Sunday, September 25, 2011

Technology for Learning - A Moral Imperative?

On Friday I had the honor of sharing my thinking with some middle school teachers about the future, the role of technology, some current education technology practices, and new possibilities.  Actually, I didn’t quite make it to the new possibilities piece as we needed to move into the workshop stage.  There was some great dialogue during my presentation.  I asked the iStock_000017292157XSmallparticipants to respond to some “big questions” and that opened up all sorts of conversations.  One table group was lamenting how difficult it is to embed the use of technology into teaching and learning when there isn’t equitable access to good technology for students and teachers.  It varies significantly across schools.  One teacher shared a story of how her son (in elementary school) created a “glog” (at home) to represent his learning and then when he tried to share it with his teacher and classmates, it failed due to the state of technology and the network for his school.  The consumer side of technology seems to far out-strip schools and Districts ability to keep up!  We have these expectations based on what we buy for our own and our family’s use but there remain stark differences in our schools.

“A moral imperative is a principle originating inside a person's mind that compels that person to act.”, Wikipedia (Sep/25/2011)

Technology has made such deep inroads into our everyday lives in such a short time frame, it’s a bit mind boggling.  The power of technology today is really unprecedented in history.  How can we not ensure equitable access to such powerful learning and teaching tools for our students and teachers?  Would you not agree that it is now a moral imperative for education systems to “fix” this?  I do believe it is a shared responsibility – families and schools working together.  I believe that the everyday type technologies should become school supplies and will become affordable in time.  But how do we bridge that gap today?

This student makes a great point about knowledge sources and I would say that technology is the only effective way to satisfy this need:

Student advocates for diverse sources

If students and teachers don’t have ready access to fast reliable technology and the net, they are not plugged into the largest information resource of all time!  Education is a mind-altering “technology” and

“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)

Learning is a process of rewiring or altering the brain.  New pathways are formed, old ones are trimmed, and so it goes.  This is the process that our education system is meant to stimulate. 

“Printing gave humanity the written word. The Web makes everyone a publisher. Printing enabled the distribution of knowledge. The Web provides a platform for networking human minds.  Printing allowed people to know. The Web enables people to collaborate and to learn collectively.” Macrowikinomics (kindle 566)

Education needs to shift from a filling of minds to a system the prepares young people to generate, synthesize, analyze, and share knowledge. 

“Answering questions like ‘When was the War of 1812?’ is a useless skill in an always-on Wikipedia world.” Linchpin (kindle 789). 

Some filling is certainly necessary to provide a core or base level of recallable knowledge and to pass on culture, but we really need to be thoughtful about what is necessary to “know” as there isn’t time anymore to learn everything knowable and this is accelerating exponentially.

“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)

I hope we all agree that we have a moral imperative to educate the next generation.  Our prosperity has been largely supported through an investment in an increasingly educated citizenry.  The really cool thing about sharing our knowledge and wisdom with others (what teachers do every day…) is

“The characteristic feature of a piece of new knowledge, whether practical or esoteric, whether technical or social, is that you can give it away and still keep it.” Rational Optimist (kindle 3766)

So, if technology is as I believe, an essential tool today to connect students to the most vast diverse sources of information and knowledge, and to enable them to be knowledge creators, would you agree that it is a moral imperative for us to make this the case?  Every piece of knowledge shared, every diverse connection between iStock_000003104982XSmallstudents, every piece of knowledge generated, has a ripple effect on our world – it makes its impact in time and space.  Tablets such as the iPad are very good tools for enabling learning but are not affordable (yet) in an equitable way.  Fast always on access to the net is essential today, but is it affordable?  How do we get to a point where every learner and every educator has fulltime access to the best tools to support learning and teaching?  Reduced cost is the simple answer but priority is perhaps the other.  If this is a moral imperative, both obstacles should be things we can overcome!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Empowering the People

I seem to have an intellectual interest in conspiracy theories and stories.  I will “dip” into that “field of inquiry” from time to time but not so long that my thinking becomes irrational...  Last night for fun iStock_000006175136XSmallI watched Disney’s National Treasure, a seemingly endless search for ancient treasure “once protected by the Knights Templar and hidden by the Freemasons during the early years of the United States”.  A friend recently gave me a set of videos to watch, documentary-style, on various strands of this topic.  I watched one that aims to convince the listener that 9/11 was intentionally arranged by various individuals and organizations attached to the US and other governments.  I watched a second video that painted a bleak picture of coming world domination, the new world order so to speak.  Why am I writing about this you might ask?  Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether our technology empowers us or has the potential for enslaving us (if one takes the conspiracies to be at least plausible).  George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World are well known “stories” of imagined futures being forecasted by conspiracy theorists.

Technology is an agnostic tool in that it is the people who use it that determine it’s true value and purpose.  Some technologies are designed to suit a certain use.  Take communications and social technologies such as cell (smart) phones, Live Messenger, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, wikis, and the like.  These tend to facilitate direct communication, idea, knowledge, and information sharing.  I believe most people would see these as technologies that empower people, further freedom of speech, enable crowd sourcing, crowd mobilization (to force a societal change), etc.  These are powerful influencing tools.  One might say these tools have been instrumental in helping citizens overthrow their (undesirable) government, force a (dishonest) corporation to come clean on some action, and to direct funds (charity) to people in need.  Or consider the recent riots in Vancouver and in London where technology empowered people to misbehave badly.  They certainly were empowered, but to what end?

I propose that these tools can have an equally disempowering effect on people.  People (some high profile) have self-destructed on twitter by posting inappropriate comments and then through empowered masses on twitter, people are forced to resign from long-term prominent careers.  Governments and organizationsiStock_000004180692XSmall can monitor what people say and write in unprecedented ways using our technologies where we increasingly throw privacy to the wind and post whatever comes to mind…  Let’s take the current labour dispute in British Columbia between the Teachers Federation and the Government.  If you have strong feelings about the issues and demands of either party, would you feel comfortable posting these on Facebook, Twitter, or your blog?  Would you feel empowered to voice your opinion?  The answer probably depends on your role and position in society or with your employer.  So, it likely depends on who you are as to whether you’d be empowered or at some personal risk.  I don’t feel empowered to comment on this particular dispute since I work in the public education sector of BC.  But a parent not working in the sector would probably feel empowered to comment online.

Although technology is agnostic, I think it can wield significant power in the hands of the user to empower them and others but can also be used against the people.  Think about our interconnectedness today in light of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  The technology was pretty primitive when they wrote these books but if you read those stories through our modern lens, well, you get the picture.  If you haven’t heard of “Technocracy”, a form of government where technical experts are in control of decision making, you might want to read this description.  This is a view developed in the early 20th century that values technical and efficiency oriented governance over the will of the people (Democracy).  Technology of today would make that approach quite practical and efficient – not one I would advocate for though.  The will of the people, although not efficient nor necessarily rational, is a far better alternative in my view.  We need to ensure our technologies empower the people in a democratic way.

Technology, being agnostic, can and does empower people but there are people that would use it for ill gain and purposes.  How can we engineer our technology to defend against misuse?  A challenge with answering this question is defining misuse?  It is contextual.  IE, when the Egyptians or Iranians used their technology to mobilize action (“riots”) against their governments, was that “right” while those attending the Vancouver riots were “wrong”?  How would our technology know this?  Is the right response to disable a technology’s function during a (potential) “riot” (control the people) or allow it to function as iStock_000004446491XSmalldesigned (empower the people)?  Or does that infringe on freedom of speech?  How do we ensure our technology can empower the right people for the right uses?  Sorry, I don’t have answers for these questions, but I think these are important questions to start answering.  Our technologies are becoming too powerful and useful and dangerous not to start answering these kinds of questions.  Whether you are a conspiracy buff or not, if you think about the potential for technology to empower or control people, we must answer these questions sooner rather than later.  We have an opportunity to ensure that the students in our classrooms engage with these types of issues now.  Social responsibility and digital citizenship are critical areas of knowledge and learning to impart to our students as the complexity of our world increases through the arrival of new and ever more powerful technological developments.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Presentation Dilemma - Powerpoint or Prezi

I’m pretty sure that we all have experienced that painful phenomenon “death by Power Point”.  Endless slides filled with bullets of text that the presenter proceeds to read for us because for some reason they think we can’t read it ourselves.  Oh right, the iStock_000013149893XSmallpresenter used a 12 or 14 point font because they had to fit all the text on the slide, so actually we really can’t read it!  Yes they may add some multimedia affect by using every one of the slide transitions available at least once to impress their audience.  They may fill their slides with creative animations, as well as funky sound effects, and blinking icons.  Anyone experienced this?  Anyone stayed awake through to the end?  If you’ve done or still do this to others, please read on…  there is a better way!

Yes I’m guilty of doing this to others in my presentations early on in my career.  I have been using Microsoft’s Power Point since it was invented. I used to do the typical things: choose a template (background, color, and font), create my outline of points in outline view, and presto, my presentation was born!  Definitely, presentation skills are something one has to acquire through practice and learning from others that do it well.

I’d like to defend Power Point for a moment.  I was tweeting with one of our middle school teachers the other day about Prezi versus Power Point.  She made an interesting comment that she teaches her students to use Prezi since it is more engaging and Power Point is ugly.  Here’s the transcript…

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imageI read a book recommended by Stephen Lamb (@SEE_EYE_OH) a couple of years ago: Presentation Zen.  If you are a presenter or are contemplating becoming one, you must read this book.  It will save you from a painful learning curve both for you and your audiences.  It really is not about the tool.  Power Point is not inherently evil (or good).  It is all about design, purpose, audience, and story telling.  Here is some practical advice I gleaned from reading the book and/or experience over designing and giving hundreds of presentations:

  • tell stories through pictures, few words, etc.
  • don’t overuse transitions – choose a few sensible options, be consistent
  • don’t use weird spins or bouncing animations
  • minimize the words on a slide and unless it’s a quote, don’t read them
  • use large fonts
  • minimize the use of clip art – it can become cheesy otherwise
  • appeal to your audience’s emotions, speak to them and their needs
  • use a picture to trigger an emotion, arouse imagination, tell a related story, and hook them for the message you have to deliver
  • use comics tastefully
  • be playful – use humor, have fun
  • don’t overfill a slide with too many graphical elements – can be distracting and confusing
  • all visuals should be intentional and should support your message
  • use short embedded video clips to bring others into your presentation to support your messaging
  • know your material by gut – avoid reliance on notes
  • use quotes to add credibility to your stories

I could go on but hopefully you get the point.  Designing great presentations is an art form.  It takes a lot of organization, story telling, selection of words, pictures, videos, or comics, and careful consideration for transitions and animations.  This question can help, “what information am I representing with the written word on a slide that could be replaced with a photograph or other image / graphic?”

So, for me, the tool doesn’t force you to create good or bad presentations, you are responsible for that!

Why Power Point versus Prezi?  I have been trying to force myself to use Prezi for a live presentation for a few years, mainly because other people are and it looks interesting.  Every time I set out to do that, I get frustrated with what is missing in terms of a tool set.  It doesn’t support transitions or animations - I do iStock_000015756375XSmalllike to use these carefully to support slide groups or soft timed slide builds.  A transition in Prezi is basically to move from this point (“slide”) to another.  Prezi transitions basically glide and zoom from one spot to another.  I’ve seen Prezi built presentations that are the equivalent to “death by Power Point” where the presenter thought he was being pretty hip in using it...  To top it off, the audience starts to get vertigo from the poorly chosen zoom and glide pathways.  I noticed that Prezi now has templates to help you get started – this is bad in my opinion.  Just like people rely on Power Point templates to save time, this supports poor design, lookalikes, and boring presentations.  Presentations need to be designed to fit their purpose – templates are generic and don’t support good presentation practices – they make us lazy.

I think what Prezi does bring is the ability to tell a story through a 3 dimensional “world”.  From what I can tell, a well designed Prezi will have a big picture diagram of sorts where the pieces of the story (the slides) are embedded in a meaningful and tasteful way.  Path transitions are nearby so that the audience doesn’t become ill from too much movement.  Path choices support the message – they aren’t arbitrary movements.  Chris Anderson of Wired and Ted.com fame presented at Ted in 2010 on innovation.  He brilliantly used Prezi to support story telling.  If you haven’t yet seen this video, I encourage you to view it (about 18 minutes) as a great example of presentation skills and how the tool, Prezi in this case, supported it.

Global innovation

Navigate Chris’ presentation on your own here: How web video powers global innovation.

Notice how he used the back drop of the Ferris Wheel to embed the story elements of his presentation.  Using Prezi he basically navigated around the wheel to the various “slides” that contained the words, pictures, and videos that supported his presentation.

Another great example of using Prezi effectively is Maria Andersen’s Levers of Change in Higher Education.  She uses a black and white drawing of a factory to effectively tell her story of traditional education and what needs to change.

I have a presentation to give later in October for teachers on social networking with an emphasis on getting started with twitter.  I’m going to attempt to create this using Prezi to see how I can leverage its unique capabilities.  It will be a struggle to get out of my Power Point mind-set and I hope I can apply my “zen” learning to this next creation…  Wish me luck!  And if you have any presentation advice you can share, I would love it if you could provide it in a comment here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Devices of the Future

I don’t know about you but I’m finding the pace of change, driven and accelerated by technology, to be a little overwhelming at times.  imageWhen I was a kid, talking to someone on a phone meant picking up the handset of the only phone in the house, hoping the party line wasn’t on, and using my finger to dial (turn a dial) number by number.  Now we carry our phones (which is a limiting description) around with us in our pockets.  We call from our cars, anywhere in any building, from the grocery store, or the top of a mountain.  Call is maybe too narrow a descriptor – we can text, instant message, Facebook, tweet, BBM, or e-mail.  Our phones, let’s call them devices, know who’s contacting us, know where we are on a map, take pictures and videos and let us post them for the world to see, and connect us to each other in live video calls.  Instead of dialing we say “call Home” or “call John at work” or do any of the other contact actions using people’s names stored in an address book.

Our devices do so many other things in addition to helping us imagecommunicate.  We can take and share notes (Evernote, imageOnenote), play games (Angry Birds anyone?), browse the web, look up places on maps, find restaurants / coffee shops nearby, find a movie theatre nearby and buy tickets, check the level on a surface, measure seismic activity, convert any unit to any other unit including current currency rates, watch videos, listen to music, check the weather, see what’s on TV, look up words in a dictionary, purchase, check on a flight or ferry schedule, read e-books while imageimagehighlighting, note-taking, and sharing, look up and comment on recipes, use a scientific calculator, check-in at a Starbucks and become the mayor, purchase a coupon (Groupon) and show it digitally at the venue, hunt for a house, translate spoken languages (crudely), and the list goes on.

Did any of us image these possibilities 30 years ago, 20 years, or imageimageeven 10 years?  Okay, 10 years ago we were seeing signs with Palm devices.  But, devices were separate so you might have carried a cell phone, a Palm, and a Walkman / Discman player.  I remember pondering the day when devices would start to merge.  I had no idea how this would explode as it has in the past few years.  It really is unbelievable when you take a minute to reflect on it.

So, what might devices of the future look like and do that is so different from today?  We had some friends over last night and we were talking about languages and how difficult it can be to communicate when two people don’t speak a common language.  Our mobile devices will solve this problem one day with real time translation of any language to any language.  I speak one language, English but with my future device it won’t matter – my device will detect in real time a person’s language and automatically translate what I say into their language and vice versa.  We will hear each other in our own language but also in the our own voices!  Our devices will project 3D holographic images of people we are

Is it real?
communicating remotely with.  Rather than a 2D video image like with Face Time, the image will project in front of you while you converse as if the person was right there with you.  Our devices will be medial assistants.  They will monitor our vitals, remind us to take our medications, nudge us to take vitamins, warn us about our eating habits, and interact with our doctors (remotely) to provide diagnoses.  When we want to find certain information or the best price on some product, we will instruct our devices to go online to do so and to report back when they’ve exhausted the search.  Our devices will learn our preferences and personality over time and adapt to best anticipate and meet our needs.  For learning, they will have access to what we’ve read, what we’ve been tested on, what we’ve learned, what we know, and will be able to increasingly personalize our learning, recommend resources and experiences, and provide us real time feedback.  To interface with the device we will be able to speak naturally and it will speak naturally with us.  Perhaps it will read our thoughts (not liking that idea…).  Additionally, 3D virtual interfaces will be projected for drawing, typing (where that may make sense), to interact with larger surfaces for example to manipulate a map, pictures, videos, to immerse oneself virtually (think holodeck like) in a book, or to quickly navigate and synthesize graphs and data.

What do you think the possibilities for devices could be in 2016, 2020, and 2030?  Let your imagination run wild, speculate without reserve, what might you come up with for Devices of the Future?