Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hey Teachers, We're Lying to Ourselves

There's a big problem in educational technology in most classrooms, and it's a problem we've created for ourselves as educators. It's not a problem in purchasing, or implementation, or anything like that. It's a problem in the way we look at technology.

By Martin Luff from Christchurch, New Zealand
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What we think:

When I talk to educators about technology, there's a recurring theme. We talk about getting kids to use technology safely. About getting them to understand how to interact online. We go on and on about how we need to make sure that we're doing the right thing in terms of their digital education. These are all good points, but they might be based on a false assumption.

Most educators tend to view "real life" and "digital" as two separate things. When I was young, this was actually true. Dial-up internet meant that a connection was relegated to one computer in the house (at least, one at a time), and the speed (or, more accurately, the lack of speed) meant that spending a lot of time on the web was an exercise in patience.

Things have obviously changed. Many people carry the internet with them in their pocket. Music, friends, photos, and answers to life's questions are right there, waiting to be accessed.

This, of course, doesn't take the digital divide into consideration. I certainly think we need to focus on mitigating it as much as possible, but that's a topic for another post.

What's wrong with how we think?

First, it's the false dichotomy we're imposing on our students, of life being divided into "real" and "digital" realms. These two things are not separate, distinct, or isolated. The truth is that our students live in a seamless blend of face-to-face and digital interaction, and to separate these two is not only unrealistic, it teaches students that we, as educators, don't really understand their lives.

Secondly, it's the binary existence we impose on students when we forbid the use of their typical digital behaviours to foster learning. Many of the policies in classrooms aim to forbid students from using their devices (e.g. cell phones), their networks of connections with others (e.g. Facebook, Instagram), and their avenues for personal expression (e.g. YouTube) as an opportunity to learn or to share their learning with the world.

What should we do about it?

Fortunately, there's a simple remedy for the reality rift. We need to stop imposing our own preconceptions on students, and let them see that how they live offers so many opportunities for learning. They should be encouraged to share what they've done in school with their online communities. They should be encouraged to take out their devices and use them as a tool for learning. They should be encouraged to expand their networks to include experts, visionaries, and thinkers. The world is shrinking, and they've got the tools at their disposal to connect with learners around the globe. We need to shift how we think, so they can shift their thinking. As educators, we need to have empathy for our students, understand their lives, and figure out how we can use that knowledge to help them expand their horizons.

Basically, we need to stop imposing this falsehood that learning happens when you've turned off your devices. The opposite should be true: great learning happens in concert with using your connections to discuss, share, and understand others.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Teachers Need to Care About Workflow

This exact question came up in a #CdnEdChat a little while ago. I asked people to volunteer examples of their favourite workflow, and... cue the cricket noises.

So I went hunting for good examples of workflow in education. I mean, I know what it is, but how do I explain it in 140 characters? Solution: find an image that explains it. Problem: turns out, no one has made a graphic that illustrates education workflow. It's all about manufacturing.

The first job is to define workflow.

A workflow is the approach (techniques, tools and timeline) that we use to solve a problem or manage a task. That sounds complicated, but in actuality, we all use workflow every day. An example would be when I want to cook dinner: I need to ensure I have the materials (ingredients), tools (cookware), technique (cookbook or experience), and sufficient time. The more often we do something, the more natural the workflow becomes.

What about workflow in teaching?

The workflow I used when I started teaching was very different from what I use now. Back then, it was mostly about paper management and chasing after missing work. Create the material. Copy it for each student. Make a few extra copies for the kids who might lose it. Hand them out. Make sure every student puts his/her name on it. After they've had enough time, collect them. Organize them and check to see that I have every student's work. Chase after the students who forgot to hand it in. Read and correct. Hand them back. Students look at the grade, then the paper ends up at the bottom of their locker until June.

So why should you care?

Effective workflow is all about harnessing the power of the tools at our disposal to become more efficient. I believe that it's not about saving time (since we know that educators are more likely to work overtime more than any other industry). No, we're not going to be clocking out at 3:30. What we'll be able to do is better use our time, to understand students, differentiate to reach them more effectively, give them more detailed feedback more quickly... The list could go on (and might end up being an entire blog series in and of itself). Being better at the low-level thinking tasks frees up resources (mental and time) to spend on more impactful actions.

Where do I start?

Really, the way to start building an effective workflow is to think about what you're currently doing. Where are there holes? What's inefficient? Henry Ford revolutionized industry by finding ways to do the same thing in less time. Nikola Tesla found a way to use existing infrastructure to deliver power with less loss. From its roots in the railway industry and manufacturing, the concept of effective workflow management has grown to encompass a plethora of industries.

For me, the answers is obvious (possibly because I highlighted them in blue). We should start by finding ways to spend more time focusing on evaluating student progress while they're still working, and giving faster feedback so students can capitalize on their learning. You may have noticed a colour code up there. Red signifies tasks that take up more time than the value they provide, while green are relatively simple or provide a good payoff for the time they take.

The answer of where to start lies in what takes the most time. Here are a few examples of how I've approached the problem:

  1. Finding and refining great ideas from my network of brilliant educators.
  2. Building a shared space of resources so I can create, but I can also pull from a library of great work from friends and colleagues.
  3. Check on student progress by jumping into their Google Doc while they're still working, and adding a few comments.
  4. Using rubrics to give assessment that shows students what they did well, and what they should work on.
The list can go on and on. Basically, if there's a tool that can help things (and I tend to focus on Google Apps for Education, but you're welcome to use what you're comfortable with or interested in), use it. If it doesn't work, move on to something else. If it works well, find other tools that can connect or build on your workflow.

This has already turned into a long post, but I think it's a topic worth covering. Let me know in the comments if you want to read more, or what tools you find helpful in making managing and organization more efficient, so you can spend more time on learning and teaching.