When Philosophers Code

Those of us who have never undertaken the discipline of developing technology at a deep, language-based, "nuts and bolts" level, often see what technology can do as a form of magic. The secrets behind how websites, apps, tools, and solutions are put together mystify us and seem almost separate from us. The skills needed to actually develop the tools seem unattainable.

Recently I had an opportunity to get an inside look at the world of professionals that are solutions engineers and technology developers at SafeNet, a technology consulting company in Milwaukee. Beyond the power of seeing a working environment outside of the educational space (something we see far too little of as educators), what most stuck with me was the diversity of pathways that these employees had taken to arrive on this career path in the technology industry.

One of our hosts was an accountant who had found a way to utilize macros in spreadsheets to make his job a little easier. We met an individual who was degreed for work in the exercise and fitness industry, but after only a few short years found himself returning to Milwaukee and landing in the technology industry. Another developer, now an engineer in charge of developing the cloud strategy for clients, was a philosophy major exploring a masters in philosophy. He took the road less traveled by most philosophers, though, and ended up in the tech industry as a developer.

Throughout the day the same message was repeated — work in the tech industry is not something that requires a lifetime of focus and commitment to the field. Students do not have to be intensely coding starting in middle school and then follow it up with a four year degree in computer science. The reality is that technology, at least in many cases, is an industry built upon the interest, passion, commitment, and self-starting mindset of individuals who learn the skills needed to become a developer.

Preparing Students for a Career in Technology

Over the course of our visit, our hosts shared with us a couple of keys that would ready our students for a career in technology. 

Exposure to Developing with Technology Matters

While educators may not feel comfortable with the deep level coding required to build custom applications, we still need to help students understand that technology is malleable, customizable, and accessible.  Some ways to do this on a surface level of development may be we allowing students to write formulas in spreadsheets, teaching them how to animate drawings or create customized animations in a program like Keynote, or develop websites and utilize embed code. Going a bit deeper, utilizing some basic coding apps or programs like Tynker, Scratch, or SWIFT Playgrounds are great ways to allow students to experience code safely and without a lot of teacher expertise required. Even utilizing resources like the Hour of Code are great ways to provide exposure to all students demonstrating the ab a deeper level of technology manipulation.

While the depth of coding may not be critical, it is key that we begin exposing students to the larger idea that they possess the abilities to manipulate technology more deeply than by simply changing default settings.

Project Work Matters

While some educators would be surprised to hear this, I swear this next statement to be true. One of the key players in hiring at SafeNet was asked what kind of educational background would be most relevant for students to have to be “employable” at the company. Her response was clear. Potential employees needed to have the skills needed to be a developer/coder. How they got those skills, what programs they attended, what degrees they held — all of these were largely irrelevant to her and the company.  “If you really want a competitive advantage, show us your project work. What have you done? What kinds of teams have you been a part of? Can you work on a team? What have you seen from start to finish? That is what we are truly interested in when we hire.” 

She went on to specify that the ability to work in a team, to be a part of the critical thinking process, to bring your experiences and abilities to the team — these were really the skills that they were looking for in a successful consultant. And she said it is largely the belief by many in the tech industry that no degree alone will give you that kind of experience and skill set. That is something that is learned from time-on-task engaging in authentic, meaningful, challenging projects. 

Are we giving students opportunities to build a portfolio of work that would fit this description? Is it work that they value enough to put in the time, energy, and commitment needed to be "all in" on the project. Passion for their work is something we can help students develop in classrooms today, simply by allowing them some choice in what they are working on, what the end product looks like, and the audience for which they are developing the project.

Additionally, do these projects incorporate a team element where each member of the team plays a critical role in the completion of the project? This is another simple shift we can make in classrooms today to make sure that work students do is, at times, reliant upon the work of others.

Fostering Creativity and Enhancing Communication

It is important to know that our focus in education on the four c's (creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking) are skills in high demand by employers. It was continually reiterated that innovative, outside-the-box thinking was the most important valued thinking on many projects in the tech industry. We may often think of creativity as an arts-focused endeavor, and in a way that applies here. More essential, though,  was the ability to take a tool, a programming language, an unrelated concept, and piece it all together in new, creative ways. Several SafeNet representatives talked about experiences where they had a limited knowledge base on the team, yet they were able to rethink how what they had could be utilized differently for a new purpose. This mental agility is something we can begin to develop in our students regardless of the age level or content we teach.

Clear, succinct, and ongoing communication is just as critical. Remember, most of the SafeNet employees we met said their consultants worked in teams, and they worked directly for clients. This means they have to be good at communicating: they have to listen closely, understand the clients needs, and ask questions to clarify. They have to engage in impromptu dialogue, read non-verbal cues, and anticipate needs and potential roadblocks. This is done verbally and in writing. And it is done daily with a wide variety of stakeholders, team members, and project managers.

If this does not fit your traditional vision of a programmer, that is because the technology industry has changed. While there are definitely many times when coders have to intensely work independently to write eye-blurring lines of detailed code, that is not the singular quality required of a programmer. They have to communicate with teams and clients regularly in order to be successful. And these are skills all educators can help to builds in any content area or age level.

Independent Work, Reliability, and Accepting Feedback Still Matter

One of the other keys that the team shared with us is that much of the work that successful employees in technology need to do is complete work that is done independently, on time, and under budget. While teamwork is important, many projects in the technology industry are broken into smaller components that individuals take on alone within an allotted time period. This is called AGILE development. There are other formulas for completing large project work, but the concept remains similar: take a big project, break it into smaller, more digestible chunks, develop, and then bring the work back to the team for feedback/critique.

Often there is a project lead who will give direction. Students need to take that direction and run with it. They will then need to take responsibility for their portion of the project, complete it independently, often within a window of one to two weeks, and then come back to the larger team with the completed work and present it to the team. At that time the team offers collective feedback about the direction of their individual work, assesses how it will fit into the larger app/program/tool they are building, and then the process begins again with the next part of  the project.

This feedback loop is an iterative process that requires independence, flexibility, and a willingness to fail fast and fail forward. Being "done" with the assigned portion of the project doesn't really exist until the project is turned over to the customer in its completed state. There are ongoing changes and tweaks to all code written throughout the development of the tool, and thus students have to learn to take constructive feedback in step if they want to be successful within the technology industry. While these may seem like skills we have been developing in students forever in schools, the underlying question for me is clear: Do the students enjoy the work they are doing enough to put the effort in to create something worth discussing with somebody else? And are they passionate enough about the work they are doing to want to improve it once they receive feedback? If those elements are missing, it is hard to teach them to iterate and continually improve their school work, yet those are the skills that were identified as necessary to a successful career in the tech industry.

Most Jobs Will Adopt the Tech Model

While our focus at SafeNet was talking about jobs in the technology industry, it is clear that technology has impacted nearly all business sectors. Technology will continue to evolve, spread, and root itself into more business models moving forward. According to code.org, we know that we already are not producing enough students to fill the technology and computer science jobs available in Wisconsin. Add to that the spread of technology focused jobs in more businesses, even if they are not jobs requiring deeper, language-based coding, and you have a scenario where many of our students would strongly benefit from having opportunities in school to build skill sets that allow them to feel confident enough to step forward and apply for jobs requiring them to engage with technology at levels beyond just knowing how to work with software and change basic user settings.

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Whether we are ready or not to teach many of these skills to students, our kids will require them as they enter the world of work. The good news is many of these skills are within most educators  wheelhouse to teach, if we are willing to make changes to shift to a more project based, collaboratively focused model of instruction.

Technology is not optional: Students NEED help to develop technical skills

The skills students have traditionally needed to be employable and successful at work are as important as ever. These are often referred to as soft skills, and as reported in this LinkedIn article, for entry level positions they were recently ranked in importance by potential employers in the following order: 1) Communication, 2) Organization, 3) Teamwork, 4) Social Skills, and 5) Punctuality.

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However, with the changing shift in the business landscape spurred by technology, two keys shifts are happening in what employers are looking for in potential employees.  One key shift is that more technical knowledge and skills are being required in ALL aspects of work.

By technical, we mean highly technical. Potential employees are increasingly being overlooked if they do not have skills such as an ability to collect and analyze data, write computer code, strategize how to best reach an audience digitally, and to quickly adapt to new digital tools and skills related to a rapidly changing job description. Many organizations have studied and reported what employers are most looking for, and regardless of who is reporting the findings, these seem to be pretty consistent themes. For further exploration, check out these articles from Forbes and Monster

Further emphasis on how important these very technical skills are to employers can be found from a statement published on Fortune.com, in a 2016 article former General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt said: "If you are joining the company in your 20's, unlike when I joined, you are going to learn to code. It doesn't matter if you are in sales, finance, or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.

It is clear that there is strong trend in employment; there is wash between the always necessary soft skills employers have long valued and the technical skills that employees need to do their job in a highly technical society.  Even for employees in roles that are outward facing and customer focused, these people are far more likely to be communicating digitally, meeting via web conference software, and building digital training platforms for clients and customers. A blog post from LinkedIn identifies that these skill sets no longer independently exist, but instead merge together into the skills that employers most need from their future employees (our students). 

And the reality is that these are skills our students do not inherently, natively have by being born in an era of cell phones and social networks.

We Must Make Shifts in Practice to Embrace New Reality

We no longer live in a world where adopting technology as a part of our daily educational practice is optional. Students need to learn academic content, develop soft skills, and develop technical skills that will prepare them for their lives ahead. With the systemic changes made in our district to set the table for meaningful technology use, most barriers to adoption have been removed. The only barrier that still stands largely in the way of adoption, then, is our own decision to shift our teaching practice.

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For educators, it is no longer acceptable to simply opt-out of technology use in the classroom. The stakes are too high for students if we choose not to give them these experiences.

And assuming that students simply have the technical skills they need because they were born with technology -- well, that can debunked within a few minutes simply by asking students to do certain learning tasks with technology that focus on productivity, creation, and collaboration. They need support, encouragement, and advice on how to use technology purposefully and meaningfully, even if they are confident they know how to actually use the software and push the buttons.

Educators are at a point of decision: will we make the productive, meaningful use of technology in our classrooms a priority? Will we prepare our students for college and careers by challenging them to develop the soft skills needed while using the technology that will shape their future lives? The only thing stopping us from doing this today are the personal barriers that we have put up for ourselves. And the good news: when you are ready to take the next step and give kids these experiences, there are people in your communities willing to support you.

Start thinking smaller with technology

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Nobody likes to use technology when it slows us down. In fact, one goal for meaningful tech use is enhancing a learning experience while keeping the technology seemingly invisible. When technology does that for teachers and learners, it is worth its weight in gold.

However, when we reflect on the ways we most often use technology, the tools are often utilized as a capstone to learning -- a final end product. And that, while a really great way to use technology, well that can be cumbersome, heavy, and can ultimately slow us down.

While summative assessment is certainly an appropriate use of the tools students have, it doesn't take full advantage of what the tools offer us. In these cases, technology use becomes an event, not a way of doing our daily business.

The challenge is to find ways to use the efficiency and mobility of the iPad, along with its built-in tools, to get students interacting with and sharing their thinking daily. The goal is to make sure every student participates, every student engages, every student does the hard work of thinking, all while making a teacher's work in the process more efficient and timely.

Here are ideas you could use to think "small" with technology use in order to incorporate it into your daily learning plan. And the best news -- these tools are on your iPads already. No download needed!

Prior Knowledge & Post Reflections with Camera

In order to activate prior knowledge, educators often use a call and response with the class or group. This only gives some of the students an opportunity to engage their brain and show what they know.

Instead, have every student turn on the video camera on their iPad. Speaking in a six inch voice (direct students to talk into the microphone of the iPad for better audio), have every student record 30 seconds of video explaining what they know about the topic.

At the end of the lesson on the topic, have students listen to their original recording. Ask them to reflect on two key questions: 1) What do I know now that I didn't know earlier? and 2) What questions do I still have about this topic?

They could now share with a partner for a quick turn and talk session.

Finally, have the small group film one final 20 second video using the camera app. They will record the answers to these questions: 1) "One really important thing we learned today about this topic was..." and 2) "One question we still have about this topic is...".

Students can now AirDrop the video to their teacher as an exit ticket, and the teacher can quickly review the student's thinking and questions.

Low Tech to High Tech Reflection with Markup

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In most classrooms some amount of work is done on paper. Paper is a wonderful tool for learning. Of course, like anything, it has limitations.

In this technique we start from paper. We have students doing work and showing their learning on paper (this should feel fairly familiar).

Next we organize a quick museum walk or have students find a partner. The goal here is to have students look at each other's work in order to challenge their own understanding of the skill/topic, and to offer feedback to each other.  Using their iPad, they will take photos of at least one other student's written work (you may need to teach them how to focus and take a good picture).

Then, using the Markup tool in Photos (the place where your photos go on your iPad after you take them), have the students annotate their thinking over the top of the photo to determine key points about the work. This would be more efficient and meaningful if the teacher could provide some guiding questions for the feedback.

Finally, students can meet to share their thinking with the student who they are offering feedback to. They can AirDrop their annotated image to each other to serve as guidance as the student goes back to make changes to their work on paper.

Capturing the Learning Process

If the focus on the learning process is the key to the work students are doing, then let's use technology to help capture the process over time. This technique works whether you are working with non-digital tools (paper, construction materials, art materials, etc)  or working digitally.

The teacher starts by outlining the rules. Over the next period of time, students will hear a timer go off sporadically. This timer will be set by the teacher. When the timer goes off, the students simply need to snap a photo of their work at that time. Stop what they are doing momentarily, take a picture, and then get back to work.

Using the timer on the teacher's iPad (and AirPlay if an Apple TV is available in your room), the teacher will set the timer (you will have to determine the appropriate interval -- not so often that it interrupts thinking, but not so far apart that student progress will not be measured). As the teacher moves around the room and students work, the timer will keep pace. 

When the timer goes off, instruct students to capture their work using the camera, and then get back to work. The teacher will then reset the timer for a new interval (not all intervals have to be exactly the same).

Repeat this until the work period has completed.

Next, ask students to open the Photos app on the iPad. Have them start on their first photo of their work, and then scroll through. With each photo, ask the students to reflect on the process and what changes from photo to photo.  Maybe they will watch their drawing or artwork come to life. Maybe they will see their writing process unfold. Maybe they will identify their note taking or annotation process.

When we use technology to capture moments in time, we can start to uncover the process of learning, not just the end product.

They could share this reflection with a partner. They could use the Markup tool to annotate the changes. They could video record their reflections of the process. For more advanced users, you could use either full iMovie or iMovie trailers to document the learning process as well.

Any way it is achieved, the goal is to have the students reflect on their process, to think about what they did and how it impacted their final product, and to ultimately change their process (or understand their process) so they know themselves as learners.

Your iPad is your document camera

In a classroom where we need to make things visible for all of our students, or when we want to model a process for students, nothing beats a document camera.  They give us a live video feed that we can quickly and easily project to the class.

And the great news -- you already have a document camera available to you. It's your iPad.

Paired with an Apple TV and Airplay (for a wireless experience), or even hard wired into a projector, the camera app on the iPad gives us a live video feed that can be easily shared with the class.

The process is easy. Find, make, or buy a stand that will allow you to be hands-free with your iPad with whatever is below (or in front of) the camera. Then simply connect it to the projector and open the camera app.

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The trick is finding a great stand at a great (or no) price. You can buy iPad doc camera stands, but if you look around you'll probably find exactly what you need in your classroom or around the house/apartment.

The stand at right meets all of the requirements.

  • The stand must be sturdy. iPads are expensive, and setting them on a wobbly stand where they may fall is not a great idea!

 

  • It has openings at the top to safely set your iPad on while allowing the camera to peer through.

 

  • It lifts the iPad up from the "stage" below so you can fit objects of various sizes underneath.

 

  • There is a clear working area underneath to fit the demonstrator's hands. This is especially important when annotating text or "modeling" for students.
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So go ahead. Look around. What clever ideas have you had for making your own useful iPad document stand?

By the way, this is a GREAT design challenge for students. Set forth the design parameters (something similar to what we outlined above) and let students start thinking creatively.

 

Expertise worth paying for

As I get older, it's fair to say I'm becoming a bit more frugal. I realize how hard I work for what I earn, and I am constantly balancing the benefits of paying somebody else to do work that I know I could do on my own. (My maker mindset hasn't made this any easier -- a YouTube video, some tools and we can do just about anything!)

Recently I have had the chance to work with true experts in very different fields.

In my work life, I've had the chance to work with representatives from Qualtrics. This is a company that has invested millions in product development and testing, that has hired some of the brightest minds in the fields of research, computer science, data analysis, and that has brought all of that expertise together to develop a great product to help companies, schools, and students make accurate, data informed decisions. They have staked their reputation and the livelihoods of each of their employees on being the best at helping clients make the right decisions. It is quite a company, quite a product, and their expertise shines through in every interaction I have with the company.

In another part of my life, the home remodel of our kitchen, I have had the opportunity to work with a true craftsman. Randy is a person that is generations deep in his family knowledge and tradition of construction, both in rough and finish carpentry. He has spent his entire life deepening his knowledge, problem solving through projects, and honing his skills as a carpenter. His expertise and attention to detail day-in, day-out is the key to his ability to pay his bills, feed his family, and earn a living. His expertise shines through in every way as you watch him work.

This is not unlike the school systems we work in as educators. Educators and educational systems have a ton of expertise within them. We have people skills, content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, creativity, problem solving abilities. If school systems were companies for hire, there would be no competitor for many of the projects for which they were hired; the talent pool, expertise, and know-how of schools systems is just that rich. 

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True Expertise...

sometimes you get what you are willing to pay for!

However, even in schools, there are blind spots and areas where our lack of expertise shines through.  Perhaps it is realizing where these blind spots are within our systems, acknowledging where our weaknesses and  lack of expertise  shines through, and then finding/hiring those who can fill our gaps that is one of our greatest responsibilities as educational leaders. Why spend time writing surveys that won't yield the data we most need when there are people who can help us get the right answers out of the gate? Why throw darts at understanding the complexities of our relationships with our customers when there are people can help us understand the science of client wants and needs?

Or as my wife asks me: Why spend unnecessary time and money on materials putting in the finishing trim, when we can hire somebody who will make it look better than we ever would be able to?

She has a point.

Simple tools, deep impact

Mental "ruts" are tough to escape!

Some ruts can be tough to escape!

Sometimes we get into a rut (a pattern of thinking/behavior that has become dull, unproductive, and difficult to change), and it takes a little push to help us get out.

When it comes to thinking about how to use technology in our classrooms, we can get into some common ruts as well.  Here are some common ones.

  • We may get in the rut of always searching for a new app to do something we could easily do with other apps we already have. 
  • We may get stuck thinking about only using technology as a culminating, end-of-unit, large project.
  • We may get stuck in the rut of making student demonstrations of learning more complicated than they need to be.

If you are stuck in any of these ruts, here are some tips to help nudge you out. 

Stop looking for new tools and apps. Use what you already know and have available.

As an example here, we will just use the camera that is already built into the iPad.

The "Time Lapse" mode on the iPad camera is a powerful way of seeing change over long periods of time. Any kind of change that can be viewed.  Have the students turn on their time lapse feature on the camera, hit record and start seeing the world in a very different way (a way we often do not get to see).

  • Brainstorming and mind mapping
    • Want to see the thinking process? A whiteboard, markers, an iPad camera in time lapse mode will give you a full (and quick) run down of the thinking a student or group does.

 

Using the photo mode on the iPad camera is a great way to capture snapshots that students can later reflect upon.

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  • Capturing and annotating over printed materials and written work
    • We do not advocate a paperless work environment. Paper is a tool in our learning process. But using the camera to snap photos of our work gives us the ability to "archive" teachable moments. And with the newest updates to photos, students can now "annotate" or draw right over the top of these photos. Using the Markup tool in iPad's photos app (learn how to markup photos), students can synthesize their thinking around that photo today, or in the future!

 

Using the slow motion mode on the iPad camera allows us to slow down time (the opposite of time lapse). If you are something that happens very quickly, using slow motion will give your students a chance to see what happens when we can slow things WAY down. And you will definitely get a laugh at it!

  • Inquiry, anybody? 
    • Instead of a list of ideas, I'll let your imagination run wild on this one. Just watch the inspiration video of everyday slow motion films, think about your students, and know that they can create videos of this type with their iPad. What questions would they ask? What answers would they find if they created these kinds of videos in slow motion?

Do not wait until the end of a unit to find ways to utilize technology. Use technology throughout the process of learning.

iPads are great for culminating projects. But they can be great for daily use, for capturing the process of learning, and to prepare for a culminating project as well.

Using the iPad to record and then later review thinking can be  a powerful way to help students get ideas flowing. Using the video camera on the iPad (even if the student's face isn't in the shot) is one way to just get kids talking about their thinking or ideas while maintaining a record for their later review.

  • Pre-writing: Just hit record
    • Flip to your camera app and select the Video mode. In this case, what is on the screen isn't important. It's the audio we are using here. Have students talk to a partner about their research, their ideas, their questions for an upcoming non-fiction topic they are just beginning to explore. What is the storyline of their fiction piece? Be sure to have an iPad nearby, listening intently, recording their every thought.  And when we get to the next phase of the writing process, have them go back and listen. Now they can synthesize their initial thoughts. We know that this metacognitive task of thinking about our thinking is at the core of meaningful learning. We are just employing our iPad's camera and microphone to record, hold, and replay those thoughts for our students.

Aim for simplicity. Too many expectations, too many rules/details, and too many limits will only allow students to give you what you asked for, but not what they are capable of doing.

 This one does not tie to a specific tool or idea. In fact, just the opposite. Often we spend so much time outlining the "must do" and "must use" of anything we ask students to do that we actually end up limiting our students' potential. Instead, let them know what they must show us they know or are able to do, and then make them choose HOW they will show us.

Sometimes you will be underwhelmed. Sometimes you will be amazed. And in both scenarios there is something to be learned by our students!

 

How outdated are your paradigms for how work gets done today?

About a month ago I had an opportunity to attend one of the most wonderful, most student centered days I have witnessed in a long time. My friend, Nancy Roncke, organized a Young Author's Conference for our district. It was inspiring and energizing to see an auditorium full of sixth grade students who have identified as writers. I had the distinct privilege of serving as a writing coach for a wonderful team of students. 

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In preparation for the day, I did some up front planning. We would need paper. Lots of paper. And highlighters. And post-its. Pens. Definitely pens.  I let my English teacher brain really process through the way I taught writing. The way I write. The way my students have written. By the time I loaded my car to leave for the conference, I had a bin of supplies full of the necessities writers would need to be successful.

On the way I thought some more. We are a 1:1 iPad district, and I know some of the kids will far prefer to draft on their iPad. Being thoughtful and empathetic to their needs, I made an unplanned stop at the tech office to pick up physical keyboards for the writers. They would certainly appreciate my efforts, as we all know that writing on a glass surface is inferior to typing on snappy keyboard.

I truly enjoyed my day with the students. They did a lot of writing. More than I expected they would. They were successful, productive, active, and focused. We truly achieved our goal of just being a community of writers.

Yet, things didn't go exactly as I had planned. By the end of the day, I was left with two things: 1) a trunk full of unopened writing supplies and untouched keyboards, and 2) the realization that I was still thinking about and planning for writers as they used to work, not as the presently work.

It left me wondering how often we do this as educators. How often do we mistakenly plan for things as they once were, instead of reflecting on how they truly are? Are we holding on tightly to practices, topics, and ideas that are grounded in the way we used to do things? Perhaps we cling to the way we feel most comfortable working?

My team of writers gently nudged me to question my own paradigm for how work gets done. Without saying a word, they reminded me that they have been typing on glass screens since they first started typing. They reminded me that a Google Doc, an Internet connection, and an iPad are the tools of writers; these are the tools the students have self-selected, and these tools do everything that is necessary for the intended outcome. They reminded me that printed copies for revision and editing are inefficient and can slow down the process. Sharing a doc with another person, allowing them to comment, and then meeting to discuss their feedback is the way that they most commonly receive critique from others.

It made me wonder how many other paradigms I naturally embrace that are outdated. It is unnerving to think that even in our best efforts to prepare students for the life they have yet to live, that we can all fall victim to the assumptions of what life is really like. I am taking this as my reminder to always ask the question: "So, how do people really do this today?" And when I stop to ask the question and really think about it, I am reminded that the last time I had somebody critique my writing with highlighters and post-its was back in graduate school. Apparently some habits and experiences truly do stick with us far after they are useful.