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Reflection on ASB Unplugged 2013

Photo by Thomas Galvez

Photo by Thomas Galvez

A critical process in being an educator is continuing to learn and develop professionally. This is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. I attend around two conferences a year and I learn professionally daily through my Personal Learning Network (Twitter and Diigo groups are the top 2 providers of content in my PLN). Recently, I had the great opportunity to attend the ASB Unplugged Impact 2013 conference at the American School of Bombay (ASB) in Mumbai, India from January 13-15, 2013. The theme of the conference was Effecting Change with the Brain in Mind. I was very excited for this conference since it was a synthesis of my two favorite intellectual pursuits: education and psychology. It also had an emphasis on technology and its impacts on the brain, which is another passion of mine.

The conference started with a session of TEDxASB related to the conference theme. Each of the conference presenters (Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Dr. Judy Willis, Dr. Larry Rosen, and Dr. David Sousa) gave a TED talk that summarized their research and what they would be presenting during their sessions the following two days. These brief talks were inspirational in-and-of themselves and helped me and others decide which sessions we would attend. Here are the links to the talks:

The first session I attended was Dr. Rosen’s about Understanding the iGeneration and Generation C and the Way they Think, Socialize, and Learn. Learning and transforming education through technology and understanding both the positive and negative effects of technology in today’s world is a passion of mine, so I was excited for this session. Dr. Rosen started the session by defining the approximate range of years for the current generations, and then noted how generations change much faster now due to technology. The remainder of the session focused on both qualitative and quantitative data related to how and why today’s student’s think, socialize, and learn with technology. You can see the specific details in my session notes. My biggest take away from this session confirmed previous thoughts and beliefs: technology is creating indelible changes in the way we think and learn, and we as educators cannot ignore this fact. We have to transform our teaching practices so that learning is relevant and engaging for our students today. Technology should be an embedded part of that process. At the same time, we have to recognize the problems technology creates and directly teach our students to understand these problems and deal with them in effective and productive ways.

Image by CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr

Image by CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr

The second session I attended was Dr. Willis’ about How Emotion Impacts the Brain; Constructing and Maximizing Memory. Her session was broken into two parts as seen in the title. In the Emotion part, Dr. Willis started by talking about causes of stress for today’s youth. The key stresses she defined were: Peer relationships; test-taking anxiety; physical, clothing, language differences; no personal relevance; frustration due to previous failure and falling behind, and sustained or frequent boredom. These can have varying degrees of negative impacts on students, thus effecting learning and motivation for learning. She stated that animals learn not to expend energy when success is not expected. This is the same in humans: when success is not expected, students “drop out.” She followed this by discussing something that sustains motivation even when there are repeated mistakes and increasing challenge. This is video games! Why does this sustain motivation? Goal buy-in; achievable challenge, and frequent feedback that acknowledges incremental goal progress. If we can harness these same qualities in the classroom along with personally relevant content, better student engagement and success can be achieved. Additional detail about dopamine’s role in this can be seen in my session notes. The second part of her session focused on memory. The main point here was that we perceive based on the patterns of past experiences; thus, we should work to activate prior knowledge in teaching and learning to allow for pattern matching. With this, students will remember more content and skills. Setting this process in personally relevant and engaging contexts for the students makes the memory even stronger.

The third session I attended was Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation about Brain Plasticity across the Lifespan. This was my favorite session, probably because of my fascination and deep interest with neuroscience at the moment. In the first part of session Dr. Gazzaley gave background on brain plasticity. At times during this part, I felt like I was sitting in my IB Psychology class, which was awesome! Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to modify its function and structure in response to new experiences. Many research studies were shared in this part, especially studies done with brain scanning technologies. Those researchers and research studies can be found in my session notes. The main point here is that brain plasticity is real and unanimously accepted in the scientific community. The brain can learn and change over the span of one’s life. It is not immutable, unchangeable, or hardwired as previously believed. Many factors influence brain plasticity: nutrition, age, intellectual stimulation, enriched environment, disease, stress, genetics, education, physical activity, gender. As educators, we can harness many of these factors to influence the positive growth of our own and our students’ brains.

Photo by Thomas Galvez

Photo by Thomas Galvez

The second part of Dr. Gazzaley’s session focused on video games as plasticity inducers. He stated that the main question that drives research in this area is “how do action video game players compare to non-players on lab-based cognitive tasks?” The research Dr. Gazzaley presented was fascinating. Those researchers and research studies can be found in my session notes. In brief, it has been found and replicated that action video games promote selective attention, perception, and multitasking abilities. They are effective due to: games being fast-paced and unpredictable; engaging; adaptable difficulty; giving real-time feedback- error reports and motivating rewards; providing visual and auditory immersion, and challenging  working memory, attention, processing speed, and notably interference abilities. There are limitations, however, so caution needs to be taken with these findings. There are some methodological limitations of current data like placebo effects (if participants think Tetris is control group, they might not try as hard on test), and unbalanced controls. Some studies found more limited effects of action video games. Addiction can occur, but it’s inconclusive if video games link to violence. The biggest caution is that it’s questioned if these benefits from action video games can transfer to real world activities. So, more research is needed. In a final discussion with the group it was stated that we have to be careful not to lose sustained attention for deep learning. There is very little in the gaming world that promotes sustained attention. We need a balance between the two. Dr. Gazzaley has an idea to develop a game that practices both distributed and sustained attention (i.e. have a part of the game that requires sustained attention in order to unlock the next level or be able to do something the player loves to do within the game). Sustained attention is boring, but we have to help students learn that there is a “break away” point where the activity becomes enjoyable (i.e. running and runner’s high, meditation, reading).

For the final session of the conference, I attended Dr. Rosen’s presentation about Enhancing focus in the age of FB, texting, and other culprits that promote “Continuous Partial Attention”. Like the other sessions, Dr. Rosen used a lot of recent research studies, specifically cognitive psychology studies in this context, to provide the basis for the session. See my session notes for the studies. Some of the key points brought out by the various studies relate to distraction and multitasking. The distractions technologies bring are of real concern. We need to be aware of the effects they bring and we need to educate students about these effects so they can make metacognitive decisions about the impact of their actions. One of the interesting points brought out by research is that the biggest distraction has an internal cause- the thoughts about what another person is doing, what is being said, etc. In regards, to multitasking, it isn’t really multitasking that kids are doing. It’s better referred to as task switching. The cost of this are: attention difficulties; poor decision making; breadth vs. depth of material; information overload; internet addiction; poor sleep habits, and overuse of caffeine. There is evidence that the brain is physically changing because of this. There’s disagreement whether the evolution of the brain in this context will yield more positive, robust brain qualities in this context, but the current research shows it’s problematic.

Overall, this conference confirmed, deepened, and added to my understanding of the various topics presented. It also compounded my belief that there is lot of work still to be done to make changes and transform education today. Some educators say that all teaching is directed toward the brain. I think this conference showed it’s not as simple as that. There are specific strategies and processes educators can take to strengthen learning and make it more engaging. Meaning, relevance, understanding of previous patterns of learning, goal buy-in, achievable challenge, balancing distributed and sustained attention, and understanding both the positive and negative impacts of today’s technology rich world are essential so that the most effective learning environments and processes occur.

Reflecting on #beyondlaptops

On April 19-20, 2012, I had the great opportunity to attend the Beyond Laptops conference at Yokohama International School in Yokohama, Japan. The conference was organized and facilitated by Kim Cofino and was attended by approximately 55 educators, administrators, tech directors/tech integrators, and curriculum coordinators from Asia. Great conversations occurred over the two days, and Kim did a fantastic job to facilitate the process so the diverse needs of the group could be best met. The most useful discussions for me where the ones where groups discussed and presented issues related to where they are at in the 1-1 technology implementation process (I’m currently at a school that’s been 1-1 for a while, but I’m going to a school that’s starting its 1-1 program in August); a  Q & A panel with a group of YIS students, and a jig-sawed discussion about our expectations of each other (administrators, tech coaches/IT directors, curriculum coordinators, and teachers). From those discussions, here are my take-aways.

Image by Kim Cofino (Superkimbo) on Flickr

Balance between tech and non-tech

One of the students in the student panel Q & A  stated that they still enjoy doing work that doesn’t involve technology and that we need to find a balance between tech and non-tech learning processes. In the same way that vinyl records still hold a much more warm and rich sound than their digital counterparts, we can’t ignore warm, effective learning processes that don’t necessarily need digital technology. Teachers that are resistant to technology for learning say that all essential learning processes can be done without technology. There is limited truth to that (they often don’t recognize how they world has changed and why we need to shift from the industrial model of education). So, we as future-oriented educators need to make informed choices as to what the best tool for the task is while keeping an eye on the future, developing skills with technology that will help build successful frames of mind and skills in students that will help them be successful in the technology-rich world in which we live.

Another student in the Q & A declared that she doesn’t want teachers to be replaced by technology since teachers bring the passion and that’s still important for learning. I think this was a very telling statement that regardless of what we can get technology to do, the face-to-face educator-learner relationship factor in learning will always be critical. Yes, our learning spaces can be transformed; our school day schedule can be transformed; we can better break down the walls of our classrooms and schools and interact more with other learners and experts globally; the amount of content and how we process and generate content in learning can be transformed, but the basic human interaction and connection that occurs between educator and learner can’t be outsourced to technology. Our human-ness begets this need.

Balance in Professional Development for teaching tech tools and developing transformed learning cultures

Image by ClayOgre via Open ClipArt Library

A substantial and important side discussion that occurred at the conference was about what should be emphasized at a PD conference like this. Most of us in the ed tech community frequently say these changes needed in education aren’t about the technology tools. They are about learning. But at ed tech conferences, tools are what seemed to be emphasized. More emphasis needs to be placed on developing the learning cultures that are essential to moving our educational systems forward and making them more relevant to today’s learners (Check out this passionate response by Jabiz Raisdana about this acculturation issue). I agree with this acculturation issue, but we can’t ignore discussions of what effective use of tools look like and even taking some time to share and up-skill people’s use of tools. I think the balance of these two elements is what needs to occur.

In rolling out or being in the early stages of a 1-1 technology program, the technology device(s) and apps tend to take front-and-center in PD and training. This is unavoidable since many teachers need the direct assistance in how to use technology tools effectively. At the same time, however, we need to be sure that PD in this context focuses on transforming the learning culture of the school. If schools don’t address this shift in learning cultures, real change won’t occur. Many teachers will just end up using the technology the same way they taught previously, doing things the old way through new technology (like distributing handouts electronically instead of on paper).

Image by Kim Cofino (Superkimbo) on Flickr

Student involvement

Kim had students from YIS involved in the discussions with the teachers on both days and had a special Q & A session with the students on the second day. I think it became very clear to all of us that having students directly involved in these discussions and decision-making processes about their education is absolutely essential. The students provided impressive and insightful comments and feedback in these discussions. In the Q & A, one of the students stated how their ideas and opinions should be just as important as administrators, teachers, parents, and board members. Kudos to the kids for advocating for themselves. They are right. And, I will work to ensure that students get more involved in these kinds of decision-making committees at schools in which I work.

Professional development

The changes and transformations that need to be made in education, including using technology tools effectively and transforming learning cultures, can’t occur without the majority of the members of an institution understanding the how and why. Getting people to this point requires professional development. Most international schools have technology integrators (or technology learning coaches, digital literacy specialists, or whatever you want to title the role). People in these roles, including myself, work tirelessly to assist colleagues and students in developing their effective use of technology for learning. However, this assistance can only go so far when it comes to subject or grade level specific aspects related to the curriculum. For example, my teaching background and experience is in the social sciences and humanities. So, when I work with colleagues in these departments, I do a much more thorough job in connecting the use of technology with learning objectives in the curriculum. When it comes to math, science, or even PE, that assistance weakens in making the connections with learning outcomes in the curriculum since I don’t have academic background or expertise in those areas.

The idea that came out of the conference is that of a Tech Pilot or Pioneer group. At least one person from every subject area/department and grade level would join this team. This team would then go on a retreat early in the school year with technology learning coaches/curriculum coordinators to develop their understanding of essential technology learning tools and new learning culture ideas. These people would then be the first level of support for their immediate subject area/department and grade level colleagues. Technology learning coaches/curriculum coordinators would continue in their roles and provide continued assistance throughout the year. The full Pilot/Pioneer team would surely meet throughout the year to debrief and continue learning together. This model is supported by recent data collected at my school where a substantial percentage of colleagues said they preferred to learn from a colleague who has used a tool before. This makes sense since there is a more intimate curriculum connection between these subject area/department and grade level colleagues. For this model to work, however, it needs to be clear to the community of who all is involved, and the goals and expectations of all members of the professional learning community need to be clearly delineated.

Social Media and Digital Citizenship

YIS was finishing its Digital Citizenship (DC) Week during the conference. The Beyond Laptops participants were invited to attend the end of week assembly where students summarized all of their learning about DC over the year. It was great to see the students talking soundly about these important issues that face us every day as we navigate through our digital worlds. The use of social media came up often during the conference, as well. During the Q & A with the students, quite a few comments were made about social media. One student said that blocking social media only causes anger and rebellion. Another student stated that social media makes it very easy to share resources with each other. Another student even stated that using Facebook and having an open network at school helped her to learn how to manage distractions that can come from such mediums. I think all of these comments show the importance and emotion that surrounds these great tools that help us to communicate and collaborate. Yes, they can be problematic for some students, but that’s where we as educators come through and develop Digital Citizenship awareness to help students understand how to navigate their digital landscapes effectively. Moreover, schools and educators need to harness the power of social media themselves as ways to reach out and connect with both their immediate local and extended global communities. Schools and teachers need to model this effective use, not block it and deny its existence.

Overall, it was great conference with great conversations. A lot of work still needs to be done so that technology is being used effectively for learning and so that more relevant learning cultures are developed and sustained in our schools. As Dana Watts stated in one of the break out meetings, everyone just needs to Suck It Up to ensure these things happen! The #beyondlaptops Twitter back-channel feed can be seen here.

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