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.

The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.

Feed the Hungry

grandmaYou didn’t go to Grandma’s house without eating. There were always baked goods: cookies, coffee cake, donuts. As soon as you sat down, she’d put on a fresh pot of coffee and start cooking. What can I make you? Want a sandwich? Macaroni and cheese? She would start going through the icebox and pull out everything. Have some braciole while I fry up some zucchini. If you called ahead, grandpa would make pizza (whether he wanted to or not).

What’s a matter? Don’t you like it? No. It’s not that. It’s just that, well, I’ve already eaten a couple times this month, and I just stopped by….

Hunger had nothing to do with it. Serving food was a way of showing hospitality. It was something she could do for you to make you feel welcome. And it worked. Everyone was welcome. Everyone felt loved.

But a lot of food went to waste. If she had two visitors, she’d make enough food to feed eight. Some of that would be recycled as appetizers for the next guest, but invariably a lot of things went uneaten.

For the first half of my career, the primary barrier to effective technology integration in the classroom was a lack of technology resources. If you asked teachers, principals, parents, or anyone else familiar with schools why educational practice was so firmly rooted in traditional instructional methods, even as technology radically transformed every other aspect of our lives, they would point to a lack of resources. I can’t effectively use technology in my teaching because I only have one two four computers in my classroom, and I have 21 27 32 kids. But we’ve shifted a lot of our resources over the last few years away from textbooks and legacy teaching materials in favor of better technology resources. We’ve made huge investments in networking infrastructure and mobile technologies and display tools to eliminate the gap between what we have and what we need. And while we haven’t jumped into the 1:1 computing pool yet, we are very close to the point where technology is available to all students when they need it. We have just about reached ubiquity.

The problem, though, is that we keep pulling computing devices out of the fridge and putting them on the table. Let me make a fresh pot of wifi. Try some of these iPads while I cook up a batch of laptops. It doesn’t really matter if you’re hungry. Someday, you will be hungry. And you’ll have the resources when you’re ready for them.

Over the last few years, our schools have been snacking a lot on negotiations and teacher evaluations and new testing requirements and SLOs. They’ve been choking down power standards to be polite, and they’ve been taking a helping of PLCs because they know they’re nutritious. They’d love to have some RTI, and people keep telling them they should try the nextgen learning and personal learning networks. But if they take another bite right now, we’re going to end up with half-digested formative assessments all over the carpet.

So this year, we’ve backed off. There’s a vision of learning where we employ best practices, facilitated by technology, to systematically work through the learning standards, assessing and adapting instruction along the way to ensure that students reach mastery at their own pace. Meanwhile, we’re using digital tools to develop students’ innovative thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills. They apply their learning to new, real problems. They generate new ideas and new solutions and share those ideas in a variety of formats. Students are self-directed. Learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Learners engage in curriculum systemically while also synthesizing and applying that knowledge in creative ways. Assessments inform instruction, and grades are a reflection of student mastery of learning targets, measuring what they have learned rather than what they have done. But most of our teachers and principals don’t have the appetite for that right now.

I’m sensing a need to back off on the hardware, too. We ordered the appetizers and went a bit overboard on the bread and salad. Now that the main course is here, it’s pretty clear we’re going to need a take out container. So before the waitress comes over with the dessert menu, I think we need to have a talk about whether we really need the calories. We should stop cooking and let our appetites catch up. Then, as people get hungry, let’s feed them with some nutritious offerings full of whole-grain instructional methodology, organic intervention strategies, and  vitamin-rich participatory learning. There’s still a place for deep-fried gadgets, high-sodium mobile tools, and those sweet, sweet apps. But let’s recognize that those are sometimes foods. Our schools need a healthier approach to our technology diet.