NECC Day 3: 10 Minutes Behind

I was 10 minutes behind all day.  Might have something to do with a late night at a bar called “Madam’s Organ” (a riff on “Adams Morgan, get it?) the night before…

In light of some pretty disappointing workshops on Monday, my strategy was to stick to the rock stars: Gary Stager, Ian Jukes.  I figured you always take something away from these sessions.  Turns out that Jukes’ father passed away last week so his partner, Lee Crockett gave the talk, instead.  A very polished but somewhat obvious plea for the addition of new literacies in the curriculum.  Stager was Stager: provocative, funny, obstreperous.  He ended with an exploration of the differences between communities and communities of practice.  He made some interesting points about entry into a community of practice, how a “newbie” has to pay his dues by imitating the masters.  I think he managed to defend connectivist learning while answering those who argue that students can’t just walk into the middle of an academic debate and start talking/posting/uploading.

On the show floor, I spent a lot of time talking to vendors of video streaming solutions for K-12, subscription sites where students and teachers can upload videos and other media and share them out to other members of the school community.  We need this, as I’m sure lots of other districts do: a “walled garden” where you can safely place video and other media for easy sharing among students, parents, and staff.  I was already familiar with Discovery MediaShare; yesterday I explored WebFTC and Kaltura.  The latter, in particular, looks impressive.  I was also impressed by Mahara, an open-source ePortfolio solution.

NECC Day 2: Nothing New Under the Sun?

So at the end of a long day of tromping around the exhibit hall and running from presentation to presentation, I was having a very overpriced drink at a reception with some of my friends yesterday and the question was, “did you see anything good today?” The answers were a pretty unanimous “not really.”  Unfortunate.  Is there a lull in innovation, perhaps the result of tough economic times?  From the exhibit hall to the concurrent sessions, it felt to me like there was a malaise about the place yesterday.  A couple of quick notes, though:

  • Patrick Ledesma and Lara Long of Fairfax County Schools gave a very tight presentation on blogs and wikis in Special Ed.  This was the best I saw today: organized, knowledgable, lots of examples, and a diversity of tools.  What I learned wasn’t earth-shaking, but it was helpful.
  • I spent a lot of my time on the exhibit floor talking to document camera vendors.  For a few years now, I’ve considered the Samsung document cameras a well-hidden secret, due to their excellent hardware and reasonable price point.  But I’m seeing a lot of strong competition from other vendors like Elmo and AverMedia.  Where they beat Samsung is in software: come on Samsung, let’s clean up that interface and add some features.

Further updates as events warrant…

NECC Day 1: Media and Expertise

Another year, another NECC.  My conference started with an “extra-curricular” visit to the Newseum, Washington D.C.’s newest museum.  The Newseum’s focus (as you may have guessed) is the media: a history of newspapers, TV news, and more.  The highlight was the top-floor room with a giant timeline starting in the 1500’s and extending through today.  All along the timeline there are pull-out trays containing the front page of newspapers reporting on the events of the time.  It’s all here, from reporting on the Salem witch trials and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War to the crash of the Hindenburg and “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  Wow.  This exhibit was worth the price of admission alone.  Other notable displays included a gallery filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from the last 50 years, pieces from the Berlin wall and a full-size guard tower, and a memorial to journalists who risked – and lost – their lives reporting the news.  The Newseum is not to be missed in DC and it got me in a good mindframe for the conference: people communicating, connecting, learning about their world.

Then came the keynote, Malcolm Gladwell.  I’ve read The Tipping Point and Outliers: The Story of Success and enjoyed both, so I was looking forward to this.  He basically went through a lot of the material from Outliers but framed it in the story of Fleetwood Mac and made a more direct application to schools.  I’d heard it before but what struck me the most – probably because it’s also a theme in this week’s reading in CASTLE book club – is the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at anything.  Both Gladwell and Willingham (the author of the CASTLE book club book) make this point.  Willingham goes even further to say that, since this is the case, we should give up trying to teach students like they are experts – a pretty clear denunciation of constructivism.  Gladwell didn’t go quite that far: he focused on “respect for difficulty”, experimentation, and learning by compensation as the hallmarks of a quality learning environment.  But both of these guys have me thinking a lot about rigor: how difficult should school be, and for whom?  How much repetition in the classroom?  If we’re not teaching kids to construct knowledge and they need so much time to practice things, what does a classroom look like?

Bing gets lost in the Wave

I don’t write a lot about “the industry” here but I can’t resist sharing a quick thought on how things are changing in the world of computers and the internet.  Microsoft, once the behemoth of the technology world, announces a new search engine called “bing” and puts it into production.  Reviews have been mostly positive but with their preview video of “Wave,” Google still somehow managed to not just steal the spotlight but to boot Microsoft right out the front door of the theater and to the curb.  Everyone is talking about this product – which is just a step above vaporware at this point.  Think about that for a moment: a single video of a product that is not even in beta yet displaces announcements about a shipping product from a – once “the” – major technology player. 

And then think about the vision of these two products:  Google is attempting to do nothing less than replace/evolve e-mail, the bedrock application of the internet; Microsoft is, well, making another search engine.  Where is the innovation and who is in the driver’s seat?  It seems to me the answer is clear, and it’s an answer that none of us would have predicted ten years ago.

“Wave” says big, sweeping, tumultuous.  “Bing” says “pebble bouncing off my windshield.”

Google Earth + CIA Factbook = GIS Goodness

I’ve always been a fan of Google Earth.  Who isn’t?  And even before Google Earth (heck, before Google) there was the CIA World Factbook, one of the first truly useful sites in the history of the web.  The Factbook first came online in 1994 and it was truly a forward-looking project in terms of its scope, its reliance on database technology (remember that back then, most web content was static HTML), and its organization.  I’ve been recommending it to colleagues for almost 15 years now!

So I was overjoyed to discover a few days ago that someone had created, a site that allows you to overlay data from the factbook onto 2D maps or the 3D Google Earth globe (you must have the Google Earth browser plug-in installed to see the 3D renderings).  You load the site, select a data set (population, GDP, infant mortality…), set details on how the data should be rendered and click “Preview.”  You can even download the data as a KML file for Google Earth.  And though I haven’t tried it yet, the site says that you can upload your own country data to create custom maps and graphs.

What a great way for kids (and adults) to understand the ideas behind the statistics.  This is an indispensible tool that belongs in any teacher’s technology toolbox.

Where have all the bloggers gone?

Will Richardson is blogging about once per week now.  In April, he wrote a totlal of 6 posts.  In April of 2007, he wrote 27.  Andy Carvin wrote 1 post in February, 2009 and 7 in February of 2007.  David Jakes went from 8 (April, 2007) to 2 (April, 2009).  What happened?  Where have all the bloggers gone?

I suppose the answer is Twitter.  And that upsets me, because in the course of that transition, what has happened to the conversation?  We’ve gone from expansive, probing reflection to 140-character platitudes, from the symposium to the water cooler.  This is definitely the English teacher in me speaking, but I fear that Twitter is robbing us of a great opportunity to think through writing, a shift which will most harm students, who stand to learn a great deal through blogging.  I think there is a synergy between the higher-order thinking skills that educators so value and desire and blogging; I just don’t see that same synergy with tweets.

It’s not that there’s no place for the kind of rapid fire, conversational interchange that Twitter supports; there most definitely is.  But I hate to see it elbowing the kind of rich discourse that blogs engender out of the way.  Seeing this happen only proves what the most fervent critics of educational innovations complain about: we run to the “next big thing” before we’ve had a chance to master the last one and before it has taken hold in a systemic way in classrooms.

I hope that maybe when the excitement over Twitter dies down, some of our best bloggers – and our developing bloggers, too – get back to the longer stuff.  We need it!

Image Source: DigitalParadox,

Video Comes to Wikis

Just finished a teacher center class on wikis this afternoon, only to stumble across, a new video sharing site which does to YouTube what Ning did to Facebook: empower users to roll their own community sharing spot.  Maybe wikis are just on my mind, but the site feels like a wiki for videos: anyone whom you invite can add their own videos to the site.  Alternatively, you can limit guests’ interactivity to posting comments and ratings, creating your own video blog.

This solves a real problem in schools.  Just when so many schools have finally acquired the hardware to do digital video editing, now many of them have no way to share the videos they produce in a manner that is secure and efficient.  You either put it on YouTube and hope nothing bad happens or you put it in your course management system and force users to download each video prior to playing (I’m yet to hear of a CMS that has streaming capabilities).  I’ll be watching Fliggo and hoping that, like VoiceThread, they pursue K-12 districts and build features and special spaces to accommodate them.  And I’ll be reporting back here on my own experiments with Fliggo.

What We Can Learn from Best Buy

Some quotes from a video I found on YouTube:

“They’re already socializing [online]; why not give them a venue where you can be part of the conversation?”

“The stuff that I know is valuable enough that people want to hear it.”

“We’re talking more… at all levels. I think we have to turn that transparency outward… and allow them to participate in the conversations as well.”

“Imagine a wikipedia not only populated by the masses looking for knowledge but also by a bunch of tech masters… who are also using the space for their own use. Now you’ve got the quality of the crowd and some zen masters.”

“We are moving from a role of being the ones who own the messages and deliver [them] to a role where we are just the facilitators. We’re encouraging, we’re enabling.”

I wish I could say these are quotes from students and teachers in some forward-looking, cutting edge school.  Unfortunately, they’re not.  They are Best Buy employees speaking in a video showcasing the company’s various social media tools and how they are helping to transform the company’s culture.  Clarence Fisher was the first to bring it to my attention in a brief post and the timing couldn’t be better: I’ll be introducing wikis to teachers in my inservice “New Technologies Seminar” course next week.

Now I’m no huge fan of Best Buy.  I was there last week and grew angry as I hovered next to two blue-shirted salespeople who were more interested in talking to each other than in helping me – and even angrier when I discovered that the GPS I wanted was out of stock.  But they certainly drank Circuit City’s milkshake and it seems like they are doing about as well as any retail outfit can in this economy.  Watching this video tells me that at least they’re trying.  Maybe one of those sales guys will be a little more attentive to his customers after reading about good customer service on the company’s wiki.

I’m sure many educators look down on places like Best Buy and the people who work there: pedestrian, commercial, too “Madison Ave.”  But if they can adopt these new technologies to serve their customers better, why can’t we?  No excuses in the video, no whining about time and training: just “I think what I have to say has value and I’m glad I have a place where I can express it, and read what my colleagues have to say, too.”

I hope that the day comes soon when it’s the educators who are providing the money quotes about collaboration, sharing, and empowerment, not floor workers in a retail electronics store.

Azeroth: More Real than School

I saw “Intellagirl” Sarah Robbins give a keynote on Friday at the LHRIC Tech Expo and she spoke a lot about gaming, how the millennials learn, and how games may offer a glimpse at new ways to engage students in schools.  As far as I’m concerned, no new news there – I’ve been a gamer myself for some time and am well aware of how cognitively challenging games can be, and I’ve read James Gee and many of the others.

Then today I stumbled across Blizzard’s creative writing contest, in which entrants will submit stories that take place in the virtual worlds of Blizzard’s computer games.  Looking at this, I see even more clearly that the things we have to force kids to do in schools are things they might otherwise do willingly if given the chance to do so in ways that are meaningful to them.  Many students read and write fan fiction.  Why is it so hard to get them to write a five-paragraph essay of any quality?  They are enthusiastic about writing a story in a virtual world but not one that takes place in the “real” world of school.  Are we to assume then that the “real” world of school is so far removed from reality as to be completely foreign and uninteresting to them, even less so than the made-up world of Azeroth?

An Unflattering Comparison

Yes, it’s been a while.  It’s just too easy to push blogging to the back burner and too difficult to find something interesting to say.  But one thing has been gnawing at me lately. Watch:

To my knowledge, these are the only two commercials that Sprint created as part of this ad campaign: airlines and schools, and how they could be improved if “people who know how to get things done” were to take over.  So is this what it’s come to?  We’re down there with the airlines, perhaps the most hated, bureaucratic, customer-unfriendly industry in America?  Sad.  If the commercial reflects the values and beliefs of its intended audience (and I’m sure it does – Madison Avenue spends a lot of money understanding those values and beliefs), then it looks like the image of schools held by the American public is one where students are left on their own, floating around the neighborhood, administrators and teachers either unaware or unconcerned by their absence.  Inefficient.  Bloated.  Slow.

Who can do better?  Apparently workers in a job whose minimum qualifications are pretty much limited to a drug screening a clean driving record.

Either we’re doing a really bad job at educating students or else at educating the public about what goes on in schools.  Perhaps a little of both.  Clearly, change is going to require changing a lot of people’s minds about what education is now and what it can become.