Today I presented at the Technology-Enabled Teaching and Learning (#) conference in Toronto alongside my math department head and my Vice-Principal Jeff Crowell.

Our presentation including links and notes.

Our student voice refection video on technology use in math education (my apologies for the audio.)

I was thinking about the role of Administrators in the world where education research, strategies and technologies change at a rapid pace.  I assume many Administrators feel they need to try and get ahead of the curve on edtech.  But they also feel they need to be experts on problem based learning, project based learning, differentiated instruction, assessment as learning, and the list stretches to infinity.  Well actually they don’t.  Not even close.

I was thinking about as a teacher, what I find most valuable from them.  I want you know to know of education technology and “new” teaching practices.  But I don’t want you to try and be an expert on any of them, or pretend to be.  The teachers need to be experts – or at least be trying to take the first step.  They are the ones that when it comes time to try something new in the classroom have to deal with the repercussions, whatever they may be.  They are the ones gaining the practical  experience from implementing new technology and teaching strategies – they’re the boots on the ground.  I think Admins that try to be an expert on say, teaching with an iPad are doomed to fail – since, in most cases, they’ve never taught with iPad.  Pretending your an expert is a bad idea. – the same goes for a teacher in the classroom.

But I do want them to at least know what a Chromebook is, and in general what it can do (and can’t.) I want you to know the difference in P(roject)BL and P(roblem)BL, but not necessarily even how to get started with either.  So the first thing I want is an Administrator of all trades and a master of none.  I want them to be able to have a conversation with me and at least understand the issue I might be having implementing something new.  But in no real way do I really expect the offer of a solution.  What I do want is my second desire, for Admin to, in as much as is possible, to really know what is going on in the building (and as mega bonus points – some other schools in the board.)  So when I say I’m trying to figure out how to use phones as student response systems (SRS), the only suggestion I want, is who else in the building has tried to do this.  Connect me with the person who has already gone (or is going) through the same thing.  They’re the person I want to talk with. They teach French and I teach Math, so maybe we don’t connect so often – but we’ll have common ground to discuss the SRS.  Getting connected to that person is invaluable.  The Interwebs and Twitterverse are great, but some face to face time is important.

I’m not suggesting that it is easy for an Administrator to really know what teachers are doing in their classrooms.  But it is mainly your teachers that are trying new things that you need to pay attention to.  Touch base with them.  Have a talk that in no way feels evaluative, but have them tell you what they’re trying.  Know your staff.  Know who might be willing to try something new but isn’t.  Maybe they’re looking at a challenge and not sure how to face it.  If a teacher mentions that they’re thinking of trying to create a class website, put them in touch with a teacher who is doing the same right now, or who is an expert.  If a teacher says that they aren’t sure how to increase student collaboration, send them to the science teacher doing inquiry based research assignments, or the math teacher using problem based learning.

An Administrator needs to develop that trust with their staff to have those conversations.  If you’re staff isn’t willing to have those conversations with you, then maybe there is some room to build more trust.  Once they start talking, keep those short conversations going.  Keep track of what they say.  Use a spreadsheet if necessary.  Build a file on your staff of what they say they have tried – be as specific as possible.  That way you are ready to go when the situation presents itself.  Once you have demonstrated to teacher A that you trust them enough to send teacher B for advice, they’ll keep you in the loop.

Know your staff better than you know your “stuff.”


I attended a PD session today focusing on assessment for learning and assessment as learning.  It was in a format where our secondary teachers were split across two locations.  I have my own views of professional development, but I’m very thankful for our staff work to provide PD opportunities.  I know first hand how much time it takes, and also how challenging it can be to put forward a day that is helpful to as many people as possible.  It is a daunting task, and I am extremely grateful to have colleagues that continue to put in that effort.

I wanted to bring up a couple points.  The first is that in my opinion, large venues continue to be a problem for professional development days.  There are people who are critical of, and resistant  to the efforts and ideas expressed during the day.  John Maxwell writes about how 30% of a staff will resist efforts to initiate change.  Unfortunately, these people may not just resist changing themselves of their practice, but they actively (intentional or not,) detract others from making the most of the time during talk, session, or workshop.  I think a large venue, where voices carry,  exasperates this problem.  It was a shame today, when we were discussing formative assessment, that has been shown to double the speed of student learning.  I know the format of the day may not appeal to everyone, but how can you not try to improve your understanding of a research proven strategy to double the speed of student learning?  My message to myself is, “if you’re not doing this, you may be half as effective as other teachers.”  I’m glad to have been surrounded by others today that were eager to discuss these ideas and strategies to implement them.

Today, John Ryall from the Ontario Ministry of Education discussed how he could wish he could apologize to the students he taught during the first five years of his practice.  I know exactly how he feels and have expressed the same sentiment myself.  I found it affirming to know he feels this way as well.  I also think it demonstrates a willingness to be reflective and critical of one’s own growth.  I think that attitude may be vital to make the most of any PD opportunity.  It is a growth mindset that helps a person improve, rather than believe that a degree in education was all the experience needed to be a great teacher.



Google Classroom might have the largest edtech hype surrounding it than any other product in 2014.

I love using Google Apps for Education with my classes.  I became a Google Apps Administrator at my school in 2007 and managed it on my own since I found it so valuable.  I absolutely respect the work that Google does in other areas supporting education, and students.  I am always amazed at the number of programs Google invests in for the support of students and teachers.  I was also quick to sign up for early access to Google Classroom.

Now that its open for all GAFE accounts, I find it a bit of a letdown.  Now this isn’t Google’s fault.  It’s mine for having such high initial expectations.  Yes, I bought too much into the promo video.  I should have known better.  I have been using some sort of class website or Learning Management System (LMS) since I began teaching in 2005.  I currently use Canvas as my LMS of choice.  Google doesn’t call Classroom an LMS, but instead often simply use the word “product.”  I’m sure this is by design for two reasons.  First it distances itself from comparisons to other more mature LMS products, and second it avoids using any extra jargon that teachers new to edtech might find intimidating.  I get it.  Google has created (in a short amount of time I hear) a clean simple classroom tool.  I think they are trying to position themselves at such a level that even the most technology-phobe can jump in.  I don’t disagree with that strategy – we need more teachers jumping in.  What I disagree with are click-bait sites (Buzzfeed, About, DailyGenius, etc.) spewing out drivel about Classroom completely revolutionizing education, or (just as often) restating a couple lines from Google and a link to the Classroom site/video.  I also have a bit of a hard time with my G+ and Twitter feed filling up with shares to those articles.

In it’s current form, Classroom is a polished version of scripts (like Doctopus) and not much else.  It doesn’t do much else other than save students the time of clicking “Make a Copy” of an assignment that a teacher may share.  It doesn’t do a good job of sharing resources either.  I can’t imagine there are too many teachers that are willing to jump to Classroom, but that don’t have an existing website (or Google Site) for sharing resources like notes, video, links, etc.  Google Classroom should be able to replace a Google Site, but it doesn’t.  The grading system for assignments in classroom is terrible by LMS standards.  You need to leave feedback on the document, and then give a score in Classroom out of 100.  Not 25, or 8, only 100.  How about a letter grade, or level of “mastery”?  Nope; 100.

The Good News

Google really does have a “release early, release often” philosophy, so I am going to work under the assumption that this mantra applies to Classroom as well.  So at least some of the hype may not be unfounded as Classroom represents the idea of a better LMS, just like the Pixel represented the possibility of a high end Chromebook and what that represents for how we view and use devices.

Here are some of my thoughts of what Google may be working on bringing to Classroom:

  1. Resource Sharing.  Yes, you can post links/notes in the About section.  But I’m talking about having unit/module sections for organizing notes and other resources.  Currently a teacher would have to use Sites for this, or possibly use a Google Sheet as a syllabus with links to other docs.
  2. Quizzes.  This is something that GAFE users have been accomplishing using Google Forms and scripts for some time. But it is still unwieldy and not useful for larger assessments.
  3. Discussions. Discussions in Classroom can currently be started as replies off of announcement.  But there isn’t a good way to allow a student to start a discussion, to organize discussions, or to give feedback on posts (without being part of the discussion and being public.)
  4.  Grading.  I love Canvas’ Speedgrader and it would be great if Classroom had something similar.  The ability to look at an assignment while at the same time be able to leave feedback in a rubric is very useful.  I don’t think teachers should necessarily be forced to have all their feedback be placed on the document itself.  That said, leaving feedback for students in docs or as comments/suggestions is indeed a wonderful way to leave feedback, especially while students are still working on the task.  Students should also be able to be grouped for grading purposes.

So all those above are pretty much standard in any LMS available.  But if Google is going to replicate what is out there, what’s the point? Other than to have access to more student data I suppose.

I have some thoughts of my own for Classroom’s ‘to be added’ feature list.

Google Site Integration.  I have been trying to think about this one.  Should Classroom absorb Site’s functionality to create pages?  So a new tab in Classroom called ‘Site” where all the resources are posted.  Or should Classroom somehow embed into sites?  So a teacher can add Classroom elements (assignment, quiz, discussion.) So if a student goes to the class Site, they see a link to the posted task with the due date.  Tasks would still show up in the Classroom stream.  I’m still thinking on the best workflow on this one.  But at least Sites provides the teacher with the ability to organize their classroom materials.

Peer Review.  I’m not sure how many (if any) LMS’s really get this right.  I want a student to be working on a task that has a rubric.  That task has a due date.  When they submit their work, it is opened up to a peer reviewer(s).  That review also has a due date and a rubric for the feedback.  Then, the original student has a second date to make any revisions taking the peer review into account.  The final rubric could then include items regarding addressing their peer feedback.  I think peer feedback is really important.  I think a great LMS would really support this.  The feedback process needs to be assessed to help ensure student’s recognize it’s value, and also so teachers are able to give feedback to their students on how they provide feedback to each other.  The Inception of feedback.

Google has plenty of experience with LMS’s from their own Power Search courses, to their collaboration on Open edX.  There’s a lot of experience there.  I’m sure there is much more in the pipe.  If there isn’t much else, then the hype is unfounded as better products already exist.  Otherwise they are another failed splash like Pearsons Open Class (seriously, do people use that?)

Today I read an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by secondary teacher Joe Killoran titled: Ontario’s grading guidelines get a big zero.  I wanted to take some time to respond to some of Joe’s comments as he covers a lot of ground in the article.  I have some disagreements with some of his views, and in the interest of professional discourse, I invite you to consider the following.

He begins by informing the reader that  according to the Ministry of Education (MoE) that “the evaluation of learning skills and work habits, apart from any that maybe included as part of a curriculum expectation in a subject or course, should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades.” and clarifies that  “students may not receive poor grades for lateness, misbehaviour, skipping, late assignments, laziness or inability to work with others.

Killoran then makes an odd statement about these learning skills: “these learning skills may be “assessed” …, they may not be “evaluated” (the use of two synonyms to convey different meanings puzzles many teachers) as part of the number grade.”  First off, the fact that a teacher provides students a letter grade (E, G, S, N) is an evaluation of their learning skills, it just happens to be a letter instead of a number.   So I suppose some teachers do find the difference puzzling.  For the record, assessment is a process of gathering evidence to determine how students are progressing, and promote student learning through feedback.  Evaluation is the final comparison to the standard for which you are grading.  Assessment and evaluation are key components in teacher education (in my experience) as well as professional development.  I certainly don’t have Killoran’s experience with finding these differences puzzling.

Killoran goes on to say that the MoE is “handcuffing” teachers by not allowing them to include an evaluation of learning goals in a student’s final course grade.  He says that because of this, teacher’s cannot reward positive behaviors and deter negative behaviors.  He affirms that learning behaviors is an important part of being prepared for their “adult lives and careers.”  I would suggest that teachers who have difficulty in teaching student’s proper behavior without the use of “grades” do have issues.  The inclusion of learning goal grades won’t be a solution.  If “giving marks” was the answer, why do some students fail, dropout, or otherwise not achieve perfection.  The simple answer is that grades are not enough.  The second answer is a much longer one as to how research suggests our traditional grading system is not great at motivating students.  This isn’t to say that there should be no consequences for negative behavior, just that grades aren’t the answer.

Killoran continues with: “There are bright students who can cram for tests and submit late assignments who excel in our system, just as there are determined, hardworking students who are never rewarded for their dedication.”  I will agree that the system may need to change if this is the class in your classroom.  Assessments that reward the ability to cram and excel should be changed or eliminated.  Classroom work can be designed to reward hard work and deep understanding; teachers are doing this all the time.

Here’s where things get off the rails as Killoran discusses the MoE recommendation that students not deduct late marks or give work a mark oz zero:  “These “experts” (or “edu-babblers,” as they are called by many classroom teachers) argue that a missed assignment provides only “zero evidence” rather than “evidence of zero.” Imagine an employee attempting this Orwellian doublespeak at work, contending that their failure to repair a car, prepare a presentation, or analyze a quarterly report cannot be cause for punishment or dismissal because they did not even attempt the task and so cannot be said to have done it poorly.” I have a serious problem with this type of thinking from an educator.  First, these are students not employees.  Yes we are preparing them for their adult life – but they are not there yet.  Comparing education and the “real world” are not good comparisons.  Killoran wants to reward students who work hard, but I don’t want a heart surgeon who doesn’t know what he should, but she works hard and has a positive attitude, so she gets by.  You also don’t get to choose which career to compare to.  The majority of software developed goes over budget and is late.  The weatherperson on the news is wrong often yet somehow I see them on TV the next night.  Teachers get to call in sick and have someone come in and do their work for them.  Why not compare them to these aspects of careers in the “real world?”  The second problem with this attitude is that school is about helping young people at a critical stage in their development.  So the student whose parents are going through a divorce, or gets bullied at school, or is suffering with a yet un-diagnosed mental illness we should ignore and deduct marks all over the place.  I agree with Killoran that we want students to become resilient, however, that is not done by punishing students.  It is done through dialogue with your students, understanding their challenges, developing achievable goals with them and praising their success.

I would also say that deducting late marks at least creates an additional level of discontinuity in schools.  These are students competing for seats in Universities and Colleges.  If one teacher deducts marks and down the street one doesn’t, then we have a problem.  If the deduction is a standard (i.e. deduct 10% per day late) then the difference is one teacher gives three days for an assignment and another teacher gives five days for a similar assignment.

In my opinion Killoran also twists the MoE’s view on “most-recent and most-consistent” assessment for the sake of his article.  He states: “This means that a student who earned a 50 per cent for the first half of the year and a 90 per cent for the second half could be given a mark of 90, while a student who did the reverse could earn only a 50.”  Yes, this is true if there was some sort of forced algorithm that teacher’s use for this type of evaluation (PS. there isn’t.)  Teacher’s use professional development all the time.  If we’re talking about an isolated unit on Dinosaurs, most recent would capture the assessments towards the end of the unit and make them more influential on a grade.  It would not capture Mammals as most recent just because that unit comes after Dinosaurs.  So it depends on the course you are teaching as to how this applies.  Let’s look at Janet who goes into her summative activity and final exam with a 65%.  She have been steadily progressing from earlier in the year when she was failing.  She has been working diligently and earns a 90% on her end of year tasks.  Now mathematically that would bring her mark to a 73%. I would conjecture that a student who earns a 90% on the exam knows the material pretty well.  Should they perhaps be evaluated at a grade higher than the 73%?  I think if you value (and reward) hard work, persistence, and resilience, then yeah, we should consider some professional judgement on the final grade.  Should she get the 90%, well probably not since we also value (and reward) consistency.

Killoran adds another “real life” comparison: “Success or failure is determined by the sum total of one’s efforts in life, not simply how one has performed in the recent past. The sooner students learn this, the better off they will be.”  Well, students make mistakes.  Telling students they will forever be punished for a mistake is cruel and inaccurate.  Lots of people make mistakes (like 100% of them.)  So this doesn’t even apply to “real life.” We don’t fire a person at their first mistake.  Will there be consequences?  Yes, this is how students learn.  Again, mistakes are how students learn.  The research is supportive of this fact.  In my math class, I want students to try things, to risk being wrong, make a mistake, and then learn from it.  If students are simply wrist-slapped with grade deductions with no feedback or self reflection, then they are less likely to learn from these mistakes.  If a student performs poorly on a quiz and otherwise is performing exceptionally, at the end of the year can we not think of that as a bit of a hiccup?  Perhaps they were a bit sick, maybe they have a infant sister who was crying all night, maybe they just got dumped by their girlfriend.  That’s why we think about consistency.

Killoran finishes with “The ministry’s approach to grading is well-intentioned but it does students no favours. Skills like meeting deadlines, showing up on time, and working hard matter in the real world. They should matter in school too.”  A teacher should keep this in mind the next time a student is failing her class, or a lesson goes poorly, she returns tests a bit late, or she is less than at 100% because of a personal issue affecting her in some way, and when that happens she consider that he still earns 100% of her salary.  Yeah, these “real life” examples just don’t apply the way that Killoran asserts that they should.

The Future of Brain Surgiosity

Posted: August 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

So I haven’t really worked out all the details, but I’ve been working on the following scene in a movie I’m considering making.

Scene: Al and Steve are standing around the water cooler discussing sports or something.  And then…

Al: Hey, did you hear about this new method of brain surgery.

Steve:  Um, nope.

Al: Yeah, they use this new robot.

Steve: Ok

Al: And it was invented by this smart business guy.

Steve: With no neuroscience background?

Al: He’s really smart.  And the whole thing is free.

Steve: I’m still getting over the “No neuroscience background” part…

Al: Well he has a a brain, so he know’s something about neurology.

Steve: I don’t think that’s how that works…

Al: And Gretchen Wiener’s dad called him “The Globe’s Brain Surgeon.”

Steve: Who’s that?

Al: Gretchen Weiner’s dad?

Steve: Yeah – he’s like a neurosurgeon or something?

Al: No, he’s the inventor of toaster strudel.

Steve: [pause]

Al:  But he’s really rich, and he donates money to charity so he knows what he’s talking about.

Steve: Ugh, whatever.  So is this robot brain surgery effective?

Al:  Yeah people love it for all the perfectly valid reasons I previously stated.

Steve: That’s really not what I asked.  How does it work?

Al: Well, the robot takes this long thing metal cylinder.

Steve: Ok.

Al: And it lines it up with the patients nose.

Steve: I don’t like where this is going, but continue.

Al: And then it inserts the rod through the nose and up into the brain, and just kind of, you know, swishes it around.

Steve:  Damn! So it’s a lobotomy machine?

Al: Oh God no.  This is a brain surgery robot.

Steve: But it’s a robot that performs a lobotomy.  It offers a service that we no longer do because of the harmful effects, and we have learned better means to help people with serious neurological or psychiatric conditions…

Al: But..

Steve: It takes us back decades in what we know to be proven and sound practices.  I mean if we look around the world, hell, in our own backyard, we know there are better ways to accomplish our goals…

Al: But…

Steve: But what?

Al: Did I mention the Gretchen Wiener’s thing?

End Scene

I think that Dr. Ian Malcom said it best: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”  Thanks Doc; rest in peace.

The Long View

A while back I posted some critiques about the way boards and districts purchase education technology.  This is part of a larger critique I have about how teacher professional development often takes place.  More often than not, it is led by an “expert” who explains a methodology, framework, device, etc.  Session ends, teachers walk away, and not much else happens.  To me, this has a host of problems.  From an educational perspective, it is a passive try to “absorb some knowledge” type of experience.  From an organizational  perspective, it is top down; being driven by the goals of Administration which may or may not be clearly communicated.  From a business perspective, this type of PD is focused on short term goals.  The goal to increase skill A, for next year, stop.  Finally, in maybe a psychological meta-perspective, this type of “learning” creates disengaged participants who do not see value in the session, feel trivialized by organizers, and see the session as a necessary task to just get through.

I think the best way to change a professional development system is to have a long view.  But in order to do that, I think we need to accept a few things.  First, professional development in the manner I describe (and often experience) will only be effective for those teachers who really work to improve their practice.  These teachers will actively work during the session to get the most out of it.  In my experience, these are often new teachers, eager to learn.  Often this eagerness wanes, as the PD they receive doesn’t stick and they see PD days as less than effective.  Nevertheless, there is a group in an PD session that will make the most of it, no matter how good or bad.  (Edit: There is another group.  Teachers that are seeking to move to an admin role.  They need to either learn from the session, or appear to learn from the session.)

The second thing that needs to be accepted is that teachers are professionals.  I am aware that there are different levels of teachers.  All have different strengths.  But at the end of the day, treating teachers like they are professionals might mean that a few bad apples slip through the cracks.  However, treating teachers like they are not professionals belittles the vast majority and misses the opportunity to help them excel.  All PD structures should be based around a belief that teachers are professionals, and as professionals want the opportunity to improve their practice.

If we accept that the only teachers who really benefit from “PD sessions” are those that will likely benefit from any PD implementation, and that teachers are professionals who want to improve, then we can switch to a longer view of teacher professional development.  Let’s create teachers who are comfortable with being independent learners.  Give them the tools to collaborate with teachers from around the world, and give them the support to try new things.  If that culture of networked individuals who have a strong personal learning network is in place, we can further cultivate collaborative learning among teachers with common goals.

Networked Capacity Building

The first thing that needs to be done is to provide teachers the tools to network with each other and with teachers around the world.  Whether the tools are Twitter, of Google+, or something else, only a small part is really about the software.  Teachers do need to learn about how to use the tools.  They need to learn the appropriate way to use these tools and remain professional online.  They need to know how to find teacher and other professionals to follow, and how to organize their contacts.  But they also need to learn how to interact online.  How to progress from a passive consumer of all the good bits out there, to a contributor to a dialogue.  But we can’t simply demonstrate these tools.  We need to have teachers sit down at a computer (tablet, smartphone, etc.) and test drive these tools.  We need to periodically touch base with teachers who are struggling, and we need to make networked communication part of our school level communication.  This way teachers can become comfortable with the tools with people they know before branching out.  So we accomplish two short term goals: familiarize teachers with online networking tools, and foster a culture of communication at the school level.  But the trade off is that we stop PD sessions on other areas.  Some days are mandated topics.  But everything we can change to focus on developing a PLN – we do.  Those days that are (state, province) mandated, we make sure to include online networking portions by using shared online documents and discussions.  So while our PD in areas of assessment and instruction may come to a halt, we are taking a long term view of professional development.

Voluntary Community

This is perhaps the biggest departure from the current model.  We try to foster the development of communities of teachers with common learning goals.  With some PLN capacity building in place after the initial year, we seek out teachers with common learning goals to meet face to face.  The idea is to create professional learning communities (PLC’s) from teachers of different schools.  The face to face time is spent defining their goals for the year.  It may be curriculum based, technology based, or based on cross curricular instructional or assessment strategies.  The critical component is that these teachers will participate voluntarily (not volun-told.)  After an initial face to face to establish parameters, teachers continue online in whatever manner they choose.  Curriculum consultants and itinerants are free to interact with the PLC’s, however, they should not drive the PLCs in direction.  The goal is really to get a core group of teachers to experience collaborative professional learning rather than a group of teachers being instructed online by a consultant.  While other teachers continue with more directed PD sessions extending from year one, this new group of teachers are free to meet on PD days to enhance the collaboration that has taken place online between meetings.  Teachers in this group are encouraged to share what they are learning to the teachers at their own schools through their developing school PLN’s.

Voluntary Leaders

After 1-2 years of teachers being involved in voluntary PLC’s, we seek out individuals that now have experience in collaborative learning, to lead PLC’s at their own school.  The idea is that these leaders were the early adopters, and they will now on-board some of the more hesitant teachers at their own schools.  While the early adopters from the year before were more comfortable working with colleagues from other schools, this second group would benefit from starting with colleagues at their own school.  These PLC’s share their activities at their school PD days.  The goal is to continue fostering the culture of collaboration within the school while also continuing to familiarize teachers with collaborative learning,

Moving Forward

This three stage model has a distinct focus: to develop collaborative yet self directed educators.  We would always need to continue support teachers in the tools of online collaboration.  But the tools are the smallest amount of transformation.  Using Twitter is good, but opening up your own teaching practice and collaborating with others is truly transformational.  At this stage we are ready to think about how we move forward with PD.  We can create PLCs around specific goals (ex. implementing differentiated instruction in math.)  Wherever a district decides to go from here, we now have a critical mass of teachers that accelerate their learning through active collaboration.  We can develop administrators and consultants who learn with their teachers rather than speak to them of practices all to often they themselves have never implemented (or have seen) in a classroom.  If there are still resistant teachers to this new model, then they are likely teachers that would be resistant to any type of PD.  But we shouldn’t let a small group of feet-draggers hold back the growth of the majority professionals.

I have a friend who went to to a car dealership. The dealer showed him a new car, he spoke really fast and showed all the new features: Bluetooth, an HD rear-view camera, and a great warranty. The dealer then drove the car around a track showing my friend how great it handled, accelerated, etc. Then the dealer exclaimed “And there’s even more you’ll be able to do with it!” My friend asked about other cars. The dealer scoffed “Oh, yeah I guess you could get a different car. But it’s really not as good.” My friend asked how so. “Hey look, this car has a leather wrapped steering wheel!”

If my fictional friend buys this car without looking at other cars, without reading reviews on other cars, without reading reviews on that car, I would think him foolish. But the thing is, teachers and administrators do this every day with educational technology.

Buying a New Car, Errrr… Device

I think professional development is is often lacking when it comes to backing technology. I am a strong advocate for ensuring that teachers are prepared to make the most of the technology before we spend the money on the devices. I don’t think it makes much sense to buy 1000 of device X which do not transform teaching, when we could have bought 50 devices and ensured that we transform the practice of several teachers. Whatever the reduction in device cost necessary for teacher development is; it is worth it.

That said, plenty of professional development time that is technology focused is often professional advertising. Whether the ad is for Google, iPads, Chromebooks, Twitter, Smartboards, often the time is spent in a show-and-tell environment. I think there is a small place for this. It is a good way to have teachers see what is available, and maybe spark their imagination. The more of these I attend, the more I watch the reactions in the crowd, the more I have concerns.


It used to only be Apple advocates to earn this title. The individual that would think it necessary to promote Apple at every opportunity. In their minds, Apple never made mistakes. To that fact I think Apple has been a great marketer. Now that technology is embraced by the masses, it isn’t just Apple that marches with a battalion of Fanboys, but now Google and Android and others as well. I’d like to say that anyone that thinks their device or brand is infallible, is a Fanboy. I am using Fanboy as opposed to Fanpeople, because this is the historical term. Fanboyness doesn’t discriminate by gender.

While being a Fanboy in your personal life is ok, it has no place in education. Choosing devices is about what is the best device for the job (currently, or in the future.) When photocopiers were introduced I’m sure that there were teachers complaining about them being more complicated (maybe the phrase “new-fangled” was used) than their current mimeo machine. But I doubt that anyone defended the purple colour and alcohol smell of the mimeo because they identified themselves with the machine that an attack on the machine was an attack on themselves. And that is what we now face every day. People identify themselves with a brand.  When someone points out that it would be nice if my Chromebook had a camera on the lid, I agree. That’s the appropriate response. Fanboys will deny any deficiencies exist, claim that the feature isn’t necessary, or attack your device. All of this will a healthy dose of snark. This closes dialogue and prevents teachers from coming together to share ideas that go beyond the device and have the potential to improve learning. People, let’s leave the badges at the door – you are more than your device.

Snake Oil

There are two types of EdTech Snake Oil Salespeople: the amateur and the professional. The amateur will show you something cool and shiny on the web that you could do in the classroom. They will try and dazzle you with an app that will replace your current classroom activity. Not enhance, improve, or transform, but replace. They will show you as many apps and features as possible. They will switch screens quickly and talk even quicker. The better ones will throw in some jokes that subtly attack their competitors. Their EdTech linaments will cure all your ailments, for a reasonable cost of $15,000 for your class. But can you really put a price on learning? The key to their pitch is to overwhelm your senses and not allow you to form a deep thought or question. They also like to present to groups. If everyone else is nodding and smiling, you’re not about to question the ingredients are you?

The professional salesperson is an evolved animal. He knows there are some in the crowd that have their doubts. She knows that at least some in the crowd will question the app or device. Someone in the audience will say it’s about pedagogy, and the device needs to support it. The best ones will even claim that the device doesn’t matter. They need you to believe that education is at the top of their list. Make no mistake, your students are at the top of your list, sales are at the top of theirs. By telling you that the device doesn’t matter, they are trying to gain your trust. I once had a mechanic tell me “Yeah, if you want, you can wait and get it fixed somewhere else.” He was put off when I did just that. He was trying to put himself on my team, we’re looking after what is best for me and my car, if he profits from it, it is a pleasant side effect. Once the salesperson has you believing that you both have the same interests and that the device doesn’t matter, the pitch of the device is that much more believable. She is after all, a trusted advisor that gains nothing right?

The truth is, more and more corporate reps present at PD events. This makes sense. They get to set up a salesperson who showcases a device for a living. It is their job to make using the device look easy to use. They know all the bells and whistles. They (now) are also well read on education so they can throw around some education buzzwords. More often, they are often former teachers. So now your salesperson has some street cred. Think all former teachers have only your students’ interest at heart? Ask former teacher turned Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Our school boards continue to bring these people in for a few reasons. First, they are good salesperson. Not just of a device, but they sell the idea of being an innovative teacher. They get people excited – get some butts out of the seats. Second, they are free. They are paid by the manufacturer/corporation not the school board. Third, they are readily available. There is no need to ask a teacher to take on the extra work of presenting to staff. I think those reasons are not good enough; I think this creates…


I often think about the enormous responsibility we have to ensure our students think critically about the world around them.  It is far too easy to present a one sided argument so that students pick up your world view.  But students need to learn to think for themselves, and promoting one viewpoint to students is contrary to this idea.  But this is what happens in school boards all the time.  Someone brings in a representative from their company of choice to talk to teachers new to EdTech.  These teachers, newly exposed to the technology, see this company as their saviour.  Far too often these teachers consume what a salesperson says as perfect honesty, that will cure their teaching maladies.  School board staff has the responsibility of  properly researching options before they buy, and certainly before they promote a device or technology to their staff.  Unfortunately, too many teachers are sheeple.  They will blindly follow a certain tech mantra without questioning if their are better options.  Researching options can be a daunting task for a teacher, that’s why they rely on school board staff that is supposed to specialize in this area.  But if these staff are Fanboys that are buying Snake Oil, sheeple arise.

I’m all for devices of different shapes and sizes – let’s question what we want to do, and critically assess our options.


If you are against BYOD, you are either someone in the Gary Stager camp with real concerns, or you are a device salespersons.  The Gary’s have real arguments that may or may not be true in how you plan on using those devices.  If you are a device salesperson, your argument is that it’s so hard to manage all those devices.  The reality is that your pedagogy and your content should be device independent.  Otherwise, you will probably find yourself in a cycle of redoing things for a new platform.  If I use web based apps, they work with an iPad, laptop, Chromebook, desktop and I don’t care which one I use.  Apple would try and tell me that a student made iBook  is revolutionary.  “Look! Text, images, video all together!”  Yes, it’s like a website.  Except you have to package it as a file to share it (and until recently) Apple kind of owned your content, and it’s not collaborative, and is more limited in the content you can bring into it.  But it has a page turn animation – game changing.  Every company, including Google and Microsoft have their own rhetoric.  But let’s try to cut through all that.

Dry Erase Tables

Posted: June 18, 2012 in low-tech, pedagogy
Tags: , ,

I have used large pieces of whiteboard for student collaboration for a few years now. I have implemented this in both my math classes, as well as the occasional computer science class. I’m a huge fan of this low-tech device and students seem to enjoy it as well. The whiteboards also came at a time when I switched from having individual student desks to having students sit in groups of 3-4 at a table. The tables were more forced upon me due to facilities, but I have embraced them (the whiteboard use helped.)  Student collaboration is really enhanced when they work together in this way.

For a few years now, I have thought about using IdeaPaint on the surface of the entire tables. IdeaPaint is a paint-able product that can be applied to any smooth surface and transform it in to a dry erase surface. Essentially, using IdeaPaint, I was going to have whiteboard tables (although IdeaPaint also comes in a few other colours, including black.) I thought the idea was exciting for a math classroom, and among other things was going to use it to ramp up collaboration end reduce note-taking.  Take some time to dream up your own idea.

Now currently, my tables are awful.  They have wheels and you can’t sit on one side because they have power adapters built in. (They were, however, great for my Computer Engineering class when electricity comes in handy.)  Because of this, I started looking into making my own tables.  This is where IdeaPaint jumped back in to the picture.  If I was building new tables, why not build whiteboard tables?  IdeaPaint now comes in clear.  I thought this might have some interest to have some writing embedded beneath the clear IdeaPaint – like some key words for our school’s Four-Step Problem Solving Model.

I envisioned quarter circle tables each made out of a sheet of 8’x4′ plywood.  They would be able to accommodate four students along the long curve.  This is important because when students are collaborating they need to see things in the same orientation (equations, graphs, etc.)  It also means minimal movement when looking at a projector.



In a perfect world, I’d be able to find a local furniture or cabinet maker to help me build the tables (I can build them, however, it would be nice to have some more experience and better tools on my side.  An offer to help pay for them would be even better, so I guess the actual perfect world.)  Either way, the cost of the tables was not going to be too bad in my mind.  The problem arose when looking at the IdeaPaint.

The tables I plan on building will be quarter-circles, with the top built from an 8’x4′ sheet of plywood.  I figure this has about a 25 square foot surface area.  That means one can of IdeaPaint will finish two




Yesterday I read Sherman Dorn’s Article Why I Recommend Canvas as an LMS, and the result on my part was a great deal of head nodding.  Dr. Dorn is an author and Professor who spends his time” questioning our central assumptions about education.”  I appreciated the article, but it got me thinking of why I as a high school teacher recommend Canvas by Instructure.  There’s some love there too, but when you say you love an LMS, you come across as fanatical or just creepy.

I’ll start by saying that I use the “free to educators” version of Canvas, and that I have taught classes using Microsoft’s Class Server, Moodle, Pearson’s Open Class, D2L, as well as non-LMS structures like WordPress, Google Sites, my own harcoded site, combined with Google Apps for Education (which made me think seriously about Audrey Watters Question: “Google Apps for Education: When Will It Replace the LMS?”  I have also dabbled with Udemy, GoodSemester, Edmodo, Schoology, and BlackBoard’s CourseSites without ever unleasing them upon students.  I’ve had mixed opinions on them.  But this isn’t about what is missing in other LMS’s, so here is where the Canvas love comes from:

Ease of Use and Setup – probably the most discussed feature of Canvas is how quickly you can get your course up and running.  I have a solid LMS background so getting started was incredibly quick.  If you have read anything else on Canvas, you’ve probably heard this already.  Even for a LMS newbie, getting the basics up is very intuitive.  There is even an on screen wizard of sorts when you first start.

SpeedGrader – This is Canvas’ built in assessment tool for assignments.  If you have never used another LMS, it is difficult to describe how great SpeedGrader is, and how it crushes the competition.  I have my students either upload documents, or share a link (Google Doc, LucidChart, etc.) when submitting an assignment.  SpeedGrader will preview the document (using Scribd), or the website they have submitted.  I also have the option to download the original (or an archive of all the originals.)  The best feature is having the ability to have a rubric or checklist embedded into the platform.  I see the assignment on the left side of the screen while filling out my assessment on the right.  I can leave notes, or an attachment, or video.  Notes appear in a teacher-student discussion format.  It that wasn’t enough, I can easily switch to viewing the peer evaluations that have been made by other students (yes, Canvas also easily allows me to require students complete a set number of peer evaluations.)

Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) Integration – LTI in Canvas allows me to integrate other useful tools into my Canvas courses.  For my math classes I can easily insert a graph from  The button appears directly in the page editing tools.  I love Piazza as well.  Piazza has a great system for asking questions, and getting answers from a teacher or other students.  With LTI, Piazza becomes a link in the main navigation bar for the course.  Since my students use the same email address for both, it is also a single-sign-on for both tools.  Canvas and Piazza certainly make a great pair.

Quizzes and LaTeX – Recently I have been developing more quizzes for my courses, partly because it is so easy, and partly because I am using “pre-quizzes” the night before.  The pre-quizzes act as a formative assessment, but also are paired with a short pre-lesson.  This isn’t flipped instruction per se, but introduces larger (or real world) concepts the day before the nitty gritty of the following days work.  This is a bit of me attempting to reduce cognitive load of the following day.  The quiz with the pre-lesson is the means of tracking participation.  What ever your reason for having online quizzes, Canvas makes them easy.  It also has one of the best LaTex editors I have seen for including equations into questions.  It also allows you to add LaTeX equations in the answers; this is one of the greatest shortcomings of most other LMS’s and is actually a big deal if you teach math.  Canvas gives a quick series of graphs of results (great for quick formative assessment) as well as all the data exporting, commenting, and mark over-riding you would expect.

Learning Outcomes – I have not used this feature yet, but it’s my next thing to do.  It gives me the ability to create learning outcomes (expectations, standards) and have them embedded into assessments.  So I can assess a student’s meeting of an expectation, along with other non-expectation specifics.  It gives me the option of while having that expectation assessed, not having it as an actual grade that impacts the overall mark of the task.  Being data driven is an increasingly popular discussion in education, and this tool certainly gives you the power to collect and analyze data surrounding specific expectations that may span several assessments.

Notifications – My students (and me) have the power to set how we would like Canvas to notify us on various events.  For example, Canvas will email me when an assignment is handed in late, but not when it is on time.  One of my students can receive an email when a new assignment is created, updated, overdue, etc.  Another student my choose to get the same notifications via Twitter, but receive a notification via Facebook that someone replied to their discussion post.

Canvas also has video conferencing, ePortfolios, one click Creative Commons licensing, easy page creation with text, embedded video and images, and all the usual LMS functionality.  Their support has also been great when I have had any kind of problem.  I wish our entire school board was using Canvas, however, given the fact that the province struck a deal with Desire2Learn, this is unlikely to happen.  My thoughts on the Province-D2L deal is probably best left to its own post.  

With Canvas being to easy to use, it’s worth the small time investment to sign up for an account and begin to dabble away.  Then you too can share the love.

This book review is a long time coming.  The book took me some time to completely finish, for an ironical reason.  The book helped me professionally so much, that I found myself being asked to be involved with various tech-related committees and groups withing my school board.  I could have said no of course, but I found the experience thrilling as I was involved in some wonderful discussions surrounding technology, professional development for teachers, and the future direction of our Board and education as a whole.  This came at the expense of my reading time.

The Connected Educator is written by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach) and Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall).  I heard about the book right around its release date in October.  Sheryl was co-delivering the keynote address at the ECOO Conference in North York Ontario.  The address was far and away anything but a “speech.”  It was an interactive and thought provoking session.  This was someone who’s views on education I was definitely interested in.  So I started reading the book (and later following them on Twitter and Facebook.)

The book wastes no time jumping into ideas and concepts immediately useful to a teacher or administrator.  I have read my share of edu-books that touch on studies with very little practical use to a classroom teacher.  The Connected Educator masters a blend of ideas, activities, and supporting research to get a teacher “connected.”  I have always been a tech savvy person, but the book had me trying new things and expanding my Personal Learning Network (PLN) before I finished the first chapter.  It certainly opened my eyes to the benefiets of being connected.  I had always scoured the web for teaching resources, but this was more.

Sheryl and Lani got me thinking about things in a new way.  I found myself becoming connected to teachers, authors, researchers and others who challenged my own views.  I became much more of a participant in a conversation about education, and what is best for our kids.  I was no longer just sitting on the sidelines of the discussion.  I think the best thing I can say about this book is that it was a catalyst for my own professional development.   Once I followed some of the activities in the book, it wasn’t long before I was learning and discovering resources and ideas more beneficial to my classroom practice than most (all?) of my previous traditional PD.  This took place within the first couple chapters.  I did not have to wait to complete the book to see the value in reading.

Beyond being connected, Sheryl and Lani discuss direct ways change your teaching practice.  Rather than just a “how-to” on being connected, they discuss the importance of helping students create their own learning networks.  They bring up many resources available to be introduced into the lives of your students to not only enhance their learning of curriculum, but to develop them as lifelong learners (and not just as a buzz word.)

The later chapters really speak to not only teachers, but administrators as well.  I think it is a must-read for teachers; it is probably that much more important for school and board administrators to read as well.  We need to question where are resources are directed when we support teacher’s professional development.  The book speaks to implementing a connected learning community among staff.  It is one of the gems in the book.  If the book is a catalyst for my own development, than any teacher I “bring into the fold” certainly owes thanks to the authors.  I think connecting teachers together and to the wider community should be a mandate of administrators.  It is the way to ensure continual and meaningful professional development for educators.

As I mentioned, once I started this book I really had the vocabulary to have meaningful discussions with other teachers and administrators.  I was asked to be part of my board’s professional development planning committee, planning for our board-wide PD day next year.  While I might not be able to overthrow the PD system, I’m certainly trying to embed some elements of teacher development I have taken away from this book.  I certainly feel more knowledgeable about the future of teacher development, and confident to share those ideas.

Finally, the book simply reads well.  It gets you to think critically without being overpowering.  The only reason to put it down is to get online and start putting into practice the activities shared throughout.  If you think you don’t have time to read a book right now, do yourself a favour and purchase it for the summer.