This is Why I love the Internet

I love the Internet. With all its rubbish and junk you can still find the most amazing things. These days you can even find the most amazing tools. What most pundits would agree is the feature of Web 2.0 that distinguishes it from what came before, is the prevalence of online applications. Dynamic sites that harness the power of back end databases and java, ajax and flash, silverlight etc.

The reason I love these online apps, over software like say Photoshop or MS Office, is that they are built to be user friendly and simple from the outset. When a developer puts up an online app or tool, it must be simple and intuitive or people will move on and find another web site to tickle their fancy.

The online app that has me excited today is a #backchannel tool called http://drop.io/

Drop.io is a simple site that allows you to create an online, temporary, chatroom.  A simple idea and there are many other tools out there that do that.  I just happened on Drop.io and liked the interface.  The power of this simple tool for education is in the use of #backchannel discussions in the classroom.  In a nutshell, you run a chatroom during your lecture or lesson where students can post ideas and questions, share files and links and you can guage and monitor understanding through their written feedback.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of watching a Microsoft video titled “Schools of the Future”.  In the video we are shown what MS must see as a typical higher education classroom, a lecture hall with the prof at the front standing at the old-school overhead projector writing notes and all the students in the room rather sleepily taking notes in notebooks.  The school of the future was transformed with technology however!!  (some sarcasm there; bear with me) With technology, students all had laptops and so were able to rather sleepily take notes in MS word.  The professor no longer had to stand at the overhead.  He was free to pace back and forth at the front of the room, making notes on his tablet PC which showed those same boring notes on the big screen at the front.  Wow.  Transformative. (more sarcasm)

I mention this video because, besides showing how technology can replace old tools (and still not change the teaching and learning), they also added a feature that I thought was truly transformative.  They were also running an MSN chat for the class to post questions, add ideas, guide the discussion and give feedback to the prof.  The classroom TA manned the chat room at the front, taking the feedback and questions and filtering those to present the prof with common misconceptions, frequestly asked questions and such.  Allowing the students to ask questions in this way, posting their queries and thoughts as they happen, instead of waiting for the end of the lecture, is a little thing, but a great use of technology.  I just this week found several articles about this kind of #backchanneling in the classroom that brought this idea back to the fore for me.  At the time of watching the video I was struck that, using MSN limited the ease of use of this tool.  You would have to ensure everyone had a PC, that they all had MSN accounts, etc.  Not simple.

But, just this week I read about successful backchannel uses in the classroom and online tools for quickly and easily creating a chatroom for your class or lesson, on the fly.  All that students would need is a browser and the Internet.

I love that the Internet is becoming more and more useful with these great learning tools and also that the tech needs in school are being reduced to a nice and simple need: Internet access.

If you want to see what I was reading and where these ideas sprung from this week, get over to http://search.twitter.com and search on backchannel.

The IT in the Classroom Imperative

I was recently having what has become a very frequent conversation for me.  The conversation surrounds the different ways of ensuring students get the IT skills they need, through IT classes or IT in the classroom, through IT lessons or integrated IT in the classroom, through IT teachers or classroom teachers, in computer labs or in classrooms with laptops, on a schedule or as needed.

I found myself saying something I have grown fond of and that is “Computer teachers, or integration specialists if you like, are charged with helping teachers integrate IT into their lessons.  We expect that from them.  But classroom teachers are not formally charged with getting help.” (I am long-winded apparently)  Classroom teachers are not expected to integrate IT in a formalized way, like in their job description or through performance evaluation criteria (at least not in the schools I have worked at).  Even when you have a whiz-bang IT specialist who gets out there and plans with teachers, it too often is an uphill battle and that person can become very tired of making folks do things they don’t want to do and change when they are happy doing what they are doing.  If integration doesn’t happen, the IT specialist is seen as ineffectual but classroom teachers are rarely seen as complicit in that failure, at least not openly and individually.  “They” may be seen as such, as a grade level or team, if they act as such as a grade level or team, but classroom teachers are rarely fired because they did not integrate technology into their curriculum (at least not in the schools I have worked at).

What makes teachers learn new methods, integrate technology and change their practice?  What makes them embrace tech tools in their teaching?  What would make them go to the IT specialist spontaneously and say “Hey I want to learn about podcasting because my students need to know how to do that to improve their learning.”

And then it hit me (I am slow on the uptake apparently). That is exactly what would make them say such a thing: if it were true and they knew it and believed it to be so.  If a teacher knew that the students in their classroom would learn better, more, and with greater effect, because of an IT tool, they would want to use it.

Teachers will do what is best for kids or what they believe is best for kids.  That is the IT imperative.  Professional educators will change their practice and learn new skills if it will benefit the kids.  PD, therefore, must make that case.  Not the case that IT is easy or makes teaching or learning easier.  It doesn’t. IT often makes things take longer and is actually harder.  But the benefits, the long term learning benefits, outweigh that.  PD must show that, convincingly and repeatedly.

Shift and Change in School: The “7 Things” Theory

I am toying with an idea that came up at a recent department meeting I had with my tech teachers here at Dubai American Academy.  I asked them each to talk about technology integration and what that meant to them and also how they percieved the success of that model at DAA.  Each talked about different things and I was struck that I agreed with each of them.  How then to reconcile all those ideas?

In relating the discussion to others afterwards I found myself repeatedly saying “There are 7 things that need to change in order to make a successful change in Tech use in schools.”  I am not sure where I got the number, but “7 Things” seemed to make my point that, even if you change one or two things about the school or about teaching, you will not effect lasting change or successfully shift the school into a 21st Century Technology Learning model.

Most importantly, these all need to be done at the same time.  They are not successful when only some of them are done and they are not successful when done sequentially.

So what are the 7 Things?

  • Curriculum: The curriculum needs to change to reflect integrated technology opportunities within subject area units (even if they need to be changed every year or two)
  • PD: Classroom and subject area teachers need good PD both in technology tools appropriate to their area and in planning units and lessons with technology tools from the outset (not planning their lessons and units and then asking the tech team for some help afterward).
  • Schedule: The use of computer lessons as planning time for teachers (in the elementary school) and having mandatory (or elective) classes in “technology” needs to be thrown out to allow the tech “teachers” time to plan and teach collaboratively, to go to classrooms or work with other teachers in the labs.  The labs (if there are to be labs at all) need to be open for teachers to use.
  • Hardware and computer labs: Students need their own computer.  Period.  Along with this, the network must be created/improved to handle the load of 1:1.  Accept this and start planning now because it takes years to get there.
  • Perceptions of Technology: Technology can no longer be seen as a separate subject.  It is not.  Technology tools are tools that help students learn Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Music, Drama, Art, etc.  They are the things that enable students to make connections in their learning.
  • Collaborative teaching: Until all teachers are proficient enough in their own requisite tech tools, teachers must work together with their colleagues and the school’s technology integration specialists.  The team approach is essential.
  • Choosing the right tools: We need to take a good close look at what technology tools are really necessary for each grade level and subject and work with teachers to get them and their students proficient in using those.  We do not need to teach students 10 different software packages each year.  Choose a couple of tools and use them over and over.  For learning.  Not for their own sake.  If a certain tool, like PowerPoint, is not serving the classroom curriculum, we need to stop using it and teaching it.  We don’t need to teach PowerPoint in Grade 3 because they will need it in Middle School.

7 Things.  All at the same time.

Some caveats of course.  What do you think?  Let’s hear some challenges and Yeah-Buts in the comments.