Friday, February 28, 2014

Alberta #GAFESummit reflections

I made the trip out West to Edmonton for the Alberta Google Apps for Education summit hosted by EdTech team. I came into it with high expectations after my experience at the Montreal summit, and I was still blown away.

My #cdnedchat "tweeps"
Photo: Dana Ariss
I got the chance to meet both +Dana Ariss  and +Theresa Wells-Taylor, two members of the #cdnedchat team. It was fantastic to get a chance to see them in person, sit together, tweet back and forth, and generally enjoy geeking it up. It's funny, because I had never met them face to face, but I felt like I was with good friends, right from the first "Are you James? It's us!" An odd experience to not know if those people are the same ones you work so closely with week after week... I was also able to catch up +Lise Galuga , +Michelle Armstrong , +Monica Isabel Martinez , +Ken Shelton , +Mark Wagner , +Holly Clark  and many other GAFE friends. It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces in such a positive environment yet again!

And I met some amazing new people, too. Chatting in the halls, catching up after sessions, or having lunch together, I was struck once again by the atmosphere and the attitude of sharing and learning that permeated the whole event. I had the same conversation a few times, always with the same conclusion: the tools we're learning about are powerful because they're constantly growing. Whether through development at Google or through additional functionality created by users, GAFE works because it evolves.

So what is it about a GAFE Summit that makes the event unique? I've done quite a bit of training (both consuming and delivering) about educational technology, but the Google Summit is something special. In my humble opinion, I'll explain what makes the event unique for me:
  1. It's a gathering of people who are passionate about learning. Notice I didn't specify that they're passionate about teaching. That's also true, but it's not what makes the people unique. We've all gathered to grow as educators, to try new things, to share, connect, network, and get excited. I believe that the best teachers are those who are excited to learn. That enthusiasm is contagious.
  2. The whole event is structured to be fast-paced, engaging, and to cover a lot of concepts. I get a bit overwhelmed by the end of the second day, and I know I'm not the only one. A single hour to learn new things is short. There are so many things to learn, too. When I'm giving a session, I always run out of time. Always. And it's not because I haven't planned well. I believe it's because I just get so wrapped up in sharing those little "hey, check this out!" things that I never make it as far as I'd hoped.
  3. The menu is varied. Going to a summit isn't like sitting down at a dinner where you get a nice plate, time to digest it all, and everything is relaxed. It's more like a cocktail party, where you can grab a bite from a passing tray without disrupting the constant flow of interaction. This is fantastic because it gives us exposure to a lot of different ideas, but it can be challenging to remember everything you've "tasted" once it's all over.
At the end of the second day, I knew a few things. First, I knew that my brain was filled to the brim with ideas. I'd probably have forgotten my own name by the time the last keynote was finished.

I also knew it was an amazing event, because the room was packed during the final keynote at the end of day two. People who had spent the last two days learning were still positive, enthusiastic, and energetic. And we had fun! Sadly, it can be a rare thing to really enjoy yourself during professional development.

Many thanks to the whole EdTech Team for putting on such a great event, and for making me feel at home. They are an amazing group of people, and I will continue to connect, learn, and share with them (and with you, since you're reading this).

As a little explanation for why it took me three days to finish writing this blog post, keep your eyes open for a cool little tool I've been developing. It's now in the final stage of testing, and promises to blur the line between the classroom and the home by giving parents some quick and easy feedback about what's happening in my classroom.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The (un)conference (un)scheduler

I've had great experiences with unstructured professional development. Or perhaps I should say "loosely-structured," since there was clearly a plan in place.

The example I think of most often when I think of non-traditional PD is the EdCamp. I had the opportunity to go to EdCamp Ottawa back in November, and it was a fantastic experience. It gave me insight into what others are doing that I could incorporate into my own practice, and what I was doing that others might be interested in learning about. I had expected the prior, but the latter came as a surprise, and has led me to connect with some amazing people and share some great ideas.

What appeals to me most about non-traditional professional development is the flexibility of the PD to meet the immediate needs of the community it serves. That means that if there's a topic that's particularly relevant, timely, or popular, the event can (ideally) reflect that and deliver targeted solutions to real-world problems.

The EdCamp I went to was organized like this:

  • There were a set number of sessions and available rooms.
  • There was a schedule to follow (i.e. session 1 would last from 9 to 10, etc.)
  • There was a board with a grid on it in the main lobby, and large format post-it notes.
  • A few sessions had been publicized in advance, but several were only offered as session leaders decided what they felt like doing.
  • Many sessions were not a top-down seminar style, but more of a round-table session where all participants contributed to the learning.
I really enjoyed this model, and I thought that although the board was really cool, it would be fun to look at the data we could collect from a group of participants. Session leaders really didn't have any concrete numbers to work with in terms of knowing what would appeal to the attendees. Attendees didn't have much of a way of showing their interest in a specific topic, aside from just going to the sessions that appealed.

These are two areas that I think could be improved. So I created a couple of Google Forms to address this. By collecting the data, we can see a real-time picture of what people want to know about, what session topics are popular, and then we can schedule them and listen to the voice of the learners. I've made a flow-chart that graphically describes the workflow of the two forms.

It looks messy and complicated, but in fact, it's just two forms that talk to one another. I used three scripts to get things working the way I wanted:
  1. formRanger - this script allows the form items to change dynamically. I used formRanger to automatically add proposed topics to the suggestions, and to automatically remove topics that had been chosen for moderation, and an event created. Thus, formRanger was installed to both forms' responses spreadsheet.
  2. formMule - this form creates the calendar event and emails invitations. I also publish the calendar to a website in Agenda view, so it is easy to see which topics are already being moderated. This script was only installed on the Moderator Sign-Up form (as the topic suggestion form does not need to create calendar events).
  3. formRat - this form pushes form responses from one form response spreadsheet to another. This script pushes the responses from the Moderator Sign-Up form into the responses for proposed topics, allowing the Topic Suggestion form to drop topics that have already been selected.
First, the Topic Suggestion form. You're welcome to try it out.

This data gets collected, pushed to the Moderator Sign-Up form, and creates a nice visual graph. Here's what the data looks like, embedded in this post, showing changes in real-time.

Next, the Moderation Sign-Up Form. Try this one, too.

Here is a sample calendar, showing the upcoming events as created by the sample sign-up form.

So that's it. If you're interested, you can find links to all the forms and spreadsheets here. Make a copy for yourself, and use the formulas to keep the data organized.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Brag about your mistakes

At the beginning of this month, I traveled to Austin, Texas to present at the TCEA conference. It was a fantastic experience; I enjoyed meeting new people and sharing some of the things I'm doing and the tools that have helped me be a more effective teacher.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
But it wasn't all smooth sailing. At my session on Google Apps Scripts, things didn't go at all as I planned. I wanted to demonstrate gClassFolders, and how I use it. I had all the participants submit their information through a Google form, then I used the script to create a class and share some documents.

Well, that was the plan. Things quickly fell apart when the script didn't work as I'd expected. I was unable to create the class, or to use doctopus to distribute the documents that I'd spent several hours preparing. I was still able to demonstrate the principles of how it works, but not in the way I wanted. After the session, I thought to myself, "Okay, lesson learned. Next time, be better prepared. Test the script exhaustively. Leave nothing to chance." I fixed the issue with the script after the session was over, and I was then able to distribute copies of the documents to each of the participants.

After almost two weeks, I've revised my opinion. Even though things didn't work out how I'd envisioned, it was still good. In fact, for some of the participants, it was more than good. I've had some teachers get in touch to thank me, and to follow up on how they're applying what they've learned.

Which brings me a great deal of comfort. I openly admitted during the session that it wasn't what I'd planned, but now I can see that the technical glitches didn't take away from the learning. So I'm celebrating that my session proved effective, even though it wasn't optimal. And that's an important lesson for me.

Many educators I know are a lot like me: we have high standards, and we do what we do not because it's a job, but because it's a passion. I truly care about learning, whether my own, fellow teachers, or (and perhaps most importantly) the learning that my students do. Finding out that people have learned from me, despite the obstacles, rates among the highest praise I can get as a teacher.

Finally, I should explain why I believe it was important for me to share this story. It's not that I'm proud of how fantastic everything is. I know that I can do better, and I will continue to strive for better. That's true of my professional career, and of my personal life. It's not that the feedback I've gotten has touched my heart (although it has). I'm sharing this story of my mistakes, my difficulties, and the challenges I face because there's a lesson here for me. Be genuine. Make mistakes. Take risks.

Be proud of your accomplishments, and be proud of your mistakes. Without risk, there's no reward, and without failure, success wouldn't be as sweet.