About Useless Gadgets

This article appeared in my Zite news feed this morning.  “Schools ‘wasting £450m a year’ on useless gadgets“.

Those of us whose job it was involved acquiring technology and helping classroom teachers use technology effectively live in dread of titles like that.  The really offensive term to me was “useless gadgets”.  For as long as I’ve been using technology in education, I’ve used just a whack of gadgets.  I wonder — what makes a gadget useless?

Reading the article from the Telegraph, they specifically identify tablet computers, computer software, and electronic whiteboards.  I  kept reading to see if the author actually would explain why the gadgets were labelled as “useless”.

I’ve certainly been involved with computer software all my career, even serving terms on the Ontario Software Acquisition Program Software Committee.  In that role, I’ve worked with many teachers helping them understand the functionality of the software and where it fits into the Ontario Curriculum.  The OSAPAC Committee, in fact, has a sub-group whose job it is to identify Curriculum Connections so that teachers using the software could get a sense of where it fits into the big scheme of things.  Within my own district, I was part of a team that rolled out IWBs to the system.  In our case, I had the eyes, ears, and candor of a group of Computers in Education School Contacts, a small but dynamic team of Early Years Literacy teachers, and a spectacular teacher-librarian who got the original SMART Board, nicknamed it “Big Bertha” and used it to raise her library program to a new level.  Even today, these leaders work with their colleagues to ensure ongoing implementation success.

Any time I talk about technology, one of the things I stress is that technology does allow us to do things differently but more importantly, it allows us to do different things.  In my mind, that’s the ultimate promise of technology and why we spend so much money, time, and should devote a significant effort in acquisition decisions and implementation once the technology has been purchased.

The article, in particular, takes some pretty tough shots at the implementation of tablet technology.  But, as I sit back and think, the one piece that’s missing in all of the scenarios that are described is the lack of support for teachers as they try to use them.  I can speak with confidence that the job of a teacher is absolutely jam-packed.  From knowing the curriculum, to differentiating for student success, to assessment and evaluation, to a changing curriculum in a changing world, to pressure from administration to raise test scores, to dealing with individual students’ social issues.  The absolute last thing, and probably the dumbest educational move, is to buy a bunch of technology and drop it off expecting it to perform all of the promised results.  It’s a formula for failure.

And yet, the article would have you believe that the technology is useless and that teachers are somehow pulled in to using it.  There is no mention at all about how much support was given or whether there’s an implementation plan or just who a teacher is to turn to for answers to questions.

I wish that the article had dug deeper.  I think more details about the actual implementation plan are needed before any piece of technology can be labelled “useless”.

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Simple Needs

I really do have simple needs.  It just drives me crazy when I can’t fulfill them easily!

Case in point…the background on my phone.

Like many people, I think, I like to customize my electronic devices.  One of the first things that many people do is put a custom background on their device.  It might be a picture that you’ve taken or any of the images that come with the device or some of the animated images that come with it or just by grabbing an image that you might find on the web.  I had used the animated windmill for a while.

Then, I realized that with the nice bright sunshine at times it was difficult to find icons on my desktop.  I made the simple decision to go to a solid colour for the background.  Problem.  Where do you find it!  There are options for images, pictures, animations but I couldn’t find anything just for a solid colour.  Are we so hung up with photos that that’s all people want?

I’ll bet there’s an app for that.

Off I went to Google Play and I did a search for “colours”.  A little scrolling later (I should have searched for “colors”, I suppose) and there’s a good sounding application by Tim Clark called Colors.  The description sounded like it was exactly what I wanted.  The enjoyment put me over the top.

I expected to see the option for “green” or “red” or maybe a level 4 “burgundy”.  Instead, there’s “You Really Got Me”, “Mighty Slate”, “Kind Giant”, and seemingly hundreds more.  The simple task of finding a solid colour became one of reading to find the great names.

In honour of the little guy that hangs out at our house, I elected to start with “Mighty Slate”.  It was only then that I realized that the icons all had subtle drop shadows.  Somehow they got lost in the noise of some of the traditional choices.

It’s a little thing, to be sure.  I was really happy to find the application and it’s just so much easier to find things now.

Looking for something for the iPhone?  Check out this application.

Sometimes, it’s just the little things that put me over the top!

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Tips for Bloggers

I really like a recent blog post by Edna Sackson.  It was titled “10 Tips for Reticent Bloggers“.  In the posting, she laid out some tips for people to become more successful in their blogging pursuits.  I thought her list was bang on and would recommend the reading for anyone.  The tips are equally as applicable for students as they are teachers.  She could turn it into an infographic that could be posted on classroom walls!

I’d lke to continue her list with some of my own thoughts.

  • Use a blog editor – I found that I’ve been a great deal more successful with less frustration when I use LiveWriter, Qumana, or ScribeFire.  Why?  At any given point in time, I might have up to a dozen potential blog posts on the go.  For me, ideas come when I’m watching television, walking the dog, reading a blog, testing software or many other things.  I’ll just open one of these tools and jot a few notes to myself and potentially finish them later.  Since doing this, I’ve never felt “under the gun” to create a post.
  • Use a graphic organizer – Sometimes, the random thoughts from the blog editor need to be arranged or otherwise manipulated.  Just like we tell students to organize, it can work for us.  My choice of graphic organizer is currently Popplet but I’ve used and had success with many others, some which have ended up here in a post.
  • Read a lot – When I read, I find that I’m also researching.  Particularly when I’m reading an article that challenges what I think I know, it opens the door to other possibilities.  One of my favourite writers is Stephen Downes.  I subscribe to his OLDaily where he shares what he thinks is significant in his daily reading.  It’s a format that works for him and I’m the beneficiary of his efforts.
  • Don’t worry about being right – Regular readers of this blog should be able to agree with that!  It’s amazing how people who interact with a blog post can steer your thinking and that may be the single most valuable reason I blog.  Bonus – it’s always really good when people agree with you.
  • Evaluate things – Another of my favourite technology writers is Jerry Pournelle.  When he wrote for BYTE magazine, he never seemed to get anything to work the first time.  Or, at least that seemed to be his style which I enjoyed.  Beyond that, he was always discovering things.  That sent me on a road of discovery and blogging about it just seems natural.
  • Don’t get hung up on replies – I may be out on a limb here.  There are some bloggers who write one post that generates hundreds of replies.  I’ve yet to have that type of “success”.  My primary goal is to get my thoughts posted and it’s gravy if someone happens to add a reply.  Since I announce posts on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook, feedback can also come from there.  And, some readers subscribe by email so they’re not even at the blog to read it.
  • Find your niche – or have no niche and enjoy it.  Stephen Downes is a perfect example of consistency in approach and regularity.  I’d like to think I’m completely different because I’ve given myself license to write about anything and experiment with things like my recent interview series.
  • Enjoy yourself – I’ll be honest.  I don’t think I would enjoy blogging for a living.  (although if I was offered enough money…)  I enjoy it as a hobby and a way to get some of my thoughts out into the open.  I’ve met some incredible people online and face to face because of it.

There you have it.  My extension to Edna’s original post.  If you’re a blogger, what tips would you give others?