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Eight Factors for Effective PD

A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be sitting in a boutique pub on the Fremantle docks having a beer with my mate Bryn Jones.  It was actually the first time I had gotten to meet Bryn in person, although we had exchanged many discussions via the Ozteachers mailing list for a number of years prior to that.  I happened to be visiting Perth to run some technology workshops and since Bryn was one of the few people I knew from WA I’d organised to catch up and meet him in person.  Bryn is a well respected WA educator and was lecturing at Notre Dame University in Freo at the time, quite literally teaching teachers to teach.  I met him at his place, we drove into Fremantle township and went for a wander down to this wonderful pub called Little Creatures, right on the edge of Fremantle Harbour, with incredible beers and one of the most interesting urinal troughs I’ve seen.

Naturally, we talked a lot about education. At the time, Bryn was deeply immersed in research into why some ICT professional development efforts with teachers worked better than others.  It seemed clear enough to me that although we have poured literally millions of dollars into getting teachers “up to speed” with the use of ICTs in the classroom, the PD process was still very hit-and-miss, with large variations in how effectively it worked for different teachers in different situations.  Bryn’s research at the time had been looking at the common ideas that led to effective PD, and had clearly identified some of the key factors.  He was presenting his findings at the ECAWA State Conference in a few days time, so I felt very privileged when he asked me “Would you like like me to tell you what needs to happen for professional development in ICT to really work?”  I nodded as he handed me a business card and said “Write this down”.  We spent the next hour or so going through his 8 key factors for an effective ICT PD plan.

That was a few years ago, but today as I was going through some old boxes I happened to find that business card with the 8 factors scribbled on the back of it.  They seem just as sensible now as they did when Bryn first shared them with me so allow me to share them with you too.  So here, in my own words trying to echo Bryn’s original ideas, are 8 important factors that seem to make a big difference in delivering effective professional development in ICT …

1.    Emotional Support
This might sound surprising, but the number one factor is a sense of emotional support.  Teachers struggling with integrating ICTs into their classrooms just want to feel like they have people around them who understand their frustrations, empathise with their inadequacies, and will listen to them when they are doing their best.  Like most of us, these teachers need to have someone to cheer them on when things are going right and someone who will pick them up when things are not working so well.  Dealing with the implementation of ICTs, especially if it’s a bit of a struggle for you, is made a whole lot easier if you know that there are other people who are there to help you, who won’t make you feel like an idiot when you ask a “dumb question”, and who will share the excitement when you have that magic moment where it all comes together perfectly.  Yes, everybody needs somebody sometime, but particularly when they are dealing with significant change.  And for many teachers, having to integrate ICTs certainly represents significant change for them.

2.    Pedagogical Understanding
It’s not enough to just be trained in how to use a computer or a particular piece of software.  There are dozens of training organisations out there that can run a course in Word or Excel or Flash.  But it’s not about just knowing which menu to click on or what button to press.  For PD to be truly effective, it has to have a pedagogical underpinning to it.  It has to be framed in an educational context that makes it really clear not just how to use the computers, but how to use the computers to enhance learning.  There must be a sense of how the use of technology fits into the curriculum.  If you’ve ever been to an educational presentation where the pitch is being made by salespeople rather than by teachers you will know exactly what we are talking about here.  There is something about the way another educator can frame this stuff that simply cannot be done by a salesperson spouting the corporate mantra.  So when PD is delivered, it really has to be done with a sense of educational reality by people who understand how kids and classrooms work.  If it’s not, you can smell it a mile off.

3.    A Constructivist Approach
Chalk and talk simply does not work when teaching teachers about the use of ICTs.  They have to get in there, log on, make stuff, create work, and do it in a way that allows them to solve authentic problems.  This is the basic premise behind constructivist learning, that learners should be able to identify authentic, relevant problems and then interact with the tools in such a way that they construct their own understanding of how to solve those problems.  A constructivist approach is much more about learning than it is about teaching, so there has to be a real hands-on, explorative, personalised, individualised method for allowing teachers to build those understandings for themselves.  It would be so much neater to just produce an instruction manual, guide people through it step by step, and expect them to just learn the required skills.  Trouble is, that approach doesn’t really work.  Learning is messy.  Live with it.

4.    At Least 4 Computers in a Classroom
This may sound surprising, but apparently once you train teachers with appropriate professional development, if they get back to their classrooms and can’t actually access any computers it is not very effective.  You need an environment where the ideas and skills they learn as part of their PD can be put into practice on a regular basis.  To do this, you need computers in your classroom.  Computers that the kids can use, and they need to be constantly available.  You don’t need to use them all the time, but they need to be always available.  And having one computer is not enough.  Nor is having two, or even three.  To really start to see the professional development pay off in the classroom you need regular access to at least four computers in your classroom.  More would be better but if you don’t have at least four you are doomed to fail.  Oh, and they have to actually work and get used every day.  Not just sit in the room and look impressive on parent-teacher days.

5.    Just-in-Time Technology and Skill Support
The trouble with most PD efforts is that they take a just-in-case approach rather than a just-in-time approach.  You learn a bunch of skills that don’t really matter to you, just-in-case you need them one day, and by the time you actually do need them you have generally forgotten them.  For PD to be effective you need a way to be able to learn the skills you need just-in-time, accessing the answers to what you need when you actually need them.  People wont read manuals or help files.  They wont go back through training notes.  They just want a quick zap with the specific skill to solve their specific problem so they can get on with doing what they want to do.  That’s why “training courses” can be so ineffective sometimes, because they force people to sit through wads of stuff that they either already know, or don’t need to know, just to find the few useful bits they need.  A great example of a just-in-time resource is Atomic Learning, an incredible library of short online video snippets explaining how to do just about anything with almost any piece of software you can imagine. Worth a look.

6.    A Robust Infrastructure
You know this is true.  If you try to run a lesson using technology, and it lets you down, you won’t be too keen to do it again.  For those teachers who are already a bit wary of trying to implement ICTs into their lessons, to have the infrastructure let them down because the Internet was not working, the computers froze or the software behaved badly, it just becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.  “See, I told you this computer stuff was a bad idea!  I won’t be trying that again in a hurry!”  Make sure the technology works, or you are fighting a losing battle before you even get started.

7.    Assistance in Finding Resources
The Internet is a big place, and when you first start spending time there it can be a lot like visiting a new city.  You know what it’s like when you are in a strange city… you don’t know where things are, you’re not sure how to find your way around, or what areas are safe, or where to buy a decent pizza.  Over time, you will learn your way around and know where to find everything, but in the beginning it really helps to have a guide to show you the best places.  I think you get the general idea of how that relates to newbie teachers… they need a bit of handholding just to get them started.  But give them time… they’ll be fine.

8.    Access to PD but not necessarily taking it!
This was the one that surprised me the most.  According to Bryn, if you want teachers to engage with technology you need to offer all of these things to them.  But you should not be surprised if they don’t actually use them.  As teachers, we will work a lot of this stuff out on our own… after all, we are a pretty smart bunch.  And we probably have enough of an ego about learning that we’d like to think we can figure out this stuff without too much help.  And sometimes we can.  But sometimes it’s nice to have a contingency plan.  That’s why we need access to this stuff, even if we decide not to use all of it.

So there you have it.  Bryn’s 8 point plan for effective PD in ICT.  Bryn currently runs his own business helping teachers get to grips with all this stuff, appropriately called ictpd.net, so go visit his website and see what he’s up to. He has lots of good advice for teachers and can even help you out with a sneak peek at Atomic Learning too…

I hope you get something out of these ideas… they are retold to you exactly as Bryn explained them to me in the pub in Fremantle.

Mind you, I’d had several beers at the time.

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Introducing the Book

This video is doing the rounds at the moment and has appeared on a few other blogs, but just in case you haven’t seen it, I thought I’d post about it here.  Set in medieval times, it tells the story of a new book user, just making the transition from the tried and tested scroll.  He can’t figure out a few things about this new fangled technology, so he calls the helpdesk.  Know any teachers like this?

Make sure you stay right to the end.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFAWR6hzZek

Stuff and Nonsense

I was watching a Toronto breakfast show the other morning called BT, in which they ran a story about a school being selected to be part of a $15,000 classroom makeover competition. The school was Philip Pocock Secondary School and the live cross to the school on the morning show presented the story in a typical teaser fashion… you know how it goes, “coming up after the break, we show you the amazing results of a classroom makeover…”

Of course, this caught my attention. As an educationalist, and particularly one who is interested in the ways in which schools need to change to become more relevant to our 21st century students, I was keen to see what sorts of things had been done to give this classroom a makeover. As the show cut to an ad break, my mind was running wild with questions… What sort of cool, innovative things have they done to this classroom? What could you do to a learning space that might better engage our digital natives in the learning process? What cutting edge technologies would we see built into the room? How would they take the concept of digital convergence – bringing together audio, video, the web, interactivity, and all the other digital technologies that our students need in order to function – and bring these together in new and amazing ways, helping to define the direction of the classrooms of the future.

After the break, they showed a bunch of photos of the classroom in its old, industrial age state… it looked much the same as so many other classrooms around the world. Rows of desks lined up facing a blackboard. No digital tools embedded into the architecture. Just a typical boring classroom that most baby boomers would instantly recognise as their version of “school”. The TV cameras showed Janina, the host of the live segment, standing outside the room building up the tension and excitement with a group of students who waited anxiously to enter the room and experience this bold new learning environment…

So, what would you expect if you were to enter this classroom? What types of tools, toys and technologies would YOU want in there? If you accept that technology plays a part in learning, what would you require in the room to ensure you could deliver the very best 21st century education to your students? How would you want the classroom technologies to enable that room to extend beyond its own physical boundaries and let you and your students tap into cultural diversity, live global information, expert opinion and authentic learning experiences? There is SO much that could be done to a classroom these days that would move it towards these end goals… I was really interested to see what they’d actually done.

There is always a lot of talk about the sorts of roles that technology can play in creating “the classrooms of tomorrow”. And although the real benefits of any sorts of learning technologies will come from the ways in which insightful and creative teachers are able to use these tools to engage and inspire their students, I am just as intrigued by the part the actual physical learning environment plays in achieving these goals, and the drivers behind the design of schools. So it was with some interest that I watched as the BT reporter flung the door open to reveal the magical classroom makeover.

What I saw made me both sad and angry. Sad that a school had a chance to make a difference to a classroom – even just one single classroom, and they blew it. And angry because the pathetic excuse for a “makeover” was getting so much hoo-ha on TV, and that the people behind the makeover were obviously so damn clueless.

The revolution in the classroom at Philip Pocock school? They painted the walls a nice lime green colour, got some new furniture from Ikea, replaced the blackboard with a whiteboard (not an interactive one, just a regular whiteboard) and stuck a TV/DVD in the corner of the classroom. Oh, and put a computer on the teacher’s desk. I was stunned. They had to be kidding me… This 21st century classroom was just an 18th century classroom with a coat of paint and some new furniture! the desks were all still arranged in rows facing the teacher at the front of the class. The technology was still not in the hands of the students, and the classroom was just as isolated from the outside world as it was previously.

The reporter started interviewing the kids about their reaction to the room and they all were saying how “cool” it looked and how much “better they would be able to learn”. Pleassse!!! I could not get over how shortsighted and silly they looked as they waffled on about how wonderful it was. Nothing had changed, not in any sort of fundamental way. It was all just cosmetic. Nothing would change in that classroom with regard to learning or teaching.

I’m telling you, we need a bloody revolution!

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It’s All About Choices

Dsc00127I was on an international flight the other day doing a long haul across the Pacific Ocean. It was aboard a new 767 that had been fitted out with personal entertainment screens in the back of every seat. Last time I flew on this particular airline they had a single large screen that showed one movie to everyone, but on this flight I had a choice of about 20 movies, as well as music and games, all accessed by a touch screen in front of me. I watched a few movies on the flight and found it was a much better way to absorb the long flight than the previous situation of sitting through a single screening of a pre-selected movie that I probably never even wanted to see in the first place. In fact, last time I recall being on a flight with a one-size-fits-all movie screening, most people, including me, were not even watching it.

On this flight however, as you can see in the photo, there are a few important differences. Firstly, most people were watching a movie. And not the same movie mind you, but different movies. Everyone was free to make whatever movies choices they liked. The airline didn’t care what movie you watched so long as you were entertained and happy, that was all that really mattered. The engagement factor was high too… very few people were just sitting doing nothing. Unlike the idea of everyone having to watch the same thing at the same time and the subsequent disinterest level for many people, most of the passengers seemed to be watching a movie and staying engaged with the process. They watch a movie because they want to, not because they have to.

For the airline, the cost of upgrading the aircraft to provide everyone with a personal entertainment system would not have been a cheap exercise. It would certainly have been much cheaper and easier to simply retain the old system of showing one movie to everyone at the same time. Like it or lump it. Hey, you’re on the plane to get from point A to point B right? You’re not there to watch a movie! What would it matter to the airline if your boredom factor was a little high for a while? It’s not like you can walk across the Pacific instead right? So why do they do it? Why do they bother spending the extra money to build a system that keeps their passengers happy?

They do it because happy passengers are repeat passengers. They fly with you again and again. They like you. They tell their friends. They become loyal. They buy-in to what you are offering…

Observing all this got me thinking about how it might relate to education. In schools, we have traditionally had the equivalent of a single movie screening. Kids turn up to school and we serve them a syllabus based on what is easiest for the system to deliver. They all get the same content at the same time, delivered more-or-less the same way. They progress through the grades at the same pace. We don’t bother to ask them what they already know, or what interests them, or what they’d like to learn about. We just force-feed them the content that we think they ought to know at that point in their school lives, and then act all surprised when they become disengaged from the process.

We need to take the same approach the airline took. We need to realise that if we want to “keep our customers” – to get our kids to engage with the learning and to buy-in to what we are offering them – then we need to figure out how to make school a more personal, more relevant, more choice-driven experience. We have to offer ways for them to engage with content they are interested in, to allow them to work through it at their own pace, and to give them enough choice in the process so that they feel a sense of personal responsibility for that engagement. We’d like them to do the “school thing” because they want to, not because they have to.

Like the airline, it would be far easier for schools to keep showing the equivalent of one-time screenings of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But it’s only a matter of time before our customers just refuse to fly with us because the experience is just too painful. We need to think about how we can give kids their own “personal entertainment system” experience in the classroom, giving them some choices and putting them in some sort of control over what they do.

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Education, Innovation and Microsoft

DSC00120Not three words you normally find in the same sentence, but last week I had the opportunity to attend the Microsoft Education Roadshow in Sydney. It was part of the regular traveling circus that Microsoft puts on every so often to show off its commitment in the education space. I’ve been a number to these events before, but hadn’t committed to going to this one since they were usually little more than a sales wolf in educational sheeps clothing. But a few weeks prior to the event I had been asked by Intouch Consultancy if I would like to contribute some lesson plans based on the new Office 2007 applications, and those lessons would be released as part of the package of new educational content being shown at the roadshow. For that reason alone – I think it’s called ego – I decided to attend the event this year.

I’ve been a little critical of Microsoft in the past, and some of their events… you may have read my thoughts about the Vista release in Toronto last year. But I have to say, this year’s Roadshow in Sydney was really good. It makes such a difference when the speakers at an event like this are teachers, and can talk about stuff from the perspective of a teacher. I enjoyed listening to guy from the Maitland Catholic Education Office talk about their new Scholaris network deployment and how it solved a whole bunch of problems for them. I could relate to the issues he spoke about, since my school faces many of the same ones albeit on a much smaller scale. As the demos unfolded, I became more and more impressed at just how well thought through some of this new stuff is. The big problem in any school, and any network for that matter, is in getting disparate systems to talk to each other. Getting your school admin package to talk to your Active Directory server, and to talk to your payroll, your library software, your proxy server, your print management software, your timetable etc, is a pain. Getting all these systems to play nicely together is a major headache for any system admin. Yet, here was a guy showing us how they had solved all of these problems across a large number of different schools, all with slightly different configurations, all with a single sign on. I have to say I was pretty impressed… if you weren’t impressed by this, then you really didn’t understand the problem in the first place.

A guy from Intel got up to speak for a while, and it was sooooo obvious when a non-teacher addressed the crowd. the language changed from education to that of sales, and every sentence was full of corporate-speak. They really do need to keep these people away from the microphone at events like these. Seriously guys… if you invite a bunch of teachers along to an event, then keep the focus on education… we don’t care about the technical mumbo jumbo or the product specs or the projected sales figures for next quarter. That stuff is interesting to you, but not to us. Just focus on our needs and your bottom line will be just fine.

They had a guy from Microsoft show us a whole bunch of new stuff for education and I must say a lot of it looked really good. The new stuff you can do with Sharepoint was way cool, some great ideas and demos of software like Flight Simulator and Photostory, and a look at some of the new tools still in beta – in particular one for developing learning object-like apps (It’s name escapes me right now, but it looked very interesting) It looked to me like Microsoft was finally getting its act together in the education space. A final demo of Office 2007 and some new stuff for teachers by my buddy June Wall finished off the demos nicely. There was some cool stuff here too, although despite the oohs and ahhs from some of the audience at Vista’s eye candy effects, I still wouldn’t swap Vista for OSX!

I also got a chance to catch up with Margie Gardner, a teaching colleague that worked with me at Penshurst Marist. Margie took over my role when I left there and it sounds like she is doing a great job of keeping it all going. Margie and I had lunch sitting out on the steps of the Conference Centre, overlooking Darling Harbour on what was a beautiful Sydney day and had a chance to catch up on each others gossip.
Finally, back inside, we heard from the winners of the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Awards. Without intending to take anything away from these guys and girls who had been recognised as innovative teachers with technology, I have to say that it really doesn’t seem to take all that much to be “innovative”. I absolutely applaud what they have been doing with the projects and ideas that they have been applying in their classrooms, but I was stunned at how ordinary some of the “innovation” was. Margie nudged me during the demos and commented that we had been doing most of that stuff back at Penshurst more than eight years ago! I guess I just think that this sort of innovation should be seen as standard practice and not something out of the ordinary. Regardless, it was good to see people getting recognised for their work, and I hope it rubs off on some of the other teachers in the room, some of whom were perhaps seeing these ideas for collaboration and learning with technology for the first time

Before I left for the day I got to look around some of the vendor stands, had a play with the Wacom tablets, spoke to a few developers about Sharepoint, bumped into a few industry people I know and had a chat. Overall, it was a worthwhile day and I’m glad I went.

The Web is Us/ing Us

My apologies for the long delay between blog posts… things have been a bit upside down in my world lately as I deal with a little more change than I can comfortably get my head around.

Speaking of change, I can always rely on Karl Fisch’s blog to link me up with amazing resources that make it just so obvious why the world is changing and why our schools must start to embrace that change. The more I see of the schools I have worked in, the more I worry about just how much we don’t “get it”, and how dangerously irrelevant we are becoming to the digital generation.

This video in particular just gave me goosebumps when I saw it…