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Nascent view of technology: putting it into practice and learning together

June 6, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post about technology. This has mostly been because I’ve been very busy trying to put this vision into practice. In March, the school made the decision to switch to the mac platform, and go 1-1 with the junior high in 2011, followed by the high school in 2012.

Shortly after the decision was made to switch platforms, the technology committee I sit on was asked to test drive macs and explore their possibilities. A convoluted set of circumstances led me to me taking an unofficial IT department where I and a couple of other faculty developed the image and deployed it to 30 machines over the course of the weekend.

This gave me a great opportunity to try to put some of the ideas I’d been blogging about into practice. We were 48 hours from giving completely new machines to a a number of faculty who have never used a mac before, and in a case or two, was very skeptical of how a new computer, especially one so unfamiliar, might make any difference in their teaching.

How could we set these computers up to showcase their power and possibility, and yet at the same time support them in such a way that emphasizes their ease of use?

I don’t think we came up with anything magical, but here are a few of the things we did with our first rollout.

  • Make it personal. one of the simplest, and yet most noticeable things we did for the users were small customizations. We took a small library of campus shots, and made them the default for the desktop background and screen saver. We made sure the user account for each user was named for the user, and included his/her image in the user account. Small and simple as it sounds, many users commented that they loved these photos. In addition to this, we put a short video containing a screencast welcoming the user to his/her new computer on the desktop of every machine.
  • Showcase the power and possibility. We installed dozens of apps on the machines—3 different browsers, demos of awesome programs like Planbook, an awesome application for lesson planning, and even a number of applications for pure entertainment like Hulu. Why waste space installing applications like Hulu? Simple—I wanted users to use the machine and see what it could do. Imagine the faculty member that had never heard of Hulu, but decides to click on it to see what it does, and then suddenly discovers it streams everything from Grey’s Anatomy to early episodes of Knight Rider, suddenly they discover that this computer is able to work with streaming video effortlessly, and there are vast troves video which they can access, and some of it might even be useful for teaching. If you see how easy it is to watch videos in Hulu, in my mind, that puts you one step closer to thinking about livestreaming a debate about evolution in your biology class.
  • Surround with support. starting up with a completely new computer and operating system after 10 years of working is a frightening prospect for almost everyone. The only way I know of to help faculty to overcome this is to offer them ubiquitous support in as many forms as possible. This means making sure they know about the incredible support they can find through applecare and at apple stores, checking in often with faculty to see how the transition is going and answer questions, holding “get to know your mac” sessions to bring faculty together in small groups to show each other what they’ve learned and work through questions they have. Finally, we set up the blog New Westminster Mac Users, and made it the default page for each of the web browesers. This gave us a central place to post more tips and tricks, and for users to ask questions and get answers.

Naturally, a 48-hour rollout is far from ideal, and brought a lot of bugs and larger problems to light, all of which was crucial as we prepared to roll out 10 times as many computers to the entire faculty less than a month later. One early lesson was the importance of choice. The machine that all of our test faculty got was the 15″ MacBook Pro. A few faculty observed that the machines were a bit heavier than their old Toshiba latop, and they might be interested in a smaller machine. So when it came time to present the rollout to the full faculty, all faculty were given a choice between 3 different machines (MacBook Air, and the 13- and 15-macbook pro). The configurations were priced pretty similarly, and while this presents a small additional burden to IT in having to support 3 different machines, it paid huge dividends with the faculty who truly appreciated the flexibility of being given the choice to pick the machine that best fit their lifestyle.

One other important lesson we learned was that there are still a number of windows applications and features, most notably Microsoft OneNote, that are essential to our faculty. Here was one of those moments where the IT department had one of those all-important “easy for IT or easy for users” choices. It would be easy for IT to simply tell OneNote users—you have a mac now, OneNote isn’t an option, and move on. No need to go out and look for alternative pieces of software, or think about all the various ways to get Windows to work on a mac (and the headaches this brings). Luckily, our IT department and school leadership, chose a different route, and had the resources to make it work. We were able to install a Windows 7 virtual machine running under Paralles with a full version of Office for Windows. The new solution works beautifully for end users—click on OneNote in the doc and you get access to all your old files just like you used before, but it is harder for IT (starting with having to install a 20GB VM file onto every machine).

So now we’re approximately 10 days into the rollout of the new machines, and overall, I’d say it’s going very well, and the best evidence I have of that is the blog New Westminster Mac Users, where faculty are posting stories describing how they’re learning about their new computer, neat things they’ve discovered and how they want to use them in the classroom in the future. The blog is becoming a great example of a shared learning space. Check out examples here, here, here, here and here. Side note: making a blog the default homepage of every faculty machine (they can change it) is a tremendous way to drive traffic to one’s site.

At this point, some of my readers might fear that we’ve totally gotten away from the point of improving teaching, and instead started to focus entirely on shiny new computers. While I can see how it might look this way, I want to close by discussing one of the most critical decisions I think was made by the board to ensure that we stay focused on improving learning.

As I’ve said many times, support is the critical ingredient for the success of any technology initiative. In my school’s case, this new 1-1 initiative is part of a much larger rollout of a initiative to transform teaching and learning to focus on six essential actions:

  • Studies that integrate rather than separate (Integrated Studies)
  • Problems that require critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration (Problem-based/Project-based learning)
  • Schedules and Spaces that fit learning (21st Century Learning Environments)
  • Teachers in teams supporting learning and innovation (PLC/Critical Friends Circles)
  • Assessments and Feedback that promote learning and growth (Balanced Assessment)
  • Content and Relationships that connect us to the larger world and the world to us(Global Citizenship)

These actions in many ways represent a pretty monumental change to our school, and it’s clear that no device is going to bring about this change on its own. However, technology can be a big part of making these changes easier and more effective.

To that end, the school is transforming its support infrastructure, enhancing the IT department and delivering a huge boost to academic technology support by creating a school wide committee of 3 veteran teachers to serve as Chief Technology Integration Specialists (CTIS) who are responsible planning out the overall vision of technology going forward, and then Department Integration Specialists (DIS) within each department and grade level to help individual departments find ways to use technology to realize the vision of teaching presented above. All of these new roles will have a reduced course load in order to work individually with faculty, and plan meaningful professional development that faculty will find truly useful, and will bring us closer to achieving the vision above. Finally, we’ve added a tremendous amount of professional development time, during the school day, for faculty to work together on these initiatives.

I’ve been asked to serve as the Department Integration Specialist for the high school science department, and I’m excited about the possibilities ahead. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about my adventures as we move forward.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rwistar permalink
    June 23, 2011 8:11 am

    Sorry I’m a little behind — my excuse is that it’s the summer.

    This is a really interesting post because my school also made the decision to switch from PC to Mac two years ago and go to a 1-1 program, although we decided to phase the program in over four years, giving each incoming freshman class a set of laptops.

    It will be interesting to compare our experiences. The staggered rollout is unfortunate from a teaching perspective — although it’s certainly cheaper, it does really slow down teaching innovation, since so few classes have 100% adoption. On the other hand, it did make the freshman last year feel really special to have the shiny new computers, and anything to make them feel more than sub-human is a good thing.

    • June 23, 2011 8:25 pm

      Very cool. We should definitely compare notes. So what development platform will you be using on the mac? Have you given any thought to teaching iOS app development?

      Also, how involved are you with the IT department? Are you purely a teaching faculty member, or do you have some role/authority in IT decisions?

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