The Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass Conference

I’m writing this from the Novotel Twin Waters Resort on Queensland’s beautiful Sunshine Coast.  It’s a hard life, I know, but someone has to do it. It’s been a spectacular day here, and I’ve managed to fill it with a bike ride along the beach, drinks at the bar, and lazing around the poolside area, so it hasn’t really been too hard to take. No need to feel sorry for me. I’ll be ok.

But it hasn’t all been just lazing around the pool and soaking up sunshine… The real reason I’m here was to take part in the first Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass conference, run by the good folk at IWB Net. I had the privilege of being involved as a presenter, leading one of the Cohort sessions and doing the keynote on the  Saturday.

The ITL Masterclass conference attempted to be different to a typical conference. Most traditional conferences have a pretty standard format… There is a keynote address in the morning, followed by a series of workshops or breakout sessions that are all organised well in advance. At these traditional conferences, delegates typically register, turn up, and hope that some of the breakout sessions will be useful, which, often, they aren’t. Despite the best intentions of conference organisers, making sure that delegates get what they need from a conference event is difficult, since a) most times, the delegates don’t really know what they need, and b) once a conference schedule is in place it’s hard to have the flexibility to adapt it to people’s needs on the fly.

If you’ve been to many conferences before, you’ll know that, often, many of the best conversations and networking happens in places and at times that have nothing to do with the organised part of the event.  Conversations over breakfast and dinner, at the bar, in the lift, during the breaks… often this is where the best stuff happens. It’s as though the “conference” stuff is the reason to get the people together, while the “un-conference” stuff is where they do the real connecting and learning.

This idea of the “un-conference” has grown in popularity in recent years, with the rise of Teachmeets and other un-conference style gatherings. A true un-conference event is highly un-organised, very much made up as it happens. The point of these is to not make it too organised or too rigid, and to try to find ways to make all the “incidental learning” the main focus of the conference and not just a valuable byproduct. Proper un-conferences can be quite chaotic to anyone not used to them.

It’s a double-edged sword of course. If you have too much structure in a conference it becomes inflexible and may not be able to meet the needs of the attendees.  But if you make them too unstructured they can easily degenerate into a mess where attendees get frustrated.  Some people like, and need, structure. Others prefer a more open and agile approach. What would be ideal is a conference that had the best of both worlds – enough flexibility so that attendees could make sure it met their needs, diverting and exploring into areas of interest to them, but still with enough structure so that it didn’t just feel like a bunch of people making stuff up as they went along.

I thought that the IWB Net team did a great job of trying to get the balance right for this event. There were five main aspects to the conference:

  1. a keynote address each morning to set the theme for the event
  2. a series of “cohort sessions” where a group of attendees could spend time doing a 6 hour “deep dive” into an area that interested them,
  3. a series of pre-prepared workshops on a range of topics,
  4. a series of un-conference workshops based on topics suggested by, and voted for, by the delegates during the event
  5. breakfasts and dinners (and the bar afterwards!) where conversations flowed freely

I’ve been to regular conferences where everything is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them frustrating because they don’t always cover what I want. And I’ve been to un-conferences where nothing is prepared in advance and have sometimes found them equally frustrating because they can be just too disorganised. As a hybrid conference model that sits somewhere between these two extremes, I must say I really enjoyed the format for the ITL Masterclass event.

I arrived at the event on Thursday night and went straight into a meeting where we discussed the possible topics for the un-conference sessions. A list was made, groups were organised, and volunteers stepped up to facilitate the sessions.

Friday morning kicked off with a keynote address from Steven Bradbury, Australia’s first Winter Olympic Gold medalist, talking about the idea of peak performance in sports. Steve is best know for his controversial win at the Salt Lake City Winter Games where he won gold after a massive crash that took out all the other competitors in the final. It was wonderful to hear him talk about his “12 years to become an overnight success”. His passion for the sport, his determination to succeed, the stories of his own setbacks and disappointments, all made for a really engaging and interesting talk. We got to hold both his Gold and Bronze Olympic medals, and I found the story of his journey to be very inspiring. The common theme in his story was passion, perseverance, persistence, never giving up, and realising that the gold medal was not a reward for the 30 seconds of the race, but for the decade of hard work that led up to it.

After Steven’s talk, we then started through the various workshop sessions. Some were pre-prepared, some were un-conference style, and we also began the cohort sessions.  I enjoyed the cohort idea… A group of people gathered around a central theme, working over 4 x 90 minute sessions to explore a topic in greater depth.

My cohort theme was Lessons from Leonardo: Dealing with Little DaVincis, and was predicated on the notion of imagining how we might teach differently if our classrooms were full of kids that were as curious, inquisitive, inventive, talented and productive as Leonardo DaVinci. Obviously, you’re not likely to have a whole class full of kids that just happen to be as bright and clever as one of history’s greatest geniuses, but I think if we went into our classrooms with an expectation that our students actually were like that, we might approach what we do a little differently. Over the four sessions I tried to facilitate my group through some deeper discussions about their own school, sharing insights and comparing notes. Then we looked at some of the tasks and assessments we ask our students to do, and tried to measure them against the Seven DaVinci Principles, as found in the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.

On Saturday, the day kicked off with my own keynote to the group, a talk called Passion, Purpose, Perspective and a Pirate Attitude. In this keynote, I tried to follow on from Steve Bradbury’s talk about what it takes to be a champion sportsperson, and explore a few ideas about what it might take to be a champion educator. It’s always difficult to speak to a group of your peers, especially ones that are clearly already good teachers, but I hope I did the idea justice.

Here’s a copy of the keynote, along with an audio recording I made and then synced up using SlideShare.

The rest of the day was spent mainly with my cohort group, as they worked to create a product or develop skills that they could take back to school and use. Some worked on creating their very own multimedia Credo for Teaching, as a statement of what matters to them as a teacher. Some took the opportunity to develop an assessment task for use with their students to incorporate some of the Da Vinci principles, and some chose to learn Scratch as a way of taking a cross curricula, whole brain, approach to learning. At the end of it all, they were a great bunch of people to work with and they produced some terrific end results.

Between those sessions, I also ran an impromptu Scratch/Picoboard workshop in the hotel foyer (or would that be an un-workshop) and also managed to get around and drop into a few of the un-conference sessions.  There was lots to see and do.

Overall, it was a great conference event, and I thought the hybrid format worked really well. Having the structure, but also the flexibility, was a nice balance, and I hope they continue to explore this new format.  A special thanks to the team at IWB Net for inviting me to be part of it.

I didn’t leave right away, and instead stayed another night before catching a late flight home. On Sunday I got to hang out with a few other folk who stayed on for the extra day, and after a late breakfast, Jan Clarke from WA suggested we rent a couple of pushbikes from the resort and ride up the beach to Mount Coolum and back. (OK, so riding along the beach was my idea… I’m not sure we were supposed to do that, but it sure was fun.)

I’m off to Canada tomorrow to spend time with Linda’s family and friends, then down to Philadelphia the following week for the ISTE conference. I just love being a connected educator! 🙂

The ACEC Conversation Starts Here

In a bizarre and unexpected turn of events, I had a call from the good folk from ACEC a couple of days ago asking if I’d be interested in presenting something at the Friday keynote session. Apparently there was a spot available and someone suggested my name.  That was great news for me, since I really wanted to go to ACEC… not only does it sound like it will be an awesome conference, but there are so many people from my online world who will be there that I want to meet up with in person.  Naturally, I said yes.

The hard part is that I was told I can talk about whatever I like. That’s dangerous enough, but further complicated by the fact that I’ve been busy lately presenting some stuff for several other conferences and I don’t really want to just reuse the same stuff.  I realise that I’d be talking to a totally different group of people so it’s not the overlap that’s the problem, but I’d just rather come up with something specifically for ACEC.

My problem is that I’m such a dilettante and I tend to dabble around in so many different educational ICT-related things, that I have no real idea about what I might focus on.  And of course, Friday is the last day of what will doubtless be a pretty full-on conference schedule, so the chances of me saying anything intelligent about anything that hasn’t already been talked about by people way smarter and more eloquent that me is pretty slim.

I asked Tony Brandenburg from ACEC what he thought might make a good topic, or what gaps might exist in the program that perhaps hadn’t been covered.  His view was that although the conference has plenty of great stuff from lots of great people, much of that was from overseas visitors so it would be good to have a bit more of the Australian perspective.  “Just give us a brain dump of whatever is on your mind”, he said.

So, feeling a little daunted by the idea of it all, but really keen to have the opportunity to add something worthwhile to the ACEC conversation, I’m asking for some suggestions. If you read this blog at all, you know that I rave on about all sorts of stuff here.  If you were going to hear someone speak on the last day of the ACEC conference, what sort of things would grab your interest? If you could drop any thoughts you have into the comments below, that would be greatly appreciated.  I like the idea of a presentation for ACEC growing out of a conversation that starts here on the blog several weeks prior. To engage in some conversation here, which can then evolve into a presentation there, which can then be followed up with more conversation afterwards, seems to be a much more interesting way to do it.

I’m keen to hear what you’ve got to say… don’t be shy.

Finding the Needle in the Twitter Haystack

With millions of Twitter messages floating through the Twittersphere each day, you can use the search tool at  http://search.twitter.com to find references to ANY word that gets uttered there.

So a search for the word “dog” will find every tweet that contains the word dog, and so on.  You can even search for your own twittername and see any time your name is referenced online.  Many companies now use this search feature to find out whenever anyone mentions their products or services on Twitter.

The search tool for Twitter is really quite powerful, and can also be used to generate RSS feeds that can then be embedded into other pages and services.  There is some awesome potential there.

However, Twitter’s ability to search for words being mentioned out there becomes less useful when you search for a really common word, since the search results will invariably turn up lots of stuff you probably don’t want.

When you’re attending a conference for example, you could find every mention that people make about the event by searching for the conference name.  However, it wouldn’t be all that helpful just to do a search on the term “conference” since it would catch all the other possible mentions of the word “conference” from a bunch of other conferences you don’t want. Using the full name of the conference would probably work, but because Twitter limits you to only 140 characters, it would be silly to devote so many of them to including the conference name… there would be little room left for the actual message!

To get around this problem, Twitter users came up with the idea of using a hashtag.. by adding a # in front of a search term. it’s a way to trick Twitter Search into avoiding any results that might contain the keyword but don’t have the hash in front of them.

For conferences, there will generally be a designated hashtag containing a # symbol and an abbreviation for the event. People attending and Twittering from the event can include this short code at the end of each tweet, and then a search (and also an RSS feed) can be created to grab a feed of all the tweets that contain the hashtag, regardless of who they come from. This let’s people follow the conference Tweets in a single stream.

What if the conference has an unusual name already?  A search for a conference abbreviated to “educonf” would probably find most of the references to it fairly easily, since educonf is a kind of “made up” word already.  In this case, a search for the generic term “educonf” or the properly hashtagged “#educonf” would probably turn up pretty much the exact same results.

The real need for the hashtag arises when you have search terms based on regular English words that are ambiguous to the search.  The added # to the front of them makes them unique and helps them stand out from the generic non-hashed word and stops the generic words from getting caught up in the hashtagged feed.  It also carries the added bonus that many 3rd party Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck, Tweetie or Nambu can identify the hashtags and use them to create saved searches, making it much easier to follow the stream based on that tag.

Interestingly, the search feature was never a part of Twitter’s original functionality.  Twitter search was done with a third-party tool created by a company called Summize, but the huge potential (and possibilities for future monetization of Twitter) became immediately obvious and Summize was acquired by Twitter for about $15M almost a year ago.  Now the built-in search functionality is a key part of the Twitter experience, and hashtags play an important role in making that experience even more powerful.

CC Image: ‘Haystack Owl
www.flickr.com/photos/14829735@N00/360683898

You say that like it’s a bad thing

Last Friday I had a fabulous day at the Why 2 of Web 2.0 seminar in Sydney, where the special guest speaker was Wil Richardson.  Wil was also ably supported by other speakers including Australians Judy O’Connell and Westley Field.

I was very keen to hear Wil speak, after having read his blog for a while now and also having met in the occasional UStream backchannel.  He had lots of good things to say (which he kindly allowed me to record with my iPod so I may post up some audio snippets.)   I was fortunate to get a seat right at the front, thanks to Judy offering to let me share the powerboard at the front table so I could plug in my Mac.  I was also able to piggyback on the wifi service and browse the various sites that Will was referring to as he told the audience about them… quite a few really interesting sites in his list , most of which are now in my del.icio.us feed.

One of my colleagues from school also attend the event, and when I got back to school the next day I asked how he enjoyed it.  His reply was fairly lukewarm, with the comment that he thought a lot of the things Wil was saying made him sound like a zealot.  Google says that a zealot is a “fanatically committed person“, or “one who espouses a cause… in an immoderately partisan manner“.

I don’t think my colleague used the term zealot in a particularly positive sense – I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment.  Personally, if a zealot is a fanatically committed person then I think we need more zealots in education.  I also have strong beliefs about the nature of school and learning and think that we need to act quickly and radically if schools are to maintain any sort of relevance in today’s world.  I also think we need to be fairly drastic about making these changes, so I guess that makes me a zealot too.

Wil gave a number of (what I thought were) powerful examples of how the world is changing.  He used some great examples from Friedman’s The World is Flat and Tapscott’s Wikinomics; examples that clearly show how much our schools are out of sync with the world we say we are preparing our children for.  In  particular, one of the stories that seemed to rankle a few listeners, including my colleague, was the one about a student who was given a research task by his teacher and how he approached this task.

The student found very little information about the topic, not even on Wikipedia. What would you do if you were this student?

Here’s what he did.  He created a Wikipedia entry using the limited information that he did know.  Over the next few days and weeks, the Wikipedia entry on the topic was edited, amended, added-to and improved by many other people.  All of their individual little bits of knowledge gradually built up the topic until there was quite a comprehensive article written about it.  The student then used this article to submit for his research project.

Apparently, the student’s teacher discovered what had happened and the student was awarded an F – a failing grade.  Being the zealot that he is, Will suggested that the student should have received an A grade.  This suggestion raised a few eyebrows…  in the afternoon discussion panel the suggestion that this kid would get an A for doing something like this was questioned by a number of people.  They suggested that the kid had cheated, had acted dishonestly, had not done the task, had rorted the system, etc, and therefore should have failed the task.  I think they are missing the point.

While I can see both sides of the situation, there is no way I would have failed the kid for doing this.  There may be more to the story than I’m  privy to, but on the face of it, failing a student for using their initiative in this manner makes no sense to me.    If I were an employer, I’d much rather give a job to a kid like this who knows how to find a solution in an innovative way, rather than a “rule follower” that just accepts that very little information is available.

It’s interesting that the teachers I’ve told this story to say “Oh, you can’t do that! That’s cheating!”, but the business people I’ve told the story to usually respond with a laugh and say “I want that kid working for me!”.  And really, this is the gap that the education world is struggling with so much.   The “real world” wants people who can find solutions in creative ways, who can innovate and work with teams to collaboratively find solutions to difficult problems.  The “education world” still seems focussed on measuring individual effort, rewarding those who follow the rules and stay inside the lines, those who rehash existing information rather than finding ways of creating new information.

Wil spoke about many things, but I think this story was the most powerful example of the chasm between what the world expects of our children and what most school are prepared to deliver.  One wants to award an F, the other wants to award an A.

One of us is completely screwed up, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the zealots.

You can find the UStream recording from Will’s talk here, and his conference wiki here.

See you in Texas?

There are two ICT trade show events that I’d love to attend – NECC in the US and BETT in the UK. I’ve probably left it a bit late to attend BETT (it starts in a week or so), but I’m seriously considering attending the 2008 National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio Texas. After hearing all about it for the last few years I’ve been curious and interested to attend a NECC event, and the 2008 event just happens to fall conveniently in the midyear Australian school holidays (where I potentially have a full three weeks off!)

One of the motivators for attending this year is thanks to the amazing connections I’ve made with so many educators throughout the US and Canada via tools like Twitter and Skype. I feel like 2007 has been the year of expanding my own personal learning network and I’m keen to get to an event like NECC to meet up with people in real life that I feel I’ve come to know through these virtual spaces. Besides, last years Bloggers Café sounded like a really fun thing to be part of and I like being part of fun things!

I noticed that there is a study tour being organised here in Australia that takes a detour via New Zealand and Silicon Valley to get to San Antonio and it’s looking like it might be a good use of some pre-tax dollars. I need to have a chat with my new school to see how this might fit in with their professional development plans, but regardless I think I’d like to head over to Texas and be part of it anyway.

The study tour details can be found at http://www.ictev.vic.edu.au/event/2008_ACCE_NECC2008_Study_Tour.htm, and here is a part of the blurb…

Spend time with colleagues in New Zealand, visit Apple in San Fanscisco, Dell in San Antonio, have small group time with key international educators, enjoy the celebration of ICT with 15,000 like-minded educators, receiving briefings from ISTEs key people, COSNs leaders, ISTEs international representative, meet and work with other international IT educators and enjoy two weeks immersed in technology in education.

So, fellow Aussies, whaddya reckon? Who else is thinking about going? And what about my American friends… twist our arms a little! It wouldn’t take much!

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