Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vision for a Learning Ecosystem

As I am out visiting schools, participating in District meetings, or other contexts, I often find myself either presenting or in conversations about my vision for technology and learning.  I recently wrote and presented a set of strategies to focus our efforts in implementing technology at the VSB.  We need to sustainably invest in three areas: Infrastructure (computing, storage, and network), iStock_000002030715XSmallEquity (tools/devices for students and staff, technical support), and Learning & Work Systems.

My aim is that infrastructure becomes a utility type service that we don’t really need to talk about in the future.  Rather it is funded like electricity where there’s always enough and it’s always on.  Behind the scenes we replace and upgrade every five years or so taking advantage of Moore’s law where we get more (speed, capacity) for less cost.  Infrastructure is the “oxygen” of a learning ecosystem and is an essential component for technology powered learning and work.  An equity focus, especially in the diverse VSB environment, is critical to ensuring access to tools, experiences, content, and minds.  It is about removing barriers to access.  A component of equity must involve BYOT (bring your own technology) whereby our District invests unevenly to ensure students who are unable to BYOT have the same access as those that are.  We also need to equitably provide mobile devices to our teachers (who choose not to BYOT) along with time and support to learn to adapt and transform how learning in their classrooms works.  If technology enters a classroom and the teaching and learning does not change, it’s a waste of money and a distraction.  Change in practice (work, teaching, learning) must accompany the introduction or addition of a new technology.

The Learning & Work Systems strategy is about providing powerful online spaces for employees, students, and parents to shift work from paper and time consuming processes to efficient online intelligent work flows.  This is the most exciting and potentially revolutionary focus area.  Digitally powered Work Spaces will support effective and timely communication methods, knowledge capture and sharing, record and document management, and social connection, learning, and collaboration.  I see us also providing several additional spaces including a Student Space, Teacher Space, and a Parent Space.  It is this trio that forms the Learning Ecosystem and this relies critically on a well developed infrastructure with equitable iStock_000016878193XSmallaccess for all in a well supported manner.

A key challenge we face besides designing well is what to buy, what to build, and what to integrate, and how.  For instance, there are great free or relatively inexpensive tools that provide to some degree what I’m about to describe.  Tools like Edmodo, Office 365, Google Apps/Docs, and others supply pieces of a disconnected story.  But what I am interested in goes beyond current capabilities.  We need systems that integrate and interoperate seamlessly together and, with internal business information systems (HR, Finance, Student Info, etc.).  We need a platform that can integrate loosely with external tools we will never recreate (Twitter, Prezi, Pinterest, WikiSpaces, WordPress, EverNote, to name a few) that support learning.  Without integration, there’s too much complexity for most people to face and that creates barriers to adoption.  Remove barriers and adoption rises soon afterward.

A Learning Ecosystem might work like this…  students have a space where they can write (wiki, documents, blog), create discussions with fellow students and teachers, share their work safely with their class and their school, or others.  The Student Space will have a Learning Wall – think Facebook Wall but for learning.  As the student creates content and participates in activities, this is recorded as posts on their wall.  Teachers, in their Space, will have feeds from their student’s wall, flowing to assessment “boxes” for them to easily review, assess, provide feedback (comments), and bookmark for report card use.  Students can highlight / rate their work in their digital portfolio as a show case of their learning which grows over iStock_000014253513XSmalltime.  Students will comment on each others work, providing feedback and support.  Parents via their Space, will have feeds flowing in from their children’s Learning Walls, into a review “box” and they can read and comment on their kids learning, providing valuable feedback.  Parents can bookmark learning artifacts that they want to keep in their digital learning scrapbook for each of their kids.  Parents will also see assignments given and feedback provided by their kids teachers.  Parents are fully engaged in their kids learning activities and results.

As students grow from Kindergarten to Grade 12, the degree of online learning done exclusively in the protected Student Space will shift to be more open.  They will have the ability to open up aspects of their learning (eg, their blog) to the world.  They will use external tools (Twitter, Prezi, a blog site, etc.) and link (integrate) those into their Learning Wall so that regardless of where their learning occurs, it all feeds in to their Wall for review, assessment, etc.  The Learning Wall becomes the record of the Student’s learning through-out their school career.

In addition to connecting them to their kids Learning Walls, Parent Spaces will enable parents to do business with their school(s) and the District.  All forms will be completed this way, policies agreed to, fees paid, field trips approved, and volunteer opportunities accepted.  Teachers will be able to message parents of their students, the school office can electronically communicate with families.  When parents are in their Space (web or mobile), they are connected to all learning and work aspects of the education system their kids are embedded in.  Schools or the District can easily survey parents for their opinions on education and policy matters or target specific communication to select parents where needed.

Teacher Spaces will provide tools to store lesson materials, to post homework, and to provide learning assistive tools and content.  It will support calendars to communicate, places to write and reflect, and connections to school activities and responsibilities.  As determined by the teacher, portions of the Space can also be opened up to the public.  Through their space, teachers will be connected to District business tools to see and question payroll advice, submit expense claims, find/read policies and regulations, make purchases, and receive communication feeds from the Superintendents, HR, Payroll, IT, and other divisions.  They will be able to easily apply for jobs, submit an absence, and discover and register for professional development opportunities.

Essentially a Learning Ecosystem is a comprehensive online platform with spaces suited for different types of people and their needs.  The platform connects these spaces in natural and expected ways to simplify the learning and work people do every day.  I envision us building parts of this, buying others, and connecting with external services where possible.  A priority effort we have on deck is the creation of a District Portal.  That will be a key piece for the WorkiStock_000007042359XSmall Space portion of the ecosystem but I see us adding in the Learning Spaces along the way as we build momentum.  However, none of this is possible unless we solve our Infrastructure and Equity challenges.  We have a lot of work to do on many fronts but I believe with a clear vision to the future, it will come faster as each barrier is removed along the way.