Archive for the 'Digital Convergence' Category

My Tablet Deployment Thus Far …

At my school, we’ve tried something a little different when improving technology access for our upper primary classes. I had noticed that student ownership of the building laptop trolleys was lacking – the laptops were housed in a central common area where they were often left unplugged, leading to flat batteries, which led to kids helping themselves to power cords from the trolleys which led to the cords not be placed back correctly which led to more flat laptops. The teachers pointed out that less than 30 laptops for 150 kids was not enough, and I agreed. So it was time for a new model.

Now keep in mind that this school is less than two years old with an excellent wireless network and server infrastructure. But the devices were a motley array from the three closing schools – and the 2 trolleys worth (along with 15 white Macbooks for the Music program) were the only new laptops gifted to the school from the department – and they arrived early in the third term shortly after I started my role at the school. We had no choice in the model – they were large 15 inch HP notebooks. But the model in which access was set up meant that problems of wear, tear and care were going to be prominent.

So with this year’s budget allocation and together with my line manager, we proposed a new model. Each classroom would have ten new laptops in a Lapcabby trolley for their classroom. We were keen to push our school’s cross platform approach and philosophy – two classes asked for MacBook Pros and the other three were allocated Dell 13″ XPS’s. To forge forward, we also decided to provide 5 tablets for each classroom as well. The idea was tied to “just in time learning” – that there are many times in the day when a student needs access to a digital tool or the internet but the process of getting a laptop, logging onto the network etc. could theoretically be considerably shortened by an instant-on, swip’n'type tool like a tablet. Again, we wanted the students to be able to use different platforms so I purchased 15 Google Nexus 7′s and 10 iPads. I talked through the vision behind this deployment with the building’s (elected) teacher spokesperson. We imagined the classroom where the laptops were used for more substantive work – documents, presentations, projects, creations etc and the tablets were there available for the quick Google, the access to a digital dictionary or thesaurus, a quick formative assessment via a video reflection or a myriad of other small “pick it up, use it and then put it back” type of learning opportunities. I probably talked this scenario so well with this teacher so I presumed that the others were all on board and that I just had to get the technology out to the classrooms, and the teachers would just run with it.

Now, the fun for me has really begun as my assumptions and lack of knowledge of how tablets impact the classroom have shown through. Firstly, I discuss the iPads as they are still in their boxes waiting to be unpacked and set up. In Australia, we have only recently been given the green light to access Apple Education’s Volume Purchase Program (otherwise known as the VPP) which is a solution for iPad app distribution that has been in place in larger marketplaces across the world for a while now. Prior to this, Apple vendors muttered under their breath about how to set up a school iTunes account, use it to create a master iPad and back it up to iTunes before imaging other iPads via the connect and back up to new device method. They wanted to sell iPads to schools, and while this process breached all sorts of licensing, they didn’t want the lack of a VPP for Australia get in the way. Not every school has the luxury of a well off community to help fund iPad programs in a 1 to 1 device environment. Likewise, schools who wanted to see what impact tablets could make for technology access in the classroom wanted to get started and so the workarounds were implemented.

We hadn’t really gotten too far with iPads at my school yet. I had two Lighthouse Classroom projects going where teachers were exploring the possibilities, and the Special Education team bought several from their own budget after attending training from Autism SA about the benefits for kids with learning disabilities. All of these iPads were set up in a pre-VPP fashion. But now that the VPP exists, I wanted to gather up all of the apps being purchased under one school account so that we would not be doubling up. I presumed that the VPP would enable us to create a cloud based app library for our school where iPads would be configured, logged in and the appropriate selected apps installed ready for use. Except the whole system is much more complicated than that, and I am still trying to wrap my head around all of the relevant details to understand how it will work in our school. I can log in as a Program Facilitator, browse the apps for sale but it requires a credit card for purchasing. The FAQ tells me that I can buy Volume Vouchers (that work in a similar fashion to the iTunes cards sold in shops) but a point of sale for these isn’t evident to me. I’m now waiting on advice from my local Apple retailer on that one. There are no free apps in the Education Apps store, so I wonder how a school account can still access and use them as well. (Or is the message from Apple that free apps are not suitable for the classroom?) So until I am sure of how this monster of a system works, I won’t be rushing the iPads into the classroom.

Which is what I did do with the Nexus 7′s.

We have fantastic technical support at my school and use an outsourced model with a local company called IPAU. One of their guys showed the Nexus 7 before it had even gone on sale in Australia, and I have been excited about the potential for this in the classroom as that “just-in-time” device that I mentioned earlier. We ordered ours directly from Singapore at a price that the retailers don’t match in Australia, and one of our techs tinkered under the hood to get it network compatible, and to password protect certain areas that we didn’t want meddled with. This was mainly the settings area and the ability to purchase apps through the Google Play store. We had that done, I ordered some nice covers in different colours so that each classroom set of five had its unique colour, labelled them, inscribed them, recorded serial numbers, linked up to a school Gmail account and got them out to the teachers.

They were excited, and I assumed that they would take a tablet home, play with them, browse for suitable apps and generally customise the device for their students’ learning needs. Being all linked to the one Gmail account, once an app is downloaded on that account, it becomes available for download on any device logged into that account. I thought meant that the teachers would share their finds for the benefit of all. Later in the day, I cruised past the previously mentioned teacher’s classroom and he had his new laptops and the Nexuses out as we had envisioned. I was stoked. Kids were browsing and making notes, another was working with an SSO practicing his reading skills from a website and even one student was curled in the corner reading the preview chapter of “The Hobbit”. My presumption was that the other two classrooms with these tablets would be following a similar pattern. That illusion was shattered yesterday when I walked through and found two kids using them in the common area.

“These are cool, Mr. Wegner.”

“Great! What are you doing?”

“Angry Birds!”

Then a teacher told me that the approach was to let the kids play with the tablets for a week or so before working out what apps would be good in the classroom. I was concerned, not because I think that play and learning are opposing forces but I could see the less engaged kids seeing these as entertainment devices, time fillers and easy to subvert. I knew I had to gain back some control before the 8G drives on these things was choked with meaningless crud.

I spent last night looking through the Google Play part of the tablet Gmail account and I could see the entire list of apps that had been downloaded by students in less than a week. I counted 28 different apps with only about 3 of them having some sort of link to classroom learning. I then found out that I could monitor all connected devices from this account and determine what the list of useful apps could look like. The list of apps in the My Order & Settings section couldn’t changed but it does serve as a useful history of what students will download when given fairly unrestricted access to download and use free apps. Clicking on the My Android Apps tab brings up my device list as a horizontal click and scroll bar, with the Apps Installed list underneath and then the Other Apps In My Library list. So from this view I could control what was available to each device – once I had each device upgraded to have access to the Google Play store password protected.

Today I collected all of the Nexus 7′s from the three classrooms. One class had a relief teacher who was having trouble monitoring what the students were doing, so I helped her out when I came to get the tablets. One of the students asked why I was taking them, and I explained that I needed to clean up the apps. He replied, “Don’t delete the games. Otherwise, what’s the point of these things?”

I knew that if the teachers weren’t clear about the vision, then the kids would not be too clear themselves about the purpose of the tablets and would create their own more entertainment based purposes instead. That was an error of judgement on my part, although seeing what the students did do under the circumstances was very revealing and informative. I found that while the tablets only had my app list available for download in the Play section, there was still the list of apps installed on the individual device remaining. This had to be deleted device by device – and then they were ready for some technical tweaking by the technician. Interestingly, I had 13 of the 15 devices on my desk as two weren’t available as students were still using them out of the building when I cam through. I resolved to collect them later and started on the clean up, keeping my Play account open on my laptop as I worked. From those 2 devices, another eight apps (all games) were installed and appeared on my My Orders & Settings list in the space of an hour. I was waiting when one of the students returned the Nexus and so I asked if she had installed any apps during her use. She denied it but the evidence on my account said otherwise as the other Nexus didn’t have the apps in question. More learning for me.

Another cool aspect of the Nexus and Google combo is the ability to track internet searches on that account. I showed the teacher spokesperson and he could immediately see who would have conducted which search based on his knowledge of their research topics. Another great way to show how digital information and movement is so trackable. I am also conducting research to re-start these tablets with a small core group of apps that can be used for positive learning purposes within the classroom. After reading Scott Elias’s recent blog post about his school’s iPad deployment, I am keen to get the students using a small  number of apps well rather than clog up the devices with distractions.

So what have I learned (and continue to learn) from my experiences so far? Well, I can see why large scale deployments resort to locking down stuff to maintain some form of control. In the ideal world, I’d like my original vision to work where there are as few restrictions to trialling new apps as possible. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with young adolescents, temptation is very hard to resist and structure and expectations are helpful scaffolds more than restrictive hindrances. I’ve learned that you need to articulate your vision clearly to all of those who are involved in the deployment if you want their support and understanding. And you could say that I have definitely found that there much to learn from my mistakes. I don’t think I’m done making them yet, either.

Quick Review – Program Or Be Programmed

I love reading, watching and listening to Douglas Rushkoff. I think he is one of the great minds of the last twenty years and he has amazing insight into popular culture and the way western society operates in general. I would describe him as a form of anthropologist as he studies human behaviour and in his latest book contrasts that against the impact that technology has had on the modern world. I bought his book “Program Or Br Programmed” a few months ago but it has only been the holiday break that has given me the time to get through its 150 pages. Check out the YouTube clip below for a synopsis of the book:

The main thrust of the book is around the fact that as digital technology becomes increasingly embedded into our way of life, it is crucial that we have an understanding of how that technology is programmed, and how its “bias” is designed to push human interaction in a certain pre-determined direction. He doesn’t necessarily state that actually having programming skills are essential, but having an advanced understanding of what goes on behind the scenes is essential (in other words, digital literacy is a must). Reading his book is very thought provoking and had me viewing a lot of things through a very critical lense – especially at the recent CEGSA2012 conference. An example of a technology with a certain bias would be an iPad where how it all operates is very deeply hidden from the user – this device is very hard to hack or manipulate in a subversive way because the designers have it in their best interests to have users that use their devices in a certain way. Interestingly, who has complained the loudest about the iOS system being closed, the App Store having restrictive guidelines and the device lacking external storage or accessible batteries? The most highly skilled geeks and computing buffs – the programmers. Schools can feel it in the way that Apple pitches the iPad as a “personal” device – so they have to work hard around the programming bias to utilise it as a “shared” learning device.

Facebook is another technology with inbuilt bias. It allows sharing – but only within the confines of its digital walls and same-same profile decor. It wants its captive audience to be in the one place so that the people who really pay the bills, the advertisers, can have full rein. But as Rushkoff points out, the internet itself as a structure has a bias towards sharing and openness, so he believes that in time, technologies that try to constrain or control this will have to adapt or become irrelevant. In fact, he makes a real effort to avoid naming specific technologies because he believes that the advice offered in the book will have an infinitely greater lifespan than many of the at-the-moment dominant technologies ruling the web.

Rushkoff spends quite a bit of time pointing out the limits of the digital world, which at time seems unlimited to people like me. Choices are always presented in neat packages predetermined by an algorithm or program. An example that springs to mind is blog themes – you might have a choice of a hundred themes but unless you know how to hack or program some aspects of those themes, you are limited to those themes. It explains why unique and really beautiful websites are nearly always created by people with a programming and design background. Mere users like myself are limited to what we are shown by others with the programming skills.

So, a really thought provoking book. Grab yourself a copy – at 150 smallish pages, it is not a big read – but it will force you to grapple with some things about the web and digital technology that you may have considered too much before in the past. And those of us who think we are savvy in the digital realm need to have our preconceptions challenged every now and then.

The Network – Platform Edition

This not about Mac vs. PC.

This is about the Network (uttered in tones of reverence) – not the network (which we all use via our phones, our laptops, our gaming systems etc).

In schools, we love the concept of the Network. Not in the wide world connected definition, but the connect your device and store stuff in one secure environment type of concept. Every school I know about here in South Australia has a Network. It is usually set up for the staff and students to use exclusively when within the school environment. If it’s not on “the Network” then it is isn’t allowed in the school. It involves passwords and user profiles and printer permissions and wireless certificates (should your school be lucky enough to have some form of wireless environment). There are Windows Networks (the vast majority here in SA) and there are Mac Networks, and a few adventurous sites title themselves as cross-platform when they have a combination of both. I don’t know too much about Linux although Grant High School (under the vision of Peter Ruwoldt, now in the APY Lands in the Far North of SA) were using Ubuntu in an extremely innovative way to build skills and engage with the wider community.

For teachers, the Network is a necessary evil. It keeps things “safe”, is a place for the organisation and sharing of digital resources, and gives each staff member and student a safe digital storage space. Of course, many teachers still struggle with things like passwords, how to navigate to a folder to find something they had created earlier and sometimes need to write all of this process down on a piece of paper. Many believe that it is the Network that gives them access to the internet (the lower case n network) in much the same way that they believe the interactive whiteboard is a magical device, forgetting that it is just a dormant piece of plastic connected to the real magical device, the computer. So, it follows that many (not all and just in my experience) teachers like the idea of a single platform Network, preferably on a platform that they are familiar and comfortable with. Cross platform can evoke responses of fear and panic, and strategies of survival that unfortunately manifest themselves in restricted opportunities for students. Technicians within schools also command a fair bit of sway when it comes to determining a school’s platform/Network direction. Those with Windows Server knowledge will talk down Mac software, complain about the hassle of dual platforms and highlight every single networking issue (real or imagined) that they can think of. And it works back the other way with gripes about messy updates, the constant vigilance against viruses and so on. And as for Linux, even though even a non-technical person like myself knows that its existence has borne much of the computing world as we know it, well, some technicians will complain about the lack of paid support and posit that if it is free, then it can’t possibly be any good.

I like to believe that I am platform agnostic. I am happy to find my way around any OS, although my Ubuntu experience is limited to the Netbook Remix version sitting on my oldest son’s netbook. Windows has a certain logic to it that seems to make sense in a school Network – and kids can easily save work to their folder and retrieve the contents from any connected computer on the system. I love my MacBook Pro and will probably buy Mac again for my own personal use – and it has become a bit of a cliche at my school with teachers who have become fervent Mac users to quote,”Once you try Mac, you’ll never go back.”

So, at my school, we are cross platform. This is as much about a conscious decision to do so as it was that when the three closing schools pooled their collective technology stock that there was a split of Macs and PCs that needed to be used. However, there are many advantages to have a foot in each major camp, so to speak. We don’t want kids who are like some of the teachers – scared of a particular platform because they will need to “learn something new”. In a world that is web based, whether your browser sits in a Windows OS or a Mac one is entirely irrelevant until instinct has you lunging for either the right or left side to close the window. As long as kids can make sense of menus and taskbars and file paths, then there is no good reason why Office should be preferred over other word processing tools, no reason why iMovie should be the only way to edit video. And with tablet devices bringing in more alternative operating systems (Android, iOS etc.) restricting today’s learners to only one company’s worldview of technology aided learning just doesn’t make sense. I know the big companies probably don’t support this point of view – things like Microsoft Innovative Teaching awards and Apple Distinguished Educator programs just emphasise that one way is the way to go.  But learning isn’t device dependent – but it is increasingly becoming network enabled. And I mean the one without the capital letter.

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/mac_pc.png

Learning Through The Screen

How we make sense of the world beyond our own personal day to day experiences?

For me, it started with books mixed with the occasional dose of television back in a fairly isolated childhood back on the farm. My first impressions of what life might be like in the English countryside were shaped by Enid Blyton books and popular music culture via Molly Meldrum and the weekly Countdown Top Ten. I was so insulated in this rural, Lutheranised existence that when I started Year Five at the Appila Rural School (school population: 13 kids) I had no answer to the typical Australian playground question, “Who do you barrack for?” My then best friend went for the Port Adelaide Magpies and so I did. His favourite player was Russell Ebert and so he became mine. Saturday afternoon SANFL broadcasts on the radio and Saturday evening replays suddenly opened up a part of the world that I had no idea existed.

So information flowed to me through newspapers, radio, books, films and television, painting a collective picture of the world beyond my day to day experiences. My concepts of other countries, of other places, of other people were all shaped by this information drip feed. And I thought that I was pretty well informed although in reality, my grasp was pretty opaque in its clarity.

Contrast that now to the view of the outside world that I now get through digital technologies. Much has been written about the fire hose effect of the web but the freedom I now have to pursue any line of research or interest that I want is bringing my learning to an unparallelled level. A concept or topic might come up in conversation and via the internet, I can be tracking down digital pieces to bring together a richer and deeper understanding. Maybe a few examples paint the picture about how the web can fill in the gaps of comprehension.

A few years ago, my class were covering an inquiry unit on the plight of refugees and we were lucky enough to have a student teacher of Serbian background whose family had fled war torn Sarajevo speak to the students about her experiences. That talk prompted my own curiosity and via the web, I easily found articles, video clips and images that helped to grasp some (definitely not all) of the wider perspective of an extremely complex situation.  I could read first hand accounts from multiple perspectives, view the work of photojournalist Ron Haviv or view any number of first hand home video accounts on YouTube. All of this adds up to a much more complex and informative picture than any sanitised television special or reference book could provide.

Digital information and media delivers more detail, more avenues to explore and a greater opportunity for self-participation in the pursuit of learning than mere paper based text or traditional media can deliver alone. That does not mean that traditional outlets don’t have a part to play in my expanding knowledge of the world that I cannot see, touch or feel on a daily basis but my greatest moments of clarity happen more and more online. Individuals who I have never met face to face offer insights into their personal life that enable me to peek into the ordinary and mundane (to them anyway) parts of their everyday life that I find personally interesting and insightful. Be it Doug Noon’s descriptions of an Alaskan winter, the first snow fall in Chris Harbeck’s Winnipeg, Sue Waters’ tweets about American Coke or Leigh Blackall’s family trip to the Philippines, I get a little taste of the world beyond my limited suburban Australian vista.

It does reinforce the old adage that the more you know, the more you start to realise that you don’t know very much of what there is to know. The internet is the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled and traversing its vastness one network link at a time is all one person can do.

worldbeyond

2010 Wrap It Up

So, 2010 is just about done and I thought I would just throw a few thoughts down about the past twelve months and things I’ve noticed from a personal perspective. I don’t watch much television and very rarely read paper based books any more but I’ve enjoyed sitting down in the evenings since school ended a few weeks back with no particular goal to be achieved and to indulge in some DVD watching. I’ve decided to re-watch The Wire (all 5 seasons if I can manage it) and there are also a stack of Big Bang Theory DVDs to watch which were Christmas gifts when I decide. I’ve steered clear of too much online participation and not being approached to be part of any PLP cohorts over summer this year has meant that I’ve felt extremely unobligated to any online conversation. I’ve also been playing with an iPad for the first time, trying it out to see whether I feel it has potential in our school. I’d have to say that at this stage I’m underwhelmed by it but it was nice to have web access when visiting the folks up in the mid-North before Christmas in their internet broadband black hole. My parents had never seen Google Maps before and looked at me like I was performing witchcraft when I showed them Street View right past my brother’s farm. My father still has a fully functional IBM 386 computer running Windows 3.1 that he does his tax calculations on, complete with matrix printer so the iPad is so advanced as to seem not quite real to my parents.

Looking back, it’s been a full on year work wise as I’ve juggled part time classroom responsibilities with the bits and pieces that make up my Coordinator role. For the first time, I didn’t go to any big conferences. That will change next year as my school has been accepted as one of 20 Microsoft Innovative Schools in Australia – this means a few trips interstate for 2011 including Canberra, where I’ve never been before. So perhaps, I’ll need to trade in my iPhone for a Windows phone although maybe I’ll take my son’s Ubuntu netbook along for taking notes instead.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed over the year – a big increase in my consumption of music thanks to the ease of iTunes as a way of managing and accessing music. I’ve always enjoyed listening to rock music (mainly) and still have a huge collection of cassette tapes from my late teens and early twenties that would be cool to digitalise. Having kids over the past ten years has really sapped my music interest and listening – time to sit and listen to music when being involved with young kids seemed to go out the window, plus blasting my peculiar taste in the house was always a touch too selfish on my behalf when kids are napping or playing. Having the iPhone has brought back my personal music interest right back where I could listen walking, in the car or even when working on my laptop. I’m finding myself walking around stores like Sanity and JB Hi-Fi more often, buying CDs after a decade of hiatus at very cheap prices. I have CDs from the mid-nineties with $30 on the price label while now I won’t buy it unless there is a twenty per cent discount or it’s below fifteen bucks. After tiring of the screechy sounds of the white earbuds that are standard on Apple products (which are still better than most ear bud products out there) I even lashed out today for a lightweight pair of Sennheiser headphones for a better sound experience. I had a pair of yellow padded Sennheisers back when I was at teacher’s college in the late eighties that were great (from memory) and I think I’d listen to an album or so in the dark before going to sleep. While my 2010 music resurgence hasn’t quite got back to the same extreme, I can credit digital music and its affordability and convenience for it.

Well, I think this post confirms that my thought patterns are running pretty shallow at present. I could also mention that this year has seen me purchasing stuff online more often and that I’ve even gotten into some Wii gaming in a minor way. I’m always a bit behind the times for a technology lover, with my spendthrift Lutheran upbringing tempering too many impulse buys throughout the year. Anyway, have a great New Year and hopefully, this blog will continue to be a useful place for reflection and documentation.

PLN Semantics – More Out There Thinking

Must be a sign that certain ideas buzz around networks at a similar time, prompting a wide array of thoughts and ideas. I posted my mind dump yesterday at a similar time that Terry Freedman was pondering his own questions.

Then this morning, I found that one of my very favourite online writers, Jennifer Jones, had posted her own querying and probing cogitations. I was trying to nail down what I personally thought a PLN was, but Jennifer was pulling the whole thing apart questioning the unwritten laws and conventions that seem to accompany such a concept. Some excerpts:

2.  I believe people learn all the time, and everywhere.  I don’t need to isolate or elevate a group of individuals to be my PLN.

9.  I know people who have no desire to blog. I know people who lack charisma. I know creative people, who don’t function well in this space.  They will be excluded, for not playing by the rules.  They don’t “get it.”

I’m looking forward to her next “thinking out loud” installment. I think it is really good when “givens” are questioned openly and potential meanings of a phrase like PLN fully interrogated.

PLN = Perplexing Linguistic Notion

Like any educator, I love a good acronym.

Like any user of social media tools, I love a good acronym.

Here’s one that’s really popular – PLN. Stands for Personal Learning Network. Gets bandied around a lot by educators using social media tools. Myself included.

We all think we know what we are talking about when we refer to our PLN.

Well, I do, at least. Not too sure about some of you others out there. Here’s what I personally think my PLN is:

  • infrequent or frequent use of social media tools of my own personal choice like my blog, Twitter, Reader, Slideshare (I could keep naming ‘em) to read, view, communicate, write, talk, learn with other social media users on topics of my personal interest.
  • nodes on my personally constructed compiled network are people who are serendipitious discoveries, linked to in a variety of ways via comments, blogrolls, twitter lists as I trawl my way through my social media connections.
  • my PLN is a bunch of frequently travelled highways, deserted dirt tracks and narrow one-way alleys to other people’s thoughts, opinions and ideas.
  • I have nodes that respond to me as much as I respond to them, some who don’t know or even care that I exist, and those who I’m blissfully unaware of that read my dubious collection of posts, tweets, comments and random digital utterances.

A PLN is a notoriously hard beast to accurately describe and I know that my take is not a universal notion. I like a lot of the thinking that went into defining the differences between groups, communities and networks a while back – especially from people with deeper thought processes than mine. So, with that bit of digital history on my cerebral back burner, here’s a few things that I think a PLN is not:

  • a one stop shop where all great educators come to drink from the common digital watering hole. Because not everyone on my PLN is an educator, not everyone reads and links to the same group of thinkers. Beware of Nings advertising themselves as such – they may be a Learning Network, but they are not, in my mind, Personal.
  • possible to assemble in one spot at one event in time, not even virtually. Diversity, controversy and civilised disagreement are the seeds for pushing boundaries of thinking. Some echoing in the chamber isn’t a bad thing but you don’t everyone singing together like a well honed choir.
  • not fixed. Sources can be dumped and replaced as I see fit. You can do the same with my posts, tweets etc. Flick ‘em if they are just adding to the digital noise.

So, I’d love to read some challenging of people the next time they trot out the PLN acronym. Semantics is an important element of any popular turn of phrase used in varying forms of communication and my own personal will vary from many other points of view. By all means, challenge me and my admittedly flawed thinking. What exactly do others mean? And do they believe that their particular interpretation is the only one going?

And if any readers can come up with a more entertaining alternative explanation to the PLN acronym than the one I’ve used in my title, please let everyone know in the comments. After all, PLN could mean Pretty Limited Nonsense.

pln

Just Give Me A Decent Conversation And I Might Just Learn Something

I’m thinking out loud here following a stream of consciousness triggered from Dean Groom’s post today. His theme was trust and how it evolves in an online network – my brain started throwing how that related to my own experiences and so I left a starting point in a comment:

I find that trust builds up time on the web – it develops over a sustained period of reading someone’s work, reading and conversing via comments, seeing where their masked agendas and sacred cows lurk and following their links back to their origins. My most trusted sources are ones willing to hear out my point of view or wonderings without putting me in my box in a reactive way. After all, if I just want dispensed wisdom I can just listen to a pontificated podcast or read a published article from a trusted traditional media source. I want a conversation – and to get anything of value out of that, mutual trust is pretty important.

My learning team had a PD Seminar on Wednesday focussing on Personalised Learning (more commonly referred to as Differentiated Instruction in other parts of the world) where the most valuable learning for the day was when I was engaged in conversation with my colleagues. Our presenter /facilitator, Pam Burton, did a brilliant job of opening up pathways to consider, drawing us in with activities that required conversation, self examination and questioning.

That’s what the web offers me and other connected educator – the opportunity for conversational learning. That conversation is the real catalyst for learning – the content gives us all a context and framework as I’m finding out in my Intel Thinking With Technology course that I’m currently running with six middle primary teachers at my school. The course is secondary to the opportunity to connect, toss ideas around in a more personal setting that I would find less useful even with a group of closer to ten people. So, why would I bother with presenting to larger groups at a conference? That’s not a conversation – and it’s difficult to know what others are getting out of it, even if I think I’m offering something worthwhile.

A disgruntled parent about twelve years once accused me of running a shotgun curriculum – stand at the front, spray it out and hope it hits someone. (To be fair to myself, his major gripe was more with his perceived shortcomings of the system I served. I was merely a typical cog in the machine.) Teacher PD is still much like that – expert delivers, we all take notes and somehow we take enough away to improve our own learning and that of our students. If you’re an engaging speaker then this approach can work – to an extent. John Hattie was a recent example of this where his research was presented in such a way that two hours flew and his message was sticky enough to last into the conversations that resulted over the following days and weeks. But this is still a mother bird feeding its open mouthed chicks approach.

I know I’ve harped on this before but there is a disturbing irony when someone uses this approach to inform others about the benefits of networked learning. What else can we do? I don’t think that I want to front up to another state conference to talk up the benefits of online learning. The other twist is that there is an unending source of conversation/s sitting in my Google Reader, in my Twitter stream, in my Ning communities with like minded educators who also need no convincing but at the local level, there is still still admiration for the self promoting experts who will show us all the way to classroom learning nirvana. Too many educators that I cross paths with have no idea of the freedom, the power, the connection they can make with a little effort and time. I can do some influencing in a situation like my Intel course time where there is room for the conversation to grow.

How do you grow the conversation? I’d like to know.

Photo of Flat Students created by Alex and Colin Harbeck.

Photo of Flat Students that were created by Alex and Colin Harbeck.

Network Payoff

I work three days a week in a primary classroom. So, theoretically, I am in a good position for putting edtech and Web 2.0 idealism into a realistic roadtest situation. I don’t stand behind podiums at conferences berating and exhorting the masses to bring their classroom into the digital world. I don’t have influential push (or pull) within my own system – and I’m not sure what I’d be suggesting even if I did. But I have invested an enormous amount of my life over the past four years into this networked learning thing. If anything, I have a lot of digital runs on the board. Heh, the Geoffrey Boycott ¹ of edublogging. That could be me.

So, I feel that my personal benefit has been enormous. I connect with a wide array of educators who feed me a daily diet of inspiration, insight and practical resources. I have become more aware of how education systems work in various parts of the world. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people that I’ve come across in my lifetime – some I’ve conversed with on Skype and in Elluminate and Adobe Connect or just the comments sections of blogs. My network connections have given me opportunity to present about my experiences at conferences and online events, and I’ve learned about connectivism, social media, gained a more balanced view about cybersafety issues and heard about Illich, Gatto and Postman for the first time.

I couldn’t give up my Network now – it gives too much to me.

But I work in a role where I’m meant to be bringing the “good oil” to teachers, helping them to get their feet wet in technology use and showing them how the web can transform student learning. It is a role that sets me up as some sort of “expert” which can be a problem in a couple of ways.

Firstly, Darren Kuropatwa points out in his reference to neophytes that “Experts have a different aura about them. That aura of expertise is intimidating for neophytes.” His basic premise is that any message that an educator with “expert” status might try to seed with his or her own colleagues will be perceived to be unattainable and beyond their reach. So all of my efforts to highlight how easy digital tools are and how empowering technology can be via workshops, team teaching and other training could actually be unproductive.

Dean Groom also talks about the burbclave effect – where teachers don’t have to go and become innovative users of technology because if they have one connected educator on staff, they just have to wait until it is brought to them. It’s the effect when staff say they can’t use their IWB until they’ve had some training, where they wait for a list of good numeracy websites to be emailed to them (or given to them on a printed piece of A4) or wait until they are given release time for planning before they will even look at something like the ISTE Standards.

Ironically that while someone like me may well be viewed as somewhat of a local expert, the educators I connect to and learn from leave me feeling very neophytic indeed. When I measure myself globally, my local credentials shrink down to small proportions.

The building of your own social media network is such a personal journey that it is a very difficult beast to describe in such a way that non-web-savvy educators see the point. It’s why I won’t ever bother offering a Web 2.o / PLN / using social media to learn presentation or workshop ever again. I’ll guarantee that no-one has ever been turned onto blogging based on anything I’ve ever said or wrote – its value is intrinsically linked to the individual’s needs. If a teacher is not interested in exploring the internet on his or her own time, then they are never going to see where this could take them or how it could impact their classroom.

Which brings me to my next point. Many of us edubloggers assume that what we learn online is directly transferable into our classrooms. We also assume that if more educators did what we did (read, write, link, share, create) then we would end up with these amazing transformed classrooms. So, we spend time preaching the benefit of social media tools even though there is no one simple recipe, even though this networked learning thing is intensely personal and damn near impossible to replicate.

I keep wondering if the time spent to become proficient in the online world (note I wrote proficient, not expert!) is worth the investment in potentially transformed pedagogy in the classroom. I have spent many hours online, eschewing television and other possible hobbies, and I know that many, many of my colleagues are not prepared to invest the same amounts of time into this medium. I know that my investment is worthwhile – for me. But I struggle to see how social media can transform the primary school classroom. There are so many compromises that need to be made in the name of online safety and duty of care, barriers in terms of computer access and the pressure of the traditional curriculum that I can see why so many teachers wait to be told what to do in terms of technology use, rather than take the risks involved with being an innovator.

I think my next step is examine my own classroom practice to see what has changed in my approach since becoming connected back in 2005. I suspect that the process is so gradual that I may find it difficult to recall my former practice with any accuracy. And if I, the enthused educator playing with connected technologies in my spare time, can take so long to work out what can translate into today’s classroom, what hope does a less enthusiastic teacher have of bridging the gap of digital possibilities?

Just thinking, that’s all.

walk2web

¹. The metaphoric comparison may be lost on any non-Commonwealth non-cricket playing readers. Geoffrey Boycott’s career was characterised by lengthy stints at the batting crease, accumulating runs at an extremely slow rate often to the frustration of both the opposition and his team mates. Certainly not as talented as others in his era, his dogged style meant that he hung around for a long time in a somewhat selfish manner.
2. The really cool visualisation of links out from my blog comes from walk2web.

Digital Transition

Transition – 1. Passage from one form, state, style, or place to another.

I struggled to find the right word to decribe what I’m trying to sort through in my mind at the moment. I wanted a word to describe the middle ground between say a traditional paper based, non-digital classroom and the always on, connected 1:1 environment I saw the other week in Melbourne. I first thought netherworld captured that essence initially but a quick check on the actual meaning quickly showed that word was inappropriate.  I thought digital purgatory had a nice ring to it, but using computers is not a form of atonement so I’ve settled for the less edgy transition.

My school and in particular, my own classroom runs a form of digital transition. I’ve coined this term as an inner mind response to discussions with my colleagues during and after our visit to see the 1:1 laptop program at St Albans Meadows Primary School. We share a bank of twenty laptops across four classrooms so as teachers, we have learned to be quite creative and flexible in our use of this limited resource. So, what is digital transition?

Digital transition – not a traditional place of learning but not quite the transformed connected classroom either. There are times when circumstances force the teacher and the class back into traditional mode  – when networks go down, when laptop access is scarce, when time is tight – to become a place where whole class instruction. worksheet driven activities and lock step units are then more commonplace. When the technology is available, things flow more easily and students can attend to tasks with full access to preferred tools as required.

Does anyone have a better phrase to encapsulate what I’m trying to describe here?