Educational Conferences – Another assortment of EdTech presentations.

Dubai has been host to another of the many worldwide education conferences in EdInvestMena which has been taking place during this week.   Like so many other conferences, if EdTech is not a central feature, it makes a prominent appearance throughout as it has done at EdInvestMena.  Now sadly although I presented a short piece at the conference on Monday with regards social media, I did not get the opportunity to see the main bulk of the event which occurred from Tuesday onwards.   As such my comments here are largely based on the programme for EdInvestMena and on my previous attendance at similar events in the UAE, Kuwait and UK.

The EdTech presenters at these events often present some very good examples of approaches they are using within classrooms or schools.   The use of iPads has been a central theme across a number of presentations I have seen over the last year or so.   The discussion of EdTech as a disruptive force operating on education to bring about change has also been discussed on numerous occasions.     The issue is that these presentations although sometimes excellent are not mirrored in the average practice I see within schools even where schools have the equipment.    Added to this is the issue that not all schools have the equipment as evidenced by one attendee at a session I ran recently who pointed out all my web app ideas were great however wouldn’t work in his school as there was no Wifi capabilities in classrooms.     As such should we be spending so much time discussing EdTech and how it can improve learning?

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I suggest that the answer is that we shouldn’t be spending quite so much time on EdTech and that we should re-examine the balance of our educational discussing.    For me the answer might lie in those schools where EdTech is being used very successfully to encourage and support collaboration, communication, etc.   The successful use of EdTech did not come about because of the introduction of the Tech.  A school culture which encourages creativity, collaboration and the valuing of ideas within a supportive environment plays a large part in making successful use of EdTech.   Teachers need to feel they can try new things, even where they fail, that they can seek support from others and that they can share ideas.    This is all to do with an open or healthy school culture.   So a school effectively using EdTech is likely to have an open and healthy culture.

Considering a school with an open or healthy school culture but without the EdTech resources or with limited EdTech resources again we would expect sharing and collaboration.   Again this would be expected to lead to positive learning experiences for students as teachers discuss and share ideas to ensure students receive the best experience possible.   Where a limited amount of Tech was available it should also lead to the creative and effective use of this tech to leverage the maximum impact possible from it. So an effective school, whether not it is using EdTech effectively, is likely to have an open and healthy culture.

So if the culture of a school is so important to schools in general as well as to schools engaged in using EdTech why is so very much of the educational conference time spent on discussing EdTech?     Should we not be spending less time discussing EdTech and much more time on discussing creating open, positive and healthy school cultures?   Now it may be that culture, as a very intangible trait of schools, may be more difficult to discuss and therefore we are choosing the easy option in the tangible EdTech or it could be related to the many vendors trying to sell us the latest tech?    Either way I think we need to relook at the balance of our educational discussions.

 

Image courtesy of digitalart at freedigitalphotos.net

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Learning Platforms: Over 10yrs of VLEs, MLEs, Learning Platforms and still no joy!

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I met with a Learning Management System vendor today in Dubai and for once I managed to get into and out of Dubai without getting lost, although I do suspect I got at least one motoring fine, although that’s another story.   Basically I was in the meeting to see a company’s system as demonstrated by a woman from Norway who had significant experience using said system in the classroom.    Now I went into this meeting not being a great fan of learning management systems (or virtual learning environments or learning platforms or whatever else you want to call them) as in my experience I have seldom seen them used such that learning has been positively impacted upon.

 

During the course of the meeting my viewpoint was changed as I was regaled with stories and examples of how this particular learning management system had been used by this particular teacher.   I was shown specific examples of materials plus was shown the system from a teacher, student and parental standpoint.   I began to see how the system could have a positive impact on student learning however I found myself wondering why the learning management systems I had seen in the past had not had a positive impact.   Was it that this new learning management system was significantly superior to systems I had seen in the past?  I wasn’t sure this was true however I should make it clear that the system being demonstrated to me had some good features with the ability to share course content with other users across schools and even countries through their network being most significant.

 

My viewpoint as to being generally against learning management systems had by this point changed as I had seen a concrete example which, although anecdotal as opposed to research based, was enough to suggest to me that learning management systems could have a positive impact.  At this point I considered the common factors in the previous systems I had seen which I had judged as unsuccessful and identified one particular issue: learning management systems which were mandated for use and applied to all in a school.    In each of the previous learning management systems I had seen, they had been applied to the whole school with staff mandated to provide content.    This struck me as being a significant problem as teachers are all individuals, like students.   Some will be happy using a particular learning management platform, whereas others will prefer another system, and some may not like learning management systems at all.    As school leaders and teachers we talk of differentiation, yet here we have an example of where leaders say one thing and then do something else, at least in terms of their teachers.   Why should making all teachers do the same be any more successful or acceptable than making all students do the same?

 

So this brings me back to my initial feeling with regards learning management system, in that they are generally bought for a whole school at significant cost, which therefore encourages school leaders to “mandate” use in order to ensure an appropriate return on investment.   The problem being that this single system, no matter which system, is unlikely to meet the needs of all or even most teachers.   As such for a small few, such as the Norwegian teacher who presented today, learning management systems will have a significant and positive impact on the learning of their students however for others these systems become nothing more than another bureaucratic task which teachers are mandated to undertake.

 

In terms of an alternative to learning management platforms there are plenty of solutions with the most likely to be the approach of “app smashing” where teachers use multiple different apps to achieve their aims as opposed to looking for a single unified platform.  This might involve the use of Edmodo, ClassDojo or Classjump along with GoogleDrive, DropBox and Box .Net, or it might involve Survey Monkey or Google Forms, maybe some use of Evernote and Youtube.    Basically a teacher selects the apps which suit them and the students they teach.   For some teachers this may be a single app while for others it could be 10 or 12 different apps used in combination.   This is the feature which the learning management system does not include; the ability for teachers to choose and to differentiate according to their needs, experience and skill level, as well as to adapt to their students.

 

It is about time we gave up on learning management systems, at least as they appear now.    The system I saw today had one feature I did particularly like being the ability to share teaching content within the system.   Maybe this idea may provide a starting point for a new kind of learning management system.

 

 

 

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Twitter: Shifting Paradigms

Was working with teachers today in a school during which time we were looking at lesson planning using the 5 minute lesson plan from @teachertoolkit.    During the session I used my usual prompt for ideas as shown below:

Now a couple of teachers raised some issues with regards student behaviour and suggested that they had already exhausted their 26 available letters.   My response to this was to suggest that as a group of teachers, together we may be able to share ideas.   If each of us has 26 ideas, corresponding to the 26 letters in the alphabet, then there must be a high likelihood that as a group we will be able to collectively generate more than the 26 ideas which we can generate individually.   It was at this point I realised that “if plan A doesn’t work” quote is only the first part of the process.   The second part is if Plan A to Z fail, widen your pool of ideas.    So at this point we seek the advice of our immediate colleagues for more ideas.   I would suggest that this group of teachers would increase the available number of ideas however on reflection I would suggest that the increase would not be significant.   All teachers in the group are most likely working in the same school and as such will have a shared perception of the issue at hand.   As such they are likely to have approached the problem in similar manners meaning that the ideas generated will generally show high levels of similarity with only a small number of new ideas being generated by enlarging from an individual teacher to a group of teachers within the same school.   Enlarging the group further to encompass local schools or teachers still within easy communication, or geographical distance would result in still further ideas however again if teachers are within the same national educational context, curriculum context, etc, there are likely to be shared perceptions which again will limit the ideas which will become apparent.

Enter twitter.   Twitter allows teachers to contact and seek ideas from teachers across the world from totally different contexts.   This means that there is a higher likelihood of original ideas which may not have been considered among the groups previously discussed.    We have effectively widened our pool of ideas about as far as we can do.   Now this advantage does not come without some disadvantages, namely those with polarised beliefs as to the “truth” and “fact”.   Where people come from totally different contexts it is possible that one teachers “fact” may be another teachers “fiction”.   Some tweeps are a little too forceful with their expressions as to their “fact”.   This disadvantage, however, should be minimal as teachers are after all professionals and therefore should be able to have professional disagreements plus should be able to appreciate differing viewpoints and contexts which may exist.

Overall, twitter is not just about opening us up to more people and therefore more ideas, but about opening us up to ideas from totally different contexts.   It opens us up to ideas we may not have been able to arrive at ourselves given the paradigm within which we operate.    Access to these ideas may also in turn spark new ideas in us born out of the paradigm shift which may result from seeing a problem through a totally different viewpoint.

 

School Data: A puzzle or a mystery?

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Over the last couple of weeks I have tweeted on a couple of occasions regarding data in schools. Most of the tweets revolved around the fact that the importance of data and in particularly standardised data such as EMSA and PISA is often stated. As such a fascination seems to have developed with number crunching through detailed student performance data followed by the creation of colourful pie and bar charts with the occasional line graph thrown in for good measure. Now my tweets focused on the fact that I feel educators are being sucked into this world of data, and in some cases are pouring over these tables, charts and graphs for hours on end, presenting them to all who will listen. This time spent looking at data to me seems to be a distraction from what is really important which is student learning. I accept that we need some data to know how students are doing and progressing however I think we need to balance this against the more important task which is key to schools; teaching.     If the data takes hours of time to analyse or if it doesn’t result in changes or action within lessons is it worth it?

It was while listening to Malcolm Gladwells what the dog saw, on the usual journey to work, that something struck me. We are treating student performance and the need to improve it as what Gladwell described as a puzzle. A puzzle according to Gladwell is solved through gathering additional information. As such our fascination with data and having more and more data in the hope of more insight and therefore better results seems logical. However, Gladwell also describe Mysteries; these are situations which are not solved through more data or more information but through the insightful use of what we do know. It is at this point that it struck me; student performance is a mystery not a puzzle. We cannot solve it through more data and in fact all this will do will detract from the core task at hand in schools; teaching. We instead need to focus on using what we do know and have readily available to draw insightful conclusions which we can action.

One thing, it strikes me, stands in the way of this and this is the dreaded school management system. It is designed to gather all the data you will ever need into table after table of grades, scores and criteria achievement. Some will even create the pretty charts and graphs for you. The issue at hand is the usability of these systems. The way they present data requires analysis. It is not instantly user friendly for teachers who want to be able to view data and draw conclusions quickly and on the move. It is my belief that school management systems need to be redesigned. Now, to that end I have started to build a concept for a new more intuitive and user friendly school management system focusing first and foremost on the teacher in the class.

Please if you have any suggestions or would like to contribute ideas to what the ideal school information or school management system should look like and do, etc get in touch.

 

Image courtesy of cooldesign from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

New Design

Have started making some changes to the design of the site today and hope to make further changes over the coming days to try and make this site more useful, user friendly and interesting.

Now the reason for this is a recent disaster I have had, where 4 other sites I had developed and was managing all got deleted in an FTP blunder.   I cannot say I am all to happy about this having put a significant amount of work into one of the aforementioned sites in particular.   Am also unhappy about this as the actually blunder was not one which I myself made, but was made by an organisation updating a website, where a number of websites were being hosted on sub-domains within the same parent domain.   A pretty rookie error as far as I am concerned however not much I can do about it now.   Sadly I didn’t have backups of the sites (Ok, so that’s a pretty rookie error on my part!) and although they are recoverable I have decided that it may be better to cut my loses and to focus on a single site instead; this site.   I will try to make sure and keep backups of this site in order to be prepared should a blunder occur once again at a later date.

So hopefully this marks the start of a new phase for this site and also for me as an educational professional.

Time Lapse video and Lesson Observations

It has been a while since I last blogged, a fact which has found me disappointed in myself however more on that in a future post.   For the moment I find myself returning to blogging as a result of a recent tweet which introduced me to the LapseIT app.

Today I found myself, having been introduced to the app, deciding to try it out so, much to my wife’s bemusement, this afternoon I bluetak’d my mobile phone to a window to time lapse video the sun going down over the land and housing to the rear of where I live.  The results were a little disappointing due to the fact the app sucked the battery life from my phone resulting in just over 1 ½ hours worth of real life being compressed into 10 seconds or just over 140 frames.  But I digress….

The video despite being disappointing got me quite enthusiastic about the app and the ability to compress time.   This idea of viewing the sum of the events which occurred across 1 ½ hours within a 10 second video got me thinking.   An initial idea was to time lapse video a professional development session and then to replay it at the end of the session as a brief way to recount the activities of the session.   Then it hit me:  The parallels between time lapse videoing and lesson observation as a method to judge teacher quality.

Across the educational world, teachers still often have their ability judged based on a handful of “formal” lesson observations of maybe up to an hour in length.   So that’s four hours of teaching if they are observed four times.   Using the timelapse video analogy that would be a four hour video to watch.    In terms of real time if we consider that a teacher may teach 5 hours per day (and this is a very rough estimate so apologies to the many teachers who teach more than this) over around 180 days (again another rough figure) that equates to a real time period of 900 hours.   So using the time lapse video analogy we get a ratio of 1:225 meaning that for every single hour of formal lesson observation undertaken a teacher teaches another 224 hours which are not observed and are not counted.   This clearly seems to illustrate the flaw in reliance on “formal” lesson observations for judging the quality of teaching.     Judgements of teacher quality therefore need to involve data gathered from a number of sources beyond just these “formal” observations.   Now this need for other data to be considered has been discussed by a number of others in their blogs such as the discussions of @teachertoolkit (read two of his posts here: The role of lesson observations and Can observers spot good teaching ) and as such I will not repeat what others have already covered.    I will leave this post here.   If lesson observation is akin to time lapse video then we are cramming one years work of teaching into four hours!!!    How can we consider this to be an acceptable method to judge the quality of teachers?

Culture

Am currently doing some research into organisational culture within schools and as such am reading around the subject.    Deal and Peterson (2009) cited a number of research studies of both businesses and also schools where evidence suggested that the culture of the organisation impacting on the outcomes of the organisation.    As such it hit me that culture is a critical part of a successful school

In an earlier post I mentioned about the importance of relationships; well these relationships and how people interact, share, discuss and even argue provides us some insight into the culture within a school.   If all interactions are open, positive and focussed on continual improvement and on learning, then the culture is likely to be of the positive open type.    If discussions and interactions are undermined with selfish motivations or if staff discussions are polarised by individual points of views then the likelihood is that the culture will be closed and negative, assuming such motivations and opinionated points of view permeate the whole organisation.

So the next time I am having a conversation I need to be wary of how my interaction paints the organisational culture to others who are watching.    Now this suggests the self fulfilling nature of organisational culture.    A closed negative culture will result in negative interactions between staff and even students.   These negative interactions will result in negativity growing within the school which will result in further negative interactions and so on and so forth.    If a positive open culture exists then the positive interactions between staff will create a positive open environment which will result in more positive interactions.    Now here I am looking very much at the overall school culture as it is possible that a school with an overall negative culture may have positive sub-cultures existing within it, and vice versa.

Culture therefore is a powerful feature of an organisation in its ability to encourage positivity which in turn will increase motivation and ultimately student outcomes.    The issue is that we very seldom look at the culture of a school instead choosing to look at the measurable aspects of school performance such as standardised test results.    Seldom do we stop and look at the traditions symbols, history, stories and routines which go to establishing, as well as providing us a window on, a schools culture.

Now the issue of stories strikes a cord with me after a recent training session.   At the end of the session the attendees stated that they had very much enjoyed the session, stating that they particularly enjoyed the stories and anecdotes I had used throughout the session.  So my question to school leaders at the moment would be:  What are the stories of your school and what do they tell people about the school and its culture?