Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Problem(s) with Choosing EdTech Tools for Your School

If you have ever been the lead teacher, technologist, or administrator tasked with finding the right tech tool for your school or district, here are a few scenarios that might seem familiar:

  1. You walk through the flashy fun exhibit hall at an edtech conference. The vendors are friendly, helpful, and give you plenty of hands-on opportunities with their product. You leave with handouts, email addresses, and lots of hope. But when you get back to school, you feel overwhelmed as you flip through all of the information. What’s next?
  2. As you look for a solution to your school/district’s particular situation, it is easy to go with one of the big companies with a big reputation. They might be exactly what you need. But they might also have a big price tag, inattentive product support, and updates or interface design changes that come without warning. Well, it is what everyone else is doing, right?
  3. Vocal teachers have always been the beneficiaries of both budgetary and time considerations. (Confession: As a classroom teacher, I worked the squeaky wheel angle a LOT.) Administrators and technologists can learn a lot from tech-leader teachers, but it can also be difficult to be sure that one particular problem actually requires extra resources. Is that vocal teacher’s need a school-wide need? Can existing tools and platforms – used in a new creative way – fill the need without pulling from a tight budget?

If the tool you are looking for is a significant investment and will require significant support, you are likely willing to dig deeper than those initial temptations. There is help out there:
  • Product reviews can help, but the sampling of reviewers likely do not include administrators from schools that fit your school’s profile. The reviews tend to be focused on that particular user’s experience rather than on institutional roll-out and impact. Also, the reviews are focused on the tool itself, not the need you are looking to fulfill by using that tool.
  • Change management consultants are also helpful, but technology tools are just one element of broader changes. When your need is more particular, their 30,000 foot view is not focused where you need it.
  • Reach out to your PLN (personal/professional learning network) of educators – via Twitter, Facebook Groups, and listservs – to get tool recommendations. Again, although their schools might be similar, their need and budget are not likely an exact match.
  • Put out a call for proposals to the companies that you have heard about through your PLN and your own research. Comb through the proposals on your own or with a small team from your school. This will take time and resources, so be ready to block it out from other responsibilities and roles.

What school and district technology leaders really need is a process that allows them to analyze their needs, survey all companies – big and small – for the right tool fit their particular issues. At the same time, that process needs to be as efficient as it is accurate. The work of education is always on a tight schedule and a tight budget. EdSurge’s Concierge is one option I’ve seen that helps solve a lot of these problems. It is free and anonymous. That means that the companies they match you with do not know your identity or your school’s identity until you are serious and ready to make contact with those companies. The only money you’ll spend is on the tool if you are convinced it is the right match for you. Here’s the process:

  1. 45-minute diagnostic call: They’ll ask you about your need, the solutions you’ve tried, existing tools and infrastructure, and more.
  2. Research: The folks at EdSurge will use their broad network of educators and edtech companies to do the research you don’t have time to do. The key here is that they level the playing field between those big companies everyone knows about, and the small ones that might have the right solution you’ve never heard of.
  3. Your vetted list: Soon you’ll receive your customized list with specific information from each company about how they can and will meet your particular need. EdSurge will have shared your personalized needs with each company without revealing your identity. For you, this means you get all the inside information with none of the sales pressure.
  4. You make the call: EdSurge will put you in touch with only the companies you select. Then they will step back and let you do what is right for you.

Choosing the right technology tool is a big decision. Will the tool do what you need it to do? Will it fit in your budget? Will the company support your integration and professional learning needs? Give Concierge a try next time you are looking for a solution to your blended learning, OER curation, personalized learning, formative assessment, or learning management system needs.


Note: This is a sponsored post. While there was compensation for this post, no product will ever be highlighted on this blog unless the author believes in its value to educators.
Problem image source: Chris Potter on Flickr
Concierge image source: EdSurge

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Gateway Tech Tools for Tech Tentative Teachers

In every school community there are a handful of great teachers – the teachers who are passionate about their students, experts in their content, and beloved by the families they have served – who are also kind of scared of technology. Either they have little experience using tech in their personal lives and therefore do not see how it applies to the classroom, or they have been burned by bad technology rollouts and learned to rely on their tried-and-true non-tech strategies. No matter the reason, they are great teachers and there is a way to change their experience with technology to benefit both them and their students. Often it is up to the instructional technology coaching staff to help facilitate the transition. Here are a few tools and strategies that I've seen work, and that might work for you.

Traditional Teaching Strategy: Slide Decks
Gateway Technology Tool: Pear Deck

Especially at the secondary level, teachers have relied on slide decks to structure lesson instructions and content delivery for decades. Remember when Power Point was the latest in EdTech? Power Point has come a long way, but direct instruction is on it's way out. The tool that is helping some slide deck traditionalists make the shift to hands-on instruction is Pear Deck. Using the Pear Deck platform in a BYOD or 1-to-1 classroom, each student connects to the teacher presentation, answers interactive questions or challenges, and then learns from the resulting data from the peers in the classroom with them. A few teachers who have invested a lot of time in designing their slide decks over the years have started experimenting with Pear Deck and their students are the beneficiaries.

Traditional Teaching Strategy: Video Clips
Gateway Technology Tool: PlayPosit

Pulling quick but effective video clips from YouTube, Khan Academy, Vimeo, and other sites is a long-standing practice of teachers everywhere. Many have gone farther and have started using the simple cameras on their phones to create and share their own instructional videos. While having students watch a video is a good first step, it is not interactive or hands-on. PlayPosit allows teachers to import videos from any of the platforms I just mentioned (and more) and then add interactive elements like questions, reflective pauses, and hyperlinks to enrichment resources online.

Traditional Teaching Strategy: Writing Assignments
Gateway Technology Tool: Blogs

Alan November has been encouraging
teachers to help students publish their
work for years. Image source.
When student write for their teacher, they are invested in the writing process because of the grade they hope to earn. When they write for an audience that could include their parents, extended family, friends, or the world beyond they are invested in the writing process because they know an audience includes people they care about and people they don't even know yet. First impressions are important!

For G Suite schools with well-established digital citizenship programs that have prepared students for online publishing etiquette/responsibility, Blogger is a good solution. It integrates well with the programs that students and teachers are already using and the dashboard is consistent with other online publishing tools.

If your technology administrators want more control over hosting, safety, and security then it is worth considering CampusPress, from the same company that brought us EduBlogs and WordPress. Another option is GoEnnounce. It combines the ability to share student work with a digital citizenship curriculum to help students and teachers understand why online sharing is important.

The great thing about starting with blogs for publishing student writing is that blogs have the potential to help students publish so much more. They can embed photos, videos, simulations, and even the code they write themselves as they advance in their academic careers. Soon, their blog will be more than a record of their writing. It will be a full-on digital portfolio of their creations.


If there are excellent teachers at your school who need a little nudge to unleash their teacher-power with edtech, one of these three strategies and tools might be the key that unlocks their potential.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What Would George Washington Think of the Internet?

The way we communicate is more instantaneous and media-rich today than ever before in history. But both history and modern times are peppered with testy relationships, varying personalities, and complicated politics. While we sometimes think that life is so different today from the start of U.S. history, we have more in common with the people who lived at the beginning of our nation's story than we think. This also means that we struggle with communication in many of the same ways. Using the lesson and materials below, you can help your students feel more connected with history by talking with them about the ways they connect with one another online.

Earlier this week, Safer Internet Day was observed in over 100 countries all over the world including the United States. This year's theme is Be the change: Unite for a better internet and the event was held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and was hosted by ConnectSafely. Throughout the event, the speakers and performers reminded the nearly 200 students in the audience that their actions and voices are more important than they think. The young users of technology today are creating the internet of the future with every swipe, keystroke, and photo/video upload. In the same way our nation's founders were shaping the future as they drafted the Constitution, we are influencing the future every time we hit post or publish.

I was honored to help design and kick off the student activity portion of the day. We asked the participating students, who hailed from schools in Philadelphia and the surrounding towns, what early U.S. citizens and residents might say about the way we use the internet today. Their answers were inspiring and we captured a few with photos.

"I keep my family secrets but I see photos of yours every day."
These girls learned that James Madison's stepson struggled with addiction
and debt. Madison did his best to help without making the struggles public,
but many people overshare that kind of information online today.

"Although I don't agree with you I respect your opinion"
These boys learned that Thomas Jefferson built strong friendships with John
Adams and others who had differing opinions. He thought those relationships
were important to maintain.

"Burr! Your comments are killing me!"
This group learned about the rivalry and tension between Alexander Hamilton
and Aaron Burr that eventually led to a deadly duel.
They tried to imagine how they might interact on social media.

"Internet? Massah told me not to read."
The materials included profiles of Americans who represented perspectives
not included in the creation of the Constitution, like Frederick Douglass. These
boys poignantly pointed out that even online information is only available to
those who are educated and able to access it.
Slaves were forbidden from learning to read.

You can help your students make the connection from their digital lives to the revolutionary lives of our early countrymen, too. Click the image below to access the lesson resources.

Click here to access the lesson materials.

Here are a few ideas for how to use the resources in your classroom:

  1. Digital Lesson with Memes: Let students screenshot the portraits and then put the photos into Skitch, Phonto, or some other free image annotation app. Students can create memes in which the individuals featured in the lesson materials answer the questions based on the biographical information and direct quotes provided. Memes can be submitted via Google Classroom or some other LMS assignment submission feature. 
  2. Low Tech with Post-Its: Print and post the 8 portrait photos with corresponding info-sheets around the room. Divide the class into 8 groups. Each group takes 3-5 minutes at each of the 8 stations to read the info-sheets and write an original quote on a Post-It note from the perspective of the person in the portrait. As groups rotate, they are challenged to avoid repeating the quotes on the Post-Its from the groups that preceded them. 

It is important to close the activity with a class discussion and reflection. In our case, we asked for student volunteers for a final panel. Panelists ranged in age from 10 to 18 and shared their greatest takeaways and how they plan to take what they've learned back to their school communities.

If you use this lesson, or some version of it, at your school and in your classroom, please share the results on Twitter and tag @ConnectSafely and me, @KerryHawk02. Also use the official Safer Internet Day hashtags #SID2017 and #SIDUSA. Tiffany Hall from Florida did and her students' work is impressive!

We want to help amplify your students' voices so they can be the change and know their ideas are essential as we unite for a better internet.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Prepare Children for the World They WILL Live In, Not the World We WISH They'll Live In

When we put powerful devices in the hands of adolescents and teenagers, they will make mistakes. There is no doubt about it. Recently, I've been pressed by fellow educators and parents, both in person and via digital communications, as to whether it is truly worthwhile to give children – children with brains that are not fully developed – these powerful tools when we know with confidence that they will make mistakes while using them. They will play games when they should be doing homework. They will get sucked into text messages during class time when they should be taking notes.

For many adults, this is new territory. We did not grow up with these powerful devices and an endless internet at our fingertips. How can we possibly set limits to the limitless world that our children now live in?

Over the past few years, some research has emerged that can help us explain to our children why they (and we) are so drawn to our screens and to technology. One reason is dopamine. It is a chemical that is released in our brains that creates good feelings. When we eat, exercise, and engage in stimulating social activities dopamine helps us feel those healthy good feelings. It turns out, dopamine is also released with certain screen-based activities like leveling up in a game, talking about ourselves on social media, getting likes on our posts, and multitasking between apps and tabs. Generally, this is still a good thing. But too much of a good thing can desensitize us to the effects of dopamine and we are then driven to trigger it's release more often. In other words, food, exercise, or screens can become addictive.

On the other hand, our children are doing amazing things thanks to technology and screens. They are coding to design apps and teaching their friends how to do the same. They are designing and printing 3D prosthetics. They are even starting social movements that are really creating positive change.

The amazing things our students – our children – are doing with these devices are the precise reasons we must put these powerful devices in their hands. The research on dopamine is also an important reason to teach them how to manage their technology use in a healthy way while they are still under our purview. A parent from my school recently shared this quote with me, and gave me permission to share it with you:

Together with my colleagues and fellow digital learning specialists, Julie Cremin and Elizabeth Solomon, I have recently developed this tip sheet for parents with links to helpful resources and questions that can serve as conversation starters. It is a great resource to share with both parents and teachers as they work toward developing strategies for working with the adolescents and teens in their lives.

Let's be real: We are using technology and screens as an organic and inherent means of doing business, communicating, and creating the products we need to do our work as adult professionals. It makes sense for our children to do academics, communicate, and create using these same technologies and screens as they prepare to be adults in the world that exists. What's more, our children are already engaging with technology outside of school when they use their smartphones to access social media, stream videos and movies on their TVs, and play video games on all devices. They are already growing and developing in a tech-rich world. Let's make that development positive and structured in our schools to help them navigate that world.