Being connected

Thank you

There are many who may disagree, but one of the things that I have really liked this year has been then ease with which my students have been e-mailing me. There are some I believe that would say that they appreciate their privacy and while I understand that, I also know that the 10 seconds to two minutes that it may take me to answer an e-mail can be the difference between a student who is very concerned about something, and a student who feels that they can now tackle a problem. This weekend has been especially busy as a large number of my students have a very large assignment due Monday, and so I have answered over 20 questions already today from them. Was this an interruption to my day? Not really, I answered at all times, when I had a few minutes or a few seconds to give them, but never when I was spending time with the people that matter in my life or doing the things I like. So while I know there are more to come today and tomorrow, I was happy to receive this message from one of my students on her e-mails, it also reminded me that while I may be e-mailing them, they are all on Facebook behind the scenes talking about everything that’s going on.

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Blown hard against the rocks…

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for the last couple of days.  We had a school professional development day on Friday.  It was, I thought, a very good day and one that included some wonderful elements.  Even my presentation on web 2.0 went well, although I wish it would have been better attended, but it’s a difficult concept for some to wrap their heads around, and the way it was set up, everyone could really only make one choice.  Much of what interested me however, was what happened in our morning session where we were looking at what we need to do to tackle reform in education.  I am continually encouraged when it comes to the way we are approaching education reform in my world (understanding that there may be some rose-coloured glasses involved because it’s what I earnestly hope for).  First off we watched Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful RSAnimate video on shifting education paradigms.  A video which, even though it’s been made available in plethora of locations I think it’s worth embedding here, again.

What heartened me was the general reaction of so many who saw the video that really Sir Ken brings forward some awesomely powerful arguments.  That so many really want to buy into what he has to say.  It reminded me of how much more powerfully change can be affected with the use of things like YouTube.  Sir Ken certainly brings vitality to the education ‘reform’ debate, and the web allows us to be affected by what he says much more immediately than we might have been in the past.  Certainly there is no need for schools or other institutions to go spend thousands (tens of thousands?) of dollars to be powerfully impacted by people like him.  I also noted that even our province’s website that is advocating a discussion in education reform has Sir Ken’s speech embedded in it.

Not everything is rosy however, I guess nothing ever is.  It was driven home for me again today when I read Dr. Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant post from Thursday.  The points that Dr. McLeod enumerated for why we are not changing included this one comment about teachers who feel they cannot change:

believe they can’t because of “the tests” (a claim for which I’m skeptical for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that we already did low-level instruction with kids before “the tests”)

This point of view was of course in evidence although certainly with many variations of the theme.  So what to do?  Do we just keep going around and around in a circle chasing our tail or do we actually try and make a difference?

Ultimately I believe that Sir Ken argues that the structure criticized by Dr. McLeod is not necessarily our fault it has just happened over a period of time much longer than any of us have been alive.  That our system was originally designed for some very different purpose than what it is now being used for.  I am now convinced more than ever that we, the teachers, who are in the front line need to follow the pathfinders we already have in our midst and figure out how we can move in a direction of more engagement and a more diverse approach to education.

  • Will it be easy? – Not by a long shot.
  • Will it be messy? – Absolutely!
  • Do we have a choice? – I believe we do not!

We can try and wait for those in charge to lead us, but we could be waiting a long time.  Let’s not let these winds of reform get blown hard against the rocks like so many attempts before have been. With modern technology and people like Sir Ken Robinson advocating for change, we might just have a chance.

Just as long as no one mentions money (uggh).

Reconnecting

So it’s been far too long since I posted a blog entry and I think it’s about time that I reconnect. I’m a little ashamed of my delinquency, but at the same time I am glad that I am taking an initiative to get back involved. I have to admit I found last year that I felt like at times I was speaking into a vacuum and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was having any impact whatsoever. In fact I’m fairly certain that my impact was significantly less than I would have liked. If I think of it from a student’s perspective I had lost that feeling of authenticity. So I have been looking to recover that feeling, and I think with the help of Steve Hargadon’s presentation on the Reform Symposium (from July, I am little late listening to it, eep) I think I may have found it. He wonderfully summarized the entire experience on the web as similar to a conversation taking place inside a packed stadium. There is lots of noise but the conversation you have with someone else can help cut out the rest of that noise and that it is the most important bit of noise for you and your interlocutors.

In the end however that wasn’t the reason why I necessarily started to blog. I need to remember that this is my place to reflect on what I see. If others wish to engage me in that conversation that is fantastic, but I am going to make of it what I can. I believe there is a lot of power in doing that, and I am fairly confident that knowing that there are so many high quality educators around the world that eventually I will tweak somebody’s ear!

I also felt I had to rename (rebrand?) this website. Really it is a little thing, but I think that my new title better summarizes what I think I will be doing here.

As I come back perhaps I can stop feeling like Kramer in this clip…

Filters and other annoyances (well actually only filters)

This idea has been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks.  I have been trying to figure out how to write this with a feeling of anything less than sheer and utter frustration.  It is mainly because my friend Cynthia wrote me an e-mail on Friday asking me to describe what our filtering system is like that I’ve been provoked into action.  Clearly filters are an issue about which many of us in the blogosphere have written long and sometimes distressing entries.  I have no intention of rehashing that although I think that you should visit the following blogs from David Truss’ entries here and here to get an idea, although there are many more!  Beyond the fact that they are a reactive approach to controlling students web activities, rather than a proactive approach to the problem, I’m frustrated because ours really don’t seem to work all that well, and if we’re going to use them (as some educational directors resolutely maintain), shouldn’t they actually work?

They’re not very accurate.

First off let me say that I do understand that sometime and for some things there is a need to put in some form of restriction.  What I can’t figure out is why we don’t think about the sites that we block.  Maybe there should be some considered thought put into the reasons why something gets blocked rather than why they should be unblocked.

One reason why I would argue this is because I have seen a few sites blocked by the masters of the filters (whomever these people are) that simply have no reason being blocked.  Earlier this year one of my colleagues was doing a project that he had been doing for a couple of years on the topic of dictatorships.  He had his students use a website ‘the Dictator of the Month‘ which suddenly and inexplicably this year came up as inaccessible.  When I looked into it, it said that it was because it was obscene/tasteless.  What I would like to know is who decided this?  I mean I understand that it isn’t exactly the greatest website (in fact it has not been updated recently), but really obscene/tasteless?  I was able to get it unblocked, but when I asked why it was blocked, I was told that it was probably because of a mathematical algorithm.  I really didn’t get it, and still while I sit here looking at it I don’t get it.  It is my shining example of why the people who are doing the filtering are not doing the right job.  Some might say that this is a rare occurrence but I can remember a couple of times in the past few years where I had students working on World War II projects and the sites would come up inexplicably blocked.

Another reason why our particular filter bothers me is the fact that it has a strange aversion to feeds.  I have been trying to use Edmodo for my social studies class, but one of the things that I wanted to do was build up a collection of feeds, but whenever I have set one up I have found them blocked.  There is a note about advertising/banner ads, but I’m not sure how that applies to my feed.

I have been told by some colleagues that teach mathematics that the filters have an itchy trigger finger for sites even remotely related to probability, apparently they are freaked out by gambling.  Is this a good thing for our students?

Exactly how much time we have spent trying to correct this idiocies is not clear, but it makes me wonder if these are good value for the money.

Students get around them too easily

If they were effective students wouldn’t be able to get around them.  Only they do on a very regular basis.  I have seen all sorts of students on websites that they shouldn’t be.  Students shouldn’t be on Facebook (that’s a debate for another entry), but there they are.  They shouldn’t be on shooter games, yet I found one student playing a game called ‘Sniper Assassin’ apparently without even having to bother with trying to find a proxy to bypass the filter.  They also shouldn’t be on proxies but they are there as well.  I don’t know how many people in schools that have 3G phones, but I would say a lot of students do.  How effective is a filter at blocking 3G cell phone towers?  If I tell a student they can’t do something on one of the school computers, well that’s why they have a mini-computer in their pocket that doubles as a phone.

What’s worse is that these often block the teachers from accessing the most up-to-date or most useful information.  I had a colleague who was regaling me with how the filters ‘worked’ at his school, finally one day after expressing this frustration to a class, a student volunteered to help him access what he wanted.  This one time he agreed, and the student leaped over the filter and had the information inside of ten seconds.  While I may question the speed reported in the story, I have no doubt as to its general validity.  Again how is it that filters are supposed to work again?

Lastly I would point out that the Chinese government has tried desperately to erect an Internet filter, and with all the resources of the state behind it, it apparently doesn’t work well.

A final rant

This whole rant leaves aside the most important problems with filters that they are the wrong approach to the problem.  I guess what I have been dealing with is the fact that if you are a supporter of filters then they should work and work properly.  But the fact is they don’t, and that as technology marches forward they will become increasingly useless (there’s that 3G or 4G or whatever).  What frustrates me probably more than anything is the fact that no one in a position of power seems willing to have a frank and open discussion about this.  This last week the Calgary Board of Education announced that students would be able to use their cell phones in class, but they said that they would still control the websites the students had access to (make sure to read the corrections at the bottom).  Seems a trifle over-optimistic if you ask me.