Sunday, January 31, 2010

Technology Leadership and a Framework

I remember the days when we all talked about creating or updating our technology plans.  Those in K12 will remember carefully taking stock and calculating student to computer ratios.  We’d strive to meet targets like 3:1 at the secondary level and 6:1 for elementary and compare and contrast our respective Districts accordingly.  Essentially technology use in schools was mostly focused on computers, mainly in labs, and software, often of the edutainment and “drill and kill” variety.  Such was the way of tech in schools for 20 years…

Around 2004-5 our School District started to look more critically at the use of technology.  We observed, especially in elementary schools, use of technology that seemed to be more about entertain or rewarding kids rather than being connected to classroom learning.  I worked with a colleague of mine, @gary_kern who facilitated elementary and middle school educators in a process to develop a technology for learning plan.  We came up with a framework that really resonates for me that helps us target the vision where Learning, teaching, and leading is enhanced through effective and meaningful use of technology through ascending the four dependent stairs.  This creates a lens for us through which we can view budgets, have conversations, do planning, and take measurement.
Equitable Access
It is crucial that teachers and students have access to up-to-date reliable technology, in their classrooms, and enough access such that they have ready access when the learning or teaching moment needs it.  As well, responsive IT support is critical to ensure the technology is in good working order.  In our District this stair has become somewhat weak and shaky.  Budget priorities have limited our ability to renew technology fast enough.  If we don't address this soon, teachers and students will avoid using technology in their classrooms.  I hope that we are able to get back on track soon and I also hope that increasingly, teachers and students will bring their own devices to help mitigate this…

Staff Development
In “the old days” teachers would go to a workshop to learn some computer program and then return to their classroom not having access to the needed technology to put what they’ve learned into practice.  This form of in-service was usually disconnected from real classroom learning – it prepared teachers for “the lab”.

With equitable access addressed, a meaningful Staff Development model can be used to support teachers with adapting their teaching to integrate and depend on technology to extend and enrich learning opportunities for kids.  If equity isn’t addressed, this step can’t succeed.  Staff developers need to be able to work with teachers on reliable and accessible technology.

This is a most critical step as teachers need help to see new ways and possibilities and they need time to learn, practice, and experiment.  They need help finding and applying good technology based tools and practices.  Without reliable staff development, the technology simply does not get used effectively nor broadly.

If we have worked successfully on the first two steps to ensure sufficient access to well supported decent technology and staff development, learning can be enhanced in ways not possible without technology.  The goal is transformative change not change for change sake.  For example, once students have access to laptops or other mobile devices in class, they have access to the world’s information base at their finger tips and tools to rapidly write, mix media, prepare stories, presentations, etc. – this is not possible (at speed and diversity) without this technology.  Learning can not be impacted (through technology) though, without teachers who know how to integrate and embed technology in teaching and learning.  And it can not be impacted without access (approaching 1:1) to reliable well supported technology (computers, mobile devices, networks, wireless, etc.).

We have found that it is important to support exemplars with the aim to learn how new ideas and technologies can impact learning and teaching and to show the way forward.  Wireless writing (one 2 one) was one such exemplar for us.  We found this to make a significant impact on learning in classrooms (e.g., grade 7 boys writing 8x more).  Our portal and virtual classrooms (see: Technology Power Learning Environments) is another exemplar we are still developing.  Successful exemplars then feed learning back into staff development where capacity can be built with teachers and these new ideas and practices can spread through-out the organization over time.

Another colleague of mine Dave Sands talks about how important leadership is for the use of technology to spread successfully in schools.  He is an elementary principal and through his leadership his school has moved from a “traditional” lab using school to one where  every teacher has a Smart Board, laptop, and projector that they use everyday in their classroom.  He is talking about mobile devices becoming school supplies in a couple of years for his students.  He has installed wireless access through-out his school.  He also spends a lot of time talking / presenting about Internet safety and the responsibility parents have.  He’s right about leadership.  It’s critical too.

The framework I discuss above is really a tool to guide leaders at the District and school levels.  I always say to Principals “school leaders are technology leaders”.  School staffs, parents, and teachers need to see it as an important aspect in modern classrooms.  They need to be shown the way forward.  In schools where this is true, technology spreads to classrooms and is used in very effective ways to support teaching and learning.  These schools address equity, staff development, and truly impact learning and embrace exemplars.

I wonder what other District and School leaders do to support effective use and implementation of technology in their planning and leading?    What models or frameworks do you use?  Can you share some stories about what has and what hasn’t worked?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Technology Powered Learning Environments

imagemy43 is a virtual community that transforms the learning and work in our School District to prepare students for the future.” 

In 2004 we began a journey in my School District to define, design, and develop a learning portal.  In 2007 we launched my43!  Now this isn’t really a technology initiative, rather it is an organizational change effort that we expect will take until 2017 to really call complete.  It takes a lot of work to change an organization (people)systemically.  Anyway, my43 (a private and secure technology powered learning environment)  is a number of things:

  • District Intranet to support the business of education for staff only (includes human resources, payroll, financial functions and news, announcements, blogs, documents, presentations, contacts, information bulletins, …)
  • School Intranet for each school to collaborate with staff and students (calendars, announcements, pictures, blogs, documents, forms, …)
  • Virtual Classrooms for teachers to use with students to support student learning using class notes, blogs, wikis, discussions boards, hand-in drop boxes, calendars, announcements, etc.
  • Public web sites for the District, schools, and teachers

We are now talking about implementing a learning management system (LMS) inside my43 to support teachers in creating, assigning, and tracking class assignments.  The goal is to help share lessons, knowledge, assessments, and to make it easier to differentiate learning.  This is great but…  since we began this project, the free Internet has risen up in amazing ways.  What would be amazing is to be able to connect my43 seamlessly to our student information system (SIS) and to free Internet services like external blogs, wikis, Google Docs, twitter, Skype, etc.  Students could choose external or internal tools to complete and demonstrate their work and their work would be connected to the teacher’s my43 assignment tracker and their grade book.   We are so very far from this potential reality…

What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” - Steve Jobs

Somebody in my PLN (professional learning network) on twitter tweeted out link to a talk given by Jon Mott, VP of technology strategy for Brigham Young University.  The talk (worth 50 min. of your time) he gave recently pushes us to consider connecting open and private learning networks.  He argues that rather than looking at open OR private, consider AND and get the best of both worlds.  Perhaps a little optimistic at this juncture but worth pursuing…
Jon quotes from the online version of Cluetrain and morphs it into a learning context (on the right):

Online Markets...

Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

Online Markets...

Networked learners are beginning to self-organize faster than the schools that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, learners are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most educational institutions.

I think this is an important development – learners taking charge of their own learning.  Although Jon’s context is in the higher education space, I wonder how the ideas map to K12.  The gist as I understand the thinking is that students would use (free) tools at their disposal on the Internet and the institution (school or District) would have a portal system that can connect with and aggregate content from free Internet tools.  For example a writing assignment might be done in Google Docs or a blog post and the teacher’s portal would reflect live updates from the student’s writing much like an RSS feed might work.  You might say that this is possible today – it is, but it’s complicated to administer.  What’s needed is a really simple interface for teachers to easily receive connections to work that students refer to them.  Assessment of student work would need to occur securely inside the portal and be easily accessible to students and their parents.  And all of it needs to work with a single login ID common to all services!  For us, we need my43 to be able to do this.

YOUR ORGANIZATION IS BECOMING HYPERLINKED.  Whether you like it or not.  It’s bottom-up; it’s unstoppable. – the cluetrain manifesto, p. 127.

The key contrast I see between a school or District owned portal (content / learning management system) and a system on the Internet includes:

  • ownership (student vs. organization or teacher)
  • privacy and security
  • flexibility and speed of change
Inside a District portal, the content is often locked into a teacher’s classroom / course (as it is for us currently with my43) and the student’s work isn’t portable, but it’s secure and private.  Outside the portal, the student is in control, owns their work, chooses tools they prefer, and can keep it as an evolving portfolio for life, moving it around as needed.  Portal systems evolve and change to accommodate new tools much more slowly than free Internet systems.  Free Internet systems (should) cause worrisome privacy and security concerns for school age children and their parents and certainly for schools and Districts.  And the complexity of this flexibility would probably overwhelm most teachers and students, especially for the younger grades.

I think this development of the secure portal connected seamlessly to the free Internet will be worth watching and experimenting with.  I know that in our District our learning portal, my43, is not the only learning space teachers take students to.  They are embracing external blog and wiki services, twitter, and other tools AND my43.  The challenge is that this outside learning is not yet easily connected to my43.  I think the complexities and security concerns will be addressed since the technology mostly exists to make this happen.  Time will tell if there’s a sufficient interest in and for K12 organizations to pursue and build it. 

Do you think there’s value in giving K12 students choice in the tools they use to demonstrate their learning?   Or should schools and Districts provide all the tools in a secure internal technology powered learning environment?  What portal system do you use and does it seamlessly connect and integrate with the outside Internet?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

21st Century Skills – how can technology help?

I just finished reading 21st Century Skills – Learning for Life in our Times by Bernie Trilling & Charles Fadel. 
“The premise of this book is that the world has changed so fundamentally in the last few decades that the roles of learning and education in day-to-day living have also changed forever.” p. xxiii
Okay, think about that for a minute.  Now think about “school”.  Has it changed significantly in the last few decades?  Hmm, probably not hey.  But, we have been using computers and progressively more technology since the early 80’s of the 20th century.  Why hasn’t school fundamentally changed, yet?
“One of education’s chief roles is to prepare future workers and citizens to deal with the challenges of their times.  Knowledge work – the kind of work that most people will need in the coming decades – can be done anywhere by anyone who has the expertise, a cell phone, a laptop, and an Internet connection.  But to have expert knowledge workers, every country needs an education system that produces them; therefore, education becomes the key to economic survival in the 21st century.” p. 6
That quote suggests that education is key to our survival – we intuitively know this.  But what if our current education system, stuck in the 20th century (early part), doesn’t adapt in time?
“It has been observed that today’s education systems operate on an agrarian calendar (summers off to allow students to work in the fields), an industrial time clock (fifty-minute classroom periods marked by bells), and a list of curriculum subjects invented in the Middle Ages (language, math, science, and the arts).” p. 12
I just saw a tweet tonight (Jan. 16th, 2010) from @jagill
I think this teacher shows a way to break free from the past.  This particular teacher uses technology in a very integrated / supportive way – whatever the students bring and the school can provide.

I was meeting with a couple of educators last week to prepare for an upcoming Board presentation on our my43 virtual classrooms and our One 2 One projects.  During our conversation I asked why can't learning be more relevant, interesting, cross curricular, and dynamic?  I said, imagine this…  the teacher takes a current topic (eg. Haiti earthquake and devastation) and builds curriculum on the fly with the students.  Maybe the kids have ipod touches, netbooks, cell phones, etc. and the teacher says get into teams of 5 and one team researches the Haiti situation, another team Haiti history, geography, political situation, and financial details, another team researches earthquakes, another team is responsible to assemble and present the findings of the others, and so on.  They use the tools they have in the classroom and go to work.  The teacher creatively ensures that there are clear links to curriculum and learning, and to social responsibility – they discuss in future classes ways they can help the Haitians.  They also make arrangements for their students to present to two other classes at the school and they stream the presentation on the Internet, later that afternoon – notice of the presentation is tweeted, email, and posted to the school website.  Pretty difficult to pull this off without relevant technology in the hands of students in their classroom.

The book, 21st Century Skills, refers to “Four Converging Forces”: Knowledge Work, Thinking Tools, Digital Lifestyles, and Learning Research as a 21st Century Learning Convergence.  They refer to these coming together like a “perfect learning storm” that will usher in new ways of learning.  However they list a number of forces that still resist these changes:
  • Industrial Age education policies (efficiency of mass education)
  • Accountability -- Standardized testing
  • Centuries old teaching practices – transmit knowledge to students
  • Textbook industry makes money from books not flexible digital content / tools
  • Fear of abandoning focus on rigorous content
  • Preferences of parents who learned the traditional way
How to break free?  We need to…
“In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
Mass education is not working – kids are getting more and more bored.  We need to make it real!  Teachers are no longer the tomes of knowledge they were – every 18 months what is known, DOUBLES.  Textbook companies face the same challenge as music companies and they will lose eventually.  Content isn’t king – process is.  Today’s kids will become parents and will demand different.

Back to the blog title…  I believe that technology can and will help disrupt our current ways of “doing school”.  There’s lots written about differentiating learning, experimentation with UDL (universal design for learning), and an invasion of personal devices that’s just begun.   UDL has great promise to meet the individual learning and engagement needs of all students using 21st century technology tools.  On it’s own technology is agnostic but with skilled 21st century learning coaches (teachers), and content guides, skilled in applying technology to learning, technology can be the lever that makes a difference.
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Alan Kay
What do you think?  Is technology essential to developing 21st Century Skills and reinventing school?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Schools of the Future

Our School District has a School Conceptual Design Group.  Membership includes superintendents, secretary treasurers, principals,  facilities managers, teachers, parents, architects, and myself.  Our purpose is to conceive new school designs that will serve us for tomorrow and the next 50 years.  No small undertaking for sure.

Back in the fall of 2005, we were struggling to find our way with technology.  We were also looking for new ideas for building schools fit for tomorrow.  I was asked to find “someone” that could talk to us about school design that leverages technology for learning.  I found Alan November.  Alan spoke to two groups in November ‘05…  one with facilities planners, architects, some principals, senior administration, and I and an afternoon group of several hundred teachers, principals, and IT staff.  One principal a while later said something like “that was our November awakening”.  It did start a flurry of conversations, in-service sessions, conversations, and idea storming about how technology can support learning, enhance teaching, and affect school design.  I highly recommend Alan if your District needs some out-of-the-box thinking around learning and technology.  Perhaps send a team to his annual conference…  we attended, and more attended, it was very helpful for us.

Anyway, Alan showed us some pix and talked about High Tech High.  I had the good fortune to visit High Tech High a few years back.  Seven of us from my District went down to take a look at what was essentially a project based learning system.  Kids were working on all sorts of projects in the hallway, in flexible spaces, open spaces, etc.  There seemed to be a real buzz and kids seemed to be pretty into their learning.  Definitely not a lot of traditional rows of desks with seat work.

We met (some students joined us) in July 2009 with Frank Locker, a school design / planner (eg. Flexible School Facilities) who facilitated some great thinking and discussion about schools of the past, today, and the future.  There was some consensus that we needed to be more community oriented, open and flexible spaces, clustered spaces, use garage doors, have a learning commons, support active / project based learning, etc.

I just read an article by Janna Anderson, lead author of the Future of the Internet series and she says in The Futurist (Jan-Feb 2010), page 24:

“But the traditional idea of the teacher may be much less valuable to the future, just like the traditional library will have much less value…What we do need are places where people can gather – places that foster an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where learners can pursue deeper meaning or consult specialists with access to deep knowledge resources.  It’s all about people accessing networked knowledge, online, in person, and in databases.  We need collective intelligence centers, and schools could be that way, too.”

Later in the article she also says:

“Maybe what we need is a new employment category, like future-guide, to help people prepare for the effects of disruptive technology in their chosen professions so they don’t find themselves, frankly, out of a job.”

Hmmm, food for thought.  I think we in K12 need to really think hard about the future, our roles, our purpose, our buildings…  schools designed for the 19th or 20th century won’t cut it in the future.

A key challenge we face in considering new designs is the difficulty in seeing the advantages of the change.  Teachers and Principals are used to what schools should be and when current designs are disrupted, we’ve found there is difficulty in adapting – people continue to see a classroom, a library, a commons, etc. through traditional eyes.  A key requirement should be some well designed staff development to help people through the change.

Our design group met today about middle school design.  We talked about the immediate remove of the computer lab not being practical, yet.  The trick is to design a new building that is flexible enough for a “lab” but can easily be reconfigured into other space.   A key middle school structure is Explorations and computer instruction is one such exploration.  We talked about pods (the shared/common space in the middle of four classrooms (this is a team) and the making the pod space project space with technology, art, and other explorations.  The library is another traditional space that we’re trying to rework.  Smaller space for shelves and some intellectual gathering areas for conversation, reading, etc. (think Starbucks inside a Chapters).  But also some clear glass sound rooms with closable sliding doors of varying sizes for kids to work in small teams in quiet spaces.

I would like to engage others in conceiving future schools.  Put your imagination glasses on…  if you could design a new high school, or middle school, or elementary school, --- maybe there are no grade organized schools in your imagination --- what features, requirements, would you specify?

  • What type of technology would be included and where?
  • How would students be organized (by grade, age, readiness, curriculum, other)?
  • How would curriculum be delivered?
  • How would time be partitioned?
  • What physical aspects would be needed?
  • How do you best charge and secure laptops, netbooks, and other digital devices?
  • Describe the ideal classroom?
  • What “green” aspects would there be?
  • Go crazy with this – think way outside the box – what would you design?

I’d like to take your input through your comments back to our design group.  Thanks in advance for sharing your thinking with me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Future of IT Services – Part 2

I left off Part 1 of this series with a promise to talk about what I believe a School District’s approach to creating and supporting IT infrastructure should be and specifically servers, cloud computing, and online services.

So, where to begin.  IT groups create and support wired and wireless networks – access, security, and bandwidth are key!  IT provides servers to support a smorgasbord of services including file sharing, printer sharing, web sites, portals, library systems, student info systems, financial systems, database systems, phone / unified messaging systems, e-mail / calendar / contact management systems, and the list goes on.  There is a ton of work for a large number of technical folk involved in purchasing, installing, securing, maintaining, and changing this infrastructure.

In recent years, a lot of free and for fee services have arose on the web from Google, Microsoft, Flickr, and 100’s of others whereby an organization can use enterprise class free services.  The University of Alberta is finalizing contracts and implementation plans (read more here) to centralize their e-mail and calendar services on free Google Mail (gmail).  I say wow!  Many organizations use Google Docs, Box.NET (or other drop file/share sites), and a host of other free services. 


Others are using for fee services like Microsoft’s Software + Service (Exchange Online, Sharepoint Online, Office Communications Online, CRM Online, etc.).  In British Columbia School Districts have move their student info systems to a for fee service called BCeSIS.

Shift forward 5 years, 10 years…  what will it look like.  I think it will be rather cloudy out…   My take on cloud computing is that it is really an old idea resurrected.  I “grew up” in computing during the early 80’s when time shared computing (centralized and often at a distance “servers”) with simple terminals (a screen and keyboard) were the norm.  Personal computers were rare, big, slow, and stand-alone devices back then.  Fast forward to today…  cloud computing is really a new form of time shared computing.  With the rise of netbooks and the cost approaching zero and the richness of the user experience in the cloud approaching that of a computer, the storms are inevitable. 


I believe there will be three fundamental clouds: (1) free, (2) for fee, and (3) ours.  The real question facing School District IT shops is what belongs where and why.  I think the key criteria for deciding what is our cloud will include need for privacy of data, flexibility to customize, ease of integration between services and apps, single sign-on capabilities (one id and password gets you into all services), automation of profile / account management, etc.

By the way, check-out this cloud service – Sumo Paint – it is amazing and totally free – runs in a browser as a flash application.  Feels and works like a professional expensive client computer application.  Or how about Webspiration (cloud app) vs. Inspiration (client app).

In my previous post in this series I posed questions about what will IT services groups do when the field work supporting the client devices mostly disappears.  Well, I believe over time a good number of field IT staff need to retrain and become service providers supporting our cloud and helping manage access to free and for fee cloud services.  Additionally, I believe our work in schools will shift from high touch maintaining computers to, as Dave Truss in his comment said, to tech helpers with an educator mindset.  I believe our service response times will need to become nearly instantaneous as well – that will be the expectation of teachers, administrators, and students.

So, my questions for you are:

  • What forecast would you give for how School District IT services might look in 5 or 10 years?
  • What services are you currently running “in the cloud” for free or for a fee and why?
  • What services are you planning to run in a free or for fee cloud, why, and over what time line?
  • What services do you believe School Districts should run in their own cloud and why?

Not sure if there’ll be a Part 3 in this series or not…  Hope to hear from you.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Future of IT Services - Part 1

Seeing as I lead an IT Services group in our school district, I've been thinking a lot about this topic - what might an IT Services group's value proposition evolve into over the next 5-10 years?  Rather than overwhelm you with one massive post, I've chosen to break this into two or more.  I will share my beliefs about the future of IT Services based on trends in technology, price (read free), and school system's ability to leverage digital devices for productive learning.  This first post in the series will focus on digital user devices and software.

I remember early (mid 1980's) in my career planning (at a research facility in the Canadian Dept. of Fisheries & Oceans) for three months to upgrade a Fortran compiler on a VAX mini-computer before actually executing the project.  Isn't that crazy?!!?  I worked on programming projects for months to do simple (in today's terms) analytical work.  Now, the speed of change with technology is mind-numbingly fast.  Software changes constantly, much through open source methods.  There is rarely time to think / plan enough before embarking on major upgrades or new tech initiatives.  It's a bit frightening at times since the consequences of getting it wrong are way higher now than it was with a Fortran upgrade!  Users of computing services had "dumb" terminals and then PCs with terminal emulators - real work was done on the central mini-computer...  systems changed slowly...

Currently, a lot of what an school district's IT group does today is high touch on 1000's of district owned computers.  Installing software, re-imaging computers, updating software, troubleshooting software or login issues, changing configurations to meet user's needs, etc.  Using a mix of enterprise management tools, remote support, and hands-on support, many 1000's of computers can be maintained pretty well.  Software used to be mostly commercial and required infrequent updates (annually).  However, more and more software is free, connected to web services, and wants to be updated very often.  There is a tonne of work and it's increasing...

However, a shift is occuring...  more and more students and teachers are bringing their own computer, er, digital device (laptop, netbook, ipod/phone, blackberry, cell phone, game console), often more than one to school.  There is a direct relationship between the number of personal devices and their cost.  As the cost continues to drop, more are purchased.  More and more software is becoming free, web based and fully online with a rich user experience.  Forecast this out and I think in five years there could easily be more digital devices in our schools that are personally owned rather than school/district owned.  And the software will be likely be 100% "in the cloud" (on the web).

I believe that IT Services groups need to shift gears and over time at the right pace focus on true services rather than traditional IT computer installation/support work.  If we don't do this and reinvent ourselves, I believe we will become obsolete.  What will our tech forces do if their primary function is to install/maintain computers and software and most of the computers aren't ours and the ones that are access all their software from the web?  I believe and will write more later on this, that IT Services will continue to (increasingly) be an important group but only if the services provided are relevant to the times.

I am interested in others thoughts on this:
  • Do you think this will become a reality in 5 years? 10 years?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think educators will change practice quick enough to leverage the diverse digital tools that are increasingly coming with students?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think a school district's IT Services groups primary function / focus should be in 5 or 10 years?
  • What skills / expertise should be developed?
My next post in this series will focus on what a school district's approach to providing IT infrastructure might be to support the future of a digital powered learning environment.  I'll talk about servers and cloud computing (free, for a fee, and ours).