The Head Geek Speaks on Education

Robert Stephens, the founder of the Geek Squad, gave the keynote address at Minnesota’s e-Learning Summit in July. I was happy to know that they posted the keynote. If you are involved with technology in education, this is worth a watch.

Not only is the keynote amusing, it’s a trip through history and a fascinating story about how he built the Geek Squad. The majority of attendees were involved in post-secondary education – which is important to remember as he talks about the importance of a college education.


ISTE, Of Course.

The flight home from San Diego and the ISTE conference allows for time for reflection (and sleep!) The conference was, as always, an overwhelming experience full of inspiration, information and new connections.

The view from the San Diego Convention Center

Passion and Creativity: Big ideas for the conference, for me, were passion and creativity. Educators wanting students to find their passion, as passion fuels learning. Both keynotes discussed passion, and it came up in a number of sessions. Sir Ken Robinson reflected on how standardized tests create linear, one-size-fits-all schooling that stifles creativity and passion. Students aren’t all the same size. Check out the keynotes by Sir Ken Robinson (be sure to zip ahead to the keynote part)  and Yong Zhao (short clip and full keynote.).

Quote from one person watching Dr. Yong Zhao: “The focus on standardized testing is usually at the detriment of innovation, creativity and entrepeneurship.”

I know for my kids, passion is truly the motivator for learning. With passion flamed by the right content, an awesome teacher, or some personal motivation, learning can bloom. When passion is not fostered, learning is a chore and not done well.

Taking a Stand: I was inspired to take a stand by Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, as well as Adam Bellow’s Ignite bit. I can’t help bringing my personal life to this conference –  I am “just” a parent wanting my kids’ schools to move to incorporate technology. I’m often dismissed and not taken seriously. It gets discouraging. This conference has inspired me to stand up again. I’ve already drafted a letter to the superintendant, which I’ll post here once it’s done. I’ll also post the response. That could be interesting.

In addition, I was inspired by the number of “technology coaches” I saw and talked with. It seems that this is an increasing field, where experienced teachers/tech directors are going out and consulting with other schools. I’ve decided that I’m no longer just the parent bugging them, but a technology coach and advisor. How can I approach things differently? I’m going to offer my services to one school (working with a teacher) as a tech integration specialist for a few hours a week.

Education Reform: I sometimes wonder if ISTE is about technology or about education reform. Maybe it should be ISRE – international society for the reform of education. There are very few sessions that don’t have some element doing things differently, of changing that “factory model” of education. While not all sessions are as drastic as Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote or Will Richardson’s session on change, even the basic “list 100 apps” sessions talk about how to do education differently.

I find this encouraging and hopeful. The change is all about doing our best for students.

The view from our condo. Made for a great Sunday afternoon hang out to watch the Padres game!

Connections: Since I’m not a teacher, but a content provider, sometimes I don’t have a “group” at ISTE. Yet, this year I told myself I was going to work much harder at making connections, and I did. I made a number of professional connections that could have real impact on the projects we have planned at work. It could lead to some powerful partnerships that could help us achieve our goals to deliver the best digital content, in ways that teachers and students really can use.
In addition, I found I had a much easier time just talking to people, whether it was someone waiting in line to get into a session, sitting at a table quickly eating lunch, or sitting by me in the Blogger Cafe. These quick conversations were always interesting and truly did help me feel connected (although I still wish I had a better answer for the inevitable “where do you teach” question.)

The really fun connections? I saw all these people I “know” from blogging. Of course, I don’t really know any of them and they don’t know me at all. I just read all the stuff they post. I was beside myself to be sitting by a table with Audrey Watters, Jerry Blumgarten, George Couros, Patrick Larkin and more. I was far too shy to say anything – why would they talk to me? Then I attended a session with Will Richardson…. And I even talked to him! Later that night, I saw Jeff Bradbury and Steve Anderson at a party. I had had a glass of wine, so was a little more confident. I just went up and introduced myself. Today, the ultimate: I walked right by Chris Lehmann as I was leaving. I just went up to him and introduced myself. We had a very nice conversation, and he even invited me to come talk more up in the Blogger Café. I was beside myself! How exciting! Too bad I was on my way out. Dang. It just MADE MY CONFERENCE!

Parents: I’ve been thinking…. One voice that is absent from this whole conversation – not just at ISTE – is parents. Students are a small voice – they should have a much bigger voice, and I know they do at smaller conferences. But parents need some voice in this as well. I appreciate hearing from the administrators about how they bring parents on board when the school is driving the change. It is immensely helpful to hear about parent tech nights, different modes of communication, and happily, the lack of parent resistance to the changes. When I do speak to my kids’ schools, it helps to have these ideas from these great leaders. Yet, parents are not part of the conversation at ISTE. Should they be? I’m not really sure, but it’s worth asking.

Thanks ISTE for another overwhelming and thought-provoking few days. This year, I leave confirmed that professionally, we’re on the right track with our digital content projects, even though I have a lot of work cut out for me in moving others in the organization along the path. Personally, I am even more frustrated by the situations my kids face at their schools. I have been inspired and will pick up my advocacy at these schools. Wish me luck.


This year, my son is taking an Astronomy class at a three-week summer program. It’s intense – they are doing some tough stuff during these three weeks. My son loves it.

On the first day, he was so excited to tell me that the teacher told them to USE their camera on their cell phones/iPods!! The teacher told them to take pictures of the activities they do in class. Wow. He gets it!!

The kids are going to use the pictures to create a slide show for the Open House night  on the second-to-last day of camp. I think this is brilliant. Instead of the teacher taking all the pictures, let the kids! That way you see the class through their eyes – not the teachers. The kids have a task, a responsibility.

The teacher also encouraged the kids to show their parents the pictures. So my son does. It’s been a great way to get past the “What did you do today. Nothing.” conversation. Instead, I ask him to show me the pictures he took that day. We’ve had some great conversations, he’s talked a ton more than he would otherwise, and I’ve learned something. It would have been much harder to explain some of what they did without the pictures.

So, besides learning incredible stuff about astronomy, the kids are also learning digital citizenship, and 21st century skills such as communication and collaboration. In addition, they are using visual media to communicate – and since over 60% of this generation are visual learners, this fits right in.

So, thank you, Mr. Bullard. You get it.


Project REAL Revisited

I had the good fortune to attend another Apple education seminar at Little Falls High School . Last spring, I attended a morning session where the Project REAL plan was presented and the 5th grade teachers and students who piloted iPads were there to show what they had done. Last year, there were approximately 40 people in attendance.

This year’s seminar was a full day. Teachers presented about what they had been doing, then we had time to visit with students and teachers at tables. The IT staff answered specific technical questions. This time, there were over 250 people at the session, and more than 550 people were watching the livestream. Wow!

Thankfully, they recorded the morning session which had about 12 teachers presenting different aspects of how they have used iPads this year. Watch it for yourself and see the great stuff happening in Little Falls!

It was a great day with many interesting stories. If I wasn’t already convinced that schools need to move to this direction, I am now.

Here’s a quick list of highlights for me:

  • “The only thing I can’t do on the iPad is print, and boy, am I glad.” — from Dave Girtz, the middle school media specialist
  • Carrie Youngberg, 5th grade, sees increased parent communication when the kids produce a weekly video of the “newsletter.”
  • Anjanette Kraus, High School English, uses She’s seen a significant reduction in late work and plagiarism, and thinks the public audience component has improved student writing and engagement. Kids are collaborating on writing.
  • Andy Ward, High School Science, was a sceptic. He was NOT happy about the iPads. He is now a convert. He says he’ll never go back to written lab reports – all his lab reports on done with video. Watch him – he’s quite entertaining!
  • The PE teacher uses an app called Tennis Coach Plus HD to record students practicing skills.
  • Jody Waltman, High School Math and French, demonstrated how she uses Moodle and email. No paper assignements!
  • Gregg Pearce – 5th grade. Gregg was uncertain as he piloted the iPads last year. The tech integrationist suggested just trying it – “unleashing the hounds.”
  • Greg Aker, Middle School social studies, demonstrated how easy it is to create epubs. Little Falls has a goal to not purchase any more textbooks.
  • Nate Swenson, Middle School principal, demonstrated how they use Google Forms for assessment.
  • Adam Smieja, Middle School math, demonstrated Socrative.
  • Karen Warner, High School art, discussed how she has embraced the iPads after being less than enthusiastic. She has student collaboration and student voices as they exchange ideas on the Moodle site. She uses iPads frequently for students to find references to draw.
  • Sarah Shaw, elementary art, has had the kids make digital art portfolios.
  • Shawn Alhorn, 5th grade, had the iPads last year. He loves not having paper assignments. He’s seeing more engagement, students digging deeper into content. He has kids do keynotes for vocab – has seen this reach kids of all learning styles, with significantly improved retention of meaning.


Let the Kids Show Us

I dragged my son to an educational technology conference this afternoon. He brought along some stuff for drawing. But, did he want to draw a bunch of adults in the room? Nope. Well – he pulled out his iPod and found a photo of an animal to draw.

Gotta admit I wouldn’t have thought of doing that.


Yup, the Apple Announcement IS a Big Deal

I watched Apple’s announcement with great interest. The expectation was that this announcement would “revolutionize” education.

That’s a pretty tough expectation. Unrealistic. And Apple didn’t revolutionize education.

I’ve read plenty of criticism of the announcement.

Audrey Watters was totally unimpressed.  She wanted the revolution. She quoted Phil Schiller, “ It’s the same great content we’ve always had in textbooks, Phil Schiller said onstage today, just in a new digital format.” For Audrey, that’s the problem. She doesn’t want textbooks.  She has a compelling argument. She feels that primary source material is easily available now and teachers can compile it themselves.

In theory, I totally agree. In my first teaching job (7-8th grade social studies), there were no textbooks. I was allowed to create my own class, totally from scratch – including topic, sources, assignments, outcomes. It would’ve been a great opportunity – except I was 24 years old and had never taught before. I’d LOVE to have that opportunity now. I was in no way prepared for it then. We did end up with a pretty good class, somehow.

Most schools don’t run that way – wish they did. It would take more than a revolution in education to get states out of the business of selecting texts. It would take way more money to pay teachers fair pay for developing curriculum.

Beyond that, Audrey Watters and others complain that Apple’s products are proprietary – they work only on iPads. That the EULA is restrictive. That the “interactive” features are really only frosting, they are just the same type of teaching, just with bells and whistles. There is not social feature in any of the tools introduced.

All these things are true.

But I still think the announcement is a big deal. Why? Because it pushes mainstream digital publishers to recognize that digital texts are reality. It brings these ideas into everybody’s attention. Apple is much more of a household name than Inkling. It’ll take Apple to get school administrators, teachers, parents and students to take this seriously – even if they don’t have iPads.

Most schools aren’t anywhere near ready to abandon textbooks. Jumping to a digital textbook is enough of a revolution. For the schools that are lucky enough to already have iPads, this really is a great deal. It’s a great first step until the software and books mature.

The iBooks Author tool will be another step towards moving away from textbooks – it’ll let teachers (and students!) see that they can collect, curate and deliver content.

Things will evolve. It’s only a matter of time until Apple gets the pressure to have iBooks Author publish to other formats – or someone else will figure it out. The copyright issue will have to change. iTunes U will have to add some social features.

While this may not be a revolution, it’s a great first step!


Next week, my daughter’s high school is hosting a Curriculum Night to give parents a chance to talk to teachers about course options.

I’d like to check with the Social Studies teachers. Next year, my daughter will be taking World History. Having spent the last year researching technology options in education, especially social studies education, I’m hoping to see some great tools being used. I’m concerned, however, that I’m going to see the big ole Holt Reinhart Winston (or other publisher) textbook.

One topic I’m sure (I hope) will be ancient Rome. For today’s learners, I’m wondering which is more effective: pages of text with flat images, or using at something like the Virtual History Roma app that reconstructs ancient buildings in 3D, shows Roman armor on a virtual model, integrates paintings that can be zoomed in tightly, etc.

Take a peek. You tell me your choice. I know mine.

Parent Participation

As a parent, not a teacher or administrator, I often find myself in an awkward position when advocating for technology use in the schools. After all, I’m not the one in the classroom managing the kids. I’m not the one planning the lessons, having to meet standards, and having to change how to do a job I’ve been doing successfully for years.

I am, however, a partner in my children’s education. Our family makes choices on how we use technology at home. Discussions about digital literacy and responsibility are not uncommon. I’ve been advocating for technology use at school for years, although I didn’t really know it. It started with pushing for acceptance of audio books – and that came from helping kids learn the way they learn best, and not forcing one system on them.

Teaching Generation Text

Teaching Generation Text

A recent blog post by teacher and author Lisa Nielsen lists 12 was kids can use cell phones for learning. She would know – she (and Willyn Web) just published a book, Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning


However, the sentence that jumped out at me from this post is one of the rare mentions of the role of parents in integrating technology in schools:

Parents may need to take the lead in allowing their children to use their phones for learning and in educating their teachers and administrators of the value in working toward acceptable use policies.

Wow! That’s the first real encouragement I’ve seen of including parents in the conversation that I’ve seen in the online conversations. Parents aren’t usually mentioned, and if they are, it’s the teachers/administration trying to convince parents that it’s ok to use the tools.

Much of my motivation to get involved came from a short conversation I had with a superintendant of a small district in a rural part of the state. In his short talk at a conference, he talked about how he has successfully worked with the teachers in his schools, and about how essential the parents were in the process. I found him later and asked his advice about being involved. I didn’t want to be seen as an annoyance or to be telling the schools what to do. He told me in no uncertain terms to speak up, to be involved and to keep the conversation going. So I am.

The blog post led me to the authors’ website, Right there, on the home page, is a great sentence:

This site is brought you you by Lisa Nielsen and Willyn Webb in an effort to help teachers, parents, and administrators stop fighting and start working with students to use the tools they own and love for learning.

What a great concept, and one I hope we can see moving forward. Include parents (and students!!!) in the conversation and see where it leads.