U say ya wana revolution

It won’t have escaped notice that the Rudd Government has two major educational initiatives under way; The National Curriculum and the Digital Education Revolution. The later is more commonly called the netbooks for Years 9-12 program. Or rather more just a give away, I’m yet to be convinced it’s a program or project of even moderately thought through activity. Certainly revolution it is not; revolutions must start from ground level and work up in a flurry of demand, requirements, and bring about radical change usually in some bloody mess. This ‘revolution’ is being handed down only to effect disarray, confusion and maybe no valuable change for the intended target – our students.

Let’s start with the acknowledgment that there is insufficient support and planning and no time to do it right, that there are many reasons to feel insecure; we are on the precipice of potentially great things, of radical change and improvement – this is a scary proposition.  Then again, teaching isn’t for the faint of heart, if it were easy, any one could do it and we wouldn’t hold the special position that we do. We know there is much more to making a digital education revolution than simply handing out netbook computers to teachers and all the kids in year 9 to 12. Is there a way around all the obvious and quite real problems? I think and hope so; maybe not on a global scale but at small local levels – you and your classroom – certainly.

Let me begin by acknowledging there are some shining exemplary examples of how good this can be and some teachers are doing the most remarkable things with their classes, but let’s look at the majority of us occupying that larger bit of the bell curve. We can expect to face mistakes, in fact lets hope so, that’s the most productive time to learn anything. There are going to be disruptions to our regular (already overworked) lives.  There are going to be breakages, breakdowns, breakouts, breakthroughs and maybe even some break dancing… all that comes with growth. So how might we make some progress, get some personal growth and satisfaction out of the mess?

Enlist the resource we have the most of, the currently under tapped one; the students themselves.

That students are digital natives has proven largely to be a major furphy, they regularly have less of a clue than we digital immigrants, but what they do have is the NoFear approach to technology, much more time than us, razor sharp focus on things that catch their interest and imagination, and a tolerance of our shortcomings that we rarely give them credit for.

One of the tenets of a digital education is collaboration.  There’s no reason this can’t start right from the opening of the box. Don’t have enough ICT support staff? You could let the computers languish in their boxes in the corner or get the soon to be owners to open them. Use the exercise to establish ownership. Use the asset logging as an educational process.

Now comes the really tough bit – how to get value out of being computerised. How do you establish digital literacy, turn each of your students into successful digital citizens?  What’s about to follow is neither an exhaustive list nor a definitive list but simply a few key features that we should start to promote and will be useful transferable skills that are not KLE specific but genuinely useful across curricula. There’s no proposal here to teach you how to teach your subject, just some ideas on how to make sensible users out of your newly netbooked students, and with that become better members of your class, better self sufficient study machines for your subject.

Research skills (assuming internet connection here, either at school or at home).

Understanding and exploring a wealth of information now readily available at student fingertips, requires research skills, capacity to gather appropriate information, manage that information in sensible ways, be discriminating of sources, capacity to verify against alternative sources and not be overwhelmed with too much or too wrong information.  The unenlightened equate this with Googling. They are so wrong. That’s only about 1/10 of what they need to know. Our supposed digital natives will know about Google, but rarely progress past a single word search, then simply hope or assume that the first entry of the umpteen million responses in some way matches what they are looking for.  With some instruction on how to do this better Google can be an astonishing resource. Develop in them the language of search, encourage the use of quote marks, get the basics of Boolean and find out about the way Google does things. Check out the concept of stemming for instance, and without question use Google Directory and not the main page. Also teach them to state very explicitly what they want.  Surely this makes sense? Well, not always. Most times researching with Google goes – enter a single word and hope.

Is Google all there is; not even close. The nature of your research may suggest that an alternative search engine is a better prospect.

If you have a genuine questions (not just a collection of search terms), try ask.com. Its algorithm is designed to interpret you question as if you’d asked it to another human. Need a straightforward answer to a simple question rather than umpteen options? Try Wolfram. Still in its early days, it is designed to offer a single right answer. Give it a try – find out ‘how many roads a man must walk down…’

Digital Citizenship.

It’s a brave new world out there and we are responsible for making them good successful citizens in that world. Failing to prepare them is failing them. So how do we give them skills that we may not have or are just developing ourselves? Given that all of this is important to us too, learning the ways of the internet together isn’t so bad. Here’s a sampling of what’s needed.

Dealing with spam and scams. They are out there everywhere. Various agencies report that around 70% of all email is actually rubbish, scams, spams and pointless chain mails.  No wonder most kids prefer SMS. Scams that get through filters look very real. Our students do not have the capacity to differentiate between a real bank site and the multitude of fake ones. Find out how to recognise them together. Also let them know that in spite of the cleverly worded emails, not sending it to 100 of their closest friends won’t result in a death ray beamed directly from ZandarossSeven killing them in the playground and nor will bothering 100 of their nearest and dearest result in a Prince (or Princess) on a white horse coming to sweep them off their feet to live happily in a castle for ever and ever. Don’t forget the Nigerian diplomat, King, Prince or whoever, isn’t really going to put $20million into their bank account if they send the details. Teach them to be aware of these things and discriminating in how they deal with it.

How long before resumes become old hat? Have you employed someone recently? We still might use written CVs for a while, but almost certainly it will be accompanied by a quick Googling, (be sure to read the item above). So if your students are Googled, then what will someone find? Is it a positive image or a not so good one? Teach them to become their own agents. Work on the assumption you are a celebrity and your agent is responsible for maintaining your image. Help them see that even though it’s a virtual world, their real life will be impacted by what they put on line. Maintain a sensible approach, be wary of not revealing personal information, nothing identifying in the physical sense, and keep your ‘agent’ happy.

Incorporate into all on line activities a sense of digital etiquette. This goes well beyond NOT USING CAPITALS.  Everyone knows this is shouting and is old hat. Ensure that those with more developed skill and more time on-line are considerate of newbies, patient and generous is best, everyone is new at some point. Teach proper use of email, that it isn’t a substitute for the old handwritten letters, it is a new communication system with a new set of appropriate rules. Teach the value of TXTing, and how to strike a balance between leet speak and regular language. These are new communications systems, manners don’t go out the window, they just change a little and the emphasis on how to write just shifts to accommodate.  Also stress that any capacity to bully someone using technology is unacceptable. There are plenty of resources supporting your work in reducing incidents of cyber bullying and they should be used regularly and sufficiently.

Technology management.

Having a netbook in a school that is either prepared for technology or unprepared will bring about management issues.

Those batteries may not last the day; do they know where they might re-charge? Do they have a group within which they share a single power charger rather than everyone in the group carrying one? Are their sufficient power points in the wall to accommodate everyone? Can they share a battery with someone who was better organised and will share to get them to the end of the day? Let them find the solutions; let them become true owners, responsible for keeping powered up long enough to deal with the day. They can do it, if you support and trust them to.

Have they considered the safety of ‘their’ netbook? How are they protecting it from physical damage? How do they intend to keep it from being stolen? If something drastic does happen how are they protecting their work? Do they back up regularly and how do they protect that backup?  All these things might well be something your school considers and has solutions to, but if you are one of the many that are not prepared yet, how much responsibility can the students take? Do we assume good things from them and by making those expectations raise them to be responsible technology managers?

How often have you been browsing for information and got sidetracked? Searching for information can be a time consuming thing. Instead, make it come to you.  The solution is RSS. This simple concept means that you find sources of information but rather than go back to them time after time to see if there is anything new, let that information come directly to you, as soon as it’s available.  A little like a self generating newspaper containing only the sort of article you are going to be interested in.  Perfect for time strapped students looking to gather study notes from a variety of sources without having to constantly go out and find them.

Multimedia savvy students present better assignments.

Now in the hands of each student is a multimedia machine. The quality of student assignments, projects and presentations can skyrocket. Teach students to persuade, cajole, sell, influence, argue, inform, convince, instruct, share, entertain, and generally make a presentation. With a wealth of possibilities at their fingertips, slides are now blasé. Use Voicethread, use Photostory, use ComicLife, record a podcast, construct an Animoto, use a wider variety of options. Allow the more creative students free reign, this gives them buy in. Not all of them will be able or interested, but let those who are, lead the way and demonstrate possibilities.

Don’t forget to incorporate other technologies that might be available.  Most mobile phones are also quite acceptable movie cameras and short documentaries, adverts, exposés, dramas, etc, are well within the capacity of most students to produce. All netbooks come with editing software built in. It will make your marking so much more interesting – and peer marking becomes a pleasure rather than a chore.

Summary

Remember that it’s all a bell curve.  Some of these things might seem a little simple some might seem a bit extreme. Your students and fellow teachers are also somewhere along that bell curve, some exist on the far right  and make you feel inadequate, some on the far left and make you feel justifiably proud of yourself.  Some can some can’t, some will some won’t, some just have to play to the beat of their own drummer and come to these things in time. You too, these items are presented as a positive option that will make your classroom experience better, that will make school life better for your students. You can’t learn them all at once; students haven’t the capacity to adopt them all at once. They too need support for the new and different. Huxlyitis[i] is more common that generally admitted to by the government during the roll out. Get innovative; you may even learn something on the way.

A final consideration of the untapped resources in your classroom – and this does take a little bravery – sometimes, let them lead.  Maybe take an afternoon occasionally and open your class to an ‘expert’, someone who has had the time to find out something that you might want to learn, someone who has had the need and the passions to expand their skill in a particular method or piece of software.  None of us has the time and capacity that the collective of our classrooms have. I can’t spend 5 hours a night collaborating with 30 others dragon fighters developing a multi flanked strategy requiring 25 different personalities and a range of skills. There might be someone in your class who does. Ok, I’m pretty sure dragon fighting isn’t in the syllabus, but many of the things they learn and can do certainly are, leverage their time, skill, and capacity to learn. It’s not relinquishing control; it’s harnessing the abilities available to you. Share your skill in presenting and make a presenter out of them, use your management skills to keep your classes vibrant and interesting.  Get innovative; you may even learn something on the way.


[i] Fear of a Brave New World

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