Remembering Bob Sprankle

This is an excerpt from a post I wrote in February, 2008:

In the fall of 2005, I had read about podcasts, and was very interested in them. I drive 40 minutes each way to and from work every day. If I could find some good podcasts to listen to in the car, I could really improve how I was using that time. If I could do some sort of professional development — even informally — it would be time well spent.

I searched online for podcasts relating to education and technology. I’m a technology coordinator. I used to be a middle school teacher. I try to make it easier for teachers to use technology in their classrooms. I found two interesting ed-tech-related podcasts. The first of these was a podcast called EdTechTalk, and the other was Bit by Bit. I downloaded the latest episodes of each and burned them to CDs.

On the way home, I listened to EdTechTalk. As luck would have it, this was episode 27, which was their “Back to Basics” episode. In it, hosts Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier re-introduced the EdTechTalk community. They talked about educational technology, open source software, their philosophies of education, and the potential of emerging “web 2.0” tools. I thought this was wonderful. These guys are talking about the same kinds of things I’ve been thinking about. They’re trying to use open source software and they’re trying to get people to collaborate, and they’re not blindly just drinking the Kool Aid and doing what the loud voices in education are telling them to. This is different.

Bit by BitThe next day, I put in the Bit By Bit CD. At the time, host Bob Sprankle was a teacher in a multi-age classroom in Maine. His students had been blogging for more than a year, and they had recently begun podcasting. The particular episode I listened to was episode 17, which was a recording of a presentation Bob gave at the 2005 Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in New Hampshire. Bob was talking about the podcasting project he had been doing with his students. Right at the beginning of the presentation, Bob says, “any time you need more information, go listen to episode 27 from Jeff.” He also pointed out that Jeff was sitting in the audience.

How cool is that? The second podcast I listened to referred to the first one. These people know each other. They refer to each other. They bounce ideas back and forth, challenge each other’s assumptions, push each other to new levels. This is pretty neat.

Throughout the next year, I continued to listen to these podcasts, along with some others. Each week, I’d burn a few CDs and listen to them in the car. They were frequently referring to other people in the educational technology community, and I found myself with a growing list of podcasts and people to pay attention to. It even got to the point where I was keeping a pad of paper in the car in case they mentioned something I wanted to look up later. I could jot down a couple words on the pad and then look it up later.

sprankleBit by Bit was the second podcast I listened to, and it opened up my mind to the idea of a personal learning network. I went on to start blogging and participating in online conversations and eventually podcasting and MOOCing and doing all those crazy things that like-minded people do to find and collaborate with one another.

When I started in this job, I was sure that I couldn’t last more than five or six years. When you work in isolation, you can’t keep up with current trends and research and best practices. Yet somehow, it’s 15 years later. I’m still here. I still do a pretty good job most days. That’s because of the network that I have. And I have that network, to a large degree, because of Bob.

Bob died earlier this week after a long health battle that left him unable to work for the last couple years.

Like most of the people I’ve worked with online over the years, I never met Bob. To me, he was mostly a voice in my headset. But his was a voice that had a lasting, positive impact on everyone who heard it. Many are remembering him with the hashtag #BobTaughtMe.

The community is going to miss him.


EdTech Talking

It’s an anniversary of sorts. Tonight, the EdTechWeekly crew is celebrating show #200. That’s two hundred Sunday nights spent talking about educational technology, new tools and resources, approaches and strategies and policies, and whatever else comes up.

The webcast started five years ago this month as an experiment. The hosts participate in an audio conference and talk about educational technology. That conversation is streamed live online, so anyone can listen in. The listeners and the hosts are also in a text chat, which allows a level of interactivity. The whole thing is recorded and posted online as a podcast. The first year, I was involved with EdTechWeekly as a listener and occasional guest before finally becoming a co-host near the start of the second year.

In the last 200 episodes, we’ve logged many hours of discussions, engaged dozens of guests and co-hosts, interacted with hundreds of chat room participants, and amassed a fairly impressive list of nearly 10,000 educational tools and resources. Along the way, I’ve also managed to learn a few things.

Herewith, then, are the top five things I’ve learned from participating in EdTechWeekly:

#5 You can’t drink the fire hose. “Did you see that recent article on Edutopia?” one of my principals wants to know. “Uhh, no. What was it about?” Bud Hunt posted a link in Twitter. Paul Allison hosted a fascinating discussion in Google Plus. Did you listen to Last week’s Seedlings discussion? I could spend every waking moment trying to keep up with the people in my learning network, but it wouldn’t do any good. You can’t read everything. You can’t even read all of the interesting fascinating things. Eat until you’re full. Then do something else.

To put it another way (and throw in yet another metaphor), think about cable TV. Lots of people have it. They pay$50 or $80 or $100 for hundreds of TV channels. But do they watch all of the channels? They can’t even watch all of the stuff that’s on ONE channel. All of that content is going to waste. The Internet is like that. Social networks are like that. Personal learning networks are like that. You can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about missing stuff.

On EdTechWeekly, we spent the first four years doing a fast-paced roundup of news and resources. In a typical week, we’d go through 30 or more different links. That’s 30 topics every week for 40 weeks (or more — we used to be more ambitious) a year. Almost all of it related to educational technology. We never ran out of things to talk about. But we also didn’t really know anything about any of those topics. We learned that it’s better to take a little more time, add a little more depth, and try not to cover everything.

#4 It’s not about the technology. Every new technology is going to revolutionize education. The One Laptop Per Child project was going to make ubiquitous 1:1 programs a reality. Netbooks were going to do the same thing. The “Web 2.0” applications were going to enable “any time, any where” learning. Cell phones were going to finally give students access to the technology they need. Kindles and Nooks and open educational resources and wiki textbooks were going to put the big textbook companies out of business and finally make information free. Now, the iPad is going to save education. For some reason, I’m skeptical.

There are so many things going on with education that have nothing to do with teaching and learning. Schools are at least as much social entities as an academic ones. The idea of students going to a building, meeting in a room with 25 learners and one adult, and covering “subjects” while they sit in neat rows is such an ingrained component of our society that any “reform” that significantly alters the romantic view of what “school” is will fail.

From an academic perspective, prom doesn’t make any sense. Neither does marching band. Or football. If we really understood the costs of all of the non-academic things the schools do, and the things that aren’t happening because we’re holding on to them, we would have eliminated them a long time ago. But they’re part of the social norm that is school, and they’re not going away.

Realistic change has to understand that this system, however broken we may think it is, isn’t going anywhere. We have to work within it to improve things. And from a technology perspective, that means identifying the problems and using technology appropriately to address them. It’s not about looking at a neat new tool and looking for a problem to solve with it.

#3 Talking is important. I’m a writer. I’m not a speaker. I like blog posts. Email is better than a phone call. I’d rather use an online forum than a face to face meeting. I function better when I have an opportunity to compose my thoughts. I like being able to speak uninterrupted about a subject. I don’t do conversations well.

But by having conversations every week, I’m getting better. I find myself better able to make a case and defend it. It’s easier to explain complicated things verbally instead of relying on written text. I can express an opinion and speak extemporaneously to a group much better than I could a few years ago. That’s all important. I still like blog posts. I still communicate most effectively in writing. I still hate phone calls. But I’m getting better at talking, which is what this show is all about.

#2 Learning is social. When I think back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all. Taking graduate workshops isn’t going to help me become a better professional. Attending our district’s professional development sessions won’t help me learn important things I need to know. My professional development comes almost exclusively from the network of smart, thoughtful people that I’ve built over the last five or six years. A big part of that has come through the EdTechTalk community, where I’ve met some extraordinary educators. While we may interact in many different ways through myriad technologies, ETT is where we met, and how we came together. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them, and value participation in the community as one of the most valuable educational experiences I’ve ever had.

#1 No one is an expert. It’s funny, and sad, when we can’t get things to work right. The four of us regularly struggle with the technology we’ve been using for years. From finding a headset that works to getting rid of audio echo to managing to get a decent recording, this stuff is complicated and flaky. Sometimes, it’s frustrating. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. It helps to have a plan B. But it also helps to empathize with all of the teachers who are trying to do innovative things in their classrooms who are running up against these barriers all the time.

One thing that really impressed me about Dave and Jeff from the beginning is that they’re so — approachable. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re just two guys fooling around with some geeky toys and having a good time with it. If you get value out of that, wonderful. If you don’t, then at least you’re getting your money’s worth. That’s been the attitude with EdTechTalk all along. We’re not the experts.  We’re just trying to figure this stuff out. You can come along with the ride if you want. Maybe we can learn from each other. This modest (and, frequently, self-deprecating) attitude has given them a credibility that they never could have built otherwise. For me, I’ve learned that if you treat people as equals — if you meet them on their terms and try to help them — you can work together. A lot of technology people haven’t learned that yet, and it causes a lot of friction in the schools.

I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in this community, and I’m grateful to Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier and Jennifer Maddrell for letting me into their club. I’ve certainly gained a lot more than I’ve contributed. So here’s to 200 shows.

I look forward to continuing the conversation.