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Like words in a letter sent, amplified by the distance.

Loupe & lettres

A couple of days ago Vicki Davis wrote a blog post about mobile phones and teenage sleep deprivation. I commented by quoting a Kings of Convenience songs (‘Singing Softly To Me’) that points out how those things or actions not in our immediate vicinity can be romanticized or magnified to seem more important than they actually are:

Things seem so much better when
they’re not part of your close surroundings.
Like words in a letter sent,
amplified by the distance.
Possibilities and sweeter dreams,
sights and sounds calling form far away,
calling from far away.

Productivity is about dealing with the here and now and prioritizing what is important rather than extraneous.

(Image credit: Loupe & lettres by Alain Bechellier @ Flickr)

The 3 key elements of productivity.

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Productivity is big business. After all, who wouldn’t pay good money to find out how to become faster and better at work and play? The less reputable books, blogs and podcasts available would lead you to believe that there is some kind of ‘dark art’ or ‘magic formula’ to becoming more productive.

That’s simply not true.

Productivity boils down to three very straightforward things:

  1. Motivation
  2. Efficiency
  3. Choices

Let me explain…

1. Motivation

These three key elements to productivity are actually somewhat hierarchical. At the bottom of the hierarchy comes motivation. This can come from a variety of sources but all lead to a realisation that your day-to-day routine can be made faster, better and more interesting by making some changes.

Some of the best ways to get motivated that I’ve found are:

  • Getting up early
  • Reading something motivational (including the Bible)
  • Finding an audience (e.g. through blogging)
  • Holding yourself accountable to someone else
  • Having a goal in mind (e.g. spending more time with family, achieving a target amount of something)

2. Efficiency

Efficiency is doing things you already do, but faster and/or better. It’s like replacing You 1.0 with You 1.5.So instead of using a paper calendar you use an online calendar. You multitask. If there’s a way to use keyboard shortcuts in an application you use routinely, you seek them out and start using them.

Motivation must be present before time-savings and productivity boosts through efficiency can be found. It’s far too easy to maintain the status quo and do things in the same old tried-and-tested way. Efficiency involves experimentation and, as such, can be tiring as you are exercising your mental faculties more. This, of course, is good in the long run for mental development and memory retention.

3. Choices

Ultimately, though, being productive means making the correct choices, constantly improving workflows and having a decent feedback system. One of the best ways of doing this is by being part of a self-improvement community. Churc communities – at least the more evangelical ones – are naturally like this, but they can be found elsewhere.

Twitter and other social networks are good places to find motivated, enthusiastic people willing to share ideas and tips on becoming more productive. Some of the absolutely top tips, however, come from the comments sections of productivity blogs.

Here’s 5 productivity-related blogs you should definitely subscribe to:

What makes YOU more productive? 🙂

(Image credit: WAYWT? by Frederic della Faille @ Flickr)

Stepping out of the stream.

stream

The best designers worry about empty spaces more than filled spaces.

Music is as much about the silences between the notes as the notes themselves.

Learning can happen whilst you’re asleep.

Without rainy, miserable days no joy would accompany sunny weather.

To be truly productive sometimes involves doing nothing.


Short URL of this post (for Twitter, etc.) = http://bit.ly/thestream

(Image credit: Doane Falls by Pear Biter @ Flickr)

Digital Literacy and the ‘Digital Society’

watching_tv

Sometimes you come across a passage in a book or article that puts into words what you’ve been thinking for a while. Today, whilst studying for my Ed.D. that’s exactly what happened. I’m working my way through Lankshear & Knobel (eds.) Digital Literacies: concepts, policies and practices at the moment and am up to Allan Martin’s excellent article entitled Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society” (hence the title of this post).

In it, Martin hits a nail firmly on the head when he talks about the crumbling of existing structures that give meaning such as family units, church and, to some extent, the state. In the place of these, he quite rightly asserts, individuals tend to define themselves by what they consume – usually in the way of media. It’s a lengthy quotation that I’m going to share, but definitely worth it!

Society is being transformed by the passage from the “solid” to the “liquid” phases of modernity, in which all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast. They are not given enough time to solidify and cannot serve as the frame of reference for human actions and long-term life-strategies because their allegedly short life expectation undermines efforts to develop a strategy that would require the consistent fulfillment of a “life-project.” (Bauman, 205, p.303)

For those who do not belong to the global elite, life has become an individual struggle for meaning and livelihood in a world that has lost its predictability… Consumption has become the only reality, the main topic of TV and of conversation, and the focus of leisure activity. The modes of consumption become badges of order, so that to wear a football strip of a certain team (themselves now multinational concerns) or a logo of a multinational company become temporary guarantors of safety and normality.

In this society, the construction of individual identity has become the fundamental social act. The taken-for-granted structures of modern (i.e., industrial) society – the nation state, institutionalized religion, social class – have become weaker and fuzzier as providers of meaning and, to that extent, of predictability. Even the family has become more atomized and short term. Under such conditions individual identity becomes the major life-project. You have to choose the pieces (from those available to you) rather than having them (largely) chosen for you. In this context, awareness of the self assumes new importance, reflexivity is a condition of life; a life that needs to be constantly active and constantly re-created. And care is needed, because each individual is responsible for their own biography. Risk and uncertainty have become endemic features of the personal biography, and individual risk-management action is thus an essential element of social action (Beck, 1992, 2001). The community can be no longer regarded as a given that confers aspects of identity, and the building of involvement in communities has become a conscious action-forming part of the construction of individual identity. Individualization has positive as well as negative aspects: the freedom to make one’s own biography has never been greater, a theme frequently repeated in the media. But the structures of society continue to distribute the choices available very unequally, and the price of failure is greater since social support is now offered only equivocally.

This certainly resonates with my experience, especially of teenagers. I believe, as Martin later argues, that it’s our job as teachers to instil in youngsters the digital literacy/competence/fluency (whatever you want to call it!) to be able to critically and reflectively deal with media and the digital world.

Does this resonate with YOU too? 😀

(image credit: mesmerised by Joe Thorne & Flickr)

My presentation @ TeachMeet Midlands 2009

TeachMeet Midlands 2009

This evening I’ll be attending TeachMeet Midlands 2009 at the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham. If you’ve never heard of a TeachMeet before, they’re based around the idea of an unconference, ‘facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.’ (Wikipedia) I’ve been to a couple before – both of which were additions to the BETT Show – and they’re great events. There’s a fantastic buzz around the place, people passionate about what they do, and it’s a wonderful way to not only meet up with people you’ve only talked to online, but to come across new faces as well! 🙂

My (micro)presentation

I’ve signed up on the TeachMeet wiki to do a 7-minute micropresentation. Initially, I was going to talk about my role this year as E-Learning Staff Tutor and a bit about my Ed.D. on digital literacy. However, TeachMeets should be a lot more focused on classroom practice, so I’ve decided to instead talk about what I’ve been doing with my Year 10 History class.

This year I saw my having a new, fairly able GCSE History class as a good opportunity to try out some new methods and approaches to the course. As students at my school now have four lessons of their option subject per week instead of three, I decided to have one of them timetabled in an ICT suite. The room I was allocated has tiered seating and laptops, which was even better! :-p

After looking at various options, I decided to use Posterous for their homework blogs. Reasons for this include:

  • Blog posts can be written by email.
  • It deals with media in an ‘intelligent’ way (e.g. using Scribd to embed documents, making slideshows out of images)
  • Avatars allow for personalization.

I set almost no homework apart from on their blogs. This means that on a Friday they start an activity using (usually) a Web 2.0 service and then add it to their blog via embedding or linking. The only problem with this has been Posterous not supporting iFrames, meaning that Google Docs, for example have to be exported to PDF and then uploaded. Students are used to this now and it doesn’t really affect their workflow.

Examples of student work

Links to all blogs can be found at http://mrbelshaw.posterous.com

Student feedback

I should, perhaps, have asked for parental permission to video students’ opinions about this approach. From what they tell me, they greatly enjoy working on their blogs. In fact, a Geography teacher at school has hijacked one of my students’ blogs so she does work for both History and Geography on it! I think they appreciate the following things:

  • Presentation (a lot easier, especially for boys, to produce good-looking work)
  • Multimedia (they’re not looking at paper-based stuff all the time)
  • Collaboration (they get to work with others whilst still having ‘ownership’ of the final product on their blogs)

It’s a system that I’d definitely recommend and I shall be using in future! 😀

Short URL for this post (for Twitter, etc.) = http://bit.ly/4jD6V

Why (educational) technology?

'The Thinker' and laptopBen Grey got in touch via a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter earlier this week asking my opinion and for some help. Although I haven’t (virtually) known Ben for that long, I like him. He comes across as a intelligent, knowledgeable, considered – yet humble and understated kind of guy. Given that, and the fact that what he was asking of me is close to my heart, of course I’ve responded! 😀

Ben asked:

I thought it would be helpful, and perhaps a powerful learning opportunity as well as resource, if I could gather a series of responses from a variety of minds in the field of education on the question I posed in my recent Tech & Learning post, “Why Technology?”  http://www.techlearning.com/blogs/20444

If you’re up for it, would you mind giving me your input on the question?  That can be done in the form of an email, a blog post, a comment on the T&L blog, or some other form of your choosing.

The problem is this: it’s easy to cut funding on technology-related projects citing technology as some kind of ‘luxury’ or ‘optional add-on’. I’ve got three points in reply to Ben’s post:

  1. What price education?
  2. Learning cultures and communities
  3. Invisible technology

I shall take each point, as they say, in turn:

What price education?

i_has_a_moneyIn his post Why Technology? Ben cites economic problems as reasons for school districts in the U.S. cutting back:

I’ve heard from several colleagues in various states that there is pressure mounting to cut both future and existing plans for increasing technology utilization in their districts.  Many districts are eliminating technology personnel as well.  The primary catalyst for this is being blamed on the economy.  Budgets are being trimmed and belts are being tightened, and it would appear to those wielding the shears that technology is the low hanging fruit.

At times of stress, we tend to revert back to what we know and be conservative. That’s why under-pressure teachers teach as they were themselves taught and parents tend to discipline their kids in the same way they were disciplined. But to do something just because ‘it’s the way it’s always been done’ or because someone you respect did it that way is fundamentally misguided. It takes into account neither context nor the purpose for which you or the organization for which you were are there.

Every generation needs to ask questions and tell its own story. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been done with education for at least a couple of generations. So as many commentators put it, we’re in the situation where students ‘power down’ when they come to school. They’re using the tools of previous generations. It’s at best anachronistic, and at worst dangerous to the intellectual health of the western world. 🙁

Learning cultures and communities

lolcat_tweetsMy grandmother is fairly representative of her generation. Not only does she have no idea when it comes to the internet, but she cannot comprehend how it can allow ‘communities’ to spring up. The latter point is something that is shared by others, some of whom are much younger than her. I have argued this point before, but most teachers, themselves being successful at school under the ‘old system,’ have if not an opposition to wholesale changes in education then certainly an inertia to change. Hence the status quo reigns supreme.

We’re used to both seeing school buildings and having not only children’s lives but those of adults being centred around the school day and the school year. Never mind that, for example, the long summer holiday was a result of a no-longer-needed nod to children helping with harvests! We carry on with what we’ve got because it’s familiar. But familiarity is no basis on which to resist change.

Newspapers and the media in general bemoan the breakdown of communities. By that, of course, they mean physical communities: people talking over hedges, leaving their doors unlocked, that sort of thing. What is ignored in their reactionary rants is abundance of technology-mediated networks. (I hesitate to use the word ‘virtual’ as it makes them sound less ‘real’) Just because older generations do not realise the importance of technology for communication should not mean they deny access to it to those who are already using it for such purposes.

Invisible technology

lolcat_invisible_everythingBut what is ‘technology’ after all? Pen and paper are ‘technologies’ yet we don’t tend to think of them as such. I would argue that it exactly our conception of something being ‘a technology’ that places an unnecessary barrier in the way of its widespread use. I don’t believe its simply playing with semantics to talk of ‘tools’ instead of ‘technologies’ – especially when the discussions about ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ becomes if not blurred then increasingly irrelevant with the advent of cloud computing. Laptops, after all, are almost commodity items these days.

To discuss technology is to talk about the wrong thing. You will always lose a debate if the only position from which you argue is that we should use more technology in education. The technology needs to be used as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. That’s for specialized clubs, hobbyists and those for whom technology is a passion. Education has the dual role of preparing young people for society and opening their eyes and minds. If technology, in whatever guise it takes, helps with that then so much the better.

At the end of the day, technology has the potential to change relationships and therefore disrupt power structures. I can’t help but think that it’s the desire of teachers to remain at the front of classrooms, senior leaders to remain behind desks, and parents to stick to what they know that results in no real fundamental, technology-driven changes happening in education.

What do YOU think? Do you agree with the above? What IS the role of technology in education? Join the discussion! 😀

Short URL for this blog post (for Twitter, etc.) = http://bit.ly/whytech

Everything that’s wrong with educational management, summed up in 3 Dilbert cartoons.

Before I start, I must point out that this is not a dig at all the members of the Senior Leadership Team at my current school. Not at all. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the practices that traps people in management positions – at all levels – sometimes fall into. They’re therefore traps I’m going to do my best to avoid when I become part of the Senior Leadership Team at my next school!

Shiny Shiny

Dilbert - pie charts

I’ve seen two awful presentations in the past couple of weeks. One was just monumentally bad – the presenter couldn’t find files, sat us through ages of short video clips and sprang questions at us to fill in time – and the other was just rambling and poorly thought-out. What was common to both approaches, however, was the assumption “I’m using technology therefore this must be a good presentation.” Gah.

I take the above Dilbert cartoon in the way that I think it’s meant to be read – i.e. as an extremely sarcastic and ironic look at how easily people are impressed by things that look good. That, to some extent is true. But it’s only true when accompanied by at least some level of competence in presenting information in an interesting and engaging way. Technology does not do the presentation for you!

On a slightly tangential note, I’m also concerned about the uncritical and all-too-credulous nature of otherwise intelligent people when presented with graphics that represent statistics. It’s critical literacy and a basic understanding of statistics. A grasp of these should be a pre-requisite for a career in any professional occupation…

Surfing the status quo

Dilbert - 'good'

Hiding behind desks is something that people in management in the world over are particularly good at. In schools its especially straightforward to seem good at your job if you get the data right. Schools only have to be seen to be doing things correctly – they aren’t inspected very often, parents are often (sometimes voluntarily) left out of the everyday loop concerning their child’s interactions at school, and the status quo suits most people very well.

So if you can engineer a situation where you or your institution seem to be doing everything right, the weight of conservative opinion and social inertia are on your side. As a manager you just need to jump through the oft-renamed hoops.

What am I planning to do? Aim to be an expert. Of course, I’ll never actually achieve my goal for, in a Socratic manner, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Still, it’s the process that’s important – as Kathy Sierra pointed out back in the day on her much-missed blog:

How to be an expert - graph (Kathy Sierra)

Most managers are ‘amateurs’ on this graph. They find a way that works for them and then keep on doing it. Over time, this means inconveniencing others and distorting things to make things fit into their system.

Those who choose the ‘expert’ path and challenge themselves to keep learning become – perhaps inadvertently – leaders, as the enthusiasm for continuous learning and their own professional development attracts others like a magnet!

‘Drive-by’ management

Dilbert - drive-by management

One of the results of being an ‘average’ manager (see above) is that, by not challenging yourself to learn new things, you will have spare time. Feeling guilty about this, managers then want to make sure they look like they’re doing their job and have authority. They therefore make things up for people to do, are awkward just for the sake of it, or ‘drop-in’ on people and point out irrelevancies.

I’m going to take as a fundamental maxim that people should be trusted to be professionals and get on with their job. Yes, there should be as much appropriate communication as possible, but attempts to micro-manage and meddle usually backfire. I suppose you could say that’s a fairly laid-back approach. Fair enough, but I’ll be demanding results! I think people will respect that. 🙂

What do YOU find wrong with management in education? Share your opinions in the comments section below!

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Schools and the Procrustean Bed: are we really ‘personalising’ learning?

‘There is something about the Procrustean bed about schools; some children are left disabled by being hacked about to fit the curriculum; some are stretched to take up the available space, others less malleable are labeled as having special educational needs.’ (C. Bowring-Carr and J. Burnham West)

Procrustean BedI mentioned the above quotation in a blog post way back in 2006. I was concerned then about the various ‘agendas’ in education, and that’s even more the case today. The ‘personalising learning’ agenda is supposed to be about tailoring educational experiences to each and every child yet, in 2009, we still have classes of 30 or more children with one teacher standing in front of them. The focus seems to have moved onto technology as some type of ‘saviour’. In that respect, it’s sad to see Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), compulsory in English schools since the beginning of this academic year, being used simply as file repositories.

Whilst some schools may talk about ‘appropriate’ or ‘accelerated’ entry, it’s difficult to see how this is in the best interests of students. In most cases it’s a strategy for schools to squeeze as many exam passes from their students as possible: whilst those studying the highest level of exams have extra lessons in those subjects, those at the other end of the spectrum are re-taking basic examinations until they pass them. It’s hard to see how this completely examination-focused approach is ‘personalisation’ in any important, meaningful sense.

What is needed is a complete rethink – of the curriculum (based on competencies?), of learning spaces (like any of these Futurelab suggestions?), of the structure of the school day, of staff/students ratios and relationships, of the nature of ‘schooling’ and education in the 21st century.

What do YOU think? Is ‘personalisation’ working in YOUR school?

(image taken from this university course page – assumed fair use)

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What are the ‘functional specifications’ of a VLE that drive real learning?

You may want to read my post What is a VLE? as an introduction to this post!

lp-dvd-capture-05It’s the nature of blogs that they reflect the ideas and interests of those who write them. As a consequence, this particular one has, of late, featured much on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of E-Learning – i.e. the systems and processes that enable Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), for example, to work effectively.

In my new role as Director of E-Learning (and I quote from my job description) it is my responsibility to:

Ensure the creation of the virtual learning environment (VLE), identifying clear targets, time-scales and success criteria for its development and maintenance in line with the Academy Development plan.

As such, in conjunction with the ICT Advisor from the Academy’s consultants, I need to come up with some ‘functional specifications’ for the VLE. We shall be using the existing VLE that is in place in the current High school, either developing that or replacing it for the new build in 2011.

Becta’s list of functional requirements can be found here, but I wanted to ask those in my network if they had any other suggestions. Here’s what they came up with in a short space of time (click to enlarge):

In terms of what I want to see in a VLE, I think it needs to:

  • Be a collaborative space where students and staff can collaborate on documents and web pages (like Google Apps)
  • Enable users to have appropriate contact with others within the Academy and the wider community by a range of methods (e.g. Twitter-like microblogging, instant messaging, shared whitetboards, video conferencing,email, social networking)
  • Promote learning by have clearly structured course elements, rather than be a file repository.
  • Process appropriate data quickly in a visually-appealing and easy-to-understand way for Academy staff, students, and parents.
  • Allow students to publish their work to various parties: peers, teachers, the Academy, the world.
  • Enable outside agencies to access appropriate data on students, staff and Academy issues.
  • OpenID login so users have a single sign-on and have more control over their digital identity.
  • Integration with immersive worlds such as Second Life (as, for example Sloodle does)

I’m sure by 2011 there will be many other things I want the VLE to do function-wise, but that’s enough for now… Would appreciate your input in the comments section! 😀

(image by Mr Ush @ Flickr)

Looking to the future of education: learning spaces and mobile devices

Tomorrow, I’m off to a school – the one I attended as a teenager – that will form part of Northumberland Church of England Academy. I’m going there as Director of E-Learning after my successful Twitter-powered interview. I start officially in September! It’s the first of a series of meetings looking at the ICT/E-Learning systems for the Academy and we’ll be looking at ‘Devices and Learning Spaces’. This post, therefore, is a result of my reading around this subject and interaction with colleagues on Twitter. 😀

'Mobile Application Prototypes that Relate to Location - Sheridan Interactive Multimedia One Year Post Grad College in Oakville' by Dan Zen @ Flickr

Futurelab

Any time I want to get up-to-speed quickly with an area of educational technology or the future of schools, I head straight for Futurelab. I’ve worked with them many times as part of their Teachers as Innovators programme, was interviewed for their website, and have presented with them at the BETT Show. Futurelab’s Publications, reports & articles section has freely-available PDFs and, if you’re in the UK, you can request hard copies to be delivered for no charge!

In terms of learning spaces and mobile devices, I believe the following Futurelab reports to be most useful:

Futurelab have also been responsible for some great projects that use mobile technologies – read about them in the project reports section. They’ve also got a project called Beyond Current Horizons that looks into the future of education in 2025 and beyond. Interesting stuff!

Suggestions from my Twitter network

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people that form my network on Twitter were most helpful when it came to mobile devices: most of them are educators rather than school designers (with the exception of Christian Long who is – or has been – both!)

Here’s what they recommended:

Mobile Devices

Learning Spaces

Finally, there’s Becta’s Next Generation Learning site. There are, no doubt, many resources and sites that should be added here. If you know of one, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll add it! 🙂

(Image by Dan Zen @ Flickr)

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