Presentations Don’t Make a Conference, People Do

Lego poetry at DLTV2014
 
As I sat through one of the most horrendous presentations on Office 365, it got me wondering about the question, what makes a good presentation? I sat there thinking what would make this better? What was missing?

At first I thought that it was the absence of any conversation about pedagogy. A point that +Edna Sackson made about last years GAFE Summit in her post, ‘‘I Want to Talk About Learning…’ There was reference to pricing schemes and packages, what this includes and what that does. However, I had signed up with the hope that I could take back to school a few more tips relating to how to get the most out of Windows 8 – whether it be new applications or different functionalities – I was wrong.
The one thing that held me together throughout was the conversations I was having on Twitter with +Rich Lambert. He too was lost in the presentation. Although our banter was critical of Microsoft and their lack of innovation, much of it was in jest. We were adding a layer of humour that was seemingly absent. However, what occurred to me later was that it wasn’t learning or even humour that makes a great conference, it is people.
+Steve Brophy and I presented on the notion of listening to voices in and out of the classroom. Even though we created a range of spaces to continue the conversation, whether it be in our Google+ Community, through our Diigo Group or even simply using the hashtag #eduvoice. The place where most people wanted to connect and share was not necessarily online, which may come later I guess, but rather in person. People wanted to talk, they wanted to tell their story, share their ongoing journey.

Creating new connections is what ALL conferences should be about. Building relationships and expanding your PLN. This sense of people connecting with people, both digitally and online, is what makes them such a fantastic place to learn. To riff on +David Weinberger‘s point, “The smartest person in the conference is the conference.”
One of the things that I loved the most about #DLTV2014 was actually neither a session nor something that can necessarily be deduced to ‘one single thing’. Instead it was an initiative to generate conversations about change and reform called Institute of the Modern Learner. The idea was that anyone could add to the conversation. What made this so interesting wasn’t necessarily the idea itself, which was important, but the way in which it was carried and communicated. Some were handed random cards as they moved throughout the conference, an online space was created which was linked to a Twitter handle, while short injections were made during many different presentations. At its heart though, this movement to me was connected with the attempt to create a space for learning as embodied by ‘Gaming in Education’ stream. There were no presentations as such, instead there was a space with different hands-on posts set up, such as old console games, programmable devices and Lego poetry. Here you were at the centre of your own learning with people like +Dan Donahoo, +Kynan Robinson and +Jess McCulloch there to support and continue the conversation.
+DLT Victoria 2014 then to me has been a success. For it is easy to say that the spaces were sometimes confusing or there were too many sessions and streams, however if you walked away from the conference without creating one new connection or strengthening some ties that already existed, I would argue that you weren’t really there. Coming back then to Weinberger, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all who enter it smarter.”
Were you at DLTV2014? If not, did you follow online? What is your story? Tell me, because that is what learning is all about.

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Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills – Collaborative Problem Solving

Photo Credit: Celestine Chua via Compfightcc

This is the first assignment as a part of the ATC21S Coursera MOOC. It involved selecting an example of collaborative problem solving (CPS) in which you have been involved. The response included illustrating an understanding of the nature of collaborative problem solving, why it is important and what sets it apart from activities like group work. Associated with this, two specific incidents were required to demonstrate that different collaborators have different levels of skill in CPS. This is my response …

 
It is easy to think of Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) as a highfalutin euphemism for what is commonly known as group work. However, they are not the same. The major difference is that CPS focuses on the skills and attributes people bring, rather than the jobs people do. In a traditional classroom, group work usually involves splitting a task between members in order to do something more efficiently or simply to share responsibilities. These contributions are then usually assessed at the end of the outcome. With CPS, the focus is not so much about product, but what that process can bring to bear.
 
In his book Too Big To Know, +David Weinberger argues that there are two key elements relating to diversity which make the room smarter: perspectives and heuristics. Perspectives are the maps of experience, while heuristics are the tools we bring to bear. Without either, there is little point to diversity. I feel that the same can be said about CPS.
 
What is significant is that success is not deemed by the room itself, but by who is in that room and what skills may be drawn upon. The reality is some individuals have more abilities than others. For as Weinberger posits, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all who enter it smarter.” CPS helps assess the contribution of the different people in the room by splitting work into different subsets as represented in the Conceptual Framework for Collaborative Problem Solving in order to identify areas for growth and improvement.
 
Difference between CPS and group work often relates to the authenticity of the task. Group work is often heavily scaffolded. In comparison, CPS is ambiguous and ill-defined. There is more than one way to solve problems and deciding on such solutions is usually more important than the end product.
 
An example of CPS I have facilitated was the creation of the school yearbook. My Year 9 Elective Class was put in charge of creating a yearbook. They had to decide who the yearbook would be for, what it would include and how they would complete it. Once students had made these decisions, they worked collaboratively to develop roles, timelines and expectations.
 
Two particular incidents of ambiguity associated with CPS was firstly, the beginning where the project was in its infancy, and secondly, in what +Bianca Hewes‘ describes as the ‘mushy middle’, where the project had taken shape, but hurdles start to arise.
 
The beginning is always an interesting point to reflect upon. Everyone starts from scratch, with a new opportunity to prosper. However, this lack of clarity and cohesion often divides collaborators.
 
On the one hand, some members commence by working as a part of the group to define the project and then set out to independently come up with all the answers. Although there is some recognition of the need for information, there is little consideration as to where this comes from or how it all fits together.
 
In contrast, there are some collaborators whose first thoughts are about everyone else. This does not necessarily mean that they are leaders in the traditional sense. On the contrary, they often seek to support others to take the limelight. These students persevere in the effort to identify the heart of the ambiguity and break things down into subtasks. They seek to include all the differences of opinion and create strategies associated to goals for how the project is going to push ahead.
 
The second significant incident when it comes to CBL is the middle stages. Unlike the defining stages of a project which asks collaborators to work together to define what it is that they are working towards, the middle stages raises the challenge of redefining ideas, managing goals and continually reviewing strategies.
 
For some, this part can be gruelling. Whereas in the beginning the connection that everyone shares is obvious, once people start moving into different subtasks, they lose track of where they are in relation to the wider problem. Therefore, when issues arise, there are random examples of trial and error. However, little effort is made to modify the initial hypothesis or reconstruct the problem at hand. It is simply seen in isolation with little connection to the other tasks or group members.
 
Contrary to this, some members thrive on continually reflecting on goals, connecting personal contributions with the work of others, exhaust all possible solutions when faced with a hurdle and evaluate their own performance. For example, when a program didn’t allow for the creation of collage, a student with high level ability took a step back and considered the alternatives. Once they exhausted this, they then spoke with other members of the group to see if anyone else had any ideas.

While here is the feedback which I received …

Suggest any elaboration of the example that could have made it more clearly an example of a collaborative problem solving.
self → I think that I could have been more explicit in regards to the assessment. Maybe even fill in some examples and attach them to the document.
peer 1 → This example would need significant elaboration if it is to be considered an example of collaborative problems solving, The author speaks about the difference between CPS and groupwork, yet fails to implement this in the learning activity.
peer 2 → It would be better to show the specific skills listed in CPS workframe.
peer 3 → Provide clear links of personal behavior to CPS framework.
Say what you liked best about this example as an instance of collaborative problem solving. 
self → I like the practicality associated with the task. It is essential that the task is authentic.
peer 1 → This example did not address Part 1 of the assignment as outlined, and completely failed to recognize Part 2. This example does not demonstrate the capacity to use the conceptual framework for CPS.
peer 2 → i am not sure about the difference between CPS and group work and i think this homework gave a good explanation.
peer 3 → Very vivid and essential examples of CPS are provided.

It was definitely an interesting process and demonstrates one of the biggest problems with innovation, implementing 21st century strategies and education in general. As much as we think that we are on the same page, this is rarely the case. That is why the focus needs to be on creating canvas to structure the conversation as +Richard Olsen has suggested with the Modern Learning Canvas, rather than dictating strategies. For how can we achieve anything if we cannot talk about it?


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Becoming a Connected Educator – #TL21C Reboot

 
This post and associated slides are for my TL21C Reboot Session addressing the topic of: Becoming a Connected Educator (22/7/2014)
 

Becoming a Connected Educator (TL21C) – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
 
Becoming a connected educator is so unique. There is no rule or recipe to follow and no two stories are the same. The reality is that it is many things to many people. The biggest challenge is continually defining what it actually means to be connected and why it is important. I don’t wish to offer some cure, rather I hope to keep the conversation going.
 
Instead of providing a recipe, my approach has always been to share some of the choices that I have made and my thoughts behind them. Although signing up to various platforms is important, it is the journey associated with this that matters most to me. As +Tony Sinanis says, in reflecting on his own connected experiences, “the Twitter experience is a journey … it is not an experience that can simply be replicated for those who have yet to be connected.”
 
It is important to understand that being a connected educator does not automatically make you a better learner. Just because you have a Twitter handle doesn’t make you special in itself. Although it may give you access to a global audience, this does not magically make you connected. As +David Weinberger points out in his book Too Big To Know, “Even if the smartest person in the room is the room itself, the room does not magically make all who enter it smarter.” The question that we need to consider is not whether we are connected or not, but rather how we connect.
 
Too often people believe that being connected somehow leads to something more, a conduit to some higher form of being. They enter with the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ I am not sure exactly what I thought being a connected educator would be, however the one thing that I have come to realise is that networks are not constant, they are more akin to a verb, rather than a noun.
 
Too often people describe PLN’s as something we build. However this misses the organic nature. I believe that they are better understood as a plant which we help grow and nurture. Our networks will only ever flourish as much as we let them.
 
Associated with the focus on networks is a focus on learning. To get the most out of being connected I allocate learning time. In a recent post+Peter Skillen made the suggestion that the goal of a project should be to formulate questions, rather than starting with one. I think that this definitely applies to being connected. Sometimes you just need to tinker and play, wonder and explore, in order to know what it is you are looking for.
 
I feel that connecting and conversing is better thought of as sitting at a bar drinking pedagogical cocktails where we can mix different ingredients to come up with our own flavours. This does not mean that everyone should do Problem Based Learning or didactic learning should be banished, instead it is about choosing the right method for the moment, rather than keep on drinking the same old cocktail again and again.
 
One of the most empowering aspects about learning online is that there is always some form of learning just waiting for us. As +Alec Couros suggested, “some of the best learning happens each day on Youtube whether it is meant to happen or not” I once described this as ‘hidden professional development‘, playing on the idea of the hidden curriculum, but I really like +John Pearce‘s notion of pop-up PD, that learning that can happen anywhere, any time, where there are people willing to learn.
 
One of the keys to learning online is actually giving back. If everyone just lurked from a distance, not only would this limit the depth of conversations that occur online, but it also limits how much you actually get out of such connections. There are many different ways of giving back, from simply sharing links to remixing ideas. The choice of how we do this is up to us.
 
Sharing should be thought of as a way of being. Many worry about whether there is worth in what they are sharing. However, only the community can decide such worth. As Clive Thompson states in reference to blogging, “Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.” Surely then sharing can only be a good thing?
 
One of the most important elements to building relationships is having a clear and definable identity. After spending some time hiding behind various quirky images and username, inspired by +Anne Mirtschin, I took the steps to create a consistent digital badge that I ‘wear’ online. Associated with this, I developed an About.Me to connect together  all the different spaces where I exist. I feel that making these changes has aided with my connections.
 
In the end, there are many choices to be made when it comes to being a connected educator. For example:
  • Who do I follow?
  • What details do I provide about myself?
  • Which platforms should I work on?
  • Should I blog, vlog, create a podcast?
  • How many times should I re-tweet/republish links to my own work?

As +Chris Wejr points out, although it is easy to suggest that everyone should sign up and start sharing every last detail, not everyone is able to tweet and post who they are.

 
I think that +Steve Brophy sums up the situation best when he makes the challenge, “Be the connection that gives other learners a voice.”
 
What has been your biggest hurdle in becoming a more connected educator? Can you provide an example as to how you are giving other learners a voice?

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Making Listening to Voices More Doable

 
 
This is an introduction to +Steve Brophy and I’s presentation ‘Listening to Voices In and Out of the Classroom’ for #DLTV2014 and explains what we mean by ‘voice’ and its relationship with technology …
 
It is so easy to consider technology as the answer, that missing solution, that panacea that will somehow manage to solve all education’s ills. However, there is no tool or technique that will magically solve all our problems for us. Instead, technology is a support, an addition, a supplement, something that helps us do what we do, but better. In regards to Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model, this change revolves around ‘redefining’ what we do. Providing a possibility for something that was often deemed impossible. +Bill Ferriter suggests, “technology lowers barriers, making the kinds of higher order learning experiences that matter infinitely more doable.”
Importantly, the changes brought about by technology are not about simply dispelling the past. For as Ferriter argues, many of those attributes that get lumped with the call for reform are things that highly effective teachers have been doing for years. Various higher order thinking skills, such as the engagement in collaborative dialogue, solving complex problems and manipulating multiple streams of information, are not new.
Take the act of publishing for example. After consulting with a teacher from another state +Cameron Paterson got his Year 9 History class to create picture books around the topic of World War 1 for a kindergarten. While +Bianca Hewes used Blurb, a site that allows you to create both eBooks and physical books, to publish her student’s stories for a wider audience. There is nothing new about composing texts for an audience. Technology though allows us to publish to a more authentic audience more easily.
Another particular area where technology allows for a change is in regards to capturing the different voices associated with learning. Whether it be communicating or collaborating, there are many different scenarios involving listening and responding to voices in and out of the classroom. Voices have always had a central role in the classroom for at its heart, learning is a social activity. However, instead of conversations being dictated by the few, technology democratises the whole process, it takes away some of the social pressures and tedious silences when no one is willing to respond. Technology makes it more doable.
We feel that there are three different categories when it comes to listening to voices in education:
  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners

As with any sort of arbitrary division there will always be examples which go across categories. However, splitting things in this way helps to highlight some different spaces and situations where voices can be heard and provides a foundation on which we can continue the conversation.
So to the big question, how are you listening to different voices in and out of the classroom? And in what ways does technology make this more doable?

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To QuickVic with Love – My Reflections on Reporting

I have been report co-ordinator for four years now and I feel that I have gotten as much as I can from QuickVic, the free report software provided by the Victorian State Government. During this time, I have implemented many changes in an effort to not only improve reports, but also to streamline the whole process. Ever since I have been teaching, the process associated with reporting has been a tedious one.

Some of the changes that I have made to reports and the whole process include:
  • Developing a guide for writing clear comment banks. This included providing a list of words to differentiate between high, medium and low, as well as various link words and phrases to help support the flow of paragraphs.
  • Adapted the templates. Over the years I have adapted the templates by firstly embedding the blurb to splitting the primary reports into different subjects and areas to help seperate the comments.
  • Created a collaborative document to share progression points. When I took over the role, co-ordinators added their choices to a document and sent them back. I changed this by creating a Google Doc that allowed people to see what other year levels had put down, as well as an overview of the whole school.
Reflecting on these changes now, I think that they were all so simply, don’t get me wrong, very tedious at times, but simple none the less. The thing is that if they were so simple, then why did it take me to bring them in and make the changes? I think in some respect, many solutions look simple in retrospect. The reality though is that I think it does not matter how many changes you make, at some point there comes a limit.

Time for a Change

A few months ago I was listening to the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast and they were discussing the demise of Windows XP. One of the reasons given as to why it has lasted so long is that it actually costs a lot of money for companies in regards to training, licences and even replacing machines in order to change over to a new operating system and with that a changed way of doing things. This has definitely been the case in regards to reporting.
At the start of the year the Victorian Curriculum and Assesssment Authority released a set of guidelines regarding curriculum planning and reporting. They outlined the following requirements:

(a) Schools have the flexibility to choose, in partnership with their school community, the way in which they will report student achievement. There will no longer be a single mandated report format.

(b) Schools report, both to parents and, where directed, to the relevant sectoral authorities, on student achievement in English, Mathematics and Science against the common achievement standards, indicating the level of attainment reached by each student and the age-expected level of attainment (except in specific instances of individual students where this has been determined by schools in partnership with parents to be unnecessary).

(c) Schools will not be required to report student achievement against the other domains each year, but should, following the Foundation year, report student achievement against all domains in each two-year band of schooling.

Although the guidelines provide some indication as to where curriculum and reporting is heading, they provide little clarity for schools. The one guarantee though is that the dependency of many schools on QuickVic, the free product offered by the Victorian state government, is coming to an end.
In a culture of autonomy, the onus is being put back on schools to develop a solution that best fits their needs. For many this means that the current reporting process is open for discussion and with that how and when reports are produced.
In search for the next big thing, I started scrolling through the different options out there. Not only for the best program to replace QuickVic, but also the right fit for the school. The three main contenders that initially stood out were: Accelerus, Reporter Pro and Compass.

Accelurus

Owned by the same company who produce QuickVic, Accelerus is the next step up from Markbook. They have had the lion’s share over the last ten years, particularly in secondary schools. Like QuickVic, there are avenues for developing your own templates. However, as far as I could tell, that is really where the similarities stop.
The biggest difference between QuickVic and Accelerus is that it is a historical database that updates via the web, rather than across a network. Once setup, an administrator simply needs to update various elements in order to maintain it. This means that staff are able to develop their own gradebook in order to keep track of progress and start developing reports and profiles from the first day of the semester, rather than wait until late into the semester for the server to be opened up. In support of the core reporting module, there is also some provisioning for interim reporting. Something sorely missed in using QuickVic.
Another big selling point for Accelerus are the possibilities of data analytics. This seems to be where it is all at. The ability to reflect on a student’s growth overtime is very important when it comes to assessment and reporting. However, having recently gone with Phillip Holmes-Smith’s Student Performance Analyser, this functionality is rendered null and void. One of the issues that some leaders had with Accelerus was the story that the data was able to provide. Although you can create your own rules to sort and present data, it was felt that what was on offer was not quite adequate.
Another interesting aspect associated with Accelurus is what other opportunities and attributes it offers? Clearly assessment and reporting is its bread and butter, this is what Accelerus has always done well. Subsequently, its offerings for other areas, like welfare, are not complex enough in my view to adequately replace learning management systems, such as Student Management Tool (SMTool). This is a big challenge at the moment for schools as many are trying to streamline their systems as best possible.
It must be noted that Accelerus are also looking at rolling out a lite version of its reporting package as a replacement for QuickVic, which includes the removal of such aspects as interim reports. However, the exact details are yet to be outlined.

Reporter Pro

There are many schools using Human Edge’s timetabling package, First Class, so it makes a lot of sense to add attendance and assessment to this. Although already having the information in First Class helps a lot, what was presented in regards to Reporter Pro simply didn’t stand up to other packages in regards to flexibility.

Like so many others, it provides web access, allowing you to set things up early. However, there is little movement in regards to templates. Unlike Accelerus (and QuickVic) which allows you to create and modify your own templates, the options available within Reporter Pro seem rather limited. Although there is the offer of custom templates, sadly this seems to be done more by programmers and does not allow for much tinkering by the user. In addition to this, the structure of the interim reports is locked and very restrictive. In a culture of choice, fitting in with a system seems counterintuitive.

Although I know some schools that are utilising Human Edge for welfare purposes, I still feel that the same concerns that I have with Accelerus around branching out beyond reporting applies here. For me, it is not functional enough for the user to replace the more thorough learning management systems.

Compass

Compass is what the Ultranet should have been, well that was how it was sold to us. Compared to Accelerus and Human Edge, the team at Compass are relatively new to the field assessment and reporting. One of the things that stand out is that although other companies offer many of the same features, such as attendance and data analytics, Compass seems to offer so much more in a slick and intuitive manner.
Where Compass seems to trump other programs and applications is that it offers seemingly everything, whether this be news feeds, roll marking, file storage, curriculum planning, excursion notices and obviously, the publication of reports. Associated with this, it works comfortably on all platforms and even has an app which allows for the uploading of files on iPad and iPhone.
There are two downsides that I can see with Compass. Firstly, the cost. Even with all the options and choices, there will always be elements that go unused or underutilised. This is exacerbated by the amount outlayed by the school.
The other concern is that whereas other systems do not necessarily require a massive buy in from staff, in many respects Compass is a game changer in the same respect that the Ultranet was supposed to be. I understand that Compass is a far sturdier system than the Ultranet. However, I am still concerned that there will be some who simply won’t take on the changes, making more work for others.
Although these were the main programs that seem to be being used in schools at the moment, however there were also a few other alternatives that I came along in my journey:

Gradexpert

Like so many other reporting programs, Gradexpert covers not only learning and teaching, but welfare as well. In some respects, it reminds me of Accelerus in the way that each teacher is able to setup their own gradebook with notes, tasks and assignments in order to keep track of teaching and learning.
In some respects, Gradexpert takes me back to the days of using Australian Teachers Chronicle’s Microsoft Access based Electonic Teachers Chronicle that they produced a few years ago. Although Gradexpert is functional, it does not seem as smooth and slick as some of the other options out there. Particularly in regards to copying text and the absence of an undo function.
One of the things that I did like about Gradexpert was the simplicity of their report designer. Unlike QuickVic’s use of Word Templates, Gradexpert provides a series of drop down options and moveable parts that make the creation of templates quite easy. I feel that it would be a great option for Primary schools wanting an alternative to QuickVic.

nForma

Predominantly used amongst Catholic schools, nForma has started making a move into state schools. Like so many other programs, it combines reporting, attendance and welfare all in one place. It is also located wholly on the web. Although it looks rather slick and stylish, it still has its bugs, especially when it comes to compatibility with Macs.
It seems unfair to say much more than that as they are in the midst of change. Instead of stipulating what will be a part of their product, they are looking to support schools with their choices. What this actually looks like and how it works will be interesting to see.

Sentral

Originally taking foot in NSW, Sentral has since started moving across borders into different states. One of the biggest challenges in my view to moving into a new market is word of mouth. Other than speaking with colleagues from interstate, there just doesn’t seem to be many local schools who have taken it up. I must admit that I wish I had seen more of Sentral as it does look to be a true contender, especially in regards to learning management systems.

 

Other Alternatives

These seem to be the various programs on offer. However, something interesting that came out of all my investigations was that with the push for flexibility, some schools have moved outside of the box and started appropriating other programs to support and supplement the reporting process. One school was sharing notebooks within Evernote that included examples of student work, supported by various annotations. Another school which had moved to the Ultranet before its demise has moved to Edmodo to provide their communication with parents. Some skip the complications associated with administering various programs by simply using Microsoft Word to create a basic report.

In the end, it is an interesting time in regards to education and the digital revolution. Managing assessment and reporting is a big part of this. Have you had different experiences with any of the programs that I have mentioned? Were there any that I missed? Would love to know your thoughts.


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Listening to the Voices In and Out of the Classroom #DLTV2014

 

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/14425906657

It is only a few weeks until the inaugural DLTV conference. +Steve Brophy and I will be presenting a session on listening to other voices in the classroom. Here is the blurb for those interested:

One of the biggest challenges in education today is how to empower everyone and give a voice to every learner, this means moving beyond listening to those who seek to be heard and finding ways to capture every voice in and out of the classroom. From collaborating on a document to using a learning response system to reflect on a unit of work, this session will look at not only how we can use various web 2.0 tools to capture the different voices in and out of the classroom, but also how these tools can be used to provoke and prompt further ongoing dialogue. Presenting our thoughts and reflections from a wide range of settings and scenarios, both Primary and Secondary, we hope that you leave this session armed with an array of tools and ideas that will help you go and listen to some of those lost and hidden voices today.
 
As it is all about you, we have a quick question to help get the ball rolling:




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Signals, Noises and Relationships

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/14421694749
 
I recently wrote a post wondering whether you have to be a radical in order to be a connected educator? In response, +Eric Jensen directed me to Tom Sherrington’s post ‘Signals and Noises in the EduSphere’. In it Sherrington discusses the counter-productive nature of disruptive noise when it comes to communicating online. I tried to post a comment on the blog, but it produced an error, so I decided to simply elaborate my thoughts here instead …
 
In his post, Sherrington postulates that the mode of communication that we choose affects the depth of understanding that we achieve. In a ‘high quality exchange’ we are able to build upon ideas by finding common ground which includes challenging and refining our own opinions. In contrast to this, a ‘low quality exchange’ involves ideas losing their meaning as they are not given time or lack any sense of context. One of the keys, according to Sherrington, to creating a signal and not just more noise are relationships and remembering the people behind the ideas. He ends his piece with the suggestion, “When I disagree with someone or review their work, I’ll imagine sitting in front of them, face to face, before I express (broadcast) my views.” This is some great advice and says a lot about connecting online.
 
Sherrington’s musings reminded me of a post I wrote a few months back in response to +Peter Skillen‘s wondering as to whether the modern phenomena of perpetuating ‘one-liners’ was actually detrimental to productive change? At the time, I thought that there were many benefits to Twitter, such as coherently summing up the main idea, curating a digital identity, engaging with aphorisms and perpetuating a hope for a better world. However, I am becoming more and more pessimistic about such prospects. I still see a place for Twitter as a means for communication and I still feel that many of my arguments still stand true to some degree. I am sceptical though about the benefits of getting every teacher on Twitter, as +Mark Barnes recently posed. I think that this misses the point to a degree.
 
Twitter is most effective when it is built around and in addition to communities and relationships that already exist. Fine you can form relationships within Twitter, but as both Sherrington and Skillen point out, the medium is restrictive. I believe teachers should grow their own PLN, a point I have made elsewhere. Too often though, people constitute following 1000 excellent educators as developing a meaningful community. It is what we do with those people, how we interact, the stories that connect us, which make a community.
 
I was recently going through old +Ed Tech Crew episodes. In a 2011 interview+Doug Belshaw explained that he limits the people he follows on Twitter to 150. He calls it a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. Interestingly, he has since reneged on this, instead now choosing to use lists to split between those people who he is open to engage with and those who he activily engages with, never missing a single thing. 
 
Belshaw’s suggestion was a godsend for me as I was really struggling to maintain any sort of personal connection on Twitter. In my early days it was ok, I only had a few followers and could keep my finger on the pulse, but as my feed steadily grew, so did my disconnect with my communitie(s). Instead, Twitter was becoming more akin to a river in which I would dip in and dip out out of. Since Belshaw’s suggestion, I have used lists and I actually feel like I am a part of the community again, because I am able to connect with those who are truly important to me. I still have my normal feed, which I dip into, but I also have my own list which I scan through every now and again. I have found using lists is particularly important when it comes to connecting across time zones.
 
After reading Sherrington’s post, I am realising more and more the power of professional relationships in turning our ideas into signals, rather than just adding to the clatter of noise. I am just wondering what tips and tricks you use when sustaining relationships online? Is it about time? Or does one medium help more than another? Have you managed to develop meaningful relationships simply within Twitter? Please share, would love to know.

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Chicken or the Egg – A Reflection on Experiences vs. Solutions

Image via Twitter 
 
Lately my daughter has moved on from watching Dora the Explorer and Peppa Pig, to partaking of various kids films. Starting with Frozen, she has since moved to the various Disney princess films. Having initially seen them all when I was growing up, there are two strange feelings in watching them again. Firstly, the many themes and subtle story lines that just aren’t as present for a younger audience. Secondly though, watching the films with a cautious three year old, you get a different view about how dark and scary these seemingly innocent films can actually be.
It would be easy to suggest that this experience with my daughter makes me a better person and a better teacher. This was the lesson implied in a recent post from +Craig Kemp in which he discussed how being a dad makes his a better teacher. His premise was that being a parent has made him more aware of his students and their many diverse needs. Before this moment in his life he did not realise the impact that parents can have on a child’s life. Although Kemp must be congratulated on his openness and honesty, suggesting that being a parent makes you a better teacher misses the point.
In response to the Kemp’s assertion, +Corinne Campbell stated that being a parent does not magically qualify anyone to be a teacher or make them better than those who do not have children. Not being a mother does not make someone half a woman and not having children does not make someone half a teacher. Instead, all of our experiences in life impact and change us, adding spice to what we bring to the classroom. However, it is what we actually do the classroom which matters the most.
To me, our perspectives on the world are moulded by our experiences. As +David Weinberger posits, in his book Too Big To Know, “Perspectives are the maps we give to ourselves to represent the lay of the land.” However, to argue that certain experiences and perspectives somehow hold more capital than others misses the point, instead they simply makes us who we are. It is what we do with our experiences and perspectives which matters the most. We can learn from everything in life if we are willing and open to it. For example, I am sure that there are other parents who may put films on for their children and not have one iota what is going on in them. However, even realising this does not automatically make me a better teacher, it is what I then do with this insight, how I use this to inform my practise, which makes me a better teacher.
Here then are some of the experiences that I have had in my life and the perspectives gained:

 

Senses

A few years ago I had the experience of teaching a blind student in my English classroom. What was even more significant about his situation was that he had actually spent most of his life with full vision and only lost it late in his teens. Having him there really made me reflect on how I saw the classroom and how much we take it for granted when it comes to the senses. This has particularly impacted on how I deliver instruction in class.

 

 

Needs and Wants

When I finished studying my undergraduate degree, I went on a guided tour through South-East Asia. During this trip, I had the opportunity to stay in a traditional home in the south of Cambodia. I am sure participating in a Winter Sleepout would have given me a similar such experience, but it just made me realise that we don’t always need everything in life in order to survive and that for some having a deck of cards is a luxury, let alone a desk to do homework at. This has helped me empathise with students from different situations.

 

Death

I recently lost my mother to cancer. During this time, I learnt many things, such as making the most of every moment, that denial never works for no-one and that at some point the show must go on. However, the biggest lesson that I feel that I have learnt is that I am not alone, that I am not the only one who has lost a parent to cancer. For example, I know someone whose father was told he had four months to live and was dead in two weeks. More importantly though, it really made me realise how much we can take for granted and how futile life can be.

 

Administration

For the last few years I have been lucky enough to split my time between the classroom and various administrative roles. This has included doing daily organisation, creating class timetables and coordinating timetables. This has given me a deeper insight into the impact of which teachers are used for coverage or when classes are timetabled has on student learning. Some of my solutions have been to improve learning by spreading core classes throughout the week, as well as trying to create some sort of consistency in regards to booking relief teachers and assigning extras.

 

Councillor

This year I took up the position as councillor with the Australian Education Union – Victorian Branch. This has included representing my region at various meetings and reporting back to my constituents about various campaigns and complaints. It has taught me that there are no quick fixes to education and that politics is a messy game. For example, many teachers I know believe that the union has not done enough in regards to the Victorian Government’s new performance and development plan. However, with an election coming up at the end of the year, whether rightly or wrongly, it is not the battle to be had. It has taught me the need to provide people with a glimpse of the complexity involved, rather than simply keep them in the dark.

 

Koori School

When I lived in Swan Hill a few years back, I was lucky enough to work for a year at the now defunct Koori school. Basically, the school was created to cater for those students not coping with mainstream education. My class consisted on secondary aged boys ranging from Year 7 to Year 10. As much as we encouraged the students to come to school, picking them up each day and providing them with breakfast and lunch, you still never knew who you were going to get. Therefore, I learnt the importance of being flexible, as well as an insight into what is and is not always so important in life and education.
There are many more experiences that I could discuss. However, I think that this smattering serves its purpose. At its heart perception is about developing a wider set of skills and solutions. I feel that the different experiences in life have helped me respond to various situations that have arisen in and out of the classroom. It is these answers and solutions that decide whether or not I am a better teacher or not, not the experiences that produced them.
So what moments in life have mattered to you and what influence have they had in and out of the classroom?

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Do You Have to be a Radical to be a Connected Educator?

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/aaron_davis/14557280205 
I have been reflecting quite a bit lately on what I see as the importance of making online connections with other educators and developing dialogues to continue the conversation about education. Some of the push back that I have gotten is about who those teachers are that I am actually connecting with and what agenda is really being pushed? The question that it has me wondering is whether being a connected educator automatically equals being radical? If not, then where is the middle ground or is there something else going on that is being missed?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There is something about social media as a medium which lends itself to extremes. Take Twitter for example, often it is a case of the loudest statements that seem to stand out the most. Too often though this noise equates to latching ourselves to the latest panacea to all of education woes. In the process many fall in the trap of dispelling of the bathwater. Like Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate, no matter what our intentions may be, what efforts we make to include all voices, what aspirations we have to openness, it seems that time and time again our attitudes are moved to the side and replaced with the radical, which has become almost cliched. A prime example of this are the various Twitter chats, a point +Starr Sackstein recently made. Her argument is that they seem to be churning out the the recycled conversations week in week out.
In an interview with Charles Arthur, Jack Davis spoke about his experiences as a hacktivist with Lulzsec. He told how the deeper he got into the web the louder and more extreme the voices became. The voices were not necessarily about adding any value back to a community, but simply about standing out and being heard. 

Although the world portrayed by Davis a contrast to many of the educational environments online, there is still something to be learnt from Davis’ experiences. For the one similarity is that so often it is the loudest, boldest and strongest voices that stand out and stand tall. In many respects, it seems to take more effort to actually be mundane and, ironically, being more mundane and seemingly ordinary doesn’t often get you heard. Maybe then the challenge is digging deeper, going beyond the hype, the radicalism and start there.

Finding Common Ground

In a post reflecting on the purpose behind his blog, +Peter DeWitt reminisced on attempts to find some sort of common ground. DeWitt spoke about the emotions often attached to discussions associated with any discussion of education. The problem with this is that such emotions often lead to a lot of noise, but not a lot of listening. As he states, “people fight with others without really listening to what they are trying to say. They base opinions on hearsay and someone else’s opinions.” The answer according the DeWitt is to build consensus with those who we agree with and find a point of agreement with those who we don’t.
What stood out to me in DeWitt’s post was that the foundation to listening and respond was having a clear understanding about non-negotiables in regards to education. For DeWitt, the two areas in need of changes are high-stakes testing and having evaluation attached to them. 

I would argue therefore that before we find common ground we need to develop a better idea about what matters the most to each and everyone of us. A point that I touched upon in regards to my post on pedagogical cocktails and education dreams. +Peter Skillen, in a post looking at the roadblocks to change, suggests that school leaders can do is supporting teachers as they ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’. Being clear on our own values and practises helps us be clear about what it is we are actually arguing about.

Tribal Voices

At the start of the year a furore erupted around a piece published by Johanna O’Farrell. For O’Farrell, the education system was broken, but not in the usual manner. Instead of arguing for radical reform as people like +Will Richardson call for, O’Farrell was coming from the perspective of the radical conservatives. According to her we have lapsed when it comes to the basic of literacy and numeracy. Instead of focusing on spelling and timetables, we have placed too much focus on inquiry and technology. My issue with O’Farrell was not her arguments so much, but the manner in which she went about it. She killed the conversation.
The various responses to O’Farrell highlighted an interesting condition. For our initial response to such situations is to identify with a particular idea or perspective and form our tribes. The problem is that unlike Seth Godin’s call to find something worth changing, often such situations become lost in a war of noise, with the boldest and loudest standing out. The reality is that, as +Dan Donahoo suggested at ICTEV13 Conference, authentic change involves engaging with a range of voices and differing ideas, that it takes a village. This was no a village, but a mass of warring tribes ready to inflict damage on each other. There was no common ground provided by either side.
I believe that in some respect the problem is not necessarily with the idea, radical or not, or our tendency to form tribes with like minded people. I feel that the big problem is our mindset. Being willing to enter into a dialogue about education requires a belief that although you may have a set of core values, you are willing to compromise in order to evolve the conversations. 

The best thing that we can do then, in my view, is to constantly review what it is that we believe in and why we believe it. In an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew Podcast, +Dan Donahoo makes the suggestion of following the thoughts and ideas of not only those who we agree with, but more importantly, those who we don’t agree with. Doing this not only helps solidify what it is we truly stand for, but also gives us a wider perspective on things. For surely online communities should be about finding your own way as best you can, not about digging trenches and raising arms.
 

Engagement not Provocation

Another perspective on the problem of the radical was covered in a recent episode of Radio National’s Future Tense program focussing on the power of provocation. The message presented was that provocation does not work any more, well definitely not the way it used to. Whereas in the past there were less voices and not so much advertising, the change in society and media means that the focus moved from consumption to engagement. Instead of just making noise to be noticed, it is argued that we need to provide something that has the power to ignite a conversation. Such engagement though does not just come through identifying a good idea, but also presenting it in creative manner.
The big problem that we face is that such engagement in the modern world is easier said than done. Returning to social media, it is often stated that our attention associated with such mediums is only seconds. Therefore, some take to using big and bold statements with a hint of hyperbole to gain attention, while others resort to a cycle of posting and reposting, attaching their ideas to as many different causes through the use of various forums and hashhags. The problem with either of these approaches is that such actions actually risk disengaging the audiences that you are trying to engage.
+Alec Couros highlighted this problem in a response to Biosgraphy, a social network revolving around storytelling. They had set out on a campaign to spruik their new product by sending the same tweet to different users, therefore filling up the feed and gaining some sort of traction. On pulling them up on this approach, the company responded to Couros with a series of personal attacks.

 
What the situation highlights is what Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his book David and Goliath, as the the inverted U-shaped curse. Gladwell discusses the negatives associated with either ends of the extremes. At some point you either don’t publish your links enough, therefore no one even knows you are out there, or you go to the point of spamming and people don’t even want to know you are there. Often it is presumed that sharing out links and continuing the conversation is always a good thing. However, at some point it can become too much of a good thing. The effort and intention to connect and engage in this situation has the opposite effect.
The reality is that connecting is not about volume or frequency, it is about chance and relationship. I am sure that there are many great ideas that go unread, that are not shared very much or which just don’t garner traction with a wider audience. However, sometimes the sharing of ideas is about connecting with the community. As +John Spencer suggested in a recent post, “For me, blogging has been more like a community of friends. It’s been where I find rest and wrestle with ideas and interact with a community that challenges me.”

Sometimes if an idea doesn’t take it isn’t so much about the idea, it is about the community. If we don’t build relationships, then in reality, who is going to relate to us. It was interesting that +Bill Ferriter recently reflected on disconnecting from social media in order to properly connect at ISTE14. Maybe this says something, that at its heart connecting with a PLN is about opening a dialogue and to do that you need a relationship. 
Therefore in the end, if there is no community to belong to, no tribe to unite with, then maybe this is where people need to start, otherwise it will only ever be the noisy radicals that will stand out in the crowd. So the question needs to be asked, who are you connecting with that challenges your thinking? And what relationships are you building online?

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