Saturday, March 16, 2013

Rethinking the Technology "Special"

cc photo courtesy of Extra Ketchup
I attended a meeting yesterday with other district technology coordinators in our state (CO), and one of our neighboring metro area districts talked about their recent shift from having a librarian in their elementary schools to having a 21st century learning coach (some of whom are librarians).  I thought this was an intriguing idea because we've been wrestling with how to rethink staffing and technology, especially at the K-5 level.

We've been seeing librarian positions cut in our district at all levels, but we've also seen our elementary technology teachers cut, which has always struck me as backwards (only half of our K-5 schools currently have dedicated staffing for a librarian or a technology teacher).  Our need to help students gain critical information and technology literacy skills is more necessary than ever; yet, we're severing the positions for those folks who can be the greatest resources in this area.

But here's the thing.  I think part of our district's readiness to cut those positions at the K-5 level stems from the flawed perception that information literacy and "technology" is a "special."  It's in a rotation (if it exists at all), which means that it is often removed from the learning context.  But it also stems from lack of student access.  If you only have 25 computers or devices at a school, a rotation may be the only way to manage access.  That lack of student access goes back to district leadership: if it's seen as a special, its funding for both staffing and equipment is also "special," and special means vulnerable.

The other casualty in this "special" mindset is teacher competency in using technology tools effectively for learning.  If rotation time = planning time, the primary teacher often just drops the students off and is not part of whatever learning is happening during the special.  This means that collaboration and co-teaching isn't happening, and this is to the detriment of both students and teachers.

So how do we rethink this?  I have mixed feelings about the Common Core, but at least it's common.  Technology skills are now embedded into the standards - they aren't treated as special standards.   And in our state, part of our teacher evaluation is based on using technology effectively for learning.  Here are some things we could perhaps explore in our district:

  • re-allocate staffing for learning coaches that can provide job-embedded and peer-supported professional development for information literacy and technology skills
  • rethink the technology rotation: maybe the technology teacher can move away from basic skills that are now integrated into core curriculum and start exploring specialized learning opportunities (like programming or robotics or advanced digital media)
  • explore more mobile technology for classroom learning and dedicate "fixed" labs for specialized technologies
  • provide opportunities for librarians to co-teach in classrooms rather keeping information literacy instruction restricted to the library (maybe use para staffing for book check out and clerical duties)

Perhaps we're the only district struggling with this, and if so, I'd love to hear from those who have successfully shifted the thinking in the K-5 arena.  Having spent my career at the secondary level, I am out of my comfort zone here, but I feel pretty strongly that we must change our approach.  Our neighboring district shared that having a 21st century learning coach has had more impact on instruction and learning than anything else they've attempted.   Maybe getting ideas from others and hearing about their successes can help us rethink, re-imagine, and redesign.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hooked on Hangouts: I heart Google+

Google+ was enabled for K-12 domains in the fall, and I am now thinking about how Google+ could fit into our district for both students and staff, especially in light of Skype's recent offer for group video chat for teachers.

There is something in me (maybe it's my English teacher background) that prefers the flexibility to share ideas in more than 140 characters. I've obviously gotten around it as a Twitter user, but I find myself frustrated by that limitation more often than I feel freed by it.  I wish I was better about blogging regularly, but it's challenging to carve out time.  Google+ seems to be a great middle ground for me.  I can share more than 140 characters, interact in threaded conversations, and only share with certain groups (which I really like).  And for whatever reason, I find Google+ streams more enjoyable to peruse than Twitter feeds.  But, beyond that, how can this be used in our K-12 environment?

Enter Hangouts.  I made it a personal goal to test out Hangouts during 2nd semester, and I managed to squeeze in 4 in the last two weeks, all with positive results.  If there's anything that will push me more into the Google+ arena, it's Google Hangouts.  So far, Hangouts could prove useful in the following situations:

  1. Online Collaborative Meetings:  I had a conversation with other colleagues about where we are headed with changing Learning Management Systems.  We talked for almost an hour, and normally, we would have met face to face. I can honestly say that meeting together online yielded a rich discussion and collaboration.  All of us felt like it was an effective way to work together, and I don't think that meeting face to face would have resulted in anything better.
  2. Make-up Sessions:  I held a "make-up" session for folks who missed a meeting.  This could have been accomplished using screencasting software, and I still might do that for meeting make-ups, but having the option for folks to ask questions (even via the chat window) and record to YouTube has potential. Timing is pretty key, so I think this could have been even better had I chosen a different time for the Hangout.  And, I need to work more with the YouTube process.
  3. Technology Troubleshooting:  I had a quick 1:1 Hangout with +Christine Archer-Davison to try to troubleshoot how to use our GoogleApps control panel for Chromebooks at a school level.  This is one situation where being able to screenshare was critical.  We happened to be online at the same time, and we started a Google Hangout in seconds and were able to work through the issue.
  4. Guest Speakers:  I had the opportunity to speak with a college class remotely using a Google Hangout.  The one snag I encountered was some audio feedback (likely due to the speakers in the classroom).  But, I was able to "co-speak" with a colleague, and it worked remarkably well.  We adjusted to the delays due to feedback, but being able to bring in other voices into a lesson has incredible potential.
  5. "Sub Days":  I have a colleague at one of our high schools who (unfortunately) had to take some leave time to take care of some family health issues.  Because the course she teaches is an AP course, being gone caused some stress at this point in the semester.  However, she was able to work with the school technology coordinator to teach the class remotely.  The tech coordinator set up a Google Hangout with her class, and she was able to teach the course despite being geographically away from the building.
  6. Interviews:  We have quite a few applicants who don't live in our state, and while we have used Skype in the past for people who needed to interview remotely, Google Hangouts would also help our interview committees.  We have folks who would like to be on a committee but can't be physically present during the interview.  Google Hangouts might become a great solution for connecting with applicants and hiring committees for a "face to face" feel with the flexibility of remote access.
  7. Remote Coaching:  One of our instructional coaches can't physically visit classrooms because of health issues, but she can now "hang out" with the teachers at her elementary school and still provide some of the coaching benefits without having to physically be in the room.  This usage (while a good idea) would definitely need some planning since a good classroom observation involves a picture of the whole classroom, not just the teacher. 
  8. Writing Conferences:  Admittedly, we haven't yet delved too deeply into Google+ with students because we had it turned off for kids until recently, but one of the challenges with doing writing conferences is finding time to meet with students.  At one of our high schools, one of the teachers has been using Hangouts to meet with students outside of the school day to have student conferences.  The ability to include a GoogleDoc as part of a Hangout makes this a really good solution for working with students.
  9. Back to School Nights:  We seem to be struggling more and more to see higher turn-outs at Back-to-School Nights in my district.  Granted, we offer them once a year, and if a parent has something else going on, they miss the opportunity to connect with teachers.  Hangouts could provide an interesting solution to that, in that a teacher could offer either a "make-up Hangout" for the Back to School night stuff, or even monthly Hangouts (even Hangouts on Air for asynchronous viewing) for more regular class updates.  For schools who have teams (like at our middle schools), the team could offer a Hangout so that all teachers can contribute to the conversation.
  10. Parent Conferences:  As an extension to the idea above, it might be more feasible to have a conference with a parent remotely, along with the other teachers who are working with a student.  Because you can have a hangout using a telephone number, the parent would not necessarily have to have a web cam or laptop to take part in the conference.  It might be a good way to have student-led conferences as well, since the student could be an active participant in the Hangout.
  11. Study Sessions:  This is obviously more germane to the high school level, but we have quite a few teachers who offer study sessions prior to exams, or we have students who decide to study together before exams or assessments.  Hangouts could meet this need, especially with the ability to screenshare or share GoogleDocs.  These could either be done with a teacher as the leader of the hangout (which would take some planning, depending upon numbers) or it could organically result from students who simply want to work together.   Rarely do we have student student groups who exceed 15, so this could be a good fit for those numbers.
All in all, I am really looking forward to seeing where Hangouts fit into our learning ecosystem.  I'm sure we'll have some things to iron out along the way, but this is one area where I feel like we could do some very cool things with other peers, our students, and our parent community.