Are We There Yet?

I’m a believer in personal learning networks. I’ve often said that I have learned far more from my colleagues than I have from any graduate course or workshop or conference. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, exchanging ideas, debating instructional approaches, and uniting in finding the best ways to leverage technology to improve learning and best meet students’ evolving needs.

map-29903_1280The technologies have evolved over the years. Online bulletin boards and usenet made way for web-based discussion boards and email lists. Blogs and wikis made it easy for anyone to post ideas online, and podcasts, Skype and Google Plus made it easy to connect with audio and video. The move to mobile and the integration of social networking tools have made connecting a friction-less part of life. It’s easier, sometimes, to use these tools to message the people in my own home than it is to go upstairs and find them. At the same time, these tools have made it easy to blend my social networks with my professional learning networks. Everything is in the same place.

At professional conferences, I’ve increasingly moved away from the the pre-planned presentations, in which a speaker talks about a topic for an hour, in favor of more interactive sessions that are more improvised and targeted to meet the needs of the people in the room. For me, this trend began with Educon several years ago, and has continued through the EdCamp movement and the unconference components of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference, OETCx. I think the exchange of ideas on that informal level is just as valuable, and perhaps more authentic, than the sessions that have an “expert” doing all the talking.

At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly disengaged in the last couple years. I’m still writing here (at least once a month), and I get good feedback about the ideas I share. But I’m really not reading a lot of blogs anymore, and I’m not reading any on a regular basis. I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, but most are not directly related to technology or education. I check in with twitter occasionally, and find an occasional resource or perspective being shared that’s new. But for the most part, it’s the same things over and over again. Testing is killing American schools. We have to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. Common core sucks (except when it doesn’t). Everyone’s attacking education and teachers, and no one is doing anything about it. Politicians haven’t got a clue. Yeah. I’ve heard all that.

Learning must be student-focused. We have to meet the individual needs of every student. Differentiate by adjusting rigor. Assessment should inform (formative) and reflect (summative) learning. Evidence of learning happens in more ways than just test performance. Learning must be relevant to the student. It has to be active. Insert your favorite John Dewey quote here.

None of this excites me, because it’s not very groundbreaking. I have to use that word carefully. I’ve been twice accused of killing podcasts by claiming that they’re not adding value to the global conversation.  But I’m more likely to jump into Facebook these days, which I’ve curated to be entirely social, than I am to check Twitter (which is mostly professional). The same people are talking about the same things they’ve been talking about for the past decade.

A couple years ago, I tried to lead a conference session on moving the conversation into practice. We all have great ideas on what education should be, but sadly that vision is not fully realized in very many schools. Even in my own school district, where we have vertiable edtech rock stars, there’s a lot of disagreement about how to best put these ideas into practice. The session was quickly derailed and devolved into a weird mix of “Pearson is evil,” and “we have to protect our kids online.” I was embarrassed that we couldn’t get further than that.

The more I think about it, though, the more I see the edtech conversation as a weird combination of candy and Jaeger shots. The retweets from conferences are the ones that are witty and shallow. Find the 12-word sound byte, and you’ll be popular. It doesn’t matter if you say something new, as long as you’re clever about it. I think I’m ready to have a salad or a pint of ale or a grande cafe con leche. Let’s  dig a little deeper and spend a little more time.

Coursera keeps telling me that it has suggestions for me. Maybe I should take them. Or perhaps I should be engaging with fewer people on a deeper level. Tools like Slack and Viber make it easier to organize small teams. Maybe that makes sense for collaborative learning projects with more  specific goals in mind.

We know that the success of learning is largely dependent on setting goals ahead of time, and then demonstrating that progress has been made toward reaching that goals. At this point, though, I’m not sure that “continued professional growth” is a sufficient goal. I need to be more specific about what I want from my learning network, and curate  the network to meet that goal.

Image source: Pixabay.

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So You Want to Host an EdCamp

After a successful EdCamp Cleveland 2013 and a very hectic end to a challenging school year, the last thing I want to think about is hosting another big event at my school. But last week, four separate people mentioned that they’re interested in starting their own EdCamps, and it’s probably better to get some ideas down now while they’re fresh in my mind. It’s really not as hard as I’m going to make it sound, but here are some things to think about before going too far from someone who has been down this road a couple times:

Make sure EdCamp is the right kind of conference. An EdCamp is driven by the community. It grows from the idea that our best professional development comes from the personal learning networks we curate. Participation in the community is the learning. This is the same concept that drove the early MOOCs before the xMOOC people moved in and took over. This model doesn’t work if you have a specific set of instructional objectives or content standards that must be achieved. EdCamps would not work for teaching the common core. They’re more suited for the higher end of Bloom’s, where we’re collaboratively working to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Check in with the foundation. There aren’t a lot of rules for using the EdCamp name. You can’t charge admission. You shouldn’t have a single sponsor underwriting the entire event. It should have an education focus. It should be participant-driven. That’s about it. Go to the EdCamp Foundation Wiki and create your event. There’s no application to complete, and no fees to be paid. Create a wiki page and you’ve got yourself an EdCamp. While you’re on the wiki, read the helpful information there about how to run an EdCamp.

Put a team together. You need folks who can take on big chunks of responsibility and get them done, and you also need people who are willing to take pretty routine and specific tasks and run with them. If you suck at this as much as I do, you probably won’t do this more than a couple times. The bigger key to the team, though, is the diversity that comes with it. You want this to spread beyond your school. If you have planning team members from different schools (and different types of school: public/private, K12/university, etc) then you’re more likely to recruit attendees from multiple sectors as well.

Find a good setting. You need a space, yes. Schools are ideal, if you can get them inexpensively. But you also need a good time. There aren’t any good times. EdCamp Cleveland was in June because it was a good time for me. In the past, we had had some success with professional development the week after school was out. The teachers were done with classes and grades, but they weren’t checked out for the summer yet. After EdCamp, there was still plenty of time to let the ideas ferment before starting a new school year. Plus, with school out, we could have it on a weekday, in a school, and not have to worry about custodial overtime or conflicting sporting events, or anything like that. Most EdCamps are during the year, though, and most are on Saturdays. Be aware of other events happening around the same time. You don’t want your EdCamp to be a week after another one 50 miles away. Pick something that works for your venue and your planning team, and run with it.

Find the money. There are two kinds of sponsors. There are sponsors who will give you product. In most of these cases, they’re companies who sell online subscriptions to software products, and they’ll give you some free ones. It costs them no money and gets them some good press. We like these sponsors, but they’re a dime a dozen. The second kind of sponsor is the kind that will write you a check. These are the valuable ones, because they make the event possible. To get these, you have to convince someone at the company that EdCamps are valuable professional development experiences. Ask lots of people. Be prepared for lots of rejections. In our case, many of these kinds of sponsors are individuals who were willing to kick in $100 or $200. How much money do you need? In 2013, EdCamp Cleveland spent $7.68 per attendee. In 2012, we spent approximately twice that much. The trick, of course, is that you don’t know how many people you’re going to have until they actually show up. In 2012, we over-planned. In 2013, we under-planned.

The rest of the stuff is pretty straightforward. You need some kind of online presence. Make a blog or a web page somewhere. Set up a Twitter account. You probably want people to pre-register, so use an online service (like EventBrite) for that. Find sponsors by looking at other EdCamps and seeing who sponsored them and approaching those EdCamp-friendly companies. You’ll need to educate your attendees about what an unconference is. Most people are not used to participating in conferences. They’ll need some encouragement. But that’s all manageable stuff.

But there are also secrets. Here are the things we did that most people don’t know about:

Boost the Wifi. Sure, the school has wifi. But for EdCamp, we’re talking about 100-200 people, each with at least two wifi-connected devices. And most of time, they’re in places where we don’t normally have large concentrations of students working. How do we accommodate 200 wireless devices in our main lobby? We add access points. For EdCamp, we added four APs to supplement the eight that are normally in the large areas that we used. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t have connection issues. Though we didn’t advertise it, the EdCamp wifi network was also unfiltered, unlike the wifi connections that are normally available in the school.

Use a short registration period. In 2012, we had about 12 weeks from the time that registration opened until the day of EdCamp. After the event, we noticed that our total turnout was about 49%. Interestingly, 2/3 of the people who signed up in the first two weeks showed up. Of the people who registered in the last two weeks, about 75% came. For the eight weeks in the middle, though, only 40% made it to the event. For 2013, we shortened the registration period considerably, giving people only six weeks to register. This time, 2/3 of the registrants made it. Essentially, we eliminated most of the uncommitted people who signed up in the middle, focusing on the ones that are more likely to show up.

Don’t market too hard. Going along with this idea, we didn’t push too hard to get people to register. Remember, there’s zero barrier to registering, and there’s no real commitment to attend. The people who attend EdCamp should be the people who want to be there. We don’t want people to feel like they’re being forced to attend, and we certainly don’t want people to attend just because we’re giving away a free lunch and some giveaways. Invite people to participate. Make sure people know about the event. But don’t push them into coming.

Be in the moment. Some people will advocate for live streaming all of the sessions. Others will push for documenting what happened in each room and making sure all of the resources are collected and available. Neither works particularly well. EdCamp is about the people in the room, when they’re in the room. If you try too hard to extend the event beyond that, you’ll lose people. They’re less likely to share if they know every word is being recorded or broadcast. Just let them talk to each other.

Schwag should promote the event. In 2012 I wanted to get EdCamp T-shirts for everyone. I was overruled. People don’t wear cheap T-shirts after the event. Teachers certainly don’t wear them to school. What could we get to help spread the word about EdCamp? What kind of product could we get that people would use around other teachers? We settled on travel mugs. While teachers won’t wear an EdCamp T-shirt to school, they’ll certainly carry an EdCamp coffee mug.

This event is not for you. You can run an EdCamp. You can attend an EdCamp. But you can’t do both. Or, at least, I can’t. For me, EdCamp Cleveland was about providing an opportunity for others to learn from one another. It was not about my professional growth. I go to other EdCamps, and other conferences, for that.

Do you want to host an EdCamp? I won’t help (much). But I will advise you, and help you get started. And, if I can, I’ll come. Let me know what I can do.

Listen: We Need a Community

It’s a funny thing about social media. Sometimes, it can be kind of social.

That’s fantastic. It’s great for democracy. It’s a monumental shift in how information is managed. It changes the structure of power.

Everyone has the means to widely disseminate ideas. Everyone has the ability to engage in the conversation. Everyone can reach a global audience.

The gatekeepers are gone. No one is determining which ideas are good enough for wide distribution. No one is controlling the message.

The problem, though, is now that everyone has a voice, some people are choosing to use it. That, in itse

lf, is good. But we’ve lost much of the civility of engaging in the community. Somewhere along the way, everyone started talking and stopped listening.

A year or so ago, a social news experiment called Patch started to catch on. The idea was to fill the local news vacuum in small communities. Local editors were recruited to attend city council and school board meetings. They wrote of short pieces of a hyper-local nature. Readers were encouraged to participate. There were lots of open-ended questions and prompts for discussion. Residents could share their news as well. The editor curated the content, and through the comments, the whole community could participate.

Originally, Patch had a policy that required people to use their real names. They wanted you to participate, but they also wanted you to be accountable for your words. So users with anonymous handles were politely asked to add their names to their profiles. As time went on, this became harder and harder to enforce. At some point last summer, a policy change allowed people to be anonymous on Patch. Since they couldn’t enforce the rules, they changed them. Participation soared. Advertising revenue (I’m assuming) went up. All was good.

But the level of discourse took a nose dive. No longer hindered by their reputations, users migrated to extremes. The comments quickly devolved into pointless vitriol and personal attacks. I stopped commenting. Then, I stopped reading. It turns out that the allure of the anonymous megaphone is strong enough to overcome any sense of civic responsibility to the community.

We see that in other places as well. In January, I attended my third EduCon conference in Philadelphia. This is a co

nference of conversations, centered on getting smart people in the same place at the same time to discuss big issues in education. While the sessions are carefully planned by the facilitators, they involve an enormous degree of interactivity. There are no audience members. Everyone is a participant.

This year, for the first time, I saw participants with megaphones. Rather than respecting the norms of the community and participating in civil discourse around the topics of the sessions, a very small minority brought their own agendas, and attempted to steer every conversation toward their theses. Pearson is evil. Common Core will destroy American education. The Internet is full of predators and too dangerous for children to use. Fine. Bring your arguments. Let’s have a conversation. But it got to the point where nearly every session devolved into soapboxing by the same people on the same topics. That’s not respecting the community.

And now, this brings us to EdCamp. In a few weeks, we’re hosting this opportunity for anyone interested in education to come together to discuss the topics that are important to them. The attendees will determine the schedule for the day. You’ve probably already heard all about it. If you need more info or want to come, check out the web site.

But I’m worried about conversations being hijacked. EdCamp is a community of convenience. It’s not a place where the same group of people has been interacting and has formed a community with standards of behavior. Maybe it will become that some day, but right now, it’s just a diverse bunch of people. There’s already some evidence that a vocal minority is bringing megaphones to EdCamps with the goal of preaching their own personal Gospels.

We’re doing a few things to try to give everyone a voice. The web site is featuring a series of Participant Perspectives, highlighting people who are coming to EdCamp and giving some background about who they are and why they’re attending. The goal is to raise the level of discourse, and to highlight the diversity of the attendees. There are also some posts that go into more detail on what an unconference is, how the day will be structured, and what people can expect when they come. The idea is to build some expectations among the attendees, who are ultimately the only ones who can ensure that everyone has a voice. Finally, we’re not going to build the session schedule ahead of time. Over the last year or so, several EdCamps have opened the board a day or two in advance, so people can start scheduling sessions. This just encourages people to bring their leftover presentations from other conferences. While we may solicit ideas for topics ahead of time, nothing is going on the schedule until the day of the event.

All of this involves listening more than talking. The most important part of the conversation is not what you’re saying, but how you’re reacting to the things that others are saying. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose the conversation skills when there are so many megaphones around.

I hope that the education community can reach a level of civility and discourse that’s not being modeled in the wider society. I’m sure we’re up to the task. But we have to start by listening.

Photo credit: The Infatuated on Flickr.