How SOFT Are You?


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I recently started reading David Price’s book OPEN: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future. After extracts, reviews and recommendations I entered wondering what he would have to add to the debate about education. What interested me about Price was that, along with others like Graham Brown-Martin, his take on the future of education did not come via the usual teacher, turned academic, come consultant. Instead it was a bit more indirect. Such a point of view helps by bringing an outsiders perspective, rather than being caught up within schools and politics. It is a focus on learning, something not constrained to the classroom. Questioning what it is and what it maybe in the future.

Many of Price’s thoughts and observations touch upon various facets of society, pointing out that things are not always as the seem. One of the ideas though that really stood out was the notion of SOFT. When I first saw it mentioned I thought that Price was going to touch upon Thomas Friedman’s analysis of what matters in the 21st century are soft skills, such as leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. However, this is not what Price means by SOFT.

For Price, SOFT is an acronym standing for four inter-connected, consequental values which he sees as integral for being open in the the 21st century.

  • SHARE: Whether it be adding ideas to a wiki or posting an update on Facebook, sharing involves connecting and collaborating  with others. There are two key characteristics to sharing, the speed at which knowledge is able to spread and the ability to work together to take action.
  • OPEN: Whether it be providing corporate data online or living life through social media, open is about being transparent. What is interesting is that for many it is something we have taken to whether we were aware or not, some are just more radical than others.
  • FREE: The notion of free includes such things as the value of knowledge, the consumption (and production) of digital goods, as a business model, the ability to fail and an entitlement. Many of these examples are about mindsets and adjusting existing models to add free into them.
  • TRUST: For each of the other elements of SOFT to work, they depend upon trust. When we read an update on social media, we trust that our friends are being honest. When data is provided openly online, we trust that it would not be used to undermine us. When we foster a culture of prosumers (producers and consumers), we trust that people we at least provide attribute when content is made available through Creative Commons licences. When trust is stripped away, we are usually simply left with accountability, this is particularly true of schools.

In many respects, Price’s description of SOFT touches upon David Weinberger’s ideas about networked, society, where just because you are in the room, it does not make you smart. The warning is that going SOFT is now inevitable. It has allowed us to take control of our lives and make decisions which were often left to the experts in the past. As Price states:

It’s simply inevitable that, having helped shape how we now live, and work, these values will become central to how we learn. Embedding SOFT values into innovative learning environments is not without its dangers. Giving employees and learners greater freedom demands greater responsibility. Being transparent may provide disgruntled employees with the means to act maliciously. But we have to learn how to adapt, and we have to adapt how we learn. As W.E. Deming once said ‘Learning isn’t compulsory…neither is survival’. (Page 74)

So how are you adapting and learning in the 21st century? More importantly though, how SOFT are you?


 

For those interested, here are a couple of resources unpacking David Price’s book in more detail:


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Cultivating the Passion for Learning


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This weeks #YourEduStory prompt is: How do you infect students with a passion for learning? I find passion an interesting topic. Like Steve Brophy, I have issues with the initial question. I too think that there is a divide to open learning and learning at school. However, I am more concerned about the analogy to a disease. We can all be passionate, the thing is that passion is very much subjective. How and why I am passionate is always personal to me. Brophy touches on this when he suggests that:

Co-constructed curriculum, student interest, student questions, shared inquiry help facilitate buy in from students.

What stands out in Brophy’s statement is that we do not force buy in, but facilitate. Passion can only be fostered and nurtured. With a young plant, if you over water it then it will become water logged and its roots fail to take. Our challenge is to develop the right conditions then for learning. To provide support and structure where required, while also allowing the right amount of space for growth. Making sure that there is the right Ph levels and that the soil is turned over.

The challenge though is not to cultivate to the point of control. For as Yong Zhao warns ‘gardeners are dictators’. We need to move our focus away from tests and scores to actually providing students with a reason to be in school and do their best.  “Greatness”, according to Zhao, “comes form from passion, a lot of time and great coaching and a global connection.” Continuing in this vibe, David Price makes the point in his book Open that a, “great teacher helps learners see the relevance which drives self-motivation – why learning something will make a difference in their lives.”

In the end, we can only cultivate the conditions for growth and learning. This begins, as Alan Thwaites recently suggested, by doing “our best to see the way we instruct through the eyes of our students and hear how we sound through the ears of our students.” So maybe lets start there.

For those interested, I highly recommend watching Yong Zhao’s presentation for AITSL looking at cultivating diverse, creative and entrepreneurial talents:


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Learning to Learn by Learning – a Reflection on a Collaborative Project

In a post a few months ago I mused on the idea of providing time for teachers to tinker and explore. My feelings were that like the students we teach, we too all have areas of interests that we never quite get a chance to unpack. I was reminded of this again recently by +Edna Sackson who spoke about enlivening a professional development day by empowering the voices of the staff at her school and giving them a chance to present, rather than simply bringing in outside providers. Although I have experienced this to some degree in regards to ICT at my school, where we ran a session where various staff provided different sessions, I have never really heard of it been offered as a whole school initiative. I was therefore left wondering, why don’t more staff share and collaborate, whether online or off?
 
 
A point of collaboration that I have been involved in this year was the development of a conference presentation with +Steve Brophy. As teachers we often talk about collaboration, yet either avoid doing it or never quite commit ourselves to process. Some may work with a partner teacher or as a part of a team, but how many go beyond this, stepping out of the comfort zone, and the walls of their school, to truly collaborate in the creation of a whole project?
 
Having spoken about the power of tools like Google Apps for Education to support and strengthen collaboration and communication, I decided that what I really needed to do to take the next step was to stop preaching and actually get out there and actually model it. I really wanted to work with someone in not only presenting a range of tools that make collaboration more possible, but I wanted to use those tools to actually collaborate and create a presentation from scratch.
 
The first time I met Brophy was online. The +Ed Tech Crew ran a Google Hangout at the end of 2013 focusing on the question: what advice would you give a new teacher just appointed as an ICT coordinator? I put down my thoughts in a post, Steve commented and wrote a response of his own. It was these two perspectives, different in some ways, but the same in others, that brought us together.
 
Since then we have built up a connection online – on Twitter, in the margins of a document, within blog posts themselves, via a few emails – growing and evolving the conversation each step of the way. For example, Steve set me the 11 question blog challenge, which he had already taken the time to complete himself. We were lucky enough to meet face-to-face when we both presented at Teachmeet at the Pub in February.
 
What I think clicked in regards to working with Brophy was that although we teach in different sectors, coming from different backgrounds, we shared an undeniable passion – student learning and how technology can support and enhance this or as +Bill Ferriter would have it, ‘make it more doable‘. We therefore decided to put forward a proposal for the +Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference around the topic of ‘voices in education’. Interestingly, once the submissions were accepted those wishing to present were encouraged to connect and collaborate with other members in the stream, rather than work in isolation. However, we already were.
 
In regards to planning and collaborating, it was all pretty ad hoc. A few comments in an email, brainstorming using a Google Doc, catching up via a Google Hangout, building our presentation using OneNote (click for PDF). Most importantly though, there were compromises at each step along the way. This was not necessarily about either being right or wrong, but about fusing our ideas together. So often I feel that we plan presentations with only our own thoughts in mind. Although we may have an idea of our intended audience, nothing can really replace the human element associated with engaging with someone else in dialogue.
 
In regards to the substance of our actual presentation, I put forward the idea of dividing it into Primary and Secondary. However, as things unfolded, this seemed counter-intuitive, for voices are not or should not be constrained by age. So after much dialogue we came upon the idea of focusing on the different forms of connections that occur when it comes to voices in and out of the classroom. We identified three different categories:

 

  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other 
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning 
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners 
A part of the decision for this was Brophy‘s work in regards to Digital Leaders. This focus on students having a voice of there own really needed to take some pride of place, especially as much of my thoughts had been focusing on the engagement between students and teachers.
 

Listening to Voices – FULL PRESENTATION – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
 
The next point of discussion was around the actual presentation. In hindsight, I fretted so much about who would say what and when, as well as what should go in the visual presentation. This is taken for granted when you present by yourself as you say everything. However, when you work with someone else it isn’t so simple. The irony about the presentation was that so often plans are often dispersed in an effort to capture the moment. This is exactly what happened and I feel that it worked well. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to stick to the slides, because somehow that is the way it has to be, even though that way is often a concoction in itself. The other thing to be said is that the slides also allow people to engage with the presentation in their own time, in their own way. I sometimes feel that this is a better way of thinking about them.
 
The best aspect about working collaboratively with someone was that by the time we presented we knew each others thoughts and ideas so well that it meant that if there was something that one of us overlooked then the other could simply jump in and ellaborate. This was best demonstrated in our shortened presentation for the Scootle Lounge, where instead of delivering a summary of what we had already done we instead decided to go with the flow. The space was relaxed with beanbags and only a few people, therefore it seemed wrong to do an overly formal presentation. Focusing on the three different situations, we instead bounced ideas off each other and those in the audience, for surely that is what voice and expression should actually be about?
 
After growing our presentation together, the challenge we set for others was to reach out and connect, whether it is online or face to face. Contribute, collaborate and be open to new perspectives and be prepared to be inspired and grow as a learner.
 
So, how have you collaborated? What did you learn? What is it that holds you back? Feel free to share below.

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Are We Connecting with the Wrong Topic?

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Lately, I have been writing a lot about being a connected educator. A part of this stemmed from a tweet from +Alan Thwaites, but it also comes from my involvement in the TL21C program. However, I was challenged by a colleague the other day with the question: ‘what do we talk about when we have finished talking about getting connected?’ At first I was confused by the question for being connected is so important, then it occurred to me that maybe I’ve been focussing too much on the wrong issue?
 
It is so easy when talking about teaching and learning in the 21st century to get caught up in discussions about tools and technology. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, 21st century learning is more than just one thing. If we use the work of the team at ATC21s, it is in fact a combination of four interrelated topics:
  • Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
  • Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
  • Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
  • Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Some schools in an effort to counterbalance the perceived over-emphasis on technology create 21st century learning positions focussing on solely on ‘thinking’ or ‘working collaboratively’. The problem with this is that in attempt to move away from technology, they create an over emphasis on another area. In doing so misses the point that in the modern world it is through the use of tools and applications that we are actually able to dig deeper critically and collaborate with those not only in our own school or state, but around the world. The best answer is to create clear a balance between them all, with the one unifying concept between them all being learning. For as Sir Ken Robinson has suggested, ‘If there is no teaching and learning going on there is no education happening’. Whether it be using an iPad, working in a group or thinking about a topic, we should always be focused on making a learning-centred environment, otherwise what is the point?
 
Take for example my recent survey of 1:1 devices in schools. Clearly I could have done it differently, gained a wider array of perspectives in a more rigid manner and written an extensive research paper on the matter. However, I had a question and that was whether many other schools had delved into the world of 1:1 and what devices they were using. After called on my connections I got back 35 responses. Now this may not be many in the scheme of things. However it still gave me a wider perspective. It also provided me a means for thinking more critically about the matter for before I sent out the survey I thought that we were the only school yet to dive into 1:1 in regards to primary school. However, I was actually unpleasantly surprised that in fact many schools had yet to go down that path. I think then that being connected and having an array of connections was integral to getting back the feedback that I got and gaining a better perspective.
 
One of criticisms often levelled against connectivism is how do you measure what is important, with information in abundance, how do you decide what should stand out. Other than going down the road of collaborative curation using sites like Diigo where your search is aided by those in your community, I agree that there is a level of chance involved in who might be listening, watching and participating. In addition to this, who is to say that those offering up ideas are that are useful, correct or even honest in the first place. I think though that the biggest problem begins with the notion of the ‘connected educator’, I think that we would gain more from redefining this notion as ‘connected learner’ as that is really what this is all about.
 
In the end, the only thing and the most important thing is learning and with that a focus on ourselves as learners. However, I still feel that a lot is gained by being involved within more communities and having stronger connections on and offline.
 
So how do you learn best? What helps you out the most? Do your connections help or hinder your quest for solutions?

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What Digital Revolution?

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In a recent ICT committee meeting, one of the participants made the remark that the digital revolution has failed to deliver all that it supposedly promised. Having been a part of the YVeLC pilot program almost ten years ago which focused on the potential of 2:1 laptops, it has been interesting seeing the changes that have occurred since that time. In a conversation with +Catherine Gatt, this is the list of reasons that we came up with as to why the digital revolution has failed to be the saviour that so many said it would be.
 

Failure to Invest

The government, both state and federal, has invested a lot over the last ten years. Whether it be providing Internet for students, WiFi access in schools, support in regards to servers and switches, as well as devices for students. In addition to this, the state government Victoria made a big investment with the now defunct Ultranet, a learning platform that was supposed to be the intermediary between staff, students and parents. The big question however is whether it has been enough?
 
For even though the government has provided Internet access, it cannot always be trusted due to insufficient bandwidth and tendency to drop-out. This has led to some schools investing in their own lines, creating a new culture of equity surrounding access. In addition to this, even though the government provides state schools with WAPs and other such infrastructure support, there are schools who find this hardware insufficient for their needs. Therefore, although the government has made significant investments, the question is whether it could have been done better?
 
I will never forget sitting in the meetings in regards to the Ultranet being told how many thousands of dollars that it would cost to make even the most minuscule of changes. Maybe instead of investing so much money developing a new product, the government could have invested more in regards to support and infrastructure, letting schools choose their own solutions, whether that be Google Apps for Education and Edmodo or some other combo and simply providing support in the form of coaches with the implementation.
 

Lack of Leadership and Guidance

Another point of confusion relates to the leadership and guidance surrounding the support of ICT in schools. I cannot think of another area in education with so many competing positions and job titles. One school has an ICT Co-ordinator, another has an eLearning Coach, while another a 21st Century Learning Coach. Then you have some schools who have nothing? You just need to look at the various posts on the matter to get a feel for the matter:
Each post encompasses the topic in its own way, but never completely, for how can it when the area itself is still largely undefined.
 
Whereas in the past the person in the ‘role’ might have worked with a technician to manage the moderate school network and maintain a few computer rooms, now it has expanded to include anything and everything. Spanning pedagogical practice to administering various systems to exploring areas of technological innovation.
 
Unlike other areas, such as literacy and numeracy, which are relatively settled or at least people feel that they can comfortably define them, ‘technology’ offers something that some just aren’t sure about. For how do you really measure the success of technology in schools? Instead, the management and leadership in this area is at times left to those with a passion and interest, therefore sometimes limiting the scope to change possible in some educational settings.
 

Fear of the Unknown

Attached to the confusion over leadership is the culture of fear often associated with technology. One of the biggest changes to education, I would argue, in the 21st century has been the attempt to reposition the place of the teacher away from being the one at the front of the room, to becoming a facilitator whose prime focus is to amplify the thoughts and ideas of the other learners in the classroom. With this comes the move from teacher-as-authoritarian to teacher-as-lifelong learner. For some, this shift is easier than others.
 
In the heyday of technology in school, the message preached was that students knew more, therefore let them run the show. The problem with this is that instead of being a facilitator, the teacher became a ghost in the room, someone largely absent, unsure about exactly what was going on, living in good faith. 
 
To me, palming responsibility off to students is not stepping to the side, this is stepping out of the classroom. What eventuates in this environment is a culture of fear where because you never really know what the students are doing, you jump at every flash and bleep that may occur.
 
I understand that as a teacher you will never always ‘know’, but to me teachers have a duty of care unto themselves, to lifelong learning – to at least try and understand in order to support students as they come up against issues, rather than curse that technology will be the death of us all.
 
With this, teachers need to embrace the unknown and with the students in mind, model how the solve problems. Sometimes it is through such moments of honesty that everyone learns the most.
 

Technology as the Answer

One of the things associated with technological fear is the expectation that somehow technology will be the panacea to all of the modern ills. Too often teachers expect technology to somehow change what they do without them changing any point of their own practise.
 
I have seen too many examples where teachers have introduced technology into the classroom as if it were a solution in itself. Then as soon as there is a hiccup, they baulk and revert to what John Goh describes as our default position. The problem with this is that technology is always doomed to fail if it is not linked to pedagogy and purpose.
 
In the end, technology is not the magic cure, rather it is how it is used that has the potential to have meaningful change. It is one cog in the complex construct that is 21st century learning. For it is through the sum of many parts that students learn. (See my post ‘Sum of the Parts Different to the Whole‘ for a better explanation.) The reality is, you just need to look at the work of John Hattie and you soon realise that the biggest point of influence in the classroom is the teacher themselves. That does not mean that we should simply rid ourselves of technology and focus on the teacher, instead the focus should be on how technology can be used to further practises, such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking
 

Another Thing to Fit

One of the big changes in regards to curriculum over the last few years has been the advent of interdisciplinary strands, such as thinking and interpersonal learning. In addition to this, the curriculum has been made even more explicit, especially for primary school. For example, whereas in the past students in Early Years had to assess against ‘the Humanities’. this has been split up within the National Curriculum and made more explicit. In this environment, ICT and technology becomes another thing to consider in an already cluttered curriculum.
 

ICT as a Subject

Seeing ICT as another thing ‘to do’ misunderstands its place and purpose. Instead of seeing it as an integral part of every lesson, ICT is too often seen as something done with the ICT teacher. Sadly, what should be done in ‘ICT’ is something more akin to computer science. However, it has sadly come to be seen as the time when students get their dose of technology for the week, therefore absolving any requirement to report against it elsewhere. For as we all know, students only engage with literacy in English classes, don’t they?
 
As +George Couros has stated, something is missing when we treat technology as an event. To achieve meaningful change, technology needs to be at the point of instruction. It is then that the potential to redefine the way students learn can truly occur.
 
In his book, ‘The Five Minute Teacher’, +Mark Barnes suggests introducing different applications and tools on a regular basis to help student build up a toolkit of possibilities. In this scenario, students then build up an array of possibilities so that when they are given choice in regards to working in a collaborative manner or communicating an idea they can make an informed choice. ICT is then an aide to learning, not the actual focus.
 

Outdated

Whether it be the choice of tools, applications and programs or operating systems themselves, the world does not stand still. Things are always evolving. Ten years ago the school I had kept a small collection of cameras in the library,  now just about every teacher let alone student has one embedded in some sort of device, whether it be a tablet, smart phone or laptop. With this change means that devices like Flipcams have become obsolete. Although the hardware may still function and would probably have cost quite a bit to buy, their quality and ease of use has become superseded.
 
One of the traps that teachers often get caught teaching the tool as opposed to emphasizing on the purpose. In focusing on skills, it no longer matters what tool or application is used, instead the focus becomes on why it is being used.
 

Change as a Mindset

Education has evolved during the last few years, sometimes though we just don’t recognize all the subtle changes. Maybe what we have is the revolution that we were promised and instead the problem is our inability to see it. I am reminded of +Chris Betcher‘s closing keynote at Melbourne Google in Education Summit 2013 where he explained that in many respects what happens in schools has not necessarily changed. Instead, the friction has been taken away, meaning that what may have taken hours in the past, can now be done in seconds.
As I stated in a previous post ‘Looking Back to Look Forward‘, it is easy to identify our failings, to think that nothing has changed, but if we stop and reflect for a moment we often find that a lot has changed. The challenge then is to change the way we look at such things, rather than change the things themselves.
 
What About You?
These are my reflections, what about you? Have I missed something? Do you disagree? Is your system of education different to the one I have portrayed? Is this specific to Australia or are these issues global? What do you think needs to happen now? I would love to know. Please leave a comment below.

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What’s So Digital About Literacy Anyway?

In a post titled, ‘The Importance of Modeling Positive Use of Social Media‘, +Chris Wejr suggested that schools need to do more to both model the appropriate use of social media, as well as promote more positive stories. Borrowing +George Couros‘ notion of ‘digital leadership‘, Wejr suggests:

Much like leadership offline, students and adults can LEAD others in how they interact and treat each other online. When we put our heads in the sand and ban social media, we miss a huge opportunity to showcase and tap into digital leadership and model a positive online presence.
This got me thinking about some of the other things that we may do personally online , but not necessarily model all the time in school. One such practise is that of reading and responding online. So often students are told to use tracks and be active readers, to write regular journal reflections, but this usually starts and stops at the physical book. When are students getting the same opportunity to read and respond online?
 

Moving Towards a Digital Literacies

One of the big challenges faced in the move towards 21st century learning is how to best embrace and engage with digital literacy. One of the first challenges though is actually defining what is meant by ‘digital literacy’ in the first place. Often digital literacy is simply assumed as the reading and writing of texts that involve in some shape or form digital technology. Although this may be true in part, it does not capture the whole picture. What this sort of definition misses is the different activities involved in dealing with digital media. For example, it fails to properly account for the ability to search for information, critically engage and evaluate it and subsequently curate it afterwards. As Patricia White suggests in her blog post, ‘Digital Literacy and the Australian Curriculum‘:
Digital literacy enables students to critically engage with technology, forming an awareness of how social and cultural understandings can shape how information and meaning is conveyed. It allows them to communicate and represent information in different contexts and to different audiences by re-contextualising their knowledge.
The reality though is that digital literacy is many different things to many different people and is constantly changing. +Doug Belshaw elaborates on this in his thesis on digital literac(ies). The best way, Belshaw suggests, of understanding digital literacy as an ever evolving set of subjective practises defined by contexts, rather than as some sort of stagnant concept. The most important thing is often the actual “process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’”, rather than the actual definition itself. Associated with this, Belshaw identifies eight interrelated elements which each play their part when it comes to digital literacies.
These are not things in themselves, nor do they all come into play with each example, rather it is all dependant on context. For a more in-depth explanation of the each of the elements, see Belshaw’s slideshare.

Going Beyond the Book

Although, as Belshaw argues, there are many different contexts associated with digital literacies, I would like to focus in particular on the internet and how we consume web content. Continuing on from Patricia White’s extrapolation, I would argue that there are three general steps involved with working with the world wide web:
  1. The identification of content
  2. The critical engagement with this information
  3. The sharing and remixing of new ideas
Although we all may have different ideas as to what each of these steps mean, I will use them to provide a simple framework on which to discuss the whole affair and what it means to read online.

Content

The first place that most people go when searching for information is the search engine. In addition to simply typing in the request as is, there are many ways of emphasing words or using various filters to focus these searches and requests. For a great resource in regards to searching online, see +Richard Lambert‘s ‘Digital Search Progression of Skills‘.

On the flip side, a lot of content we find online, in some way of another, actually finds us. The most obvious place we go to are sites and spaces that we trust. This includes news sites of one kind or another, often news of a specific nature. In addition to this, there are those sites and applications which help find information for us based on our history and preferences. This can include ‘following’ or ‘liking’ other users or pages on such sites as Feedly, Pinterest, Edmodo, Educlipper Youtube, Diigo, Google+ and Twitter, or news aggregation applications, such as Flipboard and Zite, which adjust the content based on your choices and interests. Services such as IFTTT and brower add-ons also make it easier to capture this content.

One of the biggest problems with dealing with digital content is what you do with it once you have found it. One of the catches with mediums like Twitter and Feedly is that they are not always about reading everything in the moment. Applications like Pocket, Dropbox and Google Drive allow users to properly digest content at a later date across any device.

Critical Engagement

Associated with capturing online content is the act of organising it. Sites like Diigo, Educlipper, Youtube, Pinterest, Evernote and Delicious allow for the curation of content. This often involves categorising and tagging, as well as adding annotations and comments. Whether it be commenting on a blog, repinning an image, liking a post, sharing a link, there are many ways to contribute ideas and information to keep the conversation going.

Creating and Remixing

One of the biggest differences between traditional and digital literacies is that we are all now a part of an open dialogue. Unlike in the past when we depended upon others to provide content for us, such as book publishers and media producers, these days we are all a part of the creation of content. There are many ways to creatively engage with content, to add back to the online community. This can include anything from posting a tweet, creating an image, writing a blog post or recording a podcast.

What is interesting about consuming online content is that unlike reading a traditional book, there are many ways of going about engaging with the Internet. For example, some may not use applications like Pocket to store content for later, while others may not necessarily create their own new content, instead continuing the conversation by commenting on blogs rather than writing their own. In the end, everyone has their own way of doing things, their own personal work flow, and that is what makes it all he more so special.
 

Quiet Digital Reading Time

I love reading books, but I also love reading online. In my view, we don’t give enough opportunity for this in schools. As +George Couros suggests, “Whatever you are looking for online, you will find it.” I think that the big challenge is what we do with dearth of information, how we choose it, how we sort it, how we manage it, that matters in the 21st century. Instead of getting students to always close their laptops or put their iPads to sleep during reading time, maybe we need to give more opportunity for them to develop their digital literacy, to stumble upon new ideas and information, to critic it, to share it and to remix it. 

So how do you help students develop their digital literacy skills? Do you allow them to stumble upon information or is their time online more structured? Would love your thoughts in the comments.

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Are Our Teachers Failing Themselves?

Johanna O’Farrell started it. She wrote an article for The Age titled ‘Splashing Cash won’t Fix Australia’s Broken Education System‘. The piece was basically a tirade against 21st century learning from the point of view of a secondary teacher. There have already been a few responses written including +Mel Cashen‘s ‘Why our schools are NOT failing your children‘ and +Celia Coffa‘s ‘Why Our Schools Are Not Failing Your Children – Another Teacher Tells‘. Both of which shared their passion about why schools are not failing. Leaving the hyperbole and exclusive language aside, I would like to add my own response by unpacking a few of O’Farrell’s arguments a bit further.
 

Reading … Books?

O’Farrell states:
Instead, the strategy is that children will simply learn to read and write ”by osmosis”. This is all well and good for children from families where reading is habitual. However, those from households where television and video games constitute the main part of a child’s ”diet” fall by the wayside.
I have two questions for this, firstly why ‘books’ and secondly, is ‘reading’ the real issue? In regards to the first question, I was reminded of a post written by +Kynan RobinsonDigital Literacy, Gaming and Contemporary Narrative Writing‘ in which he spoke about the rise of digital media and what it offers. One of the key points is that it is a considerable shift from the way we considered literacy in yesteryear. In addition to this, some of the dominant forms of writing and consumption, such as novels and film, are now dead as a medium. They no longer have the same power to engage and persuade, basically because they are linear in nature. When I think about the novel, I am taken back to the Victorian era and the rise of the locomotive, where people would read Charles Dickens in serial form, similar to the way we watch shows like Breaking Bad, where people by subscriptions for instalments. Sadly what O’Farrell is unwilling to recognise is that everything has its time and that maybe there are more texts out there than just books.
 
Associated with what texts are chosen is the actual act of ‘reading’. As I have stated in the past, reading is only one part of the equation, the bigger concern from my point of view is students actually responding. The problem is that students are often forced to respond, whether it be creatively or in the form of an essay. They are denied the ‘rights of the reader’ as Daniel Pennac would put it. I think what stands out most about Pennac’s list is his one warning, “don’t make fun of people who don’t read or else they never will.” So often the students who succeed in exam environments and with writing essays are those that actually care, rather than those with ability. The bigger challenge for students is to get them to engage with texts and write what they feel needs to be written, not simply what someone else has told them to write. For that we can only guide and nurture them, encourage and support, not just force and coerce.
 

The Great Primary/Secondary Schism

O’Farrell states:
What I see is that the vast majority of students simply do not have the intellectual skills to meet the demands of the secondary school curriculum. So, understandably, they disengage. 
I was a little confused by the appeal to ‘intellectual skills’. I sometimes get concerned that the secondary sector itself is letting students down by not following on from the example set by primary school. In a previous post I spoke about education being like a river. Students all find their own way to the river and then meander through primary school. However, when they get to secondary school, the delta of all learning, they take many different and divergent paths. What this often leads to is a fear amongst some educators that students may miss out on a particular piece of knowledge or a certain skill, such as our origins in Medieval Europe or what BOLTSS stands for. That is how I used to think until an aide, with no bachelor or post-graduate diploma, just the instincts of a mother, who was working with me, pointed out that what students often remember is incidental and usually more about relationships than the content. The greatest fear is that we have the danger of killing creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson put it in his 2006 Ted Talk ‘How Schools Kill Creativity‘. He argued that often we only accept a certain type of student and subsequently deny many students the opportunity to blossom and shine. He gave the example of Gillian Lynne, a famous dancer, who was having problems in school, until someone uncovered her passion.
 

ICT as a Facilitator

O’Farrell states:

ICT in recent years has been treated as education’s ”silver bullet”. But I believe ICT is in fact little more than a gimmick – and I know that the novelty of it as a tool for engagement is fast wearing off.
I was particularly saddened to see ICT been spoken about as a merely being a tool for engagement. When you think about the SAMR model, using technology in this way is nothing other than a substitution for what is already been done. It denies the opportunity to utilise technology to redefine the way students are taught. More significantly, it denies the fact that ICT has “shaped behaviours, cultures, classrooms, schools and contexts” as +Peter Skillen has suggested. Although personally we may not agree with all of these changes, it is not good enough to put your head in the ground and deny it.

What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander?

O’Farrell states:
We need only to think of many of Australia’s best and brightest, or indeed the great poets, artists, scientists and orators of the 20th century, to realise that a blackboard and chalk, a pen and paper, a few good books and some learned teachers sufficed. Indeed, in the case of my own parents – both baby boomers and both competent users of English and proficient mathematicians – the absence of open-plan learning, iPads and interactive whiteboards in their classrooms does not seem to have been too detrimental.
I always thought that the purpose of history was to add perspective to the present and recognise how and why things changed. I am not sure how much perspective O’Farrell is demonstrating. Just as the world changes, so do we. Many of the jobs that the baby boomers did no longer suffice. +Celia Coffa sums it up best when she says, “education reflected the society that I lived in. Do we really want our students to be educated in a system that reflects a society of 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 years ago?” In addition to this, I believe that many of Australia’s best and brightest often succeed in spit of their education. Whenever I think about Australia’s artists and authors I am reminded of a culture of exploration and experimentation. Fine they had to learn their trade somewhere, but it is often within communes like the Heidelberg School, rather than at an actual formal schools. It just seems far to simplistic to equate artistic expression and scientific innovation with rote learning.
 

What Feedback and For Who?

O’Farrell states:
Student teachers in primary schools have been told they can’t correct a child’s spelling, but instead must identify and congratulate the student on all the letters they got right.
I understand that intuitively it seems wrong to not be able to correct a spelling test, isn’t the sole purpose of it, to tell a student whether they are right or wrong. However, when you take a step back and consider such rote situations as spelling tests and times table races, two questions come to mind: what is the purpose of the actual task and how does the feedback support students with their learning. So often students hammer through test after test, based on words, knowledge and ideas that are chosen for them, not by them. Simply telling them what they got right or wrong gives us an indication as to where they may be at, but it does not really help them improve in regards to their spelling. If you look at John Hattie’s infamous effect size list, it is interesting that above feedback is self-report grades. Students self-managing their own learning, setting goals, reviewing them, supporting each other, surely this is the ideal, rather than teacher dictated learning, where students are told they are either right or wrong, where the feedback is restricted to the task at hand, where results are given months later, with little to take away for future learning. From a constructivist point of view, our focus should be on how we solve problems and develop solutions by connecting and collaborating with others, instead of being a font of all knowledge.
 

Behaviour vs. Relationships

O’Farrell states:
I have not even mentioned the enormous challenges relating to discipline and poor student behaviour.
What is frustrating is that she has not spoken at all about the importance of relationships. I am of the belief that if you provide an engaging and purposeful curriculum and show some interest in the lives and interests of the students, then poor behaviour and discipline issues will sort themselves out. However, if you enter the classroom with discipline on your mind, rather than relationships, should there be any surprise if students show poor behaviour? 

 

 

To Include or Exclude, That is the Question

At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their opinion and maybe the furore carried out on Twitter has gone a bit far. As Mark O’Meara put it:

There have to be better responses than piling onto people who say things we find disagreeable. Self-righteous rage not all that constructive
— Mark O’Meara (@MarkOMeara) December 22, 2013

However, what concerned me most about Johanna O’Farrell’s piece is that it kills the conversation. Although it was highly emotive piece, it was almost too emotive. While there is little evidence or statistics used to support I am really confused about what Johanna wished to achieve by writing her piece. Are teachers like Johanna O’Farrell in fact failing themselves and their colleagues? If things are to evolve, it will only be through dialogue and I just don’t know how open Johanna is to continuing the conversation. For now, the bear has been baited and the tribe has united.


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21st Century Learning is More Than Just Technology, But It’s a Big Part of It


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

A colleague queried me the other day about the differences between a 21st century learner and someone who is really good with technology. This is a bit of an age old problem about what comes first, the device or the doing done with the device, the tool for working or the actual ways of working? As I have discussed elsewhere, I believe that something is misunderstood in this argument, for in many respects, they are inseparable.

In an insightful post debunking the naïve myth that “it’s not about the tool”, +Peter Skillen makes two key points. First, that computers are a form of media through which we can think about problems in a deeper way, and secondly, tools and technology shape our society in both intended and unintended ways. Often one of the arguments made about 21st century learning is that many of the attributes are possible without the use of technology. Surely you don’t need a computer to help you think? Although this may be true, I would argue that they are significantly amplified with the use of technology.

I remember my early days of incorporating ICT into the classroom, as a part of the YVeLC, and all my focuses were on using specific tools and programs. This is a point I made in regards to the Ultranet. However, tools are better considered as a means to enhancing various skills. In themselves, the use of tools are usually inhibited to lower order thinking – build, construct, produce – but used as a catalyse, they are a means to higher order thinking. For example, one does not:

  • Use iMovie to produce a trailer for a book, rather one makes a creative representation of a book involving a range of choices.
  • Develop a Google Slide to provide information on a topic, rather one shares a presentation with others and opens it up for critical responses.
  • Program using a Lego Mindstorm robot, rather one uses it to solve a problem based on the options and variables available.
  • Record a game of soccer, rather one uses it to reflect on choice of actions and game sense.
  • Write a response to a question on Edmodo, rather one uses it to reflect on what has been learnt through the act of learning.
  • Compose a blog revolving around their reading, rather one uses it to engage others in conversation in order to gather different ideas and perspectives.
  • Add to a brainstorm using Answergarden, rather one uses it to develop a collaborative idea about what a group may think about a question.

Although each of these tasks are engaging and important in themselves, they lack potency if they are not linked to a deeper intention.

In the end, it comes back to a question of choice. Although a student could reflect on their lesson in PE and the various choices made, recording themselves and reflecting on it afterwards not only provides a wider perspective for the person in question not possible if it is left to just them, rather it allows for a deeper sense of self-reflection, often leading to answers in a shorter amount of time. For there are many ways of travelling from point A to point B. Clearly, one could walk, but if one rode, they would get to their destination quicker, while if they drove they would get their even quicker again. Although technology and tools are not essential to learning in the 21st century, they are definitely a big part of it. I think that once we understand that there is a more effective way from getting from point A to point B, it allows us to get to start dealing with the deeper question, why are we trying to reach point B anyway, but I’ll leave that for another day.


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Moving from the Ultranet to the 21st Century Learning

It was a sad day last Wednesday as the Melton Network 21st Century Learning Team met for the last time under the tutelage of +Alf Galea. Although Alf suggested that the network meetings may continue next year, it can be guaranteed, that with all the cuts that have taken place, it will not be to the same level and with the same sense of support. It subsequently left me reflecting on the opportunities that were gained from being a part of the group and how the implementation of various 21st century initiatives has evolved in the past five years.



A New Way of Being

I started working with Alf about five years ago as a part of the roll-out of the Ultranet. I had been asked to be a Lead User with Alf being the Melton Ultranet Coach, while after that Alf worked as the 21st Century Thinking and Learning Coach for the Melton Network. Although the Ultranet failed to achieve what it promised and will move into private hands at the end of the year, there were still many gains that came out of it, including the repositioning of learning and teaching for the 21st century. Whether it be working collaboratively, incorporating thinking and reflection or utilising various forms of technology, there were many lessons learnt. I think that one of the biggest disappoints about the Ultranet – other than it was just too fiddly and erratic – was that too much emphasis was put on the tool at school level and not enough put on the way we work. I have spoken about this in a previous post, the problem with isolating the various skills associated with 21st century learning. Whether we realise it now, I believe that the Ultranet forced everyone to make a choice, whether to incorporate various 21st century learning skills into their classroom or to simply continue with the outdated industrial model. Clearly there have always been schools, classrooms and teachers already delving into many of these areas – you just need to go to something like the ICTEV conference or go online to hear about such innovations – but through the implementation of the Ultranet, all teachers across Victoria were introduced to the skills our students need for the future.

Different Opportunities

In addition to some great learning some great ideas, being a part of the network provided some great opportunities. Other than simply meeting together to discuss various thoughts and issues, I was also given the opportunity to be a part of a learning walk through a neighbouring school to reflect on the way that they were introducing the Ultranet and with that, various 21st century skills. One of the difficulties with introducing any initiative is that it can be hard at times to step back and see things from the perspective of other teachers and students. Therefore, opportunities like this are priceless.

I also got the chance to work with the team at University of Melbourne working on the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. This included trialling the online testing of collaborative problem solving with my students, as well as working with teachers from all over Victoria in the development of a range of resources designed to help teachers with the assessment and teaching of 21st century skills.

Becoming Connected

I think that in many respects the biggest gain out of being a part of the 21st Century Learning Team was the opportunity to work with so many different and innovative teachers. I can still remember a few ATC21S sessions when Matt Finn and I would drive home together discussing various programs and websites that we had never heard of. I think that it can be so easy and comfortable at times to stay in isolation, but we often limit ourselves and our students when working this way. Although it can be intimidating and confronting at times working with other teachers, with differing ideas, we are all a part of the same game trying to achieve the same results, the very best education for everyone. I think in many respects, getting connected, whether it be in person or online, is the best thing that any teacher can do. So often you are not only one trying to overcome a particular problem or implement a particular program. Being connected redefines how we work as teachers and learners.

One Door Closes, Another Door Opens

In her blog, ‘The End of the Ultranet Era’, +Mel Cashen suggested that one of the benefits of the Ultranet was that it was a safe and contained platform. I think that in many respects, the whole notion of meeting as a network allowed the same benefits, but I am not sure whether it is the best model moving forward. It was great to meet and get together in a structured manner, but in the last few years, the world has changed. In my view, this ‘forced’ relationship of sorts is no longer the best fit. People now have so many opportunities to connect whether it be in person or online that it seems illogical to exclude people because they are not ‘members’. I think that a regular set of meetings run around ‘Teachmeet’ model would be the best fit. As Matt Esterman suggests, all you needs to do is “pick a date, pick a pub/library/space that is free and go ahead”. One of the benefits of the ‘Teachmeet’ model is that, rather than being chosen, it is a choice to attend. In addition to this, it is not restricted to a specific network, which in today’s day and age of world-wide connectivity seems stupid.
 
Being a part of the Melton Network provided me with a range of things, particularly that teaching and learning does not necessarily have to be the way that it is, that there is always a choice. I still remember chatting with +Jenny Ashby about access to technology at her school during one of the ATC21S sessions. Long before discussion of BYOD and 1-to-1, she explained to me the possibilities of going Apple if the school chose to go down that path. 
 
At the end of the day, the Melton Network taught me that I can make a difference. As the oft-quoted Gandhi statement goes ‘be the change you want in the world’, I have learnt that it is possible to be that change. Whether it be the use of technology or the development of reflective thinking, I believe my own learning and teaching has definitely benefited. The big question though is how do we not only change, but actually evolve, as +Jason Markey put it in his post ‘Change vs. Evolution’. To me, you can change as  an individual, but it often takes a team to evolve, that to me is the truly 21st century challenge. 

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A Meditation on the Taboos Associated with Being Connected

 
There has been a lot shared lately as a part of Connected Educator Month about the benefits of connecting online. In many respects, I agree with +George Couros that ‘isolation is now a choice educators make‘. However, something overlooked in many of the discussions and debates are some of the taboos associated with being a connected educator. Some of the reasons why teachers do make the choice to stay isolated.
 

Teacher-Student-Friend?

In a recent post, Peter Dewitt spoke about how he saw a photo come up in his feeds from an ex-student, whom he had taught in Year 1. She was photographed finishing her last teaching round. It got me thinking, when is it ok to connect with students (and ex-students) online? Another similar example that comes to mind is from +Adam Bellow‘s inspiring keynote from ISTE2013 where he invited people to ‘change the world’. A part of this is utilising the power of social media to connect with students through such mediums as Facebook. In addition to this, +Anne Mirtschin‘s many posts and presentations on connecting online seem to be littered with incidental connections with students in and out of school in a whole range of spaces. Now I am not saying that any of these situations are wrong, but it begs the question, when do we cross the line, when does our relationship with students go from being a professional one to being personal?
 
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works at a different school told me about how his principal directed teachers to remove all ex-students from their social media accounts. He spoke about the threat of images and ideas being spread, the spectre of being sued for negligence and a litany other things. Now I am not sure if the principal in question was mandated by their region to tell the staff this, but what confuses me about such situations is that little attention was given to what teachers actually publish online in the first place. I know some teachers who won’t even connect with other teachers online, let alone ex-students, in the fear of being caught out and incriminated, while there are others who won’t connect with anyone and simply leave social media altogether. I have written about the culture of fear elsewhere. To me, this makes me wonder what are they afraid of? For some, it is a fear of their lifestyle choices outside of teaching crossing over into their professional life. Others, it is a political decision, a refusal to share personal information and ideas with online corporations. Sadly, what is not brought up enough during such discussions amongst staff is what is published online, rather than who we are publishing too.
 

Connecting in the Classroom

Attached to his website, +stephen heppell and his wife, have provided a different take on the social media phenomena. Instead of running from it, the Heppell’s propose that we run to it in a safe and constructive manner. Correspondingly, they have developed a list of some do’s and don’ts associated with using social media safely in the classroom. 
 
Some of their do’s include:
  • Developing a personal and professional presence online 
  • Let students ‘friend’ you, not vice versa 
  • Build groups for your classes and share information and resources 
  • Post positive information 
Some of the don’ts include: 
  • Don’t FB chat 
  • Social networks in school are not places for criticisms or whingeing. 
  • Don’t look at, let alone comment on, pupils’ pictures 
Now in some respect, I think that sites such as Facebook and Google+ have actually come a long way since 2010 when the Heppell’s space was last updated. For example, you are now able to ‘post’ and ‘share’ with different groups and circles, you are therefore supposedly able to maintain different connections within the one ‘presence’ (although I wouldn’t want to post the wrong information to the wrong group, may be a bit awkward.) However, many of the original tenets remain pertinent today. Whatever medium you are communicating in, it is always important to have boundaries. 
 
I think that this is sometimes why some staff have issues with students sending emails to their school email account. For them, this crosses their private and personal boundary. They just don’t expect to have students sending through questions, while they are checking their work email. Whether it is using a school’s student emailing system to engage with students or setting up spaces like Edmodo, the most important thing is to set up boundaries. The problem is though that such boundaries are often left unset or worse, they are set by the habits of other teachers whose classroom culture creates a different set of expectations.
 
A simple example of where a clear set of boundaries has been set up comes from +Richard Lambert. In his school two different email accounts have been created to differentiate between staff to staff communications and student related communications. The school’s Google Apps for Education account email that staff and students get is used to facilitate collaboration and connections between staff and students, while staff’s edumail accounts are left for professional correspondences.
 
Sometimes though there is something even more than boundaries, sometimes the question is what we choose to publish in the first place.
 

Duty of Care … To Ourselves

 
 
Just as there is some confusion at times where duty of care and professional responsibility starts and stops, so too is there a dangerous blurring between our private and professional relations when it comes to our online identify. Often, through social sites such as Google+ and Facebook, we connect with people in the community that we work in. Whether it be someone met at the gym or a team mate at a local sporting club, these online associations often compromise who we are and raise questions about our actions. The big challenge is that we are all many things to many people. For some, this is just too much to handle.
 
I have been privy to many a holiday briefing where staff are warned about how they ‘act’ in public over the break. This fear can lead to some staff almost refusing to go out in the community in which they work in, instead going to great lengths to create a divide between their professional and private worlds. Sometimes though, you can never escape past students or parents in the community. I remember a fellow staff member sharing a story about how she bumped into an ex-student at three in the morning a long way from home.
 
I think that this dilemma of trying to create a divide between our private and public worlds relates to our online identity as well. No matter how far you run, how many walls you hide behind, you still leave a trace whether we like it or not. Often we provide information to corporations whose goal is to make money, they often slip with keeping information and accounts private. Facebook, for example, has a long history of ‘accidentally’ changing users privacy settings, switching them from private to public.
 
Although I clearly don’t agree with what Facebook does, my bigger concern is what we put up online in the first place. The big question, in my view, is that we continue to think that we can really have a public and private divide completely separated from each other? We speak to students about the issues associated with digital citizenship, when in fact many of us fail to heed the warnings ourselves.

In an insightful article, ‘On Best Behaviour: Three Golden Rules for Ethical Cyber Citizenship‘, +David Tuffley suggests that:

Eventually, but not soon enough for some, society evolves rules of acceptable use that become established as standard behaviour.

As various sources of technology becomes a part of our everyday lives, we need to consider what these ‘rules’ should be. Addressing our universal actions online, Tuffley appropriates Kant’s notion of ‘categorical imperatives’. He outlines three suggested guiding principles for the ethical use of technology:
  1. Before I do something with this technology, I ask myself, would it be alright if everyone did it?
  2. Is this going to harm or dehumanise anyone, even people I don’t know and will never meet?
  3. Do I have the informed consent of those who will be affected?
Whether Tuffley is right or wrong, I think that it highlights one important factor, that we need to better self-monitor ourselves when it comes to technology. For in the end, our first duty of care should be to ourselves, for if we cannot maintain our own public identity, what hope do students have?
 

Conclusion

Now I am not saying that all the points and ideas that I have discussed here are right, such as connecting in the classroom, but they do deserve to be given due diligence. If teachers are to become more connected, then these are some of the things that need to be discussed. Instead of young potential leaders going offline in the fear that their digital footprint may hinder their climb or locking themselves within their gated communities, we need to discuss these issues in a more meaningful manner. The question that we always need to be mindful of through all of these discussions is what are the consequences of our choices and, in particular, what possibilities are being missed if we make the decision to stay isolated, rather than being connected.

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