Archive for October, 2012

During the weekend, I attended my fourth #EdcampNYC. I have attended or participated in about a dozen Edcamps nationwide. I think that puts me in a solid position to make a few considered observations on the subject. In the interest of full disclosure, SmartBrief and SmartBlog on Education have supported the Edcamp Foundation during the past year.

The Edcamp movement has been around for a few years. It is a widely known professional-development format that was spawned from social media educator connections. Most connected educators are familiar with it, but most educators are not connected — hence a need for explanation and definition. I know that the model is based on BarCamp in Philadelphia. I have no idea about BarCamp. I know the image I have in my head, but that has nothing to do with education.

I am familiar with the unconference aspect, which is the driving organizing premise of Edcamp. There is no set schedule of sessions provided to participants as they arrive at the venue. There is usually a breakfast spread and a huge amount of coffee in a gathering area to start the day. Participants see a blank schedule displayed for sessions. Session times and rooms are clearly seen, with no descriptions. Session descriptions are created right then, by participants. All sessions are discussion driven. Although some people come with prepared materials to share, those materials might or might not be the focus of a session. Blank cards are available to participants who have a specific topic they want addressed. Each person writes that topic on a card to establish it as a session. Usually, the person proposing the session heads up the discussion. It is amazing how the establishment of one topic spurs the establishment of a related topic, or something on the other side of the education spectrum. The establishment of topics gets people talking about and exploring subjects that they might not have heard of before Edcamp.

The selection of topics stimulates discussion and questioning amid participants to determine where they will go, what they will attend and what they should expect. There is another element to the Edcamp model that is often not seen in other PD formats. Participants are encouraged to quickly assess the relevance of a session. If they do not find personal value in a particular session, they are encouraged to move on to another. When selecting a session to attend, participants need to consider backup alternatives. That is called “The Rule of Two Feet.” My best description of this is that it is a face-to-face, real-time, social media discussion. It is the application of a digital culture in a real-world situation. All sessions are open discussions that are patient with, and respectful of, all participants.

Edcamps are free to participants, but it takes a Saturday commitment to participate. That means educators in attendance are there because they want to be there. We must ask: If this is so popular and inspiring, why aren’t all schools employing this PD model? To answer that, I have to go back to a session for administrators at the last annual ISTE conference. Some founders of Edcamp presented a great session to educate administrators who might not be connected educators. The intent was to explore the possibility of using Edcamp as a source for PD from within the system. Edcamp is almost solely organized by passionate educators working outside the system. There was one question coming from admins repeatedly: “How do we control it?” The answer was clear. You don’t control it! Edcamp’s success is based on trust and respect, as well as a personal drive for professional development. It is the educator’s personalization that some of these administrators did not seem to get. Their questions seemed to indicate that they did not trust the ability of educators to properly determine what they needed in PD.

The Edcamp movement continues to advance with the passionate support of connected individuals. Hopefully, we will begin to hear from progressive-thinking administrators more interested in real education reform than in controlling what and how teachers are developed. Administrators’ control should be second to educators’ development. Edcamp should not be the sole method of PD, but it should be considered a serious addition to tools that develop educators. In our fast-changing, technology-driven culture, we need educators to be continually learning so they provide a relevant education to students. To be better educators, we need to be better learners.

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One of the many things that I love about my job is my freedom to attend national education conferences for the purpose of meeting with educators and commenting on trends and changes in the education system many of which are introduced, and explored at these conferences. I wish I could say that I could objectively report on the influences these conferences have on education, but my personal bias as a long, long time public educator prevents that from happening. I will always view these through the eyes of a classroom, public school educator. If after that introduction, you are still with me, here is my reflection on iNACOL Virtual School Symposium. This conference is described as The Premiere K-12 Online and Blended Learning Conference.

I have always been a fan of distance learning, beginning back in the day when we had to hook up modems to the computers for connectivity. I also remember the resistance by administrators when teachers tried to get professional development credit for taking online courses. It was often viewed as an attempt to game the system. When Administrative degrees began popping up as a result of online colleges, they were at first met with great skepticism at hiring interviews. Of course with the development of the Internet, and the wide acceptance by institutions of higher learning for online courses, there is becoming more of an acceptance in our system of education for virtual delivery of education.

The iNACOL Virtual School Symposium attracted some of the best of the best in this area to share with colleagues the positive aspects of this method of teaching and learning. This was done with over 200 sessions in a four day period of time. It was well-planned, and seemingly well-attended. Of course, I was struck by the ironic fact that this tech-oriented conference could not register attendees for a lengthy period of time because of network problems. Many of the educators that I encountered seemed to be administrators, or charter school educators. Public school educators may have been avoiding me. It does stand to reason that charter schools are taking a larger step in the blended learning model than public schools, so it is reasonable that they would attend in larger numbers. The lack of public school acceptance seemed also to be a theme throughout many of the policy sessions that I was able to monitor.

My criticism of this conference is the same criticism that many educators have of most professional, education conferences. There were not enough real classroom educators doing the sessions. This conference was vendor-driven. It was also very policy-wonk heavy. Many of the publicized business people who have injected themselves, as education reformers, into the national conversation on education were in attendance. I actually attended one of those sessions with one of those reformers. This particular reformer posed a plan in his session for more acceptance of online learning in the overall education system. Both he and another reformer presented their multi-point plan asking for comments and reactions. I could not wait to get to that part of the discussion.

These gentlmen described the plan in detail. This was how they were going to gain universal acceptance of blended learning throughout the country. These guys mentioned policy, vendors, providers, legislators, learners, students, and infrastructure. All of this was accounted for in their detailed, bullet-pointed, power-point-presented plan. There was, in my admittedly biased view, only one thing missing from this comprehensive laundry list of recommendations. I was now Arnold Horshack rocking, and rolling in my seat awaiting my opportunity to add to the panel discussion. I knew that I had to give my considered opinion. I knew what was truly missing from the list. The reformer only came close to that missing element once as he made a somewhat snide remark about tenure. It was like a remark one would make out of the side of one’s mouth.

The missing element was EDUCATORS! We need to prioritize educating the educators about blended learning. Effective blended learning has not been around as long as most teachers have been around. It is reasonable to assume that being “bitten by the digital learning bug” will not be enough to transform a system. Teachers are taught to be classroom teachers. Online teaching uses much of the same pedagogy, but very different methodology. Paper worksheets are bad in a classroom, but digital worksheets are worse, thanks to cut and paste.

I never got to share that idea with the reformer. He opened the discussion to the audience, but he called out those who he wanted to answer by their first names. Neither the press pass on my badge, nor did my Arnold Horshack-like raising of my arm sway him from his mission. The commenters were all to be policy-makers, vendors, and business people who he chose. They would never have had that educator point of view that could have identified that educators were missing from the plan.  I had become, not unlike many students who are not recognized in the classroom by their teacher. I was dejected, and I shut down. I did not go up to him and offer my opinion. He did not receive the key to success for his plan. I did not receive the chachkas his assistants handed out to people who engaged him in conversation. I went to the next session with Hall Davidson and had a great time engaging with new WEB2.0 learning tools.

I hope to attend this iNACOL Virtual School Symposium again, but I would hope that it evolves over the year to address the needs of the education system that needs to change. Less emphasis should be given to Vendors, CEO’s and For-Profit charter schools. Yes, they are part of the education system today, but their interests cannot come at the expense of the greater good of Public education for a majority of our citizens. If iNACOL is serious about having a greater impact in getting blended learning throughout the system, it needs to provide continuing education, support, and guidance to educators. This organization has the great potential and ability to combine policy and practice to make a difference. Once the educators are educated, can the students be far behind? I fear my bias has once again clouded my objectivity. I promise to keep working on that.

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I was invited to attend the Annual Conference on Evidence-based Policy making and Innovation sponsored by the National Association of State Boards of Education. The conference was well planned with excellent leaders and speakers in each of the sessions. These were the very sessions the members of NASBE needed to consider the weighty decisions they need to make on policy required by their positions on their State Boards of Education. I was there as an observer and a blogger, and I was impressed by their genuine concern to do the right thing in education. It seemed that many members were at one time an educator.

A key session for me was the general session on the Common Core State Standards. The panel consisted of David Coleman, “The Architect of the Common Core,” along with Christopher Koch, Illinois superintendent of schools, and Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Brizard was replaced the next day, having nothing to do with this session; I am sure.

Coleman was the driving force of the panel. He was passionate in his presentation of the Common Core State Standards. CCSS is his baby. I am not in agreement with all aspects of CCSS, but I do see a need to provide some statewide guidance to what expectations or goals we have for our learners and teachers. The sticking point will always be the assessment of these expectations and goals.

The point of this panel, beyond the explanation of the CCSS, was the fact that all of the states involved will need to be Common Core compliant by 2014. They stated emphatically that CCSS will affect all subjects and not just math and language arts. It became obvious to me that they were really driving home the who, what, where, when, and most definitely, the why of Common Core. What was searing my brain, as I squirmed in my seat, trying very hard not to jump up screaming 20 questions all at once, was the obvious missing plan of how this is to be done. It cannot be done without teachers fully in support. Where is the professional development piece to all of this? The Common Core is planned and structured and handed to the states with the full support of the U.S. Department of Education. Where is the implementation plan beyond the deadline for compliance? Where is the plan and support for professional development for this grand scheme that will change American education?

There are many teachers in our education system who recognize the need for change in other districts, but they remain satisfied in what they do as educators in their own district. Their students are coming to school, doing work and getting jobs or going to college. According to the media and the politicians, the system is crumbling with no hope for repair, but that is not what educators see in many of their own districts. Why change if we don’t have to? Every educator learns early on that whatever change is being implemented now, if you wait long enough, it will go away when another idea comes along. The other big misconception is that the Common Core right now is only for math and language arts. It is not going to affect any other areas.

Many schools have bought into Common Core and are preparing their teachers for it. Some are doing a better job than others. There are other schools however, that may not be sharing the enthusiasm to be compliant by 2014. The failure or success of Common Core rests with the educators. It might have behooved the policy makers to have first considered an educator’s Common Core for professional development and support so that the very people who are most needed to support, enforce and teach under CCSS will be properly prepared. When it comes to professional development in education, there is little positive commonality. To be better educators, we need to be better learners.

A possible outcome is that if Common Core State Standards fails, it would not be assessed as a failure because it wasn’t a great idea. It will be judged a failure because American teachers never embraced it or supported it. If it doesn’t work, it’s the fault of the bad teachers. No one will look back at the implementation and ask, “How did we prepare our educators to implement this bold idea?” or “Where were educators ranked in the priority of the plan?”

Much of this came in great clarity and focus to me on the plane after I left the conference. The flight attendant was doing the in-flight instruction and got to the part where the oxygen masks come down. She said: If you are an adult with children, place the mask over your face first, and then you will be able to place the mask over the face of the child. If Common Core fails, what then?

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When it comes to education reform, there are in general two major camps, but there are also several variations of each. The first camp would like to blow up the system and start all over. The other camp wants to continue the status quo while working to change it in directions governed by whatever dominant force of change has the ear of the public at the time. I find my own inclinations falling somewhere between the two camps. I want to blow some stuff up while improving upon some existing stuff. Like most educators, or any people with a basic understanding of authentic assessment, I do want to blow up any notion or hint of compliance with high stakes, standardized testing. The area of improvement that I think will get us the biggest bang for the all-important, tax buck is professional development.

It has long been my position that to be better educators, we need to be better learners. Since I have worked in higher education now for a while, many teachers have said to me how they love having student teachers in their building, because they can learn so much from the “young people” about all the new stuff in education. Some variation of that phrase has been repeated by more than one educator every year since I have been working with student teachers. To me that is a big RED FLAG. It causes me to ask, “Why does a veteran teacher need to have a student bring them up to date on the latest methodology, pedagogy and technology in the field of education?” If our students are to get a relevant education, should we not have relevant educators? Why on earth would experienced educators need students to provide that which every school district in the country should be striving to provide teachers within their system?

We need to examine the way we approach professional development in education. Too often it is left up to the educators to seek out their own PD. That is good for some, but not all educators have an understanding of what they do not know. If you don’t know about something, how would you know to seek PD in that area? This is especially true of learning with technology. I have a master’s degree in educational technology. The fact is that not any of the applications or computers that I learned on, as well as the methodology in the use of those components, exists today. Very little of that degree would be relevant, if I did not continue to learn, adapt and progress with what I know. The same holds true with any degree in any profession. From the day one gets a degree, things in that area of expertise begin to change. With the influence of a technology-driven culture, things move at a much faster pace than years past causing a more rapid rate of change. Therefore, the pace at which things change has increased exponentially, while the way we provide PD to deal with these changes is relatively unchanged from years past in many, if not most schools.

PD is offered by many schools in an annual or semiannual teacher workshop day. The other method is to allow teachers to seek out their own PD on their own time, often at their own expense. Technology training for teachers is often addressed in schools. The method of choice, however, by many schools is what my friend Brian Wasson, an IT guy, refers to as the “Home Depot Method.” The district goes out and buys all the cool tools from the vendors and then tries to teach, or force feed them to the teachers. That is a sure formula for failure.

We need to change PD. It must be part of an educator’s work week, and that includes administrators. We need educators to connect with other educators to collaborate and maintain relevance. Educators need to explore their needs and address them with solutions of their choosing after exploring the options. Faculty meetings can address procedures in shared documents with educators, while using the time in meetings to discuss pedagogy, methodology, best practices and new ideas. Educators need to be supported in trying new endeavors. When we address PD as evolving and continuous, and not as a teacher workshop day, we will begin to bring relevance back to education. Schools that do this now will be the first to tell us this. Of course, we need to connect with them for that to happen. Connecting educators is a first step.

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