Focused Presence

About a week ago, we were having a discussion on Slack about the upcoming state educational technology conference. I’m sitting this year out. A couple members of my personal learning network weren’t happy. The conference isn’t necessarily about learning. It’s more about bringing technology to education than focusing on student-centered learning enhanced and supported by technology. Jeremy said that’s not the point. The conference is about networking. It’s about connecting to your colleagues from around the state, hearing about the success and challenges we’re having, and working together to identify innovative strategies and best practices moving forward. He didn’t exactly put it like that, but I think that’s what he meant.

“Why do we have to be in the same place to network?” I asked. The conversation turned to technology. “Nobody has come close to a digital equivalent of being in the same room,” Jeremy offered. Ryan suggested that the Cisco digital presence technology might be close. I disagreed.

20170127_0902441-1Technology isn’t the problem. You can attend conferences remotely. You can watch webinars all day, and there are more than enough Powerpoint slides on the Internet to put everyone to sleep. We can connect in video conferences for face to face conversations. We can use online tools of various kinds to engage in both public and private conversations, both in real time and asynchronously. We have formal spaces where everyone acts like a professional, and less formal ones where we’re a bit more relaxed. There aren’t many gaps in technology’s ability to replicate all of the kinds of interactions we have at a professional conference.

And yet, here I am at Educon. I missed work for two days and drove 500 miles to get here. I brought five people from my district because I think it’s important for them to engage in these conversations. It’s expensive and time consuming and totally worth it.

We could do this online. All of the sessions are streamed live, and this crowd is more than casually connected. I could stay home and still interact with the people in the room in real time. The technology is there to make it happen.

But the last two years, when I didn’t attend Educon, I didn’t participate at all. I didn’t watch the streams. I didn’t follow the Twitter hash tag. I didn’t read the blog post reflections. I checked out.

Sitting in my office, or on my couch, there are a thousand other things to pull me away from the experience. We’re having a network problem. A student’s account got hacked. Someone is impersonating a board member online. There’s always a “drop everything and take care of this” moment. I’m really bad at turning off the world and focusing on one thing, and it’s even more difficult when the one thing really does require your full attention. We don’t respect focused time. I can’t close the door and say, “I’m at a conference now.” The phone will keep ringing. People will keep knocking. They still need important things.

So we’re here. We’re engaged. I’m immersed in the experience, and can hopefully focus my attention on it for the next two days. We will discuss and explore and debate. We’ll talk to people from many different types of schools with many different perspectives. We’ll try to help others by sharing what we’ve learned over the past few years, and we’ll learn much more from others’ experiences. We’ll leave with a sense of hope and optimism that we are on the right track, and we’ll have a better idea of the next steps and how to reach them.

The emergencies have to wait. I have some learning to do.

Photo credit: Scott Detray.

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.

5 Things to Do Next

Now comes the hard part. Learning doesn’t mean anything unless we can put it into practice. Sure, we went to Educon. We were inspired. We saw some really neat models of how real teachers and real students are working in real schools to build a better world. Then we came home. And there was email to answer, and neglected tasks to be completed. There were problems to follow up on and fires to put out. The immediacy of impending projects is looming. So it’s easy to get caught up in the work, to become absorbed by the daily to-do list and the email deluge and the urgency of the moment. The time for all of the dreaming of a better world has passed. It’s time to get back to work.

4022566308_855b9c8934[1]But before we lose the spirit of the experience, I want to nail down a few to-do list items. These aren’t necessarily big steps. And they’re probably not useful to anyone but me. But it is a roadmap for moving forward.

Meet with the Team and Form a Plan
In truth, this is already done. One of the advantages of driving from Cleveland to Philadelphia is that we have to spend 7 hours together driving home. We talked about the experience, and we formed some tentative plans to move forward. Two of the four people on the team had never attended Educon before. In some ways, it was overwhelming for them. I think we’e worked through some of that, and have boiled down the experience into some concrete action plans that we put into place over the next year or two.

For me, it’s exciting to see others in the district thinking along the same lines, working to introduce more inquiry, relevance, and Next Generation approaches to the classes in our schools. I’m thrilled that everyone who attended the conference is as excited about this as I am.

Nail the PD Plan
We’ve been working on a plan for professional development for months now. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to do. The focus is on pedagogy. We’re going to use a badge system to validate learning, and tie that system to the LPDC system and to graduate workshop credit. We want to have several topics, with three levels for each one. So you could become an expert in one area, or a novice in three areas, and get the same credit. But we still need to work out the details. What are the criteria for each badge? How do we identify and assess the learning targets? How will the PD be delivered? Which topics are most critical, and need to come first? What role does technology play in all of this? We have the broad strokes. Now it’s time to fill in the details.

Fix my PLN Problem
All my peeps are on Twitter. But I don’t read Twitter. Maybe I need to reduce the number of people I’m following. Maybe I need to change the way I interact with the Twitter feeds. Maybe I need to follow more lists and hash tags. Maybe I need to find another way to interact with my learning community. But for the past year, I’ve been largely disconnected, and it’s time to re-engage.

Move Forward on 1:1
Last year, we formalized a plan to move to a 1:1 program beginning in 2015. So far, we’re on track. If the funding holds, we should be able to move to laptops for teachers this year. At the same time, we can prepare to move from classroom sets of devices for students to a real 1:1 program. That will probably include a pilot for student 1:1 next year. Bigger than that is the work with teachers to prepare them. If we spend all this money and time and effort on technology, and nothing changes in the classroom, we’re wasting our time.

Adopt a New LMS
We have been using Moodle for a long time. But we have had very little adoption of it. Our ability to support it is limited. Teachers have found it confusing. Upgrading is tedious and tends to break things. While the price is attractive, it’s clearly not meeting our needs anymore. One of the most popular features of Moodle is the ability to deliver assessments. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least efficient aspects of the program, and when a teacher has 30 kids all taking assessments at the same time, the server slows to a crawl.

We’ve been talking about replacing Moodle for a long time, and we’ve been struggling to reach consensus on the best tool. I think we are at a point where we know what the tool is. The challenge now is finding a way to pay for it. But having a functional LMS is critical for our NextGen efforts, both as a way to organize and deliver content for students, and as a way to structure professional development.

If we can get all of that done this spring, I’ll be thrilled. It’s an ambitious plan, and there’s not really anything coming OFF the plate. But this is the direction forward. I have a great team to work with on it, and we’re going to make this work.

Photo credit: Ramkarthikonblogger on Flickr.