Sunday, June 26, 2011

Building Fences

Well, the time arrived to replace my fence.  I’ve been putting it off for a few years but got a good start on it this weekend.  I am Fence Panel - Private Keep Outthankful for my three sons, they were a huge help in digging post holes, putting up panels, and cleaning up the mess.  It’s a lot of work to disassemble an old fence and take all the old boards, posts, concrete, rocks, clay, and dirt to the dump.  We’re on a corner lot and it’s a weird feeling to take your fence down – you kind-of feel a little exposed in your back yard!

There is another type of fence that teachers, schools, and Districts are required to build with technology – walled gardens so to speak.  We need digital places behind “fences” that are safe, secure, under our control, etc. where students can store their work, communicate with each other and their teachers, write and comment on each others work, etc.  Teacher’s also need digital spaces that have similar attributes so that the work they ask their students to do using digital tools is fully under their control.

However…  there are tremendous benefits to students and teachers to be able to use digital spaces that are outside of British Columbia (BC).  There are tools that schools and Districts simply can not economically replicate internally that provide great student learning experiences.  Tools like Twitter, Prezi, Diigo, Delicious, to name a few.  As well, it is well known that when students write for a broader audience (ie, beyond their teachers and fellow students), they typically will work harder and longer at their writing.  Tools that could involve storing personal information require good privacy process to be used legally in BC.  Note that this requirement applies whether the use limits access to specific individuals or is publicly accessible – the requirement is triggered when personal information is stored outside of BC.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts (eg, Student Spaces) you’ll know that I advocate for a both-and approach.  Districts should provide safe walled gardens to support teaching and learning AND they should create and support the mechanisms for the legal use of tools where personal information is stored outside of BC. Another factor teachers need to always consider is the age limitations imposed by a digital tool’s terms of use.  For example, Facebook states that its users must be at least 13 years old and Prezi states that users have to be at least 18 or have their parent’s consent.

Informed consent is needed when an online service states it is required or when personal information is stored outside of BC.  Consent must be voluntary, in writing (can be electronic), and the individual must be able to rescind their consent.  For students, it is advisable that the consent is given by parents and their children.  This makes it challenging for BC schools and Districts but not impossible.  We have some work to doInformation Security in our District to be sure we have acceptable processes in place for teachers and students to use when signing up to use digital tools that are outside of BC.  We intend to provide clear procedures and forms this coming school year to serve this purpose.  A small group of Districts met recently with a privacy lawyer and a BC privacy commission analyst to try to gain a shared understanding of the requirements.  You can view the notes from that meeting here.

What privacy requirements do you have in your jurisdiction? How do you support your teachers and students in using external digital tools?  For BC folks, what procedures and forms have you put into place for your schools?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Are You a Learner?

Eric Hoffer’s quote really resonates with me…

"In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

I connected for breakfast the other morning with twitter colleague and learner, Chris Wejr (@mrwejr).  Chris is a principal in an elementary school in a fairly remote school district.  He talked about the power of social media, in particular twitter and blogging, to iStock_000006664728XSmallfacilitate his learning.  It is amazing how titles and hierarchies of the bricks and mortar world seem to disappear in the digital realm.  We talked about how we connect and learn along side teachers, principals, superintendents, and renowned speakers.  Last week Chris and another twitter colleague David Wees (@davidwees) facilitated a tweet-up learning event with the BC Minister of Education George Abbott (@georgeabbottbc).  Chris shares his learning freely, shares others learning and ideas freely, and connects with colleagues around the world to ensure he is learning in real time.  Chris is an excellent example of a 21st Century learner!

It used to be that the only practical way to be truly educated was through attending K12 school for 13 years and then to get a higher education, another 2, 4, 8, or more years at a potentially very expensive college, university, or technical institute.  A college degree was the ticket to the best paying and most rewarding careers and jobs.  The digital revolution is upsetting this accepted norm.  This article ‘Is our students learning?’ in the Globe and Mail is a rather scathing report (their view) of the state of higher learning.  Assuming there is some truth to the article, what does / will this mean to be the learner of today and the future?  What should our learning institutions be providing to students, and how?

“If you make some very logical, and even conservative, assumptions about where technology is likely to lead in the coming years, much of the conventional wisdom about what the future will look like becomes unsupportable”, Lights in the Tunnel (kindle 222)

Our world is being reshaped before our eyes and technology is a major driving force.  There are those that would argue technology is just a tool but in my opinion that ignores the pervasiveness of technology’s role in all facets of modern life.  Our modern society would not be possible without the relentless development of technology.  Educational organizations were designed in a very iStock_000003160702XSmalldifferent era for a very different societal context.  We need to ensure that our learning institutions meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s citizens and society.  Institutions like MIT offer their course content online, for free.  A learner would have to pay the full tuition to receive an MIT credential. At some point will society move away from valuing “credentials” to valuing knowledge and skill without credentials?  How do you think this will play out?

I attended Maria Andersen’s (@busynessgirl) presentation of Levers of Change in Higher Education at the 2010 World Future Society conference.  If you haven’t viewed her presentation before, it’s a must see in my opinion.  It paints her thought-provoking picture of the forces of change pressing on higher education.  Information and knowledge to some degree, is becoming free and accessible without being required to pay tuition fees, buy books, and attend classes. 

Higher learning institutions need to design compelling and engaging learning experiences for students that are not available in other ways.  I would say K12 school systems are equally under pressure to reinvent…  as learning increasingly becomes a blend of a physical and 3D immersive virtual world experiences that blur together, a purely face to face experience will be insufficient.

I think the key message is that continuous learning is essential today.  The modes and methods must evolve to be relevant and iStock_000005304585XSmallengaging for learners.  Learning can not end with 13 years in K12 and some years of post secondary attendance.  We must all be “learners”, which has no determined end point in time.  I believe if you stop learning in this era of accelerating change, you increasingly risk irrelevance (re: Eric Hoffer’s quote).  My fear is that we too often pay mere lip service to “life long learning” and the changes necessary to reinvent education. 

If you aren’t a continuous learner, yet, you might want to make that a priority…

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is the Internet Killing the Planet?

A colleague of mine recently forwarded an article in the Vancouver Sun “Could the Net be killing the planet one web search at a time?” to which he responded “if there is a shred of accuracy to this article, the internet is an environmental nightmare of unprecedented proportions”.  I think it really depends on how you look at it…

Do you ever think about what happens when you type a few words into a Google or Bing search and click the Search button?  I know I don’t.  But a lot happens behind the scenes 24 x 7 to make that amazing service work and quickly.  Google, Microsoft, Facebook, 3d internet concept. Monument WWW.Amazon, IBM, and now Apple have built enormous data centres around the world to deliver an amazing array of online services.  According to the article I referenced, our Internet search example caused 1-10 grams of carbon to be released into the atmosphere which contributes to global warming.  You might think “1-10 grams”, who cares.  But when you add up the billions of searches, Facebook status updates, tweets, and emails created and sent off every day, the impact on our planet adds up.

The issue is where companies (and countries) get their electricity from.  In British Columbia we have the great fortune of having many lakes, mountains, and rivers and our electricity comes from hydro electric dams.  Essentially a dam is a huge battery.  Water behind the dam is “stored” and a controlled stream through a generator is created to turn turbines that generate electrical power.  How do other countries get their electricity?  We’ll come back to this…

From the Vancouver Sun article we find that

“If the Internet was a country, it would be the planet's fifth-biggest consumer of power, ahead of India and Germany. The Internet's power needs now rival those of the aviation industry and are expected to nearly double by 2020”

I would say that is pretty significant.  Where countries (real ones) get their electricity from is very important with respect to our environment.  There is the choice of non-renewable (fossil fuels like oil, gas, coal, nuclear) versus renewable (water, wind, sun).  Additionally there are concerns about clean (renewable) versus dirty (non-renewable) power.

Wikipedia has a pretty decent article on “electricity generation”.  From this article we find:

Other countries, France for example, use 78% Nuclear.  When we think about the nuclear disaster in Japan caused by the earthquake and tsunami we may shudder at the thought of increasing our use of nuclear.  The point is, we should probably be more aware of how our digital world (which many of us say is “green”) impacts our future and collectively be advocating for more future oriented choices.

When we read

“With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.” The Shallows (kindle 1991)


“The more knowledge you generate, the more you can generate. And the engine that is driving prosperity in the modern world is the accelerating generation of useful knowledge.”  Rational Optimist (kindle 3466)

we need to weigh the benefits (tremendous) with the costs when making a judgment on what the Internet is doing to our planet.  I wrote about this in The Future of History where I argue that the discovery and harnessing of cheap sources of energy such as dirty coal, have forever changed the course of history in terms of prosperity, health, and wealth.  Our society (that’s us) is addicted to cheap energy and now we need to discover and invent new ways of harnessing it through cleaner and more sustainable means. 

It’s not a question of abandoning the Internet and our digital world because it is killing our planet.  No, it is a question of becoming more future oriented in our thinking about how to grow this iStock_000010797682XSmalltremendous resource in planet friendly ways.  We must inspire this thinking into our school systems both K12 and higher education.  We need people to be thinking further ahead than the next mid-term exam or report card.  We need to invest our cognitive energy in creating a preferable greener digital future so as to increase the prosperity in less fortunate countries while we maintain it in our own without further risk to the health of our planet and us.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Future of Books

When you look back at the history of books, the story is revolutionary.  Before books and the ability to economically reproduce them, information and human knowledge was not easily shared.  There is a direct correlation between poverty and a lack of books or prosperity and access to books.  Books have had a multi-hundred year exponentially iStock_000010954699XSmallsuccessful run!

Enter the “e” book (eBook).  eBooks have some pretty compelling properties that differentiate them from traditional paper-based books.  Note that you will need to ignore copyright constraints for the moment to accept all these properties – I believe the copyright “problem” will solve itself in time. 

eBooks don’t weigh anything, they don’t wear out, you can take hundreds or thousands with you on a simple low powered slate or tablet device, and eBooks are (will be) easily shared with others.  They don’t take up shelf space in a bricks and mortar store or library.  You can buy them while sitting on your couch at home, they are always in-stock, and they are delivered to your tablet, phone, or slate within seconds or downlaod the e-bookminutes.  Their contents are easily searched, linked to, and highlighted.  Readers can easily attach eNotes to passages of text.  Notes and highlights are silently synchronized to the reader’s personal website where they may be incorporated into other writing such as blogs, wikis, tweets, and emails.  eBooks can be mashed up with other content or eBooks and Teachers can easily incorporate portions of eBooks (textbooks) for use as personalized learning resources for their students.

I’ve been progressively switching from paper-based books to eBooks over the past year (since I got an iPad).  I am an avid reader – my bookshelf in my office is full of a diverse set of books – I’ve read every one of them.  It’s often a conversation piece with people I meet with.  It looks cool to have all those books on the shelf representing what I’ve read.  But, I’ve made the switch…  I will not purchase another paper-based non-fiction book.  They are too inconvenient.  I highlight and note take through-out the book.  Doing that with an eBook is such a straightforward and efficient process.  And having access to the highlights and notes electronically from my personal website is so convenient.  It is an easily accessible reference of knowledge I’ve extracted from the books I read.  With paper books, I wrote in the book, underlined, highlighted, wrote notes in a notebook, etc.  None of those are easily referenced now.  That knowledge is “locked” into physical spaces whereas the electronically recorded knowledge is searchable, easily browsed, and I can copy/paste into documents, tweets, and posts as needed.  And I’ve replicated my book shelf here using The Library Thing.

I have recently purchased a few fictional eBooks to experience reading for pleasure on a tablet.  I like the Kobo reader (app on my iPad) and how it virtually represents a book and the turning of a page, etc.  On the iPad app you swipe your finger on the page much like you might on a paper-based book and as it “turns” the page, you can see through the digital page from the back side – very cool.  I don’t take notes or highlight (typically) when reading for pleasure but the efficiency of having books on a digital device is compelling.  The downside I see is when I want to read a book at the beach or some other outdoor location – I think a paper-based format will be a better fit there.  Perhaps book creators can sell readers the paper-based format (if they choose it) for a significant discount if already purchased in an “e” format…  The intellectual content is what carries the value, not the physical object so this kind-of makes sense.

About libraries…  there is a lot written about how the role of libraries and librarians are changing and need to change and adapt to the “e” world.  I worry that the people writing about the future of libraries and librarians are doing so through a traditional book and a nostalgic lens.  I used Diigo to leave a digital sticky note comment on an article shared with my by a secondary school teacher: Don’t Discard the Librarians - my comment was:

plot historical change timelines driven by information technology (start with the printing press); you'll notice an exponential change curve; predicting the next 10 yrs can not be based on the past 10 or even 5 yrs; ppl need to look at disruptions through a new futuristics lens; once technology like IBM's Watson become common place in your pocket and even more capable, libraries will become obsolete along with librarians; yes for the next 5-10 yrs there should be a role but not past 10 in my opinion

I added in an email to this teacher that “I think we have to start using a futuristics approach and scenarios based on trends to forecast possible alternative futures”.  My point is that we need to break free from our past thinking and see what new technologies can or will do to books, libraries, and the role of librarians.  We need to always think about what is possible, how might this be in the future.  I believe the current role of librarians has to evolve to remain relevant.  Just like book publishers have to evolve to stay in business.  They are at risk of becoming irrelevant as the ability for authors to publish directly becomes more likely.  Companies like Amazon and Chapters may end up cutting out the publisher one day.  So too with libraries – the physical space for books will disappear over time – paper books may move to a museum iStock_000011224415XSmallorganizer at best.  Libraries need to rapidly evolve into Learning Centres or Learning Commons that are setup with comfortable quiet spaces, small meeting spaces, coffee shops, etc. that cater to people wanting to read (eBooks) quietly, enjoy each others company while debating topics, sharing what they’ve read, researching together, etc.  There should be virtual spaces with 2-way touch or no-touch learning windows that people can use to interact with other people around the world. I think librarians can develop their expertise further – to assist people with accessing history, current knowledge, news, research articles, connecting with other people around the world, and assisting people with newer technological tools for learning.  As my teacher colleague said to me in an email…

“There’s one other, very human, point to consider.  Libraries are tangible places that people move toward and move in, where people can meet, walk into together, sit side by side, nod hello, and smile; they are places where we can see and feel all the thought, wisdom and knowledge that humans have created; they are often aesthetically pleasing and emotionally calming.  In short, they are human”

I completely agree with him on this point.  Books and libraries will shift, I believe rapidly, to support both a fully digital format and a fully human need.

Perhaps you can share your experiences with the shift from paper-based to eBooks.  What future scenarios do you envision for books, libraries, and librarians?