Saturday, September 1, 2012

Making Educational Technology Choices

A few years ago I led a learning team with seven K-5 teachers who came together to do some action research around the use of SMART boards in their classrooms.  Through that year I learned a lot about what’s possible and how challenging it is to effectively incorporate a iStock_000019171659XSmallforeign technology into pedagogy.  Often making technology choices requires a good compass to show them the way.  Learning teams have been a successful structure for our teachers in doing this.  Being a firm believer there’s always more to learn, I decided to participate in a workshop last week with about 20 teachers learning about SMART boards and in particular the Notebook software.  The workshop facilitator, Sasha Zekulin, was brilliant.  She really brought to life the capabilities and possibilities, light-bulbs were going off for many of the teachers.

We live in exciting times don’t we.  Every week there seems to be some new technology invented and put on the market.  Educators and technology leaders are increasingly faced with a difficult task in selecting appropriate technologies to support learning and teaching.  I read an article Are Computer Labs Obsolete? in the most recent ISTE Learning and Leading with Technology magazine.  The article has two authors who argue opposite views.  One argues for iStock_000016878193XSmallabandoning labs while the other tries to convince the reader that labs still have value in education.  Some readers who wrote in are also referenced, with competing viewpoints.  I actually still see value in computer labs from mainly a financial perspective.  If the choice is labs or nothing, the decision really isn’t that difficult.  Of course the ideal case is where students each have their own digital learning device available full time.  But that just isn’t the case, yet, in our schools.  It’s increasing but I suspect quite a few years away.  Labs, when used effectively, can provide great value for students and teachers alike.  I recently wrote What Kids Say About Blogging where kids in grade 3 write weekly in their online “journal” and interact with parents, grand-parents, and “the world”.  The teacher told me that each of his students has their own blog and they only get two 45 minute periods of Computers each week.  That’s in a lab setting.  These kids are learning to write, for the world, not just their teacher!

So, how do we make good technological choices to support teaching and learning?  iPads are all the rage these days.  Teachers and school leaders are scrambling to get these tablets into classrooms to figure out how they can support learning.  I actually like this approach to making choices.  Experimentation without a particular end goal is not a bad approach.  Let teachers and students work together to determine the best uses.  School and District leaders can observe, provide input and advice, share the learning stories, but for the most part, just let them be.  There are pragmatic things to be concerned with such as deployment, support, repair, security, privacy, wireless access, and network bandwidth.  District technology leaders will need to be vigilante about taking care of these details to ensure success.

Network infrastructure has become the Achilles heel for many schools and Districts.  The pace at which mobile computing has risen and the costs have decreased is unbelievable.  Many schools and Districts were caught unprepared.  I wrote about our situation in Digital Natives Need Infrastructure a few years ago.  This began an arduous journey to convince our District leadership and elected Board to invest.  We had invested in wireless access in schools quite some years ago, in fact probably having the one of the first fully wireless secondary schools in our province back in 2002.  We learned quickly that wireless access is an essential ingredient to rapid adoption of educational technology.  I’ve been quoted as saying access needs to be “just like oxygen, people don’t think to breath, nor should they have to think to connect”.  This philosophy has served us well for 10 years.  But, the rapid adoption of technology in our schools drove us to the brink with network bandwidth.  We reached a crisis stage which I wrote about our plans in The Rise of the Network.  Just this year we completed a procurement for network optimization tools and the implementation is beginning imminently.  This summer we also began the installation of private fiber optic cabling to a handful of schools and District sites.  We must continue to invest in network infrastructure if technology powered learning is to succeed.

I like George Couros perspective on choosing options.  As I understand his view, he advocates that schools / Districts need to pick a few great tools and focus on their use as the base.  There are so many choices out there it can really become a distraction and a hindrance.  Pick a blog platform, a productivity suite, a discussion tool, a survey tool, a content management solution, a video streaming option, and a few social media tools and focus your professional development around them.  However, let teachers who THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX on a blackboardcan handle playing around the edges go forth and try other tools.  Also, let students be the researchers, the experimenters.  Alan November advocates for teams of students who figure out pod casts, blogging, video editing, etc. and bringing their learning back to their class.  Learn from the researcher’s and experimenter’s work and incorporate what might make sense for everyone else.  Something I’ve learned is that the more you use a tool or platform and the more you invest in terms of time and money, the more you will end up promoting its use and the better you will be at using it.  Thus, be careful what you adopt.

Here are some organizers that K-5 schools might consider.  There are degrees of use demonstrated from literacy to transformation.  All are valid and will vary from teacher to teacher in the pace and stage of adoption.

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The last slide indicates the elimination of the computer lab in favor of embedded digital tools in classrooms.  This school staff is incredibly enthusiastic about how this change will unfold this coming school year.  I will report back here on their success.

Embracing educational technology is really about change.  Last week Andy Hargreaves was speaking to us about leadership and change.  He shared a powerful on-balance approach to leading change.  He said to “pull if you can, push if you must, and nudge all the time”.  Pulling people (attracting) them to use educational technology is likely to be more successful than forcing (pushing) them.  There may be cases where you just have to set a new standard and push people to use it but that should be rare.  Nudging, is a subtle approach.  The assumption is that in general, people are not great at making good choices and that a default choice (perhaps expert chosen), is often helpful.  Regardless of what you think of the nudge, I like the idea here of three approaches pull-push-nudge.  How do you make choices about educational technology?