Friday, October 25, 2013

Looking for the 'Next Generation Solution' for Technology

The Day Technology Came to Town

Two things happened this week, the new iPad was released and the Immergo rolled into my classroom. A multi-touch surface that can act as both a vertical screen and a flat table, it came in as the latest and greatest tool for learning that every classroom needs, on loan for a week. It is similar to the screen used in the modern remake of the television show, Hawaii Five O. Described on the website as the 'next generation solutions for the classroom', it got me thinking what was the problem that was needed to be solved and is the Immergo really the solution.

Again the old chestnut came to mind, what comes first: the pedagogy or the technology. I have spoken about this before when I looked at the way we learn. What concerned me last time was you couldn't deal with ways of thinking without also addressing how we work and the tools we use. I think much the same can be said about addressing the tools for working in the 21st Century.

In his fantastic keynote for the 2011 ICTEV Conference, +Tom March spoke about the importance of refocusing education around learning and moving away from all the inhibiting factors, such as time and space. He describes technology as the real game changer, the enabler in all of this. Associated with this, he spoke about the danger of eternally waiting to jump on board the latest developments in technology, warning that there will always be something to replace what you are using today. At some point you really need to grapple with what you have. Instead of forever waiting for the next technological change, March suggested that we need to embrace organisational change, open the classroom to the world. For at the heart of it, what technology can do has not really changed in the last fifteen years (a point also made more recently by +Chris Betcher at the 2013 Melbourne Google Summit), what has changed is the way we use it. However, unlike in the early days, where everything was open, now we block sites, banned devices and poor bandwidth. Continuing the argument popularised through the TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson, March suggested that we need to move away from the constraints imposed by schools and instead focus on the possibilities of authentic learning.

I am left to wonder, are devices such as the Immergo the real game changer - the 'next generation solution' -  that everyone has been waiting for, or is the real solution already here simply waiting for us to embrace and engage with it? 

New Uses, Same Abuses

When I first saw the surface, I was reminded of the video series 'A Day Made of Glass':

Developed by glass manufacturer, Corning, the videos provide a snapshot of a future where everything is made out of smart glass, making every surface interactive and to be engaged with. In one scene a whole class of students stood around a glass table that had been turned in a touch screen and were experimenting with different colour combinations. It begs the question, is the image created by Corning really the future or just an elongated advertising campaign?

Let me then outline some of the uses and abuses that I observed associated the Immergo. Firstly, unlike the surface in either the Corning advertisement or Hawaii Five O, the Immegio doesn't allow a whole class to comfortably stand around it. When I tried to get my class all around it, I couldn't fit much more than six or so students, until it got rather squashy (and they were middle years students, I would hate to see how many senior students, let alone adults, would fit?) In addition to this, many of the apps had a decisive top and bottom of the screen, meaning that some students were disadvantaged. Don't ask about the cable.

Associated with this, the great utopian desire to decentralize the classroom and place more focus on the learner is only partially achieved. For although the surface can be moved around the room to where it is needed, due to its slightly cumbersome size, it simply creates a new focal point in the room. Although this may no longer be at the front of the room, it still creates a new centre, therefore, in my view, only temporarily alleviating the original problem.

The biggest concern I have is with the applications. Maybe I am just not imaginative enough or just restricted by the limitations of a demonstration model, but I don't believe that any of the applications offered within the interactive surface really provided for the creation of new original tasks, let alone the significant redefinition of current ones. For example, one of the applications allowed you to take apart a 3D model. It is pretty cool and offers a perspective that was previously unavailable. However, unless, as Tom March pointed out, there was a significant change in the way learning happens in the classroom, to me nothing much has really changed. For a new tool or program does not automatically constitute a new pedagogy.

The website for the Immergo suggests that the "integrated software ... allows for a seamless content collaboration." I do not necessarily disagree with this, but once you get a few people touching the device, it really starts to glitch and slow down. (I must admit, my students were really pushing it to the nth degree.)

I find it interesting to compare the Immergo with the ActivBoard Touch. Like the Immergo, the Touch also offers the potential to have multiple students interact with the board at once, not just write on it like traditional ActivBoards, which are dependant on the pen. I remember hearing Peter Kent talk on behalf of Promethean, at a presentation for the Touch about the potential for engaging students by creating content that they can manipulate, whether this be images, shapes or text. Getting them up to the screen and adding their own voice and opinion to the content. The Immergo offers much the same experience. What is most interesting though is that I have not really seen many teachers actually do this with ActivBoards, so why would they all the sudden change with the arrival of a new device offering much of the same capabilities. I think that if these applications were going to find any use, it would be in the early years. However, in the middle years, and especially in secondary school, I question whether these 'collaborative' applications would really be that effective.

Returning to Tom March, he suggested that we need to skate to where the puck is going to be, which is personalised learning, not simply play school at the front of the classroom. I question whether the Immergo really changes any of that.

There is Always A Choice

Often when ICT companies come in and spruik or some advertisement for some schmick professional development is placed on our desks, there is a perception that the new shiny device on display is the only future possible. However, as I have written elsewhere, what is often ignored is that there is always a choice. So here are some of the options that are an alternative to jumping on the next best thing.
  • Stick to What You Know: It may seem stupid, but the first option is surely to better utilise the technology already around before getting rid of the supposed dead horse that has been flogged to death. I remember hearing of a school that removed all whiteboards to force teachers to utilise the IWB's in their classroom. Now I am not necessarily agreeing with such measures, but maybe we need deal with the flog, before simply getting another new horse.
  • LCD Screens: One of the issues that I have found with IWB's is the projectors and the globes. No matter how often you clean them or what process you put in place in regards to extended their lifespan, they only ever last so long. If then the issue is in fact the projectors, why not, as +Richard Lambert has suggested, replace the boards with LCD screens. (Bill Ferriter wrote in a recent blog about the people that have changed him. If I was to write such a list, one of the people that would be included on much list would be Lambert. Although he does not write posts as regularly as I would like, when he does write, it is worth reading.) 
  • Lead Learners: Associated with the LCD screens, why not install an Apple TV and provide each teacher with an iPad to manage it. Not being in a 1 to 1 iPad school, this solution would not be the best fit. However, having a device that could be passed around means that although there is central spot in the classroom, defined by the screen, it does not mean that it needs to be necessarily operated by a teacher (or student) on the stage. For example, I recently came across an app from THIX called Chemist. What it allows you to do is conduct virtual experiments. I could imagine passing this around a science class and allowing different student to test out their own hypothesises. In addition to controlling the screen, the iPad then offers an opportunity to work with students in small groups. Although the screen is not as big as the Immergo, it has the potential to go where the learning is, whether it be in a small meeting room or out on the oval. Also, if the issue is bang for your buck then buying every teacher an iPad is priceless. Can you remember the last time you saw a teacher take an IWB home on the weekend to continue their learning?
  • Scrap the Digital: This may seem strange, but maybe something is lost in moving everything to the digital. If so many staff are rebelling against the sometimes fiddly nature of using an IWB, maybe we need to return to the board. I was inspired by Jak at the Google Summit to reconsider how I take notes. There are times when you just need to get messy, write things down and scribble things out, and an IWB just doesn't suffice.
Created by @Chitombo
  • I have actually had a bit of a 'return to the board' recently with some of my students developing a yearbook. They feel more comfortable using the whiteboard and in order to capture this information, simply using the camera on my iPad to keep a record of everything as they go.



Next Generation of Learning

I am sure that if I spent more time with it that I would find some purpose - to be honest, if you spend enough time with any piece of technology, you will always find a use for it. However, at present I do not think that it is a solution truly required at this time. If we are to worry at all about the 'next generation', let's start with the next generation of learning, for that is where the real change needs to happen.

To end with an authentic voice in all of this, here are the results of the SWOT analysis that I got some of my Year 8 students did in response to using the Immergo:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Not Right or Wrong, Just Different



Wrong All The Time

In a post, by +Seth Godin, he spoke about how he dismissed the Internet as, "slower, harder to use and without a business model." The lesson that he learnt out of this was that there are, "two elements of successful leadership: a willingness to be wrong and an eagerness to admit it."

Godin's discussion of being wrong got me thinking. What does it mean to be 'right' and 'wrong'? And how does this fit with education? Does it actually achieve anything to constantly come back to idea of their being a correct answer?

It is not that I disagree with Godin's reflection, but I feel that notions of right or wrong are often left for historians reflecting on the past and even that is questionable. The terms almost feel empty and slightly trivial at times. A spoil often left to the victor. What is achieved in being right or wrong? Often being wrong does not change a thing as it is only after the moment has past that we realise this. At its heart, it is not very useful when discussing lifelong learning. At the very least, it carries with it a negative connotation. What is important, is the way you respond to being 'wrong'. What aspects that you would change for the future. In some ways the challenge is to be wrong all the time for what do we really learn in being right?

I feel that a better solution to supporting lifelong learning is to focus on choice and consequence, considering how we respond to each situation. This includes unpacking how you came to your particular choice, were there any other options and why did your choice work for your situation? One of the difficulties with being right and wrong is that it is often past tense. Being conscious of some of the choices we make every day allows for reflection in the present tense.

Right? Wrong? Different?

We make choices on a daily basis, whether it be what to eat for tea or an opinion on a matter. Sometimes the difficulty lies not so much in making a choice, but in recognising that there was a choice at all. Take the following as some examples of such situations:

  • Search Engines: In a recent Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, Bing's director of search, Dave Coplin, put forward the argument that we only use Google, because it is habit and that Bing offers a better experience.
  • Technology: With the rise of BYOD, the question that often gets asked by students is which device should they buy? I recently had a discussion with some of my senior students who are moving into a BYOD environment next year. Their quandary was which device would be the most ideal for learning. In the end, the discussion came down to a question of taste, personal preferences and what particular students wanted to achieve.
  • Voting: A cornerstone to democracy is the ability to vote for the person and party who we think would best represent us. Often people get lost in arguments about who is right or wrong, when all we ever get is a difference on opinions and even that is questionable at times.
  • Control over Curriculum: In a recent blog, +Jason Markey spoke about moving away from teacher directed learning to providing students with passion the opportunities to design of learning and curriculum 
  • Being Connected: There has been a lot of conjecture as a part of Connected Educator Month about whether we need to be connected or not. +George Couros suggested that being isolated or sharing with the world is a choice that only we can make.
  • Cloud Storage: You just need to put 'Google Drive' and 'Dropbox' into any search engine for a long list of discussions about which application is better. However, in the end, each application is different and like the discussions about 'Bing' and 'Google', often comes down to who you wish to use it.
  • Appropriation of Knowledge and Content: Associated with sharing and being connected, is the challenge to properly acknowledge content. +Tony Richards explored this notion in his blog where he focused on the issues with republishing without recognising where things originate.
I could keep on going on and on. However, I think that these examples demonstrate how we can easily get caught up in arguments about what is right and wrong, supposed 'best practices', when in fact they are simply choices made by groups and individuals based on what works best for their particular situation. Although we often may have opinions about these matters, such as Google Drive is better than Dropbox as it allows for collaboration. In the end though, that is all they are, neither right nor wrong, just opinions, opinions with associated consequences.

New Ideas, New Beginnings

Choice comes down to one key ingredient, what works best in a particular situation. Often within this process we are faced with options. I often remind my students that they are in fact free to choose whether to work or not, they even have a choice about whether to be in class. However, what they need to realise is that there are consequences if they do not do their work or if they leave the class, consequences that they need to be willing to accept, because they are their consequences and theirs alone. The biggest challenge is being aware that there is a choice in the first place and accepting the associated consequences attached with such decisions.

In approaching things from a perspective of choice I feel that we are more open and able to learn and be inspired by others. In recognising why we chose what we chose, it often means that we have considered what we did not choose and why. Sometimes this consideration means that in a future situation we may make a different choice. There are times when being right and wrong gets us locked into a particular position, a position that many around us refuse to release us from.

For example, I once used Dropbox as my primary point of sharing. However, I moved over to Google Drive, as I felt that it offered an easier method of sharing and collaborating. It would be stupid to look back on this situation and say I was 'wrong', because at the time I may have been 'right'. Not only does this point out the historical nature of choices, but it also fails to recognise how and why we change.

Being open to choice often means that we are more willing to moulding and adapting our ideas, rather than going through a constant state of revolution, where we throw out the old in order to replace with the new. If we approach everything from being right and wrong, we risk living in an echo chamber. Being open to choice is being open to different voices, to different ideas, to new dialogues and new beginnings. +David Truss spoke about the power of PLN's in a recent blog. He suggested that instead of simply echoing our own thoughts and ideas, being connected offers us a way of breaking out of the echo chamber, finding out new ideas and points of change.

Postscript

One of the things that needs to be noted with any discussion of choice is that there is a hidden element in all of this. For there are some people in the world who do not have the opportunity to make choices, such as which search engine to use or who to vote for. This maybe the only thing that can be considered as being 'wrong' in all of this discussion. Often economics is described as the study of choice. Maybe pertinent approach to economics would be better considered as study of those who don't have a choice at all.

Friday, October 18, 2013

What Comes First, the Support or the Criticism?

The Victorian government seemingly stepped up their efforts this week to move a step closer 'performance pay' this week. Principals across the state have been briefed by the government about a series of changes to current system. The government have been arguing that if you look at overall student results that they form a bell curve with roughly 30% not making the grade. The belief then is that, even though it is often impossible to 'measure' effectiveness and success, that the same distribution can be applied to teachers, with the suggestion that, just like students, 30% of teachers are not performing at the adequate standard and should therefore not be simply moved up to the next increment.

The whole scenario is best summed up in an extract from a bulletin published by the AEU today, in which they state:
The DEECD Secretary replied to the AEU this morning, asserting that "no changes to the existing performance and development guidelines have been implemented or proposed for the 2013/14 performance cycle." The Secretary cited "reasons of good public administration" for advising principals to "apply appropriate rigour in assessing the performance of staff in their school". (18/10/13)
There are two aspects that stand out to me in this statement. Firstly, the reference to 'good public administration', and secondly the use of the word 'rigour'. The notion of 'good public administration' puts down the current administration, implying that things are being done poorly. While the word rigour, suggests that the processes in place could or should be more thorough. 

What concerns me most about both of these ideas is what the government is doing to support administrators and teachers? Maybe I don't really know, but it would seem that the since coming to power, the Liberal government has frozen funding, collapsed the number of regions and basically gotten rid of much of the support that was previously available to schools. Much of this is done with some sort of effort to provide schools with more autonomy. It makes me wonder though whether this is what is meant be 'good public administration' and 'rigour'. Many of the changes that have been made feel like an effort to apply more scrutiny and pressure on individual schools, rather than actually provide thorough support.

What disappoints me the most is that I do not necessarily disagree that the whole performance and development process could not in fact be improved. However, don't you endeavour to put in place a better structure first, before making the threats? For example, AITSL provide some really good support for teachers. They are progressively making the process more explicit with the use of various videos and resources, but how many teachers know this or a shown this? Time and assistance is still required to help move towards this supposed 'rigour'.

In the end, surely the government should be encouraging staff to see themselves as life-long learners, I just don't see how they are doing this?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Put a Saddle on It and Ride It - Melbourne Google in EducationSummit2013

When I saw the Google in Education Summit come up in my feeds a few months ago, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to reinvigorate the implementation of Google Apps in my school. Having had a bit of history with Google Drive, the implementation process has come to a bit of a stalemate. I've got to a point where everything is set up, raring to go, but nothing was being used.

Often the heart of a conference is its keynotes. There were three all up. The first was from +Suan Yeo, Head of Education in Asia/Pacific region. He spoke about Google's place at the forefront of change and innovation. He shared various things such as Google Glass, the Loon Project and 20% time. What was missing though, is that although Google offer possibilities that were not possible in the past, such as a virtual tour of CERN via Google Glass, there are more pertinent points of innovation that still remain unaccomplished. For as +Richard Lambert tweeted when Google announced the Loon Project:


The second keynote was from +Jim Sill, a Google Apps Certified Trainer from America, who spoke about creativity. He illustrated all the ways in which people create digitally these days - vine, instagram, twitter, youtube - and encouraged people to "slap a sadle on it and ride it". He also warned that if you do not allow students an avenue for creativity in today's day and age there are stark consequences.



The third keynote ended the summit and was from +Chris Betcher. Short, but sweet, Chris provided a snapshot of the world fifteen years ago when Google started and where technology has come to now. He suggested that the things that we are able to do now, we could do then, but with the development of the web, we are able to do them now without friction and stress.

In addition to the keynotes, one of the anomalies of the Google in Education Summit was the Demo Slam. A little like the speed sharing sessions at the ICTEV conferences, except competitive, presenters are given three minutes to wow the audience in order to get bragging rights. Some of the ideas thrown out there was using a formula in Spreadsheet to translate, using Google Docs Story Builder to ... build a story and a Chrome extension, Too Long Don't Read, to summarise various webpages. All in all, it was a great way to end the first day of the summit.

The rest of the time was made up of various presentations. Although there was a wide range on offer, I chose not to go to some of the more complicated sessions revolving around scripting and supercharging chrome, instead I focused on trying to best utilise the basic set of Apps provided through Google Apps for Education. I also realised quite early on that there were so many resources bouncing around that even if I missed out on a session, there was still plenty of information that I could go to later if I wished (see for example Chris Betcher's fantastic collection of resources at http://www.summitstuff.com/).

Firstly, I attended a few sessions that focused on using Apps to connect, collaborate and store information using the cloud. Whether it be sharing a Doc or creating a community in Google+, there are so many options for connecting with others and collaboratively solving problems that it is really up to you how you use it. John Thomas summed up the benefits in his presentation by stating: "If my computer had not worked today, I would have just used somebody else's"

In another set of sessions I looked at Google Sites. I had personally looked into Sites in the past, but really didn't know where to start. The first session I went to was run by Chris Betcher and looked at how to create a Site from scratch, while the second session was by +Anthony Speranza and explored the potential of using Sites to create ePortfolios. The two things I came away with in regards to Sites was that it is actually easier to start from scratch rather than use the different templates, while it is also really important to have a clear purpose as to what you are trying to create and why.

Lastly, I went to few sessions exploring the implementation of Google Apps for Education. Although we have already gone through the various steps involved in setting it up, I was hoping to get a few ideas on how to improve things. Again, like Sites, I went to a mixture of sessions, one by +Mike Reading which went through the intricacies involved in setting everything up, posing some great questions to consider along the way. The second presentation was by +Corrie Barclay who gave a bit of an overview of the practical ways in which Google is used at his school.

So in summary, my three pluses were:
Connecting and collaborating. It is always great to learn with a whole bunch of new people.
New ideas. Whether it be improving search capabilities or using Google to build a site, there were so many new and exciting ideas to share back at school.
Meeting people for real. It may seem silly, but it is actually good to meet those people I connect with online in person.

My three minuses were:
Tool or Teaching? Although there was some effort to associate things with the way we learn, it always felt like the focus was on the tool rather than the teaching. (Edna Sackson has spoken about this in her blog post 'I Want to Talk About Learning…'.)
Artificial Authenticity. There was often an attempt to provide authentic learning situations, however too often they seemed a little artificial and contrived. (I must make a massive exception Matt Limb who used a Google Form as a means for exploring different ways in which we can do research using Google.)
Finding a Seat. Yarra Valley Grammar School was a great venue, but the idea of simply turning up to the session that you wanted to go to led to some pretty cramped presentations.

My three goals:
Google Sites. Whether it be a portfolio or an assignment, I think that Google Sites has a lot of potential sharing to the world.
Improving Search Skills. I think that this is something that is both simply, but really powerful and has an impact on everyone.
Developing a Vision. For GAFE to go anywhere in the school, there needs to be a clearer set of goals as to what we wish to get out it. A part of this is spreading the load, getting more people on board.

I would love your thoughts and reflections in the comments below if you were also there or have introduced Google Apps for Education in your school.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sharing the Load of Blogging

Tom Whitby stated in a recent blog post addressing Connected Educator Month that: "Being connected is not an add-on or a luxury for educators: it has become a necessity". I could not agree more, there are so many benefits to being connected with the wider world that were not possible in the past. The question that constantly comes up though is why are there not more people connecting? Why are there not more people sharing their ideas with the wider world?

In a previous blog I wrote about what I perceive as being some of the benefits of blogging. However, what is often missed in these discussions is why more teachers do not jump on board. Some reasons that come to mind are that teachers do not see any direct benefit for them and their teaching. They do not really use the internet 'like that'. They connect enough with the people that really matter and they are the teachers in their team. The biggest difficulty though, in my view, is finding the time to grow and cultivate all my ideas into legible arguments, something that they feel confident to publish.

In a piece about writing, Bill Ferriter suggests dedicating set times for writing. This is a strategy that I have heard before, but I think that it only elevates a part of the issue. Many teachers that I know already feel challenged in finding the ideal work/life balance and believe that writing a regular blog just isn't a priority. In response to the dilemma of time, in a recent episode of the Edtech Crew, interviewee, Ian Guest, stated that "a blog in the first place is for yourself, it has to be". His reasoning is that it is only then that you will find the extra time needed to commit to your task. I myself could not agree more and am always scraping a few minutes here and there to get my posts out there. My concern with this though is whether or not it is acceptable in today's day and age that teachers are not connecting and being involved? Is it acceptable to just allow teachers who do not want to connect to simply stay offline? For as +Tom Whitby argues, "We must have digitally literate educators, if we want digitally literate students." How then do we do this without going down the road of forcing teachers to keep learning blogs that they do not really care about? How do we provide a situation where teachers are not committed to writing regular blog posts. My answer is simple, why not start a school blogging space?

Most schools these days seem to have their own Facebook site and Twitter handle, why not extend this and have a central blogging space as well? A place where everyone has the ability to write a post. One of the challenges with blogging is that you don't want to publish once every month, ideally you want a steady stream of information coming in. Also, it can reflect badly on you. ('Gee so and so hasn't been doing much ...') In sharing the load, this daunting prospect of keeping up is alleviated. Instead of considering the space as having 'one' authorial voice, a school space would become a place to collect together a wide range of ideas, voices and perspectives. An example of such an approach is the Smartblogs website where a wide range of people submit different content, often specific to their area of expertise.

In addition to relieving the stress of time, by writing a blog as a school, everyone is able to come on board. Too often the big 'sell' is left to the principal, with different school-based achievements celebrated through their blogging space. I wonder whether it wouldn't be more powerful if everyone was a part of this process, even students. The reality is, can a principal know about the finer details of every single achievement that may have happened in the school and more importantly, should they? Isn't it more empowering if those people who actually facilitate events and may have organised then then actually share their achievement. This is often what happens with the school newsletter, why can it not happen with the school blog? Everyone talks about the power of 'student voice', but what about the power of the 'learners voice' - this includes teachers and students alike, as well as teaching and non-teaching staff. Such a blogging space would therefore offer a place where everyone's ideas and achievements can be recognised in a way that does not put pressure on one solitary voice.



In addition to sharing (isn't that enough), by creating a school blogging space staff would be getting a hands on experience of many conundrums facing us today, such as tagging post do that they are able to be searched easily and publishing for an often unknown audience. Working in a collaborative manner where the school is involved would hopefully create an environment that breaks down some of the fear with taking on the unknown, a space where staff can learn and learn together.

This idea is still in its infancy. I would love anyone feedback as to whether this is done at your school or what people see as being an issue.