Forget the tool, grab the data!

Thanks to @Kerryank for this image!

While there is a galaxy of cool tools, the real issue for many students lies in critical thinking — dealing with too much information. If you think of a brick wall – to computer types, this is what information looks like. The bricks themselves are elements of data. They can be use to create WALLS or PATHWAYS, be built in many ways with many patterns and even accommodate bricks or other object that don’t fit the pattern. We like pathways.

Teachers are not in the business of making bricks, so much as building walls or laying pathways with bricks. Digital illiterates rely on having their bricks delivered (or demanding a brick-layer do it for them), but you and I don’t. We don’t have to rely on books, manuals and provided content anymore — I have you and you have everyone.

I see students given information or making information with ICT — unit outlines, reading lists, powerpoints etc. It is very rare to see teachers use these tools to create data-sets that students can use authentically. Give them the data, then build activities around it. Tools looking for a purpose (“Wow, I really wanna use FabboPics next week!”) is bad, bad, bad.

This weekend I posted a simple message to Twitter (the social network). I wrote I wonder how far a Tweet can go? – using a data-reference point #howfarcanatweetgo and asked people to RT (re-tweet) to their networks. My networks is modest at about a thousand or so — and many of them are marketing-bots. Over the 2 days, the Tweet left my network and bounced around the planet, being repeated X times. It followed Y patterns and was re-tweeted with changes to the worldinng Z times.

What I have created is a dataset – that can be used – using multiple tools. The data is not school or person dependent; this is an increasing factor in employment as a teacher – much of the 21st Century IP can hardly be claimed by your employer.  If you are not doing this stuff AFTER school, outside the school filter – – then you are lagging education — but thats old news.

Having made this data, how could you use it to teach? – I know what I wanted to do – but shared data is shared experience these days.

What if several teachers create a lesson-wiki around the data-set. How can the first idea be made better?

By us thinking with the end in mind (a core value of project based learning), we can provide students with authentic data — we just have to ask interesting questions they can Google. In this case — purely looking at the data, and Google-Mapping it opens the door to many hours of critial thinking. If you have your own ideas – share! – Maybe the tweet will turn into a curricula.

This to me is where education has to be – – in the open, sharing data and ideas. Love to hear yours.

Online School of Opportunity (OSO)

Why write on the walls, when you can write everywhere?

Mashable posted  “Why Teens Don’t Tweet”, giving a range of data and view on the demographics of a social network growing at +1300% a month. It made me wonder about how effective we are at competing for the attention of students, teachers and educational leaders. Are we too busy pressing the ‘Digg’ button and missing the opportunities presented?

“Twitter’s different than Facebook or MySpace because Twitter is not about your friends … Teens, more than any other age group, care about their friends. It’s the continuation of real-life friendship (and the creation of online ones) that has driven the tremendous growth of MySpace, Facebook, Bebo etc”.

To use these spaces, today’s teens spend increasing amounts of time informally online. They are using informal learning. As formal public education provides almost no spaces for this it is no surprise that teens power down between 9 and 3.30, disconnected from their informal learning networks. And it isn’t a teen sensation; social games and online networks are actively marketed to pre-schoolers. The numbers participating in pre-school social game Webkinz alone dwarfs teen blogging.

McGivney (1999) a decade ago recognised the importance of informal learning pathways.

Informal learning generated by local people themselves often led to wider community involvement and activism, whereas learning arranged by education providers most often led to high rates of educational progression. Informal learning often started people on a continuing learning path by helping them become confident and successful learners. “

Space, time and organisation are cardinal elements of formal learning – which is the inverse of the online educational commons. Informality enables us to be successful learners in playful and social ways that we can take to new situations. Increasingly games and social networks provide this function. It is common to see two teachers talking about education online; but rare to see departmental CEO or Minister add to any authentic open discussion. They have attained their authority by abiding by the rules of formality; where as online authority is now earned through action in informal networks.

Teens use  mobile phones, Bebo, Facebook and MySpace – to successfully strengthen friend networks. What they don’t know how to do is apply it to the discipline needed in obtain life affecting qualifications. There is a clear role for teachers to do this, and students readily work with these teachers – who are not necessarily technocrats – but are adoptive leaders and good communicators. They talk with, not at – which is another characteristic of policy making bureacrats and politicians. You can’t co-opt your way to social change on your terms anymore. Get over it; move on. Stop building walled gardens and ignoring what is there already.

The problem with internalising everything and agreeing with yourself, is that it sustains nothing except yourself.

Seriously – why do we spend millions developing ‘closed’ applications using tax-payer money on things like a blog engine ‘pilot’, when the world is using Edublog Campus? The criteria is less than transparent and hardly going to give any real indication of pedagogical reform; if indeed there is going to be any public release of the findings. Per teacher; what is the investment?

The blog trial involves 20 teachers, each from a different school or TAFE Institute from across the State. Trial participants were selected though a variety of means but all are users of collaborative tools and are keen to use blogs for teaching and learning.

The Centre for Learning Innovation’s website (The public education tech-development arm) says “Connected learning projects allow students to engage with real-life situations, which involve communication, collaboration, self-directed learning, problem solving, researching and publishing findings.” it prompt you to download  a 1997 document which then explains what the internet is, why use it in the classroom and gives an illustration of how to use a website (Netscape 2). The link is dead, and obviously ancient history – yet is on the ‘new’ website.

Do you learn more by skimming last night Tweets than you did at your last technology ‘in-service’?

We don’t need to be at specific time or place to learn – just access the educational network commons that now exists online. We are seeing an effusion of activity in forming and joining new networks that is changing education philopshy, not technology itself. The tragedy is that teachers are often unable to benefit students from this action. It is locked stepped by political orientation to conventional, schematic discernment of the 21st Century itself.

We should be better utilising existing resources such as libraries and teachers, and investigating an ‘Online School of Opportunity (OSO) and not limiting students through long-familiar toothsome approaches to quality improvement (aka “School of Excellence” ). We need centres of opportunity before excellence can be afforded to all –  though investment in public Libraries and community spaces that encourage both teachers and students to get together and transform the way they use technology; not block it.

Ref: McGivney (1999). “Informal Learning in the Community: A Trigger for Change and Development.”  National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, UK.

FaceBook – the ICT Student Support Line

2453408678_9de02512b4I met with an ex-student, now at a University recently. We talked about how informal networks influence his study patterns. I had to re-assure him about why I was interested. “Why are you looking to ban them at your place?” he said jokingly … but went on to explain how he uses about ten FaceBook networks –primary to for ’ immediate help – ‘There’s always someone on”.

He wasn’t using FaceBook for learning, but just to operate effectively inside a large system which has ‘glitches’ as he put it. Navigating the process and protocols of student life … “you can see Student ICT Services and wait for hours in a line – or just go on FaceBook and ask people there who’ve stood in the line already’.

He also said that Facebook gave students “advice on which subjects to choose, as some don’t fit that well” with getting a job.

“You can go on FaceBook and ask people who are graduating, or left already, which units we’re useful, or find someone who has”.

He was using it for social and study purposes – using his mobile phone to do that. He laughed when I asked if he used in it lectures. He clearly felt that his personal technology was there to help him navigate the institution and found efficiencies to be more strategic in study. He used online study to in balancing the “rest of his life”.

He didn’t connect that with learning directly, saying “we have a online learning portal, but it just for the course information mostly, but some academics do a lot of that stuff, just not in my course. We just use forums to answer questions, is that what you mean”.

I asked if he thought it would be good for him if they did … “yeah, but those guys are so busy, they can’t get back to you as fast as you need”.

He felt that there his access to FaceBook made University life easier to manage and didn’t expect that the institution could provide this support network.

We use the food places, if we can’t get into the library – that place is often packed, people camp there all day with their friends”.

I not sure I drew any ‘ideas’ in this conversation, but really enjoyed being able to talk about how he’s drawing on his friend-network skills to solve ‘glitches’ in the system. I wonder how different ‘adult learners’ as teachers are from students? Navigating the system seems to a universal problem

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Typecasting ‘Digital Natives’

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mobile social networking

Image by Will Lion via Flickr

There are a number of posts about the ways in which ‘we’ use social media that puts us into ‘categories’. What I think adults often miss is that young people (not us) are using social media to strengthen their existing friendship networks, not necessarily to widening them.

Educators who are forming new personal learning networks have the life experience to see professional value in it, to deem it as beneficial. These networks create new friendships.  However, the majority of adults (parents) use them as young people do – as friendship networks. They use Facebook in largely facile ways and if anything the depth of conversation and interaction between people is eroding down to 140 characters or less as they abandon email communication for more sporadic Facebook updates and Tweets.

There are countless educators who are masters at their craft, currently employing an array of exceptional instructional strategies, and I think that attacking them for not adopting Web2.0 technology is counter-productive to education. We live in times where group unity and diversity is more powerful than any single solo performance. I think that there is an educational perspective that questions the whole Web2.0 debate and are viewing social media as un-sustainable professional practice. Few schools are bringing sufficient scale to adoption and so quite rightly, teachers stick with what they know has worked in the past, and works in the current assessment systems.

I talk with (to) classroom teachers who are often interested in widening the ‘learning experience’, but struggle scale their innovation beyond a few classrooms. They may introduce a wiki or a social network, perhaps collaborating over a few schools with a few like minded teachers to look at some issue – beyond the text book. But I wonder if talking to an adult who has just experienced some high or low in their life via Skype adds any real depth to their understanding, unless of course they are sure of what students already think, feel and understand.?

If students  do use technology to strengthen existing relationships, then focusing on the student-teacher relationship is more authentic to them than talking to a politican over Skype. It is comparatively more interesting and innovative – but how do we know it is better? Is this new, or have instructional teachers been doing this for decades – with technologies of their time.

I can read about the Somme, I have photos of relatives who died there, and whilst at school attended remembrance parades and talked with veterans who came into the school. We didn’t have the internet or Skype but never the less, my instructional, industrialist History teacher (Mr. Key), did more to focus it that give me a text book and an exam. I was aware of the wider-issues and had empathy and understanding of the events but it was not until years later, when I visited the graves of my relatives (that I never knew), that what I had ‘learned’ about became personally relevant.

I wonder about the transference of understanding. Is it improved with technology or simply an alternative (which may be just as valid), or is the transference between Skype and GTalk, WordPress and Facebook – like adpting from Halo to Warcraft. What are the metrics being used not just to assess the attainment of student in relation to standards and outcomes, but to measure the engagement in deeper learning though the focus on ‘soft skills’ though Web2.0.

Antimacassar on a rail carriage seat

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps to know the answer, we need to focus on the individual teacher-student relationships. How are  communicating to them: where they are; where they might go; and their attainment levels. A-E and marking merely classifies them to suit our measurement strategies.

We should be allowing them to use digital text as they see fit by understanding more about their ‘types’.

Is the student a ‘pioneer’ who has been psuedo-blogging before the phrase had been coined, using discussion boards and forums.. Are they creative producers building websites, posting movies, photos and music to share with friends, family and beyond? What is their motivation for doing this?. Are the simply everyday communicators, making their lives easier through texting and MSN  or perhaps Information gatherers using Google and Wikipedia addicts, ‘cutting and pasting’ their way though school as strategic surface learners.

I think that young people are very conscious that some activities were more worthwhile than others and are highly tuned into ‘teacher enthusiasm’. They like teachers who are motivated and provide interesting learning opportunities, but at the same time are also conscious that in school – over use of technology will label them as ‘geeks’. We should avoid identifying good ways or bad ways of using technologies because young people move between these ‘types’ constantly. They should be selecting the modes and moving fluently between them.

The problem is that teachers are still the decision makers who shape the way that digital technologies are used in the system and who set them up to limit their use and role in everyday life. ‘Don’t bring that game to school’ and ‘Put away that mobile phone’ co-exist within classrooms who are ‘Skyping out’. I don’t believe in ‘technological determinism’ in today’s schools and don’t think young people are interested in ‘social media’, just interested in using it. In student co-horts, I have always found a ‘leader of the pack’ – a pioneer, often not the student who demonstrates interest in technology in the classroom.

The current generation of young people will probably reinvent the workplace, just as the current one has and in turn this will change society, regardless current policy. For schools, pedagogy is central to relevant curriculum, and relevance is directly linked to understanding student motivation and interests.

In designing effective learning frameworks, we need to get used to the idea that collaboration, participation and co-production has happened for today’s young people, and they are comfortable with friend networks.

What I think teachers need to be acutely aware of is that in order to ‘widen’ their interest, they first need to establish how they are going to add value to ‘their networks’ though a two way flow of knowledge. Teachers don’t know everything and perhaps rather than try to ‘create authentic learning’, they need to simply ‘go with the flow’ of what young people are doing – and build upon what they know, not what we think they know – or think they want to know – by building stronger relationships, not wider experiences – though pedagogy.

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