Archive for March, 2013

I have long been a David Letterman fan on any of the shows he has hosted. Over the years one of my favorite Letterman bits has been when he and Paul Shaffer would discuss the possible ability of a specific item to float in water. After their predictions the item would be tossed into a giant, transparent vat of water to determine who was correct. The results were apparent and immediate.

Professional Development has long been an element in American education. At one time things changed slowly so that the need for development seemed less a concern. The country’s shift to being a technology-driven society has increased the rate of change, forcing a need for a more rapid rate of absorption of developments for people in all jobs and professions, but especially education.

The difficulty in education is its goal; it is not just to educate kids about their past and how it relates to the present, but also what to expect in the future. Of course we have no idea what the future holds, because the present is moving so quickly. Consider for a moment the effect of Smartphones and iPads on our culture. iPad technology is but three years old and has had a profound effect on those places that have embraced it. Smartphones have been around a little longer and have taken longer to be accepted by educators, but they are creeping successfully into the system after changing forever how the country communicates and accesses information. All of the technology and its effects have had a great influence on how kids learn and are motivated to learn, as well as what it is they are learning for. In many cases teachers have no idea what they are preparing their students for because their students’ future will be different from our present, and light years from our past. These are all reasons for educators to be relevant in terms of what is needed to teach as well as how to teach today.

The question is: does the system address the need for relevance in education? Many systems require teachers to acquire a specific number of PD hours over a period of time by selecting and taking courses or workshops on topics pertaining to education. These choices are left to the individual teacher to select and obtain. Of course some obvious questions pop up here. If the teacher is not comfortable with technology will technology be part of that teacher’s training. If a teacher has not kept up with current trends and research in education, how will he/she make choices that will best benefit his/her students? Is the teacher versed well enough in technology to relate to the technological changes that effect our population? It always comes down to relevance. Is the teacher able to make relevant decisions based on experience in a technologically driven culture?

Rather than try to hold millions of teachers accountable for these questions, a better method might be to look to the districts and the education leaders. Are they maintaining relevance? Are they providing professional development to their staffs to maintain relevance?  Are they supporting teachers with time to collaborate in order to incorporate what they should be doing. Have they gotten beyond the keynote lecture and hourly workshops once, or twice a year as their total commitment to teacher training?

Most educators consider Professional Development a key component to what they need to be an effective teacher. Most Administrators point to Professional Development as a key component to what their teachers need to be effective teachers. Most districts point to Professional Development as the key component to what their district needs to be an effective district. Yet after all of this, TEST Preparation and not Teacher Preparation is still the priority in American education.

Professional Development must be part of a teacher’s workweek. It must be prioritized, paid for, and most importantly PROVIDED. We should not expect anyone to take an uncomfortable path down into unfamiliar territory without some sort of guidance or leadership. It cannot be left up to people who may not know what it is that they do not know to decide on what they need to be effective.

A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client, and physician heal thy self are commonly understood. Maybe we need a phrase for educators trying to educate themselves? The system of PD in most American schools has become another victim of a fast paced technology driven culture. It no longer works as it did. If we do not change and adapt to meet the changes in our culture, we will surely be irrelevant as an institution. Now here is my question: PD in its present form; Will it Float?

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As I have traveled around this country participating in education conferences I have made several observations in regard to the effects of the Internet and social media on various levels of education as a profession, as an industry, and as an institution. These are often the topics of sessions at education conferences that draw thousands of educators in to look at, examine, talk over, consider, and move on. This all takes time and has been going on since tech was first introduced to education in various forms as tools for learning. It may be time to step back and look at the bigger picture.

As technology advances there are consequences for many industries that either fail to adapt, or whose product is replaced by what technology offers. Horse drawn carriages were replaced by horseless carriages. Typewriters were replaced by word processors. Instamatic cameras were replaced by digital cameras, which are now being replaced by cell phones. Photographic film is not found in any of the millions of stores from which it was previously sold in mass quantities. The news cycle no longer faces deadlines because of 24-hour news cycles. Newspaper and magazine stands have only a fraction of the offerings they had even five years ago. There is no longer a Kodak, Polaroid, Underwood Typewriter, or Newsweek magazine. They were all giants taken out by technology.

With all that, we as educators should have learned from all the examples of those industries that preceded us as victims in the advancement of technology. Why is education so slow in making decisions that would employ tech rather than resist it. Kodak was huge. It was in the “too big to fail” category. Its products included cameras, but its main product was film. Once digital photography moved into the industry it was a very short run to ruin.

The product of education is content. My path of reasoning must be getting clear about now. The key to content was always held by the academics to be shared by those who attended and prevailed in the education system. Teachers were the content experts. The Internet has now strained the value of content experts. Few content experts will ever be able to retain and command the content held by the power of the Internet. The shift that should take place in education is to teach students the skills to responsibly and critically access that content in order to create additional content.

We shouldn’t be guided by the demands of industry to teach skills that may not be in existence over the course of a student’s academic career. The idea that business can best direct the needs of learners is surpassed by the fact that business will only direct education to meet the present needs of business.

If education is to direct its own path and avoid becoming as irrelevant as a film company in a digital world, as educators we need to change. We can’t continue contemplating the use of technology for the sake of protecting our comfort zones. We need to update and restructure the way we administer Professional Development. We need to employ strategies to incorporate social media for collaboration. We need to better understand how to use technology to help us do what we do best even better. Our professional organizations need to move from the models of the past and lead teachers through professional development, discussion, and collaboration to a deeper understanding of their profession in a modern world. We are not a profession of the 1800’s, yet in many ways we carry ourselves and approach it that way. This to must change.

Professional development is a necessary component of the teaching profession. It must be part of every teacher’s workweek. It needs to be prioritized, funded and supported with time. Too many educators have no idea how much they do not know about their own profession. This will require a good amount of directed professional development, which is never popular with educators. Technology has changed things and continues to do so at an incredible rate of speed. If educators are to be effective they must be relevant. If harnessed, technology can be used to our advantage with proper training. If ignored, or not taken seriously by the entire profession, it could very well make educators irrelevant. Our education system is not too big to fail.

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After a marathon attendance at a number of education conferences this year I have stored up many observations on the approach these conferences use to engage educators in their profession. Since I began attending them over 35 years ago I do have some historical perspective. More often than not my experience on the planning of the “Education Conference” is: So it is written, so it shall be done! Many reshuffle the deck and deal out the same old hands. If we always plan conferences on what worked last year, progress will never catch up to relevance.

In our technology-driven society we have come to recognize that our students are learning differently. I would suggest that our educators are learning differently as well. That difference needs to be addressed by the conferences that help educate our educators. The reasons we as educators are reflecting and changing our methods of education to meet the needs of our students are the very reasons education conferences need to change to meet the needs of our changing educators. Resistance that we too often provide does not prevent the fact that there comes a time when we just must reinvent the wheel.

If all educators need to do, in order to keep up with modern education, is to listen to lectures, they can do that cheaper and more conveniently with webinars and podcasts over the Internet. What do conferences provide beyond the lecture? If the answer is face to face networking, then provide the spaces and times to do that. Select venues with ample lounging spaces or build them into the venue. Sessions must be planned with time between sessions for educators to connect and network. Schedule, encourage, or incent presenters, and featured speakers to circulate in these spaces.

Reflection rooms might be a unique addition. Spaces where speakers, presenters, and attendees could gather for reflection and discussion. This would be the best place for educators to connect face to face as well as digitally through social media to continue discussions online, beyond the conference and through the year. Those creative juices that flow during the conference will continue throughout the year. Current models get people thinking during the conference and in many cases the juices will not flow again until the next conference.

Planning the sessions is key to success in any Edu conference. If, as educators, we know that lecture is not the best way to learn, why would we encourage it in sessions? Interactive sessions, as well as discussions, and even interactive panel sessions are the very things that excite, engage, and educate educators. These should be encouraged and highlighted. The method of delivery should always be a prime consideration in addition to being clearly stated on the session description.

The selection of speakers and sessions needs to be examined. Connected educators are often on the cutting edge discussing education topics as much as a year before it hits Faculty meeting and lounges. If the committees made up to judge and select RFP for sessions than those educators need to be relevant as well. Again, a topic that was popular last year may not be as relevant this year. What upset me was that some of this year’s presenters were filling out and submitting RFP’s for next year’s conference. Maybe we should have staggered RFP deadlines with a quota for each date. Planners could then observe trends and avoid replication over a period of time. It also offers the opportunity to analyze the needs and send out requests for specific RFP’s.

Of course the biggest change in PD for educators in years has been the EDCAMP model of conference. Sessions are planned on the fly based on interest and expertise with the assembled group. These sessions are dynamic discussions, which dive into the depths of the selected topic. Every conference should set aside time for the EDCAMP model. Four hours should do it. Planning it for the middle of the conference will enable educators to get a handle on the topics they would need to delve deeply into.

Today’s technology has enabled educators to connect and collaborate globally. Only a few conferences have understood how to harness the power of the tweet. In order to show a conference to the world, the attendees, when moved by engagement will tweet out all that is needed. This draws into the conferences many who are not physically in attendance.

Every conference should have a connected educator space. Many Bloggers have claimed the Blogger’s Lounge as their space and have continued with great connections with other bloggers. We need that for all educators. The connected educator space must be present at every conference.

My final concern is in the Registration fees. Conferences are expensive to run. There is no option on charging money for attendance. The structure however may be flexible with several options. Consideration should be given to discounting for teams of teachers coming from the same district. Maybe we should have a discount for first-time attendees.

I have traveled the world going to Education conferences. All have good points and bad points. All of these conferences have come from the sweat, tears and blood of many volunteers. They are all well-intentioned and I believe in their necessity in our system for Professional Development. The point I feel we must fight for however is the need for relevance in the world in which we teach. This is the same thing we should strive for in all of education. Many of the goals we strive for to support our students should also be the same goals to address our needs to educate our educators.

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Whenever I attend an education conference, which I am doing with great frequency these days, I do so as an educator with an educator’s eye, and an educator’s attitude. It is through that lens that I view education conferences either as a conference for the education profession or the education industry. Sometimes conferences are a combination of both. An easy distinction is that the industry side is made up of the business side of education, while the profession side is composed of classroom educators. Of course the most effective conferences are a balanced blend of both. It is that balance that eludes so many conferences.

This balance in education conferences is also what we should seek in professional development. Instead of making it about the bells and whistles of the applications, we should ask the educators about their goals and methods and then see if that can be enhanced by technology. If the educator has an established  goal and an established method that can be made easier and more efficient, and more effective with technology, most educators will move toward that technology addition. The alternative way to do this is to have an administrative commitment to the technology and then to tell teachers to work it into what they do in order to make curriculum better. If teacher acceptance and cooperation is required for success, I think one method might work better than the other.

SxSWEdu 2013 was different from many other education conferences. There was no vendor floor. There were no booths to pursue. There were still tchotchkes, but they were given out at sessions or special events at various sponsored suites used as workplace spaces or meet-up lounges. I was told that the attendance was in the area of 5,000 attendees with one-third of that number representing educators. The few educator speakers who attended were of the very best education has to offer. There were fewer educators however than those speakers provided by the education technology industry.

I attended one workshop by a featured speaker that I thought was described as gaming for learning. Of course this idea of gaming in education is getting a great deal of attention recently, so with my educator lens in hand, I attended the session. The bulk of the session was about a history and development of specific computer generated games, as well as a strategy for working them into education. Monetizing games for education was also mentioned. The topic of learning as it relates to gaming was never the focus or was it barely mentioned. Again it was a business perspective, which is great for the industry folks in attendance, and there were many.

Finally, the time for the closing keynote approached. People began lining up 90 minutes before the designated time. Bill Gates was speaking to represent the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. Many educators have strong feelings both pro and con about the Gates involvement in education and his influence on education reform. That however was not the issue here. He was at SxSWEdu to give an inspiring education speech. He chose to speak at the start of the allotted time and then bring on a panel for questioning to end his session. I was ready. I positioned myself directly next to the only microphone set up for audience questioners. The Microphone stand actually touched my chair. It was the perfect spot.

The Gates speech for me lacked passion or even enthusiasm. A highlight came as he extolled the almost national acceptance of the Common Core State Standards. He put a giant emphasis on his point with a huge map of the United States with all of the accepting CCSS States brightly colored-in and the non-conforming states in a drab beige color. Of course the audience began to snicker and chuckle when in the center of this display the most prominent of the beige outcasts stood out as a huge section of the map. It was Texas, the very state we were all seated in. The irony grasped and tickled the audience, but it ignored Bill who did not seem to get it.

Bill’s address came to an end and he then introduced his panel. The part that assaulted my educator lens at this education conference was the fact that he introduced his panel as three outstanding CEO’s. It was more business people addressing educators about education. He chose to bring them out and individually question them one at a time. The questions were prepared as expected, but even the follow –up questions from Bill in response to their answers were wooden and staged. The Panel included: InBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger, Dreambox Learning Inc. CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, and for the Charter Schools, Summit Schools CEO Diane Tavenner.

Toward the end of the presentation I was mentally preparing to step up to the microphone that was standing at attention by my side. As Bill asked the last wooden question however, something sudden and unexpected happened. I looked down to my phone to tweet out a quick comment to the twitterverse, and as I looked up from the tweet, Bill and his friends were GONE! They literally ran off the stage. NO QUESTIONS FOR YOU! I was dejected all the way to the airport. I was a little lifted when I saw that the flight had Wi-Fi. I connected up and started seeing posts about the Gates Keynote already popping up. The first one I read referred to Gates inspiring the crowd and receiving a standing ovation. I was there and saw little inspiration, and absolutely no ovation. The only standing was when the panel fled the stage and the audience stood in confusion of the abrupt ending.

The emphasis of much of the conference, to me at least, was on data and content delivery. I guess they can be viewed as commodities and, as such, they are easily measured and more conveniently priced. After all, it is about the business. As an educator I tend to lean toward content creation, and formative assessment. Learning is not so easily measured and requires feedback and reflection and sometimes correction, or at least a restatement. After all, it is about the learning

None of what I have mentioned is meant as a negative, but rather just observation. People should understand the make-up and culture of conferences before committing whatever little time and money is available to them in today’s climate. Education is about learning, but it requires more than a slate and chalk to get it done in a technology driven society. If we are to really benefit from these conferences, we may need more education as an education profession and an education industry.

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I am very fortunate to have a position that gets me invited to education conferences around the country, and occasionally out of it as well. I have written a number of posts describing the benefits, and the blemishes, of many of them over the last year. I am writing this post, as I am en route to Austin, Texas to participate in one of the big ones, the SXSWEdu Conference. Last week however, I attended a gem of a conference conducted by the Illinois ISTE affiliate, The Illinois Computing Educator’s Conference, referred to as ICE13.

After attending so many conferences, it is easy to point out the flaws of any, or each. Most conferences require RFPs, the requests for proposals, to determine the sessions for the conference program far too many months in advance of the conference. The need for this is to have several, and in some cases, too many people, read over the proposals in order to determine which sessions to approve. Perhaps several staggered deadlines for RFPs might allow a more varied and relevant program. Another gateway to relevance could be a period of time within the conference to conduct an Edcamp format for a segment of the conference. I think all conferences could benefit by some innovative schedule planning.

ICE13 was a little different from many of the other statewide education conferences by virtue of its venue. Although I flew into Chicago, I had to drive what, according to my GPS, was a 45-minute trip outside of Chicago to St. Charles and a resort called Pheasant Run. This venue made a big difference in the tenor of this conference. The presentation rooms were spacious and well equipped as most conferences, but what made the difference was the sprawling hotel itself. There were two bars and several gathering areas with couches and comfy chairs throughout. It was hive of connectivity and networking based on discussions and discourse. It was a great place for presenters, keynotes and participants to meditate, mingle, and mashup ideas and concepts in education.

For me the highlight of the conference was what was called the PLN Plaza. It was used as an overflow area for the keynotes as those speeches were streamed in. The best part however was that the keynotes, as well as many presenters, were scheduled for drop-ins to conduct discussions on their topics with anyone who stopped by. It was up close and personal in the best way. This is an experience many bloggers benefit from at the Blogger’s Café at large national conferences. The PLN Plaza was the brainchild of a group of people including: Dan Rezac, Elizabeth Greene, and Amanda Pelsor, all of whom kept things moving along there for the entire conference. It was a comfortable gathering place where I engaged in many discussions, as well as networking, and connected throughout my entire stay.

There seemed to be more Twitter activity at this conference as well. Connected educators seemed to be a topic that was emphasized by many of the keynotes and several of the presenters. Camaraderie between the presenters because of their connectedness was very evident at ICE13. The conference also had more than one Wi-Fi network to connect to, which made many people very happy.

In addition I also enjoyed The UDL Playground. I first saw this at the NYSCATE Conference in New York. It is a place where a number of vendors can demonstrate tools as participants ask questions to learn about Universal Design for Learning. The activities there were interactive and very instructive. In full disclosure, my wife’s company, VIZZLE, was quite active in its participation at both conferences. It would be great if more vendors participated in activities like the UDL Playground to enable educators to engage authentically beyond a basic booth demonstration.

Education conferences are a needed component of professional development for teachers and administrators, but they are not going to maintain relevance without connecting their members in greater numbers during each conference. Unconnected educators are pumped up and energized with each annual conference. That occurs annually. They need to meet people and network with the new people who they meet at the conference. Connected educators are pumped up and energized year-round, and go into hyper-drive at conferences as they connect face-to-face with all of the educators they have been exchanging information and sources with during the year. We need to stop just talking about innovation as a goal and practice it as professionals. We need to innovate in every aspect of what we do, and we do it wherever and whenever we can. Connectedness has been digitally enhanced through technology, and it is an innovation we need to employ extensively.

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