Motivational Tech Tip

Don’t try this at home, really.  Just don’t.

When I first came across one of those sites that allow you to create your own motivational poster, I thought about throwing a screenshot into the picture and adding some pithy remark as a clever way to send out a little “reminder” concerning tech-etiquette and use.  Yesterday, with tongue firmly in cheek, I threw one of these picto-barbs into our shared faculty conference and learned a hard lesson.  It’s almost impossible in this environment to define the difference between sarcasm that’s funny and sarcasm that mean.

motivator9935047I waited long time to use this particular “tech-tip” in a motivational poster because I did not want to make an example of someone “responding to all” in an routine post.  It would be obviously hurtful, making an example of a poor soul who just clicked “respond” and cluttered the mailbox by making as all read their compliment to the mom or dad who shared  photos of their newborn.  So when I saw a thread of banter about plans for a faculty dessert social during lunch I thought it was the perfect opportunity.  This was already a humorous conversation, the original call for teachers to get-together had been followed by joke messages that were “respond”s so everyone could read them.  I thought if I posted my little riposte it would be taken in the same vein of light humor.



Although several teachers thanked me for reminding people (again) that “reply to sender” keeps the conference lean and easy to follow, some took offense.  How could I be so mean?  I have since spoken with the few who voiced their concerns to me directly and it took no more than a minute to clear the air and we are back to making fun of each other.  But who knows how many others did not talk to me about, concluding on their own that  I’m an arrogant tech-bully.

I should have thrown a smiley 🙂 at the bottom of the message, Lightening the collateral damage, that’s my the emoticon was invented.

Still, the motivational tech tip is a great idea.  And for once, it’s original.

Say What? in Action


These guys are great, check out the rest of their stuff at The Well Agency.  The best illustration of the frustration felt by our teachers is expressed by the antediluvian in this video (almost nsfw) who complains that he “just doesn’t want to learn anymore”.  Teachers may have a similar limit to the amount of new programs, learning environments and tools they can consume in one year.  It’s not always a result of simple recalcitrance.

Say What?

My interaction with teachers and administrators over the past couple weeks has reinforced a belief I’ve had for some time, the language associated with educational technology is one of the chief impediments to its application in schools.  We’re suffering because the host of Web 2.0 sites are trying to out-weird each other for attention.  What else explains “Diigo”, “Spurl” and “Moodle”?  No one appreciates these services more than me, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to talk about them with a straight face.  How can you convince someone that these tools are worthwhile when they have such ridiculous names?  Such drastic deviation from common language automatically sparks suspicion, it should be no wonder that teachers and education leaders are not incorporating them into the schools faster.  I’m as much a educational technology advocate as the professional presenters and consultants, but I have a great deal of sympathy for teachers who intrinsically know that technology must be able to help them somehow, but have a tough time accepting that it has the same value as things like the “Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature”, “Chicago Manual of Style” or Library of Congress.

Beyond the goofy names of the Web 2.0 sites and services, even the basic structure wordsplashof the tools have weird names.  What exactly is a podcast?  (and how did Apple find a way to manage marketing by pulling another “Xerox”?) Is there a word more ugly than “blog”?  How does a “wiki” work?  Names like that make one yearn for the old days when the name of a tool explained exactly what it does.  You don’t need Julia Child to tell you what a cheese grater is used for. 

“Horseless carriages” and “cars” had some connection with the technology they replaced, in today’s world only an “online forum” has that quality.  Blog, wiki and podcast come out of nowhere, manly because they did.  The incremental changes in transportation were not as revolutionary as changes in information and communication. There are no antecedents to connect with, despite Wikipedia’s effort to take a chunk of an old word to make one.

We are left with the task of explaining the difference between a website, blog and wiki to people who don’t know the difference between Google and Firefox.   Although I look at this as a type of illiteracy, I’m not at all comfortable with the condescending chuckling of the edublogger-types, twittering about the converging worldwide singularity of their ustream conferences while at the same time, content to cash in on this ignorance by making a living with flash and dazzle presentations.   Educational technology will not find any traction in schools without an effort to explain these communication and information tools in simple terms (like CommonCraft’s “In Plain English” videos).  Combining this with a sustained professional development program and simple teacher-by-teacher, day-after-day grunt work is the only hope for true progress.

To figure out where we should start, I’m tempted to ask you readers a question, all four of you. What is the most misused word in educational technology today?

James Madison’s Death

I’m more than fortunate to be at the James Madison Seminar in Teaching American History at Princeton University. In the second of a three year program, several teachers from my school and many others from northern New Jersey schools enjoy the Hogwarts ambiance of Princeton and immerse ourselves in the thick content of our discipline. This history teacher’s geektopia is made possible by a federal grant designed to “raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” The James Madison Seminar’s program seems well-tuned to meet the goals of “traditional”, through a foot-and-a-half high stack of readings, and an assembly of wicked-smart professors providing mornings of lecture and afternoons of discussion.

Last year’s emphasis on the early American republic focused on Constitutional history, yet was also leavened by a cultural emphasis on period music and architecture, complete with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and colonial mansions along the Schuylkill river. This year we are digging through antebellum politics, the system of slavery and the philosophic foundations of the secession crisis. Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did the founders (as Lincoln insisted) mark the institution for eventual extinction with an anti-slavery Constitution? Were Republicans returning to the original intent of the Constitution in 1860 or were they revolutionaries that brought on the Civil War? Sifting through each of the nine opinions written by justices in the Dred Scott case and dissecting South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes against Lincoln’s first inaugural is not for the timid. It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around the idea that there is a logical argument to be made for the spreading of slavery into the west in an effort to end slavery. (Look at the dates of state abolition of slavery in the north and you will find that the states with the lowest percentage of slaves ended slavery first. The math is simple, the less slaves in a state, the easier it was to end slavery so it makes sense to diffuse slaves across the continent by allowing slavery in the west).

The participants in this program assiduously complete the readings and are focused in the lectures and discussions, exploding the content knowledge behind the instruction provided to thousands of students. Yet, as good as this sounds, the James Madison Seminar was not approved to continue on the grant beyond our class’s final session next year. Although the directors seem bewildered that such a well-respected program was discontinued, I would bet that they were not approved because of the word “lecture”. If they threw words like “collaboration” and “emergent technologies” on their grant application they would have made it. We were told that the Department of Education would want to test our students to assess the success of this program. Translated, this means, “we are going to give your students multiple choice questions to see if they know and have appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” Do you catch just a hint of personality disorder in this? The DOE doesn’t want lecture because that old school rote memorization is out of vogue, but they will test based on just the type of knowledge lecture promotes.

I’m fairly certain that most students would be ill-served if they were expected to process history at this content level. Some could perhaps handle the factual retention necessary, but the complexity of relationships and amorphous, gray areas between one idea and the next are quite beyond their ability. This content knowledge improves our teaching by reinforcing the foundation of our curriculum design, but we should not simply project that content onto our students. In fact, we should use our expanded content knowledge to better judge what to cut. The reading comprehension skills built by comparing South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes and Lincoln’s First Inaugural will serve our students better than the memorization of the British Acts of Parliament preceding the Revolution.

James Madison’s demise is indeed unfortunate, but not for obvious reasons.

November’s Momentum vs. The Rubble Pile

My district’s end of the school year/beginning of the summer two day administrative retreat is widely acknowledged by its participants as the “best two days of the year”.  Not only has the completed school year blown away the “to-do list” cloud of worries, but the phones have stopped ringing.  There is no better way to spend this all-too-brief respite than to gather with a group committed and talented professionals to chart a new direction for our schools.  The retreat starts with a presentation from people like Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Gary Marx and Ian Jukes and ends with a workshop applying their ideas to our district.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Alan November’s presentation Tuesday created more momentum than the last couple years combined.  Stressing new literacy, Alan’s review of web tools and the conceptual framework of specific student roles in a “connected classroom” sparked enthusiasm like nothing has in the past.  The next day people were setting up iGoogle home pages and Skype accounts.

Usually I’m re-energized by these presentations, the outside affirmation from such a respected speaker anoints what I have been saying for years with legitimacy.  It was easy to get caught up in the excitement of this new age with the blood pumping and the mind crackling.  Getting together with like-minded people and exchanging this tool and that tool, this site and that site, the conversations would just flow with ideas and applications.  We could do this, we could do that.  The possibilities were always endless. 

I’m sad to say that I don’t feel that way anymore.  In fact, I didn’t even get juiced by introducing Alan to wetpaint.

The excitement has grown as stale as the excuses that none of these tools have really gotten any traction beyond a few classes and couple teachers.  It is for just that reason that I’m skipping the tweets and posts from NECC, hearing people gush about “convergence” and “global collaboration” is old already.  Most of them are riding the circuit, making snake-oil presentations and leaving districts faster than road-runner from Wile E. Coyote.  And all of the hope for real change floats to the ground like those last couple feathers.  The presenter’s check clears, teachers post their PD hours and everyone gets back to business as usual.  Systemic change is the grail, and we still haven’t found it.

Underneath all the possibilities and all of the tools is a big, nasty pile of rubble that can only be moved one stone at a time.  Half of the rocks are “my password doesn’t work” or just “it’s not working”.  Others are the format mess that infects almost every media making it impossible to move text, audio and video between editing tools and viewing platforms.  The most intractable layer of that rubble pile is the conceptual understanding of the differences between a web page, a blog, a forum and a wiki.  And the silly names don’t make it any easier.   

Yet those of us who have moved through our pile over the last ten years should recognize that we cannot dismiss the frustrations of our colleagues as simple ignorance or intransigence.  It may boil down to nothing more than time, screen awareness and clicking.  No one who uses these tools was trained to do so.  They found them, got excited and started clicking.  How do we balance the excitement of possibility and the drudgery of necessity?

Systemic change needs the clarion call of Kennedy challenging a nation to put a man on the moon.  A effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan to pay for rubble removal.  Schools need squads of people who can answer the “it’s not working” questions so swat teams can be available in any classroom at any time.  This would work much better than just one or two people in the whole school.  Governing councils with the infrastructural expertise of tech departments, the pedagogic vision of teachers and the authority of administration need to chart and fund a specific direction for the district and insist upon its success, by any means necessary.  And all of us need the courage to dump much of what we have been taught about schools. 

But while the days are long and the grass is tall, perhaps we can build our confidence that we will eventually find our way between the rocks and the hard place.

Handful o’ Keys

Teachers who have already shifted to a digital work environment have accepted the tedious necessity of keeping track of several dozen usernames and passwords as the price of admission. A lot of the tools we use are free, but almost all of them require an account. Mine are kept an undisclosed location that I frequently visit because I can’t possibly remember more than forty combinations. Although it is inconvenient, I’m already sold on the benefit of the tools they provide. I want to use my Google account, Yahoo, Vitalist, blog, Flickr, Moodle, Ning, NBPTS, AP Central, Voicethread, Spurl, Diigo, Widgetbox, Trailfire, Linkedin, Gliffy, Skype, etc., etc. etc. So I will keep track of the passwords.

But what about the teachers who are still in an analog environment? If they are not sold on the benefits of these tools, the username/password issue becomes just another problem easily thrown into the “this is too complicated and unreliable” pile of reasons not to bother. What’s worse is the way in which many teachers (and students as well) have trouble navigating the different sequences of steps that follow the “forget your password?” link.

Last week a colleague and I were proud that we completed more than three dozen screenshot video tutorials for teachers in our district. It made sense to us that the concerns voiced over storing them in the high school’s Moodle may prevent elementary school teachers from accessing them because they only used their Moodle account on a professional development day two months ago. Yet the concern was voiced again when we suggested that we publish them in the district web site, which also has password protected regions. Schools require teachers to be responsible for the key to their classroom, can they also require teaches to keep track of two or three usernames and passwords?

More importantly, and this is where you, the reader (usually silent or absent though you may be) come in. What is the best way for teachers to keep track of their accounts? I understand the frustration of remembering passwords, because I have to go back to my list a couple times a day. There has to be a better way.

And something tells me that the “post-it pasted to the monitor” method isn’t the answer.

Under Construction: Here we go again

Just as the hardware buying binge of the late 90s quickly brought tons of equipment into schools, the learning environment building craze of the late 00s will bring a flurry of excitement and activity to school districts across the country. Remember how computers were rolled into rooms before the networks were built? Remember how professional development wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of administrators who were only too proud to boast of their student/computer ratios? It didn’t matter that the pedagogy wasn’t there, it didn’t matter that the bandwidth wasn’t there, it didn’t even matter that the teachers did not know the difference between stopping their vcrs from blinking “12:00” and setting a default printer; the public thought computers were good and the schools got computers. We’re done, right?

As much as we can hope that we’ve learned from our past, we have to realize that this is public education and most school districts across the country will probably fall into this trap again. Since the public wants school and teacher web sites and homework assignments posted online, the school districts will provide it to them without any planning, foresight or concern for real learning. Those same administrator chests will puff out again at PTA and school board meetings, “did you see our school’s web site?”

Well if you did, you would find three teachers out of 70 who actually have anything on their section of the site. You would find a basic template that tells you and your children as much about the personality of their teacher and the class as a hallmark card tells you the true emotion of the sender. You would find that the calendar hasn’t been updated since August. The basic shell of the site will look fine, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there, there”.

Yes, there are many exceptions to this rule, but that misses the point as well.

School web sites are web 1.0, one-way streets of information dissemination, there is no interaction between administrators, teachers, students and the community. Just as the hardware payoff was not realized by rolling a machine into a classroom, the school web presence payoff will not be realized until learning environments are built.

And there’s the rub.

Perhaps the only significant decision in the hardware binge was platform. After deciding on Windows or Macs, the only thing left to do was sign the check.

This step is not so easy. There is a overflowing font of learning environments. There are free tools like blogs, wikis and Moodle and a host of corporate products, eager to cash in on the ignorance of decisions makers who do not trust and do not know much about the open source alternative.

Administrators and decision makers are excited by these tools and have a sense of how they can be used in classroom, but they do not really have the sort of working-level experience necessary to make important decisions regarding how the environments should be constructed. Teachers are also excited, but need a much more immersive professional development experience to tinker with them in order to figure out exactly how they can be applied to their particular classes. And to complete the triangle, the IT folks have little sense of what goes on in the classroom or the day-to-day work of teachers.

At some point, school districts will decide what sort of the learning environment they will make available to their students and how that environment is connected to their local community and the outside world.

The architecture of these learning environments is as important as the architecture of the buildings themselves. How many buildings do we have? What do they look like? Who is allowed to work in them and who do we allow to tour our facility?

Those questions are easy for us when we are physically constructing an addition to a school because everyone has a complete working knowledge of how those physical buildings work. But few people have spent time in the type of “buildings” we are talking about. Until administrators and teachers communicate and collaborate in these environments, they will be ill-equipped to design them. Although they could easily navigate “Windows or Mac”, do they know the difference between a blog, wiki or forum?

Here we go again.