Saturday, December 22, 2012

Twas the Blog before Christmas

I can’t believe how fast this past year has gone by.  It’s almost like we’re in a time warp or something.  I suspect technology has Mountain Scene - SK-001something to do with that.  Things change so quickly now, it’s really hard to keep up.  I wonder what 2013 has in store for us?  Will there be new gadgets that blow our minds?  Will there be breakthroughs in robotics where more work is performed by machines?  How might learning and teaching be changed by technology?

I was watching a TV piece on the food channel today about how those chocolate oranges are made, assembled, packaged, and shipped.  I had no idea how automated the process is.  It’s quite amazing or perhaps alarming, how machines have taken on more work that not too many years ago, required human beings.  Now in factories of all sorts, the humans are really serving the machines, not the other way around.  I’ve written previously about automation and it’s looming impact on us.  Automation, for most of us, quietly invades processesiStock_000017723170XSmall and displaces human workers – we’re not even aware or rarely think about it.  In a world of the near future where robots increasingly take over roles humans currently or previously fulfilled, what must our school system do to properly prepare the next generation?  Are we preparing students today for their uncertain tomorrow?  Even higher order jobs that require sophisticated decision making are vulnerable.  What about teachers?  Can they be partially or substantially replaced by machines?  I don’t think so as long as teaching adapts to the times, continuously. 

Teaching from textbooks (paper or digital) or teaching to a test or for memorization or to impart knowledge, won’t cut it in a world where what is knowable doubles every year or so.  Sure, we will continue to need quality and relevant content that our society determines is worth knowing but how that is imparted or accessed should be through more technological means while human interactive methods like projects, problem solving, etc. are used to connect knowledge, skills, and processes.  Learning is social and thus interactive collaborations will be important processes to leverage.

So, it’s almost Christmas.  Post-Christmas break, schools always see an influx of digital devices in the hands of students.  Are we ready?  In my District we’re just now rolling wireless through all of our 130 iStock_000012987855XSmallschools and annexes so access is still limited.  But even with perhaps 10-15% access, we already see peaks of 3000 wireless devices in a school day!  When we are fully implemented, this could easily climb to 15-20,000.  Technologically we’re getting ready (although we have significant bandwidth challenges to overcome still) but pedagogically, are we ready?  I think this will be our greatest challenge in the years ahead, to transform how teaching and learning works as technology invades our classrooms. 

I was at a recent student forum in one of our secondary schools where students were asked how they think technology should be used to enhance learning and engagement and what technology wish they want granted at their school.  Some of their statements include:

  • a database that would allow us to look back on lessons, missed notes, videos
  • blogs for all teachers that have a consistent layout
  • increased access through improved bandwidth
  • reduced paper through digital class materials and textbooks
  • more digital and visual materials
  • embrace technology and integrate into lessons
  • more flexible policy around use of personal technology
  • replace overheads with projectors and online material

I find nothing earth shattering or future-orientated in that list, just current day practical ways technology could be used in schools.  In 2013, I see the advent of Christmas sending 1000’s of digital devices into students hands and thus into schools.  The District will need to collaboratively and formally develop and articulate ways teachers can effectively embrace a context where students have personal technology in class.  This might involve developing and sharing scenarios for grade levels, subject areas, learning activities, where diverse student technology could be used effectively, even when not all have it.  Classroom management strategies will need to be adapted to this mixed digital context.  Teachers need to see possibilities and ways that work.  Of course, we cannot forget a key outstanding technical piece - we must upgrade our bandwidth – more on this in a future post.

Our students will also need digital learning spaces for safe communication and collaboration, storage of documents and other materials, and online creation.  I can see us exploring the possibilities of Microsoft’s Office 365 platform for this purpose.  Other BC Districts such as Surrey, Kelowna, West Vancouver, and Maple Ridge are already heading in this direction.  Office 365 is a free service for us within our existing licensing and provides 25GB of space per student, a District integrated login and a District named email address, SkyDrive storage, and online creation, editing, storing, and sharing of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents.  For the latter, they don’t even need Microsoft Office software installed on their computers – it works like Google Docs in a fully online way through their Internet browser.  This approach would solve numerous current challenges with storage and access of materials from anywhere (school, home) on any device (computer, iPad/iPhone, other), email for students (we don’t currently provide this), and access to the Office software online for free which is compatible with tools used at school.

Well, here’s to a fabulous Christmas with family and friends and a futuristic and exciting 2013.  I wish us all well as we continue to figure our how to adapt in our rapidly changing world.  I trust that this time next year I am able to write a reflective post that highlights how in VSB we’ve met and addressed some of the key challenges we face in a technology powered education system.