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Archive for October, 2010

I was reminded in a recent #Edchat that there once was a time when calculators were not allowed to be brought to class. I remember math teachers in a building I worked in during the 70’s. Teachers said that, if for some reason all of the batteries in the world died at once, kids would need to be able to do math without calculators. Dead batteries means dead calculators. I was only an English teacher, so even though that scenario sounded a bit beyond reality, I did not question the Math people, who convincingly spun that tale, after all Math teachers are always so factual.

After years of continuous battery success, as well as outright battery evolution, we have taken a great chance with a dependence on calculators in education. Math teachers have developed curriculum around the use of calculators. Today, they are required for most math classes. Parents cringe at the cost as calculators appear on items to be purchased for class supplies lists. Many districts supply them to their students. In this instance this tool of technology was successfully integrated into education.

The obvious connection now would be for me to jump to the Mobile learning Device. You may know it as the Cell Phone or Smartphone; however, I am not yet ready to go there. Technology is developing at a pace faster than we are able to absorb into our education system. Teachers have a need to fully understand something before they incorporate it into what they teach. This requires professional Development. Districts provide PD, but it takes time to put it together. It then requires time to fit it into the busy schedule of teachers. Unfortunately, by the time the PD is put together and workshop sessions are worked into teachers’ schedules the technology may no longer be relevant. Since our students are more comfortable with technology and less encumbered for a need to fully understand technology before engaging it, they move forward with its use, leaving their teachers behind. At this point educators are being affected by the technology as opposed to controlling the technology to their advantage.

If we believe the goal of education is to prepare our students for future employment, then we need to ask what future employers are looking for. Many employers need their employees to be able to access technology to acquire information, collaborate with others, create projects to meet a need, and communicate that out to others, either locally or globally. All of this requires the use of technology. Many of the tools which enable people to do this are Web 2.0 tools. They are free for the most part, and they are continuing to be developed in vast numbers.

It would stand to reason, that if employers are looking for perspective employees to be able to acquire information, create content, communicate content, and have a global perspective, we as educators, should be teaching those skills. Of course this would necessitate the teacher’s awareness of the technological tools necessary for students to utilize these skills in a way that future employers would require. That would require utilizing whatever technology tools that are considered mainstream at that time. Since that may change year to year, or every six months, teachers need to teach the concepts that would apply to any tool of choice and not get hung up on specific applications. None of this requires an intricate knowledge of applications by the teacher. It does require knowledge of what applications have to offer in general terms. Students, with guidance, will be able to acquire knowledge of the application through exploration. This is a skill we need to develop with our students in the interest of Life-Long Learning.

And now I have arrived at a point in this post for the cell phone discussion. As the Calculator was once banned, so is the cell phone in many schools. We need to consider cell phones not as phones, but rather Mobile Learning Devices with phone and texting capabilities. These devices are more powerful than the devices used to send men to the moon. Why would we, as educators, not want to utilize this tool for education? I know students are distracted with texting and gaming. They don’t use this device for research. Students engage their phones and not the lesson.

Have kids ever been taught how this device should be used for learning? Mobile learning devices have surpassed the desktop computer as the number one device for accessing the internet. That fact should be meaningful to educators. This tool, however, is viewed by many educators as a distraction. I will not ask why a student would be more engaged with the cell phone than the lesson delivered by the teacher. I will say that the misuse or abuse of cell phones is a behavior problem. It need s to be addressed in a discipline policy and not a ban policy. If we are not teaching the proper use and protocols for these devices, where will these kids learn them?  We are leaving them to “learn from the streets”.

We cannot hold kids responsible for the appropriate use of this tool, if we never teach it. Broadway theaters instruct audiences in the appropriate use of cell phones in a theater with every performance. Most people comply to those instructions. Technology tools whether devices, or applications need to be integrated into education. It has become our responsibility to teach appropriate use of technology tools, including cell phones. We as educators no longer have a choice in this. Our students will be required to use these tools in their lives. If we are not teaching the concepts of accessing information, collaboration, creation and communication utilizing the tools of technology, we are not preparing our students for their future.

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One suggestion for education reform has been to extend the school year. This sounds like a simple plan. If kids spend more time in school, they will receive more education. Well, I find myself somewhat in agreement with this idea, but there are a few considerations that might add a few layers of complication to this simple plan.

It has always been my belief that in the history of American public Education, our school calendar was adopted to accommodate the needs of farmers, so that they could have their children and children of others to work in fields right through harvest time. After the kids helped with the harvest, they could return to the rigors of the classroom. I was always appreciative of the sacrifice those farm kids made for me every summer. I was not a farmer’s kid, so I could hang out at the beach in the summer while they worked the fields an awaited the harvest.

The academic year that I am familiar with is one of four quarters, each being approximately ten weeks in length. That leaves about ten weeks of vacation, or farm work. This summertime has become a good, fun part of our culture. People plan family vacations around that time. Some kids use the time to earn money. The best festivals and fairs are planned in this time period. This is usually the time of year that families experiment with always popular family driving vacation. All of this would be sacrificed with a year round academic schedule.

The second drawback in extending the schedule would be in the area of monetary compensation. It is not reasonable to assume that we can increase anyone’s work schedule by twenty percent and not expect to increase their compensation. That does not only affect teachers and administrators, but also additional secretaries, aides, cafeteria folks, janitors, bus drivers, grounds people and various other support personnel.

To me however, there is a more obvious objection to extending the academic calendar by ten weeks. If we are being, at best, questionably successful with our students, how would spending more time of doing the same thing improve learning? That age-old question: Why would you expect different results if you continue to do the same thing over and over?

Even with all of these considerations, there are schools providing successful learning experiences over the summer weeks. For a few decades now my school district has had a summer program of enrichment for kids. It offered teachers the ability to develop courses to engage kids for learning and not grades. Innovation is promoted and supported for teachers and students. It focuses on the elementary level. Teachers develop the courses that they plan to teach. Students and their parents select courses based on interest. There are also courses of remediation, but that is not the focus. The schedule is based on three periods a day. This allows kids to explore more than one interest.

Compensation is less of an issue since it is a voluntary program with an agreed upon hourly rate for those who choose to join the program. Attendance is not mandatory, so kids can be removed for family vacations. Grades are removed to promote the learning in a stress-free environment. Teachers can innovate and teach to their strengths. Kids can be grouped according to interests with little regard to age grouping. At the halfway point in the program Parents are brought into the class to share in the projects.

If programs like this were enacted on a large-scale across our country, we would be able to engage kids year round and promote learning. It would also allow teachers to innovate with lessons that may be incorporated in their other academic endeavors. It allows kids to explore subjects in a way that the rigors of other academic programs do not allow. Promotion and support of more elementary programs like this might reduce the remediation classes required for the secondary level kids during the same time in the summer. The only issue left would be: How do we involve all of those kids in the fields?

 

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As the creator of the Educator’s PLN Ning site, I can admit on this post, that the EDU PLN was never a planned destination, but more of an afterthought. My original plan was a result of a need that I had for my undergraduate methods students. At the time, I was a novice in the world of social media. I understood the concept of a Personal Learning Network, but still had not found an efficient way to build it up. Linkedin was very rich with professionals, but it was a slow and cumbersome process. I spent a great deal of time cultivating connections with little return of real information for my efforts. I had created successful Education Groups in Linkedin which eventually led me to engaging people on Twitter.

My experience with Twitter was not unlike many others. I did not get it at first. When I finally got the concept, that who you follow is the driving force of Twitter as a tool for developing a PLN, I maximized that idea with Linkedin. I went to my contacts and Educational Groups and gathered the twitter names of any educators who then used Twitter. My follow list grew quickly and it was with all the right people, educators. There were now two components to my PLN Linkedin and Twitter.

My purpose in all of this was to be able to supply my methods students with the most relevant methods being used in education from people who actually practiced those methods. This was a simple plan with complex results. It worked too well, which became a problem. Twitter, with the right people being followed, is rich with sources. I began to get link upon link of great educational information ranging from tidbits to websites. For my own sanity I learned about digital bookmarking. I used an application called Delicious to begin bookmarking all of this information as I gathered it. This app, Delicious, became yet another element of my developing PLN.

My problem, as I assessed it, was clear yet complicated. I had great information in a multitude of forms. These were immediately usable links for any educator to apply to his or her class. There were solutions, applications, videos, discussions, webinars, podcasts, and websites for the taking. The problem was that my methods students were not yet prepared to even know what they were looking at, let alone have a place to apply it. I attempted to pass links along to them through emails sent almost daily. This was best compared to the old standby metaphor of filling a glass of water with a fire hose. It was too much too fast. I needed a depository to place all this great educational stuff until my students were equipped to handle it. I needed a place that they could access it on an individual basis whenever they had a need.

My college had Blackboard available to us, but I wanted to model something that my students could use in any place that they were hired. Most Public schools do not have Blackboard since it needs to be purchased. Ning seemed to be the best solution. At the time it was free, and, because it was an intuitive application, an introduction and tour was all the training needed to use it. I could make it a private site and provide a safety net for my students to train them before their foray into the big bad world of Social Media. I created the site and called it Methods Matters. It was slowly accepted by students skeptical of technology, and wondering what any of this had to do with teaching. In a short period of time they got it. It became a focal point for their PLN’s which I now began to require them to have. Yes, I require Twitter, Ning and Delicious as a minimum for Personal Learning Networks for my students. Most go beyond the minimum requirements.

With that as the Background I can now move on to the story of The Educator’s PLN. As I engaged more and more educators on my PLN, I discovered many similarities in attitudes and experiences of educators compared to my students. The light bulb lit the room. I could do the same for the people in Education. I could link up people who have a need for relevant educational information. Together, we could deposit information until people were ready to access it. Beyond the information it also provided access to educators worldwide for further and fuller connections. This  site provides a rich connection using Social Media. The Educator’s PLN is not a PLN in itself, but rather a source for sources for any educator to access in building or improving his or her own Personal Learning Network. As of this post the Educator’s PLN has a global membership of 5,565 educators, 351 educational videos, 70 Groups, 219 discussions, and 257 blog posts.

I am a firm believer in using Social Media to advance professional development for educators. I also believe that social media will be a driving force in advocating and enabling much-needed educational reform. The details of the development of my PLN are described in a five-part post, The PLN Blueprint. I also quite often write about the PLN development on my Blog, MyIslandView.

This post first appeared as a guest blogger’s post  for my friend Jason Bedell.

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