Sunday, May 31, 2009

Notes from the Firehose

More podcasts, more conversations with building technology teams. I feel as though I have been drinking from the firehose. I first heard that expression from my staff and consultants as they learned a new technology. They were overwhelmed with the new ideas and paths to creation.

This is my first exposure to Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. He emphasizes creation as the highest goal of learning. In his Digital Ethnography classes he works with students to understand digital interaction, communication and technology. His students learn the technology almost as a by product of their inquiry it appears. It sounds as though his way of introducing technology to students is rapid fire - firehose training. The creation process is structured with a focus on the message rather than slick presentation. It includes exploration, video production, writing, summarizing, and assessment within the group. Students create a focused purpose through a sequence of exercises; research, sharing and collaboration, and creation with one another. I loved his term "knowledge-able", to help students develop understanding while they develop skills to create knowledge. This podcast is a inspiring piece of work and gives details on the learning process. If you're interested in integrating technology into learning you have to check it out.

I've had some great conversations with building technology teams over the past 3 weeks. My team (district tech support) met with the building teams to discuss their vision for technology in their schools, how they are supporting their focus and what they are purchasing. The conversations were lively, sometimes heated. I don't mind the heat as long as we are aiming for understanding. Points of view are sometimes difficult to reconcile but if we listen we learn a lot in these dialogues.

Some themes have come up. Overall people are more concerned about learning-technology than just technology "stuff". We spent more time talking about philosophy, vision, and tangible action than we have in the past. People want to find a WORKING model, not just some high minded idea. I don't care for action plans that are grandiose. In fact I agree with some tech leaders, that simple and practical are the most important ingredients.

Here are some themes that came up:
Bandwidth - The need for more echoed through our discussion. Now that we have fairly open access to the Internet by teachers, we are feeling the limits of our access. Some feel there should not be a limit. We discussed a multi-layered approach to managing demand and supply.

  1. Continue to increase the supply of bandwidth. This increase will be incremental until we find ways to connect sites via fiber and work with a provider who can offer Internet speeds over 25Mbps.
  2. Establish caching servers at all schools so that content can be stored locally.
  3. Educate students and staff to the wise use of tools. Clearly this is a "tragedy of the commons" where no one wins when everyone grabs as much as they can get.
  4. Find ways to dilineate and measure Internet use so that we can make wise choices.
  5. Cooperate with one another to maximize this resource. Make and keep agreements district wide.
Training and support
Some schools shared their success with simple and short training sessions. They have targeted some technology that is relevant to teachers needs. They have provided a combination of short "info-mercials", handouts, web resources and face-face support. While these are simple, they have provided some direction for teachers and met their immediate needs. Barriers continue to exist for training.
  1. Why teach them? (Question asked by Michael Wesch)
  2. What is important?
  3. When can we train them?
  4. How do we support them?
On-line Collaboration
Many schools have been using or want to adopt web tools for collaboration. Many have teachers who have tried Google Docs though they haven't adopted or promoted it school wide. One school has been using a wiki to communicate. All of the schools would like to have ideas and support for moving this forward. Some plan to promote these tools in their "info-mercials".

I will be looking more closely at my notes from the tech planning meetings over the next few weeks and summarizing what I heard. I intend to add those notes here also. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Needles District - Canyonlands National Park

Finally made it back to Canyonlands National Park. It has been 27 years since Joni and I have been to the Needles District. It was as magical as ever.

Thunderstorms sat in the south most of the day. The clouds were much appreciated. When they cleared it was pretty hot.

It was definitely springtime on the slickrock. There were beautiful flowers along the way.

Latest "Reading" - Treadwell, Freyer, Hargadon

The latest podcasts I have listened to have opened up some new ways of thinking about technology and education. Steve Hargadon has hosted some wonderful guests. His conversations with the guests and the audience are full of new ways to define the art of EDtech with a capital ED. He interviewed Mark Treadwell. They discussed the importance of creativity in education, creativity that includes depth of knowledge on the part of the learner. I appreciate the nod to basic knowledge. It is tough to be creative without basic skills. Literacy, numerancy, oral language, learning how to learn; these are important targets according to Treadwell.

He proposed a different set of competencies for students. The ability to:

  • Manage themselves
  • Think
  • Communicate
  • Collaborate
  • Participate
He didn't go into these in depth. While they appear to be generic skills, these traits would be easy to incorporate into whatever we are doing. With an emphasis on them, we would certainly be more successful in developing good citizens. What a concept!

Wesley Freyer has offered a variety of peeks into schools and the way in which they are creating knowledge through digital storytelling. His Top 10 Reasons to be a Story Chaser providea good list of reasons to practice digital storytelling with students;
  1. Touch hearts and win over parents,
  2. Develop literacy skills,
  3. Develop critical thinking skills,
  4. Provide a window into learning,
  5. Preserve family and local history,
  6. Model constructive uses of digital and social media,
  7. Develop digital citizenship,
  8. Develop digital literacy and 21st century skills,
  9. Inspire creativity,
  10. Catalyze the learning revolution locally.
Given the early stage of our school district for technology adoption, I'd say we should make sure that our students understand digital citizenship and that we model constructive uses of digital and social media. Said a different way, we need to inform ourselves and our students about the rights and responsibilities of Internet use. This doesn't have to be the only focus and it doesn't have to be heavy handed. It means that as we introduce media tools for communication, we take time to understand the citizenship of it all.

Wesley does a great job of describing literacy. Fluency requires practice, reading should be a regular activity. He adds creation as a regular activity. Once teachers and students have skills in multimedia and collaboration, creation can be a more regular activity.

He doesn't just talk about communication. He models digital literacy with a steady stream of podcasts. He knows his gadgets too but doesn't let that dominate his message.

What is the significance of these ideas to our enterprise? I'd like to know:
  1. Are students given the opportunity to engage with technology - technology that isn't about the "stuff" but the process?
  2. Are students allowed to synthesize concepts and knowledge (higher Blooms)? This applies to all subjects not just technology.
  3. Are students ethical users of technology? How well grounded are students in scholarship and the ethics of information use.
  4. Are students safe and secure on the Internet? Do they know how to keep their identity private?
Many of these questions are not within my control. Some would say they are none of my business :-) as I am just the Technology Director. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that preparing students to employ technology isn't only about technology. Learning to learn with technology (another emphasis of Treadwell's) is about learning to learn period. It just so happens that technology affords great resources learn.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Where to begin - Integrating Technology

While we have come a long way from no technology to networked computers accessing the Internet, we have a long way to go before technology is integrated into our curriculum. I have been listening to podcasts that describe the possibilities and the barriers for integration. Wes Fryer posted a presentation by Bob Martin - a technical trainer with the University of Missouri. This podcast is the result of roundtable conversations with teachers, tech directors and higher education folks.

I could related to each and every one of the challenges listed by the participants. Our teachers and administrators have mentioned most of these as well. As I look to improve our adoption - a true integration of technology - I wonder if the order in which we address these challenges would affect the speed at which we can move past them.

The Barriers; K-12 teachers said they have (my comments in italics):

  • lack of knowledge about web 2.0. Most don't know what it is exactly.
  • no time to research. Teachers too busy with the day-day work of teaching. Tech directors too busy with maintaining what they have.
  • security concerns. Tech directors want people to use tools that are proven to be safe. Teachers want to keep students safe from cyber-stalkers.
  • filtering concerns. All want to make sure that students aren't exposed to inappropriate content.
  • perceptions was from parents that these were not tools, they were toys (Facebook).
  • kids know more than we do. Teachers are intimidated by what kids know despite the fact that kids only know a specific slice of tech.
  • lack of supporting research. Administrators don't want teachers wasting time on activities with little payoff. They wonder why we should spend time with technology.
Some of the remedies that were presented were:
  • Bridge the disconnect between what the teachers need and what the tech directors provide. We need to have more conversations to bring theory to reality.
  • Agree on some standardized tools for Web 2.0 so that everyone can be supported and trained. Like:
    • blogs: edublogs
    • wikis: wikispaces for educators
    • social bookmarking: diigo for educators
    • social networking: Ning
    • RSS: Google Reader
    • Microblogging: Edmodo
  • Start small. Use the tools in small ways at first. Grow into your use of the tools.
  • Teach students how to keep themselves safe. Keep their identity private.
  • Teach teachers to set up controls for privacy and safety. Teachers should be the moderator of web activity. This is a far cry from what students are used to on "Facebook".
While these remedies were presented in rather random fashion, I think that order matters. This is not to say that we should wait until all our ducks are in a row before we begin to use these tools. Quite the contrary. I'd say that (in our district) the horses have left the barn. It's just that some of them are in more danger and more confused than others. In our district, we lack coordination of these efforts so we have an uneven adoption of technology.

In an effort to coordinate our efforts I think we should approach our conversations with some principles in mind. I'd like us to adopt the phrase:

Conversations for collaboration in technology
Safety for students through education and supervision.
Simplicity for teachers through standardization and starting small.
Training for all!

I think these ideas, while fairly modest and keeps the horse in front of the cart. We can make our conversations productive. We can keep students safe and build support for teachers and students. We can help lower teachers anxiety in the use of these tools.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Menu of 2.0 - You choose

Here's a menu of Web 2.0 tools, an associated application, and our level of support with each. Click on the table for a better view:

I would like to develop this list. It could help my staff clarify the services we are delivering and help teachers and administrators understand what is available. We could prioritize our support based on their selections.

I wonder how many of our teachers are using these tools already, how many would like to and how many would use a service on our district servers if they knew it was available. Given the shortage of bandwidth that we have to the Internet, it would make sense that people use internal resources for these things - especially if they want to upload files like pictures and videos and such.

A thought

I am the thought
I wake to each morning.
Inspired or unhappy, afraid or relaxed, quiet or chatty.
I am the thought
I wake to each morning.

I am the thought
I have for survival
The threat of opinions that don't match my own.
The threat of my safety as I walk the street.
A question of health, of life and of death.
I am the thought
I have for survival.

I am the thought
of desire and aversion
The coffee I relish each morning
The lunch that long for when the clock strikes the twelve
The task that I hate and would rather not go there.
I am the thought
of desire and aversion.

But maybe I'm not the thought that I'm thinking.
Perhaps I'm much more that a passing, concoction.
Possibly I'm more that a thought like a cloud,
rising from space to return to the...

Change your thought, have you changed who you are?
Make up your mind, does it go very far?
Look at a thought, at it's shape and it's color.
Consider it's smell, then look at another.
Where does it come from, where does it go?

I'm not my thoughts.

I'll keep looking.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Technology Plan - On paper/In reality

I finished the technology plan late yesterday afternoon. I have my fingers crossed that it will pass the review of the state. It is pretty clear to me that the powers that be have some specific agendas for us to follow. They are careful not to tell us exactly what we MUST do, but there are specific requirements we are expected to meet. Some notable examples are:

  • Insure that students are technologically literate by 8th grade.
  • Provide professional development for technology that shows staff how to use new technologies to support education.
  • Promote curricula and teaching strategies that integrate technology based on relevant research and leading to improvements in academic achievement.
  • Measure teacher and administrator performance on technology skills defined by the state.
  • Integrate technology into the curriculum.
  • Provide adequate funding of technology.
  • Maintain compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. Protect minors "from pornography and activities that can harm them".
  • Provide an accurate count of computer resources and show that you can support them financially.
  • Use technology to promote parental involvement and increase communication with parents.
  • Integrate technology with instruction and align with state standards to improve student achievement and increase technology literacy.
Some of these directives come from state government and some come from the federal government. Does this mean that they are providing money to accomplish these goals? The answer is a resounding NO. My best estimate of our current budget (including salaries) is $778,400.97. Of this amount, the state provides us with a whopping $8,000.00. The federal government does better, contributing $34,664.80 through erate.

Despite the meager contribution provided and despite their demands for a plan, the expectations that are outlined seem appropriate for the task at hand. Without a plan, we will waste our money because, while there is a lot of potential in technology, there is a lot of potential waste in it. Our students and our teachers can benefit from the opportunity that technology affords but here's the catch:

Teachers and students will only benefit from technology when it is organized and supported in a fashion that is:
  • Reliable,
  • Useful and Relevant to the task at hand,
  • Provides tools that fit well together,
  • Integrated into the work flow.
This assumes a few things.
  • Conscious choice of tools that fit the budget and work together.
  • Teachers and students understand how to use the tools adopted.
  • Teachers and students are supported in the use of the tools.
As distasteful as it was to pour through all the notes and memories of our work over the past 3 years, it has helped me assess whether we are making good choices. It has helped me bring a few of our "business assumptions" into focus. Consider these:

Let every school decide.
Our school district is steeped in a tradition of "site based managment" - that every school should have right to choose a path of their own. This is a wonderful ideal and could have benefits in the area of innovation and rapid change. Problem is that it assumes that every school will have an equal amount of talent in all areas of management, development and support. Clearly there are some benefits - "economies of scale" - when a district can promote decisions for all schools. While this seems obvious in the area of technology, we continue to deal with resistance to a common adoption of software, hardware and support procedures.

It's not about the technology, it's about student learning.
True. We need to keep student achievement and learning at the forefront. Technology types are often criticized for putting technology at forefront instead. It is popular to criticize technology directors for restricting access to websites and narrowing the types of resources available. These criticisms fail to consider that the directors are trying to protect students, teachers and the community resources to insure reliability.

Living on the cutting edge is a good and necessary activity. But - with great power comes responsibility. When people are trained and understand the risk of an activity, they are empowered to handle the vagaries of that activity whether it is exposing oneself to "bad guys", dealing with lost data, or breaking their operating system. I would love to have a greater number of skilled people to help us innovate, test, train and promote new technology. I don't see these people standing up for the job. I see people who feel overworked and happy to get through the day with their current responsibilities.

Make it available and they will learn to use it.
We've seen the myth of this over the past 10 years in our district. There are a plethora of options available to our teachers for publishing web pages, collaborating and communicating with their students, peers and parents. There is software and hardware available to create presentations, provide practice, research and simulate concepts. What we lack is the time to show them these resources and support their use. Paradoxically, we spend our limited time chasing novel hardware and software applications instead.

These "myths" splinter our efforts to promote a coordinated and supported system of tools and training. They represent a segmented view of the task at hand. In writing the tech plan it is obvious that we need to recognize the interdependence of our learning plan. This plan needs to start with:

  • What do students and teachers need to know? If technology is a legitimate tool for learning, how does it fit into the core curriculum? Are the 21st century skills adequate for student? I expect they are a good place to start.
  • What are the most important tools (knowledge, skill, hardware, software) for accomplishing the former? Once we have agreed on what they need to know, we can choose some standard tools that promote the goal.
  • Are we teaching and supporting our teachers and students in the use of these tools? Once we understand the most important responsibilities we can increase their reliability.
These are pretty mundane prerequisites. They aren't as enticing as the lastest release from Twitter. But if you don't understand your direction, who 'ya gonna twitter?