Sunday, December 30, 2012

Google+ for Education Preview

I've advocated explicit teaching of social media skills for around 2 years now, and I've had a couple of opportunities to speak on the subject. One thing I have realized is that when it comes to social media instruction, lecture is a severely inadequate method of directing students towards more positive behaviors.

This year I had cause to investigate some problematic uses of social media by students at my school. Without going into any detail, let's just say the behaviors were typical of teens acting without adult supervision. That of course means, that the students viewed Twitter and Facebook as their little adult-free conversation space which they were freely using while they were in class.

Amazingly, after I made it clear to our students that someone was paying attention to their Twitter conversations, most of the worst behavior ceased immediately. Of course students continue to use Twitter when they should be working, and some of their language is not for polite, public conversation, but just letting the students know they are being watched by someone other than their friends, did make a difference.

There are many lessons to be learned from this experience. Here are the top 4 I would like to address:
  1. Students primarily use social media as a means of trying to impress their friends, often with an attitude that does not match their in-person, school persona.
  2. Students clearly need adult correction and role-models if they are to use social media in a professional and productive way
  3. Merely telling students how to behave in cyberspace is completely worthless, as all students in the school received 1 or 2 lectures on the subject in the first months of the school year.
  4. Blocking social Web sites is completely ineffective and most likely interferes with educators actually doing something to help students behave in a positive way online
Shortly after forming these conclusions, Google made available its Google+ for Education to its school customers on a trial, preview basis. I am fortunate that work for a New Tech Network school that uses Google Applications and  immediately jumped at the opportunity to launch the preview.

I briefly considered the downside before doing this. Some schools ban teachers contacting students via social media because it may lead to improper relationships. Would Google+ lead to boundary issues? Secondly, perhaps Google+ would be just another distraction that will negatively effect students attention to academic tasks. Lastly, there isn't much time for staff development to fully train the teachers. How would this work out without training.

With regards to the first potential objection....our school already has a Gmail domain that allows for frequent student-teacher contact. If there are no problems with email, there isn't likely to be any with a social network. 

As far as an academic distraction, that's a very valid concern. However, by following students I can clearly see which ones are spending too much time on Google+, whereas on Twitter and Facebook, I have no easy way of doing so. Indeed, I noticed a couple students that were getting a little carried away with posting to Google+, but the good news is that their postings were completely acceptable and often very humorous and interesting. Also, I was able to talk to these students, both commending them for their interesting posts that I actually enjoyed and telling them gently that school comes first and to post a few times a day instead of 30-40 times a time. This was a net positive in my view, since the students responded well to my compliment and correction.

Now the real problem with implementing Google+ education is of course its adoption by teachers, staff and students. Teachers generally have enough to do without learning yet another technology tool. It's difficult to squeeze in something that is not directly related to curriculum. Also, the students are busy as well and have plenty of online tools at their disposal. What is their incentive to join Google+?

I believe Google+ is a worthwhile initiative and here are my 5 reasons:
  1. Google+ is a terrific technology with much to recommend it. It combines the best of Twitter, Skype and Facebook in one. Hangouts in particular of many instructional uses. These great features are the attraction to get teachers and students on board.
  2. With an education domain, it creates a safe place to practice and learn social networking skills without everything visible to the outside world as the settings are controlled by a local administrator (me).
  3. I believe very strongly that students need adult role-models in social media and a Google+ domain for school allows teachers and staff to be those role models for students.
  4. Google+ is a  fun way of learning more about students and building school community
  5.  By providing Google+ service separate from the students personal accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, it creates a place for students to practice professional and academic uses of social media in a 'school space.' Nothing will help students more than giving them the opportunity to practice professional, 'adult' social networking behaviors.
In conclusion, just by turning on Google+ Preview, I've already seen enough positives to justify the service, and virtually no negatives. Adoption is slower than I would like to see, but I'm working to add more teachers to the mix by highlighting uses for Google+ that they would likely find beneficial. I've started to see students complaining about teachers inviting them to circles. That's a good thing! It reminds me of when parents started to join social networks and then kids had to find better ways of acting online. Even if they sneak around on other social networks beyond the view of adults, I do believe that mature adult presence on social networks is a net positive. If we as educators make a conscious and concerted effort to reach and teach students using Google+ we'll all be better for the effort.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Year's Resolution-Information Diet

I've read a lot of books and articles about the effects of information technology on the brain and society.  The ones that stand out for me are: Is Google Making Us Stupid by Nicholas Carr, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold and the most recent one I've read Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay Johnson. 

I found Carr's argument compelling because I have long believed that deep knowledge of content is important and that deep learning is discouraged in the information age. I've watched Students apply their Google skills to nearly every academic task without learning anything and this unfortunate habit has taken over higher education and the professional workplace as well, a point made in the Golden Globe nominated movie, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

With Rheingold, I found his book incredibly challenging and comprehensive. I took pages of notes with the intention of developing some instructional units on various chapters. Um, well, I haven't gotten very far on that project, which may have something to do with the points made by Clay Johnson in his book. 

Johnson's point is encapsulated in the metaphor about diet. Over-consumption of food makes us fat. Over-consumption of information makes us stupid and unproductive. A variety of nutritious foods is necessary to keep the body healthy, the way a variety of information sources of high quality will keep the brain healthy. Junk food and junk information are both equally addictive and must be avoided. It's a message I certainly took more personally than Carr and Rheingold. I'm definitely guilty of information over-consumption and I certainly need to curtail my over-indulgence in consumption and focus more on production, that is writing and activities that help build communities and relationships. Of course if I succeed in doing that, I'm contributing to this problem in others! 

Currently, I have 4 email accounts, a Facebook account, two Google+ accounts (one for work and one for persona) and I'm responsible for 2 Twitter accounts. Additionally, I spend anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour reading news articles about world events which I have absolutely no control over. With the Smartphone, iPad laptop and desktop computer time combined I probably spend between 1 hour and 3 just reading over feeds and I'm not including the time I spend communicating the other direction.  That time, being spread out through the day does not equal the total cost of information over-consumption. It takes time to switch tasks and focus on productive activities. Therefore, I should wonder how it is I get anything done! 

The other main challenge of Johnson's information is to avoid the echo chambers of opinion's that are in sync with our own. Confirmation bias has left most people blind to different perspectives and hindered the quest for accurate information, aka the Truth. Since reading the book over month ago, I've definitely avoiding the time-sucking pitfalls of reading opinions and analyses that I'm inclined to agree with and actively sought out fresh perspectives that actually challenge my thinking. That's the reason I still subscribe to National Geographic in print. It's one of the last mainstream publications with an editorial policy not entirely decimated and dominated by political or commercial interests. When I read this good old magazine I know my horizons will be broadened each month. The reason I don't read it on the iPad is because of the many other distracting information sources available with a single-touch that don't conform to the high standards of National Geographic.

In our era of vicious partisan disagreements, where otherwise good people can't seem to find common ground and solve problems, I think Clay Johnson's little book would do a lot of people and our beloved Democratic Republic a lot of good! The author himself is a former political operative that had an epiphany and learned the importance of living outside of the bubble that the Internet creates for so many users.

In the school library world, we no longer have great influence via the non-fiction materials we select as students mostly take to the Internet for their answers. Our primary concern has to be teaching habits of mind that help young people cultivate the ability to manage time, consider other perspectives and see past the petty, partisan propaganda that seems to dominate our media universe. As educators, its highly important we start with ourselves, and I appreciate Clay Johnson for coming forward to present the Information Diet, which is a great framework for starting conversations with colleagues, students and fellow citizens of all persuasions.

In the new year, I resolve to refine my information diet, and urge you to do the same. Make 2013 a great year!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Retweet! Not Reteach!

For quite a while now, I've believed that the skill of sorting and using information is of far greater importance than merely acquiring the information covered in the school curriculum. Therefore it behooves us to design learning experiences that require students to do that as we move through the curricula.

Today, students are accessing more information than ever via social networks. Unfortunately, young people are often abandoned to learn on their own and much of what they learn is just plain incorrect. Schools must teach skills and habits for students to not always believe what they read in the Twitter stream and to seek out the truth.

My latest presentation exhorts librarians to take the lead in teaching the habits and skills. Using current examples, including the Gabby Douglas hair controversy and the Apple asymmetrical screw hoax, I demonstrate how fake stories are quickly generated, spread and believed by millions of people. In my opinion, the detective work in getting to the bottom of these stories is downright fun!

Much of the material here is owed to Howard Rheingold and his amazing book Net Smart, which is currently serving as my reference Bible for planning my teaching. I welcome comments and requests for further explanation on any slide. Not all of the meaning is expressed, as much of it was spoken in my talk last week.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reflections on Parenthood and Ed Tech

For the last 17 years, I've been occupied professionally with educating other peoples' children. That all changed a couple of weeks ago, when God blessed my wife and I with a daughter. I feel as though my life in education is just beginning, since I know have at least 18 years to focus my efforts on educating one child instead of basically starting over every few years. Obviously I have done a lot of reflecting about my views of education for my own child and as I write this, I'm thinking about how this personal endeavor may influence my professional practice. Here are some thoughts.

I've long had an image as a tech guy, and I've earned the image, as I have advocated for student computer use for my entire career, and more recently have been outspoken about the potential benefits of video gaming, mobile technology and social media. That being said, I have always worked with teenagers who, by and large are already enthusiastic about technology use and I believe the use of technology in institutions of education can help these teens become more involved in learning and can potentially drive better pedagogy. Now, here's where my personal and professional viewpoint would seem to diverge.

I'm actually ultra-conservative about technology use among children and I convinced my wife to grant our daughter a 100% screen-free life until the age of 8. That means no television (educational or otherwise), no videogames, no ebooks, no screens at all. That would be in line with the strictest opinion from pediatricians. The most permissive would limit screen time until age 2. Why do I want to follow the strictest opinion? The answers are based on both my professional and personal experience.

In a nutshell, I believe that kids raised with highly limited media are more imaginative, better behaved, and better able to succeed academically and professionally. This opinion was cemented in college when I was cycling with a friend. When I made a casual reference to a TV show, he didn't know what I was talking about because he was raised without television. I also realized at that time that this guy was a tremendous athlete in spite of having asthma, a gifted student of many subjects and an all-around creative person with a great sense of humor. I wanted to live in a world with more people like him, and I started watching less and less TV.

There is really no upside to introducing screens. It may be cute to see a 3 year old playing with an iPad, but that only proves how easy it is to figure out an iPad, and how unnecessary it is to have a class at an elementary school on an iPad. Personally I find it horrifying when parents constantly give their kids electronic pacifiers, going as far to always have a screen on, even while driving in the car. It's also horrifying to me (and I see this all the time) to see parents staring at their smartphones while their kid plays in the park. I am determined not to become that sort of parent and I don't want any person, let alone my own child, think they are less important that my smartphone. I have also seen schools resort to electronic pacifiers, and that is infuriating as well. Honestly, I'm also complicit in this, as I allow video games in the library. Though I see some positives, especially when I manage to tie a game into a life-lesson, but much of the time, its simply the path of least resistance. Games allow kids to kill time without much benefit to them.

The reality is that we public educators get more an more kids are being parented by media and devices. It's just sad, and I don't believe anymore the positive spin about the digital natives. They're not learning social skills such as making eye-contact and engaging in scintillating conversation or have clever things to say in writing. The kids that do have conversational skills and creative abilities...they are almost always readers. The kids that have great social skills...their parents talk and interact with them. Schools need to bring out more of these skills and not resort to electronic pacification.

So, does this effect my outlook on technology in education?  Not really. I still thing secondary students should be taught explicit skills about using the Internet as an information source, establishing a positive digital footprint and learning Digital Citizenship, etc. These are not just buzzwords to me. However, we're fooling ourselves if we think these digital natives are going to thrive in the future if we as educators don't give them something on top of their comfort with technology.

As a parent, I frankly I will not rely on schools to fully train my daughter for the complex, high tech future. I have to provide a solid foundation for her, giving her lots of books, talking with her, playing chess, doing science experiments to foster curiosity, etc. When I finally do introduce a computer into her life, I want her to see it as a serious work tool and not merely a toy. I want her to understand how computers work, before she learns to waste time on games, videos, etc. I plan on modelling this behavior by using a computer or device only when it serves a purpose, and not just to kill time.

As a high school librarian, always admired good auto shop teachers. They wanted their students to understand cars just as the kids were learning to drive. There students learned practical problem solving skills that applied to life in general. This is the way I think we should approach computers as well. Kids should learn how to troubleshoot and work out creative solutions within applications they use and create their own applications. However, most students just don't get this kind of training at school.

I see the focus on standards and testing as a big obstacle to achieving any kinds of results in so called "21st Century Skills." It's hard to find time for the things I think are important for young people, when there are so many arbitrary standards that are assessed annually. I'm not against testing and standards, but I do wish school systems were more flexible in how they teach and assess them.

I'll continue to promote the reading of books, recruiting kids into chess club, encouraging Apps programming, demonstrating my love for learning on all subjects, talking to kids about their mission in life and how to accomplish it. These are the things I will always to for my daughter, but will only be able to do for a small percentage of the kids I see at school.   It's not a perfect world, but I plan on making the best of it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Using Hunger Games to get students ready for Biology Test

Here in Texas we are in the first year of new, more rigorous State tests. Rigor is really synonymous with higher reading skills. Having read over the released sample questions for the Biology End of Course exam, I noticed that, while science content knowledge is important, the primary skills needed are deductive reasoning, identifying main ideas and parsing and sorting information for the purpose of comparison. It is therefore more important than ever to model these skills and give students opportunities for practice.

With the enormous popularity of the Hunger Games, I decided it would be a great idea to analyze the science content of the novel and design a lesson that would do just that. This is what I came up with.

 First Step-Focus on the Questioning 

I begin the Hunger Games lesson with a Power Point that has embedded questions for the student audience. I employ a student response system (clicker) to poll the students. I emphasize that these questions are about the questions one ask along with reading. My agenda is to lead students towards asking questions about the science embedded in the Hunger Games story.

Second Step-Model the Reading/Questioning Strategies
I use a SMART Board to display a 3 paragraph passage in the Hunger Games. I explain that our goal of reading this passage is to understand the concept of Muttation, which is a fictional element of the book, with a Mutation, a real scientific concept the students learn about in Biology class. The passage is on page 42 and 43 of the Scholastic paperback edition of the Hunger Games and it is about how the Mockingjay species came into being. As a class, we read-a-loud and pause to highlight on the SMART Board the key scientific information in the passage. I and/or my co-teacher model by continually asking pertinent questions such as "MuTTation has 'mutt' in it. What's a mutt?" and "Is the Mockingjay a Muttation or is it only a Jabberjay that is a muttation?" After the read-a-loud we fill in the Venn diagram on the SMART board that compares Mutation and Muttation, with the goal of activating students prior knowledge of real-world mutations such as albino animals and comparing them with the diabolical muttations in the book.

Third Step-Students practice questioning and comparing independently
The second reading passage introduces the Tracker Jackers and is on pages 185-86 of the Scholastic edition. On the same page, I put an excerpt from Encyclopedia Britannica describing the "Killer Bees," which have many similarities to Tracker Jackers. Students have 15 minutes to read both passages aloud with a partner while highlighting key information. I encourage the students to think aloud by asking relevant questions. Some students need assistance in formulating the questions. The assignment is to fill in a Venn Diagram similar to the first example, comparing Tracker Jackers and Killer Bees. At the end we have a discussion hashing out the key questions and complete the diagram on the SMART Board.

I designed the lesson to have a culminating project component, but due to circumstances at my campus, was not able to use this part of the lesson. This extension involves the passage from Hunger Games (pp 331-33 in Scholastic paperback) that introduces the horrifying muttation, the Wolf-Mutt, which is a vicious dog-like creature with features of human beings. The project is to design a comic strip that depicts in logical-sequential order how these creatures may have been created. In order to accomplish this task, students need to highlight clues from the passage as well as activate knowledge about DNA and genetic engineering to make the comic realistic. It's an open question whether or not the Wolf-Mutt is an actual possibility.

At the conclusion of the lesson, I mentioned other science fiction books that have DNA in the plot, including Michael Cricton's Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain. I am a librarian after all! I welcome all comments and will gladly share my Power Point and other documents to those that comment and/or send me an email.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Accidental iPad-Yearbook connection

Sometimes the best ideas are completely accidental and the most simple. I grew up in an era when disposable cameras became ubiquitous and many people would put them out at social events and let guests document the occasion. The host would collect the cameras at the end of the party, develop them and select the best ones for preservation and/or distribution. This year I decided to purchase 5 iPads for use in the library, not knowing exactly how they would be used, but holding out a vague hope that the students would use them to read stuff. I put on various apps that provide access to reading materials including: Pulse, Follett Reader, Zinio, National Geographic, Classic Books, and quite a few more. However, the Apps that got by far the most use were related to the camera. Over the course of the year, students took hundreds of pictures, mostly in the library. I thought of the old 80s idea of disposable cameras as documentation tools! The iPads were documenting daily school life and figured I could capitalize on this. I decided to lay out a plan to download and store all of the pictures from the iPads on my computer and send the best selections on to the yearbook. I use Windows computers and when I plug in the iPads I get an Autoplay window that allows me to download all pictures and videos in a single click. I change the settings to allow tagging of pictures and then erase the pictures from the iPad. The output allows me to sort the pictures in batches. It takes very little time and I think I'm providing a valuable service by organizing these pictures. The yearbook sponsor was very grateful;and why should't she be. This simple project eliminated much of the need to send yearbook photographers around taking pictures and the pictures are real, spontaneous depictions of student life.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Update on Nooks in the Library

Last week, I was discussing the idea of putting a magazine collection on E-readers with some fellow library types and a couple were interested in my experience so far. Here it goes, the good along with the bad. In the early part of the school year, I decided to adopt the Nook Color as a device to circulate in the library. My decision was based on recommendations from various colleagues, as well as the availability of the local Barnes and Noble representatives to help launch the program. I had a plan to purchase 6 Nooks, with each having a particular theme. For example, one Nook would have a Sports theme, another a comic/manga theme, another with a celebrity theme, etc. I planned on purchasing a mix of Apps, Magazines and books for each Nook so that a user that checked out a device would experience the joy of discovering interesting content and be motivated to check it out frequently upon visiting the library. Well, at every stage of execution, my plan did not quite work as I had hoped. I was happy with the support of the Barnes and Noble rep, who visited me twice on campus to help me work out some issues. However, there was considerable difficulty getting the managed accounts set up and the project was delayed by over a month because of inefficiency and confusion. I definitely wanted to get the so-called managed account because it would make it possible to purchase content with a purchase order instead of my personal credit card (I could get no guarantee of reimbursement for this either). The immediate problem was that as soon as I enrolled the Nooks in the managed account, it was not legal to purchase magazine subscriptions. This was a huge setback for me, as I had already cut my print magazine subscription list with plans to have a better selection of electronic magazines. I was able to submit a list of books and received some very helpful suggestions to help fill in the collection on each of the Nooks. Another disappointment was cost. I found some great sale prices on the B&N Web site but the price granted to me on the managed account was full price for the same item. I was really impressed with the way the books were delivered. They magically appeared on the correct device once the purchase order was received. I was very excited when that happened and quickly prepared a mini-publicity blitz to let the students know about the Nook collections. The most popular Nook, as expected, has been the Manga/Comics edition, which also has the Hunger Games trilogy. However, of the users that checked out this Nook, only a couple returned to check it out again. In a number of cases, a student got interested in reading a book on a Nook, and then would ask if I had the print copy of the same title. It seems that many are nervous about losing or damaging the device and this is a disincentive for some of the lower income students. When the Nooks first arrived, there was a novelty factory that generated interest. However, the students quickly decided that the iPads were more quick and versatile as tablets, so the Nooks are no longer selected because of the device. On top of that B&N released a new tablet that would certainly be a better choice than the under-powered Nook Color. The only motivator to use the Nooks anymore is really the content. As mentioned quite a few would prefer that content in print. Overall, the circulation of Nooks has been below expectations. On top of that, consider the economics. On my initial purchase, I bought 6 Nooks and 30 e-book titles for a total of $1800. For the same cost, I could have easily ordered 100 print books, so there are 70 fewer books, because of the device cost. On top of that, the magazine plan was a bust, and I was also hoping to gain more subscriptions at a lower cost compared with print. I should mention that my student population is only 130 this year. I work at a new campus with only a 9th grade. With a larger student population arriving in the coming years, I fully expect to see higher circulation of the Nooks, and if that is the case, I would certainly continue to purchase more titles to maintain interest. As with any technology it is often best to wait and see, and in hindsight, I would have waited to get the Nook Tablet, or considered the much less expensive black and white e-readers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Leap into the Deep: A way to encourage deeper reading in 2012

Quite a while ago I told myself I was going to read the book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I never made good on my pledge, but I did manage to find time to listen to this 7 minute piece on NPR about the book. Ever since that story aired over a year and a half ago, I've been obsessed with figuring out a way to get kids to read more deeply while also encouraging use of social media and the full menu of Internet tools. While I can sometimes read with great focus while on a computer, it is more often true that I get distracted and my mind wanders off in several different directions at once. When it comes to students, I rarely see a kid sticking with a long Web page or database article long enough to read it thoroughly. This bothers me. I know it may not be the end of the world, but I strongly believe the most successful of our graduates will be able to read deeply and effectively. What can be done to make more kids into deep readers that do more than scroll, skim and click? Last weekend I thought of a clever campaign. I'm calling it "Leap into the Deep." Since February has an extra day this Leap Year, I figure that gives everyone an extra 24 hours to do something productive such as read deeply on a subject. I also wanted the title to reflect the spontaneous nature of research where reading can be done whenever the inspiration hits and plunge deep into a subject. Hence "Lead into the Deep" is the perfect title for this little program. My school is a special place where Project Based Learning is the norm. Still, the students are often so packed with projects and they work in a fast-paced environment that doesn't always allow enough time to research thoroughly. I wanted to allow students to decide for themselves what to read deeply about and allow the to do so in the context of one of their projects, preferably the one that is most interesting to them. Once a student has identified a project and a set of questions for a research quest, he simply tells the teacher he is read to "Leap into the deep," which means a pass to the library for 30 minutes of intensive research assistance and offline reading. The details of the program are in this short Slideshare presentation. Please look it over and send me feedback. In particular, I'm looking for scaffolding and instructional ideas to help struggling readers.