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An Act of Heresy

Bless me father, for I’m about to commit an act of heresy. Whenever I say what I’m about to say, I get a reaction that ranges from raised eyebrows to outright hostility and arguments. But I’ll say it anyway.

I don’t like the hashtag chat format on Twitter. And I don’t like the timed presentation format used for Teachmeets. There. I said it.

Maybe I’m just becoming a cranky old man as I get older, but I don’t like either of these formats and for much the same reason. I find they dumb down the conversation.

I know that both of these formats are very popular at the moment, and I know that many people seem to like them. But I just can’t warm to them, and I wanted to write this post to explain why. Feel free to condemn me in the comments.

Let’s start with Twitter hashtag chats. That’s where you pick an abbreviation, slap a hashtag in front of it, set aside an hour or so, and off you go. Instant “conversation”. I know this form of conversation on Twitter is insanely popular right now, but I just can’t seem to work out why.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter and think its impact on the world has been absolutely seismic. I joined it in early 2007 and have used it regularly since the very beginning. I’ve written a lot of very pro-Twitter posts about how wonderful Twitter is and how important it is that you should be using it too. Twitter is awesome. No argument there. It’s great as a backchannel at events, or as a way of distributing information quickly, or as a tool for building professional and personal connections. It’s a communications medium with self imposed limitations, but if you work within the bounds of those limitations, it’s absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. I like Twitter a lot.

But as a means for having deep, meaningful focussed conversations on specific topics, I struggle with it. It always feels to me like it’s being wrangled into doing something that it was never really designed to do, and consequently it feels like it does it poorly. Whenever I try to have a meaningful conversation broken up into 140 character chunks (less by the time you include the hashtag, the Q&A numbering and any @replies you might want to include), the “conversation” feels decidedly stilted, fragmented and superficial. I’ve participated in many of these hashtag chats over the years and I always find them frustratingly tedious. I can never say what I want to say in the space I have available to say it, so it ends up getting fragmented into disconnected chunks spread out over time, with no really functional way to reassemble those chunks into some semblance of a real conversation.

Hashtags chats usually start out with people saying hi, where they’re from, etc, which takes up the first 10 minutes or so, then the host/moderator throws a question into the ring (Q1, Q2, etc) and everyone has a go at responding with their own tweets (A1, A2, etc). As people respond, then respond to the responses, the conversation fragments even further until there is a confusing collection of truncated half-thoughts littering the timeline, waiting to be mentally reassembled into a thread that hopefully makes some degree of sense. For an hour or so, questions are added to the mix, replies are made, popular tweets are favourited and retweeted, and there always seem to be a whole lot of chatter that ends up in a confused, non-archivable mess. Which is a shame, because the actual ideas that were either poorly expressed, or hidden in that mess of messages, is potentially brilliant. But I think it’s far too much work and far too inefficient to be used like this.

I should point out that this hashtag chat idea is not the same thing (to me) as using a hashtag to aggregate tweets around a theme or meme. The latter is organic, and percolates naturally. People can contribute on the hashtag over time, and it is pulled together with a hashtag search query. This feels like a natural use of Twitter. The hashtag chat, on the other hand, where structured questions get sent out to a group for responses in a specific window of time, always feels contrived to me. It feels like a school project, where people are answering questions in response to the moderator, who artificially keeps the “conversation” moving. There’s nothing very organic or natural about it.

I’ve tried to give this form of “conversation” a go, but I just can’t warm to it. I know many people who love it, so hey, more power to them. If it works for you, knock yourself out. It just doesn’t work for me. I find I have to dumb down my contributions to stay under the character limit, or figure out how to say something so simply that it no longer conveys the meaning I intended. I end up writing in sound bites that become glib and superficial. And then I get frustrated because I wasn’t able to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I know, long form writing is not what the kids do these days, email is dead and Google+ is a ghost town.  Whatever. I’ve been told that anything worth saying should be able to be said in a Tweet-sized package, but I just don’t see it. Some ideas are worth more than that.

Which brings me to my second bugbear, the timed “Teachmeet style” presentation where each speaker gets a few minutes to speak and share a tool or idea. (The fact that there is even a “speaker” at what is essentially supposed to be an unconference style event should be the first clue that something is out of whack). For much the same reasons as I struggle with the idea of hashtag chats, I find this is yet another format with a self imposed artificial limitation that can easily ruin the potential value of the content. I don’t know if you recall the historical evolution of this format… the Teachmeet format was originally an unstructured get-together of teachers talking shop and sharing ideas over a few beers at a pub. Then it grew and spread and morphed into a range of formats, until every Teachmeet I go to now uses this same format where each speaker gets a short time limit to share an idea. Originally this time limit idea evolved from the Pucha Kucha style of presenting, but has now grown into being a standard Teachmeet thing.  It’s totally unnecessary. The Pecha Kucha style was designed originally to force presenters into a rigidly structured format – half the fun of giving a Pecha Kucha talk is about meeting the challenge of the format while giving an interesting talk. – but there’s really no reason that Teachmeets should continue to do the same. I agree that having some form of “lightning round” presentations, where you get a strictly timed few minutes to share an idea, can be a lot of fun. I think the 3 minutes Demo Slams at Google Summits can be a good example of this.

But when every Teachmeet becomes nothing but a series of rigid timeslots, it feels to me like we’ve jumped the shark. Making presenters squeeze their ideas into a few minutes might be good for keeping the program moving, but it can be counterproductive to real conversations and authentic sharing of ideas.

Some ideas cannot be distilled down into a soundbite sized presentation. Some ideas take more time, and need an opportunity for questions and deeper reflection. But when the only format for conveying ideas is this kind of short, sharp blast, the only ideas that get talked about are the ones that  fit the format. And I happen to think that there are many ideas worth sharing that need more time, more depth and more nuance than either a 4 minute talk or a 140 character tweet can do justice to. I think we are dumbing down the conversation far too much if this becomes the dominant means of sharing. If I’m going to spend time participating in real conversations with other human beings, I want to hear what they have to say, and not just to hear what they managed to squeeze into an artificially limited timeslot. I think we all deserve better than that.

I’m know I’m supposed to just agree with the status quo and go along with what’s popular. I’ve publicly stated my feelings about both these formats before and have been told all the reasons why I’m wrong. One of my favourite pushbacks is that sharing in this way is still better than not sharing at all. I think that’s a specious argument. Of course it’s better than nothing, but it’s still no replacement for rich, deep conversations or subtle, nuanced sharing of ideas. I’m tired of the shallowness and the superficiality of these formats. I think we can do better, and we can start by reminding ourselves that some ideas are bigger and bolder than a stopwatch or a character limit will allow.

Understand what I’m saying. There is still a place for this kind of rapid-fire sharing, but it should’t be the only place. Right now, every Teachmeet I go to uses this timed format, and the use of hashtag chats on Twitter is more common than ever. By all means, let’s use these formats, but let’s also be aware of their limitations and shortfalls and don’t fall into the dangerous trap of thinking they are the only formats in town.

Featured Public Domain Image – The Witch, No 3,
Wikimedia Commons

 

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Update your Search Methods

In 2013 Google released Hummingbird, perhaps the most significant update to their search algorithm since the search engine launched.

From the Search Engine Land blog, here’s how they describe it…

“On September 26, Google announced a new algorithm impacting more than 90 percent of searches worldwide. They called it Hummingbird. Google’s Amit Singhal later said it was perhaps the largest change to the algorithm since he joined the company back in 2001.

Hummingbird allows the Google search engine to better do its job through an improvement in semantic search. As conversational search becomes the norm, Hummingbird lends understanding to the intent and contextual meaning of terms used in a query.”

http://searchengineland.com/google-hummingbird-the-keyword-what-you-need-to-know-to-stay-ahead-175531

 In plain English, this means that the conventional wisdom of the way we teach search – identifying important keywords, eliminating unnecessary terms, removing the conversational parts of a question, etc, is no longer quite as critical as it once was.

I’ve heard many teachers tell students “never just type in a question to Google in plain English” but that’s exactly what Hummingbird is designed for. With so many searches now being done via mobile devices using voice, the evolution to plain language questions and semantic queries is the next evolution in Google search.

As a demonstration, here are 50 questions, all done using voice search, to show you just how powerful this new algorithm really is.

Of course, these are mostly simple fact recall style questions, and more sophisticated queries will still benefit from a more sophisticated approach to writing search queries – using good search terms, excluding words or phrases, using search operators like site:, filetype:, etc, as well as making the most of extras like colour filters, date ranges, and so on.

But if you’re still telling students not to write plain language queries because that the advice you’ve you’ve always given them, maybe it’s time to update your advice?

And of course, it highlights why the things we ask students to do these days need to be based on far more than simple fact recall. With most students now carrying around Google in their pockets, the value of “facts” has been completely commoditised. We need to focus on helping them develop knowledge and wisdom, not just facts. Facts are cheap.

Header Photo: J Brew on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7NxJZy
CC BY-SA

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iPads, Games and BYOD

After a successful iPad trial at school last year, the teachers all agreed it was working really well.  So this year we asked our year 5 and 6 students to bring an iPad to school and I’ve been working with the teachers and students in those classes to help ensure we get the most from this arrangement. I think it’s been working really well; the kids have been incredibly responsible and have been producing some really interesting work with them.

I had an email from a Year 5 parent a few weeks ago asking some questions about the iPad program, in particular about required apps, the rules and expectations for their use, the use of games (including one called Goldrush that she was concerned about), impacts on socialisation, responsibilities for backing up data, etc. In particular, this parent had a few concerns about using the iPad for playing games versus using it a a learning tool. I wrote a fairly long and detailed email in reply, and I’m republishing it here (anonymised of course) because I thought the general gist of my reply might be of some value to others. Your thoughts are welcomed in the comments.

The guts of the email went like this…

One of the key aspects of the students using iPads as BYO devices is that it provides (by design) an environment and opportunities for them to become managers of their own technological world. It also means that parents have a significant say in what they want to allow or not allow on their child’s iPads. Most of what we covered at the parent information night back in Term 1, prior to the students being allowed to bring in their iPads, was focused on reinforcing this idea that in a BYOD environment the final say on what is appropriate is up to individual parents. As I tell the kids all the time, “I don’t live in your house, so I don’t make the rules for what you do there. Your parents do”.

We initially asked the students to have only a fairly small set of designated core productivity apps installed on their iPads – a web browser, word processor, presentation tool, PDF/eBook reader, video and audio editing tools, etc. We have intentionally not made long lists of “required apps” because the nature of operating a BYOD program is such that students should be allowed to choose the tools (in the form of apps) that work best for them. For example, in a recent task, students had an option to produce a set of presentation slides (what in a non-iPad world you’d just refer to as a “PowerPoint”) The task was structured in such a way that students could respond to this task using a variety of presentation-style apps, including Keynote, MoveNote, PopBoardz, Haiku Deck, SlideIdea, Flowboard, and others. Part of the learning we want to occur is that students are given opportunities to make good decisions about which technology tools they wish to use, and allow them to identify, find and manage those apps. In finding new apps they also develop the very important skill of learning how to use a piece of software that they have never seen before. What this amounts to is a way of helping students “learn how to learn”, which is possibly the most important skill they can take away from the whole experience of school.

Regarding games, it’s sometimes not easy to know what exactly constitutes a “game”. For example, Scratch, Minecraft, even Mathletics, could all be considered to be “game-like” but are incredibly valuable learning environments that we actively promote and support. For example, a game like The Room requires a high level of problem solving and lateral thinking skills. Games like Threes! or 2048 involves the use of logic, problem solving and maths. Musyc is a music composition tool that looks very much like a game. There is an app called DragonBox in which the rules are based on the principles of algebra, essentially teaching students to understand algebra through playing the game. I haven’t played Goldrush myself, but I just had a quick look at it in the App Store and it looks like it has quite a few valuable learning aspects to it, including engineering concepts and bridge construction skills (something the students will do much more of in Year 6 next year) and it looks like it needs a lot of thinking, problem solving and logic to play well.

While it’s probably true that some games don’t offer enough learning for the amount of time put into them, I would be vary wary of having a simplistic “games = bad” approach, or to think that games (or game-like environments) cannot help students learn valuable skills. Much of the research around gaming suggests quite the opposite, and that the engagement factor present in most games, as well as the logic and problem solving skills usually required, are in fact exactly the kinds of things we need to be developing in our students.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that students should spend all their time playing games. However, the evidence suggests that there is much to be gained by allowing students to spend SOME time with games, particularly games that support worthwhile learning objectives.

I think we could have a whole other discussion about what exactly we mean by the term “game”, what a “game” looks like, and what might constitute using the iPad as “a learning tool”. I suspect the distinction may not be as clear cut as it might first appear. And because every family will have different perspectives on this distinction, this needs to be a conversation that takes place between parents and their child. If you’re unsure about an app, be it a game or anything else, by all means sit down with your child and talk with them about it, ask what they likes about it, what they learns from it, and get them to show you how they use it. As I pointed out at the parent evening, the ultimate decision about iPad use, about what apps are appropriate, about where and how the iPad gets used at home, rests with parents. I repeatedly said to all parents “It’s your house, your child, your iPad, your rules”.

As far as use at school goes, the iPads have been very successful so far in extending learning opportunities. Certainly, in the work I’ve been doing with the students they have shown some amazing learning with these tools. A large part of that has come about because we have not mandated specific apps or uses of the devices, and instead are allowing each student to use the devices in ways that best support their own learning, using apps that work best for them. I recently had one of the iPad classes do an “App Slam” where they each had 2 minutes to stand up in front of the class and present an app, a tool, a website, etc, that they found useful or fun. It was amazing to see not only the confidence and fluency with which they used this technology, but also the ease with which they shared it with the class. And interestingly, out of the 16+ apps on show, I’d only heard of two of them before. The point is that with the hundreds of thousands of apps in the Apps Store, the students are taking the lead here and discovering useful tools that we teachers may not.

Some of the innovation, independence and creativity we have seen so far has been astounding, and has taken the learning into places that simply could not be achieved without these tools. The goal with using technology in education is not simply to use technology to reproduce things we COULD already do without it, but to find entirely new ways to do things that we COULD NOT do with out it. So while using the iPads to take notes, read books and look things up online are all worthwhile and valid uses, the really powerful learning will come from getting the students to interact with data, ideas and skills that could not be previously done without them. And even after just a term and a half of having the devices we are starting to see many instances of this happening.

The teachers of year 5 and 6 are very aware of the students using their iPads in appropriate and socially responsible ways. Their use is managed in class and any student who gets off-task is very quickly brought back to the task at hand. I am told that the students do get some free time with the iPads, but only on Thursdays, only at lunchtimes and only in the library, so that seems like a fair deal to me.

Regarding data monitoring, when the students are at school they are connected to our school wifi so they are subject to all the usual filters and blocks that apply to Internet access on our network. However, we don’t (and really don’t want to) restrict students from downloading new apps, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Regarding backup, we use Google Apps for Education as our core platform here school so any documents that the students store in that service are securely backed up in the Google cloud. If they put their work into Google Drive (as most of them do) it will be safe. Other file types (such as photographs, iWork files, etc, may be managed by Apple’s iCloud service if the student enables it. Aside from that we do recommend that all students back up their iPads to iTunes on a home computer regularly. Because it is a BYO device, the responsibility for doing this lies with the student (and their parents if needed) Again, our students are growing up in a world where the process of managing data is increasingly important and will usually not be done for them. It’s important they start learning to do this now.

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155 Lessons in the Creative Process

Some of you might have seen that I’ve been working on a daily blogging project this year called My Daily Create. You can visit it at www.mydailycreate.com (or click the link in the menu bar above). The basic idea is that I’m attempting to create something every day of the year during 2014. It could be music, a video, a drawing, a photo or a poem. It could be something practical and usable, or something retinal and frivolous. It doesn’t matter what it is, I just plan to make something each day. So far it’s going pretty well and I haven’t missed a single day yet.

Earlier this week I presented a keynote at the EduTECH conference in Brisbane on the topic of creativity at the invitation of the organisers. I find creativity an interesting topic to talk about, but it’s usually one of those things that’s easy to talk about in general terms but much harder to talk about specifically. I felt even more challenged by it because several of the other speakers were also talking about creativity, including Sir Ken Robinson, who, as I’m sure most readers of this blog will know, is considered somewhat of a guru on the topic of creativity in education.

I do find that the general message of what most people say when talking about creativity in education boils down to “It’s important, you should do it”, with very little actual guidance on HOW to make it happen and I tend to think we probably need a little more information than that.

So the plan for my keynote was to be a bit more practical and specific about creativity and so I decided to share some of what I’ve learned from doing my daily create each day in the form of lessons I’ve learned about the creative process and how they might be used with students.

For the people who asked for a copy of the presentation, here are the slides (I’ve had to remove the video content as it was just too big a file with them included)

Despite a shaky start due to some dodgy AV, I was pretty happy with the way the keynote went. The talk was basically presented in three parts…

  • Exploring Creativity – showing examples of the sorts of creative projects I’ve been coming up with during the first 155 days of My Daily Create.
  • Learning from Creativity – sharing some of the lessons (or meta ideas) about creativity that I’ve found from forcing myself to make something every day.
  • Applying Creativity – showing a few examples of how some of my daily creates have turned into activities and tasks that I’ve been doing with my kids in the classroom.

The lessons that I offered about creativity were these…

  • Create is a Verb – you have to actually DO stuff in order to be creative, not just think about it or talk about it. Actually DO it. Seriously. It’s amazing how many people wish they were more creative and overlook this simple fact.
  • Wonder. A Lot – Most creativity springs from being curious about things. Wondering “what would happen if…” or “why do we do it like that?” are often the starting points for coming up with new creative ideas.
  • Curiosity + Action = Creativity – When you combine the wonder with the action, things happen. Take action on your ideas, no matter how silly or fleeting they might be. Anyone can have a good idea, but the people who take action on their ideas are the ones we deem creative.
  • Make time to Play – Yes, making stuff takes time. So if making stuff is important to you, then make time for it. Make time, not find time. None of us can find time, we each get only 24 hours in a day so you already have all the time you’re getting. It’s a matter of clearing space in your day to make time for creative acts.
  • Wander off the Path – Something that becomes incredibly obvious when you force yourself to make things every day is that you almost always make something different or unexpected to what you thought you might make. Be led by your curiosity, your mistakes and your hunches. If you go somewhere you didn’t anticipate, just keep going. Don’t try to undo your mistakes, just turn them into the end result,.
  • Your Ideas are not Original – Hardly anybody ever has original ideas. Everything is a remix of things we’ve seen and heard elsewhere, just repackaged and remixed in our own way. So copy ideas shamelessly. But remember that while copying one idea is plagiarism, copying lots of ideas and combining them all together in new ways is where real creativity comes from.
  • So Share – If you use other people’s ideas (and you do!) then don’t be precious about letting other people use yours. Share generously and give away your stuff freely. Don’t be an idea hoarder. You’re just a conduit for ideas, so pass them on to others.
  • Creating = Learning – You learn when you create (and isn’t that the goal in education?) You might learn the things you expected to learn, but more often you will probably learn things you didn’t expect to learn. Be open to ideas, follow them, be inquisitive, be generous, and you really cannot help but learn through being creative.

The “big idea” I wanted to communicate was that creativity is a process, an active thing you do, and should do it regularly. Borrow and share, be open and curious, and you WILL come up with creative ideas. Some people claim they aren’t creative,  but there is no such thing as a non creative person, just a person who has chosen not to see the world creatively.

Finally, I showed some simple examples of how my daily create has spilled over into my teaching and helped me bring these ideas into my classroom.

I finished the talk by getting the audience to help make Daily Create number 155, chanting the phrase “Creativity is  daily deliberate act”.

The response I got afterwards from people was really nice. Quite a few people came up to say they got a lot out of the talk, and Twitter had lots of positive feedback too. It’s really nice when that happens. When you give a keynote it’s always hard to know what you could possibly say that might be of any value to the audience, especially when so many other speakers seem to know so much more about it, and speak so much more eloquently. But all I can really do is speak from my heart and mind, sharing my own personal experiences, so I’m glad it resonated with others and they found it useful.

Here is a link to the slides in Google Drive, (without the videos) but if you’d like a copy of the actual slide deck in Keynote format just drop me a note and let me know.

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Homage to Duchamp

It’s interesting that as you get older you become increasingly aware of your own influences. Aside from my parents and my direct family, who obviously had a major influence on my life, there are only handful of people whose ideas, thoughts and perspectives about the world have been so influential, so pervasive, so far reaching, that I can honestly say they have shaped the person I have become.

We all have them. They are the people you would invite to your ultimate fantasy dinner party. The ones who are so interesting, so fascinating in their ideas and the way they think about things, that you would give anything to spend time talking with them, learning from them and being in awe of them.

duchampI only have a few people in that category, but one is Marcel Duchamp.

For most people reading this, your reaction is probably “Marcel who?”

I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, so if you want to know more about Duchamp, you can no doubt look him up. It’s quite likely that he will not affect you the way he affected me, and that’s ok. That’s what makes us all unique. But to me, Duchamp was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century. He was one of the truly great thinkers whose ideas had a profound, lasting and life changing effect on me. His insightful genius, his witty sense of humour, his unswerving individualism, and his sheer brilliance forever changed the way I see the world. Or perhaps it was that he gave validation to the way I was already seeing the world for myself. Either way, I grew up seeing Duchamp as something of a hero. He struck me as one of the most brilliant minds I’d ever encountered.

As a young teenager, and then on into art school, I read everything about him that I could get my hands on. I pored over his work, looked at whatever photographs I could find of both him and his art, and was always astounded at the way he managed to express such profound ideas in such simple acts of creation. His disruptive sense of fun was more than just a means to amuse himself, it caused us to question and change the way we think about art, life and the world. Or at least that’s what it did for me. It was the way he took the idea of art beyond the “retinal” – the way something looks – and instead explored intellectual ideas embedded in the art.

Anyway, I was stunned tonight as I browsed around the web to find a 28 minute video of Duchamp being interviewed on the BBC in 1968 (the year he died). It’s an amazing interview.

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Which brings me to the second point of this post. YouTube. I still hear of so many schools that block or limit access to YouTube. When I was a kid, growing up trying to read everything about Duchamp I could lay my hands on, I was completely unaware that any television interviews with him even existed. For everything I’d read or seen about Duchamp, tonight was the first time I had ever heard his voice or seen a moving image of the man. I went to art school in the 80s and taught art for several years but until tonight I had no idea that a 1968 interview with Marcel Duchamp existed.  Tonight was the first time I’d ever heard one of my lifelong heroes actually speak. And it was YouTube that made it possible. Forget the criticisms about millions of cute cat videos or pointless clips of stupid people doing even stupider things. Tonight I finally met one of my lifelong heroes and it was YouTube that made it possible. Think about that.

Seriously. If your school is still blocking YouTube, do you have any idea what you are depriving your students of?

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons http://goo.gl/nw77Qu

Slam That!

I had the chance to take one of our Year 6 classes this morning while their teacher was away. This class is part of our BYOD iPad program where every student brings their own iPad.  Borrowing the Slam idea from the Google Summits, I got them to do an App Slam. Every student was given an opportunity to voluntarily participate, and they had 2 minutes to share an app, game, tool, tip, etc with the rest of the class. I said it could be anything at all, just something that they enjoyed using and would like to share with the class.

I was amazed at just how eager they were to do this, and they were figuratively falling over themselves to add their name to the list of presenters. As they each did their slam (which of course they had to end by shouting the word Slam!) I added their name and the thing they demoed to a Google Form. After the last student presented I simply published the form, gave them the short URL to access it and let them vote for their 5 favourite slams.

It was a lot of fun and a great way to let them share what they are learning with their iPads.

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I particularly liked the fact that, of all the apps and games and things they shared, I was only previously aware of two of them. Part of the magic of having a BYOD approach to our use of iPads is that the kids are discovering apps and things that I would probably not. It’s pretty clear that the students feel far more in control of their own learning when they are the owners of the technology.

I also found it interesting that, when we allowed our kids to bring their own choice of iPad, they brought in a diverse range of iPad configurations. Some were using older iPad 2s and 3s, some had newer iPad Airs, some chose to use iPad minis. Everyone seemed to have a different kind of case, with lots of different styles and colours and types. Some had chosen to use bluetooth keyboards because they wanted to, others were perfectly happy with the standard on-screen keyboard. The thing is, had our school decided what type of iPads, cases and accessories they should be using and dictated the size and configurations they should be, then a significant number of our “customers” would have ended up using something other than what they actually wanted to be using. If we take a one-size-fits-all approach to giving technology to kids, we run the risk of making choices that disappoint our end users.

Is BYOD the best approach? I don’t know but I thought this next fact was food for thought… I was talking to a teacher yesterday from another nearby school that also went 1:1 iPad, except they took a non BYOD approach. Their iPads were school provided, highly locked down, kids could not install their own apps, and they were being used for little more than digital textbook readers. In their first year of operation they had $14,000 in damages!

In contrast, we’ve had virtually no damages at all. It turns out that students look after their stuff when they own it. What a concept.

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So what is Technology Integration?

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I was asked by a colleague in another school the other day if I could give her a snapshot into what I actually do, and what the role of an ICT Integrator actually looks like (from my perspective anyway). Apparently she wants to talk to her school leaders about having an integrator on their staff and was trying to get an idea of what the role would entail from someone who does it.

Whenever people I meet ask me what I do, they have often never heard the term “ICT Integrator”. It’s another one of those jobs that didn’t exist when most of us were in school. We say all the time that we should be preparing our students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and this role is a good example of that.

I have a couple of  simple “elevator pitch” descriptions that I often use to tell people what my job involves…

  • “I look at the stuff kids are supposed to learn in school and help teachers figure out where technology can help make that learning richer and more meaningful.”
  • ” I look at technology and curriculum and try to mash them together so that learning becomes more relevant and interesting.”
  • “I help combine technology that changes all the time, with schools that don’t.”

Basically, the role of a tech integrator is all about finding ways that technology can assist learning, and helping teachers and students make the most of it. To do that we try to think about things like the SAMR Model, the TPACK Model, Blooms Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, Visible Thinking, Dweck’s Mindsets, etc, etc, and figure out how technology can assist to make them work even better. We need to be able to identify opportunities in the curriculum where technology can help make it richer, and I think we also need to be wise enough to recognise when technology is not the right answer too.

To be a tech integrator requires a lot of dealing with people, both big people and little people. We work with kids of all ages and adults who sometimes act like kids of all ages. We have to be able to push people out of their comfort zone enough that they will take risks and try new things, but not so hard that they get their back up and refuse to play. We have to deal with the natural human tendency to resist change, while helping schools redefine themselves as they adapt to new ways of learning and teaching. We have to be teachers, learners, psychologists, trainers, guides. We need to be techie enough to understand how technology works and what we might do with it, but we need to play it down so that we don’t appear to be too geeky and nerdy. (Even if we secretly wear our nerdiness like  badge of honour)

We need to understand that 95% of the teachers we work with will never even think about changing the default settings on their computers, while 95% of the students we work with will refuse to leave the default settings alone.

We need to understand new technologies and be able to see the potential they offer for learning. We need to understand not only what’s new and hot, but also what’s solid and fundamental. We know about iPad and Apps and Chromebooks and Tablets, and we don’t just know what terms like Web 2.0 and the “Internet of Things” mean, we also know about Flipped Learning and the Jigsaw Classroom. We need to be as comfortable with new operating systems as we are with the new curriculum, and we need to know how to deal with both of them.

If you’re only a technician, you probably won’t make a good ICT Integrator. If you love devices and gadgets more than you love kids and learning, this job is not for you.

As an ICT Integrator you create an important interface between the teaching staff and the technical staff in a school. Each of these groups seems to think the others are obstructionists who just don’t understand what truly matters, so you need to be able to straddle both worlds and act as the interface between them. Integrators need to be able to talk tech and mean it. Although the people who speak all the technical mumbo jumbo are critically important in a school,  for god’s sake don’t let them make curriculum decisions! Too often in schools the technology decisions are  based on what’s convenient for the technical team, not what’s best for the learning of the kids. That happens way too often, in too many place, so don’t fall in to that trap. Schools are about learning. Let’s keep it that way.

As an integrator, you need to be flexible, creative and know a little about a lot. Good general knowledge really helps. You need to stay current with technological trends as well as educational shifts. You often work across grades and faculties, so you get to see the big picture across the school. But because you’re so close to the action in the classroom you also see the real picture. Your school might spin good PR, but as an ICT Integrator you get to cut through the crap and see what actually happens in classrooms. Sometimes it’s awe inspiring, and sometimes it ain’t pretty.

You understand that technology changes things in a classroom.  As Seymour Papert observed long ago, something very special happens when you put kids and computers together. It changes student motivation and enhances student engagement. The learning changes. The nature of the teaching changes. Or at least it should. When you put technology in the hands of kids, suddenly having them sit in rows and work at the same rate on the same problems doesn’t seem to make as much sense. Some teachers are not prepared for that shift, and that’s what the integrator is there to help with. To reassure them that learning can come from chaos and that they really don’t all need to be doing the same exercise in the same way at the same time.

It’s a pretty unique role.

Photo by Chris Betcher CC BY-SA

education + technology + ideas