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Tools

Last week I shared Superintendency & Social Networking, a post that was also published in the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  I also wrote two smaller pieces for this most recent edition; edited versions are below.  I came back to two questions that I get asked frequently – how do you find the time and what tools should one be using.

Here are my thoughts:

Finding the Time for Social Media

The superintendency is already a completely consuming job, so how can you possibly find the time to invest in social media? These are my suggestions for those looking to add social media to their work routine.

Create manageable expectations. Whether it is a blog, Twitter or other tools, be realistic about the commitment you can make to participating in social media.

Choose a few tools and use them well. There are thousands of tools available. Select a few and develop a comfort level with them. Start with tools such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, all of which are heavily subscribed to by those around you.

Block out some time. As you get into a routine, schedule time each week to spend engaging in social media. It might be 15 minutes a few nights a week or some time on Sunday morning, but it needs to become part of your routine.

Decide what this will replace. As you start tweeting and blogging, decide what you won’t do and what this will replace. As you engage in social media, some of the more traditional outlets, such as reading newsletters, can be eliminated.

Embrace mobility. Be sure people know you want to be contacted, and then ensure you have access to all these tools on your mobile phone, whether it is phoning, texting, tweeting or Facebook use. You want to be mobile so you don’t have to be in the office to be at work.

Five Indispensable Tools

Blog: Consider this your home base for social media and the venue for sharing your ideas on leadership and education practices. My blog is where I share my thinking, and it serves as a great portfolio of the work that has engaged me.

Facebook: Often considered more of a personal communication tool, it remains an excellent way to connect to your community. It is still the No. 1 social media tool used by our families, so it functions as a great place to share photos from events and alert the community to upcoming events.

SlideShare: This is the place to post all of your PowerPoints so they are easily accessible to educators in your district and elsewhere. No longer do I distribute presentations by e-mail. Rather, I make them all accessible through SlideShare so others can use and share them.

Twitter: This is your avenue for connecting to your community 140 characters at a time. Twitter is a wonderful professional learning network, connecting me with colleagues from around the world.

YouTube: Short videos of your school visits or records of your speeches now can go online. The use of video is growing, and YouTube is a great place to create a repository of your work.

I know these are regular questions for many – I would love to hear other tools that people find as core, and also other strategies people use to find the time.

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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The Halfway Point

halfway

There are some magic numbers in education — two numbers often referenced are 90 and 35.  A teacher can retire with an unreduced pension when their age and seniority equals to 90.  If I continue teaching, this will come for me when I am 56.  If I wait one more year I will have 35 years of teaching, and be able to retire with a full pension. And, why am I thinking and writing about this now? Because this month I am at 17.5 years — the halfway point of my teaching career.  Yes, there are a lot of “what-ifs”, but if I continue to have a career in education, and the rules remain the same, I am likely moving into the second half of my career.

Reflecting on the first-half of my career, my first classroom was an old art room at McRoberts Secondary School in Richmond.  The school was undergoing renovations and the art wing was going to be torn down — in the meantime, I set up my first year classroom.  At 22 years-of-age, I was returning to the junior high I attended with my Social Studies and English background, teaching a load of junior Math and Science.  I absolutely loved that first year. I can remember each of my seven blocks of students.  We had chalkboards, no computers in the classroom, and criteria-based assessment was a huge focus.  I was blessed with great mentors and soaked up professional development.  I remember often defaulting to how I was taught, but I learned so much from some of the amazing teachers in the school.  I have previously documented the change in my teaching here.

Flash forward to today, and I struggle with the question “so, what’s changed?”  I was in three of our West Van schools last Friday and they definitely look a lot different from my first classroom.  Physically, the chalkboards are gone and in many places the white boards are gone as well.  All the teachers have technology.  For me, technology in that first year was mostly email and mark calculations.  Now, I see teachers regularly using video, encouraging students to comment on class blogs and engaging with students and parents as part of the school-home communication cycle.  Classrooms are louder than what I remember from my first classes — I hear the regular buzz of active engagement.  And, the teacher-student relationship is shifting. I could feel the shift when I started teaching — it was different from when I was a student, and it is different again today; there is a sense that students and teacher are all learners — in it together.

I also see some of the same challenges.  Half a career later, we are still looking to improve the transitions from elementary schools and limit the number of different teacher contacts grade 8 students have during the day. We are challenging the structure of the traditional timetable limiting flexibility, to connect the learning experience to what is happening in the world.  To say schools haven’t changed would be unfair.  In some ways they are very similar – the calendar is almost identical to 1996, but in other ways there have been huge changes.  In almost every class I visit I get a sense of increased student ownership of the learning. This was not really part of my thinking as I began my career; I definitely started teaching feeling I needed to be the expert, but that thinking has also changed over time. I also see far more choice in what students are learning, when they do their learning and how they show and share what they have learned.  The access to technology for students is really shifting us from content providers in schools to those who make sense of ideas.  And, it also needs to be noted, that the call for more resources to support our schools is very similar.

All that said, I do hope the second half of my career continues to look very different from the first half.  I am one who thinks the speed of change will increase, but the school as the face-to-face gathering place will remain essential.  It’s not that we haven’t been doing the right things, just that doing the right things is changing — as our world changes.  I am excited by BC’s leadership around curriculum and reporting, heartened by efforts to encourage students to use their technology for learning, and continually bolstered by the fact that those of us who call ourselves “teachers” in this province are a committed, passionate and curious group of people.

Of course, I am also a little depressed — I have somewhat enjoyed the word “young” in the first sentence of descriptions about me, whether it was the young teacher, young administrator, or young superintendent. And, now I am coming to grips with being part of the “older” crowd. I am also asked if I am going to keep doing what I am doing?  I hope so.  I think public education is just about the most important work one can do.  I am looking forward to the next 17.5 years working with everyone who, like me, are in the second half of their careers, as well as all who come after to keep rethinking and evolving our wonderful system.

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Photo Credit:  Nutmeg Designs

Photo Credit: Nutmeg Designs

Dean Shareski shared a very thoughtful talk at TEDxWestVancouverED  last spring, arguing the need to include more joy in our schools and in our lives.

He also argues that in our standards-focused world, we need to take time for joy within the curriculum, and because it is a great thing to do even if it is not part of required learning.  He shares five pieces of advice:

1)  Be mindful

2)  Create something

3)  Commit regular random acts of kindness

4) Turn pseudo learning into real learning

5)  Be silly and laugh everyday

I have known Dean for a few years and regularly follow him online, and it is great that he lives this life full of joy. He is often approached by others who wonder how he can find the time to do some of the things he does — it is all a matter of priorities and what is important.

I was recently reminded of his talk when reading Anchorboy - True Tales From the World of Sportscasting (when you have a brother who works at SportsNet you get gifts like these) by Jay Onrait.  Jay is an anchor on FOX Sports 1′s FOX Sports Live out of Los Angeles, having recently started there after a successful career in Canada.  The book is a collection of essays tracking his career at Global TV in Saskatoon, to a very successful decade plus-long run at TSN.  The essays give an insider’s view to the media business and a look behind the scenes of television in Canada.  So, just how does this link to joy, education and Dean Shareski’s TEDx Talk?

Jay, clearly understood that people could easily obtain sports highlights from the Internet anytime they wanted.  He says of his early work at TSN, “For whatever reason, even though I knew we would alienate a large part of the audience with our shenanigans, I was utterly convinced we were taking the show in the right direction. Streaming videos on the Web was starting to take off.  Soon people would have access to highlights on their tablets and phones whenever and wherever they wanted.  No need to wait until 1:00 a.m. eastern time for your day’s sports highlights anymore.  We needed to deliver something more, give the viewers another reason to tune in.”

People would tune in to watch Jay because the show was far more than a sports highlights show — it was a show about people who loved what they were doing, who were informed, but who were also trying to bring a smile and a laugh to their audience. He recognized that the current sports highlights format needed to change, and that meant he needed to reinvent his work to stay relevant.

I think there are some parallels to what Jay says about covering sports, to what Dean argues about joy, to teaching and learning in our schools. Not that we need to turn our schools into edu-tainment, a mix of education and entertainment, but just as Jay realized sports highlights shows needed to offer something more and different from what viewers could get on the Internet, we need to have the same view of our schools.  If our classes are the same as what students can find in a video on YouTube, or a lesson from Kahn Academy, they will become increasingly less relevant. And, at least part of the answer is “joy”.  Dean illustrated this in some of his examples of real-world, hands-on learning kids were engaged in.

The power of young people coming together to learn needs to be fun; it doesn’t need to be fun all the time, but it does need a good dose of joy – not only joy for the students, but fun for staff as well. Show me a school that is doing well, and I will show you staff who enjoy having fun in their class, and with each other.  Mark Twain said, “To get the full value of  joy you must have someone to divide it with.” This is definitely part of what we are trying to do in our schools.

One of the nicest compliments I have ever received was from my first principal, Gail Sumanik.  In a reference letter she described me as “a serious thinker who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”  I know I stray from this description from time to time, but it is something for me to continue to aspire to, and to more joy.

Here is to a 2014 filled with more joy.

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TOP3

Welcome to my final blog post of 2013 – My “Top 3″ lists for the year.  This has become a tradition with previous Top 3 lists for 2012 (here), 2011 (here) and 2010 (here).  I know we are abandoning ranking and sorting in our education system, so this is more about highlighting some of the blogs, videos and ideas that have engaged me over the last 12 months. As always with these kind of lists hopefully it will start some discussion and debate as well.

Top 3 “Culture of Yes” Blog Posts which have Generated the most Traffic this Year:

1.  What About Final Exams?

2. Dr. Shanker and Self-Regulation – Continuing the Conversation

3.  Hopes and Dreams for my Kids’ Schooling

Top 3 Used (and often overused) Quotes in Education for the Year (some are past winners):

1. We need to focus on the learning

2. It’s not about the technology

3. The 21st Century is more than 10% over (YES – people are STILL using versions of this one!)

Top 3 Growing Trends I See Continuing in the Next Year:

1. Embedding Aboriginal teachings across the curriculum — BC’s new draft curriculum is a great example

2. Devices becoming invisible — more and more kids have devices, and I am noticing them less and less

3. Rethinking of report cards — we are in the midst of a dramatic shift in reporting

Top 3 Books I have Read this Year that have Influenced My Thinking:

1.  Spirals of Inquiry by Linda Kaiser and Judy Halbert

2.  Calm, Alert, and Learning – Stuart Shanker

3.  Communicating the New – Kim Erwin

Top 3 Professional Development Events I have Attended:

1.  TEDxWestVancouverED – it has been so great to have a TEDx event in our community with so many of our staff and students involved

2.  Connect 2013 – a wonderful chance to see so many Canadians present who I have met over time through Twitter and our blogs

3.  Barbara Coloroso – the Guru of parent education was hosted by our District Parent Advisory Council

Top 3 BC Superintendent Blogs You Should Follow:

1. Jordan Tinney — Surrey

2. Steve Cardwell –Vancouver

3. Kevin Godden — Abbotsford

Top 3 Non-education New Twitter Follows:

1.  Roberto Luongo (Canucks)

2.  Gerry Dee (from Mr. D)

3.  Mr. T (of pity the fool fame)

Top 3 Jurisdictions We Are Going to Turn Into the Next Finland:

1.  British Columbia — high achievement, high diversity, high equity – lots to interest people

2.  Quebec – Just what are they doing different than the rest of Canada in math?

3. Shanghai, China — We are concerned about their methods but their results are stunning

Top 3 TEDx Videos from WestVancouverED (that I bet you haven’t seen):

I earlier wrote a post here that highlighted some of my West Vancouver colleagues, so these are some of my favourite from the non-West Vancouver staff

1.  Katy Hutchinson — an extremely powerful personal story of restorative justice

2.  David Helfand — a new approach to university leadership

3.  Dean Shareski — he has a wonderful perspective and a great way to connect with people

 

Top 3 Fun and Interesting Educational Videos:

1.   What Came First — the chicken or the egg?

2.  Canada and the United States — Bizarre Borders

3.  What Does Your Body Do in 30 Seconds?

Thanks to everyone who continues to engage with me on my blog and push my learning. Some of my greatest professional joy is writing, reading, engaging and learning through my blog and with all of you.   I look forward to continuing to grow and learn together in 2014.

Chris Kennedy

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pisa

“It is what it is.” That was my first reaction to the PISA 2012 results released last week (Full Canadian Results).  PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) is designed to provide indicators of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students across the world (please see here for more backgrounder information on PISA).  While the assessment tool does measure a limited set of skills, there is much PISA doesn’t measure. And, true, PISA continues to tilt toward 20th century over 21st century skills, but it is still  the world’s best, widely used assessment tool on how we are doing in education and on providing guidance for education improvement.

Although much attention is given to the ranking part of the tests, as Yong Zhao points out, even those at the top are wondering about their success:

While the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems. Recently, the Chinese government again issued orders to lessen student academic burden by reducing standardized tests and written homework in primary schools. The Singaporeans have been working on reforming its curriculum and examination systems. The Koreans are working on implementing a “free semester” for the secondary students. Eastern Asian parents are willing and working hard to spend their life’s savings finding spots outside these “best” education systems. Thus international schools, schools that follow the less successful Western education model, have been in high demand and continue to grow in East Asia. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean parents send their children to study in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the parents in China would send their children to an American school instead of keeping them in the “best performing” Chinese system, if they had the choice.

But, if one does want to buy into the assessment, we need to do more than use the results to search for our flaws or accentuate our ideologies.  It has been disappointing and discouraging to see some of the commentary in British Columbia, and across the country in response to the results.  I suspect most who have commented (for example) on the need to “focus on the basics” to raise scores haven’t looked at the problem-solving questions that PISA asks (not very back-to-basics questions).

So, while acknowledging the limits of using the nation “rankings”,  let me share some of the insights I have gleaned from my first look at the results and some stories you may have not seen:

1)  British Columbia was the highest performing English-speaking jurisdiction in the world

British Columbia is not only the highest performing province in Canada, but ahead of all other English-speaking participating nations including Australia, United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand (to name a few).  If you look at countries in general, Canada would be first in this category.

2)  British Columbia was the highest performing multicultural jurisdiction in the world

One characteristic that other countries at the top of the charts do not share with British Columbia and Canada is its diversity.  In language and cultural diversity, BC and Canada stand out as the highest performing on the assessments.

3)  British Columbia was the highest-performing province in Canada in science and reading and second to Quebec in Math

British Columbia has typically been among the strongest performing provinces in each area (typically with Alberta, Ontario and Quebec).  The most recent results show BC was first in science, ahead of Alberta and Ontario.  Reading on, the same three provinces performed at the top level in Canada, and again, all near the top of the International charts. In math, Quebec led the way with BC, Alberta and Ontario following.  It is worth noting, of those who completed the digital math assessment, BC was the highest performing province (more on digital below).

4)  There was both excellence and equity in British Columbia’s results

The difference between the high and low achievers in BC (those between the 90th and 10th percentile) is lower than in all of Canada, and the OECD, in all three disciplines. The gap is also lower than that in Finland (often cited for its high level of achievement and equity) in both Reading and Science.

5)  British Columbia’s results have been steady for the last decade

In absolute terms, since 2006, British Columbia’s results have been fairly steady. It is true that in Mathematics in particular, in relative terms BC (and all of Canada) has declined — in part due to more countries participating, and also because of the improvements in several Asian countries.

And then beyond these headlines, there is other interesting data:

There is a lot to analyze and much more that will come out from the OECD over the next year.  One piece of information that was particularly interesting in the first report was how much less the gender gap was in reading when the test was completed on a computer.  For those using print reading, the BC gap in scores (in favour of girls) was 26 points, but when completed digitally, the gap was only 14 points.  Across Canada there was similar data indicating a shrinking of the gender gap when the reading was digital.  This is incredibly interesting given the increase in digital print we currently encounter — and just one of the many pieces of data that is worth taking the time to better understand.

It is also a given that there are many ways in which our system can improve, and those who make the case for more services, new programs and innovative approaches are right. And, yes, socio-economics and issues like poverty matter. It is also true that BC has an amazing education system.  It is interesting to see what a more positive view the British seem to have of our results in Canada — having such a quality teaching force in BC is our huge advantage.

Now, let’s get past the rankings part and focus on the learning part — what we can learn from others about how we can improve the experiences for our students both locally and globally.  And, let’s not spend our time thinking about how we can get better at the tests, but instead focus our attention and system on how it can help our kids for their world today and for tomorrow.

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bandwidth

The number one challenge facing technology in education is not pedagogy or access to devices – the number one challenge facing  technology use in British Columbia’s schools is bandwidth.

I was looking back at a presentation I gave in 2002, when I said, “We should think of Internet access like curbside garbage pick-up.  It should be regular and something we can depend on.”  A decade plus later not much has really changed for me.  I simply expect when I load a website, open my email or launch a video, for that to simply work.  In the past decade, my home access and my mobile phone access have improved to a point where I almost never worry about access or speed.  The access in our schools is not so perfect.

British Columbia does lead the country in Internet connectivity. Students increasingly have their own devices at school, and very often more than one. And, how they use these devices is quickly changing — no longer are they just consuming content, they are content creators.  Even five years ago we lamented the spikes in bandwidth use at lunch and after school as students saw Internet use at school largely as a social tool. Current data tells a different story.  Spikes in Internet use are now during class hours and less use before/at lunch and after school.  Our teachers and students are trying to do exciting things with their digital access.  We are seeing a boom in one-to-one initiatives, more etextbooks, inquiry initiatives in a digital space, video streaming and collaboration online between schools, districts and countries.  My colleague from the Surrey district, Jordan Tinney, recently wrote a wonderful post on this very topic – Change is Just a Mouse Click Away . . . Or is It?

The story often told is that we don’t have enough technology, or that teachers are not ready to make the pedagogical shift. Yes, those are factors, but not the ‘number one’ issue.  Over the last two years we have ensured all staff in West Vancouver have access to a digital device of their choice, a topic I recently wrote about When Teachers Have Devices.  Surveying these teachers at the end of last year, we learned that about one-third of teachers are looking for more support with the changing pedagogy of the digital classroom; about the same number referenced the need for more technical support, and close to 90% indicated improving Internet speed “needs to be a priority.”  While it is tremendously exciting what is happening our classrooms, the spinning wheel in the middle of the screen can be a real downer.

The West Vancouver School District is actually in far better shape than most school districts.  We have invested in fiber connectivity, upgraded devices, modernized the ‘behind the walls’ with our technology and are looking at traffic shaping (giving priority to certain types of activities on the Internet like the student information system) and still we are challenged. Looking at the next five, or even two years, there is going to be more outbound traffic.  Classes are increasingly using data rich websites; video use is taking off; teacher collaboration in a digital environment is growing rapidly, and a new student information system for BC promises to provide amazing data at the touch of a key. In fact, in the very near future, I predict we will have more devices connecting to our network on a daily basis than we have students and teachers in our district.

It is easy to identify challenges, but this is one with some solutions. The Provincial Learning Network (PLNet) provides “reliable, robust and safe network infrastructure enabling communications and the delivery of educational content to schools and post-secondary institutions in British Columbia” according to its website.   It has served us very well.  It has helped us give assurances to families around content filtering (such as students surfing the web). However, as school bandwidth demands are expected to increase 30% year-over-year, we need to either upgrade this system or move on to a new model. So, do we do it together as a province or 60 different ways as districts?  And, as it often comes down to in education, who pays?

As we scale the use of technology in our schools we will need to reduce and eventually eliminate the bandwidth barrier.  Recently, I heard a speaker suggest that the global leaders in digital learning will be those with the greatest bandwidth.  We are making a promise to create engaging learning environments for our students through personalized learning powered by digital access. We will continue accessing the Internet and we need it to be as reliable as heat, light, and telephone service in our schools. We also need to get on with this challenge — if we wait on it longer, there will only be larger barriers in the years ahead.

I recently spoke on a ministry panel on this topic with the IT and Communications Working Group; a group that has concluded that moving forward requires a robust and upgraded provincial data network. AGREED!

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comment

Just two years ago, I was able to make a list of all the BC educators who were blogging.  Since then, the numbers have grown exponentially with numbers well into the hundreds of teachers, administrators and others who blog on a semi-regular basis.  It is wonderful to see how many people are sharing their thoughts publicly and modeling for our students the ethical and responsible use of technology, whether it is to build relationships or on how to share their thoughts.

While I have continued to attract more readers to my blog over the year, one trend I have seen is the number of comments on the posts are decreasing.  In past years, posts like this one on school sports and this one on learning in depth generated dozens of comments.  Now, I only receive one or two comments on a post.

This, of course, has made me wonder why?

Here are some of my theories:

My posts aren’t as interesting — Admittedly, I don’t write for the purpose of getting feedback.  I write about topics for a variety of reasons — mostly, I really enjoy the process of trying to work an idea out and put my thinking down and share it.  It is very possible that my posts aren’t as interesting or as engagement-worthy as they once were.  It is easy to default to writing safe posts.  Having had some of my words taken out of context and republished elsewhere, I am more conscious now of what I say and how I say it, and it may be limiting the quality of what I write.

My position limits discussion — It is a real challenge to write about education from inside the system and then invite discussion.  While I know my posts are well-read inside the school district, almost all of the comments come from outside the school district.  I also get it is a no-win situation to comment on a blog written by the Superintendent whether they might be challenging my ideas or supporting them.

The novelty has worn off – Blogging was new and fresh three years ago, but this novelty may have worn off by now.  We are an ever-changing social media society. Perhaps I need to crank up my Instagram presence to increase engagement?

I am not doing my part to participate — My commitment when I started blogging was that for every post I wrote I would comment on three others.  I think it is part of “the deal” about being a member of the community.  Over the last several months I have not lived up to this.  I do feel bad about this.  I read so many interesting posts, so many that help shape my thinking, but I don’t often take the time to write a quick response.

Twitter love is the new blog comment — We seem to be shortening our thinking to 140 characters.  Perhaps a quick comment on a RT (Retweet) is all that can be expected now.

So much to read, so little time to write — With the huge growth in the number of people blogging about education, it is exhausting trying to keep up.

Some People Aren’t Nice — It only takes one time to be personally attacked for a comment on a blog, and that person may never come back.  While education is a pretty safe landscape, there are some who move quickly from challenging ideas to insulting people.  Perhaps this is the reason why I see so many comments on my blogs I share on Facebook — it is a “safer” community with the authentication of IDs.

We Aren’t Good at Commenting – Commenting is difficult to do.  It is something that takes a lot of time when working with students and blogging. When we (students or adults) comment we want to be respectful, make a point that contributes to a conversation and say something to continue the conversation.

I do see the trend across many education blogs of fewer comments.  The danger is that without dialogue our blogs become newsletters.  And, it is the conversations around our blogs which keep them and the ideas alive.  It is great if these conversations happen around the water cooler, or the dinner table, but one of the real attractions to blogging for me is to have thoughtful discussions about interesting topics in the public realm.

I will try to do my part to re-engage with other blogs and be a more regular commenter.  The move to transparency with digital writing is something we should continue to support.

Any other theories why the commenting in the educational blog world seems to be drying up?

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BYOD Blog Photo

In some ways, this is a follow-up or companion piece to my post last week when teachers have mobile devices in the classroom, on our findings and efforts to ensure digital access for all of our teachers.

While this has proven to be very powerful for teachers, our next step is around finding access for all students.  In a previous post, I shared some thoughts around BYOD and Equity (an issue I think is crucial when looking at getting devices into students’ hands).

In West Vancouver, student access is growing; in some elementary schools students have regular access mainly from devices they bring from home.  In other schools it is less consistent with pockets of classrooms having students on devices.  One key piece of learning we have realized over the last three years is if students don’t have purposeful reasons to use their device in class they will often stop bringing it.

So, before one announces that “everyone will bring a laptop on Monday” there are ways to work toward changing and improving that experience.  The challenges around the recent iPad rollout in Los Angeles schools are a good reminder of the complexity of these kinds of initiatives.

So, what we did rather than focusing on embracing devices and changing practice for the entire year, was to focus on trying it with support for a two- to three-week period.  We tried this last spring and have plans to do it again this fall.

Here is a brief overview of the project:

There is increasing support that access to digital resources and tools combined with inquiry teaching and learning practices improves student engagement, learning relevancy and academic success.  A challenge in today’s classroom is the inconsistent access to digital tools: some students have access some of the time, some have no access and only a few students have access all of the time. Building on the opportunities from the recent Modernization initiative, the Digital Access Action Research project is aimed at understanding the impact of “ubiquitous” or pervasive student access on learning and teaching.

The Digital Access Action Research project is looking for interested Grades 4 to 9 classrooms willing to try “ubiquitous access” for a two- to three-week period.  This would include:

  • Sending home a district letter to all parents asking them to provide a digital device for their students during that period. The device can be an iPad or a laptop. For those who do not have a spare device at home, the district will provide a device the student can use during the project.
  • Attending a morning session (TTOC included for teachers) prior to the start of the project to plan for the action research and to determine how best to utilize the opportunity that every student will have digital access whenever and wherever they need it.
  • Ensuring the students use the device when appropriate during the school day and to have the device taken home at the end of the day
  • Completing a follow-up summary around lessons learned and challenges from the project. This will provide a better understanding of the opportunities available through digital access as well as what challenges we continue to face.

There are many details to consider with this project, including:

  • When the students should and shouldn’t use the devices
  • How to shape the learning activities to benefit most from the digital access and minimize distractions
  • How to secure the devices when not being used
  • How to problem solve technical problems and challenges

If we want to move towards digital access for students, it is not a proclamation of change — even if students bring devices, very little in the classroom may change.  That is why our thinking around this is although some classes and schools are full speed ahead, in other situations we need to scaffold this change and start with  projects like this action research.

So, here is what we found:

1 to 1 action research v2

Director of Instruction, Gary Kern, has also blogged more about these findings here.  There is not a ‘one size fits all’ model around our work. In fact, this particular project has shown that sometimes, before we make big changes, we have to take some smaller steps. Before we say all students need to bring devices for the year, let’s try it for three or four weeks; before we say that teachers need to change their practice to embrace the digital landscape, let’s support them through doing it for a unit.  And, we were also reminded the power of digital access is its interplay with inquiry and innovative pedagogy.

Many of the classes that were part of this trial in the spring have moved to having students bring devices all the time this fall – it is a bit of a continuum.  It is great to say that “all our students have devices” but if nothing else has changed what really is the point?  It will be interesting to see our next group of action researchers take up the challenge this fall.

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blog photo

Last year, we began a program that can best be described as “classroom modernization” across the district.  Our Board of Education recognized the importance and education need for the modernization and made a commitment through its budget to support the purchase of technology to support the professionals in our classrooms.

The first decision we made was to ensure all teaching staff had access to a current, mobile device.  While often the focus is on ensuring all students have access to current devices (a continuing effort in our district) we realized that if we wanted classes to be engaging with digital tools, teachers needed to have access and feel comfortable with them as well.

The next decision was to give teachers a choice in their devices.  Just as learning is personalized for students, we know that teaching is different and personalized for each teacher.  In previous practice, when (if) we gave out the technology, we would have given everyone the same technology and lockdown the device — with device management being the priority.  Instead, we gave teachers choices that included iPads, MacBook Pros, PC Laptops and PC Tablets.

Another key component of this modernization push has been to install wireless projectors in all of our classrooms from Grades 4 to 12 (and deploying existing projectors to primary classrooms) so teachers could then easily display their screens.

Last and most important, we created ongoing training opportunities and support for teachers with their devices through centrally run training, and access to innovation grants –  teacher teams can now work together in an area of focus and often with digital technology.

Of course,  the projects are more complex than one can cover in a single post, but the general premise was simple — we want all teachers to have a common set of tools across schools and grades to effectively work with students.

And after the first year, this is what we heard . . .

Modernization Update

Thanks to Gary Kern for the infographic

83% of teachers said, “it had a positive impact” on their teaching and more than 85% found the impact on student learning to be “somewhat” or “very positive”. They highlighted a variety of positive impacts on their classrooms; their ability to use current content and resources; the opportunity to be innovative and to demonstrate learning in multiple ways and to be able to communicate this to parents. Some comments from teachers about key benefits included:

“It has allowed me to connect with colleagues and parents more efficiently.  It has allowed me to show videos and images to the classes I teach and has given me a great tool to plan lessons.”

“It’s great having my own laptop that I can use at a moment’s notice.  I also really appreciate being given the choice of platforms.”

“I compose lesson plans, assessment and correspondence on the device.  It is the hub of my teaching practice.”

“I move around the school a lot – so having a device that can come with me has made my job significantly more fluid.”

“My courses have gone completely paperless and I am able to incorporate virtual learning on  many levels.”

“I’ve been able to make using technology seamless.”

Of course, there have also been good lessons for areas of improvement and for better support throughout the process.  The exponential growth in technology has strained some of our wireless networks and choked our bandwidth — both areas we are currently working on to address.  We also realize each teacher has a different learning requirement, comfort level and expertise with technology, and for personalizing their teaching.

A modernization project is never quite complete. But, in giving our teachers the tools they need to teach, it has made a huge difference for our students in their quest for relevant, current and connected learning opportunities.

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