Ramblings from NECC 2009

I had the good fortune of spending the last week with some really smart people and sit in on a few great sessions. During this time I was asked a few times if I was enjoying this or learning. The answer to both was yes. However, I could likely have been asked the same quesitons a week earlier and a week from now and I’d likely give the same answer. 

Not every conversation was outstanding, not every session was amazing. I can’t quantify the learning but can tell you the cumulative ideas and insights will continue to influence my thinking and shape my work.

On the weekend Will Richardson was asking if it possible to provide the kind of learning our kids need by improving schools or do we require a brand new system. I desparately want to believe we don’t have to blow up what we have but a number of things this week has me wondering.

Monday I was able to hear Tom Carroll speak about creating the schools our children need. A few months ago I read this article written by Carroll which was written 8 years ago and was challenged by many ideas. (If you read it and are choosing between finishing this post or the article, read the article) One of the most powerful analogies Carroll used on Monday was this:

"Asking how technology can improve student learning in our current schools is like asking the Wright brothers how the airplane improves the railway system"

That statement resonates with me as I am often asked to provide evidence or proof that technology is making a difference. I hate the question because the question is flawed in the first place.  The better question (I’ve posted about this before) is:

"Does technology support the practices that improve student learning?”

While that is a better question I’m still grabbling with the notion that the impact of technology is creating such a shift that those "practices" have to be re-examined.  Part of the very nature of school requires learning to be compartmentalized by time and content and subject. If I was asked to do that over this past week, I’d be hard pressed to provide you with that kind of data. I learned lots, some of which I’m discussing here and others which may not bear fruit for a while and other learning that will never be directly tied to this week but has undoubtedly been borne and fostered through these many conversations.

I’m seeing more and more that they way connectedness, sharing and access to media influence us and create opporutnities for great learning, often does not have a place in our schools today. Square peg in a round hole.

And yet through all that stuf that spins my brain in 19 different direcitons I’m inspired and encouraged by the many great people who are muddling their way through changes and making it work because of their passion and genuine concern and love of students. You have to have both. I think most of the teachers I work with care about kids. As Chris Lehmann talks about often, kids desparately need mentors. This is a great start and if that’s all teachers did was to be and find mentors for our students that wouldn’t be all bad. But combine that with a passion to learn and you have the makings of a great learning experience for anyone. It’s passion that drives people to seek better and more engaging ideas and content. It’s passion that inspires someone to learn and try things they never thought they’d do. This is when complexity and change occur.

The landscape of learning is changing. Rethinking what control means, understanding the power of sharing and transparency all work to topple many of the foundations our schools are built upon.  I know this, you know this but after spending 3 days amongst 18,000 in the educational technology field, I still say very few else know this. I made this observation (jump down to #4) last year at NECC and while the number may have increased slightly, those who really have any sense of the changes that are possilbe and perhaps inevitable in education is strikingly small. Yet sometimes the conversations amongst them would indicate they think everyone understands. A good example took place in the last session I attended on a panel discussion on Web 2.0. The panel was made up of all people that I and many in the audience knew very well either because we’ve spent time with them or know them from varoius online circles. The panel and audience were calling them by their first names and having a good discussion One lady stood up and felt frustrated since she didn’t know these people, these terms and most of the content of the conversation. That wasn’t her fault that’s ours. The assumption amongst folks who live and breath social media is that most teachers know about but they just don’t understand social media. We jump in with disucssion about Web 2.0 when they aren’t ready for that discussion since they have absolutely no prior knowledge. I"m not against having these kinds of discussions but it’s a bit like Christopher Columbus and crew arguing over how they would organize and structure the new world when most of the old world didn’t even know it existed and if they did, had no idea why or how they would get over to see it, let alone settle there. It’s not a totally useless discussion but perspective is important.


My big fat NECC brain dump

As I exited the NECC conference by exploding a cherry coke all over the Blogger Cafe, I knew I would have to take some time to provide a brain dump of the experience. I know that many discussions will continue to force me to reflect deeply over time. Hanging around with that many smart, passionate folks will do that you. So here for you is my reflections on the people and the ideas.

The People:

Of course the danger here in singling out people is the fear of leaving someone out so I’ll just begin but apologizing right off. These are just a few thoughts about people that I managed to spend a varying amount of time with. Some quite and others just a brief conversation.

Bud Hunt. I spent quite a bit of time with Bud. He’s one of my longest online connections and there’s a reason for that. He makes me think. Bud has a way of framing ideas and throwing curveballs that have just enough spin on them that you better pay attention. There’s only one complaint I have. He needs to publish more.

Scott Floyd and the Texans. While I was vaguely familiar with Scott, I didn’t really know all that much about his work and thinking. He’s smart and extremely politically savvy. He helped me understand much more deeply about the issues facing US schools and in particular why we need to be watching companies like Pearson like a hawk. I consider Scott one of my great discoveries from NECC. In addition to Scott, Paul Wood, Mike Gras, John Maklary and Brian Grenier put on an amazing BBQ and made me and others feel incredibly at home. So much so I almost was going to stay here for 11 more months. Paul went out of his way to pick me and and drive me to their hotel where I was whisked into a live netcast and stayed to have some great talks. Texas hospitality is alive and well.

Ewan Mcintosh. Ewan’s international perspective (I actually was considered international…but don’t have a buttery Scottish accent so I barely count) and fresh look at education always provides me with enough fodder for about a year. I just barely have gotten over talks from a year ago. This time I only have 6 weeks.

Jeff Utecht....model extraordinarreJeff Utecht. He is batman. He’s everywhere. Even on the plane ride home I grab a magazine and who’s face is staring back at me? I actually had to crop him out of the Texas boys photos. He’s unstoppable. His energy and passion are electric. He just does stuff. I’m sure he’ll be in Bangkok before the technicians can return all his hacks and tweaks back to normal. Although if my idea takes root, he may still get away with more.

Me and SherylSheryl Nussbaum-Beach. She couldn’t be any nicer. I know she’s also brilliant and a tremendous facilitator but she’s all about people and helping others connect. What a treat to have a meeting on the river walk with Wes Fryer and Darren Kuropatwa. That was truly a highlight.

Konrad Glogowski. I’ve been reading Konrad for a while and although he lives 2,500km away from me, I can’t help by feeling pride that he is also Canadian and really exemplifies so much of what good teaching is all about. We had a great chat Saturday night about his upcoming travels and work in Africa with Sharon Peters. I’m sure it will lead to more highly reflective and challenging writing.

Craig Nansen. Craig lives about 4 hours from me in North Dakota. He was kind enough to invite me out with some other Distinguished Apple Educators for a lively discussion. Nice to know he and Chris Webb are just down the road.

Old friends. Will Richardson, David Jakes and Chris Lehmann continue to provide me with a solid pedagogical leadership. I rely on these gentlemen more often than most. It just so happens we have a lot of fun together too.

The blogger cafe was an ongoing series of “Hi-how-are-you-good-to-see-yous” and time was often the enemy of moving beyond that. I wanted to especially thank Lisa, Maria, Brian,Vicki and Julie who contributed in mentoring students and teachers. These folks do a great deal for me.

More acknowledgments and thoughts as my twittified brain goes into full gear about the week that was. Here we go.

Mark Wagner kick started my brain with a frank question…Laura Deisley will be a new and trusted friend…Brian Smith is older than he looks apparently…Wendy Smith is married to Brian Smith…Lisa Thumann sometimes shuts down like me….Did you Know Karl Fisch is very quiet but did throw out a great one liner (see what did there?)…Gary Stager never stops and is highly entertaining…Everybody loves Clarence….Having NECC in your hometown has its disadvantages…Doug Johnson is a funny guy….I think I’m stealing this paragraph style from Scott McLeodKyle Stevens isn’t sure if Chris is Christ…..Diane McCordell is short….Kurt Paccio is not…Lee Kolbert likes Plurk…Marcie Hull wants people to be afraid of her, but I’m not…Mark Pennington needs to post more photos….I saw the Tech Chicks but didn’t see them together…Was Al Upton sick or is his voice that raspy?….Stephanie Sandifer lied to me…I owe Jennifer Kraft $4….I’ll never remember everyone I met….Wes Fryer is also batman….I’ll never mention boiled ribs again…Barbara Barreda will stop at nothing to help kids….the riverwalk is awesome……John Pederson, Darren Kuropatwa and Christian Long shouldn’t be allowed to stay home…I wonder if I overuse the dot,dot,dot?…Ken Pruitt leads a nice session….Christian wins as best blogger not be be present at NECC….you can’t use a loonie to buy coffee in the States….flying first class isn’t that great…I used the phrase, “throw under the bus’ too often…I bet the Aussies would have been fun to hang with…Wagner broke more iphones than my dog chews electronics….I saw Jeff Boulton, who I work with once randomly Friday night and never saw him at the conference…Do you have any idea how long it takes to link to all these people?…Chris Lehmann started say y’all quite a bit…David Jakes likes Bill Lamineer….Will Dan Meyer attend NECC or any conference that has the word technology in it?….Joyce Valenza was surprised when I told her I read her blog. I didn’t know why…Wireless at conventions suck unless you have your own or know Mark Wagner or Scott Floyd…I saw Will Richardson demo Geopedia 17 times…. people are nicer than I imagined.

The Ideas

Now that the NECC love fest is over. (I know I was guilty of the discussing the edublogoshpere’s favourite subject, themselves) here’s where I go from here. These are four ideas, that while not new, I think I understand better now and hopefully can articulate. There were certainly seeds of other ideas that will grow but these ones I just feel better about.

1. Online communities exist for people to be together face to face. Being online is about being face to face. Shirky talks about the the ideas expressed in Bowling Alone. The idea of a society that has lost much of what it means to develop community and opportunity to be together. As many argue against the value of online communities and question there importance, it usually points us to being together. Having fun, working, building, playing, you name it.

We gather together because we like to, and because it is useful.[pp.195]…Meetup groups for virtual contacts shows that even online communication that emulates face-to-face interaction still leaves people wanting real human contact. [pp.199]

Even as we discussed the book and tried to see the connections to learning, it was evident that we wanted to be in the same room. The energy, the passion, the body language all make for a much richer experience. I would dare say many of the folks in my community have used the most current technologies that facilitate online discussion and I can’t imagine any of those tools coming close to the face to face experience. It’ll never happen.

2.Vendors are way off. I have to preface this since I never went into the giant exhibit hall even once but from what I heard and witnessed, these guy for the most part are out to lunch. Mike Gras told me of a vendor who was selling a product that could tie all your web 2.0 apps into active directory. While I barely know what that means, it demonstrates how so many are driven to control based products. Check out this ad from the NECC daily magazine. Basically we can shut everything down as tight than a monkey fist . Now grant it, they are just responding to what schools are asking for but you have to wonder if they don’t see the writing on the wall. How long will it be before raise the white flag of surrender and simply try and work and learn in real world, DIY environments? I know, I’m too naive. I’m not discounting the commercial component of schools and technology just the context of the presentation and marketing. Don’t even get me started on clickers.

3. I need to talk about student learning way more. In the fervor of all that is edtech and wonderful, the odd dissenting voice appeared. “Where is the student learning?” That question bothered some but it’s a good one and ones that need to be asked. As I made the most of my extra night, Christine, Mike, Paul and Scott I wrote down a quite piece of logic that helps me particularly as we consider the value of social networks, online communities and more specially K12 online. Let’s start from the students.

  • We all want to help students learn more.
  • Teaching and learning is hard.
  • Professional learning is essential.
  • Schools devote way too little time and money and much of it is not applicable or specific to each teacher in their quest for improved student learning.
  • Enter online professional learning. which provides time shifted and customizable learning. Not only that but it’s about content combined with access to real teachers doing real work. This all can lead to your very own research team.

If helping a doctor become better is about improving patient care then professional development is about student learning. I’m going to be gentle but ruthless is selling that idea.

4. We have no idea how small we are. My guess is about 300 of the 17,000 attendees have any sense of what powerful online communities are all about. That would represent about 2% of an edtech community. These would be the teachers that you’d like have the best shot at building a network. Reading some of the teacher reflections in the last NECC daily made me shudder somewhat. The focus on buying stuff, teaching tools is missing the boat big time. It’s easy to understand why an average teacher would have no idea of how and why. While it’s been written about lots, when you see it in this context it’s quite amazing. If you believe in point #1 and #3 you see why I think this is important. So while I have my network who support me and challenge me not to mention the possibility of those outside my network who occasionally challenge me most of our teachers have nothing. Again, not a new realization but I got to see it first hand.

There, I feel better. (My first every blog post largely constructed from 30,000 feet. I might turn into Wes Fryer or Ewan Mcintosh if I became a frequent flyer.)

Konrad Glogowski photo by Will Richardson
Breakfast with Craig Nansen and Chris Webb photo by Kevin Jarrett

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody. New York: The Penguin Press.

Two blog posts in one

Part 1

If you’ve ever heard the first statement in a staffroom, the rest of the logic would follow.  Learning is what makes us human and to use this logic would suggest that schools can be inhumane institutions.

This is some of the thinking of Dr. Michael Wesch.  In the first 20 minutes or so of this presentation from his talk at the University of Manitoba, he makes such a clear case for the shift in learning due to a changing media. I love the fact that there are so many great conversations and folks dedicated to solid pedagogy which is not new. What’s new is the way new media is influences this. Wesch is the maker of The Machine is Using Us which demonstrates this shift.  The way we experience information and content is new and I’ve yet to hear a good argument to suggest it’s no big deal, let’s do school as usual.

I really want to get good and keeping both solid pedagogy and how it fits with new media in balance. What’s interesting is that the new media is leading people to push the edge of the envelope of innovation and get criticized because they appear to be tool focused. That’s why I love how Will setup the discussion today about streaming video. He prefaced it by admitting, we don’t have the pedagogy all worked out. But it’s still worth exploring and the conversations usually include a good dose of “yeah but does it help kids learn?” mixed with “wouldn’t it be interesting if we tried…?”  At times we need to play, explore and waste time.  Cheap failures allow us to see what works and what doesn’t.  Other times, let’s call it fluff when we see it and move on.

Part 2

So why when I fly 2600 miles to the world’s largest edtech conference would I sit in my hotel room, watch an online video when there is a convention center filled with people, stuff and conversations?  This helps explain part of it.  But also learning comes in many forms. Duh. People have asked me if I’m learning. I hate having to quantify my learning experience.  I like demonstrating understanding.

I love sitting quietly by myself listening, watching, reading and reflecting. I love being with a group of loud friends laughing, listening and arguing. I’m not sure I came to NECC to learn anymore than I could have had I stayed home.  By far the majority of people here need to be here to learn. That might sound arrogant but I can learn from anyone, anytime and anywhere. “Even from here” to quote my good friend Clarence. I would be great if more people could develop this type of learning network and they are. The growth of edubloggercon and the blogger’s cafe would indicate this is happening.  It’s not going to deter from conference attendance because these types of meetups are precious. Spending as much time online with these folks as I do, builds relationships. Not everyone is my “friend” but they are part of my virtual classroom and I like hanging out. I don’t need to be here to learn.

So I’m not here to learn anymore than I would normally. I”m here to be together. That’s good enough.

EdubloggerCon 2008

Here’s 4 minutes of random video of some of my day at Edubloggercon. Nothing fancy here but a few moments of learning.  You might get a sense of some of the passion and energy in this short clips. That’s more or less why I came. I came to hear stories, share a few and spend time together.

I’ve used the video annotations within youtube. You’ll have to view it on youtube to see them. I thought others could annotate but it may not be possible.

ISTE, What up?

A week from today I head to San Antonio for my first NECC. I’m interested in some sessions but mostly interested in talking and learning with a boat load of people from my network. Knowing that many of these folks are progressive, innovative and deep thinkers makes me wonder why the organization that runs the conference is taking this stance.

It’s already been talked about here, here, here and likely in more place. They’ve all spoke about it in detail and added their own perspectives. I’m sure that ISTE has some legal or CYA reason for doing this but at the same time, why is that Tlt and Northern Voice in fact, encourage folks to record and share content?

Is this a US/Canada thing? Are we Canadians just as litigious minded? What am I missing here?

Maybe someone from ISTE will find this post in their technorati feed and respond.  Seems weird.