Feb 162012
 

Smiley with Ringeye Nellie

I have had three Whoa Nellie! Moments this past month, which made me realize that this BC ED PLAN world I live in is still pretty isolated from the main stream of educational thought. All the tech here and tech there and personalize this and personalize that talk, is lost on many. It is like no one has even invited them to jump on the bandwagon or perhaps, people might not want any part of the new and improved vision of education I have been immersing myself in.

These moments have by no means, dissuaded me from forging ahead and becoming more entrenched in the world of digital driven personalized learning movement but they have certainly made me stop and think about where I am at, in relation to where the real world resides in their thinking.

The first Whoa Nellie! moment was when a parent of one of my International students popped in to see me about their child’s first term mark. I had given “Johnny” an “I” because very few of his assignments were completed. The parent was puzzled because I had not given any tests and that, “where they come from”, the test is all that matters. Assignments are essentially ignored, seen as “extra” work if the student doesn’t understand. Johnny was waiting for me to tell him what to study for the test and had no intention of doing the assignments. It would have been nice if he had expressed his view of how learning is achieved during the term when I asked him “what is up?” but…

What I realized at that moment, is that there are still people who subscribe the old school ways of learning. Take notes – memorize material – take test. Up until that moment, I had naively thought everyone had at least moved past this very Old School view of education but apparently I was wrong.

The second Whoa Nellie! moment was when I popped my head into my school while on medical leave. I wanted to make sure that everything had gone to hell in a hand basket without me … Which of course it hadn’t. In fact, I think the kids enjoyed having a real teacher for a change.

When I popped my head into my office, Stewart Baker and Alex Kozak (co heads of the iPad cohort) told me that 6 students signed up for next years incarnation of the iPads In The Classroom project. Only 6 kids out of a student body of 1500+ had put their name down for our iPad cohort. I was gobsmacked! After all the work we had done getting this thing rolling and now, come course planning time for next year, we manage to scrounge up a paltry 6 kids? What in god’s name did we do wrong?

Once we look into things a little more, I am sure we will have a clearer picture of why kids have not signed up in droves. Undoubtedly there will be a long laundry list of things which brought about this overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the project. What it does tell me right off the bat however, is that 1494 students and their parents have not bought into, what the likes of me are selling. The panacea of a digitally driven classroom is not a part of most people’s view of education, even when the opportunity is right there in front of them.

The Final Whoa Nellie! moment came from three guest lectures I did for an Educational Technology class at the University of Victoria. One secondary and two elementary cohorts of up and coming teachers, had to listen to me drone on about iPads in the classroom. I was thrilled to do it. I felt like I had made it to the big leagues, called up from the minors to take three short shifts for my old Alma Matter.

In the short time I spent with these new teachers. I quickly realized that although I was talking to an Educational Technology class, these young teachers were not as technologically savvy as one might think. Once again I fell for the false notion that under 20 = digital native. Now I freely admit, I didn’t spend enough time with these students to truly gauge their level of competency but they definitely were not operating at the level of competency and acceptance as seen at the BCEDSFU conference, held at the same time I was doing the lectures.

Together, these three Whoa Nellie! moments, brought me back to reality. They made me realize that those of us who are behind the move toward the digitally driven, Twenty First Century learning space, are living in our own little world.

Each of these moments made clear a single very important issue which needs to be addressed before Twenty First Century learning environments ever become a reality.

First issue is that, many people still view education in very traditional ways. A place where teachers are seen as the gatekeepers of information, rote memorization is central to “learning”, testing measures understanding & percentages are seen as the only measure that matters. These old school hallmarks of what education should be are still very much a part of the general public’s understanding of what good teaching and evaluation is all about.

As long as the traditional educational paradigm remains as part of what the majority believe in, the Twenty First Century learning model will continue to be a fringe educational concept

Second issue is that, digital tools have not been fully accepted as part of the learning environment. They are still seen primarily as a means of communicating and being entertained. If devices such as laptops and tablets were considered a critical part of the educational experience, we would not be having difficulty getting kids signed up for next years iPad cohort. Second to that, if digital tools were truly seen as essential for learning, we wouldn’t need to create a cohort at all. Kids would just simply have them in their back pack as commonly as kids carry binders or pencil cases.

We are slowly seeing more and more kids bringing laptops and tablets into the classroom on a regular basis but at this moment, digital tools are not seen as must have classroom accouterments. In time this will change but at this moment, we are struggling to make it a reality.

Third and final issue is that, if things like the BC ED PLAN are going to succeed, it can’t simply be a decree from above on a glossy image rich document. All levels of education need to be in on the changes necessary, to create the learning environments we are envisioning. It can’t simply be assumed that everyone is on board and everything will fall into place from Kindergarten to University. As it stands, the drivers behind the 21st CL movement are a small enthusiastic group of educators who think they have it right but most people are on the outside looking in.

This is where I feel that the Fin’s have it right. Their education plan has involved everyone from the ground up.What is more is that the Government has clearly stated their plans and outline their commitment to students, to teachers and to the Nation. This is not to say every school jurisdiction needs to follow Finland’s lead but it would be wise to at least come to understand how it is they came to have the best education system in the world.

There is certainly much that can be learned and experienced as we move toward a new educational paradigm. Undoubtedly there will be some bumps along the way but those of us who are galloping fast and furious into unknown pedagogical pastures, might want to reign in good old Nellie and take a look around and see who is on board. If we keep riding Nellie full speed ahead, we might end up flogging a dead horse.

Sep 172011
 

Well, we are two weeks in and I have already come to an opinion about Edmodo, digital learning’s promising new upstart. I have to say, there is a lot to like about it and as a result teachers are flocking to this content management system to manage their classrooms and their curriculum.

Before I go any further, let me share bit of my background and what I am judging Edmodo to. Although I hesitate to call myself an expert, I have been in the distributed learning game for my whole 15(ish) year career. I cut my teeth on the Pathfinder learning system which morphed in to the failed Nautikos Learning system. I have used Plato, Web CT, dabbled in Share Point for Education and I even built my own online classroom before deciding to run Moodle as my content management system. For the past three school years, I ran a Moodle site for my online classrooms but unfortunately I had to abandon it because it became to costly to self host on a private server. When I stumbled upon Edmodo this summer, I was very hopeful that I had found an affordable solution for my online classroom needs.

Right out of the box there are eight things which Edmodo’s developers have done well.

  • Assignment distribution and submission is quick and easy
  • Similar appearance & function to Facebook allows kids to figure out classroom quickly.
  • It is is completely free so there is no out of pocket expense for teachers.
  • Easy to create classes
  • Simple to use grading system
  • Decent calendar but I wish you could sync it to google calander
  • There is an excellent networking function where teachers network with colleagues.
  • There is a mobile app for those teachers and students on the go.

Edmodo definitely has the basics in place but for a Distributed Learning System to really be useful, you need a few more functions or applications before you can truly create an effective online classroom environment. I find the following items to be crucial in running a digital classroom and they will have to be implemented by Edmodo before they can hope to become the go to online education solution.

Threaded Discussion – This is Old School Social Networking but it still serves an important purpose in an online classroom. Where things like twitter and instant messaging serve to share ideas quickly and in the moment. A threaded forum provides a place where students can share ideas over a day a week or even a semester. It gives students to time to think about what they have read and formulate a calculated response. This is especially important for students who are not quick of the mark with their thoughts, ESL or simply not good writers and need time to read through and edit what they post. This function is imperative in any online classroom environment.

Blog Module – I have been using blogs for years and I have ex students who are still posting in the same blog I had them create ten years ago. It is a great way to get kids to put down thoughts after a class discussion, presentation, video or other. I have used student blogs in parent teacher interviews as evidence of learning and when I need a kid to pull up their socks. A blog function is invaluable to any classroom virtual or bums in seats.

Instant Messaging – Now this is not a MUST HAVE but it is useful in a number of situations. Kids can discuss assignments, ideas they have, or simply socialize. They also find it handy at 11pm when they are doing their homework and can contact me instantly for help.

Mass Email Function – This function is a HUGE help in managing students. I currently use a third party vendor called constant contact for emailing students and parents about assignments due, special announcements or any other issues that warrant a mass email. This may be a bit of a long shot for Edmodo to put into place but it would be handy.

Testing Module – As much as I hate to say it, a testing module would be good to have. I know that the word “test” is the new baddy in the 4 letter word world but on occasion it is necessary to give the kids a test. It keeps them honest and heck, lets be honest. It is kinda fun seeing the panic in their eyes once or twice a term.

Web based Text Input – In my opinion this is another must have for kids to be able to submit things like question answers and minor assignments using a java based text box. It is a much easier way to submit answers then uploading a document file every time they complete their work. This is especially important for those who are using an ipad, since you cannot search to and find files for uploading on your ipad. The iPad situation is turning into a HUGE pain in the backside for the kids and I.

Now there is about another half dozen items I would like to see Edmodo implement but I am a realist. I can’t have everything but what we have here is a start. It is by no means a perfect online learning environment but it isn’t all that bad either. Edmodo has many advantages, especially for individual teacher the most significant of which are that it is simple, effective and FREE. Considering Edmodo is backed by Union Square Ventures, the same company which backed Twitter, LinkedIn, Formspring and Zynga, I can only assume that there is more to come for Edmodo. In the end only time will tell if we have a winner on our hands but I look forward to whatever comes down the line and I will be there to praise it or pan it.

Pie in the Sky Wish List

  • Wiki Space
  • White board for real time instruction
  • Ability to add twitter feeds
  • Collaborative space
  • Google Docs integration in lieu of collaborative space