September 17, 2007

Glad to be a learner first…after a day of disasters

Today was a disaster on many levels. My colleague and I have been asked to support schools in developing their school websites, we decided to use Joomla and special component called Multi-Site Manager to help look after 40 some schools. While good intentioned and some success, we’ve faced a few issues that while not totally catastrophic have been frustrating for many including us. Today we brought together teams from 12 schools to help them build their school websites. During this time we created their sites and users but inadvertently overwrote the previous schools content and had various issues with the databases.  While we admit and are very up front about not being experts and only facilitators, it’s hard not to feel like you’re letting people down with these issues.

This is not so much to give you the run down of the technical issues, although I’ll provide it but rather to extract some learning and revelations that continue to build about learning in general.

The technical background:
We’ve got some understanding of Joomla/Mambo and felt it was the best choice to accommodate the needs of school websites. We installed it on our server and purchased a multi-site manager component with the ability to quickly create sites and users from one place rather than have 40 separate installs. The issue is we did not have an easy back-up in place and weren’t using the component correctly and inadvertently overwrote site databases a couple of times. Since most schools were developing, this did not cause big issues other than a few pages and content that had to be recreated. Today, however we had a similar experience and several schools lost a lot of content. I certainly don’t have the technical expertise to be supporting this and although my colleague does, we don’t have a bunch of time to devote to learn this well. Our intentions was to learn together with schools. This actually worked to some degree as some schools discover unique ways to manage their site, use flickr as an image repository and pushed us to provide more advanced features that would enable a better site.

The learning
In the midst of the chaos that occurred during our workshop, a principal from one of the schools said to me, “learning technology is so much like the learning in our schools”. He explained to me some frustrations he’s had getting teachers to see that learning is hard to be prescribed. You can’t put everything in a handout or step by step instructions. As we talked about setting up the sites, it became apparent very quickly that every school would soon have different needs and that one easy solution wouldn’t be for everyone. You can’t just show one way and expect it to be learning. How many ways for example can you copy something?  How many ways can you tell a story? What’s the best way to a links page?  What is the best blogging tool? How do you divide 687 into 89?(not the answer by the method) A plethora of answers almost always exists. This bit by bit podcast touches on this as well. I was reminded of Thomas Edison’s famous quote:

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.

As we showed people the calendar component, this principal wanted to know if there was a way to embed a calendar from the exchange server. It would have been easy for me to discourage this since it wasn’t anything to do with the agenda of the workshop. I knew I didn’t know how. So as many worked on using the calendar within Joomla, he began to explore how he might get his calendar from Outlook into Joomla. After a few minutes, he discovered if he exported his calendar into Google, Google created an iframe code he could embed into his site. Now there may be many out there who could come up with an easier, better way but his persistence and willingness to explore and experiment resulted in learning and satisfaction. There were many other experiments today that didn’t work and those are still valuable learning experiences. My good friend Ewan talks about being less explicit and more implicit. Teachers sometimes hate this. “Just tell me what to do”. I can get you started but eventually, you’ll have to figure it out yourself.  Sometimes we’re afraid to say that to students because we still see ourselves as teachers first and not learners. Fortunately for me, I know I’m a learner first and readily admit it.

Ken Robinson asked if mistakes are the worst thing we could make. I hope not because I made a bunch today.

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