Category Archives: Life

My TEDxCanberra Audition: Learning for the Real World

I’ve spent the last few days putting together a brief audition video for TEDxCanberra – it was suggested by another teacher that I give it a shot, and I figure I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been doing a lot of investigation and work recently around a model of education that has students working directly with the community through projects that are interdisciplinary – an approach similar to Challenge-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning and similar models.

The audition video is on YouTube, and a quick search for TEDxCanberra will show you other potential speakers and topics.

While it’s not the greatest piece of video I’ve ever done, I think it gives a good enough picture of the message I’m sharing. I’ve seen too often in classrooms and schools activities and lessons that just don’t engage kids, but if you talk to these same kids about what they do outside of school and why they enjoy it, each time one of the key things they mention is the fact that they are involved in something. That aspect of being a part of something bigger is severely lacking in most classrooms, and there’s no excuse for that anymore. With near ubiquitous Internet access, mobile computing and information at everyone’s fingertips, we should be challenging our students to be solving big problems, and helping them make sense of the world around them to formulate answers that consider their values and ideas.

To do this effectively, we need to stop working within the artificial boundaries created by subject disciplines, learning areas or year groups. I hear colleagues saying that the Australian Curriculum prevents us from being able to do that, but that’s a narrow view of what schools can do. We have significant flexibility when it comes to implementation of the Australian Curriculum, and nothing published by ACARA suggests that subjects need to be taught in isolation. In fact, reading the curriculum documents, it is fair to say that there is an expectation that teachers look for links across subject areas to create richer educational experiences for our students.

So, it’s my hope that I get the opportunity to expand on my audition further, and to share that message with as many people out there who’ll listen. The research supporting more collaborative and holistic approaches to education is everywhere, yet high schools on the whole are reluctant to consider structures or models that vary from the existing rigid, timetabled structure of single subject courses. No one learns like that in any real world situation I can think of.

I challenge you, the next time you’re reading, watching videos or anything else, to switch off after an hour and do something else, and not return to any thought-provoking ideas that may have been stimulated previously. You’ll realise pretty quickly that sometimes you need more than an hour to really engage on any sort of real level with that topic, and in other situations, 15 minutes might be all you need.

Our students know this, yet we force them to work with a system that is older than most of our grandparents. It’s time to change – it’s been talked about for years, but talk without action may as well be silence. We do a disservice to the youth of today and the future of civilisation by refusing to consider alternative approaches to “school”.

MOOCs: How good are they from a learning perspective?

I’m currently working through my 3rd course no a MOOC – a Massively Open Online Course. This one is hosted on the Venture Lab platform and is called “Designing a New Learning Environment“. Prior to this one, I’ve completed two on the Coursera platform – one on Cryptography and the other on Gamification. Based on these experiences so far, I thought it was time to reflect on the effectiveness of these environments as learning tools.

I should start by saying that as far as motivation for learning is concerned, I’m pretty driven. I don’t need a structured course to get me interested in learning about something – just an interest or desire to want to know more about it. The problem is that its easy to want to know a lot about lots of things, and you tend to get distracted by others as you’re trawling through the wealth (?) of information available to us now via the the Internet. So I jumped into these as a way of providing some focus for my learning – in that regard, they’ve been pretty successful.

I’ve managed to make the time in my already full schedule to spend a few hours a week working through the materials. I’ve identified topics of interest to me, and devoted the time necessary to get my head around the concepts. Some have been pretty challenging (it had been a while since I’d done any real mathematics, and while the Crypto stuff wasn’t overly complicated, it required getting my head back into the notation peculiarities of the discipline), others pretty cruisy (I never really felt “challenged” by the Gamification course, even though it was interesting). It’s my feeling that there’s something available through these MOOCs that will be of interest to everyone.

The big plus of these platforms is the access it gives you to world class academics. They allow leaders in their fields to present materials to anyone from anywhere, and that’s great for everyone who gets involved. It’s also great marketing for the Universities involved. Actual interaction with the professors is virtually non existent, but given these courses can upwards of tens of thousands of participants, what more can you really expect.

And while there are capabilities in the platforms for people to engage with others (the usual forums, peer assessment tools and the capacity to comment on other people’s work) I have to admit that I haven’t felt the urge to engage beyond what I’m required to do. Perhaps I’m just too busy to do so, but I can’t help but feel that ultimately it comes down to the way the content is being delivered.

You see, it is still based on the lecture-task-evaluation paradigm – sure, evaluation may be by peers, but once something is submitted and assessed, there’s no real reason to go back to it. And given the assessment tasks are primarily individual (there are group tasks coming in DNLE, but we’re not there yet), there’s no motivation to collaborate on them in the lead up to submission either. It is essentially about watching/listening to the lecture, applying that to a problem, then moving on to the next one. All pretty low on the Bloom’s taxonomy classification scale.

The DNLE course is attempting to go beyond that with an emphasis on teams creating a design for a new type of learning. The goal is admirable, but so far I’m not feeling it. I don’t want to be too critical given there’s still a while to go yet, but so far I haven’t really felt the mechanisms for true collaboration have existed in the platform or the method of delivery.

I’ve formed a team with colleagues I know through other means (the OzTeachers mailing list), and we set up a Google+ hangout to throw around some ideas for a team-based project initially. Apart from that though, there has been little collaboration. There is a video-chat capability in the Venture Lab platform, but because of the way we’ve built our team up, I just haven’t had the desire to use it.

For someone like me who is happy to work alone on things and doesn’t require a stack of extrinsic motivation, the existing MOOC structure is fine – it provides a scaffold for me to keep my learning on track, and that’s what I need to keep from getting distracted. However, for people who want to engage with others in meaningful ways (and I enjoy doing this too), these platforms seem to be a bit too disconnected from the networks we already engage in heavily.

MOOCs in general, and platforms like Venture Lab in particular, are still very much in their infancy. But My attitude towards them so far is that if they don’t evolve quickly to offer more than online courses have since early LMSs launched in Universities and Schools in the early 2000s, their appeal for may people won’t last. As a cost cutting measure for universities they’re a great tool, but as they currently exist they use the same methods of teaching that have always existed, and that’s not advancing learning like it needs to.

We know that models of learning and teaching have to change. Moving what we do now into the online space is hardly sufficient to advance things further. We need to see some truly transformative education platforms and tools – MOOCs (at least for now) do not fit that profile.


#ACTvotes – but why does it take so long?

For those of you from outside of the ACT, you may not be aware that we’ve just had our ACT Election for our next term of government. The election coverage can be followed in a few places:

Of course, there are a myriad of other places for information too, but these tend to be the ones I use each time there is an election on I’m interested in following. This post hasn’t happened as a result of me wanting to talk about the results (although another minority government in the ACT isn’t anything new), but about the length of time it takes to get a result after each poll.

You see, the ACT has only one house of parliament (most States and the Federal government in Australia are bicameral and have a lower and upper house), and the Legislative Assembly is made up of 17 members spread across 3 electorates. As such, the election uses a quota-based system known as Hare-Clark, combined with a Robson Rotation for listing candidates on the ballot paper. As Antony points out on his blog and in the coverage on the ABC last night, the results can take a long time to finalise because:

  1. A single transferable vote method means that until all votes are distributed to lower preferences, candidates may not meet the required quota and therefore it cannot be determined who has won a seat;
  2. Robson rotation means there are a LOT of different ballot papers (since candidates are in a different order) so the scrutineering process takes longer since you cannot use the position of the preference on the ballot as an indication of who the vote is for; and
  3. Historically, the ACT always ends up with minority governments, so the cross bench needs time to negotiate with the major parties to determine who will be supported to form government.

It amazes me that we still rely on a manual count of votes to determine our winner given what computers are capable of today. Security is often raised as the reason why voting cannot occur over the Internet or via electronic means, and although the ACT has electronic voting facilities available, these are only installed in about 6 or so polling places and are used predominantly for pre-polling. So, although about 20% of the vote is entered electronically, the greater majority of votes are done by filling out ballot papers.

We’ll put the costs of printing and the environmental impact of the campaigns aside for the time being – I want to focus on the actual counting process. I’ve thought about this a lot, and one of the most frustrating things about the whole thing is that any voting system, including Hare-Clark, can be easily represented algorithmically. So, this would mean it would be trivial to write a computer program that could use the voting data to automatically determine the winner of the election in a small amount of time. In fact, one of the tasks I’m setting for some students involves writing a program to do just this, and I’m pretty confident that these Year 10 students with about a year of programming experience will be able to do just that. So, that clearly isn’t a deal breaker in terms of improving the efficiency of the process.

The biggest hurdle, then, would appear to be taking the votes themselves and converting them into an electronic format that could be used by the computer program to generate the result. If electronic voting and/or Internet voting are still a way off, then with the advances in OCR I can’t see why the paper ballots couldn’t be processed using a workflow like:

  1. Ballot papers are scanned into a computer;
  2. The OCR reads the vote to determine:
    1. The position of each candidate on the ballot paper; and
    2. The preference, if any, awarded to each candidate on that particular vote;
  3. The OCR-generated data is then displayed on a screen next to the scanned copy of the ballot paper, and is checked by 2 or more scrutineers for accuracy (this step currently takes place with paper ballots, but this approach could allow the workload to be distributed much more easily):
    1. If accurate, the scrutineers approve the result;
    2. If OCR has generated an error, the scrutineers manually correct the error, then approve the result;
  4. The accurate data is then formatted and stored in a database so that it can be read by the ccounting program/algorithm;
  5. At any stage, the votes that have been entered can be analysed using the algorithm, and this could generate not just first preference votes, but the final result of the Hare-Clark allocation based on the votes that have been collected.

Given the manual process still required to transfer the votes from paper form into an appropriate digital format, it would probably still take an evening to have all of the votes entered into the computer and processed. However, at any time during the evening, a full analysis of the outcome of the vote could be determined (based on a partial vote count) and this would make it easier for analysts like Antony Green to predict not just the parties that would win the seats, but the candidates as well. By 11pm that night, I dare say that everyone would know which candidates had achieved a quota, and by Monday morning negotiations could begin between the cross-benches and major parties with the result of the election known and confirmed.

It seems absurd to me that this kind of process isn’t already in place – not only does it make sense economically, but it’d also mean that our pollies could get on with running the place rather than being forced to wait for two weeks to determine what the composition of the parliament would actually look like.

I’d be interested to hear from people who have either been involved in the scrutineering or counting process, or from one of the analysts like Antony Green himself, to try to determine why we haven’t got a system like the one I’ve described in place already. Given it could be used for any voting system currently in use in Australia (since they all need to have defined algorithms that can easily be programmed into a computer), there has to be an incentive for the AEC to implement such a solution.

The End of an Era at Stromlo High

There are some things that you get to be a part of in life that are truly special. As a new teacher embarking on their career, you hope that the principal of your school will support you in every way possible and that they have a passion for education that is both evident and infectious. So it is with mixed feelings that I begin today knowing that yesterday was the last day I worked under the leadership of someone who truly believes in the good that comes from public education. That person is Mrs Cecily Blake, retiring Principal of Stromlo High School.

I look back over the last 7 years and I realise that the successes I’ve had so far in my career have come about not just as a result of my hard work and desire to improve the lives of the students I teach, but also because I’ve worked for a Principal that has been supportive of my desires to not only develop as an educator, but also to innovate and experiment with new ways of teaching in my classroom. I’ve been encouraged to improve and enhance the curriculum I’ve taught; been given opportunities to work with staff from within my school, across the ACT and around Australia to develop my pedagogical and content knowledge; and supported in my career advancement as I’ve moved between jobs and considered applying for others.

I’ve seen the school continue to improve and the educational opportunities for our students grow and evolve as new initiatives and programs have been introduced and championed. Thousands of students have been given a great start to young adulthood because the decisions being made have had their best interests at their very core, and they’ve been provided with the guidance and support structures they’ve needed to succeed.

I’ve watched as new resources, teaching aids and technologies have been funded and implemented to keep the learning environment as interesting and modern as is possible in a building that lacks the design features needed for a 21st century education. As professional learning opportunities have been identified and targeted for staff, and financial assistance and time was given to those who want to succeed and grow as teachers.

None of this has been as smooth as my post might seem to suggest – there have been ups and downs, obstacles to overcome and major challenges along the way – but there is no doubt in my mind that Cecily leaves Stromlo knowing that it is a better place now than it was when she arrived, for the staff, students and the local community.

Cecily – you will be missed by many in our community, but you leave behind a legacy of innovation and excellence in education that everyone will continue to uphold and deliver on well into the future. I’m looking forward to the challenges next year will bring knowing that you’ve done all you can to help ensure our success in your absence. Enjoy your retirement – I hope that when the time comes for me to hang up my hat, I too can boast of a successful career that has had a positive impact on the lives of many.

What’s in store for 2011

It turns out that, based on the staffing available at the school this year, I’ll be teaching Year 7 and 8 SOSE for the first time in a while. Given my last couple of years have focused primarily on IT, and the year prior to that was Year 11 and 12 Accounting and Economics, it’s both exciting and daunting at the same time. Exciting because I think it’s going to be a LOT of fun, but a little daunting because it means engaging more deeply with the Australian Curriculum than I had expected would be the case. That said, after looking over the History Curriculum for Years 7 and 8, I’m feeling quite confident I can do a good job of it.

My plan for the year is to shake things up a bit – to bring a Challenge-Based Learning approach to the classes and see if, by facilitating and guiding the students, they can meet all of the Australian Curriculum outcomes without the need for me to explicitly teach every aspect of them. I’d like to see the kids really engage with the material in a more meaningful way – to start to actually participate with others in the class in a way that enables them to get more of an idea about what it was like to be alive in the periods of history we’ll be exploring. To instil in them a desire to find things out for themselves, rather than rely on the teacher to tell them what it is they need to know.

For year 7, that means becoming a part of Ancient Chinese society – to understand what it means to be a member of one of the main groups within that society, and how law, religion and beliefs shaped the way they act. Similarly, for year 8, an exploration of Renaissance Italy should give them an appreciation of the various influences culture, art and wealth had on the lives of the people. It would be easy to point the kids to content online and in textbooks and have them “learn” by taking it in from secondary sources, but to me the emphasis on content seems to be misplaced given that really, if they want to know about that stuff, the answers are all a couple of clicks away on an Internet search.

Our role as educators now is to spark a desire for learning in the minds of every one of our students. For some of them it’s going to be a scary thing – it means challenging the idea that you know what you need to know, and that your opinion may not be correct – but the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration I hope will enable them to understand and appreciate different perspectives; perhaps even allow them to identify what backgrounds and experiences contribute to the views held by others.

So what kind of tasks will I be asking students to complete? That will need to be negotiated with my colleagues and the kids of course, but I’d like to see students write their own historical fiction (whether it be books, serials, diary entries or screenplays/film trailers is up to them) that provides insight into the life and experiences of well known celebrities and the common people of the time; perhaps participate as a member of a church or government, making decisions and analysing the impacts of those decisions on themselves and their peers; maybe use what they’ve learned to draw parallels to modern society and how history has directly and indirectly influences the lives we live today.

As I said, it should make for an exciting year!

One Space To Rule Them All…

Ahh… a part of me has been wanting to write a title like that for so long… If only I had the Ring of Power…

I’ve been thinking more and more about the direction being taken in some jurisdictions at the moment in regards to solving the problems we all have with technology integration in schools, in particular on the moves toward a Virtual Learning Environment. I understand that what they’re looking for is a single framework that will allow staff, students and parents of schools to access classwork, deliver and participate in lessons, collaborate, share and generally connect with one another in an easy to use space. This is a desirable goal, but I wonder about the approach companies that are going to tender for this might take to such a problem. Schools are very different beasts to the corporate sector, and unlike businesses that generally work in well defined industries, sectors or divisions, the way teachers work can be so vastly different that trying to come up with an all-in-one solution that works for everyone is going to be pretty much impossible, IMHO.

So many of our schools have IT departments or sections that end up being managed by a non-educational authority or personnel, and unless these people are willing to actually delve into the deep, dark, unfathomable depths of IT use in schools, most of the time the solutions and ideas they throw about are sound in the corporate world, but come up against a heap of difficulties in the education sector. Universities tend to get away with it a bit more – their clientele area a little older, expected to be “responsible adults” and their teaching methods somewhat more traditional as a general rule – but schools don’t.

So can a VLE-type solution cope with all this? Well, in my mind there’s only one way such a solution would work – make sure what you’re providing is not restricted to specific technologies (make sure it uses open standards, for example), and ensure that accessibility and ease of use are of utmost importance. Allow teachers to change the way things operate – if they have the skills, why not add functionality to it that can then be made available to others? If they don’t have the technical know-how but they do have the ideas, hook them up with someone that could make it a realist. With technology moving so quickly all the time, it doesn’t make sense to lock yourself into a specific arrangement now that leaves you at the mercy of the developers. Social networking is a big deal (though some would argue it’s almost saturated already), but who knows how that is going to evolve in the next 3 years?

What the VLE should be is a system that exists solely to link other things together. It doesn’t have its own blogging system, or its own social networking tools. Nor does it have its own specific implementation of video-conferencing, or online classroom delivery. All of these tools are already out there – all it needs to do is draw all of these things together so that teachers and students who don’t know what is out there have easy access to the tools they need to come to grips with the connected world around them.

I mean, the biggest and best VLE in the world already exists – it’s called the Internet. It does, however, suffer from one very significant problem (that is only going to get worse), and that is that its size and lack of order can make it a scary place. This is the problem that VLEs need to overcome – they need to be the sieve that helps us filter out the useful from the useless, the factual from the fictional. That in itself would be a lesson worth its weight in gold. And that’s a lot of gold.

The importance of a comfortable environment

As my last post implies, I’ve been working on a project lately that has seen me spend a great many hours in front of a computer screen. I don’t have a laptop at the moment, so I’ve had to restrict myself to working from my study, which, as it happens, gets quite warm during the summer months. The air conditioner in the house doesn’t seem to reach the study (or the bedroom), and as a result I’m finding that as the day gets warmer it becomes less and less comfortable to work in there.

Today I rummaged through my girlfriend’s stuff and dug out her old laptop – it’s not an ideal development platform, but at least it means I can sit in another location where it’s a bit cooler. I’m out on the balcony at the moment – shaded and its still warm, but at least the breeze is a nice change. It’s much nicer to work out here as a result, and this got me thinking about the environment that we have our students working in at our schools.

Many of us probably work in old buildings that haven’t been maintained as well as they probably should have been since being built. With the exception of special purpose rooms that have been developed fairly recently (computer labs, for example), little gets done to make the rooms comfortable in terms of temperature and air-flow. I can’t imagine what it must be like being on the 3rd floor of a building in North Queensland in a maths class after lunch on a Friday for a kid who isn’t mathematically inclined. I find it hard to work on something I’m passionate about when it’s hot, so getting me to do something I detest (like the washing up or the ironing) is damn near impossible.

Consider the conditions that some of our non-teaching peers work in – big, air conditioned buildings with great facilities across the board. Why do we accept a less than adequate environment? Even the little things count  – nice bathrooms, a decent shower so riding to work is a real option. That’s not to say that everyone works in ideal conditions, but I’d venture to suggest that in most places where the number of people in a space the size of a classroom is as high as it is for us, a little bit more is done to ensure the comfort of those present.

This probably sounds like a bit of a rant about teachers being hard done by, and I guess in part it is, but the students have even less choice than us when it comes to going to school. Many of them go to their local school because it’s convenient and all that’s available to them, and if their school is in poor condition, this has to be detrimental to their performance and their engagement in the classroom.

We all do the best we can to keep students interested in their own learning, but when we’re fighting things like physical conditions that are easily fixed with a bit of funding, it only makes our job more difficult. I wonder how many politicians would be happy working in some of our older, less-maintained schools…

Starting again…

So after a couple of false starts into the global blogging community, I’ve decided that my New Year’s Resolution for 2009 is to make a commitment to the blogosphere and become more engaged with educators in this space. It’s not that I’m not Web 2.0 savvy – far from it, I use just about every other Web 2.0 tool out there and read a number of other people’s blogs – I just don’t regularly post to my own!

I’m always exicted about the potential technology has and I’ve seen just how fantastic it can be with kids of all ages and abilities in my classroom and the classrooms of others, not to mention reading and hearing about the achievements and experiences of educators all over the world. There’s always plenty to blog about, and here’s hoping that over time, my thoughts and ideas will extend into the blogosphere like yours, and contribute to what I feel is very interesting discussion amongst connected educators.