Sunday, May 30, 2010

This is your brain on technology

I just read an article “The web shatters focus, rewires brains” in the latest Wired How It's Donemagazine (yes, the paper-based version, not on an ipad).  One writer, Nicholas Carr, makes the case that the barrage of information and interruptions in our lives “shatters our focus and rewires our brain”.  The article (Wired June 2010 pp. 112-118) is adapted from his new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, to be published in June 2010.  He shares examples of research done to compare heavy to low Internet users where they fMRI’d their brain activity.  Heavy Internet users did have higher brain activity and that the brains of the low users after spending an hour a day online for a week then showed very similar brain use patterns.  Their brains were rewired!  This might sound promising whereby Internet use reroutes neural pathways but Carr argues that this is actually turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Carr shares that since the 1980’s many have thought that introducing hyperlinks into text would increase learning, improve critical thinking, etc.  Hyperlinks would allow the reader to more easily switch viewpoints.  Researchers have learned though that there is a lot of overhead to evaluating hyperlinks, deciding to click or not, etc.  It creates a lot of disruption for the reader, reduces comprehension, and memory retention.
The Internet is an interruption system.  It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
I’ll leave it to you to read the entire article – worth your time in my opinion.  It made me think about my own interactions with technology.  On a given work day when I am on my computer, I have e-mail, twitter, telephone, instant messaging (IM), cell phone, skype, all active.  Messages keep coming in, causing interruptions.  I do find myself often taking the easy out – read the email, check twitter, and of course respond to the IM (it must be instant) – rather than focus on developing that presentation, writing that report, analyzing the budget, brainstorming goals and priorities, preparing for the meeting, etc.  Multitasking right?  Or is it just a relentless barrage of distraction and interruption?  Carr says,
“Media multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy: We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”
Hmmm, that sure is true when you think about how many messages from the various inputs you have, are useless time wasters.  Each one takes processing time for our brains to evaluate and accept or reject.  We can’t get that processing time back!  Carr suggests we are overloading our brains – what might be the long term affect of that?

Thinking about student learning, there seems to be a believe today that kid’s brains, these digital natives, are wired differently and that  they can handle all the inputs / outputs (IM, facebook, twitter, texting, music, videos, etc.) coming at them while doing homework, studying, etc.  Maybe they are wired differently and can do these things, but we should ask the question “at what cost” to true learning?

I think the adults in their lives need to help kids manage this reality. Kids may think they work better with all the distractions but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.  Common sense might tell us that focus time is important some of the time.  We humans need to turn off the distractions at times to think more deep.  We need balance – broad inputs are important but so are deep ones.  Purely shallow knowledge and thinking is insufficient for true learning.  Just look at an accomplished athlete – when they are focused and producing, most other inputs are turned off.  Adults still need to teach kids “how to drive”…

Our schools are wrestling with the deluge of personally owned devices (POD’s) entering their buildings.  Most middle schools in our District require kids to put their PODs in their lockers. Some middle schools though are exploring how they might leverage PODs for learning.  I think this is a very important point in time for schools to make sense of this.  It will be important that the use of PODs is carefully managed.  I think they will likely need to be powered up and down through-out the day depending on the learning activities students are engaged with.  There is a lot for us all to learn about how to deal with the chaotic information and device world we live in and how to take best advantage of it for our learning and work.  In spite of the “dangers”, I am a firm believer that technology, used effectively and not allowed to run our lives, proves to be an amazing learning, engaging, efficiency, creative, … tool for all of us.

I’m curious what others think about these ideas.  Feel free to share your views with me here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Welcome to your life in 2020

I don’t know about you but I often try to imagine what the world might look like in the future and what I might be doing in it.  2020 is a particularly interesting year for me.  It is the year of my retirement, I hope.
“Retirement: entering a period in life where I don’t have to work to live but will choose to work at something, just because…”
I wonder what changes I will experience, initiate, or resist… over the next 10 years?  Warning, wild (or mild?) speculation follows…
Mobile communications devices: all landline phones are relics now – mobile devices are very small, thin, and foldable but are able to take on a rigid form when necessary.  They have a holographic image capability to project a 3D color image of live video calls, video media, virtual worlds, digital information, online applications, etc.  Multiparty communications present each party in the holographic image as if they were there.  Interactions and input with this digital world involve gestures, virtual touch / manipulation, natural human speech, and unrollable keyboards (I’m resisting the brain – device integration step!).  They detect and connect with other nearby devices, large screens, large projection systems, sound systems, cameras, cars, whatever makes sense to connect with.

Laptops and netbooks: huh?  oh ya, those last decade devices.  These are now only available as pre-owned devices for “old-timers”.  Having served us well, they have begun to move out of the way for small mobile devices which replace all other digital interaction devices.

Print on demand: designers rule in 2020.  They use the same type of 3D holographic tools as mobile devices but with a sophisticated “drawing” application to create 3D digital designs of all kinds of products.  Designers show case, support virtual trials, and sell the use of their designs through using the infinite shelf space of the Internet to businesses and consumers who “print” physical products on their multi-pass multi-composite atomic imprinting devices.  These “printing” devices literally print a product based on the design at a molecular level but placing atoms in precise arrangements one atomic layer at a time. Within minutes, people print a new mobile communications device, a coffee cup, a new toaster, a plate, fork, or t-shirt.  The buyer has some choices for color and shape.  The size of the “printer” determines the size and type of the product that may be printed.  The designer controls how many copies may be printed.  Traditional manufacturing businesses are nearly extinct.  The power of production has moved into the hands of the individual.  New models are being designed to allow reuse of existing physical products as the raw materials to produce different products.  The new printers will “absorb” physical objects and sort their atoms into the raw materials needed to produce new products.  Sounds dangerous…

K-12 Education: practical forms of the Holodeck (Star Trek artifact) File:Holodeck2.jpgare successfully being piloted by innovative educators and students.  Student and educator learning is being transformed through real world scenarios and environments as well as virtual digital imaginative worlds all through the safety of the Holodeck.  Teachers and students in the pilot projects use sophisticated tools to create Hololessons and Holomodules and they store these in the global Holorepository for easy access by other teachers and self-directed learners to use, understand, and modify.  Students and teachers connect their Holoworlds to others around the world for virtual multicultural experiences through their participation in Holoreal reenactments of important historical events.  Students are engaged, along side their teachers / learning coaches, in designing, creating, and connecting these worlds.  The possibilities are seemingly endless for rich educational experiences.
Seriously though, maybe not by 2020, but can’t you see glimmers of  possibilities in our lifetime?  I will have the good fortune to attend a very interesting conference this summer put on by the World Future Society.  Their focus is on the discipline of Futuring.  For an example of their work check out 20 Forecasts for 2010-2025, Trends and Breakthroughs likely to Affect Your Work, Your Investments, and Your Family.
“Foresight is critical to achievement in all areas of your life, including your major life decisions. People who lack foresight are likely to find themselves unemployed when jobs are unexpectedly lost to new technologies, competition from overseas, or shifts in consumer tastes. Foresight is the key to survival in a world of disruptive innovation.”
Let that quote sink in…  Pause for thought isn’t it.  I worry about where we are headed with technology.  Ray Kurzweil, the author of The Singularity Is Near and creator of the highly valued Kurzweil 3000 literacy solution (assistive / adaptive learning technology) , is interviewed in WFS’ latest journal edition and is a keynote at the July conference. His view is that sometime this century human level intelligence will exist in machines.  Machines will equal or surpass human mental capabilities.  He’s writing a new book “How the Mind Works – and How to Build One”.  I’m not sure I like that prospect personally, but with the accelerating increases in machine performance, maybe…

Anyway, feel free to speculate with me here about life in 2020, or beyond.  What do you think life will be like then?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Digital Tools and Social Responsibility

I remember when I was growing up sneakily watching TV shows or listening to music my parents didn’t approve of - good thing my mom doesn’t use the Internet, she won’t see this, I’m safe :-).  That’s about as complicated “digital tools” were back in the day.  Fast forward to today and it’s a whole different world with the Internet, devices of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities, in the hands of most kids.  The opportunity for kids to misuse digital tools is huge.  Who’s going to guide them?

I wrote a post back in March, Digital Natives Need Infrastructure, where I talked about one of our schools’ (Riverside Secondary) experiences with students using digital tools and the impact on the network.  When kids are bringing their personally owned devices (PODs) and you have a philosophy of openness (no blocking), things get interesting.  My post Learning with a class set of ipod touches tries to contemplate possible learning benefits and difficulties.  Dave Truss has an interesting perspective to share in the PODs are Comingimagesome good material to make you think about the coming wave.  We’ve got to get ready!

Anyway, that visit to Riverside prompted me to bring together all our secondary school Principals to try to get to a shared understanding of the “digital” issues they face in their schools and how we might work together to address them.  We met a few weeks ago and round-tabled to pull out the issues.  I’ve included a subset below.  We’re coming back together in June to prioritize the issues and to develop next steps with the goal to have some solutions for next school year.  Note that supplying more bandwidth is being addressed separately and doesn’t really solve these problems – just buys time.  We need solutions that are responsibility related in addition to technical improvements.

Have a read through these and see whether they resonate with you in your schools.  Basically, each Principal shared an issue, I recorded it, and we kept going around the table until no more issues surfaced.  Then we went back to the list and the person who shared the issue, provided clarification of what they meant.

2 Managing bandwidth - there's not enough2.1 lots of innovation + access - not enough bandwidth to support digitally based education programs; eg future enrolment is dropping for Riverside's digital immersion program due to frustrated students in current program
3 Teacher readiness for classroom management3.1 teachers / administrators all over the map on what to allow, how to manage digital tool use; we have not trained teachers to manage digital classrooms; technology is often a distraction / negative experience currently. 3.2 expectations are unclear for teachers - must they embrace technology?  they need core competencies.
4 Downloading of large volumes of content (students)4.1 large downloads are not educationally related
5 Should priority be given to laptops or handhelds5.1 Higher achievers use laptops productively.  Handheld devices not being used educationally.  5.2 Should we be asking kids with handhelds why they need wireless?  Limit use to educational purpose?  How is the handheld tied to classroom use?  5.3 Need tools to be able to easily / efficiently track / search a student's use if it is in question.
7 Societal supervision / social responsibility about technology7.1 We've lost the word "no".  At some point the adults are responsible to supervise student use - need to set expectations on what teachers / parents should do.  Need to qualify why student needs access (eg, handheld) and say "no" to some.  7.2 How to know use is inappropriate; how to follow-up when suspected (tools, easy).  All adults need to help (eg, smoking).
8 Student / family view technology as social license8.1 Technology is viewed as a "right", eg. kid texting during class - asked about it - says mom texting them and they have to respond.  8.2 Want safety like "Mothers against drunk driving" has had significant positive impact.  Now traffic fatalities due to drinking/driving have been surpassed by communications activities.
9 Absence of roles + responsibilities / norms for parents, kids, community, and police9.1 It is K12 (all levels) and community responsibility to set norms, to communicate them, and to educate the adults and kids.  9.2 We (SD43) need to own responsibility for this - it is our social reality - need to be proactive.  9.3 Social Responsibility Coordinator's role to develop programs to respond to this - District leadership is needed.
10 How does the District come up with a policy without impacting innovations10.1 Every school context is different - be careful to balance rules to flexibility
12 Producers vs. Consumers mentality12.1 Some teachers see technology from a consumer perspective vs a producer.  This drives drives choice on hardware needs / costs.  12.2 Students "mainly" into the coffee house consumer idea.  We need to shift to producer / educational view.  12.3 Social awareness - there is an appropriate time and place for different use and activities.
17 What is school's responsibility to help students / parents use technology safely / responsibly?17.1 eg, cell phone - sexting; facebook privacy
18 Adults in the building not modeling good use of technology18.1 teachers / administrators using cell phone in class / meetings.  18.2 doing personal work online during class / meetings.  18.3 off task use - work related but not on task in the present.  Is this just multitasking and is it okay?  sometimes?

What issues might you add to reflect what you’re facing in your schools around this topic.  Also, it would be helpful if you could share ideas you have on some solutions, or perhaps advice from your own experience.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Privacy with Free, Foreign, or Shared IT Services

It’s amazing how quickly the menu of IT services has filled out.  I remember back in 1992 when I was asked to connect my employer of the day to the Internet.  I wasn’t quite sure what that meant or where to turn to do it.  It was difficult, expensive, and slow…  18 years later, the Internet is the underpinning to everything we do.

We have many teachers and students that use free Internet services such as imagefor encyclopedia, imagefor finding info, people, tools, and storing / sharing documents, imagefor instant messaging, storing documents, networking, imagefor access and storing / sharing educational videos, imagefor screen casting lessons, imagefor professional networking, imageto host their blogs, and imageto write collaboratively.  I am interested in what steps teachers or Districts take to address privacy concerns with free services.  I know in our District it’s not a formalized process.  Teachers learn from others and use their own good judgment to take certain precautions.  They may create class, instead of student personal, blogs.  They might create “fake” names for their students to use.  They “probably” monitor student created content for acceptable language. 

A lawyer asked me a question the other day, while discussing the topic of privacy, District and teacher responsibilities, etc. in an online world: “are we acting like a firm and judicious parent”?  In other words are we educating teachers, students, and parents and providing guidelines for using online tools in a safe manner including protecting student privacy.  I think in our case, we’re lacking in this area.

I have been looking at the services we run in-house such as email for students, and wondering why we offer such a service.  Students, as they reach the middle years (grade 6-8), are often obtaining their own personal email accounts.  We provide accounts to make it easier for teachers to exchange mail with their students and to be able to monitor.  The cost required to provide email for students isn’t tremendous but it is significant enough for the hardware, storage, licensing, upgrades, etc. required.  Microsoft has offered to host student email for free with theirimageservice.  They will configure it so that the student’s District network login and their mailbox is linked – their email address would remain the same as it is now.  District IT staff would administer the mailboxes, teachers would still have access to monitor, etc.  I think it’s a great opportunity! 

So, what’s stopping us?  A main issue is the USA Patriot Act and the conflict it creates with our BC FIPPA privacy legislation.  You can read more about a BC privacy commission opinion on this here if you like but this and what our lawyer told me indicates we cannot take advantage of Microsoft’s offer.  Our lawyer explained that with consent of a person we could have certain District personal information stored outside Canada.  However, minors (our students) cannot give consent.  We can’t obtain it from their parents either.  A court of law would have to grant consent. We are obligated as a public entity to demonstrate reasonable control over the information including who could access it.  The USA Patriot Act grants the US Gov’t certain powers over US company’s and their information holdings which means any of our information stored by a US company would potentially be within the reach of the US Gov’t, outside of our control.  My understanding then is that moving any of our student related information and services outside of Canada is prohibited by law.

Shared IT services are gaining interest in British Columbia for school districts.  Our first effort in this area was image, the BC Enterprise Student Information System. It is hosted by a Vancouver company and the system is operated / maintained by Fujitsu Canada on behalf of all school districts and the BC Ministry of Education.  There is work underway to attempt to move payroll and HR IT systems into a shared IT services model as well.  I met a few weeks ago with several of my colleagues in neighboring school districts and we created a list of possible shared IT services and considered which we felt would make the most sense.  Personally, I have mixed feelings about shared IT services – an organization has to give up a lot of control, choice, and flexibility for this to work.  It can be very expensive, frustrating, and difficult to manage, govern, and continuously improve.  I think the main advantage of BC-based shared IT services vs. foreign hosted in this context is that the information is protected by BC privacy legislation.  I’m mixed on the advantages of shared vs. in-house…  we run a fairly lean shop and I’m not convinced yet that shared IT services are less costly or experience better service.

I worry about the privacy teachers, students, families are giving up every day by tapping into free online services.  I’m one of them though – I write this blog post using Windows Live Writer (free tool  from Windows Live) and will post it to Blogspot (Google’s free blog service), and promote it with Twitter (a free networking tool).  For these three services, I have three different accounts and personal information, ideas, etc. about me are stored and accessible to others online.

I think it will become more and more important to create good guidance for using free and other online tools in our classrooms.  Our lawyer advised as much and that we need to create educational programs to support our teachers, students, and their parents.

I would love to hear from others about what you are doing in this area. Do you have modern guidelines for using online tools in safe ways that protect student privacy where necessary – could you share the guidelines?  What education do you provide to teachers, students, and families?