Monday, September 23, 2013

I Blog Therefore I Am?

There seems to have been a few blogs bouncing around in my feeds of late. These include Deb Hicks' 'Why Blog', Tom Whitby's 'Why Blogs and Who Needs Them Anyway' and Peter DeWitt's 'The Benefits of Blogging'. It kind of occurred to me that I hadn't really ever stated, nor really thought about, why I have chosen to blog. I have therefore decided to have a go at providing some of my reasons:

  1. Scratching an itch. Often while reading, there are things that stick out, that prop the ears, the spike the imagination, that remain like an itch. A blog is a way of  responding to these things, somehow alleviating the irritation.
  2. Being connected. I love being connected, following various threads of thought, commenting, tweeting and reaching out to others, but sometimes a responding needs to be something more substantial. A blog is one avenue that allows this.
  3. Critical engagement. I read on the wall in a coordinators office the other day the statement that 'behaviour unchallenged was behaviour accepted'. I kind of feel that the same can be said about ideas. Online environments allow for encounters of all kinds, a part of this meeting of ideas is a need to critique. Not so that we may be 'right', rather that we may be wrong, in order to become better. As Seth Godin puts it in talking about 'failing often': "Fail often. Fail in a way that doesn’t kill you. This is the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t."
  4. Life long learning. What I love most about writing a blog is that it allows a space to follow through on different points of learning, a kind of thought experiment, a place to grow ideas, in order that I may develop further. At its heart, a blog allows for the cultivation of seeds of inquiry, exploring and discovering what they may produce.
  5. Lead by example. J. Hillis Miller once posed the question: "How can we teach reading if we are not readers ourselves?" I think the same argument can be applied to tools for working in the 21st century. I do not think that 'teachers' have to be in control, but they do need to be the 'lead learner' as Joe Mazza would put it. To me, that means getting involved from the inside - testing, trialling, questioning, understanding - not just commenting from the outside, and especially not just when you are forced to.
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Here are some of the reasons why I choose to blog. Although I am sure there are more, it is at least a start. So what are the different reasons you blog?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Takes more than an App to make a Good Presentation

In a recent blog, Corrie Barclay shared his experiences from a recent meeting he attended where Dr. Bill Rankin spoke about presentations. In conclusion, Corrie came up with the following, that:
The creation of a presentation is more than just images and text on a slide. To effectively engage an audience and convey powerful messages, you need to consider those messages and specific design principles that will allow present your information in the most effective manner possible.
I could not agree more that it is more than 'images and texts'. A presentation is also about more than just an app or a device. I am not saying that apps are not powerful, but in my view having a good app is only one part of the puzzle that is a good presentation. Let me diverge for a moment to explain.

At a recent staff meeting, we had Tony Richards come and speak about cyber safety smarts. Not only was I left pondering the consequences of my ongoing digital footprint, but I was also left perplexed as to what made the presentation so compelling. Usually staff are ready to sprint out the door at 4:30, but everyone stayed seated for an extra twenty minutes as proceedings went a little overtime. In conversation the next day, a fellow staff member commented on Tony's slide transitions and questioned whether I could do that in my presentations. While I knew that his visual presentation was smooth and seamless, a very well-oiled machine, I still felt that it was only part of the magic. In addition to the visuals, I felt that the knowledge and control of the content was impeccable. There were no questions that he was asked that he could not respond to and add to in an instant. Having heard endless cyber-safety presentations before, there was also a sense of honesty about what was said. Supporting this, Tony has the great ability to fluctuate between the serious and the humorous, such as showing a video of what it would be like if we did what we did on Facebook in real life to highlight some of the absurdities of social media, to speaking about particular cases of sexting and child pornography to highlight some of the hidden realities of life in a virtual space. All along, he provided a positive message, even if many of the consequences seem rather gloomy. Lastly, what kept many of the discussions going over following days was the fact that Tony sent through a plethora of resources in support of the ideas that he was talking about, therefore allowing teachers to follow their own trails of thought.

I am not saying that Tony's presentation was the greatest presentation that I have ever witnessed. However, in my view, it was a successful presentation. In my opinion, I think that there are three key ingredients that make for a successful presentation. They are:
1. Having good content and a clear message
2. Delivering the message in a flexible and engaging manner
3. Providing supporting material that builds upon and adds to the delivery of the content


I will now build upon each of these things.

Content

Whenever I teach story writing, I always explain to my students that it is the ability to delete material that makes the success of a composition. This is no different when developing a presentation. More often than not, we get caught in a trap where we try to provide too much information. feeling that everything needs to be covered. However, the consequences of this is that so many different (and sometimes contradictory) ideas get bounced around that the original message and purpose for the presentation gets lost in the noise. What is important is to take a step back and unpack each piece of information, questioning whether it adds or hinders the presentation. If it hinders, then often it needs to go (or be provided in the additional material).

Associated with having a clear message, is the challenge of what to present in the first place. Sadly, more often than not, the whole content of professional development and presentations is dictated by financial pragmatism or legal imperatives. It is always hard to be passionate about what you present when what you are presenting you have no passion for. (No offence, I have yet to meet anyone in life who is passionate about occupational health and safety.) 

This is often the case with staff meetings, where the content provided is dictated by education office or various health and safety guidelines. It was a breath of fresh air at the start of term when my principal had the opportunity to present about something that he was truly passionate about, the history of the Victorian education system. Although there is a requirement to rollout the National Curriculum, he started the meeting by putting the current situation in context with all of the other changes that have occurred over time. Although it may not have been the most interesting of topics, the presentation carried a certain energy that comes when you are passionate about something.

Another similar example was a recent ICT smorgasbord that I was a part of. Although maybe not as free and open as an un-conference or a teachmeet, staff were given the opportunity to present on the topic of ICT prior to the day, with the rest of the staff then signing up for two different presentations. Not only did this give staff a sense of trust and autonomy in regards to the choice of PD (Peter DeWitt recently wrote about this topic in his recent blog), but it also allowed people to share what they are most passionate about, whatever that maybe. What is most disappointing about both of these scenarios is that they are often few and far between in today's age of overcrowded meeting schedules.

Delivery

Whether I agree with everything he says or not, Jony Ive, the Senior Vice President in Design for Apple, has got the art of delivery all worked out. Although I maybe sceptical about the exaggeration of the content provided, he certainly knows how to use intonation, pitch, pace and pauses to hit home his message. After watching his spiel for the the new iPhone 5c, I was wondering whether it really was the 'cheaper' iPhone.

Another master of delivery is Bear Grylis, particularly in regards to his post-production narrations. Even though you know fully well that he is not going to die, the tension that he creates through his delivery carries the viewer along.


In addition to the manner in which presentations are given, another key element relating to delivery is the ability to adjust to the situation. Coming back to Tony's presentation, I think that is one of his strengths, to be willing to crack a joke in order to break things up. Associated with this, it is important to be able to adjust to the situation. I remember a few years ago having to listen to a tour guide in Vietnam speaking about the ruins at My Son. It was six in the morning and everyone was barely awake, let alone showing much interest. However, our guide went on and on for near on thirty minutes, as if he was reading from a manual, unwilling to either answer questions or shorten  his spiel. Not only was his delivery dry, but it lacked an authentic sense of voice.

Supporting Material

I remember being told an urban legend at university about a presentation given by Simon During, during the heydays of Cultural Studies, where he showed images of supermodels while delivering a presentation on Victorian novels. I think the point was to break up the unquestioned connection between the presenter and their support material. I think that what During's example shows is that supporting material has a story to tell and is often just as important as the content and delivery of a presentation.

There are many programs used to create and support presentations, with the original being Microsoft PowerPoint. However, some other examples that have popped up in recent time include Haiku Deck, Prezi and Google Presentations. Each of these applications offers a suite of tools and tricks, including transitions, animations, effects etc... However, in my view, the greatest trick of all is being able to tell a story in a clear and uncluttered manner.

A great practitioner of the 'clear and uncluttered' mantra is John Pearce. In all of my conferences and professional development sessions, I have never actually seen John present, but through a range of means, such as Twitter and other people's blogs, I have viewed many of his presentations. (I think this as much testament to John's penchant for sharing.) Whether it be focusing on student curation or providing an introduction to Edmodo, John's presentations are usually not much more than a so-called collection of 'images and texts'. However, it is his ability to clearly tell a story that makes his presentations so good. This is not only done through the use of clear headings and images, but he also provides various points of commentary along the way. Take the following page as an example:


On this page, the heading clearly states the purpose of the page, this is then followed with a screenshot from Edmodo showing the aspect in question, while further explanation is provided at the bottom of the page. Although seemingly nothing more than a Google Presentation, the presentation does everything that it needs to do to help carry across the content.

In addition to backing up the presentation at hand, supporting materials, whether it be links to various websites or resources, allow the listener to continue their investigation. This may include simply providing examples and materials in support of the content spoken about or even providing a whole book in some cases. Again I come back to Corrie Barclay. For his presentation on integrating iPads at VITTA 2013, he created a eBook full of information that allows the participant to continue their learning long after the actual presentation has finished.

Another way in which supporting materials are important is that they allow the dialogue to continue on. Recently whilst trawling my Twitter feed I read a tweet from Troy Moncur.


What struck me about the tweet is that with the advent of various social media platforms, presentations now have the ability to carry on long after the lights have been turned off. They no longer need to finish, rather they now have the ability to link from one presentation to the next.

Conclusion

Coming back to the initial argument, that presentations are more than 'images and texts', there is one thing that has been taken for granted and that is what a presentation actually is. In today's day and age of screencasts, digital presentations and flipped classrooms, the notion of a person presenting to people is already under threat. However, there is one thing that will never change, that is that it will always take more than an app to make a good presentation.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sum of the Parts is Different to the Whole

In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.


Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc ...), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with 'focuses' and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes' S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac's novella, 'Sarrasine'. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a 'focus' in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 


21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as 'why did you make that choice'. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of 'why' they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB's has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB's by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB's with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert's blog on the matter.)

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.