Sunday, November 27, 2011

Through the Technology Looking Glass

“[Alice] ponders what the world is like on the other side of a mirror's reflection. Climbing up on the fireplace mantel, she pokes at the wall-File:Alice in Wonderland.jpghung mirror behind the fireplace and discovers, to her surprise, that she is able to step through it to an alternative world.  …Upon leaving the house (where it had been a cold, snowy night), she enters a sunny spring garden where the flowers have the power of human speech”, Wikipedia Nov 27, 2011.

I participated earlier this week in an #edchat where people from all around the world weigh-in on a topic via twitter.  It’s kind-of like some other world, it’s not “real” rather it’s a virtual exchange of ideas.  It’s an exhausting experiencing trying to keep up to the rapid stream of ideas and to contribute your own.  I imagedropped in a bit after it started so am not entirely sure of the specific topic but I believe it was a question of whether technology improves or is essential to learning, teaching, and assessment. I also dropped in on a 1-day conference held in Alberta at #jtc2011 – one tweet from that stream appears here.  I see a lot of debate in blogs, on twitter, and in person about technology being optional, essential, important, etc. for learning and teaching.  Comments like the above make intuitive sense today though don’t they.

The author of It’s Not About the Tech writes

“You may hold an exquisite musical instrument in your hands and make no melodic music. You may even know how to read a musical score, but without passion and flair, all that will ring out is a mechanical, soulless sound.

The same holds true for learning. If learning is only a mechanical regurgitation to be immediately forgotten after an assessment, what hope of inspiring learners to become life-long learners – a concept is so easily repeated, but so rarely questioned.”

They suggest that the elements of Experimentation, Collaboration, communication, Participation, Inquiry, and Engagement are required in a successful education.  They later argue that technology’s role is as a means, not an outcome.  I agree wholeheartedly but I think it diminishes technology’s role to “just a tool”.

George Couros recently wrote Technology is More than a Tool where he asks “If technology transforms the way we do things, is it ‘just a tool’”?  He quotes Neil Postman who talks about technology changing entire ecologies.  In other words, it is not simply an add-on (like we often view it in schools), it fundamentally changes everything.  He writes later “I have struggled back and forth with the idea of whether technology is just a tool, or is it truly transformative”. I think many people do have this struggle.  I think the challenge is thinking of today’s technology rather than tomorrow’s potential.  We need to increasingly “walk through the looking glass” to see the possible.

Five Big Changes to the Future of Teacher Education on the MindShift blog talks about the importance to prepare teachers to engage the digital generation.  They refer to a book Teaching 2030 by Barnet Berry (I have not read the book) that outlines specific skills needed to teach in the future.  I have an uneasy feeling that this still looks through a near-term lens rather than a truly future-oriented “looking glass”.  Will Richardson writes in My Teacher is an App about how traditional learning is essentially automated.  Will is right to worry about that future of online learning.  It completely misses the point.  Sure, online learning is what it is today, but it can be so much more than efficiency and automation of traditional packaged learning or courses.

I love this short piece by Seth Godin, Pre digital.  He describes a potential future digital environment for a visit to the emergency room after describing the current pre-digital experience.  He then refers to other institutions that are also pre-digital such a schools.  He ends with “this is just the beginning, the very beginning, of the transformation of our lives”.  This is a profound comment because it speaks to what most people don’t seem to understand.  That is, what we see today is merely a glimpse of what is possible and what is coming, on the other side of the ‘looking glass’.

I was intrigued by the title of Cindy Matthews post, Technology in the Classroom isn’t Utopia.  It’s a must.  Before reading it I thought, she might be on to something.  She starts out describing the perfect classroom by referring to the physical characteristics including technology.  “Students would be learning cooperatively on problems posed by the teacher facilitator.  Some would be tapping out text responses via cell phone on a blog”.  I like the description but to refer to it as a utopia I find odd.  It is a picture of what is possible today and what does exist in some classrooms already while missing the mark of the possible, the future of learning.  That said, her post is a good read for some options for today’s classrooms.

As long as we see the value of technology as ‘just a tool’, especially based mostly on what’s available in today’s classrooms, it really is ‘just a tool’.  Without a good or great teacher, technology isn’t going to transform anything.  But, even with today’s technology, control can begin to transfer from teacher to students.  I like the work West Van Schools are doing with their Student Dashboards (see slide 23 of Superintendent Chris Kennedy’s presentation).  They have gone direct to students, grades 4-7 I believe, to provide an in-house student space for blogging, creating social learning networks, instant messaging, and sharing.  This will unlock potential as their teachers shift control to their students who will “own their learning”.

I believe that as we walk through the looking glass we will see the real potential of technology to fundamentally transform learning and teaching.  I’ve seen glimpses of the possible in one of our classrooms where Our Students are Immersed in 3D Learning.  I have been on tours of 3D immersive learning worlds with Gord Holden.  imageimageYou have to see this to believe it!  This is a glimpse of the possible on the other side of the looking glass.  Via Skype, Gord took me to a world where two aboriginal students were re-creating their historic village (Musgamaw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation) artifact by artifact based on their research.  Traditionally, this would have been the typical research and write an essay for their teacher.  In CyberNet world, their heritage comes to live before their eyes!

I have written numerous times about what I believe the future holds for education on the other side of the looking glass:

In British Columbia (BC), the Ministry of Education has purchased and is setting up a BC based virtual learning world called Learning NEXUS. They have invited teachers to propose ways they would build learning inside this world. The next couple of years will be very exciting to track in this space. Two of our teachers in SD43 made a proposal that was accepted so I will get to ride along with them on their journey through the looking glass!  I do hope the debate about whether technology is needed, important, essential, transformative, etc. will subside as more people get more opportunities to walk through the looking glass to the possible.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Purpose for School

This fall I have been supervising morning recess for Kindergarten to grade 5 kids at a nearby elementary school. Although this is a disruption to my day and an inconvenience to how I schedule my work, it’s also an interesting experience. When the bell rings, hundreds of little people converge on the play ground and field with iStock_000010314279Small_thumb4smile filled faces, energy, noise, and a determination to have fun. It’s hard to explain but this positive energy transfers quite well and I feel energized because of it. I sometimes wander into one of the Kindergarten classes to see what they’re up to. The other day, I saw lots of paper (painted) worlds hanging from the ceiling. Some of the kids told told me they learned what was inside and outside of the earth. I asked if the inside was made of “cheese” or “chocolate”, and one little person confirmed it was “chocolate”. I apologized to the teacher for messing up her lesson for that student. :-)

There is relentless talk and endless books telling us of needed change in education. Some advocate for more online learning and suggest that over 50% of all learning will be that within ‘X’ years, etc. There are those that advocate for more testing, less testing, better reporting, no grades, awards, no awards, less technology, more technology, different technology. We need more data, less data, better data, analysis systems, and we need to assess for learning and differentiate it. How does one make sense of all the opinions? As a technologist, I’m always interested in the purpose for what we do. Technology is often used to accelerate, automate, or make more efficient, a bad practice. I am an advocate for how valuable technology can be for many things but we can’t afford to be unclear about purpose when it comes to education systems like school.

Susan Brookhart’s article (pp. 10-14) in the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership about grading includes the headline “the first task in successful grading reform is to reach consensus on the purpose of grades”. Seems simple enough. But when we think of the perspectives of parent, student, teacher, principal/school, District, Province, Country, it’s seems complicated. Susan asks what meaning should grades convey and who are the intended audiences for this information? A great starting point.

I stumbled across the School Purpose Project recently via twitter which states “[w]e are trying to understand what people around the world believe is the purpose of school”. They are collecting input via audio, text, and video messages and any one can weigh in. I particularly like Luke’s perspective:

Purpose of School

He advocates that school should be about learning to learn (not just skills and knowledge but habits of mind) and learning to co-exist (how to influence and how to avoid being influenced, to become good citizens, neighbours, and good team members). School used to be (still is quite a focus) all about covering content, memorizing, and being tested on memory of facts and procedures. Clearly a certain amount of content is necessary to “know” but what is worth knowing changes so quickly and what is knowable doubles every 12-18 months, presumably making it impractical for knowledge acquisition to be the prime focus.

I like the phrase “what we measure, we value”. This certainly has to apply to school. Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades” (pp.28-33) in the November 2011 Educational Leadership (EL) starts with “when schools cling to letter and number ratings, students get stuck in a system that undermines learning”. He writes “grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant”. People in education advocate to put marks online, iStock_000012753624XSmall_thumb6make them more accessible to students and their parents. Alfie quotes Gerald Bracey who said that technology “permits us to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all” in reference to grading more efficiently (eg, posting online). Alfie write “sometimes it’s only after grading has ended that we realize just how harmful it had been”. Carol Ann Tomlinson adds that “consistent, specific feedback on a student’s competency in essential goals is a more potent teaching tool than a letter or number grade will ever be” (EL November 2011, p.86).

As I think about the digital tools we are seeing and will see flooding in to our schools, I wonder how these can support the purpose of school. I visited Apple’s offices recently and am impressed with how well iPads, video, and digital displays (Apple TV) integrate. Apple talks about having 160,000 apps designed for iPads and 500,000 apps for all i-devices, many of which are for “education”. I see “top 50 or 20 or 100” lists for apps posted to twitter every other day. How will educators, students, and parentsiStock_000007651615XSmall_thumb5 make good choices from this sea of possibilities to support “the purpose for school”? How will they affect assessment for and of learning? Students using iPads or other like devices have access to vast tombs of information and knowledge through text, audio, and video, and live experts. As they learn to navigate our digital and analogue world, what will we value, how much they can regurgitate on a test, or how well they can organize and how quickly they can access answers? Or will we value how well they can synthesize and create something new, how well they work alone or how well they learn in small teams face to face and online? How do or will 3D immersive learning environments fit the purpose for school and how do we evaluate students learning this way? I think it is becoming critically important to have ready responses for the purpose and form of school so as to inform a District or school’s priorities for providing technology to support this purpose.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ideas and Innovation

Take pause for a moment and consider the vast sea of ideas active in our world right this second…  Can you picture it?  At any given iStock_000006175136XSmalltime, billions of people collectively generate billions of ideas.  Unfortunately, most ideas never leave a person’s head or are only ever shared with a family member, or perhaps one or two close friends.  Ideas die prematurely every day because they are not able to take root in “fertile ground”.  Ideas need to mix with other ideas and they need to encounter support and experience conflict to survive and grow.

In our increasingly digital world, ideas have never had it so good!  When a person chooses to enter in and engage with others in online spaces, it’s like a veil is lifted for them and they see what was hidden from them previously, a connected sea of ideas.  You can see the mixing of ideas take place through Twitter, Blogs, Wikis, Youtube, TED, Google +, Facebook, and hundreds of other interesting spaces.

I’ve just started to read “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson (see TED talk).  He describes how Kleiber’s law involving a pattern of negative quarter-power scaling inimage biological systems such as metabolism, relates to innovation.  In simple terms, “size matters”.  Larger organisms and animals live longer than smaller ones.  Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West applied Kleiber’s law to cities and through research learned that “Kleiber’s negative quarter-power scaling governed the energy and transportation growth of city living” (Kindle 137).  They also discovered that “Every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation—patents, R&D budgets, ‘supercreative’ professions, inventors—also followed a quarter-power law, in a way that was every bit as predictable as Kleiber’s law” (Kindle 142). However, they found that this law “governing innovation was positive, not negative.  A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative” (Kindle 144).  Here’s the clincher (Kindle 147):

“as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip”

And (Kindle 150)…

“the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand”

Size, actually potential connections between people, serves as an amplifier for idea generation, mixing, and innovation.  The real question is, does this map to digital spaces?  Because if it does, the limitations and environmental considerations inherent in a geographic location like a city, would be non-existent. In fact, digital spaces and technology amps up the speed of innovation even further.

“It is one of the great truisms of our time that we live in an age of technological acceleration; the new paradigms keep rolling in, and the intervals between them keep shortening” (Kindle 169)

Steven Johnson writes about “the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience” (Kindle 177).  He refers to the time that elapses between an original idea and mass adoption using examples like color TV, HDTV, AM radio, VCRs, DVDs, Cell phones, PCs, and GPS devices.  It took roughly 10 years for each idea to begin to take root and another 10 to reach mass adoption.  He shares this example of how the web (digital spaces) is a major game changer for innovation:

“YouTube went from idea to mass adoption in less than two years. Something about the Web environment had enabled Hurley, Chen, and Karim to unleash a good idea on the world with astonishing speed. They took the 10/10 rule and made it 1/1” (Kindle 215)

Chris Anderson of Wired and fame confirmed this phenomenon in his TED talk “How web video powers global innovation”.  Things are very different now for innovation and idea mixing in our massively connected digital spaces.  Clearly “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them” (Kindle 278).

So, given the fact (I’ll boldly state it this way) that digital spaces significantly amplify idea generation, mixing, and innovation, what should the K12 education system’s priorities look like?  It seems that we often dance around the importance of technology for teachers and students.  Some people argue that technology is “just a tool” in education, much like any other tool, equal, similar, not better.  Some such as the Association of Waldorf Schools (A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute) advocate for technology free learning environments.  There seems to be fairly compelling evidence that technology and digital spaces are key to maximizing ideas and innovation.  Why then, such debate about the value of technology and digital spaces in schools? 

My own view is that we need to start to break down the barriers to technology and digital space adoption in schools.  If the evidence is believable then technology and digital spaces should be core, essential, and pervasive to learning and teaching, not optional and secondary.  I do acknowledge the issues of cost and equity.  But isn’t it a matter of priority?  Billions of dollars are invested in education every year.  How much of this is invested wisely, in the things, people, and processes that will make the greatest difference for kids?  In case iStock_000006081888XSmallyou’re wondering, I’m not advocating for technology vs teachers, both are essential.  But teachers, or rather teaching and learning, without technology and digital spaces would seem to be inappropriate given the evidence for ideas and innovation.  Given what we know, isn’t our education system doing a disservice to students and our own future by not fully embracing technology and digital spaces?  Isn’t it time to acknowledge that technology for learning is a moral imperative and prioritize and invest accordingly?  Our world has huge problems that no one seems to know how to solve, yet.  We need an acceleration of ideas and innovation more now than ever before because our future depends on it!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Learning Exposed

I’m impressed with how quickly the K-2 teachers involved in our District’s Making Learning Visible project are becoming both skilled WP_000157documenters of early learners AND skilled users of digital tools for documenting.  Their purpose with this work is to collect and record learning events and experiences, to build a narrative from documentation to reflection.  Some of the purposes for digital documentation they are working with include:

  • stimulating and supporting narrative
  • illustrating a point
  • providing evidence of learning
  • opening up a conversation
  • sharing an experience
  • understanding a situation more deeply
  • asking questions such as “What is going on here?”, “What have I missed?”, “What do I need to explore?”, “What’s the next step?”

Digital documentation is “more than decoration”, “more than posed photographs”, and “useful in formative assessment”.  These teachers have had rich conversations about supplementing and / or replacing formal reporting to parents.

One teacher shared how she video taped (interesting how we often use traditional terms like “taped” even thought there’s no tape involved with an iPod) some of her kindergarten students involved in a learning activity.  She had the kids watch themselves on the video while she watched them watching.  The kids were commenting on their behaviors, the impact of their actions on others, etc. as they self evaluated through the visual experience.  This teacher commented how she wished she had captured them on video while they self-reflected.  That next layer of documentation (meta-documentation) is a powerful learning artifact as well.  She learned things about their learning that she didn’t even realize was happening!

Some insights I picked from the group as they were sharing their recent documentation experiences:

  • be open to be sure you’re (the teacher) not driving the documentation – capture real, not orchestrated learning
  • sharing documentation energizes the whole class, it gets them excited about their learning
  • provide immediate feedback by showing students video and pictures of learning that just occurred
  • kids take more pride in their learning and see how it is valuable
  • empowering kids to document gets them more interested in capturing what other kids are doing, learning
  • kids as teachers start to use bigger teacher words when they are ‘teaching’
  • teachers can train kids in small groups to be able to use video cameras (aka iPods) to document
  • documentation of learning is more informative than a traditional report card

The teachers were asked to discuss in small groups howWP_000164 they could informally report learning to parents. I captured a few of their thoughts with a picture.  It will be interesting to see how these ideas evolve as they are able to ‘expose’ the learning of their students through the use of video, pictures, and audio recordings.

As they work towards making learning more visible, I’m sure this list will transform to other methods.  We hope to be able to make student learning visible for parents online.  There are key privacy steps we have to consider but we will work towards providing parents a login to our District’s digital learning and work environment and connect them to their child’s digital portfolio of learning.

One kindergarten teacher whose classroom I visited last year had kids documenting their own learning about the number ten using digital cameras and blocks, and then using a SMART board to talk about what they documented, etc..  I was able last year to capture and stitch together some video segments of this visit that you can enjoy here.

Documenting Learning

I wonder what are other teachers doing in their classrooms to digitally document and report learning?  What tools are other teachers using for their digital documentation?  Maybe you could share some strategies with me through a comment.