This-a-way or That: I’m Good.

Doors open, doors close.

from Schoeband's Photostream on Flickr

Frost said it thus:

Two Roads Diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

In the wake of massive funding cuts here in New Jersey, school districts, including mine, are reeling.  In my district alone, our submitted budget included the cut of twenty-four teachers, guidance counselors in both of our elementary buildings and our middle school, four out of six Vice Principals, all sports and extra-curricular activities district-wide, and everyone in my department except the head of the department.

I am not the head.

The way things work in New Jersey, nothing will officially shake out until either late April or early May, but the foundation of public education is being abruptly shaken, as are those employed in schools throughout the state.  The last few weeks have brought on a sudden sense of urgency about the directions many of us will take, and the next few weeks will surely be filled with the same.  But for right now, I am not worried.

Without sounding self-serving or prognostic, I knew this was coming.  And I think you did too.

Those of you who read the same books and articles as I do, and spend time talking about what you think about those books and articles, have long predicted the radical changes underfoot in American public education.   What is disconcerting is that these disruptive changes, and I do believe what is happening in New Jersey is the beginning of this radical change, are not coming from the place we thought they would come from.  These are the pressures we thought we’d be getting.

They are rising out of fiscal issues rather than fancy technological innovations or student revolt.  They are coming from anti-union advocates and property tax reformers. What a nice bow it would put on all of our work over the last however many years to have what Christiansen and Godin have claimed was on the way attributed to cutting edge technology and the cutting-edge pedagogy to go along with it.   It’s just not going to be the case.

Instead, what I think we are going to get is a whole lot of “good enough” solutions that will arise, much like we did in other areas that were affected by disruptive innovations.  I mean, c’mon, what are all of these talented teacher-folk (and possibly curriculum-folk) going to do with themselves?

Stay tuned for that answer, because it’s going to be good.


Big Ideas, Like Minds

A few days back, Alex Ragone posted this via twitter (I just don’t feel comfortable saying “tweeted”):

Working on technology vision for students and faculty. We really need to look big picture and design curric to match that. Not so now.

I’ve never met Alex face-to-face, only through a twitter request that landed me in his professional development workshop last year, but his thinking in 140 characters or less gave me an idea: Alex lives in New Jersey, so do I.  His thought made me think about what we’ve been working on in our locale regarding the same issues.  How do you design curriculum so that your pedagogy and technology are in harmony to the point where we don’t talk about technology as an isolated event that happens in the lab or is viewed as a separate bullet point in a curriculum document?

My response was simple

@alexragone would love to get a skype session about curricular vision with a few of us from NJ.

Those simple connections led us to including Bill Stites, Dan Sutherland, and Barry Bachenheimer in the conversation via a collaborative planning document and a skype conversation.  In our daily jobs as administrators, tech coordinators, and teachers, we often get mired in the issues that bog us down: supplies that don’t arrive, inter-departmental squabbles, crab-bucket culture, etc.  Having the opportunity to engage our minds in this form of big-picture play keeps us free, keeps us from the feeling that we are running through mud.

We hatched a plan and pitched the idea to the annual NJECC Conference on March 17-20 at Montclair State University.  Here’s the plan:

This conversation will address the following essential questions:  What does the student experience in a classroom look like when the curriculum is integrated with technology that they use?  What support structures need to be in place for this classroom to exist?  For the experiences to exist?
Bring your curriculum design question and we’ll help you develop it for the dynamic needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.
We’ll demonstrate successful classroom practices using social networking, online course management systems, global and local collaboration,  and online writing to create audience for your students.

It hasn’t been accepted as of yet, but if it does, and you are in the tri-state area, please come join us.  There will be four of us leading this workshop in a hands-on format.  We are hoping for a lot of small group discussion and creation of solutions for participants.  One phrase I remember uttering during our skype planning session was that I wanted each of us to remember the key elements from the best conference workshop we’ve ever been to, and I want us to re-create them here.  We need to teach this one in the manner with which we would want to learn it.  For me, that’s conversation and sharing among participants.

The Key Ingredient in a Collaborative Writer

This new post from the people at Zoho has me thinking that they are, more than ever, on to what we might need in a collaborative document editor.

A couple of days ago, George Siemens posted about Coventi Pages and it’s unique way of showing edits and comments as a sidebar, which makes for great editing and collaboration. What I like about Zoho’s product, first off is the prettiness of Zoho and the whole suite of apps, and now they just announced that their will be a chat feature added to their Zoho Writer. This is a good thing for anyone who has worked with either Zoho or Google Documents.

I could never figure out why Google Spreadsheets had a chat feature, but Docs did not. In my opinion, the chat feature should be a standard on any collaborative editing package out there.

This post also brought up another problem for me when I looked at it in terms of what is available in this area of Web 2.0. As more of my staff are beginning to see the possibilities of lesson design that utilizes Web 2.0, they are not ready to deal with the onslaught of choices. As a tech coordinator, I try to steer them in a direction that I think will minimize confusion, frustration or data loss. That decision often has a lot to do with what is recognizable to the user.

Branding is important. As someone who is actively involved in finding better options for teachers to use to create lessons, integrate technology and design curriculum, this is something I run into all of the time. A brand carries a lot of weight with people, often at the expense of functionality and efficiency. However, where is the line between what the teacher feels comfortable with and what is the more efficient product? This is where apps like Coventi and Zoho might struggle. Schools, like all other businesses, have been the victims of so many fly-by-night technology companies that have sold them something cutting-edge, only to have that bite them in the proverbial arse shortly thereafter. A solid brand like Google, though completely functional and usable in the online writing application genre, will win out among casual users every time because it is a recognizable name that isn’t going anywhere. With that comes an illusion of accountability to the user that is yet another feature that draws the user to their product.

So, while Zoho and Coventi’s products show promise, and in my opinion contain better features than Google Docs, I will be hard pressed to sell the use of Coventi or Zoho to my staff. That’s OK, because I think this is a win-win situation; if we are using these collaborative pieces, that makes me happy.

Photo from Morguefile.

The art and the science

I have been wondering what to do regarding my district’s recent spate of network difficulties, all of which have seriously impacted my ability to serve the teachers I work with. Also, as I read the recent feeds that came into my Bloglines account, I started realizing that, in line with my previous post on gathering a quorum into the School 2.0 fray, the medium may not be the message.

A few years ago, my wife was finishing up one of her multitude of Master’s degree’s (I’ve lost track) and the class was taught by a professor who happened to be the superintendent of a major Abbott District in New Jersey. For those who are not familiar with Abbott Districts in New Jersey, they are the districts that have “evidence of substantive failure of thorough and efficient education; including ‘failure to achieve what the DOE considers passing levels of performance on the High School Proficiency Test (HSPT);'”

My wife regaled me with stories, and as a teacher of public school in New Jersey these stories are folklorish, of technology that the staff had access to but could not utilize either through lack of training or lack of appropriate infrastructure.

At The Thinking Stick, Jeff Utecht, a teacher in Shanghai, has appropriately placed the emphasis on the educator, regardless of the medium he or she uses:

I don’t care if you have 20 computers in a classroom or 20 pencils. They can not do or change education without the instructor understanding what can be done with the tool they have been given. We do not ask students to use a pencil to read with, because we know that’s not what a pencil does. Educators understand what a pencil can and can not do. We have used it, tested it, and found its limits. We understand that it works best on paper, can be used in art, and is a great tool if you are drafting something as it is easy to erase. It is not a great tool if you are looking to keep a document for an extended period of time as the graphite easily rubs off, fades, and smudges over time. We use a different tool for those types of documents…a pen. The computer is the same. It is a new tool. You can give one to every child in your school, but if the instructor does not know what the tool can and can not do, how can you ensure that the tool will be used, used properly, and used to it’s fullest extent?

The same dilemma that befalls the Abbott District can befall any other district that fails to prepare its staff for the power of the new media available. What lies ahead is only as powerful as prepare ourselves for. But just as we prepared ourselves for the coming of the internet in teaching, and the coming of Web 2.0, we can easily prepare ourselves for what lies ahead immediately. Succinctly, Utecht phrases it as such:

It’s just hardware, it will not change education, it will not make our students smarter, it will not make our lives easier unless we are willing to take a long deep look into our systems and change the way we do things. We are talking about a pedagogical shift in the way learning happens, in the way classrooms are set up, and the way we view our students in this new digital world.