Just a new way to conduct old-fashioned teaching?

Net Neutrality and Education

Why does it matter?


Conferences rock!

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has their 2014 conference in Atlanta this weekend, and frankly, such a major conference like that is hard to pass up when it's in my neighborhood. I regret that I didn't submit to present at it, because over the past several years, that's become something I enjoy. It's my personal belief that every educator - teacher, support personnel, administrator - should take the opportunity to attend professional conferences. Why?

It lets you see the bigger world. Not everybody does it the way you do it within your school walls - and school-based staff in particular tend to lose sight of that. No, that's not right - they get so involved with the way they do it on a day-to-day basis, they often don't have time to look at it from a different perspective. Collegial conferences are a great way to break out of that - not only can you see how other schools "do it," but you can take the opportunity to show off how you do it. I think my teachers often forget just how much awesome stuff we do in our district, and so I encourage them to share as much as possible. One of my rock star teachers, Ann Kohler, is presenting at ISTE this year, and I couldn't be more excited for her to show off some of the awesome things she's doing with her special education kids!

It broadens your personal learning network. Especially with a conference like ISTE, which expects attendance in the neighborhood of 18,000 from all across the globe, you meet all kinds of people. Some of the best experiences are the one-on-one conversations you have over lunch sharing a table with strangers or trying to figure out which session is the best one to attend next or just camping out on the conference facility floor taking a break. More and more conferences are taking advantage of that informal learning notion, and have things like Lounges and Playgrounds for you to just hang out and meet other people. Connecting on Twitter, Facebook, or even a conference-specific app helps you stay in touch with those folks, to reach out to them when you get home and forget everything you were inundated with at the conference.

It gives you great new ideas. There's so much to choose from when attending a conference - I suggest getting outside your comfort zone and learning about something new. Whether it's a simple new classroom tool, to learning about the latest education trend that you've only just begun to hear about, there's something going on at that conference that you don't know about yet. Getting new ideas - and, more importantly, hearing about them from educators who have tried and tested them - can re-energize anyone.

Get free stuff. Yep. Visit the exhibitor's hall, stock up on extra pens, jump drives, and notepads, and maybe, if you're lucky you can win some significant prizes. As long as you don't mind the occasional marketing email (for which there are tools to help), you might score something a little bigger - software licenses, hardware, and more. Can't hurt to try...

If you're at ISTE 2014 this weekend, give me a shout on Twitter at @techieteacherga. And if you've downloaded the conference app to your iOSAndroid, or Windows 8 device, send me a message and we'll trade codes for the networking game!


Net Neutrality and Education

I love free.

As an educator, free is good. And fortunately, in this day and age, it doesn't necessarily mean low-quality. The old adage "you get what you pay for" is not necessarily true anymore, thanks to the world's most popular equalizer: the Internet. From MIT's Open CourseWare to a host of free online textbooks to a wealth of open educational resources, there's a huge amount of stuff that teachers can use in their classrooms and online courses. These are not just the individual web pages thrown together by tech-savvy teachers during web 1.0 (although there are plenty of those as well) - these are professionally vetted sites with large customer bases.

However, all that may be in jeopardy.

The issue here is net neutrality, which has been getting a lot of attention the last several months. Here's the gist of it. Net neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, whether by governments or by internet service providers ("ISPs"); nor should there be any discrimination based on user, content, site, platform, device, and so forth. The issue has been taken up across the globe since the turn of the millennium, but has particularly heated up in the last 5-7 years. The European Union began looking at the legal issues of net neutrality in 2007, and proposed measures to ensure a minimum quality of service and an obligation of transparency within ISPs. In June 2010, Chile became the first country to legally enforce net neutrality by amending its laws governing telecommunications to prevent the aforementioned discriminations. In the United States, the FCC Open Internet Order of 2010 was enacted to make broadband ISPs adhere to the same standards as telephone networks, and to prevent "unjust or unreasonable discrimination" in what they charge, what they provide, or to whom they provide it.

The analogy that's going around is about building "fast lanes" on the internet, allowing certain content providers access to those lanes - possibly to the detriment of smaller content providers. Here's one problem - the internet is actually already set up that way. High volume content providers - Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook, just to name a few - often already have peering connections or content delivery servers within the structure of some major ISPs like Comcast or Verizon. This means that, in some ways, they're already getting preferential treatment because such connections make it easier for the ISP to provide the content requested by the end user. (Here's a great graphic representation of that setup, courtesy of Wired magazine.)

What needs to be governed by the FCC is not keeping the internet neutral, but rather keeping it competitive - enacting policies and laws that prevent ISPs from showing content favoritism through financial means. ISPs currently haven't been charging for any of these special connections for their content - having a more efficient network connection provided by peering or CDS's allows the ISPs to provide faster service to their customers. What we don't want to happen is for the ISPs to get to the point where they want to - or have to - start charging exorbitantly for such preferential treatment.

Several weeks ago, John Oliver epically ranted about this on Last Week Tonight:

As an individual and a consumer, this has some far-reaching impacts on you...but it also impacts us as educators. How does net neutrality affect schools?

Financial Considerations
In an era of increasing budget constraints and selectivity of resources, no longer having access to a wealth of free resources can be hugely impactful no matter what level you're at - school, district, even state.
  • Free and open-sourced resources may not be able to afford the same access as high-priced competitors, thus limiting schools' access to those resources.
  • The cost of the increased internet access could be passed on to the users - schools, parents, teachers, students.
  • Schools may have to choose between lower-value resources provided by corporations able to pay for the increased access - for example, schools having to resort to YouTube for access to video content, instead of the educator-vetted TeacherTube.
Pedagogical Considerations
The influence of a non-neutral internet would also most likely be felt at home, by parents and students. Depending on how technology-forward a school or a district is, this could also be a major issue.
  • Schools using learning management systems (LMS) to house homework and assignments online may find students' access reduced, depending on whether that particular LMS has access to higher- or lower-speed internet.
  • Student access to internet at home may also affect their ability to complete homework assignments. If a particular resource has paid a particular ISP for increased service, those students who don't subscribe to that ISP may find themselves at a disadvantage - possibly furthering the digital divide educators already struggle against.
Technological Considerations
Schools and districts may also face some basic technological challenges.
  • More and more educational organizations are moving more services into the cloud, to allow for increased time and range of access to their digital resources. If a particular cloud service isn't permitted access to the "fast lane" of the internet, that could significantly hamper that cloud's effectiveness - especially when you're talking about tens of thousands of users attempting to access it.
  • Ironically, between the federal e-rate program and President Obama's ConnectED vision seeking to increase more robust broadband to schools, the FCC ruling on two-tiered internet access could simultaneously hamper that effort - if the FCC doesn't take educational requirements into consideration when making their policies.

What else do educators need to consider in the Net Neutrality debate? I'd be interested to hear in your comments below.

If you want to let the FCC know your thoughts on the matter, jump on over to their comments page at http://www.fcc.gov/comments and do so!


Questions of Import

From Now On is Dr. Jamie McKenzie's blog on educational technology for engaged learning and literacy. For my Project-Based Learning class, we linked to one of his blog articles about engaging students in attempting to answer questions of import - and to move away from copy-and-paste assignments.

To me, this is such an important task to get students to do, but so difficult for us as teachers to employ. On the surface, it seems so much easier to grade and evaluate factual assignments - those that have a "right" answer. They're easier for students to complete as well, and I don't mean just because they often can copy-and-paste. When a right answer is easy to identify, it's a clearer goal to achieve. You don't have to think so much about it.

The last couple of years at my school, we've been focusing on trying to get teachers and students away from this, and towards more open-ended thinking. What does it look like when you ask students to "show what they know" in their own way? How much more difficult is it - really - to grade a wide array of projects that are of much higher quality than the Powerpoints you were assigning before? What sorts of questions do we need to ask students to have them stop Googling for the right answer and attempting to answer it on their own?

These issues are taking form in a variety of incarnations - BYOT, project- and problem-based learning, the maker movement, and so forth. It seems to be a concept that most teachers would agree with - that we need to teach students less about answering and more about thinking - but needs a solid framework to implement. I think it will be very interesting to see how this develops in education over the next decade or so.

Stay tuned...


Engage Me with IT - Project-Based Learning: Reflection on Session 1

This is the second in a series of posts related to Engage Me with IT.

Our first Project-Based Learning session was quite interesting. Our focus was on the notion of open vs. closed questions. Closed questions tend to be information-gathering or low-level questions - very rarely is knowledge formed from such questions, but rather students look up knowledge of others. Open questions, on the other hand, challenge students to form their own knowledge - they can take that basic information and do something with it. I saw a great summarization: closed questions tend to be answered with shorter answers, and open questions have longer answers.

We also briefly discussed performance tasks, and the challenge of teachers constructing such tasks. GRASPS is a framework for helping teachers design performance tasks:

  • Goal: What is the goal of the activity for the students?
  • Role: What is each student's job?
  • Audience: Who will be receiving the results of the task?
  • Situation: What is the scenario under which the students will be acting?
  • Product/Performance/Purpose: What will be created?
  • Standards and criteria: How will the task be judged/evaluated?
We'll continue to look at this framework in later classes.

As a follow-up activity to the first session, there are four questions to reflect upon:
  1. What ideas are sticking with you from today?
    I particularly liked our sharing of closed and open questions. Everyone developed an example of closed and open questions, and then meandered around the room sharing with others. Then as a group, we each shared one question that we really liked.
    Everyone agreed that the open questions were much more interesting and intriguing than closed questions - if teachers think so, I know students think so.
  2. What ideas affirmed your pre-existing assumptions about PBL?
    In my experience, teachers tend to balk at implementing project-based learning because it can be more time-consuming - more time to develop and plan tasks, more time to implement during class, etc. But I also believe that spending a little more time on higher-level tasks can pay off on developing better thinkers.
  3. What questions do you want to address next?
    This is perhaps a little big as the next single topic to discuss: I've always liked the idea of project-based learning taken to the level of simulation or immersion - becoming deeply engaged in the scenario of the task. In my former life as a science teacher, I had the idea of running my chemistry classroom like a research lab, in which students received grade reports structured like paychecks, labs were real-world problems for which students had to develop the experimental technique and "purchase" the equipment, and produce products or information for clients. I'd like to revisit that idea - of creating an immersive PBL environment and what it can do for student achievement.
  4. How and when will you use what you've learned today?
    My first challenge is to look at how I want to redeliver this to my staff. PBL looks different in every department, so I think I'll need to reach out to my technology-savvy teachers to help craft a professional development plan for redelivery. I might even start with the simpler task of introducing/discussing closed vs. open questions.


Engage Me with IT - Project-Based Learning: Introduction

This is the first in a series of posts related to Engage Me with IT.

For the 2011-2012 school year, our county Technology department is offering some professional development under the umbrella of Engage Me - a district-wide framework that is intended to help teachers develop learning experiences and products that have high expectations and result in student engagement.

Technology is offering three Engage Me with IT series of courses - BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology), CLOT (Collaborative Learning Online Tools), and PBL (Project-Based Learning). As we are heavily engaged in piloting BYOT concepts here at my school, and I feel pretty comfortable with finding and using online tools for collaboration, I chose to engage in the Project-Based Learning course.

As a former science teacher, PBL has always been something that I've been interested in, both as a teacher and an instructional coach. The power of students learning by asking and answering their own questions is often lost in most classrooms - even science classrooms. My interest in simulation games is a close fit to PBL, so I'm hoping I'll be able to add some insight into each (PBL and gaming) from the other.

Part of the class is to post reflections on the content discussed during each face-to-face session; I'll be posting mine here, along with any useful PBL items we uncover.


Google's new Chrome OS Netbook

So Google is getting even more into computing with the development of their new Chrome OS. It's based on the Chromium OS project, their open-source OS platform. (Chrome OS is specific to the hardware on-board Google's netbooks.)

It's primarily a web-based OS - there is very little software on board the computer, to the point where it literally boots up in a matter of seconds. (I've seen it - it's a thing of beauty.) The entire interface runs out of Google's Chrome browser, with the ability to install and run web apps. It's got VGA and USB ports, and both Wi-Fi and 3G radio on board. (It also comes with 2 years free of Verizon (?) 3G connectivity, which starts only once you activate it.) One major hardware change - they've replaced spinning hard drives with flash memory. It's sleek, it's fast, it's cool.

I had heard some whisperings of it, but didn't really get a chance to see it in action until I ran into Stephen, a student at my school. He is a computer programmer and TSA member, and was approved to pilot one of Google's CR-48 Chrome netbooks for free. I had a chance to see it in action a bit, and Stephen seemed initially impressed with it. He and I were drawn to it for the same reasons - curiosity about whether it was a viable computing alternative, and interest into whether it would work for some of our day-to-day computing needs.

Needless to say, I promptly submitted my own application. I registered as an educator, and requested about a dozen netbooks for some students and staff to test out. (I'm hoping I wasn't asking for too many, and wrecked my chances.) Our district uses web-based services which are reported to have to use Internet Explorer, so I'm interested to see how well the Chrome netbook is able to integrate with some of those services.

A quick, lightweight, simple-to-use-and-maintain netbook like this has great promise for teachers and students - I'm really hoping that Google will approve my meager request to have educators field-test them. With my school's BYOT initiative, it seems a great fit to provide students and teachers with another technology alternative, to see if it can hold up to the rigors of the classroom.

I sat down with Stephen the other day, because I wanted to capture his ideas and opinions of the Cr-48 and Chrome OS experience from the beginning. He's had his netbook for about two weeks now. After the audio file, I'll give you a quick summary of his comments.

Tell me a little about what your computing background is.
  • Linux, Windows and Mac user
  • Some programming in Visual Basic, PHP, Java, JavaScript
  • Teaching himself C#

Tell me a little of what you know about the Google OS.

  • It's all web-based; appears to be based on Linux
  • Can't "dig" into the Chrome OS like you can with Windows
  • Would like to open up the file system more, but understand why they haven't
  • Interface is through Chrome browser
  • Apps run faster - perhaps because of the solid-state HD, perhaps fewer processes running

What attracted you to the Google OS notebook?

  • It was free :), plus free 3G for two years
  • Wanted a netbook - has a very robust laptop for programming and gaming, but bulky
  • Too large a footprint to use effectively in the classroom (with books, papers, etc.)

How much getting used-to did it take?

  • 2-3 days to get used to it, particularly the keyboard
  • Has been trying to use it exclusively (part of the requirements of pilot program)
  • Sometimes switches to other laptop, because Flash seems a little "laggy" and buggy
  • Loves the fact that updates happen automatically - apps and browser

Do you think this could be a useful tool for teachers and students?

  • Useful particularly for students - good battery life, keep notes online
  • Fast - before, taking quick notes was faster on an iPod, now taking this out is faster

Do you see that the Google OS notebook might have any drawbacks, particularly for educational use?

  • Wi-Fi and 3G are necessary - if you don't have an internet connection, there's not much you can do
  • Some apps will work offline temporarily, but not a whole lot of offline
  • Google is working on Gmail and Docs offline
  • 3G is getting cheaper, so it's a more viable solution
  • Good cheap plans - including pay-as-you-go


iPads in schools? Too much, I think

Not too long ago, news floated around that Georgia legislators were looking at the option of replacing school textbooks with iPads. With the rise of more portable devices - larger than a cell phone, which would not be a great medium for reading books regularly - this seems like a natural step for educators.

Employing a digital device to handle the print material allows for easier updates of content: rather than the cost of writing, editing, printing, binding and shipping thousands of new textbooks, the content can be updated on a digital file and made available for download. Additionally, the content on a digital device can be more appropriate for this generation of learners - infused with images and multimedia, interactive, shareable, and integrated into other resources (like the web).

My concern with this is the device itself. Granted, I have not had the opportunity to play with an iPad, but I do know that the general public has a very "starry-eyed" view of anything Apple produces lately. While the iPad might be the most visible tablet device, it still lacks elements that would make it a killer educational tool.

First is the price - I've always felt that part of the price in newer Apple products is due simply to the name. (Why is it that the iPad has taken off lately, whereas Windows tablets from about a decade ago seem to have fallen into shadow?) To make it an effective educational tool, it needs to be a lot cheaper, so that schools and systems can afford to replace them regularly - and to make them available to teachers, as well.

Secondly is the proprietary nature of the iPad. Apple's always been notorious for holding onto the programming of its devices - and while writing apps is accessible (for example, using IntroWizard or AppBreeder), I imagine working with the OS is not. That might be a huge sticking point for school systems with well-developed IT infrastructures.

So while I applaud Georgia legislators for looking forward, I think aiming for the pie-in-the-sky iPad is not the right way to go. I had a chance recently to preview a Barnes & Noble Nook from the B&N across the street from my school. The Nook is powered by Google's Android OS, and has just about as simple an interface as the iPad. It and similar devices have the ability to host and run apps, browse the web, etc. I'm not sure licensing with Barnes & Noble is necessarily the right answer, either, although with a smaller pricetag (in the $200-250 range, as opposed to $499 and up for the iPad) it's much more cost-effective.

Okay - so here's my killer educational device:

  • An Android-powered tablet - Android is infinitely more customizable than the iPad OS.
  • Multiple USB ports for students and teachers to connect jump drives, peripherals, etc.
  • Wireless VGA for teacher tablets. (This might be cumbersome right now, so the technology still needs some developing. Allowing teachers to be freed from cords while displaying work on a projector or interactive whiteboard is a deal-closer for me.)
  • Wi-Fi capability to connect to a school's or location's Wi-Fi network.
  • An on-board integrated software security package that includes:
    • GPS access to help retrieve the device in the event of loss or theft.
    • monitoring software, accessible through teacher administrative software - this could both monitor student's activity, and incorporate "screen-sharing" or remote control to allow teachers to interact with a student's tablet.
    • anti-virus software.
  • A tweak to the Android OS that restricts installation of apps - either through password-protection, network verification (only when connected to a specific Wi-Fi network, for example), or some other control measure.
  • Simple device control buttons for the most common functions - Home key, left/right keys for page navigation, Internet key.
If someone could develop a device for cheaper than most on the market, and market it specifically to schools and school systems, that would be an outstanding emerging market, so to speak.

I'm really excited to see what develops with this technology in the educational arena this year.