Embrace the Beta

One of the most interesting reactions I get when speaking to teachers who wish to integrate technology in the classroom is when I ask them if they intend to run a beta program. There usually follows a short silence followed by an “A-HA!” moment which is then followed by a look of bafflement. “I can do that?” comes the query and “YES of course!” is always the answer.

Pilot Projects are All Around

It seems that the entire technological world has given itself license to run everything in beta. Some software applications seem to remain forever in beta, absolving the developers from any horrible mishaps that may happen along the way. Good developers will release their software in beta to a small group to observe, measure and determine next steps, so why can’t teachers do the same? While the rest of the world tends to call these experiments pilot projects or tests, those in the tech sector have created a new zone of operation I happily call the ‘safe error zone’ – sound familiar? It should – we as teachers call it, ‘Growth Mindset’ and it is this philosophy in education that creates a safe place to make mistakes.

Bite Off What You Can Chew

Whenever we decide to change a practice in our classroom we as teachers tend to make assumptions that we need to go in whole hog, when in fact we can take a page from the tech sector around beta testing and take small incremental steps. For example,  if you’re interested in a new note-taking procedure, or going paperless, or incorporating Google Cardboard, there is always the hidden, yet very real option of trying it with a few students first. Set a timeline that’s no more than a month to two months in which you engage a small group of students to try it. If you wish to include all of the students, then create groupings and cycle through each grouping throughout the course of the year. Remember to keep in mind that beta testing informs next year and the year after – not this year.

Above all else, beta testing in the classroom engages our professional judgement as to whether or not the change is worth it! Just because it’s new, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s useful. How else will we be able to judge unless we try it in a controlled environment first?

Even Mad Scientists Keep Notes

The most crucial element of beta testing in the classroom is keeping notes about implementing a new idea. There are just so many variables to consider, so when the Wi-Fi goes down, or it’s indoor recess the entire day, we can accurately recall valid reasons for failed attempts. Planning for a virtual field trip to the Savannah looks wonderful on paper but fails in the real world if someone forgot to charge the devices!  Notes regarding the students’ engagement in the new task are crucial because they inform your activity design and whether or not it needs tweaking for future students.

Scaling Out – The Holy Grail of Pilots

The reality is that a high percentage of pilot projects never see the light of day because they simply could not adapt to a larger audience. Testing may go on for years, but unless the beta yields information and results that can be replicated on a large scale, that beta fails. We are fortunate that we can dictate the size of our beta within the class and generally have a goal of scaling to a full classroom contingent. As you test you must always ask the question, will this activity work with 10, 20 or 30 students? The only way to anticipate those answers are to acutely observe the challenges and successes of the beta test. If you can achieve full class implementation of an idea over the course of 2 years, then you have achieved what so few have been able to – successful scalability. And this is all because of your willingness to beta test first.

Teachers have always known that it is far better to go a mile deep than an inch wide, but we rarely afford ourselves the time and patience to do so. The next time you are enticed by the notion of trying something new in your classroom, afford yourself the same mindset we afford our students: Go beta first.

Much Ado About Coding

Image result for coding

This article originally appears in @OECTA February 2017 

The English Language is beautiful yet complex because its nuances take a lifetime to understand and its mechanics, a lifetime to master. If we learn to look at coding as language we begin to see its beauty as well. It is much like language in many ways except nuances become dependencies and mechanics become patterns that unfold right in front of our eyes.

A code is simply a set of instructions (input) which can cause a multitude of outcomes (output). Each line of code – or instruction – is completely dependent on the preceding line. Code is the imaginary army of little tech-mites that make a font green, make a Mario jump, place a picture on a blog, make a robot say hello or turn the TV volume higher or lower. 

We have become so accustomed to experiencing the output that the mechanics of the input is completely out of our minds, and that input can be as simple as: 3 steps forward, jump, turn right and repeat.  It can also be as complex as launching a rocket, jettisoning its non-essential modules, landing it and releasing a vehicle for exploration while collecting data.

At the outset, Learning about code may be just as important as learning to code. Coming to an understanding that it is an important language is key but then recognizing that the language is predicated on precise instructions and patterns really make it powerful.

If you do just a little exploration you will find that coding a character to walk across a screen requires the basic understanding of a new lexicon, sequencing of events, distance, speed and time. It requires a hypothesis, most likely failed attempts and tweaking. It will also require visualization and observation to determine success or failure which is immediately seen no less.

For a robot to scurry across the floor also requires the understanding of a new lexicon, magnitude, direction, speed, spatial reasoning but also its effect on its environment and consequences of poor instructions. 

A twenty minute coding activity has great potential  to embed many aspects of the language, mathematics, science, social studies and physical education curricula. OECTA members have developed a beautifully simple approach to teaching code as participants of OECTA’s 2016 Collaborative Learning Communities and can be found here: https://www.teachontario.ca/community/explore/teachontario-talks/blog/2016/08/30/driving-student-engagement-in-mathematics-with-coding-and-programming

A new language is always a challenge to learn, but once learned, it opens doors of opportunity that last a lifetime.

Technology = Flour, Eggs, Salt and Water?

Have you ever thought about pasta? Have you ever thought about how many types of pasta there are in the world? Have you thought about how pasta is made, marketed and sold in all its forms? Now if you have thought about any of that at length, this last question is the real kicker: Have you ever wondered if, how or why all pasta tastes the same? So what’s with all the variances?

I am not Italian but I did grow up in a house that had pasta for dinner more often than not, and my friends of Italian dissent always took the time to explain how the different shapes of pasta all had different functions: some shapes keep the sauce on, some are used for stuffing, some are flat for layering and so on. I’ve always enjoyed pasta immensely but standing in Aisle 4 for 15 minutes trying to figure out which shape is going to end up on my plate at the dinner table became far too taxing so eventually, I gave up, closed my eyes, picked and lived with it.

It is nothing less than amazing that flour, egg, salt and water could produce so much mind-numbing choice! And that, my friends, is is why pasta provides the absolute perfect comparison to technology in the classroom (or all tech to be honest).

The applications and software that are being relentlessly marketed to teachers have ultimately been designed to attract and distract. They attract you with flawless graphics and countless ‘Did you know it could do this?!’ frills, then distract you from what you were born to do – teach!

If you do a little research (and not to worry, I’ve done it for you) you will find that ultimately ALL technology in the classroom falls under 4 categories.

  1. Workflow Tools – Short Pasta
  2. Creation Tools – Flat Pasta
  3. Documentation Tools – Stuffed Pasta
  4. Interactive Tools – Long Pasta

See? Pasta.

I can easily prove my point with a few of the biggest brands out there begging education to use their service. Let’s look at classroom workflow tools using Google, Microsoft and Desire2Learn. Three different companies with three different services… or are they?

First, take a look at how Google (G-Suite) is suggesting teachers use their services in the classroom:

https://support.google.com/edu/classroom/answer/6020260?hl=en

Second, let’s look at Microsoft’s suggested workflow in the classroom

https://blogs.microsoft.com/firehose/2015/01/20/new-office-365-and-moodle-integration/#sm.00000q8t0nzkb3d8qx5zjz0m05jjs

Finally, here is Desire2Learn’s workflow for the modern classroom:

It only takes a few seconds to come to the realization that they all provide the same service. Bells and whistles aside, in your first year of use, you will only take advantage of 20-30% of the application’s full capability anyway, so why worry? Pick one, give yourself time and master it.

Take a moment to really look at the categories of technology listed above and group as many of the apps and software that you know in each. Sure, there will be a few outliers, but in the end, pasta is pasta until you add the sauce 😉

This article originally appears in @OECTA February 2017

One Simple Tool for Class Tomorrow

One Simple Tool for Class Tomorrow

The rhetoric that pervades our classrooms about ‘21st Century Learning’ has become a curriculum onto itself. Onwards and upwards into a framework that is born out of trend, material desire and stealthy marketing while the true essence of teaching is all-too-often forgotten. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what technology you use in the classroom as long as it works, works efficiently and works fast. Consider that the new WWW.

Below you will find one such tool that works, works efficiently and work fast with students of all ages. It is an example of a tool that facilitates communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

Introducing TodaysMeet.com

Today’sMeet.com is the perfect tool to teach students in grades three and up about the basics of social media. I recommend reading their privacy statement which is written in plain English. The beauty of this tool is that it requires no login to use.

What is TodaysMeet.com?

It is a chat tool that allows for a conversation during class, note-taking and/or questions and answers about a lesson.

What are some of its features?

  1. A teacher can open a chat room for one hour, two hours, eight hours, one day, one week, one month or one year.

Why is this important?

When trying something new for the first time, it’s good to know that if anything goes wrong, the room will close in a very short time. This allows you to reflect on the experience without exposure to the World Wide Web.

  1. The Room Tools allow you to save and print a transcript of the chat that can serve one of two purposes: To provide documentation of learning or to provide evidence of misuse.

Why is this important?

The ability to print a transcript allows you to collect vital information about how students behave, how they process information and also what gaps may be present in their learning. The transcript will also capture students’ thinking who may not always readily participate in class. Finally, the evidence collected can be shown to parents, saved to a portfolio and most importantly drive your teaching to fill in gaps.

  1. For advanced users, you can embed the chat, present and share too.

Why is this important?

If you are using a virtual learning environment like BrightSpace (D2L), Blackboard, a blog, Google Sites or Office 365, you can link the chat or even embed the chat so that users never have to leave their native learning environment.

  1. It works on all platforms regardless of browser, operating system or choice of hardware.

Why is this important?

It doesn’t matter what device your board provides, TodaysMeet.com works on all. This means that whether you use iOS, Android, Safari, Chrome or Firefox it simply works. Translation: A lot less stress on the teacher.

  1. It extends the conversation beyond class.

Why is this important?

Sometimes we as adults have our ‘Ah Ha!’ moments long after the conversation. A tool like this allows for later contributions to the conversation and gives the students time to ‘soak’ in the concept that you were teaching that day. The tool also allows students who may be out of class to participate or at least consume valuable information shared during the lesson.

Recommended Tips

  1. Post rules about online conduct first (i.e., Be Respectful, Stay on Topic, No Slang etc.)
  2. Anonymity is not allowed. Insist that students join the chat with first name and last initial. If someone signs in inappropriately then suspend their usage of the tool.
  3. Start slow. Select a small group of students (3-4) to be the ‘note-takers’ for the day or the week or for any given class. As your class progresses, consider assigning ‘Researchers’ ‘Questioners’ and ‘Fact Finders’ using the tool. Avoid permitting the entire class to take part until a culture of online citizenship has been established.
  4. Post the Ontario Catholic Graduate Expectation the Effective Communicator somewhere at the front and draw your students’ attention to it often.

Start Smart – Going Paperless – Level 1

Go paperless key on a computer keyboard Understanding that pedagogy should always come first, there is something to be said about having a simple goal to start. For example, perhaps you can choose January 2017 as your ‘Go Paperless’ month.

 

Why January? (Assuming it’s October)

1. It gives you time to learn about the tool you will use

2. It gives you time to practice without consequences

3. It gives you time to try it with 4 or 5 students as a test

4. January is shortened due to vacation days, so less stress on keeping it up for the first time.

Which tool will you use? (Ask which tool is sanctioned by your district)

1. Google Classroom

2. Office 365

3. Brightspace (D2L)

Start by posting a permission form for an upcoming trip and see how that goes.

Why Corporate Pitches to Education Fail (Or Ought to)

3 Reasons Why Corporate Pitches to Education (Continue to) Fail

ceo_fail

I posted this about 3 years ago, but after conversations with peers from around the province, it proves to be true today.

Posted on November 3, 2013 by Anthony

Having sat through a 5 hour long pitch at one of the largest software companies last Friday, I ached to get myself home. Mentally exhausted I had slowly suffered through a morning of missing the mark (this being the 3rd attempt) by a corporation that seemed to be drinking its own punch. I did say hours and yes the morning was tough on the presenter. He simply didn’t know his audience and although a second presenter came to the rescue with a touch more personality, by then the cynicism of the audience (me) was insurmountable.

1.”Oops! Your Bottom Line is Showing..”

Microsoft – like all other corporations including D2L, Blackboard, Apple and most startups under the sun continue to make the single most embarrassing mistake when they pitch to education: they prove time and time again that they simply don’t know their audience. No presenter worth their salt would ever stand in front of audience and share information without knowing where to take the audience. Even the savviest pitch takes its audience into account, tailoring the product’s capabilities to suit their needs. But when closing the sale supersedes the user’s experience, it becomes an obvious sales pitch. It also becomes quite embarrassing when the pitch assumes an understanding of education that is often a decade out of date.

2. But, But, But I’m a Teacher Too!

Despite corporations’ best efforts, they prove that they have no true understanding of curriculum, it’s extensions and the creativity that flows from it. A teaching certification fails to give the account executives even a remote understanding of what teachers need the moment they step into a classroom.

I tend to chuckle when I hear the words “Oh but I’m a teacher too..” Yet they have either no experience or have retired for some time. Both situations fail to see education for it what it really is in 2016: an ever changing paradigm that you’d never understand unless you’re in the field present time. So no.. a certification does not buy any credibility when it comes to teaching.

3. I Have All This Money… Now Where is That Mouth of Mine?

Most peculiar is the corporations’ failure to make teacher consultations through contractual commitments a part of their education scheme. Teachers like any other profession can always stand to gain from professional consultations financially and the corporations can gain the insight they so sorely need. The third party training by certified teachers is a model that utterly fails and proves to be an embarrassment over and over again.

Bottom line: if your product improves my students’ quality of education – I will always approve…period.

Valuing Your Professional Judgment

This article originally appears in @OECTA Magazine, published June 2016

You are a teacher and make no mistake about it, you are doing God’s work. You are a professional, caring individual that more often than not, loses sleep over that one student who may not have succeeded as well as you would have liked. You live and breathe learning, in and out of your students, curricular lessons and even more so, life-lessons. You have trained, philosophized, argued, cried and reflected upon everything to do with education… everything. You operate as a surrogate parent, attuning your senses to pangs of hunger, outcries for attention, fear of social abandonment, the need for love and safety and otherwise undetectable rhythms of understanding between a trusted adult and those in your care.

You are truly doing God’s work.

So why then, in the name of God’s work, would you ever relinquish this understanding, this connection, this crucial attunement, to instead base your year-long teaching plan on scoring taken from any standardized test? This is quite baffling to be completely honest.  

I have been privy to many discussions, seminars and keynotes led by researchers that, based on quantifiable evidence, reiterate how standardized tests fail to measure student success with any degree of accuracy or reliability. Unfortunately this argument fails to offer the simplicity of using the standardized test as one tool among many. It really doesn’t have to be so black and white.

What the researchers do say, is that data known as observable evidence is paramount in the world of data. This message is even heartily supported by EQAO’s Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Rodrigues. This observable evidence is born out of the ability to study and note actions and interactions during the everyday. There can be only one, pure procurement of this precious data and that my friends is where the classroom teacher comes in. The classroom teacher, that breathes the same air as her students, is the ultimate and decisive source of observable data.

OECTA has fought for and continues to fight for your professional judgment and here is what it truly boils down to for you: You are the only one truly qualified to assess your students’ success. To suggest that any singular test ought to direct your energies and efforts, belittles your training, your passion and most importantly to your professional judgment. It is but one tool among many that serve to support your God-given talents and passion for teaching.

Looking for Authentic Professional Development? 7 Reasons Why OECTA’s Collaborative Learning Communities are Ideal PD

This article originally appears in @OECTA issue April 2016

I can’t exactly pin-point when it happened, but at one point during the last 15 years, educational reform became an imperative.  Calls for modernization, engagement and higher test-scores became the dinner bell for every researcher, blogger, Tweeter, administrator and education minister.  As millions of dollars were poured into initiatives and their twinned research faculties, teachers’ own voices about effective project management, professional development and inquiry were drowned out by the system.

But your Association was listening quite carefully.

OECTA has, for a decade now, sponsored and supported Collaborative Learning Communities (CLC’s) for teachers interested in pursuing their own burning questions about teaching, practice, student learning and research.

Here are 7 reasons why OECTA’s CLC’s are ideal professional learning models for teachers.

1.Teacher-Inspired

CLC applications may promote a universal theme such as math or technology, but the applying teacher-team really takes the lead on the specific subject matter they wish to pursue. This unfettered, autonomous project is fueled by teachers’ imaginations and desire to help their students achieve more.

2. Curiosity-Driven

Teachers are all-too-often overloaded with initiatives or what I call ‘perpetual pilots’ that are here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, the CLC’s provide opportunities for teachers to present ideas that they are interested in. We so often encourage student-curiosity in the context of inquiry and rarely support teachers in the same vein.

3. Authentic Assessment (Observations, documentation and so much more)

To be part of the CLC’s our teachers understand that assessment of their own processes are critical. OECTA’s respect and defense of teachers’ professional judgment is demonstrated through this aspect. CLC groups document their observations, reflect, discuss and reshape their practice and even attitude towards teaching.

4. Time and Space

Ask any teacher in any jurisdiction what they need most and you will hear, “Give me time and space to try something.” The CLC is designed to do just that and although funding is never extravagant, 4 days of colleague-to-colleague discussions often spark conversations that last a professional life-time. Sometimes all you need is that spark.

5. Observable Change

We have visited hundreds of teachers that have documented real change in both their practice and in their students.  This change is documented through videos, pictures, anecdotal remarks. The most important piece to remember is that the biggest change comes from teachers’ own perspectives on learning.

6. Provincial and Global Networking

Learning as part of a small group at one school or two can be quite powerful, but connecting with like-minded, curious and courageous teachers provincially and even globally can be awe-inspiring. At OECTA we strive to assist our CLC projects connect with one another and share learning. We often refer to ourselves as the groups’ promoters.

7. Teacher-Directed, Teacher-Led

Our view of leadership is not nestled within the comfort of hierarchy. Teachers lead CLC projects from the start and their leadership is often tested academically, socially and spiritually. Teachers involved in OECTA CLC’s demonstrate true, selfless, servant-leadership. Their leadership is tested, honed and recognized throughout the process and encouraged to serve others through invitation into their work.

3 Keys: Going Digital in the Classroom? Understanding Workflow is a Must

This article orginally appears in the February edition of @OECTA

***

Once upon a time, workflow in the classroom was pretty straightforward. The teacher would conduct a lesson, assign the work and we, as students, would complete the work and submit it. Today we have adopted a much more complicated workflow that processes student work and more importantly processes learning, goal-setting, success criteria, and timely, ongoing feedback before assessment.

Here are some keys that will help you establish a workflow for your classroom. Non-tech options are also provided.

  1. Identify your goals

Your goals may be curricular, technical or pedagogical or all.

  1. Select a noninvasive sanctioned tool to use in the classroom.

The trendiness of classroom innovation has flooded the market with tools that may not always respect our privacy as teachers or our students’ privacy. Be selective when considering your tools.

  1. Be OK with retooling your workflow.

The only way to test your workflow is through its use in the classroom. This also gives you opportunity to cultivate student voice and include students as architects and engineers of the workflow.

Below is an example of a workflow for Gr. 7 Science.

Sample Workflow:

Curriculum Goals: Understanding the impact of human activities on our environment.

Technology Workflow Goals: To go paperless for this unit.

Pedagogical Goals: To provide feedback through discussions and keep record of learning.

Tool: Desire2Learn Virtual Learning Environment

Mini-lesson about discussion etiquette, Ontario Catholic Graduate Expectation: Responsible Citizen & Collaborative Contributor

Stage 1 – Expose the goal.

Jumping Point: How does the production of millions of devices worldwide impact our environment?

Tech Workflow: Post the ‘jumping point’ question in the NEWS area of Desire2Learn

Non-Tech Workflow: Post the ‘Jumping Point’ question centrally on a bulletin board.

Stage 2: Provide a means for discussion and a timeframe.

Tech Workflow: Now post the ‘jumping point’ question on a discussion board in Desire2Learn and ask students to submit a digital source of information that will help their understanding of the question. The students ought to explain why it was selected in a meaningful way.

Non-Tech Workflow: Distribute post-it notes to the class and devote some time to brainstorm responses to the ‘jumping point’ question. Students can then post their responses as groups or individuals to a bulletin board using post-its. This now becomes a public discussion board.

You may cover the bulletin board with a large white sheet to signify when it is available and when it is ‘off-line’.

**Be sure to discuss discussion etiquette and consequences for violations**

Stage 3: Capture the Learning and Provide Feedback

Tech Workflow: By virtue of going digital, discussions are automatically captured. Spend some time reading and responding to your students. Your responses should attempt to give them further direction and challenge.

Non-Tech Workflow: Take a picture of the bulletin board to capture the student work. Reply with your own post-it privately or publicly to the students depending on context.

Where does this go next? Remember that a workflow is only as effective as its focus. In this case, the workflow was designed specifically to support a curricular goal by using discussion as a way to provide feedback and to go paperless, using Desire2Learn. Logically, the next step would be to design a workflow to accept student work. Knowing the 3 keys to designing workflow will make that next step a lot easier and more importantly, sharing those keys with your students will bring everyone onto the same page, whether it’s digital or paper.

Why Facebook? Why Now?

Why Facebook Why Now?

Facebook-Scheduler-is-Temporarily-Broken

About 16 years ago, long before sense and sensibility took over the Facebook or let’s say, the audience of Facebook matured, I was a very enthusiastic wide-eyed first-year teacher. Swimming in the ocean that is first-year teaching, I was hit with waves of worry that were just barely balanced by the love of what I was doing. In the midst this, the dark shadow of an untethered social media monster crept into my classroom and into my school. 

It was in my first two years of teaching that I took it upon myself to be the watchdog over my grade 6 and 7 students as they became entangled in the World Wide Web, and in particular with their use of Facebook. With no guidance, and Facebook being relatively new, it was truly the wild wild West.  I found myself guarding that very thin line between chaos and order in the social lives of pre-teens, which to me was absolutely terrifying. 

My students and those I coached, approached me on a regular basis about online bullying, threats and an overall fear because of confrontations that happened on Facebook the night before. Oh sure there was – once upon a time – ICQ and MSN which were popular too, but the magnitude of bullying on Facebook surpassed those two services easily and by far. So I started educating kids the only way I knew how: I taught them about safety, etiquette and above all else I told them to stay off Facebook because they were all underage. That was the beginning of what I faced. 

About one year into the ‘Facebook phenomenon’ I found myself, on too many occasions, standing at the front of the school stopping high school would-be assailants, from entering my school to beat the you-know-what out of gr. 6, 7 or 8 students at my school for posts they had made on Facebook. To this day those students have no idea this happened.

CITY TV also conducted a feature on my work to stop cyber-bullying and it went so far as working with Toronto Police to identify locations for staged fights established on Facebook. My taste for the social media site was sour from the get-go, and I never stuck around to see it change – and it did.

As years passed I did my best to dabble in Facebook but the stigma was too strong and I was far too stubborn. I began missing things.. Began missing growth, lessons, life changing events.. I stayed of the road that led to that info and it was my own doing. 

 I still witness some of my former students practicing what I taught them during those early years, even though now they are employed, married and working citizens. I wonder if I did too much to protect them or was it enough?

Now, 16 years later, my best friend’s wife, set out to get my wife on Facebook and in doing so forced me to reconsider and I’m so glad I did. As a teacher, a resource for technology in education and staff of a professional development department I had had enough of my self-inflicted state of irony. It was time to go to where my friends and family were and to admit I was overdue. And so here we are and I’m so grateful for it. 

We do want to share and we so want to celebrate. We have 4 beautiful and vibrant children, friends and family that we love and that are a part of that village it takes to raise our children. If you’re reading this now then that’s you.

Thank you for meeting me on the other side.. 

Thanks Wendy!