Wednesday, 26 March 2008
Windows Live Writer, Teachmeet and Computers in Classrooms
Here are a couple of items of news that may interest you. Windows Live Writer is a free blog post editor. Teachmeet is an unconference designed to allow teachers and others to spread the word about exciting stuff without boring their listeners into submission. Computers in Classrooms is a wonderful e-newsletter/magazine that I always look forward to reading. Mind you, I am slightly biased because I produce it.
Windows Live Writer
For some time now I have been using Windows Live Writer for writing my blog posts. I've tried quite a few of these things, and most of them are over-featured to the point where they are not useful. Well, not to me anyway. On the other hand, ordinary text editors and word processors are either under-featured, by not making it easy to insert blog-type things like pictures from the internet, or create a load of unwanted code in the background.
Unfortunately, it has seemed to be in beta format for, well, forever -- until now. Actually, to be more precise, it went out of beta back in November, but I have only just discovered it!
The new version is much better than the old one, with the facility to insert video and maps, and with the option of a British spell-checker. I have also installed a number of plug-ins, such a word counter, Flickr browser and smiley inserter.
Now, that image to the left was just inserted through the Flickr plug-in, and it was much faster than my usual method of browsing through Flickr directly. The picture insert feature has been improved too. It is now much easier to insert a link to the photo's URL and to set margins.
The word count facility is pretty good, though you have to remember to select the text first.
As for the smileys, not sure how they will turn out, but in the offline draft mode I'm working in now they are looking good.
I tried using the map-insert feature, but couldn't get on with it. For a start, it is too US-centric. I mean, it didn't recognise Downing Street as a London placename for heavens' sake. Also, it seemed to takes ages to think about what to do next whenever I changed a parameter. Shame really.
OK, how about the video-embedding feature? Couldn't have been easier, except for the fact that, unfortunately, it embedded code that was not recognised by the content management system I use. Worked fine in Blogger though.
Looks like the unconference started by Ewan McIntosh, at which teachers and others get to give short and even shorter presentations, is being franchised. Anthony Evans, one of the ICT advisory team in the London Borough of Redbridge, is hosting a Teachmeet at the end of an ICT Co-ordinators' conference in May. Both Anthony and Ewan were featured in my Conference Discussions podcast. Find out more about the Teachmeet here.
Computers in Classrooms
Just a quick note to say that the January edition is almost ready (OK, I know it's a bit late, but good things are worth waiting for... -- sorry about all the smileys, by the way!)
Articles featured include ICT in Russia, school leadership, reflections on BETT and the world according to Stephen Potter. Look out for the new edition sooooon.
Not a foregone conclusion Q2
In recent weeks I've been exploring some questions, mainly to clarify my own thinking in these areas. Regard these posts as my thinking out loud. Feel free to chip in with your own reflections.
My original list of questions was:
1. Is it always better to use a computer than pen and paper, in terms of productivity, creative output or better learning?
2. Do computers always enhance pupils' self-esteem?
3. Does government funding lead to better spending on educational technology in schools? Is it better or worse if caveats are attached to the spending?
4. Is it always better to use templates to guide pupils' work?
5. Do free resources supplied by governments enhance or diminish the quality of teaching (and therefore, subsequently, learning)?
6. Do the standards laid down by various national curricula or schemes of work really level the playing field, or do they merely mask inequalities of provision caused by other factors?
7. Does it matter if schools do not embed educational technology in the curriculum?
Today I'm looking at the second one.
When I posted this list on the Technology & Learning blog a few weeks ago, Carl Anderson said "No: think of cyberbullying". That's a good point, though not the one I had in mind when I wrote the question. What I was thinking about at that time was the tendency of many writers to say that computers enhance pupils' self-esteem. They often have in mind children with behavioural or learning difficulties, who have somehow been branded as a "failure" by the "school system".
I see a number of issues here. Firstly, at the risk of sounding out of step with the times, or just for the sake of argument, why is it up to schools to enhance children's self-esteem anyway? I'm not saying we should do the opposite, of course, ie deliberately set out to make children feel bad about themselves, but is not pandering to some sort of narcissistic complex to say that we have to look for ways to boost kids' egos?
In "real life", employers don't have "Boost employees' self-esteem" as one of their objectives. Well, not in any of the places I've worked in, anyway. As a rule, self-esteem comes from doing a job to the best of one's ability. When you do, getting a pat on the back is a nice bonus, but that is all it should be: a bonus. So what we really ought to be doing is teaching children to obtain a sense of satisfaction from doing the best they can.
But leaving all that aside, the reasons that children's esteem is said to be enhanced by the use of computers are that it enables them to present their work nicely, and if they get something wrong the computer seems more impersonal, and therefore not as bad, as a real life teacher giving you the same message. In fact, neither of these is true without substantial work "behind the scenes".
For example, helping children produce nice-looking work may entail the use of templates, word banks, and a limited range of formatting options. Making a correction message seem less unpalatable requires careful thought about the wording of the message, and how the child is helped to get to the next stage.
Certainly, merely having a computer in the classroom, with not much thought about the programs on it or how they will be used, is not likely to enhance anybody's self-esteem.
It's alright to be bright
This is the name of a new campaign launched by the National Association of Gifted Children. We all know how kids hate to be thought of as "boffins", so the idea is to raise awareness of how nice it is to be bright by organising or taking part in various activities, which culminate in an awareness day on Friday 9th May.
I love this quote from their website:
Are you ready to see if you are as bright as a 10 year old?
You can send off for a pack of materials, which I have done, but this has also made me think of the plight of bright children who are being bored into submission in their ICT lessons, or at least not being stretched. So what kind of things can the educational technology teacher do to raise the stakes on a more long-term basis?
I've addressed this problem to a large extent in my seminal work, "Go On, Bore 'Em: How to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull", which you can purchase right now from Lulu. But before you rush off and buy half a dozen copies (it makes a great birthday present, and is better for you than Easter eggs at this time of year), here are some more ideas that I have tried to good effect.
If you want to show secondary (high) school teachers or trainee teachers what can be achieved with ICT, take them to a primary (elementary) school, or at least make them aware of what kids at even Reception level are capable of doing. Here is a conversation I had in a secondary school after the Head of Geography had shown me around.
Head of Geography: So what do you think of the database work we're doing with our 14 year olds?
Me: I think it's brilliant. In fact, I thought it was brilliant when I saw similar work being done by 9 year olds last week!
OK, that's my style, which may not be yours, but the point is: tell it how it is, and show it how it is!
Find out what the pupils in your classes do in their spare time. Here's another conversation I had in a school (funnily enough, with another geography teacher).
Geography teacher, having come into a lesson where I was supporting a teacher with her class of 13 year olds: Hey, Terry, could you show me how to create a website for the geography department?
Me: Certainly. But why not ask Valerie over there (Valerie was a pupil)? She has been running her own website for two years now.
What would be the point, in an ICT lesson, of Valerie having to sit through a lesson on creating websites? She ought to be helping the teacher take the lesson!
Think of what you think might be a difficult problem, and then make it more difficult. You might just get it right.
Ask the pupils themselves to think of their own solutions to a real-life problem. In my experience they will either come up with some ingenious solutions, or realise that they don't know how to put their solution into practice -- and get down to the business of solving that particular problem.
Think out of the box. I hate that expression, but in this context it's useful. Why is it that so many ICT lessons involve solving "problems" like adding up the scores of basketball games, or working out the number of seats you have to fill in a theatre to break even? There has to be something a bit more interesting than that kind of stuff.
Get classes of pupils to help you deliver ICT training to other teachers. I have done this, and it worked brilliantly. The teachers loved it because they had one-to-one tuition, and the kids loved it because it made them feel important and valued.
In your own mind, redefine what you understand by the term "bright". One girl I taught, who was always being chucked out of lessons for misbehaving (but not my lessons, I hasten to add), and who was in a lower stream, was absolutely brilliant at teaching ICT to younger kids. And not just trivial stuff either, but spreadsheets.
For me, the bottom line is this: children always rise or fall to the level of your expectations, and if you set the right conditions in your classroom, they will exceed your highest expectations.
Not a foregone conclusion Q1
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article in which I posed a few questions that I've been thinking about of late, and over the next week or so I'd like to explore them one at a time. Today I'm considering question 1, which was:
Is it always better to use a computer than pen and paper, in terms of productivity, creative output or better learning?
The important issue for me is what might be called "appropriate use". So, to take an extreme example, if you were quickly exchanging phone numbers with someone you just met, it probably would not be appropriate to ask them to wait while you fired up your laptop so you could enter their details in a database. It may be appropriate to enter their details into a phone or a handheld computer. It may be better in the immediate term, though not necessarily in the long term, to use a pen and notebook.
It seems to me that whether the use of a computer is "appropriate" from an efficiency point of view depends on a range of factors:
Does the data need to be stored electronically?
If so, is it quicker to enter the data electronically now, or quicker to write the details now and enter them later?
Should you even keep the data electronically?
Clearly, the answers to these questions will differ according to circumstances.
Efficiency is not the only consideration. When it comes to creative writing, many people find it better to use pen and paper. So, although it is apparently inefficient to write something by hand and then type it up, in terms of quality it may be the better option. I have to say that recently, much to my surprise, I discovered that I could write sections of a book chapter better by hand than with a computer. It was a pain having to type it all up later, but somehow the use of a notepad seemed to free up my creative juices.
"So what?", you may ask. Well, I certainly think it has implications for the way schools organise their computer rooms (if they still have them), and how they organise the pupils in lessons. For example, I have always advocated that pupils should have space to work away from the computers, both on their own and collaboratively. Those computer rooms which have been designed to house as many computer workstations as possible, with no room for anything else, are not only hopeless from a collaboration point of view, but may also leave something to be desired from a personal creativity point of view.
In fact, my ideal computer lab has easy chairs and coffee tables too, and my ideal rest and relaxation area has computer workstations dotted about. Whichever way you look at it, the technology should serve the learner, not the other way round.
The future, our lives, our technology and our learning, a talk by Ewan McIntosh
In his presentation at the Naace Strategic conference 2008, Ewan makes a few interesting points....
For example, Ewan does not believe that there is such a thing as a key influencer. He also thinks that institutions, such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are not as important as what I suppose might be called "People Power". I think there is something in that, definitely. I have thought for a long time that it's a pity that schools and teachers in the UK are so frightened by league tables that they are, on the whole, very reluctant to take any risks.
I thought the presentation itself was lively and provocative. I have to say I enjoyed it, even though I disagreed with some of it, such as the idea that there is no such thing as a tipping point or a key influencer.
Anyway, have a listen, and judge for yourself.
Should teaching be a Masters profession?
A new document from the Department for Children, Schools and Families sets out the agenda for a Masters requirement for new teachers. I think this is to be welcomed, but I do have some misgivings.
The document in question is Being the best for our children: releasing talent for teaching and learning. One of the reasons I welcome this is that it raises the stakes a bit. I for one am heartily sick of people thinking that anyone can teach just because it involves, as they see it, standing in front of a class of kids and spouting forth. That perception is not confined to the intellectually-challenged: I met a doctor last week who thinks that teaching is an ideal profession for anyone recovering from a stress-related illness, because all you have to do is stand in front of a class and talk. If you actually had to have a Masters degree in order to do that, such people might think again (although somehow I doubt it).
I also think that the people who govern teaching entry requirements (which I believe to be the DCSF rather than the Training and Development Agency for Schools) need to wake up and smell the coffee. I am thinking in particular of the ICT test that would-be teachers have to take in order to achieve qualified teacher status. Its boring, old-fashioned, minimalistic and irrelevant -- well, I suppose being able to send an email or create a presentation is not completely irrelevant, but if the average intelligent person cannot pick those skills up in 5 minutes with a friend looking over their shoulder then they shouldn't be in teaching anyway.
So, whilst the DCSF is considering the Masters, it should take the opportunity to carry out a shake-up of teaching qualifications at all levels, such as by working with the universities to ensure that undertaking a course in, say, being an ICT co-ordinator, or carrying out some (mentored) classroom research, or simply doing the job gets you credit that you can use towards a higher qualification (in the last case it would be in the form of accreditation for prior learning, or APL). Such ideas have been mooted before -- Mirandanet has discussed such a scheme with Naace -- and it seems to me that the time is right for an integrated and ambitious approach like this.
Getting back to the document, a welcome commitment is making funding available to enable schools to release core people, including the Headteacher, for training. In my experience over recent years, it has become increasingly unlikely for schools to release teachers to attend in-service development courses, and one of the reasons is (perceived?) lack of funding.
I do have a couple of misgivings. One is that online courses are not mentioned. Perhaps that is because the document sets out the broad ideas rather than the details. I did a Masters part-time from 1984 to 1986 and it's hard-going to attend sessions after a day's work, and to do all the reading. And I was obliged to attend only once a week, whereas others had to attend twice a week. Being able to do some of the work in your own time, or even to be able to take part in seminars at a fixed time without having to leave home would be most welcome. In addition, there is no reason that lectures should not be recorded as podcasts or video podcasts in this day and age.
Another is the statement that the National Strategies will remain the key delivery mechanism for raising standards in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science by providing free professional development in these areas. Well, there is no doubting that some of the resources they have produced are excellent, but my experience of their training days is such that if the average teacher were to adopt their methods with an inspector in the room, they'd fail -- unless death by PowerPoint is now a benchmark of success. Not the whole of every training day I attended was like that, and I suppose I would grduglingly say in their defence that they had a lot of stuff to get through. But even so....
More importantly, it is axiomatic that whenever an organisation is given other people's (ie the taxpayers) money to provide something free of charge to another group of people (in this case teachers) the result is never as good as if they had to compete with other providers on an equal basis. Free market competition will always be better than state-sponsored monopoly, except perhaps where there is an equalities issue. Surely a much better approach would be to give schools a shed-load of money that they have to spend on training, whilst at the same time setting stringent standards for any companies wishing to be recognised as training providers, and then let the market sort it out? It worked well with the previous Ofsted inspection framework, in which small companies could offer their services on an equal footing with the big companies as long as they met the criteria. And yes, I do have a vested interest in saying this: small companies like mine have much to offer in areas like this, but large-scale State subsidisation skews the market.
One final thing: if the government is serious about this then they should insist that every Masters course for teachers includes a non-trivial module in educational ICT that teachers have to pass. An announcement to that effect would in itself send out a powerful message to latter-day Luddites who should not be allowed within a mile of any educational establishment.
What's that you say? Me, a grumpy old man? Never!