Archive for July, 2011

July 28, 2011

Change is scary to those who stay the same

by t.e.d.d.y.

How Web 2.0 should change schools’ decision-making on integrating technology

When it comes to technology, the most difficult thing to decide on is what should a school purchase – from hardware to software – in order to effectively support teaching and learning.  The decision is difficult because first the research up until recently shows conflicting findings in regards to the benefits of technology on teaching and learning.  Some authors demonstrate a positive outcome of using instructional technology arguing that it better engages students and provides a more relevant approach to learning that students can relate to.  Other researchers argue that technology has no impact on improving teaching and learning because it is the teacher that essentially provides the guidance and support for the students regardless of the media this teacher uses.  Some of the arguments are that technology can even be distracting to students because it encourages multi-tasking and doesn’t prompt students to stay focused on learning.

However, the biggest blunder when it comes to deciding on technology integration is… yes, you guessed it… cost.  School budgets are always shrinking and never enough for anything else, let alone equipping computer labs and paying software licences.  And because the effects of using technology were so controversial, it is just not justified enough to spend on renewing the technology.  I am sure that if using computers increased academic performance by 40% (or even 20%), school districts would be  more inclined to spend money on buying more computers.  However, that’s not always the case (or at least not consistently).  So what drives the decision to spend on technology?

Well, the picture is not really black and white when it comes to effects of technology on teaching and learning.  First, we have the factor that technology needs to be used properly to be effective.  That’s a strong argument considering that the overuse of Power Point, for example, without any thought put into it creates more confusion than support in the classroom.  So now the question of teacher preparation to use technology comes up.  In other words, we cannot ignore the fact that lack of understanding, or technology, media, and digital literacy among teachers may be the cause for lack of increase in academic achievement.

Second, a factor that drives the decision to spend on technology in schools is keeping up with the times.  Schools are preparing citizens of the future.  The future is close to impossible to predict, but one thing we know for sure is that smart phones and computers aren’t going anywhere any time soon.  In fact, their use keeps growing and the devices become more and more advanced in principle and easier to use in practice.  Think about it… how long did it take you to learn how to use your smart phone?  Did you take a course to figure it out?  Technology nowadays is directed towards the user – it has to be user friendly.  Otherwise it becomes exclusive and loses ground with the common user.  Simply put, if I need to take special training on using my iPhone while there are other products out there that don’t require it, I’ll move onto them and never even consider buying an iPhone.  That example was not very realistic especially considering that exactly Apple changed the way user needs were met by technology manufacturers.  To summarize, schools need to stay relevant to every day life where students live.  This is another substantial argument for continuing to spend on technology.

Of course the pros and cons don’t end here.  The point is, though, decision-making on technology integration has been frustrating, slow, and the least favourite part of a school administrator’s job.  Here’s what the this processes looks like today:

WHAT DO WE HAVE –> WHAT CAN WE AFFORD –> WHAT DO WE NEED = RESULT

Basically, schools go with what they have first.  Whether it’s hardware that is still usable, software which licence hasn’t expired yet and is not too old, facilities to house a computer lab, projectors, screens, etc.  Once they have inventoried everything usable, administrators will consider the budget to see what they can afford.  How much can they spend on purchasing new technology, updating the existing, and maintaining the existing.  Only then, they do a needs assessment – if we have that much money, what can it get for us that we can use to meet our needs?  The result is purchasing more hardware which is usually not the best for the recognized needs but it’s cheaper.  The software usually remains the same.  There is a bit of investment in maintenance and if there’s anything left, teacher training.  In short, we do the same things, expecting different results.

Instead of worrying about keeping up with the fast developing technology, schools should focus entirely on changing the way decisions are made.  They need to change their outlook and approach on integrating technology.  The most important question here is, what can be changed so we have different, better results?  Instead of focusing on the budget and losing sight of the school’s needs, administrators should research the new management methods out there and apply some of them in their own work.  For example, a decision shouldn’t take 2 years to make.  There are way to approach a problem and act on solving it immediately.  When I say school administrators, I mean everyone involved in the decision-making from the school principal to the Ministry of Education.  And when I say schools, I mean educational institutions from K-12 to college and university.  The current process is too slow and heavy.  This is also another reason why schools can’t keep up with the real world – they move too slow.  Anyhow… Instead of starting with what a school already has, the decision-making process should start with what the schools want.  Where do we want to be in the upcoming school year?  The key word here is “want”.  Yes, this is very rarely taken into consideration when it comes to decisions about technology.  If we start with what we want, the process takes a different turn.  Take a look at this new process:

WHAT DO WE WANT –> WHAT DO WE HAVE –> WHAT DO WE NEED –> BUDGET = RESULT

What this means is, we have to consider our goals for technology integration first and the budget last.  Some of you may think I am a bit confused – budget always comes first.  Actually no.  Think of all these small start-up companies that start with $1000 in the bank and in no time grow to be multimillion dollar enterprises.  Yes, schools are different.  Yes, schools are mostly public.  And no, we can’t act as if we are a private company.  That’s all true.  But everyone would agree that the biggest reason why these small start-ups were successful, is because they started with a vision and a goal.  Their goal was far from making millions of dollars.  They had a passion and they acted on it.  You know how Facebook started.  You know what the principle behind open source technology is.  Not money!

So once we know what we want and the direction we want to go, we take a look at our inventory to see if it meets any of our wants.  What do we want to use from the existing inventory?  If all of our computers are in working condition but they are not efficient, then we don’t want them.  There is a difference between “working condition” and “efficient condition”.  If the computers have 512MB memory and are 15 years old, the fact that they work is not enough for us to want to keep them.  If we have Internet in the school but it’s all wired and can only reach 10 of the 20 computers we have and restricts us to a specific room in the school, then perhaps investing in wireless Internet is worth looking into… especially if want our students to use their smart phone for learning.

Now that we know what we want and what we have that can be used, we starting making a list of what we need to get.  What do we not have already that we need?  Needs are referring not only to hardware and software, but also to flexibility of technology, maintenance, technical support, etc.  In other words, what features do we need the new resource we purchase to have?

And only then, we look into budget.  Spending is based on wants and needs combined.  We may have a big budget but we don’t have to spend it all just because we have it.  So the question is not “what can we afford?”, but rather, “how much do we want to spend?”.  Take for example Microsoft Office and Open Office.  The education licences for MS Office per computer is cheaper than the regular package, but it still costs a substantial amount of money.  How about updates?  How about compatibility? If we want to go with MS Office, we can allocate money from the budget for it.  However, if we don’t want to spend that much, we can go with Open Office which is free.  It has nearly the same functions and will do a great job in the classroom.  In short, it will serve our need for text editing, presentations, spreadsheets, etc.  Or perhaps we can use Open Office in combination with Google Docs.  That way, students and teachers don’t have to email or use a portable USB to transfer files they created at school to their home computers.  They simply save their files in Google Docs and open them at home through their browser.

The above example is just a simple picture of what is possible with emerging technologies and how a school can quickly save money on certain aspects of technology integration and allocate it for something more important.  This option is available and possible because of emerging technologies such as cloud computing, smart phones, apps, open source learning, web 2.0 tools, freeware, social media, etc.  In other words, when it comes to decision-making, school have three things to consider and take care of:

1. Hardware

The average price of a laptop these days is around CAD600 if not less.  Schools get special rates too.

2. Infrastructure

Internet, intranet, facilities, technical support, etc.

3. Teacher training

Constant teacher development is essential and pays off immediately.  In fact, new technologies as the above mentioned, are motivational drivers for teachers to initiate their own professional development.  You wouldn’t believe the look on my teachers’ faces when I introduced them to screen capturing.  They were like kids in a candy story hungry for innovation and ready to use everything that’s available to them.

In conclusion, decision-making about technology integration in schools must change.  While we have had a passive approach to decion-making always starting with what we have and expecting improved results, we should start with what we want.  Where are we heading and where we want to be.  In other words, we must take a proactive approach and proactive decision-making process.  The real world where our students will live does not cling on what’s there, but looks towards what is possible.

July 12, 2011

Learning on a Cloud, p. 2

by t.e.d.d.y.

There is so much talk about cloud computing these days.  It’s a direction which hugely impacts the way we store information and also access information.  What does this new trend mean for education and will it easily enter the lives of educators?

Well, for some educators clouds are the way to go already.  The technology has been around for some time.  The first time I used cloud technology was with a browser-based program for uploading files which started as a free service and had a “huge” amount of space – 512MB.  That was amazing back in 2001.  Then the service became paid and I stopped using it.  There have been numerous cloud-type services offered after that.  And then came Google.  Google docs took cloud technology to a different level.  Now you could not only store and share files on a cloud.  You could created them right there on that cloud and save them without any sync or without stuffing your computer hard drive with files.  Besides Google, we have also seen Microsoft offering their cloud as well.  Recently it was Apple that announced their iCloud to the world.  All these options stirred the waters of pros and cons of cloud technology.  How do we know what’s better than the rest?

I read an interesting article which provided a great comparison of the cloud technology offered by Google, Microsoft, and Apple.  Here’s the authors’ summary:

GOOGLE APPLE MICROSOFT
Cloud + Web(browser-based cloud technology) Cloud + Software(desktop software syncs with the cloud – the best of both worlds – the internet part is behind the scenes) Slogan: “Software Plus Services”(similar to Apple’s idea but MS failed to realize it the way Apple did)

In other words, it took Microsoft a long time to figure things out while Apple kept trying to take a share in the cloud business (MobileMe, .Mac).  Now we have a change of direction.  As a user it is pretty much up to you to decide which option is best for you: Google’s web=based cloud; or Apple’s combination of software and web; or Microsoft’s .  What would that mean for an educator?  Of course you are faced with the usual concerns that any other user will have – security and privacy of information (Can anyone access or edit my files?), ease of use (How easy is it to incorporate cloud technology into my teaching and my students’ learning?), reliability and accessibility (Will I be able to access everything easily from anywhere?  Do I need to worry about losing files and data?), etc.  These are valid concerns.  However, the security and maintenance of the cloud servers is almost 100% reliable nowadays.  Unless you set the permissions for someone to access and edit your files, they will not be able to do so simply because they don’t know if your files exist (unless you tell them so).  The technology is quite reliable.  As long as you have Internet connectivity, you’re good to go.  Accessibility is becoming easier and most providers of cloud technology have different access options – smart phones, laptops, web browsers, etc.

Cloud technology is starting to make its way into education and its use is gaining speed.  However, few educators understand cloud technology and how to use it effectively in their work.  Here’s a few of the benefits of using clouds for education:

Educational:

  • Enhanced collaboration and team work
  • Instructor involvement as a contributor to students’ projects and work
  • The technology is cheaper (most times free for end-users)
  • Exchange of content between educators and between educators and students

Technical:

  • Great opportunity for backup which happens instantly and automatically
  • You access your data and tools any time from anywhere and any device
  • It’s reliable as cloud systems have virtually indestructible security and run practically with no interruption

In other words, although some campuses are slow to embrace Web 2.0 and cloud technology, education will be hugely impacted by the development of the latter.  The truth is, once you start using clouds, you won’t be able to come back on the ground – transferring data and creating data on a cloud is so easy that there is no need for special preparation.  It’s a matter of diving into it.

Further readings and tools:

A Simple Way to Record and Publish Audio to the Web

GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom

Dropvox

Dropbox

Work Simple

July 6, 2011

Technology Diet

by t.e.d.d.y.

I went on a technology diet this weekend.  I went camping with my spouse and I reserved to looking at my phone just a couple of times a day, mostly to see what time it was.  Yes, we watched a movie in his truck one night but just because it was pouring rain and it was too early to go to bed.  We camped at the bank of the Cheakamus river and throughout our stay we enjoyed the sound of the fast water running as well as the crackling of the ongoing fire.  We cooked over the fire and made coffee in our new percolator.  Breakfast was amazing prepared over our new Coleman stove.  Friends came by to see us and the fun never stopped.

Believe it or not, I had my laptop with me there but I opened it once while we were in Whistler to check on my online course and see if any students needed help before the deadline of their assignment.  The weekend was blissful and our thoughts were occupied with deciding when to have dinner and what to cook for breakfast the next morning.  While I indulged in delicious food, I thought that I was on a technology diet.  Working for a technology company and teaching online (a technology in education course) I am always exposed to all kinds of media.  So escaping from it all for a weekend felt liberating.

I have to admit though, I also realized that I would never be able to reject technology and decide to never use it.  Yes, you may laugh but there are people who deliberately isolate themselves from the technology world by deciding to not use computers or cell phones.  Well I’m not one of them.  I can never be one of them.  At least not by choice.  While I knew that before, I was even more convinced this weekend.  My parents live in Europe and I am the only child.  For us communicating over Skype is essential.  Speaking to each other almost every other day, sharing photos, videos, webcams instantly is an amazing experience.  How else am I going to do this and let them see my life as it happens if I don’t use technology?  There is no other way.

So here’s what happened at the camping trip.  We lit the fire, started breakfast, and made the coffee.  Before you know it, my parents were calling us on Skype on our iPhone.  The conversation was great – we were outdoors and camping and we could show them via the iPhone’s webcam everything that was happening on our campsite.  They saw the fire, the tent, the fast river, our smiling faces and we saw them ready to go to bed at night after a tiring day and happy to see us. How cool is that!?!

So yes, technology diets are important but they shouldn’t mean losing connection with the world (and my world is my family).  Balance is key.  It may sound like a cliche but it’s true.

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