Listening to the Naysayers: Wisdom from the other side (Part 2)

4. “People are just interested in trends that are new and shiny.” Here’s an important one to take to heart. We in Ed Tech have a tendency to get excited about new possibilities when new technology comes out. We can sometimes let our interest in technology get ahead of the pedagogy, and that’s not good for students. I remember when Google Glass came out and various Ed Tech individuals were asking each other, “How can we use this in school”? That’s just silly. The technology should not be the wrong driver. We need to let the pedagogy drive our use of technology. If there’s a certain learning need or problem and we discover that a technology can meet that need, that’s awesome. We shouldn’t be looking for needs to fit new and shiny technologies.

5. “It feeds our addiction to technologies and devices.” This all depends on whether or not our use of the technology is an addiction. We need to recall that paper, too, is a technology. For centuries our civilizations were ‘addicted’ to paper. Was that bad for us? Is there something inherently more harmfully addictive about shiny paper that glows and moves? I’m not sure that there is. Nevertheless, this point brings up an important discussion, especially as these devices become more ubiquitous. Do they help us connect human to human, or do they separate us? I see that they can do both, and both very well. Again, I think its all the more imperative that use technology with learners and teach and model how to use it without losing bits of ourselves as we do.

6. “It contributes to anxiety about social connections.” Like the point above, this is truly a possibility, depending on how the technology is used. But it can do the opposite. Technology has the power to bring people together in ways that were not possible before. It has brought our loved ones closer and it can bring us closer to people we could have never even encountered otherwise. The technology also has a dark side. The online connections students make can pull them deeper in and away from the real world. I’ve seen students that can’t confidently put together a verbal sentence, but can communicate through online messaging with prowess. While that might be great for their online life, they need real-world social skills. It would be wrong of us to back away from internet technologies because of the dangers associated with it. Rather, the imperative is that we teach the best use of online communication methods, but make sure it does not detract from our teaching of real-world communication and social skills. The online world is an exciting new dimension of our lives, but it should not diminish the lives we live outside the screen.

I think these kinds of conversations need to continue and it is incredibly valuable to hear voices from a different point of view, views that cause the keen Ed Tech educators to think carefully about this new world of technologies that has the power to change us so much. We just need to be do everything we can to ensure that whatever change comes with these new technologies, it is in our students best interest and helps make them more social, educated, and connected beings.

Listening to the Naysayers: Wisdom from the other side (Part 1)

Sometimes I wish to roll my eyes at the naysayers who say that we shouldn’t be using technology in classrooms, or maybe just grab their shoulders and shake them. But, no worries, I refrain. It can be frustrating to work with those who don’t want to change. It seems, however, that I need to be a bit more patient.

It’s isn’t always fear of change that motivates the hesitations to use technology; sometimes they’re just real concerns. A recent conversation with a fellow teacher (through online means, ironically) helped me to think differently about reluctant technology users. In this case, it turned out that they weren’t a naysayer at all, but just think from a different point of view, a point of view that we need. We in the Ed tech world need to listen closely and think about what reluctant embracers have to say.

There are many and varied concerns out there about educational technologies, but here’s the ones that she brought up.

1. “It can increase anti-social behaviour and cyberbullying.” Now the students aren’t necessarily bullying each other on iPads in class, but there’s an important point here. Since any technology could be used for good or bad, increased usage, or even increased skill with these classroom technologies could result in increased negative social outcomes. Which means, beyond just teaching curriculum with technology, we also need to constantly be teaching and modelling appropriate usage. Students need to learn how to use the technology with compassion and respect, and how to make it improve their lives and others. As technology usage continues to grow, this is something that all students vitally need to learn when they are young.

2. “Kids should spend more time away from screens and get out and be active.” I totally agree; kids should get outside more. If students are showing signs of being too sedentary in their private lives because of screen-time, are we not then further promoting a more sedentary lifestyle by using screens there too? I don’t think that connection is exactly solid, since the problem isn’t directly ‘screens.’ Screens are merely the new currency of information in our modern lives, whether work or play; it’s what they are used for that matters. Writing an assignment at school on a tablet probably isn’t the same as what they do on screens at home. Nevertheless, this brings up an important issue about modern changes in students physical activity at home. This should concern us, and we should be making more of an effort to get students outside and away from all technologies, such as books, desks, and screens.

3. “The technology is too expensive.” Indeed it is expensive and this is certainly an important issue. It can be overcome, however, (and has been proven to be successful) if the return on investment from the technology is greater than older technologies. A lot can be spent on photocopying and printing costs, textbook, video, and resource purchasing. There are certain technologies that allow for possibilities with lightening fast speeds that older technologies just cannot deliver such as instant classroom feedback systems for discreet assessment of learning, or real-time collaborative multimedia creation tools. The return on investment in learning can be quite high. This concern, however, does bring up the fact that this isn’t always the case. Any attempt to just get more tech into schools without considering what needs it is meeting, isn’t the best for kids. If we aren’t getting a good return on investment either by saving money or increasing student learning, then the technology is not worth it. If we keep teaching with old methods and tools while new technology collects dust, it should not have been purchased.

More to come!

À la rescousse! New French resources on coursehelp.ca

a la rescousse

It’s sometimes forgotten that Ontario has four school systems, English Public, English Catholic, French Public and French Catholic. Now, the issue of whether or not that’s an efficient system aside, they each contain students that deserve our very best and we’re all in this together.

Starting with ECOO’s Bring IT Together conference this year, I’ve noticed more of a welcoming attitude to the small French boards in Ontario. This year’s On the Rise K-12 conference, which I have a role in planning, will be the same. As someone who works in one of Ontario’s few remaining school authorities, I can resonate with both a feeling of being left out, and a warm feeling of acceptance when our tiny group is welcomed. The thing is though, the French school system in Ontario isn’t even tiny. It represents over 100 000 students.

It’s my second year of running CourseHelp.ca now and I’m happy about how the popularity has spread and how it’s become a recognisable name in eLearning in Ontario. I’ve been contacted by a few people who asked about the possibility of French resources on the site. Shamefully, it was something that I had never even considered, but I certainly thought it was a great idea when it was suggested. Since I don’t speak French myself (something I’d like remedy), it’s not something I could do alone. Fortunately, I was able to connect with Johanne Ste-Croix (@JohanneSteCroix) through my Twitter network. She’s an educational technology consultant with a French board, and she volunteered to translate materials on CourseHelp.ca as this was something her board was looking for.

So we’re on our way. Our French verssion, À la rescousse! is now live on CourseHelp. We just have a few translations up there now, but Johanne plans to continue translating the written resources on the site.

I use Google Sites for Coursehelp since it’s incredibly easy for linking to Google docs, and embedding videos and slideshows, but, I’m unable to remove the english CourseHelp title from the French page. So, unfortunately, the French title appears underneath the English one. Perhaps not the best political statement there, but it will have to do for now. Later, as the French resources increase, I can make the French version a sort of sister site with its own header and French domain.

If anyone out there wants to be involved in the translating project, send me a message through the Contact Me page on this site and I’ll get you in touch with Johanne. It would be especially nice if there was someone interested in recreating the screencast videos as well.

A solution to my theme-design struggles – The Moosonee Theme Pack

Over the past two and a half years in this job, I’ve been struggling with trying to help teachers as well as other eLearning Contacts with course theme design, but it’s a tough go. It’s really hard!  I’m comfortable with graphic design and I was able to figure out most of the stuff myself, but it’s not easy to pass along, even with a teaching degree!

In my position as an eLearning Contact for three small school authorities in Northern Ontario (small provincially funded public school boards), it’s my job to encourage the use of Ontario’s virtual learning environment. We use D2L’s Brightspace system, and though it has many amazing things it can do, it’s unfortunately not really designed with a K-12 classroom teacher in mind. The system is used by most of the Universities in Canada and hundreds of others across the globe and it’s a pretty robust system. But when it comes to something like course theme design, it’s not exactly easy to set up. Last year I created a series of videos explaining how to do it, but there’s a lot of things to click. I’m no longer convinced that’s the way to go.

So I’ve finally come up with a solution that I hope people will enjoy. Rather than teaching teachers how to do something that they really shouldn’t even have to bother to do, I’ll do it for them. I’ve created a set of installable D2L themes that can be downloaded individually or as pack and installed into a teacher’s D2L course. They still aren’t super-easy to install, but I’ve made step-by-step videos on exactly what to do and where to click. It’s still far easier than making a theme from scratch.

The inspiration comes from the appearance of the themes in Google Classroom. It uses very simple themes with a coloured texture-image across the top and a clean, distraction free content area below. They look nice and they are pretty easy for me to make. So far there’s about 27 in the pack which I have named after the town where I live, Moosonee. I hope the name isn’t too confusing; it’s just a little tribute.

I know the lack of themes in D2L has made ‘selling’ D2L on teachers more challenging. Now with things like Google Classroom offering competition (though they do very different things), I think it will help if D2L courses can look pretty sweet.

The theme pack is hosted on my coursehelp.ca site and you can see previews of them all at this link: www.coursehelp.ca/mtp

Please let me know what you think of the themes either in the discussion area below this post, or by using the Contact Me section on coursehelp. If you have suggestions for a theme, or perhaps even want to  submit your own photography for a theme, let me know. I might be able to help you.

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Do we really need to care about student “engagement”?

Do we busy teachers really need to concern ourselves with ‘student engagement’? Is entertaining our students, keeping them happy, and pandering to their elementary interests really our job? Well, it’s not exactly like that, but yes, engagement is our job.

But why, some might add, do we need to focus on making the learning ‘engaging’ if that’s not what they will find in the workplace or postsecondary school? They are students; it’s their job to learn, right?

Here’s how I see it. Making the learning experience engaging is to make up for the profound (albeit very necessary) founding injustice that education is built on. That is, we force them into it. Yes, we absolutely have to force them into this for their own good, and it’s even their human right to be forced into it. Nevertheless, they are forced. No way around it. I know injustice is a heavy term, but really, there’s a collection of other human rights that are, to some degree or another, being violated. Right of mobility, self determination, to not be arbitrarily detained, freedom of speech and expression, some students might add the right to not endure cruel and usual punishments.

In some ways, the similarity between our prisons and our schools is disturbing. Inmates / students have strict mobility restrictions, can only participate in certain outdoor physical activities that are measured by the minute in regulated and monitored timeslots, must abide by rigorous conformity and behavior expectations, must be obedient and give unearned respect to authority figures, and endure whole collection of consequences for non-compliance. Our students never signed up for this and didn’t do anything wrong.

We may say, “it’s their job to learn.” Well, maybe, but usually jobs involve a contract which involves financial remuneration.  In most jobs you can go to the washroom without asking your boss, you can stand up from your desk without being told to sit down. You can also quit jobs. So going to school isn’t really like a student’s job. They are forced into it.

Now of course, as I said above, we can’t just let them opt out. According to Fullan’s chart in Stratosphere, interest in school starts falling right after kindergarten. It would not at all be ideal to allow a five year old the freedom to decide to drop out. They need to learn and we owe it to them to give them a quality education, even if it’s against their will. However, what we can do is try to make up for this profound (but very necessary) injustice, by doing our very best to make it engaging, to make it a place where they want to be.

Employers don’t have to do this; they pay. We don’t, so I think it’s our ethical responsibility to at least try to make school a place they want to be. (This is above and beyond the fact that they also learn more when they are engaged, so it’s just more effective too).

A fascinating report entitled, “What did you do in school today?” which analyzed student social, academic and intellectual engagement among Canadian students, had this beautiful thought:

We […] have to recognize that young people’s engagement in school affects not just their future, but the quality of their daily lives and experiences now. It is important to remember that young people are not just adults-in-training; their lives as they experience them now are as valuable and meaningful as those of the adults they will become.

These are important, valuable human beings we are teaching. Yes, it is our responsibility to give them an education and help them learn, but it also our responsibility to ensure that learning is not suffering.

OSSEMOOC Evening EdTech Discussions

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I tried my first OSSEMOOC evening discussion today. If you’re not aware of what that is, it’s Ontario School and System Leaders Edtech MOOC (the C stands for ‘Community’ rather than course). I’ve been meaning to check it out for half a year now and I finally did. I totally found it really worth it!

I talk to people about Digital Learning all the time. It’s my job. A lot of this discussion is informal chats with various people in the same position as myself, or me trying to convince teachers of using certain technologies. So talking about technology is nothing new for me, but the very simple format of the OSSEMOOC evening online discussions was refreshing. A topic is decided before hand, there’s a tiny bit of guidance and prodding from the moderators to get discussion going, but then it goes where it will. And it went. No awkward pressure, just a great conversation with friendly joking in the backchannel pod.

We chatted about BYOD (Bring your Own Device) and this conversation centered around start-ups and initial challenges with regards to infrastructure and staff attitudinal issues (both of which can be daunting). Even if a discussion doesn’t land an instant and easy fix (though sometimes it does), just by talking through the issue and hearing others approaches and listening to suggestions is quite reinvigorating when facing such challenges. That’s what happened here.

I highly recommend checking out the next OSSEMOOC session. I’ll be there.

Have a look at the new Socrative 2.0

Socrative.com may have been around for a while now, but if you haven’t had a look at it recently or tried out their Socrative 2.0, it’s definitely worth a look.

If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a web-based student-response system that essentially replaces ‘Clickers’. They have iOS and Android apps, but I find the new web-based interface excellent and not worth the bother of app installation and then it’s the same experience on any device.

Socrative is an easy and effective way to gauge student learning in real time. The 2.0 web version allows this to happen with ease. Teachers can pre-write multiple choice, true and false, or written answer questions and start and control the quiz from any device with the web. The new interface for both teachers and students is modern looking and pretty hip; the students tend to like it.

There’s a built in Exit Card feature which really simplifies exit cards, and there’s also a neat “Quick Question” option to give student instant questions without pre-planning. For instance, based on a discussion in class, a teacher could write four options on the board and then with two clicks a web-based poll is started where students can vote on the options. Maybe it’s just my teaching style, but I really like services that work with little to no prep involved.

When students are finished completing a diagnostic assessment with Socrative, the teacher can send a report straight to her Google Drive account where it can give her a one page quick view of how everyone is doing and what answers they have provided. It can also be emailed or downloaded for the few poor unfortunate souls that don’t use Google products.

Socrative is bad news for the Clicker business. I’ve used those dreadful things in the past and they just aren’t really made for ease of use. Perhaps they are trying to jam too many options and cater to advanced users who aren’t too plentiful. If your school already has the tech in terms of tablets or laptops, or if your school allows BYOD, there’s just no reason to purchase any device dedicated to real-time student responses.

I’ve found that it’s not great for summative assessments and the Socrative people say that this isn’t really their target. It isn’t easy to grade through the system and it’s currently limited to only True and False, Multiple Choice and Short answer, so don’t get excited that this could replace your vLE quiz tool. It’s also not a polling service like SurveyMonkey which collects data from users at any time of the day. Socrative shines at what it’s intended for: diagnostic activities in Face to Face classrooms.

They’re planning on making it http secure in the future, and that at point it could be embedded right inside the vLE as an additional blended learning tool. Something to look forward to if your class is already heavily blended.

 

Is Online Messaging at Work Wasting Time?

A couple days ago I instant-messaged a teacher while at school through his gmail account because I needed to ask him a work-related question. I saw that he was online at the same time and I sent a quick, “Hi, are you there?” I didn’t get a response. When I saw him later he smiled and said that he saw the message. He then half jokingly remarked something like, “Shouldn’t you be working?”

I find this sort of thinking interesting. If I had found him in person and asked the question, or even shoot the proverbial excrementum about a sports game on a prep period, I’m not sure it would have garnered the same response.  If instant messaging is used to contact a teacher within a school, it’s understood as wasting time and thus some would avoid it altogether or just feel guilty about it.

I don’t feel guilty about it.

I don’t agree with the assumption that online messaging is time wasting. Though I suppose it can be, but just as much as talking can be.

I message people at work everyday. I’m an eLearning Contact (eLC) for a group of small school boards. Typically, there’s one eLC per board, so rather than working in my own little silo, I work alongside other elcs across Northern Ontario. We connect in an ad hoc basis daily through a Skype group text-chat. It’s awesome. It’s genuine grassroots-level collaboration. We ping ideas off of each other, discuss new developments, problem solve together, and naturally engage in synergistic activities that increase the effectiveness of us all.

It reminds me TV shows like, House, CSI, or Star Trek TNG where the cast is a team that regularly meets, works out problems together and becomes greater than the individual parts, though I don’t work with any grumpy doctors, and my group is scattered across northern Ontario.

I wish there were more messaging-groups of teachers that help each other out throughout the day. Imagine small groups of teachers teaching the same subjects throughout the province, pinging ideas off each other throughout the semester as they teach, even in real time. Now that’s a Professional Learning Community.

The irony is that sometimes people come in to my office/printer-ink storage room, and see a Skype chat on my computer screen. Some people look at me as if they just caught me playing Farmville. I think what all teachers need to understand (and many already do) is that instant messaging is a communication medium, that’s all. But more than that, it can be more efficient communication.

Sometimes I need a quick answer to a question from other staff in the building and a message is just much faster and is more fluid than emailing back and forth on a topic. Of course whenever it’s an issue that’s more nuanced, sure, I head over to talk to them.

It’s human communication. Just like oral communication, you can waste time with it; you can work with it. Nothing to be ashamed of, and often can make you better at your job.

Teens scared to death of being embarrassed (Literally! Sort of)

“Oh, come on! It’s not that big of a deal.” Sometimes it seems like teens just exaggerate their social fears. Educators may want to roll their eyes and say, “Get over it! There’s so many more important things.” It turns out there’s more to it than teens being scared little drama-queens/kings.

I’ve been working with a developmental theory for a while now, but I was recently pleased to discover that it’s true. (It’s always nice when that happens). It goes like this: The fear of social rejection is strongly rooted in our evolutionary development. For tens of thousands of years, humans have survived and thrived by living in communities. It became so important to our development as a species, that survival became impossible outside of our local group. Being ostracised from a community/tribe/clan meant certain death and thus the risk of this was very very scary.

Things are more complicated today. We still need each other, but in a far less direct way. Getting kicked out of a social group, doesn’t mean we wander out into the wilderness alone and die. But considering our 200,000 years of human development, we’re not that far away from that time when that was true. For most of our development, the risk of being socially rejected triggered a serious and very real fear of death.

It’s still with us. We fear social rejection like we fear death. And since many of the emotions that teenagers feel are amplified, they feel this way more than we do.

During the early teen years, the social-emotional circuitry of the limbic system becomes amplified, and teens suddenly feel their own feelings more intensely, are more sensitive to others, and have “higher highs and lower lows.” But the seat of their self-control, the frontal cortex, doesn’t fully consolidate until the mid-twenties.  (Divecha)

The teenage brain’s assumption that social rejection means death explains some of their poor decision-making. We all know that teens can make astronomically bad choices and sometimes frivolously throw away long-term gain to avoid mere moments of social exclusion. It’s remarkable what they are willing to throw away for social acceptance during their four short years of high school. But it makes sense. Evolutionarily, this is a good decision. Immediate survival is more important than long-term goals. In fact, this order of preference is hardwired into our brains. If the brain senses immediate life-threatening danger, it shuts down the higher-order reasoning centres of the brain and prepares the body for fight or flight. “There’s no time to think,” the brain says to the body, “we’re going to run or rumble!”

This is what a teen is feeling whenever they are embarrassed in your classroom. It’s not a lot different from what they would feel if you were holding them over a cliff ledge. It may sound crazy to adults, but that’s how the amplified emotions of a teenager function.

fMRI’s reveal that emotional pain, such as that felt because of social rejection, triggers the same pain centres of the brain that physical pain does.

Now of course they aren’t being held over a cliff, most of these problems actually aren’t that big of a deal, and they should be making better decisions based on long-term goals. As teachers we need to help them see through their feeling that these are life-and-death issues. But we also need to be sensitive to that fact that the feeling is very real, and very intense. Any insensitive approach that embarrasses students is cruel and will not help them learn.

As a person in a position to urge teachers towards the use of technology in the classroom, I think some help can be found in various tech tools, especially giving students a medium to safely communicate with the teacher without embarrassment. But overall, there isn’t any one particular thing that can make the pathological fear of social rejection easier for students; teachers just need to be aware of it. It needs to be on the radar whenever we are about to make a decision that could potentially embarrass a student in front of his peers. Since it scares them half to death, and it also turns off their higher thinking skills, we might want to stop doing that if we want to help them learn.

Divecha, Diana. “Greater Good.” A Journey into the Teenage Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_journey_into_the_teenage_brain>.

Weir, Kirsten. “The pain of social rejection.” http://www.apa.org. American Psychological Association , n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx>.