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.

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.