Scaling Down to Ramp Up Learning: How to Bring the ISTE 2013 Conference Model to Your School

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be in San Antonio at ISTE 2013. I had the amazing opportunity to present some research around how high school teachers take up technology with students. Though I was worried about the flooding in Calgary, my home survived unharmed and the city came together with tremendous spirit. (Quick shout-out: I have to share this great video of how the Calgary Stampede worked so hard to clean up in just 14 days).

Alright, back to the topic at hand.


Me + the ISTE Banner in San Antonio!

We are all a part of a shift in approach to professional learning. There are many lessons to be learned from the model that ISTE 2013 executed so well. ISTE is a huge organization with many hands, funds and experience. This year saw over 13,000 attendees, 800 concurrent sessions and 500 exhibiting companies. This is no small gathering! But it doesn’t have to be intimidating or overwhelming to apply the successful strategies that ISTE has, and keep the fires of excitement burning long after the event. I believe there are ways in which you can scale down and apply ISTE’s model without excessive effort, time, or money.

Current research into effective models for professional learning include characteristics like:

  • Choice and flexibility in topics, formats and approaches
  • Participation in a PLN, community and/or network
  • Ongoing, long-term and supported professional learning
  • Shared learning and improvement goals for staff, students, parents and the community
  • Research-based strategies
  • Focus on student data to determine needs and paths

Here are some ideas for how you could adjust the ISTE model to fit your own needs in a team, school, or district, and use activities to foster professional learning by teachers, for teachers. The key here is that you don’t need to plan for hours to pull it off. Based on the types of sessions offered at the conference, I’ve put together ideas that require little pre-planning and do not focus on formal presentations. All you need is to set time aside throughout the school year and select a few of the activities to try (I recommend trying an activity several times over a few months) and learn as you go. I hope they are useful!

  • Keynotes. ISTE featured keynote speakers who are leaders in the education field. Take advantage of their websites, books, publications, TED Talks, and YouTube videos (not to mention the many blog posts that have been written about their ideas) as a team, staff, or district. Delve deeper than a single speech and share the free resources.
  • Networking Fairs and Lounges. The conference hosted a number of events that brought together various groups, including young educators, newcomers, Tweeps, and special interest groups (e.g. focused on topics like mobile learning, edtech coaching, edtech in early learning, edtech in the arts, etc.). You can host regular get-togethers (as opposed to meetings) that encourage informal and creative discussion and sharing. Create spaces and times that allow people with specific interests and ideas to come together face to face and/or virtually.
  • Technology Infrastructure Pavilion. The conference included a space aimed at technology administrators, IT professionals and infrastructure planners. In my mind, infrastructure is just as important as the application of effective pedagogy in edtech. As educators, we should be able to plan for and evaluate the state of our technology infrastructure. It would be useful to invite those who are involved in infrastructure decisions to visit your school regularly and speak with students and staff as part of the technology planning, acquisition, maintenance and professional learning process, and to maintain open communication between IT professionals and educators.
  • Playgrounds. One of the largest areas of the conference featured hands-on opportunities to ‘play’ with software, apps, and hardware. Following the notion that everyone has something valuable to offer, I would suggest that educators bring something they are already using in their classrooms to share with others, such as a web 2.0 tool, social networking tool, or website that they find useful. Playgrounds can also be organized by topic, such as social networking, video conferencing, blogging, etc. Let’s say a few staff members share something each month in an informal playground setting. This would allow staff who are not sharing that month to select which playground to attend. Students could share too!
  • Learning Stations. This is one of my favourite ideas! At ISTE, these were informal two-hour sessions where students often led the conversation and shared short and long-term learning activities that they were engaged in. This idea can be expanded to include student sharing opportunities at lunch time in a learning commons where staff and other students can learn together. Wouldn’t it be terrific for students to share how they use Google Docs to collaborate with others, blogs to reflect on learning, or share their in-progress work to gather feedback from students and staff that they don’t normally interact with?
  • Start-up Pitch Fest. Edtech innovators pitched their ideas to the crowd in a fashion similar to the show, Dragon’s Den. In schools, you may not be pitching your idea to business investors, but both staff and students could present tools and apps that they are using in a quick, 2-minute format, or they could pitch  ideas such as a proposal for a student advisory board, or an edtech student-teacher support group.
  • Edcamp-style Sessions. If you haven’t experienced an edcamp event, you should look for one near you! Edcamp or un-conference events aim to flip professional learning upside down by encouraging educators to lead informal discussions on particular topics that are determined and facilitated by the  participants themselves. Un-conferences require little organization. The entire group of participants sets up a time to meet and brainstorm the topics they would like to discuss and share. Then they select which ones to participate in and the time(s) for the sessions that they will hold. Here’s an example of a first-time edcamp setup by my amazing buddies at Edcamp YYC. Though they solicited topics of conversation ahead of time, the facilitators were exactly that–they came to the table with some thoughtful inquiry questions, not formal presentations.
  • Ignite! Sessions. These were engaging PechaKucha presentations (20 slides in 5 min. where each slide appears for 15 seconds) in which presenters prepared something fun, inspirational and valuable to share. This would be a great way for students to share their ideas and inspire other students and staff.
  • Iron Chef. A new feature of ISTE this year was a hands-on event where groups set forth to create a solution to a challenge such as, “How would you design a program to facilitate digital citizenship in your school?”. Groups were given a couple of hours to work on their solution and then presented in a fast-paced PechaKucha style session the next day. Not only would this support fast iterations of prototypes and fuel brainstorming to solve challenges in the school, but it could also support team spirit channeled toward school-wide goals.
  • Roundtable Presentations. My roundtable presentation (along with my first ISTE conference) was an incredibly exciting experience! I shared my research into how high school teachers use technology with students and ended up meeting some incredible educators and app developers at the session. The roundtable session lasted for an hour and allowed for both the presentation of information as well as time for discussion with a group of 10-12. I prepared for my presentation, but believe that you could use this sharing format in a way that encourages the exploration of real examples and collaborative planning.

To sum it up, my ISTE 2013 conference experience showed me that there are ways in which we can harness the power of everyone’s experiences, and provide low-prep, collaborative opportunities for a variety of different types of professional learning. Could you select a few of the above items, work them into your team, school, or district’s calendar several times during the year, and watch the engagement around professional and peer learning grow? Share your thoughts below!

I’ll post more about my reflections on ISTE soon! For now, it’s back to the Calgary Stampede. I’m going to try deep fried butter and Doritos this year…

How to Troubleshoot Technology — Effectively!

In my job as an embedded tech integration specialist, teachers continuously ask me where to find help learning or troubleshooting the hardware and software that they integrate into their classrooms. In my experience, ‘just in time’ or embedded PD in the form of a real person (like me) is very effective, especially if the support person is readily available and has a personality that builds trust with teachers. The advantage of effective specialist support is that I can get to know ‘where teachers are at’ and push them to re-think their practice and move toward a long-term objective of integrating technology as an effective and purposeful learning tool. I believe strongly that regular face-to-face discussion, conversation, and reflection with a colleague or specialist is the key element to developing practice.

However, when immediate face-to-face support is unavailable, or when teachers need or want to learn or troubleshoot technology independently, there are many non-face-to-face supports available. I find that teachers are most frustrated when they run into technology challenges or problems. We all agree that problem-solving is a learned skill that is highly useful to our students, so why don’t we learn it better ourselves? We need to train ourselves to have the commitment and skills to troubleshoot. And as much as we assume that students have innate tech skills, my experience tells me that our students need to be taught how to troubleshoot more often than we think.

Learning how to troubleshoot independently is liberating, giving you a sense of control over your own learning. I believe that working face-to-face with a specialist is an effective way to learn how to apply technology to a specific circumstance, classroom, and subject area because of the conversations involved, but when a teacher feels that she can troubleshoot by herself, then she can take her classroom forward without relying on anyone else. This is the stage where a teacher’s intrinsic motivation and confidence in using technology truly shines. Here is what I suggest to teachers as they learn to use online or software-embedded support:

  1. Remember that you are not alone. Sometimes we assume that we are the only ones experiencing a software/hardware issue. This of course, is completely untrue. If you have an issue, then someone else has had it too. If you have a question, then someone else has also asked it and what’s more–someone somewhere has answered it! So don’t feel discouraged or like you must explain it to a real person before you can solve the problem. Take it into your own hands and find the solution. I bet you will be able to 99.9% of the time.
  2. Always ask your Help Menu first. Many people forget about the built-in help features that come with every single piece of software. Help menus have improved significantly in the last few years. For example, all Microsoft Office applications have quick step-by-step instructions with images and videos, as well as formal tutorials at all levels. You can access these via the Help Menu or on their support site online. If searching Help still doesn’t give you an answer, the menu will also direct you to discussion boards where both Microsoft employees and users can answer your questions. Most software/hardware provides help in their menu as well as online so try the manufacturer’s site first.
  3. Use the terms in the software. The key to using software/hardware-embedded help is to know the key terms for what you need help with. For example, if you are searching for help formatting a page, you should know that the key terms that you might find useful are ‘paragraph’, ‘margin’, ‘page set-up’, ‘format’, and the like. If you aren’t sure which terms to search for, look at the menu bars in the software for the commands that are related to the actions that you are trying to carry out. You can also ask the question a few different ways via Google. This may bring up answers or suggestions that contain the specific terms that you should use.
  4. Be specific and to the point. I recommend being as un-wordy as possible when using Help. So instead of typing “how do I change the margins in a document?” in your help menu, simply type “change margin” to reveal more search options. Wordiness usually reduces the help topics that appear.
  5. Trust discussion boards. If you can’t find a solution in the built-in Help menu or on the manufacturer’s website, then you might try to Google your question. If you use Google, remember to include the name of the software that you are using, the version, and a few key terms (for example, “format page margin in Word 2010”). Often you will find similar questions asked on a discussion board. I know that discussion boards can be tough to read, filled with distracting ads, or have strands that are way off topic. However, trying a few boards will more often than not get you the answer that you are looking for. Furthermore, when people conduct effective discussions, you might learn more than you came for, including special tips and tricks that people have tried successfully. You may have to read more than one discussion board so be patient. If you can, try the specific manufacturer’s discussion board first. And, like always, try to word your question in a few different ways using different terms if you come up short the first time.

I hope that the notes above come in handy. Feel free to share more ways in which you troubleshoot or learn to use technology. This is one of the most important factors that I have found in moving teaching and learning forward in terms of tech integration!

(Image: Help!, by Dimitri N. 2008. Available under a Creative Commons License.)

Blogging = PD; PD = Blogging

I haven’t been blogging for long, but so far, I have been pleasantly and excitedly surprised by the professional development that I am experiencing as I share my thoughts online. I am beginning to see many positive effects on my own practice, as well as the opportunity to share and influence the practices of like-minded educators in our online community.

Here are the benefits that I see thus far, that I am certain will expand and become even better as I continue on my blogging journey!

  • Motivation to keep up my professional learning so that I can blog regularly
  • An organized way for me to document my ideas, thoughts, actions, and reflections
  • An on-going portfolio of my personal and professional growth
  • A way to gather ideas, strategies, opinions, reviews, and tools from a vast online community
  • A place to gain positive support from educators who understand the challenges and realities of education in the 21st century
  • Make connections not only with professionals in my own field, but also students, parents, and professionals from other related fields of work
  • Accountability for a standard and quality of work in my practice as well as what I share online
  • Model and experience first-hand, the kind of relevant and authentic learning that we want our students to engage in
  • Searching for online tools, images, articles, or media items to expand my thoughts, reflect on, feature, or try, always leads to additional exciting resources to explore
  • Offers a growing number of differentiated ways to express thoughts, opinions, and ideas: through writing, video blogging, creating other types of media, using images, podcasts, mind maps, and multiple modes of synchronous and asynchronous communication

I must give a huge thank you to my own online community–everyone who has helped me to learn and grow through sharing their ideas, support, and inspirational stories! I encourage you to share the metacognitive, personal, and practical ways in which you are learning and growing through the use of blogs and other tools.

Here is an interesting video titled, The potential of blogging for knowledge sharing and staff development by the UN Knowledge Campus, which explains many ways in which blogs, wikis, and other online tools can be used to support professional growth.