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Google Apps Education Edition

June 22, 2009

I’ve been very interested as of late with Google’s foray into education.  Instead of trying to to explain what it encompasses in any detail, please watch the following webinar and be amazed at what Google can potentially do for you and your school.

I would love my school and board to give this a try.  I really think going this route will free up the money necessary for the hardware upgrades we need so dearly; specifically notebooks and wireless access.

I would love to hear from anyone who has actually used this in a classroom setting on a large scale.

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Welcome to the Holodeck!

June 11, 2009

I watched an interesting documentary this evening entitled You Only Live Twice.  It was about virtual world’s, specifically Second Life, and although it was from way back in 2007 it really opened my eyes to how interesting and odd the use of technology can be.

The program focused on explaining the various uses people have found for Second Life and it presented the information in a very non-biased manner.  What intrigued me the most was how much interest this virtual world had attracted from so many “virtually” unrelated individuals.

Professors are using Second Life to present life-like case studies on a wide variety of subjects (Schizophrenia being the most famous of the lot), businesses are conducting market research on potential real-world products, entrepreneurs are making money buying and selling items within this virtual world and now regulators are looking at whether or not to tax the profits being made within.

Somehow, I find it fascinating that something so Sci-Fi (hence the Star-Trek reference in the title) in nature can actually exist and thrive due to the global connectivity of individuals with similar interests.  Don’t get me wrong here…I’m not about to devote hours of my busy life to a virtual world but I do believe that we can learn something from Second Life.

Indeed, it would be amazing to use it as a teaching tool at the secondary level to enhance the  critical thinking skills and creativity we so desire to develop in our students.  Perhaps I’ll take some time out of my summer vacation to explore the possibilities of using second life applications in my classroom.

Until then, stay tuned…

How Relevant is Technology to Learning?

June 11, 2009

A former student of mine (Kevin Morris), who has since gone on to do great things, sent me an e-mail today asking for my opinion on a blog article entitled Will Universities Stay Relevant?

This is my response…

Interesting article…

Firstly, MOST of the students I teach are NOT like you!  You must understand that students like yourself are not the norm in terms of being in touch with the digital world and having the passion to use the tools available to them in the pursuit of knowledge.  Most of these students head off to university (and our new inflated grading system is making it easier) with little self-initiative and passion for learning.  I have been using technology in the classroom for 3 years now but I still fall back to the lecture style often because most of my students are not mature enough to embrace student-directed project based learning.

That being said, the first two years of university (as I recall them) are designed to “weed out” those who really do not belong, so to speak.  Although most of my professors in the 80’s and early 90’s used the lecture style, their classrooms became more open to critical thought and discussion after second year.  From what I am told, this is still the case.

Right now, I have reached a point in my classroom where I cannot proceed any further with student-driven methods due to lack of technology and support.  We do not have the bandwidth nor the requisite hardware in place to allow students to develop their critical thinking skills using web based applications.

I sympathize with the universities somewhat.  Many of these professors grew up without technology and are now being pushed to adopt it.  The process will take time and embracing a digital pedagogy does not ensure critical thinking skills will be developed.  The passion for learning must come from the students and that passion is something that transcends generations.

What I mean to say is students, like yourself, who have a passion for learning always embrace the latest technology the world has to offer to enhance their critical thinking skills and understanding of concepts.  The fact that you are using Twitter, etc. to accomplish this is no different than a student in the early 1980’s using one of the first computers to be more productive or a student in the 1950’s using a slide rule to do the same.

We need to work on fueling the passion for learning if we want to produce a generation of critical thinkers.  I try to use technology to inspire students to become passionate about knowledge.  The technology on its own is merely a conduit to critical thinking.  The passion for learning must come from within.

Not Inspired!

June 1, 2009

It’s been almost 2 months since my last post and, for whatever reason, I just have nothing to say!

My students have gone “bonkers” in the past month or so.  Most of them have decided the semester is over when it is clearly not and some of them are jeopardizing their credits by doing so. Since there are no concrete penalties for this kind of behaviour any more, it is easy to understand what is happening in our schools.

Obviously, the current degradation of standards that has permeated public education in Ontario has started to unveil itself en masse.  Teachers are frustrated, students are manipulating the system and the overall mood is reminiscent of a storm cloud about to burst.

Well, I guess I did have something to say after all.

One Classroom at a Time!

April 7, 2009

This blog primarily focuses on teaching with technology, however, I feel the university issue from my previous post deserves more attention.

First of all, I want to make it very clear that I fully believe going to university is not the perfect option for many young people.  The problem is the lack of viable alternatives being provided to them at the secondary level.  This, in turn, results in an excessive number of students entering university simply as a next step; an academic kind of place to go.  I’m not sure if this is solely a North American phenomenon or whether the same thing goes on in other parts of the world.

Most of the educators at the forefront of using ICT in education will point out that the universities are not providing an up to date learning environment for today’s student.  Some will take it a step further and argue that students do not need a university education in this day and age to be successful.  I am not going to disagree with either argument, however, the fact of the matter is that for most of my students university is a path they are going to have to take to become part of mainstream Canadian society. Many are simply not entrepreneurial enough to forge out on their own and learn for the sake of learning.

That being said, the question becomes whose responsibility is it to prepare these students for success at the university level?

The current pedagogical mindset coming from the Ministry of Education in Ontario makes it very clear that it is not the responsibility of secondary school teachers to “prepare” students for university.  This does not sit well with me because I believe students have a lot to gain from the university experience, especially if they can get through the first two years where the goal of most institutions is to weed out as many undergraduates as possible.

I think there is most definitely a way to implement the current “holistic” approach to secondary education while still maintaining the required standards of critical thought, punctuality, and good old-fashioned hard work.  We need to use the technology at our disposal to engage the students in such a way that it inspires them to want to learn.  This must be paired with more rigorous curriculum standards that emphasize critical thought and quality of work over simply throwing funds at politically correct initiatives that do not provide any tangible results.

This change will not come from the Ministry level nor will it come from the universities who initiated the complaints.  It will come from a grassroots movement led by teachers, students and parents who want to restore some integrity to a system that is sorrily lacking it and they will implement it one classroom at a time!

And the Battle Rages On…

April 7, 2009

The Toronto Star published an article entitled “Profs blast lazy first-year students” and the article has created quite a bit of debate both in the schools and at the dinner table.  Apparently, professors feel that first year students are woefully unprepared for the rigors of university life.

This is where the blame game begins.  The professors blame the students and the high school teachers.  The students blame the professors and high school teachers.  The teachers blame the professors, the students and their parents.  Finally, the parents blame everyone, etc.

The following is my response to the article which the Star didn’t bother publishing….

As a high school business/economics teacher I read your article with great interest.  Many of my colleagues and I have seen the writing on the wall for quite some time.  Our secondary and post-secondary schools systems have been moving in opposite directions for years now.  University has been exposing undergraduate students to an environment filled with large (200-500 students) classes, multiple choice testing, 50% (or more) final exams and lecture-style “teaching” for many years.  The difference is that we used to prepare our students for this reality with the old OAC courses.  I remember OAC exams worth 35% of a students mark along with Independent Study Units (ISU’s) worth 25% on top of that.  This environment prepared students for the harsh realities of first year university.

Personally, I have never really agreed with the method of teaching that professors engage in for first and second year students, however, I resolved myself to at least prepare students for what was to come.  Since the courses I teach cater mostly to university bound students, I saw no harm in doing so.  Over the past few years, the pressure to change from the Ministry of Education has been immense to say the least.  Now, we are expected to teach using a more student-centred approach.  Grades are given in levels and marks are produced via modal analysis (most recent and most consistent).  The result has been grade inflation which provides the students with a false sense of security entering university.  The methods we use to calculate grades now are inflating grades to the tune of 5-7% over the previous weighted-average method.  This results in students entering university programs that they probably would not have qualified for 10 years ago.  Students are also now used to a more hands-on approach to learning as opposed to note taking and lectures.

Therefore, I don’t really feel we have a generation of “slackers” on our hands.  What we have are two systems on divergent paths.  The universities are clinging (it is more cost effective) to the old  “Sage on the stage” method while secondary schools are exploring student-centred learning via technology, project based learning and a more holistic approach to calculating grades.  Both have their own merits, however, the whole thing comes to a grinding halt when the two worlds collide.

I went on to suggest that perhaps standardized entrance exams would probably be the end result if the two camps could not resolve their differences. Either way the bickering between the two Ministries governing universities and secondary schools in Ontario must come to an end for the sake of the students.

Teaching is NOT a Dirty Word!

March 31, 2009

This is a slide and audio presentation given by Chris Betcher at the Sitech Champion Schools Conference in Napier, New Zealand.  The slide show is done with Chris’ typical style of humour and sarcasm but it really hits home with those of us who use Interactive Whiteboards (IWB’s) on a daily basis.

In the presentation, Chris challenges teachers to teach “New Things in New Ways” as opposed to “Old Things in New ways” and he is truly correct in doing so.  The one thing that we all must remember though is that teachers need the right work environment for this to be possible.

Many of the private schools (both here in Canada and abroad) have the luxury of full administrative support when it comes to tinkering with new forms of student-centred learning.  Unfortunately, for those of us stuck in mainstream public education, this is simply not the case.  The bureaucracy involved in “getting approval” for even minor changes in pedagogy and/or assessment is immense to say the least.

Dr. Robert Marzano has published several studies that indicate student success increases with the use of IWB’s as long as they are paired with experienced teachers who use them effectively.  One would think that this sort of thing would be enough to convince the powers at be of what the right thing to do is.

Sadly,  our system continues to cling to its one size fits all, mass-production model of public education.  I actually like to call it the General Motors’ model for public education.

Wait!  Aren’t they going bankrupt?