It IS About Technology

There is a saying, that it’s not about the technology; it’s about the pedagogy. A statement like this is usually followed by a statement regarding how good teaching can happen without technology, and inquiry can happen without technology. I’m not contesting these last two ideas. I will acknowledge that good teaching and good inquiry can happen without technology; but I think in order for our classrooms to remain relevant, and in order to ensure our classrooms reflect the real world, it suddenly is about the technology in a way that it wasn’t previously. John Dewey spoke about inquiry long before technology emerged, but he knew the benefits of authentic learning: learning that was grounded in real experiences.

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school — its isolation from life.
John Dewey, 1916

If we are to subscribe to the notion that learning should be authentic, we must also acknowledge that we live in a digital world: a world the Jetsons foretold, with video chat rooms and short missives from space and a wealth of information in our pockets, and on our wrists.

If it is about the pedagogy, and our pedagogy dictates that a student’s experience at school should mirror the world beyond its walls, and should include authentic learning opportunities that solve real jetsonsvideochatproblems, then we should also recognize that out in that “real world” these things are accomplished using technology. So when we neglect to integrate technology into our learning environment, or put our devices away at the door, we “isolate our classrooms from life”, and find ourselves in direct opposition to our pedagogy.


Poem in 3 Dimensions

a dot-matrix version of what the future holds
soon to be nostalgic novelty
a guided turtle
filmstrip tones
interactive boards hidden by chart paper

costs / benefit
and the temptation of shiny things
rendered in filament

the edtech wallet opens

@acampbell99 and I have been discussion 3D printers on the Twitters. It’s a fascinating technology only apt to get better. We will look back on the models of today as primitive, in the same ways in which we look back at that lone computer in our schools we once used to learn logo. The promise they represent for a future in which every home has one, and can manufacture items from plans downloaded and purchased from online catalogues, seems pulled from episodes of Star Trek (Tea. Earl Grey. Hot).

Providing students with a window into this future, along with the opportunities these devices have to help teach spatial reasoning and problem solving cannot be denied. As Moore’s Law seems to indicate, the rate at which these machines iterate is exponential, and will soon surpass our current understanding of the possibilities.

So the question becomes: when do schools decide to dive in?

Tech emerges, and as it lives, the costs decrease, and the devices become within reach of the average household. I remember renting a VCR as a child; which was too costly to own, but was available to rent along with video tapes.

Is the 3D printer ready for its moment in our classrooms? Can we use it enough to justify its cost, or should we depend on other institutions (like the public library) to provide a window into the future, and focus our efforts on what may soon be considered the more basic elements of a 21st Century classroom: devices that connect to the internet, allow for multimedia creation, and network with the wider world.

Re-imagining the TV.HWDSB Video Space

Those of you who have been following along, or have been affected by, the issues we’ve been having with know that we are updating the system to rectify the issues we’ve run into. After a year of toiling away at trying to get the system up and running, only to have it go down a few months later, without the sense of urgency we had hoped to see from the vendor in repairing the damage, this update gives us an opportunity to re-imagine the space.

When we initially created the space, we created categories based on curriculum subjects, and separated those compartments by Elementary and Secondary. We created a Professional category that we jammed full of instructional videos on all of the different tools available in the board.

Looking back, I’m not sure if that was the best way to go about this.

I imagine that a number of the videos our students create cross curriculum lines. I imagine that users probably avoided posting tv.hwdsbvideos in the Professional category because it looked as if the 21CL team has marked that territory as their own.

I’m not usually one to go out on my blog to reach out for this kind of help. I’m not sure why, but I tend to use this more as an “essay” space, rather than a space to request help. I was a few characters into a tweet on the subject, thinking I could reach out on that forum for advice, but quickly realized that not only would I have difficulty fitting my question into 140 characters, but it would be difficult for people to respond.

So I ask here: If you were setting up a video platform — a “YouTube” for a K12 user group — what channel categories would you offer up? As a teacher, if you were sharing video with others, what categories would you like to see (you can always tag things, but categories provide a means for more formal, concrete collections of elements)? Those of you who use video platforms that offer up categories or channels or collections, have you seen any spaces that you think are doing it right?

They Need to Take Them Home

Whenever new technology emerges, it always takes a while for the cultural norms around the use of that tool to catch up to its facility. We are seeing that currently with the backlash against Google Glass use in public spaces. The technology emerges, and then society wrestles with what acceptable use looks like. Some of that is based on current norms. Some of it on (occasionally unwarranted) fears. Some of it on the unknown.

I remember when I first got a cell phone. Up until the emergence of the mobile phone, the telephone was a device that lived at home, and telephone conversations were things you did privately. Speaking on that device in public, beyond the privacy of a telephone booth, wasn’t an accepted cultural norm. Think about that telephone booth for a moment. A glass closet installed on street corners. That’s more privacy than we afford between urinals in a men’s room. Due to the fact that the mobile phone had emerged from being a phone installed in your car, to one that you could carry around (in a bag first, then eventually in your pocket) I remember initially treating it, even when it was portable enough, as a phone for the car. I would finish my conversations there and then put it away before I started walking. Walking and talking on the phone were not yet culturally acceptable.

“People don’t need to talk on the phone in public. It’s garish. It’s obnoxious. Who am I, Gordon Gecko?”

ClearnetTalking on the phone was a private exercise, and despite the emerging ability to take this private task into the public sphere, current notions of acceptable use of a “phone” had yet to catch up to the possibilities of the new form factor. Seeing someone walking around the mall with a phone on their face wasn’t yet an accepted cultural norm.

Fast-forward to today, where we have had time to re-evaluate when it is acceptable to use a phone, and still these negotiations are an organic process: Malls but not restaurants; Fast food but not fine dining; Not at cultural events; Outdoor concerts but not theatre.

Applying that notion to computers illustrates a similar struggle. Initially, computers were big, heavy things. They had multiple components and elaborate cabling systems. When the internet emerged, it was dependent on a tether. Even with the emergence of laptops, utilizing them for long periods of time was simpler on a desk. Within classrooms, the vast majority of our laptops sit permanently attached to power due to faulty batteries. They are traditionally installed as labs, or as stations; and it is only very recently that the idea that these labs should be dispersed into classrooms is gaining momentum.

“the computer lab is the new telephone booth”

Now we have tablets. I’m sitting on the couch right now “writing” this out on an iPad mini. There is a desktop computer over in the corner, but sitting on the couch puts me squarely between the stereo speakers, streaming my favorite songs from the internet, controlled by this small device in my hands. I prefer to write this way. I like how the tablet feels in my hands as I read back the words. Now that I read books on this device, reading on this small screen feels “right” somehow, in a way that reading a novel on a laptop never has. I can’t type as quickly on this device (thank you Grade 10 keyboarding class), although I could talk to it and it would transcribe what I say. I’m not in a rush though — I like to craft sentences carefully.

So now I can take my device anywhere, and still we run through the same 20140517-163607.jpgcultural hesitations. We grapple with what should be deemed acceptable. We scoff when people use it to take pictures out in public, rather than the more discreet camera we are accustomed to seeing. This is the cycle: first we laugh at how unnecessary the technology is, and then it becomes ubiquitous.

Prepare to look back on the present for an apology to your future self, from behind some form of wearable technology (like Google Glass) that today you dismiss as ridiculous.

In that same spirit we now postulate on the reasons why students **shouldn’t** take their tablets home. Tablets that we are going to provide them to support their learning, in the same way we provide textbooks and novels and pencils and notebooks. This device — that will substitute for the functionality of a number of those other items we let freely travel between the home and the classroom — should somehow be locked up at night within the school. We imagine theft. We imagine untethered access to the deep, inappropriate chasm of the interwebs (we are giving them a device, we aren’t taking away their parents). We fear for breakage, and for loss, and a host of other unknowns and unknown unknowns. Don’t we remember imagining a future where ever child has one of these? Have we not seen it already on the Jetsons and Star Trek? Are we not yet ready for this future we have imagined since the birth of science fiction? Because we need to be; because it is upon us, and we are still running a number of our classrooms as if not much has changed. As students become old enough to detect that disconnect, they grow further and further disengaged with the product we are pushing.

Yes, there will be hurdles. There will be mistakes made and there will be lessons learned; but that’s the point isn’t it: to learn. To be an institution that not only delivers learning but practices what it preaches. If we truly believe that technology can be a disruptive force in education: able to transform what is possible; able to connect us to a diverse, international community of co-learners; able to differentiate for various learning disabilities once thought unassailable; able to empower learners to ask hard questions, and access answers from different viewpoints and unconsidered biases; able to help develop critical skills that will guide future decisions; for all of those reasons and a host of others, we owe it to our students to ensure these imagined barriers don’t force us into half measures, when we should be making a full court press to ensure that this one chance we have with the students we have in our system right now, provides them with every opportunity to succeed.

So let’s stop talking about whether the students can take the tablets home. Let’s focus on ensuring we are brave in this new world we are guiding them to steward responsibly. Let’s give them their education “to go”.

New Platforms

In the next few days the chaos of changing communications infrastructure is going to grip HWDSB. We are about to replace First Class (the email and conferencing software that has been utilized at the school board since I started working here 10 years ago). Regardless of the amount of planning and work that goes into something like this, replacing a 10-year-old platform is no easy task. We tried once previously, with an older version of SharePoint that never really took hold, leaving us in two different spaces for a lot of our work. This should mark the beginning of a consolidation of those spaces. I won’t go into the reasons we need to leave First Class. That’s a topic for an entirely separate post.

The first phase, which launches on Monday, includes provisioning every employee in the board, and every student from grades 4 to 12, with access to the new email system. In order to align our existing username directory with this new email system, we’ve had to change everyone’s email address within the board. Ironically, we are changing all the email addresses back to what they were before we adopted First Class. There was no way around this, but it does add an additional pain-point to the migration.

In the second phase we will be provisioning Team Sites to each school so that they can start to migrate from First Class over to SharePoint. These spaces cannot be created until all the users have been brought over, but I expect they will appear within a few days to a week of the initial launch.

We chose the Microsoft tools because of this collaboration platform. I know that some school boards have opted for Google’s suite of tools, but although they excel at collaborative document creation, their Groups functionality is limited, and considering their track-record with social networks (frankly with any of their tools) I would worry about adopting them as a standard. I still mourn the loss of Reader and Notebook: I would hate to see a tool we begin depending on as an organization get discontinued. I recognize that the Google vs Office 365 debate is a hot one, and that there are pros and cons on both sides. My current thinking is that Google+ isn’t a place where our Purchasing or HR departments are going to collaborate.

Of course, drawing that kind of line would be easy, where we adopt one standard and dump the rest; but in our quest to ensure that our students have access to all of the best tools and resources that they might need to succeed, we can’t bring ourselves to deny them access to all the things that Google (for example) does so well. Their collaborative document creation software is far superior to Microsoft’s Office Online offering, especially if you are attempting to have multiple users accessing the document in real-time (something I promoted often in my class).
The new landing page at

So we aren’t going to turn our Google Apps for HWDSB installation off. Instead we are going to push its use, along with Desire2Learn and the HWDSB Commons WordPress blogging platform, as key components of the Student Portal: a space we are calling The Hub. We certainly recognize that this means there will be a number of different tools that our users can access, but we feel it’s more important to provide a rich toolkit of the best options available, rather than attempt fine dining with a spork.

  • Outlook for email gives us the enterprise level control we need to provision accounts and manage users
  • Desire2Learn is quickly becoming the Single Sign On entry point for all of our other tools, and provides students with access to the Virtual Learning Environment provided by the Ministry of Education to all K12 boards, and the tool that is used to deliver curriculum at most of the other Ontario post secondary institutions
  • There would be a mutiny if we took away Google Apps. It has been available at HWDSB for almost 6 years now. We gave it a big push last year. Its “app” offering is superior (although at the time of this writing MS has just released iOS versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel). It powers the Chromebook, which we are seeing emerge as an affordable substitute for the expensive PCs we’ve historically provisioned at schools. Not providing access to this tool would lead to teachers having to delve back into getting students to sign up for the commercial version, which brings with it a whole other host of issues
  • If you want to blog, WordPress is the gold standard in blogging platforms. The HWDSB Commons allows our students and teachers to blog in a safe space, and the open source nature of the platform allows us to quickly respond to the needs of the community with tweaks and customizations to make the platform strong. It also provides a Social Network layer that allows students to practice good digital citizenship skills on a board platform

When you give everyone a box full of power tools, you need to do a lot more to ensure they use them correctly. “What goes where” is going to be a popular line for the foreseeable future. What we hope will emerge is two separate portals: one customized to serve the needs of the system in more operational items, providing a space for staff to staff collaboration; and one that meets the needs of the learners in our system. This may cause a bit of strife on the outset, but I think it would be far more detrimental to our students to pretend that the needs of the Finance department match the needs of a Grade 6 classroom, and adopting one tool for everything.

Thank you for your patience as we build out these tools. Thank you for being open to learning. I’m sure in the next few weeks there will be many times when we will have “in First Class I could…” discussions. Having been using the new platform for the past few months, I truly believe that it is the right move.

Some Thoughts on Distributed Leadership

I think in reference to HWDSB, we believe that it is the role of the board to remove as many barriers to success as possible. EG: Providing a device, rather than leaving it up to the families to BYOD something sufficient is a barrier we feel is worth removing. I recognize that other boards have opted for a different route. We certainly don’t dissuade students from bring in their own devices (although the recently rescinded Personal Electronic Devices policy had sections to suggest as much), but see more power (and equity) in provisioning a standard tool .

See the new 21st Century Learning and Technology Policy for more details

Providing consistency across the board in terms of the tools available to teach and learn ensures opportunities for more organic distribution of leadership and mentorship. Those who want to emulate what others are doing can more easily start, because not only is the pathway forged, but transportation is provided (if you will allow the metaphor).

When we apply this idea to software, specifically in the case of the HWDSB Commons, providing windows into the classrooms in HWDSB increases the number of available exemplars, and raises the bar in comparison to perpetuating silos, cut off from the types of examples that push better practice forward. Teaching “out loud” also forces reflection in a way that hiding bad practice within a closed door classroom does not. I recognize that a number of the blogs on the Commons were not built to share practice with other teachers, but were created to connect students or to connect to the home: despite this, the by-product is access from around the board, creating leaders who may be operating oblivious to the impact their posts –intended for the home — are having on their unknown colleagues.

External expertise can sometimes be utilized to help contribute to the vision. Apple has referred to it as “providing bandwidth”. I like this analogy because it infers that they understand the message, they are just helping to amplify it, or providing alternative ways to gain traction. External expertise is a double-edged sword. Bringing in confident development teams that can connect with the culture already existing in a system, providing a wider dispersal, can provide a helpful boost. That said, external trainers who struggle to connect with the momentum already existing in a board, or fail to “speak the language”, can turn off participants, and create animosity. It’s important to ensure that internal resources are being maximized. External partnerships are only worthwhile if they provide something that doesn’t already exist internally. We must be careful not to value the opinion of the outsider more than internal voices when deciding what we need in order to move forward.

Communication Technology “can” remove the hierarchy of communication to allow all stakeholders to see themselves as leaders. Platforms that allow inter-dept/school sharing can provide leadership opportunities. I think we still struggle with this as a board, having spent too much time in First Class, without reasonable alternatives. We see this happening on blogs in the Commons, and within some conferences in FC, for those people who know where they can be found; but it could take on a larger role in our movement forward when we provision those social network elements into the workplace on a corporate platform.

As a final thought, for some reason it is still acceptable for people to say they don’t “get” technology. I think this is something that can be leveraged. Individuals who are just starting to “get” it, feel able to help their peers in ways that other subject matter demands expertise (it isn’t acceptable to stand in a room and say I don’t “get” teaching literacy). We are seeing a greater willingness from people just starting out, to share what they know with others, when it comes to technology integration in their practice. This may be due to what Fullan describes as the “irresistibly engaging” properties of current technologies. I also find there is a greater willingness to opt into technology PD. Perhaps we are beginning to recognize that this isn’t a “nice to have” anymore, but a moral imperative if we want students to meet with success in the future. I say this cautiously, because if one were to use the “I don’t get technology” utterance as an excuse to not learn, it’s an issue: it is only when it provides fertile ground for those just a bit further along the path to intercede that it is an environment that should be embraced rather than disparaged.

The new “in” thing is “U”

The HWDSB 21st Century Learning team has launched a new initiative today called a U-Service. This is a play on the in-service model of PD that we regularly offer to teachers. A few years ago we ran a Livescribe event in the Gym at Maple Lane. Teachers from across the board came and shared the ways in which they were using that tool in their classroom. They set up at small tables and teachers wandered around checking out what their colleagues were doing, chatted about implementation strategies, and mingled together. It was a great success (thanks to @lisaneale and @mpolling who organized the day).

Since then we have had a number of requests to repeat it on a different theme. This first one will shirk that thematic idea and attempt to host a variety of different “stations”. The hope is that we will get a large cross-section of contributors, and people will drop in, perhaps just to see one specific session, or perhaps to get inspired by something new. Thanks should also be extended to Gurdeep Gill, who has kept it on the front burner and is helping to organize the day. We owe a debt to the folks from @ecooweb too: their “Minds on Media” setup is one of the models we are emulating here.

I’m hoping we can run something like this once a month. Please help us promote this within your schools. Nudge people who are doing cool things in their classrooms to come out and set up a table. We are hoping to make this less intimidating than leading a “lecture” in front of a large group of people. Come hang out and teach us something new.

Pathways to Adoption

A Twitter conversation tonight regarding how to outfit a classroom, and spend School Council dollars, reminded me that I haven’t shared an infographic we’ve been using in our department recently when talking to schools about how to move forward with creating the essential conditions for learning within their classrooms. PATHWAYS TO ADOPTION FLOW CHART

The logic works as follows. Every classroom needs a projector and a teacher device. In order to empower classrooms to leverage outside expertise, and be open to student led inquiry, we need to ensure that the students have a portal to the vast repository of knowledge available on the internet.
It isn’t enough to tell students to go look it up at home, or worse: wait until our weekly foray to the computer lab (imagine sharing a set of 30 pencils across the entire school.)

Whose turn is it with the pencils?

Once you’ve established that window, now you need to provision devices in the classroom. Sometimes schools get hung up on kits. Kits are great for initial exploration of a new tool, but sometime in a bid for equity, the devices get under-utilized. You need to move those kits into the classroom pretty quickly if you want to see the technology used effectively. If teachers can’t depend on the technology being in the room on a consistent basis, they will default back to planning lessons without technology. If 7 times out of 10 the bus doesn’t get me to work on time, even though I really want to be ecologically friendly, I will default back to driving my car, instead of planning around something I can’t guarantee. The same is true of teachers and technology. Most want to integrate technology into practice, but not at the cost of not knowing whether or not it will be available when they need it.

I think the middle portion of this infographic, especially in elementary, is a sweet-spot to strive towards. Give me 6-8 devices in my classroom, and students can investigate things together. They can make movies, or record engaging small group podcasts on topics they are interested in, or make stop motion animation movies. Not every student needs a device at all times in order to do this: a lot of the pre-planning (and learning) happens on paper before the artifact is created.

1:1 is like the holy grail. We recognize that it would be optimum to have a device in every student’s hands. I can’t leave it off of the graphic, because it’s the logical next step, but I know it’s not necessarily feasible in the short term.  If we can provide enough devices in the classroom to enable the integration of technology into the everyday teaching and learning going on, and students are exploring different things in small differentiated centres, and sharing their learning back via a blog, I think we have the components of an engaging space.

I’ll share an example from my classroom a few years ago. During the Olympic Games, a few of the students decided they wanted to report the news from the previous day.

  Leveraging the Hamilton Spectator’s Newspapers in Education program, the students read through the previous days events, pulled items that were of particular interest to them, and reported them out to an audience. Most of this work happened using newspapers and highlighters. One video camera and some video editing software on the SMARTboard became our editing suite. Summarizing the longer articles in the Spec for our “television audience” was just one of many rich tasks the students needed to complete in order to put together an episode every day. We didn’t all have devices; but we had enough to do some very cool things in the classroom.