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.
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
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).
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.
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.