Friday, March 23, 2007

Spring Break!

At long last, spring break has arrived. At 11pm tonight we board a plane bound for Istanbul. We will be there a week. I can hardly wait!

I don't expect to be blogging again until I get back. If you are fortunate enough to have a spring break, I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Few Quick Thoughts about Tech Inservices

A frustration of my current job is that I haven't figured out the staff inservice piece. Back in KL, I was pleased with the after school drop in sessions Kent and I held for staff. I think they worked because...
  • No advance registration was required. Teachers didn't feel they were committing to something.

  • Weekly session were held. Teachers started holding non-critical questions for the drop in session. This meant I could safely run to the loo between classes without fearing being dragged into a classroom to provide support.

  • Reminders were sent. I sent out a reminder email and posted signs in the canteen each week on the day of the session.

  • Studio approach rather than set agenda was used. People came in to work on projects and we were there to support them.

  • Teacher-student ratio was high enough. Often Kent, Suganthy and I were all there rushing about to provide just-in-time support.

  • We were a trusted source. Suganthy, Kent and I had been there long enough that teachers felt safe dropping in for support.
I don't think the same approach would be successful at this school because their are more initiatives vying for people's time. I've tried offering after school sessions when needs arise, but teachers are so tired that it isn't a great time for them to learn something new.

I've tried sessions during their team planning time. I felt my inservice wasn't very good, but I can work on that. I plan to do more with this option next year.

I've tried giving brief teasers during staff meetings on new items that I think can be of real use to many people, such as a very easy way to resize photos to free up more space in their server quota. This has worked well and people ask for more info, but this venue only works for very specific types of information.

Therefore, I was delighted by an idea I heard tonight. The technology directors from various international schools in Singapore try to meet monthly to discuss instructional technology. Tonight, the director from the Australian school shared an idea that I think is brilliant. Next year he is going to offer full day professional development sessions for staff members. He will lead them in house. As he said, we often send people out for professional development. Why not keep them in?

There is much to love about this idea...
  • Cost effective.
  • Total control over content so able to tailor exactly to the users' needs.
  • Teachers will be learning when they have more energy, not at the end of the day.
  • Sufficient practice time can be provided in class.
  • It builds support networks among the users; after the class they can ask their classmates for support.
  • It is on our computers so everything will look the same when they return to use it on their classrooms.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea (and my level of enthusiasm). To make it even better, he proposes we all do this and open our sessions up to each other's schools. Only cost will be for subs. Of course, I'd need to find lab space and at the moment, that's an insurmountable barrier. Hopefully I'll soon be back in my own lab.

Are any of you using this model in your school/district? Is it working?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How do you support your music teachers?

This year, we've been forging new ground integrating technology into our elementary music curriculum. I'd love to take credit for it, but I can't; all the good ideas are coming from the music teachers themselves.

I'm new, but what they tell me is that one of the recommendations from the mid-term WASC visit (that's our accrediting agency) was to integrate technology into the music curriculum. They have taken that recommendation to heart.

One tool is Music Ace. I think I've mentioned it before. It is a music theory computer program for elementary-aged children. We've had a heap-load of trouble getting it running smoothly, but it is a sound addition to the curriculum. The students really enjoy it and the teachers are pleased with the learning they've seen so far. Now if we only had enough lab space for them to make a part of their music rotation for grades 1 - 5, we'd be set.

Another bit of integration has to do with the music on CD-ROM that comes with the music series. Each teacher has approximately 115 CDs. That's around 6 GB of music! Even using a multi-disk CD player, using the disks while teaching was tedious because they were constantly queuing up different disks.

One of the new teachers this year works part time and doesn't have her own classroom. She ends up teaching off a cart using whichever music room is available at that time. To preserve her sanity, she ripped all the CDs onto her computer and organizes the music into playlists to support that week's lesson or that class' upcoming concert.* She uploads those to her iPod. In class, she plugs the iPod into an iPod speaker system and she's ready to teach.

We have budgeted to purchase iPods for each of the music teachers for next year. However, we didn't purchase iPod speaker systems because each classroom already has a receiver that connects to surround sound speakers. We wanted to get the sound going through those. However, the teachers didn't want to be tethered to the corner of the room with the receiver.

We borrowed a number of FM transmitters. I have one that I use in my car and I really like it. However, when we were listening through those high quality speakers, we realized that while the sound quality is fine for listening to podcasts while driving, it is too full of hiss and crackle for use in the music room. We have read about Bluetooth devices for connecting iPods to stereos, but they are still in the development stage. We hope they will eventually be the perfect solution, but in the mean time, we needed something to fill the gap.

Each of our classrooms has a data projector. The computers can be connected to the stereo so we decided to not use iPods at all, just use the computer. We thought they could use Bluetooth mice to roam the room and using the image from the data projector, they could use their iTunes playlists. The teachers didn't love the thought of having the data projectors on all day with that light in their eyes, but it was worth a try.

Unfortunately, the network connections for the computers are in the opposite corner from the connections for the surround sound speakers. And we could use the wall speakers that every classroom has, but once again, the sound quality is too low for their needs.

And so for now, I have bought one teacher an iPod so she can pilot using it this spring. We've moved her iTunes library to a removable hard drive. Each day it backs up to the C: drive on her computer. Next year, all the teachers will have their iTunes libraries mapped to one network-able hard drive. (Can anyone recommend a good network-able hard drive? A 300 GB one will suffice.)

For now, the teacher will plug the iPod into the stereo and operate it from there. Hopefully by next school year, we will have all the kinks out so that we can bring the other teachers on board smoothly.

*(By the way, we did meet with a Singapore copyright specialist. Since each teacher has their own set of the 115 music series CDs, and since the company does not offer the music already on a hard drive, we are not defrauding anyone of profit, so this is acceptable fair educational use by a not-for-profit school.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Skype in Your Letterhead?

This evening I received a quotation for purchasing an iPod for my music department. The vendor is a local Singaporean reseller. In the signature area, along with all the things I'm used to seeing, such as address, phone and FAX, this vendor also listed their Skype ID. I've never seen that before.

What does it say about their company? To me it suggests that they are small, and care about being accessible. I suspect they are forward thinking and open to new ideas.

Clarence was just writing about how the students in the International Teen Life project have moved beyond the formal communication channels set up by the teachers, such as video, email and Skype. They are now using IM, Email and wikis to chat, on their own time, with the other students in the project who are scattered across the globe.

If I were a classroom teacher, I might be thinking of putting my Skype ID on my syllabus next fall. I can see a few kids abusing it, but I can see more kids appreciating it.

It may work better for me as an international teacher. Before I went overseas, I didn't know many people who weren't living in my town, so I had no one to Skype with. Now that I'm overseas, I use it with family back home and with friends and colleagues all over. As a result, I usually have Skype open if my computer is on at home.

Would you consider giving your Skype ID to your students? Do you have one?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

When is helping unhelpful?

I have great respect for the tech coordinators of the other divisions at work. The middle school tech coordinator seems especially well respected. He is hardworking and knowedgeable. He can see the big picture and has enough history in the job to quickly identify key issues when we are discussing options.

Being new, I have especially appreciated how patiently he answers questions. He is unfailingly supportive. Therefore, it has come as a surprise to me how often in our coordinator meetings, he will make suggestions that I view as harsh towards our users.

Since I respect him so much, this has given me something to think about. It is making me realize that often my view is too short. I may be doing too much hand-holding in my division. My actions may be inspired by kindness , but they don't help my users grow. They don't help me work myself out of a job, as Jeff Utecht would say.

I put this to the test yesterday afternoon. A third grade teacher came to me to discuss an upcoming project. She had seen a colleague's student brochure project and was impressed. She wanted to try something similar with her class. As we talked, she decided to use Microsoft Publisher. For this first project, we would give the students a template to follow. For the next project, we would let them create it from scratch.

This teacher is new to Publisher. She used it earlier this year to create a personal project, so she has some experience, but not much. My instinct said to sit with her, help her create the template for her students. Instead, I stepped back. I showed her how to access the pre-made brochure templates, and then told her to create what she wanted and I would use it with her students on Tuesday. She is a trooper and although she looked a bit surprised, she went off to give it a try. Hopefully she feels I am confident in her ability, and that feels like support instead of abandonment.

This is all making me realize I do a much better job of stretching the children I work with than the adults. I think of how often I ask children what they have tried, how they could figure it out. I do less of that with adults. Teachers are so busy that I tend to want to just fix the problem so they can get back to work. However, if they had been able to fix it themselves without contacting me, that would have been even quicker. I need to keep thinking about this. I need to think of this at a systems level. I don't know how to do that yet.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Zoho Wiki

I've mentioned Zoho before. It keeps rolling out wonderful web apps. The latest that I've noticed is it now has a wiki. I gave it a try over the weekend. I'm pleased to announce that like PB Wiki, it has a table feature that actually works. I like it much better than the PB Wiki one which looks fine when you save a page but is not correctly assembled as you work with it.

I made a wiki to keep track of all the handy info posted in our Want Ads mailing list at work. The list doesn't have an archive and so people are constantly asking questions that were asked before such as, "Anyone know a good electrician in Woodlands?" Now I have a handy place to put all the info from there that I want to save. I can access it from home and school.

Actually, I should qualify that last statement. I haven't used any Zoho products in a while and I am finding that at work the wiki pages are incredibly slow to load, and I don't have anything in the wiki besides text. No photos. No files. No sounds. Just text. Pages can take minutes to load. They are quicker to open when I click the edit button. I thought this was another proxy problem at work, but I'm finding it slow from home as well. Maybe Zoho is having technical difficulties. If it doesn't speed up, I'll transfer it the wiki to another platform. This wiki doesn't need tables so no need to suffer through slow pages. Anyone else having this slow Zoho experience?

[UPDATE: ZohoWiki was down for upgrading over the weekend. This week my pages are loading much faster.]