Technology is amoral

I ‘ve been asked to present a keynote and workshop at the National Education Summit in Melbourne in August. The organisers of the event wanted to do an interview and ask a few questions as a way of promoting the event, which I did via email. This has been published elsewhere, but I thought I’d crosspost it here for the record.


1. What are some of the important messages for teachers in your presentation ‘The Track of the Storm’ at the National Education Summit in Melbourne?

The title “Track of the Storm” was inspired by Part 3 of Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”. The book opens with the famous lines …

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

As soon as I read that opening paragraph it instantly resonated with how I see technology impacting us today. We continually see amazing new technologies being used to solve seemingly impossible problems, connecting people globally in ways we could barely even imagine a few years ago, and offering endless opportunities to democratise knowledge so that everyone has the opportunity to share and participate.  At the same time, these tools we have created have also enabled a unprecedented polarisation of political and social worldviews, created oceans of fake news and online vitriol, and has provided a powerful platform for some of the worst aspects of humanity. 

Essentially, technology is amoral. It is neither good nor bad. It neither loves nor hates. It neither empowers nor destroys. It simply enables and amplifies that which we use it for.

2.  In your view, what are the most significant emerging challenges for schools and teachers when considering the impact of digital technology use in classrooms and schools generally?

Many schools think about technology in term of tools and applications, hardware and software, in order to enable learning. And while that is certainly a conversation that needs to be had at some point, I think it’s far from the most important one. Too often, I see schools seeing technology as some sort of panacea that will fix all their problems – if only we can choose the right platform, the right devices, the right apps – then we can succeed with technology. But remember, technology is amoral. Unless you rethink a few things, it will just give you more of what you already have. 

The biggest challenge facing most schools, in my opinion, is their general inability to question the status quo.  To step back and ask some fundamental questions about learning, about teaching, about schools, about students, about teachers.  To question the way they have always done things.  To learn, unlearn and relearn. To redesign their processes and procedures, to rethink their rules and assumptions about “the way we do things around here”. 

There is little point introducing technology into the experience of school without rethinking what that experience of school could look like. Because if we just do what we have always done, except with a computer, very little changes.  You want digital technology to have an impact? Be prepared to change what you use it for.

3. Drawing from your experience, what are some of the strategies that can be used in schools to effectively use digital technologies to deepen learning and support educational outcomes?

Notwithstanding my previous answer, which I think underlies everything else, the best strategies that schools can use to effectively use digital technologies is to design learning experiences that provide choice and voice for their students. If we start from an assumption that all students are different, with unique talents, abilities, interests and expectations, and we design the learning experiences in ways that respect and acknowledge those differences, that offer flexible pathways for students to acquire knowledge, express knowledge and validate knowledge, then we are on the right track. 

Reduce the rigidity, without reducing the rigour. Maintain high expectations for what students do, but be flexible about the the ways they can execute on that learning. 

4. In your experience, what practical strategies can schools use to ensure digital technologies are used in an engaging and creative way?

Before cameras became digital, they used film. Good photographers made good photos by understanding the underlying principles of design that created good photos. They understood the essential principles of composition, the rule of thirds, contrast, balance, interest, light, colour, shape. But these essential principles were not just useful for photos taken only on film, they applied regardless of the kind of technology used to make the photos. So when the technology used in cameras moved from film to digital, these same visual design principles remained as true as ever. Digital photography changed many things about the way we take and share photos, but good photographers still apply these design principles regardless of whether they shoot on film or digital, because the principles are based on enduring truths about the way visual design works.

Teaching also has some enduring truths. These include things like building relationships of trust between teachers and students. Having authenticity in the way we interact with students. Caring for for their well-being. Engaging their interests. Bringing humour, laughter, care and respect to every class. These are some of the very human things about teaching that don’t change.  And just like the way that the shift from film to digital changes photography forever, the introduction of digital technologies into our classrooms has opened up fabulous new opportunities for the way we can do things, but it should not change these enduring truths about teaching.

You want digital technologies to be used in engaging and creative ways? Teach well. Care about your students. Build relationships. Be authentic. 

Question everything else.

5. Are there any resources you would recommend for teachers wishing to implement or improve their use of digital technologies within the learning environment?

First, the best resources are other people. Engage with online communities, and surround yourself with other people who can be great resources for you (and you for them). There are so many communities online to tap into, and the very best teachers I know all take advantage of online communities.  All of us are smarter than any of us, and there truly is wisdom in the crowd.

Secondly, choose flexible, powerful, collaborative tools for your students. Learn to use them. Maybe even consider certifying yourself in their effective use, to really prove you know how to use them. Being a confident and competent user of digital tools is incredibly empowering.   But remember that whatever shiny new app you love using today, it probably won’t be around forever. Don’t fall in love with specific tools to the point where you can’t let them go. Love the verb, not the noun.

Finally, learn to use search to effectively to find the answers you need. Teach your students how to search too.  Not just type in a keyword and hope for the best, but to genuinely use search to find answers. We live in a world where there is no excuse for being ignorant about anything. So be curious, ask questions and find answers. Being able to independently find the answer to a question, or the solution to a problem, may be the best skill you can ever possess.


For more information and to register, visit nationaleducationsummit.com.au
National Education Summit, MELBOURNE
Friday 30 August – Saturday 31 August 2019
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
Early Bird registrations available until June 30

This article was originally posted in School News. I’ve crossposted and lightly re-edited here.

Exploiting Opportunities

www.flickr.com/photos/neubie

The following is from an email I wrote to someone who asked if I was going to be presenting at the EduTech conference in Brisbane this year. As you can see, my answer is no, but I think what’s important is my reason for saying no. If you’re planning to present at EduTech, I hope you consider the effect of saying yes.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of EduTech, mainly because I really don’t like their policy of non-payment for Australian speakers. I find it quite insulting that they are willing to pour outrageous amounts of money into getting overseas speakers but are not willing to pay anything for local speakers. I think they need to approach this with greater equity and offer ALL their speakers some form of payment, even if the locals just get a token amount. As I’ve no doubt pointed out before, this is a (very) commercial event run for profit by a professional conference-running company, and yet they expect the vast majority of what they are offering to their customers (at a significant price) to be provided to them for free.

On http://www.edutech.net.au/apply_speaker.html it clearly states that “in the vast majority of cases, we do not pay speakers”. Obviously that blanket statement is not true, as they pay many of their “big name” overseas speakers. What they mean to say is that they don’t pay local speakers because they feel they can get away with that. They also make the very generous point on that page that they “don’t charge speakers to speak”. Woop-de-do, EduTech.

While I’d be very happy to present something, on principle I’m not really willing to be exploited by the EduTech organisers who expect that all Australian presenters should be willing to present for them for free. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’d love to see all Aussie presenters just say no to EduTech but it probably won’t happen.

There are many many great things I’m happy to give my time freely to… helping other teachers, sharing resources, giving time and energy at the grassroots level. But I’m not ok with helping EduTech carry on their culture of exploitation of Australian presenters just so they can make more money.

Featured image: CC BY-SA www.flickr.com/photos/neubie

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.

Making Conferences Worthwhile

Conference

Having just experienced an interesting juxtaposition of two quite different conference modes, I was struck by the following thoughts…

I spent most of last weekend putting a presentation together for the k12 online conference.  This virtual conference was started by a small group of teachers and has run every year since 2006. It is composed entirely of online video presentations of up to 20 minutes in length. These videos are presentation of ideas, best practice, classroom examples and big thinking submitted by educators from around the world. Presenters submit proposals just like a conventional conference, and these proposals are vetted by a selection panel for quality and relevance. Selected presenters then produce their 20 minute video and submit it and each year, over a 2 week period, these videos are released publicly.  There are a few live events and such to accompany them over the 2 weeks that the “conference” is running, but importantly these video presentations live on afterwards on the website for anyone to use and benefit from.  If you’ve never seen them, they are all available at www.k12onlineconference.org.  Go check them out.  The conference starts this year in about 2 weeks time and I recommend it to you.

 Alongside that, I spent the last two days at a real physical conference here in Sydney. It offered many excellent opportunities for networking and sharing. We heard from excellent keynotes, did a number of hands-on workshops, and best of all we had lots of student participation.  It was a great couple of days that I personally got a lot out of, and in my mind there is clearly still a place for this kind of face to face conference event.

However, what struck me was a couple of sessions I went to that could very well have been released as 20 minute videos and been just as effective.  These sessions were basically just someone presenting a set of slides and explaining them.  While I did get some useful information from these sessions, I could have just as easily got the same value from them if they were short video presentations, much like the k12 online experience.

It got me thinking about what types of experiences are best suited for real physical conference events.  Unless we get a chance to interact, ask questions, contribute to conversations, get hands on experience, and do things that require your actual physical presence, then perhaps those other things don’t belong in a real physical conference.  I feel a bit cheated when I go to an event (and pay good money to do so) only to feel as though what I experienced could have been just as well communicated virtually through video or some other means.  I feel a bit the same when I go to a real physical conference and find that one of the “keynotes” is being beaming in via satellite on a big screen that we all just sit and watch.  I expect better than that.

Just like we talk about the SAMR model of technology integration to do things with computers that are more than just a computerised version of what we currently do with pen and paper, perhaps we need to be thinking about what a modern physical conference should look like by making it into something more than that which can be experienced equally well virtually.  If I can get value out of a conference by simply following the twitter hashtag (and saving myself $1000 in travel expenses) then conferences are going to have to start offering a lot more than sitting in a room and hearing someone speak at me.  Prior to the rise of social networks, live streaming, blogging, etc, you basically HAD to turn up if you wanted to get value from the event.  That’s no longer the case.

I attend quite a few conference events each year, I’m guessing more than most people, and often the ONLY real benefit of attending is the networking and connections. And increasingly, real physical conferences are simply just a chance to meet people in “meetspace” that I’ve already known online for quite a while. I really enjoy the chance to meet people IRL that I’ve only known through the networks, but I don’t feel the need to pay huge amounts of money to do so if the rest of the conference doesn’t give back anything above what a virtual event could have given.

I’m not against real physical conference events – far from it – but I do think they need to morph into something that offers considerably more than the current format used by most of them. I don’t want to attend a conference to have someone show me PowerPoint slides or show me how to do something that I could have learned by watching a YouTube video. I want a compelling reason to attend (and those reasons do exist!) but I need something more to show for having attended the event than just a increase in the amount I owe on my credit card.  Conferences need to provide more than just information, because I can get that anywhere.  They need to provide experiences… moments that could not have happened any other way. Moment that change the way I think, teach or see the world.  (Do you think people go to events like SXSW or Burning Man for the information? I doubt it! It’s about having a peak experience)

I find it strangely odd to hear people talk about conferences as their big chance to get some PD. Sure, professional associations are important and I hope you all belong to one that suits you, but be aware that the chance to grow professionally is not something that happens annually or biannually.  PD in this day and age is a matter of being immersed in the right networks of people, and it’s an all the time thing that never stops.  Whether it’s something like Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+, or Scootle Community or listening to podcasts or reading blogs or watching YouTube or some other means… the point is that it is constant.  You CANNOT stay up to date anymore by attending an annual conference, or waiting for your state association to keep you informed.

PD is no longer something that is occasionally done TO you by an external third party. It is something you do FOR yourself, by yourself, constantly.  That’s just a professional responsibility.

Creative Commons photo by Zigazou76

Keeping Up With The Google

Me at Google SydneyI’m a big user of Google’s tools.  I like what they offer and I like that they just keep getting better and better. When my school moved to Google Apps for Education at the end of 2011 we were generally happy with what was on offer, but there were things that we wished were just a little better, a little more polished, or had just a few more features. Over the course of 2012, some obvious things happened: Gmail got a redesign, Drive was introduced, editing of Docs on mobile devices came along, and of course Google Plus. But there were lots of smaller, less obvious, things that came along too: more fonts were added to Apps, the Research tool was added to Docs and Sheets, the Equation Editor got a boost, and so on. Unless you’re on top of it, many of these improvements were easy to overlook.

Over the course of the year many of the things we complained about in January were fixed, improved or added to by December. Google’s tools just keep getting better all the time.

When Larry Page took over from Eric Schmidt at CEO of Google, he famously cut a number of lower priority projects in order to focus on the bigger ones. His goal was to put “more wood behind fewer arrows“. Some features were removed, some projects were cancelled, but in return, we got a much improved unification of the Google environment, new features like Drive and Google+, and a much better integration of the tools that fill the Googleverse.

On the one hand, who wouldn’t want tools that just keep getting better and better? We all want that, right?  On the other, this constant change and adding of features makes it harder and harder for the average person to keep up with what’s available. Unless you make a deliberate focus of keeping up with what Google offers, it’s easy to fall behind.  For myself, I’m connected to the GCT and AppsCT communities, and I regularly co-host the Google Educast on the EdReach network. I’m not sure what other people do to keep up with this stuff.

Sydney Google SummitWith that in mind, you might be interested in coming along to the Sydney Google Summit on January 17/18 at MLC School in Burwood.  The Google Summits are a fantastic two day brain dump of Google goodness delivered by passionate educators who regularly use these tools in education.  The Summits have been running for a while now in various parts of the world but this will be the first time one has been run in Australia.  The presenters are Google Certified Teachers, Google Apps Certified Trainers, Google partners, and even Googlers themselves. The topics cover a wide range of Google-related stuff, from beginner-level through to expert and beyond.  There really is something for everyone. The agenda is still being finalised, but trust me, if you use Google tools in an educational setting, you really won’t want to miss it.

You can get all the details at the Sydney Google Summit website. Hope to see some of you there!

If you’re coming to the Sydney Summit (or even if you’re not) leave a comment below letting us know what you are most hoping to get out of the sessions.

Reflections on China, Part 2

During the Learning 2.012 event, a number of the Learning 2 Leaders had the opportunity to present a short mini keynote on a topic of their choice. I thought it was a good arrangement, being able to hear a little bit from a number of people, instead of just one long talk from one person. In the previous Learning 2 event I attended, there were no keynotes at all, what with the conference focus being on the participants, rather than “speakers”.  This year, we brought back the keynote idea, but in this new format, and I thought it worked really well.  We got to hear from 10 different people, with very different styles and perspectives, and I really enjoyed it.

I somehow ended up being the first person to speak on the opening night of the conference. I decided to recycle a short presentation that I had actually shared before with the staff at Yokohama International School, but I thought the message was still relevant to this group.

Here is my talk…

There were lots of other great short talks from other L2Leaders and they are all being posted on the Learning2 YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/learning2asia.  I won’t repost them all here but it’s definitely worth checking them all out!

Reflections on China, Part 1

This post is likely to be the first of a couple of reflections about my recent experiences in Beijing for the Learning 2.012 conference. There is so much to absorb; the organisation and location of the conference itself, the experience of spending a week in China’s amazing capital city, but mostly the genuine privilege of being able to spend time with a remarkable group of talented educators from around the globe.

The Pearl MarketFirstly, China. This is my second trip to China, the previous being for the same conference two years ago in Shanghai. I wrote some thoughts about that trip at the time and how awestruck I was by China’s rapid growth. That certainly hasn’t changed. China is still full of surprises, and especially so in Beijing where there is such a dramatic contrast between the ancient and the modern. On my first full day there I got to go shopping for pearls with Julie Lindsay and Lucy Gray (trust me, that Julie knows how to shop!) and then later that day Lucy and I explored the Forbidden City together. The size and scale of the Forbidden City was hard to comprehend, as was the fact that the buildings were three times older than modern Australia! We entered from the south gate and wandered all the way up to the north gate. We even, allegedly, met a guy who is the nephew of the last emperor. I didn’t buy his calligraphy, and I’m not sure I buy his story, but it was still a great experience. On the way home we were driven past Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, and although we were unable to stop and explore them on foot, just seeing the enormity of them was impressive enough.

Me on the Great Wall of ChinaThe next day, Adrian Camm joined Lucy and I for a trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China with our very entertaining driver Charlie. It’s easy to see why the Great Wall is one of the Wonders of the World. At over 5000 km long and over 2000 years old, the wall is breathtaking in scale and built along the craggy ridges of a rugged mountain range. The engineering required to construct this ancient wall is almost unimaginable. At Mutianyu, you can drive right up to the base of the mountain and then get whisked to the top of the Wall by a chairlift, which surprised me. Even more surprising was the fact that your return trip is by tobogganing down the winding S-curves of a steel sled track built into the mountain! I did not expect that.

The Great Wall itself was quite an experience. Words can’t adequately describe what it felt like to be standing there on top of a structure as old as the Roman Empire and having it continue along the mountain ridge as far as we could see (which admittedly with the Beijing smog was not all that far). The Wall is quite a strenuous walk and Lucy, Adrian and I wandered along it until we really couldn’t go much further,and then with lots of great photos and memories (and even a FourSquare checkin)to take back home, we backtracked to our starting point.

After a fun toboggan ride back down the mountain (please can we do it again?!) we lunched at a place in Mutianyu called The SchoolHouse where we found an open wifi access point for more FourSquare checkins, Facebook updates and even a quick Google+ Hangout with Linda.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the tombs of the Ming Dynasty, including the Sacred Way. Oh, and of course Charlie treated us to his personal rendition of Chinese opera as we drove along. As you do.

Later that evening, after being driven around all day in a French Peugeot, we sat in an Irish pub, owned by an American couple, eating Italian Pizza, before we went back to the hotel to listen to music being played by a group of Filipino musicians.

Welcome to China.