Learning. Your time starts… now!

I was invited by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach to contribute some thoughts to a session at the Texas Tech Forum today in Austin TX. It was very nice to be asked, especially when I found that I was in the company of such respected educators as Terry Freedman and Emily Kornblut. The topic for conversation was Virtual Communities for Professional Development and Growth, where all three of us had been invited to share a few minutes talking about how we use virtual networks to support our own learning.

Unfortunately, my audio stream was largely unusable and we had to abandon it before I really got started. Seems that the trans-Pacific bandwidth gods were not smiling this morning (or was it David Jakes using all the bandwidth in the next room playing with Google Earth? Hmm, we’ll never know)

Nevertheless, here’s the brief outline of what I would have said, or something very much like it…

If you accept that Learning is a Conversation, and that some of the most powerful learning can take place in the process of conversing and exchanging ideas with others, then setting up ways to have as many of these conversations as possible seems like an obvious thing to do.

How many would agree that some of the most powerful “take aways” from many conference events come from not just what you hear from the stage, but from the informal conversations you have over lunch, in the corridors, etc? There is great power in those conversations. It might be easy to think that the people on the stage at conferences have the knowledge and that if we simply listen to them we will get wisdom, but the truth is that sometimes it just doesn’t work like that, and even if it does, most of those ideas gather far more momentum once we start to internalise them through further conversation with others. Ideas beget ideas, one thing leads to another, and you often find some of the best, most useful ideas come to you not from what was said by a speaker, but from things that came to to you as a result of further conversation about what was said.  (by the way, the same logic applies in classrooms too!)

So if we accept that conversations are powerful learning tools, then how can we encourage more of these conversations?

If we limit our notion of learning to the “official” channel – the teacher, the textbook, the syllabus – we miss so much. Yes, learning happens at school, but what about outside school? Yes, learning happens in the classroom, but what about outside the classroom? Yes, learning happens in the act of “being taught”, but what about when we are not “being taught”?

Our schools system implies that when we ring the bell to signal the start of a class, we are really saying that the learning starts… wait for it… now!  And at the end of the lesson we ring it again to say the learning now stops. Ok, school’s over, you can all stop learning now. Until tomorrow.

Is creativity important in education? If you’re not sure, I suggest you watch the video by Sir Ken Robinson, or read the report “Are they really ready for work?” Yes, I think creativity is important. So, if we acknowledge that creativity in education is important, then how can we teach kids to be creative if we continue to focus on just regurgitating standard answers to standard questions, year after year. Because if it’s only about learning pre-defined content then you don’t need creativity, and you don’t need conversation. Learning in messy and there is no point extending our thinking into new and creative areas if we aren’t committed to that notion, because that just muddies up all those nice clean facts we have to remember.

Papert said that the one really valuable skill for a 21st century learner is that of being able to “learn to learn”… To be able not just to know the answers to what you were taught in school, but to know how to find the answers to those things you were not taught in school.

So how do virtual communities fit into this? They are an obvious and convenient way of extending conversations with other likeminded people, no matter where (or when) in the world they might be. Once you establish the right communities – ones that work well for you – you have an amazing brains-trust to tap into, to bounce ideas off, to share with, to give to, to take from, to argue with, to feel validated by, to learn from, to teach to… once established, you have a powerful 24/7/365 mechanism for generating creative thoughts.

Getting to the point, the tools I personally use to generate my own personal learning networks – my own virtual communities – consist of…

  • Email lists – yep, you heard me… good old fashioned, asyncronous email lists. They still have a useful place and for many people are a great introduction to online communities.
  • Web Forums – same thought as email lists. In fact forums are really just email lists without the email. Great for specific topics and threaded discussions that gets archived.
  • Blogs – wonderful public and private thinking space. You really have to formulate your ideas in clearer ways in order to write them down, so blogs are great for really figuring out your stance on things. And the fact that blogs become so interlinked, with commenting and cross-reading between other blogs. They are like “idea pollination”, only without the allergic reaction.
  • Wikis – great for collaboration, which is another way of saying conversation really. Great for group projects, great for post conference wrapups (extending the conversation). Just great.
  • Podcasts – some of my most powerful learning takes place through listening to podcasts. And when I decided to start my own podcast and began to have real conversations with people… wow, that certainly turbocharges the learning experience.
  • Twitter – so much has been written about Twitter recently. It’s live, it’s immediate, it’s awesome, but you won’t get it until you try it.
  • Skype – My favourite tool for conversation. It encourages quality conversation like no other.
  • Ning – Sometimes the fact that there are so many Ning communities makes it hard to focus my attention in the one place, but certainly a great tool for building communities around a central theme.

So there you have it. Some of my favourite virtual community tools and some of the rationale behind why I use them. At the end of it all, I think belonging to the right combination of communities has the potential to improve what you do… not by a small amount, but by an exponential factor. Tapping into communities increases the quality of your thinking – not by 5-10%, but rather by doubling or tripling your creative flow and understanding.

If you doubt it, just try it and see. Then leave a comment and we can have a conversation about it 😉

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Learning is a Conversation

I have the pleasure tomorrow morning of joining Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach at the Learning 2.0 Conference in Shanghai China. Sheryl is running a session called You are the Time Magazine Person of the Year and will be looking at how educators are using Web 2.0 tools to stay connected and learning. To assist her, she asked Allanah King, Barbara Dieu, David Jakes, Clarence Fisher and myself to each contribute a 5 minute spot to talk about how being connected and networked to other people has affected how we do our work. It was a nice surprise to be asked to contribute, especially in such impressive company!

In thinking about this, I started jotting down some ideas. As many of you know, I can’t just jot… it inevitably grows to a full essay! So for what it’s worth, here is a copy of the notes I wrote for myself. (Thanks to David Warlick for his “learning is a conversation” line… I suppose if I read something he wrote and learn from it and use it, that’s an example of making learning a conversation?)

The Web in general, and Web 2.0 in particular, has made it easier than ever to connect with other people. If you have a question, someone somewhere will have an answer. If you have a problem, someone somewhere will have a solution. If you have an interest, someone somewhere will partner with you to share that interest. Thanks to the Web, most of the friction that previously prevented these connections from being made has been all but eliminated. If you just take the time to look, you will almost certainly find your answers, solutions and partners.

So, as educators, why should we be so excited about these connections? Why is connecting with each other such a big deal? The reason it’s such a big deal is that these connections with other people are what enables us to grow, and in turn enables us to help our students grow. I’m not sure who originally said it, but I once read, You will be the same person in 5 years that you are today except for 2 things: the people you meet and the books you read.”

Of course, these days you may not actually ever meet “the people you meet”, and blogs can be just as effective as books. The same principle applies though… Learning is a conversation. We grow when we are exposed to new ideas, when we are challenged to think beyond our current thinking. And with the world changing as fast as it is in the 21st century, we really need to start moving beyond our current thinking just to survive, let alone thrive.

I started blogging a few years ago when I blogged my experiences during a teacher exchange to Canada in 2006, over at canada2006.blogspot.com. This blog was originally meant to serve merely as a travel diary, but it opened my eyes to blogging as a rather mind-expanding personal activity. I noticed that my ability to write improved exponentially. I started to really consider what I would say and how I would say it, and was rather surprised when the blog started to build a regular audience (and not just my family!) Writing for an global audience certainly changes the way you express yourself, and this audience would regularly communicate with me about what I was writing. As I learned about the writing process, I started to understand that Learning is a conversation.

Because I enjoyed the experience of blogging so much, I started to write a regular blog at betch.edublogs.org where the main topic was education and how it was affected by technology. Although I started writing mainly for myself, I have been amazed at how this blog has not only gathered an audience, but has in turn forced me to engage with so many other blogs. This massive exposure to new ideas and leading thinking from so many other people drastically altered my outlook on what happened in my classroom. I cannot recommend the act of blogging highly enough. Try it. It will change you for the better. It was by engaging with the words and ideas of others that I started to more fully grasp that Learning is a conversation.

The next thing I tried was to get my students blogging. The results of this exercise can be found at crowdedwisdom.learnerblogs.org, where every student set up an edublogs account and we all crosslinked our blogs together into a sort of class ecosystem. This enabled me to use the blog environment to connect and share with my students in a way that they totally related to, while encouraging them to comment and connect with each other about their work. As I watched them work and interact through their blogs, it became further obvious that Learning is a conversation.

Since the blogging thing was so much fun, I thought I’d try podcasting. In October 2006 I started a regular podcast called The Virtual Staffroom which is all about having conversations with leading teachers about the use of technology in their classrooms. These conversations are recorded using Skype, turned into a podcast feed and shared with the world. I have learned an enormous amount from talking to these amazing teachers as they share some of their incredible ideas for working with students, further reinforcing the notion that Learning is a conversation.

Having gained a basic understanding of podcasting, I wanted my students to try it. So as part of an Introduction to Business class, I had my class create their own audio version of the course, using the textbook as a basis for content, but encouraging them to go beyond the classroom’s four walls and use audio recordings of local business people, bankers, entrepreneurs, and so on, to include in their podcasts. They got creative about gathering resources, about writing and expressing their ideas, about managing their time and resources. They produced some amazing work, and became totally engaged in the process of podcasting, interpreting the course content in a way that was not happening with a more traditional approach. Their learning took place in the collaborating, the sharing, the debating, the problem solving, and the results were impressive. Just like the sharing process, Learning is a conversation.

Way back in 1998, I worked with a group of students on the AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest, where we partnered with teams in the USA and Japan to build a collaborative website. This was all pre-Web2.0, so there were many technical issues to contend with, but the real learning took place as we exchanged hundreds and hundreds of email messages. We learnt to cooperate, to solve problems, to respect each others opinions. We learnt to share, to collaborate, to think creatively. We repeated the whole thing again in 1999, and were rewarded with first prize and a trip to Hong Kong. It was here we met our virtual partners in the flesh for the first time, although we felt like we already knew each other very well. Whether chatting virtually or in person, Learning is a conversation.

Along the way, we discovered plenty of tools for connecting. Realtime instant messaging tools like Skype and Messenger are invaluable, and with the ability now to connect with voice and video, the world has become an incredibly flat place. Geography is irrelevant. Looking through my Skype contact list I have friends and colleagues now in Canada, the USA, Japan, Austria, Belgium, New Zealand, and of course all over Australia. I often chat with these people, sharing ideas and stories. I always come away from our chats richer from the experience, finding that Learning is a conversation.

The Web 2.0 revolution has provided us with a huge list of tools for making these connections… Twitter, Talkshoe, Second Life, Elluminate, Jaiku, Ning, Delicious, Flickr, YouTube… the list goes on and on, and grows almost daily. Oh, and perhaps I’m just an old fashioned kind of guy, but I even still use email to communicate! In fact, it may not be very cool and Web2.0, but I’m still an active member of several educational mailing lists and invariably find the spirit of helpfulness and community on those lists to be an irreplaceable part of my professional life. I have made dozens of friends from these lists – some I’ve met in person but most I’ve not – but they have all helped shape my thinking to make me the person and the teacher I am today. A teacher who understands that Learning is a conversation.

If I have one piece of advice for anyone engaged in teaching it would be to establish connections. Learn to use these tools of connectivity, and harness them for you own use and for the use of your students. The payoff is enormous. The conversations and connections you will engage in may be the single most important thing you do to become the best teacher you can be.

Learning IS a conversation.

My Podcasting Workflow

For a while now, ever since I’ve been producing The Virtual Staffroom podcast, I’ve been meaning to blog about the workflow I’ve developed for producing it. After a lot of trial and error, and making plenty of mistakes, I’d started getting a system happening on the best way to put the podcast together.

Then along comes the new GarageBand as part of iLife ’08 and all that changed. Normally I don’t like it when my systems get disrupted, but in this case I am thrilled about the changes as it reduces the steps needed to make a podcast considerably. Added to that are some configuration changes I made to the way I capture the audio, and I reckon I can now do better quality recordings at much smaller filesizes with far less effort, so it’s win-win all round.

For anyone that might be interested, here are the tools and the workflow I plan on using from now on to create podcasts. I’ve got another podcast interview lined up for tomorrow night so I’m excited about these new workflows.

Firstly, I record my interviews using Skype. I use a decent USB headset microphone, a Logitech 250… I had a 350 but it broke, and the 250 was cheaper with the same audio specs. With Skype I can call to another computer anywhere in the world, but I can also call to a telephone line as well, so either works fine. Skype also let me do multiparty calls, so it can be several people online in the chat at once.

To record the call I use Audio Hijack Pro. I used to use Call Recorder which is one-button easy, but it can be a bit flaky and drop out at times. It’s mostly reliable, but for podcast interview mostly reliable is not acceptable of course… I once did an hour long interview with Luc Zwartjes from Belgium only find that Call recorder crapped out and dropped the whole recording. Not happy, and I felt very embarrased to have to let Luc know about it, although he was gracious enough to record it again with me. From then on I have always used both Call Recorder and Audio Hijack together, but have since decided that Audio Hijack is good enough just on it’s own.

What I like about Audio Hijack is the way you can capture the audio of the call to AIFF format. I never realised this for a long time and was capturing to MP3 and using Quicktime Pro to convert it to AIFF, but I’ve since discovered that I can go directly to AIFF which simplifies things a lot. The other advantage is that I can choose the bitrate and mono/stereo setting, which can bring the file size down a lot. I currently record using AIIF format, 16 bit, Auto Sample rate, Mono and it seems to work really well. Recording in mono halves the filesize of stereo.

Once I record, I drag the AIFF file to The Levelator. This simple and easy to use tool runs a very complex analysis of the file and applies compression and normalisation filters to the audio. This fixes any overly quiet or loud bits and makes it sound much better. If I wasn’t fussy, I could leave this step out, but I think it’s worth doing for the better audio quality.

Once I get the adjusted AIFF file out of Levelator I drag it into a new podcast episode in GarageBand. I really like Garageband as an editor and find it simple to use and easy to shuffle audio tracks around, make edit points, add multitracks, etc. I also add the tops and tails to the interview directly in GarageBand, and well as any music, sound effects, etc.

The big news in GarageBand ’08 is that you can now export directly out in MP3 format. This is great… prior to this I had to export out as an M4A file and then use Quicktime Pro again to convert it to an MP3… it was an extra step and made it hard to work in mono. The new export dialog in GarageBand has all the features that a podcaster could want… I set mine to MP3, 64kbps, Medium High VBR and Mono. The sound quality in the tests I’ve done is really good, and the filesizes are way down on the older episodes.

Finally, I use Podcast Maker to add my metadata, shownotes, XML data and album artwork, and in one click upload it to the Virtual Staffroom server. Podcast Maker generates all the required XML and RSS feeds very nicely. It’s a wonderful tool.

So there you have it… it might sound complicated but it’s not really, and this new workflow is way more simplified than the previous method I used to use. Apple has really listened to podcasters and added just the right features into the new GarageBand. Combined with the extra tools like Skype, Audio Hijack, Levelator and Podcast Maker, making podcasts has never been easier!

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Been Playing

James Farmer has been up to his upgrading tricks again, and Edublogs has been offline for a few hours today.  I don’t mind, I just appreciate the facts that he takes the trouble to keep the Edublogs service at the cutting edge of WordPress technology.  Anyway, it gave me a chance to do a bit of playing on my other blogs, tweaking a few things here and there.

I also managed to get a new episode of the Virtual Staffroom podcast online.  It’s been a long time between episodes, due mainly to a series of personal dramas but also because it took me a while to get broadband on again where I’m living now.  Anyway, the point is that a new episode is up –  “Open Minded”  – and another episode is in the works, Taking it Further”.  Check them out, they are pretty good actually!  🙂

I’ve also been having a good play with the Sidebar Widgets in WordPress.  Very cool.  I’d been wondering how to add extra services to the sidebars like Clustr maps and other things where you are supposed to just cut and paste some html code to make it work.  That’s all fine, and was easy under the Old Blogger, but WordPress doesn’t easily let you get to the template code to make these changes.  I finally figured out that you have to add a new text widget to the sidebar tools and paste the code into that.  Obvious really I guess.  I’m really impressed at what a cool, flexible tool WordPress is.  The New Blogger too for that matter.  It’s just so easy to publish to the web these days!

I’ve also been swapping some great podcast suggestions with My Linda too… we have discovered a whole bunch of interesting ‘casts to listen too.  In fact I spend way more time these days listening to podcasts than live radio or TV, and I love the fact that we are so on each others wavelengths in terms of what interests us.  It’s a good sign I think.

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Questions are the Answers

jamie1.jpg jamie2.jpg  podcast1.jpg helen1.jpg

If you’ve been involved in education circles for any length of time, you would no doubt be aware of the work of Jamie Mackenzie.  Jamie is probably best known as the creator of the Webquest concept, but also does a lot of great work with higher order thinking, and the use of deep questions to deal with complexity and encourage kids to really think.  I was fortunate to be invited to attend a two day CEO workshop with Jamie Mackenzie over the last couple of days and I found it really worthwhile.  Like a lot of good information, you find yourself marvelling at the sheer simplicity of his ideas but still wondering why you’ve never thought of this stuff yourself.  It was great to meet the guy in person after having heard and read so much about his work over the years.

His workshops focussed on the use of deep questions to encourage deep thinking, with some great hands-on examples of using primary sources of information to investigate suppositional questions about interesting topics.  We also looked at a lot of great ideas for developing visual, textual and numeric literacies.  It’s amazing how things change when you use Jamie’s simple approach, especially the way all the concerns about plagiarism just become suddenly irellevant!  It’s so true that if we don’t want kids to have a cut-and-paste mentality then we as teachers have to rethink the way we ask kids to do things.

We also had a few workshops about some “hot topics” like podcasting, smartboards and Web 2.0.  It’s clear to me that there has been a major shift in committment to technology within the CEO… well, not so much a shift for the technology itself – that committment was always there even if it was not always well executed – but there was a real sense, from the top of the organisation down, that the times they are a-changin’, and that there was a real imperative for schools to change as well.  I heard a lot of good talk coming from the bigwigs of CEO, as well as a lot of enthusiasm from the teachers, so I was very encouraged to see some fundamental thought shifts about education taking place.  It was one of the reasons that I left the CEO schools a few years ago, that lack of vision.

It’s good to see it’s finally starting to appear!

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Playing School

I am sitting in class at the moment, minding a group of kids for another teacher that had a meeting to attend. The kids are good, working quietly and getting their task done…

Then up popped a mate on Skype, a teacher from Saskatchewan, asking a couple of questions about a podcasting project I did last semester so we chatted online for a while talking about all sorts of podcasting stuff. He did however mention that where he was in Saskatchewan was having a huge snow blizzard at the moment, and that a friend of his had a some photos of the storm on his blog.

I headed over to his friends blog and found an interesting post about what happens in school during a snow day. What I found interesting was this comment…

“We took the morning to divide our 13 student class (a result of a depleted school population) into four groups to create a project about the effects of the blizzard. We had a podcast group, a newsletter group, a video group and a digital story group.”

This is what school should be like everyday. Kids creating and publishing content based on what’s important to them and the world.

It’s true isn’t it? Kids really can see a very clear dividing line between doing authentic tasks that matter to them, and doing tasks that simply require them to “play school”. Playing school is all about doing things to keep the teachers happy, who are in turn often just keeping the system happy. I keep observing that when we treat kids like intelligent human beings with interests and passions and we design tasks that enable them to feed those interests and those passions, whether they fall within the boundaries of some arbitrary curriculum or not, they become truly engaged in what they are doing.

I could tell you quite a few stories about tasks where I’ve had students doing real tasks that they truly cared about, that let them explore ideas that truly mattered to them, and where they went way above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that every i was dotted and every t was crossed. If it matters to the kids they will take enormous care with their work.

The problem with most school tasks is they are so lacking in relevance to kids. We ask them to “submit” work, where we should be asking them to “publish” work. We ask them to “write” where we should be asking them to “communicate”. We threaten them with deduction of marks if a task is not “successful”, instead of rewarding them for trying something new. And we continually ask kids to engage with work that most of us would object to doing ourselves. Have you ever looked at the tasks you ask kids to do? I mean really looked at those tasks, from the perspective of the kid? It doesn’t surprise me that many kids are bored with school.

Let’s think more about designing learning experiences for the kids we teach that are more in line with the sorts of tasks that we’d like to do ourselves. Let’s try to make these tasks truly curious, engaging, interesting, enthralling, fascinating experiences…

We live in a world that has so many possibilities. Let’s try and build some of those incredible possibilities into the school experience.

Person of the Year? Moi?

timemag.jpgTime magazine recently announced that the person of the year for 2006 is in fact… me! And you. And all those other bloggers, podcasters, and users of the ever expanding range of Web2.0 tools. Apparently, Time magazine thinks we are having such an impact on the world that we have been collectively recognised as “Person” of the Year. Thank you, thank you very much.

When Time produced this issue, they wanted to have a mirror on the cover to reflect back the image of the person holding it. To this end they had a supplier in Minnesota provide them with nearly 7,000,000 pieces of reflective Mylar to stick on the cover. That’s a lot of Mylar! (Ironically, the people about whom the article was written are probably more likely to read it online anyway.)

Of course, if you happen to own an iSight-enabled Mac, not only do you have obviously better taste than your Windows-toting brethren, but you can take advantage of a very neat little trick that only iSight enabled Macs can do. Head on over to Dan Woods’ blog and you can see the Time cover the way it really ought to have looked. With you on it!

Congratulations fellow bloggers!