Monday, March 29, 2010

New Iowa teaching standard = handling the media?

I'm not sure this really deserves front page status on the Des Moines Register, do you?

For those that do not know Sarah Brown Wessling, she is excellent. She is teacher of the year in Iowa for a reason, and the teacher that the Department of Education videotapes when they want to show other teachers a model Iowa Core lesson. That should suffice, but if not, ask any other faculty member of Johnston High School.

This type of complaining happens. When I was a principal at Grinnell, we had some of the best staff I have ever seen. And, there were still parental complaints. They were groundless, of course, but it is part of the open process that a school has with their community.

But, Grinnell's disgruntled parents didn't go to the Des Moines Register.

I'm not sure how the story got to the Register. I'm even more confused why the Register would print this, other than to be salacious. And at this point, it is a bell that cannot be unrung.

We at the AEA level have been in the news recently as well. Because of this new approach to journalism, the AEAs are having conversations with their consultants about how you address media questions. It looks as though districts will have to do the same thing. Not only with their staff, but with their board members as well.

Would you like to be Teacher of the Year, and open yourself up to front-page scrutiny from any disgruntled parent? I believe there are some long-term implications to this.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nichification and School Responsibility

The term nichification, meaning to develop and connect people to a niche which suits their preferences, has its roots in marketing. With the advent of the internet, the lines of marketing and social interaction have blurred. There are now online niches for about any particular interest, viewpoint, age bracket, you name it.

Are you an environmentalist? A fundamentalist? A hard-core interior designer? A curling fanatic? A World of Warcraft enthusiast? There is an online community for you.

Couple that with the advent of web 2.0 technology, and not only can you read about your selected interest, but you can also interact with that community.

The vastness of the web and the availability of tailor-made niches (I literally stumbled across a fan club of the children's show Backyardigans for adults only yesterday) has many consequences. It can bring excitement and connection to someone cut off from a community by her geography. It has the potential for sustained interaction with people from different cultures. But what is becoming very apparent to me... it actually further incubates you from different cultures.

My two favorite pastimes, sports & politics, have online communities that are echo chambers more so than discussion boards. This lack of diversity not only doesn't stretch a person's mind, but also leads to out-grouping and marginalization of those who don't share their viewpoint. Visit one and see for yourself... it will make you sick.

As we re-shape our schools to meet the demands of this new world, the question of nichification is one we cannot avoid. We have the potential, through online tools, to connect students with other students around the world who share their passion and interest.

But, just because we can, does that mean we should? What are schools' responsibilities for this nichified world?

We can't accept the view the nichified world is too dangerous and so we should avoid it in schools. That's too easily dismissed of course, since this is the prevalent attitude in our schools and homes. But easily dismiss it, I do. We also can't assume that this is a fad and that it will go away. If anything, this will become more pronounced than it is right now, and rapidly.

There are two different, although not mutually exclusive viewpoints on this question. The first is the embracing of nichification. Plugging in students to groups with similar interests... consider the possibilities. In the state of Iowa, we recently received the free license to Google Sketchup, a program that doesn't necessarily find its way into the mainstream curriculum, but that appeals to certain students who literally like to build. Imagine if we create a statewide community of Sketchup afficiandos, who can interact and build in their virtual world. Tying into student passion would lead to intense learning. Powerful stuff!

I'd say this is the prevalent viewpoint of online learning advocates. And yet, I fully acknowledge the other side, that there is some danger in all-out embracing of nichification.

The other viewpoint is to say that we at schools have a social responsibility to push students to collaborate with others online who are not like themselves. Others with different viewpoints and perspectives. And as an extension, dealing with those other viewpoints and perspectives in a respectful, positive manner. Look at the aforementioned sports or political communities, where the act of outgrouping by internal members of the community and trolling by external members simply wrecks the positives that community can bring.

We obviously need a balance between the two; the embracing of nichification as well as the forcing of us to collaborate with those outside of our niche. The problem is, we aren't having a discussion with educators on how to find this balance. And until we do, we won't be serving the needs of our students in this age.

Despite being very apparent in an online setting, we really have already had this issue for years. Schools and their cliques are already nichified, even before the advent of the internet. Cliques rarely interact with each other outside of the classroom--take a walk through the halls of a high school and see for yourself.

In the classroom, teachers have thought about this issue, at least subconsciously. When teachers allow students to choose their own groups, students will pick groups that make them comfortable and that have similar interests. This can be a very productive strategy. But on the other hand, many teachers see they have a responsibility to pair students with those they don't normally visit with in order to extend their thinking.

But, have you ever had this discussion with other educators? How to get students out of their clique-boxes and learning from other students in the class? I haven't in all my experience in teaching, which makes the issue of online nichification more dire and more pressing. We have to have that discussion now.

But first... I'm going to check out what other Backyardigans enthusiasts have to say. Don't knock it until you have to watch it with your three-year-old!

Image from

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Implementation & Technical Logistics for 1:1, part 2

As we looked at yesterday, there are several considerations for technology leadership when planning for a 1:1. Here are more thoughts from Pamela Livingston's 1:1 Learning - Laptop Programs That Work:


Many leaders of 1:1 initiatives take a hands-off approach when it comes to technology. Bad idea. Yes, you might never know the ins and outs of technical maintenance, but you still play a major role in its success. It is important to set expectations.

For example, you will need to address the issue of the home internet connection. If students are taking school laptops home (and they should be for optimal learning), school boards and parents want reassurance that they will not be able to access inappropriate sites there either. Laptops can be set up with a proxy, which is a policy that routes all their internet traffic back through your filter.

Another expectation is the physical safety of the machines. Livingston mentioned that at Peck, they spent the money to purchase briefcase-like cases for protection. We used soft cases at Howard-Winneshiek, and while we never had any accidents with the machines going home, I was always nervous about it. An orientation on how to carry your computer and lock it up is also a must-do strategy, best done in the roll-out orientation (which we'll look at in a later post).

Which leads us to insurance. There are several different approaches to how to pay for damages, and damages will happen. You will want to visit with your insurance company right away. This could be the first they have ever dealt with a school 1:1 program. Several Iowa schools set up insurance policies that parents would pay somewhere between $25-50 for the year, and then pay a $100 deductible if the machines were damaged. This minimized expenses for the district. Some other districts had the plan be voluntary (parents could opt to cover this under their own insurance).

Insurance is important not only for damage, but also for theft. Just like with damage, all machines should have preventative physical measures like identification tags and safe storage locations, as well as proactive human measures, like the aforementioned walk-throughs and spot checks.

If leaders do not have expectations for technology staff, there will be problems. That's not to say that technology staff won't have their own, even higher expectations for their work. In many cases they will. But good district leaders will be proactive here as well.

One general expectation is the access vs. security continuum. When it comes to school IT staff, they will fall somewhere in the spectrum of "as much possible access for teachers and students to technology for learning" to "as controlled of an environment as possible so that students, staff, equipment, and the district are safe". And, these butt heads all the time. Do you block Youtube? Do you allow teachers to install their own programs? Do you require a network password for visitors, and who gets to know the password?

There are pros and cons to both sides of the spectrum from a technology standpoint. But from an administrative or curricular standpoint, I was firmly in the "access" side. I wanted teachers to have the ability to find and use new resources and tools without feeling like they had to jump through hoops and wait for me. For technology staff that have never been in the classroom, they do not realize how spontaneous and changing classroom choices are, and nothing is more discouraging to a teacher than spending many late hours planning a great lesson only to find out the next day that the site is blocked and it is a 2-week process to get it unblocked.

Livingston's school took the same, anti-lockdown approach. And, this was second-order change for the tech staff. But that change in philosophy happened at the earliest of stages, before serious conversations with the staff at large and the community were taking place.

Another expectation is no down-time, as we mentioned yesterday. Again, talk with technology staff about the importance for students to have access to the computers and the internet. Determine what the expectation would be for different scenarios. At Howard-Winneshiek, my expectation was that I would have the teacher or student a working computer within 24 hours, whether fixed or loaner. With more help staff, that number could be cut down to 2 hours. Now, I will admit there were occasions when I missed the expectation (and there will be that in your district as well), but I communicated with the teacher/student beforehand so that they knew. Having that expectation made sure no-one was left in the dark, and also allowed for objective evaluation of my work.

Have an expectation for login time as well. If it takes more than 2 minutes from when a person pushed the on button to when they are ready to work on the computer, that is lost instructional time. Other items, like minor technical support (the computer is working, but a program has a glitch) or instructional support (how do I...?) are areas to discuss as well. This is a chance for technical staff to voice their thoughts and have an important say.

One last item mentioned in Livingston's book that is a huge fear for would-be districts, what about students without home internet access?

Internet access outside of school hours is a non-negotiable; students will have to have it. But this issue should be one you can plan for. Here is how I tackle this conversation.

First, what does your data tell you? How many have access at home? Don't just say "we have 31% free-reduced lunch...". That number is not the same as who has home internet access. Many times, the answer is... we don't know. Surveying your home families, be it through conferences or registration, is valuable data collection. Many districts found that they had over 85% with home access, which meant that they were targeting less than 15% of the population.

Next, find alternatives. You might have some common areas where students can stay after school, be it near the gym or by the office. Also, the community library is an option.

Then, ask students what they would do. Jeff Dicks at Newell-Fonda said when asked about this question by other superintendents, "To be honest, it hasn't been an issue. Our students were resourceful enough to find the hotspots if they needed them. We've had students who have sat in the parking lot to access files on a Sunday, and it hasn't been a problem for them." And, this is in Newell, Iowa, where Panera's and Starbucks have not yet arrived. Not promoting illegal hotspot squatting, but students can find appropriate places to get on the internet in many cases.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Implementation & Technical Logistics for 1:1

More from Livingston's 1:1 Learning - Laptop Programs That Work:

Schools tend to have a disproportionate anxiety about the technical aspect of going 1:1. That is to say, they tend to overemphasize the technical side in their planning (in most cases), or completely underemphasize it. It is important to not concentrate all your thoughts on the machines when professional development, community involvement, and changing pedagogy are all equally important. But if you are a district that thinks going 1:1 is not a big deal, Livingston says "think again."

Before looking at some of the logistics mentioned by Pamela Livingston, I'll point out 2 critical steps leaders do in this area.
  1. They involve technology leadership, even hesitant technology leadership, from the very beginning, and network them to technology leadership from other successful 1:1 schools. Their advocacy for the initiative is paramount.
  2. They communicate early and often that there will be technological glitches during roll-out... and that's okay. We will deal with the setbacks and learn from our mistakes and be better for it. The earlier this is communicated, the less pressure there is on everyone involved. This is, after all, new learning for everyone involved, and new learning doesn't always thrive in a high-stakes environment.
As we mentioned in past posts, the platform (i.e. whether Mac or PC) is only a small piece of the technological considerations. The best way to make an informed decision about the platform without consuming all your time is to talk to some current 1:1 districts, ask them how they chose their platform, how it is working, and whether they would choose it again.

In addition to the platform, here are the other critical technological considerations:
  • Bandwidth - the demand for access to the internet will jump with ubiquitous computing and different pedagogy. It is very important to get this right. With e-rate being a large factor, you will need to consider this first, since the e-rate calendar starts in December.
  • Network Storage - Ubiquitous computing will need more storage space on the server. One question is whether computers will have a home directory, which is when a person's files (and maybe even applications) reside on the server. If so, the setup of the authentication and home directories is a major undertaking for the technical staff. Best to develop that system before the laptops arrive.
  • Backup - Even if you choose not to use a home directory, you will still need server space in the form of a backup. But given the recent disasters and flooding, backup off site is essential as well. Consider that with ubiquitous computing, most of your learning is digitized, and therefore, protect your learning accordingly. If you do not have a backup & disaster recovery plan in place, do so before the purchasing of equipment.
  • Protection - Laptops bring about more computer usage, so a consideration is the right firewall and virus protection. Firewalls have gotten much more sophisticated in recent years, which can setup an "allow but monitor" policy with categories that are more grey. Some 1:1 districts have used that, and given parents access to see what sites their students are browsing to. Another item to consider is a remote monitoring feature that allows the technological administrator to see what students are doing on computers at any particular time. I've used Apple's Remote Desktop for years, and it works very well. The knowledge that I have it keeps most students honest, and even better, it allows me to fix student technology problems without driving over to their classroom.
  • Automation - Thinking systemically, having that many computers will dictate needing automatic processes. Imaging your laptops is a must (most 1:1 schools re-image them each summer). Also consider the policy for updating computers throughout the year.
  • Email - Student email was once a necessity in a 1:1 setup for a variety of different reasons. It still is important today, but with many districts looking to setup Google Docs accounts for every student, they use gmail domains for the email setup.
  • Charging - Laptops "should" make it the day without needing to be re-charged. That is dependent on 1) students remembering to charge the computers before they arrived, and 2) the battery capacity maintaining itself. Don't count on either of these. Think about how to handle charging in a classroom, be it charging stations, extra outlets, or a table on the side.
With all of these considerations, don't hesitate to ask for help. You should ask both your computer provider and your AEA on these to compare answers (many providers are very honest, but there have been schools buying too many wireless access points because they didn't get a 2nd opinion). And, surveying other 1:1 schools is well worth the effort.

At Livingston's school, they followed this general timeline:
  • April/May - Order new computers, take care of warranty issues, hire any part-time summer staff for imaging/updating work
  • June - Collect computers, order replacement computers, order new cases
  • July/Aug - Re-image the computers (& image new computers), take care of updates, create network accounts for new students and staff, assign machines, prepare for fall pickup and orientation.
  • Year-round - Remind students of appropriate care, including the acceptable use policy. This was done through many walk-throughs and classroom visits by technology staff, as well as other proactive measures. Some schools have had "laptop patrol", where the technician hands out rewards for spotted appropriate use between classes or in common areas. This can be part of the school's Positive Behavior Supports initiative.

One tip that Livingston said repeatedly, have loaners and spare parts available. In 1:1 more so than in a regular school, down-time is not tolerated. Laptops literally are students' access to the curriculum.

There are many more features of technology leadership that are important, of course. Fitting a wide-spread initiative like 1:1 into an existing framework is not an easy task. Plus there will be specific application support that a district will want. But, technology leadership is only part of the equation. District leadership is just as important in terms of technical logistics, even if the principal is not a computer expert. We'll examine how this is so tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Systemic Change and the Starfish Story

You probably have heard of the Starfish Story as an allegory to an individual's value in making a difference. If not, here it is:

Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a boy going back and forth between the surf's edge and and the beach. Back and forth this boy went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached, the boy continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

As he came up to the boy he said, "You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The boy looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"

What is important for educational leaders to hear is the rest of the story. Cue Paul Harvey:

"No, I'm sorry," the man said. "That's not what I meant. Of course you are making a difference one by one. Here, let me show you."

And with that, the man got out his cell phone and called the lifeguard tower. Within minutes, three lifeguards riding on ATVs with attached beach-combing buckets on the front began to scoop up large parts of the beach, letting the sand sift out the bottom. Then, they turned to the ocean and dumped the bucket full of starfish out into the ocean.

"It's good to make a difference," the man said. "You just make a bigger difference with a plan and connections."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Using Wordle with Current Events

I mentioned my frustration with Wordle recently, among other tools. The primary complaints I had was not with the tool itself, but the tendency to invest too much time and instruction into the tool when it is better to use as a resource.

Case in point, the political blog had a post this morning analyzing the current health care debate. They took survey results from citizens and fed those results through Wordle to generate the following word clouds:

Those in favor of the current health care bill-

Those against the current health care bill-

Used in this context, Wordle provides a quick graphical representation which can lead to an analytical discussion of both current events and politics. The key words here... 1) "quick", and 2) "lead to". A teacher here wouldn't spend any time teaching students how to use Wordle (and heck, they wouldn't even make the Wordle themselves). This is a good example of how tools can be used effectively given the scope and purpose of what they are trying to accomplish.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Most Misused Tool

Wait... where's Power Point?

We didn't include Power Point (or its cousin Keynote, which you can insert anywhere in this post) in either the list of underrated or overrated tools, even though it is heavily used. In fact, Power Point was the tool that got us in this discussion. The teacher, who has his students create presentations in Prezi, was fairly dismayed at the amount of Power Point doldrums many fellow teachers were in.

Now, I'm not a fan of Prezi. Like Animoto, its use of dramatic transitions of the audience being swooped from one slide to another is fantastic to watch, but unfortunately leads to more emphasis on the effects than the learning. It seems I'm the only one who isn't a fan of it, though.

But his complaints about Power Point use were right on the money. It certainly seems like the most overrated tool.

Teachers have generally moved past considering the internet and MS Word "technology integration". Not so with Power Point. It is the first foray into integration that many teachers do. That's not a bad thing. Its easy to use and you need to start somewhere. But while some take their comfort with Power Point and branch off to look at other tools that are more of learning tools in nature, many teachers stay stuck with their same Power Point unit.

And that's not good.

  • It isn't used to learn, only to present your knowledge. It is e-posterboard.
  • It isn't collaborative; even if it is "group work", one works while the others watch.
  • Despite being extremely quick and easy, it takes up a lot of instructional time. I remember telling a class to take the discussion we were having about epic heroes and using Power Point, create a quick outlined presentation of who you would consider an epic hero and why. In the last 12 minutes of class. You would have thought that I asked them to build a solar car. No way they could make a Power Point that quickly. (Then... they did. "Wow, that wasn't so hard...")
  • It isn't a good teaching tool. All those Power Points given by students leads to very little learning by their fellow students.
In fact, Power Point is probably the most scorned piece of technology among educational tech folk today. People's Witness #1. People's Witness #2. And, People's Witness #3.

It's because of phrases like Blake-Plock's "PowerPoint presentations are precisely the sort of things so many of us in ed tech are trying to steer folks away from" that I'm equally as tempted to put it into the most underrated tool list.

Because, we simply aren't using it for what it does very well.
  • This is perhaps the premier digital storytelling tool. Easily combining images with manipulative text in a sequential order with the option for embedding video. Which means all the benefits of digital storytelling--for example that we teach and learn in stories and we use both creative and logical thinking skills intensively at the same time--all apply to Power Point used well. The presentation below by Garr Reynolds illustrates how to take something as mundane as a book review and turn it into a digital story.
  • Reynolds' Presentation demonstrates another reality, it is also a great stand-alone tool. That is, a presentation tool that you don't need to give a speech with. We have made Power Points implicit with a speech so much that people forget they are much more engaging when students access them on their own.
  • It is an excellent outlining tool. Not because of the bullets. Because it is a) easy to quickly input concepts and then b) re-arrange those concepts. In fact, the slide-sorter view is a forgotten piece of gold for teachers. Think how easy it is for an educator to make a jumbled Power Point of slides and then have students re-arrange the slides into the logical organization. When we read Wiesel's Night, I had students in groups arrange their own ethical priorities from a pre-made Power Point, requiring them to come to a consensus. All group members actively working with Power Point, even with only one computer.
  • It is a great teaching tool. Yes, I'm serious. In spite of us, it is. We have made Power Point an exercise in creating a meaningless backdrop to monotonous speeches, in which we teach students where all the buttons are in Power Point but we don't teach how to become a good speaker or how to communicate effectively with visuals. Garr Reynolds, in his excellent book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery, informs us we need to simplify our approach to Power Point. Use it to amplify the way we learn, through visuals and powerful stories.
And because of all these, it is a great learning tool. But we have to unlearn how we use it. We have to forever obliterate the image of what comes to mind when we "make a Power Point". Because that image is bad pedagogy, and it doesn't take advantage of the benefits it brings us in our classroom.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Most Underrated Tools

As I mentioned yesterday, a conversation with a teacher prompted me to reflect on the question of what tools were the most overrated and the most underrated. Here's a look at tools that I'd like to see used more often in the classroom.

By far, the most underused tool. I cannot understand why every student doesn't have a blog. And no, it's not just because I am an avid blogger.

When I taught, I used reflective writing in the form of journaling extensively. It did so many beneficial things to my classroom, I had each of my student teachers I worked with develop their own journal prompts before designing lessons. Simply put, journaling gave every student a chance to reflect on their learning or a question posed before discussion. Writing then served as a springboard; any student I called on was better prepared to contribute. Moreover, it gave me a chance to assess every student, even the ones that I didn't call on, since I could gather their journals after class and read. And this process improved their metacognition and their writing skills in one swoop. This was my most powerful formative assessment tool at the time.

Then Will Richardson introduced me to blogging. All the power that had been in journals was magnified, because no longer was writing directed just to me. Students wrote for other students, who could read and react instantly to another's post. And, students wrote for real-world audiences.

Blogging can be done easily in any subject area. Have students create blog posts for how they solve (or couldn't solve) mathematical problems. Have students keep a blog reflecting on their individual fitness goals and progress. Have students document their learning in a lab-based science or FCS classroom by taking digital images and embedding them within lab writeup posts. Blogging is literally the easiest method of e-portfolio and can give educators great access to understand how students think and what they are struggling with. And it is the perfect tool for sharing and learning from each other.

I have now been out of the classroom for 3 years, and Etherpad is one of many tools I didn't have the chance to use. In all honesty, there are probably dozens of tools that should be on this list but aren't because of that fact.

I was perhaps the only teacher who excitedly taught with TextEdit, the Mac equivalent of Notepad or SimpleText. I'd consider it one of the most underrated tools as well, since I don't know of any other teacher who uses it in the classroom. My students would shrug the first time we opened it up, until they realized why we used it. It was simple. No toolbars. No 3-million fonts and formatting buttons. Loaded in a fifth of the time as Microsoft Word and took up basically no memory. It was the simplest brainstorming and notetaking tool there was.

Etherpad is better. Yes, a bit more bandwidth intensive, but the ability for multiple students to work collaboratively on the same set of notes changes teaching and learning. Much is made out of Twitter (or Edmodo) as a backchannel discussion board, but Etherpad will work just as well and adds the element of constructiveness to the work as well.


Just as I consider interactive whiteboards to be overrated since they are not really that interactive, I also consider classroom response system "clickers" to be underrated. Getting direct student feedback empowers more formative assessment and allows students to drive the curriculum.

Clickers are expensive, of course. But polling software, whether via laptops or cell phones, is a free alternative. A teacher can post some questions and get instant student data back, in graphical form. Heck, a student can just as easily post questions and get feedback from other students. I've seen teachers give a quick pre-assessment over the unit's new vocabulary, only to find out that there were several terms students already knew. She had more time to focus on the other terms and was able to have students who were comfortable in their knowledge share with the class what they knew. The entire lesson was driven by students. And it saved them time, which students could then use for their own individual projects.

We parrot the phrase "data-driven decision making" all the time, but how often do we use tools that exemplify it?

Just as I find Animoto and iMovie to be inefficient uses of digital storytelling, I find Voicethread to be the most powerfully efficient. And the differences between it and Animoto are slight.

Voicethread allows you to quickly upload images, video, or documents. It allows a by-slide annotation through text, audio recording, or video recording (including from your mobile device). Each commenters' image then appears around the slide, giving you a visual sense of the community discussion.

But what really sets this apart is its simplicity. Animoto's effects distract a student from learning by watching it. Voicethread pares it down to the visual and the narration. Its simplicity goes straight to the heart of what makes effective digital storytelling, a focus on the central story.

Like Etherpad, I missed out on this tool. I too required students to create and share their poems aloud, to get a sense for the oral tradition of poetry. It led to uneasy "polite" listening and boredom. Voicethread, as this teacher used it, makes the experience more visual and engaging, leading to better learning and expression.

Before Web 2.0, this would have been Microsoft Excel (or InspireData for younger students). With the advent of Web 2.0, there are now several online collaborative data analysis tools that would work well.

The thing that strikes me about most web 2.0 tools about there is their inclination to helping build creativity. That could be the rationale behind a tool like iMovie or any other, that it allows students to express themselves and built their creative thought, and this is definitely a good thing. Yet those tools don't have as close a connection to logical processing.

A data analysis tool, like a spreadsheet or a database that allows the entry of numbers and the creation of visual representations, is a springboard for logical thought. Having students collect and plot data, and then draw conclusions (a la the David Warlick ITEC presentation) represents an important wave of mathematical literacy and logical processing that we simply don't do.

There is some irony here. In my experience as a principal, I had few teachers who lamented students' lack of creativity. It seemed students were very creative, even to the point of being inappropriate. But I had many teachers lament students' inability to figure things out. Other than Geometer's Sketchpad, our students had little exposure to data analysis tools.

There is one tool that we discussed ad nauseum that I didn't put on either the underrated or overrated list. It deserves its own special category, which we'll look at next.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Most Overrated Tools

I was recently asked by a teacher during a casual conversation, "What do you think are the best and worst tools to use in the classroom?"

It was very apparent the teacher had put a lot of thought into this; someone wondering what the "worst" tools to use in the classroom has an understanding that technology is not a panacea. There are indeed uses of technology in the classroom that are harmful to student learning, mainly because they offer no new access to learning and take up valuable time.

Of course, I equivocated in my response. The tools themselves are not bad. In fact, any tool can be used well by teachers. But there were indeed several tools that I have seen misused quite a bit. Here's my thoughts:

Interactive whiteboards have taken many hits among edubloggers, and my thoughts are similar. The tool is teacher-centered instead of student-centered, and while it does allow for more use of visuals during a teacher lecture, you still have a lecture, which doesn't change from the traditional learning process very much.

What makes this striking is that many schools see this as the penultimate tool of dynamic learning. So much so, that I've seen about a dozen district technology plans calling for SmartBoards or Prometheans in every classroom. In many cases, those whiteboards will be installed without comprehensive professional development, and even if they were, classrooms will still function the same.

This tool is now over 10 years old. When it first came out, teachers (including yours truly) raved about the way iMovie supports project-based learning and appealing to visual learners. Students could take their learning and share it in a much more vibrant way than the traditional posterboard activity or oral presentation.

The reality is less rosy. Teaching with iMovie has not changed much in those 10 years. It is not very collaborative (it ends up being one person working on the computer with the other group members occasionally looking over her shoulder). It more often than not becomes an exercise in regurgitating content rather than tackling content at higher-levels. Other students usually come away from watching a fellow student's iMovie with less understanding than if the fellow student had simply talked to other students. It is gadgety and gizmo-y. And it is a monumental waste of time.

There are places where video production can be a valuable enrichment or a truly authentic exercise. But making an iMovie on the four stages of the butterfly should be avoided.

This tool is more qualified. It saves so much time over iMovie, that it is great if for no other purpose. And since it is web-based and has built-in a place for comments, you are opening up your students to a larger audience (at least, more easily than through iMovies).

But, the tool is still misused at high rates. A typical Animoto project might ask students to do an Animoto on the 3 branches of government. The student will go find a bunch of pictures of the White House, Capitol Building, and Supreme Court, and then string them together with some adrenaline-flowing music. Other students watch them and love the images flying in all over the place and the music. Fun all the way around. But none of this demonstrates or facilitates learning.

In fact, Animoto is often used after students have already learned the material, and if not, it lends itself to cut-and-paste exercises. The questions a teacher has to ask herself after seeing the student video is 1) How do I know they understand the concept, and 2) How do I know they understand it because they used Animoto? If the answer to either is "I don't", then it shouldn't be used.

When I started my foray into web-based activities in my classroom, podcasting was my bread-and-butter. There was true irony that students loved giving speeches and presentations to fellow classmates when they didn't actually have to stand in front of them. I literally had to kick students out of classroom at the end of the day because they were voluntarily staying after to tweak their podcasts.

Podcasting has lost a lot of its luster in recent years, though. I don't see it used very often in the classroom, and teachers who use it tire of it easily.

The problem is definitely not the tool, but how the tool is used. Teachers tend to have students make a podcast as a project (often just a recorded speech). It is not used often as an audio-blog, which is a great misuse. There is greater continuity and development of both individual learning and individual expression when a student builds their podcast episodes one after another. Plus, when podcasting is used only in project form, too much time and emphasis is spent on the fine-tuning of a project... putting in the sound effects and such. It is more effective for students to use as a brainstorming tool, getting a chance to put ideas out without killing thought with too much refinement.

The larger problem with podcasts is that they aren't assessed very well. First, fellow students don't listen to them, usually because they are too long and the class has moved on. In the same vein, teachers usually give a summative grade at the end of a podcast. This misuses one of the greatest features of podcasts, that being you can easily go into it and point to places for improvement. This could be a great formative assessment tool to help students not only in the creation of their thoughts, but also their ability to articulate them. However, students are rarely asked to go and add/alter a finished podcast.

There are many fans of Wordle out there. In most cases I've seen, the amount of learning that has taken place is far less than the perceived amount of learning a teacher feels Wordle brings.

I've mentioned my thoughts on Wordle before. The main item I keep coming back to is Wordle, like many other tools, is powerful if it is used quickly and seamlessly in the learning process. In this way, it is just like any other graphic organizer, such as a flowchart or a graph, to help visualize abstract qualities and relationships. The use of Wordle should take mere minutes out of the instructional process, and then students should be on to the processing of what they see. Any Wordle-creation time that takes more than 10 minutes is a waste.

After having this conversation, I thought of probably 2 or 3 others that I should have put in there. At any rate, the tools themselves are immaterial, for all these tools could be used well. It is the intentions behind the tools that is important. Teachers need to pay attention to the ratio of time used on the tool vs. time using the tool to build learning, the tendency for a tool to lead to simple cut-n-paste, the ability for a tool to share learning with other students, and how a tool can be used seamlessly in the learning process.

We'll take a look at the most "underrated tools" next.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Professional Development for a 1:1 Implementation

More thoughts and insights about Pamela Livingston's book

Professional development is, just as with anything, an absolute necessity for success. Livingston states it must be "iterative, sustained, and understood by all to be a priority." Livingston's phrase "understood by all" cannot be understated here. Some leaders go into a 1:1 initiative with a good sense of the professional development needs of the staff, but fail to communicate and reassure those needs to the staff.

This professional development needs to be in many layers, and these layers vary in terms of formality and timeliness. There must be a formal "boot camp" layer of training prior to the start of implementation on how to design instructions and assessment, utilizing digital tools in a 1:1 environment. That should continue throughout each year's implementation, as with the whole staff, you look at how to implement digital tools.

Informally, sessions like "Tech Tuesdays", where teachers are allowed to show up to discuss a technique, tool, or a "how do you teach this...?", lets teachers receive hands-on training. A similar informal session could be teacher poster sessions, where they showcase some of the things they are doing in their classroom. This could be enhanced by creating some virtual communities. Some schools in Iowa have done this through collaborative Nings, which focus inwards and build strong communities of learners. Some have used Twitter to tap into the larger world-wide community. Summarizing it succinctly, professional development should spend most of its time in the stage of "coaching and feedback".

Professional development should also include the leaders as well. Livingston recommends the building principal going beyond an open-door policy to setting up a table outside the teacher's lounge to make herself available to other teachers. Technology coordinators have informal drop-ins to see teaching in action. These will give leaders a much better ideas of the actual things that teachers need help with.

There are some critical questions a district should ask itself regarding professional development:
  1. How do we build buy-in for intensive professional development?
  2. When, how, and how often do we conduct professional development?
  3. Who leads... early adopters, outside consultants?
  4. Who evaluates effectiveness and fidelity of teachers' implementation?
  5. What is the cost, and the funding for professional development (including compensation and substitutes)
  6. How and when is follow-up completed?
These questions are a good place to start. For schools starting out, Livingston recommend several other tips:

• Give laptops to teachers before students. A full year has worked well in many districts. Spending 1 semester creating common goals with the staff and then the next semester individualizing around how to integrate 1:1 in a teacher's classroom is a typical time length.

• One idea that has worked well for reducing teacher anxiety is to create a tech-savvy student cadre. This group of students can work with teachers individually during that year of preparation easier than a few tech experts in a school can.

• Keep in mind that classroom management in a 1:1 world will provide as much anxiety as tech issues. What happens when students access iTunes? How do you keep them from plagiarizing? Gather a list of concerns and then allow a panel of experts to respond to those questions.

• Teacher-led professional development sessions, especially poster-board sessions, can be recorded and shared with the community as well.

• Be sure to provide teachers with meaningful examples. Being too theoretical in technology integration, or even saying "you could do this, this, and this with this tool" isn't going to get the job done. Find actual examples of how teachers are using technology, in your school or elsewhere. And, avoid too much correspondence with paper and emails. A page of "good links" might be a good intention, but it will not be used.

• Make sure you respect the adult learning curve. Not every teacher will become a master technology user. Be sure to reach out to those not on board right away and listen to their concerns. Use those concerns for planning. Keep in mind that adult learners 1) are self-directed, 2) want to know the objectives up front, 3) need time to reflect, 4) need relevancy, and 5) need time to collaborate with others, for they have a wealth of knowledge to share with others, and sharing their knowledge with others makes them feel more comfortable and competent in areas of new learning.

• And, be sure to collect good data on the effectiveness of implementation. Teacher attitude surveys should be repeated periodically to keep a pulse on how things are going. Just like student achievement data, be sure to do assessment for several years, as there often is a honeymoon period with implementation.

Technology Professional Development: Do this, not this
Determining the Purpose before Integrating Technology
5 Frequent Problems with Technology Professional Development
Things my Ed Tech Consultant forgot to tell me

Professional Development Opportunity: Drawing Your Network
Professional Development Opportunity: Exploring Wikis
Professional Development Opportunity: Subscribing to Blogs