A Confluence of Influence

You may think it a little indulgent, but every year the Edublog Awards are held to recognise those educators who have somehow managed to use blogs in a way that might be worthy of some acknowledgment.  Whilst there will always be those who criticise awards programs as being too elitist, too self-promotional, too biased or too just plain wanky, I think it’s great that there is this opportunity for those who are using blogging for educational purposes to get some sort of recognition for it, and also to uncover a whole lot of new blogs and bloggers that may not have been in your feeds.  Thankfully, the nomination and voting procedures got a complete overhaul this year that will hopefully see them be a lot fairer and less open to manipulation than in past years.

At the risk of sounding self-promotional and wanky, I just wanted to say how surprised I am to have not one, but two nominations this year in the Most Influential Blogpost category.  To the folks that proposed the two nominations, thanks, I really appreciate it.

The first post, The New Digital Divide, was about change and how the divide between those who “get” technology and those who don’t seems to be getting bigger.  It focused on the development of personal learning networks and online communities as ways for education leaders to connect and stay ahead of the curve…

A new Digital Divide is emerging as the connected educators find each other. A few years ago, these bleeding edge edutechies were the exception. They were isolated in their schools. They did great things with kids but worked mostly in a vacuum because they were so rare that there was usually no one in the school to share their craziness with. But the rise of networked intelligence has changed that. These people are finding each other and forming alliances. They are conversing and sharing with each other. Their networks are amplifying their voices, and allowing them to connect in ways that their less connected colleagues don’t really understand, and through this connected amplification, they are starting to have a real voice.

The second post, The Truth Is Out There, started off talking about the use of mobile phones for learning at my own school, and then spread into a wider discussion of where the boundaries lie with regard to the use of portable devices and how schools define curriculum…

It doesn’t matter what field of endeavour you think about, from archeologists to zoologists the real measure is not how many marks they got in a test of rote memory, but in how well they are able to use the resources at their disposal to solve the problems in front of them. If that means they need to Google for an answer, call someone for a second opinion, or grab the manual to look something up, then that ought to be ok. It’s about getting the problem solved and if they need to use their resourcefulness or contacts or tools to solve the problem then so be it.

It’s quite an honour to think that someone else thought these posts were somehow “influential”.  I am unashamedly proud of my blog and it has certainly helped me shape my own thinking, but the idea that it might also somehow help others shape their thinking is always nice to hear…  I guess that’s one of the definitions of “influence”?

If you wanted to cast a vote my way, I wouldn’t knock it back.  🙂

There are, of course, many, many other worthwhile nominations in this years Edublog Awards.  Take the time to have a browse through them, vote for your favourites. and I’m sure you’ll uncover plenty of interesting ideas among them.

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Tossing the Chalk

Maurice Cummins, IWB GuruYou may have noticed that it’s been a bit quiet here on the blog lately.  I’ve not been writing here as much as usual and I’ve really missed it!

There have been a couple of reasons for this little sabbatical, but the most significant one was the book project I’ve been working on with Mal Lee.  For almost a year now (OMG, has it really been that long?!) Mal and I have been writing a book together about the use of interactive whiteboards for education.  It’s been a huge project, partly because it’s been a lot to write – nearly 60,000 words – but mostly because it’s been an absolute journey of learning for me as we’ve written it.  I’m pleased to say that the finished manuscript finally went to the publishers this week!

In case you’re interested, here’s a little bit of background into the book…

Mal Lee is an ex school principal and he provided a lot of the insights around the management, funding and leadership aspects of implementing IWBs effectively in schools.  He’s also been behind numerous IWB research projects into IWB implementations over the last few years and has brought many of those research findings to the project.  The book was originally Mal’s idea, he cut the deal with the publishers and he sketched out the original contents and plan for the book.

I, on the other hand, have done a lot of the actual writing work, reworking a lot of the original stuff that Mal wrote as well as contributing significant new chunks of it myself.  Most of my content was based on personal experience from three schools that went through IWB implementations, talking to lots of people who teach with IWBs regularly and also from generating quite a few conversations with my PLN.  I used Twitter, Skype and other online communities to gather opinions and ideas, as well as talking to some very leading teachers who work with IWBs.

The end result is something I’m actually pretty proud of.  It wasn’t always, and there were plenty of times over the past year when I’ve really questioned the whole book project; from whether IWBs really are worth all the hype about them, to whether we were actually saying anything worth reading about.  There were a couple of occasions when I rang Mal ready to quit the whole thing, not because the task of writing was too much, but because I felt like I was completely unqualified to say anything remotely intelligent about the topic.

It’s kind of weird that I should feel that way, because the school I taught at in Canada implemented SmartBoards while I was there and I got to learn from some of their best trainers who flew out from Calgary to train us.  I also did extensive IWB evaluations between different brands and types at another school I taught at, and my current school has about 60 ActivBoards throughout the school and part of my job is to teach teachers how to use them well.  I’ve presented lots of sessions at the last two Australian IWB conferences, as well as run workshops for schools about how to use them effectively.  And yet, when the time came to actually write stuff down that other people might actually take notice of, it really felt very daunting.

As I wrote each chapter, I posted many of them up on Google Docs and asked for feedback from selected people. Some of them really pushed my thinking about IWBs. It was good that people were willing to question some of what we were trying to say, and I think it really helped to give a much greater sense of reality to the whole thing. Writing an extended piece like a book really forces you to think about what you are trying to say, and I hope that we’ve been able to synthesise all the research, advice and practical experience about using IWBs and that the overall message comes through clearly.  The book went over deadline by about 8 months, but I think it would be fair to say that the book we could have written by meeting the deadline would have been very much less useful than what we ended up with by taking the time to bring such a divesity of opinions and ideas together.

As I look through the 56,284 words in the finished manuscript, I think we did a pretty good job of it.  I feel like it’s balanced and informative with some great information contained within it.  More importantly, I feel like I can confidently say that, yes, used properly, IWBs can be great classroom tools. I was such a skeptic when I first saw IWBs about 6 years ago.  I couldn’t see how they were adding anything to the teaching/learning process, at least anything that would justify the cost and complications of using them.  I can remember having arguments with people about them, saying they were a waste of time, and were taking us back to the idea of a teacher-centric classroom.

I was keen to name the book Toss the Chalk: A guide to teaching in an interactive classroom, but the publishers thought the word “toss” might offend any potential UK readers… apparently “toss” means something quite different in the UK!  It looks like it will be published under the somewhat boring (but I suppose relatively descriptive) title, Teaching with Interactive Whiteboards.  Ho hum.

One of the highlights of the book, for me, was asking other teachers to contribute to it.  I put messages out on Twitter asking for thoughts and opinions to various questions I had, and some of the insights that came back were just brilliant.  It led to the inclusion of a whole chapter called Come Into My Classroom, where I asked eight different teachers to write me a snaphot of how they might use their IWB on a typical day.   It was insightful to hear the stories of how each teacher used the technology, in fact, as I wrote in the book…

In compiling these snapshots, a few things come through loud and clear…
There is no one “right” way to use IWB technology.  In these examples, the diversity of methods that each teacher uses to gets value out of their board stands out strongly.

Second, in all these examples it becomes quite obvious that the IWB is simply being used as an enabler for richer, deeper learning to take place.  It comes through very clearly that this is not about the technology per se, and that good teaching is always at the heart of what is taking place in these classrooms.  Student engagement, richness of understanding, creativity, teamwork and learning… these qualities are patently evident in these examples. In every case the IWB is acting simply as one of the enabling tools used to support the good teaching that takes place in the classroom.

My deepest thanks go out to the teachers who contributed to this section – Jess McCulloch, Lesleigh Altmann, Louise Goold, Tobias Cooper, Katie Morrow, Tom Barrett, Kyle Stevens and Paula White. Each of you added a unique and powerful perspective into the value of an IWB in your classrooms. Other briefer contributions were made in a different chapter by Simon Evans, Cathy Nelson, Amanda Signal and Brette Lockyer.

The other part of the book I was particularly pleased with was a section called Grassroots Professional Development which looked at how teachers are using the read/write web to create their own learning communities. Examples like Tom Barett’s 37 Interesting Ways To Use An Interactive Whiteboard, Jess McCulloch’s Interactive Whiteboard Challenge, Sue Tapp’s OZ/NZ Educators group, Ben Hazzard and Joan Badgers SmartBoard Lessons Podcast and of course, the amazing K12 Online Conference… these are some incredibly powerful examples of how ordinary teachers are redefining what it means to be a learner in the 21st century and how professional development has changed thanks to the networks of people we surround ourselves with.

Right now, the text is with the publisher and is about to go through the editing process.  I suppose I will have a bit of chasing around to do, getting clearances from the contributors, clearing copyright on images used, reading proofed chapters and so on, so it’s not over yet.  With a bit of luck, I’m hoping it will be be printed and available by next March… not quite the instant publishing I’m used to in the blogosphere!  However, for the most part it’s done and I hope to get back to my blog where I truly do enjoy writing just for the sake of writing.

To finish off, here is a short excerpt from the final chapter which I hope might give you a bit of a snapshot into the general message of the whole book…

The international research about IWBs consistently reiterates that the most important variable in improving student learning is the quality of the teaching that takes place within the school.  Although this book has tried to focus on some of the technical, pedagogical and logistical issues of implementing IWBs successfully, the point remains that none of this matters if it these are not being applied on top of quality teaching practice. It bears saying once more that an excellent teacher with limited resources will nearly always be able to provide a better learning experience than a lousy teacher who has all the latest technology.  Technology, in and of itself, is not the answer to more effective learning.  Good quality teaching by passionate, committed educators is the answer to more effective learning.  Always has been, always will be.

An IWB is nothing but a tool to assist great teachers do what they do best.  All the high praise or damning criticism you might hear about IWB technology is largely irrelevant without an insight into how a teacher is using it.  An IWB can be used as a regular dry-erase whiteboard, a basic electronic whiteboard or a dynamic digital convergence facility that sits at the centre of a media-rich digital teaching hub.  It is the teacher, not the technology, that decides how effectively an IWB will be used in their classroom.

Photo: Maurice Cummins, IWB Guru

Getting Kids to Blog

I recently worked with our Year 4 teachers to get their kids blogging for the first time. I’d suggested blogging as a good activity for these students as a way to get them writing and reading more, as well as being for a potentially more authentic audience.  The teachers involved were a little apprehensive at first but quickly warmed to the idea and were quite keen to give it a go, especially as I said I  would work closely with them to get our blogging project off the ground… this was the first time we had tried to use blogs with the students so I was very keen to see it succeed of course.

As you may have read in a previous post, we managed to be hit with numerous technical hurdles as Edublogs recovered from a series of password resets, something the kids found annoying and tedious but also that they took very well.  The teachers of the students were a little confused that blogging was so complicated (“why do we need to reset our passwords every time we try to use the blogs?”) but again, they managed to take it all in their stride and just carry on with it.  I tried to explain that this was just a freak glitch, that blogging really was very straightforward, and to their credit they coped quite well, although I’m doubtful whether they will be willing to try it again in a hurry unless I’m there to support them with it.  The technical hassles really damage the perception of the process.

All that aside however, the kids really got into it.  They loved working on their blogs, and figured out how to add photos and videos, make categories, add widgets and change themes.  It was great to see the way they encouraged each other, helped each other work out the issues and kept adding to their own blogs both in and out of school.

I thought I’d just share a couple of tips that we picked up along the way and relate a few ideas for how we worked through the project.

The kids were each given their own blogs, set up using the multiple blog registration tool in Edublogs.  I set up the kids’ blogs 15 at a time, and made each of the teachers co-administrators.  This meant that the teacher could log in and make changes to any inappropriate content if required, although thankfully it was never required.

I also created an OPML file of each classes blogs, and used that file to import the kids’ blogs into the teachers’ feedreader.  Our school uses Outlook 2007, which has a reasonable RSS reader built in, so it was straightforward to import the OPML file into each teacher’s Outlook client, thereby giving them a feed for all their kids’ blogposts.  This made it much easier to keep on top of the many posts that were being written.  I also imported the OPML file into my Google Reader and kept an eye on the posts there as well.  To date there have been 49 posts written by one class and 71 posts by the other… not a bad effort for a first time blogging project plagued by technical troubles.

We also made sure we spent enough time discussing with the kids some of the issues about staying safe online… things like not revealing any personal information, not using your last name, not mentioning your school or where you will be at any particular time. We talked about how to handle comments and how to be a responsible online citizen. They took all this very seriously and stuck to the rules the whole time.

Of course, the real point of a blog is to write, so I worked with the teachers to come up with some way to encourage the students to write more, and especially to relate it to the topic they were doing last term which was “Australia, You’re Standing In It”.

To that end, we designed a grid of writing prompts.  It was arranged into four threads – Built Environment, Natural Environment, Flora and Fauna, and States and Territories.  We gave the students three options for each thread, one from the lower end of Blooms Taxonomy, one from the middle and one from the upper end, making 12 possible writing topics in all.  The easier topics were rated at 10 points, the middle ones at 15 points and the harder ones at 20 points and each student was asked to accumulate 60 points, with a special prize given to any student that accumulated 100 points or more. The idea was to create a range of choices that each student could make for what they wrote about, from the easier research and recall type tasks, all the way up to harder tasks that requires greater creativity and synthesis of ideas.  A student could opt for the easier tasks if they wanted to, but obviously they would need to do more of them.  Alternatively, they could do fewer but harder tasks if they chose.  The actual tasks they chose did not matter, as long as they collected at least 60 points worth.  Despite the issues with Edublogs and the large chunks of wasted class time, many students managed to get to the 60 point mark, and some collected as many as 120 points.

Cut and pasted from our Moodle page, it looked like this…

Year 4 Blogging Topics

Choose from the following list of blog topics. You need to collect at least 60 points, and anyone who gets 100 points will get a special prize.

Write each as a separate blog post. Give each a good title and a put them into a suitable category.

10 points 15 points 20 points
The Built Environment Choose a built environment and describe it in words. Add a couple of pictures as well. Write a poem about the built environment. It needs at least 2 verses. Pick two Australian built environments and compare and contrast them. (Describe their similarities and their differences) Include pictures to support your views.
The Natural Environment List 5 natural sites in NSW and include a short description of each one. Include a photo of each if possible. Should tourists be allowed to climb Uluru?
Give 5 good reasons to support your argument. Include a photo or two.
Choose an Australian natural environment and explain how and why it needs to be protected. Give as much detail as you can.
States and Territories Find the weather in 5 other states right now. Include a link to the page where you find this information. In the form of a travel log, describe a holiday you’ve taken in NSW or interstate. Include a few pictures. Which is the best Australian state? Why? Give at least 5 reasons that would convince an overseas visitor to go there.
Flora and Fauna Choose an area of Australia and list at least 3 plants or animals you would find there. Include pictures. Find 3 pictures of Australian flora and/or fauna, and write descriptions about them for someone who was blind. Choose one endangered Australian plant or animal and explain what you might do to help save them from extinction.

What struck me as I watched the students work on this project was just how many other skills they used along the way.  From technical skill trying to figure out how to include photos or YouTube videos, to information literacy skills in choosing the rights sites to gather information from, to improving their general knowledge as they learned things they didn’t know before they started.  I thought it was a successful project on a number of levels, and I do see how blogging can be a very powerful tool for learning.

Anyway, I’m certainly not claiming it was perfect or ideal, and I’d certainly appreciate any comments you might like to make on ways to improve our attempt at blogging.  What can we do to improve it?

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