Tag Archive: 21st Century Learning

iPads in education is not a unique topic by any means.  Many have written about these wonder devices that will change the educational landscape forever.  In theory I agree wholeheartedly that iPads in the classroom can become a powerful learning enhancer and promoter of student engagement.  The practical integration of these devices in a classroom is another story entirely.  Having had experience with both laptops and iPads in my classroom I quickly realized what the potential advantages and disadvantages are for both devices.  My focus here is on the iPad but a future post will look at laptops in the same critical light.  Here are my impressions of iPads in education:

The Good:

Technology in general, for many schools, is still a novelty so student engagement dramatically increases as a result.  As I have stated in previous posts the more standard technology becomes in the classroom the less novel its use will be.  It is for this reason that sound pedagogy has and always will be the key to student engagement.  But on the novel side of things here are some definite advantages to using iPads:

1. Ease of use: The iPad is an intuitive device able to picked up and navigated by anyone.  For the classroom teacher this means minimal time being spent training students on how to use the device and more time being spent on the curricular advantages of having the iPads.  This also means that teachers can spend time focusing on a collection of apps they find useful and target instruction on the use of those apps and not the device as a whole.

2. No cords: Not being tied down to a desk or bench means free movement and increased collaboration.  A static computer lab is the antithesis of collaboration and discussion whereas the iPad in a standard classroom can be an individual or multi-user device with ease.

3. Network speed: Having tried laptops and iPads on the same network backbone the iPads clocked in at a faster connectivity, hands down.  Now this still might be painfully slow for dynamic instruction in the classroom, depending on your district network infrastructure, but it should be a more pleasant experience to a static desktop or laptop lab.  The reason of course is the proprietary nature of the iPad and the integration of the O/S with the apps.  Windows-based machines can come in so many different hardware and software configurations that seamless integration is much harder to achieve.

4. App Integration: The iPad allows for smooth integration between apps so creation of dynamic content becomes second-nature.  The ability to record a video, import it into iMovie, create a soundtrack in Garageband and export it into a Keynote presentation is amazingly easy.  The cutdown nature of these apps compared to the more robust desktop versions means the options are limited but the basics are easy to access.

5. Specific vs. General Apps: Many educators focus on looking for apps specific to their discipline but will sometimes ignore the power of using a generalized app.  As a science teacher I have looked at many of the specific science apps and some are good but most are mediocre.  I then turned to using apps like Dragon Dictation, iMovie, Toontastic, Keynote as a few examples.  These apps are not subject specific and depending on how you have embedded them into your lesson can be equally if not more powerful than a subject specific app.

6. Simple or Complex: Depending on your level of comfort the iPad can be used as a simple web-surfing device or a machine able to create rich, unique content.  This makes the iPad a wonderful entry-level to high-end user device.

The Bad:

It can’t be all sunshine and roses.  Here are some of the drawbacks to iPads in the classroom:

1. Proprietary: The seamless integration of apps on the iPad also means that getting content out of the iPad is really, really tricky.  There are ways to transfer content from the iPad to another computer but it takes a certain level of technical expertise and, more often than not, an iTunes account which then must be shared amongst multiple devices.

2. Single-User: The iPad was made to be a single-user device.  The very nature of the device is a personal tablet customized to meet the needs of a single-user.  This makes sharing a class set of iPads amongst an entire school cumbersome.  The difficulty becomes in partitioning content so it can’t be altered by other users.  A simple example are photos taken on the iPad.  There is currently no way to secure a bank of photos so only a single-user can access or delete them.  This means a student in another class can both access, use or alter your photos without difficulty.  There are ways around this, exporting to iPhoto being the ideal one, but this is not always a practical solution for a busy classroom with 30+ students.

3. Poor network infrastructure: Now this is not a fault of the iPad but rather a tragic reality for many schools.  A slow data pipeline into schools, coupled with the addition of new devices accessing an aging network means painfully slow login times and network speed.  The iPad can only do so much until it gets jammed on the same information highway as every other machine in the building.  Districts need to ensure the backbone of the network is sufficient enough to accommodate iPads, smartphones, laptops and other wireless devices logging in at peak times during the day.

4. Handing in Assignments: So a student has created a beautiful keynote presentation on Charles Darwin and wants to hand it in before the end of class… they run out of time and can’t hand it in to you until next class.  They come back and realize it is deleted.  Locking down content is difficult, if not currently impossible, to do on the iPad.  This means handing in assignments must be done immediately for fear of something terrible, like the scenario above, taking place.  All teachers must ensure they have an iTunes and e-mail ready to go for students to submit content.  Students will need to set up an e-mail account on the iPad before trying to e-mail content out to you.  The trick is making sure students delete their e-mail information before leaving the device otherwise their e-mail is now open for others to access.  This goes back to the single-user nature of the device.  If you are just using the iPads for the first time in your class and don’t realize this right away you may have quite a headache when students want to submit assignments at the end of class.

5. Security: This is true for any piece of equipment but making sure all devices are back and in working order before the end of class is a necessary evil.  One solution is to assign a specific iPad to each student, like a textbook, so you have a list to refer to should something go wrong.  Another helpful tip is to assign the job of collecting and sorting the iPads to one student in each class so you have another set of eyes to help you.

The Ugly:

1. Meaningful Integration: This is not really an ugly but as you use the iPads more and more in the classroom you will need to make the experience more and more meaningful.  There are only so many keynote or iMovie projects you can assign.  The ugly part becomes the time required to meaningfully reflect upon your practice and decide how iPads, or tech in general, can complement your teaching style.  This is ugly because it is not easy to critically look at yourself and it is even harder to do when someone else is doing the looking.  This is why provincial, district or school initiatives that call for the use of technology under the guise of some new groundbreaking educational reform will always fall on deaf ears.  The critical analysis has to be on an individual basis and has to come from a genuine desire to see how technology can be used to complement sound pedagogy.

I welcome your comments and feedback on this post.  If anyone has solutions for the problems posed in this post I welcome your willingness to share them.


21st Century Learning is all the rage in education these days.  Many people still haven’t a clue how to define 21st Century Learning including many of its proponents.  I see it as good practice that capitalizes on student interest and inherit willingness to adopt technology.  Student engagement is the underlying key of 21st Century Learning as it has been for countless other educational initiatives that have been introduced throughout the years.  Maria Montessori had as her basic foundation student engagement.  So the concept is not new but the packaging has changed.  Instead of wooden manipulatives we have plastic cases and glass screens.

Another aspect of this wave of educational reform around tech integration is the top-down nature of its implementation.  Ministries, school districts and schools are making the decision to go tech and teachers are being asked to come along for the ride.  Now many teachers are willingly if not enthusiastically embracing this change but many are hesitant if not reluctant to adjust their practice.  Students are a major factor in driving this technological bus as they come to school with any number of devices capable of complex calculations once only possible in large desktop machines.  The ease by which students obtain information and digest content makes the acquisition of factual information seemingly obsolete.  Teachers today recognize this paradigm shift and are making the appropriate adjustments to their practice.  This is no different from a surgeon learning a new surgical technique or a mechanic taking advantage of computer diagnostics to troubleshoot an engine problem.  Professionals are constantly revising and improving upon their practice… this is part and parcel of being a professional.

So does the need for educational change need to come from the grassroots or can it be a top-down initiative?  I propose that the reason 21st Century Learning has been met with such resistance is because of the way it has been introduced to educators.  It assumes the system is broken and that change is necessary for its continued survival and relevance.  Now let’s take the obvious budgetary problems public education faces these days out of this argument for a moment and only discuss the day-to-day practice of educating children.  How would you feel if you were told that you are not keeping up and that your ways are old and out-of-date and unless you embrace this new approach to teaching you will be left behind or potentially out of a job?  That was the approach, maybe not so blunt, that the Ministry of Education took when introducing their education plan for the province.  My first reaction to such a statement would be to put my back up and defend myself.  Whatever comes after a statement like this is irrelevant as you have already lost your audience.  Videos shown to teachers exclaiming the backward nature of today’s educational system serve the same purpose.  How can you encourage someone to change when you start the conversation in such a negative fashion?  Perhaps a more appreciative approach to educational reform is what is required.

Let’s start with the fact that the system is not broken and that teachers are doing an amazing job of educating today’s student with fewer resources and dwindling budgets.  Move on to the reality that technology is here to stay and is becoming an integral part of our lives.  Then ask the question how education can take advantage of this technological revolution and have both teaching and learning benefit.  The conversation has begun.  There is no greater joy for a teacher than to see students engaged in meaningful conversation related to something you have introduced.  Conversation is necessary and must be had in a genuine way to truly allow ideas to blossom.  The trick afterwards is to have the resources in place to take advantage of the ideas generated.

Technology integration, as with any educational initiative, can start as a top-down introduction but then must be quickly handed over to the grassroots so they can morph it and make it work within their practice.  It cannot be force-fed or mandated.  It must be encouraged and fostered.  Champions must be allowed to flourish and must be provided the resources (time, money, etc) to truly thrive.  A clear rationale must be given and backed up by respected professionals in the field.  A wholehearted attempt to truly embrace this change must be taken, including upgrading infrastructure, providing release time and resources.  Concrete examples of what this may look like in a classroom should be provided so that educators can see what their colleagues are doing and perhaps found a way to make it work in their own class.

Ask yourself this question… have you been asked to define 21st Century Learning from your perspective?  If not then we have a long way to go.

With a new school year rapidly approaching, educators, students and parents are filled with enthusiasm for a successful year ahead. As an educator the beginning of a new school year brings with it new ideas and the desire to improve upon our practice. Every year we strive to do a little better, be a bit more organized, add more variety to our lessons, try and reach those seemingly unreachable students and do the best job possible for our students and ourselves.

Perhaps this is the year that you are thinking of introducing technology into your practice. Technology you say… I already use an overhead projector, Multimedia projector, have a Smartboard, etc. Well maybe this is the year you introduce an e-learning aspect to your practice. First of all it is important to note that technology is not the be all and end all many people make it out to be. Technology will not replace good classroom practice and sound pedagogy. A great teacher will be a great teacher whether they use technology or not. So now that we have that cleared up many of us still see technology as being complementary to the learning process and a way to engage students with devices and applications they are choosing to use in their spare time.

The difficulty comes in deciding what to introduce, how to introduce it and how to effectively use it. Another difficulty is the nature of the teaching profession. Once the school year begins it is self-preservation to use tried and true methods of teaching and learning rather than move outside your comfort zone and try something that may or may not work. The hectic nature of the profession makes it difficult for new ideas to be introduced and implemented in the same school year. That is why now is the perfect time of year to start thinking about our practice and what we want to accomplish this upcoming school year. Many of us have started to turn our attention towards September and are beginning preparations for the classes / courses we will be teaching. Here are a few suggestions on e-learning strategies that can be easily introduced and allow you to get your technological feet wet:

1. From Poster to Prezi: Convert an existing project you have to an online assignment utilizing presentation tools like Prezi or Empressr. Both sites are user-friendly and can be picked up fairly quickly even by the most novice of students.

2. Put that Smartphone to Good Use: Many students these days carry a Smartphone with them these days. Why not have students film a short video of themselves and e-mail the results to you? You can have students film themselves conducting an experiment or learning a concept. Minimal prep required and will add a new twist to handing in homework.

3. E-mail Me: Collecting assignments or homework can be difficult at the best of times. Keeping track of late assignments or students that are absent can take up valuable prep time. Why not have students e-mail assignments to you? You have the luxury of a timestamp that tells you exactly when the assignment was turned in and it provides an opportunity for students that are absent to submit assignments from home.

4. Class Blog: This takes a little more work to setup but with sites like Tumblr, WordPress, Moodle and Edmodo much of the work is done for you. Developing an online presence for your course is a very powerful way to start to remove the walls of learning and allow for students to engage with content outside of the classroom. It is also an excellent way to bring parents into the fold by providing them a window into your classroom. More on this in later posts.

5. Social Media: This is another tricky one to do well but an easy one to start and play with during the course of a school year. Developing a Facebook site for a club or team is a great way to stay connected and disseminate information to people quickly and effectively (make sure you check your school districts policy on Facebook before proceeding). Twitter is another service that allows teachers to step outside the box and provide enrichment opportunities for students by tweeting out links to videos, blogs, discussion boards on whatever topic is being discussed in class. It can also be used to broadcast homework information and test dates. I have found this to be a great way to remove the excuse, “I was away so I didn’t know…’ from the students repertoire.

6. Laptops and iPads: if your school has access to these devices take advantage of it. Bring them into your class and simply have students play. The level of engagement, from my experience, has been extremely high if not 100% each time I brought these devices in. The work the students do on the device need not be difficult… it might as simple as looking up information for a project or completing a homework assignment and e-mailing it to you. The idea is to introduce the idea of e-learning into the classroom and then develop more meaningful ways to take advantage of these technologies.

These are in no way the only entry points to tech integration in the classroom but they might be a good way for the tech-reluctant educator to dive in and see what potential technology holds for their practice. I welcome your comments and feedback. I also would like to hear if you have other ways educators can get their technological feet wet.


Teenagers are known for rebelling and introducing new trends into society.  Whether it be through music, fashion or language teens have always set the culture or counter-culture of society.  The same can be said for their interactions in cyberspace whether it be MySpace, Facebook, Youtube or Fourspring, youth have always been the early adopters of new social media.  It is ‘cool’ to set the trend or break new ground but as soon as something becomes too popular or mainstream it is time to move away.  The first time an adult put on an Ed Hardy t-shirt it ceased to be cool.  So do teens appreciate teachers using ‘their’ social media for educational purposes?  Does it cease to become ‘cool’ at that point?

A common refrain from 21st Century Learning enthusiasts has been utilizing the skills and interests students already have with respect to technology.  Meeting students on their ground and using those sites and skills to educate and engage.  The assumption is that since students are already using Facebook that utilizing it as a teaching tool makes perfect sense.  The same can be said for students that vlog… asking them to create a video for Youtube should be an automatic win win.  But what about the idea of counter-culture?  When adults started to invade MySpace kids moved to Facebook.  When Facebook became popular they started using Fourspring.  Now there are sites like Omegle that students frequent because adults have not found out about it yet.  Twitter is a service utilized by adults far more than teens… even though it was the young pop culture stars of today (Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber to name a few) that made the site so popular.  It quickly became a political tool, utilized extremely well by President Obama, and the rest is history.

The data on this is very scarce as not much research has been done on the internet movement habits of teens in comparison to adults.  This is primarily from my own experience as a teacher trying to utilize sites and services that students ‘should’ be engaged in and being met with some resistance.  It’s almost like treading on their internet domain is the equivalent to listening to the same music or wearing the same clothes.  Is it safe to assume that students will simply welcome teachers in to their world?  I do see this as an issue for secondary (high school) students more so than intermediate.  A student drawing for pleasure may resent being asked to draw for an assignment so why would it be assumed that use of the internet would be any different?  I realize this is a simplistic representation of a more complex situation but it is worth considering before we forge new paths and put in place policy that neglects to take this phenomena into consideration.

I have been involved in several pilots for video streaming services over the past 6 years and have become a frequent user of a particular media streaming service over that period of time. I have found the convenience of being able to pull up a video on a moments notice very convenient. The ability to download and archive videos is also extremely convenient as I am not always in a position to show a particular video at the prescribed time. The cost of this particular service is approximately $2 per student for a one-year subscription. This gives staff full access to the media collection along with access to resource archives and discussion forums. Students gain access to everything except the teacher resource material. Now the quality of the media collection is somewhat questionable at times but overall for the core academics you can almost always find something suitable content wise. One of the drawbacks of such a service is the tech required to make it accessible, namely a computer, multimedia projector and internet connection. Now you can live without an internet connection if you download the videos at home and bring them in to school but for the teachable moment you will need an internet connection. Another pitfall is the speed of your particular school network. If it is anything like the network in my district it leaves something to be desired. Prior to this service teachers would book media through the media services department in their district and wait for it to be mailed to the school. Teachers would plan when they would show a particular video and book it well in advance. Someone like me who doesn’t plan more than a week at a time had difficulty finding the video I wanted when I wanted it. So an on demand video service is ideal for someone like me, especially with the added tech cache that goes along with it. But what does a service like this do to established media service departments?

The outsourcing or digitizing of content is becoming more and more a reality. Textbook companies are bundling digital or online versions of their publications (and charging a pretty penny I might add). Video services even our attendance and marks are now housed online. What will this do to district staff and specialists? Media streaming has slowly led to the dwindling of resources kept in hard copy form in my district and I would imagine similar scenarios are playing out elsewhere. Is this the inevitable direction of 21st Century education or is it a compromise and way for districts to cut-costs and outsource once in-house services? Should teachers be demanding that school boards and districts develop a media infrastructure in-house and compile our own collection of digital resources or would this just lead to every district reinventing the wheel? Do we want to allow our educational media to fall into the hands of big business who see this as a money making venture? The ground beneath our feet is shifting and the delivery of education is changing at a rapid rate. The struggle between established and innovative modes of content delivery leave senior managers in a dilemma. Ultimately it comes down to what is best for the student but the unfortunate reality is it is really what we can afford that makes the difference.

The Insanity of Assessment

Assessment for learning has become a hot topic amongst educators across the globe.  Having assessment inform your practice and influence how, what and when you teach certain topics is the fundamental piece behind AFL.  Constructive feedback used to inform students of areas in which they can improve allows a student to engage in meaningful learning with the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding at a later time.  One shot tests with no time for reflection or evaluation of areas for improvement don’t move learning forward.

But how many of us are trained to assess?  Think back to your teacher training and think about the time spent developing a ‘good’ test or fair form of assessment?  If my experience is any indication the time spent learning how to assess was minimal at best.  How then do we expect teachers to be able to jump into a pressure cooker profession and learn the tricks of the trade while at the same time being fair evaluators of their students understanding?  Only after a teacher has spent a fair amount of time in the profession, lets say more than 5 years in a consistent position, will they be in a position to evaluate their place and role in the educational landscape.  I am in my 15th year of teaching and am just coming to grips with my failures as a teacher and areas I need to improve upon based upon a new level of comfort and understanding.

How do we speed this cycle so it doesn’t require a teacher going through the bad before they understand the good?  Is it the role of faculties of education to ensure pre-teachers are given the tools needed to be solid judges of student learning?  Is it the role of sponsor teachers to drill the benefits of AFL into their student teacher’s heads?  Is it the role of school boards to run workshops prior to hiring teachers to ensure an even playing field of understanding?  The answer is never simple and probably lies somewhere amongst all these possibilities but one truth remains, the insanity of assessment will continue to isolate, educate and assimilate teachers everywhere.

Are Report Cards Necessary?

British Columbia Teachers currently find themselves in a contract struggle with the Provincial government and as a result are in Phase 1 job action.  Part of the job action is not producing report cards, with the exception of Grade 12 students that require marks for graduation, scholarship or post-secondary admission.  Why is this relevant?  Well it has led to a philosophical debate on the value of report cards.  Are marks necessary for teaching?

Every teacher has developed an assignment or activity only to be asked, ‘Is this for marks?’  That common refrain is maddening at times as the implication is that an assignment or activity only has value if marks are attached.  As teachers we are guilty of perpetuating this phenomena as we use marks as a motivator and bargaining chip to get students to complete assignments.  So this begs the question, are students driven by marks or learning?  If marks were removed from the educational landscape would this allow true learning to take place?  Think about the level of anxiety a student faces when they know they have to take a poor report card for their parents to see.  On the contrary you have the elation a student feels when they bring home straight A’s.

With a shift towards personalized learning and individualized curriculum must come a reevaluation on the role marks play in education.  You don’t need a report card to tell you you can ride a bike.  Riding the bike becomes the goal and you know when you have achieved it when the training wheels come off.  Why then do we insist on putting a letter grade on everything to label the level of ‘learning’ a student has achieved.  It has been proven that the most influential practice a teacher can engage in is meaningful feedback on assignments.  Nothing moves the learning of a student forward more than feedback from a teacher.  Once a mark or letter grade is attached to an assignment the feedback becomes meaningless (I have my friend and colleague Jacob to thank for this fact).  The student sees the assignment as completed once a mark is attached but sees the assignment as a work in progress if only feedback is given.  So why do we insist on bell-curving students along an arbitrary grid of expertise?  Shouldn’t mastery of the content be the goal for every student, without exception?  This requires the educational policy makers and curriculum specialists to peel back the layers of minutia and arrive at the essence of what is required of all students.  What is the ultimate goal of education?  Is factual knowledge a requirement in a time where any and all information is only seconds away?

Teachers and students would both feel liberated if the requirement for marks no longer existed.  Remove the arbitrary timeline of terms and semesters and allow learning to become an organic process where understanding is the goal and not the thirst for marks.

George Abbott revealed his new plan for education in BC last week (along with legislation creating the new teachers council… more on that at a later date).  The plan outlines a plan to take education out of the post-industrial era into the blossoming world of digital 21st Century Learning.  But what exactly does the plan say about learning and technology.  Here is the excerpt from the plan related to technology:
















Teachers will take on the role of facilitators to learning and will provide opportunities for students to explore and engage learning at their own pace.  Experiential learning will engage the student like nothing else can and transform the classroom into a place of fun and wonder.  Sound familiar?  Well of course it does… it’s the mantra of 21st Century Learning right?  Well yes, but ever hear of Maria Montessori?  Take a look at this graphic and see if you notice any similarities:



















The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning at the students own pace through the use of concrete (hands-on) materials.  Assessment is built into the method and only when the child has mastered a ‘skill’ are they encouraged to proceed to the next step.  Has George Abbott taken a page out of Maria Montessori’s playbook?  No but people like Sir Ken Robinson sure have.  All the buzz around 21st Century Learning makes it sound like new innovation when in fact it has been in existence for over 100 years.  Concrete materials now include iPads and computers… the teacher as a supervisor has always been part of sound pedagogy… and students being allowed to pursue a topic to the extent they wish has been a desire of teachers everywhere.  Government can allow 21st Century Learning to take place by taking the reigns of teachers and providing them the infrastructure to engage the ‘new media literacies’ at their own pace and to level of comfort and desire.  Reducing the curricular loads on courses is a good first step and the one part of this plan I acknowledge as a step in the right direction.  But let’s not be fooled into thinking that government and innovation are synonymous… the new BC Education Plan has simply taken a method developed in the slums of Italy and wrapped it up in a shiny new package.

To read the BC Education Plan please click the following link: BC Education Plan

What is 21st Century Learning?  Why has this term become so polarizing, inspirational for some and downright evil to others.  Governments and school boards tout its praises as the second coming of education.  But why is there such resistance from teachers?  Well for one the fact that when you ask someone to define it they refuse to do so or provide their interpretation.  You have schools that were built in the mid 20th century that don’t have the infrastructure or capacity to accommodate new approaches to education.  You have governments that use it as a threat of what is to come and if you don’t jump on the bandwagon now, prepare to be run over.  All of these are valid reasons for teachers to resist but the fundamental reason is a lack of professional development and leadership from government and school boards.

Now don’t get me wrong there are plenty of experts in the field that make the lecture circuit and provide workshops either live or virtually but many of them are cost prohibitive and don’t provide the hands-on or follow-up most teachers require to adopt 21st century strategies.  Computer labs are aging and internet bandwidth is slower than most home networks.  Curriculum is still grounded in rote learning and jam packed with content that the pressure to complete the curriculum becomes the driving force behind how teachers prepare their lessons.  Until the pieces are put in place to provide training, support and opportunity to teachers, 21st century learning will continue to polarize the field of education.  Top-down initiatives rarely work and this is no exception.  There are the converts and early adopters that see technology as another device to achieve the goal of meaningful learning and increased student engagement but for the most part the lack of resources and support drive the skeptical teacher away.  I remember proposing a tech mentor position at my high school 8 years ago only to be told there wasn’t a need for one.

21st Century Learning, by my definition, emphasizes choice and engagement.  Technology is simply an avenue to achieve engagement and understanding.  Content takes a back seat to core skills and subjects morph in and out with the boundaries between each becoming blurred intentionally.  School is seen as meaningful and not a requirement.  Learning becomes the motivator and not marks.  Teachers move away from being the vessel of knowledge to the facilitator of learning, allowing students to fill their knowledge at a pace that is suitable for them.  The walls of the school are torn down through community partnership and virtual experiences.  Textbooks become a supplement and not a necessity.  All of these aspects point to good teaching and learning.  All stakeholders have a role to play and students are seen as shaping their education instead of being melded to our likeness.  No one will deny that this is the direction education needs to take in order to take advantage of the changing landscape of our global village.  So the question begs to be asked, ‘When will governments and school boards stop talking about 21st Century Learning and finally join it?’