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Extreme Ownership

August 2, 2017 — Leave a comment

This past Saturday morning when I walked into our living room I couldn’t help noticing the large sheet of black ABS plastic that Caleb, my 19-year-old son, had acquired for his latest project.

ABS Sheet

Ever since Caleb was a toddler he has enjoyed creating things that would change and enhance his world. For the most part he was just like very other young kid who loved playing with Lego and other toys but Caleb and his older brother Levi would migrate away from typical play and look for ways to improve their toys and their environment. Both my boys would use Lego and Kinex and other contructables (what I like to call toys that you can build things with) to make things that they could use for other purposes. Their desires quickly moved beyond using Lego and Kinex to using authentic resources to change their environment. For example, when my older son Levi was three he wanted to be able to pull his wagon with his bike and rather then just use a rope he wanted my help to rig up a hitch system which we created and he used and then passed onto his younger brother. Caleb was equally industrious and I have so many fond memories of heading down to the hardware store to gather the items my boys needed for their latest projects.

So when I saw the big piece of plastic I reminisced about Caleb’s passion for making things. I also thought about how my wife and I carefully nurtured and helped him and his brother develop their interests and created the environment in which they could fully develop their creative abilities and learn how to learn. If there was just one thing that I can point to that really made the difference it would have to be the use of authentic projects. While we didn’t deny our boys models, Lego, Knex and other constructables we also encouraged them to explore working on authentic projects. My boys were always working on something that was real and that would make an authentic difference in their world.

The bike hitch, bike ramps, countless other smaller projects, and the major fort project were just the starting point for exposing my boys to authentic learning. When I purchased and renovated a rental property the boys who were just 8 and 10 worked along side me at every stage from cleaning up the junk in the yard to demolishing the basement rooms, to building new rooms and doing all the work that was necessary to bring the house into a state where it could be rented and then sold. Later that spring when the boys were still just 8 and 10 they planned out all the details of our month long summer bike trip which included everything from getting the maps from the AMA, planning the route, to identifying what we could do along the trip to, where we would stay, and what we could do when we got to the interior of British Columbia. They put together a detailed binder that had all the information we would need. That first major biking holiday is still one of the most talked about trips that my boys will reminisce about. As professional DownHill Mountain bike racers and extreme athletes Levi and Caleb travel continuously so this early experience has served them well. The have spent the majority of their short lives working on authentic projects that not only enhance their lives but lives around them.

Authentic projects work because they not only give the learner choice and ownership over the world that they live in but they also give the learner the ability to find and use their voice and show the world what they have created. Caleb’s projects are getting very sophisticated and while the air splitter he created for his high-end sports car is not a project you would ask a novice to undertake Caleb is able to create a professional quality enhancement and add significant value to his car because he has lived a life filled with authentic projects.

Caleb FRS

The cognitive and analytic processes of prediction, modeling, experimentation, diagnosis, and problem-solving that Caleb experiences through his countless authentic projects has also contributed to his desire to take on in bigger and bigger challenges. I enjoy helping Caleb with his projects because his passion for learning and creation are contagious.

ABS Splitter In Progress

In our typical education rhetoric we talk about engagement, individualized instruction, and life-long learning but the reality of standardized testing or, if our learners are lucky, the occasional analysis of case-based studies offers our learners very little motivation for learning in the present, so how can we expect them to be excited about learning in the future. We can change this. But that means we have to give back control of the learning to the learner. We need to allow our learners to choose and work on authentic projects that will inspire their intrinsic passions for learning and help them grow their learner’s mindset. When we do this for our learners the possibilities of what they will be able to do are virtually limitless.

Caleb FRS with Splitter

Additional thoughts on Authentic Learning:

My boys are competitive Down Hill Mountain bike racers and they recently raced in several events at Whistler Crankworx. This meant that they had several practices, qualifiers, and final races that ran very close together and had to incorporate protein and energy bars into their nutritional plans to get them through their hectic schedule over the week of racing. High quality protein and complex carbohydrates packed into a portable bar are not just a convenience for my sons, they are a necessity if they wish to stay fully fuelled and competitive. Slipping a couple of these small energy packed bars into a jersey or shorts pocket means my boys can quickly and easily maintain their nutritional needs for the hectic training and/or racing session.

A quality protein and energy bar has little or no sugar, uses natural ingredients, and has a balance of protein and complex carbohydrate to help an athlete maintain their energy when they are unable to access whole foods. Bars that are nutritionally high quality often don’t taste the greatest because the manufacturers stay true to the purpose of helping to fuel a competitive athlete. Unfortunately, as protein and energy bars get more and more popular quality bars are getting harder and harder to find because too many manufacturers are willing to move away from the fundamental purpose of the bars and focus primarily on the taste of the bars at the expense of the nutritional quality.

When you focus on the taste and not the nutritional needs of an athlete you end up with something that sounds like it would be a good thing, but when you look at the details you find it’s not the case. The list of ingredients on the following popular protein and energy bar reveals that taste and not nutrition is their priority:
Power Bar Ingredients

Evaporated cane juice syrup and corn maltodextrin are the first and third listed ingredients which also indicates their quantities. While neither of these ingredients are listed as sugar they are essentially the same as sugar hiding behind a more natural name. The more diligent athlete who is aware of the sugar synonyms won’t be tricked by the manufacturer and will look for a better bar, but for the average person who isn’t as informed this fake protein and energy bar is really not much better then a typical candy bar. At least in the candy bar the manufacturers don’t try to hide the actual ingredients behind more natural sounding names:
chocolate bar ingrediants

What makes this really serious is that the majority of protein and energy bars are really not much better or different then candy bars when you look at the first three ingredients:

Protein bar – Evaporated cane juice syrup oat bran, corn maltodextrin and soy protein isolate
Candy bar – Sugar, peanuts, and corn syrup

Yes the protein bar does have a few better ingredients, it does have soy isolate protein powder, but for the most part it is just a candy bar with added protein. This is very alarming and in the display pictured below there are a couple of dozen different types of bars and there were only two that were actually healthy enough to be used by a competitive athlete:
Protein Bars on Shelf

How does such a good idea, a portable highly nutritious bar that a competitive athlete can use to stay energized, go from good to bad. Simply shift the primary purpose from a portable highly nutritious bar used by competitive athletes for fuel to a good tasting convenience snack used by anyone. Most competitive athletes are willing to deal with the lack of flavour and even a chalky texture in their bars because they know that it isn’t about the taste it is about the fuel that they need to stay competitive.

This shift in purpose from fuel to taste has as a dramatic effect on an individuals results as a shift from a focus on learning to technology has on the learner.

We can run into a similar problem in education when we shift our focus from the learning to the technology. In his post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick satirically posits how to:

“fake 21st century thinking and learning environment to make the right kind of impression with the right people, and give the appearance of forward-thinking.”

Useful ideas like Project-Based learning, 1 to 1, and blended learning can all too easily loose their benefit when we shift the focus from learning and just do projects, just focus on the devices, and just focus on the content delivery part of the blended learning. Heick points to ten good learning ideas that can easily go bad for the learner if we shift our focus from the learning to the technology or to what appears to be a trendy 21st Century activity. His post How to Fake a 21st Century Classroom Terry Heick is worth the read but I must caution you that you may be bothered or convicted by a few convenient or fake activities that you may have fallen into. I know I am taking a hard look at several of my activities as a result of reading his post.

As educators, our responsibility is to know better, to know that you can’t fake Project-Based learning by doing make work or fake projects. You have to give the learner the control, ownership and voice over an authentic project that will make some sort of difference in the learner’s personal life or community. You can’t just fake 1 to 1 by making students do digital worksheets on their iPads. You have to give the learner the opportunity to use their devices for creation, collaboration and communication and enable them to learn all the time and everywhere with everyone. You can’t just fake blended learning by focusing on the content. The emphasis on creation, collaboration and communication in your blended learning environment will also enable your learners to go much deeper then they would if you were to focus on the delivery of content.

As educators we should know better but just like the average person who is swayed by the appearance, convenience and taste of the fake protein bars we too often can be swayed by wanting to give the right kind of impression and the appearance of forward-thinking.

We can also be swayed by the fact that we may be faking it until we make it; meaning that we may move toward our learning goals by implementing changes incrementally and may use that worksheet on the iPad as a transition activity until we can focus on more genuine activities. This is understandable and as long as the transition happens this will be fine. But just like the fake protein bars that will work when you don’t have anything else available, temporary or transition use of technology can also work, but also like the fake protein bars long term use would not be heathy for the athlete or the learner.

It is widely accepted that eportfolios can help learners “deepen the inquiry process” by enabling them to integrate metacognition or reflection into their learning experience (Catalyst for Learning, n.d.). Eportfolios have the potential to be inviting, reflective, and engaging learning tools that stimulate deeper learning and offer many other benefits and as a result many higher education institutions promote their creation and use. Unfortunately, many educators who have been exploring the use of eportfolios over the past several decades have noticed that despite their wonderful potential as life long learning tools many students stop using their eportfolio after the completion of their program of study.

Researchers, Cynthia Cummings, Thilisa Thibodeaux and Dwayne Harapnuik recognized the need to find out which factors contribute to the continued use, or lack thereof, of the eportfolio. More specifically, these researchers have started a study to identify the factors that contribute to the continued or dis-continued use of eportfolios beyond the student’s program of study. The literature review revealed that choice, ownership, voice and authenticity (COVA) are key factors in encouraging students to go much deeper into learning so Cummings, Thibodeaux and Harapnuik sought to confirm if these factors would also influence the continued or dis-contined use of the eportfolio (Buchem, et el., 2014; Campbell, 2009; Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012; Pink, 2011; Qauglia, (n.d.); Rikard, 2015; Waters, 2015).

The initial results of the study were presented at the AAEEBL Western Regional Conference at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, TX in February, 2016. The study utilized a convergent mixed methods research design and the participants of this study included students from the Educational Technology Leadership master’s program at Lamar University who developed eportfolios as part of their program requirement. The 526 survey participants where first asked if they continued or dis-continued using their eportfolio beyond their program of study and then were asked to a likert scale to rate a list of twenty factors to identify to what extent those factor contributed to their continued or dis-continued use of the eportfolio.

Participants were given three opportunities to complete the online survey over a period of three weeks and 141 participants responded giving the survey just over a 26% response rate.
Using or not using eportfolio numbers

The survey revealed that only 18% of the participants continued to use their eportfolios while 82% stopped using their eportfolios after the completion of their program of study. These results confirmed earlier anecdotal evidence that many students stop using their eportfolios when not required to do so for a course.

The survey also revealed that use of the eportfolio as a career tool, the use of authentic projects, control over assessment of their learning and the management of the eportfolio were the most significant factors that contributed to the continued use of the eportfolio.
Continued use of eportfolio

The primary factors for why students stopped using an eportfolio was the lack of time followed very closely by a lack of interest in eportfolios and lack of management over the eportfolio process.
Discontinued use of eportfolio

Several follow up focus groups were conducted to gain additional insight into the continued or dis-continued use of the eportfolio and see if any additional factors not listed in the survey had impact the students continued or dis-continued use. One focus group participant in the research project confirmed why time is such a significant factor by stating:
“All your time is spent just keeping your head above water; there is no time to think about the benefits of an eportfolio or how to build and structure your eportfolio for use for anything more than document storage”.

For many of the students in the new Masters of Digital Learning and Leading program (DLL) at Lamar University coming out of the first course in the program EDLD 5302 Concepts of Educational Technology this frustration with a lack of time is also a reality. We have often seen students struggle with just learning how to learn to use new technology and concepts so getting the weekly assignments completed and simply dropping an evidence of learning into their eportfolio container is often the most students have been able to accomplish with limited time.

Our initial research findings and original assumptions suggest that if we gave our DLL students enough time and the appropriate environment to experiment with their eportfolio then we should see continued use of the eportfolio. Since the DLL program is new we won’t have our first graduates for the next 18 months, we have some time to wait to officially confirm our assumptions.

The eportfolio is a fundamental component of the DLL program and each course has been designed to utilize authentic projects and the eportfolio to showcase student’s work. EDLD 5303 Applying Educational Technology: Eportfolio is the second course in the DLL which is structured specifically to give students the time to focus completely on and experiment with the eportfolio. The evidence of learning accumulated in EDLD 5302 or through Microsoft Teaching with Technology, Google Educator, or the Apple Distinguished Educator programs can now be shaped and moulded into a well organized and cohesive format to genuinely convey a message beyond basic technology skills competence. In EDLD 5303 students are given the opportunity to move beyond dropping assignments into a digital container and are encouraged to start to consider and show how they plan to use technology to enhance their own learning and their learning environments.

To help shape student’s thinking on eportfolios and to start them on the journey of continuous reflection and revision of their work in EDLD 5303 we ask students to explore the following:

Though this process of working through these ideas in their own eportfolios students will gain an appreciation for the value of the eportfolio as a deeper learning tool.

Next to a lack of time the lack of an appreciation of the value of the eportfolio was another major contributing factor for students who stopped using eportfolios beyond the course of study. Through the use of authentic assessment in all DLL courses and the ability to work on projects that will have a direct impact in the students own learning environment the DLL program gives students choice, ownership, voice and authenticity (COVA) that our research findings have initially confirmed are the key factors in encouraging students to continue using their eportfolios beyond their programs of study.

We are confident that this eportfolio experience started in EDLD 5303 and continued throughout all other DLL courses will provide a solid learning foundation for the DLL M.Ed and for the continued use of the eportfolio beyond this program. If you really want to students to learn deeply and build a foundation for learning how to learn then you need to give students:

  • The freedom to choose how they wish to organize, structure and present their experiences and evidences of learning
  • Ownership over the entire eportfolio process – including selection of projects and their portfolio tools
  • The opportunity to use their own voice to revise and restructure their work and ideas.
  • The opportunity to prepare their eportfolio platform for all the authentic learning assignments that they will experience in the remainder of the DLL program.

We are also confident that the DLL program will prepare students for the challenges of the future and shape them into the digital leaders that we need to move our educational systems forward.

Our research into this area is really just beginning while we are continuing to examine the data and will be publishing the full results shortly, we are also exploring relationships with other institutions who have used eportfolios in their programs to replicate our research in different settings to further confirm our findings.


Buchem, I., Tur, G., Hoelterhof, T., Rahimi, E., van den Berg, J., Veen, W., … & Aresta, M. (2014). Learner control in Personal Learning Environments: A cross-cultural study. Learning and Diversity in the Cities of the Future, 13.

Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review, 44(5), 58–59.

Catalyst for Learning Eportfolio Resources and Research (n.d.). Pedagogy. Retrieved from

Lindgren, R., & McDaniel, R. (2012). Transforming Online Learning through Narrative and Student Agency. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (4), 344–355.

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.

Qauglia, R. (n.d.). Quaglia Institute Framework. Retrieved September 8, 2015, from

Rikard, A. (2015). Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It? (EdSurge News). Retrieved September 8, 2015, from

Watters, A. (2015, July 15). The Web We Need to Give Students. Retrieved September 10, 2015, from