One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Well, I think this is exciting news…

After 8 years I’ve officially resigned from my tech integration role at PLC Sydney and, starting on January 1 next year, will be embarking on a whole new career adventure. I have taken up a fulltime position with EdTechTeam as their Director of Professional Development for Australia & New Zealand.

EdTechTeam is a California based company but has just started a local subsidiary here in Australia. As “a global network of educational technologists” with a mission of “improving the world’s education systems using the best learning principles and technology”, I’ve always been really impressed with what EdTechTeam are about. If you’ve ever been to a Google Apps for Education Summit, you’ve already had a small glimpse into the kinds of things EdTechTeam does, but there’s a whole lot of other things going on as well! Basically, imagine if you assembled a team of the most talented teachers in the world, who are all doing amazing things with technology in the classroom, and then ask them to go change the world. That’s what EdTechTeam is.

I’ve been doing work with EdTechTeam on a part time basis for the last few years, so I have a pretty good idea of what they are about; helping teachers understand and embrace the power of using digital technologies to improve student learning.

I’ve been teaching in schools for nearly 30 years now. I’ve taught both boys and girls, in public, catholic and independent schools, in Australia and Canada. I’ve left teaching twice already to try other things, but always managed to find my way back to it. I love teaching. I love working with kids. I don’t know of any other career that lets one make a dent in the future in quite the same way that teaching does. The thing I love about teaching is that it puts you in a position where you can make a difference.

That said, I think the work EdTechTeam is doing is impacting education on a much bigger scale. I think we are poised at an exciting moment in educational history, approaching a grand confluence of ideas, technologies and social change. I’ve been banging on about the need for change in schools and education for years now (as have many others) and I feel we are nearing a real tipping point in being able to create that positive change in education. If I can impact teachers – at scale – in helping drive that change, then that seems like a great place to direct my energy. As much as I will genuinely miss not being in classrooms with kids every day, the chance to have an impact on tens of thousands of educators each year, who then take that impact back into their own classrooms and apply it, seemed like an irresistible idea to me. In a school I might be able to influence 30 teachers. Last year EdTechTeam worked with over 30,000 teachers from around the globe. Many of those teachers went back to their schools and applied what we shared with them to dozens, or even hundreds, or kids. That’s what I find exciting!

As I cleaned out my desk at PLC last week, I was finding documents and items from the past eight years. It really struck me just how much change has happened in those eight years. When I arrived at PLC in 2008 the tools, technologies and ideas about teaching were quite different to how they look now. When I started at PLC we did not have Google Apps. There were no Chromebooks or iPads. The App Store was in its infancy. Google Drive had not been invented. Streaming music and video was almost unheard of. Working productively on a mobile device was not possible. The idea of storing files in “the Cloud” was not even in the public consciousness. Yet all of these technologies and ideas have completely redefined the day to day experience of a contemporary classroom.

Eight. Short. Years.

There’s no doubt that stepping away from something you’ve always done is scary. Teaching is what I’ve done for a very long time and I’m comfortable with it. I even think I’m reasonably good at it. It’s so easy to just keep doing what you’ve always done. It’s much harder to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

So here I go. Starting in January I’ll be working with many more teachers here in Australia and New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world too. I know I’ll probably see way too much of the inside of airplanes and I know I’ll miss the daily contact with students like crazy. But as Helen Keller once said, life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The good part is that, along with my new colleagues, I’ll have the chance to work with teachers all over the world to create positive educational change and to help them see just how powerful learning can be with the right tools and ideas. I hope I get a chance to work with some of you over the next few years too.  Let’s change the world together.

You Don’t Have To Like It

I just read a post on a mailing list where the topic touched on teachers that struggle with technology.  The phrase that really got me going was something about making allowances for teachers who don’t like or understand technology (whether they are new grads or close to retirement) and how this is all a bit hard for them. This is something I feel really passionate about so I have to say it…

Technology in schools is NOT a new thing.

I just cannot accept excuses about technology being optional, whether it’s from someone who is new to teaching or others who are close to retirement. There are children in those classrooms every day who deserve the best education we can offer them, and it is completely unfair if that education is less than it should be because someone wants to pick and choose which aspects of their job they feel are important.  No child should have to put up with out of date learning experience just because their close-to-retirement teacher is “taxiing to the hangar”.

Computers started appearing in classrooms back when I was still at teachers college more than 25 years ago. There has been an expectation from EVERY school, school system and government policy that I’ve worked under in the past 20 years to embed and integrate technology into the education process.  Using technology in the learning process, and having some understanding of it and what it enables our students to do, is NOT something that was dreamed up in the last few months, or that appeared suddenly with the DER/BER/<insert acronomyn here>.

I’m so tired of having the integration of technology into learning overlooked because it’s “too hard”. As educators – actual professional educators, who actually go into classrooms every day and teach for a living – we do NOT have the luxury of choosing whether we should be integrating technology, or whether we want to learn more about it, or whether we think it’s relevant to the learning process.  It is, it’s part of the job and if people don’t think so, then they ought to be getting a copy of the Saturday paper and looking for a something else to do where they CAN be selective about what part of the job they are willing to take seriously without it impacting on our future generations.

Your government, your state, your diocese, your school system, your school, have all been mandating this technology integration requirement for at least 20 years that I’m aware of. Every school I’ve ever worked for has dedicated many hours and dollars to providing professional development, training, resources and equipment to make it happen.  The fact that we are STILL having this conversation about teaching professionals who are not up to speed with this stuff after all this time is downright embarrassing to the profession.

It makes me crazy when I hear people talking about using technology in the classroom as  being “hard”, as though it’s also optional.  Every job has hard bits, but if they are part of the job, you just learn to do them.

You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.

Tiny Bursts of Learning

Despite the fact that I know many teachers who would rank Twitter as the most valuable and powerful networking tool they have access to, there are still many more who simply don’t “get” the value of Twitter. I’ve been to lots of conferences over the last few years where the enormous value of belonging to a Personal Learning Network was being touted, and Twitter is nearly always being suggested as the ideal tool for building that network. At one recent conference I asked for a show of hands for who was not yet on Twitter, and many hands went up… my response was “Why not? What are you waiting for? How many times do you need to hear people say that Twitter is the most valuable tool they have, before you actually try it for yourself?”

I spoke to a group of preservice teachers recently who were basically told by their lecturers that they needed to join Twitter. Despite the fact that it was being promoted to them as a powerful way to learn and network with others, most of them seemed to join up simply because it was part of their assessment requirement.  Because they joined Twitter “under duress”, I don’t expect them to actually buy into it, use it well, or continue to use it past the mandated requirement to use it.  And that’s a bit of a shame.

In contrast to all this is the general sentiment among many teachers that “we need more PD!”, or the always-amusing “How can they expect us to learn new things if all we get is a few PD days a year?”

If you still believe that professional development is what happens on those two or three days each year when you sit in a classroom and have some expert “deliver” it to you, I have bad news. That model is no longer sustainable and the days of PD as something that is done “to you” by “experts” a couple of times a year are over.

Learning needs to be ongoing. The world is changing. There are new tools that can help students learn, new ideas about learning, new brain research, new emerging technologies, new social structures, and so on… to think that you can maintain a professional outlook by attending two or three PD workshops a year is almost laughable. To keep up with new learning, you really need to be plugged in to an ongoing source of professional discourse and resource sharing. It needs to be something that happens regularly, at least several times a week. Like so many other aspects of the 21st Century, some of the “ways we’ve always done things” don’t really cut it anymore.

So how can something at simple as Twitter possibly be used to stay professionally current?

How I use my Twitter PLN to learn

I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter stream for the past 10 minutes or so. Using the Twitter app for Mac, it sits in a narrow vertical window on the right side of my screen and as the people I follow add their tweets they flow by in a steady stream that updates every few moments. How fast this flow happens is obviously dependent on how many people you follow… I follow about 2600 people, so it tends to be a pretty steady stream of tweets, but yours might be more or less. Occasionally I glance at this “stream of (networked) consciousness” and spot little gems that look interesting.

For example in the last ten minutes I’ve spotted the following things…

…to name but a few.

In the same 10 minutes worth of tweets, I also responded to a couple of questions from other people that I felt I could help them with, saw a funny story about Moodle, watched an amusing exchange between some people I know, and ended up getting invited into an Elluminate session about developing Moodle courseware.

Just ten minutes. Even just skimming through that list of things would give me more relevant PD than most teachers get exposed to in a whole year. And those of us who use Twitter in this way are able to tap this stream of information any time we like.

(I hope you also noticed that I still don’t know what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch, or what crazy antics Charlie Sheen is up to. I don’t care about that stuff, so I don’t follow those people, so I don’t see those tweets. Twitter works because you get to make choices about who is part of your network.  You create relevance for yourself.)

Now, before you assume that I spend my whole day getting sidetracked by Twitter, let me assure you that’s not the case.  I’m telling you about this 10 minute slice of time to make the point that Twitter, when you build a network of relevant people, is an amazingly rich sources of ideas, inspiration and connections.

I don’t read every tweet. I don’t follow every link. I let most of the tweetstream just flow by me, only dipping into it if I get a moment. If I spot something interesting I hit the star to favorite it and come back to it later. If anything really good turns up in the stream and I miss it, it gets retweeted over and over so the chance of me seeing it is still pretty good.  But mostly it’s just there, flowing by, ready for me to dip into it and pull out a few gems whenever i have a moment. Do that every day and pretty soon you have a substantial body of PD building up.

I understand why people find it hard to get their head around Twitter.  I understand why people are still skeptical when they hear others say things like “Twitter is the best PD you can get!”  It sounds like complete hyperbole… How on earth can a random collection of short messages from strangers possibly compete with professionally organised training and PD sessions?

It competes because it’s more relevant, more timely, ongoing, interactive, daily and personal. Traditional PD just can’t offer all that.

If you’re one of those people who resist Twitter because it just doesn’t seem logical, please just suspend your doubt and give it a go. Don’t just join and do nothing; give it a proper go. Follow a bunch of relevant people – at least 50 or 60 – get a decent Twitter client, and open yourself to the possibilities of what a network offers. You won’t regret it.

Totally Unorganised

I think I can safely say I’ve just been to one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended.  It was well run, well organised and I believe provided content that was highly relevant to all the participants.  The irony is that the day before it all started, it was completely unorganised and had virtually no content planned at all.  I’m talking about the Learning 2.010 Conference held last week at Concordia International School in Shanghai, China.

I think it’s really important to draw a clear distinction between being unorganised and being disorganised.  Disorganised is when things are a complete mess, no one has any idea of what’s happening, people are not getting their needs met and it leads to frustration for everyone involved.  This conference was definitely not disorganised.

Unorganised, on the other hand, implies a understanding that learning is messy and that when we need to learn something we learn it best if we can learn it just-in-time, not just-in-case.  When you put together a conference about learning, being unorganised means recognising that you can’t meet someones needs until you know what those needs are.  Being unorganised means that you don’t assume that you know what’s best for people, but rather, you ask them what they need.  Being unorganised implies flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to listen to what people really want, at the point when they want it.

It also implies a huge risk, since you are inviting people to attend (and prepay for) an event that essentially does not yet exist. It would be far easier, far safer, far less risky, to run a conference the way they are traditionally organised… Bring in some smart people to speak, get them to stand on the stage and impart their wisdom to the assembled masses, and perhaps preplan some added workshops on what you think people need.  That’s the accepted way to run a conference, the safe way, the “normal” way, the organised way… doing it any other way is a risk and a challenge to the status quo, and potentially a threat to people’s expectations.

However, those with the goal of shifting and reshaping education know inherently that this traditional model of conference planning flies in the face of what we proclaim learning is truly about.  It’s ironic (and hypocritical) that conferences about contemporary learning should remain modeled on a structure that so blatantly contradicts the way we keep saying that learning should work in the 21st century.

The organisers of Learning 2.010 accepted this risk and, from what I could see, it paid off handsomely.  The event was run on the basis of having two quite different component parts… the first was based on a cohort (team) of learners that gathered around a key idea and worked together to explore that idea in depth over the two days, and the second component was an unconference that ran 90 minute workshops in whatever content emerged from the participants.

The cohorts were led by a team of international educators who were hand picked by the Learning 2.010 organisers (or should that be unorganisers?) and I felt extremely honoured to have been included in this group.  These are some of the smartest, most forward thinking, contemporary educators I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, many of whom I already felt I knew well from their blogs and online presence. There were many that I’ve wanted to meet in person for a very long time and others I hadn’t previously known of, but it quickly became pretty clear that this was an extraordinary group of talented educators.

As one of the invited cohort facilitators, I arrived into Shanghai the day before the conference started so I could be part of a brainstorming and planning session with the other facilitators about what and how we might make the cohort component of the conference best happen.  Although we did have general themes to guide us, the exact structure of how we’d run the sessions, what resources we’d include, how we’d manage our cohort groups, etc, was all fluid… essentially, we had four 90 minute sessions over the 2 days and we could do whatever we wanted in them. Most themes had two cohorts, each with its own facilitator, that could be run independently from each other, or could be combined together, or some combination of these.

I was lucky enough to be teamed up with Melinda Alford, a teacher at Concordia (the host school) on the topic of Creating a Culture of Learning and Creativity.  Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but having now worked in Shanghai for the past six years, I’d not met Melinda before… in fact she was one of those teachers that wasn’t even on my PLN radar. But after working with her for a few days I have to say she is one of the most talented natural teachers I’ve ever met and it was a real joy to be able to work with her. It’s so nice when you get to work with someone who is really on the same wavelength. who shares so many of the same ideals about learning and education and is so easy to work with.

As we started to plan how our cohorts would operate, we decided not to run in two groups, but rather to combine them into one.  Our general plan was to facilitate a guided conversation about the ideas of creativity and curiosity in learning, follow it up with some ideas and examples and strategies for developing creative opportunities for students, and then allow our group to organically break up into small teams based on interest and need, and produce something to share with the whole group in the final session.  The “something” was open-ended, but was basically a resource, an activity, a plan, something, that could be put to use the next week in their classroom.  We wanted to challenge the thinking of our cohort, but be practical and get them to actually create something they could use.  We were also very focused on the idea of creating a learning environment for our cohort participants that modeled the type of learning that we were expecting them to create for their students… open ended, flexible, learned centered, challenging, hard fun.  Our plan was to facilitate, not lecture. Share, not teach. Encourage, not demand.

We spent part of that first planning day tossing ideas around and creating some visual prompts. One of my big beliefs about the notion of creativity is that it should come from both sides of your brain. We were both very keen to encourage the idea that creativity is not something that just applies to “the arts”, not something that you only find in strange “arty” types who dress in strange clothes, not something that is applied to problems occasionally in a superficial way… we wanted to get the idea across that creativity is a critical thinking skill that applies to all disciplines, in all sorts of ways, all of the time.  Melinda and I both had backgrounds in the creative arts as well as science and engineering, so we found it easy to weave this into our planning.  To make the point, at the social event held the evening before the conference officially started, we got up on stage to promote our cohort sessions, me dressed in Elmo pyjama pants and a set of large donkey ears, and Melinda in a giant chicken outfit.  At least we got noticed!

So, in a 24 hour period, we went from having a cohort session with no structure, no content and no ideas, to having a session which was highly personalised, based on meeting the needs of the participants and built on the strengths of the facilitators.  I might write more about the cohort sessions later, but I felt like it was a great success.

The other component of the conference was the unconference. Again, the problem with traditional conferences is that you sometimes don’t learn what you’d really like to learn, and it treats the “presenters” and the “audience” as two groups.  If you believe that learners and teachers can have a much flatter relationship that that, the unconference model makes a lot of sense.  At the first social event of the conference, participants were encouraged to write on a large sheet of paper a topic that they’d like to learn about.  Equally, they were also encouraged to write down a topic they’d like to share about.  These pieces of paper were then sticky-tacked to the wall and people could add a vote to the ones they were interested in the most.  The ones that had enough votes then ran in the next unconference session time.

So, for example, I offered to run a session on teaching kids to think using Scratch, since I’ve been doing a lot of work on this back at school.  So, I offered the topic, volunteered to be a presenter for it, people selected it, and it ran successfully.  Conversely, someone else added a request for a session about Photoshop. They were not willing or able to run it themselves, but they were very interested in learning about it.  Because I’m a bit of a Photoshop guy, I was happy to add my name to that as the presenter, and the session went ahead.This is really the spirit of an unconference.  It’s about flexibly and dynamically connecting learners together to learn about the things that interest them.  You can’t plan that sort of thing in advance because you have no advance idea of what those interests will be.  An unconference only works if you place your trust in the wisdom of the crowds, if you believe that none of us is as good as “all of us”.  If you believe that someone in the crowd will have the expertise to share with others, and the humility to accept that that expertise can come from anywhere, then learners become teachers and teachers become learners and our learning environment becomes flatter and less hierarchical.  It goes from being about teacher and student, moving away from being about “us and them” to just being about “us”.  And this is so much more reflective of the way true learning actually works.

Of course, you can see why this is risky.  If participants turn up as empty vessels waiting to be filled, who see professional development as something that is done “to them” by someone else, then this is all destined to fail miserably. What I like about the unconference model is not just that it’s a far superior way to learn – because it is – but that it works on the underlying assumption that people are inherently good.  It’s based on the fundamental ideals of sharing and teamwork, and the belief that most people are just as eager to give as to take.

It assumes the best from people, and that’s always a better environment to work in.

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 2

Our Year 2 classes do a project each year called Great Inventions.  The students learn about various inventions and how they have changed over time, and over the past few years they have demonstrated that learning by producing a PowerPoint file that summarises the history of these inventions.

As you may have read in my previous post, two of my pet hate phrases are “do research” and “make a PowerPoint”.  Whenever I see these two phrases in the same sentence I can almost guarantee that we’re looking at a fairly low level task that focuses more on recall and summary of facts than it does on authentic learning.  I’m also wary of any time I see students “making a PowerPoint” that simply gets handed into the teacher for marking, rather than being used as a presentation platform since it is usually a sign that it’s being used as a glorified note taking tool; a place to write text complete with the distractions of bright colours and annoying graphics.  Don’t get me wrong… It’s not that I’m against the use of PowerPoint as such, but unless you use it for what it’s designed to do – namely to providing a set of effective visuals that support a speaker as they present persuasive ideas – then I think it’s use is probably leading us down the wrong path.

In previous years, the PowerPoints made by the students displayed some good computer skills, but I had the feeling that the technology was there as an add-on rather than an integral tool for completing the task.  The teachers also felt that the students had trouble collecting and synthesising information from the web as the level of most information found online was simply too difficult for the students to deal with.  I also pointed out that taking information from the web and simply rewording it onto a PowerPoint slide was not a big benefit to the students and I questioned the value of such a task.

After a bit of group brainstorming we made a few subtle but important changes to what we asked the students to do.  Firstly, recognising that the language on most webpages were too difficult for kids of this age, we started a wikispaces wiki and created our own pages of information in language pitched at the right level for Year 2.  It was a bit of extra work to create these summaries and took us an hour or so to do, but it meant we now had a permanent set of pages that were exactly what we needed.  The use of a wiki was relatively new to the teachers but they picked it up very quickly, adding text and images. I had my laptop open and I was creating pages and helping cleanup pages if necessary, as the teachers worked on the IWB to brainstorm together what content needed to go on them.  It was actually quite an energizing experience, and in that planning session of an hour or so I think we all enjoyed the buzz of coming up with a better idea and taking immediate action to make it happen.

The nature of the PowerPoint that the students were being asked to create got an overhaul too.  Rather than just submit the PowerPoint file, I convinced the teachers to reallocate their class time to allow the students to get up in front of their peers and actually present their finished work.  I also suggested that we needed to somehow introduce an opportunity for the kids to create and invent, and to use their imagination rather than just retell facts that others have already provided.  To this end we decided to scaffold the PowerPoint into three slides only (I suppose four if you count the title slide).  Each child’s presentation was about a particular invention, and slide one would be about the past history of that invention, slide two about its present and slide three about its future.  We also agreed that the students would only be allowed to use pictures on the slides, no words.

So, slides one and two would tell the story of the invention’s past and present, and this information would come initially from the students looking at the summaries created by the teachers. Naturally, because the teachers had vetted those summaries for both content and language, it was reasonable to expect that the students would be able to identify and deal with the information appropriately. The visuals for these slides would come from images the students found online that captured the past and present of the various inventions.  All the other information about the inventions would have to be delivered verbally by the student when they stood up to give their presentation, since there were to be no words (and therefore no slabs of text and no bullet points!) on the slides themselves.

But slide three was about the future, which clearly hasn’t happened yet. For this, we would ask the students to create a drawing of what they thought their invention might look like in the future. They were free to be as imaginative and creative as they liked (and it was amazing what they came up with!)  Their drawings were scanned or photographed and added as the picture on slide three.

Remember, we are talking about 7 year olds here.  I think what we did to improve this task was to effectively scaffold it, stripping it down into the really important components and providing a guide for the students to work with, while giving them opportunities for creative, imaginative thought as well as researching existing knowledge.  We simplified the technology requirements and realigned the task around the content we wanted them to learn.  The technology became the environment for what they produced, and not the focus for it.  I was quite please with what we did.

I then suggested that, if the students were going to get up in front of the class and present their work, it would be a shame to not share their presentations with a wider audience. To this end, I suggested that we use UStream to create a live broadcast to the web so that parents and relatives could watch the children present live over the Internet.  The Year 2 teachers were really receptive and excited about this idea.  I told them I’d do a bit of testing for them to make sure UStream would work smoothly through our network, and I’d investigate how we could control the broadcast and perhaps just limit it to parents and invited viewers.

That’s often the other big part of my job, to not only come up with ideas that push the teachers’ use of technology, but to do the leg work to make sure the technical aspects of those ideas are actually feasible. After a few days of trying various configurations and running a few live tests, it was clear that it was very feasible and would in fact work really well.  I then worked with the Year 2 teachers to draft up a letter to parents explaining what we were doing, when we would be streaming and the passwords required to watch it. (Let me know if you’d like me to email you a copy of that letter)

The finished results were really very pleasing.  The work that the students did to create their presentations was very good (and importantly, we were now referring to what they were doing as “presentations”, and not “PowerPoints”… I thought this was a great sign to indicate that the focus was off the technology, and instead was on what the technology was enabling)

The final live broadcasts, which ran over several days, were a lot of fun!  I rigged up my Macbook Pro so the webcam was broadcasting the video, and we hooked up a very nice Rode Podcaster mic on a stand in front of the students so the audio was actually pretty good too. Although the actual media stream was quite good, we unfortunately had trouble getting UStream’s backchannel chat to work through our proxy.  But UStream does at least tell you how many people are watching at any given moment, and after each presentation the kids would all turn around and ask “How many people are watching now?!”  There’s nothing quite like an audience to spur kids’ enthusiasm and willingness to do their very best!  We did the presentations in a number of sessions over the course of the week, and I eventually started tweeting out to my PLN before we started broadcasting… this added to the parent watchers and raised the audience numbers considerably, and it also provided a sort of backchannel as well. At one point, we had more almost 50 people watching the stream… that was more than double the number of people in the actual classroom! The kids were really excited by it all, and as we got encouraging tweets back from schools in other parts of the world, the raised level of commitment to doing a good job with their presentations was a joy to watch (some even insisted on doing theirs a second time because they felt they could do better!)

The Year 2 teachers were really quite amazed at how it all came together, and especially to think that there were more people watching from outside their classroom than there were inside the classroom!  We also had an unexpected visit from the principal, who had heard about the project and dropped in to watch a few of the presentations, It was really cool to have him there, sitting on the floor being king of the kids.  Overall, I have to say it was a much better experience than simply submitting a Powerpoint file to the teacher for marking!

From my perspective, I was really pleased with what we’d done.  We took a task that I thought was a little mundane, a little dull, and quite frankly lacking in higher order thinking, and with a few simple tweaks we redesigned it into something that everyone felt was a much better, richer, authentic and more meaningful experience. I felt we shifted the use of technology away from being an end in itself, to being an enabler of richer learning.  I thought the quality of the presentations was really good. Again, was it all perfect?  No, there are things that we can improve next time, but that’s what it’s all about… learning and getting better.

Here’s a video of one of the presentations…

People sometimes ask me whether all this effort to integrate technology into our classrooms is worth it, and whether it really makes any difference.  To answer that, let me share part of an email I received from one of the Year 2 parents the next day…

“It was such an enjoyable experience for my husband and I to be able to watch our daughter in action from the comfort of our office and home respectively. Extended family members logged on later that evening to view  the recorded event, which sent a ripple of excitement through the family.  Our daughter was thrilled.

Upon reflection, it’s been made apparent to me that our daughter is not just being taught basic skills, but that talking and listening, reading and writing can have a purpose and an audience far greater than their teachers and peers. What an amazing learning experience.  How wonderful it was for mothers and fathers to at last be the fly-on-the-wall in our daughter’s classroom and to see the girls use technology so innately and with such confidence.”

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 1

In these next few posts, I’m going to try and describe some of the projects we’ve been doing at school lately.  My role at PLC Sydney is ICT Integrator, and I very much see it as a role where I support, advise and consult with our classroom teachers about ways to enrich their lessons with technology. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes, since it often forces me to cross that line between giving advice on how to use the technology and giving advice on how to teach. The nature of digital technology makes it a really good fit with the general principles of quality teaching practice… and sometimes that fit is so good that I find it difficult to suggest ways to use technology without also suggesting that the underlying pedagogy should shift to match it.  Fortunately, I work in a school where most of our teaching staff are willing to take such suggestions on board, be it simply just regarding the use of technology, or to actually shift they way they approach the job of teaching.

Our Year 9 Geography class work on a project each year about natural hazards (bushfires, floods, earthquakes, etc). Over the last few years the students have been given a task that requires them to do “research” on one of these phenomena and “create a PowerPoint” about it.  I tend to put those terms into quote marks because I find that “research tasks” presented “in Powerpoint” are usually just a formal excuse to get kids to plagiarise (especially when they just hand the PowerPoint file in… they don’t actually present it to the class). When I looked at the task as it stood I was struck by the fact that most of the questions being asked could easily be answered by simply going to Wikipedia and doing a cut and paste.

I tend to use Blooms Taxonomy as a means of getting a quick overview of the quality of the tasks we ask our students to do.  It’s not a perfect tool, but it’s nice and easy to apply and it gives a pretty good insight into the degree of higher level thinking that might be involved in a given task.  When I looked at the existing task I got the impression that it was made up of fairly low level recall skills.

As an ICT Integrator, one of the questions I always try to start with is “What can we get the students to actually MAKE?” If  the word “create” is at the top of the Blooms pyramid, then I reckon that starting with that question is a good way to begin pushing upwards into higher levels of thinking, since making things, by definition, is creating.  The term “doing research”, unless it is followed up with actually making something based on that research, rarely takes students much beyond simple cut and paste thinking.  To be fair, the other part of the task did involve creating in the sense that the students were “making a PowerPoint”, but it was really just a PowerPoint summary the “research”.  Is it any wonder our students tend to plagiarise when we give them tasks like this?

So when I got a request, as the ICT Integrator, to simply visit these classes to remind the kids “how to make a PowerPoint” I felt a little underwhelmed, and I tactfully tried to suggest that perhaps we needed to rethink what we were asking the kids to do, and to come up with something a little more challenging. That’s what I mean when I say I often have to cross the line between just offering ICT support to teachers versus helping them rethink their actual pedagogy.

Anyway, we did end up redesigning the task, and I think that in the end everyone agreed it was a better, more interesting task that made good use of ICT while also covering all the necessary learning outcomes.  The students were put into groups of three and their task was to produce a 3-5 minute audio news report about a natural hazard of their choice. (It wasn’t technically a podcast, since we didn’t wrap it in an RSS subscription enclosure, but the recording part was the same general idea as a podcast.)

I suggested that the three students should take on three different roles, each focusing on a different aspect of the natural disaster.  The first role was the newsreader, and her job was to announce and describe the key facts about the disaster – what it was, where it happened, and some information about the causes for it… the newsreader essentially set the scene and gave the background about this particular disaster.  The second role was that of on-the-scene reporter, and this person was responsible for giving the detailed information about the disaster – who was involved, describing what the scene looked like, how it was being handled by emergency crews and so on.  The reporter then conducted an interview with the student playing the third role, that of a victim.  The victim’s job was to talk about the human impact of the disaster, and how people were affected. They were to give an insight into the human cost of natural disasters.  Together, these three roles would cover all the important aspects of natural disasters.  I think it’s important to recognise that all of these aspects are outlined in the syllabus for this unit, and so doing it this way was not just a novelty but a way for students actually engage in the prescribed content in a more interesting, more engaging way.

Of course, in order to play these roles the students needed to write a script.  For this, we used GoogleDocs and I taught the students how to write collaboratively using the shared writing tools in GoogleDocs.  I should point out that our Year 9 and 10 students are now 1:1 and every student has their own laptop.  This is a fairly new thing for our school as the 1:1 program just started this year, so I wanted to ensure we build authentic technology skills into these tasks.  Most of the students had never used GoogleDocs before and had never seen the collaborative, shared writing function. I spent a lesson with each class teaching them how to share a document and work on it together, something that they picked up very quickly. That’s the thing about our alleged “Digital Natives”… they actually don’t know a lot of this stuff, but once shown, they tend to pick it up pretty quickly.  Once they got the hang of how it worked, they used GoogleDocs as a shared writing space to work on a script together.  It worked really well and the students worked in groups of three, all collaborating on the same document, adding, editing and creating together.  I think they found it a very valuable tool.

I also spent some time teaching the students the basics of recording sound using Audacity. Once they were shown the core skills of recording a track, then overlaying it with other tracks, music and sound effects, they were ready to get on with producing their radio news reports.  Again, it was a skill that most of them had never seen or used before, but after a half hour of training they were all quite proficient at it.

Of course, behind all of this the students DID have to do considerable research.  They needed to find out how bushfires spread, what causes cyclones, where droughts are most likely and so on.  It’s not that they don’t need to do research – they certainly do. It’s just that once they did the research the task required them to actually use that information to produce something else.  The focus was not on the research, but what could be done with the research. Importantly, they were given some room to be creative, admittedly within a reasonably scaffolded framework, but there was still room to be creative… it wasn’t all about just regurgitating the facts they had researched.  They needed to take those facts and understand, manipulate and create with them. They were given an opportunity to engage with a range of new technology tools they’d never used before, and ones that will hopefully be of use to them in the future. They were being asked to use the media production capabilities of their shiny new laptops to collaborate and make something original, and not just use it as a glorified typewriter.

As we designed the task, I also made sure it offered the teachers a chance to learn new skills as well. We are really pushing the use of Moodle at the moment, and although most of our teachers are very good at posting resources like Word and PDF documents, the activities part of Moodle is still quite underused. I insisted that the final products of the students – namely a text document with the script and an MP3 file with the finished recording – be submitted as an Assignment in Moodle.  There was initially some resistance to this idea, but it forced the teachers to engage with the assignment submission workflow that Moodle offers and exposed them to a number of Moodle features they were not aware of, like the gradebook and the ability to manage student results electronically.

Overall, I have to say the task was a great success.  The students seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to work in groups, to make good use of their laptops, to be able to inject a bit of their own personality into the final product.  They told me that they liked the opportunity to be a bit more creative and not just hand in yet another boring PowerPoint file or essay.  The teachers told me they were impressed with just how engaged the kids were during the task, and that the quality of the finished products was generally quite high.

I’ll put some more posts up in the next few days about some other projects we are working on at school, but at the heart of them I hope there is a common theme.  That is, I hope we are getting better at rethinking what we ask our students to produce so they can show us not only what they know, but what they can do with what they know.  I’d like to think that we’re working harder to build creativity, choice, authenticity, collaboration and engagement into what we ask of them.  I’m pleased to see their laptops being used in ways that leverage the things that digital technology can do, and not to just treat them as a fancy way to take class notes.

Can this task be improved in the future?  Sure, but it was a nice step up from the previous task. I’d like to think that the ICT in this case was there as the appropriate tool for supporting a richer learning task, and not just there for the sake of using computers.

Below is a playable sample from one of the groups.  I don’t know if it was the best one, since I haven’t actually had a chance to listen to them all, but I picked it more or less and random and thought it was pretty good.  I liked the way they used sound effects and mashups recorded from the TV – it shows that they made a special effort.  And I like the creative (and slightly humorous) way they introduce the story at the start of their bulletin.

Reshaping Conferences

<understatement>I’ve been to a lot of conferences lately.</understatement>

The Champion Schools Conference in Wellington. ACEC in Mebourne.  ITSC on the Gold Coast, then Adelaide, Sydney and Perth. They’ve all been very good and I’ve gotten something from all of them.  They’ve all had slightly different angles and focuses, but it’s pretty clear that any worthwhile education-based conference these days tends to have the same consistent underlying message, one that most active members of the edtech community would have heard many times before… The world is changing, technology is helping drive that change, and schools need to move with that change if they are to remain relevant.  That’s it in a nutshell.  Of course, there are many much deeper conversations we need to keep having about the how, why, what, when and where of enabling these changes, and we need to keep pushing the message out to those teachers still unaware that these fundamental changes are shifting the ground beneath them.

I have a friend who used to work in the newsroom of a major television station. He once explained to me how, when a really big story broke, the newsroom’s job would be to tell that story over and over for the next few hours or even days.  There would be the initial newsbreak, but then it would get spot coverage each hour, followed by continuous newsbreaks, a piece in the nightly news and then again in the late news, and so on. I once asked my friend why they saturated the media so much with news stories like that, and questioned whether it was overkill to keep reporting the story ad nauseum, to which his reply was “In a newsroom, we know that when we are thoroughly sick of hearing about a particular story, the general public is only just starting to understand what it’s all about.”

So, as much as I might keep hearing the same fundamental messages being relayed over and over at most of these conferences, it’s still true that there are lots of regular classroom teachers for whom many of these ideas are quite a revelation.  The impact that digital technologies are having on our students, the need for a shift in the way we approach the design of learning tasks, the imperative for offering students choices and options as a means of maintaining engagement, and the general idea of teaching less so students can learn more… these are still totally new ideas for many educators.

While conferences might try to promote these ideas through the lens of educational technologies, the true importance of them is firmly rooted in pedagogy, not technology.  While we talk a lot about how digital technologies are a useful tool for “21st century learning”, technology just happens to be a powerful enabler for these new pedagogical approaches.  It may appear that we edtech types are constantly promoting the use of technology just because we happen to like technology, but it runs deeper than that. We promote the importance of technology because, if you have been embedding technology into your teaching for any length of time now, you’ve seen first hand just how effectively it can start to shift the way your classroom operates.  You know it can increase engagement, raise the quality of the work, make the learning more authentic, more on-demand, because you’ve seen it.  And while you might value the role of technology in enabling all these things, you also realise that it’s not really about the technology, but rather the learning.

One of the great frustrations for those of us “in the echo chamber” of edtech is that, while we can see the value that technology brings to our work with kids in classrooms, we sometimes appear to just be enthusiastic about technology for the sake of it. We implore our colleagues to try blogging with their students, or to give wikis a go, or consider allowing that boring essay task to be submitted as a podcast.  And so often our enthusiasm for the power of these tools is all too easily perceived as technological zealotry, and the promotion of technology as a solution to every problem.

So, back to these conferences, and their intended purpose of shifting the participants understanding of 21st century education.  It’s been really interesting to see the lights come on with many of the participants. It’s really gratifying to hear teachers say things like “I’ve never even considered many of these ideas before, but I’m going to take them back to classroom and give them a serious go”.  For at least some of the people I’ve been meeting at these conferences over the last few months, they left excited about the possibilities and felt inspired to learn more and to apply their newly discovered ideas back in the classroom.

One of the ironies of most conferences is that they are so often based on the idea of having someone stand on the stage or at the front of a workshop and simply talk at the participants… ironic because that’s usually the very model of teaching that the speakers are saying we shouldn’t be perpetuating. (For the record, I stand accused… as someone who has delivered some of these talks, I’m as guilty as the next person)  In slight defense of this sage-on-the-stage model though, in some circumstances it’s still the most efficient way to share ideas with a large group.  It’s just ironic that we still design conferences to help us learn what a 21st century classroom should look like by doing exactly the opposite.

It’s not all like that though. One of the standout conferences I’ve attended is the Innovative Technology in Schools Conference run by Apple. While it still has some elements of people standing in front of the whole group and talking at them, it also has a significant “unconference” component, where teachers work in small organic groups on passion projects that deeply engage them as learners.  It’s been great to see a conference attempt to model itself on the principles of open discussion; of offering choices, options and highly personalised learning pathways; of forming groups based on the interests of the participants; of giving the necessary time to allow participants to create and change. And of course, of enabling all of this with the rich use of technology. In short, of treating the conference participants as actual 21st century learners rather than just attendees. The ITSC event stands out to me because it tries to actually BE the way it claims education should be, and in doing so it offers the participants a chance to actually “walk the walk”, rather than just “talk the talk”.  Quite a few participants remarked to me that the penny finally dropped about the way education could be different because of the way the ITSC conference itself modeled how that change might actually look.

There was also a real focus on the creation of an appropriate learning space for participants.  Rather than the typical conference situation of having rows of chairs all facing the front, ITSC had a range of flexible seating and working arrangements, with lots of round tables, leather couches and beanbags.  It had large plasma TV screens around the room where groups could gather and share. It had powerboards on every table, reliable open wifi, and a wiki server for participants to create collaborative digital workspaces on demand.  These are the sorts of things that we know 21st century classrooms should look like, and can really help create an environment where the learning really hums along.

Importantly, participants were also asked to actually make something during this conference that they could both share with the group and also take away with them. Even more importantly, they chose what they made based on their unique interests and what would be useful to them. They chose who they teamed up and worked with. They decided what they needed to learn to complete their task and they learned it on the fly. They used technology in authentic ways to enable the process. It was genuine 21st century learning in action, and it was quite a powerful conference experience.

There are lessons in the ITSC events for all conference organisers.