“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.

Bringing a “Spark” to the Classroom?

A few of us had an opportunity this past week to get a hands-on demo of Cisco’s new Spark Board.  The product is getting a bunch of buzz in the enterprise marketplace (see here, here, and here) – to a large extent, as an electronic replacement for the dry-erase whiteboard.  Interestingly, in K-12, it is potentially more of a replacement for the interactive whiteboard – most K-12 classrooms moved past the dry-erase board some time ago.

Cisco is positioning the Spark Board as an “all-in-one” device serving three primary functions: wireless presentation, digital whiteboard, and audio/video conferencing.  At the core of the Spark Board is its integration with the Cisco Spark platform, a communications and collaboration tool that may require its own blog posting at some point (it’s deep).  While the Spark Board does not require you to use Spark, the device is only a (expensive) digital whiteboard without it – so it really only makes sense to use Spark if you are using the Spark Board.  Spark can be downloaded for free, although there are a number of limitations with the free version versus the enterprise flavor.

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What we saw this past week was the “first-generation” Spark Board, so it is hard to make broad conclusions about this device for K-12 – but a few initial thoughts based on the demo:

  • The look and feel of the device is engaging. Others have described the look of it as a “big iPad” and there is much truth to that description (see above).
  • The device only requires one cable to operate – a power cable. When integrated with Spark, all content can be delivered wirelessly.  (The devil is still in the details about how Spark is technically rolled out though).  If we want our classroom/learning spaces to become more active and flexible – and to do so in some school buildings constructed long before the introduction of modern technologies – the near-untethered nature of the Spark Board is impressive.
  • The attention to the user experience in the Spark Board design appears to differentiate from other devices. The device is 4k capable, positioning it for very high-quality video.  The camera is also high-quality (1080p at 60 frames per second).  There are 12 microphones built into the Board, allowing for coverage up to 45 feet away – a great fit for a standard classroom.  Also, the Board has gain control – as users move closer or further away from the board, the volume adjusts to accommodate for the changes in distance.
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Wireless presentation – mirroring content between Spark Board & user device

Particularly valuable is the attention to the user experience at the far end.  Too often, far-end participants get a less quality experience in applications like distance learning and videoconferencing because the technology at the hosting end is substandard.  Cisco seems to have considered the far-end in the Spark Board design to provide as much equity in experience as possible.

Because the device is “first-generation,” there are some key functions it currently is missing.  Cisco claims a number of these features will become available in a new release of the Spark Board’s firmware at the end of March:

  • Users can not currently annotate over content – a must-have going forward.
  • Camera is fixed today – “Speaker-track” like features (where the camera will follow the speaker) are coming per Cisco.
  • Audio is not passed through the Spark interface itself or the auxiliary HDMI cable – so displaying content with audio is not available yet.
  • Only the 55” version of the Spark Board is available today – most standard classrooms would require the 70” version that is forthcoming.

One final point I found interesting – Cisco was asked whether pushed content can be modified on the Spark Board itself.  The answer is no.  Content can only be modified within the native applications on the device(s) connecting to the Spark Board through Spark (laptop, tablet, etc.).  @Jared Heiner from Cisco indicated this was intentional – if the board requires a connected computer to operate, it provides another point of technical management and failure, and it further perpetuates a need for the user to stay at the board (i.e. in the front of the room) to operate it.  If we are trying to move towards more student-driven and less teacher-centric learning spaces, this shift away from standing near to the board make sense.  That said, the pedagogical shifts needed from some instructors could create challenges with adoption – the concept of not having a computer directly attached to your interactive board requires a shift in mindset and will likely make a number of teachers and schools uncomfortable at the outset.

There are still a number of other questions to consider in the short- to medium-term:

  • Cost – The board itself is on the higher end of similar devices ($4,999 list for the 55” and $9,999 list for the forthcoming 70” display). Perhaps of greater concern are the recurring costs for device maintenance (“registration fee”) and Spark services.
  • Technical connectivity and the use of Spark – a robust wireless network is a must with this device and the devil is still in the details about how districts would roll out Spark within a school environment.
  • Size of board – will even 70” be a large enough display in a standard classroom?

Ultimately, I was impressed with the direction of the Spark Board and the quality of the device, although recognizing the device may not be ready for prime-time use in K-12 (yet).  As mentioned in an earlier blog posting, the seamless meshing of the physical space (Spark Board) with the virtual space (Spark) is huge, creating great potential to break down the walls of our classrooms and school buildings, leading to significant new learning opportunities and learning modalities in our schools.  It will be interesting to see if the Spark Board will evolve in such a way to make it more feasible (technically, fiscally, and pedagogically) for broad use in schools.

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My chance to try out to new Cisco Spark Board
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Josh Whitham of Cisco demonstrates the new Spark Board

The Death of the Interactive Whiteboard?

There has been a good deal of discussion recently in K-12 education about the next generation of “interactive whiteboards (IWBs).”  Many IWBs purchased during the initial wave in 2006-2010 from SMART, Promethean, etc. have aged out and – in New York State – a number of districts have been considering replacements through their Smart Schools Bond Act funding allocations and/or capital/technology bond projects.

There are three significant concerns I’m feeling about these next generation boards:

  1. Are instructors any more prepared to teach with a next generation IWB as they were with first generation systems? While I’ve seen some great use of IWBs to engage students and better illustrate many learning objects, I’ve also seen and schools have talked about too many instances where the IWB was a glorified whiteboard/chalkboard/overhead projector.
  2. What truly makes them different from the older IWBs? Sure, their “touch-enabledness” is more robust, they have more abilities for multi-users, wireless screen sharing is becoming more standard, many are equipped with a basic webcam/microphone – but are they really helping to transform learning spaces and pedagogy?
  3. If we are trying to move towards more student-driven, active learning spaces, aren’t IWBs (new, old, whatever) further perpetuating a teacher-centered model – teachers standing and delivering from the front of the room, just now with a fancier screen or projector?

Ultimately, if the older IWB’s made a marginal difference (at best), what makes this new generation of IWB’s truly any different?

This all said, there are some interesting new “interactive whiteboards” coming to market that I don’t think are truly IWBs  In fact, there’s even a question about what to call these technologies (Team collaboration device?  Visual collaboration device?  Cloud-attach device?  Ideation unit?  Giant tablet?).

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Cisco Spark Board

This is where products such as Cisco’s new Spark Board are coming in.  I would include Google’s recently announced Jamboard as another potentially impactful product in this new market (although it would be great to learn more about when it will be available for purchase in schools, can we trial it?).  In private enterprise, the Microsoft Surface Hub is considered another product in this category – with linkages to the Microsoft virtual ecosystem of Skype for Business, Office 365, etc..  This device has just not seemed to catch on in K-12 for a number of possible reasons (price point, delays in bringing it to market, lack of buzz).

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Google Jamboard

What is intriguing about these products is, while they are physical devices, they are intimately connected to their respective virtual platforms (Cisco Spark Board with Spark, Google Jamboard with G Suite).  The best description I’ve heard for these devices is from @LetsDoVideo  (David Maldow) – he said the Spark Board is “not a device. It’s a physical manifestation of a Spark workspace.”

When districts and teachers are thinking about replacements for IWB’s, perhaps we should be thinking more about this concept of directly linking physical spaces to virtual spaces.  Considering questions such as how will these new devices link our classrooms to the virtual platforms we’re using?  How do these devices further break down the walls of our classrooms and allow our students to connect and collaborate natively with other classrooms, community members, peers in other neighborhoods, communities, states, and countries?

Devices such as the Spark Board and (potentially) the Jamboard appear to do this – or at least the vision behind these devices seem to point to this: seamlessly linking the physical with the virtual/collaboration worlds, rather than simply replacing an older IWB with a new flavor that essentially does the same things.

As a starting point, I’m looking forward to an opportunity this week to actually get my hands on a Spark Board to being to see if it delivers on its promise (more to follow).  Based on what has been shared to date about the product, I have significant reservations the device will be an affordable fit for K-12 schools – but I am excited to see the potential this new class of products could have over time to help transform our learning spaces.

Taking the Plunge

I have been thinking for some time now about whether to start a blog.  It was on my list of “social media things to do” when I started getting serious with social media back in 2013.  I started with LinkedIn, Twitter, and (more recently) Instagram – but I always felt a blog would be so much more time consuming than some of the “quick hitter” forms of social media…  and where would I ever find the time for that?

Beyond that, I wondered (like so many other bloggers do) why anyone would care what I think or what I have to say.  Sure, I have had colleagues encourage me (thank you @BoyePitcher in particular) when I suggested I might start a blog.  But I still wondered whether people were just saying that to be nice.  Yet, in spite of my hesitancy, I still had it in the back of my mind to at least start something.

Recently, I started looking more closely at other people’s blogs – both some great educator and industry bloggers themselves and other professionals who give good advice about what elements should be in a good blog.  This helped.  (Check out @ajjuliani‘s recent “30 Day Blogging Challenge” for example).  That said, I think the tipping point for me was a recent workshop I attended sponsored by @DellEMCedu and facilitated by @ideaguy42 (Bob Dillon).  During the workshop on active learning spaces, Bob reinforced the value in “reflection,” and asked “how can we create moments to decompress [for kids and adults]?”  Participants discussed how none of us tend to spend enough time reflecting and we agreed there is great value in professionals writing down their reflections.  Ironically, as I “reflected” on Bob’s comments, I thought that a blog could be that vehicle to drive me towards regular reflection.  I mean, we talk all the time about the value in having our students publish their work for community consumption – why shouldn’t I do the same?

So, with all humility, I’m motivated to start this blog as much (probably more) for my own personal growth as I am to (hopefully) share at least a few words of wisdom with anyone who is willing to spend a couple of minutes to listen.  I also have hopes this endeavor will allow me to further connect with professionals I already work with and learn from, as well as expand connections with others with other perspectives I have not even considered.

So what am I going to talk about in this blog?  I’m not exactly sure.  There are some incredible directions right now in E-Learning that can (will) have a tremendous impact on the ability for students to access new learning opportunities…  and be challenged & engaged in new learning environments.  Perhaps even more notable, there are some transformative technological developments right now in industry and in culture – and if schools do not evolve in conjunction with these developments, I fear our students will not be prepared for the world as it will become (not what it is today) when they leave our schools.

So I am looking forward to this journey.  I’m looking forward to sharing thoughts about E-Learning, about instructional technology, and the impact all of this can (will) have on our schools and communities.  I’m hopeful that, by “taking the plunge” and publicly reflecting through this blog, it will help me grow professionally, grow personally, and possibly even help others grow just a little bit too.