Oct 082011
 

For the past 4 weeks, I have been standing on my digital soapbox sharing my opinion about using iPads In The Classroom and for the most part, response has been good. It certainly hasn’t hurt my ego getting quoted and re tweeted but do we really want to hear about what I think? What about the kids and their thoughts? So this week is a little snip-it from the kids and what they think about iPads In The Classroom Thus Far.

I put 5 questions to the kids which they could choose to answer or not. Most of the kids abstained but the small sample gave me a pretty good idea where we currently stand and where we have to go in the future. Here is a sample of their answers.

Why did you join the iPad class?

    • “My handwriting is horrible and I hoped this would allow me to avoid having to hand in assignments done by hand”
    • “Because I love to use technology” X 5
    • “I thought it would be pretty cool to use technology so ofen and associate the ipad with school and its so awesome that we have this technology available. Also i have a bunch of friends in the cohort.

What do you like about the iPad class?

    • “I like how it’s relaxed and done on computers since I can type faster and have freedom to search things on the internet.”
    • “I like the fact that I can go on the internet to research n a project and not have to go to the computer lab. I also like the fact that I can access my classmates comments and thoughts when we have a discussion in class “
    • “I like the fact that we are actually using a pretty big variety of apps and the teachers are also involved with the ipads.”
    • “Doing our assignments online,so that we can finish or hand in it at anytime.”
    • “We’re able to get information instantly”

What is bad about the iPad class?

    • “The major thing is sometimes it is annoying when you are trying to listen to the teacher and other people are playing on their IPads so the teacher has to stop the lesson to get their attention”
    • “Too many people playing games and making the teacher wait.”
    • “It is stupid the way we have to hand stuff in!!!”
    • “The biggest issue is that there’s are some things that you need to have an app for but one isnt available. Or its too expensive or its not a good app.”
    • “We spend a lot of time on technical stuff rather than the real topic.”
    • “you can get very distracted, trust me I know”

Is the iPad class different then what you thought it would be?

    • “It’s different because I thought we wouldn’t be using things such as twitter because it’s not always the safest thing to have.”
    • “It is basically what I expected but the classes seem to move slower than in the regular class.”
    • “All the handing in stuff with different apps.”

What should be done to make it better?

    • “Maybe make sure that before starting the lesson everybody has their iPad covered or flipped over so their would be no interruptions.”
    • “Use only ONE Program to hand things in with!!!”

    I have to say, I was surprised by their responses. At least one kid will usually throw me for a loop when I do things like this but there is nothing here that we could not have predicted. What I am most pleased about is that there doesn’t seem to be anything grievously wrong here. It looks as though we only need a few tweaks here and there and get this flippin “handing assignments in” thing figured out. Perhaps the solution to most of our issues would be solved with an Android iOS with Google Docs integration and things would be better?

    Anyhow, my wife is sitting on the couch wondering why I am ignoring her on this Friday of a Thanksgiving (Canadian) long weekend so I must depart and enjoy Family, Friends and the gifts I have in the little world I live in.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

    Cheers!

Sep 232011
 

Well we are three weeks in, our routines are entrenched (kinda), the curriculum is flowing and summer break is a distant memory. This coming week will be our first scheduled check in with all the iPad teachers and I am looking forward to finding out how things are going.

For the most part, it would appear that things are going fairly well. At the very least, when an administrator walks by the classroom, the gentle glow of the iPad shining up on the students faces creates the illusion of engagement. I am not sure that this is what was imagined when the word “enlightened” was coined but somehow it is strangely appropriate.

What I do know for certain is that kids are getting work done and with surprisingly little fuss or muss. To be honest, I envisioned being in a constant battle, keeping kids on task and off Angry Birds but it really isn’t working out that way. Certainly I have kids playing games instead of doing their work but they are isolated incidents and hardly difficult to control. I have far more difficulty in my other classes with kids squandering time on addicting games in a networked computer lab, where I have complete control of each and every computer.

I think the difference is that because the iPad is application based, the ability to transition quickly from classwork to game and back to classwork is clumsy and inefficient. With a computer, this transition is much faster because almost everything is browser based and switching between tabs is quick and seamless. The result is that the iPad student is locked into one task at a time, therefore eliminating the tiring game of catch me if you can.

The biggest issue around distraction comes from getting the kids to listen for instructions and pay attention to what you are doing at the front of the class. As a general rule, when I talk, I like their attention. What I have to do is get the kids to turn the iPad face down on the table or put the cover on but it is astounding how quickly 25% of kids will be back on the device. As Stuart Shanker would say, they have some difficulties with self regulation. I have yet to master how to get the kids to resist the urge to play but I am working on it.

As for how I am distributing curriculum using the iPad? I am using the Edmodo App and for the most part it is pretty magical BUT there is one glaring shortcoming. Students cannot turn in completed work done on the iPad to Edmodo. This is more of a shortcoming of the iPad, as it is the way Apple has created the device but it is a pain in the backside regardless of whose shortcoming it is. I have been reduced to getting kids to email me the assignments but this is messy and time consuming. Kids can still link to an on line document and submit that but then you are defeating the purpose of having Apps like Pages or Keynote. I am investigating options such as Google Docs, Evernote or simply blogging an assignment but in my mind it is defeating the power and the purpose of the iPad and its Apps.

Finally, I had a little bit of a Twitter breakthrough this past week using the iPads, which was really kind of cool. I have used Twitter before to participate in various current events over the past year and I set my classes loose on a our Province’s Administrators during their 2010 BCPVPA conference but I haven’t used it as a question answer medium within a regular class. I have always been a bit hesitant about letting kids loose in this manner but this past week I had the kids fire up questions and observations they had about a documentary we were watching using Twitter and it worked phenomenally well. I find our iPad cohort a pretty tight lipped group but the twitter thread generated some great thoughts and questions which spun into a fantastic post viewing discussion. Twitter served as a fantastic discussion starter and I will definitely be doing this again.

So this is my third week. Nothing earth shattering or shocking to report just steady as she goes. At this point I cannot make any definitive statements about whether iPads are good bad or indifferent, they just are, and only time will tell if they are the panacea of an education system in transition.

Check Out: iPads In the Classroom – Assumptions

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
May 042011
 

Ever hear of the term Academic Inflation? It became a household phrase after it was used by Sir Ken Robinson in his now famous Ted talk Schools Kill Creativity. Academic inflation certainly isn’t a new concept but it was with this talk that its use crossed into the vernacular of the general public and out from behind the pedagogical curtain.

Academic inflation can be best described as the devaluing of the various markers with which we measure someones educational achievement. Most commonly associated with higher education, where once a bachelors degree was a ticket to the good life, we have seen its value decline and become little more than the minimum level of education one needs if they hope to be “gainfully employed”. The High School Diploma, societies previous academic minimum, is virtually useless as a gateway into today’s work world.

Now this devaluation has even extended into the sacred rhelm of Post Graduate Degrees. At one time  having or needing a Masters or PhD was a rare thing but today you can’t pitch a rock down the street without hitting someone with one of these high falutin documents thumbtacked to their workspace wall. Back in the day, attaining a Post Graduate Degree was something special, an indication of lofty academic achievement, something that set you apart from the unwashed masses but today these degrees have simply become part of the common currency we use for acquiring gainful employment.

At this point you might be asking yourself, “So what is wrong with that? People getting educated is a good thing!” Well nothing I suppose but here is the problem as see it.  At one time experience stood for something, frequently more than education. In fact experience was so important in acquiring a job back in the day, that getting a Masters or PhD without spending some time in the trenches was a major no no. No one wanted to higher a high priced know it all that had no practical experience but that was then.

In today’s world, kids power on through their education, attaining high levels of education with nary a bead of sweat on their brow from actual work. Now these twenty somethings are parachuting into senior management positions with out a clue as to how things roll in the real world.  They use phrases like “research says” and “studies have shown” but haven’t a clue how this research and or studies translate when the rubber hits the road. Where once, the phrase “experience tells us” was something to listen too and the people who use it respected, now workplaces are awash with pie eyed, inexperienced leadership with nothing but book learnin to guide the ship.

We are heading for interesting times as the boomer population begins to retire on mass and academic achievements continue to be devalued.  We are bound to get more of this kind of scenario occurring in public service and private industry but is this a good thing? Fresh thinking is one thing but theory in the absence of experience is a disaster waiting to happen.

I think what is actually going to happen as the baby boom retirement crunch starts to take hold is that we will see more hands on training by companies themselves. As man power becomes short in supply, companies will have to attract workers with on the job skills training and pay for any academic education an employee needs just to hold onto them.

Only time will tell but until then Research says…

 

Mar 262011
 

I was recently tasked with the daunting responsibility of reading a chapter about Trust in a book called, The Truth About Leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Now as surprising as it might be to some, the reading part was not daunting but the purpose for which I am reading the chapter is.  After digesting this riveting chapter, I am to present my thoughts to a focus group on Leadership and Education, of which I am a part.

Now anyone who knows me understands the issue at hand here. My personal mantra is “Life is too short to be taken seriously”. For me to muster up an opinion that is anything beyond a cynical, flippant, off the cuff and smart ass’d is, well… daunting. Not to mention that the the room will be filled with administration and respected educational leaders who spend their lives thinking about this stuff. Me?! I am just a run of the mill teacher who likes to fly under the radar and not attract to much attention, so yes the task at hand is daunting.

At first, I figured I would be hard pressed to come up with anything that might be of use to any of those assembled at our next meeting, never mind interesting. I mean really, a chapter on trust and I have to present it as it applies to education? What could I possibly say about trust and education that could not be readily assumed by a fifth grader. The truth is however, that after reading the chapter, I found that there seems to be a lot to say and some of it might even be interesting. What is more, some of it might even be a tad controversial and I love nothing more than stirring the pot.

Before getting into this chapter, I had some superficial assumptions. Yes teachers had to be trusted by parents and students. Yes it had to be trusted that the curriculum is relevant and purposeful. Yes teachers had to trust that parents were supportive at home… The list of “trust” items is endless but when you apply trust to education, as it pertains to leadership, things begin to get interesting. There are a number of things that crop up when trust, leadership and education are placed together and much of it seriously effects education on all levels and quite frankly I could write forever on the topic. For this post, I will discuss only one which is probably the most significant of the bunch.

Adversarial Structure of Public Education

I will preface this first item by saying that, I realize there are good people working on both sides of the Education system who want nothing more than what is best for students. Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership in education, there is a very big elephant in the room and without discussing it, there is no hope for building strong working relationships based on trust.

When reading this chapter, the first item of trust that came to mind had to do with the structure of the education system itself. In British Columbia, there are two sides in the education system, the Ministry and all its various agents & Teachers. A logical division I know but the problem is that most of the time, these two sides are at odds and distrust between them reigns supreme. In the fifteen years I have been teaching, there has been virtually no common ground between these two entities and it is unlikely there will any common ground between them in my last fifteen.

How this pertains to Trust, Leadership & Education is that we find ourselves working in a school system stands divided. Two sides peering across a pedagogical no man’s land unable to agree on the simplest of things. What complicates matters even more when discussing Trust, Leadership & Education is where the dividing line is drawn. If the battle ground between these two sides were out beyond the boundary of the school district, or even just outside the doors of the school itself, there would at least be an opportunity to create a  feeling of “we are all in this together” within a school community. The problem is that the dividing line between these two sides falls at the very threshold of our classrooms, creating an awkward and sometimes unworkable division within the school itself.

Administrators are pitted against teachers from the outset because ultimately, administration acts on behalf of the Ministry and therefore are not “trusted” by teachers. This makes it very difficult for administrators to be anything more than educational managers rather than the educational leaders they are suppose to be. In the end what happens is that leadership roles in education are usually taken up for the purpose of doing battle with the other side rather for the purpose of improving the education system.

This is not to say that Administrators are not trustworthy, in fact I have friends who are administrators with whom I would entrust with my own children’s lives.  The reality is however, that administrators are an extension of the Ministry and therefore they will, at some point, be asked to breach the trust of those they are expected to lead. The unfortunate result is that in British Columbia, educational leadership from an administrative perspective cannot be based on a relationship of trust because the system puts them at odds with the very people they are suppose to be leading.

So where does this leave us? Well to think that one side will roll over and expose their throat to the other is wishful at best. The cynic in me says we will be in this position for generations to come. As a result, true leadership where we have a community of professionals who trust each other and work towards a common goal, is unlikely to happen within my career. Teachers will continue to go about their daily lives, adopting new ideas, technology and methods as it suits them and administrators will continue to manage their schools as best they can.

It is an unfortunate place we have come to but until we can all trust that “we are all in this together” Leadership in education will remain fragmented.

Mar 262011
 

Here is an oldie but a goodie, written long before the days of blogging.

 

As a student of Canadian History, I have been exposed ad-nauseum to countless mind-numbing texts on Canada’s illustrious history. Now that I am a teacher of Canadian history, I find myself subjecting my students to the same mind-numbing texts. Try as I might to supplement my curriculum with interesting and entertaining anecdotes from our past, the simple utterance of the words “history text” elicit a collective groan that could wake John A. himself. The carefully edited puff-ball versions of Canadian history in classroom texts have all the moxie of Melba toast; about all they inspire is sleep. We Canadians have been lulled into a complacent contempt for our history. We have engineered this indifference through the textual history we provide in the classroom.

Last night I turned the final page of Will Ferguson’s book, Bastards and Boneheads, and could not help but feel that Ferguson could be the answer to Melba-toast texts in our schools. Ferguson , “Pierre Berton with attitude,” delivers Canadian history in a factual but witty style. He would be a shot of Jack Daniels in a world of watered-down rhetoric. Ferguson pulls no punches in his version of Canadian history; he clearly defines the negative as well as the positive in the people and events that shaped Canada.

A text by Ferguson would certainly be a shift from the feel-good versions of Canadian History available to us today. No longer would Mackenzie King be venerated as one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers. Instead students would learn of his anti-Semitic policies, and that his indifference to the plight of European Jews contributed to the deaths of thousands of people–an act, some would say, worthy of a seat at the Nuremberg trials next to Goering and Hess. No longer would battles on Canadian soil be boring and limited to the Plains of Abraham, New Brunswick, and the Red River Valley. Students would learn of the contribution and sacrifice of First Nations and that they were not simply noble savages or pawns in the struggle for nationhood but an active, vital force in the birth of our nation. Students would learn that the cast of characters who built Canada was diverse and not limited to a select few, whose stories were edited into a version that was fit to print.

Canadian history is engaging and interesting if we take it for what it truly is, a ruthless immoral battle in a pit of historical vipers. At the end of Bastards and Boneheads, Ferguson states, “History is a verdict and we are all on the jury.” Let’s give our children the facts in an engaging and honest way and let them judge for themselves.

Calling Will Ferguson! Write us a textbook kids will take home and read.