The Blessing of the Broken Tech…

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I was reminded this week of the risk of good tech. It’s easy for good tech to take on greater value that it deserves. Teachers… good teachers… sometimes remember that tech is a tool that needs to be wielded with the skill of a discerning educator in order to be effective.

And so, sometimes when the technology isn’t working right, you get a reminder that the teacher ultimately makes the decision about how a tool gets used and, thus, whether a tool is effective.

This week it was a teacher who was struggling with the audio of a video. The video was designed to accompany their math content and, under normal circumstances, there would be a temptation for the tech to BECOME the instruction for that lesson.

But then the audio broke…

So, the visual parts of the video simply became props for the teacher. She could still use the tech, but it could no longer stand alone. It was frustrating moment, to be sure, which I understand because the emergency-lesson-plan-rewrite isn’t usually the favorite moment in the life of the educator.

But, if we allow ourselves to be opportunistic and learn from all circumstances (#GrowthMindset), then we see that the technology going down can help us see the areas in which we are becoming too dependent on the tech. And then we can learn to rebalance those areas. And the constant striving for improvement is the hallmark of the type of learning we should be consistently modeling for our students.

Why I love this picture…

I want to tell you why I love this picture.

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I took this picture this morning in Lansing, MI during some wonderful small group math talk. There is one device, an iPad, with an Osmo setup attached to it.

So, here’s why I love this picture.

There’s tech and…

… manipulatives and whiteboard markers and collaboration. Tech fits among the variety of tools available. It’s not the best tool unless it best supports the learning. And sometimes other tools work better. And in this case, the students were being led into learning with all the different tools.

The activity is built around the social nature of learning. 

The kids are clearly sharing their answers with each other and the teacher… there is a constant back-and-forth, sharing ideas and discussing them. They were seeing each other ideas, but…

Their strategies aren’t all the same. 

One girl is using an array. One girl is using groups of three. One girl wasn’t quite sure what to do (so it was a good thing she could see the other two girls’ work.)

The teacher’s hands are off. 

The students are doing the reaching, arranging, manipulating. Remember, the one that does the work will be the one that does the learning.

That’s why I love this picture. it captures so many wonderful things about the right kind of teaching and learning.

#EdTech problems can also be the solutions

Here’s the thing: every trait has positive effects and negative effects. This was the basis for the Roth’s Divergent Series actually. Honesty is a virtue that risks becoming harshness if it’s not paired with kindness. Courage is a virtue that risks becoming cruelty if it isn’t paired with wisdom. Book-learning is a virtue that risks becoming arrogance if it isn’t paired with humility.

Many educators in these modern times want their EdTech companies to be open, free, and independent. This risks the negative effect of creating companies that lack stability. Open, free, and independent companies often change quickly (see Newsela and Formative) or end up having to alter their independence (see Minecraft and YouTube).

However, open, free, and independent often creates the positive effect of companies being nimble and responsive, both to the behavior of their competitors and the feedback from their clientele. Desmos sets the gold standard for openness to discussion with their clientele, if you’re asking me. But EdPuzzle showed me a little something this week that impressed me.

A week or so ago, I lamented out loud about the Zaption going the way of MySpace. I’d like to think that my blog post was so powerful that the folks at EdPuzzle read it and decided to offer me a bit of comfort.

That’s probably not really how it happened (although they did tweet directly at me after that blog post went out… just saying…) but nonetheless, the #EdTech marketplace being what it is, EdPuzzle saw an opportunity and it’s going to work out okay for us former Zaption users.

By following this link (edpuzzle.com/zaption), EdPuzzle will directly import all of your Zaption video activities directly into your EdPuzzle account. The whole process takes, like, 4 minutes.

There are natural trade-offs in everything. HMH or Pearson are very, very stable providers of educational resources. It’s also a serious challenge to get anyone at either of those companies to return your e-mail or update their resources. (“Can we get a bit of closed-captioning on your online video examples?)

On the flip side, there are some very small, nimble, open companies that are dealing with serious challenges to their long-term sustainability. We learn to love them when they are start-ups, but they can’t stay start-ups forever. And the transition can, at times, be very inconvenient for the users of the tech.

But, for the time being, EdPuzzle has reminded us that in the EdTech land of instability, when users suddenly become free agents looking for a new team to sign with, an open and flexible company can be there to provide the pick-me-up when another provided the let down.

 

Thinking about Robotics and Coding

Hummingbird Light Sensor from Andrew Shauver on Vimeo.

At the ISTE Conference a couple weeks back, it was clear that Robotics and coding were (at least perceived by vendors to be) the next big thing in the world of instructional technology. (And 3D printers… LOTS of those, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Robotics and coding is a field I have quite little experience and so I decided to reach out to some vendors for some demo kits and give them a try. The first such group is BirdBrain Technologies who graciously allowed me to sample their HummingbirdDuo robotics and coding system.

I am going to give a more comprehensive review of each set that I get to try out, but my first question revolves around the function of robotics and coding in the classroom in general. Like most people my age, I went through my K-12 schooling without a single bit of coding and with extremely limited exposure to robotics (stacking blocks with a joystick and a robotic arm). As such, the integration of these types of skills doesn’t seem like a no-brainer to me.

Besides that, the primary reason that I hear from advocates is increased employability. Enthusiasts typically pair reference statements similar to “coding and robotics jobs will increase by x% over the next y years” or “experience coding is the fastest growing qualification on new job postings”. These aren’t things to be discounted, but I’ve expressed concern about this type of thinking before.

Another type of discussion often gets associated with robotics and code is talk of “authentic learning” or “passion-based learning” or other similar expressions. This type of language tends to be tricky to consider because they are often fairly loosely-defined both in terms of their expressions and in their goals. Passion, for example, tends to be a very effective energy supply, but passion is difficult to sustain. Authenticity is very subjective. And while I’ve listened to a variety of folks discuss the value of “authentic” learning, I’ve heard very few create a clear distinction between “authentic” and “fake” learning.

None of those thoughts are decisions or final judgments. And they certainly aren’t meant to be belittling or condescending. They are simply me sharing the variety of considerations I go through as I assimilate new ideas. Please share with me any comments from your perspective that can help to enrich my thoughts.

So, to see what kind of strains it puts on my thinking and to get a sense of where it might take me, I produced the “robot” you see in the video. It’s cardboard with some holes in it. It “sleeps” when it’s dark and it “wakes up” and starts working when the lights come on. In short, it uses a light sensor to determine which of two expression sequences it is going to run. (The image below is what that looked like… from the CREATE Lab Visual Programmer)

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When it’s dark, the robot does what the left column tells it to do. When it’s bright, it does what the right side tells it to do.

Each of those boxes had to be set up individually, so if you watch the video, you’ll notice the blue LEDs are getting brighter and dimmer. Those settings had to be set one at a time. There is also some audio involved as well.

Okay, so, my thoughts throughout this initial experience were to filter this through the brain of a classroom teacher. What value will this provide? What will it take for students to realize that value? What will the trade-offs be?

First thing that I discovered is that this type of process is not intuitive to me. When things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, my homemade attempts to troubleshoot were often limited and unsuccessful. Using the tutorial videos provided by BirdBrain helped a TON. A lot of this was technical equipment usage. How the different pieces attached to the board, how to change the expressions of the LEDS, the motors, How to code it, etc

Once I knew how to do that stuff, then I definitely felt a increased empowerment for my creativity to start becoming productive. But before that, I felt very overwhelmed. I think this is an important aspect. How many students think like me? How many students are plenty ready to be creative, and have a lot of creativity to give, if they could just figure out how to use the tools? And will struggle to discover how the tools work, but with explicit instruction on 5 or 6 aspects of the activity, can really gain that sense of empowerment?

And from there, how does this apply? Can this be woven into course content as it currently exists? Or is coding a standalone set of learning goals? Hour of Code is a very cool idea and a very engaging experience, but it seems to require a standalone experience. “Okay kids, we are going to take a break from math class and do Hour of Code. Then when we’re done, we’ll start math class again.”

Are there successful instances where teachers can say, “Okay folks, so today for math class (or social studies class or biology class or health class or…) we are going to break into small groups. Station one is the coding and robotics station where you’ll explore the content from the unit. Everyone will rotate through the coding and robotics station.”

Does that exist? I’m asking for your take. Anecdotes are helpful. Pics and links to lesson plans and student work are great, too. Help me understand this. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be exploring these robotics and coding. Collaborate with me to powerfully apply these tools to the classroom.

Zap! Some #EdTech goes the way of Zaption

I really liked Zaption. I blogged about it. I used it to help guide learning with students and teachers. I recommended it to others.

Now it’s gone. Well, almost. Officially, it’s still going to hang around until Sept 30, according to their website.

Our desire to have an even greater impact on how the world learns is one of the many reasons we’re excited to join Workday. Workday serves some of the world’s largest organizations and educational institutions that are eager to have better, more engaging learning experiences. We are excited to expand our reach by rebuilding our technology as part of the fabric of Workday’s applications, including the highly anticipated Workday Learning. We can’t wait to show you what the future has in store.

“highly anticipated Workday Learning“… Highly anticipated, I’m sure by some. But not by me. I actually not anticipating it at all. I was quite happy with Zaption. But they did what small start-ups do. As a colleague said over lunch yesterday, “Isn’t that the dream? Build a small business and keep building until you can sell it off?”

I suppose it is the dream. I am not at all saying that Zaption has done anything wrong. They have done something that is inconvenient, but last I checked, my comfort isn’t their priority. Quite frankly, given the situation that the Zaption team was in, I have no evidence that I wouldn’t have made the exact same choices.

Besides that, this isn’t the first time this has happened. There’s been a variety of EdTech groups that have come and gone. Others have started free and switched to a variety of different paying models. (If Desmos ever does this, ug… the sorrow-filled blog post I will have to write then…)

There’s a basic conflict to this. Sustainability requires money. And if money isn’t going to come from the users, then it has to come from somewhere. These independent EdTech groups will need to get paid. They will either go under, get bought/sponsored by a large money source, or start charging their users. And it’s tough to say which. As Yogi Berra said, “Making predictions is always hard, especially when they’re about the future.”

This is why Google, Apple, and Microsoft are still the big dogs on the block. They aren’t getting purchased. It’s why when my local districts needed to revamp their math curricula, their final decision was between HMH, Pearson, and Holt. Pearson doesn’t get purchased. HMH isn’t going under. It’s what has kept Texas Instruments as the standard tech offering in so many math classrooms. They are safe. As enthusiastic as schools can sometimes talk about innovation, the risk tolerance is still pretty low in most cases.

And there’s safety in building your class materials on a platform that you are confident will be there when school starts in the fall.

But what can we learn from this? Well, Zaption was a particular application, yes. But they represented a type of learning, a type of engagement. There’s a vision for how students can interact with a certain bit of content. The vision isn’t broken and other things (EdPuzzle, for example) will provide what Zaption did. The value isn’t completely lost because the value wasn’t completely in the tools. It was in the lesson. It was in the learning. It was in the interactions the students had with you and with each other because of it. Tools come and go. Nothing lasts forever.

Zaption just reminded us of that.

 

Reflections from #ISTE2016

You have to be careful with expecations. I heard a Deacon say in a sermon once “expecations are just opportunites to be disappointed.” And I suspect that in instances like your first ISTE Conference, it’s best to go into expecting that you’ll have no clue what to expect. Sorry… (ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education… they have a massive conference each year.) And when you reflect on time spent there, it’s important to compare it to it’s own goals and not my expectations. The planners didn’t know my expectations. So, it’s unfair to say, “I wanted it to be this… and it’s wasn’t.” That isn’t their job.

There are people who are really high on this conference and there are folks who were very unimpressed including Adam Rozenweig (who in the comments admitted that his rather dramatic analysis, while not entirely false, was probably sold short some of the value) and Audrey Waters (who asserts that it’s time to give up on computers in education).

As with most things, my reflections are going to be somewhere in the middle and far less dramatic.

This was my first experience with ISTE of any kind. There isn’t much talk of their standards around our parts and with our own growing #EdTech group right in our backyard (MACUL), ISTE simply doesn’t make it to the classroom level very often. So, all of these impressions that were made on me were first impressions. And, as Lemony Snicket reminds us, sometimes first impressions are hasty and made in error. Other times, they are perfectly accurate. Admittedly, I simply don’t know which at this point. And what’s more, I’m not sure it’s all that important that I figure it out.

That having been said, here are my chief takeaways from my 4 days in Denver.

Takeaway #1 – ISTE is really, really big.

And I’m not entirely convinced that the growth of the educator-attendees was the primary goal. (This is Mr. Rozenweig’s chief complaint, by the way.) The signage wasn’t great, the session schedule was awkward, the BYOD/hands-on sessions had spotty networks to work on (one session I was in had bandwidth for only about half of the attendees). The keynotes were held in an auditorium that seemed to be chosen for it’s beauty… neverminding the fact that there was only enough seats for about 2/3 of the attendees. This seems indicative of a conference that invited educators for something OTHER than reflective growth. This isn’t a knock against them. I think a goal of reflective growth is awful challenging to meet with 15,000 folks in attendance. (And we’re not even talking about money… goodness. My calculations suggest that attendee registration fees alone add up to over $7 million.) So, what was the goal?

Takeaway #2 – The goal appeared to be educator-exploration.

While there were learning sessions available, many were pre-registered hands-on regarding particular technologies, sponsored sessions (like the Google room that seemed to have a Cedar-Pointe-esque line outside of it all the time) and panel-sessions. These were largely a complement to the enormous amount of exploration that was available. The BreakoutEDU bus was a low-cost (zero dollars and about half-hour of your time) exploration of a particular type of project-based learning. The poster sessions had some pretty cool stuff to show off, many of which were applications from local schools and classrooms, some with the students onsite. The playgrounds would have been cooler if they weren’t so doggone crowded, but still allowed for some exploration of things you’ve heard of but maybe haven’t seen before (Google Cardboard, for example). Then there was the expo hall…

The Expo Hall was sort of like walking through a massive (MASSIVE) #EdTech farmers market, except instead of trading cash for produce, hanging flower baskets and homemade venison jerky, your trading in e-mail addresses, business cards, and photo-ops. Just like farmer’s markets, every last person standing at a booth is a salesman. Just like a farmer’s market, many of them are offering free samples. Just like farmer’s markets, your primary value to any of those folks is your organization’s budget. Just like a farmer’s market it is very easy to get lost, over-stimulated and exhausted, or kill about 2 hours without either A) batting an eye, or B) accomplishing anything.

And just like a farmer’s market, the people who love it best are the folks who know how to get what they need in that environment. Not everyone does. And among those who do, there are those who simply do not enjoy it. Personally, I don’t mind it. And Lego let’s you play with stuff.

It just seemed like the who goal was to give educators 4 days to explore new things, ask questions, get ideas and products pitched to them by excited people and network. It was going to be difficult to build in the reflection, team brain-storming, and problem-solving in that venue.

Takeaway #3 – Despite some of the grumblers, there were good non-sponsored, educator-led sessions.

Really. There were. Michelle McCloud and Marcy Faust out of Baton Rouge, LA did a great talk on transforming unused media center space into a “Learning Commons” by approaching the science department and offering to lend a hand. Super down-to-earth. The current status is quite excited and productive, but the process to getting there was the topic of the session. It was in this session that I relearned a really valuable lesson: Awesome things become awesome through careful and reflective step-by-step planning. Thinking of the details and being clear about the goals. Spontaneous awesome is either pure luck or not nearly as spontaneous as it seems.

Ben Wilkoff (@bhwilkoff), Jessica Raleigh (@tyrnad) and Brandon Petersen (@den_petersen) from Denver had a nice talk about ways to support the use of video in the classroom as a reflective tool for students, teachers, and coaches. Format was excellent and bringing three people helped to make the hands-on nature efficient.

James Kapptie out of Wyoming did something that no other session I had ever been in (at ANY conference… ever) did. He led us, like a band of sight-seers in a new city, through 16th Street in Downtown Denver and used that to model his learning targets which were primarily that we have to get students up and moving and the tech (in this case, augmented reality) needs to support that.

Finally, I rather enjoyed the candid panel discussion regarding improving teacher PD by Julie Keane, Liz Radzicki, and Margaret Conway out of Chicago. I’m on a team right now that kicks off a different plan with similar goals this fall, so I was very interested to hear how they did, what worked, what didn’t and they were very candid and took many questions from the group.

In the end, ISTE 2016 probably did for me what it was supposed to. I networked with some educators, I learned about some new stuff (products, services, teacher moves, etc.) and took really good notes so that if I forget anything, I’ll have something look back on. I look forward to moving forward to seeing how these experiences show their value in the weeks, and months ahead.

The EdTech Conundrum

Imagine you were the CEO of a brand new EdTech start up with a brand new device that was ready to revolutionize education. (Or at least so your marketing team would have us believe.)

You unrolled your plan to get your device into the hands of students and put it into action. So, here’s my first question. What are your indicators of success? Profit? Devices sold? Number of districts implementing your device? Number of teachers implementing your device? These all seem fairly reasonable.

Do you know what almost certainly wouldn’t be one of your indicators of success? The degree to which your device is improving student outcomes.

So, let’s bring in an article: Education Week’s Popularity of Ed Tech Not Necessarily Linked To Product’s Impact. In which author Benjamin Herold builds a case that there is a fundamental conflict between the traits of Ed Tech that best sell and the traits of Ed Tech that best impact student achievement.

Among the traits that sold best, according to the article, “a promise of cost savings for schools, no requirements for face-to-face training, and an ability to be easily integrated into existing teaching and learning practices.” That is, light on financial commitment, light on PD, and light on classroom disruption.

It’s tough to argue with cost, but the latter two start to expose a weakness that are probably contributing directly to why these EdTech innovations aren’t having that much of an impact: They aren’t innovating. If you are integrating devices that don’t require educators to update what they do in the classroom, then don’t expect for any significant changes in learning outcomes.

The author, quoting Andrew Calkins, adds “Practitioners [in traditional schools] find it easier to adopt technology tools that readily fit within their existing models,” Calkins said. “That’s why tools and platforms that demand a lesser degree of disruption might have found greater purchase in the marketplace.”

It is easier, more comfortable, and less stressful on people and resources to integrate tools that integrate into existing school systems, traditions and practices. But this is fundamentally problematic in school communities where existing systems, traditions and practices had reached their capacity for student achievement. If the systems are working as well as they are going to work, then a tool that makes the system function better isn’t what’s needed. What’s needed is a new system.

And that’s a much tougher sell. And it probably explains why we continue to be somewhat disappointed with the way our technology is faring within our desire to improvement. This is why frameworks like SAMR serve such a valuable purpose. They provide structure and language to the act of transitioning from one educational paradigm to another. This highest level of SAMR doesn’t force a particular type of classroom action or behavior, but simply asks the educator to consider what is possible now that wasn’t possible before the technology was available.

And this becomes the ultimate value of the technology and it also explains why we’ve had such a difficult time having our hopes realized. Technology has the potential to fundamentally restructure the way our schools function. And unfortunately, we won’t see the value of some of these tools until we let them do just that.