ELTM15: Technology–The Rapture

Colloquially, we say, “people sometimes approach it arse-foremost.”

Shortly after iPads were introduced to the market it began: people from all over k-12 started writing proposals to raise money so they could purchase them for their classrooms. Just before that it’s was Interactive White Boards (IWBs). They were it seems the next best thing…at the time at least. About ten years prior to this people were going wild putting Palm handhelds in classrooms. Laptop projects: yes, we’ve seen quite a few of those come, and go. More examples could be listed but you probably get the idea.

Have you ever seem a horse-and-buggy setup that placed the cart in front so that it would be the thing that moved the horse around? Of course not! Everyone knows you do not put the cart before the horse! Why, then, does this blindingly obvious truth not apply to education? Why is it that people get caught up on the rapture associated with the use of shiny electronic toys and devise project after project in which they purchase a slew of them and then foist them off on the classroom without thought of what really is supposed to be happening?

How about this:

  • The companies that make the devices market them very hard to education, knowing the large potential sales volume that could result. They therefore make it so that a body of evidence exists to justify the purchase. Research? It is incredibly easy to devise a situation that looks good enough. Here’s an example: Pick a bunch of students from a school in a reasonably well-off neighbourhood. Test them in some given domain, say, “the ability to do operations with fractions.” Supply them with the equipment you want to market and then subject them to an intensive treatment using it, along with a well-trained and motivated teacher. Subject them, along with classmates at another school who did not have the equipment to a post test. Of course they first group will do better, primarily because of the hype, interest and enthusiasm that has been expended. Nobody needs to know that, though. The one thing that’s obviously different is the presence of the equipment so attribute all of the difference to it. Bang! Research that “proves” the worthiness of the new equipment.
  • The classroom can be a frustrating place in which to work. Teaching and learning and very difficult to do well and the rewards for both are pretty intangible for the majority of teachers and students. Face it—both are expected to do their jobs well so there’ll be no trophies, no parties and no bonuses when the job is done. Couple this with the fact that budgets are tight and the result can be somewhat humdrum when you think about it. Day after day of hard work with little to show for it at the end except (for students) the possibility of maybe achieving grades a bit better than their parents expect and (for teachers) nothing more than relief that, hopefully, the students don’t perform below the district mean and, therefore, they don’t face the accusatory finger of blame from disgruntled parents/guardians, school/district administrators, politicians and local media. So, then, into this environment comes the promise of something better: a shiny gadget that, if put in place not only offers hope of better achievement but, maybe because students actually want to use it, the promise of relief from the daily grind.

Small wonder, then, that the system falls, time after time, into the clutches of “The Rapture,” the worship of “exciting” new equipment for its own sake.

It’s such a waste of resources—all of them, time, energy and, most importantly, effort put in the right direction. Here’s an example of how anyone could make themselves—and their school—look really good while, in the end, achieving nothing. Let’s say I am a bored math teacher, in need of a new challenge. One day I spy, in a shop window, a fancy new gizmo. For the sake of argument, let’s not pick on any existing device. How about a pair of spectacles that, when worn, will layer everything in front of you with extra information? If, for example, you are looking at a restaurant, then you will see the menu. If you are looking at a map, you’ll see extra information about whatever part of it you happen to be focused on at the moment.

Suppose that I decide to write an application that pops up a set of math tools whenever you look at a mathematical sentence, whether it is an open expression, a function, or an equation, whatever. If you look at an equation, for example, it will offer tools with which you can solve it numerically, graphically and, maybe symbolically. There’s just one catch—the app I designed doesn’t actually show you how it’s done, it just does it for you. Look at an equation, pick “solve” then pick from “graphical”, “symbolic” or “numeric” and—BOOM—there it is.

Now, armed with this app I go after my administrator and convince her/him that I’m on to something big; something that will change not only how math is taught but also how it is done. In turn we go after the district admin, then the department of education people. In the end I carve off for myself a nice piece of money to develop a product I can sell to make even more. I also get lots of time to play around with the toy in my class, to cavort in front of the media (along with the big shots of course) to show them how innovative my—sorry, “our”—school is.

This, in turn creates something of an expectation. In light of the great things that are evidently happening at “our” school an expectation starts to grow that this is something that needs to happen everywhere and others start to feel pressure to join in the movement. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone will figure it out at the time. The students are not really doing or learning math. They are just messing around with a cool little interface to some clever math tools when they should be learning about the underlying theory and practice that made those tools work in the first place.

Now, lest this post be perceived as entirely too cynical, let’s make two things perfectly clear. First, though the case presented may be interpreted as casting teaching in a negative light, understand that this is by no means describes mainstream activity. Typical teachers are not the type to willfully deceive others. While some enter the teaching force perhaps little like this—you know, the self-aggrandizing types who seek nothing other than to be worshiped by their colleagues and students, the fact remains that these types do not last. Teaching is a tough job, suited only to those with resilient, healthy personalities and the self-centered “look at me” types soon depart. In the end, the more-or-less nonsensical projects and movements, too, are similarly weeded out as the vast majority of teachers, who are focused on real results will put them to an honest test, and on finding them useless, will subsequently deposit these flawed devices and associated practices on the technological scrap heap, along with a lot of other useless garbage that has gathered there over the years. In the meantime, though, some damage is done, in the form of wasted time and resources.

Second it has to be emphasized that it does not have to be that way at all. Many devices, including the ones mentioned not-too-kindly just above are, in fact, truly useful. The thing is, though, it cannot be about the devices. Instead, it has to be about the learning. In particular it has to be based on how we can somehow improve the system from where it currently is. Without doubt things like tablets, IWBs and yes, devices like the magic spectacles lampooned above can be put to good use in a learning setting. But the learning must come first. Here’s the way it should work:

  • Think about just what it is you wish to improve. Be as specific as you can.
  • Look at the current system whereby the current outcomes are attained.
  • Collaboratively plan for a better approach. Now is the time to look, with eyes wide-open, at all available technologies because they are out there.
  • Test it out then make the changes that become obvious through the piloting process.
  • Pass it on to everyone else; implement it.

And while doing this, bear in mind that the “it” in question is not just a device. It is, rather the combination of the device as well and the theory and practice related to its best use.

After all, what we are about is the achievement of outcomes. The technology (most of the time—there are exceptions) is a means to an end, not necessarily and end in itself.

Next: The (not so) connected world

ELTM14: Corporate History or Digital Amnesia?

Are you a fan of Pixar movies? I am (except for “Cars”). One of my favourites was “Finding Nemo” a story of a journey home. Along the way, the main character is accompanied by his friend “Dory” a friendly Paracanthurus Hepatus, whose primary character trait, it seems, is that of an extremely short memory.

Last August I retired from the k-12 public school system in my province. Along with personal belongings I left, not only with skills learned through long practice but, more importantly, with the only complete set of memories of the entire k-12 distance education program. Of course that’s not unusual. After all everyone retires at some point, and with all of them goes a piece of the overall history of the various organizations they have belonged to.

While that’s not necessarily a big problem, it can be, especially when you consider all of the decisions that have been made along the way. Each one received the proper amount of diligence and that has meant that, over time, a reasonably cogent set of guidelines and theory has been built up. In short, “oldsters” have a good idea of what to do and how to do it. They also have a good idea of what not to do. But, now it’s to no avail as they’re no longer around to lend a hand where they can.

So what? People move in, out of, and through organizations all the time and, on balance (a) the ability to intelligently match skills with jobs and (b) the spread of new and innovative ideas that results from this far outweighs the small losses that occur with the departure of a colleague. That said, this concern, which we can term “digital amnesia” still is something to be considered. Valuable employees possess not only the skills needed in the moment, but, more importantly, a clearer sense of purpose. This broader vision tends to keep the organization on the best track and, more importantly away from the small pitfalls and dead ends because, in all likelihood, they’ve experienced them before.

Perhaps, with that in mind, it is a useful suggestion for eLearning institutions to follow the lead of others and maybe establish a volunteer panel of advisers of all ages who can meet—virtually, of course—periodically and offer whatever wisdom and advice that may be needed at the time.

Next: technology–the rapture.

ELTM13: Not in My Shop!

There are those who seek to define; to “make sense of things” by clearly delineating what they do, and more importantly, what they do not. For them, control brings comfort. Then, on the other hand, there are those who approach life with both eyes wide open, always looking for new opportunities; new ways of doing things. For them the excitement of growth trumps comfort any day.

When it comes to leaders, neither type is exactly desirable, especially when taken to extremes. Who, after all, wants either a control freak or an impulsive child to be in charge? Fortunately it is rare (and generally disastrous) when an impulsive child gets to be in charge, now, control freaks are another matter, and they come in varying degrees. The moderates tend to do well in this world, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

How often have you been faced with an issue that a similar agency could help out with only to be told by either your own administration or that of the other agency that they could not help, even though both were being funded by the same body (often the taxpayers)? It’s bad enough when you know the inability is due to some lack of resources. You can accept that the other party is at capacity and, despite the fact that they have the expertise or equipment they simply cannot spare the use of it or the personnel. That’s fine. What really grinds you, though, is when you know that the lack of help is because either (a) their administration did not want to see your organization advance or, worse, (b) your own administration did not want to ask for help either because they would be under compliment to the other or because the decision makers, personally, would feel somehow weak.

What a waste! To have the resources available—elsewhere—and not draw upon them is not just wasteful but, perhaps, almost criminal as it results in either needed work being left undone or, perhaps, needless duplication of capacity.

Is this just an academic argument? Ask yourselves this about other organizations also funded by the same body as yours, specifically the public purse in your province, state or country—whatever funds your level of education:

  • Is there a particular piece of equipment already in existence that is not already at full capacity? A network storage device? A video switcher? An editing suite? Large-format printers? Vehicles?
  • Is there a surplus of physical infrastructure not at full capacity? Unused office space? Meeting, teaching or conference space?

This is not to say that we should all be prepared to turn into overbearing white knights, eager to fight not just our own battles but also those of others. Nor is it to say that we should all take it upon ourselves to write our own mission statements, to decide unilaterally just what it is we should take on regardless of what the stakeholders and bill payers say.

But we should remind ourselves that one of the responsibilities that comes with calling ourselves professionals is the requirement to render sound judgments regarding the things that are not addressed specifically in “the manual.” Every now and then the opportunity arises when we can assist other organizations whose mission and values, and most importantly capacities, sometimes align with ours. When those times occur perhaps we should consider it wise to lend a helping hand. It’s not just about reciprocity, although that’s certainly a consideration. It is, rather, about being more attuned to the big picture and recognizing situations in which synergies created by partnering organizations can radically increase the extent to which they effect needed change to the betterment of all.

And not being controlling, lazy, dull and stingy.

ELTM12: But, Have you Tried It?

In a previous career I was an administrator with the K-12 Distance Education System in my province (NL, CA). You can read about that if you like; the blog page “Rendering Distance Transparent” is devoted to it.  In that role I would often be contacted by irate parents who did not want their child “taught by a computer.” In each and every case I would speak to the people and would explain just how the system worked, how students were taught, what resources and supports were available and, finally what the expectations were. Guess what: in every case we parted on a good note. Once the parents understood how it worked and saw for themselves how things went on they were satisfied.

It’s not always like that with the use of technology in education and primarily because either (a) the proponent did not do an adequate job of explaining the items noted above or (b) a stakeholder (parent/guardian, student, teacher or administrator) closed her/his mind to the whole idea.

Have you ever heard any of the stories that try to explain the “Luddite” movement? There are various myths and, as far as I know, none are truly authoritative but my personal favourite is that in England, around the time that revolutionary developments in mechanization transformed the garment industry there was a social backlash from those negatively affected; that is those skilled workers who were now redundant. The story goes that a young lad—Ned Lud—organized a violent resistance against the movement. His followers—the luddites—would forcibly enter factories and wreck the machines.

It was, in the end, to no avail. The new technology produced far more cloth and, to a consistently decent quality. Most importantly it was cheaper and the financiers behind it found ready markets that permitted tremendous expansion. In time, this became the accepted way, despite the protests from those whose skills, traditions and livelihood were no longer needed on the same scale.

(As an aside, the whole popular account of the Luddite affair, including mine, is rather mis-represented. If you are interested, a decent story can be found here.)

And this brings us to the next two considerations.

The first is this: from time to time new technology—and this means all the components: devices, methods and theory—emerge and it becomes apparent that they do tasks in ways that are far superior to the ways in which they were done previously. In their time chaulkboards and hand-held slates were amazing. They were cheap, relatively safe—as long as you didn’t mind the dust in your lungs, hair & clothing—and effective. Now, though, with IWBs and with computer-projection screens, why bother? In fact, once you put a tablet in every hand, perhaps the big screen isn’t needed at all (I don’t believe this; group activities are fun and effective.). Fight it if you want, but in the end the new way is better.

The second is this: People will resist change, even when it is demonstrably better. Recall the few notes on Kuhn and Revolutionary science for a minute. This resistance to new ideas is not necessarily rational. It is, rather, rooted in a deep level of acceptance of, and dependence on, a pre-existing technology. The old-guard spent a lifetime becoming very adept at doing “it” a particular way and now new technology has not only changed the way of doing “it” but, perhaps just as important, the nature of “it” has changed. The old guard does not see the value for them in going through all the work involved in making the new change. They have to learn now skills, and don’t forget for a minute that they were expert at the old ones. What’s more, after a lifetime of making perfect sense of something, they must tear down the previous, and very strong, cognitive frameworks that supported the original concepts and build anew. For them, that rebuilding will take too much time and will likely never achieve the strength of the old one. They have judged, probably correctly, that it’s not worth the effort.

So they respond in the same way we all do. Recall the old story of the fox and the grapes? After trying and trying to reach the perfectly tasty grapes he finally had to give up. As he walked away, recall that he said, “No bother. They’re sour anyway.”

Now STOP for a second. Please.

Just revisit what the fox said. It’s far more profound than you probably realize. Not only did the fox say the grapes were sour, but after a short time he also believed they were. The story is not just about a low-bred creature responding in a dumbass way. No. It’s about a perfectly normal creature, and that includes human creatures, responding in a perfectly normal way. When we are forced to do something or forcibly prevented from doing something, in time we come to accept the turn of events as the right thing. It’s human nature.

Ok so back to the “old guard” for a second. Whenever skilled practitioners are faced with a change they rationally conclude is not feasible for them they quickly put in place a solid justification as to why the course of action they chose is the right one. Unfortunately, by extension, they then often persuade themselves that that same course of action is also the right one for everyone else and that’s where things get ugly. This is not about the welcome resistance against something that is not necessarily a good idea. That is welcome. Whenever a new ideas comes in, people should perform an honest evaluation as there’s always a real, and quite high, probability that the next big thing is, in fact, a  stupid sham being foisted upon, a public deemed by the proponent to be either too stupid or docile to resist. Yes, resistance is often a good thing but this is not about that. This is, rather, about the blind, stubborn resistance to change in spite of god evidence that change is needed. We, as practitioners face both items daily, good and bad change, but what’s perhaps most frustrating is being led around by some who refuse to accept change even when it’s obviously for the better.

So what do we do about it? If you are expecting a neat, magic bullet, style of answer, I’m afraid you are about to be disappointed. Those resistant to change are not likely to do so easily in spite of the evidence, so don’t expect a logical rationalization to work. Expect, rather, for many to remain as they are. Some will not budge, no matter what and the best any of us can do is help them as best we can, within the limits they let us have. Still others may change a bit with time, especially when they see valued colleagues reaping benefits so perhaps that’s the best strategy of all: work with those who are open to it.

In the meantime, the best advice for all is to maintain an open mind. Some change is good and some is not but wise actions can generally be divined from logical, reasoned discourse.

ELTM11: Who Wields the Power? What of “Purpose and Audience?”

How about a “Who’s Who” of education? Suppose you were asked to name the twenty most influential people in education today. Who would you come up with? In the first milliseconds you might be foolish enough to think of some of the more effective educators you have encountered in your life. A great teacher from your past, perhaps? A truly inspiring and effective fellow-educator? No doubt that person would embody your notion of a great teacher: a bit tough, knew her/his material and, most importantly, truly cared about students and whether they succeeded. Nailed it, right? No, I am not clairvoyant—those traits, especially the third, are widely known to be the ones associated with what most people consider to be great teachers. People like that do exist. In fact a healthy fraction of professional educators have one or more of these traits to a significant degree, some more than others, of course.

Unfortunately you immediately dismissed those from the list, didn’t you? Despite being great teachers, despite the effect they had not only on you, but also on the many, many people they have worked with through their career they probably would not be considered–in this context–as great. Their reach was just not wide enough. They touched many people, sure, but not enough. They likely influenced their peers but, again, not enough.

Great teachers didn’t make the cut. Sad, is it not?

How about politicians? While we all enjoy pointing out the many, easy-to-find faults in many elected officials, it must also be said, in al sincerity, that a huge number of them are honest, hardworking, intelligent, and, most importantly, effective. They also have significant effects on education—both good and bad. Consider state/provincial deputy ministers/ education secretaries or whatever you call them. Education policy, budgets, and therefore, to a large extent, practice, come right under their jurisdiction. School district directors/superintendents/CEOs or whatever you want to call them too; same for principals. See the pattern: getting smaller and smaller? Again, the reach is not sufficient for any of them to be truly considered all that influential on a broad scale. The fact is most of those functionaries have precious little room for discretion. Budgets are set at higher levels than theirs so they can only work with what they have. After salaries, utilities, maintenance, bussing and supplies are paid for there’s generally nothing much left to fuel growth and innovation. The decisions that would have the needed effect to create change almost never happen. What’s more, those people are generally so busy just looking after the routine stuff and fighting fires there’s no opportunity to really plan for and create positive change.

So who makes the list? Anyone?

Sure. You just have to look.

Let me throw out three names: Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun. The first two founded Coursera and the latter, Udacity. All three have a similar vision: create massive online courses and allow everyone to enroll, for free. In their vision, expensive, no, worse exclusive, university educations will soon become a thing of the past as people all over the world throw themselves into the wondrous world of higher education. Free higher education, that is.

Here’s another: Salman Kahn. Perhaps you’ve heard of Kahn Academy? A few years after CDLI (my previous employer) put a massive amount of free multimedia online learning resources online for students, Kahn invented the concept in parallel, only he was more successful. Today, thanks to generous donations from many (including the next person who’ll be mentioned) Kahn academy has thousands upon thousands of useful multimedia resources of all kinds. All for free too. Kahn Academy shares a similar vision as does the one just mentioned: free, high quality public education.

One more name: Bill Gates. Yes, THAT Bill Gates. As you probably know he’s by no means Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Far from it; he has pledged to give away his huge fortune and, what’s more he has successfully convinced many others, including the almost-as-rich Warren Buffet to do the same. Yes, he’s a major funder of many educational projects, including the already-mentioned Kahn Academy.

These four, and people like them—connected and well financed types whose vision is based on non-exclusive education for all through self-directed online courses—are, in all likelihood the kinds of people who wield the most influence in education today.

Great stuff, right? It’s heartening to see that smart, powerful, effective and well-intentioned people such as the ones just mentioned can be counted as global-scaled movers and shakers in eLearning. Given, the best teachers didn’t make the list, senior politicians didn’t make it, senior civil servants didn’t cut it, along with the many “lesser” administrators. But these guys made it and they’re pretty good, aren’t they?

Well, yes and no. Their vision is a good one so let’s assume that the “yes” is pretty much self-explanatory and just leave it at that. We’ll just work on the “no.” What could possibly be the problem?

First, they don’t serve (i.e. “answer to”) the public. Face it—they all serve themselves to varying degrees. The vision is not “The” vision but rather “Their” (“MY” from their point of view—the one that counts) vision. Sure they have good ideas but society is a big place, with a huge number of competing values. A single vision and a single point of decision-making just won’t cut it.

They may have other interests. The goal of education is not nearly as straightforward as it appears: better achievement, right? But better achievement in exactly what? See—there’s the complication.  Here’s the answer, in as simple terms as possible: Better achievement in areas selected through a slow, rancorous, messy but mostly inclusive public process.

As for those mentioned and those like them? That’s not their interest. Frankly they probably haven’t bothered to think it sufficiently through. Perhaps “Get them (the students) through their science and math” is the vision. You can bet it is for some of them. But—hang on here! Sure, science and math are important (I majored in Physics and Math, by the way) but so are first Language, second languages, social studies, the Arts, etc. Who gave one individual the right to decide? Nobody!

Here are the two biggies: (1) these guys are too clever for OUR own good. What? Yes—too clever and that’s a major problem when you couple it with (2) they just don’t understand the audience at all. Let me state this clearly: learning came FRIGHTFULLY easily to most of these high-fliers and they figure that’s the case for everyone.

So what?

So this: the vision they have for education is just plain WRONG. They truly believe that most students value the kind of knowledge-based learning that many people believe (incorrectly) is true math and science. They believe that most students are just held back; bored and busting to get out of the classroom and that these online materials will be the best thing ever. People will all of a sudden value the math and science, grab on to it and just plain start to fly, academically.

The truth is something different. Let’s summarize the truths they are missing:

  • Education is more about absorbing knowledge about math and science. Think about it—math and science is much more about absorbing knowledge about math and science! …and that’s just two out of eight or nine subject areas. …and, when you think about it education is much more than subject areas. Talk about off-base!
  • Most people find learning difficult in many different ways. It’s not a matter of “quickly show me and I’ll get it.”
  • Far too many people do not have the time to work through the content. Not only is education hard but so, too, is life in general.
  • Even fewer value the content sufficiently that they will stick to it enough. Learning much of the things that matter is, after all, truly difficult—not necessarily fun at all.
  • Finally, the people who could benefit the most from this stuff may lack the resources to get to it.

Too bad.

So here’s the first consideration: The movers and shakers are not subject to the complex set of influences that public education should be and are thus not necessarily guided in exactly the right direction. Significant time and resources may, therefore, be devoted in pursuit of the wrong goals as people just play “me too,” “follow the leader,” “join the bandwagon,” or whatever name you wish to ascribe to whatever goal they deem to be worthwhile..

Next: This is not to say that the use of technology in education is not useful. It truly is but one must realize that (a) you can’t pretend that it makes things easy and effective “just because” and (b) mostly gains are small but still significant. The zealots hurt the enterprise, but those at the other extreme do just as much damage. How many don’t even bother to consider educational technology? Closed minds are not helpful either.

ELTM10: The View from the Silo

Those of us involved in the eLearning world often have good reason to feel that we are sometimes marginalized. It makes little sense at one level—after all eLearning is supposed to be about finding innovative means for connecting people, isn’t it?

Well, sort of. It depends on just who you work with. For many, “belonging” is another way of saying “controlling” and this is just as true in education as it is anywhere else. For many of us, once we become part of an organization we soon find that it views us, as property; a resource to be exploited for its own ends.

Worse again, it may be the case that the organization views us as its exclusive property: we exist to serve it and it alone. “Nobody gets to talk to me without getting permission from ____ first” “No, I’m not allowed to attend the conference in ___. Only people classified as ____ or higher ever get to go. Besides, you need permission from ___ to get your trip request document signed and that’s not likely to happen.” “We have to save money and professional development is only important when we can afford it and when there’s lots of time to spare.”  Sound familiar? Just a bit, maybe?

Small wonder then that over time it feels more and more like we’re all working away in not just silos—no that wouldn’t be too bad; after all you can get radio inside the walls of a silo or a prison—no, worse than that. We fell like we are surrounded by some sort of ethereal Faraday Cage; one that blocks all signals from the outside world. Alone in our little hovels and surrounded by mountains of work, far too high to climb any time in the near future, we continue to toil away as best we can, basically unsupported and effectively alone. How ironic.

Hyperbols is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it takes stretching an impression way past the point of common sense to reveal its inaccuracy. The fact is that learning professionals are no more locked in silos than are, say, hockey players. Think about it, Hockey players could easily moan, “This is so depressing! Day after day all we do is play hockey. It seems that every working minute is spent either playing a game, preparing for or travelling to the next one. It’s as if my employers think that the most important thing for me to do is to play hockey. I need to spend some extra time in expanding my horizons, thinking about the future of the whole enterprise.

See—silly, right?

We can swing from one extreme to the other but, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. Of course, like any other professional, those involved in eLearning sometimes feel a little boxed in! But is it really so bad? Perhaps it would be useful to take a more detailed look at some of the causes and possible solutions.

Let’s revisit the essential questions raised here: Why should professionals feel isolated just because their workloads and organization’s travel policies prevent them from meeting face-to-face with colleagues? Doesn’t that suggest that eLearning doesn’t work? If eLearning professionals can’t use the online tools to create a sense of community then isn’t it hypocritical to suggest that anyone else can?

Well, no, not exactly. Let’s have a look.

1. It’s hard to get past the useless “perky” crap. A lot of what passes for online professional communities of practice is, in reality, sponsored activity put off by developers and vendors, and specifically intended as part of their overall strategy for corralling clients. Online users’ conferences are particularly annoying. Led by a combination of company reps and some over-exuberant evangelical users the overall atmosphere is decidedly creepy; cult-like to those who wish to tackle real problems while keeping an open mind about the real limitations that exist for the product in question.

It’s easy to become cynical, expecting every found opportunity for growth and professional development to be, in the end, just a cleverly sales pitch. In truth, though, there are numerous online organizations and resources available for those who wish to participate and grow professionally. While I do not wish to endorse any particular group I can tell you that if you do a web search using either “associations for eLearning” or “associations for technology in education” you will find, besides the junk and ads, some truly useful hits, including the already-mentioned AECT.

2. Sometimes you need to know you’re off the record. Tackling real problems requires a high degree of frankness. The issues and constraints need to be accurately represented; not glossed over. Sometimes what needs to be said is not “nice” and people not intended to hear it—because it involves something they are emotionally attached to, even though they have no business dealing with the matter in question—may feel offended if they do. Those same people may then interfere in matters they have no business dealing with. People therefore need some assurance that what they say will not be repeated, inaccurately or out of context elsewhere. The online environment virtually guarantees the opposite.

This does not mean that it’s impossible, though. It’s just a bit harder. Overall it is probably best to remember that one should never regard any exchange as being completely off the record and, therefore, speak, and act responsibly at all times. While frankness is generally an admirable trait, so too, is sensitivity. In particular, regardless of the communications medium, if something potentially damaging needs to be said it is best to ensure that  it is done in a way that ensures that the conversation is based in fact and sticks solely to the issue at hand.

3. Trust is essential and it’s hard to have it in a world ruled by anonymity. In keeping with what was just noted, an effective community of practice requires a high degree of trust and it takes a lot of time to create this. One can hardly expect the more-or-less anonymous crowd that attends online events (whether synchronously or asynchronously) to just assume that everyone else can be trusted. That would be stupid! “Don’t be foolish,” you say, “The same is true of the face-to-face environment!” No. First, with face to face you get to use all of the senses to help guide your actions whereas online it’s often limited to what you can read and perhaps hear. “But what about Videoconference?” you ask, “Haven’t you heard of it you old fogey. We’re modern. We use Skype!” Well, yes, I have; been using it—and better systems than Skype—for almost 25 years. Yes, video does bring in some of the body language. It’s certainly much better than telephone. That said, consumer-level video is still a bit sketchy since no QOS (quality of service) measures are put on the data packets. As a result, video is often of poor quality, marked by poor frame rates, jittery motion and frequently dropped/interrupted audio streams. The so-called “webcams” still leave a lot to be desired too, especially when the video needs to show more than a talking head.

Of course commercial grade videoconference is still great if you can afford it and it has to be said that things are improving lately. Microsoft’s Lync 2013, for example, is particularly nice.

Regardless of the technology, in the end, trust is something that needs to be earned and if any ongoing process demands it then all participants need to be cognizant of the fact that the allotted time may need to be revised so as to ensure that the participants have the opportunity to develop it to the required degree. While, yes, the face to face environment is such that shortcuts are often possible the fact remains that most processes are not necessarily urgent and, so rather than concentrating the exchange into a risky (as far as trust is concerned) 2 to 3 day face to face affair, one can instead spread the process over much more time, but divided into many bits sized chunks handled online, thus allowing all parties the opportunity to suitably examine each chunk on its own terms.

4. When you’re online you’re still “on the clock.” It’s virtually impossible to focus on anything other than your immediate, urgent work when you are at work! One of the issues related to being an eLearning professional is the incredible number of ways that colleagues and work in general, can still get to you. When you’re at your desk you can be emailed, IM’d in a million ways, Skyped (or any of the alternatives) and, of course, people can drop by unannounced. That’s on top of the fact that you also are in the middle of numerous self-directed workflows anyway. How can you be expected to concentrate on an online session?

OK, let’s be realistic. You can, of course, focus attention on the online session. You budget the time the same as you do with everything else that’s important. That said, as a long-time attendee of these sessions, both as presenter and recipient I can assure you, though, that the majority of the participants are only half-paying attention. They’re doing a million other things while “participating!” Online activities tend to be dealt to the bottom of the importance deck and one if left with the realization that if you instead attended short a session face to face you could leave all the distractions behind.

But wait—what about all those annoying people who bring their mobiles to face-to-face sessions? They’re not hard to spot—they are the ones who seem to spend the whole time staring down at their crotches, thinking nobody else notices that they’re out of it. In truth, they are no more engaged face to face then they would have been if the session were online.

So what can be done about this? Perhaps the best advice is to choose wisely what online events you wish to attend. Face it: if you can’t adequately focus your attention on the event then you should consider the alternatives, unless you really do have piles of time to waste. Do you really need to attend at all? Can you ask someone else to do it? Can you reschedule? If the answer to these is “no” then the course of action is quite clear.

5. What you need to work on may not be on the organization’s overt agenda. Participation in professional communities, whether virtual or face to face, is very much at your employer’s discretion. Sure, a lot of the events are held in asynchronous time and you can participate during your own time but a lot of the events are also synchronous, and held during work time. As such, you need your employer’s cooperation in order to attend, even if it’s to move your lunch hour. Getting this permission may not necessarily be all that easy, especially if the topics are not obviously in line with the overall short term plan for your organization, even if they do contribute to long term goals.

If this is the case then there are two clear alternatives. You could discuss the matter internally and explain how you feel there is an indirect benefit to be obtained from your attendance and participation. If this fails or for, for any other reason, is not a good idea then you generally have the ability of making this work something that you do in your own time, after all.

Next: There are so many things—let’s call them “considerations” for lack of a better term—that we must face, day after day. Let’s consider a few starting with exploring who’s really at the reins.

ELTM9: Causes for Encouragement & a Clarification

In two previous posts it was noted that what is marketed as Educational Technology is not necessarily useful. Some technology is marketed before either it or the system is ready and some products are just not of much use anyway.

To say, though, that technology has no place in classrooms is to completely misunderstand the term, perhaps limiting it to something simple and mysterious as, “that computer over there.” It’s a shame, really, because technology transcends the electronic gadgets that have become so ubiquitous today. Some examples:

  • Writing on paper, using devices such as charcoal, pens or pencils.
  • Displaying information for many to see, using devices such as chaulk/whiteboards and overhead transparencies and, of course, interactive whiteboards.
  • Encouraging flexible learning environments through the use of furniture that can be used in individual or group settings.

See—it’s not just about running software on desktop personal computers. The whole idea of technology in the classroom is much broader than many people realize.

All warnings aside, then, the number of types of useful technology that exist is nothing short of astounding. The image below shows just a snippet. Have a peek and see how many you can identify.

Some examples of useful Educational Technologies.

Notice, on second look, the images can be classified into three types (and, yes, many of the images belong in more than one of the classes).

  • Devices: For example, PC’s, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs), simulation dummies, laboratory interfaces, graphing calculators & computer algebra systems, computer numerical control (CNC) machines and classroom PA’s.
  • Ideas: For example, office applications such as word processors & spreadsheets, audio and video creation, simulations, graphical and numerical analysis, games and online testing.
  • Paradigms: For example, presenting ideas through multimedia, gaming, digital design and fabrication, interfacing and exploration of concepts through simulation.

Education technology, then, exists in many forms. But there’s more to it than just that; much more.

How often do we toss words around, just assuming that others will instinctively glean the same meaning and intent as we do? Too bad that’s often not the case. Words may have one meaning for one individual and another for someone else. Sometimes this can be funny—but in a way that is somewhat irritating. Examples might include the casual use of these words, especially when you are trying to be a bit serious: control, confidence, power, recent, sensitivity and significant. Think about it for a second—each one of these words has two different meanings and picking the wrong one can totally wreck the message you might be trying to send!

So, too, with “technology.” It is a word that is at once familiar, yet also somewhat vague in that it can have no less than three separate, related, but still distinct interpretations

So what is technology? Most people offhandedly associate the word with Personal Computers. Not too long ago (at least it seems that way—it was in fact almost two decades ago) I was involved in a mathematics project in which the phrase “the use of technology” was spread all through the associated curriculum documentation. The authors were trying to be a bit inclusive and therefore combined scientific calculators, graphing calculators and personal computers into one phrase. I therefore chuckled quite a lot when my friend Alex explained to me one day that “Art Technology” was not just the use of things like Photoshop software for retouching photos, as many are led to believe. It also included the use of such things as brushes, paints, charcoals, papers, canvas, and photographic equipment of all kinds and so on. The thought of me having to explain that technology in mathematics education also truly includes the use of paper and pencil as well as chaulk on a board (and, yes, it really does; why not!) to some young whippersnappers still makes me smile.

But I digress.

When you think about it, it’s very limiting to just associate “technology” with PCs. After all, not so long ago, Internal Combustion Engines and Hydraulic Systems were considered the epitome of technology! Before that, devices based on steam were the kings. Before that, wind and animal power ruled. Before even that the use of tools made of iron, bronze, bone and stone was the thing. Al of it, in its time was technology!

And notice the phrase, “the use of,” instead of just naming the tool. Already we see a diversion here in meaning: is it objects (tools) or is it the associate practice?

So there’s even more to consider. We also know but don’t consciously realize that the term technology extends far beyond the physical artifacts to include both the ideas they represent and the body of practice that deals with their production and use. So what will we do: pick one or two or try to come up with something that includes all three components?

Fortunately we don’t have to reach too far to find a suitable definition for the word “technology” as it is used in the educational sense. The Association for Educational and Communications technology (AECT) has done the work for us:

“Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.”
–AECT definition (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008)

Notice how this concise definition includes the what (study/practice creation/use process/equipment) and the why (better achievement).

Too often the focus is only on the equipment itself. That’s fair enough when you realize that physical objects are easy to understand and procure—assuming you secure the budgets—and have the added benefit of easily leading to quantifiable defenses of improvements that can be made. Unfortunately, though, mere access to equipment—assuming it is useful—is no guarantee of any meaningful change for the better.

Next: We will explore that a bit later on. Let’s move now to see the view from inside the silo.

ELTM8: It’s Not All Good; Be Careful

“This new technology is going to revolutionize education. Recent research has shown that classrooms in which out shiny gizmo was deployed significantly outperform those in the rest of their district. So, don’t settle for mediocrity. Join the legions of progressive administrators who insist that the district acquire gizmos for all of the classrooms. After all this is about the future of our children.”

Right. Guess who paid for that research. Notice that “significant” is neither quantified nor defined. Do you suppose that the school in question was a high performing one anyway? Are you really foolish enough to join the bandwagon…just because? Oh, and it’s not about the future of the children but, rather, about the fortunes of the stockholders, isn’t it?

Let’s be blunt: Educational technologies have had many failures. Hordes of items have come and gone. Some have been total wastes of time, products foisted upon a somewhat naive audience by cunning, aggressive and well-connected sales organizations; products that came with great promise of improvement but which left little by way of returns other than disillusioned users, cynical publics and depleted budgets.

Still others failed for reasons that were much more complex. Perhaps the concept was sound but hardware speeds were not sufficient and the result was sluggish, hard-to-use, and unreliable. Perhaps insufficient training was given and, so, users never got the opportunity to fully realize the benefits.

Perhaps, as is sometimes the case, the world was just not ready.

Take a look at the image below and see how many “things” you recognize. Look closely, though, at the image map. The items have several things in common, including the fact that all were carefully designed and were introduced to their various markets with a sense that they would have a significant impact. You will probably recognize many of them but if not, go ahead and hover (if you are using a PC; it won’t work for a ‘phone or tablet) to get the name or click on any image to obtain some background info. (As an aside here, heartfelt thanks go out to the developers of the image map HTML generator housed over on mobilefish; getting it done on WordPress would have been wretchedly complicated.) 

click map

Apple Newton Skinner's Teaching Machine Betamax Microsoft Bob IBM PC Jr. OS/2 QR Code Laser Disc Apple Lisa Pressey Machine

Here’s the big thing they all have in common: they were economic and educational failures. Despite good–in some cases brilliant–designs and well-organized marketing strategies none of them proved to be successful in the marketplace. Of course many of them—most notably Apple’s Lisa and Newton—ultimately proved to be the inspiration for hugely successful and useful products (the Mac and tablets, respectively) but that’s not the point right now.

What, exactly is the point? This: Corporations know that education comprises a huge market and they therefore expend enormous resources in marketing what they term “Educational Technology” in the forms of products and services to all facets of the education market. While many of the products are truly useful it’s important to be wary of the fact that many of the items are based on two flawed strategies:

  • Technologies intended for one purpose can be modified and can be shown to be of some benefit elsewhere. Examples: (good) word processors intended for business can be shown to be effective as classroom writing tools too (questionable) classroom audio systems intended for use with hard-of-hearing students, or for teachers with relevant health issues, are marketed to all classrooms because it ‘saves the teacher’s voice.’ There’s also just plain dumb. Remember “thin client” computers for the classroom, at a time when networks just could not handle the load?
  • Invented Applications. For example, commercial classroom TV that includes targeted ads is supposed to be, at least according to its vendors, a “must have,” else students won’t have access to quality video. Yeah, right. Ever hear of the Internet?

To the casual observer this may seem laughable, ludicrous even. The humour is lost, however on those of us who have had to suffer the consequences of it. Not only are bad decisions regarding educational technology wasteful but also they are frustrating to the users. Worse again, the time spent mucking around trying to make them work has a deleterious effect on morale and on achievement. How ironic.

So what’s the solution? For once the answer is fairly straightforward and in two parts:

First, remember it’s never about the technology. It is, rather, about the learning outcomes. Always focus on those and the right equipment and methods are much easier to spot.

Second, follow transparency guidelines. DO NOT allow the decision making and purchasing power to rest more or less in secret with a single individual or even with a small, closed group. Encourage discussion and debate prior to decision making.  Ensure that proper requests for proposals or tenders are used to procure equipment. In this way, enough voices (especially the dissenting ones who often ask the right questions) will be heard to ensure that the best possible choices are made.

You’ll get more on this later in the series.

Next: Hey, this series, while striving for balance and truth, is predicated on the notion that Educational Technology is generally a positive thing. Now that you’ve been warned, again, that it’s not all good (you were warned before), let’s move on to more positive things.

ELTM7: Applying Kuhn to Technology Adoption

In a previous post it was noted that technological innovation is often welcome. Despite the existence of supportive evidence the profession, as a whole, is frequently reluctant to embrace in a meaningful way new ideas; new methods

What sense can be made from this? If understanding is one goal, take some comfort in the fact that it all seems to play out in a manner described, over fifty years ago, by Thomas Kuhn in his small but influential book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Science, it seems, is not really the logical, rational march in search of truth and reality that you may have been led to believe. In the book Kuhn (among a great many others things) describes two sorts of science: Normal Science in which the practitioners flesh out the existing body of knowledge under a well understood set of practices or paradigm and revolutionary science in which a whole-new set of practices and assumptions is adopted.

Kuhn points out that, despite the public image of logic and reason that science tends to have, the process is also home to all of the distinctly human traits that mark most of society’s endeavours. Perhaps, for our purposes here one of the most distinct features to consider is the extreme tenacity with which people hold to their established beliefs and patterns of behavior. In science, during periods of upheaval, the “old guard,” with a lifetime invested in it, tends to stubbornly defend the previous paradigm (a word that is generally taken to mean the accepted way of getting things done) and it is generally only when a sufficient number of younger practitioners—adherents to the new paradigm—become respected and established that widespread acceptance is acknowledged. Of course not everyone buys in. It is often the case that the more vocal disciples of the old paradigm have to die off before the voices of dissent are muted.

As teachers, and in particular teachers of science, we see this too. Students come to us armed with so-called “commonsense,” and generally flawed, world-views. Easily dealt with, you say? Just show them “the truth” and it will be self-evident! Not so! The work of many, including the late Rosalind Driver during the 1980s, made it clear that merely demonstrating and presenting better concepts and world views tends not to effect meaningful change. In fact, even demonstrating the inconsistencies and flaws of the everyday conceptions tends not to work because people merely adopt a “two worlds” attitude. They, in effect, learn to see things through two different “lenses” as the situation warrants. One world view, the one they came to school with, is the one they continue to use interacting with the world outside of the classroom while the one we work so hard to develop in the classroom remains rooted firmly there, never put into play in any meaningful way.

So it is, then, with practitioners of all kinds. It is a small wonder, then,  that professionals will willingly attend product demonstrations and workshops but remain unaffected. They will come in, participate, learn, for example the ways in which to use, say Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) but walk away unfazed; unchanged, secure in the knowledge that their existing methods are effective enough; that the effort required to adopt and adapt is just not worth the extra bother.

And it turns out that, while experience has shown that they are often completely, tragically wrong, they are often right. As surely as extra caution often kept our ancestors from being lunch to some hungry predator on the ancient Savannah, a sense of trepidation often pays off. That’s next.

ELTM6B: Displays for Large Classrooms

Note: This was not intended as a separate post but, rather, as a response to a comment on the previous one. As usual, I rambled and decided to just put it as a post instead of as a comment.

Regarding displays, you’you’ve got me thinking, now, especially the ones needed in large, post-secondary classrooms. Here’s my perspective:

The first 18 years of my teaching career my mainstay was the chaulkboard. All of the classrooms in my school had them right across the front. Around 20 feet wide and set around 3’ above the floor, then around 5.5 feet high or so, reaching pretty much as high as anyone could. I taught around 10-11 courses per year and used the board for each one. For its time it was effective but it was also very, very messy. Each evening I’d be so full of chaulk dust I could not even run a comb through my hair! Chaulk does not like hair! What’s more all my clothes would be completely dusty. If anyone patted my back, a huge  white cloud would rise! Besides, the yellowish-white chaulk did not make a good contrast with the green board and, as such, was often hard to read at any distance.

Then there were the overheads. I used them from time to time but didn’t really like it. I much preferred the broad expanse of the chaulkboard for much the same reasons as you mentioned but also because it kept me moving. I could, of course, prepare my overheads in advance but the students did not really like that—more in THAT in just a bit.

Ordinary whiteboards—the ones with the markers—were just coming on stream when I got seconded to the Department of Education. I didn’t use them much but did not like them anyway. First, they were far too stinky for most students. In any class I had there would be a student who found the smell a problem—allergies or asthma meant that using them was irresponsible. Second, though they were—and are—bloody hard to wipe. In k-12 you have to clean your own and, let me tell you, it’s very hard to do well. Then, of course, along came the water-based markers but they were still stinky and just as hard to clean. Oh, and then there’s that foul substance marketed as whiteboard cleaner. It’s nasty.

Now, in the midst of all of this I got seconded to the DOE to be one of the first two DE online teachers of physics. That was 1992 and, despite not having Internet, we still had a digital telewriter and audioconference. I wrote on my electronic tablet in St. Johns and my writing appeared on all of the 20” CRT displays in all of our remote sites. It worked. First I used to just write freehand but I that first year O took the time to prepare slides using a paint program (that was before PowerPoint) and we installed the on the hard drives of all of the remote computers. I thought it was going to be brilliant but, alas, the students thought otherwise. All of those students who had me the previous year asked me to go back to doing it the old way. The pre-done screens were too intimidating; too boring. I settled back and redid them all, meeting the students part way. The  new slides had diagrams (or partial diagrams if they were complex) and I would write in the solutions an derivations live. That worked well and, in fact, we continue to do much the same today. But that’s the online, virtual class and cannot be done in the large classrooms.

So, for those we still have chaulkboards and ordinary whiteboards.

But we also have most classrooms with projectors, screens and computers with PowerPoint. Instructors can show very nicely prepared slides to the students and they can follow along (or hop online). It’s okay but t suffers from the same issues my students warned me about back in 1993 when I tried it using slides done with paint software. They are boring and intimidating. I really don’t like them for anything but a formal “lecture.” For class I really don’t like this.

Then there’s Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) such as Smartboards. They are clean, easy to use and erase. What’s more there are great simulations online, when needed. The software that ships with them is much better suited to classroom use than is PowerPoint. Besides, students love interacting with them. Unfortunately, they, too suffer from several major flaws. First, they are extremely expensive. A typical classroom setup will set you back around $7000 when you count in the board, computer and installation. Unbelievable! Let me do some quick math: $1200 for s decent ultra-short throw projector, $600 for a PC, $450 for installation (assuming 2 people, each for a half-day labour). The boards are mostly based on simple, resistive technology and, in truth, cost around $500 to make. Now, let’s add it up…let’s see, I get less than $3000 any way I look at it. You know, Dave, that means someone is pocketing around $4000 profit from each installation. Good Gravy!

But that’s not the only issue, the large ones around 8’ wide by 4’ high. That’s great for a HS classroom but minuscule by lecture theatre standards. No good for classes bigger than 40 if everyone is expected to actually view it. Now, that said, there’s another issue. IWBs work better when you let the students use them so we really need several in a classroom to make it work. There’s no way any educational institution can afford that.

I should note that I am coming at this from the perspective of HS and Post-Secondary. Let me also say this: any classroom below grade 9 that does not have at least one IWB can consider itself deprived. I should also admit that I would not want to teach in a HS classroom without one either.

As for large lecture theatres, though: forget it; too small.

OK then there’s the interactive Podium style of machines. These are large touchscreens that face the prof and which are mirrored on a MUCH larger display at the front of the room. They’re sort of like an IWB that uses a stylus. At my former work I had the chance to borrow one from the guys down in the shop for a few weeks as it was lying around for a while before they could get to install it. I spent quite a few hours experimenting with it and found it not bad. I could not get used to writing on the vertical screen bot found it tolerable when mounted more-or-less horizontally. There was one BIG problem, though, that I just could not get past.

In a class, when you are leading, students will tend to look where you are. You can have some real fun with this. Next time you are in a large class, just take 5 seconds to look intently at either one of the walls on the side or at the ceiling. Out of the corner of your eye, observe the class. You will find that the ones who are not shopping online or doing Facebook will be looking at exactly the spot on the wall or the ceiling that you are looking at. So this is fine with whiteboards, chaulkboards and such. Obviously you are looking at what you write and so are the students. With the stylus and touchscreen, though, you are looking at one place and expect the students to look at the big screen. This creates a permanent disconnect between you and your students that is very hard to get around.

Then, of course, there’s one more thing that does not really exist very well yet (yes, it can be done but it’s clumsy and hardly worth the bother at this point)—an IWB that automatically mirrors to tablets and laptops in the room. Yes, it can be made to work but, think about it (a) it suffers from the same problem as does the podium just discussed and (b) besides if you really wanted to run a class this way, why not make it a distance class, go get a license to use the very excellent Blackboard Collaborate software and just tell everyone to participate from home.

So there it is. Here we are, well into the 21st century and, at least in my opinion, there still does not exist an excellent display device that is well-suited for larger classrooms and lecture theatres.