Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Good People Still Exist In This World


Just over a week ago we had one of our high school students get off of a public transit rail car to meet up with her friends.  Somehow in the mix up of getting on another train and deciding where to go she happened to leave her backpack, which of course had all of her school stuff inside of it – including her new school issued laptop. She realized this error right after she left the station and even tried repeatedly to get in touch with our metro transit officials in an attempt to get the backpack and her laptop back.  In fact, she even did the right thing and came and talked to me first thing in the morning about the situation.  We went right ahead and began to leverage our JAMF software suite in the legal ways that we could to try and locate the computer.  However, like most lost or stolen computers I began to believe, like the other ones we have had lost of stolen over the years, that it was just gone.  Someone picked it up, wiped it, threw it out, pawned it, or did whatever people do with a laptop they find at a train station.  


However, this is where the story takes a little bit of a different turn.  Someone actually called the school a few days ago and their message got transferred to one of our English teachers who then told the student about the message.  After it was all sorted out and I got the phone number of this random person claiming to have our student’s laptop.  This afternoon I gave the number a call.  What was I expecting?  Some sort of ransom note?  Maybe a plan to meet up at some shady location and exchange money?  Instead, what I received was a pleasant conversation to meet up at the exact location where the laptop was stolen and recover the laptop.  So I cautiously agreed to meet up with the individual, who to all accounts sounded like an OK person on the phone, at the train station.  I even took along a colleague as well.  After calling each other we eventually met up on the train platform.  A young woman and her father walked towards me and handed the student’s missing book bag and computer over.  There were no strings attached, no questions, no anything – just gratitude and words of thanks on my side.

After exchanging addresses for a thank you card and package to be sent soon, I asked the family why they picked up the backpack.  The young girl answered that she got off the train and noticed the backpack sitting there on the train station deck.  It was obviously out of place so she picked it up and began to search through it looking for any identification or markings that related to the owner.  Then she found the student’s laptop and after looking at the student name tag in the case she knew that it belonged to one of our students.  The family looked up the address for the school, stopped by after hours when no one was there to open the door, and then called eventually the next day.  The rest is history.  However, when I asked her why she didn’t keep the bag, her response was: “I am sure the student wants it back.  Those things are expensive.  She probably has a lot of work to do.”    

Teenagers are humans.  We all make mistakes and slip up one time or another.  We can’t forget where we parked, download a virus onto our computers, lock our keys in the car, and sometimes we even leave a laptop at a train station.  The amazing part is that there are still are good people out there in the world that will turn in a missing laptop.  We all too often forget about these people, but our faith is restored when we are on the receiving end of a situation where someone helps us out.  Today I was reminded of this fact.  I hope that you remember that good people, like Katie and her dad, are still out there!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New Icons in Google Apps & Conditional Formatting

The joy of using Google Apps for Education is that very often updates occur – like weekly.

However, every once in a while I login and notice that something is different and a little off.  Such was the case this week when I noticed that the icons for the Google Documents changed as well as a few of their colors.  In addition to that specific change, there are a few other helpful features Google has added in recently to Documents in particular.  Check out the video below for more information:


For more information on Docs, Sheets, and Slides (Google's new Drive names for Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentation) check out this link to their support page.

In addition, some features of Google Apps for Education are worth repeating.  For instance, in Google Spreadsheets the use of conditional formatting is, I believe, an underutilized tool.  It can filter out responses and color code them with ease.  The only thing the user has to do is set-up the formatting.  Check out the video below on how to do that:


As you can hopefully see there are a number of uses for conditional formatting.  We recently used this at school to track which students had turned in important emergency record paperwork.  The ones that had turned it in received an "x" and their cell background turned green and those that had not turned in their paperwork the cells were blank and the background turned red.  It was very easy for instructors and office staff to quickly scan through the list and pull out those missing information.  The same can be used in a classroom.  With conditional formatting set up staff can quickly look and see how much re-teaching needs to occur or how many students actually understood the concept after watching a video.  A quick visual is always a good idea.

Google Apps for Education continues to amaze me with the power of their suite of apps.  Hopefully these videos have been helpful.  There will be more to come in the future!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bitsboard: An App That Transforms Education

Having been a part of the iPad/iPod/iOS education world for the past few years I have seen a number of good apps and tons of bad apps as well.  Unfortunately, the bad apps, or non-educational ones, seem to heavily outweigh the perfect for education apps.  However, whenever I present to a group of teachers or other educators the most common question is “What are some of your favorite apps?”  Now I completely realize that apps are only one thing that you can do on an iPad, but every once in a while a good app comes along and you just have to share it.  This is the case today with the creation and release of Bitsboard by Grasshopper Apps.  If you are not familiar with Grasshopper Apps, then I suggest you check out their website here.  They are widely known throughout the educational community for having amazing, beautiful, and free apps that are completely customizable.  That’s right - educators of any kind can tweak, change, and add whatever they want to their own app.  At FAIR School Downtown we would add in our own images, lists, and audio.  This has been a huge game changer in our classrooms - especially with spelling words.  Teachers would create their list(s) for the week all ahead of time with images, pictures, and audio over the top and then I would sync the one master iPad with the lists to all the other ones.  Sometimes it would work and at other times the lists would corrupt halfway through the quarter.  It was a great idea, but never reached its full potential.

Now the game has changed, finally.  For almost a year now I have been in close contact with Mila over at Grasshopper Apps.  They have been working on an app that allows teachers to create their own flashcards and then share them to their students through a catalog.  No syncing required.  It has been incredible to see an idea that many users wanted transform into a fully developed app.  That’s right, this morning they released the newest, and in my opinion best so far, app called Bitsboard.  


Bitsboard is only about 10% done according to their introduction email, but is is absolutely a game changer in terms of educational apps.  At this time the app has access to over 100,000 flashcards that include pictures and audio, allows you to create new flashcards (see the process below), backup the custom flashcards online, sync and share content across devices, and provides access to lessons from other teachers as well.  Now at this time I totally understand that this is only a app that has customizable flash cards with images or audio, but this is a start.  I personally do not know of another app out there that allows you to create unique, customized content with images and audio, share it with the cloud, have your students download it, and then practice totally without syncing the devices.  

Here is how it works:

1.) Download the Bitsboard app on the App Store.
Did I mention that this app it totally free!  That’s right, I get nothing for posting about it and there is no cost to you for trying it out.  Can’t get much better than that!



2.) Open the app and land in the “Home Screen” of Bitboard
This is where the pre-downloaded lists are at or where the lists are that you downloaded from the Catalog.



3.) Notice the “Catalog” icon in the upper left corner.  This is where Grasshopper Apps already has pre-created boards that have content in them.  They have also added in some of their more popular apps with the content already added in (Telling Time, First Words, Three Letter Words) at the top.  If you find a list you want to download, click the universal cloud with the arrow down icon and it shows up on your iPad in seconds.


4.) What about actually creating your own lists?  Easy.  Navigate back to the “Home Screen” for the app by clicking the “Home” icon.  Then click the “Gear” in the upper right corner.  We are all familiar with what this icon means, but this time it brings up a few option in the contents.  Click on “Your Boards” and then the “+” in the upper right corner and then “Create a new board.”


5.) Enter a title at the top where it says “Enter board name here”

6.) Click the plus icon to add a new flash card.  The new flash card comes up and then you can type in the word you want here.  Most words will then also automatically pull in a photo of what you typed as well.  If not then you can choose an image.  In addition, the app may also drop in audio of the word as well, but if not then click the red record button and put in your own audio.  Want to listen to it?  Then click the green plus icon on the other side.  As soon as you are done with one flash card, then click behind on the right and it saves automatically.  Click the “plus” icon and a new blank flashcard comes up here.  



7.) Sharing the set of flash cards (called boards in this app) is almost as easy as well.  Click the “Share” icon in the upper right corner of the app and provided you are logged into Facebook as well the board automatically appears in the Catalog.  The Facebook integration kind of bugged me at first, but then I read some more about this app and the folks at Grasshopper Apps are already working on the ability to create new user accounts without Facebook and they claim that this is coming “very soon.”  Then a few seconds after uploaded the board, I checked in the Catalog and searched for the title of my board.  It was there waiting for me and the students in first grade, or anyone with an iPad and this app, can download and use it.  Absolutely amazing!  




A few things to be aware of about this app from Grasshopper Apps.  First, they are currently in the process of integrating a bunch of their other apps into this one so that it becomes a “one stop shop.”  Coming soon is integration with Photo Touch, Little Reader, Little Speller, and Memory Cards.  They are also claiming to add in a bunch of other pieces to this app so that it is more than a flashcards app.  What that looks like we will see soon.  Also, this is only an iPad app at the moment.  They are actively creating an iPhone version as well.  For more information check out the full posting about this app in the App Store linked here.

Maybe I am only the one that is totally excited about this app, but the possibilities for me boggle my mind.  Teachers can now be at home, create a spelling list, review list, etc. and then have the students download it when they arrive on their iPads at school.  In addition, teachers in the same building or district at the same grade level can all be using the same lists so students learn the same content regardless of the teacher.  Foreign language, special education, and high school biology terms have all been transformed now.  Create a list, share it with your students, and then have them review on their own time and not during precious class time.  This app can also transform the learning and review process at home.  If families own an iPad (or iPhone in the future) they can download this free app and then look for the teacher’s lists for that week.  Then the student can practice and review their school work at home.  No missing paper, lost list, etc. Furthermore, students can create their own lists.  If they consistently have trouble with a few words they can create their own “challenge list” and then add the ones they get wrong each week and consistently practice them when they have a chance.  The possibilities appear endless. 



With the understanding that this app is still under development, there are a few things I would tweak.  My largest suggestion at this point, outside of adding in the non-Facebook requirement to post lists, would be the integration of testing and reporting the progress on lists.  Alligator Apps has an awesome app titled “A+ Speller” that allows students to practice their words and then the progress is emailed back to the instructor.  I would love to see some integration on this front so that instructors can track student progress and how they are doing on specific words.  This would be a welcome addition to the app, but I have to say at this point I am very impressed with the ease of use, functionality, and ability to easily share and download content.  Well done Grasshopper Apps!  

I would encourage everyone out there to download and try out this app.  It’s free so its not like you are out a dollar or two.  Who knows, you might just figure out a way to integrate this into your classroom/school/district.

P.S. I was not paid or encouraged to write this post about Bitboard.  I am so excited about the potential this app has to transform education that I had to share.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 10, 2012

School Communication for Today’s World

When I started at The FAIR School a little over four years ago communication internally and externally was a mess.  Messages were not getting to staff, announcements over the loud speaker were made almost every half an hour, and emails clogged up each person’s Inbox.  Instead of being productive, we were unproductive as a staff.  Furthermore, on the community side we were not doing a good job communicating with our parents and families about upcoming events, conferences, and general announcements.

What we quickly realized as a leadership team was that we were communicating in an outdated and ineffective manner.  Papers were not making it home, a printed calendar changed weekly as new events were added and old ones moved, and there was an insane amount of time wasted looking through all staff email announcements that did not apply to everyone on the staff.

Then a change happened...

Under the direction of our administration, leadership team, and lots of long hours by our communications director we have shifted how we communicate with our school community.  It is relevant, environmentally aware, and inherently digital.  Here is a look at the multiple ways we communicate with The FAIR School community:
  • Email: We do still use this form of communication between parent/guardians and staff to share specific concerns, get in touch with one another, or receive information.  Sometimes also we use this as a school and parent/guardian message when we want to target a certain segment of our population, like only 3rd grade families.
  • School Connects: Occasionally we use this system to “robo call” all our families.  This is an important piece of our communication system in case of emergency, snow day, or other major announcement that needs to get to everyone at once.  However, this system is used sparingly because our other methods are more effective.
  • FAIR Talk: This is our monthly school newsletter.  We still love the written word and greatly appreciate the newsletter form as a way to summarize and update families about upcoming events.  Before we printed out a copy of this for each of our families, but now we do not print any.  Instead, this is posted on our website and Facebook page for students, parent/guardians, and our community to digitally access and read.  Furthermore, by publishing this digitally our communications director has the ability to use more pictures and lots of color in her design.
  • SchoolView: This is our parent/guardian link to online attendance, grades, and registration information.  We have had this method of communication in place for a number of years and it works well for its multiple intended purposes.
Up to this point I think many of our communication methods are what you would see in many schools.  We might use a tool slightly different, but most are similar.  However, I think the next three methods of communication set The FAIR School apart.


  • Text Message: Almost everyone has a cell phone, so why not communicate with our parents where they are instead of having them listen to a message left on their home machine (provided that they have a home phone) or wait for their student to come home from school?  The request to have text messages actually came out of parent communication with the school.  Our principal came to me with the idea and within a few weeks we had the system up and running with parents enrolled.  We use texting to communicate up to the minute information and some of those typical types of announcements that we would normally have sent out through School Connects.  Furthermore, we can tier the messages so that only Kindergarten parent/guardians receive it or all our 9-12 parent/guardians.  The key here is that we are limited to 160 characters so you have to be short when communicating.  As a staff we rolled this out two years ago and reminded them about upcoming summer trainings.  They loved it because they did not have to continually check their school email during the summer and we loved it because they actually showed up for trainings.  We also have a short code, so at events if people want more information we can have then text “FAIR” to our number and then send them back a URL, name of a contact person, or what ever our message happens to be.
  • Website: The FAIR School website is not like other websites.  Take a look at the main page linked here.  What do you notice?  There is a little text, links on the side, some photos, and videos throughout.  Yes, we have really tried to bring the idea that a website is not a one dimensional space.  We want it to be interactive, exciting, and engaging, albeit a bit untraditional.  Furthermore, this is the main page for both campuses.  The FAIR School is one school with two campuses - FAIR School Downtown (located in Minneapolis, MN) and FAIR School Crystal (located in Crystal, MN).  By looking at the site you will notice that a lot of the information is the same for both campuses, because it should be.  This is big part of our communications mission where we want to have everything streamlined through one site in order for our community to come and grab what they need.  One important distinction about our website though – it is only for our permanent information.  That is correct, we do not post up to the minute, hour, or even weekly information on there.  After the school year is set and the appropriate information has been updated, our communications director leaves this site alone.  Instead, she focuses on another medium coming up next.  We really want the website to be a place where parents and families can go to access contact information, forms, letters, lists, documents, and other information that they may need throughout the school year.  Finally, this entire site (and all of our websites at The FAIR School) are run by Google Sites.  We pay almost nothing for overhead, nothing for updated software, and had very little training at the beginning.  Our communications director has done a wonderful job creating templates, working through the small nuances of Sites, and really figuring out how to make it beautiful.
  • Facebook: With over 901 million monthly users, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, we knew that as a school we had to reach people where they were spending their time – on Facebook.  So we launched our Facebook page (Check us out at FAIR School Downtown-Crystal) a few years ago and have never turned back.  We use this as our way to communicate up to date information about items such as school pictures, upcoming events for parents and families, PTSA/PTO meetings and a whole lot more.  We also use this page to put up student photos, artwork, and share what is going on in our school.  A quick scan of our top events right now will reveal photos from the first day of Kindergarten, photos of the day, calendars, and other quick announcements.  Furthermore, we absolutely love the fact that Facebook is inherently a community based approach.  Parent/guardians, students, and community members can all see, comment on, and access the information about what is happening at school that day.  When it gets to awards nights we post professional photos of all our students on the Facebook page so that parent/guardians can access them instead of rushing to the front and trying to get their own photo.  Furthermore, we believe that using this tool has brought the school community a bit closer.  Personally, I do not get to our other campus every day, but through Facebook I can “see” what they are doing and leave comments about it.  We can recognize parents for all the hard work they are doing.  We can also share exceptional artwork that is hanging in our hallways.  Traditionally this is only seen at conference time, if ever.  Now our students, parent/guardians, and community members can access it anytime and almost anywhere through their phones
  • Facebook - Part #2
    • First, all of our students have a signed parent/guardian visual media access.  This allows us to take their picture and post it online.  We have found that on the whole there are close to ten students in our entire school whose pictures cannot be posted out of over to 1200 students.  
    • Second, the Facebook site is open to anyone, even without a Facebook account.  It works just like a website.  Parent/Guardians without an account can still see what is going on and access the information, but without an account they have restrictions on what they can comment on, download, etc.  This solves the problem of “I don’t have an account because ______.”  
    • Third, http://www.facebook.com is not a blocked domain at The FAIR School.  We take the approach of teaching students about digital literacy rather than blocking websites.  This leads to many courageous conversations in class about the appropriate time and place, but we have found that if the parameters are in place it works out well.  Therefore, you will see students online, accessing the Facebook page throughout the day and checking for upcoming events.  We have in fact even made it a practice to start many of our elementary school days by brining up the Facebook page during “Morning Meetings” to show photos and discuss upcoming events at the school.  
    • Fourth, this method of communication has been immensely successful.  With the new timeline feature in Facebook we can track how often our page has been hit, shared, commented on, etc.  With some of our posts last year we were reaching almost 600,000 people.  I honestly do not know of a more effective, free, way to communicate with parent/guardians in today’s world.
  • Facebook - For Staff: We have also begun to streamline our staff communication through a staff page on Facebook.  This one page has more requirements and you have to be accepted to the group in order to view the information or post out things.  However, this has dramatically changed how we communicate internally.  It has cut down on emails among staff members, virtually eliminated all staff emails, and it has produced a more effective and productive work environment.  Before you had to click on, open, and read every single mail message.  Now, if it does not apply to you then scroll right on past.  We can also be more creative with our posts - sharing links, videos, how-to information, and general announcements.  It is cleaner, simpler, and once again it makes sense within today’s world.  Plus, this site has become a great resource for our staff.  We all constantly learn about upcoming opportunities, trainings, and events and now instead of keeping them to ourselves or writing an all staff email we share it with the community.  Today when you walk through the floors you will see staff members often with Facebook open on one tab and their work Gmail account open on the other.  Using Facebook as a staff has created a shift, but one that continues to happen.  We still have to educate staff on where to post and access information, but with any addition or change there is going to be a wide range of adoption.  
As you hopefully get an idea, community communication is a little different at The FAIR School.  We firmly believe that with these methods and by training our staff, students, parent/guardians, and our community where and how to find information we have become more successful across the board.  Parents are “In the Know” and when they know what is going on it allows them to be more engaged in the school.  

For more information about communication at The FAIR School check out that page on our website.  You may have also seen us in mentioned a recent article on Edudemic about schools using Facebook.  Also, there is a whole lot more to this story of communication.  If it would be helpful to ask questions, hear more about what we did, see examples or talk to someone, please let me know.  I would be happy to connect you with the right person.

I would ask each of you reading this post to consider how your school, business, workplace, etc. connects with its community?  Is it effective?  Why or why not?  Is is instant?  Are you meeting the needs of your parent/guardians, employees, stakeholders, or targeted audience?  How can you change your communication to make it more effective in today’s world?  

Finally, at The FAIR School we do not have it all figured out.  This has been a process to get to this point and one that has come with technical glitches, problems, and at the same time a lot of success.  We are constantly thinking about and reframing what we do.  If you have comments or suggestions, please leave them below.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Right Tool Makes a Difference

All the teachers came back two weeks ago and the students last Tuesday.  Saying that work was busy was an understatement!  As a technology director there are always lots of meetings, questions, and concerns as the new year starts, but at the same time it is fun to catch up, see what people have done during the summer while you got things ready at school, and share in the excitement of the new year.

I am really thankful for a wonderful little phrase that runs around The FAIR School like an epidemic: “Let’s make a Doc.”  Yes, they are talking about a Google Document.  We have hundreds, thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands of these documents.  As we enter the third year of our time with Google I have to say that I greatly appreciate many of the features of a Google Applications for Education domain user.  One of them is the instantaneous collaboration created by a simple document.  Just two weeks alone we had meeting notes, agendas, shared calendars, teachers updating their websites, and our overall workshop week calendar all hosted in our GAFE domain.  Last week our leadership team was in a meeting planning the open house and we quickly made a document to share with the rest of the staff.  We all pitched in, knew what was going on, and even our assistant principal (who had to step out for a few moments) knew exactly where we were and was on the same page.  It worked out really well and the power of Google docs continues to amaze me on a daily basis.

However, not every idea we try always works out really well.  I remember the first time we sent out a Google Form to participants in our summer school program and we forgot to uncheck the box that says “have respondents login to their domain account to fill out the survey.”  Yeah, that was a bit of a mess.  Everything has a learning curve to it, but sometimes using the right tool truly does make a difference.  It could be a Web 2.0 tool (my favorite right now is an awesome little site called Schoology) or even a great piece of software (SMART Notebook 11 is improved for the Mac), but in a classroom there is a time and a place for every tool.  


It’s kind of like a box of crayons.  If you need to color someone’s hair you might choose a dark or light color depending on your purpose.  There are lots of choices, but ultimately you use the one that makes the most sense for your situation.  For sure, you do not select the blue crayon.

Doesn’t the same kind of thinking apply in our classrooms?  If we want to have students work on a podcast we probably have them use Audacity, GarageBand, or some other recording software.  We do not have them use iMovie.  That is the blue crayon and it is used for something totally different.  We have to pick the right tool for the situation and outcome we desire to see.

Sometimes this idea of the right crayon for the job is lost within the educational field.  Lately I have come across two such examples that just make me scratch my head and wonder, “Why are we using a blue crayon when the brown one is over there and it works just fine?”  


Example One: I was recently out at a high school in Minnesota doing some training and came across this board...at least it looked like a board at first glance.  Check out the video:

video

Yes, that is a SMART Board.  No joke, and it has Expo markers at the base of it.  Anyone using the wrong crayon here?  Seriously, how many times have I told my teachers, “Don’t write on the board with anything but the markers that come with the board.  No Expo markers, magic markers, pens, etc.”  Does that video make any one else’s head just shake?  Just imagine if that board was being used to its full potential.  What a difference that could make in a classroom! 

Example Two: I was recently part of a discussion where we needed to sign up for groups based on individual preferences.  This was a very interesting experience because the tool we used to sign up was a wiki.  One thing that you should probably know about a wiki, if you don’t already, it only allows one person to edit a page at a time.  That is correct, blue crayon use here.  It was slightly frustrating and annoying to be “stealing the lock” from other people who were putting their names on the same wiki.  There are so many better uses for a wiki than to have people sign-up for their groups and a lot of easier, more initiative tools to have people collaboratively form groups.  The use kind of made me scratch my head and wonder.


As you start off the school year, please consider which color crayon you are using.  Do not force a blue crayon into a brown crayon area.  Brown is for the hair, blue is for the sky.  Furthermore, using pencil and paper works just fine for writing a paper instead of some new, advanced, Web 2.0 tool.  We cannot, and should not, choose to use the tool only because we have this idea that it will be “cooler” or “will lead to more engagement.”  That is not the main goal in education.  We want our students to learn.  The tool comes secondary.  Keep in mind the educational goal first and then choose the tool.  However, make sure you choose a brown crayon instead of a blue one!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Technology Shift: Relationships, Schools, and Parenting

In one of my current classes at UNI called “Technology and Education” taught by Dr. John Solis (@drsolis) we are reading a book by Jane Healy titled “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – and What We Can Do About It.”  So far this reading has been engaging, interesting, and overall a very good learning experience.  It has opened my eyes to a number of issues and holes within the current thinking regarding students, families, research, and the overall push to include technology into our schools.  Dr. Healy really pushes back on the educational technology norms, even though our copy was published in 1999.  Although some of the data is outdated, it still provides a solid foundation to consider the impact technology has had on our society and school settings.  In fact, in class we are currently having online discussions about some of the impacts we have seen firsthand.  I want to add to that discussion and provide some of my first comments on this text throughout this post.  

First of all, technology has a huge potential to alter the adult-child balance of power as we have known it.  Potential means something that is not yet realized.  It is an opportunity.  Technology has the opportunity to make huge strides in a number of areas of our daily lives.  In fact, earlier this week I had a discussion with a new parent and co-workers of mine.  He was remarking that by the time his daughter was old enough to have a cell phone he predicted that the phone would contain everything from her wallet, home security system, coupons, credit cards, and way more.  I mentioned to him that with the addition of iOS 6 from Apple this fall some of these changes will be appearing – long before his daughter will ever walk much less own a cell phone.  However, I think we can all agree that technology on the whole is a game changer and especially in education.  In fact, Dr. Healy does believe that using technology can be successful in an educational setting, but that it is “not automatic, inexpensive, or attained without a great deal of thought and effort” (22).  I totally agree with her.  We all have seen the new stories of the most recent school district to implement a 1:1 Program and it shows wonderful pictures of students receiving bright, shiny devices.  However, how many people are asking the hard questions about how these devices are being implemented, what the students are really learning, and how the addition of these devices will transform the classrooms?  My guess is that there are not enough people like that in our communities.  

Technology, as defined by Dr. Healy, is “any tool or medium that helps people accomplish tasks or produce products more efficiently” (30).  Not only does technology bring about a huge potential to transform our daily lives, but it will also alter the adult-child balance of power.  Traditionally our parents have taught us just about everything we know from changing the oil in our cars, planting vegetables in our gardens, and baking a cake.  Nothing really came along that kids could do better or more effectively than our parents until technology, and specifically computers, came on the scene.  Since then kids have been teaching their parents a new skill – using the computer, Internet, cell phone, and just about everything technological.  I still remember my dad introducing me to MS-DOS prompt and the ins and outs of his Leading Edge computer.  It was a fantastic first computer, but by the time our family got a second computer I was teaching my dad things that he did not know about the technology.  Even today I still receive phone calls from him about how to navigate around his Mac, where the toolbox is in MS Office, and how to print photos from iPhoto.  He is a great learner, but the teacher is his son.  Does this situation remind anyone of their own lives?  Technology has altered the balance of power in parent-child and also adult-child relationships.  Recently iPads were rolled out to sixth grade students in Basehor, Kansas.  One teacher remarked in this article about on the relationship the iPads have created:  “Technology fits perfectly with their lives...and they have delighted in teaching others including the teachers.”  Today more and more children are teaching their parents skills on the computer.  They pick it up quicker, are more efficient, and by in large are happy to assist clueless appearing adults with a technology task.  I firmly believe that technology not only has the potential, but that it has changed the balance of power in our relationships with children.

Furthermore, the addition of technology into our schools has also changed the balance of power between students and teachers.  Now our teachers are taught by our students.  When was the last time a second grader assisted you with turning on the SMART Board or troubleshooting a YouTube issue?  Believe me it happens more frequently than it ever did before.  I think all technology directors have those students within their schools that have more experience with scripting, coding, and computers than they do.  The question is if they are creating a network that competes with their skills or if they invite them into the fold.  But we need to be cautious that the addition of technology into our schools means that it is a good thing.  Dr. Healy has taught me that much so far in the three chapters I have read.  We need to be cautiously optimistic.  Take for instance another quote from the Kansas article where the teacher also commented on the effectiveness of the 1:1 Program.  He says, “The students with the iPads seem to be more focused in class...‘They’re quieter.’”  Just because students are quiet does not mean that they are engaged or that they are learning something beneficial from their iPads.  I have seen time and time again a technology that has been introduced into the classroom that does not appear to have a good reason for existing there.  Instead, the teacher wanted to “try something out.”  We cannot continue to allow our instructors to add technology into our classrooms if it does not directly benefit our students.  They see right through it every time.  More intriguing to me is the fact that our students end up bailing out our teachers when the thing they wanted to try out backfires, messes up, or does not work properly.  The balance of power between our students and teachers, just like our children and parents, has changed as a result of technology.

Technology continues to change the schooling as we know it.  This is a huge topic to consider and one that Dr. Healy does a great job of in her book.  I did want to bring a few additional thoughts to the table on this subject.  One, if technology is effectively and appropriately integrated into the curriculum it can create dramatic changes.  Take for instance a recent blog post on CNN’s Schools of Thought about flipping classrooms where Stacy Roshan says, “Using technology has allowed me to bring compassion back into an otherwise overly stressful classroom environment. The flipped classroom has transformed the relationships that I am able to build with my students, and has made class time incredibly more pleasant for everyone. Quite simply, the flipped classroom has allowed me to create a calm, inspiring environment where students can learn, thrive and feel supported, which is truly a magnificent feeling.”  Technology can have a truly magical impact on our students’ learning.  Second, teachers need to consider the role they now play in our schools.  No longer can they be the “sage on the stage,” but instead they need to fulfill a number of roles.  In Dr. Healy's text she notes that "Many educators think traditional roles must change because today's students are increasingly difficult to teach" (40).  However, only a few paragraphs later she interviews a middle-school teacher who firmly believes that computers will "'force a change in the way we all do school'" (40).  In fact, a recent “Mind/Shift” blog titled “Understanding Learning Analytics and Student Data” captured the many roles teachers need to or should be embracing in our classrooms today.  In a very easy to understand graphic chart they discuss the three roles of facilitator, analyst, and instructor that a teacher needs to fulfill.  More often than not we are still being instructors and not the other two.  We need to put our primary notions, pride, and to some degree former teaching aside and embrace the new normal.  Our students learn in different ways and we need to adapt our instructional methods and furthermore our roles to match them.  Third, the role of technology in our classrooms needs to be reframed.  Are we using a computer strictly as a substitution for a typewriter?  Is it just a glorified piece of paper and a pencil?  If that is the case why are we using it?  Dr. Puentedura has some great research out there on technology integration called “The SAMR Model.”  In it he considers how technology can be used in two main categories and two sub categories.  These are using technology to enhance (substitution or augmentation) or to transform (modification or redefinition).  His thinking and work has been fundamental in reframing how we think about technology and technology at The FAIR School.  I strongly recommend anyone interested in technology integration to review his work.  Technology continues to change the way we as educators teach and how we interact with our students on a daily basis.  

With the addition of new technology and the shift of balance from adults to kids, parents should not yield any power to their media-saturated children.  Dr. Healy notes in her book that “A major problem was that few knew how to support their child’s use of the technology and allowed children unlimited and unsupervised computer use” (21).  Has anyone else ever seen this before?  Personally, I cannot tell you how many times I get phone calls from concerned parents that want me, as the technology director, to lock down their child’s computer and protect them from Facebook, YouTube, or other late night distractions.  I kindly listen to their issues, take the computer from the child, and then comes the hard part – I have to explain to the student why their parent wants the computer to only exist at school.  I honestly cannot lie to them about the shortfalls at home, and more often than not they understand, but it makes me consider the parenting going on at home.  I just wish that more often than not a parent would be the parent and take matters into their own hands.  They are in charge of all things within their home, which includes the school owned computer.  If they do not like the way it is being used, then take it.  It is that simple some times.  An interesting shift has occurred in parents' mindset though.  According to recent research posted in a recent CNN article, titled "Why Parents Should Educate Their Kids About Tech," 70% of parents believe schools should do more to educate their children about online safety.  Maybe it is the schools' responsibility, but then again maybe it is the parents' responsibility.  Either way it is a point of contention moving forward.  However, if a parent wants some more protection from the media-saturated culture that children live in today there are a few suggested they might take.  First, parents can use a wonderful application built into every Mac called “Parental Controls.”  In this blog post they can learn how to set up time limits, lock down the computer so that their child does not go to certain web sites, or have other permissions to access files on the computer.  Second, parents can turn on their content filtering solution at home.  Most wireless routers these days come with a built in content filter that will allow parents to monitor and block certain web sites at home.  Parents need to read up, turn on, and then begin to protect their families in this way.  Third, parents can also enroll their home Internet into a content filtering solution such as OpenDNS.  At my home, even though we do not have any children, we still use this solution to protect ourselves from unwanted content and it makes our Internet faster as well.  Fourth, parents need to make sure that they do not yield any power to the children by setting clear boundaries.  Research posted on Parent Further indicated that kids who do not have boundaries with technology: “Have trouble sleeping and get less sleep, Exercise less and are more prone to obesity, Do less homework, Read less, Spend less time with their families, and Have a harder time making good decisions.”  Therefore, it is very important that parents create technology boundaries with their children.  Fifth and finally, parents need to remember an important point from Dr. Healy: “Your kid may be teaching you about the machine, but you are still in charge of teaching things that are far more important!” (42).  Parents, you are in charge at home.  Please take charge of the situation and do not give any power to your media-saturated children.

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Do you agree or disagree?  Please leave your comments below!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2 Years of iTeachers

A little while back I taught a graduate course for the University of Saint Mary's in Minnesota titled iTeacher in St. Cloud, MN.  My co-teacher and I focused specifically on the integration of iPods and iPads into our learners' curriculums, hence the name "iTeacher."  It was a really fun week where I learned a lot about teaching and iOS devices and our learners walked away with some solid implementation ideas.

One thing I am really proud of when I teach a course like this is that I leave my learners with the resources to come back to after our time together is physically over.  So I went ahead and created a simple and quick Google Site for our course.  It has on the resource page a whole host of items that may or may not be helpful to someone as they look at, decide on, or implement iOS devices in their environment.  Access to that page, and the entire website, can be found by clicking this link.

That week was a lot of fun, but one of the more valuable experiences for the learners there was when I stopped the direct instruction and came and sat down with them and discussed what I personally had learned from directing iOS deployments and programs for the last two and a half years.  They asked that  I would share this list with them on my blog.  So here goes, in no particular order, my personal reflections:

  • Have a plan.  I think this goes without saying, but you would not believe the number of school districts that I have consulted with that do not have a clear direction or idea where they are going with the iOS devices in their school setting.  Who is going to use them?  How long are they going to use them?  Who will be syncing them?  Have you checked your wireless and made sure that it can handle a large number of iOS devices on it?  Which model of app purchasing are you going to deploy in your environment?
  • Do your research.  There are a lot of people out there that have written much on the topic of iOS integration within curriculums and school settings.  What do they say?  What has been the most effective?  At The FAIR School we are consistently hosting schools and individuals alike that want to know more about our programs, what we are doing, and how we make it work in our classrooms.  Have you visited another school?  Do you know what they do with the iOS devices after the day is over?  How do you store them throughout the summer?  How are they actually implemented into the curriculum?
  • Have support lined up.  Syncing these devices takes time plain and simple.  Who is going to invest their time to make sure they are done correctly and efficiently?  Are you going to use a Mac or a PC for syncing?  I will say that if you use a PC expect syncing to take hours longer than using a Mac.  Apple has specifically made a tool for syncing devices, but it can only run on a Mac - typical.  It's worth the look at Configurator if you plan on having more than 20 devices for sure.  Also, where do you go when a question comes up?  What support network can you reach out to?  Who will answer your question in a timely and appropriate manner?
  • Have a schedule set-up.  This is one of the items that we added at The FAIR School last year in quarter four and something that I wish we had done years ago.  This schedule now lists specifically when each iOS cart will be synced and I can put in, based on my schedule, how long it is going to take.  In addition, I plan a meeting about a week prior to syncing and make sure that the Golden Master iOS device is ready and set-up exactly like my teachers want.  This alleviates the stress when they go to open a cart and the app they need for instruction is not listed there.  This schedule is also shared among the other iOS teachers so they have a good handle on when other teams are syncing and what my availability looks like as well.  However, most importantly it allows for me to keep my sanity instead of syncing the devices on a random schedule or whenever an instructor found "a really great app."  One final thing on this point to consider is the length and time software updates take.  I still remember the days of taking one iPad at a time and running a software update.  You think it takes a long time now, think about back then!  Thankfully the resources came along to use Xcode and now Configurator to make the process move a lot faster, but it still will take a while.  Plan a few days to make sure everything is set back up after a software update.  Consider also if you really need to do a software update.  Sometimes it is better, especially with iOS 6 coming out, to wait the school year before updating unless there is some compelling reason to move quickly to the new iOS.
  • Have the money stuff figured out.  Purchasing apps in iTunes is one thing, but purchasing apps in the Volume Purchasing Program is something totally different.  Make sure to do your research and have your Program Facilitator set-up and decide as an organization which roles you are going to give to individual teachers or staff.  Who will be purchasing apps and how will they get them to the students?  One other big consideration is trying out new apps.  I make it a point to have some funds on hand to test out applications for my teachers.  I don't want to spend $100.00 on an app that will not work in their class, but I will spend $1.00 for them to try it.  I have no problem purchasing one code and then sending it to them to evaluate.  
  • Have your policies in place.  How will students carry their iOS devices to their seat?  How will they interact with them at their desk?  What happens if a student drops a device?  What about if they break their headphones?  Any of these concerns cause a technology director to toss over in bed at night.  Having these set policies and plans in place make your program move forward a lot quicker and more efficiently as well.  One thing we teach our elementary students is to hug their iPad when they walk back to their desk from the cart in the same manner that they hug a book when they get it from our leveled library.  If the students already know the language, why reinvent the wheel just because it is a different medium?  
  • Setup the expectations.  Just like we have expectations for our students in the classroom, we also have expectations on our staff for use on the use of iOS devices.  In elementary we mirror the implementation of the iPads with our Daily 5 program and PALS.  Together these two tools allow us to say that at Day 1 the iPads will be in place within our classrooms and by Day 10 they will be part of the rotation within at least one of the five activities - mainly listening to reading.  After that we have a few other expectations, but it sits on our teachers to hit the guidelines that we set for them.  Furthermore, we had the expectation that throughout the summer all our iOS using staff members would come to a training we set-up called "iPad Camp."  They dedicated their mornings to really integrating the devices into their curriculums, talking about expectations, and overall deployment as a team.  It was an effective and useful week and something that would not have happened without the expectation that they were to arrive each day.
  • Don't confuse the purpose.  iOS devices are awesome tools to aid in instruction and learning within the classroom.  Period.  They should not be confused with anything else such as a gaming device, play toy, or a classroom teacher.  This specific purpose should allow your teachers to drive home the implementation of them early and allow them to be used specifically and intentionally within your classrooms.  Keep that in mind as you or your team plan.
  • Think about implementing a core set of apps school or district wide.  As part of "iPad Camp" we determined a specific and core set of applications that will be loaded onto each iPad district wide.  These ranged from things like Accelerated Reader to PDF-Notes to the iTalk Recorder.  There were not many applications, but every decided that the continuity required for students was essential moving forward.  In addition, they also decided on the naming of folders to be very similar.  For instance, everyone has an LTR folder on their iPads (LTR stands for Listen to Reading), but the content within that folder is different for each classroom or grade level.  This overall decision will only help to strengthen our program moving forward as we are on the same page school and district wide.  It will not matter who they had in 1st Grade because there is at least a core set of applications that will look familiar.
  • Think about the basics.  How will the iOS devices be stored and locked up each day?  How will you care for them?  Are the students or staff responsible for cleaning them?  Will you purchase styluses?  What about back covers?  Headphones?  Keyboards?  Each of these decisions needs to occur even before the iPads arrive within your building.  Are you in an environment where the devices need to be shared?  Then what does that look like and how much time will each teacher have with them?  Is there a method to shift hours or time if a specific instructor does not utilize them well or does not implement them at all?  
  • Model, model, and model some more.  I think it goes without saying that students do not pick up a concept the first time they interact with a piece of technology.  Continually model for your students how to handle the device, how to use the organized folders on you iOS devices, and how to use one finger to move from app to app.  Students love the iOS devices, but sometime they forget the expectations, rules, guidelines, and best practices you have setup in your classroom.
  • Figure out the long range implementation plan.  Everything that deals with our iOS devices goes back to the individual instructor's scope and sequence.  The iPad has to be tied into the curriculum in meaningful and relevant ways.  We frame it as a tool and we use it as a tool and nothing else.  Then when teachers have looked at their scope and sequence we have them match apps with their standards and then also fill our an app rubric to match each app.  We want to know that the apps we are syncing have been tested and really do fit with the educational goal at hand.  These types of documents also provide a more linear discussion among teams and schools as to who is using what, where, and why, which only leads us to strengthening our iOS program.
  • Celebrate your successes.  More often than not the year goes by and no one ever says "Good job," "Well done," or "What a difference that has made in your classroom," but I encourage you to take the time to meet with your team(s) and really celebrate what you are doing.  Share it with the world and continue to reflect on what you have learned so that the next day, month, or year is better than the last one.
That's my list of reflections for now.  I am surely forgetting something, but the ride has been incredible.  To think of a device that only five or six years ago was not on the commercial market and is now in our classrooms and successfully implemented is a huge accomplishment for both me and many of my fellow colleagues around the state, country, and world.  Keep up the good work being iTeachers!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Do All the Good, Free Tools End? - Part 2

     I wrote previously about the demise of CoverItLive as it moved to a paid-per-click model.  I also wrote about its immense impact on the educational experience in my classroom and others that I have worked in before as well.
     I am here to say that my faith and use of CoverItLive has returned.  I mentioned that as a nonprofit educators were encouraged to send them a message and "a Customer Support representative will get in touch with you."  I went ahead immediately when this message came out and filled out the response form.  Brittany responded to my message with an email and said this:


Thank you for your application. We’re pleased to tell you that you’ve been approved for a free version of our account for educational use in a classroom. I’ve made the following changes to your account to set you up.  I’ve created what we call an Enterprise Account (EA) for you named “FAIR School Downtown," which is now designated as our “Custom Plan” with non-profit status, which means no charges, unlimited access. I’ve associated your individual CiL account with this EA account.


     This is great news!  Thank you CoverItLive.  Obviously I cannot guarantee that you will have the same results, but it is nice to know that there are some companies out there that still recognize the importance of providing a free tool to educators. 


Summer Break Begins...Or Ends?

Summer break bring about thoughts of barbecues, warm weather, and good times at the cabin.  However, for most technology staff the summer is the busiest time of the year.  This summer for me has been no exception.  I have spent the past two weeks and the holiday hanging out with friends, family, and relaxing.  I did get a little work done at FAIR School as new equipment has begun to arrive in our building.  Actually a lot of new equipment has come in and I expect our yearly shipment of 9th grade computers today.  Here we go!  I also had the awesome opportunity to teach two graduate courses for Saint Mary's University – iPads, iPods, and iBooks Author and Google Applications for Education.  There will be a lot more on these endeavors coming soon, but for now I wanted to let you know that the vacation time from writing on this blog is over.  It is a nice change of pace to step back, take a short break, and enjoy the weather, but the time has come.  Our 1:1 programs do not get ready by themselves (roughly 300 MacBooks to get ready for grades 9-12 and 160 iPads in grades K-2) not to mention the full compliment of staff computer changes, network additions, new software coming in, and staff development trainings to conduct.  The time has come put the head down and get some things accomplished!

New equipment about to be processed
One exciting change is that we will working with JAMF Software and the Casper Suite for this upcoming school year to manage and oversee all our Apple devices district wide.  I have seen with this software package in action, tested it out for a few months, and I can truly say this will make the job of any technology director, integrationist, or your normal technician a lot easier.  It has some high level functionality (remote wipe, scripting commands, and inventory control features) as well as basic functionality (package imaging, deployment of apps, integration with Configurator, and self service) that I am really excited about.  You know that only a geek looks forward to installing a very complicated software suite!  We got to a point in our district that overseeing and deploying over 1,000 Apple devices was a bit much for three people to manage on a daily basis.  So we looked at a mobile device management (MDM) solution and landed with JAMF Software.  Outside of their great product, I enjoy the fact that these guys are local (Minneapolis, MN), so if I have a question or something is not working I can go knock on their door.  Honestly though, this company is leading the way in the area of MDMs and I look forward to deploying this solution later this month.

Even though I took a short break from writing, my mind has not stopped working on some great upcoming posts.  Here are a few of the topics:
-2 Years of iTeachers: My personal reflections on a running and working with our 1:1 iPad program.
-The Role of a SMART Board Today: What can we do with one in today's world that we cannot do with an iPad?  Where do we find SMART Boards located?  Why should we still buy them?
-The Twitter Craze and Why You Should Get Involved: A reflection on what I have learned about using Twitter over the years and the reasons for getting a Twitter account.
-Should We Start Differentiating in Graduate Courses: A close look at teaching a recent Google Applications for Education course and the need to flip and differentiate the instruction.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Summer Staff Training Here We Come

Summer time brings about thoughts of grilling out, time on the lake, and sleeping in for most.  However, for technology staff like me it also means the busiest time of the year.  We have roughly a thousand devices to re-image and configure over the next two and a half months, new software to implement, four summer programs to support, and if that wasn’t enough there is always the summer training for staff.  In our district we specifically ask our teachers and staff what type of training they are looking for and then go out and try to schedule what we can.  This summer I am particularly looking forward to a week of training, creation, and specifically integration of our iOS devices throughout the district.  Everyone will be coming together from Kindergarten through second grade, middle school teachers, special education, and even a few high school teachers to plan, dream, and really figure out how we can take our successful 1:1 iOS Program and make it even more effective.  Stay tuned for more information on this week in early August.

However, for staff that do not have iOS devices we also will be running a variety of training sessions throughout the summer.  We have done this a number of times before and have even used Google Forms for them to register.  Then to confirm their registration and send reminders we send out text messages to the staff.  Our principal had the idea roughly a year and a half ago to begin communicating with staff during the summer in a way that would be appropriate and easy for them – text messages.  They wouldn’t have to login it to their school email account and the messages would be kept short.  So far this process has worked out really well and we look forward to communicating with our families via text message more this fall.  Staff can never get enough training though so we are consistently reaching out and trying to find methods and ways for them to learn things on their schedule.

One way of solving this problem is through video tutorials.  As a school district we invested in a large video tutorial library through a third party a year ago, but then we decided after our one year review that not enough of our staff watched the videos to justify the cost we were paying.  Yes, we maybe could have done a better job implementing them into our environment, but we were also up against a staff that is stretched thin already and asking them to watch video tutorials in their free time seemed a bit silly.  So instead we are moving to create an in-house video tutorial library of important things staff need to know.  For instance: how to check your email, how to submit your grades, where the purchase requests can be found, and who to call when you have a technology problem.  All of these videos will be housed in the Videos app as part of our Google Apps for Education Suite.  The majority of them will be private and not viewable to the public, but all our staff will be able to access them with a click of a button.  It will be nice, slick, and a lot cheaper than our third party solution.  Probably the best part about this solution is that the content we create can be directed specifically for our staff.

However, every once in a while an opportunity to assist with staff development comes up and it is just to good to pass up on.  Such was the case when Tyler Hellemann (@MrHellmann), a cohort member from my UNI Masters Degree Program, sent me a message asking if I wanted to help him create a Google Form video.  Of course I agreed and we set off creating a collaborative document with an outline and parts of the script.  We decided early on that we wanted to complete the presentation together, but then after looking around and trying a variety of different tools we decided it would be easier to just film it separately and then put the two pieces together.  So that’s exactly what we did.  He used Screencast-o-Matic to capture the audio and video on his end, exported it, and then sent it to me.  I used Jing Pro to capture my audio and video, exported it, and then dropped both pieces into iMovie.  After a little tinkering we came up with this video:

Clearly this video isn’t going to win us an Oscar or Emmy anytime soon, but the content about how to use a Google Form hopefully got across.  We thought it did and that’s why we will be using this video during our summer and fall technology trainings at our respective schools.

Please enjoy this time of year – whether you are imaging computers, training staff, or hanging out on the lake – because summer is here!