Learning with Pakistan

Over the past couple of weeks, I had the great privilege of visiting Pakistan, and working with over 120 teachers across Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Like a number of other countries across the Asia Pacific region, Pakistan is making changes to their education systems, with an increasing move to educational digitisation happening in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. Schools that were thrown suddenly into using digital tools are now starting to rethink what this all means for education moving forward. Google is playing a significant role in this shift too, with Chromebooks and Workspace forming an important part of this new digital landscape, and working closely with Pakistan and other frontier markets across the region.

After flying into Islamabad via an extended 21 hour stopover in Doha, Qatar, I arrived at the first training venue to meet almost 40 enthusiastic teachers from the Beaconhouse Schools system. I was really impressed not only with their existing knowledge of Workspace, but also their solid understanding of contemporary pedagogical principles. These teachers were hand selected to be part of these workshops, and many of them were instructional coaches and very skilled educators. When working with teachers like this it can sometimes feel a bit intimidating, and at times I wondered if there was really anything of value I could add to the conversation, but I think we managed to find a number of areas where I was able to make a worthwhile contribution.

I was taken to dinner in Islamabad by Nishwa and Madiha from the Tech Valley team, where we enjoyed some great food and even better conversations. This was my first trip to a predominantly Muslim country, and I had a lot of questions about life, culture and Islam, which they were keen to answer and provide their perspective. I learned a lot and it was great to see the reality of the Muslim world instead of the ignorant stereotypes that we are often fed by the media.

After the second day of training finished in Islamabad we got in the car and drove the five hours to our next stop, Lahore. The team from Tech Valley did an amazing job of planning the itinerary, and it all ran very smoothly. In Lahore I was taken to dinner by Umar and Nishwa to Haveli Restaurant, overlooking the Walled City of Lahore, including the Badshahi Mosque, the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh, and the Lahore Fort. The food was great, the company was amazing, and the view was something else. Definitely one of those life experiences that gets burned into memory.

Working with the Lahori teachers the next day was an equally incredible experience, and again their deep understanding of the teaching and learning process made them a joy to work with. I’ve had the pleasure of working with thousands of teachers around the world over the past decade, and working with these Pakistan educators was a real highlight. We covered the same material as the first couple of days in Islamabad, with a few tweaks here and there based on feedback.

The workshops ran over two days, with the first day dealing mainly with toolset and skillset, and the second day focusing on mindset. I was happy with the structure of the two days, and impressed with the way these educators thoughtfully engaged with the workshop. I felt we had some really meaningful conversations about teaching and learning.

After the second day of workshops in Lahore I was able to have a couple of sightseeing days, and used some of this time to explore Lahore with my driver Saim. He showed me some truly amazing places, including the Shahi Hammam, and another visit to the Lahore Fort. The Fort is definitely worth a visit, and especially to see places like the Alamigiri Gate, the Picture Wall, the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) and the Naulakha Pavilion. For someone that had very little knowledge of the Mughal empire, I certainly learned a lot that day. It was the best kind of history lesson.

We finished the day with a drive to the Pakistan/India border. I honestly had no idea what to expect here, but I definitely did not expect what I saw. There are two stadiums on either side of the border, one enormous one for India and a smaller one for Pakistan, which collectively seat about 8000 people. Every afternoon a ceremony is performed where both countries parade, dance and perform in a display of power and taunting each other. It was quite incredible to watch and I’m so pleased I got to see it.

The next day I flew to Karachi for the final stop in my tour of Pakistan, I was met by the local Tech Valley team members, Sobia and Subhan, who were also amazing tour guides. We spent the afternoon visiting many interesting places around Karachi, including Frere Hall, the Mazar el Quaid mausoleum for Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Mohatta Palace, and then to an extraordinary dinner by the Arabian Sea at Kolachi.

I went for a walk near the hotel that morning and got mobbed by some street kids, begging for food as I passed by. It made me sad to see the levels of poverty that still exist in so many parts of the world so I bought a big bag of food to give them on my return walk. I know it seems tokenistic but I wanted to do something for these kids. As they laughed and acted up in front of my camera it really did strike me just how much children are children, anywhere in the world, in whatever conditions they find themselves. That innocence is so beautiful.

The final workshop in Karachi went well, and I was again struck by the professionalism and dedication of these teachers from Beaconhouse Schools. I again made some minor tweaks to the program based on feedback, and feel confident in saying that the Karachi workshop was also a success. It’s amazing what happens when you put talented educators together, provide them with some prompts and provocations, and watch what happens. I am certain that there will be big things coming from the people in these workshops, and I’ve no doubt they will play a key role in driving Pakistani education forward.

Overall, an amazing experience on many levels. Pakistan was eye-opening for me, and I suspect I will continue to learn and grow as I make further visits back there over the next few months.

If you’re interested, you can check out all the photos from the trip here on Google Photos.

Reflections on China, Part 1

This post is likely to be the first of a couple of reflections about my recent experiences in Beijing for the Learning 2.012 conference. There is so much to absorb; the organisation and location of the conference itself, the experience of spending a week in China’s amazing capital city, but mostly the genuine privilege of being able to spend time with a remarkable group of talented educators from around the globe.

The Pearl MarketFirstly, China. This is my second trip to China, the previous being for the same conference two years ago in Shanghai. I wrote some thoughts about that trip at the time and how awestruck I was by China’s rapid growth. That certainly hasn’t changed. China is still full of surprises, and especially so in Beijing where there is such a dramatic contrast between the ancient and the modern. On my first full day there I got to go shopping for pearls with Julie Lindsay and Lucy Gray (trust me, that Julie knows how to shop!) and then later that day Lucy and I explored the Forbidden City together. The size and scale of the Forbidden City was hard to comprehend, as was the fact that the buildings were three times older than modern Australia! We entered from the south gate and wandered all the way up to the north gate. We even, allegedly, met a guy who is the nephew of the last emperor. I didn’t buy his calligraphy, and I’m not sure I buy his story, but it was still a great experience. On the way home we were driven past Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, and although we were unable to stop and explore them on foot, just seeing the enormity of them was impressive enough.

Me on the Great Wall of ChinaThe next day, Adrian Camm joined Lucy and I for a trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China with our very entertaining driver Charlie. It’s easy to see why the Great Wall is one of the Wonders of the World. At over 5000 km long and over 2000 years old, the wall is breathtaking in scale and built along the craggy ridges of a rugged mountain range. The engineering required to construct this ancient wall is almost unimaginable. At Mutianyu, you can drive right up to the base of the mountain and then get whisked to the top of the Wall by a chairlift, which surprised me. Even more surprising was the fact that your return trip is by tobogganing down the winding S-curves of a steel sled track built into the mountain! I did not expect that.

The Great Wall itself was quite an experience. Words can’t adequately describe what it felt like to be standing there on top of a structure as old as the Roman Empire and having it continue along the mountain ridge as far as we could see (which admittedly with the Beijing smog was not all that far). The Wall is quite a strenuous walk and Lucy, Adrian and I wandered along it until we really couldn’t go much further,and then with lots of great photos and memories (and even a FourSquare checkin)to take back home, we backtracked to our starting point.

After a fun toboggan ride back down the mountain (please can we do it again?!) we lunched at a place in Mutianyu called The SchoolHouse where we found an open wifi access point for more FourSquare checkins, Facebook updates and even a quick Google+ Hangout with Linda.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the tombs of the Ming Dynasty, including the Sacred Way. Oh, and of course Charlie treated us to his personal rendition of Chinese opera as we drove along. As you do.

Later that evening, after being driven around all day in a French Peugeot, we sat in an Irish pub, owned by an American couple, eating Italian Pizza, before we went back to the hotel to listen to music being played by a group of Filipino musicians.

Welcome to China.

Philly to Sydney with Year 2

If you like, you can skip right to the bottom of this post and just watch the video, but I always find the story behind the story kind of interesting. So I thought you  might like to know a little bit about how and why this video was made.

It started out with a simple tweet from my buddy Kim Sivick in Philadelphia.  It started a conversation that went something like this…

Do I know anyone who might make a quick Welcome to Australia video?

I sure do.

And besides, I owe Kim a favour. When I was running blogging workshops with our staff last year I was hoping to tap into the experiences of some very blog-savvy educators by getting them to Skype in and talk to our teachers about the realities and the practicalities of using blogs in the classroom. When I asked for volunteers on Twitter (where else?) Kim Sivick  was one of those who generously responded and agreed to spend time talking with us to share her expertise.

I also got to meet Kim in person at ISTE in Philadelphia last year too, so it was nice to “close the loop” on our virtual meetups.

Kim’s idea was deceptively simple. Get our kids to make a short video about a virtual trip to Australia, and in return her classes would make a video about a virtual trip to Philly for us.

With virtually zero planning, I dropped into one of our Year 2 classrooms and asked the teacher there, Lisa, if her kids would like to make a video for these students in Philly and she jumped at the chance. In no time, Lisa and I had a bit of  a brainstorm on what sorts of things we might do, and she started working with the kids to write a script using GoogleDocs. The script gradually evolved and took shape over the next few days.

I’d been wanting to do some work with chromakeying, or greenscreening for a while, but had just never gotten around to it. It wasn’t something I’d done before, but I suggested to Lisa that if we shot the video of the kids in front of a greenscreen, then it might be fun later to try and drop in the images of various parts of Australia as backgrounds. She thought that sounded pretty cool, so I went to our IT Director and asked if I could buy an inexpensive greenscreen kit. It was one of those things we’d talked about buying for a while, but never quite got around to it. With a reason to need it now, we went online and ordered it on the spot.

When it eventually arrived we set up a date for the shoot. The classroom was transformed into a studio for the morning with lights, camera, and plenty of action. I used iPrompt Pro on my iPad to transfer the script, and then held it up just under the camera lens as a  scrolling teleprompter so the kids could read the script as naturally as possible. We shot it on a Sony HiDef camcorder at 1080i/50. It took a few takes to get things right, but the kids really worked hard to do it was well as possible. Being able to repeat a section over and over in order to get it right was a valuable part of the learning experience.  When it came time to shoot, we all had fun calling out things like “Quiet on the set!” and “Rolling!”  and “Action!”, and running things just like a real movie set. I think the kids had a lot of fun recording it.

I took the footage back to my desk and dumped it all onto my MacBook Pro to ponder out the best way to edit it.  Although I definitely do want to get the kids doing more video work themselves, getting them to edit the footage was not really the learning goal for this particular exercise… it was all about their performance for the camera. After some experiments with iMovie I eventually decided that I’d cut it together with Premiere Pro instead. Premiere Pro was certainly not a program that I knew well, but this seemed like a great chance to get cosy with it. I’m glad I did… it’s a very impressive NLVE tool and I like it a lot more than Final Cut Pro 7.

I always try to make sure we set a good example for students regarding copyright, so it was important that all the background images were available under a Creative Commons licence. I think it’s really important that we demonstrate to our students that you can actually make worthwhile digital media without continually breaking copyright law. All the background images are CC licensed, as are the two pieces of music that I included, both from jamendo.com. The two videos were not released under CC, but using their YouTube contact address I wrote to the owners of both and both were more than happy for us to use their clip. One even offered to send us the hi-def footage! Most people are pretty generous if you just ask. Remember, Copyright doesn’t mean “you can’t use it”, it just means “you can’t use it without permission”, so if it’s not CC, then do the right thing and get permission! It’s just not that hard. (Publishing works under a Creative Commons license makes it much easier of course because it’s essentially an “up-front” permission which is pre-granted as long as you stick to the uses stipulated by the copyright owner)

After a couple of days of editing over the weekend, I did the final render to a 720p .m4v file and uploaded it to YouTube as a private link so the Philly kids (and our kids) could see it the next day.  Here’s the finished product…

It always nice to ceremonialise things that are a bit special, so we set a date for a premiere screening and invited all the Year 2 mums and dads in to watch. When the Year 1 Philadelphia kids watched it, they all wore Aussie bush hats and set up their classroom like the inside of a plane to watch the video.  We had our screening this morning and the movie played to a packed classroom of excited Year 2 students and their parents. Proud parents. Excited kids. Performing for a real audience. Making opportunities to create and practice and iterate. Immediate feedback. And lots of fun and laughs. An authentic learning experience?  You better believe it..

Kim tells me that her kids are working on the sequel for us, showing us their virtual trip to Philadelphia, so we are looking forward to that.

Lisa, our Year 2 teacher, now keeps asking me when we can do our next global project, and is coming up with lots of cool ideas for how it will fit into next terms syllabus.

Overall, I think I’d consider this whole thing a win, wouldn’t you. 🙂