Saturday, October 31, 2009

Heartland Tutorial on Ning & Online Communities

We just finished our facilitator training for our agency-wide learning teams, which included a discussion about using collaborative online tools for better learning. Each learning team (think: professional learning community) will be using an online collaborative tool of some sort.

For training purposes, I created a tutorial on how to use Ning to build an online community, with an assist from a self-paced tutorial by Anthony Armstrong. The tutorial currently features the following sections
  • Joining and Participating in a Ning
  • Creating and Administering a Ning
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Using Collaborative Documents in a Ning
Right now, it's just a start... we'll be adding more information to the tutorial as we go. Feel free to take a look.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping an Eye on Net Neutrality

There certainly are many current educational issues in politics today, with the debate over standardized assessments, national standards, teacher merit pay, charter school funding, and the like. It might be safe to say that net neutrality is the one furthest off most educators' radar. It shouldn't be.

Net neutrality basically states that the content on the internet should be equally available to people. That is, unlike cable, you shouldn't have sites that are intentionally blocked or slowed down by internet service providers because they stand to make money if you instead go with a competitor.

The following graphic from Jason Linkins gives a good visualization of this (CORRECTION, the graphic is from a different user, reported on by Linkins):
We currently have net neutrality, but certainly many telecoms and internet service providers see the abolishing of net neutrality as a cash cow. And, politicians have moved to restrict the FCC from assuring net neutrality by introducing legislation (ironically named the Internet Freedom Act).

Schools could feel the impact of a loss of net neutrality in many ways. You could start with the additional costs to purchase the internet. And as some have predicted, like the cable companies, rising uncontrolled costs could see the advent of a new technology competitor, much like satellite TV. Would schools be equipped to handle "the new web" if something came to fruition?

Many educators have turned to free web 2.0 tools in an effort to provide collaboration and creativity in their curriculum. For the longest time, the warning was that the developers that made these free services might not make them free anymore, causing an educator to be "stuck". But sources like Blogger and Wikispaces have not made any inclination that they would go away from free services.

But, that changes. It wouldn't have to be the developers at Wikispaces who say "no more free wikis". It could be the internet providers who could do that. That's not to say that there wouldn't be other agreements (many districts work with local telecoms right now to receive free cable), but it adds an unknown to the equation.

On a deeper level, the question of open access to all information vs. censorship comes up. Is it censorship if students won't have access in schools to certain news outlets? Some would argue the internet is a big place; there will always be resources available for students. But others would argue that denying students the access to information, no matter how "little" the effect is deemed, infringes on the basic rights of students.

Maybe the best way to frame this is, is internet a right (like basic utilities) or a privilege. The issue isn't quite so black and white, but it is something that educators should have in their peripheral vision because it will affect schools.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Learning = Fishing

At Heartland, we are putting into effect learning teams, which are similar in principle to professional learning communities (PLCs). The teams afford our consultants the opportunity to learn from other consultants in areas that they prioritize, making them better at their profession.

As any administrator that has tried to institute PLCs can attest (or, anything new, for that matter), change isn't embraced by everyone, even when it directly benefits their autonomy. For many, it is an opportunity, but for others, it is a mandate that they don't have time for...

Wait a second. Learning is a mandate. And some educators have a problem with that?

Well, that's not quite fair. In visiting with some of those who had some concerns, it isn't that they have a problem with learning, per se. They just feel they learn quite well with their current routine.

Unfortunately, that's not what the research in adult learning says. And the difference is perhaps best illustrated with a metaphor. Learning is like fishing.

1. You can't learn much if you don't get off the shore. Learning is an active process, requiring effort and initiative. If you wait for the fish to come to you, you might get lucky and have something wash up next to your feet. But it isn't the effective way to do it; get in a boat and go navigate the big lake. If I told you to go learn as much as you could in one day, you wouldn't do what you normally do in a day. You would change your routine.

2. Learning isn't just quantity, but also diversity. Some beginning fishers like to go to the same hole and pull out perch after perch just to say they caught 50 in one day. There is nothing wrong with catching a large haul every once in a while, but you can't do that all the time. As fishers become more sophisticated, they realize that a diversity is important--bass, crappie, and then walleye, and even muskie.

3. Learning is organic, not systematic. I went through all the checklists of "how to fish" with my kids, be it how to bait, how to cast, how to hold the line, etc. It didn't necessarily lead to catching fish, and that is frustrating to seven-year-olds. Many learners go through the same frustrations. I did the steps someone told me to learn algebra, or to grow tomatoes! What they don't realize is learning must be done multiple times in a variety of ways to be internalized, and there is no systematic schedule to it.

4. Diversity of learning requires different locations. Move that boat around. Put the line deeper. Or in other words, check out different sources of information. Use different tools to acquire information. Including ones you haven't tried before.

5. Diversity of learning requires different times. Saying to educators, "the time you will learn is during this once-a-month, two-hour professional development session" is like saying to the fish, "the time I'm catching you will be at 2:00 in the afternoon". That isn't necessarily when you are ready to fish, or when fish are ready to be caught. Adults must have access to learning at all times in an ongoing basis to truly be most effective.

6. Diversity of learning requires casting your widest net. Some during our sessions were slightly upset that they couldn't choose to work with those that they were most comfortable working with for their learning teams. But, the reality is people don't learn as much from those who they are closest to, much like you don't always want the fish that are right next to the boat. People learn more from those farther away.

As an analogy, fishing illustrates what George Siemens describes as connectivist learning, how adults learn best in today's age. We don't learn by prescribed times, locations, sources, people, and methods. We learn instead by a diversity of practices and by creating a wider network with more nodes. Wider networks mean learning can come at any time and not always when one is expecting it.

But to create wider networks, we need to seek out new sources, tools and people. And, that includes people we don't know. Developing our own personal learning networks to fully utilize the tools of today. And embracing online communities to interact any time, pace, and place.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interactive Gaming for Pre-Literacy Development

I'm starting to focus on studies about the involvement of interactive games for preschool/primary students in the building of pre-literacy and pre-math skills, given some mounting evidence that this is an underutilized area in education.

The latest: THE Journal reports on a study from the Educational Development Center that suggests preschool students learn pre-literacy skills better in an environment with repeated exposure to interactive games. The specific skills were letter recognition, letter naming, letter sounds, and understanding story concepts.

Take this study with a grain of salt. I'm not convinced of the methodology, as the comparison group was a science curriculum, not a literacy curriculum, and it was commissioned by PBS, which while I admire their overall work in helping students learn, they still have a vested interest in seeing a positive correlation.

Best news though is that it is leading to further studies. Given available technology that is more accessible to young students than ever before, this will lead to more purposeful game development for that age, with a better tie-in to the Iowa Core.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Teachers Beware: Facebook Usage is Dangerous

Or so says Justin Bathon at the Edjurist, on multiple occasions.

Actually, Justin has many valid points. I've had several discussions with administrators this year alone who have mentioned younger teachers are sometimes unaware of the dangers of Facebook, namely that it is open, easily traceable, and permanent. When teachers make the mistake of getting caught up in the forum, whether it be an avenue to vent, a place to post candid pictures, or a forum to show yourself as a fun-loving person, the line can be crossed very easily.

Perhaps the most famous case involves a teacher from Charlotte, NC, who on her Facebook page:
  • Listed her hobbies as "drinking"
  • Said her job was “teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte”
  • Said she was "teaching in the most ghetto school" in town.
I suppose if you want to start a checklist of what not to do on your Facebook page, that would be a good start.

Prospective teachers take note. It was our policy when I was a principal to not only Google a person, but to fully examine their Facebook page, and I currently recommend that to administrators that I visit with. In recent days, one reported back to me that, upon visiting a prospective teacher's page during the summer, that teacher was immediately dropped from consideration (no comment as to why, which has unfortunately let my imagination run wild). And certainly, just because you are already hired does not mean that inappropriate actions via Facebook are okay. They are not only very strong grounds for dismissal, they are also easy data to gather, as opposed to non-digital evidence.

I'm not quite as strident as Justin on this; I do believe that educators should use the tool personally to become familiar with it, not only because it can help them understand social tools to possibly use in the classroom, but also because it offers many positives to a person's life. It helps them become connected and collaborative with others that they normally would not have. But what is a non-negotiable is that teachers need to have an understanding of digital citizenship, at the very least because they are expected to help their students have an understanding of digital citizenship.

The NEA is similar to my thinking. They have posted both on the benefits of social networking in the classroom (despite the myths) as well as some of the professional pitfalls. Those two articles are great resources to share with your teachers.

And, if you would like some more, below is a brief presentation on the dangers of Facebook.

And perhaps my all time favorite, someone actually getting fired via Facebook. Add this one of what not to do to the above list.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Having an Appreciation of Technology

Was in a meeting today, the brunt of which was visiting about some of the phone calls our agency has received recently. This discussion was not to be unexpected; we recently changed to a new system and there was sure to be a breakdown in communication as it got further away from us. Couple that with the urgencies that mandatory certification provides (I need this now!!!) and we knew this would happen.

But, some of this impatience is remarkable given how technology has made our lives easier as a whole. I sometimes have the same conversation with teachers, who get overly frustrated by some of the available web 2.0 tools not being the exact perfection they were seeking (you mean we have to create student accounts to use Google Docs?).

This video comes to mind from Conan and comedian Louis C.K.

Friday, October 16, 2009

ITEC 2009 - David Warlick

Presented twice at this year's ITEC conference, once on the digital curriculum and once on the state of e-learning in Iowa. More about those in another post, but the handouts from those can be found here.

Didn't get to as many workshops as I was hoping to, either. I found myself in many side conversations on the state of technology in Iowa, which actually was a much better thing than attending the sessions or presenting... nothing beats two-way conversation. It was good to visit with many of the people I see only in the Twitter-sphere, such as @AngelaMaiers, @karlhehr, @RussGoerend, @tdejager210, @jamiefath, @beckymather, @acrozier22, @mctownsley, @sethdenney, and @MikeSansone.

Seth, by the way, had the most apropos tweet from the conference.
That was the statement made by David Warlick, which even after hearing before twice, I came away from his keynote very impressed. Not just for the mantra-quality of the statement, which definitely rang true (lots less sessions about how tools work or that are labeled gadgets & gizmos this year). But more so for his way of making what we are working for--improved student learning, not student technology use--so simply put.

His best example of this was a lesson redefining of mathematics literacy. Students took live data from worldwide geological sites of the location of earthquakes. That data was then formatted into a spreadsheet and scatterplotted using Excel (poor ol', 1.0, much-bashed-at-ITEC-in-years-past Excel!).

The result is this.
Which, as Warlick noted, is basically a map of the world. The nature of data to visualize in this method is not only a valuable skill for students to learn, but also clarifies the concept of latitude and longitude in numeric sense, or in other words, literacy of the mathematical concept of coordinate geography. All done with a non-trendy tool to boot. This wasn't about the technology, it was about learning of an essential skill.

And on a tool note, for those who asked me about the presentation application Warlick and others used at ITEC, it is called Prezi, and there is a free online version you can use. Here is Warlick's from ITEC.

My personal opinion though (many of you will want to stop reading here), while I think Warlick did a really good job using the transitions to add to the meaning of his presentation, I do not like the tool. Distracting. Definitely not presentation zen. I know, I know... blasphemy... I'm the only one at ITEC who will say that, so peruse and make your own judgment.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leadership is a non-negotiable

I'm working this week with the 20th different district of my 2009-10 year. There is some variance in the level of involvement I have with them, but generally it is very similar: visiting with teachers about need for change in schools, the Iowa Core, 21st century skills, project-based learning, and technology integration. Universal themes that each school is dealing with.

By asking me to visit with teachers about those things above, you can safely assume that all the districts feel they are important (that's the way I feel... I'm sure there are more jaded responses).

But, let me tell you, there is a dramatic difference in the leadership at these schools. And I don't say that as someone who has worked closely with the district or has quite a bit of data over many years to tell me that, because I don't. Here's what I got:

• At some districts, the superintendent is taking it all hands-on. They initiate the contact themselves. They have taken the pre-requisite steps and gotten key people on board. The technology coordinator is in the loop. They have a vision of where they'd like to go, what they'd like to see at their district, but are open to meshing that vision with other people's thoughts. They use the professional development opportunities to highlight successful things teachers are doing to reach that vision. They are not only at inservices, but they are fully participating, active in the small group breakout sessions, sharing their thoughts openly during discussion. And, they have a plan on how this will be implemented, with specific steps, supports for teachers, set expectations, and opportunities for evaluation.

• At some districts, another key figure has taken the initiative, perhaps a curriculum director or technology coordinator. The superintendent is on board, but the vision is shaky. They are more interested in hearing my vision for their school than they are of crafting their own vision. The administrators attend the sessions, but aren't necessarily taking a prominent role. They agree that planning for how action will be implemented is important, but they are likewise not sure how they will get there.

• And finally, at some districts, while a key figure has initiated the contact, the superintendent is absent. There is never really a desire to talk about vision, but only "could you visit with teachers about x and y?" There is no plan nor a discussion of a plan... the expectation is planting the seed will lead to magical sprouting of teacher development. And most telling, no administrator attends the session.

Even though that's all the data I see, I know which districts have strong leadership and which do not. Actually, so do you, even though you've had no contact with these districts. What's more, I know right now which districts are changing to meet the changing times, which will continue to be reactive instead of proactive (tottering with the initiative du jour), and those that my visit was a complete was of time for nothing will come of it. Note, nothing is said about an administrators actual knowledge of the initiative (in this case, technology), only their participation.

If you are a school leader reading this, here is your takeaway... leadership is a non-negotiable for change to happen. You need to take an active role in planning this before it happens. You must create a plan for afterwards. You must not only attend, you must not only participate, you must advocate.

If you cannot attend, cancel the inservice. That's right. There's no point in requiring a presenter to come in and teachers to attend if you are not there. Nothing will be picked up, and if by some chance something were to be picked up, it cannot be acted on. The message of having no administrator at the session speaks unbelievable volume about either a) the important of the topic, or b) the quality of leadership... and perhaps both.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What I'd like to see for an iTouch

While I looked at what's out there yesterday, I still see quite a bit of potential to be reached, and reached within the next two years. There's even potential for these needs to be developed locally. Grant Wood's Andy Crozier and I recently attended a session on Apple iTouch App development, and given the (nearly) free developer kits out there, there is potential for the AEAs, and enterprising schools, in partnership with developers from the state's universities, could produce items such as these, in perfect alignment with the Iowa Core.

1. An easy-to-use flashcard program, where a teacher can quickly go in on the internet and upload curriculum related information that the student's iTouch would then draw upon, giving students an interactive way to check their understanding of teacher notes immediately after a lesson... and anytime thereafter.

2. Tools that mash geochaching information, such as photos or data, that tie in with a geographic location. Google Earth's iTouch app works well, and with the availability of free Google Sketchup licenses for Iowa, students can build 3-D items in addition to adding photos and data. Research is coming out that, given students increasing acclivity toward visual references for a schema to house non-visual information, geocached mapping serves as a referential package for student learning (such as Google Lit Trips).

3. Simulation-games, where a student has an interactive lesson to experiment, explore, and practice the skills they have acquired, such as what UW-Madison is doing. Here's a screenshot of a simulation-game created for students to interact with the Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art.

4. Clicker-style formative feedback, where a teacher poses a question to class, students select one of the answers, and the teacher can pull up live feedback from the "polling" via computer and display over a projector. The data could be displayed anonymously, or tracked by students when they log in.

5. In the same vein as above, a way to quickly generate online quizzes, especially ones that can be dynamically generated.

6. Personalized data programs, such as health and fitness monitors, musical composition devices, visual arts portfolios, allowing students to track their own learning. This one will be a ways off, as there needs to be better ways to import data and images into the ipod.

7. Apps that give practice for skill acquisition. This is the place where the first educational apps are, including ones for math facts, spelling, vocabulary, scientific equation balancing, etc. These are much more interactive than a simple multiple-choice quiz problem. Problem right now is they aren't customizable--I can't create a vocabulary activity over the first grade sight words in my curriculum. But this could change with advances in the software.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Educational iTouch Apps... What's Out There?

Hardware issues aside (still no camera or voice recorder in the iTouch, which if added, would make it a more full-featured formative assessment tool to use in the classroom), I still am high on the iTouch at the elementary age. It continues to be a more intuitive interface for primary students to pick up and use, making the technology serve the curriculum faster.

But, educational software for the iTouch is still in its infancy. There have been some simple apps created, focusing on one particular skill or concept (like multiplication or state capitals), but we're a ways from a really robust educational app that could be the centerpiece of a curriculum. However, given the speed things are changing, that "ways" might be traversed in a few months.

Tomorrow, I'll touch on the things I'd like to see on an iTouch, some of which might exist today, but could use more development. Here, though, is what I've seen so far.

This teacher tube video describes what it labels as the iSchool initiative, a curriculum aided by the computing power of an iTouch

I've limited myself to free apps for now, and my target audience is ages 3-10 (the age of my kids, since they are my test audience). The older grade levels have more built in use, just as mere content vessels (like audiobooks or a referenced periodic table or historical maps)... if you are a secondary teacher, you are more likely to find something to use right away because you can use it as an accompaniment to your regular instruction easier. But I think the more interactive programs are definitely suited for younger learners at this point.
  • Google Earth - application for searching geographical information, including geocaching.
  • Basic Math, Brain Tuner Lite, Math Drill, Multiply Flashcards - applications for math fact drilling
  • gFlash and iFlipLite - programs that allow teachers to create their own flash cards
  • Flickr and Image Search - for finding images
  • aNote Lite and Evernote - two note taking tools for organization
  • Remember the Milk - organizational to-do lists for students to use
  • Blanks - a program that gives drills on vocabulary words
  • Spel it Rite, ShakeSpell, Spell - interactive spelling programs
The reviews are mixed on these... very easy for my kids to learn and become engaged, could serve for enrichment in many cases. On the other hand, some have been overly simplistic and not well designed. Blanks for example generates definitions from some a dictionary, so they'll occasionally list something like "a trait of being curious" with the correct answer out of the four choices being "curiosity" (and the other three being adverbs or something non-relative).

My two favorite have been great for my 3-year old. iWriteWords allows students to trace the path of letters and connect the letters to sounds and visual pictures (a bee for the letter b, for example), which has done wonders for Hannah learning her letters. And, HippoShapes allows students to select the shape described, using a variety of different textures and settings. Neither are very complex programs, meaning Hannah taught herself how to use them. Both isolate the skill that is part of the curriculum (pre-literacy skills such as letter recognition and shape recognition are pretty much universal).

Learning in Hand (a great place to start for an overview)
I Educational App Review
iPhone and Kids
Online Educational Database's Top 50 Apps
99 Apps for Students
Apps Hopper
Springfield, IL CSD

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wagner and the Flip Camera, part 2

Yesterday, I looked at the use of videotaping of instructional lessons for the purpose of calibrating teacher understanding of effective instruction, and Tony Wagner's advocation for this process.

For the record, I'm a huge advocate for exactly this. But I don't want to oversimplify the issue. There are some problems with video that has to be overcome.

1. There has to be clear distinctions between professional development use and evaluation use. This is the same issue teachers had with me when I conducted walk-throughs. No matter how much an administrator says, "this is not for evaluation... it's just to gather data to help you reflect later," teachers are not comforted. And for good reason. There were several times when I made a walkthrough visit where I saw bad instructional practices going on that I had to address. If I enter a classroom and videotape a teacher who is sarcastically putting down a student, that has to be addressed, videotape or no. For this reason, teachers (and teacher unions) are naturally apprehensive. Where's the line?

A successful administrator will make that clear up front, that yes, there are some non-negotiables that will be addressed, video or no. And, a successful administrator will help facilitate a staff discussion about what those instances are, so it truly is a staff norm and not an administrator-created expectation.

2. The elephant in the room is time. Flip helps, but it still requires time to 1) know when a video opportunity exists, 2) capture video, 3) watch video for the opportune moments to share with teachers, and 4) then package the video so that teachers can effectively learn from it. And, time is exactly what administrators don't have. They will need to make time, emphasizing this over other things.

As an administrator, my walkthrough trainer had a good perspective on this. She mentioned that a successful administrator will clearly state to parents, teachers, students, or even their superintendent: "Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting with you. And I'll do that as soon as I am finished visiting teacher classrooms, to help our school become better." In other words, the principal needs to communicate to everyone that this is how their school gets better, and therefore, this is where my priority is.

3. Another problem, but one that will go away quickly, is the disruption videotaping causes. Simply put, turn on a videocamera and a class doesn't function the same way it normally does (which is great for a rowdy classroom).

But like walkthroughs, this goes away with repeated exposure. Once students get used to the practice, it becomes invisible. In fact, when I ramped up my walkthrough usage to "each class, 3 times a week", it took 3 weeks before students didn't give me a second glance. UNI's Price Lab is a testament to this, as their students are more than accustomed to visitors and outside eyes on a regular basis.

• Wagner didn't stop at videotaping classrooms, however. Another big use of videotaping is with student focus groups (especially graduated students... or students who dropped out). A pointed interview with students can get right at what they see as working well and not working well in school. We'll touch on this in a later post.

• Schools shouldn't (unless rare exceptions) show the entire staff the video footage of an individual teacher. That should be reserved for a more safe setting like a PLC. But the whole staff can still benefit from watching video from external teachers. Just as with evaluator training, there are video clips available that can be used (check with your AEA). And Angela Maiers regularly posts video lessons on her website along with a written post of what she is trying to accomplish in her lesson. Those are great places to start.