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Category — TechLearning Posts

Your Own Museum

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

If you haven’t already done so, go spend a few minutes playing with Intel’s “The Museum of Me.” It’s a slightly amusing meme that people have been enjoying for a few weeks. You simply put in your Facebook credentials, and Intel creates a “movie” of a museum, showing you, your Facebook friends, videos and pictures you’ve uploaded to Facebook, etc. It’s a bit creepy seeing how easy it is to draw up a “digital footprint” of one’s self, but it also is an impressive idea, leaving me wanting more: we really should have “Museums of Me.”

In a sense, we do— we have a digital footprint that can be called up with all kinds of tools on the Internet (Google being the easiest). But what if we really were able to have a digital museum, where we could pull together everything that we wanted people to see and know about us, in one place, rather than scattered Across the Universe Internet?

Of course, what I’m really thinking about is a living museum for students to keep their work viewable and preserved— from Kindergarten (or before) onward. Intel’s fun little tool is a tiny vision of what could be, but is limited more than by its brevity or Facebook-centric focus. One really has no control as to what gets added to the museum, or what the museum looks like, or even how long it will survive.

A smart company (like Intel) could easily create real “Museums of Me” for people at little or no cost, but I would especially like to see one created for students to capture their work in a reliable and stable environment that will still exist when they graduate college (Google: “Will you still be here in 20 or so years?”)

All across the nation, unfortunately, trash bins are being filled to overflowing with student work as schools close up and begin the summer cleanse. It happens every year: out with the old, to make ready for next year, because all the paper work takes up space.

Digital work (or digital captures of work) takes up very little space. There’s really no reason to ever throw it out.

If our work that we do with students is important, then it should be preserved and revered. Every student deserves his/her own personal museum.

June 23, 2011   1 Comment

Who has the Right?

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

I’ve been using a new LiveScribe pen for several weeks, and I must say, I love it. It’s an amazing tool, and what I would have given to have such a device when I was back in college, taking notes. I’ll let you explore the pen on your own over at LiveScribe (and hopefully I’ll be able to give a more thorough review of it in a later post), but I’m going to focus this blog entry on an issue that, while hypothetical here, has probably already arisen or will arise at some point… possibly at a school near you.

Before I paint the scenario, let me just give you the bare-bones basics of the LiveScribe pen:

  • it’s a pen (you can write with it)
  • it can record audio (which can be played back later)
  • you can click on any part of the note you’ve taken (on special LiveScribe paper) and it will play the audio that was recorded when those notes were taken (in other words, if you were listening to an hour long lecture, you could review the important parts of the audio quickly by just “tapping” on sections that you’ve, say, put a star next to… therefore, rather than listening to the entire hour, you could review just the most important parts in minutes
  • there is a plethora of other scenarios for its use beyond what I just described above.

Ok: now for a fictional (?) scenario:

“Student A” has access to a LiveScribe pen. He/she has difficulty capturing notes during lectures (this could be at a high school, college, etc) and the LiveScribe pen is a lifesaver for Student A. He/she writes down as much as she/he is able to during the lecture, but is able to quickly review the most important parts (in preparation for an exam, paper, etc) by clicking on the different parts of the “capture.”

Student A is a responsible student. He/she lets the teacher/professor know about the tool before recording in order to get consent from the teacher for use of the tool.

The teacher flatly refuses. Reasons given could be any or all of the following:

  • “I’m uncomfortable having my lecture recorded.”
  • “You have permission to record me, but you don’t have the permission to record the rest of the class, and I don’t have the right/power to grant the permission to record the other students.”
  • “Knowledge of being recorded could have a stifling effect on class discussions.”
  • “Your recording could be shared with other students, and thus have an increase on absenteeism.”
  • “You could use the audio to create an edited ‘mashup’ of my words in some audio editing program, and make me ‘say‘ something I never said.”
  • “We don’t have a policy allowing recordings in our school.”
  • “We have a policy banning audio recordings in our school (possibly our state).”
  • “This tool would give you an unfair advantage over other students in the class who don’t have access to the recording.”
  • “The pen will be a distraction in my classroom.”
  • “The answer is ‘no’ and I don’t need to give you a reason; it’s my classroom.”

Who has the right here? Does the teacher have the right to deny the student from using a tool that will benefit his/her learning? Or… does the student have the right to use any tool that will ensure success and overcome a learning difficulty or help strengthen his/her acquisition of knowledge in a modality that he/she is not adept in (i.e., not being an “auditory learner” would make lecture-style delivery of content a struggle)?

Before you answer (and I hope you do in the comments section below), you may want to visit the following links to review the issue of recording in a classroom from various “lenses.” I’ve included stories related to video as well as audio recording in order to illustrate that this is an issue that is certainly in flux and, at times, volatile:

  1. First, and foremost, check your state’s laws regarding recording (with or without consent) at the Citizen Media Law Project. Were you aware of your state’s law? Does your state have a law regarding recording without consent? Does it cover the scenario above? For example, would Massachusetts’ “Public Meetings” Recording Law cover classrooms? Are classrooms considered “Public places?” (see the next link)
  2. Warning: this next link is a pretty sad story and has no connection to the LiveScribe scenario above. However, it is relevant to the discussion as it illustrates the battle to define classrooms as “Public” or “Private” settings: “Is it Legal to Secretly Record a Teacher in Class?”
  3. This link takes us back to Massachusetts, highlighting a conversation about the ambiguity of the law.
  4. I have to also include this great article from Andy Carvin —reaching all the way back to 2006!— that echoes concerns in the last link (yes, this is an issue that has a history). Again, while not directly related to using the LiveScribe pen (more broadly covering the “emergence of citizen’s media,” I can’t help but wonder that when Carvin asks, “Are there cases where any form of secret recording would be deemed acceptable?” that this would include a student secretly recording with a LiveScribe pen (where permission has been denied) in order to ensure success with learning.
  5. Here’s a post that addresses both the “woes” of recording with the LiveScribe Pen on the sly and recording with consent.
  6. Here is LiveScribe’s advice about legality:
    “What are the legal issues surrounding recording conversations and lectures with a Livescribe Smartpen?
    Similar to using cameras, cell phones, digital voice recorders and other consumer electronic devices, the owners have a responsibility to behave ethically and demonstrate common courtesy when it comes to personal privacy.”
  7. Also, check out this David Pogue article where he has a high school student review the pen. I especially like this quote when examining the pen’s distraction potential: “Look, I’m a teenager. A laptop makes it incredibly easy to mask that you’re playing a game during a lecture or perusing Facebook… [w]ith the Echo smartpen, it is a lot more difficult to fool around.”
  8. And, finally, my favorite post in my recent searching from “The Wrightslaw Way
    to Special Education Law and Advocacy”
    that addresses the rights of students who are fortunate to have an IEP and therefore “eligible for special education services under IDEA.” Note: read the comments as well to see the struggles that still exist (i.e., the comments from “Wanda”).

But… what about the student who doesn’t have an IEP? Who gets to decide the final answer of whether the tool is allowed into the classroom? Surely, we can’t simply discount a teacher’s trepidation of being recorded (especially when the final destination of the file is out of the teacher’s hands… can you say, “YouTube?”). I don’t think many would argue that alerting teachers to the fact that they’re being recorded is proper and should be standard practice, but, should CONSENT actually be required? Clearly, many state laws have already answered this, but were they thinking about the LiveScribe pen when they wrote these laws?

Are we lumping tools like the LiveScribe pen in a “Wiretapping Law” legal category, when they should be seen instead as Assistive Technology tools protected by laws such as IDEA, or even seen just a necessary tool “to get the job done?”

I wonder if regular pens were ever banned from classrooms. They can “record” words too. Is a LiveScribe pen just a “Pen 2.0?”

In thinking and searching about this issue, it seems like there are a lot of unknowns, questions about legality, and strong opinions on both sides of the argument. One thing is clear to me, however: this is a complicated discussion that needs to be happening in preparation for the ever increasing evolution of assistive technology tools. Who gets to decide the allowance of such tools in the classroom? Is this a teacher decision? Is it a School Policy issue? Is it a State or National law that will ultimately decide? Are you comfortable having a student use a LiveScribe pen in your classroom? Are there rules/guidelines/expectations that need to be established? Has your school already created these?

When I asked one of my 3rd grade students (whom I’ve been using the LiveScribe pen with) about who ultimately has the right to decide whether the tool can or can’t be used, she said:

“I’d go with the student. If it’s going to help you with learning… and the kid really wants to do all this —they don’t want to get this bad grade, they want to do this— then why can’t they have this tool? It would help them, so I’d go with the student. I really would.”

What are your thoughts?

(By the way, I have that quote verbatim because she allowed me to use my LiveScribe pen so I made sure I had it right.)


May 26, 2011   No Comments

Let’s Have Lunch!

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

It started small, but now I have company during most of my free lunch times at school. Word got out about a couple of student gatherings, and now there are regularly scheduled “groups” having lunch with me weekly.

What can one do? The students want to keep learning.

That’s right. I have students coming to me to set up groups that will keep them learning during their lunch time.

The largest group is my “TED Academy” group. This group started when one student asked me if I knew about “Kahn Academy.” I told her I did, but was more interested in how she knew about it. Kahn Academy is an amazing—HUGE—repository of instructional video, but definitely geared towards higher grades. This was a 3rd Grader asking me this question.

After a brief discussion, she asked me if she could come show me some of the videos she had watched. I happily agreed and told her to bring several friends. The next thing I knew, most of her class was at my door the next day.

We watched a video from Kahn, followed by an amazing conversation. I asked if they’d be interested in checking out some of the videos over at TED as a possible alternative to Kahn for future lunches (due to their grade level), and they were eager to check it out.

So now, every Friday, I enjoy lunch with a group of 3rd graders while watching an amazing TED video and listen to their incredible discussions that follow.

Their discussions are:

  • focused
  • exciting
  • filled with personal connections
  • engaging
  • relevant
  • show deep understanding of what they just watched
  • connected to global issues
  • focused on how they can make the world a better place, based on what they just learned
  • completely independent of me

Usually, I work right through lunch (updating the school’s website, finding parent links, planning for lessons, etc.). This is so much better.

I definitely feel like I’m getting a break in my day (TED’s done all the work). I just eat my lunch, watch the students digest and then dissect the videos, and enjoy their discussions more than they will probably ever know.

Learning doesn’t have to stop because of assigned time slots, and in fact, we know it doesn’t stop (we’re learning all the time). It is a world of hope and celebration when students approach a teacher and ask for additional learning resources. What more could a teacher ask for?

At this point, the students are going home, previewing the TED videos, and bringing in recommendations for the group. They are entirely in charge of these learning lunches. I just provide the computer and the projector. And the cafeteria provides the food.

There are so many opportunities for continued learning on the web for students asking for more. There’s TED, there’s Kahn… and here’s a link to a great article called, “10 Open Education Resources You May Not Know About (But Should)” that I just came across giving you even more resources for continued, open learning.

Bon Appetit!

May 12, 2011   8 Comments

Bring Your iPhone to Your Student/Teacher/Parent Conferences

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

Or… iPod Touch 4 or Flip Camera, or any other mini camera that can capture short video clips, needs very little editing, and fits in your pocket so you have it with you all the time.

That’s what one of my colleagues did at his recent Student/Parent/Teacher Conferences: he simply hooked up his iPhone to a TV and let parents see recordings of students working, reflecting on their work, showing evidence of success and areas to work on. In his 20 minute conferences, he only needed a little bit of video to keep the conversation flowing and focused on important issues.

For instance, one of his student’s parents had previously expressed their concern that their child wasn’t choosing “good fit” books for reading time. So, he showed the parents a book-talk discussion that the student had with her reading group after struggling with a book choice. In the words of my colleague, “The parents were pretty impressed with that.” He noted that their watching their student’s process on video was quicker than him trying to explain it (which helps with conferences that are limited by time).

“I think they [the parents] saw it as proof,” he went on “of how she led the conversation as a young reader.”

Undoubtedly, the parents left knowing that the teacher was committed to their concerns, that their student was making gains, and they got to witness the growth “first hand,” rather than through any “filter” or “spin” the teacher could have put on it. After the video viewing, the student was asked to reflect with her parents about what she saw in the video, and what she had been learning about picking “good fit” books.

This is powerful stuff. It was powerful when teachers realized that students should lead their own Parent/Teacher conferences (alas, some teachers have still not come around to this notion, and don’t allow students in the conference, and there are certainly times when Teacher/Parent only conference are needed), but this takes it to a whole new level.

Not only is the student present during the discussion in a Student-led conference, but thanks to the video, the student of “the past” is present as well, demonstrating understanding, growth, knowledge and PROOF when learning had actually been happening, rather than reflecting on it at a later date. Also, the video serves to reinforce and focus the message the teacher is trying to impart during the conference.

A complete picture can be painted all through the use of a simple video recorder.

How many of you are using video as evidence in your Conferences?

April 14, 2011   No Comments

What’s Your Backup Plan?

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

This past week, our Internet went down in the school. The reasons it crashed are complicated, mysterious, and most likely beyond my scope of understanding (not being an IT person).

Since I teach in the computer lab, I’m hit pretty hard when the Internet goes because most of my lessons are online. However, I always have a backup plan (though I work really hard on using mostly Internet-based resources, I do have some software for just such events… namely, the National Virtual Manipulatives software that, while accessible for free online, is also available for purchase in disc form). Luckily, my 3rd and 4th grade lessons were happening in Garageband and Scratch this week, so those classes were able to continue our work without the Internet.

Besides my own lessons, though, the shutdown definitely had a huge effect on all of us in the school. For instance, this week is REPORT CARD week, which like most schools, is done online. Not being able to complete grades  definitely increases stress levels for people. Additionally, lack of email access breaks down our normal channels of communication. Also, all of our attendance and lunch count is done online. These are hurdles suddenly throwing monkey wrenches into an already busy day, but perhaps the hardest thing for people is not knowing when the Internet is going to come back online.

On the bright side, I try to remind people that the loss of Internet used to happen on average several times a month in years past. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help quell the panic because people didn’t rely on it years ago as much as they do now. The more time that’s gone by, the more we’ve become web-based, in lessons and in daily operations.

That’s a good thing. It’s what we’ve been trying to get people to do for years: to integrate technology seamlessly into instruction, and get people comfortable in using the new tools available for data management, communication, publishing, and accessing information.

All it takes is one day with the Internet down for people to get frustrated, though, and pull back —even if just a little— into not trusting these new tools to be manageable or able to be ubiquitous. I’m proud to report that, for the most part, my colleagues took this “black out” with a sense of calm and humor, and luckily, the connection came back within a day.

But… let’s imagine that it was “broken” for a longer period. What’s our backup plan?

If we were to lose electricity (and trust me: living in Maine with snowstorms and ice storms, this happens more often than you’d think), our school has a back up in place: a generator. Not all schools have this, but we’re lucky to be an “Emergency Shelter” site in town. Things keep on humming here at school even when our town has lost power for days due to a nasty ice storm. School isn’t closed. There isn’t any “waiting it out.” We’re confident that the days will run with relative regularity.

But what about the Internet? The more we become a digital school (lesson-wise, data collection, daily routines like attendance, email, lunch counts, etc.), the harder it is (and perhaps the more frustrating it becomes) when we are suddenly “cut off.”

Sure, we could go back to the “old routines” of paper, and handwritten attendance and lunch counts, and Report Cards could always be delayed (for a couple of days at least), but the farther we get away from the “old routines” of analog practice, will it become harder to revert back?

We had a “blip” the other day. No big deal. But I’m sure many communities have taken harder hits with “digital infrastructure.” You can just look at the current news to see weather or disaster or political related interruptions to all types of services, not just Internet.

Our school planned ahead when it purchased a generator to keep power going in the event of outage. To my knowledge, I don’t know if we have a plan for an extended Network/Internet outage. Much of our infrastructure is outside of the district’s control, managed by third party vendors or state run systems.

What alternatives are out there? How is your school prepared for an extended Network outage? Do you have a backup plan? Is there such a tool like a generator to insure that things can keep running smoothly? Is this something we should be thinking/planning/worrying about?

Thanks for your comments!

March 24, 2011   2 Comments

Play Time! (Please Don’t Cry)

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

I’ve been meaning to post about the topic of PLAY for a while now, and was motivated to finally get to it after reading this excellent article called, “The Case for Play” over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. My students and I are currently talking a lot about Play right now —which we refer to as Sandbox Mode— so this post is particularly relevant for me now.

Though the term Sandbox or Sandbox Mode has been around for ages, I must pause to give Vicki Davis credit for making the term a building block of my curriculum, as she discussed it years ago with me and how important it was to identify it as an essential step in learning. I’ve mostly identified the term Sandbox as a place to “try things out with coding or software without actually destroying the world;” a place to try things without committing them to an actual finished project.

I really integrated the term “Sandbox” into my curriculum when one day a student asked me: “Mr. S, how did you get so smart and learn all you know about computers?”

I stopped everything I was doing right away and let the student know two truths:

1. I’m not actually as smart as you think I am.


2. I’ve learned pretty much everything I know about computers from simply playing around with them.

I don’t think the student bought it (at least number 2).

Teachers have long passed out “new tools” to students and said, “Explore with them,” before the actual lesson gets underway. It just makes good sense. For instance, introduce students to Base Ten blocks and the first thing that they’re going to want to do is build. They’re not thinking about the blocks as Mathematical Tools yet; they first see them as FUN! So, whether you want them to or not, they’re going to build with them the moment they get them into their hands, so go ahead: let them get it out of their systems. Tell them “You have X-number of minutes to do what you wish with these tools (within normal safety expectations),” and then get down to the “serious” work (note: I still think Base Ten blocks are fun even when used for Math because I think Math is fun).

So, I let students do this as much as possible in the Computer Lab (just as I did when I was a classroom teacher), but I now call it “Sandbox Mode” because I’ve added some parameters around it.

One of the main things I want for ALL my students is that they have confidence, belief in themselves, and are not afraid to try things. This isn’t just about computers (I want them to feel this way about everything), but using computers as an example: I want my students to leave me being able to sit down at ANY computer, running ANY type of Operating System, and immediately be able to figure out things about ANY piece of software. Again, I pause here to give another hat-tip to Vicki Davis for she really helped me understand that I have to make this goal (and all the stages necessary to achieve it) explicit to the students. I can’t just do my lessons and hope that they get there, or somehow infer what skills I ultimately hope they leave with.

So, I call it “Sandbox Mode” instead of play.

The rules that govern Sandbox Mode are:

  1. The first rule of Sandbox Mode is you don’t talk about Sandbox Mode (just kidding with this one)
  2. Sandbox Mode will only last for 5 minutes
  3. You may not talk during Sandbox Mode
  4. You may not shout out your discoveries during Sandbox Mode
  5. You may not ask questions from anyone during Sandbox Mode

Now, before I give these parameters, I’ve learned to get the students ready with a little “comedy routine” in order to get them laughing and relaxed (if you’d like to hear it, click here… it’ll give you an idea of my “routine”). The reason I do this, is that I’ve learned that if I don’t get students laughing and relaxed before Sandbox Mode, some students get very stressed during the 5 minutes that I ask them to work entirely on their own…. some to the point of tears.

In fact, there have been times when I’ve put adults in Sandbox Mode, and some of them have gotten stressed… also to the point of tears.

This begs the question: why? Why can’t some students (and even some adults) work entirely alone for 5 minutes without becoming distressed? I don’t think this just happens with technology… I think it happens across disciplines. If you listen to my audio that I linked above, you’ll hear my “theory” about why this happens, but I think it’s better told by two students I know.

I met Maya and Priya Ganesan at the TEDxRedmond conference last year, and I think both girls show an understanding in their talks that help us get at a part of the problem.

First, listen to Priya Ganesan’s talk on on “Creativity in Schools”:

You’ll hear her talk about her experiences in school where “half of the work” has been done for students, as in her example about writing a poem. She questions why schools don’t trust students of being “capable” to create the entire poem themselves.

This is a profound question. Does it actually have to do with trust, or are students provided half of the poem to speed things along in order to get through the curriculum? Or is it a matter of control… making sure that all students reach the desired (successful) outcome? No matter what the reason, Priya brings to light that students aren’t being allowed to fumble on their own; aren’t given the time to create an entire piece independently; are restricted by strong routines set in place.

Are we as teachers —unwittingly, and with the best intentions— doing too much of the work for the students?

Look: I know I do it. If I really had the guts, I would extend Sandbox Mode for a longer period than 5 minutes (perhaps most learning should be done in Sandbox Mode). But I am looking at the clock and the calendar and realize that I only have the students for such a small amount of time, so I hasten to show them how to use the software (or whatever I’m teaching) rather than allow them to discover it on their own (which, as stated above, is the way that I myself prefer to learn about software).

In a “factory model” setting (i.e., large classrooms sizes, little time, huge curriculum to cover), it is simply nearly impossible to allow for true inquiry-based learning.

Does this matter?

I think it does… and perhaps more than ever. We need to facilitate learning environments that allow for students to become confident, independent thinkers who are not afraid to discover on their own. It will be thinkers and risk-takers that are going to solve many of the issues facing the world today… and tomorrow’s issues that are yet unrealized.

I can’t help but see an overlap with Priya’s TEDxRedmond talk and her sister, Maya’s: “The Definition of Perfection:”

Looking at her examination of how this idea of “Perfection” can lead to serious health issues, I think about Priya’s questioning of why we don’t allow students time for independently accomplishing tasks, or even making their own creative decisions. Could this absence of independently solving problems and tasks lead to a lack of confidence that later plays out in such serious issues like eating disorders described by Maya?

If you’d like to hear more from Priya and Maya, head on over to the Seedlings’ Podcast from February 10, 2011 when they were guests on the show.

In the meantime, will you help me to answer the following question:

What factors are leading to some of our learners becoming distressed to the point of tears when told to PLAY with their learning? And what are we doing about it?

Thank you for your input in the comment section below.

March 8, 2011   No Comments

This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

“I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record”
“Kiss Off” by the Violent Femmes

A friend of my daughter’s mentioned over lunch today that her mom thinks there will come a day when no one will be able to get into college because of the stuff they’ve posted on Facebook. This girl, as well as my daughter, aren’t allowed to have Facebook accounts as they’re under the age of 13. Most of their friends (still under the age of 13) already have FB accounts.

The other morning, my friend Alice Barr pointed me to an interesting article (via Facebook, btw) called, “5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence Will Replace Your Resume in 10 years” by Dan Schawbel, that’s certainly worth a read and which  compliments the argument that this mother point makes: we will be judged by our digital footprint.

I am a firm believer of this. In fact, if you Google my name, you’ll see a huge roll-out of my digital footprint, one that I am quite proud of, and in fact suggest people call up if they want to know “all about me.” I also continue a very transparent collection of the work that I do, my thoughts about education, interviews I’ve done, my publications, etc., all found neatly ordered at Again, I want people to be able to get a clear snapshot of me and continue to contribute to the ease of hunting that information down. I’ve long advocated that teachers should pursue a similar practice, that investing in one’s own domain name should be seen as essential as having a business card or resume, handed out by way of introduction to students, other teachers, and members of the global community.

However: this digital footprint of mine —that I’m rather proud of— was created entirely as an adult. What would it look like if I had started its compilation as a teenager, as most teenagers are doing now?

Look, I can’t even remember most of the mistakes I made as a teen (and I wouldn’t list them here even if I could), but I’m sure I resembled most adolescents and was not perfect. I learned from those errors of my youth and hopefully those experiences have made me a better person: the person I feel good about when I look in the mirror.

Infractions from me and my peers were usually handled privately (i.e., parents), and unless someone messed up big time and it happened to make the newspapers, all records of those infractions are now just fizzling out in aging memories, pulled forth only at times to help us be better parents and make sure our kids don’t do the same stupid things we did.

Let’s face it: teens today are not afforded the same privilege of “erasure” that we had at their age. I know what most responses will be: “Yes, but they’re the ones posting their “mess-ups” on Facebook!” (And post it they do; I remember my brother who is a police officer telling me how much they loved MySpace and Facebook… that all they needed to do was read certain profiles, and confessions were already captured in print).

Studies show us that prefrontal cortex, aka, the “executive functioning” part of our brain —you know, the part of the brain that steps in before we do something stupid like post a picture of doing a “keg stand” on Facebook—doesn’t reach maturity until around the age of 25.

Dude, that’s a long time with plenty of Facebook posts and Twitters and YouTube Videos and Flickr Pics before ones brain is finally able to say “hmmm… maybe it isn’t a great idea to push SHARE.”

Personally, I will continue to beat the drum to my daughter, her friends, and my students that what they post on the Internet can become a mark on their “permanent record.” The decisions they make today on the Internet could surely influence their college admissions and job opportunities.

However… I’m curious (and psst! we can even keep this question on the “low” and not share it with our kids so they don’t get the idea that “anything goes”). Will there come a time with employers and colleges and loan officers and future in-laws and committees vetting candidates for political office, etc., where there will be an understanding that some of that old “digital footprint” created prior to “executive functioning maturation” can/will/should be overlooked?

Let me ask it this way: How would you have fared if your teenage years were preserved in bits and bytes the way our students’ are today?

February 24, 2011   4 Comments

There’s Never a Snow Day in Cyberspace

(cross-posted at TechLearning)

What a winter it has been! My own district is up to 3 “snow days” (school being closed) as well as a handful of “delayed” school openings or “early releases” due to weather. Some school districts have had it worse, and there’s talk of cutting vacation or attending school on Saturdays in order to make up days, if this winter continues lobbing storms our way. Some schools have already made that decision: goodbye February vacation!

This makes complete sense of course, because we have to commit to the 180 or so days required. Clearly, if the buses can’t get the students to school then we CAN NOT HAVE SCHOOL!

Or can we?

I’m sure you know where I’m heading with this: school being contingent on the fact that students are sitting in a shared space after being “trucked in” is just so “20th Century thinking.” We have so many technological tools to continue learning outside of the classroom, and the options grow larger on a daily basis; when and how will these start being used to help tackle the snow day conundrum?

First: there’s no way the changes can happen overnight. There are many things that have to be addressed before we even put in the technology to support “cyber-snow-day-learning.”

First and foremost, we have to change the expectation of what a “snow day” is. Currently (and certainly it was this way when I was a student), when school is canceled, the entire plan and expectation of what the day was supposed to be gets tossed right out the window. In other words, students —and some adults— (full disclosure: I’ve been one of those adults at times) are overjoyed to take a day such as a “Wednesday” and let it be completely transformed into a “weekend” day. Without a doubt, some of this is necessary: the day has to open up to allow for all the shoveling required and the cookies that need to be baked. Snow days often feel like winning the lottery as most of us pull the covers back up over our heads and catch up on much needed sleep.

However… if we tweaked this “lottery” perception —even just a bit— perhaps we can still get some learnin’ done. After all, that was the original plan for these days currently demolished by bad weather.

Even without adding technology to the “wintry” mix, we could always have had expectations that students would still do “schoolwork” when home on a snow day. Perhaps, this could have taken the form of “snow day packets,” prepared ahead of time for when weather hits hard. Unfortunately, I imagine that these packets would be filled mostly with “busy work” and wouldn’t hold a candle to a “true” school day’s engaging activities (er… unless some of the normal school day is already filled up with “busy work”).

Okay… at this point in the post I must acknowledge that I’ve probably lost most of my readers. The group of you who are still here reading are probably starting to craft strongly worded retorts for the “comments” section, with accusations of me being a “killer of winter-wonderland magic” and that it is every child’s right to feel the rare thrill and shout out a giant “whoo!” into the collective joy when his/her own school is read on the radio or scrolls on the bottom of the TV list: CANCELED!

Those of you have completely stopped reading this post are probably outside by now, busily pounding snow into small but well compacted balls to pitch at me.

So, let me take pause here and be clear: I loved snow days as a kid and I still (mostly) love them now. I want kids outside in their 3 pairs of corduroy pants, building snow-forts, creating snowmen, eating ice off their mittens. However, I don’t love snow days enough to give up my vacation days (especially when I have family or professional plans), and I also begrudge the interruption to learning that snow days can have.

For instance, teaching 500 students, there are some classes that are WAY behind the other students in their grade due to snow days or delays or early releases consistently (coincidentally?) falling again and again on the day that I’m supposed to have them. Even when we do finally make up the work, these students’ skills have become rusty over the missed time, and they never quite catch up to where the other classes are.

So… perhaps a compromise? Perhaps… we start small and, more importantly, we do it in a way that continues the joyous feeling one finds on a traditional snow day. (This is undoubtedly, a much larger topic than this post allows, but in short, why can’t school be as exciting and as coveted as a snow day?).

What would “starting small” look like? Well, one approach could be to first build the necessary online tools at the elementary grade level. In doing so, we are chipping away at changing that “snow-day-off-entitlement” issue I talked about above. In other words, you start with the elementary students with the expectation that part of the snow day will be spent online, and by the time they get to middle and high school, the shock will long have worn off and there won’t be an uprising.

Another approach would be to start with the higher grades, who might already have a lot of the infrastructure in place (i.e., these may be the grades where “blended learning” is already being implemented).

Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that teachers and adults are with me on the idea of spending a partial day online (and having it count towards days that need to be made up). Let me address the argument that students have no interest whatsoever in doing so.

I took a very informal survey at my own school with one of the days of classes (grades 1-4) who have missed 2 days already with me due to snow (and remember: since I see over 500 students, I only see these classes every six days… which means an entire month can go by if I miss 2 days with them… don’t forget to add in the missed time with February vacation). I asked them to raise their hands if they “liked snow days.” In all classes that was a unanimous “Yes!”

Then, I asked students if they’d be interested in the idea of spending 2 hours online during a snow day. They could still have time outside playing in the snow, but would have to commit to spending some time (with their teacher) online. In each class, the hands dropped to about half. Ok, fair enough.

But then I asked them, what if they were learning in a virtual environment much like Webkinz or Club Penguin and once again, most classes gave a unanimous and emphatic “Yes!”

I also asked if they would be open to spending time online with a teacher, reading books together and having literary discussions. Again, most students were up for the idea.

It seemed the more specific I painted the experience that would happen online, the more votes I got for putting it into practice.

Again: this is a very unscientific survey, but it is fodder for further examination and discussion.

Let me explain another scenario. I’ve been working with 8 students in an after school Technology Club. The students meet weekly for an hour without me, and then with me for an hour every other week. The students are creating the agenda for the club and making all decisions. One thing they’ve decided to work on is researching ways to help educate others about the Gulf Oil Spill and how to help the ecosystem there. This has brought us to setting up a Skype call with (the now famous) (who is a strong advocate for saving birds in the Gulf). The Tech Club students have been incredibly excited for the Skype call to happen, however, have suffered through several disappointments due to having to cancel because of “early release” days from bad weather. It has been frustrating for all involved. The thing is, though, the Skype conferences could have taken place whether school was canceled or not. All students (and myself) could have just as easily connected with Olivia from our own home computers in Skype and the conversation could have happened weeks ago. The only thing that has stopped that from happening is the time needed to set each student up with a Skype account (which is definitely a tiered procedure: getting parent permission, training them how to use Skype, making sure they had the necessary hardware, etc.). Hopefully we’ll get there soon because one of the most important parts of the Tech Group’s plan is to start working virtually in Reaction Grid (much like a Second Life world, but safe). Myself and about a dozen other educators have been working to get that set up, and as I mentioned before, it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re getting close, however!

There are plenty of pros and cons that have to be worked out with making up snow days in a virtual space. Many details will need to be ironed out (what about students that don’t have access? how many students need to show up online for it to count as a school day? what type of learning environments need to be in place?), but just like the three inch layer of ice on my car, we’ve got to start chipping away at the discussion.

Whether you like the idea or not, I believe its day is coming. Just read through the list of links below to see what’s already being done and see what The National Education Technology Plan calls for (regardless of snow days):

Develop[ing] a teaching force skilled in online instruction. As online learning becomes an increasingly important part of our education system, we need to provide online and blended learning experiences that are more participatory and personalized and that embody best practices for engaging all students.

We may love our snow days, but we’ve got to make up the time no matter what. We could use winter cancellations as ways to strengthen our Online (Blended) Instruction plans. Or… we could just make up those days in… July?


Further Reading:

February 10, 2011   1 Comment