This Week’s Posting is Delayed

I must apologize for not getting out this blog’s regular weekly posting today. In addition to it being Father’s Day, I have been tasked with preparing a major presentation for my district’s Board of Trustees. Rather than try to squeeze in the extra posting during an already busy week, my next piece will appear next Sunday, June 24th. Until then!

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The Importance of Questions Part 3 – Curricular Implications

Among his many talents, my father is a carpenter. He is the one from whom I first heard the advice to ‘measure twice, cut once’. While this may have immediate applications within the world of carpentry and cabinet-making, it is equally insightful when planning to implement new programs. The time spent planning beforehand is well-spent when it comes to the point of deployment. The previous postings in this series on key questions have focused on ethical and practical considerations for deploying technology. I started with these because the technical considerations are usually straightforward (from an IT perspective). Ethical considerations are a little more complex in terms of their practical applications when planning technology deployments. The answers are a little less clear. This is even more true when it comes to curricular implications associated with a technology deployment. Today’s questions are aimed at helping to focus the curricular justifications for new projects and deployments.

Question 1: Why are we considering the innovation?
The answer to this question isn’t always self-evident. Sometimes, the answer may lie in deep curricular thought. That thought may not always be the concept that is brought to the forefront during a discussion and decision on whether to deploy a new system. My assertion is that curricular thought needs to be at the forefront of all decisions that impact on the classroom and its environment. Therefore, the question above should be read as: From a curricular point of view, why are we considering this innovation? The question also pre-supposes that there are significant discussions that occur prior to a decision being taken to move forward. The additional questions given below seek to clarify this first, and most basic of them.

Question 2: What do we expect will be different about the learning that happens for students as a result of the innovation’s implementation?
Often, when discussing a possible implementation, we are presented with pictures about how the students will be learning differently. Either their work will be done in different locations, at different times, or will be completed in a different format. Granted, each of these changes may result in improvement to students’ level of engagement, and motivation to complete the work itself. But, this question doesn’t focus on the work, but rather the learning. When I speak about learning, I focus my own thought on how the cognitive process for students in the classroom will be different and, by extension, better as a result of our significant investment in time, effort, and financial resources. My basic premise is that our investment in innovation must have a corresponding change and improvement in the overall ability for students to intellectually succeed within the subject matter under study. 

Question 3: What steps have been taken to thoroughly research the innovation, including the curricular approach that it encourages and supports (both explicitly, and clandestinely)?
Within education, we take our cues from experts who have assured us that the research supports one particular approach (sometimes over another). Often, educators will take these claims in good faith and at face value. However, within the realm of educational research, it is generally acknowledged that the quality of the research (and the conclusions which are drawn from it) varies. While potentially time-consuming, I believe that there is value in investigating the claims associated with an innovation, including investigating the quality of the research that informs the innovation. Are those claims reasonable, and have they been reproduced in a reliable way from other sources? If not, then the approach under consideration ought to be considered, at best, as experimental. Further, once we’ve delved into the research, does the innovation support approaches to curriculum that we value and wish to encourage for our students. This must also be thought of in terms of both the explicit curriculum, and the unanticipated (sometimes known as ‘hidden’) learning that comes with an approach. This is not to say that unanticipated learning is necessarily bad, but we should think about all implications so that we can make an informed decision about an implementation before moving forward.

Question 4: How would the locus of control over the learning agenda shift in the classroom as a result of the innovation’s implementation?
Admittedly, this is a values-laden question. I believe that in the modern age of learning, we must move away from adult-centred (meaning teacher-centred) approaches to learning. I believe that the locus of control in a classroom must shift ever-more from the teacher to the students as the age of those students increases. If we are educating students to be empowered, self-sufficient, critical thinkers, our instructional models must support those goals. Of course, if this isn’t what you believe, then other instructional models would be more appropriate. One of the promises of technology is that it puts a significant amount of power into the immediate reach of a student. I believe that for students to take full advantage of what this power offers, the deployment of innovative technologies must also accompany the introduction of learning approaches where there is a power shift within the classroom. This doesn’t mean that we give up on the idea of orderly management of the classroom, or on organized approaches to learning. Under this model, there is a move from control to collaboration. I believe that if this is done well, management of the classroom and organization of the learning improve.

Question 5: What staff development is necessary in order to facilitate the transformation of the teaching model that is associated with the technology’s deployment?
If we expect the innovation to result in different teaching and learning, then the key people in the equation must be supported. In my view, a technology’s deployment must presuppose a teacher’s willingness and ability to undertake significant shifts in their approach to teaching. Under the best of conditions, these kinds of shifts are very challenging. They involve teachers moving out of their current comfort zones regarding their own practice, and moving into a zone of proximal development. By definition, this is an intellectually uncomfortable place to be. If we expect teachers to operate in this zone in order to shift their practice, we must support them with sufficient staff development and moral support to assist them as they manage their transitions. If a proposed technological innovation isn’t accompanied by a well-considered and targeted staff development strategy, I would recommend that we hold minimal hope for its success in transforming students’ learning experiences.

If we start thinking along these lines with regard to an innovation, I’m sure that there are many considerations that are left off. What would be your key curricular questions when considering a technology innovation?

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The Importance of Questions Part 2 – Ethical Considerations For New Proposals

I am currently approximately 2/3 of the way through my planned career in education. In that time, like many others, I have seen a number of curricular (and other) proposals brought forward. In my observation, a small number of them have had elements that have managed to become sustained within the education system. Many others have not. I am not alone in this observation. Colleagues have made similar statements to me over the years. Eminent thinkers such as Larry Cuban (See Cuban’s Oversold and Underused for a sense of his ideas on the topic) have also shared these observations.

In every single instance that comes to mind, the innovations I’ve encountered (either proposed or implemented) were always well-intentioned. I may not have agreed that the intention would have been achieved, or I may not have agreed that a proposed project would have been a priority. At the same time, one must credit the project leaders with the fact that their main aim was to make improvements to the system. This fact speaks well of the professionalism and integrity of our profession as a whole.

When considering an innovative proposal, the primary ethical consideration that we must follow as educators is that its implementation must be associated with an intention to improve the status quo. The actual improvement can vary based on the proposal, but I have never encountered a suggested innovation whose aim was to maintain the status quo (or, more ridiculously, worsen the educational experience for our students).

While this primary ethical consideration is key, I also suggest that there are additional considerations when examining a proposed innovation. Again, in an effort to provide innovators with some additional food for thought, I have outlined them below. Again, I don’t consider these to be all-encompassing, they are just the ones that come to mind when I think about the proposed innovations I’ve encountered in recent months and years.

Question: Should we introduce this innovation for all relevant students, or just some of them? When taken within the context of why we introduce innovations into education, this question is more complex than it first seems. For the purposes of this question, a group is defined as a students of a similar grade or following a similar course curriculum. Regardless of the depth to which an innovation is researched beforehand, educators introduce change with an expectation of making things better. Within the public education system, we often start off with a smaller-scale deployment. This can be for a number of reasons. Among these might be:

  • A lack of funding to offer the same innovation to all relevant students at the same time
  • A lack of consensus among educators about the broad applicability of the innovation
  • A lack of available staff development to ensure that all teachers are able to embrace the innovation and make effective use of it in the classroom
  • Differing philosophies and priorities among teachers working with similar groups of students
  • The constraints of school timetables (causing students to be grouped in certain easy, and to work with certain teachers)
This list isn’t comprehensive, but it does give some idea as to why innovations are often undertaken as ‘pilot projects’. However, a ‘pilot project’ (by its nature) doesn’t offer the innovation to all those who might potentially benefit. Herein lies the dilemma. If we expect the change to make things better, shouldn’t we offer the same intervention to all students?
Financial considerations may require that an innovation be introduced in this way, but as educators we must ask ourselves whether this approach is ethically defensible under the ‘do no harm’ principle of introducing innovations.

Some readers might argue that I’m advocating for a system where equity means the same for all students. I don’t think that’s the case, and I’m not advocating for such here. The purpose of this series on questions is to give some suggestions to innovators regarding questions they can ask themselves before they move forward with a plan. The debate of equity=the same is best left for another time.

Are there other ethical considerations that we ought to include in any reflection on a project? Feel free to share your perspectives!

Additional Resources:

  • Ethics in Educational Research
  • (Note: In an effort to provide alternate perspectives and information on the topic of ethics and educational innovation, I found a lot of information on research perspectives, but the online discussion around ethical considerations ad the school system level were mostly academic in nature, and generally in .pdf format).
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The Importance of Questions Part 1 – Mobile Devices and Tablets

As the end of an academic year approaches, many educators start planning for the start of the next. Often, plans are made for new projects and many of these have technical components. I believe that the technical considerations are the least important in determining whether to undertake a project within education. However, the failure to address them at the outset can often have serious implications. This is why I’ve decided to start off the series by discussion technical questions or considerations on tablets. This is an area in which we can expect significant growth in the foreseeable future. These questions ought to be discussed prior to moving forward with a plan to deploy a technical solution.

Rather than categorize the questions, I’ve chosen to include them in the order in which they came to me. For questions that are self-explanatory, I’ve omitted detailed discussion. For others, I’ve included italicized commentary immediately below the question. My intention is not to give a comprehensive list of questions. I’m sure that my list is not all-encompassing. Rather, these should be considered as representative of the type of technical thinking that ought to accompany any educational innovation that relies on a significant technical component. My goal in asking these questions is not to provide standard answers. Each set of answers will vary based on the curricular and technical nature of a project under consideration.

Question 1: What is the strategy for dealing with damage to devices?
Often, in my school district, new innovations are deployed in schools though local funds or via special grants. If a device is damaged (a real possibility for portable devices such as smartphones, tablet or laptop computers), how will the the repair or replacement of the device be funded? Is the district responsible for funding repairs or replacements to equipment brought in on local initiatives? And, vice-versa, if the district puts an initiative in place, is the school then responsible for dealing with damage after the fact? Does the district’s technical support services have the resources to conduct repairs? (Note: If they don’t, then extended warranties at the time of purchase are a really good idea, though they will drive up the initial acquisition costs to get the project off the ground). It might be wise to have funding mechanisms in place so that a lost or broken device doesn’t result in a long-term service interruption to the students, or that the project’s inventory is permanently reduced by breakage.

Question 2: What is the learning plan for dealing with technical service interruptions?
While all technical services aim for 100% ‘up-time’, this goal is rarely achieved. While service interruptions reduce as technical support systems become more sophisticated, they still remain a fact of life. If we know that a service interruption is possible, what will teachers and students do while we are waiting for its restoration? Instructional time is a valuable commodity. Advance consideration for this scenario helps to ensure that the impact of service interruptions on the students’ learning experiences are mitigated.

Question 3: What is the management strategy for new devices?
This question is more targeted towards tablet computers (in my mind, and in my current context). While iOS and Android devices give users powerful computing in the palms of their hands, they are set up to run as stand-alone, user-focussed devices. IT Departments generally like the idea of managing devices. In an increasingly-consumerized environment, users become more resistant to having their devices managed. Yet, there are benefits to finding a good balance between management and independence. Essentially, managed devices are easier for technical staff to support, and unmanaged devices are more responsive to end-users’ emerging demands.

Question 4: Whose devices will we use?
There are benefits to using district-owned devices. Different benefits arise from having students and teachers use their own personal devices. There are also benefits to using a blended approach, mixing personal and district-owned devices within a single learning environment. Each approach places different demands on a district’s technical staff. If there is significant ‘behind the scenes’ development work that has to happen prior to deployment, it’s best to let technical staff know early on in the planning cycle. Doing so helps to ensure that your technology is deployed on time, and with a minimum of heartache.

Question 5: What is the plan for the replacement of the devices once they reach end of life?
Often, new tablets are deployed from local funding, or grants. This is generally one-time funding. Tablet computers are generally new in our context. We don’t yet have a clear picture of the long-term implications for these devices, especially if they are owned by the school district. If we follow conventional wisdom for desktop machines, end-of-life could be anywhere from three to five years in the future. What will happen to ensure that those devices are replaced at that time? Or rather, what is the process that we will undertake to either replace the devices, or put in place a new set of instructional strategies (and possible future technologies). Discussing these issues at the outset helps to ensure an awareness that all technology has a limited limited life span, and that we need to pro-actively plan for its eventual, timely replacement.

These are my initial questions about mobile devices (and particularly tablets) in the instructional environment. What are your thoughts, experiences, observations?

Additional Resources:

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The Importance of Questions When Planning

I created this blog as a place to share ideas arising from my own research and experiences in the area of educational technology. In my current role as my school district’s technology leader, I often come into contact with proposals for the adoption of new technologies. In 20+ years or professional practice, I have seen may innovations come and go. I think many educators share a similar view.

I think that funding in public education is far too precious of a resource to use without significant planning and thought. Therefore, when faced with a proposal to introduce new technologies into an instructional environment, I often find myself asking many questions.

In asking these questions, my goal is threefold. The first is to gain as deep an understanding of a project as possible. I am a strong advocate for innovative technologies connected to deep change in classroom practice. Often, educators will think about what it ‘looks like’ in the classroom if the innovation is implemented well. However, there are often significant technical considerations that come into play before a new technology works seamlessly for teachers and students. Therefore, the first reason for asking questions is to gain a full understanding of what the technical challenges might be. It then becomes my responsibility to plan on how to overcome those challenges (if they exist), and give reasonable timelines for how long it might take to ensure that the infrastructure can support the planned deployment. The goal is for the technology to work well, right out of the gate.

As an educator, I believe that an innovation must be guided by clear curricular thinking. I believe that this is our collective responsibility as professionals. My second reason for asking questions is also to act as a project’s critical friend. Generally speaking, if a proposed innovation has clear, deep curricular thinking behind it, these answers are often self-evident in the proposal. In other cases, the deep thinking is revealed though question and conversation. In those cases where answers aren’t clear, my hope is that the questions help to provide clarity to what we are trying to accomplish for students through the proposed implementation.

My third reason for asking questions is more selfish. As a professional, I have a responsibility to engage in continuous learning. Those working in the field of educational technology know that the field is constantly evolving. While I work to keep myself informed, there is no way to maintain my own awareness of all avenues of innovation. When presented with a proposal, asking questions also allows me to learn, and I appreciate being given the opportunity.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write a series of posts that deal with the different categories of questions that I like to ask. The questions themselves have value. I also believe that my accompanying explanations illustrate why I believe in a particular question’s value or importance.

Thanks very much for reading!

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Welcome to the Wired Principal

My name is Graham Arts and I’m currently the District Principal for Information Technology for the Sooke School District. Sooke is located on Southern Vancouver Island, next to Victoria.

I have recently begun my work in this role. Previously I worked as a teacher and school principal. I’ve always worked to support the effective, mindful use of technology.

I’m going to keep this introduction short, but speak a little to why I’ve created this blog. In my day-to-day work, I’m focussed on supporting the implementation of a robust and responsive infrastructure that supports my district’s educators and support workers. However, my background being education, I’m primarily interested in seeing the implementation of modern learning environments in the district’s classrooms. The question of how to move from our current models of teaching and learning, to those that embrace all that technology has to offer, is complex. I’m not sure that I have the answer yet. But I’m always looking for new ideas, and working on some of my own.

This blog is intended to share thoughts and generate discussion on educational implementation. It will focus on ideas, curriculum, and educational philosophy. It purposely leaves behind the discussion of computers and portable devices. I see these as tools that facilitate a collaborative and student-centred learning environment, but they are secondary to the overall discussion of how to get these principles into place in our classrooms.

As I write this short introduction, I am attending the Targeting Technology for Maximum Student Benefit conference in Vancouver. The first speaker of the day was Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of the West Vancouver School district. I found his talk to be thought-provoking. His ideas mirror many of my own, and I was impressed by his presentation. I’m still thinking about his ideas, and their implications for our local context, but I will be writing more about them soon.

Thanks for reading!

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