3 things school leaders can do to advance ICT in their school

As I visit schools, it is obvious to me that some schools are way ahead of others in their use of technology for learning and teaching. I’m sure there are many things that contribute to that diversity, but one of the biggest, it seems to me, is the approach taken by the leadership. When I look at the schools that seem to be doing things very well, there are a number of common threads – things the leaders in those schools do, which make all the difference. I offer the follwoing three as perhaps the most important.

1. Remove frustrations

It’s amazing to me how many fantastic, game-changing tools are blocked on some school networks. I’m not saying we should remove all filters – they do help to prevent us from accidentally stumbling onto things we don’t want to see and can’t unsee. But in 2016, our filters do almost nothing to prevent students from intentionally accessing inappropriate material. Blocking content is ineffectual for four reasons: (1) Most students have smartphones with a direct connection to the internet. (2) Most students have unfiltered internet at home. (3) Any student who walks home past McDonalds has unfiltered access to the internet. (4) Students know about VPN services which bypasses our filters.

Over-strict filters just thwart our best teachers’ efforts to make learning more meaningful. Our failed attempts to keep a few miscreant students from doing the wrong thing just hampers the majority of students who want to use the internet for the right thing.

If we think for a moment that filters will protect students from anything more than inadvertent stumbling onto inappropriate content then we need to open our eyes! If we want to protect students – really protect students – from the potential, and very real evils on the web, then we need to educate them. Blocking just invites students to an us-vs-them, cat-and-mouse game in which the cat comes off as annoying but embarassingly incompetent.

2. Ensure policies are clearly defined and well known

I meet a lot of teachers who are hesitant to use various, wonderful tools – because they are unsure about whether using such a tool is appropriate and permissible. They are not sure whether it ticks all the boxes in terms of safety, privacy and age appropriateness. Moreover they are fearful that if they use it, they might end up in hot water. No teacher ends up in hot water for being boring and staying to the path, but when a teachers starts exploring new ways to make learning exciting, more powerful and relevant to modern life, she has left the path and is cutting new paths. That comes with the fear that one is doing something that might be seen to be inappropriate. School leaders can support that teacher by making sure that school policies about the use of ICT are explicit, clear and well known by everyone in the school community. Then, teachers can confidently explore the new, within those clear boundaries. More on this here.

3. Empower the innovators

Often, as teachers gain the authority to influence and effect change in a school, their openness to change diminishes. Teachers enter the teaching profession wide-eyed and keen to try lots of different things and experiment with new pedagogies. They don’t have much power though because they are seen as “green” by older, wiser, more seasoned teachers who hold the decision-making power. I’ve seen young teachers silenced, gossiped about and even bullied because more experienced teachers took offence at these young, upstarts thinking they know a better way to do things. Eventually these new teachers learn to tone it down and conform to ‘the way things are done around here’. The most effective school leaders I have seen, identify innovators (irrespective of their seniority or experience) and invest them with the ability to influence.

Student in a Flipped Class? Cut homework time in half using this tip!

Most of us read much faster than talking speed yet still comprehend what we read. In the same way, it’s possible to listen much faster than your teacher can speak. But many of us have never thought about that, because in real life, we only hear words as they are uttered. (In the classroom, the speed your teacher can move her mouth is holding you back!)

But If your teacher makes screencasts, videos, or audio podcasts, try playing them at double speed. You’ll be amazed to find that you can comprehend what you are listening to just fine. In fact, after listening for a while, you’ll discover that it starts to sound surprisingly normal. After listening at double speed, if I slow a podcast down to “normal” speed, it sounds comically slow!

So how do you do it?

With an audio podcast it’s easy. Almost all podcast players have the option to adjust playback speed. My favourite is Overcast. To my ears it does the best job of speeding up voice while preserving clarity. Plus it has some really innovative features like “Smart Speed” which reduces the length of the pauses between words; shortening the total listening time, without speeding up the words themselves. Brilliant!

Swift Player

For videos or screencasts on your iPhone or iPad, try Swift Player. It lets you speed up any video on your device, or online (YouTube, Vimeo, etc).

Make screencasts interactive with eduCanon

I’m daily investigating teaching tools in the hope of finding one that gives me the dopamine hit I get from discovering a really great one. Every once in a while, something comes onto my radar that immediately stimulates my brain’s reward and pleasure centres. That’s what eduCanon did.

Like most great ideas, eduCanon is based around a really simple concept; it really only does one thing – but it does that one thing very well. It allows you to embed questions into any screencast (or any video for that matter) hosted on YouTube, Vimeo or TeacherTube, and it tracks your student’s responses to them.

As students watch the video (from within eduCanon), and the playhead reaches the time marker at which you’ve inserted a question, the video automatically pauses, and the question slides in from the left. Once the student has read and answered the question, she clicks “Submit”. Then your explanation appears, either explaining why the response they chose was incorrect, or confirming that it was correct. On clicking the “Continue” button, the video automatically resumes playing until the next question is reached. It’s really quite a fantastic thing to add to your video lessons, helping students to stay focussed and leaning forward while watching.

Because eduCanon uses HTML5, rather than Flash, playback works great on an iPad, too.

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The first time students watch a video, they are unable to skip through the video; they have to watch the whole thing from start to finish and attempt every question. Once they have watched it once, however, they are then able to come back at a later date and skip around the video reviewing specific parts. This is useful if (say) they understand the introductory concepts in a video, but want to review more sophisticated concepts toward the end.

The process of building questions into your video is utterly friction-free (that’s one of the things that impressed me most about it). You paste in the URL of the video, then watch it play. When it gets to a point at which you want to ask a question, you simply click the “Build Question” button. Then you type in the question, two or more (multiple choice) answers, click the radio button beside the correct answer, type in an explanation for each of the multiple responses, and click the “Save Question” button. Simple!

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You have the option of publishing your videos as “public” which means you can share them with anyone to use for personal learning/revision. If you would like to see it in action, have a look at this sample which I have published as a public video. The answers people choose in a public video are not collected by eduCanon.

The real magic happens though, when students link to you (using your teacher code). You can assign a video to the class, and then eduCanon collects data for you on your class’ completion of the task and their responses to your questions.

One of the most commonly asked questions I receive about flipped and blended learning is “How can you know if your students have watched the video?”. Well, this is one way to know!

I think it’s remarkable that all of those features are 100% free! (and that includes add-free). An optional “premium” subscription ($48/year) gives you additional features, such as the ability to export your class data as a .csv file so you can import it into your own class record-keeping software or Excel spreadsheet. A premium subscription also gives you the ability to create free response questions (whereas the free version only allows multiple choice questions).

Verdict: This is the most exciting new web 2.0 platform I’ve found this year so far. I’d recommend it for anyone who makes screencasts or educational videos for their class.  The small investment of time required to type in the questions should see a big payoff in student engagement.

New media. New behaviour. New teaching paradigm.

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According to Leo LaPorte on This Week in Tech (October 13, 2013) half of millennials never watch television.

When I heard Leo say this, my first thought was … “hang on.. that can’t be right!” But then came the enlightening moment when I considered my own four sons, and it dawned on me that THEY almost never watch television!

Sure, they have a television (a really nice, big one at that!) and they use it as a screen for playing Playstation, or for streaming video from their iDevices via AppleTV – but they don’t come home from school, turn on Channel 9 and watch Happy Days like I did when I was a kid.  Nor do they listen to commercial radio or read mainstream newspapers.  Instead, my sons watch hours of YouTube videos, listen to podcasts and find out about world events from websites  blogs and social media.

This is a more profound recent social change than it seems at first. Our students are the first Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 4.30.19 pmgeneration in 400 years who consume content using media forms to which they can just as readily contribute.

As kids, we could watch the TV shows that were served up to us, but we could neither choose the content, nor contribute to it.  Our students can do both.

What an opportunity this presents in the classroom! For the most part we still treat students as though the “work” they are doing is merely an exercise; as though they are just practising for the real world; as though, like our younger selves, they have no avenue for publishing their work!  When English teachers have their students write an essay, why are they asking for it to be ‘handed in’ to them, rather than demanding it be published as a blog post? Why are science teachers accepting a lab report handed in on paper, when students could be reporting the results of their science experiment in a YouTube video?

When we were kids, publishing was out of the question. Our teachers didn’t have a choice.  We do.