creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by mrkrndvs: http://flickr.com/photos/113562593@N07/13990305951
 
In a recent post in his Myths of Technology series, +George Couros wrote about the idea that ‘technology dehumanises’. In this piece, Couros suggests that it is a misnomer that technology is anti-social and takes away from our relationships. Instead, technology actually provides the potential to amplify our relationships. Rather than technology, Couros posits that “people dehumanize one another, not technology”. This got me thinking about a point +Doug Belshaw made in his book ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ that digital literacies are at there heart social.
 
In a presentation for Promethean, Peter Kent put forward that interactive whiteboards offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Instead of merely using the projector to provide information, the interactive nature of the boards allow students to come up to the board and engage with information and ideas, providing the opportunities to build further conversations and opportunities. For a further explanation, see my post ‘Sum of the Parts is Different to the Whole‘. What I find most interesting about Kent’s idea though is that this focus on the use of technology to instigate conversations goes far beyond the interactive whiteboard, it can be applied to just about any technology. 
 
For example, this year I have taken to using an iPad to help model and manipulate ideas during intervention sessions. Teaching in a space with only one interactive whiteboard between three classes, I have started using the Inkflow app by Grayon on the iPad to get students to visually demonstrate understanding. Instead of getting them up to the board, the device goes to where they are. Using the iPad in this manner has allowed students to both create and comment on ideas.
 
Another example of where I have used iPad in a social manner lately is through the a series of games from Toca Boca with my daughter. Whether it be Toca House, Toca Doctor or Toca Band, the Toca Boca games provide a stimulus for some great conversations, such as discussing recycling fruit, killing germs in the mouth while brushing our teeth or the different instruments involved in a band. Although it is possible to play these games in solitude, they are not the same. Even if the conversation is later on, they provide the stimulus for so much more.
 
In another post exploring BYOD, Couros questions why we still depend upon booking time in labs in order to get access to technology in the classroom. Instead, he argues that BYOD initiatives offer the opportunity to have technology available where the instruction is. The myth therefore that technology dehumanises often starts when we see technology as an event. The human side is taken away, because instead of being incorporated into the lesson, technology becomes the sole focus of the lesson.
 
What is interesting about Couros’ message is that technology has the potential to either amplify and augment our interactions or to kill them off all together. In the end, it is us who have the final say. So how are you using technology today?

If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.

‘Meaning of Success’ by Celestine Chua (Flickr)
 
The other day I got some feedback about a leading teacher position that I had applied for a couple of months ago. Although I had demonstrated the elements required in my application, it was suggested that I did not provide enough evidence in regards to my competency to lead change management. This got me thinking about what change that I had been a part of. The two things that came to mind were the introduction of the Ultranet and the roll out of interactive whiteboards across the school. However, in reflecting upon both of these situations I wondered if I was successful in bringing about change and how you actually measure such success anyway.
 

Change and Technology

The Ultranet was a learning management system developed by the Victorian State Government to support staff, students and parents by providing an online space to communicate and collaborate. It was also seen as the answer to ongoing student reporting and feedback. As a part of its roll-out, a train the trainer model was implemented where a group of lead users attended two separate days of intensive training and were then responsible for taking this back to their schools to provide support and professional development for the rest of the staff. This came in several shapes and sizes, including whole staff presentations, team focuses and one-on-one support.
 
One of the issues with the Ultranet was that it was not really taken up by all staff. Although we were told about the usage data as a region, many staff simply saw no personal purpose for it and were never really willing to grapple with the difficulties involved in evolving their practise. Subsequently, my role became more administrative than anything else where I was continually resetting passwords for students and dealing with minor problems. This all came to a head when the Australian Education Union put out a directive for members to stop using the Ultranet as a part of the industrial action in 2012, therefore ringing the death knell before the government eventually pulled the plug at the end of 2013.
 
Another initiative that I have had considerable involvement with is the roll out of interactive whiteboards at my school. Before Caroline Springs College separated into four different schools in 2012, an effort was made at the time to install an interactive whiteboard in 100+ classrooms. As a part of this package, the school was provided with a pool of professional development hours. Although I was not in charge of introducing the whiteboards across the whole college, I was given considerable responsibility at my campus. This included communicating with outside providers, as well as facilitating professional development for staff at my campus. Like the Ultranet, this involved a small group being trained up and then supporting their various teams.
 
Sadly, if I were to walk through many classes today there would be little difference from a few years ago. Although most teachers show information or use the associated software to create presentations, there are not many who embrace the interactive potential of the boards as outlined by likes of +Peter Kent and co. Where the boards are used to engage with student responses and give them an authentic voice in the classroom.
 
Interestingly, there has been a greater uptake in the early years classes at my school as it was made a non-negotiable that planning for numeracy had to include a flipchart. What is significant about this is that linking the board to an actual area of study means that it stops simply being a tool in itself and instead becomes a way of refining learning and instruction. It could also be argued that the boards are actually better suited to younger students, a point that +Rich Lambert has made elsewhere.
 
Another issue associated with the take up of the IWBs is that their introduction coincided with the introduction of the 1-to-1 laptop program. Personally, I make more use of student laptops as a way of getting each and every student involved in the lesson, rather than teaching from the board. Whether this be brainstorming with Answergarden or collaborating with Google Drive. What is most important is that, whether be via laptops or interactive whiteboards, the focus is about engaging with student responses to promote deeper dialogue and reflection.
 

Measuring the Immeasurable

The big question then is how do you measure success of such initiatives. I can tell you as I already have what I felt worked and what didn’t, but is that success? Is success instead about data, if so, what data do you use? Linked with this, is change management simply about ‘success’ or is it about what you have done? Being a focus on change, are there some things that never really gain success due to their constant state of flux?
 
To me what stands out about both the Ultranet and the interactive whiteboards is that neither has a direct correlation to clear quantifiable ‘data’. Too often the numbers of hits was relayed to us in regards to the Ultranet. However, even this only tells a small part of the story. For it is not time spent with the tool that matters, rather it is how that tool is used that has the greatest impact. Some suggest referring to such measurements as student opinion surveys which provide snapshot of student engagement and school connectedness, but again this seems like a bit of a stretch. The reality is that there are some aspects of learning are not measurable using grades and marks, a point that +George Couros recently made referring to such soft skills as humility, adaptability and the love of learning. Often the only answers we get in such situations are to the questions we ask ourselves.
 
Although not necessarily empirical or quantifiable, one approach to measuring success is by setting a clear plan with goals and reflecting on them along the way. This is something that I have spoken about elsewhere. Looking back upon both the Ultranet and the IWB’s, I think that this was a missed opportunity. There was no explicit long term plan put into place at the school level and associated with this, no real accountability. Instead of linking them to wider change through the Annual Implementation Plans and the Performance and Development Process, both were introduced as tools-in-themselves, rather than a means for redefining the classroom. For as I have stated elsewhere, 21st century learning “is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities.” Without wider support, whatever is achieved will only be limited and often fails to sustain any sense momentum without the involvement of others.
 
Another way of reflecting on success is as a way of perceiving things. No matter what context it may be, nothing ever runs completely to plan and neither should it. There are things that work and things that don’t, success in this situation is about celebrating and building upon the positives and benefits. On this matter, I am reminded of +Mel Cashen‘s post on the Ultranet where she identified some of the things that it made possible and how she utilised these in her classroom. What is significant about Cashen’s commentary is that, although the Ultranet may not have held up against the test of time, it served its purpose and accordingly she highlights some of the good things that came out of it, such as it being a safe environment for students and parents to “test the waters of an online world without the harsh consequences the world wide web.” Like goals, reflection is something that we often don’t do enough. For as +George Couros points out about professional development: “If we start building reflection time into our professional development, don’t you think that we would start doing this in our classrooms. We have to move away from the “mass dump” process in our learning.” Sadly, if we don’t allocate the time for reflection then we take the risk of not really learning anything, instead simply making the same mistakes again and again.
 

Learning Lessons

Sometimes success is not about whether an initiative continues to have a meaningful impact or falls on the wayside, rather it is about whether we learn from our failures, whether we reflect on what worked and what we could improve in the future. Just as learning is a lifelong goal, so to should success be. Instead of considering it as something achievable and able to be quantified, I believe that it is best considered as a target, an ideal to which we aim and aspire. Actually hitting the target is only one part of the goal, what is just as important is what that target is and how we go about trying to hit it.

If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.

The Day Technology Came to Town

Two things happened this week, the new iPad was released and the Immergo rolled into my classroom. A multi-touch surface that can act as both a vertical screen and a flat table, it came in as the latest and greatest tool for learning that every classroom needs, on loan for a week. It is similar to the screen used in the modern remake of the television show, Hawaii Five O. Described on the website as the ‘next generation solutions for the classroom’, it got me thinking what was the problem that was needed to be solved and is the Immergo really the solution.
 
Again the old chestnut came to mind, what comes first: the pedagogy or the technology. I have spoken about this before when I looked at the way we learn. What concerned me last time was you couldn’t deal with ways of thinking without also addressing how we work and the tools we use. I think much the same can be said about addressing the tools for working in the 21st Century.
 
In his fantastic keynote for the 2011 ICTEV Conference, +Tom March spoke about the importance of refocusing education around learning and moving away from all the inhibiting factors, such as time and space. He describes technology as the real game changer, the enabler in all of this. Associated with this, he spoke about the danger of eternally waiting to jump on board the latest developments in technology, warning that there will always be something to replace what you are using today. At some point you really need to grapple with what you have. Instead of forever waiting for the next technological change, March suggested that we need to embrace organisational change, open the classroom to the world. For at the heart of it, what technology can do has not really changed in the last fifteen years (a point also made more recently by +Chris Betcher at the 2013 Melbourne Google Summit), what has changed is the way we use it. However, unlike in the early days, where everything was open, now we block sites, banned devices and poor bandwidth. Continuing the argument popularised through the TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson, March suggested that we need to move away from the constraints imposed by schools and instead focus on the possibilities of authentic learning.
 
I am left to wonder, are devices such as the Immergo the real game changer – the ‘next generation solution’ –  that everyone has been waiting for, or is the real solution already here simply waiting for us to embrace and engage with it? 
 

New Uses, Same Abuses

When I first saw the surface, I was reminded of the video series ‘A Day Made of Glass’:
 
Developed by glass manufacturer, Corning, the videos provide a snapshot of a future where everything is made out of smart glass, making every surface interactive and to be engaged with. In one scene a whole class of students stood around a glass table that had been turned in a touch screen and were experimenting with different colour combinations. It begs the question, is the image created by Corning really the future or just an elongated advertising campaign?

Let me then outline some of the uses and abuses that I observed associated the Immergo. Firstly, unlike the surface in either the Corning advertisement or Hawaii Five O, the Immegio doesn’t allow a whole class to comfortably stand around it. When I tried to get my class all around it, I couldn’t fit much more than six or so students, until it got rather squashy (and they were middle years students, I would hate to see how many senior students, let alone adults, would fit?) In addition to this, many of the apps had a decisive top and bottom of the screen, meaning that some students were disadvantaged. Don’t ask about the cable.

Associated with this, the great utopian desire to decentralize the classroom and place more focus on the learner is only partially achieved. For although the surface can be moved around the room to where it is needed, due to its slightly cumbersome size, it simply creates a new focal point in the room. Although this may no longer be at the front of the room, it still creates a new centre, therefore, in my view, only temporarily alleviating the original problem.

The biggest concern I have is with the applications. Maybe I am just not imaginative enough or just restricted by the limitations of a demonstration model, but I don’t believe that any of the applications offered within the interactive surface really provided for the creation of new original tasks, let alone the significant redefinition of current ones. For example, one of the applications allowed you to take apart a 3D model. It is pretty cool and offers a perspective that was previously unavailable. However, unless, as Tom March pointed out, there was a significant change in the way learning happens in the classroom, to me nothing much has really changed. For a new tool or program does not automatically constitute a new pedagogy.

The website for the Immergo suggests that the “integrated software … allows for a seamless content collaboration.” I do not necessarily disagree with this, but once you get a few people touching the device, it really starts to glitch and slow down. (I must admit, my students were really pushing it to the nth degree.)

I find it interesting to compare the Immergo with the ActivBoard Touch. Like the Immergo, the Touch also offers the potential to have multiple students interact with the board at once, not just write on it like traditional ActivBoards, which are dependant on the pen. I remember hearing Peter Kent talk on behalf of Promethean, at a presentation for the Touch about the potential for engaging students by creating content that they can manipulate, whether this be images, shapes or text. Getting them up to the screen and adding their own voice and opinion to the content. The Immergo offers much the same experience. What is most interesting though is that I have not really seen many teachers actually do this with ActivBoards, so why would they all the sudden change with the arrival of a new device offering much of the same capabilities. I think that if these applications were going to find any use, it would be in the early years. However, in the middle years, and especially in secondary school, I question whether these ‘collaborative’ applications would really be that effective.

Returning to Tom March, he suggested that we need to skate to where the puck is going to be, which is personalised learning, not simply play school at the front of the classroom. I question whether the Immergo really changes any of that.

There is Always A Choice

Often when ICT companies come in and spruik or some advertisement for some schmick professional development is placed on our desks, there is a perception that the new shiny device on display is the only future possible. However, as I have written elsewhere, what is often ignored is that there is always a choice. So here are some of the options that are an alternative to jumping on the next best thing.

  • Stick to What You Know: It may seem stupid, but the first option is surely to better utilise the technology already around before getting rid of the supposed dead horse that has been flogged to death. I remember hearing of a school that removed all whiteboards to force teachers to utilise the IWB’s in their classroom. Now I am not necessarily agreeing with such measures, but maybe we need deal with the flog, before simply getting another new horse.
  • LCD Screens: One of the issues that I have found with IWB’s is the projectors and the globes. No matter how often you clean them or what process you put in place in regards to extended their lifespan, they only ever last so long. If then the issue is in fact the projectors, why not, as +Richard Lambert has suggested, replace the boards with LCD screens. (Bill Ferriter wrote in a recent blog about the people that have changed him. If I was to write such a list, one of the people that would be included on much list would be Lambert. Although he does not write posts as regularly as I would like, when he does write, it is worth reading.) 
  • Lead Learners: Associated with the LCD screens, why not install an Apple TV and provide each teacher with an iPad to manage it. Not being in a 1 to 1 iPad school, this solution would not be the best fit. However, having a device that could be passed around means that although there is central spot in the classroom, defined by the screen, it does not mean that it needs to be necessarily operated by a teacher (or student) on the stage. For example, I recently came across an app from THIX called Chemist. What it allows you to do is conduct virtual experiments. I could imagine passing this around a science class and allowing different student to test out their own hypothesises. In addition to controlling the screen, the iPad then offers an opportunity to work with students in small groups. Although the screen is not as big as the Immergo, it has the potential to go where the learning is, whether it be in a small meeting room or out on the oval. Also, if the issue is bang for your buck then buying every teacher an iPad is priceless. Can you remember the last time you saw a teacher take an IWB home on the weekend to continue their learning?
  • Scrap the Digital: This may seem strange, but maybe something is lost in moving everything to the digital. If so many staff are rebelling against the sometimes fiddly nature of using an IWB, maybe we need to return to the board. I was inspired by Jak at the Google Summit to reconsider how I take notes. There are times when you just need to get messy, write things down and scribble things out, and an IWB just doesn’t suffice.
Created by @Chitombo
  • I have actually had a bit of a ‘return to the board’ recently with some of my students developing a yearbook. They feel more comfortable using the whiteboard and in order to capture this information, simply using the camera on my iPad to keep a record of everything as they go.
 


Next Generation of Learning

I am sure that if I spent more time with it that I would find some purpose – to be honest, if you spend enough time with any piece of technology, you will always find a use for it. However, at present I do not think that it is a solution truly required at this time. If we are to worry at all about the ‘next generation’, let’s start with the next generation of learning, for that is where the real change needs to happen.

To end with an authentic voice in all of this, here are the results of the SWOT analysis that I got some of my Year 8 students did in response to using the Immergo:


If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.

In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.

 

Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc …), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with ‘focuses’ and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a ‘focus’ in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 

 

21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
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
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as ‘why did you make that choice’. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of ‘why’ they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB’s has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB’s by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB’s with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert’s blog on the matter.)
 

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.

If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.