Archive for March, 2012

Over the last year I have engaged many educators on the topic of using “Cellphones” as learning tools in the classroom. I would say that in most of these discussions, the leading reason given not to have “Cellphones” in a classroom is that they are a distraction.

For the purpose of this post, I am placing some Webster definitions here:

Telephone: an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance; specifically: one in which sound is converted into electrical impulses for transmission (as by wire or radio waves)

Cell Phone: a portable usually cordless telephone for use in a cellular system.

Smartphone: a cell phone that includes additional software functions (as e-mail or an Internet browser).

Personal Computer: : a general-purpose computer equipped with a microprocessor and designed to run especially commercial software (as a word processor or Internet browser) for an individual user.

Distraction: 1. the act of distracting or the state of being distracted; especially: mental confusion <driven to distraction>

2. something that distracts; especially: amusement <a harmless distraction>

Now with the terms defined by Webster, we can all have a clear understanding. Few people would dispute the advantages technology has given us as a result of the advent and evolution of computers. Technology, although not always visible, is evident or influential in almost everything that we do in our society today. It has had an immeasurable effect on our culture and will continue to as it evolves. The personal computer has enabled individuals to apply many of these advantages in their everyday lives. This however has taken both training, teaching, and learning on the part of the users.

Most educators have noted that technology has had a profound effect on teaching and learning. I think it is safe to say that with technology’s influence; many things have changed in education since the 19th Century (not rows of course). Education has adapted to technology, albeit ever too slowly for some, over the years. Technology will always move faster than education will accept it, because as a system, the conservative nature of education seems very slow to act on change and technology and tides wait for no man, or woman.

I remember a time when telephones were not even in a classroom for a teacher to use. The idea of telephones in the classroom is a fairly recent movement in education terms. Many school buildings built in previous centuries have found it difficult or impossible to accommodate telephones in the classroom. Ironically, for years districts refused to put them in classrooms with the belief that telephones would be a distraction for the teachers.

What is more distracting to a teacher and learning than the PA SYSTEM BLARING ANNOUNCEMENTS FOR PEOPLE TO COME TO THE MAIN OFFICE DURING THE PERIOD THAT LEARNING IS TAKING PLACE? How about: the cutting of the grass with the industrial mowers outside the window of the classroom, a Warm day, a hot day, a snow day, a dress up day, a dress down day, a Pajama day, someone walking in the hallway, a class returning from a field trip, fire drills. TESTING DAY, assemblies. These are all distractions. Teachers and students deal with them.

Now, if students had telephones in class and were receiving and making calls for the purpose of talking, that would be a distraction. It is not an appropriate time for such conversations. Teachers learned that when they were given telephones in their rooms, so why not expect the same from kids. Additionally, teachers have been taught classroom management strategies. They can put in place procedures and consequences to manage the potential problems of telephone conversations in class. That is not the distraction everyone talks about.

Beyond talking, there is texting. That is sneaky, stealthy talking. It is the digital form of sending notes. Note-passing is the bane of a teacher’s existence and this method is technological. Again, there are procedures in place for passing notes. The teacher needs only to now stipulate written or digital; problem solved.

Here is the rub. These kids are going beyond the limitations of voice and texting of the Cellphone, and are using Smartphones. They are doing things that can’t be done on a telephone. There must be more afoot here. The smartphone adds a new level of sophistication to deal with. The smartphone has the capability of a personal computer. That changes the dynamic in the classroom.

Additionally, kids can now look stuff up on the phones. They have access to Google and can actually check facts to dispute what the teacher might be saying. Kids can view stuff on their phone during a teacher’s lecture that removes them from where they should be, paying attention for a test. They can take a picture of the “Blackboard” for notes. They can video or audio record a teacher’s presentation. They can creatively do many things in the classroom that could not be done a year ago. They have control because they own the device that does all of this. That is scary to many educators. What many viewed as a toy-like telephone has evolved into a learning tool that can not only communicate, but can publish to the world. That is a powerful device.

If this is such a powerful learning tool, why hasn’t it been embraced by educators universally? Smartphones, after all, are actually personal computers with phone capabilities. It would seem, with many schools dedicating their computers, and computer labs to test preparation, and test-taking, that personal learning devices for students would fill a gap. Smartphones are powerful, mobile, personal learning devices.  But of course, there is that damned control issue thing.

Here is a novel idea. Since we hold kid’s accountable for what they do on the internet with all devices anyway, why not teach them how to do it right. Why not teach them how to maximize their learning. We can’t expect them to use the technology appropriately if they “learn it on the streets”. Teachers have procedures in place and methods to use that can take the distraction factor out. Teachers must be open to doing this because the tech will never go backwards. Administrators must accept that control is less of an issue than responsibility. Teaching and learning will always be a better alternative to banning. Learning new ways to do things can be a very big distraction from the old ways. Relevance will always be a distraction from obsolescence!


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Putting together an education conference is a huge undertaking that is often overlooked, or at least not fully appreciated  by the attendees. It is not that people are intentionally unappreciative, but they may not realize all that goes into the planning, and execution of such a multi-faceted endeavor. This conference requires a huge effort to solicit, register, organize, accommodate, and deliver over 400 sessions to over 8,000 attendees, and over 200 vendors throughout a four-day event. That is a huge undertaking that can only successfully happen with leadership and a team effort on the part of the planning organization. I am sure that as this conference comes to an end, planning for next year’s event will begin immediately.

After attending many conferences over the years, I have made some observations as to the specific traits of conferences. Some conferences for example are very tech-oriented. Some conferences have the same people returning year after year. Some conferences attract a large number of vendors, while others attract a large number of classroom teachers. Of course since ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is populated by people who supervise and develop curriculum and that usually would involve the hierarchy of the education system. I guess they could be categorized as the movers and shakers of education.

If my observations are to be believed, this conference, compared to some others, has far fewer tech-using attendees. The cacophony of clicking keys of laptops is not heard in every session, although there are laptops and tablets. Smartphones are not glued to hands of the conference members, although there are many visible. Of course the tell of tells as to the tech use in this conference is the fact that people are not hovering and jockeying for position around limited electrical outlets for constant charging. All that considered, this is not a tech infused conference.

With the advent of social media a mark of a really impactful conference may be measured in the buzz created by the sharing of the conference through the venues of social media. If the Tweets and the Blogs abound with the sharing of events, ideas, and conversations generated by the conference it may be considered a success. If the attendees are not inclined to use the skills required to utilize 21st century technology in sufficient numbers then there is no buzz. The conference remains local and never goes global.

Having some foresight on this issue, the leadership of ASCD took this into account in the planning of the conference. Some of the leading educators on Twitter who also have great blog followings were invited to attend the conference. They were afforded complete access to the entire conference with but one instruction; attend the conference and just do what it is that you do. Ten to fifteen of these educators made up the social media press corps for ASCD. They attended sessions, reflected upon what they learned, and shared their experiences of each of the sessions. Their followers spread the word further by re-tweeting tweets and commenting on posts. This cadre of connected educators created the buzz. This model is making the best of social media in order to take what has been a national conference to a larger audience than just the attendees. Educators, who could not be present at the conference, benefitted by the offerings of those who were in attendance. Through social media everything local is now global, and everything global is now local. I would thank the leaders of ASCD for giving us the opportunity to share their conference.

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Over the next few days my blog will be a snapshot album of words describing what it is like to attend a premiere education conference, ASCD12. This is an experience that most educators rarely experience over the course of their careers. It is not an inexpensive proposition to send educators to national conferences. For some reason many districts use that as a reason to send the same administrators year after year to these conferences. I think administrators have the idea that their district leaders are best positioned to share all that is gleaned from the conference with the staff. Of course this is a generality and not every district does this. You may want to ask who from your district attends these conferences and how many have they been to over the years.

The cost of these conferences is steep. The organizations running them have to pay a big price for the venues required to accommodate the tens of thousands of educators and vendors who will walk through the doors. In addition to the cost of the conference, districts have to add transportation, lodging, and food for each individual. In the economic atmosphere of today, many districts may have trouble justifying the expense to those who have no understanding of the value of these conferences. Once again much-needed professional development is relegated to the bottom of the ever-changing priority list

A recurring theme of many of my posts has been how isolated the profession of education can be. Teachers always have the ability to share ideas on lessons, methods and pedagogy within their own building, but only if that building sports an open and collaborative culture. This collaboration enables change.  If the building has a closed culture of people who do not collaborate and continue to support the status quo by hunkering down in the bunkers of their comfort zones, then little change will occur. Professional conferences have always opened up educators to change. Educators’ sharing of the latest in lessons and tools has always been the backbone of the conference. The collaboration and excitement pump up the lifeblood of the conference. The camaraderie of the participants as they grow closer through their interests over a few short days is the soul of the conference. Educators come away from conferences with creative juices flowing, collaborative spirit soaring, and their self-esteem rising. They then return to their schools to share, and, try as they might, they can’t duplicate the same feelings for their colleagues. That feeling, short-lived as it is however, cannot be denied.

Of course my position is always that the conferences are greatly enhanced by Social Media. This is a natural occurrence at some conferences. For some reason attendees at some national conferences use more SM than users at other conferences. Tweeting goes on at every session and every hallway. Back channeling presenters is commonplace. Blogs are pumped out during the conference. People who are virtually connected year round, come together face-to-face and are like long-lost friends uniting after years of being apart.  Much of which I have described here is best appreciated by those who have actually experienced it at a conference, but as I have pointed out, it is an experience that most educators will never have.

Tonight as I attended the opening reception at ASCD12, I met a very special educator. We were connected through Twitter but had never met. Julie Ramsay, or @juliedramsay as I know her is one such educator whom has attended more than one conference. She and her husband spent their own money and time to attend the ASCD12 Conference. Julie also attended, again at her own expense, last year’s  ISTE conference  in order to enable her students to present there. They too paid their own way. That is a dedicated educator with a supportive family.

I was in a huge room with about 500 educators noshing on hors’d’oeuvres. I was sitting alone at a table tweeting out to see if anyone in the room was monitoring the Twitter stream. After a half hour, I deduced that this may not be the most Social-Media-savvy group. It was at that point that Julie and her husband found me through my tweets, and we met and shared. Twitter, the very thing that so many condemn as anti-social brought some of us together for face-to-face social interaction. I immediately wondered how to get the 500 other educators to get it. Several other social media users will be Tweeting and Blogging out moments from the ASCD12 Conference starting tomorrow. By modeling for other educators what it is that we all need to do in order to be connected educators, maybe we can connect more of us. This will increase collaboration and hopefully support change in a culture and system sorely in need of it. Follow the #ASCD12 hashtag through Monday

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In order for educators to teach kids, they need something to teach. Exactly what it is that educators should teach has often been discussed and continues to be the focus of ongoing discussions for over many generations. The delivery of that content, in regard to what to teach, has never been of great concern, because the bulk of it came in the form of text, delivered in a book called the textbook. In the 50’s the education pioneers introduced film strips, 16mm films, and recordings to supplement the textbooks. The 60’s brought the video tape and the overhead projector. With the turn of the century came the disc technology, as well as a wider use of the internet. Today of course we use interactive white boards and document cameras. All of the new methods of content delivery however are, for the most part, just add-ons to the backbone of any curriculum, the textbook. Of course the publishing of textbooks became a multi-million, or billion dollar industry. The importance of Textbooks was reflected in school districts with their strictly adhered to textbook adoption policies. Textbooks are a big deal. It is a common experience of all educators and all parents. The textbook, along with the apple on the teacher’s desk, is an iconic symbol of education in America.

A decade into the new century we have a new way to deliver content. The internet not only delivers text, but allows it to be manipulated, transformed, evaluated, analyzed, merged with video and audio, created, and published.  This goes way beyond that which could be accomplished by the printed textbook. It offers educators the potential for not only presenting content to a student, but allowing the student to actually interact with that content to demonstrate more than understanding, with the potential of actual creation of the student’s own content, as well as publishing it out to others for authentic feedback. Teaching the content is the process, getting students to use the content and independently obtaining, and continuing to evaluate and use more content should be the goal.

There are now a number of ways educators have to deal with content. On opposite ends of this list of learning tools are two extremes. The textbook, as we know it over the decades at one end, and Open Source Resources of the internet on the other end. As an educator I have never liked being shackled to a single, stagnant textbook. I am personally comfortable guiding students through Open Source learning. This however, is not the comfort zone of most educators. Comfort zones are the biggest impediment to education reform. I do realize that any effective use of the internet as an open source resource for educators to use for students would require a massive undertaking of professional development for millions of educators nationwide. I would imagine that the billion-dollar textbook publishing industry would have some say in this discussion as well, so the move in that direction would be slow in coming. I believe the challenge is to create the best solution in a mechanism that is recognizable as a textbook, but enables the functions of the internet to incorporate many more tools for learning.

Educators are now beginning to establish a voice through social media. Opinions expressed by educators through blogs and social media are now beginning to gain recognition in the national discussion of what is education to be. I think that is one of the main reasons that Discovery Education used some of the leading connected educators from social media as a focus group, or think tank, to discuss what is “Beyond the Textbook”? Discovery Education was looking to gain insights to their own attempt to devise or improve such a much-needed product. Of course another reason is to have the very same people create a buzz about whatever comes from this forum. Cynics would say that we were being used and manipulated by a corporation. I would like to think that we actually have gotten what we have been asking for, for decades; an educator’s voice in what education needs.

After a long day of discussion between about 16 invited educators and the same number of Discovery Education staff, we came up with several concepts. Most of what we suggested already exists in some form today. They are tools of the internet that could be incorporated into a mechanism for learning, assessing, and creating content. Here is a list of some of the suggestions of the components that the group valued and thought should exist in what should exist as we go beyond the textbook:

  • The mechanism will exist on the internet allowing 24/7 access with computer or mobile access.
  • Many forms of content may be included: text, videos, audio, animation, graphs, and diagrams
  • The ability for flexible content will be provided.
  • The teacher will be able to add or subtract material to meet the needs of the students allowing for differentiation.
  • Content will have highlighting and note-taking capability
  • Content will be linked to dictionary and encyclopedia for easy reference.
  • Content will have language translation capability.
  • Content will be linked to other supplemental material for further exploration.
  • Formative assessment will be built into lessons to assess understanding before moving on.
  • There will be a social media component for collaboration and feedback.
  • Students will be able to create content within the mechanism.
  • Student created material will be archived and shared
  • Student created material will be placed in an ePortfolio within the mechanism.

These were some of the highlights of what came from the assembled group. The group had elementary, secondary, and higher Ed representation. Most members were very active participants in social media and education Blogs. I cannot adequately express the admiration that I have for each of the people in this group, most of whom I have met before and all of whom I follow on Twitter. These are people I often recommend following on Twitter. I have also now added to my Twitter list many Discovery Education employees who are working toward implementing our suggestions in some form into their existing and ever-evolving product, techbook. I should note that this entire project was led by Steve Dembo of Discovery Education. It is my hope that other industry leaders will begin to go to the educator’s voice on social media for input and transparency in their development of new products.

Members of The Beyond The Textbook Forum included: @rmbyrne, @courosa, @NMHS_principal, @bethstill, @teach42, @dwarlick, @dlaufenberg, @mbteach, @audreywatters, @shareski, @sciencegoddess, @wfryer, @imcguy, @djakes, @jonbecker, @principalspage, @joycevalenza, @lrougeux, @halldavidson, and of course @tomwhitby

My apologies to anyone that I may have left out.

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Most professions have professional journals. Professional journals have long been the method by which innovations to professions have been introduced. Lengthy articles explaining the: who, what, where, when, why and how of an innovation in the profession was spelled out for all to read. Follow-up journal articles weighed the pros and cons. Journals historically have been a form of print media, but with the advent of the internet many are transitioning to a digital form in addition to the printed version.

The process for innovators to get things published in these professional journals can be long and arduous, but the pay-off is usually worth the wait. These journals have readerships of great numbers of people in the very profession that specific innovators want to reach. There are: journals for Medicine, journals for Law, and journals for Education just to name a few.

At one time, to keep up with the journals was to keep up with the profession. That was true when change came slowly and people were able to adjust to change over longer periods of time. With the advance of technology, things began to happen more quickly. Innovation began to explode. The process and the trappings of the print media began to fall behind. More and more innovators took to the digital alternative of websites and blogs for their; who, what, where, when, why and how of an innovation in the profession. The professional journals began playing catch up. Innovation exploded in every profession and the print media has proved to have many more limitations than digital publishing. Why struggle with the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature when Google is at hand?

Now, let us go onto education and its professional journals and their impact on teachers. Contrary to what is often said about education, currently, there are many innovations affecting the education profession. Technology is the driving force behind most of the education innovation. It is impacting not only what we can do as educators, but it is also changing how we approach learning. These innovations may have not all reached the education journals yet, but they have been presented and are being discussed digitally and at great length in social media.

A few of the recent topics include: the Flipped Class, eTextbooks, PBL approaches to learning, blended classes, Edcamps for PD, BYOD, Digital classrooms, Tablets, 1:1 laptops, digital collaboration, Social Media, Mobile Learning Devices, Blogging. Some of these topics have made it to the print media, but all are being delved into at length through social media. It is a disadvantage to be a print-media educator in a digital-media world. I can understand how a majority of educators whose very education was steeped in print media is more comfortable with that medium. The technology however, is not holding still to allow educators to dwell in a comfort zone. Just as the technology of the printing press got us beyond the technology of the scrolls (Parchment & Quill), Technology is now taking us beyond print media to digital publications and boundless collaboration.

In order to take a full measure of the advances of technology, there are certain adjustments to be made and skills to be obtained or reanimated. This requires a change in behavior, attitude, and most importantly, culture. Information from technology may be easily accessed, but it is not yet a passive exercise. It requires effort and an ability to learn and adapt. These are skills that all educators have, but many may not always be willing to use. The status quo has not required educators to use these skills in a long time. Using these skills requires effort and leaving a long-standing zone of comfort in order to learn and use new methods of information retrieval. Waiting for the Journal is no longer a relevant option. Educators are driving the changes, but technology is driving the change. The need for reform may very well come from the need for the changes in education to keep up with the rate of change.

Professional Development is the key to getting educators to access dormant skills. They need to be the life-long learners that they want their students to be. It is the practice of life-long learning that separates the good teacher from the great teacher. They need to be led and supported in this effort. They need to be coaxed from those damned comfort zones which are the biggest obstacles to real reform. This must apply to ALL educators regardless of title. If administrators are to be our education leaders then they should be leading the way for the teachers. Professional Development is not a teachers-only need.

In order for teachers to better guide themselves in their learning, they need to know what it is that they need to know. They need relevant questions about relevant changes. Being connected to other educators, who are practicing these changes already, is a great first step. Using technology to do that is the best way to develop these Professional Learning Networks. Connected educators are relevant educators. That is how we can begin to change the culture and move forward to real education reform.

Connecting with other educators is easy through Social Media. Twitter is a mainstay of information for thousands of educators. Ning sites provide great collaborative communities for educators to join groups and share sources. Blogs provide the most up-to-date information on innovations and current practices. RSS feeds and iPad applications like Zite, and Flipboard carry blogs directly to you to read and share. I could add many more things to this list, but the sheer amount of things technology offers educators is in itself a deterrent to those who are overwhelmed with how much they think they need to learn. Educators need not know all of this, but by focusing on one, the others will begin to come into view, and the need to learn as a life-long learner will take control.

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