Teaching Data Literacy

A posting I read today on Jeff Utecht’s blog, Utechtips, got me thinking about data and the enormous amounts of data being collected and created on the web today.  His posting was about a new piece of software demoed at the TED talks called Photosynth.  This web site and software uses tags and photo meta data to make connections between related pictures.
At the end of the day I was in a meeting and we were talking about 21st century skills and helping students become digital citizens.  It made me think about all this data and how students will need data literacy skills to make sense of it all and also to make the connections that will be needed to make new information.


Credit: TED Talks

When will someone produce a learning tool for today’s students?

Why can’t Alphasmart, Apple, Dell, Intel, or even Leapfrog, create a portable learning tool for students?  Really.  This does not strike me as terribly difficult.  Surely there is a willing market of schools and students who would want such a device.  So why did we not see the perfect device appear at Macworld yesterday?

If I have not made it clear in some of my previous posts, I believe ubiquitous computing is a must in schools today.  Anytime anywhere learning is crucial for both students and teachers to truly integrate technology into their day.  One of the main problems with one-to-one laptop programs is the question of cost-effectiveness: does it really make financial sense to give a student a $1000+ laptop?  Some of the fallout from doing so is often a culture of fear of not using such an expensive device.  If the school has paid so much for a computer, the students better be using it 24/7.

It would be preferable, in my opinion, to buy a $300 device that was smaller perhaps than a full laptop and yet did all the things a student might need to do.  While several devices have emerged very recently I am still not convinced anyone is taking this very seriously.  Apple would have been my bet, with their history of serving education, but they seem to be getting away from that.  Switching to Intel processors and abandoning OS9 has rendered hundreds of excellent educational software titles in our school’s library completely useless.   Now, I happen to think that OSX and the bundled iLife suite currently offer students the best learning tools for education today, but even a basic Macbook is around $1000.  Why not, Apple?

The OLPC, Intel’s Classmate, the Asus EEE PC and the Everex Cloudbook are all entering this market, though the first two are for emerging markets and the latter seem more for cheapskates than students.  I have nothing against emerging markets nor Linux but I do not see any of these as a perfect device.  I guess I think we need to depart from the “laptop” idea.  Something that is part iPhone, part tablet PC, part EEE PC, part OLPC and part Amazon Kindle.  Touch display, pen interaction, built-in camera, webcam and video cam, web browser, small form factor, rugged and lightweight.  All for $300.  Is that too much to ask?

Clearly, yes.

But someday soon.  If not Apple, then maybe Alphasmart, or Leapfrog or some new company.  I think perhaps the big guys are too married to the laptop form factor.

The Macbook Air is nice though.  I wouldn’t say no to one myself.

Shifting the Focus on Technology Integration

For over a decade now I have worked as a technology teacher at international schools in Asia.  Schools with excellent technology resources and excellent teachers.  Why then does high-quality technology integration prove so elusive?  What is it that stands in the way of effective collaborative teaching?  I think the answer lies in several areas of the planning process and it is these unresolved pitfalls that hinder quality integration.

Firstly, what do I mean by quality integration?  We all know it when we see it and when we are involved in it.  Those rare times when a unit is planned involving many teachers, each contributing their areas of strength and spurring each other on with their enthusiasm.  The times when many classes are involved in large projects and students are moving about from one classroom to another, to the lab and library and back and maybe even to the art rooms and all students are actively engaged in meaningful learning experiences.  Times when it seems like utter chaos perhaps but you can feel the energy and the enthusiasm and the learning seems almost palpable.  Each teacher involved is working to their strengths and offering students something unique and the students in turn are engaged in a variety of learning opportunities, catering to their auditory, visual and kinesthetic needs.  This is quality integration because many teachers and disciplines are involved and everyone is working towards a common set of goals and it is purposeful and meaningful to the curriculum.

There are a few key ideas here that hint at the reason that regular, day-to-day technology integration doesn’t always happen.  One thing is scale.  In these kind of huge projects, involving all classes at a grade level or a division or even a whole school, it is usually a large-scale involvement that simply can’t be sustained all the time.  Getting so many people involved is hard and takes a lot of committment and energy, so we only want to do it if it is “worth it” and accomplishes a lot.  Day-to-day tech integration does not meet this criteria and so it does not receive the same kind of energy and enthusiasm.

Another thing is planning ahead.  Large-scale themes, units and projects involving many teachers work well if they are well-planned and everyone is involved at the beginning stages of the planning.  This is a crucial error in what I often see happen with integrated technology lessons and units.  Typically, teachers plan a unit either alone or with a colleague or with their grade-level team and then, when they are all done, they approach the librarian, or the art department or technology teacher and ask them how they can support the unit.  Inevitably this creates more work, adds lesson to the unit and reinforces the idea that technology, for example, is an add-on.  How can technology enrich our unit?  How can it extend our unit?  While these are not bad questions, the technology teacher, the librarian and any other teachers involved need to be in on the ground floor.  They need to be a part of the planning process from the outset and they need to ask slightly different questions:

  • How will students learn in the unit?
  • How will the teacher convey important information?
  • How will the students work, individually or collaboratively?
  • Where will they find the information they need?
  • How will they process that information?
  • What tools will they use to organize and analyse their facts or data?
  • How will they communicate their learning to their peers?
  • Who is their audience for their final product?
  • How will they convey their learning to their audience?

For each of these questions one can then ask, How can technology enrich the unit?  How can it extend the learning?  How can it meet the diverse needs of my learners?

Unfortunately the recent emphasis on standards and benchmarks has shifted the focus away from technology as a tool and on to technology as a distinct curricular area.  With technology standards and benchmarks and technology co-ordinators or technology teachers (call them what you like) taking on the role of ensuring they are “met” by students, there is a seemingly unanswerable question of responsibility.  Technology integration is based on the idea that technology is a tool and that it is best taught in the context of the classroom curriculum.  Ergo integrated lessons need to grow out of the classroom curriculum.  Classroom teachers have enough on their plates these days, with their own standards and benchmarks and if asked would likely tell you that it is the technology teacher’s responsibility to plan lessons and units that meet their own standards and benchmarks.  Technology teachers/coordinators/integration specialists, myself included, generally respond that it is a collaborative process.  We must work together to plan integrated lessons and units and ensure that students are meeting their classroom benchmarks as well as the technology benchmarks in some kind of magical unit that kills two birds with one stone.  The problem is that that is very difficult to do and extremely difficult to do every week.

How then do we tie this all together and ensure quality integration?  Firstly, I would argue that we need to get shift our focus away from technology standards and benchmarks.  Not throwing them out entirely, but looking at them from a different angle perhaps and shining the light on the classroom curriculum more brightly.  Teachers do indeed have much to do, much curriculum to cover (or uncover) but we can no longer, in the 21st century, look at effective student learning without technology.  Reading, bias, accuracy of information, writing, editing, publishing, mathematics, data analysis, graphing, social studies, research, questioning, science, art and music are all done with technology these days.  Not using technology tools to teach and learn in the classroom is just not “good teaching”.  Can we teach reading and writing and ‘rithmetic without computers?  Of course we can.  Should we?  I would argue no, we should not.  It is not a reality for our students to read only paper books, to only hand-write stories and essays and look solely at a paper map to find their way.  Most of what they will read for pleasure or information is digital even now.  Blogs, chats, emails and text messages are what they are writing today.  GPS and digital maps rich with added information are already standard ways of finding your way from point A to point B.  We must look at our classroom curriculum and find where the technology belongs.  Answering all the questions posed above with technology in mind, from the outset.

Who should be doing this?  Teachers of course.  Classroom teachers have a big job, just as they always have.  They need to prepare their students for their present and future lives.  How can teachers be experts in Language Arts, Math AND Technology?  That is an old way of looking at 21st century curriculum.  To be an expert in Language Arts is to know the appropriate digital tools for your students and to know them well enough to teach with them.  That has always been the case and is still is.  Teachers do not need to be experts in all technologies.  They do not need to know everything there is to know about MS Word or the Internet.  They need to know enough to teach their students what they need to know.  This is the same thing teachers have always needed to know.  They need to know their own curriculum and how to teach it.

So let’s start there.  What do your students need to know?  What do they need to be able to do in Math at your grade level?  What do they need to be able to do to effectively communicate what they have learned?  That is what you need to know and be able to teach them.

Does that mean we no longer need technology teachers, co-ordinators and integration specialists?  Yes and no.  I think we need to re-think their role and maybe even give them a new name.  A good tech specialist (let’s call them just that for now) needs to be a staff trainer, a good teacher, one who is up on the latest technology tools, one who knows curriculum, has a good knowledge of what is developmentally appropriate, is good with people, is helpful and can work collaboratively with other teachers.  And, if we are truly committed to supporting teachers in teaching 21st century curriculum, we may actually need more of them.  If students are using technology more regularly in the classroom, in the library, in the music classes, in the art rooms and out in the field, on computers, with handhelds, on laptops, on tablets, and things we can not imagine today, we will need tech specialists on hand to support teachers whenever and whenever necessary.

I could go on but will save some for another post, another day.

Professional Development for a One to One Laptop Program

We have been discussing the idea of going to a one-to-one laptop to student ratio at our school.  Today we met with our admin team and clarified some of our ideas.  We are talking about beginning the process next school year and phasing in the program over several years beginning with Grade 8 and possibly Grade 5.  Grade 5 would be the lowest grade to participate in the program and it would, over several years, grow to include all students in grades 5-12.

A key issue raised today was that of professional development.  How to we ensure teachers are ready to have every child in their classroom equipped with a powerful learning tool / distraction factory?

Firstly, I should back up and remind you, gentle reader, why we are even considering this idea in the first place: learning.  Today’s learners are “digital natives” who are immersed in technology everyday or at the very least are growing up in a technologically saturated world.  There are few to no jobs any student at our school will hope to have that will not involve computers and technology.  Their own social world is already being altered by chat, texting, MySpace and the like.  The way students live, learn and communicate today is vastly different than the way we did when we were in school.  But our teaching has not changed to keep up.

What our team is proposing is a philosophical switch from viewing technology education as a separate subject with a separate set of skills to an approach that sees 21st century skills as inseparable from the technology tools at our disposal.  We are trying to help teachers see the subjects they are already teaching in the light of the digital world and to use those tools in their units and lessons in a more natural way.  In order to do so easily and effectively we feel that students and teachers will need to have anytime/anywhere access to those tools.

Our first step, then, is to give teachers their own laptop.  You can learn a whole lot more about using a tool if you have one yourself to use at work and home.  Using a laptop to do the things you want to do for enjoyment, like FaceBook, YouTube, email, IM, Skype, etc. helps you get comfortable with the tool and takes away that fear factor when you come to work and have to use that tool in your teaching.

In conjunction with giving teachers laptops is the critical issue of professional development.  Training, not in using the laptop specifically, but in planning relevant, effective units and lessons that incorporate the technology at your disposal.  We have many experiences within our group and have suggested different approaches.  One idea is to buy a curriculum and possibly have trainers come from the US from Intel or Microsoft.  Both companies have well-developed, proven training programs for teachers in technology integration.  Microsoft, or more precisely the Gates’ Foudation sponsors the TLP (Teacher Leadership Program) and Intel has its Teach Professional Learning Program 2007.

What we will do remains to be decided.  That it is vital is certain.


We had a good discussion today about whether or not our school should go ahead with the idea of being a one-to-one school, that is a school where every student has their own laptop.

Actually, we did not discuss that question so much as we have been over the issue many times before and everyone on our Info-Tech team seems to agree that, in order to achieve the educational needs of the 21st century, technology must be ubiquitous within the school.  If students are really to be using technology as a tool in their daily work, be it science, math, art or whatever, then they need anytime, anywhere access to said technology.  So, we already all agree that we must provide anytime, anywhere access to technology at ISKL.  What we discussed today was when that might become a reality, what kind of timeline we might be looking at and other issues surrounding how we might get there, what we need to do and what some of the questions are surrounding the implementation.

Some questions/issues we raised:

What grades would get laptops?  Not Kindergarten certainly.  So, which students are we actually talking about and which grade or grades would we start with (assuming we can not just jump in and give 2000 students laptops in one year.

What kind of computing device are we talking about?  MacBooks?  PC’s? Tablet PC’s?  OLPC’s? Asus EEE PC’s ($400 mini-laptop)? Alphasmart Dana’s?  Something else entirely?

How will we support them?

What kind of PD will we offer to teachers to prepare them for a room-full of laptop-toting students?

That last question garnered our greatest attention.  Without good professional development and training, laptop programs tend to fail out of the gate.  This is a crucial piece.

More on that next post.

Maglev Train Shanghai

When we arrived in Shanghai for the Learning 2.0 conference we chose to take the Magnetic Levitation Train into town.  It doesn’t actually get you very far into town, only into Pudong but that suited us well enough as we were staying close to the conference which was held at Concordia Interernational School in Pudong.  The picture above is a poor one admittedly, but it is difficult to take a steady picture when travelling at 430 km/h.

It made me think, briefly mind you, about China’s leap into this century and the way that it is trying out new technologies.  We lived in Shanghai for seven years and the changes we witnessed were dramatic.  New is a veritable religion there.  The Maglev train was very new and a very exciting development when it began being built.  But as I rode on it for the first time just this weekend, It struck me that it still doesn’t really go anywhere.  It makes a 40 minute taxi-ride into a five minute train ride but when we got out we still had to take a cab to our hotel.  It stops short of taking you into the heart of the city and has never been expanded or added to.  Its a bit like they said, “Hey let’s build a bullet train” and once they had done it they moved on to something else.

Perhaps it is just that, a sample bullet train.  A tourist attraction.  A cool way to welcome visitors to China and then let them off at a station at which they have to choose a real destination.  That was fun, but what are you really here for?  Maybe the government learned what it needed to and moved on.  Maybe they will build one to Beijing next or to points west.

It made me think of technology teaching too.  Often we go for what is cool and what is cutting edge.  But does it stand the test of time.  I tried teaching fifth graders to use a wiki last year.  They thought it was cool and I had high hopes for it to offer them a publishing medium with instant editing and feedback potential.  But it didn’t catch on.  The classroom teachers did not see the benefit or the relevance.  We never got back to it.  It sits there still, with all the enthusiastic comments made by students on the first day.  I often check to see if it has been spammed or hacked but it seems not even a desirable target.

Now I am trying blogs and podcasting.  That seems to be catching the teachers’ attention a little better.  Not blogs so much.  They are not quite getting the “log” or journal aspect.  But many teachers are seeing the benefit of the podcast.  Students too are listening to themselves reading and speaking and wanting to improve and do it better.  It is frustrating at times because I want to move on and show the next thing, but this one thing, hearing their own voices, is grabbing their attention in less of a “wow that’s cool” kind of way and more of a “do I really sound that way?  I think I can do better.”