Sunday, March 27, 2011

Technology Obsession

I’ve been in the technology business for over 25 years and during that time have seen massive change occur.  I can remember the first time I experienced word wrap on a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer – I iStock_000009545884Smallwas in awe when it automatically wrapped around to the next line. All I knew at the time was having to pull the lever on a manual type writer to perform a carriage return. I remember programming an Apple II to view data in a spreadsheet format from a floppy drive.  I designed the program (we call them “Apps” today) to dynamically adjust and wrap the data fields as needed – it was amazing (at the time).  I wrote “Apps” on a DEC VAX 780 dumb terminal that drew custom screens and forms for data input and manipulation.  I was the master of my technology…  Okay, I’m getting all nostalgic here… :-)

mobile phones

Back in the day, most people didn’t interact much with technology unless their job required it somehow.  Today, technology invades our lives.  People line up over night to buy the next big thing whether an iPhone 4 or witness the iPad2 release in San Francisco. One of those interviewed said he just has to be one of the first to get his hands on it.  He did the same for every iPhone, the first iPad, etc.  What is it with people needing to be the first to have the latest and greatest new gadget?  It amazes me how much people spend on things they didn’t know they needed the year before…  People spend hundreds of dollars a month on their iPhones and Androids where a $30 / month phone used to be sufficient.  I know, there’s no comparison but…

I bought the first iPad shortly after it came out mainly to become familiar with what its key strengths would be for me as an information worker and for teacher and student use.  I use the iPad every day for something (twitter, reading newspapers, Kindle and Kobo reading, maps, search, research, notes, online buying) – it is a powerful device.  It’s such an easy device to use and very natural and intuitive.  Apple does a great job on design and usability for sure.  I bought a Windows Phone last fall to replace an older version.  I am very satisfied with this phone – in fact I use it more for some things I used to use the iPad for such as email, calendar, music, Facebook updates, etc.  I use it equally as much as the iPad for twitter, maps, weather, and general information access.  Once copy/paste is supported, I will read more on it using the Kindle app.  A great phone device is just so convenient.  I like the Windows phone partly because it isn’t an iPhone – I just couldn’t get myself to jump on everyone else’s bandwagon.  The Windows Phone is different, elegant, cool in a way Microsoft usually isn’t. Note I still use a laptop for most of my work – I can’t see coercing an iPad with blue tooth keyboards etc. to make it “like a laptop” – it just doesn’t have the power, multitasking, multi-window capability I need to be fully productive.  So, I definitely like my devices.  I would never line up to buy one though.  I don’t get that?!!  Why not just wait until they’re available at a more convenient time? 

I think there is an increase in what I sometimes refer to as “technolust” and it can’t be healthy can it?  Is it an obsession that’s building?  Here’s a cute video about Bridger who’s two years old using an iPad.  It is pretty cool how he just naturally interacts with it.  I remember my own kids at that age using a clunky slow PC – quite a different experience.  But…  what expectations are we creating for kids by exposing them so young to gadgets?  Does this early experience with technology benefit kids or hinder them?  We don’t really know but people are adopting new gadgets as fast as companies like Apple can put them on the market.  Are we creating a generation of entitlement minded kids and citizens that just have to have to latest gadget, now?  I worry about where this obsession for technology is leading us.  I think we need to be careful not to be “owned” by the technology and gadget companies like Apple.  It’s almost getting to be a religious fervor.

Okay, so here’s your chance to weigh in on this.  Are you worried at all about this obsession?  Or, do you think this is just a natural progression?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Educated Citizen

It’s encouraging to see an increase in discussion and blogging (eg, Steve Wheeler’s writing on 2020 curriculum, classrooms, and learners) about what learning might look like in 2020, 2030, 2040, etc.  Also, people Fortune cookieare talking more about what students need to know, not just what they need to be able to do.  Education reform is alive and well on many people’s minds.  Here in British Columbia we call it “21st Century Learning” or “Personalized Learning” or both.  With the speed of change we seem to be experiencing in society, perhaps education reform should just be a continuous evaluative piece for school systems rather than some big (scary) change event.

Our Student Leadership Council recently organized an evening event called World Café UshapED.  I was invited by their executive to participate, it was a pleasant surprise and an honor to be counted among the invited guests to observe and document these 100+ excited students giving up an evening to brainstorm the (their) future.  Here’s the invite they sent to me:

“The café’s primary goal is to assemble a large group of students from within our school district in the hopes of getting them to share their views and their opinions regarding various education-related topics. By getting students with varied interests and involvement throughout our middle and high schools, we are hoping to get a broad, more realistic view of what students in our district want to see in terms of the education process and the path it’s currently taking.

As a member of Mr. Grant's team, we would be greatly honoured if you would consider attending our UshapED café. The conference is meant to give students the opportunity as well as the outlet to express their opinions and their views; nevertheless, having adults that occupy such important positions in the education field such as yourself present at UshapED would make it an even more impactful event.”

These students were asked by their executive to respond to questions such as what does quality teaching look like, what will learning in 2040 be like, iStock_000007192634XSmallhow should technology support learning, and a fourth I can’t seem to recall…  The engagement of these kids, grades 6-12, was amazing and the ideas ranged from “of course” to “wow” – I was impressed. These student took their task seriously to help the District make some important choices for the future.  I think school systems really need to encourage student voice in their deliberations of education reform.  Students don’t necessarily get the future any better than adults but they certainly have more of it to live so should be an important part of crafting it with us.

I read an article in the latest online ASCD Express “Preparing Kids for 2040, competing with Robot Labor”.  Any of you that have been reading my blog for some time will know these futuristic topics are of great interest to me. The author of this article, David Orphal, talks about a future where robots with human-like abilities will exist within 30 years and what impact this will have on humans and their jobs.  I wrote about the IBM Watson Jeopardy event recently and asked the question “what is worth knowing” for students.  And similarly, I wrote “Education for an automated future” and talked about the likely end of work as we know it.  In other words, what is an educated citizen when machines are rapidly overtaking our ability to “be smart” – ie, our definition of a learned or smart person needs to change, soon.

Grant Wiggins writes “A Diploma Worth Having” in the March 2011 edition of Educational Leadership that is focused on “What Students Need to Learn”.  He starts with a provocative

“It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it” and “In a modern, unpredictable, and pluralistic world, it makes no sense to demand that every 18-year-old pass the same collection of traditional courses to graduate.”

He argues for a broader curriculum, choice for students to suit their “talents, passions, and aspirations” and gives some great examples for various subject areas of better approaches to content and instruction.  For example, why should a math curriculum require students to learn trigonometry and calculus but not teach them about abuses of data, quantitative aspects, analyzing financial data, and other practical applications.  I wonder how many of us use trig and calculus regularly or ever?  But we all have to do our taxes, make sophisticated purchasing and investment decisions, and judge data analyses reported by the media.

So as we look to the future, hopefully those involved in education reform will really think outside the box and consider what skills, iStock_000011825660XSmallattitudes, and knowledge is worth having in our modern and futuristic society.  Then we need to set out to help those in the system make appropriate changes to move in the needed direction.  Our District is forming a Design Team consisting of teachers, principals, support workers, parents, and executives to figure this out for our students.  We will encourage experimentation in schools – it will be an idea-fest of sorts – should be an exciting few years ahead.

I’m curious what others are doing with respect to reinventing learning and teaching.  In your classroom, your school, your District.  How are you engaging students in the process?  What do you think the future of learning and school looks like?  I’ll leave you with these two stories of future learning: Stephanie’s First Day of School in 2010 and Tyler’s Loving School in 2016.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Technology Powered Meetings

Learn & LeadA colleague of mine, a school principal, recently asked if I could think about how we might better engage people in school staff meetings and District meetings.  In particular we talked about how staff currently use their mobile devices or laptops, either covertly, or overtly but often for purposes unrelated to the meeting.  Believe it or not, meetings still most often are sage on the stage productions where a person broadcasts information to the meeting attendees.  Probably never happens to you, right?!!?  We’re making people suffer and spending a lot of money to run our meetings.  Don’t get me wrong, meetings have a place, people need to be informed and connected, but there must be a better way…

Here’s a list of meeting practices that I think should be discontinued…

  • Presentations that consist of slide after slide of bullet points or large blocks of text that a speaker reads
  • Broadcasting information
  • Banning the use of technology
  • Packed agendas with little interaction time for participants

And a list of practices that could be enacted…


  • Prepare and post online all materials to be referenced – indicate advanced reading and research expectations
  • Bring your technology (laptop, mobile device) and expect to use it – set expectations on use
  • Build in skill training and practice (not just technology) for the participants so that they walk away knowing something they didn’t know before
  • Poll people for opinions on important questions – they respond with their technology to give immediate results
  • Increase collaborative small group discussion time of important questions, idea storming, working on solutions to problems
  • Build in sharing out time of work individuals or small groups have completed – expect all work to be posted online for others to see and benefit
  • Use new tools such as wikis for group responses, twitter for sharing the meeting activities and info with others, blogs for individual writing time, discussion boards for topical idea sharing

Let’s see what a school staff meeting might look like using these ideas…

The first Monday of the month at 3:00, staff at Cedar Falls Middle School eagerly roll into the multipurpose room for their staff meeting.  After last months meeting, their principal posted an article on the school website entitled “Personalized Learning” for them to read in advance and to, using any means or technology they wish, get feedback and ideas from each other or any other educators they can through twitter or other networks they belong to.  They were also to discuss this topic with their students and find ways to incorporate activities into their learning and assignments. 

Fresh idea crosswordAll important information items had been posted to the online staff meeting space for people to read in advance – they could post clarifying questions or concerns there for all to see or privately for their principal.  All information items are generally dealt with outside meeting times.

To open the meeting, the principal asked teachers to write in the schools online staff meeting space for 5 minutes a summary of what they believe about Personalized Learning.  They then each turned to their neighbor and shared what they had written.

Teachers then formed groups of four, elected a recorder, and then shared what they and their students learned and now believe about Personalized Learning.  The recorder wrote summary notes in the staff meeting space wiki – each recorder created their own page there.  After this, the recorder stood and reported to the group the key points and messages for their group.  Later teachers will review other groups notes online.

The principal next spoke for a few minutes to clarify information items as needed (from the online discussions) and to invite 4 or 5 teachers to join her on an adhoc team to develop some specific action steps for experimenting with the Personalized Learning ideas the group uncovered.  A few teachers stood and let the group know about some social event ideas they were playing with and the meeting finished up.

Perhaps District meetings could be orchestrated in similar ways.  The idea is to make the time in meetings take better advantage of the opportunity of being with your colleagues and to leverage the tools you have at your disposal.  Information reporting and clarifying should be done outside meetings – people can read and question anytime from anywhere given the tools they have available to them.  They can do homework to bring results into meetings for further work.

How do your meetings work in your school or District settings?  What are you doing to improve them?  What would your ideal meeting look like?  What advice would you have for others trying to reinvent meetings?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Students versus Watson, What is Worth Knowing?

I was sitting in a School Board meeting recently watching an interactive presentation by some middle school students and their school librarian.  They were showing our school trustees how the Battle of the Books competition worked.  Kids are given a list of books to read and then they are involved in a Jeopardy style competition to answer questions based on content from the books.  It seems like a great motivator to get kids reading and remembering.  I am a voracious reader myself so anything that motivates kids to read, in my opinion, is a good step.ChildrenThe students were in teams of three and lined up on either side of a table with their teacher-librarian playing the role of Alex Trebek asking the questions.  Each student had a bell to ring in with when they felt able to answer a question.  Two trustees were asked to be judges to determine which student / team rang in first for a given question. 

I was impressed with the speed at which the students were able to jump in with correct answers.  But as I sat there on a Tuesday night, the second night of IBM’s Watson appearing on Jeopardy to compete with the two “smartest” humans ever to win Jeopardy, I wondered…  If a computer can defeat humans in answering complex questions what kinds of questions are worth our time to immediately know the answer to?  We all know what happened with Watson, “he” soundly defeated the two human players.

Educators in British Columbia are wrestling with the definition or meaning of 21st Century and personalized learning.  Our government has strongly hinted at a reduced curriculum.  Less focus on covering content, more on uncovering content.  Less learning things just in case, more purposeful learning.  All students should have a “student learning plan”.  Project based, problem based, collaboration, communication, …  To cursive write or not to cursive write… These discussions are promising for sure.  But something I wonder about often if what today is worth knowing and why?

When I was a student, we had to memorize all sorts of facts and figures.  We weren’t allowed to use a calculator – we had to be able to rapidly do math in our heads and be able to work out all the steps from memory.  We had to memorize our times tables, learn our geography facts, and all sorts of facts about important historical figures and events.  I once could recite the capital cities of the Canadian provinces, not now…  I can’t tell you the first 10 Prime Ministers of Canada but I can probably find out using my phone.  Does that make me any less Canadian than the next person?  I can’t spell very well, it is rare that my written work has spelling mistakes.  I can’t cursive write but I can type 60 words a minute.  Do these deficiencies make me less literate or capable?  I’m not seeing it…  Technology has changed the game.

question markSo, as our education system transforms itself into something more relevant to this century, I think there are three fundamental questions:

  1. What should we keep?
  2. What should we tweak?
  3. What should we toss out?

Okay, I have other questions:

  • What structures need to go, how do we make the structures and processes more fit for students without making it too difficult for teachers? 
  • Could “bells” and “blocks” (vestibules from a factory past) be eliminated along with “subjects” and learning be all in context and blended?  Who does “Math” or “English” or “History” in their work or life?  Usually it is in context for some greater purpose.
  • What core knowledge is essential to instinctively know to be considered a literate intelligent capable citizen?
  • What does assessment need to look like and how should student progress be recorded and reported?  Does anyone seriously believe a “B” says how well a student progressed?  Grades are for parents to “think” they know how their kids are doing in school and for Universities to accept, deny, and sort students.  We should do better than this in this century…

I think the “power” of Watson will inevitably be in the palm of our hands one day, perhaps in five years.  The exponential growth of computing power, memory density, algorithmic complexity, with a iStock_000011819618XSmallshrinking physical dimension and cost will put this power into our slates, phones, other mobile devices.  Students entering school today in Kindergarten will have this power anytime, anywhere, all-the-time.  Inevitably, the devices will be more capable of “knowing” than what we’ve seen with Watson.  So, facing this future, I ask “what is worth knowing?” when answers, facts, figures, etc. will be in our pockets.  Teaching and testing facts, figures, etc. that machines can do faster and more accurately than us doesn’t seem to be a valuable option any longer.  We need to continuously differentiate ourselves from our machines, encourage true thinking, developing ideas, being creative, etc. and school of some form is an essential institution for making our future reality a successful one.  For fun, check out what school might be like in 2016 and 2020.