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EduTech Africa 2017 Day Two – Spot The Teacher!

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Trying to extract the main theme of the second day at the EduTechAfrica Conference is a bit like trying to spot the ball in one of those popular press football competitions from my youth! Mark Sham set the tone by calling on the conference to dismantle schooling entirely! He reminded us that schooling’s function is to reinforce inequality in society, and in a world where artificial intelligence threatens almost all our jobs, schooling, by stifling creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills is not just broken, but is positively dysfunctional.

Dee Moodley on the other hand talked about the importance of Presence, that almost indefinable human aspect to education, the human touch that all teachers need. Neelam Parmar stressed the need to drive change through reshaping education through experiential learning. People need to look forward to change! Meanwhile the coding and robotics people were agonizing over how to manage a coding across the curriculum agenda, and in another track the process of managing ICT integration technically and in terms of human resources was being poured over. Mark Hayter and Lora Foot reminded us that teachers need to be able to function within newly imagined learning spaces.

The mantra for the day was perhaps “the teacher is still the driver”. And yet the role of the teacher is clearly a contested space. There are many visions of the teacher at stake: the teacher as someone who needs to be converted as ICT Champion; the teacher who needs coaxing and mentoring to overcome their fear of technology; the teacher who must nurture or engage her students; the teacher who must experiment and play; the teacher who must surrender control of the classroom. The teacher who must oversee the dismantling of the schooling system itself!

What is perhaps most clear is that the role of teachers is as uncertain as the role of technology in education itself. We are at that wonderful moment, perhaps, where there are as many visions of the future as there are eyes to see, and anything is possible. What frightens me, frankly is that the rise of big data may well overtake these democratic impulses and squash them with a technocratic Taylorist vision of educational efficiency. In a world where Betsy de Vos can run the education system in America, technology may well become an authoritarian nightmare!

Perhaps the only bulwark against this might be to find the teacher in the picture and ensure that teaching and learning remains a deeply humanistic endeavour. Only by finding the teacher can we ensure that values are central to our schooling system.

 

 

 

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School Management Systems – A Necessary Evil?

Nobody loves their School Management System. It can never do everything you need it to do, and over time the things that get in the way of being more efficient somehow seem to get larger, and what you liked about the system begins to shrink in comparison. You begin to curse its name whenever a report prints with a sudden and random font face change, when not all the names in a class list pop up on your screen, or when random students are added to the netball team for no apparent reason!

img_20160927_115307So it was with some trepidation that I set out to attend a one day user group conference for our new School Management System, Engage. There’s nothing I like less than product sell presentations, so the prospect of a whole day of ra-ra-ra filled me with dread.

By School Management System (SMS) I do not mean a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Google Classroom, although some SMSs include an LMS component. An LMS deals with classroom management, facilitating the storage of learning materials, assignment submission and online grading, discussion and feedback. School Management Systems, on the other hand deal with school management, attendance, administration, fees, asset control, reporting and so on. Not everyone makes this distinction, but I think it is important to differentiate between the two functions, even when they come in the same package.

Both are vital in the 21st Century school.There are still teachers who use paper grade books or hand-write their lesson plans, but increasingly one of the great benefits of using technology is to free teachers from some of the drudge of recreating learning materials. I remember when cyclostyled worksheets were the order of the day. Each year they had to be re-created. A computer allows materials that work to be edited rather than endlessly re-typed, allowing energy to go into creating new materials. Technology has also allowed text only resources to become more multi-media and interactive. One of the huge advantages of a good LMS is the ability to store these resources online within learning plans that can be edited and good to go in a much shorter time.

Similarly the advent of the SMS has revolutionized school administration. This is not something that I think about very often. As a teacher I have a very hazy notion of what goes on inside the school office. I know they answer phones a lot, and send messages out about how so-and-so will be late because their puppy died, and provide us with class lists and newsletters and stuff. But teachers are either in their classrooms teaching or whinging in the staff room, and seldom question the amount of school administration that supports work at the chalk-face.

This year I was asked to give up some of my classroom duties to become the systems administrator for our new SMS. I have suddenly had to learn a great deal about school admin as a whole, and hence the conference. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the level of support that the SMS provider offers. Support tickets that go unanswered are the last thing you want, and a good Help Desk is worth any number of features. The main reason we decided to switch SMS was in fact the lack of support. This is not to say that the features offered by an SMS are not important. Of course it is. Much of the Engage User Conference dealt in fact with new features, some specifically developed for South Africa.

For many schools different software packages have been cobbled together to do different tasks. A School Management System really needs to be a one stop shop, integrating different features within the school. A prime requirement is to find a system which can replace different applications as seamlessly as possible. However, it also needs to be user-friendly so that even the most Luddite teacher can use it. It should be secure, and meet privacy requirements. This is a tall order, and might explain why levels of satisfaction with an SMS often fall after the honeymoon starts to wear off.

Engage manages to be both a user-friendly and a feature rich package which includes Accounts, Fees, Administration and Learning Management Systems. In presentations which whip through everything any software has to offer I have to admit to a certain inattention. It is all a bit bewildering. At this Conference we have a software developer from the UK skyping us on the big screen walking us through using the gradebook. What strikes me the most is the necessity of great flexibility to suit every school’s way of doing things. Schools are such wonderfully idiosyncratic places! In discussions over lunch we talk about the timetabling module. Each school has a different set of criteria. I feel for the software developers, having to try to satisfy so many different needs.

I am crucially aware of what awaits me trying to sell the changes to my staff, who are used to doing things on other systems. I have a feeling I will have my work cut out for me.

 

The Elephant in the Room – Equity: The Digital Education Show 2015 (part 2)

CQtp5eKUYAAsD2PJaye Richards-Hill, in her address at the Digital Education Show in Sandton, Johannesburg, raised the central issue of equity. I wrote yesterday that I thought the Conference was pitching itself behind where it ought to be, that we need to be focusing strongly on the how part: how to integrate technology into our pedagogies, rather than the why: the advocacy part. In her talk, however, Jaye reminded us of the absolute imperative for this.

Research indicates that when used well, technology does improve results. While other research indicates that the use of technology alone does not lead to any improvements. If we are to do it at all, we absolutely need to make sure we do it well.

Given the huge divide between elite schools and under-resourced schools, digital technologies might offer a means for closing the gap and addressing the issue of equity. Bridging this divide is not just important, it is actually a necessity for our society if we are to stand any chance of picking ourselves up by the boot-straps! After years of Apartheid Education we have botched our post-liberation educational strategies, and desperately need to pull something out of the fire. The Government White Paper on Digital Education, full of excellent intent, has never been implemented on the ground, and we have been saddled with programmes which have sought to put the technology into the schools without a thought for training, either on how to use the technology, or more crucially, on how to use it to teach!

I currently teach in a well-resourced, elite school, but I began my career teaching at Phambili, a People’s Education pilot school in Durban, which catered for students excluded by the State on the grounds of political activism, and those displaced by the violence in the province. I then taught at St Enda’s, an inner-city school in Johannesburg for thirteen years. At both of these schools I saw highly creative teachers able to do a fantastic job despite the lack of resources. I also saw some teachers who were bone-idle and responsible for gross dereliction of duty, either because they lacked the knowledge to be able to teach their subjects, or because they lacked dedication.

The real elephant in the room is the teacher, because those who teach creatively without digital technologies will without doubt become creative teachers with the technology. The clear take-away from this conference for me is that we need to be focusing on empowering teachers in how to teach their subjects using technologies so that we can begin to use the affordances of these tools to address the key imperative of equity.

While many schools do not have wi-fi, or Internet connectivity, even well-resourced schools find their wi-fi inadequate to the purpose. As teachers we need to learn how to be resourceful and creative. When I taught at St Enda’s we had a computer room, but no Internet. I created a portal, and downloaded three or four complete websites every day so that students could find the content they needed via off-line browsing. All copied via a stiffy disk, I have to add! I know that teaching in schools without resources is hard. Stuck in an un-air-conditioned computer room all day, with no free periods, no tech support and aging computers is no fun. I am useless at fixing hardware, but I spent a great deal of my time on my hands and knees looking for unplugged cables or for where the rats had gnawed through the insulation! I spent a great deal of my free time trying to learn how to code add-ons for the school portal to allow students to chat collaboratively, or send each other messages. I had one of the very early versions of Moodle installed, but couldn’t get it to work properly without Internet.

OK, you’ve got me all dewy-eyed reminiscing about the bad old days, but my point is that I do believe that having access to a computer room with even the rudimentary resources I could muster, did add some value to my students’ educations. More importantly I had a group of students who worked on maintaining a school website, learned HTML and some JavaScript, and came in almost every lunch-break to work on the sections of the site they were responsible for. Without Internet.

We need to make absolutely sure that we understand the absolute importance of giving teachers the skills and knowledge they need to be able to use appropriate technologies in their classrooms. We cannot wait for the State to own up to their responsibility to provide electricity and bandwidth to all schools, we need to do whatever we can, wherever we can, whenever we can.

An Education Department official told me that he knew of programmes which were lauded as successes on paper, but had not been implemented on the ground. He lamented the fact that one could not go to the Director and point this out because it would mean instant dismissal. This case should not arise, of course, but it points clearly to the absolute imperative for grounding all roll-outs of ICT integration firmly in the classroom, and resting power in the hands of the teacher and their pedagogical needs.

When I was teaching at Phambili, we saw our purpose as being to pilot what democratic school management and People’s Education looked like so that it would be replicable for all schools in a post-Apartheid society. That seems wildly Romantic and idealistic now! But I think we need a similar focus today on what it looks like to use digital technologies in a classroom to foster critical thinking and improve students’ skills and knowledge acquisition. We need solutions that are replicable and do not necessarily depend on a solid infrastructure.

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2015 in Conferences

 

Behind the Wave: The Digital Education Show 2015

IMG_20151006_091801I am attending the Digital Education Show in Sandton, Johannesburg. In many ways it provides a snap-shot of where we are in terms of ICT integration in South Africa. I have to say that I am somewhat bewildered, and not at all sure what to make of it all. There is much that is inspirational. Tim Rylands, in the opening address, took us through a roller-coaster ride of apps and software tools, all free, that can enhance work in the classroom. Great fun, but it smacks of the fact that even in 2015, we are still at the stage of championing the need for ICT integration.

Both in presentations, and in conversations in the hall, it is clear that in most of the country we are a million miles from meaningful adoption. Smart boards installed without training, laptops and tablets gathering dust in storerooms was a common theme. Clearly we are behind the wave! The government did not come up with a coherent plan, and where they did implement strategies it was deeply flawed. A clearly identified reason was the dumping of technology in schools without heed to its pedagogical impact. What was good to see at this conference was the clear recognition of this. Clearly we have started to move on from being wowed by the cool tools, towards an emphasis on how to use them meaningfully in the classroom.

The ever inspiring Maggie Verster led a round table discussion on the work of ICT4RED in working with teachers to explore the integration of tablets into their pedagogical practice. Maggie’s insistence on uses which do not need the Internet, so unreliable in our schools, is instructive. Many presentations were similarly forward-looking. Professor Adam Gazzaley gave a presentation on how games are  being developed to target weaknesses in the brain to lead to improvements. Measuring impact, and using predictive algorithms offers truly Science Fiction prospects for personalizing education. DR Ethan Danahy gave us a talk on the use of robotics, and a glimpse of what lies ahead of the wave as we move from fixed computers, through mobile devices to an environment in which digital making is deployed to teach at all levels of the school. It’s a future which has not quite arrived, and as with the use of gaming and using neuroscience, it promises tantalising fruits of what might be. Steve Vosloo’s talk on mobiles and storytelling was truly interesting. How do educational developers listen to users?

Lora Foot’s talk on how the Flipped Classroom was introduced at Kingsmead, and how to manage fear of change, and Arnold Lamont’s talk on digital assessment both engaged with the very real challenges involved in change, and how much of it is about mind-set.

I am looking forward to an afternoon of gamification, social media and apps! But I have to say that although this conference clearly maps a wave of change, and there is much to feel optimistic about, I get a sense that we are still behind the wave, and struggling to keep up. Until teachers have been adequately trained to use the technology, and sufficient infrastructure is in place to support technology use in schools we are looking at an overwhelmingly dim picture! We need to be putting money into training rather than devices, and then handing over to teachers to explore how they go about using it in the classroom. And yet I still see an overwhelming emphasis on the device rather than the know-how!

I would have been much happier if the conference had focused on sharing best practice, indeed sharing best practice when you have nothing! So far very little has been said about pedagogy! And right now I reckon pedagogy is sitting on the crest of the wave.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in Conferences

 

Using Smartphones & Twitter to Support Learning

DSC01905One of the most powerful tools afforded by modern smartphones is the ability to take a picture and upload it onto twitter to share, almost instantaneously. This functionality, the backbone of social media, is also very useful in the classroom. That picture can become available within moments, either displayed on a screen in the classroom, or on everyone else’s phones using a hashtag. This is an excellent way of sharing information quickly and having it available for discussion.

We started the year with our grade 8s by holding a workshop on Thinking Skills. One of the exercises revolved around getting the girls to find objects around the school that filled them with “wonderment and awe” and photograph it with their cameras and use a twitter hashtag to post it in a form where they could show an entire grade packed into the school hall what they had found. This combination of sharing something you have photographed and talking about it represents a very powerful pedagogical tool, bringing together observation and reflection.

twitMany students use the camera on their phones to capture their homework, or notes on the board. They can do the same to share something they have written in their books. I find twitter the best for sharing because most students have twitter accounts and access it on their phones. Getting students to create images like the one on the left is a great way to spark debate, and is very engaging. By getting students to write or draw something, and then share it, rather than calling an individual to the board to do so, ensures that everyone attempts the question or task, and allows you to select responses to discuss that address interesting teaching points.

One can also get students to create six second videos “vines” as feedback responses. Having only six seconds to play with forces students to summarise their responses into a single sentence or idea. Allowing groups to record a short piece of feedback and then post to twitter also means that you do not have to go through the often laborious, and frequently pointless process of listening to every group’s feedback on a task. You can pick out any interesting points raised for a follow-up session. I often hear it said that twitter is useless for education because it allows only a limited number of characters – but in fact that’s all you need to summarise your main point. The reflection and agreeing on a main point is where the learning happens. Twitter does allow the class to access aspects of an individual or a group’s thinking to fuel further discussion, and as such, is an invaluable tool in the classroom.

 

Stoodle

stoodle2Stoodle is a web application which allows you, without any download or registration, to create a quick classroom space. By sharing the URL of the classroom you can invite other participants. You can use microphone or text based chat, and upload files (images) to discuss.

It is a somewhat crude platform compared to Elluminate or other classroom spaces, but it is so easy to set up, it is great for enabling student group-work sessions online, or conducting quick seminars! What I like about it is that it so quick to launch, and the interface is clean and straight to the point.

stoodle

You can only upload image files to share on the “whiteboard”, but you can add text and are able to add extra pages. This allows you, in effect to build an impromptu slide show, You can also record video.

The site itself presents as a tool for both students and teachers to use, and this, to my mind, is one of its most exciting aspects.

All in all it looks like a powerful and promising educational tool. And, best of all, it is free to use! You can’t argue with free!

 

Lesson Planning can be Sweet Music!

At the ICT in the Classroom Conference in Johannesburg, I was introduced to John Davitt’s Classroom Management software Learning Score.

At the moment you can download it for free. The software allows you to set out a lesson plan, much like a music score, by populating a timeline with activities, media, indications of whether it is individual or group-work, and so on. This “score” can then be played on the interactive Whiteboard, assisting one to manage a lesson. It also allows lesson plans to be developed, stored and shared on a 21st Century platform.

Files can be launched from within the score itself. There is also a menu command for saving as a SCORM, but I haven’t been able to get this to work yet. Potentially it looks like a fantastic tool for not only planning, but also recording lesson-plans in a format which could be used on a school Moodle, for example.

The following video introduces the software:

 

I have yet to use the software in anger, so to speak, and am looking forward to trying it out in earnest!

 
 
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