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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.

Learning 2.0 and Project-based Learning

I had the great opportunity to attend the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai, China for the third time since its inception in 2006. As with the previous two times, this ranks as the best professional development conference for educators in my opinion. The organizers have created a series of experiences within the conference that move the participants and presenters alike beyond the typical sit-and-get most conferences bring. Between the cohorts, workshops, unconferences, and keynotes, there is never a dull moment, learning is always happening, and ideas are constantly being shared and exchanged. The conference does have an emphasis on educational technology, but the transforming of the learning process to be more relevant for life and work in the 21st century is at the heart of the experience.

At Learning 2.0, participants choose a cohort that relates to the work they do at their school or another area in which they are interested. The cohort I chose was Project-based Learning (PBL). This type of learning process has been one of the ways I have endeavored to transform my teaching practice for a many years now, especially in the IB courses I teach. Currently, I teach IB Psychology and Technology Skills for the 21st Century Learner at my school. In both of these courses, I use PBL often to have the students DO the subject and set the content in context of 21st century learning skills and subject area skills rather than just learn about the subject and regurgitate it back to me. This cohort experience proved how much more engaging PBL is than traditional teacher-centered learning processes and reaffirmed my desire to keep it at the core of my pedagogy.

Photo by Thomas Galvez

In our cohort, we just didn’t sit around talking about PBL. In the spirit of PBL, we DID PBL in the short time we had together (about 5 hours total). As a group facilitated by Rodd Lucier, we brainstormed and agreed upon a means in which to do this in a way that accessed the strengths and passions of everyone in the group. What we came up with was to create a video on the theme of “A world with PBL vs. a world without PBL” (see the video below). Everyone took on roles to complete our project. It was a pretty big undertaking for such a big group in such a small amount of time. But since each of us got to chose our role and had buy-in to the idea, we were all quickly engaged and got down to business. Because of my life long passion for music and music production, the role I chose was to do the soundtrack. It was a lot of fun, and I found myself getting to the room early each time for the cohort session to continue working on my part with my partner. We finished the video before the end of the conference and we are pretty happy with it. I wish there would have been a little more time to debrief the experience and more deeply discuss the rational and importance for PBL, but I think the experience spoke for itself. I look forward to developing more PBL experiences for my students.

Beyond the cohort experience, there were workshops and unconference sessions that related to technology tools and pedagogical processes participants wanted to develop. I facilitated a workshop on Creative Commons, which went very well. I also attended a workshop on using iPads in the social studies/language arts classroom and did a session on Adobe Photoshop. My quick creation from the Photoshop session is to the right.

Beginning each day of the conference were a series of keynotes. The keynotes this year were fantastic. Most focused on the importance of connections in today’s world and how technology can effectively facilitate this connectivism. There were three student keynotes that really stole the show, however. Each one of the students told a personal story of either their own experience of learning with technology or demonstrating their understanding of the impact and importance of technology in education. I thought back to when I was in high school, and I never could have done what those students did. They were amazing. It’s great to get students involved in conferences like this, and I give the organizers huge kudos for including the students in this way. It shows that we are all together in this joyous ride of learning.

The conference also gave plenty of time to just have conversations with the people you meet, as well. I had many great conversations with both new and old friends in those times.

In all, these experiences combined to make for 2 days of non-stop learning. I’m still processing a lot of what I learned in the experiences over the last two days. At least I have a holiday on Monday to continue some of that processing before I start putting it into action on Tuesday!

You can see photos of the conference in this Flickr group.

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