Tuesday, March 29, 2011

enhancing learning

Our district's technology coordinator and the "senior learning team" (not sure what that is) recently announced a meeting about district technology directions called "Enhancing Learning." Having been around the block a few times, I thought some preliminary thoughts were in order.

There has been a steady erosion of teacher involvement in district-wide technology over the last few years, so this meeting comes at a very interesting time. I have a feeling they'll drag out a few "new" tools we "customers" can access or maybe hint at where the district and province is going with so-called 21st century learning. New role for social media and distributed learning, etc., maybe a youtube video about paradigm shifts, maybe that dreadful picture of the baby grinning over a laptop.

Unfortunately, the skills and attitudes necessary to build this capacity are in fact the very areas that are hindered by a SBO that blocks projects and technologies, denies access to students and teachers to basic interactive tools and wireless networks, ignores mobile learning, and excludes educators from key elements and stages of educational design.

The interactive web, use of tools like blogs, wikis, and podcasts, and the long list of rich media and web 2.0 apps are not new to our district -- they have been the basis of action initiative grants, leadership teams, tech coaches, DTT planning, and coordinated pro-d and training in our district since 2003, with its roots going further back to the first Tech Support Teachers and teacher-managed network and communication systems. These were all supported by the SBO and many schools, and were part of a movement by teachers and students exploring the integration of technology into learning, particularly members of the TLITE program but also anyone else who wanted to get a handle on how to redirect existing student technology towards learning objectives. We might call this "21st Century Learning," at least the part that involves technology, and the work continues piece by piece and school by school, but now without support or inclusion from the SBO. From the dawn of networks, servers, images, and maintenance in our district, teachers have been involved building systems alongside building content, curriculum, and designs for learning. It is understandable now that much of the system-work has been taken out of the hands of teachers (the pursuit of "secure/stable/standardized networks"), but it is offensive that the educational piece is also being pulled away from educators, the very people who put tech ed design theory into practice with students.

It wasn't always this way -- I felt well-supported by the SBO in pursuing deep teaching & learning projects prior to 2007, as have many others through structures, grants, pro-d, and purchases. I realize these "capacities" were expensive and perhaps not sustainable without modification, but the silence and stonewalling of the last year on a range of key technology issues and processes has broken the will of many teachers for district-wide thinking on technology problems. The loss is not just confined to morale and momentum but also includes years of investment in hardware, software, and training. 

I hope for something more from this meeting, will be glad to be proven wrong and quick to admit it, but relevant past experience suggest a snow-job. Nonetheless, the SBO has some dedicated staff and I'm ready to listen and detach expectations. There are also many positive school-based stories around technology that deserve celebration, and perhaps the SBO knows this is where the interesting work takes place.

A few months earlier, I had posed these questions of the folks who are now setting up the meeting... perhaps I've set the bar too high but I'm hoping to see two or three of these addressed.

Every school district should foster inquiry around questions like:
  1. How is basic digital literacy different from the capacity for transformative uses of technology to affect learning?
  2. Where does the "digital divide" reside on this continuum, and how is it represented in the school district?
  3. What barriers still exist for district students and staff crossing the digital divide?
  4. What capacity does the district have for using technology to affect learning, and how is this assessed?
  5. How did this capacity come to be; what's the tech history in the district?
  6. What kinds of individual, school, district, and external (global/societal) factors and structures have influenced this capacity?
  7. How does the district envision the next ten years in educational technology and how it will react?
  8. From where (external, internal) should the district draw its knowledge of current practice and the impetus for its future goals?
  9. How are district, school, and classroom based tech initiatives planned, funded, assessed, celebrated?
  10. How are these "levels" part of a collaborative effort and how are they disparate trajectories? 

and our school district should ask specific questions like:
  1. Does SD57 see a distict-level systems approach to technology planning as necessary and effective or does it see itself as primarily a support system for the variety of classroom and program based technology uses and initiatives?
  2. What people and structures (collaboration, decision-making, data collection & analysis, models, professional development) would have to be in place in SD57 to make a district-level systems approach effective?
  3. Do the tech needs of the non-educational parts of SD57 (e.g. offices) require different systems and standards than the frontline parts involved in teaching and learning?
  4. Why did SD57 avoid the input and ignore the data and advice of its own technology structures and technology teachers when making a platform consolidation decision in 2010?
  5. Why has their been no follow-up on the April/May 2010 committments by SD57 to supply a technology plan, specifically the part of a plan dealing with PC transition and pro-d support?
  6. What will SD57 do to replace or mitigate the many technology-centered support systems, processes, and planning mechanisms it has allowed to lapse in 2010?
  7. To what extent can SD57 still draw on the labour of past plans, experts, technologies, and processes or does SD57 need to acknowledge it has burned some bridges and needs to find new ways of connecting current and future theory and practice?
  8. How does SD57 plan to build new bridges with a new group of teachers who want to use and improve the way technology is used for teaching & learning; will this support take the form of directives, opportunities to connect & share, or funding for projects?
  9. How does SD57 plan to balance wide-spread generic technology needs with specific requests for innovative technologies and program allowances?
  10. How does SD57 plan to balance district-level network security and tech support with school-based decision-making and differentiation, especially when these pull funds and support in different directions? 
What's at stake is a rare opportunity to address some of the disconnect between what happens at the board office and what happens in the classroom. Tech change, indeed responsible for some of this disconnect, can be a meeting ground or testing place to see if district, school, teacher-based planning can operate congruently. I would suggest that these groups can cut through politics and conflicting visions only if the tech change discussion is centered around how students (and others) can use technology to affect their own learning. This learning process has to be a creative one initiated by teachers and the district should be looking for ways to support this while at the same time providing standard service levels that provide a level playing field for a few basic computing environments. The district has seen a steady change in how technology decisions are made; the locus has slowly shifted over the last 12 years from teachers to others, and while this has achieved some district goals around networks, system stability, standardization, and fairness, there has been an unmistakable impact on teaching & learning for some key areas in the district that used to be centres of innovation and tech leadership.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Collaborative models

It appears from the March staff meeting minutes that we will not have a choice about collaborative models at our April staff meeting other than inside/outside timetable. I am curious as to why we wouldn't use this opportunity to confirm or challenge the need for either timetable model. There is nothing in District Policy/Planning (see below*) that requires that we have an altered timetable to allow for a collaborative model, so a review of the need for formal collaboration time should be on the table -- without it we are stopping short of evaluating practice. There are, however, statements from the District Plan that confirm the importance of teacher driven and directed staff development (see below*), suggesting that choice to have any collaborative model should be a staff decision.

I am also curious as to whether the staff meeting decision is meant as a survey with binding results (which option do you prefer) or an actual motion on a collaboration model (which could be subject to amendment, debate, and points of order). I don't think we necessarily need Robert's Rules (we have tended to pick and choose parts of these in the past 6 years, with no apparent discussion as to criteria); but we may want to be clear about what is fair game for a decision and decision-making process and be ready with rationale to back it up. I think one of the reasons we've had a hard time finding a staff meeting chairperson is the uncertainty over protocol.

In some ways I do not relish a decision at all as I support the current model. I have derived some value from it, and have been active in pursuing a "works for D.P. Todd model" for many years, so I would prefer that it continue with some adjustments and reflection. It seems the least intrusive on classtime and is not burdened with some of the silliness we've seen at other schools. I know how my needs for collaboration are fulfilled and our current model serves a small but important role for me towards these needs.

However, I would also like to be principled about the decision-making process and so I am presented with a dilemma. Do I participate in the process given the lack of choice or program review, or do I abstain from the vote/spoil my ballot? I think this will depend on the research or evidence that is presented to justify the model choices, and the criteria that will be used to evaluate our choice. This is a difficult decision but necessary to consider when I measure it against my values as an educator, of which non-coercion is near the top of the list.

I realize that many people put time into evaluating collaborative and tutorial models, and yet the validation of their work and the strength of our selected model requires an unfettered school-based path of staff development (see below*). If we want a model to be fully owned and developed as a staff, the choice to implement it should come from staff. I think our current model deserves a longer run so it can be evaluated, but I am not seeing any evidence that it will be evaluated. Putting the need for any model on the table assures that evaluation is taking place.

My aim in sharing these thoughts in this forum is to apply critical thinking to all aspects of public education, something which is a shared responsibility among all educators.


from p. 11 of the 2010-11 District Plan for Student Success:
"The most effective staff development is that which occurs at the school level, driven and directed by teachers with the support and participation of the administrators. Many of our schools have developed timetables that allow for collaborative time for teachers, both within and beyond the regular instructional day."

[emphasis mine -- note Many but not All -- the presence and nature of models differ because staffs and schools differ]

from p. 36 of the 2007-10 District Plan for Student Success:
Continue to encourage and support collaboration within and among schools
Encouragement for schools to build in time for collaboration"

[emphasis mine -- encouragement but not requirement ]

[Note: the Plan listed 8 recommendations from an external review team and 45 actions planned in response, some of which were already part of practice in the district, some of which resulted in mandates, some as encouragement for actions, and some which did not happen at all]

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Mount Nyiragongo in Africa

Looks like something one would find in Mordor... check out the amazing photo essays at http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/. This photo came from the one on Mount Nyiragongo.