  How would you prioritize the importance of these in your daily work and why?  When looking for new members for your educational technology team, which of these would you consider to be most important for an applicant to have expertise with?

5. If you could suggest areas of focus for people entering the field of educational technology to have, what would you suggest?  Why?

This may seem out of the norm for my usual posts, but as a former EdTech/IT Director, I think it’s important that you know how to limit what information you share with apps you have connected to your Facebook.

This Cambridge Analytica data fiasco should be a wake up call for all of us. Understand that this was not a BREACH. Data wasn’t hacked by a nefarious group. It was freely given by the “What Cat Are You?” type of quizzes you take on FB; by the agreements you hurriedly say yes to when registering on a new website; and on the security permissions you don’t often check on Facebook. We are all complicit in this situation.

But here’s how to start reducing that data share:

There are more Facebook settings that you will want to dig into as well,but this is a good starting place.

(And if you haven’t received the Cambridge message from FB yet, or already closed it, you can access your app settings under the FB Setting ms section.)

Featured photo used with attribution permission from: