Education in the Age of the Technologist

This video presentation was originally given at Bar Camp Orlando 2015 on April 18, 2015. Why do some technology solutions seem to work in education while others don’t? Where are MOOCs missing the mark?

Education in the Age of the Technologist
by Joe Bustillos

Written, Presented & Edited by Joe Bustillos
“NASDAQ” from Smartsound Music (
Young Girl at School Holding a Computer Mouse — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Bored Kid,
Mrs. Wormwood,
France in the Year 2000, Imagined by Illustrators in 1900,
edX (screen grab), (screen grab),
Kahn Academy (screen grab),
Long Beach desktop panorama © 2007 by joe bustillos
Synch-Session Run Thru with Henry Price © 2001 by Joe Bustillos, 08-15-2001
Lev Vygotsky,
Frank Smith,
Etienne Wenger,
CSCL – OMAET Conference OMAET Saturday-200 © 2002 by Joe Bustillos, 01-12-2002
Computer Lab Joe © 2002 by Joe Bustillos, 06-04-2002
Wall of Screens Lifestyle © 2012 by Joe Bustillos 02-09-2012
Little Boy Playing with Cell Phone in Class — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis,|mt:2|



  • (Slide 1)
  • Hi, my name is Joe Bustillos,
  • This video is based on a presentation that I shared at BarCamp Orlando 2015, which is fitting because some of the inspiration for this presentation came from talks with folks connected to Code School, one of the local start-ups interested in teaching coding the best ways possible.
  • So, Education in the Age of the Technologist, and when I’m referring to education I’m referring mostly to K-12 Public ed, but my observations apply across the board, public or private, K-12 and higher-ed
  • (Slide 2)
  • The consensus is pretty much universal when we look at the state of education today: it’s broke.
  • I love this kid, I was this kid and when I was a classroom instructor I remembered what it was like to be this kid and tried to work with my students so that we could all avoid this state of boredom in the classroom
  • Let’s face it, Education, as it’s practiced today, is a vestigial institution that’s completely out of sync with how the world actually works
  • So, what do we do to fix this?
  • (Slide 3)
  • Thing is, public education is a bit like puberty, a coming of age thing that everyone had to go through & most weren’t entirely pleased with the process or end results.
  • So everyone has an opinion about what to do based on their own experiences…
  • And when we think about it, many seem to come to the conclusion, though they might not say it out right, that what we need to do is:
  • Get the human out of the loop
    • Reflecting back on the typical classroom experiences one tends to hear:
    • “I didn’t learn anything”
    • “I hate waiting for others”
    • “The teacher never gave me the help I needed”
  • Thus, many have concluded that we could fix a lot of problems if we could just Get the human out of the loop
  • Education, instead of being stuck in the past, could be something where every individual learner would get the support and attention that fits their learning style.
  • This is a dream that’s been thought about for a very long time…
  • (Slide 4)
  • This is a somewhat famous illustration that was published over a hundred years ago, thinking about what the classroom would be like in the year 2000!
  • Automate Education
    • Wouldn’t that be perfect?
      • No more waiting for the slowest person in the classroom
      • Assignments tailored to the needs of the learner,
      • Meaningful grading/assessments designed to help further the learning
      • And no waiting for a damn teacher to get back to you on how you did on that last assignment.
  • It’d be like the perfect video game:
    • Easy to get started, you have a good idea what the objective is
    • Anything you do has a direct connection to your status in the game:
      • If you get things done without errors you move forward
      • If you make a mistake, you wake up in the graveyard and get a chance to learn from your mistake, until you master the level
    • Everything you learn contributes to your chances of success moving forward
  • Automate Education
  • (Slide 5)
  • We actually kind of have that available today with things like Kahn Academy, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) like EdX or Coursera, and Orlando’s own “Code School.”
  • So, how is this working out? What’s the data?
  • (Slide 6)
  • Video tutorial courses, like Kahn Academy or appear to be very viable (especially when you consider that was just bought by LinkedIn for a reported $1.5 billion).
  • MOOCs appears to be a different story – Though one should approach assessing the effectiveness of MOOCs cautiously because they haven’t been around for very long and the definitions for “success” aren’t entirely clear
  • That said, let’s look at one example of one of MOOCs problems: student completion rate (how many students register verses the number that participates in the class versus the number that successfully completes the course): Duke University course called “Bioelectricity” (Fall 2012):
    • 12,725 students enrolled
    • 7,761 watching a video
    • 3,658 attempted to complete a quiz
    • 345 did the final exam
    • only 313 passed the final exam and got their certificate for the course (Catropa 2013, Jordan 2013).

    • Even after you factor in the difference in engagement one might expect with courses that are free versus when one is paying high tuition… it does seem like something is clearly not working. And we’re talking about making high quality education available to anyone with an Internet connection. This is especially concerning when considering how many institutions (higher ed and K-12) are investigating the possibility of going online and using MOOCs as a model to follow.

  • (Slide 7)
  • My Own Online Experiences (both doctoral studies and MA & teaching in undergrad and grad university program) didn’t suffer from the same level of attrition reported by many MOOCs
    • Again, there’s a big difference in commitment and engagement when comparing programs with huge tuitions versus free course,
    • But there’s an even more fundamental difference…
  • (Slide 8)
  • Let me introduce you to Three Scholars who contributed to our understanding of the learning process that has direct bearing on why some programs seem to work better than others.
    • Etienne Wenger
      • Originally interested in computer science and got his PhD in artificial intelligence
      • But the initial research that pertains to our question, was research he did with Jean Lave, studying the learning practices and the learning processes used by apprentices to African tailors.
        • And what he uncovered was that learning was more than the acquisition of the basic skills or knowledge needed to be a competent tailor. Yes, one needed these skills and knowledge, but there was also a sociological transformation that the learner underwent when going from being someone literally outside of the tailor shop, to being an apprentice to being a competent practitioner to maybe becoming a master of the trade.
        • The success of the apprentices seem to involve much more interaction amongst the apprentices than direction/contact with the master tailor
        • The group of apprentices and the group of the master tailors need to welcome and recognize the learner as being part of the community for the learner to progress successfully
    • Lev Vygotsky
      • Soviet psychologist (1896–1934), his research centered on the role of the instructor resulting in something called ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), which later researchers used to formulate something called Instructional Scaffolding
      • The idea is that we learn when we connect the new information/data/skill with previous understanding or skills
      • The learning is most powerful/effective when it’s based on previous understanding & experiences.
      • The role of the instructor according to Vygotsky is to guide the learner, to bring them from where they are to where they need to be.
    • Frank Smith
      • Wrote a book called The Book of Learning and Forgetting,
      • He wrote that there’s a dichotomy between what he called the “Official Theory of Learning” and what he called the “Classical view.”
        • The Official Theory is based on early Ed psychologists’ theory that we cannot tell if we’re being effective in our instruction unless we strip out all prior knowledge and see if students retain information when later tested. This philosophy was modeled after successes that were noted in how the Prussian Military trained their soldiers and later when the US Military in World War II needed to train massive numbers of soldiers in a way that was almost 100% consistent across several theaters of war. Rote memorization and constant drilling was the center of the Official Theory.
        • The problem with the Official Theory as it’s become translated into practice is that it’s reduced to studying for an exam, taking the exam and then forgetting everything after the exam. There’s no continued development and there’s no real building on prior knowledge or experience. It’s not connected to any prior learning and devoid of any sociological aspects of learning
        • The Classical View begins with the idea that we learn from those around us with whom we identify with. And then we do what they do until we’re proficient. The African tailors, the kids mastering MMORPGs, rookie technicians working for the phone company… we’re motivated to learn and over time we learn. Surprise, it’s a sociological process that couples doing with being identified with other doers.
  • (Slide 9)
  • So, why does seem to work while MOOCs are struggling:
    • First, what’s the learning objective, what are you trying to accomplish?
      • There’s a huge difference between trying to learn a single thing, like the Basics of using iBooks Author versus much larger learning goal, like becoming an online publishing expert or earning a college degree
    • The kind of instruction offered by well-produced video tutorials is sufficient for the task, but something that’s going to take longer to accomplish is going to require more than nice videos.
  • (Slide 10)
  • What did we learn from the three scholars:
    • Wenger said we learn best in groups
    • Vygotsky identified the best role of the instructor as being the bridge connecting the learner in a way works for the learner
    • Frank Smith wrote that we learn when we’re motivated by those we want to be like.
  • (Slide 11)
  • When I did my masters and doctorate online, we were studying educational technology so we naturally used technology, like IM and group chat, to make stronger connections with one another, beyond what was required. This was almost 15-years ago so our online class sessions were entirely text based, with all interaction flowing across the screen. Several of us added secondary chat rooms where only a few of us hung out during the class session and it had the effect of giving us a sense of feeling like we were all together in the same room and those of us in the secondary chat room were like the kids whispering in the back of the room.
  • There was also powerful aspect to having one’s study buddies always available for assistance or camaraderie via always-on IM sessions – it made learning ubiquitous. I wasn’t waiting for the weekly class sessions or assignments to interact with my friends, and with the interaction came more learning.
  • (Slide 12)
  • In a way, we actually put more humans into the loop, but in a way that worked and didn’t slow us or waste our time.
  • (Slide 13)
  • What we have to do is to recognize that we cannot use a technological solution on a problem that is essentially a sociological problem.
  • Just like everyone one having Word Processing applications didn’t make everyone into a writer, throwing technology at this problem won’t accomplish what we’re hoping for
  • (Slide 14)
  • The Challenge is how do we keep the things that work well with technology, self-paced instruction with instantaneous assessment, but also works with the social part of learning and being part of a learning community. What I love is that the introduction of technology is causing us or allowing us to really look at what works and how different methods work across different populations. We have a real opportunity to reimagine learning.
  • (Slide 15)
  • I’m Joe Bustillos, thank you for watching “Education in the Age of the Technologist”
  • My contact information is listed below and I will have links to my resources also listed below. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions in the discussion area.

Religion in the Classroom: A Video Reflection (1993)

Religion in the Classroom: A Video Reflection (1993)

In 1993, during my teacher-credential training I produced this video to address the notion of how one might teach religion in the public school classroom. Even in 1993 this was a controversial subject and probably not something one should publish as one was trying to get employment in the school system. This video was also produced without computers, using two video tape players and one recorder and audio mixer to edit and record the video in one take. Sorry about the audio analog hiss. Enjoy.

Written, Produced and Directed by Joe Bustillos
Filmed on Location in Irvine, CA
Audio: The Voice of Enigma by Enigma Mcmxc A.D., 1991
Audio: A Call To Us All by Teri Desario, 1984
Video: Documentary The Glory & The Power: Fundamentalisms Observed by Bill Jersey, PBS/BBC, 1992
Video: Kung Fu TV-Pilot episode, Directed by Jerry Thorpe, 1972
Video: Fall of the Berlin Wall CNN, November 9, 1989
Video: Altered States directed by Ken Russell, Warner Brothers, 1980
Video: Second Baptist Church of Santa Ana, Filmed by Joe Bustillos, December 1993

Video Project BTS Notes & Script (PDF version)

A Personal Reflection on the demands of Religion in the Classroom
by Joe Bustillos

There’s a call to us all to love all humanity
Every race on the face of earth 
come to unity
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
These, the Master’s words, would do us well
But Man’s belief, religious creeds, can make him blind
The narrow way is not a narrow mind.
– Teri DeSario

My fundamentalist father and I had a boisterous discussion the other day about “the state of education.” In the past my father’s general arguments (true to his conservative roots) have centered around a need to return to the basics—reading, writing, arithmetic. He wanted to know how my teacher training was going to address the moral needs and foundations of my students. Ouch, I wasn’t ready for that one (I should have been ready—we’ve been having religious tussles since I was fifteen).

I wanted to say something about the separate roles of public education and religion but I knew that wouldn’t get very far. I mean, the question about moral education has always been a cornerstone to his theory about the decay of the education (which predictably includes the need to bring prayer and Jesus back to the school system). No, this was a very old discussion that I should have seen coming. I could have said something about Irvine School District voting to require graduating high school seniors to take courses in Ethics and Morals but I knew that that wouldn’t begin to address the crux of his concern. The real difficulty with what he wants is that to “teach morality” of the fundamentalist Christian variety in our divergent society is to open a Pandora’s box.

The thing is that I’ve been there before, I understand my father’s concern. He and I may not see eye-to-eye but I understand that “to not teach X” is “to teach Y.” That is, on the surface one can talk about Morals and Culture and Heritage and Religion like they’re all complete separate subjects with no association but that’s a bit like teaching To Kill a Mockingbird without talking about racial prejudice.

Humans are Religious creatures. The Soviets weren’t able to erase it in 70 years. In the West, Television and its attendant shallow pop-culture has defamed it and trivialized it but not eliminated it in 50 years. Those who say that they don’t believe in any religion are in fact practicing the religion of “no-religion.” In the end we believe or choose not to believe, not because of “objective scientific inquiry” but because of gut-level personal faith. We like to think we’re being rational but when push comes to shove the tenor becomes very emotional.

So then, how does one teach Morals or Ethics or Religion? Without being overly didactic, it’s a matter of casting a broad enough definition about what is considered “normal” human behavior and culture. One thing that I learned during my brief stint as an Anthropology major was that the Polytheistic cultures tended to reflect the greater range of human behavior in their gods without downplaying the moral consequences of that behavior. They didn’t suffer from the tyranny of the “One Standard” that on the outset is not a “Human Standard” at all. It will not satisfy the conservative factions,^ but teaching religion, or morals or even cultural diversity is a matter of presenting it as just another part of the “normal” human experience. This is certainly preferable to ignoring it like it was something our ancient ancestors did but that we’ve “grown beyond.”

Religion in the Classroom

The Unfortunate Consequence of Ignoring Small Group & Classroom Dynamics

DeMille Middle School Yearbook Staff circa 2008

DeMille Middle School Yearbook Staff circa 2008

My girlfriend, Maggie, and I were talking about optimal class sizes, me from my 19-years as an educator and she from her experiences as a lifelong student and being around her kids’ schools. When I taught in face-to-face environments with elementary and middle school students in Southern California, 25 to 30 students was a pretty good number to work with, assuming that there would be an even number of girls to boys in the mix. And while the mindset seemed to be that smaller class sizes were always better than bigger, I experienced situations where, if for some reason 10 or more students were temporarily removed from the mix, then it was actually harder to work with the smaller number of remaining students than the original bigger group.

It isn’t hard to recognize that the difficulty of working face-to-face with the 10-students-missing was that the classroom dynamic had been disrupted and the teacher must now extend energy across all the remaining students simultaneously to move the class forward in its tasks. Effective educators carefully balance individual attention, maintaining a classroom-wide presence and managing the ongoing group dynamic. Contrary to uninformed popular mythology, we really aren’t as efficient working one-to-many, as much as when we work one-across-small-groups, constantly shifting focus between the whole group and small groups. I can spot a novice educator immediately because he will allow all of his attention to be focused on the student or small group of students right in front of him and not maintain a sense of presence across the classroom. Simply sitting down too long without the across-the-classroom-glance is enough for the classroom to lose focus and the teacher to “lose control” (“control” is another misnomer… but we’ll save that discussion for another time). We actually spend a lot of energy putting together and managing the small groups so that they can effectively encourage, correct and instruct one another and we, in turn, give them sufficient input and feedback to keep that process going. And as much as we might idolize the one-to-one instruction model, I’ve found the one-across-small-groups instruction model to be much more efficient and powerful. Anyone who has worked in face-to-face classrooms will agree with my premise of the importance of engaged small groups. But what is almost never acknowledged is that this same dynamic/requirement is also true in online learning environments.

Going back to my experiences in my Masters and Doctoral work online with Pepperdine University from 2001 to 2009 and the last six-years teaching in the fully online Masters program at Full Sail University, a large measure of the success, engagement and powerful results can be attributed to the strength of connection we had as students with one another and in the Full Sail example, with our recognizing and building the “cadre” mindset into the structure of our courses. Elsewhere the assumption is usually made that online education is just this generation’s version of the solo correspondence education of the past with little to no direct interaction between the instructor and students except when students submit work and the instructor issues grades. Some institutions sell this solo on-demand educational, “Don’t have to bother with others” model of instruction as a strength. The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) phenomenon is often sold as a “from your home/at your leisure” education. Actually it seems like the solo online-only well-produced video-instruction model is highly effective when used to learn a single application or task, as demonstrated by the successes of sites like Kahn Academy or A 3.5-hour course like “Up & Running with (Adobe’s) Lightroom 5” works perfectly as an online video tutorial (even if I have to go back to it several times, to try to remember how to do something a couple days after doing the course…). But this is something very different from earning a Bachelor’s or Master’s or Doctoral degree fully online.

One of my favorite online video tutorial series: Crash Course

For all of the hype and big names entering the market, course completion rates for students participating in MOOCs hasn’t been very encouraging. For example, one course offered for free from Duke University called “Bioelectricity” (Fall 2012) began with 12,725 students enrolled, with 7,761 watching a video, 3,658 attempted to complete a quiz, 345 did the final exam and only 313 passed the final exam and got their certificate for the course (Catropa 2013, Jordan 2013). As much as making high quality education available to anyone with an Internet connection seems promising something is clearly not working.

Some have recognized this problem and decided to focus their online programs to a more “certificate” type program that can be accomplished in a few months and not require as much time as would be required for a full degree program. These programs are sometimes called micro-college programs, and given the success of sites like Kahn Academy, the popularity of certificate or micro-colleges is understandable and might well be what the future of education, particularly university and higher education might look like over the coming years (Frey 2013, Brantley 2014). Single focus tutorials are easily accomplished without the need for anything other than the video tutorial and some interactive assessment process. But anything resembling a full degree program or long term education would be well to recognize the need for the social interaction and support that the best face-to-face and online courses have as part of their learning process.

It might not seem like a logical discussion to begin with optimal face-to-face class sizes and end with online certificate programs and the failure of MOOCs, but they’re all related. In fact we can add the failure of teaching-to-the-test forms of face-to-face instruction because all of these systems consciously or unconsciously remove the person-to-person, small-group interaction that is the most powerful engine for real learning that any good educator takes advantage of when delivering instruction or managing students. Whether face-to-face or online, whether working with young learners or masters students, one of the greatest tools for learning is the small community of learners, actively engaged in their own process, supported by the educator, curriculum and learning platform. After 19-years as an educator and more than a few decades as a participant, it comes down to not only having great curriculum, caring instructors and a wonderful place or platform to use, but making room for the interaction of the small community of learners. As long as the assumption is that we can just throw higher quality instruction at the problem or some other idea that doesn’t recognize the need for students to interact than it just won’t work. The micro-college folks recognize this in as much as they are redefining “education” so that their system works. Don’t ignore the importance of the classroom and small group dynamics.

2007 Demille Student Council

2007 Demille Student Council


Teaching Using Tech: Philosophy of Higher Education, Part 2


I’ve been filling out teaching/education-related job application and I was met with this little gem:

  • Please describe your knowledge of pedagogy associated with various
    instructional modalities, i.e. face-­to-­face, hybrid, and online

_gil01-taskmaster 1Having taught students from Kindergarten to eighth grade, freshmen bachelor’s and second career master’s students, the courses I’ve created must be simple to navigate, have numerous interdisciplinary connections and emphasize effort and exploration over “getting a grade.” My first teaching experiences were with a group of second-language, low SES 6th graders and I discovered that I had to find a way to bridge their previous learning and cultural experiences with the state guidelines in the subject(s) I was covering, in this case Social Studies. Giving them the textbook just wasn’t cutting it. So I studied the state framework for the subject (California 6th grade Social Studies broke down to the study of seven civilizations beginning with ancient man and ending with the Roman Empire). For each unit, I found a video or book that covered that civilization. If it was a book, I created transparencies of the illustrations so that there’d be a wall-sized visualization to support the story that we read together. I also created fill-in booklets that would be worked on in class in small groups. Whenever possible I included a hands-on project. When we studied Ancient Mesopotamia, besides the booklets, I read from a child-friendly version of the Epic of Gilgamesh with illustrations and each student learned to write their name on a clay tablet in cuneiform. I had students come back several years later and they remembered names like Utnapishtim from the story.

As an undergraduate student one of my professors, Fr. Herbert Ryan, assigned research journals instead of research papers because he believed that it was more important that students learn to do good research, instead of forcing immature conclusions into a research paper. We were expected to spend the semester researching our subject and writing about what we were discovering and then in the last sentence of the research journal state what the research paper would have been about, had we written the paper. It was the perfect introduction into exploring complex subjects while thinking and writing about the process. When I began teaching I used journal-writing wherever possible and especially used blogging and reflective writing when working with my masters students. Even when I was working with sixth-graders I knew that they would be much more motivated to write if they were writing for each other than if they were just writing for the teacher or a grade. So, while assignments were graded individually the processes were intentionally constructive and collaborative.

As an online student I worked with a hybrid model where we’d meet face-to-face for class sessions about three to five times a year (depending on the program) but work online the rest of the time. I worked in a traditional public school setting for 13-years and as a fully-online-only university instructor for six-years. In the accelerated online program that I taught, it was essential that the course requirements be as clearly understood as quickly as possible, and that the assignments and projects build out in a consistent, easy to understand fashion. There was enough work to do with the reading, research, writing and interaction, that understanding what was due when shouldn’t be part of the work-load.

Stickam Session 2009 - joe bustillos

Stickam Session 2009 – joe bustillos

We would meet online once a week using a web-based platform so that students could see my screen where I could do demos or presentation slides, I would turn my webcam on so that students could see me and there was a text-based chat area where students could ask questions, if they didn’t want to use their audio. Because I wanted the weekly sessions to be interactive and address any questions students might have with the assignments, I’d pre-load videos or links to materials that we were covering that week, so that students could review the material before the session. Anything that looked like a lecture or was a uni-directional presentation I would give to them before our session to increase the efficiency and usefulness of our time. Students who couldn’t attend the session in real time would have access to a video recording of the session.

Instead of seeing the online environment as something less than face-to-face, I felt that consistent use of interactive technologies, like regular announcements and information in LMS platform and sharing our Instant Message/online chat handles to enable communication the rest week worked against the idea that students were working in isolation. I also promoted the idea that students should share their contact information and develop connections with one another because having multiple layers of support beyond the professor was going to prove essential over the course of the whole program. I know as a graduate of an online program that the support I got from my classmates, facilitated by the use of IM/chat/text and email, made my experiences all the more powerful, to the extent that I count several of these classmates to be my best-friends almost fifteen-years after our learning experiences together.

I believe that the use of technology should always be used to support the needs of the learner and open up the possibilities to experience and interact in ways that would not be possible without the technology. Technology is often touted as a way to lessen the cost of the process by making it possible for institutions to reach out far beyond their physical campuses. I have seen my own influence extended far beyond what I could have accomplished in a traditional setting. But this extension should never be at the expense of the human connections made in the learning process. When educators are empowered to communicate their passion, their expertise and their experiences with their students, these technologies properly extend the educator’s reach. But at its core it remains a human endeavor to work together to learn and be educated.


My Four Pillars: A Philosophy of Higher Education, Part 1


I’ve been filling out teaching/education-related job application and I was met with this little gem:

  • Please provide a concise statement of your philosophy of higher education. (Minimum: 300 words)

The gift of sharing knowledge and experiences has been one of the greatest keys to human survival and success for millennia. From parent to child, from scholar to neophyte, from craftsman to apprentice, what began in the household became the shared responsibility of the local community. But in this Age of the Internet, where all of human understanding is but a Google-search away, a precise understanding of the role and/or function of formal education is less well defined and therefore under siege.

Having taught in a wide variety of educational institutions for almost twenty-years and participated in my own educational process for the whole of my own life, I recognize the complexity of trying to encapsulate a working philosophy of education and particularly higher education. Based on my experiences working with second-language elementary and middle school learners in low SES communities in combination with the last 14-years working as an online student and then educator has afforded me an understanding of what is needed to address the learning needs of today’s students. I believe that the process can be distilled into four essential categories:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Teaching Staff
  3. Learning Environment
  4. Learning Community/Cadre

Whether we’re talking about a traditional face-to-face third-grade classroom in urban South-Central Los Angeles or a fully online doctoral program being run by a prestigious university in the Midwest, the quality of the program or learning experience will be based on the strength of all four elements.

belltowerOne can learn a lot about an institution’s or individual’s philosophy of education based on the which of the four elements is either given priority or is the sole focus of the program. It’s been my observation that many traditional institutions tend put the biggest emphasis on the quality of the curriculum, protecting that content as if it were their exclusive domain. Thus the belief is essentially that the educational process is data transferal from one generation to the next. In this model getting an education is having access to this curriculum and the business model is that one must pay tuition to have access to this curriculum. If the institution is aware of the competitive market it must work within, then the quality of the teaching staff and bucolic setting of its campus will also be promoted. But at its core it’s about the curriculum. Online education, of course, complicates things, but for many, the bucolic campus is simply replaced with a user-friendly website, period. A good website, like a comfortable campus for face-to-face students, is important. But just having a good learning environment is not enough.

As a face-to-face classroom instructor for the first 13-years of my teaching career, I understood the importance of working with the classroom dynamic and using it to the benefit of the learning process. Thus, I naturally tended to break the classroom down into small heterogeneous working groups, making sure that there was at least one strong-willed female per group, one high-achiever, and mixed learning styles spread amongst the groups. It was simply more efficient for me to work with students as groups and then let them delegate the learning task. The assignment may have been turned in individually, but the learning task was done as a group. It wasn’t that all of my students were limited in the attention I made available to them but that management was more delegated and there was a sense that “we” were working toward a common learning goal. Working with Latino students, I saw this as a strength and means to manage the room by working with them as groups. But I did this to make my job easier, not really realizing that I was empowering my students’ learning experiences by not only permitting them to work together, but by requiring it.

learning-and-forgettingWhen I began my online learning experience at Pepperdine University in 2001 I was introduced to the work of Dr. Etienne Wenger, who popularized the idea of Communities of Practice and Dr. Frank Smith, whose The Book of Learning and Forgetting, discussed the sociological component of education and learning. The stereotype of online learning tends to be of some kind of isolated impersonal correspondence learning that isn’t even the least bit as dynamic or life-changing as face-to-face on-campus learning. How can it be, if one never sees another human face, except for pre-recorded video-lectures shot from across a huge hall, and any interaction is via email messages with 24-hour or more lags between message and response? But Pepperdine did something different and required all students to participate in a week-long tech-camp the July before beginning our programs so that we would become familiar with each other’s personality and begin to form working relationships and friendships with our classmates. Then when we went back to our homes spread out across the world and began our class sessions we could fill in the personalities behind the text-based communication. But we did more than just fill in the personality-gaps in our Internet-based communication. After all we were a group of 25 who were studying and using educational technology, so we fully employed the technologies, such as Instant Message and discussion groups to break the Class Session/Study/Project/Class Session cycle, and formed our own small groups to work together and to interact with whenever we wanted. Compared to my large-lecture-hall-solo-learning experiences that I tended to have when I studied for my teaching credential in the mid-1990s, my online learning experiences were personal, and powerful and changed what I believed could be accomplished in education.

Our First Online Session - Together - Back Row Club - 2001

Our First Online Session – Together – Back Row Club – 2001

Dr. Frank Smith raised concerns that the increased use of technology in education was a step in the wrong direction, making the learning process even more impersonal, isolated and one-size-fits-all (The Book of Learning and Forgetting, p.73). Given how many institutions have implemented online learning as a webpage and recorded lectures I can see how this fear is justified. However, my experiences with Pepperdine and the last six-years teaching online have proven to me that it isn’t technology that one should fear, but decision-makers who believe that education can be a pre-packaged product. The difficulties being faced by institutions turning to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) lends itself to the problems of thinking that education is simple access to good curriculum. As an online student and online educator I know that without harnessing the power of a small group of individuals working towards a common goal one does not have a healthy educational process. Determining how to support this process, that includes all four categories, will be the challenge facing all educational institutions and especially higher education where much of the research behind the curriculum is available online without the “benefit” of a college degree program.

The following is a list of articles I’ve written about online education and my experiences as a student and teacher using online ed:

The Next Chapter


Over the past couple weeks I haven’t posted all that much, except for tweets from my daily walks, because I’ve been quite busy pulling together resources to create my new, much needed, resume page/website. It took more than a few days to get over the initial shock of becoming just another government statistic. I love how life can change courses so quickly, but, Jesus, this one came out of nowhere. Anyway, having spent the past six-years creating online content, it made sense that I had to do something more meaningful than a traditional paper resume overwhelmed by bullet-points and text that no one will ever read. But how does one communicate a lifetime of learning and almost 20-years of teaching everything from shy kindergarteners how to use a computer mouse to second-career fifty-something masters students how to teach online? Also the resume website had to be visual with consistent easy-to-understand navigation, and tell my story with as few clicks as possible. Oh and I need it to be out there now, so that I can get a job. No pressure.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s a work in progress. I’ve already figured out a number of revisions I want to make, but right now the priority is getting the info out there. Also, I need to come up with a cover letter… etc., etc., etc. Interesting coincidence, I took my “early out” after 15-years with the phone company on October 31st, 1994. Twenty-years later, minus one-day, history repeated itself. Onward and upward, I used to tell my students. I guess it’s my turn to live up to those words and explore what the next chapter in my life will entail. Happy Thanksgiving everyone… really.

Here’s the link to my resume webpage. Feel free to share it:

6 Levels Towards Virtual Worlds

I’ve been thinking about the decades old promises of virtual reality and how my graduate students have responded to their first experiences with Second Life and thought that an info-graphic break down of virtual reality might help us approach the subject with less anxiety or frustration. It really comes down to thinking of the ol’ “right tool for the right job” mindset. BTW, this infographic/presentation was created with Piktochart. I’ll have a link to tool & presentation at the end of this post. Enjoy.
Continue Reading

Mistakes Were Made: End the Black Box Fallacy & Give Teaching Back to Teachers

Mistakes were made: Education… yeah, that’s not a very big target… How did we get to the point where the institution of education needs to be rescued? Before we dive into this one, I don’t mean to ask the question with the intention of starting a firestorm of finger pointing, especially in this political season. Ack. But I do have a highly speculative long-view theory about how we got here. And yes, lots of mistakes were made along the way.

I grew up in Southern California in the 1960s and 70s and it was a time of rapid unpredictable change, inside and outside of the classroom. Spanking and corporal punishment were permitted at home and in the assistant principal’s office (as I learned in the seventh grade). Our elementary school was built without permanent walls between classes, following the open-classroom model. Reading books were being replaced by something called the SRA Reading Laboratory kit (which I hated because I never got beyond the basic colors… not that I’m bitter) and then there was new math… which still evades explanation without coming off as pedantic. Let’s just say that post-World War II society went through radical social shifts that caused enormous pressures on all institutions trying to keep up.

For example, there was no such thing as bilingual education when I was in elementary school and I’ve heard numerous horror stories from contemporaries who came to school not fully fluent in English. An example of less offense, was when one of my middle school teachers decided that my last name, Bustillos, was too difficult to remember, so he took to calling me “Joe Burrito,” as if that wasn’t insulting. When my older sister, Michaela, began teaching in the late 1970s, schools were clamoring for Spanish-speaking teachers, trying to address the rapidly changing demographics. By the time I started teaching fifteen-years later, in the mid-90s, one of the teachers at one of the elementary schools where I student-taught laughed at the notion of bilingualism because they were serving a population that spoke over a dozen languages and the law was such that these non-English-speakers needed to be served in their native languages. How do you adjust to that kind of change?

During the experimental years of the 1960s and 70s public education was well-funded with smaller class sizes and money available for specialists when needed and for conferences and teacher training, according to friends who remember those halcyon days. Then prop 13 hit in 1978 and California public ed went from leading the way to it’s slow decline. Depending on the source, California public education is somewhere between 43rd and 46th in K-12 spending per student compared to the other 50 states and the District of Columbia. And this isn’t to imply that the other 49 states are suffering from not having enough places to stash their money. One thing I learned when I worked for Pacific Bell, is that in a place like California with an ever expanding population you have to invest in infrastructure long before you might see revenue from the population you’re serving. You have to spend up front to meet the growing needs of the growing population. Public education in California was doing the exact opposite, cutting the budget as the needs continued to expand.

So, to recap, over the past 60-plus years education has had to deal with huge shifts in population and population density, growing language and cultural sensitivity issues and shrinking funding to the point of evaporation. Outside the classroom we went from spanking as a normal form of discipline to lawsuits for spilled hot coffee, from the Jesus Freaks of the 1970s to the radical atheists, from MAS*H (the TV show) to Reality TV and American Idol, from the mythical nuclear family (dad, mom, two kids and a dog) to “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” from Mayberry RFD to a loss of trust of anything related to the government or politicians. And in the early 90s there was a real fear that crime would soon be completely out of control in our cities. Something needed to be done to regain a sense of control.

I vaguely remember some special testing done when I was in elementary school, rumored to be IQ tests. When I started teaching in the mid-1990s there was mid-year testing that was used to track student populations in math and language arts and at my school to select which sixth graders would go to the premiere 7-12 school in the district. The testing process was mostly managed in district and with all three sixth grade teachers and some reading specialists grading or assessing the written portions of the test. The testing was mandated but managed within the district and was used primarily to identify where improvements were needed within school populations and grade levels, comparing the performance of the schools within the district, and the results shared with the community. As far as I remember the tests were not used to reward high performing schools or punish low performing ones. It was used to manage areas of need on a school-wide/district-wide level. It was a pain in the ass and mentally screwed with the mindset of the school population that the most important tests of the year would come long before the end of the year, usually around March, leaving students and staff exhausted with several months still left after testing to finish the year. This was the beginning of standards-based instruction and later data-driven decision making/instruction. It was bad, but it was nothing compared to what happened when the higher ups decided to connect school funding and later teacher assessment to these tests.

Again, the notion was that something was needed to track whether our students were getting a quality education. But it was a bit of a black box problem in that it’s difficult to measure everything that goes into the process of teaching and learning, so we’re going to stick a device on the output side of the black box, and based on the results of this one test or series of tests will establish that this school or this teacher are doing their jobs and should continue to be funded/continue to have their jobs. An analogy of this process could be I buy a car and it runs pretty good for a while, then I notice that it’s getting a bit sluggish when I try to accelerate and my gas mileage seems to be getting worse. Around this time I get a notice from the government that they’ve notice that cars from my manufacturer aren’t performing well and that I need to bring my car in for a test. I bring it in, they put a device on my tailpipe to measure this, that and the other thing. It takes a whole day and possibly more than a day for some very well-paid contractors to run the tests on my car and several dozen other cars that are at the dealership. I find out that this is happening all over the country and am amazed at how expensive this most be to do nationwide. When they’re done, they shake my hand, thank me for my time and send me on my way, saying they’ll publish their findings in a few weeks or so. When they publish their findings, it’s a lot of numbers that indicate that the manufacturer did subpar work, they levy fines against the manufacturer and threaten to increase their business taxes, basically making it more difficult for them to do business. In the meantime nothing was done to actually make my car run better. Not only am I expected to trust that they measured the right things, but the results of the tests do not directly do anything for my poorly performing car.

When all of this started gaining traction, with “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) in 2001, the fear was that we needed to get a handle on what was passing for a good education, that every child deserved to get a good education and we were going to figure that out by administering standardized tests in reading and math nationwide. And however the numbers turned out the responsibility for the outcome was going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the teachers, administrators, schools and school districts. Stick a device on the tailpipe and let’s see what the numbers tell us. Even though education, teaching, learning are difficult processes with endless variables, let’s take a test and judge the whole process based on the outcomes of this one yearly test. I remember sitting in meetings as the testing industry was being ramped up and being told that by 2014 all students in the United States, 100% of the population, would be at grade level in reading. While the goal was certainly commendable, I had serious doubts that the framers of this policy had ever actually worked with any human population of any size. Getting 100% compliance is not how humans work. Imagine the laughs if lawmakers were to say that crime in our cities was going to be 100% eliminated by 2020 and that as we approach 2020 police departments are expect to move toward that number and will be rewarded or decommissioned based on how they did reaching those numbers. Or how about if it was decided that 100% of Americans will have perfect dental hygiene (meaning no cavities) by 2020 and that dental practices are expected to comply with the numbers as we approach 2020 and those who don’t lose their license to practice dentistry. Or that 100% Americans will be at optimal weight by 2020 with doctors either getting further funding or losing their license based on the compliance of the community these doctors serve. It’s not that the goal isn’t worthy of the effort, it’s the uninformed manner in which it’s been mandated, which leads me to believe that there are other agendas at work here not related to quality education.


When I taught my first sixth grade class I gave them the district issued Social Studies text to work from and because most of my students were not at grade level reading, the majority of my students failed the first few units. The text was written beyond their reading level and personal experiences, so there were no means for them to connect with the content. Instead of writing off my students as ignorant and assuming that they would never understand the content, I turned to the state framework for social studies and figured out what the learning goals for my students were and pulled together outside materials (videos, computer games, reading, worksheets) that were more in keep with my students learning styles. Instead of suffering through a social studies text that might as well have been written in Cyrillic, we enjoyed reading stories together about the people from these times and watching documentaries. They had so much fun that I would have students visit years later and ask about Utnapishtim from our reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. I bring all of this up because if the powers that be are really interested in truly assessing learning then they should start with the state frameworks of the subject that they want to assess, then look at how teachers are working within the goals of the framework and look at how teachers are assessing the learning of their students. There’s no need to create special tests, disrupt the school year, and mobilize an army of testing specialists and proctors. Look at the state framework at what is expected, examine how it is being implemented (especially where teachers and districts have found ways to work specifically with their populations) and share information of how those schools and districts are finding successes with those schools and districts needing additional help. By the way, cutting funding or threatening accreditation doesn’t help anything, especially with populations needing special help. Check out the work of Daniel Pink on motivation (check out the video at the bottom of this post) and quit treating educators like lazy failures only interested in Summer break and stop treating schools like human factories. Give teaching back to teachers.

Show and Tell - explaining the rain game by woodleywonderworks

Show and Tell – explaining the rain game by woodleywonderworks

If you need to assess their performance as teachers then spend time in the classroom as they are teaching, spend time with their students, spend time in the communities. It’s not that there isn’t room for improvement or that there aren’t teachers and administrators who should be doing something else. It’s just that you are not going to do a very good job determining that with the once a year tests. It’s a bit like dropping a predator drone into some remote community and assuming after peering down on these people for eight-hours that you know or understand the people of the community. You are making the rest of us suffer in pursuit of the few incompetent folks in the crowd. If you are really interested in helping education quite using testing instruments that cannot begin to communicate the complexities and challenges of what an educator must do day in and day out. We’re in the business of preparing the next generation of educated individuals, stop treating this like we’re assembling new cars or new computers. Help us do a better job, by letting us do our job and helping those who could probably do a better job. Anything less is just political rhetoric. Education dropped the ball in the 80s and 90s, shifting from one idea to the next and not doing a very good job communicating to the public. But then the public wasn’t really listening, so there’s enough “mistakes were made” to go around. That was then, we didn’t have a handle on it. We’ve learned a hell of lot since then but we still need to do a better job communicating with our communities and stakeholders. So, please get the testing-cart out from in front and put it back in the back-end of the process where it belongs and let us do our jobs. And please feel free to observe, comment, question, challenge and help us make education better. It’s not like were going to eliminate mistakes… mistakes will continue to be made. Let’s just do a better job learning from them.