Paid in Full

I haven’t seen an actual paper credit card statement for a long time because I’ve banked electronically for years, but I switched banks recently and they just sent me my first credit card statement on this new account.

I was really pleased to see a prominent section on the statement (mandated by government legislation) pointing out just how long this bill will take to pay off if I were only to pay the minimum amount. I think this is a great thing for developing financial literacy, as I’m always shocked at just how little some people know about money, especially credit, and how little they understand its impact.

On my credit card’s closing balance of $1898.20, it tells me that even if I spent nothing more on the card, and just paid the minimum required amount each month until it was paid off, it would take me 18 YEARS 6 MONTHS, and would accrue $4,348.57 in interest!

I hope we are teaching this stuff to kids at school, so they don’t fall into the “free money” thinking that so many adults I know still have.

My grandmother used to say “if you can’t afford to pay cash, you can’t afford it.” I think the more modern equivalent is “if you can’t afford to pay your credit card bill in full each month, you can’t afford it”

And yes, I always pay my credit card bill in full each month!

Done is better than Perfect

95% doneI’ve never really been what you might call a perfectionist. Nor do I believe that it’s ok to do a half-assed job of things. It’s good to do things right and to the best of your ability, and if I had a choice between doing something badly or doing it well, I’d always rather do it well.

But it’s also easy to become paralysed with inaction when you feel that something needs to be done perfectly.

I saw two examples of this recently…

Our school has a very dedicated team of foreign language teachers, and we take our language education very seriously. Many of our students graduate with great proficiency in multiple languages, which I think is pretty amazing. Our languages staff are all deeply passionate about their language teaching and insist that any language should be taught using only the “proper” version of that language… so, for example we teach our French students how to speak Parisian French, and would never encourage them hear “improper” versions of the language like, say the French spoken in Québec.  We take a similar outlook on the other languages we teach… Italian, Latin, Japanese, Chinese.

Our school website used to have translated pages in Chinese and Vietnamese, since we tend to get quite a few students from those countries. The translations were laboured over, initially by paying considerable sums of money to translation agencies, and then having those translations fine tuned by our language staff members. The process was expensive, extremely time consuming, and worst of all, the translated pages easily went out of date whenever we updated the English version of the text. In the pursuit of having perfectly translated pages, we ended up with translation options that were limited and often out of date. Not exactly the level of perfection we were after.

I was a little surprised recently when I looked at our school website and discovered that the expensively translated pages had been removed and replaced with a single dropdown menu of language choices that would convert the page using Google’s free Translate service. By making a choice from the menu, the page was instantly converted to not just Chinese of Vietnamese, but into any of  17 different languages!

Naturally, when I pointed this out to the language staff they were horrified! They felt that the Google Translate service was completely inadequate for the task and that the translations would be utterly unusable by anyone who wanted a “proper” translation. Some of them immediately opened the site and translated a page or two into “their” language to see just how poorly it was being done. Surprisingly, the general consensus was that, yes, it wasn’t perfect and there were a couple of instances of poorly constructed sentences, but on the whole it was much better than they expected.

The benefit of the trade off was clear to me. While the machine translated pages were not perfect, they were at least up to date (since they were always being translated on-the-fly based on the most current English versions) and we could offer many more languages than just the two we had previously offered. Oh, and of course it was all being done at no cost and with no effort from our staff.

I’m not a language purist (I don’t even speak a second language), but to me it seemed that as long as the translations were “good enough”, then the benefits outweighed the imperfections. In this case, it seemed obvious that “Done is better than Perfect”.

The second example is in our school’s shift away from Microsoft Office towards Google Drive. I’ll occasionally get some of our teachers expressing their concern that Google Docs doesn’t have some feature that Word had. It’s usually  some missing feature that hardly anyone else even realised Word had, but occasionally their gripe is about legitimate concerns like Docs’ inability to manage simple tasks like merging table cells. (By the way Google, can you get onto this? We really do need it!)

But seriously, when you compare the extra stuff that you can do in Google Drive – the easy sharing options, the realtime collaboration, the ability to access your files from anywhere on any computer with nothing more than a web browser, the auto saving, the overall simplicity of use, and the fact that it’s completely free – then the trade-off with whatever you might lose from MS Office becomes much easier to deal with. Sure, it would be nice to not lose any features at all, but if I have to choose (and I do) then Drive/Docs wins hands down for me. What I gain far outweighs what I lose. Having a tool that meets my actual daily needs and matches the way I work is a far better option than a “full featured” tool that gets in my way and is missing the real features I need, like realtime collaboration.

Again, “Done” (or in this case, the tool that misses some features but does the things I need and value most) is better than “Perfect” (the tool that supposedly has it all and is the “industry standard’).

When you work on a project, it’s pretty easy to get it 95% perfect. And sometimes, yes, you do need to go the extra mile to get it 100% perfect. But the older I get, the more I come to realise the truth of “Done is better than Perfect”, and that the exponential amount of effort required to take a project from 95% perfect to 100% perfect often really doesn’t matter. Closing that 5% gap usually requires far more than 5% more effort. I’ve spent an hour editing a short video, but then wasted three more hours adjusting the timing of the opening titles or tweaking exactly how the credits dissolve to black and where the music should fade… and really, it was probably just fine the way it was. It makes me wonder what else I could have gotten done with that three hours if I just accepted that Done really is better than Perfect.

Image by KevBurnsJr –  http://blog.kevburnsjr.com/95-done

PS: I was so impressed by the Google Translate service that I added it to this blog. If you scroll right to the bottom of this page you can translate this blog into any language you like. Just don’t expect it to be perfect.

The Software Conundrum

Many people I know struggle with technology. They bumble by, more-or-less managing to make their computer do what they want it to do, but often without that real sense of confidence that comes from feeling fluent with the software they are interacting with.  And let’s face it, when we talk about “technology”, we mostly mean “software”. Sure, there are some hard-to-use hardware devices but by and large when I watch someone struggling to feel comfortable using “technology”, it’s usually because they are out of their depth with the software they are trying to use, not the hardware.

It might not seem like it when you’re so frustrated you just want to throw your laptop out the nearest window, but companies who build software try really hard to make their tools easy to use. Of course, not all software is actually easy to use, but I do believe that all software designers really do try to make their software as easy to use as possible. It’s not easy… some of the things we expect software to do are incredibly complex, and designing software that does complex stuff while also making it easy to use, is really hard to do well!  But the next time you are struggling to use a piece of software, remind yourself that someone, somewhere, probably spent a great deal of time and energy trying to make it as easy as they could. And no matter how much it might feel like it, the software designer’s goal was not to confuse and frustrate you.

Because writing software is so hard, it takes a special kind of person to do it. Software developers are usually incredibly intelligent people because you really do need to be fairly smart to write software. Most developers also have very systematic and methodical minds, because, again, that’s just the sort of mind you need to write software. It’s this combination of high intelligence and methodical thinking we sometimes call an “engineer’s mindset”, and while you need it to write good software, it’s really not the way the majority of us think.

And that’s part of the problem of why there is so much “hard to use” software. The people who create it are often on a completely different planet to the people who use it.  For a super smart software engineer, the term “easy to use” might mean something entirely different.  Because most “dumb users” find it difficult to think the way engineers think, and many engineers are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the average end user, there is often a huge mismatch between the two groups that ends up making software seem much harder to use than it should be. (You might like to read The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper for a really good insight into this problem) Thankfully, software has gotten much, much better over the last few years thanks to much better development environments and more flexible programming frameworks, a greater emphasis on end-user usability testing, a greater acceptance of the idea of a “public beta”, and also the “appification” of complicated software in small, app-sized chunks on easy to use mobile devices.

So thankfully, things are improving.  But if software is getting better, and companies really DO try hard to make their software as easy to learn and use as possible, why do so many people still seem to find it so damn hard to use?

So here’s a few tips for becoming a much better, more confident and more fluent user of modern desktop software…

Mix it up!

This was one of the most powerful things I ever did to become a more fluent software user… I deliberately started using software that was different to what I was used to. If you use a software tool to do a particular task, find out what other software tools do a similar thing, and try them.

For example, if all your word processing is done in Microsoft Word, try using some other word processing tools for a change. Libre Office Writer, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, WriteRoom, Scrivener, AbiWord… the list is long if you look. There is something incredibly liberating about trying a different tool than the one you’re used to. It forces you to see things more conceptually – to understand the concepts of formatting text, rather than simply remembering where the Bold button is located. As you move between multiple tools that do the same task, you start to see the commonalities and the differences between them.

You realise that all tools in this category have certain core features, but you also see how different tools implement some of those features better or worse than others. You start to think in terms of function rather than form. You develop a better ability to scan your eyes over the interface quickly, spotting the buttons you recognise, even though they might look a little different.  You realise that the design of software is far more consistent and predictable than you maybe imagined it was. You start to see the ways that different programs handle the same common file formats.

Are you a PowerPoint user? Why not try Keynote, Google Presentations, SlideRocket, Libre Office Impress, Prezi or 280 Slides?

What do you use to edit video? Whatever you use now, take a look through some of the alternatives from iMovie, Windows Live MovieMaker, Pinnacle Studio, Sony Vegas, Adobe Premiere Pro or Premiere Elements, Final Cut Pro X.  As you might imagine, if you actually did try all these different video editing tools, you wouldn’t just know how to use a bunch of video editing tools, you would truly understand the core idea of what it means to edit video.

There is great alternative software in most of the major categories. Just go to Google and search for [alternatives to X] where X is the software you use now, and see what you can find. Much of it is free to try, if not completely free to use.  Using lots of different software tools that do more-or-less the same job makes you a far more flexible and adaptable user. You don’t have to permanently switch from your old faithful tool if you don’t want to (although you might be surprised at how good some of the others are!) Switching to a new tool is not the point of the exercise. But by trying lots of new tools you will develop a far deeper understanding of what software is all about, and your technological fluency will take a supercharged leap forward.

Trust me on this.

Check out your options

Whenever you work with a new piece of software, take a moment to explore the options or preferences.  On most Windows software you’ll find it under the Tools > Options menu, and on the Mac its in the application menu under Preferences.

Whenever I get my hands on a new piece of software, I go straight to the prefs or options and spend a few minutes looking through them. Those few minutes are always paid back in greater productivity through having a better sense of what the software is all about, plus I can usually find lots of little tweaks that make the software work the way i want it to work.

It astounds me how often I see people struggling (sometimes for years!) with some annoying behaviour in their software that can be easily changed simply by unticking a checkbox in the preferences. Don’t be one of those people.

What’s on the menu?

The other thing I will always do with any new piece of software is just take a moment to look through all the dropdown menus to see what’s there. Many of them will be immediately recognisable – obvious ones like cut, copy, paste, select all, etc – through to those that will give you some clues as to what the software might be able to do.

Seeing choices like Arrange, Group, Align, etc immediately tell you things about what the software can do.  The View menu often lets you change the way you see the software by accessing fullscreen mode, changing zoom levels, and so on. If you’re observant you can also pick up some great keyboard shortcuts as well.

Look for menu items than you don’t recognise too. For example, if you’re usually an Internet Explorer user you might be intrigued by options such as Chrome’s Incognito Window. Click it. See what it does. It’s software, you can’t really break it, so go explore!

Don’t be afraid to call for help

Every piece of software I’ve ever used has a Help menu. Someone, somewhere, went to a lot of time and trouble to document this software and explain what it does, how to use it, and how to get the best out of it. Why would you not use it?

And yet, whenever I see someone struggling with a piece of software, I can almost guarantee that the answer to “have you checked the Help menu?” is no. C’mon! Just use it… Look it up if you have a problem, or just glance through it to pick up some useful tips. Don’t be so helpless.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve showed someone some ridiculously simple time-saving tip that has totally changed the way they work, only to have them ask “How do you find this stuff??!”

Easy. I once got stuck on the exact same problem as you, and I looked in the Help menu to work out how to solve it. Just like you can.

If you really don’t want to use the Help menu (“It’s so complicated!”) then just Google your problem. Just type in something like [how do i merge 2 tracks in audacity]. Believe it or not, you won’t be the first person to ever ask that question. Someone has already solved it. Learn from their experience.

Putting this into action with your students

A task I’ve had my Computing Applications students to do several times now is to create a user manual, either in text or screencast format, for a piece of software they’ve never seen before. It’s not hard to find obscure software tools that most students have never heard of, so pick a few for them to choose from and get them to create a user manual for one of them. Not only do they need to learn a completely new piece of software, they also need to figure out how to clearly explain it’s features in a way that non-users can easily understand. They can’t do that unless they understand it themselves.

They’ll need to learn quickly, communicate clearly, have empathy with end users, and also learn new presentation skills. Try also to get them to run some real usability testing with other people using the training resources they’ve created in order to see how well they have communicated their understanding. Everytime I’ve done this, my students have found it a useful and worthwhile task.

Got any other tips for learning new software quickly? I’d love to hear them.  And if you’re a fluent software user, add a comment and tell us what the “penny dropping” moment was for you, when software started to make sense.

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 2

Ok, hopefully you’re read Part 1 of this article and you now have your calendars all set up in Google Calendar instead of iCal..  Now let’s get that all synced up to your phone.

One of the biggest benefits of Apple’s MobileMe service it the way it keeps your iCal calendars in sync with your iPhone. Unfortunately MobileMe costs $129/year here in Australia (even though it’s only $99 in the US and our dollar is almost 1:1 at the moment… don’t get me started on that!) The good news is that you can get exactly the same sort of synchronization at no cost by using Google Calendar instead of Apple’s iCal, plus you get all the extra benefits of sharing calendars that only Google’s cloud can offer.

If you’re a Google user then you’ve probably set up Gmail on your iPhone. The trouble is, when you set that up you probably did the obvious thing and went to Settings, selected Mail, Contacts, Calendars and then chose the Gmail option. That seems kind of obvious, but there’s a much better way to do it. When you choose the iPhone’s Gmail option you get the option to set up Mail, Calendars and Notes. Notes? What about your Contacts? Wouldn’t you rather have those?

Setting up Gmail using the Exchange optionInstead of choosing the Gmail option, you should choose the Exchange option. You’ll still use it to set up your Gmail, but by using the Exchange protocols it actually does two important things. One, it allows you to set up Mail, Calendars and Contacts – much more useful than notes. And secondly, it opens up the option to use Google’s Sync Services.

On your iPhone, get started by going to Setting and selecting Mail, Contacts,Calendars. Tap the Add Account… option. Tap on Microsoft Exchange (I know, I know… you’re using Microsoft Exchange to set up Google’s Gmail on an Apple iPhone… how weird is that?)

In the Email field, enter you full Gmail address. You can skip the Domain field. In Username, enter your full Gmail address again. Enter your Gmail password in the password field. For Description, give it a meaningful name, like, oh, I don’t know… Gmail?  Finally, I’d suggest you make sure that SSL is set to On. Tap the Next button.

The phone will take a few seconds to verify your account, and then the screen will expand to reveal a field for Server. In here, enter m.google.com, and then press done.

You’ll probably want to turn on all three options for Mail, Contacts and Calendars. Mail Days to sync can be set to whatever you like… I have mine set to 1 Week. The Mail Folders to Push should probably be set to Inbox.  That’s it.

If you now check your iPhone’s Calendar you’ll see that you now have a Gmail calender in the list. Awesome. If you’ve previously had Gmail set up on your phone the regular way you can (should) delete it, or you’ll have two copies of everything.

But wait a minute… your Google Calendar has all those lovely layered calendars, and the iPhone is only showing one of them. What’s going on? Where are the others?

By default, the only calendar that you see is the Primary one.  If you’ve set up your work Exchange account, your primary calendar will be set to sync with your Exchange account since that’s a limitation of Google Calendar Sync with Exchange. To see the others you’ll need to do a couple of extra steps.

On your iPhone’s mobile browser, go to http://m.google.com/sync and select your device (you can set up multiple devices, such as your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad)  On this page you’ll see all the secondary calendars you’ve set up on your GCal. Just tick the one’s you’d like to appear on your iPhone (up to 25 of them) and then tap the Save button at the bottom of the page. Done.

Now if you go back to your iPhone’s Calendar app, you’ll see all the secondary calendars in the list! Make sure there’s a tick next to all the ones you’d like to appear in your calendar list and you’re good to go. You now have perfect realtime syncing of calendars between your Google Calendars and your iPhone. Just like MobileMe gives you, but without the cost.  You also get your Gmail Contact list showing up on your phone’s address book too.

Speaking of contacts, once I decided that this Gmail mail/calendar solution was a clear winner, I also exported all of my contacts out of Apple’s Address Book on my Mac, then imported them into Gmail’s Contact list. It was silly maintaining two lists of contacts, and although there was a fair bit of overlap of the same people in my cloud-based Gmail Contacts list and my Mac-based Address Book, they were still two different sets of data, which used to drive me crazy. A single list of contacts makes much more sense, so by importing everything into the Gmail contacts and enabling that as my iPhone’s primary address book, it combines everything into one place. Of course, there were duplicate entries, but that was easily fixed in Gmail but going to the Contact list and from the More Actions menu selecting Find and Merge Duplicates. Too easy. I now have one single list of contacts, stored in the cloud, always up to date, and accessible from anywhere.

So far, I’ve got my school Outlook calendar feeding into my Google Calendar, aggregating it all into a single cloud-based calendar, and syncing it all back to my iPhone and iPad (as well as every computer I use). Perfect!

But what about iCal? I do still find iCal handy as there are occasionally times when I’m not actually connected to the web. Google Calendar doesn’t have an offline mode (yet!) so it would still be useful to have access to my calendar via iCal. If only iCal could pull its calendar data directly off the Google cloud…

It can. Here’s how.

iCal PreferencesBack on your Mac, open up iCal’s Preferences. Go to the Accounts tab and click the + button to make a new account. Under Account Type choose Google, then enter your gmail address and password. Give it a moment to validate that, then go to the Delegation tab.  As long as you’ve set your secondary calendars up at http://m.google.com/sync, you should see all your secondary calendars in the list. Tick the ones you want to appear in iCal and close the Prefs panel.

The secondary calendars will appear momentarily in iCal under a Delegates fold-down triangle. Each delegated calendar will be hidden one level down under an alias to itself, but just click the small triangle to reveal it and make sure it’s ticked. You now have a fully synced iCal calendar, including secondary (delegated) calendars, that all emanate from your single, source-of-truth Google Calendar. The best of all possible worlds!  The only thing you might want to do now (for both iCal and GCal) is spend some time picking better colours for your calendar layers. (It’s a bit annoying that the colour schemes don’t carry across, but hey…)

One last thing. I actually have my school email set up directly on my iPhone by creating an Exchange account and hooking it directly to our Exchange server at work. This means I actually duplicate my work calendar, getting two copies of it in my iPhone calendar list – once via the direct connection to the Exchange Server, and once by the indirect connection through Google Calendar Sync and via the Gmail setup. However, I deliberately do this because having the direct connection to Exchange gives me near realtime syncing to the school mail/calendaring system, whereas the via-Gmail connection often has a lag time of up to 15 minutes or more. But its an easy fix to go into the iPhone’s calendar list and untick the GCal copy of the calendar leaving only the direct connection, and now I really do have a calendar system that works perfectly and all without spending a cent on MobileMe.

Hope this helps some of you… If you use any of this, let me know how it works out for you!

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 1

At the recent Google Teacher Academy in Sydney we were given a presentation by Danny Silva about making Google Calendar “sexy”. Although Danny was probably being a bit tongue-in-cheek about it all, I have to admit it made me completely rethink my use of digital calendars. This rethink was also helped along by a late night geek-session with my buddy Roland Gesthuizen, another new GCT, who was showing me some of the cool things he does with integrating Gmail and Google Calendar.

I’d been using Apple’s iCal software that came with my Mac, which I generally quite liked. What I didn’t like was the $129 it cost me each year for MobileMe in order to sync my calendar across all my computing devices. The massive benefit of a digital calendar is it’s ability to set up a 2-way sync between computer to phone. Adding an appointment on my iPhone and having it magically appear on all my computers was definitely a killer feature. Of course, I also keep a work-related calendar on my school computer using Outlook, and those appointments also form an important part of how I spend my time. I’ve blogged about this before, but my solution for keeping things in sync was overly complicated and involved a paid-for third party tool called Spanning Sync in order to make it happen. And that was all pre-iPhone. Things got much more complicated then.

I had been using iCal on my three personal Macs, Outlook on my school PC, as well as an iPad and an iPhone; what I wanted to achieve was a total calendaring solution that brings both my personal and work calendars together and keeps everything in sync. I was also interested in having all these events surface in Google Calendar too, since as a Gmail user, that was a convenient place to see my calendar as well.

I’d been treating iCal as my “source of truth” calendar and then making it sync outwards to Google Calendar.  As it turns out, I now realise I was thinking about it all wrong. The trick is to make the Google Calendar the “source of truth” calendar and then have it sync out to everywhere else.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I set everything up (and a couple of tips for how I use it) Remember, all my calendar information was in iCal, so the key for me was in getting all over to Google Calendar instead, and then include my work Outlook calendar in the mix.

Google Calendar layersFirst thing I did was to back up all my iCal calendars using the standard .ics format. To do this, open iCal and select one of your calendar layers and click File > Export > Export…   This will export that calendar as a .ics file. (Here’s more info if you need it) Do this for every calendar in iCal until you have an .ics file for each layer of your calendar. Once you’ve done this, delete everything out of your iCal till it’s all empty.

Over in Google Calendar (or GCal for short), do the same thing. Delete everything out till there’s nothing there. (obviously, back everything up first, just in case… here’s how to do that in GCal)

Like iCal, Google Calendar also uses a multi-layer approach, enabling you to have a separately viewable calendar for each aspect of your life. These layers all display on the same calendar grid, giving you a wholistic view of all your calendars. In GCal, the very first of these layers in called the Primary Calendar, and all the others are called Secondary Calendars. For example, I have a calendar layer for my own personal events called Chris, one for each of my children called Kate and Alex, (where I add events relevant to each of them), one for conferences called Conferences, one which tracks holidays called Holidays, one for a club I belong to, one for payments to mark things like mortgage payments and paydays, etc. Each aspect of my life has it’s own calendar layer.

I want my school calendar, which is created in Outlook, to also be one of these layers. There is a free tool called Google Calendar Sync which will very simply send all your Outlook appointments over to GCal every 15 minutes or so and place it on it’s own layer. However, what I didn’t realise was that the synced Outlook Calendar has to be the Primary Calendar in GCal. That’s just how Google Calendar Sync works… it’s can’t sync to a secondary calendar layer. If you plan to sync your Outlook, that’s good to know in advance.

If you plan to sync Outlook to your calendar setup, label your first calendar (the Primary calendar) as Work, or similar.  Then create as many secondary calendars as you like by clicking the Add option below the calendar list, then give it a name and select the properties you’d like it to have.

Once you have set up your layers, use the .ics file you exported out of iCal earlier to import into the appropriate calendars in GCal. To do this, click the Add button below the Other Calendars list, and in the dialog box that appears browse for each .ics file and match it with the appropriate GCal layer. More detailed instructions on how to do this can be found here.

Next is to sync up your Outlook with that first primary calendar. On your computer that runs Outlook, install the free Google Calendar Sync tool.  It’s very straightforward, and all you really need to do is put in your Google account details and select how often you’d like it to update. I update every 15 minutes. It could take a few minutes to do the first sync, but after that it’s very quick.

So far so good. You should now have all your various calendar layers, including Outlook, visible in GCal.  You can toggle each one between being visible or not just by clicking it’s name. Of course, because it’s GCal you can go into each calendar and share it with other Google users, and do all those other cool things that living in the cloud enables.

Now, let’s get all this synced up with your phone… stay tuned for Part 2.

Speaking Clearly

Dragon DictateThis is an experiment. I’m using DragonDictate, a program for the iPad that lets you talk directly into the computer as it turns your words into text. A teacher at school today asked me about using dictation and word recognition software for her students that had trouble with learning.

I think it’s a great idea, although the problem will probably be that in order to have speech recognition recognise your voice you do need to speak really clearly in the first place. For many kids, especially the ones that struggle with learning, speaking clearly can be almost as difficult as writing. Still, I think we will try the experiment because, well, the software is free and it would be interesting to see just how well it can handle the students voices.

I’m dictating this blog post into dragon and I’m going to publish it pretty much as it was recorded mistakes and all if you see mistakes in this you’ll know why. And if you don’t see mistakes in this then you can assume that DragonDictate has done a pretty good job of changing my speech to text.

Finding the Right Model for ICT PD

I guess many readers of this blog would know that I work as an ICT Integrator at a large independent girls’ school in Sydney.  Large chunks of my day are spent working with our teachers and our students to help them understand a little more about technology and how it might be used to make teaching and learning more engaging and effective.  Of course, teachers always seem to be very busy, and one of the difficulties in trying to deliver some form of ongoing PD is simply getting them to find the time to do so.  I’ve tried a number of different models for delivering PD; some work quite well, others not so much. It usually comes down to finding time, and making it meaningful.

In case it’s of any use to you, I thought I’d share an email that I sent to all the teachers in our junior school (R-6) yesterday.  It’s an outline of how I plan to be delivering ICT professional development to them next term.  I’ve found that this model seems to work best for our staff, and it seems to give the most effective results.  I think this is because it’s delivered in a real situation that is authentic to them and also places a good deal of responsibility onto the staff to embrace the use of ICTs for themselves.  (one of my beliefs is that you should never do for somebody what they can, and should, be able to do for themselves) Perhaps most importantly, our teachers seem to like  this PD model and they seem quite enthusiastic about what we’re doing together… so this is what I said to them…

Dear teachers,

Although the focus of what I do here at PLC is technology integration,  it has always worked so much better when you allow me to help you link this technology integration directly into the things you plan to teach as part of your day to day activities… in this way, the use of technology can richly support and extend the learning for the students.  Over the past couple of years I feel that we have all worked together to make technology less of an “add-on” to the curriculum, and it has become more of an embedded tool for helping engage and enrich our students. Together, some of the techniques and strategies we have tried in the Junior School over the past few years includes podcasting, blogging, live webcasting, digital mapping, digital storytelling, web 2.0 tools, video news reports, social networking, manipulating digital images, and so on.  In the process, your students have come into contact with a wide range of technology tools that are an increasingly important part of the world in which they live.

In working with the Junior School staff, I have tried a number of different models for providing professional development in these tools, from offering before and after school workshops, holding lunchtime sharing sessions, shared planning time, and so on.  With the incredibly hectic schedules that most of you have, some of these PD models have been more successful than others.

Starting in Semester 2, all staff will be required to undertake specific ICT professional development each semester.  In the Junior School, we all agree that the best way to deliver this PD to you is in your actual classroom situation.

The most successful PD model for our teachers seems to be when we create time for collaborative planning time with the ICT Integrator. Under this PD model, I meet with each year group three times per term in order to plan and facilitate the integration of ICT into a classroom project.  We meet early in the term to plan a unit of work together, meet again midterm to monitor the progress of that work, and again at the end to evaluate and assess the work.  Of course, if you need extra assistance with delivering an ICT project then I am more than happy to come into your classes and assist, or to help out with computer class time, but I feel that the core of my ICT integration support is best done by assisting you to develop the skills and knowledge you need to deliver your own classwork with a rich ICT component.  The recent Year 2 “Great Inventions” project is a good example of how I see this working.

Starting in Term 3, we will resume this PD planning model that we’ve used before as it seems to prove the most successful with Junior School teachers.  After looking at the Junior School timetable, I’ve listed some suggested dates below that we could use for meetings in weeks 2B, 5A and 8B of next term.  These all take advantage of times when specialist teachers have your students. Please take a look and let me know ASAP if there are problems with any of these dates and offer some alternate dates that  are more suitable for you in these weeks.

(I’ve removed the actual dates listed here, as they aren’t relevant to anyone reading this post…)

Ideally, in our first meeting (Week 2B) we will look at a task or theme or topic you plan to teach that ICT might lend itself to, and then we can come up with a plan for how we might integrate ICT into that unit.  We will look at modifying or creating activities for the students that leverage ICT skills, and if necessary learn those skills ourselves.  I would encourage you to think about how we can make the tasks we design highly student centric, providing your students with higher order thinking skills and open ended opportunities for creative thinking.

Our second meeting (Week 5A) will be to follow through on how the project is going, what can be improved, what can be tweaked, and also to ensure that any ICT skills are being delivered to both you and the students.

Our final meeting (Week 8B) will be used to evaluate and wrap up the project.  We can evaluate it, look at what worked well, and work out how we might modify it to use (or not use) next year.

Hope these dates suit you.  Looking forward to working closely with you all next term.

We’ve used this PD delivery model in the past and it seems to work quite well.  I start by checking out the teachers’ timetables and working out when they are free (mostly when their students are with specialist teachers for Music/PE/Languages/etc) and then I propose a list of times to meet, asking them to check and confirm that these times work for them.

Anyway, just thought I’d share that in case you can make use of it.  My next few posts will be sharing some examples of how we have made this work in various classes.