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.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Leadership Now

Back in 1982 while still in college two friends and I formed a company called Tricom Computer Corporation to focus on writing software.  We took on writing software for the video rental business of the day.  We also offered training, seminars, and workshops.  I recall our first “big” workshop where we invited vendors to sponsor us iStock_000006755935XSmallin “educating” home computer users and buyers.  I don’t remember the specific topic, but I was on the agenda to speak for 45 minutes or so to the crowd of maybe 75 people.  I had never presented publicly before – I was terrified, my voice cracked, I broke out in a sweat, my heart was racing, I almost “died”.  I managed to survive… barely.  That simple beginning, although frightening, seemed to get me charged up about leadership possibilities.  Over time, I over came my fear of public speaking where I now really quite enjoy it.

I have learned so much about what not to do as a leader, often through the school of hard knocks and with casualties along the way.  Wanting to improve as a leader drove (drives) me to learn continuously.  In fact, I believe you must be a fearless learner to grow as a leader!  There is a real tension for leaders that has to be reckoned with.  It is the drive to be known as a leader, to shine, to be noticed, to accomplish, to achieve.  This profile is juxtaposed with growing and building up your people, those that you lead.  The problem is, the more you focus on the former, the more problems you will have with the latter.  I used to speak way too much in team meetings or meetings with my team and external people – I was the iStock_000017354272XSmallspokesperson, the one that knew it all, the expert, or so I thought.  I thought my team was there to support me.  Wow, was I ever wrong!  I’ve learned that the reverse is a better way – leaders are there to support their team members, to help them shine, to quietly provide, as Andy Hargreaves would say, pressure and support.  It isn’t necessary for leaders to always be out front “telling”, in fact the stronger your team members are and the more they are able to take on leadership roles, the stronger you are seen to be as a leader.  It’s all about growing your people.  From Leader Change Group (Mar 9, 2013):

Which type of manager do you want to be? One who believes you have all the answers or one who asks questions?  Effective [leaders] are good askers!

A strong leader recognizes that they do not have all the answers.  They need their people to know.  You hire people for their expertise, knowledge, and in general their help with your mission.  For them, “asking is enabling, telling is limiting, and ignoring is irritating”, Leader Change Group (Mar 9, 2013).  The strength of your leadership is tightly linked to the strengths of your team members.  “Everyone serious about success is serious about teams. Great teams lift organizations. Lousy teams drain everyone”, Leadership Freak (Mar 9, 2013).  This article goes on to say “bad attitudes ruin teams”.  I have certainly experienced this with past teams I’ve led.  The challenge though is when you, the leader, are co-responsible for the development of the bad attitude, which has been the case for me in the past, how do you avoid this?  Mistakes leaders make are sometimes irreversible.  For example, what if you don’t always do what you say, what if you slip up, repeatedly?  Trust is the casualty.  What if with your best intentions you “manipulate” the system to “get the right people in the right seats” as advised by Jim Collins in Good to Great? But by manipulating the system, you cause trust breakdown, are seen to play favorites, etc.  You have to self-regulate your ambition and intentions and be sure to be true to your word, to treat everyone fairly, to respect processes while you grow your team.  Trying to cheat a system will end up causing harm to iStock_000014920290XSmallyour people and to your ability to fully achieve your goals as a leader.

So, if growing your team is key, and it is, you must invest in their development.  Mark Miller, author of The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do says “success requires constant training. ‘Become a training machine’”, Leadership Freak (Mar 9, 2013).  In addition to training, leaders need to help those they lead become like a family otherwise “[their] team will never perform at the highest possible level if the members of the team don’t exhibit genuine care and concern for one another. The best leaders create an environment where this is the norm”, The Secret of Teams (Kindle 379).  I believe that a key to achieving care and concern amongst staff, is for leaders to be genuine in their caring about those they lead.  Leaders should demonstrate this by listening more than talking, being open to people challenging their ideas and goals, being interested in their employees as people.  The strength of a leaders vision, mission, and accomplishments lie directly with their team members pulling together in the same direction.  I am feeling rather blessed with the team I’ve inherited in my new role – they genuinely appear to care for each other.  One of our members is leaving us for a new job – over half of our team members went for lunch last week to celebrate with him.  This is encouraging.

Most leaders have an external aspect to their leadership role, as do I.  I have responsibility as CIO for a vision, mission, and strategy at an organizational level as it relates to choosing, implementing, and leveraging technology.  I spend a lot of my time engaging with people inside and outside our organization.  This time is well spent listening to and learning about our “client’s” needs and goals, providing advice, as well as articulating and selling our vision, mission, and strategy.  I believe in a transparent and open approach and thus share ideas, goals, what I read, and presentations publicly through Twitter, my blog (Shift to the Future), LinkedIn, Prezi, Kindle, Library Thing, and Slideshare.  It is important to me that the people I am trying to influence and support know what I’m about, how I think, and where we are headed.  This is now possible through modern technologies without me always having to speak with them in person.  Being a very social person, I do love the in-person conversations and presentations but there are only so many hours in the day and I can’t be everywhere at once.  But, with social media, I can be and people can stay in touch with me any time they choose.  I believe that if you’re a leader today or contemplating a leadership role, you must engage in social media to spread your message.  People you strive to lead need to “know” you or they won’t iStock_000013270409XSmallnecessarily be interested in following.

I’ll leave you with some summary advice.  Be a fearless learner, always.  Learn by reading.  Read books, blogs (eg, Leadership Freak, Michael Hyatt), and Twitter feeds.  Connect with other leaders and share your struggles, your wins, and learn from theirs.  I don’t have a leadership coach per se, but I find that my network, both through in-person conversations and social media substantially, fulfills this for me.  Don’t isolate your self, leverage your network.  And finally, grow your people through teaching, listening, training, caring, nudging, and supporting.  When you do this, you will enjoy seeing and hearing them speak of the vision, mission, and strategy to each other and others and seeing this executed well.  I would love to hear from you, your lessons learned while navigating the narrow and difficult path of leadership.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

How to BYOT for Learning?

I have been out visiting a lot of schools over the past few months learning about culture, demographics, economic status of neighbourhoods, existing and historical use of and interest in technology, and capacity to weave technology into common practice.  My District has a fascinating array of schools.  I was in a 105 year old secondary school last week in a highly urban area with a rather low socio economic status.  The school is quite oddly designed and has an institutional feel and look, but I suppose 100 years ago architects and District officials thought differently about school.  I also visited one of our newest elementary schools which replaced a very old school but retained part of it for heritage reasons.  This new school is a 21st century design with open aggregation spaces, learning communities for grade pairs with varied sizes of learning studios (aka classrooms).  It is designed for collaboration and public display.  They have a “tech loft” overlooking a commons area.  They are now encountering students bringing and wanting to use personal technology.  It is important to envision how technology will transform learning and teaching in the varied learning environments we have.

I seem to increasingly find myself entering into bring your own technology (BYOT) conversations during my school visits.  Let’s be honest, many students are bringing powerful devices to school every day but… in our schools they are almost always asked to put them away, to power down.  Although I understand the fear, the messiness, and challenges BYOT poses, this power-down default needs to end and we really need to figure out how to embrace this trend to maximize learning, rather than fight against it!  I previously wrote about why BYOT is important for us to pursue.  Now we really need to get our heads around this and move forward.  We will create a focus group with teachers, principals, and students (perhaps parents as well?) to undertake the necessary research and experimentation with BYOT.  The outcome will be guidelines and advice to help schools, teachers, students, and parents implement the use of personal student technology in our varied learning contexts (different grades/ages, subject areas, special programs, etc.).  I want to be able to visit any of our schools in the spring of 2014 and see students using the technology they own, for useful and productive learning purposes.

iStock_000012865598SmallFor a BYOT approach to be successful we need to ensure we have key technical requirements in place:

  • robust wireless network (ours is rolling out now and will complete by fall 2013 in all schools)
  • robust District and Internet network connections (ours are in trouble and assuming funding is secured, will be upgraded fully by fall 2013) – this needs to be a utility like service, always on, always enough
  • ability to detect technology that isn’t compliant from a security perspective (anti-virus, patched where applicable) and present safe options to the user (a constrained Internet connection only)
  • space to store and create content using any device (we will be pursuing an implementation of Office 365 for students, see case study, see review/comparison of Office 365 Web Apps to Google Docs)

Logistically, there are some areas to address such as:

  • security (prevent theft, vandalism) of student technology, in particular when they don’t have it with them – where do they store it securely – not all schools have lockers
  • safety of students who walk to/from school (as more studentsiStock_000001398345XSmall have technology, the incentive to steal should decline when technology is more pervasive and this concern should diminish)
  • home insurance requirements to address possible theft or damage while at school
  • effective acceptable use and social media policy implementation
  • clarity of and orientation to BC Privacy requirements for staff, students, and parents
  • where and how to enable charging of devices when students forget to at home or their device doesn’t hold a charge all day

Minimum standards for useful digital learning devices:

  • wireless networking built-in to the student’s device
  • Smart Phone (iPhone, Android, Windows, newer Blackberry) that can install a multitude of apps, browse web pages/content, efficiently allow typing
  • Tablet (iPad, Android, Windows 8)
  • Laptop (Mac, Windows, Chrome Book)

Contexts and challenges to figure out:

  • less than 100% (or 50% or 25%) of students are able or willing to BYOT – how to leverage and create shared use of the technology only some of the students bring
  • allowing students to choose to use (take notes, look up article, share ideas) their technology even though the teacher is not expecting any technology use
  • dealing with the distraction factor where students can easily be off task using Facebook, Twitter, texting, and YouTube when they should be engaged in the learning activity
  • determining when and how to require students to put their devices away – ie, not all learning and teaching requires them to use their digital devices
  • addressing the have and have-not reality – how to ensure all students feel and are included (need to design around shared use models, create comfort/willingness in students to share,iStock_000017184468XSmall perhaps make that an expectation when they BYOT)
  • ensuring students treat devices shared with them, with the utmost respect and privacy
  • determining what the appropriate amount and type of personal use outside class time should be (impacts network bandwidth, can be unhealthy for the person if too much, can create a socially disconnected student body)
  • designing teaching and enabling learning activities in a diverse device and app context by focusing on the outcome or product rather than the how – be independent of app and device, focus on tasks and outcomes like writing, reading, researching, audio/video capture/edit, collecting, recording, reporting, presenting, collaborating, sharing, diagramming, mapping, content acquisition, etc.
  • facilitating provincial exam writing
  • encouraging (leading to expecting?) teachers put all their lesson materials, homework assignments, helpful tips, up online where students can access them anytime
  • making BYOT work effective in Kindergarten, primary, intermediate, through to grade 12, in English, Socials Studies, French, PE, Math, Chemistry, Media Arts, any subject area, etc.
  • measuring success, improvement, and benefits
  • capturing problems, challenges, downsides and overcome them

I remember visiting a classroom in my previous District a few years ago where the teacher encouraged her students to bring hand held devices.  About seven in a class of 28 students brought one that day, varying between iPod Touches, iPod Videos, and other iPods.  They shared them amongst seven teams of four.  There were students using a five-way audio splitter gathered around iPod Videos listening to and watching some French dictations making notes (on paper) and they took turns reading French text and dictating it on the device for playback to the teacher.  The teacher also did impromptu research activities – asked each team to pick a theme written on the board for a history project they had worked on, and take 10 minutes to research using their Internet connected devices, synthesizing the flickr - langwitches - kids around a laptop - 6461718207information and then each team did a report out to the class on what they learned. 

Another class I visited a year or so ago had students bringing laptops and handhelds.  The teacher had worked with the kids to willingly share their technology with their fellow students.  They used a tool called Socrative, a student response system.  Students were creating questioning sets for assessing the class knowledge on a science unit they had just completed.  Students ran the assessments while their “colleagues” responded using the various student brought technologies available.  This was a useful knowledge and understanding checking activity for the students and their teacher.

These two examples show that we need to look at this through an abundance lens rather than thinking with a mindset of scarcity.  We don’t need a 100%, 50%, or perhaps even a 25% response from students for BYOT to have value for learning.  Essentially, we need to strive for flexible learning environments and to not expect a 1-size lock-step learning and teaching environment.  A 1-many (teacher to class) approach to learning probably made sense at one time but I believe in this world where all information, knowledge, and people are a few clicks away and students own the devices that get them there, we need to rethink the model.  This focus group work should prove to be invaluable for us as we venture into a world of learning where students stay powered up when they enter our schools and classrooms and are able to fully engage in many diverse sources and experiences that only technology can enable for them.