Middle Aged Gaming

We bought a new Xbox during the Christmas holidays, complete with Kinect. Apart from the bundled games, the first game my youngest son bought was NBA 2K13 as the house has sort of gone basketball mad over the last 18 months. Despite my interest in games, I have never really gotten into any serious games.

Until now.

The first thing I like about this game is that is a sports sim. It may well be a product of  my childhood where I wasn’t given any opportunity to play any form of competitive sport until I was sent away to boarding school at the age of twelve. I had just started wearing glasses so I didn’t play any of the team sports where they might get broken – football being the one sport that I enjoyed watching but was too poorly skilled in and too terrified of to participate in. Maybe I had very little physical skills to start with or because other kids had spent their childhood chasing and hitting balls around ovals and courts, by the time I had become a young adult my keenness to play sports like football and basketball were tempered by a huge lack of coordination and strength. So, a game where I get to be the supremely talented athlete appeals to me on that level, satisfying that part of my psyche that has been undernourished from any sporting recognition throughout my life.

A week or so after getting the XBox I bought a few other games for myself – Forza, the game that satisfies those car lovers who couldn’t afford the type of machinery shown in the game in their real life (or couldn’t afford to drive in the same manner even if they could), Madden NFL 13 and NHL12. All are great games and really fun to play but they still have fallen by the wayside when compared to 2K13. Driving fictional cars is OK in small doses for me, Madden is great but my reactions are a bit slow and being Australian means that I don’t have an innate understanding of the intricacies of the American gridiron game, and NHL is very hard to play when you have no idea what you are doing.  Meanwhile, I understand basketball. The last two years of watching my son play every Friday night and Saturday morning has rekindled an interest in a game that I haven’t taken a lot of notice of since Michael Jordan retired.

So I have started to spend a lot of free time on this game. It is the single biggest reason that blogging has gone from a crawl to a almost-standstill on this site. I don’t watch a lot of television but I’ve been putting off watching the stockpiled episodes of series that I do like (Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Luther) in order to get a fix of NBA fantasy. So, I’m trying to unpack here why this game has affected me more than any other, why this has been my hook into gaming (for the moment) and why I am prepared to spend my free time (which isn’t a great deal after family and work commitments) on this digital fantasy.

The first part of the game that grabbed my attention was the MyCareer mode. In this, you create a player giving him the attributes, skills and looks you want before letting him loose in a Rookie game where he will be picked by in the Draft by an NBA club. Again, a psychologist could probably have a field day looking at gamers’ NBA avatars and comparing it to the reality hunched over on the couch. My player has my own name,  long shaggy hair (probably because my own hair is thinning and unremarkable), multiple tattoos and is 6′ 7″ and extremely athletic. Make of that what you will! Basically, you then play games with the club that recruits you, seeking to improve your scoring and efforts on defence to earn Skill Points (or Virtual Coins on XBox live) which can be spent to upgrade skill areas which make you a better player who then scores and defends better and earns yet more Skills Points. Continuous improvement is the goal – and achievements along the way showcases that improvement. You get offered endorsements, make the front page of Sports Illustrated, make the starting line up, get invited to the All Star game (definitely not achieved yet) and hopefully play on a team that makes it all the way to an NBA championship.

So, this becomes very addictive because I am playing out a career. After a while, I realised that I wasn’t very good and wondered how to restart the player I had in a new career. This actually led to me looking online for Xbox gaming communities and forums where I could hopefully gain some better insight to get some better results. YouTube had gamer created tutorials showing various move options – so I adopted a couple that I thought would be within my capability and took to the virtual practice court. In my bid to become a better player, and looking for ways to fast forward the process, I found an answer on a forum that offered a quick fix – using Microsoft XBox points to buy Virtual Coins. We had some spare points after Josh had bought some small games on XBox Live using a $25 1500 Points redeem card so in a bid to be a player who could at least sink some basic shots, I actually spent some real money to improve my player. Not a lot of money, mind you, probably $5 or so but the point is that the desire to become better had me parting with actual dollars.

YouTube also revealed a way to create the perfect player in terms of maximum skills by accessing unlimited Skills Points. So I quickly had to learn how to format a USB drive to transfer files from the XBox hard drive, how to download some pieces of hacker freeware, and how to modify the save files and profile files so that it was possible. This was fun but felt like cheating so I applied the hack to a new profile and created a fictional player with over a billion Skill Points and upgraded him to the maximum possible in every skill category available. It was still my slow reactions and gameplay choices happening but I could now pull off many more ambitious shots with this character and be able to achieve the Career Achievements more readily. Interestingly, I have barely used this character but have spent about 90% of my time on my first MyCareer player. The longer I play, the more I learn about how some choices in the past would have improved my progress. I made my player 26 years old as a rookie (subtracting twenty from my current age) but on reflection should have made him 20 as now my career will peter out six years earlier than what could have been possible.

One of the important milestones is to become a starter, one of the five best in the team and the best in the team at your chosen position. Here hindsight shows that I made some poor choices that led to diminished opportunity. Several years into MyCareer, I had been playing well for the Atlanta Hawks and had reached the end of a season playing well off the bench. I was a free agent able to court offers from several teams interested in my talents – and three of them were offering to make me a starter. One was the team I was in and the one I should have stayed with as I already knew the style of play of the team but again, something from deep from within my brain was attracted to the offer from the Chicago Bulls. As the whole concept of 2K13 is about playing out the fantasy of being a premier NBA player, being a starter on the famed Bulls was too tempting to resist. But this fictional Bulls team were hard to play with, Derek Rose wouldn’t pass to me and the team had a mediocre year missing the playoffs. I tried to rectify the situation by requesting a trade to another team, the Warriors where my starter status lasted five games before I was relegated back to the sixth man role.

One of the features of digital games is the ability to do over when things go awry. I could and still can scrap this mediocre career with its mature age start, poor trade requests, uncapitalised starting roles and do over from the beginning again with a much better knowledge of how to play this thing to a higher level. But something addictive has me hanging onto this imperfect first effort – maybe it’s the giving up of all those Virtual Coins, maybe it’s all of those invested hours building this thing up, I don’t know.

Or maybe it’s the connection with my young son when we play head to head and the bragging banter about each other’s MyCareer player. He plays this thing a lot differently. He’s created over half a dozen careers already and never got past two or three seasons. He’s started a team in the Association mode and filled it with AllStars and enjoys playing with an unbeatable combination of LeBron, Kobe, Chris, Dwight and Kevin. He doesn’t do the same mode game after game, switching things around at an unsettling (for me) pace.

So what does this all mean? I don’t really know – I am just unpacking the thoughts in my mind to try and work out why this game has unlocked my middle aged gaming focus, what are the elements of this game that creates community out on the web and why the fictional version can be more fun than watching the real thing. If anyone wants to play amateur shrink in the comments, your insight and linking to digital gaming in general is most welcome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and suit up for the Lakers.

On the free throw line.

Put The Spoon Away

True story.

Names not used and context changed to protect those who need protection.

Leader in a school sends out email to primary school staff informing them about the new Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, and includes a link to the website. Receives an email back from staff member complaining that the link doesn’t work and could the correct one be emailed back out.

When will some teachers give up the expectation to be spoon fed everything? It literally takes less than a minute to type in “aitsl teacher standards” into Google, click on the first link and navigate the website to find what was required. It would even have taken less time than the typing of the reply email to point out the mis-leading link.

Still a lot of work to do in order to re-define professional learning, and for teachers to activate the desire to leverage technology for self learning.

Feed me by ~ GromekTwist

What Your Classroom Says About You, The Educator

Walking into a vacant classroom and having a look around (even without the students being there) can tell you a lot about the sort of learning that goes on in there. How the furniture is laid out, the posters and work samples on the wall, the artifacts and resources available all tell a story of what is valued and what is possible for the students assigned to that classroom.

I’m picturing a couple of classrooms (fictional but typical of some that I have seen)  in my head as I type. I’m not going to identify when, where or who – but one I’m thinking of had class desks in a haphazard array, with very little displays of anything on the walls. The teacher’s desk takes up a sizable portion of the corner of the room and is a dumping ground with mounds of worksheets, student workbooks and newsletters threatening to slew off onto the floor. The laptop trolley is left open with laptops stuck in on varying angles and power chargers dangling unattached. The philosophy espoused by the teacher is of student choice but in a very unstructured way – the kids determine the seating arrangements but personalisation is catered using a worksheet driven approach. There is freedom but very little responsibility. There is choice but no structure. Nothing on the walls indicate that nothing is important enough to showcase – or that the teacher doesn’t want to find the time to get any displays happening. Maybe, this teacher clocks out as soon as possible when the students leave so there is minimal time left to try and create an inviting environment. What sort of learning is possible in this space?

The next classroom has sections divided off for specific purposes. There aren’t designated seats for specific students to sit at but a central spot within the classroom is set aside for whole class instruction or for students to sprawl out for reading or doing partner activities. The room has different furniture options for the students to use – some low seats, cushions in a corner, some higher stools at a higher table. Your eyes are drawn to the various areas and there doesn’t seem to be a teacher’s desk either. This speaks to a different commitment to enabling student learning – it is apparent that not all children can be involved in the same activity as a whole class easily.

We had Lisa Burman speak to our staff on Thursday in our lead up to the start of the school year. Her focus in the morning session was on the strategic design of learning environments and she shared examples of classrooms where the teacher had re-designed the layout to reflect a changed approach to pedagogy. It certainly provoked a flurry of activity in the afternoon when teachers headed to set up their classrooms for the start of the 2013 school year. People were keen to “de-clutter” and “re-design their learning spaces” which meant that her message about the learning space being an accurate picture of a teacher’s approach to learning hit home. Some teachers who had already been strategically thinking in this way and had started their journey of re-examining what their learning space should be were visited by those who hadn’t thought too deeply about these things before. Others who looked at a space and only saw one picture of how the classroom could look asked others for their opinion and vision to break free of their own entrenched comfortable habits. Hopefully, no one was misguided enough to believe that the simple re-design of a classroom meant that their teaching practice would be transformed. But thinking consciously about this is an important step towards examining one’s own teaching practice.

I thought back to some of the teaching spaces I have inhabited over my career. I’ve taught in transportables, open space units, traditional single classrooms, a former library complete with an upstairs annexe and a brand new BER “21st century learning” building at my previous school. However, it is what is done within those classrooms that is most important – you will find more about that in an old blog post of mine from 2006 titled Classrooms. However, I think that when you know what learning should look like for your learners, then the learning space design will be shaped in the best way to make that happen.

My 2010 / 11 BER classroom being built.

 

Penguins In Decline

The family got back yesterday from a few days down on the Fleurieu Peninsula, basing ourselves at Goolwa. This is the third time in three years and it really is a nice part of the world to kick back and take things easy for a bit. We were looking forward to some nice weather but Wednesday was a bit cooler than expected so we changed our plans around a bit, trading in a day at the beach for a walk across the causeway to Granite Island at Victor Harbor, and to check out the Little Penguin centre on the island.

Recuperating little penguins from Granite Island at the Penguin Centre.

Here a small number of volunteers look after a small group of little penguins who have suffered injuries that prevent them from rejoining their colleagues in the wild. There was a feeding scheduled for 11.00 am and so we paid our money and shuffled in to see these little guys. The lady who came out to feed them their daily ration of pilchards was a passionate advocate for their welfare and shared a wealth of information about this unique bird with us, not all of it heartwarming. She shared with us factual information about their life cycle, how they spent their days fishing up to 50 km away from their burrows on Granite Island, returning at dusk to rest up before departing before sunrise to head out into the ocean again. I suggested to my youngest, Josh that we should sign up for the guided tour that night to check out the penguins as they came home for the night. I then got my next shock.

Ever since I can remember there have been little penguins at Granite Island. So going on a tour had been one of those things that I’d put aside for a future date – because there would always be another time in the future when I could do it. But the colony on Granite Island is in severe decline. Back in 2000, a census put the numbers of penguins on Granite Island at around 2000 – making good use of the over 200 human constructed burrows. Most of these are built into the cliff alongside the main road leading from the causeway around to the kiosk/bistro/souvenir shop putting their homes in very close contact with human activity. By 2011, that number had declined down to around 100 birds, but a recent 2012 census put the numbers to a really scarily low 26 penguins. So, the reality is that very few penguins can now be seen at dusk clambering out of the water, scuttling across the tram-tracked road and beating a hasty retreat to their burrow. When we went on the tour that night, we saw one solitary penguin make that trek back home. I had imagined dozens of them in my mind before being confronted with this fact.

The volunteers put down the severe decline in numbers due to a natural phenomenon – the New Zealand fur seal whose numbers in the area were on the steady increase. We were told about another colony of penguins (about 100) on a more remote island near Victor Harbor that has been wiped out by the fur seals moving in. The seals weren’t being seen on Granite Island possibly because of the presence of humans, but were nabbing the penguins while they were out on their fishing trips. And based on the washed up penguin bodies, the volunteers concluded that they weren’t being pursued as food but the seals were killing them as a form of sport, much like a cat kills birds sometimes, just because it can. The volunteers also said that something else unusual was happening with the Granite Island penguins. Normally, December and January are prime viewing times to see penguins before they headed into a two to three week feed up in preparation for the moulting season. The penguins hunt and consume enough fish to double their body weight so that they can survive a two week starvation period back in the burrow as they moult the old feathers and allow the new feathers to fully seal up their natural water proofing. But this year, they had headed out to sea two months early to start their fattening up process. Whether this was a response to their decline in numbers, no one is sure, but it is a sign that things are not as they should be. The little guy we saw waddling was certainly well into the gaining weight process.

So, it was good to do the tour while we still can. But there are a number of questions that pop into my mind. Is this a problem that can be helped by human intervention? Or is it just part of nature and we only care because this is a colony that drives visitors to a place? Why is that numbers have to drop to such a critical low before bigger bodies like local councils and governments take notice? I’m sure that the volunteers and researchers were waving the alert flag before now. And what about people like me who feel saddened now because it is in my immediate consciousness soon to be forgotten in due course as other issues vie for my attention and compassion? And what will the Granite Island colony look like next year when we head back to that part of the world for our family holiday?

MinecraftEDU Observations – FWIW

I’ve been running some Friday afternoon sessions with a small group of middle primary students on our relatively new MinecraftEDU server. I’m running this as part of a small research project to explore what links to learning are possible and useful using Minecraft as the forum. I know that Minecraft can be a successful vehicle for learning – my son shows me this with Massively Minecraft, and there are a multitude of Dean Groom blog posts to cement the point home. I also read another informative blog MinecraftEdu Elfie that share first hand experiences of using this tool within the classroom. I’ve also been out to a nearby local primary school where a teacher, David Tucker is doing fabulous things with students from a wide range of cultures and social backgrounds. So, I know that the potential is there – but my school’s question is definitely along the lines of – “What could this mean for our kids?”

So, the group of students is my test bed for some action research on a weekly basis, which is a bit infrequent for my liking. But I thinking that a secondary goal is to create some awareness and teacher buy-in, so a slow build up is OK with me for the moment. My other issue is that I’m not a big Minecraft fan personally, lacking motivation and patience to get much past creating a very basic house and mastering flying around the world. So, I recruited real expertise to run the teacher function of the MinecraftEDU set up in the form of a very knowledgeable Year Six student who had the right blend of responsibility, ability to listen to layman style goals (from my mouth) and willingness to improvise for the benefit of a group of younger students. This student has been awesome, bringing a steady hand to the controls within the teacher interface, and he has been constantly offering ideas to make each session a worthwhile experience. He has suggested treasure hunts, separate zones for specific activities and even worked on griefer-management strategies. In his classroom, he’s just another quiet kid but in my sessions, he has grown in confidence to display real leadership and decision making skills – a real commander-in-chief, allowing me to take on a more observational role and see what kids will actually do in the Minecraft environment.

David Tucker’s classroom had highly developed concepts where he had students working in pairs researching and building castles, while EduElfie has his students building models of DNA in the Science classroom. But I decided to start with a much blanker slate. Basically, I wanted a blank “world” where the invited student researchers would be free to create their own choices of buildings etc. I wanted to see what learning naturally evolved without too much teacher intervention – could the kids be self directed learners within MinecraftEDU. I liked the idea of a “teacher” moderator role and found the ideal candidate in the before mentioned student who has explored the meta-controls to a much greater depth than I could. I certainly didn’t want anything being held up by my lack of knowledge. So, the kids came, logged on and I logged in as well as a casual observer to see what would unfold.

One interesting thing that I noted early on was that the students all started building structures in close proximity to each other. In a world where no one was restricted by borders, everyone clustered together within elbowing distance of each other building structures that were so close to each other that I could barely fly between them without colliding with a wall (that could also be my lousy mouse control within Minecraft). And some of the social and play problems that plague our students out in the yard started to replicate themselves in Minecraft – instead of arguments and interference in others’ games, we had “griefing” issues and lava pouring out of walls. So social skills and play skills are another potential application for the MinecraftEDU environment.

I’ve seen some great sharing and collaboration between the students over the term. Students have paired up in their building ventures, some have sought help and expertise from the older moderators to improve their tool sets and crafting abilities. Quiet students have come out of their shell to be quite animated in a liberating display of self-consciousness loss, and for a number of our ESL students, using the common language of English to describe quite complex processes to others has led to improvements in their oral abilities.

Another important thing to note has been the difference between the two modes of “Survival” and “Creative”. With my students, Survival brings out a tense, almost agitated atmosphere where decisions have to be made quickly and instinctively. Voices are high, the pace is frantic and it seems to be every player for him or herself. A switch to creative mode changes the mood significantly. Voices are calmer, more interactive and the deeper thinking and creative side of students has enough time and space to make an impact. Some kids enjoy the Survival mode as it is most game like, and aligns more with the experience they would have on a console game but there are some who find this mode to be too intense and something they don’t like. From a learning point of view, Creative seems to hold the most potential for our students.

From this research group, I am thinking that I now need a volunteer classroom for 2013. A place where this tool can help engage learners to meet some of the capabilities and achievement standards of our new Australian Curriculum. Time to scout out that teacher.

The Present Allows Us To Live In The Past

Thanks to YouTube, there is a massive amount of archival content uploaded from the video vaults from account users all over the world. Amongst all of the new stuff, the viral videos, the VEVO new releases, the videobloggers and the gaming walkthroughs, people have been busy uploading the past – music, advertisements, lots of snippets of popular culture. This brings about an interesting situation where I can pick up on a memory from the past, and start to fully immerse myself in all sorts of video content that brings that time back into clear focus.

Here’s a video that I found the other night:

It’s fun looking back at a given year in popular music because it shows that being popular at the time doesn’t necessarily translate into being popular for all time. I remember 1981 – Year 10 at high school – and running through this list of songs brings back interesting mental reactions. There are songs that make me glad that they didn’t enjoy popular play beyond ’81, some that make you think, “Oh, I remember this song – it was pretty good. Whatever happened to …?”, ones that I recall having on a mixtape or even shelling out the dollars for the cassette for and some that bring back an actual memory.

About midway through this video clip, a song from iconic British band, The Police, popped up and immediately I realised that I had bought a copy of Zenyatta Mondatta during that year. This realisation sends me scouring YouTube for other Police videos, looking for interviews with the band members and then finally onto iTunes, where I buy and download some tracks that had fallen off my immediate conscious memory. Even now, there is the urge to go and check out some concert footage from when they were in their prime (about 1983 in my opinion) and continuing this self indulgent trip down memory lane. In the past, this sort of scramble to re-activate my memory would have involved scrabbling around in my old cassette collection and that’s about it. But the web makes it so easy to soak in digital memories – I know that the web is the world’s biggest archive of digitised cultural artifacts – and all of the extra material from that era or place in time that I have never seen before all combine to give a feeling of “being back in time”.

Nothing earth shattering – but a realisation that I felt worth archiving for my posterity.

Making The Right Decisions

My role involves the management of a large budget – the school’s allocation of funds towards its technology purchases. It is my responsibility to make decisions about spending that money wisely. Only a few years back at my former school it involved the creation of 3 year plans with purchases mapped out over a time span and the purchasing spread over that time. There was (in some schools still is) a general rule of thumb that desktop computers had a useful life of about 5 years and laptops about 3. Of course, we tried to squeeze as much life out of our machines as possible, with some of the laptops I purchased in 2007 still being used around the school when I left in 2011. But with a wider array of devices available in a number of platforms, the mapping of a structured plan is becoming less important but flexibility and adaptability are key ingredients when planning.

My employer, DECD, obviously agrees as seen in the recent release of their ICT Strategy for 2012-2014 (I know, ironically a three year plan!):

Given the dynamic nature of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the rapid development of always connected technologies and devices, having a fixed three-to-five-year strategic plan has become unsuitable. What is emerging however is the critical nature of continual improvement and utilisation to current resources while scanning and examining emerging technologies for their potential impact on, and use in, the areas of child development, care and wellbeing and teaching, learning and administration.

This really is common sense, and at WGS, we have decided to check out the developing technologies by using a Lighthouse Classroom project approach. Specifically, the eLearning Committee, and myself look for innovative applications of technology and classroom teachers offer to trial and feedback to the larger staff group. The Lighthouse classrooms get technical and pedagogical support from me in my role, but the nature of teachers who volunteer for things like this tend to trend towards risk takers, active learners and problem solvers. Projects range from trialling tablet devices to using blogs to using Minecraft for learning – and there are many more avenues of opportunity to go down. In the end, what we (the school community) are trying to foster is a culture of innovation. We want to move from a school with pockets of innovation (because every school has them, supported or subversive) towards being an innovative school. An innovative school which does not rest in its goal of improving learning for all students – and the more complex the school, the more innovative we will need to be to meet that aim.

So, the technology purchases and money must align with that aim. So, some budget goes towards these exploratory classroom projects, which then helps to inform more mainstream purchasing for the wider school classrooms. It is very important for me to do the “scanning and examining emerging technologies for their potential impact” to ensure that decisions are made wisely, balancing between what we need is needed right now and what needs to be explored for its potentially improved impact on learning.

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.

Mixed Messages And Simple Truths

On Monday, I heard Dylan William say that computers don’t make a difference to learning in the classroom. On Thursday, I heard Gerry White say that technology is responsible for a 12% increase in achievement. Both asserted that their statements were backed by research.

Dylan William said on Monday (and Friday), “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not, however, entitled to your own facts.”

John Hattie said something similar back in 2011 when he was in Adelaide, “I’m sorry but you can’t argue with the research.”

Over time, we as educators have become used to listening to and reading from gurus with simple truths. So many of us feel that we are well below the expertise of these edugurus (and I don’t mean to single out the examples above as being the only ones going around) so we pack into venues, feverishly copying dot points from slideshows, handing over cash to buy the book and match up the dispensed wisdom against our own learning, our own classrooms and schools to see if we are headed in the prescribed direction. I am guilty as anyone of being part of this phenomenon but it is interesting how connecting to lots of non-edugurus has helped me spot the mixed messages and view this dispensed wisdom through a more critical (some might say cynical) lense.

Another example from Monday. When I first arrived at my previous school, there were a few teachers who were using the Brain Gym program pushed by a teacher who considered himself an expert on the matter of brain research. He had attended Brain Gym training, had gone to other Brain based PD (quite popular about ten years ago) but something about the whole program didn’t sit right with me. I got some evidence that this was so when Ewan McIntosh published a blog post in 2007 that queried some of the bogus science and research that was at the core of the program. He was of course being informed by others in his network, so he published further posts and pointed to the growing evidence. But if back in 2007, I told those devotees of Brain Gym of Ewan’s findings, I would have been scoffed at.

“What would some blogger know about Brain Gym? He’s not an expert. It’s based on up to date brain research.”

So I kept my mouth shut. But then Dylan William canned Brain Gym on Monday as well. Suddenly, teachers knew for sure that it was bogus, because an authoritative voice had said so. Not one of their colleagues, not some mysterious blogger from Scotland but someone who is currently viewed by our Australian educational community as an expert. We, as educators, are so conditioned to the notion that our knowledge isn’t expert enough, that our day to day experiences aren’t enough to grasp the bigger picture that we concede the higher factual ground to those on the stage or behind the podium.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a post against people like Dylan William or John Hattie who bring us their research, their findings and their advice. What they bring to us via their research, their books and their presentations is extremely valuable.  But I hope that as you sit in a keynote with a phone, tablet or laptop that connects you to the motherlode of information, the internet, you have enough faith in yourself to conduct some research of your own. Confront the mixed messages, don’t take the word of any guru as gospel, and look for the truths that emerge as you do so.

Just think of it as a form of information literacy.

Adapted from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41818779@N00/98309338 by Robert Scales.

#DLDA

This week is a bit of an overload on conference /professional learning events for me. On Monday, it was a whole day event with Dylan William, the Assessment for Learning guru along with the rest of my Woodville Gardens School colleagues. That was pretty good and I have some notes and quotes stored on my laptop.

“Technology is a great servant but a terrible master.” Dylan William during his session.

Today I went to an event titled Designing Learning in the Digital Age (twitter hashtag #DLDA) featuring Dr Gerry White as the opening keynote and sessions from Michael Coghlan, Alison Miller and Mike Seyfang. I went along because in my role as a Learning Technologies leader, I wanted to hear from and interact with other Australian elearning leaders and thinkers to help distill and define my own thinking about the directions I intend to push for at my school. It was an excellent day – and it brings home to me that we have local elearning expertise of the highest quality to interact and connect with. Why many educators feel that they are only really getting on board with networked learning if they can attend face to face sessions with an imported expert is a mystery for me. For me, Gerry’s keynote was a fascinating and informative meander through the online landscape, tying new trends with snippets from his research background. At times, he was blunt and passionate, but I think I have a much deeper appreciation for what he contributed to Australian elearning in his time as head of educationau, and the contributions he still continues to make. If you have a spare 90 minutes, it is well worth checking out the recording – http://t.co/YzPzP7w6.

“… technology is also about how people communicate and collaborate. It is also about the relationships between people.” Gerry White today.

As is usually the case with a day like this where a stack of ICT related topics are explored, there is heaps to consider, ponder and think through. I wrote some notes along the way, I’m re-listening to the opening keynote as I type – and I think I’ll pick out some of the ideas to interrogate in a few future blog posts.

Tomorrow, my boss, Frank and I present at an ILE (Innovative Learning Environments) conference that features Dylan William again, about the research project that we’ve started looking at learning using digital gaming. A few things from today will be resonating in my brain as I explain our project to other interested educators.

A screengrab from Gerry’s talk that highlights a great quote.