Online communication just feels normal … but not at first!

I am going to come right out and confess … I don’t like new technology!

Actually, that isn’t strictly correct. It’s not the technology I don’t like, it’s having to learn how to use it. This, I really hate! I just want some sort of USB connection that runs from my computer and plugs in to my brain and uploads my new device user manual to my temporal lobe, or wherever such info needs to go. That is what I want … Zap! I just know how to use my new device without any concerted effort from me.

Meanwhile, back on earth, I am stuck with figuring stuff out myself. I have probably now misled you into thinking that I actually refer to user manuals. I don’t, ever … well only grudgingly as an absolutely last resort. Most of the time, once I have stopped sulking about having to learn about something that sits outside of what’s familiar to me, it doesn’t take that long.

I found this to be especially true of social media and other online communication, collaboration and sharing tools. At first it looks hard, even weird and a bit scary. Once I relax and just started communicating, collaborating and sharing, before long it all feels, well … normal.

 

 

Pssst … there is no box. Pass it on!

I like bananas. I have been peeling them since my childhood, quite successfully I thought, but apparently not! Recently, I was dismayed to learn that I have been doing it all wrong! Shame on you if you have also been peeling your bananas the wrong way! To assist you to amend your ways, here is the correct method:

We are regularly urged to think outside box, but maybe we should take a moment to think about the characteristics of this “box”. What is it?

Mostly, isn’t the “box” simply bunch of constraints, a set of boundaries that we create ourselves, (or others create for us), often arbitrarily, about what supposedly can and cannot be done or about how things apparently must be done? It is a “box” that imprisons our thinking, stifles our creativity and sucks the life out of innovation.

Most boxes are created on a false premise: that the TRADITIONAL WAY of doing something is THE WAY of doing it.

Some time ago I was trying to share the benefits of Twitter for education with teachers in my school. I demonstrated one use by tweeting the key points of an important meeting and then emailing the hashtag I had used to the entire staff – over 150 people! The only response of any sort that I received was a single tweet from a maths teacher who said he that felt it was inappropriate and “dangerous” to use Twitter for professional purposes. Apparently, as Twitter is SOCIAL media, is too “social” to have any place in education. There’s that infernal “box” again! It shuts our thinking down, yet it’s just a figment of our imagination. ven so, that imaginary box is so powerful!

To be fair, it is true that some “boxes” are necessary. If I am driving down the freeway at 100 km/hr I want other drivers to keep their thinking inside the road rule box. There are ethical boxes, codes of conduct boxes, OH&S boxes and so on. These types of “boxes” are there for good reason. Most boxes though are not like this and they should be burned immediately! Boxes limit our thinking, often without good reason.

Perhaps one of the most glaring places where “boxed” thinking slows progress is regarding the role of digital technologies in learning. Almost every type of new digital technology has had to serve a mandatory banning period before students are finally permitted to use it at school. What is such thinking really about?

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In discussions about pedagogy, individualised learning, use of digital technologies, including mobile phones, social media and other things that are usually not found inside the imaginary box, educators commonly push back asking, ‘Why should we use them?’ Perhaps a better question is ‘Why shouldn’t we utilise such pervasive, contemporary, student funded, parent approved (or at least accepted), popular tools for collaborating, sharing, communicating, evaluating and more?’

There maybe be some skills, some knowledge, some understandings that need to be developed, but that should  hardly be a big deal for an educational institution!

There is no box! “Boxes” are fictitious touchstones that we should expunge from our minds, unfettering our thinking to consider new ideas, releasing ourselves and others to courageously move forward. “Box” thinking generates hesitation and inaction. We repel change. We treat innovation with suspicion. We stagnate in an unfulfilling job. We hold others back when they need to move. Don’t “box” yourself. Don’t let other’s “boxed” thinking dominate your life. There is no box!

Everyone except for the King knew that he didn’t really have any new clothes. Everyone needs to know that there is no “box”!

At sixty zero, I still have much to learn!

80zeroFive year old Hannah has been doing random speed checks from the back seat of my car since she was three. Looking out of the window on a recent family outing, she spotted an 80 km/hr speed limit sign. Hannah is making great progress in learning her numbers and she immediately informed me, “Granddad, it’s eighty zero!” I thanked her for the reminder to check my speed, but pointed out that when you see an eight and a zero together you just say ‘eighty’, not ‘eighty zero’.

“No, it’s eighty zero,” she asserted.

“I know that the numbers on the sign are an eight next to a zero, but how you say the number is just ‘eighty’.”

“No, it’s eighty zero!”

Well, what would I know? I only have been a Mathematics teacher for over thirty zero years!

That evening I was thinking about her insistance upon ‘eighty zero’. There is often a logic to Hannah’s five year old viewpoint. Then it clicked! An eight next to a one is, after all, eighty ONE isn’t it? 82 is eighty TWO and 87 is, of course, eighty SEVEN. So, logically, 80 would be eighty ZERO wouldn’t it? You can’t just forget about the zero bit can you? Why would it be otherwise?

Hannah’s unassailable logic struck home on another occasion. After burning some toast, her father stated that the smoke alarm had “gone off”. She quickly corrected him. The alarm hadn’t “gone OFF”. It had undeniably “gone ON”! As he stood on a chair frantically fanning the shrieking alarm with a newspaper, surely his objective was to make it “go OFF”? No question!

Everyone in the family can recount similar interchanges with Hannah.

I enjoy my granddaughter’s company and she seems to enjoy mine. Her imaginative role play games are powerful learning experiences for us both. Whenever we play ‘vets’ together, (a favourite game of hers in which she always chooses to be the vet with me as her assistant), we really are at the veterinary clinic bandaging the sore leg of a beloved stuffed toy or trying to diagnose why Walter the teddy bear wouldn’t eat his lunch. When we play school together, (she always chooses to be the teacher with me as the student), we really are at ‘school’, working through a series of learning activities in which she really does think about my personal learning needs. She covers important developmental areas like counting, reading stories, doing puzzles and colouring in, reminding me to be careful not to go over the lines, but always allowing me to choose my own colours. While we are playing it is ‘real’. For me, our play gives me insights into the way she makes sense of the world we share.

As an educator my interactions with Hannah remind me of how important it is to see our how we instruct through the eyes of our students.

Looking through my granddaughter’s five year old eyes encourages me to re-evaluate the way I think. She brings a simple clarity to what really matters. Everyone over thirty zero needs a Hannah in their life.

For me, at sixty zero, she has taught me that I still have much to learn!

Fishing bears and orcas in your classroom!

016764931Imagine having a panoramic window in your classroom through which you and your students could see orcas frolicking in a bay or bears catching salmon leaping up a waterfall! All you have to do is set up a projector and go to explore.org live bear cam or one of the other available cams.

Depending upon the season and time of day, you and your students can see live cams of orcas, puffins in their burrows, osprey raising their young, bears catching salmon and teaching their cubs, pandas, walrus lazing on a beach, hippos and elephants, fish under the sea or bees working in their hive.

As I watched these cams over the last few months, more and more learning benefits became apparent. Consider the possibilities:

  • Students can go on a spectacular excursion without leaving the classroom (no costs, no paperwork, no committees to navaigate, no OH&S issues).
  • Each cam has a discussion board beneath it so they can ask questions and discuss what they are seeing with explore.org staff and park rangers.
  • The animals aren’t performing – they are just doing what they do in the wild. Sometimes nothing is happening on cam. Other times … wow!
  • Students learn what time zones really mean.
  • Students can take screen shots, like the one below, to use in projects.
  • Students can follow, day by day, the ups and downs of living in the wild. (These cams are not Disneyland!)
  • The opportunity is there to engage with researchers in the field.
  • Having the live feeds running in the background, while students are engaged in their routine learning activities, adds to the classroom atmosphere- just like a panoramic window!
  • With the availability of affordable live cams, perhaps you and your students could set up a similar cam to observe local wildlife.

With a little creativity teachers can use technology to bring rich learning experiences to students with very little cost or effort. Ask you students for some ideas too! Maybe set up a collaboration between a few schools. What would work best for you and your students?

Below (and above) are some of the pictures I captured while watching the live cams. There is a camera tool provided with the cams.

A mother bear catches some salmon for her eager cub.
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Ranger Mike gives a live online chat about the fishing bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska.
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A group of walruses (complete with frequent loud belching noises!) bask on a beach on Round Island Alaska.
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Following the progress of a baby puffin named ‘Joy’ from when she was an egg until she left the left her burrow on Seal Island in Maine USA.
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An orca surfaces off Hanson Island British Columbia. Humpback whales and sealions also make an appearance.
016367799Fish cautiously avoid a barracuda off Cape Fear, North Carolina USA.
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Those who lead must BOTH speak and listen!

As a group, teachers are highly skilled communicators. We have to be! I mean, we could hardly stand in front of a couple of dozen children, all day, every day, without saying anything could we? Yet, in some situations, some of us become like the stereotypical, monosyllabic, teenage boy depicted in Peter Denahy’s hit song Sort of Dunno Nothin’

As educators, particularly if we are leading (as a verb, not as a noun!), then we must both speak and listen. Leadership today is about skillful communication. Simply giving out instructions based upon what you think is best may have worked decades ago, but not today.

One way we can improve our effectiveness as leaders is to connect with a wide variety of educators. By that I mean everyone from beginning teachers through to Principals, teacher educators, students and parents. Do this and we are far more likely understand how to lead well. We will see clearly what matters most. We’ll be more empathetic and realistic. We are more likely to be respected and there will be greater willingness on the part of others to work cooperatively with us.

There is no best way to connect with other educators. The important thing is to participate in opportunities to benefit from what other educators have to say. There is no doubt though that online connections are convenient. They also provide rich opportunities to interact with others beyond our own school.

Reading what others have to say on Twitter, through blogs and other forums, makes us think about our own views and helps our professional growth. So we have an easy opportunity to listen to other educators. What about speaking though?

Some hold back from having much to say in online forums. Some do not progress pass the initial “lurking” that most of us did when we first entered the world of Twitter for example. There are many reasons for this and I won’t go in to them now, but I will make one point about why we should speak up and contribute our opinion.

If we do not speak up by contributing our thoughts, our perspectives, adding our questions, objections or musings etc., then we deny ourself an opportunity to grow professionally. Also, we deprive others of the value of our opinions and experience, which lessens their professional growth. Really, it is not dissimilar to those students in our classes who sit and listen, but always hold back from contributing. No one can benefit from their input.

Other educators want us to listen to them. Other educators want us to speak to them. We want others to grow professionally and we want to grow ourselves. For that to happen, each of us must both listen and speak!

f2f feedback is sweet, but online feedback is sweeter!

Teachers are the feedback# meisters! Face to face, in class, teachers provide feedback using many strategies designed to reveal the thinking, the opinions and ideas, the understanding of students. Feedback, particularly ongoing feedback, is an essential component of learning. We all know that!

If you were to do this with students online as well as in class, learning becomes an ongoing a dialogue between the individual student and the teacher. Potentially this could involve other teachers, sometimes other students and parents too. How easy is it to build a partnership of learning with a student in this way? They have your full attention, rather than you talking to them in a class, while keeping an eye on the other 24 or so students in the class. Online, while they are articulating their learning, you can check their spelling, their ability to build an argument, sentence structure and so on. Their level of engagement is evident, the care they take with their work is apparent, how deeply they think and many other learning traits. You can see their responsiveness or otherwise to your feedback.

Of course, you can do much of this in a conversation in class. You will get a feel for the student’s learning, but will you remember it as well as you would if it is recorded online? While you be able to convey it to a parent or another teacher as you could if they could see for themselves? Remembering that you are likely teaching many students, especially if you are a secondary (high school) teacher, wouldn’t having the record of ongoing learning that a reflective blog* provides be a powerful source for assessment data and a launching pad for what needs to follow?

Can you think of a better way, an easier way, to form a learning partnership with a students than by having an online place where you can provide feedback as a conversation with students, particularly when you combine this with face to face discussions?

#There are many types of feedback which I have not attempted to discuss in this post
*While I have only mentioned blogs, there are many other ways students and teachers can interact online.

Why not teach in Madagascar? No, really, why not?

Timezone issues aside, we now do have the technology to make teaching in other countries possible. Why think about this?

According to UNICEF, like many countries Madagascar needs to improve educational opportunities for children. The country faces many challenges including “dilapidated and overcrowded classrooms with few learning materials” with regular cyclone damage hindering improvement and causing loss of already inadequate school materials. There are limited funds available for rebuilding.

What about qualified teachers? Over half of all “primary school teachers are recruited by parents’ associations and have limited or no training” and there is a “lack of money to pay teachers recruited by the community.

Technology makes it possible for us to change this or at least to ameliorate it. I am not suggesting teaching  a class via Skype, although that would be possible in many circumstances. I am not suggesting a lot of time be involved either, but imagine if most teachers volunteered for 1 hour a week to share their expertise. What could be achieved?

Sure there are problems. What about access to technology for those in poorer areas? This doesn’t just mean having a computer, but reliable Internet access is required.  In some places reliable electricity will be required! What about technical support? There could be a language barrier, time zone challenges, political and religious mistrust etc. etc. etc. So does this mean too bad for these children? Does this mean we shouldn’t try to work this out?

What about setting up a mentoring program? As a qualified teacher, could we provide support for a local person recruited by parent groups as mentioned previously?

However it might work, my point is this: technology today makes collaboration between educators, including mentoring and coaching, possible. Imagine the impact such collaboration could have upon the world! Imagine the impact it could have upon the lives of countless children?

Mongolia, Indonesia, Philipines, Borneo, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Brasil, Greece, Sudan, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Qatar, Mexico, El Salvador, India, Afghanistan, Japan, Namibia, Congo, Angola, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda