Archive for May, 2012

I recently had a lengthy discussion, ironically on Twitter, with a very tech-savvy educator friend about his concerns that big ideas in education might be getting drowned out as a result of the continuing discussions about Social Media and connectedness for educators.  I hope I am categorizing that correctly. My friend felt that Social Media is a powerful medium that can be used to learn, but too much attention is given to it at the expense of other powerful ideas. According to him,” it’s still all pretty much primordial soup”.

Of course, being a social media advocate, his comments have been tumbling in my head since we had our conversation. Did others believe this?  Is Social Media being discussed and addressed as a more important idea than education reform or, pedagogy, or methodology in education? Is it a distraction rather than a means for transformation? Are the big ideas being missed?

We all learn from other people. We created places where we could come in contact with people who could share their ideas with us, so we that we could learn. Those face to face connections have never been completely replaced, but rather enhanced, by technology. Of course when we first developed our social learning, we were limited as to how we made those connections, because of limited technology. In ancient times with little or no tech learning was always face-to-face learning. Eventually, technology involving ink and paper opened the limited circles of learning. The printing press really got things moving in order to share ideas, and learning. Electricity enabled even more tech stuff to connect people with ideas without having to be in the same place, or space. Technology historically allowed learning to expand from face to face contact to distances beyond the limits of both time and space, and the Internet has moved that to a whole new level.

Now that we are in the second decade of the 21st Century, we are no longer preparing people for that Century, but rather how to use its tools of technology for learning in order to efficiently, and lastingly learn. Of course this doesn’t have to be a replacement of the tried-and-true learning of face to face encounters, but rather an expansion of that experience. We can now connect with almost anyone at anytime, anywhere in the world. The circles of learning probably can’t get any bigger unless time-travel technology is ever discovered.

The idea of PLN’s or Professional Learning Networks is still a great strategy for learning as an educator. The idea of connectedness goes beyond the limitations of a PLN. Understanding the use of Social Media enables educators to reside on the internet using links provided by their PLN to expand their learning on any subject. The connectedness that we talk about is only a vehicle travelling to content or sources in order to address the important questions of education.

Teaching has always been an isolated profession. Teachers were limited to sharing the experiences of their colleagues in their building or district. If they were in the group of a fortunate few, they might have gotten to experience a professional conference. Of course another shared experience of many educators was the required graduate courses taken by many for professional development. Some districts provided an occasional workshop during the course of the year. These experiences, if shared, would be shared with only a limited number of educators within the school or district.

Social Media has the potential for expanding that circle of learners. I say potential, because a majority of educators are not yet involved with Social Media as a tool for professional development. With all of the Social Media outlets that I have at my disposal, I may be personally connected to 50,000 educators. Looking at the memberships of all of the education Ning sites, education websites, and the greatest followings of the most popular education tweeters, we may have as many as 500,000 connected educators, globally using social Media for professional learning. Although that is a large number on its own, it is small considering the 7.2 million educators in the United States alone. To use the idea of connectedness for educators for the purpose of affecting a transformation of education, a primary imperative must be to get most educators connected. Although the continuing use of Social Media should be to share ideas on content, pedagogy, methodology and sources, as well as the big ideas, some time must be spent on involving, and explaining the use of SM to all educators. I would hope that we would strive for a balance, but the more educators that we connect; the faster a transformation in education can take place. A majority of educators are not yet involved with the connectedness of Social Media and need to be educated. If we transform the way we educate educators, can transforming our students be far behind?

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For the “Connected Educator” Twitter can be a mainstay for information and sources. In order to build up a steady flow of information and sources, one need only to establish a list of people to follow on Twitter who put out the tweets, or messages, that contain links, URL’s, to that information or source. In Twitter terms these people are called “Follows”. They are the people one follows. An educator using Twitter for professional reasons would follow educators, since they put out education information. I follow over 1,600 educators, so my stream of information runs constantly through my Twitter timeline. No, I do not read every tweet.

The other side of the coin here would be those educators who follow me. They would be my “Followers”. Once I got over 300 followers it got to be a bit heady. I had to keep things in perspective. It was not a third world dictatorship with me as the leader of my loyal followers who awaited my every word. If I put out useful information and thoughtful advice, I found that I would attract more followers. The very best method to do that was to follow really great educators and retweet what they tweeted. That means I would tweet their tweet, but give them credit for it. I was valued, because I valued someone else’s thought or information. How cool is that. Kudos all around!

There are many ways to follow people. There are lists that people offer. Bloggers now have “Follow me on Twitter” icons located on their blogs. There are recommendations of people to follow from other tweeters. Twitter dedicates Friday as the day to recommend people to follow with a hashtag #FF placed on tweets making follow recommendations. The #FF stands for Follow Friday. Of course for the more popular or specific people to follow, there is always the “Search People” tool on Twitter. Probably the best method is to check who each of your follows follow. Take people from their lists of follows. The point is that one can strategically make a vast number of follows with far less effort than was once required.

The real connections with all of the follows, and followers however, come with the personal exchanges made between follows and followers. These are the important, meaningful connections. Exchanges of ideas and information are the goal, but more often the personal and social aspects are the things that bind individuals. Many of these digital connections become much more. This has added a whole new dimension to Education conferencing. Educators who are connected through social media will meet face to face with people they have been attached to online. Without ever having before met face to face, it is like old friends reuniting. It is truly a unique experience.

It is with this backdrop that I now address my latest experience with my Twitter emotions. As I said, my follow list exceeds 1,600, so I was looking for a quick way to cut that down in order to eliminate some of the noise created by huge numbers on my Twitterstream. That means that I was getting a great deal of chatter distracting me from more meaningful tweets and that was becoming less efficient. Of the 1,600 follows I may have 1,000 people with whom I have never ever had an exchange other than the initial “Hello, I am now following you”.

I happened upon an Application, or Twitter tool called Manage Flitter. It was designed to identify from a list of follows those who do not follow back. Now, I do not expect Regis Philbin, Chris Matthews or Anderson cooper (I know they are not educators) or any celebrity to follow me back. There are even education celebrities to be followed on Twitter and I have no problem with them not following back. My problem became evident when I saw how many people whom I admire, have retweeted and have interacted with, no longer followed me. Of course my head immediately said, “You have disappointed these people and let them down, so they dropped you and your offerings”. Of course that was totally irrational, but nevertheless I had to deal with that in my head. Although I was disappointed to be dropped by Daniel Pink, Deborah Meier, Alan November, and Sir Ken Robinson, I really should have been elated that they even followed me to begin with. Twitter is an amazing tool because people, for the most part, are accepted for their ideas and not their titles, but there is still a star system and a fan base culture below the surface. The really hurtful “no longer followings” however were those people who I spent many tweets on exchanging ideas and giving out sources. Of course it is ridiculous to feel this way, but this entire system is based on connectedness. When you lose that connection, questions come to mind.

While expressing my concern about Twitter on Twitter, two of my follows stepped up to console me. Mark Barnes, @markbarnes19 a great ASCDEdge blogger and Jerry Blumengarten, @cybraryman1, one of my long time connections. Mark suggested I Blog about the issue, which resulted in this. Jerry pointed out that Twitter has had problems with a bug that has people unfollowing others without permission to do so. You’re Not Crazy, After All: Twitter Confirms Unfollow Bug. Both of these guys helped me through this self-created crisis.

I think the whole point of this post is that the connections made on Twitter for the purpose of professional enrichment carry with them more than the idea of people just swapping links. Twitter is more than wanting to share what was for lunch. Of course that is part of Twitter, but it is more about personal connections. Unfortunately, that cannot be seen by looking at Twitter from the outside. I am always astounded at the number of people who have never used Twitter, but feel compelled to offer up their opinion of it. Now, would someone like to point up the Irony in the fact that I was upset at all those who were no longer following me, as I employed a tool to unfollow people?

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I was fortunate and honored to be asked to speak at a recent conference for The Software Information Industry Association (SIIA). They are all wonderful people in a group that represents a major portion of education software developers and manufacturers. I had some great discussions with some very smart and driven education-minded, business people. As I stated in my last post, many of these people have come from the ranks of educators. My big take away from this conference however, was not about all of the great new products coming from the companies that these folks represented. What was most evident to me was the driving force behind all of the great stuff being developed: DATA. In this world of monetizing education data is King. It is what business understands.

Knowing that makes it easy to understand the point of view of many of our industrial, or business-background, educational leaders, who are leading the way in education today. They are data-driven leaders. They believe that we need Data to analyze, and adjust, so that we may move forward. Of course, if we analyze, adjust and move forward according to the Data, and change doesn’t happen, there must be a reason that requires us to think through that reason in order to adjust. If there is no improvement, someone must be held accountable, because the data is always reliable. All things considered the fingers of the data-readers begin to point to the variable in the equation; the teacher. Of course Business oriented leaders will additionally include the Bane of any business leader’s existence; the unions.

Now before everyone gets their backs up, let us consider another possibility. Let us consider that maybe the merging of the mantras of education and business are not working out together. Maybe “Content is King” merged with “Data is King” does not add up to a learned individual. Maybe the focus on content, so that education can be easily assessed by Data is really the wrong thing that we should be analyzing. Maybe, how we teach, is a much more important element in learning than what we teach. Maybe the data is totally correct about what it is assessing, but what it is assessing is not what we should be looking at.

I always go back to the way technology is assessed by some schools. They test kids out, interject some tech stuff, test the kids again, and check the results. If the results are poor, or if there is no difference, then it is deduced that the tech has failed to make a difference. Hence, Tech does not work.  The questions not asked are important. Was the teacher properly prepared to use the tech? How were the students trained to use the tech? Was the culture of the class supportive of the tech? Was the tech that was selected the best tech to achieve the teachers goals? Was the teacher involved with creating the lessons using the tech, or was it packaged lessons? How much support did the teacher receive during the project? Of course we could go on with even more questions. The point is that the right questions and conclusions need to be applied to the data.

I met many, very smart, and successful people at that conference. I did not ask one of them what the data said about their personal competence as a learned individual. I judged that for myself by their accomplishments, communication skills, social skills, and even appearance. Not one person had a name tag with their test scores evident as a means of introduction. I only hope they were equally impressed with the opinions I expressed as an educator who is more than somewhat opinionated. I am sure my Hawaiian shirts gave them some mixed ideas.

As teachers, we all have our specific content to teach. That has been our goal since public education was introduced. It is what we do with that content that makes the difference. We can put it out there and have the kids commit it to memory. We can put it in video form and have the kids commit it to memory. We can put it in a PDF form and have kids commit it to memory. That would all make it easy to do a data analysis. We could probably require specific things be covered by all teachers, so our kids would all get equal educations in every state in the country. We could even develop a single test everyone could take at the same time. That would help standardize education. Then we could compare apples to apples as well as oranges to oranges around the country.

Another way to look at it would be to use that content to teach skills of collaboration, communication, and the ultimate “ation” of all; creation. Memorization of content (although difficult for many) is the thinking skill requiring the least amount of thinking. As a skill it is needed, but not coveted. Having the facts is helpful, knowing what to do with them, and adapting them to any situation is priceless. If teachers focused on teaching learning instead of the more easily assessed content memorization, we would have a population of critical thinking, creative, innovators who continuously learn even after leaving school.

At the final presentation that I attended at this wonderful conference, I gained a little more insight into the direction of Tech in education today. This was a panel of some very impressive, forward thinking presidents of tech in education companies. My first insight was that there are a great many companies developing gaming for education. My second insight into the Edtech direction was not as hopeful, at least to me. The two phrases that really caught my attention  were “classroom instruction” and “BYOD (bring your own device)”. Both of these told me that the tech companies, like many people in general, believe that kids need to go to a specific place to learn, the classroom. If we are to be successful as educators, than how we teach kids better involve a way for them to learn outside the classroom. No student should be limited by the content knowledge of their teacher. If I taught all my students everything I know, it wouldn’t be enough for them to live in their world. What we are teaching will be irrelevant. How we teach kids to learn will serve them for a lifetime.

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And now for something completely different… As an educator who has organized and attended many education conferences over several decades, I have made a few observations about the unique relationship between educators, and vendors of education materials or educational technology. The reason for my consideration of this topic is because I will be participating in the Software Information Industry Association’s (SIIA) Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco next week. Most of my conferences have been with a majority of educators in attendance and a minority of vendors. At this conference it will be mostly vendors and very few educators aside from me. I am actually flirting with the dark side in answering the many calls for consulting in regard to my Social-Media-in-Education experience.

Of course my reference to the “Dark Side” is a perfect example of what I now plan to address. Just how do many educators view vendors? The ironic point to this teacher-vendor relationship is that many of these people took the same education courses in college, but found that damned divergent road in the woods and travelled down different paths. I have often told students in education methods classes that the skills that they were learning were skills that they could apply in many places other than the classroom. I often thought that to be sound advice to kids trying for hundreds of teaching jobs sought after by thousands of applicants.

An often voiced complaint by conference attendees is that they don’t want too many vendor directed presentations or workshops. I always found that surprising in that who better knows the product and its potential than the vendor. Vendors are the product experts. Of course teachers would often say that vendors did not know the classroom, and that might be true of some, but not all vendors. It has been my experience that the industry looks to recruit teachers whenever possible, so that their personnel do have classroom experience. Unfortunately, I think it takes about a year out of the classroom however, before credibility as a teacher is diminished if not wiped out altogether.

Additionally, I wonder if the comfort, and ease of the vendors demonstrating their products, especially in the area of technology, doesn’t in some way intimidate some educators. Surprisingly, not all educators are at ease with technology. It doesn’t fall within their comfort zone. Then there is always the fear that some educators may have, based on the mythology that teachers can actually be replaced by technology. Using that perspective, the vendors are then trying to replace educators with their wares. Dastardly Tricksters!

Of course the most common complaint heard from educators is: The only reason why vendors do these workshops is to sell their products. Is there a loftier, more altruistic reason why vendors should demonstrate their products? Their products serve educators, help kids learn, financially support education conferences, and yes, it puts food on the vendor’s family table. Of course the vendor is there to sell products. That is the purpose of being there.

In this emerging era of collaborative learning, we need more educators and vendors reaching out. Teaching and learning is not easy. The more we move forward, the more we have to learn. If technology is required in our culture in order to aggregate, create, collaborate, and communicate, then great, let’s use it. Let us engage the experts who can best help us help ourselves. We need to engage them in a common effort to improve what we do, and how we do it. Let’s take their vision for teaching and apply it to what we know about learning. The term “Educator” can be broadly defined beyond a classroom teacher. Corporation and Education may need to strive more to find similarities and common goals together, rather than assume the solutions separately.

In the interest of full disclosure: My wife, a former professor, has been an education technology industry executive for more than two decades. We have often discussed the educator-vendor issue. We have managed to get along in harmony for a very long time with a bigger and better perspective on what we each do.

This is a survey that SIIA has asked teachers to take. It is an attempt by the industry to take in to account the needs and concerns of teachers. SIIA Survey

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