Redefining Stupid

Categories: Philosophy
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Published on: August 30, 2016

You’re sitting in a presentation on some technical subject. The presenter assumes a certain level of knowledge, and you’re just not on that level. Everyone else seems to be keeping up, though, and you know it’s something you should know, so you keep quiet and hope for the best because you don’t want to look stupid.

Sound familiar?

Relax, we’ve all been there. Nobody likes that feeling of embarrassment, and it’s hard to say whether that feeling is stronger in a room full of total strangers or in a group of friends and coworkers. Do you want to make a poor first impression, or deal with being teased for a while? Either way, no fun.

Unfortunately this problem can compound itself. You miss one part, so then the next part doesn’t make sense, nor the next, and pretty soon you’re either totally lost or have given up completely.

The first thing I recommend to people in these situations is to stop redefining the word “stupid.” Being unable to perform a specific task or function is not stupid. Stupid is defined as “lacking intelligence or common sense.” Are you able to grasp the task if someone explained it to you? Of course you are. Congratulations, you’re not stupid.

I start some of my technical presentations by holding up a packet of the silica gel manufacturers pack with electronics to absorb moisture. These things are always labeled with some version of “do not eat.”

Mmm, tasty
Mmm, tasty

Not “keep out of reach of children, which should also be a no-brainer, but “do not eat.”

I ask my audience, “Would you eat this?” Of course they wouldn’t. That would be stupid.

And so we have our new—and appropriate by definition—standard of stupidity. People tend to relax and start asking questions after that.

Now that we’ve fixed our definition of stupidity, it’s time for the next step: be an adult.

Nobody is comfortable looking stupid, but our time is valuable. Sitting in a workshop and not taking a thing away from it because we were afraid to ask a question is just silly (because remember, it’s not stupid unless you eat my packet of silica gel). Do what you’ve got to do to understand the material and move on, especially if it’s something that will either help you at work or may be part of a performance evaluation.

Teachers don’t accept giving up from their students, and we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves. If you’re stuck, speak up! Get your answers.

Besides, there’s a good chance someone else in the room has the same question, and they haven’t readjusted their definition of stupidity yet.

“After School” App Manipulates Users

Categories: Social Networking
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: December 8, 2015

Anonymous messaging services like Yik Yak have their place, and can be vibrant communities if the local users have the strength to police it and set their own standards. However, the new After School app/service takes things a bit too far by creating content itself and instigating conflict between users.

A high school teacher brought After School to the administrators’ attention last week, and the same day another coworker received an email from a neighboring school district warning parents about After School. I signed on to the app to see how it was being used (or abused) in our district.

After School presented me with a list of area high schools to join, including our own. It then asked for Facebook login information. They claim this is to verify age, location, and education to prove a user goes to the selected school.

Here’s the thing: my age is not public on my account, the city I list on Facebook is twenty miles away, and I have no education—or even job listing—associating me with the school I work for. I expected After School to reject me, but it let me on anyway.

I was greeted with several inane posts accompanied by gifs. Some were borderline inappropriate, some a bit more blunt, and much of it not unexpected from a teenaged crowd. I did some more digging for reviews and found other users accusing the service of generating content, presumably to get kids chatting.

What makes it so much worse, however, is it frequently lists students by name. Sometimes it’s just a first name, sometimes it’s a first name and last initial. I got to wondering, what if they’re actually using Facebook logins to pull names for their false posts? When a tech from another Illinois district said that’s exactly what happened to him, I started watching for my own name to appear.

It didn’t take long. Here are the smoking guns:

2015-12-05 13.24.38
From 12/5/15

Understand, the only Mikes in the district are myself, our principal, and a junior high student. You might assume this could be about the junior high student, but a previous post referred to “Mike O” and disappeared when I went back to screengrab it.

From 12/7/15
From 12/7/15

Even more suspicious. “You mean a lot to me” is pretty typical of the generic pining that appears within the app.

I saved the best for last:

Also 12/7/15
Also 12/7/15

I’ve seen this same post appear with several different names, as well as posts calling other students/users things like “low-key sexy,” or commenting on the impressiveness of their anatomy.

It’s not hard to see how posts like this can quickly stir up trouble among students. We’ve already had confrontations between students as a result of posts, whether due to anger, jealousy, or discomfort.

This crosses a line. Students are still learning their way around social media and relationships, and they can cause enough damage on their own when using anonymous services. A company manipulating student behavior with randomized posts and causing fights is irresponsible at best and criminal at worst.

I’ve been asked, of course, if we can block After School. We may be able to at the schol network level, but it’s going to do no good when students use their cellular service or home Wi-Fi to check the app. Our best bet is to show students what After School is doing, warn them they are being manipulated, and advise them to avoid the app altogether.

Chances are some of them have already figured it out, but the only sure way to avoid further confrontations and fights is to educate our students.

What’s an OS? An EdTech Failure

Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: December 1, 2015

A young woman purchased a laptop with the Ubuntu operating system, didn’t know how to work with it, and the frustration made her abandon her plans to start online college courses. Then a local news reporter picked up on the story:

It seems this news report is trying to say Dell, or perhaps technology in general, is at fault for this young woman’s problem, despite the reporter contacting the college and her ISP for additional assistance. Meanwhile, there are several reaction videos online as well, with people calling the woman stupid and blaming her for not knowing what she was purchasing and/or not being able to figure things out.

Unfortunately the problem is not that simple, in either direction.

The video was posted in 2009, but I hear of similar stories today, often with Chromebooks. It’s 2015. Let’s consider:

Students should not be graduating from high school without any clue what an operating system is. Even if they haven’t been exposed to ChromeOS or Linux, even if they only use Windows at home or at school, they should understand that there are indeed different operating systems out there and they should be able to recognize the difference in product literature.

Students should also understand what they’re asking for when they’re talking to Internet providers. If she’d purchased a shiny new MacBook Pro today, would the disc from her ISP have Mac software on it? Or if she’d purchased a MacBook Air with no drive, would she have been just as lost? If she went the cheap route and purchased a Chromebook, would she have the same problem? (And just wait until she tries to print.)

If she can’t connect to the Internet or set up an email client without a disc from an ISP, then it’s safe to say she will be just as lost when she visits a coffee shop or other public hotspot. She hasn’t learned the basics of what a network is, and probably not what a browser is or how they work. It’s probably safe to say she doesn’t even have an understanding of how the Internet works.

And yes, while Ubuntu will work just fine with all of her courses as the college confirmed, she’s going to be facing an uphill battle by learning her way around an OS while studying (and probably working a day job, too). The same is true if she’d purchased a Chromebook. There are plenty of online resources to help her learn, but that’s more time spent not working on class materials.

With enough basic information on operating systems, file systems/structures, networking, and software, a student should be able to sit down in front of any operating system and find the settings and software they need. It may take a little tinkering or searching, but networking is networking and a browser is a browser. At worst case they should know how to find the information they need with a Google search on a phone or a friend’s computer.

Unfortunately most classes teach “click here.” When “here” is not there anymore, students are lost.

I don’t know how many schools address these things in curriculum, but it’s something that needs to be taught. Any student who graduates without being proficient in computing—not just specific apps like Office—is only going to fall behind.

Responsible Classroom Management

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: November 16, 2015

Classroom management is evolving with the introduction of 1:1 and BYOT programs and, understandably, some teachers find it intimidating. When students have easily-concealable smartphones or screens that are not immediately visible to a teacher, they find it difficult to tell which students are on task and which are focused on other things.

Fortunately there are several products that make this easier. Districts can choose from several different products to monitor student activity to ensure they are being productive during class. Teachers can see what a student is working on, and in many cases, teachers can see what tabs a student has open in a browser, close some of those tabs remotely, or even lock students’ screens completely.

Many teachers regard these abilities as the savior of their classroom. However, these tools are also incredibly easy to abuse by teachers, and can quickly turn students against them.

When a teacher goes in remotely and closes students’ tabs or simply locks out devices for the entirety of the hour, it creates two different perceptions.

The teacher expects something like this:

To the students, however, it feels something like this:

Clockwork Orange

While the temptation is great to zap every browser tab a student opens that isn’t related to their class work, doing so is going to create resentment in the student. The student is going to seek out a way around being monitored. Everyone deserves a brain break now and again, and sometimes a brief diversion helps develop a thought. It’s not uncommon for adults to multitask, so why should we not expect students to do the same?

For example, I have yet to attend a meeting or conference where most of the attendees (myself included) were not also checking email, visiting Facebook, playing Solitaire, surfing the Web, working on other projects, or otherwise not being 100% focused on the speaker. Can you imagine the outcry if someone sat at the back of the room, managing those adults’ screens?

Digital classroom management should focus more on developing behaviors and habits than micromanaging a student’s time. Teachers should focus more on what is not getting done with class time than what a student is doing at a particular moment. If they’ve been wracking their brains for several minutes, why shouldn’t they clear their head wth a short game? If they’re sweating something that happened during the day or at home and they need to communicate something to someone, is preventing them from doing so really going to solve their problem, or make them any less distracted?

For the students getting their work done, we should not worry about how they spend their time. For the students who cannot or will not manage their time effectively, however, we may need to rethink how we address their behavior.

Take the chronic YouTube watcher, for example. He insists he only watched a video “for a minute or two,” but that minute rapidly expanded into the whole hour. These are the students who get lost in digital time and honestly do not realize how much time has passed. Closing their tabs can be effective in the short term, but doing so over and over only makes them agitated and does little to solve the problem in the long term.

These are the students who need to be taught how to manage their time. Track and show them the time spent on task versus off. Show them how long videos negatively affect their productivity. Teach them the use of time-management tools like Moosti. Work with them on recognizing procrastination. In extreme cases, have the student research study time management techniques and see what they feel will work for them.

This is one example, and experienced teachers or school psychologists will have many more. However, my point remains that a teacher must use these digital classroom management tools responsibly. If teachers uses a digital classroom management package like a weapon, their students are going to respond in kind.

On Education “Partnerships”

Categories: Miscellania
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: October 19, 2015

Everywhere I turn, I see vendors proudly announcing they are partners in education. They print it on their literature, they post it on their signs, they even build logos around the slogan.

But what is a partner? I decided to ask Google.

partner

Sounds simple enough, yes? But when I apply that to the actual behavior I see in those same vendors, I start to question whether we share the same definition of the word.

inigo-montoya

I have a telecom vendor who has failed to deliver on purchased services over one year after contracts have been signed and payments have been made. I kicked up a chain of complaints and was told by a high-level executive that it would be fixed, how their company is a proud partner of education, and blah blah blah. Over a week later there’s been no hint of movement to resolve the issue.

Years ago we had two computer labs full of PC towers. After a year, we lost over 20% of them due to a bad security chip on the motherboards. Both the vendor and the manufacturer claim to be partners in education, yet their only solution to the problem was to shrug and offer to sell us new computers, even after observing similar problems for other customers.

These stories go on and on. Companies assign a rep to be our alleged partner, but the only time we hear from them is when they want to sell us something.* We’re a small district, so we’re not worth their time. We see a product we can really use but we just don’t have the budget to support it, so they walk away.

I get it, vendors. You’re running a for-profit business, not a charity. You have your own costs and commitments. This is how business works.

Just stop with the “partner” nonsense, because you’re not fooling anyone.

*The one exception here is Apple. I spoke to my reps and engineers frequently, and they stopped by whenever they were in town. Our district finally went a different direction by choosing Chromebooks, but I know I can have an Apple rep here if we were ever to revisit the direction of our 1:1. Experiences vary for some of my colleagues, but it’s always been solid for me.

My Favorite Teachers

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: June 8, 2015

My favorite teachers ask questions.

The day we stop learning is the day we stop living, and that’s especially critical for teachers. Not just learning in their field, but in their classroom, about their students, about teaching, and yes, about technology.

Today, one of our teachers sat down with me to learn more about using Google Classroom and Google Apps in class. He’s one of our veteran teachers, not particularly tech savvy. He told me, “I could retire, but I don’t want to yet, and I want to be the best teacher I can be.” We’re going forward with a Chromebook 1:1/BYOT hybrid next year, and he wants to be ready for it.

I was blown away.

Not because it was him doing the asking, but because he’s the first teacher in my ten years with the district to do so. Sure, a few have called me to their room for some refreshers, but he is the first teacher to ask for one-on-one instruction in the Summer after they’ve all clocked out for the school year.

He worried about imposing on my time, and to be honest, many of the others do, too. I’m running a one-man show across three buildings with a wide variety of devices and tasks that larger districts assign a tech staff to. But he asked, and I told him, by all means, come on in.

We spent over an hour together. I took him on a tour of Google Classroom and Docs, and we did some hands-on training with him building a class and me opening and submitting assignments as a student. We also touched on Drive, and we used Flubaroo to grade a Google Form. He took notes along the way, and at the end we agreed to sit down again in a couple of weeks: he would play with things and come up with questions, and maybe we’d look at something else new as well.

I loved every minute of it. This is the part of the job I feel is key. Keeping the servers running and the computers working is one thing, but this is the part that impacts student learning. If all goes well, he’ll be able to do new things with students, and the students will get to work that much more with technology. Win-win.

My favorite teachers ask the questions that help them improve. My favorite teachers are curious, learning technology because they want it to make them better, because they trust that it can help them in the long run, not because they have to fulfill an evaluation obligation or tick a checkbox in a certification form.

Even the self-motivated tech learners like Steve Hayes will find something to ask me, because they’re hungry to learn more and occasionally they get tripped up by the technology itself. They’re my favorite teachers because they’re not too embarrassed (or are willing to be embarrassed) to ask for help, just like their students who may meet roadblocks in their classrooms.

Technology is changing. Teaching is changing. Our students are changing, and the world is changing. If we don’t work together, we’re never going to keep up.

If we can’t keep up with today, our students will never be prepared for tomorrow.

Teaching Productivity to Students

Productivity information abounds on the Internet. There are systems like Getting Things Done and 43 Folders, and blogs like Lifehacker are loaded with tips and tricks for increasing productivity and managing workflow.

Why should our students be left to discover these things on their own?

A common complaint about putting a device in every student’s hand is distraction. In fact, I would argue this is the number one argument against going 1:1 or BYOD, ahead of things like cost or issues of breakage and theft. People feel students will spend all their time watching YouTube and playing video games rather than getting their work done.

I’m not going to say it’s an invalid complaint, but I think it’s one that can be addressed with education. If we just put a device in a child’s hand and turn them loose, education is not going to be the first thing on their mind. That’s just nature. Educators need to guide and develop students’ device usage just as they help guide and develop any other skill or social behavior.

For in-class work, this isn’t too difficult. Part of it is keeping them busy on the device, and part of it is classroom management. There are tools to make the teacher’s job easier in the classroom, but in this article I’d like to address student device usage during their personal time. We need to teach students to stay organized and on-task during class work time, study halls, and at home while working on homework.

Let’s start with music. Most students—and adults—like to listen to music while they work. Music provides enough distraction for the idle part of our minds while we concentrate on homework or work tasks. Where do most students turn for their music these days? YouTube.

YouTube presents a dual problem. For schools, one problem is bandwidth. Audio takes much less bandwidth, so as a school tech I would rather students (and teachers) turn to streaming audio like Slacker Radio or Pandora. There is still, however, a greater problem of distraction. Students will end up watching the videos, or they will spend several minutes looking for a song they want to hear or building playlists during valuable work time. Or worse, they see another interesting video in the recommended list, and “just this one video” becomes one more, and one more, and one more… You get the idea. Heck, it’s probably happened to you.

Streaming audio can help us here, too: Slacker and Pandora build playlists automatically, and now the student is back to, for the most part, passively listening rather than actively managing their music selections. Once they choose their first song or genre, they’re off and running, maybe clicking over for an occasional skip or to change their lineup. Even a picky and fidgety listener is not going to be clicking and fiddling as much on Slacker as they would in YouTube.

Then we take it to the next level. Today, I introduced my 5th graders to the Pomodoro Technique for time management. It works for any task, but I have personally found it useful for managing computer-related tasks.

The concept is simple: focus on work for a given time period, then take a short break. A student following the Pomodoro Technique would work on their homework for a 25-minute period, then take five or ten minutes to stretch, play a video game, or surf idly. After the break, they return to another 25-minute round of work, repeating breaks and work periods as needed. In any given hour, they would perform 50 minutes of productive, homework-related work.

To get started, today I had my 5th graders install the Moosti Pomodoro timer as an app from the Chrome Web Store. This gives them timers for their focus time and their long or short breaks. They agreed they should be able to work on their math or English assignments for 25 minutes. At that point, an alarm would go off and they would start a five- or ten-minute timer and go do something else (stand up and stretch, go outside, shoot a few hoops, or play Minecraft were the suggestions they came up with). Then the break alarm would go off and they get back to work.

By the end of that hour, their homework is done.

This, I feel, is a more than acceptable trade-off for teachers and parents. How many of us can concentrate on an intense work task for an hour straight? How many teachers can actually sit and grade papers for an hour straight? (Yes, sometimes we do it for hours at a time, but be honest: do we do it without short breaks?) Why should we expect any more from our students? Some teachers envision this utopia of a class full of students with pencils crawling across paper for a full hour straight, but that’s just not the reality we live in.

In time, maybe students won’t need a timer and will build up a habit of working. Or, maybe some students will find they need a more intense option, like Freedom or StayFocusd, to manage their self control. Either way we are training students’ behavior and work habits for today’s classroom, and we are ensuring that the majority of our students are getting their work done rather than wasting time.

When students are getting their work done, a 1:1 or BYOD school is a far happier place.

Social Media Redemption

Categories: News, Social Networking
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: March 9, 2015

For another example of taking back social media or using it for good, check out this story about Dancing Man Found. You may also have seen it making the rounds on Internet news sites, and it has apparently been picked up by mainstream media as well.

The nutshell:

Some jerks spotted an overweight man dancing at a party, laughed at him, and he stopped dancing. Said jerks took pictures and posted them to the Internet to share the laughs.

Someone on Twitter saw it, and decided it was not okay for someone to feel like they shouldn’t be allowed to dance. Now there’s going to be a huge dance party for this guy, with proceeds going to charity.

The jerks may be the most visible or most obvious, but there’s still a lot of good people out there in the world, and they use social media, too.

Great story.

Creativity and Jobs of the Future

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
Comments: No Comments
Published on: February 9, 2015

Most educators are familiar with Ken Robinson. The following TED presentation, “Do schools kill creativity?”, strikes home for me.

In most school districts, when funds are scarce, the first classes to go are the arts. Art classes and music are always first on the chopping block. As Robinson discusses, schools are putting all of their effort into the “core” curriculum and turning our schools into extended college entrance courses. Kids who want to pursue creative endeavors are left to do it on their own.

But here’s the problem:

We’re also telling everyone that most jobs of the future will require creativity. Our corporations are shipping labor and manufacturing overseas and stressing the generation of intellectual property over the ability to, say, read a schematic and solder wires together.

Consider this other educator favorite video:

The video focuses on the proliferation of technology, but consider as well the portion about jobs and products that did not even exist in the last couple of years. The iPod, for example, and apps on the app store.

Consider a student who wants to be a computer programmer. To most adults, this means getting a job punching in code for some major corporation to make some business software work. To most kids, this means app development and game design.

There’s a lot more to app development than hammering on code. App programmers need to design interfaces. They need to create artwork and market the product. Heck, they need to come up with a way to address a specific need, or to entertain users. It all has to start with creativity before they can start punching in lines of code.

Our schools get students who want to be game designers all the time. What do we do? Tell them how unlikely it is they’ll get anywhere, and discourage them. Of course we should be realistic with them, but let’s be realistic with ourselves: take a look at the sheer numbers of games on the shelves, and the staggering numbers of apps in the app stores. There has never been a better opportunity for a student to become a game designer than right now. Shouldn’t we be nurturing whatever it is about games that engages them? We assume they want to be lazy and sit on the couch all day, but what is it that draws them to gaming? Do they like the storylines? Or the problem-solving? Why not continue providing opportunities like the Hour of Code so they can get a realistic expectation of programming on their own rather than just tell them to stop dreaming and do their math homework?

The same goes with any creative endeavor. Music, publishing, and film are all so much more accessible than at any time in the past. Creative people are making a good living thanks to Web publishing, and are at least living comfortably if they’re not at a level we’d consider famous. The odds of an artist, writer, or musician successfully connecting with an audience are better now than they’ve ever been.

My point is, I think the real warning from Robinson’s talk is we are beyond just stifling creativity, we are actively limiting our students’ future success. We are still teaching to future success as we perceived it in the ’80s and early ’90s, not what future success can look like today.

If academia doesn’t change with the times, we’re going to find ourselves left behind.

Mentoring vs Monitoring for Digital Natives

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Published on: January 13, 2015

Dr Devorah Heitner’s TEDxNaperville talk, Raising Digital Natives, is a must-see for teachers grappling with technology in their districts.

Schools in general spend way too much time enforcing technology behavior rather than teaching it. They ban devices. They install cumbersome locks on apps and traffic. They install technology to snoop on students. It goes on and on, and it does nothing to solve the core problem: we have to teach humanity with technology.

As Dr Heitner puts it, we need to spend more time mentoring students in social interaction via social media and technology. We need to model the behavior of managing text messages, and teach students how to manage the pressure of being always available.

Too few teachers understand their students’ relationships with technology. If a teacher thinks cell phones are distracting and useless, they often feel the student should feel the same way. If a tech coordinator thinks Snapchat and Facebook are wastes of time, chances are he’ll just lock them down with content filters. If administrators think students are only using text messages and camera phones for nefarious purposes, then all they’re going to see are students engaging in negative behavior. I even know of schools inquiring about technologies to prevent cellular signals from getting into or out of buildings!

It’s a losing proposition. At best it’s an arms race as we try to outpace student usage, and at worst it fosters an environment of distrust because students know we’re watching—and passing judgement on—their every move. Again, it does nothing to solve the behaviors at the core of the problem.

In addition, Dr Heitner points out a potentially larger problem: limiting access and monitoring usage prevents students from developing and learning to manage their own identities.

We’re in the business of growing students, not manufacturing robots. Yes, some of our students will make mistakes, but that’s okay. Our job is not to prevent mistakes, our job is to teach students how to manage and survive those mistakes.

Please do spare some time for the video. It’s worth it.

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