An interview with Cliff Kraeker

I’ve known Cliff Kraeker for a number of years in his role as a Technology Coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB).  I don’t know exactly when we first met so will ask him and get his thoughts on a number of things in this interview.

Doug:  Hi Cliff – thanks for agreeing to do the interview.  I can’t remember; do you remember when we first met?

Cliff: Actually I don’t, but I suspect it would have been at the RCAC conferences which were held for many years in London at the Lamplighter Inn. I was probably introduced to you by Daryn Bee or Vince Vecchio – who were Learning Coordinators as well at the time.

Doug:  I do remember you in your role as a Technology Coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board.  A district so big that it had Community Education Centres.  If I remember correctly, you had the East and part of London.  Are the CECs still in place?

Cliff: Actually I lived in the East area and worked with a good number of schools there because I knew so many principals and teachers from the time before amalgamation when it was still Oxford Board of Education. But it was Bill Schreiter who had the East Community of Schools – he lived in Stratford so the East was a better place to be mileage wise. For the time I was a Learning Coordinator, I was responsible for the schools in the west along the Wonderland and Oxford Street section of the city.

Doug:  Whoops.  My memory failed on that one.  You worked with a team – do you still stay in touch with them?

Cliff: I’ve been retired now for only 6 years. In the first 2-3 years Bill Schreiter and I would get together once a month, one month in Stratford and then the next closer to my home. Marlene Turkington, who was the Learning Coordinator of Libraries would often join us.   David Fife became a Vice Principal and now soon to be a principal and we’d meet now and again at the various iCon conferences which were held each year. Sandra Balestrin went back to the classroom and we get together 2-3 times a year for a meal and catch up. We have a tradition that I go to her class at the end of August and help her get all the technology connected in her class. Vince Vecchio is the only Learning Coordinator that seems to have disappeared. I’ve never seen him and when other former Learning Supervisors and Learning Coordinators ask about him and how he is – they haven’t seen him either. Maybe he’s the smartest one among us and in retirement just made a total break from education and educational circles. He loved golf so maybe if I was a golfer I might find him one morning on the links. Maybe this interview will help me find him again. A visit would be nice again.

Doug:  Thanks for the update.  That’s great news for David.  There were two outstanding things in the SouthWest of Ontario.  One was the Regional Computer Advisory Committee (RCAC), of which we were both members and would meet four or five times a year.  This no longer exists.  What benefits do you think individual districts miss from its demise?

Cliff: RCAC existed for us long before anyone was really attending ISTE or other larger technology related conferences. I remember ECOO in Mississauga during those years, but there a person would attend some sessions, browse through the vendor displays and go home. The RCAC was different in that we always had very good and intense Professional Development, particularly on the Friday after the main RCAC conference. But what we enjoyed the most about the various meetings during the year were those times we met and talked about what was going on in our various Boards. How were SMARTBoards being integrated into the classroom? Were we moving to laptop carts and which ones were the best for classroom use? So many of the over-riding questions we all struggled with as we tried to serve the various schools in our Boards. Many times it was good to know how the Hamilton Board was introducing a certain technology or how Greater Essex was dealing with introducing various new pieces of software from OSAPAC to their teachers. When RCAC folded that direct personal connection was lost. I suppose now our Twitter connections keeps all of us updated on what’s going on and what’s current. Of course the transition of ECOO into Bring It Together fills that need to get together in educators from all over Ontario as well now.

Doug:  Can you think of a specific learning that you got from the group that you might not have otherwise received?

Cliff: Some of the day long intensive sessions the Friday after RCAC with Will Richardson on blogging and a few on Photoshop. (forget the presenters now) but I still use some of the techniques we were taught at those sessions.

Doug:  I’ll bet the name you’re think of is Leslie Fisher. The other event was the annual RCAC Symposium.  We always held it in London during the worst weather of the winter on the first Thursday in December.  Sadly, it’s no longer offered to technology leaders.  What do you think of its demise?

Cliff: I think like I hinted at earlier, not being able to connect with technology leaders from all the various Boards in southwestern Ontario isolated us a bit from knowing first hand what was happening in other Boards. Not that we had to copy each other and what we were doing, but it was always nice at our planning sessions to actually know what was happening in other Boards around us. It often gave us a jumping off point for our own planning. Granted this was at a time before Twitter and the intense blogging so many are doing now. So maybe our connectivity is now happening that way. But it was still nice to sit down together and talk.

Doug:  Big question in Ontario today – Microsoft or Google?  Your preference?

Cliff: Right off the top probably Google!

Doug:  Why?

Cliff: So many things about Google / Google Docs / Google Classroom and all the various addons – SpeakIt, Voice Note 2 and so on are even replacing the more expensive software – Dragon Naturally Speaking and Kurzweil. It is allowing universal access to assistive technology like never before. But that is assuming schools are acquiring Chromebooks. For the most part many still are using PC’s so Microsoft becomes a layer that is still being used and then Google is that other layer. Even Boards that have a lot of Apple products are still using Google and the related applications in their use. The issue for many teachers happen when Boards limit the ability of teachers to access various applications through security measures that doesn’t give teachers admin rights to use the technology to the level of their own abilities. I doubt that question and issue will ever be dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction. The ultimate question still seems to stand. Does Information Technology Departments (IT) dictate to education what they can do or does education dictate to IT what needs to happen and then IT makes it happen?

Doug:  that’s such a really important question that every district needs to answer.  Classroom environments are certainly changing with new technologies.  Tablets, Chromebooks often fill the places normally filled by computers and laptops.  How do you feel about this?

Cliff: I love it but have a huge IF that needs to be in place. Great, IF the wireless is adequate to deal with all the available tablets and Chromebooks that are being used in any classroom in any part of the school. In so many schools I still support, I’ll hear that the wireless just doesn’t work in certain parts of the building. Labs have been dismantled in Thames Valley for the most part, so equal access needs to happen for every teacher and classroom. It’s also great IF teachers have begun to switch to the whole Inquiry Based Learning concepts in their classes, where the technology is used as a tool integrated into the learning and not an “event” like we use to have when we went to the lab every day 4 period 3 and usually just played some piece of software,  the whole period really being unrelated to whatever learning was happening in the classroom. (eg. play Math Circus or Sammy, Millie and Bailey)

Doug:  I still shudder when I hear the word “play” used in that context!  Are there certain subject areas that are affected most?

Cliff: It’s probably not subject related as much as it’s teacher related. Some teachers were dependent on that weekly visit to the lab to do something with technology where every child had their own station and could do something individually for 40 minutes while the teacher either walked around behind them or spent time online themselves checking email or doing report card comments. Those teachers are finding the disappearance of labs and the switch to mobile technology or Learning Commons where 3-4 students share one station and collaborate on a topic, the hardest to adapt. Plus the vast difference between schools where parent groups fund raise and can get their schools 3-4 class sets of iPads and a school down the road only has 5 iPads in the whole building are also creating inequities among classes and schools. Teachers feel that and are often frustrated when their lab disappears due to a Board wide directive and yet the the additional devices are not coming into the school in adequate numbers to satisfy the needs of the whole staff. There are some classes in Thames Valley who are piloting 1:1 iPad technology, but there is no plan to use that data to now find funding to replicate that experience in other classes. My question is do we really need a pilot to give us data on something so obvious? Maybe the real heroes in our classrooms are teachers who can take the 3-5 iPads they’ve been given and make those work effectively for an entire class of 28 kids. How THAT is done needs to be publicized a bit more.

Doug:  I’m smiling.  In that one paragraph, you’ve described the past 20 years of computer use in classrooms.  Progressive classrooms and schools have come so far and matured.  It’s interesting to note that we’re still in search of the perfect solution.  Who should set direction for technology within a district?  Technology departments or classroom teachers.  I know that there is a pie in the sky answer but there’s also a reality answer as well.

Cliff: Having been on the frontline of using technology in the classroom (teaching computer prep for the entire school for 8 years) Teacher Librarian Spring 2003 (page 18) http://www.accessola2.com/images/infocentral/TL10.2.pdf   I wanted as much control over my system, my lab, being able to reimage computers, install my own software etc. as possible. I was lucky enough at that time to have a one of the best IT TSA’s and he taught me so much and then gave me the ability to do so much on my own.

But then when I became a Learning Coordinator I came face to face with the issue of a system having to deal with 27,000 computers and some 36 TSAs to manage all those machines. Remote management was vital and the need to lock-down the system in certain areas was important in schools where there was no one who had the level of expertise needed to manage a school’s technology. So I experienced both extremes. Ultimately I’d like to see a variety of methods used. Model schools where both the staff and students can handle it properly, allowing them more access to the admin rights and then others where their systems are managed remotely but still serve them at the level they need. I think the increased use of Chromebooks have helped with this as they are less likely to be locked down as much as our Microsoft Active Directory stations were in the past. Although I was talking to a few teachers recently and they had heard about a few Google Addons at a recent STEAM conference, but when they went back to their school to install them, found they didn’t have the rights to do so. So there is still some “locking down” of even the Google environment.

Doug:  What are your thoughts about the role of teacher-librarians in today’s schools?

Cliff: What can I say? Some of my best friends are Teacher-Librarians!! And of course if you browsed to and read the article I posted earlier you’ll know my partnership with a great T-Lib was a part of my time teaching technology full-time at the elementary level. Prior to our massive dependence on technology it was the Partner in Action teacher-librarian who was the best support for a classroom teacher. Classroom teachers would plan and collaborate together with their T-Lib and together they would work through the project with their students. It really was a partnership. Although in my time as a LC I visited many schools where the T-Lib would spend time at her desk holding the bar code scanner as kids walked by holding their books for the computer system to scan their information.  No helping kids get books, no sharing, no Partners collaboration, no reading to kids, nothing!  Those were very sad situations. I don’t remember exactly when the change came in Thames Valley when a school had to have a qualified person in the library to the point now where a principal can assign anyone to that task happened, but in far too many schools, qualified / non-qualified didn’t seem to change anything.

Today when labs are disappearing and libraries are becoming Learning Commons and / or MakerSpaces, the best T-Lib have added the ability to support the teachers in their schools with technology, Google Classroom, coding, Spheros, robotics and so many of the authoring apps on iPads, but at the same time not neglecting literacy, reading and writing. I know and visit a few of them and their stories might be well told here in another interview.

Doug:  I know now that you’re doing some work with schools in your retirement to share your technology expertise.  We’ve had many discussions about Ubuntu.  Can you bring us up to date?

Cliff: While I was still a Learning Coordinator I would do various inservice sessions for some of the First Nations schools (mainly SMARTBoard sessions) After I retired I began going to those same schools one day a week to support all their technology. This involved actually repairing computers, updating the software, doing inservice sessions for teachers and team teaching with them on various projects in their classrooms.

With regard to the Ubuntu connection, I found as Windows XP stopped being supported that I could add Ubuntu to those desktops and still get a lot of mileage out of their use.

Doug:  You tag many of your Twitter messages with #tvdsb, obviously with reference to your old district.  Should all school districts use such an approach?

Cliff: I think they should, I mean why not? For the various educators #tvdsb is one of the main hashtags where everything of interest can be shared, but there are also others – #tvadmin, #tvdsbmath #tvdsbtech #tvdsbadmin #tvdsblit #tvdsbart and so on …. So if you want to find what is being shared in our Board it’s being shared somewhere with that hashtag.

Doug:  A while back I had interviewed Jennifer Aston, a person I’ve never met personally but read her blog and interact with online.  Is she as nice a person in real life?  Can you describe her role as an instructional coach with respect to technology?

Cliff: LOL …Is Jen a nice person in real life? That’s a good one! If she weren’t I’d have just ignored this question and moved on. I might be retired and have more freedom to speak my mind but being cruel is not my style. Not only is Jen a nice person (as you put it) but she is extremely conscientious, a self-starter, a leader and very innovative. She’s on a MAT leave right now but still continued hosting and moderating Twitter chats in the evenings. I remember sitting down with her years ago in her first year as an Instructional Coach and brainstorming ideas for the entire Instructional Coach team to find a way to share all their great ideas with the system. The result was a Pinterest collection that started here https://www.pinterest.com/TVDSBcoaches/ and grew into the personal collections of so many of the 38 Instructional Coaches TValley has now in all of our schools. One of the most massive collection is from another Coach who works with Jen – Sabrina Tyer – https://www.pinterest.com/sabrinatyrer/  I think on one level all the Coaches inspire each other.

TValley had a unique program recently, GENTLE – where they were able to welcome more Syrian refugees into our schools in a very unique way. http://www.lfpress.com/2016/02/27/student-ambassadors-helping-syrian-refugee-children-learn-the-ropes-at-london-elementary-school And if you read Jen’s Blog http://jaston.edublogs.org/2016/01/19/snapshots-from-helping-a-syrian-family/ you will know she was very active in working with Syrian families. Her passion to help is natural and innate to her personality. And another example of that generosity was so very evident when she responded to the story about outrageous food prices in the Canadian north by joining this FB group and regularly sending parcels of food to food banks in Nunavut. https://www.facebook.com/groups/HelpingOurNorthernNeighbours/ So yes, Jen is a nice person.🙂  

With regard to her role as an Instructional Coach and how it’s related to technology, simply looking at her digital footprint will tell the story. Her blog is http://jaston.edublogs.org/  Her Twitter feed is https://twitter.com/jen_aston She moderates this Twitter Chat group https://twitter.com/hashtag/fslchat  and her Pinterest page – https://www.pinterest.com/TVDSBcoaches/  

Doug:  From your experience, you’ve seen lots of things come and go.  What technologies do you think:

  • will ultimately stand the test of time;
  • are a “flash in the pan” and will just be a memory in a few years;
  • what about “makerspace”.  Game changing, innovative, or something that has always been done in Ontario just with a new name;
  • is in the future for education

Cliff: Mobile will stay! Apple started way ahead of the pack, but Android, Google etc. are making a fast in-roads into our schools. Stories are coming out of the US where entire districts are dropping Apple products for Chromebooks etc. But that battle will continue.

Flash in a pan will be some of the toys that are related to the whole coding phenomena. I love Sphero balls and OzBots and programming them can be fun, but some math teachers are already making reference to the fact that we are not getting the depth of math understanding out of programming them to roll down the hall and make a 90 degree turn. That might be fine at an early elementary level but I’m hoping to see a deeper richer math experience with these toys in the higher grades or we might find we leave them altogether and move on to something else. But that will always depend on the teacher and the knowledge and skills they bring the their students in that regard.

MakerSpace will evolve with each teacher and each school. Some stick with Lego Walls and Connects Sticks. Others are creating circuits and still others experimenting with green screen and video production. You can travel from school to school and what you find are successful MakerSpaces are dependent on the teachers in the building, the actual space they’ve allocated to that concept and of course the funding they are prepared to allow to get the collections of things the kids can do and experiment with during their MakerSpace experiences. Key though will also always be the organization, how the bins of materials are stored, replenished and monitored. Nothing will kill a MakerSpace faster than finding (after a few weeks) a mess in the room; the bins not sorted, lego in with circuits, Ozbots not charged, parts of the robotics mBots missing and the teachers who started out so passionate about the concept,  fed up with being the only ones cleaning up and organizing, that they say, “I can’t do this anymore, I’m done!” and walk away from the project.

In the future? How we do assessment has to change first. In a time of FreshGrade and Seesaw (to name a few) doing report cards 2-3 times a year needs to change. Curriculums also need to adapt to the whole Inquiry Based Learning model and subjects as a focus will disappear and collaborative integrated learning will take place in a stronger holistic manner. Finland seems to be headed in that direction and I know there has been discussions in many Innovative forums in TValley about how that might look within our own schools. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/finland-schools-subjects-are-out-and-topics-are-in-as-country-reforms-its-education-system-10123911.html  Our whole Rethink Secondary plan might come to some of those conclusions. We don’t know yet, but the report is here. http://www.tvdsb.ca/welcome.cfm?subpage=304444

Doug:  Thanks so much for the interview, Cliff.  It was great to catch up.  I enjoyed so much shared learning with you and those you recognized when we met regularly through the Western RCAC.  I’m so glad to hear that you continue to help colleagues in Thames Valley.

Cliff is very active on Facebook and on Twitter at @kraekerc.  He also builds and maintains various websites for educational and private clients. If you need support with a website drop Cliff a line at kraekerc@gmail.com

Here are just a few of those links Cliff mentioned in the interview.

You can read all of the interviews posted to this blog here.

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