Taking the Long View

I was recently given the privilege of giving a short keynote talk for the upcoming Flat Classroom Project cohort. The Flat Classroom Project is a wonderful professional learning program run by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay which focuses on getting teachers and students working together on global collaborative projects – connecting classrooms around the world to work together. Julie contacted me recently to ask if I would be interested in doing it and I jumped at the opportunity.

I was fortunate that I started doing some really full-on global collaborative projects with students back in the late 1990s, thanks to a program that was run by AT&T called Virtual Classroom. Although the format of the VC program was meant to be competitive – teams of three classrooms from around the world worked together to build a website on an agreed common theme – the essential principles of working together online were very much ingrained into my brain over the three years we worked on these projects. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the experience of doing these projects not only helped me to understand how to be a better teacher, but it’s what kept me involved in, and enthusiastic about, teaching. Without those few intense years of seeing the power of connecting, communicating and collaborating together across the world, it’s a fair bet that I would not still be teaching today. It was quite literally my “peek over the pail” to see exactly what education could really be all about, and it’s influenced almost everything I’ve done since. Those projects had a significant long term effect on me as an educator.

Those students I worked with back then are all in their late 20s now and I often wonder if they experienced the same sort of long term benefit from our global projects. So when Julie and Vicki asked if I would do this keynote I thought it might be a great opportunity to find these guys and actually ask them that question. Although I haven’t kept in regular contact with all of them over the years, I managed find several of them on Facebook to ask them whether they felt it made a difference to them. Just the fact that they were so willing to talk to me and reminisce about what we did 15 years ago, I think says a lot about the relationships and connections that these projects created.

And really, it’s in those relationships and connections, and being able to play a part in creating ripples of influence that reach far into the future that make teaching so different to so many other professions. It’s why those of us who love it, love it.

Anyway, the keynote video is on the Flat Classroom Project site, but (with Julie and Vicki’s permission) I thought I’d share it with you here too.

Special thanks go to Daniel, Richard, Peter, Chris and Laurie. You guys were awesome back in school, and you’re just as awesome now. Thanks for helping me learn what it means to learn.

I also want to say how grateful I am for my co-teacher partners in crime from those days – Janette Wilmott, Janet Barnstable, Mariko Yana, Hajime Yanase.

If you’ve never tried working globally, do yourself a favour and give it a go. Get involved in Flat Classroom Project, or even checkout the Global Virtual Classroom (what the original Virtual Classroom Project morphed into)  If you just look around, there are so many opportunities for collaborating online together… just find one and dive in. You won’t be sorry you did. Just ask my students.

Looking for Indonesian Partners

Indonesian FlagThis post is a bit of a call for assistance from any schools in Indonesia. If you could assist we would really appreciate it.

Our year 5 classes are just embarking on a thematic unit of work on Indonesia.  The students are doing research into life in Indonesia, learning about the culture, food, transport, religion and so on. It’s being done as part of their HSIE strand.  By the way, HSIE stands for Human Society and it’s Environment, for those outside NSW…  Oh, and NSW means New South Wales, for those outside Australia. See the joys of writing for a global audience?

And that’s the point really. Getting kids to think outside their own backyard, and realising that when they use certain words or abbreviations that they don’t always translate across borders and timezones. Knowing that other people are asleep when you’re awake, and that words and phrases you take for granted can be complete mysteries to people outside your own culture is, I think, a really important mindset to develop. It’s one of the reasons I’d love to see more and more projects include a global, collaborative element.

If we’re going to learn about Indonesia – a country that is one of Australia’s closest neighbours and yet so very culturally different – I’m really keen to connect our students with other students who actually live there.  I know it can be tricky to arrange global collaborations, especially where language can be a barrier and these sorts of “soft learning” projects are not always valued by others as much as they are by me.  So I’m trying to come up with something that is relatively “low impact” to potential Indonesian partners. I’m looking for something whereby we can encourage them to be involved, while at the same time not becoming onerous and overcommitted. It’s got to be something where the partner schools can contribute at a level they feel comfortable with.

To that end, here’s what I’d like to suggest (or rather, request)…

I’m going to get our three classes of Year 5 students to work in teams to build three websites about Indonesia, one per class.  Our students will be put into pairs and each pair will work on creating a section on the website about one aspect of Indonesian life.  We will be using Google Sites to build it.

Ideally what I’d like is to establish a handful of Indonesian schools to act as “consultants” to us as we build these websites. We’d invite comments and feedback about the pages we make, perhaps letting us know if we were somehow missing the point on something, getting our facts wrong, or just not quite understanding the spirit or nuances of the Indonesian culture. It would be pretty cool if one of our students who might be learning about, say, Indonesian food, could, instead of just finding an image using Google Images, be sent a photo from an Indonesian buddy showing what they had for dinner last night.  That sort of thing would be just perfect!

I’ve already managed to enlist one such partner teacher in Endang Palupi, an ESL teacher at a school district in Pekalongan. We have arranged a series of Skype calls between her students (who are keen to practice and extend their use of English) and our students (who are keen to meet Indonesian students and learn more about life there.) On that level, it’s win-win. Endang’s students will also try to provide us with feedback and some level of consultation as we build our websites.

In an effort to not place too much expectation on any single teacher or school, I’m also looking for a few other Indonesian partners who might be willing to contribute to this project. I’d like to think that it will be a two way street, and that they will benefit from working with us as much as we hope to benefit from working with them.  Like I said, it’s just a nice easy project that would be based around getting some “consulting” and advice from them as we build our websites. This consulting can be simple and easy (maybe just take a look at our websites occasionally and drop us some feedback on how we’re doing), or become more involved (Skype calls, travel buddies, co-collaboration on the sites, etc)  It’s really up to the other school as to how much and what they’d like to contribute.

So, Indonesian schools, how about about it… can you help me out?  We’ve just started working on this project and we’d expect it t run for the next 7-8 weeks. We’d love to get you involved!

If you can help us, or know someone who can, please leave me a note in the comments below.

Photo Credit: CC BY-ND http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/2503224501/ 

A Decade of Global Learning

I was browsing through some old files this week and I stumbled across this wonderful piece of video that brought back some great memories for me.  It’s just over 10 years old and is an interview with a group of students I taught back then, just after they had been awarded third place in the 1998 AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest.

The Virtual Classroom Contest, for anyone that remembers it, was an amazing web-based global collaboration project that linked kids from across the world together. Over 300 schools took part each year, forming 100 teams made up of three different schools that had to be located on three different continents.  The project ran for over eight months, starting with the use of forums and email to debate and discuss ideas for a theme, and then a massive collaborative push to turn their ideas into reality.  We were fortunate to be teamed up with two other amazingly dedicated schools – Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, and Fuwa Junior High School in Japan, and we produced a collaborative digital novel about time travel through our three countries called “Once Upon a Time Machine”.

I can honestly say that working with these kids, and the experience of working globally, across timezones, overcoming language and cultural barriers, to produce a true piece of creative, collaborative work is without doubt the thing that kept me in teaching. Working with these kids doing these sorts of projects opened my eyes to what real learning could be about, and what the truly important values of education were.  These students, as well as their teammates who weren’t in the video, worked so hard that year and were so dedicated and committed it was astounding.  You only have to watch them and listen to them speak to realise that what they learned was nothing that could be found in a school textbook. This project was not about “playing school” to keep a teacher happy.  This was about rising to a challenge, chasing your passions, and learning because you wanted to, because you actually found it interesting.  All of this work was done outside of regular school work; it’s amazing what students are capable of, in spite of school rather than because of it.

I hope you take the time to watch the video and to listen to their answers, because I think they embody everything I want education to be.  When I asked them what they learned, I got answers like “teamwork”, “leadership”, “tolerance”, “committment”.  This was all unscripted and unprompted.  These kids really were as genuine as they appear in this video.  As I watch it now, I’m still quite amazed at the maturity of these students who at the time were only about 14 or 15 years old.

I’m also pretty proud for what we were doing way back then, over ten years ago. Web videoconferencing.  Online discussion forums. Website building with Flash and Javascript. Kids thinking in terms of timezones and learning to pass files around the world for others to work on.  This was all pre-Web 2.0, and we did things the old fashioned way with HTML editors and FTP access.   I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I guess it was pretty sophisticated stuff for 1998/99.  It was just what you did if you wanted to make this stuff happen.

Many of these same kids entered the Virtual Classroom Contest the next year and managed to help their team take out the overall first prize, earning a trip to Hong Kong to meet their virtual team mates.  It was, as you can imagine, a wonderful experience for a group of teenagers to know that they were the “world’s best” at something.

The Virtual Classroom Contest was discontinued in 2000 due to cost cutting at AT&T, but was resurrected in 2005 by the Give Something Back Foundation.  I find it equally impressive and humbling that my friend and partner in crime from Oak Park, Janet Barnstable, has continued with the revised Global Virtual Classroom Contest every year since then and has mentored her kids to either first or second place each time.  If you ever wanted evidence that the quality of the teacher can have an effect on the quality of the learning, there it is.

To all the kids I had the joy and privilege of working with back then, thank you for teaching me much more than you’ll ever realise.

Did You Know?

I wonder if Karl Fisch knew what he was starting when he made the original “Did You Know?” PowerPoint file for his staff at Arapahoe High School back in early 2007.  Fisch just wanted to share a few thoughts about a fast changing world with his fellow teachers, but by posting a copy to his blog it got picked up by others who found it fascinating, it went completely viral, has been made into several versions, has been remixed and modified many times, and its many incarnations have now been viewed many millions of times on YouTube and other online video sites.  All of this really speaks about the power of the web to help spread ideas…

In case you haven’t seen it here is version 4.0, the latest incarnation of “Did You Know?”

Nice work Karl.

Technorati Tags: ,

So Much Silicon

Being a bit of a technology geek, one place I’ve always wanted to visit is Silicon Valley.  Stretching southwards from San Francisco to San Jose, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are home to many of the world’s major computing and technology organisations. Birthplace of companies like Apple, Adobe, Google and Twitter, breeding ground for new ideas at universities like Stanford, and host to big annual tech events like MacWorld and WWDC; the SF Bay Area really is a slice of geek Mecca.

So I’m pleased to say that I’ll be spending the next week or so here.  I’m actually here for the Adobe Summer Institute, a 5 day conference and workshops held at Adobe’s San Jose offices as part of their Education Leaders program.  We get to spend all week immersing into the serious end of fun stuff like Photoshop and Flash.

This afternoon I visited Wikispaces, a company based right here in San Fran only a few blocks from my hotel.  Wikispaces put a message out on Twitter a while back asking for volunteers in the bay area for anyone interested in taking part in some usability testing for some new Wikispaces features.  Purely on the off-chance, I dropped them a line and mentioned I’d be in SF in mid July, and Adam from Wikispaces replied back to say sure, drop in and be part of it.  So I found my way down to their office this afternoon, met Adam, James and Jess and spent about 90 minutes doing some really interesting usability testing, talking about some cool upcoming stuff in their products and having a great chat about usability, interface design and web navigation in general.  It’s always good to chat with super smart people doing cool stuff, so I was really pleased to have had the opportunity to drop by.

I had a bit of a wander around Union Park, dropped into the Apple Store on Stockton to leech a bit of free wifi while I listened to some of their free presentations. Then it was back to the hotel for a couple of hours of sleep before going for a walk through Chinatown and up to North Beach.  The place was buzzing… but I really do hate traveling alone!  There’s something about sitting in a restaurant on your own that is just kind of pathetic… Instead, I bought a couple of hot pizza slices and kept wandering, taking in the atmosphere, trying to appear only slightly less pathetic.

Anyway, I’ll try to put up a few short posts while I’m here just in case anyone is interested.  Big day of sightseeing tomorrow, and still trying to wrangle a visit to the TWiT Cottage on Sunday to meet @leolaporte… not sure if that will come off or not, but it’d be kinda fun if it does…

Cutting out the Middleman

One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman.  It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily.  Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans.  Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like lulu.com to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents.  Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers.  In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction.  Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?

This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.

When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment.  Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.

Same thing with making music.  Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy.  Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.

Think about the changes involved in creating content for the web… not so long ago you needed a funny hat with a propeller on it just to make a website.  You needed to know about html coding, javascript, FTP servers, file types and naming conventions, plus a whole lot of other techno-geekery if you had any hope of putting a decent website online.  It was tricky, and the average person really struggled to do it.  But look what the new web, the read-write web, web 2.0 – call it what you will – has done to this process.  Blogs and wikis have changed things so dramatically that your 75 year old mum can now run a website using some free tool like Blogger or WordPress.  No need to hire an expensive web designer, or buy a lot of expensive gear.  Just sign up for a free account, click edit and start creating stuff. It’s a total turnaround.

The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts.  Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout…  you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero.  Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days?  I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why?  Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves.  If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost.  Barrier one gone.

The second aspect is one of distribution.  Once you make something, you need to get it to people.  You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.  When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous.  Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists.  The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.

The last aspect is promotion.  Telling people about stuff.  Getting the word out.  Marketing.  There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own.  Not any more.  Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen.  Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.

I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week.  After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels.  I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say.  If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.

The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education.  So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it.  But what about education?  Is there such a thing as educational middlemen?  If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education?  Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune?  I doubt it.

Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published,  at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.

Who are the educational middlemen?

Real Life and Real Life Learning

Kent Peterson, Chris Betcher, Linda Johannesson and Susan SedroiIn previous posts, I’ve mentioned how nice it is to occasionally convert some of our online connections into real ones.  This week I had the opportunity to again meet up with someone I’d only ever know through the blogosphere.

Susan Sedro is a teacher at the Singapore American School where she does ICT support for years 3, 4 and 5.  The first time I “met” her was during a group Skype call back in September last year and since that time we have read each other’s blogs, chatted occasionally on Skype and, along with Kim Cofino, even recorded an episode of Virtual Staffroom together.

I’d noticed that Susan was asking some very Aussie-centric questions on Twitter a while back, wanting to know the best places to go snorkelling on the Barrier Reef, etc, so I assumed she might be planning a trip down here.  We got in contact and I said if she was in Australia to give me a yell and we’d catch up.  Well, she yelled and we caught up.

So last Wednesday night, Linda and I met Susan and her partner Kent in front of the Orient Hotel at the Rocks here in Sydney.  We had a very pleasant evening wandering around the city, starting by catching a cab down to Darling Harbour, walking across the old Pyrmont Bridge to have an al-fresco dinner and a few beers at the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel, followed by a walk through Darling Harbour, up Liverpool Street through the Spanish Quarter, left into George Street past Town Hall and St Andrews Cathedral and all the way down to Wynyard Station.  It was a nice night for a walk and we had a good chat about all sorts of things, some education-related, and some not.

I made the offer to Susan and Kent to drop into my school, PLC, at some stage if they had time.  Fortunately, their plans for the next day had them catching a train that went right through Croydon so they took me up on the offer and popped in on their way.  We did a quick tour of some of the school, and even dropped into one of the computer rooms where Year 4 was having a lesson and had a chat with some of the kids.

My school runs a program called Transition Class, which caters for special needs students with fairly significant learning disabilities.  These students, about 20 of them, attend regular classes but also focus on learning a lot of life skills.  To help facilitate this, PLC bought a house next door to the school which they call Transition House and the kids regularly spend time there, learning very practical skills to teach them to look after themselves. One of the wonderful things these kids do every term is called Transition Cafe, where they host and manage a cafe luncheon for PLC staff… the menu is prepared, orders are taken and the food is cooked and served by the transition students and it’s a wonderful example of real life, relevant learning in action. Kent and Susan’s visit just happened to coincide with this term’s Transition Cafe event so of course they were invited to join us for lunch at the table reserved for the IT Services team.  We all had a very pleasant time sitting in the sunshine, chatting and being served by our wonderful transition kids.

I had to sneak off from lunch a little early as I had an IWB workshop I’d promised to run for our Creative Arts staff.  I left Susan and Kent in the capable hands of our IT Director, Chris Waterman, who escorted them over to meet me just as the IWB session was winding up, and we took another quick tour through The Croydon, an old pub that was bought by the school a few years ago and converted to our centre for technology and the arts, before eventually bidding them farewell as they continued on with their day.

Meeting IRL is a good thing… If you ever get the chance to meet up with colleagues you’ve only ever known through the network, I’d encourage you to do it.  It was terrific to meet Susan and Kent, and I’m hoping to be able to take them up on their offer to catch up in Singapore one day.

I think it would be rather nice to sit and share a beer or two at Raffles Hotel.  🙂