Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Connect and ICT in schools

Creation of ICT is fraught with problems.  When government seeks to create applications they tend to be ill focused and narrow in their application.  In education ICT has continuously failed to live up to expectations.  IMHO the risk in application development is best left with private enterprise in commercial solutions and the government should take a "best practice" approach, being reasonably ruthless in what they ask for when spending each dollar.

Connect is the next generation of the education department portal, seeking to bring data together for use by students and teachers.  It is a mixed bag of applications seeking to replicate what is already done by commercial and department applications that for the most part are freely available.   I hate to think of the amount of money spent on it.

I think the reason for not using public money is multifold.

1.  Replication of software that already exists freely is illogical
2.  A created solution will lag features available in larger communities where scale can be applied
3.  A small solution does not have access to the required depth of developers and designers
4.  Small projects tend to be lead by programmers and technical capabilities rather than by need of users
5.  Early adopters get burned.  Established applications proven to scale to millions are less likely to fail.
6.  Infrastructure is expensive in closed systems and rarely scales well

The Connect solution is experiencing issues that we viewed today at a presentation promoting its use.

1.  Connect infrastructure is already struggling.  Other solutions use commercial clouds and leverage their infrastructure.  Users of connect are already being asked to restrict their storage or are required to use external servers (such as YouTube).  This is an issue similar to the current email problem where a small storage limit precludes teachers using email as a silo for information.  It seems counterintuitive to say we need a managed private closed solution if we are locating resources (and sending students) to public locations.  We watched Connect struggle under load when trying to log teachers into the system, something that would quickly derail a class if used.  Timeouts were frequent.  Given that this was run in a closed system (within a school) controlled by the department on a day when students were not present does not bode well for the design of the solution.

2.  Connect allows communication directly between students and monitors this through sending multiple emails to teachers.  This is problematic as it creates spam in teachers email and creates a significant monitoring overhead (something overcome by the approach of other solutions).

3. The interface is suboptimal and has not evolved from 90's thinking (even in the presentation style).  The Connect interface is generations behind solutions such as schoology and edmodo (which is expected as Connect is drawing on a much smaller user base of 100 users vs millions of users).  Connect needs to move beyond thinking of itself as a portal and think about being a user's experience (eg. an SLN).  Students do not need to see "Connect" advertising on the landing page, they need to see what they need to know.  If a landing page serves little purpose, put something on it that has purpose, preferably in colours linked to the school (as belonging is a key component in driving usage).  If Connect is seeking to be another SLN and use this to drive usage, then this needs to be the "centre" of thinking, not being a content aggregator.

4.  It does not do anything better than what already exists and appears to seek to copy or relocate features of existing applications (cynically I would suggest to bloat functionality).  There is not a single feature that I could see that was a significant benefit over other already existing solutions (other than they had been aggregated in one place moving administration overhead to teachers).  Many features were being oversold (single login, presentation, RTP integration, notice board functionality, submission of work online, access to the ill organised and predominantly useless resource bank, password changes) and features that are lost were undersold (familiar interfaces, access to wider communities, access across school sectors, marking student work online (a feature that is very unlikely to be implemented but that already exists freely in full workflow form), quizzes, online testing, polling, usage statistics, integration with other learning communities, tablet app integration).  Little of the actual student benefit (social interaction, making work available 24/7, increase in information flow, connectivity to the classroom, collaborative peer support, BYOD device support) or the requirements of successful implementation was discussed (high levels of teacher interaction, high levels of organisation/preparation, ICT support requirements within the school, deadlines for implementation, staged rollouts, student education).

5. Proposed usage is not timely and demonstrates a lack of understanding of student usage. If a student is stuck at home they can call a friend, facebook them, email them, re-read notes, ask a parent, ask a tutor or wait until class the following day.  What they are unlikely to do is log into a portal, navigate to a community, hope that someone sees the message and then wait for a reply.  The response time is too slow for this type of approach.

6. Something is good if it is readily adopted and seen as useful.  I sat and listened to an early adopter claiming that Connect was a good solution.  Once we dug a little further, his actual student adoption with Connect was inconsequential yet he claimed he had great success with equivalent commercial applications (then why change?).  It made me laugh as it reminded me of the letter I received from the department saying I was a frequent user of OTLS (complete BS) and thus was chosen to use Connect.  Saying something definite does not make it true.  What the presenter was really saying was that the commercial solutions was better but if we had to use Connect it was ok and the interface was not unusable like OTLS.  We need to use Connect as it overcomes legal issues relating to student data.  To this I would say a) success is only success if usage can be shown and that compromising by using connect when better solutions exist because of closed system requirements (that cannot remain closed due to infrastructure requirements and costs) is poor reasoning. If we allow the open internet in schools (and we do - check any library at lunch) with only limited filtering,  a commercial solution is viable.

7. Parent involvement is overstated.  If I said to a parent, I will have grades emailed to you they might say great and read the email when I push it to them at a regular interval.  If I say, here is a portal, log in (requiring finding a password) if you wish to check how your student is doing, it is unlikely to be used often (what was my password again?). There is not enough information here for parents to review to make regular use viable.  The same can be said for homework review - this would take a cultural change that is unlikely in the near future.

8.  It is promising more than it is delivering.  It promised better access to SAIS (not available), access to RTP (not available), ability to store resources (but is limited in storage), access to classes (but not all classes were accessible on the day), email attachments to students directly (not available).  The "tell us your wants" and we'll make it happen statement is scarily present implying that direction for the application is poorly defined and lacking direction (flexibility in development screams scope creep and cost blowout in public sector application development).

Many of these reasons disappear once we pass through stages of early adoption.  I just question whether the need for another portal or SLN exists.  I have often been wrong before, but I believe that better solutions only occur if we challenge what is being done.  The challenge for Connect is to become an indispensable tool. It still has some way to go.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why teach?

Teaching in a relatively hard to teach school seems to be a place to test the mettle of young would-be teachers.  We get a fair amount, they are generally very good and we have to weed out a few.  The first difficult question I ask a wannabe teacher is "Why do you want to teach?"

It's a valid question and one that I still get asked weekly - both by students, friends and acquaintences.   You can predict the failure of a teaching practicum with a fair degree of accuracy with this question.

If the answer is I don't know, or it was all I could do, the motivation to overcome adversity will likely not be there and the student will struggle until they can answer it.

If the answer is I love students, they might make it through, but the "teacher as an entertainer" model better really suit them because teaching for love is a pretty stupid reason that hits a hurdle with the first class that doesn't like you.  You won't be doing what kids want to do most of the time (unless you have thrown the syllabus out the window from a math class) and in classes of 30 it is rare to achieve this.

If the answer is that I love learning or I think I could do a better job than my teachers, then there is hope.  It's not the answer that I'm looking for, but young teachers can get by with either.  One is based in the idea that I can learn to be better (reflective practice) and the second is based on a pre-conceived notion of what not to do.  Strangely enough either of these can work and lead to successful careers in teaching.  I feel for these teachers through, as the end product tends to be unhappiness, as learning is only one component in teaching and competing with a bad memory is hard to sustain.

The answer to my mind is I need to teach.  It is my vocation and my desire, it dominates my thinking and I get a real buzz out of seeing others achieve.  It gives you your connection to your students.  When you find the kid or mature age teaching student that understands that teaching is at its heart a vocation, mentor them, harden them up and find a way to get them through.  The concept is based in a selfless desire,  a fire in the belly that keeps many of us going even when we're battling to get students through and our own personal dilemmas.

Hand in hand with this idea, my grandmother taught me that the gift is in the giving, whenever I feel down, I look for a way to help others.  It's a key element to teaching and ties to teacher motivation.. She also taught me not to be a patsy and that goes together with it.

A more involved question is "why teach in a hard to staff school?"   The elephant in the room is that many will assume you're not good enough to teach elsewhere.  For some it is about ease of access to the rewards of seeing students fly (they've got further to go so it is easier to make happen), for others the ability to right a social wrong, for others the lack of teaching demands and for others it is returning to the community the time put into you.

They're a gutsy choice for young teachers, as they are far from the easy option.  With the right support though it is both rewarding and contributes to society in a way leafy green roles can't.  There is something special about watching a family escape poverty cycles through education.  Low SES schools are not for everyone but are the home for many of us that seek to make a difference.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ideas vs proven methods

In any organisation my voice will be heard.  I don't fear offering an opinion and over time people learn how to use my opinions effectively.  I'm sure as hell not always right, but can be a good sounding board for ideas.

It always amuses me when someone argues a position and then gets sad when my position moves closer to theirs, undermining their argument.  I'm not as fixed as I should be, although probably more fixed in my ways than when I started teaching.

If someone has a better idea, I try to welcome it and embrace it (it is hard to give up an idea that has taken time to develop).  If someone attacks one of my ideas/ideals/opinions in the spirit it is given, then it is a welcome discussion - it can only create a stronger position (if only to better understand the counter argument).  The only time I really get frustrated is when ideas are attacked purely because of the person that is giving it.  I've been on both sides of this and get frustrated with myself when I catch myself doing it.  A colleague generally taps me on the shoulder to reconsider my position (and if they know me well enough) can snap me out of it.

The ability to offer an idea without fear of reprisal and the ability to develop ideas through dialogue is important to an organisation.  Developing ideas before implementation will increase the chance of success significantly.  Developing ideas in a vacuum can be a frustrating process of reinventing the wheel.

I feel to some degree I am doing this at the moment.  In developing better support for teachers, I am working with teachers with many years more experience - offering an opinion can either scratch wounds, state the obvious or sound naive.  Many of my ideas feel simplistic, to counter this I am actively looking and listening to successful strategies currently being used in our school in other learning areas and in other schools where I have colleagues in similar circumstances.

Creating a Math/Science department is also problematic, as I am trying to bring two teams together and I lack science experience.  Gaining knowledge of the needs and wants of the science team is drawing attention from the math team, also needing help, development and guidance.  I remind myself that I'm 10 weeks into a new job and can only do so much - yet it's obvious I need to do more to get the job done, and new responsibilities are on their way shortly.

I need to keep thinking about what I am doing, and do it better.  It sounds obvious, but if I keep focus on the big picture over time our learning programme will improve further.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

End of Term

It hasn't been an easy term with structural projects within the school being navigated whilst teaching programmes needed to continue.  Whilst the process has been traversed as well as it could be, these things are not pleasant to be a part of and finalisation of them such that the focus of driving learning can  be re-established will be a welcome change.

My first term as HoD is now nearly over.  The departmental focus has been implementing resolution processes to ensure that a mutual understanding (teachers and students) of issues and consequences is effected.  The issue is at the heart of teacher morale and having a HoD where responsibility lies seems to be making a difference. The outcome should be that teachers feel better supported and clear boundaries are set for students to work within.

There is an inbuilt conflict built into the HoD role in a small school as it has elements of student services (the "you'll be all right" care team type stuff) and the discipline ("this has gone on long enough, understand the consequences that follow") side.  With struggling students you can be on both sides within short time frames.

Whilst doing the role I have tried to keep development of the teams going, working with teachers to develop skills, encouraging others to demonstrate their leadership capabilities within teams, develop behavioural support structures, identify professional development opportunities and allow staff time to demonstrate skills learned before intervening.  With a challenging group of students, I always seem uncertain that I am doing enough, whilst the image seems to be that I have a lot of time and can be doing more.

The disappointing part is that I have not been able to achieve my core objectives for term 1, the completion of the math learning area plan and implement RTP in math/science.  The learning area plan is incomplete although is evolving in structure to meet the needs of the school, but RTP is mired in the structural change, until classes become settled and administrative capacity available there seems little point to implementation.

There is a always a need for those in leadership positions to lead.  With reduced numbers of L3 positions in the school I am mindful that this is ever more the case.  Morale of staff is sometimes about pointing out the obvious achievements, keeping a focus on learning, identifying the positives, dealing directly with issues, discouraging negative perceptions and generating a culture around sound student achievement.

In the last few weeks in my own classes I have focused on student engagement, developing clear connections for students between assessment outcomes and the need to take ownership of results.  It is evident that students often do not realise the need to utilise resources available, but it is equally evident that they need reasons made explicit to utilise these resources.  One example was a test that students did poorly in - I provided two options for them - attend after school classes voluntarily to improve or I'll make calls to parents and make it involuntary.  Needless to say they were empowered to turn up after school and enjoyed the well planned extension class (well done team!).  It's ideas like this that can keep a group engaged and improving.

Having my computer stolen was devastating both in a loss of trust in my students and organisationally as it is a core element of my teaching.  We had been working on iPad deployment with it, and without it we have had to stop.  It's taken time to register with police and liaise with admin, time that would be better spent on learning programmes.  I'm also disappointed that the work for the 1-1 iPad deployment was discarded for a shared model.  This too has wasted a lot of effort in developing resources and deployment infrastructure.

The structural changes in the school will evolve the idea of HoD at our school and the school will have to decide whether my abilities fits the role.  I'm doing my best to listen and enact changes as I see possible, but I need to recognise I can't be everything to everyone.  It's week 9, and not a time to over think stuff - just execute and recharge over the holidays.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Supporting students after graduation

I have witnessed many wonderful things evolve at our school, but one of the most promising is the development of effective support structures for ex students.  Developing Win-win situations for ex students and the school is very important to make these relationships work for all involved.

When I first arrived six years ago, graduating students often came back to the school and looked a bit lost.  They said hello to teachers that barely remembered their names and I would get the feeling of loss that they would feel, coming back to a place where they were happy and felt safe that was now closed to them.  This loss was heartfelt, as school is a launching pad for these students, a support that after graduation is lost.

Over the next few years we have looked at ways to engage ex-students, provide a level of support going forward and use the skills gained by students in navigating school to assist students within the system.  It's a way of leveraging the goodwill gained during the 'best' times of their lives (though if it truly is the best, I'd be sad as it is a very small part of their lives).

The most obvious way was to encourage tertiary students to help at summer school.  Students entering ATAR make mistakes preparing for the final two years and won't always listen to teachers as to the best method for preparing for one of the most stressful situations in their lives.  By coming to summer school after graduation, they can share their experiences and have clear evidence of how far they have come in comparison to their fellow students.  It's downtime for most students, so it only has minor impact on their commitments.

The recent emerging structure is seeing students come back as paid tutors after school. Students in first and second year university are finding that ICT is decreasing the number of required contact hours and they are now more free to engage in work related activities.  We have found that our graduates are happy to come back and help out in after school programmes for high performing students and tutor.  As effective tutors have typically been very difficult to find, it has been welcome to utilise they students as a resource (and fulfil a need of theirs to both belong and support their income).

A welcome aside is to assist our university bound students complete their courses.  Our success is truly measured in their success and being able to give graduating students effective post-school support at critical times in their university journey may be the difference in completing their courses and failing.  Assistance may be helping them through a first year math course and adapting to a more text orientated learning style with clear language differences than experienced in school.  Support at tertiary institutions that work for a green leafy students, may not work for our headstrong students, who either do not fit in with peers well, or are too headstrong to engage in help structures and typically do not work well in groups.  It takes them time to realise that there are students less intelligent that are completing successfully their courses and that they have something to offer beyond cynicism and self deprecating comments.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of students seeking math teaching as a pathway into the workforce.  Having employed two of our mathematics practicum teachers in our team of four and having more on standby means that we have a pool of culturally aware teachers available to develop our mathematics department that can hit the ground running and avoid common issues found with our students.  The fact that some of these are ex-students developing their peers is a whole of community bonus.

Much of this is officially non-core to our mission, but we know that many low-socioeconomic strategies have failed to increase tertiary engagement and effect social change.  Post school programmes tied back to effective in school processes may be a factor that has not been sufficiently considered.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Combined 11/12 courses for Australian Curriculum

One of the surprising successes of the school has been the running of combined classes in 11 and 12.  It has been made clear that SCASA ("the authority") does not want this to continue with Australian Curriculum.  This was stated by teachers at the Swan Schools Conference that are part of math discussion groups with SCASA.

At the moment we can run 1BC / 1DE / 2AB / 2CD / 3AB / 3CD MAT, 3AB 3CD MAS and even PA/PB or 1A courses as needs arise with a high school cohort of 470.  With an even smaller cohort this year, this will need to be reconsidered but is manageable.

We can do this because if we have 10-15 students from yr 11 and 10-12 students from yr 12, we can combine them to make a reasonable sized class (except the end courses 1DE MAT or 3CD MAT or specialist courses 3ABCD which can run at around 10 because of the larger classes).  This structure provides differentiation for our students and has been effective.

If we could not run these combined yr 11/12 classes, specialist courses could not run having a detrimental effect on school marketing as an academic institution.  Furthermore combining year groups has had the surprising effect of exposing yr 11s to students that have adjusted to yr 11/12 workloads providing the level of mentoring that MAG classes always promised (but never really delivered) because the endpoint is actually evident and the drive to work harder has clear reward.  Using this method we have built our 3CD courses to 7-8 students, a respectable 12% of our yr 12 cohort (with MAT class averages over 60% close to state averages).

The school cannot run Australian Curriculum "Focus, Essentials/General, Methods and Specialist yr 11" with class sizes of 10-15 and "Focus, Essentials, Methods and Specialist yr 12" with classes of around 10.  It will not fit within a small school math department staffing profile. It's going from 8 courses with reasonable numbers to 8 courses where the spread of students is not even, requiring additional classes (this is only evident when student cohorts are put to courses during timetabling). Add to this the increased focus on the WACE numeracy test with management of students failing the test in year 10 and then passing the test in year 11 (thus making general course sizes variable), I see issues on the horizon.

Given that a reasonable number of schools are in this predicament due to boundary degradation, half cohorts, yr 7s in private schools, gentrification and a host of local reasons,  this will further degrade the offerings of small public schools, ultimately further reducing their competitiveness.

I hope this is a direction that SCASA will reconsider.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

iPad journey

My iPad journey has hit a snag.  I designed a model that sends the iPads home and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that I won't be allowed to do it.

This means something that was meant to complement classroom activities has become something that dominates preparation time.

Let me explain...

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for the iPads, tracking usage is relatively simple.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible.  This means keeping them in locked stores, being aware of which student has and had each iPad at all times, being able to liaise with ICT when misuse happens and identify which student (in which class) had the iPad.  If multiple teachers are involved this rapidly becomes untrackable as are issues with moving between rooms around the school (30 iPads are heavy).

In a 1-1 model, students take iPads out of their bags and put them back in - no real impact.  In a classroom model, taking them from the store, issuing them to students and counting them back in at the end of the lesson is time consuming.  5-10 minutes is 10-20% of learning time.

In a 1-1 model, students are trained to do the same thing every lesson with the iPads, they become just another tool like pen and paper.  In a classroom model,  there is a novelty factor, they fiddle with them, it's harder to train them into desired behaviours (like putting them at the top of their desks when doing written work).  Furthermore, each iPad is now being used over multiple year groups with a range of students, increasing the demands for identifying suitable materials than if it was focussed on one student at a particular skill level.  There is little point designing ebooks to put on iPads if they are going to remain in cupboards rather than used in conjunction with homework.  In a classroom model, levels of students have to be catered for if the iPads are to be used effectively.  In a take home model, the iPad can be used more effectively as an intervention tool (where the student does not miss teaching whilst catching up).

Incidental usage
In a 1-1 model, incidental usage is possible.  In a classroom model,  because there is an overhead to allocating the iPads, incidental usage is not as likely - I'm not taking them out for 5 minutes of use, whereas I might let a student that has an iPad do tables practice if they have completed their work if there is one on the corner of their desk..

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for charging iPads, uploading apps and fixing small issues, along with ICT staff.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible for identifying issues, finding solutions and liasing with ICT staff.  This should not be underestimated, as anyone that is in charge of a computer lab will recognise.

Retention of work
In a 1-1 model, the work is on the iPad and can be worked on over a number of lessons. In a classroom model, classwork has to be stored on resources linked to students rather than the device and this resource needs to be accessed from multiple devices.  Although this is normally the preferred model, iPads are not well suited to this and workarounds need to be found.  Any type of user authentication will slow down classes as authentication issues reduce available teaching time.

Behavioural incentive
In a 1-1 model, loss of the device is a real behavioural incentive. In a classroom model, it's only lost until the end of a class, a minor inconvenience.

I like using the iPads as mini whiteboards, doing quizzes on topics and giving students instant feedback to how they are doing, having lessons focussed on core numeracy.  We can now video students attempting problems and use it for diagnostics of a range of tasks.. I get all that.. but ultimately...

Conclusion: Poorly suited to classroom mode use in high school
Most apps at the moment are rote learning practice based - something that is poorly suited to learning environments and better suited to play (in extension or after school classes) or at home - they are important, just not in a highschool classroom with the overhead suggested.  Unless the student is able to use the device without impact on a learning programme it has the potential to be a distraction from the main game - learning.  Unlike in primary (with the same students in a class), I can't see how I can get utilisation to a level where buying iPads is viable for students within learning area budgets for use in classrooms (IWBs, texts and exercise books are more cost effective in 95% of cases).

If you take into account that applications need to be found to use on the iPads and classes designed for their use, put these issues on top and my enthusiasm wanes rapidly.  I am not saying that these issues cannot be overcome (and I have solutions for each issue), I question whether they are worth overcoming.  The outcome at the moment is that rather than complementing classroom use, they are fast become an impact tool only, one that I'm not sure is worth the investment of time, cost and effort within a classroom compared to other techniques.

I'm sure I'm not making each point as clearly as I could but they are a basis for discussion.  I'm also a little negative as I did a lot of work to ready the programme for take home use (with enthusiasm generated by students and parents) and now have to rethink it, something that I can't do now - it will have to wait until later in the year.

Monday, March 4, 2013

IPads and the classroom

I hate ICT when used without purpose.

Some of my favourite misuses of technology:

  • Social Networking
  • Research assignments
  • Interactives
  • Online learning modules
  • Portals
  • Blogs & Wikis
If someone comes to you and says we should be doing this, immediately ask why.  I wouldn't give a teacher a sledgehammer hoping that they will find something to do with it.  That's what is happening all too often with ICT.  You can do great things with these tools, but they need to be appropriate for the task.

Rather, start with a problem that inhibits learning.  If ICT is the optimum solution for solving the problem - then use it.

I have a problem in one of our streams.  Student work rate is low in the top class and self image is at risk in the focus class.  There is no personal excitement in learning new concepts and little drive observed.  The gap between the top and bottom class is quite large and there are issues with core numeracy skills in both groups.

I had 30 IPads at my disposal, so i designed a solution to bring both classes together (50 kids) and bring some excitement back to the group.  I could have done it without the iPads but it saved me some work and was a motivational factor for the kids.  I was lucky to have four teachers available to help on the day so student ratios (even though there were a lot of kids) were low.

Problem: Low motivation and low student output.
Solution: Use the iPads as motivation for completing a large amount of work to illustrate what can be done by students.  Schedule high and low performing students together.
Method: Six worksheets on core numeracy (tables and basic number facts) were placed at the side of the room.  All students were given the first sheet (25 questions).  The next sheet was given on completion of the previous sheet.  Students were given an iPad on completion of the last sheet.  Students in the focus stream only had to complete 4 sheets in the timeframe.  A math game (KingofMaths) was placed on the iPads($30 total cost) and high scores were recorded on the board (with the top stream students given a 10000 point handicap).
Outcome: Crazy, off the chart fun.  Completely controlled chaos.  Each student completed over 100 questions in the hour with little difficulty.  The few disengaged students were identified for further work, other students were taking the incomplete sheets home to do them later.  There was a sense of fun in the room and students were able to see what they could do when they tried.  

It hasn't solved the problem (that takes time) but has given students a new way of looking at what they can do.  Next week I have some puzzles to do to challenge their thinking, not just their computation speed, using a similar model.  Given that the whole thing too about 30 minutes of preparation and was a first attempt,  I think we can improve with more efforts.  I would not do this every lesson, but once a week I can see how we can attack the type of topics used in NAPLAN and improve our results further.   Teachers in the room responded that they thought it was awesome and something completely different to what we normally do.  Hopefully it will stimulate ideas for driving teaching pedagogy further.