Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How Edtech Entrepreneurs Should Talk to Teachers

Edtech entreprenuers, teachers, and administrators all need one another. Sometimes, however, we are not speaking the same language even though we are all trying to be a part of the same conversation.  After attending both an EdSurge Summit and ISTE within the past three weeks, I've had the chance to meet with many enthusiastic programmers and designers. Some are doing a better job than others at connecting with their allies on the ground -- the teachers. The ones that are doing it well are using these tactics during those precious few minutes they have a chance to interact with an educator.

1. Have a quick 2 sentence passion statement ready.

The good news is that if an educator has made her way to your booth, she is already interested in what you have to offer. Start by clearly defining your mission and how your product accomplishes it. Do it in 2 sentences. No more. At this stage, all you want is for the teacher to have a clear understanding of the pain points you are trying to target.

A camera couldn't possibly capture the enormity of the
expo at ISTE in Philadelphia this week.
This shot of the entrance will have to suffice. 

2. Find out what drives teachers.

Educators love people. They become educators because they love working with children.  They go to conferences because they love to talk with other educators about what works. They will like the tools you have created as long as the tool fosters those relationships. Beyond that, each teacher has a passion for his content and the age group that he works with every day. Ask him about that content and why he loves it. Ask him about why he loves his students.  The better you know the teacher as a person, the more personalized and effective your approach can be.

3. Let them play and watch what happens.

As you show the educator how your product can transform teaching and learning, make sure the educator is the one interacting with the tool. Her fingers will be moving on the tablet screen, the track pad, or pushing the keyboard buttons. You can be a guide, but let her experience the tool. She will become comfortable with your product and you will learn how she naturally navigates through it. Her comfort will create a higher likelihood of actual adoption when she goes back to school.

4. When they give suggestions, listen.

Often these suggestions come in the form of questions. Here are some examples of questions I've asked entrepreneurs:

  • Can I embed a video that students will stream directly on the platform?
  • Will parents be able to view their child's work within the tool?
  • Can students respond to comments I leave on their work so that we can continue the conversation?
These questions give you insight into how teachers interact with their students and therefore how your tool can be improved to facilitate those interactions. If a teacher asks about or suggests adding a feature, don't shoot it down. Listen to the reasons behind his suggestion and consider his perspective as you move forward with your product.

What about the role of administrators in the discussion?

Don't worry.  I certainly haven't forgotten the important role of administrators. Once teachers have had a chance to try the tool and hear your passion, they will know whether it is a good fit.  This is when the conversation with administrators can get down to numbers. I do realize that often the conversation starts and ends with administrators, but teachers need to be involved as well.  If they aren't, the tool will not be adopted as successfully. These guiding questions will help everyone come out happy in the end.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Six Ideas to Prevent the Summer Slide

Welcome to summer vacation! A time of relaxation, sand castles, fireworks, and well-deserved fun for our hard-working kids.  We want our kids to have time to be kids, but we also want them to start the new school year with all the skills they've worked so hard to improve this past year.  How do we help them prevent that summer slide without sucking the fun out of summer?

My newest article for the Smarter Schools Project has 6 great ideas for preschoolers up through high schoolers. Plus, it is full of links to online resources to help you get started as soon as today, or bookmark so you can start after you've had a chance to hit the beach.

Click here to read the full article full of links to great resources!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Before Choosing EdTech Products, Ask Yourself These 3 Questions

EdSurge has done it again! Are you ready for ISTE? I am! What will you bring back to your students? Will it really make a difference?  Here's my take.

Click here to see the full article

The article was also featured in this week's Instruct Newsletter.

If you have an interest in the amazing ways to leverage student data for personalized and meaningful instruction, we would love to see you at the Why Student Data? panel in the midst of all the ISTE excitement.  Join us Tuesday, June 30 at 12:30 in PCC 114.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Case for BYOD in Schools

There seems to be a significant push in the press lately to report on the distraction created by allowing students to bring their own mobile technology (smartphones, tablets, chromebooks, etc.) into the classroom.  A study published by the London School of Economics has prompted articles from many media outlets like CNN, The Guardian, and the Boston Globe looking deeper into the issue.

These articles are failing to acknowledge the reality that students walk into school with their devices.  It doesn't matter if the devices are banned.  They are still hidden in pockets and backpacks, and students are still checking them and using them to communicate throughout the day.  A ban only means they "get caught" sometimes.  Rather than students learning in an artificial environment where mobile technology is prohibited, let's acknowledge that it is already an important part of their lives and teach them how to use it responsibly.  While it is clear that mobile tech is not necessarily appropriate for every activity in every class, we shouldn't completely prohibit students from learning about and with this tool in school.

Smarter Schools Project researched the data
and created this infographic in preparation for the event.
Click here to see a hi-res version.
Recently I was part of a panel discussion at the U.S. Capitol meant to provide members of the press and policy makers with perspectives from educators.  We talked about how technology is being leveraged to create positive and active learning experiences for children in schools all around the country.  For my contribution, I talked about my teaching method and the benefits of a paperless classroom.

One of the most common and toughest questions asked of me when I speak at events like this was, in fact, asked by a member of the audience:
What about those kids who cannot afford a device?  In a paperless classroom, how can we avoid making the digital divide bigger?
I answered the question by talking about grant-writing to bring technology to my students, and communicating with school-leaders and parents to get access to as much tech as possible.  Using these strategies I have been able to guarantee that every student in my classes has access to a device.

Principal Daisy Dyer Duerr's answer was even more powerful.  She talked about the real data from her rural Arkansas k-12 school.  She surveyed her community, worked with her school board, and engaged students and teachers in a discussion on the proper use of mobile devices in school.  Her comments resulted in this impressive article from profiling her accomplishments as an administrator determined to connect her students with the world.

Schools with BYOD programs are acknowledging the reality that mobile technology has changed the way we live, work, and communicate.  Our children should experience an education that includes them in this reality instead of ignoring it. Topics like fair access to technology, responsible consumption of information, and sharing of carefully produced media must be a part of the planning in any school, but prohibition is not the answer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Effective EdTech Integration Starts with "Why"

Educators know why they teach.  EdTech entrepreneurs know why they think their tool will solve a problem for teachers and students.  But why is technology integration in the classroom essential to learning for today's students?

For over a century, inventors and thinkers have claimed that the latest piece of technology would revolutionize education.  How are mobile technology and web-based apps different than every invention that preceded them?  The answer is that they are not, really.  It isn't the technology that changes education.  Technology is a tool that can make a revolution in education possible.  But this is only possible if we change our approach to learning.

These are the questions I ask myself as I plan learning experiences for my students.  It is important to note that the order of these questions is key.

Question 1: Why do I want my students to learn X?

Note that the first question is not, "What do I want my students to learn?" -- signified by X in the heading above.  I know the answer to that already.  I have a curriculum.  The "Why" question gets to the root of my choice to become a history teacher, or any educator's choice of a topic or level.  It forces us to think about why we have a passion for our specialty.

My passion is history.  For example, recently my students studied the Reconstruction Era of American history. This is the time period just after the Civil War when the nation attempted to heal the wounds that a war had created and rebuild the South.  In addition, there were important reforms for African Americans, especially former slaves.  Why do I want my student to learn about this era?

It isn't merely because it is a part of the curriculum, because it is next in the list of units after the Civil War, or because I am personally fascinated with the incredible changes to our Constitution that were made during that era.

I want my students to learn about the Reconstruction because it was a time that held great promise for the cause of equality for all Americans, but failed.  I want them to understand what the reforms of the era were supposed to do, but didn't.  My hope is that they will learn that great change takes time, perseverance, and that successful reformers do not give up even in the face of incessant resistance.  They can carry this lesson forward and become effective change agents for causes they are passionate about.

Therefore, the essential question they were going to answer:
What is reform? Is it a process or an event? How can we ensure reform will succeed?
Notice the key terms of this particular time in history are not mentioned in the question.  Reconstruction; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; Freedman's Bureau; Ku Klux Klan; and sharecropping are not even referenced.  This is evidence of why I'm passionate about teaching history.  It isn't about memorizing terms, dates, or people.  We must learn from events of the past so we can be better people and create a better society.

Question 2: How do I want my students to experience learning X?

If students are going to digest the importance of this lesson and apply it to their own lives, they have to go through a learning process that makes it relevant to them in a real tangible way.  Sure, they will learn by reading, practicing, sharing, discussing -- but they need to do all of these things because it is what professionals do.  Remember, school is not preparation for real life.  School is real life for our children.  Let's acknowledge that at engage them in tasks that truly matter.

In the case of the Reconstruction lesson, I decided that I wanted students to become experts on at least one aspect of the Reconstruction.  Then I wanted them to be able to provide their classmates with an experience that made them feel a twinge of the injustice felt by freedmen (former slaves) at that time.  I would never presume that my high schoolers could truly empathize with the suffering of freedmen in the 1860s and 1870s American South, but they do have a keen sense of fairness and would understand the importance of the cause.

Question 3: Can technology deepen learning or make the process more efficient for this particular lesson?

For some students, the answer to this third question was affirmative and for others it was not.  For example, one group that did a deep dive to learn about the system of sharecropping set up a simulation.  Their classmates were moved to small areas of the classroom in little "families".  They were given buttons that symbolized seeds, farm equipment, and crops.  Then a person representing the land owner came around and collected a share of the crops that amounted to nearly everything, leaving the families with little to feed themselves and start up planting again the next season. At the end of the simulation, families could trade in buttons for candy and there were fewer candies than family members.  That twinge of injustice was felt, but no EdTech was used.

One of the primary source images used in this example.
Another group had the topic of voting rights for freedmen.  They put digital copies of drawings from Harper's Weekly in an online folder.  Then they created a QR code for their classmates to scan so they could access the folder full of images on their devices.  Students were assigned one of the images and told to put it into Skitch, an image annotation tool.  They were instructed to point out the freedmen and the white Americans in the images and add text explaining what the image taught them about the reality of voting for African Americans at this time.  Finally, the annotated images were projected on a large screen at the front of the room and discussed by the class.  This activity would not have been possible without the technology because digital annotation can be more detailed and in higher definition than on paper.  Also, the resulting analysis could not be enlarged to a size that the whole class can see if it were done on paper.  Finally, students could save those digital images in paperless notebooks, which are less likely to be destroyed or lost than a single sheet in a paper notebook.

In the first example, technology wasn't necessary for students to experience the learning in a way that felt meaningful.  In the second, the students' learning experience was fundamentally different because of the effective integration of technology.

These three questions should be our test when considering the integration of technology in the classroom.  This is how I have operated my classroom for years, and it is how I start the conversation with teachers who are looking for guidance on how to best integrate tech in their classes.

Recently I presented this method at a conference.  An administrator from a nearby district came up to me at the end of the session and asked if I'd seen Simon Sinek's TED Talk about the Golden Circle.  I hadn't, but he said I was living that message.  Since then I have watched the video of that TED Talk many times.  It is worth the 18 minutes if you are a teacher, administrator, technology integrator, or EdTech entrepreneur.  We should always start with "Why"

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ms. Gallagher Goes to Washington

Click this image to see the event web page.
Thanks to the Smarter Schools Project, I was invited to be part of an important briefing event at the U.S. Capitol today.  I'm honored to be one of the important voices for educators as policymakers and the press continue the conversation about the role of technology in our children's schools.  To be counted as a voice alongside Greg Toppo, Daisy Dyer Duerr, James Richardson, and Mickey Bryant has been both a humbling and thrilling experience.

If you were unable to attend this morning's event, check out #beyondpencils on Twitter to review the day.  Also, watch for video and blog posts to go up over the next days and weeks under that same hashtag.

A summary of my small contribution to this very important national conversation can be reviewed by watching the 2 minute video below -- which I made at Logan Airport while waiting for my flight to Washington D.C. on Thursday night.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Teens Speak: Should students publish their school work online?

If you are reading this blog, you surely know that I am an educator who sees technology as an opportunity to open up the world to my students, to connect them with content and experts not available at school.  On the other hand, it is important to teach them how to responsibly and effectively leverage technology so they are both learning and protected.

A passion I have been working to share lately is to allow students themselves to have a voice in the digital citizenship discussion. ConnectSafely has invited me to write for them and add to their rich collection of posts from experts in safety, security, privacy, digital literacy, and bullying.  I'm honored to contribute.  Click here to read my first post about publishing student work online.