Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Seeds of Hope

On this last Friday as Minnesotans struggled to convince spring to stay and warm the earth enough to encourage the emerging plants brave enough make an appearance in April, I had the delightful opportunity to attend a panel discussion featuring six leaders in the Minnesota educational technology community. The Northeast Metro Educators' Network, a partnership of district staff development coordinators from thirteen school districts and Hamline University, sponsored the event and it was hosted by the E2T2 cohort of which my colleague Debra Watson and two other teachers in our district are members. The invited audience included administrators and technology coordinators from all the buildings represented by the cohort participants. The panel members were all thoughtful, articulate and passionate. Each speaker demonstrated hopeful exuberance and resolve to challenge the status quo and change the way Minnesota children get their education. But the really exciting aspect of this day occurred during the catered lunch, which was excellent, by the way D'Amico and Sons, not a boxed sandwich! I can hardly wait to tell you about it, but first let me share my notes from the panel discussion.

The guest panelists were: Mike Burke, Director of Media & Technology Services, Edina Schools; Jay Haugen, Superintendent, District 197 (West St Paul, Mendota Heights, Eagan); Marla Davenport, Executive Director, TIES; Karen Johnson, Online Learning Coordinator, MN Dept of Ed; Doug Thomas, Executive Director, EdVisions Schools; Paul Wasko, eFolio Program Director, MnSCU.

Each panelist was asked to introduce themselves and answer the question, "What have you had to unlearn?" Here is what I heard them say:

Mike Burke--
  • Mike believes in terms of the adoption of technology in education the principal is key. Principals lead by example and encouraging early adopters.
  • Budget crunch time is a good time for change.
  • Learning must be student-centered rather than teacher-centered.

Jay Haugen--

  • Jay is passionate about his current beliefs because he used to believe the opposite.
  • The greatest areas for growth are in the things we (as a country) are good at. "We're not that good at tests." We are good at imagination and creativity, these are the "things we can build a life on."

Marla Davenport--

  • Marla found she needed to "unlearn I have to know more than the people I am working with."
  • She has learned to relinquish control to the group.

Karen Johnson--

  • Karen has reexamined her definition of "smart." She has challenged herself to be open and avoid profiling, to look for and encourage "persistence" rather than brilliance. Persistence, she says, is the key to success in an online classroom.
  • She believes myths are perpetuated in education and the effect is to protect the status quo.

Doug Thomas--

  • Doug has unlearned a statement he was told be a teacher, that there is a right way to do everything.
  • He has learned to "challenge to just about everything...that looks like regular school."

Paul Wasko--

  • Paul reminded us magic doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of work.
  • He says our job is to move "best practices" to "required practices" and
  • Colleges of education must model for new teachers what is expected.
Following the introductions the panelists took questions from the audience and many answers drew on references to Clayton Christensen's books, Disruptive Class and The Innovator's Dilemma. Here are snippets from their answers:
  • If education does not change, it will be replaced.
  • We must figure out ways to effectively integrate technology, not just drop it in.
  • Never ask if you CAN do something; ask HOW you can get it done.
  • Use times of tight resources to look at things in a new way-readjust, redesign-what do we really need to do and what do we want to do and how can we do it smarter?
  • And whatever you decide to do, COMMUNICATE AND PLAN AHEAD.
  • "Change is not a choice we have. Change helps all students." -Jay Haugen

After the moderated discussion we broke for lunch and were instructed to sit with our colleagues from our respective districts. Lunch was salad, lasagna (sadly no vegetarian option,) bread and ginormous cookies in a variety of tasty-looking flavors. I chose the ginger. However, the most delicious course at the table was the discussion. We were given some guiding questions; I don't remember what they were. I do remember lively constructive discussion with my principal, the district curriculum director, and the teachers around what technologies we were using, Delicious, Twitter, blogs, wikis, Skype, etc., how we were using them for professional development and what we need to take them into our classrooms. It was exciting to have for the first time such candid dialog with administrators and see them listen and suggest their willness to explore more ways to support true technology use and integration within our district learning system.

The conversation has given me hope we will move forward and begin to make the changes necessary to support our students and teachers in using today's tools to learn the critical skills they need to succeed. The seeds have been planted. Next week the district technology planning committee will meet to begin the next technology plan cycle. My hope is for the fertile soil of open minds and favorable growing conditions of creative thinking.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Talk to me, please!

Warning--Rant ahead. Read with discretion and an open mind.

I have grown tired of reading posts with complaints and inferences that administrators and technicians in education have conspired to "lock down" computers to the point of uselessness and have purposely "blocked access" to the Web rendering every useful educational tool unreachable. Now maybe there are individuals out there who have those kinds of control issues, but I would venture to guess that most of us are just not that way.

Yes, we do set group policies with varying permission levels for students, faculty and administrators. These are security measures, which protect not only the integrity and health of the computer and the network, but also you and your personal data. Such policies are necessary as well because in school environments tech staff is limited and in order to address problems quickly and efficiently computers and the programs on them are managed according to standards. Example: If I have some computers running a version of Flash, I need all the computers running that same version of Flash; otherwise, when I sit down at the computer to troubleshoot I waste time trying to figure which version I am working with. Therefore, if you try out a website at home and want to use it with your students at school, it's a good idea to try it out on a computer in the lab and if it doesn't work, let me know. I'll be happy to solve that problem for you in that lab and all the others in my network. It is not going to be good for you or your students if you get them into the lab, find it doesn't work and then complain and/or blog about it without having had a direct and respectful conversation with the tech staff.

Likewise, filters. In our district, and I suspect we are not unusual, no one person or group decides initially which sites will or will not be filtered. Filters come with managing software and algorithms of categories and the company who makes filter decides the filter criteria for those categories. Districts can select degrees of blocking and warning within each category and they can specifically allow or block individual sites. If there is something you need to teach with that you can't get to, let your tech staff know. If they don't have the authority to allow it, go to administration and describe your problem.

Sometimes administrators and technicians are bound by the constraints of limited resources as well as staff. Sometimes there just isn't enough bandwidth on the network, enough memory or processing power in the computer or the right compatibility across platforms and software for the exact thing you saw at a workshop or conference. That doesn't mean it can't be done, it just means we might have to do it a different way until we can resolve those larger issues. So please, please, please...just talk to us, show us what you want to do and we will work with you to bring meaningful and productive technology use to your classroom.

Steam over. All clear. Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The right tool for the job at hand

While I have been away from blogging for awhile, I have not been idle by any means. I have been out exploring other social web environments. I now have a Facebook account, an ooVoo account and even a Zootoo account and it's been fun! Why shouldn't it be? Just as children learn by exploring unknown places, trying new things and playing with friends then adults can learn that way, too.

The one serious tool I have been checking out is Diigo. Diigo has a huge following among educators and I can see why. Teachers by nature love to share not just what they read, but also their insights on the piece or topic. Diigo allows you to highlight sections of text and make your own comments on "sticky notes" before bookmarking a site. Also, when saving, Diigo offers a variety of sharing options. You can save it to a list you've made, either public or private; you can share it to a group; you can "Twitter" it; and/or you can send it out via email.
In Diigo you can have and meet friends, form and join groups, and browse communities of people who have annotated the same articles you have or use the same tags you do. And as in other social networks, you can upload a photo, build a profile and choose how much or little to disclose about yourself. I can see where with Diigo along with Twitter and blogging, one could certainly construct a solid network for professional development and support, but that's not quite what I need from a bookmarking site. That's why I think I will be going back to using Delicious as my primary bookmarking tool.

Delicious is better at meeting my needs because I am not a teacher and I don't spend a lot of time and energy analysing and extrapolating material. I do support teachers and want to provide them with as many useful resources as I can and I want to collect bookmarks in an orderly, easily accessible place. Delicious works for this purpose. I keep my tags simple and purposeful. This teachers can look at my bookmark collection and know exactly what they'll find. Using the tags we can search broad topics or drill down to specifics. When asked I can send out my list of links for math games for primary students or online science museums for field trips. I group and regroup sites by any number of related tags and post the links to these collections on my technology support wiki. Then as I add sites to those tags in Delicious I know the wiki links will show the newly added sites. All these features may be possible in Diigo, but from my perspective Delicous is more straight forward about them. Diigo will be a great tool for people who want to utilize the community benefits of learning together with bookmarking, but Delicious is a better resource for me to serve my staff at this point.

Now...having said all of that...My Diigo bookmarks are set up to save to my Delicious, so I could keep using Diigo and the staff could keep finding my bookmarks in Delicious. The trouble I have found with this plan is Diigo hasn't been able to "learn" my tags. Delicious is wonderful at suggesting the tags I already use when I am ready to save. Diigo, on the other hand, rarely suggests my existing tags and I end up trying to remember, opening up Delicious anyway to look, and many times just missing tags I would normally when I save there.

Additionally, Delicious allows me to sort my tags alphabetically. Diigo is missing that feature. As someone who alphabetizes the spices in her cupboard and I can't imagine a database that can't be alphabetized. Conclusion: Diigo is tasty, but my primary social-booking tool will remain Delicious.