Collecting hoodies in the summertime

"I'm Mike D and I'm back from the dead / chillin' at the beach down in Club Med"

“In the water, see it swimming…”

When I get overwhelmed, I stare at the grains of sand rather than the beach. It’s much easier for me to psychologically digest one week in California than it is to manage eight-ten speaking engagements, a bunch of trips, four long flights, and four drives of four hours or more. This is an accounting of all. that. sand.

I plan on expanding each bullet into a full post between September and October, but I wanted to provide an overview of my craziest season. If you’re interested in education consulting or speaking, I think this is a pretty accurate representation of an active summer.

Some schools/districts and developers have asked not to be named, so I will be as vague as necessary.

  • Cupertino, CA. Visiting the mothership was amazing, and while I can’t say a whole lot about why I was there or what we were doing, I can say that it’s a worthwhile trip for any fanboy. I was fortunate enough to meet members of Apple’s incredible Education team as well as the leadership, and I remain impressed by the folks running the show there. As a small stakeholder, I feel like we are in good hands.

Also, I got an awesome hoodie.

  • New York. I spoke to teachers and leaders from a Brooklyn schools conglomerate and elicited a spirited response, much of which centered on my insistence that teaching penmanship is a waste of time. While there were some very receptive participants, the experience reminded me how difficult it can be to get educators to reconsider their values.

TL;dr Let me know when one of your students gets a penmanship scholarship.

I did not receive a hoodie of any kind.

  • Austin, TX. I’m glad I’ve visited Austin before, because the Apple Distinguished Educator Institute was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and it left little time for sightseeing or other frivolity. My saving grace was having a good friend in the area who picked me up every night around 10pm and deposited me on the steps a few hours later. ADE 2013 was better than I could have hoped, and that includes the high-five line and other stuff that freaked me out. I spent a week being photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bill Frakes, listening to Nancy Duarte speak about effective storytelling, and working with the most talented educators I’ve ever met. If you ever get a chance to hire an ADE, do it. I feel proud to have hung around some of the best educators in the world.

No hoodie was provided, but I did get a nice t-shirt and an ADE polo I can wear to work like a boss.

  • San Mateo, CA. I landed at JFK, dropped my bags home, and drove myself to LaGuardia for my flight to California and EdmodoCon 2013. Aside from the travel (which was booked for me and resulted in nearly 22 total hours of travel time for a round trip that takes about 13 under normal circumstances), it was also a fantastic experience. There were 25,000 educators signed up for EdmodoCon, and while you’re probably not speaking to all of them at once, it’s fair to assume several thousand people are watching you as you present your content. I thought that might be intimidating, but it turned out to be kind of nice. And it helped me concretize my ideas for Mission 1:1, which you’ll soon be hearing more about. The best part of the experience was the people. Edmodo’s braintrust is filled with smart, motivated people, and I really enjoyed spending time with my co-presenters. One question: WHERE WERE THE OTHER GUYS? I was the only male presenter! On the one hand, I liked the fact that I stood out; on the other, I felt like my gender was woefully underrepresented. SEND IN BETTER SUBMISSIONS NEXT YEAR, FELLAS.

A hoodie was involved, along with two t-shirts. This was a real boon for my wardrobe, though my wife quickly absconded with the hooded sweatshirt.

  • Upstate NY. Work disguised as vacation. My wife and I rented a little house near the town center and I spent a day working with a group of local educators on potential non-iPad 1:1 deployments. After the first twenty minutes (“Are you SURE you don’t want to use iPads? Totally sure? 100%? I mean, let’s not be rash!”), I switched tacks and began exploring the potential for their Chromebook initiative. I’m happy to report that I get it. I get how obnoxious it is to be told by outsiders that THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY to go 1:1. I understand that lecturing people about how I did it isn’t always as helpful as finding a way for them to do it. Not every school has $490 per student to pony up, and some barely have the money to cover a few new routers. I think web-based OSes are recipes for disaster for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to dissuade people from buying them. There’s no denying that Chromebooks are a great value, but I would argue that they work as one small element of a tech-progressive environment, not as central components. Does that mean that a school with a limited budget shouldn’t consider them for a one-to-one deployment? Of course not. I just wonder how things will go in economically disadvantaged districts where home wifi isn’t common.

And battery life is going to be an issue.

No hoodie was also an issue.

– Rhode Island. Can’t say much other than I was at the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen. Holy cow. Just amazing.

Hoodie status will remain unconfirmed.

  • Bethlehem, PA. One of the most energizing experiences of my summer was working with a charter school in Bethlehem. I enjoyed my time with the tech director and principal so much that I hope to continue working with them in some capacity, and not just because it required a short drive rather than an eight hour flight. Any time I work with visionary educators and administrators, I feel simultaneously invigorated and grateful. Meeting the team and becoming acquainted with their goals made me feel like a teammate rather than consultant. And I liked what I got to see of the area. It turns out I judge every city on how much it reminds me of Brooklyn, so parts of PA do really well on that admittedly limited scale.

No hoodie. I didn’t see any hoodies available though, to be fair.

  • Burlington, VT. What a great city! I worked with a great school and learned a lot about how the city and state education systems work. I was most impressed by the diversity of local schools compared to some of the surrounding areas. I worked with people I immediately liked, and the team assembled by the tech director was talented beyond my expectations. I especially enjoyed that I got to spend time with the IT staff and the Instructional Tech staff because it reflected the strengths of their model.

Let’s face it: great results are to be expected when you have one or two hundred kids and devices to deal with. Scaling up and dealing with one or two THOUSAND students is exponentially more difficult and requires more prep and a larger staff. A good starting point is hiring instructional tech and information tech staff members who can work together towards common goals. Several schools in Vermont have done just that, and to great effect.

No hoodie, but other local goodies.

This is what I learned over the course of the summer: our schools are in excellent hands. All we ever hear about are the screw-ups and the slimeballs, but the truth is, the quality of teachers and administrators has never been better. We’re more educated, standards for hiring are more stringent than ever, and school boards and even elected officials are embracing the importance of technology even if they aren’t totally sure WHY they’re doing so quite yet. Whether those things are good or bad is up to individual interpretation, but I can affirm that there are some incredibly smart, talented people working in our schools. The teams I worked with were all working incredibly hard towards admirable goals. And while I didn’t agree with everything every developer, school, or organization I worked with did, I do appreciate the processes that led to their decisions. I encountered no super-villians, no cackling menaces to sound education policy. There will always be a few misguided souls out there, but they come around because they have to, and we embrace them because it’s our duty. And they are in the minority. So while things here are far from perfect, rest assured that there are good people working towards the best possible outcomes for our kids (and some pretty nice hoodies for us).


App review: Evernote

Welcome to Evernote

The Evernote load screen.

If you’ve never heard of Evernote, this post might CHANGE YOUR LIFE (a little). If you know about it, read on for a review and some suggested uses.

App name: Evernote

Type: note-taking

Description: Evernote is a cloud notebook that syncs with all your devices and is accessible from any computing device

Evernote options

Evernote options menu.

Evernote is an app that is so beautifully constructed and intuitively designed, you’ll find it hard to believe it’s free across all platforms. But it is, and I’ve tried it on an iPhone 4S, an HTC Evo 4G, a laptop running Windows 2007, a Mac Pro desktop, and a 2010 MacBook. It’s one of the apps I know most thoroughly, and it’s flawless no matter how you access it.

Evernote in Notebook view

Evernote in it’s simple, efficient Notebook view

Evernote is a notebook that allows the attachment/insertion of a variety of file types, but it’s defined by it’s quick, user-friendly syncing options and deep feature set. Choosing a good note taking application comes down to identifying the essential features you need from a virtual notebook. If your priorities are access and price, look no further than Evernote, a free cloud notebook that, like Dropbox, is available from any device once you create an account.

An example of an Evernote notebook

A research notebook created in Evernote.

As an example of Evernote’s flexibility, the image to the left is a research notebook I created while working on the book. I was able to drag PDFs directly into the program on my MacBook and Windows laptop. I was also able to open PDFs through Evernote on my iPad, but only after temporarily deleting several other apps. For whatever reason, Evernote’s Open In… priority is really low, so it didn’t initially appear as an option for opening files. The problem here appears to lie with Apple’s iPad user interface, not Evernote, so don’t hold it against them.

Evernote works well as a component in a cloud classroom. You can share notebooks filled with course content with your students, or they can share with each other as part of research projects, study groups, and resource pooling. Creating organized student work spaces is one of Evernote’s hidden features. The flexibility of Evernote’s format handling is also great for students, since they are often working with a variety of file types.

The Evernote app and website work together seamlessly, but you can easily use one without ever signing in to the other. And no matter how many notes you take, syncing rarely takes more than a few seconds. You can use Evernote to provide space for students to collaborate on notes, and entire notebooks can be shared, so no more concerns about missed classes meaning a missed work. Attaching pictures, audio, documents, even recording audio from within the app are all remarkably simple to accomplish.

The app and website are both designed with simplicity in mind, and with a user interface that mirrors a basic word processing program, Evernote might not be the favorite amongst the student body. The same probably won’t be true of teachers and administrators.

Book excerpt: Speedbumps

A lovely road with one obstacleNOTE: I have a book coming out soon! If you buy it, I guarantee I won’t enjoy a penny of the proceeds. It’ll all be spent on building my thirteen month old a spaceship or something.

Here’s a small sample, from the Overview chapter:

My first experience with technologically enhanced unit planning was not quite the raging success I had predicted. Students were placed in groups of six and assigned a character from Hamlet, then each was asked to create Facebook accounts in the voice of his or her character. They were expected to live a Facebook life as their character would have, right up until each student’s alter ego died in the play. For instance, a student posting as Polonius might write a wall post saying, “I’m going to duck behind this curtain for a quick second, to hear what Hamlet is up to” right before his final post, which might read, “Ouch. Anyone in the castle have a first aid kit handy?” During the first week of the project, our classroom was electric. Students were posting far more than the required ten posts per week, and their character interactions were funny and infused with life. Unfortunately, it was at this point that I became the problem.

Postings that didn’t fit into my rigid view of what was appropriate for the project were deleted. Accounts were deleted or wiped clean when a student stepped too egregiously out of bounds (by my standards, of course, which were determined by a committee of one). One student in character as Hamlet posted a sarcastic, insulting screed on a faux Claudius’s wall. While his words were certainly appropriate for Hamlet at the play’s midpoint, it felt somehow too personal or too vivid, like reality was intruding into this corner of the world. I didn’t feel totally in control of the learning environment, so that diatribe served as the last straw: I pulled the plug on my short-lived attempt to integrate social media into the classroom, and things returned to the normal I knew and was comfortable with.

That was nearly three years ago, so I had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong before launching a similar project at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far for feedback. The students let me know where I had gone awry in an anonymous survey I gave at the conclusion of Shakespeare on Facebook v1.0. They wrote of investing themselves in accounts by adding pictures, writing wall posts, and sending emails only to find that hard work edited or entirely deleted. They hammered home the point that they actually enjoyed their in-character interactions before I began over-moderating. No one was really bothered by anything that had been posted except me (and truth me told, I wasn’t bothered by the content so much as the possibility that other students might take offense). That extended to the parents, too. When I notified the parents of our verbose Hamlet that one of his Facebook posts could have caused offense, I could almost feel them shrugging at me through the phone, primarily because no one had actually been offended. I had to learn to let go, at least a little. I had to allow the students a greater say in their education.

Eventually, I felt compelled to try again. This time, before I so much as uttered the word “Facebook,” I had the students collaborate in groups to create several Acceptable Use policies for the character accounts they would soon be creating. I asked them to create a framework of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable in their character interactions, and I empowered them to delineate reasonable boundaries that wouldn’t stifle their creative output, but that would also satisfy the needs of their families and our institution. We then combined each groups’ work into one thorough, coherent policy. Our dean of students approved the students’ work, and before long students and their parents were digitally signing permission forms, propelling a plethora of counterfeit Claudiuses and faux Fortinbras into the social mediasphere.

The first version of the project was not substantially different from the second iteration in concept, content, or execution. The primary difference was my attitude, especially my approach to the input of my students. Once they took the lead, the project took off. Instead of acting as an overseer, I worked to be a facilitator. Instead of explaining why they couldn’t do certain things, I tried to consider the pedagogical value of student suggestions. Some of their ideas were less than pedagogically sound (to put it mildly) and some might’ve been legally actionable, but the best ones were incorporated into our project. When one student suggested we move the wall posting over to Twitter, I realized that they had taken ownership of the work and were now teaching me their best practices. The end result of our second Facebook project ultimately became something a source of pride for everyone, an energetic union of student creativity, teacher design, administrative vision, and institutional flexibility that illuminates many of the wonderful things we can achieve in a tech forward learning environment.

How free will you be?

A Berlin pedestrian traffic light

You should make sure your students see more green than red.

Once you’ve made the decision to put an iPad or laptop in the hands of every student. you face a pressing question: will your approach to internet access be laissez faire, or will you try a more proactively restrictive approach? Both have merit, so the responsible educator or administrator has several factors to consider. My point of view is simple: Don’t ask your students to climb a tree without branches.

The Facebook Connundrum
I’m using Facebook to represent any website or app to which you might want to restrict student access. And while it makes sense to limit distractions, I would argue that blocking websites that may have pedagogical value in a 1:1 computing environment is the equivalent of building a beautiful house and encasing it in glass. As counterintuitive as it might feel, providing students with more freedom rather than less has major benefits.

It’s quite simple to use your institution’s web filter to block all Facebook traffic, but this will only extend to devices on the school network. Students with cell phones (i.e. the vast majority) will still be able to access any sites or apps they choose, and the students who fastidiously observe the restrictions probably aren’t the ones your worried about. In other words, you might implement a restrictive Internet policy that only restricts those without the desire or inclination to violate the rules your institution has established. The same logic extends to Twitter, Tumblr, and other apps and social media sites. Any limitation placed on the student network will necessarily be a limitation placed on the teacher and his or her ability to utilize the technology in the classroom. I use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Edmodo, and a host of other sites and services that would be closed off to me if our school went in a more restrictive direction. As it is, I have the freedom to use virtually any tool I choose in my classroom.

A laissez-faire approach to student usage does NOT mean providing unmoderated and unfettered access to the internet. Every school should use a trustworthy web filter and build in protections against prohibited websites. Those who advocate a more liberal approach to student access acknowledge that, while students will invariably browse the web or fire up a game of Angry Birds during class, that potential will not lead a school to limit the usage of apps, web browsers, cameras, etc. And while the potential for distraction is real, they aren’t much different than the distractions that have been present in classrooms for decades.

When I present this information in workshops, educators typically ask about keeping students off Facebook and preventing them from achieving total Fruit Ninja mastery. The answer is always the same: engage them. Whether you use a chalkboard, Smart Board, or tablet in your room, students will occassionally call out, behave in a disruptive manner, or simply disengage for a few minutes. But no device can prevent this, and no device can cause it. It all boils down to the quality of the classroom teacher. If they aren’t paying attention to you now because they have iPads, they probably never were.

Kill your library

Paper is simply not a long-term storage solution

Bye bye, school library.

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at EdmodoCon 2012, a global web education conference, about becoming a one-to-one computing classroom or school. It went pretty well until the Q&A, at which point someone asked me a question about funding these grand, expensive initiatives, and I was forced to go off script (always a mistake!). Judging by a few of the emails I got, I touched a nerve with my statement that we don’t need librarians anymore. If anything, this post doubles down on that assertion, but I want to explain why I feel this way, and how I think killing your library will help you go 1:1.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Computers are to libraries what mp3s are to CDs. Your school simply won’t need a librarian or library for long after you hand out iPads, laptops, or netbooks, and the money you save can be pumped directly into your mobile computing deployment. I don’t want to see anyone out of a job, but I also don’t want schools with extremely limited resources to apportion them in a less than optimal way. So understand that I’m not anti-librarian; I’m just pro-2012. The skills and talents of librarians need to become part of the toolbox of every teacher. In essence, all educators are librarians now because we have to curate information and sources, and help students analyze and qualitatively assess data. And if we’re all librarians…

Getting started
Let’s assume your school is fortunate enough to have a full time librarian making between 30-50k a year. By eliminating that expenditure, you just bought between 75 and 100 iPads or (cheap) laptops. If you buy refurbished from the Apple store, you can get up to 125 iPads for 50k. That’s certainly the beginning of a deployment. And if you launch with a one grade or several-class pilot program, 125 should be enough to get the ball rolling. If it’s not, it’s time to take a look at the library and computer labs themselves.

There’s no need for a fully loaded computer lab in a K-12 one-to-one school. At the college level, students are working with specialty programs and processor-crunching applications that require standalone systems. But the majority of what K-12 students do can be done on an iPad for a fraction of the cost. In the event that there is some major computing task that does require heavy duty machinery, you might want to develop a relationship with a local college and use their lab on special field days, or outfit your school with a handful (ten to fifteen) of standalone PCs that allow more RAM-intensive programs to run without error.

The money
So let’s crunch some sample numbers: a typical PC monitor and tower lease will cost around a hundred bucks a machine for a term of three years. If you need a hundred machines, you’ve just dropped $80,000 for three years worth of PCs, and you’ve stuck them in a lab environment that by its nature limits the devices’ classroom applications.

You can lease iPads for somewhere between 400 and 500 bucks a machine, depending on vendor, length of relationship, etc. So let’s assume you need a hundred machines at five hundred dollars each. Good news: you just saved 30k. Celebrate by picking up 75 more refurbished iPad 2s with your extra money, and now you’ve got 200 iPads. Just like that. And you haven’t spent an additional penny.

The space
Now let’s look at the library itself. If you’re lucky enough to be in a school with an expansive physical library, I’m envious. Now start figuring out what you’re going to do with the space when the students are all carrying virtual libraries in their backpacks at all times. I spent my summer doing scholarly research on one-to-one deployments, and I stepped foot in a library exactly once (and I read over fifty studies and articles). There is little the physical library has to offer today’s student.

Maybe you rent it out, maybe you repurpose it, but whatever you do, STOP throwing money at an outdated, outmoded concept. Most schools spend hundreds to thousands of dollars maintaining a library. Divert that money to databases like JStor, LexisNexis, and Academic Search Premier and you will simultaneously cut the cost and raised the quality of your school’s library, whether it be a mix of virtual and physical or is exclusively virtual.

Reshaping education will not be without casualties. The key is adaptation; sometimes, our skills age poorly (I can still write raw HTML with the best of them, but I stopped keeping up around 1997…I know of what I speak) and we have to choose a new muscle to develop.

I think we can learn a lot from librarians, but unfortunately most schools and districts can’t afford to have it all. Supporting a full library, librarian, and mobile devices for every student probably isn’t feasible for the majority of public and private schools in the States. And if something has to give at this point, it can’t be the technology.