Category Archives: Kids and Learning

iPads, Games and BYOD

After a successful iPad trial at school last year, the teachers all agreed it was working really well.  So this year we asked our year 5 and 6 students to bring an iPad to school and I’ve been working with the teachers and students in those classes to help ensure we get the most from this arrangement. I think it’s been working really well; the kids have been incredibly responsible and have been producing some really interesting work with them.

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I had an email from a Year 5 parent a few weeks ago asking some questions about the iPad program, in particular about required apps, the rules and expectations for their use, the use of games (including one called Goldrush that she was concerned about), impacts on socialisation, responsibilities for backing up data, etc. In particular, this parent had a few concerns about using the iPad for playing games versus using it a a learning tool. I wrote a fairly long and detailed email in reply, and I’m republishing it here (anonymised of course) because I thought the general gist of my reply might be of some value to others. Your thoughts are welcomed in the comments.

The guts of the email went like this…

One of the key aspects of the students using iPads as BYO devices is that it provides (by design) an environment and opportunities for them to become managers of their own technological world. It also means that parents have a significant say in what they want to allow or not allow on their child’s iPads. Most of what we covered at the parent information night back in Term 1, prior to the students being allowed to bring in their iPads, was focused on reinforcing this idea that in a BYOD environment the final say on what is appropriate is up to individual parents. As I tell the kids all the time, “I don’t live in your house, so I don’t make the rules for what you do there. Your parents do”.

We initially asked the students to have only a fairly small set of designated core productivity apps installed on their iPads – a web browser, word processor, presentation tool, PDF/eBook reader, video and audio editing tools, etc. We have intentionally not made long lists of “required apps” because the nature of operating a BYOD program is such that students should be allowed to choose the tools (in the form of apps) that work best for them. For example, in a recent task, students had an option to produce a set of presentation slides (what in a non-iPad world you’d just refer to as a “PowerPoint”) The task was structured in such a way that students could respond to this task using a variety of presentation-style apps, including Keynote, MoveNote, PopBoardz, Haiku Deck, SlideIdea, Flowboard, and others. Part of the learning we want to occur is that students are given opportunities to make good decisions about which technology tools they wish to use, and allow them to identify, find and manage those apps. In finding new apps they also develop the very important skill of learning how to use a piece of software that they have never seen before. What this amounts to is a way of helping students “learn how to learn”, which is possibly the most important skill they can take away from the whole experience of school.

Regarding games, it’s sometimes not easy to know what exactly constitutes a “game”. For example, Scratch, Minecraft, even Mathletics, could all be considered to be “game-like” but are incredibly valuable learning environments that we actively promote and support. For example, a game like The Room requires a high level of problem solving and lateral thinking skills. Games like Threes! or 2048 involves the use of logic, problem solving and maths. Musyc is a music composition tool that looks very much like a game. There is an app called DragonBox in which the rules are based on the principles of algebra, essentially teaching students to understand algebra through playing the game. I haven’t played Goldrush myself, but I just had a quick look at it in the App Store and it looks like it has quite a few valuable learning aspects to it, including engineering concepts and bridge construction skills (something the students will do much more of in Year 6 next year) and it looks like it needs a lot of thinking, problem solving and logic to play well.

While it’s probably true that some games don’t offer enough learning for the amount of time put into them, I would be vary wary of having a simplistic “games = bad” approach, or to think that games (or game-like environments) cannot help students learn valuable skills. Much of the research around gaming suggests quite the opposite, and that the engagement factor present in most games, as well as the logic and problem solving skills usually required, are in fact exactly the kinds of things we need to be developing in our students.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that students should spend all their time playing games. However, the evidence suggests that there is much to be gained by allowing students to spend SOME time with games, particularly games that support worthwhile learning objectives.

I think we could have a whole other discussion about what exactly we mean by the term “game”, what a “game” looks like, and what might constitute using the iPad as “a learning tool”. I suspect the distinction may not be as clear cut as it might first appear. And because every family will have different perspectives on this distinction, this needs to be a conversation that takes place between parents and their child. If you’re unsure about an app, be it a game or anything else, by all means sit down with your child and talk with them about it, ask what they likes about it, what they learns from it, and get them to show you how they use it. As I pointed out at the parent evening, the ultimate decision about iPad use, about what apps are appropriate, about where and how the iPad gets used at home, rests with parents. I repeatedly said to all parents “It’s your house, your child, your iPad, your rules”.

As far as use at school goes, the iPads have been very successful so far in extending learning opportunities. Certainly, in the work I’ve been doing with the students they have shown some amazing learning with these tools. A large part of that has come about because we have not mandated specific apps or uses of the devices, and instead are allowing each student to use the devices in ways that best support their own learning, using apps that work best for them. I recently had one of the iPad classes do an “App Slam” where they each had 2 minutes to stand up in front of the class and present an app, a tool, a website, etc, that they found useful or fun. It was amazing to see not only the confidence and fluency with which they used this technology, but also the ease with which they shared it with the class. And interestingly, out of the 16+ apps on show, I’d only heard of two of them before. The point is that with the hundreds of thousands of apps in the Apps Store, the students are taking the lead here and discovering useful tools that we teachers may not.

Some of the innovation, independence and creativity we have seen so far has been astounding, and has taken the learning into places that simply could not be achieved without these tools. The goal with using technology in education is not simply to use technology to reproduce things we COULD already do without it, but to find entirely new ways to do things that we COULD NOT do with out it. So while using the iPads to take notes, read books and look things up online are all worthwhile and valid uses, the really powerful learning will come from getting the students to interact with data, ideas and skills that could not be previously done without them. And even after just a term and a half of having the devices we are starting to see many instances of this happening.

The teachers of year 5 and 6 are very aware of the students using their iPads in appropriate and socially responsible ways. Their use is managed in class and any student who gets off-task is very quickly brought back to the task at hand. I am told that the students do get some free time with the iPads, but only on Thursdays, only at lunchtimes and only in the library, so that seems like a fair deal to me.

Regarding data monitoring, when the students are at school they are connected to our school wifi so they are subject to all the usual filters and blocks that apply to Internet access on our network. However, we don’t (and really don’t want to) restrict students from downloading new apps, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Regarding backup, we use Google Apps for Education as our core platform here school so any documents that the students store in that service are securely backed up in the Google cloud. If they put their work into Google Drive (as most of them do) it will be safe. Other file types (such as photographs, iWork files, etc, may be managed by Apple’s iCloud service if the student enables it. Aside from that we do recommend that all students back up their iPads to iTunes on a home computer regularly. Because it is a BYO device, the responsibility for doing this lies with the student (and their parents if needed) Again, our students are growing up in a world where the process of managing data is increasingly important and will usually not be done for them. It’s important they start learning to do this now.

So what is Technology Integration?

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I was asked by a colleague in another school the other day if I could give her a snapshot into what I actually do, and what the role of an ICT Integrator actually looks like (from my perspective anyway). Apparently she wants to talk to her school leaders about having an integrator on their staff and was trying to get an idea of what the role would entail from someone who does it.

Whenever people I meet ask me what I do, they have often never heard the term “ICT Integrator”. It’s another one of those jobs that didn’t exist when most of us were in school. We say all the time that we should be preparing our students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and this role is a good example of that.

I have a couple of  simple “elevator pitch” descriptions that I often use to tell people what my job involves…

  • “I look at the stuff kids are supposed to learn in school and help teachers figure out where technology can help make that learning richer and more meaningful.”
  • ” I look at technology and curriculum and try to mash them together so that learning becomes more relevant and interesting.”
  • “I help combine technology that changes all the time, with schools that don’t.”

Basically, the role of a tech integrator is all about finding ways that technology can assist learning, and helping teachers and students make the most of it. To do that we try to think about things like the SAMR Model, the TPACK Model, Blooms Taxonomy, Multiple Intelligences, Visible Thinking, Dweck’s Mindsets, etc, etc, and figure out how technology can assist to make them work even better. We need to be able to identify opportunities in the curriculum where technology can help make it richer, and I think we also need to be wise enough to recognise when technology is not the right answer too.

To be a tech integrator requires a lot of dealing with people, both big people and little people. We work with kids of all ages and adults who sometimes act like kids of all ages. We have to be able to push people out of their comfort zone enough that they will take risks and try new things, but not so hard that they get their back up and refuse to play. We have to deal with the natural human tendency to resist change, while helping schools redefine themselves as they adapt to new ways of learning and teaching. We have to be teachers, learners, psychologists, trainers, guides. We need to be techie enough to understand how technology works and what we might do with it, but we need to play it down so that we don’t appear to be too geeky and nerdy. (Even if we secretly wear our nerdiness like  badge of honour)

We need to understand that 95% of the teachers we work with will never even think about changing the default settings on their computers, while 95% of the students we work with will refuse to leave the default settings alone.

We need to understand new technologies and be able to see the potential they offer for learning. We need to understand not only what’s new and hot, but also what’s solid and fundamental. We know about iPad and Apps and Chromebooks and Tablets, and we don’t just know what terms like Web 2.0 and the “Internet of Things” mean, we also know about Flipped Learning and the Jigsaw Classroom. We need to be as comfortable with new operating systems as we are with the new curriculum, and we need to know how to deal with both of them.

If you’re only a technician, you probably won’t make a good ICT Integrator. If you love devices and gadgets more than you love kids and learning, this job is not for you.

As an ICT Integrator you create an important interface between the teaching staff and the technical staff in a school. Each of these groups seems to think the others are obstructionists who just don’t understand what truly matters, so you need to be able to straddle both worlds and act as the interface between them. Integrators need to be able to talk tech and mean it. Although the people who speak all the technical mumbo jumbo are critically important in a school,  for god’s sake don’t let them make curriculum decisions! Too often in schools the technology decisions are  based on what’s convenient for the technical team, not what’s best for the learning of the kids. That happens way too often, in too many place, so don’t fall in to that trap. Schools are about learning. Let’s keep it that way.

As an integrator, you need to be flexible, creative and know a little about a lot. Good general knowledge really helps. You need to stay current with technological trends as well as educational shifts. You often work across grades and faculties, so you get to see the big picture across the school. But because you’re so close to the action in the classroom you also see the real picture. Your school might spin good PR, but as an ICT Integrator you get to cut through the crap and see what actually happens in classrooms. Sometimes it’s awe inspiring, and sometimes it ain’t pretty.

You understand that technology changes things in a classroom.  As Seymour Papert observed long ago, something very special happens when you put kids and computers together. It changes student motivation and enhances student engagement. The learning changes. The nature of the teaching changes. Or at least it should. When you put technology in the hands of kids, suddenly having them sit in rows and work at the same rate on the same problems doesn’t seem to make as much sense. Some teachers are not prepared for that shift, and that’s what the integrator is there to help with. To reassure them that learning can come from chaos and that they really don’t all need to be doing the same exercise in the same way at the same time.

It’s a pretty unique role.

Photo by Chris Betcher CC BY-SA

Going Back To Basics Is Still Going Backwards

chris-pyneI’m not a big fan of Christopher Pyne. As far as I’m concerned, our new federal education minister has shown himself to be inept and completely out of his depth in his current portfolio. He continually implies that Australia’s teachers are less competent than they should be and that our students are not receiving a proper education.

The amount of political mudslinging every time he opens his mouth is just an embarrassment to any thinking person. In his interviews with that other redneck extremist lunatic, Alan Jones on 2GB, the two of them make complete asses of themselves as they bask in idiotic, inflammatory statements about Australian teachers.

The thing that really ticks me off about Pyne is this phrase he continually uses… “back to basics”.  In adopting this phrase he poo-poos “modern teaching methods” which he considers airy-fairy, and talks about how we need to get back to a direct instruction model where students listen to a teacher talk at them. He dismisses the idea of child-centred learning, and wants a return to a more didactic teacher-centric model.  And don’t even get me started on his ignorant judeo-Christian-centric view of history.

Christopher Pyne is a fool who knows nothing about teaching or learning.

When I hear a politician say they want to go “back to basics”, It usually means one of three things…

1. They actually have no idea how to move forward.  By going back to a previously known state, something that used to work in the past, they attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to move forward. If it worked for your parents, it must work for you too, right? By going “back to the basics”, whatever the hell that actually means, they don’t need to think of what a better future might look like. They don’t tackle the hard task of building a better tomorrow, they just hope that whatever we did yesterday will still work tomorrow.

2. They have no idea that the world has changed. Anyone who claims that going back to the way something worked in the past is a sustainable solution, simply does not understand how much the world has changed. By going “back to basics”, we go back to a pre-Internet, pre-hyperconnected, pre-Google, pre-Globalised world that looks very little like the world our children are actually growing up in today.

3. They have no idea what our kids actually need. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important, but it would be foolish to assume that the concept of “literacy” as it existed in the 1960s is sufficient in the 2010s. Of course we should produce students who can read and write and know their times tables (and we do, although to hear the way these politicians belittle educators you would think that not a single student can read).  There are other forms of literacy that matter as well, and I don’t want to see Australia go down the same path as our American friends who seem to have a school system which values the Three Rs and not much else, and in fact the insane focus on “the basics” has come at the detriment of so much else about learning that makes us human.

Pyne wants to quote PISA figures and all sorts of other statistics that are supposed to “prove” that Australian kids are going backwards. Continually improving our students ability to read, write and add up is important, but so is their ability to sing and dance and play and paint and draw. We need well rounded students who enjoy learning, who  discover what it means to be truly literate, not just with words and numbers but in all senses of the word.

Make no mistake, no matter how you look at it, going “back to basics” is still going backwards. Any fool can see that. Any fool except Christopher Pyne it seems.

Babies and Bathwater

I was recently in Hong Kong for the excellent 21st Century Learning conference, where I had the very great pleasure of running some hands-on workshops in Google stuff, and also giving the closing keynote. As I mention at  the start of this talk, it was quite intimidating to think that I could say anything worth hearing after an amazing couple of days of learning from so many other amazing educators. (Having people like Stephen Heppell and Gary Stager in the audience didn’t make it any less intimidating either)

I actually didn’t even realise these talks were being recorded so when I spotted this on Twitter today it came as a bit of a surprise. For what it’s worth, here is a video of my talk, called Babies and Bathwater.

I go to quite a few conferences, and I’m always a little surprised at how few of them bother to video the presentations. Given the amount of time and energy that conference organisers put into running these events, you’d think they would be better at capturing things for later reuse. Good on you Paul, Justin and Graeme for making sure that you do it right at 21clHK.

Coding for Kids

While not every student might want to write their own software, understanding the big ideas of coding is a skill that all students would benefit from, even the very young ones. Understanding the key ideas of computational thinking – identifying patterns, thinking algorithmically, manipulating data, solving real problems, etc – is an important step in helping our students build mastery over their world.

This presentation aims to take you on a guided tour through some of the resources available to your students to help them learn the principles of creating code.  It starts by looking at a range of desktop and mobile apps suitable for teaching very young students to program, right through to tools and websites that can help your older students learn to hack code, and much more.

If you do actually try any of this stuff out, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

PS: This is my fourth contribution to the K12 Online Conference, and I think it’s a great format for an online event. I like how it drip feeds out a bunch of presentations over a 2 week period online, but continues to make them available as a permanent archive. There is quite a collection of presentations in there now. Check them out!

Breathing Easy

OxygenIt’s been said that you know when a 1:1 computing initiative is truly working in a school because you stop talking about it. The conversation stops being about the hardware – the computers, the tablets, the wifi, the network, etc. When all that stuff works the way it is supposed to, it begins to fade from the conversations that take place in the school. We stop talking about the devices and start talking about the learning that takes place with the devices. We stop thinking about the infrastructure required to make the technology work, and we just use it, fully expecting that it “just does”.

A good 1:1 program should be like oxygen. It becomes so ubiquitous that you start to forget it’s there. Students and teachers begin to blend the use of technology into their daily routine in a way that becomes so seamless that it feels natural. Taking the technology away would be almost like taking oxygen away. You don’t notice it until it’s not there.

How do you get to that point? Obviously the important infrastructure needs to just work. Wifi needs to be robust and ubiquitous. Servers need to be fast and responsive. Computers and devices need to be simple to use. Software needs to be intuitive and flexible. All that is important, and need to be the first priority of the IT teams that put those things in place. But once those things are in place, we need to stop talking about them.

Learning should be the goal of a 1:1 program. Not devices or wifi or policies or “the cloud”. That stuff is important, sure, but the primary focus of a school needs to be on learning, not technology.

In the excitement of putting technology into schools, it’s amazing how often we overlook that.

This post has been crossposted from its original publication on the Hot Topics section of the Microsoft Partners in Learning blog (http://www.pil-network.com/HotTopics/1to1learning)
CC Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/HAZMAT_Class_2-2_Oxygen.png

Changing the Bathwater, Keeping the Baby

Throwing the baby out with the bathwaterIt’s clear that there is quite a lot about this thing we call “school” that probably needs to change and that there are many schools around the world that are embracing and leading that change with some really innovative ideas about teaching and learning.

However, from what I can tell, innovation and genuine change for the better in education is still rather patchy and relies greatly on the passion and drive of individual teachers, many of whom fly “under the radar” in order to make positive change in their own educational circumstance. There are certainly schools that are, as a single organisation or even a whole system, making giant strides towards reinventing what modern education should be about, but if I was able to randomly drop you into one of the many millions of classrooms around the world to observe what’s taking place inside it, I think it would still be fairly hit or miss as to whether you’d find teaching and learning that was modern, contemporary and representative of the change that many of us want to see happen in education.

We talk a lot about reinventing school. We sometimes declare that school is a “broken system” and wonder about what it would be like to start with a clean slate. We feel the weight of tradition, of a school system based around an agrarian calendar, of a system that was born in a pre-digital age and we dream about changing it. We embrace technology. We build charter schools. We try lots of ideas for making schooling not only different, but hopefully better.

But you know something? Many of the smartest people I know are a product of this “broken” system. Many students emerge from their 13 years of schooling as perfectly normal, well adjusted, happy individuals, ready to embrace the task of making their own dent in the universe. So despite that fact that we like to declare schooling to be in dire need of an overhaul, it seems that it still produces many people who do just fine, thank you very much. This broken system, for all its faults, does actually work for some people. I’m well aware that it does NOT work for many others, and that it could probably work better even for those that emerged from it doing ok, but it got me wondering what aspects of school DO in fact work.

I’m as keen as anyone else to push education forward, to help rebuild it into something that is better and more able to meet the needs of even more students. To make it more “21st century”, if you will. Like so many of my colleagues around the world, I want to be an advocate for the change we need to drag our school system, often kicking and screaming, into the current millennium.

In the process, I’m wondering what, if anything, we should try to keep.

I once asked a group of students to imagine what school could be like if we could wipe the slate clean. What would “school” look like if we could start again, with no preconceptions about what school should look like. I was trying to prompt them to imagine what would happen if we took EVERYTHING about school, burnt it to the ground and threw it away, in order to rebuild the very notion of “school” from the ground up. Their answers were interesting; some were clearly unable to imagine anything that was much different to their current reality, and others really took to the idea of school with an axe, questioning everything and leaving very little that resembled school as we know it.

If we COULD wipe the slate clean, if we could just scrap everything about school and education as we know it, is there anything that you would keep? Despite the claims that our schools are not serving the needs of our current students, is there ANYTHING we do right now that we would NOT want to lose?

I understand that society, technology and the world around our students is changing at a pace greater than at anytime in history, and I appreciate that we really do need to get on with the task of reinventing schools to make them places of learning designed for our students’ future, not our own past, but perhaps we also have to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So let me ask you… What do you think are the valuable, enduring and timeless aspects of education?  What are the things that, no matter how much we end up reinventing this thing we call “school”, you would not want to lose?