Monday, May 13, 2013

Time Management in an On-Demand World

So you watched the video and you are thinking what I was thinking: "the Internet is not going away, so how do we resolve this?"

I think about how TV must have been perceived when it came out. And I think about how it is used today. In my house we watch a lot of documentaries, the news, a little bit of reality TV, and some sitcoms, but overall, the TV in our house serves more for background noise. And now with so many on-demand options, we seldom watch TV when it is scheduled and watch it when it is convenient to us.

The Internet, on the other hand, is an all the time on-demand information force to be reckoned with! Which is why I believe that 21st century learning is not about rote memorization, but about digital citizenship.

Let's look at this pre-Internet. Looking up the facts, before the Internet and World Wide Web meant going to a library, flipping through the card catalog, and finding the appropriate book with the information you needed. If you really wanted to get to it fast, then that meant going to the set of encyclopedias, pulling out the appropriate letter, and looking it up there. So the ability to "look up the facts" was available during the 20th century, but now in the digital 21st century, it is just so much easier to do. That is the real difference.

I once asked a teacher back in the '80's, when I was in high school why he always encouraged us to use encyclopedias over books written specifically for what we were researching and I'll never forget his answer: "Incidental learning". My adolescent brain was totally like (best valley girl voice) .... say what??

He explained that incidental learning is the learning we do without intention. For example, I might be looking for an entry in the encyclopedia for Vikings, and along the way find something about vacuums. I wasn't researching for vacuums, but it catches my eye so I read about how a vacuum works. Once my side trip is done, I will now return to my search for Vikings.

I think the Internet works a lot like this. We start on one path, often get side tracked, return to our original path and finish out the journey. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked as a benefit of our hyperlinked world.

What, I believe, is the real issue is not our constant clicking about on the Internet until we burn out, but instead is our ability to manage our time. I see this every day in our students. They seem to think there isn't enough time to do all they need and want to do. When I gift them a period of class time to work on a project I assigned, you would think they would be excited that they were given nearly an hour of time that is not outside of school time to work on it.

No they were not. They were surfing. I would verbally redirect them, that would work for a minute or two, then there were surfing again. I would lock down their computer remotely, they would promise to stay on track, but then off they go surfing again. This was my hour with 1/3rd of the class, the other 2/3rds completed their work and then went on a surfing expedition. Of course, by the 5th time I told the 1/3rd that they are not allowed to surf off task, they would point out that the other 2/3rd were surfing off task. "Their work is done and now they are being afforded the last few minutes of class to pursue something of interest to them."

Does the example I just gave support the video? Yes in some ways, but no in others. The kids who stayed on-task until the research and writing goals were achieved managed their time better than the ones who were off-task. The fact of the matter is that 2/3rds of the group had the goals for the hour in front of them and worked toward that goal with focus, using the Internet the whole time, with little to no side trips. It was the other 1/3rd that are a concern and achieved nothing. If the non-focused 1/3rd would have managed their time better, then they too could have made the same accomplishments.

So we need to add time management to the list of 21st century skills that our students (and ourselves) need to incorporate in our quest to be outstanding digital citizens. This means shutting off your phone when it is not appropriate to use it (movies, bedtime, meal times, etc). Do we really need to be that connected all the time to the whole world? If we disconnect a couple of hours a day, we can reconnect with those around us and quiet our mind long enough to allow some of that short term memory to move in to our long term memory. Check your email once an hour, or schedule a time in the day (or a couple of times) when you can read and respond to emails. If you have an email alert, you can shut it off when it is not your scheduled time to deal with emails. It'll all be there waiting for you during your scheduled times. I have even started the habit of reading all my snail mail in the school's office when I pick it up, throwing away what I don't need, bringing back what I do need, and putting it in a "to file" box to be put away later. I no longer have a pile of papers building on my desk that will distract me from other things that need my attention.

Of course, tomorrow I will be using today's experience as a teachable moment by starting my class with  a resource and time management discussion. I imagine my 2/3rds of on-task workers will continue those habits, while my other third will remember the warnings, lock-downs, and unavailable down time at the end of class. Hopefully they are reflecting on that independently, but if not, our discussion might remind them of the purpose for our hour of time and how precious time really is.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Time to Ditch The Textbooks

For many in education, the title of this entry is blasphamy. After all, if we do not have a text book for every student, how will they learn all this content we need to cover in less than 180 days?

My first year teaching (2006/2007), I walked in to my classroom and did not find a single text book that aligned with the classes I was going to start teaching in two short weeks. I panicked and pulled out the budget I that was designed by the previous teacher and quickly found that there was little money for text books. I started to dig in our book depository upstairs and found "Computer Literacy" text books, only to discover that they were from 1986. I was in 8th grade in 1986. I thought maybe there were some gems in the book I could use, but when I read the line "by the year 2000, computers will make us so productive that a full-time work week will only need to be 20 hours long." I laughed out loud, slammed it shut, and kept one copy as reference.
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All the programming books I found were for programming languages I wasn't slated to teach. In fact, they were for languages I didn't even know how to program in. Shelved those too. I ended up ordering books for my Web Design class. But then in under two years, I learned why my predecessor did not buy many text books.

Not only are text books expensive, but in my subject area, they are outdated almost as soon as I open the box they were mailed in. The software on the lab computers have been updated twice in the last 7 years, but the text books have not been updated at all.

I have gotten to a point now where I think this class would work best if I flipped it by making video tutorials this summer and putting links to the videos up as a part of a GoogleDoc.

I thought this was a problem that only I was facing in the building. So many teachers are isolated in the profession that we often think that we are the only one facing a problem, but this is not the case when it comes to text books.

At meetings I'm attending the subject of text books keep coming up. It is one of our biggest line items. Many are complaining about the new versions being bought to replace lost or damaged books do not match the old versions. If you keep a book long enough, its content won't match the world we live in. Jokes are made about text books talking about how the Vietnam War should be ended. Math books have word problems that students can't relate to. Science books have Pluto listed as a planet.

See where this is going? Information is not static, but text books are. Static, expensive, and seldom used by their intended audience .... the students. I watch the kids going down the hallway at the end of the day, and many of them are empty handed - without a backpack too. These same kids certainly have their phones out and punching away on the screen.

I've decided to ditch my text books and create a GoogleDoc for each of my classes instead. I plan on using this document to put in an outline of concepts, with a list of skills under each concept, connect the skills to the competency being covered, and eventually align it all to the common core. I'm ditching the text book and making an online living text book instead. In this outline, under each concept, will be links to online resources to help students along. I can include videos, websites, forums, etc. I plan on being the model of a digital citizen for my students by showing them how they can think outside the text book.

I often think of that viral video of the baby going from the iPad to the magazine. These are our future students, and I think they get frustrated with a static text book.

So why a GoogleDoc? Because everyone in our district has access to that technology without issues. We have lots of blocks on services I might have used instead for this type of hyperconnectiveness to online resources, such as Pinterest, but we don't have access to that in our district buildings.

So why not an eBook style instead? We're not there yet. Not enough to choose from yet. I am underwhelmed by what I've seen for my subject area.

I can make the GoogleDoc as interactive as I need it to be and I can invite my students to add to the outline as they find resources too. I could even make that a homework assignment as a part of the research competency. We can be a community of learners, collaborating online to build the resources that will help us toward our goal of learning the course content and meeting the expected competencies.

I hear that tiny voice saying, "but it isn't fair to those students who do not have access to technology outside of school." The technology inequality is quickly closing. Watch those kids walking in the halls with their cell phones, they can go to a GoogleDoc. Also, to do this you may need to survey your students on the first day of class. If a student states "no Internet at home", then find out if they have a DVD player. Videos can be put on a disk and sent home. GoogleDoc can be printed and put in a binder. So can websites. It is cheaper to maintain a binder for a couple of students in each class than it is to buy 30 text books for that class. And the information will be exactly what you want them to access, and as current as the last time it was updated online.

At this point you may have made up your mind to not give up your text book. But give it one more thought. When the idea of a text book was conceived, it was an ideal way to store important information in one place. The Internet did not exist yet, so it served us well for many many many years. But now, we have all kinds of information available to us, deposited on the World Wide Web, ready for us to tap in and share. We are not limited by what comes between the covers and a learning goal outline can be updated as needed at little to no cost. We will be fostering a community of learners who are more engaged because they created the "text book" together with their teacher.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is 21st Century Learning?

The phrase is buzzing around: 21st Century Learning!

So I've been thinking about this and wondering what do people think it really is?

Instinctively I think we go to the idea of technology. What do we need to BUY to prepare our students for life in the 21st century? What do they need?

After all, every teacher I know was born in the 20th century. Even all the students I currently teach were born in the 20th century. But that changes next year with the incoming freshman class. Many of them were born in the year 2000, the 21st century.

So what do they need to survive in this constantly connected world they were born and raised in?

As a Computer Science teacher you would think my first response would be a computer, tablet, or similar device ... but I don't think that is the answer. I know, it's shocking, but there is something more important that they need.

I don't think we need to teach them the mechanics of technology. They have it in their pockets and know how to use it better than most adults. They are like the Borg, wired to each other in ways we would have never imagined 20 years ago, and resistance is futile. The devices aren't going away, even if we put signs on our wall forbidding them. Thou shalt not ..... oh never mind. It is one of those battles that teachers keep fighting, sometimes of their own accord, sometimes at the directive of administration.

It is exhausting, especially for those who want to let the kids embrace the very technological fabric of our 21st society. Having the devices locked away feels like locking the classroom door and making them try to learn from the hallway by peering through the shatterproof glass of the locked door. The technology we have to offer is so much older than what they carry around that it must feel like trying to connect to the Internet with a typewriter.

So if it isn't about the hardware, then what is it about? I believe we have to look past the hardware and into the human machine instead. I think we need to teach them how to be digital citizens. I'm not talking about the surface stuff, like cyberbullying & plagiarism. Those are important, but what I am talking about is ethical use of technology and information.

We need to train students to think critically about information: where they get it and how they use it. Digital citizens should be aware of copyright laws, fair use laws, public domain options, and creative commons. We should be teaching them how to collaborate across the room, across the building, and across the world. Instead of directing them on how to do something, we should be making them ask why they should do something. They are consumers of information, and very hungry consumers at that. That is why they Google everything!
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We also need to teach them how to be flexible. Technology doesn't always work the way it is supposed to (really, you're surprised?) so they need to become troubleshooters. They need to be able to learn how to use forums to find answers. They need to participate in discussions about problem sets with people online, because the collective world mind can reach the solution faster than the collective few in the classroom.

We need to start connecting our classrooms with other classrooms throughout the world. We now have the ability to bring in a diversity that didn't even exist 10 years ago. Students in many rural areas may have never had a chance to meet someone from another culture, but now they can through conferencing software. A creative teacher with an eye on the 21st century will seek out that opportunity. It opens up the possibility of collaboration aligned with the skills they will need beyond school, preparing them for the world of higher education and/or work.

We need to break down the classroom walls and thread the use of everyday technology into our everyday curriculum, and be willing to change, learn, and grow as the available technology dictates. We need to be connected to our local and world communities at every possible level, so we can learn from each other. We, as the adults, need to model digital citizenship and tap in to our own virtual professional circles by becoming active participants in Professional Learning Networks (PLN's) in areas that are important to us with others who hold our passion. If we, the teachers have passion as digital citizens, so too will our students.