Ignite Your Story

Last week, our E-Learning team hosted an event for school leaders in our region.  The goal of the event was to “stretch” leaders but in a more relaxed, reflective, and (hopefully) fun environment versus a typical full-day conference.  Our event kicked off with a series of “Ignite Talks” from a handful of our school leaders.

If you are not familiar with the Ignite format – your presentation is limited to five (5) minutes and 20 slides, with each slide automatically advancing after 15 seconds.  It was great to be on the other side of the presentations because about a month ago, colleagues on my team and I each presented an Ignite Talk at a regional administrators’ conference.  This was the first time any of us on the team had presented in such a way, so there was definitely some trepidation about the format.

It was clear from watching the Ignite sessions that presenters (sitting school superintendents and regional directors) both had a lot of fun with the format but were challenged with limiting their presentations to five (5) minutes.  Experienced presenters  Dale Breault and Karen Goldstein noted they spent far more time constructing their 5-minute Ignite than they would for a typical 45-minute presentation.

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Dr. Brian Bailey, Superintendent, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk CSD, delivers his Ignite Talk

I found the Ignite format is a powerful way to convey a message and tell a story in a very precise way.  To use the Ignite slogan – “Enlighten me, but make it quick!”  Too often, we listen to presentations that try to do too much – too many slides, too much information, no cohesion.  In particular, we see slides used all the time with text presented so small you can’t read it anyway – so what’s the point?

For me, the Ignite session forces presenters to scrap all of that.  It requires you to use visuals to supplement your presentation – but it doesn’t drive your presentation.  It forces you to cut to the chase and focus in on a very small number of main points, which is probably about all attendees can digest anyway.

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Ignite Talks from Randy Squier (Superintendent, Coxsackie-Athens CSD) and Cynthia Ford-Johnston (Interim Superintendent, Peru CSD)

While some folks can be intimidated by the format, Ignite for me was about the most natural way to present.  As my team knows (I say it like a broken record), visuals are key to any presentation and “it’s all about the story” in a presentation – because that is what people remember.  The story connects to your heart rather than your head.  The Ignite format forces you pick important visuals that help reflect the story you are telling.  Plus, in a world where we are all so busy, isn’t five (5) minutes enough time to make your key point?

I’m hoping we are able to facilitate further Ignite Talks throughout the year… and I will be curious to see how the format will be used back in districts.  We started hearing great ideas such as using Ignite at Opening Day, by faculty presenting to peers in faculty meetings, and by students in classroom presentations.  It was truly great seeing experienced superintendents and others “put themselves out there” and try an Ignite Talk.  They seem to have done just that – ignite further conversations about new and different ways to message your story.

Where’s the Innovation?

I’m glad to be back and able to blog – it has been a super hectic couple of months winding down the school year and I’ve been challenged to make time for myself to organize thoughts and reflect.  Included in the hectic end-of-year activities was a trip to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) annual conference in San Antonio.  I’ve been asked by colleagues “how was the conference?” and my honest response to date has been “it was OK.”  The networking with colleagues and conversations with practitioners is always a hallmark of the ISTE conference experience and something I find supremely valuable.

However, my overall mixed feelings about the event stem from the disappointment with the vendor floor.  A significant goal of the ISTE experience is exposure to vendors introducing some of the latest in educational technology innovation hitting/soon to hit our schools.  I was highly surprised at what I perceived as the lack of innovation in what vendors were presenting at the conference.  I’ve heard similar sentiments from others that attended as well.

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#ISTE17 Vendor Floor – many vendors, but how much innovation?

In previous years, the ISTE conference was a great place to learn about instructional technologies before they appeared in classrooms.  It was the place to see technology tools and trends with the potential to evolve or even transform the learning experience in our schools.  Technologies such as interactive whiteboards, 3D projection & printing, robotics, and maker components were on the vendor floor at ISTE before they were part of the mainstream conversation.

Unfortunately, I found there was very little presence of these technologies that truly transform the learning experience.  I found the vendor floor to be a steady stream of interactive flat panels, cases & carts for tablets and Chromebooks, and robotics and maker kits – with very little to differentiate one from the other within each product category.  For example, when I asked one interactive flat panel manufacturer what makes their product different from competitors, I was told they had a longer warranty – not a particularly transformative response.  Many of the bigger announcements at the event seem to be about improved functionality to existing products – not revolutionary new products that can introduce/accelerate new learning potential.

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Not necessarily the innovation desired from vendors at #ISTE17

After my initial feeling of discouragement with this lack of vendor innovation, I reflected further about what could be going on here.  I’m beginning to think we are at a crossroads in ed tech innovation:

  • There is a lull in true transformative innovation from the ed tech vendor community, and
  • True innovation is actually not occurring with products, but by individual practitioners changing learning models using tools that have become more mainstream.  Some of the poster sessions at the ISTE conference reflected this.

Or perhaps something else going on is that vendor technology innovation is still happening, just in other sectors than ed tech.  In particular, innovation appears to be occurring much more rapidly in the business/enterprise world and in the consumer world.  For example, in reading about a notable private sector conference held shortly before ISTE (Wainhouse Research – Infocomm 2017 Review), “ideation” was noted as a buzzword at the conference.  There was nothing of the sort at #ISTE17 from my experience.

This all said, I wouldn’t suggest there was NO innovation apparent at #ISTE17.  I’m finishing up compiling my notes from the event and I’m sure I will blog out a couple of the compelling takeaways I did have from the conference.

Ultimately, I am hopeful that we are simply in a temporary transition phase right now – when vendor innovation is limited but school, classroom, and teacher innovation is happening.  I’m hoping the next phase will be another revolution in technologies that will enable transformative change at a macro/systems level – truly changing what schools look like and what learning can look like.

The Pace of Change

It was my good fortune to have been able to attend last week’s Consortium for School Networking (@CoSN) annual conference.  It was a great opportunity to meet colleague educators from across the country/world who are truly bridging technology and curriculum in meaningful ways.  I’m sure over time I will have further reflections from my time at the conference.  One immediate takeaway was the pervasive conversation about strategies for implementing 1:1 initiatives – in particular, how quickly to move forward with such projects that require change in practice from the educators responsible for implementing it.

It was interesting to hear the different pacing districts are using to move towards 1:1.  Alberto Carvalho @MiamiSup, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, advocated in his keynote address for a bold and rapid approach to moving forward with a digital transformation in learning.  “You wouldn’t get on a plane when the pilot says we’re going to take off slow,” Carvalho said.

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Albert Carvalho in his keynote address #CoSN17

We innovate, he suggested, by doing it “fast and big.”  Carvalho argued this approach overcomes the “gravitational pull of the status quo” by silencing critics and keeping momentum high.

Interestingly (and consistent with his approach), Carvalho argued against pilot projects, saying they aren’t necessary.  He suggested good research and learning from others allowed his district to implement without pilot projects.

Miami-Dade’s rapid approach was in contrast to the strategy used in @BeekmantownCSD, a district I recently visited.  Beekmantown has taken a more measured approach to moving towards 1:1 by allowing instructors to volunteer to participate in the program.  Now in Phase (Year) 3, the district has nearly its entire staff and students participating in the digital learning initiative.  Superintendent @MannixDan, Director of 21st Century Learning Gary Lambert @Dir21KLearning, and others in the district’s leadership argue this volunteer approach has created great buy-in from staff because they were not pressured into using technology and instead were able to become involved at their own pace.  This has led to broader adoption and a snowballing positive momentum from students and staff.

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1:1 classroom in Beekmantown Middle School.

So which is a better approach – slow and steady or fast and big?  Clearly, the answer is not an obvious one or all districts would be using it.  While my personal sensibility is more towards building consensus and capacity in a measured way (the Beekmantown approach), I also tremendously appreciate Miami-Dade’s boldness and urgency of purpose.  Miami-Dade is putting tremendous focus first and foremost on students – every minute, day, week, month, semester, and year when innovation and evolution is not happening is time lost from impacting student lives.  The ultimate focus in Miami-Dade is less about the comfort with the pace of change for the adults but more about the needs of the students and the required pace of change to meet their needs.

That said, the Beekmantown strategy also led to a scenario where students and student needs drive the initiative, but in a more grass-roots way.  After Phase (Year) 1 of the initiative, students were advocating their future teachers to volunteer to participate because they didn’t want to move from a 1:1 classroom to a non 1:1 environment the following year.  Students themselves began to create the sense of urgency for the evolution into the digital learning environment.

A number of presenters at #CoSN17 circled their 1:1 initiatives back to the importance of district culture in their successes and failures.  And it’s this culture that may be the determining factor in regulating the strategies (and corresponding pace) of change in a school.  Dr. Tom Ryan @ElearnTom of the eLearn Institute suggested change will be more successful if it’s within a context where “the system can tolerate” the change.  The distinct culture of each district will tolerate a different pace of change and school leaders must be cognizant of this culture when implementing 1:1 (or, for that matter, any educational or educational technology initiative).

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“Culture trumps strategy & culture trumps vision” – Gene Kirchner, Fort Thomas IS

Otherwise, “culture trumps strategy and culture trumps vision” with any change initiative, as Gene Kirchner @KirchnerGene, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools in northern Kentucky, put it (see slide right). If culture is ignored, it will not matter what strategy, vision, operational plan, or technology is used – the initiative will suffer.

So perhaps there is no right pace of change in schools – the pace may simply vary by the culture of the district.  However, there are still some universal directions all districts should consider, regardless of their distinct cultures:

  1. Initiatives must be student-driven. I understand this statement at face is self-evident.  However, while it is important to build capacity of all of the adults supporting those students, this capacity-building cannot be at the expense of the needs of students.  As noted earlier, a learning moment lost with a student is a moment that can never be recovered.
  2. Simply doing nothing and making excuses about why we CAN’T move forward with digital transformation and new learning models is not an option.  As Beth McKinney @bethmckinney of Athens City School District in Alabama correctly said in her district’s presentation at #CoSN17, “The speed at which you move doesn’t matter – just move!”

“Teaming” Up to Change Learning With Collaboration Tools

In private enterprises, a new set of collaboration tools are emerging that are having a significant impact on how business is conducted.  And, interestingly, these new tools are evolving so quickly, no one is quite sure what to call them.  Names such as “team collaboration tools,” “persistent group chat/collaboration,” and “group messaging” have been suggested.  Communications industry analyst @DaveMichels wrote about this “modality with no name” – originally calling these systems “Workstream Communications and Collaboration,” but now calling them “workstream messaging.”

These new collaboration tools – whatever we are going to call them – have a couple of distinct features:

  1. They tend to organize workflow primarily by project or activity rather than other variables (particularly time).
  2. They have become modality agnostic – they tend to combine (text) messaging, voice calling, video calling, and a resource repository in one virtual space, but segmented by distinct project.
  3. They are very largely mobile friendly.

Some of the current notable brands in this “team collaboration” virtual world are Cisco Spark, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.  Amazon just recently announced its entry into the game with the release of Chime.

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Slack – Using “Channels” to segment projects

In education, use of these tools is still largely in its infancy.  However, the potential of these systems to broaden the reach of school is quite significant:

Administrative:  All professionals involved with operating and improving our schools suffer from the same challenges as private companies – not enough time, information overload, and difficulty connecting with colleagues due to packed schedules.  Tools such as Cisco Spark and Slack can help by changing how our educators work and how we can help one another.  Rather than conducting business by a long stream of emails, a series of missed phone calls and voicemails, and in-person meetings where much is discussed but little is documented or moved forward, these tools instead can transform work by enabling groups of professionals to conduct more organized work anytime/anywhere.  Documents specific to the initiative can all be housed in the tool’s virtual “team” (Spark) or “channel” (Slack).  Collaborators can connect via phone, via video, via text – whatever is most convenient at that moment.  And all of these communications are tracked, separated, and organized by project/activity.  My team has started to use Spark as a more productive way to stay organized and connected – particularly in projects with partners outside our organization.

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Cisco Spark – Workflow through distinct “Teams”

Instructional:  If we are trying to find impactful ways to enable student collaboration, we can look no further than to some of the tools that our businesses and higher education institutions have been embracing.  These “workstream messaging” tools will allow students to dynamically connect with peers in a robust, safe, and secure environment on iphonecollaborative projects – but still with active teacher facilitation within these team/channels.  Plus, because these platforms have been built for use on mobile devices, students can participate in learning activities using a device: 1. that is personal and most already have, 2. are very comfortable using, and 3. will be using in college or the workforce going forward.

This all said, these tools in and of themselves are not the full answer.  There are two additional components we need as educators in order to pull it all together:

  1. Integration with other, more-learning centric platforms. Google recently announced the integration of Slack with G Suite.  Cisco Spark is being integrated with leading learning management systems (our team has started looking at integrations with LMSs like Schoology).  A combination of a content or learning management system with a robust workstream messaging platform is powerful for collaboration.
  2. We need to better understand pedagogically how to shift instruction to include meaningful student-driven collaborative activities. While educators agree about the importance of students gaining collaboration as a skill, they often struggle with how to design activities within the classroom to build that skill.

I’m not sure where this is all going, but I’m encouraged by the initial direction and evolution of workstream messaging applications to transform how we work.  I’m hoping we will soon have more context and more feedback to see how these tools impact how students collaborate and learn.