Archive for September, 2009

Who Filters the Internet?

As I was reading the other day, an interesting thought occurred to me. What if your favorite magazine printed every single article that was submitted to them? What if your favorite TV channel produced and aired every single show that was pitched to them? What would TV, magazines, etc. look like? Here’s the answer: the Internet. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to read every article that was sent into Time Magazine or National Geographic. I don’t want to watch everything that was sent in to channel 9. I want someone to filter out the junk and provide me with something of quality.

But that doesn’t happen on much of the Internet. You get the good and the bad. When you type a Google search for something, you get lots of junk. Go to YouTube.com and you’ll find every ridiculous video that someone with some time and a video camera uploaded. I’m not innocent either, I’ve uploaded some pretty useless stuff (seriously, don’t bother looking at this: homemade “music”. It’s not worth your time). This is one of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of the Internet. You get access to loads of stuff you didn’t have before but the price is gobs of stuff you never wanted to see.

Back in 1988 the dad of a good friend of mine stated something about the Internet that shocked me. He said that the Internet was going to reduce the overall quality of information in the world. What? Could this be true? I was young and so was the Internet–what this man said surely couldn’t possibly come true. The comment stuck in my mind because he was a very sharp man and understood technology better than most back then. The sad truth is that he was right. The Internet has diluted the quality of information world-wide. Sure, there are some amazing things available on the Internet–but for every one piece of quality, there are 100 or 1,000 times as many pieces of absolute garbage. Email communication is great but spam is 90.4% of all email. Terrific!

A recent “Did You Know 4.0” video states that “More video was uploaded to YouTube.com in the last two months than if ABC, NBC, CBS had been airing new content 24/7/365 since 1948.” Pretty amazing. Two points to consider however. Is this statistic even accurate? There is no reference to check their math. Apparently the attention-span of the “new media” consumer is so short that the accuracy of facts doesn’t matter. The second point to consider is the quality of that video. YouTube hasn’t ever produced something like Lost, Friends or Seinfeld. If you want more, the Internet is there for you. But I also want quality.

So please don’t see the Internet as if it were something it’s clearly not. No one is filtering the Internet. This is a good and but also bad thing. As good educators, parents, and consumers, we need to keep this in mind.

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Information Explosion!

With the creation of the internet, the amount of information available to people is overwhelming. The sheer volume of stuff out there is staggering. There have been lots of estimates of how much information is accessible via the internet but as it grows, the numbers continue to increase–exponentially! People have even calculated how much the internet weighs! So, this must be a problem for educators. What should they teach now that there is so much new information out there?

But is this really a new problem? If you’ve ever been to a large library, you’ve noticed that clearly there is more information in all of the books than the average person can consume in a lifetime. The problem of information explosion in not new. What is *relatively* new is the technology allowing us to access. It seems like the information explosion is a new problem but it’s not.

Educational leaders and those who talk about school are panicked about this “information explosion.” I’ve been to more than a few in-services and lectures where speakers astound us with their calculations of how much information is “out there.” Then they tell us that it’s changing everything. What they forget is that too much information has always been “out there.” Since the invention of the printing press, there has been too much information for one person to absorb. So the task of a good educator is the same as it’s always been: to help students make sense of the world. The tools that help us do that have evolved and changed but that’s always going to happen. Nothing stays the same so we adapt. Our core job is and must continue to be to help students understand the world and give them the tools to continue understanding it. The students won’t suddenly begin to teach themselves with the Internet. We can’t just turn students loose on the Internet so they can “find” the information themselves. Knowledge without the guidance of a skilled teacher is chaos.

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Should All Teachers Be “Tech Experts”?

If you have ever gone to an educational technology conference, it seems that every teacher there is a technology expert. The presenters and workshop leaders explain how easy their technology is and how much it improves student learning. Many teachers I’ve talked to, especially ones new to technology, come away feeling excited by new possibilities but also a little deflated because of the sheer volume of possibility.

If all of the new technologies were that easy, why isn’t everyone using them? Part of the reason, I believe, is that there are so many technologies available. Teachers can’t be experts at all of them. The prevailing opinion of many technology folks is that teachers need more and more technology. It’s true that many aspects regarding technology are relatively simple. Users have menus and boxes to click the various options–it’s all right in front of them, right? The sad reality is that unless you have already learned which box to check or which menu to select, it doesn’t matter. Implementing new technology takes time, energy, and effort. And these are scarce resources in the teaching world. So what is a teacher or instructional technology specialist to do?

Leverage your talents.

What I mean by this is that you need to  take advantage of the wide variety of technology skills in your school. Everyone doesn’t have to be a “blog expert.” You just need one or two. Find someone on your staff who is or can become the expert on one technology. They do what I call the “heavy lifting”–they research good blog tools, they learn how to set up accounts and find out which check boxes to select, and they learn how to effectively integrate blogs into the classroom. Then you leverage their talents during Staff Development time. They help teach the rest of the staff. If you have a core set of technology tools and a core group of experts who can help others, you will be on your way to tackling the mountains of technology available. And you will have success.

Teachers don’t have to become technology experts. By leveraging training and support, schools and instructional technology specialists can achieve much more.

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Windows Live Office

In the world of education, Apple dominates the field. Often Microsoft is seen as the bad guy. However, Windows Live Office is a service that I began using recently and I really like it. All of my documents are Office documents (Word, PowerPoint, Excel). I’m at that point that I can’t keep track of them at home and at work. I like being able to access the same document wherever I am. The upload to Office Live was easy–I uploaded 10-15 at one time. When I edit them, they open on my computer in the native Office program. Then they save back to the web just like it was part of my hard drive.

I have also tried Google Docs. I could upload only one document at a time and many of my documents didn’t look the same after they were converted. I like what Google is doing with their Google Apps product. I especially like the forms you can create. However, I don’t have time right now to convert all of my literally hundreds of documents to the Google format.

So I’ve decided that since I have Windows Office available at home and at work, why not use the Windows Live Office product. The main downsize is reliable access to the Internet (cloud computing’s main weakness). I’m not sure if I will be the eventual Google Doc convert or if the full features of Office will keep me committed. What I do know is that I really like being able to upload documents on the fly and then access them anywhere. Regardless of the specific tool, isn’t that what networks are for?

PS. I just copied and pasted this text to MS Word to double-check my spelling and grammar. I could’ve logged into my Google Docs account to proofread it but it was quicker to open Word.

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When “Free” Isn’t Free

With the explosion of Web 2.0 technologies, one of the things I hear over and over is: “And it’s free!” As educators and technology leaders, we need to be very aware of what is free and what isn’t. Since the beginning, there has been a culture of sharing on the Internet. This sharing includes the good and bad. But there has also been the need to pay the bills. Websites aren’t free. Google doesn’t exist as a community service. Profit is what keeps websites and software companies running. So when a website says that it’s free, one must keep in mind where the money is coming from. Some web 2.0 start-ups are hoping to gain a solid base of users and then get purchased by a larger company. There are lots of examples of this. Other websites give away their product for free for a period of time and then realize that they have to start charging. Smart Internet users know that there’s always that possibility. Other websites offer their services for free but then eventually shut down. How many sites have the last entry on the page: “sorry we couldn’t afford to keep this service/website running”?

Don’t get me wrong. I like free. But I also understand economic reality. When educators begin to rely on “free Internet services,” they need to keep in mind the eventual costs. These might include the cost to pay for the “free” service sooner or later. Or they have the cost of discontinuing the service–this is the cost of lost time and energy investing in integrating the “free” technology into various school programs.  There are also costs of moving from one “free” technology solution to another. That’s lots of time and energy wasted–that’s a huge cost. Technology leaders also need to consider the costs of advertisements. I’ve seen school buses plastered with ads for the local emergency clinic. These ads are typically aimed at adults. Schools need to be very careful when they decide to force advertisements on their students. I’ve seen school sponsored sites that have ads for a variety of products–some completely inappropriate for schools. I don’t want my kids looking at ads when they are using school sites.

Another cost that most don’t consider but I think is important is the cost of spreading out technology over too many websites/web services. Everyone wants to give their base product away for free but you have to use their site. That means that in order to take advantage of cool and free Web 2.0 technologies, students and teachers may have to log into and use three to four different sites. That’s 3-4 additional logins in addition to the ones associated with school logins. That’s why Google is scrambling to combine as many things into one login as possible. And we all know Google’s revenue stream is from advertisements.

Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Not in the internet world. There is always a cost somewhere. Educational technology leaders need to keep these costs in mind when they make decisions.

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Talk About Lost Opportunity

When I think about all of the things in technology to discuss, it’s almost overwhelming. Probably the one topic that leaps to the top of my mind is “lost opportunity.” There are so many chances to help teachers integrate technology effectively into their classrooms. However, much of the time, it doesn’t happen.

I just spoke today with a colleague who was part of a year-long technology education program. He wanted to do something new professionally and he wanted to challenge his students. However, after a year in a very “forward-thinking and collaborative technology group,” he only came away with one or two lessons. That and a laptop. (Not surprisingly, the promise of a laptop was the main draw for many who joined this program.) In the end, the main obstacle to effective change in his classroom was time. He told me that it was too difficult to learn the software, to teach it to all of his students and then to teach them how to use it to demonstrate understanding of a concept. For him, it wasn’t worth it.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of teachers who feel the same way. So what can educational leaders do? They can listen to their teachers. Often the leaders of schools listen disproportionately to the many “technology experts” that promote the use of this tool or that tool. Too often these experts aren’t in the classroom anymore. They spend much of their time learning about new technologies and teaching others. That’s a fine thing to do. But to be most effective, they need to be in the classroom on a regular basis–not just for quick visits but full-time. Then they would know and understand the difficult realities of integrating new technology into the classroom.

Seasoned technology specialists who still teach can help other teachers implement technology effectively in their classrooms. They can help turn lost opportunity into real possibility.

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What’s Driving Technology Integration at YOUR School?

The driving force behind technology use at any organization is often hidden. Sure, technology happens but when it does, it’s difficult to know exactly how or why. Schools are no different than other organizations. Lots of people talk about what technology–what they want, what would be nice to have, how much time they’d save, etc. But many times, no one really knows how or why technology get purchased and integrated–or in most cases not.

Educational leaders need to open this process up. Examine the structure of the technology support team and how they relate to the end users. Educators need to ask a lot of questions. How is the tech support staff structured? What are their mandates and goals? How does the tech support staff respond to end-user needs? How do end-users utilize the services of the tech support staff? Who is leading the way in terms of technology adoption and integration? Does it come from the end-users? or the tech support staff? or from the educational leaders? What drives technology? Are the software folks talking to the hardware folks so that everyone has a shared vision?

What I’m saying is that there are a lot of disconnects. Many useful technologies don’t get adopted because there isn’t someone with foresight and vision in charge. Sometimes technologies don’t get implemented because no one is looking at the process. Other times technology gets purchased and it sits because there isn’t any follow through.

Without a clear vision for technology, the tech support staff can get trapped in a “fighting fires” mentally. They wait until something breaks and then fix it. Crisis management isn’t a bad thing–unless this is the way an organization always functions. It’s no way to run a top-performing school. There are so many great things that can be accomplished with insight and planning.

So take a look at YOUR school and ask yourself what’s driving technology integration.  It needs to be committed individuals with vision, planning and follow through.

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The Role of Technology in Education

So many people espouse the many benefits of technology in education. Sometimes it seems like the so-called “experts” are getting kickbacks from the technology industry. So, how do you tell if a new technology is actually worth the time, money and effort? Here’s how I judge new technologies.

There are two things that technology should and must do if it’s to be found in the classroom. One is that it must increase student learning. Now I’m not one of those folks who emphasize the difference between “teaching” and “learning.” In other languages, these two words are one in the same. So, when I talk about student learning, that includes anything that helps teachers teach better and students learn better.

The other main purpose of technology in education is to help reduce the workload of teachers and students. This seems like a fairly straight-forward request. However, you’d be amazed how many new technologies have been introduced but no one has given an ounce of thought to how it impacts the teacher or student. Sometimes “time-saving technologies” actually add hours to the end users. What they usually do is save someone else’s time. ¡No bueno!

So if you hear about a technology that just “has to be in your school,” ask for specific details about two things: the impact on student learning and the work-load reduction. If they promise things that are beyond your wildest dreams, they may be trying to sell you something.

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Who Should You Call? 911 or Facebook?

A recent event highlights a critical need for adults to help young people navigate the new digital world that we’ve created. Two girls who were lost in a storm drain decided that they should update their Facebook status instead of call for help. Read the story here at ABC News-Australia. It’s imperative that teachers and parents step up to the plate and help young people understand how to use new technology appropriately. We can’t sit on the sidelines and “let the kids figure it out.” We created this technology–it’s our responsibility that it’s used correctly.

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Adults and New Technology

One thing that many adult users of technology tell me is that they don’t pick up new technology like younger folks do. This is a common misbelief. I think the core issue has nothing to do with “young brains” or “digital natives” or even the “technology today.” I’ve used technology to teach every age group from adults to elementary students. There are two main differences. The first is that kids aren’t afraid of breaking things. That’s a good thing when trying something new but it’s a bad thing for those of you who are parents. Kids dive right in and begin using new technology-whatever it is.

The other main difference between how kids and adults use technology has to do with the fact that adults are used to being proficient. We pick up a pencil and we know what to do. When we get in a car, we know what to do. The list goes on and on. That’s a good thing-we’ve had a lot of time to learn about the world. However, when we encounter a new technology, there is a hesitation. Sometimes we feel as if we should already know how to work this thing. Adults want to be or at least appear to be proficient. Kids on the other hand are used to being novices. When kids see or work with something new, it’s just another day for them. Their whole world is series of new events, places, things, and ideas.

As adults, we can learn from the kids. When we encounter a new technology, we need to resist the fear of breaking it. Go ahead, play around, push all of the buttons, see what it can do. You won’t break it, I promise. Also, don’t expect to be an expert. Adults sometimes are so used to being the expert that we forget what it’s like to try something new. So go ahead, try something novel. Capture within yourself an adventurous spirit and dive into a new technology. You won’t regret it, I promise.

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