Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Practical Guide to “Life on Mars”

I’ve continued my “Life on Mars” – living in this extraordinary digital world - by engaging in Connected Educator month, participating with educators from around the world and connecting with inspiring thinkers in real time.  (In 1973, “real time” would have seemed an odd phrase to use.)  I listened to the legendary Deborah Meier, entered an hour of conversation with Chris Lehmann, another hour with Douglas Rushkoff and sat in on three panels with thinkers such as Chris Dede, Lisa Nielson, Ira Socol and Mimi Ito.  While I’ve been thinking hard about the content of the conversation (and feeling extremely lucky to have had the opportunity), one part of me has also been thinking about the experience of virtual participation and what it will take for educators to take advantage of the digital revolution.

Familiarity with Tools:  In one of the sessions, the moderator was unfamiliar with the tool used - Blackboard Collaborate.  This meant that a good deal of time was spent dealing with an off/on microphone issue.  Given that people chose to participate and navigated their way into this session, there were very few participant issues, but I’ve been in other sessions stalled by people saying that they can’t hear or can’t figure out the microphone or interrupting the conversation for links that are posted in the chat.  To ensure that these digital opportunities are widely used, the tools need to be invisible.  To ensure this, we need to create regular ongoing meaningful in-district supported opportunities for all educators to become comfortable with the digital tools. We can’t expect teachers, whose focus is on students, to find opportunities to learn the tools.

Infrastructure: At a conference earlier this year, one of the speakers identified the three pillars of learning empowered by technology (a key driver in BC’s Education Plan): a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).  In one of the forums I participated in last week, a panelists kept cutting in and out due to insufficient bandwidth.  If we attempted to participate from most of the schools in our district, we would have had the same issues.  This is deeply frustrating and a key stumbling block identified by our teachers for not even getting started.  Sometimes we forget to take this into account when we wonder why teachers still use their overhead projectors (at least it is reliable and they don’t have to share it with 10 other teachers) and the VCR (almost none of our schools can access streamed video and even use of DVDs is limited by the library's sparse collection).

I continually hear that teachers are resistant or afraid to try something new or are not “learners.”  I think, rather, that teachers are practical.  They have only so much energy to spare: a teacher has 30 to 120 students, all with unique needs and strengths and dreams and disappointments; they need to connect with families, counsellors, education assistants, student support teachers, teacher-librarians, colleagues, coaches and possibly a wrap-around team of child and youth care workers, psychologists, pediatricians. They need to deal with school and district goals, ministry mandates, parental expectations, school initiatives, juggle access to limited resources.  Someone says – why don’t you use digital storytelling?  Eyes roll.  Resistant?  No.  Practical.  In our elementary schools, they have a 30 minute block to access the computer lab – but it takes at least 15 of those precious minutes to boot up the machines.  By the time the students have logged in (and inevitably some will have forgotten their password) to go to Voice Thread, let’s say (it will take a while; the bandwidth is low), there will be the next hurdle – emails are needed to log in.  In our district, students don’t have school email, so the teacher has to problem-solve that.  Needless to say, by the time they get started on the digital story (I won’t even begin to talk about the difficulty of browsing for images with low band-width or taking and uploading pictures with limited resources or the unlikelihood that there will be microphones available), it’s time to log out again. Of course, someone will have forgotten to save his work, or the computer will crash just before she hits the save button.  Tears.  Frustration.

It isn’t that our teachers are resistant to using technology; they simply can do more at the present time – given our networks, technical support and the skill level necessary for complex problem-solving – with paper and pencil. I don’t say this to argue we shouldn’t continue to find ways to empower our practice through technology; I just think we need to reframe the question.  We don’t need to find ways to “motivate” resistant teachers; we need to find technology that fits their needs, can meaningfully support their work, and is “invisible”.  Again, a teacher’s focus is on the child.  If a tool becomes the focus because it uses a good deal of time, energy and resources, then it’s hardly surprising that it is set aside.  It is up to the school, the district, and teacher support teams to find ways to ensure that the tools are “just right” for teaching and learning.  When that happens, teachers will line up to get their hands on them.

Flipping PD:  Given the extraordinary access to content, we are all wondering about the purpose of “bricks and mortar” learning.  Lately, the conversation has centred on “flipping” classrooms so that the lecture (on video) is sent for homework and the classroom/workshop time is reserved for discussion, tutoring, figuring out, building on, connecting.  I am not convinced that this is a transformative approach – as Ira Socol says, “A "flipped classroom" is the same classroom, just re-arranged” – but it is a starting place for rethinking practice.  And it’s not easy.  First, and all teachers know this, of course – a percentage of students/workshop attendees won’t do their homework.  How do you have meaningful conversations about content, when some or even most of your participants don’t know the content?

The second difficulty with getting beyond lectures or “sit and get” as almost every presenter now states as a goal in their preamble – and this has certainly been a recurring refrain in the Connected Educator sessions – is that the results are mixed.  Not only will many of the participants not have done their homework, but too often the content people have come to hear is sidetracked by the agenda of a single participant or will lose focus in the cacophony of voices and divergent threads.  To learn, most of us need some structure, a narrative arc that moves us beyond a kind of "cocktail hour" conversation filled with interesting tidbits to a focused, deep, thought-provoking, engaged dialogue.  Moreover, despite invitation to participate, many find it daunting to speak or write publically as they are learning – especially in these global spaces where they have no relationship with the group – not because they are not “risk-takers,” but because they prefer to synthesize information before giving an opinion about it.   Generally, only those who are confident step forward to participate and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  In The Invisible Gorilla, Chabris and Simons write that when they tested this observation, they discovered over and over again that people who were most incompetent consistently (confidently) rated themselves as most competent. This doesn't surprise me.  Almost without exception, the most exceptional teachers I know are extraordinarily humble and more aware of what they don't know than convinced that others would want to hear about what they do know.  Too often in these “flipped” sessions, instead of learning from someone who has reflected deeply on a topic we are interested in, we hear the strongly held opinions of the "confident."

We have work to do to meaningfully flip our PD (and classrooms).  Part of it will mean some combination of pre-reading/viewing, well-structured conversations, space for reflection and follow-up partnering.  But the best way, I think, to get it right is to ask a different question again.  Let’s stop asking – how can we get teachers to “buy in” or “motivate them” to learn in digital spaces about 21st century pedagogy.  Instead, let’s figure out how we can build meaningful spaces for learning that meet teacher needs – and this will demand that we listen deeply and respectfully to teacher concerns.

The more I engage in this digital world, the more convinced I am that we need to find ways to connect educators.  But it isn’t just because teachers need technology; it’s because the digital world – this life on Mars – needs all teachers, that broad and deep range of skills, attitudes, talents, and perspectives, if it is going to fulfill its promise for a different tomorrow.

Mars from rover Curiosity (NASA)

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