What is "Sustainably Digital?"

It took me awhile to come up with the title for this blog. I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to go with the title. I had a vision for what I wanted the blog to be- reflections and thoughts on my attempts to integrate technology into my classroom- but I wasn't sure what title best captured that sense. I wanted it to be something catchy and clever, and ultimately I'm not sure I succeeded in being either. Perhaps you'll think the title more clever once you understand where I was coming from.

The idea behind "digital" in the title is pretty straightforward. This blog's focus is my integration of technology into the classroom, and digital describes the way computers store and transmit information. Since computers are digital devices the term digital seemed to be a good fit (though interestingly enough, smoke signals and the abacus are also digital systems)

The notion of sustainability is borrowed from my experience and interest with environmental science. In that realm, sustainability is the idea of being able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. It's a way of thinking about development, natural resources, and consumption that shifts the focus from only worrying about what we're doing today to concern about future generations as well.

In the context of this blog, the idea of sustainability refers to integrating technology into the classroom in a feasible manner. I'd like to avoid hypothetical situations and focus on methods that I could actually carry out. I'm not interested in technology integration that would take expansive amounts of time, huge budgets, or that have unrealistic expectations of the teacher or student.

Technology is here to stay. Teachers need to start utilizing the tools available through the internet and computer usage. Districts and administrators need to start allocating budgets with that future in mind.

Here's a couple posts that I've seen recently that resonate with some of the ideas I've expressed above:

  • I Can't Make Educational History- But We Can (from Beyond-School) : The class described might be a little beyond my technological means (it's a 1:1 school), but I'm constantly impressed with the things Clay Burell is attempting with his students. My hope is that efforts like his will show the power of full, fearless integration. We need more positive examples like this to convince the naysayers.

Social networking sites pose "dangers" for educators?

No networking!The Ohio Education Association (OEA) put out a memo this fall strongly advising teachers to completely and totally avoid social networking sites. The OEA's memo states:

"OEA advises members not to join MySpace or Facebook, and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles. While this advice might seem extreme, the dangers of participating in these two sites outweigh the benefits."

What exactly are the "dangers" you ask? There are two main threats the OEA is concerned about, according to the article in eSchoolNews.Threat #1: “The fact that a student can attempt to contact an OEA member who has a profile on these sites lends itself to the possible interpretation of an improper relationship."Threat #2: "The union is worried students will create 'imposter' sites, pose as adults and engage in conversation with teachers, or use online communication to make allegations later against educators." The union pointed to an investigative report printed in the Columbus Dispatch which found at least three MySpace profiles by people claiming to be Ohio educators that had inappropriate content, and some had students listed as their "friends" within the MySpace community.My thoughts on the "threats:"

  • I wholeheartedly agree that inappropriate relationships between students and educators is despicable, and educators who engage in such relationships should be relieved of their jobs.
  • The OEA doesn't seem to have much confidence in its members. I am confident that the vast majority of teachers understand the difference between an appropriate and inappropriate relationship despite the medium through which the relationship occurs. However, the OEA seems to assume that as soon as someone goes online their moral compass simply disappears.
  • In a somewhat related strain, MySpace & Facebook get blamed for inappropriate behavior by their users. In fact, the social networking sites may have helped school officials find teachers having inappropriate relationships before any felonious misconduct occurred. If these teachers didn't have MySpace profiles, how long would the inappropriate relationships continued before they were found out?
  • Threat #2 states students may pose as adults lure teachers into having inappropriate conversations. I'd recommend that when you're talking to someone you don't really know online (or even someone you do), don't have inappropriate conversations. I don't feel this is a threat unique to educators. Again, MySpace and Facebook get blamed for poor decision on the part of their users.
  • Threat #2 comes close to making a good point, but it seems to get sidetracked. It is possible for anyone to create a profile pretending to be you. If the creators of the profile then use the profile in an unbecoming manner it could seriously tarnish your image and cause plenty of negative attention to come your way. While law enforcement would more than likely be able to determine that you didn't create or use the profile, you'd have to have law enforcement involved, which means you're probably already in trouble. Possibly the best way to avoid this would be for educators to create their own profiles and utilize tools such as ClaimID so others would have more difficulty hijacking their (hopefully) good name (see this post by Wes Fryer for more on ClaimID).

The biggest problem I have with OEA's memo is it suggests sticking our heads in the sand rather than dealing with the real problem. There are safety issues when using online communication, but the decision to entirely shun social networking sites is moving in the wrong direction. Schools could be a place were students and teachers can learn together how to utilize these tools safely, instead of a place where they're told how scary and awful they are and that they should never be used. Too many school officials, teachers, and parents are frightened of technology in the classroom because all they hear is negative press about all the horrible things that can happen. What ends up happening is students miss out on powerful tools (other than simply MySpace and Facebook) that could enrich their learning both in and out of school.I'm not suggesting that MySpace and Facebook should be used to teach classes. I simply believe there is too much fear mongering about the horrible dangers of online environments. Will Richardson makes the point much better in his post, "Social Networks (No) vs. Social Tools (Yes) in Schools":

"Often in my presentations I ask how many folks are teaching MySpace or Facebook in their schools. Not teaching with MySpace, but teaching the literacies of networking through the lens of a [social networking site]. Rarely do more than a few hands go up. I wonder what would happen if we contextualized our approach not in the fears that our kids will get themselves in trouble by using these sites but, instead, in the spirit of encouraging them to experience the socialization that [has otherwise been taken away]. Not that we invade their spaces or friend them, but that we acknowledge the importance of Facebook in their lives, stop pretending like it doesn’t exist, and include it in the discussion of what’s important in life."

Too right, Will. It's time for school officials to realize that social networking sites and other online collaboration tools (wikis, blogs, etc.) aren't a fad that will soon fade away. Schools often seem so afraid of change; whenever something new comes along it's banned or blocked before its merits can be determined. Wouldn't it be wonderful if schools were led by digitally literate teachers, principals, and officials who strove to introduce technology to students instead of the other way around?I wasn't planning writing this long post, but obviously it struck a nerve. I'd love to hear some of your critiques and extensions on the topic.

Thoughts on Personal Learning Networks

In my few short days as an active member of the educational blogging network, I've been (somewhat) involved in some stimulating conversations regarding the idea of using Personal Learning Networks in the classroom.

I first encountered the idea from a post last week by Clay Burell on his blog, Beyond School. Essentially the idea is for educators to create and utilize their own Personal Learning Network (PLN) to enhance the learning experience by bringing in experts into the classroom (i.e. via Skype) for as he puts it "quick in, quick out" sessions. Ideally teachers would also model and help students create their own PLNs in their individual areas of interest.

Better than this, Clay has begun to actively implement his plan. Utilizing his twitterverse (people following him on Twitter), he has had a few international discussions via Skype (see here and here) with fellow educators on his ideas. He has also begun to work with his students to utilize Twitter and Skype to construct their own PLNs. I applaud him for blazing the trail. My hope is his work will be the first step in convincing school administrators and tech directors to allow student access to networking tools. Currently, students at my school do not have this access.

The idea of students building and utilizing a personal learning network greatly appeals to me. As a teacher, one of my goals is to help students become citizens that contribute positively to their communities. Setting up a PLN allows students to take their learning beyond school walls. It can help them to individualize and specialize their learning in a meaningful way that would be nearly impossible in a traditional classroom. As someone who is more interested in helping students become resilient life-long learners as opposed to regurgitators of irrelevant knowledge, I can't help but get excited about these new possibilities. Perhaps Ewan McIntosh said it best (via Intrepid Teacher, via The Economist):

"It’s more about helping learners become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other, understanding first hand what makes the world go around."

More and more questions seem to arise the more I think about this:

  • What would this learning format look like in a school?
  • Can this type of learning be measurable?
    • Should it be even be measured?
  • Will students "buy-in" to the idea?
  • How can I convince the district to unblock Twitter for a basically untested use of technology?
  • Is promoting the use of Twitter and Skype in the classroom essentially marketing these products to students? Is that ethical?

I am excited about the prospects. I am jealous of those in situations with access to these tools. I feel experimentation with these networking tools in the classroom is necessary, even if the outcomes aren't as expected.

A few other bloggers have added their thoughts on the same thread:

The New Endeavor

This all started after deciding to not make any New Year's Resolutions. I don't like resolutions. They're over-used and under-achieved. If I want to change something, I tell myself to simply make the change- not publicly resolve to do something then later feel guilty for not doing it.

However, I often find myself spending time during my time off during the holidays reflecting on my life. During the active school year I often feel so busy planning, preparing, grading, etc. that I don't feel I get a chance to sit back and reflect. Over break I had the time, and during this time I had a epiphany.

The revelation follows: I regularly have used an RSS aggregator (originally Brief in FireFox, but now Google Reader) to keep up with my favorite environmental & educational blogs and websites. In small times during classes, my planning period, or before and after school, I often browse through 100 or so articles & postings. I don't necessarily read them all, but I greatly enjoy reading some of the articles and bookmark those that I found interesting or intriguing. In doing this I ran across Michael Wesch's "Information R/evolution (video embedded below)" I realized that I have been consuming massive quantities of online information without giving much back. Sure, I have a blog that my family and maybe a couple friends look at, but I haven't been creating, critiquing, organizing, or understanding. I had only improved slightly upon reading a newspaper. I had failed to realize that I could also be writing the newspaper! Thus the resolution (shudder) was made to actively comment on articles. Thus I came to the conclusion that it was time to really analyze what people were saying online and then let them know my analysis. Thus, this new "space" became inevitable.

If you're caught in the slog of school life & getting bogged down trying to integrate technology into your classroom, check out Michael Wesch's videos on YouTube. They get my heart pumping.

As promised, Information R/evolution: