Re-defining Technical Support

@achurches wrote an insightful post titled “One Size Fits All”. He writes about the barriers to teacher creativity due in part to lack of flexibility from school and district administration and a locking down of technology by technical support staff.

I agree.

But teachers need help in working with tech staff. Allanah commented on “One Size Fits All” that we need to walk in each other’s shoes. Basically, let’s figure out how to communicate with each other.

I am on a mission to do three things:

  1. Help teachers/administrators talk to their tech staff. I am putting together this how-to that I will post here in the near future.
  2. Promote the right kind of professional development for technical staff. What are the issues in allowing access to wireless networks? How do you configure a device to allow for creative use? I am starting with a discussion about social learning tools with some very knowledgeable technical staff to identify the specific security issues that each presents (or not).
  3. Evangelize the construction of technical architectures that drive the right balance for learning and availability. In the absence of understanding the difference between administrative systems (that need to be secure and reliable) and teaching and learning systems (that need to be responsive and flexible), districts will choose a one-size-fits-all approach. Networks can and should be designed to support these two uses in different ways.

Wish me luck!

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Can Pre-Built = Personal?

Personal Learning Environments are

a single user’s e-learning system that provides access to a variety of learning resources, and that may provide access to learners and teachers who use other PLEs.


In a recent discussion with fellow grad students and Stephen Downes, Dan made what I thought was a brilliant comparison about two kinds of technology-enabled learning environments. He said that Linux is outrageously customizable while Mac and Windows is outrageously simple to use.

We had just observed Stephen Downes’ highly customized, highly personal learning environment. Stephen had built that environment himself, from scratch.

And I wonder – can teachers create their own highly personalized environments with pre-built tools? Is that an oxymoron?

Not Detached?

It was an article that made me sit up and take notice. The Faculty is Remote, but Not Detached was recently published in the New York Times. In fact, some of the faculty referenced in the article appear to have either taken a detached stand-and-deliver style to the Internet, or won’t move to the Internet at all because they don’t believe it will work (in this case, I don’t either).

Stephen Ruth, professor of public policy and technology management at George Mason University, said that while online classes could be very effective, they were “not on par, in my opinion, with traditional classes at top-tier universities.” One reason is that “the general ambience of the class provides a better experience,” he said.

The writer herself may not understand the power of the enabling technologies of Web 2.0, as evidenced by this statement:

And technology like Web streaming has made online learning more like a real classroom experience.

These are outdated paradigms of what could and should be happening in our classrooms (and beyond). First, there is more than enough evidence that online learning is on par with classroom learning. But more important, engaged learners who are so engaged by virtue of Web 2.0 tools (including streaming) have the potential to do better than in a stand-and-deliver environment.

I invite Ms. Tahmincioglu to visit with some of the teachers she mentioned in her article – Robert Vernon and Terry Baron – and to interview other students and professors who are both highly engaged and interactive in their online space. I might even venture so far as to suggest that there can be more engagement in an online environment that is not bound by time and space.

I for one am taking two online graduate courses this semester. I have never met either professor nor most of my classmates face to face, but through various communications technologies I have had a wonderfully enriching experience and built connections that will outlive the end of the courses.

Twits are (not?) for kids

I keep two blogs. My other blog Masterthoughts is where I chronicle my personal learning journey through my Master’s program, struggle through learning issues, and generally find my way. I appreciate feedback and discourse at Masterthoughts, although sometimes it is good enough to just get my thoughts on the virtual paper.

This blog is for my contribution to the network – I think of it as more outward facing and hopefully engaging. But sometimes my blogs cross over. Yesterday I posted Twitted, Tweets and Young Learners that in the end could find its way here. So here is where I’ll continue the thread.

I had three more encounters today about K-12 and Twitter. On my commute, I listened to a recent Podcast from EdTEch Posse about Twitter. The key message is that Twitter is meaningless without a network, and not just any network. It must be a network that is willing to share, to engage, to provoke, to discuss. No surprise, just the essence of learning. Tonight in ECI831 Clarence Fisher talked about backchanneling in a K-12 classroom (middle school). And the IT Guy at techlearning.com talked about Twitter as “something to be very aware of in our schools” in part because it “also allows much faster spreading of rumors”.

I’ve taken from these that the jury is still out on Twitter in the K-12 classroom. Here are some of the issues:
1. Classroom management. Do you know where your students are? But let’s be realistic, many high school students are already texting in class – why not make it about learning?
2. Appropriateness. I’ve deliberately avoided the safety label for this issue. It is more about providing age-appropriate environments.
3. The network. Students micro-blogging with each other in a K-12 classroom might as well be on their friend’s Facebook page. Without a reach outside the classroom there is no power in the network.
4. Purposefulness. Curriculum-centred but not curriculum-bound.

Framing the issues is only a starting point. Where to next? Let’s talk!

Teachers and New Tools

In a recent podcast for Educause, George Siemens suggested the best way to get faculty to use new tools was to have them experience the tools. He contends that it’s not the competence with the tools that distinguishes teachers from students, it’s the willingness to try the tools. For the teacher it is a perceived risk, for the student the risk lies in not trying.

I found a corollary in Work Naked by Cynthia Froggatt. She identifies these eight principles – initiative, trust, joy, individuality, equality, dialogue, connectivity and workplace options – in examining how by improving an employee’s workplace productivity improves. Her thesis is that by stripping away the layers that work against these principles a more productive company emerges. The premise of “work naked” is to support employees in working in ways that best suit them. What does this have to do with teachers? There are several lessons. Froggatt proposes that how and where people work is dependent as much on the culture of the organization as it is on what works best for staff. If we want our teachers to think differently about their role, we need to think differently about the organization. What are the barriers within the district to the changing nature of the learning environment? Do we reward collaborative efforts? Or do we make it inherently difficult for teachers to work together?

Froggatt also reminds us that “the biggest hurdle to connectivity is our inability to creatively rethink the links in our networks.”1 and to “leverage good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction in combination with appropriate technology to create advantages for all the players in the system.”2 Siemens work on connectivism reminds us that the power of the network lies in its ability to connect us to learning. Just as in the corporate world, teachers need to be supported in thinking differently about the learning environment, rethinking how students engage with and connect to learning.

The final lesson is about training our teachers to participate in the new learning environments. Beyond the removal of risk, we must make the tools available to them and support them in their use. Our teachers are learners too.

Froggatt, C. C. (2001). Work Naked: Eight Essential Principles for Peak Performance in the Workplace. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

1 Froggatt, p. 186
2 Froggatt, p. 200

Free and Open Content

I want to consider a distinction between free open source software, and free and open content.  
Teemu Leinonen 
brings us this picture of the evolution of educational technology:    
Leinonen describes our current state as social software and free and open content. I think we confuse the issue be assuming that all social software is free open source software. The important components in our classrooms and for our learners are the availability of social software together with free and open content.

Rather than focusing on whether the “free-ness” of open source social software, I think the real attractiveness of open source lies within its roots – the collaborative social learning environment.    Let’s bring that KIND of technology and thinking into our schools, whether it be open source or not. 

And then let’s focus on sharing content – openly and freely.