Monday, September 20, 2010

Getting on Deck


"What about it?" I hear you ask.

Well, Tweetdeck has changed the way I'm using Twitter. Previously I had either used the web interface or Tweetie or, on my iPhone, Echofon.

At the 4th Leading a Digital School Conference, I noticed a lot of people using Tweetdeck. And I heard an unequivocal statement that the web interface was the worst available interface for Twitter.

Then I sat in John Pearce's session on PLNs as he demostrated Tweetdeck and the lights went on in my head.

As I looked at all those tweets with the #edtech hash-tag and shortened urls leading to a wealth of useful resources, it suddenly made a whole lot of sense why educators should be on Twitter. But you need Tweetdeck (or something like it) - the right tool makes all the difference.

Get on 'Deck!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Poisoned Carrot

In the classic fairy tale, the evil queen offered Snow White a poisoned apple. In their battle for chess supremacy in 1972, Boris Spassky offered Bobby Fischer a poisoned pawn. (Fischer took it, and lost the game.)

Now Julia Gillard has offered the Australian public a poisoned carrot.

Yesterday, Gillard announced new education policy as part of her election pitch. The plan is to reward schools where student achievement has improved. Primary schools would be given $75,000 and high schools $100,000 for improvements in student performance in the areas of literacy and numeracy.

This scheme apparently would begin in 2013 and work in conjunction with the MySchool website. (In other words, by comparing NAPLAN results from year to year.)

Another part of this plan is for teachers to earn an extra 10% of their salary (up to $8,000) if they meet new performance benchmarks.

Of course, this is all just recycled ideas from NYC's Joel Klein. Ideas which have been roundly criticised by educators far and wide, and which recently have taken a battering. I can't say that it came as a complete surprise - there's been speculation about this ever since Gillard pulled out the MySchool website and foisted it on schools.

The problem is that while educators can see this "policy" for the dreck it is, many parents/voters may well be swayed by the idea that this is a progressive step that will improve schools, and don't understand that excessive focus on the results of a small set of tests actually hurts schools by leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests and reduced standards rather than improved ones.

Will the voting public take a bite of this poisoned carrot? I fear the worst.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Online Tools for Online Schools

I'll be doing some training with my colleagues in about a week's time, and one of the sessions I'll be running will cover a few of my favourite online tools for teachers and students.

So what are they? First cab off the rank is Diigo. Since I found Diigo, I've hardly looked at my delicious account.

Why do I like Diigo? The ability to highlight a section of a web page, add a sticky, bookmark it, send it to a group, all very quickly and easily makes Diigo the stand-out bookmarking service, IMHO.

Interestingly, on the home page of delicious, there's a public Diigo bookmark which has the interesting observation that Diigo is the best way to manage bookmarks, delicious is the best place to find bookmarks. That seems a fair observation, so I'll probably now look to see how I might be able to make Diigo and delicious work together.

Next fave: Evernote. If Evernote was just a note-taking app on my laptop, I probably wouldn't use it that much, to be honest. But I have Evernote as an iPhone app, and my iPhone is always with me. Now I find myself continually taking notes on my iPhone, taking photos and adding tags to them. Evernote synchronises between my laptop, my iPhone and my Evernote web account, so if I have my phone or can get to a computer, I can get to my notes.

The best thing for me is taking photos. For example, say I've been teaching a senior computing class, mapping out things on the whiteboard, jotting down key points, etc. and it's the end of the lesson. I pull out my iPhone and take a photo, add an appropriate tag and upload to Cloud Evernote. It's automatically dated and geo-tagged from my phone! Later, I can search my Evernote account for certain words, and Evernote's text recognition finds those words in the photo. (Well, more often than not - my handwriting on a whiteboard can be rather messy, and any OCR program would struggle to make sense of it - heck, I've walked in the following day and found myself looking at my own writing and struggled to make sense of it!)

#3: Flickr - an idea I got from Alan Levine's blog was to put up images and then use Flickr's notes tool to make 'hotspots' on the image. You can put hyperlinks in the notes and suddenly your picture becomes the central focus for a web-based exploration.

#4: Dabbleboard. An interactive, collaborative online whiteboard. Ridiculously simple to use. I've only recently starting using this, but I can see students loving it!

#5: Stixy. Another collaborative environment, but with a very different emphasis to Dabbleboard. Stixy has no drawing tools as such. Instead, you upload images and documents, and add sticky notes and todo lists. As a tool for allowing a group to manage a project, this seems far more intuitive than list-based approaches to collaboration.

On a side-note: it's disappointing that Ning has decided to do away with their free plan. Apparently someone (with plenty of money) has decided to pay for the new first tier plan for educators in North America, which is good for them, but the rest of us will have to pay to continue using Ning, or migrate to an alternative (Spruz and Zuku appear to be ready to step into the breach).

Addendum: I've just been looking at Zoho Notebook - this is a seriously good tool! As a workspace for students to compile items for a project they're working on, or keep notes, or even create a multimedia presentation, this is well worth considering - and the price is right.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Funny Pages

(On Rupert Murdoch, Google and the Apple iPad)

Jonathan Holmes, from the ABC's MediaWatch program, has written a nice little piece for The Drum. He addresses the fact that many in the newpaper industry, including Rupert Murdoch, are busy wetting themselves over the iPad.

Murdoch apparently thinks that the iPad and its competitors will be the saving of the newspaper industry. Why? Because they (the newspapers) will be able to sell apps that deliver the newspaper "experience", providing users with something that is more like the actual paper article than websites currently provide. And they are hoping this will resurrect the industry.

What Murdoch and co. do not seem to get is that there is an enormous contingent of news conusmers who just aren't interested in what they are planning on offering. Young people have become used to news for free. Why would they suddenly want to pay for it? When (and it is 'when', not 'if') the newspapers put their content behind pay-walls, those young people will simply look elsewhere - and there will be an elsewhere to look.

Even my generation, who grew up with newspapers, have become accustomed to using the web and aggregators to find the news. And in that, we have acquired something that the likes of Murdoch don't seem to understand - we decide what news we want.

Holmes correctly pinpoints this in his article: "...this isn't just the difference between paying and not paying. It's the difference between deciding on your own news agenda, or buying someone else's." And I for one, ain't buying. And I don't think I'll be alone.

Murdoch also made the news this week for re-iterating his threat to put a pay-wall around his online newspapers to keep Google and Microsoft out.

My reaction to this bit of non-news: good! With any luck, this bunker mentality will see him off completely.

The newspapers do not seem to understand that their old model ("we'll decide what you want to know about, write it up and bundle it up for you, and you can pay us for it") is no longer really viable, and will disappear at about the same time as my father's generation. So they need to do something different - if they can. It's difficult to say what that should be.

Comic book producers, on the other hand, will probably survive. Why? Tim Bray (now at Google, as it happens) nailed it: "the two things you do with comics are read them and trade them". [Link] And therein lies the difference between a comic book and a newspaper: no one lines the bottom of the budgie cage with a comic book.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Repeating Myself

[This is a re-post/cross-post from another blog of mine.]

Who in their right mind would be a high school Maths teacher? I must be nuts.

I’m tempted to stop right there – what more needs to be said? But I’ll elaborate a little, just so the screen isn’t so empty (poignant though that might be).

You see, nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They think they do, but because they have no real understanding of what Mathematics is or why you would study it, they are quite wrong.

What’s prompted me to say this? Mainly the obscene politicising of education in this country. Education has always been a political football to some extent, but the stupidity has reached new lows under the Rudd government.

You see, what the politicians what, and what they’ve persuaded parent that they should want, and to some extent what school principals want, is not for students to learn about Mathematics. They want them to learn about arithmetic and numeracy.

Now, I’m sure that for most politicians, many parents and quite a few principals, the distinction between Mathematics and numeracy is lost on them. And therein lies the problem - decisions about education are being made by people who do not understand the distinction. I’m sure that much the same issue lies in other subject areas.

How can I state the above so confidently? Simply by considering the obvious: an Education Minister who would implement a website that compares schools based on the results of once-a-year tests, given to four of the thirteen year levels, in the areas of literacy and numeracy and virtually nothing else, and who defends such a move by claiming that parents want transparency, clearly knows nothing about education.

Is this to say that the NAPLAN tests don’t have a purpose? Of course not, but to use such data to encapsulate the “performance” of an entire school in a set of 20 numbers is absurd.

Politicians like to be seen to be doing something, and Education is an arena where it’s easy for them to rearrange the furniture and claim to have made progress. It’s long been so. But the Rudd government has taken matters to another level. They have firmly shifted the emphasis away from the notion of providing a comprehensive education to a scenario where the focus year-by-year will be on the NAPLAN results, particularly once funding becomes closely tied to those results. Principals and education departments will be under pressure to secure funding, which means teachers will be under pressure to secure results that will deliver that funding, which means the focus will be to teach to the test. And because the NAPLAN tests are about literacy and numeracy and little else, the curriculum will narrow over time, as principals and education departments in the main are not going to pour time and money into areas that won’t affect funding.

Now doesn’t that all work in the favour of my particular subject, Mathematics? No, not really. The problem is that the focus is on numeracy, not Mathematics. The pollies want the kiddies to be able to do their sums well – being able to do trigonometry, quadratic equations and matrix operations is irrelevant to them.

And it’s becoming just as irrelevant to the students themselves. More than ever, I am being confronted with students who not only come out with the age-old “when will I ever need this?”, but who are quite sure that if they ever actually do need it, they will be able to get what they need from the Web, whether through tutorials, discussion forums, online courses or some other way.

Add to that parents who struggled with Maths at school and who are subsequently dismissive of it, is it any wonder I feel that my vocation is becoming a bit pointless?

So I repeat: nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They care about students having arithmetic skills. They care about the NAPLAN results because they think it means something. They love the government’s “back to basics” mantra, because it means “back to something I think I can understand”.

But don’t ask for more than that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts on the Education Revolution - Why We Are Going In Circles

The Rudd government’s “Education Revolution” has now progressed through a number of phases.

1. The Big Sell

This was the pre-election “look at us, we have the answers” phase, where Rudd waved about a laptop and promised to spend a billion dollars giving every Yr 9 students a similar laptop. This ‘largesse’ certainly pleased a lot of people (particularly journalists) who thought it sounded like a nifty, forward-thinking idea but who couldn’t be bothered to do the sums and work out that one billion dollars was well short of what would really be needed to follow through on the promise. And it seems that few people have stopped to consider how this promise was meant to pan out over the long term, or what sort of money is really needed to provide the maintenance and infrastructure to go with providing students in senior high school years with laptops.

2. The Big Spend in the wake of the Big Crash

Well, not quite that big a crash (if you look behind you, you’ll see Wayne Goose Swan jumping up and down, saying “Thanks to me! I spent lotsa money and made it all better! Me! It was me!” and a little behind him you’ll see Nassim Nicholas Taleb shaking his head and tutting), but it gave Rudd and Co. licence to spend even more money “building the Education Revolution”, which was code for building several thousand Julia Gillard Memorial School Halls and not giving a rat’s rear about whether the money was actually spent effectively (which in many public schools it apparently hasn’t, if the commercial news channels are to be believed).

3. The Big League Table

Julia Gillard declared the MySchool website a huge success, apparently on the basis that a lot of people logged on to see what the fuss was about. The air was heavy with buzzwords like "transparency" and "informed parents", but mention league tables and you could expect Ms Gillard to keep you in at recess for a good haraguing.

But let's be honest - what is the MySchool website but a digitised league table on steroids, reducing schools down to a small set of numbers and then drawing up a set of dodgy comparisons based on badly flawed socio-economic measurements.

4. The Big Curriculum

The government has released the Draft National Curriculum - or, to be precise, about one-third of one. Rudd and Gillard have described it as “back to basics”, which in the English components means more phonics, phonetics and grammar, but less literature; in the Mathematics components, we apparently will now be using calculators from Kindergarten, but not teaching the 7 times tables. (What the...? An oversight, surely. Would you believe...?)

But what has really been achieved?

The laptops have arrived in most schools, which are now dealing with issues of management, networking and maintenance (and the budgetary headaches that come with that), as well as needing to inservice teachers in how to use them in the classroom. The Federal government has 'generously' decided that the States need to deal with these issues (and the money).

There are schools all across the country in various states of chaos as building projects grind slowly on, quite a number of them apparently not what the schools really wanted or needed, and many apparently costing far more than they ought to.

Journalists and politicians have fallen over themselves about the MySchool website, enthralled by having ready access to something they can understand - "this school's better than that school, because the numbers say so". Sadly, some parents appear to be falling for this dreck as well.

The curriculum is set to be introduced in 2011 - whether schools and teachers are ready or not. And the indications are - not. The various teachers’ unions have publicly raised the issue, but the government still hasn’t talked to them. How do you introduce a curriculum and not talk to the people you expect to implement it?

Is it a curriculum for the 21st century? By my reading, not really. It’s still firmly welded to the 20th century, in keeping with a federal government that still clings to the ‘factory’ model of education and regards it as essentially a tool for increasing economic productivity.

(Interestingly, Edward de Bono has commented on the curriculum, criticising it for not including thinking skills. Yes, this has been de Bono’s soapbox for nearly two decades, and thus his criticism is hardly surprising, but in the era of the Internet, could anything be more critical than thinking skills?)

Looking at what has been put in place, and comparing it to what governments have done in the area of education over the last three or four decades, the only significant difference is that in this instance, it’s been a federal government rather than a state one that has delivered an unbalanced set of resources, mismanaged taxpayers’ dollars and implemented curriculum changes that don’t quite hit the mark.

Round and round we go.